Posted in musings

womanhood in the image of Mary

It’s no secret that one of the most glaring differences between Protestant (particularly Evangelical/low church) and Catholic Christianity is in their beliefs about and attitude toward Mary the mother of Jesus. To a Protestant, the Catholic veneration of Mary looks disturbingly like idolatry. But I’m beginning to have significant qualms about the almost callous disdain some varieties of Protestantism have towards Mary, not least because of the implications it has for their understanding of femininity and their treatment of women.

If we believe that Mary was chosen essentially at random, that God could have used any woman to be the mother of His Son because all He needed was womb space and human DNA, we reduce our understanding of womanhood to that of physical maternity and that all-too-distasteful word, breeding.

If we believe that Mary was chosen through God’s will alone without regard to her personal choice, as strict Calvinism logically implies, we reduce her “yes” to a meaningless appearance and reduce our view of women to less-than-free agents. We open the door to rape and abuse because we turn God Himself into a rapist.

By removing from our faith a vision of Mary’s beauty – of the cosmic power of her choice to cooperate with God’s grace and enter into His redemptive plan – we lose our vision of the full beauty and power of women in general. Sisters, what matters most about us isn’t our ability to bear children and bring babies into the world. What matters most is our choice to say “yes” to God’s plan, our ability to change the course of history by choosing to live for Him.

In the Catholic understanding of Mary, we see God choosing a woman to play the most important human role in His salvific plan. That’s the kind of thing He does: He takes the weaker, the oppressed, the downtrodden, and glorifies them. And people who by nature and social norms are accustomed to power and respect are unnerved or threatened by that. Maybe that’s why the certain churches reduce Mary’s role to her womb. But what Catholicism offers is is a vision of womanhood glorified and beautified by grace, lifted up in queenly majesty as it offers itself to Him in free love and humility.

That is the picture of womanhood I want to emulate and grow into personally, and it is the perception of women that I wish could permeate our families, churches, and society at large.

Posted in musings

unity

While reading through Philippians a few days ago, I was struck by Paul’s incredible emphasis on unity in the first few verses of Philippians 2. Look how he sets it up:

…if there is any consolation in Christ…

…if there is any comfort of love…

… if there is any fellowship of the Spirit…

…if there is any affection and mercy…

…if any of these things apply, then be like-minded, have the same love, be of one accord, and be of one mind.

He’s not asking for much – just for the basic elements of the Christian faith working in our hearts and in our relationships with God and others. He’s not saying, if you have a surplus of consolation from Christ for your own sorrows and troubles, then move on to unity with your fellow believers. He’s not saying, if you are so comforted by the love of God that you feel love overflowing out of you, then go ahead and try to be one with other Christians. No – if there is even the tiniest bit of comfort and consolation in the love of Christ, if there is even the faintest hint of community through the Spirit or kindness and mercy in your heart, endeavor to live as a unified body.

Be like-minded, he says – be one in doctrine and understanding of the faith. Have the same love, he says – be one in love for God first, not falling away to love other things more, even other good things. Be of one accord, he says – be one in purpose and in fellowship, following God together and not each according to his own whim. And be of one mind, he says again, emphasizing that unity of teaching, doctrine, and understanding. In this unity, the Philippians would be able to fulfill Paul’s joy in them.

All the following verses, that famous passage about humbling ourselves and putting others first as Christ did in the Incarnation and on the cross, should be read in light of these first two verses. Why are we to esteem others as better than ourselves, and look out for the interests of others, and imitate the humility and obedience of Christ? That we might become a more unified Church, one in mind and heart and will, bound together by the love of Christ and the work of the Spirit.

It makes me think that the Reformation was one of the most unfortunate things to happen in the life of the Church (although it was the natural consequence of the sin that the Church had allowed into even her highest offices) – I can’t think of anything else that has splintered Christianity and destroyed our unity (on institutional and personal levels) to such a degree.

Posted in musings

Glory or love?

I’m part of a Bible study with a collection of friends and acquaintances that meets every Friday night, and we’re currently studying Ecclesiastes (and it’s a good thing our leader is in seminary because otherwise we’d be totally lost!). Anyways, there’s some theological variation among us, as is to be expected in Protestant groups, and one of the greatest differences stood out to me sharply in one of our conversations this week.

Commenting on Ecc. 5:18-20, where the author says that the ability to enjoy God’s blessings is itself a gift from God, one of the other women noted how amazing it is that God built into us this capacity for enjoyment and pleasure, instead of making us just machines or automatons, because He would have been glorified either way but He did that for us. And I couldn’t help thinking that of course this generous other-centered action of God will seem unbelievable if you believe that God’s primary concern is His own glory. But is it?

The things God does bring Him glory, yes, and He deserves to be glorified and worshipped because of who He is and what He does. I don’t think, however, that He decides what to do based on what will bring Him the most glory, or that He’s worried for His sake about whether or not we worship Him and give Him glory.

I submit that God’s primary and defining characteristic is love. He was love in the three persons of the trinity before He created anything, and He created that love might be multiplied. He bore utter humiliation and agonizing suffering to communicate and extend that love to those who had rejected and mocked Him. And out of that love He gave us the capacity for joy – the ability to find happiness in Him and in all the good gifts of His hand.

It is something to be deeply grateful for, this joy – but not, I think, something to be surprised at, when we see how God truly is a God of unfathomable love. He is not like a self-aggrandizing parent, from whom we are taken aback to receive good gifts, thankful that our happiness managed to be a side-effect of His glory. No, rather, He is like a Father willing to set aside His own success and reputation that He might love His children well and raise them to the fullness of goodness and joy.

And that is my primary argument with Calvinism as I have so often encountered it: it turns God into a selfish celestial tyrant, damning or saving on a whim, and demanding that He receive all the glory, for all the world like an entitled brat. It removes His incomprehensible, unconditional love – the love that Paul says “passes knowledge” in Eph. 3, that he prays we might know in all its fullness.

Posted in musings, quotes

on being weak

My energy levels have been quite low yesterday and today because I took my last thyroid hormone pill on Friday morning and didn’t pick up the refill from the pharmacy until Monday night – so I missed three of my daily doses. I don’t normally think about it, but the rapidity with which my hypothyroid symptoms returned made me realize how dependent I really am on those little green tablets.

There’s a part of me that’s almost angrily frustrated about my need to take daily medication. I have this strong internal desire to be independent, self-sufficient, and essentially perfect, and here I have a daily reminder that on a basic physical level I’m rather more dependent and less self-sufficient than the average person: that a part of my body is incurably broken and I’ll be stuck treating the symptoms for the rest of my life. Every now and then I wonder if I could go off the medicine and miraculously have my thyroid kick back into gear, but every time I try I’m catapulted right back into the medley of incredible fatigue, poor memory, lack of concentration, and cold that define my hypothyroid experience. So dependent I am.

The silver lining is that I can see a few ways in which God might be using this defect in my body to bring about a greater good in my own life. I don’t think He caused it, because I don’t think He’s the author of disease and disorder, but I think He’s incorporating it into His redemptive work. At least, I hope He is, because I hope that He’s doing exactly that with every evil and broken thing in this world!

Maybe He’s using my physical weakness to teach me humility – because my intelligence, academic success, and mental quickness have left me prone to arrogance and pride, and this tangible flaw in my body (not just its appearance but its function, in some very crucial areas) serves as a reminder that my strengths and gifts are not of my own making, and that so much of who I am and what happens to me is outside of my control.

Maybe He’s using my physical need and dependency to teach me gentle patience – because it is so easy to become frustrated with my body, and that same part of me that reacts with frustration and impatience to my own needs is the part of me that responds to the needs and slowness of others with that same irritated reaction. If I could learn to treat my own body with grace and patience, taking its weaknesses into account and meeting its needs with kindness, it might be the first step toward treating my children with patience and kindness when they have inexplicable, irrational needs, or toward giving my coworkers time to process at their own pace instead of snapping at them for not understanding instantly.

Maybe He’s using my daily medicine to teach me daily gratitude – because life would be so radically different for me if I didn’t live in a time and a place where synthetic thyroid hormone replacement was readily available, or if I didn’t have the money to fill my prescriptions or visit my doctor. The chances are slim that I would have been able to become pregnant or carry pregnancies to term, and my impaired functionality would have hurt my career prospects and relationships as well. If I remembered that every morning when I swallowed that small pill – how everything I love and live for I could have missed out on without it, and how others who need it aren’t able to obtain it – it would make it hard to approach my life with resentment or indifference. The aura of genuine gratitude would suffuse it with beauty.

Without this physical brokenness (and this is probably even more true of the depression I struggled with off and on through high school, college, and especially during the first couple years of my marriage), it would be easy for me to rely solely on my intellectual strengths and never develop a heart of compassion or an attitude of tenderness toward the weak and needy. I can see the power of that temptation for me, and I’m glad for the events in my life that have showed me that it is a temptation, and not a good path to take. I’m reminded of a quote from the end of the book The Chosen, by Chaim Potok (and I don’t have the book myself so I had to find it on the internet, so hopefully it is correct!):

“‘I went away and cried to the Master of the Universe, “What have you done to me? A mind like this I need for a son? A heart I need for a son, a soul I need for a son, compassion I want from my son, righteousness, mercy, strength to suffer and carry pain, that I want from my son, not a mind without a soul!”‘”

If I’m going to be formed in the image of Christ, and carry on the task that He left us of reconciling the world to God, then like Him I’m going to need to live with compassion, righteousness, mercy – and most importantly, strength to suffer and carry pain. If I’m going to be loving people like Jesus loved them, then I’ll have to enter into their pain and their suffering and carry it for them as much as we can. How can I gain that ability unless I learn to meet my own suffering with humility and patience? I hope and pray that even though my suffering has been quite small in the greater sphere of things, it would still work to shape me in this way.

Funny how much can come from thinking about just one small daily pill 🙂

Posted in family life, musings

remembering grace

When you tried a new recipe for dinner and were excited about it and it totally flopped –

When your husband is too tired to give you a smile when he gets home from class –

When you’ve yelled at the toddler over (literal) spilled milk and lost patience with the baby –

When you realize you made a mistake with a project at work that means half the week and hundreds of dollars were wasted –

When you’re moving from attachment to RIE principles of parenting and beginning sleep training (of a sort) and the toddler is crying upstairs with anger –

When the floor is dirty and the table is dirty and the dishes are dirty and the one bright spot of the afternoon was the 15 minutes stolen away to clean the bathroom –

When all you want to do is cry (or maybe sleep) –

Then it is good to remember that you are not alone.

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Looking up from our tiny townhome backyard into a glorious expanse.

It is good to remember that there is grace. To open oneself up to the grace that God freely offers. To give thanks for that grace. To find rest in that grace, and then move forward to set things right in the strength of that grace. Setting things right in the power of His grace – that is our mission of redemption in the world, is it not? So often I am the one messing things up and introducing sin into my family and community, but He still gives me grace and extends the opportunity to work with Him, in His grace, to redeem what is broken and rescue what is lost.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, now is, and ever shall be, world without end.

Amen.

Posted in musings, quotes

pro-life

“America needs no words from me to see how your decision in Roe vs. Wade has deformed a great nation. The so-called right to abortion has pitted mothers against their children and women against men. It has sown violence and discord at the heart of the most intimate human relationships. It has aggravated the derogation of the father’s role in an increasingly fatherless society. It has portrayed the greatest of gifts–a child–as a competitor, an intrusion and an inconvenience. It has nominally accorded mothers unfettered dominion over the dependent lives of their physically dependent sons and daughters. And, in granting this unconscionable power, it has exposed many women to unjust and selfish demands from their husbands or other sexual partners.” – Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa could say these words with both humility and courage because she radically lived out the principles behind them. She was not merely anti-abortion; she was, perhaps more than any other single person in recent history, intimately concerned with the whole life of every person, from the rich and famous to the outcast and marginalized. She did not seek merely to address the individual moral concern of each choice for or against abortion, but fought against cultural and systemic ways of viewing and treating some people as less than, or as somehow deserving of fewer rights. Are we who claim to be pro-life following in her footsteps, or is our “passion” and “conviction” limited to signing online petitions and righting self-righteous rants about a sin to which we have never personally been tempted? I pray that it would be the former, ever more and more, in our churches and our culture, until the whole contours of our society have changed.

Posted in musings

joy in the giving

Exhausted and overwhelmed, my baby falls toward me, too tired to reach out and ask with his hands, nuzzling into me with the desperate eagerness born of a bedtime car ride. His wails shudder into little whimpers as he nurses, finally finding the comfort and security he was craving. I feel his soft baby skin up against mine, his little hand reaching around to pat my side in a little gesture of contentment. Gratitude is too grown-up of a word for his emotion, an adult interpretation of the simple wordless feelings that swell up within him. He had felt need; now he feels joy. And the gentle sleepy happiness pulsing through him seeps into me through those little fingers hugging me, that slight pressure of his body resting on mine, and I know with utter certainty that this love-giving brings me some of the fiercest joy and deepest satisfaction that I have ever known.

contemplating the rainIt’s remarkable how this little person – who has worn me out, brought me to the end of my patience, and demanded every ounce of energy in my being – can also give me such incredible fulfillment, in the very act of meeting his needs. It’s a biological necessity, of course: our species wouldn’t last very long with such dependent and needy offspring without a compensating hormonal surge in the parents! The snuggling they need to feel comforted and secure triggers the production of oxytocin in us, helping us to feel bonded and loving towards them. I think, though, that it also speaks to a spiritual truth: that in giving ourselves in love, we find a deeper peace and joy than we would have found in simply pursuing our own ends. It makes sense to me that God would have designed the physical truth to reflect the spiritual truth, in one of the myriad of ways that our bodies transmit His image into the visible, physical world. But the spiritual truth is greater and wider than its physical counterpart, for we can love others in this self-giving way besides just our own children, and though the biological reaction will be lacking, the spiritual fulfillment and joy will still be present. The lesson is most easily learned in the crucible of the family; my prayer is that I would also apply it in the wider spheres around me.

Posted in musings

parenting goals

If, I as said yesterday, the goal of parenting isn’t to produce adults in a sort of factory way – where each new adult meets the required minimum specifications if the right parenting techniques are employed – and if in fact it is impossible to control the outcome of parenting since our children have wills of their own – then what is the ultimate goal?

At this (admittedly very early) stage of my parenting experience I would submit that the ultimate goal of parenting is to multiply and model love. By meeting the needs of our babies when they cry in the night, or cluster feed all day, or panic when we leave the room, we show them that love can be trusted. By playing with our toddlers instead of sending them off to play alone and stay our of way, by reading them the same books over and over again to their delight, by listening and responding to their obsessive, repetitive, conversations and story lines, we show them that love values their unique personal significance. By giving them space to try, grace to fail, encouragement to try again, and a helping hand when they’re overwhelmed, we show them that love will not shame them or make them afraid. By involving them in household chores, teaching them how to care for their rooms and toys and help with the family and home, we show them that love cares for the community and the environment. By coaching them through sibling rivalries, we show them that love works hard for harmony and understanding. By instilling the habits of virtue – hard work, self-control, patience, and courage – we show them that love is not a weak and tolerant niceness, but an agent for goodness.

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(Babies have a way of emotionally evoking our love, which is good, since they demand a lot of it. They seem to need it most when they’re least cute and endearing, though… that is why our love needs to be strong, built on conviction and on the love of Christ for us, so that we can give it unconditionally and in abundant measure.)

My highest calling as a Christian, and thus as a parent, is to love. Remember the classic verse that says it is even greater than faith and hope, those crucial virtues of the Christian life? That same passage also gives us some guidelines about what love looks like in action. If I take that love into my parenting and make it my key principle – a love that holds fast, that sacrifices, that labors for redemption, that suffers joyfully, that unites my heart to Christ – then, I think, it will be hard to go very wrong. The most nefarious danger would be in replacing love with a weak sort of kindness that neglects the long-term needs of the child (the deep soul-needs of virtue and character and purpose, as well as the very practical need of care for the self, others, and ones environment) in an effort to maintain superficial “happiness” and satisfaction. Love requires us to pour ourselves out, sometimes with great effort, pain, and sacrifice, for the genuine needs of the other person as a human person with inherent dignity and value, not a pet or a project. There aren’t scripts to follow or techniques to use; it is as far from mechanistic as it is possible to be, I think. It is not easy, because it is being like Christ, and our hearts are full of all sorts of tendencies that pull us away from Him and from the difficult path of love. But it is the goal – to love our God, to love our spouse, to love our children, and to teach them how to love in return, so that the love in our homes is multiplied in each heart, reflected in each member of the family, springing up in beauty and fullness and mutual self-sacrifice, filling up and surrounding us all.

Posted in musings

parenting determinism

A lot of parenting tips, techniques, and strategies seem to operate under the presumption that if you parent your children just right, they will turn out just the way you want them (which of course differs from family to family based on the parents’ values). Maybe this is a particular problem with religious parenting guides – they play on parents’ worries and hopes for their children by promising (usually not explicitly, but the idea is there) that if you just follow these guidelines, your children are guaranteed to end up as responsible, successful, Christian adults. The corollary is then obviously that if your child ends up as an atheist, or in a less-than-ideal profession, or has children out of wedlock, or differs in some other way from the “perfect little Christian” mold, you somehow failed as a parent.

But since those promises are empty and false, the guilt of the corollary is equally false. There is absolutely nothing you can do, as a parent, to guarantee that your child will become a certain type of person as an adult, and to try to force that result is detrimental to you, your child, and your relationship. (Your ability to influence your child is a different matter altogether… if your child loves and respects you, he is probably going to want to live in a way that honors you, even when he disagrees with you.) You might be able to enforce certain beliefs and behaviors while your child is young, but the time will come, sooner or later, when your baby will be all grown up and make choices for himself.

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mmm blackberries!

(Even this little guy is someday going to be a man! It’s strange to think of it now, but that’s the end we have to keep in sight as parents. They do grow up.)

It all comes down to the free will God gave to each and every one of us. God, our Father, is the perfect parent, is He not? And yet we, His children, most definitely have character issues and make bad choices – I can speak for myself on that one, and I think everyone who is being honest would agree. It doesn’t reflect back on His parenting; it simply means that you can give someone all the tools and guidance and love in the world, but if they don’t want to accept it, if they want to make a different choice than the one you feel is best, you can’t force them to use what you’ve given them.

In toddler analogies, I can give my son a fork, show him how to use a fork, model using a fork, and help him use a fork – but if he wants to eat with his fingers, I can’t make him pick up that fork and use it independently. He has to make that decision for himself. The same thing is true for my child’s faith, education, career choices, and relationships – I can give him opportunities, model wise choices, and demonstrate unconditional love, but I cannot ensure that he will take the opportunities that arise, act wisely, or love in return. He has to appropriate for himself everything he has been given and make it truly his own, because he, like me, is a human individual with will, dignity, and subjectivity. It is a cause for deep, deep sorrow when a person chooses to use his body and mind for self-destructive or sinful ends – but it is not a sorrow that must always be tinged with guilt.

This is why I get so frustrated with the parenting articles and books I come across that make it sound like you can determine what sort of person your child will become, and give the impression that this is the ultimate goal of parenting. All we can do is teach, model, and love – and then commit their hearts and minds and futures to the Father. We can’t choose the direction they will take, but we can do our best to equip them with the skills and habits that lead to virtue and wisdom, and then trust our Lord with the rest.

Posted in musings, quotes

happiness

“Happiness is being rooted in Love. Original happiness speaks to us about the ‘beginning’ of man, who emerged from love and initiated love. And this happened irrevocably, despite the subsequent sin and death.” – Saint Pope John Paul II, Theology of the Body

That word “irrevocably” jumps out at me from the page. The gift of love from God to us in our creation and in the creation of the world is given, once and for all, despite our sin that hides us from Him and the death that mars His perfect creation. We are still creatures meant for love, meant to be loved, meant to know love, and eminently loved by the One who is Love. And it is in that love – in the giving of love to the created world, to other people, and to God, and in the receiving of love from others and from God – that our happiness springs forth. Living in the constant sway of giving and receiving love, letting it move back and forth through the conduits of our bodies and our souls, we find happiness and abundant life – the fullness promised in the Psalms and in Christ’s last words to His disciples, in the restoration of creation to the original glory and reciprocity of love. No matter how far we run, the love that is our true home and purpose is calling for us to return, irrevocably written into the core of our being.