Saturday, November 23, 2013

What if You're Not Feeling #soblessed?

Ugh. Why are all of these people thankful for such happy things?

This uncharitable sentiment is brought to you by…well, me. It was my first instinct as I scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed this month and saw an explosion of thanks-giving. My second instinct was to be deeply ashamed that I grumbled about heartwarming posts about “the LOVE of my LIFE,” the ones marked cheerily with “#soblessed.”

Pinterest has a lot of happy, thankful people (who make pretty memes).

And another part of me felt a little smug that I was not at the point of publicly gushing a list of wonderful things about my life to social media. Because sad is happy for deep people.

So I started writing a response to those Facebook posts:

There are some very happy things that I’m thankful for. I’m thankful for the smell of something cooking in my Crockpot when I come back to my apartment. I’m thankful for that feeling that settles over you when you sing old hymns and they still mean something. I’m thankful for crunch fall leaves, wonderful co-workers, good books, hearing little kids laugh, friends who care about me, people with British accents reading audiobooks, discovering I actually like oatmeal, and all the other blessings that it’s okay to put on Facebook.

But there are other things I’m thankful for.

I am thankful for weakness—from the ache of fragility during fasting to tiny risks of being honest with others.

I am thankful for uncertainty, especially the kind that comes with humility about something bigger than me.

I am thankful for fear of inadequacy, because it’s a nice change from pride.

I am thankful for silence, for the focus it provides and for the way it jerks the approval of others completely out of your possible motivations for doing something.

I am thankful even for silence from God, and I’m not quite sure why yet, except that if God always did what I demanded and responded when I wanted, he wouldn’t be much of a god.

I am thankful for goodbyes and the way they hurt, for mail that can’t turn into hugs, for conversations that won’t happen anymore, for long-distance friendships that aren’t the same, because they are broken things that point to a reality where brokenness won’t exist.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Why Extroverts Need to Read The Velveteen Rabbit

Ah, Myers-Briggs and children’s literature. The most natural combination in the world.

But really now. The connection will make sense eventually, I promise.

The Velveteen Rabbit, a heartwarming children’s story by Margery Williams, is about a stuffed rabbit who is loved by a little boy. Think Toy Story, but with scarlet fever. (Read the whole thing. It’s delightful.)

My favorite part of the book is when our hero talks with an old toy horse about how toys become Real:

“Real isn't how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn't happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time.”

So, here’s my thought: extroverts sometimes have a problem being Real.

Now, extroverts are not shallow people. This is a common misconception, probably because we sometime say stupid things when processing out loud (instead of processing internally first and only saying the things that sound really smart). And also because introverts will often see us as melodramatic and attention-seeking. Really, though, extroverts are capable of deep thoughts just like introverts.

We sometimes struggle, though, with shallow relationships. And with projecting a shallow image of ourselves so that everyone will like us.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Three Things I Learned From Ender’s Game, Part Three

The Power of Words

“There are times when the world is rearranging itself, and at times like that, the right words can change the world.”

One of my heroes is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian-pastor who plotted to kill Hitler, and maybe more importantly, stood against him even back in the early days when the Nazis were changing things mostly through creeds and committee meetings. He thought deeply and wrote powerfully, using words that cut through empty rhetoric to get to the truth.

Hitler was mentioned in Ender’s Game. He’s always the one we look back on, maybe the one we will look back on forever into the future, as a person who accomplished despicable things because he had both clear insight into how people think and the ability to craft words and make them beautiful.

I have clear insight into how people think. I have the ability to craft words and make them beautiful.

I could be Hitler.

Or Bonhoeffer. Or Ender’s sister Valentine, who “could persuade other people to her point of view—she could convince them that they wanted what she wanted them to want.”

That same passage could be describing me. And that terrifies me. Because even if there is no chance that I will commit the atrocities that Hitler did, what happens if someone else does? Won’t I be responsible to say something, do something?

I am an ordinary person in (so far) ordinary times. Bonhoeffer had Hitler. Valentine had a corrupt world order. All I seem to have is an alarm clock that goes off too early, people who don't know how to merge, and an enormous heap of laundry. Hardly the setting for the rise of a hero.

Sometimes I don't want to be one anyway. Sometimes I wonder what to do with the intelligence, empathy, and words I have been given. And, probably the most common "sometimes," sometimes I wish I had more opportunities to be heroic.

Either way, I closed Ender's Game with the certainty of several things: I shouldn’t want to be a genius. I can’t take on all the suffering of the whole world. And I could still be a hero.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Who Is My Neighbor?

When I was fourteen years old, a freshman in high school who was still trying to grow out my former bowl cut and convince everyone that the cool kids read apologetics books, I remember being crammed in an auditorium, watching the most melodramatic performance I’ve ever seen. It was trying to scare us all from poor life choices by showing us different horrible outcomes that will probably happen to you and everyone you love if you even think about doing drugs. Ever.

I was so uncool that I didn’t even know what half of the slang terms in the play meant. But there’s one part that I remember, one that probably had the deepest and most lasting effect on me (which is saying something, since the play also involved a boy who mutilated himself under the influence of a hallucinogen, and a girl wearing a rubber mask with severe burns).

A punk kid paced beside a dumpster onstage, telling us about how he became a heroin dealer. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said, eyes accusing, looking right at me, the one who worked so hard to be invisible. “You feel sorry for me. But then you’ll throw some money into the plate for the poor white kid from the ghetto to buy off your conscience.”

And I thought, Yes. That’s me.

From that day on, little Amy, in all her determination and semi-self-righteousness, decided that she would not give to a cause unless she was personally invested in it in some way. And she did so with the best of intentions, because she didn’t want to be that Christian who appeased her conscience by tossing American dollars at heartbreak and sorrow and walking away unchanged.

Over the years, I accumulated other little prejudices about generosity, most of them somewhat logical: if you don’t volunteer or at least pray, it doesn’t count. Short-term mission trips are a waste and I won’t support them. I can’t care about all the causes, so I have to block some out and willfully ignore them. My heart can only break so many times.

There are bits of truth in there. But there are also some extremes that aren’t helpful. By putting up those barriers on generosity, I was limiting God. I was making up arbitrary rules instead of being open to what the Holy Spirit wanted me to give to. I was saying God couldn’t possibly give me emotional strength to handle whatever suffering he brought into my path.

I was saying that only a select few of the least of these—the ones I personally care about—can really be Jesus.

I had a long conversation with some friends yesterday about generosity and giving in our culture. The set-up was this: most of us also have the resources to give a lot more than we are currently giving, spending it instead on the milkshakes and movie tickets of everyday life. And, in a matter of minutes, we can know about almost all the suffering of the world. Every sex trafficking ring, ever natural disaster, every AIDS orphan, every persecuted minority barely escaping genocide. We can see their faces, not just their statistics, streaming by us, thousands of empty bellies and tumor-riddled organs and blank, hopeless eyes per second.

So what does it mean to love your neighbor in a global society?

Who is that beat-up person you pass by on the street, the one you could do something for? What will we be held accountable for doing or not doing because we both have so much and know so much?

It’s an incredibly difficult question, one that I’ve written about briefly before but haven’t really answered.

After this discussion, one of my friends posted this link to a fund for a girl who went to her college, a 24-year-old with one of the most painful diseases ever to come out of the Fall, who needed to raise money for brain surgery.

I don’t know this person. I am not emotionally invested in this cause.

But you know what I am emotionally invested in? Learning to be the kind of person who cares about others, even when they’re strangers.

All those years ago, little high school Amy felt convicted, and she should have. But maybe she had the wrong response to that conviction. Maybe, in an attempt not to be the high-and-mighty judgmental Christian who gave without feeling, she became the slightly selfish, experience-focused Christian, who couldn’t give without feeling. Who couldn’t give unless there was something in it for her—if she couldn’t pack the shoebox or write the letter to the missionary or see the face of the sick person she brought food to.

I was wrong. So I gave to Laura, and I'd love it if you would too, right here:

Laura needs it, sure. But I think we also need it. I did, anyway. I needed to be reminded what generosity is and isn’t. I needed to see what I’ve made it into.

I needed to give and remember that Laura is Jesus too.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Act Like Men?

Two years ago, during my internship at Focus on the Family, the male interns (who were outnumbered 2:1) decided they needed a little break from all the estrogen and decided to have a “Guy’s Night.”

The following Facebook announcement was posted: “Hey fellas, this is what’s up: We’ll meet at 8 and start the movie at 8:45. It’ll give us plenty of time to dress up in camo, sharpen our knives, and grill all this steak we bought. Don't forget to bring your man food of choice, a can of beans, a shotgun, and a toolbox. *Note: Any man who brings salad or fruit (especially fruit salad) will be ‘taken out back’ & ‘put down’ Old Yeller-style.”

The girls responded to this event by making brownies and watching “The Bachelor.” (Except not me, because my love of chocolate could not overcome my hatred of romantic “reality” TV.)

The extreme stereotypes of the Facebook comment (completely meant as a joke) are ridiculous. But the guys still watched a war movie with an absurd body count and the girls sighed over what’s-his-name with a rose.

Gender stereotypes exist, and, to a point, that’s not a bad thing. Men and women, in general, are different. Cool. I am totally fine with that, even when the things that my gender typically enjoys—shopping, talking about boys, holding adorable babies, watching chick flicks—are not on my personal list of favorite activities.

But I’m okay with those stereotypes because I know that breaking most of them does not have anything to do with who I am and what I’m worth.

There was a lot of uproar about Mark Driscoll’s “Act Like Men” conference. Some claimed that there were lots of jabs at gender stereotypes and a swaggering machismo attitude about the event, or that the entire idea and name of the event was exclusive and offensive to women. Others said that the event was not about "manly men" asserting their control at all, but that it focused on embracing God’s call, rejecting sin, leading with grace.

I, clearly, wasn’t there, so I can’t really take a side. But it does bring up something very important: the issue of gender and what it means to be a man or a woman affects us very deeply. It riles people up, gets them talking, makes them defensive.

But maybe it shouldn’t. The issue of gender roles—what the Bible says about how men and women should live—is good to talk about (and also extremely controversial). But whether you fit a certain definition of masculinity or femininity is just not all that important in Christian theology.

Over and over and over in the New Testament, we are practically slapped upside the face with the fact that our identity is in Christ. The phrase “in Christ” (or “in Him”) is used over 125 times. If you read them all, they say wonderful and deep things about what that means, but beyond the implications and application is the mere fact that we are defined by our association with Christ. And nothing else.

One of my roles is a woman, and, depending on your perspective, that may mean different things. But my identity is not in my womanhood, just like it’s not in any of my other roles: sister, publicist, daughter, friend, blogger, fan of Calvin and Hobbes, player of Settlers of Catan.

Those things describe what I do, and what I do does relate to who I am (or at least how you perceive me). But there’s only one thing that ultimately defines me, even when I forget that it does: my relationship with Jesus.

When God looks at you, he doesn’t see the labels of “engineer,” “American,” “student,” “athlete,” “dad,” “Caucasian,” or even the most basic of our labels: “man” or “woman.” He sees “redeemed by Christ.” If we put our identity in any of those other labels, our worth is determined by how well we perform those roles.

If I believe God judges me as a writer, I must accomplish great things through my writing, never make mistakes, and always represent him perfectly. If I believe God judges me as a friend, what other people think of me suddenly becomes all-important.

And if I believe God judges me as a woman, then I’ll spend all my time checking off points on a stereotype scorecard: bakes awesome food (+5), doesn’t wear much make-up (-10), owns heels (+2 per pair), still single at the ancient age of 22 (-100), fairly emotional (+20), would rather have a theological conversation than talk about celebrity crushes (-20).

(Same thing for men, but insert references to weight-lifting, sports, and bacon. And being swift as a coursing river, forceful as a great typhoon, strong as a raging fire, and mysterious as the dark side of the moon.)

Although as far as arbitrary stereotypes could do worse than this one.
But God doesn’t judge me by any of those standards. God judges me as someone redeemed by Jesus. That’s it. And when I realize that, I don’t really care what either side of the gender roles debate implies that I should or shouldn’t do or think or say or be.

Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” is not saying that there are no differences between genders. It’s saying something far more radical: that any difference in role or position, whether that is gender or racial or economical, does not matter to God because he sees us only in Christ.

Now, when it comes to practice, things may be more complicated. Maybe our definition of what a gender role is has become too narrow. Maybe we should stop portraying only one kind of man or woman in our movies, blogs, and sermon illustrations. Maybe we make jokes too often about amusing stereotypes, allowing them to become images that people are trying (and often failing) to live up to.  Those are all good things to talk about and debate.

But I find it comforting to know that God doesn’t need us to live up to someone’s definition of what it means to be a man or a woman. The command “Act like Jesus” is harder than “Act like men” or “Act like women.” But I’d argue that it takes a whole lot of pressure off too…and that it’s what God actually wants from our lives.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Three Things I Learned From Ender’s Game, Part Two

The Danger of Empathy

“I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them....I destroy them.”

Once, at Socrates’ Café, a discussion group at my college, we talked about which superpower we would rather have: truth or empathy. Truth meant that, when touching someone, they could not lie to you. Empathy meant that by touching someone you could either let them feel your emotions or feel their emotions yourself.

I lobbied pretty hard for empathy, because I thought I would use the truth ability in the wrong ways and for the wrong reasons. I was probably right about that. I also said that empathy would force me to see people as victims with stories, to understand why they do the things they do. Maybe I was right about that too.

But, when I read Ender’s Game a month or so later, I realized something else: if the truth ability would corrupt me, the empathy gift would crush me. What happened to Ender showed that pretty clearly. We can’t take on emotions that aren’t our own. We have a limited capacity for love, and too many things are broken. It would kill us.

There was a time my freshman year of college where I absolutely refused to sing “It Is Well with My Soul.” Partly because some people I cared about were going through a hard time, and partly because it was Social Justice Week. (It is not the intention of this week to overwhelm you with all the suffering of the world—from starvation to sex trafficking to domestic violence—but that does tend to happen.)

How I dealt with this is a long story that I’ve already told once. But the short of it is that I realized we can’t love the whole world. We have to settle for loving our neighbor, and that’s all that God asked of us in the first place.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Cliché of Beauty

Novelist Lionel Shriver wrote an essay where she claimed that “fiction writers’ biggest mistake is to create so many characters who are casually beautiful.”

Well, now. Them’s fightin’ words.

Because you can't possibly be as attractive as the protagonist in the book I'm reading. Even though you have the distinct advantage of being real.

But before you start pointing to the few books where there is an overweight protagonist or a love interest with crooked teeth, understand that Shriver wasn’t really telling writers they ought to make all of their characters ugly. She merely pointed out that, in fiction, we don’t think it’s strange to be in a world populated with beautiful and handsome people in a much greater percentage than we would find in the real world.

Romance novels are almost inevitable offenders here, but other genres are not excused either. Most books we read are filled with good-looking people. Shriver puts forth a few reasons why this might be. First, our culture has told us that beautiful people are more likeable, and we accept that. Second, beauty is a form of power that characters can use to get others to do things for them.

I’d add a third reason: fiction is about escapism, and almost all of us have had times where we have not felt attractive. So we want our heroes and heroines to be attractive…and we actually have control over this.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Three Things I Learned From Ender’s Game, Part One

I had an existential crisis after reading Ender’s Game for the first time.

No, really. Immediately after the last page, I sat down and wrote about 3,000 words rambling about Battle School, fear, strategy, paradox, Hamlet, and the German nuclear bomb program. And also cried a little. Because that’s how I deal with intellectual/emotional crises (and it’s usually never just one or the other).

I will not make you suffer through that. Here, in a much more coherent form than that first journal, are three reasons why I found Ender’s Game to be beautiful and depressing at the same time.

The Loneliness of Genius

“Humanity does not ask us to be happy. It merely asks us to be brilliant on its behalf.”

Whenever I read a book or watch a movie where there is a character who is a genius, whether it’s Cobb in Inception or Josh in Searching for Bobbie Fischer or Catherine in Proof, I want to be that person.

I want to be a hero. To be an extraordinary person in extraordinary times.

But then I realize that almost all geniuses are incredibly lonely. Cobb created a world, and it destroyed the person he loved most. Josh had his childhood taken away by others’ expectations for his chess performance. Catherine felt separated from those around her by the pressure of her ability to solve math problems. Their stories, at least the parts that focus on their extraordinary gifts, are not happy ones.

And then there’s Ender, the saddest of all. Ender’s Game is supposedly built around the concept of a team competition, but I have never read a character in all of literature who is more alone.

We were made for relationships with others. Battle School may have turned Ender into the perfect commander, but at what cost?

And would I really want that for myself? Would I really want to be exceptional when that also meant I would be longing for something I couldn’t name, crying at night for people who didn’t love me, understanding more than I could possibly feel?

No. No, I would not.