The Cult of Ignorance

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Teddy bear and pretty girl Martin Luther, prior to wedding his worthy wife Kate, once said that he remained unmarried, “not because I am a sexless log or stone but because daily I expect death as a heretic.” Such unequivocal honesty is astonishing in today’s age because he presumes on a presently much eschewed reality: that it is possible to not be a sexless stone while still a godly man (or woman) yet unmarried.

I want to talk today about the Cult of Ignorance which has marched over conservative Christendom, taking premarital sexuality under lock, stock, and key. As a perhaps natural reaction to the hypersexualization of our culture (with its graphic and violent media, objectification of both men and women, and sex ripped from its sacrificial, marital, and procreative context), far too many parents (and particularly their daughters) have opted for the idealization (and idolization) of childhood innocence.

What am I referring to? I am not referring to innocence as in guiltlessness (not even children have that), but rather the ignorance of children when it comes to both the evil of the world and their own sexuality. While we all have a natural nostalgia for the days of our youth, (when our hearts were full of unblighted hope and wholeness), Christendom has gone far beyond nostalgia to the point of prolonging and elevating the ignorant mind. We cloak this phenomenon in terms of “innocence,” as if children were without sin natures and if kept ignorant of the facts of life would remain so indefinitely.

I think of Christian college students who have no conception of broken families (even the brokenness of their own classmates), the chilly silence when it comes to depression, abuse, and addiction, and most particularly I think of the strange pressure put on young ladies to be sexually asleep for the decade(s) until marriage. The sad part is, while these beautiful young women can be lulled into a sexual sleep through a steady stream of negative messages, they can not just snap out of that sleep once married, when suddenly they need to desire their husbands. While Luther could acknowledge that celibacy is a perfectly good thing for the “sexless stone” who has the gift of singleness, today many who aren’t even remotely “burning with passion” are still marching to the alter.

Again, as a subculture, we have idolized ignorance, as if “not knowing” was a virtue in itself. When it comes to sex, the bible is clear on two points: that we are to be chaste until marriage and free from lust. Two difficult tasks, but clear ones. Yet somehow these mandates have been expanded within Christian culture to a sort of sexual cluelessness. A friend once told me that the majority of her sex education came from Shakespeare. Hah! But for many, sexual desire comes naturally with teenage hormones. How are young women to wade the waters of sexual purity, complete with bodies coursing full of desire, when their community reacts with a horrified hush and treats such feelings as only belonging to men? (Men whom Christendom, oddly, never expects to be “unawakened.”)

I have girlfriends, too, who if they have any desire have never so much as whispered it. Or, it is at least veiled in vague terms and spiritual niceties (read: “He has fine eyes and I think very highly of him. We’d make great prayer buddies.”). Many of my female friends haven’t the foggiest idea of how their own reproductive system works (just imagine what dangers that puts them in). Again, we have equated ignorance with purity. As if, maybe, if you don’t know any details—or have never felt your body react to the opposite sex—you are somehow more pure or of a higher moral fiber.

In contrast, I want to share with you an incident which happened shortly after I’d gotten married. For several months I had struggled to relate with the secular, singles’ culture of my workplace. Then I got hitched—and all my unfulfilled desire found glorious resting place in my husband’s arms. Now, at least, I had sex in common with my co-workers! Or so I thought.

But one day I walked into the office the morning after an office-party. The lights were off in the cubical-complex next to the lobby, (just about everyone had a hangover).  A group of women were huddled around each other, talking in low tones and giggling over their iPhones. As I joined the group, I caught the undertones of a conversation on who-slept-with-who in their drunken state the night before and oh-look! photos. I wandered off, feeling like a child who stumbled into an adult conversation, or had been sent to bed early.

And then it clicked. I had expected to relate with them! After all, I knew how sex was done, and how to do it well! But it didn’t make any difference. Because it wasn’t about knowledge—it wasn’t even about experience—it was about purity. I had expected that sexual knowledge—loss of ignorance—would make me less pure. But it hadn’t! Because purity isn’t about ignorance—it is a way of life, a kind of Being in Christ. I was just as pure as before marriage, and would go on being pure (God keep me) even when I am old and have a dozen grandchildren.

And isn’t this the beauty of Christ? That in Him, all things are pure and beautiful? After all, was He, in the sense I have described, ignorant? Guiltless, yes! Pure, absolutely! But lacking knowledge? As Lord of all Creation, there is no beautiful thing, nor horror of evil, which He does not see. Furthermore, Jesus Himself on earth knew so much evil first hand: the loneliness of the outcasts, the brokenness of the prostitute, the injustice and hypocrisy of the religious leaders. He ate with them. He put His hands into their wounds, on their leprous and lecherous heads, let them kiss his feet, and with His own suffering won them for Himself.

If we are to be like Christ, there is no place for ignorance. Let children grow in the bubble-wrap of “innocent” happiness if need be, but we do nobody, least of all the unbeliever, any favors by being barricaded, naive adults.

So whether you are in your teens feeling the hot rushes of sexual awakening—or the crushed and world-weary traveller first learning of Christ—know that it is not what you have done or experienced which constitutes your purity but rather the purity of the Holy One whom you know! In Him your past is renewed, and in Him our experiences find their proper place—whether that be laboring alongside the broken, bringing light to dark places, experiencing grief, or your very first kiss from your beloved, He orders all things.

Let us not then disorderly value the ignorance of our childhood, but know that as we grow in Knowledge, in Christ we also grow in Beauty and Truth.

So Soon, My Heart

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vintage color effectThis morning I walked out into one of the most beautiful days I can ever remember. It wasn’t just the bluest of blue skies, nor the greenest of spring grasses, it was the early morning haze which infiltrated the purple-buds of trees, etherealized the clouds of blush-white cherry blossoms and made the tips of tender new leaves shine a golden emerald. I suddenly realized that my days among this Virginia beauty were numbered—and that mornings such as this glorious one were fast fading away.

Oh! be still, my heart.

We, Tim and I, have entered into a new stage of waiting in our lives as the summer approaches and with it a move to Boston. You can imagine my delight in knowing the time remaining at my current job is limited, yet there is sadness too as we prepare to leave our first, beloved home as newlyweds and the church whose people we have already come to know and love. We wait to know where we will live next, I wait to know where I will work, I wait to know what new roads and shops will become my life, what new space our lives will fill.

Waiting.

It seems to me that our whole lives are made up of seasons of waiting. I remember being fourteen, “waiting for life to begin” as I put it—when the boys (whom I already liked) would finally wake up and notice me. Then I remember being seventeen—the anxious days waiting to hear back from colleges about acceptances and scholarships. There were semesters of college, waiting for tests, waiting for finals, waiting for a dance or performance or date. Waiting for graduation. Waiting for a job. Waiting for marriage.

Waiting for Tim! Ah, I waited a long time for him, and he for me. There were countless days and nights of tears waiting—and hoping—for him. Wondering what strange (and seemingly impossible) circumstances would have to align to bring us together. But God brought it about.

And now that particular waiting is over. Just yesterday I had to just stare at his beloved profile in the car—awed yet again that we live our lives as one—hand-in-hand, side-by-side. My dream come true.

Oh, my dear heart.

When did that waiting end? and this new waiting begin? All along, this happiness was so incredibly soon! It was waiting for me, just around the corner. And now that I’m there, you’d think that somehow the waiting would end, but no, instead I find new things to wait for. When we whisper our dreams at the close of the day—Tim and I are still waiting, waiting for a permanent home, waiting for our future children, waiting to know what our life will bring.

This season turns into next. Someday we’ll be waiting for our children’s dreams—their graduation and marriage and children. 

And it is right, in some way, that we are always waiting.

I sensed, felt more than thought, this morning the curious juxtaposition of our daily lives in light of waiting for our eternal home. We are called to embrace the NOW—the fleeting dream that we live—even as we realize that we are not where we will one day be—that there is so much more awaiting us in our heavenly home of the Forever Now. When Goodness and Beauty and Truth will never end. When all the tomorrows become Today.

But we are waiting for that day—and days such as this morning remind me of that glory—and that it’s coming.

So soon, my heart.

Ratatouille Moments

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This past weekend my family came down from New York to Virginia to visit me and my husband. It’d been several months since we’d seen them, so we filled up the weekend with seeing Arlington Cemetery, General Lee’s house, and having lots of long talks and culinary experiences. On Saturday we all shared one big injera at an Ethiopian restaurant (a sourdough sponge like bread from which we ate our lamb and beef and pea curries), Saturday night we had my dijon-and-rosemary pot roast, and then on Sunday we finished off with Mexican food at a little hole-in-the-wall called Jarochita.

As is my habit at every Mexican restaurant I visit, I always ask to see if they sell horchata, a rice and cinnamon drink I’d had as a child. Usually the answer is “no.” A very few times in the last fifteen years they’ve had a powdered version—usually rather chalky, dark, and overly sweet and, once tried, enjoyed only for the shadow it bears to the original.

But Jarochita is a special Mexican restaurant. You can’t order except in Spanish—and, lucky for us, my Dad is fluent enough that just this past weekend he was asked whether or not he was actually American (he is—and the proper grandson of Italians). He was entirely in charge of ordering, so out came plates of beef and lengua (tongue) tacos, garnished solely with sweet onions and cilantro. Out came a plate of grilled cactus. And then! Then out came three styrofoam liters of horchata. We took the lids off and I felt a happy glimmering of recognition as I saw the pearly-white liquid swishing around ice. I took a sip.

And my eyes filled with tears. anton 1

I couldn’t help it. It was just like that moment in Ratatouille when Anton is transported back to his childhood. I realized I hadn’t tasted that refreshing, light, milky-sweet-cinnamon taste since I was five or six years old in California. All at once I could see again the little Mexican cafe in San Leandro—plopped, as it seemed, in the middle of a parking lot like a drive-through Dairy Queen… half of its sides were windows, and inside were a few small, bare tables and two percolating machines of aguas frescas—cool waters, horchata on ice.

“Oooh, Linda! You feeling nostalgic?” cooed my eleven year old sister, grinning sympathetically.

“Yes…” I replied, a little pouty and blinking away the tears.

I sipped my horchata contentedly. And I thought how strange it was that this was the first time I had experienced anything like Horchatathis—such vivid transportation backward through taste alone. I suppose it is because so many of my favorite childhood tastes I still enjoy—my mother still cooks the same amazing soups, stews, meats, beans, and desserts as she always has. There is nothing else I can think of but horchata that holds such a loved-and-lost place in my palate.

Loved-and-lost-and-found. We declared Jarochita the best Mexican food we’d had outside of California. “No,” Dad corrected himself emphatically, “outside of Mexico!”

And I suppose it was. But it was also deliciously like what I remembered in California, and for that I am grateful.

Washing Feet [In a Corporate Office]

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Office reception desk

“Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.” (Psalm 139:7-10)

Can I tell you a secret? I hate my job. After years of writing, english and art classes, public speaking, and a liberal arts education—through several (at the time sensible) decisions I ended up as the little receptionist of a rather big political consulting firm.

I expected such a position would give me ample opportunity to do what I love best: connect with people. Between phone calls, guests, and scheduling, surely countless people would cross my daily routine, and I, like I had in jobs before, would have the opportunity to shine my cheerful smile and the light of Christ across their path.

What has instead come to pass is perhaps the most humbling process I have ever voluntarily submitted myself to.

I sit alone in a front lobby almost as large as my apartment—complete with industrial flooring, glass doors and walls, and a flat screen TV which runs the muted news all day. Four chairs, their bottoms larger than their backs, lounge like minimalist art statues around a magazined table, flanked by the aforementioned tv and two dying plants. At different points in the day the office is so quiet you could hear a pin drop, at others the muffled reverberations of laughter drift from the sections of coworkers down the hall.

Most days the phone rings less than four times, (I inevitably forward the call or take a message). Most days we have under four guests—whom I escort to the appropriate place (properly watered and coffeed).

Sometimes, of course, things get interesting. A package arrives and I must sign my last name. One time I wrote training material. Four precious months of my life were spent doing thousands of pages of data-entry. On a particularly memorable day, somebody called the front desk and let off half a dozen F-bombs.

But most days I buzz people through the locked front doors, clean up the kitchen and conference rooms, stock the fridge, and try to pass my nine-hour work day as productively as I can.

The loneliness is the worst part. For a variety of reasons (which have given my psychologist streak ample material for hyper-analysis), people simply don’t stop and talk to receptionists. It’s sorta like I’m furniture. Even my boss has only given me about three five minute conversations since August.

Once, (and I mean once), a visiting woman turned and looked me right in the face and said “Thank you!” for the drink I’d brought her. Its sincerity was so out of the ordinary it went through my heart and buried itself deep inside. I nearly cried later.

I’m like the contractor they’ve hired to sit desk and wipe up their coffee spills. Not a proper coworker at all. On a team of one.

My usual optimism and runaway imagination have not aided me. After seven full months, the only part which has improved is that I no longer have emotional breakdowns on my husband twice a week. I hate it as much as the week I began.

But that is not to say that I am not learning and growing a great deal.

I have daily fights with resentment and bitterness. Furthermore, I have had to struggle against the basic instinct to put my identity and worth in my work, accomplishments, and reputation. Because I think I have my whole life. I think we all do. “I’m a teacher.” “I’m a mother.” “I’m a programmer.” What we do matters and too often defines us.

But what I do every day does not matter. And I don’t want it to define me.

I feel an unwelcome comradery with the cleaning lady I see every few hours, the five or six UPS, FedEx, and delivery men I see every week, and the bus and metro drivers who take me to work every day. I don’t want my job to define me.

My instinctive reaction in the face of such monotonous drudgery is to smile brighter—to work even harder to connect and witness. Maybe those precious seconds with guests—maybe they will matter! But even at a job like mine, such thinking can only take you so far. You can’t make people stop and talk to somebody they don’t even fully realize is there.

And without words, my smiles are office flowers—sometimes droopy.

So I’ve been thrown back—again—to square one. If I, like so many people in our society, shudder to put my identity in being a cog in a machine—what do I put it in?

“You make  known to me the path of life; in your presence is fullness of joy.” (Psalm 16:11)

Christ. Christ. Christ. He of all people had reason to boast. Son of God, Ruler of Angels, Miracle Worker, King of Kings, Lord of Lords.

And sometimes, on good days, I can wrap my head around Him coming to earth: He had a divine plan, and He submitted Himself to a Divine Will. Even the nativity story can grow stable-ordinary.

But I am struck of late with His washing His disciple’s feet. Most of all Judas’. It says in John that “he knew who was going to betray him” (John 13:11). Yet He washed every single disciple’s feet.

I wonder how He felt when He got to Judas—when He lifted those dusty, sweaty feet—the kind that had worn the same pair of sandals every day for years. Imagine the smell. Dirt under the nails. Hair kinda slimy. Did Jesus look in Judas’ eyes as He wiped the grime away? The same hands that had turned water into wine washed the traitor’s feet. And He did it with a thousand times more love, forgiveness, and humility in His hands and eyes than when I (too often begrudgingly) wash counters and fill fridges with water.

If Jesus can wash His friend’s feet—and His enemy’s too—I can do today’s equivalent of mundane and thankless tasks with a humble spirit.

Now mind, I don’t say this to recommend taking a job like mine—if you can find meaningful work I think you are by far better off. But I am saying that it has taken being in a job like this to even glimpse how much in the way of humility I need to grow.

Humility. I used to think it was an attitude, as in “not boasting”, not feeling the need to air your accomplishments. Sure. Okay. But I’m learning it’s also a way of living. Living humbly. Being ok with not being noticed, not doing anything note-worthy, and serving gladly anyway.

I am learning to give my reputation over into the hands of the Lord, for I have no control over what anyone thinks of me (good, bad, indifferent). I can’t change that being a married Christian woman in a male and single dominated office makes me a bit of an anomaly. (Drink and party on the weekends? How about cooking and cuddling with the husband?)

I am learning to hide away my identity in Christ, to give it to Him for the safest of keeping. For in my own hands I have found it to crumble quickly.

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy, but I come that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)

Sometimes it feels like my coworkers are the thieves in that verse—stealing my joy with belittling comments and passive demeanors. But they aren’t. They are not so powerful—let alone so purposeful. The only thief capable of stealing my joy is fear. “The fear of humility … / The fear of being lonely … “ (Audrey Assad)

And I am not alone. My lobby is in the very court of my King. My heart is in His presence. And there is fullness of joy.

And I suppose when it comes to it that is the best witness I can give—trusting that even a faltering testament that goes unnoticed somehow glorifies God.

And I would rather be a doorkeeper in Your house than live my life anywhere else.   

“our heart is restless until it rests in you”

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Cherry BlossomsHow did it all happen? I feel like Dante—just out of Purgatory, fresh on the shores of Eden—old and yet new, weary and yet fresh as a new day.

My college career is over. I just wrote my last exam: a sixteen page blue-book essay mapping the arch of loves dis/ordered through Homer, Virgil, Sophocles, divine love in Augustine, and redeeming love in Dante.

I cried. It was a good exam to go out on. For in it I wrote of loves excessive, loves distorted, and love made new and beautiful by the love of Christ. Story of our lives. 

Let’s face it, it could have been a calc exam. But instead I got to tell of how “our hearts are restless until they rests in you” (Augustine, 3), and how “endless grace / has arms of generous goodness thrown so wide / they take in all who turn to them” (Dante, 3.121-3).

In a few days I’ll walk an aisle and toss a cap. In a few months I’ll walk another aisle and marry my wonderful fiancé. And it’s all love. 

It was love that made and grew me, love which brought me here. Love which every day remakes me and casts away my fear.

If I could single out one great lesson that God’s been teaching me over and over through these last four years—it’s the supremacy of love in our lives. Love which finds its right place in Christ’s love for us. Love which suffers, love which gives, love which hopes, and endures, and transforms, and makes new.

And so I am thankful. That through this end I am learning endless beginning. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Dance it Up

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DSC08700eThere’s a reason why people of every tribe and nation will worship before the throne of God. And it’s not just because God is faithful and good that way—I’m convinced it’s because He loves diversity. He created it.

I have, for many years, had a bit of my heart lost, given, and invested in the people of India. There are, I admit, many things about the culture which are unredeemed: idol worship, the cast system, the objectification of women, etc. But there are also beautiful things. They have a fearless and exultant love for beauty.

This past weekend I had the delight of hosting an Indian evening for over a dozen other girls. I donned my salwar, a tunic of a brilliant red, black, and white textile, and at 5:30 bustled into the kitchen. Out came the spices! Up went the heat! One girl started her lentils, another started cutting up onions, ginger, garlic, cilantro. I began on a sesame brittle—my friends got naan ready and helped dish out the spices as needed. We talked over the cacophony of pans, (we managed to burn a batch of rice and its pot), many female voices, and the stove fan, while Bollywood tunes blasting from my laptop.

At last all was ready and the spread set on the table, feasting before our eyes: A South Indian Dahl, a coconut dahl-1curry, rice, naan, snapped peas, and our sesame dessert. Oh, so good. All of us college students fairly died with delight. So much flavor—all that sultry spice twirling and blazing in your mouth. Beauty.

Then we movie-marathoned. Three and half hours of Lagaan—a tale of rebellion against the British Raj in the form of a cricket game with very high-stakes (and of course, lots of romance), punctuated by whirling, colorful dances—joyful and expressive. Beauty. Afterwards, Slumdog Millionaire–one of the best films ever made.

I could talk for a long time about why that films so good—how it gives one of the most relentless and raw depictions of Christ-like love ever depicted on screen. But one of the things that amazes me so is how beautiful it is… yes, it shows the squalor, filth, and depravity the characters experience—but also amazing redemption, true unconditional love. My favorite part is the end, when Jamal kisses the scar on Latika’s face, undoing all the defilement and shame’s she’s experienced, saying without words, “You are beautiful to me”—and the film closes with one fantastic dance sequence, complete with a hundred extras on a train-station platform, Latika dancing it up in white and jeans with a brilliant yellow scarf. Love triumphant.

Ah, Indians love a good dance. and color. So much color. Even in the poorest places in India, even the beggars are arrayed in the most brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows.

I believe the love God has given me for India springs from seeing in it something of God’s own beauty. And so I imagine that, if Christ redeems the best from every culture, in Heaven we’ll all be wearing colors more brilliant than the sun. And our Indian brothers and sisters in the Lord will be sharing with us really good food—and showing us how to dance before the throne of grace.

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I Shall Not Want

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The words over the car-stereo speakers hung ripe with tears in my ears. Audrey Assad over Ohio fields. I was driving to DC for break with three other college girls when suddenly the sleepiness that had been conquering me slipped away—and I listened.

From the love of my own comfort
From the fear of having nothing
From a life of worldly passions
Deliver me O God

In less than two months college will be behind me. I’ll be on to the world beyond. I’d always thought that when I graduated college I’d have finally arrived. That four years of classes and deadlines, relationships and missteps would have refined me into something, well, nearer perfection. I would finally be the selfless, brave-hearted Christ-follower I’m supposed to be.

From the need to be understood
From the need to be accepted
From the fear of being lonely
Deliver me O God
Deliver me O God

Instead I find myself only more keenly aware of my own pride, bitterness, and fear. I see every opportunity missed, every anxious hour, the malicious thoughts and thoughtless words.

Deliver me O God
Deliver me O God

As I search for jobs, interview and face over and over how little I control, and as I and the wonderful man in my life pray and seek wisdom in unfolding the next months and years, Audrey’s words strike the strings of my heart and send it heavenward.

From the fear of serving others
From the fear of death or trial
From the fear of humility
Deliver me O God
Deliver me O God

Will the journey always be like this? If in coming to Christ our hearts of stone are exchanged for hearts of flesh—than every year I feel another chunk of the cold marble of my heart melting into aching, beating sinews. Life’s getting vulnerable. I’m not becoming more independent but learning more deeply my dependency. I am not stronger—only learning that all my strength is His.

And I shall not want, I shall not want
When I taste Your goodness I shall not want

Lord, deliver me from the fear of the unknown. Deliver me from self-sufficiency, deliver me from thanklessness. Deliver me from searching for what I already have in You.

No, I shall not want, I shall not want
When I taste Your goodness I shall not want

*Set to the lyrics of I Shall Not Want by Audrey Assad