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This morning I finished Still: Notes on a mid-faith crisis,  a book by an author I have long admired, Lauren Winner. Although I was initially shocked and saddened to find that she had divorced her husband and gone through a faith crisis, I am thankful she chose to write this book, and gladdened that she is finding her way through this time with God’s help.

Winner’s writing in this volume is in the form of brief meditations. Early in the book, there is quite a bit of narrative, and we feel we’re getting some of the back story which precipitated this crisis. But as she progresses, the short chapters develop a concentrated, almost poetic voice. Each is a lovely essay which might stand alone. (more…)

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(This post originally appeared on a former blog of mine, on  June 28, 2007.  For an updated and illustrated version, check out thabto.wordpress.com on July 15, 2012. )

“Are you condescending to me?”  What emotions does this word conjure in you? Discomfort? Annoyance?  Do your hackles raise, catlike? Are you prepared to be miffed?  The verb ‘to condescend’ has such a strong pejorative sense that it’s hard to think of it in positive terms at all.

But the verse of a hymn has been running through my head:

He is our Guide and Friend;
To us He’ll condescend;
His love shall never end.
Alleluia! Amen!

(“Come, Christians, Join to Sing”, lyrics by Christian H. Bateman, 1843)

I was surprised to find that the original meaning of ‘condescend’, from 1340, was ‘to back down, to submit, yield deferentially’–quite the opposite of its more current meaning, ‘to stoop to the level of one’s inferiors,’ which dates to 1611.  Literally it means to “descend with”, but its most common connotation now is that one has a sense of being superior and doing something beneath one’s dignity.  It tends to be paired with the word ‘patronizing’ and carries the idea that you are doing a great favor to someone or a group by deigning to act in such a manner–and that you let them know it, on no uncertain terms.  One who acts in such a way is labeled a snob, and seems to take pleasure in letting everyone feel his vast superiority.

Being condescending, in this sense, makes people uncomfortable:  they feel guilty that they troubled you, they cower fearful that they’ll do something gauche around you, or they’re insulted that you consider them so obviously beneath you.  But I would contend that someone who makes you feel that way is actually NOT condescending in any real sense, because they are making no attempt to join you at your level.  Rather, they’re making you very much aware of how different your station or situation or education or…whatever…is than their own.  Rather than finding a common ground, they are looking down from a lofty elevation from which they have no intention of descending.

True condescension can be more than uncomfortable for the one who’s doing the stooping; it can be literally painful.  I’ve just finished an excellent series which looks at the story of Pride and Prejudice through the eyes of Fitzwilliam Darcy (the author is Pamela Aidan, for those interested).  His actions, undertaken out of love for a woman who is his inferior in fortune (and whose affections he is quite unsure of), are condescending in the literal sense.  His  rescue of  her wayward sister takes him into the most disreputable and dangerous sections of London, where physical filth rubs elbows with moral depravity, and both reach out to accost unwary passersby.

On a more mundane–but practical–level, I condescended tonight to weed and deadhead my perennial garden.  And it was painful to get down on the weeds’ level:  either I was stooping awkwardly and my back complained, or I was squatting or kneeling and my legs were unhappy.  Condescension is no picnic. Think about scrubbing floors, hunting for lost toys under the couch, or even talking to preschoolers by stooping down so you can look them in the eye.  Physically, this is demanding, un-fun stuff.

Want more proof?  How about a great artist who stoops to become part of the work he’s created?  Limiting himself so narrowly that he is confined inside the world that he invented?  What happens when the creatures, in this world of his own making, turn on him?  When they kill him?  Is that evidence enough that condescension may be hazardous to one’s health?

And yet.  “Go into all the world.”  “Look out not only for your own interests, but the interests of others.”  “Care for widows and orphans.”  “Whatever you do for one of the least of these…”  “The servant is not greater than his master.”

The call to community, to servanthood and humility, is the call to condescension, to get down and get our hands dirty, to stoop to the level of those we serve, so that we can really understand their needs.  Banker to the Poor is the memoir of a man who left his university’s ivory tower to see whether the economic theories he was teaching really had any bearing on the lives of the poor wretches barely surviving in the next village.  Thirty years ago Grameen Bank was born out of his overwhelming compulsion to make fair, modest, short-term loans to people–mostly women–who without such simple assistance (in one case, the lack of less than one dollar’s worth of supplies) were trapped in a vise between moneylenders and starvation.  This man, and the majority of his students who are bank employees, are Muslims.  Their compassion and willingness to leave their comfortable lives and go into the most destitute places, patiently and repeatedly, in order to explain the hope they offer, puts me to shame.

Condescension is such a good descriptive word.  Pity it’s gotten to be so negative.  Humility isn’t much better–it feels powerless.   But to humble oneself this way requires strength of character, resolve, perseverance, and a thick skin.  What do you think is a better word for this stooping to understand and come alongside someone in order to help them?  Is there such a word?  Should we coin one?

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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Orphaned, endured cruelty: evil aunt, horrible school.

Governess at Thornfield: sweet Adele, mysterious employer.

Nighttime fire, lunatic laughter.  Love?  Wedding?  No: mad wife living.

Fled, inherited fortune. Rochester burned but free.  Married him.

(This is the weekend challenge for this week:  retell your favorite story in 33 words.)

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This is a follow up to my post from Thursday about an article in Christianity Today.  It’s a very long article about a phenomenon within the Church which Professor Bergler calls “juvenilization”.  I am making the case that this is actually true of our entire culture, secular and sacred.

The more I think about the notion that an entire culture has succumbed to the allure of youth, and trapped itself in immaturity, the more troubled I become. Once upon a time, I thought the cult of youth was just the worship of the body beautiful–lithe, smooth-skinned young flesh–and a corresponding fear of aging and death.  But I fear the truth is far more frightening and insidious.  The more we become a “visual” culture, the more easily we fall into this trap of juvenilization…the hypnotic draw of TV, video, computer, and ‘Droid have sucked us in.  We read less, we react more.  We ponder less, we play more.  We don’t reflect, we just “like” reflexively.

We blame it all on being busy…we don’t have time to read something substantial. Give me the news briefs, please. Give me the short sentences, the pithy paragraphs, the headlines.  Read a book?  Well…maybe on Kindle, where I can keep pausing to play Angry Birds.  But our appetite for sound bites seems to leave us empty of deep thought while forever hungry for more hot air.

This vicious cycle–where did it start?  Bergler claims that within the Church community it was a result of trying to “market” Christianity to youth.  I could spend a lot of time researching and reporting to you what I think is at the root of this cultural phenomenon.

But it doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that we work to regain a society of mature people who aren’t afraid of careful reading carefully and reasoning logically, who don’t flinch away from ideas that are unsettling or demanding.  So I want to talk about solutions.

This morning my pastor put a book in my hands.  It was a ‘thank you’ for a very minor job I volunteered to do awhile back.  I’ll tell you the title in a minute.  But in the introduction, these words are quoted:  “As a man thinketh, so is he.”  This is from Proverbs 23:7, and in context simply means that you can’t judge what someone thinks of you by their words–they may be outwardly polite and inwardly cursing you.  The author, Robert P. Morgan, wants to make a case for this verse meaning that what we think defines who we are.  This has led him to write a book about what we put into our minds, in this specific case, verses of Scripture.

Although I think the verse in Proverbs is weak as a foundation, I have no problem with his premise:  “garbage in/garbage out” is a truism.  And there are other Scriptures which say much the same thing, my favorite being from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, chapter 4, verse 8:

Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable,  whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise—dwell on these things.

So DO we want to be commendable, morally excellent, truthful, honorable, pure?  …Then I suggest that reading, watching, absorbing a steady diet of tripe, gossip, pornography, violence and lies is probably not an effective strategy.   I don’t personally think the majority of Americans want to be trivial, gossipy, thrill-seeking, simplistic and vulgar.  But somewhere along the line, we’ve gotten the idea that we can give lip service to an ideal, then go and do whatever we want, whatever is easy, comfortable, fun, relaxing, low key and unchallenging.

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer indicted the Church for doing this to faith.  He called it “cheap grace”…the notion that one can say a prayer of commitment to Jesus, and show up in church on Sundays when convenient, and–no worries, never have to really work at a faithful life, never need to change a habit, strive to do better, seek truth ever again.

Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.

I think this is a real problem within the Church, because we’ve absorbed the attitude of our culture, to do everything the easiest way possible.  Movements like the “Rebelution” Do Hard Things youth conferences were excitingly counter-culture,and I pray that they have ignited a spark of fire in our youth.  Meanwhile, I fear that most of us in this country enjoy “cheap patriotism”: the sense that we’re entitled, as Americans, to all the rights and privileges that pertain thereto, but owe nothing in return…not so much as the duty to be well informed before we enter a voting booth.  

Of course young people want to do what’s quick and easy…it’s human nature.  That doesn’t make it right, wise or best.  That’s why God gave them parents…to model for them that doing what takes more time, energy and thought is not only better in the long run, it brings even short-term satisfaction, and builds character in ways that no short cut ever can.

That book title?  100 Bible Verses everyone should know by heart.  In the interest of countering creeping juvenility, I’m going to start here and now, with this book.   My hope is that the more I fill my mind with God’s truth, the more that Truth will come out in my conversations with those in my circle of influence, including unsaved friends and neighbors…and a precious granddaughter.  That is certainly incentive to avoid cheap grace and cheap patriotism, too.

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I gave my own definition of ‘balance’ in part one, but I’ll repeat it here:

Balance is the maintenance of two or more elements in a system within an acceptable range of normal which keeps every element in correct proportion, so that the functions of the system as a whole can be performed optimally.

I already looked at how this definition is supported by the chemical functioning inside our bodies.  Let’s look at a more subjective system:  how we use our time.  (I was interested to see that this was the only context in which my friends commented on my Facebook quote.)  Now there are always 24 hours in a day.  Nobody gets any more than that.  We can divide those hours into minutes or seconds, but everyone gets the same number.  The simplest division we can make is into waking and sleeping.  How many of us would insist on 12 hours of sleep per night?  For most of us, most of the time, that much sleep would be excessive.  If we agree on a healthy range as 6.5 to 8 hours of sleep, we could say that we maintain a healthy balance of waking and sleeping if we are out of bed for about 2/3 of every 24-hour period.  But that alone isn’t enough to determine balance in a meaningful way.  How are we spending those waking hours?

We can simply split our waking hours into work and relaxation.  Should there be eight hours of each?  Is it possible? Yes.  Is it desirable?  That’s open to debate.   Beyond that, into which column does one put hygiene, eating, travel time, home/car/yard maintenance, shopping, cooking?  For some, these things might fall on the work side, but for others on the recreation end of the spectrum.    We will spend differing amounts of time on each item–and even in the course of several days or weeks will probably not be utterly consistent in the time we spend in each category.  Some weeks, shopping may take up a large amount of time–perhaps because a new home is being sought.  The week of a party, perhaps cooking and cleaning take precedence.  Not spending the same amount in each category of activity–nor even a consistent amount of time on one activity from week to week–doesn’t imply a lack of balance.  Is my life functioning optimally?  That’s the question.  And it requires further definition.

It’s easy enough to define “optimal” in purely physical terms:  the health of my body, the performance of my car, or the yield in my garden (because of the right balance of sun, moisture and fertilizer, soil, time and lack of predators/pests). These are fairly objective systems.  But what about the quality of my life, the way I spend my time over a span of months or years?  How do I define balance here? This is the ultimate context of Dr. Swenson’s book, and the one for which we are in most need of a definition.

One of the most valuable concepts he introduces in order to determine whether we are “in balance,” is the concept of “core priorities.”  He uses the picture of orbit, and suggests that everything in our lives should be placed in orbit around our core priorities.   Is my priority making money?  Then working 12 hours a day is perhaps not out of balance for me.  Is my stated priority family and relationships? A 12-hour work day isn’t going to help balance my life in favor of that priority, is it?

I want to go back to my working definition:  When I say “optimal function of the system as a whole”, to what system am I referring?   In this context, perhaps it is that my core priorities are being preserved or honored, and the implied goals of those priorities are being met.  But I need more than an ambiguous “priority” and an implied goal, in order to really establish equilibrium.

If my priority is family, what I really need is an active verb to describe that priority, much the way an actor needs verbs to describe his character’s motivation.   Perhaps it’s clearer to say, “My core priority is to maintain solid relationships with my family members, so that we communicate often, understand each other, spend regular quality time together and build common positive memories.”   A specific and goal-oriented definition of each of  my core priorities will make it much easier to determine whether the components of my life are in a range which will serve those priorities well.

One friend said, “Jesus did not live a balanced life.”  But I say, Oh really?  Jesus stated clearly that He had come to do His Father’s will.  Every aspect of His earthly life served that purpose.  Who are we to say it was out of balance?  True, what we know of His life mainly falls into the last three years, the years of His public ministry. But that makes it relatively easy to evaluate them for balance, as we’ve defined it.  So…did Jesus ignore His mission for days on end, playing video games instead?  Did He neglect His prayer life?  Did He take a sabbatical from teaching and never get back to it?  Did He try to cram too many speaking engagements into His schedule and end up in bed with the flu for a week? Did He give Himself a nervous breakdown by trying to heal everyone who came to Him?

Jesus accomplished His stated purpose.  And thus He is the example of a perfectly balanced life.  But His is the only example.

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I mentioned this book in my Facebook status yesterday.  I’ve been reading it for a book discussion panel I’ll be part of next week, and growing frustrated with the author.  In my status update, I asked this question:  “Is balance something we can’t define, but we know it when we don’t see it?”

To my surprise, this question provoked a brief but intense shower of comments–quite a good dialogue, in fact.  But the stand-out thread was the assumed definition of “balance” by nearly everyone who wrote: their comments indicated that they thought of balance as equality, as in spending “equal time” doing various things.  “Balance is overrated,” said one person.  “Jesus’ life wasn’t balanced,” pointed out another.  “Nor the apostle Paul’s life.”

I repeatedly pointed out the necessity of a definition we could all agree on, and stated that the biggest problem I have with this book is that Dr. Swenson’s first job was to define his term…and he never got around to it.  He used many illustrations, but since he’s looking at what he thinks of as “balance” in every facet of life, it’s a slippery commodity he’s trying to pin down, and his success is partial at best.

The implied understanding of “balance” as equality is easy to grasp.  We at once picture an old-fashioned set of scales in a shop, where a one-pound weight tells us whether we’re buying a pound of potatoes.   Elementary math sometimes uses the graphic of a scale to picture an equation–by definition, both sides have to be equal, so a pair of scales is a good illustration to teach that concept.

But there are other, more subtle, variations on the idea of balance.  We want to balance our budgets–home, business, government.  But it isn’t as simple as “this is our income and this is our expense.”  We scrutinize how much we’re spending in each category.   Experts tell us that we should try to keep our housing cost to about 25% of our total month expense:  If I make $2,000 a month, I shouldn’t pay more than $500 for my rent or mortgage.  If  I am routinely spending over $1,000 for housing, that spending may be rightly said to be out of balance with my income and other expenses.

“Balance” has many synonyms, and Dr. Swenson uses all of them, at times interchangeably.  We have equilibrium, homeostasis, constancy, stability, consistency, sustained harmony, etc.   The many statistics and anecdotes he employs lead me to this definition:  Balance is the maintenance of all the elements in a system within an acceptable range of normal, which keeps every element in correct proportion so that the functions of the system as a whole can be performed optimally.

I know this definition is unwieldy, but it’s what I’m working with at the moment.  The example I used in my Facebook conversation was the electrolytes in our bodies.  Sodium is a critical component in cell functioning.  Its optimal range should be 135 to 145 millimoles per liter.  Both excess sodium and inadequate sodium levels will create serious or even fatal problems in our bodies.  Potassium, another major player, should be present in the optimal range of 3.6 to 5.1 millimoles per liter.  The fact that we need only a fraction as much potassium as we do sodium doesn’t imply anything about its importance to our health and well-being.  The critical fact is that there is a specific level which much be maintained.

Of course there are myriad elements in our bodies which must be kept in balance.  We speak of  “chemical imbalances” in the brain, of hormone imbalances, or of vitamin deficiencies.   Most of us are not so naive that we think every part must be equal.  And not every part is “equally” important…our bodies can adjust to varying levels of almost any component, compensating for excess or deficit in remarkable ways.   But if our goal is optimal health and performance, we ignore these balances at our peril.

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I’m reading Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book, in preparation for WBCL’s Digging Deeper on MidMorning this coming Thursday, September 10th, at 9:05 am.  This is one of the more challenging small books I’ve read recently.  For instance, what to make of this statement?

It is the very nature of language to form rather than inform.  When language is personal, which it is at its best, it reveals: and revelation is always formative–we don’t know more, we become more.  Our best users of language, poets and lovers and children and saints, use words to make–make intimacies, make character, make beauty, make goodness, make truth.  (page 24)

I’ve certainly experienced enough of the worst of language…the dryness of a text book, reciting facts in a way no one could ever read for pleasure or interest;  the convoluted prose of an instruction manual for assembling a bookshelf which only frustrates and confuses.  But what does it mean that language at its best is “personal”?    The dictionary definitions helps a bit. Personal can mean  “pertaining to or coming from a (particular) person, a self-conscious being.”   Good communication has an element of the personal–or perhaps conversational?– about it.

So far, so good.  But how does language make beauty or goodness or truth?  Making is different from revealing, isn’t it?  When something is revealed to me, I recognize its truth or beauty, perhaps for the first time.  Do the words make it true or beautiful, or only reveal something inherent?  I believe God is the source of beauty and truth, and I think Peterson does, too.  My biggest problem with the early chapters of this book is that he makes statements which are deep with implications, and then he does nothing to unpack them with illustration.

The rich metaphors of a good poem cause us to see in a new way.  For instance,

Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes –

The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

–Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, Book vii

This snippet of verse is a powerful picture of our God-saturated world, and the necessity of looking at creation with awareness of God’s presence.  The idea of being so oblivious we’d sit and pluck berries when we should be worshiping carries a sense of shame.  So few words, so much depth.  But does the poet create the beauty or the truth?  Or does she reveal it by her fresh metaphor and strong verbs (crammed, afire, pluck)? The comparison of Moses at the burning bush to simpletons feeding their faces with fruit carries conviction which cuts to the heart.  It reveals not only a truth of nature, but a truth about our own perceptions (or lack).

If this revelation creates a desire in us for change, if we are formed (or perhaps re-formed is more apt…formed anew) by it, then I suppose we can say that the poet “made” more goodness, character, beauty.

Of course Peterson’s contention is that the Bible is the all-important text for our spiritual formation. We are not to “use” Scripture for our own goals, plans, information or agenda. Rather, we are to ingest it so that it permeates us, becomes part of us, nurturing us as the best food does.

“Eating a book,” he writes, “takes it all in, assimilating it into the tissues of our lives  Readers become what they read.”   I do believe that “it is the very nature of” Scripture to form rather than inform. I’m just not convinced that the same is true of language in general.

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