Category Archives: Wisdom
For most of us, the Christmas season is marked by more chaos than peace. No matter how old we are, there’s this time leading up to the “big day” that’s marked by increasing expectation. For some, it’s a happy time, for others it can be closer to panic. It seems like it starts earlier every year. We plan, we travel, we decorate, we bake, we shop, we eat, we worry about how much we spent while shopping and how much holiday-weight we’re gaining while we’re eating. Sometimes it seems like we’re bouncing around like a ping-pong ball in a clothes dryer until we’re flung out into the new year wondering where the holiday went!
I’m not railing against busyness or complaining about losing the spirit of Christmas, I’m saying that no matter what we believe, Christmas is more of a season than an event. In the Christian church, we have a word that encompasses that: “Advent.” For us, Christmas doesn’t come suddenly. Each year, there’s a four week lead-up that reminds us, in the midst of the busyness, of the hope, peace, joy, and love that come with Jesus Christ’s coming into our world. It’s a wonderful time of anticipation and celebration of the beautiful mystery that Christ has come, Christ is here, and Christ is coming again.
I’m a bit of a word nerd, so I like to sink into the meaning of things when I talk about them. “Advent” is the same concept that we get the word “Adventure” from. It’s something new coming. Something expected, but somehow unexpected at the same time. It’s a time of profound change where the old passes away and something different takes its place and nothing can ever be the same afterward. Advent is a time that we eagerly anticipate the coming not of presents and turkey, or even the end of insane busyness, but of Jesus Christ.
Once upon a time, the world was Christless, and it waited with baited breath for the one who would make all things new. Then, like a silent ray of starshine, He was here.
That’s what we celebrate. That’s what we still wait for. The old made new. The broken made whole. The greatest gift the world has been given. He was given when He was least deserved and most needed, and that pattern has been followed in countless lives in the centuries since.
This Christmas season, take some time to ponder what the advent of Jesus Christ means, or could mean, in your own life. Look at the world around you. Look up to the stars. Jesus is coming.
I had another tough question come in from a friend and spent some time turning it over this morning. I figure if he’s asking, the answer might be useful to someone else too, so to you, dear reader, I offer my response as well:
Your question was, “Can you explain ‘He gives and takes away?’ Since God doesn’t punish, what might he take away?”
That’s a heavy question. It hits a lot of people on a very personal level. It’s also not one that I can give a short, pithy answer to. Although I’m not sure I’ve ever given a short, pithy answer to a theological question. They’re usually wrong.
So, rather than give an answer, I’ll share a bit of thought process.
First, there’s an assumption in the question that God doesn’t punish. There are definitely times in the Bible that God does actively punish, although it’s usually on a national level rather than an individual level. There are some times that God does actively give or bless people in scripture. Let’s hold that in an open hand for a minute.
Second, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away,” is from Job 1:21. The context of Job is a drama that teaches Jewish people how to respond to struggle and pain. As Job says this, he’s just had three servants come and tell him that he’s lost everything he owns and his family is dead. Job’s response is to acknowledge that he didn’t come into the world with anything, he won’t leave with anything, and God is sovereign over all. He’s saying, “It wasn’t really mine anyway.” This is true. When he says that God took it away, though, he’s wrong. According to the narrative he’s not aware of (irony), Satan took it away with God’s permission as a test – some sort of celestial bet, although God gives permission. So within the immediate context, the statement, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away,” was wrong, and basing theology off of it is dangerous – as dangerous as basing theology off his friends’ statements that what was happening was his fault and God was punishing him (which was still a very common belief in Jesus’ time).
Third, people want to reduce theology to the simplest possible, most easily digestible form. They want black and white; always and never. What we see in the whole of scripture, though, is “sometimes.” For those who want consistency and certainty, it’s easiest to say “consistently, certainly sometimes.” God is God, and he’s allowed that. What we see is that sometimes God does give. Sometimes God does take away. Most of the time, he lets stuff happen and leaves his justice for later.
So the statement he gives and takes away is accurate. Sort of. Sometimes.
The greater truth is in the heart attitude behind it, though. We remember that God is sovereign. Everything that we have, whether given actively or inherently is from him. I tremendously enjoy the air he gave me to breathe this morning. Someday I’m going to stop breathing it. I go. Everything I have goes. God remains. God is greater than me. God is greater than my stuff. The mini-lesson found in the following verse, what the audience is supposed to get, is that even though Job thinks God is actively responsible (he’s not) is: “In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.”
It’s a statement of peace. It means that whatever our circumstances are, God remains, and we find our worth and being in him. Growing resentful or angry at him for our circumstances is sinful. Worshiping him in the midst of pain is glorifying.
What we should be saying as we echo that statement is that it doesn’t matter who’s fault it is. God is God and God is Good. He doesn’t stop being God in hard times. It’s what Paul echoes in Phillipians 4:11-13 – “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
So maybe it’s God’s fault and maybe it isn’t. Maybe stuff just happened and he didn’t stop it. We still worship, though, because worship isn’t about us and what we have. It’s not transactional. It’s conversational. It’s relational. It’s about who he is and who we are in him.
I hope that answers your question. If not, bug me more. I’m cool with that.
I haven’t been feeling particularly moved to “blog” lately, but if anyone has any honest questions – not “heh-heh what about this” questions with the intent of trying to trip me up, but honest questions seeking answers, head over to the contact page. I’ll be happy to make posts from them and leave your name out of it.
I haven’t written for a while. Excuse me while I ramble for a bit.
Each morning (well, most mornings… sometimes afternoons… sometimes I skip it because I’m busy or lazy or in a mood or whatever), I dig into JD Walt’s Seedbed Daily Text. I highly recommend it as a Biblically rich devotional written by a servant of God with a broad intellectual skillset and the heart of a poet.
We’re in the Gospel of Matthew right now, as John the Baptist cries out, “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is near!” As I process some of my thoughts on his thoughts on God’s thoughts, I’m going to piggyback on some of what he said this morning. I’m just saying that this is mostly me, but he deserves credit (or blame, if you disagree) for the direction and it’s only fair that he get it. If you want to catch up, this particular devo is permalinked here.
Way back in the day (colloquially speaking – it was actually an evening), my youth pastor taught one of many lessons on repentance. This one stuck with me for a number of reasons. First, because it was a time in my life that I was in a weird tension that a lot of Christian teens go through… I had “given my life to Christ,” but had developed excellent compartmentalization skills. I’d given the part of my life that went to church and youth group to Christ, but the part of my life that smoked pot and was committed enough to take the time to download porn on a 28.8k modem and other bad stuff remained firmly separate. The tug of war that ebbs and flows and never seems to quite stop completely was at a high point, and I knew that I needed to “repent.”
I mean, I’d pented at least a few times before, and it obviously hadn’t stuck, so I apparently had to do it again.
Repent is a powerful word. It’s explosive, just in terms of its sound. It gains momentum coming off the lips, pulsing out in a way that leaves an impact. It hangs in the air waiting for a response. Even if you’ve heard it a million times, it sits there, slapping at your conscience, demanding acknowledgement, even it it’s just to turn it away again.
It’s also foreign to our modern language. It’s become the exclusive domain of religiousity, and so, while demanding, its also somewhat amorphous and confusing.
The second reason that his lesson sticks in my memory is that he gave a pithy, one sentence definition of repentance that was easy to grasp. He said that, “Repentance is a 180 degree turn from where you’ve been going,” and had kids demonstrate in an object lesson by walking in a straight line across the room and when he yelled, “Repent!” they’d have to turn around and go back in the other direction. It was a good lesson. It was simple and to the point and something a teenager could understand. And so I repented.
And no matter how many times I did that about-face and turned 180 degrees from where I was going, my course would slowly wander and I’d find myself heading back exactly the way I had been.
Because he was wrong.
And I was wrong when I taught the same thing.
The problem with viewing repentance as a 180 degree turn from the way you were going is that it still focuses on you and the way you were going. It’s like trying to drive by looking in the rearview mirror. It’s appealing to a self-absorbed, self-addicted people because it maintains our self direction – even if we’re directing ourselves by not going somewhere. It’s our direction – anchored by our former direction – dependent on our vision and our conscience and our experience. Our new direction is entirely dependent on our old direction. That doesn’t work well.
The whole idea of trying to navigate by going away from something is just profoundly stupid. And that’s kind of what John is saying.
The good news is that the true point of navigation is near. It’s not ephemeral. It’s not abstract. It’s among us now.
Yes, repentance is a firm re-orientation, but it’s not reorienting away from something, it’s changing direction to move towards something. As long as we’re moving towards it, it doesn’t matter what we’re moving away from. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done. It doesn’t matter what we’re inclined to drift towards. It doesn’t matter what we… what we… what we… what I.
It matters what God.
Repentance isn’t about us. It’s about him. It’s about Emmanuel. It’s about God With Us. JD says it better than I can:
To be clear, behaviors will change but that change will come from a far deeper place than mere compliance with the rules. It will come from the deep wells of our transformed dispositions, affections, desires and from the Holy Spirit inspired dreams of the beautiful, good and powerfully loving lives we were created to live. To repent means to realign our entire lives to become the remarkable kind of people Jesus would be if he were you and me. Repentance does not start with a stinging self examination of our shame-filled selves. No, it begins by beholding the face of God in Jesus Christ, inhaling the Holy Spirit breathed Word of our own beloved-ness and exhaling the breathtaking beauty of the now-appearing-all-things-are-possible Kingdom of Heaven.
That’s probably enough for today. I’m not done thinking about it. It feels important.
Because there’s something in me that needs to be pent. It needs to be contained and constrained and confined because it has its way with me in a way I don’t like and I don’t like myself when it does. I’ve pent it. I’ve repented it. I’ve repented it again. The only way it’s going to stay pent-up is if God does it. To stop moving away and move towards. To stop being defined by it and get a new definition.
So that’s my prayer for me this morning. It’s my prayer for you. That we be defined not by our failing, but by our calling – by the one who succeeded on our behalf. That we be defined not by what we don’t want to be, but by what we were made to be, and the one who made us. That we be moving towards the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.
Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Sometimes my life seems like a constant string of reevaluating opinions and attitudes and stupid things I say. Sometimes they’re things that I’ve been taught and never really thought too hard about. Sometimes they’re things that seem obvious on the surface, but there’s a lot going on underneath that I ignore. Sometimes it’s not that I’m wrong, it’s just that I’m just arrogant and graceless and went too far in what I said.
I’m not sure where this falls on the spectrum, but for the past few days, I’ve been thinking more and more about the Pew Research study (supposedly showing the decline of American Christianity) and the spins that various media outlets are giving it. The popular consensus seems to be the one that Ed Stetzer puts forward: that committed, or “convictional” Christians aren’t going anywhere, while “nominal Christians” (Christians in name only), or Default Christians as I put it in a recent post, aren’t checking the box any more. That’s basically what I said, and I likely wouldn’t have bothered saying it if I’d already known the number of much “larger” names saying the same thing.
In a nutshell, I said that it was a good thing. I said that nominal Christians shouldn’t be called Christians anyway. Then I went another step further to say that there are still a lot of nominal or default Christians in our pews that should basically go home and stop pretending. I said that if they did, then our churches would be more free to follow Jesus. I compared them to the fat of the church. Sometimes I’m an ass.
It’s not that I’m entirely wrong in what I said (I don’t think). Having pews full of marginal and uncommitted people who aren’t willing to commit to following Christ—becoming “real” Christians—does “weigh our churches down” and leave a less effective witness. I’ve been convinced, though, that my attitude towards it is unChristlike.
A big part of that was a reevaluation of Jesus’ “outreach” program, particularly as referenced in Matthew 9:11 —
When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
and, lest there be any confusion about exactly what kind of people these Pharisees meant, Matthew 11:19 —
The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’
Those passages are nothing new to most Christians. I’ve heard them a million times. I’ve quoted them and taught from them. I think about them as I think about the people that to all of the obvious things that we assume people outside of the Church do… those filthy “non-Christians”… the sweaty unchurched. I think about Jesus going into bars and building relationships and teaching them grace. I think of it as an example or a metaphor for us going out into “the world” to “reach people” for Jesus.
The thing is, that’s not what happened.
By simple arrangement of geography and priorities, Jesus rarely, if ever, hung out with the “unchurched.” If we want to look for examples of outreach to the Gentiles, we need to look at Paul and the post-ascension apostles. Jesus, in his own words, came to seek and save the lost sheep of Israel. The tax-collectors, the drunkards, the whores and the sinners, they were Jews. They were people that knew God, born and raised in the synagogues, but lived contradictory lifestyles. They were backsliders. They were the nominals. They were the default Jews.
I don’t know what went on behind closed doors. I don’t know what Jesus looked like at their feasts and parties, and I’m not going to presume to. I do know that Jesus wasn’t rejoicing over them leaving. He certainly wasn’t coming down on them with God’s own thunder for their “sinfulness”. He loved them. He spent time with them. He was Jesus to them.
So much of the time my grace runs out at the door of the church. When I look at nominals as a pastor, especially long-term nominals, I get frustrated. I have a get-in-or-get-out mentality. I want to pour my effort into the people that seem to be “getting it,” and not waste it on the people that don’t. I want them to drop their crap and commit so that I can lead them. I’ll give all sorts of room for non-Christians to be messy. It’s expected. Sinners gonna sin. When it comes to people that have claimed the Savior, though, I have different expectations, and I don’t know what to do when my expectations aren’t met, so most of the time I ignore them. If I don’t ignore them, I want to preach at them so they’ll stop frustrating and embarrassing me.
Because it’s about me. My frustration. My embarrassment on God’s behalf.
Apparently Jesus has a lot more grace for nominals than most of us do. Maybe instead of wanting to clear them out so that the faithful can move forward to reaching the unchurched, we should be “coming to seek and save the lost sheep of Christianity.” Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what that would look like. I do know that it probably looks like something that could get a “good Christian” a bad name or a pastor a reputation for lackadaisical faith.
I know that there are plenty of times that scripture calls out the “lukewarm,” and Jesus calls for extreme commitment, but there’s something else going on too. It’s something I need to learn and explore. I know I’m going to tend to waffle around between extremes, but a pursuit of Christlikeness means continually adjusting my aim. Right now, I feel like God is reminding me of something important.
Jesus, friend of nominals, loves them. I can’t throw them under the bus.
I love being outraged. It’s one of the best feelings in the world. I know that I’m right in feeling that way, because the entire internet agrees with me. If you haven’t tried it, you should. Trust me. Being outraged is all the rage. Anyone can do it. All you have to do is find something in your Facebook feed that one of your friends is offended over and jump on the endorphin train. You don’t even have to read past the headline, just head straight to the comments, fire up the ALL-CAPS and go to town, because—
1. Being Outraged Gives a Wonderful Sense of Community
You’re about to join a team! Everyone loves being on a team, especially if it looks like it’s going to be the winning team. It can even be fun being on a losing team if you get to feel like a misunderstood martyr, though, so you don’t have to be picky. Go with your gut—that way, you know that the other people on your team are like you and you aren’t alone. There’s an epidemic of aloneness in the world, and social media outrage is one of the best ways to fight that. You have something in common. You’re doing things with people, and that’s like having friends! Not only that, but, win or lose, you and your friends are the best people, because—
2. Being Outraged Proves Your Moral Superiority
You’re better than two whole kinds of people! Not only are you better than the idiots that support the thing you’re outraged about, you’re WAY better than the apathetic wretches who let such an outrageous thing slide! If you’re outraged, clearly you have a much more finely tuned sense of right and wrong than they do, and you are amazingly passionate about it. Your all-encompassing outrage means that can feel confident in your superior morality—any insignificant things that might be wrong in your life pale in comparison to this injustice anyway. If you’ve been wondering if you’re a good person, comfortable with your first world problems in your comfortable chair, outrage is your new best friend! Even if nothing else comes of your cause of the week—
3. Being Outraged Lets You Feel Like You’re Doing Something
You’ve done your part by raising awareness of the issue! Really, the biggest problems in the world come because no one knows about them. Sure, you’re not going to be the one to leave the house and physically do something, and you’re probably not going to spend your coffee money fighting it, but if you Like and Share and type enough, someone else probably will, and that’s basically the same thing as doing it yourself. I mean, if someone else does something because you told them about it, you should really get the credit. Who has time to leave the keyboard when there are so many WRONG people that need to be corrected anyway. They don’t know what they’re talking about. You do. And you’re going to make sure they know it, because—
4. Being Outraged Frees You From Challenging Your Preconceptions
You are the proud owner of THE TRUTH! Attacks on THE TRUTH must be crushed with extreme prejudice, and you and your team are going to do it. You don’t have to care what stupid people think; what’s important is that they know they’re wrong. If you’re yelling loud enough, they’ll change their mind. What they have to say isn’t important anyway. You’re far too mad to listen to that drivel. If you start to feel yourself waver, remember that if they were good people, if they were smart people, they’d be on your team. Your team says so. The last thing you want is for your brain to be infected with their inane stupidity. You’re OUTRAGED! And you wouldn’t waste your time being outraged about something that you weren’t certain about. If they’re starting to make sense, go on the attack because—
5. Being Outraged Cuts Off Any Possibility of Real Interaction
You don’t want to deal with ignorant people anyway! Balanced opinions and perspectives are a waste of time. No one listens to those. Going straight to full-on outrage saves you from having to work through the pesky issue for yourself. What’s really important is knowing your talking points. Once you have those, you just have to repeat them over and over again until everyone else capitulates. If there’s no one there to capitulate, even better! You and your team can run through your talking points for practice in case there ever is. Listening to other people say the same things that you already believe is spectacularly comforting. Look how smart and wise and learned you are! If they the other side can’t see that, they’ve just proven your point.
So, as you can see, I’ve conclusively proven beyond any shadow of a doubt that netrage is the best thing ever, and you’re an inbred piece of filth if you don’t think so too! What’s your favorite thing about being outraged on the internet?
*The above post is satire, for crying out loud. I also tagged it as satire in the satire category. I will be outraged if you don’t get that.
Almost a year ago, it was announced at Cornerstone Wesleyan Church that my position, Pastor of Youth and Worship, was being terminated, and I was not being moved into the newly created position of Pastor of Servant Life and Community development. There was some fallout. Not as much as there likely would be if a senior pastor left, but there were a lot of opinions in the ring after the announcement. It wasn’t a surprise to me—it had been an ongoing discussion at the leadership level for quite a while, and I was given plenty of opportunity for input. I was left in an odd position, though. I still loved the church, I had nowhere else to go, and I felt called to write for a while instead of going straight into the brutality of the pastoral search process.
After a bunch of praying and thinking and talking with my wife, we decided (with approval of the leadership) to continue attending Cornerstone. I’m not sure what I would have done if they had said no… it was a bit awkward all-round. I’m not sure anyone in leadership ever considered saying no. They’re awesome, supportive people. If it was me in their place, though, I would have been hesitant and worried about issues of transition and disturbance, and wondering if I could trust me in the background of the congregation. In the end, I’m glad we did. I think I may have grown more in the year of transition, out of “active” ministry, than I did in the three years before.
These are some things that I learned in the transition:
1. There are people more upset about it than you are.
“I can’t believe how the church treated you…” … “It’s just not right…” … “This is ridiculous…” … “What are they thinking?”
As hard as it is to step away from the role you’ve poured yourself into for years, there’s a certain peace in it. Let’s face it, if you’re in a place spiritually and emotionally that you can continue to attend a church after they’ve
fired you not renewed your contract, you’ve probably left on fairly decent terms. There will be people in the church, though—your advocates, your friends, and sometimes people completely unexpected—that will take greater offense than you. One of the biggest challenges you face immediately after the announcement is dealing with people who want to badmouth the church you love, or vent anger you don’t feel, or vote with their feet and leave.* It’s hard, when you are dealing with some measure of hurt, to be put in the awkward position of defending the church that’s terminating you. Even worse, the angriest people—the ones most likely to leave—are your closest friends, and you can be left feeling even more alone attending church without them.
*I want to make it clear that not everyone who left CWC at this point left because of feelings about me. For some it was directional over removing the youth specialty. For others it was the culmination of feelings that had been building for quite a while. I don’t want to misrepresent them as leaving in a fit of pique.
2. There are people less upset about it than you are.
Sure, you expect that there are some people happy to see you go. There are always going to be people that you’ve butted heads with; personally, ministerially, or theologically. Some of them might have even been working behind the scenes to get rid of you. It can be hard to see those people week in and week out, wondering if under their smile and handshake lies smug satisfaction at a job well done. I’m not talking about those people, though. I’m talking about the surprising majority of people who really just don’t care that much. These are the people that you shook hands with and exchanged pleasantries after the service. They gave vague compliments on sermons or services and carried on with their lives. They were fans, but not followers. They were the ones who, as Lenny said in season three, episode 24 of The Simpsons, were “well-wishers in that they don’t wish you any specific harm.” The fact is that in any given congregation, most people are more bonded to each other and the church as a whole than they are to you. And that’s healthy for them and hard on your ego. It may also be the part that hurts the most.
3. You’re less important than you think you are.
When you’re going strong (or weak) in church ministry, it’s easy to take the weight of the world on your shoulders. You fret over every message or song or service or event. You comb through numbers and struggle with what you can do differently to improve them. When things are going well, you rejoice and take credit. When they go pear-shaped, you take the blame on yourself. It’s hard not to, because that’s what everyone around you seems to be saying. You pour yourself to the people you minister to, and you pour yourself into the programs you have responsibility for, because what happens with them is on you. And then it’s not. And life goes on. You watch programs go on with out you, and people keep meeting, and growing, and learning about God without you. And the service doesn’t fall apart without your guidance. You start to wonder why you were even there at all.
4. Letting go is harder than you expect.
When leadership changes hands, whether between two paid pastors, or to a volunteer, things change. It’s inevitable. People have different visions and different skill sets. One of the worst things about staying at a church you used to work at is watching things be done differently. It’s one thing to think about not being in charge anymore, it’s another to have to see the reality of it. Programs you set up are dismantled. People make mistakes that you wouldn’t have. New leaders make decisions that you disagree with, and you can’t stop them. You have to learn all over again how to be a follower—a servant. Continuing to serve as a volunteer in a ministry you used to run means swallowing a lot of pride. It’s hard on the digestive system, but good for the soul.
5. Your legacy is not what you think it is.
When you know a transition is coming, you work hard to make sure you’re leaving things healthy and running as smoothly as possible. You may work on polishing tech and leaving a great setup that will serve the church well. You may work to develop the volunteers you had to carry on after you. You may set up program structures and guidelines designed to keep going well after you’re gone. You may do all those things, and find that they’re turned around in weeks. The things that you thought would endure, don’t. At the same time, though, some of the things that you thought wouldn’t, do. Turns of phrase you used, or little bits of lessons you taught will stay in people’s hearts and on their lips. Moments you spent together turn into foundational building blocks of a growing faith. More than that, though, you see that how you deal with leaving becomes your legacy. People remember your actions more than your words. How you leave may have more of a lasting impact that anything you did before.
It’s easy to give lip-service to the idea that it’s God’s church (or program, or ministry), but seeing the truth of it brings a new perspective. It really isn’t about us. Life really does go on. The biggest thing you learn through it though, the secret #6, is that it’s an opportunity to grow in grace. If you can do it, if you can reign in your pride and learn to serve again—if you can stand to be seen by your people as less than you were before, you can be more. I know that I’ve matured more through this process than I ever thought possible, and the church God gives us to next will be blessed through it. They’ll find a pastor that’s less attached to himself and more attached to them. They’ll find a pastor who knows that being humbled isn’t the worst thing in the world. They’ll find a pastor who knows himself better, and knows better the God whose shoulders everything really rests on. He’ll become more because I’ve become less.
I haven’t posted in a long time. I’m between jobs, but actively working on The Art of Being Broken (finally). I thought I’d post a chunk of the chapter I’m currently working on :).
I read an interesting article a while ago about the daughter of a surgeon in the early 1900s. She was a high school student and a budding entrepreneur. When I was in high school, I tried to have several businesses with my friends. They failed spectacularly, because we were in high school and didn’t understand about having things like business plans and marketing and things people would actually want to buy. This girl didn’t really either, but it didn’t stop her from trying.
The reason that it’s relevant that she was the daughter of a surgeon is that the thing she was trying to sell was a special chemical that her father used to keep his hands from sweating during surgery. The chemical had to be suspended in a red acid, so it could irritate sensitive skin, and could stain or even eat through clothes, but it would stop sweat for three days. I suppose if someone is cutting into someone else with a knife, then not having sweaty hands would be a fair trade off.
This girl, for whatever reason, decided to try sticking some on her arm pits and found that it worked just as well there. She found that she could reduce the irritation by shaving her arm-pits, and it stopped her from smelling in a way that she didn’t want to smell, because she was a little princess and odor was so peasanty or something. All the other girls had to do things like bathe and wear perfume, and now she was better. She figured she could make money making other girls want to be like her. The problem was that no one cared.
Other deodorants and antiperspirants had been around for a little while, but they were greasy and uncomfortable, and no one thought they needed them. Everyone smelled like that. That was the way bodies worked. They thought that blocking perspiration was probably wildly unhealthy too, and no one wanted to take the risk of stopping a natural bodily function. For men, it was even a particular badge of honour, announcing that they were manly men who did manly man work and had sweat-trophies to prove it. A few women bought her product, but not enough to make it worthwhile to sell. Poor girl. It looked like her teenage money making dreams were crushed.
Along came an advertising agency with a bible-salesman turned copywriter assigned to the case. He was brilliant. He started with the idea that people probably didn’t want to stink but were afraid to stop sweating for health reasons. His solution was to brand the product as something created by a doctor to stop the embarrassing medical problem of “excessive perspiration,” which was true in the way that a drunk driver might honestly announce that he’s only had two beers, without mentioning that it was after downing a bottle of whiskey. If a doctor said that sweating too much was a problem, and he’d gone to all the trouble of inventing a cure, then maybe it really was something that women needed!
With the new problem well developed, it was being sold internationally within a year. Of course, because there’s no such thing as enough money, he did a survey to find out why everyone wasn’t using it. It turned out that everyone knew about it, but only about a third of the women surveyed used it. The reason the rest didn’t? Sure, it wasn’t unhealthy any more, but they still didn’t think they needed it. They didn’t perspire excessively. It wasn’t just a matter of telling people there was a remedy for their underarm odor, he had the monumental task of convincing two-thirds of the people on the planet that what their bodies did naturally was a serious embarrassment.
He did it. He ran one of the greatest ad campaigns in the history of the world. It was so good that Satan called him up for lessons. He put out an ad telling women that they probably stunk and no one would tell them and that was the reason they couldn’t get or keep a man and even if they did have a man, their man probably didn’t like it and might leave them for a woman that didn’t stink. Playing on the insecurities of women and shaming them about their bodies was such an effective strategy that sales doubled and tripled and within a few years they were making millions. Women were shaving their armpits and rubbing them with acid and were grateful for it.
A hundred years and a bunch of marketing later, we are all thoroughly convinced that the hair in women’s armpits is disgusting, and that body odor is foul and offensive and needs to be hidden beneath layers of chemicals so that we can be around other people without making them sick.
It was a solution to a problem that didn’t exist, and now it’s so ingrained in our popular imagination that it’s difficult to even begin to conceive of our world without it. The thing that scares me is that it’s not all that uncommon. I remember loving the song Misery by Soul Asylum when I was a teenager. It was the 90’s and it was very cool to be jaded. I was, as you might recall, very interested in being cool, so I listened to alt-rock by people in ripped jeans and lumberjack shirts and rocked out to their jaded lyrics.
In Misery, David Pirner sang the lines, “we could build a factory and make misery/we’ll create a cure; we made the disease,” and a generation of kids went, “yeah,” and grew up to be conspiracy theorists who believe that Big Pharma invents viruses so that they can make money selling the cures (I’m not convinced they’re wrong). At a slightly less sinister level, people in the know look at marketing as not so much about finding people with a need for a product and getting it to them as amplifying or creating a feeling of need for a product that didn’t exist before the product needed to be sold.
We buy security. We buy comfort. We buy convenience. We buy the trappings of lives we aspire to because we’re told we should. We do this because it’s become human nature.
The first sin was a solution to a problem that didn’t exist before the snake sold it. The first mask, the first shell, the first hiding of who we are and what we’ve done, was a solution to a problem that they made up. God had made them. God had loved them into being in his own image. They had walked with God just as naked as they were after eating the fruit, but now they needed to cover up the bodies that God had given them. Now they had shame. Who they were was embarrassing. God couldn’t see them like this. But God knew them. They weren’t really hiding anything. “Who told you that you were naked?” was God’s question. “What made you think that who you are needed to be hidden from me?” He was hurt, but he didn’t love them any less.
That wasn’t how he had left them, but he didn’t walk out of the garden saying “You screwed up. Now I see who you REALLY are. I’m done with you.” He started picking things up again.
I’m not dead. I just thought I should lead with that, because people who see that I haven’t posted in ages might have assumed that I was. I’m not. I’d love to say that I had a good and wonderful reason for not posting, but I don’t. I just haven’t done it. I’d like to say that it’s because I’ve been working on my book, but that’s not really true either, because the book is coming really slowly. It’s coming though. I thought that I’d share a little excerpt from the chapter I’m working on, tentatively called Bent and Broken and Light.
When I was little, my parents took me to the Ice Capades. It was cool. Don’t laugh. The Ice Capades were very cool back then. It wasn’t so much figure skating as cartoon characters coming to life and trying to avoid skating over their own costumes. I honestly can’t remember what sort of Ice Capades they were… Disney or Hanna-Barbara or some sort of generic off-brand, but I remember that there was a big dog, and I enjoyed it.
It was interesting to see what figure skaters do when they don’t want to try to be in the Olympics anymore. I had always wondered about it, and now I knew. They dressed up like giant dogs and slid around the ice for the amusement of 5-year olds, wondering where their lives went, and wondering if it’s too late to learn math. I now assume that was followed by heavy drinking, but I’ve never really looked further into it.
I think I have trouble remembering the details about it, because the whole experience was overshadowed by my father coming back from the concession stand with the BEST TOY EVER. It was a tube. A glorious tube. This little tube was special, because out of one end sprung a myriad of tiny little things. They were like tiny pieces of fishing line, only stiffer. And when you turned it on, the tips of these filaments glowed with all the colours of the rainbow. It was strange and beautiful. The length of them seemed a semi-opaque white, but where they stopped was a prismatic explosion. You could wave it around and the things would bend and waft and the colours would shift and change like magic. My parents likely regretted the decision, since I spent far more of the rest of the evening waving around this $5 toy than watching the ice show they’d paid so much for.
As cool as it was to wave this toy around in the dimly lit recesses of the arena, it was equally disappointing when I pulled it out the next day in our living room. The colours that had seemed so vibrant the night before were muted and dull. There barely seemed to be a difference between on and off, between the line and the light. In the middle of that brightly lit area, my glorious toy became mundane. I trailed it around with me for most of the day, holding on to those moments of remembered amazement. It was when I went down to the basement to watch some cartoons that it started to come to life again. In that darker environment, it began to shine. I had it figured out! For the next couple of days, the downstairs bathroom became one of my favourite places, because it was one of the very few places in our home that, not having a window, could become pitch black. In that absolute darkness, this little toy became one of the most beautiful things I could imagine.
As all toys do, it got used less and less as time went on, moving slowly down through the strata of my toy chest. Newer, fresher toys came. Birthdays and Christmases and visits from family gave me new pieces of shiny to focus my attention on. When it came time to do a clean-out, and take stock of the old toys, the wand was near the bottom. We pulled it out, and many of the filaments had broken off, or become bent, twisted, and kinked. Amazingly enough, the batteries still worked. When I switched it on, there in the depths of my shadowed closet, I was awed again. Every break, every bend, every kink was a new point of rainbow light, sometimes two or three in one strand. It was only at those places, where the line was cut or damaged, that the light that flowed through it became visible, even beautiful.
There’s two things that I’m getting at here. The first is that light is only relevant in relation to darkness. It’s the contrast that makes the light needful and magnificent. A light turned on while there is sun streaming through the windows is irrelevant. A light turned on in the middle of a dark night is blinding, and then a blessing. So it is with us.
The second is that the light that’s inside us shows most beautifully in the areas our lives that are open to the air, that we allow what’s in us to escape freely. The areas that we’re weak, or messed up, or hurting, those are the things that are most radiant.
Anyway, I’m done for now. I just wanted to let everyone know that I’m not dead, just lazy.
I like being right. Have I mentioned that? I’m sure I have… crap. Now I feel like I’ve got to go back and double check… okay, maybe I didn’t, but it was implied. Yes, I did just go back and check my posts. I am indeed THAT anal. Because more than I like being right, I hate being wrong. A big part of my arguing addiction stems from not just proving that I’m right, but proving that I’m not wrong. If I’m wrong, I’m defective. My wit has failed me. I’ve been conned. My house was built on the sand, and who builds their house on the sand?
Because of this, when I get into a debate, I research. I try to make sure I’ve got some sources backing up my opinion. Of course, it would probably be better if I had sources BEFORE I formed my opinion, but that’s another matter. If I have to argue with someone, I aim to win. I’m firm. I am incisive. I elaborate and present my case clearly. I pay attention to the little wavy red lines underneath words. By the time I reply, I know things that I didn’t know when I started and take on the guise of an expert. Of course, if my internet connection is down or Google is having server issues, my apparent IQ drops by at least 40 points.
This is all a roundabout way to get to this: The dictionary drives me nuts.
The dictionary is supposed to be definitive… you know… by definition. The dictionary should be right. It should be a bastion of solid correctness in a flimsy, wishy-washy world. I should be able to refer to it and say: “See? This is what that word means.” Except I can’t. There’s this thing called linguistic shift. It’s why when kids read Shakespeare for the first time they say “aww, how beautiful… Why can’t we talk this way anymore,” or “huh?”. The way we use words, the way we spell words, the way we pronounce words, changes based on our geography and our culture. Their meanings change, sometimes antithetically (see: awful), not based on their roots, but on how people are using them wrong.
Seriously. It’s a case of a million wrongs make a right. If enough people use a word improperly for long enough, the great dictionary wizards shrug their shoulders, say “whatever,” and redefine the word. The other day, I wanted to say something along the lines of gay meaning happy, not homosexual, except that it doesn’t anymore. Sure, it sort of means happy, and the dictionary gives nod to that, but I’m wrong, because the “official” definition of gay now includes sexual overtones. “Irony” has been abused, spat on, beaten, and prostituted so many times that it means pretty much whatever someone wants it to mean in any given sentence. Ironic, isn’t it.
How does that work though? I’m in a position where I teach kids on a weekly basis. I don’t necessarily teach language, but they hear me use it, and they respect me (ha ha ha ha ha) as someone who knows what he’s talking about (snicker). Sometimes I wonder if, week in and week out, I used the word Asparagus instead of Forgive, it would catch on in the youth group. Maybe it would be an inside joke, maybe kids would just accept it. If they accepted it, they’d use it. Maybe someone would correct them. Maybe they’d argue. Maybe if THEY used it enough it would spread. Someday Websters’s dictionary would say 1: a greenish vegetable that looks and tastes like a stick 2: forgiveness. And that would be stupid.
The thing that’s driving me most nuts, though, is that I’m not sure whether I should be railing against the dictionary’s example or following it. Isn’t communication more important than correctness? What does it matter if I’m RIGHT if what I’m saying isn’t being received as I intend it to be? Rather than expecting everyone to conform to my well researched, etymologically correct ideas about what words should mean, shouldn’t I put away my pride and slip into the common language of the time? It’s symptomatic, really… semantics are my refuge; My fortress of superiority. It also makes it easy when I’m losing an argument to redefine success and call it a win.
I don’t know. I do know that I’m all too ready at any given point to draw a line in the sand and refuse to move when everyone else goes and plays on another beach. I need to be able to let go of being right, less concerned with the minutia and move on to the bigger picture. I strain out a gnat and swallow a camel, to use Biblical vernacular that has about as much place in contemporary North America as a thong on a mermaid. We’re made for community. We’re made to grow together, and language reflects that. The bigger picture is that I’m more likely to bring someone around to my point of view by walking through an issue with them rather than picking a spot and screaming at them to come over. The biggest picture is that I should care more about them than I do about being right, or, more to the point, than protecting myself from being wrong.
Bonus points for the people that were driven nuts by all the inappropriate (but culturally acceptable) uses of ellipses*. Please asparagus me.
*Yes, I did have to look up the correct plural of ellipsis.