God Life

‘Let me die trying something new’

My cousin recently posted a quote from my Uncle Steve, who died of cancer in 2001. He was writing to a friend with whom it appears he was discussing the future and the stress of the unknown:

I appreciate the struggle about the future. Just a few thoughts that may give you a sense of how I think about such things. The following Bible verse Proverbs 16:9 tells me I can relax about that and take risks in planning my future: ‘For the mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.’ I think this verse tells me that God gives me the option to plan to do the things I want, and then God interacts with my plans to accomplish his sovereign purpose. For that reason I may never know if my plans are ‘right’ until after the fact. I have principles, not a road map. Walking by faith means not seeing the ‘rightness’ of my plans, but believing that God is guiding it. That enables me to take more risks, try more new things, explore, dream, and pursue the ‘off the course’ course. Because I am increasingly convinced in the gracious purpose of God for me, and that God has given me the ‘go ahead’ to use my faculties to make choices, it helps me relax about the choices…

…Admittedly, not knowing the outcome of my plans can create stress. It takes a great deal of courage to grab the reigns of life and ride off into the wilderness, to live in the chaos of the uncertain. But I would rather live in the stress of uncharted seas in the cause of exploring and living, than in the tepid, stale waters of the charted, programmed life. Let me die trying something new. None of my choices are ever wasted.

– Steven E. Huhta (September 28, 1997)

Wise and encouraging words. I knew Steve only in a limited way since he lived farther away and I was only 14 when he died. I wish I’d known him as an adult.

Books God Politics Religion Review

The Summum Bonum Identity

Someone on the Internet once said something to the effect of: “I’m not a writer; I write.” Writing, for example, is something you do, but it’s not who you are. You might really love writing and consider it integral to your life, but it isn’t your very essence–at least, it shouldn’t be.

I’m re-reading Tim Keller’s The Reason for God. In a section about the social consequences of sin, Keller argues that when societies and individuals cling too strongly to any belief or entity other than God, that ultimately broken belief will become the essence of their identity and will let them down. He quotes Jonathan Edwards’ The Nature of True Virtue, which argues that a human society fragments when anything but God is its highest love: “If our ultimate goal in life is our own individual happiness,” Keller summarizes Edwards, “then we will put our own economic and power interests ahead of those of others. Only if God is our summum bonum, our ultimate good and life center, will we find our heart drawn out not only to people of all families, races, and classes, but to the whole world in general.”

The question then becomes: What is your summum bonum? What is your utmost identity? Our recently endured presidential election season provided ample proof that many people cling so tightly to their political views that it basically becomes who they are instead of merely what they believe. When that happens, civil discourse becomes impossible and anything approaching compromise is deemed impure and even cowardly. Keller sees the problem with this: “If we get our very identity, our sense of worth, from our political position, then politics is not really about politics, it is about us. Through our cause we are getting a self, our worth. That means we must despise and demonize the opposition.”

I think it’s especially easy for religious people to fall into this trap, despite good intentions. It understandably becomes hard not to transfer the ardent passion attached to a deep-seeded belief in God or whomever onto other less divine issues. But as Stephen Colbert said, the road connecting politics and religion runs both ways; if we insist on forcing our religious identity into our politics, our muddied and corrupt politics will come right back into our religion.

Walt Whitman was right: I contain multitudes. I act as a son, brother, friend, significant other; I study, I write, I read, I work, I create… I identify with all of these roles, but any one of them doesn’t define me because I don’t rely on one to give my life meaning. I can argue with people who disagree with my views on politics or music or religion because my views aren’t me. They’re just the tools I use to try to make sense of life. They can be beautiful, inspiring, enraging, or intriguing–but they can’t be everything.

America God Politics Religion

Colbert And The Constitution

I want to highlight this recent interview the real Stephen Colbert did with NPR’s Fresh Air, because he shows yet again how intelligent, empathetic, and savvy is the man behing the blowhard.

You should listen to the entire thing, but one part that stuck out to me was his take on churches who wish to abolish the law that prohibits religious institutions with a tax-exemption from endorsing or opposing political candidates from the pulpit. The real Colbert believes preachers should be allowed to talk politics, but also sees the problem with it:

I think they should be able to do it, but I also think that it’s a very dangerous thing to do — not just for our politics, but it’s also dangerous for the faith of people who are exercising that right. Because they seem to think that it’s a one-way membrane — that they’ll get religion into our politics. But they’re ignoring the fact that politics will come right back through that gate onto our religion…

…And if you actually have a political party that is this religion, or a political party that is that religion, I think that’s a short road to the kind of religious civil war — whether or not it’s actually an armed war — but religious civil war that we fled in Europe. America has avoided that. And I think our politics are so horrible these days. … Why anyone would want that horrible tar on something as fragile as faith is beyond me.”

It’s a common trope among Christian fundamentalists that religion ought to be inserted into their politics out of an obligation to “fight the good fight” or what have you. As someone with a faith background, I understand the impulse but find it completely wrong-headed and even portentous.

To illustrate: You show me a fundamentalist Christian who believes his religious dogma ought to purposefully influence his country’s political policies, and I’ll show you a radical Muslim who believes the same thing. I’ll bet you $1 million from Colbert’s SuperPAC that that Christian would likely have a problem with that. (Though most conservative Christians these days don’t seem to have a problem with Mormons.)

That Christians or any other faith-group would want to see the faith they profess to love so much dragged through the festering mud-swamp that is the American political process in order to prove a point is dismaying and downright depressing. It’s not just your faith you’re messing with; it’s mine and many others’ – the shared property of people who see the Constitutionally-sanctioned separation of church and state as protecting the church, not holding it back.

So by all means, vote as you please based on your religion, values, favorite color, whatever. But don’t come knocking at the gate wanting your religion to be let in, because I don’t want to know what could be on the other side.

Film God Poetry

Wild Strawberries And A Poem

I recently watched Ingmar Bergman’s achingly doleful Wild Strawberries, and one particular part stood out: the poem read by Isak Borg, the lonely old professor, when asked to resolve a lunchtime debate over the existence of God. After some Internet research, I learned the poem is an 1819 Swedish hymn by Josef Olaf Wallin called “Where is the friend I seek everywhere?” – which a helpful blogger translated.

The full hymn is eight stanzas, but here is one English translation of four of them that captures the plaintive yet uplifting tone of the film:

Where is that friend, whom everywhere I seek?
When the day dawns, my longing only grows;
When the day flees, I still cannot find Him
Though my heart burns.

I see his traces, wherever power moves,
a flower blooms, or a leaf bends.
In the breath I draw, the air I breathe
His love is mixed.

I hear his voice, where summer winds whisper,
where groves sing and where rivers roar
I hear it best in my heart speaking,
and me keeping.

O! When so much beauty in every vein
of Creation and life fail,
How beautiful must the source be,
The eternally True!

This poem can’t resolve the debate over God’s existence, but it certainly favors one side. The film focuses on Borg’s struggle to grasp his life’s meaning and the consequences of his callousness more than questions of faith. But with this hymn on his mind, how can the remorseful professor, at the end of his life, not think about What It All Means?

God Religion

You Can’t Argue With Goodness

Like many people, I enjoy This American Life. I only started listening regularly about a year and a half ago. One episode from April 2011 called “Know When To Fold ‘Em” in particular struck a chord with me, specifically the first act, which you can listen to here (or read the transcript). It’s a short story from David Dickerson, adapted from his memoir House of Cards, about the evangelical Christianity he embraced, rejected and came to understand anew through an interaction with his born-again father.

I didn’t relate so much with the author’s life story so much as with his take on religion. Having an anti-religion person seeing it, warts and all, as something that can indeed be a force for good, despite all of the bad press it gets (sometimes rightfully) was an unexpected and encouraging takeaway I got from this story. “You can’t argue with goodness,” Dickerson writes. No matter how hard it’s fought, good wins out.

God Life Music

New Wonders We Will Sing

Sandra McCracken’s In Feast Or Fallow is a true beauty. This collection of old hymns re-imagined is appropriate for any time and any mood, but especially for Easter. The peril and the promise, the despair and the hope, and the pain and the renewal of this holiday – it’s all in the hymns. The good ones tell Christ’s story from birth to death to rebirth, reminding us of our sin but also of God’s amazing grace and the amazing wonder of creation we witness every spring:

Look around, every sparrow, every flower,
All creation sings outloud, of a grand design
You are small, but you are filled with breath and life
If you seek, then you will find
As the Father looks with favor on his child.
“New Wonders” by Sandra McCracken

Let us continue to rejoice in the new wonders of every day, of every breath we get, and of the grand design that Jesus put into action when he rolled away that stone. Glory hallelujah.

God Politics Religion

A Genuine Faith

Rodney Reeves writes on his blog about the “loss by cross” example set by Paul, and how that example is not compatible with American culture. You should read the whole thing, but here’s the kicker:

“Thinking like an American comes naturally to those of us who live in these United States. Thinking like a follower of Christ is far more challenging. In fact, American ideals often trump our Christian convictions, especially when it comes to living the crucified life. How are we supposed to love our enemies when we’ve been taught to kill them? How can I follow Christ, giving up my rights like he did, when I’ve been trained to protect my rights no matter what? Why does loyalty to America take precedent over loyalty to Christ, that pledging allegiance to a flag is nobler than swearing allegiance to a cross? To what extent is our American citizenship more important than our Christian identity? How many Christians act as if patriotism is just as important as the gospel—or even worse, an expression of the gospel?

In several ways, the American way of life is at cross purposes with the crucified life; American politics cannot contain Christian faith. For example, politics makes enemies; Christians love enemies. Americans are taught to preserve national and personal interests at all costs. Paul taught his converts to prefer the interests of others. American consumerism is built on the idea that we should always want more. Paul was content with more or less. In light of these stark contrasts, one cannot help but wonder: if we were to live the crucified life like Paul—losing our identity in Christ—would our neighbors be compelled to accuse us of foolishness for forsaking the American way of life?”

(h/t Jeffrey Overstreet)

God Life Love

Why Wait?: The Adventure Of Marrying Young

Previously published in the North Central Chronicle on April 23, 2010. The PDF version of this article as it originally appeared in the Chronicle is at the end of the story.

Antonia and Brian bought a wedding planning book for $14. But sometime later Antonia’s maid of honor bought them a $4 wedding planning book as a gift.

They returned the $14 book.

Such is the way of things when college students are trying to get married.

Once commonplace, young marriage has now become the exception to the rule of waiting to get married until after college, when couples can achieve financial stability and emotional maturity before diving into a lifetime commitment. Data from the 2000 U.S. Census shows that the average age at first marriage for American women was 26, up from 21.5 in 1970. The average for men also jumped: from 23.5 in 1970 to 27.8 in 2000. Yet many of these Millennials – young adults reared by overprotective Baby Boomer parents in an increasingly “me first” culture – are still choosing to buck the trend of postponing marriage until their late 20s and take the very unselfish step of getting married during their already stressful college years.

So what’s the motivation? Most young people today don’t expect to get married during college, so the desire to get hitched and to hell with the statistics goes beyond finances or merely settling down earlier than usual. According to four students from North Central College in Naperville, Ill. – all at different points of the engagement-wedding-marriage path – it’s about what feels right.

Brian, a junior engaged to Antonia (Tone), a senior, said he didn’t expect to get married until after college. “But then Tone happened,” he said.

The thought of getting married didn’t weird to him at all. “I just couldn’t imagine being with anyone else. Why wait until later when I could just do it now?”

Angie, a junior married for seven months, felt the same way when she got engaged during her freshman year. “Ryan and I knew we were going to get married,” she said, “but I always thought we would have a longer engagement. Even right when we got engaged, the initial date of the wedding was after I was graduated from college. That lasted about two weeks. We thought, logistically, why wait?”

Aileen, also a junior, expected to follow the common path toward marriage. “I thought I was going to be mid-to-late 20s, established with whatever I was doing. I never thought I was going to get married young.” But she found herself engaged at 18 to a man 12 years older than her. The age difference, though, was never an issue. “We just wanted to get married. It was a natural thing, no questioning it or anything.”

Marriage to these college students was not something they took on with the same assumptions and concerns their parents had before getting married a generation ago. They’re getting married because they want to – and because they can do it relatively easily with the safety net their parents provide. This doesn’t mean they think a lifelong marriage will be easy; it simply shows that true love and its aroma were too great for them to ignore.

“I think that for us you can’t take faith out of the equation because we knew that God wanted us to be together,” Antonia said. “Obviously we were a little apprehensive as to when, but after praying and being with each other, we know we want to do this after I graduate.”

Angie echoed the reliance on faith. “It definitely played a part in our relationship from the start,” she said. “I think because of the faith we share, as a couple we were years beyond most couples at our age. Maturity-wise I think we grew up a lot. It really grounded us in the things that really matter.”

But getting engaged, it seems, is the simplest part of the whole ordeal. The reaction from friends and family is where the sparks start to fly.

Angie’s parents had also married young, so the news to them was surprising but still exciting. They did, however, want to make sure she didn’t drop out of school. “That was a priority because they knew it was important to me and they didn’t want me to lose sight of that,” Angie said. The reaction from her classmates was considerably more mixed. Getting engaged as a freshman was unusual, making her nervous about what people would think. “Most people were nice about it,” she said. “But I did get some pretty rude responses. I had one student walk up to me and say, ‘So are you engaged?’ I said, yeah, I am. I was kind of nervous to tell him. But he was like, ‘Wow. Why? Are you serious? Why would you do that?’ And it just killed me.”

Aileen encountered similar apprehension. “My parents were a little apprehensive about it, only because I am young,” she said. “Other than that, the response was pretty nice. Everyone was excited.” Yet the age difference was always an issue, though not to her. “With the connection we had I never really though it necessary to care about that. My mom was OK with it because my grandparents were 11 years apart, so she was like, ‘Hell, what’s another two years? It really doesn’t matter.’”

Brian and Antonia received a lot of support, making them wonder about people’s true feelings about their engagement. “To be honest I wish we’d had more skepticism,” Brian said. “Everyone was just like, ‘Oh, awesome!’ and were super supportive. I would have appreciated more honesty because not everyone would have felt that way. I was shocked at how much support we got.”

Antonia said she’s gotten more pushback, almost a year after the engagement, from an unlikely source: her professors. “I’ve heard, ‘You’re going to be married forever. Do you know what you’re doing to yourself?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I realize that. That’s why we’re getting married.’”

Those voices of doubt were not unreasonable. Statistics on the fate of young marriages tell a dreary tale: the New York Times reported on studies that show teenage marriages today are two to three times more likely to end in divorce than marriages between people 25 years of age and older. Another study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 48 percent of those who marry before 18 are “likely to divorce within 10 years, compared with 24 percent of those who marry after age 25.”

Knowing the odds against young marriages turning out successfully yet still diving in anyway shows a confidence in the institution of marriage and in each other these young betrothed have that previous generations did not. These students were worried for other reasons, like how to pay for a wedding and start a life together without having yet established a career. “Weddings are expensive,” Aileen said. “Plus, I have to pay my own way through college – that’s all on my shoulders. Financial stability is going to be an issue for both of us, but I really never think of problems. If they come up, they come up.”

Angie was less worried about the money than her fate as a college student. In the months leading up to the wedding, she worried she would become disconnected from school and have to drop all the things she loved doing. “ButRyan and I sat down and talked about it andwe decided that if I wasn’t doing all these things that I’m doing, I wouldn’t be myself,” she said. “I wouldn’t be the woman that he married.” Still, she did wonder. “‘Should we wait? Maybe we should have held off for another two years. Is it really that big of a deal?’ I definitely had those questions.”

Even with the doubts swirling, they still need to plan a wedding. How do they do it as full-time students with jobs and class and extra-curriculars filling their days?

“It got really stressful,” Angie said. She was getting married a month and fifteen days after classes ended, but was also the female lead in the school’s production of Romeo and Juliet. “I just didn’t have time to focus on the wedding. I didn’t even touch my invitations; I picked them out and my parents did it all for me. They were saints.”

But is the marriage worth it? Is getting married before you’re even allowed to rent a car worth the late nights and doubting loved ones and the chance you’ll end up another divorce statistic?

Angie was unequivocal. “The last seven months have proved all my worries false,” she said. “Since we’ve been married I’ve never questioned it. We definitely made the right decision.”

Click here for a PDF of this story as it originally appeared in the Campus section of the North Central Chronicle.

God Life Religion

The Warmth Of The Snow

Living in a warm climate during the Christmas season is good and bad. On one hand, you can walk around in shorts and a t-shirt while your northern friends brave harsh winds and icy roads just to get to their mailbox. But on the other hand, it’s just not Christmas without the cold.

As a lifelong Midwesterner, I love the traditions of Christmas. My family has many of the well-known Hallmark moments of the holidays. My house and halls were always decked with green and ruby red Christmas lights and decorations. I always cut down the balsam fir evergreen with my family at a local tree farm and dragged it through the snow to the car, strapping it to the hood and bringing it home to bedazzle with ornaments new and old. We always – always – watch It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve with the fireplace roaring and the popcorn popping. And, yes, I even love the Midwestern cold that suffuses all of these things.

But like the winter cold, these things happen every year, no matter what. When we vacationed in Florida over Christmas one year, we knew we wouldn’t have the cold or the tree, but we still brought our copy of It’s a Wonderful Life to keep tradition alive. And that’s what Christmas is often about: keeping tradition alive in spite of the circumstances.

In The Pursuit of God, A.W. Tozer uses the Exodus story to illustrate the idea of holiness and tradition, which are two concepts at the very center of Christmas. Tozer explains how the Israelites, having lived for four hundred years in Egypt surrounded by all kinds of idolatry, had forgotten the very idea of God’s holiness. To correct this, Tozer writes, “God began at the bottom. He localized Himself in the cloud and fire and later when the tabernacle had been built He dwelt between holy and unholy. There were holy days, holy vessels, holy garments. By these means Israel learned that God is holy.”

‘God is holy.’ That is the simple thought that permeates the Advent season. And so when I decorate my evergreen tree and listen to ancient hymns in church and watch a movie with my family and walk through the falling snow, I know that it is not these things in and of themselves that remind me of the reason for the season; it’s the warmth of God’s holiness.

“Let us believe,” Tozer concludes, “that God is in all our simple deeds and learn to find Him there.” Our traditions, like the Israelites’ cloud and fire, are best when they reveal God at His simplest and at His holiest.

God Religion

A Summer Camp Counselor’s Guide To Good Character

Originally published in the North Central Chronicle on October 10, 2008.

This summer I worked at a Bible camp for the third straight year. (Don’t worry, we didn’t praise a likeness of George W. Bush like those crazies did in Jesus Camp did.) The theme for the summer was character. We studied the Book of James because each of its five chapters gives clear and direct advice on how to live a life with Christ-like character. I realized that even though Scripture is instruction for Christians, its lessons apply to everyone. The character qualities James lays out, if followed, make Christian teachings relevant to every person, religious or not.

Here are a few things I learned this summer that inform my character and broaden my understanding and appreciation of Jesus and of Christianity. It’s Spark Notes, Jesus-style.

Don’t play favorites. It’s what James, the brother of Jesus, calls the “Royal Law”: love your neighbor as yourself. The Law hammered in the importance of hospitality and loving your neighbors, but James, following Jesus’ lead, extended it further: you should love not only the neighbors you like or those who are well-off, but those who might not deserve love or get it very often.

This lesson relates directly to the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus, after telling the story, points out the contradiction of the two religious men who passed by the mugging victim on the road; he says they really didn’t love God if they didn’t help that man in need. The Good Samaritan, however, stopped and helped the man, quite possibly saving his life. This Samaritan, who to the Israelites back then would have been viewed as a second-class citizen, did right by God because he loved his neighbor even though he was considered an enemy. He didn’t play favorites.

The easiest place to play favorites is at home with family. Sibling rivalries and family turmoil can create the deepest divisions between people, but learning to love even the most self-centered or immature family member just as much as the others is the best way to live by the Royal Law.

Watch your mouth. “The tongue is a small part of the body,” writes James, “but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.” Working with kids reveals just how true this is. In a heated moment, words can fly out uncontrollably and cause all sorts of lasting damage.

But James insists that you can’t build a person up with your words one day and then tear him down the next: “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing,” he writes. “This should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?” If you allow yourself the selfish indulgence of cursing someone out or spreading malicious gossip, you’ve already lost the battle.

Holding your tongue is not easy, but it is simple. When you come upon a situation that inspires in you a creative comeback or pointed slur, don’t say it. Just don’t. Stop, think, then don’t say a word. You may think the other person deserves what was coming to them, but chances are they don’t. If you forgive them and let it go, you win.

Be humble. James quotes a proverb when he writes: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Believing in God isn’t essential when it comes to humility. Sooner or later those who let pride be their guide will meet crash and burn, sometimes painfully. That’s why I love humility. It forces you to acknowledge that sometimes you can’t do things on your own, that you need to come to a place of spiritual, emotional, or physical brokenness before you can build yourself up again even better than before.

Humility is not putting yourself below others; it’s putting others above yourself. Jesus did this well. It’s a little harder, though, for the rest of us to get right. We all kind of suck at it, so there’s always room for improvement. Families are, again, a perfect practice field for this. Be willing to be a humble servant when you visit home: do chores without being asked or give a little sibling a ride somewhere without grumbling. It can be painful sometimes to elevate others above our own swollen egos, but doing so will be rewarding for you and appreciated by others.

Be patient. Along with humility, patience can be the hardest thing to learn and do well. But it is so very important to be patient. James explains: “See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm.” James equates patience with standing firm, enduring hardship for the promise of something good.

In the original Greek, to “stand firm” is sterizo kardia, or “strengthen the heart.” So by persevering through the most obnoxious, maddening, kill-me-now-God moments, you are strengthening your heart and your resolve, allowing yourself more patience for the next time you need it.

I learned this first-hand every day at camp. Answering the same obvious question for the seventeenth time can wear on your very being, but by having patience and being kind in each response, I was strengthening my heart and modeling what good patience looks like. Sometimes I wasn’t very patient and wanted to wring the kids’ necks, but I got better. And that’s all it takes-the willingness to get better.

Let’s be real: this all sounds great, but we’re not saints. It would be much easier to not do these things, honestly. But I challenge you to challenge yourself, to check if your words and your actions are right. Not correct, but right. That’s the kind of reality check we all need.