Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Years ago, probably while I was still at the University-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named, I heard a sermon on Psalm 73 that stuck with me.

I have no idea who it was that spoke on the Psalm, nor do I remember what he even said about the Psalm. Right, you say. Sounds like that sermon really stuck with you. Must have been doodling in church. What stuck with me, though, was this: this Psalm is crucial to living "as strangers and pilgrims on the earth" - in other words, to knowing what in this life is worthwhile and what is not.

What is Not Worthwhile

Psalm 73 opens with an extended descriptions of what comfortable lives unbelievers live:
They are not in trouble as other men.
Nor are they plagued like other men.
Therefore pride serves as their necklace;
Violence covers them like a garment.
They have more than heart could wish.
I want to leave behind the question of violence and pride (the connection between a good hand in life and religion is one for another blog post) and focus on what I think the most basic principle in this passage is.  According to this Psalm, there will always be unbelievers who live happy, comfortable lives, who have "more than heart could wish" - money, a satisfying job, a partner and children, a good home, the "American dream". It is this fulfillment that most of us, in some way, want.

Psalm 73 follows this up, several passages down, with a conclusion about these unbelievers. The Psalmist tells God,
Surely You set them [the wealthy unbelievers] in slippery places;
You cast them down to destruction.
Oh, how they are brought to desolation, as in a moment!
They are utterly consumed with terrors.
I always assumed this passage described a sudden, definitive event: the wealthy person wakes up one fine morning, wealthy as ever, then "in one hour such great riches came to nothing."

I think there's more to this passage than a sudden overturn, though. Just a few verses previously, the Psalmist has assured us that these unbelievers "are not in trouble as other men" - in other words, no outward sign warns against pending doom. Nothing is there to suggest that these people are about to be "brought to desolation," yet they have already been set "in slippery places". I suggest, therefore, that the very prosperity they currently enjoy is their destruction. Their downfall does not just end a period of prosperity. Their very prosperity is a catalyst for this downfall.

An Example

Consider, as an example, the rising rates of extended singleness in the Western world. A day or two ago, I read an article in Atlantic magazine called "All the Single Ladies." (Incidentally, my students introduced me to this one. I printed it out and saved it for future generations of students.) Though Kate Bolick supports singleness as a healthy, viable lifestyle, she also acknowledges that not marrying was not the plan for most singles. She writes, "That we [herself and her college friends] would marry, and that there would always be men we wanted to marry, we took on faith." Turns out, that was one huge and unjustified step of faith.

Later, she describes the moment of disillusionment, using the metaphor of a cocktail party: We're "finally ready to start our lives," she says, "only to discover a cavernous room at the tail end of a party, most of the men gone already, some having never shown up--and those who remain are leering by the cheese table, or are, you know, the ones you don't want to go out with." Her plan for a "prosperous lifestyle" - husband, kids, career - didn't happen.

Okay, so being single is not the end of the world (I'm single, so I should know); I applaud Bolick's attempt to legitimize the single life as a healthy, adjusted one. My point is this: Bolick's plans, and the plans of so many more women like her, fell through when they suddenly realized that they'd missed out on marriage. Life was not going to give them what they wanted from it. All those well-arranged plans for family and career were, albeit on a very small scale, "suddenly brought to destruction."

I think the reason that Bolick gives for this mini-destruction is illuminating. Bolick, noting that her generation has much more power than her mother's to make their own decisions, reflects that she "could [not] have predicted what happens when you multiply that sense of agency by an entire generation." What Bolick is saying is this: the independence from social norms that men and women gained in the second half of the twentieth century is (if you simplify history) the cause of extended singleness today. Give men the option of whether or not they want to marry, some of them will choose not to, and Voila! fewer married women. What is happening here is exactly what Psalm 73 predicts: some of the very things that make life more comfortable, such as greater independence, ultimately destroy us.

I don't think the Bible's solution is not to make life comfortable at all. Nowhere does the Bible ever outlaw wealth or require a vow of poverty, though I understand now why the monks took that vow. In fact, in some places (such as Ecclesiastes and some of the Parables), money comes out as a positive blessing. To use my example, much of the independence achieved in the last fifty years of Western society is not exactly bad and in fact is probably biblical (that would be another blog post). Comfort is not a bad thing. But the fact remains: That which is intended to bring us comfort in this world ultimately betrays us.

The Solution

Providentially, Psalm 73 answers this question of what to do with life comforts, given that these very comforts are a catalyst for destruction. The Psalmist concludes,
Whom have I in heaven but You?
And there is none upon earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart fail;
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Here, the Psalmist acknowledges the connection between the comforts of life and his own eventual downfall. That his "flesh and [his] heart fail" is only the most obvious example of this principle: The very fact that the heart is beating by time, that the flesh sloughs off dead skin cells and replenishes them day-by-day predict that the very things which keep us alive right now are going to be the things that kills us in 50 years or so (think of people who die of a heart attack: the organ that kept them alive for so long is the organ that gets them in the end). In just this way, the comforts normal to a physical life will eventually be exactly the thing that destroys our plans for life in a year, or two years, or ten.

Having acknowledged this problem, the Psalmist finally provides a solution: "God," he writes, "is the strength of [his] heart and [his] portion forever." Long after our "portion" of physical goods are gone, God will be there. Long after the heart stops beating, God will still be there.

Apply this to modern-day life: Long after our independence has wrecked our marriage potential, God will still be our companion. Long after our wealth has vanished in the recession, God will still be providing for us.

It is well and good to enjoy the physical things of this life: a friend, a marriage, a satisfying job, good food and money. It is equally important not to let these physical things define life, because then life will only be defined by the eventual, inevitable destruction.

I must learn to say with the Psalmist, "Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides you."

Or with C.S. Lewis:
The world is so built that, to help us desert our own satisfactions, they desert us. War and trouble and finally old age take from us one by one all those things that the natural Self hoped for at its setting out."

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

As of today, there is only one month left until the end of the semester. Every day that passes marks another step my students take towards getting their final project done. My Introduction to English class is stuck somewhere in between the "More Research!" stage and the "State your Thesis" stage. Right now, they're trying to figure out what they believe and why about a particular topic. For a significant percentage of that group, the topic they are addressing is online dating: Is it okay for a believer to "do" online dating or not?

I assigned the topic in a fit of inspiration after my English teacher mother visited last week. Although I know that online dating has a host of problems, I see nothing inherently wrong with it, provided that the user exercises caution. I reckoned that a group of students who can't remember not having a family computer in the home would weigh in in support of online dating, or at least acknowledge its potential. I reckoned wrong.

A Story

As I've talked to my students about their topic, student after student has told me that they are completely against online dating. Generously they acknowledge that, sure, online dating sites help daters meet more people, but in the next breath, they mention a concern that has plagued Christian evangelicals since Josh Harris published his first book. Christians, my students murmur, should not try to tip God's hand by poking around on online dating sites. They should wait on God, hope He'll bring them a spouse in the normal way in the normal amount of time.

Problem is, these students are all about 18 years old - just now old enough to even consider marriage. Most of them won't even want to get married for another couple years. Admirable as their opinions are, they are necessarily uninformed, thanks to the students' age. I am more than 8 years older than most of my students. My younger sister, as I expected all my life, married long before I did. I once heard "extended singleness" described as being single "one day past when your younger sister gets married," so I guess that makes me not only a single woman but also someone who is an extended single woman.

As long as I don't have to exchange all my short-leg jeans for long-leg ones, I'll be okay with being an extended single woman.

Okay, bad joke over. I don't want to convey disapproval of my students' opinion against online dating. I approve wholeheartedly that my students have an opinion, and I'm thrilled to see the stress they put on pleasing God in their relationships. All I really want to convey is the shock of realizing how a few years and a little experience changes you.

See, eight years ago I was in my students' shoes. I was up to my eyebrows in both the Josh Harris books, and I'd never had a boyfriend or really even a crush. I probably would have weighed in against online dating, just like my students do now.

Then, a girl I knew (she worked with me at AWANA) married someone she found on an online dating website. Another girl I knew at Bob Jones asked her future husband out for the first couple dates. I got my first real crush. A couple years later, I went out for coffee with a guy. Another close friend met a guy on an online dating website. A lot of what I held to so fervently as a college freshmen went out the window.

Don't panic. I've not become a '60s hippie who advocates free love. I don't really want to discuss how, specifically, I've changed my views in these areas (maybe in a later post). For right now, I'm just fascinated: Hearing my students express their concern about online dating shows me how much I've changed in the last eight years, and how much I'll probably change in the next eight.

An Interpretation

In the Bible, young people are pointed to the older ones for wisdom for a reason. All that life experience accumulated over 50 or 60 years counts for something. However, if you stack that experience against the 110 years of Joshua, the 800 years of Adam, or the 900+ years of Methuselah, and suddenly "the wisdom of old men" becomes foolishness. Stack it against the eternity of God, and even the great wisdom of Methuselah is nothing.

Listening to my students talk about their papers has taught me how much I've changed. It's taught me to appreciate the wisdom as one of the "gifts reserved for age", hard-won over many years.

Most of all, though, my students have taught me this: Every single one of our human beliefs is just as limited as my students' considered opinion against online dating, limited by our narrow human experience and narrow philosophy.

Perhaps this is why T.S. Eliot begs,

           Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility; humility is endless (East Coker).

It's not worth it to not have an opinion. Most of us will always have opinions, no matter how stupid they are.

Even as we voice and support these opinions, though, we should have humility enough to remember that we belong to God, that it is His wisdom that matters, and not ours.

My students taught me all that.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

I think I'll call this post "I Can Do Pronouns." Or maybe "Teaching Moments." You'll see why in a few paragraphs.

As a student, I found that the closer I got to the end of the semester, the more everything reminded me of the papers I was writing. If I were writing a paper on Underworld, say, every movie I watched, every conversation I had, every sermon I listened to reminded me of that paper. I could even tell you exactly how the subject of our conversation tied back to my paper. In my thesis, the main reason I quoted Aquinas was because when my Literary Theory class read Summa Theologica in the middle of my thesis-writing, Aquinas reminded me of the thesis.

A few days ago, this characteristic of mine popped right back up, this time from a teacher's perspective.

Intro to English class has been all about pronouns. Turns out, pronouns are one of the most confusing parts of speech to learn. Poor students. Asked to define these words, they suggest that a pronoun is 'a proper noun' or that an antecedent is, in fact, a word like 'he', 'she', or 'it.'

No, I said. An antecedent is a noun. A pronoun replaces that noun - a word like 'he', 'she', or 'it. Keep this straight. They mixed up the words anyway.

So, because this is my teaching philosophy, I took responsibility for my students' learning. They've never had English before, I told myself. Grammar is hard for the best of us to keep track of. So I reduced the terms to a simple form (sort of like finding the least common denominator, but for English) and in some cases I matched these definitions to songs. For pronouns, the song was called "I Can Do Pronouns" (yes, I know, creative name) and set to the tune of "Do Lord." That song gets stuck in my head. And after hours of helping students find pronouns and antecedents and correct pronoun errors, pronouns got stuck in my head too.

Pronouns, antecedents and "I Can Do Pronouns" were still stuck in my head when I went to Bible study; I hummed the song when I hopped in my car and drove off. I stopped humming (fortunately) when I picked up a couple students, whom I'll call Joy and Anne. Anne was enrolled in my Intro to English class and learning about pronouns and antecedents right along with me.

I didn't give pronouns or antecedents much thought during Bible study, or even on the way back from Bible study. I was deep in conversation with Joy, deep enough to pay little attention to whether my language met the guidelines laid out in The Little Seagull Handbook. And then I gaffed: I said "this people" - as in, many people (not a people group) but a singular pronoun (this). For you non-grammar folks, that error is like saying "this mountains" or "this books" or "this jokes". It's an error in pronoun number agreement, and it's wrong. Unless you're still learning English, you can hear it's wrong.

Immediately I thought of Anne, who was still learning about agreement in number among pronouns. Like the other students, she was also still confused. So I pointed out my error to her, named it as an error with agreement in number, and corrected it for her. I treated the three of us to a mini-lecture in pronouns, in the space between stoplights at 9:00 PM on a Wednesday night.

Oh, dear. I am becoming a teacher (Joy actually told me this, by the way, minutes after I'd lectured her about agreement in number for pronouns). Before you know it, I'll be telling everyone why Milton is relevant to 21st century Christianity.

Wait. I do that already.