Thursday, December 19, 2013

Only You Can Prevent Identity Theft!

So, are you worried about the security breach at Target?

Me, I bought something with my credit card on December 15, the last day that cards were said to be vulnerable. So far, I haven't noticed any fraudulent activity, but I'll keep checking regularly for several weeks.

If anything, the news about Target underscores how vulnerable all of us are to identity theft. I found this out the hard way last spring, and in light of the Target news, I want to share with you what I learned about protecting yourself from identity theft.

My hope is that this post is very practical, very useful. Therefore, I strongly encourage you to read it, or at least skim it, and then bookmark it, in case you ever need to go back and access the information that I have included in here. Email me if you have questions.

My story:

On the last day of February in 2013, I got a call from an unknown number. When I answered the phone, the man on the other end introduced himself as a staff member with a collection agency on the East Coast. He was calling about payment on a credit card that I had taken out nearly a year ago, late in May 2012. More than $700 was owed on the card. 

Problem was, I never took out the card. 

Trying to figure out what was going on, I asked a few more questions about the card: What were the last four digits? What address was it associated with? What information did they have on me? and I listened as he read out, correctly, my full name, my date of birth, and my social security number. 

At that point, I thanked him, hung up, and called my father at work. "I think my identity's been stolen," I said. 

It was nearly four months, mid-June, before I learned that the banks and credit reporting agencies had recognized the card as fraudulent. During those months I spent hours (sometimes entire days, especially over Spring Break) on the phone with various financial organizations. I spent hundreds of dollars on postage, sending in whatever official documents I could use to prove that the card was, in fact, fraudulent, that I wasn't trying to weasel out of paying a $700 balance. I closed and re-opened all my banking accounts, sometimes twice. 

Yet some time during those four months, something odd happened: I called my father for advice one day and discovered that he was asking me for advice about protecting himself from identity theft. Somewhere during all the phone calls, all the paperwork, all the Internet research, I became the family expert on protecting yourself from identity theft. 

In fact, thanks to the stress of those four months, I've become somewhat of an evangelist on protecting your personal information. I will tell you if I think the information you're posting on Facebook is too personal, and I reminded the school where I work to take students' Social Security numbers off paperwork whenever possible. And, I'm writing this blog post: Here's how to protect yourself from identity theft, and what to do if happens anyway. 

Protect Yourself: Take Precautions, Especially online.

Various people worried about Target's security breach are recommending a move back to cash and checks. It's not a bad idea, especially the cash part. Yet with an increasing array of online purchasing and banking options, it's not feasible to stay cash-only, all the time. Here are some ways to protect yourself.

Obviously, be very, very careful about your Social Security number. Don't carry it around in your purse. Don't take it on trips. Lock it up somewhere. When you give it out to someone, make sure that person has an actual need for the number and may already have the number (most banks, credit bureaus, and employers fall into this category.) When I traveled to Argentina this summer, I had to fill out a health form. At the top of the health form was a place for my SSN. There was absolutely no need for my SSN on that form: No one traveling with me needed access to my credit report, nor did they need to hire me for any reason. Ultimately, I chose to simply leave that space on the form blank.

Online,  don't use the Internet Explorer browser. Right now I'm using Chrome, but Firefox is safer still. Download this and use it regularly and exclusively.

Set your browser to delete cookies whenever it's closed, then close your browser regularly. Cookies stored on your computer can be used to enable a phishing scam and steal passwords. You can Google how to delete cookies.

Be aware of any website that looks as though it may have been tampered with - for instance, a new home page, or something missing on one of the pages. Such minor changes can signal a phishing scam. If you suspect phishing, place a call to the owner of website immediately and ask.

Choose your passwords carefully, and don't use the same password for more than one site. If you're like me, meaningless strings of numbers and letters are difficult to remember, so follow this trick: Write a relevant sentence about what you use the website for, then choose the first letter from the sentence. So for instance, your iTunes password might be based on this sentence: The only Christian artist I like is Michael Card. That means my password would be this: T o C a I l i M C. You can then add relevant numbers to the set of letters, to make the password even more difficult to guess.

Protect Yourself: Checking Your Credit Report

Most of you probably know this, but your credit report is a list, provided by the three major credit bureaus (Transunion, Experian, and Equifax), of all credit accounts you've ever opened: any credit cards, any mortgages, any loans. Your credit report also keeps track of your public records, such as any payments made to collection agencies, and of organizations that have checked your credit score. 

That means, if someone has been using your credit fraudulently, their activity will show up on your report. The first thing I did when I discovered my identity theft was order my credit report, and sure enough, there was the bad card, its $700 charge heading my accounts. The credit report confirmed the theft gave me the information needed to clear my name. 

Each credit bureau (Transunion, Experian, and Equifax) are required by law to supply you with a free copy of your credit report once a year. (You have to pay extra for the credit score.) The only place you should order a copy of your credit report from is this website: annualcreditreport.com. This website is the one recommended by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the government branch that deals with identity theft. Pro tip: When you access the website, be sure you're on a computer connected to a printer. You will download PDFs of your credit report and print them out, and while it's possible for you to save them, it's easier to simply print everything right then.

When you get your credit report, look it over carefully for accounts that you haven't opened. If you find nothing, then Congratulations! Your identity has not been stolen. If you do, well . . . you might want to read the section below on cleaning up after identity theft. 

Protect Yourself: Credit Monitoring Service

If you're particularly worried, consider signing up for a credit-monitoring service. For a fee, such a service provides you with regular access to your credit report, maybe once a month, maybe unlimited. You can Google 'Credit Monitoring Service' to get an idea for what services are out there, as well as read consumer reviews on the various services. 

Of course, checking your credit report is like checking to see whether your front door is closed when you come home from a trip: good to know, but not actually effective in preventing identity theft. Thankfully, there are ways to "lock your door" when it comes to your credit. 

Protect Yourself: Fraud Alerts, Freezing Your Credit

Usually, you will only add a fraud alert to your credit report, or freeze your credit, after you've been the victim of identity theft. However, for a fee you can do both without having ever had your identity stolen, just as a protective measure. 

A fraud alert is like a little flag on your report, which should prompt the credit bureaus and lending agencies to contact you before opening new credit in your name. A freeze prevents agencies which have never had access to your credit score before (for instance, a bank issuing a new credit card, or a bank starting up a mortgage with someone who claims to be you) from gaining access to your credit agency. Neither is completely foolproof; like a lock, they can be picked, but you're safer with them than without them. 

To put a fraud alert on your credit file, you contact each of the three credit bureaus in turn. To freeze your credit, you contact your state attorney's office first and ask whether there is a fee to freeze your credit. Then you contact the three credit bureaus (Protecting your identity, and cleaning up after it, means you spend a lot of time on the phone with our friends, Experian, Equifax, and Transunion.) The FTC has further directions here.

Cleaning Up Identity Theft: Immediate Steps

If you discover identity theft, here are the first things to do:

  • Contact all three credit bureaus and place a fraud alert on your accounts. The first fraud alert is good for 90 days; after that, you can get one for 7 years. 
  • If you haven't done so already, order an official copy of your credit report. If you are getting a copy through a credit monitoring agency, you'll want to actually contact the bureaus, or go to annualcreditreport.com, and get the real thing. While the monitoring agency report should be accurate, you'll be using your credit report to prove that the fraud occurred, so it needs to be as official as possible. 
  • Contact the police and FTC to report the identity theft (more on this below).
If the fraudulent account is still open, contact the moneylenders to get it closed as soon as possible. If it's closed (mine was closed due to non-payment of the bill), you will still need to contact the business. More on this below, in the section on contacting credit bureaus and businesses.

You will also want to keep a journal of sorts, a day-to-day record of whatever progress you make towards cleaning up identity theft.

The FTC lists these three steps, along with other helpful information, here.

Cleaning Up Identity Theft: The Police Report

When my identity was stolen, I filed a police report as a matter of course. It was just one of many things listed on the FTC's "To Do" list, so I ticked it off, and didn't think anything more of it. Turns out, the police report is incredibly important. It's like your passport into the world of "identity theft victim": This is what you'll use to prove, over and over again, that you are in fact the victim of identity theft.  Credit bureaus will ask for it, and the lending agency implicated in the fraud (as in, the agency responsible for the bad card, the bad loan, the bad mortgage, whatever) will ask for it. 

To make my police report, I simply called the local police department, and I set up a time that an officer could come over to my house and take the report (As I remember, it was snowing, and it was easier and safer for the officer to come to my apartment, than for me to go downtown.) You could, however, simply show up in person and make the report. Whichever you choose, it is critical that you get a copy of the police report.

Clearing Up Identity Theft: Report it to the FTC

Like the police report, the identity theft affidavit through the FTC is proof that yes, you really are a victim of identity theft. You will want to make the report as soon as possible, then keep track of the affidavit. Even if you don't have all the information in about the identity theft, go ahead and call the FTC. They can update your affidavit as you go along.

The link to the Identity Theft Report is here.

Clearing Up Identity Theft: Reporting Fraud to the Credit Bureaus, Credit Card Business

Once you have your police report and FTC report, you're ready to report the fraud to the various responsible agencies.

The most important agency for you to report to is the one who issued the card in the first place, the one who is providing financial backing for the cards. Usually this is not Mastercard or Visa, but the bank or lending agency responsible for the card. The one opened in my name, for instance, was opened through a national bank, and so I contacted that bank to report the card as fraudulent. Ask the agency to either close the account, or if it is closed, to clear the fraudulent charges.

Incidentally, the Federal Trade Commission will tell you that the first step is to contact the bureaus. It's not. Once you've set up your fraud alert with the bureaus, contact the agency backing the card. Last spring, I very nearly missed this step because I didn't realize it was important; had I missed it altogether, I would have wound up paying the $700. Once you've contacted that agency, then you can contact the bureaus and report the card as fraudulent.

So, how do you make these contacts? What do you say?

The point of contacting the business and bureaus is to dispute the account and its charges. The FTC offers sample forms to contact the business backing the card, the credit bureaus, and even a collection agency here. I found the forms extremely helpful, and followed them to the T.

Whenever you contact the business or the bureaus, you'll nearly always include several things:

  • A copy of your police report and your FTC affidavit (Remember, these are proof that you're really the victim of identity theft)
  • Any information on the fraudulent account, such as an account number and the amount of money on the account
  • Copies of your credit report, with the fraudulent account highlighted and personal information blacked out
  • Whatever documentation you can use to prove that you did not, in fact, open the fraudulent card (such as proof that you regularly pay bills on time, or proof of address if the account was opened in a different state)
You may also be asked to submit proof of identity, including a copy of your driver's license and Social Security card. This is normal.

Before you submit all this paperwork, be sure you call the agency, business or bureau and ask workers to describe exactly what you should turn in. What they want from you varies from place to place. Nearly every place, for instance, was interested in the police report, but some of them didn't feel a need for the FTC affidavit, and not all of them wanted me to prove my identity. When you call, you should ask for the address to send your material to.

Before you mail the paperwork off, make copies of everything that you send. Keep this readily accessible during the whole affair. I eventually purchased a separate file case just to keep track of the identity theft documents.

When you do submit the paperwork, send it return certified registered mail. Yes, this is expensive, but it's also a guaranteed way for you to track the material and make sure that it arrives where it's supposed to. I also encourage you to follow up with your mailings: Call the business or bureau and confirm receipt of your paperwork, then call them again several weeks on to see if they're making progress on your claim. By law they have to process your claim in a certain amount of time, so they should be making some progress.

A final warning: Some credit bureaus will offer an online form for disputing fraudulent accounts and charges. Do not use this form. The form will not allow you to submit paperwork documenting your claim, which means that disputes begun via online form are rarely resolved in your favour. The only way to dispute the charges is by mail.

Cleaning Up Identity Theft: Other Recommended Actions

Whenever you hear back from the business, a bureau, or someone else involved, keep whatever mailing information they send you. You will especially want copies of your extended fraud and security freeze information, as well as any information about the account that they send you.

Especially if your social security number was fraudulently used, you should contact your local social security office to determine the extent of the fraud. For instance, people can sometimes find employment under your social security number and name. Set up an appointment with the social security office, go in, and check on your account. (You will not, incidentally, be able to get a new social security number, even if yours is stolen. That happens very, very rarely. Your goal is to make your Social Security number unprofitable, by setting up fraud alerts and freezing your credit.)

Contact your bank and any investment agencies and explain the situation. Depending on the kind of account, they may be able to freeze your funds, they may put an alert on the account, or they may advise you to close out your current account and open a new one.

You may want to notify the IRS that you suspect identity theft. They cahere.
n then take this information into account when processing your taxes. The form to do so is

 Random Tips and Questions:

The big question is probably, Do I sign up for an identity protection service, or identity theft insurance?

Ultimately, it's up to you, but I chose not to. Here's why. ID theft protection services, such as Life Lock, receive fairly poor ratings from users. More importantly, however, they don't actually do much you can't do yourself, for free. Yes, Life Lock provides you with a copy of your credit score, but you can get your own copy of your credit score. You can put a fraud alert on your own account. Essentially, you're paying to be lazy. See Consumer Reports review of Life Lock here: http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/2013/06/id-theft-protection-review-lifelock-consumer-reports/index.htm

Second, when you call the large credit bureaus, use the right phone numbers. The numbers listed on the bureaus' website and on the FTC website will get you to a phone tree, not a real person, and you will get lost. The most recent numbers I have for the three bureaus are these:

  • Transunion's Fraud Department, 800 - 680 - 7289
  • Equifax, 877 - 784 - 2528
  • Experian, 877-870-5640
Note that the phone numbers change fairly regularly, so they may no longer work. If not, Google "how to get a real person at Transunion / Equifax / Experian" and the phone numbers should pop up. 

Incidentally, with some major organizations you can ask to be transferred to the American office. Sometimes this will get you out of the Indian office, and sometimes the customer service representative will take offense. But it's worth a try.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

An Open Letter on the Eve of Finals

To all my freshmen students:

Tomorrow morning you start your very first round of final exams. Good luck! I hope they go really well - as well as you are hoping, even better than you are expecting.

My first semester in college, I started studying for my tests two weeks in advance. Trust me, I know exactly how stressful finals week is. So now, on the eve of all those big tests, I want to offer you a little encouragement.

First of all, you'll do fine. Have you studied? Showed up at class all semester? Paid attention? Then there's no reason to worry. Worrying can actually make you perform worse. Keep studying, and studying hard, but make wise decisions that are not influenced by your fears about the exam. Don't, for instance, skip a night of sleep to study a little more. Taking an exam on a foggy brain is not a wise move. Don't skip meals because you're nervous or studying too much. Taking an exam on an empty stomach is also not a wise move. You're smart and dedicated students, and you've got this. When final exam time comes, sit down, pull out that scantron, and trust God for the rest.

More importantly, remember this: Your finals are only a very small part of your academic education. Even your grade is only a very small part of your academic education. By "education", I'm not referring to the various life lessons that you learn living in the dorms, pitching in at church or holding down a job. I'm referring to what you actually take away from the course: The letter grade, whether it be an A or a C or even an F, is a poor indicator of what you've learned in any given class. I personally learned more in some of the classes I received a B in than in some of the classes I received an A in: Expository Writing, for instance.

Your final, scary as it seems right now, is not the most important part of the course. The most important part of the class is not the letter on your transcript; it is not the printed red number on the bottom of your scantron; it is not even the litany of facts and dates you may be able to rattle off afterwards. All that will be forgotten.

No, the most important part of the class is how it changes you. Do you think new thoughts? Have you picked up new habits? Found God somewhere unexpected? Do you see Him more clearly? Hopefully, the answer to this is Yes.

Perhaps the most life-changing class I took never had a final exam. I fell in love with my class in Milton, especially with the fiery anti-censorship tract, 'Areopagitica'. Yet days before the end of the semester my senior year, a campus-wide whooping cough epidemic forced administrators to close the school early. Faculty were given a choice between giving a shorter, earlier final exam or simply skipping the final altogether. As I remember, most of my teachers picked the first option, but Dr. S picked the second. She used that final class period to deliver one last lecture on Paradise Lost. This was not, or at least not entirely, out of kindness to the students; Dr. S was one of the hardest graders I ever had. No, her decision was a decision of priorities: Exams are important, but the truths that we learn in class, truths that perhaps cannot even be covered on the exam, are far more important.

I still have my notes from that class. According to my notes, the final books of Paradise Lost hold out, in defiance of Adam's fall, a promise of hope: that "All this good of evil shall produce" - in other words, that whatever errors we commit, Providence shall erase them, and correct the sum. That final class was the story of Redemption, of the foundation we believers have in divine grace. Such truths are, obviously, worth so much more than a grade on an exam.

You may not have a whooping cough epidemic to get you out of exams, but what you do have is this:  the opportunity, in every class you take at Emmaus, to discover such truths for yourself, and to be changed by them. Those of you who take English Composition with me have (hopefully) already made such discoveries: for instance, that all truth is God's truth, that sometimes the deepest truths (even the truth of the Gospel!) are communicated by story. Yesterday at lunch my student A. told me about a discovery she made in her Old Testament class: that Leviticus, despite its reputation for being a dull and legalistic book, was actually shot through with evidence of God's grace and His desire to walk close with His people.

Hold fast to these discoveries. Long after the exam is finished, long after you've forgotten your grade in the course, these truths are the ones that you will remember. These truths are what make your education worthwhile. They guarantee that not only your mind but your soul and spirit are growing as well, that you are being transformed into a thoughtful, Christlike individual.

Study hard for your exams, by all means. That's a good decision. But even more than that, study hard to discover, in every class, more of Truth, and more of Christ.

Good luck tomorrow!

Your teacher

Monday, December 9, 2013

Are Male and Female Brains Wired by God?

Earlier this week, an article titled "Male and Female Brains Really Are Wired Differently" jumped to first place on The Atlantic news site. I was instantly interested, especially since I've tried several times this semester to teach my students exactly the opposite.

Many students start college believing that men and women are in fact wired, or biologically programmed, for certain life pathways. Men, they wrote, were "wired" to be bold, to take charge, to lead. Women were wired to raise the kids. Students always brought up this presumed biological wiring as an established fact, beyond question.

In sharing this, my goal is not to criticize my students. (Why would I criticize them? I love my students, and they're smart!) My quarrel is not with my students. My quarrel is with the common evangelical teaching, which students are picking up on, that men and women are hardwired by God for certain personality traits. However widely accepted this teaching is, it is at best only a partial truth, at worst an affront to human beings and to our Creator God.

Perhaps I, as a single woman without children, am more aware of how the lurking offense in the term, "wired". I am not married. I do not have children, nor do I ever expect to. I was never one of those girls who coos over the new babies at church. Quite the opposite: When I was in my early teens, I volunteered with my mother at a local VBS, and instead of playing dolls or Legos, I cornered the children and read them whatever book I could persuade them to sit still for.

So when evangelicals (or anyone else, really - the leadership / nurturing stereotype is one that Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, addresses) say things like, Women are wired to be nurturing, the statement strikes me as false. I feel like I'm being asked to turn in my "woman card". Don't like kids? our culture asks. Gee, you're not very feminine. Of course, we do the same thing to men. You like kids? we say. Gee, that's so unusual for a man. At Bob Jones University, I started referring to myself as a feminist specifically to indicate that I thought it was okay for a woman to want a job, instead of simply wanting to be married and have children, which was one of the most common career goals among women there. The simple word for all this is, of course, stereotyping: We hold to very limited ideas of what defines a man and a woman, and we pass off these stereotypes as the mandates of a human brain wired by God.

Unfortunately, wiring is neither a scientifically nor a biblically accurate term to apply to the human brain. While the brain does in fact have wires, we are not wired, at least not in the sense of having pre-programmed personality traits and abilities based on our gender. The reality is, thankfully, much more complex.

Scientifically, researchers assure us that even though men's brains are, on average, different than women's brains, these differences are not an infallible guide to our behaviour. The Atlantic article concludes like this:

As Anke Ehrhardt, a psychiatry professor at Columbia University Medical Center cautioned during a recent panel on neuroscience and gender, "Acknowledging brain effects by gender does not mean these are immutable, permanent determinants of behavior, but rather that they may play a part within a multitude of factors and certainly can be shaped by social and environmental influences."

In other words, a computer is wired in that its electrical connections determine precisely, inescapably what it is and is not able to do. We are not wired in that sense. Sure, there is wiring our brains, but that wiring is only one very tiny part of who we are. Secular researchers such as Ehrhardt point out our upbringing and education, by the historical time period in which we live in as influencing our identity. To these influences the Christian adds also free will and the Providence of God. C.S. Lewis suggested that "good, as it ripens, becomes continually more different not only from evil but from other good". Thus, influenced not only by electrical impulses but by our own will and by the hand of God, we do not mature into robots, each identical in our Christlikeness; we become instead wholly individual, each of us a unique, though marred, picture of Christ.

To say that we are wired, then, may sound scientific, and it may sound Christian. Yet truthfully, to call human beings wired is to erase the most important part of the Christian life: the grace that God gives us to walk, of our own free will, with Him.

Some time ago, I stumbled upon the excellent article, "I am Not a Sex-Fueled Robot," by Micah J. Murray. This, probably, was where I first became aware of the deep problems surrounding the word wired applied to Christian believers. Murray, in his post, pushes back against the idea that men are utterly consumed and driven by their sexual desire:
Men and women are not wired by God at all. We are flesh and blood and breath and electricity all bound up together in skin. We are whole human beings fully alive. Wires are for robots.
In light of Murray's analysis, the problem with attributing human behaviour to wiring is that it makes humans into robots, and forgets that we are in fact "whole human beings fully alive" - a beautiful phrase, and one that leaves room for God's transformative grace in our lives. As "whole human beings", we have choices that robots do not have, and we receive grace that robots do not have. My tablet does not get to choose which book I read when I open my Kindle app. My computer does not choose which web pages I visit. No, I, a whole human being, make those choices.

Thus, when we are talking about what it means for men and women to live Christlike lives, we must not say they are wired for particular behaviours: We choose, or we do not choose, to walk with Christ. We chose, or we do not choose, to demonstrate love, and joy, and kindness in our lives, and the other fruits of the Spirit. Kindness is not something programmed into women, nor is courage something programmed into men. These are virtues that all human beings are meant to develop, individually, as they become more and more like Christ. To that end God does not rig our brains so that we demonstrate then automatically.

More important still, my computer cannot receive grace. My own laptop is in the process of dying. It's left hinge has come undone, and a fan frequently whirs in the background. When my computer dies, I will not extend it "grace". I will simply get in a new one. In fact, when my computer makes more ordinary errors, I do not extend it grace. I reboot it. For an inanimate object there can be no forgiveness, but we are "whole human beings" and not inanimate objects, and so for us there is forgiveness.

You may be thinking, "Wait - we're not wired? But I thought men and women were made different by God." Truthfully, the evangelical church tend to exaggerate these differences somewhat. As a friend and I recently discussed, the virtues usually assigned to men (say, courage) are valuable for women, and those assigned to women (say, gentleness) must also be practiced by men. It is difficult to think of a characteristic that women, or men, should have which the opposite sex would not also benefit by developing. Mostly, we are not to be "women" or "men" but Christlike individuals, by God's grace choosing to walk with Him. Yet whether men and women are different is not, ultimately, the point. If there are in fact differences, they are not "wired" into us but something for us to develop individually, as God has created us and as He gives grace.

Let's retire the word wired, which does injustice to the individuals God has created us to be. As Murray points out, we are not robots. We are more than electrical connections in our brain, part of a body that will one day die. Let's talk instead about the choices that we make, about a willing heart that loves Christ and wants to follow hard after Him. And most importantly of all, let's own up to the times that we choose wrong, and talk about the grace of God for every mistake that we, fallen but whole and living human beings, make.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Origen on Singleness

Did you ever play the game Telephone when you were a child?

Probably, though it goes by many names: I and my friends (at least three for the game to work, but more was better) gathered in a circle. One of us chose a completely random phrase or sentence - the weirder, the better. Something like, Every evening Sally's six dogs howl at a silver moon would fit the bill nicely. Then we proceeded to whisper the word in each other's ears, and when the last person heard the phrase, they announced to the room what they'd heard.

Played right, they'd heard something very, very different than what was originally spoken - for instance, Salad and soup hot on the stove oven instead of a description of Sally's dogs' nocturnal activities. The fun was the astonishing way that words changed, from one person to another.

With Christian theology, much the same thing happens: As we whisper the words of God from one generation to the next, much truth abides, but some is taken, lost in translation as culture and language shift imperceptibly across the years. That's why we need to read and re-read the Bible, and it's also why we need to pay attention to what the early Christians, closest in time and culture to the first speakers, wrote.

Turns out, they wrote some interesting things about singleness, especially about the virgins in the church, women, we would say in today's American Christian lingo, who had the gift of singleness. Origin, describing the pagan religions, writes:

Attached to the other so-called gods are a select number of virgins, who are guarded by men, or it may be not guarded (for that is not the point in question at present), and who are supposed to live in purity for the honour of the god they serve. 
But among Christians, those who maintain a perpetual virginity do so for no human honours, for no fee or reward, from no motive of vainglory; but "as they choose to retain God in their knowledge," they are preserved by God in a spirit well-pleasing to Him, and in the discharge of every duty, being filled with all righteousness and goodness.

What I find most interesting in this passage is the stark difference between the role of virgins in the early church, and their role in the modern evangelical church:

The Role of Singles

Obviously, Origen is not writing about the modern evangelical church at all. Yet the clue to this difference is in the motivation for singleness. At least according to Origen, believing women voluntarily chose virginity: That he uses the word "maintain" suggests this is a deliberate, day-by-day choice on their part, not simply an accident or bad luck or the inability to attract a man.

Notably, this is not the view held towards singleness in the evangelical church. Today, singleness is rarely considered a choice (As a side note, those perpetual reminders to wait on God for a spouse do a great deal to discourage men and women from seeking out life partners.) More troubling, singleness is considered, for every single person living without a spouse, a spiritual gift. Sometimes, it is virginity specifically that is the gift: Josh Harris tells readers that those who 'are single right now' are 'called, right now, to be single'. Leslie Ludy warns her women readers not to have sex before marriage, not to give up their "most precious gift". Even though there's nothing wrong with wanting me to married, she adds, 'singleness is a gift, an opportunity, a blessing and it should be treated as such.'

Don't get me wrong: Obviously, treating singleness as a blessing, looking for ways to be contented, is a guarantee of happier single years than treating singleness as a curse, moaning about missing Mr. Right. Yet the attitude we have towards our single years does not change the fact that the church has radically redefined what it means to have the gift of singleness. Despite the description of the "gift of singleness" as a "blessing" and an "opportunity", this gift is linked inextricably to particular ministry patterns, which means that, often enough, the church prescribes particular ministry patterns to its members based on the accident of their sociological status.

Apparently for Origen (as for Christ), the gift of celibacy was not something that every unmarried person had by default; it was something deliberately elected; the celibate believer, though "preserved by God in a spirit well-pleasing to Him", actually chose to be celibate. Today, this is not the case: the gift of celibacy is a default gift, bestowed upon everyone who has, for whatever reason, failed to make it to the altar.

The Responsibilities of Singles

Among the many problems with treating celibacy like a default gift, instead of a deliberate choice, is that singles, en masse, are put on a kind of spiritual pedestal, or at least shuttled into a different spiritual category. This is, perhaps, as much an effect of American's tendency to group by demographic: Sure, we have special Sunday school classes and work projects for singles, but we also have special Sunday school classes for young moms, young marrieds, old marrieds, college students, unemployed, underemployed, and perhaps one day the Blue Man Group. Yet the fact remains that we do consider singles their own special group in the church, with a very special set of abilities, and the fact that they are all considered, by default not choice, to have the gift of singleness may have something to do with it.

Think about it: Josh Harris suggests that "we find the real beauty [of singleness] in using our freedom to serve God with abandon" - with abandon, meaning, presumably, that we pour more hours, more energy, more effort into the church than our married compatriots. More specifically, Leslie Ludy says that "singleness is an incredible opportunity to be fully consecrated in body and spirit to Jesus Christ alone" - as though married people are somehow off the hook of spiritual commitment, asked to love God with only half their heart since the other half is, of course, reserved for the spouse.

Obviously, most married people would not say they believe married people are excused from deep devotion and service for Jesus Christ. Yet their words betray them: Singles are, at least in the rhetoric of the church, held to a higher spiritual standard by virtue of having the default gift of singleness.

Unfortunately, having the default gift of singleness, being held to a higher standard of devotion to God than married people, does not earn singles the respect of the church. Leslie Ludy, just a page after encouraging singles to live consecrated for Christ, writes this: "Whether we have a  man in our life or not, it is always a challenge to silence the selfish demands of our whims and emotions and become consumed with Him alone. But until we do, we aren't truly ready for an earthly romance". In other words, not only are singles expected to be specially consecrated to Christ, they are also assumed, by virtue of not having an earthly romance, to not yet properly learned to be consumed with Christ alone. Those who have what Ludy calls the "gift of singleness" are somehow simultaneously less spiritually mature and more spiritually responsible than married people, more likely to have difficulty following Christ wholeheartedly but called to do just that, on the basis of their default gift.

Here is where Origen's view of celibacy comes in: So long as virginity is a default gift, the church will continue to paint with a broad brush, make sweeping generalizations about the spiritual maturity and responsibilities of unmarried believers. Yet when celibacy is recognized as a unique spiritual gift, deliberately practiced, the generalizations fall away and singles, as well as married people, are allowed to live out their unique calling in the grace of God.

I find it interesting that Origen, unlike Ludy or Harris, stresses the grace of God as part of walking chastely: Singles, he writes, "are preserved by God in a spirit well-pleasing to him, and in the discharge of every duty, being filled with all righteousness and goodness". When singles are no longer held to a higher spiritual standard, when married people are no longer assumed to be inherently more spiritual, married and single people alike benefit: Freed of expectations, they are allowed to walk in the "righteousness and goodness" of God.

I want to return to Lauren Winner's point, though I've quoted her before: Believers, she writes, "resist strong bodily urges like sexual desires not primarily through willpower, but through grace". True, and we could go a step further: Not only sexual desires but all kinds of desires, physical or otherwise, are resisted not through willpower but through grace. We who believe are humble, generous and temperate instead of proud, avaricious and gluttonous only because of the grace of God. Living chaste is in the end no different from living as a Christian, and everyone - those who are married, those who are single and want to be married, and those who are single and have no desire to be married - is called above all to walk in the grace and goodness of God.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Let's Talk about Singleness

Sometimes, I wonder: Do I talk too much about singleness and the church? My Composition students have particularly gotten an earful. Urged by a professional development seminar this summer to share my own writing with students, I referred them to the Project TGM post I wrote about singleness. I talked about the interview I conducted among my single friends.

I'm sure they heard all of this and secretly wondered whether I was only obsessed with singleness because I am a single woman, wondered whether my greatest fear was becoming the stereotypical "old cat lady" twenty years from now - just me, a tiny bungalow, and seven cats for company. (Full disclosure: I am happy in my singleness, and I do actually want to own a cat someday.)

Yet regardless of whether I sound unhappy or not, regardless of how those of us who talk about singleness are perceived, the issue matters. The problem is not actually whether or not we are happy; the problem is that, far too often, the way Christians talk about singleness denies singles, and especially single women, recognition as whole, growing members in the body of Christ.

Orson Scott Card, in Speaker for the Dead, suggests that "we are not yet fully comfortable with the idea that people from the next village are as human as ourselves". Those who are different than us, we fear, are lacking some essential part of being human. Sometimes church leadership fears the same thing: that we who are single are lacking some essential part of being Christian. They are not yet fully comfortable with the idea that we who are unmarried are in fact as Christian, as beloved by God, as themselves.

Perhaps this description sounds harsh. Don't get me wrong: Most church leaders in my acquaintance would, if ask directly, assure me that of course they believe single people have as much spiritual potential and receive as much love from Christ as married people do. Yet when they talk about the Christian life, what they say shows that within Christianity, marriage is normal; singleness, abnormal.

Let me give an example, the one that inspired this post: Just a few days ago I was sitting in a church service, and the speaker lamented the fact that fewer women were staying home to raise their children. He urged the women the congregation (many young college-aged women) to embrace their feminine roles, to accept with joy their calling to be wives and mothers and homemakers. This, he rhapsodized, was the central, God-ordained responsibility of women.

My main concern here is not actually how women choose to spend their lives, at home or at an office. Many women want nothing more than to marry and raise children, and even nonreligious women often prefer to stay home and raise their children. This is a personal decision, nothing more.

No, my main concern as this: So long as the church defines women's primary role as raising children and being keepers at home, there is no way for me, and other women like me, to be a healthy, growing Christian, at least not in the eyes of the church. Without a husband, without children, I necessarily fall short of the spiritual ideal that the church sets up.

This should not be.

In Christianity, under the New Covenant, the only standard is Christ, and we only walk with Him by His grace. This is the whole point of our faith: that we leave behind all the efforts and accomplishments we think make us holy, and, along with people from far, far different walks of life, turn humbly to Him.

Interestingly, when Christ walked among men, those who walked most closely with Him were often those who did not meet the Judaic standard for holiness: the Roman centurion, for instance, or the Phoenician woman. Yet it was these people, more than the Pharisees who did meet the religious standards for holiness, who were in fact the most like Christ, and the closest to Him.

My point here is this: As long as we insist on tying women's spiritual success to their abilities as wives and mothers, we set the bar for holiness impossibly high for singles. Yet according to Christianity, that bar should not even exist: What we are telling singles is in direct conflict with a gospel of grace.

Don't misunderstand me here: I'm absolutely certain that none of this flurry about standards and holiness and the Gospel occurred at all to the speaker I heard. I'm certain that his wish for women to joyfully embrace a life at home was made in good faith, from a good heart. He meant well.

Yet the fact that he meant well is all the more concerning. What it indicates is that he is entirely unaware of the distress that one comment may cause single people, that he does not realize that his vision of a holy life is impossible for singles. What it indicates is that this problem is widespread among the church, enough so to be (almost) invisible.

It is this invisibility which makes it so urgent that we the church talk about singleness: not so unhappy men and women can at last find life partners, but so that Christians, who also happen to be single, can be welcomed into the church, not only with a handshake and a smile but also with the way we talk about singleness. Let us be more like Christ, not laying extra burdens, impossible to bear on people, but lifting the burdens off and showing each other love.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

#WhereWereYou?

Postmodernism has a bad rap.

At least in the evangelical church, people think "postmodernism" means "having no moral standards." Not true. Postmodernism is far more complex than that, and there is value (as well as danger) in it. The value lies in how postmodernism expresses truth: Whereas earlier philosophies expressed truth as a series of propositional statements and rational claims, postmodernism expressed truth as a story. It traded the "grand narrative" (a single, all-defining understanding of the world) for the "individual narrative" (the way one person sees the world), and then it asked individuals to start talking.

Incidentally, there is something deeply biblical about this: When Christ the Word came, He did not come as a series of propositional statements; He came as a human being and lived here, creating as he lived (as we do) a series of stories, a Story that shows God to us. In the story as well as in the propositional statement there is Truth.

Perhaps this is why, every year in early September, people tell their stories again. All day I've listened as people remember where they were on 9/11. My father can remember where he was when JFK was assassinated, and we remember where we were when the Towers fell. This, more than anything else, is the story that defines who we are as people, the world as we understand it now, and this understanding comes in a series of stories.

Like my father with JFK, I have my own story with 9/11:

I was sixteen, and since I was homeschooled, I was at home, working through my Bible curriculum with my mother. The phone rang, and my mother took the call. I heard her say, "Oh, it's worse than Oklahoma City, then?" She came back, told us of the attack, and said that we'd finish our schoolwork before we turned on the television.

So we did. By the time we turned on the television, both towers had fallen. We watched television for the rest of the morning - my mother, my younger sister, and I - even though the television is never on in our house. When my mother and sister left that afternoon to run an errand, I tried to do work, but I kept going back to the TV, kept turning it back on, kept watching until late that afternoon when everyone came home again.

I could leave you with something very philosophical, urge you to pay attention to people's stories because these define us. All I want to leave you with for tonight, though, is a poem.

This is a found poem - in other words, a poem in which many of the words and phrases are drawn from outside texts. The point of a found poem is to discover poetry in straightforward literatures, to turn something simply factual into something thought-provoking. I have taken my found poem from the stories that have been cropping up all day on Facebook under #wherewereyou and across the web. interwebs on the National Journal and the People Press.

I hope the poem makes you think. (As you read, keep in mind that I wrote this rather quickly this evening, so - be gracious.)

Liturgy

Psychologists babble about our
Public collective consciousness, but
All I know is, every year we
Tell our stories, tell them
Again –

Tell that we were in a 9 a.m. class, that
We were driving to work, driving to
School, we were getting a haircut, we were
Trapped – in a chair at the orthodontist’s.

Again we tell, we were in fourth grade, or
Tenth, we were starting our workday,
We were at our desk, we were
Exercising – in front of the TV.

Then someone called.

Father, sister, co-worker –
Someone called, someone said,
‘Turn the news on, we’re under attack.”
“It’s worse,” – “ worse than Oklahoma City.”

So we turned the news on, and now

We tell how we watched TV that
Beautiful fall day, watched all day saying
Nothing to nobody, and when someone
Turned the TV off, we turned it back on –
Again.

So we tell that we saw the South
Tower as it started to fall, saw
Rivers of people walking north,
Terrified business people – so many –

And we tell of doctors and nurses and
Gurneys lined up not moving, not talking –
Waiting. We tell of the sign on I-95, reading
“Avoid Lower Manhattan.”

So we were undone and

So we tell our stories – these
Broken cries, catechisms for
Those who come after, repeating
That we may pray, that we may


Pray in peace.


Sunday, September 8, 2013

Argentina: Post 2

In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton argues that Christianity is a faith of paradoxes, a faith (for instance) in which we both hate the world and yet love it enough to work for its salvation; in which we love the good things of this world and yet abstain out of gratitude for their existence.

I would like to add one more paradox: We who are Christians are to reach out to the needy with both physical aid and spiritual comfort; soul and body are equally important. 

This, in my experience, is not particularly well understood in the church today. Some (usually more politically liberal) believers emphasize the spiritual at the expense of the physical, putting great effort into helping people find food and clothing and housing but less into helping them walk with Christ. Other believers (a la Bob Jones University) are so terrified of slipping into the social gospel that they put all their effort into spiritual aid, none into physical aid.

(Incidentally, emphasizing the spiritual at the expense of the physical becomes an even greater problem when spiritual aid takes the form it did at Bob Jones: tracts and street evangelism and witnessing-to-random-strangers-or-the-hapless-priest-beside-you-on-the-airplane, as opposed to regular personal discipleship, encouragement, and care.)

I, in traveling through the Argentine Interior, went from ministry to ministry, from evangelists who concentrated on spiritual encouragement, to teachers who concentrated on physical aid. To see the various ministries, especially how one was different from the next, was to see how God cares for both the soul and body of his people.

As you know, our first stop was Tucuman, and there the evangelists emphasized - obviously - ministry to the soul. We spent an entire day in Tucuman, traveling for six hours from tiny village to tiny village to tiny village in northern Argentina, tucked away six miles along dirt roads so dusty we couldn't see more than five feet behind us, through the dust cloud the car kicked up. There, the evangelist Juan led the children in song and catechized them; he asked the adults about their walk with the Lord, made sure they were reading their Bible, made sure they had no images in their houses, stopped so we could hear their testimony - and then away we went to the next village, to repeat the process.

Juan and his family were themselves poor, wholly financially reliant on God (Indeed, Juan left a stable job thirty years ago to work as an itinerant evangelist). So there was no money to be offered, no physical assistance that could be provided. Yet the spiritual communion was enough. These people, who cooked over a wood fire, who lived a full day from the nearest village, whose cows wandered around with their ribs sticking out, were content with the spiritual comfort of the body of Christ.

This is the first half of the paradox, and (like all paradoxes), the first truth seems obvious enough that stating it is ridiculous: Our faith is a spiritual one, untouched by physical circumstances.  Whether we have great wealth or great poverty, Christ and His body the Church are the heart of our faith, and therefore, belong at the heart of ministry.

Yet Juan's ministry was very different from that in Brea Pozo. Where Juan has seen hundreds come to Christ over his thirty-year ministry, the school in Brea Pozo estimates that perhaps only one out of every five graduates from the school devotes their life to following the Lord.

Unfortunately, some believers would consider this a low success rate; they would wonder (to themselves, of course!) whether perhaps the ministry wasn't really worth it. When I was at Bob Jones, some chapel speakers would count with pride the many people they had witnessed to and seen converted over the years; the implication was clearly that those who were not responsible for so many conversions, or who were responsible for perhaps one or two only, were falling behind in their walk with the Lord.

Thankfully, this is not the attitude of the Brea Pozo school. There, they have no interest in counting up conversions like badges on their chest or medals on the wall. Do they wish more students would follow Christ? Absolutely. Do they consider their ministry worthwhile, even if many students are not saved? Absolutely. As we talked with the leaders over loose-leaf mat'e tea and the hard iced cookies popular as an afternoon snack, they reminded us that physical compassion, no less than tracts and preaching and singing, is a revelation of Christ to the world. It was Christ who loved us first, they explained, and so when they gave the children an education, a place to live, friends and strong adult role models, they were giving them the love of Christ.

This is the second part of the paradox: Regardless of "conversion rate" (how hideously mathematical to even think of it like that!), we as Christians are responsible to love the world as Christ loved us - and, since He did not bid people to "be warm and well-fed" without actually feeding them, to actually care for the physical needs of those around us.

True, Christ-centered care for others, whether they be in our church or not, believers or not, is equally concerned with soul and body; we are to rejoice in the sufficiency of our faith and spiritual encouragement even as we supply each other's physical needs, without attention to the spiritual realm.

Most of us, including me, are not currently missionaries, and so the temptation is to think that this paradox is of limited application. Not so. I can think of two possible applications:

First (and of the two, this was the one I most needed to learn): Do not despise those who minister to the soul and not the body. Perhaps because of listening to those braggart chapel speakers at Bob Jones, I am overcautious of ministries focused entirely on the spiritual. I imagine them sending people away to "be warm and well-fed", loading their arms with tracts but not a blanket or granola bar among them. This is what Tucuman symbolizes to me, then: While we as believers should not be insensitive to physical needs, we must also remember that our faith is pinned on another world, that this world, and all its suffering, pale to the treasures we have in Christ, that - most importantly - ministry is about exploring those treasures together.

Second, and equally important: Physical aid, in itself, is a legitimate ministry.  I found, this summer in my parents' house, a church magazine reminding conservative Christians that the social gospel is strictly replacing the Gospel with social aid; fear of slipping into the social gospel, he argued, should absolutely not prevent us from helping people. That this article was written and published tells me what I already knew: In conservative circles there is a distrust of ministries that can't tally up big numbers, or at least consistent numbers, of people saved. This should not be. Regardless of whether there are tracts involved, regardless of the numbers of people saved, any time spent helping people who need help is time spent being Christ who a world desperately in need of Him.

Ultimately, this is the paradox of Incarnation: Christ was and is and will be both God and man, having both a human body and spiritual power. In what can only be a faint echo of that we too are called to be invested in ministry that reaches body and soul, that finds sufficiency in spiritual encouragement but continually, generously assists with physical needs.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Argentina: Post 1

So. Last month I went to Argentina.

Some of you knew this already, and to those who were praying for me, I thank you. The purpose of the trip was a kind of cultural and missions adventure: During the first ten days, our five-person team helped at a Spanish-language ministry conference in Buenos Aires; during the second ten days, we traveled north, stopping to visit a variety of ministry projects along the way.

I plan to return to posting on singleness and the church, but before I do, I want to write a short series - maybe three or four posts - on my time in Argentina, the people I met there and the things that I learned. Since school starts next week, I want to start with something I learned about teaching.

Mosaic tile sidewalk in Brea Pozo
Our second stop on the trip north was Brea Pozo, a tiny village (perhaps 1300 people) tucked away in the arid Santiago del Estero Province. There's not much in Brea Pozo: a a few cows remarkable only for their protruding ribs, cactus plants shaped like trees, and lots and lots of wind - enough to create a sandstorm worthy of the Sahara Desert. The only other thing Brea Pozo is notable for is the rural community center it hosts: a Christian boarding school just outside the city limits. There, nearly two hundred students attend primary school (defined as kindergarten through seventh grade); of those, about fifty students live on campus.

To these students, the Brea Pozo school is a godsend. Poverty in Argentina, as in the United States, almost kills students' chances of a good education. Even students who live right across the street from the village school in Brea Pozo are sent a mile and a half down the road (and remember, most of these families don't own a car) to the Christian school. The problem of education is greater still for students who truly live in the country, up to fifty miles away from the school: Thanks to their isolation, these students would perhaps receive no education whatsoever were it not for the on-campus housing at Brea Pozo.

Yet there are more serious problems than education facing the rural poor in Argentina. Children raised in such deep poverty may also be raised by an abusive, alcoholic father. They may be raised by a mother who, for her livelihood, sells her body. They may be raised by a grandmother or an aunt so that their mother can work in town. In other words, the children who attend the Christian school come from badly-broken homes.

Having fun in Brea Pozo
Unsurprisingly, then, the Brea Pozo school includes in its student body a rather large number of what we would call at-risk students and what they call, all politically incorrect, troublemakers. By 'troublemakers' they do not simply mean students who don't turn in their homework. They mean students who sass the teachers - all the teachers - and students who burn down fields, students that the entire instructional staff has, at some point, wanted to dismiss from the school.

Yet these students are not, or are but rarely, actually dismissed. The school directors (a lovely married couple named Oscar and Susa) explained that as long as possible, whenever possible, the Brea Pozo school hangs onto these troublemakers, trying desperately to give them an education, to give them a safe environment, to teach them about Jesus.

Sometimes it doesn't work. But sometimes it does: One troublemaker raised in the Brea Pozo school later committed his life to Christ. Today he is leading a church and writing Spanish-language books about pressing church issues; we met him briefly at the Hispanic conference in Buenos Aires.

A teacher myself, I found this fascinating. As we sat around Oscar and Susa's kitchen table, I remembered the troublemakers in my classes, at least one a semester for as long as I have been teaching. These are the students who don't play well with others, who talk back to me in front of the entire class, who lie to me about what work they have and have not done. These are the students (I am ashamed to admit it) who sometimes thought would be better off dismissed from the college, sent away because they were nothing but trouble.
I arrived taking pictures and completely
distracting the students in class.

Yet it is just these students that Oscar and Susa hang onto. "We are Christians," they explain. "The troublemakers may not come to Christ, but if we who are Christians do not take them in, who will?"

Good point.

It reminded me of something I heard earlier this summer. At the end of June, I spent a week in Cedar Falls at a workshop on teaching first-year college writing. There, the workshop director suggested that perhaps we stop complaining about how under-prepared our students were, that college instructors stop passing the buck back to the high school teachers and high school teachers stop passing the buck back to the middle school teachers. He told us, "You're the writing teacher, the expert in your field. Stop worrying about what their previous teacher did or did not teach them. You teach them."

That call to be the expert, to assume responsibility, was present in Oscar and Susa's school. In hanging onto the troublemakers, they sent a message to other Christian teachers: "You're the Christian, the expert in love and compassion. Show your students love and compassion."

Is that hard to do sometimes? Sure. But that's the point: As Jesus said, we all show love to people that are easy to love; we all show compassion to people who do not need to be showered with our compassion.


In Game of Thrones, the patriarch of the Stark family is asked by one of his sons, "How can a man be brave if he's afraid?" Ned Stark responds, "That is the only time a man can be brave."

Like bravery, the only time we can show love and compassion - really show them, as they were meant to be shown - is when we show them to those who do not deserve them.

Brea Pozo school buildings
That means the only time I am a loving, compassionate teacher is when I show that compassion to a student who perhaps did not deserve it but who needs it. The only time I can be a patient teacher is when I am working with a student who makes me impatient. The only time I can be merciful is when I am working with a student who has done something wrong.

I feel like Murphy's Law will come back to haunt me after I publish this post, that I'll somehow end up with an unusual number of troublemakers this semester because I am resolved to treat them with kindness, compassion and consistent love. Yet the point remains: Just as I am the expert in writing and so responsible to teach my students writing this year, so I am also, because of Christ, the expert in love and compassion and kindness and responsible to show all my students the love I received, regardless of whether they deserved it. Those who did not most did not deserve it are often those who need it most.

May the next semester be one of consistent grace and compassion in my classroom.






Sunday, June 23, 2013

What We Say When We Talk About Chastity

I imagined this post, when I first conceived of it, to be a denunciation of the spiritual dangers lurking in books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye and When God Writes Your Love Story. Then talking with friends convinced me to scale back the tone of the piece, from accusatory prophet to a gentle warning against the spiritual unhealthy aspects of such books. Then time (short in part because I published something about singleness!) forced me to scale back still further: I want to get personal about these books, talk about how such books - written with such good intent! - may in fact push single believers further away from our gracious God.

Let me tell you a story.

Growing up, I was not particularly boy-crazy. I pulled my hair back into an unflattering ponytail until I was well into my teens, didn't wear make-up regularly until I was perhaps sixteen, and didn't discover that flat irons existed until I was in graduate school.

All this probably explains the unusual offer I received, late one night at a sleepover. I was about twelve, flat on my back on a mattress in the living room, sharing secrets with my friends at a sleepover. I don't remember what questions or discussion led up to it, but with perfect clarity I remember the offer: My friend, just a year older than me, offered to teach me how to flirt.

How to flirt? 

That's something I'm supposed to be learning? As in, good Christian girls actually try to flirt around guys?

(Also, this: Why in the world would anyone want to flirt? As I said, I was not boy-crazy.)

I kindly refused the offer, and conversation moved on to other topics. I recall feeling ever-so-slightly better, more spiritual than my friend. She flirted with boys. I did not. Even then, I was learning from the culture around me that extreme caution around young men was the way to follow God, and in my twelve-year-old mind I assumed likewise that to not flirt was to follow God.

I remember another evening, years later on the front porch of the church where youth group was held. Sitting there in the hot summer sun, my friends and I talked about first kisses. Romantic killjoy that I am, I interrupted the conversation with an announcement that I planned on never kissing until I was married, standing at the front of a church in a white dress and all. My friends, unsurprisingly, defended kissing before marriage, kissing before engagement, then went back to the more romantic conversations. I was left feeling ever-so-slightly superior to my friends, better off spiritually because I was reserving my first kiss for the altar. Christians, I knew, were called to purity, and I was better at purity.

At fifteen, of course, I wouldn't have put my thoughts in quite those terms, but that's what they boiled down to: Not flirting, not kissing - these things made me a better Christian, albeit a romantically challenged one.

In retrospect, what I thought made me a better Christian only made me a self-righteous prig, and it is that self-righteousness which is among the chief dangers (though by no means the most well-known) of so many evangelical books designed to teach readers how to stay pure before marriage, books in the vein of I Kissed Dating Goodbye and When God Writes Your Love Story. 

Before I go on, I need to clarify a few things.

First of all, books such as I Kissed Dating Goodbye are not all bad. In fact, I re-read Harris's book recently, and I was impressed by how he urged readers to behave in a way that helps others walk more closely with God. Mutual care and respect for our brothers and sisters in Christ is rare these days, and I appreciated his reminders.

Second, and more importantly, I still believe that within Christian theology, sex is to be reserved for marriage. It is therefore possible to write books urging readers to chastity without also falling into spiritual pitfalls (Lauren Winner's Real Sex is an excellent example of a book that manages this balance.)

Yet such books, written as they are to singles who are to remain chaste, link that chastity to pleasing God in a way that slides towards legalism, away from grace, and so runs the risk of turning those of us who are single and chaste into modern-day Pharisees. They run the risk of undermining all that singleness is meant to be.

In books such as Harris's and Eric and Leslie Ludy's, chastity is to be maintained through rigid personal standards, standards that please God. Harris, for instance, writes that "God is not impressed with my ability to stand up to sin. He's more impressed by the obedience I show when I run from it." (96). His point is clear: The way to impress God - an interesting choice of words, to say the least - is to flee from sin. In light of that fact, Harris urges his readers to accomplish that flight through a system of self-imposed boundaries and standards for maintaining sexual purity: "Set your standards too high," he tells readers. "You will never regret purity." (97).

On the one hand, I appreciate that Harris is reaffirming the importance of chastity. Even we Christians try to wriggle out of God's plan that sex is for marriage only, so the value that Harris places on purity is to be commended. My problem is not so much what Harris says but how he says it, not that he urges chastity (which is good) but that he urges chastity in a way that rings of legalism (which is bad).

Incidentally, although I use Harris's name throughout this essay, this is only because this essay began with a reference to his book; the problem is, unfortunately, not limited to Harris but spread throughout the evangelical church.

The evangelical church, as Harris says, believes that our moral purity impresses God. To say that we may impress God by running from sin (or really, by any behaviour whatsoever) is to step away from the gospel back towards legalism. We may be saved by grace, but we harbour a belief that we earn spiritual brownie points after salvation by our goodness; we think, and are taught to think, that we deserve some kind of gold star for not lying, not cheating, and for those of us who are single, by not having sex.

Within this system, it makes perfect sense for Harris to urge his readers to "set your standards too high". As long as spiritual life is a quest to impress God, then we will naturally be urged to prop up moral purity in whatever way we can, including imposing extra-biblical sanctions such as "No kissing," "No dating," or "No holding hands." Yet while we are told these these sanctions will promote holiness, all they really promote is self-righteousness; they drain us of spiritual energy without leading us closer to Christ.

The danger, for those of us who are long-term singles, is that people like Harris link our spiritual vitality and success as singles, not with the grace of Christ, but with our own success at maintaining not only chastity but also all those extra-biblical sanctions. Yet such sanctions actually threaten our spiritual vitality: Singleness is meant, like marriage, to draw us closer into communion with God, to make us more holy, yet to persist in certain behaviour patterns in an attempt to impress God is to defeat the purpose for which God designed singleness.

Don't get me wrong: Having standards, even ones that are not directly spelled out in the Bible, may well be a good thing. Think of those, for instance, who know that addiction runs in their family, and so they hold themselves to a standard of no alcohol. This is a wise personal standard. In fact, I Corinthians teaches that we ought to respect each other's standards, not urge people to violate their own standards.

Yet while we may feel that certain standards are useful in the cause of holiness, we are never told that the standards in themselves make us holier before God.  As St. Paul reminds the Corinthian church, "Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do" (8:8). To translate this to dating, we are no worse off if we do not kiss our boyfriend, and no better off if we do. Before and after salvation, we are impressive to God only in Christ.

Incidentally, I find it interesting that Harris emphasizes fleeing sin through standards. If this works, so be it; the Bible also instructs us to "flee sexual immorality." Yet in the Bible the point is not so much what we're running from as who we are running to: "Walk in the Spirit," St Paul tell us, "and you will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh." Whereas evangelical culture tells us to start sprinting away from sin, God tells us to start sprinting towards Him. The one race is a long and wearying one with nothing at its end; the other, a gentle walk with God Himself waiting for us at the end. This is the message that we should be giving to those who are single, and hearing if we are single: While we may choose to embrace certain standards, we do not stand or fall based on having those standards; we stand or fall in Christ alone.

And this is both more encouraging and more challenging: challenging, because walking with Christ involves all of life in a way that compartmentalized, narrow standards does not; encouraging, because we are loved and will not ruin ourselves beyond a point that grace can rescue us.

Lauren Winner, writing in Real Sex, points out that an over-emphasis on self-control and rigid sexual standards "perhaps fails to recognize that one resists strong bodily urges like sexual desires not primarily through willpower, but through grace." It is that grace which we as the body of Christ want to taste. Whether we are married or single, whether we are chaste or still working in that direction, our God will walk with us.

This is how the church needs to start talking about chastity: Ultimately, the single years are not meant to be a grit-your-teeth-and-bear-it chastity in an attempt to impress God, nor a series of escalating standards meant to secure His approval. They are indeed meant to make us holy (as marriage is also meant to make married people holy), but this happens not through our efforts but through the transformative grace of Christ. There is nothing to be proud of, nothing to be self-righteous about, nothing to boast about but Christ.

To close, let me return to my story: That self-righteousness of mine is, I think, a fair illustration of the dangers of linking high standards to success as chaste men or women. What success at chastity needs to be linked to is, of course, Christ alone. There's no reason to excuse sex before marriage, but there's also no reason to talk as if anything but Christ our sacrifice keeps us from sin and pleases God. Only in Him are we, married and single people alike, made whole.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

All the Single Evangelicals

This weekend, a personal research project sent me back into some books that I hadn't read since I was a teenager: books about being single and preparing for marriage.

I remember thinking, as a teen, that these books were okay. As an adult, I had to keep myself from throwing the books across the room in frustration and anger. In the next few weeks, I hope to write a post identifying possible spiritual abuse in the books, but until that post, I want to write something for those who are like me, long-term singles.

Just this evening, I was talking with a single woman frustrated with her situation in the church. Just last week, a high school friend held a long online debate about the merits of singleness and those of marriage. Wherever I look in the church, single men and women are being pulled down by expectations that the evangelical world has about singleness and for singles.

I want to push back. I want to encourage my peers. So, to the single women and men out there, I say:

You are normal. Sometimes the church pretends that marriage is the norm, that God designed everyone, with the exception of a few random people, to be married eventually. Within the last two weeks, I have found people posting on the Internet that in God's plan for the world, marriage is normal; singleness (by implication) abnormal. But you are not abnormal! You are created by God and designed to be in this place of singleness, at this time. Your singleness is not something unusual. It does not catch our God by surprise. In fact, God designed singleness as much as He designed marriage: Eve may have been created so the first Adam would not be alone, but the second Adam lived more than thirty years as a single man on this world. Your singleness, just as much as marriage, is part of our loving Lord's good plan.

You are strong in Christ. Unfortunately, married people sometimes pretend that their lifestyle is more likely to produce strong believers than a single lifestyle does. Karen Swallow Prior and Marvin Olasky have both written that marriage is God's way to grow people up, to mature them quickly. Not so. David writes in the Psalms that in heaven or in hell or in the farthest parts of the earth he is still in the guiding, tender hand of his Father. You too, whether you be single-never-married or married or widowed or divorced, are in your Father's hand; He is bringing you closer to Him, and those who are married will not get there faster.

Even more importantly, your singleness is not a test that you have to pass before you are spiritually qualified for marriage. I have read authors (I'm looking at you, Eric and Leslie Ludy) that claim that the lonely single years are God's way of cleaning up the bad parts of your character. They imply that you will be married when you have matured enough. Guess what? They are lying. They are corrupting the wonderful truth that we are all - single and married - in Christ, and that every gift we have - including marriage and singleness - is a gracious and good gift from Him. You do not have to pass any test whatsoever to receive good gifts from God. You have received every gift abundantly and overflowing in God (see Romans 8.32), including your singleness.

That your singleness is a gift from God does not mean you have to be happy about it all the time. You do not need to plaster a smile on your face, be upbeat, tell everyone how much you are using these single years for God's sake. Sometimes our loving God assigns us a hard fate: Even His Own Son begged for something different. God is not going to be upset or surprised if you have days when you are discouraged or sad about your singleness; He will not think you are discontent, anymore than Jesus Christ in the Garden was discontent, when you ask Him to bring a spouse into your lives. Please, don't worry about being the perfect, content Christian single. Be honest. 

That includes being honest about not wanting marriage, if that be you. Unfortunately, our evangelical culture tries to convince us that everyone wants to get married, that marriage is the norm and not wanting it is a sign of being really weird. Not true. Some of us just aren't built with that desire; others will develop it only when someone special comes into their lives. Either way, it's okay. Be honest: Enjoying your singleness is worth so much more than pretending you really want a spouse.

On a related note, do not try to justify your singleness by extraordinary, draining acts of service. If all we have spiritually is from Christ, there is no need for you to work extra-hard as a single person to prove your spiritual wisdom and worth. You do not have to work yourself to the point of physical and emotional exhaustion; you do not have to ignore your needs and boundaries simply because there is not a family at home waiting for you. You can balance service and your human needs and still be using your singleness wisely. Sometimes, married people will tell me that singles have so much more time to serve God (or the community, or whatever). Not true. On your own, you earn a living, you balance the checkbook, you pay the bills, you schedule oil changes, you wash the laundry, you open the jar lids. You are both husband and wife in your household, and you are strong for carrying both burdens.

Concluding Thoughts

To the married people who are reading this: I don't want to imply that you are, by virtue of being married, contributing to singles' discouragement, that you are belittling singleness as opposed to marriage. Certainly not! You are our friends, our brothers and sisters in the Lord, and we value your friendships.

Yet in the end, I'm not really talking to married people in this post. I'm talking to fellow singles: Unfortunately, the church is sometimes abysmal at communicating its value of single people, and that has to change. Sticking up for women's rights is not a condemnation of men, so sticking up for singles is not a condemnation of marriage. It needs to be done: Whatever our evangelical culture says, singleness and singles, as well as marriage and married people, are valued in the eyes of God.

Let's remember.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Towards a Better Understanding of James 4

As you know from my last post, I spent a few days in California earlier this month for a conference. Yet in spite of the fact that this visit was my first time on the West Coast, in spite of the fact that I desperately needed a few days away after a stressful semester, I deliberately reined in any enthusiasm until I arrived. I didn't plan much, besides making sure that I had housing and transportation. I didn't talk much about my trip with other people.

I've done this kind of thing before. Visiting Paris last summer, I planned my housing and transportation in advance. Everything else I planned during the two-hour flight from Prague, bookmarking interesting pages in my travel guide with the napkins from the in-flight snack. Visiting London two years ago, I did the same thing: There were a few things I planned in advance (my self-initiated, self-guided T.S. Eliot walking tour, for instance), but almost everything else I planned out on the plane.

For a long time, I thought I was the only one who did this. Then, a close friend of mine took a trip to London, and she too confessed that she was trying not to get too excited, lest the whole trip fall apart at the last minute. Even in the weeks leading up to a trip that had been planned for months, she was still holding back her enthusiasm, just in case. (For the record, she made it, and she's enjoying London right now.)

When I noticed this pattern, this tendency to rein in excitement lest something prevent our plans, I thought of a passage in James 4:
Come now, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit' - yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, 'If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.'
In the past, I've always interpreted this passage as a caution against undue excitement: Because we will not live forever, because all pleasures in this life are but temporary, there's no need to get particularly worked up about any of them. Remember that only through the generosity of God do we enjoy any of our pleasures at all; when He turns off the tap, whatever we loved is gone.

Probably this interpretation owes a lot to the parallels between James 4 and Luke 12, in which Jesus, like a divine stockbroker, warns his readers that spiritual wealth is far more stable than material wealth. This, of course, is true. Yet I can't help but feel that the pessimism of this interpretation - beware! You're likely to lose everything at any moment! - is problematic.

Read as an indictment of planning ahead and getting excited about the future, James 4 turns God into a bogeyman. Sometimes, believers who subscribe to this interpretation will tack the phrase, "If the Lord wills" onto their plans, whether those be for a summer vacation, a new job, or a spouse. I appreciate the sentiment: Yes, everything we are or accomplish is designed by God. Yet I can't help but feel that repeatedly using the phrase to discourage excitement about life turns God into a killjoy, who wants nothing more than to spoil our happy plans.

Imagine, for instance, I said this: This summer I hope to visit my family, Lord willing. You could, in place of the Lord willing, just as easily substitute the (perhaps more honest?) phrase, If nothing goes wrong. Like so: This summer I hope to visit my family, if nothing goes wrong. In other words, what this phrase, as inspired by the pessimistic interpretation of James, does is repeatedly associate God with things in our life going wrong. Please don't misunderstand: I'm not saying that God hangs around in order to make us happy, like some kind of cosmic vending machine. I'm not even saying that God tries to grant us plenty of good things in this life. As Stephen King reminds us, In this world those who do evil ride over the roads in Cadillac cars.

Yet our God is a good God, a gentle God, and to use a phrase that implies when things go wrong, God is responsible, does not do justice to the complex and deeply compassionate way that God is involved in our disappointments and sufferings, whether they be trivial or deeply important. From elsewhere in the Scriptures, we know that Jesus does not stand around waiting to yank the rug out from under our feet just when we are happiest. Jesus weeps when we weep.

I am therefore cautious about interpreting James's epistle in a way that makes it seem like our God is trying to zap us. As I thought about this passage before California, it occurred to me that there is a deeper theme, one more affirming and encouraging - and, as is true with almost all of Scripture, more difficult to follow.

Notice the context of James's words. When he instructs them to say, "If the Lord wills, we will do this our that", he has just finished comparing their life to a mist, to the morning dew. Imagine how long that stuck around in the summer! Confronted with such truths, the natural reaction is not to forge ahead; it is to pull back from life altogether. Think of the people who quit their jobs and traveled the country when Harold Camping preached the Rapture.

This is not the instruction that James gives to believers. Instead, he tells them to get back to life, to go on working and planning and dreaming, albeit with the single caveat "if the Lord wills". And in the context of their short lives, the phrase "If the Lord wills" takes on new meaning: Doom may be assured, but it is the Lord who holds back that doom, and it is the Lord who sees that their plans are carried out, that they live and do this or that. In other words, the Lord is a giver of good things. Thus, the goal is not so much to worry about what bad things might happen, caused by a vindictive God, but to recognize that we live in a world of uncertainties and rely on a good God for good things.

No, God will not always supply us with sunshine and roses. No, we cannot be certain that any of our plans will turn out. Yet as believers we are to make plans anyway, to forge ahead with bravery and faith because our God is good.

I am reminded of something that Lilias Trotter, one of the first missionaries to the Muslim world, wrote:
Faith learns to swing out into nothingness and drop down full weight on God - nothing between us and the abyss but Himself - A rejoicing in every fresh emergency that is going to prove Him true - the Lord Alone - that is trained faith.
Surely the future - what will happen to us, who we will know, what we will do - is the deepest abyss of all; there is no seeing what may come. Yet that is no excuse to hold back in fear, to choose the clear, safe course. It is a call to draw up our plans, and in those plans to 'drop down full weight on God' - our loving, gentle God who may (or who may not) will for those plans to happen.