Sunday, February 18, 2007

How Not To Pray For Your Kids

Things come together from different directions.

A month or two ago, a friend gave me a catalog of Christian kitsch that she said had "bad karma" which I accepted with bemusement. I looked at it and thought, OK. It had some trust cues I look for and thought these guys were probably all right, but I probably wouldn't do business with them. They had lots of resources for home schoolers and were big time into supplying resources to help Christian parents raise their kids right. There were items that I thought were perhaps heavy-handed, but I knew the thinking that went into it and agree with what they're trying to do: raise your kids right.

But something nagged me. The bad karma comment rang true, but I couldn't identify what it was that bothered me about it. I shrugged and it remained a nagging question.

I go to a great church. Blythefield Hills Baptist Church does several things I dislike, but they do some things incredibly well. For one thing, they've managed the cultural shift very well. If you have been in a cave since the 1960s, you'll note there's been some changes to American culture and Blythefield had managed to stay on top of them. You may have also heard of the Psychobabylonian Captivity Of The Church, where the gospel has been recast in terms of psychotherapeutic categories that it is incomprehensible. However, Blythefield, specifically Louis has managed to synthesize the psychobabel and the Bible to come up with a Biblical message that leverages psychology's insights into human nature.

This happened this morning. The notes are available here. Louis hit some really great points that I won't repeat here, but encourage you to read for yourself.
His analysis of anger and fear being "check engine lights" belying wrong beliefs alone is worth the price of admission, but I already said, read the link.

The Bible passage was James 4:1-3 that goes like this:
From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?

Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not.

Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.

And then Louis mentioned two prayers that I would have never considered in this context. Usually, when I read verse 3 of that passage I think of Red Corvettes and Beach Houses. But Louis mentioned praying for your kids. Praying for your kids and James 4:3? How does that follow? Oh. You know how everyone likes to brag about their kids. And if your kids are particularly pious, it reflects well upon your own spirituality, doesn't it? It's a big boost to the old ego and reputation among the other Baptists if your kid grows up to be as big a Baptist as you are. The chest swells with pride just thinking about it.

My sister-in-law is a Missionary. And I love her kids (who are all nearly grown up now) and I recall thinking when they were small how unfortunate it was that their family fortunes, their support levels, were tied to the kids' behavior. I don't know how heavy-handedly they were raised, but I cringe at the thought of what might have been. Similarly, I have friend who was a Christian school administrator (and my kids' guidance counselor). He's also got kids same age as mine. What kind of pressure did HE face when his kids were kids?

Now, I think I understand the bad karma remark. My friend who gave me the catalog added a word to my vocabulary last year: individuation. I've often told my own kids and whatever of my friends' kids I could get my hands on that "You have to decide for yourself who you are. You have to figure out for yourself what you believe. Your parents' faith has to become your faith." I thought that was just plain growing up, becoming mature. And my friend told me that is called individuation. I suppose this is one of those psychobabel jargon terms.

The bad karma is when you raise your kids and you pray for your kids for your own vain glorious pride. It's natural to love your kids and want them to exceed you. It's natural and wrong to use them as props in your own little stage play entitled, "look how righteous I am, and how my righteousness has infused my kids."

It is possible to avoid this anti-pattern when raising your kids. I think it starts with priorities: is God ahead of the kids? is your spouse ahead of the kids? are the kids ahead of your reputation? I wonder if my friend's "bad karma" came about because she's seen folks who put their reputations first. Then, acting from those mistaken priorities, sought resources that they misused thereby creating bad karma.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Gracious me!

When I taught Sunday School, I liked to point out something about Elijah the prophet. You may recall the story of Elijah on Mount Carmel (probably better than me, because I'm not sure if it wasn't Mount Nougat. Don't trust my memory for details.) He contests with the prophets of Ba'al with a little challenge. If your gods are real, have them send down fire from heaven and light the sacrifice fire. They didn't, and Elijah asked God to send down fire to light his sacrifice, and HE did. This guy was Spiritual Rambo, kicking butt and taking names.

Next day, the queen was displeased and she vowed to kill Elijah. Shortly thereafter Elijah is cowering in a cave on Mount Horeb. This guy was Spiritual Looooooser, completely ineffectual.

We often take the two stories in isolation. But let's smoosh them together. What changed? Is there some documentary hypothesis where you've got one brave Elijah and another cowardly Elijah? I think not. Instead, we see the difference that grace makes. One guy is Elijah-with-grace; the other guy is Elijah-without-grace. That unseen business of God either backing you up, or leaving you to your own devices. Makes a difference.

So I'm working this afternoon and I hit a stumbling block. My software just isn't matching what it ought to be and I'm feeling like a complete moron. Sometimes I marvel at how inept I am at sorting out a problem and today was one of those times. I got up and poured the last of the coffee. I realized that I hadn't prayed for smarts. So, I send up a quick silent prayer to the effect of asking me to see where I was going wrong.

I sit down and five minutes later I've forgotten the prayer and it hits me and I see that the way these three things interact works differently when one of them is a "premium" versus a "discount" and I change my code accordingly, and voila, it works. This puts me in full-gloat-mode and I'm about to move on to the next issue. I'm feeling pretty good and pretty smart for a change.

And then I remember that prayer of a few minutes earlier, and I remember that Elijah story. Oops, I can't take any credit for what was obviously an answer to that last prayer.

So, if you ever want some software problem solved, I suggest you ask for Steve-with-grace.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Speaking to Post-monogamy

negotiations between
members of hook-ups

I was listening to Austin City Limits and the band that came on was called Rilo Kiley. I'm culturally backward enough that they were new to me. Since I was working, I listened with only half an ear. Toward the end of the set they sang a song that I started to notice the words and then the words haunted me. I had Tivoed the show and rewound and relistened to pick out more words. Google provided the full lyrics. The song was "Does He Love You?"

The song tells the story of with two women who are close friends. One moves away from California, finds a man with whom she gets pregnant and marries. The second woman writes and in the correspondence reveals that she, too has met a man, but that he's married. The gotcha is that the married man is her friend's husband. The non-California woman doesn't know the California woman has snaked her man, but she does hear her husband on the telephone promise to leave his wife and goto California. She, in turn, calls her California friend, not knowing her role in the tragedy. I've done the lyrics poor justice, you should read them for yourself.

The eternal triangle: the stuff of a thousand stories. As I thought through the lyrics and thought through the mindset and culture behind the lyrics. My first thought was, "polygamy would solve this problem (while creating several new ones)." A more serious thought had to do with the impermanence of marriage in our society. Singles don't lightly enter into marriage and seem to spend extended period of "hooking up" before they do. But when singles do marry, their unmarried peers float around like free radicals that might disrupt the marriages that do form.

It's common to think that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket and that this younger generation is all fouled up, then reflect fondly upon the virtues long ago. "Ah, the good old days, when men were men, and women were property." In my youth, the Women's Movement asserted that the patriarchy's institution of Marriage was hopelessly sexist and the Liberated woman would do well to avoid it. Society compromised and the no-fault divorce became popular and one was honor-bound to leave a marriage that interfered with one's self-actualization. Or maybe you should ignore a marriage if your special someone is already married.

It seems this is the mindset when I read the lyrics of "Does He Love You." Hook up if it's useful. Hook up with someone else if things change. In the song, the lyrics are from the perspective of the women. The male is depicted as moving from mating partner to mating partner so as to spread his seed as widely as possible. This thinking is post-monogamous.

The result is a an extended series of negotiations between the sexes that are completely alien to old fogies like me raised in a monogamous culture. But the negotiations are a normal consequence of people taking a utilitarian approach toward life and relationships without the constraint that marriage be permanent.

My daughter came back from college over the weekend. She's become disenchanted with her church and trying others. She's annoyed with the pastor who's from a broken home and who seems to make a focus of that brokenness in his or her ministry. "Enough of the sociology already, let's hear some bible teaching." What a great daughter I have. Conversely, I've heard a lot of folks complain that Bible-teaching churches ignore social problems like divorce.

I think that something in the middle is needed. We can't ignore the post-monogamous character that contemporary society has taken on. In fact, we should pronounce judgment upon it, condemning what the Bible condemns and remaining silent where it is silent. The Bible has aspects of it that are pre-monogamous as we see in the family life of the Old Testament patriarchs. It also depicts aspects that are decidedly monogamous, such as where Christ asks the woman at the well to bring her husband. We should see the societal brokeness and the commonly broken homes around us through the lens of the Bible's depictions of such arrangements.

Having difficulty with step-mothers and step-fathers? Or not getting child support from that deadbeat dad? What did Hagar do? and how did God say that she should be treated? Or take that story about Onan. Everyone thinks God disapproved of him because of his sexual practises, but given the larger economic context within which he acted, I think it had more to do with God disapproving of his cheating his brother's widow of her inheritance. I think that the Bible's Old Testament has a lot of useful information about how families behave outside a monogamous culture.

People do become disenchanted with monogamy and respond by doing things that have consequences as sure as Isaac Newton dropping an apple. The Bible takes a dim view of those who treat their spouses as disposable or fungible objects. This has something to say to our society about common practices like "the starter wife" or the mid-life crisis "spouse upgrade." These are economic considerations. There are other, emotional considerations to be minded, particularly when children are involved.