faith, family

Erin’s First Three Months of Ethical Shopping (and a list of other [some hilarious] experiments you may or may not want to try)

Ethical Shopping Experiment:  The First Three Months.

Our family’s foray into ethical shopping came about as most things do: through friends of friends who gave us just enough spark to dive in the deep end. Ben and I were part of a team launching a new nonprofit, which is how we were introduced to the names behind Parative. (I had met Carolyn once before when she expertly cut my hair a year or so before.) We were immediately intrigued. Per usual when I meet someone with a mutual interest, I monopolized their time at the launch party, asking them all sorts of questions about ethical shopping and how it was working out for them. I am impulsive and spontaneous, which, depending on the circumstance, can be both a blessing and a curse. I’ve done (and written about) lots of other experiments: multiple Whole30s. An ill-advised colon cleanse. Two bouts of vegetarianism. Slowly chipping away at one more item that we only buy organic after watching those horrific food documentaries. So, mostly experiments dealing with food. And mostly ones that, I hope, make me feel good or benefit my health. We want to know what’s in the meat. As much as we can, we want to eat our food with a clean conscience.

parative

Deciding to purchase only clothing that is ethically sourced or secondhand was both exciting (another challenge! And one I can impose upon my whole family!) and daunting (what about when I feel the need??). The Need is what I refer to whenever I enter an Anthropologie or a TJMaxx. I know, the two aren’t exactly synonymous, but I love them both equally. I never really need anything inside of either store, but I always walk out with a candle or shirt or (God help me) a piece of pottery.

Here are a couple of takeaways after immersing ourselves in three months of ethical shopping.

Success #1: God always provides, and sometimes with hyperbole.

My sister recently moved to Costa Rica and unloaded her entire wardrobe on me. I can’t wear all of it, but there are heaps of items I love, and receiving an entire secondhand wardrobe means I basically doubled my clothing. (Small downside: I’ve aspired–experiment alert–to cultivate a capsule wardrobe, and doubling my closet isn’t helping any.)

Success #2: I made my first ethical clothing purchase. In bulk.

My English department (I’m a high school teacher) put me and a coworker in charge of designing and ordering department shirts this year. In no way do I want to push my experiment on anyone else, but I decided it couldn’t hurt to at least ask if my peers were interested in buying an ethically sourced shirt over any other shirt, even if it meant spending more money. We put it to a vote, and an ethically sourced shirt won. (Moral: English teachers are awesome.)

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Visual evidence to back up my claim that English teachers are awesome.

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Success #3: We survived Christmas.

I envy Mary.  When Jesus finally came, she needn’t fret about where his swaddled clothes came from.  Everything, I imagine, was local, everything homemade.  That’s not the case here.  When our own Christmas came, my husband and I had to think past our normal gift exchange. Usually it involves something experiential–a climbing gym membership or a massage, and always it involves a couple of items from Gap that also double as workwear. We had to get creative. We took getting creative with our gifting literally. I got my husband a weekend away at a Young Adult writer’s retreat at the Rivendell Writers’ Colony in Sewanee, TN; he purchased art supplies for me.

My husband is a beautiful writer–I fell in love with his long-distance letters to me long before I really fell for him–and he’s been working on and long dreamed of writing a book of his own. The weekend, he said, was perfect. The hosts, two published young adult authors, one we count as a long-lost friend from our Nashville days, were personable, encouraging, and relaxed. He came back from the conference inspired, refreshed, and energized, ready to get serious about writing. A dream awakened. It was and is beautiful to witness.

While he was gone, I cleared out our guest room closet, put the desk made by my great-grandpa Otis in it with a few writing accoutrements, and declared it Ben’s Writing Closet. It’s awesome.

I thought about the painting supplies for about six days before taking a crack at them. When we lived in Nashville and were first married, creative writing and painting were just part of our lives, as natural as binge-watching “30 Rock” became to me once it aired (Tina Fey as Liz Lemon as Princess Leia?  Fuhgettaboutit). When I started grad school and we moved to Cincinnati in 2006, the painting shut down altogether. I loved to paint, but the more the years ticked away, the less it seemed likely it would ever happen again. It seemed childish, a thing of the past.

But I cracked open that first canvas, had a picture in my head of what I wanted to paint, and went for it. I fell in love. It became a nightly endeavor, an obsession. Ever the Google Calendar evangelist, I created a separate shared calendar called “Create” so we can make a record of every night we spend at least some time writing or painting, even if it’s a puny twenty minutes. It’s exciting to add yet another notch in that belt. It’s awakened something new that feels urgent and important for us. And it’s so much better than khakis or flannel!

Even more amazing, we’re realizing the baloney that is the idea that there’s just not enough time to do something. There’s always time. We’re learning to say no to the right things, even things we love like re-binge-watching “30 Rock” for the fourth time because we need humor in our winters. We’re still having quality family time (we paint and write after the boys go to bed), haven’t slacked one bit on our schoolwork (if anything, we’re more efficient at work so we can “play” at home), and we’re finding it’s life giving. God provides.

We’ll take creation over clothing any day, any gift.

Success #4: The mall just isn’t that appealing right now.

I’ve never been a mall lover. I get dizzy easily and mall-type crowds make me feel anxious. But. There are those times I just want to buy, you know? And Gap has been my go-to place for cheap, stylish, functional clothing for FOREVER. I can even remember those first few Gap items my parents bought for me when we visited the Gap outlet in Hebron, KY, for the first time in the late ‘80s. Have mercy.

Like Bill Murray in What About Bob?, I’m taking baby steps in this experiment. When Ben and I went to kill time at the mall during Christmas season, I thought we might be playing with fire, like when I tell people I’m gluten-free BUT THERE’S A FUNFETTI CUPCAKE STARING AT ME on the counter. The amazing thing? We felt ho-hum in our desire to go into any store. I geek out over Christmas decor, so I love the overdone lights and bling. But I wasn’t tempted to buy a thing. Plus it was strange for me to think first about the hands that made all of the clothing–and there’s a lot of clothing–in each of the store windows. We want to know what’s in the meat.

It feels weird to flip the switch from somewhat-aware-but-still-part-of-the-system consumer to but-not-at-the-expense-of-others consumer.  It’s becoming less strange as time goes on.

This post originally appeared on The Parative Project’s blog. You should check out their site.

faith, marriage, parenthood

Big Paws For Doing Big Things

When I (Erin) think of things I’m afraid of, I think of Big Things: America’s troublesome food system. Money crap. Racism and Bullying.  The fact that I’ve switched jobs twice in two years. How my kids will end up in therapy and resent me. When my Multiple Sclerosis will strike again. Why chin hairs keep growing and multiplying. Why I can’t get more than 20 likes on any single Instagram post (follow me! @erinvore). Whether or not I smell better when I use my husband’s deodorant.

Like I said, big things.

I’m also afraid of a blank page. I’ve always loved to write, always dreamed of writing Big Things. Like Pickles in Esther Averill’s The Fire Cat, one of my boys’ favorite books, I have Big Paws and am meant to do Big Things.

We are all Pickles.

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I’m just afraid my Big Things aren’t worth saying. I’ve spent so much time not writing the right things because I’m so worried I’m not writing the right things. It’s a terrible, vicious cycle.

But.

I just finished reading Glennon Doyle Melton’s fiercely good book of essays, Carry On, Warrior. GDM is one messed up lady. She admits freely, and without shame, how messed up she is: former longtime bulimic, boozer, drug-user, casual sex doer. Those rhyme. Kind of cute until you think about what all of those things mean.

She also knows, though, that those things, those dark spots — skeletons in the closet, things that can suck the life out of you because of fear and worry and shame (not to mention real, tangible consequences like pregnancy and disease) — are not her because she is made new in Christ. She is loved the heck out of by Jesus. In fact, He’s thrilled to call her daughter, to be in love with this messed up lady He’s created.

I had a more than a couple light bulbs go off while reading her memoir:

  1. I am a messed up lady too. I spend a lot of my time making sure people don’t know I am messed up or know that I USED to be messed up, but now I go to church and host small group and read my Bible almost every morning, and am doing the best I can with my two, crazy boys, and eat as cleanly as I can (except for wine and night-time snacks), and buy organic milk and eggs, and am quick to forgive, and exercise moderately, and take my medicine diligently, and try to send belated birthday cards because I almost always never remember special days on the actual day. But, like I said, I am messed up. I’ve done things — Big Things — I’m not proud of, and it got me thinking how much I really believe, like deep down believe, that I really am redeemed. I think my thought life often doesn’t match up with my out loud life. Out loud, I proclaim (such a religious verb) that I am reborn, a new creation, made new in Christ, but my insides still feel shame, sadness, regret. Melton says more than once that she thinks God basically digs her. On the one hand, really? Like, really digs you? Digs me? Isn’t that a little cocky? But I think she’s right. He made me and he digs me and it’s high time I start believing it, not just saying it to the right people at the right time. She said that “the during is just as holy as the after.” I need to stop waiting for the after to know and believe I’m holy and good and loved. It will always be during.
  2. I want to be honest. I want to start writing True Things. I want to stop pretending I need to write one way to represent me and my family well. I want to be a truth teller and wild lover of things God wants me to love, which, you know, is a LOT of things.
  3. I’ve spent a lot of my life comparing myself to women instead of working together with women. GDM operates in the latter. I want to as well. No more comparison. No more shame. Shame, go away. Let us be gifts to one another.
  4. I want to write. I am in love with good books and I am constantly wishing I could write something like those people, those lucky few, can write. News flash: I can! Stop waiting until something amazing happens or I have an amazing story to tell to give myself permission to write and just do it! So I am. Here I go. No stoppin’ me now. And I do have amazing stories, like the fact that I am married to an incredible man who is bursting with creativity and wisdom and integrity, or the fact that Sam drew a dinosaur this morning and then said, “Look, Mommy, he’s eating a chicken stick and going poo poo and pee.” A T-Rex eating chicken and defecating and urinating at the same time? Sounds amazing to me.

Or the fact that I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis a week before Christmas and haven’t completely crumbled yet! (Also, bonus, I can see out of my left eye again, a miracle I daily consider.)

At this point I should probably admit that I’ve checked my phone about four times to see if anyone’s liked my latest Instagram post. And I have not one, but two journals on my table at the coffee shop and I haven’t opened either one. Failings continue. So this is probably a good time to start listing everything I hate about myself so I can repent of that and move on to love. Put on my love glasses, so to speak.

  1. I don’t like that my face is asymmetrical. I think the left side of my face is prettier than the right side. That’s messed up. The asymmetry (trust me, I’ve spent a LOT of time studying my facial asymmetry) makes it difficult for me to wear aviators because one of my ears is slightly above the other ear. Glasses look a little crooked on me.
  2. I walk into a store and I want to buy the whole store. Ben and I are taking Financial Peace University right now, which has us saying repeatedly on Thursday evenings that we wish we would’ve taken it when we were in our teens, or twenties, or before any time but Right Now. Better late than never. Anyway, FPU has me thinking about money and I actually get a little buzz by not buying shit right now, by saving it all and carefully pulling out real cash when I need to buy things we need like milk, chicken sticks, and diapers (though we’re toying with potty training Leo to save on this one). But then it’s Sam’s birthday and I walk into Kohl’s because maybe they’ll have a cheaper Eeyore than the Disney store (they don’t), and I see all of the stuff I don’t have in my house and I. Want. It. All. All of a sudden, contentment disappears and greed and desire and coolness trickles in. I want it. I want to buy it. I want a lot of crap. I don’t like that.
  3. HGTV practically ruins me. We don’t have cable (or even Netflix — Dave Ramsey made us cancel it), but when I go to the dentist or to Pennsylvania to visit my in-laws, we watch HGTV. If watching HGTV could produce intoxication in people, I would be fall-down drunk every time I get my teeth cleaned or go to the Keystone state. I especially love “Fixer Upper.” So good. And I go home from the dentist or PA and walk in our house and start mentally demolishing and redesigning with imaginary money we don’t have and the discontentment begins again. I really don’t like that.
  4. I don’t like that sometimes I hear one of my kids needing me and I pretend not to so that Ben will take care of getting milk for Leo, wiping Sam, making eggs for everyone, cleaning up a spill. I despise that in myself.
  5. And there’s this one time at a Starbucks while talking to someone I love that I just totally lost my shit at that person because I was hurting and sad and couldn’t see past my own hurt and sadness. I hate that I did that.

There’s more, but I think I’ll save those things for more truth telling later.  I’m excited that, at the very least, I believe a little more deeply that God digs me.

This summer has been magical and wonderful for a couple mighty reasons — we’re all home as a family, our boys are finally playing together and are so much fun when they’re sweet, and good, and fun. We’ve been dreaming of great and wonderful things we might do together and feel God’s blessing about. We’re excited for new things on the horizon with the upcoming school year as English teachers in new schools. We’re excited to create. And right now I need to go to other big things like thank Ben for giving me the morning off to read and write and compulsively check my Instagram account, and play Legos with Sam, and renovate more rooms of our house in my head, and tuck in tiny Leo feet for naptime.

Those Big Things are the best things.

[PICKLES PHOTO COURTESY OF PINTEREST]
faith, MS

The Book of PsalMS

The Friday before Thanksgiving last year, I (Erin) headed home after school to shower so I could be decidedly less sweaty and a bit more put-together before driving up to Columbus for my friend Kelly’s rehearsal dinner. I had the honor of being a reader in her wedding. There will be great irony in the fact that I was a reader later. Wait for it.

Anyway, I was showering and doing the things one does when one bathes (on occasion, from time to time — can I get an AMEN!) when all of a sudden I felt an intense pain in my left eye. I didn’t think too much of it — sometimes I move my eyes too quickly and I feel like I’ve strained them too much. The pain goes away. Life moves on.

But this time the eye pain didn’t go away. In fact, it stayed the whole weekend. At the rehearsal dinner I had a splitting headache. Like a migraine on a bender, the Beast of All Headaches. I didn’t sleep much that night.

The next morning, the eye pain and headache were still there. Big bummer. On top of that, my left eye was blurry and my sight a bit dimmed. Colors were less bright, more sepia. Major bummer. I took some ibuprofen which didn’t help. I asked the wedding coordinator (my beloved friend Emily) to make sure the page with scripture printed on it was extra-large, as I was unsure how well I’d be able to read. The weekend went on, my eyesight, headache, and pain got worse. Two best friends became husband and wife in a beautiful ceremony of which I’m grateful to have played a small part.

On our way back to Cincinnati, I called my eye doctor, the wonderful and gracious Dr. Tom Ritter, and left a message: “I’m not sure if this constitutes an emergency or not, but I’m having a really hard time seeing out of my left eye and it hurts a lot. Sorry to bug you on a Sunday.”

Dr. Ritter called me back within ten minutes and told me to meet him at the office ON A SUNDAY. He suspected optic neuritis, an inflammation of the optic nerve, but recommended I see an eye specialist the next day to confirm and explore my eye a little more. He said the words “multiple sclerosis” — this was the first time I heard them spoken aloud. Dr. Ritter said not to freak out, but that there was a relationship (what a quaint word, right?) between optic neuritis and multiple sclerosis.

Dr. Golnik, my eye specialist, confirmed Dr. Ritter’s suspicions, again mentioned the relationship between MS and optic neuritis, and ordered an MRI. I started three days of intravenous steroids to reduce the eye inflammation and hasten my visual recovery. IV steroids mean business. Upside: My eyesight recovered! (Mainly — it was still a tad blurry and “underexposed.”) Downside: Steroids cause insomnia! For a while I was getting one to two hours of sleep a night.

Three MRIs later, I received an official diagnosis of multiple sclerosis on December 18, 2014. Ben and I had about a month between my spontaneous loss of vision in November and the diagnosis, but it still took us by surprise. It’s devastating in the sense that everything changes in the blink of an eye (terrible pun intended) — our plans for a third baby changed, fear crept into our heads, the future seemed on shaky ground. But we believe in a good God who is good all the time, even when life hands you a sucky sandwich, or rotten lemonade, or whatever terrible food metaphor you want to use.

I started treatment (officially called a disease modifying therapy — there is no cure and my treatment won’t stop the disease, only postpone its quickening) in early February. Three times a week, I give myself a shot. These shots won’t be effective until August — they take six months to work, so in the meantime, I’m still unprotected. I had another attack over spring break when I started to experience double-vision again. I gave it some time to work itself out, but started another round of IV steroids four weeks later. Same story: the steroids corrected the double-vision, but my sight was still blurry, still underexposed. More insomnia.

Since November (and even before), I’ve had occasional tingling and numbness, two other hallmark symptoms of MS. When my body temperature rises, the vision in my left eye decreases and my extremities sometimes get tingly and numb. Each day, my left eye is a big question mark. I try to remain grateful for the many blessings in my life regardless of how I feel or what my body is doing that day. And there have been loads of blessings: my family (immediate, nuclear, near and far); my two sweet boys and Ben; my incredible friends; the hundreds, perhaps thousands of prayers spoken and thought on my behalf; my team of doctors, nurses, and assistants; the blessing of restored vision in going from darkness to light; a perfectly timed word from a friend; watching Sam eat the first ripe strawberries from our garden. I could go on.

And of course, some days are terrifying, like when I let my mind consider the worst case scenario “what ifs.” Or the day my whole body felt numb and tingly, like it had soaked in an ice bath for too long. Then the next day comes and it’s back to normal.

Multiple sclerosis is an immune-mediated disease (some docs say auto-immune, they debate about how to label it) that attacks my nerves, specifically the myelin, the stuff that covers nerves. Sclerosis in Latin means “scar,” so multiple sclerosis literally means multiple scars, which show up on the MRIs of my brain (though thankfully NOT my spine).

So, come August, I’ll be doing something I’ve never done before: bike fifty miles to raise funds and awareness for MS. Ben will be joining me. My team name is psalMS, a name I thought appropriate since the Psalms have been comforting to me as I navigate this “new normal.” For extra nerd-factor, I thought capitalizing the “MS” added punch and incorporated some nerdy wordplay as well.

The Book of Psalms itself is astonishing for its raw honesty. When he was a pastor, Eugene Peterson would often hear from his congregants that, after reading the Psalms, they told him they didn’t “expect this kind of thing in the Bible.” To which he would respond, “Did you think these would be the prayers of nice people? Did you think the psalmists’ language would be polished and polite?” Being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis has stripped away any pretensions of my having a polished and polite faith. As I wrestle with my literal sight, I’m reminded that, by definition, faith is “the substance of things hoped for, the assurance of things not seen.”

books, faith

The Dark Path, David Schickler

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Sitting at Easter Mass at the age of ten, David Schickler recalls listening to his “sweet wife cry while I watch the priest.” His wife’s name is Caitlin Brenner, though Schickler notes that she “hasn’t agreed to marry me yet.” “We rarely talk,” he writes, “but soon she’ll realize that we have each four syllables total in our names and both our last names end with -er. David Schickler. Caitlin Brenner. This means that we shall wed and have four children.”

Caitlin is crying because her cockier spaniel, Gus, died the week before. Schickler is caught between watching her (silently “bombarding her with woo”) and paying attention to the service. Leading Mass is Father Jonas — “young, with jet-black hair and a tan.” Schickler is enraptured with Father Jonas, who is “powerful because he’s a priest, but he’s also just cool.” As Father Jonas raises the wafer for the Eucharist, and Caitlin continues sniffling, young David’s ten-year-old mind tries to hold the two seemingly irreconcilable things in balance. He feels a pull toward the priesthood; he also loves women. “I’m caught between them,” he says simply.

Of all the books we’ve read and not blogged about over the past three years, Schickler’s The Dark Path is our favorite. (Fourth of July Creek is right up there though.) We were already predisposed to like it based on a short story of Schickler’s called “The Smoker.” It appeared in the June 19, 2000 edition of The New Yorker; it chronicled the surprising romantic relationship between a high school English teacher and his star pupil. Yes, this sounds tawdry and scandalous. (And, as two high school English teachers, we can never recommend it to our students. Ever.) The story is anything but. It is surprising, moving, and hilarious. (Read it. Right now. We’ll wait.)

Within a week of the story’s publication, Schickler had a six-figure, two-book contract. The story later appeared in a collection entitled Kissing in Manhattan, an uneven but promising group of tales about characters who lived in or passed through a storied apartment building in Manhattan called The Preemption. Schickler then published a novel, Sweet & Vicious, which featured one of the funniest first page-and-a-halves we’ve ever read before taking familiar thematic elements (crime and a cross-country chase; star-crossed lovers) and putting an offbeat spin on them (Grace McClone, the heroine, is “trying for heaven”; she’s an authentic Christian character who appears to have wandered into the wrong book, until you realize it’s a Schickler novel and just go with it).

The Dark Path is a memoir, and it takes the themes swirling around in Kissing in Manhattan and Sweet & Vicious (love, faith, family, sexual desire, hints of violence) and casts them in a personal light. The Schicklers are a devout Christian family (David has three sisters, and there are hints in his childhood — as when his father catches him dancing in the basement to “Summer Nights” from the Grease soundtrack — that his parents are deeply concerned he might be gay), and although Schickler becomes an altar boy, he feels closest to God on “the dark path” — a spot in the woods, full of shadows, close to his house. “My problem is, I like abiding in darkness,” Schickler writes:

I like the dark path, the low, forever shadows among the trees. For me, God is in that darkness. He’s not a devil, or a tree, or a wood sprite. He’s the Lord, He just happens to be in darkness.

Why do we like Schickler (and in particular, The Dark Path) so much? Because we feel like we’ve been on the dark path with him. Our road to faith is not, like the vocabulary of Father Anselm in The Dark Path (who uses words like “nifty” and “dilly”) “scrubbed too clean.” Schickler deploys profanity well; his memoir crackles with curse words, which counterbalance the spiritual themes and make them more approachable, less preachy. Schickler says, “As a writer, I’ll never be a Sunday-morning kind of guy. For whatever reasons, I am good at writing only about Saturday night things, about guns and screwing and liquor and murder and laughter and desperate kissing.” We like Saturday night stories that still locate Sunday morning themes. So Schickler is our guy on that front.

Likewise, Schickler’s ability to write humorously and honestly about matters of faith is what makes The Dark Path so winning. When a choir member wears “an alarmingly yellow dress,” Schickler writes that “she is so yellow, I can’t pray.” The usher, Mr. Bonticello, wears a robin’s-egg-blue suit which disturbs Schickler “because the color is too weak and too lame to have anything to do with God.” When Schickler wins a Religion Award in eighth grade, one of his friends signs his yearbook, Nice Going, Jesus Tard!

On his journey to live a godly life as well as love women, Schickler inevitably stumbles and sins and has his heart broken. (He also does some breaking of his own.) His is the story of a sinner who is unafraid to lay it all out on the table, even to laugh at some of the most excruciating moments. There’s a dance contest toward the end of the memoir which could be straight out of Silver Linings Playbook, and like that film, it manages uplift and sentimentality without being cheesy or cloying. Also like the film, The Dark Path nails a happy ending that feels hard-won — unexpected, but deserved.

books, depression, faith

A First-Rate Madness

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I (Ben) picked up Nassir Ghaemi’s book A First-Rate Madness after reading his op-ed in the New York Times last week. The premise is straightforward: Ghaemi, a professor of psychiatry at Tufts Medical Center, argues that mental illness may actually benefit leaders in times of crisis. In his op-ed, Ghaemi posits an “inverse law of sanity,” observing that

mentally healthy leaders, successful in quiet and prosperous times, often fail in times of crisis; in contrast, our greatest crisis leaders frequently are mentally abnormal, even mentally ill.

A First-Rate Madness ranges across the 19th and 20th century (with a quick toe dip in the 21st) to identify historical figures (all men, it turns out) whom Ghaemi believes illustrate this inverse law. Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, FDR, JFK, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., are all examples of leaders with mental illness — usually depression, but also mania or other disorders. Ghaemi’s examples of sane leaders (he defines them as “homoclites”) are less numerous and more ambiguous: he contrasts Neville Chamberlain with Churchill, then lumps Richard Nixon, Tony Blair and George W. Bush into one chapter at the very end of the book. (If there is one thing Richard Nixon was not, it was a mentally stable individual.)

If Ghaemi’s thesis is a bit broad and his history a bit selective (I’ve only read about a third of the book so far), it is nonetheless one I find very compelling. There’s always a fine line between romanticizing mental illness and highlighting its benefits alongside its handicaps, something we’ve talked about here before. I do share Ghaemi’s belief that, for those afflicted with mental illness, whether leaders or not, “their weakness is, in short, the secret of their strength.”

Ghaemi notes that Aristotle was the first thinker to speculate about the connection between genius and madness. Ghaemi doesn’t look back farther than the Civil War for his historical examples, but I found myself applying his theory to a much earlier crowd. The Bible, for whatever you think about it, is at the least a historical document about some generally pretty crazy people. Almost all the central figures in the drama of Christianity are not sane or balanced. That’s one of the reasons I find them compelling. Ghaemi’s observation that weakness can be a source of strength is simply an echo of what Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians: “The Lord said to me, ‘My power is made perfect in weakness.’ That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

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For more on A First-Rate Madness, here’s a rave from NPR and a rant from Janet Maslin.

books, faith

H-E-Double Hockey Sticks

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There’s a kerfuffle in Christian circles about a book that hasn’t even come out yet — Rob Bell’s Love Wins. As its subtitle states, the book is “about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived.” Most of the book’s critics thus far — and there are many, from the prominent Christian blogger Justin Taylor at The Gospel Coalition to the evangelical leader John Piper, who tweeted “Farwell, Rob Bell” — have by their own admission not yet read the book. The New York Times has taken notice of the controversy, which has propelled the book to #13 on Amazon’s Top 100.

We have both read the book. (Ben got an advance copy through work.) Our thoughts are many.

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The controversy, in a nutshell, is whether hell is real, and whether or not people who do not believe in God or call Jesus their personal savior or who commit evil and unspeakable acts end up there. There are many Christians who believe hell is eternal separation from God; others subscribe to annihilationism, the belief that sinners are destroyed rather than suffer eternally (the corollary of this belief being that the human soul is not immortal unless someone, or something, endows it with eternal life). On the other end of that spectrum is universalism, the notion that everyone will be reconciled to God and saved in some way from eternal torment — i.e., there is no hell. This is a decidedly less mainstream view in Christian orthodoxy but it has its proponents as well. (Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today, provides a nice overview of the many competing theologies at play here, along with which leading Christian thinkers and theologians down through the centuries have subscribed to them.)

Bell’s critics accuse him of “moving farther and farther away from anything resembling biblical Christianity” (Justin Taylor); Denny Burk takes some of the questions we quoted above and answers them “from a biblical point of view” — implying, not so subtly, that Bell has arrived at his theology without so much as cracking his Bible.

What struck us reading the book is just how rooted in scripture it is. Of course, Christians have hotly debated the Bible for millennia — untold denominations have split open over the meaning of single words in the scriptures, to say nothing of whole verses. So it’s not at all shocking that prominent Christians would find different conclusions about hell and go to battle over them. The question is whose reading of the Bible seems more faithful to the character of God as revealed in Jesus, whom Christians believe was not only a prophet but in fact the Son of God, both wholly human and wholly divine.

Bell begins Love Wins with an anecdote about an art show at his church. Bell is the pastor of a 10,000 member congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, called Mars Hill Bible Church. The theme of the show was peacemaking, and one of the artists included a quote from Gandhi. Next to that quote someone added this handwritten note: “Reality check: He’s in hell.”

Really? Bell wonders. We know for sure what another person’s eternal salvation is? Bell shares another anecdote about a Christian who, upon learning that a self-described atheist died in a car accident, responds that there was “no hope.” Is this the best message Christians have to offer?, Bell asks. This is good news? “No hope”?

When I (Ben) spent my first summer at a Christian sports camp — a camp I loved dearly, in what I still think of as possibly the best summer of my life — I sat next to one of the head counselors during lunch one day. He asked what I studied and I told him English. I said I had studied Thoreau and Emerson the past semester, and that I had brought Walden with me and had been reading it that morning. He pursed his lips and gave an almost imperceptible head shake. “It’s too bad they never got it,” he said. “Excuse me?” I replied. “It’s too bad they never knew the Truth,” he said. “They could’ve done a lot more good.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. It was clear he was provoking me — something he would do many times that summer. I have grown to appreciate provocation as a teaching style — Jesus himself was fond of it — but I had no stomach for it at that mess hall dining table. His was a type of thinking to which I was completely foreign. It was also a type of thinking I wanted nothing to do with. It was the mind of a fundamentalist. There was only black and white. If I was to navigate my way to a responsible Christian belief — and I was determined to do so — I would get there only if there was another path than this man’s.

But I worried: What if proper belief was fundamentalism? What if the closer I came to God the more black and white everything became? What if one day I saw a quote from Gandhi and my first thought was not, “What a profound statement” or “What an example of nonviolence,” but rather, “Too bad he’s in hell”?

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One prominent evangelical who has come to Bell’s defense is Greg Boyd. (We’ve previously written about Greg Boyd here.) He, unlike Bell’s most outspoken critics thus far, has actually read the book. (He also got an advance copy.)

“I enthusiastically recommend Love Wins because of the way it empowers readers to question old perspectives and consider new ones,” Boyd writes. “Rob’s book really isn’t about the population or duration of heaven or hell. It’s mainly about the unfathomably beautiful character of God revealed in Jesus Christ and therefore about the unfathomably good nature of the Good News.”

What does Boyd make of Bell’s detractors? “I sometimes wonder if the animosity some express toward Universalists [or toward those some assume are Universalists] is motivated by the fear that the case for Universalism might turn out to be more compelling than they can handle,” Boyd says. Boyd finishes his post with a refreshing sentiment, something we’ve never heard said by anyone who has spoken definitively of another person’s salvation: “Then again, I could be wrong.” (“Which is why,” he adds, “this is a good conversation worth having … but not on Twitter … and not by accusing and labeling and bidding a brother ‘farewell’ before you’ve even read the book!”)

We agree with Boyd that Love Wins is, despite its subtitle, not actually a book about heaven and hell. If this was an intentional misdirection on Bell’s (or perhaps his publisher’s) part, it’s a shrewd one, and not simply from a marketing standpoint. Those who vehemently disagree with what they perceive as Bell’s argument may be surprised when they actually read the book to find that he’s not making the argument they expect (or, even, to find that they agree with him). Others — we’re thinking of people who aren’t Christians — may pick up the book because it’s the first time that the Good News really and truly sounds like good news to them.

This upending of expectations is something Jesus did constantly. To the religious, observant Jews of his day — the Pharisees, the rule-keepers, the ones who kept close tabs on who was (and sometimes more importantly was not) in God’s good favor — Jesus reserved his harshest rebukes, telling stories about people who missed the banquet feast. (That deeply unsettling passage from Matthew: “On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.'”)

But the people who were otherwise outcasts — the sick and lame, the “sinners” and prostitutes, the tax collectors and the thief on the cross — were the ones who somehow kept finding favor with Jesus. The church in 21st century America doesn’t seem to feel the same way about these people that Jesus did. We Christians often suffer from what a friend of ours called “the curse of older brotherism,” a reference to the parable of the Prodigal Son and the stingy, self-righteous spirit of the older brother who cannot bring himself to rejoice at the return of his lost brother. If any of us can read Bell’s book and recover a little humility about being what Paul calls “imitators of Christ,” then we’ll all be the better for it.

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The fears that I had when I was a 19-year-old camp counselor — that true belief would lead to the closing of my mind and the rigidity of dogma — were unfounded. As a believer of close to fifty years said to me the other day, “The longer I’ve been a Christian, the less I seem to know for sure.” We haven’t been on the path as long as this friend of ours has, but we’ve found this to be true for ourselves. Surprisingly, this is not discouraging. It is, if anything, exciting.

What Bell does in Love Wins is repeatedly ask questions, over and over, sometimes this way and sometimes that way, adding an inflection here or there. (We’ll save our harshest criticism of the book for Bell’s writing style, which is too often disjointed and clunky. He may be a good communicator from stage but his prose leaves much to be desired.) The answers are, at least to us, far less interesting right now than the questions. What’s indisputable — what we think Bell’s critics miss — is not Bell’s theology, which is at best alluded to and hinted at more than declared straight out. It’s who Bell says Jesus is, and was, and what that means to us today.

There are only a handful of “Christian” books that come out every year that we’d ever want to recommend to someone who’s not a Christian. Love Wins may not be at the top of that list, but it’s on there, if only as a great conversation starter. The question now is whether people can see past the irony of the title when they look at what Christians are saying about each other before they’ve even read the book. To which we say: Forgive us. We all need it on a daily basis.

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For more on the debate, here’s the Rev. Jonathan Weyer at The Huffington Post.

And here’s the promotional video for the book.

depression, faith, parenthood, Sam

Random Thoughts on Fatherhood: Four Months

1. Wednesdays have been my weekday off for the past four years. My routine rarely varied: I woke up, took our MacBook and a good book (or two) to a coffee shop, and hung out there as long as I felt like it. In the afternoon I did work around the house if needed, or — even if there was work to do around the house — napped. Two years ago, when we started volunteering as junior high youth leaders at our church, Erin and I started going to a Wednesday afternoon meeting. After that, dinner. Then pick-up basketball. Then “Lost,” until it moved to Tuesday nights. Now, depending on when basketball ends (since we still live in pre-DVR times at the Vore household), “Modern Family.” Inevitably the day would end with me falling asleep with the lights on and an open book on my chest and my contacts still in, all of which caused Erin great consternation at two in the morning when she’d wake up and say, “You did it again,” and I would stumble to the bathroom, remove the now-burning contacts plastered to my eyeballs, and lament how my thirtysomething body ached in ways it never used to after an hour and a half of physical activity.

I really liked my Wednesday routine. One of the things I was most afraid of when I became a dad was losing it.

I am someone who needs a lot of downtime. When I don’t get it, I start breaking down. A bad Wednesday (too many errands, unexpected work issues, a poor showing on the court) had ripple effects around the rest of my week. So what would I do when I had a kid?

It feels terribly selfish to ask that question. But it was an honest question for me. What if I never had downtime again? What if being a good dad meant forsaking things I not only wanted, but things I felt like I needed to operate and get through my week?

I thought the biggest challenge of fatherhood would be confronting just how self-centered I really am. Certainly that’s been a battle. Now, though, four months into it, I’m surprised at how easily I’ve let go of my old Wednesday routine. Why? It has been replaced by something immeasurably better.

2. Now I wake up on Wednesdays a couple hours earlier than I used to. Sam squawks and chirps into the monitor Erin leaves on my nightstand before she goes to school. (I’m not sure exactly what a baby velociraptor sounds like, but I think Sam does a pretty good impression.) Then comes my second favorite part of the day: I go into the nursery and unswaddle him as he lights up with an expression that says, I know you! You’re coming to get me out of this straightjacket which I’ve already freed one arm from! And then you’ll wipe my butt! And then feed me with a bottle! And make infantile noises and jiggle brightly colored toys above me and pretend you’re a square dance caller when you read me that book about the barnyard animals who dance together! I like you!

Yes, Sam, I will do all of these things. And I will do them gladly. This is what fathers do.

3. After those things, our day can go any number of directions. When it was still warm out, we went for a walk at Sharon Woods in the fabulous Bob stroller (courtesy of the Sweeneys, who graduated to a deluxe double-wide Bob). Sometime we run errands, to the post office or Trader Joe’s or Costco, and are treated with looks that either say, Ah, the modern father, a new breed of domestic creature, or, How did a man with so little hair have a son with so much? (followed by, Does he look like a kidnapper? Maybe I should call the cops). Last week we received an exclusive invitation to a play group with such A-list stars as Kyle, Ava, Jack and Reagan. I was the only father there, and a good thing too: When we found what we thought was a dead mouse underneath a cabinet, it was my duty to dispose of the body. It turned out to be a cat toy. Later I was called upon to kill a wasp. It was nice to feel needed.

4. Shankar Vandatam wrote in Slate recently that parents are addicted to parenthood. He said

Parents spend endless hours commiserating with one another about the travails of parenthood. Yet when researchers present data about children and unhappiness, parents rise up in protest. Research may depict parenthood as a bile-inducing, rage-fueling, stress-producing ordeal, but parents tell us that becoming parents is the best thing they ever did. Nonparents write off this reaction as defensiveness—if you’ve screwed up by having a kid and don’t want to admit it, you pretend to be happy—but parents regularly choose to have more than one child. If parenthood were as subjectively awful as the objective research implies, wouldn’t all parents stop at one child? It’s one thing to claim that a stubbed toe doesn’t hurt, and quite another to aim a second kick at the chair.

So what explains the urge to continue procreating? Here Vandatam brings in the addict angle:

Parenting is a grind, and most parents are stressed out much more than they are happy. But when parents think about parenting, they don’t remember the background stress. They remember the cuddle and the kiss. Parenting is a series of intensely high highs, followed by long periods of frustration and stress, during which you go to great lengths to find your way back to that sofa and that kiss.

We have a name for people who pursue rare moments of bliss at the expense of their wallets and their social and professional relationships: addicts.

Am I an addict now? Do parents pretend to be happy simply to fight off a mammoth case of buyer’s remorse? Are the rare moments of bliss worth the frustration and stress?

What I know is that fatherhood has certainly reprogrammed me. I can remember a time not too long ago when Erin and I revolted at the thought of babies. Five years, we agreed when we got married. (And then maybe another five.) We said all the things non-parents do: We like our freedom. We like going out to movies when we feel like it. There’s something about holing up for a weekend and tearing through a full season of “Mad Men.” We’ll see less of our friends when we have a kid.

Do we miss those things? Sure. We’ve certainly become hermits since Sam showed up. Friday nights are spent on the couch reading magazines. We haven’t been to the theater in six months. We’ve read a lot fewer books and watched a lot fewer TV shows. Our blogging has been a bit more sporadic, depending on the week.

But when I say I wouldn’t trade parenthood for any of that I don’t think I’m rationalizing anything. All of the things we did before we became parents were fun. Now all the things we do as parents are fulfilling, and fun, in different ways. I can’t imagine it being otherwise. We once were not parents, and now we are. It’s as simple and complicated as that.

5. One of the things I most feared about parenthood was passing on my junk to my kid. And by junk I specifically mean depression.

I have been afraid of this long before I actually became a parent. Many years ago, after I got past the fear that my depression would make me unmanageable as a potential boyfriend/husband, I picked up the fear that it would be irresponsible, if not cruel, of me to have kids. Especially a boy. Depression has generational roots, and I can trace them up and down my family tree.

I had the good fortune this spring of taking a class at Crossroads called “Strongholds.” (The alternate title, which will either be more or less creepy depending on your point of view, was “Healing & Deliverance.”) The class was just for men, and over thirteen weeks we addressed various strongholds — fear, religion, accusation, bitterness, to name a few — which have biblical foundations and which Christians believe we were meant to have freedom from.

The metaphor that stuck for me, trying to make sense of generational strongholds, was that of squatters’ rights. Imagine over a century ago some wandering folk set up a camp in your great-great-whoever’s backyard. Instead of kicking them off his property, your great-great-whoever decided that so long as the squatters stayed outside and kept the music down after eleven o’clock, they weren’t doing anyone any harm. So they establish a truce.

Your great-great-whoever has kids, and they understand the arrangement. Maybe they like it, maybe they don’t, but the squatters stay put and everyone gets along more or less.

Then those kids have kids, and the squatters’ kids have kids, and all this new generation knows is that this is the way things have always been. The squatters’ kids believe they own the land they’ve grown up on. And the kids in the house assume the same and let the arrangement be.

How is this like generational strongholds? Because once you’ve agreed to coexist with a stronghold — say, a spirit of fear — then it sets up camp for good. You see this all throughout the Bible, as early as the Garden of Eden (memorably interpreted by David Bazan).

You don’t have to be a Christian to believe that generations pass things on. Think “the apple doesn’t fall from the tree,” or “like father, like son.”

You also don’t have to be a Christian to believe that you can be freed from strongholds, though it certainly helps me believe that. Going through that class, I came to see that there’s no reason why I must agree that depression continues along my family line. So I started praying it wouldn’t. My friends started praying with me. Time will tell, as these things go, but when I look at smiley Sam I don’t feel fear that he is destined to suffer in the same ways I have suffered. I believe things can change for the better. Becoming a father has, if nothing else, made me a believer in the future.

6. My favorite part of the day is bath time. Many of my dad friends told me it would be. When I begin taking Sam’s clothes off on the changing table, he squirms and kicks with joy, the way babies do when they’re about to get naked. While Erin is still filling the tub, I hold Sam in front of the mirror and he grins and kicks some more. I set him in his bathtub and, wide-eyed, he surveys the water around him before he first pees, then starts kicking (again) and splashing indiscriminately. We just recently discovered an octopus squirt toy; when we spray water on his stomach, Sam giggles as if it is the greatest invention on earth.

It’s then that I think, even if all I ever got from being a dad was this giggle, that would be enough. Of course, I’ve gotten much, much more than that.

So yes, I’ll come out and say it. My name is Ben, and I am addicted to fatherhood. And I can’t wait to wake up on Wednesday morning.

x

[photo: Jenny Beck]