How Long, O Lord?

Advent has eluded me this year. I forgot to pick up my favorite Advent book from on hold at the library, and they’ve probably sent it back by now. I didn’t buy new Advent candles, since we’re on one income now, and that means that two of my purple candles are pitifully nubby. I have prayed the collects about once each, and we sang a verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” in class each day, but the key was a bit more ambitious than I am, so I ended up just mouthing most of the words.

Advent has often eluded me in the past as well, although not in so obvious a way. Advent, the season of longing, has been for me more a season of celebrating while paying lip service to longing. I am not well suited to Advent; I love December, and the first snow makes me feel giddy, and I never really want to fast or wait or long. That’s what Lent is for, and I do so love Lent, so somber and ascetic and long. Besides, I’m always a little baffled about how to observe Advent in American culture; it’s reminds me England before they settled on one date for Easter: feasting and fasting in the same household.

Still, in recent years I have dutifully prayed the collects, tried to save Christmas hymns for Christmas, read Advent devotionals, attended Advent small groups, and all the rest. Sometimes there are breakthroughs. In a small group in Phoenix, Philip and I were paired with mostly senior citizens who talked about hope and how they were looking forward to death and to heaven, because they were wearying of this life. I had no earthly idea what that was like, being 24 and hale and hearty. I wisely kept my mouth shut and listened, understanding that these people understood something—a big thing—that I didn’t. They could hold the deep sadness and the deep joy together in one moment. They had the cosmic vision that collapses time; they felt the “not yet” already.

***

imageIt’s been a difficult Advent in other ways at well.  I went to a prayer service for the Peshawar school attack at the seminary, and I started crying the moment I walked in the door. My more stoic Dutch classmates have better self-control than I do, so my genuine grief was marred by my own ugly self-consciousness. I hate thinking about myself at a time like that. So I felt guilty in addition to sad.

And the racial unrest in the United States has hovered over my days. There have been many tears, because I hate, hate, hate the thought that we have brothers and sisters who feel like second-class citizens. I cried before even leaving the house one morning. I almost didn’t write that, because it is embarrassing (I cry easily and a lot), but then again, it simply is not; what’s embarrassing is crying because I can’t have as many clothes as I want or because I’m not as successful as my friends or because we have enough money but not a lot of extra money.

Anyway, I’ve been following everything and reading everything, which then seemed to me to be decidedly not enough. I kept having this fear that I would be ninety years old and regret that I only had strongly held opinions and nothing more. I found on Facebook a small vigil at the Rosa Parks statue in downtown Grand Rapids, and so I made Philip take me to buy candles and then drive me there. I tend to back out of unknown or unpredictable events, and so I needed someone steadfast, someone who wouldn’t turn the car around.

I was crying too soon again, before we even got there, and I told Philip he was going to have to take our candles while I waited in the car, because sometimes I cry so much in situations like these that people think there’s something actually wrong with me. Philip agreed, because he is a saint, and because he knew that this was something I needed to do, or do vicariously. But somehow I pulled it together, and we agreed that I could walk with him to the vigil as far as I could make it, and somehow I made it all the way there.

We didn’t stay very long, but we went. And I did cry some, and I was embarrassed and self-conscious again, but at least we went. Philip lit a different kind of candle, not a nubby purple candle, but tall white candles in jars. But the question was the same as it ever is in Advent: How long, O Lord?

What My Single Friends Taught Me About Love

This article was originally published in the Calvin Theological Seminary Kerux.

There are a lot of really bad reasons to get married, and the internet seems bent on propagating them. I have been told variously that marriage is good for me financially and morally, that it’s good for society, that it will make me healthier, more attractive, and happier. While some of these things may be true, I don’t know anyone who entered into marriage after doing a careful cost-benefit analysis. Everyone I know got married for the same reason that I did: we loved another human being and we believed that marriage was the right way to honor that.

Since getting married, I’ve not encountered a great deal more wisdom. I stopped reading marriage books after I threw one across the room in frustration. The author’s basic premise was that all of the suffering he was experiencing in marriage was sanctifying him. Which is really great, because that’s what I had hoped for in marriage—that I could be the cause of great suffering in another human being. Then the author began praising his car for being much clearer about its needs than his wife was. “Why don’t you marry your freaking car!?” I yelled. Only I did not say freaking.

Now, instead of reading books that tell me what I “as a woman” need and want, and what my husband “as a man” needs and wants, I just try to apply my general principles of being a good human being. Don’t say mean things to or about the other person. Listen. Care deeply. Give.  I learned these from the Bible, from literature, from my parents.

And we have had an almost incomprehensibly good and peaceful four years. I know it may not always be so. I know that every moment of happiness in marriage is a blessing, a gift of grace, and not of my own doing. And I believe firmly in seasons, in the very real likelihood that someday we may not be so happy, and that that will not mean we are bad people. After all, in the grand scheme of things, we are still newlyweds.

These four years have taught me something about marriage, and while it is certainly not a reason to get married, it is a blessing of marrying well. The thing that I “get” out of marriage is not financial solvency or a hale and hearty complexion, but another human being who knows me better than anyone else and who still believes in me more than I believe in myself. I invariably assume that I will fail—at everything; my husband, on the other hand, urges me, even bribes me, to take risks and face challenges. He sets deadlines for me, he dials the phone and holds it next to my face so that I have to talk, he even drafts emails for me that I would never dare to write myself. My husband fundamentally believes that I am strong, smart, and capable, and that the world needs me.

And, perhaps most important of all, he names my strengths. How rare it is that another human being looks you in the eye and tells you that you are good at something. And it is rarer yet that someone knows you well enough to venture beyond smart, funny, or nice. I do my best to return this great gift and to help my husband see himself the way I see him.

Apparently, if you are a little dense, as I am, it takes four years of marriage to learn this deeply empowering act. If you are not dense but are rather deeply insightful and compassionate, you can learn this without marriage. I know this because the people in my life, other than my husband, who are quickest to name my strengths are all single. My sister, a coworker, a classmate. They too have this gift of looking you in the eye and saying, “You are good.” My coworker (and dear friend) recently gave me a postcard on the back of which she had written the kindest thing anyone has ever said to me: “If you saw yourself the way I see you, you would never have a dark day again.” The deep, deep power of those words and her utter lack of self-consciousness in writing them is a stronger gift by far than any that I exercise.

It only occurred to me recently how much I have grown because of my single friends who turn their love and compassion outward instead of focusing it intensely on one other human being, as I and my husband instinctively do for each other. If it were just my husband and I, we would go on loving each other as spouses for forever, but it would be like two mirrors facing each other, an endless regression of reflections. This is a good thing, but a limited thing.

But the beautiful thing about love is that we almost always reflexively return it, and so these three single women are teaching me how to show deeply affirming love to friends and even not-yet friends. It has yet to become second nature to me, as it is to them, and so I know I have much to learn. They do not say nice things they do not mean. They scour others for the deep good within. These women do not worry about coming on too strong. They simply see value in a human being and say so.

This, by the way, is also what God does.

A strong draught “for the soul’s health”: Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins by Dennis Okholm

El Greco 1If you’re looking for a little more guilt in your life, this is the book for you. Dennis Okholm’s exploration of monastic psychology on the seven deadly sins in Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins is a tour through one’s own shortcomings, and each stop on the itinerary offers a new helping of shame.

The thing is, though I wasn’t looking for it, I did need a little more guilt in my life. Since my migration from evangelical to mainline, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the word “sins” used in a sermon. It’s true that we confess our sins against God and our neighbor each week in the liturgy, and I mean that prayer when I say it, but it’s over in 20 seconds and doesn’t get very specific. It’s also true that we might acknowledge “sin” from time to time, referring to that abstract, aggregate body of our misbehavior. But rarely in our homilies and conversations do we utter words like “sins” or “sinning,” words that make the thing concrete, reminding us that our transgressions are many and recurring.

I needed a reminder that I commit particular sins, and that these sins are a serious thing. This book certainly offered that.

Okholm’s objective, of course, is not merely to create a 200-page guilt trip. As he states in the admirably lucid introductory chapter, the goal of Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins is first “to bring forward the insights of early church monks”—Evagrius of Pontus, John Cassian, and Pope Gregory I in particular—“in order to offer what one might call a truly Christian psychology,” and second to “make a bit of an apologetic case for the priority of this Christian psychology” (8).

dangerous passions 1Okholm characterizes these monks as skilled doctors of the soul, and he presents their system of observing, diagnosing, and curing human misbehavior as a sound foundation for good Christian counseling (or a sound alternative to bad Christian counseling). Thus, he offers more than an overview of the seven deadly sins. In each chapter he compares early medieval thought to contemporary studies and trends that also deal with anger, overeating, envy, etc., highlighting both agreements and divergences.

Okholm also strives to apply monastic thought to a particular “case” of each sin in a modern setting, showing how monastic prescriptions did serve, or might have served, as an effective remedy.

Okholm’s fluency in the monastics is impressive, and all the more so because it is not intimidating. He clearly has a scholar’s knowledge of his sources, but he also has a disciple’s love for them. It is this love that speaks loudest, and it allows him to quote extensively from them without seeming showy or pedantic. His attitude is not “Look what I know,” but rather “Look what they knew!”

Almost as impressive is Okholm’s familiarity with modern psychology. He is a theologian and minister; it’s never been his job to be an expert in psychology. For this book I don’t think he’s claiming to be an expert, either, but he has clearly been diligent in his homework. He provides a lot of information, and a lot of corroboration. I myself am no expert, so I’m not qualified to judge whether he always gives a fair or full picture when talking about this study or that doctor, but it all seems to have the substance and gravitas of legitimacy.

For some readers, this engagement with modern thought may be the hook. I would have been nearly as happy with the book even without it. For one thing, Okholm’s “test cases” are often a little thin or tenuous. Sometimes they feel like afterthoughts at the end of a chapter, and sometimes they seem a bit of a stretch.

For another thing, as much as the introduction seems to promise controversy, Okholm is actually a little tentative when it comes to pitting his monastic sources against their modern counterparts. He does frequently point out differences, but he often resolves them by noting a newer, even more contemporary source that has come back around to the monastic point of view; or he leaves them unresolved, noting a difference of context and the need for more study.

Surprisingly, one Amazon reviewer accuses Okholm of overstating his case. He charges the author with holding too stubbornly to monastic thought, prescribing in particular a dangerous, excessive patience in abusive relationships (which would contradict the modern mandate for victims to get out). Before I started the book, I was wary of this very kind of error—the presumption of a scholar on crusade, wielding a favorite thesis in a far-off land, and particularly a thesis stating, more or less, that the old ways are best.

But I never actually saw that error, not in Okholm’s treatment of anger and not anywhere else. Again, the author seems fairly cautious when it comes to picking a fight. He’s happy in many cases to validate both sides in a conflict, allowing each side a set of circumstances where its principles seem best. Considering that very few of us inhabit the cloistered context where Okholm’s monks wrote, this caution seems wise.

For me, Okholm’s comparison of modern and ancient psychology is the less interesting element of the book because, ultimately, I’m not sure he’s comparing like things. So much of modern psychology seems devoted to abnormal conditions and extraordinary disorders. The monastic “psychology,” on the other hand, is concerned with the very mundane sins we all wrestle with (or surrender to). As Okholm himself says at one point, “there is something extraordinarily ordinary about all this” (34).

And that is exactly why the first element of the book, the simple exposition of monastic thought on sin, is so interesting to me. My sins are such an ordinary part of my life that I had forgotten to take them seriously. They had grown comfortable in a way, and because of that I had stopped trying to get rid of them. (Or did that happen the other way around?) Then here came these monks, reminding me that my sins are deathly serious, that my comfort with them is lethal, and that despite all this there are concrete things I can do to actually overcome them.

My progress through this book seemed to parallel Dante’s journey through Purgatory. At each new terrace—gluttony, lust, greed, anger, envy, sloth, vainglory—I saw myself in the sins depicted. I saw my own errors dragged out into the light, exposed in harsh relief. And like Dante, I felt the sharp remorse that is, if cultivated, the seed of repentance.

This, for me at least, makes Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins an even better book than perhaps its author intended. (I doubt he’ll chafe at the comparison to Dante and the implict analogy of himself to Virgil.) It was more than informative or provocative; it was transformative. I know of no higher praise for a book.

(Full disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from Brazos Press in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.)

In Memoriam

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Barley came home in a cardboard box that first time, when it wasn’t even my home yet, and I didn’t much care. He was a compromise, an instrument. We were going to live in Arizona, and Barley was The Deal. I got my Arizona, Erin got her cat; the cat would (probably) make up enough for Arizona, and Erin would marry me a month after we moved there, and I could stop sleeping on the floor in the apartment underneath ours. That was The Deal. Barley was my bridge.

I had always wanted a dog, really. In my grade school sketches of my future, I drew myself into a woodsy world whose headquarters were a log cabin I shared with my perfectly symmetrical blonde and brown retrievers. There was no woman, and there was certainly no cat.

What I actually had back then was a brief series of fishes, betas whose names were technically Leonardo and Michelangelo, and whose nicknames were Fishy and Fishy.

I am saying that, in that inevitable dichotomy of persons, I was not a cat person.

I am still not a cat person.

I am, however, a Barley person.

When thinking about Barley and his place in my life, I always think about The Little Prince. I always think of what the fox says about taming something, which is also the process of being tamed. (It’s what I thought I about when we lost Barley briefly a couple of years ago; it’s also what Erin thought about when we lost Barley permanently just today.)

So really, I am not just a Barley person—I am Barley’s person. He tamed me as much as I tamed him. Maybe I trained him to come looking for me in the mornings, before Erin wakes up, when I’m sitting and praying in the other room. But I look for him, too. I listen for tick-tack-tack of his claws on the hardwood floor. I wait for the slow creak of the door as he nudges it open. I pause and raise the prayer book, inviting him to jump up and curl himself perfectly into my lap. He was mine, but I was also his.

Today Barley left the home that was both his and mine one last time, again in a cardboard box, and this time I cared very much. I buried him in the backyard, just before the ground froze for the winter, among the daisies we didn’t plant but that will come back again in the summer anyway. Like all of his other people, I loved him, and I will miss him.

“Room to navigate”: A Review of Generous Spaciousness: Responding to Gay Christians in the Church

gen spaciousnessGenerous Spaciousness: Responding to Gay Christians in the Church
by Wendy VanderWal-Gritter
Brazos Press, 2014 (281 pages)

“Gay and Christian?” ask the bumper stickers I see around town. “Yes!” they answer, the exclamation point anticipating, it seems, a certain amount of surprise.

“Gay Christian” wasn’t a real category for most other categories of Christians until recently. It was an impossibility or a contradiction, a thing the imagination couldn’t conceive of or wouldn’t permit. But now it doesn’t have to be imagined. Gay Christians are visible, active members of many churches. It’s become harder and harder to deny their existence because, well, here they are.

And that’s why Wendy VanderWal-Gritter’s book, Generous Spaciousness, asks a different question than the bumper sticker does. The book isn’t concerned with whether or not a Christian can be gay but rather how a Christian who is gay can fit into the church — or even more precisely, how the church should be actively provide a place for gay Christians to fit.

VanderWal-Gritter is a good guide for this exploration. As the longtime leader of New Direction, a Canadian ministry formerly affiliated with the Exodus network, she used to believe herself that gay Christians didn’t exist — only ex-gay ones. That changed. Over the last few years, along with many of her peers in the ex-gay movement, she began to question the psychological and moral assumptions fundamental to her ministry. Too many gay Christians were getting hurt trying to overturn their orientation. Too many would-be ex-gay Christians just couldn’t become ex-gay.

So VanderWal-Gritter began to humbly and prayerfully develop the principle of generous spaciousness. It’s a fairly simple idea: gay Christians should be given the respect, and the latitude, to work out for themselves how to understand and respond to  their orientation. “People need the grace of generous spaciousness as they navigate making sense of their experience of same-sex attraction,” says VanderWal-Gritter (53). “Generous spaciousness . . . gives the individual room to navigate the journey” (140).

“Generous spaciousness” means gay Christians should first of all be welcomed into churches. It means they should be trusted and supported. And it means, most of all, that if they come to a different understanding from my own, or your own, about their sexuality (especially if our understanding was formed within the safety of “heterosexual privilege”), they should still be loved and affirmed.

As she develops the idea of generous spaciousness, VanderWal-Gritter relies primarily on personal experience and personal encounters. Her voice echoes the evangelical trend of emphasizing narrative and “story” over discursive reasoning. And as someone who has been in the trenches, as it were, on both sides in the conflict over Christianity and homosexuality, she has a lot of “foxhole stories” to tell.

These stories tend to reflect two themes: first, most gay Christians endure unimaginable anguish as they try to reconcile earnest faith with their sexuality, and second, these Christians have felt the Spirit leading them to diverse, and sometimes apparently contradictory, positions regarding their sexuality.

Only after VanderWal-Gritter establishes the tensions, internal and external, pervasive in gay Christians’ narratives does she turn to Scripture. And in Scripture, too, she finds tension, but also a way to live with tension. (“Tension” is probably the most repeated word in Generous Spaciousness, with “uncertainty” coming in second. Both are to be embraced; our relationship with God, says the author, is both a journey and a wrestling match) VanderWal-Gritter asserts that the question of homosexual behavior, the issue of whether Christianity permits same-sex partnerships or requires celibacy, is a “disputable matter” of the kind outlined by Paul in Romans 14.

Just as the early Christians’ conflicting — and fervent — convictions about sacrificial meat were pious and defensible on both sides, so too are our differing opinions on homosexual morality. And just as the early Christians had to subordinate their opinions to their unity, so too must we.

Ultimately, VanderWal-Gritter’s message is an exhortation to create space for individual piety to define and express itself within a nurturing community. “The individual needs to follow their own path,” she writes. “God is more than able, through his Holy Spirit, to lead, guide, correct, and convict. Your role is to listen well, pray diligently, and ask open-ended questions that will help the individual better discern what God is showing them” (97).

This compassionate emphasis on the individual is the book’s defining strength. VanderWal-Gritter’s insight and experience reminds us that, whatever our convictions, we must remember that the question is one of persons and not abstract ideas. Generous Spaciousness is thus an illuminating read and valuable contribution to the controversy that is defining the twenty-first-century church.

The emphasis on the individual is also the book’s central limitation. VanderWal-Gritter’s point of view is consummately evangelical; personal revelation is paramount, and both tradition and philosophy are treated as secondary aids, almost dispensable, instead of primary authorities. (The book would make no sense, say, to a Catholic for whom the Church universal, and not just the church isolated and local, has a say in shaping morality.)

Generous Spaciousness might be, therefore, a good place to start when considering how charity should be expressed toward gay Christians, but not a good place to finish. Its scope is too narrow, and it leaves too many questions and objections unanswered, to give it the final word.

(Full disclosure: I received a review copy of this book from Brazos Press in exchange for an honest review.)