Archives for the month of: June, 2013

I struggle with self-doubt, and it seems like the pat evangelical answer I hear in my mind is always (and oftentimes from people from church), “I just need to find my identity in Christ and then I will have all the confidence I need.”  I take issue with the word “just” — there’s no “just” here. This is not a task we will ever check off as done. This is not something that “just” happens instantaneously because of sheer force of will, as if it can be decided definitively for once and for all.  As I think about our faith journey, finding our identity in Christ is the essence of the entire journey: we will probably never find it completely in this lifetime, and we will probably waver back and forth, making progress and regress.

I challenge the linear thinking that is implicit in the statement — it seems to assume that we will suddenly arrive magically at this point where we have our identity in Christ intact and then proceed with the rest of our lives with great, unwavering confidence in who we are and how God created us.  Ask yourself, how many people do you really know who have arrived at this goal, where they are not about glorifying or promoting themselves at all and they live only for God’s glory? The people I can think of who have most closely arrived are all over 60 years old, and they’re still not quite there either, continuing to struggle with vestiges of self-glory.

What if it is through the very process of living and engaging that we come to find and discover this identity in Christ, and that it’s all a parallel process, not simply a serial one that occurs mysteriously and internally? What if, in the messiness of life, we discover ourselves and God Himself through trial and error? What if what happens to us externally and circumstantially matters to the journey, and this foundational truth cannot be attained in a vacuum? (So often, it seems like we’re supposed to come to a place of peace and contentment on our own, as if how God speaks through others and works through circumstances does not matter, and that He “alone” is sufficient. I’m not quite articulating this properly, but I’m trying to say that we seem to define God “alone” as being sufficient as the idea that if I were to lock myself into a room and pray, then however He meets me there in my heart/mind would be enough to cultivate true contentment. I disagree — it is about expanding this definition of “God alone”: it’s not only how He meets us in prayer/meditation, but also how He meets us in life, community, spouse, family, work, external circumstances, etc. God works through both the natural and the supernatural, through the physical and the spiritual, through the tangible and intangible. Both/and. We have somehow created a false dichotomy, a sacred/secular divide.) 

There’s a lot more grace available to us than we realize to move forward and engage life even in the midst of unresolved questions and self-doubt, instead of waiting to “just” achieve something that often seems so unattainable and elusive. The gospel gives us that grace and the freedom from shame of not being able to reach this goal.

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(This entry was originally written 1/13/11 and I imported it from my old blog.)

OK – I haven’t seen a Christ-centered response yet to Amy Chua’s incendiary article in The Wall Street Journal, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”, so I thought I’d add to the digital noise out there and pen yet another response. I’m going to make an attempt to answer from a Christian perspective, but I’m not saying that there aren’t other Christian perspectives out there.

I understand what Chua is responding to in terms of the Western culture. It seems that we have a generation of children who have been over-coddled by their parents. The March 2010 Atlantic Monthly issue had an article on “The Recession’s Long Shadow” by Don Peck which observed that “today’s young adults seem temperamentally unprepared for the circumstances in which they now find themselves.” Peck quotes Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University who has studied attitudes of today’s generation relative to previous generations and wrote a book, Generation Me. She commented that, for Generation Y, “There’s this idea that, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to work, but I’m still going to get all the stuff I want…. It’s a generation in which every kid has been told, ‘You can be anything you want. You’re special.’” [qtd. by Peck] The article documents trends in survey data showing that self-esteem in children rising from 1980 onwards, which Twenge attributes to shifts in parenting and teaching methods to accommodate “the growing belief that children should always feel good about themselves, no matter what.” “By 1999, according to one survey, 91 percent of teens described themselves as responsible, 74 percent as physically attractive, and 79 percent as very intelligent.” (It’s just not mathematically possible for 79 percent of people to have above average intelligence, but anyways…)

So self-esteem in Western culture is being decoupled from performance – in direct contrast to Asian culture, which is trying its best to nail, bind and crazy-glue self-esteem to performance. And certainly there are deleterious effects of groundless over-confidence and entitlement: “Twenge writes that ‘self-esteem without basis encourages laziness rather than hard work,’ and that ‘the ability to persevere and keep going’ is ‘a much better predictor of life outcomes than self-esteem.’” [qtd. by Peck] This recession is going to teach Generation Y some very hard lessons that they may not have been raised to overcome.

So there is some truth to Amy Chua’s article (although I have to say that, as I was reading it, I kept wanting to ask her, “Are you serious? Are you joking or do you really mean that?”). There is something to the idea of encouraging your children to persevere and overcome their initial distaste or dislike of something because, yea, maybe they will find that they like it once they master it and get over the beginner’s hump. Also, it is healthy to see your children’s potential and want them to reach it. But is it worth making your children feel like “garbage” until they perform to standard? Is beating someone down a good motivator?

What the two parenting approaches, let’s call them loosely Western and Asian, have in common is that they both have success metrics. It’s just that the metrics of success are different. For Western parenting methods, success is intrinsic, geared towards having strong self-esteem and confidence. For Asian parenting methods, success is measured extrinsically, i.e., academic and professional achievement, financial performance and stability, etc. So it seems like your parenting style will mold your children into what you consider successful, i.e., what will help your children survive and thrive in life, and oh, let’s not forget, what will help you feel good about yourself as a parent.

Inherently nothing is wrong with any of these metrics of success, but it’s amazing how good things can be twisted and corrupted. What if surviving and thriving in this world is more about looking to God Himself, who forms our foundation for our self-esteem and gives us our gifts, talents, abilities and resources to achieve?

So what does Jesus think about success?

God does decouple our self-esteem from our performance. However, He links our self-esteem to HIS performance, i.e., what Jesus did for us through His death on the Cross and His Resurrection. Our self-esteem is not groundless – it’s not based on nothing, it’s not just some weird headgame where we all convince ourselves we’re brilliant, beautiful, articulate, etc. But our self-esteem is based entirely on Someone else. It turns our view of success on its head – it’s not about what we DO, but more about what He does, who He is, what He thinks of us. That’s the great news of the gospel. It’s about God’s grace towards us – that He loves us completely and unconditionally because He created us as we are. Success is about His success, His glory, Himself. Success has nothing to do with us – not even how aware we are of God’s grace or whether we accept it.

This view frees us up to accept ourselves for exactly who we are – nothing more or less – because God accepts us exactly for who we are. He doesn’t lie to us and tell us that we are the prettiest, or the smartest, or the most athletic. He tells us the truth about ourselves. But at the same time, nothing about us will change the depth of His love for us; the truth is cushioned by grace. However, He still wants more for us – He wants us to grow in freedom, wholeness, spiritual and emotional health, godliness, and holiness, to experience His abundance and fullness, and also to develop the gifts He has given us to bring Him glory. But God doesn’t kick the crap out of us and motivate us by fear so that we will perform. He is patiently at our side, walking with us, helping us, doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He doesn’t lower the bar for us, but Jesus himself fills in that space between where we are and that bar. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)

Please read the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. It’s an absolutely lovely depiction of the God’s heart for us. The younger, prodigal son takes his share of the inheritance, runs away from home, squanders it all on prostitutes and fast living. He comes to his senses, and returns home, sheepish and ready to grovel and beg for forgiveness from his father. The father runs out to meet him, gives him a ring and a robe, and throws a lavish feast for him, never once asking for any excuses or apologies – just re-affirming the sonship of the prodigal. The elder son, who has always obeyed the father, is put off by his father’s gracious response to the flagrant behavior of his younger brother and angrily refuses to go into the party. The father comes out to him, and instead of rebuking him for his behavior, affirms his sonship as well: “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:31-32) So the emphasis in this story is the amazing, lavish, overflowing, abundant love and compassion of the father – neither son’s behavior is exemplary (one overtly breaks every rule, and the other coldly follows every rule to the letter, while missing out on who the father really is), but it doesn’t affect their father’s love for them or their identities as his sons.

So my view is that we need to transcend the values of Western and Asian parenting. I value having a strong self-esteem and self-identity based on Christ, and that frees us up to follow God’s cultural mandate in Genesis to steward the earth’s resources – “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:28) But we always keep in mind that all of our achievements here on earth are for God’s glory and are not about building up our self-esteem. It’s about focusing our eyes on Him and not ourselves.

Bottom line – so what do I think Jesus would say to Amy Chua? – “Amy, you are my Beloved daughter. I died for you. I love you. I’m crazy about you.”

 

 

New Orleans basically lived up to the stereotypes in my mind… As I walked through the French Quarter, I had lots of flashbacks to the smattering of movies and books that I had seen/read over the years that were set in that region of the U.S. I kept saying to Elaine, “This reminds me of Disneyland!” Of course, the proper frame of reference and right thing to say is that Disneyland reminds me of New Orleans, but I had never been to NOLA before. Well, you know, Disneyland has the Mark Twain riverboat and that whole Blue Bayou/Pirates of the Caribbean restaurant/ride along with Splash Mountain and Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear (remember the Disney live animation movie, “Song of the South”? that’s where the song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” comes from). I love the architecture of the buildings!! The balconies and the galleries along with the tall narrow windows and shutters, all designed to keep the air inside cool and circulating.

OK, I know the previous paragraph makes me sound totally uncultured and ignorant, and even mildly offensive. Let’s continue along that vein just for amusement’s sake! 🙂 (If you ever visit Montreal, I welcome you to make fun of its stereotypes — St. Catharines Street has strip clubs sprinkled among the restaurants, stores and shopping malls.) So I also saw Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog,” which was also set in NOLA — lots of voodoo and escaping into the bayou/swamp. I did go on a swamp tour while I was there and I couldn’t help but think of those two frogs together as they escaped into the bayou – very romantic; we also thought of “Peter Pan” when we saw the alligators. (Clearly, I’ve been brainwashed by the Disney enterprise; all my cultural references go back to their movies and theme park.) The voodoo stuff is a bit creepy to me. We went to the oldest cemetery in NOLA, Saint Louis #1 (believe it or not, the 2nd cemetery I had been in in two weeks), and we overheard a tour guide talking about the tomb of a voodoo priestess… Apparently people kept marking “XXX” on the tomb (which is what they do when they want the priestess to answer a wish that they have; they circle the “XXX” if the wish is fulfilled), and then the tour guide invited the group to stand there, close their eyes, and make a wish on the tomb. No thank you.  It seems like there is a very strong superstitious spirit in NOLA — I even overheard someone say, “you know, our voodoo priestess…” — I was like, “What? They still exist? People have their own voodoo priestesses??” Also, while at the cemetery, I thought of how Ashley Judd got knocked unconscious and trapped in a mausoleum there in the movie “Double Jeopardy.” I could not get out of there soon enough.

Anyhow, on to happier topics, I really did enjoy the music there. The music is fantastic, even though I was there the weekend after the big JazzFest and many of the musicians were resting and taking a break from performing (no Marsalis’ performing that weekend!). We went to Preservation Hall to listen to traditional jazz — and I clearly know nothing about jazz because I was expecting more Duke Ellington than Dixieland. Anyhow it was really great; I loved the Long Distance Call song. We also went to hear a favorite for locals, Kermit Ruffins at the Blue Nile — I love how the crowd was comprised of people of all ages and stages, and everyone was so relaxed and happy and dancing. I think spending time in NOLA helped me to loosen up a bit and shake my hips more. I felt so rusty as I was dancing! I’ve been in DC too long; it’s made me uptight. I also loved seeing the Mardi Gras beads stuck in the trees (Elaine, I forgot to take a photo, so please send me one). I also loved the seafood (so fun to do a crawfish boil), but really didn’t care for the total lack of vegetables, fresh or overcooked. The praline bacon was also a novelty. Pralines in NOLA are basically sugar and butter with some tiny nut flecks in them, as I understand it; in contrast, when I lived in Brussels, if you talked about pralines, you envision Leonidas or Godiva fine chocolates with the hazelnut praline filling.

On one hand, it was pretty refreshing to be in a city that doesn’t take itself too seriously — it reminded me a lot of Mykonos, Greece, in certain ways. People seem to know how to enjoy themselves and relax. In comparison, DC is so intense and missional — we’re so darn purposeful here! But that same refreshing quality is also a downside for NOLA; it just felt downright hedonistic at times and lacking substance in some ways. However, Hurricane Katrina shocked seriousness into the community: you hear residents talk about “before Katrina” and “after Katrina”, and even almost eight years later, you can still see the damage that was done: houses that have yet to be demolished, barren lots that once housed large stores like Target, residents who have yet to return, etc. The weekend I was there was Mother’s Day and 19 people were shot at the Second Line parade. Very sobering. God help New Orleans!

(Originally written 5/13/13)