Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Great Last Advent

    Until last year, I hardly knew anything about Advent. Some Christians, depending on their denominational backgrounds, grow up with more awareness of the liturgical seasons. While this was not something that I grew up with, in the past couple of years I have come to apprectiate, first, Lent, and now Advent.

    My mom and I have been reading a collection of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's writings called God Is In the Manger. Put together specifically for Advent, and in the style of a devotional, the title of the first reading describes Advent well: "The Advent Season Is a Season of Waiting." Beginning the fourth Sunday before Christmas, it ends on Christmas day, and as Christmas celebrates Jesus' birth, Advent acknowledges the time when humanity waited for a Savior. One thing I became very interested by, something those who have celebrated Advent every year may know very well, is that Advent is also about waiting for the second coming of Christ. As Bonhoeffer wrote in that first reading mentioned before, "The Advent season is a season of waiting, but our whole life is an Advent season, that is, a season of waiting for the last Advent, for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth."

    As thought more about this double waiting of Advent,thought about how we're in a similar position as the Jewish people were when they were waiting for a Messiah. They weren't quite sure what to expect, but the prophets gave them clues. If you're familiar with Handel's Messiah, you might know the song, "For unto us a son is born," its lyrics a direct quotation of one of those clues, Isaiah 9:3:

For unto us a Child is born

Unto us a Son is given

And the government

Shall be upon His shoulder

And his name shall be called



The Mighty God

The Everlasting Father

The Prince of Peace.

    I'm sure the Jewish people didn't think the establishment of the Messiah's kingdom would be such a process. We know that many expected a political leader, someone who would free the Jewish people from Roman rule. Many expected someone who looked more like what they thought a king should look like. Instead He came in great humility, born in a manger to poor parents; the King who didn't care about overthrowing the flesh and blood kingdoms of this earth, who had a greater purpose in mind. As we wait for Jesus' second coming, we also have clues, but I wonder if we will be just as taken off guard as we were when he came the first time.

    I don't know if this happens to every Christian, but I'm sure I'm not alone in being struck at times by the absurdity of what I believe. A while ago, for a couple of days, I was thinking about how, as a Christian, I'm supposed to believe in the second coming of Christ. During this period, though, I was more aware of how this would seem to someone outside of my perspective, and from those outsider pair of eyes, it looked crazy. Somehow the mysteries of old, namely, the resurrection, seemed more acceptable because the New Testament is full of people who testified to, made sense of and believed in the resurrection. I know that this doesn't really make sense. If I can believe in one, I should be able to believe in the other. The resurrection of the Son of God is itself a radical belief (I'm aware that to someone who doesn't share my Christian beliefs, it may all sound absurd). Yet it seems that while it's somewhat acceptable in our culture to say you believe that Jesus died for your sins, say that he's coming back and you'll be looked at like you're Harold Camping (and if your don't remember or know who that is, a quick Google search can fix that).

    With all this in mind, I take comfort in Advent. I like to think that there were times when the Jewish people felt a little crazy as they continued to wait for a Messiah to come. Some, very admirably, continued to hope for events to pass that they would never see happen in their lifetime. The Jewish people waited hundreds of years for God to deliever them from Egypt. Finally Moses came. They waited even longer for the arrival of a Messiah. Finally Jesus was born.

    To go back once again to that reading from God Is In the Manger, says Bonhoeffer, "It's still not Christmas, but it's also not the great last Advent, the last coming of Christ. Through all the Advents of our life that we celebrate runs the longing for the last Advent, when the word will be: "See, I am making all things new" (Rev. 21:5). We wait for Jesus to come back and make all things new. Finally, He will come.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Dysfunctional Government Of, By and For the People

While cynicism is always high when it comes to the reliability of our elected officials, Americans have become even more cynical about their leaders since the government shutdown. Polls show that Republicans and Democrats alike are taking a hit in their approval ratings, and the number of people who would like to throw everybody out in Washington is at an all time high. This shut down has seemed to put a spotlight on the government's inability to function. 


If we are indeed a government that is of the people, by the people, for the people, than isn't our dysfunctional government a reflection of dysfunctional people? I find that I don't just feel cynical about the leaders of our country. I feel cynical about the people that make up our country. 


From my understating, in order for a government to function, it needs informed voters, and generally moral people (I don't mean necessarily religious). Our government was founded with a certain suspicion of people in power because it knew very well how power could corrupt those who hold it. This is why power was put in the hands of the people who were thought to be more dependable. But what do we do when we're not? It's happened throughout our history more than it should have, and I think it's happening now. 


Things that should be occasional have become frequent, and the checks and balances in our system are having a hard time making up all the lying and cheating and need among the people. The government, with all it's services and responsibilities, functions better when fraud, whether, for example, it's claiming disability that isn't deserved or cheating on taxes, is occasional and not frequent. It functions better when we have to watch out for the occasional corrupt leader, and don't wonder if all are corrupt. Things work better when parents properly care for their children and neglect is less frequent than it is. Things work better when we're responsible with our money and don't create situations for ourselves where we need the government to bail us out of our debt. And how can we hold anyone accountable if we don't stay informed? How can we hold our leaders accountable when our elections are more about the man or woman with the best personality and not the one who is best for the job?


Our government is disappointing, but as in most cases, real change comes from the bottom up, not the top down. By this I mean, if we take care that we are responsible, and encourage responsibility in our friends and neighbors, by design, we can begin to improve our local government, and eventually our state and federal governments. We can vote in the best people we can by staying more informed. If we were more honest, taxes would go further if so much of it wasn't wasted by going to people who are cheating the system. We can act in such a way that the taxes we pay go further by not having the government need to account for all our personal dysfunction in our finances and family. I think there should be a safety net for people in need, whether those in need did it to themselves or not, but I don't believe there would be so much need as there is if there were more emotionally, physically and financially healthy families. We're the ones who are electing our fellow citizens to represent us, and it's our actions that affect the decisions they make.  


As this is trying to be a piece of persuasive writing, I have fulfilled my duty, as seen in the previous paragraph, by adding a "call to action," as English instructors say. You, as the reader, are meant to be inspired. I have highlighted a problem. Now let's all go out and fix it! But the cynicism stays with me. 


Yes, the way our governmental system is designed, we can technically fix the problem of a dysfunctional, often corrupt, government. Yes, some of us will live lives and cast votes that support a healthier society. But will it be enough? One of us can knock on doors and organize rallies, and try to reach out to our community. But am I going to do it? No. Are you going to do it? No. If one of our neighbors decides to do it, it will only be a temporary change, and things will go back as they are. I believe change is possible. I don't believe it's probable.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Lying to Your Waitress

    I was presented with a problem. I was trying to eat a pasta dish I had ordered and enjoyed many times before, but this time, it was drowning in sauce. There was far too much pesto on my plate for the amount of noodles that were there. A big green mess. But the problem wasn't just the drowning pasta. It was the dilemma that it presented to me. Do I or do I not complain to the waitress? One might think that the answer should have been an automatic, "Yes! Do complain!" But I've given it great thought and can draw from experience, and the best answer to this dilemma is to lie to the waitress. Let me explain.

    For one, I've considered the fact that we are a society that asks courtesy questions with no meaning behind them. Take it out of the restaurant setting and think of Walmart. As we go through the checkout, we are almost always asked, "Did you find everything ok?" Even if I say, "No I did not find everything ok. I looked at your pasta selection and it was pathetic. I can't buy milk here because it tastes like plastic. I couldn't find that weird brand of soda my dad likes," what are they really going to do? "STOP! This woman cannot find her dad's favorite brand of soda!" And even if they did, I don't want to stand there while they try to find what I couldn't find. I want to leave. If they don't do a frantic search, do they just give you an awkward, "Sorry," while looking down awkwardly when you say you did not, in fact, find everything ok? I've thought ahead and it doesn't look good.

    I've also thought ahead when it comes to these sort of courtesy questions at restaurants. "How is everything tasting?" "Is everything delicious?" Often what the waitress really wants is a quick question and a quick answer to fulfill the duties of her job. It's asked in a quick brisk by the table. It's also what I want most of the time. Leave me alone, and let me eat.  So what is a disgruntled diner to do?

    Now I'm not talking about a hair, or something incredibly undercooked. You have to say something then. Aside from potentially dangerous, unsanitary situations, all other food problems at restaurants are a matter of taste and can be broken down into two categories: the solvable food problem versus the unsolvable food problem. Be bold with your solvable food problems. Your salad could use a little more dressing, ask for it. You want a little more bread, tell them. You think those dry potatoes would be nicer with a side of sour cream, go for it. 

    But it's the difficult to unsolvable food problems that make me nervous. They are the ones that make me a liar. If it was well cooked, but you realize that it's not something you personally like, it's your fault for choosing that dish, not the restaurant's. If it's not cooked well, but it's not egregiously bad, you look picky, and they make a fuss, and you might have to sit and wait while they make more food for you. Even if the food is bad. What will they do? One time I had biscuits that tasted like weird cake. I look ahead. What's the waiter going to do? Tell the kitchen to bring me some biscuits that don't taste like weird cake? I suppose they could have brought me different food, or given me a refund. It was more appealing to suffer in silence than to suffer through the awkwardness of the apologies, of trying to explain what I didn't like, and the fuss that they would make.  

  And believe me. It can be terrible when they make a fuss. I must refer to what my family calls The Great White Bean Debacle of 2009. First of all, be careful who you tell about your dissatisfaction with, or confusion about your food, because your fellow diner may not believe that you don't care, and will want to defend you. This is what happened with me and my dad in The Great White Bean Debacle when my parents and I went out to eat one evening.

    My parents ordered gumbo. I ordered white bean chili. My white bean chili looked and even somewhat tasted suspiciously like their gumbo. I searched my bowl for white beans. I wondered if the restaurant had made a mistake. I didn't feel too uncomfortable asking the waitress about my food at first, but her answers weren't satisfying somehow. I was still confused and told my parents as such, but I was going to let it go. The terrible thing was that my dad, who wanted his daughter to be entirely happy with her food, did not let it go, and brought it up for me to the waitress. I was then put in the awkward spot of having to defend and explain this confusion about beans that even I didn't understand. Now that I look back, I think the confusion had to do with the fact that the beans were puréed and the flavors were just similar to those in my parents gumbo. The details to all of this are fuzzy, but I don't think I will ever forget how it all ended. After profuse apologies, a small bowl of plain cooked white beans was brought to the table. I was very embarrassed. Even worse, none of it was worth it. I liked my food.

    And so now we are faced with the original dilemma: pasta with too much pesto. Drowned noodles. Too little sauce seems simple and unembarrassing enough to bring up, like having an extra side of dressing for your salad. But this? Bring me a little bowl of bare penne to dump on my plate? Too close to the bean memory for comfort. 

    If you are asked how your food is, and you don't want to deal with it, you have three options.

1. Lie: Say, "It's good."

2. Pick a tactful truth-like answer: Answer, "Fine," "Pretty good," or even "Good," for not terrible food (hey, you didn't say it was great or delicious).

3. My favorite: Say nothing and let the answer come from your eating companion who's actually enjoying her food. "Good," she says, smiling. It's on the waitress for assuming that you are also happy. You didn't say it was good, and so you didn't lie. In this case, one must ignore the concept of the lie of omission. 

    Or you (and I...) could be brave enough to tell the truth. But don't blame me if they bring you a little dish of cooked white beans to your table. 

Sitting in the Dark

(I wrote this on September 12, 2013. Because this is a reflection of how I felt as I was writing, I felt odd editing it, because even a short amount a time produces different feelings, however subtle, than what's here. I wanted to keep the integrity of what I wrote, so the changes have been minor. I also changed the title.)


     Right now I'm in the middle of troubling times in my life. I have tried to keep my eyes open to what God might be doing to reverse them and to what he has wanted me to learn from this downward trajectory. I have tried to find patterns in how it will all work out, why it is happening, and what issues God is trying to have me work through. In short, I have tried to find meaning in my problems. I have hoped that there is some purpose in them. But the more they go on, the harder it is for me to find meaning.

     Not all the meaning is gone. There have been several moments during this time where God has revealed, or made clearer truths that I've needed to face about myself. I see where he has been rooting out the ugly in me, and where he has been freeing me from deception in how I see him, and how I see myself. There have been more occasions during this time where my family has experienced the presence of God, in one way or another, than we have had in a long time. 

     But now as the troubles continue, and as it has become harder to live out the truths that have been revealed to me, it's become very easy for me to feel discouraged and even, let down by God. I thought that the inner changes would correspond to outward changes. I thought I saw how God was moving in my life. I thought, to be blunt, that my faith would pay off. I thought that all this growth would be rewarded with my deliverance from my problems, but it hasn't. They keep going, and I don't  see, borrowing a great surprise, anything changing soon. 

     Instead I feel as if I was just trying to read the tea leaves. Rather than God ordained revelation, I feel like I possibly saw signs that weren't there, and created narratives for my life that didn't exist. As my problems have extended past my own predicted due dates, I feel like I was wrong, and I am tempted to say that there was no meaning in them at all, because that's how it feels. I feel like life has just happened to me, and there is no greater purpose in it. 

     But I know better than that. It's not as if my family hasn't ever sensed God's being with us during this period. And even more, I must hang on to the promise that everything works out for good for those who love God (although my mind is tempted to wonder if there's a theological or exegetical loophole to that). I must hang on to the belief that God is sovereign. 

     One of the biggest strongholds in my life is the temptation to doubt God's goodness and his love for me. Putting it straightforward like that sounds odd, because I wouldn't deny it in a straightforward manner. But I have realized (especially during this period) that the way I think about God and interact with him implies such beliefs. So right now, when I have a hard time seeing any meaning in my situation, I feel like God's just letting things happen to me. I don't feel like he has a hold of my life. I feel like he's not involved. I have a hard time trusting him. Part of me doubts that he has my best interest at heart. 

     I have to believe that even when things don't make sense, he does, in fact, have my best interest at heart. Maybe my attempts to find meaning are a way of trying to keep control over my life. Maybe what I feel God to be doing is just taking longer than I thought. 

     The platitudes go off in my head: "let go and let God," "God's timing is not our timing." That's all well and good, but sitting in the middle of all this, it is harder than I thought to live out what I said I believed about God. I thought I had passed the test. I thought I had passed and I was about to come out of this mess. That's how I saw it. Instead, I am being put to an even greater test, one where I can't read the tea leaves and see the resolution. I sit in the dark, and wait on God. 

It's Ok to Forget

    Most people would have taken a glance at their pile of old papers from school and thrown them away. But for me, piles of old papers are my weakness. I used to keep far too many of them. Now I keep only a little too many. 

     I throw away more than I keep, but I give most of them one last look over before heading for the trash. One last chance to spark my interest or convince me of their value. Most fail to make a good case for themselves, and have to leave. It's a process that's simultaneously enjoyable and unenjoyable. I enjoy looking things over before I finally decide I'm through with them. They provide a small memory, some amusement as I see a funny doodle on the margins, or some satisfaction knowing I got a 98% on a test. 

     What's unenjoyable is the nagging feeling that caused me to keep so many of them in the first place. The fear that once the memento is gone, the memory will be gone too. I don't know why I feel sad about the possibility of forgetting what grade I got on some test in one of many classes I took in Jr. college. I suppose I don't feel sad -too strong of a word- or I wouldn't throw it away. I know that only so many memories should be rewarded with room and board. There's only so much space in my head. 

     But I feel uncomfortable throwing them away; throwing away their guarantee of remembrance no matter how insignificant. And I feel pressured to decide their fate when they don't fit neatly into the stay or go categories. What if I make a mistake? Somehow I don't like that there are large chunks of my life that pass by, and fade away unnoticed. I lived through something, put effort into it, and that thing had a little meaning to me at the time. And now I throw it away. 

     I can throw most of it away now because I've gained some perspective I guess. I think of all the good memories, especially from when I was fairly young, that have no direct mementos. They mean more to me than a paper I wrote in a class, in a school I didn't totally care for, and they're gone. I also feel burdened by the clutter of memories. Part of me wants to be free, to not feel attached. Because their meaning isn't very great (the papers or the memories), they only serve to weigh me down, and in their own way, rob me of the present. So I let them go, and feel better for having done so than if I had kept them. 

     I used to think memories were worth keeping for the sake of being memories, for the sake of there being a record of a certain portion of your life, and so I have many papers to serve as protectors of those memories. But now I'm willing to let a lot of them go. I suppose most, if not all of the ones you keep should remind you of people and places you loved, or particularly enjoyed, and of achievements that are still important to you. And even then, the best memories don't need mementos to be enjoyed and remembered. I'm learning that not all memories are equal. And as contrary as it is to my nature, I'm learning that it's ok to forget.