A Theology of Gift Giving

Every year, Christmas presents us with the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the spirit of gift giving. At the same time, it poses a threat to this very same spirit, turning what should be a joyful act into a long list of stressful busyness.

Of course, we control more of the stress then we care to admit, and this is usually because we are worrying about how our gifts are going to reflect us instead of how they are going to serve the receiver.

For instance, we may spend excessive amounts of money so as to not appear stingy. We may stress about finding or making the perfect gift so that everyone will think we are “the best.” We may even create expectations or rules about what makes an acceptable gift (ex: I only give homemade gifts, because mass-produced items are cheap and unnatural; I only give tangible gifts, because gift cards and charity donations aren’t exciting; etc).

When these issues infiltrate the gift-giving process, they can supplant our joy with more negative emotions. For example, I recently had a rather traumatic present faux pas that involved a sweatshirt and some textile paint. The climax involved me bursting into tears and frantically rubbing the stain until it bled even more and then snapping at my husband for watching the whole ordeal in shock. “Are you just going to sit there in silence?” As if he could have actually done anything about it. Mistakes happen. Gifts aren’t always going to turn out perfect. But when we get to a place where achieving the perfect gift becomes more important to us than maintaining love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc., something has gone awry, and we may need to re-prioritize our reasons for gift giving.

1) Gift Giving Should Be Responsible:

One of most common grey areas of gift giving is the amount of money that we choose to spend. Although we may want the individual we are buying for to know that our love knows no bounds, we may lose perspective of where the line is between generosity and poor stewardship.

One risk of overspending is the mistake of wasting the resources that God has provided for us and called us to use responsibly. For example, we should never have to dip into our tithe money or the money that we normally give to charity for the sake of holiday spending. Furthermore, we should not put ourselves in a bad position financially just so we can fulfill every want (as opposed to need) that someone we love has. (And by “bad position” I mean forgoing groceries or burying oneself in a tangle of debt).

But, perhaps on a more familiar level, when we spend frivolously, we often devalue the amount of joy that each present produces. To understand how this works, all you have to do is picture a desensitized child opening one gift after another and tossing them into a mountain of gifts. When I was that child, stopping to read the card before tearing into “the next one” always slipped my mind. I remember constantly being asked, “Amy, did you see who gave that to you?”, at which point, I would scrummage through the rubble of wrapping paper and shout “Gram and Gramps R.” or some other name before resuming the form of a cute, but frighteningly ravenous gift-opening monster. When I had finished consuming the lot in front of me, a wave of sadness would fall over me, as if I expected the thrill to continue indefinitely.

And we don’t change much as adults. Oftentimes, as the Christmas gifts increase, so does the amount of post-seasonal depression that awaits us when we try to shift back into a lifestyle of “normalcy.” Suddenly January feels like a boring month.

2) Gift Giving Should Be Receptive:

Unfortunately, the response of many people is to then bolt in the opposite direction, declaring complete anti-consumerist notions and refusing to partake in any gift giving or receiving (“I don’t need anything this year!” “Let’s not do presents this year.”) Yet, at this extreme, we may end up sacrificing the spirit of the season altogether. This is sort of a baby/bathwater thing.

For, even though a good deal of Americans aren’t in need of material goods, all human beings are created to experience joy and celebration. Thus, to refuse to participate in these things is to refuse to accept one’s God-given nature (the intended and eternal human nature, as opposed to the  sinful, post-fall human nature).

For instance, even if it was my wish that money be donated to a charity on my behalf, it would not be my place to scorn a thoughtful, personalized gift. For what we might pigeonhole as a “waste of money,” may in fact be an outpouring of joy and generosity that shouldn’t be crushed, such as Mary’s use of oil on Jesus’ feet. Thus, in the same way that responsibility helps reign in poor stewardship, receptiveness and openness to celebration should help prevent us from becoming Pharisaical with our principles.

2) Gift Giving Should Be Relational:

Although it seems like it should go without saying, our focus when giving gifts should be on the person we are giving to. For instance, even if we personally find gift cards unsatisfying, if we are shopping for a practical individual, a gift card may be exactly what this person would appreciate. Or, even if we aspire to make all of our gifts by hand, it may be more loving to buy a fitted dress than to try and make one from scratch.

Ultimately, the gift-giving process is perfected when the giver is totally focused on the receiver in an embodiment of generosity and joy, and the receiver is totally focused on the giver in an embodiment of thankfulness and joy.

When this happens, it is no longer about the gift, and we no longer worry about if our gift was “the best” or “the one being played with.” We no longer even care if our gift gets returned for cash or re-gifted. For when we give and receive simply to reflect Christ and who we were created to be in Him, the act of giving becomes much more important than the gift.

Sources: Photo taken from Microsoft Clip Art

A Theology of Thanksgiving and Advent (Feasting and Fasting)

Thanksgiving is often a hectic orchestration of activity. What time does the bird need to go in by? Who’s bringing the potatoes? Do we have enough silverware and place settings for this year’s crowd? As a child, I often remember that up until the time everyone gathered around the table for prayer, things seemed like they were right on the verge of chaos. And then, for just a few minutes, the fact that it was Thanksgiving Day would finally hit me, a reflection which would quickly be interrupted by the more exciting fact that the stuffing was being passed my way.

Interestingly enough, my lack of reflection about the holiday never bothered me in the moment. It was only after the holiday had passed, and I had succumbed to food comatose, that I would sometimes wonder if I had fully “celebrated” it. Surely, a full celebration of Thanksgiving would have included more reflection on “thankfulness,” right?

Of course, on the other hand, I didn’t think there was anything particularly wrong with how I had spent these Thanksgivings: visiting with family, making decorations, feasting, resting, etc. These were all valid forms of traditional embodied Christian celebration. But when and where, amid all the celebration, was I supposed to reflect?

Having given it some thought, I now believe that attempting to reflect during celebration is something akin to trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Thus, if my time of celebration seemed lacking, it wasn’t because I wasn’t able to squeeze in an adequate amount of reflection while celebrating, but because I had failed to reflect beforehand, and, thus, was unprepared for the celebration.

This is because Celebration and Reflection can only gain completeness through each other.  When we remember to reflect on and anticipate a holiday’s arrival, we are able to fully enjoy the blissful celebration of it. And when we fully embrace the act of celebrating, we satisfy the cravings that were stimulated by our reflection. Furthermore, these acts need not be simultaneous; in fact, I think they actually gain meaning through separation and contrast.

In many ways, it is a matter of Feasting and Fasting. When we Feast, we give ourselves fully to the act of celebration; this is a time of rejuvenation. And when we Fast, we give ourselves fully to simplicity and modesty; this is a time of refocus.

Feasting and Fasting Structure the Christian’s Holiday Season

Interestingly enough, such delineation of feasting and fasting is not new to Christian tradition, and has, perhaps, even grown in significance with the overlapping of American holidays. For example:

1) Starting with Halloween and All Saints Day, Christians begin their celebration of the harvest season by feasting in honor of the Saints that have gone on before us. The addition of Halloween/All Hallows Eve adds extra emphasis to the death side of the harvest, and, thus, as we come out of this feast, a conscious and humbling effort to focus on the realities of death and mortality (what would have been the ultimate realities had Christ not come) may be fitting. And the changing seasons mirror this reality to us.

2) As the Thanksgiving feast approaches, having been humbled, we cannot help but express true gratitude for all that God has provided for us (the life side of the harvest and the bounty both in heaven and on earth).

3) Then, immediately succeeding Thanksgiving, is the Fast of the Advent Season, a time of reflection upon life without a Savior, where our anticipation for His coming (or our celebration of His coming) grows.

4) Finally, when Christmas arrives, we feast again (traditionally for 12 days). And, having spent a month of focusing our anticipation, feelings of “How can it be over…I didn’t even have a chance to look forward to it” become feelings of “Yes. This is what I have been waiting for!” “Let’s celebrate!” Furthermore, having started with the acknowledgement of our own degenerate natures (back in early harvest) we come full circle, and celebrate the promise of salvation and sanctification given to us by Christ.

How Should Christians Feast and Fast?

Interestingly enough, both Feasting and Fasting involve “letting go” and submitting control to God. Thus, both processes drive the Christian to a correct place of worship.

During feasting, Christians give themselves over to a period of ceremony. They indulge in joyfulness. They break from the discipline and scheduling of daily life and take comfort in rest and tradition. This is not a time for austerity or “passing on the pie” (unless you are on the verge of tummy ache). This is a time for giving up control, a time to lose yourself in celebration.

During fasting, Christians give themselves over to a period of simplicity. They engage in discipline and modesty in order to slow their lives and reflect. This is not a time for busyness but peace and stillness (as hard as they are to achieve in American culture).

It is important to note that fasting is also about letting go. Too often, I think we mistake the discipline nature of fasting for a time of more rather than less control, and instead of simplifying our lives in order to gain focus or time for reflection, we add to them regimes of control, such as restrictive dieting. Giving up chocolate is perhaps the most common one resorted to. With this, I think we need to be careful, as the purpose can easily become more about gaining than giving up. For instance, compare “I want to lose five pounds by Christmas” to “I want to have more time each day to reflect on the season.”

In choosing how to spend their season of fasting, Christians need to ask themselves, what changes can I make to my life that will encourage stillness, peace, and reflection? Social-media fasting is one such trend that proves promising.  Limiting TV, internet surfing, gaming, elaborate cooking, or any other hobby that occupies your time are others.

When done correctly, fasting should produce in us an awareness and anticipation of the upcoming holiday and prepare us for the act of celebration. If it does not do this, we must rethink how we are choosing to fast.

*This year, the Advent begins on November 27th. For suggestions on how to approach the Advent season, please see Vineyard Prayer’s post Some Ideas for Observing Advent.”

photo taken from: http://lifeondoverbeach.wordpress.com/2010/11/28/the-first-sunday-of-advent/

A Theology of Gender Roles Part Two: Romance

In every ethics discussion (and many comment threads online), it is only a matter of time before someone will mention the Nazis. Similarly, many Christian discussions of gender roles do not move beyond or are derailed by the topic of “women in ministry.” However, for the majority of individuals in the church, there are more practical points of gender that need to be addressed. Domestic Life is certainly one of these points (See Gender Roles Part One: Chores), and Romantic Life is another.

Sadly, the discussion of Christian Romance has been given over largely to the world of Christian publishing. And I am not just talking about Christian romance novels, but marriage self-help books, such as Love and Respect by Eggerichs, Sacred Marriage and Sacred Influence by Thomas, His Needs Her Needs by Harley (all of which are best-sellers), etc. Furthermore there is an even greater abundance of pre-marriage self-help books (of which there are too many to even mention) arguing that gender roles are the key ingredients to a healthy marriage and one’s true identity in Christ.

Building on cultural rather than biblical characteristics of masculinity and femininity (significant biblical references to gender are far and few between) this genre of literature preaches a slew of various gender-types, such as “men have an innate need to conquer” and “women have an innate need to receive affection” ; “a man needs his authority to be respected” and “a woman needs to know the love she receives from her partner is secure.”

Furthermore, many borrow much from Victorian writing, by idealizing the “Godly Woman” and encouraging the idea that women, by being holy or worthy, can actually shape the behavior and souls of men. Leman’s Have a New Husband by Friday offers to “change his attitude, behavior, and communication in five days,” and the Secret Influence has this to say about the differences between men and women:

“In some cases, it may indeed be that women are more spiritually and emotionally mature, willing to forgive for the sake of the family and larger considerations” The other option being that “some women never rise above a sinful propensity to define themselves according to their likability or acceptance by men,” and for these women, men have a “ultrasensitive spiritual radar” that can “intuit a woman’s spiritual neediness and will exploit it for their own ends.”

Unfortunately, what is created is a marketable, culturally-defined foundation of identity superimposed by spiritual terminology and not dissimilar from the earliest of literature (Even Beowulf, a local mythos, was edited to provide a Christian-sounding moral). But unlike Beowulf, this current form of literature is actively harmful to the Christian community. It not only plays into our self-obsessed, identity-crisis culture, but it fails to provide a solid biblical footing for true maturity and character growth outside the walls of gender (the kind that we are called to in Christ).

What Romance by Gender Does to Women and Men

Most women in the church are familiar with the co-opted princess/knight concept, in which the woman is the princess, inherently precious and worthy, but frozen in time spent singing to little forest birds while awaiting her knight to come and woo her with his promises of love (which she must then inspire him to keep). While many a sarcastic joke is made about this ideology, it sometimes appears to have sunken more deeply into the psyche of Christians than they care to admit (sort of like those individuals who joke about their intense affinity for Disneyland…but leave you wondering if they actually have taken a few sips of the juice).

Thus, sarcastic comments (“Yeah, I’m still waiting for my Prince Charming”) are juxtaposed with confessions of actual hope (“I’m waiting for the man I know God has in store for me”) or (“You deserve rose petals at your feet, and pretty soon some guy is going to realize that”), and entitlement issues begin to develop.

It is then, that “I want to grow in character so I can serve God and those around me, regardless of who they are” becomes “I deserve a man, and he needs to be worthy of me” [It is important to note the “me” because this is the actual phrasing that is often used in Christian circles. A man needs to be worthy of the woman, rather than worthy of God!]

When this happens, women begin to have expectations of romance that are primarily self-focused (“He hasn’t brought me flowers in weeks”) instead of Christ-focused (“I’m glad we have been spending more time together praying” or “What can I do today that will show my spouse I love him?”)

For men, gender roles are often equally stunting. For instance, the idea that men are wild (at heart) and in need of moral taming prevents them from feeling the full burden of responsibility in following Christ. (While some gender role books emphasis that the male is directly under Christ and the bearer of the great role of leading the woman, they often leave a loop hole for evading responsibility by also preaching that it is the woman’s job to inspire the man to live up to his name of greatness).

If you think this ideology is not prevalent in current Christian circles, consider the following quote, which has been spread and reposted numerously via its Max Lucado rendition: “A woman’s heart should be so lost in God, that a man needs to seek Him in order to find her.”

While the order of the phrasing alone shows evidence of being out of line with the Gospel, (Men seek God to find Women) vs. (Men seek God to find God), it also teaches women that “seeking God” or as it is often practically interpreted, “getting involved in Bible study, starting a new ministry, etc.) will land them a guy. But the truth is that any time God is only the means and not the end of the equation, no true growth will happen, or at least no lasting growth will happen.

One Flesh: True Romance is Found in a Life of Mutual Service to God and Each Other

The only way that Christian individuals (both men and women) can know true Christian Romance is through an equal partnership that is dedicated, first, to serving Christ and, second, to living out this service in their relationships with others.

If each individual is concerned primarily with producing character traits modeled on the fruits of the Spirit (Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self Control), then he or she will already be producing an atmosphere of romance. Spouses will lovingly do dishes, joyfully light candles, patiently listen to each other talk, kindly compliment a new haircut, faithfully accompany each other on a walk, etc.

In this mutual walk toward Christ, gender roles disappear altogether. For, in fact, the true picture of Christianity to which we look is one where all such worldly constructs are gone, and there are neither male nor female, slave nor master…

Not All Romance Self-Help Books Are Blasphemous… (I Guess)

If your a Christian, you probably know what your “love language” is (along with your “spiritual gifts,” “Myers Briggs,” and “strengths finder” results, of course). I say this in a slightly sarcastic way because, for the most part, the love language test, along with all other such tests, is not incredibly helpful; people often put too much stock in these tests and use the results to put labels on themselves and others, or people decide the tests are complete “psychobabble,” which they will have nothing to do with. But even amid all of the misuse and ineffectiveness, such tests and the terms they produce are not without at least one benefit: establishing a baseline.

Even if this baseline is no more than a transient reading of “how I feel” or “who I am,” at a certain time and under certain circumstances, it can give couples (and individuals) a starting point for what issues need to be dealt with currently. That is, it helps give these issues a name, so that instead of saying “I feel like you don’t love me,” one can say “verbal affirmation rather than gift giving makes me feel loved,” etc.

Of course, there is no need to limit oneself to these terms alone. Instead, you might be able to have interchanges like this: “I really like it when you plan something ahead of time” or “I really like it when we do stuff that is spontaneous.” Once spouses are aware of how to put Christ’s love into action in a practical, personalized, and effective way, things will go smoother, and one surprise coffee drink will inspire a foot rub, which will inspire a surprise lunch visit, etc.

Overall, the important thing is that the issue at hand is not “gender-based needs” but “individual-based needs,” which are communicated truthfully and fulfilled joyfully. When couples practice love this way, things can become much less complicated and much more balanced, allowing both individuals to lead and follow each other in a life of service to God.

A Theology of Gender Roles Part One: Chores

Despite substantial improvements from the 1960’s, statistics from the Bureau of Labor show that women still shoulder a heavier burden of household chores, especially in the areas of cooking and cleaning.  And while such divisions may actually be equal when mixed with statistics showing that men are still shouldering the burden of work outside of the home, the question of how and why these divisions continue to crop up becomes one of concern.

Even more concerning is the fact that children, even at young ages, often show beliefs of chore division by gender. For example, vacuuming might be seen as a “girl chore” and mowing the lawn as a “boy chore.” The appearance of such beliefs are often shocking to parents who have attempted to model no such divisions in their own style of domestic life.

Interestingly enough, these parents may have to look no further than their own living room in searching for the source of these neotraditional views. This is because the individuals featured on television and in commercials have not progressed as far as their real life counterparts have. (Ever seen a commercial with a woman mowing the lawn? How about a commercial with a man standing behind a vacuum?)

And while adults often doubt the level of influence such advertising has over them (“I don’t even pay attention to commercials”), much evidence shows that these subtle visual guides shape us more than we realize, not to mention the ways they shape our little charges. Thus, unclogging the toilet becomes “manly,” while scrubbing it becomes “girly.” And barbecuing is “a man’s job,” while baking, well, “women are better at that.”

Motivation and Priming

Interestingly enough, such constructs about gender roles are not benign but invasive, often impacting us in deep ways, the primary of which is our motivation. In Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine suggests that one’s ability to master a specific task is often dependent upon their motivation to do so, and that such motivation is dependent upon how much social value they will gain from the particular achievement.

For instance, in the case of mental rotation skills, an ability that men are said to perform better at, Fine suggests that outcome may be dependent upon as little as a simple change of context (and thus, motivation). In her discussion of the matter, Fine recalled two experimental tests, one, which featured mental rotation in the form of aeronautic maneuvers, and a second, which featured mental rotation in the form of textile manufacturing. She reports that while men outdid their female counterparts on the first test, the results were opposite for the second. Thus, when faced with a task that was socially indicative of their sex, the participants were able to muster up enough motivation to succeed.

To run tangent for a while, I often think of sewing and baking as the ultimate examples of motivation at work within the female gender.  Both tasks often require mind-numbing precision (even when pursued creatively) and a large allotment of time. Thus, to do these tasks requires a good deal of motivation, and if increased social value was not helping to fuel that motivation, one would probably not pursue them very often. As a girl, however, the accomplishment of baking brownies or hand-stitching booties is often met with a great deal of praise, and thus, felt to be worth the effort. Similarly, working with wood or tinkering with electronics, both of which also require precision and time, may be worth the effort to men, who will likely receive praise for these accomplishments.

Another way constructs of gender can affect our behavior is through priming. For instance, Fine also reported that when participants were told that a test was designed to measure something their gender was naturally good at, they performed better, and that when told they would be tested on something the opposite gender was better at, they performed worse.

Having worked in the past as a tutor, I myself can relate to the powerful effects of priming. As a beginning tutor, in order to not make a student feel bad for struggling with a new and challenging concept, I would often mention that the concept was slightly more difficult than the one before. What happened, however, is that the student would automatically start having problems with the new exercises and, sometimes, even the older ones if we switched back to the preceding level. Thus, as humans, we are often more sensitive than we realize to the expectations that society places on us, and we can easily shape-shift in order to fill these roles.

A Christian Division of Labor

While each Christian marriage is going to look differently in terms of logistics (money has to be made, the kids have to be raised, etc.) it is important to realize that activities do not have to be based upon gender or social value. For Christians, value comes solely from our creation in God’s image and our subsequent attempts to model our lives after His example. It is for this value alone that we should muster up motivation, and thus, bake brownies not because doing so will earn us points as a woman (in societies’ eyes) but because doing so can be an act of love (by both men and women) and thus worthy of praise (in God’s eyes).

Similarly, neither men nor women should be given extra points for doing chores typically placed in the category of the opposite gender. Way too often I see wives giving enormous praise to their husbands for lending a hand in the kitchen or doing the dishes. [for one night!] Oftentimes, this only leads to reinforcing the stereotype that men are not normally expected to do these chores, and thus, that such effort of actually pitching in is worthy of inordinate praise. Ideally, Christian marriage should consist of men and women living under an equal and mutual amount of expectations and gratitude. Thus, if my husband says thank you to me for doing this week’s laundry (as he should), I say thank you to him for doing this week’s grocery shopping (as I should). Gratitude is an absolute must, but mutual participation is expected, and thus, nobody gets gold stars.

Furthermore, especially in the case of new marriages, Christians should take time to check for any automatic expectations they may be harboring toward their spouse, and re-evaluate these expectations outside the lines of gender. And this doesn’t just mean that husbands shouldn’t automatically expect wives to do the dishes, organize the cabinets, and plan the dinner meals, but also, that wives shouldn’t automatically expect husbands to unclog the drains, change the oil, and fix the broken light bulbs. As said before, all of these tasks require, at the very least, a mere amount of motivation and, at most, a minuscule amount of research on the internet. Thus, to always wait for your spouse to take care of a certain activity may be perpetuating the societal concepts of masculine and feminine more than the Christian concepts of stewardship and service.

Finally, I think it is important for Christians to remember to cut each other slack. Just as it would be wrong for a husband to become angry at a wife for forgetting to run the dishwasher overnight, it would also be wrong for a wife to yell at her husband for accidentally leaving her cashmere sweater in the dryer or accidentally putting soap on a cast iron pan. While there is something to be said about Christians needing to be conscientious and thoughtful in their actions, everybody makes mistakes and it is important to not have expectations of either gender that don’t allow room for mistakes.

A Theology of Halloween

Sadly, the holiday of Halloween does not seem to elicit much reflection beyond concerns such as What shall I be this year? and Will that one neighbor be giving out king-sized candy bars again? 

And even more sad, one might notice that such a pattern does not differ much from other holidays, such as Christmas (What should I buy for Dad? ; Are we going to make cookies this year?) and Easter (What should I wear to church? ; Will my bunny be dark chocolate?)

Yet, unlike these other holidays, which receive a great deal of attention from the church (Christmas isn’t just about Santa; Easter isn’t just about eggs), Halloween is often overlooked, or possibly, avoided, as if to say We have no idea what to do with Halloween!?!

There are some churches that vehemently reject participation in it, or, in some strains, advise their members to go on the offensive and fight the powers of darkness that are supposed to be more active on this day [!Wouldn’t it be more logical to assume that such forces, being made complete in evil, are as completely active as they can be on every day!]

And there are some churches that “take back” the holiday by providing a Halloween alternative (Trunk or Treat, Har-Fest, etc.). However, the activities at these events hardly differ from their secular cousins, and they often seem to assume that Halloween is not a Christian holiday, but a secular one only, for which they are providing a safer, homogeneous environment.

But Halloween is a Christian holiday (co-opted from pagan traditions of course, just as all the others were). The particular history of the this holiday begins with the Gaelic harvest festival of Samhain, which focused primarily on the transition from the lighter half of the year to the darker half and also included the recognition of death and those who had passed on.

When adapted by Christianity, this time of the year was crowned “Hallowmas” or “All Hallows,” which is the archaic terms for “All Saint’s Day,” (traditionally celebrated on November 1st, and preceded by “All Hallows Eve”). Furthermore, thanks to Luther, October 31st has also become recognized as “Reformation Day,” which is often celebrated together with All Saints Day. Thus, by way of the Christian liturgical calendar, this period of time is officially not ordinary, but holy (a time of holiday).

Thus, whether you celebrate Halloween (and all holidays for that matter) purely for their Christian remembrances, or as mixed with cultural activities (feasting, gift-giving, partying) and symbols (trees, pumpkins, eggs), Halloween is indeed a holiday that should provoke us theologically.

Perhaps the easiest concept that Christians can celebrate in Halloween is the Harvest, a time of the year when vegetation, having ripened and matured, is gathered and celebrated. Beyond reminding us of our own charge to bear fruit, the harvest helps to direct our attention to God’s bountiful provisions in our lives and prepares our hearts for Thanksgiving and the Christmas season.

Yet another theme of Halloween is death and the remembrance of those who have gone on before us. For those cultures that are profoundly disconnected from the concept of death (such as American culture is) this holiday often brings to the forefront a recognition of our mortality. And while Freud would say that a holiday like Halloween allows people to consciously process our unconscious fears of death, for Christians, the holiday’s recognition of death should be a reminder that death is neither our ultimate fear, nor the ultimate victory; a natural part of this fallen world, but a reminder also of a world that will one day be reversed.

Furthermore, death reminds us of all those who have gone on before us and with whom we will one day be reunited. Traditionally commemorated with a feast and, sometimes, a graveyard visit, the celebration and remembrance of the Saints is a festivity that could probably be revitalized in modern Christianity and in the modern celebration of Halloween.

Finally, the theme of the spooky, through often troubling to the Christian, is not irredeemable, but a reminder, yet again, of those things that are indeed scary to us now (spiders, snakes, bats, creaking stairs, fog, the dark, the uncanny, etc.), but will not be in the new earth, where we will be reconciled with all of the things that go bump in the night. And, while we know that there are dark forces at work here on earth, as Christians, this holiday should remind us that, scary things, whether real (demons) or unreal (ghosts) are not to be feared, nor are we to be superstitious about them (whether throwing salt over our shoulder or refusing to carve pumpkins out of the fear that doing so will open us up to dark forces).

On a side note, I think that people can choose to abstain from certain Halloween activities, but their reason for doing so should be to redirect focus and/or shape character rather than out of fear that participation will condemn them spiritually. Furthermore, while Christians may be tempted to abandon all material participation in Halloween (and in other holidays for that matter), we must remember that the spiritual does not exist outside of the material, but is embodied in it. Therefore, we shouldn’t strip our youngsters of pumpkins and, at the same time, expect them to comprehend the harvest. We shouldn’t shelter them from death and expect them comprehend the boundaries of the fallen world or the price that Jesus paid on the cross.

Finally, in approaching Halloween, Christians must be reflective, as they are with other holidays, celebrating those elements that are redeemable or, at least, neutral and abstaining from those that are detrimental. Personally, I think some of the worst aspects of Halloween have nothing to do with witch decorations, ghost costumes, and pumpkin carving, but with promiscuity and the glorification of gore and horror.

For Christians, the real issue is not How can we provide an alternative to this holiday? or How can we use this holiday to target non-Christians (ex: handing out ineffective tracts) but How are we to celebrate this Holiday? and hopefully, What can we learn from it? 

A Theology of Pop Music

Okay, I will admit it. When LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” comes on the radio in all of its rhythmic, auto-tuned, Black-Eyed-Peas-esque glory, I turn it up. I also dance around to it in my house, listen to it while I run, and spontaneously start singing it when I am in a good mood.

Party Rock

Am I aware that it makes a reference to “ho’s” and “getting naked?” Well, I am now, having taken the time to actually look up the lyrics before writing this post. (I really thought it said “running through this hose like draino”).  But, seriously, I can’t say that I am surprised.

This is because pop music often works within an intentionally limited vocabulary, even to the point that artists repeat one word over and over, such as Usher’s “down down down, down down, down down” or Britney Spears’ “uncontrollably, lably, lably, lably.” Furthermore, in striking similarity to its movie cousin, the summertime blockbuster, pop music sometimes tries to up an f-word count of its own, all for the sake of its target audience.

Christians, not being this target audience, find themselves in the middle of a tension-filled relationship with pop music, in which some abstain from the genre altogether (which must be relatively hard given the music’s prevalence in commercials, store background music, school dance playlists, etc.), and some look desperately for ways to redeem it.

Pop Music: Redemption Through Biblical Reference? 

For instance, in his article “Popular Music and Theology: Strange Bedfellows,” Nate Risdon suggests that redeeming qualities are sometimes found in pop music’s attempts to include spiritual themes and concepts, which may provide Christian listeners with a new perspective. As an example of this, he uses the song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen:

“When a songwriter like Leonard Cohen alludes to the complexity of emotions and desire felt by a fallen King David in his much heralded song “Hallelujah”, I listen to that song and return to that biblical narrative with a new set of eyes. I complete the “Mid-rashic” exercise when I read the text in a new way and can reflect with a new set of eyes and new ears to hear. David emerges from the page and becomes real, not just a character in the Bible . . . I now empathize with David and his fall from grace all the more and I carry that with me into my immediate world. I can use it to inform my faith and desire to follow Christ. Cohen has altered my reading and my reality in a simple and profound way”

While I give Risdon credit for his eloquent wording, I don’t think the principle he is using to redeem this particular song extends very far in the world of pop music, where most “invocations” of religious terminology do not rise above empty cliche:

“There’s gotta be a heaven somewhere” – Justin Timberlake

“When you call my name, it’s like a little prayer” -Madonna

“I know that God put you in front of me” – Kanye West

Furthermore, even Cohen’s extended allusions to biblical characters lack depth and meaning in a song that is primarily about disenchantment with love and faith. Thus, while I don’t doubt that pop music can provide glimmers of truth or examples of searching for theological meaning, to expect them to significantly alter our readings of biblical text and biblical doctrine is probably expecting too much. For example, trying to pass Hallelujah off as a “worship song” during chapel, such as my Christian college sometimes did, is probably not a good idea.

A. K. M. Adam, in his post, “C’mon Save Your Soul Tonight”: Toward An Appreciative Theological Criticism In Popular Musics, says the following about the “redemption through biblical reference” approach:

“[I] hope that we all can begin to move from a generally fannish orientation that focuses on catching and making-explicit allusions to the Bible, the liturgy, and theology in popular music (“oh, he said ‘The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost’!”) toward a more critical approach that doesn’t hesitate to deliberate seriously about the theological shortcomings of popular music (though without, I hope, condescending finger-wagging or censorship).”

Pop Music: Redemption Through Cultural Relationship?

Another attempt to redeem pop music focuses on the idea that entering into pop culture allows us to enter into the world of others and relate to them on their own level.

In his post, Pop Music and Theology, Troy Allen uses the musical career of Johnny Cash as an example of this, stating: “Was God only present in Cash’s ‘gospel songs’ or was God somehow present when Cash sang “Folsom Prison Blues” to a room full of prisoners? [I would also consider “Cocaine Blues” as an example] The lyrics are brash and hard and yet somehow a message of theological importance is found.”

Or, to tweak Allen’s words slightly, an act of theological importance is at work in this Folsom Prison visit, where prisoners are feeling understood, cared about, and ministered to. Thus, in this line of thought, the concept becomes one of incarnation, where Christians, by engaging or at least familiarizing themselves with pop culture, are able to relate to and communicate with those who are immersed in it.

Steve Rabey, who teaches a course on pop culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, even uses Paul’s sermon to the people in Athens as an example of this “familiar with for the sake of relating to” redemption, stating:

“Paul’s appropriation of pop culture artifacts in Acts 17 . . . [and his] sermon to the Athenians at Mars Hill compliments them for their religiosity—even though it’s far from Christian—and he quotes both a popular poet and the inscription found on a statue to a pagan god” (Developing a Theology of Pop Culture).

And while such rhetorical devices surely worked in Paul’s favor and did, in fact, serve the purpose of God, I think there is a sizable distance between appropriating pop culture and immersing ourselves in it, the latter often being the real sanction those taking the “relational approach” are hoping for.

Pop Music: An Exercise in Discernment

For something that is so commonplace, pop music does not elicit an easy answer, and there may be no all-encompassing doctrine for the church to advocate. For if the church says to abstain, members will likely abstain in the way that Catholics abstain from birth control, singing hymns in church and pop music at home. But at the same time, the church cannot condone the genre as a whole… For instance, imagine Nicki Minaj’s Super Bass playing in the background of an youth group event… Furthermore, if we believe that all practices are habit forming and soul shaping, we can hardly defend pop music (at large) as being that which is true, noble, honorable, pure, etc.

What we can do, however, is put in the extra effort to draw conclusions within rather than about the genre. For instance, does this song make shallow references to sinful behavior that can be overlooked, or does this song promote an entire theme that is counter to the gospel? In answering this question, we might compare Britney Spears’ I Wanna Go to Rihanna’s Love the Way You Lie, where the first simply talks about sex being exciting and the latter endorses an abusive relationship.

We can also make sure we are applying the same critical standards to all music, and not just those forms that sound “unchristian.” This may be especially relevant in the world of parenting, where it may be easy to convict a song with a couple of swear words in it (even if that song has a positive message), and harder to catch the problematic messages within songs that sound harmless.

For instance, when we turn the radio dial from Britney Spears to Taylor Swift, the message may not be significantly altered, starting with “life is all about sex” and ending with “life is all about boys and pining after the boyfriends of other girls.”

Similarly, even Christian music gets it wrong sometimes, such as Courageous by Casting Crowns, which preaches a doctrine of gender that is borrowed more from the Eldredges than the Bible, or Can a Nation Be Changed by Matt Redman, which asks a question more relevant to politics than Christianity.

Finally, churches should serve their members by guiding them in this type of discernment. Rather than avoiding the topic of pop music altogether or giving subtle permission for “Christian music” and condemnation of “secular music,” churches should be able to address the daily habits of their congregants, none of which are too small or too irrelevant for reflection and discernment.

*Image taken from: http://www.amazon.com/Party-Rock-LMFAO/dp/B00274SI8S

A Theology of Leftovers

Living in a consumer culture means that you can have exactly what you want at any moment. However, it also means that you are bombarded with choices, none of which are particularly better or meaningful. For instance, if you are craving pumpkin, you can have it. And thanks to products such as canned pumpkin, pumpkin pie spice, and pumpkin spice syrup, you can appease your taste buds through a variety of pumpkin-flavored foods all year long.  However, if you do so, you may come to realize that there is nothing particularly special about the pumpkin pie that decorates your family’s Thanksgiving table. After all, you did just have pumpkin pie a few days ago…

Oftentimes, it is the limitation and not the limitlessness of something that makes it special. Gourmet desserts, presents, parties, vacations, deep conversations, and so many other treats are appreciated for their scarcity.  Because they don’t happen every day, they become sacred to us, and we delight in them when they are present.

Such human characteristics are not unbeknownst to Starbucks, a company that seems to reflect more on the behavior of individuals than the individuals themselves, and Starbucks knows just how to trick, nudge, and delight us through the illusion of limitation. For instance, while Starbucks could easily provide Pumpkin Spice, Eggnog, and Gingerbread lattes year round (and at many stores, often will when asked), it markets these drinks as seasonal specialties, and even devises contests where cities can compete against each other to get these drinks put on the menu early.

Now, on the business level, this is very profitable, as their release of the beloved drink often leads to runs on their coffee shops. However, on the personal level, Starbucks also knows that these conditions are very pleasing to the loyal customer, who looks forward to even the mere hint or concept of a sacred ritual.

But unlike seasonal drinks at Starbucks, food (just plain food) is rarely seen as sacred. Unlike the Israelites wandering in the desert, waiting for heavenly bread, many Christians have only ever known food as it is in excess. We toss half of our burger and most of our fries away (even if we do go to the trouble of putting them in a “take home” box). Farms throw out crops that are misshapen or discolored (that is, undesirable for supermarkets). And grocery stores and restaurants chuck tons of leftovers in the trash rather than risk any liabilities associated with donating. And these practices are not benign, but only help breed a culture where wasting food is normal, and comments about starving children are trite.

Now, before you accuse me of setting the stage for an argument in favor of some ascetic lifestyle, in which your relationship to food becomes that of an inverse glutton, let me just say that restriction for its own sake is similarly void of meaning. From off-the-grid green fanatics to organic-only raw foodies to anti-consumer minimalists, the idea of restriction is often romanticized to a place of religion, and serves as a sort of spiritual law that brings a sense (though not necessarily the existence) of order to their lives: If I only eat food that I grow myself and that isn’t tainted by “chemicals” or “additives,” I will have “arrived.” If I recycle, compost, and keep light and gas usage to a minimum, I will have “achieved.” If I get rid of clutter, resist the urge to buy things, and take time to quiet and simplify my existence, I will have “transcended.”

And yet, as Christians, we know that such trends are only poor replacements for a soul that seeks to be perfectly restricted by God (what Augustine sees as the ultimate form of freedom). As we pursue this type of life (a life of service to God), the purposes of restriction become clearer.

As it pertains to food, restriction teaches us to appreciate the fact that food is a gift from God, disciplines our hearts to be good stewards of this gift, and encourages us to consider others when we have been blessed with excess. In more specific terms, it might foster the following habits, which again, should not become laws that are set in stone, but should be used in ways that are beneficial to the Christian life:

1) Be Resourceful:

Rather than going to the store for every meal, focus on what you already have. If you open a can of pumpkin, be committed to that can. This was a recent adventure in my house, where what started with adding one tablespoon of canned pumpkin to my morning oatmeal turned into “what is going to become of all that remains in that can?” Twelve pumpkin donuts, 24 pumpkin cookies, and 1 pot of potato pumpkin curry later, waste was averted, and not to the detriment of our taste buds either.

2) Be Creative:

Reuse Food. If you have leftover soup, use it as sauce for a pasta salad or make up some rice to pour it over. If you have a leftover meat source (steak, chicken, meatloaf), cut it up and put it into something new (salad, pasta, casserole). Even if you have trouble coming up with ideas on your own, there are plenty of websites that provide meal generators based on the ingredients that you type in.

For your convenience, some foods can even be made into desserts, which can be used on the same night as the meal. For example, my husband and I often use leftover white rice to make “Rice Au Lait” (alternatively spelled “Rice Olé”) which is an horchata-like dessert drink (Recipe Below). Another favorite of ours is the leftover sweet potato (the one that didn’t make it into the casserole), which can be baked and sprinkled with cinnamon and brown sugar.

3) Be Generous:

When you have extras, share. This is especially applicable to baking, because, when you bake, you are undoubtedly going to end up with extras. So instead of leaving that container of 3 dozen cookies on your counter, where it will either get eaten (accompanied by stomach pains) or will not get eaten (“I guess we better throw these cookies out”), why not share them with someone else? This is truly the best part of baking anyway, and the only reason anyone would put in all the effort of reading directions, measuring out precise levels of ingredients, and checking on their treats every five minutes until they are golden brown.

4) Suck It Up:

If you have extra of a dish that is hard to reuse (lasangna, stir-fry, etc.), and it is too late to bring a warm portion of it to a friend’s house, freeze it for next week and actually reheat it. Or, just bite the bullet and eat it tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, until it is gone. Perhaps you will also consider not making so much the next time you get the recipe out.

Recipe for Rice Au Lait:

Ingredients: Rice, Milk, Sugar, Cinnamon

1) With at least one cup of leftover rice, put rice into a small or medium saucepan.

2) Pour milk over the rice until rice is covered. (You can add another layer or two of milk if you prefer your dessert to be more of a beverage)

3) Turn heat to medium/low.

4) Add at least 3 tablespoons of sugar and stir. (Add more sugar according to taste)

5) Add at least 1 tsp of cinnamon and stir.

6) When sugar and cinnamon have mixed, remove from heat and pour into cups. Enjoy!

*Picture taken from: http://www.countryliving.com/cooking/pumpkin-dessert-recipes

A Theology of Introverts

When I inform people that I am an introvert, I am often met with nods that hint at understanding and reassurance. And yet, having heard various and almost always incomplete definitions of what constitutes introversion, I have to wonder: Does society really understands this personality type as well as it thinks it does? And more importantly, does the church?

For instance, here are some of the ways I have had introversion explained to me: “Introverts are quiet people.” “Introverts like to be alone.” “Introverts have a very active thought life.” “Introverts feel exhausted from being around people.” And while all of these statements bear some semblance of truth, none of them, on their own, quite captures what it means to be an introvert.

Thus, rather than attempting to create my own pithy definition for the concept, I suggest the following principles (having originated from Marti Laney) as a helpful guide for distinguishing this personality from its counterpart: the extrovert.

1. The ways they get energy—Extroverts receive energy from external stimulus, while introverts get energy from the inner thought world. As a result, even if introverts perform well in social settings, they are often drained by people and need time alone to recuperate.

2. The ways they respond to stimulation—Extroverts thrive in environments that provide multisensory stimulation. Introverts, on the other hand, have a busy inner world and can easily be overwhelmed by external stimulation. That’s why introverts may be reserved and prefer quiet environments.

3. Their approach to knowledge and experience—Extroverts like to absorb as much as they can from their environment; they crave variety and breadth. Their introverted counterparts prefer depth; they invest energy in select areas. This is why they may be careful about choosing activities and may be hesitant to offer their feelings or ideas. 1

For those of you who are visual learners, Psychology Today, with its notoriously exquisite photo shoots, offers up this image of the introvert, and all of its 1000 words. 2

While a secular perspective would encourage us to view such personality types as cornerstones of our identities, a Christian perspective would recognize that a foundation or identity built on anything other than Christ is doomed to fail. Nevertheless, personality traits which are both inherent and constructed, God-given and God-transformed, are important bricks in the building of individuals and communities.

Thus, I think, it becomes important for the church to evaluate itself, and see to it that the entire body is being cared for. And while the implications of this statement abound, I want to focus on three areas of potential assessment: Church Fellowship, Church Services, and Church Theology.

1) Church Fellowship: Introverts and Mingling

Perhaps one of the hardest things for introverts in the church is the seemingly endless pressure to “get involved,” “get connected,” or “get plugged in.”  While introverts have no qualms with the underlying principles of these commands (hospitality, fellowship, service), they do fear the narrowly designed pathways that provide access to these virtues.

For instance, at some churches, the only means of fellowship are found in venues such as the coffee hour, the potluck, the ministry fair, and the small group. For an introvert, all of these activities can be reduced to one resounding word: Mingling. This is the introvert’s worst nightmare. Endless stimulation and signals to read. Endless potential directions of conversation and action. And at the end of all of it, he or she will be exhausted.

Thus, sometimes undetected and sometimes to the chagrin of more extroverted church members, the introvert will often flee the scene or avoid showing up at all. This is not because the introvert does not care for people, or for the church, but simply because such settings, while extremely conducive to the extrovert, are overwhelming and unnatural for the introvert.

At the same time, such settings are often designed with specific images of fellowship in mind, images in which the introvert is not an adequate poster child. For instance, a church might unintentionally be sending messages such as “fellowship is people bantering over coffee,” “fellowship is a girls-night-out party (put on by the women’s ministry) at an active, downtown venue,” or “fellowship is a small group laughing, crying, and instantly clicking with each other, even at their first meeting.”

The risk of these preconceived images is that they put pressure (unspoken but still detected) on introverts and make them feel as if they are “doing it wrong.” Furthermore, they often obligate introverts to act in ways that are completely opposite to their personality in order to fit in.

In her article, The ‘IN’ Crowd: Ministering with Introverts in Mind, Mandy Smith says something similar to this effect in her assessment of what she refers to as obligatory involvement in small groups.

“For many churches, small groups are organized so that participants are forced to meet with those they don’t know and prodded to share what they’d prefer to keep private. Although small groups can be meaningful for all personality types, Joseph Myers’s conclusion in The Search to Belong should make us think twice. He says, “Often our small group models encourage forced belonging.” 3

2) Church Service: Introverts and Responsive Exercises

Turn to your neighbor and say “Your a Sinner.”  Now turn to your neighbor and say “I’m a Sinner too.” Now turn to your neighbor and say “God Loves You Right Now.”

Nope, this is not Christian preschool. This is church for many people whose pastors have decided to implement “responsive” or “interactive” exercises into their service structure. While some people seem to respond well to these participatory acts, for introverts, they are meaningless and irritating. And while distaste for these practices is not an exclusively introvert characteristic (as extroverts, too, may view them as corny or schmaltzy), they are particularly damaging for introverts, who prefer their social interactions to be few but meaningful, but are forced to participate in many social interactions that are devoid (at least for them) of any authenticity or depth.

To give another example, from my college years, I recall a particularly painful exercise that was forced upon morning chapel-goers. It had something to do with connecting with people, and it involved taking a whole minute (they actually timed it) to stare into the eyes of the person sitting next to you and contemplate “them.”

While I imagine that any individuals who were attending chapel with their significant other did not mind this exercise, those of us who were attending solo and soon found ourselves being forced to share a minute of physical and emotional vulnerability with the potential creeper/person of the opposite gender next to us were less than amused.

The reasoning often provided for such exercises is that they better their participants by forcing them out of their “comfort zones” and into an embrace with a radical, potentially “life-changing” experience. And while I will agree that all of God’s people (both introverts and extroverts) should be challenged out of rigid patterns of behavior and thinking that may prevent them from leading a life of service, I doubt that such transformation takes place through exercises such as the ones that I have listed.

While I agree that the Christian lifestyle is a radical one, I think we must use discernment in differentiating between that which is radical for radical’s sake, and that which actually aligns the individual with Christ. While I don’t doubt that God calls us to radical acts such as giving away money to the poor or refusing to recant our faith, even with a gun to our head, I doubt that Jesus looks upon the pastor who has asked his congregation to amuse him by participating in some “turn to your neighbor” speak, and says, “Way to go! Look at all those people who are radically uncomfortable in My Name!”

3) Church Theology: Introverts and Complementarian Doctrine: 

In the article “Caring for Your Introvert,” taken from The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch says this: “Female introverts, I suspect, must suffer especially. In certain circles, particularly in the Midwest, a man can still sometimes get away with being what they used to call a strong and silent type; introverted women, lacking that alternative, are even more likely than men to be perceived as timid, withdrawn, haughty.” 4

Those in the church who view personality through these gender stereotypes are often rooted in various forms of complementarianism, which, on its most basic level, holds that men and women have distinct yet complementary roles within the family and within the church. However, when this philosophy is explained or acted out through specific expectations, it can be devastating for the female introvert.

For instance, while men might be allowed and even encouraged to be stoic thinkers, contemplating hefty decisions, women may be expected to be chatty hostesses, gently touching new comers on the arm and engaging them emotionally. Given that such gender roles are often espoused by the church, it is no surprise that they are especially rigid for those who are associated with the church.

For instance, my husband and I were once accosted by a man selling beanie hats at Rockafeller Center. Before he began his sales pitch, he entered into a minute or two of small talk, and out of politeness (and the hopeful aspiration that we could exchange that politeness for help with directions) we said hello and offered up answers to his questions: Yes, we were from New Jersey.  We were living there because my husband was attending seminary.  Yes, he did want to be a pastor.  Before leaving, we offered up handshakes and said that it was nice to meet. But when he received my hand, a look of surprise came over his face. “A hand shake?” he said. “Normally, you get two things from pastor’s wives.  Either they go around hugging everybody or they won’t touch you at all.”

Now, obviously not all pastor’s wives fit into this man’s false dichotomy, however, I think his perception of women sub-types within the church was very keen, as both the social nurturer and meek bystander have their place within various strains of complementary philosophy—with the former being somewhat more trendy than the latter in modern culture.

However, for the female introvert, such promotion does not provide validation, nor does it stray far from Coventry Patmore’s Angel at the Hearth. And furthermore, it does not serve the purpose of the church, which should not be a mere reflection of what is currently trendy in society (including the cult of the extrovert in American society), but should seek a communal identity that is based on and rooted in scripture.

Thus, regardless of what your church believes about the roles of women as mentioned in the bible (ie: the woman as pastor, the woman of Proverbs 31, etc.), it is the non bible-based doctrines of women (the woman as emotional, the woman as sociable, etc.) that are most threatening to the introvert, by not only discouraging women from introverted traits, but sometimes even placing scorn on the very combination itself.

Thus, for the female introvert, the church can be an environment wrought with landmines, and the church would do well to reconsider where it may have unintentionally set up these traps.

Finally, just briefly, it may be beneficial to consider ways in which churches might actively welcome the introvert and plug him or her into effective fellowship and service.

For instance, to encourage fellowship, churches could offer more activity-based rather than talk-based gatherings, where introverts would have the option of focusing on the task at hand rather than the crowd of sensory overload. A church might also consider offering one-on-one mentoring relationships or other one-on-one activities for those who find the personal rather than the group setting more comfortable.

To encourage service, a church might provide introverts with more behind-the-scenes or one-on-one roles that need to be filled (making and delivering meals, overseeing the planing of an event or trip, etc.) Also, because introverts often dedicate a good deal of time to contemplation, churches could probably benefit from their feedback. Thus, providing easy venues for sharing any thoughts or ideas that strike introverts after the fact is a good way to get them involved.

1. Taken from The Christian Standard, paraphrased from Marti Olson Laney, The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World (New York: Workman Publishing, 2002) p. 19-24, 49.

2. Psychology Today also offers an extensive article that deals specifically with the personality of the introvert Revenge of the Introvert.

3. The ‘IN’ Crowd: Ministering to Your Introvert.

4. Caring for Your Introvert.

A Theology of Gardening

If you live in the Northeast, you may find yourself paying more for a pumpkin this year. Of course, such circumstances are not due to corporate greed. Nor are there any pumpkin charlatans trying to covertly raise the price. Instead, due to excessive rain and early frost dates, much of the pumpkin crop in this area has been damaged. Pictured below are two pumpkins that my husband and I managed to harvest early. While I would have liked to plant another small patch of them, it seems that such efforts would not be fruitful. And so it goes for the art of gardening, in which things like weather, pests, and disease reign above our attempts to control them.

However, despite the uncertain outcome of this labor, I find that gardening is an endeavor worth pursuing. One that not only reveals to us biblical truth, but one that encourages, or rather, forces us to move further along in that process of sanctification, for which all of God’s creation was intended.

1) Gardening as Revelation: The Relationship Between Humans and the Land

Perhaps the first thing that will strike you, when you begin to garden, is that gardening is dirty. While your concept of gardening may currently be inspired by the picture of a Martha Stewart-esque woman gracefully tending to her crops while still managing to look both clean and peaceful in Burmuda shorts and a fashionable sun hat, such fantasies will disappear after ten minutes of shoveling dirt to prepare the soil, or after spending an hour weeding on a hot day. For me, gardening often results in a mixture of sweat, dirt and mosquito bites worthy of a long shower.

And yet, I do feel that I have gained a slightly more elongated perspective from this dirty activity. Not only do I feel more connected to my food, which, to my surprise, sucks life from mother dirt as it matures, but I also feel more connected to that dirt itself, as I realize that from dust I also came, and to dust . . .

In generations past, people were not as removed from dirt as they are today. Instead, they were reliant upon the dirt for survival and even struggled with the temptation to worship it, or at least, the gods who were rumored to control it. Of course, this was not the artificial New-Agey sort of nature worship that we see in eco-friendly, homeopathic-remedy-wielding, earth-mothers of today’s generation. But rather, it was a “my life depends on this” sort of devotion to that which was mysterious and seemingly divine in nature.

Thus, embedded in a narrative of laws regarding sexual conduct, we find God clarifying to His people, just who is actually in control of the earth. “You must keep my decrees and my laws” He says, “And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you” (Leviticus 18:26, 28).

While this warning does in part address the perverse sexual rituals that had been incorporated into worship in order to procure fertility of the land,” it also makes clear that any “violation of the sexual code [or of any code, for that matter] pollutes both the people of the land” and “[requires] a cleansing process that will drive them out and allow resettlement.” In such text, there is “an understanding of an intimate relationship between land and people that would have been natural to a people who based their lives on agriculture and herding” (IVP Bible Background Commentary Old Testament).

Thus in one way, gardening helps reveal to us a long-lost relationship with the land, in which we are made aware that it is neither us nor the Grandmother Willow tree from Pocohontas that controls the land, but God. And like the flowers of the field and the birds of the air, our sustenance and survival are also in His hands.

2) Gardening as Revelation: The Relationship Between Humans and Plants

Similarly, gardening also helps reveal to us that particular creation that is lesser than but similar to ourselves, or at least, caught in a similar predicament. In Job, we are challenged to “Ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? [that is, who does not know that God is both all-powerful and all-wise, even in circumstances such as those that befell Job] In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:7-10).

And yet, from these lesser creations, we are much estranged. Barbara Kingsolver expresses this sentiment rather poignantly in her journal-like memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, when she describes encounters with those outside of the farming communities. She says:

We don’t know beans about beans. Asparagus, potatoes, turkey drumsticks–you name it, we don’t have a clue how the world makes it. I usually think I’m exaggerating the scope of the problem, and then I’ll encounter an editor . . . who’s nixing the part of my story that refers to pineapples growing from the ground. She insisted they grew on trees. Or I’ll have a conversation like this one:

“What’s new on the farm?” asks my friend, a lifelong city dweller who likes for me to keep her posted by phone. . . . So I told her what was up in the garden: peas, potatoes, spinach.

“Wait a minute,’ she said, ‘When you say, ‘The potatoes are up’ what do you mean?” . . . “What part of a potato comes up?”

“Um, the plant part,” I said. “The stems and the leaves.”

“Wow,” she said. “I never know a potato had a plant part.” . . .

To conclude, Kingsolver insists:

My husband and I decided our children would not grow up without knowing a potato has a plant part. (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, p. 11-21).

While for Kingsolver, such knowledge of a plant may be the ultimate revelation, for Christians, these astonishingly various shapes and “colors of the wind” point to a God of infinite wonders and creativity. Such wonders do not have to be over-analyzed or contrived, such as the infamous Ray Comfort/Kirk Cameron assessment of a banana, but are inherent within such basic miracles, such as that of a seed coming to fruition.

On this subject, Kingsolver is, again, knowledgeable, stating: “Biology Teachers face kids in classrooms who may not even believe in the metamorphosis of bud to flower to fruit and seed, but rather, some continuum of pansies becoming petunias becoming chrysanthemums; that’s the only reality they witness as landscapers come to campuses and city parks and surreptitiously yank out one flower before it fades from its prime, replacing it with another” (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, p 11).

This “fading from prime” to which she refers is none other than the stark reality of death, which comes to us all in a post-Eden world. Such disorder and chaos are often directly tied to the sins of the people of Israel and their on-and-off pattern of obedience to God. For instance, in Hosea, we find that “there is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Because of this the land mourns, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea are dying” (Hosea 4:1-3).

And yet, it is also revealed to us in Romans, that in times of both drought and plenty, all of creation remains in bondage to a fallen world, tainted by sin. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22). In Knocking On Heaven’s Door, David Krump describes this specific state of travail, stating that “caught between the collision of two opposing spiritual forces, the cosmos groans under the combined weight of both” (Knocking On Heaven’s Door, p. 200).

Thus, like us, this lesser creation has fallen far from its perfected state and is now forced to inhabit a world where all is not well. And more often than us (for when do plants ever cease pointing to God?), this lesser creation has an instinctual though non-conscious awareness of its place within the order of creation and its purpose on earth, and it testifies loudly to the design of a Holy God that has been tainted by death and destruction. Take a whiff of air from a compost pile or that vase of decaying flowers that you have neglected to throw out, and such tainting with be made clear to you in a very visceral way.

3) Gardening as Formation: Ever-Approaching and Awaiting Perfection

Of course, it is in the garden that we also become aware of God’s promise to creation, which does not abandon it to death forever but intends to restore it to its former glory. And at the same time that creation groans under its present circumstances, it also “waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:19-21).

And like all of creation, we also await perfection in heaven, where not only will our bodies be perfected, as those of the flowers and the trees, but our souls, too, and all the fruits of the Spirit that have been sown as seeds within us will be fully ripe and bountiful for the harvest.

In this way, we come to recognize ourselves as the seeds and ever-maturing fruits of God’s own harvest. And it must be noted, that through the act of gardening, we ourselves may grow in patience, joy, tenderness, self control, and other fruits of the Spirit–fruit which is just as much a foretaste of the Kingdom to come as the actual fruit that we harvest from our meager plots.

Thus, as we pull weeds from our gardens and attempt to make straight the paths of those climbing plants that just can’t seem to find their way to our trellis, we look forward to a day when all such plants will be perfected. To the day when we “will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song . . . and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12). A day in which this wasteland, where April is indeed the cruelest month crumbles under the incoming reign of a Garden of Eden on earth.

So go forth. Work the land. Plant seeds. Eat berries. But above all, seek after God and all that He wants to cultivate and reap in your life and in others. For the harvest is plentiful, but the workers . . .

A Theology of Church Web Design

It has been said that in our present digital age, church websites are the new steeples. The increasing availability of the internet and web-related tools offers churches the chance to not only advertise their existence but also to share their faith and strengthen their communities. While many helpful resources exist and much has been written on some of the practical mechanics of designing a good church website, little ink has been spilled on theological consideration for church web design.

1. Accessibility

If you could design a building for your church that would be difficult for poorer congregants to access and would be completely inaccessible to church members who drive Chevys, would you want to design such a building? Of course not, yet many churches do something similar by designing their website using Flash.

Five years ago, Flash-based websites were the cutting edge with integrated videos, fancy animations, and impressive page transitions. That is no longer the case, as web developers have begun to realize that a good website is not necessarily an impressive website, but a user-friendly and accessible website. The problems with Flash far outweigh the benefits, for example:

  • Websites built using Flash tend to be very data-heavy, requiring even users with fast internet connections to wait several seconds for the site to load. A 2006 study found that 75% of web users polled indicated that they would not return to a website if it took more than 4 seconds to load. More recent studies suggest that patience is waning, as 47% of respondents expected a website to load in less than 2 seconds, 40% will abandon a website if the load time goes over 3 seconds, and 52% indicated that load-speed was important to their loyalty to a site.
  • Poorer people tend to have older (slower) computers and slower internet connection speeds, which means that data-heavy websites will perform particularly poorly for them. People living in less densely populated areas and rural regions also tend to suffer from slower internet connections.
  • Flash does not work on the iPhone at all. As of August 31, 2011, 82.2 million Americans own smartphones and 27 percent of those smartphones are iPhones.* That means that 22 million Americans cannot access a Flash-based website from their primary internet connection, and this does not even include the millions of Americans who own iPads that cannot run Flash.
  • Apart from the 22 million American iPhones, there are another 60 million American smartphone users who have a slower internet experience than the one they would have on a PC and will therefore be frustrated by Flash websites, even though they technically work on their phones.

Of course, although Flash is a particularly illustrative example, many of the lessons that apply to Flash apply to other forms of web design as well. Any website, designed using any platform, can suffer from slow-loading and a clunky, frustrating user experience if it is not designed with accessibility as a goal.

James 2:1-7 warns the church against showing favoritism to the rich at the expense of the poor, and the warning against such favoritism should be remembered when designing an accessible church website.

2. Hospitality

While I would argue that a church’s website should be built primarily to serve the members of the congregation, there is no doubt that it should (and will) also serve as an introduction to potential visitors. Hospitality should be expressed everywhere within the church, but must begin on the church website. There are a few things that every visitor will want to know when considering your church, and you can show them that you care about them and have thought about their needs by making it as easy as possible for them to find that information.

Hospitality will usually involve creating a special “Visitor” section of the site that houses clearly named links to pages offering visitors:

  • A photo of the church building so that visitors will know when they are in the right place
  • The church building’s physical address
  • Driving directions
  • Service times
  • A way to contact someone from the church with questions
  • A brief explanation of what can be expected when visiting the church
  • A sense of just how dressed up church members normally are. While you want to make it clear that the church does not have a dress code, you do not do anyone a favor by promising that jeans and a T-shirt are normal when they will actually find themselves standing out in a sea of suits and dresses.
  • An explanation of the church’s denominational affiliation and Statement of Faith, for those who are interested.

While hospitality should be shown through the creation of such a Visitor section, it is important to keep in mind that the website should also be hospitable to church members and should not, therefore, be dominated by information for visitors. There are many ways in which the website could serve existing church members, including:

  • Providing audio podcasts and written transcripts of sermons can help members who were unable to attend a given Sunday service. Likewise, additional study guides can be made available to help supplement sermons and Sunday School lessons.
  • Keeping an updated calendar of events can serve church members by helping them to be aware of all upcoming opportunities to serve and be served.
  • Special sections of the site can be devoted to allowing church members to share prayer requests, to make needs known, and to offer to share their resources with one another.
  • Sign-up forms can enable members to easily enroll children in Vacation Bible School, volunteer for service ministries, or indicate what dish they will be bringing to the church potluck.

3. Ecclesiology

Hopefully, your congregation has made an effort to emphasize the priesthood of all believers and to encourage every member of the Body of Christ to use their gifts for the ministry of the church. Believe it or not, this emphasis should extend to your website.

In recent years, tools have been made available that allow multiple people to update and maintain a single website. The WordPress CMS (Content Management System), for example, allows you to give an unlimited number of users the ability to work on the site, and even allows you to grant each user a different level of authority so that theologically profound yet technologically incompetent church members could share their thoughts on the church blog but couldn’t accidentally shred the website’s code.

The benefits of giving website editing ability to multiple users include:

  • Spreading the workload of updating the website, so that the church secretary does not end up with yet another responsibility on his or her shoulders. (Exodus 18:13-27 encourages this sort of shared responsibility)
  • Having a regularly updated website
  • Living out the expressed principle of the priesthood of all believers.
  • Giving a sense of stewardship responsibility for the website to more members of the church, which can open the door to creativity and excitement in further developing the site to serve the church and local community.

4. Aesthetics

While it was argued above that accessibility is of key importance, this does not negate the importance of a strong visual design for a church website. Our God is a God of order, beauty, and creativity, who can be glorified through the use of artistic talents.

A well-designed site can glorify God through its beauty, but is also important because of the message it communicates. As Marshall McLuhan famously taught us, the medium is the message. While that was a hyperbolic overstatement, we cannot deny that the medium affects the message. The design of your website will have an impact on the content that you distribute through your website, especially regarding your church’s:

  • Competency – While we know that God’s glory can be made manifest through our weakness and insufficiency, such assurances are meant to point to God’s all-sufficiency and not to drive us to do poor work. While a well-designed and visually appealing website does not indicate whether or not your church is faithful to the ministry to which it has been called, a poorly-designed website can and does cast doubt on a church’s overall competency. People visiting a poorly-designed site can find themselves asking “if this church cannot achieve the fairly simple goal of having a nice website, how can I trust them with the complexities of rightly dividing Scripture or providing godly counsel?” Obviously, a bad design does not entail bad ministry, but nothing good is achieved by giving your visitors cause for even ill-founded doubts.
  • Relevancy – The Gospel is always relevant to all people everywhere at all times, but you cannot expect non-Christian web users or even immature believers to know that. Many people who have yet to experience the glory of God’s in-breaking Kingdom have the idea that churches have nothing relevant to offer. Poor web-design can reinforce such misunderstandings. If your church’s website is littered with animated GIFs, built using frames, automatically plays background music, or makes use of any other popular design techniques from the 90’s, you are basically telling visitors that your church has nothing relevant to offer.
  • Concern for real people – Humans in general and Americans in particular spend a great deal of their lives online and that must be taken into account by churches. An ugly, irrelevant website tells people that your church is not interested in reaching them in the realm of the web, where they are spending a large chunk of their time.
  • Ecclesiology – Yes, ecclesiology (the theology of the church) was already mentioned, but it deserves another look. Many otherwise-beautiful church websites have made the mistake of prominently featuring a photo of their building or of their pastor on the front page. Yes, you should include a photo of your building on the Driving Directions page to help people find it, and yes, it can be helpful for people to know what the people in the church’s leadership look like so they can recognize them when they see them. By featuring those photos on the home page of your website, however, you communicate to each person who views the site that your church is your pastor or is your building. You do not want be saying that.

5. Social Media and Web 2.0

Technologists have come to the conclusion that the internet today is not just bigger but also different from the internet of a decade ago. The web was once divided into two sections: the tools that allowed for interpersonal communication (e.g. e-mail, chat rooms, discussion boards, and instant messaging), and the tools that allowed individuals (people or organizations) to communicate to broad audiences (e.g. websites). Today, the internet has largely been transformed, as interpersonal interaction has become, in many ways, the primary content of the web. Websites, blog posts, and even news articles generally offer a comment section where readers can respond to the content. By responding, though, those readers actually augment the content. Facebook is one of the most-visited websites on the internet, and yet it is nothing more than platform that allows users to generate and share their own content with one another. The web has largely become an extension of conversation.

Because we, as Christians, recognize the giftedness of each Christian for ministry to the whole body of Christ, we should naturally encourage the participation of every church member in our websites. This can be done in several ways:

  • By allowing comments on your church’s blog, you give a primary platform to theologically mature church members but also allow the rest of the congregation to respond to their thoughts, which can lead to new insights.
  • By placing “Share” buttons on your website’s pages, you give church members the opportunity to share their congregational life with others via Facebook, Twitter, and their own blogs.
  • By integrating your church website with tools like Twitter and Facebook (particularly through a Facebook Page), you can provide ways for your church community to interact as a community in the virtual locations where they are already spending much of their time.
  • Rather than simply keeping an event calendar of upcoming church activities, using the Events section of your church’s Facebook Page allows church members to indicate whether or not they will be attending, to ask and answer questions, and to express their excitement. Most people will be more likely to attend the upcoming all-church barbecue when they can get their questions answered and see that people they know will also be attending.

6. Service to the Surrounding Community

There is no question that churches can reach their cities more effectively by serving and meeting the needs of their neighbors. While many churches admirably love their neighbors by visiting nursing homes, cleaning up litter in city parks, and distributing hot meals to the homeless, a church website also has the potential for serving the local community. This type of outreach is a recent development and surely has room for great creativity, but a few ideas for getting started might include (you can also find a more extensive article on these ideas at the Leaky Jar):

  • Providing a “New to the Area” Guide – We live in an increasingly mobile culture, one in which it is not uncommon for people to regularly move not only into new homes, but also into new cities, states, and nations. Such a geographical transition can be very difficult, but a church can help by providing a community guide for people who are new to the area. Such a guide might include descriptions of the city’s seasonal weather patterns; recommendations of great stores, restaurants, and parks; an introduction to local jargon and culture (e.g. if all of the stores shut down early on Fridays in Fall because of high school football, that should be noted); and, of course, an invitation to find community at your church.
  • Offering Information on Local Non-Church Resources – Often, those who are needy have no idea how to find help. While your church should be helping to meet the needs of your poor neighbors, you can also help them by providing a directory of local services so that they can more easily discover access to food stamps, low-income housing, and discounts for heating fuel.
  • Serving as a Local News Hub – Many small towns and even neighborhoods of larger cities suffer from the increasing globalization of media. That is, local residents can more easily hear about a protest in the nation’s capital than about the renovation of a local landmark or the loss of a local home to a fire. Making a section of your church’s website (or a separate website sponsored by your church) into a local news hub that aggregates local stories can help your neighbors to become more connected with one another.

Finally, the key thing to remember when considering the theology of your church’s website is that the website actually is theologically significant. Your website can and should be rooted in an understanding of what God has called your church to do for Him.

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