Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Death of Shame

Shame is normally not considered a good thing, but I do think there is a good kind of shame.  No, I'm not talking about the shame one feels who was sexually or physically or emotionally abused.  And I'm not talking about the kinds of neurotic shame and self-condemnation that people feel when they don't feel "good enough."  I'm talking about the kind of shame that is felt when one acts in a way that is unbecoming of themselves.  I'm talking about the kind of shame that rests upon the idea that we have value, that we are more than animals, and therefore that we should want to honor ourselves, our Maker, and others, by presenting ourselves to the world in a way that respects and illuminates that value.

See, this shame is different.  With this shame, the obverse side is self-respect and respect for others.  It comes out of something good.  Even in its purely secular form which pays no respect to God whatsoever, this kind of shame tells us, "Come on.  Have some dignity.  You are more than that."  While there is a sense in which we must all admit that, "No, I'm not more than that.  I'm a sinner", this has to do much less with pride and much more with common courtesy toward others and a desire to represent ourselves as one possessing common human dignity.  We all know intuitively, whether we are God-fearing Christians or purely naturalistic atheists, that mankind possesses a nobility above that of the animals.

What I fear is that this kind of shame is dying in our culture.  More traditional cultures possess an implicit social doctrine of shame.  Some of these cultures take this way too far, as we have seen in cases where the parents murder their young-adult children who have "shamed" their family by things such as premarital sex or conceiving a child out of wedlock.  But in our modern, American culture, it seems there is a burning, desperate desire to throw away all of the old.  There is a disdain for the old, for the traditional, as though the traditional was a chain around our necks, and now we are more enlightened and "liberated" from these oppressive ideas.  The problem is that in the wake of this revolution, this "liberation", good shame is being trampled under foot. 

It is being silenced, numbed out like a dulled conscience.  In the name of personal freedom, the freedom to do whatever we please, say whatever we please, look and act however we please, we have thumbed our nose at the traditional at the price of our dignity.  The motto of today, in its typical crassness, is, "I'm going to do and say whatever I want, and F@#$ you if you don't like it."  Elegance is gone.  Dignity is gone.  What is left is a defensive shell that creates the illusion of an elevated self while pouring disdain on anyone that would seek to temper our cosmic rebel tantrum.  What is left, what is hailed as god, is me and my desires, and @#K you if you don't like them.

But has it dawned on us that if we really didn't care about what others thought of us, we wouldn't have to say it (and we certainly wouldn't have to say it with such profanity and vitriol)?  Perhaps it is a lie we are merely trying to convince ourselves of as a way of coping in a society that no longer values what it ought to?  But we do care.  We were built to care about connection with others, to want love and acceptane.  Yet we try to appear strong and kill those desires, for our culture tells us that caring about connection when people can hurt you and caring about reputation when people can so easily judge you is just weakness.  And so, we respond by dehumanizing ourselves.  Kill the longings which make us human.  And kill the shame that makes us feel badly for how severely we assault our own dignity and how poorly we represent our nobility as God's image bearers in our quest to be "free" kings of our own private little ant hills.

Kill our longings.  Kill objective meaning and truth.  Kill good shame by calling it a hindrance, an arcane relic for the unenlightened.  Meanwhile, we make ourselves miserable fools with no sense of meaning and purpose other than our futile attempts to fill up the darkness and kid ourselves into believing that we don't care.



Monday, October 28, 2013

Looking for Meaning

In anyone's life, there will be a time when relationship, career success, youth, sex appeal, and popularity evade you.  All of these things are things we look to for a sense of meaning and purpose in life, and without them, usually one of them in particular given our temperament and history, we cannot help but feel void.  Lost.  Without meaning.

But we have meaning.  We have purpose.  Many Christians would say, "Your meaning and purpose is to know God through Jesus Christ."  I agree with that, but I think that can be a bit abstract.  Plus, it sort of promotes the idea that I don't really have a meaning and purpose right here, in this life, right now, but that it is only found beyond the horizon of death and in the new age.  What is missing is the tangible, earthy application.

Our meaning and purpose in this life are found in knowing Jesus Christ and partnering with Him as an instrument of His hand in this world.  In other words, in concert with Jesus, in communion with Jesus as your partner and Lord, our true meaning and purpose are found in being an image of Jesus in the life of someone else, in loving our neighbor as ourselves.  Our meaning and purpose are found in being a parent to our children, a friend to our friends, an ear to one who needs to be heard, a presence to one who is alone, a father to the fatherless, a peacemaker to one who is disturbed, a voice of loving truth and reason to one who is wandering in peril, love to the unloved, etc.

This is where things can get into trouble.  Some people already overextend and exhaust themselves by "helping" others too much.  But if you look closely at it, many of us are like that either because we are chasing or running away from something.  That will not do.  That yoke we are carrying is from us, not Jesus.  This is not intended to be a means of trying to climb a ladder out of futility and oblivion or run away from the pain of life.  This is not a means of saving ourselves, not a means of striving to achieve meaning in a meaningless world.  This is intended to show us what is of true value and what is not.  It is the recognition of what already has value and meaning.  It is a recognition of the path that Jesus has already laid down ahead of us and for us.  And thus, value is found in being complicit with Jesus in His love for this world -a world He has already done everything to redeem- as an instrument in the hands of our Friend and Master in the capacity and opportunities we are given.  O that He would grant us such a privilege.  Let us not squander it.

Every time you share this...

"This is a test.  If you really love God, share this with your friends and you will receive a blessing."  "Share this and you will receive a gift from God."

I get sick of those things -probably a good indicator that I spend too much time on Facebook.  But if there are a few things that really irk me about the online world we find in social media it is those fictitious stories that people keep passing around (without checking Snopes.com) and these pseudo-religious, superstitious nonsense posts that are supposed to invoke some kind of gracious disposition of God or pull down some kind of angelic response from the heavens.

It is the latter that I'm focusing on, today.  Why do I hate those things?  I hate them because they not only make Christianity (and therefore Jesus) look like something that belongs only on sentimental greeting cards, but they also unwittingly gut the Christian faith of its core essence.  What is the core essence of Christianity?  Many would say, "That God loves us."  Sure.  I would agree, but in itself that tells us nothing.  God could easily love people who would remain forever lost in their own sin, as well.  How is that good news?

The core of the Christian faith is that, though we are lost and completely incapable of finding God, and though we are incapable of covering for our sin by anything we do, and though we pridefully and foolishly imagine that if we only did enough of this and stopped doing enough of that -pulled this spiritual lever and pushed this spiritual button- we could pull down God's grace and favor from heaven, which we don't really believe we need to begin with, God did the unimaginable by doing it all for us in Jesus Christ, His Son, through His life, death, and resurrection.  For mere sinners like us, Jesus swallowed up sin and death and made a new way, a new creation, though his resurrection from the dead.

The Christian faith is not primarily advice.  It is not primarily a set of tips on how to live life best.  It is not primarily a philosophy that makes you feel more enlightened about life.  Though it contains elements of all of those things, the Christian faith is not primarily about you and what you have done or can do at all.  It is about what Jesus has done for us.

As the meme from Confessional Lutheran Meme's on Facebook above suggests, anything which calls itself Christianity and fundamentally asserts that somehow we can reign in or pull down or leverage God's grace through certain moral or religious activities is going against the heart of the Gospel.

Ephesians 2:8-9 says...

"For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast."


Monday, October 14, 2013

Drunkenness

I've been thinking a lot about the place of drinking alcohol in my life.  I lived the first 34 years of my life without ever knowing what it was like to be "drunk."  In fact, I hardly ever touched alcohol.  I wanted to be different from everybody else.

In high school, I remember feeling abandoned a bit when I was the only remaining person in my tight-knit group of friends, but I still found a way to hold onto my badge and keep my separate identity.  I was known as being the guy who "didn't need alcohol" to "act crazy", often settling for mass quantities of sugar and caffeine found in 2-liter bottles of Mountain Dew.

This translated into college even more deeply.  I even became part of a fraternity, though I was known for being the "only sober one" at a party, yet one of the "craziest" dudes there.  My refusal to drink became not only a source of identity but also a crutch of sorts.  It became an excuse to cover up for the fact that I felt so unbelievably insecure and out-of-place amongst my peers, especially the opposite sex.

And into married life I brought my conviction to abstain from drinking and drugs, and then into my Christian faith.  Yes, I was a mere pagan during all of those years of abstinence from drinking.  It was part of a group of convictions.  The bottom line was that by this age in life I was fairly used to the idea that I did not feel like I fit with anybody else nor did I really want to be like anybody else.  Occasionally, we were invited to weddings and such, and I had the opportunity to get a little silly with a glass of wine or champagne at the table.  But that's it.

All of that changed during a very difficult time in my life a few years ago.  I loosened up those reigns a bit.  I realized that I spent so much of my life avoiding things that maybe weren't that big of a deal and, and here's the clincher, I "deserved" to have a good time, given that and all the difficulty I had experienced.

To make a long story short, in my relatively short drinking career of a few years, I never really became a regular binge drinker.  I have only experienced probably twice what is commonly called a "hangover".  And only twice have I been unable to remember small parts of the previous night.  I also don't merely drink to get loaded -I only drink things, usually craft beers, that I like.  I realized quickly what things I do not like, and I avoid them even though something like a "shot" could get me hammered pretty quickly.  I just don't like how it tastes or makes me feel, and I don''t like the nasty after-taste or heartburn in the morning.

In the home, it became more and more common for me to have a few beers in the fridge.  During this past summer, it was not uncommon for me to crack open a single bottle of beer a few nights a week, while cooking or to relax at the end of the day.  Sometimes, when stressed out, I would crack open a bottle to unwind.

Slowly, my 1-2 beer tolerance increased until I noticed that it took more than a beer or two to get me feeling buzzed and bordering on super-goofy.  So, as I noticed lately, I've had to drink more to get to that stage.  No, not an exorbitant amount, not more than average by any stretch, but more than I have had to before.

And you know what... although I have been burned a bit on drinking too much, I still occasionally like to have a beer and I probably will continue to every now and then.  But in all of this experience over the past few years, and given my gratuitous attempt over the last few paragraphs to give you an accurate picture of the place of drinking alcohol in my life, there are a few things I realized about drunkenness and myself when drunk that I do not like one bit.

At this point maybe I should define my term.  When I say "drunk" I am essentially talking about that state in which your mental and physical faculties are impaired and your demeanor, attitude, words, and actions are less and less under your control.  I now consider myself to be "drunk" when I am acting like a fool and have no sense of myself because of the alcohol.  While I did not crack out my Greek Lexicon, I'm pretty sure this at least resembles the meaning found in various places in the Bible.

So, what are my conclusions?  Well, to begin with I don't like how drinking too much alcohol hooks into my desire to impress people and be the center of attention.  If I have to act like a fool to grab people's attention and be memorable to them, then perhaps I'm hanging with the wrong crowd of people.  And you know what?  Deep down I know that, and it feels lonely.  It's a crutch and a way to avoid the fact that most other people are there for the same, shallow thing.  I also realized that I often drink too much as a way to make something more entertaining than it actually is.  Sometimes, sitting at a bar is just plain boring.

But probably the worst thing about drinking too much is that I feel like a divided person.  I do not feel that I accurately represent who I am.  When I can't form cogent sentences and let almost anything fly out of my mouth, I actually shame who I really am.  It is hard to represent my life and potential and character when I'm drunk and acting like a moron.  And more importantly it is hard to represent Jesus and my love for Him and what He has done when I'm acting like a drunk fool.  In fact, I feel as though I should hide that part of myself.  I feel like I should pretend for a moment that I'm not a Christian, hoping that I won't bump into people I know who know that I am one, so that I will not bring shame to His name.  That's a pretty strong indication that you know you're doing something wrong.

Why hide?  Because although I am quite aware that Jesus is a friend of sinners, and a sinner is what I am, it doesn't really show that I value Him very much when I'm acting like a drunk dumbass.  It would be like a guy hanging out at a strip club, getting lap dances every night, while sharing with the ladies how much he loves and respects his wife.  He's either clueless, a liar, or a hypocrite.  If I saw that in real life, I would feel embarrassed him and sorry for his wife.

Or step my example down a bit.  Let's say you bump into a few parents, or maybe some of the teachers, from the school your children go to.  "See... your problem is that you care too much about what people think about you."  No.  I care too much about what people think of my kids.  I do not want my actions to be a blight on the reputation and honor of my children and the family they belong to.

So it is with Jesus.  I don't want to do anything that would devalue Jesus in anybody's eyes.  I can't stop people from rejecting Jesus, but let it be because they reject Him for Him, because they hate the truth, and not because I'm acting like a fool or stumbling, loud-mouthed jerk.  I shame myself and Him.

In a culture where everybody is so hopped up on their personal freedom to do whatever retarded thing they want with no sense of shame for debasing themselves, shame is sometimes a good thing.  It shows you value something.  It shows you value yourself and the ideas and, more importantly, the people you represent.

Probably the most sinister thing about drinking too much?  Well, the Bible warns about it more than once.  While Jesus had zero problem turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana, and while the apostle Paul encouraged Timothy to drink a little wine to help his stomach and nerves, the New Testament epistles state clearly that drunkards (among others) will not inherit the Kingdom of God.

How can this be?  I thought we are not saved by our works?  True, we are saved by Christ's work on our behalf, which is ours through faith.  The typical Christian answer is that a "true believer" won't live in those condemned ways.  They may stumble and fall and make mistakes, but they will not lose their lifestyle to those things.  This is true to a large degree, though it leaves out the possibility of sins of weakness that we struggle and battle with our entire lives, but I think the bigger problem is that each time you go down this road (or down the road of lust or whatever other thing), each time you make the conscious choice to keep going, you put yourself in a position where you choose the alcohol over your connection with Jesus.  And if you continually make the conscious choice to indulge in that direction and make excuses for how it is "okay", you have to continue to dull your conscience, and therefore your faith.  The scary part?  Lying to yourself gets easier and easier with time until you don't feel guilty at all.

So, I postulate that the reason why the apostle Paul warned of those things is because he knew how they eventually win.  Those people will not inherit the Kingdom because they will have departed from it.  Eventually, we walk away from Jesus, our faith dies, and the scariest part of all is that we don't even see it happening or care to stop it.  With every little step we take, we deceive ourselves into thinking it is not a big deal and that we are allowed a "mistake" every now and then, until we wake up one day and we no longer really care.  But since we don't care, we don't worry about it.  We may never disavow Jesus with our words, we may always intellectually call ourselves Christians, but one day we may realize that our faith is a distant memory and be too calloused to care.

In the end, I don't want to dump the faith I've been given, and I don't want to indulge in something that masks and distorts who I really am and who I really love.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Enablers

enable - verb.  to make able; give power, means, competence, or ability to; authorize

While there are indeed some contexts in which it can be a good thing to enable someone to do or be something, most of the time we hear this word in a negative context.  "Oh, you're such an enabler."  "Can't you see you are just enabling him and his bad behavior?"  In other contexts, to enable someone means to empower them or grant them the opportunity and means to continue in their established patterns of self-destructive and/or other-destructive behavior.

To be fair, most of us (maybe even all of us) can be said to "enable" certain behaviors of those we are in close relationship with.  Maybe there is some idiosyncrasy or personality flaw within the person that, if looked at objectively, is not really all that conducive to a perfectly healthy lifestyle for them or relationship with them.  But, in the grand scheme of things, we have decided to not let it be a big deal.  Maybe they snore.  Maybe they are not very warm and fuzzy.  Maybe they can be selfish at times.  Maybe they are insecure.  Maybe the just have terrible taste in music or walk around the house in ugly underwear.  Whatever it is, we've grown to accept that about them.  We've grown to accept their imperfection and recognize that no person can change another person.  We will love and be with them as they are.

But in many cases, enabling is far more serious than this.  In many cases, enablers grant the opportunity and means for others to continue in patterns of abuse, neglect, blame-shifting, lying, laziness, and addiction.  This is what it means, in the negative and psychological sense, to be an enabler.

Some examples of enabling behavior:
-Doing anything to keep the peace
-Ignoring the problem
-Giving the other person "one more chance".  Then another.  Then another
-Trying to soften the consequences of bad behavior.
-Trying to fix the other person
-Giving them money, food, paying their bills, etc.
-Putting themselves through stress and pain and frustration in order to assume responsibilities for the other person that should be theirs alone.
-Holding in their emotions, often leaking them out just enough through passive aggression or mini temper-tantrums, while they continue to allow the same situations to happen over and over.
-Feeling badly, and bad about ourselves, when we don't take up every opportunity to help someone who says they need us.
-Finding ourselves stuck, overly busy, and over-committed to things that really don't have to be our problem.
-Having a hard time "drawing a line" of where our responsibilities end and where others begin and sticking to it.

Why do we enable?

The short answer is that enabling the addict, loser, deadbeat, abuser, or otherwise dysfunctional or mentally ill individual promises us a sense of control.  We are trying to control something.  We refuse to let go of something (or someone).  We demand it.  With the enabler, there is almost always an identifiable "I can't let that happen" item.  There is almost always a clear "terrible outcome" they are trying to control or prevent.  So, enablers try to create an alternate reality so that they don't have to face actual reality where there is senseless loss, grief, disappointment, betrayal, and rejection.

Enablers are great at rationalizing their enabling behavior, as well.  They may even be quite aware of what they are trying to prevent, but they will often rationalize why they are doing it.  "Oh, I just don't have the heart to let my kids see how their dad really is."  That may be true, but perhaps what is really going on is that we don't have the will to face the mountain of grief we have for the whole situation, including what we feel for our children in their tragically obvious loss.

Enablers hurt

Enabling is the silent crime.  It is much easier to become angry at the openly dysfunctional person and "all you have done for them" to try and make things "normal" than it is to look in the mirror and realize our very large hand in this big, crazy, painful, dysfunctional mess.  As hard as it may be to listen to, the truth is that our enabling hurts people.

-It aids and helps extend highly dysfunctional and abusive situations.
-When we refuse to live in reality, we abandon those who do live in reality and need us.  Our children live in reality.  We may think we can try to soften the blow by telling them white lies or trying to cover up the problem, but their little hearts sense something is wrong.  When we refuse to live in reality, we abandon them to face it alone.
-We hurt the dysfunctional person.  Maybe you loathe them deep within, so you really don't care.  But the truth is that you aren't helping them. Maybe you rationalize, "They aren't going to change anyway," but the truth is that you deprive them of any need to.  They get to continue what they are doing and then get angry and defensive at you when you lash out at them, which enables them to continue to look away from their own actions and at yours -which, incidentally, is exactly what we are doing.  We are so wrapped up in what a jerk they are they we don't look at our own problem.  Maybe that is intentional, ya think?
-We lose ourselves.  It isn't always that obvious to us, maybe not for years down the road, maybe not ever, but when we continue to enable others, we pick up so much responsibility and so much of the unseen emotional burden, a burden which really belongs to them, that it becomes all-consuming.  This is where denial plays a huge role.  We don't see it until there is almost nothing left of ourselves, if we see it at all.

Who are enablers?

We may tend to think of enablers as people with very low self-esteem.  That may be true.  But I think all it takes for someone to be an enabler is a tendency to avoid deeply painful feelings (to avoid reality) combined with a strong ego, a strong sense of "I can do this, I can figure this out, I can handle this on my own" and a disbelief (conscious or unconscious) in the ability of their core emotional selves to handle life without that other, controlling, figuring-it-out part.  Put that together, and you have a person who lives on the surface, who prefers control over reality and vulnerability and freedom and true peace, a slave.  Enablers give up their own personal and emotional freedom, and often put those who need them in further dysfunction and pain, in order to try and control the uncontrollable and avoid the unavoidable.