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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Scenes from the Life of a Female Math Nerd

"We need more girls in math and science."

I've heard that exact statement, over and over, starting in middle school or maybe elementary school. At first I took it as a compliment- people thought it was good that I was so good at math and science. But after a while it got old. "We need more girls in math and science." Really? NEED? Why does it matter? And I'm a little bit insulted at the idea that the reason I'm excelling in math classes is because I feel a duty to help out all the women. No, I excel at math because that's who I am, and it has nothing to do with gender.

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I got the results from my PSAT (the standardized test that high school students take a year before they take the SAT). It said my score for the first section was in the 99th percentile- the highest percentile one can get. Oh no, I thought, that's too high, I'm a freak genius or something, this is bad.

It said my score for the second section was in the 98th percentile. What? A whole 1% of people scored higher than me? No way! I don't like that...

And that's when I realized I couldn't walk the line between being a nerd and a normal person any longer. Choose one or the other. And I chose to be a nerd, to be who I really am, not hiding my intelligence in order to appear more "normal", not afraid of what would happen if I didn't fit society's conventions.

I was happy. I fit in with the nerds. But it also meant hiding my femininity. Because if a girl is beautiful and feminine, well, it doesn't look like she's good at math, right?

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"It's nice to see a girl winning the math award," one of the other parents said to my dad, after the annual awards night at my high school. But it made me angry. As if my femaleness is something I needed to overcome in order to be good at math.

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At the chess tournaments in high school, it wasn't unusual for my opponents to make comments about playing against a girl, as if that meant they were guaranteed a win. I did okay, but not well enough to disprove anyone's stereotypes. But the top player from my school was also a girl, and she was really good.

And don't forget, the queen is the most powerful piece on the board.

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"What's your major?"

"Math and electrical engineering."

"WOW! You're so smart! I could never do that."

I really never understood that response. I can't imagine myself ever majoring in anything else. So we're kind of in the same boat. The I-could-never-be-good-at-your-major boat.

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My freshman year of college, I was in a calculus class with a decent mix of guys and girls. But as I moved into the higher-level math classes, the percentage of girls went down. Seemed to me like most of the girls just wanted to be math teachers and weren't interested in the really high-level elective classes. And I tried to judge who were the "real" math people and who weren't, based on how dorky or feminine they looked.

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Four guys and I drove down to a 2-day math conference at another university. We got two hotel rooms for the night- one for me, and one for all 4 of them. Perks.

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I arrived at lab a few minutes before the 3:00 lab section started. Some photographers from the university's PR department were also there, interested in taking photos for some promotional newsletter. One of them came up and asked me, "Are you a student in this lab? Because we want to be sure we have photos with girls working here in the lab."

"Actually, I'm one of the teaching assistants in charge here," I said. And wondered whether it was a good thing or a bad thing that they wanted to use me as a symbol of the diversity on campus.

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I prayed in China to let God know what was at stake. God, if you call me to be a missionary, and you want me to switch majors... well... you know that looks bad, right? Because I'm a girl. If I drop out of math and engineering, people will see it as a confirmation of the stereotype that girls aren't actually good at that stuff.

(That's also the reason I knew I could never drop a class during my junior and senior years of college. There were many times I was the only girl in a class of maybe 15 students, and I knew that if I dropped, EVERYONE would notice, and maybe they would conclude that girls just usually aren't that good at those things.)

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Also, this:

Image source.
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She gave me a red sticker and said I could put it on the front page of my answer sheet if I wanted. Because any women participating in this math contest are also eligible for an additional award. I thought about it and declined. I don't deserve any extra award. Just judge me by the same standard you judge the guys.

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And I hope that feminism provides a way to make sense of all these experiences and feelings I've had, as a minority in my math and engineering classes. All the times people explicitly complimented me on it, to the point where it came across as condescending and (ironically enough) sexist. The stereotypes I've encountered, the stereotypes I use to judge other women. The way I've internalized a lot of that sexism.

I hope that feminism can provide a framework for understanding and addressing this, but it has to be more than just the "Yay! You're a GIRL in MATH!" that I've received my whole life. It has to be more than seminars on "how to get more girls into engineering." (And to be honest, the subject of women in math/science/engineering is not something I've heard discussed much within feminism.)

Because I've faced the stereotypes but never any explicit "no, you shouldn't study math." People always encouraged me to do what I was good at. Perhaps my experience is different than that of most girls. I don't know. But I've always felt like the extra encouragements and extra opportunities just for girls weren't really for me. I'm going to be awesome at your math contest regardless of whether there's any special incentive for girls. Maybe I'm not the target audience for those kinds of incentives. I don't know.

I hope that all students feel the freedom to study whatever subject they love. I don't like the statement "We need more girls in math and science"- instead I believe we need to not discourage anyone from pursuing their interests based on gender. Perhaps it is true that men are genetically better than women at math. Who knows? But even if the average man is better at math than the average woman, I am not the average woman. That average says absolutely nothing about me.

But it's not just genetic differences. There are stereotypes that hold women back. I feel like overall, they haven't held me back, but I'm very aware of them, and I even use them to judge other women- to judge another woman's math abilities by the amount of make-up she's wearing. And that's just WRONG, okay? But the sexism is so internalized and it goes so deep.

Does feminism have any ideas to address this? We'll see.

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This post is part of the Feminisms Fest Synchroblog. Go over to Feminisms Fest: Why Wouldn't Feminism Matter? and read more people's posts on the topic "Why It Matters."

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Feminism 101 (Announcing a New Series!)

When I first started reading feminist blogs, it felt like they were coming from some bizarre parallel universe. They used terms I had never heard before: rape culture, victim-blaming, misogyny, trigger warning, privilege, patriarchy, body policing, tokenism, cis, slut-shaming, gender essentialism, narratives, gaslighting... Like, is any of that real?

Elaine discovers Bizarro World. Image source.
And now that I've figured out what all those things mean, and I've realized that I'm a feminist, I'd like to take a stab at defining and explaining those terms. So that people who don't know anything about feminism (like me a few years ago) can start to understand it. Because seriously, all this odd language can be intimidating.

So get excited! I'm starting a new series: Feminism 101- my attempt to explain and define the terms and ideas found in feminism, for those who are completely unfamiliar with it.

First, I'll be defining "feminism" itself. Let's look at some misconceptions that I commonly hear about feminism:

1. Feminism is about hating men!

Umm, no. Feminists don't hate men. Well maybe a few of them on the fringes do- but that's totally not what it's about. Instead, it's about equality. And feminists believe there are many issues where there is NOT equality between men and women, so they fight for more rights/opportunities/whatever for women.

And some of the stereotypes that are used to oppress women also oppress men- so men need feminism too! For example, there's this idea in our culture that women are nurturing and men aren't, which is used against women by telling them their only purpose is to raise kids, and against men by telling them they're not supposed to be spending too much time with their kids. Feminists speak out against that kind of stuff, so that both men and women can just live their lives and not worry about living up to a certain standard of what a "real woman" or "real man" is.

2. Feminism is about getting super-angry when someone opens a door for you.

Some people see feminists as unreasonable, too sensitive, getting angry over harmless little things, like a man opening a door for a woman, or someone saying "mankind" instead of "humankind."

So, I understand that criticism- sometimes I see examples where people are finding sexism that's not really there. But the vast majority of the time, feminists are fighting against something that's ACTUALLY A PROBLEM, not just stupid little things.

And sometimes, the little things aren't bad by themselves, but they're an indication of certain attitudes that are widespread and accepted in mainstream culture- and those attitudes are what's harmful.

3. Feminism is about overturning God's plan for men and women.

Yeah so obviously, God wants all women to stay home and have babies, and all men to be leaders and have jobs. But feminism opposes this! Feminism says women shouldn't marry and have kids! Feminism is about women taking away men's God-given leadership!

Umm, no. Feminism is about choice. If you're a woman, and you want to get married and have a ton of kids and not have a job, then that's great! Yay! Feminism totally supports your choice! (In theory, that is. In practice, some feminists are prejudiced against women who choose the "traditional" things- but they shouldn't be. To judge another woman's choices goes completely against feminism.)

Feminism is about choice. About men and women having choices that aren't limited by their gender. (And if you think God created us male and female so we would be limited to certain roles... well, we can talk about that later.)

So those 3 statements tell us what feminism is NOT. But what is it?

Perfectnumber's definition of feminism: Feminism is a way of looking at society in terms of groups that have advantages over other groups. (Majorities have power/advantages minorities do not have, men have power/advantages women do not have, rich have power/advantages poor do not have, etc.) Obviously these statements about advantages are generalizations- nobody is arguing that every man is better off than every woman- but still they're true, and it's not right.

Feminism is about fighting for rights/justice/equality for groups that have traditionally been oppressed by mainstream culture. (And it's not all about women- you also have to talk about discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, etc.) And actually, it's hard to even notice a lot of the injustice and harmful stereotypes if you've never thought about them before, because they're so ingrained in our culture, and the structures that currently exist in society are perpetuating them.

Feminism is about acknowledging that other people are different from me. Other people have different experiences, different backgrounds, and those things influence their lives in ways not obvious to me. Feminism is about listening to other people's perspectives and believing them when they talk about their needs and problems, even if I can't relate to why those things would be problems.

And this emphasis on loving people by listening to them is why, as a Christian, I feel I have to be a feminist. (Also the thing about bringing justice to the oppressed. Jesus may have mentioned that.)

If I wasn't a feminist, I would think that everyone was supposed to be like me. (Your mileage may vary on this one- I'm not suggesting that people who aren't feminists are all super-naive like that- I'm saying that for me, that's the opposite of feminism.) Other people are poor? Well, I'm not poor, so clearly you should have just done whatever I did, and you'd be fine. Completely blind to the reality that people are poor for a million different reasons, many of which I cannot relate to at all.

So that's feminism. Viewing the world in terms of the advantages/disadvantages held by members of various groups (gender, race, economic class, etc), pointing out the ways this discrimination is perpetuated by culture and society, and working to address that injustice. And hopefully in future posts in this series, I'll be able to flesh out what that means. Stay tuned.

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This post is part of the Feminisms Fest Synchroblog. Go over to Feminisms and Me (#femfest link-up, day 1) and read more people's posts on the topic "Feminism and Me."

Monday, February 25, 2013

The one time I won't argue

[trigger warning: rape, abuse]

When the church teaches that we belong to God, not to ourselves, does that promote rape?

When the church teaches that people have a need for God, does that imply that abuse is okay?

So maybe it seems like those questions are totally coming out of nowhere- but I'm thinking about them after reading this post: You can’t say no to God: conservative Christianity and consent. The writer, Somatic Strength, says that she has never heard the concept of "consent" taught in church, and without understanding consent, victims of rape and abuse are less able to come forward and say that the rape/abuse was WRONG- so it gets covered up instead. However, she goes on to say that the idea of consent- that YOUR body belongs to YOU and no one else has the right to control YOUR body- is incompatible with the rest of conservative Christianity. Because the church teaches that people have a need for God, and that God may use suffering in a person's life to draw them to himself, and followers of God must completely surrender everything to him.

(Okay first let's define consent. This is like, the most important thing in feminism. Consent is based in the idea that everyone has the right to their own body, and they do not "owe" anyone sex or other physical contact. And if you have sex with someone without their consent, that's rape. And no, being coerced or manipulated into saying "yes" is NOT consent.)

And anyway, Somatic Strength says that conservative Christianity teaches that your body belongs to God- and in fact, God wants us to give up EVERYTHING and follow him. There is no "consent" in one's relationship with God.

But, she says, in order to combat rape and abuse, you NEED people to know that they own their own bodies and no one has the right to make them do anything.

Also, conservative Christianity teaches that people have a need for God, and sometimes God will give you suffering and loneliness until you recognize that need, turn to him, and ask him to save you. (See also Hosea 6:1-2...) And that's suspiciously similar to what abusers do to their victims. Manipulating them into believing that they can't live without the abuser.

And, so the story goes, God does this out of love. So it makes it harder for victims to recognize abuse- they've been taught that God treats us this way, and it's a good and loving thing.

So... this is terrible.

I mean seriously this is terrible.

Because no one should ever be abused. That's obvious, right? I shouldn't have to say that. No one should ever be abused.

It's terrible that there exist destructive churches that perpetuate such harmful messages and cover up abuse. It's EVIL. And we NEED people like Somatic Strength to speak out against what happened to them, because it ABSOLUTELY SHOULD NOT HAPPEN.

But I have to confess: As I read her post, I wanted to write up a detailed counter-argument, about how it's all an incorrect understanding of Christianity, and ideas like "we belong to God" do NOT lead to those horrible conclusions about rape.

But seriously? How would that help? How does it help, to tell an abuse survivor, "oh, let me explain how that's not really what 'we belong to God' means"? Does that change the fact that people did evil things to her, things that should NEVER HAPPEN?

If I'm rushing to defend the theology faster than I'm rushing to defend the victim, SOMETHING'S WRONG.

No. The correct response is compassion toward Somatic Strength and other victims, and anger at those who abuse and those who perpetuate the lies that help to cover up that abuse. And maybe even anger that Christianity was used to support that evil. But to be angry at Somatic Strength for just reporting what she was taught and how those teachings led to evil- that is the OPPOSITE of helpful.

If I'm upset at what I read in her post, is it because she's criticizing what I believe, or because PEOPLE ARE ABUSING OTHER PEOPLE?

I'd like to think more about what she wrote, about the connection between specific teachings and a culture that tolerates abuse. But I'm not writing about that right now- if I did, I would be dismissing her experiences, unwilling to even consider the possibility that my religion has been used to hurt someone. (And for those of you who like fallacies, it would be the No True Scotsman Fallacy. "Christians did/said this!" "Well, they can't really be Christians, because Christians don't do that.")

So that's all I have to say. No answers or arguments here- just voicing my agreement that abuse is wrong.

Blogaround

Image source.

1. DJesus Uncrossed: Tarantino, Driscoll and the Violent Remaking of Jesus in America (posted February 18) "The SNL sketch reveals the paucity of American popular theology with its camouflage and flag-draped Bibles that segregate the story of God for American patriots only."

2. "You said"- One of my favorite mission-trip songs.



3. God's Ways are Higher than Our Ways (posted February 5) "Traditional teaching on hell, and its insistence that God’s moral goodness is totally different from human moral goodness, has probably done more to contribute to atheism than anything else."

4. Why We Need The Math Police (posted February 14) "After the speaker jokes about being bad at math, the audience does not laugh but instead gives the cold hard silence of disapproval and reacts in shock that someone so famous is bragging about her mathematical incompetence." Cannot say enough how much I love this article.

5. Why I Stopped Telling (posted February 19) "I stopped telling the stories of my most resilient kids, because I realized that people were getting the impression that because some of the kids were rising above their circumstances, it was okay to blame the rest for not being able to do the same."

6. Biblical Lysenkoism: Has Al Mohler ever read all four Gospels? (posted February 19) "And if you don’t know how to answer those questions, then you’ve got to do more than bluff around them, because any kid who reads 1 Chronicles on her own deserves a serious, honest response."

7. It's Ash Wednesday (posted February 13) "That's a great sentiment, but I'm not coming forward on Ash Wednesday to hear 'Jesus loves you.'"

8. On Chivalry, Opening Doors, and Basic Humanity (posted February 21) "Am I the only one who thinks this doesn’t sound all that complicated?"

9. The Gospel Is for Baby Bear: On Sesame Street and Gender Confusion (posted February 21) I will never have enough WTF to express how I feel about this. Apparently "the gospel" is "boys shouldn't play with dolls."

10. The False Promise of Abstinence (posted February 21) "Fear of becoming damaged goods... Fear of messing up God’s perfect plan... Fear of disappointing the man I hadn’t even met yet... Fear of sex itself: the big, bad, ugly thing it was made out to be."

11. Damming up justice: King David, power, and rape (posted February 21) "Christians don’t like to talk about the fact that King David might have been a rapist."

12. Can Twitter Make White People Less Racist? (posted February 21) "So if you're white, you're benefitting from racism, you're likely perpetuating it--let's say unintentionally-and it's a problem."

13. 5 Reasons to Kill Christian Music (posted February 23) "Even the most banal, goat-sacrificing, wannabe Satanic metal participates in the Christian reality by stringing three notes together and calling it a melody." Amen to this entire post.

14. Also, this:

Image source.

Have a good week!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

"...but I'm still a Christian."

People are going to say I’m not a Christian.

Because I support gay rights. Clearly, I must be rejecting “the bible’s clear teaching on homosexuality.” A real Christian would vote against marriage equality.

And I reject the idea that “the man has to be the spiritual leader” in a marriage. Clearly I’m just selfish, trying to advocate for my own so-called “rights” rather than accepting my natural and God-given role as a supporter, not a leader.

And sometimes I read the bible, and I say, “In this passage, God commands people to kill an entire city. THAT’S TERRIBLE,” or imply that God seems to be doing something wrong. Oh but we mustn’t say such things! We mustn’t ask those questions.

And I know I’m going to be judged. “Oh, she says she’s a Christian, but ... I don’t think so. Saying those things, rejecting the bible...”

Apparently, Christianity is about holding certain political views. Apparently, it’s about gender roles. Apparently, it’s about not asking too many questions. And if you just go along with all those things, you get to call yourself a Christian, and no one will challenge that claim.

Go over to Love Joy Feminism and read the rest of my guest post!

And if you've come here from Love Joy Feminism, you may also like these posts:

How "hate the sin and love the sinner" led me to quit "hating the sin and loving the sinner"

"The man has to be the spiritual leader"? Dirty lies.

Greater Faith

Thursday, February 21, 2013

To Send Out Workers

Let's take a look at Matthew 9:35-10:15, in which Jesus sends the disciples on a little mission trip.

Image source.

So first, Matthew tells us what Jesus is up to. Matthew 9:35 says he was traveling around, healing, and teaching about the kingdom of God. Great!

But then verse 36 says, "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." So what does that mean, "harassed and helpless"?

Hold that thought while we read the rest of the passage to get some context.

Then Jesus says, "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field."

And then he sends them out. He gets the 12 disciples together, pairs them up, and sends them off with a ton of instructions. They are to go to the Israelite towns, heal the sick, and preach the kingdom of God (pretty much what Jesus was doing a minute ago). They aren't supposed to take anything with them, but instead find someone to stay with once they get there.

And at this point I stop and go, "What?" because I don't remember the story happening that way. Oh sure I've read this passage before- I memorized that verse about "the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few" long ago, and I've read about Jesus sending his disciples out. But I didn't realize those two events were, you know, related. Because there's a chapter break in here.

See usually when I read the bible, I read 1 chapter at a time. Today read chapter 9, tomorrow read chapter 10. And reading the bible that way for my entire life has solidified these artificial divisions in my mind. Yes, I know Jesus said "the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few" but I didn't realize anything ever came of it. I guess I thought it was just an observation about the world.

I've even heard people say, while studying just the end of Matthew 9, "Isn't it interesting how Jesus said they should pray that people get sent out- rather than taking it upon themselves to go?" As if Jesus said, "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Well, nothing we can really do about it- better just pray that God sends somebody." Oops.

So yeah. Chapter divisions in the bible are a necessary evil.

Chapter breaks: more annoying than this. Image source.

But anyway, let's talk about what's going on in this passage:

Jesus sends the disciples to do pretty much the same thing he had been doing. (Pretty cool that the disciples were given power to heal people.)

So why did Jesus send them out like this? Maybe because he couldn't cover enough ground alone? Maybe that's what he meant when he said "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few."

Or maybe to train them. To give them a chance to practice preaching, and to experience God's power working through them.

So now can we talk about what "harassed and helpless" means?

Jesus saw that the crowds were "harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." He addresses this by sending out the disciples to "proclaim this message: 'The kingdom of heaven has come near'," and "heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons."

So perhaps "harassed and helpless" meant they were in need of Jesus' teaching and physical healing.

And here's Jesus' method: Dependence on those we are trying to reach.

The disciples weren't supposed to take any supplies or money. Just find someone nice and stay at their house, and eat what they provide. Personally, I really like this approach because it places the missionary where they have no power and they need help from those who are "harassed and helpless."

(Okay but let me throw in the caveat that the disciples were not going to people of a different culture. So you can debate whether or not it's valid for me to call this a "mission trip.")

A lot of American Christians seem to view missions as us who have all the answers and money and awesomeness going to help the poor sad people in other countries who need our help.

And this is A PROBLEM. This is dehumanizing. This view of missions is WRONG. Because hey, doesn't Christianity teach that all people are made in the image of God? And, like, respect for other people?

It's way too easy for missionaries (especially short-term missionaries) to go to another country, bring suitcases full of stuff we think we can't live without, stay sort of isolated from the culture and people there, do some kind of service project, and think we're quite literally God's gift to the world.

And seriously, how does this come across to the people there? For one thing, when you go to a different culture, you're not going to have a clue about a lot of things. So if you come in arrogant, condemning the differences as wrong, then everyone who lives there and thinks things are completely normal is going to think you're the crazy one. Why should they listen to you?

So I'm sort of getting off-topic here. But the point is: Every person has something to teach you. Every culture has something to teach you. And if that's missing from your mission trip, then YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG.

But no worries, Jesus has his disciples DO IT RIGHT. Rather than acting like they have all the answers and other people need their help, they're showing up empty-handed, counting on the kindness of strangers.

The purpose of the disciples' "mission trip" is definitely to help others. To heal, to teach- these are things that the "harassed and helpless" people need. So it's not arrogant and wrong to acknowledge the existence of a need. But they're also respecting the people they have been sent to, trusting them to know how to host guests, appreciating their culture and lifestyle as valid.

There has to be a balance. Have a realistic view of the world's needs and what you can do to help- which includes a realistic view of how other cultures exist and are AWESOME and have a lot to teach us. A realistic view which values others' intelligence and dreams, and doesn't see their physical or spiritual needs as their entire identity.

So... let's get back to what Jesus and the disciples are doing here in Matthew 10. I see principles of love and respect and care for others' needs. Totally essential when thinking about missions and the way to treat people in general. As for the specifics that Jesus gives- don't take any money, meet a stranger and stay at their house- those will be effective in certain settings and won't apply in other settings. This particular method would work in a culture that very much values hospitality toward strangers, where hosting random people was seen as a very normal thing to do. For missions in cultures that don't fit those criteria, you'll have to find another way to adapt those principles of love and respect.

In this passage Jesus gives a model for missions, sending his disciples out to preach and the help others, and also to live among them with an attitude of respect and even dependence.

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This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: Don't get your theology from Mickey Mouse (Matthew 9:27-34)

Next post: The Scary Part (Matthew 10:16-42)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Confession Confusion

So. As you may have noticed, Lent has started. And the first few days of Lent are focused on confession and forgiveness and such.

Which of course leads me to ask: What is confession?

If Google image search is any indication, praying is something that happens outside, on a hill, under a beautiful sky. Image source.

I imagine confession to be about naming a specific sin- maybe something that I did just once or maybe something that's become a habit. And by telling God that I'm "confessing", there's also the implicit assumption that I won't do it again. A "confession" is me being honest about my sin and my intention to not do it again.

Not do it again? But what if I don't even know how?

See I was left a bit befuddled while pondering the question, "What do you need to confess to God?" There aren't any terribly huge obvious sins I'm aware of, but there are so many ways I wish I was a better person.

I wish I did more to help my parents, since I'm currently living with them. Like making dinner, cleaning the litter box, vacuuming, that kind of stuff.

And I wish I prayed more. And I wish I understood God more- there are so many things I feel uncertain about. Questions about prayer, God, God's will, etc...

So... on one hand, I know I have a lot of room for improvement. But on the other hand, this isn't the kind of stuff that works in a "confession." I thought "confession" meant "God, I'm sorry for ________. I won't do it again."

In other words, confession is about me recognizing my sins and weakness, and fixing them on my own. But what if I don't even know how? And what if I've been a Christian long enough to know that vows to "never do it again" aren't the same thing as ACTUALLY not doing it again?

What if I know myself well enough to know I often lack the motivation to clean the house more and plan dinner, and praying some "confession" isn't going to change that? What if I'm confessing that I'm confused about how to follow God, and I don't know how to become un-confused?

I thought "confession" was about naming a sin and putting it behind me, but that can only happen if I believe I have the ability, on my own, to put it behind me.

Yeah so... that's not gonna work.

And I'm not going to make empty promises to God.

I can't confess a "sin." (And I wouldn't exactly say this stuff is "sin" anyway- more like things I know I should be doing better.) But maybe instead I can confess a need for God. Because I don't know how to become a better person on my own, but that's what Christianity is all about, right? We need God. God doesn't leave us to deal with problems by ourselves- no, he is with us and helps us.

But the most important thing...

The most important thing is this: God's presence with me and God's work in my life are not dependent on me being able to stick to good habits and have a correct understanding of God. No. He is always with me. Nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Or maybe I can say it this way: "He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." And it's not about what I do. And it's not about me having the right answers. God is my God, even when I don't know what that means.

So, readers: How do you define "confession"?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Blogaround

Image source.

1. Do All Conservative Arguments Lead to Abortion? (posted January 25) "And in the end, does it make sense to claim the presence of a key symbol of individual identity at a point when that which is developing could still become more than one individual?"

2. When ex-gays aren’t ex-gay: It’s not about hypocrisy. It’s about language. (posted February 9) "These ex-gay testimonies are usually intended to bring hope, but they end up being used as weapons against gay people." As always, I'm ridiculously impressed by Justin Lee's patience and compassion for everyone- not blaming or accusing anyone, but explaining how this is a misunderstanding between well-meaning people.

3. Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Abortion Wars (posted February 11) "I also know that no amount of chit chat can fully drown out the protesters’ yells."

4. The problem with evangelical sexual ethics is that we haven’t got any (posted February 10) "There is nothing pure about purity culture."

Also, this comment. "Well, you can go around looking at things willy-nilly and risk falling into lust, but isn't it better to blindfold yourself when around women you're not related to so you don't take a chance of sinning?"

5. You know what this Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition needs? Some exotic human props. (posted February 13)

6. I am a Scandal in the Evangelical Conscience (posted January 27) "Too much of a freak for the Jesus Freaks."

7. Giving Up and Taking Up: What we do (and don’t do) when we keep Lent (posted February 12) "When people give up chocolate or meat or alcohol or coffee, it is not because we Christians think that if we enjoy something, it must be bad."

8. The Psychology of the Christian Purity Culture (posted February 11) "Beyond never hearing such a talk, the phrase 'materialism purity' just sounds weird. And try tacking 'purity' onto any other sin. Fill in the blank: '__________ purity.' Can you think of any sin--except 'sexual purity'--that works in the blank, that doesn't sound weird when framed as a purity violation?" YES! THIS! Preach it!

9. I Wish I Didn't Have Faith (posted February 15) "Doubt, we are told, is the weapon of the enemy. If we allow it gain even a toehold, then the enemy wins and the Christian faith itself will come crashing down."

10. Masturbation, shame, & Christian sexual ethics (posted February 11) "And part of this existence is that he made me a woman and he gave me a healthy sex drive and my body is good and I like sex."

11. Calling All Christians (posted February 13) "The perfect life was the one God called the clergy to—a life of prayer, worship, and service to Christ through the church. Other occupations, while necessary, carried less dignity. The labor of farmers, artists, merchants, and homemakers was not evil, but neither was it blessed, nor were these roles callings from God."

Saturday, February 16, 2013

We're a lot better off if God has no plan

Image source.

You do not know how many times I was sad about a boy and people quoted Jeremiah 29:11 to me. So many times that now, whenever I hear that verse (regardless of the topic it's being used to support), I think, "why are we always talking about dating?" Even though the verse, in its original context, isn't about dating at all. (It's about going into exile. Not the same thing.)

In a recent post, I Don't Think God Has A Plan For My Love Life, blogger Emily Maynard addresses this idea, popular in Christian culture, that God has some specific, magical plan for how to set each person up with the perfect spouse. She writes about the ups and downs of dating- hope and excitement in starting a relationship, then disappointment and confusion when it ends. Trying to view all these things as nothing more than steps in the process to get you and your soul mate together doesn't make sense.

"Whenever it’s set up like this, marriage is the happiness offered to me at the end of the plan if I just stick it out. This leaves many of us constantly worrying about whether or not we’re 'on plan' currently or feeling shame and questioning God when things go badly."

(And can I just say, when I saw that Emily Maynard had a post titled "I Don't Think God Has A Plan For My Love Life," I knew it was going to be great. I pretty much knew it was going to be so good I would have to link to it from my blog. Seems like everything Emily writes about dating, purity, modesty, etc, is incredibly insightful.)

I'd like to add to what she said by talking about my own experiences believing in "God's plan for my love life." See I used to think that God had ONE GUY out there somewhere, destined to be my husband. One perfect guy.

Or, you know, maybe not. Maybe instead, God's plan for me was to be single forever. Because I never found anywhere in the bible that said, "And to the women who followed God, he set them all up with husbands. Assuming they're straight, I guess."

So those were the 2 possibilities. Either there was this one perfect guy out there, and I was destined to be with him, and my task was to not date anyone except him, OR God wanted me to be single forever.

In other words, if I am living in full obedience to God, praying, listening to God, etc, then over the course of my lifetime I will date either 1 guy or 0 guys.

Breaking up? TOTALLY not in God's plan. But sometimes necessary if I get myself into a relationship without God's approval.

Because I was taught about "purity" and "guarding my heart." In other words, if I date a guy and then break up with him, then I've lost "part of my heart" which was SUPPOSED to be given to my husband.

So basically, breaking up is The Worst Thing Ever. (Or, I guess it's not as bad as being in a relationship with "the wrong person"- but that's a close contest...) To date a guy and then break up damages me irreversibly.

And can I just say, the average teenage girl ALREADY thinks that breaking up is The Worst Thing Ever and she'll never get over it and she can't live without that guy. WHY THE &#@! does the church, in its promotion of "purity culture" and "guarding your heart", say to her, "Yep, you WILL never get over it."

Not even God can heal you from a break-up. Image source.

So. Since I believed that breaking up is The Worst Thing Ever, of course it could never be in "God's plan" for me. So, according to this methodology, if I'm considering whether to date a certain guy, I need to pray about it and only date him if God gives an enthusiastic "YES!"

Because you know, if I date someone and break up, surely it's my fault. Surely there was some warning sign I should have seen before starting the relationship- because you know, if we obey God good enough then we will never go through that. It's my fault for veering off God's plan.

To choose to date someone without receiving an explicit "yes" from God would mean I'm following my own selfish desires, unwilling to trust God, not content in my singleness, settling for less than God's best, etc etc. (And, since that relationship is not part of God's plan, God will abandon me and won't give me any help with relationship issues.) If you just wait, then God will set you up with that one magical perfect person and you'll live happily ever after.

If you just wait... and worry about your ability to hear God, and obsess over the questions "is this the one? is this from God?" every time you have a crush, and shut down your emotions...

Needless to say, I don't believe that any more. I believe God gives us a lot of choices, and there are lots of guys out there who would be great for me (but I have a boyfriend so it's not like I'm looking!). And breaking up is really sad and painful, but the pain doesn't last forever or damage a person's heart permanently. It's not The Worst Thing Ever. Seriously. You get over it.

But I'm thinking about how I would have felt just a few years ago if I heard someone say "I don't think God has a plan for my love life." I would have said "NO!" and tried to argue against it, argue that God is all-powerful, etc- but the real reason for my resistance would be fear. If God doesn't have a "plan", if we go through life and make choices and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't, and there's not one "answer" for whether any given couple is compatible- instead it depends on the work they put into the relationship... then how can I possibly avoid The Worst Thing Ever?

If I'm on my own, how can I possibly locate that one guy, somewhere on the face of the earth, who's "right" for me? How could I date someone long enough to know if he was it, and also never risk the pain of breaking up?

So... yeah. This whole confused mess is what you get when you tell girls to just "wait" and "be pure" and God will reward them with the perfect guy. This mess of fear and confusion and guilt. This is apparently "God's plan for your life." I don't believe that any more.

I believe the world is not so scary. I believe God gives freedom. I believe God is always with me, and no decision I make can be so unexpected to him that he's unable to work in my life at all because I'm not on "the plan."

And I DO NOT believe that all my life only has meaning because of the plot line in which it leads up to a hypothetical marriage to a guy hand-crafted by God for me.

THANK GOD I don't have to decipher the instructions for some "plan."

Friday, February 15, 2013

Don't get your theology from Mickey Mouse

The healings in Matthew 9:27-34 have me asking some questions about faith and associated things. Go over and read it (because if I wrote a summary, it would be as long as the whole thing).

First, we have two blind men chasing Jesus down to ask for healing.

Think about that. Asking for healing from a long-term disability. What does that feel like?

Seriously. If they had been blind for a long time, wouldn't that be part of who they are? Wouldn't it seem normal for them to be blind, and weird to even ask for healing? I mean, obviously they're BETTER OFF being able to see, but after getting used to being blind, would it even occur to them that healing was possible?

Isn't that kind of crazy, for a blind man to believe he could get his sight? On the other hand, it is reasonable to believe it, because Jesus had healed other people. But still- what a huge change! What a huge thing to hope for.

When I read the stories of Jesus' healings, it's easy to see these people as one-dimensional characters with very obvious problems (the gospel writers even identify them this way- "two blind men", "a man who was paralyzed", etc). Jesus shows up, fixes the problem, and then leaves. But real life is more complicated than that, and I think these passages have a lot more meaning if I keep that in mind. So I encourage you, when you read about Jesus healing someone, to think about what that person's life was like before and after the healing.

But anyway, they tracked Jesus down, and he said, "According to your faith let it be done to you," and healed them. Yay!

But wait, what is faith?

See, when I read "According to your faith let it be done to you," I subconsciously interpret it as "because you believed hard enough." As if "faith" is a feeling you need to conjure up, and if you believe it so HARD that you totally EXPECT to be healed in the next minute, that's what makes Jesus heal you. As if faith is an exercise for the imagination. As if faith means intuitively understanding something to be true and expecting a certain outcome- expecting it so much that you would be stunned if it didn't happen.

I submit to you that this understanding of "faith" makes no sense and is more consistent with the belief system put forth by Mickey Mouse in this one show I saw at Disney World where he told the audience to just keep saying "dreams come true, dreams come true" and it would cause the bad guy to shrink and go away, than with the bible.

Pictured: faith. Image source.

Yes, it's true that if you truly believe something with all your heart, mind, etc, then you will intuitively expect it to happen. But I think God's standard is much lower than that.

For example, let's talk about Newtonian mechanics. If you throw a ball, it will follow a certain trajectory, based on its speed and gravity and such, and as inhabitants of Earth, we all have a pretty good intuitive understanding of what that trajectory is. No one thinks the ball is just going to stop in mid-air, because with our entire minds and our entire understanding, we really believe the laws governing Newtonian mechanics to be true. (And I think it's our vast experience with falling/thrown objects that makes this so obvious and intuitive.)

But what about the rotation of the earth? The earth is rotating around its axis- did you know that? Of course you did. So, this means that if you're on the equator, you're traveling at about 1000 miles per hour, just due to the earth's rotation. I am not on the equator, so I'm only traveling at a few hundred miles per hour. Yes. As I sit here on my couch. I'm actually spinning at a few hundred miles per hour, relative to the earth's axis.

Do you believe that?

Now that's a silly question, "Do you believe that?" Like, it's true, it's definitely true. The earth spins, one full rotation per day, and so you can calculate the speed at which you personally are careening around.

(Or, if you'd like to switch reference frames, the speed at which space is careening around you.)

My point is this: It's definitely true, but it doesn't feel like it's true. I do not have any intuitive sense of the fact that I am spinning through space on a giant ball. So if faith and belief are as defined by Mickey Mouse, do I "really believe" that the earth is rotating?

Just because it's hard to visualize what it really means to say "the earth is rotating," that means I don't "really believe" it?

Image source.

OKAY SO back to Jesus and these blind guys. And the claim that "According to your faith let it be done to you" means "According to your feelings and ability to imagine let it be done to you." Yeah... I don't think so.

How could that be what "faith" means? How could Jesus judge whether someone is "worthy" to be healed based on that person's ability to conjure up certain feelings?

No, that CAN'T be what faith means. Sorry, Mickey Mouse.

So what is faith?

Last summer I wrote a post called Belief in a logical impossibility is not faith, in which I presented my definition: "Faith is believing something that SHOULD be true, based on logic and your original axioms about the world, even though emotionally it doesn't FEEL true. Faith is acting on it like it is true." (So that's my definition. You can argue about it if you like.)

The blind men came and asked to be healed because they believed Jesus could do it. They believed enough to chase him down and make the request. I don't know if their belief went deep enough that they could feel it, could anticipate how it would feel to see, could fully expect, with not a hint of doubt or uncertainty, to wake up the next day and see the sun.

Does it matter? Does it matter whether they had the corresponding feelings? They believed it enough to get up and come to Jesus- what more can you ask for?

"I'm gonna need you to look a little more like 'happy' before you can get healed." Image source.

In the final section of this passage, Jesus heals a mute demon-possessed man. Everyone thought it was pretty cool, except the Pharisees who claimed "by the prince of demons" Jesus was able to get rid of demons. (Side note: I love that one passage where Jesus explains to them how much that makes no sense.)

So after this guy was healed, he was able to speak. And I'm wondering what that sounded like. The way a person speaks is totally dependent on learned muscle movements that have been practiced for their whole life. When someone learns a foreign language in adulthood, it is incredibly difficult to get rid of one's accent and speak like a native speaker. It's almost impossible to "unlearn" those patterns which control the way we speak.

So what did this guy sound like when he was suddenly able to speak? I'm guessing he hadn't been mute his whole life- so did he just pick up where he left off? Or did it sound kind of weak and slurred due to lack of practice?

When Jesus heals a person, do they suddenly have the same abilities as everyone else? Do they suddenly talk like a native speaker and act like they've been able-bodied for their entire life? I don't know- but I'm guessing they didn't. There's a part of healing that involves the brain adapting to those new abilities, and it doesn't seem right to me for Jesus to just magic that away. (Feel free to disagree if you want.)

So. Discussion questions:

If you were the blind men (yes, if you were both of them. Don't make fun of my discussion questions), would you have asked Jesus to heal you? What do you think it felt like to ask him?

What did Jesus mean by "according to your faith let it be done to you"? What is faith, in this passage?

Do you think the people Jesus healed would immediately be just as able-bodied as a regular person?

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This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: Too Sneaky For Jesus? (Matthew 9:18-26)

Next post: To Send Out Workers (Matthew 9:35-10:15)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

What I'm Doing for Lent

For those of you who care, Lent started yesterday. Lent is the period of time leading up to Easter, in which Christians are traditionally supposed to be preparing to celebrate Jesus' resurrection. This sometimes involves "giving up" something for Lent, focusing and reflecting on certain ideas, and forming spiritual habits.

This year for Lent I decided to pray for the news every day. Find a news story and pray for the issues and the people involved. Today I've found this one on CNN: 100th Tibetan self-immolates in China, advocacy groups say.

Summary: A few days ago, Lobsang Namgyal, a former monk, set himself on fire (and died) to protest the Chinese government's rule of Tibet. This is a big deal because he is the 100th Tibetan to do so in the past few years. I don't understand all the politics involved here, or why people decide to set themselves on fire, but basically the Tibetans claim that the Chinese government is oppressive, and they would like Tibet to be independent.

What I'm praying for:
  • Justice for the people of Tibet. Like I said, I don't know much about the history and politics, but obviously something is wrong if people are setting themselves on fire in protest. I pray that whatever injustice they are protesting would be made right.
  • I pray that the Chinese government would listen to Tibet's concerns and help them.
  • For the family and friends of Lobsang Namgyal (and everyone else who died like this).
  • Hope for the Tibetans- because it seems like people would have to feel pretty desperate and hopeless to set themselves on fire.
  • And every day I'm praying that I would have more compassion for people all over the world- especially those that are different from me.
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If you are a Christian, I encourage you to do something special for Lent. Something to make you more aware of God and the needs of the world, something like that.

And the most important thing: It doesn't have to be perfect!

You might say, "But Lent already started! Now it's too late for me to start up some spiritual habit." Dude, it's fine. You can start late and it's okay.

And you might say, "But if I miss a day, then that's a sin and I'm not good enough, I'm not committed enough..." You know, technically Sundays don't count as part of Lent, so it's totally fine to miss one day a week.

And even if you forget or don't have time, it's okay! This isn't about adding another burden on your busy schedule! In my case, I want to pray for people in the news every day because prayer is good and I hope it teaches me more about the world. Not because I have to do something and God's going to be horribly disappointed if I don't do it all 40 days of Lent. Even if I totally forget to pray for the next 6 weeks, the 2 days that I've already done it have been A GOOD THING.

Don't not do something because you're afraid you can't be perfect. This isn't about "I have to keep this up every day or else I'm a bad person."

This isn't something you owe God. It's something you do because it benefits you.

So for the Christians out there, I hope, during Lent this year, you are open to seeing and experiencing God more. Maybe you do so by giving something up or by practicing spiritual habits.

But remember, God gives us freedom! This is not about legalism; it's about the amazing opportunity we have to chase God.

So, tell me, readers: Are you doing anything special for Lent?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

China Ruined My Life

"Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the fact that China exists isn't supposed to drive me insane like this. Maybe I should have just forgotten about it."
- perfectnumber628's journal, December 1, 2011

"I feel like finally I can rest. In 美国 [the United States] I was always fighting."
- perfectnumber628's journal, December 24, 2011
(after arriving in China for the second time)

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Image source.

Astounded at the fact that my God is a global God, I decided I NEEDED to visit another country so I could see more of the world that God made. How silly it would be for me to just stay in the US, if I truly believed that the gospel is good news for the entire world, and that its manifestations in different cultures are incredibly diverse, each reflecting a slightly different part of God's character. Yeah, I wanted to know God- and not just the white American side of him.

So off I went, to China, just a few years ago.

In the training for this mission trip, I learned about the existence of different cultures with fundamentally different ways of looking at things. For example, in some cultures, people place a great importance on being on time, while in other places, it's totally normal to show up half an hour "late" (of course, they don't think of it as "late") because they place more importance on finishing one task before moving on to the next thing. I learned about cultural differences like that, and how neither perspective is "right" or "wrong", but you have to listen and communicate well in order to understand the other person and get along.

(And can I just say, nothing in my entire American life ever suggested the existence of such vast differences. I don't know if I'm just oblivious, or the majority of Americans really have no clue that it's possible to view the world in a totally different, and yet still valid, way.)

So how did China ruin my life? Well, I came at it expecting to find huge cultural differences, and that I would need to treat Chinese culture as valid, and learn to be part of it for the weeks I would be there.

I came ready to learn, excited to make new friends and discover this culture that God had made. My attitude was not like the harmful attitude of some short-term missionaries, which says "We need to go and help these poor backwards people, show them how to do things."

And I got more than I bargained for.

Because it's TRUE.

Men welding on the sidewalk. 30-story apartment buildings. Pollution, and rules about which day your car is allowed on the road. Prices that were an exact number of kuai- no change. Menus full of photos. Rice, so much rice. Hearing announcements on the subway first in Chinese, then in English. Naked babies. Piles of bricks left by an earthquake from 2 years before. Drinking hot water. Everyone staring at white people. Taxis everywhere. No dessert. No air conditioning at the Forbidden City. English words connected into nonsensical phrases on people's t-shirts. Electricity in the hotel only when you leave a card in the slot by the door. Little dogs roaming the streets. Old people exercising in synchronized groups on the sidewalk every morning. Elementary-school children eager to practice their English. Red lanterns. Hanging up clothes to dry. Mao Zedong on every denomination of paper money. Drinking yogurt. One-child policy. Fruits and vegetables I've never seen in my life. Durian.

And that's just the beginning. If I was making a list of "things I would never have imagined in a million years, but are completely normal in China"... I could go on for a long time.

And those are just the obvious superficial differences.

I discovered a whole world, completely new to me, a world full of awesome and unique people, great friends who could not fathom why I would ever want to drink cold milk. A land of 1.3 billion people, all loved by my God. A culture every bit as legitimate as mine. A culture worthy of my appreciation.

A culture worthy of my appreciation.

That's how China ruined my life.

Because I came home after that mission trip, back to my American life which contained no clues that China even existed. Yes, I know that every plastic thing says "Made in China" on the bottom- but it doesn't say "Made in China- where every store front is covered in Chinese characters, you have to bring your own toilet paper, and the way people drive is TERRIFYING." It doesn't say "Made in China- where they have Dairy Queen, but people call it DQ and your friends will have no idea what you're talking about if you refer to it as Dairy Queen."

No clues that China even existed. Was it real, everything I had seen? Do people still wake up early and go buy bao zi from street vendors, even when I'm in the US?

包子 (bao zi) They're delicious. Image source.

I felt like I had left half my mind on the other side of the world. And there seemed to be 2 choices: forget that China exists, or dedicate my life to learning the language/culture and go live there. I couldn't imagine any in-between state- no, it seemed there was no way to keep believing that I had seen all the things I had seen, unless I put all my energy into somehow getting back there.

If I stay in the US, I'm going to think I know everything. I'm going to think that everything in the world is pretty much the same as whatever feels normal to me. I won't realize that if I got dropped in any random city in the world, the odds are heavily stacked against the possibility that I would have any idea how to even talk to someone and figure out what to do.

If I stay in the US, I'm going to think I understand everything about the world. But there's so much more out there.

If I stay in the US, I'm going to think I understand everything about God.

China ruined my life because now I won't be satisfied living like an average American. I won't be satisfied speaking English. I won't be satisfied if all my friends are white. I can't even date a guy who doesn't speak Mandarin- I'd have to seriously censor myself in order to only speak English.

China ruined my life because now I can't live without it.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Blogaround

Image source.

1. A Defiant Dance of Power, Not Sex: Beyoncé, the Super Bowl and Durga (posted February 4) "If what you saw was a performer causing men (and women) across America commit the sin of lust in their hearts, let me suggest you completely missed the point."

2. A lesbian changed through Jesus (January 5) "There are reams and reams of parchment with the ink of the ages scrawled all over ‘em talking about the theology of sanctification but what I KNOW is what I have experienced, am experiencing every day."

3. God in Three Persons: Blessed Trinity (posted February 4) "In order to be in the image of a Triune God, it had to mean something more than this individualistic, highly American, 'faith is a private journey' talk I’d been getting most of my life and we sin individually and take individual steps."

4. How to Write a Worship Song (In 5 Minutes or Less) (posted February 3) I laughed so much.



5. Tweet of the Day (posted February 6) I lolled.

6. Learning to See Homeless People (posted February 3)

7. Damsel, Arise: A Westboro Scion Leaves Her Church (posted February 6) "We thought we were doing good. We thought it was the only way to do good. And that’s what I’ve always wanted."

8. Love is a...choice? (posted February 5) "Follow God’s will and feelings will follow! Control your feelings. If it feels good, it’s probably sinful! Whatever you do, don't trust your feelings!"

9. John Piper, Women in Combat, and How Gender Roles Fall Short of the Glory of Humankind (posted February 6) and The absurd legalism of gender roles (posted February 7) Yes. This.

10. No One Misses The Canadian Penny (posted February 6)

11. Personal Relationship (posted February 10) "Analogously, we can say that human beings, too, are their relationships."

12.  Pour tout ce que tu es: French version of the worship song "Because of who you are."


13. Fear of Causing My Brother to Stumble Almost Gave Me Scoliosis (posted February 9) I present: modesty.

14. Red yarn, purity, and my misplaced worth (posted February 2) "I would tell them that I regret having sex before marriage, but that I regret all the years that I lost believing that I was worthless even more."

15. Why A Super Bowl Loss Is Good News For Kids In Mongolia & Zambia (posted February 4)

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Call Me Maybe (a guest-posting opportunity)

What do people mean when they say God "called" them to do something?

I'd like to know, so I'm asking for guest posts. Are you working in some sort of religion-related profession, and you claim that God "called" you to do it? Or do you not use that terminology? Are you working in some non-religious job, and you believe God "called" you to that? I want to know!

Because I'm trying to move to China, and when I mention it to people at church, they assume it's because I "feel called" to be a "missionary."

But that's not how I think of it at all. I'm moving to China because IT'S AWESOME.



The phrase "God called me" makes it sound like, out of nowhere, God orders you to do something dumb that you totally don't want to do, but then you HAVE TO because it's GOD.

Nope, that's not what happened to me.

In my case, I'm moving to China, and I believe that's from God. He gave me an opportunity to visit China a few years ago, and he created the whole world- including China- to be so interesting and diverse, and he gave me a desire to go there again, and helped me learn Chinese... but I don't use the phrase "God called me." Because it sounds like God forcing me to do something dumb that I don't want to do.

But other people surely have a different understanding of the phrase "God called me" so that's why I'm asking for guest posts.

Here are some possible topics to write about:
  • Are you working in full-time ministry (pastor, missionary, etc) because you believe God "called" you? How? What does "called" mean?
  • Are you working in full-time ministry but you do not believe God "called" you? Why not? And why are you working there?
  • Are you working in some typical "nonreligious" job, and you believe God "called" you to said nonreligious job?
  • Have you "heard the call" but then didn't go do it? How did that work out?
  • Are you constantly running into people who assume that you "feel called" to whatever it is you're doing, but you totally don't? (This is me. If you are experiencing the same thing, we can share stories. Please write me a guest post!)
  • I'm not limiting this to Christians. If you fit any of the above bullet points (or can think of something else related) you are welcome to submit a guest post. So, in your post, include what religion, if any, you belong to.
To submit your guest post, email it to me at perfectnumber628 [at] gmail [dot] com. Put something to the effect of "call me maybe guest post" or "calling guest post" in the subject line. (Go ahead and include a link to your blog and twitter, if you have them.) Send me the well-edited final version of your post- in the body of the email, not an attachment. If I like what I see, I'll publish it on my blog. Submissions are due anytime between now and when I edit this post to say that I'm no longer taking submissions.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Too Sneaky for Jesus?

Matthew 9:18-26 wins the award for "most insensitive section heading" in the 1984 NIV Bible (my favorite version). It was called "A dead girl and a sick woman." Please tell me I'm not the only one that thought this was incredibly awkward. Glad to see the 2011 NIV changed it to "Jesus raises a dead girl and heals a sick woman."

I googled "insensitive title" and this came up. Doesn't relate to my post at all, but you can never have too much Aladdin. You're welcome. Image source.

But anyway...

So let's talk about what's going on in this passage. A synagogue ruler (Jarius, though Matthew doesn't give us his name) comes to ask Jesus to raise his dead daughter to life. While Jesus is on his way to this guy's house, a women who had had a bleeding-related problem for 12 years sneaks up and touches Jesus' cloak, and is healed. Jesus stops and speaks directly to her, saying, "Your faith has healed you." Then, when Jesus finally gets to Jarius's house, he finds an unruly crowd there. After sending the crowd away, Jesus raises Jarius's daughter back to life, and all is well.

First of all, Mark and Luke tell this same story, and I think it's useful to read their accounts to get some more of the details. (We know from Mark and Luke that the dude's name was Jarius, for instance.)

Okay, why is it that in Matthew's version, Jarius says "my daughter has just died" when he meets Jesus and asks for help, but in Mark and Luke she's "dying" and then after Jesus has to stop and talk to this bleeding lady, then the news comes that she's dead?

I see 2 possibilities:
  1. Typo in the bible. Either Matthew wrote it down wrong or it got changed by somebody in charge of copying the bible a few thousand years ago, something like that. It's really not a big deal- it's a very small mistake in the grand scheme of things, and doesn't change anything about the overall message and reliability of the bible. (Don't worry- Matthew can be wrong about when this girl died, but Jesus still loves you!) It changes this particular story a lot- raising questions about whether Jarius believed Jesus could really raise the dead, etc- but still, not a big deal. The bible is allowed to have typos and Christianity isn't going to implode.
  2. Matthew's account is shorter than the other ones; he leaves some stuff out, and maybe he felt like it made sense to just say she was dead from the beginning, instead of having to talk about how they got this new information halfway through the passage. His original audience (a culture different than ours) would have agreed this was a totally reasonable way to tell the short version of a story- they wouldn't have been like "Matthew is WRONG!" after reading the accounts in the other gospels.
But probably the most important thing about the way Mark and Luke tell it is Jesus' interaction with this bleeding woman. Matthew only has 3 verses about her, but Mark and Luke go on and on about how she had spent all her money to try and heal this medical problem, and she believed touching Jesus' cloak would heal her, and it did. And then Jesus feels that "power had gone out from him" but seems to not know what happened, so he stops and makes a big deal out of it, asking "who touched me?" So finally the woman, very afraid, comes up and tells him everything, and he says, "Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace." (At which point some messengers show up with the news that Jarius's daughter is dead.)

I love this, I really do. I love that Jesus stopped to talk to this woman, to show that he really cared about her and the healing wasn't some accident, something contrary to God's will that she was clever enough to get away with.

What if he hadn't stopped to do that? She would be healed, but maybe she would doubt whether God cared about her. Maybe she would be afraid that it wasn't God who had healed her, but her taking things into her own hands and being sneaky enough to steal it. Maybe she would come to the conclusion that she couldn't count on anyone but herself.

Maybe, when Jesus talked to her, it showed that she would never have to hide from God.

And oh goodness, this relates to my life. So, I'm trying to move to China, and I'm so afraid that God's not on board with it- that I'm just "sneaking around" and trying to get what I want before God has a chance to stop me.

(And that comes from a lot of misconceptions about God, which I'm trying to sort out...)

I am confused, much like this kitten. (I'll leave it to my boyfriend to judge which of us is cuter.) Image source.

And another interesting interpretation I've heard: Perhaps this woman believed "if I only touch his cloak, I will be healed" in a sort of superstitious way, like the cloak itself is a magical object. She had faith, but also some incorrect beliefs about how it all worked. But it's okay! She is still healed, and Jesus speaks to her to clarify that it was her faith that healed her, not a magical object.

It's okay if you're wrong about God! God is so big and complicated and greater than any human mind can understand. EVERYONE believes some wrong things about God. I believe some wrong things about God. It's okay! See, Jesus healed this woman anyway, and commended her for her faith.

Umm, wait, perfectnumber, how can you say "it's okay if you're wrong about God"? Don't Christians believe that everyone who's not a Christian is going to hell? Where do you draw the line? How much incorrectness does it take to not be Christian enough to get into heaven?

So... that's beyond the scope of this post. (And one of the most loaded questions I've ever seen.) I'm just telling you what I'm seeing here in Matthew 9. It looks as if this woman had some misconceptions about how the healing would work, and Jesus was still happy with her, and maybe the reason he stopped and talked to her was to clear that up.

But perhaps I'm wrong about the "she had misconceptions" bit. Maybe I'm reading too much into it. Like I just said, I believe some wrong things.

SO ANYWAY, Jesus finally gets to Jarius's house, and has to kick out "the noisy crowd and people playing pipes." I've heard that back then, they used to hire "professional mourners"- so these people aren't actually sad, and the "they laughed at him" bit isn't so befuddling.

And then Jesus brings this dead girl back to life! Yay!

So, because I gotta be that guy, I'm going to ask: Was she really dead?

"Mostly dead is slightly alive." Image source.

What is the definition of "dead"?

Medically, we can say "dead" means a person's body (brain/heart/etc) has stopped, in such a way that it's impossible for them to ever start again. (Okay I just made that up. Anyone have a better definition?)

So... by this definition, if Jesus brings her back to life, then she wasn't "dead." Or we could amend the definition to say "dead" means it's impossible to bring her back without a miracle.

And wait! Jesus says, "The girl is not dead but asleep." What did he mean? What does Jesus mean by "dead" and "asleep"? Maybe she was in a coma or something? Or, since he seems to be speaking figuratively, "asleep" means, for lack of a better term, "mostly dead."

But at any rate, Jesus heals her. Awesome.

Image source.
So, to recap: Jarius came to ask for Jesus to heal his daughter. While they were on the way, a woman who had a bleeding problem came up and sneakily touched Jesus, so Jesus stopped to find her and talk to her. Then Jesus got to Jarius's house and brought his daughter back to life.

But this bothers me. Why did Jesus stop and talk to that lady? Healing Jarius's daughter seems kind of like a time-sensitive thing, right? (Especially in Mark's and Luke's telling of this story, where the news of the girl's death comes right after Jesus finishes his lovely chat with the woman he healed.)

Is it good that Jesus did this, because it shows he gives people individual attention and he's never too busy for you? Or is it bad because he had a total disregard for priorities and just left Jarius hanging for a bit?

Jesus is Jesus, so we can say "he knew he'd have enough time and it would all be fine." But what about me, trying to follow Jesus' example, trying to treat people right and not be "too busy" to help someone?

There has to be a balance- it's not practical to constantly drop what you're doing and be incredibly compassionate toward the needs of any random passerby.

But can Jesus model that balance? It seems like he can't. Jesus knew everything, right? (Did he? We can debate this one too.) So how can he show us how to make decisions and set priorities in the face of uncertainty and limited information?

Let's suppose you're an awesome doctor and you're going to heal Jarius's daughter. Would you stop and help this other woman? Should you stop and help? What if the delay means Jarius's daughter is past the point where you could have saved her?

I mean, this lady had been bleeding for 12 years. Surely she can wait another half hour.

IN SUMMARY: Okay I talked about a ton of things in this post. Basically Jesus is really great, helping everyone and giving individual attention, and we can't be like him.

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This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: Jesus the Unpredictable (Matthew 9:1-17)

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