Ink and Skin

When I was growing up, only sailors and bikers had tattoos. I didn’t personally know anyone with one. I read Muscle and Fitness in high school and I only remember one bodybuilder with a tattoo: Barry Demay. He had a rose on his left deltoid.

Now, I know dozens of people who have tattoos. I’ve seen head-scratching tattoos, like the lady in the gym who had what looked like a mason jar of jam tattooed on her calf. I’ve seen some really bad do-it-yourself tattoos. And I’ve seen tattoos that I can say were well done, though I’m still not sure I can say they were a good choice.

Looking on the internet I can find reasons for and against tattooing, though some of the reasons on both sides are pretty flimsy. Finding a list of reasons to get a tattoo supplied by a tattoo-removal service seems suspect. A list promoting why you should do it before you turn 25 fed all the stereotypes it was trying to disprove.

The two biggest arguments I have against having ink injected into my skin are questions. First, what do I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I won’t change my mind about? As I look back at my 18, 25, and 30 year-old self, there are things they may have thought were a good idea that I wouldn’t necessarily agree with now. Second, and even more compelling, what can I do with a tattoo that I cannot do without one? Is not having a tattoo holding me back from anything? The obvious answer is no.

I think the issue is bigger than just tattoos. They are merely a more permanent and visible manifestation of the way we proclaim identity. I think there is a connection between tattoos and following on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. We desire to fit in and to proclaim our identity—who we perceive ourselves to be and what we are about. In many ways, a tattoo is just another way to self-categorize.

I’m young, I’m edgy, I’m expressive, I’m an individual (just like the thousands of others who….) That’s what I see when I see tattoos. That’s what I see when I see logo clothing and graphic T-shirts. I’ve been trying, with some success, to weed such things from my wardrobe in recent years. Why should I give anyone an easy way to either think they know what I am about or to dismiss me? I don’t have bumper stickers for the same reason.

The most permanent things in my life are represented by jewelry, but even that permanence is questionable. I wear a wedding ring until death do us part, though who knows after that. My dad has remarried since my mom died a few years ago, though I’m sure it’s not what he planned when he said ‘I do’ in 1968. I wear my seminary class ring for multiple reasons—it has a cross and a Bible on it and my wife gave it to me—even though my affinity for that institution and what it stands for has waned in the 20 years since I graduated. One of these days, I may either stop wearing it or replace it. That’s hard (and painful) to do that with a tattoo.

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Pornography is Sin

I wrote a while ago about the perils of fantasy, but I did not explicitly address a particularly dangerous area of fantasy—pornography. It is fantasy for its viewers, though for its performers, the reality is tragically far from fantasy. If you think all those girls freely choose that life, think again.

Jesus gave clear guidance on the topic of sexual fantasy.

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Matthew 5:27-28 (ESV)

Engaging in fantasy sex in your mind is no different than physically engaging in sex. From a psychological standpoint, it’s probably worse. Physical adultery carries greater risk—detection, betrayal, pregnancy, etc—which creates a natural deterrent, while pornography allows you to think anything is possible, acceptable, and reasonable, and so distorts your sexual expectations.

Jesus gave a rather harsh solution to this problem.

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

Matthew 5:29-30 (ESV)

No mercy. Do whatever you have to do to break free. Deuteronomy echoes this approach to “temptation management.”

If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying,“Let us go and serve other gods,” which neither you nor your fathers have known, some of the gods of the peoples who are around you, whether near you or far off from you, from the one end of the earth to the other, you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. But you shall kill him. Your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. You shall stone him to death with stones, because he sought to draw you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. And all Israel shall hear and fear and never again do any such wickedness as this among you.

Deuteronomy 13:6-11 (ESV)

Harsh words to our modern, “tolerant” minds. Idolatry and adultery are conjoined in Scripture, especially in the Prophets who make the equivocation of idolatry as adultery against God. How do we translate this harshness into action today?

If you are a “consumer” of the sex industry, you must realize it is a drug that you are using to self-medicate. Breaking your addiction will take hard effort and outside help. If you disagree, that’s probably why you’re still addicted. Until you’re willing to throw away whatever devices you’re using to access pornography and admit to those who will hold you accountable that you have a problem, you will not break free. I have never seen anyone walk away under their own power.

Sexual sin is not an isolated cancer within us. It is tied to and fed by acedia and pride. In many ways, it is not the root disorder, but only a symptom that death is imminent. To find repentance and freedom requires not only treating the symptom, but also the causes that gave rise to it.

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Tools for the Journey: FEDI

Tools

I am continuing to address the question, now with various means for personal devotion. You may find a list of all posts in this series here.

In my attempts to address the question mentioned above, it is clear that what I am providing are means of changing behavior. If we want to improve our skill in some endeavor, whether playing the piano, praying, or preaching, there are four elements that must come together: frequency, efficacy, duration, and intensity. Without sufficient attention to each of these four, our efforts are unlikely to bear fruit.

Frequency: we need to engage on a regular schedule. Find any athlete, artist, or writer who is good at what they do and you will find them engaging their discipline daily. This is what makes the Daily Offices the cornerstone of Anglican spiritual formation. Habitual action forms character.

Efficacy: It is not just a matter of an hour or two per day. That time must be well-spent in activities that promote growth. I played electric bass for several years, but I plateaued in my progress pretty quickly because I was content to play fairly easy songs and not work to develop my skills. We must do things that will lead us in growth and our exercises should become progressively more challenging.

Duration: The effort has to be regular and effective over years. The so-called 10,000-Hour Rule, while hotly debated, has truth to it. Namely, that a high level of proficiency in any endeavor takes lasting effort over multiple years. Changing our behavior is a long process. Our resolve to change may be formed in a short experience, but the actual change takes endurance.

Intensity: We must be sincere in our effort, but be careful with this for it can sidetrack you. Change takes more than just intensity.¹ C.S. Lewis shipwrecked his adolescent faith by focusing on intensity in his prayers to the exclusion of everything else. Intensity is not about feeling it. Intensity is about not giving minimal effort to our endeavors which in turn habituates us to perfunctory and superficial effort. We not only have to do the right things (efficacy), we have to put sufficient effort into them to make them work.

We need to look at what we really want to grow in, focus on those few things, and give them time. This is not going to be a five minute per day endeavor. It is going to take change, hard work, and persistence. When I read the sayings of the Desert Fathers and other saints throughout the ages, I am reading advice from people who engaged in the life of the spirit for decades. Their advice and learning came from long, protracted study and practice.

None of this is to discount the role of the Holy Spirit. He is essential in our efforts at Christ-likeness, but our obedience is also essential. Nowhere in the Scriptures do we see God blessing the disobedient or apathetic.


¹ This post is an expansion of an earlier post.

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Monuments to Power


Having lived and traveled in Europe over the past year, I have seen a collection of castles, palaces, cathedrals, and fortifications. From the Neuschwanstein Castle to the Palace of Versailles. From the Canterbury Cathedral to German gun emplacements on Normandy beaches. All were built as a representation of power—military, political, ecclesiastical, or some combination of the three.

Part of the reason for the density of such things in Europe is that there has been a developed, agrarian civilization here for thousands of years. Vestiges of the Roman Empire’s reach still dot the landscape across the continent and the British Isles. History runs deep here, especially compared to my American context. Yes, Native Americans were around for hundreds of years before Europe colonized North and South America, but with a few notable exceptions, they were not given to making grand stone structures that would last for centuries.

As power has in many ways become less tangible, that is less physical, in our current world, I wonder what the monuments will be for future generations to walk around and ponder or to romanticize those who built and worked among them. Our mayors do not live in mini-fortresses within walled cities. Our rulers no longer live in castles, though a certain bit of stately palaces certainly remain. Even our militaries have become unmoored from fortifications as advances in weapons and tactics make fixed fortifications largely obsolete.

Will a tourist group some day walk around a former Amazon data center? Will tours lead them through the rows of servers that processed millions of transactions and data requests every second, but will then have fallen silent? It seems unlikely, and we as North Americans don’t seem focused on preserving such history outside of articles and books.

There are exceptions. A few years ago, we took a long weekend in Canada and visited the Diefenbunker, a cold-war era shelter for the Canadian government in the event of nuclear attack. As someone who grew up in the second half of the Cold War, I found it fascinating and sobering. It is a monument with political and military purpose, and yet more of a testimony to the limits of both of those powers.

We don’t build for permanence the way our European ancestors did. Many of the cathedrals I have seen have stood for nearly one thousand years. Will anyone be able to find Willow Creek, Saddleback, or the Crystal Cathedral even one hundred years from now? I would be surprised. This is partly caused by our desire for speed. Even today with modern construction, I suspect it would take years to construct an old-world cathedral. In their time, it took generations.

We rarely engage in projects which will not see completion in our tenure, let alone our lifetime. Perhaps it is a product of modern market forces. More likely it is a reflection of our self-centeredness. We want credit for our accomplishments in our lifetime. If we live with that restriction, there are some things we will never accomplish.

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Tools for the Journey: Suffering

Tools

I am continuing to address the question, now with various means for personal devotion. You may find a list of all posts in this series here.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, Romans 5:1-5 is a key text in addressing suffering. Let’s look at it again:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Romans 5:1-5 (ESV)

We rejoice in our sufferings. Do we? I don’t very often or very well, but Paul certainly implies that we ought to. So, how do we do that? I am not an expert, but I’ve read people who are—the Apostles and the Church Fathers.

There seem to be several steps involved in moving toward being able to rejoice in suffering. First, we must acknowledge suffering for what it is. If we can’t identify it when it is happening to us, it is difficult to deliberately do anything in response.

Suffering is anything that causes us displeasure or pain. You might object to calling spotty WiFi in your hotel suffering—and compared to poverty, hunger, and mortal danger, it is trivial—but if it annoys us, it is a chance to rejoice and to reap the fruits Paul outlines in the above passage.

If we don’t take the opportunity to practice rejoicing over the small bumps in the road of our daily existence, how will we build up the capacity to rejoice when it feels like we have driven into a wall? To identify our minor inconveniences as suffering accomplishes two things for us. First, it allows us to identify them as an opportunity to grow in endurance. Second, it humbles us by bringing into focus how selfish we are that these slight interruptions of our will cause us agony.

Next, once we identify suffering, we must stop complaining and whining about it. We cannot rejoice and whine at the same time. We must learn to silence our tongues, cease our sighing, and refrain our eye rolling. Only then can the hard work of silencing our inner whining begin.

From this place of silent endurance, we can then dare to attempt to rejoice. We can try to thank God for the opportunity to practice grace and forbearance when we would normally be brooding and huffing. We can thank God for using an instance of suffering to show us how far we have to go in achieving Christ-likeness. It ought to drive us to him in prayer, asking for the strength to be able to overcome ourselves in the face of such minor things.

If we attempt to reframe our reaction to suffering in this way, we may build endurance and character. This will reward us with hope that God’s love is actually being poured into us, when we see fruit in our lives because we are becoming more patient and long-suffering just like he is.

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Not Only That

There are not many times I vividly remember reading my Bible and being struck by a passage of Scripture. Occasionally, I have had insights or seen a particular passage in a new light, but one incident in my memory stands above them all. I was reading through Romans when I came to a full stop. It took me several days to get past this section:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Romans 5:1-5 (ESV)

Paul is explaining the greatness of the Gospel and then, oh by the way, more than that, we rejoice in our sufferings. Wait, stop, what? More than our salvation, we rejoice in suffering. I thought about it. I journaled about it. I prayed about it. It was hard to get past.

By way of context, I was sitting in Iraq at the time. I had recently returned from mid-tour leave, so I had some idea of suffering pretty close at hand. Yet, I was supposed to embrace this even more than Christ?

Fast-forward to today. Trinity Sunday, year C in the lectionary, the Epistle is this very passage. I’m getting excited to preach about this and challenge the congregation to embrace suffering a little more. I turn to my Bible and read:

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings…

Did you catch the difference? This is still the ESV, so what’s going on? The ESV was introduced in 2001, but changes were published in 2007 and 2011, so I did a little digging at Bible Researcher and found Romans 5:3 in the list of changes for 2011. Sure enough, the “more than that” became “not only that, but.” It doesn’t have quite the same punch.

So, which is the proper reading? Which is most faithful to the Greek text? Did the change soften a hard passage or fix a missed shade of meaning? More digging into other translations and a Greek interlinear seems to indicate that the revised text of 2011 is closer to what Paul wrote. It takes the edge off a bit, though it is still an interesting juxtaposition, and the underlying message didn’t change.

To rejoice in the midst of suffering is a sufficiently challenging injunction. The Scriptures and the early church fathers certainly attest to its value. Taking that head knowledge and applying it, however, is not easy. Some days, I’m doing good to merely identify some unpleasantness as suffering. It is hard to remember that I’m supposed to rejoice in it, too, instead of complaining or whining about it.

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Canterbury

I have been to the Throne of St. Augustine, so have I reached the end of my Canterbury Trail? From a geographical standpoint, I made it, but this was never a physical pilgrimage.

I appreciated standing where Thomas Beckett was martyred, walking the cathedral halls, strolling along the cloister, and standing in the chapter house attached to the cathedral. This place has been a focal point of living out the Gospel for hundreds of years. There is something about being in the midst of these hallowed walls. History is tangible here; one almost expects to see Anselm or Cranmer around the next corner.

Yet standing in the Cathedral in Canterbury is also bittersweet because the Anglican Communion is divided. Progressives and conservatives are growing ever-farther apart. To stand in Canterbury is to be in a province I could not join. I went to Canterbury because I appreciate the history of the church, but when I look toward the future, sadly, I do not see it being formed there. Not in an orthodox manner faithful to the Scriptures and Creeds.

The future, in my opinion, lies in Africa. In Nigeria and Kenya especially, as pillars of the Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON). I would rejoice if Canterbury recognized the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) as fully included in the Anglican Communion, but only if it was because Canterbury returned to the faith once delivered to all the saints.

It has been a hard year being stationed on a small installation with only one general Protestant service and one Roman Catholic service. I am neither. The temptation arises to cross the Tiber and go to Rome, but I cannot. Neither will I return to embracing unmoored Protestantism.

This can make for a lonely position. To the Catholic, I am just another Protestant, and to a great many Protestants, I seem Catholic. I look to Luther and Trent with equal suspicion and they return the favor. The divisions in the Body of Christ are a tragedy, but for the foreseeable future, they seem to be inevitable.

I do not have the answers to all the questions, but I’ve seen the answers of many. The answers of traditional Anglicanism appear to be the soundest, so here I stand. Part of that, admittedly, is that the Anglican Communion allows some breadth—though too much, currently. While it is much more work, the formation is deeper when you are not merely handed a pill and told to swallow. Wrestling is good, even though exhausting.

I visited another church in England. It wasn’t on my list of places to see and it wasn’t in my guidebook. We walked by it on our way to dinner and decided to take a look. It was empty, but at 6 on a Monday night, that was no shock.

It looked like they were in the midst of Vacation Bible School. A waterless kiddy pool was in the aisle with plastic ducks. Tents and cardboard boxes were at various places in the nave. Here was a church that was not a tourist attraction. It was being used.

As I looked at some of the VBS stations, I was cheered. These were not American-style saccharine VBS stations. No, this was more.

  • Sit in this cardboard box quietly for five minutes and think about all that you have. Then, think about those around the world who don’t. Pray for them and think about what you can do to help them.
  • Think of five friends and commit to pray for them. Tie a knot for each friend in this leather cord and wear it as a bracelet to remind you to pray for them. Seek opportunities to bring them to church and share your faith with them.

It was refreshing. It was encouraging. This church—that had probably been filled with a few dozen kids earlier in the day—was now a silent witness to me that the faith is being delivered to the next generation. There was a shelf full of well-used hymnals and Books of Common Prayer at the back. This seemed to be a church that was working to diligently teach the Word to their children, to talk of it when they sit in their houses, and when they walk by the way, and when they lie down, and when they rise. May we all work to do the same.

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