31 May 2013

The 5 Best Things in My Life That I Didn’t Want (at First)

Despite being a blockhead, or because I was a blockhead, my best choices weren’t obvious in my younger days. Decades on, in the rear-view mirror certain things stand out as great choices. (Yes, I have a long list on bad choices).

Didn't Want Marriage.  
I know: hate the word, love it, ‘mheh’ it. Weddings have risen to a cult-like status while the actual marriage can be a terror. (Samuel Johnson called 2nd marriages: "The triumph of hope over experience."). But I never really thought about marriage. No, I was very pragmatic. I had a plan: college, career (BIG!), a someday marriage to someone like me End of story. 

Then I was proposed to a good 7-10 years before planned. Though I hesitated, it dawned on me that this guy was probably someone I’d not meet again. Plan in the trash bin: no big career, an early marriage and he was not like me. 

We are contrary, opposite in nearly every way; not soulmates. We were the perfectly incompatible couple and still are, in nearly every way.   For the last almost 4 decades what little we had in common, we have built on, and what we didn’t have in common are sources of misunderstanding and sometimes of pain. 
Yet, neither of us is wrong most of the time—we’re just different. We chose to turn those points of misunderstandings into bridges; to re-form the marriage rather than break it.

Martin Luther said, “My temptations have been my masters (professors) in divinity.” following his pattern rather than throw out the baby with the bathwater, we have tried to turn issues which hinge on our incompatibility into opportunities for personal betterment. 

Maybe it sounds nutty but it’s pragmatic. 
Marriage can it be fulfilling, yes; and mind-bending, now and then; and frustrating, absolutely! 

I do realize that few people have a marriage that is this good: it is a rarity. Yet it didn’t come naturally for either of us: a good marriage is not guaranteed, automatic nor an inheritance. 

If you have selected a decent mate, then you both need to work hard at it for weeds sprout daily in the garden of love. But, in the end, there is something priceless about being with someone who loves you, not because of blood, nor duty, nor money or other benefits. He or she loves you PERIOD.

Still, a good many marriages fail—despite hard work and kindness. If it fails, forgive—no matter who was at fault. You’ll do both of yourselves a favor.

Didn't Want Children. 
I’m ashamed to admit I never cared for babies, it seems inhuman. 
I wasn’t drawn to them as many are. I never thought I had the skills to have a child (I still think I am right about that). But there I was: already with child (even though we’d taken precautions). When the doctor asked me about abortion: we thought of the plans laid before us for the next five years and how they would be altered if we had the child. 

I told my husband “Love is never convenient.” so we trashed our plans in exchange for the best, most transformative and horrifying experience in the world. 

Horrifying, not merely because you are raising a person in a perilous world, but because that new person acts as a walking, talking reflection of me or homelife. 

Transformative only
when and if you chose to listen closely to the little people—and now and then, the big people who blurt out the truth.

The best because for the first time you understand the unselfish side of love: you would go to your death to save your child.

More than 3 decades since having the first child, when I think of my 25 year-old self and wish to slap her out of her dreams of grandeur without children. 

Why? because the status career, jobs, highly influential “friends” have circulated in and out of our lives. They have forgotten us, and they in turn have faded in our memories. Wealth and possessions have sailed in and out of our life.

In contrast, though, written in bright colors set in a brilliant background of our life is our family, our children, and their spouses, and their children. 

Yeah, we did nearly everything wrong raising them (with the best intentions!). 
But, to not to have had children once given the opportunity, would have been to have a white-knuckle grip on the pole when the brass ring is in my face on the merry-go-round of life. 
Plenty of headaches, hassles, backaches, empty pockets, sleepless nights, messy house, and broken furniture: but all worth it, no doubt!

Family is dearer and more precious than is possible to measure. 
Keep them as close as possible, agree with them as often as possible, try to hear what they say—whether they say it out loud or not, cry and laugh with them, play and work with them…give to them what is necessary and more, hold back what they want but should work for.

Yes, give them grace, space, respect and dignity, but hold them tightly, and this includes your spouse. You might come to like them.

As for my 25 year-old self, she was pressured and continually re-sold on the ultimate importance of money/career/ status. 

She almost ignored the age-old advice: “To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition, the end to which every enterprise and labour tends…”(Samuel Johnson, 1750).

That young Me was somehow saved from her own gullibility—she almost became a slave to a job, a career, and other “things-of-value.” 
Maybe I suspected that, as Bunyan put it, “It came burning hot into my mind, whatever he said and however he flattered, when he got me home to his house, he would sell me for a slave.”

Didn't Want Change. 
I hate it: hate, hate, hate. It’s pain, pain, pain. 
I loved where I grew up in the country, I loved my home, I loved my area. 
Yet, I have been repeatedly forced to find new jobs, live in new type of environments, and move to new countries. 
I’ve lived in remote areas, cosmopolitan cities and the suburbs. 
I’ve dealt with people from the poorest in American to the wealthiest and most influential in America, with maids and street-sweepers in the lowest classes in the poorest countries, and moguls and heirs of billions in many countries. 
I have had to learn 3 foreign languages—an African, a Romance, and an Asian language. 

Change, struggle and pain: why is it in the best of what I resisted? There are things I learned firsthand I couldn't learn any other way. 

First, pain does not equal something bad. 

Second, every place has its interesting people, clever people, and an interesting heritage. 

Third, every class of people has kind and generous, greedy (yes, poor and greedy) and cruel. Some people love others, while others don’t know what love is. 

Four, I count as friends many kinds of people: they are diverse (all meanings of the word) and represent a broad spectrum. 

I’m friends with devout atheists and agnostics (a belief in unbelief), devout pantheists, devout animists and devout people of every major religion (as well as many sects within them). 
Some of them are lovely people who treat me with respect and kindness, and some are not, and do not. No matter what the label, the true person shines through. The downside is that I am less tolerant of artificiality.

I still hate the pain of change but I enjoy the benefits--in some intangible way, it's improved me.

Didn't Want Chronic Illness. 
Of course I didn’t want this, and don’t. 

Many people think of chronic illness is something that besets middle-aged people but I was lucky enough to get it at 14. 14 is a difficult enough, but getting ill then changed the course of my life. I had to grow up a bit more quickly—I had to think about what was important to me.

Chronic illness is the perpetual lemon in your life, and you have to become creative in the ways you make the lemonade. 

I gripped the steering wheel of life and chose to move on: there was too much to see and learn allow illness to stop me from living a full (if short) life. 

It was the 1960s and most of my friends were chasing the moon and wasting their minds and their time. 
Chronic illness made me wiser about how I was going to spend my short life. 

If for no other reason, I am thankful that my teens, 20’s and 30’s were well-spent (See Number 5).

Didn't Want Religion, Especially Not Christ. 
Being religious (especially Christian) is too counter-cultural, particularly in New York. 

Not welcome. It’s no secret that educated Americans and the postmodern world are snobs about religion. 

It was in part due to my chronic illness, that I focused early, and kept searching: “…when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”(Samuel Johnson). 

I had been the subject of the best work of state, commercial and educational institutions in deriding, decrying and disputing the worth, the value and need of religion. 

But, an overplayed hand is always a tip-off: I chose to ignore the strident, vacuous, always cynical and ever-critical voices. 

Like an “economic bubble” I knew eventually the end would come to the secular chatter and criticism: you cannot stave off eternal realities forever.

However, when it came to actually changing horses, to trading the best in this world could give me was really hard. 
I admit that it was hard for this over-educated person to pray to Christ in real humility

Prayer can be two opposite things at the same time: it can be both the hardest and easiest thing to do. 

At first I feared that people wouldn’t understand why, or would hate me. Jesus Christ’s words on this resonated in me and kicked down the wall: “Whoever tries to preserve his life will lose it, and the man who is prepared to lose his life will preserve it.” 
But once given over the return on my investment was immediate and ongoing: I had spiritual peace, deep and permanent. 

Christ, for the past four decades, has been faithful and present—not a dream or wish fulfillment, but a reality.
Every day when I rise to a new day, I am refreshed by re-choosing Christ. 

Doing so the first four in this list: marriage, family, life changes, illness, as well as all other things, are then properly ordered. 

Once ordered, I grasp their true value in God’s kingdom rather than some hyped, exaggerated value.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

We all have our own lists—now or in the future-your top 5 at 55 won't or don't look like mine). 

In this moment of looking back I agree with CS Lewis: 
"There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind."

16 May 2013

Good Night (Evening Prayer)

Evening Prayer

Let no thought come to my heart,
Let no ruffle come to my spirit,
 that is hurtful to my poor body this night,
 nor ill for my soul at the hour of my death--
but may You Yourself, O God of life,
be at my breast, be at my back,
You to me as a star, You to me a guide,
from my life's beginning to my life's closing.

A Celtic prayer (partial)

14 May 2013

On Women: Don’t Be Like Tech Support with Me

In the Church of Jesus Christ there can and should be no non-theologians. – Karl Barth
I can take care of my own tech problems–most of the time. Now and then I have to ask customer service for help. Once they know I’m a woman, I feel like a three-year old: half of my conversation is getting them not to pigeon-hole me. Sadly, in some churches I get the same sense communicated. I feel like texting the 32-year old in the pulpit who is speaking down to women: “I have been studying the Bible, and I’ve been devoted to spiritual disciplines for more than 40 years. Right now I’m using some of the best theologians and bible studies.”
On this note, someone recently asked “where I was” on the complementarian /egalitarian debate in the church. I’ve read both sides and the scriptures in context, out of context, and upside down and I think it’s silly. First, I’m not that political (small "p"). Mostly, it’s a distraction from discipleship and evangelism. As Christ’s Body we have a mission to do–in this era that necessarily involves some women. And some of those women will be teaching men.
The thought that God has segmented the gifts according to gender is unsupported in scripture and in the real life. Of course there may be tendencies, but tendencies don’t apply to all people. Some women hate/are scared to read this—no worries: what God has not equipped you for He does not ask you to do. Others react as if the entire Bible were questioned (which it is not). Scripturally there is support for women: women are judges, prophets, apostles—which makes them teachers. But notice, women make up the minority of these. And that speaks to two separate things: tendencies and cultural context of that era.
What should concern the church is quality: where are the visionaries?  the humble, Spirit-led, God-obsessed ones? Yes, many are in the pulpit. But excluded is the woman who might qualify, and yet the dullard of a man who holds an unsacramental view of the church, the world, women and work is acceptable. This, I do not see as a God-ordained decision.
Might we ask ourselves honest God-honoring questions with regard to genders in the church structure: Do we unthinkingly following an all-male quota system, rather than prayerfully fitting the churches with the best for the pulpit? Can we answer the question is it okay to suppress a person from growth by barring her from teaching a mixed adult Sunday School?
Our theology informs our thinking—or ought to. We should at least dare to ask questions of depth: What is our underlying view of women and girls in general if the church cherishes solely-by-males in all contexts stand with regards to teaching? What about the people who people threaten to quit the church if a woman teaches—and throw a tantrum. So, do we fear the anger of people so much? Is this our problem, or Christ's?
I have heard it said (or insinuated) that a man could not learn from a woman. Of course if the man is arrogant, then this is true—you can’t be taught if you’re not receptive.
Are we afraid of competition (in a bad sense)? Perhaps this fear in us should be treated. Or, is the question a harder one to face: are we not able to trust our Lord in this; He who makes us and gives all gifts and callings? (We aren’t too good at trust, if we’re honest with ourselves.)

I worry that the church is putting out its own eyes when it quashes the God-given gifts and talents of females in the churches. Again, in my experience, most women do not wish or have the time to be preachers or theologians. Yet, there are those few women who have a mind to serve and are ready and willing—but they will be lost to the ages if the church in the West continues as it is.

Can we be honest about who the church is for: it should be for and about Christ. When it is about Him, that is, when the members see Christ as the Only One, the Head of the Body, then (in this context) the calling to teach in a member is energized by the Spirit of Christ. There is no question about gender or background – the Spirit of Christ doesn’t require a “type.” In the rarefied air of the love of the Body of Christ the outcome is beautiful, unforced, and a normal: discipleship occurs, and evangelism happens. I know, I’ve been there.

However, the beautiful unfolding of these revolutionary moments cannot withstand the force of the hands of a board or committee who stick to their notes and pull the plug.

Let’s reflect. It might be painful, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong, Church.  

“It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for a bird to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.”– CS Lewis

 (Lest you think I dislike men, it’s not true. My Lord is a man; some of my favorite pastors and theologians are men. I prefer working with men, I was raised by a great father, have a husband of 37 years who is gold, grew up with wonderful brothers, and have the best sons.) -Charity Johnson

13 May 2013

Monkey See, Monkey Do?

“Well, if you friends jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you!?” this common expression (or variations of this) is used by mothers and fathers on their children.   

Its broadest meaning is: “Think for yourself—because even the best crowd can be dead wrong.”   Parents and guardians continually walk that line of being the objective voice to a (naturally selfish) growing-up person.

Then you’re an adult, and no, you’ve not done something as dumb as that. Even now, are we beyond the need for a voice of clarity and truth speaking into our lives? My experience is no; in fact it seems to take no effort to  pick up attitudes, prejudices, assumptions, and opinions which if I thought about them, I’d realize they were wrong-headed, dumb or even deleterious.  

Group think sticks to me just by walking through a crowd—it’s that effortless, and unnoticed.   
Then we have the Big Questions—God, religion, death—things which are hard to think about clearly and hardly anyone pays attention to any more, much less gets instruction in.   

I have no way to evaluate it except through my own experience, but we’re far more likely to get our opinions on the Big Questions from our crowd. CS Lewis, as an accomplished academician, had first-hand knowledge of this danger: 

“You see, I know now. Let us be frank. Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful. At College, you know, we just started automatically writing the kind of essays that got good marks and saying the kind of things that won applause.
When, in our whole lives, did we honestly face, in solitude, the one question on which all turned: whether after all the Supernatural might not in fact occur? When did we put up one moment’s real resistance to the loss of our faith?” 
- C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

We all face this kind of danger, every day, all around us. We are socially inclined (which is needed and good) but we often get the wires crossed between our own selves and the group.  Then, there is that little beast in us–the one that loves approval from the crowd–which is insatiable. And the beast is fed the bigger its stomach stretches. 

We consume peer opinions as if they were handed down from the Mount, not bothering to distinguish good thoughts from the ones the herd thinks. Our theology or worldview or questions about BIG stuff becomes the tangled mess of wires, but they're ok, because it is our mess of wires and it's familiar.
The danger exists for everyone: Christian, non-Christian, agnostic, atheist, and all other religious persuasions.  Christ was no meek and mild Savior in this respect.

Christ is not solely Divine Love but Light of Light and Divine Wisdom—resulting on strong clear pronouncements, and 
“so inflammatory in His language that He was thrown out of church, stoned, hunted from place to place, and finally [given the death penalty] as a firebrand and a public danger. Whatever His peace was, it was not the peace of amiable indifference; and he said so in many words that what He brought with Him was fire and sword.” 
(Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos?). 

However offensive He may be to some people, others to find His truth-telling a fresh water fountain of trustworthiness springing out of an ocean of private opinions. When He likened Himself to a house built on rock, this is what He was referring to: the trustworthiness of truth in the Loving Son of God.

As God the Son He continually called out people on faulty faith, faulty thinking but He was also the walking Face of God to the world, untangling the wires of confusion…and He still is.

-Charity Johnson

10 May 2013

Finding Your Way

Lost and Found

I missed him when the sun began to bend;
I found him not when I had lost his rim;
With many tears I went in search of him,
Climbing high mountains which did still ascend,
And gave me echoes when I called my friend;
Through cities vast and charnel houses grim,
And high cathedrals where the light was dim,
Through books and arts and works without an end,
But found him not—the friend whom I had lost.

And yet I found him—as I found the lark,
A sound in fields I heard but could not mark;
I found him nearest when I missed him most;
I found him in my heart, a life in frost,
A light I knew not till my soul was dark.

~ George MacDonald