Cats, children, boundaries, and the life within

“Indy!  No!”

I utter this phrase multiple times a day.  Indy is our cat.  Indy does not like boundaries.  Indy needs boundaries (and continual reinforcement of them), so he can interact with our environment in healthy ways.

I have seen households where cats are not given strong, reinforced boundaries, and I’ve seen households where cats who previously had boundaries had those boundaries relaxed, and I’ve seen cats in the latter regress in behavior back to a selfish baseline that existed pre-discipline.  A chair in our living room bears battle scars from the training process for our Indy.

“Indy!  No!”

I reinforced Indy’s boundaries this morning as he tried to drink the water I had just given to our basil plant.  Today, I did not feel the need to give a more strong quick reminder through a bump on his nose or a stinging of his backside.  He got the message right away today, and his look of guilt showed me he knew what he was doing.  Other days, after a verbal rebuke, he gets an insolent “I’m going to do whatever I want right now look” and proceeds to not care what we say.  He cares pretty quickly when the left hand of justice reaches for the spray bottle of water or reaches out to spank.

Today, like other days recently, my thoughts shifted to reflecting parenting afterwards (a wife 14 weeks pregnant with an already proportional little human being inside will do that to you).  I quickly recalled my knowledge of children, which is fairly extensive, and a reminder that you don’t have to be a parent to have a deep enough experience with children to have something to say about their capacity to know and understand right and wrong, self-giving and selfishness.

You see, children (and adults too) are more like our dear little Indy than we would like to confess.  We like to think human beings are a higher order being than other animals, that we have a greater natural capacity to know what is good and to choose it.  For a well-trained child or adult, this is certainly true, being made in the image of God and all.  But a child who has not received rigorous, intentional, loving discipline is nearly exactly like our cat. They don’t know what is healthy or unhealthy, they need to be reminded that “Dirt water is not sanitary, and the water is intended for the basil and not for you, thankyouverymuch.”

Children without boundaries strongly reinforced look like the vast majority of people in our culture; drifting aimlessly through life, driven primarily by their own desires and curiosity; which upon very basic reflection are driven in large part by selfishness.

I’d like to spend a little time below showing how my perspective is shaped by my Christian commitment because I think it is of vital, central importance to understanding human beings and specifically children.

Scripturally, we are told that humans are created by God, in God’s image, and therefore because our Creator is so innovative and compassionate and intentional, we have a built-in capacity to know what is good and eventually to run towards it.  This is our created identity, which we should identify as an identity built into humanity a long, long time ago.

Humanity since our creation has displayed, however, a history of desire, of innovation, of creative capacity gone amuck.  We have taken the powerful created identity given to us and twisted it to serve our purposes, which are bent toward selfishness.  As a result, generation after generation after generation for millenia have built human societies, religions, and perspectives of the world that have enshrined greed, selfishness, and self-determination as virtues to be pursued, not vices to be avoided.  Geneticists tell us that our genetic heritage as people is, yes, relatively stable, but also yes, deeply impacted by environmental conditions and social pressures.  The most cutting edge geneticists today suggest that the impact of the surrounding environment on the human organism are deep enough that they penetrate even into the building blocks of our genetic code.  To reinforce, our environment doesn’t just affect how different parts of our genetic code express themselves, our environment changes our genetic code.  This happens normally over multiple generations, yes, but this does not make this reality any less real or meaningful.  This research is interesting because it reveals a significant parallel between genetics and Scriptural teaching.  Practically, the upshot is the following.  The Scriptures teach of a great rebellion of humanity against our Creator.  This great rebellion has been so deeply embodied and pursued that the “natural” state of humanity is now rebellious, dark, and selfish.  The Apostle Paul put it like this in the letter to the Romans,

“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened… Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

– Romans 1:21, 28-32

Do you follow the contours of Paul’s thought?  We knew God, but we forsook God’s wisdom and knowledge about us, so our thinking became futile and our foolish hearts were darkened.  We have become filled with every kind of wickedness.  We are full of envy.  Although we may have some awareness that we’re functioning in unhealthy ways, we not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.  What is implied in every stage of Paul’s thought here is a process.

A number of theologians have paired this Romans passage with the beginning of Genesis to describe what they see as a “fall,” to show the story of Adam and Eve as some irreparable break that made humans immediately disgusting in the eyes of God.  Beyond the fact that this interpretation denies that the creation story is a poem (not rigorous human history about an actual event) it also is a refusal to let the story speak for itself.  Theologians, because of the beliefs they bring to the story, twist the meaning of the story to fit their understanding rather than letting it speak to them on its own.  The story is one of rebellion, yes, but it is also one revealing God’s compassion, and humanity’s ability to choose the pathways of God again (and again, and again, and again) over our own ideas and pathways.

When one accepts the above interpretation of the story of creation, the Scriptures explode with life in ways we had not had eyes to see before. We find horrific and beautiful repetition on these themes of rebellion, God’s compassion and discipline, and choosing the pathways of God again (and again, and again, and again).  The Scriptures are not about the futility of human beings and our inability to be holy, primarily; but instead are about the rebellion of human beings and the lack of desire to be holy.  This lack of desire is heavily affected by generational rebellion, by a long line of ancestors who valued their way more than their Creator.  This is why God reminded the Israelites in Deuteronomy

“Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. Remember the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, when he said to me, “Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children…Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other. Keep his decrees and commands, which I am giving you today, so that it may go well with you and your children after you and that you may live long in the land the LORD your God gives you for all time.”

-Deuteronomy 4:9-10, 39-40

Do you hear the words I bolded above?  Be careful, do not forget, teach, remember, learn to revere, teach, acknowledge, take to heart, keep.  Why?  So that it may go well with you and your children.  The exhortation here in Deuteronomy is an acknowledgment of the darkness, the rebellion, inherited confusion of the people.  But the exhortation does not, does not say “You are unable to change, and must only cry out for forgiveness and God will forgive.”  The writer of Deuteronomy does not settle for that lesser, sad perspective that Martin Luther proclaimed as gospel.  No, the writer(s) choose to call the people out of their inherited habits into a new way of inherited habits that are intended, generation by generation, to bear witness in thought, word, and deed to a different way of being in the world.  The  Israelites are to live this way “so that it may go well with you and your children” in way that calls all who observe back to what they were created for.

So, the Scriptures talk about created identity (1).  The Scriptures talk about choices to deny and twist that identity (2).  The Scriptures show the generational quality of those choices (2a), where people become darker, become filled with wickedness, become envious.  And the Scriptures show a God who continually calls people out of that darkness(3), to embody practices and habits that lead them back into the light (3a), to become filled with goodness, to become self-giving, to choose to kneel before God to listen and obey.

So, geneticists and the Scriptural community agree; we are who we are most significantly because of a pattern of living that we have inherited from our ancestors from our present parents all the way back into primordial history.  What we desire is “borrowed” from those who shape us.  In other words, there isn’t a single thing we desire on our own.  What is most natural to me is that way because of the culture surrounding me.  And if I discover that what has seemed to be natural (violence and sexuality are two central things that come to mind) is in fact unnatural, I must commit myself and my children (and if my children follow, their children and children’s children) to the pursuit of what is natural.  Along the way, we affirm that some of those desires will not feel natural until multiple generations have pursued the life given by the authority of God.

All of the extended thoughts above have been a prolonged riff in support of the same theme I stated above:  our children (and our cats) don’t know what is good and right to do and be by themselves.  Our children need boundaries, they need the strong word of their mentors and parents, and they need further reminders beyond words from time to time that shock them out of their complacency and worldview to consider another (i.e. spanking, and other essential tools).  The more I think on this subject as we steadily march toward parenthood, the more the need to have a solid commitment to all of what I have said above is revealed.  However the intricacies of parenting work out (because every child is, in important ways, unique), I must remember, I must remember, I must remember to “Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other. Keep his decrees and commands, which I am giving you today, so that it may go well with you and your children after you and that you may live long in the land the LORD your God gives you for all time.”

Teacher, author, and theologian Stanley Hauerwas understands the importance of tradition, habit, and strong communal remembering in a powerful way.  It shows up over and over again in his thoughts.  A story of Stan’s interactions with a couple seems most fitting to conclude,

Stan was walking across the Quad at Notre Dame one morning when he spotted some friends, a married couple, both Jewish, walking nearby and joined them. Knowing that they had a son about to be of age he asked, “When is the Bar Mitzvah?” The couple replied, “Well, we are not sure. We want Jacob to decide for himself that he wants to be Bar Mitzvah’d. He hasn’t decided yet.” Stan retorted,“So, there have been 5750 years of Jewish history, Jewish suffering, so that this twelve year-old can make up his mind? Could he have a mind worth making up if he does not know his parents stand for something?”

Amen brother.  May we stand for something, and shape the desire of our children toward their Creator.  Along the way, may our children shape our desire toward our Creator.  When we practice this shaping together, we bear witness of a way of life worth living, a life patterned toward our ultimate joy and fulfillment.  May it be so.


An excerpt from this morning’s sermon at Cincinnat COB

“Humble Yourselves, Discipline Yourselves, Be Steadfast”
1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11

…we have no reason to fear what even the most powerful empire in the world can do to us or the most well-placed bullet because we get to bear witness to a powerful love.  It is this awareness, this belief that has led followers of Jesus into the darkest, most violent places on Earth to proclaim and live the transformative message of Jesus and the way of life he redeems us to.  Or, it has led followers of Jesus into parts of our society that aren’t necessarily desirable, has led us to desire healing and hope in places of brokenness.

Believing this message should, I emphasize should lead Christians to look at their society around them, searching for places and relationships of brokenness that we can then move towards, engage with; instead of separating ourselves from, insulating ourselves from brokenness.  Unfortunately, the pattern of response to brokenness in Cincinnati, like many cities, is people abandoning, leaving behind, running away from darkness because we don’t like to feel uncomfortable, insecure, stretched, or frustrated.  People move into an ever-increasing ring of suburbs to find a place of security, leaving behind communities falling apart.  We then build beltways and interstates that keep us from having to see and engage those communities on a daily basis, and they slide into our subconscious; only coming up when we are forced to detour through them.

Precious few churches choose to obey the courageous call of Jesus to seek out places of brokenness and put down roots there.  This community of Cincinnati Church of the Brethren and our community Vineyard Central have attempted to be faithful to the call of God in this way.  But it has been rough going, for us and for you.

For one thing, we’ve found that we don’t have the tools to be able to handle pain and brokenness very well, because we’ve been shaped by a gospel of pain avoidance.  Several weeks ago, I heard a story from a man named Scott Dewey that connects with this truth.  Scott is a follower of Jesus, and Scott caught a vision to move to the slums of Bangkok, Thailand with his wife.  There are any number of preventable diseases there in the slums that primarily result from unclean drinking water.  Scott wanted to solve those problems, and bring hope to the slums.  So they said, “Here I am Lord, send me” and they went.  Three years later Scott rolled over in bed one morning and said to his wife, “Melanie, I can’t do this any more.  There’s too much pain here.”  After three years, they hadn’t solved the unclean water problem and Scott had been crushed by the pain and darkness of life in the ghetto.  Scott, however, chose to reflect on his thinking instead of just abandoning the place, and he came to one crucial awareness.

They had entered that neighborhood to do ministry for people there.  They had come with a gospel they believed provided hope.  And Scott realized as he thought about the pain and darkness crushing him that the people who had lived in that ghetto all their lives had a greater capacity to deal the with the pain and still find little cracks of hope than he did.  Scott found out that the gospel and the community he came from was one that was not familiar with pain, did not seek out pain, struggle, and brokenness and therefore he didn’t have the resources to deal with the pain there in Bangkok.  What Scott learned was that the people he had come to minister to were in fact ministering to him in how to live with pain and suffering.  What Scott learned through them was a fresh understanding of the gospel that does not bring hope through avoiding pain but through embracing it and finding God in the midst of it…

Link to full text here.

The practice of forgiveness

Our Vineyard Central church community is gathering this afternoon for worship, prayer, and fellowship. Through Lent, we are dwelling in Psalm 22 and a “word” of Jesus from the cross to guide our worship. One brother, Greg York, will be reflecting today on the Psalm and Jesus’ word “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

In preparing my spirit for our time together, as I’ve traveled to and from work this week on the bicycle, I’ve tried to be mindful of that word of Jesus.

“Today you will be with me in paradise.”

I have let it repeat over and over in my mind. I have spoken it out loud. I have said it in cadence with the circular strokes of my pedaling. As the phrase has settled in my spirit, I have been impressed at the core commitment it displays. Radical forgiveness.

The context of the “word” is the interactions of two dying men being crucified with Jesus. One mocks him, and the other defends him. In response to the basic defense of the one (being “rightly” executed for being a violent threat to the Roman regime), Jesus, in the midst of his intense physical and emotional pain, reaches out in forgiveness to the man. Without making a statement on the man’s depravity, Jesus draws the man into an embrace that will transcend the death they both are about to experience. What a gift!

This reminded me of a story I had heard awhile ago that illustrated the powerful embrace of forgiveness. The story was first told to psychologist Jack Kornfield by the director of a nearby rehabilitation program for violent juvenile offenders.

One 14-year-old boy in the program had shot and killed an innocent teenager to prove himself to his gang. At the trial, the victim’s mother sat impassively silent until the end, when the youth was convicted of the killing. After the verdict was announced, she stood up slowly and stared directly at him and stated, “I’m going to kill you.” Then the youth was taken away to serve several years in the juvenile facility.

After the first half-year the mother of the slain child went to visit his killer. He had been living on the streets before the killing, and she was the only visitor (in jail) he’d had. For a time they talked, and when she left she gave him some money for cigarettes. Then she started step-by-step to visit him more regularly, bringing food and small gifts.

Near the end of his three-year sentence, she asked him what he would be doing when he got out. He was confused and very uncertain, so she offered to help set him up with a job at a friend’s company. Then she inquired about where he would live, and since he had no family to return to, she offered him temporary use of the spare room in her home. For eight months he lived there, ate her food, and worked at the job.

Then one evening she called him into the living room to talk. She sat down opposite him and waited. Then she started, “Do you remember in the courtroom when I said I was going to kill you?” “I sure do,” he replied. “I’ll never forget that moment.” “Well, I did it,” she went on. “I did not want the boy who could kill my son for no reason to remain alive on this earth. I wanted him to die. That’s why I started to visit you and bring you things. That’s why I got you the job and let you live here in my house. That’s how I set about changing you. And that old boy, he’s gone. So now I want to ask you, since my son is gone, and that killer is gone, if you’ll stay here. I’ve got room and I’d like to adopt you if you let me.” And she became the mother he never had.

This story reminds me that forgiveness is not an emotional decision, where one must emotionally feel at peace before forgiving someone we believe has wronged us and/or others. Forgiveness is a posture toward others that transcends our emotion. We make a decision, which establishes firmly within us that our emotions will not rule us. We let our decision lead us. The emotions catch up later. May I pursue such a commitment.

Recommitment, or, moment of sanity Friday night

I will delete that
Facebook game.
And that other one too.
I will re-orient my time and my desires
to fit the kingdom of God,
which as I understand it means
I will spend more time face to face
with my wife
with my neighborhood
with my church community.
I will communicate with persons of consequence beyond these circles of relationship;
city, county, state, national, and international leaders.
I will carve out time to “do” nothing but think and scheme
and renew my imagination
and be reminded of my responsibility
in humility
to cherish God above all else
(thanks John Piper!)
I will remember
I will remember
I will remember!
that my imagination, desire, and energy
should be channeled into meaningful outlets,
and you, Facebook games,
are NOT included.
Go be played elsewhere.
You’re not welcome here anymore.
Click “X” Nathan.
It’s for your own, your marriage, your church, your neighborhood, and your world’s good
And not just good like, “Man, that Skyline chili was good!”
(which isn’t possible anyways)
but good like, “This is very good!”
from the Creator’s mouth..

Commencing Lent with Ash Wednesday 2009

“We live in the city of death.  All the cities and societies of the world are places of death.  We look to and serve first one and then some other power of ideology and institution- on and on, over and over again- in order to find the City of Salvation, but each one turns out to be itself consigned to death, a witness to death’s power and reign.  It is through these idols which are themselves acolytes of death that death tempts us with the hope of our own salvation.  Death tempts us by promising to save us from death; that is how cruel and vain and filled with guile death is.

All images of the good society– all panaceas and utopias; all idealism and ideologies; all provisional hopes, compromises, appeasements, corruptions, and failures in the life of humans in society in this world- are in the repertoire of death’s temptations.  Plato’s republic, Constantine’s empire, Rousseau’s social contract, Jeffersonian democracy, Marx’s classless society, free enterprise, and world government are specific forms by which humans are solicited, enticed, or coerced into the service of death..all such principalities in turn pay homage to death and are subject to it even as they promise  us salvation.

God builds the City of Salvation.  It is not some never-never land, some alabaster city beyond the realm of time, but a City, whatever be the final shape and reality of its fulfillment at the end of time, which has form and actuality here and now in the midst of this history.”

–  William Stringfellow

May disciples of Jesus remember as Lent begins that we are expected to be a people apart in the world, a people of repentance and humility and suffering love, an example to the world of what the world is made for.  We do not exist to point to some ethereal heaven, but to exist as a testament that heaven is coming to earth, and we will live this way even if we are hated and considered ridiculous.

Lent, then, is a season of repentance and of stripping away; a season where we intentionally take time out to examine ourselves, to remove some of the pleasures of our life in order to know what really matters.  It is a season where we choose the darkness of forsaking pleasures so we might be able to see what idols we depend on for our security, what powers of death we lean on and believe are our savlation.  We must not settle for less.

Driscoll on the Bible’s use of harsh language…

Here might be an example of Driscoll being more honest and vulnerable than I’ve seen him in the past.  Especially when he remarks that the use of harsh language should be infrequent and confesses that he’s over-used it to compensate for the pastors who are too cowardly to speak strongly.

And for the record, I think Driscoll’s right on when he suggests that much of Christianity is captivated by what he calls “Dearly-belovedism”; sappy, touchy-feely pastoring that IS cowardly and unBiblical.  

I appreciate these Driscoll thoughts as a marker of his growing.  If I could be permitted to wish out loud here,

1)  I wish that he would recognize his method (preaching for an extended time with 30 min or so of free-flowing filler) contributes to his old, unwise, unloving ways because it encourages a “Shooting-off-at-the-mouth-while-claiming-it’s-the-Spirit-ism.”  
2)  I also wish that he would be ruthlessly honest that much of his persona up to this point has been built on what he’s repenting for, and that in order to grow as a leader and prove his integrity in others’ eyes, he may need to err on the less controversial side, consider his more controversial phrases that keep coming up and expunge some of them from his vocabulary, and maybe write more of his sermons out to guard his tongue.

Ok, I’m done with critiques of Driscoll for a little while.  I’m starting to feel a little dirty spending this much time on it, some of which I’m sure is conviction of the Spirit.

Lenten Daily Prayers: The Fifth Week

Week One
Week Two
Week Three
Week Four

This, as the title suggests, is the fifth week that I’ve posted some relevant readings and prayers for entering more deeply into the season of Lent.

Morning (observed on hour between 6 and 9 a.m.) 

The Request for Presence
Send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me,
and bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.
 (Psalm 43:3)

A Reading
“Jesus taught us, saying, ‘And the judgment is this: though the light has come into the world, people have preferred darkness to the light because their deeds were evil…but whoever does the truth comes out into the light, so that what he is doing may plainly appear as done in God.'”
 (John 3:19,21)

The Morning Psalm
O God, when you went forth before your people,
when you marched through the wilderness,
The earth shook, and the skies poured down rain at the presence of God,
the God of Sinai, at the presence of God, the God of Israel.
You sent a gracious rain, O God, upon your inheritance;
you refreshed the land when it was weary.
Your people found their home in it;
in your goodness, O God, you have made provision for the poor.
The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands of thousands;
the LORD comes in holiness from Sinai.
You have gone up on high and led captivity captive;
you have received gifts even from your enemies,
that the LORD God may dwell among them.
Blessed be the LORD day by day, the God of our salvation,
who bears our burdens.
He is our God, the God of our salvation;
God is the LORD, by whom we escape death
(Psalm 68:7-10, 17-20)

The Lord’s Prayer

The Prayer Appointed for the Week
Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan:  Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our LORD, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Prayer for the Morning
LORD God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought me in safety to this new day:  Preserve me with your mighty power, that I may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity, and in all I do direct me to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our LORD.  Amen.

Midday (observed on hour between 11 am and 2 pm)

The Cry of the Church
O God, come to my assistance!
O LORD, make haste to help me!

The Midday Psalm
If the LORD had not come to my help,
I should soon have dwelt in the land of silence.
As often as I said, “My foot has slipped,”
your love, O LORD, upheld me. 
When many cares fill my mind, your consolations fill my soul.
(Psalm 94:17-19)

The Lord’s Prayer

The Prayer Appointed for the Week (repeat from morning)

The Midday Prayer of the Church
Most gracious God and Father, you are with me as I make my journey throughout this day.  Help me to look lovingly on all people and events that come into my life today and to walk gently on this land.  Grant this through Jesus who lives and walks among us ever present at each moment.  Amen.

The Evening  (observed between 5 and 8 p.m.)

The Call to Prayer
Come, let us bow down, and bend the knee, and kneel before the LORD our Maker.
Psalm 95:6

The Evening Psalm
Show us your mercy, O LORD, and grant us your salvation.
I will listen to what the LORD God is saying,
for he is speaking peace to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him.
Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him,
that his glory may dwell in our land.
Mercy and truth have met together,
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Truth shall spring up from the earth,
and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
The LORD will indeed grant prosperity, and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him,
and peace will be a pathway for his feet.
Psalm 85:7-13

The Lord’s Prayer

The Prayer Appointed for the Week (repeat from morning)

The Concluding Prayer of the Church
O holy God, as evening falls on us, Remember our good deeds and forgive our failings.  Help us to reflect on and live according to your covenant of love. Be with our lonely and elderly sisters and brothers in the evening of their lives.  May all who long to see you face to face know the comfort of your presence.  This we ask in union with Simeon and Anna and all who have gone before us blessing and proclaiming you by the fidelity of their lives.  Amen.