07 December 2015

Start at the Beginning

Some years ago, I spotted a quote on facebook by a nun named Joan Chittister. The context in which it was posted was that of an attempt to discredit the pro-life movement as hypocritical and unethical. Indeed it is frequently used to support abortion. It is as follows:

“I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”
-Sister Joan Chittister

On broad principle, part of what she is trying to communicate is obvious and true: if you are pro-life, you must be pro-the-whole-life. There is a separate discussion here as to what is the best method of taking care of that whole life—at the governmental level or at the individual level—but here we are going to focus on the first part: whether the pro-life movement is really just "pro-birth" as she puts it.

As mentioned above, this quote is often used against those who believe a child in the womb has the right to life, i.e. ‘It’s all rhetoric with you people. You don’t care about kids or life, you’re just dogmatically fixated on little clumps of cells for some reason and you want to control women’s bodies. You should worry about the kids already born.’

I think those who support abortion are desperately misunderstanding what pro-life (or pro-birth) really means. To be pro-life means that we do not believe we have the right to simply kill children (however small they are at the moment) at our own convenience or until such a time as the world they are about to live in is perfect and can guarantee their every need and safety. By that logic, you could murder anyone in an abusive or poverty-stricken circumstance and be justified because you are, without their consent, saving them from the pain and suffering of their own life.

Pro-life is about a fundamental belief in the value of human life because we are all made in the image of God. In addition to that, it is very particularly about defense of the innocent and voiceless. Therefore it must start with protecting the infant in their most vulnerable moments—before, during, and immediately after birth—but it certainly should continue into a desire and sustained effort to help and protect them as they grow. Parents should care for their children. Communities should support those in need. This is why pro-lifers also emphasize the importance of marriage and families, by the way.

Also, it is for this reason that so many churches have ministries that help struggling mothers with counseling, formula, housing, public services, food, clothing, diapers, carseats, strollers, educational materials on motherhood, and job posting boards. I am grateful to have been able to volunteer at such a ministry at my old church. I saw mothers, struggling through difficult circumstances to do right by their children. I saw young women, some high-school age, making a choice to guard over rather than exterminate a life that was undoubtedly an ‘inconvenience’ to them. I have a profound respect for those who refused to give up and believe the lies that society tells them: that they have the “right” to be rid of their children.

What is a woman who decides to keep her baby—in spite of struggle, pain, poverty, fear, or uncertainty—and give that child her all? What is she? She is hope for the future. That’s the sort of woman that can change the culture in a profound way. That’s the sort of woman that maybe, just maybe, can resist the deep and despairing ruts of the poverty and pain into which she may have been born. She can raise a son or daughter with strength and conviction and persistence. She can change the world by her choices and the choices she makes for her children.

Does no one else realize how truly powerful and profound that really is? The very act of choosing life encourages still more life. It is a foundation.

Now, I am not an idealist. I know that there are far too many women who do have their children, but do not give them the care and love they need. But why? Well there are many reasons, but perhaps one is that our culture is telling them that they shouldn’t have to and it’s easier to be bitter and lazy about an undesired circumstance than to face it head-on with courage and hard work. (It's easier to give the bare minimum to your child, and you don't even have to be in dire straits to do that.) Perhaps because self-sacrifice is brutally hard. Perhaps because we all have to battle our fear, addictions, selfishness, weakness, and pain, and so many people do not even know how to begin to fight because we live in a culture that says “Myself is all that matters and I should be able to do whatever I want.”

Our culture of contempt for such an utterly defenseless life as that of a child in the womb is a culture that creates poor parents, poor choices, and destructive futures.

One pro-abortion argument says that by eliminating the child, you save them from the harsh circumstances he or she may face. They weren't wanted anyway, right? But the truth is—partly because of a culture of abortion, those circumstances are still there. They just exist around a void where a life once was. And that void doesn’t make anything any better. Indeed it will lie in wait for the next child and the next and the next. It takes putting the cart before the horse to a whole new extreme: you are saying “kill the child so that they will not have to suffer this world” while thereby creating the very world of violence and disrespect for life that you claim you would shield them from. Abortion is the “cure” that viciously perpetuates the disease.

This is the poverty of logic that exists in the pro-abortion argument. It claims—mostly as a canned argument, not as a moral conviction—that you should worry first about the whole life of the child, while denying the strength and importance of where that life begins. It is a-linear and a-logical. You have to go to the foundation of life before you can even begin to speak about how it must subsequently look. You have to allow the child to live in order to then care about their life.

If you follow the rationale of the pro-abortion argument you have put human children on the level of humanely-raised livestock: give them nice conditions if you can, kill them when you must, otherwise divvy them up for parts for the good of society.

Honestly, do you think we have so many mass shooting simply because of the mere existence of means to kill people or is it also because we live in a culture where life is so casually and ruthlessly disregarded at its weakest and most vulnerable? A culture where we tell a woman with a unique role as guardian and cultivator of LIFE, that she has better things to do, and serpent-like, convince her to kill her charge and call it something else.

The tools of mass murder and mass shootings may be readily available, but we have actively cultivated an environment in which the use of those tools for meaningless deaths seems easy in the minds of more and more people. If you can kill a child in the womb, someone who is utterly dependent and utterly helpless, it is foolish to think that this will have no effect on the collective psyche. When you withdraw rights and humanity from the voiceless you are carefully sewing together the most ruthless and heartless society—and even worse—you are doing it under the guise of benevolence. You are calling good evil, and evil good.

In this the frequent pro-life comparison of abortion to slavery in the U.S. are very, very apt; it uses biased pseudo-science (ignoring actual science), cultural conditioning, economic entrenchment, media, jargon, and nebulous phrases of ‘benevolence’ to justify the dehumanization of a large group for the benefit, succor, comfort, and convenience of those in possession of greater social power.

So why do pro-lifers appear to talk more loudly about protecting children in the womb than any subsequent needs, if they care so much about both?

Because when you live in a culture where a child has the right to live in the first place, you have a far better platform from which to encourage and assist the future of that child. You can care just as deeply about the child coming of age, as coming out of the womb, but you have to start at the beginning and work from there.

We were once a rational society. No more. The idea of beginning at the beginning seems to be out of vogue. Everyone wants to start their argument at the point of their own fancy, their own need or preference, rather than by reason. In this way, you will find yourself working very hard to keep up with the times, ever moving the markers of what lives are “valuable.” We keep wondering why we see such callousness towards life—especially towards the lives of those who already struggle, who are already at a disadvantage—well if you wonder, this is why. You cannot value that which has been dismissed at the outset.

You cannot expect human kindness writ large, if you dismiss that which is humanity writ small.

We are becoming the ‘men without chests’ of which Lewis spoke in his book ‘The Abolition of Man.’

“And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamor for those very qualities we are rendering impossible…In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

I would add, we claim the right to kill the defenseless, and wonder why there is so much heartless violence in our world.

As a last point, it is foolish to scoff and be dismissive when someone draws the connection between abortion and eugenics. The disproportionate effect of abortion culture on minority communities shows that the racist factor of eugenics is alive an well. Sex-selection abortions shows that the misogyny of eugenics is alive and well. Screenings for various diseases and syndromes—so that you can have the option of aborting a down syndrome or otherwise ‘undesirable’ child who might be more difficult to care for—show that the Hitler-like eugenic contempt for those who are weak or disabled is alive and hideously well.

People wonder how a whole society allowed such a thing as the Holocaust. This is how. They were told it was their right. They were told it would make them stronger, richer, freer, safer. They were told it was for the good of society. And everyone agreed not to think about the gritty details of what all that ended up looking like.

Caricature, propaganda, normalization. Frogs sitting ignorant in boiling water. We’ve been boiling so long, we’re all but disintegrated.*

*I say we often in this piece. I am obviously pro-life, but when I am speaking about the darkest sins in our human nature I usually say we, even if I am talking of something I fiercely oppose. Because we are all fallen short of the Glory of God, and because this is the culture we live in.

28 October 2015

Teacher, Stagehand, Coach

When I was in the Marine Corps I was a linguist. It’s a job that takes a lot of training, even at its most basic level, because you have to learn the language first in addition to everything else. Indeed the entire field in which I worked was one that required considerable training and technical knowledge. It took two years from the day I left home for boot camp to the day I finally finished all my training schools and arrived at my first real duty station. And, while all that training was important, I didn’t really learn my job until I was doing it on deployment in Iraq. I was probably in my best working condition around the time my second deployment was winding down and I was getting ready to finish out my time of service.

Which is kind of a pity, if you think about it. I was a well-trained operator and I was getting really good at my job, and then I was gone. (There’s a reason I had to sign up for a five-year enlistment instead of a four-year one).

All this to say, I have a distinct memory of one of the Sergeants or Staff NCOs saying something to me that I have never forgotten, despite having forgotten who it was that said it:

He said, “I would take one excellent teacher over a dozen excellent operators.”

I remembered feeling a little suspicious about this at the time because I felt as though I excelled in my field, and his comment seemed to make that unimportant. To make me unimportant, as a mere ‘do-er’ rather than a ‘teacher.’

But he was so very right, especially in that context. I still struggle with the pride that wants to be a center-stage do-er rather than the guide to help someone else do something, but I’m a mom now, so I am being forced to wrestle with this fact and this role.

The reason he wanted a good teacher over a good worker or specialist (and this applies regardless of profession) is because the teacher makes good workers. If you’re a skilled linguist, you do good work and then you finish your service, retire, or move on. Good teachers are a fountain that brings forth more and more people who are good at their job. Rather than being an excellent product, they are an excellence factory.

The other day my husband was telling me that a certain—very intense—military training course is now going to be stocked with the best-skilled in that field, whereas before they often sent their problem children to get them out of the way. They finally realized that if you send your ‘problem children’ to teach, you get poor results. Instead of amplified positive, you get amplified negative. Seems obvious, but it isn’t because you have to take a hit by sending your best away from the job.

The thing is, going to be a teacher isn’t what most of these guys want to do. It isn’t what I ever wanted to do. We want to be in the action, doing the work we trained to do…we want to be the product not the producer. Ironically, for a lot of these guys, being really good at what they do may bar them from getting to do it, because they need to train others to be like they are. And they probably don’t want to. They’d rather stay ‘in the field.’

Military setting aside, it’s what nearly all of us want to do. We don’t want to be on the sidelines coaching the game, we want to be in the game. It’s kind of a trope, isn’t it? The player gets injured or something bad happens, so he’s forced to teach instead of do, right? And everybody feels bad for him, even though he inspires everyone else towards success. There’s a definite loss there.  A sadness. A pain in giving up the thing you really wanted to do in order to help others do it.

Regarded differently, it’s a pain in giving up the spotlight. It’s the pain of humility.

Since becoming a mom I realized that I had bought into one of the worst and strangest cultural lies that we have: that being a mom is ‘mere.’ “She’s just a mom.” “Oh she was so talented, she could have done so much, but then she just had a bunch of kids instead.” “Wasted potential.” “Stereotypical soccer mom.” “1950’s Stepford wife.”

I just finished watching an episode of Gilmore Girls which shows a crop of look-alike, blonde, be-sweatered mean-moms antagonizing Lorelei for talking to their children about her teen pregnancy. It is repeatedly emphasized that Lorelei (our protagonist) can’t be bothered to remember their names, much less tell them apart. It is strongly implied that they are all narrow and dull, whereas Lorelei is the unique exception to this mom-rule.

Love the show, but Lorelei is a jerk sometimes!

We give lip-service to motherhood, and people appreciate their own moms, but at a deep level, there seems to be a fierce cultural dissatisfaction with this role of bringing children up in the way they should go. It’s hard. It’s exhausting. It’s domestic (ah, how we’ve learned to fear that word. At least, I always have). There’s no glory, and the adventures, while not necessarily lacking, are confined to what you can do with a baby strapped to your back or toddling at your side.

I think our culture has such a strange duality about this: “Mothers are lovely and we are all so grateful for them. I wouldn’t want to be one—I have more important things to do with my life—but aren’t they quite nice to admire from a comfortable distance?”

Motherhood lacks so many things that we associate with importance and value: public recognition, financial gain, political influence, prestige, awards, titles, and the chance to ‘go down in history.’ And it has so many things we dislike: exhaustion, prosaicness, restrictions, a small sphere, and continual sacrifice. (Ask my mom, mother of 6 adult children: the job does not end when they leave the house. They call you. They ask your advice. They want you to come visit for a weekend and watch the baby so that you and your husband can run a half-marathon. Thanks mom and dad, by the way!)

I do know a number of women (now moms) who wanted to be moms since they were very little, and I deeply respect this and am grateful for them. They saw something in motherhood that I was too busy or self-centered to see. I wanted to be “great” in the eyes of our culture, heroic and adventurous, untethered and a little bit dangerous. I wanted to be, and be seen as, clever and strong and wild.

Like this.

Zoe Washburne, from Firefly. Battle-ready.

Or this.


 But wild is not usually the first word that jumps to one’s lips when thinking about being a mom. Shamefully, I have resented not being the image of myself that I cultivated and idolized. But, of course, that is the key word. Idol. And those things have to be smashed to pieces before we can really be anything at all.

Slowly (SO VERY SLOWLY) I am coming to understand what that fellow Marine said to me all that while ago. Someone may be a math genius. Someone else may have some world-changing skill. And that is wonderful and God-given, for certain. But if you’re a good teacher (one of the key facets of motherhood) and are bringing up godly, compassionate, hard-working, loving, strong, wise children, then what you have to offer is, by the grace of God, being amplified and scattered like seed on good ground.

I am indicted by two of my all-time favorite authors, both speaking of motherhood:

"The homemaker has the ultimate career. All other careers exist for one purpose only--and that is to support the ultimate career."
-C.S. Lewis

"Why be something to everyone when you can be everything to someone?"
-G.K. Chesterton

I see these quotes and nod with my head, and agree with my intellect, knowing how desperately grateful I am for my parents or for anyone who does the hard, quiet thing. But my pride bucks and kicks. My heart shrinks at the perceived “smallness” of the task, even though it isn’t small. It is hard to confess, but it isn’t what I wanted or imagined. It doesn’t look like all the guts and glory I planned for myself. I spoke about this in a recent post on dying to yourself, and I don’t know how many times or from how many angles I’ll have to preach it to myself before I really learn—really understand—what dying to yourself actually means.

There are so many ways God teaches this to us, but I must say that motherhood is an astoundingly rigorous and unique school for it. Thus I am a student of Christ, and a teacher of his children and--rather than imbibing the culture’s slow, subtle devaluing of it all--I need to open my eyes see that for the beautiful thing that it is.

17 October 2015

Like a Child

It seems I am commonly discovering brilliant maxims only to find they have all been discovered before. But I am slow to learn in this way: I do not understand a proverb, be it the most painfully obvious one in the world, until I have lived it.

One of my all-time favorite episodes of television is a particular Community episode entitled “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples.” It is hilarious and actually quite beautiful. I could rave about it for pages, but I won’t, I’ll just set the scene for you:

Shirley—baker, mother, Christian—decides she wants help making a YouTube video with a Christian message because “there’s no light there for the kids.” So she asks Abed—an aspiring film-maker who is implied to have Asperger’s—to help her make one. At first he declines: “As a Muslim, I’d be happy to. As a filmmaker? No way. I’m a storyteller, not a preacher.”

But later he comes back, looking very excited, and says he’ll do it. Why? He just read the whole New Testament in one night. I should remind you that this is a completely, 100% secular show, so it would be understandable to expect a swift lampooning of Christianity via cheap parody, and nothing more. But this is also a clever show, so it does better than that. Abed states that “Being raised on TV and movies I always thought that Jesus just walked on water and told people not to have abortions, but it’s so much cooler than that. He was like ET, Edward Scissorhands and Marty McFly combined!”

This episode is SO GOOD.

He could just as easily have said Neo or Batman in the Dark Knight or a hundred other characters, but that’s beside the point. What’s fascinating here is that Abed is seeing the story of Jesus for the first time. All he knows is a cultural caricature, but when he reads the original, it is fresh, new, bizarre, and enticing to him. Like when the book is better than the badly interpreted movie, or when you have heard about someone, but you finally meet them face-to-face and you are far more impressed with the truth than the rumor.

Abed, as a storyteller, decides that the story of Jesus is worth his artistic eye. He decides this as someone outside of and indifferent to the Christian faith.

I confess to feeling a faint, weird jealousy at this perspective. Abed, in this context, sees the gospel with the wide, hungry eyes of someone reading a thrilling novel. Never mind chapter and verse references, concordance checks, etc…Abed sees a story about an unlikely hero who speaks in riddles and whom everyone is trying to kill all the time because he threatens to upset the status quo. Meanwhile, he’s secretly a king who dies for his cause.

See, I always thought “become like little children” meant having childlike faith—believing easily and wholeheartedly—which I suppose it does. But now I am thinking there is a whole other facet to that. ‘Like a child’ means “encountering something for the very first time.” Fresh eyes. Curiosity. A willingness to be awed. A quieting of the mind and a heightening of enjoyment.

I experience this in small ways when reading a book of the Bible that I haven’t gotten to in a very long time. I’m surprised by something I didn’t remember or simply wasn’t paying attention to last go ‘round. But imagine not ever having heard the gospel, not ever having read the Bible, or—taking it a step further from Abed—not even having gleaned atmospheric or memetic ‘Christianity’ from the culture. What would that be like?

Also kids don’t just see things with fresh eyes. When they find something they love, they cannot get enough of it. My nieces and nephews would watch the same new movie a dozen times in two days (the rental period, obviously) if their parents let them. When I was a kid I could read the same beloved book over and over and over. Now my mind is jumpity, distractible, and a little skeptical. To my great shame, I find that I would often rather read a clever, critical, or sarcastic debunking of a book than give the book a chance to speak for itself, with fresh eyes and no preconceived notions. I’m especially prone to do this if I already suspect the book is full of things I don’t like/disagree with.

And this is what our society has done towards Christianity and the Bible. Delicious mockery and deft debunking, without really sitting down and viewing the source material with a clear and neutral eye. In Western society in particular, there are no neutral eyes towards the Bible. Everyone is approaching the faith neither as a child, with new wonder, nor as an adult, with mature and distant insight, but (forgive me, O youth) as teenagers, with bucking and rebellion against that which is familiar but not well understood.

In this way, those who approach Christianity and the Bible as wholly foreign objects are far likelier to see them for what they really are than disaffected evangelicals, shrugging agnostics, or those who really like the idea of having a faith, but keep walking a little further and further away from it for the sake of their comfort and preference, too afraid to let it go, too afraid to embrace the faith in all its holy fire. Lukewarm. They want to keep it in the corner of their eye while they inch away from it, because it makes them feel better. They daren’t walk far enough to see it from—shall we say—a non-reactionary distance. Indeed, steeped in Western culture, I don't think you can get that distance. Wherever we run, it will always be reactionary.

G.K. Chesterton puts it best in this (slightly condensed) quote from the intro to The Everlasting Man:

“There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place…the next best thing to being really inside Christendom is to be really outside it. And a particular point of it is that the popular critics of Christianity are not really outside it. They are on a debatable ground, in every sense of the term. They are doubtful in their very doubts.”

“It is well with the boy when he lives on his father's land; and well with him again when he is far enough from it to look back on it and see it as a whole. But these people have got into an intermediate state, have fallen into an intervening valley from which they can see neither the heights beyond them nor the heights behind. They cannot get out of the penumbra of Christian controversy. They cannot be Christians and they can not leave off being Anti-Christians. Their whole atmosphere is the atmosphere of a reaction: sulks, perversity, petty criticism. They still live in the shadow of the faith and have lost the light of the faith.”

“Now the best relation to our spiritual home is to be near enough to love it. But the next best is to be far enough away not to hate it. It is the contention of these pages that while the best judge of Christianity is a Christian, the next best judge would be something more like a Confucian.”


This is what troubles me with the current cultural milieu. So many of us are neither close enough to love, nor far away enough not to hate. So we end up with many people attempting to remodel Christianity, gutting it like a house not built quite to their taste, because they are under both the shadow of the faith (losing the light) and the shadow of secular disdain for the faith. This naturally comes with the territory of a piecemeal, yo-yo-ing journey away from faith. Those who depart try to make the faith into something that looks right in their own eyes from that doubtful middle distance, distorting it in many ways.

Then there are those who completely abandon the faith but are still like teenagers reacting against their parents in the way that they talk about God, the Bible, and Faith. Anger, frustration, and contempt.

And we have a culture that thinks that it knows what Christianity is, but doesn’t. They think they know who Jesus is, but most really don’t. That is something that takes daily effort, and all you have, and a willingness to give up anything that stands in the way of you going home again.

I do not think Chesterton was advising anyone to give up the faith and walk as far away as you can, just to come back around…but it may be better than sidestepping to that intervening valley he spoke of and losing the truth by inches—death by a thousand cuts—so that you don’t even notice it has happened, and you don’t even know where you are anymore, and you don’t even know how to get back because you have distorted the very meaning of home in your own mind.

Best that we stay home in Christ, but that we pray for the eyes of a child. To see him afresh as savior and King, story-teller and revolutionary, hero and martyr, truth and way, bread and wine, flesh and blood, light and fire, resurrection and life. A blazing, thrilling story, and an unconquerable fact.

I want to become like a little child, for my heart to be circumcised, and to be made new, so that I can rest in Christ, but still have the of giddy wonder of seeing every fiery truth for the very first time.