Friday, August 26, 2011

Drawing Lines

I came home from work the other day to a strange happening. The TV was on.

My daughter, home for the summer from her teaching job in the Republic of Georgia, was watching it.  Adding to the strangeness of the TV being on in the middle of the afternoon, was the fact that it was tuned not to PBS, or a movie on DVD, but to a network television program.  It took a minute of me standing dumbly for this to sink in. And then there was this: Tyra Banks who, as I recall, used to be a Victoria's Secret model, now has a talk show - like Oprah, except not.  It has that sort of  "Listen up girlfriend" tone, but without the mellowing that age and experience can bring.  It only took about 20 minutes of second-hand exposure to get the strong impression that original talk show topics have become as rare as original Cosmo and Parents' Magazine topics.

Anyway, Tyra looks as  gorgeous as ever and keeps a good chat going.

That day's topic was something like: "Extreme Fake-Beauty Practices (not including plastic surgery)".  What I gleaned from it as I went about the house tidying up and only half-watching was that lots of people do lots of things related to their looks that their friends and/or family members think go too far.  One guest appeared on stage to report that her sister had too many "weaves" and wigs - over 50 - and that she's let bills go unpaid at times so that she could spend the money on more hair.  She'd even lost a job as some kind of driver because she spent all her time fussing with her hair in the mirror instead of looking at the road.

Another gal had a sister (or friend; I don't remember) who had fake nails that were really long.  But what really got her goat was that this sister/friend also had fake toenails, also super long, which she thought looked "ghetto". They curved over the tips of her sandals.

Then there was a gal who stuffed her bra like crazy, and another whose mother wanted to confront her teenage daughter, on national television mind you, about how she wore too much make up.

If you've gotten this far, you're probably beginning to wonder what on earth I'm getting to.  I know I am.  I could go on about how TV has a lot of vapid programming, but I'm pretty sure no one reading this needs me to point that out.  And, yes, I thought the topic for the show was a reach, but that wasn't really what bit me. Nor was it the creepy-long toenails, or the obsessive hair collector, or the dark, voyeuristic feel I got from the whole thing.  What got to me was that the sister of the wig-lady showed up wearing a weave with fake bangs, and the mother of the make-up girl looked preternaturally young, and was heavily groomed and made up herself.

And there was Tyra. When Hair Collector made her appearance and reported on her wigs and all the extremes they have led her to in life, Tyra says words to the effect of, " I don't even have that many!"  When Make-Up Daughter, who, by the way, is a very talented make-up artist, admits that it takes an hour and a half to two hours to do her make-up for the day, Tyra announces, "I don't even take that long to get ready for a runway show!"  When, after her intervention (and apparently an off-camera bust-line makeover), Bra-Stuff gal is brought out wearing a normal, un-stuffed bra, Tyra goes on to point out how nicely the new flattering uplifting bra,  v-neck shirt, and MAKE-UP enhancing the illusion of cleavage, looks even better than a stuffed bra.  The implication being: my breast enhancement method is superior to and less silly than yours.

If it were satire it couldn't have been written better.  The unintended ironies were glaring and the absurdities apparently unnoticed.

But, I'm not here to mock Tyra. I have no right, because I do the same thing.  I don't do it on television, or even out loud - usually.  But I do it in my head.  Tyra's program merely led me to reflect on how decidedly blind I and my fellow humans can be to our own inconsistencies, and to the movable feast we make of our morality.  The only difference between Tyra and the people being confronted for their extreme behaviors was a matter of degree.  Tyra's line for others is drawn somewhere very near where Tyra draws it for herself.  Behavior which crosses that line is  behavior gone too far.  The guests had their lines. The audience had theirs.  I have mine. And the voice of my conscience whispers:
"Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things." (Rom. 2:1)
A pastor friend recently related a story about a Christian university that requires incoming students to swear in writing in no less than four places that they will not consume any alcoholic beverage in any form for the duration of their enrollment. This same document made no mention in any place about the use of tobacco.  (At this point it would help to mention that this educational institution is located south of the Mason-Dixon Line - tobacco country.)  Nor was there any mention of gluttony, which in Scripture tends to be paired with the sin of drunkenness. This school's policy, my friend remarked, is less a representation of Biblical values than it is a "cultural relic".  It reflects the mores of a certain place and time - the moral line drawn in the sand by a particular society.  The Scripture, on the one hand, does not forbid the use of alcohol for Christians. It draws the line at drunkenness, and gluttony. This school judges those who consume any alcoholic beverages at all as unfit for admittance, drawing a line where there should have been none.  On the other hand it permits gluttony, erasing a line.

Here in the State of California (wine and granola country) it is far less acceptable to use tobacco than it is to drink beer or wine, and gluttony (as evidenced by obesity) is heavily frowned upon.  That societal standard is echoed to some extent in the church. I know from experience that Christian colleges here are as likely to forbid smoking as drinking and that smokers and over-weight people are likely to be frowned upon in a way that a person who admits to moderate drinking is not. 

And so, this line-drawing is something organizations and societies do as well as individuals. In my experience it is as common among Christians as it is among those of other faiths, and the irreligious.  I think it would be fair to say that it is human nature.  I see it as an action of that thing we call conscience, that internal judge which compares our, words, and deeds, and even our thoughts, with the law written on our hearts, and which seeks either to excuse or condemn us.  Our hearts tell us some things are right and some wrong.  When we are at our best we draw our lines as our conscience dictates and respect those lines.  When society operates well, it draws its lines reasonably and people honor them.  But sometimes we find that something so desirable stands on the other side of that line that we feel we must cross it. And when we do we must deal with that voice of conscience. We will shout down, or sweet-talk, or whatever it takes to get it's permission. We reason with it, explaining why it really isn't so bad. We negotiate with it, promising it'll be just this once. We tell ourselves we deserve that thing, remembering how hard we've  worked and how good we've been. We look at what others are doing, explaining that it's normal and safe, or else point out how much worse others are, how far they've gone compared to what we're contemplating. Then we draw our new line.  We feel better. We still have a line; it's a new one; it's out a bit farther than the old one, but not as far out as it could be. And this is where having others to compare ourselves to comes in so handy.  As long as there are others "worse" than us, we can still feel okay about ourselves. Judging others serves us. It bumps us up a notch in our own esteem. We are okay. We're not like them. They've gone way past the line.  Maybe we can even reach out and help them and feel even better about ourselves (maybe even on national television).

I believe that this drawing and re-drawing of lines to suit our own preferred moralities at any given place and time is what Christ is referring to when He says, "Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you." (Mt. 7:1-2) and when Paul says, "...you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things." (Rom.2:1) Every time we draw a line, for whoever, and for whatever reason (pride, fear, superiority, control, guilt), in the shifting sands of our hearts we become subject  to it.  And each time circumstances - good or bad - or temptations lead us to step over a line we've drawn our conscience is damaged. We can try to erase the old line and forget, but one new line drawn leads to another until the scars of them toughen leaving our hearts hard and bitter, our minds too dull to notice, and our recollection foggy as to how we got this way. And we become the joke Jesus told about a man with a log stuck in his eye offering to pull a speck out of his friend's eye,

So what are we to do?  How can we prevent the amorphous hypocrisy of the moveable feast if we don't draw some lines, and how are we to know we've drawn the right lines in the right places?   Anarchy, whether in a society or in an individual heart, is a great horror.  We all know, deep down, that without some boundaries we'll run amock. So we instinctively put up our barriers, some trivial and some with the power of life an death. We draw our lines here and there, to keep our world, even in the tiniest ways from sinking further into the intolerable, into ever-longer toenails, into more and more make-up, into more and more alcohol consumption, into a tackier, uglier, meaner, more vulgar, violent, and uncertain world. We reach into our own hearts and look around us for help, for indicators as to where to draw the lines. There are a world of messages, all mixed.  In one place we are told to "follow your heart", and in another that if you follow your heart you'll land yourself in a hospital or in jail, and in another that you'll answer to God's judgment.

Which brings me around to the Bible. As a Christian, I've been told all my life that the Bible is the place to go to learn from God how and where to draw your lines, and that if everyone would just learn God's laws and obey them we would have peace and blessing.  In fact, it feels like lately I've been hearing more of this kind of talk than ever.  "If only we could get America to enact and enforce God's laws He would bless us and we could get out of the mess we're in."  (By "God's Law" folks usually have in mind some modified use of the Mosaic Law.) As a Christian, letting God draw the lines sounds at first like a good idea, but when I think it through I run into a huge problem. God's law is far more exacting and detailed than the law written on the average heart.  Even the Apostle Paul admits that he would never have known coveting was a sin if the Mosaic Law had not told him.  And then there are the Jews to consider.  They were a nation which had God's Law, and consider what the Apostle Paul has to say about that:
"...Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:
'None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.  Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood, in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. Their is no fear of God before their eyes.'
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that ever mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin." (Rom. 3: 9-20 emphasis mine) 
If no single human being can be found just in the eyes of God through the keeping of the law, then no nation can either.  God's law was not given to keep people from facing God's judgment.  On the contrary, the law, whether it be the Mosaic Law or the one written in our hearts serves to reveal our sin, and to hold us all accountable.

Sin is the great equalizer. We are each wretched in our own way.  This is why there is no true hope or comfort to be found in judging others or measuring ourselves against them. But this need not be the bleak and hopeless observation it sounds like. Rather, it is the first baby-step toward true freedom and hope. We don't need to look to each other any more, either to judge or to compare. We don't need to labor any more to observe God's law in hopes of saving ourselves. Once we've reached this understanding, God's law has done it's work: it has pointed us to Christ.
"But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it - the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith." Rom. 3:21-25
We are all in the same boat. We are all sinners. None of us live our lives purely to the glory of God, in whose image we are created.  Few of us really even try. I am not better because I don't have wigs, or don't stuff my bra, or don't grow long toenails. I'm really not. Those people whose behavior I find extreme are not worse sinners than I am (especially not when I'm sitting in judgment over them).  I suspect that if Christ walked onto the set of Tyra's show, toenails would be the least of His concerns, and everyone else's. Christ doesn't look at outward appearances. Faced with the God who can look straight into our hearts and see all the lines we've crossed there, toenails fade in significance. Gazing into the face of  Christ I, too, can look past toenails, make-up, bras, plastic surgeries, crass behaviors, alternative life-styles, and more to see hearts just like mine, hearts that don't need new lines drawn but do need a Savior just like mine.

"Blessed are those whose lawless
deeds are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered;
blessed is the man against whom
the Lord will not count his sin." 
(Rom. 4:7-8)

Thank God Christ came to save sinners, because we are all sinners!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Born this Way - a little monster

Lady Gaga is an extreme talent, a driving personality, a dynamo of culture, and a force of nature.  She is not only a singer but a performance artist, a theatrical diva. Those who dismiss her as a knock-off of Madonna not only over-rate Madonna but miss the point. While Madonna, at Gaga's age, was the "Material Girl", Gaga, at 25 is out to change the world.  Paul and I are both fascinated by her.

Photo courtesy Softpedia
Her latest hit, Born This Way appears both designed and destined to be an anthem for the disenfranchised, the discarded, the downtrodden of our society.  Beginning with words from a mother to her trepid little girl, it aches with passionate love and compassion.  It fights to strengthen the heart of the child and fill it full with her own hope for her future. Gaga, almost nun-like in her devotion to career and mission, having no marriage, and no children of her own, reaches out with an aching maternal heart to embrace a world of marginalized souls. These people, who've sensed from their earliest years for whatever reason - be it race, appearance, sexual feelings, disability, or personality quirks - that they are odd ducks and misfits, are her children, her "little monsters" as she calls them, and she means to give them all the love, hope, acceptance, and encouragement they so desperately need. She is their fierce and devoted mother, and this is her song to them.

My mama told me when I was young
We are all born superstars
She rolled my hair and put my lipstick on
In the glass of her boudoir

"There's nothin' wrong with lovin' who you are"
She said, "'Cause He made you perfect, babe"
"So hold your head up, girl and you you'll go far,
Listen to me when I say"

I'm beautiful in my way
'Cause God makes no mistakes
I'm on the right track baby
I was born this way

Don't hide yourself in regret
Just love yourself and you're set
I'm on the right track baby
I was born this way

Ooo there ain't no other way
Baby I was born this way...

To misfits like Paul and I, this song strums a deep chord. We understand what she is trying to do, and we feel the love behind it. She doesn't want anyone to know the pain of the outcast. Neither do we. Neither do I.

I've been a homely and misfit little girl. I am a mother. And so the pain of both resonates with me. Through those rents in my heart I can touch, even if only slightly, the pain of all the outcasts of this world, and of those who truly love them. I feel immediate comfort and relief in being acknowledged and valued by the Lady. I welcome her words with a hungry heart...so far as I can believe them.

I believe, as my Bible tells me, that every human life is created in the image of God. Experience, too, leads me to agree that every human life comes with its own singular beauty, its imprints of the divine. In my own case, those imprints can be seen in my creativity, intelligence, love of truth, capacity for compassion, and, possibly most notably in my conscience, which informs me, whether I want it to or not, of when I'm doing wrong - when I am cruel, unkind, or unloving, when I've cheapened the image of God in  another, or in myself. (See Romans 2:14-16.)

It is true that God makes no mistakes. I believe that with all my heart. I was created in the likeness of God, but I am not God. I do make mistakes, and some of the terrible things I've done were no mistakes at all. And I know I'm not alone in this.  Life, in the many cruelties I've witnessed, been subjected to, and committed myself, has convinced me of the truth of these words, "...all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23).

By all accounts, I was angry from my earliest days.  My mother blames the hospital, which would not feed me when I was hungry, but only on their schedule, even if I had thrown up every meal, which is reportedly what I did. Whether that is the cause or not I cannot say for sure.  All I know is that my earliest childhood memories are shrouded in rage. Every ounce of love I felt was cancelled out by an ounce of anger or hatred. One of my earliest memories is of finding a kitten and trying to pick it up, to hold and pet it. It hissed and squirmed and scratched. Enraged, I tried to strangle it. I'd nearly killed it before I suddenly realized what I was doing. Horrified, I stopped. From that day forward I knew something. I was a little monster.  I could kill.  I was terrified. I buried my secret deep and did my best to build walls around it. I could never let it out, never embrace it, never dare feed or nurture it.

I was born this way....or you might argue that I wasn't:  it wasn't nature; it was nurture. But, I ask, what is the difference if the end result is the same?  I cannot undo it or change it, and I certainly cannot celebrate it.

In the official music video for Born this Way, a stunning work of art that is too dark in its themes and too disturbing and graphic in its violent birth imagery for me to feature here.  Lady Gaga begins by telling a tale, a myth really, a sort of theodicy.  She tells of the Mother Monster giving birth in a "government-owned alien territory in space". It's an infinite birth, to a "race within the race of humanity". This race "bears no prejudice, no judgment, but boundless freedom." But on the same day as this wonderful birth came another, terrible birth: the birth of evil. The force of these two births split the mother in two and "rotating in agony between two ultimate forces the Pendulum of Choice began its dance. It seems easy, you imagine, to gravitate instantly and unwaveringly towards good. But she wondered, 'How can I protect something so perfect without evil?"  In this creation account, evil is necessary as a defender of good.

Perhaps, were Gaga's myth true, she would have to argue that the misfit that is Me is not a part of this special race of humanity.  Because in my life, the evil monster has never had the slightest interest in protecting the likeness of God in me. In fact, it has done all in its power to destroy or deface it.  The monster in me is a narcissist and lives to make excuses for itself. It does not respect my conscience; it tells me to ignore it. It tells me to make excuses for my behaviors, that I don't need to change. It encourages me to shift the blame for my actions to others. It tells me all my desires are good, and leads me to view my fellow humans as means to my own pleasures and gain, or to resent them as obstacles to my happiness, or to just ignore them as irrelevant to my needs. This is the character of my monster. This is the character I was born with. The only time it protects or celebrates what is good and noble, is when it is to its advantage, so it can puff up with pride and self-righteous superiority.

In reality, it is only the good in me, the law of God written on my heart, which gave me my earliest glimpses of myself as I really am. It is the good in me which all of my life has led me in my feeble efforts to silence my monster.  But the truth is, my monster does not wish to be silenced, so in the many years of my life it has altered its form. It's mellowed with age. It's grown wiser. It's found ways of self-expression which are more societally acceptable. My monster hears the words of  Born this Way and whispers, "Yes, let me out! Celebrate me! I'm nicer now. I'm wiser. I won't hurt you or anybody else anymore. I've reformed."  Self-deception is what enabled me to look myself in the mirror each morning for forty dark years. My monster is a liar.

I agree with Lady Gaga that God makes no mistakes, and that He made me. But I will never blame Him for the evil in me, or try to re-label my evil as good. Changing the words will not change my heart. And a new heart is what I really need.  I cannot accept any message of hope that does not first acknowledge that there is something really wrong with me. You cannot tell the little girl strangling a kitten that there is nothing wrong with her. She KNOWS something is wrong, and she is terrified.  Accepting the condition will not change it.  Self-acceptance and morality-shifting may at times provide temporary relief, but they will ultimately fail to provide lasting peace or happiness.

Embracing the monster does not make it any less a monster. Neither does trying to make it behave. I know this from a lifetime of trying.  My mother tried to subdue it. Society tried to subdue it. Religious legalism tried to subdue it.  I tried to subdue it.  All these efforts met with some success.  I've never been as bad as I could have been. But the monster lived on, getting away with whatever it thought would not rain too much trouble down on its head. I didn't need the monster tamed, I needed it dead.

One of the things I've learned from contemplating Born this Way, is that Lady Gaga's aspirations are little different than those of the religious fundamentalism she appears to be reacting against.  Both seek theonomy: "the state of an individual or society that regards its own nature and norms as being in accord with the divine nature."  Both believe peace belongs to the person or society that achieves it.  Both think morality is the key to being in accord with the divine nature.  Lady Gaga believes that morality is defined by the individual, who is already perfect by virtue of creation. And so the key to peace and happiness is found in accepting oneself and one's morality, and everyone else's as well, because that is the divine nature. The religious fundamentalist believes that the key to individual and societal peace is obedience to a single standard of morality (which standard, ironically, will differ depending upon the particular religion and interpretation of it).  Unfortunately, both are wrong. The monster is too deadly to embrace, and cannot be tamed. Morality is not the key to personal or societal peace. This is why Lady Gaga's kind and well intentioned words provide only limited comfort. (It's hard to resist someone who defends you so fiercely and accepts you so unconditionally as Gaga does, and therein lies the root of the devotion of her fans.) My condition is dire and has been from Day One. I'm not the person God made me to be. I've always known it. The law of God written on my heart testifies to it.  I've done so much wrong in my life. Yes, there were often extenuating circumstances, and I was not the only guilty party.  Ultimately, though, I have no one to blame but myself for my own decisions, my own actions, and my own attitudes.  There is no hope for me in any message that does not acknowledge that plain truth, or in any message that tells me everything will be better if I will only resolve to do right from now on. And this is at the heart of why I am a Christian.

In Christ, justice and mercy kiss each other because Christ is both "just and the justifier of the one who has faith" in Him. (See Rom. 3:26) The perfect God, whose standards of perfect love I've violated my whole life, loves me. (He loves you, too.) Christ, who knows my sins better than I do, and knows that I can not and will not change of my own accord, died the death that was meant for me and took the monster, and my guilt to the grave with Him. He rose from death by the power of God, and now by the same power gives new life to me and to everyone who puts their confidence in Him.  He came to save sinners and I am so glad - because I am a sinner!

The video below is Lady Gaga's live performance of Born this Way at the Grammys.  I would give it an R rating. Viewer discretion is advised.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Intermezzo

Well friends, instead of the refreshed and renewed energy I was hoping for after my recent vacation, I'm still working through my first serious bout of writer's block and hoping to have something to offer here in a day or two. In the meantime, however, as if sensing my need to write more lightly, to get the juices flowing, my husband suddenly erupted with a concept for another joint-blogging project. It is about as different as can be from anything I do here, or what he and I have done on our other joint-blog, but reflective as can be of the kind of thing Paul and I consider fun. I will say no more. If you are curious, I invite you to visit us here.