Who Still Talks of Idols?

Who Still Talks of Idols?

What is the one thing that occupies your thoughts? The one thing that you devote mental space and effort to each day? If you can’t name the top one, how about the top two or three?

What are we pre-occupied with? Our highest teachers have told us what the answers should be: spiritual growth (particularly for those of us who practice faith), showing kindness to our fellow man, or serving in our community, raising children well, or any other multitude of principles that benefit us or those around us in a long-term, meaningful way.

Those might be the answers we “should” give.

But the images and mantras most of us encounter on a daily basis inundate us with answers of their own. These messages pair two disparate things together–so persistently and so forcefully–that people have come to accept them, many times without even noticing. Fitness (apparently a sign of self-discipline and other virtues), wealth (happiness comes only to those with a luxury car and a big house), beauty (beautiful people are good people) are just a few of these messages.

So let me ask it again: what is the one thing (or two or three) that occupies your thoughts?

What I’m getting at is not a new idea. In fact, it’s a very old one. Biblical times old. Moses old.

“You shall have no other gods before Me.” Exodus 20:3 (NKJV)

To the people under Moses’ leadership, it meant don’t worship anything above God.

Not a golden calf.

Not the gold that made the calf.

It meant don’t rely on anything or anyone but God to save, or guarantee anything. Indeed, we mustn’t because we can’t.

Yes, yes, we know. Money doesn’t buy happiness. Lots of rich folks have great sorrows.

But what about if one is super popular and has lots of friends? That’s all we need, right? Good times with good friends? (Assuming, of course, that nobody every changes, there’s never any disagreement, nobody moves, everyone always lifts each other up, and everyone you want to be around is always instantly available.) So in other words, maybe not?

Ok, so what about if we are super healthy? Eat well, get enough sleep, exercise regularly? Healthy bodies means we’ll have a good long life, able to do everything we want or need to do. Ok, not a bad thing in and of itself. But doesn’t health mean tanned, toned bodies? Actually, no. But those are the images we’re urged to accept of health.

Where am I going with this? I’m asking you, simply–as I ask myself–to examine what we allow to occupy our minds and take up our precious time and energy. Our days and abilities are limited. Let’s make sure we’re laying them down at the feet of only the Worthy.

 

 

Home Takes Work

Home Takes Work

What does the word “home” mean to you? Is it the place you walk into, shut the door, and take refuge at the end of every day? Or the place you travel to a few times a year to see family or loved ones? Is it a treasured memory in a country far away?

The idea that there is someplace we’re fully able to belong, to relax: that’s home. But it doesn’t happen by itself.

Home takes work. It takes constant maintenance, and effort, particularly when there are children in our home and we are the adults loving and caring for them.

I don’t always appreciate that work and effort enough, or give it enough weight. I think of it as lesser work. But it’s important.

It’s important for giving our kids (and ourselves!) a place of refuge. Most parents strive to create homes for our children with memories that will hopefully give them a strong foundation, and joy, when they’ve long since left that home. It’s a place where a framework for their futures is built, and on which their values, their priorities, their abilities will be formed and then deepened.

So home is important. But for those of us who follow Christian teachings, home is not everything. It’s certainly not the biggest house we can buy, furnished with the nicest furnishings and the most up-to-date technology, clothes, etc. It is, rather, the place from which we launch, striving always to complete our mission, whatever form it takes, and the place to which we retreat when we need to rest and recharge.

As I type this, it is snowing outside, threatening to make a very long week go out on a yet more hectic note. And so rather than dwell on all the worries that tomorrow could bring, I think I will call it a night, grateful that the kids are all sheltered, warm, and sleeping, and safe, and give myself that same respite.

Heartland Discoveries

Heartland Discoveries

It is mid-January as I write this. A few weeks ago, over the kids’ winter break, we decided to take a road trip. We chose somewhere we could easily drive to in a day, for our youngest, not quite three, is at an age that any parent will tell you makes longer trips challenging. And it was, after all, supposed to be a vacation.

We didn’t go somewhere warm and balmy, or somewhere famous. Our country’s diversity of climate, geography, and culture is awe-inspiring, and so we had decided some time ago that we want to see more of it. We went to a city in a state most of us had never been to: St. Louis, Missouri. And we had a blast. We saw some of the sights they have there. We met up for lunch with an old college friend of mine and his spouse. We visited a couple more places (but not all, thanks to the government shut-down). And we hung out together.

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The famous Arch in St. Louis

Here’s what I learned about this place: like so many other parts of the country, there is a very urban/rural divide. We went through city neighborhoods where every other house had a Black Lives Matter sign in front (St. Louis is not far from Ferguson, MO). And we went through rural areas that looked very mid-America rural.

A lot of St. Louis’s most noteworthy buildings are the oldest of their kind west of the Mississippi River, which says a lot about the city’s significance as the country was expanding westward.

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(The picture on the left was taken inside the Basilica of St. Louis, King (aka the Old Cathedral), the oldest cathedral west of the Mississippi and, I must add, a beautiful building.)

For law and history lovers, the Old Courthouse in St. Louis is where the famous Dred Scott case was heard.

 

 

One building in particular, the City Museum, was recommended to us by everyone who had been to St. Louis, and we could see why. Its creator had quite the imagination, and managed to bring it to fruition impressively. The kids could have spent many more than the couple of hours we alloted there.

 

They could also have spent more time than we did at the Science Museum, which had some amazing displays and, notably, basic admission is free.

But the biggest take-away for me from this trip was that traveling with my family is fun. Famous or luxury destinations are definitely fun, but so is spending a few days away from the familiar and enjoying the journey together.

Now, as we settle back into winter hibernation and routine at home, I hope I can remember the little glimpses of my kids’ inner selves that I had the privilege of discovering, and the memories that my husband and I can add to our treasure box.

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P.S. Ten months have gone by since I last posted, and so if anyone was waiting for a blog post, I apologize for the delay. I wrote at least three drafts on other topics, and then for reasons I can’t remember, never posted them. It has been that kind of year: full of change that is welcome but with which I have barely kept up. The holidays are over and the weather encourages hibernation; maybe in this season I can finally pick up again my figurative pen, for it brings me joy.

Goodness small and pale

Goodness small and pale

This morning, my almost two-year old son, holding up his arms to me, nestled his head against my neck as soon as I picked him up. For a moment, I savored the sweetness and the peace. It was a simple moment, like one experienced by many souls past and present on this earth, and it was priceless.

But then the day flooded in. Syrian children and other innocent civilians being bombed to death, or starving underground in order to avoid being bombed. Angry and worried gun-owners insisting that we need guns to protect us against the bad guys. Oh, and parents who less than two weeks ago lost their teenagers–teenagers!–and somehow managed to contain their mourning enough to go and plead to their governments to act, for this is not the first massacre.

The world is full of evil. There is also good in the world. And innocence. The goodness and innocence, small and pale in a world that is always competing loudly for our attention, are easy to miss.

But maybe the evil is too. Not the evil that makes itself known in blood and flesh spattered across sidewalks and high school lockers as kids run screaming. Not the evil that threatens people with their lives, or brazenly steals from them. That is evil we all recognize for what it is.

But there is also the evil that whispers to our fears, fanning them. The evil that blinds us to the way our own thoughts are fueled by self-preservation. Or pride. The evil that steals our peace, our churning malcontent bruising those close to us.

For Christians, this is the season of Lent. In the Orthodox church, it is a season of close examination and testing of our spiritual state, of repentance and a drawing near to the Source of Life. It couldn’t have come at a better time for me. It is only by drawing near to God that I can regain my perspective. While I cannot eliminate evil from my world–none of us can–I can seek God’s wisdom in how to recognize it. How to respond to it. How to love even those who bruise us. I can ask Him for the sustenance that the world in all its wonder cannot give. I can ask for peace. And I can have faith that God will answer.

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Freedom

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Freedom

“What then is freedom?
The power to live as one wishes.”
–Marcus Tullius Cicero

The word “freedom” and its close corollaries (liberty, independence) are woven deep in the fabric of the United States. It is part of the water in which we swim without knowing it (apologies to the late David Foster Wallace and his commencement speech–worth the read). Not for us Americans is the omnipresent deference to one’s social group (family, cultural, religious, or geographic community, or nation even) that one finds in, for example, many near and far Eastern cultures. No, it is an individual’s right to live “free” that is so intrinsic in our culture that we don’t even question it. There is a reason that old Westerns are the most American of movies.

From whom or what is this freedom sought? From anyone or anything that obstructs us from living a life of our choosing, arguably, whether that be a societal or governmental force.

So who or what holds the power to grant or deny that freedom?

In Power Shift, author Alvin Toffler posits that traditional sources of power come from the use or potential use of one of three power sources: knowledge, money, and physical force. Governments, for example, can derive their power: from a military or police force whose potential use of physical force dictates what people can do; through knowledge its executive agencies possess that allows it to make decisions that private citizens cannot make, and to take actions based on them; and/or through the ability to incentivize or discourage certain behaviors through monetary awards.

Understanding of and receptiveness to an idea hinge upon how that idea is framed. So it is with freedom. Two different frameworks have evolved around the word “freedom” as it relates to our society and government in recent decades, such that now different segments of society use that word to advance two very different ideas. We can mostly agree that American freedom is the ability to live how you wish to live, choose who is a part of your life, etc.

But beyond that is a tension: freedom can mean the ability to live free from societal oppressions that plague some segments of our society more directly than others. Behind this is a recognition that the oppressive forces of racism, sexism, etc. limit the opportunities of and take away opportunities from those who are the objects of that prejudice. Those individuals, who on paper are just as entitled to the freedoms of every other American, are barred from not just opportunities, but from benefits that other citizens are allowed (red-lining is an easy example); in short, they are less free. Proponents of this idea of freedom advocate that we do not live in a free society until all members are equally free.

The second kind of freedom is framed as a lack of another type of restriction. It is freedom from governmental regulations, like, generally speaking, excessive taxes or overly stringent laws. Proponents of this type of freedom would give, as a recent example, the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act. This stance resists the idea that lawmakers, who often live elsewhere and don’t know the intimate details of their constituents’ lives, should make laws that limit what their constituents can and cannot do.

At first impression, there is an easy distinction between the two frameworks: the first is a proactive approach to create a society that strives for freedom for everyone by making sure every citizen has access to the same opportunities. (Whether they take advantage of those opportunities is another question.) The society it works towards is free from sociological ills; let’s call it Freedom through Social Equality.

The second framework focuses much more on the role of government. Its proponents may or may not accept that society is plagued by injustices, but either way, they do not want to see the government try to solve those problems. It is governmental overreach that proponents of this freedom resist; this framework will be called, for purposes of this essay, Freedom through Limited Government.

To demonstrate Freedom through Social Equality, allow me to give an example from my days of working on equal opportunity in employment. There are many challenges in hiring. It is very hard to predict how well a candidate will perform in the job and get along with other employees. Many employers use interviews to try to predict, but haven’t we all known someone who is terrible at interviews and so can’t get a job at which they’d excel if given the chance? (Or, conversely, people who interview really well but are sparse on actual skills, or work ethic?) This particular subset of work, equal opportunity, has to do with reversing hiring practices that intentionally and unintentionally favor some candidates while disadvantaging others. This is done through several ways: choosing words carefully for a job listing, soliciting applications in a certain way (mitigating complete reliance on the “ol’ boys’ network”), paying attention to interviewing techniques and even locations, using the same set of interview questions and ratings of the answers for all interviews, just to name a few.

On the macroscopic level, proponents of Freedom through Social Equality believe we as a society should likewise study how society disadvantages some while giving advantages to others, and then actively work to reverse those inequities. As the body which holds the power to regulate civic behavior, it is the role of government, such proponents believe, to implement this work.

And in fact, the government has regulated behavior through policy for decades, if not for the purpose of erasing inequalities, then at least for encouraging what our civic leaders believe are behaviors that benefit society. Our current tax system provides an easy demonstration: filing jointly is meant to benefit married couples. Why? Because our government decided that it would be good for society to encourage the stability that comes with marriage, so it gave a tax benefit to those who chose to make the commitment of marriage.

Then there’s Freedom through Limited Government, there are fundamental underlying assumptions through which proponents of this view see society. The first is that less restriction leads to more innovation and more prosperity. So markets will grow stronger with only basic and necessary regulation. Markets exist to make money. When regulation becomes excessive, organizations have a burden of compliance (through, for example, filing out report forms, providing training, or carrying out mandatory practices) that requires spending money and effort that could otherwise be spent on their core mission or on innovation.

Recently, market theories have been applied elsewhere in the public sphere: two that are on many people’s minds today are health care and education. Market theory says that if we leave these areas to compete, enterprising minds will come up with ways to make health care cheaper or offer stronger education systems. Currently, there are public options for education–and in very few places, specialized medicine beyond primary care–that anyone can access. Taken to its extreme, market theory would privatize both these services.

An underlying assumption behind market theory is that money is the main–or at the very least an important–motivator for behavior: everyone wants to earn money, and to pay less money for goods and services. But there are other powerful motivators for behavior. For people who hold a strong spiritual or even political ideological worldview, following those beliefs may be an even stronger motivator than money. Proponents of Freedom through Limited Government, I would argue, can hold different worldviews (there are pure market capitalists, deeply religious people, pure libertarians, etc.), but what they hold in common is that government should, to the degree possible, not promote any worldview.

It is here, at the intersection of constituents’ worldviews and the role of government, that the tension about what freedom is comes into sharpest focus. Because of course, every government reflects, to some degree, the values of the people who elected it. This country began as one based on Judeo-Christian values. While the separation of church and state has been pretty universally adopted, there are values from this tradition that remain. Some are now challenged (like the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman), while others continue to be widely cherished (like the importance of honesty, or hard work). As a society, our values are reflected in our criminal laws, tax code, and in countless other areas of legislation.

But given that our society, today more than ever, consists of such a variety of worldviews and motivators, there is the question of what, or whose, worldview–or put another way, moral code–a civil society should abide by. That is what much of our political tension boils down to in the current climate. What behaviors should the government continue to regulate or encourage, and what should the government leave to the private sphere? Is it the role of government only to advocate for policies that will bring economic growth to its constituents (and consequently enrich the government)? And if government’s role should be limited to economic policy (in addition to the basics of building public services (roads, waste services, etc. and of running a national military), that raises another question: how far into other areas should the government go in order to advance economic growth? Do issues like wealth disparity or climate conservation have an impact on economic strength, and if so, is it then within the government’s purview to address them? When it comes to behaviors, to what extent should the government regulate them? Why is it acceptable to mandate some behaviors, like wearing a seat belt in the car, but controversial whether the government should allow or ban the use of recreational marijuana? And should the government be consistently present across spheres: economic, civic, moral/ethical, etc?

These questions bear some contemplation. While freedom is important, so is the need to preserve another aspect of our American heritage: a country whose laws are fair, where movement between socio-economic class is possible, and a country that is governed by the rule of law, to name just a few aspects. How do we keep the American ideal of freedom for the individual without allowing the individual freedoms of some to tread on the opportunities of others? At what point do individuals’ rights to freedom strike a balance with the country’s civic health?

This country’s stars and stripes offer a very visible demonstration of this balance between individuality and membership in a group. Any one of the fifty stars has clearly defined boundaries; its bright white does not fade gradually into the surrounding red. But any one of the fifty stars alone is just a star, its power diminished by its solitude. Placed among the collection of 50 stars, though, the strength of those stars is striking.

“We, the People, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.”
–Barack Obama

New Chapters

New Chapters

A typical day in my life doesn’t usually go according to plan. But one morning last week was an exception. I fit in a workout and shower before 7am, the older kids got dressed and did their morning chores without extra prompting, and the day was off to a positive, earlier-than-usual start. It stayed that way all day, too. Hi-fives and feel-goods all around.

Here’s the issue: whenever I have a day that good, I expect every day to be that good. Just like I expect the kids to always be good just because they’ve demonstrated that they can be. Just like I expect myself to always be super-productive in every way. (You’d think nine-plus years of motherhood would have beaten that out of me, but I am, by any indication, a slow learner.)

And then, when the day’s not so smooth–and it usually isn’t–I am hard on myself, hard on the kids and impatient with pretty much everyone and everything. That person is not the person I want to be and this daily pattern it is not the way I want to live.

The older I get, the more I am convinced that the things we would wish for if genies were real are things that cannot be wrapped and put under a tree. Improved health. Restored relationships. Peace. Freedom from worry. A job we love. We all have something. And for many of us, the fact that we don’t have this thing can easily lead to frustration and, well, impatience with ourselves and with the world. There is a restlessness to our humanity that no amount of consumerism or distractions can satiate.

There is a well-known passage in I Corinthians, Chapter 13 of the Bible that lists love’s attributes, and among those attributes is patience. I’ve read or heard this passage approximately 783 times in my life, and I think I’ve always understood “patience” to mean doing things like waiting for a slow walker, or, I dunno, listening to your grandma tell the same story for the tenth time. It’s only recently dawned on me that this is a very superficial understanding of patience. Patience is kindness is forbearance is love is patience. It is seeing the flaws and failings of another, and of myself, and accepting the person anyway, being gentle anyway. Not because you don’t see the flaws or don’t expect better, but because you know how hard life can be on each of us, and because a gentle response has never done the harm that an impatient one has.

This has become manifestly apparent in my parenting. Between encountering a new preadolescent in my oldest child, scooping up the 30-some pound angry acrobat that is my terrible-two-ish youngest, and not neglecting the middle child, I often lose whatever cool I may have once had. And when this happens, I doubt my skills as a parent and worry that I am ruining my relationship with them and scarring them for life. A little more self-restraint and patience with each of them and myself would make all the difference. Of course, a change this fundamental is easier declared than made, but it is still January, and it is not too late for resolutions. (Not that it ever is: resolutions are made when you are ready for them, not when the calendar dictates.)

So, patience. It’s my resolution for the new year. Patience with the kids when they act like, well, kids. Patience with myself, as I am a less-than-perfect mother and human being. Patience for this messy, imperfect life that we all live.