Tuesday, June 28, 2011


I read a peculiar thing a short time ago. An author wrote that he and his wife are raising their children in such a way that their children have as little as possible to “unlearn” later in life. As someone who has raised three children, that seemed like a very peculiar statement.

In some ways, it is arrogant. If you raise your children such that they have little to unlearn, I guess you think you are getting it all right the first time. That’s quite a thing to say.

In other ways, its rather ridiculous. Learning, after all, is a constant process of unlearning, integrating, and re-learning. In part, it is putting away old ideas, and assimilating new ideas. It is actually quite a natural part of development, I am told.

But I also know that unlearning is natural from experience—my own and that of my children. Learning is part of what I do for a living. And learning is not just piling more ideas onto already solidified ideas. It is reevaluating previously learned ideas in light of new evidence or experience or information. Sometimes that reevaluation leads to rejecting or changing an old idea. Sometimes it leads to rejecting the new idea. But adaptation, whether to new physical circumstances or to new ideas, nearly always involves a certain amount of “unlearning.”

So unlike this popular author, I raised my kids with plenty of new situations and ideas to evaluate. I guided their thinking about what sorts of ideas were foundational, and what sorts of ideas were negotiable. I talked to them when they had questions—any questions—and helped them sort through their options pointing out potential strengths and weaknesses.

I let them know that while there are a lot of things we don’t know, there are plenty of things we do know. Some of those things might need adaptation or unlearning at some point down the road. But some things won’t.

I let them know they should not be afraid to “unlearn” things if the “unlearning” brings them closer to the truth of the matter. Admitting you have been wrong is an ingrained part of being a Christian, after all. And I can’t tell you how many times I had to admit I was wrong in my parenting career. I had to model unlearning, much to my chagrin at times.

Perhaps the most important model of unlearning is sanctification. I constantly must unlearn old habits and learn new ways to live if I want to conform more and more to the image of Christ. The old me must die daily. The new me—the united with Christ me—must come to life more and more each day.

So unlearning is part of the rhythm of the Christian life. And therefore one of the best habits you can teach your children.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Blessed Are Those Who Receive

“Is is better to give than to receive.” I remember my mom telling me this from the time I was very young. The message she was trying to get across to me was that I should not be as concerned in any given circumstance about what I was getting, as what I was contributing. Giving—of yourself, your time, your talents, your energy—this was the most important thing you could do. Nothing wrong with that I suppose.

But I wonder if we are missing something when we talk only about giving and never about receiving. What does it mean to be a gracious receiver?

Think about the last time someone complimented you. Did you reply with a simple thank-you? Or did you stammer, as I often do, wondering how to accept the compliment and not sound arrogant?

And what about gifts? I just had a birthday and a common question in our family is, “what do you want?” Now I know that they are just trying to prevent the awkward ‘I didn’t really need another white shirt’ moment. But it seems to me that much of our gift giving and receiving these days is driven not by the grace of the giver, but by the desires of the receiver.

Think about it for a minute. Fifty or so years ago people brought gifts to weddings that were thoughtful, creative, and often had some meaning attached that reflected the well-wishes of the giver. Now we go to Bed, Bath, and Beyond, look at a list, choose something not already purchased that fits our budget, wrap it up, and its all set. Its not that I don’t think about it or care. Its just that there is something so mechanical about it all. I understand that now there are baby registries too. Are Christmas registries next?

Worse yet, this general mindset continues to permeate deeper into the fabric of our lives. People go to fertility or adoption clinics with particular characteristics of their future child in mind. But children are a gift that God gives us – a gift we should receive gratefully regardless of characteristics like gender, health, etc.

And then there is worship. Instead of going to gratefully receive whatever God has planned for the day, we go with our demands, evaluating the service to see if our desires have been met. I love the way our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters demonstrate receiving gifts in their celebration of the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist). They don’t grab the bread and wine out of a tray. They receive the elements with open hands from the priest. God offers us himself and we receive the grace offered with gratitude. Indeed.

Of course the position of recipient is one of humility and lack of control – not exactly prevalent dispositions in American culture. But these are the dispositions of those who wish to receive the gift of salvation in Christ Jesus. We don’t receive salvation on our terms. We receive salvation on God’s terms.

So maybe learning about grace has something to do with learning about being a good receiver, as much as being a good giver.  

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

I Am With You Always

Every day, the bus I take to work goes down a fairly busy street past St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church. St. Paul’s has a sign in front of the building. Its one of those electronic signs that has a message that is lit by tiny bulbs of some sort.

Of course there is nothing novel about such signs. Lots of institutions have them, including many churches. What is unique, at least in my experience, is the message on the sign. Sometimes, the message is simply informational, like what time mass is or that they are currently enrolling children for their school. Nothing all that unique about that.

But sometimes, as has been true so far this week, they have a short phrase, either from Scripture or the liturgy (which is usually also Scriptural citation of some sort). Each day, when I know we are getting close to the church, I put down my book and watch for the sign. And when the sign is from Scripture, I find it a most fitting beginning to my day.

I mention this because most churches that have these sorts of signs seem to think that cute, inspirational phrases are the way to go. Perhaps they think that these little statements will make them appear fun and hip and attractive. Most of the time they are goofy at best, heretical at worst. I’m not sure what they make people think the church is, but likely no one encounters God through the sign.

Not so with St. Paul’s. Whenever the sign is not informational, it is an encounter with God’s word and therefore, with God. This week, in the wake of Ascension last week, the sign has read “I am with you always.” Every day, as I have ridden to work, I have been reminded that indeed, God is with me and will be with me throughout my day. What a wonderful reminder! What a beautiful message!

So I remind you, as I have been reminded: “I am with you always.” 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Do Over

Do you ever look at some event in your life and wish you could do it over? Maybe it was because it was so seemingly perfect that you wish you could experience it one more time. Sometimes, people even go back to places where particular events happened in an attempt to re-live the moment. But of course that never works. The place has changed. The people have changed.

Sometimes, however, you wish you could do something over because maybe this time you could make it right. I call this the game of ‘what if’. The problem is, in the game of ‘what if’ you always come out the loser. Mostly, that’s because it is impossible to know how the outcome would have changed with a different set of choices. We like to imagine it would change for the better. But it is equally possible that it could have changed in a negative direction.

I’m at that place in parenting where I often reflect back on decisions I made regarding my children. Its pretty easy to wander into the land of ‘what if.’ I see the choices my children have made and overall, I am just so proud of them. But every now and again I wonder…..

What if I had said no on that particular night, or yes on some particular day? What if I had forbid that harmful relationship? What if I had encouraged that particular activity rather than letting them quit because they thought they hated it and constantly complained? The list could go on and on.

And there are some things I know I simply did badly.

But you can’t do life over. You get one shot. That’s it. Nothing put that more in focus for me than the day I got a call from my father that my sister had died the night before. I wished for more time, for opportunities to do some things over.

Eventually I realized that there is no way to do everything right, to be perfect in my relationships with the people I loved the most. But I also realized that God can not only forgive my inadequacies and sins against others, but also can take my efforts and make more out of them than I ever imagined.

So when I start to play the ‘what if’ game, whether its with my parenting or my teaching or anything else, I try to listen to God telling me, often in the quietness of my heart, “Quit worrying. I’m always here. When you feel successful, and when you feel like an abysmal failure. Do your best. I’m with you. I’ve got it covered.” I hope you hear that voice too.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

God Created Markets???

Some months ago my husband and I attended a lecture on what it means to be a Christian in the business world. My husband is a businessman and we have had many discussions about how Christians can be competitive in a sometimes ethically questionable marketplace. The person delivering the lecture has a Ph.D., had worked in the business world, and teaches at a Christian college. Given the shallow nature of previous thinking we had been exposed to, we were eager to hear what this person had to say.

Working from the biblical perspective that God had created a world that was good, this individual proceeded to tell us that “God created business,” and “God created markets.” This was his self-stated “theology of business.” Hmmm.

I decided to talk to the speaker after his lecture to determine where, biblically, he had determined that God was the creator of business and markets. Turns out he had none. He responded that since God had created a world with an uneven distribution of resources, God had created business and markets. He went on to assert that God had created music and art as well. When I suggested that there is a difference between creating the potential for certain cultural artifacts and creating the artifacts themselves, he seemed offended and disbelieving.

As is almost always the case, theological assertions not only impact the theological topic in question, but also other related theological topics. It is also the case that what we teach has the potential to impact how we act, our ethics. So if I granted his premise, how might that impact our ethical understanding of business?  How should we think about and respond to the presenter’s suggestions that God created business and markets? I have a few initial thoughts.

First, it would seem that if God created business and markets (in a capitalistic sense which is what I believe he was asserting), why are business and markets not a universal phenomenon? The fact of the matter is that in any number of primitive societies, the distribution of resources operates more like a family than a market. What I mean is, that goods are shared between clans rather than bartered for or traded. This is, in fact, the model the early church seemed to operate on. (Acts 2:42-47) So if God created markets, why doesn’t every society, or even the early church appear to operate with a market driven model?

Second, and more importantly, if God indeed created cultural artifacts like markets and business, than markets and business, like all of creation, are in their essence good, although fallen. But that begs the question of whether all cultural artifacts are in their essence good. The reality is, that humanity was created with the potential to use the various resources of creation to produce art, music, and social structures including business and markets. But humanity is fallen so the structures and artifacts we produce are the result of a fallen intellect and understanding. What “good” looks like with regard to any of these artifacts and, in fact, whether these artifacts are even something that should be considered the proper use of human potential is open to question and is part of what Christians are called to discern.  

Many economists admit that greed is a driving force (perhaps even the driving force) in a market economy. But greed, in the Christian tradition, is one of the seven deadly vices. So if greed is foundational to the capitalistic marketplace, is the marketplace really something good?

Maybe more to the point, is the question of how a market economy reflects love for God and neighbor, the summary of the law. I’m not saying that it cannot; only that questions about how one operates in this environment, how one promotes the flourishing of one’s neighbor in this system are difficult. If what matters most is the bottom line, what happens when the bottom line and the good of my neighbor come into conflict?

To simply state that God created markets and therefore they are good, not only misunderstands the doctrine of creation, but has the potential to whitewash real ethical difficulties that are part and parcel of operating in a market economy. We should encourage hearty discussion of these matters, not simplistic justification for our own preferences.