The Agon of Jason

I meant to submit this to Boise Weekly’s Fiction 101. I got busy and didn’t mail it in on time, so here it is.

The Agon of Jason

The doctors claimed they had perfected the process. Jason was the first approved to undergo it. After careful analysis of his bloodwork and brain scans they customized the Personality Correction Serum and injected it at an early morning appointment.

It really almost worked. The despair was gone. His extreme sensitivity dulled just enough. But his face altered beyond recognition. His mother could see the problem the moment she walked into the recovery room.

The doctors should have known how the personality change would change everything. Jason was gone behind his dead eyes. Unknown and unknowable he faded away, starved, and disappeared.

Love and Service

Below is a little talk I gave at school this week.

Love and Service

The Scripture tells us that we are designed to serve.

Genesis 2:15 Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and (keep, maintain, serve) it.

 

It is interesting in life how often we get things out of order. The cart before the horse is more than a cliched expression, it is our very way of life. In many things we want the consequences or the outcomes of an action to instead be the prompt for that action. This is often simply because we are deeply confused about how God made the world.

 

One such confusion is the relationship between love and service. If we are thinking about serving at all, we are thinking about serving someone or something that we love, or like, or at least find tolerable. We love children, or babies, or our grandparents and so we are willing to babysit or to teach the Sunday School class or to go and mow Grandma’s lawn. We have a passion for reading so we volunteer at the library. We love the outdoors so we build trails in the foothills. And while there is nothing wrong with any of the forms of service or with the motivation for this kind of service we miss something deeply important about how God made our minds and our hearts if we stop here.

 

Service, like worship, shapes our affections. Builds them. Creates them.

 

That which I serve, I will come to love.

 

I am a neat and tidy person. I love order, cleanliness, and peace. I am very sensitive to strong smells and rough textures. Yes, I am fussy and fastidious. Four years ago my sons began begging my husband and I to get them a dog. Naturally, I was opposed to the entire idea. Dogs smell. They track in mud and leaves. THEY SHED. But…I love my sons excessively. So, when the opportunity came up to give an unwanted puppy a home I said a cautious “yes” and took the boys to pick up Rudy. Alex and Luc were 5 and 4 and were not quite old enough to take full responsibility for a dog. My husband is a busy, busy man. Every day I fed Rudy. I filled his water bowl. I took him to the park to play. Frequently I bathed him – if you have a dog, you know what an undertaking this can be especially when your dog is a hundred pounds of bath-hating fuzzball.

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You might think this is about how much I love my boys – and I really do love them – but no this is about how much I came to love Rudy. Rudy smells like a dog. His dog food smells bad to my sensitive nose. He sheds long dark hair EVERYWHERE. If he isn’t getting pet enough (and there is never “enough”) he puts is rough paws up on my lap and scratches me, nosing his face under my hand until I finally begin to pet him. But a few months into owning him I discovered one day that I loved him. It was entirely unreasonable. He’s cute in a doggy sort of way, but I’m not really susceptible to that kind of thing. I’ve met many a cute puppy who left my heart entirely unmoved. I still hate the hair. My nose is definitely still assaulted by the smells. But I love the fluffy mutt anyway. I want him to be healthy. I want him to be happy. The very definition of love is caring for the well-being of the beloved and by that definition as well as by my emotional state, it is clear that I love Rudy.

 

By serving Rudy every day my heart turned from indifference to love. You’ve probably heard that “Love isn’t a feeling, it’s an act of your will” or “Love isn’t a noun, it’s a verb” or some other such expression that is trying to get at the idea that Love – True Love – Caritas – is about far more than just what your emotions happen to be doing at the moment. Love is an emotional response to someone or something but love requires activity. Love requires service. And just as surely, the natural fruit of service is then love.

 

The maternal bond is famously strong. A mother’s devotion to her children has been the subject of much art and literature. The bond is not very mysterious though. A mother spends nine months with her body serving her unborn child. Then she spends the next year being that child’s primary source of food and comfort. This daily service fuels her affection which fuels her service which again stimulates more love until the mother-child bond is so strong it comes as close as anything on earth can to being unbreakable

 

Kids and pets are all well and good and may be part of your life. But this means something more for you. What and who you love is much more under your control than you think. It is much more a matter of responsibility than it is of fate. You get to choose when and where and how you serve. You get to choose who and what you cultivate love for. You are not a passive recipient of emotions. You are an active cultivator of them. You are not being dictated to by your “heart”. You are daily dictating, by your actions, what your heart will feel. You are designed by God to serve and love and then love and serve.

 

Feeling irritable with an annoying sibling? Find a way to give them service and you will love them more and better.

 

Feeling indifferent toward your school, church, community? Find a way, large or small, to serve them daily and you will come to feel what you ought toward them: affection, devotion, enthusiasm.

 

Frustrated by a parent, a sibling, an administrator, a teacher, or a classmate? Give. Them. Service.

 

Your emotional state is not the boss of you. Your feelings, your attitude, your mood are not in charge. I remind my cross – country athletes that when they are in the last third of a race and their legs are screaming at them that they should walk: your body is not in charge – you are. And so I remind you: when you are grumpy, tired, indifferent your emotions are not in charge of you. Use your will, use your knowledge, and offer service to that which you should be loving. The feeling will follow. Put the horse before the cart.

 

James 1:27 Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.

 

Scripture makes it clear that we have a considerable number of responsibilities to serve. We are first and foremost to serve those who are most in need and least protected. In the ancient world the widow and the orphan were even more vulnerable than we might realize. With no husband or father to provide, women and children had few options. Certainly, we must serve actual widows and actual orphans, but let us remember to extend that service to any we find in need of service. The weakest, the most lost, the least lovely, the most reviled by our culture stand in greatest need. We stand against the evolutionary idea that our lives are about “survival of the fittest” and live instead as Christians lifting up the weakest, knowing we are designed by God to serve and ultimately to always and only be serving Him and not ourselves.

A Temptation of Teachers

We teachers know a lot about teaching children. It is our profession after all. Most of us have thousands of hours of experience in the classroom, hundreds of hours of training, and are subject matter experts in our fields.

Still, we must avoid the temptation – common in my experience – to believe and act as though we always know better than parents how they should be raising our students.

This is a child given to them. They are not ours in the way they are theirs.

And yes, in addition to our expertise we do spend many hours a day with our students. We see a lot of their behavior. We hear a lot of their words. We do very often have insight into problems, strengths, and strategies.

However, our language is too often loaded with the hubristic assumption that if parents would just listen to us, everything would so much better.

“If only those parents didn’t give their 4th grader a phone! What could they be thinking.”

“If only his parents would discipline Johnny better.”

“Sam has way too much screen time. His attention would be so much better if only they would limit him. What could his parents be thinking?!”

What is this but frustration that we are not in charge of everything?  Combined with a selfish desire to have everyone do and say and believe exactly what we think would make our lives easier?

I take practical and theological issue with this pattern. First, we don’t know nearly as much as we think we do. Parents have been with their kids every day for YEARS. We see them almost daily for almost a year. Our knowledge does not extend to being the expert on Jack or Sam or Evan or Sara. Many causes and effects are necessarily outside of our experience. We must keep this in mind when we are frustrated by some behavioral issue.

Second, this child is simply not ours. Assuming that a particular parent doesn’t happen to be a depraved monster, they are far more invested in their child’s well-being than we are. They will be in the child’s life forever, we are a passing stage. God has ordained this child to these parents and apart from truly destructive (as opposed to simply sub-optimal) parenting, they are the ones who will be dedicated to understanding what is truly best for this little person.

Teachers must treat their own expertise, their relationships with their students, and their advice to parents with great humility. If we have knowledge or insight it is to be placed at the service of parents and not hurled at their errors. Our frustrations with things that make our jobs more difficult must be understood as the temporal things they are. Sure, we can imagine a teaching utopia of perfectly behaved, perfectly intelligent, perfectly sweet robot students with perfectly wise, perfectly invested, perfectly balanced parents. But this means nothing. We teach actual flawed children, with actual flawed parents, and we are actual flawed teachers tempted to believe we are the only ones who are perfect.

How Should We Then Live

Francis Schaeffer

I finally read the Francis Schaeffer classic. It has been on the “to-read” list for quite some time. Schaeffer is very highly regarded in some of the circles I travel in and I’d never read anything of his. Sadly, I’m a bit disappointed.

How Should We Then Live? is a whirlwind tour through Western History featuring frequent generalizations, authoritative pronouncements on the goodness or badness of things, and appeals to authority. While I agree with at least half of Dr. Schaeffer’s assessment, I can’t appreciate his book. Where I was looking for reasoned arguments and thoughtful insights I got appeals to authority, unargued conclusions, and simplistic summaries. I wouldn’t pass much of this writing in a freshman composition class because of the failure to properly support assertions.

Again, I do agree with many of his conclusion. However, I fear that much of his popularity comes from readers hearing what they already believe or hearing what they want to be true. He argues that Christianity is good for the world and Christians are likely to already think that or to want it to be true. In such a short book, how could an author give a fair description, much less a fair analysis, of all of Western art, philosophy, and science? Without questioning or even acknowledging his own presuppositions how could Dr. Schaeffer hope to give his readers a reasonable basis for further study? I fear that reading this kind of work would tend to leave the Christian reader complacent rather than challenged: complacent in the essential goodness of the Evangelical worldview and without any answer to the title question other than living with the assumption that Evangelicals have it right and the Secularists have it wrong and with no clear understanding of why or how and, thus, no way forward.

 

Aeropress

As former coffee shop owners my husband and I are a little snobbish about our coffee. We have used everything from a basic flat-bottom brewer to a French Press and even, on occasion, a Keurig. The French Press had become our preferred method, but it still left us with some dissatisfactions. We prefer a sweeter taste to our coffee, and really just wanted espresso most of the time. However, as we really wanted an expensive plumbed-in machine, we were out of luck.

At the recommendation of some casual acquaintances, we bought ourselves an Aeropress about six months ago. They praised the sweet taste of the very strong coffee it produced, the ease of use and clean up, and the portability of the set up. Because it only cost about 30 bucks we were happy to give it a go.

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We really, really like it. It makes a delicious – nearly espresso – shot of strong coffee. You can make one serving in about 45 seconds. The device is incredibly simple and so it is easier to clean than your coffee cup. You can drink the strong coffee straight, add hot water to it for an “Americano”, add milk for a latte, or pour it over ice in the summer. The only downside is that it is not great for making large quantities of coffee quickly. If we were having 15 people over for breakfast we might run into trouble. Fortunately, that never happens!

You can heat the water you need on the stove or in the microwave, but we like to use a nice electric kettle with temperature pre-sets to get just-the-right-temp water for brewing. We also have a small burr-grinder for fresh espresso-ground coffee. We also have a unique situation where our pastor roasts us fresh coffee every week. Not everyone is quite as blessed as we are…

The KonMari Method and Me

konmari

I have been hearing of Marie Kondo’s book and it’s overwhelming popularity for some time now. I wasn’t too interested in reading it because my home is not cluttered, I’m minimalist in everything except my library, and I am very happy with my life and house.

But I picked it up anyway. I had a gift card to spend at Barnes and Noble and along with a leather bound journal and some note cards it caught my eye.

I thoroughly enjoyed it. Apart from some cheesy personification of objects and a vague sort of spiritualism about them, her advice resonated deeply. She encourages owning only things you love (which has long been mostly my philosophy) and requires that everything have a place to be put away (which is also what I do). But what was most charming in her book was her encouragement to be grateful to your possessions for what the are doing or have done for you. For years I have dealt with feelings of restlessness and discontent by stopping and remembering to be grateful to God for all that I have in my life. I have found it easy to care for my home over the years, despite being an essentially lazy person, because I am so grateful to have this beautiful space and the peace and security I experience here.

But…my home is already minimally furnished. My wardrobe is already made up of only clothes I love. My shelves already filled with books that “spark joy” every time I hold them. But…the boys’ bedroom!

There is one place in the house that has always been cluttered, messy, and chaotic. I have frequently gone up there and cleaned and cleaned and cleaned. I have thrown stuff out, organized, dusted, vacuumed, and then three months later done it all over again. Marie Kondo emphasizes again and again that the process of decluttering is very important for her clients. They simply must make the decisions of what “sparks joy” as a way of training themselves to know their own desires. Her book gave me the idea of leading my sons through the process instead of trying to do it for them. How much better to teach them to care affectionately for their possessions by allowing them to choose what they love owning rather than telling them what they can and cannot keep?

And it seems to work. On Tuesday I spent about 3 hours with Alex and Luc in their bedroom. We took everything off the shelves and out of the drawers. We first went through their clothes and, other than their school uniforms, I had them choose what clothes they love to wear. We donated a bag full of their discards. Then they decided they wanted to keep two categories of toys (Star Wars toys and Dinosaurs) but put them away for a while, so we bagged them up to put in the attic. Next I had them choose what pencils, crayons, etc they wanted and we designated a drawer in each of their desks for the ones they kept and I threw the rest away. Likewise papers they had colored on were either thrown away or put into a designated drawer. Legos were picked up and a couple of shelves designated for their storage. Beds were made. And then we sorted through all the miscellaneous stuff. I gave them each a basket and asked them to put their “treasures” in them. Then we looked at all the stuff still on the floor and I asked them to go find every single thing they absolutely loved owning and we would find a place for it. When they said they were done we threw every other thing out. They then hesitated over a few items but I reminded them that they didn’t love owning it and so it wasn’t worth keeping. They both found that standard easy to identify and to hold to. Luc is more of a packrat and so he had more of those hesitating moments but we had no arguments and no grief over any of the process. In all of this “tidying” I didn’t buy a single organizer or tote or tub. In fact, I threw three out!

The strength of this process is in training the decision-making faculty. I am sure that I will need to remind and guide my sons further, but realizing that this was something I could teach them to do for themselves and not something I needed to continue doing for them was a nice breakthrough. We’re a few days in and their room is still clean (other than the blankets strung up around their beds making a fort – they are still kids). When I tell them to pick up, it only takes a few minutes both because they have much less stuff over all and because they know the place for everything. And not to oversell the “magic” of tidying, but with a tidy bedroom Alex and Luc have both been re-energized to work on some of their creative projects (making their own trading card game) and haven’t been having even less than their usual low-level of brotherly conflict.

 

Lemon Cake

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Long ago, I worked at a certain ubiquitous coffee shop. I would rise ungodly early – 4:45am – and go make lattes. A major perk of working there, and there were many, was unlimited coffee drinks while you work. I would also often be able to have a day old pastry for breakfast. The Lemon Pound Cake was my favorite. This knock-off recipe appeared in my Facebook feed and I gave it a try. It is delicious. The icing came out a bit thin, so I would suggest adding a few more tablespoons of powdered sugar to thicken so it doesn’t run all over the plate. Or…you could just scrape the run-off up and eat it with a spoon. I’ll never tell.

LEMON CAKE

 

3 EGGS

1 cup SUGAR

2 tablespoon BUTTER; Softened.

1 teaspoon VANILLA

1 teaspoon LEMON EXTRACT

1/3 cup LEMON JUICE

1 1/2 cup FLOUR

1/2 teaspoon BAKING SODA

1/2 teaspoon BAKING POWDER

1/2 teaspoon SALT

1/2 cup COCONUT OIL

LEMON ICING

1 cup(s) POWDERED SUGAR; Plus 1 Tablespoon.

2 tablespoon(s) WHOLE MILK

1/2 teaspoon(s) LEMON EXTRACT

Instructions

Use a mixer to blend together the eggs, sugar, butter, vanilla, lemon extract and lemon juice in a medium bowl.

Add dry ingredients one at a time in order listed mixing well after each addition.

Add oil and mix well.

Pour batter into a well greased OR parchment lined 9×5-inch loaf pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until a toothpick stuck into center of the cake comes out clean.

Make the lemon icing by combining all the icing ingredients in a small bowl with a whisk.

When the loaf is cool, remove it from pan and frost the top with the icing.

Let the icing set up before slicing.

Azrael

A Story for my Nephew – Amanda Patchin

 

Dust swirls. Breezes sigh. The metallic tang of blood is heavy in the air. The doorposts of the slave quarters are smeared, sticky, dark. Elsewhere no meaty iron scent corrupts the night air, just ordinary cooking fires, burning lamps, the muddy river. Night sounds join scents: soft voices, barking dogs, croaking frogs.

 

It is a wealthy land, fertile, educated, artistic. Great architecture in every street, great art on every wall, great politics in the courts

 

The stench of death is heavy over this land. Not just tonight’s sacrifices, although they too count in the toll. No, this land bears slaughter many times the weight of these bleating sheep, throats cut, blood drained, meat roasted. This land groans under death multiplied beyond nature’s limits.

 

A slave driven with whips, kept to short rations, worked long hours. A hard task made foolishly harder as the drivers withhold the necessary tools. This cruelty multiplied five hundred thousand times to every slave on every work gang on every day.

 

A slave woman brought to bed in her due time, the pains taking her mid-day, each one leaving her breathless, shaken by the expected agony. Exhausting hours pass and with a truly final effort she pushes her child forth with the shreds of will and muscle left to her. A girl? A boy! The midwife slices the cord quickly and flees the woman’s cries. To the river. Always to the river.

 

Such a guilty land should be wiped from the earth. Fire and brimstone. Judgement from heaven.

 

Instead, Azrael is waiting with his flaming sword.

 

The sweat of Sobek flows north through the land, the source of all her wealth. But lately the river has been untrue. Bloodied by the deaths of thousands of baby boys it was bloodied in fact some days since. Un-bloodied it vomited forth millions of croaking frogs crushed underfoot.

 

The jackal-headed god cannot understand. He sees death dealt and knows he should drink deeply tonight but is restrained by one hand lightly upraised.

 

Azrael knows his task and sets about his work. Mercy in every death. Mercy heavier than the weightiest justice. The first born fall before his sword. One only in each family for each generation. One only.

Recommendations

 

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Fellow readers, I am often asked for book recommendations. It can be difficult to make specific recommendations to another reader without long standing reading intimacy. Other than the great books everyone should read, I have a few I recommend often.

I first read The Elegance of the Hedgehog a few years ago. Its alternating stories of the rich inner lives of a 50-something concierge in an elegant Parisian apartment building and a 12-year-old resident of the same are delicate and inspiring. Renee’s story of her autodidactic education alongside young Paloma’s existential despair make for an elegant philosophical and emotional exploration.

Life Philosophies

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Ahem. Please excuse the pretentious title.

 

Whether we realize it or not, we have a philosophy of life. We may never have articulated it to ourselves, but we live by it nonetheless. My favorite analysis of your personal philosophy involves this exercise summarized below:

  1. Take a few minutes and write down an ordered list of how you spent your time in the last week by greatest total hours (excepting sleep). Feel free to estimate, but be honest. If it really includes 20 hours of TV or of surfing the web (my weakness), then write it down truly. You should have 10-20 significant things you spend your time on including work and/or education, leisure activities, and chores.
  2. Take a few minutes to write down what you really believe to be important in life in a hierarchical list.
  3. Tear up the second list because it is nothing. The first list is truly your Philosophy of Life because it is what you are doing with your life.

We also tend to have a number of other philosophies floating about in our daily lives. I believe it is healthy to frequently examine the philosophies driving our behavior and consciously work to develop them into theologically sound ones.

I have a couple of minor philosophies that govern some aspects of my life. I recently shared one with the high school cross country team at The Ambrose School during a nutrition talk. Proper nutrition is an important aspect of athletic performance and living in our particular culture requires a lot of conscious thought and careful choices about food to avoid falling off a nutritional cliff.  Of course, we talked about having a good balance of macros, discussed not getting into a restrict/binge cycle, and put up some example menus but before this we had to determine our philosophy of eating. The runners were very clear on the twin purposes of eating (fuel and pleasure). We did need to determine the balance between those and we needed to decide our primary philosophy of eating. I asked them what made a food good or bad for you. They were quick to list what they identified as “bad” foods and then to point out what was bad about them. Their list:

  • Ice cream (sugar, fattening)
  • Cheesecake (sugar, fattening)
  • Twinkies (empty calories)
  • Kale (tastes nasty)
  • Soda (sugar)
  • Doughnuts (sugar, fattening)

Notwithstanding these reasons, neither sugar content, total calories, or flavor can make a food “bad”. The only bad food is that which you are not properly grateful to God for. All food is good food insofar as you will be grateful for it. God clearly intended food for fuel as it does fuel our bodies. He also clearly intended it for pleasure; why else would we presented with such a dizzying array of flavors and textures? I feel strong after a meal of rich proteins, succulent fats, and crunchy vegetables. I feel great joy after a meal of complex, interesting, and balanced flavors. Grilled chicken and salads have fueled many a run and many a climb and Fettucini Carbonara with Chianti, garlic bread, and a dessert of Pots de creme has fueled many a long evening of conversation and revelry.

The goals of fuel and pleasure should be equally balanced in our eating habits and we should never sell one out for the other.

Every bite of food should be accompanied by gratitude to the One who created not only this meal and this palate but the very concepts of flavor and hunger and satisfaction.