Monthly Archives: April 2009

Being Poor

Written by John Scalzi

Being poor is knowing exactly how much everything costs.

Being poor is getting angry at your kids for asking for all the crap they see on TV.

Being poor is having to keep buying $800 cars because they’re what you can afford, and then having the cars break down on you, because there’s not an $800 car in America that’s worth a damn.

Being poor is hoping the toothache goes away.

Being poor is knowing your kid goes to friends’ houses but never has friends over to yours.

Being poor is going to the restroom before you get in the school lunch line so your friends will be ahead of you and won’t hear you say “I get free lunch” when you get to the cashier.

Being poor is living next to the freeway.

Being poor is coming back to the car with your children in the back seat, clutching that box of Raisin Bran you just bought and trying to think of a way to make the kids understand that the box has to last.

Being poor is wondering if your well-off sibling is lying when he says he doesn’t mind when you ask for help.

Being poor is off-brand toys.

Being poor is a heater in only one room of the house.

Being poor is knowing you can’t leave $5 on the coffee table when your friends are around.

Being poor is hoping your kids don’t have a growth spurt.

Being poor is stealing meat from the store, frying it up before your mom gets home and then telling her she doesn’t have make dinner tonight because you’re not hungry anyway.

Being poor is Goodwill underwear.

Being poor is not enough space for everyone who lives with you.

Being poor is feeling the glued soles tear off your supermarket shoes when you run around the playground.

Being poor is your kid’s school being the one with the 15-year-old textbooks and no air conditioning.

Being poor is thinking $8 an hour is a really good deal.

Being poor is relying on people who don’t give a damn about you.

Being poor is an overnight shift under florescent lights.

Being poor is finding the letter your mom wrote to your dad, begging him for the child support.

Being poor is a bathtub you have to empty into the toilet.

Being poor is stopping the car to take a lamp from a stranger’s trash.

Being poor is making lunch for your kid when a cockroach skitters over the bread, and you looking over to see if your kid saw.

Being poor is believing a GED actually makes a goddamned difference.

Being poor is people angry at you just for walking around in the mall.

Being poor is not taking the job because you can’t find someone you trust to watch your kids.

Being poor is the police busting into the apartment right next to yours.

Being poor is not talking to that girl because she’ll probably just laugh at your clothes.

Being poor is hoping you’ll be invited for dinner.

Being poor is a sidewalk with lots of brown glass on it.

Being poor is people thinking they know something about you by the way you talk.

Being poor is needing that 35-cent raise.

Being poor is your kid’s teacher assuming you don’t have any books in your home.

Being poor is six dollars short on the utility bill and no way to close the gap.

Being poor is crying when you drop the mac and cheese on the floor.

Being poor is knowing you work as hard as anyone, anywhere.

Being poor is people surprised to discover you’re not actually stupid.

Being poor is people surprised to discover you’re not actually lazy.

Being poor is a six-hour wait in an emergency room with a sick child asleep on your lap.

Being poor is never buying anything someone else hasn’t bought first.

Being poor is picking the 10 cent ramen instead of the 12 cent ramen because that’s two extra packages for every dollar.

Being poor is having to live with choices you didn’t know you made when you were 14 years old.

Being poor is getting tired of people wanting you to be grateful.

Being poor is knowing you’re being judged.

Being poor is a box of crayons and a $1 coloring book from a community center Santa.

Being poor is checking the coin return slot of every soda machine you go by.

Being poor is deciding that it’s all right to base a relationship on shelter.

Being poor is knowing you really shouldn’t spend that buck on a Lotto ticket.

Being poor is hoping the register lady will spot you the dime.

Being poor is feeling helpless when your child makes the same mistakes you did, and won’t listen to you beg them against doing so.

Being poor is a cough that doesn’t go away.

Being poor is making sure you don’t spill on the couch, just in case you have to give it back before the lease is up.

Being poor is a $200 paycheck advance from a company that takes $250 when the paycheck comes in.

Being poor is four years of night classes for an Associates of Art degree.

Being poor is a lumpy futon bed.

Being poor is knowing where the shelter is.

Being poor is people who have never been poor wondering why you choose to be so.

Being poor is knowing how hard it is to stop being poor.

Being poor is seeing how few options you have.

Being poor is running in place.

Being poor is people wondering why you didn’t leave.

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Top Ten Reasons Why Men Should Not Be Ordained

I’ve seen this in several places around the internet.  No idea where it originally came from.

10. A man’s place is in the army.

9. For men who have children, their duties might distract them from the responsibilities of being a parent.

8. Their physical build indicates that men are more suited to tasks such as chopping down trees and wrestling mountain lions. It would be “unnatural” for them to do other forms of work.

7. Man was created before woman. It is therefore obvious that man was a prototype. Thus, they represent an experiment, rather than the crowning achievement of creation.

6. Men are too emotional to be priests or pastors. This is easily demonstrated by their conduct at football games and watching basketball tournaments.

5. Some men are handsome; they will distract women worshipers.

4. To be ordained pastor is to nurture the congregation. But this is not a traditional male role. Rather, throughout history, women have been considered to be not only more skilled than men at nurturing, but also more frequently attracted to it. This makes them the obvious choice for ordination.

3. Men are overly prone to violence. No really manly man wants to settle disputes by any means other than by fighting about it. Thus, they would be poor role models, as well as being dangerously unstable in positions of leadership.

2. Men can still be involved in church activities, even without being ordained. They can sweep paths, repair the church roof, and maybe even lead the singing on Father’s Day. By confining themselves to such traditional male roles, they can still be vitally important in the life of the Church.

1. In the New Testament account, the person who betrayed Jesus was a man. Thus, his lack of faith and ensuing punishment stands as a symbol of the subordinated position that all men should take.


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Treating the Name of God with Reverence

You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name–Exodus 20:7

In his commentary on the book of Exodus, John Durham writes, “In general terms, this commandment prohibits a lack of seriousness about Yahweh’s Presence in Israel, demonstrated through a pointless, misleading, or even false use of his name.”

In my experience, most of the teaching we do about this commandment focuses on the frivolous exclamations of teenagers–the unfocused “Oh my God” born of excitment or tragedy–or the profane utterances of grown men in carpentry accidents who call upon the Lord to eternally condemn their wretched tools. Both of those are appropriate targets of our sermons, but they are far from the most troubling instances of misusing the name of God.   There’s a lot of things that churches, even conservative churches, approve of (or encourage!) that seem to me to violate the intention of this commandment.

Like this:

God Speaks Marriage Counselor billboard

God Speaks Marriage Counselor billboard

You’ve probably seen this billboard, or one like it.  It’s from the “God Speaks” campaign.  The whole series was very popular with most of my Christian friends and acquintances.  Other signs included:

You think it’s hot here?


Big bang theory, you’ve got to be kidding.


Have you read my #1 best seller? There will be a test.


Don’t make me come down there.


These are wonderful ads, provided that you assume that there actually is no personal, powerful holy God who can and does speak for Himself.  If “God” is just the fictional mascot for a massive non-profit organization that provides religious goods and services, then this could be a very effective campaign.  But if there is a personal God, then it’s probable that He wouldn’t take kindly to people attributing inane or annoying comments to Him.  Especially if a specific prohibition of such friviolity was number three on his list of ten critical words of instruction.

This one is deeply ironic:


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What I Learned After Four Days of Visiting the Intensive Care Nursery

This was written a month ago when our newborn son was in NICU.  He’s home and doing well now.

20090312 Aidan-2

1) Don’t believe the signs that say the hospital parking garage is full. Loser move. Those signs are intended to thin the herd, sending the less-determined to the even-more-inconvenient clinic parking two and a half blocks away. Just sail into the garage with faith that a spot will appear. It will, and probably near the elevators.
2) To get your baby’s information over the phone, you must give them your pre-assigned four digit code. But if you want to walk in and actually see the babies, all you need to know is one of their last names—which are posted with little sticky notes by the reception desk. They don’t check i.d.’s or anything. Just say “I’m baby McNamara’s dad” and you can step right in–unless they happen to remember what Mr. McNamara looks like. But if you come in at the very start of the shift you can minimize the chance that they’ve seen him recently. This seems like pretty poor security to me. Although it is probably difficult to abduct babies with all those tubes and wires going everywhere.
3) Every nurse has a different idea about whether you can hold the baby. If the day shift nurse says that you can’t hold him because he’s sleeping and needs to rest, try not to act surprised when the night shift nurse says, “Go ahead and pick him up while he’s sleeping; that’s the best time.” Subjectivity is built into the system.
4) No matter how good the news is, when you walk out of NICU you should try to keep a neutral to somber expression. Someone else is getting bad news. If you can pull off a constant expression of polite but unprying concern, even better, but that one has a high technical difficulty level. Probably safer to just go with the slightly furrowed brow.
5) This is not easy. A lot of Aidan’s roommates are really struggling. The simple truth is that some of these babies aren’t going to make it.

Sometimes it’s hard not to feel a little embarrassed that Aidan is big and basically healthy, when he is surrounded by tiny, struggling babies. A couple of days ago I was holding Aidan, and the parents of the baby right beside him were visiting their preemie. The dad’s eyes opened wide when he saw us. “That’s a big baby.”

“Nine pounds, 12 ounces,” I said.

“Ours is finally up to two-seven.”

My kid was born four times bigger than the weight his baby has reached after three weeks.

Yesterday, I was visiting again and I saw that their baby’s heart rate was going up and up. The nurse came over to check and found the source of the problem—a large (for a preemie) blob of mucus blocking one of his nasal passages. She pulled it out and called the respiratory therapist over to take a look. It’s just surreal to see alarms going off because of a booger.

And then there’s last night. I noticed when we came in that part of the room was closed off by a kind of movable curtain. A sign said “Quiet please! Minimal stimulation.” We’ve done the “minimal stimulation” routine with Aidan before, so I didn’t really think anything of it. We got the update on Aidan (still feverish, but stable; blood pressure and respiration fine without assistance), and looked in on the two and half pound kid, who seemed to be well and booger-free. Then we started taking turns holding our son.

It was Sandy’s turn to hold him when the parents of the little girl behind the curtain burst out of the room, in tears. I watched them leave. It was a couple I had met before, briefly. On my first day to visit they showed me how to scrub in—I had never used a pedal-operated sink before. At the time they seemed nice enough, but perpetually distracted–like every parent around here. When they rounded the corner I glanced over at their daughter’s monitor. Flatlined.

Sandy’s eyes started welling up. “Did that baby….?”

At first I just shrugged, like I didn’t know. But I did. And after a minute, I slowly nodded.

A man came in and asked what the exact time was.

“I think I should go home now,” Sandy said. So we handed Aidan back to Nurse Emily and slipped away, brows furrowed, past the families in the waiting room.

After that, stepping back in NICU feels like tip-toeing over the gates of Sheol. We are so close sometimes.

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I Thought Only Protestants Could Be This Cheesy

Guess I’ll hold off on converting to Catholicism.  Time to take a closer look at the Orthodox church.  Seriously, could we treat our faith like it’s holy and mysterious, not just a gimmicky PR enterprise?

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Seven Stanzas at Easter, by John Updike

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that — pierced — died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

Continued here

Analyzed here

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“50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice”

Oh, how I love this.

I’m supposed to read S&W in preparation for my D.Min. thesis.  Honestly, I find that a bit insulting.  If I needed Strunk and White to be able to write well, I wouldn’t be in a doctoral program anyway.  I know more grammar than Strunk did.

Yeah, this isn’t about theology.  But a good and needed rant is a thing of beauty.

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Bad Theology Kills Again

From the St. Petersburg Times, on 06/06/06 (!!)

A man shouting that God would keep him safe was mauled to death by a lioness in the Kiev Zoo after he crept into an enclosure, a zoo official said Monday.

“The man shouted ‘God will save me, if he exists,’ lowered himself by a rope into the enclosure, took his shoes off and went up to the lions,” the official said.

“A lioness went straight for him, knocked him down and severed his carotid artery.”

“It is also written: Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

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Top Ten Influences in Christian History?

A colleague of mine just emailed a discussion group I’m in to ask for our lists of the ten most influential people in Christian history, not counting the apostles.  Here’s mine, omitting Luther, which my friend had already mentioned.

  • St. Augustine
  • St. Jerome
  • St. Benedict
  • St. Francis of Assisi (and St. Clare of Assisi)
  • St. Thomas Aquinas
  • Thomas a Kempis
  • St. Teresa of Avila (and John of the Cross)
  • John Calvin
  • Karl Barth
  • C.S. Lewis
I was tempted to add Cyrus Scofield, who wound up being enormously influential in the American scene, but I think it was a negative influence, so disqualified him.
And, yes, I’m about 64% Catholic these days.

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What Is The Gospel? Part IV: Theological Worlds

One of best books out there for thinking through various aspects of the gospel is W. Paul Jones’ book Theological Worlds: Understanding the Alternative Rhythms of Christian Belief. In it, Jones discusses five different “theological worlds” that people inhabit.  Understood simply, these are five different frameworks for thinking about the faith, each of which has its own narrative trajectory.   Any given person will “live in” one of these worlds more than the others.  They are:

  1. Separation and Reunion.  Inhabitants of this world feel a sense on loneliness or abandonment.   They long to feel connected, and to be part of a community.  Salvation is perceived as being or going home.
  2. Conflict and Vindication.  People in this world are angry because of experienced chaos or normlessness.  They are keenly aware of political and economic forces that pit people against one another, creating winners and losers.  They salvation they long for is a new orderly kingdom where things are set right.
  3. Emptiness and Fulfillment.  In this world, the great struggle is purposelessness.  There is an ache because of lost potential and an inability to determine one’s place in the world.  Salvation is viewed as wholeness and being a integral part of a purposeful system.
  4. Condemnation and Forgiveness.  In this world, inhabitants feel guilt because of falling short or idolatry.  The are deeply aware of their own failings, and desire to be accepted in spite of all the ways they have fallen short. Salvation is percieved as removal of guilt, reprieve, adoption.
  5. Suffering and Endurance.  People who live here feel overwhelmed by meaningless pain.  It seems that whatever can go wrong will.  One is tempted to fall into cynical despair.  Salvation is understood as the perceiving God’s presence and concern as we continue to endure and survive.

Each of these worlds has strong Biblical backing, and the New Testament addresses all of these interests when speaking of salvation.  But the contemporary protestant world spends the vast majority of our time in world four, which I strongly suspect is the least-inhabited world in secular America.  It’s no wonder that the skeptics who listen to us sometimes say “these Christians aren’t even in the same world I’m living in.”  They’re right; we aren’t.

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Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart

I preached this morning from the plague accounts in Exodus 7-12.  I think a lot of people stumble over the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.  How can God punish Pharaoh for refusing to let Israel leave when God himself keeps Pharaoh’s heart hard?

I think it helps to look at chapter 10 carefully.  Ever notice that in verse 1 God hardens the heart of both Pharaoh and his officials, but by verse 7 the officials were pleading with Pharaoh to let the Israelites go?  Whatever it means when God harden’s someone’s heart, it doesn’t seem to remove their autonomy and self-will.

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Easter Favorites

Kids’ books about Easter are on sale at Barnes and Noble.  Look here.  Nothing but eggs, bunnies (and pirates!) on the first page–you have to click over to page two and look down toward the bottom of the page to get to anything about Jesus.  The fertility goddess Astarte is continuing her attempt to steal the glory of the resurrection of the son of God and make it all about cutesy widdle rabbits and decorated ova.  And now she’s apparently teamed up with pirates.

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What Is The Gospel?, Part III: It’s Bigger Than You Probably Thought

There’s a passage in Acts 3 that I’ve come to love, and I think it is scandalously underpreached.  Even by me.  

The setting is that Peter and John have just healed a lame beggar at the Temple gate.  (This is where Peter says his famous line,  “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”)  Afterward, a crowd gathers, astonished at the miracle.  Peter turns to them and says:

“Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? 13The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. 14You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. 15You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. 16By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see.

 17“Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. 18But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer. 19Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, 20and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus.21He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.

Peter goes on a bit more, but that’s enough for right now.  There’s a lot to notice already:

  • The healing of the crippled man is part of the ongoing glorification of Jesus by God the Father.  It’s truly a remarkable (wonderful!) thing that when his son was shamed by crucifixion, God chose to bring him renewed glory not through vengence, but through acts of mercy and healing.  Yeah, we all know that on one level, but reading this stuff again just bowls me over.  “Why are you guys suprised that this cripple is jumping around?  It’s not us–it’s God glorifying Jesus again.  When beggars with bedsores become healthy joyous high jumpers, more honor goes to the one you falsely shamed.  This is just God’s weird way of undoing what you did.”  That’s lesson one.  God is really into glorifying Jesus, and he does that by healing broken people.  It might not be the most obvious way to bring Jesus honor, but it’s apparently the most fitting one.  In essence, Jesus is honored when his ministry continues through his disciples, empowered by the Spirit.  Hold onto that one.
  • Notice the three-fold purpose of repentance here.  
    • So that your sins might be wiped out
    • that times of refreshing might come from the Lord
    • that he might send the Christ 
  • What is Jesus doing right now?  “He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.”  This is the kind of thing I was thinking about when I said that “If you died tonight, would you go to heaven?” is a question that completely misses the point.  The great promise about heaven isn’t that we will go there, it is that Jesus is waiting there until he comes back and fixes everything.  The end of the story is that the prophetic vision will come to pass.  You know all that stuff about the desert bursting into vegetation, lions lying down with lambs, swords beaten into plowshares, justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream?  That wasn’t just idle talk.  God hasn’t ever given up on that vision.  Jesus Christ himself is going to come back and make it happen.  In the meantime, the good works that Jesus’ disciples do are continuing what he began, but also anticipating the way he will conclude.  It’s part of a chain that links the Old Jerusalem to the New.
  • There’s a lot that could be said about “repentance,” but I’ll sum it up with this: it’s not so much about feeling sorry as about thinking differently.  It’s gaining new eyes and catching on to this vision.  It’s about coming to understand that when you restore that which is broken, you glorify Jesus and take part in the work he is doing.  And even though you can’t restore anything perfectly, and maybe some things you can only polish a little, that’s okay, because every little step honors Christ, and when he comes back, he’ll finish it all.  In this case (Acts 3) Peter acknowledges that they acted in ignorance.  That’s what he’s trying to fix.  He’s cluing them into what God is doing.  And when they repent “times of refreshing will come from the Lord.”  How does that happen?  The same way the beggar just got healed, I imagine.  Disciples who want to honor Christ offer what they can.  When you start offering what you can, times of refreshing come.  You are refreshed by God’s spirit working through you, and you also bring refreshing to others.
  • This is good news!  We can learn to see things the way God sees them, change our worldview and work to advance what God is doing, all in anticipation of the ultimate restoration of the cosmos by Christ.  “Your sins can be forgiven and you can go to heaven when you die” is nothing close to an adequate summary of this vision.  But since that has been widely hawked as “the gospel,” millions of Christians have missed the big picture.  And that’s tragic.  Because when you don’t really see where God is taking things, you don’t understand what he’s calling you to do in the meantime.  Way too many people have settled for belief, baptism, and their backsides on the back bench.  Because we didn’t tell them that the good news was that God was recruiting a massive team to join him in honoring Christ by restoring the world, one step at a time.  We told them that the good news was if they assented to the intellectual proposition that Jesus was the Son of God, their soul would rise to heaven upon their death.  They assented, and having fulfilled their part of the narrow vision they were given, they are now kicking back, contented, fire insurance in place.

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