It is often said that superheroes are modern glosses on mythic heroes of antiquity. Batman. Spider-Man. Iron Man. They are but many different modern faces of Gilgamesh, Odysseus, and the whole metamorphic Campbellian crew, and the stories of their Herculean labors contain truths about human nature, heroic character, and our innate want for freaky cosplay. Or maybe just catharsis for 9/11.
From a very early age, we teach kids to identify themselves by what they can accomplish. When a baby can flip over from back to stomach, we ooh and aah; when she learns to sit up, we applaud; when she stands for the first time on wobbly, uncertain legs, we celebrate the triumph; and when she takes her first tentative steps, we announce that she’s becoming a “big girl.”
It continues throughout childhood – each physical or developmental marker brings another round of Facebook statuses, Tweets, videos and pictures. The first tooth lost. The first day of school. The first dance. The first game. Every achievement documented, celebrated, and cemented in the child’s head as the surest way to understand themselves.
I am what I do.
Naturally we don’t let that idea remain. We tell our children that they are more than their accomplishments. We try to instill in them that their value lies not only in what they can do, but also in who they are. We teach them that they are intrinsically valuable – even without doing a single thing, they are beloved and special and worhty. We say that, and then spend most of our time praising them only for things they do. It’s our default setting.
Heck, even Aristotle sad as much: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, it is a habit.” The connection between identity and productivity is dadgum hard to override, because we understand that there are bad things that happen when a person gets too caught up in what he or she can or can’t do. I mean, I’ve seen elementary school kids crushed because they didn’t get an A on a spelling test. I’ve seen high schoolers devastated because they didn’t get into the college of their parents’ choosing. I’ve seen adults completely adrift in life after losing a job they thought was their dream.
We are what we do.
Since we’re human, things are naturally complicated. We shouldn’t solely define ourselves by our actions, but our medium for expression as individuals is throughactions: thought, communication, creation. We cannot tell the world who we are unless we do something. But we go awry when we come to believe that what we do is all we are, and that when we can no longer do those things that make us us, then we are no longer someone who matters.
It’s what makes nursing homes so challenging. Same as hospitals. We hate being reminded we have limits; that the very thing that makes us feel alive – our physical/mental capabilities – will be stripped away. People struggle with aging because it’s a regression to the mean; it’s the universe’s way of telling us that we are finite, we are frail.
We are not gods in flesh.
When we come to the end of ourselves, we wrestle with the notion of value. Life becomes an existential cage match. If we cannot do, then what good are we? If we’re merely clogging up the planet, using up money and other resources better spent on those who can create, why should we linger? Why spend our last days as a museum piece that only teaches it’s hell getting old?
I’ve heard those questions from the lips of people who’ve gotten old, gotten beyond their prime years of production: why am I still here? What good am I?
My grandmothers both ask me that question when I go to visit. I look at them and I see life, my life, sitting there in front of me, and I wonder, how do you not know you’re valuable? I look at them, aged and beautiful, and all I can think of are things like sunshine and laughter and meals and hugs and wisdom and prayers and guilt trips and love. And I love them for ALL of it. Every bit. I don’t necessarily remember any one single act (though we do have a few stories to tell) but what I remember, more than the lifetime of doing, is the person who did it, and did it all, because she loved.
Maybe she can’t get her shoes on anymore. Maybe she doesn’t sleep well at night. Maybe she is reaching a point that she’ll require someone to watch over her the way all of us worried parents watched over our own children, someone who can encourage and celebrate each accomplishment, regardless of how small. Maybe all of that and more.
But there will come a day when neither one is here. When both will have gone the way of all people, when both will be a marker next to the marker for a good man who went before her. And when that day comes, I will wish not for her to do something for me, not for her to create or accomplish anything. I will simply wish like hell that she were still with me, that she still existed in a form I could hug or kiss or look at, simply because she’s who she is. My grandmother.
Funny, isn’t it? We spend so much time trying to do something, and not enough time enjoying who those somethings make us into. We think about that only in the end, only after it’s too late to truly appreciate the person for themselves. I think about friends and family today who would give anything to have just a little more time with a Pop, or a Nana, or a brother or sister or a child…
We are not merely what we do. We are more.
Love someone for that today.
From Nietzsche -
“The end of a melody is not its goal: but nonetheless, had the melody not reached its end it would not have reached its goal either. A parable.”
Been thinking a lot about endings recently. With graduation upon us and my own transition out of my role as a youth pastor, there are an awful lot of things coming to a tidy conclusion in my life.
Maybe you’re the same way. Maybe a big part of your journey is drawing to a close. Maybe a horrible time in your life is coming to an end. Maybe both are the same. Wherever you find yourself, this much I know:
Endings are necessary. They are good. They aren’t always happy. They aren’t always tidy. But they must happen for us to move forward, because that’s what it means to be human. To move forward. To grow. To change. To chance. Too often we forget that; too often we strive to be unchanging, sedentary, immovable and thus end up rebelling against our own selves. We aren’t static creatures because we lack the resources for it.
We are finite. And finitude means adaptation, and adaptation means changing things about ourselves, our circumstances and our lives as often as necessary.
So part of becoming who we are meant to be is letting go of one version of ourselves, or one time in our lives, and moving towards the next. We don’t live for the end, and I don’t really believe we stop at the end; I think each ending is for the moment, not for the one found within it.
Many thoughts. These are just a few.
I happen to have many friends and acquaintances who are interested in apologetics (being able to explain the Christian faith). We are an interesting crew, ranging from folks with highly advanced Ph.D’s to schmoes like me, and we are keen on being able to put our faith into words. We want people to understand that belief in God and His Son, Jesus Christ, is not a blind leap into an uninformed, unintelligent abyss, but a reasonable belief grounded in reason and evidence.
This desire for understanding puts us in the path of people who don’t always agree with our view of the world. In fact, many apologists actually seek out those with the toughest questions, the most skeptical of the skeptics. They do this not as a fool’s errand, but as an act of worship and charity; worship, because they want to tell of their glorious God, and charity, because they want their skeptical friends to hear the truth of the Gospel. And it is exactly encounters like those that keeps my apologist friends forever reading, researching, writing, honing their understanding of God’s universe and will.
We seek, to the best of our ability, to make God known.
All of this is well and good, but if we’re not careful we can get into a rut. To put it plainly, we cheat. We tend to think that the deep questions of the faith come from mature minds, from people who are able to critically assess the universe in which they live. So we build our answers around that presumption, importing large words and sophisticated sounding terms that are meant to impart wisdom as well as create the impression that we know of which we speak. We arm ourselves for adults and feel like we have things mastered.
But have you ever tried apologetics with a not-quite-four year old?
Now THAT is a test. Perhaps the real test of whether or not you truly understand what you believe.
Because a four year old doesn’t have the intellectual or moral hang ups of an adult. They don’t have the baggage of past sins, the experience of past hurts, or any other number of objections that make faith in God difficult. A four year old is just the opposite: so gloriously free of preconceptions that their questions are truly a search for knowledge.
You don’t think about this when you’re doing apologetics with adults. You assume there’s a knowledge base of some sort, and you go from there. With kids, it’s a blank page. And it’s hard. You never realize just how silly you can sound until you try out a fancy apologetic argument on a preschooler.
It sounds about as stupid as trying to explain superheroes. In your mind it all makes sense, but you can see on the kid’s face that what you’re selling, they ain’t buying.
And when a kid doesn’t get a concept, when they truly don’t understand – but want to – they ask the question that every parent dreads hearing, but every apologist thinks they’re prepared for: why?
Why can’t we see God?
Why does God live in heaven?
Why did Jesus have to die?
Why is there sin?
Why did my grandmother get sick?
Why do some people get baptized?
Why do you pray?
Why do some prayers not get answered?
Not all of a preschoolers questions are whys, though. You get a lot of interesting whats as well: what will heaven look like? What does Jesus do all day? What if God has stinky feet? What happens if we don’t love God?
And don’t forget the wheres, whens and hows.
It is astounding how quickly the philosophy in your head falls apart in a four year old’s hands, how guilty you can be of not thinking deeply enough so a preschooler can understand.
When Jesus said it takes the faith of a child to come to God, I don’t think he meant simple-minded in the sense we think of. I think he meant it in the sense that a child seeks genuine answers with genuine awe. As adults, we just seek answers that will shut somebody up, end the argument, get us through the day. It’s a utilitarian belief rather than a sincere one. That’s a broad statement to make, but I don’t think it’s unfair.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because both of my children have been asking some profound questions, but especially my son. He wants so badly to understand things that he can turn a five minute car ride into an interrogatory hell. He asks a million questions, often repeating the same ones, not because he’s not listening, but precisely because he is. And it pushes me to constantly reframe my answers, to drill down, distill, cut away the fluff that adults will allow until I get to the meat that he’s craving.
I’lll stand on a stage and face an audience full of adults any day. And they’ll probably think I’m smarter than my son does.
So for all you apologists out there who think you have the answers down pat, may I issue you a helpful challenge, one meant to hone your own thinking and help make you sharper for the adults you face?
Sometime in the next month or so, volunteer to teach your church’s preschool class, or give the children’s church sermon.
You’ll be amazed at how much the kids can teach you.
This morning, I began a new segment with my Christian Learning Center class. We’re discussing the philosophical foundations and development of Biblical worldview this semester, so that means were looking extensively at how the Bible answers the four fundamental questions of life: origin, meaning, morality and destiny. This morning marked the beginning of our look at morality. So naturally I started in a really strange place: the story of Cain and Abel.
I read the story from Genesis 4 and then asked the students one simple question: Was God fair to Cain?
Immediately they connected my question with the punishment of Cain, and naturally they said that God was not only fair to Cain, but merciful. I kindly replied that Cain’s punishment wasn’t the action I questioned. I wanted to know if God were fair to Cain before that.
They questioned my question, so I asked them to do me a favor (you can do this too, if you want to play along at home and humor an idiot such as myself): I asked them to go back into Genesis 1-3 and find the place where God laid down the laws regarding sacrifice. Any verse would do. Just find the one where God tells Adam and Eve or Cain or Abel what He expected regarding offerings submitted to Him.
They went silent, searching their cellphones and the random hard copies on hand. One minute ticked by, then two; eventually, after five painful minutes, one of the students looked up and said, “This is a trick question. There’s nothing in here about what sacrifices God wanted.”
And I said, “Bingo. When you read the Scripture, it would appear that the gifts from both Cain and Abel are spontaneous gestures. Cain brings part of his stock and trade; Abel brings part of his. God is pleased with Abel’s, not so pleased with Cain’s. There’s no reason given why He felt that way, despite the fact that many Christians have been taught that Abel gave from a pure heart but Cain didn’t. That’s not in the text here**, so let’s put it aside and consider this story as it’s written, and let me ask you again: was God fair to Cain?”
**I’m patently aware that Hebrews 11:4 acknowledges that Abel’s sacrifice was better than Cain’s, but the writer of Hebrews still doesn’t tell us why that was so – it merely confirms it was. So I submit to you that the notion that Abel’s heart was more in tune with God is something that we read into the text to help create a context for what happens next. I think this is an instance where well-meaning Christians have invented a false “truth” to help ameliorate discomfort over the seeming arbitrariness of God in the passage.
There was a pause. Finally, one of my students said, “No, I don’t think He was. It’s not fair to not give a guy any standards and then tell him he doesn’t meet those standards.”
Other students agreed.
One did not. She still insisted that God had been plenty fair to Cain, and that Cain was a jerk at heart anyway because he got miffed and killed Abel. And murder confirms jerkiness, so Cain probably brought a jerky sacrifice and God merely pointed that out.
Again, I told asked her to put aside the aftermath of Cain’s sacrifice, and just consider the sacrifice itself. I asked her to set aside everything else she knew about the story and just consider, for a moment, if God were fair to Cain in rejecting his sacrifice.
She looked at me, and said brilliantly, “Yes. Because He’s God, and He determines what’s acceptable or not.”
And I pointed at her and said, “Exactly. This is the beginning point of morality for anyone who would profess to be a Christian: God alone determines what is and isn’t acceptable. What is and isn’t right or wrong.”
I wish I could say that this was a deep and profound thought that I’ve been harboring for a long time. I wish I could say that I stole it from someone like John Piper or Tim Keller or Al Mohler or any other wise and deep theologian. Instead, it was the result of me staying awake most of the night with this story on my mind, convinced that it was the place to begin our exploration on morality without really understanding why, other than the fact that this story has ALWAYS bothered me.
Maybe it’s because I’m an older brother myself, but I never could quite shake the idea that Cain got a raw deal. I’ve grown up being taught that he was a jerk, that he was an evil person at heart (as evidenced by his killing Abel), and it never seemed quite fair to me. In fact, it always struck me as retrofitting. I’m probably the only Cain sympathizer in the known universe, so I’ll accept any questions regarding my orthodoxy with the acknowledgement that I deserve such questions.
But walking through this passage this morning, with God leading me ahead of my students, helping us all to see that He alone is the Sovereign King who decides right and wrong on the basis of His perfect, unchanging nature and character…well, that was the most exciting thing that’s happened to me in a long time. It brought sense to a text I’ve wrestled with for years and it opened up my heart to fear and marvel at God once again.
I don’t think God was capricious in His choosing between Cain and Abel. I don’t doubt that any of the explanations we’ve offered in the millennia since this story was written contain truth about Cain, his heart and what God knew about each. To be perfectly honest, this story makes me think about Romans 9, an incredible passage that makes clear God makes vessels of dishonor to use as He sees fit.
I would daresay Cain was one of those vessels.
The students sat stunned at the idea. I won’t say anyone’s paradigm shifted (after all, it’s hard to shift anything at 7:30 in the morning) but there was certainly a look of comprehension on a great many faces. The story of Cain and Abel wasn’t about their righteousness or unrighteousness – it was about the Sovereign God and His established rule.
I’ll probably be castigated for my take on the passage, and I invite and welcome the discussion in the comments below. But even if my interpretation is unorthodox, I stand by the conclusion: that this story shows us, if nothing else, that the root of Biblical and Christian morality lies not within ourselves, or even our understanding of God’s Law. It is found in the essence of God Himself, in His character and authority and His power.
Can’t get more orthodox than that.