True Piety

So yesterday, I asked for some folks to submit questions or topics for the blog. I got a good response (exactly three!) and wanted to tackle one today. The question was simple:

Is the pious pious because God loves it, or does God love the pious because it’s pious?

I’m not entirely certain what the question is referring to (whether an individual or an action or some notion of piety), but my best guess is that the inquiring party is curious to know if something is holy because God loves it, or if God loves something because it’s holy. I’m assuming it’s a question of intrinsic/extrinsic worth – whether something is valuable in and of itself, or whether it’s value is derived from an outside source.

full-holyI could be completely wrong on this, but I’m going with the answer of A: something is holy/pious because God loves it, which would be extrinsic value. It is because God says so. This applies across the board, which will be a point of contention for some people.

See, many folks believe that humans have intrinsic worth – that is, by virtue of being human, they are valuable. This is a notion that has long been affirmed from the pulpit: how many times have you heard a preacher say that humanity is “God’s special creation”? Heck, I’ve said it (and typed it) because it’s something I think most of us want to be true. That we are somehow different from everything else in the world, because God made us special.

But stop for a moment and take a look at the very definition of what we call “intrinsic” value: we are special because God made us that way.

We’re not special just because. We’re special because that’s how God made us. He gives us our value; it’s His mark within us that makes us special, so in a sense it’s understandable that we would consider that intrinsic value; but it’s still extrinsic because the value is only there if God puts it there. Take him out of the equation and what are we?

Perhaps there’s no better example of this than Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees and scribes in the New Testament. Over and over again, they sought to have their righteousness upheld before Jesus, to have their personal holiness labeled as “worthy”. And yet time and again Jesus told them that they had missed the point:.

Take this passage from Luke 11 for example:

37 When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. 38 But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal.

39 Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40 You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? 41 But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.

42 “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.

43 “Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces.

44 “Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.”

45 One of the experts in the law answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.”

46 Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.

47 “Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. 48 So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. 49 Because of this, God in his wisdomsaid, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ 50 Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, 51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.

52 “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”

53 When Jesus went outside, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, 54 waiting to catch him in something he might say.

The Pharisees thought that their piety was worthy of being loved by God, but Jesus pointed out just how woefully unlovable their pious deeds were. He pointed them to a higher standard than their understanding and execution of God’s Law. He pointed them to a life that was found worthy because God loved it, not because it was earned. Piety without grace is impossible; it takes the grace of God to make us capable of any kind of pious living. The moment we forget that – the moment we assume that we hold the keys to godliness within ourselves – that’s the moment we become well and truly foolish.

In Scripture, anything that was considered holy was only considered such because God said it was so. It begins with the acts of creation – “God saw that it was good” – and continues: Abel’s sacrifice, Noah’s character, Abram’s faith, Moses’ obedience. On and on and on. Those things were holy/pious because God blessed them, not the other way around. And the same is true today. We are not made right with God because we are righteous, we are made right with God because we receive His righteousness as our gift. Or as Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.

Yes, it’s true that God died for you, but He didn’t die for you because you were special. He died for you because He was merciful, forgiving, compassionate, good, gracious. We are who we are only because He Is Who He Is.

And we should never forget that.

So Tiny, So Strong

One of the many ways we passed the time before surgery...

Ella’s surgery went surprisingly well today. She was in and out of the operating room in under 20 minutes, and while she did sleep in post-op for about an hour and a half, she exhibited no real signs of pain. She’s eaten like a horse, however, and we should have seen it coming. All morning long the child kept asking, “Now, when am I going to get breakfast again?”

So it should come as no surprise that when the doctor gave her the medical “all clear” to eat whatever she felt like once she got home, Ella took note – and then took to eating. Herewith, a complete list of her afternoon ingestion, beginning from her time in the post-op room:

– 2 popsicles (orange and pink)

– Jell-O (strawberry)

– Skittles (the entire rainbow)

– pot roast (with gravy)

– potatoes (with gravy)

– carrots

– lima beans

– corn

– half a can of chicken noodle soup (her brother ate the other half)

– a roll

– 2 milkshakes (a homemade chocolate and a Zaxby’s vanilla)

Joey Chestnut wishes he had her game. Kid’s intake was immense.

All of this to say, my little girl isn’t so little as I imagine her to be. She faced today’s entire ordeal with a smile on her face, and only once did she even seem the slightest bit afraid. We watched Tangled, colored, shot baskets (on a kid-sized goal), played with an Etch-a-Sketch (“Cool! Just like in Toy Story!”), and in general just passed the time before surgery with confidence and ease. It helped me, as a matter of fact, to be involved with her, and I think she knew that.

There are those moments when you realize that the kid you see is a mirage; that you look at your child through a refracted lens, the light bending in such a way to show you a small baby or a cute little toddler just learning to navigate the big bad world and utterly dependent upon you to guide and hold them, to be their foundation. I still see Ella as the curious two year-old who loves to smear chocolate on her face, or as the suddenly verbose three year-old who can’t wait to tell me the latest word she’s learned.

I’m not hallucinating, mind you – I see her physically changing into a school-aged kid just like everyone else, but when she smiles a certain way, or turns her head just so, I still see that little baby I so loved and longed for, the one that showed me the world wasn’t unnecessarily cruel and heartless. I still see the tiny infant who would sigh in my arms as I rocked and sang to her every night before laying her into her crib and staring at her, first to make sure she was still breathing, then just to marvel at her existence. She’s all legs now, but when she runs on her toes I still remember the first steps she took, her little body bouncing uncertainly into the wide open spaces of our living room, her face lit up with the wonder of her own self.

I saw past my mirage today and saw the reality of my daughter: a tough, intelligent, creative girl who will have no problem with school or the bus or anything else that life throws at her. I saw her spirit, her strength, and not for the last time I marveled at the wonder of someone so essentially beautiful and pure and good being given to me as a trust.

This entire day has come and gone without my shedding a single tear, until now. To suddenly just see my daughter for who she is – who she will become – is a gift that demands tears. And I willingly give them as payment.

My Ella, so tiny, so strong, is a big girl now. Part of my heart, that sub-basement level that will always see her as nothing more than the blond bundle of joy that healed me when she drew first breath, is breaking.

The rest is stronger because she is, too.

Signs Your Kid Might Be Gifted (Or A Serial Killer)

Yes, this is Dr. Spencer Reid from "Criminal Minds" - the gifted poster child.

Watching my children play often reminds me just how bright and exceptional they are. Of course, this does not mean that my children are particularly bright and exceptional, as most parents tend to feel this way about their offspring. I’ve never really run into anyone who’s ever said, “You know, I love my kid, but she’s dumber’n a MSNBC news analyst.”

But, my kids have such a sweet, imaginative bond in their play that it’s not hard to imagine that either one, or both, might be gifted. For those who aren’t in the know, gifted is a term that many school systems apply to children who have above-average abilities in a particular area, such as math or science or language. Many schools have programs for gifted children, who are often under-stimulated by the regular classroom and need specialized educational challenges to reach their full potential.

And you can trust me on this because I was a gifted kid. Discovered this through a series of tests in the second grade. I was so excited. The really, really smart kids were the gifted ones, and they got to leave class twice a week to go spend time in a really fun looking classroom with a teacher named Mrs. Neuman. To join their ranks was like being beatified by the gods of cool.

Unfortunately, my gifts were primarily in drawing and making crap up in my head, and Mrs. Neuman’s primary area of gifted specialization was math and science. So I spent a lot of time looking at hellish word problem sheets that required you to figure things out by process of elimination and mark corresponding answers into tiny little boxes with either an “X” or an “O”. For a kid who wanted to spend his time drawing a page full of weaponized horses ridden by ninja cowboys to attack the seaside fortress of the Apache Indians, this was a considerable downer.

I eventually quit the gifted program in seventh grade. Six years of those freaking sheets was enough.

Anyway, I say all of that to say that I secretly hope that my children are gifted. I know that there are thousands of articles on how to tell if your child is gifted, and schools do a pretty good job of assessing their students and recommending them for testing. But based on my own history, and from watching my children play, I have come up with my own list of signs that your child might be gifted, or a serial killer.

Strangely enough, there’s some crossover. But here’s to the power of positive thinking.

Signs Your Kid Might Be GIfted:

– They can perform simple math functions before the age of two, like balancing your checkbook and correctly filing your EZ Form 1040.

– They understand the complexities of the English language, such as how to actually answer your wife when she asks, “Does this make me look fat?”

– They are capable of creating new worlds with the power of their imagination, and then rule those worlds with a severity that makes Josef Stalin look like Fred Rogers.

– They are capable of drawing highly detailed pictures, like the one of you being tied down by aggressive gnomes because you refused to feed your child cookies for breakfast, thus making the gnomes “very angry.”

– They get easily bored with routine tasks and seek to stimulate themselves by self-guided experimentation, such as throwing a can of spray paint into the oven and turning it on “Broil.”

– They develop a highly sophisticated vocabulary and use it appropriately for both audience and context, like when your five year-old smells something afoul at a party and asks, “Okay – someone here is clearly flatulent.”

– They ask a never-ending barrage of questions that exceed the standard inquiries into basic function or action, such as “Why does that man dress like a woman? Is it because he’s confused?” or “Why do evil people in the movies always wear black? That seems a bit strange.”

– They can easily manipulate others into doing their bidding, such as convincing their grandparents that, yes, they do need that $400 Barbie castle right now.

– They do not easily conform to the standards of their peers, such as when everyone else wants to wear shorts and flip-flops for the class picture but your child wants to dress up like an extra from a Marilyn Manson video or wear his Spider-Man Underoos.

– They take time to reason through the consequences of particular actions, often by removing themselves from the moment and walking in a circle while talking to themselves in a strange voice and looking at non-existent persons.

– They mimic complex social interactions during play, such as holding non-conformist wedding ceremonies between Buzz Lightyear and a football, or a solemn memorial service for their younger sibling’s favorite stuffed animal who strangely went missing.

– They frequently roll their eyes when speaking with you, as if they are either frustrated with your dimness or playfully amused at your charming attempts to speak on their level.

– They reprogram your iPhone, laptop and security system passwords to “Elmo666” and laugh when you can’t change them back.

– They complain about the banality of the commercial children’s movie and lament the death of true auteur’s such as Jim Henson and The Easy Reader.

This is one of those lists that could just go on and on, but my daughter and son just tossed a can of hair spray into the oven. I gotta go…