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Skip McKinstry: The voice of one tweeting in the wilderness • Border-stalker • @Devo140 • #CrossingsOKC

Locked Out of Heaven?

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Temptation. From the series, End of the Desert, by Skip McKinstry.

[Written originally as part of the curriculum for a class on divorce recovery at Crossings Community Church in Oklahoma City, this is addressed primarily to divorced individuals wrestling with the issue of sexuality. This essay is rated “R,” though the culture would likely give it a “G.” But we are dealing with what should be an adult subject. It is a struggle that all of us face and one that we must learn to talk about with the deepest of respect for each other and the deepest reverence for God’s intent.]

“Haven’t you read the Scriptures?” Jesus replied. “They record that from the beginning ‘ God made them male and female.’ And he said, ‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’” (Matthew 19:4-5)

“Locked Out Of Heaven” (Bruno Mars)

Never had much faith in love or miracles
Never wanna put my heart on the line
But swimming in your water is something spiritual
I’m born again every time you spend the night
‘Cause your sex takes me to paradise
Yeah, your sex takes me to paradise
And it show, oh, oh, oh, ohs, yeah, yeah, yeah
‘Cause you make me feel like I’ve been locked out of heaven
For too long, for too long
Yeah, you make me feel like I’ve been locked out of heaven
For too long, for too long
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, Ooh!
Oh, yeah, yeah,
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, Ooh!
You bring me to my knees, you make me testify
You can make a sinner change his ways
Open up your gates ‘cause I can’t wait to see the light
And right there is where I wanna stay. (1)
(Lyrics abbreviated)

Then sprinkle in a few more Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, Ooh!’s just for good measure.

115 million people watched Bruno Mars perform his hit song at the Super Bowl 48 halftime show in 2014. At the time it was the most watched halftime show in history.  (Only Katy Perry in 2015 and Lady Gaga in 2017 have surpassed Mr. Mars.)

We’ve come a long way from marching bands forming an image of the school logo at the fifty yard line. It is almost cliche to talk about football as a religion, but look at the language in Mars’ lyrics: Born again? Paradise? Love? Miracles? Testify? Make a sinner change his ways? See the Light? If you didn’t know better you might think this is a worship song being played at a Hillsong venue or perhaps at an old-time tent revival. Can I get a witness?

But the song isn’t about football. It is about, well, you probably can figure it out.
Whether your “first time” was in the back seat of a car with the windows fogged over or—more appropriately—on your honeymoon, there is at least one thing you know about sex: it feels good. No, it feels very good. Even when it was bad it was good—good enough to try again. And again. And again. And again. Don’t stop!

…Time out! Before this gets completely out of hand. The bottom line is this. We like it. Although every instance did not necessarily transport us to the pinnacle of erotic bliss, we cannot un-ring the bell.

If you’re like the rest of the culture and are over the age of 17 or 18, you’ve “had sex.” (At least that’s true for close to half of you.) Even if you waited for matrimony, if you’ve been married you’ve “had sex,” and the bell continues to ring in your ears. Sadly, that ringing in the ears does not go away just because you have been divorced. The object of our desire may be gone, but the desire remains and acts as a persistent and annoying reminder of our incompleteness. But like it or not we already know that, as a single Christian, sex is out of bounds. We know that is true, but we generally don’t like it. It hurts. Chastity (a word that sounds like it was coined by Queen Victoria) is way too difficult.

These are typical of the questions that come to mind:
Is sex bad?
Why do I feel like a junkie going through withdrawals?
What is sex really for anyway?
Why do I have these desires when a sexual relationship isn’t an option?
This is all well and good, but what I want to know is, what can I do with my girlfriend?
Am I really locked out of heaven?

Does God think sex is bad?

Let’s get the “Is sex bad?” question out of the way immediately. Here are a few verses from the Song of Solomon:
Kiss me and kiss me again,
for your love is sweeter than wine. (1:2)

My lover is mine, and I am his.
He browses among the lillies,
Before the dawn breezes blow
and the night shadows flee. (2:16,17)

You are beautiful, my darling,
beautiful beyond words.
Your eyes are like doves
behind your veil.
Your hair falls in waves,
like a flock of goats winding down the slopes of Gilead.
Your teeth are as white as sheep,
recently shorn and freshly washed.
Your smile is flawless,
each tooth matched with its twin.
Your lips are like scarlet ribbon;
your mouth is inviting.
Your cheeks are like rosy pomegranates
behind your veil.
Your neck is as beautiful as the tower of David,
jeweled with the shields of a thousand heroes.
Your breasts are like two fawns,
twin fawns of a gazelle grazing among the lilies.
Before the dawn breezes blow
and the night shadows flee,
I will hurry to the mountain of myrrh
and to the hill of frankincense.
You are altogether beautiful, my darling,
beautiful in every way. (4: 1-7)

You are my private garden, my treasure, my bride,
a secluded spring, a hidden fountain.
Your thighs shelter a paradise of pomegranates
with rare spices—
henna with nard,
nard and saffron,
fragrant calamus and cinnamon,
with all the trees of frankincense, myrrh, and aloes,
and every other lovely spice.
You are a garden fountain,
a well of fresh water
streaming down from Lebanon’s mountains.
Awake, north wind!
Rise up, south wind!
Blow on my garden
and spread its fragrance all around.
Come into your garden, my love;
taste its finest fruits. (4:12-16)

Somewhere in the middle of reading the Song of Songs (Right after you blurt out something like “I had no idea this was in the Bible!) your heartbeat starts to quicken and you realize that Bruno Mars may not know the half of it. He has a clue; as it turns out, sex itself is a clue, but unless he is singing about his marriage—and he is not married though he is in an unusually long-term relationship by celebrity standards—he is missing the point, regardless of how much fun it is.

Between “Locked out of Heaven” and the “Song of Songs” is a nearly infinite distance, even though at first blush it does not feel like it. Lauren Winner sums up the difference this way, “Indeed, one can say that in Christianity’s vocabulary the only real sex is the sex that happens in a marriage; the faux sex that goes on outside marriage is not really sex at all. The physical coming together that happens between two people who are not married is only a distorted imitation of sex, as Walt Disney’s Wilderness Lodge Resort is only a simulation of real wilderness. The danger is that when we spend too much time in the simulations, we lose the capacity to distinguish between the ersatz and the real. (2)

Whatever your theological, political, hermeneutical, metaphorical interpretation of the Song of Songs may be, there is no mistaking the fact that this is a story of deeply romantic love and the physical expression of that love. And it is right there in God’s Holy Book. (The good Reverend Shaw Moore must be devastatingly scandalized.) One cannot read the Song of Songs and come away thinking that God hates sex.

Quite the contrary, He invented it.

So why do I feel like a junkie going through withdrawals?

The short answer is, because you are a junkie going through withdrawals. And believe it or not, that is exactly the way God designed you. Recent neuro-scientific research has given us insight into the chemistry and wiring of the brain and their impact on human sexuality. Sexual activity, real or imagined, lights up several parts of the brain, including an area known as the nucleus accumbens, resulting in increased production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter which activates the brain’s reward centers leading to a euphoric sense of well being. The result is the development of new memory pathways in the hippocampus and the amygdala and a desire to repeat the activity that led to the reward. (3) In a very real sense, the human brain is saying, “you might as well face it, you’re addicted to love.” In fact, according to Dr. Gert Holstege, a neuroscientist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands has explained that, during an orgasm, the brain looks 95% the same as the brain of a person taking heroin. (4)

Another significant point to make regarding the brain and human sexuality is the fact that certain parts of the brain seem to suspend activity during sex. Apparently, the lateral orbitofrontal cortex, a part of the brain behind the left eye that functions as the seat of reason and behavioral control, goes dormant during arousal. (5) In other words, sex suspends reason, a perfectly acceptable outcome for a married couple committed to each other for life, but for the couple who is still not certain that they have found “the one,” that suspension of reason can be a big problem. A challenged ability to reason, coupled (pun intended) with the ferociously addictive nature of sexual activity can lead to bad choices. Or, as Woody Allen (a man not well-known for his wise choices) put it, paraphrasing Groucho Marx, “Love goes out the door when sex comes innuendo.” When it comes to making the choice of someone to spend the rest of one’s life with, it is clear that sexual activity can short-circuit our ability to make that decision cautiously and prayerfully and wisely.

Additionally, two significant hormones are released as a result of sexual activity, oxytocin and vasopressin. In women, the presence of oxytocin stimulated by breastfeeding assists in developing the bond between baby and child. Sexual stimulation also increases the production of oxytocin in women again resulting in a bonding experience with her mate. While men also experience an increase in the production of oxytocin during stimulation, its role is somewhat different. The bonding chemical released in the male brain during sex is vasopressin. “There is also some indication that vasopressin may be involved in protecting the mate and becoming aggressive toward other males.”(6)

All this talk of euphoria, rewards, suspended reason, bonding and especially addiction through brain chemistry, may sound negative at first. But when you think about it, this really just means that God has designed us in such a way that our sexuality, when exercised according to God’s wise plan can make that euphoria a very, very good thing. Some research has even suggested that sex can increase the production of brain cells. The brain rewards and the hormones of bonding can lead to a healthy attachment to our mate, and even the suspension of reason can lead to intimacy beyond mere intellectual agreement. “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” (Blaise Pascal)

This is, to quote The Fabulous Thunderbirds, “powerful stuff.” Too powerful to be mishandled. As an additional insight, it is speculated that the Hebrew words for “fruitful” and “multiply” as in “be fruitful and multiply” are both rooted in the word “ur,” which aside from being Abraham’s original neighborhood in Chaldea, also means “flame.” This is one of those flames that, as the old story goes, in the fireplace it will keep you warm. But out of the fireplace, it can burn down the whole house.

Promise me, O women of Jerusalem,
not to awaken love until the time is right.
(Song of Solomon 2:7, repeated at 3:5 and again at 8:4)

And if you think that kind of admonition is only for women, consider this from Proverbs 5 (NLT):
Drink water from your own well—
share your love only with your wife.
Why spill the water of your springs in the streets,
having sex with just anyone?
You should reserve it for yourselves.
Never share it with strangers.
Let your wife be a fountain of blessing for you.
Rejoice in the wife of your youth.
She is a loving deer, a graceful doe.
Let her breasts satisfy you always.
May you always be captivated by her love.

Okay, we get it, sex is good. (Duh.) But what in the world is it really for?

While defending the inclusion of the Song of Songs in the canon, one ancient Jewish rabbi put it this way, “For all of eternity in its entirety is not as worthy as the day on which Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Writings are holy, but Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.” (7) We may feel the rabbi’s comment is a little over the top. But maybe not.

We know that Adam and Eve’s sexual relationship had God’s blessing. If fact, he pretty much told them to do it right there in the first chapter of the Bible. “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it.” (Genesis 1:29) Sexuality was part of God’s plan. For one thing, human sexuality was a way for the world to become populated with more humans with whom God could share his love and who could, because they are made in God’s image, love each other. Is God great, or what? He could have simply created more humans out of the mud, but instead, chose to let us in on the fun.

The sexual relationship in marriage is also a real-life metaphor for the self-less giving that characterizes God’s love for us and provides a flesh and blood way for us to emulate him. And finally, it is intended to aid in the creation of a powerful bond between a man and a woman. Recall how Jesus affirmed the godly origin of human sexuality: “Haven’t you read the Scriptures? They record that from the beginning ‘God made them male and female.’And he said, ‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’” (Matthew 19:4-5) He didn’t say that a man leaves his father and mother and just kinda hangs out with his wife for the rest of their lives. He said the two are “joined… united into one.” The King James says, “they twain shall be one flesh.”

We were not created for isolation. We were created for to be in intimate relationship—with God and with others. Isolation is precisely what God was talking about when he declared, “It is not good for man to be alone.”(Genesis 2:18) Usually translated as “man” it may be easier to understand if we look at the more literal meaning of the Hebrew word “ha-adam” — humankind. Out of the oneness of humanity seen in the first Adam, God finished the imprinting of his image on human beings when he “split the Adam,” so to speak, taking Eve out of ha-adam’s side, making them male and female (Genesis 1:27).

From that moment on, as described by psychologist Larry Crabb, they found their genuine identity in the relational truth of their being (Crabb, 2013), first in each individual’s relationship with God, and further, in their love relationship with each other. God, in his eternal desire to share joy with his creatures invented human sexuality. He invented sexual intercourse when he divided humanity (Adam) into two parts, male and female, and provided for the physical, psychological and spiritual connection that can, in the right context (and we do know what that context is), provide a depth of intimacy and joy that strengthens the bond between two people and with God himself.

Adding it up, we have a profound reflection of the Trinity of God himself, in whom, as Francis Schaeffer reminds us, “The Persons of the Trinity communicated with each other and loved each other, before the creation of the world.”(8) Or as Crabb further puts it: “If the eternal is relational because God is a timeless community of three persons in heaven, and if the temporal consists centrally of male and female persons relating on earth in community, then could it be that men and women relating together in this world are intended to provide a glimpse of the relational life of the Trinity?” (9)

But it is all about context. There really is a context for expressing the gift of human sexuality—marriage. One man, one woman, committed to the best of their ability and with God’s help, for life.
You are my private garden, my treasure, my bride,
a secluded spring, a hidden fountain. (Song of Solomon 4:12)

Why do I have these desires when a sexual relationship isn’t an option?

So now we have a picture of at least some of God’s intentions for human sexuality—procreation, pleasure, joy, bonding and a reflection of God himself in the Trinity. That’s pretty cool for Adam and Eve and all the married couples I know, but I’m divorced and that sort of sexual relationship—if I am true to God’s intent for my life—remains somewhere, if it exists at all, over the horizon. It just doesn’t seem fair that I would have the same desires when I’m single.

While those desires are indeed about “sex,” especially for those who have been married, we need to consider that they are about something else, too. Look back at Adam and Eve in the Garden before the Fall, still joyously wearing nothing but their birthday suits. Genesis 2:25 says, “Now the man and his wife were both naked, but they felt no shame.” “Naked,” as we generally understand it, is a curious term to be used at that point in Scripture. Why? Because clothing had not even been invented. In fact, clothing was unnecessary given that God had created human beings and the perfect environment for them to dwell in. It was not until the Fall, when Adam and Eve sinned and had something to hide that clothing showed up, first as they tried the impossible, to cover themselves from God’s eyes, and later as God, replacing their feeble efforts, provides animal skins, a foreshadowing Christ’s sacrifice for our sin. So since they had not yet sinned, their nakedness was not merely the state of being unclothed. It was completely bare, physically, emotionally and spiritually unhidden. They had nothing to hide, which is why they were unashamed. We are only ashamed when we have something to hide or we feel we have some sort of shortcoming. Eve never had to ask Adam if this dress made her butt look big. And Adam never had to make up some lame response to avoid conflict.

This nakedness is prerequisite to intimacy, to knowing and being known by the other. They knew each other fully because there were no barriers. Total openness. Total honesty. The perfect environment for love and genuine intimacy with each other and with, as it says in the Book of Common Prayer, “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden.” And to quote Bob Dylan, they “had no secrets to conceal.” So they lived happily ever after. Forever and ever, amen.

Oh wait…

Enter the serpent. Hey, baby, wanna be like God? Just one taste of this apple and you’ll be just like him. See how beautiful it is? Did he really say you shouldn’t eat it? Go ahead, try it. Why should he be the only one to know good and evil? Seriously, just one bite. And give some to that guy with the missing rib who’s standing there not saying anything.

We know how that turned out, don’t we? They tried to play God and wound up losing their relationship with him. Even after the Fall, God did not take away their sexuality; he still wanted grandchildren (so to speak). Sexual desire remained. But the result of the Fall was estrangement with God and with each other. One aspect of that estrangement was an increased difficulty with intimacy, which we have all inherited.

Because of her disobedience, God said to Eve, “you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16, NLT) Controlling and ruling indicate the presence of some serious trust issues. They had both sinned and therefore could not trust each other. They couldn’t really even trust themselves. Yielding to temptation had introduced distrust into their relationship and true intimacy requires trust. Before the Fall they were “naked and not ashamed.” Now they had something to hide. This inclination is the opposite of intimacy, yet the desire for intimacy does not go away. “The need for intimacy, to be known and to know, to be close, affirmed, loved; all are human needs. The need for intimacy requires that we understand who we are and share that with those we long to be known by. As we become more intimate, the other speaks into us things about ourselves that we could not possibly know from the inside. We allow the one we are intimate with to discover us in ways we could not do on our own, and we do so with them. It is a process that develops and deepens over time. We know ourselves more fully because we are known more fully.”(10)

Now that sin has entered the picture, intimacy becomes more difficult. We all have things we think we must hide and for that reason we do not fully know and are not fully known. We may even think that sex is the answer to that problem, but many of us have learned the hard way that the kind of nakedness out of which true intimacy can flourish, is more than skin deep. Dawn Eden, author of The Thrill of the Chaste, describes it this way, “A supreme irony…is that the longer you develop your relationship while keeping your clothes on, the more naked you feel.” (11)

It is no accident that the King James language for “have sexual relations” is “to know.” That does not mean that sex is a shortcut to intimacy, it is the consummation of an already intimate relationship and in the context of a godly marriage it is an enhancement of that intimacy. We still have these desires because, properly
understood, they are a signpost, they point to our need for genuine intimacy, first with God and then with others, in Christ. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” (St. Augustine)

“This is all well and good, but what I want to know is, what can I do with my girlfriend?”(12)

While the famous “True Love Waits” campaign made for a nice slogan, statistically it turned out to be a bit of a failure. “The efficacy of the program has been questioned based on a 2003 study showing that 6 out of 10 college students who had taken the pledge had broken it, and of the 40% who identified themselves as abstaining from intercourse, 55% acknowledged having participated in oral sex.” (13) Slogans and pledges are not always effective. Gritting your teeth and taking cold showers are insufficient.

If absence makes the heart grow fonder in a relationship, abstinence sometimes causes an unhealthy focus on the very thing we are abstaining from. Try this exercise: Repeat this to yourself for the next 10 seconds: “I will not think about blue elephants. I will not think about blue elephants.” Now, what are you thinking about? Blue elephants, of course. We recognize that we are not talking to teenagers who are trying to decide if they should “go all the way.” We are adults and we know what we are missing.

And despite the “high view” of human sexuality presented here, we are not trying to say that if you wait you’ll have better sex when you’re married, that it will automatically become the land of milk and honey. If you wait, the odds of marrying someone with whom you are ultimately compatible are increased, largely because you will be taking the time to become truly intimate, truly naked before taking your clothes off and letting the hormones have their way with your heart. And we can say that with that kind of openness and honesty in—and perhaps more importantly, out of the bedroom—it is more likely that you will be able to develop the kind of intimate sexual relationship God intends. But it will still take work—pleasant and very rewarding work—but work, nonetheless.

But that is later. Maybe. What about today?

Everything is permissible for me, but not everything is helpful. Everything is permissible for me, but I will not allow anything to control me. (1 Corinthians 6:12, ISV) Yikes! Everything is permissible for me? That is what it says. By the grace of God through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, you are forgiven for every sin you have ever committed and every sin you ever will commit. But you were bought with a price, and as Paul goes on to say, “Therefore, honor God with your bodies.” (1 Cor. 6:20)

Great. Now God has become a killjoy again. Wrong. He is giving us guidance that will enhance our joy, not kill it. Just for the record, in a godly marriage, sex is one of the ways you can honor God with your body. Paul was merely making it clear that you have a choice between healthy, God-honoring sexuality and unhealthy, soul and spirit damaging sexuality.

Let’s make the comparison even more clear in this chart: (14)
Healthy Unhealthy Sex chart
So as you prayerfully make your choices and draw your boundaries, perhaps that list can help you discern the matter more clearly. Will my actions demonstrate caring or using? Does my activity lead toward intimacy or toward compulsive behavior? And so on. These are not laws. We have been delivered from that through Christ. But they can be help us decide what is helpful, and avoid those things that would negatively control us.

While we are on the subject of “What can I do?,” we may as well bring up one of the blue elephants in the room, the subject of [whispered[ masturbation. Okay, admit it, you wanted to ask but were afraid to. An honest reading will not find it directly addressed in scripture. You can find numerous discussions on the Internet—no, not those discussions—by well-meaning and sincere Christians. And you will find as many opinions as people who are willing to give their opinion. Some people endorse the practice for what they consider to be good reasons. Other people condemn the practice for what they consider to be good reasons. But that does not mean that the answer is a toin-coss.

Again, we remember as Paul has told us, “Everything is permissible, but not everything is helpful.” Since it is not our place to impose a new “Law” it is up to you and your conscience, prayerfully guided by the Holy Spirit to make the call. Perhaps the chart that compares healthy sexuality and unhealthy sexuality will be of some value. Should your understanding place the practice squarely within the healthy column, as Paul put it regarding eating certain foods or drinking wine, “Each should be fully convinced in their own mind.” (Romans 14:6) As with any other human activity, our first (and perhaps last) question should be, “Does it glorify the Lord?” As for the related question of pornography, that one is much easier to answer. It is hard to imagine a scenario in which it falls in the “healthy” column. Keep in mind the last phrase of 1Corinthians 6:12, “I will not allow anything to control me,” and then re-read the section on brain chemistry above.

C. S. Lewis, in his book, The Four Loves, describes the difference between positive sexual desire (eros) and negative sexual desire (lust) in this way: “Sexual desire, without Eros, wants it, the thing in itself; Eros wants the Beloved. The thing is a sensory pleasure; that is, an event occurring within one’s own body. We use a most unfortunate idiom when we say, of a lustful man prowling the streets, that he “wants a woman.” Strictly speaking, a woman is just what he does not want. He wants a pleasure for which a woman happens to be the necessary piece of apparatus. … Now Eros makes a man really want, not a woman, but one particular woman. In some mysterious but quite indisputable fashion the lover desires the Beloved herself, not the pleasure she can give.15

Lust turns human beings into consumables; once consumed, they are discarded. That may happen immediately following a “one-night stand” or it might occur twenty years into a marriage. One partner may simply wake up one morning and decide that they no longer love the other. Perhaps that is an indication that either it was never about love, or at some point what might have been love had been mis-directed, turned into mere lust and having consumed all they thought was available, is ready to move on. Of course we probably would not describe it that way. Instead we would simply lament, with B.B. King, “the thrill is gone,” a distinct echo of Lewis’ description of sensory pleasure as, “something that occurs within one’s own body.” If what we think of as love is merely a feeling, something that originates within our own body, it will fade and eventually die. Isolation will be the ultimate result, regardless of how many “partners” we may go through.

It is certainly ironic that acting out of lust leads precisely in the opposite direction of what we truly desire. Why does God want to keep us from that which we think we desire? From John Cloud and Henry Townsend, Boundaries in Dating: “…notice the command not to eat from a certain tree (a command that presents the opportunity to celebrate God’s provision by honoring His prohibition [Gen. 2: 16– 17]) is immediately followed by God’s observation that “it is not good that the man should be alone,” and by His declared intent to make further provision for Adam, “I will make him a helper fit for him” (v.18). Notice two things about this strange sequence of warning then blessing. First, God followed His prohibition by increasing His provision. God created Eve so that the man and woman could dance together in the rhythm of His love and so put His relational glory on display. He provided everything we needed to share in the joy of the Trinity’s party.

As Lewis insightfully wrote, “Joy is the serious business of heaven.” We need to be clear: God’s prohibitions exist to safeguard the enjoyment of His provisions. God told Adam what not to do so that he and his soon-to-arrive wife would enjoy all that they could do. (16)

So what can you do with your girlfriend, or boyfriend?

Lauren Winner, out of her own experience with her fiancée Griff, describes, not so much the answer, but a way to help find that answer: Griff’s friend Greg, a campus pastor at the University of Virginia, sized up the situation and gave us this piece of guidance:

“Don’t do anything sexual that you wouldn’t be comfortable doing on the steps of the Rotunda.” (This was not just practical instruction, but also wisdom: sex has a public dimension and a private dimension. Christians gain access to the private side at a wedding. The question for unmarried couples is not How far can we go? but How do we maintain the integrity of our sexual relationship, which at this point is only public?) (17)

Winner goes on:
“The point is not that you should visit Charlottesville, kiss your sweetie on the steps of the Rotunda, and draw your line there. Rather the point is to discern, with your community, what behaviors can protect the body and God’s created sexual intent.” (18)

Promise me, O women of Jerusalem, not to awaken love until the time is right.

Am I really locked out of heaven?

In the Italian movie, “Il Postino,” a simple-minded postman named Mario in a small Italian coastal village is befriended by the exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Mario asks Neruda to teach him how write poetry for the beautiful, but aloof, Beatrice, with whom Mario is smitten. In one of the more memorable scenes from the movie, the two men are sitting on the beach and the poet is helping Mario understand the concept of metaphor. In a moment of epiphany, Mario pronounces, “Maybe everything is a metaphor for something else!”

Millions of lines of poetry and literature have been written with symbolic and metaphorical reference to the romantic, emotional, spiritual and physical love between a man and a woman. From Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ to Robert Burns’, “Your love is like a red, red rose” to the Beatles’ “Happiness is a warm gun,” and Miley Cyrus’, “I came in like a wrecking ball,” poets have searched for the perfect metaphor to describe their love and what that love brings out in them. Sometimes they have succeeded sublimely and sometimes…not so much.

Curiously, it turns out that human sexuality, even the very act of intercourse itself, while it has a practical purpose, is itself a metaphor of the most sublime love of all, the love of Christ for his church. Paul, echoing Genesis and Jesus, takes this a step further and reveals something of ultimate significance about all this: As the Scriptures say, “A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.” This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one. (Ephesians 5:31-32) A great mystery, indeed. So the Song of Songs really is about sex. And it is also about much, much more.

Just in case this talk about Jesus and sex and his bride makes you a little nervous, you are not alone. In an essay entitled, “Is There Sex in Heaven,” Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft, compares the title question to a child asking, “Can you eat candy during sex?” “… a funny question only from the adult’s point of view. Candy is one of children’s greatest pleasures; how can they conceive a pleasure so intense that it renders candy irrelevant?”(19) The sexual relationship between married lovers is, as stated before, a flesh and blood, real-life metaphor, a wonderful experience. But when seen as a foretaste of the depth of what Kreeft calls “the delights of spiritual intercourse with God,” it pales in comparison. It is a gift of God, but it is intended not as an end in itself, its purpose is to point us toward God himself. (20)

But sex is not the only foretaste we have of that divine connection with God. Prayer, reading scripture, service to others, close friendships, meditation and reflection on God’s word or his creation, are all among what is likely an endless list of ways we can see our vital connection with God. For the single person, our goal is not that we should become married in order to have that foretaste of heaven found in the marital bed. That would really be setting our sights too low. (Even in marriage we are called beyond that.) Instead, we ought to use our time of singleness to more fully seek God himself, recognizing that even those things we feel deprived of can be seen as reminders of our incompleteness apart from him, challenging us to do what we can to move closer into intimacy with him, recognizing that intimacy comes only as a gift from him, not from our works.

During this time, it might be of some help to discover a few things about ourselves as individuals and how we have each been uniquely created to experience God in particular ways. Gary Thomas, in his book Sacred Pathways, lists a number of ways that individuals approach God, based in their own God-given personality. Naturalists find their closest experience of God in the outdoors. Traditionalists love and experience God through ritual, liturgy and symbol. Intellectuals approach God through their mind and study. Contemplatives connect with God through meditation and adoration. There are others and he includes a quiz that can help you identify your own style. That kind of book may be of help.

Spiritual Formation programs at your church—the Apprentice Series and community groups, or courses such as DivorceCare, Divorce Recovery, Celebrate Recovery, and others can be an aid to you in growing your understanding and relationship with God. They all exist to help you connect with increasing depth with God and with others. The literature of spiritual discipline has many exercises you can do. Brennan Manning, for example, has an exercise that he suggests you do for thirty days. It is very simple and can be profoundly life changing. Simply close your eyes and pray, “Abba, I belong to you.” at least once a day. (20) As Manning would have put it, God will be ecstatic that you have turned your focus toward him, however briefly.

In many ways human sexuality remains a mystery. But that is not a bad thing. In the right context it provides us with something to explore, a source of seemingly endless joy. Even as a single person, some reflection on the topic gives us insight into ourselves and more importantly into the person of God, the author of endless joy and the person we, in our heart of hearts, most desire to know and be known by. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (1 Corinthians 13, 9-12) And that really will be worth the wait.

1 Locked Out of Heaven, Bruno Mars, Writer(s): Peter Gene Hernandez, Copyright: Thou Art The Hunger, Roc Nation Music, Music Famamanem, Toy Plane Music, Northside Independent Music Publishing LLC, BMG Gold Songs, Universal Music Corp., Mars Force Music, Bughouse
2 Winner, Lauren F. (2006-07-01). Real Sex (Kindle Locations 475-478). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
3 Miller, Max. (2010-09-15) Braingasm: Sex and Your Synapses. (http://bigthink.com/going-mental/braingasm-sexand-your-synapses)
4 Quoted in Travis, John. There’s no faking it. Science News, Vol. 164, Issue 22.
5 Nuzzo, Regina. (2008-2-11) Science of the Orgasm. Los Angeles Times (http://www.latimes.com/features/health/la-he-orgasm11feb11,0,4954575,full.story)
6 Struthers, Wm. M., Wired for Intimacy. p. 105, Inter-Varsity Press, 2009.
7 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Song_of_Songs
8 Schaeffer, Francis A. Francis Schaeffer Trilogy. p. 288, Crossway Books, 1990
9 Crabb, Dr. Larry (2013-06-01). Fully Alive: A Biblical Vision of Gender That Frees Men and Women to Live Beyond Stereotypes (p. 30). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
10 Struthers, Wm. M., Wired for Intimacy. p. 43, Inter-Varsity Press, 2009.
11 Eden, Dawn. 2007-2-14) Father’s Day, National Review Online, (http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/219968/fathers-day/dawn-eden)
12 Winner, Lauren F. (2006-07-01). Real Sex (Kindle Location 1451). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
13 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/True_Love_Waits
14 Modified from Struthers, p. 49, which was modified from Maltz & Maltz, The Porn Trap, p.182, Harper Collins,2008.
15 Lewis, C. S. (1971-09-29). The Four Loves (Harvest Book) (p. 94). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
16 Cloud, Henry; Townsend, John (2009-05-26). Boundaries in Dating: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Relationships (pp. 241-242). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
17 Winner, Lauren F. (2006-07-01). Real Sex (Kindle Locations 1464-1468). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
18 Winner, Lauren F. (2006-07-01). Real Sex (Kindle Locations 1484-1487). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
19 Kreeft, Peter. Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven, Ignatius Press, 1990. (excerpted at http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/sex-in-heaven.htm)
20 Manning, Brennan. The Furious Longing of God. p. 57, David C. Cook, 2009.14

 

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We’re Not in Kansas Anymore.

pancakes for 311blog

In the winter of 1971, our little band of merry pranksters had travelled from Fayetteville, Arkansas, to Little Rock to attend a concert. I have no idea what the concert was. As cliched proof that I am someone who officially lived through that era, there are a fair number of things that I simply don’t remember. But there are things that I do remember and this is one of them.

Ken, Ted, Tom, Erika and I stumbled into a 24-hour breakfast restaurant in North Little Rock the morning after on a bright, sunny day, made all the more bright because our eyes were not at all accustomed to light. We were the proverbial motley crew. Hippies. Refugees from a college life that afforded us too much privilege and required of us too little diligence, we thought of ourselves as somehow radical, but we were more like the hapless characters from…

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The Grace of A.D.D.: Reflections on a Dear Childhood Friend.

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String Theory #1, by the author, 2017.

I was eight or nine. 1960. Little Rock, Arkansas. My dad was moving into management in the world of manufacturing and we moved from the south side of Little Rock to a new subdivision on the west side. Our neighbors were doctors, business owners, and teachers, the Arkansas bourgeoisie if you will. They were all successful young families participating in that historic southern exodus of the late 50s and 60s—white flight. But that’s another topic altogether, which I have addressed here. Of course, I didn’t pay attention to the details. I just thought it was cool to live in a split-level house in a neighborhood with lots of kids.

Next door, lived a family with four kids—three boys and a baby girl. Their father was a surgeon. The oldest boy, Buddy, was my age. He and I and his brothers explored the “wild forests” surrounding the neighborhood, built tree houses, climbed on real houses under construction when the workers weren’t around, played Cowboys and Indians, re-enacted Revolutionary War, Civil War and World War I & II battles, and generally shared an idyllic childhood. Pretty typical of the time. Even when the weather kept us indoors we would turn the family room downstairs into a battlefield, playing Johnny Horton’s “Battle of New Orleans” 45-rpm single on the record player over and over and over. “We fired our guns and the British kept a-comin’ / There wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago /We fired once more and they began a-runnin’ / On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. …they ran through the briars /And they ran through the brambles /And they ran through the bushes / Where the rabbits couldn’t go / They ran so fast / That the hounds couldn’t catch ‘em / On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.” And so on, ad infinitum. (My mother was truly a patient woman.) We were noble defenders of the New World, acting out the logical consequences of the Declaration of Independence.

It was the kind of kid friendship that we have all experienced. An intensity that could cause us both to erupt in uncontrollable laughter simply looking at each other. And the kind of intensity that could lead to inconsolable anger and sadness over a perceived slight, such as the time Buddy offended me—I have no idea how—and I wrote a long note which I threw from the car window in the general direction of his front yard one afternoon when my Mom was driving me somewhere. I don’t even know if he saw it or read it. Regardless, we reconciled at some point, forgetting petty differences.

I recall one afternoon, walking along a gravel road in the woods with Buddy, when we decided to race. In true “hare” fashion, I sprinted ahead, while he moved faster than the tortoise, but not rushing things. In a couple of minutes I would (“Squirrel!”) lose focus and wander off the road to inspect some unusual rock formation, or interesting tree or flower that presented itself to my field of vision—I had attention deficit disorder (ADD) before it was even a thing. Sure enough, Buddy would catch up and pass me, continuing at his measured pace. Once I got my breath back (I also had asthma) I’d sprint ahead again. We would repeat the process a few times until we both bored of the game. I remember clearly him saying to me, not as a childish taunt, just as a matter-of-fact, “I will always be able to run farther than you. My dad told me to keep a slow but steady pace to win.” His dad was a doctor, so who could argue? Besides, Buddy always won the distance race. It has been a continual battle for me to “go the distance.”

In 1961, as my dad changed jobs, my family moved several times, settling in Hannibal, Missouri, until close to the end of my senior year of high school when we returned to northwest Arkansas. In 1969 I started college at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. That was a pretty serious year of cultural upheaval, even in the slow-to-change South. I was attracted (or, perhaps, distracted) by “the Movement” and soon found myself far more interested in extracurricular life than school. True to Timothy Leary’s motto of the time, “I tuned in, turned on, and dropped out,” literally dropping out of school after three semesters.

Coincidentally, Buddy was also in Fayetteville. In fact, much to my envy, he became the lead guitarist in Fayetteville’s most popular and iconic rock and roll band. It seems that part of his “slow and steady” approach had enabled him to become a musician of some merit, while I struggled just to remember a few chords on the guitar. More than that, he was wise enough to recognize, despite his musical success, that long-term goals such as finishing college and cultivating a real career were important. By 1984 he had completed medical school and done a plastic surgery residency at Wake Forest.

I lost track of him after Fayetteville. I did manage with fits and starts through the years to complete a BA in philosophy. It wasn’t that I was stupid, I did manage to graduate cum laude. In 2006! I always lacked the kind of focus and consistency that lends itself to “worldly” success. However, in my mid-twenties I was mercifully rescued from trying to measure the worth of my life in terms of worldly success. I became a Christian. My worth is a gift from God. Even as a follower of Christ my life has continued to be just like the race between me and Buddy at 9 years old. In so many ways I have remained the hare, starting strong and fading, only to start strong and fade again, over and over. I became a graphic designer and worked successfully in advertising for most of my career. Thanks to the ever-present deadlines, it is kind of an adrenaline driven industry, and adrenaline is a neurotransmitter craved by people with ADD, so it worked out pretty well. Creative fields reward people for their distractibility, or as it is perhaps euphemistically described, non-linear thinking. And despite not being especially adept at the art of marriage, I do have four wonderful adult sons, a delightful daughter-in-law, and two beautiful granddaughters.

Buddy’s life has not been without struggle or tragedy. I knew that his parents divorced and in 1980, his father, who was also my doctor during the Fayetteville era, committed suicide. In preparation for a class I am facilitating at church on the value of autobiography in spiritual formation, I recently did a Google search to see what my childhood friend had been up to since those heady days in northwest Arkansas. He had become a cosmetic surgeon, settling eventually in toney Asheville, North Carolina, with a successful practice and was by all accounts very popular with his patients. He was still an active and accomplished musician, but had traded his rock and roll roots for something a bit more Appalachian, mastering the violin and the fiddle. He was an artist with a scalpel and on stringed instruments. Unsurprisingly, he had turned from childhood game playing to become a genuine Civil War re-enactor. He had married a beautiful woman who shared at least some of his passion for re-enactment as they regularly attended period balls and antebellum soireés. Though he had no children, it appears that slow and steady served him well.

Naturally, none of that detracted from my unfortunate envy of his success.

The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, in an essay entitled, “Learning to Live,” wrote the following: “A few years ago a man who was compiling a book entitled “Success” wrote and asked me to contribute a statement on how I got to be a success. I replied indignantly that I was not able to consider myself a success in any terms that had a meaning to me. I swore I had spent my life strenuously avoiding success. If it so happened that I had once written a best seller, this was a pure accident, but to inattention and naiveté, and I would take very good care never to do the same again. If I had a message to my contemporaries, I said, it was surely this, be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success.”

I am not a drunk and am likely not a bastard nor a madman (depending on who you ask), but I have managed, through no great achievement on my part to avoid success in many areas of my life. ADD is the subject of a lot of jokes, and there are many who challenge its very existence as a psychological disorder. Certainly there is a tendency to over-diagnose and over-medicate those who are diagnosed. But I can say from personal experience that it is real and it can wreak varying degrees of havoc in the lives of those who suffer from it and in the lives of those around them. It can be poisonous to relationships. Focus comes and goes in fits and starts. Sometimes flashes of brilliance show up, but more often there is the frustration and self-doubt borne of not being able to stick with something until it is finished, because some infernal shiny object has created an unavoidable diversion. I wrestle with it on a daily basis, in a way similar to the way a person with dyslexia struggles to read. It is hard to call it a handicap, but it is a major annoyance. Still, too much focus on that is just me playing the victim card. (I’ve taught a class on overcoming victimhood, too.) Everyone has their own cross to bear.

In many ways, I am still that somewhat envious 9-year-old, unable to keep up with my measured and steady friend. I have also struggled with a degree of resentment toward God for the differences in our brain chemistry that led Buddy to his successes and me to a life that has been, not without pockets of success, but perhaps a little less than I might have hoped for. Yet I am slowly coming to understand how much I am loved by God unconditionally regardless of my shortcomings. For me not to see that is to remain deeply committed to works-righteousness—to trying to be good enough or succesful enough to please the God who loved me enough to die for me, even before I existed. Romans 8:28 is not a cliché to me. “…we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” All things.

On July 16, 2016, the Asheville, North Carolina police received a heartbreaking 911 emergency call from Buddy’s wife. Someone had shot him in the back of the head during what appeared to be a home invasion while she was upstairs asleep. Although the murder weapon was found in the bushes outside their house, the police did not have sufficient evidence to identify a killer. After the funeral, his wife moved to Memphis. On November 9, 2017, she was arrested for his murder and is now awaiting trial. I hope she is not guilty.

There, but for the grace of God, go I.

And may Buddy rest in the arms of the Savior.

Finding Sinai

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Horeb: Holy Ground, from the series Before the Foundation

Lord allow my life to reveal you to others and empower others to reveal you to me. 

This was one of those thoughts that came to me recently in prayer with enough impact that I had to write it down in a draft email. Draft email is kind of my version of John the Revelator’s scroll and I put things there whenever I have a sense, like John did in Rev 21, that God might be telling me to “Write this down for these words are trustworthy and true.” My truth claims are a bit more tentative, but I do know it is something I should ponder.

Lord allow my life to reveal you to others and empower others to reveal you to me. 

So why was this so significant? On the surface it seems like something we kind of always pray. Jesus said “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Mt 5:16) As children we remember praying that through a song, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…” As adults we become familiar with all kinds of similar prayers such as “The Prayer of St. Francis” which begins with the words, “Lord make me an instrument of your peace,” and includes the line “where there is darkness let me bring your light.”

All of those prayers are about being used by God, desiring that our transformed lives might serve as examples, however imperfectly, of a Christ-centered life that can bring hope to others and glory to God. Good stuff. Part of our calling.

But it crossed my mind that just letting our little light shine is really only half the story. “The Prayer of St. Francis” probably wasn’t written by Francis himself.’ The argument is that it is too filled with the words “I” and “me” to have come from his lips. Maybe that’s the case, but at least it provides a clue as to why “let your light shine” feels a little incomplete. As usual, it ain’t about me.

So Moses goes up to Mt. Sinai, barefoot, hangs out with God, and when he returns, his face shines so much from the encounter that he has to wear a veil to keep from blinding the rest of the tribe. His light shone because he had been in the presence of the (capital “L”) Light.

Nothing like a good mountaintop experience, is there? We think about that a little and immediately want to set out for Mt. Sinai in our own life so that we can have the kind of encounter with the living God that requires us to wear a veil when we are around the common folks, those who are less “enlightened” so to speak. Yet despite our best efforts to practice the “spiritual disciplines,” that kind of encounter with God seldom happens. The Christian mystics call it the beatific vision and It does happen sometimes, but rarely. I suspect this is because God knows it would go to our head. We’d get all holy (in our own mind) and Christian bookstores would make a killing selling all kinds of veils branded with the names of famous religious leaders. You could buy a C.S. Lewis veil, or a Beth Moore veil, or a Marty Grubbs veil.

If I recall correctly, the (capital “V”) Veil was in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple and it was torn in two in the crucifixion. No longer would anyone have to crawl into the Holy of Holies once a year with a rope tied around their waist to interact with the living God on behalf of the rest of us. The meeting place between God and humanity has moved, as Brian Zahnd puts it, “from the Temple to the table.” So, is the Mt. Sinai experience still valid? And if it is, how does that happen to us? Where exactly do we encounter God? How does our “little light” get switched on?

Jesus was clear that, although he would always be with us, we would not always be able to see him. But he gave us some really big clues about where we could find him.

‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:35-40)

Not to put too fine a point on it, but those verses come from Jesus’ discussion of the scene at the final judgement.

It seems to me that if we truly want to have that Mt. Sinai experience in our own lives that we need to go where Jesus is. And if he says he is to be found among the hungry and the thirsty and the poor and the sick and the stranger, then we need to seek out the hungry and the thirsty and the poor and the sick and the stranger. He calls “the least of these” his brothers and sisters. And he tells us that by loving them, we are loving him. And for the record, the word “stranger” in Greek is “xenos” (as in xenophobia) and it refers to people of other ethnic groups, foreigners, aliens, and probably even immigrants. (Just sayin’)

My church has a program called LifeCare where anyone who is living through a difficult season in life can find others to walk with them. The people who come to LifeCare may not be hungry or poor, though sometimes that is also the case. But they struggle with the symptoms of a sickness that is common to all of us—clouded vision—the inability to see God clearly enough to know how much he is head over heels in love with us. When we know that it is so much easier to accept his healing.

It is a high privilege to walk with people in their struggle, and we may think we are helping them, but in that helping dynamic, it becomes less clear who really is “the least of these.” Jill Carattini, editor of Ravi Zacharias’ newsletter describes it this way: “He is both the hand extended to the weary and the eyes of the one in pain.”

If Christ is in them, and he certainly tells us he is, I believe we have located the source of our Mt. Sinai experience—the hungry and the thirsty and the poor and the sick and the stranger. That is where we encounter him and that is where we both find healing.

Lord allow my life to reveal you to others and empower others to reveal you to me. 

Perhaps this is a better way to put it: Lord help me to see you in others and then allow my life to reveal you to others.

Now, go see Jesus.

Dadvent

Advent started on Sunday. And as every good Christian knows, that means the football bowl pairings have been released and we can count the days until our favorite team gets to play again. As a public service I will here note that for Oklahoma State Cowboys fans that would be 25 days until they play Virginia Tech in the “Camping World Bowl” and for Sooners fans it will be 29 days before they play Georgia in the Rose Bowl.

So, to quote the great philosopher Carl Spackler (Caddyshack), “We’ve got that to look forward to.” And the anticipation is killing us. Seriously, I can hardly wait. I mean, if they both win their games—and especially if OU goes on to win the national championship— this could be the best Advent ever.

Anticipation is such a big part of this season. There is an old story about a wife who, in early December saw an oddly shaped present wrapped, with her name on it, sitting under the Christmas tree. That wouldn’t be all that unusual except that her husband was famous for forgetting things like Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. Pretty much any time a special day came around he was oblivious to it. He really was a nice guy, just a little forgetful.

Over the years she found herself buying her own birthday, Christmas, and anniversary gifts, a practice which of course does have its own set of benefits. But this year it was different. There was her gift. He had remembered! And she couldn’t wait to find out what it was.

For the next three weeks she walked around with a smile on her face and a special glow. He had remembered her and it felt wonderful. She wanted to peek under the wrapping paper but she restrained herself, waiting for what she anticipated would be a beautiful, even historic moment in family history on Christmas morning when her gift was unwrapped.

Finally the big day came, she could see that her husband was very proud of himself for remembering and kept asking her to open the gift. But she wanted to savor every moment so she kept putting it off until it was the very last present under the tree. Beaming, he picked it up and placed it on the coffee table in front of her. With tears in her eyes she started unwrapping the paper. When she finished she tried very hard to maintain her joy but ended up with a seriously puzzled look on her face. She had no idea what it was. It wasn’t as if this was the “major award” in the movie “A Christmas Story.” Remember? The leg. At least that was a lamp.

Breaking the momentary silence and still obviously full of pride, he asked, “Well, honey, what do you think?”

The very last thing she wanted to do was to hurt his feelings. This was a major moment in their relationship and they both had been anticipating rapturous joy at the unveiling of this gift. She took a deep breath and stammered, “Oh dear, this is so wonderful and so thoughtful and I am so moved that you remembered. But what is it?”

They sat there for a moment, both looking at a clay pot with a stick in it. Just a basic stick with maybe a couple of small branches sticking out. No leaves. Not a potted plant really, just a stick. Near the top there was a string, maybe five or six inches long, and at the bottom of the string was an ink cartridge. You know, like the kind you would use in a fountain pen. She thought perhaps it was a clue to something else, so she looked around for maybe a nice Waterman fountain pen, but there was none.

She could see that he was beginning to feel a little hurt by her reaction, so as politely, gently and sweetly as she could, she asked again, “I so love that you remembered, honey, but really what is it.

Crushed, he answered. “Well I thought you would know right away. It’s the best Christmas gift ever. You know, like the line in that Christmas song. “A cartridge in a bare tree.”

My apologies for what may be the worst Dad joke ever. But it provided a nice segue into what I really wanted to talk about—my Dad.

He turned 91 years old last June. He has had a pretty good life. He has married, and buried, two wonderful women. As far as I know, he always remembered their birthdays and anniversaries. He is a believer but in that old-school Presbyterian way where being part of the elect comes with just a hint of pride but since pride is a sin that makes you feel a little guilty—so you don’t talk about it much. I think the clinical term for that is CCDD, Calvinist Cognitive Dissonance Disorder

He still has most of his faculties, is in good health “for a man of his age,” and he is convinced that pretty much the best thing that could happen to him would be to get married again. At least for the moment that does not seem likely so when I ask him how he is doing, his usual answer is, “I’m okay. Really bored, but okay I guess.”

Bored. There is something very sad about that. My sister and I have tried to help him see that even at 91 his life can still be a kind of adventure but he’s not buying it. Getting out of bed in the morning and finding his way down the hall is an adventure. But it’s not very exciting. He argues that 91 is the new … well … 91.

Yesterday I had a thought. Advent is a time of expectation and anticipation. It is a time when we know something wonderful is coming; something that is more wonderful than a national championship; something that is even more wonderful than presents waiting under a tree.

But it occurred to me that at the age of 91, even though you have no idea exactly when, if you trust in Christ, one day soon you will experience a Christmas morning when, in the presence of the Savior you get to open the big present. You will get to see what Jesus has been preparing for you, and unless I am very mistaken, you will never be bored again.

So I asked my Dad about that. Isn’t it possible to spend each day with the same kind of joyous anticipation that a child has on Christmas Eve? Never a guy to use more words than necessary, he said, “Yeah, that really is something to think about.”

Ever since the church figured out Hal Lindsey’s math was wrong and Jesus didn’t come back in 1988, we have earnestly and properly tried to focus more on living in the presence of the kingdom now, and not as much on compelling people to say the sinner’s prayer so that when they die they will go to heaven, live happily ever after, and we, apparently, get some sort of finder’s fee. (I was never very clear on that part.)

But at the age of 91 it seems appropriate to spend at least a part of your day in child-like, Christmas Eve anticipation of the life to come. In fact, I think Advent is a reminder of just how appropriate that is at any age.

The keen of eye will recognize that this is about Advent and yet it was posted on January10. The Oklahoma State Cowboys won their bowl and the Oklahoma Sooners lost the Rose Bowl. Okay, so I’m a little slow. But largely this is a tribute to my dad and I figure the date of posting isn’t all that important. I could be wrong. No doubt one of my 2 or 3 readers may point that out.

They are everything you say but so much more… A Review of Wonder Woman

 

I like superhero movies, if for no other reason than the fact that they’re fun to watch with the kids. I have four sons. Trust me, over the years I have seen a lot of superhero movies, although any one of the kids is more conversant with chapter and verse in the DC and Marvel universes than I will ever be. I’m only in it for the special effects and the roller coaster ride. Besides, when I grew up my Mom would not let me read superhero comics. Instead she would purchase, with some reluctance, Classics Illustrated comics. Among the comics she would let me read were The Three Musketeers, Moby Dick, Last of the Mohicans, Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, and Huck Finn (I did, after all, live in Hannibal, MO, as a teenager.)

When it came to the honorable hobby of trading comic books, it was nearly impossible to convince a kid to part with his Superman or Spiderman issues. And if they happened to have a copy of Wonder Woman, well let’s just say, echoing Jessica Rabbit, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” No teenage boy would part with that at any price, except perhaps for the “Action Comics No. 1” issue that introduced Superman in 1938. That one sold a few years ago for over 3 million dollars. Naturally, at the time, I thought the comics prohibition was a form of child abuse, but I do know that Mom had nothing but the best of intentions as she knowingly allowed me to think bad things about her—for my own intellectual good—even if she did lack a little investment foresight.

So I recently ventured out with my second youngest—he’s 23— to see if the latest iteration of Wonder Woman for the big screen could live up to the hype. Let me say unequivocally, “It does.” It’s not a perfect movie, but as superhero flicks go, it is very good. If you like special effects, more or less predictable battle choreography, and most importantly, you don’t anticipate seeing something as profound as your average Scorsese film, you’ll probably enjoy it. But set your expectations at a reasonable level. This is, after all, about a character that is only loosely related to the Greek Pantheon and that originated in a comic book, although that is arguably at least one step above the Transformers series—which were based on toy cars.

As I understand it now, the folks at Classics Illustrated also released a comic book edition of The Iliad. If mom had let me read that I might have developed some vague knowledge of the pedigree of Princess Diana of Themiscyra, or Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), the name she uses when she walks among us mere mortals. But even then it would not have been any more vague than film’s treatment of her lineage. As the story goes, Princess Diana is the child of Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons. The question of paternity is a little fuzzy but according to some fictional genograms (Okay, so all of them are fictional.) Diana is also somehow related to Zeus, the king of the Gods, and to Ares, the God of War, though she desires to use her various inherited divine superpowers for good rather than evil.

Diana leaves her paradise after rescuing a World War I fighter pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) who inadvertently crashes through the invisible barrier that hides the island pf the Amazons. Learning of the Great War, she is convinced that Ares is behind it all (of course he is) and she is equally convinced that she is the only one who can stop it. She further believes that, except for Ares’ manipulation, humanity would be a generally peaceful and loving lot. “They’re everything you say, but so much more,” she claims. More than lust, greed, violence, etc. While this version of the film will likely reboot the franchise, if not the entire DC universe, just as Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy did for Batman, it won’t be based on some dark inner angst. Diana Prince, at least so far, is an incurable, almost naive, optimist.

Aside from her intelligence, charm and evident beauty, Diana Prince can move really fast, has truck-tossing strength, and can deflect bullets with her bracelets. Her most powerful weapon, however, is called the “Lasso of Truth.” In addition to being able to force the truth out of anyone who is wrapped up in it, the Lasso of Truth even has its own Wikipedia page, wherein you can discover that the Lasso of Truth, indeed, Wonder Woman herself, was originally conceived by the inventor of the lie detector. Honest. (As a good Oklahoman I am compelled to point out the injustice here: not even Will Rogers’ lasso has its own Wikipedia page, even though it may have had a more significant impact in real history than a fictitious device used to extract truth telling through vasoconstriction.)

As one would expect, the movie reaches its peak when two “gods” fight, mano a mano, over the destiny of the human race. The scene is part special effects battle and part philosophical discussion. This is where Diana presents her impassioned defense of mere mortal humans, while fending off lightning bolts from Ares (David Thewlis) which he hurls along with accusations about humanity’s essentially corrupt nature.

Diana’s sympathies for humanity are as hard won as is her defeat of Ares, since she has just witnessed the self-sacrificing, and heart-breaking, behavior of Steve Trevor who blew up the plane he was flying while it was loaded with the lethal gas that the Germans had intended to unleash on their enemies. Ares is dispatched to end the battle, but that may only be temporary given that the need for a sequel is a nearly absolute value in Hollywood—the contemporary version of Mt. Olympus. Unless Steve Trevor manages to escape the explosion via a parachute that we do not see, he won’t be back, and coming back as Captain James Tiberius Kirk doesn’t count.

But I have to ask a serious question at this point. Who really is the hero here? I do not raise this question to diminish any of the beneficial value of having women in strong roles in film. This Wonder Woman is not the woman pictured on the comic book cover above. Yes, Diana did heroically and single-handedly cross the intentionally-named “No Man’s Land” battlefield to effect a rescue that the men could not. Director Patty Jenkins has said that scene was “the most important scene” in the movie. And yes, Diana has (purportedly) sent Ares packing, thereby eliminating his evil and corrupting influence on the world. She is definitely a hero of the movie.

But what is it that Diana really sees in humanity? Perhaps it is exactly the potential for self-sacrifice that Steve Trevor exhibited. Is that a characteristic of human beings or merely a potentiality? For all the superpowers, lusts, sexual misadventures, jealousies, murders, etc., recorded in mythological literature, self-sacrifice was rare among the card-carrying members of the Greek Pantheon.

It is often suggested that the traits and powers of the mythological gods are merely human traits and powers writ large. For all the sturm and drang of those myths, in fact, for all the flash of this wonderful iteration of Wonder Woman, it is possible to miss that the greatest power exhibited in the movie just might be the power of love as demonstrated by Steve Trevor’s sacrifice. Perhaps his act is only possible because he, and not the gods of Mt. Olympus, was created in the image of one who chose a cross as his moment of greatest self-revelation.

Skeuomorphism. Why We Are Never Surprised When Wile E. Coyote Loses.

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(This was originally published in 2013 on my other blog, but since it was the only post, I decided to consolidate. I keep telling myself I need to write more, but hey, I’m slow—and that’s all I have to say about that.)

Apparently one of Chuck Jones’ cardinal rules for Roadrunner and Coyote cartoons was, “The audience’s sympathy must always be with the Coyote.” They were largely successful on that count. The guy couldn’t catch a break, much less a running bird. Just an everyman trying to feed himself in a dangerous and unforgiving environment, Coyote always managed to screw up his elaborate schemes to capture and make a meal out of the Roadrunner. With all due respect to PETA, we all know the Roadrunner would have deserved it. But Coyote was always at the mercy of his own ineptitude and the faulty product design of the notorious, ACME Corporation. He was also easily fooled by skeuomorphs. Admit it. You know you’ve yelled at your TV screen a few times, “Don’t do it, Coyote! Don’t do it!”

Skeuomorphism might be the longest word in the average graphic designer’s vocabulary—at least it probably is in mine. And since it has become the common enemy of some who think-about-graphic-design-for-a-living, much of the rest of the design community assumes it must be a bad thing. Apparently the mere existence of skeuomorphism causes indigestion among a certain class of design purists who, like the disciples of Walter Gropius, and Adolf Loos before him, believe they have found the Holy Grail of Design and are now equipped to usher in a Utopian age where all pretense, dishonesty and bourgeois ornamentation can be stripped away to reveal Capital-T-Truth. Well, at least this year’s Capital-T-Truth.

According to Wiktionary, a skeuomorph is defined as “a design feature copied from a similar feature in another object, even when not functionally necessary.” Wiktionary also tells us that use of the word traces back at least as far as 1889, which should serve as a reminder to the design-hipsters cum baristas that they aren’t really on the cutting edge of either art or language evolution. (If you want to jump right in to the deep end and really impress the latte crowd, try this debate over the fundamental meaning of the term. As for me, I am using the term to mean what it has become in the vernacular: Apple looks kitschy.)

So when your screen background looks like a piece of “fine Corinthian leather,” or your Google earth icon has beveled edges, or your iBooks interface looks like a wooden bookshelf, that is skeuomorphism. The horror.

When Apple first popularized a graphic user interface back during the Stone Age, they were attempting to put a face, or perhaps better, a skin on a technology that few people understood. Steve Jobs and crew were creating the “computer for the rest of us” by using visual metaphors that we all recognized in order to enable us to use this new technological marvel. No longer did we need to know the rudiments of programming language or even “C-prompts” on a green screen in order to navigate around the Matrix. Instead we got familiar-looking file folder icons and document icons that emulated dog-eared pieces of paper, a now politically incorrect bomb with a lit fuse, and the ever-dreadful dead Mac icon with the upside down smile and x’s for eyes. We navigated—the term itself is a verbal skeuomorph—through the computer by pointing and clicking at items and buttons on the screen. Pointing, of course, was a violation of the rules of etiquette but we were all familiar with it. The buttons weren’t really buttons, they just looked like it. And clicking, especially with the magical transformation that occurred once you did it, gave the user a sense of power. Admittedly it was power in an alien world, but does it get any better than that? For those of us who were familiar with rubber cement, wax, X-acto knives, t-squares, rubylith, type books, proportion wheels, galleys and the stimulating smell of printer’s ink, getting to use a Macintosh was like being handed the keys to the Space Shuttle. Once they added color and higher resolution, we were no longer merely orbiting the earth. It was infinity and beyond.

Those first Mac icons, largely designed by Susan Kare, were pretty primitive though brilliant for their time, in a way like the guano drawings on the Magura Caves. You do the best you can with what you have. The original Mac had a bit depth of 1, in other words, black or… wait for it… white. As bit-depth/resolution improved it was to be expected that the detail on those original icons would evolve—and clearly they did. So we wound up with beveled edges, sophisticated shadows and color schemes, backgrounds that look like paper, or wood, or marble, or galaxies or whatever in the real world a designer might imagine, all used with the best of intentions. Looking like an actual notepad can be an immediate way to communicate to the user what a virtual notepad is and how to use it. Early iPhone and iPad icons became celebrations of dimensionality bordering on trompe-l’oeil, as did the interfaces within the applications they represented.

Trompe l’oeil is a recognized and celebrated category of art, unlike skeuomorphism, although both are darn near unpronounceable. You can find some astonishing examples here. If you’ve been to Las Vegas and seen the ceilings in the Venetian Hotel or in the Via Bellagio, you’ve seen trompe-l’oeil. Frankly, you could make an argument that the entire Las Vegas strip is a monument to the ersatz—trompe l’oeil and skeuomorphism unabashedly presented as reality. For a more familiar example, but still from a desert in Nevada, think of Wile E. Coyote painting a tunnel on the side of a canyon wall to fool the Roadrunner. When Roadrunner turns the corner and runs into the newly created tunnel, Wile E. tries to follow, with the expected result. He crashes into the canyon painted stone and gets “flattened” against the wall. Despite what ol’ Wile E. may have thought, even the kids watching the cartoon knew it wasn’t a real tunnel. Kids, of course, are smarter than coyotes (and adults for that matter, most of whom think that Las Vegas is a real place.)

Kids are also smarter than many philosophers of design. At least my kids are. They absorb visual metaphors like breathing. They never, ever had to answer the angst-ridden question of “Mac or PC?” They don’t care. If it has a screen they can operate it, and they know without thinking about it that their fingers are not going to slip off a virtually beveled edge. So they are not fooled by skeuomorphic details. Neither are they offended by them. I never had to utter the words, “Son, you know that leather background isn’t real, don’t you?” Had I done so I would have gotten the same look of consternation when I asked my then six-year-old if he realized the magic in Harry Potter movies wasn’t real. “Seriously? Dad? It’s just a movie.”

Apple’s work on interface design ushered in a golden age of ornamentation, perhaps even arresting the Modernist trend to the point where, in 2005, Eye Magazine could declare “The Decriminalisation of Ornament,” (a direct reference to Adolf Loos’ “Ornament and Crime” which argued “The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from objects of daily use.” ) But now, after years of increasingly realistic looking, but fake, bevels, shadows, colors and textures among iPhone visual elements, designers, especially user interface (UI) designers, have scraped themselves off the wall of the virtual canyon and decided they are once again allergic to ornamentation. But these days it is more fashionable to use (or perhaps, misuse) the term “skeuomorphism.”

This issue turns out to be a pretty ancient problem. The guano painter in the Magura cave didn’t have an alphabet and knew nothing of taxidermy that would have enabled the hanging of a stuffed animal as a trophy on the wall. Instead, he or she drew a picture, with sufficient detail to communicate, but no more. You could even argue that those drawings were the very essence of flatness so desired by modern UX design purists. 15000 years later (though still 17,000 years before Jonathan Ive was even born), the artists of the Lascaux cave paintings added color, dimension, perspective and ornamental detail to the mix. I’m guessing the Lascaux paintings were called skeuomorphic by the art critics of the Paleolithic Era. But I doubt the artist or anyone else for that matter, Wile E. Coyote-style, confused the pictures on the wall with actual animals.

Tom Wolfe, in his brilliant skewering of modern art and architecture, From Our House to Bauhaus, reports an exercise by Josef Albers, an early Bauhaus instructor, that clearly explains the purist attitude toward skeuomorphism:

“Albers would walk into the room and deposit a pile of newspapers on the table and tell the students he would return in one hour. They were to turn the pieces of newspaper into works of art in the interim. When he returned, he would find Gothic castles made of newspaper, yachts made of newspaper, airplanes, busts, birds, train terminals, amazing things. But there would always be some student, a photographer or a glassblower, who would simply have taken a piece of newspaper and folded it once and propped it up like a tent and let it go at that. Albers would pick up the cathedra and the airplane and say: “These were meant to be made of stone or metal—not newspaper.” Then he would pick up the photographer’s absentminded tent and say: “But this!—this makes use of the soul of paper. …This!—is a work of art in paper”

At the risk of appearing ambivalent, let may say simply, “BS!” If we were to follow his logic—beyond where even Albers seemed to go—we might reach the conclusion that one ought not make anything out of something else, since the original materials are best suited to be just that, the original materials. Wood is best used for trees, not newspapers or cornices; sand is better suited to remain as sand rather than turned into crystal goblets or the glass facades of Bauhaus Big Box Architecture. In fact, by following Albers’ logic we might eventually do away with all forms of not merely ornamentation, but representational art and even color, as some Bauhaus influenced trend-setters wanted to do. Although the leading edge of smartphone interface design today looks like Ellsworth Kelly color explorations, you just know someone is going to eventually argue for all black and white. Seen the Drudge Report lately?

I do confess to a certain sympathy with the anti-skeuomorphic crowd. (Then again, I tend to root for Wile E. Coyote, too.) I have a visceral disdain for wood-grained laminate countertops and printed faux-wood wall paneling. It seems to me that if you want your countertops to look like wood, you ought to use wood—especially since a chef friend of mine once told me that real wood has chemistry that helps kill the bacteria on its surface. But even at that, I wouldn’t turn down a meal served on a Formica counter. Heretically, I find the iPhone’s icon-oriented interface to be more clutter than order, even as executed in iOS7, and although I am an unrepentant Apple fanboy, all those flat squares in Windows Phone 8 are clean, simple and attractive. How effective they are as navigational tools, I have no idea. And I also know that they are “buttons,” regardless of how preciously flat they appear.

For Gropius and his followers in the Bauhaus this intense desire to eschew ornamentation was about politics. The assumption was that ornamentation was expensive and therefore, only members of the bourgeoisie could afford it. The search for “flatness” became a political, as well as artistic, movement. Roger Scruton describes the modernists and their agenda this way: “They were social and political activists who wished to squeeze the disorderly human material that constitutes a city into a socialist straitjacket.”  So it is not surprising that, in an era when the cultural desire for socialism is in ascendance, we might return to a fear of bourgeois ornamentation.

Such simplification is tempting, and when presented as the manifestation of (faux-) humanizing ideals, eliminating ornamentation takes on a certain (equally faux-) nobility. But just because a group of design philosophers want to protect the masses, whom they presume must be fooled by the painting of a tunnel on a canyon wall, doesn’t mean we have to fall for that sort of reverse-elitism.

René Magritte, made the point back in 1928, with the inscription on his painting “The Treachery of Images.” “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” (This is not a pipe.) We know. We also know that on-screen buttons are not really beveled, the clicking sounds are not mechanical, the calendar doesn’t have a real leather border, the picture of our kids on the lock screen is not really our kids, the cars and trucks in Transformers didn’t really transform, and Skeuby Doo isn’t a real dog. Unless the day comes when we can jack ourselves directly into the Matrix, I imagine that human beings will always prefer a little visual metaphor— maybe even a little kitsch—with our computer interfaces.