In church, a group of children read Psalm 136. An older child read the “give thanks” parts and the younger ones echoed, “His love endures forever.” It seemed an appropriate reminder for the day before Thanksgiving: all we have has been given to us by God.
The photo is one I took last Thanksgiving. My sister-in-law, an interior decorator turned nurse, had her house all decorated for the holiday, and I wandered around with my new camera, snapping photos. She found that odd, especially when I took photos of the desserts and stuffing and casseroles. The turkey got away, though. He was delicious.
This will be short because I haven’t had a chance to consider this as deeply as I’d prefer. But my husband and I are reading American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, by Nancy Jo Sales. Sales traveled the country, talking to teen girls (and boys) about the social media use. The topic that came up, over and over, could be summed up in two words: sex and porn.
I was already aware of much of what Sales discusses but my husband? He hadn’t realized what types of apps are out there, nor what types of sites teens frequent. Slut pages? Oh my. This ain’t your mama’s Facebook feed, y’all.
In the first chapter, Sales quotes a professor of comparative literature from Princeton, April Alliston:
“Historically, a spike in interest in pornography is also associated with advancement in women’s rights,” Alliston says. “What happened at the time of the invention of the printing press was very similar to what’s happening now with the Internet.”
The printing press made porn readily available. About this time, women were getting more rights, and literacy rates among women increased. From what I understand, people (that’d be men) were anxious about women gaining knowledge through reading: what might happen? Porn, typically images of female prostitutes, was shared between men as both a way of excluding women (who weren’t looking at the images) and putting them back in their “proper place” (existing only to please and serve men).
“I see the spread of porn in part as a backlash to women’s increased independence,” Alliston asserts. “I believe that porn has gone mainstream now because women have been gaining power . . . Rather than being about sexual liberation, I see in porn a form of control over sex and sexuality.”
–quote from Nancy Jo Sales, American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, published in 2016, p. 38 (emphasis mine)
I know there are many issues surrounding pornography: censorship, free speech, addiction, gender dynamics, sexuality, violence, trafficking. It’d be hard to untangle this knotted up mess even if we knew where one thread started and the others ended. I’m sure that most (if not all) of my regular blog readers would agree that porn consumption is bad for teens, whose minds are both more vulnerable to addiction and less likely to break free from addictive behavior. (The Teenage Brain, by neuroscientist Frances E. Jensen and science writer Amy Ellis Nutt, is a fascinating read on this point.)
- For girls, it hurts their body image, their sense of self-worth and self-respect, and puts tremendous pressure on them to look and act like the women in porn do.
- For boys, it hurts their ability to connect intimately (rather than simply sexually) with another human. More than one commentator has recommended that if young men want to get married and have a family, they need to quit porn first. (Easier said than done, I know.) Sex in an intimate, loving marriage isn’t like sex in a porn movie; it’s better.
But now that these sites are out there, available, and now that kids know how to access them, how do we adults stop the damage from continuing?
And if reasonable, like-minded adults can’t decide how to stop what’s been started, how are our children to do that? Certainly not alone.
I know God is in control. I also know that he gave me a brain and the ability to learn and apply what I learn. The better educated on the issue that I am, the better I can help my daughters navigate this difficult territory.
I’m sure I’ll learn more about what dangers lurk within my teen daughter’s phone as I continue reading Sales’ thorough and sometimes difficult-to-stomach book. Next week, I’m going to a lunch & learn seminar (given through my kids’ Christian school) on the “eight most dangerous apps on your kids phones.” If I find out anything interesting, I’ll be sure to share.
Recently, I had the dubious pleasure of re-reading The Man Who was Thursday, by G. K. Chesterton. I call it a “dubious pleasure” because, while the story is staggering and profound, it is bewildering. I’m not even certain where the sense of profundity derives from, only that it’s there, somewhere, beneath layers of anarchists and undercover policemen, dreams and symbols, balloon rides and accusations and costumes. Driving the entire story is a man named Sunday who is accountable to no one but himself. Is he God? What the heck is Chesterton getting at?
I read this book years ago. I scratched my head and recommended it to people who asked for book recommendations. (They usually didn’t ask a second time.)
I re-read it again, struggling for comprehension. It’s still elusive.
But one scene stopped me. I read it, re-read it, and slowly nodded.
Gabriel Syme is a detective has been engaged as a “philosophical policeman” to thwart a group of anarchists. He’ll end up going undercover and being elected as “Thursday” to the Central Council of Anarchists, a group of seven–all named for days of the week–headed by the mysterious Sunday. As it turns out, every other man/day of the week is also an undercover police detective posing as an anarchist and all of them have been hired by an extremely large man in a darkened room. None of them see that man’s face until the end. It is Sunday.
(Y’all, it’s fiction. Suspend your disbelief.)
In a flashback, Chesterton tells of Syme’s recruitment by another police officer and then his “interview” with a man in Scotland Yard. He enters a dark room. Another man, who has his back to him, asks if he is the new recruit.
“Are you the new recruit?” said the invisible chief, who seemed to have heard all about it. “All right. You are engaged.”
Syme, quite swept off his feet, made a feeble fight against this irrevocable phrase.
“I really have no experience,” he began.
“No one has any experience,” said the other, “of the Battle of Armageddon.”
“But I am really unfit–”
“You are willing, that is enough,” said the unknown.
“Well, really,” said Syme, “I don’t know any profession of which mere willingness is the final test.”
“I do,” said the other– “martyrs. I am condemning you to death. Good-day.”
–G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who was Thursday, chapter 4
Those final two lines of dialogue stopped me. Martyrs require no other qualification than a willingness to die for what they believe. I’ve heard stories of martyrs (usually early Christians) all my life and never considered that they did not have to be perfect or especially saintly or knowledgeable or hard workers or whatever; they only had to be willing to die.
Then I wondered: Would I be willing to die for what I believe?
Then I wondered more: What does a “willingness to die” look like?
It could mean actual death, of course. Beheading. Stake-burning. Crucifixion.
But could it also mean a willingness to set aside
- my own agendas?
- my obsession with my opinions?
- my own inclination to talk too much and listen too little?
Could it also mean
- loving my enemies?
- forgiving the unforgivable?
- curtailing my spiritual freedom if it causes others to stumble?
Those aren’t things that I can do on my own. I definitely wouldn’t do them if left to my own desires. I’d sit around taking selfies and making certain every item on my to-do list is checked off and sharing my opinions on everything, including things on which I know nothing, and interrupting others every time they speak. Yuck.
But I know that my fitness for any God-ordained task doesn’t derive from my own innate abilities but from God himself. So I also have to conclude that any willingness to die for God–whether that’s physical or not–comes from him. And any ability to live for God–whatever form it takes, whatever task he gives–also comes from him.
So I’m neither unwilling nor unfit for whatever work God calls me to do.
In the eyes of other people, I may look like a very unlikely candidate for that job, and I may believe that myself at times.
In the eyes of God, unlikely-looking is no deterrent. Those same people end up doing unimaginable things. He equips. He grows. He does the impossible. He gives me himself so I can be used by him for his work.
Who should I listen to: other people or God?
Chesterton’s novel may leave me with other unanswered questions, but even I know the answer to that one.
If God’s called me to a task, He’s already given me everything I need to do it. He’s given me himself. And that is enough.
In my spare time, when I’m not writing or chauffeuring kids or exhausted from CFS, I like to redo furniture. This past summer, I got the brilliant (at the time) idea to find a new writing desk. My old one had been forced into duty as a sewing machine center and my study was empty. Based on the skills that I learned from furniture upcycling with the ladies’ association, I knew that I didn’t have to pay top dollar for a new desk.
I searched Pinterest, got ideas, and off I trotted to the local Salvation Army thrift store. No desks. But there was a dresser.
Here, it’s turned on its side so you can see the banged-up laminate. The back piece of plywood was wobbly, too. It was in sad condition.
The drawers couldn’t open and close properly and as for the mirror that was originally attached to it: well, let’s just say that it wasn’t attached anymore.
Obviously, this was my new desk.
It took sanding. And priming. And painting. (Lots of painting!) Then an antique glaze and a few coats of wax sealer. And help from my supportive husband, who allowed his garage to be filled with sawdust, drop cloths, and little room for his car for a few weeks.
Now this $25 dresser is a desk . . .
and a set of bookshelves . . .
. . . and an accent piece in my library. (That would be the mirror, which is still not hung on the wall! No photos of it.)
This morning, I thought about how I had looked at this sad, abandoned piece and decided to change it. Is this how God views us?
God takes joy in picking unlikely people for his work.
- You’re laughing because you’re barren, past menopause, and this stranger is prophesying that you’ll be a mother of a great nation; you think that can’t happen? Not so fast, Sarah. I’m not bound of natural constraints on fertility. Menopause? Infertility? Not a problem.
- Oh, you think you’re just a little guy from an insignificant family, and you can’t possibly be a military leader? And you’ve only got 300 men to fight with you against the army of the Midianites? Hold on, Gideon. I’m not bound by numbers and statistics.
- Oh, you’re a beauty queen trophy wife who has to get permission to talk to her own husband? You think you can’t intervene on behalf of your people, the Jews, when their lives are in danger? Think again. Esther, I gave you great beauty for a reason: so you would be in this palace, at the time, with this corrupt king as your husband. Now I’ll give you courage, and your people will be saved from genocide. I’m not bound by societal norms or cultural expectations.
- You’re a terrorist, self-righteous Pharisee, and intent on destroying the infant church? Mm, Saul, you’re going to end up being Paul, a missionary for this very church you’re trying to destroy, a speaker who’ll end up talking to corrupt politicians, demon-possessed slave girls, and everyone in between? Oh, and you’ll write a lot of letters that scholars and ordinary people alike will read for a long, long time. I’m not bound by your motivations and desires.
Unlikely people. A great God.
Unlike me in my creative mode, God doesn’t have to scour Pinterest for ideas, search the web for tutorials, or ask for help from anyone else. He has plans to change us.
No matter how broken down and weak you are, no matter how bruised or scarred, no matter how evil and vile your past has been, know this: God can use you.
Currently, I’m midway through two books. One’s fiction (The Lay of the Land, by Richard Ford) and the other is nonfiction (Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance, by Angela Duckworth). I first encountered Duckworth’s research in one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, so when I saw the cover of Grit at the library, I snatched it up.
If you’re not familiar with the concept of grit, then here’s the gist.
Passion + Perseverance = Grit
As she explains to a young entrepreneur early in the book, it’s not just doing what you love (passion). It’s doing what you love and staying in love with it. It’s consistency over time. That’s not easy. (Ask any couple who have been married five or six decades.)
I suppose that most people, if asked, would like to be gritty. But . . . those distractions. Setbacks. All that hard work. I’m just not good at that, they lament. “That” could be math homework or writing or a particular sport or an aspect of their job. And because I’m not good at it now, I’ll never be good at it.
On the flip side, there are people who are wondrously talented. No challenges get in their way through childhood or adolescence; people gush over their talent. But then something comes along and–wham! Failure. And they give up. They don’t know how to continue.
Duckworth, drawing on the work of Carol Dweck, says that this is a “fixed mindset.” Both sets of people think that their innate ability/inability to do (whatever it is) is fixed. It can’t grow. They’ll always be as bad or good at that task as they are now.
Recently, my daughter, who is on the varsity tennis team at school, told us a story at dinner. We were discussing two of the boys on the guys’ team. Let’s call them X and Y. Both are the same age, both were new to tennis last year, and as you’d expect, they were ranked low on the team. Only the top 6 players get to play official matches. X, who was slightly better, was ranked #6. Y was #7.
My daughter said that X never worked hard at tennis: he didn’t like running, ditched practice at least once (this year) because it was “crap”, and barely made it on time to his match for sectionals. In contrast Y worked hard. He took lessons outside of practice; he got better. (His balls still go over the fence, yeah, but not as much as before!) But X has a fixed mindset.
“He takes for granted that he will always be seeded higher than Y.”
-my 13-year-old daughter’s complaint
My daughter and another tennis friend urged Y to challenge X to a match in hopes that Y could be moved up a seed. Alas, the match was cut short. But my daughter maintains that Y could’ve beaten X. As Y took lessons all summer, I imagine that he will.
People become better at things through deliberate practice. That’s not just any old practice: hitting the ball over and over without improvement, for example. It involves intense, often painful, practice that works on a particular component that is just a bit beyond their ability (call it a stretch goal), gets feedback, and seeks to improve with each repetition. Recognizing and applying this are key to having a “growth mindset.”
So perseverance is a huge part of this grit equation. But so is passion.
We don’t necessarily recognize our passion when we first encounter it. There’s spark: hey, that looks interesting. Then comes practice. And more practice. After a while, we seek to do this thing not just for ourselves but because we see how it benefits others. And then, finally, we find hope that these efforts can make us stronger. That when we fail, we can get back up. (We often need help with getting back up.) That out of those failures–the missed shots, the rejection letters, the setbacks–can come success.
There’s so much more in this book: about helping others develop grit, for example, and developing it within ourselves.
As for myself, I’ve decided to apply the principles of Grit to my own writing. I’ve often told myself that I’m a lousy blogger: too inconsistent in posting, too interested in writing fiction to bother with non, too focused on maintaining momentum in novel drafts to hit pause and type up anything of substance. Besides: my depression! my fatigue! my mania! I’m not a great blogger.
Fine. I’m not a great blogger yet. But I can improve. There is a definite skills set in successful blogging, just as there is in fiction writing, non-fiction writing, poetry. I have to learn, and that means deliberate practice: a clearly defined stretch goal (look at what skills I lack); full concentration & effort (no peeking at Pinterest!); getting informative feedback (listening to the advice of more successful writers); repetition with reflection and refinement (do it again, only better).
How about you? Have you read Grit? What things have you persevered at and improved in your own life? What skills would you like to develop?
And, hey, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, what blogging skills can I improve? I love–okay, need more than love–feedback.