Gathering Light

Thoughts from a young, midwestern follower of Jesus

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The Patient Journey

The name Lent comes from a Saxon word that meant “length.” This is the season of daylight hours lengthening. It is also the time when Christians have traditionally joined in spirit and practice in the journeys of Jesus—through his earthy ministry, to the cross, into and out of the grave. We see the length—Lent—of the journey spread out before us every year. Every year we remember anew that Jesus walked this beautiful, broken earth as one of us. He walked the deepest heartache and most violent pain, and he walked the wearying and mundane.

Lent is a time of preparation and anticipation, which means it is a time to think about patience. Patience is not only waiting with good behavior; it is enduring. It is walking each step of the journey no matter how long, dreary, or tiresome it may seem.

I have discovered that we need patience because life just keeps going. There is no final swell of music and cut to the credits. We do not find love or save the world and then everything wraps up, for good or ill. The camera keeps rolling. We learn one lesson and then find we have forgotten and must learn it again, or we have learned only a bit of it and must go further, or there is an entirely different lesson just waiting to smack us alongside the head. Sometimes we must unlearn things we have relied on for years but now discover are poorly founded. So to press on and embrace life as it comes we must be patient.

But patience is not viable in itself; it ultimately requires hope. Hope is the assurance that there is something to wait for, a reason to press on, goodness ahead that is more than an endless repeat of what has been. Hope for the Christian is knowing that because of what Jesus did on Good Friday and Easter—what we journey toward in Lent—our future is life forever with God. One day we will be part of the next resurrection, when our whole selves and all creation will be made new.

Hope looks ahead. Meanwhile, faith is convinced that now already we are part of something much greater than ourselves, that even now God is continuing his good work in this world. So with patience we trust that God’s will is being worked out. And we join our wills to his for the length of the journey.

It is sometimes said of people when they die that they lost the will to live. But for many of us living is not something we think about as an act of will; it is something that just happens. We may work hard to make ends meet, but for many in relative affluence and privilege, staying alive is not our main concern (as it is for countless others in our own country and worldwide). We all may, however, loose the will to get out of bed when our alarm goes off, or concentrate on a task, or keep up with all of life’s responsibilities and demands. We need the will to embrace life every day, to participate fully and appreciate moments as gifts rather than burdens. The good news is that we don’t have to rely on our own faulty wills or transient emotions. God’s grace in the work of Christ gives us not only eternal life but fullness of life day by day.

It may not be glamorous, but this is how it works: “We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised” (Hebrews 6:12). In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we find our life. We walk on, however long the road ahead—in radiant joy, in hopeful grief, and in dusty endurance.

Radical Joy

It is common at the start of a new year to lament (or simply complain about) the problems of the past year. In 2016 I experienced a loss in my family, unusual stress related to my job, and of course an extremely bitter election season. I have worked through anger, sadness, loneliness, and fear in new ways. I’m not usually an emotionally expressive person; exploring these feelings is hard. But another feeling keeps cropping up that surprisingly is also hard to embrace: joy.

As I understand it, joy is deeper than happy sensations that our society is constantly chasing. It includes a sense of peace and contentment, but also feelings of delight. Of course I want to live with joy. But how does that work when there are so many things about my life and about the world that I wish were different?

In her book Thrive, Lina AbuJamra writes, “For the longest time in the world, I worried that if I told God I was okay with being single, He’d think it meant that I never wanted to get married.” I’m glad to hear that others share this feeling—though we’d agree that it’s not really rational or theologically sound. But it’s hard to shake: If I truly embrace and enjoy where I am now, am I giving up on my desires to be somewhere else?

Beyond my personal life, the more I learn about the world the more I see how broken it is. For those who care strongly about social justice, it may be difficult to reconcile a constant discontent regarding the realities we see with a deep inner contentment.

With this tension in mind, this past Christmas season I rediscovered the revolutionary passage know as the Magnificat, or Mary’s song. It begins, “My soul glorifies the Lord / and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-47). Mary goes on to celebrate the great things God has done for her personally, for the humble and oppressed, and for all his people.

It’s fascinating that at this time Mary, newly pregnant and unmarried, was facing a grace-filled but extremely difficult life as the mother of Jesus. Further, she was under what Rev. Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil recently described as an unfavorable political climate. Mary’s people were oppressed by the most powerful empire of all time and by a mad and self-centered king.

It gives us perspective to remember that ours is certainly not the first era to face political, economic, social, and moral challenges that may seem insurmountable. And it is important to understand that when Mary sang that her spirit rejoiced in God, the problems were still present. She glorified God for bringing down haughty rulers even when such rulers were still in place.

Hundreds of years before Mary, the Jews who had returned from exile were also facing political subjection and strained resources. Plus they had to confront immorality, oppression, and neglect of God’s commands within their own community. But though mourning for their sins was appropriate, the governor Nehemiah admonished them to begin by rejoicing in God: “This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). The people had lots of work to do to remain faithful to what God wanted for them, but their first job was to be joyful. So God commanded them to throw a party.

For the exiles, for Mary, for us, embracing joy is not endorsing the evils or the unwanted realities around us. It does not mean giving up on praying, longing, and working for better things in our own lives and in the world. These passages show that joy may be held in tension with sorrow, uncertainty, anger at injustice, yet-unfulfilled desires. If fact, joy strengthens us and establishes us in a place of faith and clarity about who God is and who we are in him. From there we are better equipped to thrive in spite of struggles and to cooperate with the purposes of the God who is the source of all joy and beauty.

AbuJamra states, “Your contentment today has nothing to do with what happens in your life tomorrow or how God chooses to unfold His will for your life. Your contentment today is simply an act of faith in a God who is always good.” I’m discovering that the welling up of joy is evidence of the goodness of God, assurance that he is delighting in me and doing good things even when I think discontentment is the more appropriate attitude. Perhaps a subversive joy is what I—and the world—really need right now.

Dangerous Listening

Sometimes I think that no one should be allowed to post anything else on the internet until they sit down—in person—and have a conversation with someone they disagree with. Not to argue, just to listen.

Recently I was talking with my spiritual director about how frustrated I’ve been with certain conversations online. She asked why I felt that way, and I realized that I felt angry because other people were angry. I thought that people were communicating out of emotion and jumping to conclusions, often not taking time to truly understand the situation or appreciate the points of view they were countering.

Most people would affirm that listening is important to constructive communication. The problem with listening is that it takes time and effort to do well. It’s especially difficult in our culture of information overload, and the internet is more conducive to instant responses to words than to truly hearing another person.

But perhaps more importantly, listening is difficult because it requires you to open yourself up to someone else’s pain. You have to choose to enter into their world, their story, with its complexities and emotions and difficult questions. You have to refuse to see that person as a representative of a certain political party or ideology or subgroup and acknowledge that whatever lies beneath their anger or activism deserves respect and compassion. That is what compassion means: to value another’s humanity enough to share in their pain.

Listening challenges our comfort level, and it also can challenge our beliefs. Often people who are passionate about certain views are hesitant to listen to those who think differently. But if we are confident that truth exists and will come out in the end, we don’t have to feel threatened by conflicting viewpoints. Each of us needs humility to realize we don’t have all the right answers, and we can learn from others—whether or not anyone has a significant change of belief. A good example of seeing disagreement as an opportunity to seek more understanding appeared in Tish Harrison Warren’s CT article, “I Overlooked the Rural Poor—Then Trump Came Along.” After the latest, bitterly divisive election season, Americans have to move forward together, which means climbing out of our trenches and attempting to understand even those who seem to have nothing in common with us.

In recent years the issue of same-sex marriage has been extremely difficult and divisive, including within the US church. For me, as a single, heterosexual Christian, I have felt caught between those who constantly elevate traditional marriage and the nuclear family, and those who argue that everyone has the right to love (meaning romantic and sexual love) and that a life of celibate singleness is too heavy a burden to bear. I know that no one is actually saying that I am incomplete, lesser, or doomed to a loveless existence as long as I am unmarried. I know it’s not about me at all. I get frustrated when others take things too personally and project their struggles onto the motives of others. But I’ve realized that if these are my honest feelings and experiences, then everyone else is coming to the conversation with their own complex emotions, baggage, and unique perspectives.

Behind every item of communication (that is, those that aren’t generated by bots!) is a person with reasons for thinking as they do. Those reasons may not be well thought out or articulated; I may totally disagree with them; they might be unsound or invalid or unbiblical; they may just be different. They may represent years of pain, injustice, frustration, or making sacrifices to defend one’s deepest beliefs and values.

It is dangerous to set aside our assumptions and agendas to listen to the person beneath the reasons. We risk suffering and discomfort; we risk never being able to look at an issue or group of people the same way again. We risk being misunderstood by those on both sides; we risk having to admit we were wrong. But I believe it is worth it. In the end, it is much more dangerous not to listen.

The Lobster and Me

The Lobster is a film I like better now than when I saw it four months ago. It is disturbing, and I have a low tolerance for disturbing entertainment. But it made me think, probably as much as any film I’ve seen.

I knew I had to watch it when I heard the premise: After his wife leaves him, Colin Farrell’s character is sent to a hotel for single people, where he has forty-five days to find a partner or he’ll be turned into an animal. In this society it’s basically illegal to be single and human, so people have to compete for compatibility or live on the run.

There are surely multiple ways to interpret this film. I’ve decided it especially captures the complex emotions of singleness and dating. There is the immense weight of responsibility to figure things out and save yourself, the lonely pressure to strike a match. At the same time there is a sense of helplessness, with limited options and a system of largely arbitrary rules that seem impossible to master.

There is awkwardness and constant reminders of the woes of singleness. At breakfast in the hotel, for example, singles sit at tightly packed individual tables, facing a sunny, spacious section—for couples only. Out in the city people get arrested for being partner-less. Even when surrounded by other singles, the sense of having your status on display is something many of us can relate to. (Sometimes in the cozy suburbs where I live, I suspect an officer will come up to me and say, “I see you’re not here with a man or a child. Are you sure you belong here?”)

It’s interesting that quite a few characters in the film have apparently lost their first partner. I think of people at the end of a relationship who say something like, “I’m not sure I can face the dating world again.” The pain of loss is compounded by anxiety to fill the void. Yet whatever the quality of the relationship or the reason for its ending, many will say, “I just don’t want to be alone.”

And if there’s one thing the world of The Lobster makes clear, it’s that without a romantic partner you are alone. According to the hotel, without a partner you are likely to get raped or choke to death on your dinner. Farrell’s character decides to test this when he flees the hotel to join the outlaw loners in the woods.

This begins a new (increasingly baffling) act of the film. I think the loners represent people who refuse to fit into the dominant mold, but in their supposed freedom remain resentful toward insiders. Anyone who has been on the margins may understand the drive to redefine yourself—along with temptation toward contempt, and maybe subconscious envy. Ultimately the anti-romance loners impose as many constraints as the hotel, and become even more destructive.

Neither the hotel nor the woods are conducive to friendship. Hotel residents may commiserate, but they are competitors. The pressure brings out the worst in everyone as they misrepresent themselves and step on others to secure a partner. In one scene, a young woman who has safely crossed into couplehood carelessly encourages her friend, who is about to be turned into a pony. I confess I was glad to see the friend slap her and go spend her final hours watching a movie.

A sense of dread pervades The Lobster. You are in the wilderness, and at any moment something horrific can (and does) happen. You can trust no one. Even supposedly blissful couples may turn against each other if survival is at stake.

There is a love story: it’s when the hero leaves the hotel that he meets his match. She brings out his creativity, generosity, and sense of hope. Yet the film departs from the “all you need is love (=romance/sex)” cliché that shows up in all sorts of genres. The couple’s love elevates them above the oppression of both the majority and the loners. However, in the two instances when the hero takes decisive action to free himself, he’s motivated not so much by love as by desperate vindictiveness.

Though I hate violence, I’ve discovered that one reason this film resonated with me so much is the anger. Feeling lonely, deprived, unwanted, judged, self-righteous, helpless, anxious—it builds up over time, and in The Lobster it simmers and spurts out in dark ways. But perhaps digging into those emotions and struggles is more important than escaping into rosy entertainment.

It’s terrible that I get annoyed when I see a wedding announcement, or feel resentful toward a plus-one event. Yet acknowledging the anger and considering what lies behind it—in our society and especially inside me, and maybe in others—can be a step toward renewal.

It also helps to laugh, to point out the ridiculousness of humans and our rituals and pettiness, as this film does well.

At the end of The Lobster, the lead couple is together but still trapped by their twisted society. There is no “right one” who makes everything fall into place, no perfect relationship. What makes us human is much more than finding a mate and sexual fulfillment, or being self-reliant. People need the freedom to be alone and the freedom to not be lonely—both things our society struggles with. I believe we still can live as whole individuals and in life-giving community. That’s the way our story was meant to be written.

Acknowledgments

I work at a publishing company, and I love having a part in making books come to be. One thing I enjoy when working on a manuscript is glancing over the acknowledgments section. It amazes me to see how many people have in some way touched this work, often long before it was an item on our publishing schedule. Authors list family members, friends, colleagues, mentors, and others who may have contributed directly to the content, shaped the author’s views, or provided support and encouragement. Often they mention individuals who read the manuscript and gave feedback or editorial help. (Confession: sometimes I wonder, if so many people have already worked on this, why isn’t it closer to perfect?)

What is interesting to me is that the manuscript that helps me make a living depends on dozens of people I have never met. At the same time, the process that allows the manuscript to become a published (and profitable) book depends on dozens of people the author will likely never meet or even be aware of. Usually authors will acknowledge their editor, often our whole company, and maybe a few of my other coworkers they interacted with. But there are so many components to publishing that, even in a smaller company like mine, even we professionals don’t usually see exactly how every piece fits together.

For example: my team in the editorial department spends many hours on each book, not only copyediting and proofreading, but also formatting, checking in multiple rounds of corrections, and performing final checks on thrilling details such as line breaks and quotation marks. An intricate dance among my team and project editors, the production and design department, marketing, business, and more takes place with all different stages and elements of a project. Each book must be individually designed, cover and interior; interior images and figures must be processed or designed; permissions to use third-party material are obtained; covers are proofed; endorsements are gathered and proofed; marketing and sales materials are proofed; did I mention we proofread everything? Don’t get me started on ebooks.

Many people think of book writing as a highly personal and individualistic endeavor, but no book comes from a solely solitary process (and I do believe that publishers make books better—of course).

The more I’ve thought about this, the more I’ve realized that, like a book, my life depends on the contributions of many people. It’s easy for me to take for granted the family members, church leaders, teachers, Girl Scout troop leaders, camp counselors, coworkers and friends who invested in me, listened to me, invited me over, sparked ideas and called out talents. At different points in my life, even for a brief season, people stepped in to help me stay hopeful and on a good path. I believe God provided relationships as I needed them, and though I may never see many of those individuals again, in some way they are part of who I’ve become.

More broadly, my life every single day depends on people I may never know. From farmers to truck drivers to civil servants to those authors whose books provide my paycheck, we are interconnected. This should make me humbly grateful. It should also give me concern for those who seem far away but whose influence may be as close as the clothes I wear—meaning that I should care whether they are treated fairly (see my post “Blood on Our Clothes”).

A few of our authors have chosen to call the acknowledgments section in their books Gratitudes. (No, that’s not a real word, but we’ll allow it.) I think it’s generally true that the more we acknowledge how others have given to us, the more grateful we become. What would it look like if we lived more constantly aware of the people who shape our lives—from those closest to us who may get on our nerves, to those half a world away? Do I need to acknowledge someone with a verbal or written thank you? Do I need to consider how my spending and voting reflect my appreciation of our common humanity?

It would be nice, but most people (even those in publishing) will never get their names in a book’s acknowledgments. That’s okay. We should still be faithful in the daily details, knowing we are touching the lives of others beyond what we may see, and grateful for the complex, mysterious, and beautiful ways we depend on one another.

When We Grow Up

A few months ago I stopped by a booth at a farmers’ market. The woman working there enthusiastically pointed out some decorative signs, one of which featured some quip about men and women arguing with each other. “Oh,” the vendor said, “but you wouldn’t know about that.” Next she showed me another of her favorite sayings, about a home getting overrun with children. “But you wouldn’t know about that either.”

Since then I’ve thought quite a bit about why this experience bothered me so much. I know I look young for my age. Yes, I will be thankful for that in the future. But such hope doesn’t undo my frustration with people making off-base assumptions. I can’t complain too loudly; most people I interact with regularly do treat me respectfully, as an adult. Yet I still get wary about how others might be categorizing me in their mental worlds. There was a season where I got so tired of people asking whether I was a student that I wanted to invent a different response every day: “Yes, I’m working on my second doctorate.” “No, all my travel with the CIA keeps me busy enough.” “Yes, I just finished seventh grade. Early.”

Perhaps if I were married or had children, the vendor’s words would have felt more amusing than insulting. But this is part of the bigger problem. I wonder when people will consistently treat me as a full adult. When I get gray hair? Maybe if I wore suits everywhere? Or would it happen if I had a wedding ring or, better, was pushing a stroller around? Further, even if the vendor knew for sure I was unmarried, is it fair to assume that I am ignorant about male-female relationships or life with young children?

Of course I realize that both marriage and parenting are powerfully formative experiences that should move people to grow in new ways. But as a single person, I question: Am I any less of an adult than a friend who is younger than I but has been married five years? Are both of us less adult than another friend who has a couple of kids?

There seems to be considerable ambiguity in our culture about what it means to be an adult (see my previous post). Those who study human development generally identify the life stage after adolescence as young adulthood; some say it reaches to about age 35. The earlier years of this stage have been further divided out as emergent adulthood; many in this category today don’t think of themselves as true adults.

Such classifications can be helpful in understanding dynamics of development in our rapidly changing world. However, when we are constantly qualifying people as “young” or “emergent”—or even “middle” or “mature”—adults, does it take away from merely recognizing them as full adult human beings, with responsibilities and concerns shared by many, and also with their own individual stories? Even discussing young adults as “millennials” can tilt toward a dismissal or oversimplification of all those who happen to fit into a certain generation. Qualifying adulthood can also become an excuse for young adults to act immature or distance themselves from those in different age groups.

Consider also the more popular ways we talk about ourselves and each other. It’s currently common to refer to young adults and people of all ages as “guys” or “girls.” This seems casual and friendly. But it can also foster a lack of respect—especially since girl is the term for a female child, parallel to boy. (There’s an interesting 2012 Atlantic article on this topic. I’m not a fan of the author’s solution, but it’s a good conversation to have.) I’ve begun to rebel against this nomenclature. Why can’t we just be men and women? Why can’t we just call each other adults? This doesn’t have to be painfully formal; it can just be respectful and true. The words we use are important. They not only reflect our interior and social reality but also help shape it.

So here are my humble suggestions. First, we should resist making assumptions about people—about their age, experience, knowledge, what they want out of life. Try to approach new people with an open mind and open-ended questions (I like “Where are you from?” or “How long have you been coming here?”). In my experience assumptions have been annoying, but for many people, especially members of minority groups, assumptions can be deeply destructive.

Second, we must be thoughtful and respectful in how we speak about people. Consider individual preference but also what our language implies.

Finally, we should cultivate relationships with and value the perspectives of people of all ages and stages in life. Age is significant, but there are much more important qualities to each individual. After all, age is one trait we can’t control. Look for that on a sign the next time you go to a farmers’ market.

Adulthood in Tension

This year I turned 28, which means I have been a legal adult for ten years.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about what adulthood involves, and how I and others in my culture transition into it. While age 18 may be the biggest official milestone, the rights we associate with adulthood—driving, voting, drinking, renting a car, running for president—come in increments, over a period extending far beyond adolescence. This can help people grow up safely, but can also create uncertainty about what is essential to adulthood and how to find one’s place in it.

One of the concepts that helps me understand the world is that life is full of tensions. I used to think more in terms of balance. But in one of my grad school classes our guest speaker said that keeping different elements in tension is better than seeking balance. Tension is dynamic, not precarious but allowing give and take and readjustment.

Adulthood is full of tensions—freedom and responsibility, mobility and rootedness, expanding and narrowing down. Another set of tensions encompasses one of our greatest cultural values: independence.

Becoming more independent is exhilarating. That’s why so many Americans love our cars—from the first drive to a daily solo commute. Gaining adult independence is complex, and I think it’s healthy for some changes to come gradually. (I realize that many people have been forced to become independent more quickly.) After I graduated from college I moved out of my parents’ house only to live with my grandma. Then I transitioned to renting a room, and finally my sister and I signed a lease on our own apartment.

It feels empowering to know that I am the one putting food on my table, keeping my phone active and my car running. But being independent can also be tiring and overwhelming. Buying insurance, scheduling appointments, comparing unit prices on paper towels—can’t I get a secretary or housekeeper to take care of some of that stuff? And a rich uncle to cover expenses?

While gaining independence is a natural part of being an adult, so is learning the value of interdependence. Getting my own apartment was a major individual step, but it also reminded me how much I rely on other people. I still marvel at how many necessities I didn’t have to buy because of what family and friends gave away, from a bed and desk to measuring cups.

The process of moving itself is almost necessarily interdependent. You may be able to get by alone with a lot of lugging boxes and cramming your car full, as I have a couple times, but eventually you will probably own something you cannot carry by yourself. Recently I helped a friend, another single woman, move out of her old apartment. She told me that she doesn’t like to ask for help because she doesn’t want to burden others. But her move turned out to be a great opportunity for people from our church to come together and build relationships as we felt a sense of accomplishment in finishing big tasks. It is rewarding to help others and encouraging to feel needed, which reminds us that there is nothing wrong with having needs. Maturity includes being able to ask for help as well as willing to give it, recognizing that a full life includes rhythms of giving and receiving.

Finally, as we grow in independence and interdependence we learn to hold both in tension with dependence. Sometimes we need to receive help that we can never directly repay—maybe free housing, financial gifts or advice, advocacy and introductions. And whatever we do, adulthood eventually brings us to greater and greater dependence as aging shifts our abilities. Perhaps it’s never too soon to begin to appreciate our own limitations.

For Christians, dependence includes a whole other dimension. We believe our very lives and our salvation depend entirely on God. I have been reminded again and again that I can never hold everything together; instead, it is in Christ that all things hold together (Colossians 1:17). As I’ve grown in self-confidence and have enjoyed living as a competent, independent adult, I’ve struggled at times to keep a healthy view of how much I need God and can accomplish nothing of true value apart from him.

It is only as we learn to abide, reliant, in the Lord and to live as members of intertwined communities—from households to the whole human family—that we can enjoy healthy independence. I still have much to learn about the tensions of an independent, interdependent, dependent life. At least it’s something to explore for the next ten years.

On Singleness: Voices from the Early Church

Several years ago I took an independent study course on singleness and celibacy in the church. I believe learning from the wisdom—and mistakes—of those who’ve gone before us is essential as we engage complex issues today. Here a few of my favorite insights from my study of the early church on this topic.

Avoiding Extremes: Clement of Alexandria

One early writer who spoke to tensions regarding celibacy and marriage was Clement of Alexandria. In his Miscellanies, written about AD 200, Clement declared as orthodox a balanced view: “We bless sexual abstinence in those to whom this condition has been given by God, but we also marvel at monogamy and the great majesty of a single marriage.”[1] Each state offers particular opportunities for ministry that individuals should embrace.[2] Whether married or single, Christians must neither think themselves superior to others, nor be ruled by passions of any kind.

Clement identified two extremes among heresies of his day: the idea that lifestyle is merely a matter of preference so that people are free to follow their desires, and the excessive elevation of asceticism.[3] He argued that while sexual intercourse was created good, it is not a personal necessity, so even for married people sexuality requires self-control. (Clement can actually be quite amusing to read; look him up.)

St. Augustine in His Study by Vittore Carpaccio, 1502

 One Family, One Heart: Augustine

The need to understand marriage and singleness theologically in the context of salvation history is vividly underscored by Augustine (AD 354-430). In contrast to more extreme ascetics, Augustine defended marriage as fundamental to the original creation. Procreation and other goals of marriage, however, reflect a greater purpose: “human nature is a social reality and possesses a great and natural good, the power of friendship. For this reason God wished to create all human beings from one, so that they would be held together in human society.”[4] (You rarely hear this in a Protestant church: marriage was intended to promote the greater good of friendship!) From the beginning God made humans to be in relationship with each other and to be part of one family. Augustine believed sexual intercourse was likely present before the Fall so that Adam and Eve could obey God’s command to multiply, but they were not driven by lust.[5] After the Fall people reproduce because of lust and a need to replenish the population, but marriage also enables them, by God’s grace, to obey God and seek faithfulness even in imperfect relationships.[6]

This account leads to a view of the new reality in Christ, where both marriage and celibacy are fully possible and fully valuable. Since Christ has conquered death, physical procreation is no longer necessary. Further, Jesus created a new definition of family, teaching his followers to “value our spiritual family more highly than relationship by birth,” and to be identified by faith and imitation of holy people instead of by natural ties.[7] While Augustine agreed with the majority of Church Fathers that it is better not to marry, he taught that both married and single people have a place in the family of God; more important than marital state is that a believer remains faithful and obedient to God.

In addition to looking at creation and the completed work of Christ, Augustine considered marriage and singleness in light of the end times. While acknowledging that many details about the resurrection are unknown, Augustine argued that people will be raised male and female, not sexless, though free from lust and restored to perfect obedience to God. Marriage as we know it, which has been tainted by sin, will end, but our relational nature will be brought to fullness. In the present age the sacramental bond between one man and one woman points to a future unity among all humankind and with God: “there will be one City constructed out of the many souls who have one soul and one heart in God.”[8] Earthly divisions between married and single will be gone, for “we are looking toward the time when the only marriage will be that between Christ and the church, and when all human relationships will be drawn together in that one body.”[9]

The body of Christ represented by the voices of the early church includes great diversity, strengths and weaknesses, cautions and invitations. As we join them in wrestling to understand our ancient faith in new contexts, we are challenged by the potential beauty and unique value of singleness and celibacy, in light of the saving work of God and his creation of one eternal family in Christ.

[1]Clement, Miscellanies 3.1.4; in Elizabeth A. Clark, Women in the Early Church (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1983), pp. 48-49.

[2]Clement, Misc. 3.12.79.

[3]Clement, Misc. 3.5.40.

[4]Augustine, The Good of Marriage 1.1; in David G. Hunter, Marriage in the Early Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1992), p. 102.

[5]Augustine, The City of God 14.26.

[6]Jana Marguerite Bennett, Water Is Thicker Than Blood (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 69-70.

[7]Augustine, Holy Virginity 3.3.

[8]Augustine, The Good of Marriage 18.21.

[9]Bennett, Water Is Thicker Than Blood, p. 77.

Buying for Good

In my previous post I considered the problem of human trafficking and forced labor. Now, here are some practical resources and ideas on how to take more responsibility for an issue that affects our daily lives and involves the exploitation of millions of people.

Learn: First, keep educating yourself about human trafficking and forced labor, and choose a particular area you can focus on. One step at a time!

I was first introduced to the concept of responsible buying through the book Everyday Justice, by Julie Clawson. It opened my eyes to realities of child and forced labor behind clothing, chocolate, coffee, and other items we use regularly.

On the broader issues of human trafficking and oppression, International Justice Mission does excellent work around the world (ijm.org).

Relevant Magazine has some helpful articles at www.relevantmagazine.com/reject-apathy.

Free2Work, run by the organization Not for Sale, rates particular brands and companies. Choose an industry and see which brands are making progress in ethical sourcing and which should be avoided. The site and blog also have more information about the nature of forced labor and reports on key industry trends (free2work.org).

Fair Trade Certified Labels

Advocate: Share what you learn with others. Give ethical gifts.

Contact companies and let them know how important ethical sourcing is to you. Cite findings from Free2Work or other evaluations and from the company’s own website. For example, I emailed customer service at Forever21 and told them I would not be buying their products until they made significant improvement in their practices (I didn’t get a reply).

Shop: Fair Trade USA lists fair trade licensed partners and products (fairtradeusa.org).

End Slavery Now has a good article: “Products Made by Child Labor—with Alternative Options” (http://endslaverynow.org/blog/products-made-child-labor-alternative-options).

Style with Heart (stylewithheart.com) lists lots of ethical and fair trade brands (interestingly, many are based in the UK).

Ethica (shopethica.com) features various designers and brands with qualities such as “trade not aid” and “made in the U.S.A.”

Some of my favorite sources for fair trade products:

Ten Thousand Villages (tenthousandvillages.com) and Serrv (serrv.org) have wonderful gift items, accessories, home decor, and some clothing and food products.

Whole Foods carries fair trade sugar, coffee, tea, chocolate, vanilla, and some soaps and other home goods. Many other grocery stores have started stocking fair trade products too.

The Body Shop has a Community Fair Trade program that sources a number of their ingredients (www.thebodyshop-usa.com/about-us/aboutus_company.aspx).

Persevere: Again, the problems are complex and seem overwhelming. Changing our spending habits is costly—in money, time, and convenience. You may decide to invest more in certain quality products and reduce spending elsewhere. Every individual and family needs to evaluate their own spending patterns and determine their priorities.

Remember, as limited as we may feel, we have incredible power as consumers. Why do you think companies are so eager to get your contact info and sign you up for loyalty programs? The more educated, strategic, vocal, and united we are, the more difference we can make in challenging systemic injustices.

In the recent biography of abolitionist and reformer Hannah More, Fierce Convictions, Karen Swallow Prior describes how in the eighteenth century the slave trade was so entrenched in the British economy that many people could not even imagine an end to slavery. In fact, abolition eventually came at great material cost to Great Britain. Like people in Hannah More’s time, many Westerners today are unaware of the human suffering and indignity that supports much of our lifestyle. And now as then, change will be costly, gradual, and imperfect. But how can we afford to do nothing?

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