Noblesse Oblige vs. Comparing Oppressions

I feel a lot of guilt for the gifts that I’ve been given in this life.  Family, finances, eye color, love…

Today, I’m daring myself to confront that guilt, and talk a bit about how our mutual guilt might be tempting us to indulge in comparative oppression, whereas Christianity urges instead, noblesse oblige.

Noblesse Oblige:  In French, “noblesse oblige” means literally “nobility obligates.” French speakers transformed the phrase into a noun, which English speakers picked up in the 19th century. Then, as now, “noblesse oblige” referred to the unwritten obligation of people from a noble ancestry to act honorably and generously to others. Later, by extension, it also came to refer to the obligation of anyone who is in a better position than others – due, for example, to high office or celebrity – to act respectably and responsibly. (Merriam Webster online, emphasis mine)

The first sentence of this essay contains a key word to slay my guilt, and that word is, “given”.

In the truest sense of the word, none of us “earn” anything – God gives all.  But in my case, much of what I enjoy has nothing whatsoever to do with me.   I have been blessed.

My reaction has been gratitude, certainly – but not unmixed with a substantial portion of shame.  I know myself undeserving, and because one of my spiritual gifts is Counsel, I hear a lot of horror stories.   Who am I, to be given so much?

I am not alone.   Many of us in the West are extraordinarily blessed, whether or not we look that truth in the face.  It is hard to simply be given things, so a temptation is to reduce the size of the gift by emphasizing the size of the challenges that we have had (or continue to have) to face in our lives.   By becoming oppressed, we transform ourselves into someone deserving of blessing while simultaneously reducing the amount of gratitude we owe our Maker.

And then, because we our oppression, our challenge, is the reason that we are not crushed under the weight of gratitude, we identify ourselves forever with that oppression.   This shackles us to it, never allowing us to overcome our challenges.  It is a terrible state.

Instead, could we not embark on a life of noblesse oblige?

  • *I* know that my family is loving and I have a warm chest to cry on if I need it… so can I not extend an ear to someone who’s had a bad time of it?
  • *I* am not in any need, so is there really a reason to withhold forgiveness from the person who stole (yet another) solar light from my front yard?
  • *My* days are generally fairly pleasant, can I not extend grace to someone who is rude to me?

I can never pay back the amount of blessing that I have received, but can I not look eagerly for opportunities to bless others?  Can I not steward my time, energy, and finances to make the lives of those around me a bit better?  Can I not make choices that benefit not just me and mine, but those around me?  People I don’t know?

That is step one, and it’s hard enough.

1 Timothy 6: 17 Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. 18 Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed.

The second step, humble acceptance, is harder.  I’ll not try to pretend that I’ve achieved this, but I’m confronting it, because not stepping up is getting in the way of God’s call for my life.

The second step is saying goodbye to the guilt, forever.  It is the sweet acceptance of a child.   It is a simple “Thank You” to God, and a decision to become the vessel to show forth His kindness, goodness, and grace.

I don’t deserve my life, and making God smaller, my problems bigger, or pressing my face into the dirt won’t change that.   Thanking God, wearing the gifts that He has given me and sharing them as I am able is what He has instructed me to do.  That road, however contradictory it might seem, is the path of humility, for it is but dust we are – whatever else you see is all the hand of God.

Beauty is a window to the Transcendent

dsc05244We all crave Beauty.  And our lives saturate us in faux-beauty.  It’s like feeding a starving man a stack of Pringles instead of an honest potato.   It’s gotten so that we conflate one with the other.  And yet.  And yet.  Beauty, because of its ability to show us transcendence, cannot truly be counterfeited.

We hunger for that touch of the wild, the touch of the pure, the touch of the reality-beyond-reality that true Beauty brings us.   The hunger for Beauty cannot be fed by anything except Beauty itself.    The hunger for Beauty is part of our hunger for God.

So they ask us to define Beauty – is it red lips or pink, roses or eagles or the sound of a violin?  And the answer is … perhaps.  Because Beauty is a window, how can you define it by what you see?  The view is ever-changing.  The definition of Beauty is in the piercing of your heart, the joy that robs you of breath, the definition of Beauty is found in the soul – not in the mind.

Because Beauty opens us to God, opens us to our desperate hunger for His presence in our lives, Beauty is important.  Beauty invites the observer into a place where he can experience awe, can be touched by that which is outside of himself, therefore the creation of Beauty is an important pastime.

Because Beauty is transcendent, it is not always easy to create.  But if we cannot create Beauty, we can at least reduce ugliness.  We can repudiate lies.  We can restore order.  Beauty is true.  It is in truth.  Falseness can never be beauty.

I cannot imagine a culture more fed to the gills with faux-beauty than our own.  The battle to create Beauty, in small things or in large, is important.   Our culture is Laodicean at its core.

Revelation 3:17  Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked,

Feeding the hunger for the Transcendent God by opening the window of Beauty and letting His light shine through is a worthy goal, and one in which we can all share.

Pursue Beauty.  Pause and give Awe room in your life.  Allow the sight of the Almighty to transform your countenance, to fill you with joy.   Allow yourself to become Beauty, that others can see Him in you.

Beauty is an intrinsic good.

It always comes back to people

Why do we do the things we do?  We do them for people.

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

While we wear human flesh, while we live in a material world, while we suffer hunger and thirst … it is natural that we focus on physical things.  It is even good, within bounds.  The hungry should be fed, justice should be pursued, beauty should be created, houses need to be built and cleaned.. there are things to be done.

But we lose sight of the first thing when we lose sight of why we do these things.  We do these things for other people.  We build houses for the joy of building – but also so that the children can grow up in a house, because that gives them a better start in life.  We cook meals to nourish bodies.   We create civilizations because they’re the best places for humans to grow.  We do these things because God tells us to do these things, but the things are not the end in themselves, it is service to God, service to others that is the driving force.

It is easy to drop into Martha Syndrome (it applies to both men and women) where you concentrate so much on the work to be done that you don’t stop to focus on the “why”.  And “why” is *always* people.  Souls will last to eternity, physical things, however worthy, will burn.

So be kind.  Be merciful.  Look for opportunities to express love.  Prioritize others’ welfare above your own.  Remember that Mary was considered to have chosen the better path.

Work is good.   Love is better.

Feasts are necessary things

One of my early lessons from reading the entirety of the Bible was noticing how many feasts God chose for His people.  Lots.  And proper parties, where everyone came and shared and everyone went home full.  Community happened, blessings were shared.   Look it up for yourself.  God likes a good party.

I’m a Protestant with Messianic leanings – I know that most of the West’s holidays were lifted from various European traditions and paganism.   I battled that back and forth for a good while, because Truth is important to me.   Finally I decided that the heart of the holiday is what matters.   The idea of community, and whatever it is that we’re celebrating.  That’s why I have little use for Halloween – celebrating evil isn’t my bag.  But Christmas?  Christmas is good.  On Christmas, we celebrate our Lord’s birth.  Was He born in December?  Very unlikely.  But we don’t have a date.  So, we use this one.   Whatever. I was born in December – there are plenty of years I’d just as soon celebrate my birthday in June.  Would be more convenient.  (I don’t, but it’s been done).

What do we celebrate on Christmas?  What do we do?  We get together as families, and we worship the King.  We give each other gifts, because He gave us the best gift of all time.  And we feast.

Souls need feast times.  Times of joy, times to eat the richest food and drink the most elaborate drinks.  Feast times give us a reason to endure the normal days, a reason to endure the fast times.  Protestants tend toward asceticism – as if the porridge and water of everyday, virtuous and healthy as it is, should be EVERY day.  But lives need rhythm – and the memory of the Christmas feasting carries one through the dark days of January and February.

In other words, eat the fudge, drink the eggnog, have your fill – and you likely won’t want another serving for a year.  Hug your relatives, sleep late, enjoy your presents and don’t feel guilty.  You were created to enjoy feasts, and isn’t that kind of cool?  🙂

Modern Gnosticism

I’ve been people watching for the last few months and I see a common problem – something I’d like to refer to as modern gnosticism.

Because our flesh is inherently flawed, we distrust the flesh.  Because we can now choose to retreat to the realm of the intellect through being plugged in to the internet, we pull ourselves away from reality.  This affects our ability to deal with reality.  As we draw ourselves away from others, from the life of the flesh, we forget that we need each other, flawed or not.    We forget that the flesh matters – that we cannot simply deny the flesh entirely, that we were made to enjoy the flesh – but within limits.

We’ve lost the pure mammalian reality of life in flesh suits – we don’t know how to touch other humans in non sexual ways, so we keep animals so we have *something* to touch, and our sex drives go off their rockers.  Women used to groom one another, men used to roughhouse.   Simple touch – a country dance, the rituals of chivalry, a game of tug of war – those things used to remind us (delightfully) of the difference between the sexes.  And humans need touch, from cradle to grave.   But we lost that casual touch, and now we don’t know how to touch at all.  Suddenly you have to give consent for a kiss…

We’ve lost the community of food, so we divide ourselves into those eating clean, those eating for comfort, and gastronomes.  Where is the simple breaking of bread among friends, with laughter?  Instead, we pour all our sensory desire into our mouths, making us obese or obsessed, with very little in between.   Food is the one place all our flesh desire ends up, it seems… the flesh *will* out, and everyone has to eat sometime.  And yet we admire those who evidently have overcome their flesh.

Where, for that matter, has laughter gone?   When was the last time you laughed with a real, live, friend?  Do you have real, live friends?  Do you know what the smell of their skin is?  What their hands feel like in yours?   The way they hold their faces when they’re angry or sad?

We are besieged by sound.  When do we get to listen to silence?  The modern world is always noisy, but how much of that noise do you actually *listen* to?  When do you sit, still and concentrating, to enjoy a musical performance?  No.  We drive with the radio on, watch TV while we eat, and layer noise upon noise.   We shield ourselves from the assault of noise by adding more noise.  We are constantly seeking aural input.  Why??

We like to pretend that only the life of the mind matters, that all this craziness going on around our bodies is irrelevant.

And the problem with that is that we ARE flesh.  Or at least we live in flesh, and always will.  (Yes, we get new fleshsuits – better fleshsuits – but still bodies that will be able to eat and hug and laugh).  We can’t separate out a problematic part of our nature and just ignore it.  And we can’t control all of it – we can’t control aging bodies or the behavior of others.  I can’t control the roar of a motorcycle gunning its engine outside my front door.  So then – do we learn to surf reality?  No, lately we pull ourselves away into virtual reality – it’s so much safer, after all.  We never have to deal with other humans, messy and complicated.

We forget how to deal with life in the flesh, and we were never meant to do that, no matter how tempting it is.

Give this some thought, and give me your feedback.  I’m seeing it more and more often these days… are you?




We write stories about ourselves

All the humans that I know write stories about themselves in their heads.   I’m not even going to evaluate whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I’m pretty sure that it’s both. Just a human thing.  We categorize ourselves in words, we categorize ourselves with favorite anecdotes, we categorize ourselves by our tastes and preferences.   The story that we tell about ourselves, at least to ourselves, becomes well-worn, like a favorite coat.

But occasionally we realize that the narrative that we’re writing has become more fiction than fact.   It is then time to readjust, to examine ourselves, to examine what we know to be true, to throw out some acid tests, and figure out who we really are.    It is a good thing to reevaluate, it is healthy.    And sometimes we change profoundly, and have to take on new words, new ways to describe ourselves.

During any evaluation, it is necessary to start with truth.  I am never more grateful for my Bible than when I’m doing heavy thinking – I can slam my thoughts, my randomness, up against the Word and see what sticks and what boils off into nothingness.  I am never more grateful for the Lord than when I weep in prayer and He refused to let me get away with lies… lies that I tell *myself*.   It is no wonder that those who seek to find truth without Truth Himself get lost.

It’s good to test ourselves, to check to see that we are telling the truth about ourselves to ourselves.  Because we change.

There’s something that our society has lost, the concept that adults continue to change and grow over a lifetime.  If there is any understanding of that, it gets engulfed by the reinvention of self popularized by those who leave their commitments, their lives, to “find themselves”.   (See above for the solution to that problem).  This is a great pity.  One is left to the extremes of one set of people who seem to think that they’re completed humans after about 30 or so, and the other set of people who run off the reservation.

Because life has stages, and you need to respect the stages.  Just because I’m in one stage doesn’t invalidate the lessons I learned in another stage, or make it “bad”.  It would be bad for me to remain in the stage that I have outgrown, it was not bad for me to live there when that’s where I was as a person.

I’m 44 now, so I’m officially “mid-life”.  My kids are in their teens, or close to.  Should I be mothering my kids the same way I did ten years ago?  My wedding ring is old enough to order its own beer.  Should I be the same kind of wife I was twenty years ago?   Of course I’m a more efficient homemaker now.  Shouldn’t I be?

It’s time to re-evaluate, to re-center, to stop telling myself the same things over and over again.  Retreat to fact, and re-emerge, brushing fables off like spiderwebs, and blooming in new ways.

It’s time to tell a new story.