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How I Stopped Annoying Women

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In high school I was in love with a girl who had long, dark, very straight hair, brown eyes, a heart-shaped face, and a demur attitude. (Some will say I was not really in love, which is in some sense true. They will say I was merely infatuated, but the fact is, having experienced both infatuation and real love, I can say with some authority that they feel the same. The main difference, as far as I can tell, is that infatuation makes you insane, but real love is always eminently reasonable. But once again, when you’re in the midst of it, insanity seems oh, so reasonable.) We were in the same grade, so we had some classes together. We also attended some of the same religious meetings. Whenever she was near, I was very aware of her presence, and I schemed to be with her and show her attention without seeming to intend it. Crazy, right? At prayer meetings, I would sit next to her, so I could hold her hand during prayers. My prayers were not exceptionally spiritual, but I did make a number of extravagant promises to God which I have since forgotten. He probably still chuckles over them.

Girls did not flock around me. In fact, they avoided me as if I had cooties. With the advantage of hindsight, I know now that in my teens I was uncommonly ugly and socially awkward. It would be hard to imagine a combination more deadly to incipient romance. I lacked both grace and good looks. I was also naive. All I had going for me was an impressive grasp of calculus—not a trait over which many girls were known to swoon.

After high school I spent a decade with my heart on my sleeve, always ready to be in love with any young woman who was civil to me. If she were more than civil—if she flirted even in the most desultory fashion—I was instantly smitten and made myself intolerable until she utterly spurned my affections. This happened more than once. Possibly more than 5 times. It is still painfully embarrassing to contemplate.

As I grew older, despite remaining absurdly naive, my physiognomy changed. I became more or less average-looking and acquired enough social grace to pass for an ordinary guy. By the time I met the woman who is now my wife, I effortlessly and unwittingly impressed her with my erudition and aplomb. But she was different, too, from the kind of woman who usually attracted me. She was not demur. She was vivacious. She acted as if life were a present she was just about to unwrap. She had firecracker eyes, and she was infectiously alive. She dragged me out of my woebegone stupor and loved me unflinchingly.

These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways).
Theodore Roethke

Suffice it to say, I stopped annoying all woman and began to annoy just one. (At least, I think I stopped. One can never be entirely sure.) For some reason I have yet to grasp, she considers knowing me a privilege for which a little annoyance is not too steep a price.

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Good Question

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My daughter-in-law brought homemade cinnamon rolls to our Thanksgiving Day celebration. Our family decided to get together all day, so we started with breakfast. She asked me what I thought of her cinnamon rolls even though everyone else had already raved about them.

“I don’t know if they’re really good,” she said, “or if everyone is just saying they are to spare my feelings because I’m pregnant.”

So she asked me.

I have a reputation in my family for speaking my mind without regard for people’s feelings. I have this reputation for two reasons:

  1. I have a high regard for the people I love and their ability to accept my opinions.
  2. I am an insensitive asshole.*

I tried her cinnamon rolls. While I was eating one, it occurred to me that if anyone spared her feelings, it was because they love her. I asked her, “Would you rather experience some doubt about yourself knowing that your friends and family love you, or would you rather be certain but know that they do not?”

She thought about it for a minute. “I don’t know,” she said.

“They’re very good,” I said. Indeed, they were.

*I sometimes shamelessly use the first reason as cover for the second. I’m sorry. I’m only human.

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The Weakness of God

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“…the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
—1 Corinthians 1:25

It is tempting to regard what Paul said in 1 Corinthians as meaning that God, at his weakest, is still stronger than all the strength humans can muster. After all, God is reputedly all-powerful. Surely human strength can be no match for God’s infinite power. Yet I don’t think that is what Paul had in mind at all. This whole passage argues that God’s wisdom and power displayed in Jesus Christ is of a different order altogether from the wisdom and power of human beings.

Our heroes are men and women whose accomplishments stand out from those of their peers. Generals who lead troops into battle, statesmen who avert war, women who overcome misogyny and make significant contributions to science, famous poets or novelists, even accomplished athletes—these are our heroes. They makes us want to emulate them. Jesus was like none of these. He did not lead a nation or an army. His followers were mostly poor and of little account. He made no significant discoveries, never wrote a poem or a book. He didn’t even do what his enemies accused him of: he didn’t lead a rebellion against Rome. If you ignore his teaching, the only noteworthy things he did are almost too improbable to be believed: healing the sick without medicine and feeding the hungry with scant resources, walking on water, raising the dead. Most improbable of all, his followers claim he rose from the dead after being tortured to death and buried for three days. Everything about his life and work reveals a man who was evidently a lunatic with nothing to show for his years on earth except an unusually devoted following. As a representative of God, he comes across as weak, even feeble.

His strength, which became the true strength of the Church, was in two things, both of which Paul goes on to foreground in 1 Corinthians 2, his teaching and the power of the Spirit of God. Yet even his teaching was weakness and foolishness. He taught that we should love our enemies instead of trying to get the better of them. He taught that we should forgive those who offend us instead of retaliating. He taught that we should oppose violence with acquiescence to violence. If we made movies with Jesus’ conception of how to live a good life, at the end the good guys would lay down their weapons and submit to being killed. Likewise, the power of the Spirit of God was not to subdue evil in the world but to overcome it in one’s own heart. God’s Spirit enables Jesus’ followers to live, however imperfectly, in accordance with his teaching.

When Paul lists Christian virtues, they are too weak to even be called virtues. Paul calls them fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22, 23). Notably absent are classical Greek virtues such as courage, prudence, and justice. Only self-control gets a mention, and it is last. Paul even boasts about his own weakness. and declares that when he is weak, he is strong. We tend to value defiance, seeing it as a sign of courage. Our movie heroes are almost always defiant when captured and almost always have to be physically subdued. Yet Jesus taught meekness and humility and persistence in the face of powerful injustice. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. learned from Jesus’ example and used nonviolent protest to dismantle segregation and Jim Crow in the American south. His followers, far from being defiant, endured beatings and police brutality to awaken the conscience of the nation and shame the powerful for allowing injustice to continue.

Again and again throughout history the weak prevail against the strong not by force but by persistence and love. It is not the rich and powerful who end injustice; they too often benefit from its continuance. It is the poor and weak who unite against injustice and shame the powerful into doing what is right.

We Christians are taught to expect persecution for our faith. Some have taken that to mean that we suffer for our moral high-mindedness and piety, but those were characteristics of the Pharisees and religious hypocrites whom Jesus excoriated. No, the persecution we Christians—especially American Christians who enjoy so many protections under our Constitution—should expect to endure is for standing with the weak and powerless, for lifting up the cause of the widow and orphan, for advocating for people of color, for taking to the streets to protect the rights of women and immigrants and poor people, for continuing to feed the hungry when city ordinances forbid it.

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