ASI Seminar Recap: Kindred Allies

The Austin Stone Institute’s (ASI) 2019 “Learning to Listen” seminar series is designed to encourage us to consider other people’s perspectives, to give us a theological foundation for speaking with grace and truth about topics such as gender, race, and politics, and to empower us to engage with people who are not like us.

Our first seminar “Kindred Allies” with author and Bible teacher Jen Wilkin occurred on September 12 at our West campus. We were delighted by how many people came—we saw nearly 200 people gather in the auditorium.

Men and Women Are More Alike than Different

The seminar featured two teaching components and one Q&A panel. During the first teaching, Jen explored how men and women are more similar than different. She started by debunking the idea that men and women cannot be platonic friends. Jen undergirded her position with Genesis 1 and 2, saying that God did not provide Eve because Adam felt the lack of a sexual partner. Rather, God provided Eve because Adam was lonely and needed a companion who shared his language and abilities. God made them to “image” Him together, not separately. 

Jen then turned to the New Testament and discussed how Jesus redefines and expands the definition for “family.” She referenced Mark 3, which says: 

And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35)

In the family of God, relationships between men and women are not based on husband and wife, but on brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. And, Jen continued, this family of brothers and sisters is told to “one another” over and over in the New Testament. Men and women are to love one another (1 John 4:7), serve one another (1 Peter 4:10), encourage one another (Hebrews 10:24-25), forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32), etc. Men and women are not to divide by gender, with men in the living room and women in the kitchen, but to pursue friendship and unity as brothers and sisters in Christ. 

But that is not how life typically plays out in the church or the larger culture. Men and women fear each other—a natural state of affairs considering humanity’s sin and a hyper-sexualized culture. Relationships between genders become fraught with tension. And yet, some relationships transcend it: the bond between a father and daughter, for instance, or a brother and sister who defend each other no matter what. Such relationships give a glimpse of what friendships between men and women can look like. It is possible to be friends with the opposite sex without sexual temptation running rampant.

Men and Women Should Consider the Other’s Perspective

But for that possibility to become a reality, Jen suggested men and women needed to do some reconditioning in terms of not only how they saw each other but also how they recollected stories in the Bible. She addressed the former in the first session of the seminar and worked through the latter in the second. In it, Jen walked seminar attendees through the example of David and Bathsheba. 

Many readings (and commentaries) of the text depict Bathsheba as a “loose” woman delighted to capture King David’s attention. A close textual reading, though, offers something different. It displays an unequal and unbreachable power dynamic, with David having all the agency and Bathsheba all the vulnerability. Reading the text with that viewpoint can be uncomfortable but ultimately healthful; it teaches people to reconsider their assumptions about both the Bible and the opposite gender, to reexamine their understanding of situations, and in some cases, to initiate conversations with men and women about their experiences.  

Jen ended her teaching with a panel. Todd Engstrom, Executive Pastor of Ministry Strategies, John Murchison, Managing Director of The Austin Stone Institute, and Lindsay Funkhouser, Program Manager of ASI’s Writer Development Program, joined her. They answered questions from the audience regarding how men and women can be “kindred allies” and gave advice on how men and women can relate to and support one another. For example, Jen and Lindsay said men can open up opportunities to women, while women can remind men that emotions are not weaknesses. Men can also encourage women toward speaking up for themselves, and women offer insights into men’s communication styles.

God designed men and women complementary. Each gender has something the other lacks. By coming together as friends, they can discover how the qualities that seem to separate them enrich each other’s lives and unite them as one body in Christ. 

 

Join us for our upcoming seminar with Dr. Gregg Allison on October 25. He’ll be answering the question, “Are you your body?”



Five Ways to Fight Perfectionism

I was nine years old when I first tangled with perfectionism. (At least, it’s my first remembered encounter. My mom probably recalls something different.) I got a “C” on a grammar test. While most kids would accept that grade with delighted relief, I didn’t. I felt like a failure. To me, a “bad” grade wasn’t a letter grade; it was a mark against my moral fiber. I spent the next week berating myself and dedicating hours to understanding the laws of verbs and diagrams. I was determined not to suffer anything less than an “A” going forward. 

As far as I know, I didn’t. I established and maintained a pristine honor roll status. But the achievement did nothing to combat perfectionism. Perfectionism lingered, a constant presence needling me with the thought that I wasn’t good enough and would never be good enough. To fight that idea, I would need succor other than achievement and determination. I would need God and His grace and wisdom. 

Throughout the years, God has not only provided wisdom and grace but also proven Himself a much more faithful and kind companion than perfectionism. Perfectionism belittles. God lifts me up. He gives me, as one of our new songs from Austin Stone Worship says, “a better word.” God reminds of the better way. That way encompasses a lot of things, but the following five came to mind during a recent bout of perfectionism.

Decide Whether to Create or Be Perfect

Perfectionism cripples. It puts the act of creation at a towering height. Every word, brushstroke, string of code has to be perfect at their inception. If they’re not, the artist/writer/insert other maker topples headlong into perfectionism and its downward spiral of doubt, guilt, and self-inflicted railery. Rather than confront the perils of creation, the maker refuses the climb. They choose safety and comfort over the risk and danger inherent to the creative process. 

But safety and security are poor comforts, especially to the person called to create—and I mean “create” in the broadest sense, from architectural drawings, business plans, and mathematical theorems to murals, choreography, and memoirs. I realized that truth as I sought to put thoughts into words and drawings as an undergraduate. It came with a complimentary epiphany: I could create, or I could be perfect. I could not, however, be both. I could either accept the messiness of creation, along with its risk of failure, or never attempt anything ever again for fear of it being “imperfect.” I decided on the former. The act of making, despite its risks and dangers, was and is infinitely more satisfying than the pursuit of perfection. 

I like how Neil Gaimain juxtaposes perfectionism and creation. In an interview with Tim Ferriss, Gaiman says, “What you cannot fix is the perfection of a blank page. What you cannot fix is that pristine, unsullied whiteness of a screen or a page with nothing on it, because there’s nothing there to fix.” Exactly. My first draft, whether it be writing or art, may be a wreck. But it’s something. I can work with it, mold it into shape.

Choose Humility or Pride

Perfectionism produces pride, too. The perfectionism, though, may not appear as blatant self-promotion, as in the statement, “Look what I did.” Instead it hides beneath a mask of false humility by deflecting praise.

The deflection works a strange magic. It feels right to acknowledge other writers, artists, and creators as more skilled or gifted. And maybe it is. It’s good to recognize and celebrate other people and their gifts. And yet—something about the deflection remains off-kilter, wrong. A friend helped me realize one part of the issue; he told me deflecting a compliment was like trampling on a person’s gift. If he went to the time and trouble to recognize my talent, I should accept his compliment as I would any other thoughtfully given gift, with gratitude and grace. To do otherwise was to hurt the gift-giver and to deny them the opportunity of engaging with me and the thing I created.   

The other part of the issue resides in a denial, conscious or unconscious, of God’s handiwork. Deflecting a compliment is, at best, a diminishment of God’s gifts to me. It downplays my abilities, says they’re of little importance. But they matter a great deal for God gave them to me, and He gave them to me for a reason. At worst, the deflection conveys a wish for other talents, to be made in a different way. It suggests I know better than God, which is both prideful and hurtful. How would I feel if one of my creations stepped off the page and asked, “Why did you make me thus?” I would feel hurt and betrayed, and if I, with my flawed love and incomplete knowledge, feel that way, how much more would God feel, the One who made me in faithful loving kindness and perfect knowledge?

Remember the Source of Confidence

Perfectionism often produces crippling fear and pride. It also frequently suggests people “control their destinies.” Everything, from the smallest, most trivial decision (Should I have avocado toast or granola for breakfast?) to the largest, most transformative one (Should I accept this job or marry this person?), depends on the individual. They are the captains of their ships, and when it comes to their work, they are the sources of inspiration and confidence.

But such sources are finite and fallible. Confidence crumbles for all sorts of reasons—failure, sure, but the size or scope of project, fatigue, and doubt, too. And inspiration? Inspiration is a fickle friend. It snubs invitations to visit, no matter how the person strains. When either confidence or inspiration dissipates, the illusion of control shatters. The world will not conform or perform to the maker’s perfect equations. Life proves more complicated than they ever anticipated. 

Here, the difference between what the world says and what the Bible says becomes vivid. The world says to wrest control back by planning harder, working longer hours, taking a retreat—to do whatever it takes to achieve the picture-perfect career, lifestyle, etc. The Bible says different. It says God is in control of everything, including me and the ins and outs of my days. He, not me, strengthens and sustains when disorder—imperfection—descends. He is my ultimate source of confidence and inspiration, and a never-ever running out one at that. God is and always will be my source of sustenance, confidence, and inspiration whether the work comes easy or hard. He remains constant, a perfect, fixed point upon whom I can rely. 

Decide to Rest Instead of Perform

Perfectionism also says I am the sum of my work. It’s an easy lie to believe, particularly in a culture that urges me to be the best, to pull myself up by my bootstraps, to work and work and work, demand my rights, break through the ceiling, etc. When I believe those things, I shoulder a burden I was never meant to. Rest becomes a distant memory or merely the means of greater efficiency and productivity. It no longer restores, for it is no longer connected to God, the One who conceived of and instituted rest in the first place. 

The longer rest remains disconnected from God, the harder it becomes to cease from toil and strife. Josef Pieper, in his essay “Leisure: The Basis of Culture,” offers an explanation. He says, “We tend to overwork as a means of self-escape, as a way of trying to justify our existence … The inmost significance of the exaggerated value which is set upon hard work appears to be this: man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy, with a good conscience, what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refused to have anything as a gift.”(1)

To correct the lie, I have to remember the truth. In Christ, I am God’s daughter. God made me for more than work, even if that work makes His name great. He made me to know Him, to so enjoy being His daughter that I can’t help but make Him known to others. He made me to reflect Him. He also gave me unique talents and skills, not so that I would be consumed by them, but so that I could enjoy them and use them for His glory and other people’s good. And—He gave me rest and play and wonder, things I have to receive as the gifts they are. I do not work for those things; they come unbidden, without effort, a means of grace, not ability.

Embrace Community

Finally, perfectionism isolates. How can it not? Its chief goal is to be, not the best, but the most perfect. It dismisses collaboration and community because the successful perfectionist should be entire to themselves. They shouldn’t need help or desire to be known as a real person, a person with struggles and flaws and yes, imperfections. 

If that posture doesn’t produce isolation, perfectionists’ unrealistic standards should. Some perfectionists manage to keep their standards under control and apply them only to themselves. But even then, they can be difficult to bear. No one wants to spend time with a self-righteous prig whose aim in life is perfection. In other cases, the perfectionists assume their standards should be everybody’s standards. But that’s not fair. No one can live up to a perfectionist’s standards. Even if they could, they shouldn’t. They were made in a unique way, and they should use that uniqueness to grow into the person God created them to be, not the person the perfectionist says they should be. (Which, let’s face it, is basically a mini-me of the perfectionist. Who wants that?)

But the reality, according to the Bible, is that humans were made for community. God embedded it in humanity’s design. Admitting I need help and other people is not some great moral failure; it is good, right, and true. When I welcome people into my work or join them in theirs, beauty results—and I’m not talking about the end product, although it almost always improves with other people’s input. No, what I speak of has to do with the people of God. I see them as God sees them. I witness how He knits us together, the same way He knits me. The sight fills me with awe, and in seeing it, I respond by turning away from isolating perfectionism and toward a community where I belong. 

Over the years, I’ve discovered many truths to counter perfectionism’s lies. But the most convicting, life-shattering one is that God has entrusted me with a certain amount of time, with certain talents and gifts. That means I am not an owner but a steward, a humble servant, a recipient of God’s manifold grace. My gifts are not for me and my benefit but for God’s glory and people’s good. When I keep that truth in mind, perfectionism loosens its grip. I step into a space brimming with possibility and create with the joy and confidence my Father and King so abundantly and graciously supplies.

 

(1) Josef Pieper, “Leisure: The Basis of Culture” (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 1948)



Book Review: Rosaria Butterfield’s “The Gospel Comes with a House Key”

In anticipation of Rosaria Butterfield’s hospitality seminar on June 1, we read her book The Gospel Comes with a House Key.

“The gospel comes with a house key,” (11) begins Rosaria Butterfield in her book by the same name. She says the phrase is more of a process. By viewing one’s home as a key to sharing the gospel, strangers can become friends, and friends can become family members of God.

Butterfield explores that idea throughout The Gospel Comes with a House Key, using her life as an illustration. At the same time, she weaves in the gospel that undergirds and informs her family’s daily rhythms of hospitality. She intertwines the two on purpose, for Christian hospitality must always point to Jesus. Without that upward direction, hospitality becomes counterfeit and incapable of welcoming diverse worldviews, suffering with the brokenhearted, and inviting people to experience the healing found only in Christ.

Butterfield’s exploration of hospitality happens organically, meaning people glean principles and insights as they read the book. Some of those principles receive mention here. Butterfield’s book, however, contains many more.

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Are Writers Leaders?

“Are writers leaders?” My instinct says, “Yes.” Writers can lead people for good or ill, and Christian writers can lead people either to or away from God. But instinct isn’t enough to validate an opinion. Opinions require some foundation for them to be not only believable but also arguable, defensible. I can say writers are leaders, but if I can’t point to reasons why that is, I’d be better off lapsing into silence.

Fortunately, I’ve done some thinking on the question and devised two ways to approach it, particularly as the question relates to Christian leadership. Other avenues exist, of course, but I’ve chosen two to keep things simple and to prevent rambling for an age. The first perspective comes from examining a biblical figure; the second, from literature itself.

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