Optic Discs, Jonathan Edwards, and German Candy

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My favorite class in high school was probably anatomy and physiology with Mrs. Brown. To get an idea of the structures of the human body, we dissected cow eyeballs, sheep brains, and pig heart and lungs. (Lungs are like cutting into jello with sticks in it, and the tissue foams. You’re welcome.)

But the eyeball is what I’m meditating on today because of a strange little thing called the blind spot.

At the back of your eye is the optic disc where your optic nerve attaches to the retina. The nerve receives impulses from the rods and cones and delivers them to your brain where they are interpreted as sight. But the optic disc where the nerve attaches has no rods or cones. It’s blank.

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The human eye

You’d think this would be an issue. Check out the diagram. The blind spot is in an obvious place. You ought to be walking around wondering why there’s a black spot in your vision, but the human brain is an amazing thing: it fills in the space with copies of the surrounding image, a bit like the stamp tool in photoshop. You only notice the blind spot when something that doesn’t match the rest of what you’re looking at disappears into it. Try this:

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Cover your left eye and look at the dot on the left in this image. Be aware of the cross on the right, but don’t look at it – just keep your eye on the dot. Move your face closer to the monitor, and farther away. At some point, you should see the cross disappear. Stay at that point and close your right eye. Stare at the cross, and you should see that the dot has disappeared. *This lovely demonstration is taken from the following article from Gizmodo: http://io9.gizmodo.com/5804116/why-every-human-has-a-blind-spot—and-how-to-find-yours

It isn’t until you focus on something else that you realize you’re not seeing something right in front of you.

I think it’s the same with our lives. We all have blind spots where something is flat wrong, but they don’t show up until we take a look at something else and the blind spot is unavoidable.

I recently became aware of one my own blind spots. I’d like to think I treat people purely according to their behavior and character, not their skin tone. But I don’t. And the reason I know this about myself is because I read a facebook post that temporarily took my focus elsewhere, off of my own limited experience. I believe that every human being is made in the image of God, but I realized that some of my behavior or language might make a person of color question my sincerity. It was like a bucket of cold water to the face. It wasn’t intentional or even “that bad,” but pleading ignorance doesn’t change the fact that I could have hurt brothers and sisters in Christ or turned unbelievers sour on the gospel because of a blind spot. I am determined to change.

It got me thinking about a discussion my husband and I had while he was a pastor.

I’ve spent most of my adult life debating about orthodoxy aka. “right doctrine.” I can argue abstract theology all day, and I’ve even taught a class in apologetics. However, everyday behavior is a far stickier discussion. The word we’re looking is orthopraxy or “right actions or practices,” and it’s important because it’s the part everyone else sees, meaning it’s the part that can make you a liar. It’s what everyone talks about when you’re a pastor. The sermon could be theologically perfect, and someone will get mad about whether you smiled.

But pastors have real ugly blind spots, too.

A particularly stark example is found in the amazing song “Precious Puritans” by Propaganda. He, a black man, describes his reaction when the Puritans are quoted and praised from pulpits, but pastors seem to forget that even Jonathan Edwards, the mind behind Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, owned slaves. As Propaganda says, “How come the things the Holy Spirit showed them/ In the Valley of Vision/ Didn’t compel them to knock on they neighbor’s door/ And say ‘you can’t own people!'”

Well, why didn’t it?

And why doesn’t the belief that all human beings are made in the image of God prevent Christians from calling LGBT persons that word that starts with “F,” viewing pornography, either on the computer or on HBO, or killing babies in the womb?

And more personally, why does my belief that my children are precious miracles from God not translate into patience, kindness, and gentleness with consistent correction and discipline? I look at myself losing my temper, complaining about messes, and muttering stupid things under my breath, and hang my head at what my kids must think of the Gospel if Mom can’t get through the day without needing a timeout herself. I can debate terms like penal substitution, unconditional election, and amillennialism, but all my kids want from me is solid boundaries, unconditional love, and that German candy from Daddy I keep on the top shelf. When I get five seconds of focus off myself, all the blind spots in my character snap into view. How do I miss things that are so basic?

In the wise words of Thabiti Anyabwile, “Well, [right living] doesn’t follow mechanically, ipso facto, ex opere operato from some set of solid beliefs. There’s a whole lot of effort, application, resistance to the world, self-examination, and mortification that’s gotta accompany the doctrine in order for the duty to follow.”

There’s the rub. Self-examination. Mortification. “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phillippians 2:12b) Like I said, orthopraxy is the part that makes you a liar.

The Christian walk is an exercise in right action growing out of right belief, and I think I can conclusively declare, Church, that we’re a bunch of hot messes. As Propaganda says at the end of his song, “There’s not one generation of believers that has figured out the marriage between proper doctrine and action.” Only One managed to do it perfectly, and the only way to reveal our blind spots is to put our focus on Him instead of ourselves. Then we can recognize what is right in front of us.

Now I’m going to listen to Propaganda’s “Precious Puritans” and eat some of that German candy with my kids while I thank God for blind spots revealed and sin corrected.

And for sugar.

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Changing Things Up

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Up until now this blog has been all about me writing a novel or reviewing books. I have a feeling the writing posts are boring to anyone except fellow writers, and I haven’t written many book reviews lately. After talking to my hubby, I’ve decided to shift focus. I’ll still write book reviews (Allegiant, All Our Yesterdays, and Sorrow’s Knot are in the pipeline), and I’ll still occasionally update people on my novel. I’ve just realized that I have a lot more to say, and I think my thoughts might be amusing or even enlightening. So expect the following new topics:

1) Military Life

Life is about to change significantly for my family. In a few months my husband will report for active-duty as a chaplain in the US Army, and we will move to a post in Georgia. I honestly feel a bit like a missionary headed to a foreign country. I have to learn a new language (OPSEC? DFAS? BAH? What is with all these acronyms?!), new rules (Did you know that a soldier can’t carry an umbrella in uniform?), and new mode of dress (Uniforms confuse me enough, but there are dress codes for events!). The process of moving and assimilating into Army culture will inevitably be entertaining and hopefully helpful to others. But don’t expect to hear much about my kids. This is not a mommy blog. There are plenty of those already.

2) Theology

I love to teach and read theology, and I love to argue apologetics. I’m fascinated with other religions and how they differ from Orthodox Christianity, such as Islam, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Judaism. My current pet topic is orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy: if you have right beliefs, but they don’t result in right behavior, are they really right beliefs? These things bounce around in my brain all day long, and I’ve started half a dozen posts that I’ve never published. I have decided that all those posts need to see the light of day.

3) True Tales of Unbelievable Social Awkwardness

I’ve already told the internet that my first words to my husband were, “I had a dog named Caleb.” That’s the tip of the iceberg. Like the fact that I sang the wrong words to a well-known hymn for twenty years before Caleb noticed and corrected me. Or the time I retold a story I’d heard from a friend, and the subject of the story (a person I didn’t know) was sitting there listening to me the whole time. Or the time I corrected a teacher’s pronunciation in the middle of class in high school. And did it again to a professor in college. Prepare to worry about me while hopefully laughing out loud.

4) A Secret Project

I am almost certain I want to serialize a novella concept I’ve been developing, and I plan to post some of it here for feedback. It’s futuristic science fiction that involves artificial intelligence, but I won’t say more until I’ve actually written a few pages. I may throw together a few pieces of short fiction as well.

Hopefully these changes will make this blog a bit more interesting. If you have any suggestions for other topics I should write about, I’d love to hear them. Next up is my review of Allegiant by Veronica Roth!

What I’m Reading: Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl by N.D. Wilson

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Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God’s Spoken World

by N.D. Wilson

This is not a review of Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl.  Tilt-A-Whirl is not a book you review.  This is an interaction with the text. I feel pretentious using words I learned from literature class, but this is not a book you merely read. It is a tome that demands a response.

Shadows can seem so long when you are walking through them.

I remember an almost six-year-old me peering around a doorway at a large plastic box that held my little sister born at 24 1/2 weeks gestation. A micro-preemie brought into the world four months early to save my mother’s life, I could barely tell there was a sister under all the technology monitoring her. A nurse caught me moments later and sent me back out into the hospital hallway. Why was my sister in a box? And why did Mommy and Daddy have to wash their hands all the time? I was both fascinated and afraid.

I think of my wedding day. My lively talkative grandmother had been slowly fading under the curse of dementia for several years. I stood in her room at the nursing home and told her I was getting married in a few hours, even though I knew she would never remember the blond-haired young man who had visited her and would forget it was my wedding day moments after I left. I asked her to pray for me. For a moment her eyes cleared. She said, “Of course I’ll be praying for you, darlin’. I’ve been praying for this day your whole life.” Then she was gone again, her mind hijacked by the tangled proteins gathering in her neurons.

I remember the funeral of my college mentor, a brilliant sociologist with a razor wit and a love of Simon and Garfunkel. When I wrote a parody of the song “That’s Amore” using sociology vocab he laughed until he cried and told me he would submit it for publication in a journal. Only a few months later he described to me the night he spent in the ER watching fireworks crawling up the wall created by the tumor pressing on his occipital lobe and the doctor telling him he had three months left.  As I listened to bagpipes bid him farewell in my university’s chapel, I asked God how He could give the smartest man I’d ever met a deadly brain tumor at only 50 years old.

I feel again the knots in my chest as I broke down in the parking lot of a CVS on my lunch break. A nurse had just told me the results of blood tests over the phone and casually mentioned that I would probably never have children. My world seemed to shrink until it was just me in a car, air conditioner blasting away the Texas summer heat. I desperately dialed my husband’s phone number only to weep so hard he couldn’t understand a word I said. I didn’t go back to work that day. I went home and cried in my husband’s arms for what felt like days.

Our world is a bizarre mashup of light and dark. As Wilson points out, our God designed wind, so He knew it could turn into tornadoes and hurricanes. Does that bother you? Does the tangle of good and evil that surrounds us make you question His goodness? His sovereignty? His wisdom? Good. The struggle is evidence of His breath in your lungs. Sometimes it feels as though the shadows have overtaken the light. The Valley of the Shadow of Death seems endless as we walk through it. But what is on the other side?

My little sister is why I celebrate when I reach 25 weeks with each pregnancy. I know that my baby can survive because my sister is a healthy, intelligent, and beautiful 23-year-old. She still bears scars on her hands and feet from all the blood they took those weeks in the NICU. They are beautiful. They mark her as a miracle.

I despise The Notebook. Dementia is too diabolical to be captured on page or film. But I also remember my grandfather’s gentle kiss on Grandma’s forehead and her eyes lighting up even in the depths of her disease. I remember their whispered “I love yous.” When I think back to my vows on my wedding day, I will never forget what “in sickness and in health” looks like, and for that I am grateful.

Part of the reason I can’t give up on being a novelist is because of my college mentor. When I told him I was writing a novel, he nodded and said, “Finish it so I can read it.” He was completely confident that I would be published. Other professors were encouraging, but he was certain. Such certainty coming from a man who prided himself on being a hard-nose meant the world to me. I keep writing so he won’t haunt me from the grave like he promised.

My second little boy is barely two weeks old, but the pain of hearing I might never be a mother left a tender place in my heart. I weep with other women when they tell me of their struggles. I understand the ache of empty arms and the frustration of doctor visits, blood tests, x-rays, and no answers. A bond ties my heart to Hannah and her broken prayer in the temple. When I look at my two boys, I remember my tears in that car begging God for a miracle, and suddenly I’d rather spend my day scrubbing liquid eyeliner from my couch and changing messy diapers than never have a mess to clean.

There is light at the end of valley.

Right now my husband and I are in the midst of a tangle between good and bad. It feels like we are in the center of a hurricane, the birth  of our second son merely a pause before the winds whip our world into a frenzy again. In all the wildness, I am grateful that the Lion of Judah is not tame.

Thank you, Nate Wilson, for the reminder.