Sticks and Stones

“Sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never hurt me.” I am old enough to remember a time when parents taught this pithy little rhyme to their children, and society at large believed it. We live in a new day, in which many Americans consider emotional injury as deadly, and more enduring, than physical injury. News accounts of emotional abuse, cyber bullying, and their mental health consequences such as depression, anxiety, and even suicide, pull at our heart strings. Girls, the lonely, and the young are at greater risk. Colleges, including those which my children attend, have safe spaces, trigger warnings, and strict rules against insensitivity and inflicting emotional trauma.

When I was bullied as a second grader at Mulberry Elementary, Mitch routinely followed me across a large grassy field to the back gate in the chain link fence. He called me bad names, of course, but what I remember was being pushed back over a kneeling co-conspirator who had slipped in behind me. My awkward, backward fall was followed by a pummel of fists, and riotous laughter. My assailants ran away, and I was left to walk home, let myself in, and spend a few hours alone thinking about what happened, and how to prevent the same fate tomorrow. Mulberry’s administration couldn’t stop it, so I learned to avoid him, and to defend myself. Eventually my parents transferred me to a private Christian school.

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Spiritual Power

What is spiritual power? How do you get it? How do you use it? How do you give the glory to God?

A patient came to me in tears. As a child she had suffered abuse, alcoholism, and even rape. The Christianity she had known was stern and foreboding. Images of the past were hard to overcome, much less erase. Now she was in a good marriage, had a healthy boy, and was in a solid church. Nevertheless, she was fearful and depressed, feeling unable to face most days. Completing the basic tasks of life, such as caring for her infant son and keeping the house, was nearly impossible. In her dark moments, this woman was afraid that she would lose everything she had ever dreamed of, and now had.

She is not alone. One professionally successful acquaintance is going through a divorce, a job change, and struggling with alcohol abuse.  Another young woman told me of her troubles with anxiety and perfectionism while she was cleaning my teeth. A middle-aged friend struggles with his self-worth after being without a job for nearly two years. A woman jumped off the roof of her 17-story apartment building.

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Physical Beauty and the Christian

My recent travels led me to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a conversation with Felicity, a Boyce College undergraduate studying the Bible before she moves on to a degree in cosmetology. A beautiful and engaging young woman, Felicity believes that her call in ministry is to help others be beautiful and engaging. Helping other coeds with hair, makeup, and the like is a joy to her, and a source of some badly needed cash.

Yet there is a proverbial fly in the ointment. Felicity has a wonderful Christian role model who works in the industry, and she has reported to Felicity that cosmetology is hard for people dedicated to Christ. Many people involved, both workers and clients, act as if physical appearance is all that matters. Youth and vanity, already lauded in much of American culture, become idolized in the walls of the salon. Should a committed Christ-follower even be in such an environment? If so, how can she keep her heart pure? Felicity asked me what I thought on this issue, and I have written some thoughts below.

What does the Bible say about work?

The most important question for a Christian on all issues is “what does the Bible say.” God’s Word is our ultimate source of moral truth and we must obey its commands. What are His instructions regarding work?

First, God does not judge professions the way that humans do. Yesterday I was talking to a discouraged young soldier. She had been a non-commissioned officer for many years and had later become an officer. Everyone in her new organization dismissed her opinions with the flippant “you’re just a captain.” Such arrogance is never permitted for a Christian. The church is a body, with some people serving as mouths and others as elbows, but every role is equally important. Other organizations, including business and the military, should be the same way. The call of the Lord, not money or prestige, is the only factor that matters.

Second, God does not call people to do things that are clearly wrong. For example, neither being a hit-man (assassin) nor being a porn star are acceptable professions for a child of God. The Bible encourages most other occupations, whether that of businessman, teacher, cab driver or housewife.

What does the Bible say about physical beauty?

Physical beauty is valued in the Bible. Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel are all described as beautiful. While godly character matters far more (Proverbs 11:22), and physical attractiveness is fleeting, (Proverbs 31:30), as exemplified by women from Abishag the Shunamite to Zibiah, mother of King Joash, beauty matters.

Physical beauty can also be a trap. Peter admonishes Christian women to not let their beauty be merely outward, but to cultivate the inner beauty of good character (1 Peter 3:3-4). Ezekiel 28:17-18 warns that beauty can lead to pride. While physical beauty has mattered in all cultures since Adam, and there is nothing inherently wrong with it, physical beauty is not everything.

Medical Notes on Beauty

Physical beauty is only partly in the eye of the beholder. Across all cultures and all times, symmetry is beautiful. The S curve and similar shapes are thought to be beautiful. People deem good health more beautiful than poor health, and accordingly consider full hair and nails to be markers of beauty. Cultures often value certain attributes associated with reproduction, such as sizable and shapely breasts and broad hips in women. In men, cultures often regard attributes associated with the ability to hunt and fight, such as a tall stature and large muscles.

The ideal for skin color and body mass have differed from between cultures and over time. Cognoscenti in Los Angeles may consider extremely thin women beautiful, but the Masai in Africa may consider such thinness ugly and evidence of poor health. Rural people in Thailand may sharpen their daughters’ front teeth to a point to make them more comely in their society, while pointy teeth would have the opposite effect in New York City. Beauty differs between cultures, but not completely. Felicity’s work will be different in Chicago than it would in Cairo, but not entirely.

My primary medical practice is sports medicine, and exercise by itself improves peoples’ appearance. A small portion of my practice, however, is aesthetic medicine. Aesthetic medicine strives to improve the appearance of a patient. It includes restoring someone’s appearance to normal, such as removing a body mole (nevus) or providing rehabilitation to a partially paralyzed face. Aesthetic medicine also includes trying to improve an otherwise “normal” appearance, such as smoothing wrinkles with Botox or skin fillers. Most Christians would not object to the first examples but might object to the second. The distinction, however, is smaller than we might expect. Acne is a nearly universal condition but can be disfiguring. Should Christian physicians treat it because it can cause ugly scarring, or not treat it because it is vain to try to improve the appearance?

The problem arises when women and men define themselves by their physical beauty. Some patients get treatment after treatment, or even surgery after surgery, striving for an elusive look that exists only in their mind. The problem is not in their body, but in where they put their hope. Felicity may encounter the same problem in her career.

What should a Christian do?

The short and simple answer is that every believer is called by God to serve a particular function in the Church and in the world. Every believer must fulfill their function. Physical beauty is valuable and should not be eschewed by Christian men or women. I see no reason in Scripture why Felicity should not become a cosmetologist. It is a wonderful way to support herself and minister to people who may never darken the doorway of a church.

Once in the profession, it is her job to help her clients gain physical beauty. Even more, she will help them see themselves as Christ sees them. Improving one’s appearance – making the best out of what a person has been given – is a fine thing to do. Regardless of the outward appearance, God looks at the heart. A cosmetologist who enhances her clients’ physical beauty while nurturing their spiritual beauty is doing the most beautiful work she can do.

Third Date Sex?

The Unrecognized Tragedy of Extramarital Sex.

As family physician, minister, father or friend, I am privileged to talk to a wide variety of people. I recently met a young woman, not long divorced, who is struggling with past abuse, present financial difficulties, and future uncertainty. We talked many times about the challenges she faced. Shortly after her divorce became final, she started dating another man. This young woman wanted to see if they could have a future, but worried that he didn’t seem interested in her work and other key parts of her life.

Years ago I was the team physician for the US military women’s soccer team at an international competition. One of the players came to me for a gynecological exam, concerned that she might have contracted something from her new boyfriend. We had long and personal discussions about her and about their relationship. She wanted to share her most intimate feelings with this man, but did not dare for fear of losing him.

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