Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The "quid pro quo" fallacy

For those who may not be familiar with the term quid pro quo- it is an ancient Latin expression meaning that if I do something for you, I expect to get something (of approximately equal value) in return.  It is usually associated with business, but has been used in social situations and relationships (usually business relationships). 

And sadly, it has seeped like e-coli bacteria into the groundwater of Christian doctrine, causing spiritual diarrhea, dehydration, and death.  Let me explain.  

Spiritual quid pro quo is the idea that in order to get something from God, we have to give something to Him. In such a mind-set, faith is no longer an expression of love (as the scriptures say) but currency - spiritual cash - to be used to bribe God into doing what we want Him to do.  

Oo. That sounds harsh, doesn't it?  We don't really do this, do we?  But we do!!! Here is what Joel Osteen said on his FB page recently: "God never promised that life would be fair, but he did promise that if you will stay in faith, He will take what’s meant for your harm and use it to your advantage."  (emphasis mine).  What he said really jumped out at me. Really. And not in a good way. 

Now, I think that what he was talking about was Romans 8:28 - that God causes all things to work for good to those who LOVE Him (remember we love Him because He first loved us!) and who are the called [ones] according to His purpose.  Romans 8:29 goes on to say that the "good" that God works all things together for is that we are conformed (not that we conform ourselves) to the image of His Son.  There is nothing in that passage about "staying in faith" - whatever that is. OR anything about OUR advantage (in the sense that is implied in the Osteen quote). 

Or maybe he was referencing 1 Corinthians 10:13 - you know, God doesn't allow you to be tempted above what you are able, but will with the temptation make a way of escape, so that you are able to bear it.  OOps, well, there is nothing in that passage about "staying in faith" either - or anything about turning bad things to our "advantage". It just promises an escape hatch, a way out.  Because He loves us. And He wants us to succeed. Not so that we will be victorious (that's a fringe benefit) but so that we will know deep inside that He is interested in every single thing that happens to us. Because He is head over heels gaga about us, in the same way that a good daddy is gaga about his little baby, who, by the way, is unable to do anything for itself. (That's another blog post.)

Photo "Hand Holding Dollars" by jannoon028 at
www.freedigitalphotos.net

The underlying premise of that Joel Osteen quote - the way it sounds to me - is that if WE keep believing, God will rig the game, and hoist people or circumstances on their own petards and bring them low so that we end up on top. But only if we keep on believing.  The emphasis is on us and our effort, and encourages the "what's in it for ME?" attitude.  The onus (or responsibility for the outcome) is ALSO on US ... and frankly, that seems to go against the love of God, the initiative He took in looking for the first, best, and most inescapable way possible to prove to us that He loved us all along.  It doesn't fit.  The self-centred, quid pro quo way of thinking is more like a transaction than an interaction, more narcissistic than intimate. It's religion and not relationship.

Okay, just so you know, I'm not picking on Joel Osteen.  I'm just using one of the things he said recently, because it seems to reflect and represent a lot of the teaching and thinking in Christian circles ... teaching that has been around ever since I can remember, and not just in one small slice of one denomination.  It's in the whole church.  It's formula-based thinking: A plus B has to equal C.  Put another way, you pray (that's A) and you believe (that's B) and therefore, God is obliged to (HAS TO) deliver on His promise (that's C).  Strange ... that's not what I read in the examples left for us in scripture.

Job prayed for his kids every day. They still died - at a party I'm sure Job wouldn't have approved of.  Sure, he had more kids at the end of his story - but every parent instinctively knows that having another child can NEVER replace, or heal the pain of losing, the first.  It is there. Always.

Moses, Gideon, Samson, Jeremiah, even King David ... these people knew from experience that it doesn't matter how much faith you have or don't have, or how long you pray or don't pray - God does whatever He wishes and chooses whomever He pleases ... because He is God. He is sovereign.

The three Hebrew children in the fiery furnace? Yes, they were delivered. But they didn't believe they WOULD be necessarily. They knew God COULD deliver them - but they were willing to be put to death.  They said to the king, "...even if [our God] does not [deliver us], we still will not bow."  That speaks to me more of passion for the God they loved rather than an "if we - then He" kind of thing.  Doesn't it?  

The same thing happened with Daniel and the lions - Daniel was willing to die rather than stop his relationship with God. God was that important to him. That he was delivered was a bonus.  He didn't expect or demand deliverance; he didn't go around the palace anointing everything with oil for protection before his prayer time.  He just prayed ... as usual.

And let's not forget that the most anguished, heart-felt "deliverance prayer" by the most righteous Person ever ... ended by saying, "Not my will, but Yours be done."

We can slip so easily into self-focused it-all-depends-on-how-hard-we-believe thinking, because it feeds the lie we have swallowed whole ever since the first Lie: that there is something that WE can do to better our lives, to cover our nakedness, to appease His anger (because after all, WE feel inadequate so He must see us as inadequate, right??) or to gain a reward (or keep ourselves from losing a reward - yikes!).  But the simple and amazing truth is that He has loved us the whole time, and continues to love us, and will never STOP loving us NO MATTER WHAT.  Until we begin to grasp how deep and unconditional that love is, all our efforts will have been for the wrong reasons, and we will have missed out on something very special.

The Bible is full of examples of God intervening into the timeline, and something about those interventions that strikes me almost more than anything else is that He never does the same thing the same way twice.  It follows, then, that we cannot expect Him to operate the same way He did last week or last month, or forty years ago.  It doesn't matter how long we pray, what words we say or don't say, what places we go or don't go, what format we use, how much we tithe, how many verses we read, how many Bible studies we attend, how many positions we hold in the church, or how many good deeds we do. There is nothing that WE can do to twist God's arm.  The brownie point system does not work.  In fact, it misses the whole point.

Let's think about how this fallacy translates into what church has become. We chase that elusive "presence" and tweak the song service ("worship time" - as if worship only gets penciled in for maximum 45 minutes once or twice a week) like it depends on US whether God shows up, as if He needs just the right atmosphere ... and as if it is up to us to create it.  Wow ... what arrogance. There is not something "anointed" (read: magical) about this song or that song, this speaker or that worship leader or those flags or that bottle of olive oil.  We can't manipulate the conditions that we think produce the results we want, or even the ones that "worked" the last time. We cannot manipulate God; He won't have it!  He will find a way to break out of the box we have put Him into.  Or (worse yet!) He will withdraw, because (after all) we think we have it all figured out, so why do we need Him?  Either way, He won't play our little self-constructed games designed to prove to each other (or to ourselves) who is His favourite. (Don't we know better than that?)  

Our spiritual disciplines and good deeds are not currency.  We can't treat them like bargaining chips (or bribes) to get what we want. If we do, we have it all backwards.  We have bought into the mammon myth - the I-scratch-your-back-and-you-scratch-mine lie.  This is relationship with God. This isn't the world system. God isn't some CEO to impress, He's the One Person in this whole universe who loves us just the way we are, no strings attached.

God is not about sticking gold stars or "good job!" stickers on our chore charts.  He invites us into His embrace - to clamber with glee onto His lap - and experience His love for ourselves: unfettered, unashamed, unafraid ... like children.  There are no agendas, no conditions.  He is about relationship; there is no need to feel obliged (or required) to add anything of our own to what He has already done to the uttermost.  To do so, in order to qualify for the benefits He has already freely given, would be falling from grace.  All that means (contrary to popular belief) is that we would be missing out on God's highest purpose for our life - intimacy with Him - and settling for what we can (try to) get out of Him.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Building mighty walls

She's ten years old.  She has been coming to kids' church since she was three or four. And she has never felt like she fit in

She's not overly shy, but she thinks deep thoughts and feels things deeply.  She's a loyal friend - to those who take the time to be friends with her.  But people don't.  Not her peers, and not the children's ministry leaders. You see, they think of her as a troublemaker, even though she's not a bully and not misbehaving. She just wants to understand ... and a lot of things about what they are teaching don't make sense to her.  How, if God is love, He could command people to kill entire towns filled with people and animals (as He did in the Old Testament).  How, if God is just and wants only our good, He could let people die of cancer.  

Her questions are tough, but they are valid. That the teachers don't have the answers (nobody does) is not her fault.  But the frustrated teachers make her feel like it's her fault, that she is somehow spiritually defective for not taking things on blind faith. Because they disapprove of her, she thinks that God disapproves of her too.

Her parents are poor.  They cannot afford to dress her in the latest fashions, and sometimes the dresses she wears are stained in places, or there is a run in her tights.  She hates that she has to conform to a dress code, but she does it to please her mom and dad.  She doesn't tell them how the other girls in her class snub her because her clothes are not designer, how they wear things from the high-end stores and show them off to each other and to the teachers, and she watches wistfully from the sidelines while the teachers play favourites.  And after a few times of coming home and telling her folks about an upcoming event or activity (for which the admission fees are beyond her parents' budget) she doesn't even bother telling them about those things anymore.  

She is not slim like the other kids. She's kind of overweight.  She has health problems that have made her unable to be an athlete, and while she can keep up with them in the games in the gym, she doesn't excel and is not super competitive.  She feels keenly the rejection of the other children as they pick everyone else for their teams except her.  And more and more, the teachers pick events and group activities that revolve around athletic ability: skiing, skating, rock-climbing, and hiking, that pander to their favourite (slim) students.

The leaders also emphasize Scripture memorization and give candy prizes for bringing a Bible, and more candy for bringing a friend. She soon wonders if this - this expectation of performance, and the underlying idea that God is all about following the rules and not questioning - is all there is.  If it is, she must be a horrible person. But she can't stop the questions ... those unanswerable questions that make a lot of Christians uncomfortable.  After a while, the frustration of the teachers (and of their favourite helpers) turns to open animosity toward her.  She starts getting singled out and punished for things that are not her fault. 

She puts up with it only until it is considered legal to stay home without supervision... 12 years old. And then she lets her parents know how she feels.  Her parents, wisely, do not force her to keep going to a place where she feels attacked every single time she sets foot inside the door. 

The church workers had turned her against the church, and against God.  She did eventually have a relationship with God, but in spite of them, not because of them. And she still has a deep and abiding resentment against the church. 

Yes, the above example is based on a true story which really happened in a church that preached the gospel, taught that God is love and emphasized the infilling of the Holy Spirit. This church welcomed people of other races, and had outreaches to immigrant communities. The leadership seemed to bend over backwards to be welcoming toward people from diverse communities. 

So what went wrong in the children's ministry? Let me break it down for you.  

Racism is wrong.  It is wrong, wrong, wrong. And it hurts not only the victimized, but also the racists.  But there are other things that are equally as damaging.  And unfortunately, they are rampant in the church.

When you think of someone else who comes from a family that has a lower income than yourself as "less than" yourself, that is CLASSISM.  It's just like racism, only the "difference" is dollars, not skin colour. 

When you treat someone who is not as slim as you are as "less than", that is FATISM.  It's discrimination against someone on the basis of body type, and it hurts just as much as racism does

When you single someone out and punish them for things that are not their fault, exclude them, nitpick, contradict, or dismiss what they say due to one or more differences between you and them, that is BULLYING.  It has no place in the church. NONE.

When you reward children based on their performance (be that scripture memorization, Bible-toting, "evangelism" through dragging a friend to church) just so they can get some goodies, you send the message that God is more about people toeing the line than He is about loving people just as they are for the sake of loving them (i.e. that behaving is what life is about and that people are so depraved that they have to be bribed to behave). You are perpetuating RELIGION and undermining RELATIONSHIP.  You are saying that God has no power to transform people's lives and that they must obey rules to be accepted by Him.

God is not interested in religious robots.  He is looking for real people - warts and all - and by not accepting people (and children ARE people!) as they are, you are actually (a) encouraging the formation of robots and (b) driving away the very people that could bring life into the church and make the message that "God is love" really relevant to those in their world.

Photo "Teenage Girls Gossipping" by Ambro at
www.freedigitalphotos.net
Many (but not all) churches do not understand the dangers of these sorts of attitudes creeping in and destroying the sensitive spirits of those who are vulnerable, rejected, and searching for answers.  Many (but not all) children's ministries are carried out in the week-to-week reality by people who are undertrained, overworked, and sadly unsupervised. Children's ministries in mainstream churches have typically been treated as glorified babysitting services where one or two teachers have the responsibility of overseeing dozens of children ranging in age from (four or) six to twelve: an impossible and thankless task!  Plus, the unspoken purpose of many children's ministries is to get the kids out of their parents' hair while they do their [boring] adult worship/giving/sermon rituals in the sanctuary, and the only qualifications that the children's ministry volunteers have are (a) membership in the church and (b) a willingness to plunk their behinds in a chair for an hour once or twice a week. 

The fact is that those who work with children in a church setting are determining the future of that church.  If they display intolerant, insensitive, and bigoted attitudes, the children will get the idea that God is intolerant, insensitive and bigoted ... and some of them (most likely the ones who stay) will buy into that fallacy and get the idea that it is OKAY to be intolerant, insensitive and bigoted - and will pass this on to the NEXT generation.  

What am I saying? Simply this - it doesn't cost anything (except perhaps pride) to be kind and compassionate to those who are different from us in some way.  However, people need to be aware that these (and other) ugly attitudes do exist (and not just in the church) and that they need to be exposed for what they are.  If they are not, then be prepared for church after church to close their doors as more and more of the founding fathers and mothers pass away. 

We are - without meaning to, I believe - building mighty walls, as Russ Taff sings in "We Will Stand" (yes this is a link).  Can we not see that this is damaging to the cause of Christ? Can we not see that labels and liberty are incompatible?

The cycle must stop.  Those people who are drawn to (any kind of) ministry need to examine themselves and determine if they are prone to any of these (or other) attitudes.  Church leadership must invest resources into not just the technical (how-to) training of their workers, but also discipleship and sensitivity training.  Pastors and children's pastors need to just "drop in" unannounced to the kids' classes.  Children need to be given feedback tools (like a child's version of a suggestion box) to describe anything that made them feel unwanted or uncomfortable in class without being singled out. If we foster acceptance and discourage exclusion, maybe we have a chance of seeing our children embrace our faith ... instead of pushing them away from it.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Prescription Lenses

When I was 40, I was having daily headaches, and the headlights of approaching vehicles hurt my eyes, and my husband (who has worn glasses since he was 8 years old) suggested that I get my eyes checked. To my surprise, I needed prescription lenses ... and as I have gotten older, I have moved to bifocals.  It is natural for me now to reach for my glasses as soon as I get up in the morning.

It took me longer to realize that I needed spiritual glasses.  I grew up in the church, became a Christian at age 11, and I didn't realize that the constant sense of pressure and pain I was feeling was from all of the imposed expectations of everyone around me to conform to some code of behaviour in order for me to be accepted by them.  I just thought it was part of my "cross to bear" or "vale of tears"... and carried on.  I traded what was really important to me for whatever the fad was in worship style or [what was preached as] doctrine.  I touted all the buzz words, acted the part, and attended every event.  But inside, I was hurting.  I began to wonder if this was all there was, because if it was, then I was getting more and more unhappy.  

I got a glimpse - in late 1982 - of a different kind of life, a life of adventure and purpose and joy. This lasted a few years, and I consider it one of the best times in my life.  However, the divine unconditional love I experienced during that time eventually got crowded out by others' expectations ... again.  Once more, I was back on the road of ever-increasing misery.  For a long while I blamed myself - and even my kids - for what I thought was the culprit: being too busy.  It wasn't being busy. It wasn't my kids.  And it wasn't me.

It took a long time to connect the dots, some thirty plus years, in fact.  All I knew for sure was that when I was engaging in pure worship, nothing and nobody existed except God and His love for me. I literally lived for those times, thinking that they were rare and they were what kept me going.  And I thought that it was because of the worship (translation: music, atmosphere, harmonies, etc.) when really, it was because of the Love. It was the Love. 

I eventually learned that the "worship" changed depending on who was leading it, and more and more I experienced the Love less and less as those ever-present expectations flooded in and knocked intimacy with Him sideways, like a flood pushing aside a load-bearing wall.  As more people started spreading alarmist doctrines and motivating people with shame, guilt and fear, I began to experience more than just discomfort ... the Love-seeker in me began to detect a disconnect between what I really needed and what was available to me in that kind of atmosphere.  Increasingly, I saw that atmosphere as toxic to my spirit.  For a time, I thought that perhaps it was just the location that was doing this - the need to keep up a building - and that small groups might be the way to go.  And then the church I was attending started having small groups - and I saw that their structure was exactly the same as the large group that met on Sunday mornings.  It was all the same, all based on fear and shame and control, all regimented and rules-based.  No, I figured, that wasn't the answer. I began to lose hope.  Despair started to sink in.  And the whole time, I kept doing ministry, going through the motions, and feeling just awful.

Photo "Young Beautiful Woman Shopping
In A Marke
t
" courtesy of nenetus at
www.freedigitalphotos.net
Then, a couple of years ago, a friend of mine put on a new set of spiritual prescription lenses.  She ditched the expectations and cloistered herself in with God and sincerely asked Him to reveal who He really was to her.  And God did.  And she was so blown away ... surprised by what she found and delighted, because it was what she had always been searching for but never found ... and barely would have believed.  

Her life literally transformed.  She had found the secret, which had been waiting the whole time for her to just ask, to go and ask God to check her spiritual eyes.  And He did - and gave her His prescription: His unconditional, supreme, passionate, all-pervasive and pure Love.  I watched and listened as she explored more and more facets, getting closer and closer to His heart.  She even began re-reading the Bible - as she put it - through the lens of His Love.  And she was surprised and amazed at how this new prescription changed how she had always interpreted certain passages with which she always had had issues.  The lens of God's love was just what she had been looking for.  She lost her fear.  She lost shame.  She began to experience God's over-the-top, no-holds-barred Love.  And she couldn't help herself ... she was happy!

And you know, happiness is incredibly attractive! 
I saw how joyful she was now - and how free!  And I remembered those days in the early 1980s ... and thought a lot about what it was that made those days special ...  It was Love!  All those buzz words and platitudes I kept spouting, all the speaking in faith, the pronouncing of blessings, the victory marches and the spiritual warfare sessions, all the exorcisms of empty rooms and the hours spent at the altar "seeking" or "birthing" ... they only served as smokescreens obscuring the Main Thing:  God's unconditional Love. 

The more I concentrated on that Love, the more out of place I felt in any regular gathering-place that SAID it was about His Love and yet focused on all those other things (like surrender, being Spirit-filled, and being obedient) as if they were the ultimate goals.  More and more I began to see that - as usual - the cart was in front of the horse and impeding the horse's path.  And as I looked back over my life and all the places I had attended church, I understood that every single assembly I had gone to had put that stupid cart out in front of the horse.  To one degree or another, they all laid burdens (of duty, obligation, and fear) on people's backs and didn't lift one finger to help them, unless they were grieving a loss - and even then, the break from those guilt-based and fear-based burdens was short-lived. 

They had the wrong lenses on - those God's-out-to-get-you lenses - and I was so sick of being surrounded by that.  It got so that I would typically arrive home after church literally exhausted and drained from the constant avalanche of duty-this and fear-that, of do-this and shun-that.  My stress level multiplied by a factor of ten when I was at church.  I did not consider it to be a safe place where I could be myself. 

My husband was feeling the same things.  Eventually (like the elephant in the room) we talked about it ... and after much prayer, soul-searching, and wrestling with all the what-ifs (which took a whole year), we decided to unplug.  Not from God, you understand, but from the organized church.  We had church-surfed before; they were all the same.  We needed - pardon the expression - to "go into detox" from religion: all those extra trappings that most people equate with Christianity but which really are NOT, nor do they bear any resemblance to the joy-filled, love-infused connections He originally designed for His people. Why? for no other reason than this simple truth: He Loves us. No conditions, no formulas, no jumping through hoops, and no limits.

Since that time, our stress level has vastly reduced, and God- because I know you are curious - has set up wonderful times (on His timetable) where we get together with other believers (as He chooses) and feel lifted up and strengthened rather than worn out and weary.  We are able to pray without feeling obligated to pray, to give or to pour into people's lives without being manipulated by shame, and to enjoy little blessings as from Him without the need to say, 'Praise God' after every sentence.  (He knows we are grateful - and His knowledge of our hearts is all that matters.)  Our family is far closer.  And we are growing in the knowledge that He loves us no matter what!! 

We are slowly learning to use our new Love-lenses, and everything seems so much more natural that way.  We don't have to strain and strive to live the Christian life; it just naturally flows out of realizing more and more His overwhelming Love for us. We are learning to see the Love shining through the pages of scripture.  We are less afraid to feel what we feel without apology, knowing that He is real and expresses what He feels, so it is okay for us to do the same.  There are no regrets.  There is only an overwhelming sense of gratitude for being completely and totally accepted and loved to the uttermost.  

I like these new Love-glasses.  I can see much better with them.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Ruach El - God's breath

The above Hebrew term is normally translated "the Spirit of God" - but ruach in the Hebrew means breath. That breath is warm, loving, true, gracious, good, lovely, pure, and kind. 

I have noticed something disturbing when I spend time on social media (and I spend more time than most people my age on social media!)  Whenever someone posts a story of something they have experienced or of something that someone else has done that is truly inspirational, and makes the average person smile and believe that there is some goodness in the world after all ... and that person does not mention God in his or her post, there will invariably be that one person (or more) who will judge the person who posted the story for not "witnessing" or pointing the conversation to eternal things.  

In the comments that follow such judgmental comments, there is always a backlash against the person who so commented.  Usually those folks who react the most angrily are those who have been wounded by Christians before (big surprise, huh.) That should tell us something right there.  We often do more harm than good by our insistence on hijacking someone else's story to promote our own agenda.

Here's the thing.  God isn't looking for watchdogs; He's looking for worshippers.  He's a big boy and He can defend Himself, and He can do what He wants whenever He wants ... without our help.  He is not looking for people to jump all over someone (who has been kind and considerate to the less fortunate) just because they weren't "missional." (By the way, my blog's spell-check does not even recognize the word 'missional.')  Jesus said, "He who is not against us is on our side."  And frankly, people who are down and out have had lots of experience with self-appointed prophets who have to turn every conversation into something about spiritual things.  Usually those experiences have not turned out very well for them - they have left every encounter like that feeling condemned (and definitely not encouraged to seek God).  

I speak to born-again believers in this blog because that is my chosen audience.  I don't post my Christian blog on social media to all of my friends, just to believers who are among my friends. (I'm sure I will get some flak for that, but do you really want unbelievers to hear something intended only to wake us Christians up and smash our preconceived notions?)  If you are the kind of believer who feels a responsibility or a compulsion to steer every conversation toward the Lord because He will be displeased or ashamed of you if you don't, this message is for you.  If you take nothing else from what I say, take this:  You are not the Spirit of God.  So, stop trying to do His job for Him.  

I know that we have been given the great commission; I am not disputing that.  However, I would rather live a generous and joyful life, being kind to people, and have them come to me and ask what it is I have because they want it (which has happened occasionally) rather than to shove God down someone's throat who is not ready to hear about Him.  The Hound of Heaven will not renege on people; people are His passion!  He loves everyone (not just the Christian!)  He is not willing that anyone should perish, but that all should come to repentance.  And it is HIS Goodness that leads to repentance.  His goodness.  Not our arguments and programs and posters and videos, some of which use extreme shock-value to condemn this or that practice (did you catch the word condemn?)  The Spirit of God is not about that.  He is about being good to people.  All people.

He reminds us - all of us - that He loves us.  No matter who we are, or what we've done,  He loves us.  Deliriously, unconditionally.  If your concept of Him is any different, remember that Jesus loved people - and He was only frustrated by those who were religious and who condemned others by insisting that they obey some set of rules.  

Photo: "Homeless Man" by
Mantas Ruzveltas at
www.freedigitalphotos.net
If Jesus walked the earth today, He would be spending time with the homeless, the pimps, the addicts, and the mentally ill far more than with the churched.  The reason is clear - they need Him! (The truth is, we ALL need Him, but it appears that some believers have forgotten that.)  He would not be engaged in spreading panic, hatred, and prejudice the way I have seen some believers do.  He would welcome the refugee, accept the cross-dresser, and listen to (and cry with) the pregnant girl who thinks her only option is abortion. 

When I see believers "standing up for righteousness" (which is the way some of them have chosen to veil their hatred for people who are not exactly like them) by posting condemnation and judgment all over the social media, I cringe because I know that they don't see how damaging their comments are to the cause of Christ.  I wonder - when THEY see a homeless person - whether they would spend time with that person and listen to his or her story, and buy them a coffee and a muffin, or whether they would not be able to get past their own nose (you'd smell bad too if you couldn't take a shower very often) - and even avoid looking at the homeless for fear of getting hit up for money (which they assume would be spent on booze). Or (as is often the case) whether they would prefer waiting until someone does something good, and then criticize the way that person does it.

I also know that it does no good to complain about something if you don't have a suggested solution.  So here is mine, for what it is worth; it might surprise you!!

Let yourself experience God's unconditional, passionate and accepting love for you.  Realize in your innermost being that it comes with NO conditions, NO rules, NO judgment.  Fully embrace that.  See Jesus on the cross as God's rescue operation for the whole world: past, present, and future - every person.  The more you experience His limitless, no-holds-barred love, the more you will automatically love as He does - and the less appearances, rules, and 'being right' will matter.  

No programs. No shoulds.  No musts. Just Him.  God's breath - Ruach El - surrounding, permeating you ... warm, loving, intimate, and generous.  Live from that perspective, know that He loves, and love does not judge ... and see your relationships transform, watch how God revolutionizes your attitudes.  It's amazing - and so freeing!  

Real change happens from the inside out.  In you, in me, and in them.  He's got this. So we can shed those heavy I've-got-to-carry-the-weight-of-the-whole-world shackles. It's so unnecessary.  I'm just saying.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The dirty little secret

Shame.  There, the secret is out.

It's everywhere.  At first, I was going to talk about the church - because there is a whole heaping lot of shame in the church, from Sunday school on upward into the sanctuary - ashamed people shaming people to make their own shame not seem so shameful. (Sighhh...)  But, truth be told, the church doesn't have a monopoly on it.  A better term would be (I suppose) religion - inclusive of pretty much all religion worldwide.  

Or maybe it goes even deeper than that.  Maybe it's part of human nature.

Ouch.

Shame is always, ALWAYS evil.   It is pervasive: it slinks in like a venomous snake and yes, it can kill! (Check the suicide rates!)  It ruins everything it touches.  Moreover, it touches everything ... and it is the hardest poison to eradicate from our psyches because it runs so deep.

Listen to what Dr. Brené Brown says about shame:

I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. 
I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.  


Photo "Chain and Hand" courtesy of
worradmu at
www.freedigitalphotos.net
Dr. Brown also said in one of her writings (sorry, Dr. Brown, I can't remember exactly which one! :(  ) that the difference between guilt and shame is the difference between "I DID something bad." and "I AM bad."  That's an important distinction to make!

Would it surprise you to know that according to the Bible, we are not created to feel shame?  Check out Genesis 2:25 (this was before the great temptation) "Now the man and his wife were both naked, but they felt no shame." (NLT)  This was life the way God intended - shameless (that is no shame, not even a conception of shame) because of a loving relationship with the Creator.  

And yet the first thing that the first people did when they did the first thing wrong was jump past guilt ... to shame.  Genesis 3:7 - "At that moment their eyes were opened, and they suddenly felt shame at their nakedness.  So they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves." (NLT)  

Shame is a human construct.  Humans created shame - not by disobeying (as is the common teaching) but by believing that God - who had only ever loved them - would stop loving them as persons if they messed up.  

And we have been doing that ever since.  Not only that, but we have been doing it to each other ever since.  The moment we suddenly believed that love had conditions: ifs, shoulds, and musts ... was the moment we, both as a race and as individuals (including Christians) fell from grace.  Grace is the highest, the best, the ultimate position; the moment we add conditions to it, we have slipped back into eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil (aka morality) and all the judgment of self and others that goes with that.  And that, friends, is shame.  We have convinced ourselves that we are (or someone else is) "unworthy of connection" (B. Brown, see quote above).  

Shame naturally makes us want to do two things: (a) cover our own perceived inadequacies to make ourselves feel better (thus making it easier to point the finger at someone else), and (b) hide from what we think will be certain punishment.  I often wonder what would have happened if Adam and Eve had just admitted what they had done without trying to pass the buck.  I guess there's no knowing that for sure - but knowing God's love as I am starting to - things might have turned out differently for them.

We - like them - underestimate the love of God and turn it into a contract: we do this and He does that.  It's not like that at all.  He loves.  No matter what we do, how far we go, He loves us and is delighted in us.  He has already redeemed us, loved us without measure from before the foundation of the world, embraced us before we even knew He was there.  It's a fact, not dependent on our behaviour but dependent on His character, even more dependable than the sunrise.

Unconditional love kills shame.  Oh, that we could understand how deep this goes!  

In the words of a song I learned once, 

Chains be broken, lives be healed,
Eyes be opened, Christ is revealed.
            - - "You'll Come" - by Brooke Ligertwood (Hillsong)

Yes. Yes!  Chains ... be broken!

Friday, December 25, 2015

The bitter and sweet seasons

Christmas day is a day some people sing about, look forward to, dread, and just endure. Everyone seems to have feelings about it - either warm, nostalgic ones or cold, harsh ones.  I've felt both extremes and everything in between.  

Some people try to minimize the spiritual side of the holiday and are militant about de-christianizing it, making it politically correct. Others try to shove 'the reason for the season' down people's throats (news flash: everybody gets it. It's called CHRIST-mas - celebration of Christ. You don't have to prove it to everybody) to the point of plastering social media with messages designed to make people feel guilty if they don't click Like, type "Amen" and click Share.  

So that's enough of the soap-box.  

My thoughts the last couple of days have been on the bitter side of the season, how it is so hard to go through it without the literal life of the party being around to share Christmas with.  This is our third Christmas without our youngest; she passed away just about 2 months prior to Christmas 2013, and the waves of grief and the bitter taste of loneliness are sometimes unbearable.  Yet, strangely they can mingle with the sweetness of good friends with whom we can share festive seasons.  

I know that the best I can do to be healthy inside my own skin is to be real, to not fake joy, and to pour into someone else's life in a meaningful way.

I don't think that holiday seasons (be they Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Easter or whatever else) get any "easier" when there has been a loss.  The feelings I have learned to pack away to deal with everyday life come raging to the fore when special dates or times of year come to pass, and that is only natural... and right.  

I can't apologize for feeling what I feel. (Often, allowing myself permission to have those feelings is the difference between function and dysfunction.... repressing feelings is never good for the soul.) However, I can try to make someone else's day brighter.  And I know that feelings are usually transient. They happen ... and then they pass.  This is a good thing to know.

Hubby reading the Christmas story -
the presents can wait.
This year, we had thought that our plans to have someone else share our Christmas morning celebration were going to be cancelled, and we were dealing with the disappointment of that (knowing that our friend was with her family, where she needed to be). 

We were just sitting down to breakfast when I got a text.  "I'm back home now," it said. "Can I still come over?" What a blessing that was!  within a half hour she was in our living room, listening to the Christmas story and joining in our sharing around the tree.

Later, another friend joined us, and we shared a meal. And pie. 

We all talked well into the evening, and each of us savoured the sweet of the season: the connection we feel with people who know they are loved and who love in return.  And though we each had a real reason to feel that bitterness, we chose to pour in the sweet, and taste the best of the holiday with each other. 

Friday, December 11, 2015

Escaping the siege

I've been trying to figure out what these past few months has felt like.  In late summer/ early fall, we decided as a couple (after much agonizing) to leave the church.  Not just OUR church, THE church... by which I mean the organized, religious system that calls itself the church.  

I can't begin to describe the growing dissatisfaction that we had felt the last few years while we ran faster and faster on the hamster wheel of performance, always wondering if we were doing enough, feeling guilty and blaming ourselves if our prayers were unanswered, and frankly, feeling embarrassed to invite people in - where we knew they would find what we had - another, deeper level of rejection - where hurting people thrive on pushing hurting people away.  

It's equally as difficult to describe the pulling that we felt toward a deeper and more intimate relationship with Jesus - a call to simplicity, to receiving His love and loving Him back. More and more we saw the futility of our involvement in a system that values nickels and noses, attempts to control its members through shame, fear, and judgment.  Rather than build bridges to those who embrace lifestyles or choices with which they do not agree, this system builds walls to keep them out.

As I pondered this last night, a little story from 2nd Kings 7 came to my mind.  There were these guys living on the outskirts of town - walled in and afraid to leave because "the enemy" was out there. Or so they believed.  The town was under siege.  Food was scarce and deadly expensive; they had even taken to eating bird poop and charging money for it!!  People were getting desperate, even to the point of devouring their children... it was horrible.  Anyway, these guys near the gate were outcasts - they were lepers.  They were not welcome in society, but they could not leave the town because after all, they were members of the community. 

Finally, these guys got fed up (pun not intended).  They figured, "Well, the enemy camp is out there - and it most likely has food.  If we go and surrender to the enemy, they might accept our surrender, and let us live (at least we would get something to eat) and if they kill us, we would have died a lot more slowly inside the wall."  So ... they left ... hearts in their throats.  Desperate.  It was a desperate move made by desperate people.

Meanwhile, the Arameans outside (many hundreds of them) were literally hearing things - and got it into their heads that the king whose town they were besieging had hired people to come and attack them.  So they split!!  Enter the lepers .... who found meals half-eaten, left in haste ... and they could not believe their fortune!  They ate, found money and put that away, and thoroughly enjoyed themselves!  

Photo "Buffet Set On Heated Trays Ready To Eat"
courtesy of jk1995 at
www.freedigitalphotos.net
Eventually, they looked at one another and said, "Hey, let's tell someone about this!  This is such good news that we cannot help sharing it - the enemy is gone, and our neighbours can get out of their prison!"  So that is what they did.  By the end of the day, prices were back down to normal, and there was not one hungry person in town. 

I think the reason that I thought about those guys inside the wall, the ones who were so up against it that they left to take their chances outside, was because that was - and is - (in some ways) our story.  There was no sustenance for us in all that protection and so-called safety.  We were starving to death.  We saw a few atrocities, people turning on each other, but most of the time it was just a slow, lingering death of the soul: adherents trying to keep people from straying, unhappy and/or self-righteous people trapped by their own acceptance of things the way they were, with no desire strong enough for something more, no desire that would cause them to question their reason for being there and doing what they were doingSo many people around us were living in fear, in a siege mentality (us versus them) and distrusting anything against which they had been indoctrinated, hell-bent (yes, that was intentional) on obeying the rules and excluding those who didn't

And it was like that everywhere. We had attended dozens of assemblies and it was the same wherever we went.  We had tried to fit in, but in every single place, we were eventually relegated to the role of the leper.  Either because we were not of a certain social or economic stratum, or because we were introverted, or because we were not linked with the founding families of the particular assembly we were in, we were slowly but surely kept at arm's length, treated like ... like lepers.  

But our isolation only gave us more time to think, to ponder how, in a community that stated that it followed the teachings of the One who is Love personified, the behaviour of its members was anything but - and we were as affected by this phenomenon as the next member. There were occasional bright spots, surprising us with kindness and caring (but only when someone died). Or there were brief periods associated with the arrival and ministry of people who seemed to hear from God, and for a time, we thought things might change.  But inevitably, they went on to greener pastures, and we were back to the same old thing. We wondered if things would ever change for good.

We compared the characteristics of this organization to those of the organism that the church was designed to be (as described in the book of Acts) and we could find nothing in common between the two!  "Is this all there is?" we asked ourselves.  "Is this the abundant life?"  If it was - we surely wanted a refund.... and if it wasn't ... then what were we doing? was there any way out?  Time and time again we tried to conform ourselves to what was expected, rededicate ourselves, and influence the system from the inside out.  And over and over again, we depleted our limited emotional resources; every time, we died a little more.  

Frustration grew.  Countless times we returned from church-based events stressed, exhausted, and - well - angry.   Sermons (both from the pulpit and in unofficial settings) from various people were little more than steam blown off by those frustrated with the people who sat back and never tried, so all we heard was, "You're not doing enough, not believing enough, not giving enough, not praying enough, not holy enough, not evangelical (or missional, or social justice-minded) enough ..." and the list went on.  I remember turning to my husband at one point near the end of that part of our journey and saying, "If I want to be yelled at and taken on a guilt trip, I'll go visit my mother. 

And the siege mentality!  That idea that the world is a horrible place and the people in it are against us permeated everything.  We were told that certain people with certain lifestyles or beliefs were not to be trusted, or at best they were deluded and needed to be converted.  Instead of reaching out to people, we were encouraged to lobby local school boards, write to politicians, sign petitions, support groups known for heavy-handed prejudicial treatment of certain minority groups, and decry perfectly legal medical procedures (if horrific to our sensibilities and beliefs) and vehemently condemn those who chose to undergo them.  In doing so, we were unwittingly contributing to their mistrust of the church and ensuring that they would not come to us for help when they needed a listening ear.  

Photo "Ruined House"
courtesy of sattva at
www.freedigitaphotos.net
All around us, the walls were crumblingMore and more, we were seeing how our participation in this organization was counter-productive to the values of love, acceptance, and gentleness that Jesus taught and that we espoused.  We got closer and closer to the gate of this impoverished and starving community.  "Just hang on. It will get better," people said.  "Revival is just around the corner." We bought it for years ... until we didn't. 

And when we made the break, it had to be clean.  We left; we did not look back. We left our assembly, and we left the system

And you know, we expected to feel guilty... or afraid, or nervous for what we would do or where God would lead us next (if anywhere)... but all we felt was relief.  There was relief.  As the weeks passed, we remarked how much less stressful Sundays were, how much we enjoyed being able to rest instead of tearing our hair out and banging our heads against a brick wall for five hours or more almost every weekend. Our relationship with our daughter deepened. God set up contacts with people in His timing, and we had such precious times with them, times that we never would have had if we hadn't ventured outside the gate.   

There are times that we wonder if we did the right thing.  There are times when we miss frequent contact with people, wonderful peopleBut we know that we were having our souls sucked out of us by the system.  Outside, we may not have found any bountiful banquet yet, but we can detect the faint odor of food, and we know we'll eventually find it.  And you can bet that as soon as we do, it will be way too good to keep to ourselves.