Sunday, September 4, 2016

The pressure and politics - and pleasures - of isolation

One day recently, I was having a discussion about something with an acquaintance, when the topic turned to something on which the person and I did not share the same opinion.  

She asked me about it, so in spite of my better judgement, I gave my opinion, which I backed up with anecdotal (based on personal experience) evidence.  It stopped the conversation cold, and both of us commented on how awkward it felt, how inappropriate it was for us to even be discussing it. 

After that, I sensed a coldness, a withdrawal of respect, if you will, between us.  And it got me to thinking about the subtle pressure that comes to bear when two people don't agree on something - the social pressure to conform, for one side to convince the other and failing that, the removal of that thing from the list of things where one feels "safe".  

There is a lack of acceptance that is inherent in such differences of opinion; one side is unswayed by the other, and a (silent or voiced) agreement takes place where both parties resolve never to bring up that topic again.  Whether that is from a fear of confrontation, or from an unwillingness to entertain the other's point of view (belief, doctrine, attitude) again based on fear of being proven wrong or anger that someone holds to a different viewpoint, the result is the same: the walls go up and a whole other area is cordoned off with a big "Do Not Enter" sign posted, a "demilitarized zone" - a no-man's-land or an emotional mine-field.

I've been giving this idea some thought since deciding to leave the institutional church last summer.  And I've noticed that in some ways, and with some people more than others, the same process has been happening with people who had said to me that we were part of the family of God.  Yet when we decided to leave the physical house where they felt (to one degree or the other) comfortable, and where we did not, there was that same awkwardness, that withdrawal, that "let's not go there" mentality that just ... appeared.  Out of nowhere, it seemed, people who would laugh and joke with us simply avoided eye contact, or promised to keep in touch but didn't, or if they did keep in touch, there were awkward silences, things they felt they couldn't share, things we felt that we couldn't share - because we were in different worlds.  

And slowly, that resulted in isolation from a community we THOUGHT was based on more than just the name engraved on a plaque or painted on a sign near the church entrance.  It made us question whether the relationships that we had spent years developing were nothing more than a sham - whether they were based on whether we kept up our end of the contract, or whether we were "of use" to the community.  It all seemed so ... superficial, petty, and ... conditional. 

We made it clear that we were not leaving our relationship with God, but that we no longer subscribed to living life by traditions, rules, and the fear and shame that is behind those things.  We thought that those who knew us best would understand that this was not a rejection of them, but a personal decision.  And perhaps some of them did.  

Yet ... here we are.  God sets up times when we are in community with one or two other people and seeking His face - and He shows up; these times are wonderful and remind me of what the early church must have been like.  Yet for the most part, it's like we have died as far as relationships with some people are concerned.  

Don't get me wrong; our relationship with God has deepened and we are experiencing peace and joy more now than ever before.  Yet even that makes some folks uncomfortable; after all, aren't we supposed to shrivel up and waste away to nothing if we don't slap our fannies on a church pew somewhere? 

Photo "Bald Eagle Close Up" courtesy of
Tina Phillips at
www.freedigitalphotos.net
More and more, I don't think so. I think that that mentality limits God in ways I am not comfortable with.  And truth be told, while there are some aspects of church attendance and traditional ministry that I do miss at times, in those moments, I usually just play the tape all the way to the end and realize that for me, it's not worth going back for just those few things.  

I kind of feel like Neo in "The Matrix" - I've swallowed the red pill (those who've seen the movie know what I mean) and now, things just don't look the same anymore.  And it IS isolating.  The very nature of that realization means that there ARE going to be topics I won't be able to discuss with certain  people, and there are going to be some people who won't feel comfortable being around me either. It isn't that they are wrong and I am right; it's just that we are in different places with different needs. Yet, for someone who all her life wanted everyone to like her and approve of her, it's a big deal that some people now ... don't - or they don't act like they do.

Accepting that is probably one of the hardest things about this past year.  As liberating as this lifestyle is, as wonderful as it is to look at life through the lens of God's unconditional love, it is still sometimes a lonely place - but one dear friend of mine turned that thinking around when she called it "the aerie" - the eagles' nest.

I like that.  True, there is isolation, but there are also many more updrafts, and the advantage of a bird's eye view, so to speak.  Things that seemed so huge: political wrangling, position, petitions, placards, pleading, proselytizing, pontificating, and pseudo-pious posturing ... seem so puny and piddling compared to the simple truth that God is God and I am not.  And I'm okay with that.

In fact, I'm better than okay with it.  I like it just fine!

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A culture of beggars

A few years back, there was a small movement in christian circles that had people wearing bracelets that said "WWJD" for "What would Jesus do?" It was geared toward works of service for others, ways to treat others, etc. As I draw closer to Jesus, I find myself not asking Him WHAT He would do; I KNOW what He would do (He would love unconditionally. Period.)  Instead, more and more I ask Him HOW He would do something - and I look to scripture whenever I can to give me guidance on things ... things (and especially religious traditions) that for years I just accepted as the way things were done.

Recently, I have noticed that the way we pray for people is not the way He prayed for them, and the way we deal with the sick is most definitely not the way He did.  In case I was mistaken and the idea came up that "Well, that was Jesus. Of course! He had the authority to do that as God the Son!" ... I looked at what He authorized us (as His disciples) to do on His behalf. What I saw shocked me.

Before I share that with you, let me share what I see happening in the church when someone gets sick ... especially very sick.  People start to pray. But they don't pray the way the disciples did.  Here's what I hear typically when Western christians pray for someone who has any kind of need (minus all the "oh Jesus"es, and the endlessly repeated words like "God" and "Father" - He knows Who He is...):

"Would You just touch his body and heal it?"
"Just wrap Your arms around that family (that person) and bless them..."
"Have Your will in their lives, just hold them close..."
"Just pulverize that sickness."
"Just be with the doctors as they operate, just guide their hands..."

Did you catch the word "just"?  Do you know what that is?  It is a beggar's word.  "If you could give me a quarter. Just a quarter. It's not much, it's all I'm asking for."  It conveys the message that the person you are asking is not generous, not compassionate, that you have to work hard to wring even that much from them.

Really.  

Now let's look at what Jesus did and HOW He did it.  We know that He healed people.  But HOW?  

Jesus didn't pray to the Father for people to be healed.  He did it Himself, and in a very specific way.  He spoke - not to the person, but - to the sickness. The sickness was invading that person's body (or spirit) and He told it to get out.  Plain and simple.  And it left. No ifs, ands or buts.

Now before you raise your objections, (because I had the same ones!) let me remind you that Jesus divested Himself of His divine powers when He became human.  He only operated in His ministry by the power of the Holy Spirit, and in doing so, He demonstrated that any other human being on the planet can do it too.  And then (get this) He explicitly authorized His disciples to do the same.  Look at Matthew 10:8, which is near the beginning of Jesus' instructions to the disciples to go out and preach the good news to the towns and villages surrounding them.  "Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons; freely you have received, freely give."  

Photo "Boy Patient In Hospital"
courtesy of Sura Nualpradid at
www.freedigitalphotos.net
He didn't say, "Pray for the sick to be healed, pray for the dead to be raised..." and so forth.  He said, "Do it."  He implied that they had the authority to do it (in His name.) And so they did.  They had every authority over sickness, leprosy, demon-possession and death that Jesus had as a human being filled with the Spirit.  He gave the same authority to the seventy whom He sent out two by two.  And on the day of Pentecost, He ensured that the same dynamite power - the Holy Spirit - who was in Him, now could inhabit and control us the same way He did for Jesus ... with the same results! 

What the western church tells us is that we are so unworthy, such worms, that we don't have the right to raise our eyes to Heaven.  We need to smash that idol of self-hatred and unworthiness that we have fashioned in the name of spirituality and humility. It is NEITHER.  And we christians have forgotten our heritage as sons and daughters of the most high God.  We aren't to use that heritage to selfishly amass fortunes for ourselves, but rather to stand - loved, freed, and holy in His sight - to stand on behalf of those who are laid aside through sickness, oppression, and yes, even death. We are authorized to speak to that problem - directly TO it - and know that it will go because He has authorized us to be His voice, to be His hands extended. 

Look through the gospels. Look in the book of Acts.  It is there, over and over again.  Speak to the problem.  Command the sickness to go.  

And before you cite the case of the demoniac child whose father cried, "I believe! help my unbelief!" where Jesus said, "This kind does not come out except by prayer and fasting..."  Think.... had Jesus just been fasting?  Did He pray to God right there for a half-hour or two hours and ask for God to cast out the demon?  NO.  It's clear that by this He meant a lifestyle of prayer (that is, communion with God in intimacy) highlighted by fasting - which is meant to focus the person on pressing in to God, not to get something out of Him but to feel closer TO Him.  

It is time for us as believers to put the big C back into the word Christian. To remember that "as He is, so are we in this world." (1 Jn. 4:17).  We need to realize just how deeply, just how intensely and unconditionally He loves us, to shed our dragon-skin of religious self-demeaning ritual, and that beggar's mentality that dares not ask for more than scraps. We need to rid ourselves of the "oh please please please please please" - endless repetitions that essentially say that we don't believe that God is good.  Or that He loves us unconditionally. Let's rise up to our heritage and to our calling as believers.  Let's go about doing good.  Let's change our culture for the better ... not only for our own good but for the good of the people who so desperately need GOOD news.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Straight trade

I trudged up the hill, towing my two suitcases, with my computer bag balanced precariously across the slide-out carrying handle of the largest bag, and my purse slung over my head and down my right side.  Every 20 to 30 feet I would stop, winded by the hill, the extra weight, and the altitude - 3500 feet above sea level doesn't sound like much unless you're from sea level - I could feel myself perspiring heavily. My hair stuck to my face. Fortunately ... it wasn't raining. 

Someone had given me these directions and I was following them to the best of my ability. I hadn't reached the top of the hill when I saw a man carrying a blue, lightweight tote on the other side of the road, going in the opposite direction. I was puffing and panting by this point. All sense of dignity had been lost. I was in refugee mode - quite literally - fleeing a situation of my own making which had gotten wildly out of control. 

The man slowed down. He stopped. "Could you use a hand?" he called to me. 

 My pride was nil.  "Wow! I sure could!" I stopped and rested my bags on their wheels on the concrete sidewalk.

He came over and asked me where I was going. "Student Residence B" I said, indicating my first stop: residence services where I would get my key.  He took the heaviest bag with the computer bag resting on it.  Then he gave me his tote bag - it literally weighed only a few ounces. I hitched up my purse and reached for my wheeled duffle bag. "No, you've carried that long enough," he said. "I'll carry your bags and you carry mine. Let's enjoy the rest of this walk."

I was so flustered and grateful that I knew that if I wasn't so exhausted I would have cried... I just didn't have the energy; it had been a tumultuous week.  Meekly I let him carry my load - some good thirty-five pounds worth of it - while I walked easily beside him.

He made conversation, asked me where I was from and when I told him, he said that he had lived there for 20 years and started a company there.  I had heard of the company!  He asked about my family (this happens all the time where I live, it's called "who's your father?") and it turned out that he knew of some people who were related to my husband.

When we got to the destination, he opened the doors for me and set my luggage back down on the floor, and asked for his tote back.  We parted ways and I thanked him once again for having compassion on me.  And after he was gone,  I thanked God for the kind detour this man took because he saw I was in distress. (By the time I got to my residence, I was beet red in the face from exertion.) 

That was the first of many kindnesses I was shown that day. A kind cabbie who took my bags, another who helped me with my groceries and gave me a discount because he got lost and I didn't have the precise address, etc.,  but the thing that sticks out for me is this man who traded his light package for all of mine.  He did so, in order that I might enjoy the walk.

Photo "Loving Father And His Baby" by
David Castillo Dominici at
www.freedigitalphotos.net
I could not help but draw parallels between that experience and the invitation of Jesus: "Come to Me, all you who labour and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke (my helping, my partnering with you) upon you, and learn from me, for I am meek and lowly, and you shall find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Matthew 11: 28 - 30)

Can it be that simple? giving Him our burden in exchange for His? Apparently so.  He can understand the most anguished cry, the smallest whimper, the silent pleading, tears in the dark, everything. And He invites us to trade that load for His, which is easy, because it doesn't burden people with shoulds and rules; His load is simply love. He invites us to come to Him and - if we need to - fall apart in His arms; He will hold us. He already took all that hurt away anyway.  Let's let ourselves be loved. It's okay. It is really okay.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The most important kind of healing

More and more in the news, it is unmistakable - terrorist activity in Paris, police violence in Ferguson and elsewhere, school shootings all over the place, RCMP officers being killed by someone who called 911 just to get them to come so they would be shot, a rapist whose crime was witnessed by two other people getting handed a slap on the wrist, and most recently, some gunman entering a bar in Orlando and shooting over a hundred people, at least fifty of which died - and the victims' only "crime" was that they were gay. 

Whenever something tragic (like these things and more) happens, social media and news coverage around the world express outpourings of concern, even outrage, and a lot of folks request prayer for the place where it happened, and for the families of those most affected. I lost count of the Pray for Paris posters I saw on Facebook after the Paris attacks.  This sort of reaction is what I have come to expect.  And yes, it is needed; people need to feel as though they are doing something significant to help people they have never met in response to such events.  And yes, it is perfectly fitting to pray for a community that is reeling from some atrocity. 

But let's not stop there. 

Let's also pray for an end to the attitudes and beliefs that spawn such heinous acts. Let's pray to become part of the solution by refusing to succumb to the bigotry that some people still hold in their hearts.  Let's resolve never to stand idly by and allow hate-talk to continue, or victim-blaming talk for that matter, or worse yet, participate in it. 

This is not about whether this or that lifestyle is good or bad, or whether this or that skin colour or gender or religion is better than the next one.  This is about how people like us perpetuate an atmosphere that gives license to violent people to think they will have support for doing the horrific things that they do.  Innocent bystanders are we - but are we?  As long as we ascribe right and wrong to who people are - regardless of gender, race, sexuality, religion or size - different from us, we give silent consent to the people who use violence against their own kind: humankind.  People are fragile - that which makes us human is tenuous at best. We can be self-righteous all we want, but it will not stop the reckless onslaught of hatred.  It might make us feel better - but it also makes the perpetrators feel more at ease about wreaking havoc in our world.

Jesus is not like that, folks.  Jesus accepted people who were different from Him - even healed them.  Take, for example, the man of whom Jesus said that He had not seen such great faith in Israel.  The man wanted Jesus to heal his young male love-slave, folksAnd Jesus did.  No judgment of lifestyle, no little "digs" to drive home His point.  Jesus' "point" was love. Pure and simple.  I'm just saying ... it is not up to US to judge anyone.  

Photo "Rows Of Butterfly Cocoons"
courtesy of xura at
www.freedigitalphotos.net
And judging people can lead to disastrous consequences.  Surely Jesus' own death proves this.  A bunch of well-meaning religious people got some self-righteous ideas about what Messiah should look like, and they decided that Jesus was wrong - and not only wrong, but subversive - and they did the unthinkable, and thought themselves to be doing the right thing.  There is no difference - the process is the same.  People can justify their own actions with whatever twisted ideal they might hold to - but the fact remains that violence in and of itself is rarely if ever justifiable.  

The healing needs to start on the inside.  And it needs to happen to those who are hurting so very much because of these disasters ... but it needs to happen as well in our own hearts.  Until we begin to comprehend the unconditional love of God not just to us but to ALL people, and can therefore have compassion without judgment, it is we who need to be healed. 

Now. And the sooner, the better.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

If only people could see

Today, as usually is the case, my husband, my daughter and I went out for breakfast to our favourite breakfast restaurant.  We look forward to this family time together, and we rarely miss the opportunity, unless prevented by sickness or distance.

This time, we were enjoying our breakfast when a middle-aged fellow, whose face we recognized as being one of the "regulars", walked in and sat at his usual spot.  This would not have been a problem, except that we had been assigned a table which placed me five feet away from this man's usual spot.  It was then that I noticed the billowing waves of after-shave or cologne emanating from this man like Pigpen's dust clouds.  It was cloying.  It was so strong I could taste it on my tongue (when I immediately started breathing through my mouth to slow down what is usually an immediate neurological reaction.)  I groped for a napkin and held it over my nose and mouth as I ate, lifting it up only to put food in my mouth.  I finished my meal as quickly as I could, and tried switching my seat - but it was too little, too late. Leaving my coffee only half-consumed, I ended up having to leave the restaurant to sit in the car while my family hurried through their meals to join me.  

I have explained the condition I have (multiple chemical sensitivities or MCS) a few times, and I have had to re- and re-explain it to every person individually, because until you suffer from this, you have no idea what it is like or how all-encompassing, all-limiting it is.  

Chemical scent is everywhere, and it is toxic.  Some brands of perfumes contain as many as 300 chemicals, some of which are classed on Hazardous Materials sheets as neurotoxins.  These chemicals include such nasties as benzine (listed on shampoo bottles as "sodium benzoate"), toluene (closely related to benzine), and aldehydes (in the same family as formaldehyde, AKA "embalming fluid.") These toxins are cumulative in the body, and one day, usually after a concentrated exposure, the body says "ENOUGH!"  Basically, the body has been taking in so many toxins from being around so many people over the years wearing them, using them, cleaning with them, "deodorizing" (should be called RE-odorizing) with them, moisturizing their skin with them, spraying them, drying them into their clothing, and plugging them in (yes, even Glade plug-ins and Febreeze products) that it rebels.  And MCS is born.

These are not mere allergies.  With an allergy, the body decides something is an attack on itself and creates a histamine response: the nasal passages get congested, the eyes get watery, and so forth). One can take anti-histamines to relieve the symptoms, and that is the end of that.  However, with MCS, there may be an allergic reaction, but that is not the primary reaction.  It is neurological - there are nerve symptoms like headaches (up to and including migraines), dizziness, disorientation, "brain fog", even muscular cramping and the formation or aggravation of trigger points - such as is common in fibromyalgia.  And taking an antihistamine might clear up the nasal congestion, but that only allows more of the toxins to reach the system and cause more reaction, not less.  

The last seven-plus years for me has been about self-care, and educating people about this illness is part of that.  Granted, due to a bona fide miracle back in the fall of 2009, where a good 70% of my symptoms just "poof" disappeared as someone was speaking words of encouragement and love to me, I do not suffer nearly as much as I once did.  Before, I had to pretty much wear a hospital mask to work and to church, anywhere there were people other than my own family.  (I remember in early 2009, one adolescent boy at church thinking that I had the H1N1 influenza virus until his mom explained it to him.  And then he got mad for me.  It was touching, actually!) 

Photo "Female Doctor Wearing
Surgical Mask"
by stockimages at
www.freedigitalphotos.net

The problem is NOT the smell.  That is only secondary - and in a way I am grateful for the smell.  It alerts me to what is coming ... and that is the ingestion of the chemical into my body, which results in those nasty symptoms I mentioned.  The real problem is the fact that companies no longer exclusively use natural scents when they make their products.  Synthetic or artificial scent is what most companies use because it is so inexpensive.  

Which leads to the questions I get.  "Well what about skunks? don't you react with them?"  The short answer is NO - not like I do with perfumes.  Of course the skunk smell is entirely unpleasant, and it might even cause me to stuff up and be all teary - like it is supposed to do with every other creature on the planet.  But I don't get brain fog from skunk spray.  "Oh - are you allergic to flowers?"  Ummm, NO.  Like I said, it's not an allergy.  I might have a reaction to the bug spray you put ON your flowers but not to the blooms themselves.  

And one more question, or should I say a statement I get a lot. "I use unscented products, why are you having a reaction?"  Simply this: unscented products contain chemical scent, and something else: a chemical product designed to take the SMELL away.  So in reality, unscented products actually have more chemicals in them than scented ones do.  Again I say that the SMELL isn't the thing that is bothersome - it's the CHEMICAL.  

And the chemical, dear friends, permeates the surrounding area, is carried by people who walk through that cloud to other areas of the room, and stays in the air long after you have left the premises.  Artificial scent has those chemicals in them because those toxins are proven to linger in the air and on the skin.  That's why they use them: staying power.  For those of us with MCS, that's a game-ender.

So by now you're wanting to know (or I HOPE you are wanting to know) how to pick products that are not toxic to me ... OR to you, whether you have a reaction or not.  And I do have some suggestions, but with a warning - beware product loyalty.  Sometimes a product can be fine and then the company goes and changes the formula (this happened before with one kind of soap we used, and then most recently with Pantene Shampoo & Conditioner 2 in 1 "Sheer Volume").  

Anyway, here are the suggestions:
  1. Look for the words "Fragrance Free" on the bottle or tube.  If it doesn't, see suggestion number 3.
  2. Perfume isn't the only thing that contains chemical scent. Be aware of laundry products, room freshener products, personal care products, skin care products, sunscreens, cosmetics, etc.
  3. If choosing lotions, shampoo and/or conditioner, or other liquid products, take the time to read the ingredients listed. If one of the first eight to ten ingredients says one or more of the following: parfum, sodium benzoate, laurel sulfate, or toluene, those are neurotoxins that will cause a reaction in people like me. Choose carefully. It might take a while to find something that works for everyone.
  4. A word about any product that claims to be "unscented" - it isn't.  For example, Dove Unscented bar soap causes me to have a reaction.  Dove SENSITIVE doesn't. It says "Fragrance Free."
  5. Consider using alternative solutions for your personal hygiene products. About 6 years ago, I switched to a fragrance-free Crystal Rock product instead of underarm antiperspirant ... it's mineral salt-based and works as well as most deodorants. And it lasts SO much longer (my first rock lasted 4 years), so you'll save yourself a bundle of money. I bought it at the Bulk Barn for EIGHT DOLLARS.
  6. Anything that says "deodorant" ... ISN'T.  It is merely another word for fragrance that is used to cover up another odour.  This includes underarm deodorants, soaps, and deodorizing sprays, the three biggest offenders.
  7.  By far the biggest suggestion I have is to re-examine why you wear or use products with artificial scent if you know that this is going to cause yourself and others to build up a toxicity in the body, leading to such related illnesses as fibromyalgia, chronic pain syndrome, and chronic fatigue syndrome. These are all interrelated with MCS, which means that a large percentage of those with MCS also have one or more of these conditions. Is your health really worth it?  Are you that insecure in your own acceptability that you feel that you have to cover up your own body's scent with something else?   


One last word about this issue, since my audience in this blog is largely believers.  There have been well-meaning people who have reacted - usually badly - to me talking about this issue.  Some don't want to change; others ... I don't know what they think or IF they think about it at all.  However, from some of the reactions I get, I do have a few things to say. 

  1. I do want to be healed, because I am suffering and because I am limited in where I can go and who I can hang around with.  But I don't want to be healed to make you feel more comfortable around me, or so that you can continue to wear your favourite product.  Be considerate.  Leave it home, or better yet - throw it out.
  2. Don't assume that because you don't wear perfume or cologne, that you aren't wearing or using scent.  Many products contain it, not just the ones I've named but also mousse, styling gel, foundations, lipsticks, hair spray, ... the list goes on and on.  And it could be something that you have in your home that is clinging to your clothing and causing a reaction.  Educate yourself. Please.
  3. For those who pray for me, for those who reach out in love, and for those who refrain from wearing "product" because of me and people like me, I am truly touched by the loving care you demonstrate; it does not go unnoticed. I pray that whatever load you carry is lightened. 
  4. Finally, if your solution to the "problem" of me not being able to be around scent is staying away from me, then I fail to see how that is truly demonstrating love - although if you ARE going to continue to wear and use your products, I'd prefer that you stay away, thanks.  A more appropriate way to show that love, though, would be to refrain from using or wearing chemically scented products - not just around me but around everyone.  It not only does good in a gathering where you KNOW I will be there, but it also prevents me from entering later, and running into a cloud you might leave behind long after you are gone. I go to the grocery store, the department store, the clothing boutique, the hardware store, and the pharmacy too.
I have often wished that people could physically SEE the clouds they leave behind when they use these products.  I'm sure it would shock them.

People stay outside of Pigpen's dust cloud (in the Charlie Brown comic) because they can see it.  At least his cloud moves away when he does. And it's natural. I'm just saying.

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.