Giving Love and Compassion Every Chance to Change Things For The Better

I’ve been thinking of everything I’ve ever learned about God’s holiness. It can be this wonderful source of power – that is, when it’s not threatening to do serious harm. When I first heard the story of Uzzah’s death; how he reached out to steady the ark because the oxen pulling the cart had stumbled and that was something that God viewed as irreverent and so he smote him then and there. I would have thought God could have weighed his motives and intentions to see that all Uzzah wanted was to keep the ark from falling off the cart and smashing into pieces – that even though Uzzah wasn’t holy and pure, his intentions were and therefore he was worthy of not dying.

It’s like the time that Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu offered unauthorized fire to the Lord who felt incensed that his instructions were not obeyed to the letter so he burned them. One guy told me this story as a warning not to go beyond what was prescribed because God never changes and one day he might decide that anyone who worships him in an unauthorized manner is guilty and deserving of the same punishment.

Or when Korah dared to speak up and ask why only Aaron and his sons were allowed to have the priesthood to the Lord when the whole Israelite people were also holy. “Isn’t it enough for you that as a Levite you’re more special than everyone else?” Moses asked him. The Lord gave them his answer to the question – in causing the ground to open up and swallow Korah and the families of the 250 men who were on his side – as for the men themselves – they were burned.

This is where I just don’t get God. He could choose to be consistent and our history could be littered with every single movement or denomination that angered God that he ended up smiting – with only one exception – the authorized form of worship that pleases Him. But the New Testament version of him only makes a few short corrections – as Ananias and Sapphira and Simon the Sorcerer discovered.

I wonder, how would Jesus have answered the questions, “Is it okay for just anyone to read the Holy Bible?” “Is it okay for just anyone to worship God however they please?” “Is it okay for just anyone who step into a leadership role in the worship of God?”

It’s true that Christianity doesn’t have a lot of holy relics – the kind that you’re not supposed to touch. My denomination was never one to believe in such things anyway.

It’s also no great surprise that modern Christianity has a variety of styles of worship, bluegrass, gospel, hymns, contemporary – some are rather toned-down and others are full of energy.

Now the God of the Old Testament was rather specific about who could and who couldn’t be a priest, priests had to be men who were descendants of Aaron, they had to be without any defects whatsoever (blind, lame, disfigured, deformed, crippled hand or crippled foot, hunchback, dwarf, eye defect, sores) – even their wives had to be virgins – any woman who had been a prostitute or divorced was considered disqualifying. God demanded nothing less than perfection itself. But today we would consider it an awesome testimony of our leaders to have struggled with disabilities and found faith in God. Some of our denominations have no problem with letting women be leaders.

Surely, if God hasn’t changed – then he’s waiting for the full measure of sin to be built up in the church before smiting them like he did with the Egyptians and Canaanites of old. Or perhaps, we’ve misread the playbook. God might not have changed, but his plans might have changed. I don’t know why people are so scared of the idea that God might not operate in the same way in the Old Testament than he does in the New Testament and that he might operate differently now than he did way back then. All of us are who we are regardless of what we do when, right?

Why is it we think that when it comes to God, his holiness and sovereignty are his most important attributes through which all of his other attributes (love, compassion, meekness) must be filtered through? “God is love” but love alone isn’t enough to keep him from acting in wrath in order to protect his holiness from us sinful, dirty, human beings. “God is love” but this love bows to God’s sovereignty by which his power can be used to harden people’s hearts and prevents them from loving him. Really? If anything, it seems that our New Testament version of God is all about love and compassion and tends to let matters of holiness and sovereignty slide. Perhaps that’s why the circumcision party wasn’t more harshly punished for their interference and various false teachers were left to their own devices. Perhaps God wanted to give them every chance to come to the right way of thinking – rather than outright punish them for having wrong beliefs.

I wish we’d do that – give everybody every possible chance to do their own homework and come to believe as they should in whatever ways that work for them than to take matters into our own hands and punish and shun people for not believing as we would want them to or in ways just like us. The thing is – we’re not God, I don’t know if we have the capacity to restore love and compassion as the highest attributes of how we worship God and how we view the world.

 

Relational Aggression

It was a nice day outside, so we were allowed to have recess in the front parking lot while the playground was being remodeled. Some kids were playing four square, others were just hanging out. I was playing with the girl scout and her friends – some make-believe game, I think. A few minutes into it, the cheerleader came up to us. We all thought it was cool that the most popular girl in school would play with us, after all, it could only increase our social capital to know her and to play with her. To say that we were playing together would be the wrong word. She took over the game, changed it completely.

“One last thing.” She said, “I’ll play with all of you, but not her.” She was referring to me. Needless to say, I was dropped from the group like a hot potato. So I stood there and watched the cheerleader play with a group of kids whom I thought were my friends. Such events characterized recess for me more often than not.

Back then, that was a typical interaction between peer groups – particularly girls. A normal setting of boundaries between in-group and out-group members. Today we would call it relational agression – a form of bullying typical for girls and women, but exists in the form of cyber-bullying that also affects boys and men.

Relational agression includes excluding others from social activities, damaging a person’s reputation by spreading rumors, gossiping, and humiliating them in front of others, as well as withdrawing attention and friendship. It doesn’t happen in schools alone; but it can also happen in workplaces as well as houses of worship.

Perhaps it’s the outsider in me that more easily sees the connection. It’s hard to deny the prominence marriage has in modern Christianity – the church took on culture in a big way not for biblical singleness, but Biblical Marriage. Many churches struggle to put together a decent singles’ program, but often have a thriving marriage program. Church events are designed for or around the needs of the married members more often than those of the single members. Bible Studies are often about marriage or point to marriage as a metaphor for gospel truths rather than singleness. As such, being married gives a person higher social capital in the church than being single. The only thing worse is being divorced because that’s like having fallen from God’s good graces – to have fully known and experienced the truth of marriage and lost it.

Already we can see that the church tends to withdraw attention to it’s singles as well as excludes them on a regular basis from the events that are designed for the marrieds. Singles have noted being called ‘selfish’ and ‘immature’ for not being married – which could easily account for aspects of spreading rumors, gossiping, and humiliation – their experiences vary so for some it’s worse than others.

As relational bullies, the goal is to control another person through their relationships. You cut them off if you’re displeased with them by any means available to you. You do not hinder their relationships if you’re okay with where they’re at. By relegating singles to nursery workers and isolating them from group activities you’re sending them the message that they don’t belong because they don’t please you. The only real way to defeat this form of bullying is to be radically inclusive in every way. You’d have to learn to accept and talk about singleness and to stop doing ministries for marrieds only. Doing anything less would be complicit in allowing relational aggression to persist unchecked and unchallenged.

You would have to fold these diverse suits of cards in order to form one deck – of course they won’t be all the same and that’s the point. A deck of cards made up of hearts and clubs isn’t complete without it’s diamonds and spades – and when we don’t play with a full deck, there’s no winning at all.

A Long, Silent Conversation

I couldn’t help but enjoy the delicious irony of the situation. There I was a student of at least two languages other than English … who could barely manage a conversation in just her native tongue. But considering how long I’d been one of the game, it’s really a wonder why my social skills aren’t worse.

When most people engage in small talk – they have something to talk about. With my co-workers, it’s usually something – or nothing at all. But they’re pretty much on the same page and they swiftly shift subjects with smooth transition. That’s not really the case with me, I have to process what’s been said and evaluate my options – anything I say can be taken in any number of directions and I never want to divulge too much information.

I always remember that episode of Star Trek the Next Generation, the one where a genial host has invited the crew of the Enterprise down to the planet where he’s the Federation Ambassador while they have some down-time, completely unaware that the aliens who are hosting them have some plans of their own about what to do with their own spaceship. It’s made abundantly clear that everyone hates the host and finds him really annoying. So Data is told that if he wants to master small talk, he would do well to keep an eye on him. He does and copies him perfectly – learning how to talk about nothing at all. Later on, when the ruse is revealed, the aliens kill the annoying ambassador. Lesson: small talk gets you killed.

Half of the time, I wondered what I was going to say – eventually I realized I had silently rehearsed an entire conversation – the only thing I knew about the guy was that he was into music. I thought about asking: “What kind of music do you like most?” “Which genre is underappreciated?” “Can you think of a song that would be epic if it were written for a different genre?” Things like that – but … I didn’t say a word.

Most of the time when I work, I have little to say. I dread it when somebody asks me a direct question about myself because I hardly know what to answer. I think that’s partially because I’ve been so successful at being a whole other person sometimes. There’s the me that people meet, kind and friendly, they just like me – kind of a surface level reflection. But there’s the deeper me that’s harder to draw out, one that likes to keep something up my sleeve. This is the me that I don’t let people get to know easily and the me that has more interesting answers but might prove a bit intimidating in a sense.

Perhaps it’s all those years that Christianity drilled into me humility and dying to self that’s also a factor. You see, being able to talk about your accomplishments, how you can speak Spanish and read Portuguese can be understood to be prideful. You see, everything about you is supposed to point everyone you meet toward God – the less you can say about yourself, the more you can say about God. Or it was some idea that if we had to say anything, it should be important things that are necessary. Idle chatter just wasn’t becoming.

But small talk isn’t idle chatter, it’s creating an opening to turn an acquaintance into a friend, to make guests more comfortable in a strange environment, and it’s how you build relationships and trust. The church should put a particular emphasis on encouraging conversation rather than quashing it – and even though certain Bible verses say that some shouldn’t speak, we should question just how much that applies in a world where words have more impact now than ever before.

It’s not that I don’t have anything to say – it’s just that I don’t always know how to say it quite right.

Fueling the Storm

Growing up in tornado alley, I learned that thunderstorms tend to build up because of instability and they only come to an end when that instability is gone. The more instability builds up – the worse the storm gets.

My nervousness problems work in much the same way. I realized that just last night when my co-worker realized I was nervous and something about the combination of what he said, the tone of his voice, and the gestures he made while speaking made my nerves spike. I had to stop and catch a deep breath to infuse my system with oxygen in order to try to calm down a little.

It reminded me of the time I was on a long flight by myself to a foreign country. The flight attendant was a friendly guy and quite a character, it it seemed the more he asked me if I wanted anything and double-checking my response: “Are you sure?” The more my nervousness would kick into high gear and the worse they got – making him ask all the more if there was anything he could do.

Truth be told, I didn’t really know I had that bad of a nervousness problem mostly because I’d never put myself into situations to test how I would respond. But now it seems with every new thing – they’re getting worse … and the more that people try to do to help, the worse it gets.

After Earth was actually a fairly helpful movie in that the concept of taking a knee was described. It means to center yourself in this present moment, to take a deep breath and let all of the things you can’t control slip away. To decide that the fear and worry you’re fighting aren’t real – well, they are real, but they’re aren’t your real concern in this particular circumstance.

I think – I also have to come to terms with that I put way too much pressure on myself not to make mistakes; drive the car the wrong way and you get in a crash and somebody dies. Make a bad mistake at work and you could lose your livelihood. Make this mistake or that mistake and your life could irrevocably be a downhill spiral ending in disaster. Better to not make mistakes –  but all the pressure feeds into the tendency to make mistakes.

“I remember your first week of working here.” A customer told me the other day; “I felt so sorry for you, you were so nervous I thought you were going to have a break down.”

“I know – it was pretty bad there for awhile, but I eventually found my zen.” I said.

It took time and experience to take care of my first round of nerves; and odds are that’s what it’ll take to get them to go away – but until then … anything anyone does to try to make them better will likely fuel the storm. The best way to put an end to my instability is to be stable and calm when I’m around.

(Does anyone know of any good calming apps? I tried one by the name of Calm and couldn’t really get it to work for me.)

Going Where I’m Needed

I’ve learned a lot this past year about myself, particularly that I enjoy making myself useful. When I was first hired on, I was told that there was always the possibility that I’d be sent to other places in the area to fill in where they had a need. As it turns out, I’m rather good at it. I’ve been sent to so many places I’ve lost count. I’ve worked in at least three counties. Even though it’s something of  hassle to go the distance, it feels rewarding to be helpful.

Then I think back to my days in church where I was primarily expected to do nothing. I was supposed to show up, stay quiet, listen, and leave. I couldn’t really do the sort of things that I wanted to – and what was left, well, they didn’t give me much training and I had to figure out what I could as I went along. It was in those areas that were out of sight and out of mind, and not only that, but not really interacting with others.

Not really interacting with others was something I’d done a lot of for a long time. I just thought I was bad with people. So this past week when a few different people admitted: “My kid really likes you.” or “I think you’re nice.” I wasn’t quite sure how to take that compliment other than to say, “Thanks, that means a lot.”

Even as my church would sing Audio Adrenaline’s “Hands and Feet”, “I want to be your hands, I want to be your feet, I’ll go where you send me, I’II go where you send me …” It was pretty much understood that this didn’t really apply to all of us. Sure, the big mission trip once every few years was the one chance that most of us would ever get to be sent somewhere we were needed. Sometimes it was in another country, sometimes it was somewhere in the states. But being what it was, it wasn’t something just everyone could do – only small teams could go and many would be excluded.

Perhaps a big difference is that each church is insular and doesn’t interact with local churches. They don’t talk to each other and say: “Hey, we could use some help. Can you send somebody?” The places where I work at – they’re connected together. The managers know each other and help each other. Their employees work together and build friendships even though it can be awhile until the next time they work together again – which is perfect because they can do a lot of catching up the next time they meet. Each church seems to be territorial and fears loosing people to another church or a different denomination. Looking back at my churches, they didn’t really interact with other area churches very often. I think once the youth group of a different church did an interpretive dance for our church – but I don’t think the idea went over too well because we never went to other churches or other churches after that came to ours.

Out of this week, I’ve spent (or will have spent) five days at other places than my own workplace … and I love it. I will have made myself useful by helping those who need a little assistance. I will have met a lot of new people – each with interesting stories and quirky personalities. I will have worked with all sorts of people, lifting their burden as much as I can. I’ll learn new tricks that make the job that much easier. Sometimes though, I just wish that Christianity was a little more like the world in this way – it’s not the most awful thing that they’d make it out to be.

 

 

Christian *Love, (meaning changes)

Much has been said about grace. I believe that there are two kinds of grace: saving grace and living grace. One is concerning spiritual birth “once and for all” (Hebrews 9:12, 10:10) which demanded no effort on my part, because my Savior Jesus, finished this on His cross and from His empty tomb. The other kind of grace is spiritual growth that does demand my effort (2 Peter 3:18). It also includes discipline (Hebrews 12:5-11). A wise man told me that discipline is not the absence of love, but the application of love. We love Maddi Runkles. The best way to love her right now is to hold her accountable for her immorality that began this situation. – A letter from Maddi’s principal to the student population of Heritage Academy.

It occurred to me the other day that I had failed to mention how love often falls victim to it’s definition being changed. That’s why in certain circumstances, people will do unloving things in the name of love. For example, it’s not uncommon for Christian parents to kick out their LGBTQ teenagers in the name of tough love in the hopes that one day their child will repent like the prodigal that they are. Hundreds of thousands of teenagers like Maddi made the “True Love Waits” oath; roughly 60% of them has admitted to breaking it before the terms of the oath were completed. According the New York Times article about Maddi, roughly 80% of young Evangelicals couldn’t keep that oath either.

If you define loving someone as desiring their well-being and promoting their true flourishing, ultimately you decide what form that takes. If you think Maddi will truly flourish after being held accountable for immorality, then you might decide that the ordeal of punishing her and shaming her on top of her bearing the obvious consequences is necessary. But if you think Maddi will truly flourish when you support her decision and help her to fulfill her new vision as a mother, then you might find the punishing and shaming to be overkill and doing more harm than good.

You can do a lot to people in the name of love, some of it truly wonderful and kind, and some of it awful and mean-spirited. We don’t really have a code of conduct on the things you can’t do in the name of love; well, I suppose anything that stops short of sin or crime; but even so, some sins are lesser and forgivable – like gossip. But hey, love is a good thing. One would think that how love is expressed would also always be a good thing.

But if you love somebody – why require them to make a promise they have no way of knowing they’ll be able to keep? There has got to be a better way, one that doesn’t punish and shame – but accepts human nature for what it is and let’s everybody walk away moderately happy. Love has got to be more and do more than hurt people – because whatever hurts isn’t love.

 

Christian *Love, (*conditions apply)

I remember when the church loved me a lot more. I was perfectly obedient and known to be sweet and gentle. I knew the Bible exactly as much as I was supposed to – which was everything they taught me or everything from previously approved materials, trusted authors, and competent ministries. Most of all, I believed exactly what I was taught from the pastors and deacons and elders and teachers as they taught it without question. Everyone would point to me as an example of someone who “does it right” and “has it together.” Christianity loved me most when I was it’s ideal, when I fit completely in it’s narrative.

But something changed. I remained myself, consistent and true – but the church seemed to like me less and less. Perhaps it was because I was still single and they couldn’t figure out why. After all, I was supposed to have met him by now they taught, gotten married by now they taught, and have had kids by now if I was doing everything right they taught. They probably thought there was some rebellion in my heart, some sin that God alone knew of that was the reason why I wasn’t ready to meet him, or something or other to explain it. Their attitude toward me started to cool as I had fallen out of favor. It was puzzling to know that those younger girls who had been told to follow my example were now being pointed to as an example for me to follow, “Don’t be so picky, you’ll marry and be happy like they are soon enough if you lower your standards. But seriously, don’t settle for anything less than the guy God has selected just for you or there will be terrible consequences.” (Thanks for that confusing message, just one of many.)

To be honest, it felt an awful lot like moving the goalposts. Or perhaps, having lost something important you used to have and you miss a lot. A sense of belonging that had been there for the longest time seems to up and vanish. For all the talk that love is unconditional, it’s just human to love those who are on the same page you are. It’s human to love those who follow the same team you do and to dislike those who follow your team’s rival. And this is a day and age where ideals divide more sharply than ever before. We end friendships and relationships due to similar disagreements all the time. Perhaps we have never truly learned to accept people we disagree with. In a Christianity famous for dividing itself into denominations over anything and everything – we never really got into the practice of being okay with different opinions and beliefs among us because there’s this tiny fear that we could wind up on a wrong turn and miss the way to Heaven.

I don’t think it was really on purpose either, but when everything you do is geared around doing it just one way, the same way, each and every time, then it results in a religious environment that has not bothered to create spaces for doing different things in different ways and naturally excludes everyone who is into doing things in different ways. Then, of course, you fall victim to expectation. When you do the same things the same way for long enough, it becomes the traditional thing. Doing something different would be turning your back on the way it is supposed to be done and has been and should be done … though you know not why. Well, anyone who turns their back on that is turning their back on God or how God would have things done in the biblically prescribed manner. Anyway, you can’t love someone as well if they don’t believe the same things you do. You can like them, you can think well of them (except for those particular faults), but because the two of you don’t see eye to eye, they will always be unlovable in some regard or another.

It is really hard to make space for people who don’t agree with you in your church. Your church is your church because it’s just the way you like it … changing it up to offer something for people who like other things means having to have less of the things that you like about it in the first place and it ceases to be your church; it becomes theirs – I guess “ours” was never truly an option. It’s not something we’d like to admit – that it really does come down to taste because it’s not supposed to – so we cloak it in terms of “proper” and “biblical” and “gospel” – it’s merely a coincidence that our tastes just so happen to align with the proper biblical expression of the gospel and how other people do church in other ways is never proper, not biblical, and it certainly isn’t the way the gospel should be.

In the process, we lose sight of what love was originally meant to be. We do believe in a sort of unconditional love, we love everyone who is just like us unconditionally, but we love others who are not like us conditionally. That’s the only explanation I can come up for to describe the difference in my own church experience. I guess I can’t help how other people can’t love me because we believe different things, but I can understand this failing and do my best to ensure I don’t fall victim to the same tendency myself and as a result treat others who are not like my as if they’re inferior in any way. Who knows, they might be right, after all.