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.

The Narrowing

I wonder if I’ve been out of the loop for so long that I’m starting to loose my grasp of Christian spirituality. Perhaps it’s the nebulous tendency to make a words have several different meanings. One thing I have been concerned about is what people mean when they say they are following “the narrow path”.

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” – Matthew 7:13-14

I’m fairly familiar with the old saying “the straight and narrow” as a way of saying that somebody is virtuous and moral and doing everything they ought to be sure they’re going to heaven. But the way that some people talk about this narrow path, it’s almost as if it’s isn’t enough to have been saved; but as if it’s asking much more …

Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”

He said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’

“But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’

“Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’

“But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’

“There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.” – Luke 13:22-30

This narrow path is not an easy one. You have to give up a lot of people and places and things in your life – because the more narrow the path before you, the less you can take with you. So you get rid of all the unnecessary luxuries, the things that you give more time to than God. Then you get rid of all the gatherings that take your time away from God. You end a few friendship here and there in the name of narrowing down your relationships to only the most godly among them. You stop living like a normal person and start living differently.

But such an idea doesn’t have wings to fly in a number of cultures. I know that in some, the idea of spending eternity somewhere separate from the rest of your family is terrifying. Isn’t the joy of heaven just as much as being around all the people you like even if they’re not examples of godly perfection? I wonder if there’s such a thing as the narrow road asking too much. One of my favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone, “The Hunt” features a man who gets upset that what he thinks is heaven won’t let his dog in. If his beloved dog can’t go to heaven, then that’s the last place he’d want to be.

Or is it our human tendency to take things too far? I remember reading about the Ascetic movement in early Christianity. In lieu of persecution, countless Christians chose to leave everything – no exceptions – behind and live in the deserts of Kellia, Nitria, and Scetis to do absolutely nothing other than to think about God. Such a lifestyle was usually demanding one – and while yes some of our great thinkers were Ascetics, so were some the great heresies of our time.

Ultimately pursuing an increasingly narrow way of life stands opposed to the idea that it’s only when we widen our connection to others are we truly a part of the whole. Hiding from the world is a good idea from time to time, but it was never meant a permanent lifestyle. Even Jesus – who would have moments of alone time – would eventually find himself out and about and among the crowds. We were meant to belong and to connect. Narrowing down our lives shouldn’t be our main goal, as if narrowness itself were something we could truly achieve – it is missing the point. Sometimes some doors are so narrow, no human can enter them – and they don’t do anyone any good at all. Let’s try not to live that way – for the sake of narrowness as if it were the goal.

 

An Untrustworthy Compass

Most of us live by a moral compass that tells whether what were doing falls into the “right” or “wrong” category. We know the difference between a guilty conscience and a clear one. We like to punish guilt and praise innocence. That’s just how our society works.

Jesus’ society was that of an an honor/shame dynamic. For them, that which was honorable was right, that which was shameful was wrong. It often also took an outside party to confirm honor or shame as being of good esteem and well-known, or having a bad reputation and being infamous, depending on your perceived character.

Being in an honor/shame society is a tricky proposition for those who are outsiders. After all, whatever restores honor is right, whatever tarnishes honor is wrong. So some actions our society would declare wrong could be viewed as right in that culture. Somehow, our society’s morality was informed by the ideals found in Scripture and it diverged from honor/shame into guilt/innocence. Our moral compass changed.

And it’s still changing. I was reading a conversation where a Christian drew up a scenario where a home was being invaded and it’s owner had two options: kill or be killed. It was obvious the answer the Christian was looking for was that the home owner should kill the invaders. But I began to wonder: Is that the only option? What reasons motivate the invasion in the first place? Can the invaders be reasoned with? Would being disabled or wounded be a better option? I wondered why the thought of hypothetically assisting God render his verdict of eternal condemnation and torture in Hell by speeding criminals to the afterlife didn’t register even the slightest moral concern on their radar. This value happened to be the opposite of the early Christians who were so sure of their eternal salvation, they wouldn’t kill others, giving them as long of a chance as possible to repent and join them in heaven, where they could forgive them for murdering them as they ate together around the Lord’s table. Think about it – Saul persecuted Christians, was on the wrong side of Stephen’s martyrdom, believed and became Paul, and will spend eternity in Heaven with Stephen. Quite a turnaround!

Likewise, I’ve seen Christians get so riled over their side of their favorite cause, they loose sight of the individuals who would be affected by their ideas and the circumstances involved. Sometimes there aren’t easy one-size-fits-all solutions or answers to the toughest questions of all and it’s marginalizing to decide for other people what they get to choose from without any direct interaction with those who are most affected by the decisions being made. Unique individuals become part of some faceless crowd, “the victims” or “the sinners” or whatever label they want to use to describe them this week – and their whole story gets erased alongside with their identity, as well as any desire to be respectful because of the distance involved from the matter because it’s all being argued on some higher hypothetical plain that we forget affects everyday people who sometimes live a lot closer to us than we think.

We have this big cosmic battle of changing morality playing out in this very day and age. Things that were utterly immoral not that long ago have found a measure of acceptance as we question the original assumptions about what’s right and wrong. And we’ll continue to question and change our minds about morality as the years go on. It seems that we’re finally asking the right questions. One of my favorite moral teachers is Martin Luther King, Jr. who had quite a bit to say on the subject said it best during his sermon explaining his opposition to the Vietnam War:

“A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies. This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing, unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of mankind. And when I speak of love I’m not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of John: “Let us love one another, for God is love. And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us.” “

I so wish Christians would learn to erase the divisions and shift their loyalties and learn to see the world as an “all of us, together” kind of people. Sadly, I’ve read so many End Times stories where any attempt to unite the world, declare peace, put an end to famine and poverty and feed the hungry is viewed with the utmost suspicion that the Anti-Christ is somewhere active in the world and is just about to take it over. I’ve seen regular Christians talk about the Mark of the Beast as if it’s just a day away from being something real and tangible.

And I wonder what’s become of Christian morality, that broken compass that swings wildly as if it’s confused and lost it’s way. Each believer seems to read it differently and point to a different direction to head in as the true way to salvation; but I’m not so sure that any of us have it right.