A Strange Thing Happened On the Way Home

It was just before midnight and after a busy shift at work. I was tired and more than ready to go home. After passing by the Christmas lights display in town, I realized that the car behind me was acting erratically. I continued to drive the speed limit, following the laws. The car behind me opted to illegally pass me on the bridge (without a passing zone). Just on the other side of the bridge, it slowed down in front of me, signaled to turn right, but didn’t. It pulled into the gas station up ahead on the left, so I was glad to turn right thinking that it wouldn’t be my problem. I then heard it’s tires squealing as it turned around – out of the gas station and onto the road I had just turned onto. It began flashing it’s lights furiously. Again, the car sped up, passed me illegally, slowed down to a stop, forcing me to slow down and drive around him as he was hanging out of his window yelling something. Up ahead, I turned left – he followed, and again, flashed his lights, he sped up, passed me illegally (there aren’t any passing zones on this particular street), slowed down to a stop, and forced me to go around slowly. I began to wonder: “Is this guy trying to cause a collision?” “Is he on something?” It wasn’t long before he did it again – once or twice more (same street, still no passing zones). Once he got wise to the fact that I’d just go around – he angled his car in such a way that nobody could go around in the other lane. By this time, I could feel how afraid I was – my pulse was racing and my breathing had quickened. A maniac in a car had followed me out into the middle of nowhere section of the countryside, miles and miles away from anyone, anywhere. I could see him getting out of his car and walking my way and all I could think was that this was like something out of a movie that didn’t have a happy ending. My passenger helped me keep my cool, “Throw on the brights.” He suggested, knowing that it would daze the guy. My passenger used the distraction to great effect, throwing open the door and surprising the crazy driver – confronting him. The crazy driver claimed that our tire was about to fall off. Something about him seemed off – it’s a thing that you know it when you see it, but you can’t really describe why; a gut instinct, perhaps. It wasn’t a believable story – after all, our car was driving normally, there wasn’t any wobble or any indication of tire trouble. Not only that, my passenger is a car guy and wouldn’t let an unsafe car on the road. Whenever there’s the slightest indication of trouble, he has me take one of the other vehicles and checks it out. The crazy driver gets back into his car and drives forward on down the road. When he’s out of sight, my passenger checks our tires and sees that they’re perfectly normal. A few minutes later, a SUV pulls up behind us – it’s a co-worker who lives in the same area I do. We told her what was up and let her know that we were just fine. My passenger opts to take over driving, I didn’t object – I had had enough for one night. So we headed down the road, and my co-worker followed along behind. Up ahead, the crazy guy was stopped on the road. He let us pass and we went up ahead. When we lost sight of my co-worker’s lights, we turned around and went back. She had parked a safe distance away from the crazy driver right where it turns off to another road. We parked alongside her and asked her what was going on. She said that he had flagged her down with some story about being broken down and he had asked her to help him push his car off to the side of the road. She declined and said that she would pull off the road up ahead and call the police to come and give him some help. Given his erratic behavior, we opted to stay with her. At some point, the crazy driver turned off his lights, he coaxed his supposedly broken-down car back to life and started to turn around. And that point, we agreed with my co-worker that it was the opportune moment to drive away in the other direction. The rest of the drive was understandably tense – but we finally made it home safe and sound. Perhaps the scariest thing about what happened are the unknowns: “Is this guy trying to be a good Samaritan or does he have a nefarious plan?” “Is he on meth or something that makes him a dangerous person?” “If we really did have a bad tire, how would have continually forcing me to avoid hitting him have helped the tire?” “Wouldn’t it have just made things worse?” “Did he think I was alone and therefore an easy target?” “Why the different story with my co-worker?” Perhaps we’ll never know all the reasons, but if anything, my story shows that making all the right decisions can make the biggest difference in whether or not everything has a moderately happy ending. So this holiday season, beware of really bad good Samaritans who supposedly break down after following you into the middle of nowhere and happen to pose a significant danger. Being safe is more important than putting yourself in danger to do what might seem like a good deed.

Places of Honor

When he (Jesus) noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. – Luke 14:7-11

Recently, I was invited to a rather special dinner for a select group of people. It didn’t occur to me until halfway through my meal that I had chosen the foot of the table, the seat furthest from the action. Thinking back on the evening, this verse stands out. My hosts weren’t the sort to play favorites and don’t exist in the context of an honor/shame society. So for that reason, the scenario Jesus said would play out didn’t, they didn’t say “you, move on up” or “you, go sit down there.”

It makes me wonder what else we’re clinging to literally even though the rules have changed. What else we say is exactly the same as in Jesus’ day, but obviously isn’t for the same reasons: we’re not an honor/shame society, we’re not an unequal society that places higher value on people of a certain class or race or gender than others, we’re not predisposed to place higher value on certain friends over others based on how long we’ve known them or how beneficial it is to be connected to them.

Ultimately, we have to pick and choose what to take literally. Some things are bound to cultural elements that no longer fly, like some seats being more honorable than others; but this isn’t the only example of something cultural. The thing is – a culture is defined by it’s customs and practices – quite a few of those are outlined in scripture, some customs we obviously just never picked up: like washing feet, some customs are part of other cultures: like greeting with a kiss. Even relationship patterns, such as how the Bible describes between two people are heavily dependent on their cultural norms as a basis upon what is expected of each role. But just what exactly isn’t cultural?

I think it’s the unseen things – the things that involve treating others with respect, being humble and kind, being patient, living out a life of love. It’s far better to carry out the spirit of the text even if it doesn’t look like literally obeying the letter of the New Testament Law.

Soul Repair

Growing up, I had been taught that Christians can lose pieces of their heart through broken soul ties. It was a fancy way of saying that anyone who has premarital sex has seriously sinned. I still have the little booklet with the picture of a heart on one page that has missing pieces, ripped out and cut out alike. I eventually discovered that pretty much every Christian kid of my generation had the same speech in some way, shape, or form. Some were taught that they became like “damaged goods”, a doughnut that’s been passed around, a package of candy somebody else opened, a wad of gum left over that somebody else chewed. Ultimately, as people we would be worthless and soulless. The next page of that booklet featured some strange math that basically meant the more you give away your love, the less love you have to give.

“It doesn’t matter how many new haircuts you get, or gyms you join, or how many glasses of chardonnay you drink with your girlfriends… you still go to bed every night going over every detail and wonder what you did wrong or how you could have misunderstood. And how in the hell for that brief moment you could think that you were that happy. And sometimes you can even convince yourself that he’ll see the light and show up at your door. And after all that, however long all that may be, you’ll go somewhere new. And you’ll meet people who make you feel worthwhile again. And little pieces of your soul will finally come back. And all that fuzzy stuff, those years of your life that you wasted, that will eventually begin to fade.” – Iris, “The Holiday”

When I heard this monologue, I realized that it had a hopeful thought: “pieces of your soul come back.” That’s not something that churches taught. We were taught that in Christ, we had forgiveness, but we could never have wholeness. Only recently have I learned that the origin of the “pieces of heart” teaching is from Bill Gothard’s ministry. If this teaching is evidence of whether or not the tree is good – then it is proof positive that the tree is a very bad one. There’s no shortage of stories on the internet about members of my generation who believed that they were worthless, who lived in fear, who filled themselves up with pride for being fully obedient while others gave into the temptation to sin. To this day, many struggle with love because everything they were taught about it was wrong.

Ultimately, this teaching damages one’s own self-esteem. It tells you that your ability to love is limited; you only have so much to give and then there’ll be no love left to live on. It tells you that worth or value is dependent on your behavior; that if you act the wrong way that God will love you less than if you acted the right way. Anybody could see that as a horrible misinterpretation of Scripture in any other context:

“Your ability to tell the truth is limited. You only have so much truth to give, then you only have lies left to live on. Your worth is dependent on you telling the truth. The more lies you tell, the less God loves you.”

Anyone would say: “No, God loves everyone regardless of their sin.” “Your worth isn’t dependent on how you behave, to God you’re worth dying for just because he loves you.” “Love never fails.” But when it comes in the context of dating and relationships, this bad teaching goes unchallenged and unchecked.

And now that an entire generation has grown up under it’s flawed guidance, we can see the result – extremely high rates of singleness, most young people putting off marriage, some even deciding against getting married at all, and even the mostly “godly” marriages fraught with as many problems as regular marriages. Sadly, there are many out there who still teach these things, perpetuating the destruction of self-esteem and pouring onto those open wounds with guilt and shame.

This bad tree has planted the seeds of a horrible forest, please stop trying to be guides through it – rather, let it go and find another way – a better way – a less destructive way. Help us to put our souls back together and to not to live in fear of losing them in the first place.

The Hit

I’ve been going through the top 40 hit lists from Kasey Kasem’s American Top 40 – each month there are either four or five lists of forty songs – multiply that by fifteen and you’ll find that there’s well over two thousand hits listed – thankfully quite a few are repetitive. One hit stood out for being from an unexpected genre: MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine“. This Christian song managed to be on the top forty list right up there with all those secular pop, rock, grunge, rap, and alternative rock hits of the day.

With all the vitriol and hatred against contemporary Christian music, many elder might not know that the odd song escapes from the Christian bubble and has an impact on others in a way that hymns just don’t. Sure, we all hear the odd hymn song – maybe on an episode of a t.v. show as a character is in a church or going through some emotional cross-roads. But they have a limited sphere of influence. For some, hymns are like classical music – a relic of a time gone by that other people like … but it’s not their cup of tea.

I’ve heard stories about how elderly people in nursing homes hold onto the songs of their youth, the tunes that they danced to, the hymns the worshiped God with, the melodies and jingle of commercials – if that’s so, then a song like “I Can Only Imagine” will be a good one to play when it’s this generation’s turn to be in nursing homes. Sure, some of us will respond to hymns – but not all.

But because contemporary Christian music can do what hymns cannot – reaching the airwaves of even the most secular stations, one would think that anyone who cares about introducing God to others would welcome the sort of music that does just that inside and outside of churches. And perhaps, we might find room for those secular songs that speak to something of God. A lot of David’s hymns were songs of angst and frustration: “Why me / How long / Don’t forget me” that sort of thing. Perhaps that’s a missing element, we have music that represents only the rainbows and sunshine side of life and the few songs that don’t (like “It is Well“) are only pulled out in immense tragedy. We don’t have a lot of music for being in-between or for the journey from the spiritual high to the spiritual low and finding our way back when we’re lost.

The more I try to create my playlist, the more I see that music is like a personal language, and the less we can write for others what their music is supposed to be or ought to be like. Looking at the variety of music from ages past to now – Gregorian chant, choir pieces, traditional hymns, bluegrass, gospel – the less it feels like God only wants one kind of music, one type of song, one particular hymn above all the rest. He has inspired music in all it’s form to praise him in his limitless capacity; perhaps we should see that music has limitless capacity to praise an infinite God.