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.

Being Watched at the Altar

“The success of any venture will be helped by prayer, even in the wrong denomination.” Boyle’s Laws, #14

One thing that every single church I’ve ever been to has had in common is the location of the altar – front and center. Worse than that – the whole design of the sanctuary creates lines that leads your eyes directly to the altar. This gives us two possibilities – anyone who wishes to go before the altar will have to do so in front of everyone watching them or they will not go at all. Neither option is a good one.

For one, Jesus repeatedly taught his followers that ideally, their spirituality wouldn’t be on display; in Matthew 6:1-18, he instructed them not to let their left hand know what their right hand was doing by giving in secret; he instructed them to go into an inner room, close the door and pray in secret; and not to make it obvious they were fasting – but to fast in secret.

The altar stands opposed to private prayer and the offering is not the ideal situation for giving in secret. I remember times when people who went to the altar threw wrenches into the worship machine; once a woman was praying at the altar when a man got up, stopped the music, and made a tearful confession – leaving her at the front and center without any idea of what’s appropriate for her to do in this situation; other times when somebody was at the altar, the music would have to stretch for another song or verse until the person was done praying, eating up the time for other parts of the service; and one of the worst altar moments was when the guest pastor ordered that everyone come to the front of the church and kneel for the duration of the prayer which he didn’t begin until everyone was kneeling … then others felt compelled to pray audibly so everyone remained kneeling for their prayers one after the next after the next. Once it was over, it took awhile to help everyone back up to their feet which had fallen asleep and weren’t helped by their sore knees. The whole debacle generated more complaints than anything before it and not once was it repeated in the rest of the time I was there.

Which just leaves altars to stand there, devoid of use and purpose for the vast majority of the time. Most of the ones I’ve seen have the words ‘do this in remembrance of me’ carved on them, they’re covered with colorful cloths that hold up the Communion glasses and wafers and candles and the offering plates. Some pictures I’ve seen show ones that also have flowers and other decorations that are probably supremely important though I know not why. But in general, no regular person prays at the altar on any given Sunday. It is a sacred object that is too far out of reach for ordinary people such as us – like the cross that is usually somewhere near it – one of those ‘look but don’t touch’ or ‘come but not too close’ sort of things. I would guess that other churches might view it a little differently, but I’ve only seen and heard how the Southern Baptists view their altar – with a healthy respect for tradition but a fear of tradition becoming an idol – and the altar symbolizes both quite perfectly. It’s not easy to balance including it with keeping it from taking over. But now I attend a Methodist church and it’s not that much different no one usually prays at the altar.

But altars are important, aren’t they? Wouldn’t they have to be in order to be a common element to so many religions and expressions of belief the world over? Altars were a part of the Temple – specifically ordered by God and approved by Him for worship to Him; so it has to be a good thing in the New Testament churches. Paul was able to witness to the Areopagus in Athens by explaining to them who and what the Unknown God was that they had an altar for. Even in Revelation there are about a half dozen references to an altar. Since we know that earthly things were a copy and a shadow of heavenly ones (Hebrews 8:5) then we know that altars are not without importance or meaning and use even if we can’t bring ourselves before them because they’re badly positioned in the building. One of my churches actually got around this problem by creating a prayer closet – an inner room that the doors could be shut with a cushion for kneeling on and a small altar to center one’s prayer. In my friend’s church, there were areas that were out of sight where people could go to and pray – these stations each were decorated differently with scenes from Jesus’ final days. Off of the main sanctuary there was a place to light candles and pray out of sight from the people sitting in the pews. It’s no wonder why these people had a greater spirituality – they had an outlet for prayer in the sacred spaces of their church that allowed for God to reward them in secret when they prayed in secret.

Which probably explains something of the popularity of War Room – take away from it’s war-based terminology and you have the story of an old woman advising a younger woman to carve out a sacred space to serve as her alter in her closet – it might not look like a table with candles but it serves the same purpose – somewhere to pray to God in secret. It works because it’s one of the oldest methods of worship in all religions – an altar to serve as a spiritual outlet to focus one’s prayers. I think churches would find themselves much better served to create an altar room, to which people can retreat to by themselves for times of prayer and uncertainty – somewhere only God will be watching and waiting to reward them. I think it would go a long way toward fixing what’s been broken about our spirituality for a long time.

Make the Effort to Listen

There’s an elderly woman (mid to upper 70s, I think) that usually sits on the far side of the same pew that I do. One Sunday, she just wanted to talk. I wondered if loneliness played a role in that – she’s always been by herself. I listened to what she had to say. It wasn’t long before the Sanctuary began to fill with other families who were all having other conversations – soon this woman’s voice was indistinguishable from the rest. No matter how much I tried, she was just speaking too quietly for me to understand the last words she was saying.

Sometimes I think Christianity loses so many voices because there’s an emphasis on not listening to people. We’re supposed to listen to music and the sermon but we get only a few minutes to carry on a conversation during the meet-and-greet which is constantly interrupted and then there’s prayer requests, but you can really talk to people before the service or after and there’s so many overlapping conversations that one quiet voice doesn’t stand a chance. Many people who have left the church often felt that they weren’t being listened to. Their concerns weren’t being heard. Their doubts weren’t being taken seriously.

I remember quite a few times where I knew that I wasn’t being listened to. The first time was when I was doing a study on Proverbs. I was the youngest in attendance, I had only just graduated high school. The oldest in attendance was a man in his upper eighties. Whenever there was a discussion time, he was allowed to monopolize the conversation – in his slow, mumbled, and occasionally incomprehensible manner he would deliver his time-worn wisdom with anecdotes that seemed to go on and on. By the time everyone else was allowed to make their comment, there was hardly any time left for me; and on occasion I wasn’t allowed to complete a thought because everybody had somewhere else to be and something else to do. I got tired of it and quit the study part way through. I guess it was silly of me to think that I could have wisdom at that young of an age – but I remember Paul telling Timothy not to let anyone look down on him because he was young. I don’t think Paul meant to create a church that revered the elderly so much so that it frightened off the youth, but that’s what seems to have happened.

Later, at another church I was volunteered to lead the youth group and presented a book to study. The next week I gave her my honest assessment – this bible study is nothing but the autobiography of it’s author describing God with really weak ocean metaphors like “God is like a starfish, as long as it stays in the water it has an amazing ability to heal. As long as we stay in God we will be able to heal.” But I had just read that the starfish population has been weakened severely because a devastating disease has shut off their healing ability in the news and I knew that diseased starfish aren’t a great metaphor for God particularly when we live in land-locked state. It’s also not a good idea to be handing out starfish, shells, charms, as tokens of participation because it’s more like buying the participants off than actually teaching them things like salvation, sanctification, or justification. I asked to see the other book so that I might read it and compare the two. She said “No, it’s just too deep for them.” She wouldn’t listen to my concerns that teaching teenagers shallow theology wouldn’t inspire them to learn more.

She was a lot like Hyacinth Bucket of Keeping of Appearances, no matter what you tell her – she wouldn’t listen. If she had a vision, she knew exactly how she wanted you to make it happen. There was no telling her “no” and there was no way to make a suggestion that she didn’t already think of – in her world, if she didn’t think of it, then it wasn’t a good idea. I’m afraid that there a lot of people with a similar outlook – people who have a vacant spot in an existing ministry that’s perfect for you if you do the tasks you’re given exactly like they tell you to. But it’s hard to feel like there’s room to be listened to when the age-based ministries at your church look like this: “newborns to pre-kindergarten” “kindergarten to third grade” “fourth through sixth grades” seventh and eighth grades” “ninth through twelfth grades” “college and career (up to 25)” “adult (35-49)” “elders (50+)” When you’re in that missing 26-34 year old age range, it’s hard to imagine that anyone’s listening to you – you don’t have a representative to voice your concerns. You don’t have enough of you to form a class and the ones that are there are from all walks of life, some married, some not, some parents, and some not – it’s incredibly difficult to present materials that are useful to everyone without excluding someone.

That elderly woman probably felt the same way. I hope that being listened to brightened that day up for her; I hope that Christianity begins to find and value lost voices and perspectives such as hers. I hope we find a way to make people feel that they matter – because we certainly won’t go on if we keep on doing and keep on losing generations of people because we don’t listen to them.

Wearing Christianity

Growing up, I always thought it a bid odd to wear the Christian t-shirts with the various slogans on them: Got Jesus? in the ‘Got Milk?’ style, Jesus – King of Kings in the same color and font as a Reese’s Peanut Butter Chocolate Cup, and May the Lord Be With You in the same font as Star War’s ‘May the force be with you.’ It seems that for every product imaginable, every brand name, there’s a way to parody them to reflect a not so subtle Christian message. Should we? I don’t think so. For one, think about brand loyalty. I eat a lot of Reese’s (they’re gluten-free!) but I never think about the Jesus – King of Kings – Sweet Savior t-shirt. What if there’s a brand that suffers from dishonest tactics – would a Christian shirt based off of their logo be seen as a support of their dishonesty? Would it also not taint something of Christianity’s reputation?

What Would Jesus Do? (WWJD?), Fully Rely On God! (FROG!), and Pray Until Something Happens (PUSH) Bracelets were huge in the 1990s. For as little as $1.50 you can wear a visible reminder of your faith and hopefully a conversation starter about it. I happened to have the Rainbow WWJD bracelet. It’s still somewhere in my possessions. I chose it because it made sense to me: I cannot afford to buy one in each color to have them match whatever I’m wearing, but if I wear the rainbow one, then whatever color I’m wearing will match at least one of the colors and be complementary to one of the other colors. Turns out, most people with the rainbow WWJD bracelet ended up getting in conversations – not necessarily about Jesus or what he would do.

According to the research I have done, there was a day and age where you could tell what a person’s belief system was by the hat they wore. Centuries ago, particular religious groups had pretty strict rules about what styles were modest and which ones were not. Over time, the distinctions between one set of beliefs and another faded away. Some groups were lost to time, others joined another group and took up their wardrobe practices. Religion became about what was in your heart, not what you wore. What is worn can be taken off, but what you are cannot be altered.

Perhaps that’s why almost no Christian I know actually wears the slogan t-shirts. Like me, they might have them, but they don’t find that wearing them in public does them any good. (Mine are Christians Obediently Praying Serving, and a Star Wars parody featuring the opening scroll text: Once in a galaxy far, far away … they were ordered in a fund raiser to support the church.) Perhaps there’s a measure of embarrassment to them … Did I actually buy this? Did I think it was cool? Perhaps our tastes have changed over time.

Ultimately, I think a lot of Christians would choose to act out the Christian message rather than worry about articles of clothing sending a commercialized message. Some of the shirts are awkward given that they are a Christian billboard and so many times ladies in particular are told to avert attention from themselves lest they cause a brother to stumble. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that a whole generation that grew up with WWJD bracelets are the ones most likely to flee the commercialized mega-church.

But I don’t think that having a tradition of wearing ‘Sunday Best’ is that much better. It’s all to easy to dress the part of a Christian. I remember one story about a young man who loved wearing suits to church – he looked forward to it more than anything. As he got older, he realized that he had been lying to God, showing up in his best, but hiding the worst below the surface. He was reading about the Pharisees when he came across the description of the white-washed tombs … pure and beautiful on the outside but dead and dirty inside. When he came to Jesus again, not in his ‘Sunday Best’ but as himself he felt like had been genuinely given a second chance. As for me, buying a whole new wardrobe for the purpose of going to church seems like a poor use of my resources. I do have some dress up clothes, but I never feel like me when I wear them. I can’t come as I am to worship when my wardrobe makes me feel like somebody else. So I was the odd one out that wore a t-shirt and jeans and Easter Sunday.

Christianity suffers from time to time from extreme legalism – some denominations take it to a whole new level while others manage to avoid it. Modesty teachings are one such example. Many young women are given extra rules to follow in deciding what to wear. The message is pretty simple: women are to be modest, cover up, and hide themselves – men not so much. One young woman said that she was told that she had to wear a t-shirt over her bathing suit at a church swimming outing, but that they boys didn’t have to. The church was far more worried about how the girls outfits would make the boys feel than how the boys lack of outfits would make the girls feel.

Truth is, one cannot measure holiness by the length of one’s trousers, capris, or shorts. Salvation is not decided by the degree of how much skin is covered up. Most young ladies are at the mercy of the fashion industry – if they decide that the color this week is fluorescent orange and green and pastel blue the next, that’s what they mass produce. Most of them aren’t familiar with these modesty rules and the ones that are choose to ignore them (you can when you aren’t Christians). So it’s not uncommon to see summer fashions getting shorter, tighter, and smaller a swell as more eye-catching; ‘look at me pull off this look’ and it’s almost impossible to find a modest wardrobe under these conditions. The debate is even worse online: “I won’t wear x because y” “Shouldn’t guys be taught to restrain themselves?” “I don’t see the harm in it.” “It makes me feel …” It’s a ruthless battle that rages on endlessly on countless blogs.

Then I remember something I learned from River on Firefly; “People don’t like to be meddled with. We tell them what to do, what to think, don’t run, don’t walk. We’re in their homes and in their heads and we haven’t the right. We’re meddlesome.” Christianity is meddlesome in just the same way. We tend to get caught up on the rules and forget to be truly Christians in our hearts. This is what I do know: the pharisees wore the right clothes but it wasn’t enough to keep their hearts right. Perhaps it’s not about what we wear but who we are.