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.

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.

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.

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.

Forsaking All

Growing up, I learned the ABCs (Admit, Believe, Confess) of FAITH (Forsaking All, I Trust Him). So long as I admit that Jesus is my savior, believe that Jesus is my savior, confess that Jesus is my savior and forsake all others as I trust Him alone, then my salvation is assured. It’s a pretty individualistic message; usually individualistic given that it’s not uncommon for stories in the Bible to report the conversion of one person to Christianity usually meant the rest of his or her household also converted into Christianity. Faith was a collective experience. Not only you and your family shared the same faith, but with any luck, so did everyone else around you; same faith and same values.

We’re an individualistic society – that’s how we read and apply the Bible. God’s promise to captive Israelites being marched to Babylon is interpreted as God’s promise to each and every one of us to give us a good life, to protect us, to provide for us no matter what happens – he has our backs. So we would view the promise of salvation as saving ourselves – whereas the ancient believers would have turned down any concept of salvation where their entire family couldn’t be saved as well.

This tendency creates a sort of righteous isolation – I’m being saved, I have the truth, I will go to heaven; who cares about the unsaved, who don’t have the truth and who won’t go to heaven? Something of this thinking gives people permission to cut out from their lives anyone that could jeopardize their salvation – an inconvenient relative or friend who just doesn’t share their values or makes them question their own faith or doesn’t get how important faith is. Such thinking would never have been possible in the ancient world – where families were strongly connected, where communities were closely bound, where friends were as family, where clients where as family, where relationships were at the core of everything.

Walking away from those relationships was to lose one’s identity, one’s security, one’s future, one’s past, one’s hope – yet Jesus promised new relationships to replace the ones that had been lost for those who would believe in him; for giving up a flesh-and-blood family, they would be part of a greater spiritual family with one father – God himself. Our culture doesn’t give us many parallels – perhaps during the Civil War when brother fought brother, or during the Civil Rights era when one marched on one side and the other fought to hold down traditions. Perhaps it’s the cutting off of a LGBTQ teenager to show him or her tough love to snap them back to their senses and return home as the prodigal children that they are. For some reason, many Christians feel justified in sacrificing some relationships for the church. Forsaking all others indeed.

I wish that shared faith wasn’t a non-negotiable prerequisite to be associated with them for these people – because it’s so strange to stand across the table from somebody I used to know from church and from somebody who used to know me from church knowing that I haven’t changed and they haven’t changed, but the relationship we had isn’t the same. Trying to talk politely around the church issue without broaching the subject. Perhaps this spiritual family is too much like a flesh-and-blood family and when relatives are on opposite sides – you know the saying, a house divided falls.

Is it Loving?

Continuing from my earlier thoughts, it strikes me as vitally important to get some idea of what “loving” is. I remember being told some variation of this concept awhile ago:

When people had wood-burning stoves, parents would tell their young children, “Don’t touch the stove, you’ll get burned.” The parent knew the danger the stove represented and wanted to spare the beloved child from the pain of being burned.  The child, having no concept of “burned”, thinks that everything the parent says “no” to must be fun – so he or she reaches up and touches the stove – instantly, he or she fully comprehends what a burn feels like having painfully received one.  Not only that, he or she realizes that the commandment to not do something was based in love and a desire for his or her well-being.  It would not be loving for that parent to not warn their child of the danger of the fact that they would get burned or shocked from sticking things into an outlet. That’s why Christians are commanded to warn sinners of the dangers that Hell represents, it would not be loving to let them remain in sin and get burned.

One thing I had always hated about that logic is that in that parallel, Christians see themselves as the loving parent and all sinners of all ages as the toddler or disobedient young child. It doesn’t matter that the “sinner” in question is actually older than the Christian; it doesn’t matter that they’re total strangers. It’s the same thinking that allows a Christian to go to that “sinner”, push him or her over, and shout something like: “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, I cast you out demon! Leave! Begone!” This is, the Christian thinks, an expression of God’s love. This is, the “sinner” thinks, a crazy person who for no apparent reason has knocked him or her over and began shouting something bizarre (that’s not an exaggeration, by the way – but something that has actually happened in the name of Christian love). The Christian gives him or herself the power to decide that as the mature one, as the one who defines what is loving, then he or she must act, or else do the “unloving” thing by not warning the “sinner” of his or her fate. This, of course, a judgement call, as they don’t know that this “sinner” came to faith as a child and is just as much a Christian as they are in God’s eyes. The Christian can only see an instance of sin being committed and decides that anyone who sins must be a sinner as Christians don’t sin and it’s impossible for sinners to be Christians.

Christians do have 1 Corinthians 13 as a guideline – a basic Christian definition of love. But not everyone lives by the book and wouldn’t consider being bossed about or pushed over by total strangers as loving by any definition they know. Perhaps one of the best secular concepts of love is to “do no harm.” The same flaw extend even here, though – so it would seem the problem isn’t in the message, but in the transmission. It gets caught up, jumbled, and received in a way different than what was intended. The Christian after all, has been taught that being warned of the consequences of sin – and going to just about any lengths to do so is loving, and that’s why some of them do just that. It’s not the same message that other Christians get though, and those who aren’t Christians don’t see it that way either. In this, humility seems to be a vital ingredient, one that takes the Christian out of the position of power. He or she will need to consider that others might not have the same definition of “loving” – after all, it’s probably the most difficult concept to define in a way that everyone agrees with exactly. It’s difficult to define what loving is, but being unloving is something that’s easier to define – it’s what loving is not. It’s being judgmental, it’s pushing people over, it’s shouting bizarre statements, it’s all these things and more that make that other person feel as if they’re despised or shameful.

Three Years

Happy Anniversary with WordPress.com!
You registered on WordPress.com 3 years ago.
Thanks for flying with us. Keep up the good blogging.
Wow, I hadn’t realized how much time flies. I’m glad to have brought back this blog, though I wish I hadn’t had so many problems with writer’s block lately. It feels like I’ve lost my sense of direction and I’m stumbling around in the woods – and that tree over to the left looks exactly like the one I wandered across two hours ago. (Did I take a right or a left after that?)
Worry not, I’m a persistent person – after all, the last time I had struggled with a lengthy round of writer’s block, I came back with a good two years’ worth of posts – and I’m still attempting to keep on thinking up ideas even if most of them never really get past the vague notion stage of blogging.
For me, it starts with a vague notion. Then I mull it over. Usually things just fall into place and then I hit publish. At the moment I’m mulling over some thoughts on  … well, I’ll not spoil the surprise but it’ll be a good one if starts falling into place. Creativity is a funny thing though – one thing that sets humanity apart – and yet it comes and goes, like water in a well – it can be abundant and then run dry only to flood later on.