Let’s say you had a friend who has been struggling with their faith for the longest time. Let’s say that they grew up in a church and have some Christian background – but are questioning if it was the right one. How would you reintroduce them to the truth of the gospel message? Where would you start?
It’s been awhile since I could remember dreaming – perhaps that’s why I felt this one was disturbing because I wasn’t sure whether or not it was a dream. I think I was going about my every-day sort of tasks – I don’t really remember them very well, which is why I think it really was a dream. But at some point I thought to myself. “I no longer believe in God.” And I caught that thought and was really overwhelmed by it. I felt guilty and wanted to take it back – but a lot like popping a balloon – I was afraid that there wasn’t an undo option. That heaven would be off-limits to me.
This last year has been a big change for me. Compared to the previous ten years – it’s the most successful one I had. But with my schedule being pretty much just working, I’ve found it nearly impossible to to fit church in. Some weeks ago I was invited to attend a church – and the first three weeks after that it was nothing but working on Sunday mornings. This was the first chance i had had to not work on Sunday Morning, but the whole church thing has just fallen out of the routine. I had meant to listen to churches on the radio – but totally lost track of the time and missed them all.
But there’s also the issue of the churches themselves. The ones that there are to belong to are the ones we’re pretty sure we can’t belong to. We don’t see things eye to eye – they’re Calvinist, we’re Arminians (sort-of), They’re complementarians, we’re egalitarians, they’re into hymns, we’re into contemporary music. We’ve tried attending Calvinist churches, complimentarian churches, and hymn singing-churches and they never seem to work out for us.
So without a formal connection to God through the church, my spiritual disciplines have been on the decline. It feels like the’re a lot of pressure that’s just gone. And that’s really great. No more having to tear through Bible Studies that really aren’t about the Bible. No more having to try to remember the difference between the Sacrifice on the Mount and the Sermon on the Mount. And no more food allergy issues with pot-lucks.
I’d still like to believe that what I was taught as a little girl still applies: “once saved, always saved (no matter what).” I’d also like to believe that everybody has been elected to be saved. I hate to see how some Christians spit the words “sinner” out of their mouths as if they’re gleefully anticipating the horrors of Hell for the unsaved and lost souls out there. Jesus never seemed to be like that.
In speaking of the big guy, I find myself more and more wandering around and hoping I’m following in his footsteps than I am walking in the shadow of the established faith. I don’t know if the Bible ever really said that Jesus read the Holy Scriptures into all hours of the night – though it did say that he went to synagogue and prayed a lot. He seemed to advocate for a simple kind of everyday faith – not flashy or showy, not isolated into a sub-culture with it’s own language or media. Maybe I don’t believe the God of the Church that has been transmogrified by Christian culture, but I do believe in Jesus’ God and that’s all that I truly need.
One Narnia book I like above all others is The Silver Chair. In it, Aslan offers a warning: “Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind.” Sometimes I think it applies as much to the Church as it does the World.
I remember when I learned about that cult that beat one of it’s members to death. It was sad and tragic and just plain wrong – but it also just some church over in another state and really had nothing to do with me. So I didn’t devote much thought to it and filed it away. Just the other day, I learned that another cult has been exposed for enslaving foreigners for at least two decades. Perhaps it sticks a little bit more with me because I picked up a little Portuguese just for the fun of it. (É uma linguagem divertida!) But both cults have this in common – the air is thick with confusion. It strikes me that any average church is not immune.
What do I mean? Well, it’s the tendency to shut down diversity of thought and opinion. When everyone is on the same page – there’s no checks and balances. These cults show us that just because everybody believes something to be true – it doesn’t make it right. The only reason why churches get a pass on it is that they’re not known for believing the wrong things. It’s funny – parents are known to criticize their kids for falling for popular trends: “If everyone else jumped off of a bridge, would you?” only to do just that come every Sunday.
We think: “that could never happen to us.” Not realizing that we’re just lucky we haven’t fallen for the sort of leaders who could do that to us. We were warned that the air gets thick with confusion. Teachings about that might not be from the true source – causing us to cling to whatever is popularly accepted – after all, everyone can’t all be wrong, can they? We don’t even realize that we’re beginning to conform when we put aside our favorite Bible translation in favor of the one the pastor uses or the bible study teacher reads out of.
But one cult that we all fall victim to is that of personality. You know that one teacher who you really admire? You have all his books and a number of his sermons recorded to listen to at your leisure? Do you remember the excitement when you heard that he would soon be in your area as you made plans to see him in person? All it takes is teacher that’s that charismatic, who seems to speak to God or have God speak through him or her, in order to separate you from the fallen world and lure you into the chosen few destined for true salvation if only you follow their precepts. Or perhaps, you’re at a regular church and the new pastor has decided to make a lot of wholesale changes. The old teachers are gone, replaced with his chosen servants who teach only his preapproved material. Slowly the liberals and moderates seem to vanish from the congregation. They weren’t true believers – or as true of believers as the rest of the faithful who remain. You might not end up doing bizarre practices like screaming at the top of your lungs or purifying sinners by beating them up – but you might end up losing a lot of spiritual autonomy and not even realize it until it’s too late and somebody happens to report you for having an unchristian book in your library.
I’m reminded of what Martin Niemöller wrote back in his day:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Having watched the Conservative Resurgence / (Takeover) – I’ve seen how many liberals and moderates were either sent packing or shown the door, many got the hint and just left. Those who remain have nobody left to go after but their fellow conservatives for not being conservative enough or as conservative as they are. The focus on evangelizing others is like a laser – aiming only for those who conform to the conservative worldview.
Jesus – didn’t come just for the conservatives. He came for everyone. He would want a diverse church … sort of like my old one. There was a time when it didn’t matter whether someone was Arminian or Calvinist, how many points they believed in, or if they didn’t really believe it at all – so long as they believed in Jesus, their foremost identity was as brothers and sisters in Christ. They were a good family to be around, sure, they’d get in some pretty crazy debates at the dinner table, but that was half the fun. The air was filled with different teachings, but it wasn’t thick with confusion – you could believe whatever and nobody thought you the lesser for it. But that’s not our church anymore.
More and more it feels like Christianity had begun the process of becoming more cult-like, isolating itself around charismatic leaders that answer to no one, celebrating conformity and erasing diversity, authoritarian leadership structures are common to both, isolation from the world, friends, and family members can result as easily in churches as it happens in cults. There seems to be a fine line that separates the two and fine lines are often the easiest of all to cross. Maybe that’s why I have such a hard time finding a church – I want one that’s okay with me unleashing my inner devil’s advocate and fostering diverse perspectives … and I really don’t think I’ll find one.
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.
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.
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.
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.)