. . . But we were too busy being Christians

I sat down to watch the (now classic) movie Back to the Future with my mate David. Despite there being 9 years difference in our ages, we both loved the same music and enjoyed the same TV shows (even though he did have an unshared weird fascination with the animated Dragon Ball series). We had dropped by the local Blockbuster and picked up the aforementioned movie on VHS tape and, for 116 minutes precisely, lived life through the eyes of one Marty McFly.

Dave’s mum was in and out of the family room, and at one point sat down at the desk behind us and, like us, got caught up in McFly’s adventures (or maybe she was just keeping tabs on how I was corrupting her son?). I remember turning to her at one point in the movie where Marty’s future mum and dad were slow dancing at the ‘Under the Sea Ball’ and I made an off-handed remark that she must have enjoyed her Senior Prom (seeing as she was, like the McFly elders, coming of age in the rock-n-roll era.)

Her response floored me with its almost-venomous indignation: “We didn’t do things like THAT. We were Christians!”

I tell that story to tell this one:

I enjoyed a long lunch recently with some friends and, as we sat around the table, talk shifted to our shared past in the Church. None of us at that table attend church with anywhere near the regularity we once did, having found so many new and more practical expressions of our faith. Musing on how many good deeds we could have done and how much life we could have shared with others outside our own churches back then, one of the group summed it all up in a truism that echoed in my head for days to come: ‘We were too busy being Christians.’

Yes. We were.*

The world around us was crashing and people were finding themselves jobless, without a home. Interest rates were at an all-time high and unemployment was off the charts. The AIDS epidemic was at its highest. There was famine in places we never heard of. Evil was rampant. In short, the world was going to hell in a hand-basket. But we were too busy meeting in our Church buildings, praising God, praying, and eating shared ‘fellowship’ lunches; meeting to plan our praising, praying and eating times. We were spending our time handing out gospel tracts, going door-to-door in an Evangelism Explosion™, preaching on the street corners, writing letters to politicians to express our anger over any number of anti-morality laws, and pasting up posters advertising the latest evangelistic rally or youth event.

churchfamilyThe next-door neighbour lived with his girlfriend and we all knew that was against God’s law. The folks behind us played KISS (and we all knew what that meant!) The across-the-street family were Jehovah’s Witnesses. Just down the road, Mrs H was an anxious wreck and spent most of her days in the local psychiatric facility. Around the corner was another family whose son was born with a rare genetic condition and spent most of his life so far recovering from numerous surgeries and extended hospital stays. The man just behind them beat his wife and, she ended up on medication that turned her into a shadow of what she should have been.

But we had to be at church Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night and at youth group Friday night. Church visitation was on Monday night. We said we cared. We prayed for these poor folks who weren’t one of us. . . . but, as we well know, thoughts and prayers really are a poor substitute for action. (As Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove wisely notes: We are the answer to our prayers.)

How dare the people on our street hold drunken parties New Year’s Eve and interrupt our ‘Watchnight’ services! The homeless man who slept rough near the church would never have dreamed of asking us for help because, in our minds, he had no excuse for not getting a job or at least taking a shower once in a while. And any money we gave him, he would spend on drink anyway…

And so we kept ourselves busy.

Church Sunday morning. Fellowship Lunch Sunday afternoon. Church Sunday night. Visitation Monday night. Kid’s Club Tuesday afternoon. Bible Study Wednesday night. Church Board Meeting/Worship practice Thursday night. Youth Group Friday night. Saturday (no sports) usually was spent around the house or with some Church folks doing some Safe-for-Christians™ stuff.

The Church always had a roster, a programme, a working bee, a ‘ministry’ that needed volunteers, and we were urged to ‘give our time to God’ to be used for “His glory’. And we all knew the only way God would accept our time-sacrifice, like our money-sacrifice, was if we gave it to the Church.

And when we did have free time, we were encouraged to spend it reading our Bible, praying or listening to Godly Music®. And if we still had time, we could go around the neighbourhood leaving gospel tracts in people’s front doors or letterboxes or sing Christian songs at the mall. (I think the goal was to keep us so busy that we wouldn’t even have time to contemplate drinking, smoking, going to the movies, cruising around town or–God forbid!–sex. After all, we knew well the unwritten Bible verse: ‘An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.’)

Yes, we could have mowed the neighbours’ lawn. We could have made Mrs H a nice cake and gone down to her house for a cuppa. We could babysit a little boy so his parents could be with his brother in hospital. We could have just spent time listening to our friend whose life story read more like a tragic, abuse-ridden soap opera.

We could have done ever so much to show that following Jesus meant a great deal to us, so much that we would love our neighbours to the moon and back, even if they never joined our Church.

We could have.

But we were too busy being Christians.

___________________

* Like many posts I write, I have used the literary technique known as ‘Gleaning from many sources [books, talks and personally-related stories, as well as from my personal experience] and condensing it into one short post to make a point.’ While some of these things actually happened to me at some point in my life, some have been related to me by friends and acquaintances along the way. Sadly, I also inflicted many of these expectations on others, for which and to whom I offer my heartfelt and honest apology. I was too busy being a Christian.

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What if . . . ?

The haunting tones of the opening credits captivated me as a fleeting reference to a big screen masterpiece with very similar themes flashed in my head. The Man in the High Castle’s producers chose to use an eerie, breathy rendition of Edelweiss to remind us, the viewers, of another story where the Third Reich lost a war. However, not so in this series. Set in 1962, The Man in the High Castle asks the question (and poses a highly credible answer to the same): What if America and its allies lost the Second World War?

Imagine a division of theHighCastle United States into west coast Japanese Pacific States and east coast Nazi-controlled Greater Third Reich. Hitler is still in command. Americans have lost most of their freedoms. The dreaded thought of another H-bomb being dropped (in addition to the war-ending wipe out of Washington D.C.) hangs over everyone’s head. What’s more is that the first adults who have known nothing but occupation are now making their way into the world.

The metaphor isn’t lost on me; many have asked the same kind of questions in recent days.

But this has always been a very present theme in almost every story, movie, play and piece of music since very early days.

What if? sparks the imagination of a young Dorothy caught in a dull black-and-white rural Kansas farm, and she wakes up in Oz.

What if? drives a chained Nelson Mandela to dream of a better South Africa.

What if? is the motivating force of every great scientist who has ever tirelessly flogged themselves to find a way, a cure, an answer or a technological revolution.

Every dream of ours is a What if? question.

Every hope for the future is a What if? question.

Every prayer we pray is a What if? question.

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More often than not, however, is the other–negative–side of the question: “What if that event hadn’t happened?” “What if I didn’t say that?” “What if I did this instead of that?”

We long for someone to invent a magical DeLorean time machine to take us back in time so we can undo our past mistakes.

There are so many self-help books on specifically this topic that they could fill up any town library. TV Shows abound. YouTube is filled with a well-rehearsed crowd of people offering their wisdom on this topic.

But whatever well-meaning help is given, the past remains untouchable. It is gone. That moment will never come again. No hi-tech time-travelling car will appear to whisk me off to where I can reset my clock or rewrite a few days of upheaval.

I find, though, in an often-used, simple toss-away line, the most helpful words I can find to get me through any past-pity-party: “When you knew better, you did better.” We all have mistakes we would rather change to moments of glory. Given the same circumstances, with the same understanding–not having the advantage of hindsight–we would most likely do the same things, given the chance.

The same holds true for those who offended us, abused us, or shamed us. While some choose willingly to continue a life of hurting others, most folks, when they come to a higher level of thinking or a greater understanding of our inter-relatedness and the forces that work within us, tend to do better than in their previous ignorant state. There are times when I too come to a higher level of thinking, when I see from a new perspective that something I had suffered at the hands of another was done to me not out of malice, but out of whatever understanding that person possessed at the time. This doesn’t lessen the pain of what happened, but it does help with the healing.

Sometimes it takes a trained therapist or a qualified professional to help us work through past traumas. By all means, make that appointment, talk things through, seek help in dealing with your personal pain and in building your own emotional wellbeing. That call may be the most important first step you can ever take.*

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It is, I believe, a necessary exercise to ask ourselves the What if? questions. Often this refocuses our perspective and enlightens us to ways we can avoid repeating the same mistakes–or repeating, as a nation, the great mistakes of history.

In the case of The Man in the High Castle, we weave our prayers through the story line–prayers that we may never experience such diabolical authoritarianism in our lifetime, nor leave such a legacy to our children and their children.  Sometimes we need stories like this to help us strengthen our resolve to be the kind of people who have embedded in them the noble character traits of those who stand up for what is true, right and just.

Our imagination is an amazing (and undervalued) tool, but we must now, more than ever before, harness its power to tell better stories, dream bigger dreams and have the courage to let these transform us into the better people we need to be.

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* In Australia, Lifeline Crisis Support 13 11 14, or Beyond Blue http://www.beyondblue.org.au are both great places to start. There are also numerous qualified counsellors, psychologists and mental health professionals available. Check your local Yellow Pages for listings of those who are members of and recommended by registered professional associations.

 

Counting

1 … 2 … 3 …

Counting.

It could be a game of hide-and-seek. Perhaps it’s a two-year-old learning her numbers. Maybe we’re dealing cards for a quick family round of Uno.

4 … 5 … 6…

Did you learn to count with giant, colourful flash cards? Picture books? By counting the toys on Playschool? Or maybe Count von Count on Sesame Street was your go-to Educator? (1 … ha ha ha … 2 … ha ha ha …)

It seems that we all, from a very early age, began to count things. Toys, books, pencils, cards, candy, peas (maybe if we told mum how many there were, she would have pity on us and not make us eat them!)

counter

And our obsession with quantifying things continued through our teenage years: albums (or CDs), shoes, tops, days until (insert favourite band here) showed up in our city.

19 … 18 … 17 … 16 …

This talent wasn’t lost in the transfer across to our spiritual life. Many churches still seek to quantify ‘spiritual’ activities, assuming the more we do the better people of faith we will be. It could be Bible verses memorised, Rosaries repeated each day, hours spent in prayer or pages in a journal. Unspoken spiritual hierarchies formed based on the things we think we can count.

And no wonder, because it seemed as we were growing up that ‘bums on seats,’ souls ‘saved,’ or baptisms were the measure of the success of a church and religious organisations were ready to do whatever it took to get the numbers up.

146 … 147 … 148 …

It appears that we humans are addicted to measuring and to formulae that we believe will ‘guarantee success.’ We lie awake at night wondering if we have done enough, worrying that we may not reach the nebulous goal of expectations placed on us by our culture, our church, our family, our peers. Our life is overtaken by what we learn in basic mathematics: quantifying every aspect, measuring our goodness, striving to increase our net worth . . . or at least the size and value of our wardrobe.

Surrounded by such a societal norm, Jesus asked the rhetorical question: ‘Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?’ (Matthew 6:27 NIV)

Well, can we?

The obvious answer is ‘No.’ But it’s not even the thought of counting our days (or hours–or cubits as the old version reads). In the context, the Rabbi is addressing the ancient art of worrying, fretting, concerning ourselves with the stuff of life that we can’t–or shouldn’t–count.

Look at the grass.

Look at the birds.

Look at the wildflowers.

Glory surrounds you. And this glorious beauty hasn’t gotten where it is by measuring itself against another, by hoarding its possessions, or striving for a greater quantity of anything.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?’ 

We do not need to be wrapped up in measuring, accumulating, primping, counting our possessions and Instagramming our latest look. Rather, we need to rest,  enjoy what we have and be content with who we are. I have value. I am worthy. I am beloved of God.

 

 

 

 

 

Shhh…

(Warning: Trigger alert for those who have experienced abuse or emotional trauma in a church setting.)

______

Shhh. You can’t say that!

What? Why not?*

It’s not positive. It doesn’t look good. People will think . . . Well, you just can’t put that stuff out there. At least not on Facebook.

But this is how I feel right now.

Yeah, I know. But it’s still not appropriate to spread that stuff around. People will think… Well, it just doesn’t seem right for a Christian to use that language.

What language? Words like ‘sad,’ ‘angry,’ ‘frustrated,’ and ‘disappointed’ are me right now.

Yeah. But maybe you could lift the tone a little . . .

You mean pretend?

Hmmm . . . No, well not . . . not rrreally. it’s just a little “attitude shift.” Be a little more upbeat, positive, happy.

Sounds like pretending to me.

No, it’s not . . . Well, maybe just a little. But it’s for a good cause. I mean, you don’t want everyone to catch your negativity. It is contagious, you know. People need to see that you’re victorious over your negative feelings. You need to be an example, a shining light of God’s joy, love and peace in difficult circumstances.

But I’m not happy right now. I’m churning up inside. I don’t have anything I feel that I can give right now.

Looking at the big picture, that’s not really important. Give your doubts to God. What people need to see is that you’re trusting God, that you believe God is in control.

church-lonelinessBut I don’t feel like anyone’s in control right now. I’m aching inside and I’m so mad at those stupid people. I warned them! When they stood up and said ‘We must do this,’ and ‘It’s part of God’s grand plan,’ I said, ‘How can God have such a nutty plan that requires us to check our brains at the door and blindly say ‘Yes’ to what one group of men has told us we should do?’

I know it looks complicated right now, but you’ll see one day as you look back on this time of testing that it was all for the best.

Really? The best for who? People are . . . hurting. I’m hurting. I’m afraid. I don’t feel like I have it in me to go back there.** My Facebook friends may be feeling the same way I am and they might need my understanding. They need to know they’re not the only ones who feel like this. But the truth is . . . The truth is we’re all grieving what could have been. We’re grieving what we could have accomplished, given the chance. We thought we would be heard and understood. . . . but it seems like we’ve been wasting our time. And now all we have is an empty feeling. Loss. Hurt. Grief. I’d like to think honesty would go a long way right now towards our collective healing and recovery. I just need to be real right now.

But people will think . . .

Think what? That I’m like them? That I’m human and have emotions? Flaws? Fears?

People will think you’re not a good example of a Christian.

That’s so shallow! Seriously? They can <insert your choice of expletive-laden phrase here> Let them think whatever they want to.

(And, just like that I had one less Facebook friend.)

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*Based on actual conversations. **Image from the pen of the talented David Hayward a.k.a. Naked Pastor www.nakedpastor.com. If you are suffering from or have experienced spiritual abuse, there is a community that can support and encourage you in your path towards healing at www.thelastingsupper.com

The Woods, Part 1

woods1“Don’t go into the woods,” they said.

“There are things unspeakable that happen beyond the village wall.”

“I hear there are monsters,” another warned. “I’ve heard about how they’re waiting just inside the tree line to grab you and make you their dinner.”

“Oh, yes!” cried another, her eyes growing as big as saucers as she spoke (not really, but you know what I mean). “They have eyes that see in the dark and claws like razor blades. They will tear you apart slowly, drooling as they hear your screams. Then they will eat you and nothing will be left to show that you ever existed.”

The thought of this sent shivers down my spine. Not that I would be such a great feast, but I’d like to think I would at least be a tasty appetiser.

“Yes. yes! Beware of stepping off the narrow path,” whispered a tall, rather plain-looking woman whom I recognised as my schoolteacher. “Many have thought that there is nothing to lose, and these are the same who lost their lives to the terrible creatures of the woods.”

She continued: “The elders have a book in which they’ve written the names of all who have strayed from the one path to the river and have never returned . . .” (Her voice faded away as if she were channelling the spirit of one of the dear departed.)

Suddenly, as if she was snapping out of a trance, she turned and looked directly at me. “You knew Robert.” she stated, rather matter-of-factly..

Everyone knew Robert. He was the village clown-slash-idiot. Funniest guy I ever met. We used to love hanging around him. He was the life of the party because of his uncanny way of summing up every situation with the most hilarious comedic commentary. His jokes, though sometimes verging on the border of insults, had most of us in tears–and sometimes our sides ached for days.

“Yeah. Of course I knew Robert.”

“He went out into the woods one day . . . and  n e v e r   r e t u r n e d . . .”

True. We haven’t heard anything from Robert for around 5 years now. Once he went into the woods, a renewed fear became the norm in the village. There was debate over how this could have happened. Training was given in the used of swords, spears, and fighting skills. There was also a great ceremony about writing his name in The Book, and then the Town Crier went up and down the streets of the village, calling out a list of misdeeds of which the elders had declared Robert guilty: neglecting his family, turning his back on the goodness of his village, being enticed by a desire to know more than any mortal should know. The list went on, but it was all gobbledegook to me. His own family, while never ever recovering their former happiness, seemed to write him off and go on with their lives as if he had never existed.

“But what about the birds?” I asked. “They fly into the forest every day, and happily return the next day with full stomachs and cheery songs.”

“Of course they do,” an older woman called out from behind me. I turned. “They have a special spell cast over them and the monsters don’t harm them.”

“But what about the rabbits, the foxes, the deer . . .?”

“You’d better stop asking questions, sonny.” This time it was my Uncle Tony in his low, soothing–yet stamped-with years-of experience–voice. “We all want to know what happens outside our village wall, but that is a mystery that we must learn to live with. There are some things its best we don’t know. Surely the elders who have looked after us so well for the thousands of years would never want anything but the absolute best for us.”

Uncle Tony, although getting on in years, was sharp as a tack. Of anyone in the village, he was deemed to be the wisest and most revered. He had often spoken about the value of ‘staying with the family’ and being active in village life. He didn’t just talk about it, but he lived it every day. There was nobody who thought ill of this man. It was said his own son was one of those whose names were in The Book.

I nodded. More out of respect than out of a sense that I could agree with anything he was saying. After all, nobody–at least nobody in my memory–had ever really seen the elders. (There’s a story about the old baker who happened upon an elder about 70 years ago when he was delivering bread to the castle. Apparently he came back down the hill quite fearful and shaken and nothing he said after that ever seemed to make sense. Regardless, that was only hearsay, legend. Nobody made much of it.)

And so life in the village continued.

Every morning I watched the sun rise beyond the great woods and watched it cast its golden beams into the trees. I saw birds rise up out of the forest singing. I heard the sounds of animals greeting the dawn, and felt a growing sense of wanting to know what was beyond the village wall.

(To be continued)

Beware of those who Shout the Loudest

Immigration ProtestsThe televangelist who preaches the loudest about the sin of adultery is discovered checking into a seedy hotel with a prostitute.

The preacher who decries most vehemently the homosexual ‘lifestyle’ is found to be having an affair with a young man in a nearby town.

The politician who campaigns on the ticket of ‘family values’ ends up having a fling with one of his staff, leaving his own family when it’s discovered she is pregnant with his child.

The youth pastor who is known for his long sermons to his youth group on the subject of purity winds up in prison convicted of sexually abusing a girl in the same youth group.

It appears that one very common tactic to distract folks from an unpopular action is to shout very loudly against whatever one actually practices.

And its not limited to sexual hypocrisy.

The alcoholic speaks the loudest about the evils of drink.

The obese woman preaches the message of healthy eating to her family.

The environmentalist makes regular use of toxic chemicals and pesticides in his garden.

Isn’t this a little like the Tupperware lady campaigning against the use of plastic? Or the oil company promoting electric cars?

There is a common misconception that being seen to loudly oppose something will make you more able to resist the temptation. It doesn’t.

But maybe it’s not about resisting per se, but being seen to be so much in opposition that people watching would dare not think you could actually do that.

If we have learned one thing from years of watching momentous ‘falls from grace’ unfold on The Evening News it is this: vehement opposition to a particular vice, addiction, or suspect behaviour often signals participation in the very thing being condemned.

We have learned well the lesson: Beware of those who shout the loudest. It’s they who (usually) have something to hide.

Perhaps this is what St Paul meant when he wrote: “Let your moderation be known to all.” In other words, don’t go overboard. Maybe he took his cue from the teachings of his Master, who instructed his disciples not to blow a trumpet when they gave alms and not to stand on street corners praying loudly. Instead, live a humble life before God and before others. Let your actions speak louder than your words (or trumpet).

In a world of biggest, greatest, loudest, richest and most bedazzling, may we have the grace to live quietly and let our deeds speak for themselves.

 

 

Morning

elijah-hail-28932-unsplash

Morning Poem (by Mary Oliver)

Every morning
the world
is created.
Under the orange

sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches —
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands

of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries within it

the thorn
that is heavier than lead —
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging —

there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted —

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
lavishly,
every morning,

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

” . . . Whether or not you have ever dared to pray.” 

I love Mary’s poetry. She has a way of painting a picture with the reader square in the middle of the scene. Here, it is morning. We see the rising sun, the trees, the pond, the lilies. There is the happy person swimming through the lilies or the one who is burdened with life’s circumstance, trudging along carrying the heavy “thorn.”

And, even if one is focused on the drudgery of existence and cannot see it, there is that voice within–that beast–that knows that this morning brings exactly what it needs, “Whether or not.”

Even if we don’t notice it around us, even if we have never thought we were worthy, even if we have never dared to pray, the morning arrives in all its glorious splendour.

As the writer of the Book of Lamentations penned:

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; [God’s] mercies never come to an end–they are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness.”

The new day lies open before us.

Whether or not we have ever dared to pray.