Thursday, October 2, 2014

Three's a Crowd: The Conversation I've Been Avoiding

Disclaimer:  This post comes out of my Christian worldview.

I ran into my friend Josie the other day.  Okay, not really.  Josie is just a person I invented to make a point.  But let’s say that I ran into my friend Josie the other day and we decided to do a spontaneous coffee date.  I went into it excited to see my friend, happy to get to catch up and laugh with her.  And yet, as we settle into our café chairs with our hot soul-soothing coffee, I realize it’s not just the two of us.  I turn my head and I notice another presence looming over our table.  A presence that has made itself known to us on many other occasions, one that enjoys messing with my relationships.

The Elephant

It’s always been there, lurking in the corner.  Every once in a while its head lolls out and stares at me with intense, eager eyes.  Most of the time we are able to ignore its quiet whispers and snickering, but sometimes it is disarmingly distracting.  Almost attractive.

I’ve always been fascinated with the expression “the elephant in the room.”  You can’t ignore the Elephant.  It’s too big.  But no one wants to address it, so everyone avoids it. 

In this little allegory, the elephant represents shame.  To me, shame is like a doom cloud (heavy, dark, miserable).  I can run away to somewhere more comfortable, but it’s still there, and tends to catch back up to me.  The only thing that seems to work is to shine a light on it - a really really bright light.  Like flamethrower bright.  Something that dissolves and purifies the air around me from the shame.  

This blog entry is an attempt to throw some flame onto one of the pillar “elephant in the room” issues of my life.  What causes the Elephant to rear up its head and spray its cloud of shame over me, making my conversations occasionally so unpalatable?  Often, it’s worrying about how my faith is coming across to others - especially the parts of my faith that are relational, even evangelistic.

Wait!  You might be asking … what is a blog entry on evangelism doing in a blog where the focus is teaching and parenting?  I hadn’t intended to write articles on this blog that are strictly about faith, but since it is so core to who I am and whom I want to be, and because it infuses my parenting and my teaching with a different character than they would otherwise have, I think it’s fair to post an article now and then that is more directly about it.  Fair, maybe, but scary.  I confess that I’m nervous to be candid about my faith here.  I don’t want to be divisive or to judge anyone.  I also feel a little conditioned to avoid faith discussions because of my work.  In teaching, discussing faith is like walking on eggshells.  I’m choosing to write about it, though, because I believe when gigantic “elephants in the room” get ignored rather than addressed, trust is lost. 

Depending on your experience with Christianity, you may be wondering right now, Is she just hoping to convert me?  Am I just a project to her?  I know that when you’ve been convinced so long of someone’s selfish intentions, mere words alone can’t do much to convince otherwise … but maybe a metaphor can help.  Me not caring about my family and friends having faith is a little bit like not wanting to share any of an amazing, home-cooked Thanksgiving meal.  Succulent turkey, nourishing stuffing, perfectly seasoned carrots and veggies, luscious pumpkin and berry pies.  Not caring about whether my family and friends are Christians is a little bit like me eating as much as I can of that meal all by myself and then throwing the rest away.  That said, if you don’t like the food I will not think any less of you … but it’s no secret that I hope that you do like it! 

I’ve been a sincere Christian only for about seven years.  Before that, it used to make me very angry, actually, how some people would try to “share their faith” with me. I never ascribed good intentions to them, only selfish ones.  These are some of the things that would usually go on within me when I met a Christian and we started talking about faith:
  • I would feel physically uncomfortable, like the hair was bristling up on the back of my neck.
  • I was afraid of being judged.
  • I was frustrated at what I saw as attempts to “convert” me.
  • I wanted to avoid the conversation.
  • I often wanted to avoid the person altogether.
  • I listened to them with the goal of looking for holes in their argument.  I say this now with regret.  Why couldn’t I have just listened to them and gotten to know them?
  • I was fascinated with them like driving by a car accident – I knew it wouldn’t be pretty to look at, but I really wanted to look at it.
  •  I didn’t believe in sin and felt judged when people talked to me about sin.
  •  I thought people were dumb or silly to be taking the Bible seriously, as a historical record no less, because of its age, doubt in the intentions of its authors, and lack of relevance in the world.
  • I bristled at the idea of an absolute truth and believed that there was no such thing.

Maybe to you none of this faith stuff is that big a deal.  For me it’s always been important one way or another – an important thing to avoid when I was younger, and now, an important thing to follow.  Now I believe that the Bible is reliable and relevant, and although I do find value and peace in many of the religious traditions, it’s more accurate to say that my faith is based on a relationship with God.  And like any relationship, it has its ups and its downs.

Now that you know a little bit about my faith background, I’m going to address the Elephant in the Room – what is obvious, but ignored.  I’m writing this to explain myself, not to force my views on you. You know that I’m a Christian, and you know that I want you to be one too.  That’s uncomfortable, understandably.  But I just want to get it all out in the open.
A scary admission

This is a scary admission because it’s controversial.  Well, maybe not as controversial as saying Jesus is the only way to God, but it’s up there.  The admission is that YES, God isn’t just PART of my life … he’s my WHOLE life.  So if I’ve made a few weird choices about “sharing my faith” in the past (like shouting on streetcorners – but I’ve never done that, lol) … I hope you can forgive me.  Maybe I made those choices because I thought that I had to, that I wasn’t “on fire enough for God” if I didn’t.  But out of all that, what I can say is that it’s easy to forget when making those weird choices that what God cares most about is PEOPLE ... not ACTIONS.  ALL people, not just CHRISTIANS.  But that doesn’t mean that he is happy with everyone the way that they are, or that he doesn’t care about our actions.  He wants us to grow in love and in understanding. 

Walls of shame

When I was younger, I tuned most people out who talked about Christianity because I felt that I was being shamed – being told that who I was, what I was doing, that none of it was valid.  Now I know that this feeling of shame wasn’t because of anything that God did, but it was because of what got in the way between me and God.  I just want to make some things clear … for myself and for whoever stumbles upon this article. 

What gets in the way between us and God
  • Judgment.  It’s clear in the Bible that God’s job is to judge and we are not to judge others (Romans 2:1).  Yet, we live in a culture of judgment.  Even within churches.  A friend of mine was a single mom and told me about how she sometimes walked into church and felt awful because people would look at her condescendingly.  They probably didn’t even realize it.  It’s not fair.  So when faith conversations come up, often the one less immersed in “faith culture” feels judged.  
  • Cynicism.  We see Christians that are living for themselves instead of for God, like most of the world, and if we didn’t believe this already we start to believe that people are motivated purely out of self-interest.  We doubt what is true, even after we have done our due diligence.
  • Hate.  We’ve already drawn the lines of judgment.  One is better than the other.  And people are motivated out of evil causes.  So we start to hate those who are different from us.  Those who see themselves as better.  Those whose causes we don’t understand.
  • Anger.  We become hostile to one another, first in thoughts and then our thoughts lead to unfriendly, bitter, malicious, venomous actions.
  • Resentment.  We become bitterly indignant at what is unfair.  Resentment seems to breed resentment for me.  When I am resentful, it’s hard to become the opposite of resentful.  It’s hard to change from being full of resentment, judgment, cynicism, hate, and anger to being full of cheer, good will, calm, kindness and love.

Something beautiful is born from the ashes

Maybe, nowadays I feel so often like I have to apologize for my faith because of all the things I used to think when people would try to “evangelize” me in high school and college.  I felt judged and invalidated.  I don’t want anyone to feel that because of something that I’ve said or done.  If I’m judging you, it’s inherently my problem – probably a worse problem than whatever I’m judging you for.  Like I said before, God cares about people more than actions.  He cares less about what you do, and more about who you are and who you will be.  That’s what I want to care about, too.  Do you believe that you are His beloved?  Do you call yourself Redeemed and made new by His blood?  Do you think God is just a giant vending machine in the sky (as I did when I was a kid)?  Do you think God is more of an interesting concept than an actual person?  Do you think God is some kind of life-giving, peace-giving force?  I care about those questions, and want to talk about them, but I don’t want to be weird about it.

And when you think about it, it’s weird how I apologize for my faith.  Before I was a Christian, I was very aware of pressure Christians put on non-Christians to become Christians.  Now that I am a Christian, I see that the pressure and the judgment go both ways.  Sometimes I am nervous to reveal the depth of my faith and the confidence I have in the holy book that reveals the Person it relies on.  It may be popular to be Christian in the USA today, but with that being so mainstream it seems strange to me that it’s not popular at all to believe in the Bible. 

I care about your faith, your orientation towards God.  I want you to read the Bible.  I want you to pray.  I want you to serve Jesus.  But if you don’t, I won’t love you any less.  I won’t demand that you do.  I wouldn’t force you to do so if I could.

So now that I’m claiming power to write about my faith, I want to share what to me are the most important parts about it – the story of what it moves me away from, and what it moves me towards.

These old words had new life breathed into them for me.

Whenever my Christian acquaintances would talk to me when I was younger, old words like sin, hell, and judgment seemed like ammunition for their attacks.  Now, my perspective is different, and rather than being ammo these words are tools carving out a gnarled piece of wood that is my soul into something beautiful.  They’re all a part of God’s plan of reconciliation, and I want to explain how.  So let me take these old words and share how they fit in with God’s plan to reconcile us to him – a plan he had from the very beginning.

Old word … SIN … new-to-me infused meaning … WEDGE.  When I was a kid, I bristled at any mention of “sin” because I felt people were rendering me invalid as a human being.  This was my own personal struggle that I had to, and even still have to deal with – how to respond well to criticism.  It’s an easier struggle for me now, though, because the word doesn’t serve as ammo for me … it serves as something to acknowledge the wedges between me and God so I can pull them out.  Sin is a willful thought, word or action that separates us from God.

Old word … HELL … new-to-me infused meaning … SEPARATION.  I want to get something straight here.  This isn’t from the Bible, but it’s from me …  I don’t know that fear of “going to hell” is that big of a motivator to the average non-Christian in becoming a Christian.  Maybe it is for some.  It wasn’t, anyways, for me.  I was drawn to God because of who he is and how much he loved me, and not because of a desire to avoid hell.   But if I’m really going to be true to myself and true to you I need to tell you the whole of what I believe, including the unpopular parts. 

So, hell.  When I was younger, I didn’t really believe that it existed.  Now, clearly I do, and from what I’ve learned my thought is that the most descriptive truth about hell is that it’s a place of eternal separation from God, a separation that people willfully choose during their life.  Another rough around the edges point is the “indescribable pain and torment” that I think people will experience there. I don’t know what that “pain and torment” would look like, and I barely have any picture of how it would feel (thank God!  I’d probably have a heart attack!).  But ... and this might seem random, but there’s a point! I do know what it feels like to watch the end of a Disney movie!  Everything seems to come together when the Prince and Princess get married.  All anti-feminist stereotypes aside … there’s something charming and wonderful about a good romance.  Really, that’s what the Bible is … the story of romance between us and God. 

I’m getting to the point.  How did you feel the last time you heard someone say this: “We’re all sinners, and we deserve hell”?  Pretty bad, huh?  I felt that way too.  :(  But … if I tell you about an ex that treated me poorly, then dumped me, what would you say?  Probably something along the lines of, “He doesn’t deserve you.”  You would think I was justified not trying to go back to him no matter how in love with him I thought I was, wouldn’t you?  Because he treated me poorly, and you know that he’s not just going to change his mind and suddenly want me?  He just … doesn’t want me.  That’s kind of what I mean when I say that those who end up in hell end up there because they’ve chosen against God, and they won’t change their minds after they die … just as when you break up with someone, you probably won’t change your mind.  It’s while we’re living that we make that choice.  You make the decision to marry someone when you’re dating … not when it’s over.  Maybe life is kind of like our time to “date God” and decide whether or not we want to say yes to his amazing offer.

Okay, maybe you think it’s weird to talk about breakups in the same conversation that mentions the “indescribable pain and torment” of hell, as if I’m likening the two.  In a way, I am.  Hey, cut me some slack, it’s not like I have the words to describe Heaven either ;) I will tell you, though, that I’ve had some pretty bad breakups.  If you asked me about the worst pain I’ve experienced, I’d say the bad breakups were it, even more so than natural childbirth or running a marathon.  Knowing what I know now, if God came down and told me during labor that he’d take away the physical pain of childbirth if I watched a video of my worst breakup during that time instead, I’d be like, BRING ON THE CONTRACTIONS, BABY!  Even considering the morbid curiosity I would have in looking back to see how I’ve grown (or not).  That’s one car wreck I don’t want to revisit.

The point is that emotional pain trumps physical pain in my book any day.  For that reason I don’t think it’s weird to talk about breakups in this context.  Breakups HURT.  Take the emotional pain we feel then … and multiply it by a million times a million times the largest number that any computer has ever counted to times infinity and … I really believe that’s not even a grain of sand in the earth-sized dirt pile of unsatisfaction that people will feel when they die and realize … that God is real, and that they didn’t choose him.  And the worst part is at that point I don’t think they’ll even WANT to change their mind, because that’s what all those barriers above do – judgment, hate, resentment, anger – they make us want to choose MORE judgment, hate, resentment, and anger.  We turn our backs to love.

But let’s go back to my breakup story and say that I was the most amazing woman ever, and that I, a million times infinity squared, could provide more happiness and joy to my ex than anybody else, if he had only chosen to stay with me instead of break up with me.  HAHA, bear with me!!  We all think that when someone breaks up with us, I suppose ;)  But we all know that it still wouldn’t change his mind, would it?  Because he’s chosen against me.  That’s kind of like how God is with us … he really IS a million times infinity squared the best of the best, and really can and DOES provide for us better than anyone else can.  But it doesn’t matter unless we choose to love him back.  I think that at the heart of it, that’s what it means when we say “we are all sinners, and we deserve hell” … because on our own we would all choose against God.  But he has always wanted you and never stopped pursuing you in this life.  You are precious in God’s sight no matter what you’ve done.  You are a treasure.  Hell is being away from a God like that.

But that I am a treasure (yes, I am one too) doesn’t make me deserving.

DESERVEThis old word always came charged with spite and anger for me, as if someone was yelling at me, “You deserve this awful thing you’re going through!”  And yet, the new-to-me word that I claim as a Christian doesn’t have a new meaning, but a new tone. God says it to me gently and lovingly, not spitefully.  To deserve something is to have your actions merit a certain outcome.  If our exes don’t deserve that we come back to them, why do we think that WE deserve for God to come back to us, when the worthiness gap is so much more?  When we’ve chosen against him so many times?  We … just don’t.  So what changed?  Why did I … someone who was so far from God and didn’t want anything to do with him … turn my life around to point in His direction?

GRACE.  God was kind to me, even though I didn’t deserve it.  And God’s kindness, when I started to actually understand it, didn’t lead to judging others … to feeling prideful … to acting hatefully or resentfully.  Something else leads to that.  But God’s kindness leads to repentance.  That’s another Christian-ese word … but a beautiful one when you stop and think about it.  It’s more than just saying you’re sorry.  It’s turning from what you’re sorry for and turning towards God.  Repentance is an end, but even more than that, it is a beginning. 

God showed me grace.  I was in a place of pride, and if left unchecked I believe I would have been in for a big time of disillusionment and resentment at my death.  God was kind to me even though I didn’t deserve it.  And he’s been cleaning up the mess in my heart ever since.  God showed me grace, and the absolute truth is that he wants to show you grace too. 

So, those words – sin, hell, and even judgment – all have taken on new meaning to me.  Sin – makes me aware of wedges so I can take them out, so God and I can become closer.  Hell – makes me aware of the blessing I have because my God is one that will never leave me and always pursues me – makes me want to share His goodness.  Judgment – is something that’s left to God, and how it gets twisted by Christians and non-Christians alike is again a product of sin, the revealing of which can help root it out and make me closer to God.  This is, I believe, the full circle of these heavily charged words and how they play a part in God’s ultimate plan of RECONCILIATION.

So we’re reconciled to God as Christians, and for Heaven.  We’re not pointed towards hell … towards separation from God … but towards heaven … unity with him.  I shared this blog entry with my friend Jenny before posting, and she shared some thoughts with me that I wanted to pass on because it was a lovely clarification for me:

Heaven can also be understood as the presence of God. We are not living in some other "place" for eternity, but rather Jesus comes again to us to make the earth renewed. Heaven cannot exist without God's presence; earth is not destroyed but renewed as he dwells with us in power. Interestingly, since the Spirit dwells in believers now, He uses us to help others experience God's kingdom come -- increasing bits of heaven, of things put right -- on earth. Christ followers must live with the end in mind, with heaven in mind, in a big picture justice and reconciliation way.

So this is my admission, my confession, my pride, my joy and my life. 

I won’t stop wanting you to have what I’ve found, not because I think I’m better than you, or that my ways are better than your ways, but because I know that the worst of God and his ways are a thousand million billion times better than whatever you and I could ever even imagine coming up with on our best days.  I can’t stop, because now that I’ve found Him, now that I’ve been covered in His love and grace … how could I be tempted to keep that to myself? Only if I listen to the elephant in the room.

Clearing the air

I wanted to share this with you to “clear the air” … to get it out in the open.  I wanted to have a conversation.  The problem is that the nature of writing in a blog is one-sided.  You hear my point of view, but I don’t get to hear yours.  I’d love to have an actual conversation with you about this, or hear what you have to say in a comment (scroll to the bottom of this website and you should be able to leave a comment directly on the blog entry).  If you don’t agree with me, it’s okay.  I still love, cherish and value you.  If you do agree with some of the things that I’ve said though, or are intrigued …here are some things I would encourage you to think about …
  • Where are you in your spiritual walk?  Would you say you are a Christian?  Is your faith more along the cultural side, or the personal side?  Is faith for you more of a religion, or a relationship?
  •  If you are a Christian, what gets in the way with you talking openly about faith with those that you love?   

I hope that by writing this I have encouraged you!  This definitely is a strange entry for me to be posting on a blog that I intend to be mostly about parenting and teaching, but since the topic is so integral to who I am I felt it was appropriate. I wanted to clarify what is most important. These are things that I want to teach my son.  They are also things that I want to live out in my teaching so that all students, regardless of their background and their beliefs, feel heard, validated and loved.

Thank you for stopping by.  You honor me by reading through the whole of this rambling mess!  ;)

Thank you to Nicole Grimes for the beautiful title image! :)

1 comment:

  1. Interesting to see your perspective on Christians at two different points in life. Your new meanings for words help me a lot. When I hear or see the word sin, guilt immediately crops up. Instead, thinking about it the way you have suggested, helps me work on the root of the problem.