Exit 156. More than I’d like to admit.

Yesterday at church, the topic of the prodigal son’s older brother came up.  For those of you who don’t know the story (Luke 15:11-32), Jesus tells a story of a wealthy man with two sons.  One of them tells his father screw you, I don’t want to wait for you to die, give me the inheritance so I can go blow it all on booze and hookers (paraphrased).  After doing so, he eventually runs out of money, finding himself poor and doing a humiliating job just to stay alive.  He decides to go back to his family, apologize, and offer to work on his father’s farm to make up for wasting his share of the family fortune.  But before he even has the chance to beg his father for a job, his father rejoices that his son has returned and prepares a feast for him.

The man’s other son does not share in the joyful mood, however.  He says, essentially, hey, wait a minute, I’ve been loyal and faithful all my life, so why don’t I get a party? Why are you celebrating this jerk who abandoned the family fortune and blew it all on hookers?  Dad replies, essentially, I still love you, but we have to celebrate because your lost brother is found.

The story is an illustration of God’s love for his people and his desire to bring us back into relationship with Him, even with all our sins and mistakes and mess.  God sent Jesus to die for the sins of all human beings, not just the Jews.  The brother in the story represents the Pharisees, the leaders of the Jews in Jesus’ time who were obsessed with their rules and their way of life.  They were unable to accept Jesus because he did not fit their narrow-minded idea of what the coming Messiah would be like.  They resented the fact that Jesus was reaching out to tax collectors, prostitutes, and those on the fringes of society, while criticizing the Pharisees’ narrow-minded views despite their outward, yet empty, displays of devotion.

I was thinking about this, and I realized that I’m more like the prodigal son’s brother than I like to admit.  I often find myself a bit resentful when people’s lives still involve all the things I was always told was wrong, yet they manage to be happy and successful and find the kind of church involvement and fellowship that I’ve been struggling to find for the last decade.  Hey, wait a minute, I’ve been loyal and faithful, so why don’t I get all that?

If I’m ever going to be happy, I need to put an end to this kind of thinking now.  I have no right to feel this way, and my attitude is exactly that of the people that Jesus criticized most harshly.  For one thing, I haven’t been loyal and faithful.  I’m not perfect.  I am a sinner saved by grace, just like everyone who has made me feel resentful, and I should be thanking God for this.  My supposed outward signs of piety aren’t what is important here.  And I can’t keep comparing my life to that of others.  I have to let go of everything I had once hoped for that isn’t going to happen now.

I know in my head exactly what is wrong with this line of thinking.  The hard part is actually changing the way my mind works…

Exit 117. But what will I fill the void with?

I’ve said before that my time off work this summer seemed way too short.  I feel like the last year has been emotionally draining, for a number of reasons, most of which are not related to work, and many of which I have not shared here.  I was hoping that having seven weeks off work would give me time to clear my head, so that life would feel normal again.  But this has not happened.

I’m starting to wonder if it might be time for a more drastic step, and the message I heard at church this morning tied in with this.  Maybe it’s time to become a bit more isolated.  I’m starting to wonder if some of the things I do and people I see might be causing more harm than good.  I feel conflicted about this for a number of reasons, though.  For one thing, most of these things aren’t harmful 100% of the time.  And, for the most part, no one is actively trying to hurt me.  This is not a situation where I’m being bullied, or threatened, or anything like that.  I’m just realizing that certain parts of my life that used to make me happy in the past aren’t making me feel that way so much anymore.

But what will I fill the void with?  Part of the reason I haven’t cut things out of my life is because I have nothing with which to replace them.  That means more time spent at home moping and being alone, and that seems just as unhealthy to me.  But maybe I should be filling that void with God, spending that extra time in prayer and Scripture and meditation, to get some real direction on life.  And this doesn’t have to be forever.  When I feel ready, I can gradually add things back into my life provisionally, so I can better discern who and what are and aren’t worth my time.

I haven’t decided for sure that I will be doing this, but it’s something I’m thinking about.  We’ll see.

Exit 96. I’m scared.

I’m scared.

I’m scared of what the world is coming to.  The Presidential election here in the USA is just eight months away, and all of the leading candidates scare me.  In one party, a crooked and dishonest career lawyer and politician is sparring with another career politician who, although he seems to be a decent man, has extremely radical views that go against much of what I believe this country stands for.  On the other side, a demagogue with a long history of baggage is telling angry people what they want to hear, even though it goes against his previous actions and positions, and his conduct is completely unbecoming of someone fit to lead a nation.  A few of the other candidates running I find somewhat tolerable, but splitting the vote among these minor candidates just seems to be helping said demagogue pull away in the race.  I fear for the future of this country if this many people really support candidates like this.

I’m scared of what passes for entertainment these days.  I’m scared at how desensitized some of us have become to depictions of adult situations and violence.  I’m scared at how shows that were considered horribly trashy just a quarter-century ago are so tame by today’s standards.  I’m scared that kids grow up thinking that the way violence and sex are portrayed on TV is normal.  I’m scared that my values seem laughably quaint to the rest of the world.

I’m scared of the way we treat each other.  I’m scared of how so few people are honest and straightforward anymore.  I’m scared of the way that so many of my friends seem to keep me out of the loop on purpose.  (To my friend who saw fit to keep me in the loop, recently, thank you.  You know who you are, and you know what this is about.  I appreciate it.)   And I’m scared that some people would throw away years of friendship and stab their loved ones in the back for totally selfish reasons.

Perhaps the scariest thing is that none of this should surprise me.  It’s all in the Bible.  Jesus said over and over again that difficult times were coming.  We will be persecuted for our beliefs.  There will be wars, and brother will rise up against brother (Matthew 24).  Paul writes that a man of lawlessness will come and make people believe the lies of Satan (2 Thessalonians 2).  (Note: I’m not saying I honestly think that Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, or Hillary Clinton is the Antichrist.  But the concept of deceitful demagoguery is in the Bible.)

I don’t know who or what I can trust anymore.  All I have left to hold on to is Jesus.  Maybe that’s where I need to be right now, so I can tear down everything holding me back and build something new.

Exit 95. God is not sitting on a cloud with a stopwatch.

Recently I was talking on Facebook with a friend whom I’ll call Enif.  I’ve only met Enif a few times in person, through swing dancing, but we know quite a few of the same people.  I had asked her about something that she had written about, something personal going on in her life that I thought may have had some similarities to some thoughts that had been on my mind.  She explained more of what had happened with her recently, including some things she had been praying about and gotten a clear message from God in response.  I explained what was on my mind, and I added that I need to spend more time praying in general.

Twenty years ago, when I was a student at UC Davis and a brand new Christian, one thing I heard frequently from those around me, leaders and friends at church and in my college group, was the importance of spending time in prayer and reading Scripture.  Many students would share testimonies of how they would spend every morning, or every evening, reading the Bible and praying, because that is how one truly knows God.  One wouldn’t have a friendship without spending time with the friend in question, so how is a relationship with Jesus Christ any different?  I tried for a while waking up extra early and finding a quiet spot at home to start every morning with God, but my concentration that early in the morning wasn’t what it could be.  I eventually started using time between classes for prayer and Scripture.  Typically, my schedules would end up so that I had an hour or two between classes mid-morning.  The UC Davis campus has a creek running through it, along the south end of the core campus area; along both sides of the creek runs the UC Davis Arboretum, featuring plants from all over the world.  During my break between classes, I would walk to the Arboretum, sit on a bench, read a few chapters of Scripture, and pray for a while.  It worked for me, but I still felt a little guilty that I only did this four or five times a week, not every day.  As an adult, my prayer times have been even fewer and farther between, as the hectic stresses of life take over.

Enif’s reply to my statement about needing to spend more time praying surprised me.  She said that I don’t necessarily need to be praying more, and that making such a statement sounds more like the kind of works-based belief system that Jesus saves us from.  I should be doing things because I want to do them for God, not because I feel pressured that I need to, and that in living a Christian life, I am praying throughout the day.

I stand by my statement that spending more time in prayer and Scripture would be good for me.  Yet I think Enif is right.

Probably the greatest misconception about Christianity, particularly because it is still held by many who consider themselves Christians, is that we are saved by good works.  This position incorrectly views God as a sort of omnipotent Santa Claus, rewarding the good little boys and girls and punishing the bad ones.  That is exactly what the Bible does not say.  Jesus Christ shed his blood on the cross to save us from our sins, and nothing we can do can earn salvation from our sins.  Our acceptance of Jesus’ salvation shows through a changed life, with Jesus Christ as Lord, and it is out of this changed life that the good works happen, not out of obligation.

I forget sometimes that some of the other Christians I knew when I was in college may not have been very mature in their faith at the time.  Many people who call themselves Christians are really just looking for rules to follow to feel self-righteous, much like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time.  Just because someone I knew in the ’90s self-righteously pointed out that they spent two hours every day reading Scripture and praying doesn’t make them a better Christian than I am.  God is not sitting on a cloud with a stopwatch, checking to see who spends the most time in prayer every day.

But, on the other hand, if my life has really been transformed by the saving power of Jesus Christ, shouldn’t I want to pray, to read his word, to listen to his guidance in my life?  I should.  And that can happen when I sit in a quiet place and open the Bible.  But it can happen in so many other ways too.  God is bigger than our human routines and rituals.  The important thing here is that I am not letting the worries of this life choke out spiritual matters.

Exit 74. What are we getting wrong?

I recently read the book Last Mass by Jamie Iredell.  For those of you who know me, it will become quickly apparent from my description here that this is not my usual kind of reading material. Last Mass is a collection of paragraph-long reflections on the history of Catholicism in California during the time of Junipero Serra and his contemporaries, mixed with the author’s own reflections on growing up Catholic in California and the experiences that led him to stop attending Mass in young adulthood. Although I stopped attending Catholic mass at age 20, for very different reasons than Jamie did, I still tend to get a little defensive when reading anything critical of Catholicism, or of European-American culture in general, although from the historical record one cannot argue the fact that that Europeans mistreated Native Americans.  It is a story that needs to be told, so that we do not repeat such abuses in the future.

So in light of that, if this isn’t my usual kind of reading material why did I read this book?  Simple: I knew Jamie as a teenager.  We went to middle and high school together.  We had several classes together over the years.  I didn’t really hang out with him outside of school, but remember, I didn’t really hang out with anyone outside of school at that age.  We lost touch after high school, as I did with almost everyone I knew, but we’ve been back in Facebook contact since 2008, so I’ve seen his posts about the books he’s writing and the pieces that have been published in literary journals.  For a brief time last year, another of his books, I Was A Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac, was being offered as a free Kindle download.  I read it, and I really enjoyed it.  That one was a collection of personal essays that felt kind of like reading a blog like this one, but more well written.  He doesn’t know that I’m writing this, but I’ll probably tag him when I share it to Facebook.

Last Mass was very thought-provoking.  Jamie has a way of connecting his stories about Father Serra with his stories about his own life in just the right way.  It’s always interesting to read his stories, especially when he writes about himself at the age when I knew him.  I never knew he did so many drugs, for example.  While I do not share his conclusions about leaving the Catholic Church (I left for different reasons and opted instead to worship in a different branch of Christianity), I can relate to a lot of the struggles he shared, particularly those about the guilt and shame experienced within the normal bounds of puberty.

Any time I read about abuses perpetuated by Christianity in the name of the Church, such as the Crusades, the mistreatment of the Native Americans that the missionaries were trying to convert, or the acceptance of slavery within historical Christianity, it makes me wonder: How could they have gotten things so wrong?  How could Father Serra and his contemporaries have misinterpreted God’s teaching to the point that natives were whipped and beaten for keeping their cultural practices, native women were routinely raped, and natives were plundered of their possessions?  Of course, those who carried out these abuses were all products of their time and culture, and they should not entirely be judged by modern standards, but still, I wonder how the culture could have strayed so far from God’s teaching in the first place, with so few men or women of God standing up for the truth.

But there is a more important question here.  What are we getting wrong today?  What is it that Christians are doing today that seems perfectly normal in our culture, but blatantly contradicts the Word of God and will make future generations of Christians wonder what we were thinking?  Is it our tolerance of divorce within the church?  Our love of building big fancy church buildings while neglecting the poor in our own communities?  Our desire to water down the truth in order to be accepted in society?  (I don’t mean to be judgmental here, especially considering I have a lot of Christian friends who are divorced, and I’m not. But this is something I wonder about.) This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon.  The Bible is full of stories of God’s people grossly misunderstanding his teaching, and it will probably continue throughout history until Jesus comes back.  The important thing to remember is that I should be making decisions as a Christian based on the Word of God, not based on what the culture says.

Exit 2. I’m an introvert with 895 friends. COMBO BREAKER!

Every few months on Facebook, I see things going around that discuss specific traits and challenges of being an introvert or an extrovert. I definitely lean more toward being an introvert. When I’m stressed and overwhelmed with life, sometimes I need time to be alone. When I first enter an unfamiliar large group setting, I tend to sit quietly by myself for a while until I get a feel for what’s going on. And weekends where I’m busy running around from one social obligation to the next really wear me out.

But I’m not 100% on the introvert side of the spectrum. A few months ago, when someone observed on Facebook that you can tell the introverts from the extroverts by looking at how many Facebook friends they had. I replied, “I’m an introvert with 895 friends. COMBO BREAKER!” My life has taken a lot of crazy detours and scenic routes to get me to this point where I have so many great friends. I am no longer the quiet kid I was in high school, reading and doing homework in a corner by myself during lunch. My primary social life spans three counties and three decades of birth. I love having a house, and plenty of movies, board games, and retro video games, to share with my friends. I love having big groups of people over to hang out at my house. I just can’t host big social events all the time. Once every month or two at the most is just fine by me.

Lately, though, I haven’t been very social at all. My weekend plans have been lighter than usual, and I haven’t invited anyone over. And I haven’t really felt like changing that. I think part of the reason just has to do with being tired, being busy with work and other commitments, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But there’s something bigger at play here. Looming in the background is the possibility of big changes in my life, changes of the sort that may disrupt the current patterns of socializing. These are changes I am hoping for and changes I need to make, but they are changes of the sort that I cannot discuss publicly yet, so I apologize for being vague. (If you know me personally, and you don’t know what I am referring to, ask me privately.) The changes in my social life will be collateral damage of sorts, and believe me, I would like to avoid or at least minimize this, but at this point it is a possibility I have to consider. And because of this, I’m finding myself more reluctant to invest in a network of friends and places that may not remain intact in the same form for long.

However, this is not the healthiest way to approach this situation. One of my favorite passages from the Bible in this situation is Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles. It includes this very famous verse: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future'” (29:11). It seems like some of my Christian friends say that that is one of their favorite verses, and the rest say that it is one of their least favorite. It seems pretty obvious why it might be someone’s favorite: prosperity, not being harmed, and hope are all good things to look forward to. Those who do not like this verse usually object to it being quoted out of context. God is not saying these words to me or to you. This was written to a specific group of people at a specific point in history. They were in exile in a foreign land, and God was telling them that after a specific time period, he would bring them back to the homeland that he had promised them centuries earlier. It is not a universal promise that everyone will find prosperity and be delivered from harm.

I believe, however, that this passage says a lot about the character of God. His specific plans for specific individuals aren’t always the same, but he still loves his people and wants to bring them back to him, somehow, at the right time, whenever that is. And the paragraph before this verse (specifically, verses 4-9), when read in context, speaks a lot to a situation like mine. God tells his people how to live while they are in exile, while they are waiting for God to deliver them. He tells them basically to keep living life as if that place of exile were their home, because for now, it is. Settle down, work for a living, raise families, and pray for the prosperity of the land where they are living, and when the time is right, I’ll deliver you.

I am trying to make changes to my life, to be delivered from a situation that is not ideal, and it is the kind of change that is not entirely in my hands. Maybe something will happen tomorrow that will set something in motion, or maybe I’ll have to wait years. Until then, I shouldn’t put my life on hold. Until then, I’m still in the exact same position in life as I was a few months ago, and I should be living the same way. I still have my house, I still have great friends, so I should still be socializing the same way I used to. And that’s how I’m going to go about things. I’m not going to put everything on hold while I wait for this to sort itself out.  I might need more time to rest, or more time to do things related to making these changes, but until I know for sure that life is entering a new season, I have to keep living in the old season.  And I intend to.  I just need my friends to be a little patient with me sometimes.