christianity

Exit 164. Prayers.

God, our Father in Heaven,

I pray for our world.  I pray for my country.  I pray that all of us will pay attention and engage with those who are different from us for whatever reason.  I pray that we will seek to understand why they feel, believe, and vote the way they do, rather than ignore them or belittle them as wrong for whatever reason in whatever way.

I pray for all of those who feel oppressed, marginalized, ignored, and patronized.  I pray that we will understand why they feel this way, that we will understand their lives and their history and their reactions that may differ from ours.  I pray that we might see each other as fellow human beings, not antagonists.

Forgive us, Lord.  Forgive our sins as a people.  Heal our broken nation.  I pray that we may remember our Constitution and the ideals of freedom and liberty that led to the founding of this nation.  I pray that we may heal from the sins of our history and move forward.

I pray that you will be at work in the hearts and minds of those who are angry, and those who feel hate toward others who are different.  I pray that they will be softened and broken, and that they will see the people that they hate as human beings, as beloved children of God.  I pray that bridges will be built.

I pray for my good friends who live in and around Charlottesville.  I pray that you will keep them safe as protesters and the news media descend on their region.  I pray that they will be good examples to the world at large, so that the rest of the country will know that central Virginia is a beautiful place full of friendly people who are not white supremacists.

And I pray for my own heart.  God, I pray that you will expose the biases I have, and help me practice what I preach and heal the anger I sometimes feel toward certain groups.

In the name of Jesus, who died to forgive our sins, and bring us to everlasting life with him,

Amen.

Exit 161. A humbling effect.

Nicky Gumbel is a British pastor best known for being one of the people behind Alpha International, the publisher of a series of discussions and Bible studies presenting the basic points of Christianity.  In one of his course materials, Rev. Gumbel tells a story relating the concept that even after we turn to Jesus as Lord and Savior, we aren’t made perfect yet.  In his story, Rev. Gumbel is riding a bicycle, and a cab driver cuts him off.  Rather than follow Jesus’ advice to turn the other cheek, Gumbel pedals fast to catch up to the driver, intending to report his bad driving, and makes a rude comment once the driver is in earshot.  The driver calls him by name and tells him to be careful.  Gumbel looks at him after being called by name, wondering if he heard correctly, and the driver holds up an Alpha workbook.  He then proceeds to tell his passenger about the Alpha course and how inspirational and life-changing Gumbel’s work has been.

Obviously, that sort of encounter would have a humbling effect.  Gumbel said something to the effect that it served to remind him that Jesus is not finished working with him yet.  (By the way, any inaccuracies in this account are mine, but the main points are there.)

I had an experience recently that also reminded me about Jesus not being done with me yet.  I won’t tell the whole story, I’m still a bit ashamed of myself, but essentially I picked a verbal altercation with some fans of a rival sports team.  It got very heated to the point that I was making a scene in public.  I calmed down, apologized, and walked away from the fans of the rival team before the altercation turned physical.  But I felt ashamed for acting so immaturely, especially since, even though the others kept it going, I clearly started the whole thing for no reason other than that they were fans of a rival team who dared to show their team pride here in a different geographical location.

Nothing I can do about it now except learn and move on.  Maybe this whole experience reveals that I still have some unresolved anger about being bullied in the past, some of which happened at the hands of fans of this team.

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 151. Who am I? What do I want?

Who am I?

What do I want?

I’ve had a few conversations lately along these lines.  Most notably, a few weeks ago, my therapist asked me if I were to wake up tomorrow and everything would be happy, exactly the life I want, what would that look like?  It seems like a simple question… but I wasn’t satisfied with my answer.  My answer seemed clichéd and unrealistic.

The best answer I could come up with was that I would want to be married to a nice Christian woman, and we would be raising a family together, and we would be involved in a church.  And all of the frustrations I have with the way the world is wouldn’t matter, because she would share many of my frustrations, and church would be our safe place away from that.  That all sounds nice from the somewhat naïve world view I had in my early 20s as a new Christian, when things seemed more black and white, and I was surrounded socially by other Christians.  That isn’t life anymore.  Life at 40 in the suburbs is different.

And is that really what I want?  Or is that what I’ve always been told to want?  Do I want this life for the right reasons, or for shallow reasons of the flesh?  Are there any options I haven’t explored yet?  Which ones are worth my time, and which ones have I avoided just because I want to stay in my comfort zone?

If I’m going to make any progress in figuring out life, I’m going to have to figure this out first.

Exit 145. That’s ok.

I missed a post a couple weeks ago and didn’t write a second post to make up for it.  That’s ok.

I had a semi-blind date a couple weeks ago.  It didn’t go badly, but in conversations that happened afterward, it became pretty clear pretty quickly that we’re not right for each other in that sense.  That’s ok.

One day this week, we had to evacuate the school where I work, for over an hour.  It turned out to be a false alarm, but it was pretty inconvenient, and it messed up my schedule for the week.  One of the classes is now another day behind where I should be at this time of year.  That’s ok.

I had people over last night.  It had been four months since my friends had been to my house, and that was a last minute thing; it had been six months since I had planned to have people over.  I just haven’t been feeling very social the last few months.  That’s ok.

Although I have known for a long time that I am an introvert, I always enjoyed things like this where a ton of people show up at my house… once in a while, at least.  I would count how many people show up, hoping to set a new record.  But last night was a much smaller crowd.  That’s ok.

I don’t even remember what the record is now.  I remember having 30 people once, but I think that might have been surpassed once.  But I’m not sure.  That’s ok.

I stayed up really late last night, and I skipped church this morning.  That’s ok.

Around 11:00 this morning, I went back to bed, and I stayed in bed until mid-afternoon.  I didn’t go for a bike ride today, and I haven’t cleaned up anything from last night yet.  That’s ok.

It’s ok, because I have to take care of myself.  It’s ok, because I needed to be around a smaller crowd and feel closer to this group of people.  It’s ok, because my true friends will understand.

Exit 136. Run.

Something kind of unusual and interesting happened at church today.  After the message, we were told to find someone and pray with them for a few minutes, to just pray and ask for God to speak something into our hearts that he might be wanting to say to the person we were praying for.  This is a bit unusual for me.  As my regular readers and real life friends may know, I’ve been at this church for a little over a year.  Speaking prophetic words from God is not something that the other churches I’ve attended in the past have put a lot of emphasis on, and so far I’ve never been asked to do this here like I was today.  However, I don’t necessarily see a reason to believe that God can’t give prophetic words to someone in this way.

Anyway, a woman who I didn’t know was sitting near me, and she prayed with me.  Something she said, not a specific word or vision but the words she used to describe a more general blessing from God, stood out to me and made me wonder if that was the specific word that God was speaking to me.  But I’ll come back to that later.

After the service ended, someone else came up to me and told me that she felt that God had given her one word that he wanted her to say to me, and a vision of what that might look like in my life.  She asked, “Does the word ‘run’ mean anything for you right now?  Are you a runner?”

I’m not.  But I used to be.  And, as far as I know, she had no way of knowing this.

I hated running growing up.  I wasn’t good at it, and when I had to run the mile in school, I never finished it without stopping to walk at least twice.  I often had PE in the morning, and I couldn’t breathe when I had to run in the cold damp air.  Once I was done with PE, I did very little running for about a decade, and I had no plans to do any running unless I was playing a pickup game of some sport that involved running (which happened maybe once a year on average) or something was chasing me (which hasn’t really happened at all; there was the time I was traveling the country, and a bear saw me in Shenandoah National Park, but I ran for about a minute and stopped when I noticed I wasn’t being followed… but this was after I had started running for recreation again).  If I was going to get recreational exercise, it was going to be a bike ride.  I picked that up in my young adult years, during my seven years of living in the most bicycle-friendly city in California, and never really stopped.

In 2003, I was visiting my Virginia friends, and they brought me to the gym.  I was surprised at how well I was able to keep up running that I started running for recreation when I got home.  It didn’t take long for me to be able to run a mile without stopping, and I kept it up until a few years later I could run without stopping for well over an hour, on one occasion even running eight miles without stopping.

The year 2016 is ending soon, and it looks like it will be the first calendar year in which I have done no running since 2002, probably.  A little over a year ago, my foot started hurting and pretty much never stopped.  The doctor said it was probably plantar fasciitis, and he recommended some high-quality shoe inserts (which haven’t helped) and some stretches I could do (which I’ve been doing very, very irregularly and sporadically).  (And I should admit I didn’t seek professional help for this until two months ago, after it had been going on for almost a year.)  I really, really miss running.  I have friends who are hard core runners, and whenever they post a picture of themselves after having finished running, whether it be a 5K or a marathon, I always think about how much I miss running.  Granted, I never did any organized running like that, I always just ran alone through the neighborhood (and for free), but still, it reminds me that I haven’t run in a long time, and that I’m in too much pain to run.

As I said, my friend from church had no way of knowing all this.  The foot pain started right around the same time I started going to that church.  But she told me that God told her to tell me, “Run.”  She asked if I had ever been part of a running group.  I said no; running and cycling have always been primarily solitary activities for me, just me, the open road, the sky, the trees, and a kick-ass playlist (but only in one ear if I’m on my bike, because covering both ears is illegal and unsafe).  But that doesn’t mean I never will be part of a group.  I need to try new things, remember.  With this conversation about running, and something that the other woman who prayed for me said (which I started to mention earlier) making me think about my foot pain, I wondered if I was suddenly going to get up and feel no pain.  I wondered if this was going to be one of those miraculous healing stories that those in Christian circles tend to hear about every now and then.

But it wasn’t.  I’m still in pain.  But at least now I have some direction. I’m going to be praying for healing.  I’m going to be extra careful.  I’m going to go find what the doctor said about stretching.  Any of my friends who have particular personal or professional knowledge regarding plantar fasciitis, please feel free to add your suggestions; I just haven’t gotten around to asking most of you because I’m overwhelmed with so many things right now.  I’ll probably have to take it easy dancing for a while too.  Because I will heal from this.  And I will run again.  Because God has something planned for my life that involves running.

Exit 135. Careful discernment on my part.

A few days ago, I ran into a family that I’ve known for almost 11 years, but who I don’t see too often anymore.  More specifically, I’ve known the parents for almost 11 years; when I met them, a few weeks after I moved here, the wife was very pregnant with the first of the four children they have now.  The dad of this family is one of the pastors of the church I attended from 2006 through 2015, and both the dad and the mom have done worship music at this church.

It was good to catch up.  But the whole time, it felt a little awkward, like the feeling you get when you run into someone after burning your bridges with them.  Don’t get me wrong here; I do not consider anyone in this family to be someone I burned a bridge with.  I really am glad I saw them.  It just felt awkward in my head because I didn’t exactly leave that church on good terms.  It had nothing to do with any members of this family, or even anyone at that church, specifically; the reasons were a combination of feeling like there was no place for me there anymore and not agreeing with the direction that the leadership wanted to take the church.

This awkward feeling is nothing new.  There are many unresolved hurts from my past, and some of the people involved I still cross paths with occasionally.  Every situation is different, but often, with people I was once very close with, I find myself honestly wishing that we could be friends again.  But it’s not always that simple.  Subconsciously, what I really want is for things to be exactly like they were, in my head, before the hurt ever happened.  But that is embracing an unrealistic alternate reality that isn’t true.  Things change, people show their true colors, and I can’t just shake off being hurt and let everyone walk all over me and treat me like crap, or else it’ll keep happening again and again.  It definitely requires careful discernment on my part, on a case-by-case basis, whether to keep those who hurt me at arm’s length or let them back in.

This post is kind of turning into a stream of consciousness… but all this was in my head the other day.  Back to the pastor and his family who I saw the other day… they are definitely not people I want to keep at arm’s length, because, as I said, the reason I left that church was not because of them.  Last year, on one day when I was particularly frustrated at my old church, that pastor messaged me later suggesting that we sit down sometime and talk about why I’m so angry about all of that.  I sincerely meant to get back to him after I had a chance to process why I was so angry, if there was something else at the root of this frustration, but I never did, mostly because I never really took that time for processing.  Also, I was dealing with a lot of things emotionally all right at the same time, and I was always busy with work.  But some of my recent soul-searching revelations have been tied to the roots of this anger, so maybe I’ll have to take him up on that offer soon… or at least get back in touch with him to say what didn’t get said last year.  And maybe there are other people I need to get back in touch with and say things that haven’t been said.  And maybe there are still others who I need to cut out of my life for good, because at this point keeping some people in my life might do more harm than good.

Exit 132. It reminded me of the way I’ve been mistreated.

I voted for Gary Johnson.

This is not going to be a political post, so I’m not going to go into detail on my thoughts on the issues.  So here’s the short version: I wasn’t expecting him to win a majority of the electoral vote.  I mostly just didn’t want a vote for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump on my conscience.  I dislike them both, for different reasons.  And I don’t agree with Gary Johnson on some things, but the thought of him in the White House scared me less than the thought of either of the two major candidates in the White House.  And I do not regret one bit voting the way I did, so all of you who kept telling me that a third party candidate can’t win, save your I-told-you-sos for someone else.

So… anyway… even though I wasn’t 100% behind all of Gary Johnson’s views on the issues, and I don’t agree with all of the Libertarian Party’s stances, this year felt different.  With Clinton and Trump so widely disliked, many voters were looking for an alternative. Johnson had previously won two terms as governor of New Mexico, so he had relevant political experience.  He was polling over 10% in many states a few months before the election.  He was popular with certain subgroups of the population, and in a few states, such as New Mexico and Utah, his numbers were looking like he might actually have a chance to win.  No third party candidate had won a state since 1968, and in an election projected to be close, like this one, just winning one or two states might be enough to ensure that neither of the two major candidates would win a majority of the electoral vote.  According to the Constitution, this would lead to the House of Representatives choosing the President, with each state getting one vote (as opposed to each Representative), and this would open up the possibility of a compromise with the Republican Congressional delegation not being unified behind Trump.  The chance of that actually happening was small, but like I said, this year felt different, and it felt like time for the unexpected to happen.

But it did not happen.

Evan McMullin of Utah entered the race late and took most of the Utah anyone-but-Clinton-or-Trump voters away from Johnson.  Johnson got a little over nine percent of the vote in his home state of New Mexico, and over five percent in only a few other states.  Nationally, Johnson won a little over three percent of the popular vote, a number very similar to his showing in my home state of California.

Watching this phenomenon kind of annoyed and disappointed me, because it reminded me of the way I’ve been mistreated over the years by people who I thought cared for me.  People get all excited about something that I’m also a part of, but then in the moment of truth, they back out and abandon me, much as many people who polls said were voting for Gary Johnson apparently abandoned him and the rest of the Johnson voters.  There have been times when I have made group plans to go out to dinner, game nights, movie marathons, sporting events, and the like.  Many of my friends act interested at first, and then many of them back out at the last minute.  Not only is this frustrating, but sometimes this leaves me with tons of uneaten food at my house, or a responsibility to find someone at the last minute to take a ticket I’ve already paid for.

Similarly, in my 20s, I was surrounded by Christians who preached an extremely restrictive and conservative message regarding dating and sexuality.  I did my best to conform: I made friends with girls instead of actively pursuing them as romantic interests.  I tried my hardest not to masturbate or have overly flirtatious and sexually explicit chat room and instant message conversations, and when my willpower wasn’t strong enough, I felt immensely guilty and down on myself.  Meanwhile, many of my friends who were so passionate about this lifestyle eventually threw all that stuff out the window and started doing all the things they preached so loudly against.  They told me that I was single because God doesn’t want me dating and I wasn’t praying enough, just before they went home to watch porn and have sex with their significant others that they weren’t married to.

Why do people do this?  I don’t know.  I do have a few theories as to where all the prospective Gary Johnson voters went.  There probably were not as many of them to begin with, since much of what I was reading on the subject came from the Johnson campaign itself, which had a vested interest in skewing statistics to make their candidate seem more popular.  As I said before, many of them, especially in Utah, voted for Evan McMullin instead.  Some of them probably decided that they were so repulsed by one candidate that they voted for the slightly less objectionable candidate just to stop the slightly more objectionable one.  Some of them probably were so repulsed by both candidates that they did not vote at all.  Some of them probably lost faith in the ability of anyone to go up against the two-party system that they voted for the slightly less objectionable candidate.  That’s their right, and I’m not here to blame third-party voters for a major party candidate winning or losing any state.  That’s not how it works.

As for why my friends acted in ways that made me feel abandoned and backed out on, I know even less.  Some of the people in my life just aren’t true friends, just as many potential Johnson voters weren’t truly on board with his candidacy.  With social plans, sometimes things genuinely do come up.  People get sick.  Family members have emergencies.  And as for the Christians-don’t-date lifestyle, sometimes people get caught up in a certain lifestyle or viewpoint because of the people around them, without actually having a life-changing commitment to this lifestyle, and when circumstances change and they see other viewpoints, sometimes they fall away.  I don’t want to be angry with my friends.  I understand that things come up sometimes.  And everyone has their own journey of faith, and everyone who has left Christianity or become more liberal in their interpretation of Scripture has their reasons for doing so.  It is not my place to judge their faith.  I have things to learn from them, and I certainly see some things differently now than I did as a new Christian 20 years ago.  Many of these things happened to me a long time ago, and I don’t think it is healthy to carry grudges.

I guess I’m mostly angry at the world in general.  Unfortunately, there isn’t much I can do about it.  Life isn’t fair, and people will disappoint.  I’m just going to have to find a way to deal with it, and this is a process that will take a long time.

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 114. Things are not always what they seem, but…

Things are not always what they seem.

I started going to a new church in November, as I’ve mentioned before.  One time when I was there, I noticed a woman out of the corner of my eye who looked like someone I knew, the mother of a close friend.  When I looked at her straight on, though, I could tell it wasn’t my friend’s mother, just someone who looked like her.

Last week after church, I heard someone behind me calling my name, in a tone of voice that indicated that the speaker was surprised to see me.  I turned around and was surprised and a bit confused to see my friend’s mother, the one who I thought I had seen months ago.  She was with the woman who I thought looked like her, and she said that this woman was her sister, and she was picking her up from church because they were going to do something together that afternoon.  I said that I had noticed the resemblance.

Things are not always what they seem, but sometimes things are pretty close to what they seem.

Maybe there’s an illustration in this.  To many people, my life looks great.  I have a job, and a lot of the kids there say I’m their favorite teacher.  I have friends.  I’m a homeowner.  I’m good looking… at least old ladies tell me so.  But underneath, it doesn’t feel so great.  I feel lonely, with the whole still-being-single-at-my-age thing, and I feel like I have a hard time being around some of my friends, because of my very different lifestyle and beliefs.  And I feel just as out of place among many people who do share my beliefs.  I often feel angry and frustrated that my life didn’t turn out the way I thought it would be.  I feel like I was sold a bill of goods by some of the people influential in my spiritual development in my 20s.  My great life isn’t what it seems.

But maybe my life is pretty close to being great, just like how the woman who looked like my friend’s mom turned out to be my friend’s aunt.  All those things really aren’t significant, and focusing on the negative just ends up being destructive in the long run.

This probably isn’t a very good analogy, but I’m tired and cranky and I needed something to write about this week.  Good night. 🙂