christianity

Exit 172. But it isn’t pretty.

As a new Christian and a youth group leader in the ’90s, I listened to a lot of Christian music.  Since 2001, when I was no longer working with youth, that has tapered off, to the point that I do not recognize many Christian songs anymore other than the ones I hear at church.  There are a number of reasons for that.  I don’t have a social group at church that purposely introduces me to new Christian music.  I have also matured to the point of realizing that some Christian music just isn’t very good.  I can’t reverently express to Jesus how much I love him when singing or even hearing others sing phrases like “Heaven meets Earth like a sloppy wet kiss.”  (Besides, didn’t you people tell me back in the Josh Harris era that kissing was bad, because it leads to temptation and babies and stuff, so I shouldn’t even think about kissing until my wedding day?)

But, as unfortunate as this is, another part of the reason I haven’t been as much into Christian music is because sometimes I feel like I can’t relate.  A lot of Christian music is just too overly sappy.  Sometimes I’m feeling angry at the world, and there is very little angry Christian music.  I’ve even been told my some ill-informed Christians that the reason for the lack of angry Christian music is because anger is not a Christlike emotion.  (Right… I’m sure Jesus was feeling all happy and cheerful when he turned over the tables.)

The other day, I was in the car, and I heard a song that I realized sums up my history and experience with Christianity pretty well.  But it isn’t pretty.  And it isn’t a Christian song.

This isn’t a new song; it was released in 1991.  It isn’t a new song to me either; this was a huge hit when I was in high school, and it was on MTV all the time back when MTV still played videos for part of the day.  But apparently it has taken me over a quarter century to really appreciate the song.

New blood joins this earth
And quickly he’s subdued
Through constant pained disgrace
The young boy learns their rules

Late ’90s.  I’m a new Christian, and that’s great, but I’m quickly scolded by peers for telling dirty jokes and having lustful thoughts.  I learn the rules… there are cliques within the group.  Sometimes, from my point of view, the people who go serve Jesus in other countries during the summer seem more respected than those of us who don’t feel that calling, for example.

With time, the child draws in
This whipping boy done wrong
Deprived of all his thoughts
The young man struggles on…

Early 2000s.  I’m in small groups at Church I With The Problems where pretty much all we do is confess our habits of masturbation and looking at porn and talk about ways to stop that from happening, or have long discussions about exactly what minute of the night we should leave our significant other’s house so that other people don’t see us there and think that we’re having sex.  When I share my thoughts that maybe there are more important things we should be concerned with, everyone just tells me I must not be mature in my faith.

They dedicate their lives
To running all of his

A few years later.  I’m at Church II With The Problems, where everything I say or do feels micro-managed, and every slightly socially awkward behavior or comment is treated like a sin I have to repent from.

He tries to please them all
This bitter man he is

After I move in 2006, I spend the next decade trying to live the good Christian life, but only becoming more and more bitter, as I see others who didn’t live the way I was taught find happiness and success, and my own life leads me to be more and more of an outcast.

Throughout his life the same
He’s battled constantly
This fight he cannot win
A tired man they see no longer cares

This has been going on for many years.  I’ve been looking for a place where I can find other people who live the way I’ve been trying to.  But I can’t win, I’m not going to find one, because I’m not 20 anymore.  There isn’t a youth group for 41-year-olds.  I don’t know how to live in my current situation, and I’m becoming more and more tired and bitter about it.

The old man then prepares
To die regretfully
That old man here is me

And this is the direction my life is heading if nothing changes…

What I’ve felt
What I’ve known
Never shined through in what I’ve shown
Never be
Never see
Won’t see what might have been

What I’ve felt
What I’ve known
Never shined through in what I’ve shown
Never free
Never me
So I dub thee Unforgiven

Unforgiven… ironically, that is the complete opposite of the gift that Jesus Christ gives us.  Am I unforgiven?  Have I not truly received the grace of Jesus Christ?  I don’t think so.  But I might be looking for the wrong things.  I might be trying too hard to do all the socially acceptable right things instead of just living in the grace of Jesus Christ.

But that is not who God made me to be.  I don’t want to fit in that box.  But I need to figure out how to do that.  I need to look to Jesus, not church culture.

And if I’m now hearing God speak to me through Metallica lyrics, I suppose I’ve taken a step out of the box already.

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Exit 170. Debating what to write about.

I’ve been debating all day what to write about.  Something kind of cool happened to me a few days ago that, while insignificant in the long run of things, challenged something I’ve believed to be true about myself for my entire life.  But then I woke up to news of a horrific shooting.  I took a nap this afternoon, and woke up to unrelated news of the passing of another classic rock icon, although at this writing, a few hours later, some news outlets say that the announcement was premature and that he is clinging to life.  Either way, it doesn’t look good.

I’m going to keep those thoughts to one paragraph.  The world is a horrible place.  Satan is real, and the human race is fallen and evil.  We can, and should, be trying to make the world a better place, but we also have to accept the fact that this work will not be finished until Jesus comes back.  And major political policy decisions should not be made based on emotion and knee-jerk reactions, as many always try to do after a tragedy like this.  My prayers are with the families and loved ones of those killed and injured at the concert near* Las Vegas.  And to those of you who are responding that you don’t want my prayers, that’s fine.  I’m praying for you, and the sovereign God is listening, regardless of your response.  I don’t understand why he allows these things to happen.  I don’t think anyone could understand.  But his work is not finished yet.  Satan still has a firm grip on this world, and no matter of political policy can change that.

I was going to tell my other story too, but I think I’ll just leave it here for now and save that for next week.

(*The Las Vegas Strip area is outside the actual city limits.)

Exit 169. God was telling me to play Pokémon Go.

Yesterday, I hosted a friend’s birthday party at my house.  I am an introvert, of course, but I do enjoy hosting parties for others occasionally when I can.  I have this house, with realistically more room than I need, and doing things like this makes me feel like I can do something useful for my friends who have other living arrangements.

But I digress.  I’ve been very busy with work, and I haven’t been good at picking up around the house.  So I did a lot of straightening and cleaning yesterday morning.  By about 1:00 in the afternoon, I was tired and sweaty and in need of a shower, and I also needed a few things from the grocery store (not for the party specifically, just for my personal use, but as soon as possible).  I was debating whether to shower and go to the store, or just shower and nap, when another alternative popped into my head.

Don’t go to the store.  Don’t take a nap.  Don’t even shower yet.  Go for a walk to the park and catch some Pokémon.

I should qualify this by saying that I’m a n00b when it comes to Pokémon Go.  As I have written before, I was already in my 20s when Pokémon was first a thing, so I didn’t grow up with it.  I played for the first time two months ago, when a friend who moved away a few years ago was visiting her parents, about an hour drive from here.  I was trying to find a time to get together and catch up, and the only time that worked was when she was planning on going for a walk to play Pokémon, so she invited me along.

I had a six day streak going of having caught at least one Pokémon per day.  Most of that, however, most of that was just stopping next to the aforementioned park on the way home from work and catching one just to get a streak going, since if you can get up to seven days, you get a lot of experience points.  So I needed to catch something yesterday.  I also needed to get more balls, and there are lots of stops where you can get items all over this park.

Anyway, this park has soccer and baseball fields, so it is always full of youth sports families on Saturday mornings.  As I was getting near the park, I saw a mom and her friend loading up kids into a car after a game.  Her friend said hi to me.  I said hi back, as my mind frantically tried to remember who this person was; I don’t know any soccer moms that frequent this park off the top of my head.  (The kids belonged to her friend, not her, which also threw me a little.)   Fortunately, it came to me quickly so that the conversation was not awkward; it was someone from my old church, the one I stopped going to around two years ago.  I asked how she was doing, and she mentioned that next month she would be leaving on a mission trip to serve Jesus in other countries for a year.  She gave me the website where she would be blogging about her travels.

I hear many people tell stories about when God makes people cross paths at just the right time for a specific reason, and I think this was one of those moments.  I think God was telling me to play Pokémon Go yesterday morning, so I could be back in touch with my friend and reading and praying about her travels.  And in the middle of all the questions that have been running through my mind about Christianity and church culture and where I belong, this was a reminder that God is still here in the midst of all that.

And the part about me not having made it to the grocery store worked out too, because one of the other party guests called asking if we needed anything, and she agreed to bring me the two things I needed most urgently.  I forgot to pay her back, but this is someone I see often enough that I’ll take care of that soon, and it was probably no more than five dollars anyway.

Exit 166. And know they love you.

The title of this week’s post, of course, is a line from this song.

I’ve known of this song for decades.  It’s older than I am.  It’s one of CSN-and-sometimes-Y’s most well-known songs.  I heard it on oldies and classic rock radio growing up, and I think they used a mediocre cover of it in a commercial for potty training pants or something like that at one point.

But I had never really thought deeply about the song until I heard it a few days ago and, well, started thinking about it.  The first verse and chorus seem pretty straightforward.  Teach your children well.  But then the second half of the song always confused me.  I had no idea what they were saying.  You have Graham singing the melody, but then David and Stephen are harmonizing on ENTIRELY DIFFERENT LYRICS at the same time.  I’ve always had a hard time understanding songs that do that.  I’m trying to listen to the lyrics, so it would be nice if everyone was singing the same thing at the same time, although it is kind of a cool effect.  And then the final chorus, now it’s “teach your parents?”  The title of the song is “teach your children,” so why the sudden reversal?  Was that just something that the guys thought of when they were on drugs?  And what the heck does “God knows the fears that you held the screw by” mean?  I can’t be hearing that line right.

So I looked up the lyrics.  It’s actually “can’t know the fears that your elders grew by.”  And all of a sudden, the song makes a lot more sense now that I know what they’re saying.

The song was released in 1970, during the Vietnam War.  Much like today, tensions were running high in society, particularly regarding the generation gap between the baby boomers coming of age, many of whom were being drafted to fight this war, and their World War II-era parents.  These parents and children grew up in very different worlds, and what worked for one generation does not always work for the next generation.  The same thing is happening today.  The young adult millennials who are at the forefront of today’s social and political activism grew up in a completely different world from the world that Generation X and the Baby Boomers grew up in; they can’t know the fears that we grew by, as Graham Nash sang.  The Soviet Union collapsed 26 years ago, so people in their 20s and younger do not understand why communism and socialism are viewed so negatively by those old enough to remember the Cold War.  Older people tend to criticize the younger generation for spending too much time staring at phones, laptops, and tablets, instead of interacting with others, fearing that the younger generation will produce more and more people who can’t function in society.  While some of these concerns are justified, it fails to take into account the fact that society is different today, and social media often strengthens friendships and relationships in a world where people cannot always be with their friends and loved ones face-to-face, so this also serves a useful purpose, particularly for people who are not always comfortable in face-to-face social situations.

I overheard a conversation recently about how, within the culture of Christianity, Baby Boomers often put down Millennials as being lazy and undisciplined, and that this is doing a disservice to the Church as a whole.  Millennials grew up in a different world, in which many of them did not have both parents at home like the Baby Boomers did, so their needs are different than those of older generations were at their age.  The Church wants to give them more discipline and structure, but they really need to be loved.  All of that seemed to fit well with my thoughts about this song.

Yes, society is divided along generational and cultural lines.  But we all have something to learn from each other.  And we all have something to teach each other.  We have something to contribute to our collective children, and our experiences can teach something to our collective parents who did not live in our world.  We’re all in this world together.  We don’t always understand each other, but making our best attempt to is an important first step.  So, if you want to make the world a better place, be open to learning about others around you, and teaching them about you.  Others usually aren’t as different or hostile as you’d think sometimes.

Just look at them and sigh, and know they love you.

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.