church

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 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. 🙂

Exit 112. I don’t want to play this game.

In the 2011 novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, an ordinary trailer-park kid is trying to save a dystopian near future virtual reality world from a corporation trying to gain control of it for themselves by solving a series of puzzles rooted in late 20th century geek pop culture.  I have written about this novel before (#32), and how one quote from it sticks out in my mind in particular:  “Like any classic video game, the Hunt had simply reached a new, more difficult level.  A new level often required an entirely new strategy.”

This principle seems especially true in my life today.  I came of age in the context of evangelical Christian college-age youth group in the late 1990s, and much of my views about life and the future were shaped by this world.  In this world, you get married in your early- to mid-20s (preferably without dating, and without kissing your wife until your wedding day, because Josh Harris), and start having children, who will then get involved in Awana and Sunday school while you and your wife attend the young parents’ Bible study. That ship sailed a long time ago for me.  That strategy doesn’t work in my world, and I feel like there is no precedent for me, because many people I know in situations similar to mine have long since walked away from their faith entirely.  Hence, an entirely new strategy is required.

Now would be a good time to plug a guest piece I wrote for another blog, since it is related to this topic.  Go check it out.  And while you’re at it, check out the rest of this other blog and the original blog from which this was spun off.

https://beingyoungandtwenty.com/2016/06/19/dennis/

Anyway, where was I… I realized recently that there is more to the story than finding a new strategy.  Looking around me, it seems that the life that many of my peers are living, the life that is considered normal for someone my age in my situation, is one where socializing revolves around alcohol, whether that be going out drinking with friends, going out for drinks with a date, or, especially here in northern California, a classy wine tasting excursion.  Dating in this life involves playing with people’s feelings, fooling around physically with no sense of commitment, and not communicating honestly.  Is this the life I want?  Do I want to find a new strategy only to become this?  I don’t think so.  To go back to the video game analogy, I don’t want to play this game, and the game I thought I always wanted to play is out of print, with no copies anywhere on eBay and no working emulators for it.  Furthermore, I’ve realized that I don’t know if I want to play that game after all, by which I mean that the evangelical Christian family world I described above is not entirely my ideal anymore.

But what game do I want to play?  How can I figure that out, and how much of the rest of the world’s game will influence my game?  I’m never going to be the type to hang out in bars regularly, but maybe I could benefit socially from hanging out in bars occasionally and drinking something without alcohol?  Should I give up my personal prohibition on drinking alcohol and have a drink every once in a while in moderation?  Should I be a little more adventurous in pursuing dating rather than looking for any of hundreds of deal breakers right when I first meet someone?  I really don’t know.  But I have a feeling I’m at least starting to ask the right questions.

Exit 107. Not alone.

Eight months ago, I left my church of almost 10 years, as I have mentioned several times on this blog.  There were a variety of reasons for this, but the last straw was a major change that they seemed intent on implementing, looking only for approval from the congregation as required by the church constitution, rather than debating publicly whether or not it was a good idea.  At least, I always felt like no one was listening to me when I told them that this was a bad idea.  (Ask me privately if you want to know exactly what that change was.  That isn’t the point I’m making today.)

I haven’t cut all ties.  There are still a few people from that church who I see semi-regularly.  I am still in Facebook contact with many people from that church, and I still follow the church’s Facebook page itself.  Recently, the church Facebook page posted two pictures showing a big step that has been taken in regards to the changes I mentioned in the last paragraph.  I replied with a snarky comment.  I also liked every post made by others who seemed to prefer things before the change, and replied to a few of them.  In one of them, someone replied to my comment, asking if I was done yet or if I was looking for points for every comment I made.  I tried to stay calm and civil, because, well, everyone knows what arguing online is like.  But I explained that, when the church was presenting their new vision to the congregation, I would have appreciated knowing that there were others out there who felt the same way as me about what they proposed, and I was commenting to make sure that those who do not agree with what has happened to that church know that they are not alone.

After reading his comment, though, I decided I probably was being a little mean-spirited in my comments, and I said nothing further on those posts.  He replied something about how he had gone to that church for most of his life, and he would pray that I find a church.  His response, incidentally, highlighted another questionable aspect of this church, in that he acted like he had no idea who I was, and he was interacting with me for the first time.  This is not true.  I don’t know this guy well, but I can remember meeting him on at least three distinct occasions, and if I were to see him out and about in public, I would recognize him well enough to put a name to the face.  But he didn’t remember me, which tends to be typical at a very large church, particularly when I have been feeling more and more disconnected over the years.

Shortly after this exchange occurred, someone else I know, not connected to any of this, reposted by coincidence something that said, “I don’t share my opinions on the Internet because I want to change people’s minds.  I do it to let like-minded people know that they are not alone.”  (That’s a paraphrase, not necessarily word for word.)  I thought this was interesting, because I had never thought of this in this way before, and here it came up twice within a few days.

I often feel alone in this way.  My views, my beliefs, and my lifestyle are different from those of many people around me.  I know that this need not be a barrier preventing me from having friendships, but sometimes it matters.  Someone recently asked me if I would still believe in Jesus even if I were the only one on Earth who did.  I replied that I ask myself the same question fairly often.  But I know that I’m not as alone as I tend to think.  I have more in common with people than I tend to believe.  And I can still encourage other like-minded individuals in their beliefs.  I just need to do so without hostility toward others.

Exit 85. In a desert.

For the first time since I started this blog, over a year and a half ago, I didn’t write anything last week.  Actually… that’s not true.  I meant to say that I didn’t post anything.  I wrote a post for last week, but the reason I didn’t share it was kind of embarrassing.  I was about to post it, I added tags to the post, and one of the tags autocompleted, indicating that I had written about this same topic before.  So I looked up to see what I had written before… and less than two months ago, I had written pretty much exactly the same thing that I was going to post last week.  Oops.  That’s what I get for being so scatterbrained and not paying closer attention to this blog.

Then an entire week went by, and I still didn’t write anything.  It was a pretty brutal week at work.  Never again will I collect a big project two days before report cards are due.  You’d think I’d have learned that lesson long ago, but another teacher who teaches the same class I do wanted to do this project with her students, and it seemed like a good idea.  In hindsight, it was, but next year, assuming I’m teaching the same class and on the same pace, I’ll assign it about a week earlier.  The students will already know everything they need to know to complete it by then, and that will give me more time to grade them gradually before report cards are due.

I also didn’t write anything because I couldn’t think of anything else to write about.  My brain has been mush from everything going on at work, as well as lingering frustrations about life in general.  My writing has been in a desert.  And that is a feeling I know all too well from other areas of life.

Last week, I met with the pastor of one of the two churches I’ve been going to the last couple months.  As I believe I’ve mentioned before, I don’t want to rule anything out at this point, but in September I decided to look beyond the church I’ve been going to for the last 10 years.  I’m not on board with the direction the leaders want to take the church, and I feel like I don’t really fit in there anymore, because of the whole Christian bubble thing that I wrote about a month ago.  Anyway, this pastor knows a little bit about my struggle to find my place within the body of Christ, and at one point he was asking me more about where I am with God and such.  I told him that I feel like I’m in a spiritual desert right now.  I don’t really have a community of fellow believers with whom I can share my life.  Because of this, I find it more and more difficult to make time to do basic things like pray and read Scripture.

I’m not sure if there is a solution here, other than to just keep on going.  I just have to make sure that I don’t use this time of being in the desert to isolate myself spiritually.  So far, I haven’t been doing a good job of this.  But I’m just going to keep going through the motions, trying my best to reconnect with God and with others, and hoping that the desert will come to an end soon.  Because at least two of life’s other deserts seem to be coming to an end, at least temporarily.  Here in drought-stricken northern California, it’s supposed to rain off and on for the next several days.  And I thought of something else to write about.  So I’ll probably write another post in the next 48 hours to make up for the one I missed.