Thursday, June 20, 2013

Doubt and Truth in a Child's Nursery Song

I just spent the past half hour rocking and singing nursery school songs and Switchfoot melodies with my two-year old daughter. Stepping out of her room after putting her down for a nap, I feel like I have just come from a spa for my soul.

I've had a rough year, spiritually. There were some struggles that made it more pronounced-- my parents divorce, a friend's struggle with her abusive ex-husband for custody over her autistic son, our own financial stress-- but by and large the tone of this year has been characterized by an ever-increasing and bleak feeling of doubt.

With those that I am closest to, I have admitted to being in the midst of a “crisis of faith” of sorts. And it is, sort of, that, but I hesitate to name it as such to most people because it implies that I am on the cusp of taking all the past decade of belief and spirituality I have built up and throwing it all away. And that's not exactly what is happening. Moreso, I suppose I have been... distracted. There is a saying I have heard echoed over and over again in church circles that we need to focus more on what God does and less on what people who claim his name are doing. And I suppose I have yet to internalize that saying yet, because that is precisely what has been pulling me away.

It sort of started with Darkon, honestly. I've been locked away in the world of Christian social circles for quite a while, probably since a couple years before I was married. I was never opposed to friendships outside my fellow believers, but when you spend three or four nights a week at church and have relatively little time for anything else, your social awareness tends to become restricted, and unless you consciously do something about it, you'll find yourself suddenly locked into a world defined only by the cultural tenets of the American church. But when I decided I had enough interest in LARPing to step outside my comfort zone and try it out, I became very quickly invested in a new social circle, which in many ways is diametrically opposed to my wonted “churchy” world. These people drink. They party. They cuss and smoke and throw around lewd humor with abandon. Many of them are at least indifferent on the subject of religion, if not utterly opposed to it, and embrace all the most “worldly” trends: casual sex, homosexual marriage, abortion, divorce, etc. They are, in a lot of ways (and of course allowing for some exceptions), a “rough” crowd, and I admit, at first I was a bit intimidated by them.

But as I came to know these people, I discovered among them something that I have been in search of since before I even professed Christ at sixteen years old. They are a community. These people care about each other, help each other, encourage each other, support each other. They may show it in odd ways-- at least to my sheltered upbringing-- but they genuinely care about each other, and show that care and support regardless of the circumstances. For example—and fair warning, some people aren't going to like reading this-- being of a rather sheltered lifestyle and suddenly finding myself surrounded by a much more loose environment with very little accountability, I have gotten rather inebriated on at least two separate occasions, while surrounded by people who, to be fair, didn't know me at all, outside of my in-game persona as a cleric, keeper of my country's harem, and sometime private pastry chef to the recently-crowned king. I admit it was naive of me. I admit it wasn't very Christian behavior. I admit, I took a lot of very foolish risks doing so. But rather than take advantage of my impaired judgment in any way, the people I play with rather took care of me, giving me water to rehydrate me, keeping an eye on me, and seeing me safely off to my tent. Furthermore, I haven't heard a word of judgment from them on the subject afterward, short of the occasional gentle joke about me not being able to hold my chocolate cake (Liquor I can handle. It's the cake that does me in!).

Thanks to those experiences, I have learned firsthand why not to drink (Hangovers suck, and alcohol does not promote deep sleep. I definitely am one of those people who NEEDS my forty winks in full.), and in fact will be quite satisfied to limit myself to a two glasses of wine maximum in a night for the rest of my days. You could say I have repented of that particular sin episode, and after all, most people take a lot more repetitions of that transgression before they learn that lesson (all of college, perhaps?).

But the thing that still astounds me is that community. The love. The acceptance. I was worried at first coming into it that perhaps I would be shunned simply because I am a Christian, and therefore associated in some people's minds with such hateful bigotry as that espoused by groups like Westboro Baptist Church and other hatemongers using the Bible as their justification to tear others down. But even that hasn't posed an obstacle to my full inclusion in this community. And not because I hide it, though I admit my timid nature makes me instinctively want to do so. In fact, the other day I posted an article on Facebook regarding the scriptural argument for and against homosexuality as a sin, and one of the respected leaders in the game actually came and joined in the conversation as easily and friendly as if we were far closer than we unfortunately are at this point (though if ever he wishes to pursue that friendship, he has found a willing soul in me!). There was no judgment, no condemnation, only a willing contribution of his own knowledge regarding original passages from the Torah and the importance of accurate translation in the discussion of such matters. In fact, I could not say for certain which side of the issue he comes down on. But he was so easygoing about the whole thing that I find myself easily able to respect his opinion, whatever it should turn out to be.

And that is something that I find so sadly lacking in the church, at least where I am, at this present time. Maybe-- okay, probably-- it is in large part due to the fact that I tend to isolate myself. I am a bit weird, after all, a Christian wife and mom who would rather sit up all night rolling dice and making up stories in a science fiction universe with the guys than go to a Chris Tomlin concert or a MOPS game night with the girls. I tend to relate more to guys, and that makes me feel more than a little awkward in the rather gender-segregated world of the conservative Baptist church. I find myself getting a little defensive when my friend jokes about me “stealing her husband” on the weekends, or when a message is preached on the importance of a mother's role in the home. Truth be told, I chafe under the perceived impression that as a Christian female, it is my highest calling to serve my husband and pop out and raise babies in a sheltered environment that consists of home-school co-ops and Sunday School socials. (And I say “percieved impression” for a reason-- I am entirely aware that 90% of this concept is due to my own take on the input I receive from the world around me). It's not that I mind being a wife and a mother. Far from it: I could not imagine my life without my best friend turned spouse by my side, and while she drives me nuts sometimes, my daughter has been a light and an instrument of growth in my life in so many ways, and lately I even find myself wanting another one (I know, right?! This is ME we're talking about!). Rather what bothers me is the feeling that these are the ONLY options I and other women like me are being offered. The feeling that babies, and diapers, and midnight feedings, and diets, and hairstyles, and Beth Moore bible studies, and homeschooling, and Christian romance novels, and marriage workshops, and parenting books are the only church-sanctioned interests I may pursue. The feeling that, because I happen to have more interest in motorcycles, Star Trek, and martial arts, I am somehow not right, or broken in some fashion. I know, I know... nobody has come right out and said it. But it's the feeling I get when other women give me strange looks when I speak up about the Doctor Who earrings I made or when they spy the ticky-tie and foam sword-induced bruising on my arms and legs. The way I feel when I try to strike up a conversation about the real-world application of feminism in the lives of our daughters and in the church, and the conversation seems to die away, and then shy back to the latest Twilight movie. I'm weird. I don't belong. At least not the way others do, or seem to.

The thing is, by any normal standard, I am even weirder when surrounded by my Darkon brethren. I am the innocent little churchwife among blue collar working men and women and military vets, staunchly heterosexual and happily married among open marriages, swingers, and people who date each other like they were playing sexual bingo. I am awkward and self-conscious and prone to episodes of severe wardrobe malfunction, not to mention foot-in-mouth disease, and I constantly struggle with the part of myself that wants to just give up the charade of holiness and delve into the whole shebang, coarse language, lewd wordplay and all (and I admit, again, that I have done this all too often, to my own chagrin). But I am accepted. Welcomed, even. Regardless of my background, my beliefs, my awkward character traits and indecision. And why? Maybe because I bake good cookies, or because I made the old guys feel good by coming up with the “Old Man Crush” concept (if he is too old to be within the Rule of Seven for dating age, he has then been relegated to the honored position of candidate for an Old Man Crush). I don't really know. Its hard for me, still, to understand why other people would want me around at all, and I struggle constantly with that adolescent crisis of self-image even now, well beyond high school. But the fact is, they do want me around. I feel welcome and a part of something, fully, and with no strings or stipulations attached, even when they have no idea what the crap this little church girl is talking about. They just roll their eyes and tell me to watch my flank, and then cheer and pat me on the back as I spear some stick-jock on the end of my borrowed foam pole-arm. They're happy to let me be me, and they don't have any expectations or molds for me to fit or fill.

Anyway, coming full circle to what I was talking about, the doubt I've been feeling is very much wrapped up in this new-- at least for me-- feeling of community. I became a believer, at least in part, initially because I wanted to be a part of something. In a home torn by divorce at least once, and belonging to a group of friends who seemed to break and reform friendships weekly, I wanted something I could rely on, a community who would stick together, and that was what I thought I saw in the church, at least from the outside. But since that day, all I have seen is a body ripped apart by discord, sin, judgment, pride, and false expectations. I have seen the pastor I first came to Christ under be kicked out of his church for putting politics ahead of the gospel. I have seen the man who led me to Christ abandon his wife without any warning whatsoever and shun and shame every one of his friends who tried to correct him. I have seen friends grow alienated and divorce and leave the church, disillusioned with the silence and unspoken judgments. I have seen over and over again backstabbing and biting words and betrayal that made me more and more nervous to admit my own failings in what I once supposed to be a “safe” environment. I have watched close friends leave the church over the hostility that erupted when they admitted their sins to the leadership and attempted to apologize to the people who had hurt them.

I am not speaking of a specific church body or group of believers here. I've been a member of a handful, and I've experienced through others more of the hurt and pain and loss of trust that have driven us into this limbo of belief. Honestly, I've probably been a part of it too, though the admission pains me. The fact is... the Church doesn't seem to be that community of loving people I once supposed it to be when I walked with childlike wonder through its doors for the first time. And, for a long time, I supposed that was merely because such a community did not, could not exist here on this fallen planet. But now... since finding it in the least likely of places, among a bunch of mostly non-believers... I am left with a lot of questions, and a lot of doubt.

And I have been struggling with that doubt throughout this past year. Simultaneously growing closer to the wonderful people I have been blessed to meet at Darkon and in role-playing, while allowing-- to my own shame-- the divide I feel between myself and the church, and subsequently between myself and God, to grow ever greater. Some days when I sit in church or teach Old Testament stories to my first through fifth grade girls, I feel more like I am pretending to believe all this, pretending to be a part of it, when really, I identify more with the sinner and the tax collector, the married gay couple or the divorced feminist watching from the outside. I want to believe, but the actions I see around me terrify me, and my desire to be identified with them is less and less strong with each passing moment.

But singing with my baby girl today, as we rocked back and forth in her room, I slowly realized the missing element of the equation in all this doubt and fear I've been hiding out in lately. And it's best summed up in something my baby said. “Hannah?” I asked her after singing a few songs. “What do you know about God?” I figured she is still so innocent and young, and Jesus speaks of coming to Him as little children: if anyone could tell me the inside scoop, it was this flaxen-haired toddler curled up on my lap. In reply, she launched into song again. “Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong. They are weak, but He is strong.”

Nothing about the homosexual political debate. Nothing about sin and salvation. Nothing about how to be a good “Christian whatever”. Just that Jesus loves me. How do I know? The Bible, His word, says He does. I belong to Him, I am one of His precious children. And His strength covers over my weakness. Covers over my doubts.

I have lost focus lately. I forgot what is supposed to be at the center of my faith: Jesus... God, and the Love He has for me. The love that was personified in an innocent man, dying on a cross to prove what lengths He would go to to be in communion with me. And really, what does it matter what people in or out of the church do? They're just people, as lost, as broken, maybe even as full of doubt as I am. What matters is that I belong to a God who is above all that, and it is only Him I need look to for support and approval. Everything else is just on the periphery. Jesus should be at the center. And He is that community for me, the loving arms that welcome me back into his embrace, despite my recently filthy language, my doubts, my drunkenness, my weirdness, my rebellion against others expectations, and my fear of being an outcast. That community I have been seeking has been here all along, in my Heavenly Father. I've just been too distracted to see it.

Thank God for children and their clarity of understanding.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Lent Day 16, Bonus Material: Some Thoughts on Accepting Correction

In my earlier post on the Beatitudes, I mentioned how offense can be a gateway to self-realization and correction, and I hinted at an experience I had personally had earlier in the week with a friend that had driven that fact home to me. I wanted to share on here, but at the time I was waiting on the friend to read and respond to my post before I published it. He did so over the weekend. So now that I have his blessing, I'd like to say here what I cut out of the earlier post in deference to my friend.
Let me tell you about a recent example [of offense at correction and truth leading to deeper thought and eventual repentence], which, actually happened just last week and involved something I wrote on here.
A friend confronted me about something I wrote that made them uncomfortable. Because we haven't interacted much in the last ten (goodness, has it been ten already?) years, and because our lives have greatly diverged in many ways, my first response was to remove what I said with a sort of flippant “Well, I don't get it, but okay, whatever” reply. I didn't expect a response to that, but I got one. And it was not exactly positive. They didn't cuss me out or anything, but they did correct me, firmly. And I was ANGRY! At least at first. In fact, if I hadn't read that very first devotion on Day 1 about delaying our response to give God time to work in our hearts, I probably would have launched back an angry rant which I would later have regretted. But I pulled it together long enough to reply with a response asking for time to respond and mull over what they said. And that wasn't just lip service; I thought about it. I dwelt on it. I fumed about it. I rehashed my witty, cynical, casual, or “higher ground” responses in my head over and over. And something interesting happened: the longer I waited, the more my anger evaporated and was replaced by concern. I'm a self-improver remember? If I was indeed wrong, I wanted to know why, and I wanted to fix it so it didn't happen again. See, my sudden fear, and the implied accusation I had gleaned from my friend's letter, was that I am racist.
Now everybody's first instinct about themselves is that they're a good person. Typically the thought process goes something like this: “Well, I'm not a murderer, I don't steal, I don't use other people or lie, and I'm not a racist or sexist or sexual predator of any kind. So I'm altogether a pretty decent person.” And whether those things are all implicitly true or not (i.e. “I NEVER lie” vs. “I only rarely lie, and then it's just to avoid hurting peoples' feelings, etc.”), those are kind of the top things of people's lists of “Ways to be a Bad Person”. So when a person is accused of even being slightly guilty of any one of them, the first response you're going to get from them is typically self-righteous anger. And that was ALL me last Friday. A big spiky ball of bristling wounded pride.
Me? A racist? Even though they didn't come right out and say it, it was kind of implied that I had at least been racially insensitive, and I was OFFENDED! “How could I be a racist?!” I ranted internally. “I love black people! I admire them! I joke with my friends that when I 'grow up' I want to be a black lady! They're strong and confident and sassy and all the qualities I wish I had, and I love that about them. I'm nice to black people! I even dated a black person! I took an African American literature course in college and earned an A! I am not a racist at all! How dare that person call me out, especially when they don't even hardly know me anymore! How dare they!”
But the longer I stewed, the more my focus gradually went from dwelling on the offender toward myself and my own actions. I began to worry... “Am I a racist? Am I really a racist privileged white girl and I don't even know it?” My emotions began to switch from anger to fear. I don't want to be a racist! That's one of the worst things a person can be, after all. It's on "The List”! And especially in the area I live racism can make you a very disliked person, even hated, something I, a personality of the the meek-peacemaking-self-deprecating-humble (MPSH?) persuasion and a people-pleaser to a fault, very much fear. So I did what every good college graduate does: I started researching on the internet.
Now let me tell you from my own experience, it is not an easy thing to read the articles that come up from running the search term “how not to be a racist” when you are afraid you might be one. For starters, they're not very kindly written. Even if they don't include language that makes you blush (whether in the article or the comments), they are often written by African American people who are very, VERY sick of dealing with white people who don't realize how racist they are, and somewhere along the way they have lost the patience to explain things in gentle terms. They pretty much call you out. And the first thing I discovered is that racism is not always, or even often, overtly obvious, especially not to the person who is being racist. When you think about it, the mental picture you get when you think of the term “racism”-- a white-shrouded KKK member or a militant tattooed “skinhead”-- aren't really things you see just anywhere. In fact, thankfully, they're rather uncommon, and part of the reason we think of them is that they are the extremes and are brought to the limelight because of their extremism and everyone else's desire to get rid of that sort of pure ignorance and hatred everywhere.
But if that's the only face racism wears, we shouldn't still be so conscious of racism as a society, and yet it's something Americans hear about on a weekly and sometimes daily basis, depending where you live. I've always thought of myself as lucky to have grown up somewhere where race didn't seem to be much of an issue, but the fact was-- I realize now-- it was an issue. I just didn't experience it as such, because I wasn't part of the group for whom it was an issue. And while, when we were young, my friend might have told me they didn't really experience it as a negative difference per se, I didn't stop to realize that as time passed, not only have they had the chance to gain more experience, most of which I don't know anything about, but they may have-- like I have-- gained a more mature adult perspective of how their childhood, and life, was influenced by various factors, one of which, for them, was the color of their skin. That's not a factor I took into account when I wrote what I did, and it's something I should have. But, again... it's not something I've ever had to deal with, so it just didn't even occur to me. And that, for better or for worse, was a very racist way to behave.
Now I'm not going to go into my entire journey of self-awakening to the fact that I am a product of institutional racism and have conditioned responses to people of other ethnic groups that are at the very least unwarranted by personal experience and are often just outright wrong. I'm not going to tell you all about how crushed I was to realize that, yes, I am a racist, at least on some level. My skin color gives me the privilege of being able to ignore the unique and often disturbing experiences other people have because they are not part of the entitled group. I also have felt comfortable in the fact that, since I am not one of the militant organized hate-monger groups, I am not a part of the problem and I don't need to do anything to solve it, neglecting to remember, of course, that ignorant people are ignorant because they don't educate themselves. Someone who already knows better has to tell them there is another way. And if we all just sit back and fold our arms and say “Oh, well, I took care of myself,” problems will still persist because we are only looking out for ourselves and not the good of our communities, both white and black, and every other group. And when I don't do anything to solve a problem, I become part of the problem.
Point is, that was a hard lesson for me to learn. It took a lot of my self-image and flushed it down the toilet. In the end, while I'm not exactly glad, I am thankful that that friend took a moment to tell me a hard truth. Because unless someone pointed out my own error to me, I never would have realized my own failing, and wouldn't have the opportunity to correct it in myself now, and hopefully pass that attitude of empathy, compassion, and activism on to my own child and others who look to my example. But the point is, that friend took a risk. They called me on something knowing I would probably become offended, and that they might possibly lose me as a friend. Did that matter to them personally? I don't know. It probably would have to me. But again, I haven't been close to them in a long time, so maybe it was a loss they were willing to take for the sake of bringing my own error to my attention, whether or not I was willing to face it. Maybe they didn't even think THAT hard about it and were purely responding from their own anger. I don't know. Luckily for me, and maybe for them, I didn't just stop at getting angry. Would someone else have? Sure, maybe, depending on the person. Heck, a week ago, I may have!
That was it for the content from my earlier post, but I had a few more thoughts to add to it.

Since being called out on my own racial blind-spot  I suppose I have been extra sensitive to awareness of prejudice and entitlement in all sorts of situations. This past week and a half, I've witnessed four separate instances of sexism, racism, and even religious discrimination from people I have a strong respect and admiration for as well as their kids. These are wonderful, intelligent people that apparently, for whatever reason, seem to simply be preconditioned not to notice their own prejudices, much as I have been.

I've even noticed some leanings in myself that I've become anxious to get rid of. Things like only noticing a person's race or what they're wearing, without recognizing anything else about them. Things like feeling nervous around a large group of African American youth who were at the same retreat center I was at, or like assuming a person speaking another language to their children wouldn't understand English if I conversed with them. Far be it from me to call out others, when I'm so obviously still flawed.

The point is that this kind of ignorance and bias-- be it homophobia, racism, sexism, or classism, or any other “-ism”-- exists everywhere, in all sorts of forms, and even if a lot of people would be really offended to have it pointed out to them, whether by the person they're insulting with their behavior, or another witness-- offense is not the worst thing they could experience. Continuing on through their life deprived of deeper friendships and relationships with those that differ from themselves by a trait or habit or mindset that they may be completely unaware of would certainly be a higher price to pay than a little temporary offense. And if I have a chance to give them that opportunity to address the habit and let their lives and relationships become richer for it, then it behooves me to step a little out of my own comfort zone and do something about it. Scary though it might be.

Have you noticed evidence of prejudice in your own or others' actions? What is something you could do to counteract it?

Friday, February 22, 2013

Lent for Everyone, Days 8 & 9: Jesus When the Going Gets Tough

I apologize for falling off the bandwagon. It's been a crazy couple weeks.

I was really feeling both of these today! LOL.

Now that it's official, I may as well share that we have made a major decision. We are moving, in May. Not only are we moving, but I am quitting my job as an in-home childcare worker to become a full-time stay-at-home mom and live-in caregiver to my husband's wonderful, octogenarian grandmother. I will also begin to undertake the enormous project of homeschooling my daughter. So... a lot of changes.

Readers, meet Mamom (that's my mother-in-law next to her).

I'm excited of course, primarily because this move will mean so much more financial flexibility for my family. Instead of being kind of a shut-in because of my work schedule and the prohibitive cost of gas (though thanks to my sainted Hubby, I do get out of the house at least three nights a week), I may actually be able to get out during the day and participate in activities and playdates with other SAHMs on a regular basis. I'll also (theoretically) have more time to focus on activities that I haven't been able to give as much time to as I would like, such as stocking and advertising for my store, blogging, and finishing my book.

But in addition to being excited about all the freedoms this'll give me, I'm also kind of anxious. This'll mean learning to live with another person, and becoming responsible for their care and safety. It'll also mean completely overhauling my own self-image as a mother and wife: I've never really pictured myself as a home-schooling mom. I always figured I'd go back to work, at least part-time, when Baby got to be school-aged, and the idea of being wholly responsible for the complete socialization and education of my child is a bit daunting. Homeschooling our kids has always been a bit of an unrealistic dream for Hubby since we always needed that extra income and I couldn't work (even at home) and home-school at the same time, but now that it's possible, he really wants to do this, and I have to admit, I'm excited. I'm getting all sorts of ideas about how I can really tap into the cultural and historical epicenter that is this DC-metro area where we and give my child the education of a lifetime. But at the same time, that timid little voice in my head just keeps wondering: “Can I really do this?” Regardless, I'm gonna try...

As if packing, cleaning, laundry, and planning a
Bible study aren't enough, I also made these to
share on the trip up. Brought it on myself?
Guilty! But they will be SO yummy!
So there's that. On top of that, though, I've also been gearing up for a Tai Chuan Do retreat this weekend, where I and three other dojos worth of students and instructors will be immersed in a veritable martial arts boot camp, sparring and practicing katas and technique and learning about the evolution of the style from 5:30 in the morning until 9 o'clock at night. I'll be joining the ranks of probably close to 200 other students, most of the adults of which have been doing this for two and three times as long as I have at least. I'll also be helping teach the children's bible study while I'm there, so on top of packing, working, and making sure the house is Hubby- and Baby-ready for an entire weekend, I've been trying to put together a little something extra for that. The whole thing is another one of those things that has me both excited and utterly stressed.

Plus, twice in the last couple weeks, I've had encounters with friends that have left me really feeling kind of drained, insecure, and saddened.

So there's the background for you on my mindset when I went into the last couple days' readings. Yesterday's reading was Matthew 8, in which Jesus heals a bevy of people with various afflictions, calms the storm, and sends the demons into the pigs. Then, today, in Matthew 9, Jesus continues in similar fashion, healing and witnessing and getting into debates with the religious authorities. It's a busy couple chapters for the Son of God. But as I read it, I really began to notice just HOW busy it was. It's easy to do a cursory reading of these chapters and just think “Oh, wow, Jesus and his disciples did a lot of awesome things!” and just leave it at that. It's easy to assume the Holy Baker's Dozen (i.e. Jesus and the Twelve Apostles-- oh yes, I totally just went there!) were riding high on the wave of God's coming kingdom, without a worry on their mind. But then, when I really focus on the details, I notice a lot of things that must have made this period of time an emotional roller coaster for Jesus and his friends.

First, there's Matthew 8, in which Jesus heals a leper (8:30), the centurion's son (8:13), and Peter's mother (8:15). He even casts demons out of demon-possessed people (8:16), and all this just adds to his reputation as a miracle worker and a spiritual celebrity. But at the same time, he's utterly aware of the drawbacks of a life of selfless sacrifice and ministering to the needy: two separate people approach Him enthusiastically, then cut and run when he points out the fact that “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (8:19-22). A life of sacrifice looks nice from the outside, but it's a lonely life at times, because not everyone is willing to give up the things they love for God or anyone else. Then Jesus and the Twelve get in a boat to cross the sea, and –a presumably physically exhausted-- Jesus curls up in the back of the boat to get a little shuteye, only to be awoken by his terror-stricken friends who-- despite all the amazing things they've seen and the intimate relationship they have enjoyed with the personification of God's Love on earth-- still have the gall to question whether he cares if they live or die. He calms the waves and wind (8:26), immediately causing the disciples to fear him instead (8:27). His power is mind-blowing, and despite how often he's shown himself to be gentle, loving, and forgiving in these men's company, all they can focus on is that power that could squash them like bugs. Talk about a let-down. Then He enters the region of the Gadarenes and casts demons out of two infamously violent demon-possessed men, ridding the region of a big local threat (8:28-32), and what does he get for it? The locals band together and beg him to leave the region before any more of their precious non-Kosher stock go down to Davy Jones' locker (8:34).

Then there's Matthew 9. The gang is back in Jewish territory now, and Jesus is looking forward to visiting his hometown. As soon as he arrives, people are lining up to ask him to heal the sick and lame, and when he heals a paralytic, the crowds glorify God. But this is punctuated by the scribes publicly accusing him of blasphemy (9:1-7) because he forgave the man his sins first. Later, Jesus calls a sinner and tax collector, Matthew, to a changed life and wins an audience with many others at a dinner for sinners (see what I did there?). But this huge leap forward for the population of God's kingdom is tainted slightly by the same old naysayers, who are now pointing out how Jesus is hanging out with the wrong people (9:9-13). Not only is he being criticized by the religious authorities, but people on his own “team” start questioning him (John's disciples), and he has to defend himself to people you would expect to support his every move (9:14-17). As he's patiently explaining to them, a synagogue official confesses his faith and gives Jesus an opportunity to heal a dead child (9:18-19). On his way to do so, Jesus changes a woman's life by healing her of a twelve-year disease (9:20-22), which is clearly a high moment. But then it's immediately followed by public ridicule when he declares that the dead girl is “only sleeping”. Nevertheless, he presses on and heals the girl, which spreads the news of His power throughout the land (9:23-26). Later, he heals two blind men, but then they immediately disobey his mandate not to tell anyone about it (9:27-31); apparently even gratitude for a miraculous healing does not necessarily produce obedience in some people. Then, again, he is criticized and accused by the Pharisees when he heals a mute demon-possessed man (9:32-34). He goes throughout the land healing and working miracles and causing all sorts of people to give glory to God, but at the same time, he witnesses a lot of pain and suffering-- all the time while being criticized and accused by the people “in charge” who feel threatened by the radical change he is bringing about-- and it really gets to Him (9:35-36). He wants more help, and feels like there is more work than even He can do alone, and he asks the disciples to pray for God to provide more workers (9:37-38).

Ladies and gentleman, even Jesus got overwhelmed.

I know this sounds like a no-brainer. I mean, the only Son of God? Those are some pretty huge shoes to fill. It's a role that comes with a lot of expectations and responsibilities. Plus, religion is a topic people get feisty about, because it's close to our hearts and defines us and our world, but he came to turn the whole concept of God and religion on its head. So it was pretty much guaranteed that he was gonna end up making nearly as many enemies as friends, especially among the establishment, who had a lot of interest in keeping the present system that supported their comfy lifestyle intact. But still... I guess sometimes I tend to forget that Jesus was human. I mean, I know it intellectually, but when I'm in the thick of life's storms, I tend to be right there among the complainers, shouting at God in a panic “Don't you care?”

But if I stop to think about it, of COURSE he cares. He's been there! He's been tired, stressed, hungry, thirsty, rejected, criticized, and overworked. He's had people need of him until he's so tired he doesn't think there's anything left, and then had to get up and go give some more. He's had a whole world of blessings and love to share with someone only to have them walk away because the sacrifices were too much and they didn't want to live a life of unity with the Father unless it included a comfy bed and plenty of personal down-time. He's had people who should have known better assume the worst of him and he's been ostracized because people didn't like the message he taught or the costs that accompanied his miracles.

The big difference between Jesus and me, though, is that he kept on keeping on. He didn't let how he felt keep him from accomplishing what he set out to do, even dying on the cross. He never once let his own feelings get in the way of acting as a conduit of God's love, grace, mercy, and power. Me, on the other hand...? If it were me in that story instead of Jesus... well, there probably wouldn't be a Matthew Chapter 9. I would have quit somewhere around the calming of the sea. I don't deal well with criticism and rejection, especially when it's coming from people I feel close to, or who I think should know me better than they seem to. If we rewrote these chapters to be the life and times of Stephanie the Messiah, instead of Jesus, Chapter 8 would've probably ended with me getting off the boat and catching a ride home to lock myself in my room and cry. The two violent demon-possessed Gadarenes would have gone on terrorizing the region, the scribes and Pharisees would have remained happy hypocrites oppressing the masses, the synagogue official's daughter would've been buried, and all those people would have gone on leading their lives deaf, blind, lame, leprous, demon-possessed, mute, sinful, and miserable. Not to mention, without Jesus' death on the cross to pay the ransom for all sins and resurrection to show his victory over Hell, we would have no hope today. This would be it, all there is to life. All because, when the going got tough, the Messiah gave up.

But thank God-- literally!-- that He sent Jesus instead of me. Because Jesus was stronger than I am. He refused to allow the little (and large) trials of life to defeat him, even for a moment, much less permanently. He relied on God's strength to supplement his own and forged on ahead, brushing aside the criticisms, rejection, stress, and exhaustion. And I want that, so bad. I want to know God's strength in my life like that.

Lord Jesus,
I cannot imagine what it must have been like to live the life you did. My own life is so much smaller and simpler than Yours was, and it still overwhelms me. But I am inspired by your perseverance in the face of hardship, stress, and disappointment. I want to know that kind of power that enables me to push on in the face of every challenge. So please, Lord, help me to rely on Our Father for strength, for peace and serenity, and for the will to keep going when I am exhausted. Thank you for persevering even to death on the cross, so that I could have the relationship with God that makes my life, with all of its beauty and struggles, meaningful and precious. 

What do you need God's strength to cope with right now?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Lent for Everyone, Day 7: The Kingdom of Heaven

I apologize. It has been a crazy week, and I'm out of energy.
I knew this point would come somewhere along this devotional study, and I will try to move past it by tomorrow, hopefully, but since last Wednesday night basically my entire plan for my life beyond May has changed in less than a week, and I have also endured several different stressful encounters and confrontations with various people in my life, and by this point, you probably are well aware of how much that takes out of me.
Due to planning and meeting with the mom of the little boy I watch-- and just general craziness of parenting and housekeeping-- I haven't gotten around to doing today's reading until just now, and while I desperately want to do Matthew 6 the justice it deserves as one of the most packed sections of the Bible on the topic of Christian living, I am just utterly spent. So I'll just leave you with this for now: a picture, and a statement, based on Wright's devotional commentary on this chapter.

This is what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like.

How do you interpret this?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Lent for Everyone, Day 6: Confrontation and the MPSH Personality Type

Good evening, interwebz.

We are gonna get right down to business today, because I have some serious stuff I want to discuss with you.

Today's reading is on Matthew Chapter 5, the Sermon on the Mount.

Starting out, the author points out that while for some of us it is a primary instinct to take it as such, the Beatitudes were never meant to be taken as a rules list, but instead should be a source of joy for us. Now personally, that caught me by surprise, because even though I tend to be one of those rules-lawyers by nature when it comes to Biblical exhortations, I've rarely ever gotten anything but comfort from Jesus' mountaintop declaration of blessings.

Now probably it's just because I think I'm doing pretty well in these areas...

Matthew 5:3

“Blessed are the poor in Spirit” 

Having always seemingly had a hard time “hearing” and “feeling” God, I've frequently felt very poor in spirit. I long for Him to be real in my life, to know with certainty His leading in every situation, and to feel His presence every time I sit down to do some quiet time with Him. I've even been known to scoot out a chair and put a cup of coffee down in front of it so that I can pretend God is actually sitting there with me when I pray. I feel pretty desperate for my faith to be more real to me all the time, yet this doesn't seem to be a gift that God has blessed me with. A friend actually shares this problem, and I've remarked to him before that perhaps this is just the unique trial God has given people like us to test our endurance and build up perseverance in us. It makes sense to me. Perseverance is not a trait I typically default to. When the going gets tough, the Stephanie typically gives up and logs on to browse Facebook, leaving her quiet time on the table. But that longing and desire always brings me back, hoping that if I just keep trying, if I just keep praying and seeking and knocking, one day-- maybe tomorrow, maybe years from now-- it'll all pay off, and I will suddenly feel a clear, open line of communication with God. But for now, I am poor in spirit, dwelling in abject spiritual poverty, and just struggling to make ends meet, to glean enough from my day-to-day interaction with God's word and people to keep going. And this encouragement has always been a big one for me. One day, I will be rewarded for that poverty I currently must live with. Hallelujah!

Matthew 5:4

“Blessed are those who mourn”

Confession time! I'm a drama queen.
I really don't mean to be, and it's one of the traits I truly despise in myself, but it must somehow be hard-wired through nature or nurture, or possibly both, into my personality, because every time a conflict arises, people might notice that I am suddenly conspicuously absent. And when they go looking for me, they might find me sitting on my bed, crying my eyes out, because I am so upset over the possibility of disappointing someone or knowing that they are going through something difficult, whether or not it has anything at all to do with me. I am an emotional sponge, especially so for negative or difficult emotions, and I feel things very acutely, so much so that I have had to end friendships before because the other person's clinical depression was rubbing off on me. Consequently, mourning is pretty much a constant state for me. I mourn over friends' divorces, over custody battles and illnesses, over deaths in the family and friend's family crises. At the moment I am in a state of dread over breaking some bad news to the mother of the little boy I watch that I will be moving in three to four months, because I'm terrified to disappoint her, despite intending to make every effort to ease the blow with time and offers of assistance with finding a new caregiver. Yep... that's my life. Pretty constantly disturbed over something. And try as I might I seem to be nigh incapable of turning it off. Hubby has even tried to give me lessons in compartmentalizing my emotions, but that only seems to work in short bursts, and they're always waiting there to welcome me back with open arms and a tissue. But Jesus promises here that I will be comforted! And that is such a relief to me, that someday God is going to make it all better and life will be good, all the time. No more mourning. Praise the Lord!

Matthew 5:5

“Blessed are the meek”

So according to a quick Google search, the definition of “meek” is Quiet, gentle, and easily imposed on.” Now I'm rarely quiet, and I'm not always gentle, BUT... Hubby IS constantly on my case because I AM very easily imposed on. I have a habit of bending over backward to make other people happy. Now my motive is probably more often out of fear of disappointing people or a desire to be liked than a real sense of humility and a desire to glorify God, but whatever my motive, I can proudly proclaim that I am-- in practice at least-- pretty darn meek. So... Beatitude #3: check!

Matthew 5:6

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”

It's funny how everybody has different aspects of godliness that come more naturally than others. Hubby, for instance, is excellent at trusting God. He's usually the one comforting me in the face of a difficult time, reassuring me that God will take care of us because he always has. He is also a natural prayer warrior, praying regularly as he goes throughout his workday and always reminding me when I'm fretting to cast my cares on God. I really rely on him for these spiritual talents to supplement my lack of belief in certain areas, and there are many other areas in which I rely on support from the body of Christ and my believing friends to remind me to work on my own spiritual disciplines. But I do know of at least one area in which I'm usually pretty on top of things. For the sake of brevity, we'll just say I have a bent toward self-improvement. I'm always working on a new project to improve my outlook, behavior, lifestyle, or knowledge in a new area. If it's not using cloth diapers, it's recycling, or eating healthier, or losing weight, or memorizing scripture, or any number of other things. Once I've reached a higher level of “compliance” with ideals in one area, I'm on to the next biggest problem. I'm never satisfied just being “happy the way I am”; I always want to become a better person. Being a “meek” person, I necessarily tend to have a somewhat deflated view of myself, and it's easier for me than perhaps some people (people with better self esteem perhaps, lol) to recognize when I have a weakness, sin, or struggle that needs work. Now this doesn't always mean I don't need things pointed out to me to recognize them, as you'll see in a bit, but once I see the problem, I'm on it like me on chocolate ice cream (that's a better analogy once you've seen me with a bowl of chocolate ice cream). And, let's face it: I'm a pretty imperfect person, especially spiritually. So I would say I am in a pretty constant state of hunger and thirst for greater righteousness in my life. Which means, if that perseverance God is working with me on pays out, someday I will be satisfied! Huzzah!

Matthew 5:7-9

“Blessed are the merciful... pure in heart... [and] peacemakers”

Well, I don't know that the first or even one of the top ten words that come to mind when my friends think of me would be merciful or pure. Probably not. They're not really identifying factors for me, per se. But I wouldn't say I'm cruel, nor am I typically a morally questionable sort of person (probably due more to excellent parenting and marrying a godly man pretty much fresh out of my parents' household than any particular piety on my part, but I'll take it). But I am a peacemaker. I hate to see people I love fighting, and since I love easy, that makes me one of the more eager peacemakers I can think of. Whenever it depends on me, I am there trying to inject peace and harmony into the situation, even when it's perhaps none of my business. And I hate fighting or conflict, as I mentioned. I will do anything to avoid it. (Which is pretty funny when you consider that two of my favorite hobbies are martial arts and wargaming!)

Matthew 5:10

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness's sake”

This one is a difficult one to define, especially in America where we are privileged to live under the banner of religious freedom. “Persecution” for our Christian beliefs in this country is laughable in the face of what believers in many other countries face, and I would never want to make light of that. I have it easy. But, like any other believer, I have undergone losses for the sake of my Lord. Sometimes it has been in the form of sacrificing a closer bond with family or friends I might have had if I was willing to fudge on the subject of my beliefs. Sometimes it has meant not pursuing relationships that were tempting to my hormonal teenage self. Sometimes it has even meant-- GASP!-- confronting other believers on sinful behavior or destructive decisions. And we all know by now how much I hate anything to do with confrontation. But I have been known occasionally to screw up the small amount of courage I possess and march bravely into the fiery furnace of other people's ill opinions for the greater cause of Christ, at least as I believed it to be at the time.

So altogether, based on that list, I seem to be doing pretty well. I'm almost a natural, a Beatituder! That's me, part of the in-crowd with Jesus. I'm set, I'm saved, and I'm golden! It's smooth-sailing from here until Judgment day.

But... (there's always a but)...

Christ follows up that list of “blessed”s with a command that I somehow always missed on earlier readings of this verse:

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
 Matthew 5:13-16

Hmm... salt and lights. Interesting...

Now what stands out to me is how different these analogies are, when they could have been pretty similar. The salt losing it's saltiness would have implied to me that the parallel analogy, the lamp, would have involved someone blowing it out. But no, instead the light is not put out or lost, but instead hidden. So first you have useless salt, because it is no longer able to be used for what it was intended for. And then you have a lamp that is fully capable of functioning, but it's not. Instead, it's being hidden from others' view, under a basket, no less. Not only is this a silly use for a lamp, but it's a waste of fuel too.

Now I don't know about you, but I find it interesting that this exhortation of being light and salt comes immediately after the part where Jesus was handing out the awards for the meek, peacemaking, self-deprecating and humble. Innnnnnnnteresting...

Do you think maybe... just maybe... it was because one of the most common problem for meek, peacemaking, self-deprecating and humble people is speaking up on controversial issues? As one of those people... I certainly think so!

I have frequently noted how witnessing to others actually gets harder for me personally the longer I am a Christian. Now you'd think it'd be the other way around: the longer you do something, the easier it gets. But this is a tricky thing.

See, the longer I am a Christian, the more I notice how much everyone else around me doesn't really like Christianity all that much. Or really, religion in general, but Christians-- perhaps because in America we are the majority religious group-- tend to receive the brunt of it. Christian's are easily the most made-fun-of religious group in comedy and on TV. We are regularly belittled in art and literature.
Things we have long taken for granted, like mentioning God in the pledge of allegiance or being able to pray pretty much anywhere we please are suddenly becoming topics of debate. And while I cannot say I have experienced any personal instances of “pushback” for being a believer in years, a person can only live in a culture directly opposed to their lifestyle and beliefs for so long before they begin to get a bit of the victim mentality. Now for some people this manifests in the “fight” portion of the “fight or flight” response (and as I write this, I suddenly have a new appreciation for the more outspoken ranks of the LGBT community- aha! Now I get it!). But for those of us who are meek and tend to question ourselves and our own abilities an inordinate amount, we will always default to flight. Avoid the conversation, run away from the confrontation, and stay as quiet and inoffensive on the controversial topic as possible. It's simple self-preservation instinct kicking in. But here's the thing: as a believer, chosen and appointed by God to witness to an unbelieving world, we are tasked with really only one purpose. To share the Good News. And that sometimes means walking knowingly into that aforementioned fiery furnace of other people's ill opinions. It means telling the truth instead of avoiding the question or equivocating to seem less judgmental. It means caring more about what God thinks of your actions than what some or even all of your peers think. And it's TERRIFYING!

Because of the few bad experiences I've had, and the larger cultural outlook on evangelical Christianity, I tend to cover up my faith as much as possible in circles where I fear it may receive more of the same. I either keep silent, or try to explain it in such a way that nobody is offended (often going above and beyond and rambling on and on in nervous chatter, as some of my friends can attest). But maybe offense isn't the worst thing I can cause. People are necessarily offended when a higher standard demands change in them, and God often does just that. And the result of offense can often be dwelling on a subject because of the emotional response it caused, which leads to deeper thought, and sometimes to change. It's happened to me, many times. It could certainly happen to others around me. In fact, it did happen to me, over the weekend. And I intend to share that with you, perhaps tomorrow. It was a hard lesson to learn, and the correction hurt and honestly made me really angry to begin with. But then as I remembered the lesson I had learned about delaying action to wait on God, it started to sink in that I could learn a difficult but essential lesson from the words given to me, much as they hurt.

The correction came at the right time, and I was ready to receive it. And that was definitely God's doing, not mine. If God can work in such a timely way to correct me of my own prejudice and ignorance through the word of a friend (who last I checked was not a professing Christian), then surely He can do the same in other lives... in other hearts and relationships. And while that might mean that I have to risk offending people, maybe even to the point of losing friends and being disliked, there is a greater good than my own in that situation. The truth. And even though the truth often hurts-- a LOT-- it's essential for helping us become better people who please God more deeply. And for those of us MPSH personality types, that is the greatest way to fulfill the Beatitudes, because not only do we follow Christ's directive to let our light shine, but we also offer the opportunity to others to share the blessings that Christ's people for being the kind of people God loves to bless. And that's definitely worth the risk.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Lent For Everyone, Day 3: Blogger Friday, Temptation, and the Draw of Others' Opinions




Oh. Hey....

Yeah, that's me this morning. We celebrated Valentine's Day with my mother- and brother-in-law playing Star Trek Settlers of Catan last night, and we were up til about eleven. Then I had a lot of trouble getting to sleep because the shoulder I landed wrong on in karate last week was flaring up. Plus I forgot to set the alarm, and Baby must be pretty tired too because she didn't wake me up. So... slow start to the day. TGIF!

I won! Resistance is futile!
Not something you want to land wrong while doing... trust me!

Let's see... where were we.

Oh, right. Lent, Day 3. Matthew, Chapter Four. The Temptation of Jesus and the Calling of the Disciples. Got it.

Well, needless to say I'm kinda lacking inspiration today, but two key points to today's study did manage to pierce the caffeine-withdrawal haze of my brain this morning.


In this passage, Jesus is tempted three times in the desert. He was obviously there a long time (forty days and nights), and I'm sure internal temptation had already been triggered when Satan showed up. How can you fast that long and not notice you're hungry, after all. Jesus was human. So he already had himself to fight off when Satan shows up and tempts him with an offer of food. And then with the jumping off a building thing. And finally Satan just pulled all the stops and said “Bow to me.”

Maybe it's the mommy in me, but in this passage I tend to see Satan as a whiny two-year old. First he asks Jesus to do something, something innocuous-- as Jordan pointed out-- that wouldn't necessarily hurt anyone. But it wasn't in Jesus' plan. Then Satan goes a little further. “Jump off this building,” he says. “Angels will catch you!” But Jesus isn't about to give in to dumb ideas just to display his own bravado. And then Satan seemingly throws a little hissy fit: “I'll give you all this stuff if you do what I want!” He's bargaining  with almost a seed of desperation in his voice (if Jesus hadn't banished him after this, we probably would have seen the Prince of Darkness throw himself down on the desert sand and start kicking and screaming).

I gotta admire how Jesus kept his cool. Mostly because I so rarely do. Baby has been doing the typical 2-year old thing lately and testing every boundary as often as she can. We deal with a LOT of tantrums daily around here. And frequently, I find myself, tired and irritated and at my wits end, shouting right back at her. But that only makes her more upset, and makes me feel foolish for arguing with a two-year old. So I've been trying a different tactic lately: staying calm.

Big Boy's “case worker” (not really sure what to call her, but she works for the school district and does visits to make sure that his special needs learning plan is being implemented at home and daycare as well as at school) actually got me started on it. She gave me a paper with the 3-Step Guide toCompliance to use with Big Boy, and she suggested it might work well for Baby too. And while I don't always follow it exactly, it really got me thinking about regulating my reactions. So now, when Baby either isn't listening or hasn't done something correctly, I always react the same way. And when it's time for punishment, instead of becoming angry, I've started calling her over, asking her why she is getting punished, doling out the punishment quickly, and then holding her afterward while she processes it. And actually, it has worked wonders. Not just for Baby, but for me too! I don't get so upset, because I have a process to fall back on. And because I'm not upset and shouting, Baby really seems to listen better.

And to me, Jesus seems all about keeping his cool here. Instead of getting emotional, he pulled a Spock and stayed serene and logical, countering Satan's increasingly belligerent attitude with Scripture. 

Scripture... logic... same difference...

And in the end, Satan left and Jesus was ministered to by angels. Now this is something I could totally use!
I'm pretty sure this is what the ministering angels looked like.

Alright... one portion down. Hold on while I top off my coffee...

Ahh, that's better. Now then...

The Calling of the Disciples

I find myself putting myself into the shoes of Peter, Andrew, and the other disciples who were called to leave their nets and fathers' boats and follow after Jesus. I'll let you in on a secret: I probably wouldn't have followed Jesus.

I have a bad habit of dwelling an inordinate amount on what other people think. In fact, at this very moment I'm having trouble focusing on finishing this post because I just had a negative interaction with a friend on Facebook, and it's eating at me. But Peter and all the rest just up and left their nets and father and family and job when Jesus beckoned to them. Was that a popular decision in their communities? Surely not! Maybe if it had been one of the leaders of the Pharisees beckoning, and if it had been a great and obvious honor to them and their families. But Jesus was still a relative unknown at this juncture, some guy from Nazareth (the "bad part of town"), vaguely associated with that crazy preacher guy, John, who was now in prison, and who didn't have a home or even a place to lay his head. He was basically a vagrant! Peter and all the rest's families must have been mortified to know that their bright young sons with so much potential, and who were someday expected to take over the family business, just threw it all away to follow after this weird Jesus fellow.

I'm actually facing a decision in my own life right now that could potentially mean God calling me to leave behind some things, things that I am heavily invested in, and it would would possibly mean disappointing friends or people I know. And even though it would be a move that would greatly strengthen our family and help us and others in multiple ways, the idea of disappointing those others is enough to make me dread and put off making the decision. I hate confrontation. I hate feeling like I've disappointed others. And while I know in my head that God's opinion is the one that matters most, His constant love for me and the fact that I don't physically interact with Him on a daily basis make His disappointment somehow sting a little less in the face of disappointing people I know and care about and see often.

But I don't want to be that way. I am constantly bemoaning how reliant I am on others opinions of me, and how little God's expectations seem to influence me when pitted against others. But I'm not sure how to change. I want to be a Peter or an Andrew, but most of the time, I find myself with the rich young man or the crowds who left Jesus after he preached a hard message in John 6:65: sadly walking away because he is just asking too much...

What do you think?

Whose opinion usually wins out in your life: God's or man's? 
Why? And if it's wrong, how can we change it? 
Leave a comment!

Since it's Blogger Friday, I just wanted to reextend the invitation for you to join us on this Lent journey. If you have the Youversion Bible App (available for free on any smartphone, tablet, or online), we are reading through the Lent For Everyone topical study by N.T. Wright. We would love to come together as an online community of Christian bloggers and share this experience together. So feel free to link up! We're only on Day 3, so plenty of time to catch up!

Other Lent for Everyone bloggers:

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Lent For Everyone, Day 2: Preconceptions, Race and Faith, and In-Crowd

Look at me go! Second day in a row, and I'm blogging again! Wow! Again, no promises that this'll last, but hey, what can I say: I sat down to write out notes on this chapter, and I ended up with nearly a full page of notes. If I keep that up, my week-long summaries are gonna be way too long to read. So at least this week, I'll spare you the experience of wading through all that and break it down daily.

Family Stories and Preconceptions

For today's reading, Wright takes us through Matthew, Chapter 3, and John the Baptist's famous ministry “preparing the way for the Lord.” One of his first comments was on the way family stories can affect the way we view the world, and how that shows in the Jews' excitement over John's message (when you consider that they fully expected the Messiah to come in with an army and actually set up an earthly kingdom). The first thing this brought to mind was my husband. 

See, when he was a little guy, his dad was obsessed with sports. And I'm not overstating when I used the word obsessed. Every minute that he was home, he was glued to the television, taking in the race or the game. So much so that he couldn't even be bothered to explain the rules and nuances of the game to his first son so Hubby could join in the fun and bond with his dad over touchdowns and wins. So my husband, predictably, grew up hating sports, because he had from a young age associated them with the neglect he felt from his father. But there was another, more subtle effect this experience had on him: his dream and goal in life became to be a husband and father. Because he had so missed the involvement of his own, he wanted to somehow fill that void by being an engaged husband and father to his own wife and children. So a simple thing like his dad's love for sports became a pivotal influence for my husband's personality and life. I couldn't really think of a Biblical application for this, it's just an interesting tidbit to go with Wright's thought on family stories affecting behavior. (The good news is my father-in-law has greatly improved over the years and is now a very engaged and loving father and grandfather!)

But more on the Jews and their story: it seems obvious that the main reasons the Israelites were so eager to check out this John guy was that they had a full expectation of the Messiah being an earthly king who would come in and establish his reign, outing the Romans, and making the Jews a sudden first-class culture on the map. The were eager and excited to get involved in what seemed like an impending political overhaul. It's interesting to think about that now that we know that Jesus's kingdom would reign not over populations and institutions, but over the hearts and minds of men. We may even get a little bit of what I like to call historical condescension: “Oh, I would've known better. It's so OBVIOUS from Scripture that Jesus would die on the cross. I wouldn't have been fooled.” 

But if we push past that first instinct, doesn't it also make you kind of uncomfortable? Like, what kinds of things are we expecting from God that probably aren't going to turn out exactly as we imagine them? Or perhaps won't be anything like our expectations? Take the End Times, for example. Christian mainstream culture has built up the End of Days into a pretty basic, established timeline, reinforced by Bible scholars, artists, and authors. Books like the Left Behind series and pastors encouraging people to make “post rapture” videos and letters have us pretty well convinced of what will happen and when. Almost as convinced, say, as the Jews were of their conception of the awaited Messiah. But what if it's nothing like what we imagine? What if the figurative things are literal, and the literal things are actually figurative? What if our timelines are way off? What if The rapture ISN'T pre-trib like we all expect (and hope!)? It's kind of a scary idea, huh? Gives you a little more empathy with the Jews of John the Baptist and Jesus' time. And I wonder... if any of those what-ifs were true... how would that work to weed out true believers from those of us just plodding along on the beaten path of Christianity that others have laid down for us?

Imagining God

Unleavened Bread for our class Communion.
Baby helped make it!
Last night, I taught a lesson on worshiping Jesus through remembering to my GAs. We ate unleavened bread with grape juice and had a great discussion about the Passover and Jesus' Last Supper. At one point, we imagined we were at Jesus' last supper and we invited him in to join us. After eating our bread and “wine”, I let the girls have a few minutes to share things with Jesus, ask Him questions, do something for him, etc. I was really impressed by some of the things my girls came up with, but some of the most striking things were shared by one of my girls (we'll call her Missie). She asked Jesus what color God is.

Growing up in Idaho, race was rarely an issue that was discussed in my experience. There just isn't a ton of variety in Idaho. Sure there's a healthy community of Hispanics. But at least in my school district, the majority of people were white. The US Census Bureau's statistics for Idaho put the demographics at 90% white, and about 10% Hispanic, with other races in the decimal percentages. We had a few African American students, and several Asian or Hispanic students as well. But by and large, race wasn't an issue because there wasn't a whole lot of variety. Those people who were different were commonly valued more because of their difference, and the rich ethnic background and perspective they often brought to the table (I'm sure others growing up in Idaho have had different experiences, but I can only speak to my own.). So when I moved here to Maryland, the race-issue kind of smacked me like a surprise 2x4 upside my unwitting head. Here, with the demographics split almost 60/30, race is a much larger issue because there is a lot more interaction between racial groups. And not all of it is positive. Working with children for much of the last eight years (God bless their candid honesty!), I have been witness to some pretty colorful and eye-opening comments and opinions on the importance of race, and even sometimes of one race's superiority or inferiority to another. These things strike me as ridiculous and totally out of place in our evolved American culture, but I suppose to someone whose family has been dealing with racial issues on a daily basis for generations, such things die hard. And the comment that followed on Missie's question-- “Because I think he is white and he hates black people”-- was a heartbreaking thing to hear for a teacher who has spent the last three years of this little girl's life trying to teach her that God loves everyone. The worst part? She is black. She thinks God hates her, because of how she was born. What a horrible concept to live with!

This makes me wonder how often we form ideas in our heads of who God is based not off of Scripture, but off the things we hear from those around us, and from our own experiences in the world. When I picture God now, I usually picture an amorphous and almost alien bright light surrounded by chanting angels, a la Revelation 4. But honestly, that image has changed for me over the years. When I first came to Christ, I probably pictured God in one of the most common conceptions: a stern old man with a white beard, glaring down at me from Heaven with grandfatherly disapproval  A sort of “I love you, but you're doing everything wrong” sort of guy. (And yes, he was white.)

But in Matthew 3, we get a very different perspective of God, one I am going to call “Farmer Jehovah” (and, as it always does, the Bible very explicitly neglects to mention color, implying perhaps that God's color is not important at all, and there is no good or bad color or race). God is pictured chopping down those trees in an orchard that aren't bearing fruit, and later, he is using a winnowing fork to clear the threshing floor and gather up his wheat. After reading these verses, I'm now picturing a sun-tanned man in overalls and a flannel shirt, mopping the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief as he goes about caring for his land. But where am I on that land? Am I a fruit tree, or a dead stump? Am I grain, or chaff? With this new perspective of God as a farmer, what does it say about me in relation to Him?

There's not a whole lot of gray area here. In this scenario, I am either harvested produce or trash, a waste of space to be cleared away to make more room for useful crops. Kind of scary, because if I'm really honest, I spend a lot of the growing season sitting around on my keester, soaking up the rain and nutrients God provides me with and letting them evaporate right off without producing anything more than an occasional hopeful bud that eventually shrivels up and drops to the ground. But I don't want to be chopped down and dragged away for firewood. I want to produce! So I need to get cracking!

Jesus Got Baptized

This is just a quick thought, but I felt the need to point out, not only to others, but mainly to myself, that even Jesus got baptized. But if baptism is a physical representation of dying to self to live for God, did He really need it? Of course not! He was God! But he says it was “ Necessary to fulfill all righteousness”. When He says "all", I'm thinking he met all as in “everyone else's idea of”. Meaning, even though he really didn't need John's blessing to begin His ministry (which is sort of like a boss asking his assistant's permission to start the meeting), he wanted it anyway in order to establish that He had gone through all the required steps of faith, and in order to model it for those who would want to follow him. This is a good thing for me to remember next time I'm dusting off my high-n-mighty attitude on alcohol, dancing, role-playing games, or other taboo-in-some-circles topics. Even Jesus did what was not necessary for him in order to keep others from stumbling.

In the Crowd

In his post, Jordan took a moment toconsider where in the crowd he would have been at John the Baptist's ministry on the river Jordan. Jordan would put himself with the Pharisees and Sadducees, but though we are like minded in a lot of ways, I don't think I would be there with him. In fact, I would probably be standing in the back, alternately listening casually and poking fun at the crazy man's wild hair and rustic clothing with a few of my less serious friends. 

Odd, how I consider myself an outsider: when I came to Christ at 16, I immediately started running my school's Lost and Found student ministry club for two years, and while I took a hiatus from leadership during my 2 years in college, I was heavily involved in the campus student Bible study where I met my husband. And then I started teaching GAs and have been since, for almost 8 years. I may in fact have done more ministry work than most people my age who grew up in the church. 

So what gives me the outsider-mindset? Maybe the fact that, with non-believing family, and one foot still very firmly planted in the world (via Darkon, blogging, RPGs, and other activities that have me frequently interacting with non-believers), and not having been normalized to Christian culture in my formative years, I tend to see Christian habits and tendencies with a worldly perspective. Now sometimes this makes me a better Christian, because I stop and apply critical thinking to a tradition or doctrine before just automatically applying it to my life.

But others times it makes me cynical and “too cool for school”: not wanting to be considered one of those “crazy Bible-thumping fundamentalists”, I join into the ridicule and criticism of the church and its leaders. And even if every word I say is true there are two important questions to ask myself:

  1. Am I saying it with the right spirit?

  2. Am I saying it to the right people?
The answers are usually no, and no. I'm usually trying to make myself look cool and critical in others eyes, not honor God. And while the things I'm saying may sometimes be true, I need to be drawing these people closer to God, not giving them another excuse not to kneel at the throne of grace. This same attitude is one I get upset with my GAs over when I am trying to do a serious lesson with them and they keep laughing and making light of it, yet I exemplify it! In a way, this is hardening my heart, and, like soil for seed, only a soft, pliable surface is open to receiving truth. Note to self: do not harden heart!

(And as a side note, don't worry, Jordan! I think you're plenty weird! ;) )

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And that's all she wrote for today. Stay tuned tomorrow as I go for Day 3 of consecutive blogging! Also, happy Valentine's Day from our family to you!

How do you imagine God? How has it changed from when you first accepted Christ? How do you think your race has factored into your conception of Him? Leave a comment below with your thoughts.

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