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.


7 comments:

  1. I had this big, long comment, then I re-read your post. So I wrote up a different big, long comment.

    I wonder how much of what you feel is due to you being an introvert in an extrovert's world. You like to be around people....but in a setting that's familiar or controlled for you (even Darkon because that's essentially a world of your own making interacting with the various worlds of others' making). You again down MOPS (and again, don't knock it till you've tried it)....but I wonder if that's because you think we're all a bunch of girly-girls talking about our hair and other inane, useless things (a revulsion of small-talk is a key characteristic of introverts)? The more I learn about being an introvert, the less I feel like I'm a social outcast and the more I realize that I just want/need different things than most people - and that's ok because that's how God made me to be.

    At the same time though (and this may come across as a bit harsh, but I hope our relationship can handle it), I think that in many cases, groups are what you make of them. How many Darkon events have you missed in recent months? How much church have you missed in recent months? I'm not saying you should be there every time the doors are open, but it's hard to feel like part of a community when you're never there. (Granted, you could be coming religiously (pun intended) on Sunday mornings, and I'd never know it at this point, but is that the case?) You come on Wednesday nights, but who do you interact with that aren't GAs-related, family, or Karate-related? Solomon says that in order to have friends, one must be friendly. Are you expecting more of others than you're giving? Have others had the opportunity to get to know you? You can't be part of a community without getting involved with people.

    Yes, ultimately, Jesus is the center of our community, and we should absolutely rely on Him...but even He (through Paul, I believe) says that we shouldn't neglect the fellowship of the saints. Is what we've made of "church" today what it ought to be? No, because the church is made up of sinful people (a point that I forget with regularity). But it is necessary (and good, even).

    I've been getting together with Dawn and a few others recently to discuss things like this (right now we're reading through David Platt's "Radical"). Let me know if you're interested in joining us.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I understand the points you're making, Melissa, and they are valid, but in this case they just don't happen to be applicable. In fact, I have missed quite a lot of Darkon events lately, in part due to the fact that I feel like they've had a worsening influence on me in some ways so I've been limiting my involvement, though I am still going to attend a few major events through the end of the summer, at which time I will likely stop altogether, at least for a while, due to family conflicts. And I've come to church more often of late (though certainly not as often as I suppose I should), hoping to cultivate whatever might be lacking there. I've also started up an online Bible study, via vidchat, which-- while it has been suffering the hiccuppy schedule that seems to happen to every social going-on during the beginning of the summer season-- has actually been growing and providing a great spiritual blessing for all of us involved. I think my feeling of lack of community goes a bit deeper. For example, during the last month of GAs, I came to church as often as we were in town and was at church also on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday nights, not to mention the leadership conference. I was literally spending nearly half of my week at church. Yet while there, I didn't get that same sense of belonging. Rather I tend to feel mostly like I am seen as a body to be put to work, though I am blessed by the work I do, no arguments there. And when I'm not there, people don't really call or write to ask me where I was. I realize how needy that sounds, but it does make a big difference in my sense of belonging.

    I could also point out the woeful lack of attendance in our Sunday School class as a symptom. I realize some members are just busy with other Sunday morning activities (and props to them! ;)), but that doesn't negate the fact that we have had a mere three people in class four out of the last five times I have attended (and that is counting the teacher!). There used to be nearly, what... a dozen? More even. But people have petered off, gone their separate ways, lost interest. Why? Maybe because it just isn't offering what people seem to want or need. But I think, deeper than that, it's because while many of us were and are good friends, we weren't a bonded community to begin with. People don't want to commit to something that they don't feel like they belong to... and that may be why churches, Sunday school classes, bible studies, and various other religious institutions seem to be losing people. Of course, I could be blowing hot air here. I dunno. But it rings true for me. The only problem is that I can only point to the problem, and then only as it relates to my own experience. I don't have any idea how to fix it.
    By the way, I didn't knock MOPS! I just said I prefer role-playing games to MOPS nights or concerts, and, let's be honest, I prefer role-playing to pretty much every other social event! LOL. Though touche, I do have yet to try it, mostly because it seems like every time I get an invite to something, there's a scheduling conflict... :-/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not trying to point fingers, and certainly not espousing the idea that people should be at every church activity (although, for the record, we've been in Nathaniel's SS class for a while now). Those were questions I didn't know the answer to, but thought were pertinent to ask. I'm with you on the lack of community in church.

      I think the SS class, like our former small group petered out because not everyone was committed to it equally (well...and the teaching style has changed over the years). I would plan my week out based on the group coming over, and would hear every excuse in the book come Friday afternoon - after I'd spent all day cleaning the house, turned down other activities, gone grocery shopping for special (expensive) ingredients to match up with preferences/allergies, and then cooked an entree for a dozen people...which my family then had to eat for days on end because no one was showing up...again... When not all members are committed to something, it's hard to keep it going.

      I think I've also basically just given up on feeling like I "belong" in church. As far as I know, no one's even noticed that my family has essentially stopped coming on Sunday mornings (well, except for those people whose ministries we no longer serve in). I've been a part of the church for over 30 years now. You'd think someone might notice I'd been gone from the "normal" things. But pretty much no one has - or at least they haven't said anything to _me_ about it. It took 6 months of me not being in class for the current SS teachers to mention that they missed me...and that was only because we happened to cross paths one day. Do I bottle that up and get upset about it (not saying you're doing that)? Or do I recognize that people are busy with their own things? They probably think about you...but that extra effort to call, etc...that just doesn't happen in a lot of cases. Just like I don't track people down that I haven't seen in a while...because I'm busy with my own things...

      I think in general, the church needs to do a better job at keeping tabs on people. I think, technically (in the Baptist tradition anyway), the responsibility falls on the deacons, but it's probably been a while since most of our deacons really invested themselves in the lives of those technically under their care. Our church has been pushing the small group idea for a while now...but again, there's a mutuality there that is required for that model to work.

      I don't know what the answer is...I just know that I'm not going to feel like I'm part of a community unless I invest in it, but that still doesn't guarantee that I'll feel like I'm part of it because community can't be one-sided. There is a vulnerability that is required. There is a time commitment that is required. There is a need to really pay attention outside of myself and my own things that is required. And those things are required of everyone in the community in order for it to be a true community...but I only have control over myself. It's not about me (getting what I want/need), it's all about me (doing what I ought to do).

      And I know it doesn't come across this way, but I'm right there with you. The closest thing to church I've ever experienced was an investment firm that I temped at right after Ryan and I got married. I'm still trying to figure out what to do with that and what "church" should look like instead of what it has become. It's a frequent topic of conversation between myself and Dawn especially. I wish I knew the answers, but I think it's going to end up just being dependent on people choosing each other on a daily basis, like in a marriage. And that's hard to get people to do in this disposable, self-centered, fast-paced society.

      Delete
  3. I thought I'd put a little comment here even though I sent you my novel last night. I totally get what you are saying. While I think your friend has a good point about introversion (is there a more definitive introvert than my husband and me? We make you look like an extrovert on crack!), one of the missing points is that introverts are often more aware of subtle social cues/looks/expectations. Thus, one person may think church is moving forward as usual, but the sensitive introvert is able to see that minute expression of "you're weird" or "you're boring me" cross their fellow church goers face. If we only have to deal with this with one friend or person, we can usually manage and stretch ourselves. But I have found that some churches and denominations almost have an entire church culture built upon the "if you are different than me then you are just slightly weird." Visitors and those who don't fit the mold exactly are treated either like a clueless outsider or are subtly disengaged from the topics they would like to discuss. That being said, not all churches or denominations are like that. And to be honest, the geek culture is often the least affected by it because (lets be honest here) they rarely know how to have pretense or not say what's on their mind. Atleast that's true of the geeks I know and love. As I mentioned last night, it is extremely draining being in a church culture that subtly expects "sameness" and "duty" over intimacy and fellowship. It also makes it really difficult to bring our friends to these type of churches. I wouldn't dream of bringing any friends to the church I grew up in. They'd either get quietly eaten alive or turned off to Christ. But I wouldn't hesitate to bring them to a good portion of the Nazarene churches in Boise because they seem to automatically assume you are there to learn and live alongside them. When you feel discouraged, remember that many of us are struggling with the same realization. Its okay to find fellowship and community among unbelievers. Maybe invite some of your believing friends to Darkon, or find a community where you'd be proud to bring your Darkon friends into your church or church game night. It isn't a reflection of a failing faith. It is a cry of your heart to be connected and serve in more than a cursory fashion. I'm proud of you Steph. Love, your big sister Vickie

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hi Stephanie, finally had a chance to read through this. I just have to say that you have been an incredibly true, real, available, and caring friend to me over the last several years. I am so grateful to God for you and for all that you have been to me - being super supportive and never judgmental, caring when I would freak out at karate or elsewhere, and when I returned to MD for that weekend a few weeks ago you girl were right there to pull be back into fellowship (you and some other cool people) and I just felt so built up from my weekend of community with people who have known me for years. But you specifically are a key person in that community.

    One thing that I am learning is that when one sees something that is missing in a particular situation, that is the cue to do something about it. In my first year in this ministry I am in, I would get annoyed by lack of this or that... until I realized.... wait, I see that lack but instead of being annoyed with the leaders who are already overworked anyway I can just step in and fill it. And amazingly that has seemed to make a small difference here and there, at least according to my own perception. Anyway, Stephanie the things you were talking about with community... the lack you see is something I can see in you that you are good at! You pulled together this online Bible Study that is truly amazing when we actually meet (haha). You have been a good friend to others, and you do have the skills and the awareness of the problem (very important aspect) to be able to help build community. I value that so much about you.

    Lea

    ReplyDelete
  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Oh and about the femininity thing. My ministry mentor says that the aspects of Biblical femininity are "being relational, nurturing, vulnerable, possessing a desire to be found beautiful, and being responsive." Nothing about being home-school co-op, romance novel reading, stay at home mom in that definition (some moms I know don't have the financial means to do that - does that make them less valuable as a woman? That makes no sense). I get to listen to and talk with women who have very different interests from what you listed as the church's idea of being feminine, and in some cases very real fear of being feminine according to what culture would tell us. While there are certain ways that it is nice to sport your femininity in a way that the culture can recognize (to celebrate in a way that they can see that you appreciate who God made you as a woman), being a true woman is for sure not about fitting into a particular stereotype. Anyone that would insist that it is needs to have a Bible study and think about what they are saying. It is rather conforming to who God wants her to be. The aspects that we as women need to cultivate are things that are found deep in our souls as women and are discussed in the Bible - including but not limited to the aspects listed above. I just hope you don't feel less than for having the interests that you have. Because we all have our own personalities and interests, and as long as your interests do not go against what the Bible says you should be doing and God is not convicting you to stop them, you should feel free to do what you enjoy in your spare time.

    Also I really loved how you ended your post... about realizing that God is the most important thing. It is a very important lesson to learn that what God thinks of you is more important than what others think. It takes awhile to really learn that lesson, because it is a new way of thinking! And its a process to get there. But I love that you are learning this and that you decided to share it with others. :)

    Love you Stephanie!

    Lea

    (PS I deleted my above content so I could edit it... still learning how post comments on a blog lol).

    ReplyDelete