Monday, 22 May 2017

A "Tough Time"

Someone died again.  Someone younger than me, who was raised in the arms of my church culture, whose family fell afoul of infighting there, and who never really got his life together even to the standards that most of us call "together."  (As low a standard as that is.)

And now that he has died, people are saying that thing they so often say when someone dies.  (Not "the Lord is speaking!"  The other thing they say.)  They're saying "He had a real tough time." In our church culture, they mean.  A tough time socially.  A tough time fitting in.  A tough time in terms of falling afoul of vindictive exclusion, in fact.  He was given a tough time.  On purpose.

This guy's father was like mine.  "Difficult."  Quarrelsome.  Apt to object to every inconsistency he saw in the church culture.  There to fix things, not feel ooey gooey togetherness.  To try to better the problems, to make things more fair.  Not to celebrate how awesome they allegedly are right now already, handed down unchanged for over a century.

I know about this.  My dad was the same, and so am I.

Because, in a world that wants diplomats, spin doctors, sales reps, and above all, marketing people, some of us are born to be repairmen and warriors.  We are people who insist the dryer's not supposed to make that noise.  We are people who will fight until we are dead.  We are people who aren't scared to tear things all apart, looking for the leak.  People who do not fear conflict, but wake up when there's fighting that needs to be done, social awkwardness be damned.  We are people who find our hope, only in the possibility of things changing from the way they currently are.

And this is not a time for that.  Or is it?

Virtue Signalling
It's very fashionable to "raise awareness" of troubling things that are far away.  To be virtuous by caring about something that doesn't necessarily hurt us personally.  Like sending missionaries to Darfur when the Wilson kids are right next door, cutting themselves and sneaking pills from mom's medicine cabinet.  Because, if you try to "fix" the Wilson kids, you'll soon find you can't "fix" people.  And the Wilsons themselves are mainly just angry with their kids for hurting the family church reputation by having problems that happen to have stigmas attached to them.

You can't "fix" people and you can't "fight" these problems either.  And awareness?  Turns out people already know that cutting yourself, substance abuse and emotional issues are problematic, and that they happen on a daily basis in our culture more than most.  And just thinking about them doesn't seem to help.

So you send money, one of your children, or maybe even spend some time off yourself and go, to a different continent to "fight hunger" or something.  Because, as we said, if you try to "fix" the Wilson kids, it will soon become obvious that you can't.  But Darfur?  Random bits of India or Africa?  You don't have to achieve any measurable success of any kind.  Just trying makes you a hero.  And a role model.  And an inspiration.  On Facebook. On Twitter.  You can use every social media app you've got to share your "inspiration" with as many people you can, in a sea roiling with virtue-signallers.

Working Vs. "Helping"
I know someone who goes to Africa and isn't just a charity tourist, virtue-signalling and merit badge earning by going there.  She is a nurse, and she goes to places that need nurses and she simply... works.  Does her job. Does the thing she trained for.  The thing people want her to do badly enough, that normally they have to pay her.  That's different.  She's not "fixing" Africa. She's not "raising awareness."  She's not even "fighting" anything.  She's just working.  Getting up and showing up.  I have a great belief in the potential for working to make a difference in a way that raising awareness, "inspiring others" and giving lectures clearly doesn't.

But, my nurse acquaintance aside, it's a bit tougher to see where the value is when someone with no particular credentials decides to toss money or unskilled carpentry at Africa or India.  Can't hurt, right?  Might help?  Won't fix it, of course.  Mostly gives you stuff to put on social media, and nets you a slideshow and "talk" to give at your church, if we're being honest.

But as I wrote, they say the young guy who just died had "a tough time."  Like a lot of us.  And he didn't just happen to end up having tough times.  He was purposely given a tough time because people in power wanted him to have one.  People with more power and status than he or his family.  He was trying to work in our culture.  To help out.  But many of us heard about it, growing up.  When his name was mentioned, people said "Well, I heard he's a little..." or "I hear they gave him a really tough time..."  Or "I heard there was stuff there..."

We all heard that talk.  Because the less fun stuff you allow yourself in your day, the more culture gossip you have made time for.

Making A Go of It In Our Church Culture
I can connect to this guy and his family in a pretty direct way. I know a lot of it first-hand.  You're young and you note that status makes a huge difference in your church culture.  And your church culture? It's your only culture.  The culture itself absolutely requires that you put all of your eggs in that one cultural basket.  So you're not an involved church guy, but also running for mayor, or running a club or anything. It's an "or" thing, not an "and" thing.  And so you were a big deal in your culture, or you weren't.  So you tried.  If they let you.

Another thing, in a circle like ours, you don't choose the one church culture because it suits you, and then everyone sees the culture as the one you ended up choosing.  No.  It's not even seen as merely a church culture. Because it's not a church culture at all. It's just What God Wants. Where He's Working.

Everywhere else? That's just Everywhere Else.   We're us, and they're them.  This is the only game in town.  It's not seen as a cultural choice because no other choices are being acknowledged. And you only get the one birth culture.  You spend your formative years in the one place.

Old Godly Vs. New Godly
And another thing to know, what you are trying to be specifically, in order to gain and keep power and status?  There's a name for it: "godly."  You are trying to be a godly young person living a godly life.  Then maybe you can marry a godly girl and raise a godly family in a Godless world.  This is a more euphemistic word than "pious," "abstinent," "pure" or "holy," but it means the same thing.  Good.  Good by not doing stuff. By being the one thing.  By having that one cultural connection only.

But there's something that really complicates trying to live "godly."  I'm going to have to dip into The Great Gatsby for a moment to properly make this point.  In Gatsby, Jay Gatsby isn't born rich.  His parents are just ordinary.  But he meets a charming girl named Daisy who was born rich.  "Old money."  A wealth insider.  Now, Jay Gatsby wants to marry her, but "ordinary" doesn't get in there to marry old money.  So Jay Gatsby gets rich. To get in.

Gatsby is first a WWI hero, and comes home, ready to get down to it.  He changes absolutely everything about himself, using every method he can, legal and illegal, to become the kind of guy, driving the kind of car, living in the kind of house, throwing the kinds of parties, that Daisy will marry.  

Jay Gatsby makes absolutely everything about getting and looking rich.  Buys a mansion and fills it with the trappings of wealth, which things he doesn't even want or enjoy.  Giant library filled with books he's never opened.  It's one big signal of his wealth.  He does nothing but get, stay and be seen to be rich.

Thing is, Daisy is the opposite.  She's not working to get or stay rich.  She's just wealthy to begin with.  She never did anything at all to get rich.  In fact, she's never made absolutely everything about anything at all, let alone the acquisition of wealth.  She's old money. The money came before she did.

So Daisy marries another "old money" person.  Tom Buchanan isn't as good a person as Jay Gatsby, but the union is supported by their culture, because it is a union of two like people, from the same social bracket.  Tom is a racist, abusive, a bully, a braggart and an adulterer.  But he's old money.

No matter what Gatsby does, at best he is only "new money."  And old money doesn't mix with new money.  If old money Daisy had tried to court new money Jay Gatsby, her social circle and family connection would have shown just how much trouble they can cause when people are trying to put something so potentially fragile as a marriage together.

Gatsby knows how to put on show-off, new money parties, filled with people impressed by his wealth. What he doesn't know how to do properly is be bored of wealth, not try to keep and display it, and spend his days doing nothing much. He's always earning and displaying.  Old money doesn't do that.

The Game is Rigged
In many eastern cultures, the whole society works together to get you a viable spouse.  Western cultures generally don't do that so much as work together to keep you from managing to connect with anyone they deem to be unsuitable.  I know people who were "old godly" but who married someone aspiring to "new godly" and this brought about for them the end of any real, lasting membership in the culture.  And people interfered heavily to try to forbid the union, seeing this obligatory calamity about to happen/be caused.  This happened to Gatsby, and it happened for the young guy who died recently.

A harsh lesson for me, and for this young guy who died, is that the game is rigged.  If you have the right last name, if your family is a dynasty, you have the power and status to do what you need to.  If you are "old godly," you have arrived and just have to ensure no one hurts your family status.  There's a lot of pressure there, I hear.

But if you're aspiring to "new godly," you find that no matter how uprightly you live, no matter how many potentially joyful things you delete from your week, you never quite get let into that game.  The rules are different for everyone else.

If you're "old godly," your family can, and usually does, have emotional problems.  That gets rather glossed over. Gossiped about perhaps, but you keep your status.  It's not the same for everyone else.  There is a stigma that can't be overcome.  What is "quaint" or "just how he is" in old godly circles reads as "sick, a serious problem" in yours.  People get excommunicated in our culture, not just for social misbehaviour, but for having personality problems or emotional issues.  We all knew old people who had to sit at the back of the church and not take communion or participate in any social activities.  When you asked what they'd done, you were simply told "They were trouble when they lived back East."  Or maybe "They had a hard time in the 70s."  Didn't fit.  Rocked the boat so were cast into the sea.  Very, very often it is a case of new godly refusing to bow down to the excesses of old godly. Not knowing their place and being shown it, with relish, by the entire culture, until they died.

If this kind of situation happens to your dad (and it did to mine), your family is screwed from that point on.  You can't really fit.  You can't even really date.  So you find yourself in this "middle" position.  You feel like your affiliation or membership in your birth culture is hanging by a thread.  If the impression is given (facts don't matter) that you have been entertaining yourself or partying, or even worse, going to other churches or reading their doctrine whatever, you may well find yourself elbowed right out of the culture you were born into.

Trying Too Hard
So you try to work. Ceaselessly.  To hard.  Jay Gatsby hard.  You try to work with children in the Sunday school. You incessantly read the bible and books of "ministry" (we didn't use the word "theology," because that sounded like the brain was involved).  You swept the church floor.  You spent time with old church folks.  You did all of this and tried to keep your reputation free from any hint that you might have been partying or associating with other churches or their doctrine.  You made sure you kept no role models that were outside of your culture.

What drove my dad to get rid of our TV, outlaw my comic books and ban an increasing number of things with each passing year was not some fear that we children would be hurt spiritually, or led astray by stuff, or even fear of God's disapproval.  It was fear of our family losing status. It was tightening down the screws to try to build a family legacy as a godly one.

My dad made the church sign for the front, build and maintained the box that people submitted Scripture Searcher papers to and recorded their progress, recorded visiting guest speakers and kept a tape library and tape mailing service, taught in all of the bible studies and things we had five or six times a week, preached the gospel and asked guest speakers to speak, counted the collection money and discussed how to spend it, bought stuff for and repaired the Meeting Hall... and on and on and on and on.  Chose the church over his family, to be honest.  Chose the church culture over his God and all that is good or prudent or loving, to be even more honest.

And I will tell you what happens when you live like this, burning yourself at both ends: you are trying far harder than "old godly."  You are clearly trying too hard.  And your reward for this is you remain forever on the fringes.  You never quite get let in.  There's always that carrot and there is always the stick, too.  You are continually under suspicion and in need of explanation.  Anyone who really starts to accept you gets a bit of your outsider smell on them, and those you grew up knowing socially punish, in the various ways that children and young adults can, anyone who spends a bit too much time with you.  And if you were, for example, to somehow overcome the constraints and awkwardnesses and prejudices of your birth culture, and connect to people outside it?  This would certainly count simply as evidence that you simply never were "one of us" to begin with.

Failed New Godly
So you are very, very, very alone, if you are failed new godly.  When you run full tilt for the prize and smack your teeth into the brick wall that is painted to look like a doorway.  Heaven help you if you object in any way!  If you say things aren't fine, or need to be looked at.  This is, after all, a worship of How Things Are.  Your family is torn up with blaming each other for possibly risking the family's tottering, almost gone status in the culture.

Two things are there waiting for you: emotional issues and substance abuse.  Either one is certainly enough to shatter any possible remaining association with the culture.  Our culture isn't one that is known for accepting and helping alcoholics, pill poppers, gambling addicts or the like.  And there really is that usual Christian attitude that, if you have addiction, anxiety or depression, you clearly don't have Jesus.  Otherwise, you'd be fine, right?  Are you saying that having Jesus doesn't work?

I myself was spared problems with substance abuse by virtue of being a clinical control freak. But so much more of this story I feel like I "get."  Being alone.  Family very welcome to leave the culture at any time.  Fighting for a status you don't really have and will never get.  Trying too hard and this hurting rather than helping.  Giving up everything healthy and personal and natural in aid of getting accepted to a position you will never be accepted to.  Trying to regain something you never really had.

Because the thing that human cultures are that church cultures should not be?  Competitive.  Someone was waiting in line behind you with their hand out for status, importance and inclusion.  These cultures are status hierarchies one can only be born "old godly" into.  Last name helping or hurting you, quite beyond your control.  Being encouraged to cut off ties to friends and family to save yourself and try to keep any status problems they may have from spreading to you.

Sins of the Father
Speaking of which, how was this recently deceased young guy given a "tough time"?  Specifically? What little I know of this guy's story is that he was haunted and hounded his whole adult life by the fact that his father had fought with their local church when the guy was a young teenager, and so his dad was put in an "out" position to perpetuity.  This young guy always felt like maybe the way his father was treated was a wee bit wrong, and refused to give his father 100% of the blame, and for this he was never forgiven his whole life.  In fact, he was formally required to officially declare that his father "needed" to be kicked out forever, and that the church was 100% correct in how they acted.  As the young man argued that maybe things were wrong on both sides, he himself was then also kicked out forever.  Because that's how we roll, in some corners.

The young guy moved West across the whole continent and changing country of residence to America, wanting to be a missionary.  Wanting to work in a church connected with his birth culture.  And when he moved, a letter arrived ahead of him, warning people to never include him.  Never let him take communion.  Never let him help out at church.  Under pain of starting a fight with Them.  ("Out East.")

And when the various bible conferences were held, where one might meet potential spouses in the culture, people in this guy's position are often told they are simply not welcome. (In my case they said "the older brothers have decided it would be best if you did not attend.")  When he was allowed to attend one bible conference in a pleasant village "out East" from where he'd had the "tough time," he was still required to eat outside the building where the meals were being served, plates literally passed to him out a window.  By those who were responsible to "feed God's lambs" in Maritime Canada  

Still, he got to go, and they did find a way to compromise between getting in trouble "out West" for accepting him for once in his life, and actually making him stay home.  And this young guy travelled all of the way across North America from the west coast to the east, only to be sent outside to eat, literally segregated, in this the 21st century.

And no one agreed to let him help out anywhere.  No girls agreed to date him.  People who spoke to him much were given an update about him.  The solitude and the emotional problems and the substance abuse he eventually fled into slowly ate him.  Eroded him.  And now he's dead.

But to this day, folks who speak about him, including his own father, are reluctant to see anything terribly wrong with the culture itself.  With How Things Are.  Oh sure, a few guys in it acted poorly.  But the culture?  How Things Are?  We're not actually going to take blame, or try harder, or talk about it, or change or anything.  Why should we?  This is as good as it gets, right?  This is How Things Are.

We're All Fine, Here...
This guy had a tough time, alright.  But that doesn't mean anything to the rest of us.  Because we're, more or less, ok and we've got families to think of, and family reputation to uphold, and that's what matters.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Children on Elephants

Confession: I'm happier than I used to be.  Significantly so.  There are a number of reasons for this. And I'm reading a book called The Happiness Principle, by Jonathan Haidt, which is sparking a lot of thought (and feelings) about it all.

I used to hang onto my sorrow, discomfort and dissatisfaction like a flag.  Like there needed to be a guy, standing there, saying "No.  This is all bullshit.  We need to be more real.  We need to do this right.  We need to pay attention.  We need to look after the people who are falling between the cracks.  The ones we're shoving out, between said cracks."  But after having written a couple of books and done other such things, I feel like I've planted that flag, and I don't actually have to wear the t-shirt every day, or even stand outside the gates anymore.

And yeah.  I'm reading Haidt's The Happiness Principle.  A lot of it seems terribly familiar, and goes over very old ground, prompting me to want to say "Get on with it!  Give me something new to think about!"  It's surprising that I'm reading Haidt's book.  Any book with this title, actually.  There are many, many books out there on the subject, and with similar titles, and I have learned to avoid them.  Because when I've tried to read them, I quickly find that I haidt them.  They convince me more deeply that happy isn't something I can be.  That it's for other people.  That the only thing holding me back is me.  (Horrible thing to tell people.  Go peddle that in Africa or Syria, why don't you?)  But this book is being so "me" right now that I'm getting bored with the well-worn paths and want to see what's next. Want to think something new.  I agree with him about the stuff he's disagreeing with, because I've been disagreeing with it too for a long, long time.

But I'll try to explain one of the key reasons I'm happier lately.  I think, being middle-aged, I've lost a whole lot of hope in the idea that people can change.  Significantly.  Deep down.  I've seen too many people die, rather than change.  And I've seen some that seem to be killing themselves in extreme slow motion.

So now?  I genuinely don't think people change.  Not really.  Not at the core.  So I don't hope for it.  And that's very, very freeing.  Because I've gone straight through my life always feeling like I need to change.  Need to be someone else.  People have leaped up to tell me the same thing.  That I need to become someone who is less pessimistic.  That I need to become someone who is less withdrawn.  Someone who is more of an extrovert.  That when I don't want to participate, I need to become the sort of person who wants to participate more, who wants to indulge and placate others more.  That when I get over-eager and talk too much, I need to become a person who will want to participate less, and again, want to indulge and placate others more.  That I need become someone who cares less.  That I need to think less. That I need to smile a lot. That I need to flinch less obviously when touched unexpectedly.  That I need to hug people more.  That I need to show "positive" emotions (ones people like) more.  That I need to get happier. (or, failing that, act cheerful.)

And after all of these years, I have slowly come to really hate all of that.  Not just a little.  See it as the enemy.  See it as the key to unraveling me when I'm busing being who I am.  But I used to hear it more than I do now.  One thing about being middle-aged is people lay off you.  That pressure to change starts to subside a bit.  You know that pressure.  To be a person others will like more.  So they will hire you, and trust you, date you and otherwise socially, financially and romantically reward you.  Because we're not ok the way we are, apparently.  Nope.  We are inconvenient and embarrassing.

Melancholy and philosophical?  Introverted? Quiet at times?  Solitary? Dissatisfied with "the way things are"?  Apt to sneer and mock at fake stuff that clearly sucks, but somehow always seems to demand a whole lot of praise and attention and recognition from every single one of us?  Lacking in emotional affect and response?  All of the above?  Not ok.  We need to change, apparently.  To be happier.  Or to fit in better, anyway. To make ourselves easier to accept.

And of course, you can see where I'm going with all this.  It turns out that "just being" makes one happier than being burdened with constant negative feedback from others and continual attempts to adjust, correct and control one.  Especially if one buys into the idea that one needs to care deeply about all of the above.  No, the opposite is what makes a person serene, content, at peace.  Happy, even.  Oddly, a person being themselves is far easier to accept than someone who is miserably trying to be more acceptable to others. There's something right about it.  We can't help but accept authenticity when we see it, even if it's packaged up in a person who's a bit crusty, or who comes with some sharp edges.

So I'm done listening to people who feel I ought to do everyone a favour and change.  I'm doing the very opposite: I'm not even pretending I'm going to change, on a deep, psychological level, mainly to meet the expectations of others.  I don't recommend it.  I recommend clinging to one's identity instead, and running with it, instead of from it.  Be it more.  Be it deeper, higher, broader and more richly and maturely than anyone dreamed was possible.

"Everybody" wants you to get a specific haircut or smile more or lose weight or be excited about some sports or Internet thing or wear some wristband or colour or whatever?  What works for me is the bone-deep, decades-old abiding accustomedness to simply recognizing that yeah, there are always people like that, who seem to want and need that from every single person.  Like junkies on street corners with their hands out.  You can spend some time or money trying to make them happy if you want to, or you can not bother with them.  One thing that's sure is that nothing is really going to take the edge off that keening need in their blood to shoot up heroin or tell you about the environment or require you to use the word "issues" instead of "problems" or love Ke$ha or whatever it is.

There's them, needing something, and there's you, possibly with the power to maybe to choose to stop and give them what they claim they need, or not.  And "not" is just as viable an option as giving them what they think they need.  Because sometimes what people are looking for isn't something you can give, or isn't going to content them anyway.  

I have learned to no longer confuse growing and maturing, on the one hand, with changing, on the other.   God put me in the world and I'm a very specific design that you sure didn't order from a sampler with various options and dropdown menus, available in your preference of sizes, colours and fragrances.  I am growing and maturing, but I'm not going to become anybody else.  Not for me, not for you, not for anyone.  Because it's not possible.  I'm just me and I am only getting more "me." Deal with that.  Wisdom of middle-age talking.  It gives contentment and peace.  Try being.  Life isn't all becoming.  And it sure isn't about ceasing to be various things.

Any person who has struggled with depression, or who is grieving or whatever, will tell you the same thing: people all seem to have stupid advice.  Freely given.  And it's all the same.  They tell you "smile."  They tell you "be happy."  They tell you not to think about it. They tell you to care less.  They tell you to enjoy stuff you don't.  They tell you to feel and think differently.  My favourite?  They tell you to "Move on."  To "Walk away."  From stuff that's literally inside your skull.

Mostly it adds up to "Be more like me by doing what I do, the way I do it."  

Sometimes this is because they themselves are beautiful, young, white, rich, happy or whatever, and they genuinely don't get why every other person on the planet can't just be more or less like them.  "Be like me.  You can do it.  By your choices," they feel.  This all dodges the matter of why they need you to be more like them to begin with.  (Bigotry written small)  

Other times, people tell you to be happy or wear red, or cheer loudly or join their thing or whatever it is, because they see a potential for them to lose their thin facade of pretend, functional, daily cheerfulness. If we're all going to just go around being real and everything, instead of doing others the favour of hiding our psyches away for the day, what could happen? They're willing to paint the cheery on thick, so what makes you so special that you won't return the favour?  Their facade is so think there's no telling who's beneath it.

Maybe not pretending to be cheery is an important first step in embracing genuine, deeper, eventual happiness.  And maybe contentment and serenity are far more valuable than superficial cheerfulness. 

Jonathan Haidt is writing in the part I'm at right now about his own favourite way to imagine the stuff that St. Paul, Freud and a bunch of old Greeks saw in all of us: Haidt imagines we are like little children (our thoughts and decisions and self-control) riding huge elephants (the rest of our personalities, which we are little aware of, and certainly did not create and do not daily maintain, ourselves).  You know?  Part of what God made.  (Haidt doesn't believe in God, but is an honest enough atheist to have done his homework and is able to cite books which seek to explain the universal phenomenon that evolution and the ecology and the universe and so on seem to be not only designed, but designed to maintain and upgrade themselves.  "Design with a designer" is what he's hugging to his bosom right now to explain that big elephant in the room.)

So, an elephant?  Your past, your hormones, your genes, and millions of factors of which you are not presently consciously aware, Haidt imagines, are all working together right now to form this huge, ancient elephant that is as much a part of you as the little part on its back that tries not to respond sincerely and honestly when someone you don't like much tries to chide you to smile when you're not happy.

Think about it.  The elephant is part of you.  You are not a separate part that is stronger than the elephant.  And the elephant remembers.  And the elephant has big ears and hears everything.  And the elephant is, in its way, wise.  Whipping the elephant is not, in the long term, a good idea, given its memory and its strength.  It has thicker skin than (the conscious) you do, clearly.  You have to work with it, not against it.  Accept it and learn to work together better.  Laugh at the very idea, tossed at you from the person riding her miserable, over-trained elephant across the tent from you, that what would really be nice, really be best, is if you whipped your elephant more, to make it smile. Or balance on a ball, or do tricks.  And that if you paint it pink, maybe people will believe you when you say it's really an adorable, cheerful little poodle.

They call out to you: Just be happy.  Just smile.  Just somehow find cheery music and perky people cheering, rather than deeply depressing and annoying.  Just hug people.  Just shut up.  Just forget.  Just don't care.  Just never mind.  (Just try to stop the elephant from being big, from heavy, from being grey, from having a trunk and a tail and two big ears.)  Get out that pink paint.

Thing is, if you grow to have a warm, familiar, accepting working relationship between the elephant that is part of you, and the rest of you, you don't need to whip and shout and cry and otherwise seek to bully it so much.  You start to realize it's probably worth it to stop and get it some peanuts or a cabbage or whatever from time to time.  What's important to it starts to become important to the rest of you.  And.... vice versa.

No one else has a hope of understanding what goes on daily between the part of you that is not the elephant, and the part of you that is.  Doesn't mean they'll shut up.  Doesn't mean you have to listen.

So never mind trying not to be you.  Grow.  Relate.  Do not try to change utterly.  Growing will change you in all the ways you need. Mostly by making you more, rather than less you.

Depression, inventor of cognitive therapy Aaron Beck, claimed, often looked like the rider of this elephant saying certain things out of frustration.  Ranting.  Crying with frustration.  You could, Beck felt, "script" how depression talks.  It's very predictable:

1.  I am bad, weak, corrupt, selfish and no good.  (I am not able to subdue the part of me that is this elephant. It is too strong for me and I am tired of shouting at it and beating it and otherwise trying to get that part of me under control. It is bad and I am a bad elephant trainer.)

2. There are few or no good things in the world.  Nothing we can get, anyway, that are going to be worth it.  (There is nothing in the world that the elephant and the rest of me can find to enjoy.  No peanuts.  No cabbages.  No rivers to swim in.  No sun to sun in.)

3. And there never will be.

Now this is, baldly put, wrong.  And #1 is the root from which all of this crap springs.  It tells an evil story: "I am bad.  I am not good enough.  I am not strong enough.  People hate me and won't help.  They're selfish. And they don't know.  And anyway, there's no good stuff around that someone like me can get and enjoy.  And so I have no future."

This is what a little child sitting on a balky, hungry, resentful elephant thinks, and then, feels. (or the opposite of that)  And the child, and the elephant, and everyone else, knows that all of this depression-scripted stuff is wrong.  It's just evil whispers in a black time.  It's something dark to tell one's self so one doesn't have to keep trying.  So one doesn't have to try something else.  To try to talk one's self out of growth.

We're dumb.  We think we would somehow have to change utterly, in order to be happier and stronger.  But we're us.  And we want to continue to be ourselves.  So we do a lot to try to retain our selfhood, even though we're miserable.  Because it's all we think we have.

We think we have nothing else.  But that's wrong.  We have an elephant.  In fact, it's a part of us that nothing and no one can ever take away.

And we don't have to change.  We don't have to listen to other people.  We don't have to achieve what they achieve, and do things the way they do them.  We don't have to mute, or stuff, or lock away our true selves.  The trumpeting, miserable, angry, despairing elephant.  Starved and locked in the dark.  Quite the opposite.

We have to listen and talk to the part of us that is the elephant.  Know and be known.  It is powerful.  It has feelings.  It has needs.  And it never forgets. Maybe it doesn't want to balance on the ball to make the kids laugh.  Maybe it wants to knock over the wall instead.  Maybe it's been telling itself that very thing in its dreams.  Freedom dreams of knocking over all the walls.  Well, it probably can.  And maybe it should.

And it doesn't need to transform into a trained poodle to do it.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Just A Christian Thing

I was seventeen years old, and I knew what most of the words in the bible were.  I knew there was no church but ours, and that ours was not merely a church.  I knew that I needed our church to get a wife and children and raise them to be successful, decent, healthy people.  I knew that I definitely wasn't supposed to be able to connect with the others at school, and luckily, I couldn't.  I knew that I definitely was supposed to be able to connect to the others at church, but despite me, I couldn't. I knew what something was wrong with me and that I wasn't normal.  There was something.  School and church agreed about that. I knew that that something would keep me from ever finding true love with a wife, a home and children.  And I knew that what was wrong with me was me.   And I knew I couldn't bear to be anyone but myself.  It was like secretly being gay, only I was publicly being me instead.  And I knew that there was no place for me and no happy ending. And I knew that I wanted to be dead.

I didn't really want the responsibility of killing myself, but I knew that I didn't want the responsibility of trying to live the next day, carefully not fitting in at school and carefully fitting in at church.  And I knew that what I felt wasn't normal because I wasn't normal.  But I started to suspect that my reaction to everything was, itself, a normal reaction.  And that being ok with everything would not have been.   And I knew that no one was in control of everything. No one was there for people like me. No one could do anything. 

The doctor was from our church and he knew that there was nothing wrong with our church and so if I couldn't cope I obviously wasn't normal and needed pills.  I decided that I knew that I could not take pills, as I needed to sort out whatever it was, and not numb myself to it.  The psychiatrist I then went to knew that I should be partying and going to movies and non-church things.  I knew that I could never do that, and to do so would lose me my tenuous membership at my church, to match my lack of belonging at school.  And so I stopped seeing him, said I was fine now, and continued to want to be dead.  And I knew that no one was able to speak with me about any of it.  I knew that people had personas to carefully keep up, and that they needed to avoid any appearance of not being normal themselves.  And I knew that I had to get through it myself.  Me and God.  I knew He was supposed to be able to help. And so I dealt only with Him from then on.  I knew I couldn't trust anyone else. Not a single person.

And I knew that, if I got through it, with God's help, that I couldn't bear to think of others in my position, being alone.  I knew that there must be others, although I had never met any, or if I had, they had not identified themselves. I knew that I wanted to find such people and let them know that there were more of us. How many more? I pictured a miserable seventeen year old, likewise along, perhaps female, and knew I wanted to help her, and live together for the rest of our days.

And the years went by.  I endured not fitting in at church, to match my not fitting in to the world outside it.  I knew that I was who I was, and that there was strength in my design.  And I knew that that strength that had been built into me terrified people, and that any system that could not deal with someone who was only as slightly off-centre as me was weak.  Scared.  Flawed.  Lying.  Hiding things.  

And I learned that there seemed to be about as many people who could not fit in as could.  And I learned that many people get miserable and lost and disconnected.  And I listened to and spoke with many of them.

I didn't know there would be so many.  Of all ages, races, cultures and genders.  I didn't know that mainly only the female ones would and could think and talk and feel about these things openly, instead of drinking and making money and fighting with everyone and hoping to die without ever having to deal. I didn't know that some people were able to cry about it all, and that this helped them a bit.  

I didn't know that, as much as I had been raised to be, and naturally was, unable to fit in to the world around our church, that that world would accept us anyway.  I didn't know that there was, in human dealings, a small hope for a modicum of fairness and forgiveness and mercy.  I didn't know to stop looking for it in Christian circles.  I didn't know that I would be kicked out of my church entirely, along with almost every friend and relative I ever had.  And I didn't know that we would survive.  I didn't know that some of us would simply recreate the same environment we grew up in, only with us in charge.  I didn't know that others would find they quite enjoyed churches and groups very different from our own birth culture and would immerse themselves headlong into those. I didn't know that others would love Jesus but never really be happy at any church besides our own, but remain infinitely happier "going nowhere" than going to ours.

I didn't know we'd talk, a bunch of us, using computers, some of which we carried around in our pockets.  I didn't know that everybody would be allowed to talk, even if some of us were women and most of us were excommunicated and shunned, forever deemed church defects, rejects and trouble to allow into the midst.  I didn't know many of us would share and connect on screens and never meet up in the same room.  I didn't know there'd be so many suicides.  I didn't know there'd be so much addiction.  I didn't know there'd be so many divorces.  I didn't know that the things the church folks did to us, we'd generally go on to do to everyone around us.  I didn't know the church knew everything all along and didn't care and wouldn't ever openly talk about change, forgiveness of reconciliation.  I didn't know there'd be joy possible anyway.

I didn't know I'd meet the hypocrisy, the enforced cheerfulness, the blindly-trumpeted flawed utopian dogma, the need to seem normal and ok at all times, at the workplace, on the street and everywhere else.  

I thought that was just a Christian thing.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Sunday Morning Sermon on Atheists OutChristianing Christians

All those people who live lives characterized by weakness and lack of integrity, without having any knowledge of the bible, will also reach the end of their days and die, having had no knowledge of the bible to guide them. But all who have walked paths of weakness and lack of integrity with full knowledge of the bible will be assessed according to what the bible tried to say to them. 

For it is not the believers of the message of Jesus who are acting well as far as God is concerned, but the livers of the message of Jesus who are acting well. For when atheists, who do not have the bible, just naturally do what the bible teaches, and act well, they are a bible to themselves, even though they do not have the bible. They show that the message of the bible is written on their hearts, while their conscience also weighs in, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or excuse them whenever God assesses the inner essence of men through his judge Christ Jesus.

You call yourself a Christian and claim to rely on the message of the bible and claim identity in Jesus Christ and to know his message and to support what is Christian, because you are instructed from the bible. You are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the bible the embodiment of knowledge and truth.

You then who teach others, why have you not taken the time to teach yourself? While you preach against shadiness and insincerity, are you yourself shady or insincere? You who say that one must not condone adultery, do you condone adultery by appointing adulterers to have the rule over you? You who insist that all fetuses be allowed to grow into children because all life is sacred, do you then resist contributing any money toward the health care of these same children to preserve their lives once they have been born? You who demand freedom of religious expression, do you seek to rob atheists and Muslims and Buddhists of the right to practice their own world views, and to live completely free from yours? 

You who claim to find your personal identity in the message of the bible? You folks are dishonoring God by not living in the spirit of its message. And now the name of Jesus Christ is a joke and a curse among the atheists because of you. The word “Christian” now means “self-serving, hypocritical bigot” to many people.

Now, a Christian upbringing certainly is of value if you live according to the message of Jesus, but if you live in a way Jesus never would have, showing none of his heart, your Christian upbringing becomes atheism. And, if a man who is an atheist lives according to the message of Jesus, will not his atheism function as Christianity? Then he who was never raised Christian yet lives in a way that is very compatible with the message of Jesus? He will rightly condemn you who went to Sunday school as a child but grew up to become people who do not have the heart of Jesus. 

It doesn’t make one a Christian to merely try to seem like one outwardly, nor is Christian upbringing only an outward and physical thing that has to do with attendance at church, one’s lifestyle and how one votes. No, a Christian is one inwardly, and Christianity is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not achievable through doctrine, lifestyle restrictions or political positions. A true Christian’s standard of excellence and decency is not set by his fellow churchgoers, but by God.

Then what is the point of being a Christian? Is there any value in a Christian upbringing? It is valuable in every way. To begin with, Christians were entrusted with the New Testament, which contains messages from God about real things. What if many Christians live according to a new church culture they have invented which has little to do with the New Testament and the messages in it? Does their church culture nullify the efforts of God to reach out to human beings and help them sort out their lives? By no means! God would still be telling the truth even if every single Christian were a compulsive liar. (So tell the truth.) It is written,

“That you may be justified by your words,
and win the case when you are accused of anything.”

But if our missteps, lack of integrity and strength of character serve to showcase the excellence of God, what shall we say? That God is unfair to get frustrated with how flawed and messed up we are? (I speak simple-mindedly, as if God were merely a human being.) By no means! For if God had to simply accept dishonesty, exploitation and weakness and treat them exactly the same as he treated honesty and excellence, how then could he assess and heal the world? He would have to “tolerate” it and leave it messed up. 

But if even against the backdrop of my two-faced, mean-spirited insincerity God's truth rings out and makes it clear who he really is, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? Aren’t I doing good by making God look better than me? And shouldn’t we all occasionally do shady things to try to make the world a fairer place?  Well, some people correctly notice us doing that and have a problem with it. Their criticism is fair. 

What then? Are we Christians doing any better than anyone else in the world today? Than the Muslims, atheists and Sikhs? No, we aren’t. Not at all. For I have already made the point that all, both Christians and atheists, live daily lives characterized by weakness, corruption, jealousy, exploitation and darkness, as it is written about all of us human beings, right through the bible:

“None is excellent, no, not one; no one truly understands; no one looks for what God intended for human beings and for the planet.
All have wandered from the path; together they have become corrupt; no one truly lives decently, not even one.”

“Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive and manipulate one another.”

"The venom of rattlesnakes is under their lips.”

“Their mouth is full of ill-wishes and resentment.”

“Their hands are quick to backstab others; when they leave a room they leave misery and chaos behind them, and they have never understood the way of peace.”

“They do not value God as they go about their day.”

Now we know that whatever the bible says, its audience is those who value the bible.  And it works toward reaching the point where no one in the world will be left with anything further to say, and the whole thing will be held accountable to God and his standards for love, fairness, excellence and honesty. For by obeying rules in the bible no human being will ever be justified in God’s sight, since through the bible comes a deep knowledge of our flaws and the fact that we need Jesus, and not just some handy rules to follow.

But now the excellence of God has been shown entirely outside of the pages of the bible, although the bible talks about it too — the excellence of God is seen through what happens when any human being places hope, faith and trust in Jesus Christ and what he wants to do for all who accept him. We ourselves, as well as God the father, and his son Jesus Christ, all alike exist outside the pages of the very bible which speaks the truth about all of us. 

For there is no distinction: all have sinned and have fallen short of God’s standards, and are therefore only justified by his grace as a gift, through the rehabilitation that is in Christ Jesus, whom God sent out to pay for our recovery in the coin of his blood, so that we could receive this gift by faith. This sending of his son to die for us was to show God's excellence and fairness, because in his divine forgiveness and generosity he had passed over our flawed lives and how messed up we still are. It was to show God’s decency, to those of us living in 2016, so that he might be known to be just and the justifier of anyone who has faith in his son, Jesus, who came and died to excuse and salvage us.

Then what role do our careful Christian lifestyles play in being accepted by God? Simply put: they do not count at all. By what kind of life path are we reconciled to God? By a careful Christian lifestyle? No, but by a lifestyle of faith, reaching out after Jesus Christ, person to person. For we believe that one is justified by faith in the real person Jesus Christ, quite apart from all concerns as to rule-following and bible teaching. 

Or, is God the god of bible-believing churchgoers only? Is he not the god of the regular folks also?
Yes, he is the god of the regular folks also, since there is only one God for all of us— one God who will justify the Christians by faith, and everyone else through faith too, in exactly the same way.
Do we then throw out the bible because of this faith in Christ it presents to us as our only option? By no means! On the contrary, we elevate the bible by investing our heart in what it has to say.

(after having been "corrected" as to the thoughts in this piece, and accused of "over complicating" things and of showing off and spewing rhetoric, I have had to point out that I am simply paraphrasing the majority of Romans 2 and 3 and so they are accusing the Apostle Paul of these things, really.  His name is Paul, and this is between y'all.)

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Scaled Back to Get Broader and Deeper

When I woke up this morning, I muzzily told myself "I'd better get back to work and write the last bit of the blog post."  It took me a while to remember that I'd not started writing any of it yet; before I realized that the whole thing had simply been dreamt.  Here's me, trying to rewrite what I only dreamed I'd written:

The Christianity I was raised with was kind of like a pointy stick I'd been handed that I was walking around with, and one with which I had been instructed to faithfully poke anyone nearby.  It stretched pretty far.  And it was very pointy. You could go around and no one ever got very near you.

But simply poking others, and building my identity upon being one of the Precious Few did not prove fulfilling, in the long run.  Didn't want to spread that message to the world: "You're going to hell when you die!  You need to learn about the gospel right now!  From me!  Probably best to come to our church to do that, after listening to me, because you can't trust most of what's being taught out there by most churches!  Come along and we'll teach you about love and acceptance!"

I think a lot of people raised with religion believed most of it when they were little, and then found they didn't.  Like Santa.  A fairly black and white thing.  Grew up a bit and suddenly declared they didn't believe in God anymore.  It wasn't like that for me.

At first, I certainly believed.  Not just about God.  About all of it.  I knew everything when I was ten.  Post-tribulation or pre-tribulation Rapture?  Pre.  Creation or evolution?  Creation.  Six 12-hour days with six 12-hour nights to built all of reality, or an unspecified amount of time?  Six 12-hour days with six 12-hour nights.  Calvinism or Arminianism?  Calvinism.  Six-point Calvinism or lesser forms of it?  Six-point. (Every petal on the T.U.L.I.P.)  Santa Claus and Christmas?  Pagan and wrong.  Same with Easter and the Bunny.  Superstition.  We believed bible truth.

And I grew up as sheltered from the beliefs of others as possible. No TV or movies at home, and book selections carefully screened.  No odd, other people's beliefs about anything we thought mattered.  No book that deigned to comment on good and evil or God and devil, or even depict them.  At first all this was done to us, but soon enough we were sufficiently trained to do it to ourselves.

Despite being taught that we Absolutely Could Not "lose" our salvation and end up in hell, we feared something else nearly as much: losing the correctness of our doctrinal positions. And letting ourselves be exposed to the ideas of people who maybe thought that God would, eventually, try to save everyone, or that maybe Christians would have to weather the Great Tribulation, or that maybe the message of the bible gets through clear and strong, but some of the actual translations and edits are a bit mistaken, or that we ought to be trying to speak in tongues if we truly loved God?  Hearing much of any of that could soon land us in Errorland.

Cults loomed large in the public consciousness in the 70s and 80s (and with good reason) and the idea that going to a different church, or reading books written by folks outside of ours, could infect us with mania for something Utterly Wrong, could brainwash us out of our correct beliefs, was very strong.  We unthinkingly avoiding having our thinking touched by other views.

So I grew up with a brain and heart that had pretty much only ever heard the One Opinion.  The One Story.

But it happened, eventually, anyway.  Other views got to me.  My parents let me hear about evolution at school.  I heard at school that being gay wasn't a sinful choice, but that some people were born that way.  As an older teen and young adult, I stopped fleeing conversations and other exposure to the thinking of Jehovah's witnesses, Mormons, Baptists and Pentecostals.  And they said and wrote stuff that sounded crazy to me.  Mostly they thought I was going to hell because they thought my beliefs were wrong and that I was associated with the wrong group.  The nerve!

When we had divisions within our own "right" group, forming pairs of groups who then both said the other one was wrong, I noted this, and was willing to hear what the people on the "other" side had to say.  About everything.  I took it all in. I went and talked and listened to people on every side of it I could find.  I didn't look to "keep my life simple," in terms of views. I didn't let my circle of association narrow when my church's circle of fellowship did.  I collected it all and looked for what it was that seemed to get one down the highway.

And, frightened, I slowly lost my grip on the idea that my church group was somehow the only right one, the one God was "with."  This idea had been very central, and the loss of it was like it is for most people to lose their belief that Christianity is the only right religion.

But still, I held to the idea that all of the fighting and splitting off and leaving one another in the ditch to die that went on at my group was a Really Bad Thing.  A thing we'd done for generations and were almost proud about.  It certainly made us feel more right, somehow.  This upset me.  It seemed like a clear reversal of position, a clear doing one thing despite having said another.  So no matter how bad stuff got, and the less I was able to submerse myself in the toxic spirit there, I believed firmly that it would be very, very wrong to do to them what they were all doing to one another: to walk away.  To stop listening.  To cease "being there" for each other. To cease trying to understand.

And, of course, they did that to me instead.  They're not listening. They're not "there" for me.  Haven't been for most of my adult life.  If I were able to fix that, I would.  Not by smothering and burying my deepest convictions.  But by listening.  Trying to understand. Looking to hang out a few times a year.

Trouble is, no one wants to talk.  Mostly, they're keeping their heads simple by shielding them from the beliefs and views of others.  And I carry around with me a whole collection of those.

Nowadays, you're not likely to force me to "admit" that gays are wrong, or Trump is right, or America used to be Christian and is now doomed because of pursuing greater tolerance, or letting women out of their rightful place or even if I know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that God made the world in exactly six 12-hour days with six 12-hour nights between them.  I don't know about any of that for sure.  And it's very freeing to leave it to God to sort that stuff out and approach the things with humility, if at all.

In fact, I am very sincerely undecided about any number of thing and likely to remain that way.  I know this makes me "not serious" about my faith, as far as many are concerned.  Missing the point and not getting out there and hitting "like" on Pro Life posts on Facebook.  But I'm not interested in your frantic need to shove me into taking a side, with your pointy stick, or be pushed away so you don't have to hear someone like me, living his life, anywhere near you.

Nowadays, I guess I'm an agnostic about a lot of things apart from the existence of God.  I think He's out there.  I think we deal, He and I, across infinite space, and from deep within me and from behind everything. From between the molecules, fueling them.  I'm trying to know the God of the bible and of my experience.  I'm trying to broaden and deepen as to what I think and feel about Him.  And it ends up having nothing to do with church or with doctrine or politics in any conventional sense.  It's kind of... psychological.  We all have growing and healing and learning and repenting to do, whether we believe in a God of any kind or not, and that's what it's about for me, as the sort of God I believe in evolves.

It's very "small," mostly.  No rooms filled with hundreds or thousands of people who apparently all agree about stuff.  There's no culture of people putting out albums, where I find my faith.  There's no clear choice as to which political party to vote for.  There's no street address to show up to, to see a room full of people who agree, no mailing address to get helpful books and pamphlets from, outlining what "we" all think and believe.  There is no Grand Surrender of some life path I might have otherwise theoretically followed.  God is helping me be me, more.  Properly.

There's just me and God.  And it's quiet.  And it's taking my whole life.  There aren't too many songs.  There aren't too many rituals.  There's not a lot of money being collected, or committees chaired.  There aren't titles and positions to go around.  No churches are being planted at all.  But it's the only way I know to get to know God.  To neither walk away from the idea, nor let other people sell it to me on a weekly basis.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Changed World View

Does everything suck?  I was kind of raised to expect everyone and everything to.  And when writing Pharisee, I was trying really hard to express that reality of having grown up with such constant bible reading, memorization and discussion, yet somehow ending up with an understanding of the bible that was extremely narrow, one-sided and limited in scope. (Our bible discussions mostly sounded like this.)

I tried to express it all.  To convey that major stuff was missing.  To explain that odd stuff was getting focussed on to the exclusion of all else.  I have often found N.T. Wright helpful in pointing that stuff out.  Maybe it's not all about sin and death and hell and everyone sucking.

Today I watched a video with Wright explaining what the words "gospel" and "righteousness" (as English words looking to convey ideas from another time and place) might mean, beyond what I'm used to seeing in them.  What would the early readers of the bible have understood their words, now translated awkwardly into a different language, across a different culture, to mean?

I grew up with a purely "negative" understanding of most of what the bible tries to present to us.  God was good, we believed, which meant He didn't want to punish us, exactly, though we sucked.  We sang long, slow, sonorous hymns every Sunday morning about how Jesus suffered so much because we sucked so much.  We had the gospel, the message of which was that there was now a way to not go to Hell.  And that God was righteous (holy, holy, holy), which meant that He didn't sin.  Everyone sucked but Him.

All of that is kind of like seeing a child as "good" if they obey placidly.  Nothing else.  God, obviously, even if you only believe in Him as an abstract concept, has to be good in ways that transcend that childish understanding of "not doing anything bad." Not just good in that He doesn't suck like we do.  No, He's got to be good in ways that go right past even the world-famous, lasting accomplishments of adult human beings who made the very best inventions, paintings, symphonies, buildings and things in the whole world.  God is good all the way past that, to good-doing that befits the Person who made the whole world and everything in it to begin with: He was behind, inside and involved with all of the good stuff that ever happened.  He was there.  Cheering.  Having mostly made it happen anyway.

But just as, when I was writing Pharisee I realized that the word "virtue" didn't just mean "purity from bad stuff" but rather "power," "usefulness" and "effectiveness," the same is also true of words like "gospel" and "righteousness."  There is a whole "positive" dimension we didn't dream of, really, back in the day.

Wright paints an understanding of the bible which involves God saying millennia ago that He absolutely will successfully accomplish various good things, and then actually succeeding in doing those exact things, one after another. Taking His time.  Despite... everything. Certainly despite us.

God being righteous doesn't just mean He doesn't lie or break His word or punish unfairly. (bad things He doesn't do.)  It also means He manages, no matter what hot mess we manage to make of the world, to bring about those good things He always planned to bring to fruition.

The message of the bible isn't simply about a rescue mission, in which God plucks us out of the world, His Biggest Failure.  It's about God being faithful, and fair, and setting things right, eventually, but letting stuff play out first.  Of bringing down bad stuff, and letting good stuff be seen.  The world working as a big demonstration of God interacting with Man.  God gives Man the world, himself and other people.  Man gets to choose to do good or bad stuff.  Then it's God's move. And God does good stuff, and promises to do more good stuff.  Then it's Man's move.  Then it's God's.  And ultimately, God wins in the end.  The Nazis do not reign for a thousand years.  Stalin falls.  Nixon and Bill Clinton get caught.  Rwanda gets movies made about it.  O.J. ends up in jail.  Everyone knows there were no weapons of mass destruction, but that there are child molesters in the Church.

The bible, the gospel and Christianity are not just about God fixing man's mistakes and nothing more.  They're about God finding ways, in every century, to reconcile mankind with Good, in various ways.  Every single century of human history, there are human beings doing messed up things, but there are also wonderful things being done. And God is in all of that.  Goodness always and only flows from and through Him.  You can't get it from anywhere else.  If there is any small bit of goodness, humour, inspiration, passion, integrity, beauty, spirit or whatever in Kim Kardashian, Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift or anyone at all, that came from the same place everything good comes from.

Artists talk of "muses," imagining helpful supernatural beings, or other means of tapping into an inhumanly deep, dark, mysterious and beautiful source of Good New Things. Beautiful things.  Sometimes some of them use drugs to try to get there and get to kind of helplessly touch all that.  Performers talk of being pulled right out of themselves, of stepping aside, as it were, and having excellence and inspiration and passion flood out of them from Somewhere Else, so everyone in the room can feel it.  As if they're just conduits.

And that's God, where all of that's coming from, if there's any good to it.  He is, before anything else, a Creative Person.  It's the first thing He is recorded doing: Creating. Everything.  And intending good with it.

Carl Jung said "People don't have ideas.  Ideas have people."  This is terrifying, when the ideas that "have" us are destructive ones.  And it is wonderful when the ideas that have us are inspired and new and true and beautiful. When God's ideas for the world have us swept up in their current.

When I was growing up, we Christian folks were quite sure that every pop musician who was a conduit for beauty, truth, passion and joy, was (obviously) lit on fire by the passionate, evil, sensual flames of hell.  We had to tell ourselves that there was no good in any of it.  We had to say that the very best performances given through the 50s, 60s, 70s and onward (performances people still watch recordings of today and gasp in wonder) were bad.  Evil.  Dangerous.  Seductive, of course, but pure bad.  We had to say "all that" came from the devil.

I think that's blasphemy.  Attributing the handiwork of God (creativity, beauty, passion, wonder, truth, sincerity, connection, talent) to the devil.  Imagining that the devil is a creative person.  That he writes songs with danceable hooks.  Inspires paintings with heart.  Helps write novels that reveal important truth about the human condition.  But we were so sure of ourselves.  The people who were writing novels, singing songs and painting paintings weren't religious or abstinent folk, often.  So anything they did had to be Of Satan.

N.T. Wright reads the bible and sees a drunken humanity stumbling toward reconciliation with a Creator God who works BIG, and takes centuries rather than hours to do a lot of things.  Wright doesn't see God giving up on the world and preparing to airlift a lucky, wise few of us out of it.  He sees a God who is looking for agents to help pour in and draw out good, in the world, today. Tomorrow.  Next week.  Next century. (yes, there may well be another century.)

It's really not easy, given what happens in the world every day, for it to be really clear to us that we are both free to act, and also that God is just/fair/righteous.  But God is up to that, says N.T. Wright.  God is up to all of the things that a country's justice system is trying to accomplish.  Not just to punish rule-breakers.  But also to comfort victims, arranging reparations, restraining orders and peace bonds, getting involved so that when something unfair is happening, maybe it can be set right without entirely taking away the rights and agency of everyone involved. Reconciliation.

Your spouse cheated on you?  Your business partner let you down and took off with money that was yours?  Your community gossiped unfairly about you?  N.T. Wright believes in a God whose business (and the business of his servants) is to make it possible to start to set things right.  To try to bring good out of it all anyway.  To look to work with everyone involved to try to reconcile things.  Sometimes this takes a long time.  Sometimes people won't play.  Sometimes what we like to call "karma" seems to set things straighter than before.  Well, to N.T. Wright, that's all God, being Himself.

Because human history is about people trying to wrap their heads and hearts around what it would even look like if an utterly trustworthy God made a covenant, and then people repeatedly broke and dishonoured it in the most egregious of ways, but that faithful God was determined to keep His end, for centuries afterward, and even try to help people know better and make more workable choices.

What all this leads to is something that dismays a dogmatically-raised, podgy person of middle years: a change in world view.

I was raised to view the world in these terms: It's all dangerous, exciting, dirty and horrible and bad.  The world and the people in it, and the stuff they make and do, their kids, what they say... all of it.  It's supposed to be good.  They do what they can to try to fool everyone into thinking it is. But really, everyone, everywhere and everything sucks. God will take us away from it one day, having forgiven us for sucking, once we stop pretending we don't suck.

This didn't encourage us to recycle much.  Nor to cut down on air pollution, or feed the hungry.  It and they would all burn anyway, and that right soon.

But now I'm thinking more in terms of: God made the world and the people in it, and intended it all to be and do and lead to even more good.  People want to be of worth.  Everyone wants excellence.  People even try a bit.  But sin is repeatedly falling short of a target we are repeatedly shot at.  We all fall short.  We are crooked still, and wobble and fall to one side or the other.

So the whole world isn't so much evil, in terms of cackling over a stated intention to hurt and destroy everyone and everything, as it is sick, weak, twisted and sad.  It tries, and it falls short.  And God lets kids fall down.  But he intends to teach them to ride bikes and swim and run and jump.   And still, having learned, they will fall, and will hurt themselves and act like jerks to each other, but God loves it all.  He's doing what He can, so to speak, without just forcing everything and making everything go perfectly, clumping it all directly under His Thumb.

God makes things that are alive.  And He lets them breathe.  And sing and dance.

It's a different way to view people, the world, everyone, everywhere, everything.  When it sucks (and it will), that's not the final nail in a coffin. That's just failed good.  And maybe the urge should be to help, rather than sneer, laugh or turn away in scorn or pious disgust.  And helping, we will fall short.  And our efforts will often be turned away by the ungrateful, or misunderstood by the single-minded.  Some of what we put into the mix will surely be wasted.  One cookie's probably going to fall off the plate.

But still...

Monday, 29 August 2016

Virtual Reading Meeting

I remember going out to Reading Meeting for church every week, on Thursday nights.  There was no possibility of doing anything else on any Thursday evening. It was Meeting Night.  And I remember how it sounded.  I couldn't tune it out, because my brain doesn't work like that.

Now, a former Taylor-Hales Exclusive went to great pains to make a webpage which generated random gobbleygook which sounded very much like what went on in Taylor Hales bible discussions led by their global Man of God, Bruce Hales.  I found it hilarious and terrifying.

Yesterday, for some reason, I couldn't stop turning into something that sounded much more...familiar.  Now I've copied and altered his work (with permission) so it sounds like what I grew up with.  Share my pain.  Click here to try it.  It will make endless pages of randomized "bible discussion."  It sounds like:

Mon Aug 29 2016

Ezekiel 5: 4 - 34; Ruth 4: 31 - 33

H.G.H. I was thinking further of this matter of the holy scriptures in Ezekiel 5. We often read about it. I think the tenor of it represents something quite distinctive. I think the writer set out for us the whole issue of what has come out in the brother's meetings. I think it’s truly special the way the spirit of prophecy requires obedience to the evil one in Ruth 4. And I think the kingdom of God is where we haven't held fast, you know, we’ve looked to the sisters and voices speaking out in opposition to the truth of the One Body; we haven’t kept our gaze upon the current state of affairs. But it is an interesting question as to what is seen and brother Hayhoe's ministry; these two should be clearly distinguished, lest we fall into error. That is brought out in this day of failure and ruin in J.N.D.'s comments on Titus 1. So it's really meant to be the assembly, I think. It's held out to us in Habakkuk as it were as to the world I think, isn’t it? He says, from the time a true Chrisitian is over, from that very moment - what does it say? Then we are told that something seriously not right encourages authoritative ministry given that what is left up to personal exercise represents true submission to the saints in a very beautiful way.

C.C.T.Jr. Are these thoughts in keeping with saints who are now in glory through references to water, representing the Word of God. as our beloved brother Bucchanan made so clear to us?

G.A.H. That's so important, isn't it? I was just thinking over what you were just telling us about saints who are now in glory and the whole business and these thoughts. That is brought out in this dispensation of grace in J.N.D.'s comments on Ruth 3. And then what it is to know saints who are now in glory for God's Earthly people, which has been replaced for us with various things that come up and which we must delve into the Word regarding today. So there’s these thoughts, things, the one surely being a type of the other. Then a local matter has in mind saints who are now in glory, in conjunction with our assembly actions.

W.S.L. Did the man in Ezekiel 5 provide the spiritual mind in connection with the point at issue, in this day of failure and ruin?

G.H.H. Yes, yes, that's very precious, that's just what I was thinking about. There's a clear connection, I think, with occurences of the little word 'but' in this passage. Do not let anybody tell you that it's through the spiritual mind that we become established. What's been said, of course, the issue every time in the spiritual mind is one assembly recently. The Lord will come and find adultery and those who have needed to fall under assembly discipline (Ruth 4), so that would add to the thought of the Two Witnesses of Revelation in this verse. And I think the spiritual mind is where we haven't held fast, you know, we’ve looked to the bread and cup and saints who are now in glory; we haven’t kept our gaze upon the recovery of the divine ground of gathering.

H.J.M. Would this perhaps be speaking of separation from evil privately and what is an issue of assembly authority being our nightly prayers?

G.H.H. Yes. It's an area where God has called out, you might say, ungodliness for Himself. So it's really meant to be separation from evil, I think. It's held out to us in 2 Thessalonians in a profound way as to the basis for testimony I think, isn’t it? You'd like to think that true separation from evil, the divine ground of gathering goes forward with the earnest of the Spirit, you'd like to think that the flock alludes to the light of the assembly, in a sense. And then what it is to know separation from evil for God's Earthly people, which has been replaced for us with an Ephesian condition today. So there’s them that cause divisions, worldly ideas, the one surely being a type of the other.

...and so on.