Following Jesus or Fitting in?

I’m not a very good Christian. I wish I was but I’m not. I laugh at jokes I shouldn’t laugh at, say things that I should not say, act in ways I should not act, and what’s more is I do it over and over again. Often people could look at me and never know by the way I am acting or what I am saying that I’m a Christian. I want to worship God with my life and I feel like I’m just not doing that.

I look around and I see so many other people that seem to have it all together, who are much better Christians than I am, and it discourages me because I want to be good at this Christian thing and I’m not. I do seek God, I do desire him, but I just screw up so much that sometimes I still fear that maybe God regrets even creating me because I do such a terrible job at doing right.

I feel like I’m such a hypocrite, even though I accuse others of being hypocritical also. Why is it so hard to just life like I give a crap about God and what he wants me to do? Why can’t I just suddenly be a nice person and treat people with the respect and kindness that I ought to? Why do I laugh at the crude joke even though I don’t want to simply because it’s funny and I want to fit in?

Which for me I think this fitting in thing is the whole point. In my desire to fit in, I’m holding myself back. It’s not the only problem in all of this, but sometimes I tend to idolize fitting in with a group of people, meaning I put the priority of fitting in above God and the changes he wants to make in me. I can’t let this hold me back anymore. I need to explore beliefs and questions and doubts that I have even if that means I won’t fit in with certain groups of people.

God wants me to be authentic, and that’s hard if I’m working so hard to fit in. I don’t need to be some counter cultural revolutionary if that’s not what I’m supposed to be, being against things just to be against them, but right now I do need to focus on God and not worry about fitting in with certain groups of people. I’m part of the church, I’m called to love others and to work towards unity and to follow God rather than following the crowd so that I can be just like them.

This wanting to fit in is a recurring theme for me and that’s frustrating because deep down I know better, and I know that I need to just be content to be who I am and to figure out who I am rather than trying to be who I think others want me to be, because that never works out too well for me anyway.

I need to follow Jesus, not the crowd. Like the song says: “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back”.

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Stories

Stories are powerful, it’s why people love fiction such as novels and movies, well, some of us anyway. I have always loved to read, it opened up new worlds and fed my active imagination when I felt like I was being stifled and suppressed. I did a unit in eighth grade English about all the different things we can learn from fiction. The thing is, it’s not just fiction. We thrive on stories. All religions have either a holy book filled with stories and instructions, or oral traditions where stories and instructions were passed from one generation to another from people retelling them. I learned about many of these when I studied the history of communications in college, a course in which I aced, by the way.

In order to write, I have to do a lot of reading, in fact it’s often what inspires my writing. I just finished “My Sister’s Keeper” by Jodi Picoult and “The Last Vampire” by Christopher Pike (yes, I like vampire literature) and just got given a whole stack of novels, so that was like Christmas for me. As I read these stories, I absorbed them, I took interest in the characters, their lives, the issues they grappled with. Stories don’t just entertain me, they challenge my beliefs, help form my opinions, show me opposing sides of issues that I sometimes can’t get from a debate with people who already have their minds made up. Stories are a learning experience, which is why I invest so much into books for my kids, and encouraging them to read.

Fundamentalism doesn’t really care much for stories, because it has life all worked out into neat little boxes with formulas for doing the right thing and getting the holy, godly results they believe in. The problem however is that real life isn’t formulaic, it’s rich in experiences and stories are powerful. I think perhaps we would all communicate better and actually understand each other better if we listened to each other’s stories rather than trying to come up with formulaic solutions. Life is complex, stories are complex, and it’s about time we started to pay more attention to them. 

Lectionary Reflections for August 10, 2014

Readings: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28, Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b, Romans 10:5-15, Matthew 14:22-33.

In Matthew 14 we’re told of a story where Jesus walked on water even though the weather was bad, and Peter asked Jesus to allow him to walk on the water too, which Jesus did. Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water, faith strong, ready to take this on. But then he looked around and he saw how bad the weather was, and he started to allow the storm to take over and therefore he began to sink. The Voice translation says in verses 30-31:

“But when he remembered how strong the wind was, his courage caught in his throat and he began to sink.

Peter: Master, save me!

Immediately Jesus reached for Peter and caught him.

Jesus: O you of little faith. Why did you doubt and dance back and forth between follow me and heeding fear?”

Just over ten months ago, I received a phone call while at church that changed my life forever. My ex-husband and I had been having major marital problems including unfaithfulness, and I had been praying for God to rescue me. I was at the stage where I knew divorce was imminent but I was putting it off because I felt like it wasn’t a good time (is there ever a good time to get divorced?). I’d already given my marriage to God and told him that I would follow him even if it cost me my husband, and it did.

I grabbed the two children that I had brought to church with me and rushed home, where the police were waiting for a social services worker to arrive, who took all of my children into custody even though I clearly had not been present when the event that caused this situation happened. My ex was taken to jail, and I found myself alone, very alone. I was in the middle of the storm, and it was so dark, and so rocky that I wasn’t sure if I could survive. I couldn’t see anything but the darkness, and the sea ready to swallow me up forever. I couldn’t hear anything except that wretched thunder, and the only light was the occasional lightning bolt. The wind whipped fierce around me, and I was afraid.

Like Peter, I “danced back and forth between following Jesus, and heeding fear,” although more often than not I heeded fear. But, when the storm was at its strongest and I was at my weakest, Jesus did for me what he did for Peter: he reached out to me, and caught me.

I’d like to say that I no longer waver between faith and fear now that things are a little calmer. My divorce is final, I have my children back, and I’m starting to live a new normal. But the truth is that I still waver between faith and fear, and all too often I still chose fear. 

Lectionary Reflections for August 3, 2014

Readings: Genesis 32:22-31, Psalm 17:1-7, 15, Romans 9:1-5, Matthew 14:13-21.

What really struck me this week in the readings was the story of Jacob wrestling with his past, with his issues, and his doubts. It seems that even as early as the beginning, men and women of God have struggled with doubt and sin, and, well, life. However, it appears that God was ok with Jacob’s doubts and wrestling, and because Jacob truly loved God, he came out the other side still believing and still loving God. For me one of the remnants of fundamentalism is feeling guilty when I have doubts or when I struggle with various things, but even the most spiritual of people have screwed up badly and that’s because, as it says in Romans, we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God.

Doubt and struggle appears to be part of the faith experience for every Christian. Jacob was honest about his struggles and doubts, and he chose to engage in them and wrestle with them, and came out of the experience a different person. He had a permanent reminder of his struggle, possibly so that he could remember that what he had experienced was real. He had struggled with God and survived. Furthermore, God was not only ok with this struggle, but God engaged him and wrestled with him. Even in Jacob’s fear and doubt and struggle, God was there. In fact, God showed up in a much more personal way during this time.

This gives me hope to know that not only is it ok to wrestle with my faith and my struggles and my doubts, but that God is there in the midst of it, guiding those things, allowing me to wrestle with these things. Honestly, Jacob wasn’t what you’d call a nice guy. He had broken relationships and he’d done a heap of bad things, but despite all of that, he loved God. And after he wrestled with God, he was a changed man. Wrestling with doubts and struggles and coming out the other side changes us.

I’m reading in “The Voice” version this year (I change versions every year, although I do compare passages in other versions also, I have a main one for the year) as it helps me to see the Bible in fresh ways. In “The Voice” verse 24 says that “Jacob stayed behind, left alone in his distress and doubt.” But after the struggle, after the wrestling, it goes on to say further down in verse 28: “you have wrestled with God and humanity, and you have prevailed.” Jacob wrestled with God, and he prevailed. That’s what’s important in this picture. Struggles, doubts, fears, failures, wrestling with all these things is well and good, as long as we prevail, as long as we use them as faith builders rather than faith destroyers. I need to use these times of doubt and failure to build my faith rather than tear it down. That faith may look different than it used to, because the purpose of struggling through these things is to grow.

Embrace the doubts, engage them, and prevail.

“Devotions”

Fundamentalism comes with a lot of shame, guilt and self-hatred for not being able to stick to the prescribed formulas. I talk about this in great detail in my upcoming book “The Girl with the Grace Tattoo”. One thing I remember was the incredible pressure to have a “daily quiet time” or “devotions”, which included reading the Bible and praying every day, usually in the morning because it was important to “start the day right” by “talking to God”. There is nothing wrong with doing devotions, for a lot of people devotions are beneficial. Personally I’m not a fan of the cutesy little devotional books where you read a Bible verse or two and then a cute, cliché Christian message. I’m kind of sort of allergic to those. But I also know people for whom they are very beneficial.

In fundamentalism, I always struggled with doing my daily devotions, and was made to feel shame if I did not do them. Having a relationship with God is very important, so is maintaining that relationship, just like it is with any relationship. What I have come to learn is that God has made us all unique with so many different personalities, and that what works for one person doesn’t work for another. I know some people who thrive in their relationship with God by doing devotions every morning and showing up to church on Sundays, and they have a vibrant, amazing relationship with God.

I think I’ve finally found something that works for me, although I’m not sure the fundamentalists will approve but I’m not too worried about that these days. I take the Lectionary readings for the week, read them and continue to read the same readings during the week. I read things that are written about the weeks Lections. I have also begun using a brand new book by Brian D. McLaren called “We Make the Road by Walking” which is based on the Christian calendar and has weekly Bible readings and a very insightful chapter on a particular topic. So far the book has been amazing, and since it’s tied in with the Christian calendar it matches up with the seasons and therefore can be paired with the Lectionary quite well although the Scripture readings are different.

So what I do is I read the Scripture readings from the Lectionary (and I really do like that all over the world Christians are unified talking about a particular set of Scripture passages), and the readings from “We Make the Road by Walking” and then later during the week I’ll devour the topics and the concepts and really study them. I usually do it in the evenings either before or after my homework, and for me this format works really well. I don’t read every night, but I average four out of seven and my relationship with God has blossomed since I ditched the pressure to do it every day but instead traded that quantity for quality. Even on the nights that I haven’t read the Scriptures or the lessons, the concepts are still on my mind, I’m still mulling over them.

Instead of doing daily devotions in the morning out of a sense of duty whether I understood anything or not, I dig into the subjects in the evenings when I’m not so rushed and can take my time. I spend a week on the Scripture verses for that week, taking the time to delve into topics in a more thorough manner, and now that the pressure is off to rush through devotions every morning when I’ve got so much else I need to do, feeling guilty for feeling that way, I spend my time savoring the time and what I’m learning.