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Archive for November, 2008

Okay, what is going on in Christiandom? I save a news story recently about a Pastor in the U.S. named Ed Young, who recently launched a challenge to his congregation: To have sex every day for seven days straight. Or was it to have straight sex for seven days? Sex seven times a day? I assume he’s talking to the married couples in his church, the heterosexual married couples. It’s very confusing these days, isn’t it?

Now the point of his challenge was apparently to strengthen the bond between married couples. I’m sure the men were, on the whole, thrilled. I’m not married and never have been, but my understanding is that men tend to think about and want sex much more frequently than women do. I’ve heard statistics that suggest heterosexual couples have sex on average three times a week. I may be setting myself up for ridicule, but that sounds like quite a bit to me!

Sex is a wonderful thing (so I’ve heard ;)), but I think Pastor Ed has it backwards, at least from a woman’s standpoint. If men want to strengthen the bond in their marriages, having sex every day won’t do it. Women need to feel loved, treasured, valued and listened to by their husbands. If they feel this way, they might just want to have sex every day. I can’t think of a bigger turn-on than a man who actually cares about my feelings, thoughts and needs.

I saw Ed and his wife being interviewed on some news program and the whole thing really turned me off. To me, they came across as sensationalistic, like the sort of thing you’d read about in a tabloid magazine – even though they were probably attempting to make Christianity culturally ‘relevant’. The trouble is, that’s not what the gospel’s about. It’s not about our pleasure, meeting our needs or feeling good – at least not the gospel of Jesus Christ that’s in my Bible. The gospel is about taking up our cross and following Jesus, dying to self, giving our lives away for others – orphans, widows, the poor.

Maybe I’m being a bit harsh, but I honestly wonder if we’ve gotten off track when I hear this kind of stuff. Are we so comfortable and complacent in the western world that we’ve forgotten Jesus’ call to us – to be His hands and feet, to pursue justice on behalf of the oppressed, to care for the fatherless, to look after widows and orphans in their distress? There are people dying of starvation on the other side of the world, and Ed Young is encouraging his followers to focus on their own pleasure.

I can’t help but think of these words from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 58:

6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?

7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness [a] will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.

9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,

10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.

11 The LORD will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.”

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I attended a bible study at church recently in which our brokenness and shame were likened to a dark cave – a place we know exists, but we’re afraid to go there, and do everything we can to conceal it from others. I’ve done some serious cave-dwelling in my life, as many of us have. During the summer I came close to giving up the fight a number of times. I guess the shame I felt over my brokenness just about pulled me under. What I found most difficult was that I struggled, for the most part, alone.

As I dwelt in that cave of shame and self-hatred, I wanted more than anything to get out. I wanted to be “happy Sandy” again, the agreeable, likable, people-pleasing version of myself – hiding all the “unacceptable” parts of me, as if that would make them go away. I guess I slid into self-pity at times, but I don’t think that’s what kept me in the cave. I think it was God who kept me there. Not that He enjoyed seeing me in pain, but He knew that I needed to enter into the parts of myself that I found so repugnant and face them, so I could see that He was there. He wasn’t disgusted by me or surprised in the least. I think His main aim was to show me that what I needed most was to accept myself (all of me) and to realize the “cure” for what ailed me was simple: acceptance and surrender. He can heal, but I have to let Him, in His way, in His timing.

I think shame, fear and hiding tend to coexist. I know they have in me for as long as I can remember. Even in the case of my sexuality, I went from early negative experiences to sexual relationships with women, which back then were still fairly “taboo”. It’s vast and complex the way our identities are shaped and distorted by things that happen to us and by choices we make. Even now, this beautiful gift that God created human beings to have as man and wife is a source of ambivalence for me. Not that I spend a lot of time thinking about it, but my desires, my “orientation” is not %100 in either direction. There has been significant change, for sure. A big part of the change has been in my view of sex. It doesn’t seem nearly as important as it once did. I do have a choice whether to act on my feelings or not, just as we all do.

I think God does do some of His best work in caves, if we cooperate with Him. The first step in cooperating with what He wants to do in us is to acknowledge our brokenness, our need. That’s one of the things that I’d really love to see change in the church. My experience with every church I’ve attended has been the same – I know I’m painting with pretty broad strokes, but this is my general observation – Christians are a group of people who act like they have it all together on the outside, but behind closed doors many are falling apart. I’m not saying that with a critical spirit at all, but because I’m certain that Jesus didn’t die intending His body to be a bunch of chronic cave-dwellers, hiding in shame and fear while pretending nothing’s wrong.

How can we really extend hope to the world? I think we all need to “come out”, so to speak. To acknowledge openly the things we struggle with. I know it’s risky, but we could really become a place of hope, of refuge, of healing, if more people would step out in faith. A huge part of what keeps people trapped in shame is the belief that no one could possibly understand or relate to their struggles, and the fear that others would judge them if they knew. Could we actually hold one of the keys to setting people free? What if more of us were to speak honestly about our struggles, even in the midst of them? I know Jesus is my healer, my redeemer, my all, but that doesn’t mean life on earth is pain-free. Nor does talking about pain and struggles in any way negate His ability to heal.

The devil has a lot invested in keeping the dividing walls of shame & fear in place. His poison grows in the dark, isolated parts of our hearts. When Christ’s light shines on these areas, we can be set free, and help to set others free. It’s not a question of whether caves exist in our brothers’ and sisters’ hearts. The question is whether we will be brave enough to admit that we’re all cave-dwellers, desperately in need of Jesus’ healing touch.

(For an excellent post that covers similar ground, check out Kathy Escobar’s blog, the carnival in my head.)

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There are certain themes that I return to again and again on my journey. One that figures prominently for me is a deep-seated sense of being on the outside looking in, of being different, of not belonging – and the conviction, deep in my heart, that I never will. This type of self-perception is extremely tenacious, rooted in life experiences and my reaction to them that probably precedes my ability to remember.

On one hand, I really want to belong, and some of my behaviour is no doubt unconsciously driven by this desire. On the other, being an “outsider” isn’t all bad. It fosters a perspective that can be very helpful in relating to people who don’t know Jesus – the type of people who would never walk through the doors of a church because they feel like misfits.

I emailed a friend last night and asked her to keep praying for me. Those familiar voices were invading my thoughts again, the inner voice of a little girl who grew up feeling different and ashamed – “you will never fit in, you’ll always be on the outside looking in”. As I reflect on all of this today, I’m actually thanking God for my uniqueness. What needs to go is the shame. I get a lot of encouragement from thinking about Jesus. He didn’t fit in. The religious authorities rejected him completely, to the point of a mock trial that ended in his crucifixion outside the city walls. Jesus invested himself mainly in sinners, losers and outsiders.

It’s so easy to become complacent as a Christian, especially in our part of the world. I suppose you could say that many people who attend church regularly do so because they want the comfort of belonging. But church was never meant to be inwardly focused. We may draw comfort from journeying together with shared beliefs and values, but if the main point of our existence isn’t outreach, something’s wrong.

I was reading an excellent blog, Bridging The Gap, which contains a quote from Jean Vanier:

“When religion closes people up in their own particular group, it puts belonging to the group, and its success and growth, above love and vulnerability towards others; it no longer nourishes and opens the heart. When this happens, religion becomes an ideology, that is to say, a series of ideas that we impose on ourselves, as well as on others; it closes us up behind walls. When religion helps us to open our hearts in love and compassion to those who are not of our faith so as to help them to find the source of freedom within their own hearts and to grow in compassion and love of others, then this religion is a source of life”

Help us all, Lord, to have your priorities as we gather together in your name – not so much to focus on our own needs, but to venture outside the city walls and extend your love to outsiders.

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That rolls off the tongue nicely, doesn’t it? You might be wondering, “how can someone be born again again?” I’m glad you asked! Maybe I should try rephrasing it. Recently I had an experience that, in the natural, could easily have ended in my funeral. But because God was there, protecting me, I’m still here – and pretty much intact, to boot! I know God could have taken me home, but He chose not to. As a result, I feel like I’ve been snatched from the grave, born again again – and I’m overwhelmed with gratitude, simply because I’m alive.

This has an amazing way of instantly putting life in perspective. Things that were consuming me with worry before my incident suddenly seem trite, insignificant, really not worth focusing on. Hurt feelings, emotional struggles, difficult relationships, all melt away next to the sobering realization that I’m so blessed to be alive, to have people who genuinely care about me – to be really well provided for and loved.

The other thing I’ve come away from my “close call” with is a rekindled fire in my heart to care about what God cares about, and to live my life accordingly. I’m not talking about some sort of mental assent or new-found determination to be “a better person”. I mean that the lense through which I see life, through which I see my own existence, has changed radically – and pretty much instantly. I find myself wondering, “how can I turn a blind eye to the immense suffering in the world when I am so extravagantly blessed in every way?” and, “God must have spared me for a reason – He must have plans to use me, things for me to do.”

This is where I’ve longed to live for ages. I find a huge sense of freedom in realizing that life is fragile and fleeting. God really is in control, not me. He can take me home at any time. I’m here for a purpose, and it’s not about gratifying my own selfish desires. There is a higher calling! Somewhat paradoxically, I don’t feel afraid of death any more. I feel excited about life, about this adventure with Jesus. When He’s ready to take me home, I’ll be ready to go.

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