Saturday, July 10, 2010

Steps or Stops?

A couple weeks ago, one of the ministers at the Old German Baptist meeting began with Psalm 37:23: The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord: and he delighteth in his way. He went on to note that "stops" as well as "steps" may order our lives, by turning us in another direction.

I made a suggestion to a new friend the other day, and received a gentle, graceful "no" as an answer. It hit me far harder than reasonable considering the situation. A "stop" for sure.

Hearing "no" used to be much harder for me, before I had done a lot of work on myself in Alanon, a 12-step program for friends and relatives of alcoholics...which I'm eligible for through ancestors, friends, friends' ancestors; mine and others' former significant others, employers, customers, coworkers, etc.; etc.). And also before my Canadian adventure a few years back (the point in my life where I REALLY learned to depend on God in daily affairs, like "where am I going to sleep tonight?").

Now I know to...duh...STOP when I run into a "stop", and really look inside, when I receive "no". Sometimes I do just shrug it off...and then I know either it really DIDN'T matter or I really AM trusting God. Yay! Sign of a healthy, balanced life in the program and in my Christian journey.

Sometimes I feel relief...and then I know I really didn't want "yes" anyhow, so why did I even bring it up? Better take the time to figure that out. Note to self, don't do that next time.

Sometimes, I find a lot of feelings roiling around in me: maybe hurt, anger, resent, disappointment, loss.... Then I know to stay stopped, take a deep breath, pray, and wait for God to clue me in on what HIS plan is (since obviously it's different than mine).

Slowly I'm unravelling this current "stop." In my daily life, it's totally inconsequential. But it is an important "stop" to honor in my spiritual life.

New friendships are difficult, esp. because I'm out of practice. In fact, I've pretty well given up on finding new friends in daily life. The ambient culture has changed a lot in the last five years, with the explosion of electronic networking in all its many forms. And my journey has led me further and further from the mainstream of the ambient culture, in many ways, through immersion in the non-human Community of Life at the farm, through dabbling in the Plain culture of the River Brethren and Old German Baptists, through mingling with the world of homelessness as I go about my bus driving.

But it was always hard. I've never felt comfortable in ANY subset of the ambient culture. "In the world but not of the world" is not a remote, abstract ideal for me; it's the reality I've pretty much always lived in. The dilemma is to make sure, if I'm not OF the world, that I'm OF something REAL and HOLY. As a consequence, I don't really belong ANYWHERE. I'm ALWAYS stumbling around blindly, bumping into walls I don't see and making faux pas that no one has the heart to tell me about.

Gradually, as I continue about my routine daily tasks, the muddied water from the "no" begins to clear.

Just as expectations are premeditated resentments, I think anticipation is premeditated disappointment. So I know now to look at what I was anticipating, that I am disappointed about not having. It shows me an unfulfilled deep desire in my life, a need perhaps.

In this case, I realize that one of the biggest gaps in the cast of characters in my life is any sort of ongoing fellow traveler on this Christian journey. No matter how intimate my relationships with God and Christ and the Holy Spirit are, they just aren't human relationships, and that's something I think most people need. Healthy ones. And for a Christian journey, Christian ones.

It is partly a wish for simple, mild companionship on this spiritual journey: the kind of friendship to help smooth over the moments of discouragement so that they don't bog me down and throw me off track. Sometimes I just need another human to say "mmhmmmm" and nod or shake their head appropriately while I give myself the luxury of a rare few minutes on the "pity pot". And who will then gently remind me to get OFF the pity pot. The dog listens attentively, but just doesn't "get" my petty trials and triumphs. Not even when she could hear.

It is also, strangely, a wish for someone to hold me accountable on behalf of God. It is very easy to justify to myself my various strayings from what I think is the path God has set me on. Maybe I am entirely deluded as to what the path is and where it is going? There is no one to tell me, "Hey, you're hallucinating! Get it together!" There is no one to have to explain it to. For me, explaining things to another human being is a key way of working them out in my mind. I fall into the gaping holes that I can't even see when I'm just pondering on my own. It's esp. nice to have someone around to help me out of those holes after they help me see them and I fall in! Then they can brainstorm with me how to patch those holes. Furthermore, it keeps me humble.

The novelty here is that I actually encountered someone whom I instinctively trust enough to want to be accountable to be willing and able to say, "Here is what happened, what do YOU think about it, what would YOU do, what are some options for things I could do?" with regard to ethical/spiritual issues, and to not just out-of-hand reject that person's response.

Part of that trust is founded, I think, on feeling that they would not: want power over me for any reason; want to control me or give me advice; want me to depend on them in any way. That there is nothing particular in it for them. I can take or leave their suggestions. Someone who doesn't seem to have a vested interest in me becoming MORE saved or baptized than I already am. Detachment. This is appealing. One of my key life lessons has been to NOT put my faith in any one person, or in any human institution: "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" to paraphrase the Mennonite Confession of Faith. It seems prudent to remain a bit detached from any one person or church.

In this person, I glimpse a level of integrity that resonates with mine, an intentional choice to do the right thing as much as humanly possible. I want to tag along a little while, to measure that integrity, to learn from it, to relax in its safety! Aside from Plain folks, I've met very few Christian folks who demonstrate a certain sort of integrity throughout their daily life. I find this sort of approach to life more among Buddhists...which I resonate with a lot, but those folks are not really interested in my Christian journey. We're all hypocrits to some extent, but at least there are a few rare people who a) realize they are and b) try to be less so. My respect for those few is immeasurable. My hunger to have them for companions on this journey is ravenous, the hunger that comes from starvation.

Such trust is also grounded in the humility (an extremely rare commodity) to admit their own errors and shortcomings in a way that is simple and straightforward, not overwhelmingly self-deprecating. It's the kind of humility that I admire so much in the Old Order ministers I've listened to. It makes it easy to hear things that would otherwise be very hard for me to hear, indeed...and to hear them in a way that I can consider them prayerfully and thoughtfully, in my own time.

It would seem so natural to turn to Plain friends for such fellowship! But the companionship I crave is limited to the members of the church; a more bland friendship is offered to outsiders like me. Plain culture doesn't apparently have a mechanism for such companionship with outsiders, esp. not across gender lines. Virtually all adults "of a certain age" are married...and a married person would not engage in ongoing deep one-on-one discussions with a single person apparently of the "opposite" gender. Yet my perspective and experience more closely resonates with a traditional male perspective, though my body disqualifies me from those circles. To make things more complicated, it would also be questionable to become too close with any particular person apparently of the "same" gender.

When I ate Easter dinner at the home of some OGB friends last year, I ended up literally standing with one foot in the living room engaging in a conversation about bus driving while having the other foot in the kitchen with my attention on making sure I was available should something need chopped or set on the table: an amusing but poignant symbol of my place in their community.

Sigh. New friend "stops" me with a friendly "no." Here I am. A forest of thoughts springs up around this "stop." It's bound to be slow going here as I struggle to unravel the difference between the godly feeling of spiritual loneliness, and the simple human "fleshly lust" of wishing to not live and work so much alone, with no end in sight and so many disappointments behind me. But, God willing, this struggle in the dark forest will eventually be fruitful...

Unless they are nut trees. Then I guess I'm simply nuts....

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Independence Day

We are casual acquaintances, tending towards short conversations touching on some aspect of Christian--a commonality along the lines of England and the US, "two nations divided by a common tongue".

Today as she talked about her reasons for leaving her former church to join her present one, she emphasized, "They weren't following the Bible." She related a story where she felt the pastor had fallen short. She had prevailed on him to intervene in someone ELSE's situation--one not directly involving her--where she felt the other party was sinning. She was "following proper biblical discipline procedures" of going to the party that offended her (not directly, but by offending someone else) with her pastor and another church member. Needless to say, the person thus confronted (I'm not clear whether this was even a member of the pastor's church or not) did not mend her ways immediately. The last straw for my friend was that the pastor said, "Well, what can we do? We don't want to offend anyone!"

I have to agree I would not have a lot of respect for a pastor who didn't want to make waves. Jesus was ALL about "punching holes in the status quo to make room for more love in the world." He DEFINITELY offended people. He got crucified for it, in fact.

But, was this woman wearing a head covering? No, neither her former church nor her new church required women to cover their heads in obedience to Corinthians. So, who's calling who "unbiblical" here? I just have to shake my head and say a little prayer sometimes when "bible-thumpers" harangue someone about failing to follow one scripture, when they are failing to follow one of the clearest, most straight-forward, and easy-to-fulfill scriptures!

And--in addressing the problem of her being offended by someone's behavior which did not directly involve her, it seems to me that the scripture about minding the log in one'e own eye before worrying about the mote in another's needs to be balanced against the procedure for dealing with someone else's improper behavior. Maybe it wasn't that the pastor didn't want to offend the "immoral" third party, but rather he didn't want to offend this woman I was talking to by telling her to MYOB?

Her uneven attention to scripture was neatly exemplified as our conversation drew to a close.

This year July 4th falls on a Sunday--tomorrow. As she departed, I said my customary all-purpose farewell: "Have a good one!"

She replied, "Have a good Fourth of July!"

Hm, wouldn't a Christian have said, "Have a blessed sabbath?" rather that focusing on the secular holiday?

My Christian faith and practice of living "in the world but not of the world" has led me to examine my priorities in the light of scripture. The sabbath--God's holiday--comes first above secular occasions. I quietly refrain from the practice of many secular occasions for several scriptural reasons...mainly from the point of view of not wasting precious resources on frivolous material things that will not last.

My thoughts on Independence Day run towards sadness for those who died in the struggle to free us from the tyranny of British rule. For what were their lives lost? To replace the monarchy with the tyranny of TV, Walmart, and minimum-wage jobs? Serious stuff.

Therefore, I declare my independence from Independence Day! I'll celebrate the first Sabbath of the month as usual by going to church with the Old German Baptists, who practice the separation of church and state fairly rigorously. Likely there will be comments about "the world" celebrating some strange holiday with disruption and excesses. After church, I'll go the the Shape Note Sing, and practice a "lost art" dating back to this country's colonial times.

Dressing to Please

When we first met, she recognized me as a Christian (or something) by the rainbow covering. I recognized her as a Christian of a certain ilk by her dress--demure mid-calf denim jumper over a white t-shirt, and athletic shoes with white socks, and long hair with bangs.

I have avoided the conversation about her dress, because I'm not sure I could be lovingly, non-judgementally Christian about it. I simply know that she has stated that she made a decision to wear only dresses, because "it is pleasing to the Lord."

I think it's great that she wants to please God, but I'm not sure how she--and quite a few other women--figured this particular God-pleaser out.

This style of Christian women's dress truly perplexes me. It's distinctive enough that I can recognize women by it a long ways away...and yet there is, quite simply, NOTHING biblical about it...aside from the fact that the jumper, at any rate, is not "a man's clothing" which women should not wear. But t-shirts and athletic shoes WERE men's clothing when I was a child, and remain "unisex"--or, more accurately, "bi-gender." It is, at least, practical and not ostentatious or fashion-conscious...and fairly modest, though the "modesty police" from many cultures and times would cluck their tongues at the bare elbows.

Jesus himself actually never really got specific about women's dress, aside from maybe some vague comments on modesty...and he very specifically told us to not worry about what to wear. I take that as permission to wear practical, comfortable, modest clothing that befits my daily work. Denim and t-shirts had not, to my knowledge, been invented in the time of Jesus. I don't think knitting had even been invented. Sandals were the norm, if any footwear were worn. Paul, who had a little more to say on the subject, merely asserted that women should not wear men's clothing, and should cover their heads when they pray.

So, why doesn't she cover her head if she wants to please God, since that IS clearly stated in the bible?

This is such a prevalent blind spot among biblical literalists--the women go bare-headed day in, day out, in church, in public and at home! Paul would have found this shameful! Yet the literalists insist that a few vague inferences about particular sexual practices in a now-obsolete cultural context are proof that it is ALWAYS sinful to have a committed, lifelong emotional relationship with someone of the same gender!