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On Being Unusual

“But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that?” [Matthew 5:44-48a, NAB]

For years, what I wanted more than anything else was to be normal. I wanted to fit in. As a family of immigrants, our family was odd. We didn’t have a car, my mother was the breadwinner, my father looked like my grandfather (28 years older than my mother), and we lived in the inner city with boarders upstairs. As a child and teen, none of these realities helped me fit in. I began a systematic cover up.

By adulthood, I had created a coat of many colors. And I appeared to have buried most of those old concerns as a good adult should, but they lurked close to the surface all the same. Don’t be weird. Don’t rock the boat. Pick up the correct fork. Watch carefully, mimic as needed. And then I surprised myself in my late twenties and made an uncharacteristic leap into Christ. I dumped myself into another world, a Christian world, with its own set of rules and expectations. I spent years figuring out what this identity needed to look like and sound like. I became more adept than ever: a chameleon. Not that I was a fake. I loved Christ and my initial conversion was true: “Dear Jesus, I believe you are who you say your are and I want to follow you.” But I got caught up in a lot of different flavors (denominations) along the way.

Forty years later, I have finally begun to shed my acrobatic machinations with a greater desire to simply expose my authentic self. Lo and behold, who is evolving there? Someone unusual. That’s funny and ironic. But isn’t that the point? Because it is the unusual person who can “love an enemy,” or “pray for the mean girls,” or “love the unlovable,” or, in general, work outside one’s comfort zone. It is the unusual person who can live inside a paradox, a both/and world. It is an unusual person that can accept who a person actually is instead of who I have wanted that person to be.

Light Switch Faith

When Jesus was giving a hard lesson on forgiveness, the disciples paled (so I imagine).

“Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” [Luke 17:4-5]

And then he gave the now-famous (or infamous) line about mustard seed faith. For the first time, as I reread this passage, I heard a smile in Jesus’ voice, almost like a little tease. I had a startling discovery. Faith is a lot more like a light switch than a thermometer. We aren’t really supposed to be in the business of “heating up” our faith. The amount of faith is not measurable in that way. How many years have I sat under teaching in which believers were chastised for not having enough faith to experience God, either in healing or miracles or whatever? But now, I’m thinking otherwise. Faith is or faith isn’t. (Another kind of Yoda phrase indeed.)

Certainly, I can gain more understanding and I can enrich my relationship to the Holy, but does that mean my faith is more or just includes something else? If I go back to my first days as a believer, I can remember the glories of my conviction about Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit. Real. All real. I was in a whirlwind of gratitude and love. I turned on the light. But as I continued my journey of faith, I don’t believe the light got brighter, I just opened more doors. I surrendered.

I feel a great relief really. I don’t have to collect mustard seeds. I’m gonna plant the one I have so that it can die and transform into a living, breathing me/God union.

Of course, we all know, there are hundreds of references in scripture about fear and more than a hundred that specifically tell us to “fear not” or “do not be afraid.” But I think the repetition is for good reason. How many of us really turn off the fear button? Can we stop our thumping heart or self-talk our way out of the moment? Flight or fight is the normal reaction.

Perhaps I have become more aware of this inability to handle emotions while taking care of my 5-year-old grandson. His biggest issue is not usually fear, but sadness. When things don’t go his way, he tells me how sad he is. And what is my immediate response? “Don’t be sad.” Really, how’s that working? It doesn’t.

Can anyone really act on a “not” command? How many times have parents discovered that telling their kids “not” to do something usually has the opposite effect? Is it better to say, “fear not” or “take courage?”

Changing our feelings is not easy, no matter how we go about it. But we do have to admit the feeling is there, don’t we?

Then again, maybe the “fear not” scriptures are saying, “I see you are afraid of this situation (or person), but I can assure you, it’s under God’s control and you are safe.” In other words, maybe God is trying to help me identify the feeling. Unfortunately, at least for me, it usually takes a few rounds of comfort words, logic, examples, and proof, before I can even think about moving out of fear. I mean, honestly, I can grovel around in fear for a long time and never identify it.

OK, but let’s say I finally get it. I admit it: I’m afraid. Don’t I need to know why I’m afraid?

Oh wait. I know this answer: No trust. Sigh.

I have been a believer for more than forty years. You would think I’d have this trust thing down. Theoretically, I know, the only way to truly face fear (that is walk into it) is to trust God is in the midst of the circumstances. We have stories to make this point. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into the fire [don’t tell me they weren’t afraid], but a fourth person was in the flames with them and when Nebuchadnezzar called them out of the flames, their bodies were untouched [Daniel 3:8-30]. We are not told that they saw God in the flames ahead of time; they didn’t really know how this could turn out well, but they went anyway.

Perhaps that’s the real clue. It’s not that we don’t fear, but we move forward anyway with one hand holding the hand of Jesus.

In Russia, Alexei Navalny, after being poisoned by players in the Putin administration, recovered out of country, but then turned around and returned to his homeland. He knew he would be arrested. He walked into the flames (again). Nelson Mandela of South Africa spent twenty-seven years in prison before he was released. Four years later, he became the country’s first black president. He walked into the flames.

My flames are nothing much compared to many others who have sacrificed their lives, on the battle fields both real and political. But the principal is the same.

Julian of Norwich was a medieval anchoress who suffered through the ravages of the Bubonic Plague that devastated her city three times, killing over half its residents. She knew suffering and hardship, and yet she is best known for her radical optimism and absolute faith in the God of love who told her, unequivocally, that “all will be well; all will be well; all manner of thing will be well.”

Our country has suffered much in the last four years (and beyond), from racial strife and poverty to political corruption and the undermining of our democracy to the ravages of a global pandemic and to the devastating effects of climate change. It is easy to be afraid; at any point, one of these things could touch me or my family directly. What if? What if?

Some say the new administration (inaugurated on January 20, 2021) will make a difference. Perhaps. But until fear is faced and conquered in the hearts of the people, distrust will rule.

I don’t know about you, but I can only lean heavily now on my faith in a good God who summons me to be a light in the darkness, and to speak with radical optimism that God is in the flames and we will be well: all will be well. So it’s not just “fear not,” but “be of good courage, I have overcome the world.” [John 16:33]

Illusions of the Heart

Our country is still in mayhem after the assault on the Capitol on Wednesday, January 6, 2021. What aftereffects will occur, it’s difficult to say at this time. But, as a woman of faith, this juncture cannot be ignored.

Naturally, we can all pray: for peace, for wisdom, for understanding, for renewal, for justice, for explanations. And yet, despite our prayers, the question of “why” dominates my mind. How has violence become the only avenue for expressing frustration and inequity?

Today, I was meditating on “Psalms for Praying” by Nan C. Merrill and in Psalm 1 (her interpretation) presumably the last verse, she writes, “. . . Love’s penetrating Light breaks through hearts filled with illusions: forgiveness is the way.”

Another scripture says, “A good man [person] brings good things out of the good stored up in his [or her] heart, and an evil man [person] brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his [or her] heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” [Luke 6:45, NIV]

An illusion misleads intellectually and its intent is to cause misinterpretation of its actual nature (see Webster’s dictionary). This is where we are now. We can tell that illusions exist because of the words spoken and quite honestly, the actions (the violence). Illusions have found root in many hearts and, in my mind, the only way to break such illusions is by an act of God, or literally, the pure Light of the Christ.

People are regularly captivated by clever magicians who can transform what we believe to be truth into something else. And that something else becomes the replacement reality. I cannot dissuade someone who has fully engaged an illusion as real.

I suppose I may be steeped in illusion as well, but of another kind certainly, where love guides. My faith in God keeps me in the “Way,” but what about the people who read the same Bible I read, pray to the same God I do, and yet justify behaviors and words far outside my understanding of the verse, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind; and your neighbor as yourself” [Matthew 22:37].

According to cult de-programmers, it can take up to five years to bring a loved one out of the deep influence of a charismatic leader or group. This process is about unconditional love, questions, and patience. Illusions do not fall like a curtain, but in pieces and cracks. Hostility, name-calling, disgust, and chips on the shoulder are no help. Let us instead, look for points of concurrence. This is my prayer.

In recent days, I have been practicing Lectio Divina again** with some regularity and have found it profoundly illuminating. Partly, I believe it’s because of the familiarity of the Christmas season scripture passages. Most of us know them well, and it’s often difficult to hear/read something new from them. This practice is perfect for a renewal and discovery in God’s Word.

I found a lovely app for my phone called “Ritual” and on it, a daily Lectio podcast presented by theologian, Kathleen Cahalan. The other day, she read a passage about Simeon and Anna from Luke 2. The part about Anna struck me the deepest [Luke 2:36-38]:

“There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” [emphasis mine]

In the past, I simply found her devotion admirable albeit somewhat extreme, and moved on. Or, how lovely for Mary and Joseph to have received two prophetic utterances on the same day, etc. But on this day, I was captured by the Temple itself and the conundrum of the temple within and the temple without. After all, scripture is clear, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” [I Corinthians 3:16, NKJV] And all I could think about was the wonder of never leaving the Temple within. If I could really remain in the holy place, dwell there, and from that vantage point, look out, wouldn’t my view of others and the world around me be transformed?

So, with the help of my “Monk Manual” [MonkManual.com], I was drawn to this idea and have embraced it as my theme for the month of January. There’s no real “doing” in this theme, there’s no success or failure, no comparison, no wrong or right. It’s a small globe of thought on which I want to rest each day and allow myself to wonder again and again: I am in the temple of God and the temple is in me; I am not alone there.

**Lectio Divina is a contemplative way of reading the Bible. It dates back to the early centuries of the Christian Church and was established as a monastic practice by Benedict in the 6th century. It is a way of praying the scriptures that leads us deeper into God’s word. We slow down. We read a short passage more than once. We chew it over slowly and carefully. We savour it. Scripture begins to speak to us in a new way. It speaks to us personally, and aids that union we have with God through Christ who is himself the Living Word.

From the Anglican Communion.org

First of all, please understand, I am not an “out and out” advocate for abortion. This is not my point. In most circumstances, it is not a choice I would encourage anyone to make, the unintended consequences being far-reaching, unpredictable, and possibly heart-wrenching. And yet, I do not consider abortion murder either. Not in the way so many of my Christian brethren believe. For them, I am apostate.

With that said, please feel free to skip this post. You see, because I will not condemn the woman who chooses this path, particularly without full knowledge of her circumstances, her history, her heart.

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” [Matthew 5:21-22a, NIV] Isn’t the implication here, the “same” judgment?

“. . . For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” [Romans 3:23b, NIV]

“As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; . . . [Romans 3:10a, NIV]

Are there people who abuse the legal right to an abortion, treating it like the “morning after pill?” Absolutely, and I find this grievous. But there is no law that doesn’t have abusers and liars. The more often someone abuses any law, the easier it becomes, not allowing the import of their choices to weigh upon their souls.

I know, there are many people I love and respect; for them, there is no time that ending a pregnancy is justified. They claim they speak for the innocents. I get it. But condemnation comes cheap these days, forgetting that no sin is worse than another, not really. Can we really walk in the shoes of the woman who must choose? To make the choice “illegal” will not make her journey any easier.

In other words, I am not the judge or the jury for a woman who seeks to end a pregnancy any more than I am the judge of lifestyle. I have friends of the same sex who have been in very long relationships while many heterosexual (even Christian) friends have cheated on their spouses and often divorced (all forbidden by the “letter of the law’).

“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?” They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” [John 8:4-7, NIV]

It’s a dilemma and a mystery where to stand. I understand, intellectually, both sides of this dilemma, but, in the end, I have made my choice, one of mercy and grace (given to the very ones who don’t deserve it any more than I do).

When I look at the circumstances into which many children are born in the name of “righteousness,” I quake. Too many children are physically and emotionally abused by unloving adults; too many go hungry; too many are cast-offs and enter a life of resentment and paybacks for the misery of their childhoods. Is this an excuse? No, but it is a reality. Bringing a child into the world comes with responsibility and demands. This is one of many reasons, advocates support a mother’s right to choose – is she a fit mother? Is there a man or partner willing to share the burden of parenthood? Is this the best for the child?

In my view, there is not enough anecdotal evidence of “close-calls” for those adults who were nearly aborted, were not, and became gifts to society. Of course, God is God and anything can happen. But my feeling is that for every wonderful story, there are ten or hundredfold of sorrow. If it were not so, endless poverty cycles and unwed mothers would not be our society’s norm.

Best case? Teach people about longings. Teach both men and women of all ages about sex and why it exists, for joy, yes, but not just a one-night stand but a long-term, ever evolving relationship that is part of becoming parents. Teach people about contraceptives and give them away for free! Demonstrate love. Apply grace.

And let God work out the rest.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” [Mark 12:30-31, NIV]

Note 1: This topic is too big for a single blog post; I know that. I can only address a few aspects of sex in order to make a point.

Note 2: As a heterosexual female, I can only reasonably speak to sex between men and women. Not to necessarily discount the rest, I am simply unfamiliar with other practices, nor do they help in my argument about the relationship between longing, sex, and unwanted pregnancies.

Spoiler Alert: If you have trouble with the words vagina, coitus, sexual intercourse, orgasm, ejaculation, or copulation, you may want to skip this post.

Random Facts and Processes

  • Sex is noted throughout the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments. Most of the time, it’s a warning. “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immortality;” [I Thess 4:3, ESV]
  • Sex (as a word) has become, over time, an over-arching term for the whole she-bang (no pun intended): foreplay, coitus, and recovery.
  • Sexual intercourse can be a pleasant and satisfying experience often culminating in orgasm. In some cases, both partners (the ideal) have orgasms, but far too often, only one does, generally the man.
  • When two people agree to have sex, the immediate outcome is often pleasant.

However–

  • In the case of non-mutual consent, sexual intercourse is primarily one-sided with the male forcibly entering the female for personal satisfaction.
  • A male can also weaponize sexual intercourse, commonly called rape.
  • A woman, in these situations, is an “object.”

Nonetheless–

  • In all cases, if the man has successfully ejaculated inside a woman’s vagina, sperm laden semen will move through the vagina and into the cervix and beyond. In the case of withdrawing, also known as coitus interruptus or pulling out, it is possible for some sperm/semen to find its way up the path.

Long Term Outcomes

  • If either the man or the woman has an STD (sexually transmitted disease), that disease will likely pass to the partner.
  • Depending on the female cycle, a single sperm can successfully travel into the cervix and fertilize a waiting egg, create a single cell zygote, and in essence, create a pregnancy.

Why Do People Engage in Sex if One of the Key Long-Term Outcomes is Pregnancy?

  • They want to have a child together.
  • One or both use contraceptives to prevent a pregnancy. In other words, they don’t want a child. Unfortunately, they tend to forget that a surprise pregnancy can still happen. No contraceptive is completely foolproof.
  • Sex is fun.
  • Sex, particularly orgasms, release a number of hormones that specifically impact the partners. [see https://www.sciencealert.com/here-s-what-happens-to-your-brain-when-you-orgasm] Among them are:
    • dopamine: releases feelings of pleasure, desire, and motivation.
    • oxytocin: releases feelings of bonding (the same hormone releases during breastfeeding), a sense of love and attachment. Note: after orgasm, oxytocin continues to be release in women which often explains their desire for post-coital closeness and “cuddling.”
    • prolactin: releases feelings of satisfaction.
    • serotonin: releases feelings of happiness and sleepiness, a good mood, and relaxation.
  • Having an orgasm stimulates the brain in the same way as “doing” drugs or listening to your favorite music.
  • One of the chemicals released during sex can even desensitize a person to pain.
  • All of these feelings and “hormone releases” are a “reward” for sex.

“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the Father’s love is not in him. For everything that is in the world does not come from the Father. The desires of our flesh and the things our eyes see and want and the pride of this life come from the world.” [I John 2:15-16, NLV]

Is There Any Wonder?

  • In review, my previous post about “longing” was the set up for this simple truth: sex fills a lot of longings.
  • If a person is sad, lonely, anxious, afraid, disappointed, insecure, unloved, or just have any number of unmet needs, sex can fill the bill. For those moments, it all goes away, just like a drug-induced state of mind.
  • In a time of loss or deprivation, sex is usually still available. For such a reason, total strangers will have sex, like a drug, to forget their circumstances.

Historically–

Because, we must remember, for centuries, women were possessions or slaves (although some cultures have female goddesses and have created myths about women). But in practicality, ordinary women had many social restrictions, few rights, and lived in the home at the whim of men. There have been pioneer women in every age who stepped out of the norms, but true self-discovery for average women came in the last century, beginning with the right to vote.

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” [Genesis 1:27, ESV]

What I really want to highlight is that, in this modern era, sexual relations are different. Earlier, women were used for a man’s pleasure only, and at his demand, in addition to bearing children. Today, more women believe they should have equal say about when and how and with whom they have sex and they also want control over the outcomes.

For some people, this change for women is too brazen, outrageous, and merely sets the stage for widespread sexual immorality. For other people, this change for women means the freedom to experience intimacy in a variety of different ways.

But whether sex is forbidden or permissible, it is the drive to have sex and it’s “rewards,” that puts women at the locus where pregnancy can happen. The man plays a vital role and yet, a resulting pregnancy is still primarily viewed as the woman’s responsibility to carry.

So, in this era, most women want to have a say. They want a full participation and mutual responsibility. And yet, whichever partner has longings, needs, or desires, if a child is created, it’s still regarded as “her” problem and in some circles, her “sin” or “punishment.” In my mind, this view is held both in and out of marriage (a topic to be considered at another time – that of fidelity and infidelity).

I believe too many people have lost the ability to recognize sex as an intimate expression of love and a medium for spiritual union. Sexual encounters have become physical and hormonal experiences exclusively. Whether that’s good or bad, the result is a monumental disconnect between sex and the production of children.

“Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” [Genesis 2:24, ESV]

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