Thursday, August 10, 2017

Sprint Walkers (08/07/17)

(Published 08/10/17 for proofreading delays)
Yes, it's been several months. I keep wanting to post something, but usually I can't commit myself to sit down and actually write it. Don't worry, I haven't forgotten this!

*Note: The links a little ways in are just Bible Gateway, so you don't have to take the effort to look them up yourself. Otherwise, (and I'm speaking from experience here,) it's pushed aside and you don't take the time to look it up, so it gets forgotten.

I've done cross country since fifth grade. As a high school runner on a competitive team, when I look back on middle school and before, it's not hard to tell that I wasn't particularly good. Practice was two or three times a week and I didn't do much outside that. Our season didn't start until a little ways into the school year, so we didn't have much time in practice to improve anyway. The main thing our coaches always told us to keep running, even when it felt horrible. Walking during practice or a race may feel good momentarily, but it breaks your momentum and all you want to do is keep stopping. I would do my best to stick to this, no matter how slow my pace. That didn't put me anywhere near the front of a race, but I was fine with that. The only time I had to beat was my own.

I always found myself running about the same pace as the people I call "sprint walkers". They do exactly what their name suggests: run all out until they can't go anymore, then walk. (Repeat). Whenever the coaches or the crowd caught up to them, they'd start up again as if nothing happened. I would work my hardest to keep going at my slow and steady pace, and here these people who walked half the race would pass me, even though I'm doing the right thing and not stopping. In the end, though, I was the one who didn't feel as completely drained from having to stop and start.

Since then, I've gotten a lot faster. High school mileage is a 5k (about 3.1 miles) instead of the middle school 2 miles or 5th grade 1 mile "fun runs". Endurance means more than it used to, since there's more ground to cover, and my high school team has made me work a lot harder at what I do.

I see the same sprint-walk happening in spiritual terms. I'm trudging along sometimes, maybe not doing my best in my prayer life or I'm not doing what I'm told, when all the sprint walkers come past me. They run their spiritual walk really well when they first believe, trying to change their life for the better. But what is there that makes them stay? Society is moving further away from the Christian church, and our megachurches don't carry the same peer pressure on an individual to stay involved. There are so many people coming and going that it's easy to rationalize that no one will notice when you're gone. For all they know, you're going to the earlier service to catch a soccer game later in the day. When all the sprint walkers do attend regularly, it can all morph into a routine where they sing some songs, listen to the story of Abraham again, empty their pocketbook, greet some people on the way out, and then catch some lunch before going back to busy life.

Sermons have to be geared toward newer Christians and outreach because they don't have as much time in the lives of the congregation. We're losing a lot of Sunday School opportunities because society is changing and we tell ourselves we don't have the time, so all some people are hearing from God on a regular basis comes through a lot of the same intro-to-Christianity sermons. There's nothing besides personal willpower that pushes people to read the Bible on their own. It's like the part of the race where the crowd isn't allowed to follow to cheer everyone forward, and it takes a lot of personal motivation to keep running at the same pace.

But every now and then there comes an event. For people my age, it tends to be a literal, large scale event with tons of people, loud music, and a speaker who tries to get the audience emotionally involved. Maybe for others it's a sermon that really hits home. Maybe for some, they just stepped too far in their walk away and they have a personal moment with God. People walk away from this event, whatever it might be, calling it "life changing". It's that moment in the race when suddenly you're back to civilization and people start cheering you onward. The sprint walkers start up again. The people who were running push themselves a little harder.

Except it doesn't last.

When people refer to God as "Father", I wonder how much they mean it. Yes, 1 John 4 (see v. 8) is true, where God the Father loves you and wants you to turn from your sins and seek him. Yes, 1 Corinthians 10:13 is true, where God will help you overcome what you can't do by yourself. Yes, James 5:16 is true, where your prayers are effective. But that's not a complete Father-child relationship. God the Father is also a God of justice. If you read more of 1 Corinthians 10, Paul describes how God punished the Israelites when they disobeyed him, even though they were his chosen people with the baptism, spiritual food, and spiritual drink of the Law, which was their closest chance to salvation before Christ. And James 5:16 doesn't just say that prayers to God are powerful. It says "The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective." You have to make the effort and have the faith that it will be done.

If you have an earthly father who raised you and pushed you to be a better person, can you say that your relationship came without you ever sitting down and getting to know him? Did you never interact to do anything other than him telling you what to do? Did he never call you out on something you did wrong and discipline you, in one way or another, so you didn't do it again? If you don't have an earthly father who looked out for your best interests, what's missing? What makes your biological father imperfect? (And now that I have you doubting your father figure's parenting skills, give him a call if you can, saying how much you appreciate him. It's not his fault he's human.)

We aren't running for our own glorification, unlike cross country. We don't have an opportunity to sprint when we see the finish line. There are no periodic mile marks to say we're getting close. Those on the sidelines don't always want you to succeed. Sometimes the runners beside you go off the path so much that you can't tell which way is right. Sometimes you can't tell what's ahead of you. But the run can also be so much more satisfying.

So how do you keep running? How do you push yourself to come closer to God when the crowd is silent and everyone around you is walking?

Well, in running, I'm always told to run with someone. It's someone else to pace me, and we can look out for each other. God also intended us to experience our run to him with a community. Maybe you could join with others who want spiritual growth and form a Bible study or a support group. You don't need any set curriculum to read the Bible. Just read what's written, and you'll find the path of where you need to go and how to get there. Hold each other accountable, even if you're only able to meet online to check in with each other. Be completely honest with someone about anything that you're not sure of or anything that concerns you. If you see someone walking or about to give up, be there for them and run along beside them.

Finally, don't forget the journey and the prize. If you can take the effort to look around you, you can discover the beauty of God's creation and his own nature. The further you go- the more you get to know God as a Father in all aspects- the more breathtaking the view. In the end, we get to live in Heaven with our Creator. The more you seek the good of others and the will of God, the greater your reward will be in heaven. When my coaches say to stretch and to eat healthy, I do it because I know it's for my good. When you read and obey the Bible, you become more like Christ, the perfect runner. It's not always easy, but it's definitely satisfying.

Questions? Did I miss anything? Feel free to comment below. I don't bite. I promise.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Revision (03/31/17)

This is at least two weeks late. I apologize to the involved party.

I asked a friend of the family for thoughts about the previous post (see Modern Day Pharisees), and I received a few concerns, which I wish to address below. It was made clear that none of this is to stir up debates or personal conflict, but simply that I asked for and received a different perspective.

(The following is paraphrased and in no particular order. Concerns are in italics, responses are normal text.)

Was the older son actually cheated out of anything? Being older, he gets a double portion, and the younger son just cashed in his inheritance early. And is the younger son being praised? Like in the parables of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin, I see it more as the joy of return than praise for simply doing wrong.
True. I initially thought "cheated" because his brother got the recognition and the party and the gifts for simply showing up, while the older brother who had never really done wrong never got anything. I mean, technically if everything his father owns will be his, he's lost a cow, a ring, a cloak, and some shoes, but it's not his stuff yet and being possessive over possessions never turns out well. Had the older brother taken over for his father, he should have sacrificed to welcome his brother anyway. Plus, the younger brother still has to pay the consequences from his actions- he's used his inheritance and is now dependent on the family to survive.
As you pointed out, it wasn't the wandering that caused the reward, but the return. I agree that it's not a matter of rewarding the wrongdoing, but expressing the joy of finding. Overall, my mistake.

You said you didn't see a clear right or wrong in this parable, but I believe there is one- that it's good to rejoice for others and that we shouldn't judge the lost for what they did to get there. I saw the example from it that both brothers sinned and then turned back to the Father, which is why we should rejoice.
I guess I've been analyzing this by characters rather than by actions. I've always decided the characters were the perfect Father, the sinner, and the "cheated" resenting brother (see above). The father in the story resonates as the only true perfect Father, being God the Father, so I ruled out this character as an example with the thought that I can't be God. Next was the younger son, and when he left, I knew he wasn't the one to try to follow step by step because that would bring me further from God. Sure, this parable is about rejoicing for being found, but I didn't want to relate because I don't want to have to get lost. Still, I'm no perfect human, so ruling out him as the example character was a little harsh. Then was the older son, and I decided it was worse to be like him because the father didn't approve of him, even though I wasn't sure why until recently. Taking this as an allegory meant that I missed the message within. Oops. Thanks for pointing that out. I completely agree with your interpretation.

The "rules" are God's, not our own. We shouldn't act like we are God, but we still have a responsibility as ambassadors to make sure his will is done. Sometimes we have to show tough love when those around us do what we know is wrong. Just because they aren't Christians doesn't mean they aren't responsible for sin. (And then, because I can't paraphrase:)"When asked by those advocating sin, it would be best to say that we understand that it is their decision to do what they do but we also do not agree because the action goes against God’s way."
And here is when I do a giant facepalm for missing the most important part. God's rules. I wrote the last post from the standpoint of disapproving of the Christians who try to call down their own fire and brimstone. I had nothing to balance it with. Knowing people who have expressed belief in something contrary to God's rules, I personally didn't want to find a way to tell myself that I have to be God's ambassador for them, so I guess I took a more lenient stance than I meant. I think our goal is common at this point: leading them to Christ is the only way to get them to respond with a lasting impact.
Confession time: I feel like a hypocrite. I'm always bothered when churches seem to leave out the "sin no more" aspect of becoming a Christian because they focus on outreach more than following through. Writing the previous post, I finally had the chance to empathize and realize that it's hard when you have to focus on salvation more than anything because it's the only thing determining our destiny. Then I went even further and declared all non-Christians sin free, and here I am being worse than what bothers myself.
Also, I meant to add in the last post something I learned in an anti-bullying project, but then I never got around to it. Calling a person a "bully" isn't a good idea because then they associate themselves with the behavior. When you confront a situation like that, you should rather target the action and say they're "exhibiting bullying behavior". Except maybe with less fancy words. The judgement associated with being a modern Christian seems to come from us addressing the problem without regarding the humanity of the situation. We aren't against people, but ideas. (see Ephesians 6:12)

Christians banning religions from the US?...
I'll cut this off here. I'm sorry. That was uncalled for. It was a bold claim with nothing holding it up. It was a blanket statement. It wasn't even accurate, and the whole situation is in the process of cleaning up anyway. It involved people with ties to either religion, and I drew conclusions. Ignore that entire paragraph if you'd like. I tried a little too hard to prove my point. The important thing is that Christians haven't always done the Christian thing in every situation, and being called to hold the world accountable still needs to be Christlike.

The birth order thing was creative, but it's a little too open ended and vague. You can fit almost anyone into each of those categories.
Here I go with blanket statements again. I'm a repeat offender. Please point this out more often. Anyway, I originally thought the younger brother would be like the middle brother, and my imaginary brother would be the youngest, but then I looked up stereotypes of birth order (which sounds bad by itself) and changed my mind to make it fit (which makes it worse). This was my somewhat solution to my interpretation of the parable without a goal, which then led me to a bit more of a mess, but the important part for me is the little bit of truth I also hit. A lot of the time, I want everything to fit together logically, so I oversimplify things, especially people, and then I find an interesting outcome. Oversimplification is messy, and although I appreciate what it does for my numerous bunny-trail thoughts, I forget about those I affect in the process.

Did I miss anything? Is anything misrepresented? Have I put blanket statements in my critique of my own blanket statements? (That would be embarrassing...) Any topic advice or just something you want to tell me? Feel free to comment below.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Modern Day Pharisees? (03/11/17)

I recently submitted a short story to a Christian competition that dealt with the whole LGBTQ debate and Christianity. The feedback I received, which was completely justified for my lack of clarity of thought, happened to spark a somewhat convoluted thought process that intersected with another issue I've been pondering lately: the story of the prodigal son.

So in the story of the prodigal son, there are two sons: the bad one who comes back and the supposedly good one that resents his brother for coming back to more rewards than he got from never received by being good. Growing up a Christian, it took awhile to see what the big deal was about the older, resentful son. I mean, why get punished for speaking up for an injustice? He was cheated by someone who already got his prize. But I have since realized that the difference was that he was too focused on himself and didn't rejoice in the progress and happiness of his brother, and suddenly I fear I can relate.

More recently, I realized that this is one of the few parables without any example of what we should do. Going purely off birth order stereotypes, the older brother mostly still resembles the oldest, with control and a healthy amount of dedication and responsibility. The younger brother also resembles a youngest child, with a rebellious, social butterfly attitude, who ran away from home to stay important in the eyes of others. So if another brother was added as an example, it would make sense that he would be the middle child, who was a balance between the two extremes, wanted peace, and was simply overlooked from the drama of the other two.

Side note: I'm the youngest child, for the record. I'm not glorifying middle children as the good ones as a middle child myself. I would rather use the youngest child, but middle fits better. Still, no one's perfect.

Jesus did everything for a reason. The fact that he had a clear right and wrong to most others of his parables means that the lack of one here is intentional. If I think of those to whom this parable applied in his time, the younger brother would be the rejects of society who accepted Jesus for who he was and the older brother would be the Pharisees and teachers of the law who were too stuck in their notions of tradition and fulfilling the father's decrees in perfection rather than showing the forgiveness and love he intended with the original ten commandments. There wasn't really much of a happy medium in his day, at least that is recorded in Scripture. There were certain Pharisees and teachers of the law that followed Jesus, but not many.

Again, growing up Christian, I've always been afraid I'd turn into the older brother. I have no dramatic story about wandering from the faith and coming back in a flurry of love and renewal. It's hard to relate sometimes to the stories I always hear from older Christians and the music I sing in church about being immersed in God's love because I don't really know anything different. On one hand, I'm scared I'll miss the love that comes with forgiveness, since "whoever has been forgiven little loves little" (from Luke 7:47 NIV). On the other hand, if I can learn from the mistakes of others and not wander, I can stay close to God and learn more about him without the pain and hunger that comes with wandering.

So back to that short story- When I added the piece in my short story involving the LGBTQ debate, I wanted to show my belief that Christians should hold one another accountable for their sins and that we need to see marriage as one man and one woman, but that we have no authority to correct those who aren't under our faith. They shouldn't be obligated to follow our rules because they aren't Christians, and it's only God's place to treat them differently because of it. (See Romans 12:19) I support the notion of leading by example of purity rather than alienating those we should be leading to Christ by our attempts to "Christian-ize" them.

In the middle of my crazy mess of thoughts, I came to the realization that the Christians who are trying to win people over by forcing them into the Christian standards are going about everything like the Pharisees. They're too busy with the rules and regulations that they neglect showing people the love of God, and this upsets the whole image of those are supposed to be accepting and loving. Yes, I know that being hated by the world is just a side effect of being a Christian sometimes, but it shouldn't have to be because some outspoken people happen to be judgmental, and then those watching turn this into a stereotype.

This isn't just about the issue of different views of love and marriage. There are examples of Christians oppressing other people all throughout history. Catholics used to persecute the Protestant believers who simply wanted to worship differently, and there is still a huge division in denominations because of it. America was founded in part by people who wanted to escape religious persecution, but then the few Catholic immigrants in the early days were mistreated by the majority of Protestants living in the country. In the Scopes Monkey Trial, a teacher was arrested and tried for giving his students a history lesson in Darwin's ideas about evolution, and then the Christian offensive was damaged by the prosecuting attorney's inability to grant the freedom of thought. He tried to force a rigid interpretation of the Bible on those who wanted to expand their ideas in science beyond the superstition of that day. Nowadays, we're forcing ideas about abortion on feminists as they force ideas of feminism on us. And now the country built on religious freedom is being led by none other than Christians to ban people from entering the United States based on religion.

I'm not saying we should be doormats. We don't need to go out and vote on every progressive idea on the ballots. We have a dual citizenship, and it's our duty to protect our own rights as well as those we represent. The issue Christians have with different marriages is that other people are pushing their own agendas on us as well. If a pastor does not believe he feels comfortable putting God's blessing on something God has clearly defined as against his design (see 1 Corinthians 6 for more info, I may post about this later if I have enough to talk about), then he has his own rights of religion to uphold. If a Christian sees an issue that would be sinful for them to accept, they should not accept it.

And so we run into the dilemma- how do we know where to draw the line between being pushy and being a doormat? I would argue that prayer and plenty of time reflecting it with God is the best option. If you discover you cannot condone abortion but that you're okay recognizing legal marriages as something other than the religious marriage Christians accept, you have a right to your own opinion, and all I can say is that I pray that your opinion is based on your religious convictions and not selfish ambitions.

The important thing is that we remember what makes us this version of a modern day Pharisee. We need to remember justice as well as the love of God. We need to accept people as people and worry about their salvation before their decisions that are out of our control. We need to recognize other opinions as the same level of importance as our own, and we need to take the time to listen to these ideas and find the truth of what the other side wants. Even if we vote against an issue, we need to treat those it affects with respect. Our world is so full of extremes based on slight differences, and we as Christians need to show something united: Love.

So about the nonexistent middle brother: Maybe Jesus didn't define what we should be because it's always changing. Maybe we need to find for ourselves what our version of accepting home the lost with joy really means.

With this in mind, I finally found the way to face my fear about being the older brother. It doesn't matter whether or not I ever do wander and return in life, and it isn't about feeling the love of returning. I believe the middle brother is nonexistent in this story because it's not about those who are perfect, but the lost on both fronts, and I need to become the example everyone else can rely on for what Christians really should be. And I can't do that except to stay close to God to learn his will, and then the wonder of his will can finally be revealed through me. I challenge you to do the same.

*Also, if you have strong opinions about anything above, please leave a civilly worded comment. I want to know the different perspectives of everyone who reads this. Have you been cornered into someone else's agenda? Have you been stuck between a rock and a hard place with deciding on how to respond? Do you have any interesting perspectives being in the middle of two extremes, or having a perspective no one understands?

Monday, January 16, 2017

Greet as an Old Friend (01/16/17)

It's hard as a writer not to just use abstract phrases to convey meaning. But really, can you have the expression of love? What would that look like? Surprise and happiness? Does your left eyebrow sink lower than your right, or do your cheeks flush red? How about something a little less easy to picture, such as the taste of gratitude? Is that... Pear? Cucumber? Chicken? Cereal? (Hopefully not a mix of all four!)

My goal here is to present the phrase: "greet as an old friend" in a new light. Perhaps it will be writing inspiration. Perhaps it will just brighten your mood and make you want to curl up in a blanket and write a letter to someone you haven't thought about for years. Maybe you'll just close the page in disgust and think, "This gal has absolutely no idea what she's saying. Why did I look at that anyway?" Well, believe what you want. I'll try not to bore you.

Examples of what may greet me as an old friend:
an actual friend, whether old or new and completely understanding
a book, to read or to write
a song, to listen or to play
fuzzy blankets on a couch, or warm, well worn, and soft clothing
my favorite food
an old blog, almost long forgotten.... (sorry!)

Yeah, as a list, it all seems kinda boring. It doesn't really grab the emotion I feel around these just by listing them. So first, what is it that I really want to capture?

An old friend, to me, is anything or anyone I haven't experienced for a long time and sincerely miss, but when I find it, there's been almost no time passed between us. There's that nostalgia and feeling of everything at peace because something finally makes sense. Maybe it's a reminder that it's okay to move forward, but sometimes I need to look back and say goodbye or come back where I belong. It's the feeling opposite of returning and finding everything is the same except yourself, and almost a visualization of a warm pink amidst the rich, deep brown; perhaps the trust fall in which I can close my eyes, take a deep breath, and fall, knowing there's fluff and feathers to catch me at the bottom. There's just that nearly indescribable feeling that I can't just call "greeting as an old friend" because not everyone feels it the same way.

So how do you write something like that?

What if you consider the situation around what you want to portray? Looking at my favorite food, let's say it's those cheesy potatoes I only get to eat on Thanksgiving, I can tell that there's backstory and emotion behind what I want the reader to feel, but all they see is a bunch of starch and dairy. I can tell them that everyday for lunch, I have to drown my cafeteria french fries in salt to be able to taste them, and the slimy fruit I grab is processed beyond belief, plus the main course is edible eight times out of ten. So when I finally get my cheesy potatoes, complete with several kinds of cheese crisped to the slight extra golden and baked fresh, not frozen, there's that bliss of returning to what I lost and what I want back and finding it exactly perfect. Maybe it's the way it melts in my mouth that turns the reader's attention, or how I relieve all that extra, built-up stress and exhale in ecstasy as I put a beautiful mound on my plate, but somewhere in that description there needs to be that contrast and that connection to what the reader can feel.

So when your characters return from a long day, maybe the frustrated leader turns on the hot water and leans back in the tub. Throw in a little bubble bath for childhood's sake, bring the scents of the shampoo to life, and voila! Your writing just became a little more complex. Or the introvert trying really hard to fit in gets home and can't wait to just fall asleep. If you want to show the romanticism of returning to long, lost sleep, don't flop your character down on the rock solid mattress and leave the light on all night. Maybe he or she has to trudge up the stairs with half open eyes, but everything is warm, soft and cozy enough to swaddle the battered soul and calm the nerves. Finally, introvert night-owl may come home and just want peace and quiet after putting up with the frustrated leader and the grumpy introvert for the way-too-many-hours-long car ride. This little one hops up the stairs past the trudging grump and pretends not to hear the horrible singing of the first in the bathroom, and heads rather into the study, where back behind a row of books is one favorite long abandoned. The thin, anxious hands may just barely make it to where the corner juts out from behind encyclopedias 6 and 7, but the dog eared pages may have the soft feel of worn yellow edges. And the scent? Book enthusiasts could probably spend days enthusing about the smell of old books and how it makes them feel. This whole scenario sounds so much better than just saying that Joe, Susie, and Cam went upstairs and felt really tired after a long day, and it doesn't waste as much time reading as one might think.

Why don't you try it? If you're scrambling for word counts (cough, cough me during Nanowrimo), find an emotion you want to expand or an abstract idea as a description and embrace it. Use everything you can to make it better: metaphors, flashbacks, obnoxiously long sentences (sorry!), character thoughts... If you think it works, use it! If your Dr. Seuss novel turns into Tolkien, you might have gone too far, but then on the bright side, there are plenty of people who prefer Tolkien to Dr. Seuss. You can always edit out what you don't think works, but you need something there in the first place. Or maybe all your novel needs is a break, complete with Thanksgiving cheesy potatoes and that old book you haven't read in years but used to know almost by heart. Just save me some!