Christian living

Seeing Wonder: On Engaging, Grace, and Believing in Love

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Source: Warner Brothers Pictures

Every year, our church does a series of sermons on the idea of discipleship and engaging our community. It’s a regular “tradition” in the church calendar, varying only in the Bible verses we’re led to reflect on in our small groups. This year, we pulled from the life of Peter, with the topic of engaging being linked to Peter’s ministering to Cornelius, the first Gentile convert. Our small group material in particular focused on Acts 10:9-16, which is about the vision Peter has before he’s asked to see Cornelius. (TL;DR, In the vision, Jesus reveals that we are called to reach out to all people, building on the Great Commission of “…going into all the world.”)  

It was a really great message, but while my fellow small group mates seemed absolutely hyped on God’s mission, ready to go out there and reach out to people and do some good in the world, all I felt was…resistance. 

Confession: I have never been good at engaging, and every year when my church does this message I sort of…tune out.  I tell myself that, as an introvert, God surely doesn’t intend for me to actually go out there and directly reach out to people.  Nah, let them come to me; I won’t go first. I never go first.

That night, in small group, I realised these were all excuses I was telling myself. The reason for my reluctance wasn’t so much that I was an introvert. No, it was something that ran a little deeper than that.

It was because, when I was twenty-three, I decided I didn’t like people.

This wasn’t some sort of impulsive thought: “Oh, I don’t think I like people today.”  No, this was a conscious choice on my part: I would not, could not like people, and I would not trust or engage with them. It helped that I was a fan of Game of Thrones, which is extremely good at portraying the dark, twisted roots of human motivation. It also helped that around that time, everyone was talking about the fate of Jon Snow: stabbed by people he trusted, by his “brothers,” and left to die.

Something that felt a lot like that—and I won’t go into details—happened to me.  This wasn’t the first time, but it might have been the worst time.  And so, after filing a very long leave from work and stewing alone in my room for several afternoons, I made my decision: I did not like people.

And people did not deserve to know me.

From that moment, I made a conscious effort to start…closing myself off. Some of it made sense: I get a bit anxious in large crowds, am not fond of small talk, and do not like partying.  Again: introvert.  But other things had less to do with introversion and more to do with the satisfaction of pushing away people I did not trust. Who had hurt me (consciously or unconsciously). Who I believed would hurt me again. Years of being bullied in grade school and high school had already made me a little wary of friendships, but this was the first time I was outright refusing them, putting up walls and putting on masks.  It made me feel like I was taking control of my life.  It made me feel good.  And if I ever felt isolated, well, it was better to stand alone than to be fighting alongside and for people who, in the next breath, could be turning their swords on me.

Essentially, I was enacting a closed-door policy on my life, which, as you can guess, does not go along well with the whole Christian commission to engage with the community and care for people.  But I figured, I’d find ways to get around it. I served in church. I still held small groups. I volunteered for orgs that did good work. And I had friends, people I would talk to online even if I avoided meeting them in person.  And I cared about these friends…

…but not as much as I cared about myself.  Real talk: if any of them were in the way of a passing truck, I do not trust that I’d have pushed them out of the way.  If it was them or me, I might have chosen me.

The world—and Game of Thrones—paints this “me first” mentality as wise.  Encourages you to lose your faith in people, to “…kill the girl and let the woman be born.”  Only the naive believe in the fundamental good of humanity; growing up means realising the truth, that man is wolf to other man and that you can trust no one because the more you care, the weaker you are. The more you love, the weaker you are. Because one day the inevitable will happen: those closest to you will either turn on you or leave. Or both.

And so I did not engage, because I did not want to care about people who would turn on me or leave. I kept people at arms length, stayed behind walls, ate at my desk, refused invitations with the bright and beaming smile that was both sword and shield to me.  This was self-defence, I told myself, even as it felt—and kept feeling—wrong. 

Small group was the first blow to this worldview.  The second was Wonder Woman.

Full disclosure: while I am a geek, I’m not a comic book geek.  I have watched zero of the Marvel blockbusters (despite some of them garnering critical acclaim), and, up until recently, had the same batting average for DC. But when a post came out talking about how Wonder Woman seemed like it was being set up to fail at the box office (and thus prove stories about empowered women did not sell), my baby feminist heart could not handle it. I told my mum we had to book tickets to watch this movie when we came out, which we promptly did.

It was, in a word, a wonder.

While I have watched/read female-centered franchises before (I was a huge fan of The Hunger Games, and in Game of Thrones I cheered when the last season featured strong female-centric plotlines), Wonder Woman was…different.  The movie felt so unapologetically idealistic, so full of empathy and tenderness even as it celebrated the superhuman strength of its lead.  It was the total antithesis of the gritty cynicism that seemed the highlight of current male superhero mythology and even my mainstay of GoT.  Wonder Woman did not sugarcoat how dark people could be—“Be careful in the world of men, Diana,” says Queen Hippolyta, early in the film, “They do not deserve you.”—but without completely absolving mankind of that darkness, it still presented a reason to hope.  Yes, people are cruel and easily-corrupted, cowardly and twisted and undeserving, but, as Diana says in the climax of the film, “It’s not about [what people] deserve. It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.”

Despite the fact that I am an avowed cynic, I do believe in love. In fact, that belief is at the core of who I say I am: as a  Christian, my very existence is founded on the idea of grace, of receiving a love I did not deserve.  I lash out at the people I think hurt me, but the truth is I too am just as cruel, just as unforgiving, just as—or rather, more so–twisted and bitter and dark…and Someone I did not deserve came to fight for me.  To save me, even when I was not worthy of saving.  The very essence of Christianity is that no one deserves anything: love is a gift. Love is a grace. And when you receive it, you can’t help but give it away.

“Only Love will truly save the world.” says Diana. In a world that is hurting and broken and twisted every which way, Love is humanity’s great hope. And while it is tempting to keep safe from the world, stay behind my walls to avoid getting hurt, “How will I be if I stay?”

It was this message that hit home for me and sent me out of the theatre in tears. The truth is, considering the darkness we are capable of, none of us really deserves kindness or grace or an open hand. But it really isn’t about “deserving.”  Instead, it’s about what we believe in, and what I believe in—what I quite loudly shout that I believe in—is Love. A Love big enough to save the world, to cover over a multitude of dark and twisted and awful. A Love that was big enough to save me from myself, and to keep on saving me.

It’s easy to think of yourself as a victim, when you’re hurt, but the truth is the world is hurting. “We all have our own battles,” says another character in Wonder Woman. We all have our own darkness, and at the core of that darkness is pain.  The difference lies in what you decide to do with it.

And, as another of my all-time favourite characters, the Twelfth Doctor, puts it, the right thing to do is this:

“…do you know what you do with all that pain? Shall I tell you where you put it? You hold it tight till it burns your hand, and you say this: No one else will ever have to live like this. No one else will have to feel this pain. Not on my watch!

That is what engaging means: taking the pain, holding it tight, and deciding to fight it instead of letting it own you. And the way to fight it is Love, is sharing Love instead of keeping it all to yourself, hiding it behind walls and never letting anyone close. 

There are people I say I care about. There are people out there who I say matter to me. And there are people out there I don’t like. Who i don’t want to care about. Either way, they all need what I know: Love.  And so, even if the prospect terrifies me, even if I’m not some superhuman with armour and a shield and a magic lasso, I leave my island. I step out behind the wall. I stretch out my hand, and I let my guard down, and I have faith that, despite the pain…I will see grace.

I will see Wonder.

~aRT~

P.S.

For more comprehensive (and awesome) reviews/reflections on Wonder Woman, check out:

https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/5/30/15709572/wonder-woman-review-gadot
https://www.bustle.com/p/wonder-womans-message-of-love-cant-be-repeated-enough-right-now-62157 – Got the blog’s featured image from here, by way of Google Image Search.
http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/wonder-woman-is-the-hero-we-need-but-maybe-not-the-hero-we-deserve-9481938
http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2017/june/why-we-need-wonder-woman.html

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Outstretched Arms, or, My Answered Prayer Was A Gay Atheist

Flashback. It is college.

I–a purity ring-wearing, worship service-attending, raise her hands to praise Christian girl–have my first ever barkada: a group of pious Catholic kids who go to confession every week and attend spiritual formation at a “Center.” Despite some niggling doctrinal differences, I truly believe I had found my tribe.

Three weeks later, I am dumped. Somehow, by being my borderline-manic, socially-awkward, embarrassingly earnest, consistently tactless self, I manage to offend/irritate every last one of them.  In the words of the group’s de facto “leader,” I’d proven “…too much to handle.”  As quickly as I thought I’d found a place to belong…I am alone again.

I’d spent ten years of my life alone. Having gone to a conservative Baptist-oriented school where I was one of the few kids from a broken family (anger issues included), I literally had zero friends from grade school and high school. While not really “bullied” in the conventional sense, I was definitely ostracized, seen for most of my time there as a “problem child” who either needed to shape up or get out. Starved for human kindness, I’d hoped college would be different: here, I could finally have a brand new start.

It appears I am wrong. This is high school all over again, five more lonely years of floating and feeling like I have to apologize for existing, that somehow my very presence offends.  I spend three weeks dodging my ex-barkada–and my whole college block, who also have reasons to dislike me–and discovering every last corner where it is safe to cry.

In desperation, I turn to the Bible. I pray my way through Psalms–David is about as distraught in most of them as I am–beg God to not let me be so alone.  I do this for probably a month, until one day, as I am moping on the couch in the lobby of our faculty building, a boy walks up to me with what is probably the best/worst icebreaker in human history: “You’re a Christian, right? So what do you think about Leviticus?”

(Yes, he means that part of Leviticus.)

After offending what feels like everyone else on campus, by some miracle, I do not offend him. This boy becomes one of my best friends in college, the person who picks me up and swings me around when I make it to the Dean’s List for the first time. Who listens to my first (horrible) attempts at writing songs. Who calls my mother on my eighteenth birthday to tell her he’s buying me my first drink (a tequila rose; I discover I do not like alcohol).

After ten years of being a label, this is the first person who sees me as a human being.

He is gay, and at the time he was an atheist.

Before I became a Christian, I understood judgment better than I understood grace. Raised, as I mentioned, in an uber-conservative school environment, I grasped very little of homosexuality beyond the fact that “it was bad:” the sort of shallow theology that, if allowed to grow, leads to justifications of cruelty and violence, to concentration camps and mass shootings. Back then, befriending a gay atheist would have been unthinkable. It is easy–so easy–after all, to demonize a label.

But then, that label saved my life.

Yesterday was, I am told, the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia (IDAHOT). A few weeks ago, in celebration of it, I was tagged in a challenge to rock rainbow-colored lips as a symbol of protest against violence perpetrated against members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

I could not take that photo, because I am not an ally, because as a Christian my stand is that homosexuality is a sin, and I cannot celebrate it. But, as a Christian, this is what I know: we are all sinners here. Jesus died for us all. And in that death, he marks us all as being of equal value

The dead in Orlando. The tortured in Chechnya. The shunned in Manila. All of them are worth the death of God himself.  The blood of Christ is the price of every single one of these lives we dismiss as “abominations” in the name of “religiosity” or just plain prejudice.  I can’t be called an ally, but I am a Christian, and that means I try to follow what Christ has to say. And did he not say this, that “…whatever you do to the least of my brothers, so you also do to me”?

This is my stand, then, that whatever is done to a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, it is also done to me. Their lives are just as precious as mine, and honestly—if I think about the things I’ve done–maybe even more so. I may not hashtag #LoveWins, or paint my lips rainbow, or fly a Pride flag, or march in the Parade, but you will not find me picketing on the sidelines, screaming hate and judgment.  You will not find me cheering in approval as my brothers and sisters are thrown into camps or shot in nightclubs or beaten in the streets for sins none of us have any right to pass judgment on. Sins that all of us are guilty of.

Once upon a time, God answered my prayers: he sent me a friend, and that friend taught me grace.  Despite differing beliefs, and–as we would later discover–wildly different yet equally intense personalities, he treated me with kindness.  In the face of inevitable arguments, and myriad opportunities to cause each other offense, he treated me with dignity and respect.

When no one else did, he offered me outstretched arms, and for the first time I was not alone.

I have no idea why we’re still saying this in 2017, but gay people are people. And God loves people, even as he hates their sins.  If I raise a fist, or a voice in judgment, I do not do it in the name of my God, because the God I serve did not come with fists. He did not come with violence. He came with an offering of himself, a baptism in blood that was for everyone, regardless of who they were.

He came with outstretched arms.  

To be honest, my relationship with the gay community is a complicated one: many of my friends identify as LGBT, or else have loved ones who do. I understand how my Christianity–with the beliefs that entails–can often feel like an attack, like an angry mob with stones in their hands ready for throwing.  “Hate the sin and love the sinner,” has been so often misused it’s been reduced to a meaningless cliché, so much so I still struggle to articulate exactly what I mean when I say it.  I cannot offer easy explanations reconciling what seems to be an inherently bigoted worldview with a promise of love and respect.

What I can offer, though, is this: Compassion instead of condemnation. Kindness instead of repulsion. 

Whatever happens, my hands will always be free of stones.

~aRT~

A/N: Because I know a bunch of people are going to ask: No, I do not support conversion “therapy.”

Scattered Thoughts of a Sinner in Church (Come As You Are)

When I was a kid, my cousin Charlie introduced me to the comic book character “Spawn,” a man who, from my limited understanding, was “too bad for Heaven, too good(?) for Hell.” Lately, I’ve been feeling that same internal tension: too “Christian” for the world (or so a friend called me, not entirely as a compliment) but too much of a sinner for church, too riddled with doubt and disbelief and anger to fit comfortably into the padded seats of the airconditioned assembly hall. Even the way I talk and act runs counter to the poised prayerfulness and doe-eyed Christianese of the girls in Friday Youth Group, where I stopped attending after my barnacles got too obvious to hide.

I am a Christian sanctified, but far from sanitized, and honestly, I feel that the slight whiff of “worldly” about me marks me, to this church, as imposter, a wolf trying to live under the blood of the Lamb, but my teeth are too big and my claws are still sharp and oh, how I howl.

(Church, could you love me if I wasn’t perfect? Because I’m not. I am so not. Please don’t judge me, but I don’t always feel “on fire” for Jesus. Sometimes I doubt if he hears. Sometimes, my faith is in shambles. Sometimes (a lot; I even have a tracker in my BuJo), I stumble. Sometimes, I don’t pay attention to the sermon. But oh, Church, how I could not live without Christ!  Surely, that is enough?)

I’m a small group leader. I still do not understand why, and my group meets less regularly than I think is ideal, but since my name is on the roster, I get invites to the regular Leaders’ Huddles our church holds. Since my mum is a leader too, I sort-of have to go, regardless of what I feel the state of my soul is at that very moment. Two huddles ago I spent the entire meeting on the verge of tears, calligraphy-ing my frustrations in my sermon notebook: a Christian on the fringes, on the outside looking in.

Today was a good day. Today, I felt my social anxiety and situational depression was at a low enough level that I could function as my Sunday self. I sat through the leader’s huddle, convinced I could fool my church into believing that I was a model leader…and then I was unmasked.

Well, not actually. The pastor–one of my favorite pastors; I want him officiating my wedding–didn’t suddenly summon me to the front to be rebuked. Instead, he preached about Zacchaeus, that familiar story of the wee little man in the sycamore tree. Since this was a leader’s meeting, the insights were about ministering, and one point struck me:

“People, not process.”

I have this habit of building up monsters in my head. Maybe it’s the pessimist in me, but I’m always expecting the worst, waiting for the axe to fall because I am not changing fast enough. Over time and familiarity and, okay, disappointed expectations (Who knew Christian millennials could be just as cliqueish as non-Christian millennials? Duh, Frankie. Christians are people too.), I guess I turned the Church into one of those scary monsters, another self-policing institution in a world full of self-policing institutions. But with three words, that terrifying image shattered, and I was reminded of why I believe. See, as my pastor exhorted us leaders to be sensitive, kind, and compassionate with people who, perhaps, did not fit our preconceived notions of what salvation–what the desire for changed life–should look like, all I could hear was “You are welcome here.”

Zacchaeus was a tax collector. In the Bible, tax collectors are mentioned separately from sinners, are their own brand of outcast. As turncoats who aligned with the colonizers, they were considered social pariahs, and it was not kosher to associate with them.  Here was a person who longed to change, but for whom the door seemed shut.

But then Jesus asked to stay at Zacchaeus’ house, and in that moment the nature of what the church should be was established: a place of open doors, where sinners of all sorts belonged, could find acceptance, could become saints by virtue of accepting one man’s sacrifice.

My two best Christian friends–really, my two best friends–are probably the two people I know who reflect this best. Together, we three form #TeamHumanChristian, and when we get together and talk about the journey of overcoming our sins it is so easy to see God’s grace. Painting on a Sunday face makes sense, but when you come in your Monday blues and Tuesday baggage, your Friday failings and Saturday sins, it becomes so easy to discover “I am not alone.”

Everyone is growing here.  Everyone has a ways to go.

I love meeting Christian sinners, people in the trenches, fighting their flesh; those for whom the words “His grace changes everything.” are not just lyrics but a daily reality. The struggle IS real. It is. And how beautiful is the honesty.

“People, not process.” This is a home for humans, not a factory for churning out cookie-cutter models of holiness. I’d forgotten that home is where you take off the mask, not put it on, but thank God for the reminder: “Who does the Lord receive?” In Luke 15:2, the Pharisees said it so clearly, voices strangled in self-righteous horror: “SINNERS! He eats with sinners!”

The church is His dining room, and I am a sinner. I am a Christian. Those labels were always meant to coexist. Every Christian is a sinner, every saint has a past. The armor of God maybe doesn’t fit just right, still sits uneasy on my shoulders, but it has always come with the reassurance that I will grow into it, should I choose to keep walking.  That everyone else in His church is fighting to grow into it too.

People, not process. Christ met Zacchaeus at the foot of the tree. I smell of the world. I howl like a wolf. Church means come as you are, because this is where God meets you.  This is where hope resides.

“You are welcome here.”

~aRT~