Christianity

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

2017643310c8ce-c5bd-4be0-a914-6e7d10101c02
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

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 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 discrimination. 

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.”

Grace-Healed Eyes

DISCLAIMER: I stole the title of this blog from Chapter Thirteen of Philip Yancey’s book What’s So Amazing About Grace?  I haven’t actually read the whole book, but I’m constantly drawn to that chapter, and it’s informed the opinion that I’m writing about today.  I highly suggest you buy the book, read it, and read that chapter, as Mr. Yancey does a better job of writing than I.

~*~

Facebook is a warzone.

Ever since a few days ago, when Manny Pacquiao made his controversial statement about the LGBT community, my newsfeed has been a firestorm of violent opinion. It’s been almost painful to read. No, scratch that—it has been painful to read. I’ve never dealt well with conflict, and seeing a world erupt in it is frustrating, upsetting, and…terrifying. I can’t count the number of posts from friends and people I admire that I’ve had to “hide” because their angered sentiments towards the Christian community—towards the God I love—have me shaking in a mix of rage, grief, and…guilt.

Do they know? I ask myself. Do they know what I am? And if they do, do they think I’m the same way too?

The labels sting. They’re supposed to. They’re labels, spoken in justifiable rage. The LGBTQIA community feels like it is under attack, because, frankly, those words—whether or not you believe they were taken in and out of context—are attack words. Calling someone sub-human because of something they believe they can’t change about themselves? Actually, calling someone sub-human period? That’s wrong, no matter what you believe in. They’re hurt. And hurt people have a history of hurting other people, because the grief is sometimes so big it can’t help but spill out.

Christians, I am writing this mostly for you. Your neighbours—the ones Jesus commanded us to love as ourselves—are hurting, and that is why they are lashing out in anger. They are bleeding. They are scared. They just want to love and be loved. And while yes, as Christians, we believe (I believe) in that offensive black-and-white fact that homosexuality is a sin…we have to remember we’re sinners too.

I do. I have done some really bad things, and in the spirit of…proving a point(?) I’ll tell you a story about one of the worst things I ever did. When I was twelve I cyber-bullied a girl named Cara. She was the best friend of my then-best friend, and somehow I became her friend by association. And I bullied her, for no good reason but that at the time, I thought she was stupider than me and so was fair play. I messed with her head in ways that were as ingenious as they were cruel. I called her brother a—excuse my French—bastard, at her own birthday party. I offended her family and shamed my own and if I could take back all that systematic abuse, I would. But I can’t. It’s done.

(Cara, if you are somehow reading this, thank you for forgiving me. I am still so, so sorry.)

There is filth on my hands, and in my soul. I don’t deserve to be loved. But that fact doesn’t stop me from wanting to be loved, from craving human connection, from wanting someone to see me and say that I am still somehow worthy of being cared for. And it doesn’t stop me from hurting when I don’t get that. Far from suffering in silence, I still lash out when the loneliness rips me apart. I hurt someone, but I am hurting, and so I hurt someone again.

The cycle continues, and the only thing that can break it is real love.

Christians, before you rush to God’s or Pacquiao’s defense…listen to the pain under the words. These people—and I will keep repeating that they are people—feel rejected and under attack. Maybe now they feel a little vindicated, since Nike’s just dropped Manny as an endorser (not surprised), but that doesn’t completely take away the sting. If I think Facebook is a battlefield for me, I’m sure they think it’s one for them too, because for every comment lambasting Pacquiao and religion and “backwards thinking” there is another that brutally declares that gay people are being intolerant and brutal and unforgiving.

Friends, I’ve learned that when you say sorry, that’s no guarantee that you will be forgiven. You hurt someone. You face the consequences. Manny is facing them, and I hope he is facing them with grace. But I’m not here to talk about Manny. I’m here to talk about us.

I know the comments hurt, and it’s tempting to react in kind. God is…important to us Christians, to say the least. To have our faith in Him blamed for proliferating hate is painful, because it’s just not true. 1 John 4:19-21 says “If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” God would not condone any hate, commands us to have our speech “seasoned with salt” and full of grace so that we don’t hurt anyone unduly, “…for an offended brother is like a fortified city.” This debacle is not God’s fault, but because we profess to be Christians he is dragged into this mess and we feel we need to defend Him, to “stand up for our faith.”

I agree that you need to stand up for your faith. I’ve done blogs on the agony of that decision. And it has cost me, though thankfully not too dearly. But standing up for your faith means living it, and in this instance it means reflecting grace.

To quote Philip Yancey, “…every gay person has heard the message of judgment from the church.” They know what our stand is. We’ve made it very clear. What’s not clear to them is how our disapproval of the act can somehow exist alongside our profession of acceptance for the person, because that part, I admit, is where I’ve personally been amiss. See, I’ve been tempted to react with “us versus them,” because some posts even go so far as to blame the very core of who I am for all that is wrong in our society. But, and I’m quoting Yancey again. “Grace dies when it becomes us versus them.” Love dies. And that’s a love we sorely need.

A few LGBT people have approached me, and asked how it is that I can say I respect them while disagreeing with something they believe is fundamentally part of who they are. To me, the answer is simple, the frequently-quoted refrain of “Hate the sin; love the sinner.” But that phrase, while true, has basically become a clichéd excuse, because it’s so easy to say but so difficult to see. They won’t believe me when I say that phrase, because they’ve never seen evidence of how that could be possible.

I don’t know what I can do to break through that wall. But I know that reacting in anger to their anger doesn’t help, not when I can’t even begin to imagine what they’re going through. It’s easy to visualise the cliché of “angry gay man” who shoves his sexuality in people’s faces “for kicks.” It’s not so easy to imagine the pain, loneliness, fear, frustration, and internal conflict that fuel that rebellion. These people are hurting (I think I’ve said that 1,000 times in this blog), and while that doesn’t take away the sting of their words it does make clear God’s stand on the matter:

They are hurting, and we are called to heal.

They are hurting, and I am called to heal.

So here’s, I guess, what we can do. Pray. Ask God for wisdom. Refuse to pour further fuel on the fire. Ignore the comments as best we can, and when we can’t—if the fight really does come to our door—acknowledge the pain that the issue has caused, and reinforce the value of our relationships with those who were affected by it. While our stands won’t change, we can at least tell them that we understand why they’re hurting, and we’re here. Not as combatants, but as friends. Because being friends with anyone is a privilege, a gift, and a responsibility.

One of my friends admitted that just the thought of my beliefs already offends him, but he treats me with as much kindness as he can muster anyway. If that’s not a picture of acceptance despite a lack of agreement, I don’t know what is. So here’s what I have to say in response. To my LGBTQIA friends: My fundamental position has not changed, but I know you are deeply hurt by what has happened, and you have the right to be. It has only reinforced the fears that many of you might have. Some of you have parents who won’t treat you as their child. Some of you are afraid that you’ll never find someone to walk with you into forever. Some of you are even trying to still walk in a faith that by definition says what you are doing is wrong. These are wounds that can push someone to madness, and I won’t pretend to fully understand them. But I will be here for you, when and where I can.

I’m not a perfect person, a perfect Christian, a perfect anything. I am sure there will be days I fail to act in love, fail to walk the talk I’ve laid out here, and I’m sorry in advance if and when I do. One day we might have to face each other on opposite sides of a significant line, and I pray our friendship survives it because, frankly, it is my privilege to know you. And while I cannot agree with you—because I cannot deny something that is at the core of my very self and my survival—I will do my best to listen when you need someone to talk to. To defend you when the world is vicious. To remind you that you are a valuable when you feel that you are worthless. To try my hardest to extend to you the same kindness that I want people to extend to me.  The people we love most are often the ones who hurt us deepest.

I will take the blows as they come, knowing that many of you have had to do the same with me.

I’m not good at loving people, but with the help of God, I would like to try.  I hope you’ll let me.

With Love,
~a Roaming Tsinay~