Friday, December 2, 2011

You better be good or Santa won't come: what we are teaching our children about possessions and worth

For the next four weeks, children all over the world will be hearing those words, "If you're not good, Santa won't come." I doubt it makes any difference to behaviour. The problem with threats like these is they're rarely (if ever) carried out. But it might just be making a difference to how people think about possessions and worth.

Imagine a child called Trudy. At the ripe old age of 7, Trudy has learnt that, no matter how badly behaved she is, those presents from Santa still arrive on Christmas Day. Furthermore, she knows that Jenny from next-door (also aged 7) usually gets less presents even though Jenny is a very well-behaved child and Trudy can be quite naughty at times. What is Trudy to make of this?

Or let's look at it from Jenny's perspective. She is told that the same Santa Claus brings presents to everyone. Furthermore, she is told that he only gives presents to the good girls or boys. So why is it that Trudy gets more presents than her? I doubt she would say it to herself in these terms, but on some subconscious level, might she not be wondering whether she is less worthy than Trudy in some unknown way? If she believes the Santa rhetoric, what else is she to think?

Let's fast-forward six years. Trudy and Jenny are now 13. Their belief in Santa has gone, but the messages they heard about Santa are still there. As any psychologist or counsellor knows, the messages we hear in childhood can affect us long after we have grown up - even if we recognise that those messages were false to begin with.

If you haven't already guessed, Trudy comes from a wealthier family than Jenny. So while they may not be coming from Santa, Trudy still has more and better possessions than Jenny does. Jenny knows it's not because Santa has placed Trudy on the "good list". But maybe, deep down, she still connects possessions to worth. Maybe she still feels like Trudy owns more things because she is more deserving.

Jump another 10 years. Trudy and Jenny have moved out of home and are sharing a flat together. Trudy finished uni and got a well-paid job. Jenny also has a job, but it's not nearly as well-paid as Trudy's is. By now, they've not only internalised the Santa message, but the many advertising messages they have heard through their lives that tell them, either implicitly or explicitly, that they should buy something because they deserve it.

Despite the fact that Trudy earns enough to save a little money and use her money to help others and give to charities, she spends it all on herself. Many of the things she buys, she will never even use. But that's okay (in Trudy's mind). It makes her feel good. She's become her own Santa, rewarding herself with possessions. The more things she owns, the more deserving she feels.

Jenny also buys lots of things. But because she doesn't earn as much money as Trudy, she puts it on credit. She is sliding further and further into debt. But she considers it a small price to pay for the sense of self-worth it gives her. She has finally made it onto Santa's "good list".

Jenny was never any less worthy than Trudy. She only felt that way because of what society told her. As adults we know that the amount of presents Santa brings says nothing about how "good" that child is. So how about we stop telling our children that. And how about we recognise the Santa messages we ourselves have internalised - and do our very best to get rid of them.

Our thinking about possessions and worth is damaging not just to ourselves, but to the earth. In order for this to change (and it does need to be changed) we first need to recognise how the messages we hear have influenced the way we think about possessions and worth. It's only then that we can get rid of them and replace them with something else. We need to come up with a new message, one where Santa doesn't reward the "good" kids, where we don't own things because we "deserve" them, but where a life well-lived is its own reward.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Threats and Theodicy

A knock on the door isn't usually threatening. Sometimes it can be rather nice. But it is threatening when it's at 2.30 in the morning. It's threatening when you don't know the person at the door. It's threatening when it's obvious you won't answer the door but he still won't go away. It's threatening when you talk to him through the door and find no good reason for him being there - and you don't feel any less threatened when he says that he's okay. And it's threatening when he still won't leave even after you tell him you're going to call the police.

I still didn't feel safe, even after the police came and told him to go. And I remember thinking, somewhere between 2.30 and 6.30 in the morning, Lord, why aren't you protecting me?

It was a silly thought for two reasons. One, I pretty much was safe. He never came inside. He left when the police came. As far as I know, he didn't even try to enter the house. I wasn't physically harmed. The only thing I suffered was a feeling of not being safe.

We seem to have such high expectations in the western world today. We expect to be healthy. We expect to live a long life. We expect to look gorgeous. We expect to be happy and we expect to see good reasons for our happiness. We not only expect to be safe, but we expect to feel safe. Why else would we spend so much money on security systems?

But is it really reasonable to say, being safe isn't enough, I want to feel safe as well?

And, if so, what do we then say to all the people who live with very real threats? I was a lot safer last night than many other people in the world. Is me feeling safe more important than their actual safety? If so, does this really reflect a God of love and justice and compassion on all human beings? If not, why should I expect to feel safe when other people aren't safe?

So then that brings me to the second point. Do we actually have any reason to expect God to protect us?

If we take a good long look at Christian history, we find many examples of people who loved God, but who still suffered or were even killed. How many missionaries have been killed? How many Christian martyrs have there been through the years? And some people might say, well, martyrs and missionaries are different. Although I've never quite figured out why God won't protect people when they're dying for Him, but He will when they're just driving home from a holiday.

And even if we ignore suffering for Christ, Christians have still suffered. The Middle Ages were a time when many people had a very strong Christian faith. Yet this was also a time when the plague took the lives of many. And it wasn't an easy death either. I'm quite sure that there were many Christians praying for God's protection during that time who still died. Or the children they were praying for even more fervently died. And I'm sure there were quite a few towns where the good people died and the evil and wicked people seemed to escape the plague altogether.

We may not have the plague, but things are really no different for us today. Christians suffer and Christians die. I remember reading recently about an old lady who had been killed in the church car-park on her way home from bible study. It's not the first time someone's been killed on their way to or back from church or a church-related event. Can we really expect God to protect us when church car-parks aren't even fatality free?

Questions of theodicy have been around for a very long time. And I'm not even going to attempt to answer the question of why a loving God allows evil to happen to good people. What I am interested in is what it means for how we approach God.

Every night I pray that God keep us free from fear, free from harm and free from evil. And last night, I had fear. But I'm still going to pray that prayer every night. Because, despite everything I've said above, I believe prayer does something.

Maybe it doesn't protect you in all circumstances. Maybe it doesn't always prevent someone knocking on your door in the early hours of the morning. Maybe it doesn't always stop some car driving into you as you're coming home from bible study. Maybe it doesn't prevent your home being flooded. Maybe it doesn't even protect you from turning up to work as normal, to have two airplanes fly into your building.

But maybe sometimes it does. And I do believe that when we pray, God can work with us. There are some things God can't prevent (or he could, but he doesn't because everyone has free will). Then there are things God does prevent. And then there are things he tries to get us to prevent.

He may not be able to stop the drunk getting into his car. Because that drunk has free will. But he can try and get us to avoid going to the shops at that particular moment in time. Maybe he protects us best by whispering something in our ear. Get out of that car. Lock the front door. Don't go into work today. Wait for the next bus instead of running for this one. And often we don't hear that voice. But I believe that when we pray for God's protection, we are more tuned into it. That doesn't mean we're going to hear it all the time. But it is more likely that we will hear it.

But then I also think that some suffering is unavoidable. In a world where everybody has free will, some people (a lot of people) are going to get hurt. And nothing God could say or do (save taking away free will) could stop it happening.

But then we live with that uncertainty all the time. We take vitamin C tablets even though there's no guarantee it will stop us getting the flu. We wear seatbelts in our cars, even though there's no guarantee it will prevent us from being killed in an automobile accident. We lock our houses, even though that's no guarantee that someone won't find another way to break in.

So I believe that praying for God's protection is not, and was never meant to be, a guarantee. But it does invite the Holy Spirit into a situation. It gives God more freedom to work in that situation. And when I'm in a dangerous situation (or even one where I just feel unsafe) I want God and the Holy Spirit working in that situation as much as possible.  

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Red Letter Christians » Find Your Own Calcutta

I usually don't share other articles on Fringe Faith too much, but this is an excellent article on Mother Teresa from Red Letter Christians:

Red Letter Christians » Find Your Own Calcutta:


"Mother Teresa was all too aware that we have a tendency to look for exotic places to do service for the kingdom of God when, in reality, there are needs all around us that are waiting to be met with Christ’s love. She made us aware that until we are faithful in loving those around us, we ought not to think we will be able to love those who live in some far-off place.

- Sent using Google Toolbar"

Monday, July 4, 2011

A Man Is a Rape-Supporter If…. | Eve Bit First

A Man Is a Rape-Supporter If…. | Eve Bit First: "- Sent using Google Toolbar"

I came across this list through another blog earlier today and I haven't been able to get it out of my mind. So I thought I would blog about it to get it out my system, so to speak.

What it is is a list of things that show a man is a rape supporter. The list includes quite a lot of things that seem to have nothing to do with rape such as being pro-life, watching movies or musicals that sexually demean women, or subordinating the interests of women. It's a long list and I'm not going to reproduce it all here. But I think it's worth having a look at.

First up, though, let me say I don't agree with this list. Just because someone has decided that these activities support rape doesn't mean that they actually do. And not only would many men fit one of the categories listed here, but so would quite a few women I know. I'm pro-life. That does not make me pro-rape. And I fail to see how wanting to reduce the killing of babies (and the psychological harm to mothers) translates to supporting rape. Also, I love musicals. And let's face it, some of them are quite demeaning to women. But just because I enjoy musicals doesn't mean I agree with the way they portray women anymore than liking Judy Garland means that I agree with the drugs she took or the suicide attempts she made.

But the reason I have been thinking about it so much is because I think it's a wasted opportunity. The list is obviously meant to be one where all men have participated in at least one activity. It is deliberately broad. But all that does is mean the die-hard feminists are agreeing, saying, yeah, all men are rape supporters. And everybody else is shaking their head, going this person doesn't know what they're on about. Because that was my first reaction. There was no 'Wow, she has some really interesting things to say.' It was all, 'She's got to be kidding, right.'

And that's all well and good if all she wants to do is get people who already agree with her to agree with her some more. But I believe that rape and the sexual demeaning of women are things that we should try and do something about. And this post isn't going to do it.

Firstly, I think the list would have been better if there had been less on it. Let's look at those things that really do contribute to women's rape and try to address them. Secondly, I think we should differentiate between those actions that actually support rape and those that are just demeaning to women. Because there's a lot on this list that, while I don't agree support rape, I believe are wrong and that men need to start thinking about. Women are not just sexual objects. And we do need to change men's thinking where they think of us as only sexual objects. And I do believe that often women are objectified by men who don't really understand what they are doing. I need we need to think about a lot of the stuff that's on this list - without suggesting that men who do these things are supporting rape.

But I don't think this list is going to change anyone's thinking. In the comments, she points out that the list is meant to include all men. Well I understand that. But I believe most men will read this and go, this is ridiculous and I have nothing to learn from it. They know they're never going to avoid everything on the list, so why even try to avoid anything. Much better to have a shorter list that people can go, you know something, I'm actually going to try and change this in my life.

But I fear her aim in writing this list was not to effect change at all. It was to get a whole heap of women agreeing with her that, yes, all men are rape supporters. I'm not sure what good that does. At the most, it might get some women hating men more than they already do. It certainly isn't going to stop men from raping women - and I for one believe stopping rape is more important than making men feel bad for 'supporting' it.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Franciscan Benediction

A Franciscan Benediction

May God bless you with discomfit
At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships
So that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people
So that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears
To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger and war
So that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and
To turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness
To believe that you can make a difference in the world,
So that you can do what others claim cannot be done
To bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor. 

(Taken from Prayer, by Philip Yancey.)

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Of the world, but not in it - and no, that's not a typo

One oft-repeated Christian phrase says we are to be in the world, not of it. It’s a good phrase. Christians are meant to live in this world while still having Christian values. But dare I suggest that sometimes we seem more like people who are ‘of the world, but not in it’.

I think western society in general tends to separate itself from the world. We drive to work in cars, never having to look in the eyes of or rub shoulders with our fellow commuters and where the only communication involves a horn or a finger. We separate ourselves from the weather and the seasons, with air-conditioned houses and then complain how cold (or how hot) it is. Our food comes to us pre-packaged on supermarket shelves, where we never have to see (much less worry about) the weather, the ground, the killing of animals and everything else that helped produce that food.

The impact of suffering is diluted through television screens and minimised into five-minute segments that fail to adequately convey the grief and suffering that people out there beyond TV land are feeling. Their tears don’t stop and their hunger doesn’t end when the anchorman switches to the sport.

Christians can separate themselves from the world in any of the ways listed above. But we can also separate ourselves from non-Christians. We go to church, attend bible studies and hang out with Christian friends, all (or most) of whom have roughly the same values and ideas as we do. We hear the same advice, speak the same language and hang out in Christian world together. Often, churches have a “come to us” mentality, where people who aren’t Christians are always welcome to hang out in Christian world too, but where we fail to go out to them.

Sometimes churches send people to other countries for missionary work - which is a great thing. But do those of us who don’t go end up looking at the photos, patting ourselves on the back for supporting such a worthwhile cause and meanwhile ignoring the suffering in our midst?

There's this song I love called Not Too Far From Here. It’s basically talking about how somewhere near here there is someone crying or someone who needs help. I don’t have any statistics, but I think it would be fair to say that most of us walk by at least 10 people in any given week who desperately need someone to reach out to them. And sure, we don’t help because we don’t know. And we don’t know because they haven’t told us. And we can’t exactly go around stopping every person we see and asking if they need help. But maybe if we were a bit more ‘in the world’, if we rubbed shoulders and met eyes and communicated on a real level, we would know. Maybe they do want to tell someone they need help, but they just haven’t had an opportunity.

One of the things I love about the internet is it lets me see what is going on in the world. I know when there’s been an earthquake or Christians are being persecuted or schoolkids are being bullied or whatever. And because I know, I can care. And because I care, I can pray. And because I pray, I can be one tiny part of seeing God’s will done in that situation.

But I do wonder whether, as our knowledge of hurts and injustices on a global scale increases, our ability to recognise it on a local scale decreases. Are we too busy staring at the horror on our TV screens that we do not hear the person knocking on our door?

So that’s the not in the world part. Here’s the of the world part.

We live in a consumer culture. We live in a society that places a high value on what can be bought or sold. We measure the importance of things by the dollar value attached. We also seek to solve our problems by buying things. Feel too cold? Buy a heater. Got grey hair? Buy a hair dye. Got acne? Buy this skin product. Not feeling sexy enough? Buy this body spray. Feeling depressed? Buy this vitamin.

Not getting the spiritual results you want? Buy this Christian DVD.

Now I’m not suggesting that Christian books or DVDs are bad. I love Christian books. But I do get annoyed when people say, if you just get this book or DVD, your life will be changed (or blessed). Because it’s the same message we hear from TV every day. Got a problem? Fix it with this product.

And from the church I want something different. I want to see people who place more value on spiritual riches and relationships than they do on material wealth. And I actually want to see a church that doesn’t want to solve every problem, but that seeks God and sees him working in the midst of our problems. And I also don’t think that churches should be about selling themselves (or God) to unbelievers, where God is made to sound that the best new product on the market and the quick-fix that will instantly give us everything we want.

Yes, God is good. But we must remember that suffering and persecution receive a lot of space in the bible. And we shouldn’t leave them out of our churches just because their brand value is low.

This isn’t a dig at any specific church. I don't know of any individual church that really does live completely of the world, but not in it. But I think with all churches the temptation is there, the temptation to isolate ourselves from nature, suffering and the wider world and to embrace a Christianity that involves just buying the right products and reflecting the market-mentality of wider society.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Rejection and Acceptance

I seem to have a problem with rejection. No matter how many times I kick it out of my life, it seems to find its way back in again. It’s partly my fault, I suppose. Not only do I leave my doors unlocked, but I open them widely whenever rejection walks past. I thought about locking them. But if you lock your doors against rejection, you also lock your door from ever getting close to anyone. It’s very hard to love those outside your life, when your door is locked against them. And the minute you unlock your door, rejection is likely to sneak right in.

It’s a struggle I deal with constantly. Because I suppose I seem to have to deal with rejection a lot more than other people. While occasionally rejection might sneak into the life of another person, with me, it’s always there, ready to come in the minute I open the door to anybody. And that’s tough. Do I leave the door open and constantly have to deal with rejection? Or do I leave it closed and shut everybody out of my life for good?

I’ve decided to keep opening the door. And yes, that means rejection comes in - constantly. And not only does rejection come in, but it hurts me. It seems to know exactly what to say and what to do that will cause me the most pain. I think it’s probably because it’s hitting scars that have never fully healed over and possibly never will. It’s hard to be healed of something when you keep getting injuries in the same place.

But anyway, this is sounding a bit like a pity party and it’s certainly not meant to be one. I have to bore myself with my own pity parties, I don’t really feel like boring my readers. What it is meant to be is my thoughts on remaining hopeful in spite of rejection.

And firstly, opening my door has meant that I have opened my life to some very wonderful people, people that I would never have known if I kept my doors locked shut. I know people used to tell me that it was like I had an invisible wall when I was talking to people. I hope that that wall isn’t there anymore. I don’t think it is. And my life has been truly blessed because I managed to take that wall down.

And of course, the big issue here is that God doesn’t reject me. And I would much rather be rejected by every single person in the world (which definitely has not happened - I haven’t even been rejected by everyone I know) than be rejected by God. Because the rejection we face down here on earth is nothing compared to what it would be like if God rejected us.

And He has every reason to reject us. We’ve disobeyed him. We’ve turned our backs on him. We’re sinful and prideful.

But instead, what does he do? He sends his Son to die so that He could accept us. Jesus faced the rejection of men Himself, so that God could accept me. That’s pretty amazing. It’s not just that God doesn’t reject us when we deserve to be rejected. He makes a way for us to become acceptable to Him.

No matter what I say in my pity parties, I am not a reject. Jesus died so I didn’t have to be one. And no matter how upset I get when I am rejected - or how undeserved I think it might be - the truth is that no-one was rejected more unfairly than Christ. Furthermore, He died so that I could receive acceptance from God that I don’t deserve at all. Maybe I have received undeserved rejection. But I have also received undeserved acceptance from God. And that’s far more important.

Friday, April 29, 2011


Recently, I read Misconceptions, a book by Naomi Wolf about pregnancy, labour and having babies. It was an excellent book and I recommend it to anyone who plans on getting pregnant in the future - though possibly not if you’re pregnant now. It’s not your typical feel-good, self-help type pregnancy book. In fact, you might say it’s that type of book’s evil twin sister. Rather than being a book about what to expect when you’re expecting, it’s more about how our expectations are wrong and how society fails women in this crucial time.

It’s been nine years since I was pregnant. So I was reading it more from the point of view of reflecting on the past, rather than imagining the future. I did feel complete sympathy for Wolf when she said she threw up constantly throughout her pregnancy. And when she said the last day she was physically ill from morning sickness was on the day of her labour, I felt like yelling out ‘Me too!’. It’s the first person I’ve heard of who was also sick every day (often a few times a day) for the entire nine months. But that said, it’s not that common. And although I would have liked to have known that was a possibility, I imagine if they put it in all the pregnancy books a whole heap of women would be worried about something that probably wouldn’t happen to them.

One of the sections that I believe deserves a lot of consideration is where Wolf talks about the lack of support available to women after they have a new baby. Unfortunately it’s not a problem that is easy to fix. In the past, when a woman had a baby, there was lots of family support around. Most likely she would be living in the same area as her parents, sisters, aunts, cousins and family friends. Furthermore, many of these women were not working. Nowadays, a woman’s family can be all around the globe. It is not unusual for women to have no relatives at all in the same area. And even her mother (usually a key support person) is quite often working and unable to help in the way mothers could in the past. We can also add to the problems the fact that many women nowadays are single mothers from the beginning of their child’s life. So these people do not even have the support of a husband or partner.

I don’t think there’s an easy fix for this. We can’t make people go back to living in the same town or tell grandmothers that they can’t work. But I think at the very least society must recognise that women are not getting the support they need. We must see that new mothers now are far more isolated and alone than they ever had in the past. Something needs to be done to address this issue. What? I don’t know. But at least if we admit there is a problem there, that’s a start.

But the part that I found most heart-wrenching was actually the part that I couldn’t relate to at all. It was about labour. I never realised how lucky I was, before reading this. Maybe it’s because I’m in Australia and things are better here than in America. I suspect it probably also has something to do with the fact that I gave birth in a small hospital. Although I went in on Medicare, and theoretically did not have a choice of doctor, the doctor who delivered both my children was the same doctor I saw through the pregnancy. All the midwives were extremely supportive.

The only thing that went wrong with my ‘labour plan’ was probably due to the midwives actually trying to give me what I wanted. I had a tape that I had put relaxing music on. The only problem was I didn’t reach the end of the tape. As it was taped over an old Choirboys tape, my labour took place to the sounds of lovely, relaxing music, followed by Choirboys. It was really annoying me, but I didn’t have the energy to say anything. And I guess the midwives just supposed that that was what I wanted.

The story Wolf tells in Misconception is very different. Although she is describing the situation in the US, I suspect that some of it at least is true for Australia. And if not, there’s a chance it may follow US lines soon. But in the US at least, women’s labour receives way too much medical intervention. Wolf claims that doctors are more likely to say medical intervention is needed to justify their big pay-checks. But the biggest problem seems to be that doctors and hospitals operate on a timeframe. A woman is expected to give birth within a certain period of time. If this doesn’t happen, then all kinds of medical intervention takes place - including Caesareans when they’re not really necessary.

And some people might say, well does it really matter? For a start, labour will always be painful - and modern medicine has come up with some very good ways of alleviating that pain. Furthermore, there are very good reasons why we need medical intervention. I’m sure no-one wants to go back to the days when there was a good chance a woman might die every time they gave birth.  

But at the same time, I believe we are ruining a beautiful, spiritual, natural event. It is the time in a woman’s life when she gets to feel something of the joy the Creator must have felt when he looked over all He made. We get to not only see, but be part of new life coming into this world. And at the risk of offending the feminists, we also get to appreciate one of the great joys of being a woman. We are part of the ongoing story of generation after generation of women giving birth, and generation after generation of life coming into this world. So yes, I want medical intervention - sometimes. But I don’t want that medical intervention to completely take over this experience.

And I think it’s part of a wider story too. It’s a story where we fail to value what is spiritual and natural and beautiful. We replace God’s intended plan with profit-maximising practices. Instead of waiting for nature, we impose our will on it so that it meets our deadlines. We presume that our way of doing things is better than God’s way. We’re too busy and too egotistical to recognise the spiritual dimension of what is happening in our world. Quite simply, we fail to see.

In order for this world to truly reflect God’s plan, we need to uncover the spiritual dimensions that hide behind so many things. And just because human beings can come in with their machines and their technology and their ‘expertise’ doesn’t actually mean they are actually the experts. To truly be an expert, we need to not just look at the ‘facts’ or the ‘science’ or the ‘data’, but the whole. And the whole does not just consist of what we can study or what we can see, but includes those spiritual aspects as well.

Having a baby is not just a medical procedure. It is the most beautiful, emotional and I would say spiritual time in a woman’s life. And a successful outcome is not just a healthy baby delivered within a set timeframe. Instead it is one where the entire woman (body, emotions and soul) is respected and valued. It is one where all dimensions of the labour are looked after, rather than just the physical. And to be completely successful, it needs to recognise that giving birth is a natural and spiritual event and should be treated as such.    

Monday, April 18, 2011


I have tried three times tonight to go to sleep. And each time, I just end up sitting there, thinking and getting upset. So I eventually thought, stuff it. Let’s get up and write my thoughts out and do something productive. It’s probably going to be the kind of post I shouldn’t write. But that’s who I am. I’m honest about my feelings and I’m honest about my pain. And really, I don’t think there’s much point in writing about personal experiences unless you are honest. It’s honesty that makes a piece of writing worth reading - in my opinion anyway.

So anyway, what I have been thinking about is in-groups. Now people who are in the ‘in-group’ usually don’t even realise there is one. I’ve been in heaps of situations where I point out there is an ‘in-group’ and those who are in the ‘in-group’ go, ‘no, there isn’t’ and people who are out of the ‘in-group’ nod their heads in acknowledgment. It’s really hard to recognise the in-group when you’re inside of it. It’s hard to miss when you’re outside of it.

I’ve spent most of my life not in the in-group. I’ve looked at it from outside, wishing I was a part of it. It was like that at school. It’s quite often like that in church. Today, I felt a bit like that at my own birthday party.

And that’s okay. Because in-groups are rarely a deliberate decision to exclude people. Most people in an in-group don’t realise that anyone is being excluded at all. They’re more like the goldfish swimming in water analogy, used mainly to describe worldviews. When people are swimming in it, they don’t see it’s there. And to take the analogy further, they also don’t see that not some people might want to share their goldfish bowl.

And look, to be honest, I’m sure there’s been times when I’ve been part of an in-group and been oblivious to those out of it as well. I try to recognise it. Mainly because, as I said, I’ve spent most of my life out of the in-group. I know how much it hurts.

I think actually one of the most painful things about not being part of the in-group is other people’s inability to actually see it. Often people in an in-group will say things like, everybody is welcomed and included here. But so often, way more often than we realise, people don’t feel included for one reason or another. It may be because the people in the in-group are really good friends and it’s hard for them to accept another good friend into their midst. They could be so tightly bound together that it’s hard for other people to inch their way into the circle. Others are welcome at the outer edge, but there’s no room left in the centre. And when ties are strong, people will automatically turn to those already in the in-group first, rather than looking to outsiders. And it can also be because some people are shy and find it difficult to reach out to others - and those in the circle don’t need to reach out to anyone outside of it.

We all want to belong. I think it’s one of the prime needs of a human being. We want to belong. We want to feel accepted. Not all of us get that. Even in church.

I feel like I belong to my church. Even though I keep leaving and disagree with this, that and other, I still feel like I belong. I also feel accepted - exactly as I am, warts and all.

But although I feel like I belong to my church now, I didn’t for ages. And maybe that’s partly my fault. I am shy. I do lack confidence. I have had that much rejection in my life that it’s really hard to reach out to others - especially as so often, when I do, I simply get rejected again. That makes it hard to make friends at all. But at the same time, when you are shy, lacking confidence, fearing rejection, the last thing you need is to go to church and find that (just like high school) there’s an in-group and you’re not part of it. And sometimes the church itself seems like the inner circle, and when you’re not part of that, you don’t feel like part of the church at all.

We tend to think of in-groups as something that only teenagers worry about. I remember thinking when I was a teenager that I couldn’t wait until I was an adult and all the worry about in-groups was behind me. But it still hurts even when you’re 37. You can still feel like an outsider no matter how old you are. You can still feel like you’re just not quite good (pretty, friendly, outgoing, funny, smart) enough. You can also feel like everybody else has all these really good ties and friendships and they just don’t have room for you.

It’s so easy to think that our group of friends are just our group of friends. And we visit them, and we hang around them, and we talk to them on the phone and we go out for coffee together because they’re our friends. And of course everyone wants to hang out with their friends. But do we really think about the people who need our friendship? Do we think about the people who might be looking in, wishing they were part of our circle of friendship? Those who might be hurting because they just want to be accepted and loved by somebody? Those who feel like everybody belongs except them?

And one thing that often gets said is people who need acceptance and friendship from church just need to reach out for it. But the analogy I often use is, even if a person with two broken legs can get instant healing if they go to the altar, they can’t get there by themselves. Somebody needs to be prepared to help them. And sometimes, I’m afraid to say, people do reach out - and feel rejected. And then it makes it all the more harder to reach out the next time. 

If I had one wish for the church it would be this - that every church, in every place could be a place where EVERYONE felt like they belonged. I don’t think it’s ever going to happen. Partly because people feel like they can’t fit the mould. Partly it’s because people’s own fears, insecurities, shyness keeps them from belonging. But partly I think it’s because we often don’t do enough to help people through those fears and insecurities. We’re so focused on what’s happening inside the group that we don’t see who’s struggling outside of it.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Why I love the Catholic Church - but why I decided to leave

Some people’s faith journey is like a very straight road. Mine seems to have a lot of bends, twists, roundabouts and u-turns. Some might see that as a failing. Personally, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. When you drive straight to a place, you might get there quicker. But when you take the scenic route, you have a better understanding of where you are when you get there.

I’ve been neglecting this blog for a while. The main reason for that is I have decided to leave the Catholic Church. I know that many of my readers are Catholics and I didn’t want to disappoint them. Also, this has come to feel like a very Catholic blog and I guess I just didn’t feel like writing it.

I’ve also started a new blog, devoted solely to the connections between nature and spirituality. It’s a topic I’ve been interested in for quite some time. But my interest in it has grown since studying theology. So I suppose I was more inclined to write in that blog rather than this one.

But lately I’ve been thinking that I don’t want to confine myself to ecotheology. I have lots I want to say on many topics - and even if no-one reads my posts, it helps me to write them. I thought about starting a new blog. But that seemed silly when I already had this one here. Plus, I couldn’t think of a name I liked better than Fringe Faith - and that one was already taken - by me.

I’m sure that if I looked hard enough, I could probably find some things here that either I don’t agree with anymore, have changed my perspective on slightly or just wouldn’t have written if I had been going to a Pentecostal church at the time. But that’s okay. It’s all part of my faith journey. And whenever I do change directions and read what I have read in the past, what surprises me is not how much I disagree with what I have written, but how much I still agree with. It’s a bit like looking at photos of a road-trip and discovering that no matter where someone travelled, they always took pictures of the same thing.

But to start with, I thought I might return to this blog by writing about why I love the Catholic Church - but why I decided to leave.

I thought long and hard before making the decision to go the Catholic Church. So when I eventually came to that decision, I thought I would be there for life. And from the very moment I stepped into the Catholic Church, I was positive that it was the right decision to make. I guess in a way I fell in love with the Church. So many times as I sat in the pew, I was really thankful to be there. After a while, I stopped going every week. But when I did go, I was always pleased that I did.

I can understand why people from other Christian denominations might not like the Catholic Church. It can seem boring, old-fashioned and ritualistic. Let’s face it, the Catholic Church is not always a fun place to be. But that was okay by me. I’ve never - and still don’t - want a church that will entertain me. And I’ve always thought - and still do think - that we need to focus more on the suffering of Christ and the cross, rather than just the blessings God brings.

As for the rituals and tradition, it’s hard to explain how I feel about this to someone who hasn’t experienced it themselves. I don’t believe we need the rituals and tradition, but I do believe they benefit us spiritually. There’s probably 50 reasons for this, but let me list just two. Firstly, they have the ability to draw our focus away from ourselves and onto God. (Not always. I’m sure there are many people who go through those rituals without giving God a second thought. But they can.) Secondly and perhaps most importantly, they remind us of God’s Holiness. Even just a little thing like doing the sign of a cross can be an important reminder that we are not just chatting to ourselves, but to God, who deserves our reverence and awe.

There are many other reasons why I do still love the Catholic Church. But here are perhaps the three most important. Firstly, I find that the Catholic Church (with all its rituals, traditions and lack of entertainment value) gives me a sense of peace that I find missing from other churches. There is plenty of time for contemplation and mediation in the Catholic Church. And even just following the ritual of the liturgy can be peaceful. In our daily lives, we are constantly entertained and bombarded with audio clips, images and advertisements. It is nice to have a place where all of that ‘entertainment’ disappears.

The other reason why I still love the Catholic Church is its beauty. I know churches nowadays seem to be designed to be places where people feel comfortable. And that’s all well and good. But I do really appreciate the beauty not just of Catholic Churches, but of the Mass itself. And that goes for the music too. I’ve heard a few people (including my children) say that the hymns in the Catholic Church are boring. But to me, Catholic hymns are far more beautiful than Hillsong praise and worship. Not as entertaining perhaps. But then, as mentioned above, we’re constantly entertained. If we want to be entertained, there’s a lot of places we can go. But a lot of that entertainment is stripped of beauty. It’s fun, but not too deep. Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that. I would call Bon Jovi entertaining, but not beautiful. I still like Bon Jovi. But beautiful music can nourish your soul in a way entertaining music can't. It’s also nice to see beauty and experience beauty. And in my mind at least, the Catholic Church is very beautiful, in many different ways.

Another reason why I like the Catholic Church is it’s not so individualistic. The Pentecostal Church, at least in my mind, seems to focus on the individual a lot. The songs we sing often contain the words ‘I’ and ‘me’. I’m ashamed to say I once counted all the Is and Mes in worship and stopped when I reached 20. The sermons tend to focus on ‘how you can be a Christian’ or ‘how God wants to bless you’. Whereas Catholic sermons seems more focused on theology generally (without as much reference to the individual), the worldwide Church or the global community and global problems as a whole.

That’s not to say that the Catholic Church only focuses on the global or the Pentecostal church only focuses on the individual. It’s just they seem to prefer one over the other. And it’s also not to say that the Catholic Church’s approach is better than the Pentecostal approach. We need to focus on individuals sometimes. People need to be healed and transformed as individuals before they can make a difference in the world. But I will say that one of the things I liked about the Catholic Church is that it didn’t make me think about ‘me’ so much.

But then, I do still need healing. Maybe we all continuously need healing. We all need people to pray for us sometimes. (And I don’t think I ever had one person pray for me in the Catholic Church.) When I did have a problem, even when I was going to the Catholic Church, I would ring up my Pentecostal friends and ask them to pray for me. That’s one of the reasons why I decided to return to the Pentecostal Church. They are very good at praying for people.

Another reason is fellowship. And it was this that had the most bearing on my decision to leave the Catholic Church. For a start, all of my friends were in another church. That felt really lonely at times, unbearably lonely. Secondly (and this is partly to do with me and no doubt other people would find it very different) but I found it very difficult to make any friends at all in the Catholic Church. I would go to morning teas and hardly anybody would speak to me. I felt like a stranger. When we greeted each other in church I was usually greeting a whole heap of people I didn’t know.

Some people might say that the fellowship aspect to church is not important. But it’s important to me. I think it’s particularly important because I am a single mum, who works and studies from home. I would go the whole week without talking to another adult, then on Sunday be surrounded by people who didn’t talk to me. I may be very introverted, but I still need to talk to people. I also need see people who care about me. I particularly need to have conversations with people who share my faith. I love having theological discussions - even when I’m disagreeing with people. I didn’t have a single discussion about God with anyone from the Catholic Church. I could have those discussions with my Pentecostal friends. But I wasn’t seeing those Pentecostal friends nearly as much as I used to.

It’s also important for me to have support. As a single mum, I occasionally need people to help me do things. So when I needed help, who did I turn to? My Pentecostal friends, of course. This is generalising, but I find Pentecostals are usually very good at helping people when they need it. And I think that’s partly because they do really try hard to ‘live their faith’. I didn’t even know anyone in the Catholic Church that I could ask. Again, this could be just me. I am sure that many people find a lot of support within the Catholic Church. But I just didn’t know where to look. Even if I had a problem, I had no-one to discuss it with within the Catholic Church. I suppose I could have rung up the priest. But I always felt uncomfortable doing that. When I was trying to decide whether to leave the Catholic Church or not, I discussed it with perhaps three Pentecostal friends. I didn’t discuss it with anyone within the Catholic Church because I had no-one to discuss it with.

So that’s basically it. The reason why I love the Catholic Church is because I love beauty, peace, tradition and ritual. But the reason why I had to leave is because I need people. And for me at least the only place where I could find those people was in my old Pentecostal church.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Queensland floods - Uncontrollable nature, uncontrollable God

            Before I start this blog post, I would like to extend my sympathies to everyone who has been affected by the Queensland floods, especially those who are missing family members. My prayers are with you.
            I was not sure whether I should write this post. Although it was a post I really wanted to write, I think it is too easy to turn tragedies into an opportunity to espouse political or religious views, without any real consideration for the people directly impacted. I know that for many people this is not a news story or a speech or a blog post, but a tragic reality in their lives. If this post comes across as insensitive at all, I am truly sorry.

            When watching the news stories, it was the personal tragedies that struck me most. I don’t often cry during the news, but I find myself crying a lot lately. I think we see so much death, devastation and destruction on the news that we become a little immune to it. Perhaps it shouldn’t be the case, but it is much easier to find empathy for people ‘like us’. As I watched the news, I could so easily imagine myself in the position of those whose homes had been lost or whose family members were missing.
            But another item that struck me was the information that the Wivenhoe Dam was meant to prevent a flood like that experienced in 1974, but that dam was not coping.
            I think we have become a bit complacent about nature, especially those living in urbanised areas in the western world, where we seem so removed from nature. For a couple of hundred years, man has sought to control nature. They wanted to bend it to their purposes, mould it to their will. It was not man at the mercy of nature, but nature at the mercy of man. And to a certain extent, they succeeded - even if our control is undoubtedly more limited than we realised.
            Undoubtedly humans have a huge impact on nature. And we can control nature in a way no other species can. But if we think we’re the one’s controlling this big huge system we call earth, we are much mistaken. Humans aren’t the ones in charge.
            God is the one in charge. But leaving the theological discussion for a moment, let’s stick with nature.
            Nature is more powerful, more forceful, more in control than we are. No matter what we do to try and bend nature to our will, nature will often do what we don’t expect - and don’t want. Natural disasters remind us that our influence over this world is very limited. And it must also remind us to respect and even fear nature. Nature is not something that bows down to human’s will. Nor is it something cute and cuddly that only wants to keep us safe. It is wonderful and awesome, fearsome and dangerous. It can bring us much joy and bring us much sorrow.
            Humans don’t like to be at the mercy of anything. We think that the decisions we make and the actions we take can direct our own lives. We feel control of our own destiny. Nature reminds us that this is not always the case. Not only is nature uncontrollable, but it has the ability to sometimes control us.
            This desire to be in control of our own destiny also affects how we sometimes view God. Like nature, we think we can control God, rather than realising it is God who controls us. Instead of seeing ourselves at the mercy of God, we try to bend God to our will and our purposes. Read many books on prayers and you will see what I mean. Many of them devote a lot of space on how to get our prayers answered. As I heard in a YouTube video recently, we have our own greedy desires and we presume they are God’s will for us. But maybe the purpose of prayer should not be to try and get God to do what we want, but to realise that He is ultimately the one in control.
            Of course, especially in the light of the Queensland floods, this raises all kinds of questions about why God would cause this or even allow it. That’s a big question and one I don’t have the space to do even the tiniest bit of justice to here. The short answer is, I don’t know. But then, I’m not the one in charge. And I know God is loving and I know he is just. But I also know he is fearsome and powerful. Maybe God is just letting the laws of nature taking their course. If He stepped in and prevented this natural disaster, he would have to step in and prevent every natural disaster. And maybe the whole laws of nature would then be changed. I certainly don’t think it is any kind of act of righteous anger or judgment. I believe God is just as sorrowed by this as we are.
            I also believe that God doesn’t only feel empathy for the people who are ‘like us’, but for all humans everywhere in this world. He cries with the people affected by the Queensland floods, just as he cried with the people affected by Hurricane Katrina or the Victorian bushfires or the Asian tsunami or wars and natural disasters everywhere. It is easy to focus on what happens in Australia, either because we are directly impacted, we know people who are or we can relate to those who are impacted. But there are people hurting every day in this world. And I believe God cares for them all.   


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