Correct . . . but wrong

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Recently, I’ve been re-reading the book of Job. I’ve read it before–that’s what happens when you attend Christians schools, church, and Sunday school for several decades–but I hadn’t picked it apart and thoroughly examined it. So now, instead of skimming through the rather tedious speeches of Job’s self-righteous friends, I’m stopping, pondering, and making connections between Job’s assertions and his friends’ arguments. And something struck me that I hadn’t taken note of before:

The friends’ theology is correct. Mostly. They recite some creeds and share ideas that, taken out of context, are beautiful. Uplifting, even. True. (For example, in chapter 20, Zophar speaks of the wicked’s future punishment and how they will pay for what they have done wrong; in the light of eternity and future justice from God, yes, that is true.)

Yet at the end of the book, God commands Job to make sacrifices for these three men’s sins. To the eldest man, he says, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (Job 42:7) Not sacrifices for Job, who argued with God, or his wife, who angrily told him to curse God and die. But the ones with the good theology . . . and the wrong application.

Here’s what stood out to me:

We can get our theology completely right but miss the most important thing: relationships. A relationship with God, yes, but also relationships with other people. The friends speak callously. They apply their good theology in the most unloving, uncompassionate ways to Job’s situation. They’d sat with him for seven days in silence; one wonders why they couldn’t have continued to stay silent and listen lovingly while Job grieved and argued with God. Here’s my theory:

Because humans like to correct other people.

We love being right and we think we’re always right.  

It’s not only our theology. Our ideas, our political alignments, our opinions on anything and everything from national security to proper push-up form to the stuffing versus dressing debate each Thanksgiving. Other people must agree with us!

All of our arguments can be completely correct: convincing, eloquent, and designed to drag, kick, slam, or carry the enemy to our side.  Or at least whack them upside the head for standing on the wrong side. For being the enemy. Our enemy.

Once we view the other person as an enemy, we forget that they are human, like us. 

In the past few months, I’ve tried to develop my reasoning and logic skills. I read a book by the late Robert Gula titled Nonsense. After several chapters on various types of nonsense (and why they are nonsensical), he writes about how to argue well. One of his final points was this: the other person is human. Treat them as such. 

I realized that I often forget that. I forget that all people are made in God’s image, not only the ones I find sympathetic.  While that image is a broken and shattered one, warped and distorted by evil, it is still there because God made that person.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the person is guiltless of wrongdoing and shouldn’t be brought to justice, whatever form that needs to be. It doesn’t mean that we can’t judge another’s actions as wrong. It doesn’t mean that we can’t stand with the victims or fight unjust systems wherever they are found. We can and should.

It does mean that we don’t treat that guilty person with contempt or scorn. Granted, this is very difficult to do. It’s much easier to ridicule and stereotype people we disagree with. To turn them into caricatures. To treat them as an enemy. To see them as less human than I am. I do it far too often.

This summer, I read lots of great novels and one horrible one. It will remain nameless, as there were multiple problems with the story. One of the worst was this: the villain was two-dimensional. He was your standard, run-of-the-mill serial killer. A stereotype. The kind of creep who’s easy to hate and view as inhuman.

We never got a deep view into his perspective, nor did we get a good explanation for his actions. It was all stereotypical explanations: he’s got this weird physical disfigurement (hypertrichosis, aka, werewolf syndrome), a bad childhood, a low IQ, and an evil (but wealthy) family. That didn’t explain his motivation. Not for this reader, anyway.

It was the easy way to create a villain: rely on stereotypes and the readers’ presumed preconceived ideas of how the “bad guys” act and why.

Even as I write about the book, I’m rolling my eyes. Why, oh, why, I think, did a bestselling author resort to this? C’mon, couldn’t she have dug deeper into her antagonist’s internal state and seen him as something more than an object of ridicule and scorn?  

Yet isn’t that what I often do when I interact with others?

I see only the wrong-headed views or the external appearance or their words. I read their arguments and think how laughable they are. Sometimes the arguments are truly laughable.

It would be far better to ask deeper questions.

  • Why does that person hold that view?
  • What informed their position? Who are they listening to?
  • What life experiences have they had that made them think this way?
  • How can I disagree with them while still treating that person with respect, dignity, and kindness?
  • Even as I disagree, take a stand, or fight for justice, how can I respond to those in disagreement without contempt?
  • In this disagreement, how can I hold in tension these two principles: loving others who are wrong and upholding goodness?
  • How can I see this person as God sees them?

Deeper questions. Challenging questions. Ones that sometimes I hesitate to ask from fear of what might happen. But maybe that’s exactly why I need to ask them: something good may happen. Like Job, we never know exactly what God’s doing or why or how or who or when. But he is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Twitter dilemma

fileIf you’re on social media, maybe you can relate to my experience.

I was on Twitter and ran across a series of tweets by someone I follow. Let’s call this person Q, and assume Q is female. Q is extreme in her views. I’ve never had any issues with her; sometimes I agree with her (and say so), sometimes not. (That seems to be the case for me more often than not; sometimes I don’t even agree with myself.)

She wrote a thread that started with one church-song-related observation. Then she took her original idea and extended that idea to an extreme that would’ve shocked the original songwriter. I thought her thread was faulty on several points.

One, the premise was faulty. It was taking the lyrics way, way too far into ideas that belied the songwriter’s intentions. The song is intended to praise God and remind the singers of God’s character, not be fodder for theological spats, political divisions, and rhetorical games.  But in criticizing the song lyrics, I thought she was dangerously close to misrepresenting God’s character.

Second, the thread’s logic wasn’t logical at all; it was full of straw men arguments, over-generalizations about groups of people, undefined evaluative terms, and non sequiturs. I’ve observed this tendency on her part multiple times since I followed her. Her arguments are emotionally-based, not grounded in logic, wisdom, and good sense. She’s young, though, and now that I’m (almost) 40, I’m inclined to give younger, more impetuous people the benefit of the doubt. (Or maybe it’s having a teenager and remembering all my teenage foolishness that accounts for this.)

Third, it lacked compassion; there appeared to be no understanding or consideration of any other viewpoint.  Instead, the argument appeared arrogant and close-minded. (It may not have been intended that way.) It lost sight of the fact that she was talking about other people, not only theology and politics. I rather wanted to cyber-wave my hands and yell, “Hey, you know you’re talking about your fellow Christians, right? You know, those people you’ll be spending eternity in heaven with?”

But I didn’t. I wanted to say something, but I didn’t. And that’s where I’m puzzled.

Do I reply? Should I have tried to gently correct some of the more extreme aspects of the argument?  Should I have tweeted something rather than nothing, hoping that I’d be able to get my point across in 140 characters?

Do I let it go? Keep scrolling, click likes on kitty photos and funny memes, ignore this thread entirely. I follow this person, I like this person, I don’t want to unfollow her, but I wouldn’t consider her a “close friend” on Twitter. Nor do I know much about her beyond the words of her tweets. Nor do I share many of her theological presuppositions. Nor was I in my best frame of mind for a theological discussion via tweets: it had been a rough week, I was depressed, and my brain was sloth-like as it moved from one thought to the next. (I probably should’ve stayed offline entirely.) Nor do I know if she was in the best frame of mind for disagreement; maybe she’d had a tough week, too, and felt crappy and ignored and invisible. But are those good enough reasons not to say anything?

I’m still wondering, several days later, and it’s niggling at my brain while I’m trying to work on my novel. So that’s why I’m blogging.

When do you speak up? When do you stay silent?

I’ve run into this type of situation multiple times recently, so this scenario could apply to at least two other incidents. It doesn’t have to be a theological disagreement. It could be about politics or parenting or the pantser-vs-plotter debate in writing circles. It doesn’t matter. Any topic you pick, someone can hold a strong, deeply felt, possibly illogical opinion about. And that person might share on Twitter/Instagram/Snapchat/Whatever-the-newest-media-outlet-is about it. And you might disagree.

But I don’t think it’s wise to always argue with that person, or, depending on the circumstances, even try to engage them in discussion. But in what circumstances would that be? I’m wondering what other people’s thoughts are and how you handle issues like this online.

Thoughts?

 

 

 

Coffee, a short story

file (7)While checking my links on my blog page, I realized that the links to both my short stories were broken. Both sites had shut down, and neither story was visible. I searched. And cried. And whined on Twitter. I didn’t know if I could resubmit the stories to different journals, as I couldn’t claim that they’d never been published and most journals like new material only, but I also couldn’t prove that the stories had ever been published.

Earlier this week, during a bout of I should give up writing angst, I cried again, this time on my husband’s shoulder.

He’s an engineer. He likes to fix things. (Those two facts are connected.) He told me to try the “wayback machine.” I’d never heard of it, but it’s a site that stores internet archives, even for sites that have shut down.

Yesterday, after many frustrating search attempts, I was able to locate both short stories and two non-fiction guest posts that had been lost. I thought I’d share the first story, “Coffee.” It was originally published in 2010, and I hope my fiction writing has improved in the past seven years. Still, I love my little story. I hope you enjoy it, too.

P.S.: If the link to the wayback machine doesn’t work, please let me know!

 

Coffee 

Nicole shook me awake. I rolled over, smelled coffee, and through the dim haze of waking, I heard her say, “Eli’s dead.” I looked at my roommate’s tears and the words sank down into me until I felt dead, too.

Dark two-lane road. A car accident. Another car crossed the double line. Two separate objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. A law of physics translated into reality: Miata versus SUV? The Miata lost.

After this, I drank more coffee than I served at Starbucks. (Click here to read more.)

Distorted relationships

distortions.png Credit: kalebnimz, idpinthat.com

Recently–as in, weeks or months ago–I ran into an old acquaintance. We’d known each other for years, from various churches and schools, but we’d never truly been friends. She was part of the popular kids during our teen years. I wasn’t. She wasn’t a “mean girl” or a bully. Only popular. And I wasn’t.

(And I was a bit of a snob regarding people I perceived as popular; I didn’t like them, had no use for them, suspicious that they must have compromised their standards to attain their popular status. How else could people climb the social ladder of success?)

So we floated around in different social circles, never connecting except when it was forced on us.

Over the years, I’d perceived that even though we were adults, she was still treating me that same way. We talked only when necessary (almost never) and I perceived a certain superficiality on her part. I loathe fake friendliness. Pretense. Artificiality. Bleh. So it was better that we didn’t talk, I told myself, because I would rather be around genuine people. Not fakes. (Notice the pride in my attitude!)

Circumstances changed. Some changes were small, others life-altering. When we ran into each other, I was startled that she was friendly to me. And I mean genuinely friendly. I assumed the changes in our lives might have contributed to this.

I was right about that, but only that.

I learned that she’d been living with pain for years. It had taken all her energy to keep this hidden from others.  Now that her life had changed, so had the pain. She could drop the pretense that life was fine and the oh-we’re-doing-wonderful-how-about-you? the churchy, socially-acceptable answer to the horrible phrase, “Hi, how are you?” (There ought to be a law against this question being used as a social greeting.) She was free to be honest.

I was flabbergasted. Not at the secret per se–I’d had a weird feeling about one aspect of her life for years–but at how badly I’d mangled my interpretation of our relationship. That artificiality? That perception that she was treating me like we were back in high school?

I was wrong. It wasn’t about me at all.

It was about a woman trying to protect herself from pain.

Never mind what this particular pain was. You can fill in the blank with whatever you think it might be; it could be physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, any sort of thing at all. And this particular situation could be applied to multiple people whom I’ve known for years; after living in the same area for twenty-eight years, I know a lot of people. So there’s no use trying to guess who it is (if you know me in real life) or what it is (if you know me online). That’s irrelevant.

What is relevant is how I made a situation revolve around me and my interpretations of events and people, and how I was wrong. 

It reminded me of the novel Rebecca. After the big revelation that the narrator’s husband not only killed his first wife but never loved her at all, the young narrator begins to look at all the things she’s misinterpreted since she got married. Her sister-in-law’s attitude. The estate manager’s manner toward her. Her husband, and a multitude of things surrounding his late wife Rebecca, who’d pretended to be perfection and was foul and rotten beneath the surface.

She hasn’t known any of this. Instead, she’d built up a picture in her mind of the wonderful life her husband Max and Rebecca had: love and devotion and passion. It had been none of those things. She hadn’t known because she felt inferior to the first wife and was too shy to ask questions.

It seemed incredible to me now that I had never understood. I wondered how many people there were in the world who suffered, and continued to suffer, because they could not break out from their own web of shyness and reserve, and in their blindness and folly built up a great distorted wall in front of them that hid the truth. —Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier, chapter 20

Like the unnamed narrator of Rebecca, I had done exactly that. I’d let my  self-perceived inferiority build up a wall between myself and the world. It was built, stone by stone, from insecurity, from past embarrassments, from present slights, from future fears. High school experiences had been perceived through the grey cloud of depression then. Now, those experiences were even more distorted by the extremes of bipolar disorder, the fickleness of memory, and arrogance. (What can be more arrogant than self-abasement? It emphasizes self, exalting it by giving it undue credit.)

The situation wasn’t about me. But it did reveal how distorted and self-centered my thoughts were. Now I look around and I wonder how many other times I’ve misjudged people’s attitudes and actions. All those things that I’ve seen as hostility or superficiality or some other negative attitude toward me could really be exactly what it seems: hostility or superficiality of spirit. It also could be hiding personal pain. I might never know.

But I can stop focusing on me and pray for a discerning mind and an open heart–and be willing to see that truth revealed, no matter how ugly it is.

Excuses, excuses

A few days ago, my older daughter was peering over my shoulder while I cleaned out my email inbox. She was curious about how many emails ended up in my trash folder. (At last count, it was 3600 and counting.) I was bemoaning how many emails I receive, many of which are blog posts from blogger friends, and how I couldn’t keep up with reading ALL of them. “Some people blog every day,” I told her. “Great material, but I could never do that.”

“How often do you blog?”

“Uhh . . . well” (cue sheepish look, tiny voice) “I haven’t blogged since January. Too busy.”

Cue the teenage look of disbelief, incredulity, and slight grimace that might or might not have been sympathy. She’s fourteen. She knows the rules of the internet even better than I do: to maintain an online presence, one must produce new content often.

Here I am, typing away, producing a new blog post. And apologizing for not blogging more often. I am, however, getting an astounding number of comments and email about the invisible in church post. (I’m also receiving an astounding number of spam on the post. Do spammers not have better things to do with their lives? Like, you know, get one. Or is it all computer generated now?)

I digress.

Here’s the rundown of what’s been happening:

The short story contest for Ruminate brought in 340+ submissions, with a huge number arriving in the last week. That was terrific. (I can’t wait for y’all to read the grand prize winner. I pegged it as a finalist the first time I read it.) But it also meant lots of time reading. I’m fairly certain I logged 40+ hours of work in that last week, between reading all of them, notifying my editor when submissions had author’s personal info in the body of the submission (a no-no when it’s a contest), and choosing my top 15 stories.

That meant that I had stopped working on my own novel. When I surfaced from contest-reading in early March, I realized that a huge part of my novel’s premise didn’t work. I mean, if it were an engine, it’d need a total overhaul, not a mere jump-start. Jumper cables weren’t going to do the job, y’all; this baby needed a tow truck to the auto mechanic shop, where some guy with grease-stained coveralls would pop the hood, mess around, and say, “Miz Droege, this here engine is gonna need a total overhaul, but me and Earl here” –slaps another big, grinning, grease-stained guy on the back– “we’ll fix it right up.” Earl chews his tobacco wad and nods and says, “Yep.” And I’d get a bill for a thousand bucks or whatever the going price is.

The biggest problem? The wrong antagonist. Changing that changed the entire story. I had ordered Donald Maass’s book Writing the Breakout Novel, and it was a godsend. His exercises helped me focus and deepen the characters and think about the story in different ways. (As a bonus, he uses many examples from current fiction. After seeking out some of the titles, I’ve found a few new favorite authors.)

The 5th draft was written in two months. I’ve spent the bulk of my writing time working on it, trying to finish before my daughters got out of school. My older daughter’s last day was Friday the 19th, I finished the draft on Saturday the 20th, and my younger daughter’s last day was yesterday. Goal accomplished.

There were other stressful things going on. Some were small (two concerts in one week, a complicated schedule). Others were large (a family emergency that took my husband out of town for a week).

I suppose all of this is my long-winded excuse for not blogging or having an online presence. My brain can handle only so much before it goes on strike and demands better treatment. I hope that I’ll be able to return to blogging on a more frequent basis.

A plea to church leaders from the invisible woman in the church pew

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Let me be completely honest: I’m angry right now. It’s a dangerous thing to be angry while blogging, and I’ll probably wait an hour or two after writing before hitting the publish button, but I think this is something that needs to be said.

Ever since I first posted about feeling invisible in church, I’ve received emails and comments on that post and the subsequent ones on the same topic. So many people are hurting. They feel alone in church. They feel that no one cares, that they have no friendships, that they might be physically sitting on the church pews but no one sees them. This is sad.

What is sadder to me is that, in many of these stories, the people have tried to fit in at a particular church:

  • Bible studies.
  • Small groups.
  • Ministry involvement.

If these things weren’t available, often they tried to start them. Tried . . . and failed, for reasons too many to count. (Lack of leader support, not spiritually gifted in that area, etc.) Too many people have told me, “I thought I was the only one who felt like this!” And then they thank me for sharing because it’s helped to know that someone cares, even if it’s a total stranger in cyberspace.

Yet at many of the churches I’ve attended and visited, the majority claimed to be a caring body of believers. They urge people to join small groups or Bible studies or get involved in various ministries. These are the best ways to make you feel like you belong, I’ve been told.

But my blog readers have done all these things, and they haven’t worked. They’re still alone. Still hurting. Still invisible in the church pew. All these wonderful, promising things that are supposed to help us follow Christ together and share life and blah-blah-blah: they’re failing.

I’m sure there are people for who these groups and methods work. They’ve found close friends and feel totally accepted and loved at church. Terrific. But others are falling through the cracks.

People are asking me to pray, and I am. I’m heartbroken for them.

But at this point, I’m also frustrated. The one group of people I haven’t heard from on this topic are church leaders. (There have been a few. Thank you.)

I can’t imagine that they are entirely ignorant of this problem. (I think some leaders acknowledge that this happens at other churches, but convince themselves that their church is not like that. Maybe that’s true. Maybe not.)

Nor can I imagine that pastors, elders, and deacons don’t give a damn that people feel rejected and alone. I’m sure many or most do. (For example, when I told my psychiatrist that I’d had a negative experience visiting his church–I was totally ignored both times I attended–he nodded and said, “People come to the church through small groups, so they don’t feel the need to reach out to people in the pews. The leaders know this is a problem, but we don’t know what to do about it.”)

Nor can I imagine that the leaders want congregation members and visitors to suffer silently. (There would be exceptions; egotistical masochists end up in every profession, unfortunately. But surely most pastors desire to have a pastor’s heart: compassionate and merciful, shepherding people like Christ, the Good Shepherd, does. Imperfectly, to be sure, but longing to help and guide.)

So what’s the problem?

Why can’t leaders acknowledge that sometimes methods fail?

That includes

  • The join-a-small-group method:

(This seems to elicit more enthusiasm in my area than it deserves. Many involve the church putting the groups together, so you might end up with a group of people you don’t like or trust or even know, and somehow you’re supposed to “do life together” with weekly meetings that are heavy on food and fellowship and light on anything more substantial than coffee cake and sweet tea. It’s an introvert’s–and nutritionist’s–nightmare. Maybe the small group idea works better when you’re already friends and get to pick each other. But then how do outsiders join?)

  • The participate-in-a-Bible-study method: 

(A lecture-based group isn’t conducive to building friendships. And the discussion-based ones aren’t either, as it’s too easy for one or two people to dominate or derail the discussion, many people are too intimidated by public speaking or feel too ignorant to talk, and a lot of Bible studies are filled with fluffy material that doesn’t satisfy mature believers or educate and equip young ones.)

  • The get-involved-in-a-ministry method:

(Theoretically, this should work. Working alongside other people is a terrific way of getting to know others. But I’ve heard from people who said that they signed up to help in a particular area but were never contacted by the leaders. A variation on this situation is where there’s a small clique that owns that ministry and they don’t want to share the work, power, or glory. It’s “theirs.” Another variation: the same clique allows you to do the gruntwork but your ideas and concerns aren’t heard, and you’re never really accepted by the people who are involved. Your gifts are never fully utilized. You walk away frustrated.)

All three methods are things that I’ve been told by church leaders (and read in various places) are great ways to feel like I belong in church. I’ve tried all three. None of them are bad. All work for certain people in certain circumstances. (Praise God and give him glory!) But none work for everyone. And for some people, they don’t work at all, and those are the people writing to me. Pastors and leaders, why is this?

Please hear me: I’m not blaming the pastors. Often, they’re doing the best they can: preaching until they’re hoarse about loving others around us, trying to set a good example in their own lives, truly trying to reach the lonely among the members. But the congregation members are hardhearted. In that situation, I’m not sure there’s anything they can do besides pray.

I realize that the pastor’s role is difficult. I understand that. I understand they’re torn in 500 different directions, personal and professional, and feel overwhelmed and alone and frustrated. I understand the burnout rate is high, the depression rate is incredibly bad, and there’s often no one they can confide in within their church. I understand that there’s a thousand different aspects to that job that I’ll never understand because I’ve never done it. I get that. I don’t want to add a burden to their heavy load.

But I’d like to hear from church leaders about why some Christians might try so hard, do all the build-friendships-at-church methods, and still end up alone on Sunday morning. What is going wrong? How can we, as the body of Christ, move beyond mere methods to something more substantial? How can we stop having people fall through the cracks? What would you advise my lonely readers to do? 


(P.S.: I did wait a while to cool down and edit this. If you feel condemned by my words, I ask your forgiveness and please let me know so I can edit.) 

Anne Shirley’s philosophy on mistakes

tomorrow has no mistakes in it yet

Yes, Anne, it is lovely to know. Even if today was difficult, and I made too many mistakes to count, tomorrow is a new day. Reading this passage always makes me smile.

The photo is one of mine. One evening, I saw a gorgeous sunset. I grabbed my camera, ran out barefoot, and snapped a dozen or so shots. I got a splinter in my foot from the wood on our back porch, but fortunately, my husband was able to extract it without too much pain. (Lesson learned: wear shoes when outside!) The photos were worth it, though.