Friday, July 25, 2014

You Only Go to Church

I recently had to write out my testimony for a class I was participating in at church and, like any of us who became Christians early in life, and have lived relatively tamely, I dreaded the task.  I dreaded it because I was afraid to find that there wasn’t much of a story to tell.  I was afraid I’d be that inevitable bridesmaid at the banquet crying and boring the crowd with her interminable speech about a series of nothings.  (Better to decline the opportunity to speechify altogether, or, if you must, raise a glass and say, “You rock, Betsy Ross!” (Or whatever the bride’s name happens to be.) Then just sit back down.  The crowd will thank you.

That approach wasn’t going to cut it for my testimony, though, as much as I might like to charge a glass, point to the heavens and give Jesus a shout out.  I was supposed to be telling a story with a turning point.  Problem was, I couldn’t really think of one.   There was no stark before and after photo to say, “Look at the mess Morgan was making before Jesus showed up!   Look at how awesome she’s been since! Where does one sign up for the Lamb’s Book of Life?” 

While I made a confession of faith and prayed a prayer asking Jesus into my heart at the age of eight while perched on the edge of a hide-a-bed on a sunny summer morning; I have no recollection of a time in my life when I did not have an awareness of God.  I knew who Jesus was, that he was born in Bethlehem to Mary and Joseph; that a host of angels rejoiced while shepherds and kings worshipped.  I knew He died on a cross to pay for all the sins of the world and rose from the dead on the third day.  I feel like I’ve always known this.  I have always had an awareness of His omnipresence and that the Bible is how people would know Right from Wrong.  I knew this like I knew my grandparents and that I lived in Calgary.

I come from a family of smart people and I was a “good kid”.  I heard that cigarettes were bad for you and so I never had any desire to smoke.  If someone, be it at school or church or my parents explained that something was bad for me or wrong, I appreciated the tip.  Why fall into mistakes that could be avoided? 

“Just say no?” 

You got it.

For instance, lacking desire and the prerequisite ethnicity, I never joined one of Calgary’s Asian gangs. I never experimented with drugs. I never had a teen pregnancy (or, let’s be honest, was ever in danger of having a teen pregnancy).  I was a good girl.  I was smart. But when faced with a testimonial task, I worried that because I had avoided some major catastrophes, I was boring.  I had not teetered on the brink of destruction and been pulled back from the abyss; ergo, my testimony was a dull litany of doing the right thing one monotonous time after another.   In fact, a number of years back, I even had the following exchange with a rather blunt, but well-meaning, immigrant lady.

Her: (disgust barely disguised by a thick accent) “You only go to church.”

Me: (startled) “I...I go other places…”  Granted, we were at church at the time.

Her: (incredulous and dismissive.  Both at the same time.) “Really... Really?  You only go to church.  You need to go to a sports club.”

I think she was actually commenting on my opportunities to socialize with the opposite sex rather than my physical fitness levels. (But to be perfectly honest, that interpretation held some water, too.) But it doesn’t exactly feel amazing when the septuagenarians think you might be kind of lame. 

So what do the rest of us say?  Those of us who only go to church? Those of us without the definitive before and after lifestyle changes that make for gripping testimonials of what Jesus has done.  Where is the big moment that will explain our life choices; demonstrating why we’ve chosen to throw our meagre selves on the transcendent God of the Universe?  What is the difference that He has made?

I realized a couple of weeks back when hyping my workout regime to a friend that I was probably more evangelistic about that program than I am about Jesus Christ.  … This struck me as a bad thing, like I probably have some screwed up priorities.  But the unfortunate truth is, I have way more conversations about the Tracy Anderson Method and the difference it has made to my body and my fitness level than I do about the ongoing process of spiritual transformation that Jesus is working out in my life.  It isn’t that it isn’t happening.  It’s just that I don’t talk about it much because no one really asks.  Maybe they’re afraid that I would think them impertinent; but I sort of doubt that is the reason.  I think it is because they can’t see it.  

This realization has been chaffing my thoughts ever since but I think I’ve begun to put my finger on the problem: the ever important before and after photos are missing.  For those of us who never really went sideways--at least not in obvious ways--the spiritual before photo looks a lot like the after photo, only younger.  Whereas in the realm of physical fitness, all people have to do is see my ass kickin’ ass (Just kidding. … not really...) to know that something is different. Something is working.  

And, the thought that something would actually work?  That prompts questions, despite the fact that most people have just as much psychological baggage associated with food and fitness as they do about God related stuff.  But the acute crises of self-image that arise in those moments in the change room are harder to dull than a pervasive sense of being alone and aimless in a potentially meaningless universe.  Ever heard a woman having a meltdown in one of the adjacent change rooms at Swimco? You’d have to have a heart of stone not to weep with her a little bit, wishing you could encourage her that she doesn’t have to be this way.  She doesn’t have to feel this.  There are solutions that actually deliver.  The problem is that offering the solution sounds like judgement; as though I am agreeing to the assessment that her thighs are indeed thunderous even though I am only in the other change room listening to her hopeless disappointment, never seeing.

But I don’t see people when they find themselves lying awake at night or crying in their car for reasons that are unclear even to them.  And, even if I did, I’d be all hung up on my fear issues about whether people would think I have some bizarre agenda in wanting them to convert to Christianity.  The problem with the term Christianity is that it has come to mean a religion (which is just a prescribed way of going about your business) instead of being changed because you’ve met someone awesome and fallen in love with Him and you don’t want to behave in a way that is an affront to His character because you’d rather be more like Him, than less.

The truth is, for most of my life I couldn’t have explained that to anyone.  I was like a toddler who could speak the words but had no real comprehension of what they actually meant. I once told my mom that I didn’t have to make a mistake firsthand in order to learn.  I could learn by watching someone else.  That statement made such an impression that I began fashioning an identity for myself that was predicated on being wise.   And I wanted to do the right thing--because God was watching and while He talked a good grace game with Jesus, He seemed to have some smiting moments, too. So, I thought the best thing possible was to be right.  It was the ultimate cheat sheet for life, not to mention a hidden opportunity to develop into an excellent modern day Pharisee.

And as a result--though certainly, no one ever taught me this (and I would have disagreed with it if someone had stated it)--I somehow developed this subconscious belief that if I were ‘good’ enough I could sidestep pain.  Emotional, psychological, spiritual--whatever--I didn’t want any.  And sin led to pain, ergo, sin was a dumb idea.   So, obeying God would, ipso facto, mean He wouldn’t let anything bad happen to me because I tried so hard to be right.  And, for a while, my experience confirmed this totally faulty notion. The truth was, it just hadn’t been tested yet.   (I’ve pretty much come to terms with the fact that I am a quintessential late bloomer. The last rose of the summer, that’s me.  Right before the frost.)

This wild rose is too eager to represent me.

What I have learned in the mean time from the various storms of life that have come and gone is that God is a whole lot bigger and cooler than whatever weirdo assumptions I had about Him being up in heaven biting his fingernails about whether or not I was going to take up smoking.  While it seems silly to me now, I remember the huge swell of relief I felt when I realized that God wasn’t going to be disappointed in me if I didn’t want to be a missionary.  Somewhere along the line I developed this notion that if something was good--but I wasn’t at all interested in it--God must want me to do it and just turn my frown upside down.  Clearly, it was His desire for the people He loves to be putting their shoulder to the wheel on tasks that they hate.

Thankfully, mercifully, God got that idea out of my system.  He would have been perfectly justified in being totally offended in that misunderstanding of His character.  But really what He was revealing was that I didn’t know Him very well.  I knew some stuff about Him.  I knew what was on the list of right and wrong.  The things I feared about Him were unjustified and the things I thought I understood about what He does often were as well.  I knew a lot with my intellect but it was sort of like the difference between knowing that Robert Downey Jr. is a funny guy in the movies, versus knowing Robert Downey Jr. well enough not to have to say his three names together.  

Being smart and knowing a lot of stuff about someone is great (or stalkerish--don’t be creepy), but it isn’t enough.  Someone might hear any number of details about me, but that doesn’t mean they know me.  It doesn’t follow that they would have a sense of my character and my emotional engagement.  They wouldn’t know why I make the decisions that I make or what is important to me.  They would have to actually spend time with me and listen to me; they would need to watch what I do and when they didn’t understand, they would have to ask me why I made the decisions that I made in order to begin to understand me as a human being, let alone the One who calls forth each of the billions of stars by name.   Spending time with God is about as ephemeral a concept as anything because it often felt like generating something out of nothing.  But sometimes when I stopped focusing on myself, or the problem for a moment or two, there would be glimpses of something real.  Something transcendent.  Someone.  There would be flashes of realization that I wasn’t just leaving God a voicemail and maybe He might get back to me with a present or something--if I had managed to tread that fine line of acceptability.  

As a result, I realize that my testimony is mostly a story about how God has systematically been shooting down all the false impressions I have had about Him.  I used to read the Bible so that I knew what to do; so that I wouldn’t make any mistakes.  It wasn’t getting to know God’s character.  Prayer was more like a wish list for Santa, but instead of asking for that doll with the dress that changed colour, it was stuff like, “Help this person get better, help that person to stop being such a tool…”.  (Inspirational stuff.  I wonder if God was as bored listening to me, as I was praying it.)   Gradually, the truth has dawned and dazzled me, that the more time I spend with God, the more I trust Him and the less frightening and random the world seems; the less I am concerned with being right.  Suddenly, it is just about being comfortable in His presence and agreeing with Him about what He says about things.  

Maybe humans are just natural pessimists, but we focus on the bad stuff and wonder how a good God can even exist if planes are shot out of the sky and infectious diseases rage and children are violated and murdered.  We don’t see our lives as full of joy and beauty and opportunities to be heroic.  We don’t even stop to wonder at why we even believe those things are inherently wrong.  We don’t even question our conviction that we should experience good things.  Instead, like Stalin, we shake our fist at heaven and declare that nothing good can come from these bad things.  And certainly, from my human point of view, that does appear to be the case.  But God has a different view; a wider lens with which to view the whole panorama of life.  And, if coming Himself to die for our sins doesn’t demonstrate His desire rescue us and heal our hurts--then, really, it’s just another misconception about who He is.

How do I hate thee, Hair Salons? Let me count the ways.

(I published a previous version of this article earlier this week in which I tried to be measured and composed. Turns out, it did not nearly...