Lonely People

 

A few weeks ago, a friend started a blog/website “to encourage young people who are still waiting for their life partner, or people who are just content being single, and the difficulties that entails.” She asked if I’d like to contribute as a person who’s been there and knows what it’s like. Of course, I said yes! I love stuff like that.

I think loneliness is something we all struggle with at some point. Most people I know, whether married or single, feel a sense of loneliness at some time in their lives. You can read what I wrote here, but I think it’s also worth visiting her site because it’s pretty interesting and already full of stories and advice. Click here to go to her website (Letters to Lonely Humans) or keep reading for my letter to the lonely.

Dressed up

I heard someone once say that you can’t expect to find someone to take away your loneliness but may hope to find someone to be lonely with. Here’s my lonely companion 🙂

Lonely Hearts Club

April 17, 2017

Laura McKillip Wood

I got married in my 28th year, which is late for a girl who went to Bible college. I graduated, moved halfway across the world, and lived on my own for four years. When I moved overseas, I came to terms with the idea that I probably wouldn’t ever get married. I didn’t really want to marry someone from another culture. I thought relationships had enough challenges without adding cross-cultural ones to the list, so I thought I had pretty much eliminated my chances of marrying. I really was ok with that. I had a lot of friends and a lot of support, and I decided I didn’t need a husband.

During those years, I sometimes did get lonely. I taught elementary school, so my weeks were full of kids and lesson preparations. On the weekends, though, I had many hours alone. During school breaks, I had more than enough time to long for human companionship. I found ways to fill those needs with good friends and activities, but somewhere lurking in there I still felt a little lonely.

In my fourth year, all of a sudden, an old boyfriend moved to the same country where I lived. Before I knew it, we were engaged! I didn’t realize it then, but looking back I see a part of me believed that after I married him I wouldn’t be lonely anymore. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to go? Find your soul mate! Your life will be full of companionship after you marry him. He will understand everything about you and love it all.

After our wedding, Andrew and I moved to a new city where neither of us knew anyone. Suddenly loneliness hit me like a ton of bricks. Andrew was quiet. Very quiet. Much quieter than I was. Too much interaction overloaded him. I needed other people, but I knew no one in my new place. I think most of the people I knew from before assumed we were in that honeymoon stage where everything is so wonderful that you don’t want anyone outside to bother you.  My mom and grandma told me how relieved they were that now I had someone to be with me so I wouldn’t be alone so far away from home, but I felt more alone then than I ever had before the wedding.

My expectation of someone else filling that lonely place in my heart didn’t hold up, and I felt afraid and even more alone because of it.

I’ve been married nearly 18 years now, and I can say without a doubt that this has been a struggle nearly every one of those 18 years. I have begun to learn to expect less from my husband and to rely more on friends. I have started to learn that his need for solitude is a God-given personality trait that allows him to think deeply and understand things I will never understand. I have tried to learn that his quietness doesn’t mean he doesn’t love me and, in fact, has nothing to do with how he feels about me. I haven’t mastered those things, but I’m working on them.

Most of all, though, I have learned that loneliness is a human condition that is not resolved by other humans. Friends can dull the ache. A spouse can mask the effects. Children can keep you so tired you sometimes forget about it. Deep down inside, though, it’s still there. Loneliness is just part of being human and can remind me that my life isn’t complete here on earth. There’s something missing that other people won’t really ever completely fill.

So for anyone reading this who feels lonely sometimes, I tell you the same thing I try to tell myself: don’t blame your loneliness on your situation. Don’t be angry at the ones you love for not perfectly filling your need for companionship. Let your loneliness point you to God, remind you that you’re never completely whole this side of heaven, and drive you to him for fulfillment. Easier said than done; it’s probably a lifelong project!

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My most adamant loneliness-busters. Look at those cuties!

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Boys and Men

Today I was in a gas station with my 13-year-old son, Alex. I heard an older lady talking to herself while struggling to use the ATM. She couldn’t figure it out and was getting really frustrated and anxious. I hesitated to help because I thought she might feel like I was going to take advantage of her, but then it became more and more apparent that she wasn’t getting it. I asked if she needed help and she said yes, she did, that since her stroke she’s had a hard time understanding things. She was appreciative of my help, very sweet and friendly. 

As we worked on it together, Alex came down the aisle on the other side of her. I saw her look at him and felt her pull back, fearful. I looked at him from her point of view: a tall young man, hovering nearby, trying unsuccessfully to look inconspicuous. Suddenly I realized the inconvenience of being a male in that situation. We talk about women feeling afraid, but what about men, even helpful men, who want to do something nice for an older lady but are seen as threatening? I saw Alex and remembered my little guy who liked to cuddle and hug and play drums on the pots and pans, but she saw Alex as a man taller than she was, sidling up beside her to steal her cash. 

If only she knew that he looked at her slyly from the corner of his eye because he is shy and embarrassed and doesn’t quite know whether to talk to her or not. If only she knew that not long ago he stood in the living room hugging his big sister as she cried about the death of her guinea pig. If only she knew he has shaved fewer times than he can count on one hand and still feels nervous about going to the high school for band practice with the big kids since he is just in middle school himself. 

“Oh, that’s my son. Hey, Alex!” I said, and she visibly relaxed.

I won’t always be there to help the older ladies see him for who he is. I hope he can do that for himself. I don’t think he’ll have a problem. He’s pretty sweet. But I had just told him a moment earlier that if he heard someone struggling like that he had to think through whether to help her or not because she might feel scared that he was trying to hurt her. 

I know that because it’s happened before to his dad. Andrew has a particular appeal to older ladies. I don’t think he’s ever met a woman over the age of 50 who didn’t love him within minutes of meeting him. But once he was in a grocery store where an older woman was having a very hard time with the ATM. He watched, thinking about offering to help, when her friend appeared out of nowhere and started yelling at him. Accusing him of trying to steal the woman’s pin over her shoulder, she wouldn’t listen to reason. She called a security guard over. Finally, they worked it out, but I had to warn Alex of the potential for misunderstanding.  

How sad that we live in a world where a vulnerable person has to be suspicious of a 13-year-old! In a society where a kind man tries to be a gentleman and is punished for it or treated with suspicion, how can we teach our boys to make a difference to those in vulnerable positions? We instruct our children the best that we can, but in a fallen world we must face the fact that even people who are trying to help others can be hurt or can hurt them inadvertently. The man who wants to help a woman, the friend who tries to protect her, the boy watching innocently as his mom assists someone. I’m not sure a lot can be done about this, besides leading our children to care for others and be wise in the way they approach that caring, but I hope a consistently kind and loving, godly presence in society will somehow make a difference. I have to believe it will. 

Context or Heresy?

cross-1314136_640In this tense political season, I struggle to balance my Christian faith with what I see happening in my country. I question how my faith interacts with my culture and when those two things conflict, how to work them out. I know I’m not alone in this struggle.

Contextualization

As a former missionary married to a missions professor, I think a lot about how culture interacts with the gospel. What makes healthy ministry techniques? The concept of contextualization is important in that process. Contextualization of the gospel is what missionaries and pastors all strive to do. It means expressing biblical principles in a way that makes sense to people in the culture. The Bible makes it pretty clear that the good news of Jesus is for every person in every culture, so this is an important endeavor.

Let me give you an example of contextualization. Let’s say you’re in a church in Nebraska, where football is a really big deal. The preacher may include illustrations from football in his sermon. He may talk about the Church being a team with Jesus as the coach or he may talk about how the Holy Spirit brings unity and enthusiasm to our spiritual lives the way that cheering for a particular team brings unity and excitement to the fans. These illustrations help the people in the audience understand the Bible and apply it to their everyday lives by relating biblical principles to something they know about. This is contextualization, and it’s a good thing.

Syncretism

If we’re not careful, we can take contextualization too far and step into heretical teaching. Syncretism is contextualization taken too far. It means that a group binds the cultural expression of the gospel message so closely to the culture that the two parts cannot be separated. A person who wants to become a Christian must also adopt cultural norms in order to be considered part of the faithful. Syncretism is not a good thing because it adds cultural elements to the gospel and makes them necessary for faith in Jesus.

So if we took the example above to the level of syncretism, we’d have a situation where Christians began replacing worship services with tailgate parties in the parking lot, wearing athletic gear to the parties and including team cheers as a part of the worship of God. There’s nothing wrong with  doing those things unless we require that particular dress and activity in order to be a Christian. If someone is unwelcome in the church because he doesn’t wear the football jerseys we require and we say that attendance at a Superbowl party and rooting for a particular team  are essential to the gospel, we are stepping past contextualizing and into syncronizing.

It’s easy to look at the above example and know it’s foolish. We’d never say a person  had to be a football fan to be a Christian. That would exclude many people from the gospel and wouldn’t even make sense since football did not even exist in Jesus’ day.

Nationalism and Christianity

Unfortunately, syncretism has happened in many churches in America. We have intricately bound patriotism with Christianity. It’s now so completely wound together that we sometimes can’t see where one ends and the other begins. This is why we hear people say things like, “America is God’s country,” and, “America is a Christian nation.” (For a good article from the Christian Standard and a quiz to find out if you’re struggling with syncronistic beliefs, click here.)

How did this happen? One history professor who is himself a Baby Boomer and lived through the time immediately following World War II, tells me that after World War II, Christians began hearing stories of how some soldiers had “miraculously” escaped from certain death and about how America led the fight to free people from oppressive leaders. They believed that God used America to bring freedom to the world and to fight evil. Although nationalistic ideas were probably a part of the American church before this, the events during and following WWII fueled the idea that America was a Christian nation, created by God to bring Christianity to the world. Patriotism was necessary to maintain support for the war, and churches began incorporating patriotic themes into their services.

In order to garner support for the war and win elections, politicians targeted the Christian subculture and appealed to this sense of patriotism, further tying it to Christianity. Christians did not know about or overlooked questionable activities that America might have participated in overseas, saying these actions were necessary to keep the peace and prevent another world war and wasn’t that important in keeping a Christian presence in the world?

In the 1960’s people began balking at that because they began seeing news reports with actual footage of the Vietnam war and other American endeavors. They began to see that things the American government did weren’t always virtuous, so they began to rebel and criticize the government. And, of course, many evangelical Christians criticized those who protested and saw protesters as abominations against the Christian nation of America.  Thus began the tension between American culture and Christianity.

The Culture Wars

During the 1980’s, leaders like James Dobson and Jerry Falwell Sr. came into prominence, leading a movement to fight the influence of groups who opposed the American government and this nationalistic form of Christianity. They hoped to do this by fighting what has become known as “culture wars.” I grew up in church and listened to many sermons about the evils of the culture around us, about how we had to take a stand and fight against what we saw going on in America, about how bad rock music or movies were. We were led to believe that we owed it to God to stand up for our faith in a culture that opposed it, that fighting the culture proved our faith.

How many times have I sat in a church service built around 2 Chronicles 7:14 that says, “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land”? How many times have I heard the preacher say, “This is a promise to us, America! We were made to do God’s will in the world. Our country has lost its way and now must do what God says in that verse: as a nation we must repent so that he will heal our land and bless us again”? This teaching is heresy. It takes a passage meant for the Israelite people in the Old Testament and incorrectly applies it to America, a country that did not even exist at the time that promise was made.

So we mixed our cultural belief in America with our faith. Influential leaders in the evangelical movement have moved the focus from Jesus to political issues. Those issues are important, but they take second place to the true gospel.

constitution-1486010_1280If what I believe I should do to further American strength conflicts with what Jesus taught, I am following the American flag and not Him. If I believe that God has ordained the United States as a special country to promote democracy and freedom in the world, I have mixed my patriotism and my faith, and I have decided to follow a heretical teaching using a misunderstanding of the Bible as its basis. If I believe that I have a Christian duty to stand up for the United States as an effort to preserve freedom and the Christian way of life, I am living according to nationalism and not Christianity.

Is it wrong to promote freedom, to vote based on your convictions and desire to preserve freedom or eliminate abortion, for example? No! Of course not! Our freedoms are important to us as Americans, and it is important to protect those. However, when I say that I do so because I am a Christian and Christians must vote the same way, that they must support a certain candidate or cause in the same way that I do, I am participating in the syncretism of nationalism and Christianity. If I say that I want America to be a Christian nation so that only Christians are free to live here, I no longer speak as an American or a Christian. I am no longer promoting religious freedom. I am promoting a nationalistic, heretical form of Christianity that seeks to eliminate other religions that I believe may threaten my freedom.

Why Does It Matter?

Why is this even important to me? I spent a lot of years just telling myself it was no big deal, that the old school Christians may be wasting their time talking like they did about the culture wars, but in the long run the idea would die out when the older generations did. Now I see I was wrong.

Lately, that idea has made a resurgence. We see it happening in our country in the form of a political candidate who has stirred up those feelings of angry nationalism and has used the evangelical church’s obsession with patriotism to garner votes, despite the fact that we can clearly see that he displays none of the characteristics the Bible tells us to look for in a leader. On the other side, we see Christians urging us to vote for his opponent out of fear that if the first does become president he will take down America. Both of these views smack of nationalism, a dependence on policies to protect our freedom of religion, and not the Christian faith. I admit that I also find myself trapped in this thinking at times. It is a very strong temptation for someone who grew up in an environment where this type of teaching was common.

cross-1448946_640A Crossroad

This is about more than the election, though. The church is now at a crossroads. We can follow the flag and claim we’re following Jesus or we can step away from our patriotism, our desire to make America into some sort of force for Jesus in the world, and actually become a real force for Jesus ourselves, the way that he taught the Church to do. We can live the gospel message, removing dependence upon nationalism and eliminating our reliance on a particular political platform as a test of our faith, or we can continue to fight these culture wars that push people away from Jesus.  We do not need a free American “Christian nation” to influence the world for Him. In fact, in both Bible times and modern times we see the Christian faith thriving in places where practice of it is illegal.

Jesus taught his followers to live within their society and to be different from it. The New Testament tells us that the world will know we are Christians by our love, not by the way we promote our causes. Looking at the gospel without clouding it with cultural nationalism, we see that pushing our political agendas as essential to the faith makes about as much sense as incorporating team cheers into our worship services.

Unexpected Ways

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Random church picture

My husband and I both grew up in pretty conservative churches where we sometimes both got the idea that we were required to do certain things to maintain our status as Christians: read the Bible every day, invite people to church, volunteer for or participate in every event the church had to name a few. As an adult, I see the value of these things and I realize that my thinking as a child may have been black and white and not allowed me to fully understand the church’s teaching on these topics. However, I also understand that they’re not essential to my faith. For example, reading the Bible every day can give me guidance and help me know Jesus better, but if I don’t do that I am not somehow condemning myself forever. I may be cheating myself out of a deeper relationship with and understanding of God, but I’m not less valuable to God because of that.

A few months ago, Hannah came home feeling guilty because she hadn’t asked all of her friends to church yet. She’d received instructions in Sunday school that every Christian should ask all of their friends and the people they come into contact with to church if they really cared about them (at least that was what she understood the lesson to mean). I told her that the Bible never tells anyone to ask someone to church. I can’t think of any instances of Jesus telling his followers to invite their friends to the synagogue. Sure, they invited them to him, but they did that because their lives were changed from being with him, and they wanted their friends to experience the same radical love that Jesus had shown them.

This is way more than just a perfunctory invitation to a church service. I told her that we show our friends Jesus by the way we act, the way we love others, the way we care about people who are in difficult situations. We talked for a long time about how our life makes a statement and can draw people in or push them away and how truly caring about a person is more important than inviting them to church. I told her I think that you only have probably one chance in our culture to invite a person to a church event, so you shouldn’t squander it at the very beginning by giving them the idea that you’re only being friends with them to add one more notch to your Bible belt. I also emphasized that when we do care about them this way, we earn the right to talk about things that are important to us, and we have natural opportunities to tell them about our faith.

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My lovely, happy girl, Hannah.

Not long after the Sunday school lesson and our discussion of it, her school let out early. In true junior high fashion, great swarms of students went down the street to our local Runza, a Nebraska fast food favorite. Of course, the place was packed with middle schoolers without parents. She and Alex waited a long time in line. When they finally got their food and sat down, Hannah noticed a group of kids causing a lot of trouble and making a mess of the place. After plenty of complaints, the manager came out and told them to leave. They mocked him and laughed at him, threw ice and food on the floor and tables. When they finally left, they stood outside the window and laughed at him as he cleaned up their mess. Hannah saw it happening and got up to help him. She picked up ice from the floor and wiped down the tables with a rag he gave her. When they finished, he thanked her and gave her two coupons for free meals. (Note: Alex says he didn’t notice any of this happening, and, while that seems hard to believe, knowing the boy’s capacity for living in his own bubble, I believe it!).

Right about the same time, Alex, who had an obsession with Rubik’s cubes, had one at church. That day, a woman we know told him her brother loved Rubik’s cubes when he was younger and had one that was left solved at their mom and dad’s house. Sadly, her brother passed away in a tragic and unexpected accident as a very young man, and her mom kept the Rubik’s cube on a shelf to remember him. Unfortunately, a visiting kid grabbed the Rubik’s cube and messed it up, and her mom felt sad now that the reminder of her son was gone.

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Alex, with a Rubik’s cube, of course.

Our friend from church asked if Alex would mind solving the cube if her mom brought it. He agreed, and a few days later we found ourselves at the store where the woman works, meeting her mother. As Alex started working on the Rubik’s cube, I watched him, 13 years old, just a hair taller than I am, at the very beginning of being a young man. I wondered how that mom felt when she looked at him. Did she remember her boy when he was that age? I wished I had told him to give her a hug when he finished because I thought how nice that would be if I were in her shoes. Within a minute or two, he had solved it and handed it back to her. And lo and behold, with no instruction from me, he hugged her.

Those two events, so close together, they hit me hard. I watched our two oldest children live out their faith right in front of me. They did what they could and used their talents and interests to right injustice and relieve suffering. Even though they didn’t invite anyone to church, offer to stop and pray with someone or quote Bible verses, they showed them what Jesus’ love means in action.

Living our faith can be more difficult and tricky than the traditional instructions for living that Sunday school taught us. Living God’s calling may be less about deciding at church camp to be a missionary and more about committing whatever we do to Christ, looking for ways in our everyday life to right injustice and demonstrate the kingdom of God on earth.

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Gratuitous picture of the third child, who was left out of this blog in every other way. Poor little thing 🙂

Still Here

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“There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.” –Willa Cather

I have a memory of Andrew that surfaces once in a while. It happened before we were married, when we were on a hiatus in our relationship. We had dated and broken up several times, and he had already broken my heart more than once. Still, despite the break ups that seemed to come out of nowhere, I could not escape him. No matter where I went, he eventually turned up. No matter how many times I decided not to love him, I always did again. So this particular memory happened after one of those times I’d decided not to let him back in my heart but to protect myself, to hold back. I had moved to Ukraine, and, of course, I ran into him there.

We started talking again, and I could tell there was still something between us. I went to a worship service at a Christian student fellowship of some sort. I sat near the back of the room, and he sat in the front row. I don’t even think he knew I was there. I saw him standing there. The room was dark, but lights on the stage lit the shadows enough that I could see his silhouette. He raised his arms and sang and praised God in such a pure and sweet way that I just thought, This man is someone I want in my life.

That one memory has stuck with me through some really difficult times. I’ve remembered his sincerity, his dedication. Knowing him better, knowing his struggles, his depression, his uncertainties, I still remember that man who praised God with such depth and innocence. At times when I’ve seen him question himself and his faith, seen him pull back from relationships and withdraw into depression, I’ve thought back to that silhouette and known that man is in there.

Today I went into chapel at the college, a dark room with lights shining on the stage. I scanned the audience, knowing that he usually sits at the back. This time, though, I saw him standing in the front row, praising God with that same stance and that same sincerity, and I instantly remembered that almost-20-years-younger version of him that has lived in my memory. I caught my breath. I know that man. I know the struggles and the pain those years have brought, and I know he stood there praising God with a lot less innocence and a lot more depth than he did the first time I saw him. I know that, despite his bouts with self-doubt and doubt in general and his bent towards depression, he is still here, still persevering.

We’ve struggled a lot in our life together. Some of it’s because of his issues, some because of mine, some because people just do struggle. I look at us and wonder why we can’t just be content. Why do we wallow in self-pity at times or argue or punish each other or whatever it is that we do? One of the students told me they hoped when they got married they’d have a relationship like ours, and my first reaction was to think, Oh my, I hope maybe yours will be smoother and easier. On second thought, though, I think she would be lucky to have a relationship like Andrew’s and mine because we do not give up. We might get to the end of our rope too often, but at least we tie a knot each time and hold on.

If there is one thing I’m proud of so far in my life, it’s that I haven’t given up. I may not have dealt with every situation in a healthy and productive way, but I haven’t thrown in the towel. We are committed , and when we get to the end of our lives we are going to be able to look back and see that it was worth it. We’ll see how the storms made us who we are. We’ll see how waiting out the hard times brought us to good times. We may not be able to point to our relationship as the most lovey dovey one, the most happily-ever-after one, but we’ll be able to say that we had grit, that we held onto what was important, and we’re proud of how far God has taken us.

 

Why the Mosque?

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 8.40.07 AMAfter I published my last post about my experience at the mosque, I heard questions about why we went there and what we were doing. I decided to write a follow-up to that one and address some of the questions people might have had when they read it.

Why did you go to a mosque? Why is Andrew in particular interested in Muslims?

Andrew teaches intercultural studies and world religions courses at the college where we work. He’s been teaching those subjects for sixteen years now and before that worked as a missionary. He has multiple masters degrees in foreign policy, practical ministry and theology and a doctorate of ministry in missiology. He’s studied politics, ministry and missions his entire life. As a professor, he feels like part of responsible teaching involves going to places where other religions gather and learning about them there. Meeting people who practice the religions he teaches about enhances his teaching and provides the students with a more thorough education. He also takes students with him to places like the mosque, Messianic Jewish churches, and churches that practice in ways different from how we do. This helps them feel comfortable connecting with people who are different from them and therefore learn more about them. This approach is not unique to him, it is a routine part of cross-cultural education at Bible Colleges such as Johnson University, Cincinnati Christian University, Hope International University, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Education aside, as Christians we believe it’s important to follow Jesus’ teachings as closely as possible. In the post-911 world in which we live, many Americans see Muslims as enemies. Although Andrew and I do not see them that way, even if we did, how does Jesus instruct us to treat our enemies? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you love your enemies…” (Matthew 5:43-44). Love involves respect. It involves time together. It involves sharing my life with someone. If I say I love my husband but never speak to him and avoid going places where he is, do I love him? How can I love Muslims if I never meet one, never speak to one, and do nothing to understand the way Muslims think and act?

In going to programs at the mosque or inviting friends we meet there over for dinner, we create conditions that foster mutual trust. We show genuine interest in their culture and their ideas. We demonstrate that we care about and value them as human beings and appreciate the good things about them. And we actually do care about them as human beings because Jesus cares about them. If we fear them or fear going to places they believe are important, we create mistrust. They will in turn mistrust us. How does that create an environment open for any kind of meaningful, positive interaction?

Are you trying to convert the Muslims you meet to Christianity?

Andrew and I both believe that all people are in some sort of relationship with God. Some people are close to him, pursuing him full-speed ahead. Some people have turned their backs on him and refused him. Most people are somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. My goal as a Christian should be to somehow nudge people a little bit toward Jesus. Some people will jump straight into his arms, and some people may just slightly turn their faces toward him. In everything we do, we want to point people toward Jesus. Doing small things like attending a service at a mosque a couple of times a year may not make a huge difference, but it’s a little like sending $30 to a ministry that helps stop sex trafficking. It’s promoting something worthwhile in the world, even if it is a small thing that doesn’t by itself fix the problem.

Will attending a prayer service at another place of worship make you question your own faith?

I can only speak from my own experience when I say that going to another place of worship does make me question my own faith. It makes me ask what parts of my beliefs are really essential and what things are only cultural. It makes me question how I live my faith on a daily basis and whether I’m really expressing it well. Seeing how others worship makes me look at my own worship with fresh eyes. Why do I do what I do? How do other people understand that? Do the things I say and do actually communicate what God wants me to communicate?

I think questioning the things I believe is healthy. Thinking through what I believe leads to stronger faith. We see this happen in other parts of our lives. If we never use our muscles, they weaken and cease to function properly, but if we use them daily, challenge them even, they grow stronger and more efficient.

What about posting about it on Facebook? Even if your faith is strong, won’t that influence people whose faith isn’t as strong?

I hope so. I hope hearing about our experiences challenges people to start thinking about their beliefs and about the things they believe about people who are different from them. I hope it prompts them to step out of their comfort zones in order to reach out to another person and make a connection with him or her just as one human being to another.

Aren’t Muslims dangerous? Doesn’t the Qu’ran, their holy book, say things like, “Death to the infidels” and instructs them to kill everyone who isn’t Muslim?

This is an excellent question! The speaker at the lecture we attended at the mosque actually addressed this very question on Saturday. One of the teenagers in the audience said that people in his school say he’s a terrorist because all Muslims are terrorists and want to kill all non-Muslim people. He pointed out a verse in the Qu’ran that said Mohammed instructed people to do so. The speaker said that if you read that verse in context it happened during a war time, and it referred to people protecting their families and fighting for their freedom. It happened centuries ago, and, according to him, is something mainline Islam does not teach today.

I try to remember that there are different sects of Islam, just as there are different sects of Christianity. I would not want anyone to assume that all Christians are like the members of a church like the Westboro Baptist Church. I am most definitely not like them, and I never want to be seen like that. Some Muslims are radical, but most, like the ones we interact with, are regular people. They just want to live their lives and practice their faith and are much less aggressive about converting people than most churches try to persuade their members to be. Many of the immigrants who come from Muslim countries have been persecuted by the very extreme radical groups we ourselves fear.

At the lecture we attended last weekend, the man spent about 45 minutes telling the children in the audience how to react when someone bullies them for their faith, their skin color, their accent, etc. He told how he was bullied as a child and how he told the principal, who gave him the choice to ask the bullies to be punished or to forgive them. He chose forgiveness and from then on the children who had bullied him were friendly to him because they saw forgiveness in action. He urged the children in the audience to do the same, to be good examples and good students and to show others how to live peaceful lives. Many people would be surprised to know this is the message being taught in the mosque.

Good Missionary Methodology in Practice

What we hope to do by visiting a mosque a few times a year and going to the places where other religions practice, by making friends with people of other faiths and other denominations is good missionary methodology. It’s putting our faith into action by actually attempting to live out the principles we have learned in Sunday school since infancy–principles like loving our neighbor as ourselves and thinking of others above ourselves, working to build relationships with people who are discriminated against by society and standing up for those in positions of less power. These are principles that Jesus taught us. He urged his followers to be involved in people’s lives and not to rest in the safety and security of their comfortable and familiar cultures but to go out of their way to show him to those who may never see him otherwise. This is what missionaries do on a regular basis. In our current situation in America, we have the chance to do that without even leaving our own towns.

I appreciate that people asked questions about our mosque experience. I hope seeing what I wrote encourages them to reach out to a coworker or acquaintance who’s different and find ways that they are similar.

At the Mosque

One of the benefits of marrying a missions professor is spending some of my days off going to cultural events and different places of worship. In other words, putting myself in situations that might be less-than-comfortable for me. I grew up with a passion for missions and spent the first five years of my adulthood overseas. Despite that, I feel reluctant to go to Chinese New Year’s celebrations or churches where everyone speaks a different language. According to personality tests, I’ve supposedly shed my previous introversion and become an extrovert over the years, but somehow the idea of stepping into a situation where I’m clearly not part of The In Crowd makes me uneasy.

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Islamic Center of Omaha

So yesterday morning when Andrew asked me if I’d like to go to the mosque for a lecture on Islamophobia in schools and colleges, I can’t say I felt joy in my heart. However, I like it when he expresses interest in the things that interest me. If I want him to put forth effort to participate in my things, I should participate in his, right? Plus, I admire his passion for creating relationships between Christians and Muslims. I can’t stand that a loud element in our society seems to have taken a turn for the medieval in rejecting out of hand anyone who differs from them. So I agreed to go.

When I lived in Ukraine, I could walk down the street and pick out Americans. Even when they managed to curb their talking and laughing in public, which was rare since we are a boisterous bunch, they often wore things they thought made them look Ukrainian but really served more as a big red flag identifying them as foreigners. More often than not, they picked up a big, furry hat with earflaps and donned that thing, thinking they looked Russian or Ukrainian when actually they looked ridiculous.

That’s how I felt when I wrapped a scarf around my head to go into the mosque yesterday. Muslim women look beautiful wearing a hijab. I felt like a matryoshka doll in my ill-fitted scarf. I felt sure I’d stand out and knew they’d take one look at me and think hmmm… that poor woman needs help putting on that scarf. Which they probably did.

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Don’t deny it. You wouldn’t be surprised if you found little scarf-clad mini me’s running around; I look like like a Russian nesting doll!

We ended up being only the second ones there. A woman waited with her children in the foyer, and she took me on a little tour. She showed me the bathroom where the women perform ceremonial washing before prayers. She took me into the room where the women stay during the prayer service. She was friendly and nice, just as I would be to a newcomer to my church. When she dropped me off back with my husband, we went on into the main hall, where women can go when it’s not an official prayer service.

Stepping out of my comfort zone and into something different pointed out some things about myself that I think I’ve denied for a long time. I’ve been to a mosque several times before, so I’m not sure why this one was different. Maybe I am just ready to think about those things now. Whatever the case, here’s what I learned.

I have a big hang up with gender inequality. That’s not news. This is something that has been coming up regularly in my life in the last few years. Andrew has acquaintances at the mosque since he’s made an effort to get to know them. When he introduced us, I noticed the lack of eye contact with me. Since I am a woman, Muslim men don’t make eye contact, shake hands, or speak much to me. They indicated that I should sit at the back of the room. As children filtered into the program and took their seats, the girls sat in the rows around me. Boys sat in the front. Later I asked my youngest daughter how she’d feel if she and the other girls had to sit in the back and the boys in the front of the classroom, and she said, “I’d feel like I wasn’t important.”

When Andrew and I discussed it on the way home, he said that they avoid eye contact because speaking much to me or looking at me would be considered flirtatious and would be disrespectful to me and to him as my husband. The woman who showed me the women’s area explained, “This is the area where women sit. It’s much more comfortable this way because we can sit however we want and not worry about what the men think.” To them, this is respectful.  To me, it feels disrespectful. That’s just one example of how people from different cultures can misunderstand one another’s good intentions.

Watching how the speaker presented his material and how the audience responded, I realized how people outside the church see Christians. Hearing his explanations for why Muslim women wear a hijab or why muslim men grow beards, I couldn’t help but think that’s how non-Christian people see Christians when they try to explain how to dress modestly or how to ask someone to church. It was so similar, a fact that leads me to my next point.

While we do have many differences in our beliefs and religions, we have a lot of similarities. He spoke about Mohammed and stories from the Qu’ran that I’ve never heard (since I have spent no time at all studying Islam), but he also talked about Abraham and Moses, David and Jesus. He urged the children to be good students and to be kind and helpful to the teachers and other students at school. He talked about living a life devoted to God, respecting our elders, caring for those who experience social injustices or poverty. All of these things are things we have in common.

Most of all what stood out to me is a sense of intense shame that these children had to learn how to deal with people in their schools who treat them badly because of their religion or the color of their skin or their accents. No children should ever have to learn how to deal with people bullying them for those things. That lecture should have been irrelevant, but when the speaker asked for examples of times the children in the audience have been mistreated or shamed because of their faith, many of them raised their hands and shared their experiences of others teasing them for their religion or saying violent things about Muslims. This isn’t something one weird kid has lived through. This is a regular occurrence for some of them.

As a parent, this appalls me. When have my innocent children ever had to sit in a class teaching them what to do when they’re persecuted for their faith? Never. And add to that shame the fact that many of the people who perpetrate these bullying acts do so in the name of Christ. This is something that makes my discomfort over wearing a head covering or sitting in the back row seem petty and irrelevant.

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The Islamic Center after a vandal sprayed graffiti on the wall last fall after the bombing in Paris. For more info on this, click here.

When I stepped outside after this experience, I pulled the scarf off my head and headed to the car. The spring air felt cool and fresh. I looked forward to getting home and getting into my normal Saturday routine. I couldn’t help but think about how I could slide that scarf off my head and slip right back into being one of the crowd, but the kids in that audience, the woman I spoke with, the man presenting the lecture cannot do that. They stand out no matter what because of the color of their skin, their accents, their clothing. They don’t have the luxury of fading into the background. They must learn to live with the feeling of otherness.

I’m glad I went. I’m glad I was uncomfortable. I wish we could all feel uncomfortable once in a while on a Saturday morning so we could develop compassion for those who live their lives in that tension.

Broken Arms and Changed Plans

FullSizeRenderYesterday I complained before leaving work because I had to take my youngest to open gym at the gymnastics place last night and would have to sit there for an hour and a half waiting on her to do her thing. Later that evening during open gym, my girl asked me to come in the gym and play with her. Apparently other parents were in there showing me up, so I dropped my book and went in to watch her balance on the balance beam and practice her moves (and she was super cute and surprisingly athletic, if I can brag on her for a minute). While I watched and “helped” her, I snuck a few texts to a friend, commenting on how much lessons cost and how could we ever afford this? And I dreamed about what I’d do after all of the kids went to bed and the evening stretched out before me, free and open for Netflix or knitting or writing or whatever.

Open gym was almost over, a fact I knew because I kept a watchful eye on the clock on the wall, when she lugged out a springboard thingy. Running down the lane leading to it, she jumped on it and sailed a few feet into the air in an attempt to do a cartwheel. She is actually pretty good at gymnastics and cartwheels, so I didn’t expect what happened next. She landed wonky on her arm, and I knew the night wasn’t going to end for a loong time.

I ran over to her, all thoughts of time and clocks and what I’d do that night after she went to sleep already vanishing. All I could see was that arm hitting the ground. I had flashbacks of another time I watched that little arm, a lot smaller that time, as she jumped from playground equipment at the age of four and landed on it the same way. That time she broke it, and I believed she had this time too. She looked up at me stunned and said, “It got black and I saw stars for a second.” And it hurt a lot.

My little girl’s pretty brave, but by the time she got to the car she was crying, and I headed toward the emergency room. She held up well. She put ice on it. She looked at the aquarium in the waiting room and exclaimed about how much it looked like Finding Nemo, which it did. In triage, the nurse asked her how much it hurt on a scale of one to ten with ten being “I just got hit by a semi truck.” She said seven. I was surprised. She didn’t seem to be at seven pain level, but maybe she hid it well. She asked about shots. Would she have to get a shot? The nurse said, “You won’t have to get a shot unless you need surgery, and then they’ll give you an IV.” All fear of shots left her as she looked at me in panic and said, “I might have to have surgery?!”

A couple of hours and some x-rays later, and it turned out to be a pretty bad sprain. No IMG_0969surgery. No shots or IVs, a fact that relieved her greatly. She did get a splint and instructions to follow up with an orthopedist in five days just in case they missed a break. Today she proudly showed her arm to her brother and sister and explained what happened. They were in bed at the time and didn’t know we even went to the ER. She secretly told me that even though surgery would have been horrible, it would have been a good way to get some extra attention. My response: “Girl, if you need attention, I’ll take you out to ice cream! You don’t have to get surgery!”

As I lay down in bed last night at 1:00 am, I realized I’d done none of the things I’d planned. I’d had no free time. I’d watched no Netflix and knitted no scarves. I thought of how fast things had changed. In that one 30-second time span, I stopped caring about how much I accomplished and whether I had any time alone. All thoughts focused on my daughter, with a few stray thoughts thinking how much will this cost? (I know, I know, I’m materialistic and petty.) But as I drifted off to sleep, I also thanked God that it was only a sprain. Not a break. As Emma said, “I could have landed on my head!” How quickly things can change. Thank God it was only a small change!

Old Year Resolved

new-years.jpgI don’t like New Year’s resolutions. I think the only one I really remember keeping was the one I made when I was fourteen. I grew up in an environment that gave me the impression that all music that wasn’t specifically Christian music was wrong (You can imagine how George Michael’s I Want Your Sex song went over). My parents didn’t really teach me this, but it was a general impression among my Christian peers and the church. So at fourteen, I guess I thought I listened to too much straight-from-the-devil music on the car radio and resolved to change the station to the local Christian station and not move it from there the whole year. I kept that one, but only technically. I sometimes cheated by asking another family member to change it for me.

That’s the problem with New Year’s resolutions. They’re rules, and nobody likes rules, even when they made them up for themselves. At some point, we want to break the rules and find ways around those, and we either make up some good excuses for dropping the rules or we find ways to get around them.

New Year’s Theme

About two years ago, we decided we’d have a family theme for the year. Not a resolution but more of a motto to focus on. At the end of the year, I asked the kids how we’d done and what they wanted to choose for their new theme. You know what they said? “Theme? What theme? I’ve never heard of this theme idea before.” They responded thus despite the fact that they heard me cry out “KINDNESS!!! Remember the kindness!” repeatedly throughout the year. My goodness, they should have been hearing that theme in their dreams!

New Year’s Celebration

Another thing I’ve noticed about New Year’s resolutions is that they tend to focus on the things we’re doing wrong. “We’re not kind enough in this family. This year, we’re going to be kind!” Well, who wants a constant reminder of how they’ve failed or how they are failing every day?

So this year, I will continue my practice of no resolutions and instead just look back at the year and celebrate things we did well. I spend enough time beating myself up over being too fat or too lazy or spending too much time on social media or whatever. I do actually do some things right. Why not focus on those and keep them up? How about focusing more on how to increase those things in my life because I’m already doing them. How hard can it be to do just a little more of them?

Old Year Resolved

So this year, I’m thinking back about some things my family and I did well. And since it’s my blog, I’m going to brag a bit on them:

  • Time Together  I admit it. I lament the amount of time we devoted to technology this year. However, when I look back, I see that we also spent a lot of time together. We watched movies. We found out we all liked watching Agents of Shield (some of us more than others) and watched plenty of that. We did crafts, sometimes together and sometimes just in the same room. We devoted at least twenty minutes just about every evening to a technology-free, interruption-free dinner, and we had fun while we sat around the table talking about how school was or who made what in Minecraft.

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    Family and friends being kind to each other. My mom was mobbed by the children. Even one of the small group kids got in on the fun, which made it even sweeter!

  • Time with Friends I think we’re great at having family friends. This hasn’t always been something we’ve done well. In fact, for a lot of years we struggled with this, but now that the kids are older we have a lot of fun with our small group and with some of the students, all of whom have become more like family than friends to us.
  • Kindness  I know my kids don’t remember the theme, but I think it made a difference anyway. They still bicker sometimes, but I’ve seen them do some very kind things for one another. Now that I’m looking for it more, I see it more. I see them hug each other good night sometimes. I’ve heard them say “I love you” to each other before bed. Unprovoked. Yesterday Hannah couldn’t open one of her Christmas gifts, and before I could do anything she turned to Alex, who opened it without comment. Andrew and I haven’t always been the best examples of kindness, but this year I think we’ve made a concentrated effort on being kinder to one another. Maybe that trickles down to them. Whatever the case, I’m happy with it!

So here’s to a year of doing more of the good stuff, enjoying one another more, noticing and appreciating what we’re doing well! Happy 2016!

 

Witches and Salem and Halloween

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I wish I’d bought this t shirt!

If anyone has reason to remember Halloween, Salem, Massachusetts does. The approximate site of the famous Salem Witch Trials, which took place over 200 years ago in 1692-93, Salem has capitalized on its reputation as a center of the supernatural. People from all over the world converge on this small town during Haunted Happenings to dress up in costumes and parade through narrow streets lined with old buildings renovated to hold shops and restaurants.

In a way, I can’t believe I was there just a couple of weekends ago. Until a few weeks before, I had no idea the place even did this. Visiting the town famous for witchcraft wasn’t really on my bucket list. Halloween hasn’t ever been my favorite holiday. In fact, helping three kids plan and don costumes and carve pumpkins tires me out, and walking around in the cold and sometimes in the rain at night with three small children and without warm attire that might cover up their beloved costumes worries me.

To Celebrate or Not to Celebrate?

Andrew eating clam chowder from a booth run by three older ladies who danced to the music as they served our soup.

Andrew eating clam chowder from a booth run by three older ladies who danced to the music as they served our soup.

Early on, though, Andrew and I decided to go ahead and celebrate the holiday, despite the fact that some Christians reject it because they fear its historic association with evil. We noticed when we moved to our first house that our neighbors, who almost never saw one another throughout the year, came out in droves at Halloween. They sat in chairs at the end of their driveways passing out candy to trick-or-treaters and visited one another, talking and laughing together. We decided that hiding in the house with the lights off would only alienate us from the people we were trying to build a sense of community with, so we dressed up the babies and took them out in the cold.

That being said, we never considered driving across the country to celebrate the day before. However, Andrew is working on a book about ministry to people who practice pagan religions like witchcraft, and he heard of an outreach that some believers have to the witch community in Salem. It takes place around Halloween, at the festival there. He wanted to see it firsthand, and since we’d be “close” for ICOM (if a ten hour drive counts as “close”!), he wanted to go. We left the kids at the grandparents’ in Virginia and made the longer-than-we-thought drive through New England.

Fearing the Unknown

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The lines for these touristy things were long. Everybody wants to take a ghost tour on Halloween.

Even before we went to Salem, when we told people we were planning on going, we got a variety of reactions from our Christian friends. I think there’s a pervasive idea that inherent evil surrounds Halloween in general and the practice of witchcraft or any kind of pagan religion in particular. Many Christians think that believers should stay away from pagan religions or risk being somehow influenced by evil in ways that they don’t realize until it’s “too late.” It’s as if people think that just because they interact with someone who practices witchcraft or another pagan religion they will be possessed, haunted or pursued by demons.

The more I’ve learned about different religious practices, the less I fear them. There are a couple of reasons going to a place like Salem doesn’t bother me. In fact, I feel that it’s pretty important.

1) People confuse today’s witchcraft practices with what is actually superstition. They read about the Salem Witch Trials and to some extent believe the things the community in Salem believed about the women accused of witchcraft—that they had a special communion with the devil, that they held evil power over the people in the community. If we study the Salem incidents, we find that those were superstitious, bored people participating in mass hysteria. Their belief that the women accused of witchcraft had some communication with the devil or demons actually stemmed more from superstitious beliefs about evil than biblical teaching about it.

2) Even if I did think there was inherent evil in today’s practice of witchcraft, I believe the Bible. Throughout it I see that God has more power than any evil spirits. The New Testament is filled with stories of Jesus and his disciples taking control of evil spirits, and they don’t seem intimidated in the least by them.

3) I’m not afraid of other religions somehow corrupting my faith. I don’t mind hosting a Muslim for dinner or talking to Hindus. Witchcraft is another religion, and I don’t feel more threatened by that than other world religions. I know what I believe, and I don’t have to change that because I’m with a person who doesn’t believe the same as I do.

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In front of a shop full of witchy stuff. If you look very closely, you can see Andrew in his blue hoodie inside the shop talking to the owner, a self-described shaman who responded enthusiastically to Andrew’s request for information about his beliefs.

4) Signs and symbols and the interpretation of natural events are things Christians see as part of Witchcraft. They shy away with fear that learning what they mean to other people will somehow give them power in their own lives. However, those things only mean what we let them mean to us. For example, when we lived in Ukraine people told me over and over not to sit on concrete. They said the cool concrete would give me a “cold” that I didn’t even know I had until years later when I couldn’t conceive a child. Then I’d know I probably had sat on concrete once and gotten that mysterious cold in my reproductive organs and, well, I had to pay the consequences. I told them if that’s the case I’m surprised the US is populated at all since everyone sits on the concrete! My friend, a highly educated young woman, told me once, “I know it’s not true, that it’s just an old wives’ tale, but I still just can’t do it. It’s still in the back of my head.” The old fiction meant something to her because she gave that meaning to it. She gave it power over her thinking and her actions.

5) If believers don’t reach out to people of other faiths, even witches, who will? This should probably be #1 in the list. Are we just waiting for them to come to us for some reason. Put a church on the corner and surely witches will want to go there? I don’t see that happening.

What We Saw

Most of what we saw there was people. A lot of people.

Most of what we saw there was people. A lot of people. In fact, this picture doesn’t show well how big the crowds were.

When we finally found a parking space in the small town of Salem, which was flooded with more people than it was ever meant to hold, and made our way to the middle of the town, we saw a huge crowd of people, many dressed in anything from Harry Potter to Frankenstein and lighted jellyfish. Music and laughter filled the air. People stopped for selfies with scary zombies and ducked into souvenir shops full of witch-themed memorabilia. Tourists lined up to take tours of the important historical spots in town and museums dedicated to the history of the area and the witch trials.

Andrew was hunting the pastor he’d corresponded with who leads an outreach to witches during the festival. We didn’t know what to expect and only had a basic idea of what they do, but he wanted to see their outreach firsthand. We never managed to meet up with that pastor, but we did meet people working with him. One of them had a tent with signs advertising free spiritual readings, free hugs and dream interpretation. This ministry rents space around a small square in the heart of the festival. A great band singing pop music played at one end, and people sat around the square eating or talking.

Andrew started a conversation with one guy standing in front of the tent. He led us into the tent to a woman who sat in the corner. Andrew introduced himself and said he was doing research on outreach to the Wiccan community. The woman, Kelly, was friendly and open. She offered to interpret a dream for him. Now this is where I know I’m losing you because in our branch of the Church there’s not a lot of dream interpreting going on. Most people I know don’t put much stock in it or in God communicating with us through dreams. Hang in here with me, though, and give it a chance!

A Dream’s Meaning

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The tent we visited.

What Kelly did was no different from what I’d do if someone came to me for advice or asked me why I thought they dreamed something. While I don’t know if I really believe God usually talks to me through dreams, I believe that our dreams can tell us something about ourselves and can lead us to seek God in certain areas of our lives. So it makes sense that someone intuitive who listens to God and seeks him in her own life could ask the right questions to help a person understand why he’s dreaming what he’s dreaming.

Kelly did just that. She asked Andrew to describe a dream. She told him what she thought it meant. She asked how God could use his dreams to show him areas he wanted Andrew to turn over to him.

That’s pretty straightforward, I think, but she did something else with it that neither Andrew nor I had thought about. She said that sometimes the things we worry about, when turned over to God, become strengths to us. The things he worries about and sometimes dreams about could become areas where God could use him more powerfully. That makes perfect sense when you think about it.

Since Andrew told her about the research he’s doing, he asked some questions about her work. She told us a little about the outreach she’s involved with, how it aims to connect with people at the festival by meeting them on their own turf and communicating in ways they could connect with. Obviously, dream interpretation appeals to the people there. Her kind demeanor, her care for the people who come into her tent attract people who are in need of that acceptance. She spoke to me as well, and I felt so drawn to her that I could completely see how effective she is in her ministry. I left that tent feeling positive and with a renewed sense that people are doing some great things for Jesus in the world.

It is possible to minister to people very different from us. I think God prepares each of us through our life experiences, our personalities, our giftedness and even our family histories to do what it takes to reach out and share Jesus with those who need him. We don’t need to fear contamination by the world but can step boldly forward into the work set in front of us!