Church, Faith, Ministry

One year later

I’ve been dreading writing this post, but strangely enough it hasn’t occurred to me not to write it. I guess I have a few things to say even if they’re going to be hella tough to say. So here we are. One year later.

A year ago I received the soul crushing news that my application for ministry was being delayed by a year. I received very little feedback other than vague assurances that it was for my own good – reassurances I honestly had no reason to believe, given how toxic the church environment was. After a lot of soul searching I made the decision to withdraw my application altogether. In the months following, there were a few false starts, a few glimmers of hope – that turned into nothing. I was left each time standing with the dust and ashes of my calling, powerless against the egotism of the church.

I have suspicions about why what happened happened. The pastor involved left their post at the end of 2018, upending plans they’d had to stay at the congregation for at least five years. Everything else is just speculation, and honestly I’m tired of speculating about the whys. Not being deemed good enough by the presbytery you’d been a part of for two years to do what you feel called to do? Not a great feeling. But that’s not the worst part.

The worst part is that for a long time, I agreed with their assessment. I agreed that I must not be good enough and that God must not like me, and that if only I’d tried harder and been an entirely different person, things would have worked out.

(On bad days, a small part of me still believes this, and maybe always will.)

Unsurprisingly, my relationship with God suffered. My first response was a sort of grim denial. I wasn’t going to let this horrible thing crush my relationship with God – no sir. I worked very hard at bottling my grief, despair and anger at God and at the church. I tried to continue on as I normally did. I tried to believe the way I normally did. But these were not normal circumstances, so little surprise that I failed spectacularly.

It’s difficult to describe how rudderless my life became when I finally had to let go of the pretense that everything was just fine, thanks. How do you process feeling that God himself has betrayed you? How do you process the apathy and self-interest that drives so many church communities? How do you reconcile these feelings to praise-God-Hallelujah?

I’m sure some intrepid Christian could interject here with platitudes about how you need to praise God in the hallway of life. I know because until quite recently I was that intrepid Christian. I know how awful and afraid and uncertain we really are, and I completely understand why we feel the need to rub our pseudo-certainty in other people’s faces, all the while telling ourselves we’re doing it from a place of love or obedience when really we’re doing it because we’re afraid someone else’s doubting and questioning may have a point.

Let me tell you friends: I didn’t praise God in the hallway. I tried. I tried to fall back on the coping mechanisms Christian religion teaches its adherents when things are tough and when there isn’t really space for tough conversations or feelings within the system of belief. Mostly this involves using Scripture and religiosity like a tacky gloss over the scratched and scuffed-up surface of our lives – which never works. It doesn’t work because real faith is rarely about covering up and concealing. Real faith is more readily abrasive. In tandem with the Holy Spirit, it scours at denial, hypocrisy, sin, apathy and anger. As I’m discovering, real faith is a messy, messy thing.

Finally, truly defeated, I let go. I let go of trying to keep the faith. I let go of trying to prove to invisible critics that I am worthy, called, and beloved by God. I let go of trying to be anyone else than wholly, imperfectly, waspishly myself. And in my free fall, I’ve fallen straight into the vastness of God and her love, mercy and grace; like a pebble into the ocean.

Those who seek to keep their lives, right?

Right.

So here I am. Unbelievably, a year has passed. It’s been – and in some ways continues to be – the hardest time of my life. I have no idea what I’m doing. I have no idea what I’m going to do. I have no idea how what’s happened will impact my calling. I just…don’t know. It drives me crazy. I stress. I lapse. I try again. And each time I find myself afloat in God.

For me, 2018 has freed God from the confines myself and religion tried to put God in. I’m discovering each day how much room there is in God and God’s grace. It’s just…endless. Truly.

When I was part of a church, we seemed to focus on the second part a lot – the second part of the “formula” I mean. The formula ran something like: (God’s love for us) + (our obedience to God) = Faithful life. It makes sense that churches would zero in on the second part: apparent success in this arena is what keeps the church in business after all (I use the term “business” here impishly). What I’m discovering out here in the wilderness is that it’s never about more than the first part of that formula, because there is no formula. There’s just God’s love. It’s the wellspring of everything; it’s even the wellspring of me.

One year and much pain, grief, anger, resentment and doubt later – here I am. I have nothing to show for it, but I also have everything to show for it. Funny how that works.

I haven’t been to church in a year. Early on I tried to watch an online service of a nearby megachurch and I physically couldn’t. It was the worship leader’s “praying voice” that did me in – you know the one. “Oh Lord, we come to you today. Oh Lord, we’re trying our best to appear humble and humbled, and we put our hand in the air because how else will other people see the Holy Spirit working in us?” And so on. It’s not the worship leader’s fault. I’m sure they were trying their best because I’m sure I tried my best.

I read a fascinating post yesterday about the Hebrew verb “radaph”, usually translated as “follow” in Psalm 23:6: “Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” Apparently “follow” is too mild a term: the better one would be “pursue…chase…put to flight…seek….[or to] press on (for a purpose)”.

If I had to summarise this last year, this Hebrew verb would be the one I choose. Radaph. I’ve been out here in the sticks getting myself chased around by God. If things had worked out the way I’d wanted them to, I might never have ventured outside, and I might never have discovered that God’s house is outside…

Who knows, right?

Right.

Love,
Lee

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Books, Church, Faith, Spiritual abuse, Women's issues

Being fat is not a sin

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This morning I ran across this article on Instagram: Everything you know about obesity is wrong, by Michael Hobbes and his team. Hobbes makes a startling point: that the blame for fatness – and it is very much blame – is still laid at the feet of the wrong things, like willpower and self-control, rather than increasingly unhealthy food systems and proven research that for most people, weight loss diets just don’t work.

It’s a fascinating article, and I encourage you to read it in full. Hobbes writes about the  culture of fat shaming in our society and touches on how many larger people have internalised this fat shaming, leaving most of us feeling lonely and dejected.

I want to add something to this discussion from a religious – specifically a Christian – standpoint. It’s pretty much encapsulated in the title of this post: being fat is not a sin.

Now, I’m sure if you asked most people, they’d say that no, they don’t think being fat is a sin. But is that how they act? From my own experiences in and around churches and Christians, the answer to that is “no”. A resounding no, even. At best, being fat is disapproved of – quietly and behind your back (although never so much behind your back that you could remain blissfully unaware of it). At worst, it’s seen as a slippery slope, because if you can’t muster self-control over your eating habits, it must follow that for you, it’s open season on other sins.

This attitude was brought painfully home in a book my Bible Study group started a few weeks ago (we stopped when I told them the book made me uncomfortable). In Priscilla Shirer’s A Jewel in His Crown (Moody Publishing), she writes the following:

Weight is a big problem, and many women are plagued by it. However, the Lord is showing me, slowly but surely, that my weight worries are really not only a physical problem. At least part of the problem is spiritual. My struggle with weight has taught me two very important things about my relationship with the Lord.

First, a continued struggle with weight, if it is not the result of some medical condition, is a direct sign that we have not submitted ourselves completely to the Lord. A woman who struggles continually with weight due to lack of self-control eating will also struggle with other self-control issues, such as immorality and anger. It’s not about our weight. It is about not allowing the Lord to be the Lord of our body.

For this reason, our bodies can become a very negative reflection of the power of God to do magnificent things in the lives of His daughters. How can we minister to drug addicts and tell them to be rid of the disease of drugs when we cannot rid ourselves of our addiction to food? It is so important for us to allow God to gain control of us in this area, and we can only begin this process by praying. We must ask God to forgive us our arrogance in assuming that he can’t handle our weight.

In her next point, she talks about how weight is tied to low self-esteem, and how we can’t have faithful sisters believing the lie of low self-esteem. But again, the blame – and it’s very much blame, with an added dose of self-righteousness – is laid at the feet of these fat women, and not the culture body shaming them into low self-esteem in the first place!

In essence, Shirer’s brand of Christianity (and she’s far from alone; see, for example, how popular Saddleback Church’s “Daniel diet” is) has adopted the body shaming culture around it – a culture steeped in capitalism, exploitation, superficiality, fads and discrimination – and justifies it by falling back on an attitude of quasi-asceticism that applies only to body weight and not, for instance, fair and just use of money, to name the most obvious shortcoming of this particular hive-mind. To Shirer and her ilk, fatness is a symptom of a deeper malaise of sinfulness. What she doesn’t say, but which is nevertheless heavily implied, is that it’s because it’s such a visible sin that it’s a problem.

I fear, at the heart of her writing is the very simple belief that fat equals ugly, and that ugly is bad for the church’s image.


I have a bit of a history with the concept of “visible sin”.

A church I attended, notable for its yearly Daniel fast, had an obsession with what I term “visible sin”.

To this church’s way of thinking, visible sins were things like drinking, smoking, foul language and living together before marriage. The church policed people’s Facebook accounts and shamed them from the pulpit for their “visible sins”. But by all accounts, invisible sins – asking for disproportionate amounts of money for ego projects, for instance, or being deeply controlling, judgmental, and narcissistic, or even adultery, domestic violence, pedophilia and misogyny, were smoothed over. The facade was what mattered.

If you’re someone who equates fatness with sinfulness, then yes, fat people must make you uncomfortable. Fat people and other visible “flaws” (flaws in this way of thinking) inevitably end up taking the congregational or societal flack so that people don’t have to confront the darker, deeper, invisible sins people can’t see (read: judge) in passing. The truly troubling spheres of behaviour.

I think, in their heart of hearts, the people who think fatness = sinfulness and belabor the idea that what matters in weight loss is strength of will (and therefore, strength of character), do so because it makes them feel better about their own perceived strength of will. At the end of the day, no matter what else is going on in their lives, no matter how deeply they sin, at least they’re not fat, right?


“It feels like the worst kind of weakness,” says one of Hobbes’ interviewees. In Christian culture, that weakness – the idea that you’re just not trying hard enough, that you’re being greedy or selfish or entitled or lazy – is made out to be a moral failing.

Although fat shaming has been a constant throughout my time in church, before this article, I’d never thought to connect it to my present alienation from institutional religion.

Has my fatness become the metaphor for all the things “wrong” with me, in a Christian sense? Has my fatness been connected to my character, to my character’s disparagement?

Have I been found fat, and wanting?


I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that if being fat is a sin, then being fat and female is even more so.

Fat shaming has a uniquely misogynistic element to it that goes all the way to its roots.

Culturally, fat shaming is shaming someone for the “crime” of being fat. All things being equal, fatness is only a crime because our current society equates fatness with unattractiveness, and what’s attractive or not is primarily defined and determined by men. One could therefore argue that fat shaming is shaming someone for being visible in an unapproved-of-by-men way.

Now, add to this already ugly cocktail the institutionalised misogyny of your average church.

In terms of Christian culture, if fatness equals sin, then fat shaming is merely sin correction; and if the offending fatty is female, then fat shaming her attains a gendered prerogative to also subdue her. Being fat, female and Christian in a mainstream, conservative church must therefore equal being in rebellion.

It’s hard for me not to wonder how many people have seen me as being “rebellious” simply because I was there, and I was female, and I was fat, and I was not sorry enough by their standards for any of it.


“[T]here is no magical cure. There is no time machine. There is only the revolutionary act of being fat and happy in a world that tells you that’s impossible. We all have to do our best with the body that we have,” dietician Ginette Lenham told Hobbes. “And leave everyone else’s alone.”

If we want to go around calling ourselves Christian, then Lenham’s advice must strike a deeper chord with us. The church has fallen into the trap of buying into the pervasive “beauty culture” of which fat shaming – a layered shaming in the church, as we’ve seen – is an integral part. It’s endlessly ironic to me that the same churches who would warn their congregations against the dangers of worldliness probably don’t realise that their conscious and unconscious prejudice against “visible sinners”, like fat people, are rooted in the very worldliness they preach against.

Because let me tell you, it isn’t rooted in God.

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Church

Presbytery

Working theory: if you can sit through an entire meeting of Presbytery and come out of it still liking people, the work of the Holy Spirit is nearing its completion in you, my friend.

As an aside, I’m still thoroughly under construction.

 

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Books

Book review: Questions of Life by Nicky Gumbel

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Chances are that if you’re of the Protestant persuasion you’ve come across Alpha. Alpha is a course refined by attorney turned pastor Nicky Gumbel as an introduction to the basics of Christian faith. It’s presented through weekly workshops structured around small groups, Bible study and video lectures.

I’ve never attended Alpha myself so when I got a chance to read Gumbel’s primer on it I thought why not? It’s a dense, inexpensive book, aimed at those already considering or involved in Christianity rather than trying to win over unbelievers. As far as introductions go it does a good job: it covers all the basics, though inevitably some people will take issue with its slightly charismatic slant. Gumbel’s train of thought is easy to follow and he refers back to Scripture often. The book is peppered with his own experiences as he went from atheist to believer, which lends it some credence.

Altogether it’s a solid book. What it lacks in depth it more than compensates for with practicality, and I suspect this has more to do with the book’s target audience than Gumbel’s writing ability or own depth of faith. It’s a great book to be able to give to seeking friends or family members, and one I’m more than a little sad I didn’t have access to myself when I first found Christ. This is not to say that it doesn’t offer something to people who’ve been Christians for a while. Gumbel was the first Christian who convinced me to give “speaking in tongues” a shot, so I really can say that taking a “refresher course” was beneficial for me and my faith.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: Questions of Life
Author: Nicky Gumbel
Publisher: Kingsway Communication Ltd (1993).
Rating: 4/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 3.92/5)
The best feature of the book: It’s down to earth and practical.
The worst feature of the book: It’s a little dense at times.
Trigger warnings: None.
You’ll like this if… If you’re considering going to church, have questions about the Christian faith, if you’re a total newbie to the Christian faith or want to get in touch with your Christian roots.

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Looking Lectionary

Looking Lectionary: Proper 27A/Ordinary 32A/Pentecost +23

A look at the narrative lectionary reading from a prophetic perspective.


Reading: Matthew 25:1-13

“‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ Matthew 25:9 NIV

“There may not be enough.” We usually read this parable as an indictment of the unprepared virgins. They had more than enough time; they knew the Bridegroom was on his way; and as they hurried off to buy more oil, we see a lack of resources wasn’t to blame for their situation, merely unpreparedness. But Jesus loved telling stories inside of stories, and I think we find a deeper, more complex message here than “just” “you know the day and the hour”. This parable isn’t just about the five unprepared maidens, but about the five “prepared” ones too.

In the months leading up to the 2016 US presidential election, I was “friended” to a popular prophetic account on Facebook. I’d say that 95% of the people on that page were pro-Trump, and one of the reasons they gave was that Trump would be God’s “trumpet” – that he’d herald the beginning of the end, bring on the glory of the Lord and the final judgment. Quite a few of these people seemed to understand that Trump would be a terrible president, but – to their way of thinking – that would only hark on the end of the world all the more quickly.

I’ve never understood this obsession Christians have with the end times. Some people are literally excited that Jesus is coming to judge and cast all unbelievers into fiery damnation. This has got to be the epitome of insider mentality. I mean, whose fault is it that so many people are unsaved? We love to lay all the blame at the door of unbelievers. “We brought enough oil,” we say. But would we still be so excited about the day and the hour if we admitted our culpability in the decline of the Christian religion? If we faced the fact that people leaving the faith or not wanting to join in the first place isn’t God’s fault, or their fault, but ours?

We’re such schmucks, Christians. You just have to cast an eye over the news to see the often viral evidence of our failings, not just as Christians, but as human beings. In the parable of the ten virgins, can we really say that the five “prepared” maidens acted in a Christ-like way? If our salvation is secured (and it is, when we believe); if we are new creations in Christ (which we are, whether it feels like it or not); if we are living in a state of grace, mercy and love (check, check and check) just what are we so afraid of losing if others, lost as we ourselves once were (and often still are) get to experience the saving grace that we do? Why so afraid, Christians?

I do believe that the day and hour will come. I don’t look forward to it, because – graced as I am – I know I’m guilty of others’ loss. But maybe if I’m more willing to share my most undeserved “oil” with others (by giving them the benefit of grace, for instance), on some day, at some moment, someone will share their undeserved “oil” with me in turn, and we can go into the Feast together.

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