Sunday, March 23, 2014

Paths and Fields

I'm not the kind of person to learn things step by step. I tend, on the whole, to observe, ponder, read, ponder some more and gradually assimilate understanding. Sometimes a paragraph in a book, or something I notice will trigger an 'aha!' moment - a light in my brain which illuminates something I had not quite grasped before, or maybe a trigger which enable everything to move around a little, fitting into a better place. Either way, it's not a linear or arithmetical process.

Right now, my mind is swirling with the concept of paths, of many different paths leading towards - or, indeed away from - God. That doesn't mean I've become a relativist, or that I think all religions are equally valid. I believe, absolutely, in the one God, Creator of the universe, as revealed in the Bible and through Jesus. Indeed, I can say with confidence the full Nicene Creed, something which is recited in one form or another in the Anglican Church in which I grew up, and to which I still feel significant affiliation.

I also believe that every human being is a unique individual: a complexity of ingrained God-given personality, of circumstances, of culture, and so on. Which means that each of us is on an individual path through life, at different stages, and often going (or apparently so) in different directions. I am aware that there are those who deliberately turn their backs on God and walk away, knowing perfectly well what they are doing. I don't know what will happen to a person in this deliberately antagonistic state if they die unredeemed. I can't bring myself to believe in the kind of 'hell' popularised by Dante; I'm more inclined to CS Lewis's view that even after death there may be the opportunity to turn to God, but that those who rejected God in life will probably continue to do so forever.

Sadly, there are many who have turned their back on God without really understanding what they are doing. Perhaps they misheard or misunderstood the message. Perhaps their childhood was so fraught with tragedy or abuse that they cannot accept a loving God reaching out to them. Perhaps they have been put off by the rigidity of some Christians who claim that there is only one possible path to God, and that anyone who doesn't join that one path is doomed to eternal punishment.

Or perhaps they see Christians being intolerant, selfish, gluttonous, self-righteous... all those sins which were condemned in the Bible every bit as much as the more obvious carnal sins, but which are a lot more difficult to measure.

I don't know what will happen to people like these when they come face to face with Jesus. But I know that God is love. It's not for me to judge, either those on the path away or those (including myself) who may have contributed to the direction in which they are going. My task is to share what I know of God who loves us all.

But what of those who are aware of God's love, whether or not they realise who God is? What of the many and diverse styles and doctrines and cultures even amongst those of us who attempt to follow Jesus? Should we who are within the Body of Christ attempt to tell our brothers and sisters in Christ how we see things, what we believe they should and should not be doing? What happens two people who love God, and can genuinely recite the Nicene Creed, have diverse views about - for instance - whether or not women should be allowed to be church leaders, or how long it took God to create the world, or how parents should raise and educate their children?

I wrote recently about the importance of acceptance, of what we see as 'normal'. We change through our lives, and most of us accept that others change too. We don't expect a great work of art from a two-year-old experimenting with crayons, or a best-selling novel from a six-year-old typing a story onto a computer. But we do expect progress.

Sometimes, though, we have to go backwards before we can move on. If I type quite fast with two fingers but want to learn to touch type, I will have to slow my pace quite significantly before I can learn a new method. If I want to revitalise a garden which has been neglected over many years, I may have to pull up many of the plants that are growing there, to get rid of some of the used soil, to fertilise and remove stones, and leave the ground fallow for a while before I can start growing new plants. When we make bread, we let it rise... then punch the dough down, apparently undoing all the good that the yeast has done, before kneading some more and letting it rise again.

In addition, not everybody has a passion for gardening, or typing, or drawing, or bread-making. We have different talents, different 'callings', different ways of relating to the world in which our primary concerns are to love God and to love other people. So I may demonstrate God's glory by my artwork, and bake bread for my neighbours; you might worship God through music, and babysit for your friends and acquaintances.

Books about personality types stress that there are four (or nine - or sixteen - or whatever the system happens to be) broad categories of people, ALL of whom are valuable. We can all learn in different ways, but one style will come most naturally to each of us. We all have a variety of talents, but only one or two are likely to become our passions. We all make mistakes, miss opportunities, think negative things... but we each have one deep-rooted sinful tendency, which we may not even recognise. We can criticise each other, ignoring our own problems, or we can acknowledge our inherent sinfulness and reach out to others, and to God, in love.

So there are many paths, many ways we can move towards God during our lifetimes. I'm seeing the concept of 'different paths' in many places, with the kind of synchronicity which nudges me, prompting me to be increasingly sure that this is from God. I see it in the local church: your current path might be Anglo-Catholic, his path Greek Orthodox, her path evangelical charismatic. If it's where God has called each person, then that is the right place, at that time, for that person. If God is currently calling someone out of a local congregation, then that is a right path too. Nobody has full access to the truth about God or about worship; we are, as one speaker put it, tiny parts of a stained glass window which, as a whole, reflects a fragment of God's glory.

A few years ago, talking with friends about God's plans and purposes, we realised that it's important not to take the concept of a path too strictly. God does not control us like puppets on a string; we make our own choices in life, and that's part of maturing. As parents encourage their children to spread their wings, to follow their own dreams, to make their own decisions - even if they turn out to be bad decisions - so God gives us our senses, our intelligence and our experience to help us to grow.

So while there is a path each of us, albeit meandering, ahead of us is something more akin to a field. It has boundaries over which we should not stray, but within that field we can go in any direction we like. Sometimes Christians get very stressed about guidance: offered two jobs, which one does God wants us to take? Which car does God want us to buy? Which supermarket does God want us to shop in....?

Undoubtedly God cares about every detail of our lives, and it's fine to pray, to consult God about anything, no matter how trivial. But having done so, if there is no sense of guidance, and no clear Biblical reason not to do something, then I believe that it's fine to take whatever option appeals.

Even if our choice turns out to be a mistake, God does not become angry. We may have to deal with negative consequences - if a car turns out to have multiple problems, for instance, or if we find personality clashes in a new job - but that does not mean that our decision was 'wrong', or even that a different one would have been 'right'. Nor does it mean that we are abandoned. God works with us where we are, as a parent picks up a toddler who falls over, and reaches out a hand to help a child who stumbles.

Even if we go against what God told us, our heavenly Father will never leave us. If a child in a field wants to pick blackberries, the parent might warn him to be careful about the nearby nettles. That will not stop a careless (or curious) child from walking into the nettle patch, and then suffering the consequence of being badly stung. No loving parent stands with arms folded saying, 'Well, that happened because you disobeyed. If you want me to help you, you have to do what I tell you to do.' A good parent rushes to rescue the child, probably risking being stung too, and looks for dock leaves or something else that will ease the child's discomfort, offering hugs and reassurance. The child does not need to be told that he did something stupid: he knows that perfectly well.

It saddens me when I meet people who seem to be hemmed in by fear, convinced that if they step aside from a narrow path, they will - like Little Red Riding Hood - be eaten by a hungry wolf. Yes, Jesus talks about a narrow gate - see Matthew 7:13. Elsewhere, Jesus talks about himself as a door or gate - see John 10:9. I saw a dramatised explanation of this in a children's assembly many years ago, when an elderly clergyman formed several children into a fence with a gap, allowing other children (representing sheep) to go in and out. At night, we were told, it was dangerous for sheep to be out of their pen so in New Testament times a shepherd herded his sheep into their pens, then lay down to block the gap.

The gap was narrow, and anywhere other than the pen could indeed lead to destruction. But the sheep did not have to worry about anything other than going where their shepherd led them. Once in the pen - through the 'gate' - they were free to wander where they wished, to eat whatever looked appetising.

Jesus is the only 'gate', and we need to walk with him, in the place where he wants us to be. But as in a nurturing family, there are many options every day, and Jesus - in the same passage as the one about being the gate - promised us life in abundance, in stark contrast to the thief who wants to steal and destroy.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Normality and judgement

I once said, semi-jokingly, that I don't feel judgemental about anything much, other than people who are judgemental. I can tolerate anything except for intolerance. I suppose it's part of my built-in personality type that I tend to look for common ground with everyone, and am always interested to see alternative viewpoints. My concepts of 'normal' are inevitably coloured by my upbringing and culture, and I find it interesting to learn why other people do things differently.

When moving to another country - or returning to one's home country after living abroad - it's all too easy to make negative comparisons, but when one is fully adjusted (as far as that is ever possible), it becomes clear that most of what people do in public is neither right nor wrong - it's cultural. Table manners are an obvious (and, I hope, non-controversial) example. How we set the table, what implements we use (if any), how we eat... these are not moral issues, but conventions which vary, sometimes within a country as well as when living abroad.

But if someone criticises this kind of thing, I become quite defensive. And yet, feeling critical about differences is basically another kind of personality trait; perhaps grounded in insecurity, but not necessarily wrong. It may be based on ignorance - a misunderstanding of 'normal', or an over-blown sense of 'right' in this sort of context.  So if someone comments that X is using the 'wrong hand', or 'eating messily', I want to stand up and explain that in their culture it's quite acceptable, even normal, and that the person making the criticism is equally weird to people from elsewhere.

That's not a particularly helpful attitude on my behalf, but when the issue is table manners, it's minor. If I can point out, gently, that we all have our own cultural expectations and conventions, it may help someone to be a little more aware of the wider world. Then again, it may also make the other person defensive, or even cause them to feel that I am criticising their culture or choices.

Still, most people can accept - and perhaps experiment with - different foods or styles of eating. If we move to another country, we may even adopt something that feels awkward at first (chopsticks, perhaps, or dipping bread in a communal bowl) but which soon becomes second nature.

But 'normality', to each of us, is far more than conventions at mealtimes. We have worldviews about - for instance - rights and privileges, medical care, education, nutrition, the origin of mankind, discipline, religion and faith. We may learn these overtly from our parents, we may absorb them from our environment, we may learn them at school, or from our peers. They change, as we grow and mature, too; or as different circumstances prompt us to re-think where we stand, what we believe in.

A few weeks ago, for instance, I wrote a post about home education. I tried to keep the post balanced, but inevitably, due to our experiences here, I am generally positive about home education. I am aware that it does not work for everyone, and that a few people may use it as a cover-up for nefarious activities or neglect. However, my worldview on the whole promotes education at home.

It wasn't always that way, though. When we moved to the US in the early 1990s, I had never come across home education (other than the governess/tutor style in historical novels). At that point, I assumed that institutional education was not just normal, but right - that parents needed to be involved in schools, to be sure, but that teachers were the professionals and that children needed peer interactions, group discussions, and so on.

I went to school, after all, and - on the whole - liked it. When challenged, I did admit that a lot of it was a waste of time, and that fifteen years later I didn't remember much of what we learned. But still.. school was, in my worldview of the time, 'normal'. And, I thought, that was right and good. The people we met in the US who 'homeschooled' spent a lot of money on private curricula, and the parents could never take a break. Surely, I thought, it would be a disaster....

Yet the homeschooled children I met were actually normal, likeable young people with a lively interest in learning. Gradually I developed an admiration for parents who would do this, and mild envy that they could afford it. I was still convinced that a curriculum was necessary, that teaching had to be formal, that only the most compliant children could satisfactorily learn in this way. My husband - who hated his schooldays - felt that since he had to suffer school, his children probably should, too. How else, he asked, could they learn to deal with the tedium of adult work? It was an odd, false logic, but I was too unsure myself to insist, despite our older son having a terrible time (and learning almost nothing) in his school.

Fast forward to Cyprus, and we not only started home educating, we learned to love it, to see the value of both formal and informal learning, of curriculum where appropriate, and unschooling/eclectic education the rest of the time. I'm now a tremendous advocate of home education and it's hard, sometimes, to remember that many (perhaps most) people are at the stage I was twenty years ago. And it's not that I'm 'advanced' in my education worldview. I also know of people who at one point were adamant that home education was the only way, but who gradually discover that their children (or at least some of them) flourish in a classroom environment.

That's just one example of core assumptions; of what we perceive as normal and 'right', but which can change - even reverse - as circumstances dictate. When we are open-minded, we can listen to people whose views differ, perhaps learn from them, and perhaps teach them something too. Unfortunately, human nature in general is inclined to keep tight hold of whatever is our current normality, and try to impose it on everyone else.

It's a fine line, and one which I'm still thinking through. We're experimenting with vegetarian eating during Lent (with exceptions on Sundays and other 'feast days'). I'm inclined to be veggie anyway; if I lived alone, I doubt if I would ever eat meat. But my husband has - as so many others do - some kind of built-in need to eat meat. This isn't just craving, say, a steak, or some tandoori chicken, and it's not dislike of beans or lentils. It's the feeling, after two or three days of veggie food, that meat (ANY kind of meat) is needed.

I don't have this need at all. Two weeks into Lent, I have no inclination to eat any kind of meat, even on Sundays. Worse (from the perspective of the family) I find myself almost taking on board some of the things that veggie or vegan friends have been saying about meat-eating for years, which I have previously pushed aside. Vegetarianism is already feeling more 'normal' (because I like it) and suddenly I have an urge to distribute recipes, to experiment with different ways of cooking beans and lentils, and - not so good - to discover all the potential disadvantages inherent in meat-eating, so as (I suppose) to consolidate my position.

Yet, I recognise that there are many people who, apparently, need to eat meat. After Lent, I will no doubt start cooking it again, and will probably eat it too, since I don't want to make life difficult for the various meat-eating family and friends who will entertain us in future. So, right now, I'm doing all I can to subdue the veggie agenda in my mind.

Then there's church.

Yes, that hot potato, that topic that keeps recurring on this blog, and in the writing of so many other people, in books and online. I've been attending weekly church services recently, and finding them fairly benign; I quite like the songs, I like seeing some people who I don't see anywhere else, and I like the walk on a Sunday morning. As a child, I took church-going for granted. As a young adult, I assumed it was essential for all Christians to belong to a particular local church. I don't think I was legalistic about it: to miss a service was acceptable due to illness, or exhaustion, or even on occasion having to do something else. But on the whole I liked going.

Nowadays I still acknowledge that we are part of the church (both universal and local), and that the purpose of the church is to encourage and build each other up, to exercise our gifts, to reach out to others who are part of the Body. And, of course, we should offer ourselves continually to God. I just don't find Sunday morning services to be a good place to do these things. I find the proximity of other people quite draining, the monologue of a sermon rather annoying (and sometimes sleep-inducing) and the singing of familiar songs, more often than not, means that my mind is miles away.

But still, so many people - particularly church leaders - insist that it's important, even vital to be present at these weekly gatherings. They put them on a par with prayer and reading the Bible...and I don't get it. I don't mind church services. I'm happy that other people benefit from them. I recognise that for many, communal singing is a form of worship, and that a sermon may teach them something about God, or inspire them to be closer to him during the week. That's great. But these things don't apply to me (or only rarely). I would feel like a misfit, were it not for the many others around the world feeling the same way, expressing their views far more vocally than I do.

And I want to stay open. I recognise that church gatherings - like school education - can be good, and right. Maybe for the majority they are a good thing. I just wish they would not try to impose them on those who find God to be closer outside of church gatherings. Guilt-tripping about anything - whether church meetings, or nutrition, or politics, or morals - makes people angry and inclined to rebel.

At least, that's how it works for me.