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Unlikely Teachers of Spirituality: Bars

May 26, 2012 Leave a comment

A lot of things happen at bars which destroy spirituality, are antithetical to the gospel, break people, and perpetuate evil. With that said, I believe we, as the church, can learn from bar communities.

Bars are full of hope. A large percentage of people who go to a bar go there because they are hoping for something. Some people go to the bar because they are hoping for a little relaxation after a long day. Some go because they are hoping to fill their felt needs for intimacy and attention from the opposite sex (and others from the same sex). Some go out of a hope for a sports team. Some go because they hope to find some alleviation of their despair. Some go because they hope to be where they can see our troubles are all the same, they want to go where everyone knows their name. There’s a lot of hope in bar communities.

Bars provide a largely nonjudgmental community.* Part of the reason bars are such an attractive community is their provision of a sense of universal acceptance. It doesn’t matter what your character flaws are, what sins are in your life, how you dress, or what words you use, you’re welcome to be there. The lack of a fear of social condemnation (surely in conjunction with alcohol), creates an environment where people feel more free to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise do.** The nonjudgmental nature of the bar community also helps people to be themselves and talk about aspects of their life and character that they may not talk about in any other circumstances. Others feel more free to respond honestly because they trust that even if they come across negative, they will still be accepted.

My experiences at and interpretations of bars resulted in questions about church. Certainly some people come to church because they have hope, but a lot of people also attend church because they feel guilty, socially compelled, morally obligated, and the like. How does the Jesus-centered community be a beacon of hope that outshines the alcohol-centered community? When life is stressful, the future looks bleak, people are lonely, or people are broken, why are they so much more likely to consider going to a bar than going to a church? Why does it sometimes feel like there is more hope there than where the presence of God dwells?

I don’t think it is as simple as saying that those people don’t want to change or they don’t believe in God. I think people are very willing to change if they had hope for healing. I believe the majority of people, whether or not they claim any deity as Lord, believe there is hope in God, Jesus, or a higher spiritual power. The most repellant aspect of church is the fear of judgment and rejection. The outsider fears condemnation, being looked down on for sin, and being unaccepted or accepted as a lesser member of the community.

There are many cases where the inside member of the church community feels the same. Despite best intentions, church environments are frequently still places where people are conscious about what they’re wearing, concerned about screwing up or admitting to screwing up, fearful of doing something out of the ordinary and being condemned for it, and worried about someone else seeing their character flaws. The perception of church environments is not that they are nonjudgmental communities centered around Jesus, but that they are condemnatory communities where people come together to show each other how nice their facades look. I believe for church to shine to the world, it is vital that we find areas where our communities are creating an environment of fear rather than love and replace the fear with unconditional acceptance.
*I have been criticized on a few occasions for my aberrant bar behavior. Talking about Jesus usually is just dandy, but not always.

** Admittedly, many times what people do in bars that they wouldn’t normally do elsewhere is spiritually counterproductive.

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Unlikely Teachers of Spirituality: Smoking

May 19, 2012 1 comment

When I was young and growing up, I used to think smoking was sinful. I don’t know if it was my church environment or social environment, but somehow I thought that it was a sin to smoke. When I was 17, found Jesus, and started reading Scripture, I realized my perspective was pretty delusional. So, when I turned 18, I bought a pipe and tobacco and started smoking. I have thoroughly enjoyed smoking ever since (even though at times I’ve gone years without doing so at all). Smoking has taught me a few things.

One of the most powerful lessons smoking has helped me learn is sometimes I need to take a brief break. When I am alone, I can be a high anxiety person. It’s very easy for me to worry about finances, relationships, work I need to do, God’s will, my past sins, my past, my future, my present, my safety, others’ safety, the world, helplessness, weakness, fruitlessness, inadequacy, how the paper I’m writing is going, whether I’m going to get enough sleep, etc. My brain gets cluttered a lot too. There are too many things going on in my head sometimes for me to handle. I won’t bore you with another list, but I sometimes have so many different topics going through my head at once I think I’m going crazy.* For a long time the only way I knew how to handle my anxiety and overactive mind was to just keep going and wait until it went away. Smoking taught me a much better solution.

When I started smoking on a semi-regular basis (a couple of packs a week was probably my max), when I was feeling high anxiety or was thinking about so much I couldn’t productively think about anything, I would go outside for a smoke. After doing so, I would be calm, collected, and focused. I don’t think it was the nicotine that did this. Smoking provided an alternative activity from whatever I was doing, it helped me escape from my life and mind temporarily so that I could come back to my life and mind in a better condition to do so. During my cigarette, I would simply pray and bring my troubles before God, ask him to deal with them, then recenter on Him, His kingdom, what is really important, and what matters in light of the truth that God is king. When I would re-enter the reality of my circumstances, I was much more ready to deal with those circumstances like a new creation should.

Smoking has helped me converse with people. Many conversations with people I’ve never met have sprung up over cigarettes. It’s more comfortable to talk to people you don’t know when you’re both smoking because you both have an alternate activity and if the conversation is awkward, it only has to last a couple of minutes because there is an easy out. I’ve shared about who God is and my relationship with Jesus with more people who do not yet know him while smoking than in any other circumstance. Smoking can create a space for conversation that is inviting and unintimidating.

Smoking helps me learn the art of being with someone without talking to them. Sometimes, when people are tired of life, broken in spirit, and hopeless in heart, there just isn’t much to say. There aren’t any right questions to ask. They know the truth, they just don’t feel it right now, and they need someone to be with them and be available for them, but they don’t need anyone to talk to them. Smoking provides an alternative activity which facilitates a comfortable environment to sit with someone in silence for their solace.

Things I should probably say regarding some of the things in this series…

If you’re a follower of Jesus and you’re addicted to smoking (or anything), then you’re living in chains when Jesus wants you to be free. If you’re smoking a lot and it is damaging to your health, you aren’t setting yourself up well for being at your best to serve God in the future – the same goes if you’re eating ice cream all the time or living in lethargic inactivity. If you’re having a few drinks, that’s one thing, if you’re getting drunk or going out for attention from the opposite sex, you’re misrepresenting God. The point is there are points at which these activities, like most other activities, become a detriment rather than a complement to one’s relationship with Jesus.

*I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

Unlikely Teachers of Spirituality: Beers

For a good chunk of my life, I’ve considered myself a relatively socially uninhibited person in the right circumstances. I doubt that I came across that way because I’m an introvert, have a dull personality, and have never been given to extended monologues. However, I’ve done a lot of things that many people would be scared to do because of social hesitations. For most of my early adult life (17-21), I was unaware of any normal social fears I had.

I started consuming alcohol at age 21. At first, I didn’t notice anything. After a few times hanging out with friends and having a couple of drinks I noticed a slight shift in my personality. I felt a lot more free to be playful and I had a stronger desire to talk about myself with others. I really liked me a little loosened up. I liked being more constantly playful in most circumstances. I liked the idea of being more deliberate about sharing things about me and my life with others. I liked being free of the fears I didn’t know I had.

I think my fear came from a pursuit of something I had been seeking since I was 15: respect. Before I followed Jesus in high school, I was pretty demanding of respect. When I was a freshman and seniors cut in the lunch line in front of me, I used to grab people’s backpacks and pull them behind me. I used to bump into people who expected me to move out of their way in the hallway, stare them down, and carry on. If someone made a joke at my expense, I would make a joke at theirs. I had an expectation of respect and I refused to be disrespected. This attitude carried over into my life when I started following Jesus.

I really did do a lot better job being generally kind to people when I started following Jesus, and in school I was a lot less concerned about others respecting me. However, I think this lack of concern for respect in school was because I found a new place where it was very easy to acquire respect for being good and becoming the man I wanted to be. Church community filled my felt need for respect in my life. I believe my social reluctances to be sillily playful and open about myself were me trying to make sure that my respectability was maintained among my brethren.

When I realized alcohol helped loosen me up and be more like the man I wanted to be, I started naturally becoming more like that man. God used alcohol, in conjunction with other life circumstances, to bring transformation into my life. I almost completely ceased caring about whether or not people respect me. It still is nice to be respected for who I am, but it no longer felt like an emotional need I was trying to fill by concealing aspects of me which seemed disrespectable. Having no felt need to be respected by others is now one of my favorite things about the new man I am putting on. And it all started because of a few drinks with friends.

Unlikely Teachers of Spirituality: Video Games

April 23, 2012 Leave a comment

After writing my Simply Church post entitled Confession, a lot of people responded with surprise at my vulnerability. I was surprised by the surprise. For me, talking about myself and my character flaws is pretty easy. They are numerous and I’m well aware of them. In my mind, it is much more scary, requires much more vulnerability, and is much more anxiety inducing to write an interpretation of Scripture and put it on the internet. Scripture simply matters so much more than me. Getting that wrong feels much more negative than letting people know I’m still in the process of being transformed into the likeness of Jesus, much like everyone else. Yet, people seemed to like it, so here’s a brief series about me that’ll probably include some of that vulnerability stuff.

It’s been a long time since I’ve played Halo 3 with any consistency. I used to play online a lot and I loved it. Do you know what I remember from that game? I remember all the cool moments. I remember all the times I would take over a game and really be the factor that won it for my team. I remember the moments when I should have died, but in a flash developed a strategy and executed it so well that I survived. I remember ridiculous runs where it seemed like I was truly invincible. I remember it being fun. I remember all the things I did well.

Do you know what I remember from the rest of my life? It’s mostly the moments I failed. I mostly remember everything I didn’t do right. Most of what sticks in my memory are not life’s highlights, but my lowlights. It takes a tremendous amount of effort for me to remember anything I’ve ever done to bring light into the world, and even when I can remember such a thing, the memory is overshadowed by… shadows. Sometimes memories flood my mind as if a dam holding reminders of my multitudinous failures burst open. What I have done wrong, big mistakes and little, aren’t only things that take little effort to remember, but at times it takes tremendous effort not to focus on them.

The way that I think about video games is a lot better way than the way I think about most life events. The truth is there are probably many times in my life when I actually have brought light into the world. The truth is I’ve done some good things in my life and there have been moments when I’ve made others feel loved. I definitely believe it can be important to think about past mistakes in order to learn from them, but focusing on them continuously is very counterproductive and incredibly discouraging. More important than being counterproductive, giving my mistakes power to define me requires that I live in a self-deluded world.

I have to forget the forgiveness of God in order to believe that my sin has any business defining who I am. Scripture’s imagery used to describe what God’s forgiveness does to our errors makes living controlled by past failures seem quite silly. Forgiveness cleans us. No one washes the dirt off their hands and thinks their hands are still dirty because they used to be dirty. Forgiveness removes sin from us as far as the east is from the west. Our sin has been placed on another and that sin has died, and the sin is no more. Nothing is more powerless than something that is not. The way I look at video games is way more real than the way I sometimes look at the rest of my life.

The more that I think about my past, present, and future the way I think about video games the better off I am. If I’m just a giant mistake maker, then I’m probably going to avoid doing things where mistakes are probable. If see myself as someone who’s done a lot of awesome things (like in Halo) and happened to make some mistakes a long the way, then the chance that I’ll make a mistake is far less likely to prevent me from engaging in an activity. I will be far more likely to engage in more risk-taking activities and pursue more arduously difficult things worth doing because if I screw it up, it won’t be another mistake to add to my mistake cesspool, but rather just something that happens sometimes while trying to be outstanding. Still, my default is ruminating on the cesspool, but the mistake of sometimes ruminating on the cesspool is just something that happens sometimes on the journey of being a superlative new creation in a tired old world.

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