The Vanity of Enlightenment

Life’s a journey, as the cliché goes. Some of us remain on the same pathway our entire lives, while others reach a fork in the road and change course. That was me.

The first fork I encountered led me down a trail from regular conservatism (Baptist) to ultra-conservatism (a legalistic, Vineyard-like denomination). In other words, from stoic to charismatic, with much stricter rules. After a couple of bewildering years in this church I extricated myself and returned sober to mainstream Christianity; only to realize that what I’d experienced in the cult was just evangelicalism on steroids. The problematic base doctrines were still the same: no women in leadership, male headship (the husband has the final say), “eternal conscious torment hell” for the unsaved, and the exclusion of LGBT Christians.

A couple of years of church-hopping followed and my husband and I unwittingly landed in a conservative denomination that allows (and affirms!) the ordaining of women as pastors. Scandalous. 😉 This was a second fork in the road for me, challenging and changing my beliefs regarding gender roles, and we’ve been attending this church for more than a decade now. It is home. Suffice it to say, you might call me a left-leaning conservative, or simply a moderate. Labels don’t leave much room for nuance, however, and I hesitate to use them.

But all that aside, what I want to talk about specifically here is something I’ve observed through these experiences:

Every denomination (Catholic and Protestant alike) believes they are the only ones with the fullest truth, the fullest enlightenment. So, why is this a problem?
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The Art of Validation – how God’s silence is a sign of solidarity

Let’s talk about the art of validation. To validate is so much more than active listening. It’s not just repeating back to someone what they have said, it’s taking the time to try to understand another person’s perspective – even when you disagree – especially when you disagree. It is temporarily putting yourself in their shoes and saying, “I would probably feel the same way if I were you,” or “I see why you’d feel that way under the circumstances.”

Think of good therapists, for example. They don’t argue or give unsolicited advice: instead they walk alongside a client, listening and validating. After a client has finished articulating their feelings to this non-judgmental listener, ideally they’re able to come up with their own solution to the problem. When it comes to friends and family, however, finding someone who’ll be a non-judgmental listener can be difficult, no matter how close we are. When someone interrupts us to argue or give unwanted advice, it feels like we aren’t being heard and we aren’t being allowed to express our true feelings. We end up debating in self-defense, or simply shutting down. In the frustration that comes from longing to be understood, we find ourselves stuck in feedback loops: sharing our view again and again in the hopes that they’ll finally get it. Ongoing invalidation can be greatly damaging to a relationship. We’ve all experienced being misunderstood, and therefore know how hurtful it is.

What’s more, it’s human nature to take a contrary view whenever we feel backed into a corner and put on the defensive.

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The Mind’s Eye

They say we don’t remember anything really prior to the age of three.

No doubt there are innumerable emotional memories from infancy, but in my case my earliest visual memory was the dedication of my infant sister: I was exactly three. It’s funny how the brain works though. I used to pore over my mother’s photo albums as a child, collecting all the images of those photographs – mental photographs of photographs – and arranging them chronologically in my mind. I can go back in time and enter the room of a home in which my relatives are compiled and see myself as an infant cradled in someone’s arms or sitting on someone’s lap. I can look around at the furniture and the faces and hairdos and fashion, can even hear some of their voices and laughter (which I’ve taken from later memories and projected backward into these ones), and those moments in time are stored with the first person memories that began in the preschool years. But they’re not firsthand memories – they’re only memories of photographs.

The mind’s eye is a fascinating thing. Did the generations before me do the same thing with black and white photos, removing the grays in their mind and filling it all in with color, making that the superimposed memory instead of sepia? And before photography, did they take the stories about their toddler years, told them by relatives, and store them chronologically, as imagined, with their firsthand experiences just as I did with photographs? Probably. Indeed, even the stories my parents and grandparents told me about their own childhoods, teen and adult years, are stored chronologically in my memory as well, as though I really saw and heard those things happen with my own two eyes and two ears. Does everyone do this or is it the writer’s nature in me, the way I build scenes in my mind and freely wander through them exploring? But how accurate are those images? When I see my father as a boy, stooping with surprise to pick up a human skull in the overgrown grass of a field in India, freckle-faced, brown hair slicked to one side, and a button down shirt tucked into his jeans, does that fabricated video reel look anything like the literal experience my father had? Either way, it’s the same story, regardless of the color of his shirt. Could I tell you what species of trees were backdropping the field or where exactly in India it took place? No, I don’t even know what trees grow in India, besides the rubber tree. But I nevertheless see his story like a memory. There are tangled trees and wheat-like grasses, a dry cracked skull in the palm of his hand. No doubt it’s an amalgamation of all the images of fields and skulls I’ve ever seen in my life. But somehow I feel like I was there.

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Experiencing God’s presence through love

Previously I wrote about ways to experience God’s presence through our senses. Today I’d like to look at another way, inspired by conversations I had recently with my sister regarding blessings and healings. We talked about how all good things come from the original source of good, God (James 1:17), and how many people interpret these good gifts to be answered prayer or blessings. Now, of course they can certainly be both, but I think they are also random in many cases as well. Here’s why:

God does not discriminate: “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). What’s more, a blessing to me could be a curse to someone else. e.g. Sunshine on a wedding day is ideal, but maybe someone drowned that same day because the warm sun had them out swimming. It occurs to me that for God to specifically grant my wish for a sunny day, knowing that it would lead to John Doe’s drowning, seems immoral of him. But if the day is sunny just because it’s nature taking its course, then it’s still a blessing to me and I can and should give thanks to God for every good gift, but it has not been given to me at the cost of someone else. The sunshine was given to everyone and sadly, tragedies do occur, rain or shine.

It comes down to the “life is unfair” thing. See, the only way life could be fair is if everyone had identical experiences – rendering free will and individuality impossible.

Another blessing/good gift in life is being healed of physical ailments, especially dangerous ones. And the human body is designed by the Great Physician to regenerate. When the immune system works properly (and we have access to good nutrition, medicine, successful surgery, and the like), we are healed. We rightly give thanks to God for healing us because he is our Creator and “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Prayer can play a significant role in healing too, don’t get me wrong, but God also heals people who haven’t prayed for healing. Unbelievers regenerate successfully too, just as the sun and rain are sent without discrimination. (Please note, I am not discrediting miracles. By their very definition, they can only occur once in a while, not regularly.)

This leads me to the question of God’s presence in conjunction with love.

Jesus said that love was not unique to believers. He said even the pagans love each other; of course they do! We all know this. But he also said, I’m holding you to a higher standard when it comes to love – I want you to love your enemies too. So it’s not love that is unique to Christians but rather enemy love. What’s more, and this is important, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). If God is love then it follows that he is the original source of love as well. That’s what he is, Love Himself.

In the same way that every experience of good is coming from the original source of good (Good Himself), and healing of the body comes from the original source (the Great Physician), all manifestations of genuine love also come from the original source, Love Himself. So, isn’t it possible that the more goodness, health, and love one has in their life, the more they will feel the presence of God? The obverse is true as well, which is why I wanted to write this blog piece in the first place.

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Remember those in prison

This year for Lent I decided to try a spiritual exercise (rather than fasting) and chose to daily pray for the current victims of terrorism. I already do pray for them but on a sporadic basis. First, I was taken aback by how much of a burden it is to pray for strangers every single day. I don’t find it hard to pray for friends and loved ones regularly, but this was truly hard. And I know why.

Self-preservation keeps trying to kick in.

As someone who has long struggled with intermittent depression, it has been one of my coping mechanisms to say a prayer for the victims of violence/tragedies and then put it out of mind by choosing not to dwell on it. We call this “positive thinking.” Yet Hebrews 13:3 says:

Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

For this reason I have always made a point of saying a prayer for the suffering people mentioned in the news. But while I might be heavy-hearted and haunted for weeks at a time, to actually pray every.single.day for these same people makes it doubly hard to mitigate disturbing thoughts. Those we fervently pray for, care about, donate to, and ponder the plight of, become part of us. Matthew 6:21 says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Second, I began to have nightmares.

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An Open Sesame

Let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.
(Hebrews 12:28b)

Anything from a ray of sunlight warming my knees as I sit on the sofa, to the cheep of a chickadee, to a hot cup of tea, a tasty treat, time with loved ones, a good story, the hush of a snowfall, the laughter of a child, a power nap, a shared smile, and even the less obvious: enjoying clean floors after mopping, hanging fresh clothes in the closet, washing the pots and pans that made a meal, and neverending clutter (the evidence of a living family!). The simple (yet profound) act of saying, “Thank you, Lord,” for each and every gift has opened the door to a much deeper and more intimate relationship with God than I was able to have before. Psalm 100:4 says, “Enter his gates with thanksgiving, enter his courts with praise.” It really is an open-sesame to the presence of God.

I know though, when life is grim, giving thanks can feel next to impossible. Food tastes like gravel, material possessions seem meaningless, and sunshine taunts an overcast soul.

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Experiencing God’s presence through our senses

We live in a physical world of matter, so much so that naturalists believe this is all there is, that there couldn’t possibly be a supernatural realm as well. But what if the two are intertwined? God is omnipresent, which means he is everywhere: all at the same time. Have you ever pondered the infinity of the universe? The scientists say the universe is expanding – yet how is this possible? There is no “space” outside of space, so where does the room come from to expand into, so to speak? Well, think about it this way: if the universe exists within the omnipresent God, who is infinitely big, the universe can expand forever and ever and never come up against a wall. It’s fascinating to think about. But what’s my point? My point is that if you want to experience the presence of God, why not consider the senses as a gateway of sorts?

The omnipresence of God could be why pagans throughout history have been so inclined to worship nature. They sense (feel) the presence of God in his created things, but don’t necessarily look any further. So they worship the flower rather than the One who made it. It was God who created all matter and space – even linear time (the universe had a beginning). As C.S. Lewis said, “He likes matter; he invented it.” Being made of matter is what enables us to have a physical existence in a physical universe. It is also what makes it possible for us to feel the presence of God.

To be close to someone physically, we need to be in their presence.

Think of the infant whose attachment to mom is entirely through the senses. We need to either see the person, hear them, touch them, kiss them, smell them, or feel their spirit, to maintain a connection. The ways to achieve this are obvious with people and animals, but it may not be quite as obvious with God. Or so one might think.

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That emptiness inside . . .

In my last post I talked about attachment in general – how security breeds security and insecurity more of the same. The deck is stacked. Taking the time to learn about attachment and how it works is the first step you can take toward better understanding yourself and strengthening your bonds with others. So, in this blog I’d like to get more specific, dissect a little, and will do so using the 6 levels of attachment as outlined in the exceptional book, “Hold Onto Your Kids” by Dr. Gordon Neufeld and Dr. Gabor Maté.

The first 3 primary ways we attach to one another in relationships are the easiest and most common, you might even say primal.

1) Senses – being together in the same physical space where you can see, hear, and touch one another.

2) Sameness – imitating one another by wearing the same styles of clothing, talking the same way, liking the same shows and music, having the same opinion. (Being carbon-copies.)

3) Loyalty/Belonging – fitting in at all costs and being loyal to the ones you are most attached to, even if that means changing or betraying your inner beliefs and convictions. (e.g. cliques and gangs.)

People with insecure attachments are co-dependent. Being apart triggers raw and gritty feelings of vulnerability, so in order to feel a semblance of security, they have to be together physically all the time, they have to look and be the same, and they have to either possess the other or be possessed by the other. (The dominant personality sets the standard most of the time. i.e. Alpha and Omega.)

To experience the more advanced levels of attachment, however, a person has to be vulnerable, which means letting down those walls that are built up around the heart.

Continue reading That emptiness inside . . .

It is not good for man to be alone

I’ve been studying the nature of attachment on and off for several years now but have taken a special focus over the last couple of years in particular. And learning it, really learning it, has been like watching puzzle pieces fall into place, one by one, with still so many gaps yet to be filled. Nevertheless, the picture is slowly but surely taking shape, and I am finding it revolutionary in my life and relationships. Attachment: so simple, yet so complex.

I’ve decided to share some of what I’ve learned over the course of a few blogs. As Joyce Meyer says, “To me and through me” – so I’d like to share as much as I can here with fellow seekers.

It is not good for man to be alone.” ~ God (Genesis 2:18)

He would know, he made us. He also said, “When a man is grown he shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and the two shall be one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24) So, the natural order is that we begin life attached to our parents and then someday transfer that attachment to our spouse. But as we know, the ideal state of the Garden was not to last, and we now live in a cursed and fallen world where nothing is ever optimal. Healthy attachment with parents, siblings, family, and friends is hit or miss. Even in loving families many children grow up never having felt close to their parents. Others are outright abused. This means that in childhood one will either have a secure attachment to their parents, an inconsistent attachment, or an insecure attachment.

A child’s friendships and relationships with peers will often be a reflection of their parental as well as extended familial attachments.

So if a child has insecure attachment at home, they will tend to develop insecure attachments with peers. Then, as adults, those dynamics will be played out in romantic relationships. It’s why abused girls are more likely to end up in abusive marriages and why abused kids have a greater chance of becoming bullies at school (or obversely, victims) and/or later abusing their own kids. The deck is stacked against them.

What’s more, God designed us in such a way that attachment has a bipolar nature.

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Diary of a Former Hypochondriac

When I was eleven, I developed an anxiety disorder which manifested itself primarily as hypochondria; with depression as its cousin companion.

I was not, however, the stereotypical sort of hypochondriac child that one associates with verbally fretting over every ache and pain, scrape and bruise; analyzing each sniffle and cough; feeling for lumps; or sighing and fainting with weakness. No, I was nothing like Colin in The Secret Garden. At least, not on the face, that is.

I kept it all a big secret.

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