No Man’s Land

I’ve been thinking about allegiances and how labels though necessary, are restricting. They can also be unintentionally dishonest. For example, when it comes to my novels, I’ve been told by two different agents that my work falls into the territory of “no man’s land.” i.e. Too Christian for mainstream readers and too racy or such for Christian readers. Sure, I could conform and censor myself neatly into one land or the other, but then I’d be a dishonest writer, and what good is that? I have to write from my heart in a way that I feel is realistic and believable yet inclusive of my faith; even if the result is that my work dwells among tumbleweeds. So the past couple of years I’ve focused on short stories instead, serendipitously discovering in allegorical fiction a niche in which I can appeal to both markets without being disingenuous.

Another example. Back in January, after many years of indecision, I decided to make the switch to a plant based diet. I quickly found myself in no man’s land yet again. You see, I’m technically disqualified from being called a vegan because I still eat local honey, as well as eggs from my parents’ backyard hens, and I also don’t worry about obscure ingredients. If I’m eating in public, I’ll make concessions if I feel it’s necessary (e.g. I don’t ask restaurants what’s in the bread/buns, I might have a muffin at Tim Hortons, and when visiting others, I might have some mashed potatoes.) But I still avoid all overt dairy, cheese, and factory farm egg products, so that also disqualifies me from being called a vegetarian. Now of course, if you asked the vegans, they would say, she’s a vegetarian. But if I called myself a vegetarian, everyone would offer me milk, eggs and cheese – things like egg salad, lasagna, Mac n’ Cheese, and ice cream. Now, I could certainly join the 100% vegan club or the vegetarian club, but neither would be fully honest: qualifiers are always going to be needed. I’m currently going with “flexible vegan” since “plant-based” seems too vague, but the vegan tribe doesn’t accept that; many even despise it. Think No True Scotsman. I find myself once again in that in-between: no man’s land.

Another example. I’m a Christian who supports gay marriage. To the majority of evangelicals, this means I am no longer a “true Christian” as the position is seen as antithetical. But neither am I a fully liberal Christian. I’m pro-life and I believe in the divinity and resurrection of Christ. Basically I’m somewhere in the middle between liberal and conservative (perhaps progressive is a fitting term but it’s often seen as a synonym for liberal). I’m not conservative enough to be called conservative, and not liberal enough to be called liberal. To fit in I could indeed feign to be fully one or the other, but it just wouldn’t be the truth. To join the liberal club I would have to hide my conservative beliefs, and to join the conservative club, I would have to hide my liberal beliefs. Again, qualifiers are needed for every label.

I’m a Christian fiction writer but… I’m vegan but… I’m progressive but

All that to say, if my beliefs are so nuanced, surely yours are too. It’s easy to put people in compartments based on their various labels, but chances are we’re sorting one another in ways that are misleading, incorrect, or at the very least, inaccurate.

The only way to really get to know someone is to first avoid making assumptions and then second, converse, ask questions, and look for nuance. Nuance is found in the in-between, in no man’s land. Let’s go there and get to know one another.

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The Sin of Certainty

“The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Cor. 3:6)

I was raised right-wing, conservative, Baptist. And one thing I remember in particular from those days was the complete sense of doctrinal certainty that went with the territory. Not just Baptist territory, but in any overly conservative denomination. We had the in with God and were safely headed for heaven – why? Because we had the correct theology. We thought we had all the answers and knew exactly how to interpret the Bible: with a “plain reading of scripture.” We never wrestled with difficult questions or felt insecure, for that would require admitting doubts and fears, which would be a sign of weakness or even rebellion. If we ever experienced the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, we knew to suppress it and dissociate. Doubt was the Enemy and the Seducer. Any questions or red flags regarding doctrine were viewed as traps to be avoided. If our heart or our ability to reason led us to a conclusion that didn’t square with fundamentalism, we were to see that as the Devil successfully having deceived us (especially if we were women – “Eve.”). So not only did I learn to distrust my own opinions, I also learned that I was even more likely to be deceived due to my gender.

Religious gaslighting.

I tell you, the fear and anxiety these mind games cause… The lack of self-confidence. The inferiority complex as a female. I actually felt guilty to use my own brain and form my own opinions. The only safe thing to do in those days was to block conclusions contrary to the evangelical view (read: dissociate) and go back to regurgitating conservative beliefs. Thinking for yourself is just not allowed. And this is precisely how the masses are indeed controlled: fill ’em up with spiritual pride (accolades aplenty for “correct” thinking), and with fear (timidity that breeds diffidence), and then tell ’em what to do. Obedience is the only acceptable response. If you deviate from the path marked out for you by the church, you’ll be punished with shaming and the threat of lost Salvation (which means hellfire in the next life). It’s quite the lasso.

On the face this sounds malicious, as though such controlling manipulation were deliberate; but the truth is much sadder.

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Madonna vs. Whore

Having been raised in a conservative Christian family, I’ve observed sexism and the objectification of women from two different vantage points; a photograph and its negative.

In much of conservative Christianity, it is taught that women are to “remain silent” in the church. They are not allowed leadership positions, most certainly can not be ordained as pastors, and are to “submit” to their husbands, who are “the head of the family.” Men are discouraged from being alone with other women in professional settings, which means having their wives along for any meetings, and this mindset puts women in a perpetual state of sexual objectification. (Try to imagine the reverse, where a woman brings her husband along to a professional meeting with a man.) This is necessary, they say, because men are viewed as unable to control themselves with women (either she will seduce him or he will seduce her). There is no professionalism—even in an office setting she is still first and foremost, a sex object (rather than a person and a colleague).

In marriage, she is expected to always keep her figure and be as physically attractive to her husband as possible. She is discouraged from withholding sex, as this would be seen as a “weapon” or a “punishment” to him during times of marital strain, making him vulnerable to the temptation of adultery or porn (read: if he cheats, it’s her fault for holding out). But when do these marriage books and speakers and seminars ever instruct the husband to remain physically attractive and to not withhold sex during conflict? Instead, the burden of healthy sexual relations in a marriage is placed squarely on the wife’s shoulders, first and foremost.

This leaves wives in an interminable state of anxiety about their physiques and libido. Any imperfections in her body, any weight gain she can’t shake, too many nights without intimacy, and she fears he will eventually have an affair with a more attractive woman. Doesn’t matter how imperfect he is, or how much weight he might have put on, that “more attractive” woman is still going to be waiting in the wings somewhere. But when do we ever hear about women leaving their husbands for “more attractive” men or a “younger model”? Now, that’s not to say they don’t, only that it’s seldom mentioned—by anyone.

A woman’s primary role in marriage, therefore, is as a sex object. Everything revolves around the marriage bed. She is a sex provider who is to be in constant submission to her husband, who is her “authority” and “head.” In the church she is also to be in submission to the male leadership, with the understanding that she will always be considered a potential seductress to them, so be wary. And if she dresses in an arbitrarily-deemed immodest way, she is to blame for his lust and lack of self control.

Contrast this to the secular, liberal world where we find the obverse:

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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 or tow in the road and change course. That was me.

The first fork I encountered as an evangelical Christian 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 that cult was merely 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 LGBTQ Christians.

A couple more 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, I know. 😉 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. Labels don’t leave much room for nuance, but you might call me progressive, or a left-leaning conservative.

So with that background aside, what I want to talk about here specifically is something I’ve observed again and again throughout these experiences:

Every denomination (Catholic and Protestant alike) believes they are the only ones with the fullest truth, the fullest enlightenment.

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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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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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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