On Containing More Than Just Toxic Messes

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(FYI: I recently added a “Books” page above. You might want to check it out…)

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kernkraftwerk_Grafenrheinfeld

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The word containment usually carries a pretty serious connotation in most contexts. It is often used in reference to preventing radioactive release in a nuclear facility or, in a military sense, when speaking of  inhibiting the spread of communism.

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When I was a young mother of four children under the age of five, containment of toxic household debris clutter was a serious issue for me.

It became even more serious when we listed our house for sale. We lived in a really nice area where the market was highly competitive. It was in a pristine Canadian neighborhood, and a place where I happened to be the messy, uncultured American who didn’t pull out my stray dandelions from the yard at four in the morning like my OCD-afflicted, achingly polite neighbors did.

The seriousness of mess containment became even more consequential when I discovered that our real estate agent was a true Communist Clutter Officer. A greedy, cruel individual who insisted that top dollar would only be nabbed by homeowners who bowed to the oppression of knick-knack free rooms and sterile countertops.

My real estate Officer’s brutality instilled fear and dread in me. Because my freedom-loving children daily engaged in uninhibited, quasi-democratic playtime, our home’s interior stood as a testament to the effectiveness of a free market system, complete with overflowing clothing items, toys, and foodstuffs.

Circa 1989. The true definition of futility: Organizing the toybox.

Needless to say, our Officer did not appreciate such a capitalistic approach to filling one’s home.

Every time Mr. Officer called to schedule a showing, I would break out in a sweat. I was as motivated to sell our home as he was, but I was convinced there were potential buyers who could overlook our mess and see the value of the place underneath it.

Mr. Officer did not agree. He was a bonafide drama queen, going ballistic at the mere sight of cracker crumbs ground into the carpet or a few innocent socks plugging the toilet. He would fume about such things, insisting that the familiar smell of dirty diapers in the kitchen would lower our home price by two thousand dollars. I politely disagreed, figuring people would be charmed by the “homeyness” of our place. Mr. Officer said “homeyness” was not a word and substituted it with one I would rather not write here.

Agent Officer really needed to get a grip. I mean, it wasn’t my fault that mannerly Canadians have always practiced the unsanitary custom of taking their shoes off at the door. I figured it was their own collective problem if they didn’t protect their stockinged feet from peanut butter globs on hallway tile. I tried to talk to Officer about this, but he merely responded with an upraised clipboard, signaling the end of that conversation.

His dictatorial approach tempted me to fire him on many occasions, but he was, admittedly, one of the most successful real estate agents in the city and we really needed to get our home sold. So, I put up with his clipboard fixation and his perplexing insistence that I rent a storage unit in which to store my children until the home was safely off the market.

I also got creative with last-minute mess elimination. I simply started assigning the older children the task of throwing anything and everything that wasn’t a fixture or piece of furniture into boxes. I would then shove those boxes into the truck camper that was jacked up outside the garage. The camper was the only place that Mr. Officer didn’t show to buyers.

It really was an effective method. I would sweep my arm across a counter or table and just let everything fall into a box. Sugar bowls, dirty dishes, papers, sharp knives, books–all magically dispensed with in one might swoop. Of course, my technique made for some awful sorting-out later, but at least it shut Mr. Officer’s incessant whining up.

So finally, the Day arrived. The Big Day–the Lucrative Showing Day. The day on which Mr. Officer said our most promising buyers so far would be looking at the house. We agreed on a time and I assured Officer that the house would be completely spic-and-spanned from one end to the other. Or, at least look like it was.

I desperately wanted this to be the last showing. My nerves were frayed from having our messy lives continually disrupted and from constantly lugging the detritus of our daily existence back and forth between the house and the truck camper. I was afraid I was losing my mind, especially on the days when the kids were having far too much wild fun. Those were the days when I secretly priced out storage units.

I thought we were ahead of schedule with our bold swooping process on Lucrative Day when the doorbell rang. It was Mr. Officer with our buyers. He was early–drat!

I cowered as I opened the door to face Mr. Officer and his preapproved-for-a-hefty-mortgage guests. We weren’t ready. Not everything was contained. Even ten more precious minutes would have been enough for me to stow the worst of the clutter.

Worse yet, one of the kids’ boxes had dripped pieces of dirty laundry on its way out to the camper. As I stood facing the polished young couple smiling on my front steps, I tried to keep my gaze up and away from the bra that was right inside the door, sprawled across the entry rug. Keeping my eyes fixed as I greeted the guests, I discreetly hooked the bra with my toe and kicked it behind me. I hoped it would remain out of view long enough for Mr. Officer to usher the guests down to see the lower level of our split level first. Unfortunately, toddler A. picked the bra up, put it across her chest, and started parading gleefully around us as the guests stepped in. Officer gave me a look that could have melted the paint on his Acura. It wouldn’t be the last of such looks I would get that day.

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My Pharisaism made me act like a successful, but dictatorial real estate agent. I made it my life’s ambition to showcase and sell my faith to unbelievers. Thus, I became very annoyed when my freer, uninhibited fellow Christians didn’t keep their lives clean and contained in the ways I believed they should.

I was infected with the same spirit the ancient Pharisees were. Those leaders had worked for centuries to build an exacting and perfect structure of traditions in which to contain their religion. They believed that God lived inside their container and only the Jewish people who carefully adhered to all the regulations could meet Him there.

In a way, the Pharisees determination to create a solid law structure was understandable. Throughout history, the Jewish people had gone through times of rebellion against God and gross idolatry that had resulted in periods of harsh punishment. Several hundred years before Jesus arrived, the seeds of Pharisaism had already been planted by leaders who strove to prevent God’s people from straying so dangerously outside the boundaries of the Law. They felt they had no choice but to set up hedges of traditions to keep their structure ceremonially clean, and to keep the dangerous, unclean pagan stuff out.

However, as I talked about in my last post, the Pharisees lost sight of the fact that God cannot be contained inside anything. Ever. Not even a law structure that they had reinforced and made as impenetrable as a twentieth century nuclear containment building.

There was simply no allowance made for messes on the inside of the Jewish religion. As a result, the Jewish people who wanted a relationship with God had to box up their honest sin clutter and haul it outside whenever the Pharisees came around. The people had to pretend like their lives always looked that clean. It made for a nerve-wracking, manipulative, burdensome faith practice. And it felt to the people like there was no way out. There were stuck in a deep religious rut.

Arriving completely outside of the system, however, Jesus was in a position to pull his worshipers out of their rut. He did it in ways that were so unorthodox to the Pharisees that they absolutely refused to accept him as coming from God.

For one thing, Jesus didn’t just tolerate uncleanness, he faced it, embraced it, loved it, forgave it. That was the point of the Good Samaritan parable. He took a person whom the Pharisees would have viewed as their social enemy–a traitorous, vile, unclean Samaritan–and cast that man as the hero of the story. Jesus illustrated how it would be the outcast, the outsider who would truly love and minister to people in the New Kingdom.

In the story of the Good Samaritan, it was those contained within the scrubbed system–the Jewish religious leaders–who would turn a blind eye to the injured person and walk around his suffering without even a gesture of mercy. The Samaritan, an honest and open sinner, would be the one to sacrifice his time and money to help a needy person.

And so, the only way that I would ever rec0ver from Pharisaism would be to stop adhering to a system of thought that believed it had to be clean and pretty in order to contain God. Like the Apostle Peter when he really thought he was strong enough, righteous enough to always be loyal to God, I would have to face the fact that my heart had hidden weakness and shame lurking just beneath the surface. All it would take is a jolt of unexpected confrontation for it to ploop out, right in the open in front of everyone. And that would actually be a very good thing, because honesty always pays bigger dividends than phoniness ever can.

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In the case of my home marketing efforts, something bad was bound to happen. We couldn’t live in the dishonesty of immaculateness indefinitely and not have something real ploop out eventually. On Lucrative Day, I remember scooping up my lingerie-displaying toddler and racing up to the kitchen while Mr. Officer knowingly ushered the guests downstairs. In a panic, and without an available box within reach, I grabbed anything and everything in sight and stuffed it in the oven. Wincing at the terrible squeaking noise that the oven door had recently developed, I closed it with a mighty shove, thankful that the oven window was dirty enough to hide the google eyes of the stuffed monkey that was peering through it.

I then herded the kids out the back door to wait with me on the patio while the potential buyers inspected every stupid inch of my faux-clean home. They certainly took their sweet time. It seemed like forever that I had to try and amuse the kids with sticks and leaves. (All our outdoor toys were in the front seat of the car.)

Finally, through the open kitchen window, while overhearing Officer Agent regale the benefits of a tiny, er, compact kitchen, I heard a most dreaded sound. It was the awful, terrible screeeech of the oven door. The distinct noise of our grungy mess plooping out for all the world to gaze upon in disgust.

I then listened helplessly to the plinking and rustling of objects hitting the floor and the simultaneous gasps of the observers, followed by ten seconds of complete silence.

My horror was eclipsed with a sudden inner rage. What kind of sick people peer inside an oven when they’re looking at a home for sale? What has this world come to?

I took a moment to gather my wits and then went into the kitchen to try and salvage whatever shred of decency might still be had. I walked in to see the stuffed monkey, a pile of Lego, several dirty socks, various magazines, books, a stray piece of bread, a hairbrush, some plastic cups, a large tennis shoe, and of course, the bra, all spilled out onto the open floor and open door of the oven. It was utterly, excruciatingly embarrassing.

I can’t remember exactly how I tried to verbally mop up the situation. I’ll never, ever forget, though, that those were the people who did buy the house. In spite of Officer Agent’s extreme disapproval. In spite of our goofy mess. In spite of our failed attempt at perfection, the house sold that very day.

Honestly, it was a lucrative day, after all.

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So, now I close today’s post with this thought:  Messes can’t be contained forever, they have to be dealt with.

Has our modern church system, replete with paid clergy and Sunday traditions become dangerously close to the Pharisaical nuclear containment buildings? Have we tried to compress Jesus down to something we can contain within our system?

And if we have, then will we reject Him if He returns outside this system? Will we fail to recognize Him if His methods and politics and love go completely against our theological traditions?

Dare I open this squeaky door?

Dare I even ask such questions?

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Containment Policy

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(FYI: I just added a “Books” page above. You might want to check it out…)

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“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” 1961

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A childhood memory surfaced the other day and prompted me to immediately call my mom and ask her this, “Why did you cook split pea soup in a pressure cooker, anyway?”

I was remembering a traumatically funny incident that occurred when I was around ten or eleven. It was a time when my friend and I heard a huge BANG erupt from the kitchen while we were quietly playing in my room. We ran out to be greeted by the nightmarish sight of steaming, thick green goo splattered all over the stove, counter, wall and ceiling. A dripping pressure cooker sat chugging and burping on a burner, like a naughty kid who’s just vomited all over. It was a split pea soup explosion, unlike anything I had witnessed before in my sheltered life.

Mom’s answer to my above question was simply, “It was your father’s fault.”

I pressed for details and she said that Dad figured the pressure cooker could greatly speed up the pea softening process. Mom added that the cooker’s manual advised against cooking split pea soup under pressure, but “of course your dad didn’t bother to read the instructions.”

I asked Mom how long it took to clean up the disaster and she said she couldn’t really remember.

“It was your dad’s problem,” she said. “I told him to clean it up, so he did.”

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I have a pressure cooker but am too terrified of it to use it. I think the pea soup thing did a bit of lasting damage to my still-developing psyche when I was a kid. My husband, being much braver and more mentally stable than me, has cooked with the pressure pot a couple of times, but I’ve avoided it, being terrified of having something akin to an over-fired steam engine chugging away inside my home. It seems way too dangerous–no amount of tenderized pork butt is worth that kind of risk.

I don’t think my phobia is completely unwarranted. Pressurized containers burst all the time. In fact, history is peppered with examples of large-scale burstings that terrorized entire communities and even killed people. The “Boston Molassacre” of 1919 is one example. This disaster resulted when a giant storage tank filled with molasses exploded in the middle of a crowded Boston neighborhood, creating a deadly, sticky situation. Read on:

“1919: A giant molasses tank blows up, sending a wall of thick, sticky syrup through the streets of a Boston neighborhood. The blast and the molasses flood kill 21 people and injure 150.

http://en.wikipedia.org – photo by Globe Newspaper Co. (Boston Public Library)

The Purity Distilling Company built the tank in 1915…With a diameter of 90 feet and 50 feet high, the iron tank could hold about 2½ million gallons of molasses, ready to be distilled into rum or industrial alcohol.

… No one is sure what caused the disaster…the tank didn’t merely give way —it exploded.

[T]he tank gave out a dull roar, and then its two sides flew outward with a mighty blast. One huge piece knocked out the support of an elevated railway, buckling the tracks…Fragments of metal landed 200 feet away.

Besides sending shrapnel whizzing through the air, the explosion flattened people, horses and buildings with a huge shockwave. As some tried to get to their feet, the sudden vacuum where the tank once was created a reverse shockwave, sucking air in and knocking people, animals and vehicles around once more, and shaking homes off their foundations.

That was just the first few seconds. The real terror was about to begin.

The tank had been filled to near capacity, and 2.3 million gallons of thick, heavy, odorous molasses formed a sticky tsunami that started at 25 or 30 feet high and coursed through the streets at 35 mph. Victims couldn’t outrun it. It knocked them into buildings and other obstacles, it swept them off their feet, and it pulled them under to drown in a viscous, suffocating, brown death.When it was over, more than a score had died, and seven or eight times that number suffered injuries.”[1]

Can you imagine? What a horrific way to die! Occurring long before the implementation of federal safety standards, this disaster might have at least planted the idea that industrial equipment needed to be regularly checked for weak points.

This story prompted me to run and check our hot water tank for leaks.

It also prompted me to inspect the giant plastic bottle of corn syrup I bought two years ago that’s huddling in the back of my baking cupboard, patiently waiting to be used for the bold Christmas candy-making project I dreamed up in the manic phase of one of my sugar-craving episodes. I don’t think the bottle is big enough to produce a shockwave if it inexplicably bursts and pours out into the cupboard, but it might drown some ants in a viscous, suffocating, clear death.

Maybe I should just use it all up in something today. Hmm. Let’s see. Homemade marshmallows, anyone? Or, better yet–fake Halloween blood. Yes, that ‘s it. Talk about killing two birds with one stone–I can finally use up all my corn syrup and stage a realistic zombie apocalypse at the same time.

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So, the potential breakdown of containers like pressure cookers, molasses tanks and zombies’ graves brought to mind a certain bible verse. It’s Matthew 9:17, where Jesus said,

“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the old skins would burst from the pressure, spilling the wine and ruining the skins. New wine is stored in new wineskins so that both are preserved.” (NLT)

Way back, goatskins were used to store wine. While fermenting, fresh grape juice would expand, so it was vital to store it in a goatskin that was stretchy enough to accommodate the expansion. A used wineskin, already stretched to its max and often brittle, would break if filled with new wine.

Jesus used this word picture to show the futility of  trying to contain the New Covenant within the parameters of the old order–the Law. God had announced in Jeremiah 31:31 that the New Covenant (God’s promise that people may have a relationship with him based on His grace rather than their adherence to the law) could not be contained, or defined, within the old system.

“‘But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day,’ says the Lord. ‘I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.'” (NLT)

So, the Holy Spirit is the metaphorical wine. Our hearts are the metaphorical wineskins–the containers that the Spirit is poured into. I have already written about this before, so I’m going to take liberties with my own words and reblog what I said about this from a May post:

“…Wally, my inner Pharisee, insisted that the real Messiah chose to live inside a traditional system. He made me forget that Jesus said the Holy Spirit, under the new system, would choose to take up residence inside people.

I had definitely known that and felt that energy operating inside me at one time. But as the insidious Pharisaism disease slowly took over, I began losing that power. Wally did his best to make sure that I basically forgot my first love. He slowly turned my attention back to the physical side of my faith—namely, duties, rules, appearances, good behavior and good politics—and away from the mystical, poetic, unfathomable, unsearchable, merciful, joyful, and alive Spirit of God.

The fermenting, effervescing, eternal, and organic Being.

The Love part of Jesus that stayed behind when his physical body left the earth.

The Life part of God that can only be contained within living, stretchy, biological tissue…

…which makes up the hearts and brains of real people…

…even silly ones like me.”

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The Holy Spirit is a delightfully dangerous substance. It can ferment, overheat, or explode. Or it can quietly pump, unseen, unheard, through a person’s veins, providing the life and light necessary for true love to develop and overflow from one heart container into another.

It can’t be–won’t be–contained within anything manmade.

Not even a church.

The first wave of the Holy Spirit poured out all over the first Christian believers right after Jesus left the earth. And the effects of that moment continue to seep out, over the face of the whole earth, inside and outside of religion.

That brings me back to the end of the Boston Molassacre article I quoted earlier:

“One of the strangest industrial accidents ever lingered on, and not just in a few safety improvements. On warm days for decades after, the neighborhood smelled of molasses. And if you listen to old-timers, even today, hot weather brings a vague, sweet smell to the streets of the North End.” [1]

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The Boston Post Coverage, 1919

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[1] Alfred, Randy. “Jan. 15, 1919: Morass of Molasses Mucks Up Boston.” Wired.com http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2009/01/dayintech_0115

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In The 70’s, Bread Was Money, In My Prayers, Bread is Time

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Anybody else out there remember the Mod Squad? It was a groovy, hip TV crime drama that ran from 1968 to 1973 on ABC. Even though I was a little kid in the middle of its airing years, I can recall being fascinated with it the few times I snuck in a viewing.

My dad wouldn’t tolerate it when he was in the room.

“Dang hippie show,” he’d mutter as he directed me to slide forward on the carpet and turn the channel dial. I was the remote.

Dad was right, of course–The Mod Squad was unabashedly a hippie show. It was a cutting-edge program, targeted to the youth counterculture of that era, showcasing all the beads, miniskirts, aviator sunglasses, and spectacular afros an eight-year-old honky girl could dream of.

I especially liked the lingo. The Mod Squad’s jive talkin’ was so funky my parents didn’t even understand it. Peter, Julie and Linc called the police “fuzz,” said, “far out, man,” and called each other “cool cats.”

My Malibu Barbie started talking the same way to Skipper. When their Country Camper ran over my sister’s Ken doll, Barbie said, “Outta sight!” and when the Carousel Kitchen’s batteries ran low, Skipper would say, “Heavy, man.”

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But it was my Velvet doll, the one with the retractable hair feature, that always referred to money as “bread.” She would complain to her cousin Crissy doll that her constant hairstyling appointments cost her a lot of bread.

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Remembering that phrase now always makes the “give us this day our daily bread” part of the Lord’s Prayer more relevant in a trippy sort of way.

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Time is a strange entity. It exists, but it doesn’t feel like it does.

Time has always been the only thing I don’t feel I have enough of. As a consumeristic, over-blessed American, my house is full of too much food, too many shoes, and way too many pieces of blue glassware. But none of those things can be a receptacle in which to capture the elusive minutes that are always flying away from me. I’ve despaired many times over not having enough time.

That’s changed a bit in this last year, however. A while back, I was at a church service in which the pastor preached on the “daily bread” part of the Lord’s Prayer. He talked about how bread represented provision and how we can daily trust that God will provide us with just what we need for that day. He mentioned various types of provisions that God grants, but the one that stuck out for me was time. I had never really thought of time as a provision before.

Yet, it is. Just like food, money, water, shelter–time is something granted to me each day and I can choose to use it wisely or squander it on worthless, selfish pursuits (which shall remain nameless for the moment).

So, if time is what I need, then I have to trust that I’ll get enough of it to do whatever I’m supposed to for that day, right?

That epiphany made me view the concept of time in a different light. I haven’t been as stressed about not getting certain things done lately, because I now realize that if I haven’t been given the time to do them, I must not need to get them done that day. That idea has been freeing, to say the least.

And even though I’m no mathematician, I did homeschool my boys just long enough to relearn the transitive property thing: if a=b, and b=c, then a=c. Therefore, if the Mod Squad called bread money, and money equals time, then time must equal bread. Groovy, huh?

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Wally, my inner Pharisee, lied to me about time. He told me that time was given to me first and foremost to further the kingdom of God. He said that because the kingdom of God was built on the church, my time must be spent primarily on church commitment. Even at the expense of my relationships.

He was a liar, of course, but it would take a lot of frustration for me to finally see that. Wally was passing down the lies that his ancestors, the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, had instilled in him. Those old guys spent so much time studying, nit-picking, and carrying out their law interpretations that they completely lost sight of the purpose of the law. Because they spent all their time on the process they had none left with which to enjoy the results. In John 5:39 Jesus said:

“You diligently study the scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the scriptures that testify about me [point to me], yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (NIV)

In other words, the Pharisees got so wrapped up in their process, they completely missed the divine results! That’s what happened to me when I got so wrapped up in churchiness I completely missed the point of fellowship. The spirit of gathering with other believers involves connecting with people through relationships. We need relationships in order to stay emotionally healthy and to learn from each other. But when I exhausted all my time and energy on keeping the club sparkling and organized according to the right charts and standards, I had no time left to enjoy people. I wasted way too much time on the process and ended up disconnected from people, and thus, from Jesus. It was a sad state of affairs, but like the Pharisees, I felt superior in my over-the-top commitment and resented people who were free to enjoy the results of fellowship…

…those far-out, fellowshipping dudes who wisely saved enough of their valuable time for gettin’ down and enjoyin’ a little boogie fever together.

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As a history lover, I’m currently reading, “Killing Lincoln” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. It’s a fascinating account of the last weeks of Abraham Lincoln’s life and the events that led to his assassination.

The very first sentence of the book’s prologue was ingenius. Talk about crafting the perfect opening hook:

“The man with six weeks to live is anxious.”

Only nine words into the story and I was already induced to ponder life. If Lincoln had known he would be killed in six weeks would he have done anything differently? Would that knowledge have made him change his plans and possibly change the course of American history?

What if I was told I only have six weeks to live?

Would I do anything differently?

I think I would. Even though I’m far from being one of the more careful, organized type of people on this planet, the knowledge that I was about to leave earth would still make me loosen up about a few things. I think it would suddenly make time more precious than anything else in the world and I’d imagine I’d stop wasting it on things that really don’t matter.

As much as I love my faith, I think that now, as a former Pharisee, the last thing on earth I’d worry about would involve church stuff. I would hope that I’d finally see Who church was supposed to point to and stop obsessing over the pointing process. I’d really hope I wouldn’t waste another valuable minute policing the after-church snack volunteer list. Or worry about who was supposed to get the bulletin copies made. Or whether or not the worship team played my favorite songs. Or why I was always the only one who ever remembered to clean the coffee pots.

I imagine that anything and everything I could do to spend every moment with my family and friends would become my top priority. I’d run, not walk, to my car and race to my in-state and out-of-state kids’ houses and plop down on their couches and try to say everything that I thought I’d have a lifetime to say.

Hmm. Maybe that wouldn’t be right. Maybe it’d be better for me to plop down and listen to them. Listen to everything they’ve ever needed to say to me.

Or, maybe we’d just hug and cry and hold each other tight.  That would probably be enough, because time is precious.

Precious bread, man.

Righteous, precious bread.

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The Handy Ambulance/Hearse Approach To Evangelism

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(Woo-hoo! Before I write the post that explains the above title, I wanted to take a moment to announce the publication on my first novel entitled, The Epic Undoing of Haley Ann Ewing. The genre is Christian Humor Fiction and it is tentatively scheduled for release by Evergreen Press in four months. This week, I’ll be working on a Books page on this site that will give more information about the story and maybe include some excerpts.)

Now, read on…

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If I wasn’t such a vain person, I would seriously buy this:

It just looks so handy to me–not only to keep hair out of my face while eating, but to prevent the inevitable splashing of sauce on one’s cheeks when eating noodle and pasta dishes. (Does anyone else have issues with that, or is it just me and my exuberant eating style?)

Few things fascinate me more than weird gadgets. I think this interest could be something I inherited from my Grandpa Miles. He spent a good deal of money in his retirement years ordering oddball merchandise out of catalogs and off  TV commercials. I’m not sure if he had too much time on his hands, or if he really did believe in the gizmos’ power to improve his life.

I remember the grabber stick he was sure would be invaluable to my very short Grandma. It was flimsy and had a claw-like end that wasn’t easy to manipulate. Grandma tried it a couple times, but banished it from the kitchen after it prematurely let go of the box of light bulbs she was pulling off a top shelf. (It would later be adopted as a handy weapon of terror in my little brother’s grasp. I still whip around with my fists raised if I hear the word, “pinchy” repeated several times behind my back.)

I also remember sporting several huge, ugly red spots on my nose for days after letting Grandpa convince me that the Vacutex Blackhead Extractor was just the ticket for my pre-teen pore enlargement angst. It didn’t remove the blackheads–it just made them even bigger and highlighted them with blazing red rings. I wanted to die.

My Dad had issues with his father-in-law’s gadgets, as well. He said a person could drown trying to use Grandpa’s special X-ray Fish Spying Goggles, and reported that the Rearview Sight Enhancing Mirror greatly enhanced his chances of driving Grandpa’s car straight into oncoming traffic. Dad said the stupid mirrored visor consisted of a long row of smaller mirrors that stretched across the top of the windshield and made it look like ten cars were coming at him all at once. He kept instinctively flinching, gasping, and ducking while he drove. Said that lethal safety device made him feel like he was back in the Korean War.

Fortunately, my fascination has not induced me to buy many of these types of gadgets. I just like surfing for them out of interest.

It’s the emergency survival things that really catch my eye. I like to imagine what would be the most helpful all-in-one to own if I should ever mindlessly wander into lostness while berry-picking in the mountains.

No need for a daypack crammed with numerous matchbooks, multi-tools, compasses or flashlights if I have this handy-dandy product:

“The SM010A Emergency MP4 Player from Hong Kong’s SATY…can play standard MP3 and MP4 files..and it has a radio…it also has a built in flashlight on it’s top side. It has a pull cord on the left side which allows you to endlessly power it up. 2 minutes of string pulling is enough juice for 1 hour of flashlight usage or 1-2 hours of standby on your cellphone. The Emergency MP4 Player also has a pest and mosquito repellent…an alcohol breathalizer …and poison gas detector.”

www.craziestgadgets.com/2009/01/09/emergency-mp4-player

Wow–I could know on the spot if I was truly lost or just drunk. And, poison gas detector, you say? I say, “Bring it on, terrorists–you can’t make me leave my berry patch that easily!” The only thing this MP4 is missing is a collapsible gas mask that would allow me to keep picking if such an event occurred.

Survival gadgets can generally be thought of as Plan B products. They’re only useful if Plan A doesn’t pan out. That is, if your cruise goes  bad, or your plane wrecks, or you insist on following your GPS, even when it directs you to turn into a snake-infested swamp.

Some products are both Plan A/Plan B types. These can be referred to as “Combinations” or “Conversions.” They are combined units that can convert from one thing to another, depending on the necessity of the moment.

I ran across this mother-of-all combinations the other day:

http://www.northlandpcs.com/professionalcars.htm

An ambulance/hearse combination–how handy is that? Apparently, this 1973 Superior Cadillac was only one in a long, historic line of such combination vehicles that were really used for decades in small towns across the country. Who knew?

The implications are obvious–if Plan A, administering of medical care and transportation to the ER isn’t successful, than everyone is already equipped on the spot to implement Plan B. What a great time and money saver for any strapped municipal budget! Of course, this picture makes me wonder how I would feel if I had a medical emergency and a hearse showed up to transport me…

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So, the whole idea of conversions got me to thinking about another kind of conversion–Christian conversion. Specifically, the following harsh words of Jesus in Matthew 23:15:

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!” (NLT)

Yikers–them is fightin’ words. What exactly was Jesus accusing the Pharisees of here? I think he was basically saying that they would go to great lengths to convert Gentiles to Judaism, but then turn those former pagans into Mini-Mees of the Pharisees’ misguided selves. It was one thing to convert people to Judaism, but quite another to convert them to a twisted Judaism.

It seems that, by Jesus’ time, most of the Pharisees had fallen into a type of grievous idolatry–they were worshiping their own pompous traditions instead of worshiping God. Four hundred years of prophetic silence had taken its toll on the clarity and purpose of  Moses’ Law. It had slowly opened the door for the Jewish leaders to do what comes natural to all humans–make themselves the center of their world. So, being the bookish, creative thinkers that they were, they began to pick the Law apart and reinterpret it so extensively that it became strange, convoluted, and comprised of man’s ideas instead of God’s. These ideas, then, became the traditions that the Pharisees so zealously guarded.

The Pharisees had taken their eyes off God and focused their adoring gaze on their own works. Without intending to, they stopped worshiping the Creator and started worshiping the traditions, something they themselves had created.

It was their own special brand of  idolatry, and in reality, not much different from what they were trying to turn the pagans away from.

The ones they called the “Children of Hell.”

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A scene from Michaelangelo’s “Last Judgement.” The boatman Charon is ferrying the damned into hell. The early Roman church utilized this type of handy, scary art to make sure people got converted and stayed converted.

During one of my deepest Pharisaism disease flare-ups, I remember being particularly zealous to convert people. Fired-up by sermons and Christian radio messages that commanded good Christians to “go and make disciples of all nations,” and “go into all the world and preach the good news,” I determined to get as many people as I could to go to church.

This was obviously not a healthy idea. Like the Pharisees, my thinking had been infiltrated by selfish motives and I didn’t realize that getting people to “go to church” was not necessarily the point of the Great Commission.

In all reality, I wasn’t as interested in introducing people to God as I was to really just wanting them to join my awesome Sunday club. Under the guise of looking out for people’s eternal destinies, I set out to see how many people I could bring to church.

Not only were my motives misguided, so were my methods. I would start out seeing myself as a type of ambulance. I would identify who I thought needed spiritual care and healing and offer to take them to a place like that. More often than not, of course, the person wouldn’t agree that they needed my assistance. That’s when I’d convert my ambulance to a hearse.

They’d need one because I was taught to inform my resistant hearers that they were dying and heading straight for a gruesome, horrible, eternal hell. It was a handy combination technique–pull the magnetized strobe light off the top of the ambulance, close the window curtains from the inside, and voila! my vehicle of loving rescue could instantly become a delivery van for a terrifying death message.

It was a grievous abuse of theology, and, as such, also one of the most grievous symptoms of Pharisaism. But, at times, quite effective. I could certainly scare people into coming to church…

…But not necessarily to the love of God.

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So, like most issues related to Pharisaism, the validity of conversion methods rests solely on motive. Jesus consistently yanked the Pharisees back to the motives behind what their acts, not the acts themselves.

I had to face my diseased motives when I embarked on my recovery. What I found was that the whys and howevers of  my “witnessing” tactics really could be boiled down to one of the worst of the biblical sins–PRIDE. I was convinced that my instituted way of worship was the only right one, and I wanted people to acknowledge that I was right by adopting  that brand of faith practice. Of course, then, when that twisted thinking resulted in a convert, that convert would go on to be just as diseased as me. In effect, I had “turned that person into twice the child of a hearse-driver that I was!”

Thank goodness, I didn’t stay in that mindset forever. Once I began to recover, I learned to develop the daily habit of checking my motives. As long as I stay focused on loving people and letting them know that I’m there for them, I don’t have to drive a hearse anymore.

It really was just an unhandy, unwieldy, gimmicky gadget. Even Grandpa Miles wouldn’t have wanted it.

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I think Grandpa Miles is speaking to me from heaven today. I have a strange and unexpectedly strong urge to buy one of these:

But I promise I won’t…

…maybe.

In The Trunks of Our Cars

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Zach and Dusty, 1994

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One day, about fifteen years ago, my mom realized that their beloved dog, Dusty, was missing. He was the sweet Springer Spaniel my parents had adopted as a puppy after my sister and I left home.  He was smart and gentle–a great companion to my younger brother as a teenager, and a patient playmate for the grandkids that came in quick succession during the 1980’s.

I’ll never forget the panic I heard in my mom’s voice on that fateful day when she called to say that Dusty had disappeared.

“When did you see him last?” I asked.

“When we got home from the store. He ran out and greeted us as usual, but that was hours ago and we haven’t seen him since. He’s not in the yard, anywhere. I’ve called and called for him–even went into the woods, but there’s just no sign of him!”

Mom was really upset. Dusty was Mom’s constant companion during the day, and Dad’s walking partner in the evenings. He had eased their transition to empty-nesters by simply being his friendly self.

“Are you sure he’s not in the house, hiding somewhere?”

“I’ve searched every room, and besides that, he always comes when I call.”

“Do you think he’s run off, farther away?”

“We’ve already driven up and down the road for miles and called and called, but nothing. I’ve talked to all the neighbors and they haven’t seen him.” Her voice broke, making my heart hurt for her. “Oh, Willow–I hope he’s okay!”

I hung up the phone, feeling helpless from my distant location on the other end of Montana. All I could do was pray.

The next morning, I awoke thinking of Dusty.

The phone rang a little while later. “He’s back! Dusty’s here!” Mom’s tone was jubilant.

“Where was he? How did you find him?” I asked.

Mom and Dad’s old Nissan was similar to this one. The trunk was actually quite roomy.

Mom giggled in a rather odd way and then hesitated. She cleared her throat before going on to tell me that prior to leaving for work that morning, Dad had opened the trunk of their little Nissan sedan to put something in and out jumped Dusty. It seems he had been in the trunk of the car all along. For something like a terrible eighteen hours.

Apparently, Dad had walked by the car after unloading it the day before and closed the trunk lid without looking inside it. Looking back, he figured Dusty must have jumped inside, but didn’t protest when the lid slammed down. Dad and Mom both felt horrible.

Especially considering that the whole evening before, while they were driving the back roads, searching the ditches and calling for him from the car windows, the dog was right there–right behind the back seat, in the trunk. Being a patient fellow, he hadn’t made a noise, at least nothing that could be heard above the hum of the engine.

My parents’ immense relief was mixed with immense guilt. They might as well have been Mafia bosses driving around with a silenced informant stuffed in their trunk.

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The Pharisees, along with all the Jewish people, were watching and waiting for the arrival of the long-predicted Messiah. They were desperate for God to raise up a mighty leader who would deliver them from Roman oppression and re-establish the nation of Israel as a kingdom under a Messianic kingship. As a defeated people, the Jews were expecting a political reformer to lead them to national victory, not a humble carpenter’s son who, shunning politics, was there to lead them to spiritual freedom.

And so it was, when Jesus came and lived among them, most of the Jews (especially the Pharisees) refused to believe that he was the one they were looking for. But Jesus stated his identity plainly from the beginning of his ministry:

“Jesus went into Galilee, where he preached…’The time promised by God has come at last!…’The Kingdom of God is near!'” Mark 1:14-15 (NLT)

And,

“…the Pharisees asked Jesus, ‘When will the Kingdom of God come?’ Jesus replied, ‘The Kingdom of God can’t be detected by visible signs. You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the Kingdom of God is already among you. “‘Luke 17:20-21 (NLT)

Of course, most of the Pharisees were blind and deaf to Jesus’ truth. Rather than humbly opening themselves up to the possibility that their presumptions regarding the Messiah’s return were too narrow, they dug in, refusing to see Jesus as anything but a threat to their authority.

In the end, their search for something they already had would result in Jesus’ agonizing death.

Dusty, too, would have eventually died if Mom and Dad hadn’t discovered that, all along, while they were diligently and frantically searching for him, he was right there with them…only a few feet away.

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One of the more aggravating symptoms of my Pharisaism disease was a bout of unhealthy expectations. Most likely related to the larger problem of presumption, these expectations became chronic and damaging over time. They caused me to narrow my perspective on the purpose of church, and caused me to expect that the way I did church was the way that God had universally prescribed for all Christians.

I expected that every church should be housed in a clean, respectable facility, should conduct regular Sunday morning services, should have pleasing worship music, should insist on literal word-for-word bible studies, and be led by a qualified, professional pastor. Anything less could put its members in danger of heresy, or apostasy, or any number of other dangerous conditions ending in –sy.

I expected that the kingdom of God was populated with committed, sober, upright people whose good behavior was the vehicle that allowed them to bring Jesus to their community. That it was every Christian’s duty to whip our culture back into shape–to get people to all live respectably, as I defined respectability, that is.

I fully expected that the American Christian Church model was the only true representation of God’s kingdom to society and I needed to do everything right in order to keep God’s displeasure with America at bay, and then be first in line to receive my reward for doing so.

The problem was, though, that I wasted a ton of time preparing for something that had already arrived.

I was driving around in my religious institutional vehicle, calling out for Jesus, searching for him, longing for him to come and show himself to the pagan culture, not realizing that he was already with me and everyone else.

I didn’t realize I had locked him up inside my sick presumptions.

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Concerning the whole Dusty ordeal, Mom later said the worst part was hoping the neighbors wouldn’t press for specifics when they asked if the dog had been found. Dad said the worst part for him was when the the poor dog leapt out of the trunk and started running around on three legs so he could pee while still running. Practically flooded the yard, Dad reported.

But everything turned out okay in the end. Dusty survived just fine.

And, as a diseased church person, so did I…

…but only after I opened my mind.

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Boxed Inside The Clean Club

(Due to summer busyness, I’m rerunning an April post.)

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I’ve never been much of a club person. The main reason is probably because the majority of  clubs in the small towns I’ve lived in are usually craft-oriented. I’ve lived among whole colonies of Martha Stewart clones.  These amazing women organize clubs for quilters, knitters, scrapbookers, beaders, potters, wool-spinners, candlemakers, soap carvers and twiggy wreathers, to name a few.

But never anything for someone with my particular disability. You see, I was born with an unfortunate predisposition to clumsiness and fumbly-fingeredness.

I am handicraft impaired.

There is no humiliation quite as raw as the type that occurs when someone like me struggles through a Friendly Plastic jewelry making class only to find that their modeling plastic is anything but friendly. Especially when the year is 1989 and everyone else has produced glorious purple, fuchsia, and silver-colored earring medallions with their plastic chunks. My medallions look like toucan poop on juice can lids.

There is only one club involving craft-making in which I can achieve a modicum of success. It is called Kindergarten. My back and legs may cramp from crouching on the tiny chairs, and the cracker portions may be unsatisfyingly small, but the oohs and ahhs I receive from my tablemates when I hold up a completed paper bag pig puppet make it all worthwhile. I am at home in the safety scissors crowd.

Sewing defeats me before I even start. I cried my way through sewing in 4H and got a generous D in ninth grade Home Ec when the teacher pointed out that I had sewed the skirt waistband onto the hem end. I modeled that fiasco with a Mrs. Wiggin’s gait as the darts constricted my knees. (Does anyone else out there remember Carol Burnett as Mrs. Wiggins and how Tim Conway’s Mr. Tudball said Mrs. HuhWiggins?)

Suffice it to say that I’m happiest when I’m outside a crafting club, rather than inside where, even though the members are sweet and kind and the coffee is delicious, I just don’t fit in.

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The most notable member of the mega-righteous Pharisee Club was Saul–later known as Paul the Apostle.  As a Pharisee, Paul lived and breathed the Old Covenant practices and prided himself on mastering the art of regulation-keeping. He reported that he was “faultless” in his legalistic righteousness. This extreme legalism also blinded him. Similar to the other strict Pharisees, he had no vision beyond what he presumed God to be.

Metaphorically speaking, Paul and his Pharisee cronies lived in a big box.  Orderly, spacious, fenced and hedged, it was their Law Clubhouse. It had taken centuries to build, but was nearly complete by the time Jesus arrived. The Law Clubhouse became an elite retreat for the brightest and best of the Pharisees. They stayed separated from the rest of society in the immaculate building and admitted entrance only to those who conformed to their high standards.

As nice a place as the Law House was, however, its interior was always dark. And that was exactly what led to the blindness of the Pharisees. Like moles living underground, the Pharisees had no need for eyesight as long as they stayed inside their familiar, dark dwelling. They could feel their way around just fine.

Inside the Law House, Paul was the supervisor of the house’s security team, ordering various punishments and death sentences to the pagans who tried to gain entrance illegally. The blasphemers who, even though they didn’t submit to proper rule-keeping, claimed to be children of God. Being that sort of commander was hard work, but somebody had to do it. And, in spite of, or maybe because of his blindness, Paul did it well.

Unfortunately though, like an Olympian whose promising athletic future is brought to a screeching halt by a serious injury, Paul’s career was derailed on the road to Damascus. In a curious twist, his Pharisaical, spiritual blindness would be zapped with a dose of physical blindness. He would be struck blind by a LASIK beam so powerful it would knock him right out the Clubhouse and out beyond the perfect hedges. When he would finally regain his sight, he would find himself among the clumsy pagans he had previously punished. And he would surprise himself by enjoying their company.

Even more astonishing would be his face-to-face with Jesus. Once his blindness was cured, Paul would see that Jesus was the Messiah and that Jesus had chosen to live outside the immaculate Clubhouse.

Outside the rules.

Outside the traditions.

Outside the box.

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Pharisaism is an equal opportunity disease. It infects Christians of all persuasions, denominations, and non-denominations. Its symptoms are not necessarily manifested in the practices of individual churches, but in the prevailing attitudes of individual members. I believe God is happy with the differences He has created in the hearts of believers, so we shouldn’t judge whether or not Pharisaism exists in certain congregations based on their worship preferences.

Unfortunately though, Pharisaism has definitely sickened some churches. These are the ones with a number of people as ill as I used to be. The ones with the amazing ability to craft gorgeous church services and build frameworks on which to display their immaculate standards. Places where even though the members are kind and sweet, and the coffee is delicious, the  orthodoxy-impaired among us just don’t fit in.

Places and people that the struggling, fumbly-fingered sinners steer away from in the same way I run from an army of kindly scrapbookers carrying their nauseatingly organized supply boxes.

But that’s okay. I’m perfectly content to spend my time crafting a poem–an ode to God–while waiting in the car in a Home Depot parking lot. A lot of inspiration can occur when one’s husband is dreaming big in the store’s power tool aisle. And sometimes, even though my poems are now written outside a church clubhouse, they still turn out theologically correct.

At least my kindergarten friends think so.

Our family photos. Scrapbook this, Martha Stewart!

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Careful People, Beware!

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“The Battle of Bunker Hill” by Howard Pyle

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If you’re a careful rule-abider, few things are more frustrating than being one-upped by a careless rule-breaker.

The British soldiers battling in the American Revolution certainly felt that pain. After being carefully trained to fight according to formal European rules of engagement, they met up with informal, untrained American colonists who thumbed their noses at the rules and instead utilized Indian-style guerrilla warfare tactics.

“King’s Mountain 1780” by Don Troiani

The British generals dug in, thinking their rigorous adherence to the centuries-old battle system would eventually force the patriot rebels to surrender and thus prove British superiority. They insisted on marching in formal lines, right out into open fields, clothed in brilliant scarlet coats. This system worked when the enemy fought by the same rules, but the Americans didn’t pay attention to the rules. They looked only to the intent of the battle–to secure freedom from an oppressive government.

The British deemed the Americans as uncivilized and ignorant. And, indeed, in many ways the Americans were. But in the heat of battle, that patriot boorishness would ultimately prove quite effective.

So effective, in fact, that future armies would begin to adopt more of these techniques.

The British should have taken their eyes off the details of proper fighting technique and looked at the bigger picture instead. They just couldn’t do it, though. It wasn’t in their blood. (Which, by the way, would end up spilled all over the New World real estate.)

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Let’s face it–some people are naturally careful and detail-oriented, and some are not. I definitely fall into the not category. I’ve tried really, really hard to be careful, but my mind wanders off on rabbit trails constantly and I inevitably stop paying attention to whatever my hands are doing at that moment and something bad happens. It’s a very good thing that I’m not a neurosurgeon.

It’s also completely to the credit of God’s protection that each of my six kids has made it out alive.

Even on the rare occasions that I succeed in staying focused, I’ll inevitably find that it was only because I overlooked something else.

Like the time when, while carefully putting together a nice outfit for church, I borrowed a pair of shoes from my mother. It was for a service in which I would be the piano accompanist for a music special. I was delighted when my visiting mom happened to bring along a pair of shoes that matched my skirt even more perfectly than any of my own did. Mom hadn’t planned on wearing them that morning and let me borrow them with the cautionary reminder that my feet are slightly bigger than hers. She also voiced her concern over my habit of shunning pantyhose in the summer and wearing them over bare feet. She said something about my feet sticking uncomfortably to the insides–a warning to which I merely rolled my eyes before going on to carefully ensure that the shoes’ color and style worked with my outfit. They were perfect.

Almost.

I went to church happily with my family that morning, feeling quite fashionable for once. Sure, I had to keep my toes curled up inside the short shoes, and there wasn’t even a hint of arch support inside the ballerina-type flats, but that was a small price to pay for cuteness. My high arches could easily survive an hour without support.

Everything was going swimmingly until I had to walk up to the piano at the front of the church. The congregation had fallen completely silent as I made my way from the back of the sanctuary–the place where one sits when one is married to an introvert.

My journey forward into the hushed stillness devolved into a traumatic odyssey as I realized, too late, that bare, sweaty arches will create suction against flat cuteness.

Loud suction.

Suction that sounds exactly like flatulence with every step.

Unbelievably, I was suddenly walking on whoopee cushion shoes that weren’t so cute after all.

“…These nice fluffy and fuzzy black slippers come equipped with a built in whoopee cushion that lets you…” http://www.prankplace.com

I might as well have ordered them out of one of those elderly people’s gadget catalogs.

I hesitated after the first reverberating perrfftt, but then kept going, knowing that saying something like, “Oh, dear–it’s the shoes!” would probably just make me look truly guilty. It was so awful. I tried to pull my feet out of the shoes a little bit, but of course, Mom was right. My clammy bare feet were glued fast to the shoes’ lining. The whole doomed walk was punctuated with noises that made me sound like someone who was either very rude or very ill.

Except for a few coughs and snickers, the polite congregation remained silent as, red-faced, I pootzed my mortified self up to the piano bench and plunked out the opening bars to the hymn, “From Every Stormy Wind That Blows.”

(Okay, maybe isn’t wasn’t that hymn. But it should have been.)

And so, as in the case of 18th century British generals and first century Pharisees, I would have been much better off being less careful about appearances and more practical regarding results.

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In New Testament times, the Pharisees were the ultimate, cautious rule-abiders. Jesus pointed this out in Matthew 23 when he said,

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things.”(NLT)

The Pharisees were like the British generals. Their stubborn focus on propriety, appearance and tradition kept them from seeing the bigger picture. They had lost sight of the law’s intent–the promotion of justice, mercy, and faith for the Jewish people–and instead used it as a vehicle to showcase their own piety. They made great shows of giving exact tenths of every bit of their income to their religious cause, but neglected to quietly use the same resources to relieve the common people’s burdens.

So many unnecessary Redcoat deaths resulted from the British generals’ refusal to part with tradition. And so many Jewish children of God were denied lives of spiritual freedom because of a similar obstinance on the part of the Pharisees.

Jesus, the revolutionary, was the leader of the Old Covenant overthrow. He taught his followers unorthodox tactics that stymied the Pharisees. They were blindsided by his careless habit of violating their traditions and embracing those who were judged as unclean pagans. He had the gall to uphold the Spirit of the law while ignoring their absurdly detailed tithings and fastings and Sabbath-keepings.

Jesus fought smart and he taught his followers to do the same. Like the British Redcoats, the Pharisees’ formalities made them easy targets for Satan’s attacks. Craving recognition, they put themselves right out in the open, almost begging to be penetrated and infiltrated by poisoned pride and hypocrisy darts.

In contrast, Jesus avoided hype and theatrics. He wasn’t careful about crafting an appearance, but focused instead on interior, practical heart matters. He taught his disciples how to steer clear from the temptations of celebrity by staying on the fringes of society. It was safer there.

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So, in a weird way, maybe it’s safer to be careless with some things. Part of my healing from Pharisaism would involve throwing caution to the winds and adopting a less formal attitude regarding church stuff. I would have to open my mind, realizing that I just might be part of a new era. A time in church history when our culture and our faith are both required to take the next step toward preparing for Jesus’ return.

Maybe that preparation will look entirely different than anything our churches have ever formally taught us.

Maybe it’s okay that churches are changing–even closing (?)–especially if church growth will no longer be measured in numbers.

Maybe we’ll be part of a revolution.

And maybe, just like when Jesus came the first time, the clinging-to-tradition Pharisees among us will be the last to recognize His face.

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Please help me, Lord to worry less about methods and more about hearts. Mine and others–I don’t want to miss seeing you in any of us. Keep me vigilant, ever watching for you, wherever I am…

…even from my front porch.