Circumcision?

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Circumcision? I mean, really now—circumcision?? There are a lot of weird things in the bible, but I’ve always thought that is one of the weirdest. I’m going to be frank here. What was going through God’s mind when He decided to institute that surgical procedure as the way to mark people (ahem, men) as his “chosen” ones? If it had to be a permanent mark, then why not a tattoo? Or, why couldn’t he have created a type of extraneous skin flap on the big toe that could be removed from infant males in a Jewish ceremony? That would definitely have caused less embarrassment milleniums later when preached about in a church service in which one’s mouthy, curious five-year-old raises loud questions concerning explicit hows and whys of said procedure.

But for new Christians in the first century, circumcision didn’t seem to be a particularly delicate subject. It was actually a hotly debated subject. When Jewish people became Christians and began letting go of Old Covenant practices, they wrestled with whether or not this external sign was still necessary. The topic heated up even more as Paul started bringing Gentiles, or pagans, into the fold. They weren’t marked, and I’m sure weren’t eagerly lining up for any later-in-life day surgery, either.

So, to be, or not to be? That was the question. Paul eventually provided the answer to this in several key epistle passages:

“For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by God’s Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people.” Romans 2:28-29 (NLT)

“It doesn’t matter whether we have been circumcised or not. What counts is whether we have been transformed into a new creation. May God’s peace and mercy be upon all who live by this principle; they are the new people of God.” Galatians 6:15-16 (NLT)

It’s important to note that the New Covenant enlarged the spiritual definition of “Jew” to include anyone who opens their heart to God and recognizes the divinity of his son, Jesus. That’s it. The children of God would no longer be identified by external signs. There would be no more need for rites, rituals, rules, regulations.

No more prescribed offerings and bloody sacrifices. No more demonizing objects or politics. No more fights over preferences or denominations. No more pride in appearances or in hip Sunday praise bands.

A person’s identity as a follower of God would simply be marked by one’s passionate, internal heart desire to know Him. In the book of Galatians, Paul furthers his point even more graphically:

“I just wish that those troublemakers who want to mutilate you by circumcision would mutilate themselves. For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love. For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Galatians 5:11-14 (NLT)

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The introduction of the New Covenant was tricky. Jesus brought it first to the Jewish people as a replacement for the worn-out Old Covenant. Even though Jesus made it clear that the new was a replacement, not an addendum, the Jews kept trying to incorporate it into the old mold anyway.

Jesus warned that trying to fit his New Covenant into the Law House was as useless as trying to put new, unfermented wine into an old container (which wouldn’t expand so would explode when the new wine started fermenting), or using a piece of unshrunk cloth to patch a hole in an old shirt, (which, when washed, would do its inevitable shrinking and thus rip away from the already-shrunk cloth), or putting new groceries into already-used plastic bags (which might save the mom two cents per bag by bringing back her old ones to the store, but would burst open in the parking lot and expel items in all directions, and require said mom to chase down cans of chili from under moving vehicles and retrieve large soda bottles from under tire of pickup truck in which massive snarling dog was stationed protectively at tailgate.)

The Pharisees had always assumed that their law duties were, in effect, keeping the House ready for the Messiah’s occupation when he arrived. But, unfortunately, they had hoarded so many useless rules and undealt-with sin piles, that Jesus said at one point, “…yet some of you are trying to kill me because there’s no room in your hearts for my message.” John 8:37 (NLT)

They were full to the max with other stuff. Old, worn-out stuff. Stuff that they would protect with deadly force.

They were sporting NO VACANCY signs on their hearts and guarding their doors with guns.

My Pharisaism hung the same sign on my heart. Wally, as a 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 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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Abusing My Witness Mask

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I am always the most worried about how I appear when I’m around those with whom I’m the least comfortable. -Pauline Serrano

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“Wait for me–I need to go put my face on.”

That was my mom’s way of saying she wanted to put her makeup on before going out. I can still hear her saying that to Dad on the mornings when he urged us to get in the car for our Saturday trip to town.

My pretty mom, a child of the glamorous 1950’s and a long-time Avon lady, has rarely if ever left her house without wearing a full complement of facial and eye cosmetics. For Mom, makeup has always been as vital a part of her wardrobe as underwear. Like many women from her era, she simply won’t be seen without it. I think she really does consider it her actual face.

I can’t say that I’m completely exempt from having that mindset myself, though. I think I’m probably more comfortable to be seen without it than Mom is, but I’ve worn makeup since junior high and don’t intend to stop anytime soon.  There’s just something satisfying about harmless deception. Even though it probably doesn’t make as much of a difference as I like to think it does, smoother skin tone and longer eyelashes somehow make me feel more acceptable in society.

The problem with my makeup habit, though, is that I know I’m too reliant on it. I’ve presented a made-up me to the world for so long now that I don’t feel like the real me is the real me. When I dash into the store on the way home from a hard day of woodcutting in the mountains, I worry I’ll run into an acquaintance who, upon seeing me in plainface mode, will report to others that Willow has, “really let herself go.” Or, worse yet, will think that I’ve aged rapidly since she saw me last.

Like a long-time smoker, I sometimes regret that I ever started makeupping at all. But, it’s just too hard to quit now that I’ve began most of my mornings by “putting my face on.”

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As I have written about in earlier posts, my Pharisaism disease diagnosis was a swift and humbling experience. It resulted in the obliteration of my perfect Christian self-image and made me reassess my entire church girl get-up. And that resulted in the hard-to-swallow revelation that I looked kind of silly to the people outside of the sanitized Christian world I lived in–the one I also refer to as the Law House.

My realization showed me that the image I had crafted wasn’t practical, and people outside the Law House didn’t really put much stock on appearances, anyway. Wally, my inner Pharisee, had convinced me that all of the things I wore, did, or said were of vital importance to the outsiders. He said that as part of the body of Christ, I had an obligation to “be Jesus to them.”

But I now saw how that lie was one of his nastiest. Jesus wore the same clothes the ordinary people did, spoke the same plain language, and worked a regular job. He certainly avoided profanity, immodesty, and idleness, but then, lots of other regular people probably did, too. Even pagans. His outside appearance was most likely the last thing on his list of concerns.

Yet, Wally commanded me to put my witness face on each day and never leave home without it. That was especially dumb because, like frosted green eyeshadow or coral cheek color, my image mask was obviously not my natural coloring.

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I reflected on how Wally had perpetuated his lie in me by cracking the Witness Whip in my brain every so often. This was his stinging insistence that because my external behaviors and appearance were my personal representation of Jesus to the world, other people’s eternal destinies could ride on whether or not I behaved like a Proverbs Thirty One goddess.  Ooph!  Just recalling the smell of that lie makes me retch.

Wally would brandish his Witness Whip with all the expertise of a whip master.

Crack! Don’t go in that place, that’s not a good witness!

Crack!  Don’t laugh at that joke, you’ll ruin your witness!

Crack! Don’t tell them the truth about your marriage–nobody needs to know that you fought with your husband all the way to church yesterday!

Crack! Uh-oh, the pastor’s wife is walking toward you! Quick, cover the beer in your grocery cart with the bag of  Frosted Wheaty Bites–protect your precious witness, silly woman!

Wally not only abused me, he abused the word witness. And I took the abuse, believing his lie that witness as a noun meant “image” and witness as a verb meant “creatively inserting Jesus facts into everyday conversations with heathens.”

I thought my witness was an external thing, something that God required me to keep sparkling and professional. It was the thing that proved my Christianity to the people on the outside. It was (insert subdued worship music here) my personal, daily reflection of the gospel of Christ to a hurting, needy, and immoral world. And it became huge load to carry around. It was a backpack filled with rocks of guilt and bricks of pride—the guilt piled up when I wasn’t a good witness, and the pride overflowed when I thought I was. Both were equally heavy.

That type of burden didn’t seem to exist outside the Law House, though. People walked around without huge loads. I was also surprised to find that there wasn’t near the amount of contamination out there that Wally had led me to believe there was. The outdoor breezes, sent from God, kept things from molding and festering the way they had inside the Law House. It dawned on me that the barriers of my legalism, like the sides of a petri dish, ended up keeping the germs in. The fences, the hedges, and the locked doors didn’t keep anything bad out, they actually locked all the bad stuff inside.

It was kind of like the story I heard once about a mail carrier who had run into his vehicle to escape a vicious dog. The fleeing guy jumped into his front seat, locked the doors, then turned around to see that the dog had leapt through the open window. The poor carrier had locked himself inside a small space with a snarling, snapping mongrel. The man had to go back outside to be safe from his own safety measure.

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John 1:6-9 says:

“God sent a man, John the Baptist, to tell about the light so that everyone might believe because of his testimony. John himself was not the light; he was simply a witness to tell about the light. The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” John 1:6-9 (NLT)

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So….

I am not the light.

I never will be.

I’m only supposed to live in the light,

talk about the light,

and stay honest in the light–

with or without makeup,

with or without lofty speech,

and with or without the proper stuff in my grocery cart.

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Nonsense and Nonsensibility

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Check out these stupid product warnings:

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I really like the “Wacky Warning Label” list from the Michigan Law Abuse Watch (MLaw) website, http://www.mlaw.org. Here’s a sampling:

-A label on a baby stroller warns: “Remove child before folding”
-A brass fishing lure with a three-pronged hook on the end warns: “Harmful if swallowed”
-A flushable toilet brush warns: “Do not use for personal hygiene.”
-A household iron warns users: “Never iron clothes while they are being worn”
-A massage chair warns: “DO NOT use massage chair without clothing.”
-A car sunshield that keeps sun off the dashboard warns, “Do not drive with sunshield in place”
-A warning on a power drill cautions: “This product not intended for use as a dental drill.”

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The scary thought I think every time I read these is someone must have tried it. That, then, leads to the next scary thought–have we lost our common sense?

The dictionary says common sense is: 1. (noun) Sound practical judgment that is independent of specialized knowledge, training, or the like; normal native intelligence.[1]

“Normal native intelligence” means that a person should instinctively know that trying to repair one’s own teeth with a Craftsman drill will end badly, or that sitting naked in a massage chair might not be a good idea…

…especially if you, like me, have the skin elasticity of overworked pie dough, or maybe if you’re someone who has recently dropped a lot weight in a very short period of time…

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Of course, these warnings are in response to the oodles of ridiculous lawsuits filed by those who have abandoned all their sensible instincts and decided to eat their laser printer toner or let their children play in the dishwasher. I would go so far as to call these individuals idiots, but then I would be in danger of bringing down judgment upon my own head.

Because, in all honesty, my family is not exempt from lapses of common sense in the utilization of certain items.

If you ever see this warning on a pair of 80’s-style tapered leg jeans, it could be my fault: “CAUTION: DO NOT REDUCE THE WIDTH OF INSEAM TO MAKE JEAN LEGS SKINNIER. DOING SO COULD RESULT IN DANGEROUS TROUSER ENTRAPMENT IF HIT BY A ROGUE OCEAN WAVE WHILE BEACHCOMBING. IF SUCH EVENT OCCURS, LIE ON FLOOR OF VAN AND SCREAM FOR HELP FROM NEAREST PERSON WHO MIGHT HAVE SHARP SCISSORS IN THEIR IMMEDIATE POSSESSION.”

Or if you ever purchase a cast-iron woodstove with this warning, it could be the fault of one of my anonymous family members: “CAUTION: DO NOT ATTEMPT TO SMASH WOODSTOVE WITH SLEDGEHAMMER IN ORDER TO MAKE IT SMALLER AND EASIER TO TRANSPORT TO LANDFILL. DOING SO COULD RESULT IN A SERIOUS, ATTENTION-GETTING WOUND IN THE MIDDLE OF ONE’S FOREHEAD THAT WILL CLOSELY RESEMBLE A BULLET HOLE AND REMAIN IMPERVIOUS TO ALL ATTEMPTS TO MASK IT FOR WEEKS.”

It seems to me that the misuse of products usually arises from failing to stick to the product’s original intent. The purpose of the tool or the chair or the toilet brush can get lost in our fanciful notions of how the article could serve us even better.

And that’s exactly what I did with my faith when I was suffering from Pharisaism.

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Lacking everyday common sense is one thing, but lacking spiritual common sense is another. As I mentioned before, by the time Jesus walked the earth the Pharisees had completely lost their common sense marbles.

Clinging to the letter of the law, they totally missed the ubiquitous Spirit of the law. In other words, they obeyed their literal interpretations of the words of the rules, but ignored the intent of those words. And by ignoring the law’s purpose they didn’t just miss it—they perverted it.

Take their strict observance of the Sabbath day for example. The commandment to suspend work on the Sabbath led to centuries of wrangling over the definition of work, which then led to debates over details like knot-tying. Because sailors and camel drivers had to tie a lot of knots in the course of their work, the Jewish leaders banned them from tying any type of knot on the Sabbath. However, they ruled that any knot that could be tied or untied with only one hand was legal, as well as the knots that women tied their garments and sandals with.

Of course, rule-making always invites rule-breaking, or at least rule-loophole-finding. So, when a man needed to tie a well bucket onto a rope in order to get water on the Sabbath, (an act of work) he simply had the nearest woman tie the rope to her clothing and lower it down that way. Problem solved.

Yet, they really shouldn’t have had a problem with an occasional Sabbath bucket-lowering in the first place. The spirit of the law, or the reason for keeping the Sabbath holy, was to provide a day of rest for God’s people. It was to be a day of physical and mental renewal and restoration–a gift from God to his people. But, the letter of their law—their insistence on minding every molecular possibility contained within the word “work” had caused the Jewish Day of Rest to become their Day of Burden.

On several occasions Jesus confronted this Sabbath madness. According to the Pharisees, plucking a few tiny grains of wheat or barley was “harvesting,” and therefore, work. So,when these ever-present Rule Nazis then witnessed Jesus picking and eating some heads of grain on a Sabbath, their blew their whistles.

Jesus replied to their charges of Sabbath violation by announcing that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Mark 2:27. He brought them back to the spirit of the law—that the law was meant to serve people by giving them a day of rest; the Pharisees had elevated the letter of the law to deity status, requiring people to serve it.

Another confrontation occurred when Jesus had the audacity to heal a man’s deformed hand on the Sabbath. The rabbis prohibited healing on the Sabbath, unless the victim would clearly die before the next day. This man’s condition was not momentarily life-threatening, and his healing could certainly have waited a day, in the Pharisees’ opinion. But, again, Jesus ignored the letter of the law and upheld the spirit of the law by restoring the man’s hand. It was an act of restoration, exactly what the Sabbath was originally designed for.

The Pharisees also observed strict dietary laws that went all the way back to the time of Moses. These laws ensured that Jews ate only food deemed “clean” as instructed in the Torah. When Jesus referred to straining out gnats in Matthew 23:24, he was talking about the care the Pharisees took to make sure that their drinking water was completely free from even the tiniest of the unclean animals. In his characteristic hyperbole, however, Jesus continued his point by saying that the Pharisees’ obsessive preoccupation with the avoidance of gnat ingestion blinded them to the fact that they were actually swallowing camels, the largest of the unclean animals.

So, the original purpose of the law—the promotion of health and holiness of God’s people—was eclipsed by the Pharisees’ pride in how perfectly and microscopically they could keep it. They used the dietary law as a way to promote their own sanctimony. Their gnat-straining was really just showing off, which was pride, which even under the Old Covenant was considered a camel-sized sin.

Jesus preceded the gnat reference with this sentence: “…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.” Matthew 23:23 (NLT)

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That reminds me of how, as a Pharisaism sufferer, I placed great emphasis on holy generosity. I was very careful to obey the letter of the law and tithe my money and give my time to ministry-related causes. Yet, at home, I violated the spirit of generosity by being stingy with my forgiveness and mercy reserves.

Or, how I was careful to keep my literal words clean, avoiding profanity as defined by Evangelical standards, (well, nearly…) but violated the spirit of the clean speech policy by spewing filthy and destructive gossip on a regular basis.

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I would later find that one of the best cures for my Pharisaism disease would be to daily meditate on the spirit, or the intent, behind the works that I would perform. I would learn to abandon my habit of perfunctorily serving the externals of my faith, the letter of the Evangelical Law, and go back to doing the only thing that the New Covenant requires of me–loving God and others.

In the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul said it this way, “Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law.” Romans 13:10 (NLT)

Doing this would bathe my oft-parroted bible rules in new light. Instead of interpreting “not forsaking the assembly” as not missing a church service, I would see a bigger picture. I would see that my love for God and others would prompt me to stay active in relationships, inside and outside of the church. In fact, “not forsaking the assembly” could very well sometimes involve staying home from church in order to better see to another’s needs.

I would begin to see beyond the cliche’ in certain other mainstay verses as well. The light of love would show me how ridiculously I had twisted verses regarding things like unequal yoking, wearing God’s armor, or even the famous John3:16. I suddenly no longer saw these as separate rules, but as interlocking pieces in a huge, universal puzzle. Pieces that contributed to a much larger table than my Pharisee mind could ever envision.

Recovering from Pharisasim means that I never again need to bow to legalistic words of caution. I am now free to use love for all its intended purposes,

at my own discretion,

in my own unique way,

and without any silly warning labels attached.

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[1] Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 22 May. 2012. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/common sense>.

Clown Eyes Lit by Fires of Evil

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The doctor is often more to be feared than the disease. ~French Proverb

 Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died. ~Erma Bombeck

 150 people die every year from being hit by falling coconuts.  Not to worry, drug makers are developing a vaccine.  ~Jim Carrey

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Sometimes, symptoms that stem from a relatively minor sickness will mimic symptoms of a much more serious condition. I’ve read about patients who were subjected to the rigors of an emergency appendectomy only to find out that their appendix was fine after all. Too late, it was discovered that their abdominal pain and fever symptoms were the result of a bacterial infection or benign cyst. Their painful surgery had not been necessary—in fact, it delayed treatment of the real problem.

The same thing happened with my Pharisaism. Early on in the progression of my disease, when conflict and problems occurred in our home, I would instantly blame outside influences. As a Christian Pharisee, I called myself a “child of the King,” and arrogantly thought that our family was so important in God’s Kingdom that evil forces were constantly trying to bring us down.

While I do believe in the existence of spiritual forces, and that Christians can face times of spiritual attack, my disease distorted my thinking. Instead of looking at the realities of normal human existence, I would declare that we were being “oppressed.”

Of course, it was Wally, my inner Pharisee. He was pointing at everything outside of us to keep himself from being diagnosed and removed  like an infected appendix.

And, for a while, his convincing strategy worked.

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Way back, in the late 80’s, galvanized by cautionary Christian books, I conducted a thorough Eradication of Evil operation by rounding up all the movies, statues, jewelry, pictures, cassette tapes, and Care Bears and Smurfs that could potentially contain a demon or familiar spirit. I spied evil Turmoil in our Toybox, and heard Dark Secrets of the New Age recorded backwards in Billy Joel LPs. I became paranoid, throwing out a clown figurine with glowing eyes and bottle of dish soap that bore the symbol of a man in a crescent moon with curls in his beard that looked like three backwards sixes.

I ravaged through my home, unaware that the real evil in our rooms was yet undiagnosed. That the gravest peril, the most hideous spiritual threats came not from my cupboards, but from my own heart. In my zeal to cleanse my outside life from evil, I conducted a highly unnecessary operation, leaving my dangerous heart disease untreated. Little did I know then that my pride, selfishness, and critical spirit were far, far more toxic to my family than any familiar spirit a Ghostbuster action figure might house.

And, even more troubling than that is the fact that Pharisaism’s emphasis on externals caused me to adopt my own occult-like practices. My fixation on objects and symbols as carriers of evil spirituality led me to the belief that Christian objects and symbols carried heavenly spiritual power. By forgetting that God’s intent was for symbols to be used a reminders of his attributes and deeds, I again strayed off my sensible faith path, looking instead at the symbols as tools of his power.

Worst of all, I used spoken prayers and speaking in tongues like a Wiccan uses incantations. I completely lost sight of the fact that the only power I can ever wield in the spiritual realm is tied to the motives behind my actions, not the tools that assist these actions, or sometimes, even the actions themselves.

I was a bad doctor. The houseplants in my waiting room were dead, and I was trying to counter the effects of falling coconuts with a vaccine.

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In order to become healthy, I would need to undergo another kind of conversion. I would have to convert all my external props into internal realities. I would have to submit all the motives behind my practices, deeds, and commitments to God for examination. And then I would have to pull off all the outside things I thought were indicators of my faith—things I wore, or displayed or even said—and decide if they really were necessary after all.

My sad and stinky external security blanket, however comforting it might have been at one time, could no longer be a substitute for honest internal motives.

It was time for me to get healthy and grow up.

…Hmm. You know, I could have kept Billy Joel around after all.

Darn!

My Death Grip on My Church Blanket

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What’s the deal with security blankets, anyway? Having raised six children, I feel like I should have a good answer as to why babies need to suck their thumbs and clutch and stroke smelly fabrics, but I don’t.

I turn instead to the ultimate purveyor of all truth, Wikipedia. Under the heading, Comfort Object, Wiki tells me that, “In human childhood development, the term transitional object is normally used. It is something, usually a physical object, which takes the place of the mother-child bond. Common examples include dolls, teddy bears, or blankets.”

A whole lot of comfort goin’ on – Irina and Zach in 1991

Of course, not having the luxury of Wiki, or even Google as a young mother meant that I pretty much didn’t know anything. I just guessed my way through the child-rearing process. In fact, the absence of search engines in the 80’s meant that everyone guessed. Of course, all that guessing led to some very bossy, know-it-all older women, and some very wacky conclusions.

Irina the Comfortee becomes Mommy the Comforter to precious Charlotte in 2009. (Bun-bun the bunny is, sadly, much rattier and stinkier now. He’s been through a lot.)

I remember being warned that allowing my child to use a security blanket would constrain him to develop a smoking habit by age ten, and/or lead to gum and liver disease, and/or predispose said child to involvement in the occult. These dire predictions scared me, but taking away the blanket scared me even more. I mean, I really, really needed to sleep once every few days and a child without a security blanket usually fussed and fumed all night l0ng. So, being the conflict-avoider that I am, I simply taught my kids the healthy practice of undercover bwankie-sucking around certain control freaks, er older female mentors.

That strategy kept everyone happy, pacifiying both the women and my kids, and allowing me some snatches of sleep. That is, at least in between times when “bwankie” or “boppie” or “soover” got lost. Those were the nights I was up at 3:00 AM with a flashlight, madly rifling through the car, sifting through the sandbox with a sippy cup, or emptying every stupid drawer in the house while my future smoking, diseased warlock wailed in his crib.

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As was the case with most of the Pharisees’ rules, their fear of outside contamination had not always been misguided. God gave the Law, under the Old Covenant, to the Jews back in the time of Moses to keep their personal practices safe and healthy, and to keep out the heathen immorality that constantly threatened their way of life. But anything, even something good, can sustain a lot of damage and twisting in fifteen hundred years. By Jesus’ time the Law contained nothing of its original power and glory. Through centuries of misuse, it was so picked apart it was thin and threadbare and ineffective and ridiculous. It could no longer carry out its intended purpose.

Yet, the Pharisees clung to it in the same way my son, Nick, did with his bwankie when he was little. That blanket started out as a gorgeous white crib blanket with a satin edge. But by the time he was a toddler, he became so reliant on it he took it absolutely everywhere with him. Inside the house and outside the house, to the playground, through the garden, dragged behind his tricycle, in the car, through the mall, onto the floors of nasty public restrooms, and even getting it caught in the reel of his first fishing pole.

By the time Nick was ready for kindergarten, bwankie was reduced to a handful of sad and stinky lint. Still, he fussed at the prospect of letting it go. He finally did, though, as he matured and gained a sense of security from inside himself. He learned to feel secure without having to cling to something on the outside of him. When the purpose of the transitional object had been fulfilled, he could toss it aside. He became free.

So it was with the Pharisees and their reliance on externals to keep them secure in their connection with God. When Jesus came and said it was time to bury the decrepit Law, the Pharisees put up a huge fuss. Yet, the Jewish religion had matured to a point where it should have been ready for the internal, spiritual guiding principles of the New Covenant. And it was.

The Pharisees just didn’t want to let it go.

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You don’t need to be afraid of the things you were afraid of when you were five.” – From the 2012 movie, “The King’s Speech”

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As a Pharisaism sufferer, I, too, became completely reliant on externals to define me as a Christian. Oh, I could certainly talk big about a personal, heart-based relationship with Jesus like any good American Evangelical, but I wouldn’t even consider giving up some of the practices that “glorified God.” I only felt like a true Christian when I was clutching my adherence to church membership, clean living, tithing, fasting, and church work. I couldn’t imagine that a person could be a truly committed Christian without these things. I frowned on people who claimed to love God, but had no compunction to perform properly. Their freedom disquieted me.

A big part of my healing would involve finally letting the transitional process happen. Because of the spiritual nature of my disease, it wouldn’t be dealt with on a physical level–meaning, I didn’t necessarily have to give up any of my practices–but I would have to change my motive for doing those things.

I would have to stop thinking that doing Christian things made me a Christian. I would learn that it was fearful insecurity, not God, that drove me to prove my “holiness.”

I would learn to listen more to others’ input and not try so hard to show off my supposed wisdom and bible knowledge. I would put away some of my haughty patriotism and right-wing political correctness and actually show respect to my liberal friends. I would stop thinking that, if executed correctly, a church service could save someone’s soul. I would learn to feel the presence of God at home instead of thinking I would find Him in some “anointed” speaker or gospel concert.

Especially, I would stop being so darn impressed with myself, my fellow Christians and my brand of theology. I could finally admit that we’re all a little silly sometimes. And that’s okay.

For me, true healing from Pharisaism meant making the transition from relying on church to relying on relationships to define my faith. I needed to release my grip on religious externals and boldly walk forward in the knowledge that I love God and He loves me, whether people can see it or not.

Even when I stay home on a Sunday morning.

Even when I don’t bring a highlighted, underlined, and marked-up impressive bible to a study group with me.

Even when I listen to public radio.

Or even when I enjoy the company of people who aren’t convicted about the same things I am.

…Because after all, I want to be strong like Jesus

                                             …and less like an insecure Pharisee.

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Churchy Hoarding: Secret Sins Uncovered

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“’Maybe hoarding is a more genetic form of OCD or a distinct disorder,’ says Jack Samuels, a Hopkins psychiatric epidemiologist…’Is it a disorder or a disease, a behavior or an addiction? We don’t know yet.’” http://childrenofhoarders.com

It had taken some time, but I was finally beginning to face my disease. My eyes would soon open to see my own, internal sins–the ones I had been hoarding inside my soul like a cat lady’s feline herd. The festering ones with horrific litter box odors that I would make sure never saw the light of day.

But, the revelation that I was a filthy sinner would only come after I stopped fooling myself. After I stopped believing the lie that contamination came from the outside. I thought quarantining myself from the “world” was healthy and wise, but  I would soon find out that I was actually boxing all the bad stuff in.

Really bad stuff.

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My lack of exposure to everyday worldly germs had kept me from building up a healthy resistance to some of the more vexing aspects of secular society. I was overly-sensitive to, and far-removed from, practical human life. I couldn’t connect with–and thus learn from–the community in which God placed me.

My Pharisaical separateness had kept me walled-off in my sterile church environment. I was one of the “bubble boys” of the church world. (Well, bubble girl, actually.)

Wally, my inner Pharisee, got me to believe the same lie that Howard Hughes believed. He told me that germs did not come from inside me. He convinced me that I could only be contaminated from the outside and that I needed to follow his prescription in order to stay clean. Like any devious evil spirit, he quoted scripture. And, like any gullible patient, I listened, even though I didn’t understand the real contextual meaning of his bible-quotng. As an ancient spirit, his language was always spoken in King James old English. He said:

“Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness?…Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you.” 2 Cor 6:14-17 (KJV)

Being the obedient type that I am, I took this to heart. Literally. I stayed inside my legalistic biosphere, doing good church works, listening exclusively to Christian music, socializing as much as possible with Christians only, promoting only conservative Christian politics, abstaining from smoking, drinking, gambling, R movies, and never, ever using profanity.

(Well, okay—almost. There was that day. That one homeschool day that lives in infamy which my sons will not let me forget. The day Mom threw a chair and said a bad word. But, you must understand that Billy Graham himself would have cussed under the conditions I was tested with by those delinquent ingrates—which makes it all the more amazing that I only threw a chair. They deserved, and I wanted to do, much worse. But I digress…)

The minute my eyes were opened, however, Wally’s lie wasn’t just exposed; it was shattered.

The light that pierced my darkness revealed that my living quarters were a grimy mess. The interior’s dimness, combined with my nearsightedness,  kept me from seeing that I had been living in a garbage dump of a spiritual pig sty. Like I explained in the previous chapter, all of Wally’s emphasis on avoiding the dirtiness outside of me had kept me from dealing with the dirtiness inside of me. I didn’t even know it was there.

The really awful part, though, was that once I could see, the magnitude of my mess overwhelmed me. I felt like one of the people on the “Hoarders” reality show who was finally facing her disaster. I could no longer live in denial. I could no longer pretend everything was fine while I lived in and around fetid mountains of pride, moldy slander cans, slimy gluttony buckets, rotting greed-filled boxes, balled-up wads of leaking selfishness, and nasty discarded diapers filled with putrid hypocrisy.

It was beyond awful. It was beyond depressing. How could I have let this happen? It only took a moment for me to answer my own question. Wally!

He had fed me yet another filthy lie, and I had been senseless enough to believe it. He had told me that as long as we were careful to keep our door locked, contamination could never enter our house. He assured me that as long as I kept myself neat and clean inside the system I would never commit a real sin. He reminded me that I wasn’t a substance user, or an adulteress, or a thief, or a drunken partier, or a cheater on taxes. I was not a hard core sinner.

I remembered him chuckling as he pointed out that I was too nice to even have a real testimony. I was one of the boring, life-long church goers that always politely sat through other sinners’ dramatic confessions of their lurid former lives and secretly prided myself for never having sunk that far. I remembered how I even commiserated with the other asked-Jesus-into-my-heart-at-VBS people over our lack of a scandalous testimony.

Standing there in the middle of my reeking biohazardous sin pile, however, it was quite apparent I did have a testimony, after all.

A scandalous and excruciatingly humbling testimony.

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“If then you have died with Christ to material ways of looking at things and have escaped from the world’s crude and elemental notions and teachings of externalism, why do you live as if you still belong to the world? [Why do you submit to rules and regulations?—such as Do not handle [this], Do not taste [that], Do not even touch [them], …To do this is to follow human precepts and doctrines. Such [practices] have indeed the outward appearance [that popularly passes] for wisdom, in promoting self-imposed rigor of devotion and delight in self-humiliation and severity of discipline of the body, but they are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh (the lower nature). Instead, they do not honor God but serve only to indulge the flesh.

Colossians 2:20-23 (Amplified)

What? My clean living and quarantining served only to indulge my flesh?

Apparently, yes. It had all resulted in the hugest, stinkiest, most overflowing litter box ever found in any cat hoarder’s house.

It was a box of reeking,

filthy,

nasty

indulgent

PRIDE.

Churchy OCD: Over-chewing the Law Chaw

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1977 Saturday Night Live Howard Hughes sketch

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“Howard Hughes–the billionaire aviator, motion-picture producer and business tycoon–spent most of his life trying to avoid germs…Hughes’ fear of germs grew throughout his life, and he concurrently developed obsessive compulsive symptoms around efforts to protect himself… Toward the end of his life, he lay naked in bed in darkened hotel rooms in what he considered a germ-free zone. He wore tissue boxes on his feet to protect them. And he burned his clothing if someone near him became ill. Ironically, Hughes ended up neglecting his own hygiene later in his life, rarely bathing or brushing his teeth. He even forced his compulsions on those around him, ordering staff to wash their hands multiple times and layer their hands with paper towels when serving his food. “He didn’t believe germs could come from him, just from the outside…He was convinced that he was going to be contaminated from the outside.”[1]

There was a time, long ago, when we worried that we had a budding little Howard Hughes in our house.

For privacy’s sake, we’ll just call this child Hughey. Hughey began displaying some troubling obsessive-type behaviors when he was somewhere between two and three years old. The first was a liquid fetish, (a whole ‘nother story about a foaming, greasy puddle of shampoos, cleaners, and lotions discovered in a corner of bedroom carpet that Hughey had been secretly adding to each day for weeks) and the second was a chewing fixation.

Hughey became so obsessed with chewing his food thoroughly that he would end up having to sit at the table forever to finish a meal. He found a way around this by simply storing food, especially meat, in his cheeks and under his lip to take out and chew later, after he left the table. I was constantly having to inspect his mouth and make sure he didn’t have something lodged somewhere that could choke him.

Joe “Bud” Feller at work in the 1950’s

On one particular evening, we dropped three-year-old Hughey off to be babysat by Grandpa Bud. Bud, my father-in-law, had worked many years as a real cowboy. Retired by the time I met him, he still possessed a cowpoke’s laconic western drawl and wry wit.

Grandpa Bud with newborn Gabe Feller in 1994.

Upon our return that night, Bud announced that Hughey had behaved himself fine, but had, as Bud described it, “some kind of chaw stuffed up inside his cheeks.” Bud couldn’t get Hughey to give it over and couldn’t figure out what it was.

We knew what it was.

It was Hughey’s entire portion of venison steak from dinner, masticated and compacted, stuffed in his mouth like a baseball pitcher’s tobacco plug. It had been there for hours. Ugh.

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I don’t consider it a huge stretch to compare Howard Hughes’ OCD germ fixation to my own Pharisaical avoidance of outside spiritual contaminants. This avoidance was instigated by Wally, my inner Pharisee, and characterizes the next Pharisaism symptom I’ll be addressing—Externalism.

Externalism is second only to blindness on the disease symptom severity scale and can do just as much, if not more, to damage a person’s connection to God and others if left unchecked. It is a fixation that develops when a Pharisaical person or church becomes convinced that their greatest spiritual threats are those that come from the outside. It refuses to see that internal sins like selfishness, pride, unforgiveness, and envy carry the greatest potential to destroy relationships. Instead, the practice of externalism deludes people into thinking that external cultural and spiritual forces are the greater enemies, and that one must isolate from the “world” and behave righteously in order to stay safe.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start first with a bit of Pharisee history.

The word Pharisee means “separated one,” as their zealous dedication to the preservation of their nation and religion caused them to separate themselves from the masses. In the ensuing one hundred years, the Pharisees rose up as a powerful religious and political party, even though they remained relatively few in number. According to James Fowler in “Pharisaism:”

“They were just people who wanted to live pure, separated lives, separating themselves from…the ‘worldly’ people. They joined together in closed communities…of religious association, which had strict rules of admission, demanding commitment to laws of purity and tithing…They were committed to the Law of Moses, as well as the oral traditions of the rabbis, which included many of the seyag, the…’fence’ laws to keep people within the parameters of the law. They had regular meetings, and were organized under the leadership of a scribe.”[2]

But, as often happens when people separate themselves too much from everyday relationships, like Howard Hughes, the Pharisees became weird. In their commitment to perfectly preserve the Law of Moses, they ended up extracting from it an infinite number of rules and regulations to govern every imaginable situation in life.

Howard Hughes reportedly designed a special fork for sorting his favorite food, peas, by size.

They spent their lives chewing and picking apart the Law in such detail, and interpreting it to such ridiculous lengths, that it became impossible for ordinary Jews to keep it. This, then, fostered a sense of grandiosity in the Pharisees that kept them firmly entrenched in their self-assumed identity as the most righteous leaders in the land.

And so, my obsession with external Christian practices such as: scrupulous church attendance, extreme avoidance of non-Christian media, neurotic performance of “good” church works, and repetitive judgmentalism kept me firmly entrenched in my self-righteousness.

It was a true fetish…

…and I was a very sick Christian Pharisee.


[1] Dittmann, M. “Hughes’s Germ Phobia Revealed in Psychological Autopsy,”  July 2005, pg. 102, Vol. 36, No. 7

[2] Fowler, James. “Pharisaism” ©1999