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.

**********

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.

**********

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.

**********

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.

A Kick in the Seat of Entitlement

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Matt Sullivan/Reuters  http://www.nytimes.com

Money and fame made me believe I was entitled. I was wrong and foolish. – Tiger Woods

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Entitlement is a curious condition. The dictionary definition of entitle is, “to give (a person or thing) a title, right, or claim to something; furnish with grounds for laying claim.”[1]

In spite of that definition, though, it’s not uncommon for people to feel entitled to things they really haven’t furnished legitimate grounds for. Take seats, for example. Paying $10,000+ for a first class airline seat entitles one to something like this:

                                 Thai Airways –  http://www.businessinsider.com/best-first-class-airlines-2010-12

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Pretty nice, huh?

In contrast, searching out the cheapest deal I could find for my last domestic flight economy seat only entitled me to sit in this section:

                                                                                                                http://www.futuresmag.com/2012/07/05

So, what would happen if I, the purchaser of a cattle stall ticket, saw an empty seat in first class and sat down in that one instead? I’d probably be frowned upon and swiftly sent back to my smelly, cramped misery by a check-listing attendant. I’ve read internet stories about a few passengers who did manage to pull off such a “self upgrade,” but the majority were discovered and treated like shoplifters.

Similar stories abound for premium sports arena seat tickets. The more you pay for your seat ticket, the closer you will be to the action, and the greater superiority you can wield over your nosebleed section compatriots.

You can pay serious money for a view like this:

http://www.charitybuzz.com/catalog_items/266404

Or a whole lot less for the bird’s-eye view:

Al Bello/Getty Images

Either way, first class airline and premium ballpark ticket holders alike feel entitled to their optimum seats by virtue of the high price they pay. Certainly, no one in their position would tolerate seat-stealing from a lowly nosebleeder.

Yet, that’s what Jesus did. He strode right on in in New Testament times and sat himself down in a teaching seat–the place of authority reserved for the Pharisees and teachers of the Law.

In the Pharisees’ eyes, Jesus had no right to take this place. He was one of the unschooled masses, one of the local hicks who hadn’t gone to their Rabbinic schools or spent every waking hour studying and interpreting the Law. He did not have any theology or divinity degrees, so they assumed he was not qualified to speak on spiritual subjects with authority as they viewed it. They were incensed that he would even try.

In Matthew 23:2 Jesus said, “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.”

It was another “letter of the law vs. Spirit of the law” thing. The Pharisees said all the correct words when they taught the law of Moses, but didn’t demonstrate any of God’s compassion or care that the law was originally intended to promote. They didn’t think they needed to engender loyalty from people by simply being nice. They believed their authority seats automatically entitled them to be honored and obeyed regardless of how they treated others. They had worked hard for the glory of the Moses’ seat, after all–being fawned over was simply their due.

So when Jesus garnered more support for his radical teaching than the Pharisees ever did for their conservative doctrines, it infuriated the Pharisees. They saw him as an imposter. A heretic to be silenced. A seat usurper to be bumped back to the cattle stall.

Of course, what they couldn’t know was that Jesus would pay a higher price for their precious authority seats than they could ever afford. And after he paid that price, he would turn around and open his box section for all his hick friends to occupy.

It would change the whole meaning of premium seating.

Jesus wouldn’t just be a seat-stealer, he would be a seat-wrecker.

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I’ve wrecked a few seats in my time. Literally.

Accidentally.

Tragically.

In the same way that my clothes rip inexplicably and liquids mysteriously spill around me, seats have a habit of spontaneously breaking underneath me. I don’t understand why this is so. I’m no bigger than the average mom and I’m not the type to throw myself forcefully into furniture, yet on several notable public occasions chairs have reached the end of their allotted life span at the exact moment I sit in them. It’s horrible.

I’m like Martin Short’s chronically unlucky character, Eugene, in the 1991 movie, Pure Luck. Does anybody else remember that movie? In one scene a psychologist, setting out to prove his observation that Eugene is cursed, purposely breaks a chair that’s among a couple dozen circling a board room table. The psychologist then sets the chair back up, making it appear perfectly fine. He opens the door for Eugene to enter the room and invites him to sit anywhere he’d like. Against the odds, Eugene predictably gravitates toward the broken chair, sits down and ends up deposited on the floor in a heap.

Something like that happened to me once. The odds would have been about one in eighty that I would sit in the singular lecture hall chair that was compromised. Of course, for most people those are pretty good numbers. But, of course again, not for me. The numbers gods seem to delight in picking my number again and again.

I walked into high school study hall that day determined to find an unobtrusive spot in which to finish reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I went all the way up the steep steps to the top level. It was the farthest away from the mean wrestling coach/room monitor who treated study hall like it was a Supermax receptacle for prison riot instigators. I sat down on one of the chairs that was actually just a plastic seat bolted onto a metal pedestal that was, in turn, bolted into the floor.

Although not quite this fancy, our high school lecture hall was similarly arranged.

Settling in, I leaned back in the seat, noticing that it had just enough give to actually recline a tiny bit. Hmm. I had never before discovered that the lecture hall seats would do that. It felt curiously comfortable. I could even rock a bit. And, because the coach/warden kept the room so quiet, I was able to mentally detach from my surroundings and lose myself completely in the novel.

Unfortunately, my mind wasn’t the only thing that would detach from its moorings that day.

I opened my book to the scary part where Scout and Jem were accosted while walking home in the dark. I became so engrossed in the story that when Jem screamed for Scout to run, I could actually hear her anguished squeals. EEEECH! The sound in my head surprised me. I kept reading and rocking in my delightful chair.

Scout tries to run, but is hindered by her unwieldy ham costume and falls. Again, I really hear her screams–EEEEERRR! I paused at that point, realizing that maybe the sound wasn’t in my head, after all.

I looked around and saw that people were looking in my direction. EEEEEEGH! What the…? Of course, because I tend to be a bit of a slow processor, the truth about the noise didn’t hit my cognition until the seat jerked completely back and hit the floor.

With me still in it.

The ear-piercing noises had been coming from me–from my chair. The one chair out of eighty with a seat that I would later learn had all its bolts loosened by an evil top-row prankster.

It was just so bad. One minute I’m with Scout and Jem on a dark, wooded path and the next I’m laying on my back on a concrete floor staring up at institutional lighting. My feet, now on the table, were the only part of me that showed to everyone in the lower rows. Whispered exclamations erupted from the rest of the class as people tried to ascertain from the shoes who it was that had met with such entertaining tragedy. I stayed on my back for a few crucial moments, cringing more from social pain than from my throbbing head pain. Staring hard into the institutional lights, I prayed that I was actually heading toward them in a tunnel and that I was on my way off the cruel planet where I was destined to be the object of people’s jeering and a constant victim to the whims of gravity. I wanted God to whisk me away.

But He didn’t, and so I slowly got off the floor and satisfied my audience’s burning curiosity.

“It’s Willow! Ha, ha!” and “Willow Carson’s seat broke! Hee, hee…”

People repeated various versions of the story for days. Other, even crueler pranksters, started loosening seat bolts everywhere in a global bid to create a funnier world at the expense of the unfortunate luck-impaired folks among them. It marked an era, and a sad one at that.

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The era of my Pharisaical entitlement reached its high point right before my disease diagnosis. I erroneously believed that if I paid a high enough price, I could get a higher seat in the Kingdom. And my all my bible studies and good deeds were the currency I shelled out for this premium standing.

I was the older son in the Prodigal Son story. I thought my standing as the obedient, hard-working Christian should have entitled me to be celebrated, not the rebellious, pagan younger sibling. The younger son had only paid for a cattle stall ticket, but our generous Father let him come up and steal my seat in the posh first class section. It made my Pharisaism-disease fever rage through my whole spirit, infiltrating not just my church life, but my home life as well.

The only cure for my Pharisaical entitlement would be steady doses of combative truths. When I finally allowed God to plug his IV bag into me, the following truths dripped successively into me, one after the other, almost like steps in a 12-step recovery program. I had to learn that:

-I am not always right about everything, and even some of my Christian beliefs are skewed or wrong.

-Diligent bible study does not guarantee 100% correct interpretation. I am created by God to need others’ views.

-My time is no more important than anyone else’s, even if I think I work harder than others.

-I am not entitled to be served by others. If someone chooses to do so, it is a bonus and I should appreciate it.

-I must respect others’ feelings and opinions if I want them to respect mine.

-I cannot disrespect others by insisting they do everything the way I think it should be done.

-Impatience is not a virtue and only serves to make others despise me secretly.

-The surliness and disrespect I exhibit toward others who work with me can never justify even the best of results.

-The mean words I say in my mind are louder in God’s ears than the sweet things I say with my mouth.

-I am not entitled to be loved. Love is a gift, whether from God or people, and should always be received with humble gratitude.

And finally, possibly the most important truth of all–

The only seat of true entitlement is the driver’s seat. This means that:

a. The driver is entitled to signal, pass, and/or speed whenever they do or do not want to.

b. I must submit to their choice of a parking spot, even if I don’t like its location, and I must execute said submission without sarcastic comments.

c. When I am in the lowlier passenger seat, I must behave like a passenger and give up all my driving rights. I must seal my lips and close my eyes if necessary to humbly accept this inferior position…

…or else get my seat kicked out of the car.

[1] “entitle.” Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 13 Jul. 2012. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/entitle>.

Nudist Colony Disappointment

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Long before Janet Jackson’s 2004 Super Bowl mishap added the term “wardrobe malfunction” to popular American vernacular, I coined my own original phrase for the many clothing disasters I have endured throughout my troubled social life. It is the simple sentence, “Oh no–I think my pants just ripped.”

The signalling rush of cool air through my seat area usually sets off a panicky search for a wall to back up against. In lieu of walls or trees or even a drinking fountain to hover in front of, I often grip the back of whatever chintzy pants or shorts I’m wearing and look for a gracious way to reverse walk out of public view. Of course, the act of walking backwards carries with it the potential of even worse hazards and so these moments have never ended well.

I can’t explain why I seem to be the victim of more pants-ripping than most people. I don’t wear my pants too tight and I try to steer toward sensible, sturdy fabrics. I think it has more to do with my tendency toward jerky, quick movements. I’m always rushing, and when that is combined with my clutziness–I drop things constantly and subsequently must bend over a lot–my clothing is put to the test. And more often than not, it flunks those tests.

For a time, I carried a tiny sewing kit in my purse. I even used it once. But once was all it took for me to find out that the snippet of thread that the kit contained would never be enough to sew up one of my signature San Andreas Fault-sized rips. I’ve also resorted to stapling a few rips with an office stapler, but that repair method always leaves odd puckers that make it look like I have a seat full of gravel or something.

It was the  discovery of duct tape for fabric repair that considerably reduced the severity of my clothing emergencies.

Hmm. Wait–before I go any further, the topic of fabric repair has just brought another childhood memory to the surface. I suddenly have a mental picture of my grandparents’ recliners stationed in front of their big RCA wood cabineted TV. I remember how they kept an end table between their two chairs that was always fully stocked with nail clippers, reading glasses, candy bowls, and of course, the two most important articles every devoted TV watcher in the 1970’s owned–the TV Guide mini magazine and the amazing remote control, something still quite novel for working class families back then.

I loved that remote. We didn’t have one at our house. As the person who usually sat on the floor in front of the TV at home, I was the remote. Obeying the whims of the watchers, I slid back and forth on the sculpted carpet, garnering plenty of static charges as I operated the clicking channel dial and the volume knobs.  I took a lot of electric hits, needless to say. Maybe enough to add up to a modern Tase or two. It’s a good thing we only got a few channels and we always sat through all the commercials.

Everybody sat through commercials back then. Commercial breaks gave people an opportunity to go to the bathroom and replenish their snack bowls. It probably wasn’t until sometime around the year 1985 that it dawned on Americans that they could watch something else between commercials. That must have then coincided with the start of antibiotic overuse and subsequent resistance as Americans began to experience a huge upsurge in the number of bladder infections from that time on.

But I digress. Back to fabric repair and then back to wardrobe malfunctions and then I promise I’ll get to the Pharisees’ clothing issues. Hang in here with me, please.

I was going to say that my Grampa’s recliner was upholstered in olive green vinyl. Even though the vinyl made for a really noisy and skin-rippingly sticky sitting experience when wearing shorts, it was an easy material to repair if damaged.

I’ll never forget how afraid I was to show Grampa the hole my pointy scissors made in the arm of his chair when I was cutting out paper dolls while watching The Price is Right. I was worried that I was going to be in big trouble because I had made a really big slit in the vinyl, but Grampa didn’t get upset at all. He just went to the kitchen, pawed around in the junk drawer, and came back with a piece of olive green patching vinyl and a book of matches. He then proceeded to wave the lit match above the slit until the material softened and placed a teensy piece of patch over it. He heated it up again, rubbed over the patch, and, voila!, good as new.

I’ve sometimes entertained the idea of owning vinyl pants.

That was, until I discovered duct tape.

My first brush with duct tape for fabric repair happened one day when, while doing my job as a part time highway contract mail carrier, I stupidly didn’t question the unusual amount of cool air that was flowing through the back of my jean shorts. After hefting bags of mail into the miniature post office at my route’s termination point and stopping to mingle with the customers, I discovered in the restroom that a huge rip had occurred sometime earlier and was irreverently displaying a (ahem) derriere cheek for all the world to see.

Mortified, I asked one of the ladies I had been visiting with why she hadn’t pointed this out to me and she replied that she “thought it was intentional.” What? It might have been the era of 90’s grunge, but I was a church pianist, for heaven’s sake—not a brazen hussy intentionally running around in public with my leopard-print panties roaring for attention from all the farmers and fisherman in the post office!

It was a scorching Montana prairie day and so I had no jacket or extra clothing with me. I was forty-five miles from home and I still had to finish my route. Thank goodness the postmistress had duct tape. Holding back tears of intense embarrassment, I patched my shorts from the inside, praying the rip would stay closed. It did. But I’ve had to put seven hundred miles between me and that place now to escape the humiliation of that moment.

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last of such moments.

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So, finally, this brings me around to the subject of Pharisaism. Specifically to Mark 12:38:

“Jesus also taught: ‘Beware of these teachers of religious law! For they like to parade around in flowing robes and receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces.'” (NLT)

To me, the point of this reference isn’t so much about the clothes themselves, as it is about the flowing and parading of said robes. It sounds like these guys were showing off, like they were purposefully using their clothes to attract attention. And they were. Several commentaries mention that the Pharisees wore special robes to signify their position as religious gurus and to keep them visually separated from the common Jewish people.

They were a prime example of ostentation, which the dictionary defines as, “pretentious or conspicuous show; display intended to impress others.”

They wore these ostentatious robes, then, like fancy sandwich board signs. Like they were advertising their superior positions and intellectual greatness.

Before I come down too hard on the Pharisees, though, I have to say that we all use our clothing to say something or other about us. It’s natural. Even people who are adamantly against following fashion trends are telling us just that by wearing plain, utilitarian clothes. The only way to escape using clothes as a message about ourselves would be to revert back to a Chinese Red Revolution-style uniform code for all of society. Mao suits for everyone.Yay.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with diverse clothing choices. We all need to express our unique selves through our wardrobe from time to time. (Within the boundaries of modesty, of course.) But, using clothing to try and be someone we’re not can have silly consequences, indeed. Trust me, I know.

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The problem with the Pharisees’ robes was that it was yet another example of externalism–of trying to make the outside look like something that the inside just doesn’t match. Jesus called the Pharisees on this on many separate occasions, but they couldn’t comprehend what he was talking about. Most of them just tried even harder to prove their superiority to him.

The disease symptom of superiority was particularly vexing for me as a Pharisaism sufferer. I simply thought that, as a Christian, I was truly better than most people. I certainly would never have said that, but looking back, I see now how I really did feel that way about myself and my fellow believers.

I donned a religious persona, an ostentatious way of presenting myself and my beliefs that I thought would impress others. It made me think that I was above ordinary sinners, that through all my extensive bible study and worship, I had achieved a higher standing in regular society.  I displayed my lofty knowledge by speaking out and by being instructional at every opportunity to make sure no one would miss how exceptional I was as a devoted Christian.

I wore my spirituality robe like a sandwich board.

But it didn’t impress anyone. In fact, it only served to keep me separate, apart. And tragically so, considering the very ones I was trying to impress were the ones that I could have learned the most from. I wasted a lot of time parading about in a sandwich board when I could have been sitting quietly at a table with all kinds of ordinary, but really very wise sinners.

Eek! Well now–will you look at the clock?! I’VE GONE WAY OVER TIME AGAIN! Oh man–now my post title has nothing to do with the content so far and you’re probably feeling quite let down. I’m sorry.

I haven’t even gotten to my main point yet. I was about to talk about how clothes are also meant to cover stuff up and how we can make things look really good on the outside when they’re really awful underneath. And then I had planned to tell a story about an electrician I knew once who was overjoyed to win a bid on a rewiring project in a building at a nudist colony, but his experience didn’t pan out the way he had hoped it would.

He was greatly disappointed to find out that young, toned women generally don’t join nudist colonies. Aging, overweight people do. It was one giant wardrobe malfunction with nary anything even close to a Janet Jackson physique anywhere to be seen.

He regretted accepting the job there.

And I have a sneaking suspicion that truly wise, honest, reliable, God-fearing people don’t’ bother to drape themselves in layers of ostentation.

It’s generally the insecure, bloated, self-righteous Pharisees who do that. So it’s best to stay away from their colonies. You might see them stripped of their outside adornments and then you’ll find out they’re mushy like the rest of us.

It won’t be near as spiritually thrilling as you had hoped.

You’d regret accepting a job there.

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Pasting Cliche’ Bandaids Over Mortal Wounds

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cli·ché

noun    1. A trite, stereotyped expression, a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse.[1]

Dan Merchant as Bumper Sticker Man in his 2008 documentary, “Lord Save Us From Your Followers.” I highly recommend this film–it is especially helpful for recovering Pharisees.

One of the biggest life changes I experienced when I began breaking free from Pharisasim was a dramatic switch in my worldview. I suddenly saw that a lot of the churchy things I had been spouting off were nothing more than meaningless cliches’. I was addicted to speaking irrelevant Christianese–a hybrid language comprised of cheesy slogans, bumper sticker sentiments, out-of-context bible verses, and exclusive club jargon.

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By thinking that proclaiming these things was a wise “witnessing tool,” I became a fool. It was actually just another manifestation of the symptom of externalism. It kept me in a constant instructional mindset–a state where, because I assumed that I was the one with the correct viewpoint, people would pause and consider my silly one-liners. It made me like the Pharisee in Luke 18:9 who, seeing himself as the pinnacle of awesomeness, looked down on everybody else.

My Christianese was basically the equivalent of that Pharisee’s prayer.

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I said the following lines so many times in so many ways that they began to sound as fresh and new as “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” or “Row, Row, Row Your boat:”

-Everything  happens for a reason

-God is in control

-It isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship

-There’s a God-shaped hole in your heart

-Hate the sin, but love the sinner.

What in the world made me think these trite phrases could make a difference in someone’s life??

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I’ve even learned that I have to be careful with how, or when, or even if I should tell someone God loves them. I mean, think about it–what if a person with Mormon convictions announced to you that “Joseph Smith loves you?” Is that all it would take to get you to consider becoming a Mormon?

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It wouldn’t have been so bad if  my Christianese just resulted in mere stupidity or even silliness. It was the fact that speaking or displaying those slogans was downright disrespectful.  I ignored my unbelieving friends’ intelligence, adulthood and God-given freedom to hold their own opinions. I treated them like children.

Worse yet, I failed to see how horribly injured by sin we all are. Thinking that sin is just comprised of naughty external acts that I would never commit, I figured it was my job to slap my cliche bandaids on others’ obvious scrapes. Wally, my inner Pharisee, did his best to keep me from understanding how deep-rooted human sin nature is–mine and everybody else’s–and caused me to not take others’ hurt souls seriously.

I disrespected people by preaching at them. I devalued them and my faith by misusing phrases that didn’t even mean what I thought they did. I used bandaids for internal bleeding.

Fellow blogger A. Dumois (www.adumois.wordpress.com) in his post, “The Image of God at Wal Mart,” makes an astute diagnosis of our situation:

“…As I walk around the shopping mall or big box discount store, I see people who are spiritually dead.  I see the Image of God parading through the store encrusted by sin and I am heartbroken.  I see broken bodies, dehydrated spirits, damaged people lost to the possibilities of a renewed life with God…”

Mr. Dumois shows respect for the pain of our human condition. But he doesn’t tell us to wear another loud T-shirt, or plaster another sticker on our bumper, or set up another letter board outside our church building. He says instead,

“I see this and I pray silently, ‘Oh Lord, won’t you come and restore the glory of your Image in all people.  How long, Oh Lord, how long will you wait?’  And I wish I could do more.  I understand that each person I see should be, must be, treated with dignity and respect as God’s image-bearer no matter how defaced the Image has become, but also that every one of those people needs Christ.”

I agree, but want to take it even further by adding that “every one of those people” includes me.

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I have a feeling the Apostle Paul wouldn’t have been too eager to slap a bumper sticker on the back of his donkey. In 1 Corinthians 5:12, he says, “It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning.”

And Peter said it like this: “For the time has come for judgment, and it must begin with God’s household.”

His household.

The members of His home.

The ones inside the church.

The one inside the church.

…Me.

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[1] Dictionary.com, LLC. Copyright © 2012.

Atrophying Under the Law Cast

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When I was a kid, my little, white-haired grandmother broke her ankle and got stuck wearing a cast that went all the way up to her hip. I remember how weird it was to see my normally-active grandma confined to a wheelchair. I also remember that, for me, the wheelchair was a novelty, and so I begged this patient woman to let me careen her around the house. She bravely endured many whiplashing moments as I accidentally banged her into things like her olive green Naugahyde loveseat and the metal legs of the freestanding mint green bathroom sink.

Her patient endurance was really confirmed back then, though, when my strong, bull-in-a-china-shop dad picked her right up and hoisted her up onto the front porch steps as she struggled to climb them with her crutches. Thinking he was doing her a favor, Dad actually broke one of her ribs in the process. Poor Grandma.

With a son-in-law and grandkids like us, she certainly didn’t need enemies.

Little Grandma Lula, doing what she did best – loving us.

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But I’m digressing. I’m actually trying to write a post devoted to the idea of casts. I was thinking this week about a lot about them. I was also thinking a lot about the Old Testament Law, and then the two thoughts tracks converged:

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A cast is a good thing as long as it’s temporary. It holds broken bones and/or tissues in place so they can heal and return to normal functioning. But, anyone who’s had to wear a cast for a significant amount of time knows that immobilization of muscles causes weakness, and encapsulation of skin areas causes itchy stinkiness. Both are correctable conditions, but inconvenient, nonetheless.

Here’s what the kidshealth.org website says to expect when one gets one’s cast removed from one’s previously broken limb:

“The muscles of your limb will likely appear smaller and weaker (what doctors call “atrophied”) because you haven’t been using them. This is normal, too, but it will take a little longer for your muscles to get back to their original state than your skin. You’ll need to take it easy and limit your activities during this time.”[1]

I ran across this funny cast story a while back:

“My brother and I used to play outside and look for roly-poly bugs—you know those little bugs that roll into a ball once you touch them?  This upset us, though, because we could never see them crawl.  My dad told us they liked dark, covered places and that’s where they would crawl around.  One time, my brother broke his arm and we thought it would be fun to create a habitat for the roly-polies under his cast—a perfect dark, covered environment.  This experiment went pretty well until the bugs kept crawling out of his cast once we were already inside and ‘washed up’ for dinner.  This would not do, because my mom would have freaked to know we were putting bugs down his newly broken arm.  So, to make them stay, we made the habitat more inviting.  This involved shoving dirt, leaves, other dead bugs, and anything else we could find into his cast.  As you can imagine, the cast really started to smell. After many, many repeated showers, my mom brought him to the doctor to get it cut off.  You can imagine their surprise (and anger) when they discovered our clever habitat.”[2]

And I thought discovering a full-size grocery cart hidden in my daughter’s closet was bad! At least it didn’t stink. I sympathize with the above mom. These are the type of surprises that induce premature graying and anger control issues in the best of us.

Hmm. Maybe that’s why I remember Grandma’s hair as always being white and why she displayed some funny habits…

But to get back to my original point–it does appear that the sooner a cast can be removed, the better.

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When Jesus walked onto the scene in ancient Judea, he was like a doctor wielding a cast saw. He came to remove the external brace, the Law, that God applied to humanity in order to immobilize the fractures caused by sin. (I know, I know–sometimes I carry it a little too far with my contrived word pictures and metaphors, but humor me please. I’m going somewhere with this…)

This Old Testament Law had kept things reined in until full healing could take place. It was bulky, limiting, and rigid, but it got the job done.

By the time Jesus arrived, however, it had been in place for so long that its followers’ motivation muscles were atrophied. They had completely lost the ability to follow God and serve people out of love. They just passively sat inside the Law, letting it do the thinking for them and became spiritually weak under it.

In addition to that, the Pharisees (thinking they could create an ideal habitat in which their buggy interpretations could thrive) had shoved a boatload of garbage in underneath it. The whole thing had ripened until it smelled.

Jesus brought power to heal people from the inside, and everyone who accepted this could rid themselves of the stinky Law exoskeleton. Then, by strengthening their atrophied motives with love exercises, they could stand upright before God, free from the legal burden under which the Pharisees kept them encased.

They were free to scratch their itches, to breathe, to air out…to run again.

They were free to connect with their loving Father.

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That’s what getting free of Pharisaical externals has done for me. I’m learning that I’ve been healed from my sin and don’t need to keep wearing a cast of dos and don’ts anymore. I can operate in the realm of what is healthy and safe–physically, emotionally, and spiritually–instead of only doing things because religion says so.

It’s taken me some time, though, to rebuild the strength of  my love for God and others. By performing good works only because it made me look like a Christian on the outside, my true heart motivation had become flaccid from disuse.

Jesus addressed this same problem with the Pharisees in Matthew 9:13 where he said, “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.'”

He was saying that he wanted the Pharisees’ sacrifices, or offerings, to be motivated by hearts of true devotion to him, not just robotic duty. He might have been referring to the fact that they burned their sin offerings without feeling any true remorse for sin. He wanted them to own their sinfulness, not just go through the prescribed sacrificial motions. Coming to him with a humble heart would indicate that they truly wanted to please Him and that would have been an act of love, aka mercy.

Or maybe Jesus had their actual benevolence offerings in mind–their almsgiving, the money they gave to the poor. This, too, had become a compulsory act, and not one springing from true hearts of compassion (mercy) for the impoverished. God wants us to give to others because we truly feel sorry for them, not because we’re guilted into it, or because it looks impressive on our tax returns.

Whatever the case, Jesus taught that God wants people to be motivated from the inside to love , and not be constrained by religious works on the outside to merely uphold the appearance of being loving.

It was silly to keep everyone encased in the Law when it was no longer necessary.

At least it would become unnecessary to the ones whose motives had healed. Those were the ones who fulfilled the Spirit of the Law and gave their offerings freely, without coercion, from hearts of compassion.

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Grandma’s ankle eventually healed and Dad eventually resolved his guilt over harming his innocent mother-in-law in a brutal act of benevolence.

I’m healing, too. My Pharisaical cast has been sawed off and I’m strengthening my motives with some of the physical therapy love exercises as instructed in the bible. Here’s the one I’m working on right now:

“You are doing right if you obey this law from the highest authority: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself’…Talk and act as people who are going to be judged by laws that bring freedom. No mercy will be shown to those who show no mercy to others. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” James 2:12-13 (GW)

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