not her

I got to spend last weekend with one of my favorite people in the world (you know who you are!) and we had a conversation that I later realized was wonderful. The conversation was about people we knew in high school. It was about ourselves in high school. It was about the mean things people used to say and the (now-embarrassing) ways we used to react. Actually I was the one who did most of the reacting.

During the conversation I kept thinking to myself, “Those people are probably not like that anymore. It’s been years; they’ve had new experiences, gained responsibilities, and hopefully changed into better people.” I was telling myself that none of the misogynistic “jokes” made in their immaturity should be allowed to mean anything to me now. Let bygones be bygones and all that.

It was only after my friend left that I thought about us, the people who heard the hurtful words. I thought about myself, the person who has replayed the comments hundreds of times, then replayed the responses I wish I could go back and withhold. It finally dawned on me that if I can release them from being dumb enough to say things that hurt me, I can release myself from being thin-skinned enough to take those things to heart. I can assert to myself that, as assuredly as a high school boy can become a caring man, a high school girl can become a gracious woman who knows the truth about herself.

It’s not that “words can never hurt me” as we claimed on elementary school playgrounds, but that I can choose to believe the truth about myself and leave the lies behind. I’m no longer the girl who used to believe them.

doing good vs. knowing God

I was raised going to church, Sunday school, youth group, Bible studies, and even a Christian summer camp a couple times. After all that, my understanding of what it meant to be a Christian was still incomplete. It included a lot of pressure to do certain things regularly and with great enthusiasm. I thought I was supposed to:

-read my Bible every day

-pray, but without focusing too much on asking for things, especially for myself

-listen to only Christian music, or at least music without any swear words or references to violence, sex, or criminal mischief (Good Charlotte was popular at the time, what can I say?)

-I want to add “vote Republican” to the list, which would be a joke…sort of. This list could go on but you get the idea.

On the one hand it was easy to do these things because they were concrete. “Did I read my Bible today?” was a yes or no question, a pass/fail test. The problem was that I often failed. My main motivation to do the things on the list was simply the fact that they were on the list.

That sounds stupid, doesn’t it? But remember when we talked about extremes? I think “should do” lists are a mild but still damaging form of religious extremism, often directed against oneself. I’m not saying spiritual discipline is undesirable. I am saying that if spiritual discipline is pursued as a drudging duty, then it misses the mark.

Just over a year ago, after years of alternating between performing the empty rituals of religion and posing it some furious questions, something clicked for me. It was in a Power of a Praying Wife study with a group of three other women, all of us newly married or soon to be married, when it dawned on me¬† that we weren’t reading this book and praying together so we could get good grades on our spiritual report cards. We were doing it because it made a difference in our lives. We wanted to change, so we prayed for ourselves. We wanted to support our husbands, so we prayed for them. We wanted to understand how God wanted us to pray, so we read Bible verses and a book. None of the activities were ends in themselves. They were all things we did because we wanted to do them, and we wanted to do them because they led us somewhere we wanted to go. We weren’t trying to do good. We were trying to know God.

All it took was a subtle shift in perspective and suddenly I started to understand things I had gone years without understanding. Maybe the most important thing was that God hates sin but he’s not keeping score. In the past, if I skipped a day of Bible reading I would sometimes feel so guilty and defeated that the next day I wouldn’t even try. My thinking went something like, “I already failed so what’s the point?”

Now I understand the importance of some of the little bits of the Bible I used to ignore. For example, the part where it says, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). So, wait. God offered us his greatest gift—defeating death and offering life through Jesus—before we had done anything we might consider good? Then there’s the oft-quoted, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Do you know what comes next?! (It’s so exciting!) “All are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24).

This is bizarre. I want to know more about it. I’ve swum in a sea of religion my whole life, cycling both truth and deceit through my gills so many times I find them both familiar. But now I want to sort them out from each other. I want to figure out which ideas about God are right, and I know I can find out by reading the Bible. Sometimes what I read there makes me mad. Sometimes it fills me with hope. Sometimes it sounds too good to be true. But now I believe it all is true, and that’s not just a Sunday school answer.

What about you? What’s your perspective on the idea of doing good? What helps you to know God?

by request, not on demand

I was about sixteen, headed to my high school crush’s house with a bunch of other people. I knew I’d never be his girlfriend no matter how badly I ached to be. (This is not exaggeration; you remember being sixteen, right?) We were too different in personality for a relationship between us ever to work, though we liked each other. I tortured myself by staying close to him, dreaming that somehow infatuation could grow into mature love. That night, on the way to his house, I heard Phil Collins’ “Can’t Stop Loving You” on the radio. I’d never heard it before. It was one of those pre-iPod-era moments when I felt drowned in serendipity. How could someone else be so keenly aware of what I was feeling right then?

Is that silly? Of course it’s silly, but part of my youthful experience included songs that would come, unbidden, to incorporate themselves into my memories just as the memories were being made. Would that night at his house have been as bittersweet without the echo of “Can’t Stop Loving You” in my mind? Maybe it would have; first love can be a mess.

The point is that today I’m never at the mercy of a radio station DJ, even in the car. I can choose what I listen to, whether that’s an iPod playlist or streaming radio that plays all my favorites all the time. There are no surprises, not even on “random,” because I know what’s on the list. That’s not necessarily good or bad, but it’s different from the way things used to be.

I liked the surprise of songs that fit my emotions. They were like strangers met serendipitously on the sidewalk, offering nods of recognition, reassurances that I couldn’t be too out of place if someone else had already been here, already felt this, and somehow recognized that I needed to know I wasn’t alone.

What are your thoughts on the bygone era of “by request” compared to the modern day paradigm of “on demand?” Any music serendipities among your memories?

*Editing to add: I just noticed that several devices appear in the “Can’t Stop Loving You” music video, from small radio to boombox to iPod. The song came out in 2002, a year after the iPod became widely available. Kind of funny….