Square Pegs in a Round World
The odd person out
A Tragedy Waiting to Happen
Jane (not her real name) has been a Christian for a very long time. She grew up in the church, and she embraced all the rules and the boundaries placed on her by her church leaders and mentors because, as she put it once, "They know a lot more about it than I do - after all, they've been to seminary ..." She has sat in the same pew, listening to the same sermons about being kind to your fellow-man, spreading the gospel by knocking on doors and by doing good works, and giving a tenth of your income to the church and then some more to missions because "God will bless me for it." She is satisfied with the way things are. Sometimes she wonders if there might be something more, but she dismisses that as the voice of the enemy. After all, how could there be anything more?
Lucy (again, not her real name) didn't grow up in the church. She was a wild hellion who drank hard, partied hard, and ended up in blackouts - most mornings not knowing where she was or who she had hurt the night before. But God touched her life, drew her into the fold, and she found herself (to her own surprise) attending a church. The membership was thrilled. And - once she'd settled into the routine, they started to point out to her that some of the things she thought and did were - let's say - not Christ-like.
The rules started piling on. Some things - like rotten attitudes and resentments against people - God really put His finger on in her life, and she was able to give them to Him. However, folks weren't content with just that. They began to criticize her way of dressing, her choice in books, the decisions she made in raising her children, and all kinds of little tiny imperfections (from their perspective) that had nothing to do with her walk of faith, but more to do with how comfortable they felt.
She began to feel discouraged, judged.
Jane was watching all this happen to Lucy. From the moment Lucy walked into her first women's group meeting, Jane enjoyed her frank and honest approach and her aversion to hypocrisy, even if she felt a little uncomfortable with the questions that Lucy raised about doctrines she didn't understand.
Even though Jane agreed with the others' assessment of Lucy's lifestyle, there seemed to her to be something wrong with the way they went about "helping" the new convert. She couldn't put her finger on it - so she didn't say anything to them, but it just seemed "off" somehow.
Lucy, meanwhile, felt more and more put-upon. The ropes of religion wound tightly around her, kept her from being herself, tried to force her more and more into a mold that "wasn't her." Yet she had tried everything else - this had been her last resort. If this church thing didn't work - if she wasn't accepted and loved here - what was the use?
How long before Lucy would walk away from the church? How long before she would seriously consider suicide? before Jane - if she even knew the reasons - would blame herself for not being more supportive? or would she come to justify herself and her fellow church members, and convince herself that they were blameless - that it was Lucy's choice to walk away?
Is this 'The Joy of the Lord'?
FOCUS: A God of Endless Variety
From chimps to toucans to hippos to platypI, God's imagination knows no bounds. He crafted each of His creations with infinite variations, colours and textures to delight even a Michelangelo or a Monet. Nobody can top His creative genius.
So - why is it that we are so obsessed with conformity, sameness?
How is it that we fear people or ideas which differ from us? Is it a matter of wanting to feel safe in a group of people who share a common value system or other similar characteristics? Is it the human propensity that we have to categorize everything?
God's will worked out in one person's life is never going to look the same as His will worked out in someone else's life. It doesn't work that way.
So - in my experience and opinion - the thing we need to work on most as Christians is an often-forgotten and underused commodity known as acceptance.
What's the big deal with differences anyway?
I remember growing up in a world like the one in which Jane grew up. It was a round world. Everyone was round. They all sat around and congratulated themselves on how wonderful it was to be round, grateful that they had no corners to confuse them, that there was no need to label "This End Up."
I never quite fit into that "round" world.
I wondered if I could ever fit in.
Oh, I tried. I tried hard. I studied all the books on roundness that I could find. I even tried lopping some of my corners off to try to squeeze into that mold better. But all it did was make me smaller and misshapen. After a while I didn't know if I was round, or square, or octagonal, or what I was. I did know that I wasn't very happy.
Life happened - I moved away from that group of people and gravitated toward another, a different church, different people - but with the same basic problem. Again, I had so much to offer this group - but all they could see were my corners. "We can't let someone with those particular corners minister in our church. You'd need to sign this worker's agreement that you will hide them and not talk about them to anyone."
This happened over and over again, at church after church. I had long since told myself that it would never change, that the problem must be me; the problem was that I couldn't be round.
I thought about leaving so many times. I wondered if God ever had a plan for me, if I would ever find my niche. It sure didn't look like that.
All the while, I was blind to the fact that I had been trying - in the small sphere of influence that I had - to make the people I cared about into a carbon copy of me. I was square - they were triangles. Yet I could not see that I was doing this!
Life kept happening, circumstances piled up, and I ended up in the one place I thought I would never be - sitting beside my husband, being there for him as he joined a twelve-step group.
Yet here I was.
And here, I was exposed to the one thing I had found so lacking in the church: acceptance. These folks had acceptance NAILED. They offered it freely to both of us, no questions, no trying to fix us, no trying to make us fit into some preconceived mold.
A new way to live
Here, people celebrated differences. The more variety there was, the more chance there was that someone in the room would be able to relate and be helped by someone's experience, to find strength and hope in whatever way that God used to bring someone along into relationship with Him.
That's another thing I learned about twelve-step groups. The twelve steps are a blueprint to a relationship with God, not just to the beginning of one, but the development of a friendship with the Almighty. A twelve-step group is the greatest microcosm of what the church should be: a community of people drawn together, celebrating their differences and encouraging each other to maintain this spiritual connection that gives them all life.
I've been at this same group for nearly the last six years, of which the last four have been spent in active recovery from the all-pervasive obsession to fix and control other people - the same obsession that hurt me so badly when others did it to me! It has been their acceptance of me that has helped me to accept myself - and then to accept my loved ones.
I am also happy to say that my husband - following his own journey - has been sober for almost the same amount of time as I have been on mine.
When I started letting go and letting people be who they were instead of insisting on sameness and uniformity, it was like that scene from the original movie, "The Wizard of Oz" (starring Judy Garland) when the black and white switched to colour. I started to see what I'd been missing. Sure, at times it was a bit uncomfortable - because it was so new and because I was so unaccustomed to it - but I learned to let go and to enjoy the differences, not to be threatened by them.
I discovered that differences made life interesting. I learned that it was okay if I was different from other people, that it wasn't okay for them to insist that I be like them, just as it wasn't okay for me to insist on my loved ones being like me. I could set boundaries of course, and I could let them know if I didn't like something - but I could accept their decisions and let them live with the consequences of those decisions without feeling that I needed to protect them or take those consequences on myself.
That was probably the most freeing thing about this journey.
My perceptions about the church have changed as well, since there has been a marked change in my attitudes over the last few years. Honesty has replaced subterfuge. I have less tolerance for the malarkey of rules and regulations, judgment and criticism. I have allowed myself the freedom to be outraged about them, and to be motivated to eradicate them from my life and to come to the defense of those who are being maligned simply because they seem to deviate from the "norm."
Best of all, I know I am different - that everyone is different.