We Good? Reflections from an Anxious Person on Lent

Hard_Work_by_soneryaman

Nate Pyle

Having anxiety can make participating in Lent difficult.

My character perfection tendencies go into hyper-drive, and I am in a constant state of wondering just how well I’m doing with this whole “faith” thing.

Have I repented? If I have, how will I know?

Is giving up Netflix to read books from a few #BlackLivesMatter movement guides going to wake me up for real?

Am I good? Am I forgiven? Am I made new?

Will Easter be enough for me, my sins, and I?

Will this journey be enough for me?

I met with my spiritual director Linda this last week. She asked me how my “faith life” is going, which is such a difficult question for me. I’m never quite sure how to answer it, because I’m so anxious and such a perfectionist, I always think it’s not going as well as it could be.

So I told her I started meditating in the mornings. I’ve been doing this for a few weeks now, so it’s not really a Lenten practice, but I’ll go out on a limb and assume it’s a part of my “faith life” as much as giving up Netflix and reading books by black writers.

But meditation is so hard for me, because my mind is so busy, and honestly, going deeper into myself, the sacred spaces God calls me to examine and dwell in, scares me.

What will I find within me?

Will there be love and acceptance? Anger and hatred? Firm kindness, or judgment?

After I shared these concerns, Linda talked to me about the concepts of “original sin” versus “original blessing.”

Original sin begins with the assumption that all humans are made sinful (which is confusing because if God is good and we are made in God’s image, so what does being inherently sinful say about God’s nature?). According to this doctrine, we tell ourselves over and over “I’m not good. I cannot to be who I am. I must strive every day to reach an unattainable perfection that is unlike me.”

I was not made in blessing. There is nothing good to which I can return. There is nothing towards which I can keep striving, because I will always have that sinful nature in me, even as I aspire to be holy. The journey becomes tedious, exhausting, and even pointless.

If we messed up in Eden, how could we possibly make anything better outside of it?

This theology asks: What good are we? What good is God if God made us this way?

When we remember we are made in God’s image, when we remind ourselves our original creation was one of blessing and joy, when we remember the unbound, unconditional love God has for us, we remember who we are meant to be.

We remember we are made to love God and our brothers, sisters, and non-binary siblings. We are made for more than our worst sins, our cruelest words and deeds, and our most embarrassing moments. We are made in a holy image, and even when this image is smudged, attacked, or hidden beneath our deepest wounds, it remains within us.

This original blessing, this uttermost essence of ours, is who we are, and we live life and seek God’s help to not only remember this, but to be this holy image in a painful, beautiful world.

This theology asks: How can we return to the good God made inherent in us? How do we continue to live out the Love within us with God’s help?

I took this theology to my meditation time the day after our meeting.

I sat on a yoga mat in the basement, facing my fiance’s guitars. His area is the tidier spot in the basement.

I breathed in and thought of my congressional representative, over whose comments about issues I became so furious. I breathed out and honored the blessing of his creation and the image of God inherent in him.

I repeated this process for the President, his cabinet members, and people who drive me crazy on a regular basis.

I repeated this process for my fiance, my parents, and my youth group.

For good measure, I repeated this process for myself.

Meditating on our God-given image changed the way I look at and even engage with people. It also reminds me while I am called to show the perfect love which casts out fear to the people who deny justice and mercy, this same, perfect love doesn’t cast out frustration, sadness, and the need for accountability.

Because I honor the image of God in myself, I honor it in others.

And because I honor this image of beauty, love, and holiness, which is inherent to every single one of us, I will continue to keep calling out the times I and others act in ways contrary to our holy nature.

So I keep praying. I keep remembering the image of God, first in myself, and in others, the ones I adore and the ones I abhor.

And my prayer for myself and for us is this:

You are made to love. How are you showing it?

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Fangirl Theology: Doctor Who, the Church, and my Messiah Complex

doctor_who__the_12_doctors_by_eleventhtenth-d6iecqb

eleventhtenth.deviantart.com/

Today, I am beginning a three-part series called Fangirl Theology. I will be presenting theological interpretations on three of my favorite “fangirl-worthy” works: Doctor Who, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Harry Potter.

I would like to dedicate this particular post to the memory of my stepdad, Robert Barnette, who passed away on October 28th. He was a big fan of Doctor Who, but I never got into it while he and my mom were together. As a result, we never got to talk about it in person when I did start enjoying it. This is for you, Rob. Rest in peace and rise in glory.

Also, an obvious spoiler warning for those who have not seen Doctor Who or those not caught up with the current season (Season Nine in the rebooted series).

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I love Doctor Who.

For those who have read some of my past posts, this is not a surprise.

Granted, the show took some getting used to. This was my first serious foray into the sci-fi territory, and when the reboot’s pilot involves killer mannequins, there’s an inevitable adjustment period for the not-yet-initiated.

But when I did get acclimated, I fell in love. I fell for the adventures, the timey-wimey explanations, certain companions, and the Doctor himself.

I will not digress by getting into debates about who my favorite incarnation of the Doctor is. That may be for another post at another time. I do, however, want to talk about a trait of the Doctor in each of his incarnations which I both love and fear: his Messiah-(and sometimes God-) complex.

Anytime the Doctor is on an adventure, on Earth or elsewhere in the universe, he tries to solve their problems. A famous tagline he uses in the most recent season is, “I’m the Doctor, and I save people!” And for the most part, the Doctor really does stay true to this statement. In one adventure, to save the life of a child who is “destined” to be the yearly sacrifice to an angry god, the Doctor offers up his own lifetime of memories to appease the being and save the girl. He makes himself show mercy to Davros, the creator of the murderous race of beings called the Daleks, because in doing so, he ensures that their creator instills the smallest piece of mercy in these killing machines. He saves many planets, including the Earth, from evil beings and averts many catastrophes. He bears a significant amount of the suffering of others and even takes things into his own hands when they are not his to take.

But he is a very dark Messiah. After losing a beloved companion, he almost lets an entire race of creatures go extinct for threatening humanity. He only stops when his new companion begs him to have mercy. He forces another companion to make a decision over whether or not to destroy the moon, which is in fact an egg protecting a creature and about to hatch, instead of helping her with the decision. When she realizes how close she was to making the “wrong” choice, she cuts the Doctor out of her life in rage. He is most dangerous when he is alone, because in these instances, he refuses to be ruled by any higher authority or different voice of reason, because he believes he is the highest authority and the law of the land.

Attributes like this led showrunner Steven Moffat to describe the Doctor as “an angel trying to be human.” And in the most recent season, he was someone who wondered whether or not he is a “good man.”

I relate so well to this character, because I am a human trying to be God, someone wondering not if the world is “good” but if it’s OK.

I wake up some mornings with great hope in humanity and the world around me. On those days, nothing gives me greater joy than to relish in humanity’s achievements and wonder how I can participate in making a beautiful world with them.

Other mornings, I wake up wishing the world would just burn already, and I ask if I can have the match to get the fire going.

I want to take the world in my hands and mold it gently, and I want to take it in my hands and smash it.

In other words, I have a strong Messiah-complex. I think I have the answers to all the world’s problems, and I think if people just did what I thought was right, our problems would disappear. When people don’t do what I want, I become angry and vengeful, wondering why we can’t start over with better people or a better world.

And I’m sure I’m not the only person in the world, especially during election season, who feels this way.

I am also a member of the Church, where I am taught we have a gracious, merciful Messiah who will one day usher in a new age of peace when he returns to us. Because this Messiah is the centerpiece of our theology, you would think the Church would be the place where we’re told our Messiah complexes are hilarious at best and damaging at worst. We are supposed to be taught we are not the be all and end all of this Creation, but Someone greater than us is in charge. We are called to do what we can, but we are not called to be Creation’s saviors. This mission, according to the stories in our Bibles, belongs to someone else.

Suffice it to say, I have often felt my Messiah complex encouraged, nurtured, and at times even exploited in Church. Church is the body of people I aim to please the most with my gifts, but not always in a good way. Church has often been where I strive to prove myself by signing up for as many things as possible, and it is a rare day when someone stops me. I sign up for leadership roles and mission events to prove I am worth belonging to these people. I have continued leading in places I should have left, for the sake of my health and even the congregation’s health, but I feared my loss of status in the community.

After all, if I was not a leader, I had no purpose. If I was not leading a mission project which actively “helped” or “saved” others, I was not doing enough work for God or my community, and they would disapprove of me. I also did not trust that anyone could do my job as well as I could, and I put myself at odds with people in my communities at times over how things should be done. If it wasn’t my way, it couldn’t possibly be right.

I have also felt this Messiah-complex encouraged in the labeling of enemies. Either explicitly or implicitly, groups of people, even (and sometimes especially) communities of faith, establish “insiders” and “outsiders,” those who are “us” and those who are “other.” When we do this, we allow ourselves to think we can determine the boundaries to God’s presence. This can enable us to think we, not God, are the keepers of the gates of heaven. It’s a difficult trait to combat, yet how often do we see our leaders calling this out in us?

When my Messiah-complex is left unchecked, I throw myself into ministry work the way the Doctor throws himself into cataclysmic predicaments, without regard to my own sanity or the capability of others to do this work well. I do things no one else will do the way the Doctor does things for humans they could never, and maybe should never, do for themselves. It’s like we both have a voice inside us screaming at all times, “Everything will be lost forever unless YOU, and YOU ALONE, do something.”

It’s always up to us. Not someone else. Not life, death, or resurrection. Not even God. It always has to be us, and we keep throwing ourselves into these situations until we are burned out and need a regeneration.

So, how do you heal a Messiah-complex?

I find healing the same way the Doctor has: I keep surrounding myself with people who drag me out of my own dreams of “how things should be”and plant me firmly back into the world of “how things are.”

Like the Doctor, I have companions who love me when I am at my most human and when I try to be better than God. I have companions who tell me when I’ve gone too far and when I need to let things go and be as they are. These people are my saving graces and help me realize that even if I am not always a “good person” and the world around me is not always “good,” I have the promise of love to keeping me going and learning through each new adventure. Together, the Doctor and I are learning, in a slow yet undeniable way, that we cannot be God to humanity or even to ourselves, and this is OK.

Like the Doctor, we find healing from our Messiah-complexes by finding and maintaining friends, communities, and even ministries and vocations which empower us to do all we can while reminding us we are not God. We need the Church to point us to Jesus, the Messiah full of grace and mercy, and remind us we are not called to be the world’s Saviors but imitators of the One who saved us and continues to save us.

Like the Doctor, we can help people. We can be kind and present even when all else is lost, and every now and then, we might save the day.

But like the Doctor, we are not God.

With the Doctor, we learn to accept our own limitations, our own humanity, and our divine spark. With the Doctor, we learn how to invite life, death, and resurrection into the world without controlling the final results.

We can do this without being God or Jesus, and like the Doctor, we can become all the better for it.

Where are you going?

Two weeks ago, I left Slippery Rock, PA after a 3-day visit to my family. My Gammy had commented throughout my visit that she had received no rain for quite some time.

The rains were kind enough to choose my departure date to unleash.

I sat in my car on the PA Turnpike with countless others as we struggled to navigate the slick roads. We were traveling a sluggish 45 mph when we should have been going 70. My Waze app kept bringing up flood warnings, and I could barely see the car in front of me despite my slashing windshield wipers. I have driven in rain before, but never like this, and never for an extended trip. I was pretty nervous.

And then I saw this sign:

Where-Are-You-Going-Heaven-or-Hell

http://gospelbillboards.org/

And as I peered out the windshield, past the furious windshield wipers, the cautious cars, and the flooding Turnpike, I cried out: “I don’t care about either of those. I just want to get home.”

In that instant, the last thing I cared about was my eternal destiny. All I cared about was living through this drive so I could see my fiance, snuggle with my cats, and sleep in my own bed. I didn’t want to worry about where my soul, or the souls of the travelers around me, would go if this trip resulted in fatality. I wanted to focus on getting home alive to be with other living loved ones.

I don’t worry about my eternal destiny as much as I once did, and for a while, I thought I was “wrong” to let that fear go. The thought comes up every now and then, but most of the time, I focus on how I’m acting in the here and now, whether or not I’m showing God’s love to those around me. Most of all, I am trying my hardest to live, to be fully alive and present to this world and life around me which I only get to live once, because sometimes, that alone is a struggle for me.

This desire to live and be alive to the world around me is a major reason I have walked away from this “heaven vs. hell” theology. It has nothing to say to real human beings in our very real lives. It only commands us to worry about our death.

This theology had nothing to offer me and the Turnpike drivers as we trekked through a dangerous downpour. It has nothing to offer my anxieties, real and imagined. It has nothing to offer anyone in difficult situations, or who are living real lives. It only provides an idea of escape, a way to not care about what’s in front of us or be attentive to the very real concerns of our neighbors around the world, because this can’t matter in light of the eternal destiny of heaven or hell.

So what’s the point of it? Why do so many of us spend so much time and energy trying to determine a fate that isn’t ours to determine? Why do so many of us lack faith in God that we worry about where God will put us forever? Why do so many of us lack faith in ourselves and God’s love for us?

Because I see both a lack of faith and a lack of love in these billboard signs.

I see a lack of faith in a God we claim loves us unconditionally when we say that being a part of this love depends entirely on a guilt-initiated, one-time choice, instead of a difficult, daily commitment to living into God’s love as embodied in Jesus.

And I see a great lack of love in allowing for this type of escapism to persist in times when those who claim to follow Jesus close their eyes to the broken world around them, which Christ died for, as they blindly gaze up at heaven.

Don’t worry about the heaven and hell, whose gates and guidelines are not yours to manage, and don’t be led astray by those who say they are. Look for the people who care enough about Jesus’ words about the Kingdom of Heaven that they do their hardest to find and make it on earth as it is in heaven, who live real, difficult, beautiful lives reflecting God’s persevering love for all Creation.