Finding Peace In a Time of Dread

I don’t know if you’ve ever had a freight train barrelling down on you and all you can do is wait for it to hit before. You’re waiting for the power to be turned off. The doctor to give the terrible diagnosis. For the court date to come, the judgment to be rendered, the relationship to irreparably break. Where you’ve just stood and watched the cracks form as the world starts to fall out from under your feet. Even if you’ve experienced it all before, waiting for the freight train to hit can leave you struggling to breathe from one moment to the next and make each day a long, arduous endeavor to get from morning to night without breaking anything or anyone.

I think a lot of people are in that place – or realizing that they may be headed towards that place right now. Unemployment claims in the US are expected to jump from 250,000 to over 2.5 million this week. Elderly people and those with preexisting health conditions are living in fear. People with no health insurance are thinking through what will be their sign that they have no choice but to seek medical treatment if they get sick. Everywhere there are people making choices between income and protecting their health. Being isolated or risking the health of those they care about. Right now there are people watching the cracks forming under their feet and contemplating whether they even have what it takes to survive the world falling out from under them.

This time 5 years ago, that was me. I was living in a state of constant dread. My husband hadn’t gotten a paycheck in over 6 months and the last bit of consulting work he could drum up had been completed a couple of months back. We hadn’t paid the rent for March and there was little to no hope of being able to cover it in April either. Our one working car was in such dire need of repairs that we didn’t dare even use it for one of us to get a job working for low wages lest it finally breakdown and require a repair bill too large to be covered by a low wage job and thus make it impossible for my husband to get to job interviews much less to his first paycheck large enough to cover the repairs. We had no plan for the inevitable eviction we were facing – no place to go, few people to turn to when the day came that we were forced to load the family into our janky truck and leave. The only positive was that the utility companies were prohibited by the laws of the Northern Tundra from turning off the gas and electricity until Mid-May.

The kind of dread that comes from waiting helplessly for the freight train to hit is like a great suffocating blanket. When the freight train actually hits it creates problems that demand action. The adrenaline hits and you physically have to move. There are plans to execute, solutions to find, calls to make. When the train hits and there’s carnage all over the tracks, you call in help, you move to stop the bleeding, you put aside thoughts for tomorrow while dealing with what’s right in front of you. But when the train’s barreling down on you and the ground under your feet starts to rumble and there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do but wait, there’s just that paralyzing dread.

Back in 2015 when I was walking through long days of dread, I was reminded one day of the sparrow whose fall Jesus says God takes note of. And it hit me that in my mind, the entirety of that bird’s existence was defined by the moment it fell and yet that wasn’t so at all. Prior to the moment it fell, there had been a great many more moments of not falling. Of flying, socializing, singing, eating, resting and just living its bird life. Out of all the moments that the bird existed, the moment of fall was actually the smallest one. I don’t know what it was about this idea that grabbed me that day, but it came to me that if that freight train was going to hit, it made no more sense for me to suffer in advance over it than it would have for the bird to allow the fact of its inevitable fall to steal all enjoyment from the other moments of it existence.

I felt God telling me, “you think constantly about what has happened or what will happen and hardly even notice that right this moment, you are fine. You can breath, you’re not far removed from a meal, you can get something to drink when you need it, you have shelter from the weather and covering for your body. No one is harming your body in this moment and there’s something beautiful closeby for you to see. Right in this very moment, you’re OK.”

After that, when the dread would start to overtake me, I’d stop and repeat to myself, “right now, I have everything I need. I am safe, I am fed and watered, I am sheltered and I have something beautiful to look at. In this moment right now, I am fine.” It sounds trite, but I’d actually think of the last meal I had eaten, take a sip of the cup of tea, coffee or water I had sitting nearby. I would let myself physically feel the creature comforts I was surrounded by. I’d take a moment to look at and appreciate something beautiful and the dread would pass. In its place came almost a sense of awe at my good fortune. There was still a freight train approaching, but until it hit, I was living in a level of luxury and security that many of the humans who have ever existed rarely had. It made no sense not to savor every moment of it for as long as I could.

Over the next couple of months I would regularly discipline myself to engage in this little mental practice whenever my sense of dread would crop up. Simple and trite though it sounds, it transformed the entire way I experience life. After a while, I started to feel unreasonably spoiled. Yeah, all the furniture might wind up on the front lawn come May, but have you felt how soft this couch is? And how many people in history ever got to enjoy both coffee and tea with just the right amount of sweetener and cream on the same day?!? Have you seen the view through the living room window or looked closely at this picture on the wall? And smell the lentil curry cooking on the stove! I live on the great Northern Tundra of the United States of America and there’s a freight train barrelling down on me and yet somehow I have coconut milk and rich spices from the other side of the world! It’s all quite amazing if you really think about it. I mean – lots of people have had the earth open up under their feet, but how many in human history have birthed 5 children who were all in good health and spirits and had never really been hungry? 

The hard reality is that life doesn’t owe us anything and when we enter into human form here on planet earth, there are no promises. Anything can happen. We might get hit by a freight train. In due time, each of us inevitably falls just like that bird. But for most of us the moments of disaster are wildly outnumbered by all the moments in which we are fine. Isn’t it enough to deal with the moments of disaster and the arduous work of recovering from them without also handing all of our moments when we’re actually fine over as well?

If you are one of the many, many people who are suddenly living under the shadow of dread, I would strongly encourage you to start disciplining yourself to stop and be in the moment you are actually in rather than fixating on the train that’s barreling down the track towards you. If the train hits, it’s going to suck – there’s no two ways about it. But there’s no point in suffering in advance. Let the moment you are in – the one in which you are fed and clothed and sitting at a computer or on your phone reading these words nourish you so that in the moment that train does hit, you won’t have already worn yourself out with worry and sacrificed all your moments of fine leading up to disaster to it.

And you never know what’s going to happen anyway. I’ve certainly had freight trains hit me and leave a mess behind but that freight train barreling down on me five years ago? It never did hit. My husband got a good job with the best company he’s ever worked for right in the nick of time. The repair guy we took the car to when the first paycheck came did the most critical repair on the cheap and then arranged to replace our ready to blow tires for less than half price. The bills were eventually paid down and there was even a trip to a resort in Mexico on the company dime the following February. I really am spoiled. And even if you have a freight train barreling down on you, you probably are too. You just have to stop and let yourself feel it for as long as you can.

Rules for Discernment – Particular vs Universal

Image result for what's good for me is good for youOnce upon a time I had the chance to spend time with an unusual man who was a massage/hypnotherapist who believed we’d all be nudists after Jesus’ return. Which I wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with except for the fact that I live on the great northern tundra of the upper midwest where it’s Fahrenheit 9 degrees outside right now. Not long after I met him, he advised me that God wanted us to stop thinking and just trust his lead. After having a spiritual experience a few years prior during which God had told him to stop thinking he had made it part of his mission to advise others of this message going forward. I happened to know that it most certainly was not God’s will for me personally to stop thinking, but after spending time with this gentleman, I could totally understand why God would give HIM such an instruction. Every time he tried to reason things out, he inevitably wound up out in left field somewhere. In fact, the last I heard from him, he was toying around the edges of the anti-government “sovereign citizens movement”. (God puts such interesting people in my path. It’s one of the ways I know she loves me. lol)

There was a great deal about this gentleman that was unusual and peculiar, but his belief that a message given to him was a message meant for everyone generally is an error that one does run into fairly often among Christians. In fact, it’s not all that unusual for a Christian teacher to take some revelation, instruction or insight which he or she believes God has given them and proceed to teach it to others. Entire ministries have been built on this kind of thing. However, when you see someone doing this, it’s a definite red flag. Just because God gives you an instruction or revelation, doesn’t mean it’s meant for everyone. It doesn’t even mean it’s meant for you for all time. Generally speaking, when God teaches us something or gives us an instruction, it’s meant for us and for that time. It’s particular rather than universal.

Now, if you’ve been following along with my slow motion series outlining my “rules of discernment” for navigating the Christian church without falling prey to charlatans, cons and false teachers you’ll know that the other red flags I have pointed out (claiming authority for one’s self, promoting an us vs them mentality and claiming that there’s a basic pattern we should all fit into) came with a warning to run like hell away from anyone displaying them. Like, I won’t even carry on a conversation with people teaching those sorts of things beyond a polite “smile and nod” while figuring out how to extricate myself from the interaction as quickly as possible. Those kinds of people are flat-out dangerous. This particular error, however, is more of a warning not to take the person making it too seriously than a warning to flee for your life. As I said, it’s not an entirely uncommon error for Christians to fall into. Accepting one person’s revelation as universally true can certainly mess you up, but assuming that person doesn’t set off one of the other 3 red flags I’ve shared, it’s an error that can easily come from immaturity and a lack of understanding.

A good, mature teacher knows that we all move through seasons and stages. And we have our own particular issues and personalities as well. What’s good for me may be death for you and vice versa. The more my massage/hypnotherapist turned his brain off and just let himself be lead by love, the better he and everyone else around him was. But at the time I met him, God had me puzzling over all kinds of ideas and thoughts that were coalescing into wisdom and insight that have served me quite well and formed the basis of a lot of my work. If I had taken my friend’s advice to stop thinking so much seriously, it wouldn’t have been good for me. Then again, there have certainly been times when my thinking turned toxic and clearing my mind was a needed survival mechanism. Things change, people change, seasons change and so it’s only natural that God’s leading in our lives will change as. Any teacher who doesn’t understand that basic fact is at high risk of leading anyone who listens to them astray.

Let’s Talk About That Half Time Show

So let’s have a conversation about the SuperBowl half time show that people are losing their shit over. I’ve been watching the back and forth reactions and talking with people about it and I realized that the problem really is that two people can look at the exact same thing and see two completely different, unrelated events because of differences in culture. For example, when Shakira went up to the camera and did that tongue thing. To me, that looked really lewd. (I was watching with the sound off, so it looked particularly bad.) I have never moved my tongue like that except when doing things I’m not going to discuss with y’all cuz some shit’s private. But since that’s literally the only frame of reference I have for moving that part of my body like that, I just naturally saw something that looked really lewd.

However, as you probably already know, what Shakira was actually doing was performing a zaghrouta. It’s something done by people around the world, particularly in the middle east as a sign of joy and celebration. There’s nothing remotely sexual about it. Little girls do it and perhaps when they’re grown and move their tongue in a similar way for sexual purposes, it carries the memory of joy and celebration because that’s the memory that’s tied to that body movement. Obviously, the movement is not in and of itself lewd or sexual since it’s done in settings and for purposes that aren’t sexual at all. My perspective on the tongue movement is shaped by my body’s memory which is sexual while for people the world over the same tongue movement is tied to memories of celebration and joy. CLEARLY, the fact that Shakira’s tongue wag looked lewd to me is a ME problem and not an accurate representation of reality. If I refuse to accept that my perspective doesn’t define what she was doing, then really I’m just a jerk projecting my issues onto everyone else.

If you listen to people coming from non-western cultures, one of the observations they often make about us is that we are unusually restrained in our movements and behaviors. We don’t often display the physical exuberance, free movement and enthusiasm that is found in many other places. We reserve our hip thrusts and tongue wags and body rubbing for behind closed doors. Which isn’t necessarily a problem except we often make the mistake of thinking that movements which we have never and perhaps would never engage in outside of a sexual context are in and of themselves sexual. But they’re not. Many people in many places regularly move their bodies in ways we restrained westerners only do sexually when there’s nothing remotely sexual going on. What looks to our eyes like lewd, open sexuality is nothing of the sort to someone who has grown up swiveling and thrusting their hips while playing and dancing with their families, etc.

In fact, it’s pretty insulting to others when we presume that they’re engaged in sexual behavior while they’re simply playing, dancing and celebrating. How would you like it if someone claimed that an American cookout was a lewd celebration of fellatio that we encouraged our children to participate in because we eat hotdogs? They could write articles and include pictures of small children sucking on bunless hotdogs and decry us as a perverted people inclined to sexualizing children for men’s pleasure. Cultural anthropologists could theorize about the role of the hamburger and its relationship with cunnilingus. It would be ridiculous, of course, but it’s not all that different than what we westerners have tended to do to everyone else.

Now, I’m sure that right now someone is thinking that I’m being naive – I mean – look at the pole dancing! Obviously, THAT was sexual! We think that because we associate poles with strip clubs but the practice of using poles for dancing and athletic displays dates back hundreds of years to China and India. Even the pole dancing we associate with strip clubs has its roots in western eyes viewing indigenous Egyptian dancers as sexually provocative (because they dressed and moved their bodies in ways westerners don’t unless sexuality is involved). Traveling shows put these indigenous dancers on stage to make money from leering men and the dancers began incorporating the pole that held up the tent into their dances. Eventually, westerners more broadly were introduced to pole dancing in strip clubs in the 60s. But pole dancing isn’t sexually exploitive in and of itself. It’s hard work that takes a lot of skill and strength. We westerners are the ones who made the connection between pole dancing and strip clubs and now we want to be outraged that everyone else doesn’t accept our perspective as the only valid one?!? Come on people! We can be more mature than that, I would hope.

Even the clothing that the women were wearing. One of the most persistent critiques of western and particularly America culture is that we are unable to see the human form except through the lens of sexuality. It’s as if sex were the one true purpose of bodies and we find it impossible to view a body without being reminded of sex. Which is kind of pathological, to be honest. Obviously, our bodies do all kinds of things other than have sex. They run, carry, jump, play, hold, manipulate and on and on. All around the world and throughout time people have displayed their bodies without any sexual connotations. Just because western eyes have difficulty viewing the human form except Nhakg™g™re plays takes a bath after a ceremony in the village of A'Ukre, in the Kayapo Indigenous land , Brazil on Friday, March 22, 2019. The indigenous peoples of the Amazon rain forest are the shock troops in the struggle against climate change and are undergoing extreme pressure from the newly elected right wing Jair Bolsonaro government. (Dado Galdieri for Financial Times)through a sexualized lens, doesn’t mean everyone else does too! If you look at indigenous tribes engaged in religious ceremonies, depending on the climate, it’s not unusual at all to see the religious leaders dressed in ceremonial garb that covers very little of their bodies. It’s not sexual at all. Until relatively recently in the west, nudity during sporting competitions wasn’t even unusual. Not everyone looks at people in “revealing” clothing and sees something sexual.

And this is the point that I think a lot of people who are appalled at the half time show are completely missing: just because YOU saw it as sexualized, objectifying and lewd doesn’t mean that is the reality of what was going on. You think you’re decrying the sexual objectification of women and exposing children to open sexuality while most of the rest of the world thinks that they just watched two women engaged in feats of athleticism, skill and creativity with great joy. When you respond to what others see in those terms by claiming that they’re sexually objectifying women, you’re just telling them that YOU can’t see these women and their skills except through the lens of sex. You’re telling on yourself.

YOU don’t move your body in those ways unless you’re engaged in sexuality so you can’t fathom that a body being moved in those ways is anything other than sexual. YOU struggle to view the exposed female form except through the lens of sexuality so you assume that the point of wearing clothing that exposes the female form must be sexual. But the fact that YOU see all this sex all over everything doesn’t make it a reality. Other people are not obligated to avoid bumping up against YOUR sexual issues. Because that’s really what this is about: western culture has such a weird, stifled relationship with sexuality that we view all kinds of innocent and even fun, joyful things as sexual whether or not they actually are. And then we try to hold ourselves up as the moral exemplars who would never engage in or approve of such behavior. While everyone else stands around marveling at what sick perverts we are to read sex into anything and everything they do.

The bottom line is that just because something can be seen as sexual, doesn’t mean it is sexual. I totally get that those of us who were brought up in cultures where we have clear demarcations between movements that are sexual and non-sexual and dress which is non-sexual and sexual just naturally see a performance like the one at the Super Bowl as sexual. It looked really sexual to me as a white woman raised in a religious environment too. I get it. (And I’m sure that those who don’t view these performances as inherently sexual have no qualms about taking advantage of our sexual peculiarities to make money.) But just because we see it that way doesn’t make it so. When we project our perspective on others around us, we’re actually the ones sexualizing and objectifying women which is supposedly exactly what we’re so upset at everyone else about.

So, chill. It really ain’t that serious, people. And, if I can make a suggestion, it’s probably not a good idea to pass on our narrow views of sexuality to our children. They’re going to be living in an increasingly multicultural world and it just sets them up to be jerks and bad neighbors if they’re going around acting like other people’s joy and celebration are sexually perverse. Sometimes it’s better to just let things go.

America’s Dark Night of the Soul

Everything is really dark right now. The forces of evil appear are fighting to maintain the upper hand and are clearly determined to drag us as far down the ugly path of cruelty and hatred as they can with willing support from people who ought to know better but are under the thrall of hate and so don’t care. People have revealed themselves and it is bizarre how rare genuinely good people seem to be. And yet, I do believe there’s a well of untapped goodness lurking under the surface just waiting to be released. There has to be; humans are made in God’s image and we’ve not had nearly as many opportunities to pour out good as evil.

I often think of something John of the cross said in The Dark Night of the Soul. He says that when God invades our innermost being and begins to purify us, it pushes all of the impurities in our hearts to the surface – things we didn’t even know were there or thought we had overcome. We see this darkness rising and think we are worse than we’ve ever been. Hopeless, ugly, evil even. And yet that is the point at which God is working most intensely in us under the surface. As his purifying fire expands out from our innermost being it quickly burns off the darkness on the surface to reveal his presence and our goodness.

I work under the theory that what we go through as individual humans must happen with humanity as a whole. I think (hope) we are at that point where the darkness is right on the surface and we believe ourselves to be worse than ever. Or perhaps there’s still more ugliness that needs to come to the surface to be dealt with. Either way, if that’s true, then we’re not far off from the point where the goodness under the surface burns through the darkness to reveal something much purer and more beautiful than we imagined was possible. Chin up, peeps.

PS Just a reminder, that I pretty much predicted we were heading in this direction back in 2014. Let’s just hope I am also right about the end result!

Hate In a Time of Trump

In the last few years I’ve had numerous people confess to me that they were really struggling with hate towards Trump, his supporters, his enablers and the gang of conmen and criminals who have taken over our government. Given the behavior of these people, their open animosity, disdain and thinly veiled hatred for the rest of us and the harm being done to our government, our allies and some of the world’s most vulnerable people as the result of this administration, hatred is pretty justifiable. But a lot of us for reasons of personal morality, character or mental health have a commitment to rejecting hate. And yet, as many people are discovering, not hating in the face of extreme provocation and rank evil is easier said than done.

At this point, some of you are wondering why this is even a concern. Hate is a valid and one can argue even a morally appropriate response to some kinds of behaviors and harm done. And telling people not to hate is a fairly common way to minimize actual wrongdoing, threats and abuse. Besides, who are we to tell other people what they are and aren’t allowed to feel? And I agree with all of that. However . . . allowing yourself to hate comes at a cost.

First off, maintaining hate requires a lot of energy. Energy that you won’t always have control of, frankly. It’s bad enough that you have to deal with the bullshit that triggers the hate, but when you hate, you can be having a perfectly pleasant day turned sour by seeing or hearing the object of your hate or even just remembering them. Which is WAY too much power to give someone who’s worthy of hate over your life.

Further, when we hate, the part of our brain that primes us for action is activated. Which means we tend to be more impulsive than normal when we hate. Being impulsive leaves us vulnerable to making mistakes (here’s a quick guide for evaluating an outrageous story before you share it on social media, btw?). Maybe it’s me, but I generally try to avoid doing dumb stuff on impulse, so that’s a problem. And hatred tends to go hand in hand with anger which clouds our judgment and tends to prevent us from recognizing when we’re wrong and making appropriate corrections. Which means we end up being both wrong and an asshole at the same time more often and, thanks, I don’t need help with that.

Probably most insidiously, because how you use your brain becomes how your brain works, allowing yourself to hate means that hate becomes a baseline normal state for you which you will compulsively return to over and over again until it’s so ingrained in your wiring that it can take many years and therapy to undo. As a former white supremacist told researchers investigating hate’s addictive qualities:

“I’ve said before that it took me less than two years to learn to hate and it took me nine
years to unlearn it. You don’t just stop hating just like that. There is still a lot of pollution in there.”

Hate’s a dangerous thing. Even if you are completely justified in your hate, your brain can easily become habituated to hating in ways that are hard to undo. Which, again, is WAY too much power for someone worthy of hating to have over you.

Now, there are lots of esoteric and spiritual arguments to be made against hate, but when you really get down to brass tack for me refusing to hate is a matter of being kind to myself and refusing to allow terrible people more power than I have to in my life. I don’t like the way hate feels in my body, I don’t need help making more mistakes and misjudgments in my life, I have worked hard to master my mind and I’m not risking that to indulge hate and I refuse to allow myself to turn into a hateful person over terrible people. So that’s my personal take on why I don’t allow myself to just hate anyone. Including Trump.

Of course, like I said earlier, easier said than done. If want to share how you avoid falling into hate in the comments, maybe you can help out someone who is struggling with it. For me, it’s been a two-part process. First, I refuse to live in denial so I will make time to have a good look at my hate. I have to let myself feel it so I know what it feels like, how it works, what happens when I add self-righteous or empathy into it, I make myself face the truth about when my thoughts, attitudes, and words are driven by hate posing as reason, righteousness or some other excuse. Then once I had a good feel for it, I just started rejecting it mentally every time I experienced it. The feeling didn’t automatically go away when I rejected it, but I set my will over and over against allowing myself to hate. As soon as I recognize it’s presence in me, I pray: “God, please take this hate from me, I do not want it in my life.” Over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over. So I don’t particularly have a magic bullet to take hate away (it is at root, a natural, God-given emotion, after all). Just a practice of disciplining my heart and my mind to refuse to hate. Terrible people don’t get to infect me and my mind like that.

Rules of Discernment, Rule 3: Diversity

Have you ever really thought about how wildly different in appearance human beings are? With the exception of dogs, animals of the same species will share a narrow range of colors, size, and appearances. But humans can have hair that is orange or white or black, skin from the palest whites to the darkest black, noses that are flat or bulbous or wide or narrow. Our lips come in sizes from billowy to so thin as to be practically non-existent. We can have huge bubble butts and flat behinds that look like they hurt to sit on. We may be rail-thin or carry enough fat to jiggle with every move. There are women who are over 7 feet tall and men who fail to hit 4 feet. If we were birds, we would have lost our ability to procreate with each other ages back and formed a dizzying array of subspecies, yet there’s nothing other than personal preference that could have stopped Shaquille O’Neil and Rea Pearlman from reproducing together.

Of course, the diversity of human beings doesn’t end with physical appearances. Some humans are smart enough to understand ideas that unlock the structure of the universe while others believe that ectopic pregnancies can be reimplanted. There are people who experience sound as colors and people who are colorblind. Some people are loud and aggressive and some are quiet and withdrawn. Some can run a 5 minute mile while others push themselves to cover the same distance in 20 minutes. Some people love being scared, some people get freaked trying to navigate a parking lot. Some people talk incessantly and others lack the capacity entirely. Some people are lighthearted to the point of irresponsibility while others are careful and cautious to the point of paralysis.

Obviously, I could go on forever giving examples of ways that humans are different from one another. It’s practically limitless. We have different personalities and temperaments that are often discernable at birth. We like different things. We have different priorities, drives, and desires. On and on and on – humans and variety go hand and hand. It’s a fundamental part of how God created us. He WANTS us to be different. He wants to have some people who are aggressive and some people who are gentle. Some people who laugh at everything and others who cry at everything. It is his design for us that he looked at and called “very good.” Which leads me to my 3rd Rule for Discernment:

Do not follow or trust any teacher or leader who insists that there is a right or wrong way to be human.

God literally made humans to be wildly diverse so quite obviously, a teacher who says that good and proper humans must conform to a narrow set of behaviors, styles, personalities, interests and so on are showing a flagrant disregard for God’s ways. In fact, they are literally arguing against God’s ways in favor of their own personal preferences. Which isn’t actually something a good teacher or shepherd would do.

Inside the church we probably see this error among teachers and shepherds most clearly when it comes to men and women. Typically, women are supposed to be gentle, quiet, demure, agreeable and relationship-oriented. Men are supposed to be aggressive, forceful, leaders, decisive and goal-oriented. Men and women who aren’t naturally inclined to such things are encouraged to seek God’s help in changing from the person he created them to be into something more to the leader’s liking. They are told that the personality God gave them, their natural preferences, what feels good and right to them is wrong and needs to be repented of. It’s oppressive, mentally and emotionally harmful and warps entire families and communities in ways that prevent human flourishing.

Now, I joke around a lot, but I want to make really clear the seriousness of what we’re talking about here. Some of the false teachers and bad shepherds may not quite realize that the things they believe make for a good, godly person are personal preferences rather than some sort of God-given judgment on what sort of people we’re supposed to be. But others are literally creating a world that works according to and in service to their own selfish desires. There are lots and lots of examples, but the clearest example of how destructive and malicious this behavior is found in a man named Bill Gothard.

Some of you know all too well who Bill Gothard is but some of you are more blessed than that and have probably never heard of the man. He is a highly influential figure among IFB – Independent Fundamentalist Baptist. Independent Fundamentalist Baptists are extreme Christian fundamentalists whose adherents include the Duggar Family of 19 Kids and Counting fame. Now, perhaps you have noticed that all of the Duggar girls, including the mom, style themselves in very similar ways. They wear their hair long, with loose curls, have milky complexions with rosy cheeks, are slim, wear skirts that go to the ankles and clothing that minimizes the appearance of breasts. The reason for this is that they followed the teachings of Bill Gothard who taught that this was the appearance girls and young women should have. This is what is desirable for a woman, pleasing to God and showed good character. As it turns out, Bill Gothard is a sexual predator who personally prefers young women with that particular appearance. Like a lot of predators, he had a “type” and he was using his position to surround himself with potential victims whose appearance appealed to him.

That case is extreme, but one of my basic rules of thumb is that any dynamic or system which can easily be put to use by predators is not of God. God’s ways don’t rely on the goodness of men to produce good fruit but have a power all their own. Even if it were possible for a mere mortal to know as much as God about how he intends people to be, giving a leader the power to tell people who they are supposed to be requires that leader to be a genuinely good person. The existence of Bill Gothard and others like him is proof positive that having leaders tell people what kind of people they should be is not God’s way of doing things because it relies on the goodness of humans to avoid devolving into a sexual predator enabling nightmare. And the toll it takes on families, individuals and children, in particular, to be subjected to someone telling them that who they are is wrong and displeasing to God is enormous.

All of which is to say that if you run into a teacher or leader who has strong opinions about how people are supposed to be, run. Nothing good comes from exposing yourself to someone who has rejected such a basic aspect of how God designed human beings. A good teacher won’t try to narrow down the types of people God finds pleasing, but will celebrate the diversity that God created within the human race and help us learn to look on those who are different than ourselves with eyes of love that look for beauty and God’s fingerprints.

Rules of Discernment, Rule 2: Boogeymen

As most of us are well aware, the church can be a treacherous place. Unfortunately, many Christians are ill-equipped to navigate it without falling prey to false teachers, bad shepherds, false teachings, lies, manipulation, etc. When Jesus said “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves”, he apparently wasn’t kidding. Of course, immediately after telling us that he was sending us out like walking dinner plates at the Fyre Festival, he also said, “Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” To that end, I’m sharing my “Rules of Discernment” to help you and your loved ones navigate the treacherous ground we stand on.

Last week, I shared my 1st Rule of Discernment which is, basically, don’t trust anyone who claims authority for themselves rather than directing you back to the Spirit of God in you. Which right there eliminates a big chunk of the very most noxious false teachers, charlatans and cons. However, there are plenty of dangerous snakes who are a bit too savvy to come right out and openly claim the authority of God for themselves. So we need to move on to other obvious as well as telltale signs that you’re dealing with a false teacher or bad shepherd without having to go through the whole process of experiencing the effects of false teachers and bad shepherds yourself. At the top of the list of fairly obvious signs I’d put my 2nd Rule:

If a teacher/pastor/leader views the world as an “us vs them” endeavor with Christians on one side and other people/groups/ideology on the other – RUN!

Quite literally, if you hear a teacher tell you that the gays, the liberals, the trumpists, the atheists, the feminists, witches, warlocks, pagans, communists, nudists, the guy who takes his shoes and socks off on the plane or any other person or group of people is trying to “defeat/eliminate/attack” Christianity somehow, you can very comfortably turn tale and run. There’s a near zero chance that that person has anything to teach you that you can’t find in a bajillion other places.

Properly practiced, one of Christianity’s foundational, primary teaching is love of our enemies. It’s what we, at our best, have been known for from the days of the early church right down to our current time. A teacher who instead teaches fear of enemies can barely even be understood to be a Christian regardless of their theology or other claimed beliefs.

Loving our enemies and responding to evil with good doesn’t come naturally, of course. It’s something we must discipline ourselves to do. It’s something we rely on leaders to model and, well, lead us in doing. With practice, there does come a time when loving our enemies starts to come naturally but along the way we need lots of messages telling us over and over, “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. . . Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. . . Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. . . Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord. BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

One of the jobs of a real Christian teacher – one of the things we NEED from our teachers – is to proclaim that message over and over and over again. To shut down all of the excuses and justifications we use to get out of loving our enemies. And one of the things the world needs from us as Christians is to see us engaged in this discipline, to be on the receiving end of kindness in response to hostility and care in response to harm. If we as Christians aren’t engaging in that most Kingdom of God like practice of enemy love, how will the Kingdom of God ever be made manifest among and around us?!? It’s literally part of how we bear witness to the power of Christ in us and without it; without it our witness has no power and no credibility.

A teacher who encourages their flock to view others as a threat to be resisted, condemned and rejected is failing at being a follower of Jesus. They have absolutely no business teaching about or even representing the Christian faith to anyone. It would be like a Muslim Imam encouraging their followers to worship trees. It’s completely incompatible with the Christian faith. And it’s an abuse of the flock.

The bible says the words “do not fear” (or some variation thereof) over and over and over and over and over again. Like hundreds of times. Yet these “teachers” stand up and exhort their flocks with all kinds of reasons to be afraid. When we are afraid, our rational, thinking brain stops communicating effectively with the reactive, emotional brain. In this state, we’re very vulnerable to manipulation. Triggering our fear provides a durable screen for the con or charlatan to hide behind. Even if you catch on that they’re not on the up and up, you’ll be tempted to take an “enemy of my enemy is my friend” stance so you can continue battling “the good” fight together. It’s quite a neat little trick.

Even worse, once fear brain takes over, it becomes ridiculously difficult to see those you’ve labeled “enemy” clearly. All over the country there are Christians who sincerely believe that their neighbors who are atheists, lgbtq, liberal, Muslim, poor, immigrants or whatever are a very real threat to them, their way of life and the Christian faith. Of course, this isn’t reality. We’re all just people. We all bear the image and likeness of God in our innermost being. We belong together. But if all I can really see when I look at my neighbor is “enemy who is serving the forces of evil with the goal of harming me and all I hold dear”, that’s not what you’re going to see. Unity with mankind (Hebrew – Adam) based on our common humanity is, I believe, our birthright. It was stolen from us by the enemy. And it is kept from us by the immature impulse to view the world as “us vs them”.

Not to mention that the whole idea that a group of people, an ideology or a person could constitute an actual threat to my Christian faith is absurd. My faith is and internal affair can’t be taken from me. And even if I were unable to speak a word of it, God is still plenty capable of revealing himself to people in their innermost being regardless. And how can anything be a threat when Jesus said, flat out, that the gates of hell will not prevail against his church. Like, do you actually believe anything Jesus said or not? How serious is a threat that has zero chance of prevailing anyhow? Even if enemies appear to be crushing the church (a reality in places like Pakistan and parts of the Middle East), we’re following a savior who died and rose again and has promised the same to us. Do we believe that or no?

Literally nothing good comes from viewing our neighbors as enemies. It’s alienating. It’s unfaithful. It strengthens the enemy’s kingdom on Earth. It deprives us of the fruits of disciplining ourselves to love our enemies. On the other hand, loving our enemies is revolutionary. It starts to undo the harm humans have done to each other, creates unity among people and forces us to grow and develop as human beings. Do yourself, the body of Christ and the world a favor and refuse to follow any teacher who warns you about boogeymen. Nothing good comes from following a bad shepherd, peeps.

Rules of Discernment, Rule 1: Authority

One of my persistent frustrations with my fellow Christians is a general lack of discernment and good judgment. As the bible makes amply clear, there are false teachers and bad shepherds out there yet everywhere I turn, I meet Christians who have fallen for con artists and cult leaders and false teachings by the boatload. When you see the wreckage of broken families, broken people and corruption wrought in people’s lives, the persistence and ferocity with which scripture condemns false teacher and bad shepherds makes perfect sense.

What I’ve realized in talking with the victims of the charlatans and cons is that no one ever taught them even the most basic rules of discernment. Which makes sense since charlatans and cons are hardly going to start teaching their victims how to sniff them out. But I’m not a charlatan or a con, although you are plenty welcome to go buy my books, so I’m happy to share what I know, starting with rule numero uno:

All authority belongs to God. No one who claims authority for themselves is to be trusted.

It doesn’t matter if the claim to authority comes by way of their education, revelation, natural ability or giftings, their call, the affirmation of others, institutional position or because they were born on a Thursday in July in a magic lightning storm. It doesn’t matter what the reason given is, any teacher who claims authority for themselves (or claims that God has conferred such authority to them) is a false teacher to be rejected out of hand.

A true religious teacher claims no authority for themselves and will direct you to verify anything they say with the Spirit in you rather than just accepting what they say at face value. They know that God is real and that the same God which is teaching them is available to you. If their words are true, the Spirit in you will affirm it. If their words are false or not meant for you, the Spirit will keep you from falling into error. An insistence on directing you back to the Spirit in you for your answers is a hallmark of a true teacher.

Further, a real teacher will show a willingness to accept with a minimum of quarrel or offense if you come back and say that the Spirit in you did not affirm their words. Their impulse will be to go to God for instruction and understanding, not to make you defend yourself. A real religious teacher doesn’t need you to agree with or affirm them. They know that it’s God’s job to grow and teach his children and He will do it with or without the teacher’s help. And they have enough experience listening to and sitting with God to easily receive correction or allow their understanding to be expanded, so your disagreement is an opportunity rather than a threat.

Now, perhaps you are reading this and you’re thinking of the teachers you’ve known and realizing that what I’m describing is assuredly not the sort of behavior you are accustomed seeing among Christian (or other religious) teachers. Which explains right there why the church is in such horrific condition. A disproportionate percentage of Christian teachers can’t even make it past the first rule of discernment. They don’t even pass the sniff test. And yes, that includes the ones with the largest followings and most money. In fact, it especially includes them.

The truth of the matter is that most of the teachers God has trained for the benefit of the body are nowhere near a pulpit. Some are. But not many. Most of the best teachers are just walking among us unrecognized and unheralded by the institutions that claim the label of the church for themselves. They simply speak truth into whatever situation they are in, watering the ground around them with words of life, weeding out falsehoods by the root and scattering seeds of healing and restoration in their wake.

It would be lovely if these were the people leading the church, of course. Maybe you can check with God and see if there’s a plan for that. 😉