Wednesday, 27 September 2017

My Dramatic Experience with Essential Oils

I come from a community where half the members are health nuts who love raw vegetables, avoid sugar, exercise regularly and medicate themselves and their families with nothing but garlic and essential oils. The other half eat junk food all the time, watch too many movies, and will never say no to meat or anything deep-fried. You can guess which half I belong to.

In spite of my unhealthy ways, I have one claim to natural health, and that is my little bottle of peppermint essential oil, that I carry everywhere. Peppermint oil has gotten me through the unbearable nausea of swerving roller-coaster bus journeys, not to mention blocked noses, colds and headaches.

A few months ago I was on holiday with my family and my two little nieces got sick. They were both nauseous and feverish, and as you may know, there is nothing more miserable than a sick child, apart from a sick child without her mother. The grandmother and this aunt did their best, but they were still pretty miserable. We gave them medicine, prayed with them, and tried to talk to them to get their minds off it. Then I remembered my peppermint oil.

“Do you want me to put a little peppermint oil on your temples? It helped me when I was nauseous in the past.”

They immediately agreed. (I think they would have agreed even if I had suggested an anti-nausea dance in the rain. They were desperate.)

I pulled out the bottle, and sine I had used it in the past, didn’t read the instructions. I dropped a few drops onto my niece’s hand, and then directed her to rub a bit on her temples and the back of her neck. I was pretty generous with the oil, thinking logically “More peppermint oil = more health and wellness.” My other niece used some too.

Within a few seconds all hell broke loose. Both my nieces started screaming at the top of their lungs “IT’S BURNING! IT’S BURNING! AHHHHHHHHHH!” while tears streamed from their eyes and they desperately hopped around the room in obvious pain.

I was startled, wondering for a moment if they were overreacting, but their continued screams quickly disillusioned me. Guilt consumed me, as I rushed them to the bathroom too try to wash the oil off. (I was kindly informed by an essential oil professional just last week that that was the worst thing I could have done, as water would have just pushed it deeper.. somehow, and what I should have used to clean it off was some other kind of oil. Yes, please address all future essential-oil related questions to me, I am an expert.)

For about five long minutes they screamed and cried and I beat myself up (completely figuratively). “What could have gone wrong? I’ve used it before. Do you think it could have gotten more concentrated with age?” I put a little bit on myself and it burned me too. Then I finally read the instructions on the bottle. Who said only men hate reading instructions? They contained two bits of pertinent information: ‘Mix one drop of peppermint oil with five drops of olive oil’ and ‘Keep away from eyes.’


I guess I should return my Aunt of the Year award. So brilliant. Who could take two sick, miserable little girls and only make things ten times worse? Would they ever trust me again? Maybe I should graciously bow out of this whole child care thing.

Suddenly I noticed a silence interrupting my self-recrimination. Then the seven year old yelled, “I’m healed! It worked! I don’t feel vomity any more! Praise the Lord!”

It was true. They both bounced back to normal for the day at least. The next day one was feeling sick again. She sidled up to me and with a sparkle n her eye asked, “Could I have some of that peppermint oil again?”

Give me back that Aunt of the Year award.

(Don’t worry, I mixed it with cooking oil the next time we used it, and applied it far away from her eyes.)

Monday, 18 September 2017

Five Good Reasons to Consider Becoming a Patron

1. INFLUENCE THE CULTURE! Who are the change-makers? The more obvious are the Lovers- the ones on the ground level, loving day in and day out, believing in people, persevering in extending mercy, and building a better world with their own two hands. You should either be those people, or support those people. But the other change-makers are the Thinkers, the Dreamers, the Story-Tellers. Who are the writers whose words have touched you, sparked something new in your heart, made you think, made you laugh, and communicated truth? (Hopefully, I'm one of them!)

The world is crying out for truth, and instead we get cheesy one-liners and not-very-inspirational quotes on our Facebook timeline. If these writers (I!) have touched you, they will touch others. Provided they continue writing! Most people stop after a while. Some of the best bloggers and writers I’ve read can’t afford to keep churning out new content because they have other jobs and responsibilities. But what if people who have caught the dream pay them to keep writing? How can you encourage and support them (ME!) to keep writing? By becoming a patron!

2. GET BETTER SATISFACTION FOR YOUR MONEY. I assume that most people who read blogs have an extra $2 or $3 or $5 per month. Or for Indians, an extra ₹100 or ₹200 or ₹300. What do you spend it on? A few snacks? They’re gone in a few moments! And just make you fat and unhealthy! And then you feel bad about yourself. (Yes, I’m junk food shaming. Only because I’m on a junk food fast at the moment.) Instead for the same small amount of money, you could be helping create a few articles of writing that will exist forever, reach the world, and change the culture!

 3. A BRAND FRESH NEW BLOG POST EVERY WEEK IN YOUR INBOX! Every time I’ve found a blog that I love, I wait with joyful anticipation for the next new post. Imagine my disappointment over the years when the bloggers just disappear for months at a time, or just post re-posts, or some random collection of links. WHERE IS THE GREAT WRITING THAT WON ME OVER, WOMAN?!!!! (Yes, they’re usually women.) But you know, maybe they just don’t have enough motivation (apart from, of course, real life jobs and responsibilities). Patrons give a writer a reason to write. Do you know how long it takes to write a real new blog post? Usually two or three hours. Patrons and pledges give a writer a reason to push themselves to create more, instead of just crashing or mindlessly scrolling Facebook after a long day. And the readers are the ones who benefit!

4. PAY YOUR DEBTS. Okay, this is a little bit of a stretch, but hear me out. Most of us are used to consuming art of all kinds without a thought of paying for it. We just EXPECT creative work to be free. That goes along with pirating music and movies. Few people think- ‘SOMEBODY poured their blood, sweat and tears into this creation’. Instead it’s the norm to consider it a right. Or think that being a ‘fan’ of the artist is payment enough. This perspective changes when YOU become an artist. While it’s beautiful that often people who can’t afford to pay for it can still enjoy the beauty of the world for free (like with images available online, or free museums, etc), those who CAN afford to pay for it SHOULD! It’s not a donation, but living into the belief that a ‘a labourer is worthy of his wages’.

5. WIN EXCITING REWARDS! Ah ha! NOW we're talking! What kind of rewards are we talking? Well to start with, hand drawn postcards for everyone who donates $2 or over monthly. What can be more exciting than receiving A POSTCARD?!! IN THE MAIL!! I mean the real live snail mail!! The only thing more exciting has got to be a POSTCARD WITH A SKETCH AND A NOTE FROM ME!! Okay. Maybe I’m projecting? You tell me. What else? For $5 or more a month, you get a blog post based on a topic YOU want me to write about! Whether it’s an agony aunt problem, where I give advice and solve all your love problems or introvert problems or social anxiety problems, or a set of interview questions about my likes, dislikes and annoying habits, or a theological question that you’d like answered in simple, readable language, or a guide to wooing introverts, I'm open!


So what are you waiting for? Go visit my Patreon page, and become a part of my Patron community! As soon as I get 20 Patrons, I will start churning out a quality blog post every week!

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

The Modern Catholic Girl’s Guide to Dressing

If you had the patience to get through my last, loong post, you’ll know that I have opinions. About modesty. In brief, modesty may not imply what you think it does. And yes, modesty matters.

 But if you were convinced, it’s still hard to figure out what to wear. Especially since we made the point that there IS no list of modesty rules, and modest differs from culture to culture. Even within the same city, you may be a part of several different cultures- your traditionally Maharashtrian college, your liberal, Westernized family, and your mixed crowd of saree and dress wearing parish attendees. So how on earth can you really decide? Here are some guidelines that may help.

1. Is it appropriate? Some things are fairly obvious. You wear different clothes to church and to a party (or you should anyway). You wear different clothes to a job interview and to go on a trek. You wear different clothes for when you’re lazing around alone at home, and when you have guests at home.Yu could wear a swimsuit at a pool, but not at at a coffee shop. Is it appropriate to the particular occasion you are going to? But still, something might seem appropriate, and still not modest. (I think Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman was appropriately dressed, because she was fighting, and her outfit was meant to make that easy to do. You could see it was not in the least meant to be provocative. Of course when she came to London, she had to find more appropriate, but still attractive clothing.)

2. What is your intention is when you choose something to wear? I remember the years when I just knew that if I ‘borrowed’ my sister’s clothes, I would get far more attention at college than when I dressed in my own clothes. If attention is the only reason you are choosing to wear something, then put it away. Most of us are want to be loved, but we settle for attention instead. Most of us struggle with some form of attention-seeking behaviour or another. Don’t let that unhealthy desire control you!

3. Would most people describe your outfit as sexy or beautiful? I know, I know, most people WANT to be called sexy. But think about this, usually the word ‘sexy’ basically implies ‘I want to have sex with you’, or ‘You seem beddable.’ (Sorry for sounding like a badly written historical erotic novel) Is that really the message you want to send to the world at large? It’s a great message to send to your husband, so sexy nightwear when you’re married is ‘appropriate’. But what kind of relationship do you want to have with the rest of the world? Can your clothing help them to see you as a beautiful, lovable PERSON? Not just someone to be lusted after, or used?

4. Does it suit you? Okay, this isn’t about modesty, but a great question to ask if you would like to be attractively dressed. You might argue that attractive has the same connotation as sexy, but I will argue right back that it is possible to be attracted to someone’s beauty without lusting after them. You can find pleasure in someone’s appearance in a pure, holy way that corresponds with their dignity as persons. So back to wearing clothes that suit you. If you have a friend whose dress sense you admore, ask them if a particular item of clothing suits you. If it doesn’t, (and you can afford to), give it away. It’s better to have a smaller wardrobe of clothes that suit you, than a large number of clothes that don’t.

5. Do you need to tug at it to keep it modest? If you’re uncomfortable because your neckline is slipping, and your hem is riding up, you are not going to be able to be at ease, confident, calm and yourself. Just get rid of clothes like that. They’re not worth it.

6. Does it fit into the widely accepted local cultural definition of ‘modest’? Oh, this is hard. The most widely accepted local cultural definition of ‘modest’ may very well not fit at all into my ideas of what modest is. I think sleeveless clothes, and a skirt an inch or two above my knee are still fairly modest. And in some contexts that is true. No one would give my outfit a second glance, no one would struggle to control their thoughts, it would just be an appropriate party outfit at most of my family parties or weddings. However, if I were to wear something like that on streets of most of India, I would definitely draw a great many second glances. This one is particularly hard, because who wants their choices to be dictated by the world at large? ‘Let those judgy aunties have a good gossip! Doesn’t bother me.’ Don’t do it for the judgy aunties. Or even for the men who will lust no matter what you are wearing. Do it for the sake of the men who ARE trying to look at women as sisters, not sex objects. Do it for Christ, who asked us to go the extra mile for the sake of the other. When you’re at church, people of a variety of backgrounds and cultures are present. Deny yourself for their sake. What are we willing to do for Christ? Give up some aspect of our culture for the sake of bringing the Gospel to all? In some ways, if we are representing Christ, we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard of modesty. It’s a pain sometimes, but it’s worth it.

7. Do you have a friend also committed to modesty? Humble yourself to ask her when you’re not sure. It’s easy for me to let my own standards slip, but if I’m willing to ask someone, it means I’m willing to open myself to input from the Lord. Be open to the gentle feedback of those who love you and trying to help you walk with the Lord.

8. Does your wardrobe have a few sets of modest, fun, and attractive outfits? Half the battle is making sure you have modest options. Go shopping if you need to, ask for recommendations of places to shop. Most times that I wore immodest clothes in my distant youth, it was because I didn’t have any good options. Find something that can be ‘your style’, ask your more fashionable friends for advice if you’re as lost as I often was. Accessorize! (My sister is laughing as she read this, because I never accessorize, I’m too lazy.) Check out Verily for fashion tips that don't have to be immodest.

9. Have you prayed about it? Pray, discern, and get rid of any clothes that the Lord convicts you to: A modern interpretation of ‘If you eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.’

10. Do you have a clothes budget? Don’t waste too much money on clothes or shoes: It is possible to slowly build your wardrobe, economically, and with humility if you’re open to second hand clothes (I am! That’s where all my cute clothes come from). Brands aren’t that important. You probably don’t need 20 outfits and 10 pairs of shoes. You can be cute, economical AND generous to the poor!

You may notice I have been careful not to give any specific rules. You have to figure out your own rules. (If you are a part of a community, youth group, college or office, they may have the authority to set out a list of rules or guidelines. You’re signing up for that when you join that group.) But the rest of the time, you’re on your own. Apart from the Lord, I mean.

That said, if you’re interested, here are some of my personal rules (changed a LOT over the past 15 years, stabilized somewhat over the past 7 years) I have some friends whose rules are more traditional than mine, and some less. But these are mine:

• Salwar kameezes or kurtas for any kind of outreach in poorer or more traditional areas
• Shorts only in the house or at the beach, or on private holiday, no short shorts or booty shorts
• Sleeveless at certain types of parties (sweater or shrug in church or on bike on the way to party)
• No cleavage ever (yeah, I know, what cleavage?)
• Skirts or dresses not more than a couple of inches above the knee at certain types of parties or weddings (never anything even close to mid-thigh)
• No strappy or strapless ever
• One piece swimsuit with shorts at pool or beach
• Leggings are not pants :-D
• Skinny jeans as long as they aren’t a very thin material or over emphasize my shape. Usually longer shirts with them.
• No tops that would easily show midriff when reaching up high to praise the Lord :-D

Okay, go forth and figure out your wardrobe!

The Bare Naked Truth about Modesty

I’m hardly the first person to write about this, but it seemed like a good idea to write anyway, because most people assume that anyone who talks or cares about modesty also buys into a bunch of lies or half-truths which can be harmful, degrading and counter-productive. ‘Modesty culture’ was big in certain parts of the Christian world in the US, and some of that (good and bad) has come to India too. Because there is so much extremism, the other temptation is to just throw the concept of modesty out the window, and just say ‘Each to his own’ and ‘You go, girl!’ to everyone, and assume that the way we dress or behave is irrelevant to our faith.

So what is the truth? What is an exaggeration or a lie? What is modest really about?

Modesty is not just about the length of your skirt or the depth of your neckline. ‘Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden…It guides how one looks at others and behaves towards them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity.’ CCC 2522 It is so much more than a list of rules about one should or should not wear. It is a freedom from needing to flaunt oneself, sell oneself, or treat anyone else as if they are a commodity or a thing to be used either. It means being unassuming, humble, and free from pretension. Both men and women are called to modesty in behaviour and clothing. It is connected with both purity (of intention and gaze)and humility.

Lack of modesty in dress does NOT imply a girl was ‘asking for it’ when she is attacked or treated badly. This is one of the ugliest and most harmful attitudes when it comes to modesty. It sees men as animals unable to control themselves, their eyes, or their thoughts, and women merely as objects of lust. No matter what a woman is wearing, a man can and should be able to control himself. Men have raped women in burqas, nuns, old women, young children. Girls wearing salwar kameezes have been groped and ‘eve-teased’. Again and again, every time an attack on a woman happens, people will search for some way to victim-blame, instead of focussing on the actual culprit.

Modesty or lack of it is NOT an excuse to judge people. We all do it. It’s that look that passes between two women when they see someone inappropriately dressed. Last year I was volunteering at a church that was also a tourist attraction, and saw many young and old women came in wearing clothes that barely covered their behinds. The first thought I would have was “Wow! WHAT was she thinking?” But then I would try to look beyond that. This particular human being had a body given to her by God, and as such was good! No matter what she was wearing, she had an intrinsic dignity, and was owed respect by me just because she was a child of God. Not to mention, even though her clothing seemed inappropriate, I had absolutely no way of judging or knowing her intention in dressing that way. ‘Maybe that’s just what everyone in her world wears. Maybe she is just testing her wings and trying to look attractive. Maybe she in insecure and is mistaking attention for love. Don’t you remember how YOU used to dress when you were an insecure teenager, Sue?” When people who care about modesty judge people dressed immodestly, they too are guilty of objectifying them.

Girls are NOT in charge of keeping guys pure. No one can force someone else to sin. Sure we can tempt them, make it harder for someone, offer them a drink when they’re trying to stay sober, etc., but they STILL have the power to say no. I have heard guys complain about being tempted by the oddest things. When a girl lies down, her shape is more defined, and it’s tempting. When a girl’s bra strap peeks out, it reminds a guy that she wears a bra, and that’s tempting. If a guy sees a girl wearing nightclothes (no matter how modest), it reminds him that.. I don’t know.. she goes to bed? And beds are where one has sex? Good grief. Women who breastfeed in public might flash a glimpse of breast, and that’s tempting. Really? Women are also human beings who feel uncomfortable, hot, are placed in awkward situations, are tired, and are not constantly using their bodies as a source of attraction or attention.

Men (and women) are capable of training themselves to control their thoughts, eyes and imaginations. Even if all Christians adhered to a standard of modesty that everyone agreed on, the rest of the world is STILL going to continue to wear what they want to wear. There are billboards with half naked models, there are wedding guests with tiny dresses, there are women at the beach in bikinis, there are shirtless men riding bikes in the Philippines (that threw me). Should we all gouge our eyes out? Probably not. Sometimes, we may need to avert them. But the real aim is to look at the opposite sex (and indeed all people) with the eyes of Christ. If we start to see human beings as PERSONS, not objects, as brothers and sisters with human dignity, and precious in the eyes of God, it changes our perspective totally. It may be a long process, but it’s possible. I know men who would treat a prostitute with same respect and dignity as an upstanding church member.

That said, women CAN try to make it a little easier, knowing the temptations of some of our brothers. I WOULDN’T offer a drink to someone who is struggling with addiction. I’d try to hide the snacks from someone who is fasting. I know they are committed to a particular course of action, and I want to help them with that. So just out of Christian charity, women can make an effort to dress in a way that would help men see them as a whole person, not just a collection of parts, or an object of lust. Men can try to do the same- don’t go shirtless when you’re swimming, that can be a struggle for many women (well, unless you have a pot belly. Then no one cares).

Not saying immodest dressing = pornography. But both reduce women to objects.

Modesty matters because the way we dress, and speak, and behave is a way we communicate with the world. We are not alone on an island of our own, but exist within a community. (When a girl is home alone, it is not immodest to wander around half-naked.) Even though we WOULD like to think that the way we dress concerns no one but ourselves, in some way our choices do send a message to society at large. Do we ALWAYS need worry about that? No, not always. People can read messages that are unreasonable and quite a leap (that girl was polite to me so she obviously wants me).

That said, the dress of each culture and setting usually has a meaning- a suit equals ‘This is a formal occasion and I acknowledge that’. Wearing jeans to a wedding could send the message that I don’t care about the importance of the occasion. Wearing a skirt to a date might mean that I would like to take a little trouble to look attractive. (You should hear girls discussing the meaning of clothing before they go out to an unfamiliar social setting or date!) Some clothes shout ‘Hey, I’m sexy! Check me out!’ The question is really- what message DO we want to the world, and how does that line up with my values and faith? (That’s something for my next blog post.)

No universal list of modesty rules exists. Well, that’s not true, they may exist, but they shouldn’t. What is immodest in one culture, may be perfectly normal and un-tempting in another. Americans are shocked by women showing their midriffs with their sarees, and many Indians still consider a glimpse of the knee as practically a mini skirt. In some African tribes, bare breasts are the norm, and no one would give them a second glance, but for most of the rest of the world, women covering their breasts is the one unifying modesty standard. I once watched a video of a young Protestant girl giving a talk about modesty. Almost all the women watching the video were outraged, because she had this black and white interpretation of modesty with very specific rules. It’s easy to make rules, until someone else has rules that are even more restricting than your own list. Most Christian women who are all about modesty would most likely hesitate to adopt the burqa. THEN they may say “Welll, it’s all relative.”

Modesty does not mean covering as much skin as possible. Skin in itself is not some sinful and very private part of your body. The aim is not to hide as much of it as possible. Neither is the aim to make sure no one thinks you’re attractive, because if they think you’re attractive, that MAY lead to a lustful thought. God gave women beauty for a reason, not misuse, but to use. Just as we don’t think men should not work out, in case they use their strength to abuse women, we don’t think beauty should be hidden just because it has the ability to be misused. Someone once told me, “If we’re serious about modesty, we would always wear ankle-length skirts.”

That is a faulty view of modesty, and the human body. The temptation to gluttony shouldn’t stop you from enjoying good food. Women, feel free to dress attractively. (Modesty does not mean only skirts or dresses- there can be immodest skirts and modest pants. But that's a whole 'nother internet argument.) Beauty can transform the world.

In conclusion, if you are very concerned about modesty, check yo’ heart, and don’t allow judgment to creep in. If you haven’t been concerned about modesty at all in the past, re-examine why you dress or behave the way you do, and ask God to shine light into the areas you may not have wanted to think much about in the past.

Next: The Modern Catholic Girl’s Guide to Dressing

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Finding the Right Christian Community for You

So community = important as I extensively argued in my last post. At the same time, it's not that simple to find a community that will really reflect the early Christian community in today's world. Some so-called churches and communities have turned into cults, or have become into social clubs for like-minded people. So what are the principles or guidelines to keep in mind when you're searching for a community?

1. God is the One who will lead you to community. The best reason to do community is because that's what He is calling you to. So pray for guidance and direction. He will direct you.

2. No Christian community is perfect. If you're looking for that perfect community tailor-made to your inclinations, interests and pet peeves, then you may as well give up already. Even a community that seems perfect from a distance has its weaknesses which you will discover very soon after deciding to belong to it. That's because community is made up of weak and fallible human beings with their own blind spots, pet peeves, flashes of wisdom and areas of strength.

But there ARE things you can look out for:

3. A solid foundation on the Word of God (biblical and Catholic). If the leaders are pushing rules or messages or formation that is based on neither the words of Jesus, nor on the teachings of the Church He founded, then that's a danger signal. Communities based on one personality can be very dangerous. It's a common phenomenon in Protestant churches, but Catholic lay communities are not immune. I once heard of a preacher proclaiming that no one should marry before the age of 30, and I was like "Where is THAT in the Bible?"

4. An openness to new and different types of members: This is to avoid becoming an exclusive club, a scandal if we are calling ourselves Christian. Are strangers greeted and welcomed? Are non-English speakers or poorly-dressed people made to feel awkward or uncomfortable? Will someone walk with and guide seekers or random people who stumble in? Will everyone squish a little bit to make room for one more person at the table (figuratively)?

5. Time and money spent on mission and service outside of the community: The typical complaint about lay communities is that they become navel-gazers, self-absorbed, cut off from the outside world. I once spent time with a community that seemed to spend most of their time going on expensive leisure bonding activities, and seemed visibly uncomfortable around the poor. Of course it is important to build relationships within the community and to prioritize formation and discipleship of the members, but if we stop there, we are failing in our call. Plus, I find that when we prioritize service and mission, it strengthens relationships and brings far more growth too.

6. Leaders that you respect. It is hard to submit oneself to a leader that is not trustworthy. Especially when you are opting in to a community, talk to the leaders first. They will not be perfect either. But if they are sincerely committed to Christ, trying to grow in love and holiness, and are well-balanced and mature, then I can trust that even if we have differences of opinion, I could believe that God would work it out. When it comes to Christian community, having leaders that are dynamic, inspirational and charismatic is not as important as having leaders that are Christ-centered, solid, and trustworthy.

7. An openness to feedback: This is one of the danger signs of a cult- when any difference of opinion or disagreement is squashed, discouraged and seen as a threat to the unity of the group. This is very unhealthy. A healthy group or community is one where different perspectives are welcomed and respectfully heard out. Of course a leader does usually have to take a final call on many matters,and there is no way he or she can make everyone happy, but he or she should as far as possible encourage members to take the initiative without being overly controlling or negative. I once went to the leader of my organization with a suggestion. I could see that he was tired, had plenty of other things going on, and my suggestion involved adding something to a very tight schedule. If it was me, my first instinct would have been to say no without thinking too much about it. But he patiently heard me out, and then seemed to stop, pray, and then agreed to change everything up to incorporate my suggestion. Good communities form leaders, not sheep.

8. An atmosphere of encouragement: It is too easy to become about the rules or the programme or the goals. But community is always about people first. And people need to be loved, encouraged and valued. That is everyone's responsibility. But a pervasively negative, scolding, critical or fear-based atmosphere can kill the joy that we're supposed to be living. I love the way all of the Popes of my lifetime have talked to Catholics- it is always a message of hope, not condemnation or fear. It's challenging, but always acknowledges and builds on the potential for good in each person.

Not all of these things may be perfectly in place in every community. But as long as the community is moving in that direction, and striving to grow in these areas, there is hope. And maybe YOU will be the one that helps your community reflect Christ more authentically.

This is not an exhaustive list. What else do you think is important when seeking out or building Christian community?

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Do Independent Thinkers Need Community?

Recently a friend posted a George Carlin quote:

“I don't like a** kissers, flag wavers or team players. I like people who buck the system. Individualists. I often warn people: "Somewhere along the way, someone is going to tell you, 'There is no "I" in team.' What you should tell them is, 'Maybe not. But there is an "I" in independence, individuality and integrity.'" Avoid teams at all cost. Keep your circle small. Never join a group that has a name. If they say, "We're the So-and-Sos," take a walk. And if, somehow, you must join, if it's unavoidable, such as a union or a trade association, go ahead and join. But don't participate; it will be your death. And if they tell you you're not a team player, congratulate them on being observant.”

Something struck me as very off with this quote. I engaged in a brief back and forth with my friend about it, but continued to ponder long after the conversation was over.

In a way, I think INTJs and certain other 'lone wolf' type personalities might identify. I grew up in convent school and faced all an INTJ's innate distaste for a creativity-killing, uniformity-lauding, groupthink. I was always ahead of the class, or behind the class, but never with the class. I was either sneakily reading storybooks on my lap (now that I’ve worked as a teacher I realize my teachers probably knew all along so maybe not as sneakily as I thought), sketching pictures in my textbooks (my gift to my younger sister who had to use my textbooks after me), or making lists… of anything and everything. Yes, I’m odd. But that was the point. I did not thrive in an environment where I was one of a crowd, where individuality was not valued, and outward discipline was the keyword upon which our lives seemed to be based.

In India, we have had our originality and individuality squashed and discouraged so many times, that sometimes we don’t know what to do if no one is telling us what to do. I was lucky to have a family that did prize and encourage creativity, and didn’t tell us what do with our free time, so at a young age I was organizing summer clubs, neighbourhood fetes, treasure hunts, and surprise sibling fancy dress show for my parents, writing stories, coming up with ideas and plans for every available unstructured moment. But many Indian kids don’t have that. I know, because as a teacher, it has often been hard for me to elicit one original thought from my students. It takes a while to draw that out, and sometimes I wonder if it’s too late. Kids can’t even draw a picture without asking if their colours are ‘correct’ and copying from the ‘class artist’.

All that to say, maybe our upbringing has conditioned us to either feel more comfortable in a group, where someone else thinks for us, and we never voice dissent, or to be very uncomfortable in a group, because our only experience of groups has been of losing our identity and individuality within it. So either we blindly choose loyalty to a party, community, group, religion, or movement, or we choose to react as George Carlin did, and see all groups as automatically suspect, dishonest, untrustworthy, and in some way opposed to our own freedom and creativity. I think this especially happens when one has had a bad experience with a group as an adult. It seems safer to be your own person, and not set down roots anywhere.

This begins to feel like an INTJ's motto.

But, things are different for the INTJ Christian! We have bought into not a group, but a Person- Jesus Christ. We have examined the claims of Christianity, found them to be true, but we haven’t stopped there (hopefully). We have fallen in love with a Living God. We have come to know Him through prayer, through reading the bible, through the beauty and consistency of His teachings, and through the witness of the saints who have loved Him, and made Him visible in the world. Most of us are well aware that the visible, structural Church has a lot of room to grow, that many of its members have given (and still give) a counter-witness (some through heinous and ugly crimes), and that we can’t defend every aspect of the Church on earth with integrity (any experience of working with your local parish will bring these truths home).

So INTJ Christians sometimes deals with these problems by living an isolated Christian life. They take to heart George Carlin’s advice, and become cynical, individualistic, ‘free’ Christians. It’s either ‘me and my bible’ or ‘me and my sacraments’. Everything else in the Church is too messy.

On the face of it, that seems like an unfettered life. No human drama, confrontations, weak and fallible leaders, mistakes and relationship problems? The INTJ says ‘Yes, please!’ When I’m on my own, I have more time and energy to create, to do good deeds, to go places, and do things, to meet goals, to educate myself and to have adventures.

But here’s the thing: if we are really Christians, we have to move beyond our inclinations and even personalities, and ask the million dollar question: “What was God’s plan for His followers here on earth?” And it is pretty obvious as soon as we turn to Acts 2 that it was never a virtual community of individualists who do their own thing, have good will toward each other in a distant way, and meet each other in Heaven after leading long, good and innovative lives.

God’s plan was messier, but far more beautiful. He called us to live with and love real human beings in close relationships, to be of one heart and mind, and by learning to bear with one another’s weaknesses, become truly conformed to and united with Him. If love is the keyword and basis of our life in Christ, then isolation isn’t an option. Love isn’t random acts of kindness. Love doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Love happens in the midst of messy and close human relationships. If the INTJ prizes innovation, creative thinking, efficiency, and independence, the INTJ Christian places above those things love and vulnerability. It’s not about what we can achieve, but about who we can become together. But it isn’t easy, and it isn’t a short-term project. I read a beautiful reflection on this topic: Community 101.

Community will require everything from you. You will have to sacrifice your time, energy and money. You will not be able to hide in your home whenever you want, if you are serious about community. You will discover and be confronted with your ghosts, skeletons, and hurts as well as discover your potential, gifts, call and vocation. You will not be able to live as you wish for you will have to learn what real freedom is. You will have to confront every aspect of your life in the light of the Gospel. No one will control you, no one will force you, no one will demand anything from you. But you will be compelled, for the love of Christ, to revolutionize your ideas about life, reorder your priorities, and you will have to die many deaths to enter into communion with God and others and sustain those relationships, not run from them each time you want. 

You cannot build a community without living in close approximation. Community has many aspects of family life. You do not choose your family members, you live with them. Especially those you naturally initially dislike will be the instruments of chiselling of your heart and character. You will also find people who will enormously inspire you, draw you closer to God, you will discover depths of human interactions that you thought are not possible. You will go beyond formal, surface and weekend relationships, and you will see, sooner or later, the beautiful and the ugly of most of your community members. And you will understand that we need each other to start living on earth as in heaven now. [Read the whole thing here.]

So much yes! I know these things are true because I have lived and served in Christian communities and households for many years. Even though a large part of me shrinks from it, and desires the peace of solitude, it is within the painful and humbling relationships that I’ve had to work on that I’ve really begun to change and grow and mature. It is within community that I discovered exactly how sinful and weak I am. It’s easy to believe that we are basically good, kind, humble and selfless people, till we live with other people, and then we find, oh wait, I’m actually bad-tempered, proud, lazy and selfish. And people still choose to love me! It is in the unconditional love of human beings who know our worst and our best that we truly come to know the mercy and unconditional love of God. And it is in loving unconditionally those who let us down that we become 'little Christs'.

God has so much more for us than a shallow or merely intellectual understanding of who He is. But he chooses to disciple us, form us, convict us and humble us through His Body, the Church- the community of believers. Most Catholics have never had that experience, and that may be part of the reason why so many Catholics are still not disciples. We’re willing to go to retreats, maybe daily Mass, healing services, and read spiritual books, but we don’t want the inconvenience of regular Christian community.

So yes, independent thinkers need community too*. We my achieve more and create more on our own (we may not though), but we will never learn the far more important lessons of love and mercy on our own. We may go farther on your own, but we will never go deeper.

*There are certain conditions though, and it takes discernment to find a trustworthy community that can truly help one grow. Cults and unhealthy groups and organizations often exist within the wider church too, and God isn’t asking us to shut off our brain when we join a community. But that’s another blog post.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

An INTJ's Guide to Praise and Worship

As an INTJ who grew up in the Charismatic Renewal, I have faced and battled with many of the natural clashes of this personality with a very demonstrative and uninhibited style of prayer. My theory is that 'T' (thinking) type personalities gravitate more towards more structured, less demonstrative and intellectual forms of prayer like Adoration, the Rosary, Lectio Divina (reflect and share about bible passages.. yes, please!), etc, and 'F' (feeling) type personalities gravitate towards more ‘touchy-feely’ forms of prayer- praise and worship, raising hands, holding hands at the Our Father, any kind of feel good music, etc. But I think 'T's sometimes need to learn how to let go of control a little, and 'F's need to build their faith on a more solid rock than their emotions that can easily be swayed. Anyway all that is to bring you back to how I as an INTJ have survived (and sometimes thrived) in what seems like an odd style of prayer. So here I am to answer your INTJ questions that deafeningly and irresistibly pop up just as you are right in the middle of a hymn at a prayer meeting.

INTJ: Wait.. what exactly does it mean to 'GIVE God glory and honour, magnify him' etc etc? How on earth can I 'lift God up' if He is already pretty much the most powerful being that exists? I exalt Him? What?

INTJ Guru: Great question! You CAN'T actually make God bigger than He already is. Even though it sounds like that it what you are saying, that's not actually what the words are pointing to. What you ARE called to do, is look at Him, acknowledge Who He is, in all His goodness and beauty, and allow Him to be magnified in your own soul, and thus in the world. It’s like opening the windows, and letting the beauty and awesomeness of a gorgeous sunshiny day into your home. It was there all along, it just wasn’t in your home yet.

INTJ: But what exactly is the point of all this worshipping? Wouldn’t it be better to just go out and do some good deeds? I know- I’m ‘made to worship God’. But isn’t that a little narcissistic on God’s part?

INTJ Guru: If God is really Love, and love is all about willing the good of the other, then there has to be a better explanation for God’s call for us to worship Him. God is always about doing what’s good for US. So how on earth can praise or worship be good for us? It’s simple- praise and worship frees us from our OWN narcissistic navel-gazing, from being imprisoned in the cell of our own ego, and frees us to see ourselves and God as we REALLY are. It’s a chance to get some perspective. Like dragging your kids away from their social media, and inviting them to take a look at the star-filled night sky, or the view from the top of a mountain. God knows how shallow and self-obsessed we are, and He says, “Look at Me, get a glimpse of the universe at it really is, and you will know who you really are.”

INTJ: That’s great, but a lot of the time I’m expected to sing songs and speak praises when I feel nothing at all. Why speak words of love when I feel no love? It reeks of hypocrisy.

INTJ Guru: Ah ha! You of all people, O INTJ should know that love is not a feeling but a choice. Praise is an act, not a feeling. Worship is a choice to give oneself regardless of what one is feeling in the moment. As C.S. Lewis said, “Faith is the art of holding on to the things your reason has accepted in spite of your changing moods.”And that right there is the secret to entering into true praise and worship.

INTJ: Okay, okay. But seriously, some of the songs the PnW leader chooses are truly cringe-worthy. They lack any value, doctrinal or aesthetic. Some seem childish and shallow. Every fibre in me screams “No! I can’t do this!”

INTJ Guru: O INTJ, I truly sympathize. Our minds and hearts and will are not disconnected. One affects the other. I have a couple of suggestions. One is, you could gently suggest a couple of solid and truly reverent and holy worship songs to your music leader. Share how they bless you and draw you to a more meaningful act of surrender.

However, you are still most likely going to be stuck in situations where you can’t do anything about it. In those cases, dear INTJ, as ridiculous as it may seem to other personality types, THAT is the cross God is asking you to embrace. You can offer to Him even your cringes, and choose to believe that nothing offered to God is wasted. Most likely, He is doing one of those cool-but-painful sanctifying things that He does. Although, if it's heretical, you're allowed to just not join in for that part of the song. But cheesy you can do.

INTJ: What about the whole hand raising expectation? Is there some guide to that? The deeper the emotion, the higher the arms? There seems to be an unspoken rule that at certain parts of certain songs everyone raises their arms. What about when the prayer leader demands that everyone raise their hands, or shout ‘Alleluia’, or clap, or some such thing?

INTJ Guru: I prefer to avoid the kind of prayer meetings or groups that are too directional about such things. Maybe it works for some people. But not you and me, O INTJ. When in doubt, remember that you are free. You don’t HAVE to do what everybody is doing. The safest thing is to close your eyes, and just do what you feel God is asking you to do in the moment. Raising your arms can help express an inner act of openness or surrender. Again, our body, mind and spirit are connected. So don’t dismiss outward forms of prayer.

INTJ: What about the whole ‘free praise’ thing? My eyes are semi-shut, and I mumble along while I hear people say things like ‘Mighty God! Holy One! King of Kings and Lord of Lords! All glory belongs to You! You are the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End!’What even?!!! Do they memorize a list of acceptable things to say? Those words and phrases feel so meaningless to me. Do I go on a bathroom break during these times, or hope that no one can hear clearly that my free praise goes something like ‘God, Ihavenoideawhattosaysopleasegetmethroughthis…’?

INTJ Guru: It might be more helpful to pick a few phrases that you DO identify with, ways that YOU have experienced God, and say those aloud instead. As you grow and experience God in new ways, you can add more ways to the list. For example, ‘You are beautiful, and all that is beautiful comes from Your heart. You are slow to anger and full of mercy. Your love is so precious to me. How good and patient You are. I love you so much. I praise You. I trust You. I believe in You. You are more than enough for me.’ It doesn’t have to be fancy or complicated or what anyone else is saying. You don’t have to shout. But again, speaking those words aloud is a way of internalizing and solidifying the truth that your mind has accepted. It’s also a way to let go of the control and image of control we cling to so tightly. Yes indeed, O INTJ, as a man or woman of faith, you do indeed have to be willing to look and sound just a little stupid.

INTJ: You are throwing the word ‘worship’ around a little too easily. I’m Catholic. Isn’t Mass the best and truest form of worship? In fact, isn’t Jesus the only one who can offer acceptable worship to the Father?

INTJ Guru: Welcome to the Catholic Church, my friend, the Church of ‘Both.., and.’ Worship can be offered both inside and outside of the celebration of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the ‘culmination of the men offer to Christ and through Him to the Father in the Holy Spirit’. (CCC 1325) That means we can praise Him, give ourselves to Him in spirit and in truth, with song and vocal praise, in tongues and with arms raised, and all of that is brought to its culmination in the Eucharist, when Jesus accepts what we offer, joins it to His sacrifice on the Cross and offers it to the Father. The only problem would be if we replaced the Mass with what’s commonly known as ‘praise and worship’, or if we just went to Mass as an obligation and considered prayer meetings to be our only true worship. That would be misguided and counter-productive.

INTJ: Thanks, INTJ Guru. One more- How does one ‘climb this mountain with one’s hands wide open’? I have climbed mountains, and I need my hands to grab at rocks and bushes and haul myself up. Climbing a mountain with my hands wide open? (Also, they mean arms, right?) Sounds like a physical impossibility to me. And don’t tell me to ‘lean not on my own understanding’.

INTJ Guru: There are two possibilities. One is- yes, it’s impossible… but not for God. So the very seeming impossibility and helplessness is what you are called to reflect on. Not an adequate answer you say? Then do what I do- picture yourself climbing a mountain, arms stretched out, and God grabbing your hand, and guiding you up. I have had some pleasant experiences of chivalrous men helping me climb mountains, and it usually involved some amount of hand-holding. Mountain climbing can be sweaty, exhausting, thirsty, and scary work. You can reach halfway up and then your shaky legs collapse and you decide you want to die. Now picture our big, awesome God grabbing you by the hand and hauling you up, and you pretty much have a good picture of my faith life.

INTJ: Okay, so visuals and analogies help. One last question. I don't HAVE to sing ‘they will dance for joy like we are dancing now’ if no one is actually dancing, right?

INTJ Guru: No, you don’t. You can compromise by humming along. You could sway and shift feet and sing it, but then you kind of hope that when the world has seen the light, they would be dancing slightly more energetically and dramatically and a lot less awkwardly. So maybe just don’t.

Now go forth and worship!