dweller by the river

sojourner of earth attempting to understand the journey home

Category: Spirituality

When Family is the Problem

Last last week I met up with JH, old friend who was in the country on a whirlwind one-week stopover enroute to her honeymoon destination. She was here with her fiance (goes without saying), and her parents who were on their way elsewhere. I had last seen them in 1998, before the entire family moved to the US (for ministry purposes – JH’s father is a pastor).

We haven’t really been in regular contact over the years, but our fondest shared memory of our real-time physical friendship remains the long walks we took at the landscaped canal path that was halfway between our homes. I have a handwritten note from her father too, thanking me for being a friend to her because she was somewhat unpopular at first when the family first joined the church I was attending at the time. But it seems that after all these years, her parents have forgotten who I am – I had to be reintroduced to them as my mother’s eldest daughter (I hated that, to be honest).

That said, it was a pleasant enough meeting over dinner, though I spent more time entertaining a mutual friend’s eight-year-old daughter than actually catching up with JH. We promised to keep in better touch. What nearly spoilt  the evening was when her mother suddenly asked me what church E and I are currently attending. I hesitated to tell the truth – that we aren’t interested in attending church at the moment and aren’t in any hurry to change our minds – and said that we’re currently in-between churches. She immediately gave me a look of pitying concern, advised me to make a decision as soon as possible, adjured me not to deprive my family (especially my children) of fellowship with the body of Christ who are important extended family, and said that she would pray for us not to backslide or lose our relationship with God.

I know she meant well, but I bristled and had to fight really hard to laugh lightly, thank her blithely, and change the subject instead of telling her to mind her own damn business.

It’s not that I hate church or that I no longer value the larger Church. It’s not that I don’t believe that fellow believers are our brothers and sisters in Christ (metaphorical and spiritual family members). It’s that I’ve almost completely lost faith in organised religion, the Christian church in particular. I have no issues sharing and worshiping with others; it is having to adhere to a man-made hierarchy of spiritual authority and practice that I baulk at. Being part of a community of believers is mutually beneficial in many ways, with the caveat that it is important to frequently and regularly evaluate the mutuality of that relationship and redraw boundaries where necessary.

Blood family isn’t sacrosanct either.

I’m aware that these beliefs may come across as selfish to some., but then they’ve not walked in my shoes. I know the saying about how you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family, and the one about blood being thicker than water, but such statements no longer carry much weight with me. I no longer believe that the simple circumstance of being related by blood (whether genetic or metaphorical/spiritual) is reason enough to keep trying to build bridges with individuals who refuse to hold up their end of a relationship by behaving decently. Actions speak louder than words, and if by either or both word and deed you’ve communicated to me enough times that I don’t matter (but that what you can get from/via me does), then don’t be surprised if I steadily reduce contact to a level that I’m comfortable with.

Take the past eight years into consideration. Individuals in various churches have proven time and again that their meticulously set-up illusory badges of honour, or the reputations of their particular institutions, are far more important than the mental/emotional/psychological/spiritual health of “troubled” persons or actually carrying out clear directives found in scripture. We have been betrayed, deliberately misrepresented and accused, maligned, written off and cast out; deceived by false appearances and shocked by revealed vices; forced to undergo rites and accept policy changes we did not sign up for and which were nowhere in existence when we agreed to sign said membership contract; lured by outwardly pastoral behaviour that hid multiple narcissistic traits which eventually came to light. Take the fact that evangelicals in the US – even people we know and respect – are able to throw their support behind Donald Trump and still face themselves in the mirror.

Take also my history with my mother. She aborted what would have been two elder siblings and was on her way to abort me when she had a panic attack about losing her fertility due to having had too many abortions. She told me this shortly before my wedding, which incidentally she declared nobody would be interested in attending, yet demanded seating places for a number of guests that, if I had actually accommodated, would have filled more than half my entire venue’s capacity (and I didn’t even know who 80 per cent of them were). Her first three questions when my then-fiance and I announced our engagement were: “Is it shotgun?”, “Is the diamond even real?”, and “Who paid for it?” She gave him, via me, a bunch of old stamps from her decades-abandoned random collection as a wedding gift (his mother gave me gold jewellery). She tore a tendon in my neck by wrenching at my head because, according to her, my keeping still in one position because it hurt to move (I slept badly) was just me being dramatic; even after I ended up in the hospital, she insisted that I was just playing things up. She accused me publicly of hating and disrespecting family and having never loved my grandfather just because I wanted to attend a friend’s wedding in the morning before attending his funeral in the mid-afternoon (my friends were fine with it by the way).

Those are just a few of the big, standout events. I no longer initiate any contact, and when she does, I am careful to keep my boundaries clear. I do not volunteer any personal information, I do not expand on my answers to questions, I block all meandering in conversation. I do not allow her to be with my daughter unsupervised; it is preferable that they interact at a distance, if at all.

So you could say that my concept of “family” is drastically different from what it used to be when I was younger and much more naive and idealistic. Right now I adhere to this definition by author Jim Butcher (in Proven Guilty):

I don’t care about whose DNA has recombined with whose. When everything goes to hell, the people who stand by you without flinching – they are your family.

I’m very thankful that I get along well with E’s family. I have a great MIL in his mum and his brothers are sweet. 🙂 Certain friends and ministry partners are family too. 🙂

Changes

I’ve been starting and leaving several drafts hanging. Somehow, I just never really pulled up enough clarity or intensity to finish. But I have to get back to doing this! So here’s a sort-of framing post meant to get my mind back on track.

I guess I feel like everything in my life is in some sort of limbo at the moment, and that stems from its spiritual aspect. As I’ve mentioned, I experienced a recent paradigm shift and since I have always had a tendency to interpret life, and reason and make decisions, based on the principles of my faith, to say that I’ve had the ground pulled from beneath my feet isn’t an exaggeration at all.

These are the major changes:

  • I no longer believe in “once saved, always saved”. In other words, I believe that you can lose your salvation.
  • I no longer believe that repentance and justification are timeless/all-encompassing; it’s not the catch-all, for-all-time thing that many preachers espouse these days. You can’t just go “Ooops!” and then just be thankful that you’re “already forgiven”; you have to confess and repent.
  • I no longer believe that the terms “Old Testament/Covenant” and “New Testament/Covenant” signify a divide between “Law” and “Grace”, or that the Ten Commandments are no longer applicable to believers today. I believe that while there is a difference between the Covenants, it does not touch on the Commandments.
  • I no longer believe in the Trinity. I believe that there is but one God, the Almighty, and that He sent both His Son Jesus Christ and His Holy Spirit into the world at different times to accomplish His will. Yes, this means that I no longer believe that Christ is God.
  • I no longer believe in “confession is possession”, or “claiming by faith”. I believe that 2 Corinthians 1:20 needs to be taken in its proper context and that all the “promises” that people are indiscriminately “claiming” also need to be re-examined for relevance and taken in their proper context.
  • I no longer believe in “unconditional love (of God)” as it is commonly preached about. I am now convinced that Scripture does seem to point to God’s love being conditional on obedience.
  • I no longer believe that church membership is at all scriptural, let alone necessary; this is a widening of my previous stance against official sign-your-name-on-this-contract church membership. Note that this does not equate with “I see no value in community/fellowship/accountability” — they are different things.

It follows that I now have some difficulties with my previous concepts of marriage, parenting, ministry, calling and gifts (with direct implications on dreams/ambition/career). Everything is being overhauled.

But I still firmly believe that writing is an exercise in mental discipline, and that forcing myself to explore and clarify these topics in writing will greatly aid and hasten the coalescing and crystallising of my thoughts into a coherent framework. Therefore, I’m going to do my best to keep at this as much as possible.

So much for having a “display” or “portfolio” approach to the stuff I publish on this blog.

It’s a New Day, a New Time, a New World

Well. I don’t know if anyone reads this old blog anymore, but 14 months is a long time to be between posts. Fourteen months, however, isn’t the longest that I’ve gone between personal pieces of writing. The longest was probably the few years between the last  journal entry I made as an unmarried twenty-something and the creation of this blog. I wrote for leisure/interest and for work in the meantime, but it wasn’t personal.

The past 14 months have been hard to condense into words, however, even though I have had moments in which I could have written something. Because, you know, everything has changed: L was born (it was a complicated, bittersweet experience); J and N filed for divorce; our entire view of Christianity has been overturned and I am still struggling with the paradigm shift; we thought we found a safe community to set down roots in, but were recently suddenly, shockingly and massively disappointed and have decided to move on; I  discovered, just in the past couple of weeks, that there is a name for my long-term emotional and psychological trouble (C-PTSD, Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Also we had our local Parliamentary Elections, and there have been various Things happening around the world.

There’s been so much swirling around in my head that I haven’t been able to quieten myself down enough to try to write. Now, though, I feel like I can breathe a little, and it’s high time I made a real effort to sit down and sort things out and process them properly. Writing is going to be a big part of it, if only as a way to keep track of things at first. I’m far from being capable of elucidative expositions or descriptive flair at the moment – but I’ll be back, never fear!

I will state this for clarity, though, if anyone cares – my new understanding of my faith has completely rendered my earlier notes and pending articles a no-go. I’m having to examine my understanding of the scriptures from scratch, which isn’t fun, but which is necessary, especially since it is going to directly affect my parenting of L and any future sibling(s).

Here’s to new beginnings!

Not Dead, Just Dormant

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No, I’m not dead. I’m still here, it’s just that I let my writing lie dormant for a time while I got used to the idea that we’re going to be bringing a new person into this world in a few more months. There’s been a lot that I’ve had to think about and work through, and though many times I’ve thought about putting it out here, I never quite felt that those thoughts and notions were clear enough for that.

Probably one of the biggest things that I realised over the past few weeks was that parenthood is a facet of the first job and responsibility that God gave to mankind – partnered stewardship of this planet and its flora and fauna:

Genesis 1: 26, 28 (AKJV)
And God said: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth.
And God blessed them, and God said unto them: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

Genesis 2: 8, 15, 18, 21-24 (AKJV)
And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there He put the man whom He had formed.
And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.
And the Lord God said: “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.”
And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; and the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made Him a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said: “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.

This was not rescinded after the Fall. Adam and Eve were not given different orders, they were only told the consequences of their sin and sent out of Eden to continue as they could. And after the Flood, God more or less repeated Himself to Noah and his family, and swore to Himself to keep things going as they had before:

Genesis 8:15–17, 21–22 (AKJV)
And God spake unto Noah, saying: “Go forth of the ark, thou, and thy wife, and thy sons, and thy sons’ wives with thee. Bring forth with thee every living thing that is with thee, of all flesh, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and be fruitful, and multiply upon the earth.”
…and the Lord said in His heart: “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done. While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.”

Genesis 9: 1–2, 7 (AKJV)
And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered. … And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the earth, and multiply therein.”

Add to this what we know from the New Testament – that every individual has a calling and a destiny, and that every individual has a personal choice to make regarding his relationship with the Creator – and I realised with great consternation that we who would be parents (and mere pitiful shadows of the true Father) are merely stewards of these lives we bring forth into the world.

Children are no more meant to be little gods/idols in our lives than property to be controlled or exploited for our own satisfaction/fulfilment – we know this, yes, but that’s not the same as realising that parenthood is a divine task. We are to steward these souls and ensure that they are equipped, to the best of our ability, for the callings and tasks that the Lord has in store for them. And to put it frankly, God has no grandchildren: we would be fools to consider these unique souls “our children” in the long term, because once they are independent, they really are our siblings. We’re really just helping our Father to raise our younger brothers and sisters and prepare them for what He has in store for them to do in their own personal lives.

It blows the mind when you look at this in the light of conventional thinking about the relationship between parents and children, especially in Asian cultures where filial piety is so celebrated: We are merely the physical vessels that made their entry into this realm possible. They owe us nothing; we are to do everything in our power to raise and equip and train them because we have been given that responsibility by God, and it is to Him alone that we are to dedicate all that effort. It is therefore His prerogative alone to reward us for a job well done or not. We have no claim on our children, not really.

Of course, this is not to say that familial bonds and love are not part of the picture. Scripture is full of passages that talk about the importance of family, the significance of familial relationships, and it prioritises family over what is conventionally understood as church-related ministry. That’s another whole area to explore, but I’m convinced that it comes into its proper place only after we realise that parenthood is really ministry – stewardship, on behalf of the Creator Himself.

Confused? Don’t be. I suspect it’s all interconnected mysteriously, like how the Godhead is Three in One and One in Three, clearly distinct and unique in their personalities and yet wholly inseparable and Whole as God. After all, did He not design us in His own image? Our job is to listen to Him and obey Him, and understanding will come later. He is merciful and gracious towards our doubts and questionings, but in the end, He is God, and we are man, and we are to hear and obey.

The Line Between Faith and Lack of Concern

Okay. Some might think it weird, but over the past few weeks, much of which I have spent lying flat on my back contemplating my ceiling in absolute boredom (I was put on bed rest by my current ob-gyn for spotting), one of my main worries has been my plants.

Yes, my plants.

How are they doing? Are they getting enough water (my mother and sister are not very reliable assistants in this area)? Are they getting infested with pests – read: spider mites – as a result of not getting enough water? Are they happy? Have any of them started spiking/blooming/pupping?

I’m well aware that tillandsias are among the toughest plants in existence, and that they are also particularly successful and drought-resistant in the wild. I also know that we’ve had some really heavy thunderstorms recently, whose strong winds ensured that my tillies got plenty of beneficial rainwater. But these are my babies!

E has been doing a pretty good job since I decided that we didn’t need extra help (mother/sister), and he’s done a round of up-close inspections to check for pests. He’s also offered to bring them over to me in small batches so that I can take a look myself, but so far I’ve unfortunately been feeling too tired or irritable or nausea-affected to take him up on it. I’ve observed him watering them a couple of times and felt significantly less anxious about their well-being, but it’s not the same as leaning out that window and personally ensuring that every single one of them is in top condition.

It’s not entirely clear to me whether my preoccupation with my plants is entirely down to my passionate love for them or if it’s influenced by a subconscious need to deflect my anxieties concerning my not-so-easy-so-far pregnancy (and I’m only seven weeks along!). Maybe I’m in denial. …Actually, since I’m actually writing a whole post on the topic, it’s clearly the latter.

We all navigate faith in slightly different ways, I guess. Sure, we all know at least one church-instilled description (e.g. “faith is trusting in the inherent goodness of God instead of your feelings”), and some of us can parrot scriptural definitions (e.g. “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” – Hebrews 11:1, AKJV). But how does faith work out in real life, when you’re not dealing with things that could conceivably or arguably be psychosomatic or hallucinatory (e.g. feeling the Spirit’s presence, speaking in tongues, seeing visions, getting “slain”), but with a medical professional’s unsmiling face and discouraging words, packets of drugs, and bloodstains?

Even financial troubles and financial blessings aren’t as difficult to deal with where faith is concerned. After all, it’s not really a miracle per se for family members and close friends who know of your plight to feel moved to give you some cash – the aggregate could very well be more than enough to solve the problem, and then ta-dah! God has favoured and blessed me with provision!

Like I always say, though, there’s no point arguing about faith healing with someone who’s actually already been healed, because there’s really no point to the argument. He’s already healed, and he knows it, and the medical evidence of it is there (unexplained, duh), and how are you going to refute that? And I know what I’ve experienced before: situations where my faith was not disappointed, and where coincidences had clearly crossed the line into the realm of the uncanny. I know that my God is faithful, and I know that His love is real and present, and I know that He provides – abundantly and to overflowing. I just haven’t been tested (or haven’t tested Him?) in this area yet.

I look at my plants and I see that they’ve indeed gone on to spike, bloom and pup. I look at the plants around me, in my estate, in my office building, on the streets, and I see that they all continue to flourish, growing flowers, fruits and seeds in their season. I see the birds and the stray cats and dogs and the pesky rats and moles multiplying freely. I know that women in lower income brackets as well as in poorer and less developed places overseas, without access to the level of medical care I have, are successfully bearing children. I know that in many places, even though they struggle with overfishing, excessive hunting, poaching, habitat destruction and pollution, millions of creatures and plants are still carrying on their life cycles more or less effectively.

In most cases, given the right environment and nutrition, reproduction occurs naturally and effortlessly – and the wrongness and problems are more often than not the result of humanity’s self-serving actions.

Everywhere, at every moment, the first divine commands and blessings ever given on earth are still being obeyed and still manifesting, often with predictable and taken-for-granted results:

Genesis 1: 11–12 (AKJV)
And God said: “Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth”: and it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

Genesis 1: 21–22 (AKJV)
And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.

Genesis 1:24–25 (AKJV)
And God said: “Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind”: and it was so. And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

Genesis 1: 27–28 (AJKV)
So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

Note also that after the Flood, when Noah and his family were getting ready to set out and rebuild human civilisation from scratch, God reiterated His initial blessings and commands:

Genesis 9:1, 7 (AKJV)
And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.”
And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the earth, and multiply therein.

I wake up in the morning and believe that gravity is still in operation, that my lungs still require oxygen and that Earth’s atmosphere still contains liveable amounts of this gas. I get on the train and the bus and trust that thermodynamics work the same way today that they did yesterday. I eat and drink, believing that these substances I ingest are indeed what they appear to be and contain the nutrients they are supposed to contain, and that my body functions using these as fuel. I go to sleep at night trusting that my heart and lungs and everything else will continue to function without my conscious assistance or supervision, and I trust that I will wake up the next day.

That’s basically how the plants and animals live, isn’t it? We were made to function this way in a world that was fashioned and designed to work by the various laws and theories that we are still discovering and refining our understanding of. Are we not all living by faith, in different things and at different levels and to different extents, at all times?

I have been given a command to go forth and be fruitful. And what He has called me to do, He also equips me to carry out (Ephesians 2:10, Philippians 2:13, Hebrews 13:21). Children are a gift and a blessing (Leviticus 26:9, Psalm 115:14, Psalm 127:3, Psalm 128:2–4). For us who stand on grace ground, having been made the righteousness of God in Christ, the Old Testament promises that none shall miscarry or be barren in the land are “yes and amen” in Him (Genesis 28:3, Genesis 49:25, Exodus 23:25–26, Leviticus 26:9, Deuteronomy 7:12–15, Deuteronomy 28:11, Deuteronomy 30:9; Romans 3:21–24, Romans 5:17, 1 Corinthians 1:30, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Philippians 3:9; 1 Corinthians 1:20).

And so I am not spending an indefinite period of time lying in bed, although the medical expert I’m currently seeing keeps insisting that that is all I am good for right now (with threats that not complying will result in disaster). I’m still working, though I’m monitoring my symptoms and being careful and conservative in my movements. I’m not yet able to wear a smile all the time (feeling ill and waging a constant mental battle will do that to you), but I’m not going to panic and scramble to obey the edicts of science – I’m going to follow my instincts and I’m going to walk by faith.

And I’m going to have this child.