Acceptance vs Agreement

“I accept that. “
Chuckie Marstein, Sons of Anarchy

I often learn lessons the hard way. This is not because I’m a particularly bad person. Or that I don’t get things. Or that I don’t have a lot of lessons to learn.

It’s mostly that I’m not that bright.  Plus, as Sue points out, I’m a man.*

I bang my head against a wall for a long time. Then I find a way around, over, under or through it. Then, when I meet another wall, I immediately start to bang my head against it. Again.

As I said, not that bright.

The last couple of years have been tough for me. My health has been less than perfect. I’ve been off work more than I’ve been on. My mind has been struggling – too small to be wandering off by itself. And my spirit has taken a bit of a beating.

All in all, some tough times.

I’ve recently discovered that part of my issue, aside from the aforementioned brightness problem, is that I may have a problem accepting reality.

I’ve dealt with Crohn’s disease for about thirty years. Through a combination of medication, force of will (or what Sue calls “stubbornness”), and a blatant disregard for reality, I have managed to have a very good, sort of normal life.

I’ve learned all sorts of coping mechanisms – breathing into the pain is one of my favorites – and I can put on a pretty good show of being normal (ha!), looking healthy (double ha!), and being competent (is there such a thing as a triple ha?)

I have always believed that I can create my own reality. If only I put my mind/will/spirit into things, I come out normal. If not normal, then at least the appearance of normal.

Why have I worked so hard at appearing normal? A part of me is afraid that if I accept the fact that I’m sick (which I am), that fact will somehow define me.

And if there is one definition that I don’t want, it’s to be “the sick guy”.

And because I have trouble accepting this reality, I do dumb things. Like I don’t ask for help if I need it. Or request time off when necessary. Or admit that I need long naps to get through the day.

And … sometimes … I don’t go to the doctor when I should. Although I’m getting much better at this last one.

The problem isn’t that I have done these things. Everyone – I think – has done something dumb in the past. No, it’s not the dumb things I’ve done that annoy me.

It’s the fact that I keep doing them. Over and over. Like a bad habit.

I’ve been thinking about this. A lot. Hey … I’ve got the time. I’ve come to the conclusion that I have been mistaking acceptance with agreement.

You see, I thought that if I accepted a particular reality – in this case, that I have a physical problem – that meant that I agreed with that state. You know, that I thought being sick was OK.

I’ve been rethinking this, and I’ve come to the following conclusion: Acceptance isn’t the same thing as agreement. Acceptance, I think, is saying “Hey, this is where I am currently at”. It’s not a judgement call. Just a statement of reality.

It’s a bit like my bank account. If I look at it and see a negative balance, I can either choose to accept that this is a reality, or I can pretend that it isn’t. Saying that I have a negative balance doesn’t mean that I like it. It’s just the reality.

What I do about it is what makes the difference. If I simply say “Well, that’s what the old overdraft is for”, and keep on spending, I’m going to see the same result next month. You know, banging my head against a wall.

If the reality makes me say “Oh. I guess I’m spending more than I make”, and change my spending habits, I’m going to have a different result next month.

If I accept that I have made some poor choices, health-wise, in the past, this lets me make some changes. For example, if I realize that I wait too long to go to see my doctor, I can now try to make better decisions.

Besides, I’m sure my doctor would like to take a trip someplace warm, too. Gotta keep him in business.

Acceptance also comes before forgiveness. It’s pretty easy for me to beat myself up about poor choices I’ve made in the past. I am pretty good at forgiving others. I’m really awful at forgiving myself.

Acceptance doesn’t mean that I agree with all the choices I’ve made in the past. It just means that I acknowledge that I have some unhelpful habits and beliefs that have kept me from asking for the help I’ve needed. And that I can change these things.

Soooo … I’m working at accepting things. Physical realities. Economic realities. Vocational realities. And, having accepted things about myself, and maybe throwing in some forgiveness along the way, maybe I can work at changing the habits and beliefs that have brought me here.

One can always hope.

*I’m not sure I can do much about either of these things. Maybe I just need to accept that.

On Sons, Soaps, and Sermonizing

I’m an addict. They say that realizing – and then verbalizing – that you are one is the first step to recovery. If so, I am taking my first step. In public.

You see, I’ve been living with a dirty little secret.

I find myself getting up early for a fix. By the afternoon, I need another hit. If I’m alone in the evening, I can’t seem to stop myself.

I’m addicted to Sons of Anarchy.

Sue and I have a few shows that we watch together; at the moment, though, they are all on hiatus. So I was looking around for a series to start. I was also home alone for a while, so I was thinking I’d watch something Sue wouldn’t want to see.

I found Sons of Anarchy. 

For those of you who haven’t seen the show, it’s the story of a motorcylce club (NEVER called a gang, by the way). In particular, it’s the story of a dysfunctional family: step-father, son, and mother.

Sons is a train wreck. If you’ve seen it, you might be thinking I maybe shouldn’t be watching. I’m finding it hard to turn away. Too fascinating.

I was talking to Sue about it, one night. As I explained a bit about the show and the plot, she said “Oh. You’re watching a soap opera.”

Was she ever wrong.

This is a story about men beating the crap out of each other. It’s about gun running and drug dealing. And revenge. For example, when Jax’s (the main character) son is kidnapped by the IRA, he and the club go to Belfast for revenge. In the meantime, after nearly having sex with a woman who turns out to be his half sister, Jax discovers that his father had an illicit affair with …

Holy Crap! I’m watching a soap opera!

In the interests of full disclosure, this isn’t the first time I’ve been hooked on soaps. Back in my university days, I was looking for a way to keep from having to study. What I meant to say was that I occaisionaly needed a break from studying.

General Hospital and Another World filled the bill nicely. I kind of got caught up trying to keep things straight: who’s sleeping with who (or whom, to be precise), who’s broke, who just got out of jail. How all the men had such chiseled jawlines and cheekbones. And so on.

Plus, GH had Felicia Jones. Who was a babe.

Anyway, I thought I had given up my addiction decades ago. Now I find myself relentlessly slogging through this series on Netflix.

You may be thinking that a fellow who is a pastor – a peace-loving, Mennonite one, at that – shouldn’t be watching such a violent, drug infested, sexually suggestive show. You may be right. But, as I follow along, I realize that the problems of a motorcycle club aren’t that much different than the ones a church faces.

It’s interesting how both institutions use similar language. For example, the club calls the “council” together. They meet in the “chapel”, and this meeting is called “church”. Many of you may recognize these terms from the spiritually uplifting joys of working on various church committees over the years.

The Sons face many issues – drug running, prostitution, turf wars, a guy kicking over the boss’ motorcycle – that need to be discussed and handled. Likewise, the church also has problems: fewer members, hard economic times, fear of becoming irrelevant, whether or not we need a bulletin. These things must also be discussed and handled. Or swept under the rug. Either way, action (or, I suppose, inaction) results.

Perhaps the reactions are a bit different.

For example, in the motorcycle club, if someone is trying to push his own agenda, he disappears. The boss puts out a “hit” and the individual is never seen again. This is for the good of the club, as they believe that the wishes of the many are more important than the wishes of the individual.

With any luck, the skeleton doesn’t come back to haunt you in Season 2.

In the church, we believe that the bible may frown on such drastic measures. At the very least, it’s a gray area.

I’m not saying that a pastor doesn’t consider this option. Come on, pastors, you know that there is just that second – a blip in time – when you wish you could take out a hit on old Mr Froese. If he brings up the fact that all sacred music must be played only on a harp one more time, maybe it’s time that he started playing one. Permanently.

“Jimmy? Yeah, it’s The Rev. Take out the old man.”

Of course we don’t do it, but …

Anyway, where was I? Right. The church is a lot like a motorcycle club. Hmmm. The analogy might not be quite right. Or it’s more right than I care to think about. Either way, I’ve started taking notes. The church council could maybe learn something. Sure, it’s a show about outlaws. Truth, however, comes in many packages and appears in many different forms. Maybe even in a show about a band of opinionated, self-serving, self-centered misfits.

Or not. The Lord works in mysterious ways, so it’s so hard to keep these things straight.

I guess I’ll keep watching. If only for the church’s sake.

Is It Really All About Sex?

*This post contains some of my views on marriage and same sex relationships. Keep that in mind when deciding on whether or not to continue reading.

Without a doubt, the best thing about my job is that it brings me into contact with young people. Being around people with high energy, high hopes, and big dreams makes me feel young – in spite of what the evidence in the mirror says.

Having the privilege to be a small part of their major life events is icing on an already pretty great cake.

Events like marriages.

I suppose it is inevitable that, in spite of soaring divorce rates and tough economic times, young people still have enough hope and faith to marry each other. And I, being the somewhat sentimental old fool that I am, get caught up in it like I am still a twenty-something,  full of high hopes and big dreams.

While I’m not a parent to these people, I feel a bit like a happy uncle, cheering them on from the sidelines. When these young people happen to marry each other, it simply kicks things up a notch.

So, it was with great pleasure that Sue and I responded to a couple of wedding invitations this year. The first was a summer wedding that took place at one of my favorite places on earth. The Timberlodge at Shekinah Retreat Centre was packed. There was a lot of singing and laughing, and when the couple had eyes only for each other, I am not ashamed to say that I had a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.

The next was New Year’s Eve. The church was packed out, the singing was great (singing is one of the things that Mennonites DO), and the couple had eyes only for each other. The pastors had prepared carefully and spoke of joy, the specialness of the couple, and the importance of community. Again, the lump and the tears were evident. Sue would catch my eye and shake her head.

She’s not as sappy as I am.

Then we danced the night away, and I marveled again at how blessed I am to know all of these fine young adults. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should have put danced in quotation marks. Suffice to say that I took up space on the dance floor. Dancing may be too strong a word.)

As with every couple, I wondered if these two really knew what they are in for. You see, in my experience, marriage is not a Disney fairy tale. While, in my case, there is a beautiful princess, I have often been more frog than prince.

Marriage is tough. You need to adjust to someone else being in your space. You find out that the things you thought would change don’t. I’m not saying that there aren’t good things about marriage. There are.

I can’t think of any just now.

OK, I can think of a lot. Someone who loves you unconditionally. A life partner. Someone who laughs at your “jokes”. Someone who tells you that you are full of crap when you are sure you are not. Someone who, in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, thinks you are great.

Trust me, the good far outweighs the difficult.

But there are adjustments to be made. We somewhat blithely make promises during the wedding ceremony: For better, For worse. For richer, for poorer. In sickness and in health.

What we really mean, though, is For better, For richer, and in health.

Sometimes, it’s the opposite. Those are tough times, and they can really test your love and character and your comitment to each other.

And so, when I was at this wedding, a few of these things were going through my mind. Because, you see, marriage is difficult enough on its own. If you add in complications, it just becomes that much tougher.

Did I mention that my New Year’s Eve young friends are gay?

I’ve known these two young men – like that distant uncle – for a long time. I’ve seen them grow up at summer camp. I’ve seen them commit themselves to God and their churches. I’ve seen them become authentic, wise, and caring members of society.

Unfortunately, many people will only see them as being gay.

It’s not right. It’s not fair. But there it is. We live, it seems, to put people into the proper categories.

I am no expert. I don’t even know the correct terminology to use so as not to be offensive. I apologize for that. But, you see, I do know a few things about relationships.

Why is it that sex doesn’t come into the equation when people judge me? (Yes, I know you are judging me. It seems to be a human pastime.)  For example, I was baptized late in life. I was already married, so I suppose my pastor could have assumed that I was having sex. And yet, he never asked me about it. “Are you kind and loving in the bedroom, or are you a person who believes that sex is something you are entitled to because you are the “man of the house”?

I’ve never, to my knowledge, been judged on my sexual preference. Sexual performance, maybe, but not preference.

I would find it offensive if someone told me that my relationship – my nearly 30 year realtionship, filled with hard times, sickness, and unbelievable joy and love – with Sue was all about sex. I don’t mean to burst any bubbles, or give too much information, but we don’t spend our every waking hour having sex. Sex, as great as it is, is really a small part of a relationship.

Important – and great – but small.

Again, with bubble bursting in mind; you can have sex without getting married. Shocking, I know. Marriage is about something else entirely – love, commitment, and the promise to put the cap back on the toothpaste.

How can we judge the commitment and depth of love that two people have for each other solely on the basis of sex? How did that happen? How is that even possible?

This is not a theological debate for me. I know that people far smarter than I will point out the biblical verses that condemn same sex attraction as being sinful. Others will point out the life of Jesus and show that his compassion and love for all outweighs specific verses.

I will let the biblical scholars continue to debate that one to decide who, in the final analysis, is in or out. Although, and this is just my thought, it may not be up to them to make the final decision.

You might think that I am dejected and downhearted about where this whole debate is headed. While I wish gay vs straight was a non-issue, I take great comfort in the marriage celebration itself.

One of the groom’s grandparents was my pastor when I was growing up. In spite of being a very kind person, he was a fundamentalist pastor – with more hell-fire and brimstone than forgiveness – and I suspect that this marriage was difficult for him – personally and theologically.

The blessing he gave to the couple was beautiful and filled with hope. Grandma cried tears of joy at the wedding. Gay and straight people danced together and rang in the New Year. Old and young partied like it was 2014.

For me, if there was ever a New Year’s Eve filled with hope, it was this one.

I’m just a regular guy who got so lucky in the marriage department that it’s nearly unbelievable. And I’m grateful to have never had my love for Sue judged by sexual performance or proclivities. Those of us who are “straight” take this for granted.

Doesn’t every couple deserve the same respect? Is marriage really only about sex?