And Then Sometimes You Get a Peach

I’ve grown fond of role-playing games.

For those unfamiliar with the genre, a role-playing game, or RPG, allows a person to create a character in an epic story and develop his or her skills and abilities while also making choices that dictate his or her morality. These choices are often accompanied by consequences that steer the story in various directions. Along the way, the player character picks up traveling companions and fosters relationships with them.

skyrim-elder-scroll-v-dovahkiin-vs-dragon-free-315239-300x240After playing video games for many years, you get used to certain tropes or plot devices used in RPGs. Doing good will often grant you favor with a paragon of virtue who’s traveling with you. Indulging in your rogue side will most likely do the same if you’re dealing with a more mischievous or evil person. Each moral choice can even have an impact on how your character appears, with some games ever so slightly altering the texture of your face as the story progresses to be more clean and angelic if you’re on the side of good – or decrepit and Dorian Gray-esque if you’re on the side of evil. Completing various tasks in these games is also a fairly linear process. You get experience points (XP), the accumulation of which allows you to “level up” to advance your core competencies, at least until the game’s “level cap” is reached.

If only life were that simple. For a long time, I thought it was.

In my last post, I mentioned that I would try to connect the dots between growing up in a cult-like organization like IBLP, how its defining characteristics often manifest themselves in the world at large,  and why these approaches to life are ultimately unhealthy. This post’s topic is a big one: an attachment to cause-and-effect relationships. I like the term that counselor Larry Crabb uses to describe this in his book The Pressure’s Off – the Law of Linearity. Basically, it’s the idea that if A leads to B, and B is something desirable, then it’s our mission to seek out whatever A is so we can get B. If we pray the right prayer, if we follow all the rules, if we live up to a set of expectations we saddle ourselves with – everything will turn out alright.

While attending IBLP’s “Basic Seminar,” I discovered that this sort of approach was used quite heavily to convince attendees of the veracity of the organization’s doctrines. Affirming anecdotes often accompanied these claims: God blessed people who “got it right,” while those who didn’t abide by the principles or remain within their authority structure had God’s blessing removed from them. As a presentation, it was effective not only because fear can be a powerful motivator, but also because it appealed to our desire for instant gratification and superiority over others.

When I was little, this sort of paradigm felt oddly comforting. Growing up in a noisy suburb near San Francisco, I felt helpless. I was that dorky kid with the huge glasses who’d often have to endure bullying, even at church. I was also a homeschooled, only child. I had no siblings off whom I could bounce ideas and discuss what I was being taught. All I had were my parents (granted, they were – and are – wonderful!). Even when I would get out of the house and mingle with others, I was unaware of how to interact with them, especially since we were led to believe that we were the “elite Marines” of the faith and a notch above everyone else, even within our church. The Law of Linearity felt so ideal. If I were to just follow all those principles, exhibit all the character qualities I was taught, set myself apart from everyone else just enough, make sure my countenance and smile were bright enough – it would all be worth it in the end, right? Eventually, when the promised results didn’t happen, the pendulum naturally swung the other way. I discovered the ugly flipside of this viewpoint and found myself in a rut where I would continually ask, “What’s wrong with me?”

vladimir-borovikovsky-job-and-his-friends-1810sCuriously enough, one of the books of the Bible that IBLP materials often twisted or left unmentioned entirely was one that painted people with a linear mindset in a negative light: Job. Here, we see a righteous man tested by God. His family, possessions, and even his health are all swept away from him, though he refrains from cursing God. Eventually, he regains all he had – and then some. The funny thing is, that’s all the story ever was in IBLP. There was no mention of Job dialoguing with God or questioning Him. We barely heard a word about Job’s friends, who exhibited the Law of Linearity in spades, telling Job that he must have sinned and brought these calamities on himself. It all boiled down to Job getting stuff in the end because he did the right thing. How sad is that?

Cult-like organizations aside, we are all susceptible to the pull of the Law of Linearity. We have to fight the urge every day. Why do we subject ourselves to such an endless treadmill? Perhaps it has something to do with a deeper issue, one that extends far beyond growth and time. Simply put, we are addicted to predictability. If we can live a life where every variable, every choice, every consequence is clearly defined for us, we can attain control over our lives – or at least the illusion of control. Please don’t get me wrong: I’m the last person who would ever suggest that consequences don’t exist or that seeking out personal development or spiritual growth is inherently bad, especially in the context of love for Christ.

But this is a mindset issue. Thinking constantly in cause-and-effect terms shifts our perspective from the nurturing necessary for growth to take place to a mechanistic set of steps that effectively casts aside the work of the Holy Spirit and the timetable within which he works to accomplish His will. There is no room for God to exercise his grace or sovereignty, to “[make] his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and [send] rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). Even more, by placing this burden on ourselves, it becomes even easier to inflict it on others and expect the same results from them too, perhaps even taking our frustrations about ourselves out on them whenever they don’t meet the expectations we set.

I’m reminded of the movie Kung Fu Panda, in which the ordinary, titular panda Po finds himself at the center of an ancient “Chosen One” prophecy. Though he is destined to be the legendary Dragon Warrior and defeat the villain Tai Lung, his trainer, the red panda Shifu, does not take into account Po’s needs as an individual and tries to rush the process with strict training regimens. While speaking with kung-fu Master Oogway, Shifu is frustrated, both at his inability as a trainer and Po as a challenging student:

Oogway: My friend, the panda will never fulfill his destiny, nor you yours, until you let go of the illusion of control.

Shifu: Illusion?

Oogway: Yes.

[points at peach tree]

Oogway: Look at this tree, Shifu. I cannot make it blossom when it suits me, nor make it bear fruit before its time.

Shifu: But there are things we can control.

[kicks the tree so that peaches fall]

Shifu: I can control when the fruit will fall!

[slices a peach and throws the pit to the ground]

Shifu: I can control where to plant the seed! That is no illusion, Master!

Oogway: Ah, yes. But no matter what you do, that seed will grow to be a peach tree. You may wish for an apple or an orange, but you will get a peach.

Shifu: But a peach cannot defeat Tai Lung!

Oogway: [folding dirt over the peach pit] Maybe it can, if you are willing to guide it, to nurture it. To believe in it.

Eventually, Shifu finds a way to reach Po and train him in time for Tai Lung’s arrival, but it happens only when he takes a step back to understand what drives Po – and through a lot of patience with this “peach.” For my fellow Christians, it’s my prayer that we can ditch the formulaic approach and recognize the freedom we have in Christ to be works in progress. To give others the room they need to grow.

To give ourselves the room we need to grow.

Introduction: What’s This Blog About Anyway?

“What is one of your greatest ambitions in life?”

My church small group recently began a study on the dangers of comparison that featured this question. Most of us answered with career aspirations, a dream house, or a lasting relationship. My answer felt rather unexciting.

“I just want to be normal.”

I’ve always felt awkward sharing my story. Maybe it has something to do with just how ashamed I’ve been toward it, or because most of my friends have lived much less strange lives or have had different struggles. But over the last few years, the pieces of the puzzle have finally come together. I’ve had to come to grips with the reality that my gifts and calling in life are inextricably tied to my story, no matter how tempting it may be to sweep it under the rug. So, here’s a quick look at my background, why it’s inspired me to kickstart this blog, and the sorts of topics you might expect to see covered in the days to come (and the glue that ties it together!).

orchestra1-300x202My childhood was primarily defined by my family’s involvement in a cult-like organization called The Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP). For those unfamiliar, IBLP was launched in the ’60s as “Campus Teams” and later became the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts (IBYC) under a man named Bill Gothard, a minister who had attempted to reach the gangs of Chicago. While he had found “success” in the form of conversion moments, it grew increasingly apparent that there was no genuine conversion taking place. The gang members fell back into their old lifestyles over time. So, he came to the conclusion that the problem wasn’t really with the kids themselves – their parents must have failed them. His organization was essentially founded on the idea that if parents followed a set of supposedly Biblical principles and established the importance of authority, there would be no way their children would fail. Initially, the program began with seminars. Throughout the years that followed, particularly in the ’80s, the organization became known as IBLP, and thousands would attend the seminars in packed-out arenas to hear Gothard’s insights.

My parents were among them.

My mom and dad are wonderful people. They came from broken families and had just begun their journey as adult Christians, hoping to one day bring a child into the world who would never have to suffer through the emotional trauma they experienced. And in an uncertain time when the countercultural forces of rebellion began to erode society’s prevailing (primarily) faith-based school of thought, the red binder provided at the seminars seemed to have all the answers. The picture-perfect families presented on stage to showcase God’s blessing toward those who followed the principles of the seminar were certainly enticing. A step-by-step method to ensure ideal kids like that in the midst of societal upheaval? Who’d want to turn that down?

Calling IBLP a “cult” isn’t something I can do easily after a childhood steeped in the program. But it effectively functioned as one. There was a leader who claimed special revelation and whose teachings we all “followed” – one who would draw minutes-long streams of applause and standing ovations from crowds whenever he entered the room. There was a call to seek “a ‘new’ approach to life” and create a wall of separation between ourselves and others – not just those outside the Christian faith, but also other Christians as well. And most unfortunate was the abuse. Mental, emotional, sexual, and spiritual abuse were rampant in the inner circles of the organization and swept under the rug for the sake of saving face.

What set IBLP apart from other cult organizations was that it was so innocuous at first glance, and that was what made it so subtly insidious. There was no compound in which we all had to live, no single church under whose authority we had to operate, no crazy-sounding weird name we collectively carried. On top of that, the program encouraged its adherents to make IBLP’s supposedly Biblical beliefs their own instead of simply Gothard’s. Any challenge wasn’t a slight against our fearless leader. It was much more personal, an attack on one’s own belief system.

IMG_0498-300x300I could spend a lot of time writing about the details of what makes IBLP’s belief system what it is and how it’s shattered so many people, but only a few words are really needed to sum it up: results-oriented thinking. It’s basically an underhanded prosperity gospel: if you input A (follow the principles), you’ll get an output of B (God will bless you). There are plenty of issues with that mindset as is, but it’s even more damaging when the input is flawed to begin with. Much of the practical application of the “non-optional principles” IBLP advocated were not even Biblical. They were simply Gothard’s own personal tastes and preferences turned into law, with Bible verses scotch-taped over them to give them some proof-texting heft. Even more, there was actual truth often sprinkled in with the lies, and it was quite tough to distinguish between the two.

In case anyone’s wondering, no – I don’t harbor any ill will toward my parents for being a part of IBLP back in the day. I love my parents. In fact, I can’t really blame them. We weren’t really all that involved with the program, and they even recognized its shortcomings. They were only doing what they thought was right. And I’m thankful that we were shielded from the worst of it. But I can’t deny that IBLP affected them differently as discerning adults than it did a little kid who soaked it all up like a sponge with hardly any other reference points. The mindset and methodology that defined IBLP played a key role in defining my own – much of it warped for a long time. I’m just thankful that over the past several years, God has brought people into my life who have walked alongside me as I’ve begun to break free of the chains of perfectionism, narcissism, and people-pleasing built up over all that time.

The reason why I’m bringing all of this up is not to throw blame around or fish for sympathy, but rather to establish context for many of the topics I’ll be writing about in this blog. It’s actually difficult for me to talk about this part of my story, mainly because it’s so far from the norm with respect to childhood experiences that it’s been rather tough for others to understand what it’s been like. It’s also very easy and tempting for me to want to forget about my time in IBLP – to sweep it under the rug, encase it in the museum of my childhood experiences, or treat it only as a radical organization whose issues I’ve long left behind. But that wouldn’t be even close to the truth. I still struggle with those aforementioned tendencies from time to time. I still struggle with being normal. And I also suspect that the issues that have plagued organizations like IBLP – such as focusing on external appearances, correcting imbalance with additional imbalance, and thinking linearly toward strict results – are issues that exist throughout our culture, albeit in less concentrated doses.

In the days to come, I’d like to start some discussions on these mindset-oriented issues and lend what perspective I can to them. As part of that, I’ll most likely be referencing personal experiences in IBLP, what was often taught there, why it’s ultimately damaging at its core, how it’s sometimes manifested in the world at large outside IBLP, and what I’ve learned through studying the Bible, personal experience, and other people who are far wiser than this silly fellow.

Here’s to growing up well!

Introduction: Why I’m Blogging Again

Do you ever find yourself selectively waxing nostalgic?

If you’re like me, you may pine for the good ol’ days of childhood: playgrounds at the local fast food joints, pre-Cloud technology, and water balloon fights with the neighbors during the dog days of summer.

But then there are those awkward teenage years.

When I was about 16, I started a Xanga blog. (Anyone remember Xanga?) Facebook was still in development at Harvard. MySpace was starting to become a thing. And I was going through this strange phase, learning all about internet etiquette and feeling this odd compulsion to talk about everything happening in my life while ending almost every sentence with an emoticon just so people wouldn’t think I was sounding cold and heartless with a simple period.

A few years ago, I read some of my old blog posts and found myself nearly drowning in a sea of orange, yellow, and blue smiley faces. Really? I thought to myself. That’s how I sounded back then? They say hindsight is 20/20, but I wasn’t prepared for the feeling. It’s all a part of growing up, I suppose.

It’s funny how the world of blogging has evolved: a decade ago, it was the latest online fad, with teenagers, parents, and everyone else and their dog chronicling their day-to-day lives and following the exploits of others. Now, social networks like Facebook and Twitter accomplish that function, albeit in the more bite-sized chunks of statuses and tweets. In the meantime, blogging has further evolved into an outlet where people share insights and ideas that can’t easily fit into a 140-character limit.

That’s one reason why I haven’t been uber-eager to jump back into blogging. The Internet – well, the world in general, but especially the Internet – is such a noisy place, with shouting and flaming galore in posts and comments. All those insights and ideas can be so overwhelming, and it’s even worse when people take advantage of the veil of anonymity to bulldoze over others. In the face of it all, you and I have to adapt. We have to shield ourselves from all that noise, yet most of us understand the folly of becoming cloistered and shutting ourselves out from everyone.

So we become selective. We listen to the familiar, the encouraging, the sensible, the safe. And in the process, our biases are reinforced over and over again – to the point where it’s difficult to listen to others, even if some of their insights on life, the universe, and everything are worth considering. All that can be heard are the echoes of the buzzwords we’ve learned to ignore.

In many respects, blogging and interacting with bloggers has become an interesting therapeutic exercise for many. For some, it’s healthy. For others, not so much. At least some of it seems to have to do with the content bloggers post and our motives as readers for engaging with it. Last summer, when Guardians of the Galaxy was released in theaters, the world was introduced to a comic book character unlike anyone previously seen on the silver screen: an angry, hilarious, gun-toting raccoon named Rocket. My dad and I were laughing at his remarks and general “I’m surrounded by idiots!” frustration.

“He says all the things I wish I could get away with saying!” my dad said with a chuckle.

He was so right.

I think many of us approach the Internet in that same way. We find ourselves surrounded by “idiots” as we observe the many deficiencies in our culture. The frustration builds up inside us, but we know that if we were to lash out, we’d look like fools, or we might get in trouble. So we set out in search of people who have a way with words and can be frustrated for us. The ones who say what we wish we could say. We can comfortably read their rants behind a screen while we pump our fists into the air and cheer. And when we’ve had our fill, we can leave a comment with a link to the latest outrage-inducing incident and ask them for their take so we can come back for more.

I’ve been one of these people.

I don’t believe that’s healthy. It doesn’t alleviate the frustration; it only compounds it. And personally, I really don’t want to add to the noise. But I do want to address those issues – and perhaps more importantly, the issues behind the issues – and hear what others have to say. Maybe even learn from them.

That’s why now, 10 years later, I’ve decided to start fresh with a new blog. I’d like for this to be a place where those who are tired of the noise can feel welcome. Where we can enjoy a lively discussion without resorting to the shouting, the arguing, the flaming. Where those who want to take a look at the issues around us without feeling the need to remain confined within a set of comfortable talking points can freely do so. Where we can take a break and discuss the latest summer blockbuster without feeling guilty for not saying something about the latest outrage topic. Where we can view each other as more than a set of opinions without jumping into the “do you fit into Mold A or Mold B?” false dichotomy that seems to be increasingly prevalent in our perceptions of others.

Maybe I’m sounding like a hypocrite by being a tad noisy myself at the moment. But I hope and pray that in the days to come, my words will be marked by grace.

In the next few posts, I’ll talk a bit more about my own story and how it inspired me to start this blog.