Getting into limbo
We get trapped into meaningless and purposeless, unfulfilling lives for at least two reasons. The first is situational. Life puts heavy burdens on us and we simply can't breathe. The second is because our perspective changes, and then we no longer see meaning, purpose, and fulfillment in what we have to do. So there we are, in limbo, going nowhere.
Sometimes things like religion lose meaning to us, but we are unable to change that because our friends and peers go to the same religious establishment and change would mean losing their respect. People are not nearly as unconditionally loving as they say.
Here's an example of how our interpretation of life changes, from my own life. I have a great deal of respect for law enforcement personnel and the work they do. But my perspective on them has changed over the years. Sometimes we can't function with the change.
When we are small, our parents tell us, "If we are lost, go to a policeman." It's very true - they are pleased to assist. In fact, most policemen would rather be assisting someone than enforcing the law... although enforcing assists everyone. Then society tells us, if the police are looking for you, turn yourself in. The truth will come out in our justice system. It's a good policy.
As we get exposed to the justice system, we learn the reality of it, and often learn to react differently. For an extreme example, in Mexico the police can be brutal. Mexicans in this country, having experienced the Mexican system, often run when the police try to stop them even for minor offences, fearing for their life. It's a difficult mindset to break.
The example isn't that extreme. Much of the justice system is corrupt, breaks laws, and takes lethal shortcuts that hurt the wrong people. To interrogate people, the police often use the same techniques as the criminals - they are trust bandits. They pretend to be one thing to get information, and then turn on the person. They sometimes brutalize people with unending interrogations to get a confession that turns out to be false.
The police sometimes take bribes to overlook offences or the activity of certain people. Who you know may be your "Get out of jail free card." The police sometimes knowingly arrest the wrong person for a crime either to get the public off their back or to get someone off the street. Often people with limited financial resources spend months behind bars awaiting a hearing, and then haven't the money for bail... even when innocent.
The police motto may be serve and protect, but anyone who has requested a restraining order knows that restraining orders are no guarantee against the voilence of a hot-head. The police can't protect you from crime - they don't get activated until a crime has been committed. If you do report a crime, chances are it won't be solved - the police have too few resources to spend much time on cases, especially small ones. You simply can't trust the police or depend on them for much.
Prosecutors do similar things. Often they simply want the credit for ending a public menace, so they build weak cases and send the wrong person to jail. Sometimes the innocent are incarcerated for life or executed. Judges... well if you are ever in a traffic court, you begin to see that in some areas traffic violation tickets and fines are only about getting money for the township police department.
If you are a purist or idealist, you may not be able to live with this state of things. The meta-narratives (major beliefs in story form) that "The police will assist you, and the truth will out," crumble in ashes before the reality of it. If you are a gang member, you know that even by association the police will look at you as guilty and you will go to jail (a right of passage in some US cultures). Many people simply have no respect for the police because of these things.
Religion tells people to "turn the other cheek," so going to the police is often not done. So "meaning," which we get from this and similar meta-narratives about the police and justice system, that we are handed by parents, society, etc., doesn't stand up in the face of reality, leaving us in limbo - paralyzing us into inaction. The consequences of our learned beliefs about the police are, during a moment of crisis, do we contact the police? We have to face reality, accept it, and usually contact the police in spite of reality - we have to know that it is the best course of action, and only take another course by well thought-out exception.*
*Regarding criminals, understanding the consequences of your action, and accepting responsibility for them, is the beginning of understanding for some people. Without the beginning, there is no appreciation for the love of God, for some.
My apologies to the police for disparaging their name. As I said before, most officers are very well intentioned and really do want to assist, serve, and protect. The innocent are acquitted much more often than the guilty go free. As we all often do, the justice system does the impossible with next to nothing for resources, and they get very little thanks for it.
We undergo similar experiences in our spiritual life as we mature. We have a lot of sayings that we like to believe. God is asked to work minor miracles every day, so the meaning of a miracle is meaningless. We treat God like Santa Clause, so life is simply a materialistic Christmas, rendering spiritual growth meaningless - we either get what we want or we are angry, defiant, and stop believing. "God helps those who help themselves," so everything we do should work... but failure is part of life, and as any scientist will tell you it may take 10 to 1000 tries, or more, to get something right. I could go on endlessly... and step on everyone's favorite dream, but details are up to you - I can only describe the pattern.
A history of change
We like to think that we live in stable religious times. We especially like to think so because we live in an era of very rapid change due to technological innovation. Even something as simple as reading a newspaper or book has undergone complete change. We research on the Internet in an instant, newspapers are going out of business at a very high rate, and electronic book sales have exceeded printed book sales at a major online outlet. We have a very difficult time staying oriented in a world that seems to be shifting continuously beneath our feet, and we would like for at least our religion to stay stable.
Religious history is replete with change. Change is a primary characteristic of religion. Notice that I said "primary" characteristic. Religion is not some stale thing that is stuck in a book and changeless. Religion is alive, vibrant, and ever-changing. It changes with spiritual growth. Religion has developed as people have developed through the centuries. Religion changes with people's needs. God doesn't change - God is love, and love is eternal. Yet we could not define the breadth and depth of love if we wanted to. We can only point to it.
Jesus the Christ was a Jew who brought about radical change to Judaism. People stopped stoning others to death, while the Law made it permissible, or even demanded, killing men, women, and children for even very minor offences that today would not even seem to be offences at all. Jesus simply asked whoever had no guilt to throw the first stone, and the world changed.
Jesus was inclusive in his approach to religion. He ministered to women, Roman soldiers, and those of different faiths. He acknowledged some differences, but he didn't argue religion. He didn't come to criticize or condemn, He just asked people to come to God's love. His Apostles and disciples were sent to foreign lands who knew nothing of Judaism... or the new Christianity.
The Jews had already figured out that justice was above the Law, but Jesus elevated love to the highest position. The Law, which was enthroned in the highest place in Jewish belief and culture, was dethroned by justice, then love. The Sadducee party, which believed that all God cared about was doing what the Law said, ended after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. The people, not the religious leaders, knew what they were hearing was right - they flocked to Jesus and he and his followers turned the world upside down.
The Apostles confronted long held Jewish tradition as they spread the new religious beliefs. At first they weren't comfortable with taking the religion to outsiders, then they weren't comfortable with breaking laws that were commanded about not eating meat sacrificed to idols... they had to make decisions on the fly and the beliefs of the new religious communities stood in stark contrast to Judaism. At first they thought the world was going to end soon, and they even advised people not to marry, but to serve. Thankfully that was never carved in stone, or the world would have ended as the population died out from lack of procreation.
During the era of European Catholicism, the church changed from a network of self-regulating communities that dealt with local problems locally, where individual participation was common, to a nationalized hierarchy of religious leaders with a centralized governing structure and codified scriptures and rituals, who spoke scripture in a language no one could understand... and then the church fragmented into thousands of pieces and has become much more local again. Across the world, there are religions in endless variety as humanity tries to approach God.
In the Elizabethan era, in response to problems created by loose morals, repression of desires became the rule of the day. Sexual desires especially were suppressed. In the last 100+ years, attitudes have swung the other direction, partly because psychoanalysis revealed the damage that was done and the nonsense of it, and partly because methods of birth control made the old rules obsolete, or at least flexible.
Today, divorce, which Christ spoke harshly against, has changed from something that wasn't tolerated at all, to something that is widely accepted. According to DivorceRate.org, 50% percent of first marriages, 67% of second, and 74% of third marriages end in divorce. Current trends indicate that around 50% of marriages will eventually end in divorce. (Contrast this acceptance with all of the screaming by some about homosexuality, which Christ didn't mention at all.)
First time sexual intercourse among high school students is just under 50%. The definition has changed from "promiscuity" to "experimentation," and it is widely recognized that people of all ages in committed relationships have intercourse or other sexual contact.
Religious service attendance changed from something that happened occasionally in holy places, to yearly in the Temple, to attending roving groups, to synagogues, to occasionally in roving groups or teachers, to weekly in homes, to weekly in a church, to in homes or church, to occasionally....
Women's roles in church services have changed from active participation in service and ministry in the early church, to being kept in subservience and quiet in various cultures, to being full participants in teaching and ministry again.
Nothing stays the same in religion. It is in constant flux. It changes to meet the needs of the people. Sometimes it changes to meet the needs of the state, as it did for Rome, and for many countries, including England, which still has an official religion. But most importantly, it changes to meet the needs... not desires... but needs of the people. God doesn't change - He is still all about love and bringing people to Himself. People don't change - their nature stays about the same. But the situation we live in changes continuously - our needs change in response.
What we have to do is learn how to deal with change... or confront endless problems because we don't.
Current challenge examples
How do we handle change? For many, not well. One of the recognized trends in this country is typical of throwing the baby out with the soiled bathwater. We have very strong divisions occurring now in our churches, and as a consequence people, particularly our youth, are leaving. Our young people do not see things like homosexuality as an issue. Many denominations have taken strong stands on this and other divisive issues. It's an all or nothing attitude - if you don't agree, split. Splitting seems to be what many churches do best.
Attendance and membership in all denominations has been falling for decades. Divisions over social issues remain very contentious. Conservative critics argue that the church has stooped to "theological surrender to the moral and spiritual confusion of contemporary culture." But is this true, or are these churches destroying themselves and robbing themselves of the ability to address relevant issues?
Statistics indicate that churches with contention stop growing and fall into decline. The question is whether those churches realistically meet the needs of the people, and remain relevant. People tend to agree that the cultural perspective of early times renders biblical references about sexual acts as sinful "of limited relevance today."
Young adults, who leave churches in large numbers to find their own way, but often come back... are not coming back. Young adults who declare no religious affiliation have skyrocketed to 30 to 40 percent. Young adults simply have much less to lose by following their conscience than those with well entrenched affiliations. Yet 70% of all Americans have no qualms about accepting homosexuals or the validity of other religions. What is cited as the reason for the exodus is a reaction to the religious far right, which is very much in the spotlight of religious drama with inflexible and often political positions.
Youth are usually purists and idealists, so being hard-nosed, or even mean-spirited, doesn't sit well with them in the face of a supposedly loving God. But the 70% of us who agree with them are locked into circumstances that prevent our doing anything about it... or possibly even openly agreeing. While churches don't reflect the beliefs of society, as usual the hardliners tend to run the churches. We can see this reflected more easily in the situation with the Mullahs in Iran who run the religious teachings and the government, but most of society doesn't really believe their teachings - particularly not the youth. There is a difference between respect derived from power and respect from belief. Anyway... what to do? Click to view statistical sources.
What to do?
Change is. It doesn't stop. It constantly challenges our beliefs and makes us get to the roots. It refines our beliefs in the fire of reality. There is hardly anything worse than having your beliefs shot down and then wading through your life with no sense of meaningful purpose that is fulfilling. I can give you three strategies for getting out of limbo and getting on with the rest of your life.
Strategy 1: Take accurate account of what you believe. By this point in your life, you should be certain of some things. These include the love of God, love and support of your parents, love and support of your siblings, and the general goodness of most people (even if your peers, associates, or friends happen to disagree with you).
The most important part is your spiritual foundation. God is love. What does that mean? God is bigger than anything we can conceive, and the Apostle Paul wrote down how we little beings should approach love. Read Romans chapter 12 and 1 Corinthians 13. Both are short chapters and easy to read, although you may have to disregard the cultural slant. If this expression of love is what God expects of us, then imagine how much bigger God's love is.
From this anchor, that God is love, and He loves the world of people that He created in great variety, look at the things other people believe and ask yourself if those things fit. The Bible can be interpreted in many ways, and people tend to grab the portions they like and ignore the rest, building a case for what they believe. Look at God's idea of love. If what they are telling you they believe doesn't fit, then don't believe it.
Be fair in your appraisal. Consider that God lets us take bumps and bruises. We are free to chart our own course and hurt ourselves and suffer from the consequences of our behavior. In His love for us, God let's us learn.
In early spiritual stages, obedience is important. Societies function best when there are basic rules or "laws" in place. Without that foundation, we aren't likely to learn or grow.
Sometimes "tough love" is the only answer for some people. It takes some uncooperativeness with their nonsense, and maybe some force to get them thinking in the right direction. Don't automatically throw out everything that isn't soft and mushy.
God's love, agapē in the Greek, refers to a deep love that is concerned for other's welfare. Build from the foundation that God loves you, and God is love. Use this as a lense to see religion through, and with this perspective everything can begin to take its place in your beliefs. Then you can be discerning: if it isn't done out of love, it doesn't fit.
If you can't bring yourself to believe in God, and up to 10% of people have some difficulty with this, consider that most of the people around you want to be like that ideal of love expressed in Romans chapter 12 and 1 Corinthians 13. Build your thinking and relationships on that core foundation. It is better than nothing, and better than building it on the cutthroat world expressed by many who insist on "survival of the fittest," which is not actually what Darwin conceptually meant.
Consider that even highly competitive athletes commonly express a deep belief in God, and conduct their lives accordingly, not like the cutthroats found in many places. Competition doesn't have to mean being dishonest, stabbing others in the back, etc. What do you have if you gain the entire world but lose your soul, or conscience, or respect for yourself? There are more rewarding and fulfilling ways to live.
Strategy 2: Talk to others about your beliefs, particularly those who aren't entrenched in pedantic (narrow) positions. You are likely to find that you are surrounded by beautiful people who think for themselves and don't believe those narrow positions. There is nothing like the support of others to strengthen your thinking in a new direction. Usually friends are the best listeners and most supportive, especially ones who have already gone through what you are encountering. But don't be afraid to seek the assistance of a psychologist, sociologist, philosophical counselor, or a minister of a different faith.
Strategy 3: Just do it. Face your fear, and do it in spite of your fear. It's pragmatic. It often works. You just say to yourself that you are the kind of person who can make change, and you need to be true to yourself. Being true to yourself is important. It is your authentic self that you are building, possibly for eternity, and it's important not to be an empty shell with other's beliefs painted on it from blindly accepting their beliefs and running their course in life.
Strategy 4: (I know I said three, but I get carried away.) Laugh, live, love. Enjoy life. It's much easier to tune in to what makes life matter if you are out there enjoying life. I get surprised at what matters to me. Something as small as a neat and clean house make me feel better. The silent film actor Charlie Chaplin noted the same thing in his life - his mother had very little, but she kept their sparse house and furniture neat and clean. It made him feel good.
Some days I enjoy just cleaning the house (I hope my wife isn't paying attention to this), pushing a broom or raking the yard (simple minds, simple pleasures). Put yourself into life and enjoy it. Be creative. Creativity is the spark of human genius that we all have. It's fun to create, no matter what the field of endeavor. Be social. It's energizing to be with other people and be part of life.
Strategy 5: (I know I said three, but I'm irrepressible.) Get engaged in life and invest yourself in the outcome. Life pulls you in and gets you interested. As the banks say, your deposit pays substantial interest dividends in the future.
Sometimes you have to tough it out. But be real with yourself. When my father was dying, he said to me that one thing he appreciated about my brother and I is that we were honest with ourselves. Have courage. Be true to yourself. It's that important.
So far we have talked about being in limbo, having the courage to change, some of the obstacles to change, and strategies for change.
Next: Knowing ourselves and what has meaning.
Let's talk about it. Social Media and One Spirit Resources Blog below. - Dorian Scott Cole.