Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Look Twice: A Primer in Manipulation

I will freely admit, right up front, that this is difficult to write about, because when I see spiritual manipulation taking place, it really steams my shorts. I will try my best to be civil.

My preference is to focus on the techniques that are so regularly used to shape—or, more accurately, to manipulate—people’s opinions, beliefs, and paradigms. I don’t want to point the finger at specific individuals, but if you see them using these manipulative techniques, you may want to pay closer attention to what they're trying to sell you.

Therefore, I now present the following, tongue firmly in cheek . . .


The “How-To’s of Spiritual Manipulation

If, perchance, you have a desire to become better skilled in the art of manipulating people into accepting your own personal heresies, here’s a few insider tips:

(Ahem . . . cough, cough)

First and foremost, it’s vitally important to begin well: this is best achieved by mocking anyone who values theology, before introducing any of your questionable teachings.

It’s basically a preemptive strike: If you’re going to introduce a biblically-questionable concept, remember that the people best equipped to recognize, react, and refute it are those who value theology (and perhaps have theological training). Therefore, it only makes sense to discredit them in the eyes, ears, hearts and minds of your audience, first.

This is best done by using humor, caricatures, and apocryphal anecdotal horror stories about heartless theological thuggery (throw in a reference to the overlords in The Hunger Games for the desired emotional impact—this will also establish your “culturally relevant” credentials). At the same time, be careful to style yourself as “just a regular guy/girl trying to follow Jesus.”

Another powerful and effective tactic is the Straw Man Argument:

Create a caricature of people’s beliefs that you disagree with and then “prove” why only knuckle-dragging neanderthals with the collective IQ of algae would believe like they do. Be sure to infer that pastors and theologians fit this caricature (make that clear). Use humor to disguise the insults, misrepresentations, and character assassination—if you can get them laughing (especially at their pastors), they’ll believe just about anything you tell them after that.

Appealing to the emotions also works like a charm:
  1. You can get the audience “in your corner” by inviting them to feel empathy for you; once they identify with you sympathetically, herd mentality will police discourage anyone from voicing concerns.
  2. By appealing to the emotions (tell lots of tear-jerking stories, at regular intervals), you can effectively get people to stop thinking, which will create the ideal passive environment.
You can also deepen this level of sympathetic identification with testimonials about how misunderstood and attacked you've been, and how this has really wounded you. Very effective as a preemptive strike: anyone who would dare to later voice a concern with your teaching will be seen as “attacking,” and will be lynched by the sympathetic sheeple herd.
Keep your voice carefully modulated and use a relaxed words-per-minute pace. This gains trust and reinforces your “average person” credibility. Disguise your more obviously unbiblical ideas by saying them way too fast. Move to your next point quickly (or divert attention with a heart-warming story).

This is especially important when using out-of-context Bible verses. Quote these verses (or the fragments that you like) in rapid-fire succession, and quickly move on, before anyone has time to notice (or—God forbid—look them up).

Above all, remember to sprinkle your presentation—casually but repeatedly—with comments containing loaded language (eg. institutional church, pharisees, control, hierarchy, dead religion, hypocrites, etc.) so people will quickly agree with you, out of fear of being labeled in the same way.

Finally, emphasize your personal journey into humility, grace, and love, love, love (as opposed to anyone who disagrees with you, who are obviously arrogant, power-hungry haters).
(NOTE: These are just the techniques. Feel free to create your own false teachings to apply them to. You can't expect me to do everything for you.)

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Setting Up Shop

The door opened slowly, with a noticeably hesitant movement, as the two friends peered inside. The environs possessed the classic coffeehouse vibe, which was recognizable and reassuring to both, although neither of them had ever stepped foot in this particular establishment previously.

“Looks kinda like our other place,” the Younger cautiously opined, looking over his friend’s shoulder as he followed him inside. The Elder, several inches shorter and a good number of years older, preceded his companion into the warm and welcoming atmosphere, glancing left and right, as he took in the new location.

The Younger, always restless and energetic—as if he had already ingested several espressos—schooled himself to not push ahead of the Elder as they moved deeper into the shop. The Younger, partly due to his youth and the rest due to his natural impatience, was more inclined to choose a table or booth as if he were on a “search and destroy” mission. The Elder, in almost perfect counter-point, was completely at home taking his time, surveying the sights, breathing in the ambiance, and then—finally—making his selection after what seemed (to the Younger) to be an eternity.

Looking up with his easy-going smile, the Elder turned abruptly to face the door they’d just come through, and settled into a booth roughly two-thirds of the way into the café, placing his battered old leather satchel beside him on the padded bench. “I think this will do fine,” he announced, looking appreciatively around the booth as the Younger slid into the seat opposite him. “I can only hope that this particular booth will be available on a regular basis.”

“And I must say,” he continued, gently placing both hands palm-down on the table, as if for emphasis, “the name of this fine establishment bodes well for our continued theological ramblings, don’t you think?”

The Younger was still soaking in the welcome aroma of the espresso machine, as he also continued to gaze about this new discovery of theirs, albeit from the opposite direction of the Elder, facing the rear of the café as he was. 

“I don’t think that the name, or the location, or the clientele could really stop us from having one of our usual discussions,” he laughed, leaning back and hearing the slight creak of the wood behind him. “If there’s one thing we’re known for, it’s our intense discussions over pints of good ale—or lattes, as the case may be.”

The Elder was still looking above and beyond the Younger, taking in all the new sights with scarcely contained anticipation. Folding his hands in front of him, tapping his thumbs together in restless energy, he finally made eye contact with the Younger.

“Well,” he conceded, “after so many years at the other blog, I’m just enjoying the fresh start, especially in such a quaint café. I have a very good feeling about our future discussions here.”

Looking around once more with a hearty sigh of appreciation, he continued, “I like this place—this Genesis Café. I think it bodes well as symbolic of a new chapter in our notoriously animated conversations about all things faith-related.”

The Younger grinned lop-sidedly as he ruefully recalled some of their earlier adventures, especially with the Crusty Irish Barkeep at their favourite pub. “Well, unlike the pub, nobody here knows us well enough to bring 'the usual' to our table, so let’s go order something, what do you say?”

“Of course, of course,” the Elder responded, pushing himself out of the comfortable booth with renewed energy. As they made their way across the café towards the black-clad, multi-pierced young barista behind the counter, he looked around once more, nodding in satisfaction.

“The Genesis Café,” he repeated with a smile in his voice and a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “I just know we’re going to like it here.”

The Younger threw him a questioning look, fumbling with his wallet as he took in the array of available beverages, under the watchful eye of the young Barista. She has no idea what she’s getting herself into, he thought, unable to repress a small smile, but she will. Probably before the end of her shift.

The Elder was already ordering his coffee—“black, the way God drinks it,” as he liked to say—and the Younger quickly made his decision (an americano, with a shot of caramel to bring out the subtleties of the espresso shots). Looking around the café once more, he felt a breath—almost like a literal wisp of breeze—of the same sense of anticipation that the Elder was clearly reveling in.

Yes, the Younger thought, handing his credit card to the Barista. It’s good to be back.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Power of Focus

Ever had one of those “Balaam’s Ass” moments? You know, where God speaks to you through some of the most unlikely and unexpected ways?

I definitely had one of those moments when I started reading The Power of Focus. The glistening irony? The book was a gift from the managers of the Real Estate Brokerage which I was about to quit working for.

Yes, I said “Real Estate Brokerage.” As in, I was working as a REALTOR®. Except I was about to quit.

Perhaps I should start from the beginning.

Shortly after returning from Mexico last year, I enrolled in the Real Estate Licensing course through the University of British Columbia. The idea was to start a new career which would actually put money IN the bank for us. We needed to address a short-fall in our monthly missionary support which was slowly but surely eroding our house equity.

It was a risk, a gamble for our future, to re-invent myself as a REALTOR®. (It also required a new wardrobe.) We understood that, right from the beginning. And we were aware the current market conditions were—to quote Les Nessman of WKRP—“sucking canal water.” We knew I needed to be focused.

And so, after nine years of blogging, I decided to create an exit strategy, and wrote two months’ worth of posts to bring Robbymac.org to the kind of conclusion I could be satisfied with.
Nothing would interfere with the demands of my new career.
Not even blogging.
All of the background reading and research Id been doing for writing on The Kingdom of God (a sort of follow-up to Post-Charismatic) was consigned to several thick binders and shelved in a remote storage closet.
Nothing would interfere with the demands of my new career.
Not even writing.
My guitars languished in their cases, lonely and abandoned, as the tubes in my amplifiers clouded over in the dust of neglect.
Nothing would interfere with the demands of my new career.
Not even music.
I was focused. I had ruthlessly cut out all the most likely distractions to my new career. Everyone “in the business” knew how tough things were. Weekly sales meetings reinforced the seriousness of the current economic situation in Canada. That’s why our managers gave each of us, at the beginning of 2012, a copy of The Power of Focus.

Ironically, this book functioned as a sort of “Balaam’s Ass” that would lead to my decision to quit being a REALTOR®.

To be sure, there were outside factors involved:
  1. My (glaring) lack of experience in sales
  2. In our city, I am virtually unknown, which means no connections
  3. The kicker: we simply ran out of money to invest in my being in the business, and therefore
  4. Instead of reducing our debt, I had only managed to dig the hole deeper (oops).
But as I read the first few chapters of this book, I was faced with this question: “What are you naturally brilliant at?” And by “brilliant,” the authors simply meant:
  1. What are you naturally good at, where even with just a minimum of effort, people take notice of your gifts, and
  2. If you invest an additional effort to hone these natural abilities, you can easily become quite proficient—even professional—in these areas.
And, in language reminiscent of Strength Finders 2.0, the authors strongly recommend focusing on your areas of giftedness and natural ability, versus the common strategy of working your patookus off, trying to improve your areas of weakness. (Result: you suck a little less in those areas of weakness, while your strengths remain undeveloped.)
I had just put away all the things I was most passionate about and naturally gifted at. This was perplexing and frustrating, because so far in my life, neither had been very rewarding vocationally (meaning: getting out of debt or at least making ends meet). It felt like I was cursed by being gifted at hobbies, not real work skills. (Except my new career seemed to be even more of a sucking financial vortex than my “hobbies.”)

Then, of course, there were all those biscuits God seemed to be tossing my way.

So, in what is either an act of faith in God’s provision and being true to myself, or the most outstandingly stupid decision I have made in a journey of nomadic proportions which would make Abraham the Patriarch’s blood run cold, I quit being a REALTOR®.

I am focused. On developing the gifts God gave me. On using my gifts and abilities for the Kingdom. On seeking to excel at the things I am actually gifted at.

Wendy says the real test will come when somebody asks me what I do for a living, and I can look them in the eye, and say with all seriousness and self-confidence:

“Iam a writer.”

Saturday, March 24, 2012

God's Biscuits

One of the great things about having children, is that they grow up. And suddenly, you find yourself sitting across the table from them in a coffee-shop, and having a deep, meaningful, spiritually encouraging conversation.

After telling my daughter Jordan the story of why I was ending my attempted career-shift into being a REALTOR®, I made a joking comment about how the things I was gifted at qualified me to be a starving artist. When Jo saw this saying on a magnet a few days later, she just had to get it for me. It now occupies a place of honor on our refrigerator door.

(Our family has a certain fondness for tongue-in-cheek, slightly-dark humor.)

I also found myself sharing with my daughter the various unexpected bits of encouragement that I’d been getting over the past couple of weeks. As Wendy and I had begun to notice these seemingly random tidbits of life-giving words, Wendy observed, “It’s almost like God is tossing you some biscuits.”
  • After playing bass at a different church recently, a well-respected musician from the congregation stood up to make an announcement, but prefaced it with words of appreciation for the musicians, pointing out my bass playing in particular.
  • A friend who had been in a worship band with me 15 years ago emailed me out of the blue to say, “I’m not one for ‘titles,’ but you were a real worship pastor, and I wanted to say thanks.”
  • Another former youth group member from twenty years ago found me on BookFace and sent me a message to say thanks for being a youth pastor, and for the impact I’d had on their lives.
  • Yet another former youth group member, from our time as volunteers with George Mercado in the 80’s, emailed to say, God’s been putting you on my heart a lot recently—what can I be praying for you about?”
  • A local couple with whom we’ve enjoyed friendship since the mid-90’s, and who had just finished reading Post-Charismatic, mentioned in passing during a St. Arbucks gathering, “You should be writing more. That’s your gift.”
“Hmm,” Jordan mused, giving me her widest and most innocent blue-eyed stare, “People whose lives youve had an impact on. Music. Writing. What do you think God is trying to tell you, Dad?”

Gee, I dunno . . . Maybe that having coffee with a wise young woman—clearly her mother’s daughter—might point out obvious things that her old man hadn’t dared consider?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Re: Destination

Travelling is a great way of expanding your horizons, mentally as well as geographically. Destinations outside of your normal life and routine can be exciting and provocative times of seeing things from a different perspective.

But still, there’s something special about that moment when you step back on to home turf, with all of its welcome sights, sounds, smells, bustle, and familiarity.

You can see it in the expressions of those in the airport waiting area, their gaze searching the incoming stream of humanity for familiar faces. The barely-but-not-quite-contained excitement of young children, eagerly anticipating the sight of grandparents turning the corner and walking down the ramp.

The embraces, the cheerful welcomes, as everyone wanders toward the baggage claim area, where even the tedium of the grudgingly slow carousels cannot dampen the happy reunions.

Even the serious expressions of the unaccompanied travelers, clutching briefcases and laptops as they likewise await the return of their checked overnight bags, speaks of a sense of purpose. Theyve reached their destination, and theyre eager to dive into the purpose for their travel.

In the midst of this sea of humanity, baggage, happy reunions, tearful farewells, connecting flights, arrivals, departures, and the buzz of multiple conversations, sits the solitary figure of a writer. With the traditional cup of Tim Horton’s coffee slowly cooling beside him, he contemplates a creative way of announcing his return to blogging.

But in the end, he realizes a picture is still worth a thousand words:

Sunday, January 8, 2012

And that’s all I have to say about that . . .

A hat-tip of gratitude to all who have visited my little corner of greater blogdom.
It’s been my privilege.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Weathered

Few things describe the impact of time more eloquently than the look of weathered wood. Weathering showcases a story about the passage of years, of many seasons under the sun, in ways that mere words are often incapable of capturing.

And when the original letters on this sign were removed, everyone could see just how much weathering had happened over the years. With very little difficulty, you can still read (most of) what this sign originally said.
I remember when this sign was brand new (and had letters). I was present at the sod-turning ceremony before construction even started. And at sixteen years of age, I worked on the roof many weekends, driving in four-inch spikes with a sledgehammer. I was there when the original cornerstone from the old church downtown was split in two and re-installed at the new location, one half reading “1928” and the other “1978.”

Fast forward to 2012:

A church merger has resulted in the congregation relocating elsewhere in the city. The building has been sold. In a short while, the name Brant Bible Church will only be meaningful to a certain generation.
When I look at these two pictures of the church’s interior, I am astonished by the multitude of memories and emotions that come flooding back. It feels like it was just yesterday. It also feels like it was a million years ago.

I was baptized in this sanctuary when I was 17.

Five years later, I met George Mercado here.

The carpet-on-concrete foyer would be the site of many life-changing encounters with God through the youth ministry.

When I was twenty-seven, Wendy and I stood together on the platform with our daughter Jordan in our arms, experiencing our very first child dedication as parents.

And no matter where we lived after that (Victoria, Los Angeles, Winnipeg, Tijuana, and now Kelowna), whenever we returned to visit family, this was the church we’d go to.

When all is said and done, of course, it’s just a building. Seriously. The Kingdom of God goes on quite well with or without it. But looking back at these images as I write, I am amazed at the storehouse of memories they awake.

It’s the goodness of God and the memories of many people that are the true treasure, but never underestimate the power of a weathered thirty-four-year-old sign to remind you of it.