Written Talks

Control Issues

Rev. Stu Smith at CCU in Anaheim on 3/7/21

I want to talk about control issues this morning, and more to the point, who is in control of our lives.

I recently watched a miniseries on Netflix called Unorthodox, which is based on the autobiography of a woman named Deborah Feldman. The full title of her book is Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots.

The main character, who represents the author, is a girl in her late teens named Etsy, who is part of an ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York. The miniseries actually begins with Etsy fleeing the community, and then through flashbacks, reveals what brought her to that point.

In scene after scene, we are exposed to the tight control that the religious structure wields over the community. Everyone is required to dress in a way that might be compared to the Amish. Nobody is allowed use the internet. Marriages are arranged. There are, of course, the dietary restrictions and the required prayers at certain times of the day. They’re required to take ceremonial baths. And for twelve days every month, husbands and wives aren’t allowed to touch one another.

Also, men and women are segregated during religious ceremonies. Even during the celebration after a wedding, all of the men were dancing together and all of the women were dancing together. I’ve been to nightclubs where that was the case, but that’s a totally different context.

And on top of the all of the restrictions for the community, there’s a whole other layer of restrictions for women. Of course, there is.

For instance, the married women in the community wear wigs all the time because they’re not allowed to show their hair in public. They’re also not allowed to sing in public because it might seem immodest. They’re not supposed to play musical instruments. And one thing that is established early on is that in that community, the only role available to a woman is that of wife and mother. And that is not at all an exaggeration. The only role available to a woman is that of wife and mother.

That’s what eventually drives Etsy to flee. The control just becomes too much to bear.

Hasidic Jews are among the extremes when it comes to controlling their communities, but most religions have some degree of control issues. And when I say most, I mean all.

Another example of the extremes is traditional Hinduism. As much as I am drawn to many Hindu teachings, the caste system in Hinduism is one of the most outrageous examples of control gone out of control.

Whether or not the control issues of a particular religion are as draconian as those we’ve been discussing, religions employ one strategy to exert that control. That is, they start working on you at a very early age. That’s not even a secret. Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, And when he is old he will not depart from it.” That’s what they call saying the quiet part out loud. And that sentiment is expressed in the texts of all the major religions.

By the time those little Hassidic girls can count to five, they know their place. The same is true of little kids in India. Everybody learns the rules early on. Everybody is under control.

Once again, those are among the extremes. But many of us gathered together this morning could share war stories from battling with a controlling religious tradition.

The thing to keep in mind with these controls that the church elders lay upon their followers is that they are presumably what the Almighty dictates. These are, in essence, God’s instructions. At least they’re presented that way.

When a religious rule is suggested, it means that someone has decided that they know what God wants. More specifically, they know what God wants of you. Then, if enough people believe that person, it becomes dogma. It gets taught to little kids and hopefully they grow up without the ability to question it.

Charles Taze Russell, who founded the Jehovah’s Witnesses, badly misinterpreted a Bible verse about Jesus’ second coming, resulting in his many followers believing they shouldn’t enjoy holidays. JWs also took a verse that forbids drinking blood and twisted it into a ban on blood transfusions. So, people die. And they’re instructed not to have friends outside the religion.

And all of those things are presented as God’s rules. Someone decided they knew what God wants of you.

What I believe is the most problematic about those controls being imposed is that it keeps people from living full lives. It keeps people from realizing their potential. It keeps people from experiencing the fulness of freedom and joy.

But those controls don’t come exclusively from the church. We get them from all corners of society. Depending on the culture that you’re born in, you’re subjected to a set of societal pressures designed to keep you from straying from the accepted norms.

Many of those pressures are gender-based. Little girls are taught to be submissive. Little boys are taught to be dominant. Those who don’t fit neatly into those roles are punished. They’re measured against society’s expectations. I’m confident that most of you hearing my voice this morning have experienced society’s disapproval to some degree at one time or another.

There are also very subtle ways that we fall under the control of others—ways that are not necessarily as damaging. But it serves us to recognize them, so that we can avoid being controlled in general.

Recently, I was watching the auditions for American Idol. A twenty-year-old named Cecil Ray came out and auditioned with a song called ‘Talkin’ Tennessee’. During his performance, he moved around a lot, rocked back and forth and swayed his arms around. After he finished, one of the judges, Luke Bryan, asked him to sing a few more lines with his hands in his pockets. He was trying to demonstrate that the artist would have better control over his voice if he weren’t flailing around so much while he was singing. Following up on that, judge Katy Perry asked him if he drinks coffee. He replied, ‘no’, to which Katy Perry responded, “Don’t ever start.”

“No ma’am.,” he said.

I really doubt that Katy Perry put much thought into her comment. It was probably just banter. She was really just suggesting that he seemed antsy. And in reality, his movements had nothing to do with nerves, they were just an affectation.

All the same, I would bet good money that Cecil Ray will never drink coffee in his life, because Katy Perry told him not to. I’m not saying that’s a horrible thing. Arguably, abstaining from coffee is a good thing. But he’s likely to avoid coffee primarily because of that flip comment tossed out on a competition show.

I had a girlfriend in the late eighties named Sabrina. Sabrina would often surprise me with gifts, usually neckties or shirts. Eventually, I realized she just wanted me to dress better. If she was going to be seen in public with me, she wanted me to look the part.

One time we went out and I was wearing shorts.  She pointed out that I had pulled by socks up my calves, informed me of how awkward it looked, and instructed me to push my socks down around my ankles. I do that to this day. I even recognize that I only do it because Sabrina told me to, and I still do it.

So, if I recognize this example of subtle manipulation, how many other casual remarks have steered my behavior? Whether it’s by a strict set of religious precepts or by off-handed comments, so much of our lives end up being controlled by others.

“Red’s not your color.” “You’re not really built to be a dancer.” “That’s dangerous.” “You shouldn’t try to draw so much attention to yourself.” “Don’t be so sensitive!”

I’d like to read the first of a song called The Joke by Belinda Carlisle:

You’re feeling nervous, aren’t you, boy?
With your quiet voice and impeccable style
Don’t ever let them steal your joy
And your gentle ways
To keep ’em from running wild

They can kick dirt in your face
Dress you down, and tell you that your place
Is in the middle, when they hate the way you shine.

That’s what the world will try to do to you. The rule-makers of this world are trying to keep you in the middle because they hate the way you shine. They often have so much invested in their rules and regulations, that they see your nonadherence as a challenge. If the rules aren’t true for you, maybe they aren’t for them, either. And that’s too scary to think about.

So, we get the rules from a number of different channels. But still, the most consequential rules tend to come from our churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. That’s largely because people put too much trust in their religious leaders.

Because I stand behind this white box every Sunday morning, people might tend to think I’ve got the answers. Let me assure you, nothing could be farther than the truth. I’m just doing my best to figure it all out, and sharing my process with you. But you need to weigh everything I tell you and see if it works for you.

I’m quite open about the fact that I don’t think the Bible is the inerrant word of God. I do think it’s inspired. And just as the rules laid out by the Hassidic Jews and fundamentalist Hindus seem oppressive to me, the Scriptural principles I do embrace may seem oppressive to others.

Recall these words from Mathew 5:

“…I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you….You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”

Now, as bad as I am at following those guidelines, they ring true for me. I really believe what Jesus is saying there. And I advocate that from this pulpit. But I’m not advocating it as a rule, but rather a suggestion.

I’m inviting you to try it out. See if it feels right to you the way it feels right to me. If so, keep striving to do better at it. If not, stop immediately. I don’t want to be responsible for your rules. Because, if I’m wrong, you might get beat up, robbed and abused for no reason.

It’s reported that Mary Baker Eddy once dismissed Phineas Quimby’s influence by stating that he had merely ‘rolled away the stone’ for her. In other words, all he had done is to help remove the obstacles to her understanding. That’s all I ever intend to do: help remove the obstacles to understanding.

At a point in Unorthodox, one of Etsy’s newfound friends introduces her to the internet. They end up Googling ‘Is God real?’ Of course, there are thousands of entries to choose from. Etsy says, “There’s too many answers.” Her friend replies, “Yeah, That’s the thing. You can ask, but you still have to choose the right answer.”

The same thing is true when it comes to making life’s choices. You can ask, but you still have to choose the right answer. You have to make the rules for you.

As I was contemplating this talk during the past week, the Universe thrust another aspect of control in my face. Last week I spoke about Maria Nemeth and her You and Money workshop. One of the principles that she stressed was that if you fail someone in some way, you need to find a way to make up for it. She uses that to create the dynamics she fosters into personal revelation. Although cleaning up after oneself wasn’t an entirely new concept, she elevated it to the level of principle.

And just like bunching my socks around my ankles, I embraced it as a personal principle. This past week, when I returned from the Carl’s Jr. drive-thru, I found that they’d left out Kayla’s burger. In the past, I would have gotten angry and judgy. “They only have one thing to do. They can’t even get that right. Blah, blah, blah.” But people make mistakes, so I calmly drove back.

After telling the guy at the speaker box what had happened, he confirmed which order was mine and asked me to pull up to the window. I was met there by the manager who asked me to explain again to her what had happened. Then, as much as I hate confrontation, I asked her if it would make her feel better about it if she gave me something free to compensate me for my trouble.

When I got home and explained why I brought home a half dozen chocolate chip cookies, Keana was sort of rolling her eyes. I asked her what she was thinking, and she said, “I just feel like you sometimes want to have things your way.” Whether or not this was a case of me imposing my expectations upon others, Keana was recognizing a pattern of mine.

And since I have just recently recommitted to accepting coaching from wherever it comes, I took it to heart. After considerable deliberation, I recognized that I do have a framework for how things should be, and I often expect others to acquiesce to my viewpoint.

I’ve done it with issues that come before the church board. I figure out how I think things need to go, and as soon as I get pushback, I draw the battlelines.

So, I realize that just as I need to safeguard myself from being controlled by others, I also need to guard against trying to control others. Because just as I don’t want them standing between me and the fullness of life, I don’t want to be that type of obstacle for them.

In the interest of examining how I might be trying to control others, I found a website called Twelve Signs of a Control Freak. I’d like to quickly go through those and you can see if any of these apply to you.

Number one: Everything has to happen according to their schedule. I can relate to that. I expect people to be ready when I’m ready and to wait when I’m not. It has to be on my schedule. Comedian Rita Rudner joked about her father standing in front of the microwave lamenting, “I haven’t got all minute!” I get that. That’s part of what Keana was talking about with me expecting things to be my way.

Number two: They do not like delegating tasks. This isn’t so much of a problem for me. Delegating a task means I don’t have to do it myself. I don’t have a problem delegating tasks unless I want something to be done right.

Number three: They’re extremely moody. I can be moody like anybody, but I don’t know if this one is a particular issue for me. How about you?

Number four: They lash out at the most minor of inconvenience. I can be that way. If a traffic light turns red on me, I can be thrown for a loop if I’m not careful. Get a drop of ketchup on my shirt; find a hole in my sock; realize I left my wallet down in the car; any one of these might set me off.

Number five: They are extremely critical in nature. There is no end to the reasons why people can fail to live up to my expectations. Just as Keana said, sometimes I expect things to be my way. But I’m much, much better than I used to be.

Number six: They always have to know every little thing. I don’t really think this is an issue for me. While I have a deep curiosity about things sometimes, I really don’t have a need to know other people’s business. It’s not a matter of disinterest; I just figure that they’ll tell me if they want me to know.

Number seven: They always have to have the last word. Once again, I don’t see this as a problem for me. Besides, sometimes denying a final response speaks loudest of all.

Number eight: They never admit they are wrong. I’m not sure about this one. I’ll have to get back to you if I’m ever wrong about something.

Number nine: They cannot work on a team. This might have been more of a problem for me in the past. But I’ve gotten better at working with others on a team. It helps if I’m the team leader. But I think I’m pretty good at playing with others.

Number ten: They use ‘constructive criticism’ to have their way. There’s no aggression like passive aggression. The song Bosom Buddies from the musical Mame is all about using ‘constructive criticism’. The song starts off,

“We’ll always be bosom buddies
Friends, sisters and pals;
We’ll always be bosom buddies
If life should reject you
There’s me to protect you
If I say that your tongue is vicious,
If I call you uncouth;
It’s simply that who else but a bosom buddy
Will sit down and tell you the truth.”

It goes downhill from there. Where would we be without the constructive criticism of our bosom buddies?

Number eleven: The finances are always their department. I get off scott free on this one. I don’t want anything to do with money matters. That’s best for everyone involved. But it’s easy to see how holding the purse strings is a means of wielding control.

Number twelve: They tend to be perfectionists. Guilty as charged. Because I operate under the basic assumption that there’s something wrong with me, I can become obsessed with proving the opposite. I’m ashamed of my perceived shortcomings. My critical nature gets directed inward as easily as outward, and I try to project perfection to cover up my imperfection.

So, how did you fare? After due consideration, I’ve determined that while I’m probably not a control freak, I am at the very least a control enthusiast.

Trying to control others is a matter of making ourselves feel better. It’s a matter of keeping people in a box that supports our idea of the way things should be. Esther Hicks says, “If you knew your potential to feel good, you would ask no one to be different so that you can feel good. You would free yourself of all of that cumbersome impossibility of needing to control the world, or control your mate, or control your child. You are the only one who creates your reality.”

Let me wrap this up. We want to avoid exerting undue control over others because it stands in the way of them living abundantly. The expectations we place on others, deliberate or not, can limit their sense of freedom to choose what works best for them. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be responsible for keeping someone else in a box.

And in the same way that we guard against controlling others, we want to avoid being controlled ourselves. To the extent that we’re able, we want to shake of the controlling influences that have restricted us from our full joy. In the end there is only one person who should control you and one person you should control. You.

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