We Cannot Stop the Rain

I feel grieved today.  A heaviness sits on my shoulders as I fold the laundry.  A sadness envelops me as I drink my coffee.  My prayers get stuck with “Lord, I don’t know where to start.  I don’t know what to do.  What do You want today?”  I can articulate nothing more.  No fancy prose.  No flowery praise or well spoken requests.

I’ve made it no secret that I am opposed to the current president and his short sighted protectionist policies.  He troubles me.  The people surrounding him trouble me.  But this goes far, far deeper than that.

I am grieved by my friends and family who angrily attack when he is questioned.  I am troubled by those who see news pointing out his falsehoods or missteps as fake and mean spirited.  I am grieved when people shun those of us who voice opposing views rather than listen.  I am grieved that none of this behavior is taught in scripture.  Yet those who scream the loudest are my Christian brothers and sisters.  Do you not hear yourselves?  Do you not see?

I have repeatedly requested to be shown where in scripture we are told to find strength and guidance in politicians.  I hear only crickets in response.   I have quoted passages to show where my beliefs come from.  I have invited those who believe differently to please do the same.  Only crickets.  And yelling.  Lots of yelling.  And scolding of me the blasphemer, the heretic, the problem child.

You see, my pain today lies not in the treatment I’ve received.  Far better people have endured far, far worse–so please do not pity me or try to make me feel better.  My pain is for the people who put their hands over their ears, cover their eyes, and stomp their feet instead of listening.   I am one tiny voice screaming into the wind.  But the Maker of the Wind has spoken also.  And He is being ignored by the very same people that lash out at anyone who might dare question the president.   “Stop trusting in man, who has but a breath in his nostrils.  Of what account is he?” (Isaiah 2:22 NIV)  If we are to not trust in man then why are we to trust that our country will be returned to God by legislation?  Are laws not the works of man?  Is our land really to be healed by banning abortion?  Where in scripture does it say that?  Is our land really to be healed by holding homosexuals to a different set of rules?  Chapter and verse for that please.  Will God only help us when prayer is officially sanctioned in our schools?  Show me the reference to that teaching.

While those of us who see our role in this discussion differently have been admonished for not praying, we have prayed more than ever before.   We have taken to in depth study of scripture for guidance.  Constant prayer for wisdom.  Disagreeing with our leaders does not make prayer for them impossible.  Nor does it make it any less likely.  I pray for the president and for those in leadership.  But I do not pray for them to be blessed as it seems is the only acceptable prayer in many eyes (chapter and verse for that assertion, please).  I pray for God’s guidance, God’s wisdom, God’s will.  Not man.  Who is man?  Of what account is he?

For years I saw myself as a conservative Republican.  That’s what my family was.  That’s what the majority of my church was.  That’s what nationally known preachers are.  That was just the way it should be!  But this past presidential campaign made me truly examine what I stood for.  What I believed. What my faith says I should be concerned with.  I discovered that I could not match my political beliefs with my faith.  My faith says to care for orphans, the poor, the widow, the refugee.  My politics did not.  My faith says to love my neighbor as myself.  My politics looked down on my neighbor and told them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  My faith says to welcome strangers.  My party said that the “least of these” are not welcome here.  My faith says that “the first shall be last”.  My party says “America First!”  My faith says “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”  That one wins.  If I am to love the Lord with my entire being, then I am to be willing to change.  I am to be willing to reread scripture and listen–really listen–to what it has to say anew.  I am to be willing to start on a different path than I had been on previously.

So today I am grieved.  I am grieved for the ugliness and anger in my country.  I am grieved for the justification of vitriol on the basis of righteousness.  But most of all I am grieved by my fellow Christians who find it more offensive when someone disagrees with their chosen elected official than when someone disregards the commands to love, care for, and protect our neighbors.  I am heartbroken by my brothers and sisters who shout that we need to pray for our president while remaining silent on the willful lies he regularly employs.  I am gutted by those who have placed party loyalty over faith.  This is not about politics to me.  This is not about winning or losing.  This is about right and wrong.  This is about being willing to listen and to see beyond our own prejudices and thoughts.  This is about being able to disagree with  a president and not be guilted into silence.  He is just a man.  Who is man?  Of what account is he?

I am grieved for my friends and loved ones who have felt alone and abandoned by their church because of politics.  I am crestfallen when I hear of another whose faith has been called into question because they have differing political beliefs than the majority in their Christian circle.  Might someone point me in the direction of where that is justified in the Bible?  Sadly, I have found numerous people walking lives of genuine faith who have been shunned by the very people who should be supporting them.  All over politics.  I’m at a loss at how this can be justified.  I am stunned that a man would be defended more voraciously than God or His people.  I am horrified that this is what people see when they look at much of the church.  We are called to be examples of Christ.  Not defenders of politicians.  The world is watching for guidance during this troubling time.  Are we pointing them in the right direction?

A wise friend said to me this past week that he saw the church as a parallel to Noah.  Our job, like his,  is to prepare the ark so that people can be saved from the storm.  We are to point people to the way of salvation.  But, we have shifted our focus from building the ark to trying to stop the rain.  The storm is coming and that is not going to change.  Our world is not going to magically get better because of one leader.  It is ultimately misguided (although potentially well intentioned) to think that God wants to accomplish  His purpose through political means.  Jesus himself refused political power.  We cannot stop the rain.  But we can help our friends and neighbors be prepared for the coming storm.  We can lead them to the ark.  We can show them who we are truly able to trust without fail.  It’s not a president.  It’s the God who made the universe.  Why would we fight any differently?

Can You Hear Them?

Today more news has appeared about the new president’s plan to ban refugees from entering the United States.  His supporters cheer.  Keep our borders safe!  America First!  Those jobs are for US!  Let me remind you that those supporters included 81% of white evangelical voters.  I’m appalled.  I’m angry.  I’m heartsick.

So, today I ask for those 81% to please show me in scripture where there is evidence that Jesus kept refugees far from himself.  I ask you to point out where we are to stand by and just let injustice happen.  I ask you to direct me to those verses where we are to find our safety and security in politicians.

I’ll wait.

Or, let’s try a different approach.  How about point to evidence where Jesus just prayed for someone and did absolutely nothing to tangibly help.

I’ll wait.

If you call yourself a Christian, can sit idly by while seeing dust covered children fleeing from their bombed out homes, and STILL  give a thumbs up to an anti refugee policy—I’m at a loss.  The Bible is full of references to the command of helping the poor, the orphaned, the widowed, the prisoner.  Why are Americans exempt?  Why is the American church opposing the least among us?

“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom:  She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.  They were haughty and did detestable things before me.  Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.”  (Ezekiel 16:49-50)

Don’t like that one?  How about–“Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.” (Isaiah 10:1-2)

Or maybe this–“He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor.”  (1 Samuel 2:8)  Now why should we think we are to help?!  Silly.

Maybe you like Proverbs.  How about–“He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.” (Proverbs 14:31)    I didn’t use the word contempt.  Take it up with God.

Well, maybe you’d like to be heard when you cry out for help.  Too bad.  “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.” (Proverbs 21:13)

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this:  to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”  (James 1:17)  Oops.  Maybe James was mistaken.

But wait!  The Bible doesn’t say anything about refugees!  Um–“Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)  or maybe–“When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him.  The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born.  Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt.  I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

And one final damning passage to the protectionists among us–“If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?  Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:17-18)  It doesn’t get much clearer than that.

Wake up Church!  Your calling is in front of you every time you turn on the news.  It’s there every time you hear someone make a blanket judgement of refugees, or Muslims, or the poor of this country.  Why are the “liberals” you so despise doing this instead of you?  Why are other countries helping refugees while the one “built on Christian principles” (that’s a debate for another day) is turning them away?

We are to pray for our nation, for our leaders, for those in power over us.  But we are to answer to a much higher power.  If we stand by and give our tacit approval of shutting our doors to those in desperate need, how can we still claim the name of Christ?

I’ll wait.

 

Privilege and Prejudice

I am a healthy, middle class, white, Christian, married, American, woman. My position in life is stable and secure. Perhaps.

My friend Meg can say all of the same things. She is a beautiful, classy, intelligent, and confident woman. She dresses in an elegant style all her own. Her family lives in a gorgeous house on a quaint street that is the envy of many. She has it all. Had.

Until one day when her husband was taken away from the family for a hidden criminal offense. He had sexually abused their one son. She never saw it. She never suspected it. She was completely blindsided. Her family was shaken to the core. Rumors swirled. Her kids lost friends. Meg lost friends. She found herself paranoid of every glance. Watching every interaction of her kids with everyone. How could this happen? How could her husband be two different people under one roof? How could she not see?

These are not easily answered questions. These are not easily mended wounds. It’s ugly finding your footing with such messy circumstances. But I’d like to point out some uglier facts. She lost longtime friends from her longtime church. She was judged by the very people she should have been able to lean on in her time of desperate pain. Now, granted, some probably stopped calling because they didn’t know what to say. But how could she know that? Was she just left to assume that she had been abandoned?

Let’s focus on a few things that happen when a loved one is incarcerated. Meg’s husband was the breadwinner for their family. She found herself in “the system”. She found herself looking for training and work (she had been a stay at home mom since the birth of their kids). Her kids had to learn to accept free school lunches and food stamps. She endured the looks of receptionists when processing public medical benefits (suddenly a necessity when all income evaporated). All of this was done under the watchful eye of Christians going “tsk tsk tsk. What a shame. We must pray for them.”

But how many did? How many brought meals to help stretch her now minuscule budget? How many sat by her in her now empty pew? How many supported her decision to stand by her husband through all the mess that HE created? Yeah. I know. That part is hard. I can honestly say that I don’t know if I could do it. And I believe there would be biblical support for her walking away. But (and this is ALL that matters), she chose to continue to honor her marriage vows. I’m fairly certain that this situation counts as “or worse” in those vows. She chose the insanely difficult task of reconciliation. Will her church friends stand with her when her husband is released from prison and her family adjusts yet again to another new normal? Or will they smile at them before gossiping in the parking lot?

What did Jesus teach about helping others in difficult circumstances? Lots. one example is the very famous passage in Matthew 25:35-36 where He said, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” That passage is followed by Him explaining to the confused ‘righteous’ people how they could’ve done such a horrible thing. Ignore Jesus when He needed them?!?! Jesus was never in prison?! We would NEVER treat the Son of God so poorly! “I tell you the truth, whatsoever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” And the entire teaching ends in verse 45 with “I tell you the truth, whatsoever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” But wait, I spoke too soon. He actually ended with “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Punishment for those who did not help when help was needed. Reward for those who saw the needs and acted. That seems fairly simple. (Yes, I do realize that we are not saved by our works. But Jesus was pointing out that our salvation should lead to good works.) Do we Christians really, I mean REALLY, care for the least of these? It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture like giving up your comfortable life to serve the poor in Calcutta. Jesus mentioned simple acts–giving a drink, giving clothes, feeding, welcoming, visiting. We are to do these things simply because we belong to God. He gives us our breath, our heartbeat, our minds, our path to Him. Is reaching out to the least really that much to ask in return?

I tend to think that those mentioned in this passage in Matthew 25 may not have been the most desirable crowd. Why did they need food, clothes, water? Why did they need to be invited in? Did they have nothing? Did they have nowhere to go? Were they dirty and smelly? And the prisoner is pretty obviously not the most highly revered in society. But we are clearly called to expose ourselves to the messy anyway. Jump in, roll up our sleeves, and get dirty with those hurting around us.

So what about Meg and those like her? There are more people touched by family in prison than we recognize. They hide in plain sight. They need our love and attention just like the prisoners Jesus told us to visit. They are often involuntary single moms. They get tired. They get discouraged. They need to just have some fun like “normal’ people do. The kids are silent scarred victims of the attached stigma. Why? Is it their fault? Do they have control over their parents? Or what about the reverse? What if a child is in jail due to drugs or other bad life choices? Is it the parents’ fault? Can YOU control your loved ones completely to behave as you want them to? We have each been given free will and no one, not one person, can control another’s actions. Goodness, even God throws up His hands sometimes and allows us to mess up royally. In Psalm 81:12 it says, “So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices.”

One other thing for those who still insist on judging “she HAD to have some idea”. Why? Would you know? Would you assume that your life partner was capable of something so dark? Would you see the signs that you were never looking for? Have you never wondered momentarily about a loved one and then pushed it out of your mind because “they just couldn’t”? We humans are quite proficient at blinding ourselves to things we don’t wish to see. And, we humans are also very savvy at hiding things from others that we wish to keep in the dark. Let us not assume how we would behave in such a situation. We have no way of knowing without ever being through it ourselves.

Meg also endured being told by a boss that she didn’t understand what kids from broken homes dealt with. She couldn’t know what living in the system felt like. She was far removed from them in her nice house and expensive clothes (all purchased second hand, by the way). Meg knew more than any training manual could teach. Her heart broke when the difficult student shared that she desperately wanted to visit her dad in jail but couldn’t because she didn’t have a birth certificate. And her mom didn’t have the money to get a new one. Meg knew how difficult it was to visit family in prison. She knew the strict rules. She knew that pain and dread. She knew. But she didn’t look like the stereotype of the person in “the system”. She didn’t look like a prisoner’s wife. But, you know what she told me once? She was surprised to see just how nice many of the visitors looked in the jail. Many looked like your neighbors, your coworkers, your friends. Just average people. Not the dregs of society we always assume.

So what are we to do? How are we to avoid hurting someone like Meg without even knowing it? How can we handle difficult and painful situations regardless of our own personal life experiences? What should we do when in doubt? “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That pretty much sums it up. No second guessing of people and situations we don’t understand. No wondering “how could that be?” If it is how we would like to be treated if we were handed a pretty rotten situation, then it’s probably a good place to start. It isn’t called the Greatest Commandment for nothing.

The Forest Through the Trees

I’ve often heard Christians quote 2 Chronicles 7:14. In fact, it was a rallying cry during this past presidential campaign. It reads, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” Since tomorrow is inauguration day for a new president, my mind has been pondering much. My question is this—where in scripture does it ever say that such healing is to be accomplished through political means? Where does it say that political leaders are the answer to our problems? While I am not in any way negating this oft quoted verse, I’d like to suggest an entire passage for your consideration about what God truly desires from His people. Please look at what Isaiah 58 (ESV) says.

True and False Fasting
58 “Cry aloud; do not hold back;
lift up your voice like a trumpet;
declare to my people their transgression,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet they seek me daily
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that did righteousness
and did not forsake the judgment of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments;
they delight to draw near to God.
3 ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers.
4 Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
and a day acceptable to the LORD?
6 “Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
9 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
11 And the LORD will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.
12 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in.
13 “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath,
from doing your pleasure on my holy day,
and call the Sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the LORD honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;
14 then you shall take delight in the LORD,
and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

There is no mention of self protection here. There is no mention of fighting for our rights. There is no mention of people pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps to make the country great again. There is no mention of condemnation for the people of the land for laziness, poverty, homosexuality, abortion, or other popular things for Christians to attack.

Instead, there is condemnation for fasting (the act of depriving oneself of something -typically food- while seeking God’s guidance) with a lack of humility and with continued fighting. There is condemnation for seeking our own pleasure and for oppressing workers. I have been deeply saddened by the sheer level of anger, vitriol, and accusations from Christians these days. This anger is directed at all who dare to suggest that our answers are not in our political system. It is directed toward all who suggest that our incoming president is not necessarily wishing to do God’s will for our country. Wouldn’t we be better served if instead we looked at this unsettling time through the lens of scripture? Shouldn’t we as a church be able to find common ground to reach those who need to find God’s security and safety? Instead, we stubbornly say that God answered prayer and everyone who disagrees needs to get over it. Everyone who disagrees is wrong. “Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high.” Why do we think God would be pleased with such behavior? And what makes us so arrogant as to claim certainty of God’s motives and actions?

Yes, there were Christian leaders arguing the virtues of the Republican candidate. Yes, there were prayer rallies for the election which stressed the platform of the Republican candidate. Yes, God is in control of everything. But that doesn’t mean He is our puppet to do whatever we wish. That doesn’t mean that the election outcome is necessarily God’s seal of approval on the man chosen. God’s ways are far beyond our knowledge and comprehension. God answers prayers as He sees fit for the fulfillment of His plan. He chose to give Israel King Saul after they begged for a king. This was done not as a reward, but because they had rejected God’s intended leaders. This was God saying ‘you asked for it, you got it’. He gave them what they asked for, but it set off a long series of troublesome events. Read 1 Samuel 8 for yourself. If God could put someone in power then that was not for the peoples’ benefit, why couldn’t he now? And for those who would claim that I am blaspheming the power of the Holy Spirit by suggesting such an answer to prayer–am I? Were there not people praying for the opposite outcome of the election? Were there not people praying to stop the Republican nominee? Were there not still more people who did little to no praying at all about it? Is it blasphemy to suggest that God heard all and saw all and chose to do what He saw fit, not what any one group of people demanded? I question this being God’s will because of the character and words of the man elected. But I cannot say with certainty that I am correct. Because I have a far less expansive understanding of what God is up to than God himself. We all do.

But back to Isaiah 58. What does this passage say about the fast that God would choose? The correct and acceptable way to seek God’s will? He said to “loose the bonds of wickedness, let the oppressed go free, share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into your house, when you see the naked, to cover him.” Those things sound an awful lot like what Jesus commanded his church to do in the New Testament. “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.” Wow! Those are some pretty clear cut directions. Those are some obvious things to do to please God. Those are some things that no person of faith can argue with.

Those are not the things being spoken and argued in the political realm by many of my Christian friends. Do our political stances match our faith? Do our opinions find backing in the Word of God? Shouldn’t they? If we truly believe what we say we believe, then all aspects of our life should be in harmony with scripture. But, but, wiser men of God spoke differently!! Can famous Christian leaders go astray from God’s path? Of course they can! “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way:” (Isaiah 53:6a). Leaders can speak and act out of their own motives, just like we mere mortals. If we have decided that our leaders cannot be wrong, then we are holding them up as idols and we need to address that. They are mere humans like the rest of us. Can we Christians seek out opinions and people who confirm our own prejudices and thoughts rather than challenge them? Of course!!! The Bible is chock full of stories of people doing things their own way and then looking to God with confusion when things go awry. How arrogant we would be if we thought we were not susceptible to the same traps as every other human throughout the span of time!

So, now what? How can the church help heal the rifts that have been exposed everywhere? How can we be certain that we are doing the right things? We stop yelling. We stop insisting we are right on grey areas of life. We stop bashing those with a differing viewpoint. We stop complaining that our rights are being taken away. And we do what we are commanded over and over and over again in scripture. We set the oppressed free, we share our bread with the hungry, we bring the homeless poor into our homes, we “pour ourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted”. We, the Church, are missing the forest through the trees. This time in history could be a tremendous triumph for God. Not because of any political leaders. Not because our country has magically started down a better path. No. Because as always, God wants to work through His church, His people. What better way to point others toward Him than to tangibly show His love to all? What better way to be noticed as different than to actively seek out the hurting, the hungry, the lost, the refugee, the poor, the marginalized and to love them? What bigger contrast to the divisiveness of our society than to work together for the less fortunate? No matter who they are, what the believe in, or what they look like.

What better way to be heard in our prayers for our land than to do what God commanded us to do? We cannot pick and choose what passages of scripture we would like to follow. We cannot look to political leaders to fix our problems. And if we take the very difficult step to examine our beliefs and behaviors to see if they match then the reward is beyond our imagination. “then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.”

That sounds pretty great to me. All for seeking Him and helping others without ceasing. No political affiliation required. No president can help OR hinder us in working for the least of these. It’s up to us. Every one of us.

***I know some will be tempted to rage and fume over what I have written today. I have a simple suggestion that you read the Bible passages mentioned and pray. Think. Read. Listen. Not to me. Not to any leader on the radio or TV. To what the words in the scripture say. Read the passages that lead up to and then follow the sections I mentioned. Be willing to listen and hear what those words say. Let yourself question and be unsettled. God can handle it.

I Cast the First Stone

When I was a young child a new pastor and family came to our church.  I truly don’t remember a thing about the man who was there before him.  Pastor Mark was THE pastor of my youth.  He was a second father.  One who came to the hospital to pray with this scared 7 year old who was about to undergo surgery.   His wife was a second mother to me.  She spent many church services massaging my hands and silently giggling, shoulders shaking,  at the funny word murdering mistakes that her hubby was known for.

But, his son.  HE was my other half.  He could finish my sentences.  He loved that I could belch like a competitive eater.  He didn’t think it strange at all to spend hours singing and playing piano together.  We made up songs.  We played his fantastic, brand new Atari.   We swam until our skin was pruney and he needed a fork to help get his swimsuit tie unknotted.   He ate lima beans that my grandmother cooked us for a late night snack –without question.   We had conversations with his dog (who had a slight speech impediment, by the way).  He chose me as his sidekick for a trip to the circus.  We jokingly called all motorcyclers “heck’s angels” as his grandmother did.  I still do.  We spent New Years Eve on the corner by his home yelling and singing back and forth to the patrons of the bar across the street.  (We really were supposed to be in the church fellowship hall with everyone else).

And then after he graduated from high school his parents moved to take  a different church a few hours away.  I was devastated.    Yes our relationship had changed by then.  He had dated in high school.  I had dated.  He had school friends that I didn’t know well.  We even had some sizable spats.  But I cried big, ugly, eye swelling, nose dripping, sobs when I heard the news.   What would my world look like without Nate nearby?

Our youth group friends took a few trips to visit.  We wrote letters–real letters that needed pen and special stationery.  We still were a part of each other’s lives.  Not daily.  Not even weekly.  But a real part of each other’s lives.  Until the day I learned that he came out as gay.   I was shocked.  I was stunned.

I HAD TO SAVE HIM!!!!

I wrote a heartfelt letter to him where I reminded him that I loved him.  And how I was sure he was confused.  And how I had always imagined being in heaven together.  And how now that wasn’t possible if he was truly gay.   And how he knew better since he was a pastor’s son.  Yeah.  I was that stupid.

I lost him that day.  For over 25 years.  Not because he moved away.  Not because he really changed (Come on!  We had sung show tunes for hours and hours together…).  Not because we couldn’t still be friends.  But because I hurt him deeply with my thoughtless and knee jerk reaction to a declaration of his true self.

Once, in high school, Nate had been hospitalized due to a mental breakdown.  I was at his home with his family when they decided to take him for medical help.  I can see his dining room, the stairs, the color of the light, the worried eyes of his parents.   I worried myself to sleep that night.  I peppered his mom with questions of his condition and progress. I anxiously waited for his return home.  He came to my house on the first night after his release.  I can still feel the short, stubbly hair on his head as I ran my fingers across his scalp and watched tv together.  I have no idea what was on tv.  I have no memory of what we talked about.  But I recall he  was smiling and all was right with the world.

So, how could that love become so marred by judgement?   How did I lose sight of my friend and instead only see his sexuality?   Who was I to determine his worth in God’s eyes?  I was an ass.

Romans 5: 1-2 says—“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.  And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.”  If we gain access to  and forgiveness from God through faith, why would it be possible to lose that access and forgiveness?   I knew that Nate was a Christian.  I witnessed his very real faith.  And yet I condemned him because I didn’t understand.  I couldn’t square up how a gay person could be a Christian too.

Life is full of grey areas.  The Bible does indeed speak against homosexuality.  In Leviticus it is declared an abomination.  But, let’s keep in mind that Leviticus also declares eating fat to be unholy (mmmm, I love me a well marbled ribeye steak), and that any clay pot touched by a man with ‘bodily discharge’ must be broken.  The laws in Leviticus were established as a means to show devotion to God, to protect His people from illness and diseases, and to demonstrate that humans are unable to actually keep the Law of God.   Let us remember that “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:1-2)

But, but, but… Sodom and Gomorrah.  Yes.  A royal mess of sin and debauchery that God chose to wipe off the face of the earth.   Might I also point you to Ezekiel 16: 49 where it says, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom:  She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.  They were haughty and did detestable things before me.  Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.”  Oops!  It appears that perhaps callousness and a lack of care for the least played a  large role in the destruction of that city.   Maybe it wasn’t just those darned gays!

There are a few verses in the New Testament that mention homosexuality as a sin.  (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Romans 1: 26-28, Mark 10:6-9, 1 Timothy 1:10-11 for example).  But I would offer that they need to be seen in context and considered with the culture of the day.  Some say that these verses refer to the historical practice of orgies and of predatory older men seeking young boys.   And let’s not forget that God sees sin as sin.  There is no hierarchy.  I sin just as much in God’s eyes as a heterosexual having casual sex outside of marriage as a homosexual.  No difference.  None.  Zero.  Zip.

But, to me, the larger context is this—the Bible mentions homosexuality 7-13 times total (depending on how strictly you interpret the verses).  Do you know how many times the Bible addresses the poor and how we are to treat them?  Over 440 times in over 380 separate verses.  Over 440 times compared to 7.  Is it just me that thinks that perhaps God saw our care for others as a bigger issue than the sexuality of individuals?  Do you know how often Jesus himself addressed our care of the poor?  At least 9.  How often did he address homosexuality?  Zero.  Never.  Nope.

It’s a messy topic.  It doesn’t have 100% clear cut answers.  I will always wrestle with what the Bible has to say about it.  I desperately wish that I had definitive answers for those who struggle with this topic.  I do not.  We humans are all broken in our own unique ways. All. Broken.  But, I no longer wrestle with how I am to respond to my gay friends and acquaintances.  I am to love unconditionally.  Just like with everyone else.  I am to interact without judgment.  Matthew 7:1-2 says “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.   For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”  I am, as always, to follow the example of Christ.

I have since reconnected with Nate.  I apologized for my harsh words.  I am thrilled that he was gracious enough to accept me again.  But, I will never recover those lost years of sharing life with my friend.  I was not there when he lost his brother suddenly.  I was not there when his mom fought cancer.  I was not there when he was hospitalized for depression.  I was not there to celebrate his successes and his creativity.  I can never get those years back.  I can never erase the hurt.

So, to my Christian friends I say–our job is not to judge, our job is not to save, our job is not to have all the black and white answers.  Our job is to love and love with all our heart.  The rest is up to God.

It’s All About Grace

I am a “born again” evangelical Christian.  Please don’t hold that against me.

After years of mindlessly following examples of respected people in the church and believing that all they said MUST be based in scripture, I’ve realized that I have been mistaken.  The church has absorbed much dogma and tradition that has no basis in the Word or in the example of Christ.  My secular friends and coworkers have all had negative experiences regarding Christians and the church.  They have been hurt, judged, deemed unworthy, cut off from family, yelled at, shamed, and brought to tears.  Most of these Christian interactions have pushed them far away from ever opening the Bible to see for themselves what this whole  God thing is about.  Many others have left the church due to its perceived hypocrisy and hatred.

The meaning of Christian is “follower of Christ”.  Or maybe we’d prefer “of, pertaining to, or derived from Jesus Christ or His teachings”.  Or, “exhibiting a spirit proper to a follower of Jesus Christ; Christlike”.  Perhaps “decent; respectable” and “human; not brutal; humane”.  Or maybe,”a person who exemplifies in his or her life the teachings of Christ”.   If we are truly what we claim to be then I would think we should try our best to know the teachings of Christ to the best of our ability and to strive toward living them out in our own lives.

But be forewarned, Jesus was/is a radical and controversial figure.  He always put others before Himself (there goes the “what about Christians’ rights?!” argument often heard from church leaders and alarmist radio and TV hosts).  He exemplified grace and forgiveness (uhoh, there goes the “tsk tsk, I can’t believe they have gotten themselves into that situation!  It is not my responsibility to help them clean up their mess).   He was completely silent on the issue of homosexuality (perhaps it shouldn’t be our number one concern if the Son of God Himself never chose to address it).   He hung out with the untouchable and lower class of his culture (there goes  looking down our nose at those people in Walmart and trailer parks).  But, but, but… I would never look down on anyone!  Please, we all have.  We might as well admit it to ourselves even if we aren’t ready to acknowledge it to anyone else.  And God already knows so there’s no sense trying to keep Him in the dark either.

Where does grace come in when a woman trying to enter Planned Parenthood has to walk the gauntlet of protestors declaring her to be a baby killer?  Do the protest signs and gruesome pictures make her feel loved?  Do these people demonstrate the love of Christ by shaming her?  I’m choosing to not address the very real scenario right now that the above mentioned woman might be entering the clinic for routine care since that is the majority of Planned Parenthood’s actual function.  What of the woman leaving the clinic after choosing to have an abortion?  Do the pro life lobbyists make her feel welcome to share her story of what drove her to that difficult decision?  Does she feel any sense of love whatsoever?  Or simply judgement and shame?  Would the church help her heal or simply deepen the wounds by repeatedly and mindlessly talking of the ugliness of abortion?

When is the last time you have messed up–I mean REALLY messed up–and needed someone else to remind you of how awful your choices have been?  Yes, I realize that there is a time and place for us to rebuke one another for behaving contrary to God’s commandments.   But I would suggest to you that most people heap plenty of guilt on themselves with absolutely no outside help.   What most humans need is someone to love them, hold them, listen to them, gently guide them.  Self loathing and guilt paralyzes us from moving forward.   Guilt and self hatred does not come from God.  It actually pushes us far away from God by telling us we are not worthy to even talk to Him, we are not worthy to seek forgiveness, we are not worthy to heal.   We Christians would be far more successful at showing others what it is that we believe in by simply loving people and pointing them in the direction of Christ without harsh declarations. Why would anyone listen to us if all they hear is judgment, shame, and piousness?  Isn’t conviction of sin the job of the Holy Spirit?  What makes us think we should take on that role?  Didn’t Jesus Himself say to the crowd watching for judgement of the woman caught in adultery, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”?  (John 8:7 NIV)  Jesus was pure and sinless.  Surely He had the right to stone this woman according to the law of the time (well, that and that He was God).  Instead He said, “Then neither do I condemn you.  Go now and leave your life of sin.”  (John 8:11 NIV,  upon witnessing the crowd dispersing after the realization that they could not in good conscience kill this woman).   What do you think that woman thought of Jesus after that moment?  I suspect He gained a follower in that moment.  He had literally saved her life.  Not by force, not by scolding, but by love and grace.

But wait!  Aren’t we judged and punished accordingly by a vengeful God?  Isn’t all bad stuff due to our screw ups?  No.  Indeed some of our difficulties are brought on by our personal choices. Yes, someday we will all be judged.   BUT, Jesus himself healed a blind man AFTER pointing out to the disciples that his blindness was not the result of sin.  “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” (John 9: 3).  His handicap simply “was”.  Not punishment.  Not judgement.  Just reality.  It was a circumstance allowed so that the grace and glory of God might be demonstrated.  So why then do church leaders like to spout off that earthquakes, or AIDS, or floods, are judgements from God for our laws, or for homosexuality, or for our general sinfulness?  Does it sound like the same God would send  His son to earth to save us but then beat us with a big stick at the same time?  Jesus said in John 10:14-15,  “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.”  If He was willing to lay down his life for us, why would he then proceed to punish everyone for the sins we all commit daily?  Do good shepherds randomly punish their sheep for everything they do wrong?  They care for them, guide them, feed them, and redirect them when necessary.

I chose to start this blog because it has become very apparent to me in the current political/religious/social environment that there are distinct camps forming around what is right and what is wrong.  There are distinct and stubborn factions willing to pick and choose what parts of the Bible they follow based on their own prejudices and opinions.  I see the church split into those who act like sin must be beaten out of everyone via laws, pronouncements, and separating ourselves from ‘the other’;  and those who think that grace and love is the key to drawing others to Truth.  I will tell you now that I fall firmly in the camp or grace and compassion.  There’s a reason the old saying “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar” has endured.

I write not as an expert, but as someone encouraging us to question.  Always question our own motives.  Always question our own actions.   Always question our own beliefs.  Do they match what Jesus Himself called the greatest commandment?  In Matthew 22:37-40, Jesus said: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  When I become pure and sinless, then I will have the right to throw stones.  Until then, I live because of the grace shown me by God.  And I have no right to show others anything other than grace.