Epic Fail

I nearly made it.  Nearly reached 47 years as a good, obedient, evangelical Christian.  Alas, I have failed.

Well, to be brutally honest, the church has failed.

As one who has attended church from even before she was born, I must admit that it is quite sad that the evangelical church can’t even keep me.  I should be thoroughly indoctrinated.  I should be thoroughly submissive.  I should be loath to question and afraid of the grey.  I should unblinkingly support the republican party.  I should parrot the words of Franklin Graham and those like him.  I should happily condemn homosexuals and those who consider abortions without stopping to ask why.  I should worship the flag, this country, and the military.  I should rage against the moral failings of Bill Clinton while dismissing and outright excusing Donald Trump’s.  I should do all of this un-ironically.  I should do all of this without seeing the blatant disconnect from the faith I claim.

But I don’t.  I can’t.

I blame my mother.  Ok, I really don’t.  But I do acknowledge her for being a strong woman with a critical mind who wasn’t afraid to think.  I blame my childhood surrounded by boys and daring to think that I could talk to them in the same manner that I talked to girls.  I saw no difference in their worth than my own then.  I don’t now.  I went toe to toe verbally with any boy and will still do it to this day.  But, I must confess, many men of the church do not appreciate a woman getting all logical and smart and stuff.  Cuz, you know, breasts and periods and all.  And submissive women.  And blah blah blah….men retaining power over all.

I like to think.  I like to question.  I like to seek.  I refuse to submit strictly because a man tells me to.  I refuse to follow tradition simply because the church decides to.  I will not shut off my brain for fear of shaking my faith.

And therein lies the problem.  When one ceases to fit into the tidy box created for us in the evangelical church one risks exile.  One risks attack.  One risks pious prayers for our lacking discernment and wisdom.  Pity.  Anger.  Disdain.

Really.  I tell you no lies.  I have been the blessed recipient of all of the above.

I have been on a fascinating journey in my faith for many years.  But it has come into picture perfect focus within the past year.  Thank you Donald Trump.  Thank you Franklin Graham.  Thank you Westboro Baptist.  Thank you stubborn homophobic cake bakers (it’s a cake people!!  A stinking cake!).  Thank you alt right, confederate flag waving, nazi saluting, gay condemning, conservatives.

Thank you for exposing the hypocrisy and self-told lies in my own mind.

For years I had complacently looked past the bigotry disguised as love in my own faith community.  I accepted the notion that those scholars who researched and found flaws in translations of scripture were out to destroy the Bible (yes, I have heard this statement many times).  For decades I bought that we alone had the correct interpretation of scripture.  For nearly half a century I happily lived amongst the Pharisees.

Yes.  The Pharisees.

The Pharisees were those in religious power in the days of Christ.  They were the recipients of Jesus’s most direct displays of anger and rebuke.  They were blinded by their own righteous thinking.  Blind to their own snobbish hatred of those beneath them.  Completely clueless that they had left their God long before and traded it for power and rules.  Lacking the discernment of the Truth in front of them.

Sound familiar?

Today I step away from this toxic brew of political power and pious judgment the American evangelical church has become.  Today I close the door to those who wish to guide me off of the path I am on.  I am on this path because of my faith, because of my seeking, because of my prayers.  Not in spite of.  Not opposed to.

Does it not seem arrogant to even suggest that we have the definitive interpretation of the gospel?  Does it not seem foolish to think we and only we understand God’s teachings, God’s reasons, God’s will?   Does it not seem counterproductive to quash those who dare to be different?  Dare to ask questions?  Dare to follow with both their heart and brain?  Why would it be wrong to leave some questions unanswered?  Some facts unknowable?  (Who is right when declaring God’s will for hurricanes?  Is it judgment for homosexuality, abortion, lack of support for Israel?  Or is it God teaching us to love and depend on each other?  I’ve heard all those variations and more.) Why can’t we admit that not everything in life was outlined clearly in scripture?  That life is full of grey.  Isn’t that the definition of faith?  To use our brains for as far as they can take us and then leap for the remaining unprovable parts?

I find myself at a point where I can no longer suck it up for the sake of community.  In fact, I find that notion laughable given my community lately.  Parts of my community have regularly blamed me for being unkind and harsh.  I have been confused if they were referring to my constant pleading that we  reach out to the marginalized OR to the fact  that I disagree with them politically.  And that…THAT is just pure heresy!!!  Is my dysfunctional heart reflected in my devotion to charity or to my disdain of falsehoods?  Is my poor discernment proven by my questioning the Christian defense of despicable personal beliefs OR by my belief that we are to strengthen each other’s faith through challenging that which is against Christ’s teachings?  I must say that I am confused about these things.

I have had a rotten few days.  I have not seen the loving side of my evangelical brethren lately.  My children have witnessed their cruelty cloaked in piety.  They have seen the venom dripping from lips claiming to love me.  My family’s faith has been damaged.  It is too soon to tell if the damage is permanent.  It is too fresh to know when or if the wound will heal.  But I grieve for my children.  I grieve for their pain and concern over mom’s red, swollen eyes.  I grieve for their worries about implications to their own lives.  I grieve their innocence in thinking that Christians really do love each other.

And what caused such grief?  Pettiness.  Stubbornness.  Wounded pride.  A desire to quiet different thought.  Assumptions about me based on nothing other than my gender, my defense of facts, and my refusal to back down on the core of Christ’s teachings.  The core of love and grace to all.

Literally all people.

LGBT included.  Poor included.  Addicts.  Those who don’t plan ahead.  Those who vote democratic.  Those who’ve had abortions.  Those who fight fascism.  Fascists (yeah, that one stings).  Atheists.  Single moms who’ve never been married.  Dads who have walked away from their responsibilities.  Divorced people.  Parents who neglect their children.  Children who are disrespectful. Christians who think differently than the unwritten evangelical handbook says they should.

I’ve thought back over other times when loving, caring christians have felt it necessary to scold me for causing others to stumble.  Yes, this accusation has been used several times.  Most, if not all, have been over a difference of political opinions.  When I refused to apologize for thinking that our current president is much like Saul  in the book of Isaiah, I was condemned.  I guess God only agrees with blind support of political leaders.  Because He placed them there.  How dare I suggest that perhaps they weren’t placed there for the reasons they believe.  Are either stances provable?  Absolutely not.  But, I suppose my version of unprovable is far more blasphemous in the handbook.  And they have freely pummeled me with verses to confirm their superior view.  Pay no attention to the verses that don’t.

Please pay no attention to past religious giants who have stood in opposition to government leaders due to their personal Christian beliefs.  I’m sorry Dietrich Bonhoeffer, you should have followed Hitler.  My apologizes to those Christians who hid Jews in their homes.  Martin Luther–how dare you nail your treatise to the door!  Daniel should not have prayed because the king said so.  Tsk tsk Moses’ mom for hiding him from Pharaoh.  I can’t for a moment think that the disciples who found themselves in jail defied any government authority!  Could they have?  What were these good people thinking?!?!?   Clearly out of line.

There are far more examples of Christians disobeying authority because of not in spite of their faith.  But, hopefully my point is clear.

I also will address the painfully large elephant in the room.  Many do not take too kindly to a women suggesting that their views may be skewed.  People bristle when a mirror is held up by a….girl.  They’d rather break the glass than study the reflection.  Many faithful men are shaken by a strong, thinking woman.  But not Esther! (from the book of Esther)  She was an excellent and godly example.   She spoke truth to power and we revere her for it.  Or Abigail.   Let’s not forget her strength. (Google her story).  Hmmmm…  I guess book examples are fine since no one can witness you learning from a woman that way.

So, I apologize for the epic fail of my American evangelical christianity.  I apologize for choosing to follow Christ’s example over all else.  I apologize for taking Jesus at His word when he stated that loving God and one another were the greatest commandments.  I am sorry that I passionately fight for the poor, the wounded, the marginalized.  I am sorry that these choices are causing people to stumble in their faith.  I am sorry that these choices are causing you pain.  I am sorry that I cannot control my tongue when calling out destructive beliefs or behaviors found in Christians.

Or better yet, I will move on with my faith while it is still intact.

 

 

Self Inflicted Martyrdom

Today I have a heavy heart.  I have been on a long journey to readjust my path based more closely on what the Bible says we are called to do.  I have found this journey both exciting and exhausting.  It is simultaneously freeing and joyful while being filled with a sense of constant loss.  Loss of long-held beliefs.  Loss of ability to float along the unexamined tide of Christiandom.  Loss of respect for old leaders who have chosen anger and fear over love and grace.  Just…loss.

I have been renewed by discovering the simplicity of Christ’s teachings.  Love all.  Show grace to all.  Let God work on people’s hearts and minds.  Be willing to tangibly help others, sacrificially.

I have been saddened by how often the church does not mirror these teachings.  Rules.  Lack of acceptance of differences.  Forcible lecturing  of “our ways”.   Crying out about a perceived loss of “our rights”.  Budgets strained by the “needs” of the church rather than the community which they serve.

My heart is not heavy for me today.  My heart is heavy for several people I love.  I have watched their trust in the church as a place of health and healing…dissolve.  I have seen the hurt in their eyes when recounting the venom spewed at them when they dared to ask questions.  Just questions.  Or, worse yet, I have listened as they talked of their fear of asking questions.

These people I love have come directly up against the claim of love and grace presented with narrow minds, immovable opinions, and…no love or grace.  When faced with the words  being quite contrary to actions seen it is difficult to soothe troubled souls.  The life of Christ and His beautiful example has been overshadowed by the present blind hypocrisy.

I have often told people that it is ok to ask questions of God.  It is ok to get mad and yell.  It is ok to have doubt.  He knows anyway, so we might as well be honest.  I’ve told people that God is big enough, powerful enough,  and wise enough to draw us to Him even when we don’t know who  or what we are searching for.

But today those truths are harder to trust.  Today those truths are connected to the journey of people I love instead of myself.  So I worry.  I hurt.  I grieve.

I am incapable of wiping the tears from their eyes with any genuine advice to live by.  I cannot say “Trust God” when that is exactly their struggle.  I cannot say “dig into more scripture” when they now wonder if there is anything to be found in those pages.  I cannot say “pray” when they have been told repeatedly that they should feel connected and emotional when they pray when all they feel is….nothing.  I cannot say to talk with some other friends when those are exactly the people who have made them feel less than.

For some of my loved people, church has become a hospice instead of a hospital.  It is a place where faith and love go to die instead of where doubt and fear go to heal.  It has become a place of hollow music sung without reflection and words spoken but not heeded.  It is a place where we can lie about our commitment to others, our commitment to God, and our willingness to grow.  We can hide under the umbrella of the good christian while never offering any goodness to anyone standing in the rain.

It is a place where we say we must love others but we must support a president who lies, mocks, and accuses.  It is a place where we must “die to self” yet continually “fight for our rights”.  It is a place where the poor are blessed (according to Jesus’s beatitudes) yet the poor are seen as lazy and deserving of where they find themselves in life.  It is a place where we cry out about the sanctity of life while cheering  the turning away of refugees.

It is a place where those who embrace Christ’s teachings of submission and turning the other cheek in all of life are mocked as weak.  It is a place where life-long elders can say, without irony, that we should let addicts die after two doses of the drug to revive them.  Then they had a second chance.  I am at a complete loss for where Christ’s example would back that up.  And yet I have heard it with my own ears.  I have read it with my own eyes.  Calloused and hard hearts toward real, actual, skin-covered humans struggling with a horrible addiction.  Such is our current Christian rhetoric.

Church is a place where we teach our youth how to share their faith with others before teaching them how to live their faith.  It’s easy to pass on rehearsed answers to genuine faith questions.  It is not so simple to just let those questions be.  It is far scarier to encourage the journey to be personal and in one’s own time.  That involves an inherent loss of control (which, quite honestly, we never had in the first place).  Church is a place where we really don’t trust God.

I have listened as one said they could not accept that Jonah was swallowed by an actual fish.  This made them a bad believer.  This meant that some other Christians thought they had weak faith.  But why?  Can’t we learn from the story of Jonah even if it is an allegory?  Can’t the teachings of scripture have just as much power even if they are stories used to illustrate lessons in language understood by those being taught?  Why get hung up on a minuscule argument?  Can’t a big God speak through direct history AND figurative language?

We argue that God is male because the Bible uses male pronouns.  Who chose those pronouns?  During which translation did they appear?  Is it not more realistic to say that God is too big and too complex to be either exclusively male or female?  If not, I’m wondering how we women can claim to be made in His image (as we church folk are taught).  Isn’t God big enough to either create the universe in six days OR set things in motion that created the universe over millions of years?  Why must those who wonder be seen as lost and lacking faith?

So today I sit here with several beloved souls on my mind.  Beloved people who have been damaged by the church.  Beloved people who are struggling to find faith in something to trust again.  Beloved people who are hurting as the ground shifts beneath them.

No, this is not the handiwork of an evil enemy preying on their minds.  It is the direct result of being treated as inferior for being divorced.  It is the direct result of being taught to use your talents for God, but only if we approve of your methods and opinions.  It is the direct result of  the anti-LGBT post by the loving Christian being read by the gay teen.  It is the direct result of the horrific abortion images posted by pro-life Christians being seen by a woman who had made that painful decision in their youth.  It is the direct result of famous church leaders stubbornly defending a morally bankrupt presidential administration while atheists shake their head in disbelief.   It is the direct result of Christian’s refusal to honestly examine their beliefs, motives, and behaviors.

We, the church, are our own worst enemy.  And until we realize that and work toward repairing our self-inflicted wounds we will continue to be less and less and less vital in our communities.

 

 

 

The Truth We Cannot Always See

As I tackled Bobbie to the ground and grabbed his jacket collar I wasn’t thinking about Sunday School lessons or Bible hero stories.  When I dragged him down the alley  I was just enjoying meting out  swift justice.   I stood by Sally’s back gate and watched him knock on her door.  I wanted to be sure that her hat was returned.  I wanted to hear him apologize as I had instructed him to do.

Bobbie was a tiny boy who lived in the next block.  Bobbie was a bully.   That day on the bus he had crossed the line of what I would silently tolerate.  I typically bit my tongue and looked out the window.  It wasn’t my place to right all the bus ride wrongs!  Keep to yourself and you will be safe. 

That day he stole my neighbor’s hat as we lined up to depart the bus.  She chased him and was nearly hit by a car as it approached the intersection.  Watching her slip on loose stones and slide between the wheels of the sedan was terrifying. The squeal of the tires made my heart skip.   I reflexively took off after him as soon as I saw Sally stand and brush herself off.  The bully would not win today.  Not if I could help it.

Bobbie was still a bully after that.  But not to Sally.  He even smiled at her when he walked to his bus seat.

I had totally forgotten about that incident until recently.  I forgot how I stood at a distance and watched him right his wrong.  I forgot how my legs turned to jelly after I reached my home.  I forgot my mom’s subtle smile when I told her what had just happened.  (I’m fairly certain that she would not have openly approved of my brutish methods.  But she approved of my defending the awkward girl from down the street.)

I stood in my kitchen last week and told my husband that I think I may have  always been a social justice warrior without realizing it.  Never.   Never connected the dots from the little girl who chased the bully to the woman who calls out societal wrongs.  I never connected the little girl who gathered up the kids on the sidelines of the playground  with the woman who searches crowds for lost faces.

My parents taught us to look out for those weaker than us.  We were to care for those who lived in the shadows.  We were to help without being asked.  And never, ever seek recognition.  Do good just because it’s right.

That is strangely like teaching us to follow the example of Christ.

Years after the great hat chase,  I recall arguing with my father when the Clintons introduced healthcare reform.  I, the idealist twenty-something, thought it was a wonderful idea, no matter where it came from.  Everyone should have healthcare!  Everyone should be taken care of no matter their social class or income!   Families shouldn’t have to watch loved ones die because they can’t afford treatment.  Those who had the means should help care for those who didn’t!  I thought he would agree.  Take care of others.  That is what we had been taught.  That is what my parents silently did for many throughout my growing years.   But for some reason this idea was not even worthy of exploration.  It was not up for discussion.  This was a source of anger.

Since I adored my father and considered him to be one of the wisest people around, I decided that he must be right.  He must have known more than my young self.  He surely had studied some scripture that I had yet to discover that taught separation of  spiritual self from our social and political self.   I quietly decided that he had to be right.  Stop being a silly kid and thinking that social justice is straightforward— All people deserve dignity and care.  Or at least keep my mouth shut.

I gradually stopped paying attention to politics.  I naively assumed that those in power were there for altruistic reasons.  They were called “public servants” after all.  That title alone proved that they had the best interests of the masses in mind in all decisions.  They were aware of the weak and powerless.  Right?  Let the professionals take care of the citizens.  Right?

I married, bought a home, had children.  I had a comfortable life.  My focus became insular.  As long as my tiny family was safe and secure, all was right with the world.  We never lacked food.  The children were nicely dressed.  We had a cozy home.  Good neighbors.  Safe cars.  Secure jobs.

We taught our children to be kind to kids at school.  We taught them to do their best in whatever they were asked.  We tithed to our church.  Hey, we even occasionally gave to charity.  What stellar humans, we!

Gradually, I found myself echoing some sentiments of conservative friends and family.  Questioning the contents of someone’s shopping cart when I knew they used food stamps.  Wondering about why that person wasn’t working (but never actually asking them).  Assuming that all prisoners were awful humans who deserved to be punished harshly.  Condemning a beloved friend when he told me he was gay.

It’s very easy to become calloused and distant when living a comfortable and privileged life.  It’s easy to never notice the disadvantaged, the poor, the sick.  I could just drive my car through nice neighborhoods and pretend the broken down apartment buildings don’t exist.  I could shop at times when only people like me were in the store.  I could choose a doctor’s office who didn’t accept Medicaid.  I could look the other way at the stop light when the homeless man holds his sign up to the car.  Pretend he’s not even there.

I was a church worship director for over ten years.  I became part of the Christian machine.  The Christian machine looks shiny and nice on the outside.   It claims righteousness and the love of God.  But it will grind up anyone who does not stay in their designated box.  As long as I was an unquestioning conservative, Republican, church member I was in the fold.   I even  sat in on meetings where good people were vilified and scolded for mistakes made.  I watched beautiful families disappear only to find out later that they had felt unwelcome, unwanted, not good enough.  (How could  we have mistreated people in God’s name?  They must have misunderstood.)

Then good riddance to you!  If you can’t see that this is the way God wants things to be, we don’t need you here.  Shape up or move on!!!  You must be running from God.  You cannot see that you are blind.  

It’s a gradual, subtle decline to becoming a hard and judgmental Christian.  We should have standards for who can be a church member, right?  We should be all able to dress respectfully for services (Please don’t ask me exactly what this means because I truly don’t know).   Proper language please!  Don’t be political (unless it involves abortion–then you must be willing to march against it at rallies and clinics).   Every life is sacred and precious.   But, the Bible says “an eye for an eye” so we should also be pro death penalty.  After all, those people deserve to die.  Israel must always be supported regardless of the humanity (or lack there of) that they display.  And the LGBT community is never to be accepted.

My social justice warrior self slowly disappeared and was replaced by a flimsy copy of the ideal evangelical.  The drive for social equality dies a slow and painless death when you only talk to church friends.  When you only  go to nice places you can pretend that all is fair.  All people are given equal opportunities.  It’s just that some people squander their chances.  It’s just that some folks choose drugs over their families.  It’s just that poor decisions land those people in a slum apartment and dependent on government handouts.

 

“I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.  Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.”  (Matthew 11: 25-26)

My childish way of interacting with my community was actually pure.  It was based in love.  It was based on the assumption that all people were special in God’s eyes so they should be treated as such.  It was able to look beyond clothing, beyond greasy hair, beyond unbrushed teeth.  The childish me saw the person underneath.  The childish me never stopped wondering what it might be like to be in their shoes.  The childish me reacted according to what I would want others to do for/to me.

The childish me followed Christ’s example.

Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’  For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9: 12-13)

I recently visited with a childhood friend after reconnecting on Facebook.  As we jumped from topic to topic I mentioned to her that I recently discovered that I have become a social justice warrior.  I said it not with pride, but with a sober sense that this choice demands sacrifice.  I wasn’t sure if she might be one of those people who I might lose again. This vocation will create anger and distance with some.  My speaking out will cause others to call me hateful., regardless that my motive is love.  I have seen the disappointment in some family member’s eyes.  I can no longer be a cog in the Christian machine.  I frequently feel alone in a sea of people who think I’m lost.  It’s been a heavy realization, honestly.  I haven’t always wanted it.  I have tried to put it down occasionally.

She looked at me with kind eyes and simply said, “I’ve not been surprised by a single thing you have written.  I have seen my old friend.  You have always been this way.”

She had no idea that I would treasure that remark.  She had no idea that she reassured me that I was not wrong in changing direction.  She may never know that those words were a balm to my wounded soul.   “You have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”  I understood what it meant to truly follow Christ when I was a child.  She saw that.

As I grew I made it complex.  As I grew, I bought the traditions over the simple gospel.  As I grew, I looked down at those who didn’t believe like me.   I judged those who weren’t as fortunate as me.   I would not admit that to anyone.  But, really, I didn’t need to hide it because my friends did the same.  Of course,  they would never acknowledge it either.

My childhood friend never saw this phase of my life.  She never saw me get lost in the machine.  She never saw me choose rules and judgement over grace and love.  I’m glad she didn’t.

I wish I never saw my father lose some of the simplicity of pure love in favor of some church traditions.  I wish I never saw the pain in his eyes when I speak out on certain topics.  I wish his pedestal was still as high as it was in my youth.    Truth be told, he is a very loving and kind man.  He is a pretty darned stellar example of a Christian.  He is a thinker.  He is still my hero.  But like all of us he has some blind spots.  I wish I had never noticed.  I wish I never knew he was a fallible human.  I wish he was completely outside of the machine with me.

And some day when my children meet with old friends over coffee, I hope they remain true to who they are now.  I hope they keep the simplicity of the gospel in their hearts.  I hope the greatest commandment is etched on their hearts.  I hope they always fight for the poor, the lonely, the fringe, the lowly and despised.

Kind of like Christ did.

And if they get swallowed up by the machine, I pray they find their way out.  Just as I pray my father finds his way in those tiny areas he is blind to.  Just as I did when I started really digging into scripture with the lens of a loving and forgiving God.  I pray to never slide down the slope of rules and traditions again.

Because Jesus, God himself incarnate, 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.”

If Jesus called these the greatest commandments, then I suppose we should listen.

 

 

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.