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.

 

 

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.