A Voice in the Wilderness

I grew up in a conservative Christian home, in a conservative Christian church, in a small, declining town.  I know the preferred language of the church.  I can play the role that people seem to want.  I can put on the face of the righteous.

But why?  Who are we helping when we act like all is grand?  Who is gaining from our pretense in having all the answers?  Who is reached when we rail against those who think or believe differently than we?  Where in Christ’s ministry did he demonstrate that false perfection is our goal?  Where in His life did He model judgement and rules as the righteous path?

The past year has brought unfathomable change to my life.  To my mind.  To my faith.  To my attitudes.  To my actions.  It has been (and continues to be) a difficult journey.  But the difficulty is found not in the renewed and refreshing interpretation of the Bible that I seem to keep finding.  The difficulty is in the reaction from the church.  The unwillingness to look at our beliefs and question if we are right.  The stubborn stance that we must hold fast our traditions even if they might  be wrong.  Are we fighting the good fight or just fighting?

Allow me to stop here and stress that I am part of a good church.  It is full of many believers who are trying to follow what they believe.  It is lead by pastors who demonstrate by their actions what it means to help others.  It is always searching for more possible ways to help our community.  People give.  People travel to help others.  But it is not perfect. It is full of imperfect people, just like every single church out there.

And yet I, and some others like me, have felt alone, isolated, judged.  I’ve seen the sidelong, raised eyebrow looks.  I’ve read the snarky condemnations online.  Most people happily bounce along the surface of their faith, of their thoughts, of their lives.  And that is ok for them.   Many people never really question why they believe what they believe.  Many are content to continue the script from the past generation.

I am not.

We are made with brains full of wonder, of questions.  Brains that wish to connect dots and make sense of life.  Why are we so willing to shut that off when it comes to faith?  Why are we so willing to just accept what men have taught us instead of searching for ourselves?  Why do we bury our heads when it comes to church history and how much theology has swung in wildly varying directions?  How do we expect to tell someone else what our faith is all about if we don’t understand it ourselves?

Here’s an example that I witnessed recently.  Why is it wrong for someone to question whether God could be both man AND woman?  Why not?  He created us in His image.  Why would that possibility make us so uncomfortable?  Isn’t God far larger and more complex than our minds can fathom?  Why do we keep Him in our human box?  Does that box serve a purpose other than our comfort?  I for one find it far more wonderful to have a God that is too big and too grand for me to fully grasp.

Or how about this:  Why is it so important for Christians to insist that being gay is a choice and not an inborn trait for some?  Who cares.  Our world is imperfect.  Scripture tells us that creation has suffered from the fall of man since the Garden of Eden.  We see differences in how people are born every day.  Why is this one so hard to accept?  I don’t know why my student was born imperfectly with cerebral palsy.  But he was.  I don’t know why my friend’s brain is wired for depression.  But it is.  I don’t know why my cousin’s child was born with a heart defect.  But she was.  Aren’t these physical examples of the beauty, fragility,  and imperfection of humans?  Can’t all of these people add greatly to our community with their unique and personal experiences?  Why can’t sexuality be the same?  People all have different gifts, different challenges, different traits.  They can ALL be used for the glory of God if we allow it.  All.  What can the life of that gay person teach us as they work out their faith?  What does that look like?  Are we willing to even ask?

Imagine with me an environment where people of all backgrounds, of all faiths, of all circumstances, could feel welcome and loved.  Note that I didn’t say anything about altering our core beliefs in the gospel.  There is no point to all church debate if we don’t agree that salvation through Christ is the centerpiece.  I simply said that all would be loved and welcomed.  The early church had an incredibly simple message.  The teachings of Christ were/are simple enough for a child to understand and follow.  Why do we muddy the water with man made rules?  Why create a hierarchy of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors and people?  Where and when did Christ do that?

Christ spoke incredibly clearly when He told the church leaders of His day what the greatest commandments were.  He 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.” (Matthew 22: 37-40 NIV).

If Christ is our example and final authority, then we should listen to His words.

If Christ is God incarnate and the final authority, then we should heed His words.

If Christ said that “all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” I’m thinking He meant it.  So, those who like to club people with scripture from the Old Testament and the Prophets—are those two vital commandments superseding what the Prophets said?  Because Jesus said they do.  When there is any question of what is more important in the Bible, we can confidently come back to this.  Am I loving how and who I am commanded to?  All the rest is secondary.  Love first.  That’s not my opinion.  That’s Christ’s.  His words.  His teaching.

Jesus’s ministry on earth was amazing.  It’s growth and following was explosive and committed.  Why were the crowds attracted to Him?  Did He teach rules and tradition?  Did He tsk tsk those who lived lives against God’s Law?  NO.  He loved.  He forgave.  He gave them new tools for living a new and better life.  We can never live up to His perfect standard.  But we can darn well try.  And we are commanded to do so.  We read the Bible.  We pray.  We love.  The conviction of individual’s sins is up to God.  Not us.

But Jesus was killed for His words and actions.  Yes.  By good, disciplined, traditional, religious people using the local authorities to do their dirty work.  “Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him.”  (Matthew 26:3-4 NIV).  Not the atheists.  Not the liberals.  Not the drunks, or the gays, or the prostitutes.  Not the homeless, the poor, or the refugee.  The church leaders.  THEY sought to kill Jesus.

Make no mistake.  We humans are fairly stupid and stubborn.  The Bible is chock full of story after story after story of people messing up.  Often those people claim they are doing the right thing.  Or chose to ignore the clear teaching that they were doing the wrong thing.  So why do we like to pretend we are any different?  We can just as easily insist that we are doing the righteous thing as Saul did when he took the Ark of the Covenant into battle (basically to ensure victory).  God never told Him to do so.  And the Ark was stolen.  Oops.

So how do we know?  How do we check if we are on the right path?  We study scripture.  Relentlessly and deeply.  We pray.  We listen to God–even if it is different than the voices of tradition.  God is big enough (and small enough) to teach us what He wants us to know no matter our education, our background, or our original faith tradition.  We just need to ask Him to teach us.  We just need to be willing to listen.  We just need to be willing to change paths if we discover we have been wrong.  We never stop questioning if we are loving God and others above all else.

And the church as a whole needs to be willing to let people question, to let people ask, to let people wonder.  Otherwise, how do we know if we are fighting the good fight or just fighting?

 

Thorns Suck!

I live with chronic pain.  Literally.   I don’t mean that I personally suffer from it.  I mean I live with it.  It shares my bed.  It eats at my table.  It holds my hand on walks to the lake.  It haunts my thoughts.  It is always hovering dangerously close to my best laid plans.  It has an annoying knack of showing up when I can least afford the disruption.

Don’t get me wrong, I recognize that my husband is truly the one suffering.  He is the one with a drawer full of medications.  He is the one who enjoys a ridiculously small percentage of good days amongst the bad.   He is the one missing time with his children when he just isn’t capable of being near the sounds and light.   He is the one who pays with days of pain for that short game of basketball with his son.  He is the one who restlessly searches for the best position to sit or lie in to stave off debilitating pain in order to make it to his daughter’s concert.

Now, before you start searching the internet for holistic cures and special diets, kindly let me say–don’t.   I don’t want more well-meaning people telling me how omega 3 saved them or how kale changed their life.  I don’t want people looking at me with pity in their eyes.  And believe me when I say that my husband NEVER wants anyone to make a fuss over  him.  He barely wants people to notice that he is in the room (unless he is trying to get a laugh–then please pay attention).  And please don’t tell us that God won’t give us more than we can handle.  That’s crap.  He does it all the time.  He allows life to overwhelm us and stands with his hand outstretched for us to grab on.

I write this for those reading who are living with pain.  Or serious  illness.  Or depression.  Or any other challenge that just won’t let up.  God never said we would be free from struggles.  God never said we would be free from pain.  God never said He would answer our prayers in the way we deem acceptable or appropriate.  The Apostle Paul wrote of his “thorn in his side,” — “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”  (2 Corinthians 12: 8-9 NIV)  Paul was never healed from whatever it was that troubled him.  I have no doubt he would have preferred to be.   My husband may never be healed from his pain.  I have no doubt he would prefer to be.  I would prefer it.  That is not up to me.  That is not up to the doctors.  It is only God who knows why.  And it is up to us to trust that God knows best.

Some days I get angry as I drive kids in circles because he cannot help.   Some days I feel lonely as I parent while he hides in a dark, quiet cave.   Sometimes I wish to stomp around and slam pans around the cupboards.  Some days I can only sit and stare at the birds on the feeders.  And pet the dogs.  And pretend that I have nothing demanding my time.   Some days I eat just a few too many chocolate eggs because the creaminess on my tongue is the purest  joy I will have that day.

I apologize regularly to people for forgetting to answer an email, or text, or call.   Sometimes I lose track of what day it is.  I forget appointments.  I arrive at the last minute when I used to always be early.  I leave as soon as events end.  I used to stay and talk after concerts.  I miss that.  I like to talk. A LOT.   But now I’ve discovered a strange connection–the fuller my mind is, the less I say.  I frequently eat dinner in silence.  My desk grows stacks of papers that used to be neatly filed away.   I try not to notice the dirt  in the corners of the steps.  I’ve turned a blind eye to my childrens’ unmade beds.

You see, when you live with chronic pain, your life changes.  Your time with family becomes more vital than anything or anyone else.  Your to do list gets dusty sitting on the counter.  Your days are not your own.  Pain keeps the calendar.  Pain determines the family vacations.  Pain decides when you can just relax and enjoy your meal.  Pain decides which plans get canceled.  Pain can’t notice the worry in your daughter’s eyes because her father is lying down  in the dark again.  Pain doesn’t care if you have bread in the house (which may partially explain my compulsion to have a room full of food at all times.  Yes.  A literal room of food.)  Pain doesn’t care that you have a job to do.

My husband fights with every fiber of his being to ignore his pain and just live.  He tries.  He does things that he shouldn’t because he gets sick of pain controlling his activities.  He feels guilty when responsibilities fall on me.  He apologizes for falling asleep in the evening after fighting his way through work.  He silently suffers through games and concerts and movies just to be with his kids.  He gets depressed at the sheer exhaustion of life.  He gets angry at his lack of control over this.  But he keeps going.

And I guess that’s my main point.  We all keep going.  No matter the struggle.  No matter the confusion and frustration.  We keep going.  We are not special. We are not superhuman.  We are not alone in our suffering.  And we have God there with us every step of the way.  Sometimes He may get quite an earful  from me as I yell at the injustice.  Sometimes He may just listen to me cry.  Sometimes He has heard my husband moan.  And He knows what all that means.  He feels our pain.  He understands our anger at Him.  He sees it even if we won’t acknowledge its existence.  He smiles as I loosen my grip of control over my life.  He beams with pride at those moments of acceptance.  He nods when I am thankful for a day without troubles.  He knows what He is doing.  Thorns suck.  We’d like them all plucked out of our lives.  But at what expense? What would we miss if life were smooth and painless?

I know and love many who are living with pain; watching loved ones suffer with pain and debilitating diseases.  Know that you are not alone.  You are never alone.  And even though it doesn’t feel like it, God loves you and is holding out his hand to you.  Just grab on.

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.