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.

 

 

Echoes of distance

My mind has been troubled often recently with the changes that change brings.  Profound, right?  I am not only referring to the sometimes painful and difficult process of personal change.  I speak of the ripple effect to those we love.

I slowly have been stepping away from some of the conservative dogma that defined my youth for years now.  I blame it on my increased exposure to the people, places, and things that were often demonized and scary.  I blame it on the recognition that it is difficult to think of real, live, skin-covered humans in front of us as evil (or at least it should be).  I blame it on my increased willingness to question incessantly and dig deeply into scripture.

I blame the people I love.  The people who have been hurt by doctrine over grace.  Hurt by the theology of tradition.  Confused by those who follow a loving God (don’t we all say that?) yet harshly speak of others.  Hardened by those who callously state that they “love the sinner but hate the sin”.  (Can anyone show me where Christ suggested or modeled that approach?)  Would most humans want to be helped by someone who says that they hate something about them?  I have a hard time picturing me reaching out to someone who espouses that approach.

Allow me to stop here to stress that I have not denounced my faith in Christ as the true bridge between us and God.  That Christ is indeed God.  That we are all sinners.  We all mess up.  We all are weak in our own ways.  We all need the grace of God.  We all need forgiveness.  Forgiveness is freely given to all who ask.  These things remain.  But they are merely the beginning.  They are the tiny entrance to the path.

I have found myself oddly at odds with other Christians when I stress the importance of loving one another.  ALL one another.  When Jesus spoke the greatest commandment (to church leaders trying to trick Him) and it’s vital partner commandment, there were no exceptions.  He said to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”  And the second commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Why do I quote this passage so often?  Because “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  That means all the rest of scripture bows to these words.  All scripture is secondary to this.  The Old Testament prophets are secondary to this.  The rules given to old and new believers are secondary to this.  Loves trumps all.

Before we speak–love.

Before we act– love.

Before we think–love.

Before we judge–love.

Before we quote scripture to condemn–love.

And before we love–God.  Otherwise we are incapable of doing the rest.

So why have I so often put my phone down with a defeated sigh after a conversation with someone who has known me a long time?  Why have I felt a growing chasm with some family and friends?  Why is my deepening commitment to social justice for the poor and marginalized seen as a betrayal of sorts?  Why are my questions of the status quo seen as personal barbs by so many?  I am still me.  I am still the same person they joked with for years.  The same person they greeted with a smile at church.  Only, not.

I am far less judgmental.  I am far less likely to shake my head at someone caught in the results of their poor choices.  I am far less certain that I have all the answers.  I am far more willing to reach out and help regardless of what circumstances placed that person in need.  That’s not my job.  I can ask so that help is more effective.  But I cannot demand anything.  I cannot insist on a willing audience for my views on faith.  I cannot, will not, demand that people behave in a way that I deem appropriate.  That, again, is not my job.  That is between them and God.  I can pray.  I can help.  I can speak when given an opportunity.  But only if first there’s love.

It’s a revolutionary change of perspective.  It’s a revolutionary way to live.  All based on the revolutionary example of Jesus.  And based on the very delayed realization that I am not the Holy Spirit.  Of course I always knew this.  But I didn’t really know it.  I used to decide that some people were more worthy of love than others.  Some were more worthy of help than others.  Some more worthy of grace.  But then I realized that Christ didn’t have a pecking order of sins.  He didn’t have a list of “must dos” for receiving His free grace and love.  He just loved whoever was placed in His path.  He just suggested that everyone put their rocks down and walk away when confronted with a question of law and justice.

We are to be the hands and feet of the revolutionary love of Christ.  God is to use those acts of love as a way of drawing others to Him.  I am not the one to convict of sin.  He is.  I am not the one that knows all that someone has dealt with.  He is.  I am not the answer.   He is.

The homeless drug addict is just as hungry as the homeless war veteran.  They both need food.  The poor child still needs clothing and soap no matter if they are poor due to a family medical crisis or to alcoholism.  She still needs to feel like she belongs in school.  The difficult teen needs understanding no matter if their belligerence is due to a feeling of entitlement or a feeling of worthlessness.  He still needs caring adults.

I may be the only love that someone feels today, this week, this year.  You may be the only grace that someone experiences today, this week, this lifetime.  And we cannot know what may come of it in advance.  Our love may help a young girl  ask for help out of an abusive relationship.  Our love may help an elementary boy feel less invisible and worthless in school.  Our love may stop a suicide attempt.  Our grace may give a new sense of resolve to an addict that stumbled, again, for the umpteenth time.    Our mercy may help the cheating spouse to finally admit their shortcomings and work toward resolution.

And we may never know what good God used our acts of love for.  And that is okay.  He does.

“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” (I Corinthians 13:1-2 NIV)

Seems as if God is trying to tell us that love is a big deal.  Let’s listen, big.

And for those who seem concerned that I (and others like me) have lost my way.  I have not.

I have found it.

 

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?

 

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.