In my middle life, I wondered if the purpose of my life was simply as a cautionary tale. I had chosen poorly so often, with such severe consequences, I wondered if all I could offer was to be an example of what not to do.
Although self-condemnation threatens to whip that notion into a froth of depression, it obscures the grain of truth within: My life holds meaning for you. My voice matters because we are all connected. Paul compared us to a body: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (1 Cor. 12:26) Each voice, each individual’s story, can enhance or damage our connection.
My friend Kelly Bean speaks often, in her work with African Road, about this connection through our stories. The people of Rwanda have experienced terrible lessons to achieve peace and reconciliation that we Americans would well-advised to heed. In the first weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, Kelly posted this from New Hope for Girls in Tanzania: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJ0NQfHl4fE&feature=youtu.be
This family of 48, compromised mostly of girls rescued from slavery and sex trafficking, has seen more than its share of suffering. But one of their first responses to the pandemic was to send encouraging words to those of us unaccustomed to hardship. I find this incredibly moving.
If we humans are going to progress as a species, if we are going to protect our planet and not destroy ourselves, we absolutely have to acknowledge we are all in this together. We can no longer afford to keep squabbling. Today I saw an ad for an organization called The Epoch Times, that at first seemed an over-the-top mockery of a far-right political agenda. I was halfway through when I realized it was seriously promoting outrageously paranoid claims, seeding distrust and division under a guise of informed reporting. It made me incredibly sad, both for the viewers who would believe it and the short-sighted agenda behind it. Is power and money worth the damage we are doing to ourselves as humans? This is the kind of scenario I envision when we fall before Jesus, saying, “Lord, Lord, did we not vote to promote a pro-life agenda on the Supreme Court? Did we not march to protect the sanctity of marriage and traditional values? Did we not tithe and attend church and sing in the choir, even when the government tried to forbid us?” And will Jesus say, “I never knew you”?
What we do to one another matters. If our words are full of blame, suspicion and hatred for those who think differently, we end up hardening our own hearts. Jesus prefaced this warning with “do to others what you would have them do to you” and “in the same way you judge others, you will be judged.” For those of us who like Biblical principles, the latter is a good one. It isn’t a threat, it is more a description of nature. The measure we use, especially if it is perfectionism or performance, ends up being the shadow we live under. Our own words mock us when they are applied to our lives. Who hasn’t vowed as a child not to be like our parent in a particular way, only to find the very words we despised emerging toward our own children?
When Jesus told us to be perfect, he wasn’t talking about performance, he was talking about love. Love beyond what’s expected. Love extravagantly. Give grace to others like Jesus gives to you. I recently read the comments on a friend’s Facebook post (not doing that again anytime soon.) What struck me, having been away from evangelicalism for awhile, was the hate veiled in Christian-ese. “Bless her heart, we don’t know how she has strayed so far from truth. She used to be a good Christian.” Wow. How often do you hear judgement couched as concern? Condemnation dressed in Bible verses?
I remember speaking to someone standing with his yellow picket sign outside the lines at Comic-Con. With his handheld speaker, he was informing everyone in line that they were going to hell. For those of us who believe love wins more people to Jesus’ kingdom, it was disturbing to hear the anger spewing from this brother. As far as I could see, most people were giving him a wide berth. I stepped up to ask him how many people he’d converted with this approach. He replied, “Thousands.”
“Really?” I asked (a little disbelievingly, I’ll admit.)
“The word of the Lord shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I send it,” he replied. For him, that answered my question and he raised his bullhorn.
I stopped writing for awhile, keenly aware I am venturing into territory fraught with conflict. Faith is something that one can rarely be argued into or out of. And truly, no one knows what is in our hearts but God alone. Sometimes even we can only discern our own true intent with the Spirit’s counsel.
For myself, I know there was a time in my life where I used Bible verses as cover for my own uncertainty. I believed God; I wanted to be a faith-filled, “no compromise” Christian. Yet I kept running into disconnects. I sorrowfully informed my college friend that although God loved her unconditionally, she could not be both a Christian and a lesbian. I burned my autograph collection because I wanted to burn idolatry from my heart; my bold actions shouted down the inkling that my idolatry had only switched from TV stars to Christian celebrities.
I heard sermon after sermon justifying the Old Testament righteousness of murdering thousands. I followed the mental gymnastics of reconciling the wrath and mercy of God. Simplistic answers to complicated questions and complicated answers to simple questions, all told with a beneficent smile and a pat on the head. And in the end, the catch-all “God is a mystery” and “you have to have faith.”
I still believe those answers. I know there are spiritual dimensions that I cannot readily perceive. I know that I am not the center of the universe and I must trust that my Creator sees and does more than I can imagine. But I also know that He invites me to come and reason together with Him. I know that Jesus told us over and over to look beyond outward appearances to the heart of a person’s behavior.
Jesus did not give us magic words, however much he is quoted in this vein. Jesus gave us an example of a life completely surrendered. Jesus spent time alone with His Father, then only did what He saw His Father doing.
What would my life look like if I did that?
Why is that such a frightening proposition?
It exposes the holes in my faith. Could I sit still long enough to listen? What if I can’t hear anything? What if God doesn’t want to talk to me? What if He does? Will I hear His disappointment with me? What if He asks more of me than I want to give?
That’s some uncomfortable reality right there.
Laying my heart bare like this is revelatory only to me; God already knew what I was covering with my busyness. It takes courage to lay it all down and sit before Him. It takes trust.
Not many of us are so thoroughly convinced of God’s love for us, despite what we sing on Sunday mornings. It takes inner work to move through our parental wounds to know, experientially know, God’s deep welcome, His delight in us. I often wonder if at the core of our squabbling with each other is a sibling rivalry that can only be healed with the assurance of our Father’s abiding acceptance of each of us. To know that I am thoroughly treasured “just as I am” in this moment brings a solid peace and an invitation of freedom. If we no longer have to worry about being good enough, about earning our acceptance, we can look beyond our squabbling to explore the kind of love Jesus knew.
When I was in junior high school, I was bullied. It was in the first years of racial integration and tensions were high. I’d like to meet whoever thought it was a great social experiment to put together teenagers, fresh from homes filled with 1970’s racial distrust, without guidance or supervision. I was near the bottom of the pecking order anyway: shy, mostly friendless, awkward in appearance and socially. A trio of black girls found their superiority by making my life miserable. With threats of violence and ugly humor, I was persecuted daily. I lived in fear. Stories from the high school of knifings in the restrooms haunted me. Confused, afraid, ashamed, I hovered adjacent to larger groups and calculated routes to ensure I would never be caught anywhere alone. I dared not use the restroom for fear of being “jumped.” For several years, I lived with a series of “mysterious” kidney infections rather than telling my parents that I held my urine eight hours every day. My Bible told me to pray for my enemies. So I did. I turned the other cheek, sometimes literally. For three years, I prayed daily, for them and for the persecution to cease. With a child’s faith, I did not understand why God did not answer my prayers. Without knowing specifics, my youth group leader’s advice was to persist and “pray without ceasing.”
I learned early in life that theology matters. Even as I know God held my faith as precious, still it was my own misunderstanding that allowed myself to be used as a punching bag for years. My fear of the bullies twisted Jesus’ words in ways He never intended. I tried to make an overwhelming situation have a martyr’s significance. But Jesus never advocated for abuse. In that teaching, he was revealing a standard of loving that went beyond expectations. He was preparing us to recognize a love that exceeds our tiny boxes. For it is only in receiving such a love, in letting it make its home in us, that we can hope to extend it to others.
Perhaps it is a schoolgirl’s rage that rises up in me even now when I see people in power using Scripture to manipulate others for their own benefit. The acceptance of women and minorities being told they are less than especially irks me. Was it only coincidence that, when I was in junior high, the “women’s libbers” movement was treated with disdain in my household? Not only by my father and male relatives, but my mother and church ladies spoke against those bra-burning hippies who belittled all my mother’s hard work as a “housewife.” I was told feminism, lumped in with socialism and humanism, was a dangerous work of the devil, designed to upend a perfectly good traditional social order created by God himself. Male and female roles were already clearly defined and anyone who tried to muddy those waters was either hopelessly pagan or deluded.
Was it wrong for me to be bullied? Did I deserve the abuse? Those answers, so clear now, were not as obvious at the time. Today, the psychological damage caused by bullying is well documented. (Yet, even now, in some circles a “survival of the fittest” and “boys will be boys” attitude still prevails.) My evangelical upbringing pointed out every Sunday that I was a worm, that I deserved eternal hellfire. As a female, I was never encouraged to advocate for myself. My bullies attested that I was an object for derision. God’s silence in the face of my prayers confirmed it.
This is how lies take hold. In the childhood of our psyches, we collect clues from family, faith and the world around us. It makes sense, even if it doesn’t seem quite right. Up is down; God is loving and hating; good comes from bad so maybe bad is good? It’s all mixed up with faith and mystery and a pastor tells us with assurance that this is what God says. Who are we to argue with someone who went to seminary, someone who has such an obviously closer connection with the Almighty? We are worms, after all. Saved by grace through faith and that not of ourselves.
And we, who would never abuse a child, shake our heads at photos of children in cages. We, who give generously, look away from the immigrant “situation.” It’s all so political, who knows what is really true. We’ve been told for generations now that the “liberal” media is not to be trusted. We’ve been told a lot of things, from people with a lot of power. From our pulpits. Our social media. We suspect not everything the president says is true but that’s politics. And we’re supposed to honor our leaders, right? The Bible says that, right?
And now. A worldwide pandemic. Added to the confusion is the very real threat of death. I’m okay today, but what about tomorrow? The Bible says do not worry. Leaders are arguing, and my patience is less with them. If I get this virus, if I die, I could be standing before Jesus this year. Has my faith been enough? Have I been enough in this life to prepare me for what lies ahead?
I bury the questions beneath layers of busyness.
Until God whispers, “come.”