Sunday, March 10, 2019

He Signed Bibles

March 2010.
The exact date eludes me. But it happened nine years ago this month. I left an abusive marriage.

You know, psychologists say that if you're escaping a burning house, the first thing you grab on the way out is the most important thing in life to you.

On that day, when I made my fateful decision, I felt like my house was on fire. I was grabbing enough clothing to get my 6-year-old and I through 48 hours while I figured out what to do. I shoved things into a brown Panera paper bag left over from lunch (it was a rather large bag, but it was on the front seat of my car, and it was the easiest thing I had available. I was afraid he would come home and discover what I was doing). As I raced around my house, casting furtive eyes for the things we would need for immediate survival, the old adage was true:

The first thing I grabbed off the shelf ... before the clothes, before the paychecks, before my laptop, before medical prescriptions ... was my Bible.

My Bible was the first thing I grabbed.

I'm not telling you this to make myself sound like a saint. But looking back on that moment in time, when I was afraid for my life, when I felt like everything I loved was crashing down around me ... the survival instinct in me really did kick in.

It's still here on my shelf, the same Bible. It's worn. It has frayed edges. There are underlined passages and little notes with dates scribbled next to them to remind of answered prayers and miracles and cries to God over the past 9 years. All of it. It's more than a spiritual diary. It's a link and my connection to my belief that the Creator of the Universe knows the details of my life -- and actually cares about them.

My Bible feels like a living thing in my hands. And if you're reading this blog and have a similar relationship with God, you know what I'm talking about. It's not just dry words on a page or ancient texts. It's everything to me -- my lifeline to the One who loves me more than anyone ever can.

So let's fast forward to yesterday morning, when I pulled up my favorite social media account, Twitter. A heavy March rain was pounding on my windows, and the sun hadn't broken through darkness yet. As my cat lay purring next to me, the artificial light from the phone screen brought me out of drowsiness. And that's when the first image of my day -- the first image on Twitter -- hit me like a punch in the jaw.

A photo of two Bibles, side by side. On the covers ... ON. THE. COVERS..... someone had taken a thick, black Sharpie marker and scrawled their large, distinctive signature.

Donald J. Trump.

I zoomed in on the Bibles and could see that one was a New International Version. The other, a "soldier's Bible," is something for which the Baptist church collects money to send to troops who are in harm's way. It's not a military version of the Bible, as I saw some people on social media surmise. Its jacket is designed with a "camouflage" cover to appeal to military members. I guess you could call it a marketing approach -- good or bad, I'm not sure, but that's really all it is.

But back to the "autographs."

You've seen people autograph their own books before. They open the front jacket and sign the title page, on the inside of the book. They put a little note to you and wish you well. I don't think I've ever seen an author sign the jacket.

Now let this sink in.

Donald J. Trump didn't write the Bible. He's not the Author. And it would be bad enough for him to autograph the inside title page of a Bible, since ... again ... he's not the Author.

But he took a black Sharpie -- something I use all the time at school now with special needs students -- and he SCRAWLED HIS NAME ACROSS THE FRONT OF THE BIBLES.

I called my mother, who is attending a Baptist church, to ask her about this, because a Baptist church gave Trump the platform for this activity. She told me that people give tithe money for these particular Bibles that were pictured so that they can be given out to anyone in need, such as the soldiers. "Those Bibles were probably sitting in a stack in the fellowship hall, and when Trump came in, people wanted autographs. So they probably spotted them, and those were the first things they grabbed," she surmised.

We don't know if that's what happened, but that's one explanation.

Either way, I thought about the people who put Bibles into Trump's hands for him to sign. I thought about people who had given their tithe money for those Bibles, supposing that the Bibles would be sent to people in foreign countries, shared with people in homeless shelters, or circulated to members of the Armed Services on deployments.

I thought about my Bible.

Would I ever hand my Bible over to someone -- even someone that I admire personally -- for them to AUTOGRAPH? Especially the COVER?

That's a rhetorical question, because if you read the first part of this story, you know there is no way on earth I would relinquish it.

I'm still processing what Trump did yesterday, but I'm also processing what the people in that church did, too. They had so little regard for the Word of God -- for God's love letter to them -- that they handed it over as if it were toilet paper and asked him to sign it.

And by signing it, Trump set himself up as their god -- their idol. Do you think it was an accident that he signed the cover, right under the words, "Holy Bible?" Let's say he did it in ignorance, like a child. Let me tell you something: Even as a child, I knew the Bible was a holy book. Even as a child, when I scribbled on anything, I never would have thought to scribble on a Bible. There is something very disturbing about someone who would put their name on the front of a Bible, as if to replace the One who authored it.

I'm not a perfect person. I freely admit to you: I don't stay in the Word as regularly as I should. The past two years have taken a toll on me spiritually. I've written about this before. But when I saw the photos of the signatures on the Bibles, I grieved. I grieved for those who have sold their souls to their "Nero," abandoning what they know to be truth. I grieved for those who never bothered to read their Bibles and cast them so dismissively away, not realizing they were handing away the most precious treasure for their souls.

And I grieved with God. Yes. I grieved with God.

The betrayal.

To hand your Bible over for an idol to autograph.

The mind reels.

"Thou shalt have no other gods before me."~ Exodus 20:3 / Deuteronomy 5:7

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Church-less, In the Age of Trump

Has it been nearly a year-and-a-half since my last post?

I suppose that the Age of Trump has a lot to do with that. It's Sunday morning, a soggy-icy-rain February day, with slate skies that that reflect my soul.

We are not at church this morning.

You know, I used to be one of those people who said, "It doesn't matter what people do or say -- I hold onto my belief because I know God's goodness, and that's enough for me." Although that is still true, I find that as the Trump presidency drags on and the country careens into more and more hateful dialogue, even my relationship with God has become quiet. I still am a believer. I still know He has His hand on my life. But it's as if we're in a long road trip together, and we've hit a stretch through one of those Midwestern states ... You know what I'm talking about if you've ever been on one of these road trips ... The road stretches through an endless line of cornfields, and all you can see ahead of you is a "tunnel" through corn stalks. You sit side by side in the car, wondering when this part of the journey will be over, and there is no conversation and no desire for one. It's silent companionship, and the two of you are disconnected from the rest of the world. Just a stretch of cornfields, all around, walling you in.

That's how it feels for me.

Before the election, I had no idea how much people who claimed to be "Christians" espoused such racism, such rancor, such judgment, such hypocrisy. After the election, my eyes were opened, and I couldn't bring myself to sit next to them in pews on Sunday mornings.

My son and I found a different church, one that served the needs of the poor. Until four months ago, we were regular attendees ... but I started feeling myself pulling away emotionally from even that group. It's a long story, one that doesn't need to be hashed out here, but once again, I felt that people were not what they purported to be.

I still take my son to a youth group meeting mid-week, at his request. But Sunday morning comes along, and I feel completely alienated, flat, and empty. In short, I'm spiritually depressed. I'm hungry for the Word. I'm thirsty for a dissection of Scripture, for an exchange of prayer requests and communing, for kind words and affirmation. Church holds none of those things for me anymore. Church for me has become more isolating than if I don't even attend.

Why am I writing all of this and sharing these dismal thoughts?

I guess part of the reason is that if you're also alienated from church due to what has happened in the country and the "evangelicals" behind it ... you're not alone. I am chief among you. I want you to know that there are more "islands" of us out there in this sea of distrust and division.

The other reason is that I want to put these words in a tangible format. Because someday, all of this will be a faint memory. Someday, I'll pull up this blog entry and think to myself, "How could I even have been in that place?" I have found in life that when we are faced with a situation that seems hopeless or sad, it's temporary. But it also helps in the good times to look back on times like these for perspective, insight, and understanding of where we've been, how far we've come, and where we're going.

Which leads me to my last point ... What's next for believers in this era of Trump? I'm not talking about people who support the racist regime that has taken over the White House. I'm talking about believers who read the Scriptures and know that God says we're supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves -- and that if we claim to love God and hate another, we're liars. I'm talking to you, if you're in that category. What's next for us?

Well, for me, I'm tying a knot and holding on to my faith. I will not give up looking for a place where people practice what they preach, even in blood-red Kentucky. I will remember that there have been millions who have gone before me and felt isolated and alone in their belief. I will reflect on the prophets who lived in a sea of hypocrites ... people like Elijah. People like Jeremiah. They, too, were alone, and yet they did not give up in their hope and faith in God.

As much as it depends on Him who is able to "keep us from falling," I will do the same. I do not know what our future will bring as a country. I know that I don't trust people in churches anymore at this point. But I know I can trust the One who died for me, who forgives my sins, who knows my heart, and who will comfort me on days when the sky is slate gray, icy rain covers the tree branches ... and I sit at home alone, longing for a time to return when Sunday morning once again means being among people who know Him, too.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Detective Work: How to Put the Bible in Context

So for my birthday this year, I was gifted a DNA test at Ancestry, and like many people who have taken one, I was surprised with the results. I'd always been told by both sides of my family that we were straight 50-50 Scot-Irish. Since I was in first grade, whenever St. Patrick's Day came rolling around, I was entrenched in hunting leprechauns and telling people I had "an Irish temper."

But all that changed with those DNA results. It turned out that my DNA makeup is 71 percent British. And when I started chasing threads of family members, the way it ended up breaking down (so far) was that about three-quarters of my ancestors were from England ... and one quarter, from Scotland. In one thread, I have traced the line as far back as 1585 in Somerset, England. And I'm still doggedly untangling these threads with gusto.

Now what, you ask me, does this have to do with doing "detective work" in the Bible?

Well, just like with my ancestry hunt, I dig through the origination of Scripture verses to find out from whence they came.  And just like an ancestry DNA test, I am usually surprised that the "meaning" I originally derived from reading one single Bible verse is usually not its original meaning. Sometimes it has to do with the original language. A word may translate into modern day English with a completely different inference than it had in the original Hebrew or Greek. Or there may not even be a word in our language that fully matches the robust meaning of the original.

Other times, I discover that a cultural or modern day application I am applying to the verse does not match the era, history or cultural context in which it was written.

And then there are times like this morning, when, just like in my Ancestry family tree search, I have to go back not one, but several, preceding chapters to find the full context of where a verse fit into a bigger story that is being told.

And that brings me to Matthew 7:6. I memorized the book of Matthew when I was 16 years old, so I should have known this automatically, but it's been a few decades. I woke this morning thinking about the words of Matthew 7:6:

“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces."

People may struggle with the original meaning of this one, and I have always applied it generally: Do not expose something that is important to you to someone who is not trustworthy, or they may, in Jesus's words, "trample" on it and then "tear you to pieces."

Seems pretty straight-forward.

But one thing that has nagged me is Jesus's strong description of the people who are doing this. He calls them dogs and pigs. Nice. If you, like me, believe He is the Son of God, why would a deity use these words to describe PEOPLE? His creation? His children? It seems a little harsh to the outsider.

So I looked at the preceding verses in the chapter, and here, He's talking about ... wait for it ... hypocrites.

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. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye."

Hmmm, that's interesting. The "dogs" and the "pigs" in the verse that follow are obviously people who are judging others and, in doing so, are hypocritical of their own sins.

So what was going on that prompted Him to be talking about hypocrites in the first place?

For that, I had to go backwards ... all the way back to the end of chapter 4 and the beginning of chapter 5. This was beginning to feel like tracing my family tree on Ancestry.

At the end of 4, we read that large crowds were following Jesus:

"Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed,those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him."

And then at the beginning of chapter 5, we finally get to what was going on when he said the verses about hypocrites being dogs and pigs:

"Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them."

This was the beginning of the famous "Sermon on the Mount," and I have always ascribed it to the Beatitudes (the "Blessed are the .... fill in the blank ... you remember those). But that sermon goes on for a long time ... all the way to the end of chapter 7, where it wraps up the sermon:

"When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law."

OK, so now we know that these verses about hypocrites were within the Sermon of the Mount. And we don't really know what prompted them, but in the rest of chapter 7, Jesus continues to go after the religious leaders of the day -- the people who were Pharisees. He also goes after "false prophets" and "false disciples." But in the verses that precede that rant, he's addressing the crowd in general, explaining how God will bless them and telling them not to worry about tomorrow, etc.

What happened between chapter 6 and 7 to make Him change tack and address a separate audience?

Unfortunately, Matthew doesn't tell us. Matthew, the writer of this Gospel, was a tax collector who was one of Jesus's 12 disciples. So we know that he was there when Jesus said these things, and we know that if he had wanted to, he could have taken us into the back scene of what was happening in that crowd when Jesus ranted at the religious leaders. Because Matthew didn't do that, at this point, our detective work has to only go into supposition. 

Maybe Jesus spotted a group of them in the crowd laughing at what He was saying. Maybe He saw someone in the crowd who He knew had been spiritually hurt by a hypocritical religious leader and was offering them solace. We may never know, but the important realization over this exercise is that He was angry enough at religious hypocrisy to call the offenders "dogs" and "pigs" -- and to issue a warning to His listeners that they should not give them "anything that is sacred." 

So the work here showed me that Jesus was not speaking in generalities. He was addressing a certain group in society and warning the rest of us that it was okay to avoid them -- as well as telling us what would happen to us if we didn't. That's an important finding, because suppose you go to a church with a charismatic pastor, and everyone is telling you to hang on that pastor's words. But you discover the pastor is a hypocrite (for whatever reason) ... and that may be time to change churches, depending on the discovery.

As you ponder and apply this verse to your own life, by having the full context of to whom it was originally directed and the circumstances under which it was said, you can proceed confidently with a decision to ... say .... pull away from a Bible study when members reveal who they really are. The repercussions of continuing to "throw pearls" at hypocrites are enormous -- they "may turn on you and tear you to pieces." Now you have a firm and full understanding of what Jesus meant and why He said it. 

I know this may have seemed complicated (and long!), and if you've followed me this far, thank you for your patience. 

One other thing I would note about deciphering the Bible as you apply it to your life is that prayer is your other key element in making large decisions. For example, last November, I made a decision to move to a new church after an incident at a Bible study. It was not out of hate or anger or hurt, as much as it was that I was being guided by Matthew 7:6. But it also was because I prayed about it. I told God about the struggle and cried a lot over it. The next day, through an unexpected (and miraculous) series of events, He led me and my son to our current church. We have found a community of sincere and loving believers ... without a hypocritical bone in their bodies.

Next time you are curious about the meaning of a verse -- or struggling with a life decision and pondering a verse as your possible solution -- don't just leave your searching with the verse, standing alone. Dig backwards. 

As you can see with my own family tree search on Ancestry, I was able to crack up some family mysteries -- and frankly, I'm not done. I have discovered some patterns of behavior in my family that I believe are tied to a history of ancestral slave ownership. And I've also unearthed the lines going across the Atlantic and through the centuries. 

How much more can be said of Scripture, when we delve into the context of what was going on at the time something was written, why it was going on, the original meaning of the words and the culture surrounding it?

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Mystery of Meekness

The word "meekness" has always mystified me. It's one of those words in the Bible that has eaten at me for years. I have chased the original language and examined various ways in which Jesus used it, like you would a Rubik's cube. I've always been bothered by it. To me, it has always conveyed weakness -- a mamby-pamby Savior who took the "turn the other cheek" message to an extreme that made me very uncomfortable with His masculinity.

Until recently, the closest I have come to understanding "meekness" is through Matthew 11:29, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me. For I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." For me, I conjure an image of a giant oxen, strong and serene, a gentle beast that could harm a human easily but that submits to service in plowing a field. 

But even then, that didn't fully explain "meekness" to me. Someone once told me that "meekness" is defined as "gentle strength," and I tried to wrap my brain around that. I guess the way I solved that definition by imagining Yoda teaching Luke in the Sky Wars trilogy.

And yet. I still didn't feel like I understood meekness. "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth," Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. What in the world? What did it mean? How could I possibly be "blessed" by being, in my mind, spineless? Because even though I had sort of solved this, I still had this nagging thought that meekness was not something to be admired -- and that those who were meek were those to be pitied.

Well, three months ago, it finally happened. I finally found a real-life example of meekness, and ironically, it came in the form of my 13-year-old dog, Achilles. 

Achilles is an American Eskimo, and I've had him since he was a puppy. I've watched him change over the years, and like every dog lover, I have worried about how he moves a little more slowly, sleeps a little longer, eats a little less than before. 

But then in November, my teenage son and I decided to get a kitten from the local animal shelter. My son named her, "Rose," and like every kitten, she's a little tiger in training.

And Rose loves Achilles.

Loves him.

Follows him everywhere, from room to room. Waits to eat her food until he ambles up to his own food bowl and starts eating first. Curls up next to him in a tight ball and purrs her heart out. Sometimes she even walks on his head or bats his big doggy paw with her tiny claws. He never flinches or moves and tolerates all of it.

I started thinking, "I guess poor Achilles is finally an old man. He never snaps at Rose and even acts like she's not even there. I wonder if Achilles is senile."

One day, Achilles was standing by the back door, waiting to be let out. Rose was perched on a kitchen chair, craning her neck at the door, because she knew he was going to get to go outside. Rose is an indoor kitten, but she waits by the door for Achilles to return and meows until he's back.

I opened the door for Achilles. And suddenly without warning, Achilles transformed into the dog he used to be. He charged across the back yard like a ferocious hunter, barking and growling and snarling -- and running as fast as he did when he was a much younger dog. Achilles had spotted a squirrel, which went racing up the nearest tree. It surprised me, because I hadn't seen so much life in Achilles in a while.

But it also surprised Rose.

Rose leaped off of the chair and raced into my bedroom and hid under my bed. When Achilles came back inside, she did not greet him at the door. She edged out of the room cautiously, studying him from afar at the door while he chowed down on a dog treat. 

Achilles then ambled back to his favorite spot on a living room chair and put his big furry head down and peered around. Where was his buddy Rose? She crept into the room and jumped on an ottoman and approached him. He then turned on his side and exposed his tummy to her, and she laid down next to him.

Suddenly, I had it.


Gentle strength.

Blessed are the "meek."

Achilles was "meek" with Rose, not because he was afraid of her, not because he was old and senile, not because he couldn't move like he used to, not because he had lost his fierce edge that dogs have when they chase a squirrel or protect you from a home intruder.

He was meek because he had chosen to be. He recognized that Rose was a creature that depended on him for companionship. She has nothing to offer him. Sometimes she eats his food. She pesters him. She can't be in a room without him. I actually think she drives him a little crazy.

But this old dog accepts this little cat and in his own sweet way has welcomed her into the home. At any moment, from what I observed that day with the squirrel chasing incident, he could choose to tear her in half. He could choose to bite her and snap at her and even kill her. 

But he's meek. He is exhibiting "gentle strength."

Now what does this have to do with us, and what did Jesus mean when He said, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth?"

Just this: If you are a believer and you are walking with Christ, you already possess His strength. You know the heart of God, because you have accepted His forgiveness and mercy. You know the companionship of His Spirit, because He offers that to us when we genuinely follow Him. 

In Him, you are strong. Face it. You are.

Now there are also hurting people all around you -- non-believers, those who are disillusioned by fake Christians, those who have been cast out by society and deemed worthless, those who just need a little compassion and kindness.

It's time to be meek with them.

It's time in this crucial period of history to exhibit gentle strength to all who come in contact with us. You have something -- a peace that passes all human understanding -- that they are seeking. Like Rose does with Achilles, they might pester you, bother you, pepper you with questions, insult you, take things from you (Rose loves to hide Achilles's dog toys under the couch), chide you, judge you ... the list is endless.

But blessed are the meek.

You could probably easily rip them apart, just like Achilles could rip Rose apart at any moment. You could say unkind things, quip hasty judgments at them, show impatience at their lack of understanding, throw your hands up and say you can't be bothered.

But blessed are the meek.

Your job as a believer is to exhibit gentle strength, so that others may know Him as you do.

The mystery of meekness. It eluded me for years, and now I feel like I finally get it. 

Blessed are the meek.

Today, embrace meekness. Own it. And offer that gentle strength to others who are dying to know Him.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Hurting Unbelievers in the Post-Election Environment

It took about 24 hours for the shock of the election result to set in for me. My moment of truth came after walking out of a church Bible study. Women who should have been kind turned vicious in their glee over Donald Trump's electoral college victory and shouted at me as I walked out of the room, out of the church.

I came home and cried -- and didn't stop crying for about two hours. And since then, I have dealt with bouts of crying, similar to what I experienced after my father's death.

When I have to drill down into "reasons" for this, however, it has less to do with me and more to do with the root cause of my grief:

The hurt that unbelievers feel.

I need to say this.

If you are a believer who voted for Donald Trump and are gloating about it -- either in person or on social media -- you are severely hurting unbelievers. You are already building a wall, and I'm not talking about the one on the Mexican border. You are unwittingly revealing what you think of minorities, women's rights, the poor, the disenfranchised, the alien immigrant. You are violating every directive from Jesus to love your enemies and to exercise compassion and kindness.

But more importantly, you are further distancing the lost from finding Jesus.


Well, let me ask you this. When was the last time you saw someone new in your church and welcomed them? Or when did you welcome the following:

  •  someone who looked different from you in church? 
  • someone who looked poor in your church? 
  •  a single mom at your church?
  • someone who is openly homosexual -- who decided to check out your church?
My guess is that none of those people are even at your church, because they don't want anything to do with you.

If you can answer affirmatively to any of those questions -- if indeed you have done what you could do to offer peace, kindness, compassion and unconditional love to those WHO MAY NEVER DARKEN THE DOOR OF YOUR CHURCH -- and you voted for Donald Trump, congratulations. You've proven me wrong.

As for the rest of you, please read the book of James.

And then examine your hearts. Examine your actions since this election.

Have you done anything that would make any of those people WANT to come to your church and interact with you? Have you done anything to make them want to learn about Jesus and His unfailing love and mercy for them?

If not, you are hurting unbelievers. This election isn't about who won. This isn't about making America great, either. This election has eternal implications, because YOUR actions will either help or hurt those seeking God.

So what have you done?

What have you not done?

What are you willing to do to exhibit mercy, love your enemies, give to those who are hurting and sow peace where there is none?

What are you willing to do to bring the lost to Jesus, even in the face of a divided nation?

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Conquering the Racist Monster ... In Me

It reared its head unbidden, unwelcome, with menacing surprise ... the Racist Monster in me.

I recoiled at myself. Wasn't I one of the most outspoken people about the dangers of racism, misunderstanding, hatred? How did those feelings arise, and where did they come from? I tried to push the Monster down and away from me, but like a styrofoam floatie in a pool that won't stay under water, it bobbled up again.

It came up again and again throughout last evening, and when I woke this morning, it was still staring me in the face, that Monster.

And so I am confronting it the only way I know how -- by confessing it to you -- and to God.

But how did it start, you ask? Dial back to yesterday afternoon.

I was tying up some work and have an open tab on my laptop to Twitter. Scrolling through, I noticed that my favorite film actor, Richard Armitage, had tweeted out a narrative of his visit to a shelter for Syrian refugee families in Berlin, Germany. The narrative referred to a video from the shelter, in which three "dads" thanked those who had donated to the shelter.

I clicked on the video.

And that's when the Monster reared its head.

The video starts by showing three young men in their late 20s or early 30s standing in a row and laughing and smiling and offering thanks. That's a beautiful picture, yes?

But I didn't see them as dads or as imperiled refugees who were trying to protect their families from harm. Immediately, my "American bias" grabbed me, and in one swift flash, the word, "TERRORIST" swept through my mind and heart. I flinched at the image, and I didn't feel sympathy. I didn't feel compassion. I didn't feel kindness. I didn't feel any of those things.

Instead, I flashed back to the days shortly after 9/11, and I connected the image of the three men with those who flew planes into buildings. The Monster in me swept through and triggered nothing but anger.

I can't explain this. I still am disturbed by it, still angry at myself for it. I rattled off to myself all of the things I say to people on social media about unfair comparisons between refugees and terrorists, how wrong, how utterly immoral it is to put them in the same basket. I told myself that my actions belied my thinking. Just last week my child and I had collected toys for a Syrian refugee family who escaped the clutches of ISIS and have relocated to our area.

And even if I wasn't a believer, I still know better than to feel these feelings. I was raised by Salvation Army officers (pastors) who ingrained in me the knowledge that all humans are God's children, to be cared for as He cares for them.

Truthfully, I tried to push this away and blame my own sinful feelings on the hatred being spewed by Donald Trump. I thought to myself, "Well, it's on television all the time, on all of the newscasts. I picked this up by osmosis."

But even then, I had to be honest with myself. It had nothing to do with what other people were saying or thinking -- and it came right down to me, my attitudes, my biases, my RACISM -- my sinfulness.

So what do we do? How do we deal with the Monster? How do we deal with any "monster," whether it's racism or another sin that clutches at our heart?

I don't know if this will help, but Paul even writes about a struggle with his own sinful nature:

"I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.  Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.  So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me." ~ Romans 7:15-23

We can see that the "Monster" can overtake us, at any time, from these verses. But don't lose heart and hope, because Paul follows that up with this:

"What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!" ~Romans 7: 24-25

And therein lies the key.

If we believe in Christ's saving power -- if we confess our sins and ask Him to forgive us and indwell us, He will do just that. It doesn't mean that we won't continue to screw up. We're human. We will. Just as the unbidden racism reared its head in my soul, sin will overtake us when we least expect it.

But the good news is that sin no longer has power over us. Christ conquered it for us on the cross.

"If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." ~ 1st John 1:9

The question is, though, are we willing to recognize the sin -- the "Monster" -- when it reveals itself? Are we willing to confess it? Are we willing to ask God to work in our hearts to change our hearts and forgive us?

I have learned a lot about myself in just under 24 hours. I didn't know I was harboring those feelings against those of Middle Eastern origin. I am ashamed and abashed.

But thank God, for He forgives me and will work with me on becoming more like His Son, Jesus.

And He will do the same for you, too.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Reconnecting with Believers after a Severe Betrayal

I freely admit it. I have had a major disconnect with other Christians since I experienced a severe betrayal and deceit at a church six years ago.

Although I have attended another church for the past four years regularly -- and have received a gracious welcome and support from my pastor, his wife and some key people there -- I find myself still on the fringes. For a long time, I told myself that was okay. I reasoned that I couldn't fully trust people -- but I could trust God -- so I would attend church as a loner. I would worship at the edge of the sanctuary, sitting alone, not interacting with anyone unless I was forced to shake hands at that awkward time when the pastor commands it.

I have inched towards more involvement, but it has been at a snail's pace. And I have been very guarded, very quiet, very reserved, very cynical, very ill at ease.

These people at my current church had nothing to do with what happened at the former church. But the experience I had previously shook my world to the ground. It was a contributing factor (not the sole factor but a contributing factor) to the end of of my 10-year marriage. It was one of those things that I had to confront and face uncomfortable realizations that I had been duped -- which in turn led to fierce anger, bitterness and, let's face it, rage.

So I arrived at this new church wanting to give it another shot, wanting to be open, wanting to trust, wanting to accept, wanting to be part of a community again ... and yet, I have fought it simultaneously. I feel at war within myself, every time I step foot into the place, knowing that no one there is guilty of the wrongs of others but still pushing against any semblance of true belonging.

I write this background (in case you didn't know it already), because I know there are a lot of you out there who have had similar experiences. It doesn't have to be my former church -- the story is the same. You gave it a shot, and you feel like people let you down. What's the point of going back? I want you to know that I get it. I get it more than you realize.

All that said, there is a glimmer of hope for me -- and maybe by sharing some insights, you might see there is a glimmer of hope for you, too. If you have been hurt by a body of "believers" and want to go back to church but are unsure how to take that step -- or even if you should take that step -- here are some things I have learned lately. Take them or leave them, but at least consider them. I don't claim to have all of the answers to this dilemma, and truth be told, I am still working it out.

But here's a short list of things you can do to test the waters at a church again:

1. Start with worshiping alone.  Grant it, I realize this sounds lonely, but "alone" does not necessarily mean, "lonely." It just means that when you enter church for the first time after an absence, find a place to sit where no one will really notice you. And then spend the time at the church service solely focusing on what God has for you.

For months, this is where I was. It was all I was capable of. I'd find the most unobtrusive place to sit and sometimes spend most of the service with my eyes closed in prayer or cast down reading my Bible. I took copious notes during sermons, partly to sink into what was being said, but mostly so that I wouldn't have to interact with anyone else.

I know it sounds anti-social, but when you've been hurt badly by people, this is a "safe" way to reintroduce yourself to just "being" in a church service. Your focus is taken away from human interaction, and you focus on the Holiness of God, which is pretty profound. He will work wonders in your heart, trust me.

2. When you feel ready, ask the pastor for a sit-down chat. I actually didn't start with my pastor. I asked my pastor's wife to talk to me. I unloaded everything I had experienced, and then about a year after that, I sat down with the pastor and ran through it. I think that when you finally feel ready to make that connection, it is a vital step towards reconnecting.

3. Volunteer with a group that you know can't hurt you. For me, it's the infants. I volunteer in the church nursery once a month. You might think I have some altruistic reason for helping young mothers, but it's really for me. I get a lot from being around innocent, pure souls who want nothing more than to be cuddled and cared for. If you're not a "kid person," then ask the church office if they have a need for hospital visitation ... or if you're an outdoorsy person or a DIY lover, ask if the church needs help with lawn maintenance or repairs. Find an outlet where you don't have to worry about whether others are going to lie to you.

4. If you have children, be careful about conveying cynicism to them. Just because you were hurt doesn't mean your children should suffer spiritually. I am very careful about not discussing my past hurts with my son and encouraging his participation in kids' activities. He also takes music lessons from the youth pastor, and that connection for him has been extremely helpful.

5. Give to specific funds if you have trust issues with money. A big part of the deception at my former church was rooted in the misuse of finances. However, I feel strongly that giving is a strong part of my exercise of faith -- because when I give, it means I am trusting God to provide for my needs while showing gratitude for His blessings. This presented a huge conundrum for me, because while I WANTED to give, I didn't know if I could ever give to a general "church budget" again.

One thing about my current church is that they are great about providing a line-by-line budget (something the former church did not do). Even at that, however, I was still skittish. So I categorize my giving by special funding pools. We have a "benevolence fund" for needy people who wander in the church needing help with groceries or utilities or rent or other emergencies. I give to that. We also have different opportunities to help specific missionaries. I sometimes give to those requests. At Christmas, the church collects toys for Appalachian children in Eastern Kentucky. I participate in that. And every Father's Day, we have a pile of baby bottles that we fill with coins. The bottles then are given to a clinic that helps women with unplanned pregnancies and supports them in other ways to avoid abortions. I usually write a check for that and place it in a bottle.

You can find something that your church is doing and give to that. Then ask God to open your heart and heal any hurt connected to the betrayals of others in the past over money. Just because one group of people took advantage of you doesn't mean all churches are in the same boat. Don't let one bad group paint a bad portrait of the rest. You'll miss out on a lot of joy in giving to others.

These are just a few things to get you started, and I hope that sharing my experience might help someone out there. Don't give up. Don't lose heart. Don't lose hope. I do believe that God wants all of us to experience community. When a "community" lets us down, it's very discouraging, but just remember that God is not guilty for the wrongs that people commit. Ask Him to heal your hurts and build your courage. And if you need any encouragement or have questions for me, feel free to post them below.