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.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Admonishing vs. Judging

Twitter is my favorite online community, because there, you can interact with people all around the world and at the same time receive short messages of 140 characters or less that can encourage you in innumerable ways.

But Twitter has a potential downfall for Christians, if they send out tweets with deep spiritual meaning that can be misunderstood by those who are young in their faith or those who have no faith at all.

I am usually vigilant about not doing this, but sometimes I inadvertently tweet something that to me conveys a deeper spiritual meaning but can be read (and twisted) in a superficial way. This week, one of those tweets led me to dig into the difference between admonishing other Christians and judging them.

Basically, the tweet was from a church pastor, and it said, "If you're not filled with God, you're self-absorbed." 

The words struck me personally, because I've been thinking lately about Jesus's words to the church of Laodicea in Revelation 3: 14-22. You know the passage -- the one about lukewarm faith and how He's not going to tolerate it. Immediately when I read the tweet, the passage flashed through my mind as I thought, "If you're a lukewarm Christian, you are not fully filled with God's desires. And your really are self-absorbed with your own cares, worries and concerns. That's true."

I re-tweeted the tweet, mostly because I felt it spoke to my own nature and inclination to not fully depend on God. For me, the tweet was a good admonishment to be mindful of this.

Within a few minutes, I had a response from a new friend who is an atheist. She felt the tweet was judgmental. Did it mean that atheists are self-absorbed? She wanted to know.

My response ... No. The tweet is directed to other believers, I said. And then I further explained the connection to Revelation 3.

It got me thinking about the difference between admonishment and judgment ... and also the difference between how God wants Christians to relate to non-believers vs. fellow believers.

If you're on social media as a believer, you carry a huge burden to convey the message of God's love in the way in which Jesus conveyed it to those who do not believe. You also have a responsibility to admonish fellow believers.

OK, so let's break this down. First of all, how did Jesus relate to non-believers?

Time and again, we see a compassionate Savior, one who goes out of His way to gently coax wayward sheep to the Shepherd's arms. The examples are numerous. The prostitute who poured perfume on His feet and wiped them with her tears. The Samaritan woman. Zacchaeus, the tax collector. Even some of the disciples were part of the fringes of society -- Matthew, the tax collector, is a good example, and so is Simon the Zealot (who was part of the society that incited revolts against Rome).

In all cases, Jesus speaks tenderly to those that the religious leaders of the day deemed "sinners." He made it clear repeatedly that people who are considered to be "sinners" by the religious establishment will be in the Kingdom of Heaven before the religious leaders would be.

Which leads us to the next point ... the difference between admonishment and judging.

Jesus also pulled no punches when it came to the religious leaders of His day -- the Pharisees and Sadducees. Remember that little incident in the Temple with a whip? Or if you really want an eye-full of Jesus's ire against hypocrisy, sometime sit down and read Matthew 23. Check out the language.

Now. That's judging. And it was righteous judging -- not hypocritical judging (which is altogether different -- what my atheist friend thought I was doing with that tweet).

OK. Now let's look at the difference between that and admonishment.

Admonishment is a loving correction or warning.

I'm a parent of a 12-year-old boy, so it's easy for me to illustrate this with a "mom" example:

Let's say we're going to someone's house for dinner. Before we get there, I say to my son, "Make sure you say, 'Please,' and 'Thank you,' and if you do not like something they offer, say, 'It looks delicious, but no thank you.' Never say, 'I don't like that.' You always want to consider the host's feelings, because she has worked hard to cook this just for us, as her guests."

That's an admonishment. It's gives him the structures of social niceties and explains the reasons behind them -- to be kind to one who has been kind to him.

Now suppose we go to the dinner after I give him this admonishment in the car. He sits at the table, and he rolls his eyes at the food, refuses to put anything on his plate, tells the host that he doesn't like what she has prepared, grumbles and says he wants to go home.

OK, I don't have to tell you that when we get home, he is facing some serious consequences.

That's judgment.

Now let's take this one step further.

Suppose next week I decide to bring a foster child into our home -- one who has been shown no love or care or concern -- one who has had no instruction from a loving parent. We are invited to the same dinner at the same friend's house.

Is the foster child expected to live up to the same standards that I place on my child, who has received my admonishments and love for the past 12 years?

Of course not.

If that child behaves in the manner that I used in the first example -- refuses to eat, tells the host he doesn't like the food, rolls his eyes and insists on going home -- is that child going to face the same consequences that my own child would receive?

Of course not.

One more step in the story, and then I think you'll see where I'm going ...

Now let's suppose that the foster child stays with us for a year, and I decide to adopt this child. The child has only been with us for one year (but 12 months is 12 months).

Although that child has had the benefit of my instruction for a year, is that the same as having my instruction and love for 12 years -- the time period that my birth child has been with us? Even though the child is now an adopted member of the family, does that child have the full knowledge of the family that the birth child has?

You see where I'm going here.

That child will be admonished in his behavior, of course, but he is still learning many things that the birth child knows just through osmosis.

How does this apply to a situation on Twitter, social media in general -- or even at your church, where you may have made friends with a new family in attendance?

As fellow brothers and sisters who are grounded in the faith -- who have had the benefit of the Spirit's guidance in all matters in our lives -- we are responsible to each other to admonish each other. So if I see a tweet from a pastor that says, "If you're not filled with God, you're self-absorbed," I don't take offense. I know this is meant for my good and that the words are to encourage my relationship with God.

Proverbs 27:6 says, "Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy."

In other words, if a fellow believer "wounds" you with an admonishment, you and I both know it's for our good. We examine our hearts and determine if the friend's words are brought to us through God's guidance.

But if you're dealing with new believers (as our example, the adopted child) ... or non-believers (as our example, the foster child) ... you can see that the "standards" of admonishment are completely different. In fact, before you offer these dear people your "wisdom," please stop yourself and ask God how He'd like you to handle it. I guarantee you that you'll get an answer, if you are praying with sincerity.

I have had non-believing friends reach out to me and ask for my genuine opinion on a sin they have committed or a wrong they feel they have done against someone else. But I only offer these opinions when asked for them.

On the other hand, if a church leader, for example, was engaged in an immoral relationship -- yes, you call them on it. See First Corinthians chapter 5 for the basis for my statement. There is a time and place for admonishment -- and there is a time and place for judgment, when it is necessary in order for that person to return to God.

One more thing on this ...

I looked up the original language for the word, "admonishment" in the Bible.

What I found was that the late Hebrew characters -- and also the Aramaic -- in the original text mean one thing:

"To give light."

If you are "admonishing" someone, you are shining a light to guide them.

So let's admonish each other -- and when dealing with those who are still struggling with belief -- be kind. Be gentle. Treat them with the same care and love that Jesus showed the unbelievers in His era.

To seal the point, here is a list of Scripture verses on admonishment for your perusal.

Romans 15:14
Colossians 3:16
Psalm 141:5
Luke 17:3
1st Thessalonians 5:14
2nd Timothy 3:16

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Feral Cats & "Captive" Thoughts

"We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." ~ 2nd Corinthians 10:5

I first realized things had gotten out of control when the conversation turned to feral cats.

Just like a 100-watt bulb flooding a room with light, the root cause of my problem suddenly glared – and I understood that the problem … was me.

I had been struggling since the night before with emotions that had taken root as minor annoyance and then blossomed into aggravation, anger, hatred and now gloom.

Feral cats?” you ask.

Well, yes. Feral cats were the trigger that jogged my perception that 2nd Corinthians 10:5 (quoted above) is more than a glib word of advice – the verse is a sober warning – and we’ll get to the feral cats in a moment.

Let’s rewind to Sunday night, when this all started, because it's important for you to see how one thing can quickly lead to another ... and why 2nd Corinthians 10:5 is such a vital verse to apply to your life with strict discipline.

Sunday nights are my favorite times of the week. I call them my "escape nights." I don't watch a lot of television. But there is one show that I never miss: "Once Upon a Time." This show allows me to forget whatever is going on in real life. All of my favorite childhood stories are in one place, the heroes and princesses and knights and magical creatures interacting in one fantastic storyline.

But Sunday night, the show was delayed for a few minutes due to a speech from the Oval Office. And the President was addressing tragedies created by ISIS. This is where my “minor annoyance” began. Reality -- that the real world is a dangerous and scary place -- intruded on my escape time. And as I listened to the President, that annoyance moved into anger. I started brooding about the terrorist attacks in California and Paris. By the time the President finished his speech, I was into an agitated state of mind.

Finally, my show started, and I settled in, anxious to be rid of the reminders of the cares of life.

Unfortunately, the Once Upon a Time screenwriters decided to take a U-turn. The plot became very dark and sad. And the story ended with not a little bit of gloom. Now I was dejected. I’d been looking forward to a night by the Christmas tree to relax fully. I went to bed.

And throughout the night, I dreamed. I woke several times, and by now, I’d moved from agitation and anger to anxiousness. I started thinking about my life as a single mom, supporting a child now in middle school. I started wondering about his future. I dwelled on school shootings and his safety. I churned about providing for him in a world that shifts with uncertainty and fear. 

I slept lightly through that night. When I woke, it was to a grey slate sky -- not a glimmer of yellow sunlight to be seen. The house was chilly. My dog was curled feebly and snoring. He’s old, and so then I started thinking, “It won’t be long until I have to put him to sleep. He looks so miserable and in pain.” I started worrying about my dog.

Then I heard it: a liquid cough coming from my child’s room. I groaned. He emerged with an, “I’m sick. I want to stay home from school." He threw his little arms around my neck. I took his temperature (none), washed some Tylenol children’s cold syrup down his throat and convinced him to go to the first two classes of the day and then call me if he still felt sick to pick him up.

While I was scurrying around, turning up the heat, lighting the tree, putting on Christmas music (I had to try to cheer myself up by now!) and feeding the dog, I pulled up Twitter. What was going on in the world today?

And that’s when I got hit with the feral cats.

I don’t know what people were doing on Monday morning as they got ready for work, but it seemed that the majority of the 7,000-plus people I am following on Twitter decided it was highly important to send out photos and videos of feral cats. These weren’t cute cuddly fluffy kittens, mewing quietly and batting balls of yarn playfully. These were the scrawny, spotted-striped outdoor cats that bring dead rodents to your doorstep as gifts. My mind flashed back to four years ago, when on a cold winter’s night I took pity on four neighborhood strays and brought them indoors. They wrecked the house, terrorized my dog and by the time all was said and done, I had to de-flea the place. Let’s not even talk about the half-dead bloody Robins that they dropped in my yard, I guess to thank me for my hospitality.

There was no good reason for my grumpiness, other than the fact that since the night before, I hadn’t been following 2nd Corinthians 10:5. I wasn’t taking these negative thoughts “captive.” I boiled over and sent out a snarky tweet about these photographs, comparing the need of feral cats to that of homeless people. Then in a self-righteous huff, I took off for my gym for yoga class.

That’s when things got even more interesting, because yoga is supposed to lead to serene calm, and I was trying desperately to grasp at every calm moment and image that I could. I usually hit the weight room before I go to class … but when I walked in, a gaggle of women were watching a broadcast on Fox News about Donald Trump.

You know …. I normally would have let that go. I normally would have just silently picked up my weights, ignored the television and the Right Wing comments about the President and gone about my business without comment.

But at that moment, I let loose.

I sort of …. Ummm …. How should I describe this?

OK, there is no other way to put this.

I growled. Sort of like a loud bear.

Everyone in the weight room stopped and turned and stared at me, their jaws agape. I can’t blame them. They probably were wondering if I was going to start shooting, given the recent events. But I just glared at all of them, mumbled something under my breath about “Fox News is for non-thinking idiots” (I think. Yep. That’s what I said.) and headed to the sauna.

And in the sauna was an immigrant from China. We talked about the smog in Beijing and about how long she’d been in this country. We talked about kids and yoga and exercise and food and my child’s fascination with Asian cultures. By the time I walked out of there, I was breathing more deeply, and I was starting to feel a little ashamed for my bear impersonation in the weight room.

After I got home, I pulled up Twitter one more time to see some questions about my tweet about the feral cats. And I felt ridiculous. Why on earth had I made such a big deal about feral cats? Why had I made an ass of myself at the gym? Why was I feeling doom and gloom and angry and frustrated and anxious and – frankly – hateful? Yes, I was feeling hateful towards people on the other side of the political fence. I was feeling strong hate for their views and strong hate that they were clinging to a candidate that I found completely repulsive.

And when I looked at that tweet I’d sent out about the feral cats …. Well, that’s when it hit me:

"We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." ~ 2nd Corinthians 10:5

Usually this verse pertains to the practice of defending the Gospel, but I also think that when we “spiral,” for lack of a better word, into this type of negative thinking – it takes us away from “the knowledge of God.” It strips us of being grateful and loving. It takes focus away from the blessings God has given us and places it instead on our fears, anger and frustration. Nothing good comes of this. And as you can see in my case, by the time I realized how my thoughts had traveled, we can actually alienate others from wanting to know about Him, just by our negativity and actions.

The holidays are here, and for many of us whose life circumstances have changed, that can signal a lot of negative thinking, even sadness. But I would challenge you – as I challenge myself – to “take captive every thought.” Take it captive. When tempted to yield to the worries of this world, take those temptations captive. Stop the thoughts in their tracks, and if you have difficulty doing that, ask God to do it for you.

It takes strong mental discipline to quell this. But I also believe that when Jesus says, “Ask, and it shall be given you,” that you can apply that to negative thinking. Ask Him to direct your thoughts, to fill your soul, to give you peace, to pour love in your heart for those that you find repulsive and to calm your worries.

Take every thought captive. I hope and pray that we can all do that this season.

And if you see snarky tweets from me in the future about feral cats, just assume I’ve had a bad morning … but I am trying hard subdue those thoughts into captivity.