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