Tag Archives: Scripture

In the beginning was the Word…

The last few weeks I have been working with a woman who is struggling with chronic and complex PTSD.

To put that in laymen’s terms, my client experienced a boatload of trauma, starting when she was just a child and ending only recently when she kicked out her latest abusive partner.  The litany of abuse is unbelievably long, including emotional, physical, and sexual abuse when she was a child, abandonment by her parents, and domestic violence with her romantic partners as an adult.

You might imagine that it is difficult listening to someone graphically describe the violence they have lived through, and you would be right. Sometimes I get a little sick to my stomach because the violence is so extreme; it stuns me to realize just how much violence can be done to a human being without killing them.  It’s even worse when the violence happened to my client when they were a child because of how helpless they were to escape their abuser and how reliant they were on their abuser for their daily needs.

And of course, my clients cry when they talk about the abuse. They weep, hug themselves, and rock back and forth, trying to comfort the invisible child within that just cannot stop screaming in anguish.

For all the pain that the violence causes, the violence is far easier to fix than the verbal abuse. Punches, kicks, and belts will never have anything on the spoken word when it comes to inflicting damage.

I know that you’ve heard that stupid childhood meme “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me!”

What a load of crap!!

As a therapist I have tools to tear away the memories of physical and sexual violence; I have special techniques that help the brain reprocess and ‘de-fang’ disturbing and painful memories of violence and terror.  Don’t get me wrong: it’s not like I have a magic wand that I wave at my client that makes the bad memories fade away.  On the other hand, the methods currently used for treating trauma are effective and there are enough different methods to be able to find at least one that works well for the client’s specific needs.  If we work hard and the client is brave, we can usually eliminate most, if not all, of the symptoms of PTSD and free them the abuse of their past.

What is much harder is freeing them from the voices inside their head that repeat demeaning, hateful words that were spoken by their abuser in anger and disdain.  I cannot silence the demanding father that could never be pleased, no matter how high the grade or how many goals you made once he takes up residence in my client’s mind. I cannot pry off the negative label when my client’s mother labeled her a whore when she finally told her mom about the years of sexual abuse by her stepfather.  I cannot stop the horrifying, negative, self-abusive messages that play in my client’s head as their mind repeats endlessly the abusive words spoken to them every time they made a mistake or angered their parents. I cannot re-establish my client’s confidence after years of being told by their partner that they are the entire reason the marriage is miserable, and that they perceive everything incorrectly and do everything wrong.

Why am I telling you this?

Because we carry deadly weapons in our mouths: weapons that we can quickly deploy that produce deadly results without leaving any bodies behind as evidence.

Words are weapons, and our weapons are far more fatal than we like to realize.

It is so easy to succumb to irritation and strike out at our children or our spouse or our coworkers. It is so easy to blame our constant, low-lying agitation on the demands of our jobs and daily life. And it is so easy to forgive ourselves for the many ‘minor’ moments when we let our tone and our message get sharp and jagged, when we say a host of the wrong words. It is so much easier to ask forgiveness for our ‘momentary’ lapse of kindness than to actually try to control our tongue.

Have you ever tried to control your tongue?

It didn’t work for me either.

It won’t ever work.

It doesn’t work because it isn’t our tongue that we need to control.  It’s our mind. Our tongue has no will of its own. It can only repeat the words that play silently in our minds, waiting for our anger to give them greater purchase so they can be spoken out loud.

And why? Why would we house weapons in our minds, letting them silently fill our heads with words that can only do damage?

It’s because my clients aren’t the only ones who have been tortured with venomous words.

It’s you, too. It’s me.  I’m afraid that no one escapes unscathed.

Every single one of us, in some way, have been stabbed and beaten and shot with words that tore us apart.  Maybe our parents spoke them, or maybe it was a schoolyard bully. For some of us it was our partner that spoke the words that ripped us apart. The problem is that the damage never stops with us. As long as we let these wounds remain unhealed, they bleed sick, self-punishing thoughts that wound us even more until finally the words demand release and they turn their venom outward, begging to pour out of our mouth so they can go on damaging other people.

So now what? What do we do?

First, if you find your mind full of self-critical thoughts that tear up your self-esteem, it is important that you seek counseling. I know it sounds like your own voice in your own head saying those things, but those words didn’t come from you, and they don’t belong in your head. More importantly, if words are weapons, essentially you are beating and abusing and terrorizing yourself…and if you did that to anyone else you’d be arrested!  Believe it or not, you can spit those words out of your mind and never have to hear them again. If the counselor you find doesn’t help you, get a hold of me and I’ll share a few techniques that will help you evict the cruel inner critic in your mind.  Remember, those hateful words in your head have a habit of leaking out of your mouth and attacking others. If you want to tame your tongue, tame your inner critic.  Trust me, it works much better than you think. Also, it’s much nicer living inside your head when there isn’t any voice in there destroying your self-esteem and your confidence. Az-plc.com

Second, remember that your words have great power: power to wound, power to bind, power to heal, and power to set free. Lest you think this is a bunch of new age hokum, let me remind you that John 1 begins with the sentence In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  If everything that exists began with the Word and if the Word is God, then our words, spoken by someone who is made in the image of God, are no small thing!  God spoke the entire universe into existence; likewise when we speak we create. Do our words create love? Do they create wounds? Do they seek to carry God’s grace, or do they convey judgement and condemnation?

What you live inside your head becomes the reality you create around you. Please…let your life (and that of those you love) become a garden of life and love, not a pit of despair.

Have a blessed week! I’m on hiatus for the next week, and when I come back I hope to have all sorts of tales of new adventures.

Blessings!

 

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Unclean

So…we United Methodists have been in the news lately.

Nothing big, we just elected ourselves an openly gay bishop last July and someone on the other side of the nation got their undies in a knot about it and asked the United Methodist Judicial Council for a ruling about whether or not this was ‘legal’ under the UMC Book of Discipline rules regarding clergy and specifically bishops.

The Book of Discipline (BOD) of the United Methodist Church states that homosexuality of any kind (thus including all LGBTQIA persons) is ‘incompatible with Christian teaching’ although the BOD does say that the UMC affirms “that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God.”  Then in a later section on ordained ministry, the BOD goes on to restate how “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be…ordained as ministers…or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church.”

Wow…feels discriminatory to me.  Not what I want to see in my church’s polity.

Setting that aside, I have been thinking all week about that statement “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Says WHO??

Who decides what is “Christian teaching”?  Is there a central committee somewhere that I’m not aware of?   I’m really confused about the statement “incompatible with Christian teaching”.

You see…I went to seminary, and when I was in seminary, I read a host of theology books. Some of those books were written by neo-Orthodox theologians like Karl Barth, some were written by evangelical theologians like Stanley Grenz, some were by liberationist theologians like Ronaldo Muñoz or Dorote Sölle, some were written by process theologians like Marjorie Suchoki or C. Robert Mesle, and some were by progressive theologians like Phillip Gulley or Roger Wolsey. Basically, I read a whole lot of theologians who understood God in very different ways, and how they defined ‘Christian teaching’ differed. Some basics (like the existence of God and Jesus) were the same from theologian to theologian, but what each theologian considered important was different and unique, and therefore the things they defined as tenets of ‘Christian teaching’ was also unique.

What I’m trying to tell you is that there very little consensus as to what the full complement of ‘Christian teaching’ is, so to have something as basic as sexuality be ‘incompatible with Christian teaching’ begs the question “Whose Christian teaching?”  Because it is not incompatible with my Christian teaching or that of many of my colleagues and we all have Master’s of Divinity degrees and are ordained ministers and therefore theologians in our own right.  Moreover, we have a lot of theologians who are far more well-known and well-spoken than we are who back us up.

The thing that strikes me as odd is that the Book of Discipline doesn’t state that homosexuality is forbidden in the Bible (Rom 1:26-27), or that it is an abomination to the Lord (Lev 18:22), or that it is a sin and therefore worthy of condemnation (Lev 20:13).  The Book of Discipline doesn’t cite scripture to condemn homosexuality, it just gives a weak statement about homosexuality’s ‘compatibility with Christian teaching.’

Well, if that’s the argument they are using, then let’s get out our Bibles and turn to Acts 10. It’s time for some ‘Christian teaching’.

9b Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15 The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven. 17 Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate. 18 They called out to ask whether Simon, who was called Peter, was staying there. 19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Look, three men are searching for you. 20 Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.” 21 So Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?” 22 They answered, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” 23 So Peter invited them in and gave them lodging. The next day he got up and went with them, and some of the believers from Joppa accompanied him. 24 The following day they came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 On Peter’s arrival Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshiped him. 26 But Peter made him get up, saying, “Stand up; I am only a mortal.” 27 And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; 28 and he said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.   (Acts 10:9b-28 NRSV)

Okay, anyone with half a brain who wants to argue with me is going to read this and say “Yeah, but this is about the food laws.”

NO it is not. The vision was about food, but the rest of the passage of scripture is about God sending Peter to teach a Gentile, a man who Peter (a righteous Jew) would have found unclean according to Jewish law. Let me remind you that Jewish law is laid out in books of the Bible like Deuteronomy and Leviticus, a book that I quoted earlier in reference to laws against homosexuality.

In Acts 10:28, Peter tells Cornelius and the people in his home that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit Gentiles, and then Peter says “but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”   God didn’t tell Peter that the laws in question were now null and void.  The laws stood as they were written and yet…God was simply no longer interested in maintaining God’s own law when it caused certain people to be cast aside and considered unworthy.

The point of today’s Christian teaching is: God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.

God has shown me that I should NOT call anyone profane or unclean, no matter how nicely I do it, or how sweetly I preface it with a statement acknowledging that “all persons are of sacred worth, created in the image of God.”

If God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean, wouldn’t it be ‘incompatible with Christian teaching’ to label someone unfit for ministry because of their sexuality?

Yeah, I’m thinking so.

And if we don’t want to be profane and unclean ourselves, maybe we should knock that off, you think?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Florescent or LED?

Matthew 17:1-13

1 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” 10 And the disciples asked him, “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” 11 He replied, “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; 12 but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.

This is one of those passages of scripture that I cannot read without giggling. Seriously…I lose it when I read this passage.  If you aren’t in the mood to indulge my stupidity for a moment, be kind to yourself and skip ahead a few paragraphs to the point where I say “Back to the topic at hand.”

Okay…ready?

First I want to call him Jesus Christ Glow Stick or just Glow Stick Jesus. It’s as if Jesus was normal all this time and then he bent over too far and ‘click!’ and the glow stick part of Him was activated and he got all bright and glowy “and his face shown like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white.”  This is the point where I start thinking that marketing folks could use Glow Stick Jesus to advertise the whitening properties of their detergent. “Transfiguration Tide…for clothes that are dazzling white!

Then I start imagining Glow Stick Jesus at a rave and all the little ravers, drugged up on Ecstacy, oohing and ahhhing over Jesus’ glowing visage. It makes me wonder if Jesus is able to glow in any other colors than ‘like the sun’, because if He can glow in different colors, that would be a major money maker.

Then I start wondering about Peter. What is wrong with that man? Your Lord and Savior turns into a glow lamp and two historical characters appear in front of your eyes, and the first thing you do is offer to build them each a house?  The least Peter could have done was to fanboy for a few minutes over Moses and Elijah, but NO…he goes all Bob the Builder on them to the point that God has to get involved and tell Peter to shut up and listen to Glow Stick Jesus.

Okay, God didn’t quite say “Shut up and listen to Glow Stick Jesus” but you get my point.

Finally…I have always wondered how the disciples knew that the two guys who appeared next to Jesus were Moses and Elijah.  Unless God requires the residents of Heaven to wear name tags (which makes Heaven sound like a convention or a senior center) then there has to be a couple of lines of scripture missing where the disciples say “Who were those guys?” and Jesus tells them that he was talking to Moses and Elijah.

And this is where I go from stupid to serious.

I’m a little stunned that Jesus forbade Peter, James, and John from telling the other disciples about the Transfiguration. Why would He do that? Why would Jesus set certain disciples apart from the others to have special knowledge about life after death, which would provide a huge amount of consolation during the crucifixion.  After all…Peter, James, and John just saw Moses and Elijah…two guys who had been dead for hundreds and hundreds of years and there they were, alive and well and speaking to Jesus. That’ll change your point of view when it comes to believing in life after death, and it would certainly change your experience of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus if you had already seen someone vividly alive after their death.  I feel like Jesus cheated the other disciples just a little. I don’t know why He would do that, and I have to trust that He knew what He was doing, but it still seems kind of unwise and even unkind to the other disciples. Don’t you wonder what seeing the transfiguration would have done to change Judas’ mind?

But that’s a blog post for a different day.

Back to the topic at hand.

Usually, after I stop giggling, I find myself wondering if we, or more specifically I, will ever find out what my transfigured self is like.  Do I shine like the sun and become dazzlingly white, or am I so flawed that I will flicker and sputter like a bad florescent bulb?  I’m guessing that it’s more of the latter, and that disturbs me.

Recently I was rereading a favorite book, Voices of Silence, the Lives of the Trappists Today by Frank Bianco.  I originally read this book when I was in seminary.  At that point in my life I was struggling to reconcile my own flawed humanity with a life devoted to ministry, and this book provided story after story of Trappist monks and priests struggling in exactly the same way, trying to reconcile their lives and failings with a deep desire to dedicate themselves to a holy life, set apart.  I reread the book every now and then and I always find new gems that I missed in previous readings.

The passage that caught my eye this time was actually a passage that caught my eye the first time I read the book.  Bianco was discussing his need for a hero with Dom Thomas (known as Mac in Bianco’s book) the former abbot of Gethsemane Abbey, who tells Bianco that this struggle is exactly what led to the fall of the angels.

“People need to feel that somebody has all the answers, that somebody is in control. They spend the major portion of their lives and energy trying to gain and…keep control.  They’re trying to prove they’re perfect…It’s a self-delusion that the devil himself bought. ‘Let us be like God’ he urged all those poor angels who followed him into damnation.”

My awareness that I would flicker and sputter like a bad florescent bulb might be a good thing if the search for perfection leads to damnation. I am acutely aware that I am nothing like God, nowhere capable of sustaining that kind of goodness, kindness, or awareness of the needs of others. Jesus was always caring for others and healing them, and I…I am mostly about myself, which is normal but annoying for a Christian who is supposed to be a leader of the Church.

Mac goes on to make the point that our imperfections are not what will lead us into damnation.

“You still don’t understand God’s love. Perfect love, he explained, cannot see imperfection …God is perfect love. Evil is self-love. It is philosophically impossible for God to even ‘think’ of evil. He cannot ‘see’ evil. It is completely outside His orbit. That fact tells us what our final judgement will be like…We will come before all-perfect love (God), who can only recognize love. He will only see as much of us as has been loving. That He will take unto himself…Sin and evil are nothing less than our inability to love. At those moments, it’s as though we’re invisible to God. He, the all-good, perfect lover, can only see the good in us.”

I am not sure that I buy into the idea that God cannot see us at all when we are sinning because an action that is love-less cannot extinguish all the love that’s within me, not even for a second. It does, however, explain my feeling that I flicker and sputter and flash like a florescent bulb struggling to light and remain lit.  The love inside me is like a force that fights for dominance, pushing its way to the surface only to be capsized by my ego and my self-will.  Luckily love is more of a buoy than a boat, inevitably righting itself and rising to the surface to claim its rightful place in the center of my life again and again despite my stupidity and sinfulness.

Suddenly, the idea of Jesus transfigured, shining like the sun and clothed in dazzling white makes total sense to me. Apparently love glows like sunlight, shining from within, illuminating not only the person who loves but the beloved, who bathes in the warmth of that love.

And so I flicker and sputter like a bad florescent bulb, and while that is not optimal, it is good news because it means that there is light and love in me that cannot be suppressed for long.  My job is to stay plugged into the Source and do my best to clear away anything that dims my light. This, I think, is what Wesley would call being ‘perfected in love.’  I would call it upgrading me from florescent to LED.

I’m still giggling about Glow Stick Jesus and the laundry detergent.  Sorry.

 

The Mourning After

This has been a rough week.  My candidate lost, not that it really matters.  My life will go on, largely unchanged.  I still have a job. I still have a house. The fluctuations in the stock market affect the net worth of my retirement portfolio, but I’m only 52 and retirement is a long way away and so right now, those fluctuations exist only on paper.  In the end, November 8th came and went and absolutely nothing changed for me or my husband except the name of our president.

I got on Facebook the morning after the election and noticed that a lot of people have been posting about unity, and how both Republicans and Democrats need to set aside our differences and work towards unity.  Many of my Christian friends have posted on Facebook encouraging their friends to pray for unity and to pray that God grants wisdom and guidance to our nation’s leaders.

Gosh that sounds nice, doesn’t it?  Pray for unity! Pray that God guides our nation’s leaders!

I kind of expect Christians to be praying for unity and guidance on a regular basis. I’m kind of confused why anyone has to encourage Christians to do something that they should pretty much be doing every day.  Moments like this make me wonder if I need to go on Facebook and encourage Christians to brush their teeth and shower daily.

Apparently, Christians are struggling with the basics these days and need some encouragement.

The thing is that I’m not convinced that unity is what we need to be praying for.  Let me explain.

Do you remember when you were still a teenager and you used to wonder when you would meet the one?  I used to dream about the boy I would marry and how handsome he would be; I would dream about the house I would live in and the children that I would have with my handsome husband. I never wondered if the police would stop my wedding, or if the government would refuse to grant me the right to marry the one I loved the most.

Such is the thing we call straight privilege.  I never wondered if I’d be allowed to marry because I thought that everybody had the right to get married…and I forgot that everybody included a bunch of LGBTQ persons who did not actually gain that right until 2015.

Yeah…that’s right…LGBTQ persons did not gain the right to legal marriage in the United States until 2015.  I think I was almost 35 years old before it occurred to me that there were whole groups of people in the US who weren’t legally allowed to marry at all.

So…you can imagine how the election of a right-wing President and even more conservative Vice President impacted the LGBTQ community.

Shortly after I arrived at work on Wednesday morning, I got to listen to the despair of a young lesbian women who is engaged but hasn’t yet reached her wedding day.  I cannot imagine the pain she must have felt wondering if such a basic civil right—the right to marry—would be stripped from her come January 2017.  I cannot imagine how frightening it must be for my gay colleague in Nevada who got married last month just after adopting his son.  I can’t imagine the terror his newly adopted 11 year-old son must feel, considering that the poor boy was rejected by his biological family when he came out of the closet.  Now he gets to wonder if his new family will be destroyed by politicos who don’t even know his name simply because his fathers are gay.

If you didn’t wake up on Wednesday and feel any fear, you are probably white, straight, and male. Congratulations!  That’s quite the trifecta of birthrights!  You might not feel very privileged and God knows how hard you have worked to achieve the success that you currently know.  In fact, I’m pretty certain that you deserve all the money, success, and respect that is currently yours, and perhaps you might deserve more money, success, and respect than you are actually getting.  On the other hand, you have never had to fight for your right to marry your beloved. You have never been arrested for driving while white because it is always assumed that white people don’t have to steal to be driving a car that nice.  And you’ve never been afraid to have one drink too many for fear that the people around you will strip you naked and sexually violate you while calling you the whore.

Please, if you woke up on Wednesday and weren’t afraid, do more than pray for unity.

Go out and create some unity.

Do me a favor.  Look in the Gospels!  You will discover that Jesus did not sit in his prayer closet asking His Father for unity and governmental guidance for 33 years before crawling onto the cross and dying for your sins.  While Jesus’ ministry only lasted three years prior to His death, that man was busy!  He prayed plenty, but He spent much more time doing the right thing than He did praying about the right things.

Look, you and I both know that a Trump presidency is NOT the end of the world, no matter what you or I think of him.  A Trump presidency will not be the end of America as we know it, either.  On the other hand, the people who are terrified of what this election has done have good reasons to be fearful.

Maybe you should find out what those reasons are.

Speak to a Muslim, and find out what it is like to be blamed for the behaviors of other people whose choices you never supported.  Talk to a member of the LGBTQ community and find out what it is like to be denied basic human rights, and to fear that your recently granted human rights will be taken away again.  Speak to a woman who fears that women’s equal rights are about to disappear along with women’s safety from sexual harassment and assault.  Speak to a Hispanic person who fears widespread racism against citizens of the US who just happen to be of Hispanic descent. Speak to someone who benefited from the Dream Act, and find out what it’s like to be raised in the US but considered an illegal alien.  Find out what it is like to fear being sent “home” to a country that you’ve never even visited.

Go and find someone who is truly terrified; sit and listen to them without arguing with them about why they are wrong.  Just listen.  Try to understand that the campaign speeches that you may have found liberating felt like threats to the person you’re listening to. Imagine yourself in their shoes, having to fear your country’s government and what they might do to you only two months from now.

Listen closely to them no matter how you feel about what they say.

Having done all that, if you are still serious about the unity you are praying for, look them in the eyes and speak these words:

I promise to use whatever privilege is mine to protect your human rights and your human dignity.  I may not agree with how your live your life, or how you came to live in my country, or who you worship. None of that matters, because I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and He gave His life to save the lives of every human being, and that includes you and me. If you mean that much to Jesus, then you mean that much to me.  I will not stand idly by while other people try to take away your rights and your safety.  Everyone deserves their human and civil rights. Everyone.

Letting other people have their rights will not take away your rights.

Giving other people respect will not deny you respect.

Working to achieve justice for everyone will create a just world for…EVERYONE and that includes you.

And praying…praying is nice, but when it comes to where the rubber hits the road, action is what it takes to create unity.

And just in case you’re still not sure if God is on board with this idea, remember Micah 6:8.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

You heard the Man.  Now do it.

The Apple of His Eye

I met with a client this week who is struggling to rebuild her life as she trudges through an ugly divorce.  Let’s call her Anna.

Anna believes that God has a plan for her life and a path for her to follow so that she can move forward after the end of her marriage, and she is doing everything possible to be faithful to both.  She is doing her best to raise her two teenage girls to be women of faith.  She is working hard to build the realty business she opened when she left her husband.  She is struggling every month to pay the bills but is determined to become financially secure so that she can stop relying on her ex-husband, who isn’t interested in being reliable or remotely honest when it comes to child support.  The thing that amazes me is that in the midst of all of this, Anna continues to give to others even when she doesn’t have much herself. She particularly likes helping low income families get affordable housing even though she doesn’t get much of a commission from that kind of work.  Anna and I both believe that she is doing everything she can to be on God’s path, and we can both very clearly see God at work in her life, so why isn’t it getting any easier?

That is the one thing that Anna just can’t get over: that no matter how hard she works to do exactly what God wants, her life is just as difficult now as it was only a month or two after she left her husband.  Anna sits in my office and cries, just wanting God to reveal to her what she’s supposed to do next. What is the next step on God’s path? Not knowing makes her anxious and fearful about what’s going to happen next.  It makes her fear that she has screwed up and has wandered off God’s path somehow.  In the end, despite her deep faith, she’s incredibly anxious, frequently exhausted, and always at the end of her rope, and she doesn’t think that a good Christian woman should feel the way she does.

I try to remind her at every session that no matter how perfect your life is otherwise, raising two teenage daughters will have you at the end of your rope every day, all the time.

Beyond that, though, I get where Anna is coming from.

My parents have always attended an evangelical, fundamentalist church.  They did when I was a child, and they still do now.  As a child, I remember learning about God’s will and God’s plan for your life.  God had a path for your life and you had better be on it. If you stepped off that path, even one tiny step off of the path, you were in big trouble.  Even more frightening was that stepping off the path meant that you were on your own, that God was not going to be present to you and your needs while you went on your little ‘jaunt’ off the path.  If you realized your mistake later and wanted to get back to a good relationship with God, you had to backtrack to where you left God’s path in the first place, and then get busy moving forward on God’s path because being off God’s path was unacceptable, sinful, and a good reason to condemn you to Hell for all eternity.

I suppose that makes some sense, especially to fundamentalists.  The thing is that it makes God sound awfully petulant and kind of like a narcissistic parent. You know, you better play by God’s rules or He isn’t going to play with you anymore.  He’ll just take His ball and go home and you will be All. By. Yourself.  Oh, and you’ll spend eternity in Hell.

I don’t believe any of that anymore.

I’m Methodist now, and I am a feminist process theologian.  That doesn’t mean much to anyone who doesn’t study theology, so I’ll just say that I really like the idea that my beginning (birth) is fixed in God’s hands and my ending (death) is also fixed in God’s hands, and the life that exists between those two points is a negotiation between God and me.  I believe that God will never leave me because God is not in the business of abandoning His children…not even the disrespectful, rebellious ones.  For me, it’s all the more reason to love Him and serve Him.

What does that have to do with Anna?

Well, Anna was raised in an evangelical, fundamentalist church just like I was.  Both of us learned early on that ‘true Christians’ had the peace that passes understanding (Phill 4:7) and that meant that you don’t get anxious if you really love the Lord.  ‘True Christians’ trust God and do not fear circumstances.  ‘True Christians’ wait for God’s leading and are patient because God always acts in God’s time, which is rarely early but never late.  God is all merciful and knows your needs; He has numbered the hairs on your heads, so you have nothing to worry about. (Lk 12:7)

What all that boils down to is that ‘true Christians’ don’t ever have unpleasant emotions like worry, fear, or anxiety.  Anger is pretty much unacceptable as well, unless it’s holy anger at the sin you perceive in the world (or in someone else, but that’s another post.) ‘True Christians’ sail through life so zen that nothing ruffles their feathers; after all, their Father in Heaven is looking out for them, so why worry?

I know devout Buddhists who that aren’t that zen and never will be.

Anyone who reads their Bible…heck anyone who has seen the movie The Passion of The Christ knows that Jesus sweat blood in the Garden of Gethsemane and was so distressed that God sent angels to comfort Him.

Seriously? Jesus sweats blood, but somehow our faith in God is going to insulate us against the icky feelings that we don’t like?

No, that’s not how it works. Faith in God is not a magical pair of rose-colored glasses that will make our lives all sunshine and puppies.  Faith in God is not an extended release Valium for the soul.

Don’t get me wrong. Please, seek God’s will in your life and then do your best to live by it.  And when following God’s will leaves you exhausted, disappointed, and anxious, know that you have stumbled onto all the things that Christ experienced as he led the disciples for three years and then walked the path to His own crucifixion.  Definitely check in with God daily to make sure that you are following the path He has set before you, but plan on a few nights where you sweat some blood and need some supernatural help to make it through to the morning.

And if you are going to trust in something, trust that the God who delighted in creating you also delights in watching over you, because His son has made it clear that this is a difficult world to live in and we need all the help we can get. The God who created you loves you beyond what you can ever understand and will never leave you because it would break His heart to do so.  You are, in so many ways, the apple of His eye and He adores you.

If that doesn’t make you love God, I’m not sure what will.

Sometimes a Little Fire Is a Good Thing

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.       Genesis 11:1-9

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs–in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”        Acts 2:1-12

Today’s scripture is a funny balance: Pentecost and the Tower of Babel.

One represents the birth of the Church and the other the defining event that separated the nations from one another.  Both are acts of God.  At least, Scripture represents both of these events as acts of God.

I’m not sure I buy that idea when it comes to the Tower of Babel.

Do you really believe that God looked down on humanity, saw us doing something massive and accomplished, and utterly freaked out?  I have trouble believing that God, who created us in imitation of His very powerful self, would get weird over humanity doing incredibly powerful things.  Especially when you consider that the Tower of Babel was essentially a very tall building, not something like the hydrogen bomb, or unraveling the mystery of DNA, or cloning sheep.  If God is going to get His panties in a bunch over something, I’m guessing that nuclear bombs would have trumped a giant building, hands down. (There is no veiled reference to the presidential candidate there, I promise. No. Really.)  So I’m calling BS on this story in the Bible.  Sometimes you read the scriptures and you realize that the writers cannot possibly be describing God’s action as much as they are trying to explain why things are such a mess here in Humantown—and things are a mess here in Humantown.

Humans have been struggling with division from our inception, and I think that’s because God divided His image into two genders and created us male and female. Having two separate genders in humanity has created so many problems all by itself that I’m pretty certain that God did not expect unity to exist naturally within humanity…ever.  Add in a few more divisions like race, nation, culture, sexuality, and socioeconomic situation…holy smoke!  Trying to squeeze unity out of all that division is a fine task indeed.

Before you get all twisted up about how I’m accusing God of causing all our political and racial problems, let me point out that the same God that created us to be different and experience conflict and division also created us to have moments of clarity, unity, and profound experiences of connection with each other.

Today’s evidence of this is that God created Pentecost.

This is the point is when I would normally blather on about how Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit is a powerful sign that we are empowered disciples of an Almighty God who builds the bridge that helps us cross the barriers that separate us so that we can spread the Gospel.

But that is a post for another day, because today, something else popped out at me.

When I read about Pentecost today, I suddenly focused in on the verses starting at Acts 2:5, where the “Jews from every devout nation under heaven” suddenly start asking how it is that they are hearing the Gospel in their native tongue.

Simulcasting is cool, but it isn’t the point of this passage of scripture.

What I realized is that at that moment, a group of very diverse people were suddenly having the exact same experience at the same time.  A very diverse group of people—a group that probably included women and men, adults and children, Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free men—all heard the Gospel at the same time, in their own language, and the scripture says that “all were amazed and perplexed.” (2:7)

Another thing you may not have noticed is that while the disciples were “all together in one place” (2:2) that the diverse crowd of people who witnessed the event were not gathered in any way at all before Pentecost started.  As the tongues of fire appeared and the disciples began to speak, “…there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” (2:5-6)  In other words, the group of observers were going about their own business, totally uninvolved with each other, until the arrival of the Holy Spirit, and then suddenly the people began to draw together, drawn in by the Spirit.

Well, hot dog!  There it is!  Unity in the midst of total diversity, created by the Spirit.

God didn’t create humanity as a unity.  Our very creation makes us divided because we weren’t created like cookie cutter people.  We were created to be divided and to be divisive.  And yet at the very same time, we were created in God’s image, bearers of our own spirits and the spark of His Spirit, and therefore so very succeptible to the movement of the Holy Spirit and its unifying power.

And this is the best news ever.

Today, this news is giving me hope. Lots of hope.

Because I believe that the Holy Spirit will always be more powerful than the details that divide us.  

It gets easy to get lost in the details of our identity and our daily lives, but the Holy Spirit always has the power to sweep us up in experiences far greater than our individual details.  It only takes a moment to remember experiences like the 9/11 tragedy and the Paris bombings, and suddenly you know without a doubt that nation, culture, and race all fall away and we find ourselves in solidarity with victims we cannot know and have never met.

The Holy Spirit will always be more powerful than the details that divide us.

This is the gospel/good news for today.

 

On a personal note: Lord God, as the worldwide United Methodist church meets in Portland, may the spirit of Pentecost come to each and every delegate.  May the flame of your Spirit create understanding and respect where division once existed. May the flame of your Spirit illumine minds and create clarity, so that the Church may follow Your will.  Unite us Lord, for we cannot do it on the strength of our will alone.  Amen.

Them Unicorns

And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.  I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day–and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.  But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.         Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

Lately there has been a great deal of us and them rhetoric.  You hear it in the arguments over what restroom transgendered people should use; you also hear it in discussions about illegal immigrants, and sometimes even when we discuss immigrants in general.  Us and them distinctions show up when we talk about terrorists, even though the United States has suffered more from domestic terrorism than we have from foreign terrorism.  Us and them are distinctions that allow us to separate our friends from our enemies, our familiars from the strangers, and our own people from the outsiders.

Maybe I should refine that statement I just made.  Us and them are distinctions that allow us to separate our supposed friends from our supposed enemies, our assumed familiars from the supposed strangers, and the people we are told are our people from the people we are told are outsiders.

Let me give you an example.

I am a trauma therapist, and many of my clients are women who have been sexually abused by men.  Most of them were abused as children, and all of them were abused by family members.  I know that some people are abused by people outside their family and even by strangers, but I have been practicing since 2005 and I have yet to work with a client whose abuser was not a family member.  For many of these women, talking about the abuse is an act of betrayal against their family.  After all, they have spent years keeping silent to protect the public image of their family; others have spent years keeping silent because revealing the abuse to another family member led to repercussions and punishment instead of assistance and rescue from their abuser.  While I do all that I can to help my clients recover from their abuse so that they can live full, joyous lives, many of them find that they continue to have a deep distrust of men, whether those men are family members or not.  These are women whose male relatives—the men in their lives who were supposed to be their protectors while they were children—violated one of our society’s biggest taboos.  Their deep distrust of men can make it difficult for my straight clients to find life partners because they are not willing to expose themselves to the risk of dating.  Many have difficulty identifying men who are ‘safe’—men who will never commit acts of physical or sexual violence against a woman because it is not in their nature.  Some of my clients have trouble believing that there is any such thing as a ‘safe’ man, as if ‘safe’ men were something like unicorns, existing only in stories but not in real life.

Then I tell them about the unicorn that I met several years ago.

My unicorn shared with me about what it means to be a member of the ‘tribe’—the tribe of people who have been sexually abused as children. The tribe has certain ways of being, certain scars that are dead giveaways to the pain and loss they have suffered.  Whenever this unicorn recognizes other members of the tribe it reveals itself and speaks the magic words: “I understand.  I was sexually abused for years.”

Turns out that unicorns are for real.

You see, men get sexually abused as well, and those men…well…they understand what it is to be afraid.  They understand what it is to not be believed when you try to tell the horrible truth.  And they understand what it is to doubt that it is possible to be safe.   They understand that an entire gender can come to feel unsafe and remain that way no matter how much therapy you get.  And men who have been sexually abused know that the fear that the tribe has of their perpetrators is not unreasonable and not unrealistic because they know what it is like to be made into a victim.  They know what it is to fear half the world’s population, and what it is like to be unable to trust men.  Sadly, unicorns know all too well what it is like to be constantly afraid, and some of them fear…

Women.

For years the politics of sexual assault has told us that men are the perpetrators and women are the victims, and statistics will tell you that this is true most of the time.  But ‘most of the time’ is not the same as ‘all of the time’ and nothing is quite that cut and dried or that black and white.  In the end, it is not so easy to separate the world into us and them, to create two groups where one is good and the other bad and then create a worldview that supports that understanding of humanity.

I remember my own moment of us and them, when I found myself baffled because a woman was tried and convicted for her participation in the atrocities against prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison.  I did not want to comprehend that a woman would agree to sexually humiliate male prisoners, that she would agree to abuse them and violate them physically and sexually.  How could she possibly agree to such violence knowing the damage it has done to her sisters in the human race? How could she participate in something so degrading when things like that happen to women all over the world every day?  Most of all, how could she possibly consent to becoming one of THEM??!  I struggled to accept Lyndie Englund’s choices because I could not conceive of the reality that women can be abusers and men can be the victim.  I believed in the us and them dichotomy that makes it so easy to vilify the other side, to hate them with impunity and ease, and to treat them as less than human.

I’m so glad that something challenged and made me abandon my us and them thinking before I met a real, living unicorn because if I hadn’t I might not have believed him when he told me his story.  I might not have been able to help him overcome his trauma so that he could live a sober, productive, joyous life…at least the best life that he can have in the face of all the abuse that he lived through.  Most of all, I would never have had the opportunity to let my other clients know that the world is not so neatly divided into us and them, women and men, victims and abusers.  In the end, the lines are far more blurred and our chances to redeem the entire situation far greater than we realize because unicorns are real and that means that some of them are our our team…and we aren’t alone in this struggle after all.

God never intended for the world to be separated into us and them.  God’s will has always been for unity and healing no matter what side a certain person fell on, and this is evident over and over in the Bible:

Joseph, who saved the Egyptians from famine

Elisha, who healed Naaman the Syrian

Jonah, who saved the people of Ninevah (Assyrians) from destruction

Jesus, who healed the son of a Roman centurion

Jesus, who healed the daughter of a Syrophoenician woman

Jesus, who healed a Samaritan leper

Peter, who preached to many Gentiles

Paul, who preached to many Gentiles

And then there is always Jesus, who died for the sins of an entire world.

There is no us and them.  There is only God’s children and God wants us all to come home, no matter who we are or where we are from or what group we claim allegiance to.

“On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”     Revelations 22:2b

The leaves of the tree are not for the healing of God’s chosen people, or the healing of the faithful, but for the healing of the nations.

That’s all of us.

All.

Amen.