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In memoriam Nancy Tilley Snyder (1942-2005)

Today is the 7th anniversary of the death of Nancy Sharon Tilley Snyder, a loving, patient, gracious, compassionate, and very devoutly Christian woman whom I had the privilege to know.  Her sudden death in the early morning of the 18th of September 2005 took everyone by surprise and left a hole in many people’s hearts.  Nancy’s light and joy and love for humanity was truly awesome and a spectacular testimony to her love of Christ.

She was a dynamic and beautiful person who spread love wherever she went.  She forgave those who betrayed her and hurt her, and prayed for their salvation.  She helped the poor and unfortunate, and her heart broke for their suffering.  She loved and comforted the broken and rejected, and offered them friendship and acceptance.  Was she perfect?  Of course not.  She had her flaws and faced her own struggles.  But she was not controlled by them, and did not surrender to them.  She sought Christ’s healing in her life and was willing to have her own life transformed by Him.

She offered me love and kindness at a time in my life when I felt terribly alone and was not especially pleasant to be around.  At a time in my life when I didn’t believe in myself, she encouraged me to press forward. I am only one person whose life she changed for the better, but I imagine that there may be tens of thousands of people whose lives she touched along the course of her life.  She helped me to start healing from the internal terrible pain I faced experienced.  She also helped me get back on track in life – I don’t know that I would have ever finished college without her encouragement and assistance.

I wish that I had been a better friend to her and had been more of a source of joy for her than a source of grief.  But I know she forgave me for my shortcomings and my faults. She was a woman who truly lived the Christian message – she practiced what she preached.  Knowing her changed my life.  If we would all let our hearts be transformed by love for other people and the love of God, we could be lights in this dark world, and our light would inspire others in turn.  I am thankful for a chance to have known her.  I pray that God will continue to bring blessing and peace to Nancy’s family.  May we all recognize the blessing it is to know a person like her, and be thankful for it.

Love and the battle against darkness within

Today’s posting will be a brief one.

Every day we each do battle with an inner darkness.  Each of our battles is internal, though the outcome of the battle is usually reflected in external actions.  These battles can be minor skirmishes or life-changing, epic confrontations.  But every battle ends with a decision to do the right thing or the wrong thing – to choose light or darkness, good or evil.  We’re in a war for our lives and it lasts all our lives.Some days we lose the battles.  Darkness tells us that we’re losers and fated to keeping losing.  But listening to that voice is also a battle – if we agree with it, we’ve lost another battle.  We can keep making bad decisions or we can start making good ones.  The choice is ours.  Do we surrender in the war because we’ve lost a few battles?  No!  We keep fighting.  Thankfully, we have allies in our battle – our friends and families.  Sometimes our allies betray us (whether intentionally or inadvertently), and the wound is all the more painful from coming from a person we trusted.  But usually they are true to us, and the love we have for each other is a powerful weapon in facing down the darkness.  Why is that?
The only thing that can face down darkness is light.  Truth dispels lies.  As a Christian, I believe that Jesus is the Light in our darkness.  The love that we feel for one another gives us a means of understanding God’s nature, because God is love.  So the love that we experience for and from other people creates a light is a reflection of God that fights the inner darkness as well.  No wonder darkness works so hard to break down relationships so as to isolate us from each other.

Loving other people

I love people. Perhaps that is why darkness has worked so relentlessly to isolate me in my own mind. But the loving relationships with other people that I have developed over the years have helped me overcome many difficulties and have been a source of strength, encouragement, and joy in my life. Loving relationships with others have been the vehicle for most (if not all) of the positive changes in my life. For my part, I would have had a hard time learning to love myself without having a model on which to base it. Unless we have healthy, loving relationships in our lives, we don’t realize how unhealthy and broken many of our other relationships are. And it’s crucial to recognize that: otherwise, we’re like frogs being slowly boiled but not realizing that we should jump out of the pot. We can’t see that we need to make changes unless we have a model to inform our changes. Love transforms us in many ways; it should improve us. It should encourage us to be gentler, kinder, more honest, and less selfish. And as we love other people, we get a sense of God’s nature – because God doesn’t just love humanity, but He IS love. In this broken and damaged world, we see how desperately people seek love (or its perversions, like prostitution).

Many devout Christians wonder why their opponents have such a negative view of them. A dear friend of mine observed to me last week that righteousness without love is judgmental. I know that I often experienced the message of American political Christianity (largely but not exclusively affiliated with the Republican party) as judgmental and self-righteous before my conversion experience. It left me angry and defensive. Now I hear the message and I understand the points that my fellow believers are trying to make – but they should recognize that their points aren’t getting across. If they want to understand why not, I think they could do worse than to ask if the way they are approaching their political opponents is loving. Loving doesn’t mean that you have to agree with injustice or something that you find morally reprehensible. But loving means that you don’t treat your political opponents like enemies – you treat them respectfully. You listen politely and engage with them as people. You try to understand where they are coming from and listen more than you talk. The latter is an area where I am still trying to improve myself, but I find it is easier and easier to listen the more healing that I feel inside. I feel less driven to explain my perspective, and more interested to find out why someone else thinks what they think. It’s more about them and less about me.

I have a deep and longstanding interest in defending human rights. The emergence of international human rights law after World War II stands as a huge improvement in the world. Some other time I will be glad to point out the many deficiencies with the current international human rights legal regime (there are plenty). But suffice it to say that I agree in the equality of all human beings, and I think that tolerance is an important value. Nevertheless, tolerance does not mean that everyone is right – that is impossible. If I think that democracy is the best political system in the world, and you think that communism is the best system, we cannot both be right. One system must be better than the other, or else the word “best” must cease to be the superlative. We can prevail upon (or coerce) the other person to change his or her mind, or we can respect that he or she has a different opinion. The latter course does not mean that we have ceased to believe in our own rightness, but rather indicates that we understand that we cannot hope to really change another person’s thinking except by showing them the rightness of our views – by loving them. We can force changes in conduct through brute force and the imposition of terror, but we cannot change people’s hearts that way. In fact, we often undermine our own goals in that manner. Witness the challenge of “winning hearts and minds” while fighting a guerrilla war.

How does this relate to loving other people? Well, often people get caught up in the rightness of their own views (whether they are political, social, cultural, economic, religious, or something else). They use interactions with other people to trumpet the rightness of their views and the wrongness of dissenting views. I’ve been guilty of this many times in the past. Many of the divisions in our society and world stem from this source. Fortunately, there is a solution to this seemingly insoluble problem. That solution is love. I don’t have to agree with you, but I can respect you, even if you have a different perspective. Yes, you might ask, but what if the other perspective is evil? I believe that my God is bigger than any evil. If He says to love those who hate me, then I will. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, people. But I do know that letting evil warp my own mind into its image is a recipe for disaster. I don’t have to think the person’s views are true or even good. But I can see that there is a person in there, and love them irrespective of their views.

I am a born-again Christian and politically relatively liberal (by US standards). I find myself in disagreement on numerous important issues of morality and justice with many of my friends. My pacifistic views regarding the use of force (i.e. war) are at odds with those of many Christian friends and family members, for example. Conversely, my deep belief in Christianity, with the doctrine that Jesus is the only way to Heaven, might be at odds with those of many of my more liberal friends who embrace another belief system or are atheists. Yet I am very thankful to have friends spanning so many religious, political, and social perspectives. I find that when I speak (or now as I write) about a controversy, I think to myself “would I really want to say that to my friend’s face?” Rather than saying things that are hurtful to people that I love, sometimes I find a more loving way to phrase a point, and other times I simply keep my opinion to myself. Every thought that comes to my mind doesn’t need to come out of my mouth. Mind you, I am not saying that I should be afraid to share my views because I am worried about being unpopular. What I’m saying is that I am trying to live my life out as a follower of Jesus Christ who said that God is love. Yet He also said some people would hate His followers precisely because they followed Him. In my experience, too many Christians use that as license to speak harshly with others. I want to be a different kind of Christian. I’ve already lived under too much judgment in my own life to want to be the hypocrite treating other people that way.

One of the closest relationships I have had in my life is with my dear cousin, who I call Nana. We grew up like brother and sister to each other – she’s 9 months older than I am – until I moved to Germany. She moved to Colombia not long after, and so we had very little communication for many years. When we finally saw each other again years later, it was almost like we’d never been apart. In 1999, before I started grad school, we decided we were going to refound our family around one core principle – we were going to be a family that would love each other no matter what. Any members of our family who wished to join this new family were welcome – but if they didn’t adhere to the new founding principle, they could also leave it. For many years, she and I had few substantive differences of opinion – sure we had some arguments or misunderstandings, but nothing big. We agreed about almost everything important. Then I became a born-again Christian – and came to visit her very soon after the experience. She is a practicing Buddhist, and told me that she was worried that our different paths in life might mean that would grow apart. I realized that this was our chance to show that we meant our promises to each other to be a new family based on loving each other no matter what.

And so, I am thankful for her loving support and friendship, as well as that of my other friends who are Hindu, Jewish, New Age, Muslim, atheist, agnostic, Buddhist, and Christian of all sorts (Catholic, Lutheran, born-again, Orthodox, Armenian); who identify as gay or straight; Republican or Democrat; American, German, Colombian, Indian, Malaysian, or Texan. I hope that I can be a good testimony as I live out my life following my Savior, Jesus Christ. Loving other people means that I respect their right to be wrong, just as they accept my right to be wrong. I cannot force anyone to believe what I do, nor would I wish to do so. What I can do is show the truth of my beliefs by following them – and letting my attitude and actions towards others reflect God’s love for humanity.

A special thanks to Bernie for talking these things through with me for so long.

Soli Deo gloria!

I didn’t know them as well as I thought I did

Over the past few weeks, I have come to realize that I don’t know my mother or stepfather very well at all. I live at home with both of them (well, sort of – my stepfather is moving out), and have been living here for the past few years, with some time away to finish school or visit family. I have already shared on this blog how much I have changed in the past 2 years. Therefore, it is hardly surprising to me as a general principle that people are capable of extraordinary change in short periods of time. I have known my stepfather for the better part of 13 years, and my mom for my whole life of 36 years. I’m generally pretty observant about other people, and I’ve been close to my mother for most of my life. But even so, I had the somewhat startling realization over the weekend that I really didn’t know her all that well. And the past few weeks have showed me just how little I knew my stepfather at all.

When I was a teenager and in my 20s, my mother would tell me that she had me all figured out, and it drove me crazy. She knew some things about me – but it really made me mad that she believed she knew me so well when I knew that she didn’t. Yet here I have gone and done the same to her! My mom has told me for years that she’s changed in many ways (particularly in that she’s become less angry since I was a teenager), and I have actually seen a lot of evidence for that. But I’ve still judged her uncharitably on many occasions and decided that she hadn’t really changed in many other areas. I found the evidence to support my assumptions, but now I wonder whether I actually saw things as they were or through the distorting lens of the past. I suspect that I’ve judged her too harshly and that my assessments of her have uncharitable.

Simultaneously, I often found myself agreeing with my stepfather in arguments that he had with my mother, because I was sure she was behaving like she had when I was growing up. But now that I see him acting in incredibly rash, reckless, hurtful, and ill-considered ways, I wonder whether or not he was actually the unstable one causing the problems. The person to whom I had been looking to stabilize my unstable mother may have actually been the unstable one destabilizing her. I don’t mean it as an accusation – I don’t think he took ultimately unhelpful actions with malicious intent. But I see suddenly in his actions and words of the past few weeks that either 1) he had a complete rupture with his previous personality or 2) he was always like this and I just never saw it. Since he himself says #2, I will do him the courtesy of not disagreeing with his own assessments of himself.

It’s really pretty amazing to see that the world around you isn’t what you thought it was at all. It’s not a common feeling for me, anyway. I’m pretty smart and observant, and I guess I’m not used to be quite so wrong about people. Sure everyone makes mistakes, but wow. I’m not sure now of who either my mother or stepfather are. I guess I will find out going forward. I have to say though, that I am so glad to see strong evidence that my mother is a lot more composed, stronger, more rational, and calmer than I thought (or feared).

When I was in the hospital 2 weeks ago recovering from my back operation, I had a mini-meltdown one day. I started panicking and worrying about what I would do to take care of my mother, as if she were completely nonfunctional and required my constant care. And the thoughts took me into a dark, dark, dark place. It was the worst day I’ve had in a long, long time. For many years, I had believed that I came here to help my stepfather manage my mother and her problems. For many years, he had told me that his philosophy for dealing with her when she got difficult was to “treat her like a patient” – that is a mental patient. I have never subscribed to this perspective and have been clear with him that whatever her problems, she wasn’t a mental patient. Now I really feel inside like I missed seeing who the real patient was.

So, while my initial reaction to this family drama was to feel hurt and betrayal – I now am seeing it rather differently. Everyone has the right to make his or her own decisions for the future, and no one can force someone to stay in a family when they are unhappy. Clearly there have been problems at home – we are all human and have all fallen short in our interactions with one another. I’m not angry with either my mother or my stepfather – I forgive them for their mistakes and hope they forgive me for mine. Whether they forgive each other is out of my control. Instead of feeling sorry for myself for having to go through one more family disintegration, I am thankful for the loving support of my family and friends. I am even more thankful that I am here to help my mother in this difficult time, and for the chance to gain new perspective into the people in my life. Even as I have wanted other people to see that I have changed, I haven’t seen how much they have changed too – albeit at a different rate and in different areas than I have.

So, I am in a new place in life. I am seeing a man whom I have trusted and relied upon and believed in was far more conflicted and unhappy than I imagined. A man whom I viewed as a pillar of stability and strength has cracked and shown the problems that were hidden beneath the surface. I am praying for him as he makes decisions that take him away from our family. I have loved him for many years and will still do so when he leaves. He’s been a friend to me and a huge help to me over the years – I hope that his decisions will produce a better outcome than seems likely to me at this point. And I am discovering that my mother whom I have loved but with whom I have had huge difficulty for most of my life might be a very different person that I feared she was. I am seeing areas of healing and wholeness in her that the filter of my unforgiveness had prevented me from seeing. Thank God for answering my prayers for healing in our relationship.

I pray that God will use this circumstance to show His truth and His light. And I feel His healing so strongly as I live in this situation and know how differently I view it now than I would have before. We don’t know how God is changing us and healing us until we are tested. I pray for His grace every day in these hard times and thank Him that the situation is never as dark and hopeless as evil would have us believe. I know that He will work all things together for my good, because I love Him (Rom 8:28). I believe that His promises are true.
Soli Deo gloria!

Comparing apples to apples

While I was traveling in the US earlier this year, I stopped to visit a friend from college and his fiancee. She was struggling with depression, and I tried to encourage her. Ultimately the visit ended badly – his fiancee decided I hadn’t ever experienced real hardship (i.e. the kind that she had), and didn’t know what I was talking about. She said that I’m a privileged, white man that has had a series of elite educational experiences and have never had to struggle economically – ergo, my message was essentially meaningless. In her reading, things could get better for me, because they had never been all that bad.

The reality is that her picture of me was superficially true. I could take issue with this point or that, but overall her depiction was not facially inaccurate. The problem is that it was incomplete. Notwithstanding all of those points, I lived in a misery of my own mind. While I may not have had to face the problems in life that she had to face, I had to face problems of my own. It may be that she had to face harder ones – I can’t say, because I haven’t lived her life. What I can say is that the culture of victimization in which we live does no one any favors.

We see this over and over – one group arguing that they have had it worse than everyone else, and another replying vehemently that their group’s tragedy was worse. Does it matter whether someone was caught up in the Holocaust as opposed to the Rwandan genocide? Surely they were both horrific events with staggering death tolls. Is the situation less intolerable if someone is made to toil as a slave because they were born poor citizens of a lawless country, as opposed to because of their race or gender? Clearly slavery is wrong irrespective of the basis for enslaving the other person. Is the abuse of a child less cruel and terrible if was “only” emotional abuse, and not physical or sexual? The scars of child abuse can still cripple a person for life.

Some people say – just get over it and move on. The notion has appeal – who REALLY wants to be a victim? Most people do not. And some people are capable of overcoming huge difficulties seemingly based on the strength of their own wills. Ironically, people who don’t overcome their difficulties in the same way can look to those people and feel LESS capable and weaker, rather than deriving inspiration from the heroic efforts of the victors. I know this because I was one such person.

Growing up, I had many friends in school who experienced physical abuse at the hands of their parents. Some had experienced broken bones or physical cruelties that left scars on their bodies. When I looked at my own life, I felt grateful that things weren’t so bad at home. That was not a bad reaction in itself and represented the truth on a certain level. The problem was that I later determined that because what happened to me wasn’t as bad as what happened to them, the pain that I felt as a result of the emotional and mental abuse that I suffered at home was somehow less valid. I felt like they were the real victims, and my painful experiences at home were “not really abuse.”

The hierarchy of abuse (in increasing orders of magnitude from emotional and mental abuse (the “least bad”) to physical abuse (“bad”) to sexual abuse (“the worst”)) that I had created in my mind literally had no place for me. I felt sorry for myself and hurt, and felt like no one loved me. I didn’t love myself enough to treat my own experiences with the same compassion that I extended to others. In my mind, a strong person wouldn’t be caught up in the problems that I had – therefore I must be weak. I wasn’t a victim – but I was. I never really thought things through to their logical conclusions in my mind – that came many years later in therapy.

For years, my heart would break and I would literally burst into tears (sometimes in public) when I heard stories of little children who were slaves or who had seen their families murdered. The pain was so unbearable for me. My family would tell me to stop listening to the news or reading about genocide or listening to podcasts about human rights issues or hearing about the victims of clergy sexual abuse. But I knew that wasn’t the problem – other people could do those things without having the reaction that I had. As I talked to my therapist about these things, I realized that I had hurt so much as a child that it was so unbearable to hear about any more pain happening to children. But I still didn’t see myself as a real victim – I was so averse to the idea of being a victim that I couldn’t accept that what had happened to me was really so bad. Instead, I viewed myself as weak and a complainer.

This is part of a problem that I call “having issues with having issues.” You feel bad for feeling bad. Then you suddenly have two problems to deal with – the initial problem plus the guilt and shame that comes from having a mental problem. You can add to this stack indefinitely. There’s no real difficulty with feeling bad that you feel bad that you feel bad – it’s just mentally complicated to follow the logic later! You invalidate yourself into the ground, believing that anyone normal would never have had these problems, that you must be so crazy to be at this point, that you just need to push ahead. But like Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown, your mind pulls the rug out from under you whenever a problem comes your way and views it in the worst possible light and interprets every setback as a confirmation that you’ll never do it.

One of the ways that my therapist helped me to get over this self-hating, self-debasing thinking was to ask me how I would feel if a certain event had happened to a young cousin of mine or another child I know. My reactions were inevitably protective and compassionate towards the child. I realized that when I thought about the events of my life happening to someone I cared about, I viewed them differently than when I thought about them happening to me. Ultimately, I didn’t love myself very much at all, and so I treated myself pretty abusively and denied myself the compassion that I hoped others would have for me. Then one day, the truth came to me. I realized that I had been a victim of abuse in the past, but wasn’t one anymore – other than the pain that I was still experiencing from refusing to admit the truth about my past. The key to this freedom was simply the truth. These freedoms I gained through years of therapy.

Today, I realize that so many layers of what happened in the past were just lies. I will discuss that at greater length in the future – the way that lies build up on lies on top of a true event. For now, I can just say that many painful episodes from the past simply have no hold over me anymore. One of the biggest things that was missing in my life was a feeling that God loved me and cared about what happened to me. Until I felt that, I could try all the positive thinking in the world, and it didn’t really impact me because it conflicted with what I felt as a deep truth about me – that I was unlovable and bad. Otherwise why would I have experienced all of the bad stuff that I did? The deeper insight that I have gained into those events happened after I felt freedom from demonic oppression and became a born-again Christian. So I can say that therapy brought me a huge way forward – but the underlying roots of the problems were still not exposed.

Have I had it worse than other people? Better? Yes and yes. My life has been my life – I can’t change my past and can’t say how I would have dealt with other circumstances. Thinking like that brought me nowhere in the past and I am determined not to get caught up in that again. If you read my blog and think that I had it easy and that my depression was nothing, I can’t change your mind. I’m not saying my life was the worst life ever. But the hell that I lived in was the only one that I knew – and it was still hell. We each lived (or still live) in our prison cells – rather than fighting over whose was better or worse, I wish that we would simply have some empathy for each other, encourage each other to get well, and try to comfort the broken and bruised in this world. We should try to face our lives and our pasts with truth and love ourselves the way we love other people (that means we should love both, not hate both!). People who know me know that I believe that Jesus is the only solution to the problem of pain and brokenness for a reason – He was and is mine. My prayer is for freedom for all the slaves, and healing for all those who are hurting.

For the sake of sharing a little window into my mental state over the years, I have also created a page with some poems that I wrote over the years (from ages 10-26) – they’re on the page entitled “Poetry from sadder times,” which you can link to by clicking at the top of this page.

Soli Deo gloria!

Who is shaking their fists at God?

Most people in the US have probably formed an opinion regarding Chick-Fil-A’s COO Dan Cathy’s interview. Many people and groups (from the ACLU to conservative Christians) have rallied around Chick-Fil-A and/or supported Mr. Cathy’s right to make his statement as a function of freedom of speech and religious belief. Others (especially supporters of gay rights) have denounced Mr. Cathy’s statement as hate speech and have called for a boycott of Chick-Fil-A. Both sides feel morally justified, and both sides feel aggrieved and misunderstood by the other. Each position becomes progressively more entrenched, increasing the polarization in our society.

I’d like to be clear at the onset that I believe that: 1) Mr. Cathy had the right to make his statement – this right exists not only as a private citizen under the US Constitution but also under the widely accepted business practice called “corporate social responsibility” (CSR), which urges companies to take positions on questions that involve the wider society; 2) everyone has a different ideal image of society – so a company that takes CSR actions risks offending some group in the society; 3) government entities and political leaders ought not to penalize or seek to hinder the business of Chick-Fil-A for the views of its COO with respect to a current political controversy; 4) the general public has the right to spend their money where it likes on whatever basis individual members see fit (to support company policies with which they agree, to support vegetarianism, to support organic farming, etc.); 5) actions have consequences – some people will like Mr. Cathy’s stand and reward Chick-Fil-A with more business – others will oppose his stance and give their business to someone else.

I’m not writing this post to probe any of those issues, which I think have been amply covered by other authors. Rather, I want to challenge my Christian readers in particular to change their mode of engagement in these issues. Is our goal changing behavior or changing hearts? Are we more committed to a political doctrine or to Jesus? If the other side is hearing what Christians are saying as “hate speech,” is the whole problem theirs? Or might it be that we have a part in the failure to communicate? We should heed the admonition of the apostle James and be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to take offense.” (Jas 1:19)

Dan Cathy’s words :…”I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say ‘we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage’ and I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.”

Does Mr. Cathy directly attack gay people in this statement? No. But he clearly says that he thinks that efforts to redefine marriage (i.e. to include gay couples) are inviting God’s judgment on the US, and that people who are promoting these efforts have a “prideful, arrogant attitude.” Clearly those are all negatives, and pride is a sin. Mr. Cathy is saying that he is afraid that the actions of group of sinners (who do not include himself) are calling God’s judgment down on the US, and is praying for God’s mercy. I can tell from years walking far from Christ that one of my biggest difficulties with these kinds of pronouncements by Christians is that they were seemingly always ready to point out the problems of sinners in the wider society. Jesus warned us about this when he told his followers to avoid hypocrisy by taking the log out of our own eye before pulling the speck out of our neighbor’s. (Lk 6:41-42)

Does Chick-Fil-A have a log to pull out of its own eye? Yes, the restaurants are closed on Sundays, and the corporation donates to Christian charities in keeping with its avowed defense of “biblical values.” But are those the only biblical values that should govern a fast-food restaurant chain in the most obese nation on earth? Chick-Fil-A sells “Valu-Sized” meals that can easily top 1200 calories. The Bible clearly stands against gluttony: “And put a knife to your throat if you are given to appetite” (Prov 23:2); ” Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags” (Prov 23:20-21); “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Phil 3:19). One of the charges falsely leveled against Jesus by his critics was that he was a glutton (Lk 7:34) – it wasn’t intended as a compliment. Perhaps a fast-food restaurant following biblical principles should start in its own area of competence (i.e. pull the log out of its own eye first) and work to resist the increase in portion sizes and encourage healthier eating.

Mr. Cathy’s statement also stirs up fear – fear that a group of sinners are going to call down God’s judgment on the nation. To be sure there are Scriptural antecedents for this. But often a group in the society is targeted as the scapegoat for the problems of the nation – throughout the centuries we have repeatedly seen God’s chosen people, the Jews, singled out for such a fate. At other times, the fury of Christian populations have turned against witches (real and/or imagined) and heretics, who were burned at the stake. Now gay people appear to be this group in our society. I am not arguing that homosexuality is not a sin – but I am saying that Jesus told us to “love your neighbor as yourself,” “let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” and “pull the log out of your own eye first.” We should remember that “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.” (1 Jn 4:18) We should keep in mind that the law brings death (Rom 7:7-25), and life can only come through knowing God. We are called to Him because He first loved us! (1 Jn 4:19) Our love for each other shows that God abides within us and God’s love is perfected within us. (1 Jn 4:12)

Paul tells us about love – that it’s patient, kind, and so forth. (1 Cor 13:4-7) And without love behind our actions, they are for nothing. (1 Cor 13:2-3) When we see that our message isn’t coming across or being understood as hateful, perhaps we have become clanging cymbals. (1 Cor 13:1) We’re called to salvation by the goodness and mercy of God, not by our own righteousness.(Titus 3:4-7) It’s by showing that love to people who are hurting that they come to see God and that individuals can come to believe that He could love someone as broken as each of us are. I say this as someone who has heard a lot of messages directed to me that people thought were loving – I didn’t hear most of them that way. What I heard as loving was people in my family being tender and kind to me – accepting me as I was and not with preconditions. Does that mean that they agreed with all of my actions? By no means. But they didn’t point fingers at my sins and highlight them as worse than their own. That’s what pulling the log out of your own eye first means to me.

And what I can tell you is that this approach is part of what brought me to salvation and repentance. So we as Christians have to decide – do we want to be righteous and point out other people’s sin, making them targets of fear and isolating them more? Or do we want to be disciples of Christ, spreading love, peace, and reconciliation on this earth as He called us to – leaving space for His Holy Spirit to call people in His perfect time? This is about a lot more than a 1200 calorie fried chicken dinner. This is about loving our neighbors and being lights in the darkness. We may have the constitutional freedom to say a lot of things about other people, and I defend those freedoms. But as Christians we have a higher standard to uphold – Paul reminds us that “‘Everything is permissible’ – but not everything is beneficial.” (1 Cor 10:23) The freedom to be self-righteous is one that we have as Americans, but one that we should abhor as Christians. I hope that the people shaking their fist at God are not in fact “Christians” who claim that they love God but hate their brothers, because the Bible makes it clear that they are liars (1 Jn 4:20) – and the lake of fire will be filled with liars. (Rev 21:8) I pray for God’s mercy for us all and that His Holy Spirit will illuminate us every day.
Soli Deo gloria!

What made Christianity “click” for me?

A friend from high school just wrote me a compelling question – what made Christianity “click” for me? I am going to make an initial effort to answer this huge question.  I may have to revisit this topic in the future, but I feel like her question deserves a prompt answer to the best of my ability.

Please remember that this is my story – you may find this unpersuasive, and that’s your right.  I respect it!  Please respect me in return and refrain from polemical comments.  Let’s foster a culture of mutual respect and stand against polarization and ignorance.

I grew up in a religiously divided family.  My mother was raised Roman Catholic; my father was raised Southern Baptist.  When I was 6, I became baptized into the Roman Catholic Church.  I heard a lot of arguments from my Protestant family that Catholics were idolators who prayed to Mary and the saints and were not really “saved.”  All I can say is that those arguments caused me a lot of grief and brought little if any benefit to my unhappy mind during my childhood.

Growing up, I constantly struggled with feelings of rejection and sadness.  We moved to Germany, far from our family, into what felt like complete isolation.  I watched my mother and adoptive father fight constantly and felt scared and alone.  Through my teen years, I prayed frequently and kept hoping that God would fix the problems in my family and would fill the hole that I felt inside, but nothing changed as far as I could see.  I felt totally abandoned and felt like my relationship with God had been much like my other relationships in my life to that point – one-sided with me giving everything I had emotionally and receiving little to nothing in return.  I prayed God would save me from myself – from my own wicked urges, from my hateful thoughts, from my mind’s ceaseless self-directed cruelty.  But I felt that no help ever came. The only hope that I saw in life was that one day I would die.  I prayed regularly that I would die soon, but felt unable to commit suicide because of how much I knew it would hurt my grandparents in particular.  So I just lived recklessly – drinking a lot, taking drugs, being sexually promiscuous.

So for a few years, I turned away from God in many ways.  I never believed that there was no God – I just didn’t think that He cared about me, so I wasn’t going to waste my time caring for Him.  And I lived a life that was greatly at odds with what my Christian family told me was right and good.  I would occasionally attend church, frequently argue with my believing family members about what I experienced as their judgmental attitudes, and struggled to make sense of it all.  As I went through crises in my life, I would turn to God in prayer, but seldom felt that my prayers were answered.

I experienced everything in my life through the veil of depression and misery.  Perhaps that sounds over the top to some of you – all I can say is that it was a life of grinding misery inside and nothing ever made it much better.  I was getting mental health treatment intermittently since I was 17.  Did it help?  Yes, definitely.  I got better.  I felt less unhappiness and less despondency and definitely cried less.  But better is not the same as getting well.  I felt little hope and things were never very good.  Everything was grey.  I seldom felt happiness and the feeling never lasted for long.  Starting in October 2006, my life began to change dramatically.  I started seeing a new psychiatrist, who put me on new antidepressants, and I adopted my dog Bella.  The new medicines left me feeling less grey – for the first time I had energy and some happy times.  But I also had a ferocious temper – anger was a big problem for me.  I was particularly angry at my mother for the mental health problems that I had felt since my childhood.

In late January of 2011, I went to a Christian “encounter” that was run by some of the leaders of my aunt’s church in Port Orange, Florida.  My aunt had told me that her attendance of a women’s encounter had helped her greatly with a number of issues, and I thought “why not?”  I had been struggling with the question of “when do I finally get mentally well?” and I felt like the encounter might help me answer some questions.  I attended the encounter little suspecting that I would experience so much change and freedom as in fact occurred.  But many experiences leading up to that time (I have not mentioned them at this juncture for the sake of SOME brevity – perhaps I will share more about the experience in a future posting) left me thinking that something useful might come of the experience.

At the encounter, I experienced three shattering and interrelated revelations.  None were really “new” in that I had heard them before – but this time they really internalized for me. Music made a huge difference in opening my eyes to the first two – after each “module” at the encounter, they played a thematically-related song a few times while we had quiet time for prayer.  Music taps into the emotional part of our brains – in my case, that was the part that was so wounded.

The 1st was that I had never forgiven my parents for their mistakes.  I thought forgiveness meant that you let go of an offense at the time because it was unhealthy to keep dwelling on it, but I had always seen people in my family holding past mistakes over other people’s heads.  That was what forgiveness meant to me, so I thought I had forgiven my parents.  But at the encounter I learned that forgiveness is when you wish that someone’s offense against you had never taken place – for the sake of the offender rather than yourself.  Forgiveness means loving the other person more than you love yourself.  As I listened to this song by Chris August called “7 x 70” about a guy going back to the house where he grew up and how much his parents had failed him but God had been there, I started to choke up.  By the 3rd time listening to it, the tears started pouring out, and I forgave my parents.

The 2nd was that I experienced that God really did love me.  One of the leaders discussed the parable of the Prodigal Son – a story I had heard many times before.  What was different about it this time?  That I realized I couldn’t keep going with life the way that it was.  I thought “God, if this is it – if this is the best my life can be, please just end it now.”  So when the leader finished his discourse about the Prodigal Son, they played a song by Phil Wickham called “Home.”  Similar to the prior episode, I listened to it a couple of times before it sank in – by the 3rd time, a torrent of tears had erupted and my brokenness poured out.  I prayed “God, I know I’ve made so many mistakes.  But maybe – maybe You would really take me back.  Please let me come home to You.”  And then I felt like maybe He had.  I realized all I wanted deep down was to live a life that was pleasing to God and I wanted His approval and love.

The 3rd was that I experienced deliverance from demonic oppression.  I know I may lose you at this one – I almost lost myself at this one back in January 2011.   I thought that demons were just BS, and I was kind of upset that the whole experience was going to be ruined by this nonsense discussion about demons and casting them out.  I thought “I’m educated – this is for anthropologists to study maybe, but it has no relevance for me!”  But I also thought “What if it might be true? What do I have to lose by listening?”  So I listened.  When the leader of the discussion talked about praying for demons to be cast out, I tried it.  And I can tell you, I believe it now.  Why?  Because suddenly I felt alive and free in a way that I never had before in my life.  Other people might find this preposterous or absurd in the extreme.  All I can say is – I would have also if someone else had told me that.  I wasn’t believing in some big way that this would happen – so save the anthropology arguments (I know them).  I was just open to the possibility it might work – and that was enough.  That’s faith the size of a mustard seed, and it worked (Jesus told the disciples that they could have expelled a demon if they’d only had faith the size of a mustard seed. <Matt 17:19>).  A guy who sat next to me at the encounter (and didn’t know me before – no one there did), told me that suddenly I went from quiet, withdrawn, serious and grey to suddenly ALIVE.  That’s how I felt.

Since then I have learned that my whole life I was living under demonic oppression.  Mind you, that’s not the same as possession – I wasn’t totally out of control – I just “heard” dark whispers and evil suggestions in my mind all the time.  And I say “heard” in quotes because I didn’t have auditory hallucinations – the whispers and suggestions were intrusive thoughts not actual voices.  In any case, the oppression was real in that it actually happened, but many of the things that I thought were true about my life were not.  We know that we don’t experience anything directly – everything is a matter of perception and interpretation in your mind.  In my case, there were a series of dark filters that suggested to me that no one loved me, that no one liked me, that I was bad, and so forth.  And because that was part of my consciousness for my whole known life, I experienced it as “true” – I experienced it as part of myself.  But I can tell you that I can feel it so clearly now when I am under spiritual assault, because I’ve felt freedom and clarity.  Those dark thoughts are NOT me.  Depression makes you so selfish – you spend so much time thinking about yourself, and so little thinking about other people (except insofar as they impacts you).  It’s not intentional, but it’s part of the disagreeable and difficult element about depression – and it’s part of what pushes people away from depressed people.

Christianity “clicked” for me because it freed me from the darkness and oppression that had been destroying me my entire life.  It may not always make perfect sense for me in every area, but I strive to hear God speaking to me.  And I can tell you, I listened for too many years to dark suggestions that brought hopelessness, grief, and despair.  I believe now because my life is changed, and I have felt the peace that I cried out for as a child.  I believe now because my lack of belief never gave me even a fraction of the peace that I have now.  I know that this current time of difficulty at home would have already had me for lunch two years ago.  Is it challenging now?  Of course.  But I know that things will get better.  And I know that the world isn’t just about me – but I know that the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth loves me and has a GOOD plan for me.  May this blog be part of it.  Soli Deo gloria!

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