Writing in response to my last blog post, a respected friend and mentor, Pastor John Ault (who, along with his wife Jane, were frequent visitors/performers at the Roanoke Poetry Slam), presented me with a challenge. Although he affirmed a great many of my "points," he wanted me to go deeper, and find some gospel-based answers to the problems i posed. Rather than enumerate those problems one by one, i've decided to reaffirm exactly what being a Christian in this--and any--situation requires, at least from my personal standpoint. There are several points i want to touch on here, things that i believe would, if applied personally and individually, have a marked effect on our "global community."
1) Forgiveness: A constant and prevailing topic in Christ's teachings--and what He represented to the world--is forgiveness. Now, this is more than simply telling somebody who has wronged you, "That's okay, forget about it." It's more than just shrugging off the hurtful things that people have done to you. Forgiveness requires that the individual who has been wronged fully understands the nature of what's been done to them, how it has affected them, and how the relationship with the offender has been changed or altered by that action. I'm not merely talking about the mishaps or misunderstandings that happen on a daily basis (although they are included), i am particularly talking about the deep and fundamentally hurtful things that are done, and ESPECIALLY those that are done intentionally. It's easy to "forgive" someone when they've screwed up because of a misunderstanding or accidentally; it's far more difficult to forgive someone when they've done something knowingly, especially with the intent to harm. Jesus said, "LOVE your enemies. BLESS those who curse you." From a mere human standpoint, that's not just difficult, it's nigh impossible. This kind of attitude can only come from the direct interaction of the Holy Spirit in our lives. What i'm going to say now will probably alienate more people (but, that's okay, i'm used to it), but think of this: if, after the dreadful attacks of 9/11, every Christian in the United States offered up prayers NOT for vengeance against our enemies, but asked God to BLESS them, to show mercy on them, and to give them a change of heart . . . and REALLY meant it, what do you think would have happened? That act changed the face of our nation, threatened us both externally and --with the crack-down on civil liberties (the very things that make our nation what it is, the very things that we were told the terrorists hated about us, our freedom)--internally. Hatred and rage ran rampant. More hatred, more destruction, and more rage are NOT a God-honoring response to hatred, destruction, and rage! It sounds insane on the face of it, but i believe that if the Church as a whole had prayerfully submitted all our fears to God, and prayed for God's FORGIVENESS and MERCY, both for us AND for our enemies, things would have been changed for the better in a way that probably goes beyond our comprehension! Christ Himself, on the cross, spoke the words "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do." If we as Christians are to be Christ's representatives in this world, that is how we are to act and think. Period. And, again, this can't be done without the direct action of the Holy Spirit working through us.
2) Prayer: I mentioned prayer in the last blog-post, primarily in regards to the arguments pro and con regarding Prayer in Schools. It's a political hot-button, but i think it's a non-issue. If children are taught to pray at home, both as a family and individually, they will carry that with them throughout their lives. Shrugging off the responsibility on a bureaucracy that is, at best, flawed, if not completely disfunctional, is not the answer. I never felt any pressure to pray in school, but i often did . . . either silently, alone, or with others who shared the Faith. Prayer is a conversation with God; it is part of an amazing thing that happened through Christ's death and resurrection. Christ's spirit, the Holy Spirit within us, allows us DIRECT ACCESS to God! In Romans, Paul talks about how Christ is standing at the right hand of God, STICKING UP FOR US! God is on OUR SIDE! He did for us what we could never do for ourselves . . . arranged things so that we could actually stand before God acknowledged as His children. That birthright that belongs to all Christians is not something to be taken lightly, and i have serious concerns that something like prayer would be left to teachers (already overburdened) and administrators (whose minds may not be seriously committed to the prayers). It is very important, and something that should not fall into rote . . . no ritualistic prayer in the morning in schools, not some form prayer that you repeat without thinking about it. Your intellect and your spirit must both be focused on your conversation with God. I am also aware that there are many nonbelievers who, rather than being encouraged by prayer in schools, would feel more oppressed, and at a time when rebellious tendencies run high, might just push them AWAY from Christ. (There are many things that i think the Church is either doing badly or not at all that form what a brother of mine in NYC--nicknamed "Conscience"--refers to as "church hurt.") Christ gave us a general outline for our prayers, and my friend Lewis refers to an acronym for prayer called ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. These four components can be seen clearly in Christ's teachings. Adoration: "Hallowed be Thy name." This worshipful awe should be the first step as we approach God. Confession: The Message translation's wording for this part of the prayer is "Keep us forgiven and forgiving others," and this should never be a simple rote, either. Being aware of what we need to be forgiven FOR goes back to what i said about forgiveness earlier . . . we need to be aware of how our wrongdoings have hurt our relationship with God and with those around us. It's also important to share our confessions with another Christian, someone who can provide support and love . . . trust me, i have a great need of forgiveness, and for reminders of that forgiveness. It's tough for me, sometimes, because i have a long memory which, coupled with anger issues, make it easy for me to carry a grudge. I often have to pray again and again for Christ's help in releasing those old hurts, to NOT HOLD ANYTHING AGAINST ANYONE. Confession helps us by releasing that . . . forgiveness, the letting go of grudges, lightens our burden. Thanksgiving: Realizing that God is the "giver of every good and perfect gift," that He blesses EVERYONE, not just the righteous, but EVERYONE, and that all good things have their origins in His love, gratitude should overflow in our prayers. Why does God bless those who neither acknowledge Him, nor share the blessings with others? Because that is part of God's Nature, and God cannot be made less than He is. He remains True, no matter how many falsehoods are perpetuated (either out of denial, or falsely "in His name"). Just because somebody doesn't recognize God as the source of the good things they have in no way changes the nature of God. However, much will be expected of him who is given much." Blessings and curses are both boomerangs. Being grateful to God for what He's given us makes us more aware of just how much we have, and allows us to become receptacles for blessings that will spill over on those around us. The more aware and grateful you are for what God gives you, the more open you are to receive more . . . and always with the implicit understanding that it is your responsibility to pass those blessings on! If you actually sit and try to "count your blessings," and SERIOUSLY think about everything you have to be grateful for, you might be surprised by just how much you take for granted. Supplication: "Give us this day our daily bread," and "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." Supplication, asking for God's help, is something God expects us to do. It is part of an act of humility. Humility, which means (among other things) to be aware of our limitations, puts us in a position to receive from God. He wants us to ASK for blessings, and has many things to give us . . . and some of us never receive them because we simply don't ask. Supplication can be for things that we need, for protection, for "deliverance from evil," and can be made both on our own behalf and on behalf of others. The people that it is hardest for you to pray for--your enemies--should be some of the first people you consider in supplication! Ask God to BLESS them! Maybe your "enemies" are simply enemies because of the circumstances they're in. If those things were to change for the better for THEM, they might regard you differently. Don't be afraid to ask God to help you out in times of trouble . . . but never forget to ask Him for guidance, protection, grace and mercy, when things are going GOOD. That's something that i've often fallen short on . . . it's easy for me to become complacent when things are easy, but that's dangerous . . . taking things for granted, getting too full of myself, and those times have often preceded a downfall. And there's no set time to pray . . . you should do it at different times during the day, whenever you're tempted, whenever you're grateful, whenever you're in need, whenever you see someone else in need. It's a good idea to set apart a time of day to read the Scripture and to pray, and to simply make that as much a part of your day to day life as a meal, or sleep . . . it's something you need for your spiritual health and wholeness. But that doesn't mean that you should limit your prayers to that time alone . . . far from it.
3) Love: The word Love is used so many times in the New Testament, it's unavoidable. Love, as God loves us, is expressed in the Greek as agape, meaning "unconditional love." Psychologists phrase this as "unconditional positive regard." It goes beyond the "love" that's typically expressed in Valentine's day cards, or in phrases like "i love pizza." It's deeper than the love that we have for people who are our friends, those close to us who share our interests. Paul said: "There abide these things: Faith, Hope, and Love . . . and the greatest of these is Love." It is the "more excellent way" that he expounds in 1 Corinthians 13, often called "the Love chapter." It's a great chapter to read through and think about regularly, because it describes the qualities that our Love should have. Imagine: a group of people, diverse in race, age, and any other demographic, LOVING one another, caring so much for each other that they will willingly sacrifice for the better of those around them. Hard to imagine? Sad to say, that's where the Church has OFTEN fallen short . . . failing to represent Christ's unconditional love in the community. In times of economic crisis, this love--and the expression of it--is critical. Hardship shears away our facades, revealing us as we truly are. That's, in part, what hardship is FOR. It's a necessity to "love the unloveable," to do for them the things you'd want done for you. TAKE THE INITIATIVE! Be creative in hospitality! Sometimes something as simple as a smile or a helping hand can make a world of difference in somebody's life! Christians, both singly and as a body, should be reaching out in LOVE to those around us, to those who are lost, lonely, angry, afraid, in despair, in need . . .no matter how well we speak, no matter even if we allow ourselves to be martyred for Christ, if there is no Love in our actions, our actions are empty. Dying for something means nothing if you haven't lived for it. Christ expressed His love both throughout His life, and in His sacrifice. Would you die for the sake of a murderer? a rapist? a sex pervert? a war criminal? a terrorist? a drug dealer? That's what Christ did . . . that and more. Again, this kind of love is something that we are only capable of if we allow the Holy Spirit to use us as instruments. It is more than an embellishment, it is a necessity.
4) Anger, and It's Place: Now, this is a difficult topic. Anger is an emotion that is DEADLY if mishandled. Paul affirms that anger has it's place--there's a lot to be angry about! But he also urged us not to let anger provoke us to sin, or to "let the sun go down on your anger," that is, not to let anger fester and seethe, to turn into rage or bitterness. But, as one button i wear says, "IF YOU'RE NOT PISSED OFF, YOU'RE NOT PAYING ATTENTION!" Any time we see oppression, murder, crimes of any kind on any level, we're supposed to be angry! But anger, in the context of a Christian life, should provoke us to work to change the things that we're angry about--and not in a hateful, spiteful, destructive way. And, if you're angry, be sure to TEST that anger. Take a minute and try to figure our what the source of that anger is. Some people's natural response to being confronted--either explicitly or implicitly--about hypocrisy or harm they've done, is to become angry at the person who's confronting them! Make sure that your "anger" isn't actually chagrin or humiliation. Sometimes, we get angry over things that are beyond our control . . . in times like those, that's where prayer comes in; take those angers and frustrations to God, and He'll help you sort them out, putting everything in perspective. If you're working on something and accidentally injure yourself, you're going to feel anger on top of the hurt . . . but don't let that turn into what psychologists call "misplaced aggression." A lot of people who are cross and cruel to other people aren't really angry with THEM, they're upset over something else that's going on in their lives, and just vent that anger on any convenient individual. Part of dealing with anger as a Christian is trying to understand the source of other people's anger, and in understanding that, as Paul said, "everybody has their own history." So, when you hear about oppression, or people being wronged or hurt, you SHOULD feel anger . . . then let that anger turn into energy that will drive you to work in a positive way to make things better. It can be done.
Whew! That's probably the longest blog i've written in a while, but a lot of it needed to be said. Reading through it, you'll no doubt find a lot of possible solutions to the situations i described in my last post. It's actually made ME think through things i've written about, just by sitting here and putting it into a format that i could deal with. In many ways, this is how the gift of poetry that God gave me has worked for me . . . being able to deal with my angers, fears, hopes, dreams, and exaltations, to put it in a coherent form so i could come to grips with it. I just hope that my words can help other people with their own troubles . . . either by letting them know that they're not the only ones who've felt this way about things, or by giving them a vicarious release of emotions they've kept bottled up. The act of writing, and especially poetry, has provided me with a great deal of benefit, but it would rejoice my heart even more to hear that someone else has found worth in my words.
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