Monday, July 9, 2012

Learning to Be The Light

“When a heart is cold as ice
You can't melt it with advice
No one wants to listen to
A list of things they shouldn't do
So I build a city on a hill
And I light a candle on the sill
Knowing You'll be always knocking at the door
Oh God I just want to love on everyone
All I have is Yours to give so let the people come...”

            On a cool November morning in 1978, I made my early morning dash outside to get the newspaper. It was my habit from the time I was seven or eight to grab the paper before anyone else was up. I would scan the headlines, read the funnies, look for interesting editorials and pictures ,read the advice columns, peruse the sports section if there was anything about horse racing or gymnastics, attempt and occasionally complete the crossword puzzles, and mentally file away which things I wanted to cut out for my scrapbook later. To desecrate the paper with scissors before my parents had read it was, I had learned, not a good thing to do. Daddy did not appreciate picking up the sports section and finding a huge gaping hole where a picture of Secretariat had once been.

            A little over a year earlier, I had been the first to read the horrifying story of the Girl Scout murders at Camp Scott. It gave me nightmares and also justified in my mind my decision to withdraw from the Girl Scouts after one boring year of sewing pillows and singing dumb songs. I had an aversion to outdoor toilets and, although I loved nature, the woods were scary at night. It was not wild animals I feared, mind you, it was serial killers. Perhaps sneaking into my closet with a contraband copy of Helter Skelter when I was only ten was not the best idea. At any rate, I became fascinated at an early age with the workings of the human mind as well as the tragic events of history. These are interests that I have carried with me into adulthood, although I have learned to balance them with other things lest I become preoccupied with the dark and morbid thoughts that consumed me during my teenage years.

            On that day in 1978, I was twelve years old. Middle school had proved thus far to be confusing, confounding, and stressful as I struggled to find my place in the world. I was making good grades and my teachers loved me, but that does very little for one’s social status in seventh grade. I had plenty of friends but they were not cool and neither was I, and, unfortunately, one of the Mean Girls in eighth grade had targeted me as a victim. I made it too easy by letting her know it bothered me, and my mother did not understand why I suddenly had to have expensive tennis shoes and trendy shirts. I had never cared before. But I had never felt like such an outcast before. I hoped that the clothes would help, but so far, it wasn’t working. I was just thankful for weekends. I opened the paper and, in full color that filled two-thirds of the front page was a picture of hundreds of dead bodies. The headline above it screamed MASS SUICIDE IN GUYANA.

            I was in shock. I knew that Guyana was in South America or Central America somewhere. I had heard a few blurbs on the news a day or two before about a guy down there who might be holding people against their will in some kind of weird cult. But the little information I had somehow did not connect, in my mind, with this picture. I studied it with a feeling of cold horror, realizing that there were children lying there dead, children younger even than me. How could little kids commit suicide, and why would they? I noticed a couple of dead dogs in the picture. Dogs don’t commit suicide. Dogs don’t even know what death is. I began reading the article. At least three hundred people were dead. A “preacher” named Jim Jones was responsible. He had somehow coerced his followers into drinking Kool-Aid laced with cyanide. The adults had given it to their children and their pets. Old people had been injected with it. As I followed the story in the ensuing days and the body count rose, I was plagued with questions that no one seemed really able to answer-not my teachers, not my parents, not my minister or youth leaders. How could people do that? How could they kill themselves and their children and their pets? How was this man able to entice over nine hundred people to commit such a terrible act? My questions were no different from those of the people around me.

            I began to read about and research cults. I remembered my reading of Helter Skelter and I saw the similarities between Manson’s “family” and Jones’s “People’s Temple”. Years later, in college, I did a research paper on cults and I saw again the common thread. It was the need to be part of something. Cult leaders are able to build their little “kingdoms” by offering to the unwanted and outcast the opportunity to belong. Those who feel rejected by society are drawn to these charismatic leaders who offer them unconditional acceptance. Jim Jones convinced his followers that they were building a perfect society. Charles Manson did the same thing in a different way. Both men had people who were willing to kill or die for them. Those who came to their senses and attempted to leave were stopped and were made examples of by being humiliated, abused, or even killed. But the majority gave their lives to their alleged “saviors” and never looked back.

            So I have to ask myself this question: what are Christians doing? What is the Christian church doing? Why are we not giving these people the love, the acceptance, the refuge they seek? I have talked to many people who turned their backs on Christianity because they were given a box labeled “God” accompanied by an extensive list of rules and regulations that they were afraid to break. They were never given the gospel message, the real one that is Love, or, if they were, it became obscured by a set of impossible goals of perfection. And because everyone is seeking Something, those who feel ostracized by the church will look for unconditional love elsewhere.

            Yes, I do believe that there is such a thing as sin. Without it, we wouldn’t have anything from which we need saving. I believe that there are basic moral principles found in God’s Word, and that He does expect something from us as we grow in our faith and our understanding. But I don’t believe that sins can be categorized by levels or that the Bible was written to be used as a club. What it is is God’s Love letter to all of creation. The God of the Old Testament is the same God that is in the New Testament. He didn’t change, but the terms of the covenant did. The terms changed because He came to earth and felt everything that we feel and was despised and rejected and finally nailed to a Cross. His Love covers all our sins. His wrath is done. He has made His peace with mankind, and we can choose freely to accept or reject the grace that He offers. When I have kids come to me in tears because they feel that they aren’t good enough, that bad things have happened to them because God is punishing them, or that God is disappointed in them because they have failed in some way, my heart breaks. Who told them that? What are we doing?

            My God’s Love is SO BIG that it can carry all of the sins I have ever committed and fling them far away. My sins alone would be a staggering burden, but He took the sins of the whole world! Because it is a sinful and fallen world, bad things sometimes just happen. Sin has consequences that must be dealt with. Nevertheless, there is forgiveness. Whatever we may have done, and whatever consequences we have to face because of our sin, we still can go to Him and make all of it right. If this message of Love was properly communicated to the whole world, a Jim Jones or Charles Manson could never get a foothold. The beautiful thing is that Charles Manson himself could even now be forgiven if he would cast off his foolish pride and confess all to Jesus. As much as I despise what Manson did, I would rejoice if that were to happen. I would also rejoice if we as Christians would stop being so darn judgmental and learn to love as Christ loves. It is silly to think we can “save” anyone. We can’t do God’s job for Him. But we can be His witnesses. The Great Commission tells us to go into the world and make disciples. Nowhere does it say that we are to browbeat, humiliate, or frighten people into the Kingdom. The Bible even says that we are to meet people’s immediate physical and emotional needs FIRST. I am a proponent of meeting folks where they are, and it is not in my “job description” to decide if I like where they are. I’m sure that God didn’t like where I was at age seven when I first got saved, or at fourteen when I re-dedicated my life, or at twenty when I returned to Him after a three-year prodigal journey. He has never once judged me for who I am, but has seen who I can be in Him.

            In recent months God has revealed to me more and more that I need to learn to reflect His light more and more. When I see “Christians” doing things like protesting at the funerals of homosexuals while carrying hateful signs or holding book burnings or screaming hellfire and brimstone from street corners, I cringe.  Yeah, that’s effective. It turns people off and turns them away and sends them straight into the clutches of Evil. It makes us look ridiculous and crazy and mean. But “a city on a hill cannot be hidden”. So carry the Light. Love your enemies. Forgive those who hate and persecute you. Embrace the unlovable. Everyone has a past and a struggle and a wound of some kind. Speak the truth to them in Love. Just love them like Jesus.

Go light your world.

“I'm learning to be the light
That makes the shadows hide
The light that breaks the curse of pride
The light that takes the weary in its arms
When it all came crashing down
There was only darkness all around
But in the distance I could see
A flame...
It's so much brighter living in Your world
Savior what You did for me
You gave me something I want everyone, I mean everyone to see.”

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