War and Peace

“But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Matthew 5:39)

“You need not attend every argument to which you are invited.” — Anonymous

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I did something really dumb last week. (This, sadly, is how many of my stories begin.)  I mean I walked right into it: I gave my personal opinion on a controversial topic — and I did this via Facebook.

Big mistake.

I’ve experienced my fair share of chat rooms and discussion forums.  I left that world behind years ago because I hardly think online realms of that sort are a very productive means to settling a dispute or sharing one’s knowledge or experiences.  I’ve found them to be hot beds of ire and dissension because no one truly wants to know others’ opinions;  they want only to share their own highly superior one, and they get horribly offended when others have the audacity to possess an opinion to the contrary.  As was most often the case, those “discussions” (usually involving a dozen or more temper-prone individuals who have never met face to face) devolved very quickly into little more than frenzied debates rife with name-calling and he said/she said scenarios, like a bunch of rabid dogs ripping apart the remains of a long-dead squirrel.  Someone gets mad, another handful of individual get their feelings hurt, people take sides, and all heck breaks loose.  Internet shenanigans get really ugly, really fast.

So even though my gut told me not to, I gave my two cents in answer to a friend’s question, thinking surely there could be no backlash to my carefully worded thoughts.  We were all adults, yes?  We can all behave ourselves, put on our big girl panties and deal, right?

Nope.

In the minds of some (many), when one shares one’s opinion it is an unspoken invitation to debate, especially if that opinion isn’t the popular one (as mine apparently was).  So when I was asked — not by my friend, but by a total stranger who has no clue about my heart or my motives — to “clarify my position”, my heart sank.  In my experience, this is code for “I want to be sure you said what I think you said so I can lay into you properly”.  I had an uneasy feeling this person was spoiling for a fight (certainly some people lie in wait for any reason to start one), because she’d ignored every bit of what I’d said — except to carefully pluck out just a few of my words to compare to some unwritten subtext with which she clearly had a bone to pick.

I sensed the start of some pretty hefty battle lines being drawn, my words (or at least her interpretation of my words) being the clear reason for those lines.  But see, I had absolutely no interest in being a party to any of what was about to go down — not a “discussion”, not a debate, and certainly not an embittered battle.  All I’d wanted was to say my piece and leave it at that.  But by that point it was too late.  

Enter my second mistake:  I ignored my gut again and believed (oh so foolishly) that I could mayhap further elaborate on my original comment so as to help this other person understand what I was truly attempting to convey.  But I was a little flustered — conflict makes mincemeat out of me, not to mention my optimistic notion that folks are naturally going to respect at face value what I say without any need to take it to task — so my words came out all wrong, and quite frankly even in the writing of my second, more elaborate comment, it felt a little like I was duck-dodging random patches of innocent-looking grass — in a mine field

So after pressing “send” I immediately began to second guess myself (and my sanity for ever speaking up in the first place, certainly for choosing to engage in what was obviously about to become an Online Argument — and those are always ten times worse than a regular argument), so I did what any self-respecting Israelite would have done when faced with a taunting, trash-talking, slavering Goliath:  I made a hasty retreat, deciding to get out while the getting was (still kinda-sorta) good.  I quickly deleted every comment I had posted, and then posted a new comment fessing up to my incompetence as an online debate participant, writing words to the effect of “grunt, cave girl no rite guud, cave girl sorry she make stink, goodbye and have day full of nice stuffs”.

I breathed a big ole sigh of relief.  My comments were deleted, no harm had been done, and  I’d politely excused myself from a potential mess.  Normal people will certainly recognize that not everyone is cut out for warfare and not give it a second thought.  That was the end of that, right?

Not even.

Apparently when someone raises a white flag and retreats in the presence of a warrior who already has her sword out ready to strike, said warrior gets a little (or a lot) angry at the person who denied them the chance to fight.  I won’t quote verbatim here what was said about me, but suffice it to say I was likened to a liar for daring to delete my poorly worded opinion, and I was deemed full of passive agressive [insert shocking swearwords here] for having the audacity to turn hightail and get my butt off the battlefield before any blood was shed.

And then my mistakes caught up with me, as mistakes (sin) always do.  I got mad and did what I do when I’m pushed too far:  I reacted.  I wasn’t about to sit there and voluntarily allow some stranger into my home, by way of computer screen, to verbally smack me upside the head.  So I did what any Facebooker does when she’s mad and knows she’s way too weak-willed to merely walk away and never read the words of mean strangers: I blocked her.  Problem solved.  It’s as if she never existed.  I was done.

Except I wasn’t done.  I contacted a few of my friends privately and spluttered and spouted and railed and vented about this person who’d done me the disservice of publicly impugning my good name — and how dare she disrespect me like that?  Me, a total stranger!  [insert a few choice swear words of my own]

Meanwhile, my blocking the warrior apparently angered her even further, and while I had no idea what she was saying on her end,  I heard no end of it all day long from other friends who were privy to her very public meltdown.  She was apparently hashing it out for all to see, to the tune of 38 comments (hers plus what others were saying, some in my defense, others not).  People came out of the woodwork to get involved (the online equivalent of a riot), I got called more ugly names, insinuations were made about my character (or lack thereof), and the whole thing turned into a messy affair worthy of the best any Junior High drama club could dish out.

All because I spoke up with a few dissenting words?  Am I to take away from this experience the point that maybe I should never voice my opinion, not ever ever again?  That’s a tempting conclusion for a conflict-avoidant person such as myself to come to, but I don’t think that’s the wise takeaway.  Sometimes it’s okay — good even — to speak out against the popular consensus and be the voice of morality and decency in a world often lacking in those things — if that’s your gift and if you are equipped by the Holy Spirit to wear battle armor and enter the fray in God’s name.  I hate war as much as (maybe more than) anyone, but even I recognize sometimes evil must be dealt with directly;  I also recognize I’m not That Person.  To quote the Kinks, “I’m a lover, not a fighter.”

No, I don’t think my voicing my opinions was the worst thing I did.  I think by far my biggest mistake was lack of self control.  I didn’t turn the other cheek when I was supposed to, right after that first taunting slap. 

“But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Matthew 5:39)

This verse is often quoted and misinterpreted to sound like Jesus is saying, “hey you — yeah you — go be a doormat;  do it in my name because sniveling weakness is next to Godliness.”  But have you ever wondered about how much strength it takes for a person to do this thing Jesus is calling us to do?

Think about it:  some mean-spirited person, some cocky and self-assured invidual, walks up to you on the corner of the street where you stand minding your own business, and this person — this total stranger — is so thoroughly affronted by your very presence, he hauls back and punches you so hard that you’re ushered into a universe of pain-splattered stars.  You pull away, a dribble of blood at the corner of your mouth, eyes wide, the flesh on your face already beginning to swell and simultaneously tingle in numb protest — and oh how this is gonna smart in the morning!

Now tell me: how do you feel?

Do you feel misunderstood?  Do you think there must have been some mistake?  Do you feel your character has been maligned?  The street is crowded and everyone is staring, wondering what you did to deserve this — and in their minds you obviously deserved it because no one just does something like that for no reason.  Are you embarrassed?  Embarrassment does a funny thing to a person: it evolves into anger.  And anger leads to hate.  And hate leads to the dark side.  Maybe your gut reaction, as the bolt of shock is just beginning to dissipate, is an overwhelming urge to take this person down.  You could do it, you know.  They wouldn’t even see it coming — and they totally deserve it.  No one would blame you…

“But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”

Wait a minute — what did Jesus just say?  Did he just tell me to stand there and take it?

No, that’s not what he said.  Jesus is telling you not to react against this evil being done to you, but to in fact turn the other cheek, look away in the opposite direction, show no hint of malice — disengage.  I interpret it as a silent, purposefully controlled choice to walk away, a conceding to the moment of temporary pain and a refusal to participate in further harm — even if that refusal means you get slapped again in the act of retreat.  Sometimes the best reaction is no reaction at all.

With scripture, you have to take everything in context, and just before Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, he says this in verse 38, “You have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’.”  What Jesus is doing here is a juxtaposition of the socially accepted norm (and the natural human tendency) to seek vengeance, to participate in instant “justice”, to retaliate — and oh goodness, doesn’t retaliation feel good?  Sure it does!

But only temporarily because it always results in bloodshed, either loudly, publicly … or in the quiet recesses of a frail human heart.  And herein lies the rub: retaliation is at its very core a deeply selfish thing, which completely ignores the other person, the individual who took the first punch.  It ignores their story, their history, the shards of brokenness residing deep within their soul.  It ignores their humanity.  It requires of you to cease loving your neighbor as you love yourself and begin living a completely self-centered existence.  And what does that breed?  Why, more pain, of course.

Jesus isn’t telling you to stand there and take it.  He isn’t commanding you to be a doormat.  He’s giving you a way out.  He’s offering you the freedom to love another individual.  He’s releasing you from the responsibility to make right this wrong — because ultimately you can’t.  Only Jesus is the one capable of giving justification, and not just to you, but for the one who provided the original offense.  It takes a heck of a lot more faith in God’s sovereignty, and tons more personal self control, to turn the other cheek, than it would to haul back and punch the living daylights out of this person who so unjustly attacked you.  But that’s the beauty of the command — and make no mistake, it is absolutely not a suggestion;  it is a command for peace, even in the presence of conflict.  See, nothing diffuses a bomb quite like walking away;  it’s really difficult to do any damage if there’s no one standing nearby when it explodes.  “You need not attend every argument to which you are invited”, nor are you required — or even entitled — to attempt to justify yourself in the face of an attack or accusation.  Jesus has already justified you, and it is through your faith that you receive peace in this fact (Romans 5:1).

Oh goodness I have so much work to do in this!  It really comes down to boundaries and the art of saying “no” — not to others, but to myself.  See, I can’t stop anyone from reaching out to slap me, physically or verbally — but I can shore up my mind with higher things, holier things, and live in a state of self control so that when I’m tempted to justify myself to total strangers (who taunt me with name calling and who judge my motives and make a pure spectacle out of me to anyone within earshot), I can walk away — or better yet, have the wisdom not to walk into a situation in the first place, as my gut (the Holy Spirit) is telling me it would be foolish to do so.

First Impressions

Everyone has a different “conversion experience” story to tell, to “witness” to anyone with a willing ear.  Some people find Jesus early in life, others not until they’re in their mid-fifties, seventies, or even well into their eighties.  I’ve heard stories of people going to church with a college girlfriend, eyes only for her, and walking away sold out for Christ and head over heels in love — not with the girl, but with the Gospel.  Some tell very dramatic tales about being on the front lines in a war, or a car accident, or a near drowning, seeing bright flashes of light, hearing the voices of angels, feeling a sense of peace like warm honey from fingertips to toes.  However it happens to a person, it’s definitely something that sticks with them, becoming a lasting impression of God for years to come and a springboard for the shape their faith walk will take.

I was raised “in the Church”, meaning I never knew a time without God at the helm of my existence.  I went to worship services every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night.  I owned a Bible with my name engraved on the cover in gold.  I could list the Old and New Testament books in order, from Genesis to Revelation.   I was on top of it.

When I was nine years old, something stirred within me — the Holy Spirit, I believe now — causing in me an indescribable need to follow Jesus.  At the time, I couldn’t quite put words to this feeling, I only knew I wanted to obey this gentle, yet insistent urging to be washed clean. And the only experience I had with God was what was given to me by my parents, so it was to them I turned.

But some people have their own beliefs about such things, and all my father  understood was that his only child — a young child at that, much too young to fully understand the scope and breadth of sin and sanctification — wanted to “be baptized”.  (We didn’t call it “being saved”, though that was The Reason for the need to “be baptized”.)  And there were rules for that, protocols.  Baptism had to be done for all the right reasons and under optimal conditions, fully understood, perfectly obeyed, and done with the utmost care and attention.

To this day, my personal “conversion experience” is remembered as somewhat stressful.  I sat there, a skinny thing in shorts, the backsides of thighs stuck fast to the black vinyl sofa atop which I sat, legs not even long enough for toes to graze the floor — wanting only to do what I felt called to do, yet being questioned to the nth degree about it.  I think I remember our church minister (pastor) being there as part of the grill squad, possibly a church elder as well, sitting in front of me, poking, prodding, asking questions.  I for sure remember my father insisting I hand-write out a list of the reasons for wanting to be baptized.  My dad needed to make sure I understood what I was doing.  I had to assure him that I fully grasped the gravity of the matter, implicitly following the rules of “hearing, believing, repenting, and confessing” before I could ever be immersed fully in water.  Ultimately I was permitted to follow through, but by that point I don’t know if it was at all for the right reasons.  I’m fairly certain somewhere along the way, I ceased hearing the call of the Spirit and started following my dad’s guidelines for a proper baptism — which, ironically, would have been all the wrong reasons.

What I learned from that experience was a powerful first impression: following God is never simple.  There are far too many rules for simplicity.  Consensus must be reached by your fellow (i.e. older, wiser) brethren, and even then you’re probably going to get it wrong and displease God — in which case you should enact a do-over.

And I did.  Several times over.  I was baptized (and ostensibly “made right with God”) three times more over the next decade.  The second time my father personally did the dunking;  I felt squeaky clean after that one, like I’d really, truly been properly saved — but it didn’t last.  The third baptism came from my mom, in the bathtub.  By the fourth go I was so ashamed of my personal sin and inability to cling to ultimate perfection longer than twenty minutes that I didn’t have the heart to ask anyone to do the deed for me, so I just baptized myself, (again in the tub);  I don’t know if that one counted, but I’m counting it here.  I would have been baptized a fifth time, in my mid-twenties, if it hadn’t been for another church minister to put a halt to that.  He convinced me (through my tears) that further baptism wasn’t necessary — that at some point along the way, my bases were covered.

Writing all of this out feels just yucky.  Because it still affects me, nearly thirty years later.  My core belief about God is so completely clouded by my first solid impression of him, of how I am supposed to deal with the matter of salvation and pleasing him and getting stuff right (or wrong, as is apparently the case).  I see that my belief is skewed, but I don’t know what to do about it.

When I was in my late twenties (just a few years after averting that fifth baptism), I turned away from the teachings and beliefs that my dad held about God — I didn’t turn away from God;  I turned away from the way I had been taught to believe about God.  That distinction is important.  And that turning away from how I’d been raised to believe in God was, for me, a matter of life or death.  It’s true.  I had gotten to that point where I had two paths before me.  The first path pointed to A Great Big Unknown, a leap of faith, taking risks and re-learning some things and probably living to tell about it.  The second path meant clinging to the beliefs I already had and probably winding up dead, either by illness caused by anxiety, or by suicide at the hands of a very depressed person (me).

I chose the first path. But it wasn’t easy.  Choosing that path meant potentially displeasing God, and that was a really, truly scary thing.  Displeasing God most certainly meant an eternity spent in hell.  Understand the significance of that and you’ll have an inkling of how big a leap it was for me to take at the time.  I was so wound up in a spirit of fear it was choking the life right out of me.

Now that leap caused a lot of drama.  My dad was (to say the least) not happy with my choice.  There was some pretty serious conflict — but my aim isn’t to get into all of that today.  I’ve slogged through that enough over the last ten years, a whole lot of junk to sift through (and probably more to come, oh boy).  My purpose for bringing it up today is to get to a place of understanding what happened last night:  A Breakthrough.  I think.

All these years, since leaving behind the core beliefs of my youth, I’d actually had myself convinced that I’d actually done it: left behind the core beliefs of my youth.  But apparently I’d just been pretending.  I’m not sure exactly what I’ve been doing in the last ten years, if it was work that needed doing — perhaps a form of “de-schooling” before the real teaching begins — but it sure wasn’t any form of dealing with the problems at hand.  I’ve clearly only been living in a state of denial, of avoidance.

I actually sat down last night to begin studying.  Not the kind of studying where I go to the Bible with pre-conceived notions, looking to prove this or that point — because, heck, I feel like I know the Bible;  I can quote snatches of scripture up one side and down the other, my father trained me well — but to really study it, to see if I could find some solid truths in there, get a better feel for the character of Jesus, who did, after all, come to live and die so that I may know him completely, right?  And I barely dipped a toe in when I felt overwhelming anxiety wash over me.  Before I knew it, I was fighting back tears.

I was afraid to read my Bible.  I mean I was stone cold petrified.

I kept coming back to the fact that God loves me, that he’s not set on my failure so he can banish me to the nether regions of hell, that I had nothing to fear, “because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love.” (I John 4:18)

But that truth didn’t matter in the face of my core belief about God: he’s ready to bash me over the head with my incorrectness of the last ten years, ready to beat me into submission until I get it right, by golly, and return to the correct and proper paths of living.  And if I don’t?  Well, then God is fully prepared to reject me more than he rejects me now.

Knowing and believing are two completely different things.

My core belief about the world around me is this and this alone: Rejection.  If I do the wrong thing (and I most certainly will) then I will be rejected — by friends, by acquaintances, by my husband, by the person who bags my groceries, everyone.  I expect rejection.  Why?  Because I’ve been rejected by God, of course.  That is my core belief.  That is what I learned, sitting on that vinyl sofa at the age of nine, having to put into words what I felt in my heart — which was clearly wrong and subject to rejection by God because what I felt was simple and God is far from simple.  He has rules.  He has standards.

I knew I was broken.  I just had no idea just how broken I was.  I mean I felt it.  But I didn’t really know.

I have barely scratched the surface, but I think I’m on to something…

Food for further thought: How To Overcome Rejection: correcting a mistaken identity

Retreat

retreat, [riˈtrēt/] – verb, 1. to withdraw from enemy forces as a result of their superior power or after a defeat;  noun, 1. an act of moving back or withdrawing;  2. an act of changing one’s decisions, plans, or attitude, esp. as a result of criticism from others;  3. a period of seclusion for the purposes of prayer and meditation;  synonyms: withdrawal, pulling back, solitude, sanctuary

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“And they came to a place called Gethsemane;  and He said to His disciples, ‘Sit here until I have prayed.’  And He took with Him Peter and James and John, and began to be very distressed and troubled.  And He said to them, ‘My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death;  remain here and keep watch.’  And He went a little beyond them, and fell to the ground, and began praying.” (Mark 14:32-34)

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I have always found it deeply comforting that even Jesus found purposeful withdrawal necessary.  Time spent away from others, to nourish his soul, away from the conflicting wants and needs of the world.  Time spent breathing with the Abba, feeding himself down to the very marrow of his bones.  If Jesus — the very Son of God — needed this time set apart, how much more would a mere mortal need it?  I’d venture to guess quite a bit.

I know I need it.  Desperately.  I’ve spent so much time in the world, a slow acclimation to its disquieting nuances, absorbing its clatter, allowing each particle of dust to mingle with sweat and ooze into my pores …. leaving me bogged down by the weight of grime clinging to every square inch of skin, under fingernails, filling nostrils, clouding vision.

I’m admittedly very badly broken, same as anyone I suppose.  There are shattered pieces rattling around inside of what is left of my heart.  I need putting back together again.  I am in need of salvation.  I’m at that place — where many of us find ourselves, sometimes repeatedly, over and over again, after wandering around in the desert for years heaped upon years — where I simply want more for myself.  More of less.  I desire healing.  I no longer want my brokenness to define me or guide my actions.  I want a clean slate.

This seems an impossibly tall order in light of all the grime.  Luckily, Jesus is in the business of “[healing] the broken-hearted and [binding] up their wounds.” (Psalm 147:3).

This sounds of the first plish-patter of rain in the desert.  Can you hear it?  Distant rumblings, a gentle fold in the air as sky releases the long-awaited whetting of a parched and cracked heart.

All Jesus needs, in order to accomplish this miraculous task of washing anew that which is crumbling and disintegrating into the dust of the earth, is a willing blob of clay.  Clay. Where dust meets water and intermingles, becoming malleable.

Here I  am, Lord.  Mold me.

I begin today with a willful act of retreat, withdrawing from enemy forces, admitting defeat.  I know myself to be my own worst enemy, weak-willed and as flighty as the wind.  And I admit my powerlessness over this flesh tethered to a spirit, made in the image of God, so full of good intentions.  In this acknowledgement comes a moving back from the world and withdrawing to a place of inner solitude, the sanctuary of my deepest center;  the Holy Spirit dwells there, and it is there I will meet him, converse with him, partner with him, obey him.  Change is coming in the form of my decisions, plans, and attitude;  the criticism I receive is from me — the self-inflicted shame, the adoption of false beliefs about the self, about God — this is not from God, “for there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”. (Romans 8:1).  So begins my period of seclusion, still living in the world, but no longer among the frenetic, bi-polar, dis-eased nature of this muck in which I live;  I embark on the journey of prayer and meditation.

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When the weary, seeking rest,
To Thy goodness flee;
When the heaven laden cast
All their load on Thee;
When the troubled, seeking peace,
On Thy Name shall call;
When the sinner, seeking life,
At Thy feet shall fall:
Hear then in love, O Lord, the cry in Heav’n,
Thy dwelling place on high.
Hymns of Faith and Hope, Horatius Bonar