After the Storm
By: John H. Campbell
Revelation 21: 5: "See, I am making all things new."
Many who may be reading this might be where I once found myself. Others may have moved forward, and merely want to see or read about the path, or beliefs of another, if for no other reason than to compare similarities or differences in a spiritual journey. But I am writing this for anyone at all who has reached a time in their lives where the very foundations of their faith seem to be crumbling, and find themselves hopeful and faithful that that which they hold as beliefs in their heart will weather the storm, yet feel a bit like one of the characters in the Old Testament stories did - fully trusting in the unseen, in the mystery of God in the face of ridicule and persecution from others, while knowing that ultimately Truth would be revealed and some sort of sign would arrive. Perhaps like Noah as the storm was growing near, or Job, whose name we still drop quite frequently as a living embodiment and testimonial to the time honored virtue of patience during difficult times and circumstances.
I have talked many times about my own journey, and how my faith went through many twists and turns and eventually came tumbling down like the walls of Jericho before I was able through faith, prayer, meditation, study, and most of all merely living and allowing myself to see God in the everyday rather than waiting around for the clouds to part and a huge booming voice sounding like it came out of an old Mel Brooks or Monty Python film to say, "Here I am, nothing to worry about, it's all good. Move along now." But a question I was asked recently by someone who was going through a spiritual crisis - finding themselves revisiting and rethinking their old beliefs in the light of the best education I feel that God could have very created for any of us to train for something higher in (something we sometimes cannot find adequate terms to define but commonly refer to as "life") got me ruminating over what a good answer to offer them would be.
What she asked me was, "When everything you thought you believed in seems to be falling apart, when it hurts to believe in the things you used to or feared that you had to, and you want something to fill the void that remains, the 'God shaped hole,' if you will, where exactly do you start?"
Keep in mind that she had not lost faith in God at all, she still believed in God, although she had no idea of what exactly that meant to her. Like me, she is bisexual, and she had been through the coming out process and in accepting herself and her sexuality, she had found the beliefs she had inherited in direct conflict with that. "There's a lot of things about God and Jesus that I always thought were good," she said, "but I can't think about God the way I once did. God is supposed to be about Love, and all I see coming from most people who say they are Christians isn't loving. It's about being afraid. Constantly afraid of judgment, punishment, sin, the devil, hell. Yes. God 'loves' you but will send you to hell or let you suffer if you don't fit some certain criteria. All of it seems so...human. It seems like people use God to hide behind everything they're afraid of rather than trying to understand it. If it's not in the Bible then they don't want to hear it and if you try to debate it becomes this big game of scriptural cross referencing. "So what does God want with me? What does God want period?"
Silence. Tears. Somewhat uncomfortable silence as I thought about the nature of my reply. Now there was a loaded question. I answered as honestly as I could in stating that I cannot know for sure what God wants, and I don't really think that any of us can. In fact, more often than not in history, whenever anyone perceives that they have reached certainty about exactly what God wants (or rather, what it is that they think God wants or what they themselves want God to want), bad things quite often follow as a consequence.
How does one replace that self defeating, wholeness denying, and negative thinking which is definitely not based in the idea of a Loving God and replace it with a new faith, and a solid sense of spiritual wellness? I thought for a moment and remembered that when you are attempting to rebuild your faith anew that sometimes it really is best to start from the very beginning. "Tell me, what was your first thought, your earliest memory about God?" I asked. She responded as many people I have asked the same question do with comments about "Jesus Loves Me, for the Bible tells me so" in Sunday School and remembering being taught the prayer "God is Great, God is Good, let us thank Him for our food" at the dinner table, and I said, "But do you remember YOUR first thought about God? Seeing something really beautiful and thinking there must be something Greater than made that, or a feeling you had?"
We talked for a while, and sure enough, there were some things she was able to fondly reminisce about. Sunsets. Flowers. Waterfalls. Friends doing nice things for her. "But that was without all of the rhetoric and things I was taught. I just had the thought there was this big Light that made everything and loved me and wanted the world to be a better place."
I remembered when I was where she was, and found myself thinking about the same things, not realizing then just how close to the truth that sentiment actually was.
It was then that I referred to a teaching of Jesus that I often referred back to during my own time of spiritual growth, and in times of a crisis of faith. Call it, for lack of a better term, one of my "Chicken Soup for the Troubled Soul" verses:
Matthew 18:3-4 "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the dominion of Heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the dominion of Heaven."
Think about it. Children don't have the cynicism and complex fears and worries that many of us have as adults. They don't over think or over rationalize things, and often live in a world of simplicity and whimsy with an often astonishing sense of clarity and amazing perception of the obvious we sometimes seem to have a difficult time pinpointing or which frequently eludes us as adults. They don't have the judgment that we do (at least, not in most cases; I have unfortunately seen many young children indoctrinated into fear-based religious thinking early on, check out the film "Jesus Camp" for some chilling examples of the type of abuse I am referring to) and often see bright and nonchalant answers to things which many of us would agonize at length over as adults.
And LGBT people? Unless their parents are teaching it to them (and sometimes not even then), it is a true non-issue to them. I vividly recall seeing a PBS documentary on kids' opinions of LGBT couples and same-gender marriage and the majority of the kids they talked to wondered what the big deal was about it. I remember one of them saying, "If a boy likes boys he should be able to marry one, and if a girl likes girls she should be able to marry one, and if they like girls and boys maybe they can marry both!" From the mouths of babes. No judgments, no political spin meant to create controversy (and I doubt many of these kids even knew what the word controversy meant), just common sense. They don't care what goes on in people's bedrooms and between who or whatever. There's a sense of innocence, they just don't give it any thought. As most of the rest of us, especially those in the world who occupy their time pontificating at length on the private lives of others might do well to consider.
And the dreams and flights of fancy of kids, as well as the courage and lack of fear a lot of kids have are often things which we as adults seem to have, for a lack of a better term, outgrown (at least, some of us). I was recently at a theme park with a friend and had to talk him into getting on a lot of the big rides (okay, I admit, I am still just a big kid myself). On nearly all of the biggest, fastest rides that the younger kids were tall enough to get on, they were lining up like crazy, in many cases dragging a nervous parent in tow. When you're a kid, you aren't afraid of doing the crazy stuff, you dream big-you really have that idea that nothing is impossible as long as you believe. Fortunately, there are many of us who have allowed that spirit to remain alive and well in us through the years.
And that's what I see Jesus saying there when he talks about becoming as little children. He's telling those who are so caught up in the particulars of worship and attempting to determine exactly what it is God wants of them and others to let go of all that, and embrace the mystery and reality of God not with fear or concern but with a sense of child like wonder, an open mind and heart fresh and free of fear and doubt that truly does embrace the possibility that anything is possible. No need to worry about details-just trust in God, and be.
One of my favorite sayings has always been "Growing old is mandatory; growing up is optional." Sometimes maintaining a childlike sense of wonder about faith and acknowledging that we don't have all the answers, and don't have to, and that God simply "Is" is a true sign of pure spiritual maturity.
So that was the first thing I offered; a beginning from square one. Looking at God with that same sense of wonder and hope that we might have had when we were younger; before the Sunday School classes or dogmatic teachings that told us that it was good to feel bad about ourselves and think of ourselves as miserable, wretched "sinners" needing to be saved from a judgmental God lest the Devil come after us; before the church youth groups who told us it was "good" to be ashamed and embarrassed about our natural sexual feelings and that we should instead consider them something to be eschewed and feared, especially if they did not fit the "norm" of married monogamous heterosexuality; before the Campus meetings to discuss the absolute and unquestionable "inerrancy" of the Bible or "The Late Great Planet Earth" and how it could be "proven" through current news events and how it was imperative to get everyone on board before it was too late. A concept of a God of Love free of any indoctrination and interpretation save for one's own; a glimpse the Almighty directly from the heart, within the heart, where God speaks the loudest and clearest.
That's the absolute best way I have found, at least, as the beginnings of a doorway out of a place of seeming spiritual ruin. A childlike faith which is not wrapped up in years of dogmatic conditioning or which is able to peel away the layers of fear and rekindle that same sense of wonder is often indicative of a great level of spiritual maturity.
I reflected a little more on her question of "What does God want?" And I recalled and shared a few verses in exchange for her to consider that have always been a source of guidance to me when I was seeking an answer to the exact same query:
Micah 6:8: ".....and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?"
Matthew 7:12 "In everything to do others as you would have them do to you, for this is the law and the prophets."
Matthew 22:37-40 "You shall Love the Sovereign your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first Commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
Matthew 12:7 "I desire mercy and not sacrifice."
From Mark 12:28-34, in response to Jesus teaching the Greatest Commandments: "You are right, Teacher.....this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices."
Take note that in all of these, not once is sexual orientation, individual sexual practices and proclivities among caring and consenting adults, political affiliation, gender, race, creed, lifestyle, personal quirks and habits, voting record, musical taste, or anything else which has become associated with what the mainstream media today would have us believe are intrinsic elements of Christianity mentioned. I'm not certain whose decision it was along the way to extrapolate specific meanings and messages regarding those issues from Scriptures, or to select verses out of context and magnify them to great lengths to defend their point of view on such matters, but I think it missed the mark of everything Jesus stood for entirely. For me, the very core of Christianity comes down to one very simple teaching: Show your Love for and gratitude to God for all you have been blessed with-including life itself - by being as loving as you can to others under all circumstances. That's it.
The only definitely, solid directive - and I see it more as an loving admonition intended for the collective well being of all humankind rather than a command-which I interpret from everything Christ was about, and the God Whom the people writing what we know today as the Bible were seeking to understand, is an astoundingly simple, albeit challenging one: Strive to be a good person, the best you that you can be and in all things, treat all the rest of God's children, even those who seem to behave in a manner in direct opposition to your well being with the same measure of love, courtesy and kindness which you yourself desire. And while doing so, don't worry, because with the knowledge that God is Love, and that we are never truly separate from that Love, there is nothing for us to fear because we can always depend upon it being there even if we somehow are suffering the fearful illusion that it isn't.
It is a very simplistic, childlike understanding of things; but as I mentioned earlier, that is not a negative quality at all. And for someone beginning to restructure their faith and spirituality after a cataclysmic collapse, it is an excellent place to start.
The verse from Micah is always the one which comes to my mind whenever I think about the concept of God and "requirements." One of the difficult things to let go of when I was rebuilding my own faith was the idea of a God who constantly demanded some type of action on my part, be it wallowing in shame over not measuring up to a certain definition or restriction of behavior, or spending hours in prayer each day, or doing things to meet a certain "requirement." It had been engrained in my head for so long by the conditioning of others and through negative beliefs that showing love for God equated to fulfilling a rigid list of specific requirements (and I might add that none of them involved service to others, it was all about prayer and ritual, self denial and self loathing, and pretending to embrace unhealthy concepts about God arisen from someone else's ideas about God rather than my own).
In talking to others, I have encountered many who have felt the same way; after one has been freed of the restrictive bonds of being enslaved to a legalistic understanding of the Christian faith, there is sometimes a void of some sort and a certain amount of reconditioning and filling the places where fear once resided with new and positive ideas and patterns of thought is required as an implement of the healing process and to make room for the solid and stable foundations of a healthier spirituality.
Once while dealing with some of these thoughts during my own healing process, oddly enough, Micah 6:8 was one of the Scriptures in the Lectionary in the new and decidedly non-legalistic church I was attending at the time. I read it and re-read it, and something about it really hit home for me. "Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with my God." It sounded so simple, and I immediately began to think of ways that I could apply that to my everyday life.
Doing justice. What exactly does that mean, anyway? How often is it that we hear that old familiar adage about "life just not being fair" from someone enduring Job-like circumstances or at times feel that way ourselves? And since I feel that Jesus was very clear in advising us to avoid judgment of others, how is it that we determine when justice is being served or corrupted?
While we definitely don't have to play the role of judge, I think it is overall a fairly easy determination when we encounter a situation that is unjust. It is sometimes a more difficult determination of what is within our means to remedy it or prevent it. When we embody the Parable of the Good Samaritan, we are not judging anyone-we are allowing the justice which God wants all to receive to flow through us to one in need. When we see a person who looks alone, feeling as if they don't belong somehow, and extend a hand of friendship, or a kind word to them, we are promoting and being one of the forms of justice I think the writer of Micah was referring to. When we see those enduring difficult circumstances and actually take action to attempt to remedy their crisis, we are embodying justice.
There are other ways to interpret this statement as well, as in finding a cause which is uniquely meaningful to us and which we feel would fill a need and be helpful to others (and sometimes, ourselves as well) and committing our energies and resources to it. Finding what it is which is meaningful to us, and in what way we could utilize that in a fashion which will help others as well, is an incredible blessing and an amazing source of spiritual renewal even for the most jaded souls, even those undergoing a crisis of faith. This is something which was vitally important to me in the redevelopment of my own faith, and in the process I was able to offer assistance to others who were struggling.
I had always been fully supportive of all LGBT rights, even before I came out as a bisexual man and came to terms with and fully accepted who God made me to be. It has always deep in my heart been a firm belief - even during times when it was difficult to locate my faith - that no one should ever be judged or denied full equality or inclusion on the basis of who they are. But in the coming out process, I realized that while we face much of the same types of persecution faced by the gay and lesbian community (there is no "heterosexual privilege" for the out bisexual, and as far as the homophobic are concerned, in my experience they have even more disdain for bisexuals), there are different and specific types of injustices and persecutions which bisexual individuals are subjected to.
To begin with, unfortunately, there are still a great many in the gay and lesbian community - as well as in the faction of the heterosexual community who are supportive of gay and lesbian individuals - who view the very concept of bisexuality with caution, skepticism and apprehension. Those bisexuals who opt for a monogamous relationship with a partner of either gender often find the sincerity of their feelings or the validity of their identity or relationships called into question. Bisexuals such as myself who are committed to more than one person and are simultaneously in an intimate relationship with both a female and male partner-regardless of the depth of honesty, caring and sincerity of all people involved in those relationships-are often seen as those who would "sleep with anything that moves." insincere, unable to commit (although I sometimes comment that it would stand to reason that a person who can be in more than one committed relationship at a time would not have difficulty with commitment) or as a perceived threat to greater acceptance of, a detriment to, or an embarrassment to the LGBT Community. Yes. My partners and I have been called all of these.
Regardless of what type of relationship(s) a bisexual person has, the entire concept of bisexuality is anathema to many as it is in square opposition to the black and white thinking so prevalent in society and still adhered to by a large majority of people. (Perhaps not coincidentally, I have found that while absolute, black and white thinking is more commonplace in legalistic/fundamentalist Christian circles, it exists in many more realms than that-I have had some of my most heated discourses about the existence of bisexuality with those who were not opposed to it due to literalistic Bible interpretations at all.)
Although I don't ever encourage or never would recommend that anyone who is bisexual remain "in the closet," when I heard what so many witnessed when they did come out as bisexual-and experienced some of it firsthand. I fully understood why so many decide to stay there. Yet coming out and seeking to offer assistance and support to others doing the same was one of the most spiritual experiences I have ever had, and the love and support I was able to offer to others simply by being myself and listening and caring and being a part of the bisexual community brought me much closer to God than the fearful hours of prayer and concern I had at one time before my old faith fell to pieces.
I have talked to a lot of people, and so many of them have said to me how they wish they felt like they could pray or talk to God but based upon the faith they were raised with or inherited they had a difficult time reconciling their spirituality and sexuality. One of the most meaningful causes to me is to ensure that those who are first discovering that they are bisexual to know that they too are full and equally worthy recipients of God's Love and Blessings. I would love to be able to ensure someone new I talk to that there is a church in very town where all LGBT people are welcome and fully accepted and not merely tolerated.
In my conversation with this person who was experiencing a shattering of her faith and was longing to restructure it, I thought of how wonderful it would be if there were more churches who were Open and Affirming of LGBT people, and those with different ideas about God existed, where everyone would have the same sense of welcome. I would love to see the day when not only are same-gender marriages and relationships viewed as fully equal and natural as heterosexual marriages but also when a bisexual person in a committed and caring relationship with both a female and male partner is as accepted as a monogamous relationship between two same gender partners or a same and an opposite gender partner.
I wish I could see more encouragement for those who are bisexual to be honest with their partners or spouses about their sexual orientation, rather than "pretending" to be hetero or homosexual and betraying their partners, which I unfortunately see happening among many bisexuals. I hope for a time when those first becoming aware of their sexuality, whatever their orientation is or turns out to be, are not shamed and caused to think that their sexual desires are "unnatural" or "sinful" but rather to have access to honest and reliable information and education about sexuality, sexual orientation and about safe sexual practices.
I do what I can; I am always there to listen to someone if they are in need, and more than willing to offer what help I can to get them through the tough times. I'm always willing to take a stand for what I know in my heart is right where I see an injustice, not only to another bisexual person but all of my brothers and sisters in the LGBT Community, Christian or not, whether we think the same or not, and to offer what I can towards the goal when someday no one is ever judged on the basis of their sexual orientation or sexuality. I feel that we are called by God from the longings in our heart to take an active part in the justice we want to see and experience, both for others and ourselves, and to do so with loving kindness and compassion and respect for the feelings of all parties involved in the debate.
But that is just one of many instances where God has spoken to me with a purpose where I can use what I have learned or the unique gifts God has blessed me with to help another person, and pass on the Unconditional Love and Acceptance God has shown me on to other people. There are so many other causes I can think of which are meaningful to me that have absolutely nothing to do with being LGBT but merely being human. Wanting to make sure that those who have no home, no food, or no hope have all of their needs met and giving what I can to help out there; even if it isn't monetary, maybe just some form of help or support. Never being of the mindset of "everyone for themselves" which tragically seems increasingly frequent in today's society. Most of all, wanting to make sure that everyone has the same equal right and opportunity to happiness, joy and fulfillment, and all of the best of the blessings that God put into this life for us to have.
Come to think of it, "doing justice" could likely be summed up as "working towards the goal of every person, not just a few, having an equal measure of abundance, peace, and happiness." Yes, it requires a certain amount of giving, even if the only giving we do is of ourselves. And it also encompasses the second of those three "requirements": to love kindness.
This to me is one of the core messages of the Bible, no matter how one chooses to interpret it, in a literal or metaphorical sense (although, taken literally, it is sometimes rather confusing as some of the actions attributed to God, particularly some of the ones in the Old Testament, certainly don't seem very kind at times!) But it extends beyond the pages of the Bible, beyond the religion of Christianity and the other great faiths in the world, and seems inherent in what most people think about when they think about doing good. It essentially means to be a good person - good to everyone.
We all love kindness, when someone is kind to us and the act of being kind to another. Even those who have no idea who the heck Micah was and hear the name and think it must be some female pop star rather than a book in the Bible can grasp the relevance of this statement. It means the obvious, no cryptic messages or hidden meanings. Be polite, be respectful of others, be considerate of others as a general rule. As the bumper sticker says, "Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty."
Have you ever had one of those days? You know the kind I'm talking about: the alarm goes off late. Cats left a protest sign on the rug about the condition of the litter boxes. Stuck in traffic on the way to work. The boss on your case about this or that all day, or having to deal with a customer or client who doesn't seem to grasp the concept of "doing unto others," and right before you save the file you had been working on for hours someone from the cleaning crew accidentally knocks off the power and your computer shuts down. Insert your favorite pet peeve here, but I'm certain every one of us has a day like that, I sometimes think the fact that we do is one of the "great equalizers" no matter what our individual differences might be. I've had my share. But there's one thing that never fails to improve days like that.
Doing something kind for no other reason or motive than just do something nice. Telling someone who you love or care about how much they mean to you. Going out of your way to pay someone the compliment you've been wanting to give them but never seemed to find "the right moment." Something as simple as opening a door for someone and hearing them say, "thank you" with a tone of genuine gratitude. If someone has wronged you, forgive them. Let go of old grudges, let go of old hurts. When we forgive someone who might have hurt us in some way, or injured our feelings be it careless or deliberate, and attempting to show them love and forgiveness in return for unloving actions, we are being merciful, we are able to renew hope that being kind is more important than having the last word or being "right."
Now I know many might be thinking, "How can I possibly find the energy to go out of my way to be nice when I'm having a day when nothing seems to be going right?" Honestly, I'm not really sure. I just know it works. I have a theory, though. I think the reason it does is because when we act in kindness, we are allowing God's Love to flow directly through us to another; think of it as being an outlet or a vessel or conduit for that Love.
In this statement, I also find one of most valuable and key components to either renewing one's spiritual well being or developing a new and healthier, more sound sense of spirituality. In being more aware of the kindnesses which others pay us, we become more aware of the reality of God being revealed to us in the love shown to us by others. In being kind to others, we become more aware of that same Love flowing through us to others. Even those of us who have had our faith turned upside down and put through the wringer a few times can look back and think of the times when we might suffered the illusion that we were separated from God or that God was absent only to find that God was there all along in the people who showed us kindness, and working through us when we showed love or kindness to another.
If there was one thing Jesus seemed to talk about more than anything else in His Ministry, it was the value of being loving, kind and compassionate, and for good reason. In being kind to others, we're not doing it because God "laid down the Law" that we had to "or else." It is we - not us, the individual - but "we" collectively - all of God's Children who ultimately benefit from this and live life more fully. It's a natural law, like gravity: good feelings beget good feelings, which lead to good things.
And what of "walking humbly with our God"? I have always thought it to be interesting that the quote says "walk humbly with your God" and my personal interpretation of this is "God as we understand or see God." Everyone has a slightly different interpretation of what God is, and I think that could have been what was being inferred. But aside from that, what about walking humbly?
At first glance, the obvious interpretation would be "admitting that you're not perfect, no one is, and you don't know it all so remain confident but not arrogant and always willing to learn more." That's sound advice, a good starting place for anyone, and definitely a spiritually healthy way to think about things, but I personally think there's a little more to it than that. I think this regards honoring the wisdom of the Divine and being in a place of gratitude as well.
God Created each and every one of us with a unique identity, unique talents, gifts and abilities as well as a purpose, and made each and every one of us capable of amazing things, including the power to realize any dream we could imagine, and gave us a life which is a canvas filled with limitless possibilities to work with. I feel that part of being "humble" means to always remember that no matter how great our achievements, no matter how wonderful our blessings, no matter how inspired our ideas, none of it would be possible without God having first created life, then us, then those very inspirations, and the ability to carry them to fruition and reap the fruits of our labors before moving to a new goal or aspiration.
So often I will hear someone say how they worked really hard and accomplished something, and were responsible for achieving some seemingly impossible goal, yet they take full credit for it. While I don't feel that God minds that they neglect to give credit where credit is due (I don't see God as possessing such human traits as needing constant alms and withholding blessings from those who do not fall to their knees in prayers of gratitude and unworthiness - I just cannot visualize the Loving Creator as being that egocentric and petty -and I do think that the highest form of gratitude to God is one of sincere appreciation) I think those who do not attribute and acknowledge the blessings in their lives as ultimately being the product of God's Divine Wisdom are truly missing out on the greatest blessing of all - the sense of knowing that there IS something more than just ourselves, there actually IS a Unifying Force that planned for the things which bring us the greatest joy and rejoices right along with us as we achieve them, there IS every reason for us to be grateful, not merely because we ourselves have achieved something but in the glorious knowledge that there was something greater than us, watching over and guiding us, to ensure that what it is we dreamed of and visualized could become a part of our reality as we create our own sense of Heaven on Earth.
Walking humbly also to me means living with an attitude of gratitude for all of the blessings life has to offer. Think about the good things. All of the good things come from God, all of the things which bring you joy, regardless of whether they are another's cup of tea or not. Love, laughter, cherished memories with friends and loved ones, an exhilarating walk in the mountains or swim in a crystal clear pool under a majestic waterfall, things as simple and sublime as an excellent cup of coffee in the morning or a good night's rest after a long day, creative impulses and sudden inspirations that make you smile, even things such as sexuality which is demonized by so many seeking a spiritual path - all of these things, these gifts, when used for good purpose are Created to bring happiness to us.
Acknowledging that there is a Source for all of this, however mysterious and perplexing we might find God to be, is one way to develop a more intimate, deeper and closer connection and awareness of the reality of a God far beyond the black and white concepts of a legalistic view of God we might have held in our past. It fosters a deep sense of not only gratitude but the feeling of being loved and cared for by a Power beyond all of our understanding as well as a desire to express that gratitude by embracing the things we cherish and sharing those blessings with others.
Doing Justice. Loving kindness. Walking humbly with our God. We do all of these things in the Great Commandment in Matthew 22:37-40 . As Jesus said, on this hangs all the Law and Prophets. While some quote Matthew 5:17-20 where Jesus said he came "not to abolish but to fulfill" the Law, and still elect to interpret that as an excuse to selectively cling to certain parts of Leviticus or other Bible passages with the sole purpose of defending their own fears and prejudices, Jesus was not saying that all of those rules still applied; He was merely saying that this new rule overrode any of that, and that love, kindness, compassion and forgiveness were far more important to God and ultimately our sense of well being and spiritual Oneness with God than any religious ritual, sacrifice, or rhetoric.
Looking at Micah 6:8 and contrasting that with some of the other verses from Mark and Matthew, what I discern is that God is speaking through both Christ and the prophet Micah what is essentially the same message in different ways, for different people in different times, and one we can all take to heart today. And how would this be interpreted today? Exactly the same; some things never change. It's a message of love, not one of fear and should still and calm any thoughts of an angry, demanding, strict and harsh concept of God and replace it with a loving and affirming idea of God.
I shared with the person who had asked me about rebuilding her faith anew a few other verses that I have found to be great starting points when I was going through the process:
Luke 17:20 - 21: "The dominion of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say "Look, here it is!" or "There it is". For in fact, the dominion of God is within you."
This is a completely new way of thinking about Oneness with God and about the idea of "Heaven" when you come from a background of literalism and legalism (right down to the beliefs about the streets of heaven being paved with gold, which to me was a great first clue early on that perhaps parts of the Bible had been through some man made embellishments along the way). But this isn't so much about "Heaven" to me as it is the "search for God."
I related to her the idea that this verse reminds me of those who are constantly seeking "signs" in everything; reports of a "piece of Noah's Ark" being found, or the Shroud of Turin, or one of those wonderful cover stories of The Weekly World News where "Heaven was spotted through a telescope". Or even more relevant, the entire "Rapture Ready" phenomenon. For those not aware, it is an internet message board where, among other things, people are consistently searching the news for events which they can attempt to correlate to a live action version of the book of Revelation and discussing it at length, watching and waiting and doing precisely what Jesus advised against in the verse from Luke.
I told her what I felt to be the truth: "Stop looking for God. There's no need to look anywhere, God is all around." And that too can be a tremendous source of strength to anyone seeking to rediscover their faith and pick up the pieces: don't look. Simply see God in the everyday, in everything, in each other, in ourselves. When we stop looking and are silent and simply breathe and enjoy everything which is life, and all of the good things in it, I have found it simply not possible to not believe in a God. The idea of there not being a God is just something I cannot even comprehend or consider.
We continued talking and one of the other questions she had was one I have discussed many times with others, the idea that if one no longer thinks about a literal Heaven or Hell, what about what happens after this life?
For one thing, I think it is far more productive to live in the moment and cherish the right here, the right now that God has given us and not be concerned with it. But life after death-there's another hot issue. Some of the people who I have found to struggle with this question the most are those who, like myself, may have long since abandoned any thought of a fiery hell of torment spurned forth from the vivid imaginations of one too many horror aficionado come fundamentalist, but who still struggle with the innate fear many of us have of departing this plane of existence or state of being for something else, or nothing else. (I have a few times talked to many in the "Goth" culture who have admitted that part of the allure for them comes from the comfort they find in embracing the very concepts which they may sometimes fear or wonder about; it has nothing to do with wanting to deliberately "be" morbid or dark, it comes more from a place of wanting to befriend it rather than fear it.)
It's natural to think on things like an afterlife; although these days I am too occupied with trying to enjoy this one before I think about another one, but when I do, I don't think about it in a fearful manner as I might once have. As far as what form the soul takes when it leaves the body, I have no idea. Heaven and Hell to me are conditions of the soul rather than places, so it stands to reason that in whatever form the soul continues on, the same conditions and state of being one's soul is in when they leave this life for whatever is next would apply. As Emmet Fox used to say, "it's the exact same God on the other side, so there's nothing to fear." Makes perfect sense to me.
We also talked a bit about prayer, and what that means. I shared a verse that carried new meaning for me as I was rediscovering my own faith:
Mark 11:24: "So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours."
I think the key part of this verse is the part that says "believe that you have received it." Look at all of the bestseller books (like "The Secret," or the classic "Power Of Positive Thinking"), motivational speakers, therapists, and books on tape regarding the power of positive thought and contrast them with this verse. So many of them, be they secular or spiritual, teach this very same concept, and it does work; one's attitude really does have an effect on things, and as we think, we are. That's one of the core points that I think Jesus was trying to get across.
Having a desire for something, praying for something, and then believing we have received it does not mean that we ask God to help us with something and then sit back idly and do nothing towards that end and wait and then become angry and impatient and shake our fists at God when it hasn't come to pass. Instead, it means that we ask God to give us the strength and the means to accomplish the things we wish to, and then have faith and do what we can.
And there are things which we cannot control; for example, I don't think it is for us to judge what is right or wrong for another, but when praying for others, rather to pray for God's Loving Spirit to surround them, as only they and God can know for sure what is best for them and it is not our place to decide. And there is no requirement for anyone to pray, it can be as simple as going within, talking to God, or just silently meditating and listening.
We discussed some of the other verses which had been helpful to me from a standpoint of reconciling spirituality and sexual orientation/sexuality (Psalm 139 being one of my favorites, as to me it speaks to the idea that God made each and every one of us unique and we are made the way we are for a reason) and some of the Parables and what they might mean today and then she asked what I thought was the most hope inspiring book of the Bible, seen from a non-legalistic point of view. Her jaw hit the floor when I mentioned Revelation, as a push from some of her legalistic Christian friends attempting to get her to embrace End Times theology was one of the things that shipwrecked her faith to begin with.
For many who have found themselves in a faith crisis, the Book of Revelation has been problematic. I don't feel it's due to the content as it has through history been taken so badly out of context and interpreted in ways that I feel were never intended, with the "Left Behind" and "End Times" theology.
The reason it inspired so much hope in me was that taken metaphorically, it is a perfect analogy of the process of finding everything you knew from a faith standpoint crumbling and being thrown into a tumultuous, confusing storm and then somehow, after the dust settles, the rainbow comes, and the olive branch is extended, finding that something new and even better has come to replace it.
Revelation 21: 5: "See, I am making all things new."
Certainly, the Bible is full of stories - the tale of Noah and the Ark, the trials of Job, and others where people undergo cataclysmic events, even to the point of feeling God has forsaken them and fearing they have lost that connection but Revelation for some reason really speaks to me as a fanciful Parable of hope and renewal. Not taken literally, it has gotten me through some very tough times.
Some people choose to read Revelation and seem to say, "Oh good, God is coming to destroy the Earth and send everyone I don't like to Hell so I don't have to deal with any of this crap anymore, so I hope the End comes soon." I see it as simply, "Times might be tough, things might get rough and frightening, and it might seem like the end of everything-but in the end, everything will turn out okay and be even better than it was before." I guess it's all in what point of view you elect to take, one based in fear or love.
But to me, it is all about the idea that when it seems like everything is falling apart, to hold out hope and believe even when it feels like you can't that everything will come out not just okay, but ultimately for the better. Having things "made new" is often a scary proposition, as we seem to naturally have apprehension about new things or unknown things; but so often we find once we experience the new that we had nothing to fear at all, and wonder why we were ever afraid in the first place.
I could have gone on talking with her for days with the answers, the ones which had been helpful to me, at least. But sometimes it really is difficult to know what to say to someone who feels this way. I know what worked for me, but what worked for me isn't always going to ring true for the next; our spiritual journeys are similar in many ways but in others as different and diverse as the many facets of how God Created us...as the old sitcom song said, "What might be right for you, may not be right for some." There's really no set, exact blueprint for it anymore than there is any person exactly the same down to every detail. Thankfully, God is a lot more Creative than that.
She did come out of our talk with a few thoughts: "I think all God wants is for you to just try to be a good person and be true to who you are without hurting anyone. I don't know about some of the other stuff, and I'm not sure about where I am on the Bible and everything but that's something to start with. It's going to take a while, it's a little like picking up the pieces after the storm and saving the good stuff and getting rid of the junk that doesn't work anymore and building a better stronger place that weathers the next one."
Hopefully, I helped her out some, and we have talked more about it since then and continue to. Her comment after our first conversation on these matters cemented something I have believed for a long time: Although there are so many things about God which remain a mystery, a mystery which I embrace with a sense of wonder rather than fear in my faith, of one thing I do feel certain: what God seems to want more than anything, at least from all of the evidence which I can tangibly see, is for us to do the absolute best we can to work together, to get along, and to make the world a better place for each other as we allow God to work through us to Create whatever it is God has envisioned. One thing I feel sure about: it is centered in a place of love, and not fear.
I know that my conversation with her was good for both of us and it helped me to think of things to share with others who might be dealing with the same questions and finding themselves in a crisis of faith.
There's no denying the fact that letting go of old beliefs - even ones which are detrimental and hurtful to you-can be a scary process. When everything that was once set in stone and black and white seems to be falling apart, there is an impulse to panic and succumb to fear. But if you should find yourself in this situation, don't be afraid. Cherish the knowledge that there is no way you could ever be apart from God-even if you cannot seem to feel that connection at the moment for whatever reason-and know that once it all comes apart, something new and beautiful can and will be created if you allow it to be and believe that it will. After the storm, there will be hope anew.
Start from square one. Think back to any and all thoughts of when you have felt the most loved and cared for, for that is the greatest experience of God. Develop a sense of child like wonder, and embrace the possibility of building your faith anew with a fresh start on a stronger and healthier foundation that will enable you to share whatever unique gift you have to share, one that will last forever. Seek within the desires of your heart and your passions to determine what that is, and learn to use the gifts God has blessed you with to help others.
Embrace and learn to love the unique individual, whoever that is, that God Created you to be, whether you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, heterosexual and know that you are fine just the way you are and that all that God asks of you is to do the best you can to be a good person. Seek out a church or some friends whose beliefs are supportive of your search or rebuilding your faith anew and gradually peel away the layers of negative conditioning with new and positive ideas and thoughts. It takes time, but it is worth the time invested.
Find your "Chicken Soup" verses in the Bible, the ones that give you hope and refer to those. If you doubt there is any validity in the authenticity of there being messages of tremendous spiritual power contained in the stories, allegories, Parables and metaphorical essays within the Bible consider this: Even if it were a work of fiction born from our inspiration (which I do not believe it is at all), it would still be inspired of God, as with all things, and every bit of the hope, faith and love the greatest story has ever told has instilled in all those whose lives it has touched in a profound way would still be of God.
Stop looking for God again, instead look around and see God and within and feel God. Look around you, and take the time to embrace the beauty of not only natural beauty but the beautiful aspects of human nature. Take time to live, to laugh and to love, for all of these things will bring you closer to understanding and embracing the true, Loving Nature of God. Learn to see the blessings in the little things you might have once overlooked, and when blessings come your way, pass them on to others. Be patient, be calm, be still and know.
It takes time, patience, faith and courage holding it together when it feels like your faith is coming apart at the seams. But if you try to maintain belief even when it seems as if there is none to be had, miraculous things can happen. With perseverance you can weather the storm. And after any storm, no matter how severe, when all of the bad stuff has washed away and the sun has come out again, things often grow and blossom more beautifully than ever before...as will your faith again.
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