Context or Heresy?

cross-1314136_640In this tense political season, I struggle to balance my Christian faith with what I see happening in my country. I question how my faith interacts with my culture and when those two things conflict, how to work them out. I know I’m not alone in this struggle.

Contextualization

As a former missionary married to a missions professor, I think a lot about how culture interacts with the gospel. What makes healthy ministry techniques? The concept of contextualization is important in that process. Contextualization of the gospel is what missionaries and pastors all strive to do. It means expressing biblical principles in a way that makes sense to people in the culture. The Bible makes it pretty clear that the good news of Jesus is for every person in every culture, so this is an important endeavor.

Let me give you an example of contextualization. Let’s say you’re in a church in Nebraska, where football is a really big deal. The preacher may include illustrations from football in his sermon. He may talk about the Church being a team with Jesus as the coach or he may talk about how the Holy Spirit brings unity and enthusiasm to our spiritual lives the way that cheering for a particular team brings unity and excitement to the fans. These illustrations help the people in the audience understand the Bible and apply it to their everyday lives by relating biblical principles to something they know about. This is contextualization, and it’s a good thing.

Syncretism

If we’re not careful, we can take contextualization too far and step into heretical teaching. Syncretism is contextualization taken too far. It means that a group binds the cultural expression of the gospel message so closely to the culture that the two parts cannot be separated. A person who wants to become a Christian must also adopt cultural norms in order to be considered part of the faithful. Syncretism is not a good thing because it adds cultural elements to the gospel and makes them necessary for faith in Jesus.

So if we took the example above to the level of syncretism, we’d have a situation where Christians began replacing worship services with tailgate parties in the parking lot, wearing athletic gear to the parties and including team cheers as a part of the worship of God. There’s nothing wrong with  doing those things unless we require that particular dress and activity in order to be a Christian. If someone is unwelcome in the church because he doesn’t wear the football jerseys we require and we say that attendance at a Superbowl party and rooting for a particular team  are essential to the gospel, we are stepping past contextualizing and into syncronizing.

It’s easy to look at the above example and know it’s foolish. We’d never say a person  had to be a football fan to be a Christian. That would exclude many people from the gospel and wouldn’t even make sense since football did not even exist in Jesus’ day.

Nationalism and Christianity

Unfortunately, syncretism has happened in many churches in America. We have intricately bound patriotism with Christianity. It’s now so completely wound together that we sometimes can’t see where one ends and the other begins. This is why we hear people say things like, “America is God’s country,” and, “America is a Christian nation.” (For a good article from the Christian Standard and a quiz to find out if you’re struggling with syncronistic beliefs, click here.)

How did this happen? One history professor who is himself a Baby Boomer and lived through the time immediately following World War II, tells me that after World War II, Christians began hearing stories of how some soldiers had “miraculously” escaped from certain death and about how America led the fight to free people from oppressive leaders. They believed that God used America to bring freedom to the world and to fight evil. Although nationalistic ideas were probably a part of the American church before this, the events during and following WWII fueled the idea that America was a Christian nation, created by God to bring Christianity to the world. Patriotism was necessary to maintain support for the war, and churches began incorporating patriotic themes into their services.

In order to garner support for the war and win elections, politicians targeted the Christian subculture and appealed to this sense of patriotism, further tying it to Christianity. Christians did not know about or overlooked questionable activities that America might have participated in overseas, saying these actions were necessary to keep the peace and prevent another world war and wasn’t that important in keeping a Christian presence in the world?

In the 1960’s people began balking at that because they began seeing news reports with actual footage of the Vietnam war and other American endeavors. They began to see that things the American government did weren’t always virtuous, so they began to rebel and criticize the government. And, of course, many evangelical Christians criticized those who protested and saw protesters as abominations against the Christian nation of America.  Thus began the tension between American culture and Christianity.

The Culture Wars

During the 1980’s, leaders like James Dobson and Jerry Falwell Sr. came into prominence, leading a movement to fight the influence of groups who opposed the American government and this nationalistic form of Christianity. They hoped to do this by fighting what has become known as “culture wars.” I grew up in church and listened to many sermons about the evils of the culture around us, about how we had to take a stand and fight against what we saw going on in America, about how bad rock music or movies were. We were led to believe that we owed it to God to stand up for our faith in a culture that opposed it, that fighting the culture proved our faith.

How many times have I sat in a church service built around 2 Chronicles 7:14 that says, “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land”? How many times have I heard the preacher say, “This is a promise to us, America! We were made to do God’s will in the world. Our country has lost its way and now must do what God says in that verse: as a nation we must repent so that he will heal our land and bless us again”? This teaching is heresy. It takes a passage meant for the Israelite people in the Old Testament and incorrectly applies it to America, a country that did not even exist at the time that promise was made.

So we mixed our cultural belief in America with our faith. Influential leaders in the evangelical movement have moved the focus from Jesus to political issues. Those issues are important, but they take second place to the true gospel.

constitution-1486010_1280If what I believe I should do to further American strength conflicts with what Jesus taught, I am following the American flag and not Him. If I believe that God has ordained the United States as a special country to promote democracy and freedom in the world, I have mixed my patriotism and my faith, and I have decided to follow a heretical teaching using a misunderstanding of the Bible as its basis. If I believe that I have a Christian duty to stand up for the United States as an effort to preserve freedom and the Christian way of life, I am living according to nationalism and not Christianity.

Is it wrong to promote freedom, to vote based on your convictions and desire to preserve freedom or eliminate abortion, for example? No! Of course not! Our freedoms are important to us as Americans, and it is important to protect those. However, when I say that I do so because I am a Christian and Christians must vote the same way, that they must support a certain candidate or cause in the same way that I do, I am participating in the syncretism of nationalism and Christianity. If I say that I want America to be a Christian nation so that only Christians are free to live here, I no longer speak as an American or a Christian. I am no longer promoting religious freedom. I am promoting a nationalistic, heretical form of Christianity that seeks to eliminate other religions that I believe may threaten my freedom.

Why Does It Matter?

Why is this even important to me? I spent a lot of years just telling myself it was no big deal, that the old school Christians may be wasting their time talking like they did about the culture wars, but in the long run the idea would die out when the older generations did. Now I see I was wrong.

Lately, that idea has made a resurgence. We see it happening in our country in the form of a political candidate who has stirred up those feelings of angry nationalism and has used the evangelical church’s obsession with patriotism to garner votes, despite the fact that we can clearly see that he displays none of the characteristics the Bible tells us to look for in a leader. On the other side, we see Christians urging us to vote for his opponent out of fear that if the first does become president he will take down America. Both of these views smack of nationalism, a dependence on policies to protect our freedom of religion, and not the Christian faith. I admit that I also find myself trapped in this thinking at times. It is a very strong temptation for someone who grew up in an environment where this type of teaching was common.

cross-1448946_640A Crossroad

This is about more than the election, though. The church is now at a crossroads. We can follow the flag and claim we’re following Jesus or we can step away from our patriotism, our desire to make America into some sort of force for Jesus in the world, and actually become a real force for Jesus ourselves, the way that he taught the Church to do. We can live the gospel message, removing dependence upon nationalism and eliminating our reliance on a particular political platform as a test of our faith, or we can continue to fight these culture wars that push people away from Jesus.  We do not need a free American “Christian nation” to influence the world for Him. In fact, in both Bible times and modern times we see the Christian faith thriving in places where practice of it is illegal.

Jesus taught his followers to live within their society and to be different from it. The New Testament tells us that the world will know we are Christians by our love, not by the way we promote our causes. Looking at the gospel without clouding it with cultural nationalism, we see that pushing our political agendas as essential to the faith makes about as much sense as incorporating team cheers into our worship services.

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Strangers Among Us

hospitalNot long ago, a young man named Ansar* came to Omaha from Central Asia with plans to study at a university in town. Before classes even started, when he had been here only a few weeks, he suffered a life-threatening brain aneurysm. Knowing no English, Ansar had only one friend in this country, another young man who grew up with him in his home town and came to the US to study a few years ago. This friend took it upon himself to care for Ansar in the hospital, bringing him things he needed, translating at times and helping however he could.

Connections

Someone who heard about Ansar and knew that he spoke Russian asked my husband Andrew to visit him in hopes that a visitor who spoke his language would speed his recovery and prove a helpful resource. Andrew took our son Alex to visit Ansar in the hospital and spent time talking with him and his friend, getting to know them a little bit. Since then, Ansar has moved to live with the friend and a roommate, and Andrew has visited him a few more times there. His housemates work opposite shifts, a convenient schedule since Ansar requires round-the-clock supervision. He’s scheduled for several more surgeries before he’s out of the woods, and, although he can go on very short walks close to home, riding in a car for more than a few minutes makes him sick, and overexertion could easily kill him.

As we learn more about the situation this newcomer to our country faces, I keep thinking about his family back in Central Asia. Imagine putting your college-age son on an airplane, knowing you wouldn’t see him for years. Then imagine receiving word that he’d had a brain aneurysm, of all things! Not a broken leg or a case of the flu. A stroke. Something that kills about 12,000 people a year in the United States alone. When Alex broke his arm at his grandparents’ house in Virginia last summer, I just about went crazy until I could get to him and see him and care for him myself. The thought that this boy’s mama had to hear long distance that her son almost died and might still–I can’t imagine!

Not only that, but how great is it that this happened in a place with good medical care? If this had happened in his third-world homeland, he probably would have died. Instead, he was in the right place at the right time to receive top-notch treatment. He’s still alive today because of the medical personnel who saved his life. In addition, his friends have rallied around this young man, taking on the job of family and caring for him when he can’t care for himself.

Strangers Among Us

Ansar’s story is important. This story shows me the importance of welcoming immigrants, people who are different, people who require something from me. It’s easy to love my friends. I want to love my family. But when it comes to loving a stranger, ummm… I’m not so excited about that. However, when I read the Bible I see over and over that I’m instructed to love “strangers.” Jesus said, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35). I looked it up in the Greek, and the word “stranger” does mean “foreigner.”

The command to treat foreigners in our land well can be found all over the Old Testament (see Leviticus 19:33-34, 25:35, Exodus 22:21 to name just a few). Those verses tell the Hebrew people to welcome foreigners because they can remember how they were once foreigners in Egypt. In other words, they were to show grace because they could understand how it was to be in need in a foreign land. Even the temple was designed with a special place for foreigners to worship. Despite the fact that the Old Testament focused on setting apart the Hebrews as special, God did not leave the Gentiles out of his plan.

I realize this is the Old Testament, so some Christians today can dismiss that by saying the instructions for hospitality to strangers in the land applied to those who lived before Christ but not necessarily to us today. However, I see giving hospitality to strangers show up throughout the scriptures, in both Old and New Testaments. It’s a theme that runs throughout the Bible. Treat other people the way you want to be treated. If you were living in a foreign country and needed something–whether brain surgery or directions to the closest toilet–you’d have to rely on the kindness of strangers. The writer of Hebrews even goes so far as to say, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (13:2).

Our Culture

In our culture, this concept of welcoming foreigners seems to have become a foreign one. Daily we hear people debate about putting up walls along our borders, whether to let people from Muslim countries enter, even as legal immigrants, what to do when refugees need refuge. These questions, they’re not just ideas. They represent real people whose families are altered for generations based on what we do today. Do we stand on our soapboxes and scream that they need to get out because they’re taking all our jobs and using our tax money? Or do we open our arms to welcome them the way the Bible tells us to do?

Back to Ansar

bible-koran-fundamental-difference-in-approach.jpg.crop_displayThere’s something else about Ansar that gives this story some even more interesting and relevant twists. As you may have guessed, Ansar is a Muslim. He’s not a terrorist, he’s not dangerous. He’s a college student who now has lost his visa because he’s not able to go to school. So he’s not legally in the country because he is in the middle of a potentially fatal episode. He’s working on changing his visa to a different type, but in the meantime, he’s receiving medical care from a hospital who may never receive payment for their work. He doesn’t have insurance, so he’s racking up staggering medical bills.

In the debate about immigration, he’s the poster boy for all of those opposing it. Yet, he’s also the perfect example of why we can’t just toss out people who don’t conform to strict standards. Before campaigning against immigration and crying out on Facebook to close our borders and round up and deport all illegal immigrants, we have to look at the people behind the statistics. Every foreigner in our country has a story. Ansar is not an exception.

Do we force a young man who cannot ride in a car for more than a few minutes without putting his life in danger to board a plane and fly for 12+ hours to a country where he will probably die, if he survives the trip, when we have the capability and skills needed to heal him here? Do we stand on a questionable principle that says we should keep our resources for our own people, no matter what? Or do we show mercy to the stranger among us and understand that immigrants are humans, loved by God?

It’s easy to talk about issues like immigration in an abstract way when we don’t know anyone who is affected by these policies. No one would say that their own child should die in a hospital just because he can’t pay for care, but some are more than willing to say that very thing when it comes to a stranger from another land. May we begin to see our fellow man the way God does, without prioritizing because of nationality or race.

*His name has been changed.

Unexpected Ways

Pretty-Church

Random church picture

My husband and I both grew up in pretty conservative churches where we sometimes both got the idea that we were required to do certain things to maintain our status as Christians: read the Bible every day, invite people to church, volunteer for or participate in every event the church had to name a few. As an adult, I see the value of these things and I realize that my thinking as a child may have been black and white and not allowed me to fully understand the church’s teaching on these topics. However, I also understand that they’re not essential to my faith. For example, reading the Bible every day can give me guidance and help me know Jesus better, but if I don’t do that I am not somehow condemning myself forever. I may be cheating myself out of a deeper relationship with and understanding of God, but I’m not less valuable to God because of that.

A few months ago, Hannah came home feeling guilty because she hadn’t asked all of her friends to church yet. She’d received instructions in Sunday school that every Christian should ask all of their friends and the people they come into contact with to church if they really cared about them (at least that was what she understood the lesson to mean). I told her that the Bible never tells anyone to ask someone to church. I can’t think of any instances of Jesus telling his followers to invite their friends to the synagogue. Sure, they invited them to him, but they did that because their lives were changed from being with him, and they wanted their friends to experience the same radical love that Jesus had shown them.

This is way more than just a perfunctory invitation to a church service. I told her that we show our friends Jesus by the way we act, the way we love others, the way we care about people who are in difficult situations. We talked for a long time about how our life makes a statement and can draw people in or push them away and how truly caring about a person is more important than inviting them to church. I told her I think that you only have probably one chance in our culture to invite a person to a church event, so you shouldn’t squander it at the very beginning by giving them the idea that you’re only being friends with them to add one more notch to your Bible belt. I also emphasized that when we do care about them this way, we earn the right to talk about things that are important to us, and we have natural opportunities to tell them about our faith.

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My lovely, happy girl, Hannah.

Not long after the Sunday school lesson and our discussion of it, her school let out early. In true junior high fashion, great swarms of students went down the street to our local Runza, a Nebraska fast food favorite. Of course, the place was packed with middle schoolers without parents. She and Alex waited a long time in line. When they finally got their food and sat down, Hannah noticed a group of kids causing a lot of trouble and making a mess of the place. After plenty of complaints, the manager came out and told them to leave. They mocked him and laughed at him, threw ice and food on the floor and tables. When they finally left, they stood outside the window and laughed at him as he cleaned up their mess. Hannah saw it happening and got up to help him. She picked up ice from the floor and wiped down the tables with a rag he gave her. When they finished, he thanked her and gave her two coupons for free meals. (Note: Alex says he didn’t notice any of this happening, and, while that seems hard to believe, knowing the boy’s capacity for living in his own bubble, I believe it!).

Right about the same time, Alex, who had an obsession with Rubik’s cubes, had one at church. That day, a woman we know told him her brother loved Rubik’s cubes when he was younger and had one that was left solved at their mom and dad’s house. Sadly, her brother passed away in a tragic and unexpected accident as a very young man, and her mom kept the Rubik’s cube on a shelf to remember him. Unfortunately, a visiting kid grabbed the Rubik’s cube and messed it up, and her mom felt sad now that the reminder of her son was gone.

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Alex, with a Rubik’s cube, of course.

Our friend from church asked if Alex would mind solving the cube if her mom brought it. He agreed, and a few days later we found ourselves at the store where the woman works, meeting her mother. As Alex started working on the Rubik’s cube, I watched him, 13 years old, just a hair taller than I am, at the very beginning of being a young man. I wondered how that mom felt when she looked at him. Did she remember her boy when he was that age? I wished I had told him to give her a hug when he finished because I thought how nice that would be if I were in her shoes. Within a minute or two, he had solved it and handed it back to her. And lo and behold, with no instruction from me, he hugged her.

Those two events, so close together, they hit me hard. I watched our two oldest children live out their faith right in front of me. They did what they could and used their talents and interests to right injustice and relieve suffering. Even though they didn’t invite anyone to church, offer to stop and pray with someone or quote Bible verses, they showed them what Jesus’ love means in action.

Living our faith can be more difficult and tricky than the traditional instructions for living that Sunday school taught us. Living God’s calling may be less about deciding at church camp to be a missionary and more about committing whatever we do to Christ, looking for ways in our everyday life to right injustice and demonstrate the kingdom of God on earth.

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Gratuitous picture of the third child, who was left out of this blog in every other way. Poor little thing 🙂

Still Here

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“There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.” –Willa Cather

I have a memory of Andrew that surfaces once in a while. It happened before we were married, when we were on a hiatus in our relationship. We had dated and broken up several times, and he had already broken my heart more than once. Still, despite the break ups that seemed to come out of nowhere, I could not escape him. No matter where I went, he eventually turned up. No matter how many times I decided not to love him, I always did again. So this particular memory happened after one of those times I’d decided not to let him back in my heart but to protect myself, to hold back. I had moved to Ukraine, and, of course, I ran into him there.

We started talking again, and I could tell there was still something between us. I went to a worship service at a Christian student fellowship of some sort. I sat near the back of the room, and he sat in the front row. I don’t even think he knew I was there. I saw him standing there. The room was dark, but lights on the stage lit the shadows enough that I could see his silhouette. He raised his arms and sang and praised God in such a pure and sweet way that I just thought, This man is someone I want in my life.

That one memory has stuck with me through some really difficult times. I’ve remembered his sincerity, his dedication. Knowing him better, knowing his struggles, his depression, his uncertainties, I still remember that man who praised God with such depth and innocence. At times when I’ve seen him question himself and his faith, seen him pull back from relationships and withdraw into depression, I’ve thought back to that silhouette and known that man is in there.

Today I went into chapel at the college, a dark room with lights shining on the stage. I scanned the audience, knowing that he usually sits at the back. This time, though, I saw him standing in the front row, praising God with that same stance and that same sincerity, and I instantly remembered that almost-20-years-younger version of him that has lived in my memory. I caught my breath. I know that man. I know the struggles and the pain those years have brought, and I know he stood there praising God with a lot less innocence and a lot more depth than he did the first time I saw him. I know that, despite his bouts with self-doubt and doubt in general and his bent towards depression, he is still here, still persevering.

We’ve struggled a lot in our life together. Some of it’s because of his issues, some because of mine, some because people just do struggle. I look at us and wonder why we can’t just be content. Why do we wallow in self-pity at times or argue or punish each other or whatever it is that we do? One of the students told me they hoped when they got married they’d have a relationship like ours, and my first reaction was to think, Oh my, I hope maybe yours will be smoother and easier. On second thought, though, I think she would be lucky to have a relationship like Andrew’s and mine because we do not give up. We might get to the end of our rope too often, but at least we tie a knot each time and hold on.

If there is one thing I’m proud of so far in my life, it’s that I haven’t given up. I may not have dealt with every situation in a healthy and productive way, but I haven’t thrown in the towel. We are committed , and when we get to the end of our lives we are going to be able to look back and see that it was worth it. We’ll see how the storms made us who we are. We’ll see how waiting out the hard times brought us to good times. We may not be able to point to our relationship as the most lovey dovey one, the most happily-ever-after one, but we’ll be able to say that we had grit, that we held onto what was important, and we’re proud of how far God has taken us.

 

Why the Mosque?

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 8.40.07 AMAfter I published my last post about my experience at the mosque, I heard questions about why we went there and what we were doing. I decided to write a follow-up to that one and address some of the questions people might have had when they read it.

Why did you go to a mosque? Why is Andrew in particular interested in Muslims?

Andrew teaches intercultural studies and world religions courses at the college where we work. He’s been teaching those subjects for sixteen years now and before that worked as a missionary. He has multiple masters degrees in foreign policy, practical ministry and theology and a doctorate of ministry in missiology. He’s studied politics, ministry and missions his entire life. As a professor, he feels like part of responsible teaching involves going to places where other religions gather and learning about them there. Meeting people who practice the religions he teaches about enhances his teaching and provides the students with a more thorough education. He also takes students with him to places like the mosque, Messianic Jewish churches, and churches that practice in ways different from how we do. This helps them feel comfortable connecting with people who are different from them and therefore learn more about them. This approach is not unique to him, it is a routine part of cross-cultural education at Bible Colleges such as Johnson University, Cincinnati Christian University, Hope International University, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Education aside, as Christians we believe it’s important to follow Jesus’ teachings as closely as possible. In the post-911 world in which we live, many Americans see Muslims as enemies. Although Andrew and I do not see them that way, even if we did, how does Jesus instruct us to treat our enemies? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you love your enemies…” (Matthew 5:43-44). Love involves respect. It involves time together. It involves sharing my life with someone. If I say I love my husband but never speak to him and avoid going places where he is, do I love him? How can I love Muslims if I never meet one, never speak to one, and do nothing to understand the way Muslims think and act?

In going to programs at the mosque or inviting friends we meet there over for dinner, we create conditions that foster mutual trust. We show genuine interest in their culture and their ideas. We demonstrate that we care about and value them as human beings and appreciate the good things about them. And we actually do care about them as human beings because Jesus cares about them. If we fear them or fear going to places they believe are important, we create mistrust. They will in turn mistrust us. How does that create an environment open for any kind of meaningful, positive interaction?

Are you trying to convert the Muslims you meet to Christianity?

Andrew and I both believe that all people are in some sort of relationship with God. Some people are close to him, pursuing him full-speed ahead. Some people have turned their backs on him and refused him. Most people are somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. My goal as a Christian should be to somehow nudge people a little bit toward Jesus. Some people will jump straight into his arms, and some people may just slightly turn their faces toward him. In everything we do, we want to point people toward Jesus. Doing small things like attending a service at a mosque a couple of times a year may not make a huge difference, but it’s a little like sending $30 to a ministry that helps stop sex trafficking. It’s promoting something worthwhile in the world, even if it is a small thing that doesn’t by itself fix the problem.

Will attending a prayer service at another place of worship make you question your own faith?

I can only speak from my own experience when I say that going to another place of worship does make me question my own faith. It makes me ask what parts of my beliefs are really essential and what things are only cultural. It makes me question how I live my faith on a daily basis and whether I’m really expressing it well. Seeing how others worship makes me look at my own worship with fresh eyes. Why do I do what I do? How do other people understand that? Do the things I say and do actually communicate what God wants me to communicate?

I think questioning the things I believe is healthy. Thinking through what I believe leads to stronger faith. We see this happen in other parts of our lives. If we never use our muscles, they weaken and cease to function properly, but if we use them daily, challenge them even, they grow stronger and more efficient.

What about posting about it on Facebook? Even if your faith is strong, won’t that influence people whose faith isn’t as strong?

I hope so. I hope hearing about our experiences challenges people to start thinking about their beliefs and about the things they believe about people who are different from them. I hope it prompts them to step out of their comfort zones in order to reach out to another person and make a connection with him or her just as one human being to another.

Aren’t Muslims dangerous? Doesn’t the Qu’ran, their holy book, say things like, “Death to the infidels” and instructs them to kill everyone who isn’t Muslim?

This is an excellent question! The speaker at the lecture we attended at the mosque actually addressed this very question on Saturday. One of the teenagers in the audience said that people in his school say he’s a terrorist because all Muslims are terrorists and want to kill all non-Muslim people. He pointed out a verse in the Qu’ran that said Mohammed instructed people to do so. The speaker said that if you read that verse in context it happened during a war time, and it referred to people protecting their families and fighting for their freedom. It happened centuries ago, and, according to him, is something mainline Islam does not teach today.

I try to remember that there are different sects of Islam, just as there are different sects of Christianity. I would not want anyone to assume that all Christians are like the members of a church like the Westboro Baptist Church. I am most definitely not like them, and I never want to be seen like that. Some Muslims are radical, but most, like the ones we interact with, are regular people. They just want to live their lives and practice their faith and are much less aggressive about converting people than most churches try to persuade their members to be. Many of the immigrants who come from Muslim countries have been persecuted by the very extreme radical groups we ourselves fear.

At the lecture we attended last weekend, the man spent about 45 minutes telling the children in the audience how to react when someone bullies them for their faith, their skin color, their accent, etc. He told how he was bullied as a child and how he told the principal, who gave him the choice to ask the bullies to be punished or to forgive them. He chose forgiveness and from then on the children who had bullied him were friendly to him because they saw forgiveness in action. He urged the children in the audience to do the same, to be good examples and good students and to show others how to live peaceful lives. Many people would be surprised to know this is the message being taught in the mosque.

Good Missionary Methodology in Practice

What we hope to do by visiting a mosque a few times a year and going to the places where other religions practice, by making friends with people of other faiths and other denominations is good missionary methodology. It’s putting our faith into action by actually attempting to live out the principles we have learned in Sunday school since infancy–principles like loving our neighbor as ourselves and thinking of others above ourselves, working to build relationships with people who are discriminated against by society and standing up for those in positions of less power. These are principles that Jesus taught us. He urged his followers to be involved in people’s lives and not to rest in the safety and security of their comfortable and familiar cultures but to go out of their way to show him to those who may never see him otherwise. This is what missionaries do on a regular basis. In our current situation in America, we have the chance to do that without even leaving our own towns.

I appreciate that people asked questions about our mosque experience. I hope seeing what I wrote encourages them to reach out to a coworker or acquaintance who’s different and find ways that they are similar.

At the Mosque

One of the benefits of marrying a missions professor is spending some of my days off going to cultural events and different places of worship. In other words, putting myself in situations that might be less-than-comfortable for me. I grew up with a passion for missions and spent the first five years of my adulthood overseas. Despite that, I feel reluctant to go to Chinese New Year’s celebrations or churches where everyone speaks a different language. According to personality tests, I’ve supposedly shed my previous introversion and become an extrovert over the years, but somehow the idea of stepping into a situation where I’m clearly not part of The In Crowd makes me uneasy.

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Islamic Center of Omaha

So yesterday morning when Andrew asked me if I’d like to go to the mosque for a lecture on Islamophobia in schools and colleges, I can’t say I felt joy in my heart. However, I like it when he expresses interest in the things that interest me. If I want him to put forth effort to participate in my things, I should participate in his, right? Plus, I admire his passion for creating relationships between Christians and Muslims. I can’t stand that a loud element in our society seems to have taken a turn for the medieval in rejecting out of hand anyone who differs from them. So I agreed to go.

When I lived in Ukraine, I could walk down the street and pick out Americans. Even when they managed to curb their talking and laughing in public, which was rare since we are a boisterous bunch, they often wore things they thought made them look Ukrainian but really served more as a big red flag identifying them as foreigners. More often than not, they picked up a big, furry hat with earflaps and donned that thing, thinking they looked Russian or Ukrainian when actually they looked ridiculous.

That’s how I felt when I wrapped a scarf around my head to go into the mosque yesterday. Muslim women look beautiful wearing a hijab. I felt like a matryoshka doll in my ill-fitted scarf. I felt sure I’d stand out and knew they’d take one look at me and think hmmm… that poor woman needs help putting on that scarf. Which they probably did.

me as matryoshka

Don’t deny it. You wouldn’t be surprised if you found little scarf-clad mini me’s running around; I look like like a Russian nesting doll!

We ended up being only the second ones there. A woman waited with her children in the foyer, and she took me on a little tour. She showed me the bathroom where the women perform ceremonial washing before prayers. She took me into the room where the women stay during the prayer service. She was friendly and nice, just as I would be to a newcomer to my church. When she dropped me off back with my husband, we went on into the main hall, where women can go when it’s not an official prayer service.

Stepping out of my comfort zone and into something different pointed out some things about myself that I think I’ve denied for a long time. I’ve been to a mosque several times before, so I’m not sure why this one was different. Maybe I am just ready to think about those things now. Whatever the case, here’s what I learned.

I have a big hang up with gender inequality. That’s not news. This is something that has been coming up regularly in my life in the last few years. Andrew has acquaintances at the mosque since he’s made an effort to get to know them. When he introduced us, I noticed the lack of eye contact with me. Since I am a woman, Muslim men don’t make eye contact, shake hands, or speak much to me. They indicated that I should sit at the back of the room. As children filtered into the program and took their seats, the girls sat in the rows around me. Boys sat in the front. Later I asked my youngest daughter how she’d feel if she and the other girls had to sit in the back and the boys in the front of the classroom, and she said, “I’d feel like I wasn’t important.”

When Andrew and I discussed it on the way home, he said that they avoid eye contact because speaking much to me or looking at me would be considered flirtatious and would be disrespectful to me and to him as my husband. The woman who showed me the women’s area explained, “This is the area where women sit. It’s much more comfortable this way because we can sit however we want and not worry about what the men think.” To them, this is respectful.  To me, it feels disrespectful. That’s just one example of how people from different cultures can misunderstand one another’s good intentions.

Watching how the speaker presented his material and how the audience responded, I realized how people outside the church see Christians. Hearing his explanations for why Muslim women wear a hijab or why muslim men grow beards, I couldn’t help but think that’s how non-Christian people see Christians when they try to explain how to dress modestly or how to ask someone to church. It was so similar, a fact that leads me to my next point.

While we do have many differences in our beliefs and religions, we have a lot of similarities. He spoke about Mohammed and stories from the Qu’ran that I’ve never heard (since I have spent no time at all studying Islam), but he also talked about Abraham and Moses, David and Jesus. He urged the children to be good students and to be kind and helpful to the teachers and other students at school. He talked about living a life devoted to God, respecting our elders, caring for those who experience social injustices or poverty. All of these things are things we have in common.

Most of all what stood out to me is a sense of intense shame that these children had to learn how to deal with people in their schools who treat them badly because of their religion or the color of their skin or their accents. No children should ever have to learn how to deal with people bullying them for those things. That lecture should have been irrelevant, but when the speaker asked for examples of times the children in the audience have been mistreated or shamed because of their faith, many of them raised their hands and shared their experiences of others teasing them for their religion or saying violent things about Muslims. This isn’t something one weird kid has lived through. This is a regular occurrence for some of them.

As a parent, this appalls me. When have my innocent children ever had to sit in a class teaching them what to do when they’re persecuted for their faith? Never. And add to that shame the fact that many of the people who perpetrate these bullying acts do so in the name of Christ. This is something that makes my discomfort over wearing a head covering or sitting in the back row seem petty and irrelevant.

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The Islamic Center after a vandal sprayed graffiti on the wall last fall after the bombing in Paris. For more info on this, click here.

When I stepped outside after this experience, I pulled the scarf off my head and headed to the car. The spring air felt cool and fresh. I looked forward to getting home and getting into my normal Saturday routine. I couldn’t help but think about how I could slide that scarf off my head and slip right back into being one of the crowd, but the kids in that audience, the woman I spoke with, the man presenting the lecture cannot do that. They stand out no matter what because of the color of their skin, their accents, their clothing. They don’t have the luxury of fading into the background. They must learn to live with the feeling of otherness.

I’m glad I went. I’m glad I was uncomfortable. I wish we could all feel uncomfortable once in a while on a Saturday morning so we could develop compassion for those who live their lives in that tension.

That Christmas Feeling

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I always tell my kids, who sometimes worry there will be a gunman in their school massacring everyone, that this isn’t something to worry about. I tell them it’s rare that something like that happens, despite the fact we see stories about that very thing in the news just about every day now. I tell them they’ve got nothing to worry about, and I have to add even if the unthinkable did happen, God would take care of them and they’d be fine.

Secretly, though, these days I don’t know if I believe myself. We hear statistics about 355 mass shootings in the last year. We hear others saying that statistic is too high, based on loose standards, and if we go by stricter definitions of “mass shootings” the number is lower (see article here). But isn’t even one mass shooting too many?

We hear people say things like, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people,” and declare that if everyone carried a gun, we would most certainly all be safer. Yesterday Jerry Fallwell Jr. even encouraged all of the students on the campus of Liberty University to carry a concealed weapon (see article here). Now, I’m not trying to say anything bad about college students; I work with a whole campus of them. Most of them are great and would be fine around firearms, but they’re young and impulsive and heaven forbid they get depressed and angry about a grade they got and have a gun in their back pocket! What about the many suicidal college students that struggle every winter? Do we care about them?

We’ve Lost It

But you know what? I didn’t start writing this to talk about gun control. I’m not even really sure where I fall in the opinions about who should have guns. I started writing because sometimes I feel like the whole world has lost its mind. We argue about everything. We’re so sensitive. We get our feelings hurt, we hold grudges. People work to provide an environment where everyone feels included and cared about, and then other people stand up and declare that being polite and kind with our words is politically correct and, dang it, they are tired of political correctness and would prefer just to blast everyone with their hurtful words.

What in the world?!

I hear people every Christmas say that they wish they could have the Christmas feeling all year. I want to say I’m not sure we’re ready to have that Christmas feeling all year. If we want to bring the Christmas feeling into January and February and beyond, we need to be ready to live with the peace and love that Jesus came here for. We need to work.

Falling in Love

love-05We’d love to just have this special feeling all the time, to feel this love and connectedness with others without putting forth any effort. We all know that’s not really possible. The feelings we have at Christmas are like the feelings we have when we fall in love. We see that special person and the whole world lights up. We feel so happy. We can’t believe there’s someone so very wonderful in the world. We feel like suddenly everything that was wrong about us is now right because that person somehow completes us. That’s the Christmas feeling. Somehow for just a few days, without any work at all, the world seems like a happier, more loving, more peaceful place where everyone feels good and makes us all feel good too.

But staying in love? That takes work. We begin to see the cracks, the flaws, the things we don’t always like about the other person. The things we’ve tried so hard to hide in ourselves start to show, and our insecurities come out. That’s when the real love begins, when we have to start working. That’s what I think happens in January. The shiny veneer the world had at Christmas wears off, and we see the cold, the snow, the harsh winds. We start thinking about ourselves again and how we don’t have enough money or we gained weight over the holidays. We start being irritable with the world and stop wanting that peace and love because it just costs too much. It takes too much work.

This Christmas, let’s go out of our way to give to others. Let’s do the Christmas stuff we like to do: bake the cookies, go caroling, decorate, donate and buy gifts. Let’s say we want the Christmas feeling to last all year. And then after Christmas, let’s put the work into loving other people, accepting our differences and caring about those who need care. Let’s put our words to work all year!

I Think I’m a Clanging Cymbal

My husband sometimes accuses me of liking controversy. He’s a peacemaker to an extreme. He hates conflict. I think at least half of his life is spent trying to avoid it. I’m not like that. I don’t mind conflict. I’m not sure I’d go as far as he does and say I like controversy, but some kinds of controversies interest me. I don’t mind a little debate.

If you’ve read my blog before, you probably could figure that out. I like to write about things like the struggle between government and religion and the Christian response to it. I don’t do that just to get clicks on my blog. Those are issues I care about. When I see reports of Christians protesting at gay pride celebrations or refusing to serve people who are different from them, I have an internal reaction that tells me something’s not right.

Jesus’ Reaction to Sin

I think some of that reaction comes from reading and studying Jesus’ life and his treatment of people commonly regarded as sinners, people who messed up and got themselves into a lot of trouble. I never, ever see him hurting them. I never see them leaving him feeling judged and mistreated. Instead, I see these people meeting someone whose very essence changes who they are. The grace they receive, the forgiveness they experience before a change has even been made motivates a shift in lifestyle.

Jesus had a handle on what people need to feel loved by God. People wanted to be with him. They came to him because they liked how they felt when they were with him. I’m not saying Jesus was this feel-good hippie who just wanted love and peace and never asked people to change. I think from reading accounts of Jesus’ life that people wanted to change when they were with him, and it had nothing to do with him pointing out what was bad in their lives. When people stand up and say, “I’m a Christian and, by gollly, God says you’re wrong, and I’m gonna tell you in detail why, and I’m gonna do it with a nasty attitude!” I feel what I think is righteous anger. How dare people bring God into such a hurtful exchange? When someone’s attitude is pushing people away from God instead of drawing them to him, I feel not so happy with that person.

Keep Reading…

I’ve written about this stuff so much that I think you’re all like “Oh my goodness, not again!” Don’t stop reading because here’s where it changes. My reaction to Christians judging is just as judgy as the judging they’re doing. The difference is they judge the people they deem as “sinners” and I judge the ones already in the Church. I feel sooo judgy of them. Sometimes I want to stand up to them and say “Shut your mouths because you’re hurting people!” but maybe in doing that I’m participating in their sin as well.

The other day I heard a sermon, and the preacher read the verse in 1 Corinthians 13 that says, “If I speak in tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” An earlier verse (8:1) says “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

It'd be nice if this were the size of my symbolic cymbals.

It’d be nice if this were the size of my symbolic cymbals.

The moment I heard that familiar passage, I knew it: I am a clanging cymbal. I’m all puffed up with knowledge. My certainty that my understanding of Jesus’ attitude toward sinners is the right way and I know it and all people who think different are wrong, wrong, WRONG is just…wrong.

I admit it. I like to hide behind a holier than thou approach, feeling superior to other Christians who blast people on their Facebook feeds and post all sorts of stuff about kicking out immigrants and standing up for their own rights. But in doing that, I’m no better. I’m not judging the people out in the rest of the world, but I sure do judge those sitting in the pew next to me. I feel quick to empathize with people who don’t know Jesus and don’t conform to Christian values, but I have such a hard time empathizing with Christians caught in the sin of self-righteousness and spiritual pride.

Here’s whats hard for me, though. Jesus treated the religious leaders differently from regular people in society. He did hold them to a higher standard. Their attitudes prevented people from coming to God, and he did not stand for that. Later in the New Testament, we also see Paul talking frankly and even harshly to church leaders whose policies threw stumbling blocks in the way of unbelievers coming to know Jesus.

So how does this fit together? If it’s counter to Jesus’ teachings to treat non-believers in a judgmental, legalistic way but we see him standing up to the religious leaders of his time and not letting them get away with a bad attitude, what’s my responsibility as a Christian who sometimes sees other Christians acting like Pharisees?

And suddenly it dawns on me, even as I type this. Maybe I have trouble empathizing with self-righteous religious people and treating believers with grace because I myself am trapped in that same sin of spiritual pride that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day exhibited. Maybe I’m like the televangelist who preaches so emphatically against sexual sin every Sunday and later reveals that he’s been visiting prostitutes himself all along. Maybe God is pointing this hypocrisy out to me in other people because he wants me to see it in myself.

Or maybe it is more complex than that even. Maybe it’s the motivation and method involved with the reprimand of Christians who falter. Is my motivation to bring them into a closer relationship with God and protect the helpless who sometimes get caught in the crossfire or is it to prove that I have the right answers? And does my method actually help people understand that they’re hurting people or does it just make them dig deeper into the defense of their position and become more entrenched in their ways?

Let’s face it, it’s easier to evaluate other Christians who I think should know better and say things that make me look progressive and accepting and politically correct than it is to step out and actually do something to make the situations we’re debating better. I’d rather write about it from the safety of my high tower than climb down the steps and meet people in their needs.

Change My Mind

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This is the house we worked on for a few hours one morning.

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to volunteer for community service day at the college where I work. One of the students asked me to be on her team. I felt pretty happy about that, actually. My job has always involved a lot of me sitting in my office organizing student records and not a lot of me interacting with those students. Being asked to go made me feel like maybe I’m getting the chance to make some actual relationships with the students now. But the night before the event, I realized I was pretty sick. My nose was horribly sneezy/stuffy/runny, and I felt like a nasty old tissue myself. I tried to get out of going, but I didn’t want to make trouble for this group of girls, and in the end I went.

It was a lot dustier than it appears.

It was a lot dustier than it appears.

I’d love to say that I skipped happily toward cleaning out a gutted house in the inner city, but I didn’t. The extreme dust–EXTREME– and my nasal distress added up to me not being too fun to be around. I just didn’t really feel exuberant about serving Jesus at that point. Why? Not just my nose felt uncomfortable. I felt uncomfortable. I had to drive to a part of town I’d never seen. I had to work with people I didn’t know well. I had to be hot in the 90 degree weather and covered with dust. Uncomfortable.

That’s what it takes, though, isn’t it? Being uncomfortable? Realizing our vulnerabilities in an effort to understand and connect with others who are vulnerable? I wonder if part of conquering spiritual pride takes getting involved in something that makes me uncomfortable. Instead of sticking with the things I’m comfortable with and good at, maybe I need to do something I’m pretty bad at because how proud can I be of my own spirituality when I’m covered in snotty dust?

So here’s a novel idea for me to try: what if I started asking myself in every encounter what it would take for that person to feel loved and cared for? What if I started really thinking about how each person feels, empathizing with them and the confusion and pain that causes some of the mistakes? What if I started extending this empathy to the Christians I sometimes am in contact with who focus on how bad the rest of the world is and tried to see them as Jesus does, as people who struggle to do the right thing? What if I gave them time to change and used a less abrasive method to show them what I saw as necessary in their lives? What if I did some things that made me uncomfortable? What then?

Maybe I’d stop sounding like a clanging cymbal and start making a difference.

 

Forgiveness Changes Everything

Who could ever stay mad at this sweetie?

The other day, my daughter stayed up too late. This may seem like a harmless event, but in her nine-year-old life, staying up too late produces a sentimental reaction to just about everything. After 9:30, she cries. She cries for the friends she left behind when we moved, she cries for the house we moved out of, she cries for pets that have died. On the particular night in question, she came to me with a sad face and cuddled on my lap and told me she was crying because of the mean things she had said to me in the past.

Right then, not one mean thing she had ever said came to mind. I said, “Honey, I can’t even remember those things anymore. I know you remember them, but I’m your mommy, I love you and I don’t even care what you said to me before.”

At that moment, a light came on in my head. This must surely be how God feels when we come to him with old sins, long forgiven, long forgotten. He loves us. He wants us for his children. He doesn’t even try to remember anything we did so long ago. When we accept Jesus’ sacrifice, those things are gone.

There’s a story I’ve been thinking about that illustrates this point. Jesus ate dinner with a lot of people, and in this story he was eating with the religious leaders of the time. They lived with the assumption that their religious observances and practices would pave their way into God’s good graces. In this particular story, they gathered for dinner. At some point in the party a woman who was known for her sinful life, a prostitute probably, came into the house where they were eating, searching for Jesus.

She saw him and fell at his feet kissing and annointing them with expensive perfume, wiping her tears from his feet with her own hair. The religious leaders in the room expressed their concern. “Don’t you know who that is, Jesus?!” No doubt they nudged each other, eyebrows raised. What did Jesus say? He turned to the woman and said, “Your sins are forgiven.” She came to him for forgiveness, and she received it.

An Expensive Sacrifice in An Unforgiven State

This woman expressed her love for Jesus in an extravagant way. She poured out something expensive. This wasn’t a five dollar Wal Mart special. Perfume cost a lot in Jesus’ day. Now, think for a moment about where she got the money for that perfume. She purchased the perfume with money she got from selling herself. She purchased it with her morality, her dignity, her very soul. She brought that to Jesus, and she sacrificed what she had to honor him.

Not only did she come to him with something expensive, but the woman came to Jesus in her unforgiven state. She came with her sins. She came carrying the jar of perfume that represented her sinful life. Had she never lived that life, she would have had nothing to present to him. She had a past, she had sin, and she gave it to him. Her act of turning that sin over to him, pouring it out on him, that was her sacrifice to him.

There’s a tension in Christianity. It comes from the pull between the freedom that comes from grace and the bondage that comes from sin. It sometimes manifests itself in this difficulty some Christians have in forgiving people who have wronged them, accepting people who live different lives from them, loving people who have made mistakes. I know it because I feel it. I have that tension in my own life. It’s the tension that makes me ask myself how I should treat people I know who mess up royally. How should I treat people who continue to live in their mistakes, who don’t seem to want to change? When I love someone, shouldn’t I want to point out their shortcomings so that they can change those and be somehow worthy of God’s love?

Forgiveness Brings Change

In thinking about the stories of Jesus in the Gospels, I don’t remember any times that he required a person to change before he or she came to him. I don’t remembering Jesus himself ever turning someone away because they weren’t good enough, sinless enough, perfect enough to come to him. They changed because they were with him, not because they heard about him or because someone told them to clean up their act before they made it to him.

Forgiveness breeds something in the forgiven. Maybe it’s not just realizing that we’re sinful that changes us, but maybe the actual forgiveness itself changes us.

I worry about us as believers sometimes. I worry about how we draw lines and create boxes and how we like to say, “This far is ok, but past that and we’re over the line.” I worry that we read the Sermon on the Mount, and instead of noticing that Jesus says that we can’t possibly be good enough and we therefore need his grace, we use his teachings to draw the lines around what we have decided determines sinful behavior and what determines being in God’s good graces even darker than they were before. We say, for example, “Aha! Before we thought murder was wrong. Well, guess what! Now even anger is wrong.” When we do that, we feel justified in ostracizing people who we think have crossed the line, have stepped outside the box. We choose the sins we don’t like and we focus on them, but we ignore the fact that our sins are all destructive and none of us escapes those sins on our own.

What Are We For?

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Tobias, Nebraksa

Even as I write this, I notice something. I notice my well-defined ability to judge people for being judgmental. I pull the Pharisees down from their high horses only to jump right up there in the saddles so I can look down at them from my “perfection.” In our culture today, it’s popular to say everyone has a right to live how they want. It’s hip to be against people who are against everyone different from them. I scroll down my Facebook feed and see people posting about the right to bear arms and restricting immigration, tossing out Muslims and putting (evangelical Christian) prayer back in school, and I feel myself climbing right up on the high horse next to the people who posted those, ready to push them down for their conservative views that go against the current cultural views that say we should love and accept everyone.

Then I realize something. I realize that, just like everyone else, I define myself as what I’m against instead of what I’m for. I judge the judgmental. In championing acceptance and love for those who used to be on the margins of society, I couch my judgmentalism in terms of acceptance, thus enabling myself to continue being judmental but in a politically correct manner that is focused on judging those more conservative than I am.

Set Free for Freedom’s Sake

Our culture of acceptance and tolerance isn’t a bad thing. I like it. I think there are some parts of it that resonate with the Gospel. I’m glad that the new generation of Christians seems to be rising up to love the ones previous generations saw as unlovable. Here’s my fear, though. I hear many Christians advocating love for the sinner and yet scorning other Christians whose opinions about social issues or understanding of theology differ from theirs in the same way that the previous generations scorned the non-believers.

Galatians 5:1 says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” A Bible college professor once told me that the translation doesn’t quite convey the intensity of the original meaning. It actually means something more like, “Christ set you free. Now start living like you’re free!” We don’t have to set up boxes and draw lines. We don’t have to self-righteously proclaim to the world which groups we’re against. We can love people exactly how they are: sinful and messy, law-bound or lawless. If I’m quick to say that we should love gay people, for example, but turn my back on my friends who see things in a legalistic, conservative Christian way, maybe I’m still missing the point.

A big, fancy church in Honolulu.

Honolulu, Hawaii

What are my motives? Am I zealous for truth and righteousness and freeing the oppressed or am I zealous for maintaining a particular self-image that revolves around condemning those who are different from me? Do I do what I do for God or to promote an image of myself as a particular type of Christian?

This comes back around to the story of the woman with the perfume. These days we like to focus on the woman and on how she was forgiven, and that is very important. However, we also need to remember that Jesus loved and forgave the Pharisees in his midst as well. Those who believed in him–those were also forgiven and accepted, even if they hadn’t quite grasped the idea of freedom from the Law. Maybe even if they never did.