People truly amaze me.
That’s what this past week or so has shown me.
It started with church on Sunday, with my pastor’s sermon. It was an excellent one, based off a passage in Peter, that said we are all legitimate individuals who have been gifted with God’s grace, acceptance and love. This in and of itself would have probably struck a nerve with me. But he used the Jewish people to bring it home.
Now, if you don’t already know this about me, I deeply, deeply love the Jewish people and have enormous respect for them, for their history and for their faith. I was a young teenager when I first read a major book that detailed the horrors of the Holocaust and, after reading that book, I became a life long student of the era, even overcoming my misgivings and my discomfort to read Hitler’s twisted autobiography, Mein Kemp. I wrote a poorly inadequate, fictional book that dealt with the abuse suffered by the Jewish people. I visited the museum. I talked with a survivor who came to our school. I founded an organization that I taught in schools called History’s Mark that taught it to middle and high school students. The Holocaust wasn’t just a history lesson to me, it might as well have been a living, breathing thing.
And none of that accounts for what the Holocaust did for me. The stories of tragedy, humiliation, shame and guilt that I read about served an almost tangible purpose in my life. The Holocaust, and its crimes against the Jewish people, made me believe that I would be okay. After all, no matter what might have happened to me, I was not in a concentration camp. My care of the Jews culminated my freshman year in college, when I jumped at the opportunity to attend a Jewish synagogue for a Bible project. The synagogue I attended was precious. And no one will ever be able to convince me that God was not there. He was. I felt Him. I was even moved to learn and sing songs and prayers in Hebrew. The intimacy of the synagogue moved me in ways I hadn’t felt before and I became convinced that even though I couldn’t fully understand why, I knew the presence of the Holy Spirit and of God Himself resided in that synagogue. I was drawn to it. And I kept returning, week after week after week. My love of and belief in Jesus Christ as Savior prevented me from seeking out volunteer opportunities–I couldn’t, in full conscience, for example, volunteer to teach in the children’s ministry. I had no desire to convert to Judaism. I just wanted to be near God.
God is everywhere. He’s in our cars, He’s in our workplace. He’s everywhere. But in order to really feel Him and experience all that He is, you first have to accept the truth that He’s even there. If you don’t welcome Him, then He’ll stand in the background until you do. This is what struck me about the people in Congregation Micah. I was an outsider. I was the Gentile. I was the Christian. And I was the only one in the synagogue that had that label. And yet—no one ever said a discouraging thing to me. In fact, when I talked with one of the leaders there, and said, “I believe in Jesus but I…” he responded with a tender smile and said, “But you feel the light here. And so that’s okay.” Instead of harassing me, instead of demanding to know what I was doing there, they simply demonstrated genuine and unconditional care for me. They showed the heart of God.
Unfortunately, the truly amazing part was that this attitude of tolerance and love and understanding was not displayed to me by others who believed in the same theology and doctrine that I did. My uncle, for instance, is a Christian deacon. He was horrified and shocked, treated it as though I was doing something terrible, as though I had totally abandoned Christ by merely attending the synagogue. A precious friend questioned, however gently, my faith in Christ because I regularly attended the synagogue. My heart bled. Finally, I felt as though I were being forced to choose not by God but by other people between Judaism and Christianity. Since I know that Christ is who He said He was, since I have experienced Him and since I deeply love Him, I relinquished Micah. I quietly went about recovering from all sorts of heavy heartbreak and moved on, though my respect and interest in the Holocaust and the Jewish community has not wavered. For the past two years, for instance, I have diligently followed the trial of John Demjanuk, a Nazi war criminal currently awaiting verdict on 23,000 counts of accessory to murder for work in the Sobibor death camp.
Then this past Sunday…
In his sermon, my pastor, a man whom I have come to deeply respect, trust, care for and admire, said in plain English: “if you have a problem with the Jewish people, then you have a problem with God. If you disrespect them, then you disrespect God. Abraham, Jew. Issac, Jew. Jacob, Jew. We were drafted into their family. I understand that the Jewish community does not consider Christians a covenant people–that’s their problem; it does not have any bearing on how we should treat or consider them.” I felt like smiling. I felt like shouting. Then I felt like crying. He’d just told me that I hadn’t angered God by spending time with His chosen people. I hadn’t disrespected Christ by singing Hebrew hymns. It was the reassurance and validation that I hadn’t even realized I still needed.
Then, somewhere else in his sermon, Pastor Dan used the word “deposits” and I was instantly reminded that he believes that we all make deposits into others and we also make withdrawals. Every time we do something kind or helpful, that’s a deposit in the other person. Every time we do something neglectful, harmful or tragic, that’s a withdrawal. It’s a visual image that strikes me. If love were a physical property, if, when the heart was opened, it leaked not blood but love as a tangible substance, how much would my heart hold? It would make sense, then, why sometimes my heart hurts and yet can feel stronger within a day’s time—it’s because something was withdrawn from it by some act, or word or decision but then I encountered something or someone else that made a deposit. Sometimes it feels as though the heart is “empty”– when there’s been more withdrawals than deposits made into our emotional love account.
People are responsible for both..
Sunday night, after listening to Pastor’s sermon, I watched the show I Survived… I should not watch this show. It upsets me. It disturbs me and more often than not leaves me in emotional tears. This season has been particularly traumatizing. On this episode, a woman was abducted, raped, had her throat cut and was then chased by a serial killer who was wielding a machete. I am not making this up. I can’t begin to fathom the kind of withdrawal she experienced from her love account, from her trust account, from her emotional security. I don’t have the foggiest notion why things like that happen to good people. I don’t have the foggiest notion what in the world would possess one human being to do the kinds of things these people recount on this show to another human being. It truly hurts me. I can’t watch these like that without crying and feeling terribly emotionally tired and drained. Pain is real. And it affects us. When your bank account balance is not enough to cover the basic necessities your child needs today, hopeless and inadequate is what you feel. When your emotional love account is drained, giving up makes a lot more sense than hanging on—especially when you can’t see tomorrow or know who or what will make the next deposit of love.
I’ve often heard people say, “Why did this happen?” It’s a question I’ve asked of my own history. But then I look to shows like I Survived. I remember the stories of the people who were terrorized in the Holocaust. Terrible withdrawals were made on innocent souls–withdrawals that couldn’t ever be made up for. And yet…
When I remember them, a small beam of intense light begins to slowly warm a small corner of my heart. That light is hope. And God has given it to me through other awful and horribly unjust stories that belong to other real people — all my life. In a very real sense, even though I never met them, even though I didn’t know them personally, the victims of the holocaust helped save my sanity and my sense of peace by reminding me that things were not as dismal as they sometimes felt. Sharing a painful past is like ripping off a band-aid and discovering the wound is still raw; guilt and shame are traumatizing side effects that linger behind any unkind act or word we experience. Sharing our story makes us as vulnerable as we were when the trauma occurred because it exposes the guilt and shame that haunt us. Guilt and shame carry lies with them—lies like “no one wants to hear this” or “you’re just burdening others” or “they think you want attention if you share”, lies that make it easy to stay quiet even though the cost of silence is high.
I often feel these things too. I have a really difficult time voicing the past because of these things. God doesn’t sacrifice one of His children to save another—He doesn’t allow terrible things to happen to me so that someone else might be helped. But, when we let Him, He can transform evil into goodness. He did create us to influence one another, and to impact one another; He did create us to be social beings, to actually, truly interact with one another on a level deeper than “how are you?” “fine”. He knew that, when we do, when we open up and share the ugly and the beautiful and the scary and the dirty parts of us, then we reach out a hand to someone else—someone we may or may not know.
Some people hurt us. Some people scar us. Some people make us wonder about ever trusting another breathing being as long as we live. Some people, some shows, make us want to become cynical, sarcastic or skeptical of the legitimacy, of the goodness, of others. Pain makes us want to hide away in the safety and anonymity of a darkened room. It’s a lot of risk to be social. It takes bravery and courage and faith. But for every Hitler, there is an Oscar Schindler. And sometimes the most outrageously flagrant, bold and humiliating acts of terror against the heart are overcome by the simplest, benign, often overlooked acts of human decency—a chat, an e-mail, holding a door open for a stranger, a phone call, a smile and a wave every Sunday, an old, beautiful song, the sense of unity discovered in the midst of tragedy, a warm, non-demanding hug, a gentle wink. It is people who do both–if we know to expect the unexpected, if we can remember that all the colors of the rainbow aren’t always bright and clearly visible but often blurry and hard to see, then we see hope and a reason to deliberately set our feet on the ground each morning.
People amaze me.