Bible Beware

It's Not Us v. Them

Bible Beware

By Beth Demme

It’s tempting. Really, it is. It’s tempting to read the Bible thru a lens of “we’re in, they’re out.” When it comes to faith, too many of us have been fed a steady diet of us v. them. We have developed an almost insatiable need to be sure we are “in,” compelling us to identify who is “out.” If we know who isn’t invited to the party, we feel more secure about our own place on the VIP list.

But don’t do it. Don’t give in to this lazy hermeneutic (a big word that means: way of reading the Bible). Let’s step away from that kind of thinking and choose, instead, to read the Bible through the lens of a God-sized love story.

A love story so big God erased the ultimate us v. them line and became human.

In Jesus’ day, I would have been in the out-out-out crowd. I’m a Gentile. I’m a woman. I’m a sinner. Three strikes! Throughout Acts and the Epistles, we see the early church struggling with how to handle the Gentile problem. Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, so how does his saving work apply to Gentiles? In other words, the Apostles Peter and Paul lived in a world where Jewish people were “in” and Gentiles were “out.” Guess what they concluded after spending time with Jesus? Gentiles are in! (Acts 15). (Although Paul wasn’t among the original disciples during Jesus’ earthly ministry, Paul says he spent three years learning the gospel “through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11-18).)

Adoption Changed My View of God

#NationalAdoptionDay

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How Adoption Changed My View of God

By Beth Demme

If you’ve known me for more than five minutes, you know that my husband and I are parents by adoption. I have some great stories about our adoption journey, some of which would make you roll with laughter and others that would leave you weeping.

Adoption brought a lot of changes to my life (hello, babies!). One unexpected change adoption brought me was a new understanding of God. In fact, adoption completely changed my view of God.

At the beginning of the journey, I thought of God as a detached, all knowing deity. I felt God had put me on my path, given me free will, and now was out there … somewhere. I would look to my circumstances and if things felt good, God was there. If not, God was absent.

The Problem With Loving God

Or, Is My Love On Backward?

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The Problem With Loving God

By Beth Demme

In the Gospel of Matthew, a lawyer (one of my people!) asks Jesus “which commandment is the greatest?” Jesus responds:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment.” (Matthew 22:34-38)

Did you catch that? The greatest and first commandment is that we are supposed to love God.

I spend a lot of time talking, thinking, and writing about how God loves us and how we can experience the love of God more fully and deeply. I believe that’s why Jesus went to the Cross—to show humanity unconditional, unstoppable love. And yet, the first and greatest commandment isn’t about how much God loves us. Instead, it’s about how we should love God.

I suddenly feel like I have my love on backward. Am I focused on myself as one-who-is-loved when I should be thinking of myself as one-who-loves? Is there a connection between the two?

The word for love here is agape, meaning unconditional love. In other words, the first and greatest commandment is to love God unconditionally with everything you have and everything you are.

Unconditionally. That means we love God when we are disappointed with his creation—whether it’s us or this broken world.

We love God when we are hurting, or sick, or mourning.

We love God when we can’t understand why people we love suffer from illness or injury.

We love God when today (or this week, or this month, or this life) is harder than it should be.

Even in the face of the worst circumstances, we can (and should) love God unconditionally with everything we have and everything we are.

The problem is, loving God this way means I can’t hold back parts of myself from God.

Are You a Bad Borrower?

Give to God What Is God's ... That Means You

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Are You A Bad Borrower?

By Beth Demme

When I was in elementary school, maybe third grade, I borrowed a book from the school librarian. Not from the school library (these days known as a “Media Center”), but from the librarian herself, Mrs. Whaley. Every Christmas she read The Cajun Night Before Christmas to us and I L‑O-V-E-D it. I loved the story, I loved the illustrations, and perhaps most of all I loved the tradition of hearing Mrs. Whaley read it in her terrible fake Cajun accent.

I begged Mrs. Whaley to lend me that book. I was a precocious, and persuasive, eight-year-old and I won the day! She lent it to me, but as I remember it, she clutched the book to her chest and said, “I will lend this to you, but take very good care of it. I brought this book in from home and if something happens to it, I won’t be able to replace it.” As she reluctantly handed it over, I grabbed for it and ran (not really—I’ve never been a runner—but that’s how the scene unfolds in my mind after more than three decades of accumulated dust on this old memory).

Somehow, while it was in my possession, the book got ruined.

To this day, I have no idea how it happened. It looked like I dumped a can of pea soup over each page and then left it outside to bake. I promise I didn’t, but that’s what it looked like. I avoided the library for weeks. I was so ashamed I couldn’t bear to face Mrs. Whaley. She was such a nice lady and she worked so hard for us. She put on elaborate puppet shows and never judged us for checking out the easy books. Her face was a collection of three elements: kind eyes, round pink cheeks, and giant glasses. (Eyeglasses were way bigger in the 1980’s, it’s a fact.)

A few weeks later, after Mrs. Whaley asked me about it several times, I reluctantly brought the book back. She was so disappointed I thought she might cry and I thought I might cry, too. To her credit, she was still always kind to me, but for the remainder of my time at that school, I carried a little bit of guilt with me every time I went into the library. To this day, I don’t like to borrow things. I worry they will be damaged, or broken, or lost.

There is a certain responsibility that comes with being a borrower.

I thought about that ruined book this week while reading the Gospel of Matthew. The Pharisees (the Jewish religious elite) and the Herodians (the Jewish social elite) try to test Jesus. They ask “It is right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Matthew 22:17). 

This story is told in all three of the “Synoptic Gospels.” Click here to learn more about the synoptics.

Time Traveling Emotions

You May Be A Time Traveler After All

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Time Traveling Emotions

By Beth Demme

Are you a time traveler? No? Are you sure?

Hear me out, because the truth is you might be. Or at least, you might be living like one.

I’ve never been good at science (especially the mathy parts) so I have no idea how actual time travel would work, even in theory, but I have noticed that many of us allow ourselves to be dragged back into the past.

Sometimes going back can be good. It’s sweet to reminisce about special memories and remember “the good ole days.” I’m a very sentimental person, so I love to share my memories and hear other people’s, too.

On the other hand, sometimes we are involuntary time travelers. The painful memories and “the hard ole days” pull us back in time. A smell, a song, a phrase, or a touch can trigger a memory so visceral we experience a past disappointment, hurt, or trauma again and again.

We can be dragged into the past by feelings we think we’ve ignored into oblivion.

We do this until we accept a hard truth: we cannot make feelings disappear by pretending like they don’t exist. Our feelings wait … and wait … and wait to be processed. They can be oh so patient.

When my daughter was a little girl, she tended to have a stiff upper lip. She never wanted to let her tears out. She would try to hold them in, even when I could tell they needed to flow. More than once I heard myself softly telling her, “it’s okay to cry. Those big feelings are only going to get bigger if you stuff them down. Crying will probably make you feel better.”

Tears are cleansing. Not just for the face, but for the soul. [Twitter Link]

Every tear is a capsule of emotion.

When those capsules break open and the emotion is released, we tend to feel a little lighter. As we wipe away our tears, we also wipe away some of the emotional baggage that comes with negative memories.

There’s quite a bit of crying in the Bible. When I teach Bible 100, I tell people early on that they have to memorize a Bible verse. Can you guess which one? John 11:35 (KJV), “Jesus wept.”

There Is A Big God And It’s Not Me

God is the Highest Achiever

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There Is A Big God And It’s Not Me

By Beth Demme

I want a GIANT poster that says, “There is a Big God and it’s NOT me.”

This is the foundational truth at work in the Bible, from the very first sentence of the very first chapter. (Genesis 1:1) It’s the first of the Ten Commandments God speaks to the people of Moses. (Exodus 20:1-2)  Jesus himself says it’s the first and most important commandment. (Matthew 22:34-40)

It seems like once we accept that truth, our next question is, “How do we get to God?”

Sometimes we treat the Ten Commandments like a checklist, don’t we?

When we do that, I think we miss the point.

The Ten Commandments aren’t meant to be a list of pre-requisites we have to accomplish in order to be granted access to God. They are meant to be proof of a relationship that already exists. God doesn’t say, “live this way and then I will love you.” Quite the opposite! He says, “I love you. To live well, live this way.”

I think it’s significant that in Exodus 20 God speaks these ten principles directly to the people rather than going through Moses (later they are given to and thru Moses). There is no barrier between the people and God and these commandments aren’t meant to impose a barrier.

Despite this, it seems people have always wanted the law to be a way to earn access to God and approval from God. The Apostle Paul says this was true for him.

Prayer Is (Still) More Than a Hashtag

Prayer Is the Power of Being Heard

This was originally published in July 2016, but in the wake of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, earthquakes in Mexico, violence in Catalonia, and devastation in Puerto Rico, I offer it again.

Why Prayer is (Still) More Than a Hashtag

By Beth Demme

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In the wake of recent tragedies, I’ve seen a lot of #Prayfor____. I’ve seen the hashtags criticized, too.

I get it. It’s not enough to pray for something if prayer is a way of avoiding responsibility or giving only lip service. It’s not enough to pray if you expect God to change a mindset or fix a problem without getting you personally involved. I agree, in those cases, #Prayfor____ rings hollow.

But I also see that we #Prayfor____ because we are crying out to the God who is Love. (1 John 4:8[Twitter Link] We acknowledge how much we need God to help us through this maddening, confusing, scary time.

Sometimes I pray because I don’t know what else to do, but I believe God does. [Twitter Link] It might sound crazy or naïve to you, but I believe God interacts in this world, and that makes #Prayfor____ meaningful, even powerful.

Each time I pray, important things happen within me.

First, I get to experience what I affectionately describe as my sixth sense – a sense of peace that can come only from the wholeness and goodness of God. Second, and I say this a lot, I am reminded that I am not God.

Although I don’t actually think I am God, there are times my actions suggest otherwise. Sometimes I act like I’m in charge, of everyone and everything. Sometimes I talk as if I am responsible for the choices and decisions other people make. Worse, I sometimes get stuck in my own self-sufficiency; I think and speak as if I don’t need God.

The only one who doesn’t need God is God, and I’m not clear on how that works theologically.

Even a quick prayer before a meal reinforces my non-god-ness. It’s an opportunity to acknowledge that while I bought the groceries and cooked the food myself, God still had a lot to do with the creation of the meal (weather, nature, etc.) and with me having a place to prepare and eat it.

God’s Unlimited Plan

God Won't Run Out of Mercy For You

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You Are On God’s Unlimited Plan

By Beth Demme

Have you ever run out of something? Maybe your car ran out of gas? Maybe you were baking and you didn’t have that cup of sugar you needed? Perhaps, like my teenage son, you’ve run out of data for your cell phone?

It happens. We run out of things.

Do you ever worry that God is going to run out of grace? That maybe God has reserved only so much for you and you will, eventually, reach the end of it?

Well, don’t worry. You’re on God’s Unlimited Plan.

The Verizon unlimited plan is good, but God’s is even better.

This is illustrated in many Bible stories, but I think we especially see it in the story of the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to the Promised Land (the land God promised to Abraham many generations before the Exodus (Genesis 12:1-7)).

The Israelites are released from Egypt after God sends ten plagues.

On the journey, the Israelites worried again, and again, that God’s mercy had run out. But, no, it never did. God kept showing up.

The Israelites complained about being slaves. (Exodus  3:7-8)
God took care of it. (Exodus 12:51)

They complained about the Egyptian army following them. (Exodus 14:10)
God took care of it. (Exodus 14:19-28)

The Reason You Don’t Feel Forgiven

It's the Cost of Unforgiveness

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The Reason You Don’t Feel Forgiven

By Beth Demme

Every Sunday in church we join together and pray “The Lord’s Prayer.” To someone who is skeptical about church, this might seem a little cultish. I get it. Anytime a group of people says something in unison it’s tempting to assume they don’t mean it. And maybe some people don’t. But I have to say that this prayer still means a lot to me, even though I have prayed it hundreds and hundreds of times.

One of the things that might seem especially strange to the skeptic is the part of the prayer when we say, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It can sound like we’re asking God for a quid pro quo, tit for tat, kind of forgiveness. It might seem like we’re asking God to count how many times we have forgiven so that precise amount of forgiveness can be applied to us.

That isn’t what’s happening; this isn’t a math equation.

This line of the prayer reflects the reality when we withhold forgiveness, we don’t feel forgiven.

In forgiving us, God puts relationship above justice. That’s hard for us because we live in a retributive justice system based on punishment and repayment. God says repayment isn’t possible—everything we have is from God already. Imagine if you loaned your neighbor $20 and a week later she said, “Can I borrow $20? I need it to pay you back for last week.” If you have a great sense of humor and an especially generous spirit, you might give her the second $20, but you probably won’t feel like you have been repaid, right? So, if we did owe God a debt (a theological concept with which I struggle), we would never be able to repay it.

When it comes to forgiveness, I think we want it to be a debtor system.

Resurrection is Everywhere

And I Need It

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Why I Need Resurrection

By Beth Demme

On a recent Spiritual Retreat, I was walking through the forest and I was struck by how resurrection was everywhere. I associate resurrection with Springtime, but it’s only the end of summer now, just about to edge into fall. Everywhere I looked I saw new life growing out of the old. I saw fallen trees give life to green vines. I saw decayed mulch give life to green sprouts. I listened to the birds sing and the crickets chirp, each note bringing its own kind of life to the air.

I felt surrounded by life in the midst of decay.

The troubling thing about resurrection is that it requires death. We don’t like to see things—good things—end, do we? And yet, sometimes they have to end so that something even more vibrant and vital can grow.

I’m learning there are parts of me that need to die to make way for resurrection. In fact, this is always part of a spiritual adventure. John Wesley described it as Sanctification. We are growing and maturing in our ability to live as Jesus lived. We are constantly on a journey to have our inner thoughts and our outward behavior align with God’s will.

The death part of resurrection can be scary because it feels unknown. And yet, we don’t have to be afraid.

I love Psalm 139, I’ve read it and prayed it many times. I prayed it as I walked the forest the other day and a pair of verses I had always glossed over struck me in a new way.