Like many church-going children, I memorized Bible verses. Sometimes I did it because it just kind of happened. I had heard the verse repeated so often — like John 3:16, “For God so loved the world…” —that it took root in my memory. Sometimes I did it because a Sunday school teacher encouraged it — Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd…” Once it was because it was my mother’s favorite passage — Psalm 100, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord…” There were rewards to memorizing verses from star stickers on a chart in the Sunday school room to bookmarks, from a teacher’s praise to watching Mom smile. And even the sense of accomplishment.
As an adult I have found various verses over time that I grabbed hold of, memorized, and recited often to myself for encouragement and for strength. When my life was turned upside down and I found myself as a single parent wondering if things would be okay, I turned often to Jeremiah 29:11 — “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”
At other times there were verses that gave me a sense that I would be taken care of when I felt less than. I could tune my mind into the verses in Matthew 6 that ask us to “consider the lilies of the field” when we need assurance that God will take care of us (vs. 25-30).
As I grew I came to concentrate on the passages that have spoken to me about how to conduct myself and set priorities. There are several that I have held to as my goals and have given me a purpose. The first is one of those we learned as children. It’s the Golden Rule found in Luke 6:31: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Every major religion in the world has that verse in their holy writings – the wording is different, but the thought is identical.
As I got older, I felt a strong call from another passage that encourages us not just to treat each other well but to do things for those in need. In Matthew 25, Jesus talks about what we need to be doing and has guided me in some of the activities and priorities I have worked on. This chapter instructs us to not just be nice but to do for others. “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…whatever you did for one of the least brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. (25-40)
I’ve come now to a place in my life where I have simplified remembering what I should do, listening to all the should and shouldn’t other throw at us, but I’ve opened it up much wider at the same time. I am leaning on two passages that I try to use to guide my thoughts and actions. I try to keep them foremost in my dealings with family, friends, and strangers. And I use them in my approach to civic and humanitarian causes.
The first passage comes from Matthew 22 verses 36-40: “Jesus was asked “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” His answer sums up what is expected of us. “Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” And the second biblical guideline has it all boiled down into one verse: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins.” (1Peter 4:8)
If I use these verses as my map, my GPS to be more current, I can’t go wrong. I can’t twist and turn events or ideas to suit my own gain over others. I can’t hate people because they have different skin color, different gender, different religion, different finances, different work. I can’t hate people who think differently. I can’t hate those I just don’t understand. Now, I have to admit that there are times it is hard and there are times I fail miserably. Because it is hard to love someone you can’t understand especially if it is someone who is filled with hatred, who is violent. I can’t love Putin. It isn’t in me. And I know that, according to the Bible, he is a human being created in the image of God, but I don’t believe that I am good enough to put all that he is doing aside. I pray that he will be defeated, removed from power, and that he will change his ways (miracles have been known to happen – look at the change in Paul on the Damascus road) but that’s the best I can do.
The older I get and the more I learn about people, the more these ideals mean to me not just as a Christian but as a human. Our world is…well, to call it a mess is no where near enough. A mess is my basement that needs to have all the junk hauled out. Lacking a better way to express it, our world is in a shit-storm right now!
People have become less and less civil. The public discourse of our so-called world leaders has become rife with vulgarities, name-calling, lies, and deception. They seem to care only for their own gain and power. I can think of only one leader in public life right now who would put country or others above self, who has shown that kind of character and that is President Volodymyr Zelenski of Ukraine. I know nothing of his politics, but I have seen that he is putting himself in danger and standing along side his people in the current attacks from Russia. The politicians in our country won’t even put themselves in political peril to call out lies, conspiracy theories, and out-of-control ambition. They won’t even stand by words they have uttered on video for all the world to hear if they find themselves under pressure from others in their party.
People on social media think nothing of criticizing complete strangers and making threats against them for having a different opinion or life style. Every corner of the political and social spectrum bemoans “cancel culture” while practicing it themselves against others. Television pundits behave like those on social media as the promulgate stories they know to be false and unfounded conspiracy theories. People don’t believe in holding themselves to the same standards they want others held to.
And sadly, this behavior seeps into our churches as well. Denominations, congregations, and individuals hold to rigid beliefs that are not always biblical. Our religious organizations have fanned the flames of racism, sexism, and nationalism. They have adopted a faith that is more aligned with a political agenda than with Christ. Churches today are doing much like those who wanted to add laws onto the early believers who were Gentiles, they have attempted to assign rules that must be obeyed and serve as a report card criteria on others. Rules that are not part of the Gospel. As I sang the song “They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love” in church on Maundy Thursday, it brought tears to me because I know that the world does not know Christians, especially American Christians, by love.
I’m not about to pretend that I am always faithful to these ideals. I try. I work very hard to be consistent in following them. My emotions, my ego, my short-comings, and my mental state make it difficult some days. There are days that I swear everyone I come in contact with is just trying their hardest to get in my way and piss me off. But the one thing I can say with certainty is that, even when I fall short, I am not cruel to people. I do not do anything that I know will be hurtful, that I know will cause harm. Even with someone who has done me wrong, I cannot be that person who takes an eye for an eye even when it would seem justified to some. I’m sure there have been times when I tripped or slipped and did something hurtful, but I know that I have not intended to do harm or cause pain.
I’ve had plenty of times when I have been hurt. And since I am someone who internalizes that pain, I don’t ever want to inflict it on others. I am haunted and plagued by memories of the harm people have inflicted on me or on someone dear to me. I’m also haunted by times that I did something that ended up disappointing or hurting someone. Both kinds of experiences keep me awake many nights, and I relive them from my childhood all the way through. Among the people I just can’t understand are the ones who can lie, cheat, steal from, cause injury to, or break the law to get above someone and still sleep at night or look at themselves in their morning mirror. I don’t really want to understand, because I’m afraid that if I did, I would be changed into something I don’t want to be. I wouldn’t be able to be me and try to love. I’ll choose love.
*the Bible verses quoted within this post come from a variety of translations because I memorized them over the years and have used various translations. The oldest ones are probably King James Version and the ones memorized more recently or the longer passages I look up to assure accuracy and they have come from the either the NIV or NLT.