Imprisoned by the past

“Why can’t we just sweep all of that under the rug and let the past be the past?” So says an old man, pleadingly, angrily, to his daughter, who has, once again, unintentionally embarrassed him by reminding him of his past life.

A little while later, after being confronted by someone from his past, he is seen collapsing into a chair, his body convulsing with heart-rending sobs.

Both these scenes are from a BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel “Little Dorrit.” I am a huge Charles Dickens fan, and I just recently watched this masterpiece of a drama for the second time. However, this time the movie touched me in a way it hadn’t before, as I suddenly realized how much of myself I saw in one of the drama’s main characters–old Mr. Dorrit.

For anyone unfamiliar with the story, “Little Dorrit” tells the tale of a man, and his family (the Dorrits), who, after being stuck in a debtors’ prison for over twenty years, suddenly find freedom and wealth when they learn of an unclaimed inheritance. Transitioning from the bottom rungs of society to the very top proves to be a challenge for all of the Dorrits, but most especially for the father, Mr. Dorrit, who, having been accustomed to prison for so long, finds his newfound freedom, wealth, and “respect” exhilerating at first, but eventually more than he can handle.

Even as he moves among the elite in society, travels Europe, and does his best to “fit in” with those of the upper-class, he is continually reminded of his humble, painful days in the prison. Mostly by his youngest daughter Amy–known affectionately as “Little Dorrit”–who finds it difficult to give up her humble ways and become a proper “lady of leisure,” but also by former friends and aquaintances who knew him during his stay in the prison. Finally, toward the end of the story, his mind begins to crack, as paranoia sets in and he begins to imagine everyone is mocking him and talking badly of him, and at last, he loses his mind completely and then he dies.

There are other happier parts to the story, thankfully, but Mr. Dorrit’s storyline, as tragic as it is, is what struck me most profoundly, for although I’ve never been in an actual prison, I, like Mr. Dorrit, know what it’s like to live daily in the prison of my own mind, which, even once it finds freedom externally, can never forget the past–especially when people from the past continually return to refresh painful memories and reinforce old lies. It’s like an analogy I once was told about elephants: once they are trained via chains to remain standing in one spot, even when those chains are removed, they still stand there, unwilling to run away, convinced in their scarred minds that the chains are still there.

This, unfortunately, is the reality of anyone, like myself, or a fictional Mr. Dorrit, who has gone through tremendously painful, humiliating, and/or traumatic experiences. As Richard Lovelace put it so eloquently in his poem “To Althea, from Prison:”

“Stone walls do not a prison make,

Nor iron bars a cage;

Minds innocent and quiet take

That for an hermitage;

If I have freedom in my love

And in my soul am free,

Angels alone, that soar above,

Enjoy such liberty.”

So much, at least externally, has changed for me for the better recently. Like Mr. Dorrit, I’m tasting freedom for the first time in many areas of my life. Outwardly, most would say I am doing well. But true freedom is never found in external circumstances. True freedom only really happens in one’s mind and spirit. The cruelest, darkest prisons are not physical ones, but the ones imposed in our own minds. As Lovelace says, a mind “innocent and quiet” could take even an actual iron-barred prison and find peace there. I envy those with such unscarred, peaceful minds. Minds not continually haunted by memories of a painful past. Minds not tormented by a past that one wishes every day one could forget. Minds not continually reminded of the person one used to be by people from that past who continue to reject and turn a cold shoulder, seeing you always as “that person.”

Like Mr. Dorrit, there are days, especially after running into people I used to know, when I retreat somewhere and simply weep. Weep in agony that, no matter how hard I try to escape my past, no matter how much I change, no matter how affirming close friends and family are, no matter how well some aspects of my life may be going, all it takes to send me spiraling downward is a confrontation with those who hurt me in the past and continue to hurt me with their coldness and disregard. I know I shouldn’t let these people get to me. I try to remind myself of all those who have built me up instead of torn me down, but my mind much more easily believes the negative over the positive. Like the elephant, I know that, in reality, my chains are gone. But in my mind those chains are never really gone. And when others treat you as if those chains are still there, it’s even easier for the mind to believe that somehow one can never truly escape. That one is forever imprisoned by one’s past.

I know in Christ I am supposed to be free. I know all about “renewing one’s mind.” I know, at least intellectually, that I am loved by Christ–that no matter my past, no matter how others perceive me and treat me–I am who He says I am, and not who others say I am.

But still I struggle. And I believe I struggle because my painful past involves a cult-like church and many hypocritical Christians who, instead of loving and reaching out to a lonely, broken, hurting outcast, contributed to her pain. And who, even to this day, when I should come across them, turn away from me as if I somehow have the plague. Like Mr. Dorrit, I just want to say, why can’t the past be left where it is? In the past? Why must it continually thrust its ugly face into my own via the voices of those whose looks alone tell me all I need to know about myself? “You’re unloveable.” “Something’s wrong with you.” “You’re wicked.” “You’re not godly enough.” “You’re messed up.” “Once an outcast, always an outcast.”

The mind is a cruel prison. A cruel prison I long to escape from. And I keep trying to escape. But, like Mr. Dorrit, I’m so accustomed to my imprisonment, that freedom itself is a scary, overwhelming thing that I’m not sure I would know how to handle.

I hope I don’t succumb to paranoia one day and lose my mind completely (though I’ve felt I’ve come close before)–I hope the end to my story is a happy one and not a sad one–but, as of now, I don’t know how to break free of my mental chains. I don’t know how to handle those reminders of my past (mainly people) that keep me locked up behind bars thicker and stronger than ones of actual iron.

I can only hope and trust that the grace of God will somehow do what I cannot do. And that someday I will possess a soul, and mind, that is completely free and, with the angels soaring above, able to “enjoy such liberty”…

On Pat Robertson & being apalled

I don’t normally comment on current news, events, or goings-on in the Christian world on this blog, but after reading the following articles regarding some statements by a well-known Christian “leader”–and watching the accompanying videos–I feel compelled to share some thoughts.

The articles and videos can be found here and here.

Hopefully any discerning Christian with half a brain agrees with me that the time has come for dear Pat Robertson to step down, step aside, and stop opening his mouth. Men like him are just one more reason American evangelical Christianity has become such a laughingstock to the world. If we are mocked and persecuted for the sake of the gospel, that’s perfectly acceptable, but to be mocked and ridiculed because someone claiming to be one of us keeps opening his mouth and saying absolutely ludicrous, chauvinistic, and un-Christlike nonsense is totally unacceptable. This man does not represent Christ. And I wholeheartedly disagree with 99% of what came out of his mouth.

Should a woman, by the power of the Holy Spirit, forgive and love her cheating husband? Absolutely. But overlook it? Absolutely not. Diminish it, because, as Robertson says, “he’s a man” and “all men tend to wander”? Absolutely not. Take responsibility for it? Because, somehow, it must be her fault he cheated? Absolutely, unequivocally, most resoundingly not!

Why anyone listens to this man and gives him credibility is beyond me. For any so-called “man of God” that essentially says it’s ok for a man to cheat on his wife and that it’s the wife’s fault he cheats in the first place should be seen for what he truly is: absolutely deluded. And certainly not a “man of God.”

Pat Robertson just gives the perfect example, and provides one more reason, why I am so disgusted and disillusioned with so much of what passes for “Christianity” these days.

If only people out there calling themselves Christians would stop looking to mere men for advice and spiritual direction. Stop putting all these fallible, sinful men up on pedestals and expect them to tell you how to act and behave. Get out your Bible. Read it. Pray. And seek out those who do the same. Put Christ first. Not man. Christ is the only One we can really trust.

I wish the people at the megachurch I serve at would do this. Much to my disappointment, both of my fellow ESL teachers basically defended the pastor of the church, who, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, is being accused of sexual misconduct. I also saw news interviews with some of the congregants, who defended him as well, some giving him all the praise for “saving them.” Yikes. Wake up, people. Never look to man to save you. And if you think this pastor “saved” you, you need to start reading your Bible. Only Jesus saves.

I guess all of this hullabaloo–both with Pat Robertson, and with the pastor at my local megachurch–just goes to show how biblically illiterate and undiscerning much of American Christianity is nowadays.

How incredibly, tragically sad.

An encounter

“He’s at Simon’s house,” came the excited whispers all around me, as I made my way through the throng of people crowding the street.

I tugged at the sleeve of an older woman who was walking in front of me. “Excuse me–do you know which Simon everyone is referring to?”

The older woman turned to look at me, and as she did so, her eyes widened in recognition. Then they narrowed in obvious contempt. “I don’t know why it matters to you.”

I felt my cheeks burn with shame under her scrutinizing gaze. She knew who I was. But still I persisted. “Please, I’d just like to know.”

“Well, Simon the Pharisee, then–if you must know,” the woman replied, with obvious disgust in her voice. She quickly turned away, indicating she wanted nothing more to do with me, but I was satisfied. I knew where Simon the Pharisee lived, and it wasn’t far.

I was jostled and bumped and even cursed at a few times as I quickly weaved through the crowd, but I didn’t care. I had to see Him. The prophet and teacher named Jesus that others claimed was a friend of tax collectors and sinners.

When I finally stood outside Simon’s house, however, my heart began to race with fear. I peered around the people in front of me into the open doorway, catching a glimpse of the richly dressed Pharisees reclining at a table. I glanced down at my own shabby garb, my cheeks flushing. How could I walk in there? I wondered. Even now I could feel the stares of those around me. Nearly everyone in Capernaum knew who I was. Certainly even this Jesus would know who and what I was as soon as He saw me. Maybe even He would turn away from me in contempt, despite the stories I’d heard about Him.

But I had to take a chance. Clutching a small, alabaster vial of perfume in one hand, I pushed my way through the people in front of the doorway, ignoring their scornful remarks, till at last I had entered the house. I knew which one was Jesus as soon as I saw Him. He was simply dressed, unlike the Pharisees around Him, and had a very unimpressive physical appearance, and yet, when He spoke, there was an authority in His voice that filled me with awe. For a moment I stood transfixed, listening to Him and watching Him, wondering what had possessed me to approach such an esteemed teacher and prophet. I, the dirty and unclean sinner, who could hear the whispers of the Pharisees, now looking in my direction. My heart flooded with the familiar feelings of shame, and I was about to turn around and flee, when Jesus suddenly looked at me. My eyes locked with His, expecting to see the same contempt and judgment I was used to encountering, but instead kindness and compassion stared back at me.

I felt as if, for the first time, someone saw me, instead of my sin. In that single look I felt known. Known and somehow still loved. Something in me broke. Tears began to course down my cheeks, and gathering courage from Jesus’ kind gaze, I approached Him, suddenly oblivious to the whispers and stares of the Pharisees. I knelt at His feet, weeping, overcome by the sense of my unworthiness in His presence, and yet so drawn to the compassion and mercy He emanated. When I realized my tears were falling on His feet, I unloosed my hair and, gathering its soft ends, used them to dry His feet. I then kissed His feet repeatedly and anointed them with the perfume from my alabaster vial.

Google Images

Google Images

Even as I knelt there beside Jesus, weeping and performing these ministrations to Him, I listened to the conversation He was having with Simon, who reclined nearby. He was telling Simon a story about a moneylender who forgave his debtors, and then, turning to me, He asked Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet. You did not anoint My head with oil, but she anointed My feet with perfume. For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” Then, laying a hand on my shoulder and looking me in the eyes, He said to me, “Your sins have been forgiven. Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

A peace and joy I’d never experienced before filled me at His words. Could it be possible? That I was forgiven? I just stared into Jesus’ face for several moments, not wanting to look away from His loving eyes, nor leave His awe-inspiring presence. I could feel the stares of Simon and the other Pharisees, but I no longer cared what they thought of me. I no longer cared what anyone thought of me. This man Jesus knew me, and He still loved me and forgave me. Slowly I stood up, wiping my eyes and tear-stained face, and I expressed my gratitude in the only way I knew how: by smiling at Him. He smiled back at me. That was enough.

I walked out of the house, glancing back one more time at Jesus. He was still looking at me, his gaze full of compassion. My heart lept with joy. When I re-entered the street, I pushed through the throng of people, till I’d at last found some open space. Then I began to run and skip, my arms opened wide, not caring who saw, feeling freer than a bird soaring through the heavens.

His hand of grace

So it’s over. Done with. And much to my amazement, it ended on a positive note. Again, as with the case of my young co-worker who left nearly a month ago, God couldn’t have scripted a better ending. I could see His handprints all over the place, in spite of my failures, my doubts, and my fears.

The other day was my turn to celebrate leaving a job that has left me broken and completely run down. As if to emphasize His grace, and to provide an exclamation point to the rewards of being poor in spirit—which I just wrote about—-God showed me yesterday that nothing is beyond His redemptive power. I discovered that, despite my failures, He apparently used me to shine just a little—oh so very little—-of His light in a very dark place. I never knew so many looked to me as an example, and even liked and admired me. I could chalk it up, of course, to people just being nice to me because I was leaving, but it seemed to be more than that. The somewhat crusty older woman I worked with, for example, who complained a lot, and I often felt like I got in the way of, gave me a warm hug, and had tears in her eyes as she told me how much she was going to miss working with me. She also gave me a gift and a very sweet card, telling me what an adorable person I was, and even told me I could use her as a reference for future employment. I was so surprised and touched. God works in mysterious ways!

Then there was the Goth girl upstairs, who gave me a little gift, and a card which had been signed by nearly all my co-workers. She wrote in the card that I was “probably the sweetest person she’d ever known.” She told me the same thing later in the day as well, when I said goodbye. Then there were all the kind comments in the card—some obligatory, of course, but others genuine in their sentiments. I was so surprised, and again, touched. I was actually saddened that I couldn’t stay a little bit longer to get to know some of the newly-hired temps—an unusually nice and friendly batch of young people, who had been quite a pleasant change from the majority of temps hired in the past. I got especially kind words and fond farewells from some of them.

And then when I finally said my goodbyes—-there were hugs from people I didn’t even expect to get hugs from. The greatest surprise was a hug from the company’s owner. He had always intimidated me a little, and was not exactly known for being the warm and fuzzy type, but at the end of the day, he expressed his thanks to me for all I’d done, and came up and gave me a hug. I never would’ve seen that coming. And another guy I worked with told me anybody who got me next, as far as employment was concerned, was “very lucky.”

So here I was, thinking I could sneak out quietly without anyone noticing, and without one glance back—-but it didn’t quite turn out that way. I found myself actually leaving with a little regret. Not regret over the job itself—that part I will never miss—-but regret over the relationships I could have deepened and pursued further. Even the two new guys I worked with, who had replaced my former co-worker, had become fond of me, and I of them, and I was sorry to leave them behind.

God continually astounds me. That He can take even a miserable experience, and strained relationships, and things like gossip, slander, and unkindness, and even my own failures, and turn them into good, is so amazing. What grace. I realize now, too, that despite how broken I feel, He has instilled in me a strength that I never had before, due to what I went through at this job. A strength that only comes from Him, and comes from going through deep valleys and dark places. It is not an external strength—-but an internal strength.

I also praise Him for giving me the chance to be around difficult people, different people, and people even more broken and dysfunctional than myself. I don’t see people quite the same way I did before. I don’t see the exterior as much anymore. I see the interior. It’s so easy to be judgmental—-especially for those of us who are Christians—and it’s easy to look down on and outright dismiss some people, just because they dress different, or have piercings and tattoos, or swear like sailors, or listen to Satanic music. Certainly many of these people are godless, selfish, and worldly people—often demonically-influenced people, to be honest—but they are also lost people.

And that’s how God has enabled me to see everyone I worked with. Some got under my skin, some I really didn’t like, and some didn’t really like me….but, in the grand scheme of things, I see now that such pettiness matters so little. They are still people loved by God, that Christ came to save, and loving the unloveable is part of what we Christians are called to do. God not only enabled me to love that specific young man who hurt me deeply, but He has put a genuine love in my heart for everyone else I worked with as well. My heart breaks for them, and I regret so much that I could not have been a bolder witness to them—-but I rejoice that they apparently saw a tiny bit of the light of Christ in me. Hopefully my time amongst them was not completely in vain! So as I go forward now, each of them remains very much in my thoughts and prayers, and my dearest hope is that God draws many of them to Himself, in His perfect time, and in His perfect way. That His hand of grace will continue to redeem and restore, and that the wind of His Spirit will move upon the hearts of those that need Him so, so much.

Undeserved grace

serving-handsIt’s amazing what a little undeserved kindness can do.

I have shared a very strange relationship with a young man over the last year and a half, one in which God taught me a little about unconditional, undeserved grace. I have not learned the lesson completely by any means, and have fallen flat on my face more times than I care to admit. But yesterday I saw the results of what it means to “heap coals” on another’s head.

I worked with this young man. Our working relationship started off very badly. I learned very early on I could not trust him, at least when it came to his tongue. He wounded me severely in things he said—not to me, but to others, about me. He was two-faced, and he liked to gossip. But as our working relationship required  the two of us to work together very closely, I knew I had to find a way to deal with him. So, even though I didn’t feel like it, and still didn’t trust him, I cried out to God to enable me to love him. And God did enable me. And gradually—ever so gradually—I saw a change come over him.

What started off so ugly, God began to transform into something beautiful. We still had our ups and downs (some of them my own fault, I am sorry to say), and there was still sometimes tension and strain between us, but it soon became evident that we had developed what could almost be called a friendship. I soon realized I cared very deeply about him—he felt like a brother to me—and though he tried to conceal it, I could see he had a tiny tender spot for me as well, somewhere in his heart.

So when he announced to me a couple weeks ago that he was quitting, my heart just sank within me. I knew why he was quitting, and didn’t blame him one bit, for we were both extremely dissatisfied with our jobs (if there was one area we truly confided in each other, it was our frustration over the state of our jobs). I also knew there would never be anyone else who could replace him, and that once he left, I would most likely never see him again. I had learned quite a while ago to lay down any sort of expectations I had with this young man, so I wondered what parting with him would be like.

I agonized over the simple matter of even getting him some sort of farewell gift. I knew in my heart I had to, but had no idea what would be appropriate. I had to ignore the voices in my head that told me he probably wouldn’t even appreciate a gift. I knew I would never be able to forgive myself if I didn’t extend one last gesture of kindness to him. So I finally picked out a funny card, and remembering his coffee addiction, bought a $10 gift certificate to the nearby coffee shop that he frequented.

Yesterday was his last day. I waited till nearly the end of the day to give him my gift, long after other co-workers had already peppered him with cards and gifts. I was pleased when he broke into laughter over the card, but even more so when he turned to me after seeing the gift certificate—there was a look of complete surprise on his face. He thanked me heartfeltly, and told me I “didn’t have to do that,” clearly overwhelmed that I had bestowed even the smallest bit of kindness upon him.

But the most priceless moment of all came when he said his goodbyes, before walking out the door for the last time. First he wrapped me in a warm hug—something that I never expected. He had never shown any physical affection for me before. It was my turn to be touched. But then….when I looked up and saw tears nearly forming in his eyes, and his voice cracking, as he thanked me again for the gift I had given him, saying again “you didn’t have to do that,” my joy was made complete, and the journey we had shared together for over a year had come full circle.

We had been through so much together, he had wounded me deeply in many ways, and I never learned to fully trust him, but now here he was, standing before me, nearly in tears. Only God could have arranged an ending so sweet and satisfying. It was indeed an answer to prayer, for I had anxiously prayed all week long that my parting with this young man would go well. It truly exceeded my expectations. After gaining a little control over himself, he told me he sincerely hoped and wished I could leave this job soon too, and that he wanted all the best for me. I in turn expressed the same to him, telling him he would be in my prayers. It was such a tender, heartfelt moment, one in which we both seemed to break out of our normal reserve and say what we really wanted to say. And when he finally ran out the door, there were several goodbyes shouted between us, until he stood in the doorway, looked back at me one last time with a wistful look on his face, said goodbye, and waved.

Perhaps it is just the romantic, poetic and dramatic in me that savors such an ending, but I think God enjoys the romantic, poetic, and dramatic as well. For I could never have expected or scripted the ending that He wrote yesterday. Love truly does cover a multitude of sins.

I pray that young man finds Christ. That maybe somewhere down the line, if I should ever run into him again, I will see the results not only of undeserved love and grace, but of fervent prayer on his behalf, and that we can embrace once again, as brother and sister in Christ.