I Will Do No Harm

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Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Yesterday as I watched the death toll rise to over 4,400 from the 7.8 earthquake that rocked Nepal, Tibet, Bangladesh and India, my heart was so heavy. Over a million people are desperate for food and shelter in the aftermath. I thought about the Nepalese Gurkha guards that protected us at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Their gentle, sweet smiles welcomed me every day as I passed through security points. I also saw them when we were under threat and they instantly went into the warrior mode they are famous for. Willing to lay down their lives to protect us, they made me feel as safe as I could be in the war-torn country of Afghanistan.

Then images of looting and physical violence in Baltimore raised my anxiety level. To someone with PTSD, these scenes bring on flashbacks, increase the startle reflex and entice nightmares to creep into fitful sleep. Every time I heard a loud noise I would jump. Even my allergies got worse and I had to use my inhaler several times.

Stories of political misconduct and conflicts around the world also filled the news. Around the globe, I saw atrocities, persecution of Christians, poverty and disease. I watched as hundreds of refugees fleeing the spread of terrorist groups in Africa drowned when their overloaded boats capsized.

I was so overwhelmed with all this devastation and violence that I just wanted to go to my camp and retreat from the world—forever. I can so understand the desire of disenfranchised people to go live in the woods in a little shack, far away from the world and the people who live in it. I was there.

Then an amazing thing happened. On Fox news a feature on peaceful protesters walking down the street singing “I will do no harm to anyone until the day I die.” I was riveted as I watched the dignity and calmness of these people as they walked down the street. Over 10,000 people participated in nonviolent protests. I watched over 100 religious leaders walk arm in arm – Catholics, Protestants, Muslim and Jewish—all united to face the violence with prayer. Tears welled in my eyes as I watched them kneel in the street to pray as one. As they continued to march their numbers swelled as others joined them, even some of the looters stopping to walk with them. I saw reports of members of the community boarding up business and trying to protect what was left from the rioters. I saw an elderly Vietnam veteran who stood up to rioters and backed them down.

This is the news I needed to see. This is the goodness and the best of people that reminds me that courage and faith will always prevail in the fight against evil. This is the hope of humanity. It balances the violence and devastation that the media likes to highlight. I have to believe that heroes will always stand up and face down evil. Everyday people that became extraordinary in the face of adversity. I realized I cannot go hide in the woods and isolate myself from the world. I can’t save the world but I can try to make my little corner of the world better. That is all I can do and maybe, that is enough.

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I Went to Church

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The victims of PTSD often feel morally tainted by their experiences, unable to recover confidence in their own goodness, trapped in a sort of spiritual solitary confinement, looking back at the rest of the world from beyond the barrier of what happened. They find themselves unable to communicate their condition to those who remained at home, resenting civilians for their blind innocence. – David Brooks

This past Sunday I went to church. “What’s the big deal with that?” you may ask. Millions of people all over the world attend church on Sundays. For a person who has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), going to church or any place where people congregate can be daunting, if not impossible.

I have attended church ever since I was born and it has always been a place where I found peace and guidance. Raised in a Southern Baptist church I love the old hymns like “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Softly and Tenderly”. Most of my social encounters as a child involved church. During my career in the Federal government I lived in many places all over the country. People ask me how I could ever feel at home. I tell them I always found a church to attend. When you attend church you have a family; a family that drives you crazy and you disagree with on occasion, but when the chips are down they are there for you and you for them.

When I was deployed to Afghanistan I attended church services. At my forward operating base in Kapisa Province, a chaplain would come once a month from Bagram Air Base to hold a service. Not many people attended but a few did and “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst.” When I moved to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul I would go with a group of people in an embassy van to Camp Eggers, a NATO facility, on Sunday nights for services led by the U.S. military. Several people who had musical instruments provided music and those services were so special to me, a welcome break in my 12 hour/6 day work week.

Once when the service was over and another woman and I were waiting for our ride, I heard rapid gunfire off to the left. When we got into the van we were prevented from taking the usual route back to the embassy. We were stopped at one checkpoint and it was obvious that something was up as the guards were in full tactical gear and on high alert. One opened the door and screamed at our Afghan driver, “You’re not going anywhere! We’re on bulldog! We’re on lockdown!” Not a novice to such situations I settled back to wait for whatever was going on to be resolved. The woman with me had never been exposed to this level of alert and she got out of the vehicle yelling at the guard to tell her what was going on and demanding we be allowed to go to the embassy. I grabbed her arm and told her to get back into the car. I explained that we needed to be calm and let the military do their job. She was visibly upset and close to tears. After about 10 minutes we were allowed to go to the embassy where we went through another checkpoint where a bomb sniffing dog checked our van for explosives and then a last checkpoint where the hood was lifted and we went through a much more thorough check than usual. I asked the guard what was going on. He said something was happening at the CIA Annex, which is adjacent to the Embassy. It turned out to be an Afghan employee who had worked at the annex for two years had shot a civilian contractor and a gunfight had ensued until he was shot and killed, hence the gunfire I had heard. As you can see, even going to church in Afghanistan can be fraught with danger.

When I returned home to Maine I found that integrating back into “normal” life was not so easy. Being in a crowd could bring on debilitating panic attacks and it was difficult for me to sit with my back to a door. I went with my daughter to her church and I was so nervous I was shaking inside. I sat in the last row in the seat farthest from the door, hoping that out of my peripheral vision I could see if an armed person came in and I would be able to disable him before he killed anyone. I knew people would think I was insane if they knew I was having these thoughts in this beautiful, peaceful church. Finally, feeling I could not breathe, I left the service early to go sit with my daughter who was teaching in the children’s church. That was over two years ago and I have not been able to attend church until this week.

I had not planned to go to church Sunday. I was happily enjoying my morning when I felt the need to attend. I quickly got dressed and starting looking up times for churches close to my home. Several started at 10:00AM and I was too late for those services, but one church a little farther from my home started later. My plan was just to sneak in inconspicuously, get the closest I could to the back then slip out after the service. As I pulled into the parking lot of the church I noticed it didn’t have a front door. I saw some red double doors under a carport in the back and tried those but they appeared to be locked. I walked around the church thinking there must be a door I just didn’t see in the front. As I tiptoed in my high heels across the grassy lawn I realized there really was no front door. I continued around the building and a side door opened and a man stuck his head out. “Where is the way in?” I asked. He said to go back to the double red doors. “They’re locked, “I told him. “No, they just stick.”

By the time I got in I was late and everyone turned to look at me. I slunk to the nearest pew, totally embarrassed. Then the preacher started asking me questions. “Are you in the right place? Is this where you meant to come?” On and on. I just wanted to grab my Bible and leave but I was immobilized by my discomfort. We sang several songs and they made me feel a little better but when the preacher gave his sermon several things he said just rubbed me the wrong way. This is what I had been afraid of; that I would not be able to sit quietly and I would make a scene. “Just leave,” I kept telling myself, looking uneasily over my shoulder. Instead I turned to the book of Matthew and began to read the words of Jesus. His teachings of love and acceptance calmed me enough to allow me make it through the rest of the service.

When church was dismissed I shook hands with the preacher, my insides shaking from pent up emotions. I noticed a bench along the back wall that would have been perfect to sit in had I the opportunity to scout it out in advance. Although everyone was very welcoming, I don’t think I’ll go back to this particular church, but I will try again. While it had been a stressful situation, arriving late and having the focus turned solely on me, I felt triumphant in the sense that I toughed it out. I didn’t jump up and make a scene when I disagreed with the preacher. Nothing bad happened. No one came in and shot up the church. I survived, just as I survived going to church in Afghanistan in spite of real danger.

PTSD robs you of simple pleasures like attending church, or fairs, or concerts, or movies – any place where there are a lot of people. I made a tiny baby step Sunday toward claiming my freedom to enjoy all those things again. It will be a long time in coming and I don’t think I’ll ever feel completely safe in a crowd, but I can see a future where I can sing “I’ll Fly Away” without actually flying away.

Christianity Under Attack

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Who will separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Romans 8:35

Another day and another account of Christians being persecuted and killed. This time 12 African migrants on a rubber boat trying to get from Libya to Italy were thrown overboard by fellow passengers, while other Christians on board saved themselves by forming a human chain. Fifteen Muslim passengers have been arrested in the incident.

The world was shocked when the terror group ISIS beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians on a beach in Tripoli, Libya, releasing the directive to other Muslims to “behead a Christian to gain your salvation, so kill Christians wherever you find them.” At this time the fate of upwards of 150 Christian hostages, many women and children, kidnapped in Syria remains unknown.

Since January 1, 2015, almost 400 Christians have been killed in 24 separate attacks in 9 different countries. And these are the ones that have been reported and it is feared there have been many more deaths that have gone unreported. The Vatican estimates that Christians are the most persecuted group in the contemporary world with over 100,000 Christians being violently killed annually because of some relation to their faith. According to the World Evangelical Alliance, over 200 million Christians are denied fundamental human rights solely because of their faith, most living in Muslim-dominated countries. Of the world’s three largest religions, Christians are the most proportionally persecuted with 80% of all acts of religious discrimination being directed at Christians.

Every year, the Christian non-profit organization Open Doors publishes a list of the top 50 countries where Christian persecution is the worst. The 2014 lists the top ten offenders as North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Maldives, Pakistan, Iran and Yemen.

In spite of the horrifying reports of genocide of Christians our nation’s leaders remain chillingly silent. President Obama, a professed Christian, has not shown any rage or called upon any country to help stop this onslaught against innocents being killed and persecuted merely on the basis of their faith. In fact, on two occasions, he seemed to go to lengths to chastise Christians. In February he admonished attendees at the National Prayer breakfast that, “Unless we get on our high horse and think this (religious persecution) is unique to some place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” Comparing current Islamist extremist atrocities to religious wars fought 500-1000 years ago seems ludicrous and patronizing. Response to his remarks was swift, with many saying this underscores the perception that Obama is out-of-touch with America.

Undeterred, at the Easter-themed prayer breakfast earlier this month he once again used his position to deliver a facile, preachy slap to Christians saying, “On Easter I do reflect on the fact that as a Christian I am supposed to love, and I have to say that sometimes when I’ve listened to less–than-loving expressions by Christians, I get concerned.” I say, “Physician, heal thyself.”

As our first black president, Barack Obama was in the perfect position to heal our nation and help narrow the divide between the races that still plagues our country. Instead, this winner of the Nobel Peace Prize has steadfastly wasted every opportunity to heal and has set back race relations decades. As a Christian I would have liked to see him use the time of Easter, the Christian’s most holy day, to show the world how a Christian acts, not with a holier-than-thou arrogance but with an attitude of forgiveness and love. I didn’t see that. Instead I was encouraged by the words of Pope Francis who has expressed hope that the international community does not look on, “silent and inactive”, in the face of the unacceptable persecution of Christians around the world.

What concerns me the most is Obama’s refusal to acknowledge and condemn the almost weekly killing of Christians , and in many cases, Jews. His focus seems to be solely on appeasing our enemies in the Middle East, which will only lead us down a dangerous path. I admit Christians have committed atrocities in the name of Christ but instead of using ancient deeds to denigrate the current genocide of Christians shows an amazing lack of responsibility. To say every religion has committed atrocities lets everyone off the hook, including Obama. Mr. President, move on up to the 21st century and man up as the leader of the greatest country in the world; a country that was created on the tenet of religious freedom, and call out the countries that harbor these Islamic extremists who are committed to wiping out Christianity in the most brutal ways imaginable. Enough is enough, unless you want to go down in history as the modern day Pontius Pilate. If you are concerned with leaving a legacy, remember not many people name their sons Pontius anymore.

Sharia Law and Women

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Silence never won rights . They are not handed down from above; they are forced by pressures from below. – Roger Nash Baldwin

Imagine this scene.  A Christian woman is accused of burning her Bible. An angry mob drags her from her home shouting God is great. Instantly a crowd gathers and begins to berate her as it is whipped into a frenzy by the accusers.  Her eyes are filled with terror as she tries to shield herself from the blows of the ever increasing mob. No one tries to protect or rescue her from this hideous attack even though police officers are present.  Blood runs down her face when someone hits her in the head with a brick. As the violence escalates, she is hit with bats, stomped on and run over by a car before being dragged behind it. Then she is set on fire and her limp body thrown on the bank of a river where onlookers take pictures of her mutilated body.

In a real situation we would ask her if the accusations were true, and if they were some people would be shocked and angrily denounce what she did, but they wouldn’t kill her. A few true Christians would go to her and listen to her reasons for burning the Bible. Perhaps she is grieving or going through a personal crisis and feels God is not listening to her. Most people would just shake their head and walk away. Modern Christianity condemns the sin but not the sinner. Redemption is always within reach.

Last week in Kabul, Afghanistan  28-year old Farkhuna was accused of burning a Koran and the above scenario was her fate. Investigators have found no proof at all that she burned a Koran and have concluded she was totally innocent. It is reported she had disagreed with the local mullah for his selling charms to women at the mosque, resulting in him making the false accusation. He has since been arrested along with 12 others including nine police officers. A prominent  Kabul cleric praised her attackers and said the  crowd had a right to defend their Muslim beliefs at all costs. He stated “I am warning the government not to arrest those who did this, because it will mean an uprising.”

Obviously the billions of dollars the United States has pumped into Afghanistan to promote rule of law and insure human rights has been a shocking failure. While President Ashraf Ghani condemned the killing and a public outcry called for more arrests, I am skeptical that justice will be served.

In 2009, an Afghani woman named Gulnaz was raped by her cousin’s husband and she became pregnant. She was then charged with adultery under Sharia law and sentenced to 12 years in jail. She was offered the chance to be released if she married her attacker. She refused. The decision resulted in world-wide criticism for Afghanistan’s horrendous human rights violations. American attorney, Kimberley Motley, submitted a pardon application to then President Hamid Karzai and eventually she was released. Most of the women in prison in Afghanistan are there for “moral” crimes –rape, adultery and failure to obey a husband.

While I was in Afghanistan I came to understand the word “chattel”. I was on a mission to do a market walk and I was waiting in our armored vehicle while our security force scanned the market to make sure it was safe for us to get out. I amused myself by watching the activity in the market out of my window. A man in a white Toyota pulled up near us and I saw that he had three goats in the back seat of the car. He got each goat out and tied them up near a stall. Then he went to the trunk of the car and opened it. A woman, I assume his wife, got out of the trunk wearing a royal blue burka, a garment that completely covers the body and only has a small grill across the eyes. It was a warm day and I don’t know how long she had been shut up in that trunk but a burka is hot and smothering. I was sick in my soul and I thought, “This is what chattel is. She is not even good enough to ride in the front seat. She is not even as valuable as the goats.”

If we heard of such things happening in the U.S. we would be shocked. A woman beaten and burned, a rape or locking someone in the trunk of a car-these would be considered crimes and hopefully someone other than the victim would be held accountable. And considering there is a 97% illiteracy rate in Afghanistan, the people who beat and burned Farkhunda have probably never read a Koran. A Christian loves and reveres their Bible, but the book itself will never mean more than the words it contains, for they are something that cannot be destroyed. A Christian carries the word of God in their hearts and those words include forgiveness, tolerance, love and peace. If Muslims want the world to accept Islam as a peaceful religion then they need to stand up and condemn the atrocities that are being committed in its name. Religious fanatics exist in every religion and they certainly don’t speak for everyone, but to say nothing is a form of passive approval and that is unacceptable.

Angels Unaware

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For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. – Psalms 91:11

This weekend a tragic accident claimed the life of young Utah mother, Jennifer Groesbeck, after her car went into the Spanish Fork River. Miraculously, her 18 month-old daughter, Lily survived in freezing temperatures for almost 14 hours. The water was so cold that three police officers and four firefighters had to be treated for hypothermia after the rescue. Lily is expected to make a complete recovery.

Four police officers who rescued the toddler from the wreck said they all heard a woman’s desperate pleas for help coming from inside the overturned vehicle. They heroically used all their strength to right the car but when they got inside they found the mother dead and Lily alive, hanging upside down in her car seat. The mother had passed away the night before when she lost control of the car and could not possibly have called out to the men to save her child.

Officer Tyler Beddoes of the Spanish Fork Police said he laid awake for two nights trying to figure out exactly what it could be. “All I know is it was there, we all heard it,” he stated. As cries of “Help” came from the car, one of the officers said, “We’re trying. We’re trying our best to get in there.” Beddoes went on to say they just can’t grasp what we were hearing.” Christians have no trouble in saying baby Lily was saved by her guardian angel.

Christmas Eve, 1997 shaped up to be the bleakest day in my life. Almost a year before I had been hit head-on by a drunk driver who died in the accident. Later I found out it was her fifth drunk driving accident in seven years. I sustained physical injuries including a traumatic brain injury, but by far the worst trauma was emotional. I felt overwhelming guilt that the woman had died. Through physical therapy I recovered from my physical and mental injuries, but the guilt I felt could not be assuaged.

I tried for my family’s sake to take part in the Christmas festivities. I put a smile on my face, wrapped gifts and made special treats but inside I was so weighted down by the guilt I felt that all I really wanted to do was stay in bed and cry. I needed to make a run to the grocery store and I used the time alone in the car to let some tears flow and to release some of the emotion I had held in all day.

As I got close to the Catholic church in the small Maine town where I live I felt compelled to go in. It is not my church—I am not even Catholic, but the urge was so strong I pulled into the parking lot and went inside. Some people were decorating a Christmas tree in the foyer. A woman turned to me and I told her I wasn’t a member but I wondered if I could come in and pray. She told me “Of course.” and I entered the sanctuary. Knowing that I was close to breaking down I went midway down the aisle to distance myself from the others.

I sat down in a pew and shut my eyes. As I tried to pray I was overcome with wave of guilt that hurt to my core. I put my face into my hands and started to cry. Almost at once I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up to see a woman standing next to me. She said, “You seem upset.” I told her about the accident and how I felt guilty that the woman had died. I told her, “I just need to be forgiven.”

She smiled and said, “I want to tell you a story.” Once, two monks lived in a monastery that required silence and also forbade talking or touching women. They were going to the village and as they came to a river they found a young woman crying on the riverbank. One of the monks asked her,”What is wrong, my child?” The young woman explained that she needed to cross the river to get home and she couldn’t get across. The monk told her to get up on his back and he would carry her across. He waded through the river and set her down on the other side. They walked along for about two miles when the other monk couldn’t stand it any longer. He said “You know we are not supposed to even talk to women and you picked her up and carried her,” he admonished.

The other monk looked at his fellow traveler and calmly said, “I put her down two miles ago. Why are you still carrying her?”

When the woman said this I was overcome with a sense of relief. I realized I had been carrying this guilt and that I needed to let it go. I reached down to get a tissue from my purse at my side. I looked up to thank the woman only to discover she was gone. Stunned, I looked behind me down the aisle. No one could have walked out of my sight in the two seconds it took to get my tissue.

I gathered up my purse and made my way out of the church. No one was in the foyer and the parking lot was empty. I sat in my car for a few minutes. I couldn’t immediately process what had happened. I finally realized that I had seen an angel and that she had been sent to help rid me of my crushing survivor’s guilt. I had no other explanation for what had happened.

I have had people ask me what she looked like. All I can remember is that she had medium length brown hair and that she just looked “average”. Romans 8:26 says, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” I truly believe the Holy Spirit intervened for me that day. I was so weighted down in misplaced grief that I could not see a way out.

I was able to go back home with a sense of peace. I had sought forgiveness from God, but what I had really needed was to forgive myself. Survivor’s guilt is real and is felt by many people who survive traumatic events. The fact that you had no personal responsiblity does not lessen the feeling. Thoughout the years when I start to beat myself up about something I have no control over, I smile and remember when God sent me an angel to comfort me and remind me that I am a child of God and that I deserve to be happy.

Pray Without Ceasing

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For prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God. – Saint Teresa of Avila

This week presidential maybe Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker had his Christian faith mocked by the liberal blog, Political Wire, published by Taegan Goddard. Under a snarky headline “Walker Has Not Communicated with God,” Goddard wrote:

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) frequently says he’s waiting for “God’s calling” to run for President, so he was recently asked under public records laws to provide “A copy/transcript of all communications with God, the Lord, Christ, Jesus or any form of deity.”

Walker’s office responded that no such records exist. Goddard then promoted his story in social media with this tweet:

Gov. Scott Walker’s office was unable to provide any transcripts of his conversations with God.

These comments brought a firestorm on Goddard and he eventually deleted his mocking tweets from Twitter and betrayed his ignorance of basic Christian beliefs when he seemed genuinely confused that Walker believed prayer could be used to communicate with God. He simply did not know how prayer works. Hard to believe that anyone, even an atheist, would not understand the concept of prayer.

From the earliest recorded times mankind has lifted up its eyes and understood that there is a higher power and communicated devotion in some way. Every religion recognizes prayer as a way to commune with God. There are 650 prayers listed in the Bible with about 450 recorded answers to prayer. Christians like Gov. Walker understand the principle of discernment–-the process of determining God’s desire for the direction of our lives.

At first I was outraged by Mr. Goddard’s mockery of one of the basic tenets of the Christian faith but then I began to feel pity for him. I personally cannot imagine my life without prayer. All my life I have had so many prayers answered. Sometimes the answer has been no and it might be years before I can see the reason why and the longer I live the more I see a pattern for my life– pain, sorrow, joy, love—all interwoven with a complexity that is awe inspiring. To me prayer brings peace. It brings forgiveness. To be without prayer would be a living death devoid of hope.

Sen. John McCain relates how he and his fellow POWs had “church” every Sunday while in captivity in Vietnam. After the midday meal and after the guards had departed, the senior officer would signal it was time to pray together by coughing in a way that signaled the letter “c” for church. Orson Swindle, a fellow prisoner said it was a solid stream of thought among those there. They would silently say the Pledge of Allegiance, the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer and anything else they’d want to say to get them some help. All of this was done in silence because if the guards heard them talking they would come in and start torturing them. Prayer was the way they shared Christian fellowship and it gave them the strength to survive until they were released.

I’ve always admired people who could pray eloquently, but prayer doesn’t have to be eloquent. It doesn’t have to be long. It just has to be sincere. The Bible tells us to pray without ceasing and I believe the simple prayers that I utter throughout the day are heard and acknowledged. The Bible also tells us that the Holy Spirit will intercede and pray for us when we are too overcome to pray for ourselves.

Every day we see ISIS capturing and killing Christians. It is monstrous to think that a group of people have perverted one religion to justify destroying people of another religion. I am heartsick as I pray for these martyrs daily but I am comforted by Romans 8:38-39 For I am sure that neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. I know each Christian who is killed is in the arms of God.

So instead of being angry with Mr. Goddard I am going to pray for him. I am going to pray that God will open his eyes and reveal his greatness and love so that he can also know the power and beauty of prayer. I am going to end this blog with my favorite prayer – the 23rd Psalm.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. Amen.