Questions can get us into a variety of trouble, as many times the answer is not what we really want to hear. Sometimes, we are not ready for the truth. Seemingly simple questions like “Do you think I can wear this when I go out?” or “Does this make me look fat?” are not so simple, especially if the person asking the question is not prepared for that truth. I recently heard Archbishop Desmond Tutu tell a story about a man who was driving his car along an empty road at the top of a mountain. The man came to a dangerous curve, when the car proceeded to plunge over the side of the mountain. Miraculously, the man was able to throw himself from the car as it plummeted into the ravine, but he was able to grab hold of a very small, slender branch hanging over the cliff. Beaten and bruised, he shouted, “Help! Is there anyone there?” His grip loosening and his body starting to weaken, he heard a loud voice from the heavens call to him: “Let go, my son, and I will catch you.” There was a pause and a silence afterwards, until the man shouted, “Help! Is there anyone else there?” Sometimes, the answer we get is not always the answer we want. We sometimes have it set in our minds what the answer should be, but when we get something other than what was expected, we don’t know what to do. Or sometimes we are surprised with the answer. I can remember two colleagues of mine from years ago that I absolutely detested based on their personalities, the things they said, their actions, everything. I prayed that God would remove these people from my life, that He would transfer them, get them fired, have them quit, or anything to get rid of them. Today, I count them as two of my closest and most valuable friends. It was not the answer I was looking for, as I wanted God to change them and their situation. Instead, he changed me and my outlook on them. I often forget that when God answers prayers, He is doing it out of the love and kindness of who He is. Matthew 7.9-11 establishes that we can trust His answers, as He would never give us one that would steer us down the wrong path: “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask Him!” So what happens when our prayers are seemingly unanswered? God is clearly not ignoring, abandoning, or hating us. Maybe we are just asking for the wrong thing. Instead of me asking to change my co-workers, in hindsight what I should have been praying for is for God to change my opinion of them. Perhaps when we pray in a situation like that one, we should not be asking God to change our situation, but for the ability to handle it. Or maybe it’s that He’s got bigger and better plans for our lives, as evidenced by how I couldn’t see the pivotal role these two people now play in my life. Too often, we place that verse about getting what we want when we ask in His name square in the middle of our requests. But whereas our requests are based on our own timetable and laced with our own selfishness, His answer is based on pure love and selfless sacrifice. If God truly loves us, then He will give us what is best for us, which is not always what we are seeking. Amen.
In the beginning of a relationship, sometimes couples aren’t as honest with one another or their families for the main reason that we want to be liked so much so that we suppress our true feelings. When my parents were newly married, my mother’s aunt once made a dish for Christmas called squid in black ink (yes, it’s just like what you’re picturing right now), and offered it to my father. He of course couldn’t say no, as he wanted his new family to like him, so he ate and told her how much he liked it. Assuming that he was telling her the truth, she returned to that recipe for him each Christmas along with sending an extra portion of it home to him in a jar. When she visited for the holidays, she would gift him this delectable dish every year for the next twenty years, where he would pretend to be thrilled, but I would end up seeing it sit in our fridge with a red bow on top, untouched for the next month, until he could finally bring himself to throw it out. The burden of her generosity haunted him for years, unable to tell her what he really thought for the sake of her feelings, as it remained not really a blemish on their relationship but just a mere uncomfortableness. Although a minor example of maintaining dishonesty for the sake of a relationship, it serves as an example as to how dishonesty can prolong itself over time, where people have things they want to say to each other, but instead keep it buried deep where it often turns to anger and bitterness. Many of our workplaces are filled with these relationships, where people enter meetings carrying the enormous sack of unsaid items with them, passively refusing to listen to other people’s contributions merely as a means of enacting silent revenge for the things that they feel but cannot bring themselves to say. Proverbs 28.23 (NLT) says that “in the end, people appreciate honest criticism far more than flattery,” because a hard message is better than no message at all. Silently fuming around unknowing others, to their faces we are all smiles and compliments, but that approach causes more harm in the long run than that initial, sometimes difficult, confrontation. I recently heard a pastor talk of giving a sermon while his pants’ zipper was down. Many in the congregation wanted to say something, but smiled and listened instead, most likely more fixated on the zipper than his message. His wife was finally the one to tell him, but the pastor wished someone had said something sooner. The initial confrontation of telling him might have been embarrassing, but the pastor would have appreciated that confrontation more so than insincere flattery. Also, the longer insincerity takes hold, like a cancer it grows if untreated, and can turn into resentment especially in a long term relationship. Some marriages are filled more with what is unsaid rather than what is said, as spouses hide their true feelings about certain subjects and situations for the sake of the relationship, fearful of how the other may react. We’ve hidden our real feelings for so long that we are embarrassed to confront, yet that person would prefer the honesty, even if it hurts. When confronting in love, although frightening at first, those actions can prevent further infliction of pain and misery. If the two really, truly care about one another, the relationship will survive and thrive. When we give honest criticism, we are giving information to our loved ones about how they can love us even more. Present in that way, and the recipient, although possibly hurt at first, will appreciate your honesty and love you more for it. Amen.
With many of my students and some of our own children going off to college soon, I try to paint an accurate picture for them as to what awaits. One of the good pieces of news for them is how college students differ from high school students when it comes to personalities. In high school, the one main reason why all of these individuals are gathered under the same roof is geography. The fact that they live in the same town is really the only thing they all have in common. However, college students have chosen to be there based on their likes, interests, abilities, and philosophies. As such, when they get there, they find that they have more in common with each other than they did with the people they were with in high school. Mostly everyone there shares a similar academic history, which again, is both good and bad. Good in the sense that they get to erase their past mistakes, and bad in the sense that everything great they’ve achieved in high school has also been achieved by everyone else at their college. (If you were the class valedictorian, you will be attending school with all the other high schools’ class valedictorians.) College is one of the great levelers of abilities and skills. Whatever you did before college doesn’t matter much anymore, as these people are all now the same; they are reborn as new creations. Much like college students, Christians share the concept of rebirth, but more important is our newly granted status. Just like college, Christianity is the great leveler of achievements since all our previous actions and accomplishments are wiped out at the foot of the cross, and our new status is then established: saved. Once saved, there are two foundations to accept: our achievements are meaningless, and we are all now of the same status. With the first, most of us can grasp that one. However, the one that many have trouble believing and adopting is the second, that there’s nothing we can do to achieve a higher status. In the eyes of God, there is no such thing as a great Christian or a poor Christian, just saved and not. As saved individuals, all status is meaningless, as we are all one. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.28). As part of our human nature, we tend to judge each other’s abilities, especially when it comes to our faith. We measure others against ourselves, attempting to figure out who the most faithful is or who the better Christian is, but the truth is that there are only two levels of faith: saved and unsaved. We may each be able to work towards a closer relationship to Him, but that closeness is not something that can be levied and averaged against others: it’s our own personal relationship with Christ. When we put ourselves up against one another, despite what many think, there is no competition because we are all one in Him. The idea that Christ brings down the mighty and raises up the lowly is repeated throughout the New Testament, and that idea itself should humble us the next time any of us think we are a better Christian than anyone else. The truth is that when we measure ourselves and judge other Christians, we harm the body of Christ and damage our personal walk. Our focus should be on our own walk, for when we knock down other Christians, we put obstacles in front of ourselves, and we stumble in our faith. We must remember that our status is saved, and for that fact we should be grateful, not judgmental. Amen.
I have a calendar countdown on my department office wall that tells me exactly how many days I have left until the school year is over and summer begins. I find myself also looking forward to upcoming vacations, time off I have coming, and other planned future events. Similarly, I also find myself often times in the past, thinking about how great things used to be. This longing for the past and desiring for the future tend to overwhelm me so much so that I tend to lose sense of any appreciation for the present. And the truth is this: my present is really quite great. I am blessed enough to have a lot going for me, but I spend so much time looking forward or backward that I forget to look at the now. I find that my young son isn’t mired in his memories or stuck in his hopes for the future quite the same that most adults are. In fact, if you ask children what their favorite book, movie, or day is, it’s usually the one they are currently experiencing. We long for a glimpse in the future to see how our lives turn out and what the ramifications are of our decisions, but children are more interested in what is directly in front of them. Children have a wonderful appreciation for the present that we adults, as we age, tend to lose sight of and forget. I have watched my son run around the yard by himself, making up his own stories, completely lost in his own world, appreciating the moment as he is while in it. Yet, as we grow, we lose sense of time and get lost anywhere but in the present. In the cartoon short “World of Tomorrow,” 5-year-old Emily is visited by an offspring from 200 hundred years in the future. The future, grownup version tries to warn and debate about the issues of life, love, the future, our past, and the decisions we make. Unable to comprehend what the future relative is talking about, 5-year-old Emily talks about how wonderful a day it is and how great her toys are, inviting the future relative to join her. The future version tries showing her horrifying images of what will become of people and the world, but the young girl only focuses on the beautiful colors and dancing lights around her in these images. The piece, although immensely absurd at times, deals with the idea that when young, we have a tremendous love of and excitement for life, but as we age, we live more in our own memories of the past and worries about our futures. Summing up the jaded philosophy of adults, the future relative states: “That is the thing about the present. You only appreciate it when it is the past.” When we realize that we should appreciate what it is we have, it is usually then too late, as it is already gone. Christ’s words to us in Matthew 18.3 mention being childlike: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Although this verse has been used a multitude of other ways, it is worth mentioning here in this approach to life. Children’s wonderful appreciation for the present is a perfect example of how we should be following their example and choose to live in and appreciate the moment as it is in front of us. Our present has been blessed with a multitude of wonderful gifts from God, be we too often look beyond them and focus on what was or what we hope will be. Instead, look to the behavior and approaches of children for example, and find the good in the present moment, enjoying the blessings you have now before they become a thing of the past. Amen.
I’ve been sitting in several meetings lately that are very one-sided when it comes to the conversation. Some people in the group will bring up a topic, and those that are affected by the issue refuse to talk or comment on it at that time. They feel free to talk when not confronted, but won’t if the other party demands an answer. Not directly involved in the issue, that arrangement puts me in a strange position as both sides come to me to complain about the other. I give a supportive ear to both groups, careful not to show any bias towards one side or the other and at times try to give guidance as to how to resolve the issue. Unfortunately, what I’ve also observed is that the major roadblock between these people isn’t a lack of understanding or miscommunication. It’s that both sides are filled with so much pride that it gets in the way of them actually hearing each other. Completely inflexible, neither side will inch towards the other and both refuse to listen to the other group. I’ve frequently heard phrases regarding how the other side needs to do something first or how the other side is refusing to understand. Because of pride, these groups will not talk and won’t resolve anything, and until they can put aside their pride and accept humility, nothing will ever be accomplished. There is nothing worse than pride, as it is the poison that infects and destroys everything it touches. Pride is the killer of marriages, the demolisher of relationships, the annihilator of families, and the destructor of co-workers. St. Augustine of Hippo, back in the 5th Century, wrote that “Pride is the commencement of all sins, because it was this which overthrew the devil, from whom arose the origin of sin.” Its power is tremendous. When others hurt us or wrong us, we often times look to how that person has hurt our pride, quickly defaulting to being defensive instead of forgiving. Paradoxically, we are also acutely aware of the destructive properties of pride. So, if pride is so destructive, why is it so attractive? Because pride is achievable, whereas humility, the opposite, is not. It’s easy to be quickly filled with pride but not easy to be filled with humility. Pride is easily achievable whereas humility is something to strive for but can never be achieved. The short: pride is easy but humility is hard. The better choice though is humility, as it looks past the words of others and sees their intent. Pride focuses on action, whereas humility focuses on character. As Christians, we know that we should put aside pride and forgive, but we quickly forget, adopt pride, and move to judging the other person’s actions. However, there is nothing beneficial to pride. Proverbs 11.2 reminds us that, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” Adopting humility in times of difficulty helps the problem to be solved, the relationship to be healed, and the situation to move forward. So how can we move to humility and away from pride? Remember Christ’s example on the cross, that even when He was whipped, scorned, and disgraced, completely persecuted by his enemies, He could have filled himself with pride and stopped everything because of who He was, condemning them for their actions. Instead, He embraced humility and asked God to forgive them because they didn’t know what they were doing, focusing instead on their character. When difficulty comes our way and someone wrongs us to the point that pride starts to seep into our minds and souls, don’t ask, what would Jesus do? Focus on the other’s character, and instead, remind yourself of what Jesus has done. Amen.