A friend recently showed me a humorous cartoon of a sweet-faced, innocent-looking elementary school girl eating lunch while others look on and comment. The message to the cartoon: “Once you hate someone, everything they do is offensive,” with the onlookers’ comment being “Look at this jerk eating those crackers like she owns the place.” Obviously, the girl is just eating lunch, but the message is clear: when there’s someone we don’t like, his or her every action is questionable, every word is judged wrong, and every motive must be devious. At one of my locales, we’ve reached a standoff between a couple of regulars, where they hate each other so much that everything they do is deemed belligerent and aggressive, despite that fact that it probably isn’t. However, these people have such a deep-seeded aversion towards each other that they refuse to resolve it. Watching this hostility occur, and attempting to mediate it, I found myself wondering from where this hatred came. Unable to find it’s root cause, I continued to search and found from all involved parties that none of them had ever approached the other to confront, but instead harbored resentment and then continued onward. One of those involved has often quoted to me this adage: “silence breeds monsters.” When we have issues with another person and merely move forward in anger without confrontation, that anger usually doesn’t go away, but instead sinks its talons into us in the form of resentment, which is what seemed to have happened here. Just the other day, I became angry at one of these involved individuals for personal reasons. I sat at home steaming, building him up in my mind to be a tremendous fiend. I sought advice from someone who suggested I merely confront him. Hesitantly (and somewhat fearfully), I called him and started off with a direct question about the matter. What followed was an often-engaging and very satisfactory half-hour conversation where we both hung up with a better understanding of each other and the situation. With my anger dissipated and an understanding on both sides, he worked to resolve it, complimenting me on my directness and initiative. As such, our relationship is now stronger, as he knows that when there is an issue, I will bring it to him. Ephesians 4.26 states: “In your anger do not sin: do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.” As an often used maxim for married couples, many interpret this verse to be that they shouldn’t go to bed angry. More than likely, the verse means that we should deal with our anger before it is too late to deal with it: the point where anger turns to resentment. Then, we begin to despise the other person instead of not liking what it is that he or she has done or said. When we allow that process to happen, marriages sour, friendships spoil, and coworkers turn despite the fact that these are people who will be in our lives well after the offense. Like pouring salt onto fertile land, long-held anger poisons the relationship, and nothing can grow as a result. Additionally, the sin then becomes doubled, as it includes not just the individual who committed the wrong, but also the wronged person, who now harbors sin against that other person. When we are wronged or offended by another’s actions or words, nothing can be gained from holding onto that anger, and the best approach to letting it go may be to confront, as you will most likely gain an empathetic understanding of the moment in question. By letting go of our anger through respectful confrontation, the long term gains won’t involve contempt and resentment. Amen.
With summer just about here, my thoughts wander to warm beaches and sunshine, as soon we will be headed to the shoreline. My family is fortunate enough to own a beach house, and as a kickoff to summer, we head there first before we rent it out for the other weeks of the summer. During that time, we love to check out all of the new restaurants and events that are happening, as they tend to change summer to summer. There is tremendous excitement in our discoveries, and we always make sure to take flyers, advertisements, and anything else we can get our hands on, to remind us of the great times we had. Additionally, we also leave extras at the house for the next renter, so that when they show up, there is an abundance of menus, coupons, event calendars, and the occasional free mini-golf card, giving them a good head start on the week. Our hope is that they will then in turn leave items for the next person coming, and so on throughout the summer, establishing a type of pay-it-forward mentality. In most activities in life, our family tries to take that same approach, leaving something good for the next person, as we know how appreciative we are when we find something considerably left for us. This approach got me thinking: is there a similar model for how can we provide solace for those who will go through similar suffering in the future? Can we reach out to those not yet in need but who will be in need as a result of suffering? Psalm 84 writes about a group of pilgrims who are traveling to the promised land, a place of wonderful communion with God where they will fully feel his presence but first need to travel through a desert. During that time, they experience great hardships, suffering and thirst, a metaphor for the struggles we endure on the way to great achievements. During that time in the desert, the pilgrims know that others will be traveling through that area after them, so instead of just worrying about themselves, they provide for the next travelers: “As they pass through the Valley of Baka, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools” (84.6). Instead of just making sure they survive this treacherous desert themselves, they dig holes and render them (seal up the sides) so that when it rains, the holes will fill up and provide for the next person. The concept behind empathy, and what separates it from sympathy, is that you are not just feeling bad for another person, but that you understand what they are going through because you went through it, too. These rendered pools display that empathy in that those pilgrims know how hard it is to travel through the desert without enough water, so they will provide for those after them. This past year, as I went through a difficult work situation, another teacher unexpectedly approached me and told me about her similar situation from years ago, explaining how she made it through. Although there are sometimes no words that one can express when another is suffering, just knowing that someone else went through it and made it to a place of resolution or healing is encouragement enough. It provides hope. The future benefits of hardship and struggle are that we can reach out to those presently experiencing them, sharing how we too struggled and made it through. So, empathize and reach out to another person who is struggling with a situation that you know all too well. Your connecting with them and sharing is the rendered pool of hope that can help them through their seemingly endless desert of struggle. Amen.
Being summertime, the local fruit stands are open and abundant with delicious treats. A great lover of fruits, this time is especially wonderful for us, as there are a variety from which to choose. What always struck me as funny is how some of the most delicious fruits are the ones that are most difficult to open. Take the pineapple, with its sharp top barbs and difficult to hack at skin. It takes tremendous effort to get to the edible parts, but the process is worth it. Another is the pomegranate, which houses delectable seeds, but whose outer skin/shell is tough to open and navigate. Then there’s the coconut, which given the proper machete, you should be able to eat it. Yes, the struggle is tough, but that great effort makes the rewards that much sweeter. Similarly, I am reminded of a martial arts student I recently witnessed, attempting a very difficult brick break. He had two large bricks on top of several cinder blocks and was planning on jumping up and back-kicking the bricks. I watched him work up to the break, convincing himself of his impending success, only to have his first attempt be too close to the target. He ended up knocking over the entire structure, without breaking the bricks at all. His second try was just as unsuccessful, but not quite as disastrous, as he managed to knock over but not break only the top levels. All around him, other students were successfully accomplishing similar breaks as this man failed time and again. Their success was met with cheers and excitement, where his failures were met with anticipation and disappointment. The masters pulled him aside to talk him through the break, but the look of discouragement was palpable. The crowd began to rhythmically slow clap for him, encouraging him. One last time, he stared down his target, lined himself up, jumped as the crowd waited, and successfully broke his bricks. The crowd jumped to their feet in applause as he ran about the square wildly, waving his arms in triumph. The response to his break was greater than any other there, because the audience had seen him struggle, fail, and finally overcome his obstacle. Had he succeeded the first time, the reward would have been good, but because of the struggle, the reward was that much greater. When we struggle and succeed, as opposed to solely succeeding, we become greater through the process and the outcome is better than had the success come easily. Romans 5.3-5 shows that great effort, although discouraging and difficult, is good for who we are: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” Struggle makes us stronger than if we had just easily succeeded. When hatching, a baby bird must struggle against its shell to strengthen its wings and then grow up strong, but when it hatches easily, it stays weak and develops as such. Like baby birds, when we struggle, our growth pulls at us, tearing at our inner fiber, but when we overcome, our fiber and ourselves are stronger as a result, we grow more than we normally would have, and we celebrate more in the end because of the journey, not just the result. When we struggle, God roots for us, and when we finally push through that struggle and succeed, God jumps to His feet in celebration because of the journey. So as you become discouraged in your struggles this week, know that the taste of victory grows exponentially as a result of the journey. Amen.
The phrase “that’s not fair” is a frequently uttered one by anyone under the age of 9. In the teenage years, that same phrase is spoken approximately 7 times a day. As we age, even though we don’t speak it as much, our minds still hold onto it and use it as a measuring stick throughout our day. Apparently, everyone, regardless of age, has a certain judicial sense that states that life and situations should turn out fair, but of course we all know too well that the times when life is actually fair are few and far between. To take an example from a recent sermon I heard, when we see a pregnant woman abusing her children being watched by a woman unable to conceive who has more than enough love to give, our fairness sense kicks in and we wonder how life can be this way. As a species, we feel that those who want should get, those who wrong should be stopped, those who care should be rewarded, and those who hurt should be punished, but injustice is in abundance in our world. In reading my students’ personal class journals, I’ve witnessed the unfair treatment of them in their short lives. I’ve read about abuse, death, mistreatment, and rejection. My first thought is almost always the same: it’s not fair that they should be dealt should a horrible hand and have to suffer through the pain and heartache that they have. This level of awfulness really makes one question why God would allow so much of it in this world instead of enforcing fairness. So what is God’s purpose for excluding fairness? Why would the creator of the world decide to eliminate such a seemingly important aspect of our lives? A thought came to me recently as I was dealing with a very unfair situation: the world is unfair so that God can create situations where He can be glimpsed through others during those unfair times. This week, my students have had to deal with the sudden and untimely death of one of their classmates, a boy of sixteen who took his own life. With little to no answers and few ways of coping, these teenagers were plunged into tremendous pain and confusion in dealing with the unfair loss of their friend. Although he was not a student of mine and I barely knew him, I, along with others like me, went to the wake to support those who did know him. It was there that God was able to work through us as we comforted those in need, gave shoulders for the broken, and words of love to those who had none. Others were able to glimpse God’s love through us. Philippians 2:13 writes about how God can use us to display his love: “For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” But what does that concept have to do with the world being unfair? Well, if the world were fair, we would rely on that fairness for everything, but because the world in not fair, we rely on God and others for love and comfort. Fairness eliminates the need for others and any emotional component, whereas unfairness requires a need for us to love and care for one another. It’s in that space of unfairness that God is able to do His work and complete His plan; our job is to be open for His instruction and ready to carry out that plan. This week, pray for readiness to carry out His plan through you, as it may be one of the few glimpses of God that people get in their daily unfair lives. Amen.