When Love is Found in the Trash

Despite her strong streak of neatness and order, my wife leaves trash all around the kitchen, and I’m pretty sure she isn’t the slightest bit aware of it.

I noticed it many years ago, that when she would open something that had a tear-off part to it (like the corner of a bag of chips, the pull-strip to a frozen box of peas, etc.), she would pull it, throw it on the counter, and then put all her attention on whatever she had just opened.  I’ve observed this behavior several times, testing to see if she could even see the garbage that she was leaving on the counter, but after a few days, she still seemed to not notice it.  It was as if the trash became invisible once it hit the marble top.

Since I tend to be wrong in most matters in my marriage (or at least that’s what my wife tells me), I was anxious to point out this flaw of hers and finally be right about something.  I’ve been waiting for just the right moment, but that moment never seemed to come.  So, instead of alerting her to this behavior and attempting to change its course, I decided to do something different: I would change myself.

Instead of seeing her strewn trash as an annoyance, I decided to allow it to endear her to me.  Her refuse-tossing then became a cute flaw of hers, a little secret that only I knew.  Even to this day, I’ve never told her about it, so she still has no idea of her deed or how it makes me smile to see it.  What was once something that irked me regularly, I now get joy from every time I throw it away myself, because it reminds me that I am happy that she is in my life.

When in a relationship, romantic or otherwise, we are often told to love people despite their flaws, because if we were to take the ill-advised time to see others for all their faults and misgivings, we would all run from one another, and the institution of marriage would collapse.  So, we choose to overlook a great deal in one another for the sake of the relationship.  We decide to focus not on what makes one another undesirable but what make each other special.  Yet when the annoyances come up, and they do come up, choosing to put up with them is an act of love.  Love is a choice, and when we choose to see them for who they are, not for who they might be, that is choosing love.

Our sinful nature easily makes us distasteful to one another, so we can only imagine how repulsive it must be to a perfect being.   However, as the Bible repeats to us over and over, God inexplicably sees us for our flaws and loves us even more.  Paul, the writer of Romans 5.8, fully encapsulates Christ’s unreasonable love for us in this statement: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  God looked at us, and seeing our despicable nature, decided that He would do the most selfless, loving thing He could do: die for us so that we could be saved.  The purity of His view on our nature displays a deep devotion to us, one that goes far beyond any flaw we might have.  He looked beyond our flaws, beyond our heart, and chose to love us more than we could possibly love Him back.

Christ puts forth a model in how we should love one another, yet is it really enough for us to just look past each other’s flaws and appreciate one another despite them?  Yes, the act of looking past each other’s misdeeds and imperfections is our choice, but if it is from us, then all the credit goes to us.  So, how can we see God in the other person if we are busy patting ourselves on the back for seeing the best in our significant others?

Seeing past my wife’s inability to find the trashcan helps me appreciate her more, but it also sends me a deeper message about my place on this earth.  It is a strong reminder that even the best of us are flawed, that we all make mistakes, and that none of us are alone in our imperfections.  When we frustratingly seem to be repeating the same mistakes in our lives ad nauseum and become frustrated with the way we are, a little trash on the table is an acute reminder that we are all in this together.  There is a commonality amongst us all that reveals our humanity, reinforcing the idea that there is not even one of us who is perfect, which isn’t a bad thing.

Realizing that we are not perfect and never going to be can be a humbling and sobering thought, yet there is a surprising amount of comfort to be found in it, as well.  Too often, we strive for perfection in our lives, an unattainable concept, when we should be putting forth efforts to strive to more carefully and deeply love on another.  The debris on the table is a reminder to me that I should avoid working towards a perfect life, which only leads to self-righteousness, and instead work towards a loving life, one where I will never confront her about her garbage.  This week, don’t let the annoyances of others and the faults of their character exasperate you, but instead, let it be a reminder of how much this world needs love, and then start fulfilling that need in others.  Amen.

 

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Certain Assumptions and Warlike Behaviors

When I was younger, I thought I knew everything.  I know that sounds trite and cliché, but the confession is true.  I now realize that everything I thought I knew wasn’t as solid as I thought it was, and that I was assuming quite a bit to get to where I was then.

Let me explain with this example:  Scientists have been recently developing a space messaging system, technology that sends information into deep space in hopes of receiving an answer.  Although we’ve been listening for otherworldly messages since 1985 with SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), and in 1974 we even sent a onetime 3-minute deep space signal to a specific star, now a new group called METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) plans on sending numerous messages out into the stars to see who is listening.

The initial idea of making initial contact with an alien civilization seems incredibly valuable and an enormous leap forward for humanity, but there are a variety of issues and conundrums that surround these actions, all of which are dependent upon several assumptions that we are making as a human race.  For example, we assume that should we reach an advanced people, these beings would want to develop a friendship with us.  By extending the olive branch to advanced worlds, how can we be sure that they will accept it?  (If you look through the annals of history, when Columbus came to America, it didn’t turn out so well for the Native Americans.)  We are also laboring under the possible delusion that as civilizations age, they become wiser and develop a totally peaceful existence.  What if these advanced groups have only become more warlike?  Some scientists have mentioned that they hope these civilizations are not angry or hungry, or we are in big trouble.

Also, when METI decides to send out its first message, there is debate as to what that message should be.  How do we know that those receiving it will not interpret it as a declaration of war?  Or an opportunity for colonization?  Or a loud beacon alerting them of our presence, when staying quiet might be the key to our survival?  And, with the universe being billions of years old, our world has only started thinking about contacting other worlds in the past hundred or so, while others might have been doing it for millions of years.  Maybe we’re one of the last worlds to the space party and are so far behind technologically that it may not be that other worlds don’t know that we’re here: maybe they just don’t think we’re worth contacting.

The only conclusion that can come from all this posturing is that we just don’t know what’s out there, what to expect, what to do, and we have no way of knowing any of it.  Thankfully, scientists are fully aware of what they do not know, so discussions and debates ensue, unlike some Christians who are not aware of what they do not know and just self-assuredly assume instead.

In fact, there are times that Christians are so sure of what they assume that they will base it as their entire foundation for belief.  As such, we assume that Jesus had long flowing brownish/blondish hair with brown eyes and light skin, as that is how He is often portrayed in art and film.  Yet given His lineage and the area in which he was raised, He most likely looked more Middle-Eastern than Arian.  We develop firm opinions on whether communion is actually Jesus’ body and blood or if it is just symbolic of His sacrifice, and we condemn anyone who thinks otherwise.  There are many that fully “know” what our own resurrection will entail, how long it will take, whether it will be bodily or spiritual, and how it will coincide with Christ’s return, but if we are to be honest, we really have no firm clue.

The fact that we don’t know is fine, but the problem arises when certainty comes when we are only assuming.  Wars and church divisions have come from arguments based totally on a hypothesis, as Christians can stand so firmly on assumption that it overwhelms them to the point of forgetting the two basic elements of Christ’s teaching: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12.30-1).  At this point in His ministry, Christ knew that the various sects and lawmakers had so muddled every Jewish law that to be a follower involved too much specialized adherence and furious debate, so He boiled it all down to two laws.  However, since then, we have developed so many firm assumptions that many of us confidently stand on shaky ground, when the only fixed foundation should be these two rules.

There is a distinct difference between what we believe and what we know, and when we swap the two, we risk alienating the world and each other.  Instead of being immobile in your opinions, stop accepting assumption for fact and know that you do not know.  Instead, embrace your brothers and sisters in Christ, in addition to the non-believer, putting love above all else, just as Jesus asks us to.  Amen.

Talking Ourselves Out of Listening

As a teacher, I witness thousands of interactions every day.  Conversations abound around me as teenagers struggle with navigating the social and academic landscape, attempting to understand themselves and their peers.  During these conversations, students are often grasping to get their points across as awkward silence and miscommunication block their intent.  I see them talking over one another, cutting each other off mid-sentence, and being distracted by something more interesting around them.  It has been argued that teenagers, and ourselves, have lost the art of conversation, with the influx of technology being the main culprit.  Although, this reason may contribute, there is an even greater reason as to why we are not communicating well.  One of the most important skills we can learn in order to effectively converse and communicate with one another has nothing to do with what we are saying, but involves us closing our mouths and opening our ears.

In Celeste Headlee’s TED Talk “10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation,” the NPR host cites several different strategies and approaches to get the most out of our interactions.  Among ideas that include avoiding multitasking and pontificating, utilizing open-ended questions, and dodging repetition, is one of her most important pieces of advice, for us to listen when others speak.  Although a simple directive, it’s not quite so simple when we look at the reasons as to why we don’t listen to one another.

When we converse, anxiety tends to play a part, and we feel the pressure of expectation.  So, we tend to listen less and talk more because, let’s face it, we’d rather talk.  When we talk, we are in control and need not worry about the direction of the conversation.  We are then the center of attention and can guide the conversation towards topics in which we are interested.  When we listen, we hand over control to another, which can sometimes be uncomfortable and intimidating.  Also, because of our humanity, our egos dictate that we consistently like to promote ourselves, thus our constant need to interject our own pontifications and experiences into what others are saying.  And finally, we get distracted easily.  Our brain listens to more words than we can speak, so our mind tends to wander, thus taking more effort and energy to pay attention to someone.  Yet, if we put ourselves aside and accept humility, we can actively engage in listening to one another, gaining a deeper understanding of our lives and relationships.

Proverbs 18.13 states that “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.”  When we do not actively listen to each other, we develop disagreements and misunderstandings.  We build unfounded resentment because we are too concerned with our own agenda.  Author Stephen Covey observed that, “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand; we listen with the intent to reply.”  If we can set aside our personal needs and surrender them to others, we can truly listen to what others are saying, resulting in building stronger relationships based on truth and understanding.

We also tend to talk too much to God in prayer instead of listening to Him.  We most often pray when we have a need or a list of desires, but we don’t pray when there is nothing to say.  So, we may be telling God everything we need, but we don’t hear what God truly wants for us.  As Christians, we desire to know God, and listening helps us work towards that goal.  Film music composer John Powell said that, “A good listener truly wants to know the speaker.”  Through silence and being a good listener we grow closer to Him and align our goals towards knowing Him better.

There’s an old joke about careful listening in a marriage that goes something like this: “My wife says I never listen to her.  At least I think that’s what she said.”  Although told in jest, the humor rings true, as most of us have no idea how to really listen to one another.  This week, ask for a spirit of humility and spend more time listening than talking.  If we silence our inner selves and become humble in speech, not only before others but before God, we grow in faith, wisdom, and in our relationship with Him, finally hearing what wonderful plans He has for us.  Amen.

Paving the Path with Calloused Understanding

In my part of the world, usually around this time of the year, the same scenario occurs regarding the safety of our children and their relationship to the environment.  Temperatures end up dipping drastically, stay well below freezing, resulting in soft, mushy snowballs becoming deadly rock-solid weapons in the hands of most.  This snow usually arrives around December, falling lightly and leaving a soft, pillowy covering on our lawns.  Sled grooves are created, snowmen are constructed, and forts abound.  Yet, by mid-January, those grooves become walking hazards, snowmen become grotesque in their features, and forts are now highly fortified bunkers.  Through repeated exposure to the cold temperatures, our once enjoyable snow becomes impenetrable, and anyone who didn’t clear off a surface back then has no chance of doing so now.

Repeated exposure to a harsh environment can harden even the softest of surfaces.  Musicians, through repeated use of their hands on their instruments, develop callouses that build up over time, hardening their skin until the they have little to no feeling in that area.  Hardened steel, a process where metal is exposed to extreme heat and then resists bending and warping, can be used in the creation of machinery.  Individuals can also become hardened through repeated exposure to harshness from others.  With the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy, tell a person something enough times and they will eventually believe it and become that way.  Tell a child he or she is stupid and will never achieve anything academically, and sure enough, that child will be failing classes shortly thereafter.  People who reside in poor living conditions surrounded by poverty and crime quickly lose the hope they once had for getting themselves out of their situation, and even the best become hardened themselves, often times succumbing to committing the crimes that once plagued them as victims.

And a hardened heart is just the beginning. The result of a hardened heart frequently leads to further complications, heading the individual down a continuously wrong path.  The author of Proverbs 28.14 writes about these complications with, “Blessed is the one who always trembles before God, but whoever hardens their heart falls into trouble.”  According to the verse, not only does a hardened heart lead one towards further destructive issues, it also denies that person God’s plan and blessings.  A hardened heart can block what God’s love intends for you.  However, the verse also provides a way out for the hardened individual, a means for that person to receive His gifts:  humility.  If we are able to come before God and acknowledge His sovereignty, the result can be nothing other than a thawed and softened heart.  Recognize Him, and your path will be corrected.

In a month or so, the spring sun will begin to melt the hardened winter snow, and what was once impenetrable will become soft and accessible.  Much like the penetrating rays of the warm spring sun, God’s sovereignty can penetrate even the hardest hearts, a fact that gives hope to us all, whether on a personal or global level.  For ourselves, we can seek Him in prayer at the foot of the cross, humbling ourselves and accepting His love, allowing it to wash over us, resulting in a thawed heart filled with understanding and kindness.  However, we are also living in a time where entitled, proud world leaders unwittingly criticize everyone who seemingly goes against them, and then with hardened hearts, move forward with their plans, regardless of how it affects others, barely taking into consideration the human ramifications beyond themselves.  For them, much prayer is needed, that they too would see God not as a tool for achieving an end, but as the Heavenly ruler over all of us.  Now, more than ever, we must be praying for them and their paths, that their decisions be guided not by hardened hearts but by the humility that comes through knowing and worshiping Him.  Amen.

Putting the Human in Humanity

As I was overhearing two people having a not-quite heated but not-quite agreeable discussion about our current president in my classroom, it was clear that even though they were not seeing eye to eye, they seemed at least open to listening to what the other was saying.  Finally, in a moment of exasperation, the non-Trump supporter explained, “I don’t understand why.  Help me to understand.” Instantly, the sentiment reverberated in the room, as everyone listening suddenly realized what we were sorely lacking: empathy.  It was a moment of clarity for that person and for all those around, as they realized that we are living in a time period where understanding is needed more so than convincing, but most are not living that way.  

Ever since that moment, I’ve been trying to get a hold of where the nation and our individual situations are headed.  I did not vote for Donald Trump, a fact that I easily admit to not as anything else other than a fact.  I merely did not agree with his views and policies and felt that he did not accurately represent me.  So, during the election process, I found my default to be one of quick judgment of him and his supporters, and since they disagreed with me, it must be their mental shortcoming.  In fact, most of the country seemed to be defaulting to that approach, which may explain why we are now so divided.  The fact is, judging and dismissing is easier than trying to understand the opposing viewpoint.  Empathy requires patience, time, and openness, all signs of humanity.

So in an attempt to bring us together, I’ve been recently trying a new approach, where when I encounter a political opinion contrary to my own, I want to know why they feel that way and how they got there.  I may not agree with their view or decision, but at least I understand them.  If our ideas of what’s best for the country don’t match, that doesn’t make either side inherently evil; it just makes them different.  It’s our intolerant reactions to one another that invites evil.

The “Serenity Prayer,” a staple wall-hanging in many Christian households, reads, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” With the three active requested characteristics being serenity, courage, and wisdom, they can be categorized as three traits that align with empathy and understanding, all of which fall under the same umbrella: acceptance.  In Romans 15.7, the apostle Paul encourages us to “accept one another, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”  Even though we rejected, persecuted, and crucified Him, Christ was still able to accept us.  Surely, we can do the same for those that merely disagree with us.  

So when I asked some Trump supporters about what they thought of the latest enacted policies, I instead pursued a line of questioning that helped me to understand why and how they could support them, not a line of defense that created intolerance and discord.  From there, I learned of the past pain and struggle that plagued them, how they grappled with disappoint and failure, and how these new ideas provided hope for them.  This approach humanized them, and I could now see why they felt that way.  In the end, I didn’t agree with their stance, but the conversation went a very different way than it could have, as I was learning to accept them and reflect His approach to others, as well.  Through this humanizing act of acceptance, we can model His example, giving others a glimpse at His glory and bringing the country closer together in the process.  Amen.

Sore Throats and Hard Hearts

This past week has been a rough one for my health, as I just can’t shake this horrible cough.  It’s been keeping me up at nights, haunting me throughout my day, and tearing up my throat something fierce.  Blindly convinced that the problem lies solely within my throat, I’ve been guzzling honey and cough syrup in an attempt to get rid of it, but all to no avail.  Since my cough has been the most prevalent aspect of my illness, I’ve been focused solely on correcting that part, fixated on the one part that bothered me the most.  My exploration for a cause and cure has been narrow at best since the solution must be found within the symptoms of my cough, right?  However, what I soon found out was that I was neglecting congestion, which through negligence then allowed for an infection to set in, which was the cause of my throat being sore, thus triggering my cough.  In light of this new discovery, a little Mucenix was added and the infection and cough began to clear up.  If I had just taken a minute to expand my outlook beyond the cough and find what was truly at the root of my illness, I might have tackled it sooner before the infection had set in.  It wasn’t until I began to look beyond the coughing (the aspect of my illness that I was allowing to define my health) that I was able to see other aspects.  I just couldn’t look beyond the cough and see the larger picture.

The same can be said about how we view some people in our lives.  I have friends who have so much hatred for a particular person because of something he did years ago, that they now allow that action to define everything he currently does and is as a person.  There is an old adage that suggests that when you hate someone, everything they do is offensive.  Similarly, these friends can’t see beyond his past action, so now everything he does is tainted by that past choice.  Because they allow everything he does to filter through his unforgiveable past, they incorrectly see these well-intentioned current actions as an offensive affront and attack.  They have allowed an infection to set into their minds as they have refused to budge on their opinion of him, whereas if they could just see beyond this initial, seemingly defining aspect of him, they might see him for his current ideas, good choices, and insight.  By neglecting forgiveness, they have allowed for an infected mind and a hardening of their hearts to settle in.

We become so blinded by our own ignorance when we refuse to forgive others, that everything they do is infected in our eyes.  Ephesians 4.17-18 explains the dangers of blinded thinking: “So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.”  When we choose to not forgive for past transgressions, minor or not, we harm ourselves and our walk, hardening our hearts in the process.  Then, we miss out on His blessings, and an infection of the mind takes a hold of us.  If we see past that issue and forgive, we allow for His work to be done in us, but it is only through willing introspection and prayer that we can avoid a hardening of our hearts.  This week, find those people in your life that you’ve defined by their one or two wrong actions from long ago.  The time has come to unburden your hardened heart and allow His healing to lift the infection that you’ve allowed to settle into your mind.  Amen.

The Natural Union of Faith and Action

It had been a few years since our high school football team had any luck on the field, but this year was definitely different.  With an undefeated 8-0 season, their chants of “I believe that we will win!” showed great determination and conviction in their efforts.  You could tell with the amount of power and emphasis behind each of those words, that they really, truly, and deeply believed that idea.  Their winning streak was a sign that this belief went deeper than it had in the past, and with each win, that belief became stronger.  That belief led to a school who rallied behind them, decking themselves out with green, white, and a ferocity at the games that showed true certainty.  With each successful game, their playing became impressively sharper and more focused, as their belief lead them to a deeper commitment, resulting in a greater effort.  That they believed was one thing, but that the belief accompanied effort and hard work was something different.   When Christians often discuss their faith and beliefs, they emphasize the fact that we are saved through faith, and that works towards salvation is an empty pursuit.   That point is mostly true, as it is the heart that God looks at, but like the football team, our works should follow naturally as a result of our faith.  Phillip Melanchthon, a collaborator with Martin Luther, is often credited with the quote, “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.”  If one truly believes and has faith, that faith will be accompanied by our works.  Faith, all by itself, is not true faith, as true faith has works that naturally follow it.  Take small children at Christmastime, for example.  They are told that Santa will be visiting all of the children’s houses in the world, leaving presents for all the good boys and girls.  As a result of that belief, these children do not merely sit around and wait for that day: they are making lists, visiting Santa and telling him what they want, and being properly behaved.  All of these actions come as a result of their beliefs.  Their faith is not alone, as their works follow naturally behind their belief.  In James’ letter to the scattered, persecuted Christians in the land, he discusses their faith and how some were not acting on their faith.  He brings up the residents of Hell and how they react as a result of their belief: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that–and shudder” (2.19).  His condemning suggestion here is that yes, the demons believe in God just like us, but unlike us, at least they have a reaction: fear.  Those he is addressing claim to have their faith, but they have nothing that goes along with that faith.  If their faith was real and devoted, then there would be belief-based actions afterwards.  Just like when people marry, if they really love each other, they don’t just feel it: they take actions to show it.  Similarly, if we have a true belief in God, then our actions will naturally reflect that belief.  So what if, when looking at your actions, they don’t seem to reflect that of a true believer?  Then, a close examination of your belief in Christ is in order.  Seek a deeper devotion, one beyond the mere acknowledgement that He is Lord of your life.  Tear yourself down at His feet so that He might build you back up.  Allow yourself to be molded in His hands.  And don’t seek to work harder at your actions.  That quest will end up not based in beliefs but instead in yourself, as you are only lifting up your own actions and not His.  Seek devotion, and the actions will follow, naturally.  Amen.

Common Traits, Common Myths

Look at any gathering of people, and what you will obviously find among every group is commonality.  They are together because they have something in common, and sometimes it may not be that significant a thing.  When we were little, our best friend was most likely our neighbor, because we had the commonality of the same street.  In the high school cafeteria, a scene which hasn’t changed in quite a number of years, you are bound to find some group with common interests no matter what table you look at: the football players, the honor students, the gamers, theater tech, whatever.  We tend to flock together based on our common interests, and when we find a group that has similar interests to ourselves, we tend to stick with those people because of that commonality.  Similarly, I mention to my students that the single reason they go to school with the people they do is also because of geography: they all live in the same town, so they go to the same school.  Yet, is being a neighbor or living in the same town enough to bond people together?  When they all decide to go to college, the bonds they form there are traditionally stronger than high school, as the commonality of those college people goes well beyond geography: they all choose to go there, thus they have that common interest.  So, I warn my seniors that when they leave high school, there’s a strong chance that their friendships with each other will fall apart, because geography may no longer be enough to keep them together.  As we get older, our commonalities tend to go deeper.  Yes, we attend book groups, frequent recipe web sites, and walk our dogs together as a means of connection, but if these are the only commonalities you have with those people, more than likely you are satisfied with only spending an hour a week with them.  In age, we tend to require depth to our relationships, a place where our values, thought processes, and emotional resonance tend to all vibrate at the same frequencies.  When we meet together at church, we have the commonality of faith, a trait that goes deeper than most others.  We have our foundations rooted in Christ, believing that He is our savior and we live to serve Him.  Yet, despite this strong common thread and bond that runs through us, dissension and a lack of harmony sometimes enters the picture.  We forget about our common ground because we don’t actively pursue a deepening to our relationships.  1 Peter 3.8 instructs us towards a stronger bond based on our faith: “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.”  In addition to being like-minded (our commonality), we must move beyond what brought us together and work on what keeps us together.  Of the five commands to us in that verse, one is mental (like-mindedness), two are emotional (sympathy and compassion), one is an internal action (humility), and the other encompasses all of them (love).  If we truly want to get along and grow as a body, we need to actively care for each other using our head, heart, and hands.  Resting on our faith really isn’t enough, or we risk becoming like the Pharisees who cared for no one but the law.  Putting these words into action, we should lift each other up in thought, word, action, and prayer, looking to better others within the body instead of merely bettering ourselves.  This week, allow your interactions with other Christians to be not only based in your beliefs, but also rooted in a faith that requires effort and action, one that puts others before ourselves, and use your commonality not as criteria for interaction to be met but as a foundation upon which to build.  Amen.

Allowing for Examination Reversal

My students are in for a surprise, and not necessarily one that they will enjoy.  I just finished grading their first paper, and oh boy did I have a lot to say.  It’s a harsh lesson for them to learn, with that much correction being in one paper, but in the long run, that correction will pay off for them should they decide to heed it.  What was most disconcerting was just how many corrections, suggestions, and instructions I had to write on each of those papers, with many of them rooted in two areas:  paying attention more closely to what was covered in class and fixing skills that should have been polished years ago.  I came to those two conclusions after spending a long time scrutinizing and analyzing their work with a close eye, paying close attention to trends in their work and what was truly at the heart of their mistakes.  Now, it would be easy to stop there, however, what I need to take into mind is what their failings says about me as a teacher and my methodology.  As I examine their work, I need their work to examine me.  Their mistakes speak volumes about what I thought I effectively covered in the first five weeks of class, and how I need to alter my instruction to fit their needs.  Also, in reading their papers, their responses acted as a commentary on the clarity (or lack thereof) of my assignment, and how I should alter the wording.  Similarly, when we study the Bible, to just get at the heart of what the word is saying and means is one thing, but how often do we let God’s word look at us under the microscope?  When we study His word, do we allow His word to study us?  Scripture was built that way, as Hebrews 4.12 tells us about the nature of His word and the role it can play: “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”  For as often as we examine and study God’s word, we need it to study us right back.  Yes, we might spend time investigating what a verse or passage means in our lives, and how we can change or be encouraged as a result of reading it, but how often do we really allow the scripture to strip us bare and expose us for our flaws and insecurities?  As a living being, God’s word has the ability to take our lives, examine them with a careful eye, rebuke us and tear us apart, only to put us back together again through His watchful instruction and love.  Allowing our lives to be examined by truth is vital if we desire a closer walk with Him.  So we know how to examine the Bible, but how do we allow ourselves to be examined by His word?  Silencing the world around us from distraction begins to create in us a heart willing to listen.  Inviting quiet, inner peace and focus when we delve into His word also opens us up to instruction.  Finally, humbling ourselves before Him, casting all our desires and trophies at His feet will bring us to a point where anything the word has to say to us will be heard and internalized.  With a quiet and prepared heart ready to listen and learn, we then allow God’s word to examine us with a love and care that exceeds any and all personal attempts to interpret scripture through our own efforts.  Instead of deciding what the word says to you, quiet yourself and listen. Let it speak to your life.  In our own silence, His words will speak volumes.  Amen.

When Keeping It Inside is Just as Bad

I found myself getting increasing frustrated the longer I sat next to them in the parking lot.  When I pulled in and turned off my car, I found myself waiting for what seemed like an eternity while a mother got out and struggled with her child in the back seat, oblivious to the fact that she was blocking my door, and that I was waiting for her to move.  The grandmother was sitting in the front seat, and clearly saw my impatience, but said nothing and did nothing to hurry the process.  I wasn’t in any great hurry, but I don’t like my time to be wasted.  I opened my door a little to let the mother know that I was waiting, but still nothing hurried her along.  After forever and a day, she moved, and I was able to get out of my car.  I swiftly walked past them in an effort to parade my level of intolerance to their situation.  When I went back to my car, I noticed that they had left their car unlocked and unattended.  A million schemes flooded my brain as I thought about exacting some sort of small revenge.  Nothing big, but enough to gain the upper hand.  However, I then decided I’d be the bigger person and just walk away.  I proudly drove down the hill, thinking I’d been such a good person and Christian because I could have done something but decided to do nothing to someone who I felt had wronged me.  Most Christians would look at that situation and my resulting decision and congratulate me on walking away and doing nothing.  Many would see how I looked my enemy almost directly in the face, and instead of attacking I choose to forgive them.  Yet, these people would be sorely mistaken about my cleanliness, as much as I was, in that moment.  Many of us seem to think that there is great merit and holiness in holding our tongue or resisting the urge to strike out at others when we are justified in doing so, but holding back in times of conflict is nothing more than a whitewashing of tombs, a cleaning of the outside.  1Samuel 16.7 reveals the varying views that man and God have of ourselves: “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”  Although man sees me turning the other cheek and choosing not to act, the Lord sees the heart and mind where my planned but un-carried out schemes lie, an individual no better than a typical Pharisee, one who strictly observes the law but inwardly feels superior because he or she has observed it despite what was felt.  In our relationships, we pat ourselves on the back when others do or say something that vexes us, but in our heart, we push down what we really want to say.  When we do this act, only two things result: a feeling of superiority to, and a resentment of, the other person.  It’s great that we don’t act, but that we have the desire to act is where the sin truly lies.  So, what do we do when another wrongs us and we can feel the hatred start to boil?  First, realize that we are a sinful, broken people, and that it is our nature to respond sinfully.  After establishing a level of humility and admitting helplessness, ask for God to intervene and cover those feelings with His love.  When you ask for His intervention and help, the opportunity for feeling superior doesn’t come into play, and instead of lifting up ourselves to the world, we are lifted away from the situation and to Him.  It’s then that God’s love breaks through and shines brighter instead of our own “good” deeds.  Amen.