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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It’s Not Good to Be Fine

When I asked my son if he was okay, and he told me he was “fine,” I knew that he was far from it.  He had just competed in a Taekwondo forms tournament, a risk in itself for any fragile 9-year old ego, and was knocked out in the second round.  He stood next to me, keeping on a brave face, not looking me in the eye.  After he told me he was fine, I motioned for him to come closer to me, where I let him sit in my lap.  His arms quickly snaked their way around me, grabbing me tight as he fought back tears.

“What did I do wrong?” he asked.  It was a fair question, so I reassured him that he had in fact not messed up his forms at all.  Maybe some of the other kids just had tighter forms or louder snaps, I told him.  He had done his best, and I was proud of him, but for that moment, his disappointment was all too palpable.  He was doing his best to hide it and to root for his friends who were still in the running, so he repeatedly professed that he was okay, but for him, those were just words he could use to hide behind.

When people claim that they are “fine” or “okay,” they rarely are.  In fact, they are usually quite the opposite of those qualities.  And the more we claim to be fine and okay, the more those words betray our steely facades.  Almost always, people who claim something just a little too loudly and often are those who are the most insecure inside.  Hence, as an example, comedians are often times the saddest of all individuals.  Or when someone’s looks or personality are attacked, and they claim that they don’t care just a few too many times, it’s because they really do care and are trying to hide it.  Say it once, and it’s probably true.  Repeat it often, and you’re trying to not just convince others, but yourself, as well.

So, people who make tremendous claims about themselves publicly are doing so because they in fact do not possess that quality and are trying to make it seem so.  An individual who claims they are very smart probably isn’t.  Someone who is very smart has no need to prove to other people that they are: their actions speak for themselves.  More show, less tell.

While reading an article in the newspaper the other day about hypocrisy among some Christian politicians, I saw an interview with Omaha pastor Rev. Eric Elnes, who claimed that those who speak loudest often have something to hide: “Blazing with self-righteous indignation toward others is often what people use to hide their own sins in the shadows,” Elnes said.  “This is probably why Jesus’ biggest problem — by far — was with the self-righteous.  When it came to those whom society cast away as ‘sinners,’ Jesus was repeatedly gentle, gracious, encouraging, and forgiving, but he continually castigated the self-righteous.”

Quite true, as evidenced by the multitude of rejected individuals that Jesus would often tend to.  Some of his closest friends were those who had outwardly sinned for the whole world to see (prostitutes, tax collectors, thieves), those who never claimed to be good people.  For Christ, he would rather be with a sinner who was easy to spot than one who secretly sinned but professed righteousness and was clean on the outside.  Christ knew that those were the people that had real sin to hide.

In Luke 11 (and in Matthew 23), the authors of these two books recount Christ’s specific teachings against people who were more religious than faithful, in sections now known as the “Woe of the Pharisees.”  In each section, Jesus criticizes and chastises the Pharisees, a group whom professed great faith publicly on a number of points.  On one occasion, Christ is invited to dine with the Pharisees, so He takes the opportunity to speak out against such self-righteous people, revealing them for who they really are.  As was religious tradition, individuals were to wash before eating, not for the purposes of cleanliness but as a result of excessive, man-made ceremonial tradition that was seemingly based in the Torah (it isn’t).  So, Christ chooses to forgo the washing of hands to draw a comparison: “But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal.  Then the Lord said to him, ‘Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness’” (Luke 11.38-9).  Like those who profess that they are fine, okay, and don’t care, their outside is seemingly clean, but inside they are rotting away.

Christ desires just the opposite, that we be sinful on the outside, because we are made human, and clean on the inside, by believing in Him as our salvation.  We shouldn’t pretend that we’re perfect because we aren’t.  We are a chosen, fallen people, individuals who are loved and saved by Him not through our works of seeming perfection, but through His love for us.  Yet we are so afraid of imperfection, that like the Pharisees, we hide behind showy, outward actions and language.  This week, instead of pretending to be perfect, be imperfectly loud.  Don’t hide behind words that put forth a put-together exterior.  Say what you mean, and mean what you say.  Christ loves us for our imperfections, as most likely others will, too.  With genuine words and actions, let your sincerity shine forth, and be the wholly imperfect being that you were made to be.  Amen.

Resisting the Urge to Prove Them Wrong

As my nine-year old son grows up, I’ve noticed not only a streak of independence developing in him but also a mild streak of defiance.  I’m told this will only get worse as he enters his teens.  As such, we will tell him to do something at a certain time, and he will try to maintain his enjoyable activities as long as possible before he has to do what is needed of him.  His desires for what he wants to do are stronger than what he has to do: typical youth.  I can’t really complain: he’s a great kid.  In fact, he’s more compassionate and thoughtful than most others his age.  It’s just that sometimes, at that age, they want to have all the power with none of the responsibilities.

For example, the other day he was told that he could have 15 minutes of play time on his computer tablet playing games, watching videos, whatever he wanted to do to unwind.  Of course, 15 minutes came and went, and just like anyone that age, he didn’t alert us to the fact that he had gone over his time limit.  Giving him a few minutes of grace time, I went into his room to let him know that his time was up.  I was greeted with an argument about how much time he actually had.

“Okay, 15 minutes are up.  It’s time to put your tablet away.”

“You and mom said 30 minutes.”

“I’m pretty sure it was 15.”

“No, it was 30.  I’m sure of it.”

At this point, I walked out of the room, as I didn’t want to get into a back and forth argument that was clearly not introducing any new evidence to the discussion.  As I walked down the hall, I heard a young, squeaky, but frustration-filled voice yell, “Fine!  You win!”  That exclamation was then followed by several slamming of materials around the room with a few stomps of the feet.  It was clear that he was upset, and my first inclination was to respond by addressing his escalating behavior and faulty logic.  My inner voice wanted to engage him about how this wasn’t a contest, that I was right in telling him how long he had, that he was wrong to get mad, along with a host of other indignities I had suffered at the hand of this small human being.  Yet, I decided to choose a different approach, one of non-confrontation, as a power struggle wasn’t the answer.

We are challenged for power daily in a multitude of situations.  The grocery store customer in front of us who has 22 items in a 10-item line, the car that slowly pushed into our lane when we were doing the speed limit, the co-worker that leaves the office microwave dirty when we just cleaned it – all of the situations have the same setup in common: we are doing what we are supposed to be doing, and someone else is challenging the system at our expense.  We are in the right, and they are not, and they are daring us to try to do something about it.  Although the situations are common, it is our reaction to those situations that often define our character and who we are.  We desire to correct them and show them how they are wrong and we are right; we want to feel the cathartic pleasure of knocking them down a peg and feeling better about ourselves because we were the ones who were sticking to the rules and staying on the right path.  Righteous indignation, indeed.

However, being right doesn’t always mean that we should speak up and correct.  Often times instead of bringing logic and righteousness to an argument, we end up just bringing a bigger mallet.  Suddenly, the rude driver becomes the angry, dangerous driver, arguments break out in the supermarket, and office relationships become sabotaged.  Righteousness doesn’t always bring peace and often times just makes a situation worse.  When someone confronts with power, a confrontation in return isn’t rooted in love, just in our own ego.

Christ also knew this fact, and followed that advice when he was brought in front of the Sanhedrin to be charged with crimes.  Instead of proving everyone wrong, Christ chose another way: “Finally two came forward and declared, ‘This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’’  Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, ‘Are you not going to answer?  What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?’  But Jesus remained silent” (Matthew 26.60-2).  Christ chose to not get into a power struggle with these men, as He knew that nothing good would come out of it.  He saw the bigger picture, that a fight here would detract from the larger issue at hand: man’s salvation.  He may have had the desire to prove them wrong and present His glory right then and there, but He knew that choosing love over righteousness was better.

So instead of fighting with my son, I came back in a minute later, eating a big bag of Cheetos, and I offered him some.  He stopped, pondered the offer, and dug in.  Peace was achieved not through confrontation but with an offer of snacks.  It was not a fight to be had.  What would I possibly gain by proving him wrong and verbally engaging him in a power struggle where tempers would flare and love would most definitely not prevail?  The bigger picture is the love I would like to cultivate and maintain with him, not a daily struggle of who’s right and who’s wrong.  And when someone conversely tries to engage him in a power struggle, I want his first response to be rooted in a desire for love and forgiveness, not dominance and personal victory.

For us, the desire for harmony needs to overcome the desire to prove ourselves right.  We need offerings of peace when others test our resolve.  It is important to see the larger picture at hand, one where Christ’s example is seen through our response and His love is continued through our words and actions.  This week, when tested by others’ wrongs, when you want to offer conflict, make an offer of peace.  Christ is not seen when we seek to dominate with righteousness, but instead when others bring a sword to a fight, and we bring an offer of love (or Cheetos).  Amen.

Fear of All the Wrong People and Things

Fear is a natural part of our humanity, often seen as a survival instinct, where we fear what can cause harm.  Take a mental tally of your own fears, and you will most likely find that your healthy fears are the ones that keep you out of trouble.

According to a recent Washington Post survey about what it is that most Americans fear, topping the list was “public speaking” (with “heights” following closely behind).  Given that a great deal of my graduating seniors need to give a TED Talk as their senior culminating project, I’ve witnessed firsthand the fear that enters when a person is told that he or she needs to present a grandiose idea to a large group of people.  They are frozen in place just thinking about it.  Their survival instinct of self-preservation and avoiding public judgement is normal, as they attempt to maintain their credibility amongst their peers.

The rest of the list of surveyed fears consisted of such expected categories as drowning, needles, zombies, and clowns.  Yet nowhere on the list is there evidence that we have a fear of God.  When suggested, most scoff at the idea of being afraid of God, yet in fact, we have a deeply serious lack of fear when it comes to God, and we are not nearly as afraid of Him as we should be.

When most people are asked to characterize God, they conjure an image of a loving mentor who passively died on a cross, adhering to the nurturing father that is portrayed in so many sermons and homilies. However, we quickly forget the side of God that characterizes Him as one of judgement and condemnation, a God who despises sin and actively fights against evil.  18th Century theologian Jonathan Edwards knew that a healthy fear of God would keep his congregation from sin, as his sermon “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” pictured the Christian as one who “dangles precariously over Hell…a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell.”  If it is this image that is invoked, how is it that we lack fear when we purposefully offend His word?

Illustrating the point of how much we lack said fear, take a minute and Google the words “caught” and “scandal” together and see the multitude of news articles that come up.  When we commit sinful behaviors, we are more afraid of being caught in the eyes of men than in the eyes of God.  The Google search for “scandal” and “apology” also turns up a tremendous number of articles, as we only confess our wrongdoing when we are caught.  If we truly feared God, more articles about people openly admitting their wrongs would appear when we search “scandal” and “confess.”

Proverbs 3.7 give this advice: “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil.”  When we fear Him, His wrath, and His punishment, we reflexively reject evil.  If we lack that fear, we turn a blind eye to evil, allowing it to enter because we don’t fear the one who can bring consequences.

Many argue that this image of God is very Old Testament, where His consequences often included the outdated idea of wiping out whole tribes and nations, bringing grandiose punishment to those who opposed Him.  Yet consider the Acts 5 story of Ananias and Sapphira, a husband and wife Christian couple who, when they sold land for donations to the church, held back money for themselves, and when asked about it, lied about how much they were giving.  Peter questioned the husband about his lying to the apostles: “’What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.’  When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died” (Acts 5.4b-5), and when his unknowing wife similarly lied later in the story, she followed suit and died, as well.  They could hide their misdeeds from man, but not from God, and because they feared man and not God, they continued in their sinful misrepresentation, thinking that they were not being watched.

It has often been said that when speaking publicly, a good litmus test for appropriate speech is that you should never say anything that you wouldn’t want your mother to hear or that could be read allowed in court.  Perhaps this barometer should also include “or in front of God.”  God truly sees all things we do, yet we continue to sin, foolishly thinking that because we don’t see Him, He doesn’t see us.  By embracing a healthy fear of God, we are not as quick to embrace our sinful nature and embark on the wrong path.  Although we may not drop dead because of our actions, if we fear God, we are kept from that wrong path and are put back on a path towards Heaven, one that keeps us from sliding into an eternity without Him.  Amen.

Unforgiving Claims of Fairness

“It’s not fair,” my student Julie repeated over and over to me, complaining about her last class.  She had just come from history, where the teacher gave back the tests, and Julie marked the correct answer on the question sheet, but copied it down wrong on her answer sheet.  “I knew the answer!” she stammered out with extreme indignation, but the fact was that her answer sheet was wrong, and so her answers were wrong.  However, Julie’s outrage was in comparison to the teacher’s treatment of another student.  “I get good grades, I do all my work, and Tara doesn’t do anything, yet she gets to do things over and I don’t.”  It was a fair point.  If one student gets extra chances, shouldn’t all?  I asked how her usually high grades compared to Tara’s, and then found that the other girl was often times borderline failing and could probably use all the chances she could get.

Fairness is a concern for us our entire lives.  When we are little, we measure the candy we receive against what others get, making sure we all get the same.  Teenagers decry the concept 7-8 times a day, citing how some can stay out later than others.  As adults, we resent other’s happiness and success, feeling that we are just as deserving, sometimes maybe more so.  Years ago, Rabbi Kushner, whose own son died at age 14, attempted to tackle the concept in his book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” which touched a collective nerve and was met with enormous success.  Yet, when we ask about life being fair, perhaps we are asking the wrong question.

In Matthew 20, Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who hires workers for his vineyard.  In the morning, he finds townspeople, hires them for a day’s wage, and puts them to work.  Midway through the day, he finds that he needs more people than he originally thought, so he hires even more townspeople on two later occasions, agreeing to pay them a day’s wage, as well.  At the end of the day, the workers come to collect, but those who started work in the beginning of the day expected to be paid more that those who started towards the end of the day, feeling that it would only be fair that way.  The landowner disagreed, “I am not being unfair to you, friend.  Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?…I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you…Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20. 13-15).  Instead of paying what was fair, the man paid what was right, citing generosity as his motivation.  Perhaps he felt that it was not right that the others were unemployed and denied opportunity earlier in the day.  Maybe he felt that it was wrong that they couldn’t provide for their families.  Either way, through righteousness, the landowner modeled mercy and grace, which may not be fair, but is right.

When we talk about equality, we should talk less like the Pharisees who cited the law and its fair adhesion to it, but more about God’s grace and mercy, and how being merciful is right and just.  If we want life to be truly fair, then Christ’s death on the cross would not be allowed and because of our actions, we’d all deserve death.  We cannot be both fair and forgiving, as fairness means we get what we deserve, not what we need.

Would Julie ever make this mistake again?  Probably not.  It was a hard lesson to learn, but because of grace, she was being taught it so that she would learn from it.  Sometimes righteousness means having to suffer for our own good because it’s what we need, with the reason behind it being to mold us into better people.  Through righteousness, God’s deep love for us is revealed, and through His mercy, we are shaped to be people who walk closer with Him.  We can’t possibly fathom God’s plan, but we are certain as to His righteous intentions.  Amen.