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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Thousand Mile Journeys, One Brick at a Time

Having just come back from London and exploring all the local sights, we were anxious to get on with our next ambitious undertaking: Lego London Bridge.  At 4287 pieces, it was our biggest challenge yet, and usually, Lego numbers the bags sequentially to make the process more manageable, but this time the bags were not numbered at all.  So, my son and I cleared the dining room table, dumped out all the pieces, and got ready to settle in for the next week.

After about an hour or two, my wife pulled us away from the table.  I thought her intention was to give us a break, but it was more to make a private comment to me: I was too focused on finishing.  I wasn’t enjoying the process (nor was he) as my goal was to build the bridge, instead of enjoying Lego time with my son.  I was so focused on the end result, that I was missing out on the journey.  Later that day, I shifted my approach, which made for a much happier Lego time for all of us.

This wasn’t the first time I focused on the goal and not the journey, as I tend to have that problem a lot.  We have three dogs, and when we go for a walk, I’m usually at the front, so far out in front of everyone that I have to be reminded that the goal is not to finish the walk but to enjoy the stroll.  I quite frequently and literally forget to “stop and smell the roses,” but thanks to those that surround me in love, I am reminded to re-shift my focus.

I recently wrote about the importance of pain, that we should embrace pain and increase our thresholds if we want to experience growth.  If we want the reward, we need the pain.  Pain is part of the journey, and if we can take a minute to note the pain, along with all the other emotions and struggles during the journey, we will become more appreciative of the end result because we know what it took to get there.  So, we should embrace the journey, no matter how painful it is to get there, as the journey is what matters.

It’s good to have goals, but probably more important is the path that gets you to that goal.  Author Ursula K. Le Guin was quoted as saying, “It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.”  When we talk about our accomplishments, we usually tell of what it took to get us there, as that’s where our true character lies.  The journey increases our wisdom, opens our eyes, and broadens our perspective.  We are so quick to reject the journey and focus only on the goal, but we should take our time and enjoy the ride.

In our faith, God is the one that can refocus us back onto the journey by putting our faith in Him for guidance.  Proverbs 3.5-6 tells us to “trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”  This verse isn’t telling us to get to the end of our journey and accomplish our goal, but to focus on God who will reveal the journey and the direction of our paths.  By putting our faith in Him, He will reveal to us the steps in our journey, as that is the more important part.

Later this month, I will be running a Spartan Dash, where I am running 4 miles but have to overcome 15-20 obstacles in the process (crawling through mud, climbing high walls, carrying buckets of rocks, etc.).  At the end of the race, I will receive a medal for finishing.  Is the reward the medal itself?  Of course not, as the medal represents what I went through.  Had someone handed me the medal and I then hung it up without racing, it wouldn’t be very satisfying.  The reward is in what that medal represents, the struggle and journey taken to get there.  When I look at that medal , I won’t remember receiving it, but I will remember the obstacles I overcame.  The journey will be what matters, not the goal.  When I look at our finished Lego project, some part of me will be happy for the accomplishment, but a larger part will fondly remember the time I had with my son building it.  If I appreciate the actual running in the race and the actual building of the Legos, I will appreciate the actual moment instead of missing it because I’m too focused on the goal.

The journey is the present, whereas the goal is the future, and if we focus on the goal, we ignore what is around us and end up missing out.  The great 80’s philosopher Ferris Bueller put it best when he said, “Life moves pretty fast.  If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”  If we focus on the goal instead of the journey, life will pass us by, but by looking to Him to make our paths straight, we appreciate and embrace the journey and are richly rewarded along the way, not just at the end.  Amen.

Pain Threshold Adjustments that Allow for More

Years ago, when I taught in an inner-city school district, almost all my male students had one of two dream jobs in mind:  rapper or NBA athlete.  They could imagine themselves on the court, scoring the winning basket, or lyrically mesmerizing a packed stadium, with both scenarios having their names chanted by thousands of admirers.  I’d often ask them how they were planning on achieving this dream, and they would usually respond by telling me that it was just going to happen.  I’d inquire about a plan, but they almost never had one, thinking that if they wanted it badly enough, they would achieve it.  They could picture the end result, and they believed that the detailed image was enough to get them there.

There seems to exist a pervasive lie in our culture that if you want something enough, you will get it.  However, this equation doesn’t factor in the cost of achieving that goal.  Many of us want to have a great body and can picture ourselves with one, but few are willing to put in the long grueling hours at the gym.  Several want to be rich and can imagine how we’d live, but the idea of starting at the bottom and working your way up doesn’t appeal to many.  We want a successful romantic relationship, but we treat love more as a feeling than an action, and end up not acting much more beyond how we feel.  We forget that work is needed to achieve our dreams, and to get what we want takes time, patience, and more importantly, pain.

One summer, I was visiting a pain-management specialist regarding an injury I had sustained in my shoulder.  In helping me deal with my injury, he reminded me that he was in the business of pain management, not elimination.  So, he then asked me an appropriately key question:  how much pain was I willing to live with?  How much pain could I tolerate in life?  I considered the question, and came up with an expectation, as he explained to me that pain is not the sign of an unhappy life.  With pains come gains.

We often feel entitled to have a pain-free life, but how does a pain-free life benefit us at all?  Pain teaches and guides us.  Most of us can agree upon the idea that there is no success and happiness without struggle, but we forget that we also need pain throughout the struggling process.  If you’re not feeling pain, you’re not making any progress, and if we truly want to achieve beyond ourselves, pain is necessary, especially when it comes to happiness.  Think about the last major victory or accomplishment you had in your life, and chances are there was a great deal of pain that preceded it.  Without the pain, there is no reward.

To achieve the glittering goals we set for ourselves, we must be willing to put up with pain.  Hence, if you want to be a successful rapper, you should be willing to endure the pains of practicing for hours every day, developing and sharpening a working sense of language and rhyme schemes, recording numerous songs, sending out demo tapes to promoters, working small clubs, building up a following, etc., with a similarly rigorous regiment for being an NBA star.  If you aren’t willing to have that much pain in your life, then the goal is not realistic or what you want is just a fantasy.

Similar to the pain in our lives and the ways in which it shapes us, in the smelting process of developing excellent tools, there is a great deal hammering, scraping with sharp objects, and heating with intense fire.  From that process comes sharp, strong tools.  Without the pain, the tool is blunt or weak.  Isaiah 48.10 shows us a similar process when comparing the making of tools to the fashioning of our spiritual lives: “See, I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.”  If we want to be stronger in who we are, we must be subjected to the Refiner’s fire, the pain and testing that brings us closer to perfection and closer in our walk with Him.  Without it, we will never grow much beyond where we are now, and with a lifetime of wondering what could be with our dreams, we will look back at a mostly pain-free but stagnant existence, wondering with a disappointed glance what happened.  We must invite and embrace pain in our life if we want to be refined and develop our level of success and happiness.

By inviting pain, we allow for risk, but we have become averse and fearful of negative experiences because we feel that our life is defined by them, thus deeming us failures.  So, we tend to avoid risk and passively accept the lulling coldness of mediocrity.  However, by taking risks and embracing hard and painful experiences, we develop ourselves in ways that help us grow towards a stronger, happier life, one filled not with regret but with satisfaction.  Instead of asking yourself what do you want out of life, maybe it’s time to find out how much pain you are willing to endure, thereby setting you on a course towards greater gains in life.  Amen.

Quiet, Unpaid for, Kindness

When my wife asked my son where his favorite sweatshirt was, his eyes went heavenward as he traced his steps over the last couple of days.  After a minute, he came to the realization that he had absentmindedly left it in a heap in the sand at a playground a day after a major rainstorm.  At that point, we considered it a lost cause, as it most likely was damp and moldy, but we could also tell how much the sweatshirt meant to him, so I volunteered to take him back.  Upon arriving, we discovered the sweatshirt not where he had left it, but instead hung on a railing, underneath an awning, completely dry.  Thanks to a random stranger, my son had his sweatshirt back in pristine condition.

A week later, the day after a fireworks display, I was running around the town lake when I spotted a child’s Abercrombie zipper jacket in a heap down on the river bank.  After a moment of quick reflection, I flashed back to how someone had hung up my son’s sweatshirt.  So, I ventured down to get this one, found a visible post by the road, and hung it there so the owner would hopefully find it.  A day later, it was gone, most likely with the original owner.

Kindness can have a ripple effect, where one good deed gets passed on through a series of people.  The “pay it forward” idea came into vogue a few years ago, where people would commit random acts of kindness without provocation, in the hopes that the receiver would find someone else on which to pass that kindness.  So, we now read stories of fast food drive-thru lines where each person pays off the debt of the person behind them (with some streaks stretching up to 167 cars and beyond).  Although pay it forward mentality is a great start, too often we do something for someone else with the expectation that they must do something for someone else, hence, the string of drive-thru payments.  The real kindness in this scenario is that first person who pays for someone else, as they’ve paid double.  I’ve read related stories where the cashier, after telling customers that their meal was paid for, then sits in expectation that these customers will now pay for the person behind them.  (Wary be the person who breaks the chain.)  So, although the sentiment is nice, the grumbling of the person who now must pay for the family of four behind them when all they wanted was a drink kind of breaks the intention of the process.

Although kindness begets kindness, the most effective approach is altruistic kindness (kindness for the sake of being kind) where there is a kindness effect without expectation of reprisal, paying it forward, or even of thanks.  I never met the person who hung up my son’s sweatshirt, but his or her impact was profound.  Kindness is strong enough on its own to be an influence.  Expected thanks and reciprocation are nice, but they diminish the effect that pure kindness has.

Years ago, I gave a gift to someone, and when he didn’t react the way I wanted him to, I became frustrated and disappointed.  However, I realized that the issue was not with the receiver, but with the giver.  Instead of making someone’s day better, I had centered it around myself and was looking to make myself feel good about having made someone’s day better.  What I should have done is given the gift without expectation, because kindness speaks for itself.

Recently, Coca-Cola developed a series of commercials and programs where the idea is that human kindness and decency is infectious: individuals exposed to kindness tend to improve their outlook on life, then finding moments of kindness to pass on to others without an expectation of reprisal or thanks.  In the videos, people show kindness to strangers with no need of thanks or reciprocation.  The reward is in the giving, thus making the world a kinder place.  Kindness is so powerful that the author of Proverbs knew how much of an impact it can have: “Do not let kindness and mercy leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart” (3.3 NASB).  As Christians, we can make the world better through kindness that speaks for itself: we do not need to speak for it.  Our message of Christ’s love is in our actions, not in our tongues.

Christ’s example of unfailing, unreturnable, indescribable love on the cross is the ultimate model of kindness without provocation or expectation.  Hence, when others hear of His selfless sacrifice, they have trouble coming to terms with His actions as this act of kindness is that powerful.  This week, be kind for the sake of being kind.  Don’t worry about your impact, and don’t expect thanks.  And don’t pick one act of kindness and be done; open the floodgates of the kindness you have to offer.  Know that your kindness speaks for itself, and its silent words are more effective than anything you might have to say.  Amen.

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.

Currency, Reputation, and Fake News

One of the best classes I ever took in college was World Religions.  As a seemingly confident Christian, I sat in the front row with my other Christian friends, ready to defend whatever attack this professor was going to bring, but instead of victory I found myself unexpectedly whittled and sharpened.  Throughout the class, whenever I made a statement about my faith, I was challenged by the professor to back up my beliefs.  I could no longer just point to the Bible as my evidence, suggesting that it’s true because the Bible says it is, but was forced to fully explain why I believed what I believed, citing history, hard evidence, archaeology, and science for the supports to my faith.  To just suggest that it was true because I felt it wasn’t enough: I had to justify it with facts.  Going into the class I knew what I believed; coming out of the class, I knew why I believed.

When it comes to being a Christian, truth is our currency.  We deal in truth in all things when it comes to our faith and in making strides for our own spiritual journeys along with advancing His kingdom.  Jesus claimed that there is freedom to be found in knowing what is true.  When Christ speaks in John 8.32, He claims that if we adhere to His teachings, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” while in 14.6, Jesus says that, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”  Without truth, we have nothing but a handful of lies along with a destroyed reputation.  To speak truth and know what is true is to have the power to be free.  So, in all things, we must know the complete and absolute truth behind what we do and what we say, or like the prisoners in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, who viewed nothing but projected shadows on a blank wall and believed them to be their reality, we run the risk of believing a false reality, and nothing says false reality more so lately, than fake news.

To be clear, fake news is the (mostly) online existence of sensationalist and exaggerated news stories whose sole purpose is to spread misinformation for reasons that include, more often than not, financial or political gain, usually through social media.  These stories are usually not backed up by legitimate factual sources and are based in rumor, speculation, and falsehood.  You would think that truth usually rises to the top in these instances, but few check the background of these stories for sources and to confirm what is claimed to be true in these scenarios, as we post them to our social media accounts with the intent to shock and outrage those who read.  That’s one of the main draws of fake news and what makes it so appealing: it initially makes us seem informed and grants us the attention we so often crave.

Yet, if we are actually dealers in truth, we must look beyond the sensationalist nature of these stories and see what truth, if any, lies in them instead of blindly reposting them for our friends and family, wielding them wildly like a rusty sword that divides and infects our relationships with false rhetoric and illogical conclusions.  And when the real truth comes out, reputations are ruined, and no one wants to believe what we have to say any more.  Our truth has become tainted and our message soiled.  Our currency is worthless.

So how do we handle truth in the era of fake news?  Test it, repeatedly.  Don’t just accept news, but put it through a wringer.  Research it, and get to the bottom until you are absolutely sure of its validity.  Find your evidence and know why it’s true, or not.  Then, if it’s not true, reject it.  If you’re unsure, keep it to yourself.  Abraham Lincoln once said, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”  If we are serious about Christ and His truth, we cannot risk being caught with anything less than the truth.  Our testimony is our most useful tool, and without truth and a reputation for honesty, we are hobbled as warriors for Him.  Nothing destroys a witness like the smallest bit of falsehood, enclosing him or her within the impenetrable walls of an inescapable prison.  Remember that only truth will set you free.  Amen.

Feeble Attempts Past our Expiration Date

With the now warm weather and springtime growth comes a host of fresh vegetables and fruits.  While visiting our local fruit stand, our eyes go wide with the deliciousness that nature presents, yet often our eyes are bigger than our appetites, and we end up buying more than we need.  Now normally, that purchase isn’t a problem, but with all of what we are buying being local produce, the shelf life on a lot of these items isn’t very long.  The amount of purchases that must thrown out to the animals can be heartbreaking, but at least someone is enjoying them.

With spring produce and warm weather also comes spring cleaning, when we go through our pantry and refrigerator, looking for things that have found their way to the back and as such have become neglected and lost.  More often than most, these items are well past their expiration dates, and despite looking just fine, have gone bad on some level.  Moving on to our medicine cabinet in this cleaning frenzy, we traditionally find a multitude of no-longer used medicines that have also migrated past their expiration dates, and are now not as effective as they once were, or just aren’t healthy to consume.  The power of time takes its toll on all things, apparently.

Time seems to be the enemy of us all.  Most things of this world don’t age well and have a point where the rising tide of time overtakes what is best in all things.  Even wine, despite getting better with age, reaches a point where it turns to vinegar.  When I walk the hallways of high school and spot young couples in love, by measuring the flames of passion that radiate, I can usually judge with a decent amount of certainty how quickly those flame will extinguish and the relationship will expire.  And despite our best efforts, our bodies don’t escape the ravages of time.  Most scientists and physicians suggest that, given the proper diet and treatment, the human body can work perfectly for the first 40-50 years before it starts to break down on its own, and that’s if we treat it well.  Founding father William Penn said that, “Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.”  Time is a commodity, but we often don’t trade well with it.

Like our bodies and things of this world, each of us have an expiration date, too.  At some point, death will be the great expiration collector and will come for us.  What makes us different, though, is that often there is no telling as to when that expiration date is.  The Bible and other pieces of literature are filled with warnings about the fleeting nature of life, about how we must seize every moment of every day, or about how we don’t know how long we have.  Proverbs 90.12 give us this advice: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”  If we realize that our time is limited, then we will most likely use our time wisely, and the biggest concern should be where we are headed after our expiration date.

A great deal of the population, when considering the afterlife, feels that it’s not something they need to think about at this point.  They’ve got time.  Yet if we live with this foolish notion, like rotted fruit, we will find ourselves out of time before we know it.  We need to live wisely while we still have time, and for many, that means committing our lives to Him as soon as possible.  With no knowledge of how much time is left, as even tomorrow may be our last day, we must firmly stand on the promises of His kingdom, and not the possible failing promises of a long life.  Assurance is found in what we know for sure, not in what we think may be.  If we live knowing that any day might be our last, then our decisions, especially those about the afterlife and what we are truly living for, will be handled with grace and wisdom, and our future will be secured.  Amen.

The Transformative Properties of Pure Love

Having visited nursing and rehab homes before, I knew what to expect.  Often, hope is scarce as the hallways are frequently filled with the despondent aging, many of whom are being wheeled up and down the hallway just for a change of scenery.  They have seen a great deal of pain and loss in their lives, and the monotony of later life takes its toll.  So, any and all change of pace and scenery, including visitors, is quickly welcomed with great enthusiasm, being a bright spot in the day as it breaks up the routine, easing the pains of life and distracting them beyond the ills from which they suffer.  However, what I didn’t expect was how much the residents would change when they got a visit from our dog, Finn.

Sixty pounds of off-white long soft fur and a love of everyone, he’s pure mutt with an enormous heart that often exceeds the size of his brain.  With pleading brown eyes that beg for attention and a tail that never stops, he bounded into the home with great excitement, looking for the next person to meet.  Anxiously, he’d happily trot over to them, leaning against their legs as he welcomed their loving advances.  Astoundingly, faces not only lit up as people asked to meet him, calling him over to pet him and say hello, but their entire demeanor changed.  People who were immobile and pain-riddled suddenly forgot themselves and called to him with open arms, as Finn gave every ounce of love he had.  No matter who they were, their lives were instantly improved when Finn came to visit them.  The transformation that took place because of his presence was astonishing.

There’s something pure about a dog’s love that is unlike human love.  When dogs meet someone, they never judge, accepting people for who they are.  Whether people were bed-ridden, wheelchair-bound, or with a walker, no matter the age, disability, or illness, Finn accepted them with his whole heart, and didn’t differentiate between any of them.  His total lack of judgment allowed for him to see people beyond their human failings and see them only for the love for which they were capable.  Additionally, a dog’s capacity for love is seemingly endless, as despite the number of people Finn met, or the number of times Finn met the same person, the well of love from which Finn’s love drew never dried up.  And because of that endless, boundless pure love, people’s hearts were changed as he brought what sorely lacked from so many of their lives: hope.

Similarly, Christ’s love shares many of these characteristics.  Endless and boundless, His pure love knows no judgement and can transform even the lowest.  Ephesians 2.4-5 displays the life-changing purity of His love: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.”  Like Finn, Christ’s love brings life and hope where there previously was none.  Christ takes even the direst situations and completely changes them around with the addition of His pure love.  For this reason, when God intervenes in our lives, we are never what we once were.  Transformation and hope are immediate, as we are fundamentally different because of his selfless, non-judgmental love.  Although we are humanly flawed, we can still be aware of the transformative nature that pure love can bring and work towards imitating it in the way we interact with others.  What we can still hope and pray for is for God to work through us, using our words and actions to give hope and love where there was none beforehand.  In that way, His love transforms us and others through its pure, nonjudgmental nature, altering our hearts and minds forever.  Amen.

Empathy Amidst the Chaos

As words were slung between my two senior students, the stress levels of each continued to rise, and tension filled the room.  Each had very strong stances on illegal immigration, and the two girls took each comment more personally than the last, until they were ready to attack each other physically.  When I finally called a cease fire and told each to rethink their approach to the other person, reflecting instead on the way that each was responding, the two began to reach a deeper truth in each other, seeing the other’s worry and fear in the issue, taking note of how the issue was impacting the other on a more personable level.  Their anger was stemmed in their individual fear, and each was acting out in anger based in that fear.  When they were able to see the rooted fear in each other, they became empathetic to the other’s struggle, then putting aside differences, resulting in better and more true communication.  This past week has been difficult for this country.  We’ve seen an election literally split the country down the middle, where the two sides are now in a bitter feud regarding the outcome.  Riots and protests fill our nation’s streets, as both sides feel that they are misunderstood and that the other side is completely wrong.  Anger pervades, but this anger is rooted in something deeper than hatred: fear.  A recent Pew Research Center poll found that “more than half of Democrats (55%) say the Republican Party makes them ‘afraid,’ while 49% of Republicans say the same about the Democratic Party.”  Both sides are deeply fearful of the other, terrified of what the other might do to the country.  With each thinking that the other is deeply unreasonable and misguided, a lack of communication results, all of which is based in fear.  So, where there is fear, there is a lack of communication, and thus a lack of empathy develops as both sides misunderstand the other.   When Christ was beginning his ministry in Matthew 9, many gathered to Him to be healed, but the crowds became large and unruly as they quickly grew in number.  Christ could have looked at these people and dismissed them as angry and riotous, but instead He saw what was at the root of their actions: “Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (9.36).  Looking past their outward anger, He saw their deep-seated fears, and became empathetic to their plights.  With this understanding, he continued his ministry instead of scattering them.  When my two students understood that fear was at the root of their anger, they listened to one another and began a constructive dialogue.  Although they didn’t agree in the end, there was a mutual acknowledgment and appreciation of the other’s viewpoint, leading to an empathetic understanding of one another.  When we allow our fear to lead to anger, we open the door to hatred and suffering.  With the amount of anger our country is feeling right now, our hatred will only grow if we don’t work towards open communication.  It’s time to look past the anger we have for one another and see the fear that is at the heart of our actions.  When we see that we are acting out of fear, we begin an empathetic journey that leads to a better understanding of one another.  Although we may never agree, we can certainly appreciate each other and work towards an openly communicative understanding of each other’s point of view.  In the aftermath of this most difficult election, we need no longer focus on our differences and be afraid of one another, but instead empathically look towards open communication and to what unites us as a nation.  Only then can we be healed.  Amen.

When Immaturity Results in Unfounded Fears

With Halloween just around the corner, I’ve start a new yearly tradition: watching scary movies.  Now, I know that this practice seems like a no-brainer to many people, but for me it’s something entirely new.  In my youth, I’d always been too afraid to watch anything in the horror genre.  As such, many perennial and seminal classics have passed me by, and I am now playing catch-up by watching such favorites as “Halloween”, “Poltergeist”, and “The Exorcist” for the first time.  Although I am thoroughly enjoying my time going through them (as many of them are amazingly engrossing movies with excellent scripts), I find that they are not as scary as I had feared.  Like the small child that forever feared that the bogeyman lived in his closet, and upon investigating, found only his hanging clothes and a few forgotten about toys, I’m feeling somewhat foolish, as it took me thirty or so years to work up the courage to watch these movies.  They may have been frightening at the time, but now they are quaint and amusing.  However, I would argue that it’s not necessarily the movies that have changed, but that it was me.  For example, I was watching a forgotten about 1987 movie entitled “The Gate” the other day, and found it to be both goofy and somewhat predictable.  Afterwards, I watched a positive review of the film and was encouraged to view it through the eyes of a pre-teen.  When I rethought the film, I realized that scenes where rubber latex demon arms reached out from under a bed to grab at the main heroes would have been completely terrifying to a ten-year old me.  Similarly, another scene where the main character grows a functioning eye in his hand would have absolutely and completely freaked me out.  However, because I now know that nothing frightening will ever be waiting for me under my bed, save for some over-sized dust bunnies, and that the chances of an eye growing out of my hand are next to none, these events don’t phase or affect my current viewing self.  I have grown and matured as an adult, and those child-like fears do not affect me anymore.  My thinking has matured to where I know that these sights are not real, and thus ridiculous and not frightening.  1 Corinthians 14.20 suggests that we approach evil in a similar manner: “Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.”  Paul encourages the Corinthian church and us that our minds should be mature with discernment, that we should be able to logically decide what is good and right, rejecting what is wrong, but that we should also have the same level of experience with evil similar to that of a small child.  We should not pursue evil but should be innocent and devoid of experience.  Christ wants us to mature our minds with knowledge and understanding, but let our experience with evil be immature, which would explain why I would have been so frightened as a child with these films.  As a child, my experience would be small, but my mind would be immature, so I would not approach these films as I do now: rejecting the frights as foolishness.  Because I was so welled up with fear and immaturity, I chose to not watch scary movies, but now that my mind has matured, I am no longer paralyzed in action.  So, in our maturity, let’s reject the fears that plague us that shouldn’t.  Don’t let fear stop us from moving forward.  Let’s mature our minds and realize the fears that are holding us back, as fear is the great inhibitor of achieving truly great and wonderful things with our lives.  Amen.