Take a Second Look

Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, gift wrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.  

~ Matthew 5:38-42 The Message

 

 

In the first few chapters of Matthew a series of teachings by Jesus are laid out for us to consider.  In each of them we find a surprise. He is asking us, it seems, to take a second look at what we think it means to be holy. He is challenging folks to give serious consideration to choosing a different version of life for themselves.  In this passage, he is offering them a new way to reclaim their previously held beliefs about power. He is suggesting them to take revenge off the table. This is a conscious choice.

 

People are uncomfortable with this message and I understand why.  It could easily be misconstrued to suggest that people in positions of power can abuse us without any repercussions.  I have had occasion of late to deal with this in my own life. No one has been thwacking me a glove and asking to duel but I have had opportunity to learn the pain and suffering of bullying behavior.  As a person who does not want to have revenge as part of my life I have had to navigate the rough waters of when to stay silent and when to speak up and out; when to hold them and when to fold them; what to do and what to reject doing as my feelings overwhelmed my core beliefs. It’s been a challenging situation.  I have not always handled it well. The only way I have handled it at all was to ask for help from others to guide me AND to spend a significant amount of time examining and re-examining my core values, choosing, from my many (sometimes competing) values, which ones were applicable in this particular situation. It required silence, stillness and solitude as well as a tribe to find my way.

 

The one truth that I return to over and over is God’s word (although even that can be confusing) that teaches us to trust that justice is God’s department not mine.  So often I want to protest what feels like the injustices that seem to run unchecked in the world today. But that is not my job. My job is to give and receive love.  Sometimes that means defending the weak and the vulnerable, other times it means returning to silence, stillness and solitude.

 

Broken relationships are terribly grievous things but they are also inevitable.  The primary comfort I have found as I navigate the ending of a relationship with someone I love is this:  maybe it is no longer appropriate for me to be the one that gives and receives love in this relationship - but I can pray that others will take up the mantle and continue their giving and receiving to that person!

Forgiveness

I once knew a person who sexually abused a family member.  Years later he felt that he was rehabilitated from this prior offense and should be forgiven by the family, including the child he molested, and granted re-entry into the family with no conditions.  His family was willing to have some limited, well-boundaried relationship but they were not comfortable having him around the children. They found ways to specifically address these issues with a clearly spelled out relationship plan.  This infuriated him. He began a letter writing campaign to instruct them about forgiveness; threats were made. Eventually orders of protection were issued. He was outraged. All contact was lost.

 

 

From my way of thinking about this, the guy was at a minimum presumptuous.  I am not sure about what the family members were thinking during all of this but from a distance it seemed like they were very decent people who acted in a spirit of forgiveness.  They did not shun him or try to hurt him in any way.

 

However, they also safe-guarded the family.  This to me seemed wise. Some offenses are so egregious that the consequences for these offenses last a lifetime.  This is difficult to accept but it is true and I think on occasion appropriate.

 

Although we had a few conversations on the subject, he never grasped the concept that relationships were conditional AND these conditions do not violate God’s command to love.  When we learn that someone is willing to harm us or another person, we become responsible for making wise decisions about future contact. If we teach someone that we are willing to be hurtful, we cannot expect them to ignore this action no matter how many times we say we are sorry.

 

Again, these are difficult issues and I have certainly chosen an extreme example.  We have countless lesser offenses that are even more confusing to parse out. Are we too sensitive?  Is this really as inappropriate as I feel it is? What does forgiveness look like in this situation? Does it also mean the relationship can return to “normal” or does it require some shifting and a “new normal”?

 

What kind of difficulties have you run into when trying to love as God loves?

Crushing Disappointment

When the Bible talks about love there are some passages that have been misused and created a situation where people can take advantage of others.  The verse I referred to almost two weeks ago, you remember, the one that says, “Greater love hath no man than this - to lay down his life for a friend?” is one of them.

 

 

I once heard a Christian counselor use that as justification for why a wife should NOT leave her abusive spouse.  His theory was that marriage is a sacred bond (yes) and you can never divorce your spouse even if he has broken your bones and battered your spirit (Lord no).

 

 

I am reminded of I Peter 3:7 (Message translation):  

 

The same goes for you husbands: Be good husbands to your wives. Honor them, delight in them. As women they lack some of your advantages. But in the new life of God’s grace, you’re equals. Treat your wives, then, as equals so your prayers don’t run aground. 

 

Once a man lays a hand on his wife, the covenant is broken.  By him. He has failed to be good to her. When this happens, the family needs to address this issue and sometimes divorce is the appropriate conclusion.  The Bible makes provision for divorce even though divorce clearly grieves God (Spousal abuse, too, grieves God- let's not forget).

 

 

As sacred as marriage is, it is not sacrosanct.  I think this principle applies to all relationships.  Giving and receiving love is a sacred act; relationships are important, vital, in many ways the breath of life. But relationships have limits and sometimes the boundaries of respect and mutual care are so violated that we have to release people from our circle of love. This does not necessarily make them bad people - although let’s be clear, it is very very BAD to abuse anyone.  Sometimes relationships end because our core values are incompatible. This requires a ton of discernment. We do not need to have shared core values in all relationships. The folks who make my coffee do not have to share my core values! However, the affinity I do share with certain baristas in our community has created a lovely relationship bond to such an extent that I mostly only get my java from two very special places.  

 

 

This is all very tricky and difficult to tease out.  But the bottom line is this: sometimes someone teaches us (or we teach them) that we are fundamentally incompatible in a relationship and need to readjust our relationship boundaries.  Are there any relationships that you are holding onto too tightly?

 

Great Expectations

I started this blog series talking about love gone wrong and ended up on a side trip remembering about how love had gone wrong over and over again for the Israelites.  False strategies (looking for love and purpose in the wrong venues), delusion (not seeing ourselves, others and even God accurately), and confusion (we just simply don’t know how to love in all situations) are three common problems that mess up our love connections.

 

 

But that’s not all.

 

Expectations can really get us in trouble too. No expectations you ask?  Should we have NO expectations in a relationship? Well of course not. It’s not that extreme.  But my position is this: we have misplaced expectations onto others that rightfully belong within ourselves.

 

I once knew a gal who was always telling a small group I was in about the ways her husband disappointed her.  He didn’t send flowers enough (only twice a week) or to the appropriate location (she preferred them delivered to her office, not at home) or the “right” shade of pink.  Sheesh. The guy was a constant disappointment in her eyes but to the rest of us? He sounded like a guy who didn’t have a chance of living up to his wife’s harlequin romance perspective of marriage.

 

I knew a guy who went through a series of wives and families because, and I quote him here, “I expect my wife and children to obey me and for there to be no conflict in the home.”  His idea of conflict resolution? Get rid of the old family and find a new one.

 

Both examples are of folks who had expectations of how another person was SUPPOSED to make them feel.  The wife expected her husband to make her feel desirable; the husband (of many) expected his family to make him king of the castle.

 

At the end of the day, we are expecting too much of others if we make someone else responsible for our sense of self-worth.  This is our work. Want to feel respected? Live a respectable life. Along the way we invite others to join us in this life.  People can get to know us and we can get to know them and THEN we make an honest assessment: do our lives fit well together? Do we have affinity?  Good questions. But it is not a sustainable relationship model to ask someone else to make us “feel” a certain, consistent way about ourselves. Self-assessment, self-awareness, self-respect - those are all inside jobs.

 

How have you perhaps pressured others to do for you that which you are responsible to work out for yourself?

Reflections

Before I opened my computer this morning I chugged a cup of hot decaf (I know, big sigh, oh for the days of caffeine rushes with no consequences), and layered up for a long walk before the sun woke and began to warm the day.  I walked for two hours with my head full of the cares and troubles of my people. I knew that today I would go to an ICU and pray over a young man whose brain they say is dead. I figured that I might have time to check on a friend who is depressed.  I hoped I might get a chance to hug one of my grandchildren but the schedule did not look promising. I was kind of down in the dumps to tell you the truth.

 

 

The sun began to peek out at me about 20 minutes in to my walk.  I began peeling off layers of clothing. First the gloves, then the hat, and soon the first of three sweatshirts.  My body began to warm and my sleepy brain began to wake to the sacred privilege of being capable and free to walk for two hours in the morning just because I wanted to.  Were there issues that would need addressing? Yes. But they would come after this sacred, quiet time of silence and solitude and even stillness, for today there was no wind to nip my nose, only the promise of Spring in the air.

 

As I hit my stride on the last hill before heading home I glanced up and saw a herd of deer munching on tender green leaves, signs of spring that I had previously been too distracted to notice.  I stopped. I grabbed my camera. I walked slowly toward them. One small step and then a pause. I forgot that there was laundry waiting to be transferred into the dryer before my mad dash to the hospital.  I failed to notice any of the chattering dialogue that had occupied my brain at the beginning of my walk. I knew I had all the time in the world to look at these curious, big-eared babies with their “deer” Mama.  I managed to get some good close-ups and I will treasure the photos for sure. But nothing will compare to that peaceful, wide-awake awareness that God is near and he has us all in his hand. Discontentment may be symptomatic of a need to reassess and reawaken to the possibility of living life large AND on life’s terms.  Or, it might be a sign that we are pursuing false strategies, delusions and are confused. Maybe a fourth way of seeing discontentment exists or even a fifth. This I know: we can be thoroughly discontent one minute and wide awake to the presence of Holy God the next. This is how crazy in love God is with us - pursuing us in love even as we forget to rest in him.  When I can remember God’s love in and around me, I show up in a better space for an ICU visit or a walk with my grandbabies. I can show up for love.

 

I am not a particularly wise person, but I do understand that taking a long walk every day means more than just the numbers rolling by on a pedometer.  What do you do to get still, find silence, and embrace solitude? Do. What. It. Takes. Today.

Restless, Irritable, and Discontent

Discontented people sometimes pull me aside at various places and ask me questions.  They hope that as a pastor I might have some words of wisdom. I rarely do. But what I notice is how often we fixate on a problem in our lives (often quite legitimate and serious in nature) to the exclusion of paying attention to the small next right steps we could be taking with sacred awareness.

 

 

These problems are inevitably other people.  They bemoan and grieve over the folks they loved, wished loved them, lost, and all the other ways love goes awry.  At issue is often the perceived cause of the restlessness, irritability and discontentment. We often look outside ourselves (at others) to explain our internal discontent.  This causes many a relationship snafu. Others cannot and should not have the responsibility or the power to constantly disrupt us. But they do. This appears to be a universal problem.  

 

There is power in approaching our restless, irritable, discontented selves with an eye on the sacred.

 

Restlessness, irritability and discontentment are all warning signs that are trying to get us to wake up! They are encouraging us to wake up, slow down and pay attention to what is already true, already peaceful, already worth celebrating in our lives.  AND...stop focusing on other people quite so much. Our distractions with the actions other people take are just that - distractions. Our work is to live the life we want to live; we can do that without requiring other people to participate in our dreams.

 

Today, what can you celebrate?  Not in a Pollyanna, “It’s all good,” positive thinking and abundant living of the prosperity gospel kind of way, but what can you find to awaken you in the moment EVEN as you are aware of what is breaking your heart and spirit?

Gone But Not Forgotten II

Although Jeremiah 29, like much of the scripture, is written in a specific time to address particular needs of a specific group of people, we can still find mandates for ourselves.  I don’t think we can interpret this as, say, a promise that our plans include an absolute guarantee of getting the future we hope for - after all, maybe we are hoping for a future that is constructed out of fantasy living, false strategies, delusion and confusion.

 

 

Here is what I think we can notice and take heed of:  God gives strange instructions. He is asking people to thrive in captivity; he is asking people to pray for their captors; he is telling them to do small next right things - plant a garden, get married, make babies.

 

We get SOOOO caught up in right and wrong, good and bad, naughty or nice.  That’s ok so long as the person we are evaluating is our self. We can let the judgment of others go - they really are not our business to attend to.  In Jeremiah, God is asking his people to live at peace with their oppressors. He’s asking them to fill their temporary homes with love and laughter under trying times.  No matter that these folks brought the trouble on themselves! God is providing encouragement for us all - in even difficult situations, love well.

 

Today, try to look for the sacred in the profane.  Just try. See how it alters your mood, your thoughts, your choices and your awareness of God.

Gone But Not Forgotten

Fast forward with me to Jeremiah 29.  Jeremiah has not forestalled the inevitable timeout for the Israelites at the hands of the Babylonians. Jeremiah now speaks to an exiled crowd living in a foreign land.

This is the Message from God-of-the-Angel-Armies, Israel’s God, to all the exiles I’ve taken from Jerusalem to Babylon:  “Build houses and make yourselves at home. Put in gardens and eat what grows in that country. Marry and have children. Encourage your children to marry and have children so that you’ll thrive in that country and not waste away. Make yourselves at home there and work for the country’s welfare. Pray for Babylon’s well-being. If things go well for Babylon, things will go well for you.” Yes. Believe it or not, this is the Message from God-of-the-Angel-Armies, Israel’s God: “Don’t let all those so-called preachers and know-it-alls who are all over the place there take you in with their lies. Don’t pay any attention to the fantasies they keep coming up with to please you. They’re a bunch of liars preaching lies—and claiming I sent them! I never sent them, believe me.” God’s Decree! This is God’s Word on the subject: “As soon as Babylon’s seventy years are up and not a day before, I’ll show up and take care of you as I promised and bring you back home. I know what I’m doing. I have it all planned out—plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for.  When you call on me, when you come and pray to me, I’ll listen. When you come looking for me, you’ll find me. Yes, when you get serious about finding me and want it more than anything else, I’ll make sure you won’t be disappointed.” God’s Decree. “I’ll turn things around for you. I’ll bring you back from all the countries into which I drove you”—God’s Decree—“bring you home to the place from which I sent you off into exile. You can count on it.

~ Jeremiah 29:4-13 The Message

In light of what we have been talking about in previous days, what do you notice about this passage?  

Tomorrow we will chat more….

 

Love Idealized

Finally, this:

“You think it’s just a small thing, don’t you,  to try out another sin-project when the first one fails? But Egypt will leave you in the lurch  the same way that Assyria did. You’re going to walk away from there  wringing your hands. I, God, have blacklisted those you trusted. You’ll get not a lick of help from them.”
~ Jeremiah 2:36-37 The Message

Confusion.  The Israelites are desperately in search of a life of safety and significance;  they keep chasing after different dreams hoping to find the magic combination of love connection and purposeful living that brings them what they long for - wow, can you relate?  I can.

When my mentors talked on and on about the most important thing I needed to know they spoke about what I needed to do:  love well. I found this a hard pill to swallow. Today, I understand that in large part it seemed like a message without hope.  I didn’t know how to love well and found few models for it when I looked around at the people I knew - and I knew some pretty awesome people.  My confusion came in the form of black and white thinking. I thought that loving well meant loving perfectly - no selfishness, no conflict, no problems in relationships.

This is not what loving well means.  Loving well is more related to loving wholeheartedly - it begins and ends with our love for God and is revealed in our capacity to give and receive love for ourselves and to others.  

It isn’t about harmony - this kind of love is a battle cry!  It’s isn’t about not making mistakes or ever having a relational snafu - it is about caring enough to figure out how to navigate and stay the course. Love God. Respect self. Let others love us.  Learn how to love others.

How do you think you have confused love’s meaning in your own relationships?

 

Delusion

Jeremiah continues to systematically lay out God’s charges against his people, including:  

“What a generation you turned out to be! Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I warn you? Have I let you down, Israel? Am I nothing but a dead-end street? Why do my people say, ‘Good riddance! From now on we’re on our own’? Young women don’t forget their jewelry, do they? Brides don’t show up without their veils, do they? But my people forget me. Day after day after day they never give me a thought. What an impressive start you made to get the most out of life. You founded schools of sin, taught graduate courses in evil! And now you’re sending out graduates, resplendent in cap and gown—except the gowns are stained with the blood of your victims! All that blood convicts you. You cut and hurt a lot of people to get where you are. And yet you have the gall to say, ‘I’ve done nothing wrong. God doesn’t mind. He hasn’t punished me, has he?’ Don’t look now, but judgment’s on the way, aimed at you who say, ‘I’ve done nothing wrong.’  

~ Jeremiah 2: 31-35 The Message

I have done nothing wrong.

Although a few people struggle with feeling as if everything is their fault, many of us have the opposite issue.  We cannot seem to figure out what we’ve done wrong in a given situation. It’s awfully hard to give and receive love all willy nilly if we cannot see the ways that we either make it difficult for folks to love us or we find it difficult to love others.

The truth is, there are many things that we do and say and think and feel - all in the name of love - that is not love.

In what ways do you find it difficult to admit that what you have done wrong?

 

Bringing Charges

Through Jeremiah God explains to his people how their relationship got into such a mess that even his patience has run its course:

       —God’s Decree—  “charging you and your children and your grandchildren. Look around. Have you ever seen anything quite like this? Sail to the western islands and look. Travel to the Kedar wilderness and look. Look closely. Has this ever happened before, that a nation has traded in its gods for gods that aren’t even close to gods? But my people have traded my Glory for empty god-dreams and silly god-schemes.  
`“Stand in shock, heavens, at what you see! Throw up your hands in disbelief—this can’t be!” God’s Decree. “My people have committed a compound sin:  they’ve walked out on me, the fountain of fresh flowing waters, and then dug cisterns—cisterns that leak, cisterns that are no better than sieves.”
~Jeremiah 2: 11-13 The Message

My son who studies such things explained to me recently that, historically, people who worshipped many gods didn’t throw one away and replace them with a better god, they added to their deity collection.  In this passage God is saying to his people, in essence, you have respected me less than the tribes around you who worship idols. You traded me in. To make matters worse God says that his people have adopted false strategies by putting their hope in other countries, leaders and material possessions to keep them safe.  I believe that our conscious contact with God through the practice of spiritual disciplines provides us with wisdom, insight and healing that cannot be found anywhere else. But we, like the Israelites of old, keep looking in all the wrong places to find our sense of well-being and our wholeness.

What about you?  What have you pursued in the hope that it would make you whole and well?  There are many tools and treatments and such that help us recover our lives, but to reject hope in a power greater than ourselves and try to handle life on our own, independent of spiritual pursuits, may fall under the category of false strategy.

 

Love in Context

The bible provides us stories of God calling his people to do extraordinary things.  Who doesn’t want to be extraordinary? I do! I want to be courageous and a full on follower of God.  Because these stories (which we emphasize and challenge ourselves to live up to) feed our own egos and desires for significance, I think it has caused us to miss the obvious.

 

 

It is true that some people are called to do extraordinary things as an expression of their faith.  But those are actually the exceptions. Mostly, I believe, we are provided a vision for living an ordinary day-to-day life with extraordinary vision for its sacredness. The longest book in the bible is the book of Jeremiah.  In it we find an unflinching portrayal of a people who have forgotten who they are because they have lost touch with what they once knew of God and his relationship to them. This is our eternal dilemma it appears. Maintaining conscious contact with God and his inspired way of seeing is for whatever reason, I do not know it, a constant challenge.  

 

Jeremiah is tasked with trying to wake up his sleepy tribe and help them remember in a vain attempt to avoid the 70 year banishment.  He’s a gloomy guy and not very popular (the truth rarely is well-received). But he combines his doom and gloom prophesy with the promise of restoration - if his people would just wake up and return to God.  There are three things that plagued the Israelites and I suspect continue to plague us - all of which distort our capacity to give and receive love:

 

  1. False strategies for abundant living

  2. Self-deception

  3. Straight up confusion

 

I hope to break these down and explain them further in the next blog post but just to be clear - these three problems impact our capacity to give and receive love.  And love, in the kingdom of God is a big freaking deal.

 

Today, take some time to assess your own love potential and practices.  Do you ever get confused about how to express love in a challenging relationship?

Love Misunderstood

11-15 “I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father.

~ John 15:11-15 The Message

 

 

If I have a very fuzzy idea about how God loves, it makes sense that I would have trouble figuring out how to love the way he loves me.  I had no frame of reference for a gentle, unconditional, joyful loving relationship. My relationships mostly seemed conditional, hinging on my capacity to please the person whose love I desperately desired.  I often felt like there was some love system that I was trying to game in order to trick someone into caring about me.

 

When I read the Old Testament I was confused by this God who scorched cities wiping dens of inequity.  Don’t misunderstand, these folks seemed to deserve what they got - but where did that leave me on the spectrum of God smiting?  God gave David power to slay Goliath but couldn’t seem to keep David from committing adultery and shockingly killing his faithful servant Uriah (his paramour’s husband) to hide his affair.  God kicked Adam and Eve out of the garden (I failed to notice that he went with them). Joseph, a godly guy if a bit naive when he tells his brothers that he learned in a dream that he would one day rule them seems to suffer all sorts of unfair treatment.  Is this how God loves? Does God really protect his beloved? Or are we all unworthy of being loved unless someone does something radical - like maybe dying on a cross - to save our sorry asses? Are we really so intrinsically broken? Are we all bad to the bone?  I only had to read the book of Job to fuel my doubts about whether even God could love me without me ending up battered and bruised. After all, look what happened to Job, a righteous man. Even he got kicked in the gut. And I was no Job.

 

There was this sentence in John, I learned it in the King James translation, “Greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for his friends.”  Ok, so I am supposed to love large, I thought. I am supposed to be willing to die for my friends.

 

This put me in codependent territory - a land where we pay more attention to the needs of others than we do to our own needs.  This intuitively felt “off” to me. I struggled with the concept. It turns out this struggle was valuable.

 

Do you ever feel confused by God’s love commands?  What trips you up?

 

To be continued…

Love Confusion

When I was a baby believer in a power greater than myself I asked my mentor, “I just do not understand why you keep talking about love.  I think it is more important that I learn more about God.”

 

 

Feel free to roll your eyes.

 

As a baby believer, I had a LOT to learn.  I was confused about the things I needed to know.  I was growing up in an age where emphasis was placed on the study of the scriptures - nothing wrong with that!!  I was given the impression that I would do well to learn Greek, Hebrew, and how to pull apart God’s “inerrant” word phrase by phrase. There is value in this type of study.  But as a newbie, I thought the highest priority was what I KNEW (and I didn’t know much) not how I LIVED. (After all, Jesus died for my sins so far better for me to spend my time learning about God than spending time in rigorous self-examination.) My mentors had no idea that this is how I was misinterpreting their teaching!!!

 

But they had been believers for a long time.  I am not sure they understood the heart of a young woman who easily felt guilty and ashamed kneeling before a BIG GOD.  This was complicated by a complete lack of understanding on my part about my responsibility for dealing with the wreckage of my past.  I was too new at this spirituality stuff to NOT make confusing leaps of logic. The Jesus story through my eyes sounded like (and to be fair we sang a hymn every now and again that said this) Jesus “paid it all”.  This left me convinced that there was nothing left for me to “do”.

 

This is a far different perspective than the 12-steps, a process where we learn how to take responsibility for our side of the street; make amends; serve others.  Lest we forget, the first three steps set the stage for this later work. We have stuff we have to acknowledge, we are encouraged to have hope in our higher power, we are told that if we surrender, God does the heavy lifting in the healing department AND then, we begin to do our work.

 

It took decades for me to begin to see the vision of God’s kingdom come together in a more coherent fashion.  Yes it is important to know this God, to understand him. Yes it is important to know how to take responsibility for ourselves.  Yes we have wounds from our past, many of which are not our fault. Yes we have responsibility for participating in the healing work - which is often long, winding and more process-driven than miracle-receiving.  And yes, yes, 1,000 times yes - it ALL has to do with this love that God has and gives to us. It all matters. Clearly, I was confused. And of all the confusing things I was learning, how to love was the most confusing of all.  To be frank, I believe that some of the things I was taught now feel more like codependency run amok than what the bible actually teaches about love of God, self and others. But let’s be honest - some of the verses in the bible can easily be applied in a confusing manner no matter our best intentions.  I want to unpack love for a few days!

 

To be continued…