Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Rude Awakening

It happened over 15 years ago. I was spending time at a church camp where a friend of mine was also staying. One afternoon, she came to me in tears. She had overheard several of the ladies talking about her. It was not good. She was devastated, angry and hurt. My heart broke for her. We sat on a bench together as she shared her pain and I did my best to comfort her. As she shared the things that she had overheard, I began to feel a discomfort within me, like heartburn, only in my spirit instead of my esophagus. It grew as I heard the words and labels used to describe her. It developed into full-blown, bilious misery as I recognized the hurtful words were ones that I had in the past used to describe my friend in conversation with others. I felt sick.

My friend, let's call her *Melanie, had lived a difficult life, and like many people who live difficult lives, she had ways of coping with her struggles that sometimes caused other people to struggle as well. I often found myself overwhelmed by her needs, and when I allowed resentment to build up I began to grumble and complain about her to others. I know now that there were other ways of dealing with the issues I faced with Melanie, but when we allow ourselves to indulge in the more miserable, hurtful ways of coping with other people we deny ourselves the possibility of learning new, more effective and loving ways. I was allowing myself to grumble, to gossip and tear down someone who would have been utterly devastated if she knew what I was saying about her.

That much was obvious, as I sat beside her trying to console her. I was overwhelmed with a sense of shame. The ladies who's gossiping she had overheard were not close friends, but she respected them and wanted them to like her. I knew that if she had ever heard me involved in a conversation like that, it would have been disastrous. As I listened to her, I was in an inner dialogue with God. He was dealing with me in His severe, Fatherly way. He reminded me that the fact that Melanie didn't hear me talking about her like that was a protection for her, not for me. I'm pretty sure if she had been stronger and it would have led to something positive for her, God would have exposed me like a bug under a rock. And I deserved it. I was ashamed, and knew that I needed to change the way I looked at people and handled the frustration and even irritation when they arose. I had, and still sometimes am broken, and I know the care and patience that I hope for from those around me. I needed to be ready to offer the same to others.

Were it not for the forgiving love and power of God, I would probably still be wearing the scarlet "H" on my forehead. "H" for hypocrite. For pretending to be what I am not, pretending to think things I don't, pretending to be more patient and loving and self-controlled than I am. I think gossiping and tearing people down behind their backs is one of the clearest examples of hypocrisy, and one that very few of us escape. It's clear, because of the whole, "behind their back" thing. And saying nasty, rude, ugly things to people's faces doesn't clear us from the charge of hypocrisy unless we will also admit to being nasty, rude, ugly people. One definition of hypocrisy is this, insincerity by virtue of pretending to have qualities or beliefs that you do not really have. Often people will be insulting and rude, and claim that they are just telling the truth. We can tell if these people are truly dedicated to the cause of truth by how well they handle the truth about themselves.

One of the main things that I learned from this incident with Melanie, aside from the horrid consequences of gossip and grumbling (don't believe for one moment that gossip is a victimless crime), is that I needed to be careful throwing words like "hypocrite" around. One of the ways that God instills kindness and mercy into us is by showing us who we really are, behind all the designer clothes, make up, trophies, bank accounts and titles. I couldn't even be angry at the ladies who had been gossiping about Melanie. I was below them, because I loved her! The thing with God is that while looking at ourselves as we truly are is a painful endeavor, it is also just a stepping stone. There is forgiveness available, instantly. There is the power of the Holy Spirit at work within us (ah, the mystery of it all!) to bring about growth in the beautiful fruits of His Spirit ~ love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.(Galatians 5:22 - 23) There is freedom from the pull of doing these awful things, that begins when we are willing to admit that they are, indeed, awful and not just when they are being done to us, but also when they are being done by us. There is wisdom to show us other healthy, loving ways of dealing with things when we have given up our own messy, wrong ways.

So now, I use the word, hypocrite, lightly. I do my best to be real and honest. I make mistakes, and avail myself of God's grace and the forgiveness of the people around me often. I try really hard not to label entire people groups or religions as hypocritical because I believe that when we do that we are not being authentic ourselves. Besides, labels shut the door on truth. On second chances. On God's ability to change hearts and lives. On our prayers for others. On the possibility, however vague (ha ha) that we might not be in the position to know all the facts, all the details, all the truth involved. We certainly can't claim to know all the people in a certain group well enough to be able to claim, with any integrity, that they are all anything. I am more careful with my words, because I believe that my tongue is akin to a loaded gun. I seek to find my significance in God alone, in His view of me, in His love for me so that the opinions of others, while they may sadden me, are less likely to trigger a knee jerk anger reaction. It's either that, or cut my tongue out. I try because I care. I try because I am weak. And I try because going through the rubble of a life scarred by harsh words was a lesson I will never forget. I have since gone through the sting of what Melanie experienced. Going through it as a victim of it, though, wasn't nearly as poignant or powerful as being the guilty party. It is scary to look at ourselves with honesty and clarity at times. But what Melanie taught me is that it is scarier not to.

*names have been changed to protect the innocent*

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Have I mentioned that Marc lost his job?

So, Marc lost his job a couple of weeks ago. I guess I forgot to mention that here, haven't I? I didn't really forget. At first, I wanted to give Marc a chance to digest the news. He came home from a construction job he is doing for a friend of ours, with the news. The official reason was that his position was to be terminated. Marc was a technician for a company that sells systems for residential waste water management. He supervised installations, did inspections and repairs and had been working there for three years. Being let go so suddenly was a shock, to say the least.

It took us all a few days to incorporate the news into our lives, but Marc was understandably hit harder. He didn't sleep for several days, laying in bed thinking about what he might have done differently. After a bit of time and a discussion with a friend who is also an ex-employee of the company, he was able to find some perspective on the situation and relaxed a bit.

I realized, from walking this journey with him and watching how others would relate to him when he told them the news, that one of the hardest things for us to do when someone is hurting is listen. I have always been impressed with Job's friends in this aspect. I know that they went on to offer all sorts of unhelpful blather that has fueled countless sermons on the the evils of...well, unhelpful blather. But listen to their initial reaction to Job's considerable sorrows;

When Job's three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was. Job 2:11-13

These three guys went to Job and sat with him in the dirt for seven days and nights in complete silence. Am I alone in finding that simply remarkable? I know they said all the wrong things afterward, but I think there might be something about entering into another person's sorrow so faithfully that makes up for a considerable amount of stupid.

So Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, funky names aside, impress me. It's not easy to sit still and not try to fix other people's problems. I saw this with Marc. He just wanted to talk about what had happened and how he felt about it. He needed people to listen. Just listen.

He also needed lots of physical affection. Ladies, just a quick note here. If your husband is struggling with a blow like this, especially one that bats his self-esteem and sense of self-worth around like a beach ball, it is often helpful to use physical touch as a means of communicating concern, love and acceptance. Back rubs, hand holding, hugs, and yes, even making love can bring a lot of comfort to a man, especially if he is struggling to identify or communicate his concerns. As women, we often find comfort in difficult times though physical touch. We hug friends, pat hands, cuddle children, cry in each others' arms, stroke kittens, and just generally find ways to comfort ourselves. Men get much less physical touch than we do, and most of it comes from us. Never underestimate the value of a hand on his back, a brief touch in passing and other moments of intimacy to give him the unmistakable feeling of being loved and accepted no matter what is going on.

Learning to listen requires faith in God and His plans for us and others. It is a glorious thing to listen to someone talk themselves into godly solutions and mindsets. We understand that God is at work, through His Spirit, and we are mere servants in the process. It doesn't mean that words are not useful, but it is only after freely, patiently and trustingly listening that we can have any hope of our words being what we want them to be - comforting, wise, up-lifting. Also, if what comes out when we finally do open our mouths is mindless blather, well then at least we haven't completely messed up. Comforting others is often less about saying the right thing and more about being present.

This is something that I am only beginning to learn. You may not have noticed, but I have a tendency to be a bit wordy. Okay, how could you not have noticed? :) In any case, I read once that the type of fasting needed by most preachers (I would add teachers, speakers and writers as well) is a fasting of words. I tend to use words like my husband uses duct tape - to fix everything. Only, and I realize I may be offending a whole segment of the population here, duct tape doesn't actually fix everything. Neither do words.

So, Marc lost his job. He has a few leads on other jobs, and in the meantime, today he is setting up the chick nursery because on Friday, hopefully, the eggs in the incubator will hatch. Who knows where the next few months will lead us? Well, God knows. That is good enough for me. What I do know is that God loves us and has promised to care for us and that whatever happens, it will be an adventure.

That is also good enough for me!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Discipleship - Saying No To Myself

A couple of weeks ago, I was praying to God and telling Him that I wished to be like Jesus. I was confessing to Him that I was not like Jesus in the ways that I wanted, and was asking for help. In my heart, I heard the question, "In what ways are you not like Me? Be more specific." I realized that I was being very general. In fact, my generality bordered on insincerity. It was a blanket prayer, with no teeth to it, no intention or purpose. It was like, "Please God, make me smarter!" Smarter in what? Mathematics? Computer technology? As a mother? A chicken lady? A writer?

I stopped mid-prayer and thought for a minute. The answer that came soon to my mind was that I wanted God to help me to say no to myself the way Jesus did. As I sat and talked with God about it, I began to realize how difficult it is for me to say no to myself in many areas. I also began to realize how much I get to say yes to myself. The issue is not just denying myself things or experiences when need be, it is in my attitude when I have to. I have so many choices each day. We all do. And every choice gives us the opportunity to say yes or no to something that we want. It's not always obvious.

Many years ago, one mother told me that she had always laid out her husband's and adult son's clothes for them each day. It seemed like a wildly selfless act to me, until she told me why she did it. She liked for them to look the way she wanted them to, and was concerned that if they picked out their own clothes, their choices might be an embarrassment to her. She did it for her own pleasure and gratification, not as a gift to her family. There are "sacrifices" that I make during my day that really serve my desire to be thought of as a good mother and wife, that make my life and home more comfortable for all of my family, including myself or that serve to bring positive responses my way. We cannot really look at our lives objectively and decide whether or not we are truly selfless. Jesus talked about doing selfless deeds privately, because if we trumpet them from the rooftop, (or discreetly mention them to the town gossip), we have received our reward. A task done for a reward to self is not selfless, now, is it?

I, like may people, can tend to labor under the opinion that I am not appreciated enough and that my sacrifices go unnoticed too often. I have been known to adopt an air of righteous martyrdom. Thankfully, my 15 year old daughter has perfected the art of rolling her eyes and proclaiming, "Oh, puleeeeaaaase, Mother!" Nothing keeps one humbly grounded like a teenager, bless them.

The whole point of being a disciple is to follow the Rabbi so closely that one soon comes to look, talk, and act like Him. I don't think Jesus ever sported martyrdom chic, not even on the cross. In Matthew 4, Jesus was led by the Spirit of God into the desert for a 40 day fast and a supreme test in saying no to Satan, and to Himself. Three times, after Jesus abstained from food for 40 days, Satan tempted Him by offering Jesus food to eat, a supernatural display of God's care for Him and power over the kingdoms of the world. To each offer, Jesus said no. Even though Jesus was interacting with Satan, ultimately He was being forced to deny Himself not simply comforts but nourishment that His body must have been screaming for. His answer to each temptation was direct and to the point, "It is written..." Essentially, Jesus responding to everything Satan said with, "God said..."

God said that man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from His mouth.

God said that we should not test Him.

God said I must only worship and serve Him.

God said no.

I, on the other hand, am lousy at saying no to myself, even when saying no would be in my best interest. Don't get me wrong. I know how to say no to my daughter. To the kitten climbing my leg. To the dog losing it on the bunny and shaking him until his teeth fall out. To the telemarketer guy who calls at suppertime to offer me a deal I can't refuse. I can say no to the infomercial people. I can so say no to a Snuggie. I can say no and back it up with the broom, to the rooster. And I am not totally useless at telling myself no. But I want to be able to do it with the freedom and grace that Jesus did it.

So I specifically asked God to help me to say no to myself more. The first step is confession, and then the Holy Spirit heightens awareness within me so I can see where and when I am allowing my desire for my own way to master me. I can already see God working in me as I continue to pray and be open to His gentle but oh so firm revelations about my own heart.

Last week I went to a health food store in Valleyfield looking for aloe vera capsules. I bought some on-line for a company called Desert Harvest, which does research in aloe vera for several chronic illnesses, including the bladder disease that I have, interstitial cystitis. I bought a bottle of their freeze dried, super concentrated capsules, and had wonderful results with it. Unfortunately, a one month supply costs almost $70.00. I have been trying to find a similar product, with a comparable concentration of aloe at a cheaper price. Aloe vera juice is not suitable because in order for it to keep, it must be pasteurized, which kills the benefits from the plant, or it needs to have citric acid added to it, which defeats the purpose for IC patients who need to minimize the acid that makes it to the bladder.

The health food store didn't have aloe vera capsules, but they had a liquid called Alo-Chloro, which is a foul concoction of aloe vera juice and chlorophyll. It is supposed to help acidic stomachs, and I thought it might work for bladders as well. I bought a bottle, and when I got it home I realized that I had paid $40.00 for the most vile tasting liquid I had ever tasted. The stuff tasted like grass, only not as good. Chewed grass. Maybe even the grass stuff that cows whip up out of their cuds when they're bored. Truly nasty. It is dark green, and stains everything. Of course I had no idea how foul it was when I bought it. Talk about buyers' remorse. I take a tbsp of it every morning, especially now that I have run out of the Desert Harvest capsules. I ordered more capsules last night, but in the meantime, I have to use this stuff. Have I mentioned how nasty it is?

I put the Alo-chloro stuff in a fancy aperitif glass with a shot of sweetened blueberry juice to hide the color. Inevitably and inexplicably, I always smell it before I take it. Like, one day it will magically smell (and therefore taste) like fresh berries or chocolate or something. I don't breath through my nose when I am taking it, so it just tastes sweet and cold. Then I breath, at which point I do what is becoming my daily dance of gagging revulsion. I have to admit, though, that having an audience does add a certain intensity and vigor to the dance.

Forcing myself to down an aperitif glass full of Alo-chloro is so minor, it barely counts. But it counts. Saying no is getting easier. Every baby step helps. Whether it is choking down my medicine, or forgoing an extra few bites of food at a meal time when I am full, or cheerfully watching a movie that someone else wants to watch, God is answering my prayer. It's all so small, it's a bit embarrassing, but I keep thinking of God asking me to be specific, to break my vague prayer into daily realities, and I know that He is meeting me where I am.

Great spiritual transformations happen because a disciple of Jesus catches a glimpse of Him in a new and beloved way, and longs to follow Him even there.

Who knows? Maybe someday, the Alo-chloro dance will become a jig of joy!!!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Verbal Bullying - Not just a schoolyard thing...

Over time the sting has lessened. God is an amazing healer. But I remember the words, if not the burn. And I wish it had been an isolated incident. But these things rarely are.

I was in a church board meeting. One of the church lay leaders was accusing me of something, a moral misstep that would have had severe repercussions in my life and the lives of others if it was true. It wasn't true, though. I said that it wasn't true. In a moment of utter disrespect and rudeness, the lay leader flippantly referred to me by using the name of a "celebrity" who had committed the same sin that I was being accused of, and who went to great lengths to hide it. It was one name, two words, pregnant with meaning and accusations. Flippant so as to be passed over as the flow of discussion continued with no reactions at all from a group of people that I had always called friends and family in the faith. It even took a moment to sink into my head. What had he said? Did he mean...? Really? And this is okay with everyone?

The truth is, I will never know if it actually was okay with everyone else, that this person had said these words. One of the primary results of verbal bullying is that it silences not just the victim, but those listening. Who wants to end up on the radar of someone who speaks like this? Some of the people in the room were working towards the same goals as this lay leader, and whether or not they agreed with his methods, they seemed willing to accept them if they led to the desired end. What they may not have realized is that verbal bullying and abuse never result in anything positive. It is especially abhorrent when these methods are employed in the church. We are never...NEVER... to use Satan's tools to accomplish God's will. It just does not work that way. What we end up with is a semblance of godliness that disguises a whole lot of ugly.

A truthful witness gives honest testimony,
but a false witness tells lies.
Reckless words pierce like a sword,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing.
Truthful lips endure forever,
but a lying tongue lasts only a moment.
Proverbs 12:17 - 19

So, what is verbal bullying? It is the use of ridicule, insults, name calling, a raised, aggressively forceful or angry voice, labeling, mocking or otherwise using words to hurt another person, especially in response to their opposing opinions or point of view. It is using words to shut down someone, to deter them from speaking their minds, to try to defeat their arguments by defeating the person as opposed to addressing the facts. The term bullying tends to apply to a power inequality. Two equally opinionated, wildly tempered people going at it over coffee at the local coffee shop may not be bullying. A married couple having a spat and saying things they will regret later may be hurtful and inappropriate, but may not necessarily be bullying. It may also not always be verbal. I have seen cold, dismissive stares shrink the spirit of someone trying to share an opinion. It is not always loud, and it can even sound civil to anyone who is standing on the outside looking in. Most of us are quite schooled in the fine art of crumpling another person's spirit. It is a heart issue. It is a desire within us to win, to defeat an opponent, to burn a person while the issues get tossed in a pile as mere kindling to our flames. It is bullying when the victim is caught off-guard, is intimidated, is unable to defend themselves. When there is an authority inequality, as with a teacher and student, pastor and parishioner, parent and child, verbal aggression almost always equals bullying.

Most of us are much more aware of the times we have been bullied, and much less aware of our own propensity for bullying others. Freedom from both being a victim and being an aggressor lies in a deepening, personal relationship with God, who is passionately in love with us and every other person we meet. As we enter into His Presence, find rest in His ways and His love, His passions become our passions and we become sensitive to the pain we cause others, and strengthened in our positions as His beloved children. I am much less easily bullied than I used to be, because bullying implies a power inequality, and I am filled with the power of the Holy Spirit of God and secure in my place in His heart. It is difficult to over-power the gentle, strong, compassionate, peaceful, joyful power of God in one of His children. I am also becoming less likely to bully others, as my heart is softened by God's love for others. When I am tempted to use anger to force my daughter into a place of obedience, the hurt in her eyes and the whisper of God's spirit in my heart remind me of the wrongness of my actions. God gives us the freedom to express our feelings and opinions, to fully experience our sorrows and pain, and to be at peace with the feelings and opinions of others even when they do not match ours.

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Philippians 2:5 - 11

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

In His Steps...Really?

Lately I have been re-reading Charles Sheldon's "In His Steps". I read it years ago, after I began to follow Jesus, and was very moved by the story and the idea of patterning my life after Jesus Christ's. "In His Steps" is the story of a small church whose members make the commitment to ask, "What would Jesus do?" The changes in their lives that result from their commitment bring them hardships, sacrifices and trouble, but also great joy and peace.

I have to admit, as I re-read this wonderful story, one question keeps coming to mind. How did such a revolutionary, profound idea as patterning one's life after the life of Jesus Christ lead to a logo, WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?), that would end up engraved on jewelry, stamped on fashionable clothing and fixed onto placards and bumper stickers to be used to adorn our fine homes and vehicles? How did we come to turn a solemn, life changing question into easy banter, a flip observation, an experiment?

I understand the hesitation to embrace the lifestyle of discipleship to Jesus. Luke 14:25 - 35 talks about counting the cost of discipleship, and it is high.

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

"Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.'

"Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.

"Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out.
"He who has ears to hear, let him hear."

It is important to understand that until we are ready to go all the way that Jesus will lead, we need to spend time in prayer and preparation, allowing God to strengthen us and help us prepare for the journey. A wise pastor once told me that if I was not willing to take a certain step for God, I could ask God to make me willing, or even willing to be willing if needed. I did just that, and a year later when the step of faith was presented to me, I was able to leap into it without hesitation. God is faithful in the face of our most pitiful weaknesses!

We are fooling ourselves in thinking that He will accept half-hearted disciples who wish to remain half-hearted. But those who confess half-heartedness and desire more are met with love and compassion and great, heart changing power.

I understand that the hesitation. What I don't get is the whole-hearted embracing of the WWJD motto without whole-heartedly embracing the actual commitment!

For the people in the book, for Charles Sheldon, WWJD was written on their hearts in sweat and tears. It was not embossed in gold on calfskin leather Bibles. Or engraved in a shiny medallions. Am I advocating against these things? Of course not. As with all things spiritual, this is a heart issue. The commitment to living as Jesus would, to choosing in every decision to do what Jesus would do led to people giving up lives of self-actualization, self-indulgence, self-focus, unadulterated comfort, social standing and financial security in order to place their hope in something greater and their efforts in something far more precious than anything they had worked towards before.

These choices were not those that they made for each other. The spirit of the book is one of grace, patience, kindness and a deep respect for their fellow disciples. Each person worked out their own path to obedience to Christ from their own relationships with Him. There was a humility of spirit that prevented judgmental attitudes towards each other.

I am speaking to myself as much as to anyone. When I re-read this book, my first thought was surprise. It felt like I was reading it for the first time. I didn't remember all the pain and sacrifices. Maybe I felt admiration for these fine, courageous people. Maybe I wished I had wealth that I too could sacrifice for Jesus. I have learned since that I am wealthy, in many ways, and have much to share with others. Do I share my wealth in a way that Jesus wants me too? Believe me, I am speaking to myself.

I have a lot of questions today. Not a lot of answers, though. I think these may be the kind of answers that take time and prayer to find. I think...I believe they are worth the effort. Jesus is worth the effort.
My Zimbio