• Forgiving Is Hard, Not Impossible

    One of my many idiosyncratic beliefs is that Africa has a special role to play in God’s upside down kingdom. For so long, Africa has been last which according to Jesus’ words, means that the day is coming when they will be first. I suspect that we will be looking to them in order to understand God’s kingdom rather than assuming that it is our job as westerners to hand out the kingdom like a goody bag to the rest of the world.

    I bring this up because, as you might know, it is the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide in which 1,000,000 people were killed in 100 days. It was a remarkable spasm of violence and hatred such as the world has never seen before. Truly unspeakable things happened during those 100 days. Rarely has humanity’s capacity for evil been put on such lurid display.

    One startling and fascinating thing about the Rwandan genocide is that in the early 80s, there were a series of Marian apparitions which took place in Rwanda. Three different youth were given horrific visions of the genocide which took place in 1994. The apparition of Mary in Rwanda is one of only three Marian apparitions which has been given approval by the Roman Catholic Church.

    In one of her messages, Mary said, “Today, many people do not know any more how to ask forgiveness.” Now, on the anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, the people of Rwanda bring an astonishing testimony of forgiveness to the world.

    I hope that we will take their witness seriously and allow their example to inspire us to seek forgiveness from those we have wronged and to forgive those who have wronged us. The witness of the Rwandan people shows us that whether we are dealing with conflicts between neighbors or between nations or groups, the seeking and giving of forgiveness are the only way forward for humanity.

    Below are images and quotes from Rwandan perpetrators and their victims. You can find more pictures and quotes, along with an explanation in this New York Times story “Portraits of Reconciliation”: Continue reading

  • Being Kind Without Being Hurt

    My mother always taught me that you can never go wrong being kinder than necessary. I believe that this is true and have tried to live my life with that perspective. However, this outlook can also leave you vulnerable to being mistreated. It’s why a lot of people are hesitant to be kinder. However, if we’re all focused on avoiding being hurt, it makes it very hard for being kind to become normal rather than exceptional.

    Avoiding being hurt is a legitimate concern, of course. Jesus told us to love other “as we love ourselves”, not “instead of loving ourselves”. It is not good or healthy to extend kindness to others at the expense of our own mental and emotional wellbeing. And yet, unless you want to continue living in with the results of human being protecting themselves at the expense of other human beings, we must learn to do a better job extending kindness.

    I have a simple trick I use which allows me to take the risk of being kinder than necessary or called for without leaving myself open to being unduly harmed in the process. Before I take a risk or extend kindness and forgiveness to someone who may not deserve it or be trustworthy, I do a quick gut check. I simply imagine the worst case response from the other person and see what my gut level reaction to the idea is. Hopefully I’ll realize that the worst case scenario isn’t so bad after all. I can take the risk of being kinder than called for, confident that I can deal with whatever result I get.

    On the other hand, if do my gut check and realize that I’m unwilling or unable to deal with the worst case scenario, I respect my own limitations and refrain from taking the step I was considering. Of course, there have been days where I have decided not to make phone calls simply because I knew that I wasn’t up for dealing with the possibility that the person I’m calling would ignore/refuse my call. Which is healthy when your emotions are particularly fragile. But as I said earlier, the goal isn’t simply for us to self protect. The goal is to be kinder than necessary without doing harm to ourselves.

    So, if I do my gut check and realize that I’m not up for dealing with a negative outcome, I consider why that would be. And if there’s anything I can do about it. Sometimes I just need to give myself a little pep talk. Sometimes I realize that I have an unhealthy attachment to the other person’s approval which I should be doing something about. Or maybe I have a fear I need to hand over to God. On occasion, I’ve just had enough of someone’s crap and am perfectly entitled to take a break from dealing with it.

    Ideally, I would be out in the world just spreading kindness with the joy of the Dali Lama and not a care in the world. If I’m not able to do that (and I’m not. Neither are you), that’s a sign that I’m still a work in progress. There’s room for growth and healing. Being conscious of when kindness is a struggle rather than something I do with ease actually increases my ability to be kinder than necessary.

    Sure, this approach means that in the short term, I may hold back more than I ideally would. But it also creates a safe place for me to expand my boundaries. And I’m not going to find myself in a position where I’ve been so hurt or traumatized by someone who responds to my kindness by being a jerk that I’m hesitant to try it again. So, who knows? Maybe one day I will be able to go around spreading kindness without a care in the world. Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world filled with people like that?

  • When You Can’t Agree

    It is one thing to oppose what you think is messed up; it’s a whole other thing to be and live the alternative. ~ Jim Palmer

    At some point, you have made your best case and your opponent has made their best case. You still disagree and are certain your opponent fundamentally misunderstands reality. Any further discussion will quickly devolve into “unuh”, “uhhuh” levels of discourse. Repeating the same set of arguments over and over is a good sign that you’ve entered into this stage.
    When this happens, resist the urge to have the last word and wrestle your opponent into submission. Instead, devote yourself to living out your vision of the truth.
    Trying to explain and argue your vision of God’s truth to someone else too easily becomes a substitute for taking action. Often, before God is able to use you, needs you to give up the arguing.
    Stop trying to win the approval of your opponents. Instead, focus your thoughts and energy on creating something which is good, in and of itself, and not just better than the way you have rejected. There’s the off chance that you and your opponent with find your way into unity.
    But that’s not why you do it. You do it because God does not reveal his truth to us so we can win arguments. He reveals his truth so we can live out of it. This is how we become great. It’s how we stand tall as the trees, stronger than the storms and with a beauty that all of heaven loves to see.

  • What Not Judging Is and Is Not

    I wrote last week about not judging as a form of spiritual discipline. It occurs to me that part of our problem with not judging is that there’s a great deal of confusion regarding what is meant by not judging. So I thought I’d share a couple of thoughts regarding my understanding of it.

    Primarily, not judging means being open to correction. My parents used to always say to me, “you think you’re always right”. Which was true. If I thought I was wrong, I would change my mind. Why would I knowingly hold onto a belief which I knew was wrong?

    The truth is, we all work from the assumption that what we think is correct. That’s not the problem. The problem is that when we judge, we cut ourselves off from considering that we might be wrong. And we’re always wrong about something. Otherwise we’d be God.

    We get into trouble when we fail to accept that our understanding of what is right is always going to be inadequate and flawed. Unfortunately, a lot of churches actively encourage us to judge by insisting that their teachings are indesputably correct. Adopt church teachings as your own, and you never have to face the limits of your own understanding. In fact, holding firm to your faith, they teach, requires that you refuse to be open to the possibility of correction.

    Of course, this is simple idolotry and not faith. It is churches claiming for themselves authority which only God is able to hold. And contrary to what some Christians try to tell you, the church and God are not interchangeable.

    If we want to follow God and learn his ways, we have to always, always, always be open to having our judgment corrected. Not judging, to me, doesn’t mean refraining from seeing what’s right in front of your face. It just means being open to having your understanding or judgment regarding what you see corrected. Continue reading

  • The Hardest, Best Spiritual Practice I’ve Ever Tried

    Learning how not to judge has been the most demanding, arduous and painful spiritual discipline I have ever undertaken. It’s also been the most fruitful. I could probably write books and books filled with stories and lessons I would never have encountered if I had not made a commitment to practicing this discipline.

    While most people probably don’t think of not judging as a spiritual discipline, this is exactly how I’ve practiced it. It’s something I do out of obedience and discipline, even when I don’t feel like it or it seems pointless. It’s a conscious practice I have chosen to engage in and must make an effort to do.

    Not judging is like loving unconditionally in that people who have never really tried doing it assume it’s an easy, comfortable and safe thing to do. The truth is it’s unbelievably challenging. Most people can’t even manage it when someone cuts them off in traffic. Continue reading

  • God and Laughing

    God loves laughter. Humor makes us laugh because it triggers delighted surprise to hear that things we fear – being alone, being unloved, being ridiculed  - aren’t as awful as it seems. And when it is awful, it isn’t as serious as we thought it was. When God gave us a sense of humor, He was telling us not to be so afraid. ~R. Trotter, The Upside Down World

    I have a real soft spot for humor. It is one of the great joys of life. I’d give up sex, wealth, tasty food and reading before I’d want to give up a sense of humor. Hell, we all know old people who made just that deal; they lost all the other joys of life to aging, so now they just sit around and laugh and laugh. And they’re having a hell of a time doing it. If they have anyone to listen to them.

    (Actually, that would make a great TV show. Travel the country visiting the funniest old people and record them talking. It would be like one of those “kids say the darndest things” type shows except the old people’s jokes will actually make sense. And tell us something about life.)

    I was really introduced to comedy by my husband, who I still reside with largely because of how much fun it is to sit around and laugh with him. My family did not do comedy when I was growing up, largely because comedians are crude and crass and talk about sex and drugs. As if they’ve done them, even. Which, you know, isn’t an entirely unreasonable concern. I suppose.

    At any rate, I’ve watched a good bit of comedy over the last however long I’ve been married. And yes, some of it has been crude and crass and fixated on the most obnoxious abuses of sex and drugs imaginable. But on the other end of the spectrum, I’m a big fan of Garrison Keillor. His “Lake Woebegon” stories are masterpieces humor that doesn’t rely on offending or scandelizing anyone. Plus, he gets how religion and sex actually works.

    I have this theory about humor which says that along with just being enjoyable, the primary purpose of humor is to help us learn. Researchers know that when a person is presented with information while they are laughing, they are more likely to accept that information than people who received the same information from an informational or persuasive presentation. Of course, they could have learned the same thing by observing parents with their kids. If you can get a kid to laugh, they are much more willing to admit error or change their minds.

    Continue reading

  • Men, Sex and Love

    I would really, really like to quote the entirity of Micah Murray’s post on the idea that men give love to get sex and women give sex to get love. But doing that is frowned upon here on the internets, so I’m just going to quote a couple juicy bits. But these are no better than the rest of the post.

    It seemed reasonable enough. And it fit neatly with the gender stereotypes I’d heard all my life: Men think about sex every seven seconds. Women aren’t visual. Men are like microwaves; women are like crockpots.

    But, as a newly married man, I soon discovered that these ideas were both inaccurate and damaging in our relationship. Beneath the glib cliché was an economic model of sex-bartering that undermines the very essence of love.

    If it’s true that men give love to get sex, then our shared sexuality is simply a business arrangement, a deal brokered in flowers and kisses. My wife is a deluxe call girl with a long-term contract, marriage is sheer capitalism, and love is a filthy currency.

    I have to be perfectly honest and say that this view of men as base creature who want sex more than they want anything was a real problem for me. I suspect it’s been a problem for a lot of people and the church isn’t doing any favors peddling this sort of outdated stereotyping of men and women.

    I like sex. My husband says I’m good at it. But I don’t like sex so much that I’d put it above love. Frankly, I can’t imagine what sort of person “gives love” in order to get sex. At the worst, such a person is someone who uses me for his own enjoyment. At best, such a person is not someone I can really trust. What if the sex is bad? What if I’m sick or injured and can’t have sex? What if I’m upset or angry or busy? I can’t trust in a person’s love for me if it’s dependant on the quality of our sex life. How can I even understand such a person? They’re like some weird, alien being to me.

    And really, that was long how I viewed men. How I viewed my husband. I thought of them as untrustworthy, alien beings who I would never be able to really understand. Which is a horrendous perspective to bring into a situation where two people are expected to “become one”! How can I become one with someone whose love resides in their genitals and not in their heart? How could I trust their heart? Did they really have one or did everything run through their little head instead? How could I raise my boys if this were an immutable part of their mental make up?

    Of course, as Micah points out, and I’ve been learning, this isn’t actually the reality of men, love and sex. Or at least it shouldn’t be true. Any ways. You should go read the article. And pass it on!

  • Christians and Interracial Marriage

    Guys, what is this world coming to? Aljezeera America recently used the parable of the talents to explain current events. Christianity Today, the flagship publication of conservative, Evangelical Christianity, is promoting interracial marriage. And discussing racism. And even relying on the voice of a black women to explain the theology of the whole thing. The world’s going all off kilter here. 

    I know the rest of the world (and many of us) find it ridiculous that the church still struggles with these things. But we are a people whose founder said he’d go back for the one sheep dumb enough to get left behind. So perhaps it’s part of being church in the world to be a sanctuary for those who just can’t keep up with the pace of change in the world. That doesn’t mean they need to become the sanctuary’s leaders and spokespeople, of course. It’s still a work in progress.

    But look at this fruit. Doesn’t it make your heart sing?

    God abhors racism. Miriam’s skin was turned “leprous, like snow.” Her punishment was directly related to her sinful prejudice against the dark skin of the Cushite people. I did a quick search to examine the effects of leprosy. (Not recommended.) Her punishment would change the way peopleviewed her. It would not affect the way they thought of her per se, but the way they looked at her. As Miriam once looked at the Cushite woman with distain, she would now know exactly what that was like.

    What Miriam forgot, and what so many others still forget, is that all people are made in the image of God, we are all from the same Adam, and now we are all redeemed equally through Christ. Interracial marriage isn’t merely acceptable; it reflects the beauty and glory of the gospel.

    Through the gospel, we are reconciled first to God, then to one another. We are made brothers and sisters in Christ. We are counted as righteous. The gospel breaks the barriers that once divided us.

    You can read the whole post by Trillia Newbell here. Her book Union can be purchased here.

    For the last several decades we’ve heard that we ought to accept interracial relationships for two reasons. One is that we can’t tell other people what to do or who to love. The other is that all races are equal. And those are fine things. Except “everyone should be able to do what they want to do” is something a 7 year old would say. And equal does not mean the same. We still have to figure out how to deal with those differences.

    On the other hand, Newbell’s vision of interracial marriage is built around reconciliation and our true identity. She challenges us to see interracial marriage not only as an acceptable thing, but a good thing. A reflection of God’s Kingdom, in fact.

    Perhaps this is why research has found that among people who attend highly segregated churches (read: among people who attend church), those who report praying and reading their bible frequently are more likely to date outside their race. Wouldn’t it be funny if being in an interracial relationship started being on of those easily recognized markers for being Christian? I mean, we can be induced to wear cheesy and often offensive T-shirts as a way to show what super, duper, committed Christians we are. Picking a dating/marriage partner from another race in order to look like a good Christian could become a thing in our hypercompetitive church culture.

    Of course, wearing a t-shirt doesn’t grow or change you. Interracial marriage most certainly will. So maybe we should start spreading the word that interracial marriage is a thing that super committed Christians do. It’s got to be a better plan/witness than a “God’s Gym” t-shirt!

  • angrycouple

    Angry Men and Crying Women

    In the last few months, I’ve realized something about men and women and why we often struggle with each other. It might not be THE problem, but I would venture to say that it’s certainly been A problem. And figuring this out has been really helpful to me, so I thought I’d pass it on to y’all. It all has to do with the way we express our pain.

    Generally speaking, there are two ways we experience the emotion of being hurt – through anger or sorrow. They look very different, but they are basically the same thing. So a person who is raging and lashing out at the world is essentially the equivalent of someone who is wailing with grief. This is really obvious for some of you, but I suspect that I am not the only person for whom this is a bit of an eye opener.

    Most of us are trained – usually unwittingly – to express our hurt in a gender acceptable way. If you are man, you are allowed to get angry. If you are a woman, you are allowed to cry. It’s not universal, of course. But it’s common enough that it’s true more often than not.

    We’re all familiar with people telling little boys not to cry. It’s a bad habit. It cuts them off from a legitimate and necessary means of experiencing and expressing his pain. On the other hand, some room is made to allow the boy to be angry. He can kick the dirt and throw down his helmet after losing a game, but can not sit down and sob.

    It’s not talked about nearly as much, but little girls are often punished and disciplined when they get angry. Anger from a girl tends not to be seen as an expression of pain, but as a sign that she is out of control. And that’s not allowed. A good little girl is always in control of herself, willing to submit to what is expected of her. If she is hurting, she can cry in her room or to mom until she gets over it. But if she complains, throws something or has a temper tantrum, she is swiftly punished. Refusing to allow a girl to get angry cuts her off from a legitimate and necessary means of experiencing and expressing her pain.

    So. men tend to get angry and women tend to cry. Again, it’s hardly universal, but it’s common enough. Now let’s go back to how many of us see anger and sorrow working in the real world. Many parents rely on anger to discipline and control their kids. And, of course, angry people frequently say and do things that cause harm to those around them.

    Both men and women grow up with this model of anger, but we experience it very differently.Men often find anger empowering. Women find it frightening. Women find crying emotionally cathartic – a way to move through negative emotions. Men may feel helpless, irritated and embarrassed when someone is crying.

    For a woman, anger is often very frightening.  This makes sense because for women anger is associated with being controlled by someone who may be willing to hurt you. We may even go out of our way to avoid situations in which anger is expressed. For example, research has found that women are much less comfortable with disagreement in regular conversations than men. We prefer to sit around and talk about what we agree on and may keep our disagreements to ourselves, even when it would be helpful and appropriate for us to voice them.

    Boys don’t appreciate being controlled and hurt by an angry person any more than girls, I’m sure. But since boys are allowed some experience with anger, he will often learn to see it as a legitimate tool for exerting control. The fact that in anger he may hurt someone he loves may be a source of shame and guilt. But without the ability to express hurt through sorrow, the best many men can do is suppress hurt so as to reduce the likelihood of hurting someone in anger.

    On the other hand, sorrow tends to be a pretty private emotion. Even small girls will go off by themselves to cry. Many kids can go their whole childhood hardly ever seeing an adult cry. When a woman cries in front of a man, it’s because she’s in pain and she trusts him enough allow him to see that. Her expectation is that he will do what other women do and offer expressions of concern and comfort to her while she is obviously in pain. However, a lot of men have little or no experience with crying people who aren’t children. He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do, but he knows the woman is going to get angry with him if he doesn’t respond well. Often he feels that a woman who is crying in front of him is trying to manipulate or control him. (Interestingly, researchers have found that in the presence of a woman’s tears, men’s testosterone levels drop. A crying women literally makes a man feel less “manly”.)

    Odds are good that I’m describing things that most of you have experienced and observed yourselves. And no doubt some of you figured out long ago how to navigate this difference between men and women. But I do tend to be a bit slow to catch on, so realizing that anger is essentially the same thing as sorrow has been eye opening for me.

    Although I’m pretty dang tough (for a girl ;) ), anger has always made me uncomfortable. Being able to tell myself that anger is no different than sorrow, from an emotional perspective, has helped enormously. It has allowed me to make wiser choices about how to deal with and respond to anger. I’m less likely to get emotional or defensive. If someone’s really angry, I see them as someone who is really hurting rather than just as someone who is really scary. I don’t know what to do about anger except try to protect myself. But hurt? I know how to deal with someone who is hurting.

    If my husband listened to anything I said, he might be able to tell me what this looks like from the male perspective. But I would imagine that it might be helpful for a man to see a crying woman as kind of the female equivalent of a buddy who’s letting off steam. Which might make it easier to realize when she just needs someone to be present, listen and maybe offer some encouragement.

    Undoing this whole knot is a bigger task than I can take on here, obviously. But I do think it’s an important issue. Problems between the genders go back to the Garden of Eden. But we were made to live together as a whole, not in conflict with each other as warring factions.

    A friend of mine recently told me that she had a revelation that there is a serious imbalance between male and female which is causing serious problems for humanity. I think that this area is a great example of that imbalance. When men can only get angry and women can only be sad, that’s an imbalance. It affects individuals, couples, families and even communities and cultures. Heck, world history and current events probably make more sense when you consider that everything has basically been run by people whose only tool for dealing with harm done is anger.

    Clearly, world events are well beyond most of our control. But perhaps finding more balance, understanding and empathy within the context of our intimate relationships is as good a place as any for change to start.

  • 2011619152552_lady_talking_with_god

    What God Told Me Yesterday

    “I want you to know I never believed the things people said about you. Those people who said they could see better than you could what your faults are? I never saw what they thought they were seeing in you. All those times you were told that you are lazy or selfish or undisciplined or a stubborn know-it-all? I always thought the people saying those things were being incredibly unfair.

    “I know that when you took these accusations and misjudgments to heart, you were just trying to be good. But I had already made you just the way I wanted you. I had already looked at you and said you were good – very good. Headed to amazing, in fact.

    “I know you worked really hard to prove to the people who misjudged you wrong. And that you felt like until they removed the labels they put on you, it was your job to carry them. But they never had the right to put those labels on you to begin with. I’m the one who made you. You and I are the only ones who have the right to say who you are.

    “I’m glad you are letting go of those labels people put on you. You and I know what your real strengths and weaknesses are anyways. You don’t have to allow anyone else to put in their two cents. They never knew what they were talking about anyways. I know you’ve doubted that. But I can see you clearly. Those people were wrong.

    “Please know that when you were struggling against all of that misjudgment, misunderstanding and criticism, I always took your side.”