• 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.

  • 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

  • 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!

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    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.

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    Stop Hurting People

    Today, I have something really simple to say; if you hurt people as you move through life, you need to stop. Entirely. Forever.

    Look, I know that sometimes we hurt people just being who we are. We’re too much for some people and not enough for others. They have expectations we can’t live up to and they feel disappointed and let down. We make choices which we know are the very best we can do and some people feel hurt by our choices. It happens.

    But there are people who move through life hurting other people mostly because they just can’t be bothered not to.

    They feel entitled to speak and act without regard for who gets hurt because people shouldn’t be so sensitive.

    They say and do things that hurt people in the name of truth or what’s right.

    They to hurt people when they’ve been provoked.

    They hurt people when they are irritated.

    They hurt people when they are incovenienced or negatively affected by other’s behaviors.

    They hurt people because it’s too much trouble not to.

    They hurt people because they have their own problems to worry about.

    They people because they’ve never developed self control.

    They hurt people because they’ve suffered worse (and survived).

    They hurt people in order to make them so uncomfortable that they will do whatever it takes to get you to stop – ie in order to get other people to meet their demands, wishes and expectations.

    They hurt people because they are too busy with more important matters to be bothered. When they are sucessful, wealthy or secure, they will lavish good things on others to make up for it.

    They hurt people for any and every reason imaginable – we humans have an nearly limitless capacity for self-justification – remember?

    But no one is entitled to go around hurting people. No one has the right to decide for someone else what ought to be hurtful. No truth is so great that it gives you a right to hurt other people because of it. If you’re so freaking right, be happy for it, don’t take it out on some poor soul who hasn’t yet accessed your amazing grasp on truth.

    No one is entitled to move through life without being provoked, irritated or inconvenienced by other humans. When it inevitably happens, it’s an expected part of being alive, not a license to lash out or be cruel. People don’t owe it to you to be always on the look out for you and your entitled self.

    No one is entitled to inflict their unresolved problems, pain and lack of self control on the people around them. As unfair as it is, those thing are the full responsibility of the person they belong to to work out, discard and resolve. The rest of us don’t exist to serve as a release valve for your unresolved pain and problems.

    Your fellow human beings don’t exist to meet your needs and desires. They have their own lives, with their own desires, needs and opinions which exist seperate from yours. You have no right to demand that they put aside their own lives in order to serve yours. The fact that you have to resort to hurting people in order to get your way ought to tell you that your sense of entitlement has lead you dangerously off course.

    If you think you’ll have time to make up for the hurt you’ve caused later, when you’ve “arrived” at where ever you think you are going, your going to be sorely disappointed. Many of the people you hurt will not be willing to wait around that long. Those who do will be so damaged by what you’ve done on the way that your sucess will be bittersweet indeed. You will discover that you’ve been like a man who starved his family into sickness and criminality to pay for a palace for them to live in.

    All of us will occassionally hurt the people around us. We’re human. It happens. But if your presence regularly brings pain into the lives of others, stop it. You’re doing it wrong. And it doesn’t matter what else you accomplish in life – whether you are wealthy or powerful or well regarded or talented or are impeccibly stylish – your life will be a waste and a bane on humanity if you don’t do whatever it takes to stop hurting people.

    When you move through life spreading pain, you are not the great, important, ambitious, hard-nosed person you think of yourself as. You are in the process of becoming something subhuman, far less than you were created to be. You are in danger of becoming an object lesson – a warning for others who would follow in your footsteps. People will point to you and say to each other, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”

    No one lives forever. One day the good man and the evil man alike will die. And in the final review, an account of how your times was spent will be made. Many people who go through life hurting others think that when that time comes, whatever the cost ends up being, it will be worth it. Or they will be able to point to the good they did as a way to offset the hurt they caused.

    But when we die, we won’t meet a judge who weighs out our lives on scales. We won’t move on into some dark realm with the memory of our past life to remind us that we had fun while it lasted. Instead, at judgment something very simple happens. We get to know the truth of our life.

    We will experience for ourselves what we create with our lives. For those who spend their lives spreading joy, love, peace, comfort and healing, those things, multiplied and magnified by the effect they had in people’s lives will come back to them. Those who spend their lives spreading hurt, will receive back that hurt, multiplied and magnified by the effect it had in people’s life. All the excuses and accomplishments such people have used and gathered along the way, will provide no protection or comfort when the torrent of pain they created with their own lives comes back to them.

    So if you are someone who hurts people, stop it. Do whatever it takes. Get counseling. Go to AA. Tell everyone you’ve lost your voice and observe a vow of silence until you stop yourself from hurting others. Put a few scraps of paper in your right pocket and each time you think you may have hurt someone, move one piece to your left pocket. Make it your goal to go through your days with all the scraps still in your right pocket. Stop trying to control and shape everything and everyone around you. Ask God to help you recognize what is right rather than fixating on what is wrong. Practice gratitude. Meditate. Take up a martial art to develop self-control and a healthy relationship with power.

    Whatever you have to do in order to stop hurting people, do it. Make not hurting people your single minded focus. The stakes are too high for you and for everyone around you. You were made to be a blessing in this world, not a blight.

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    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.”

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    Being Light to a Darkened World

    This week we’ve been talking about our dark side and why we don’t need to fear or reject it. Yesterday we talked about bringing our dark side to God. Today, we look how doing this is the key to being able to fulfill our call to be the light of the world.

    We Christians have a real problem dealing with the sin and darkness of the world. Quite often we cast loving and standing up for truth in the face of sin as opposing calls which we must somehow learn to balance. We struggle to remain in relationship with people who are engaged in behaviors we see as sinful. We strive to “speak the truth in love” only to end up alienating those we purport to love.

    One of the things that happens when we bring our own darkness to God is we get to see how love actually deals with darkness. We see that love doesn’t condemn. We see that love calls out what is good. We see that love recognizes and illuminates the fear and hurt which lay beneath the sin and nastiness. And we see that love’s first impulse is to deal with the fear and hurt rather than confronting the sin.

    It’s like Jesus said: “seek first the Kingdom and all these things will be added unto you.” When we seek what is good, when we seek to dispel fear and heal hurt, the rest follows. Condemnation and confrontation rarely work because they bring the power of darkness to bear on the problem. And darkness is not where power is found. Light is.

    So when we go out into the world after allowing God to illuminate our own darkness, we have some idea of how to do the same for others. We know that when we see sin and darkness, our job is not to find the right balance between loving and speaking truth. Our job is to shine light on the darkness.

    So instead of cursing the dark, we seek out the good power that’s buried in the dark and illuminate it. Instead of seeing sin and hostility as an affront or being repulsed by it, we recognize the fear and brokeness which is driving it. And instead of confronting or condemning the sin and darkness, we simply set to work on the fear and hurt. We seek to relieve fear. We offer solutions to the problems people face. We offer empathy and compassion for the hurt. We do what we can to lighten their load.

    And over and over we seek, we see, we affirm and speak the truth of the good which God has planted deep in the heart of each of us. We water those seeds with the water Jesus offers – life, love, compassion, forgiveness. And we shine the light of Christ over them so that one day, should the seeds buried in the darkness begin to sprout, they will seek after the light as well.

    Don’t believe me? Think I’m being naive? Then test it. Bring your darkness to God. See what happens. Then go and do likewise for those around you.