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miracles2

Recently I came across news that four translators working with Wycliffe Bible Translations were brutally killed somewhere in the Middle East. Tracing the story back to the Wycliffe website, I read the article and came across the following words:

“Two workers died of gunshot wounds. Two other workers laid on top of the lead translator—saved his life—and died deflecting bludgeoning blows from the radicals’ spent weapons.

We praise the Lord that He protected the computer hard drives containing the translation work for eight language projects.”

These paragraphs brought forth an almost physical sense of indignation and outrage. Not at the murderers (because that goes without saying), but at the poor choice of wording and the deeper, underlying conflict of faith that the words elicited. Namely, the text says that the Lord protected the computer hard drives but, I want to ask, He didn’t protect the people? So, while the two translators were being beaten to death by weapons and the lead translator lay underneath them, God did nothing, but when it came time to destroying the computers, then he stepped in and said, “Hey, that’s enough.”?

The Christian response to this seeming contradiction and many others like it is to ascribe all the good to God, and all the bad to chance, evil, “the way things are,” depravity, the inevitable outcome of God’s gift of free choice, etc. I’ve generally accepted this view in the past, but here, with this unfortunate juxtaposition of chance against the direct intervention of God, it becomes really difficult. If God chose to protect the computer, he could have intervened and prevented the nightmarish death of the four translators, who were clearly doing his will in a dangerous setting. Since he did not protect them, my only conclusion must be that he did not intervene with the computers either. To avoid a capricious, irrational and masochistic god, I have to believe in one that is not directly involved.

Cases like this abound. When at church we pray for the healing of two individuals from a terminal illness and one heals and the other doesn’t, what are we to think? That God looked favorably on one, answering our prayers, and was just absent for the other? Inaction is also a choice, and thinking rationally, we cannot help but ascribe it to God. As a result, here too we are forced to think that it wasn’t God that saved the healed person, but that random chance just dealt him a luckier hand.

When I ask God to provide safety for my children, I am immediately affronted with the truth that there are many children whose safety God doesn’t provide. And what makes my prayers different from those of the mothers whose children die of cancer, are hungry, are lost, are perishing? The more I ponder this, the more I am unable to look at “acts of miracle” enthusiastically because, here too, an involved God ends up bearing the responsibility for all of the miracles he left undone, the millions of people he left unsaved, unhealed, unprotected.

One probable, though difficult, explanation is that God isn’t necessarily concerned with mitigating our suffering. He is concerned with gaining us. He wants us to draw closer to him, by whatever means necessary. Since ultimately our suffering will end, this very temporary discomfort is worth the closeness we will acquire with him as we lean heavily on him, pray to him, experience his love through the care of others…assuming that others are expressing their care and we have a God to reach out to. If we don’t, we just suffer, and then we’re back at square one.

No, sometimes I cannot believe in a God that acts directly, out of heaven, in and on our lives, though I very much want to. Yes, he mourns with those who mourn, yes, he rejoices with those who rejoice. But the only miracles in this world are those done by people, through the acts of their spirits which are moved by the spirit of God. If there is another explanation that makes sense out of my quandary, I do welcome it.

The Wycliffe article goes on to say that the survivors decided to stay after the attacks and continue with the work of translating the Bible. To me, that is the real miracle here, and I don’t know how much of it can be ascribed to God and how much to those courageous translators. Or maybe the two are not so easily distinguishable…

Photo credit: Juniper Spring Photography

Photo credit: Juniper Spring Photography

Some things you only understand about your parents when you become one.

For example, my mama. She would often start cooking dinner when returning home from work, while still wearing her work clothes. Memories blissfully embedded in my mind have her facing the stove, barefoot but still in her nice business semi-formal, amber earrings, hairdo and all. I would wonder, in my practical, child-like mind, why not just change out first? What is the rush? Won’t Mama get her clothes dirty? Of course, all of us were very glad when dinner was ready, thankful and oblivious to the fact that it took actual time and effort to make it.

Now, all too often, I catch myself putting the water on for the potatoes, lighting the other burner for the fish (and forgetting about it when starting to peel said potatoes), and yelling for the kids to start setting the table all before I’ve even taken off my shoes. Well, maybe I’ll get one of them off. The having and the raising of the progeny has taught me that things always take longer than planned, and that hungry, grumpy kids and hungry, stressed parents make a volatile combination. I am thinking about us, and about them, and about getting something nutritious into the family before it begins convulsing with after-school activities. These last until 7 or 8pm, and only then do I remember to take my work badge off and hang those earrings.

Or, the work-out plan. Mama started going to the gym only when we were mostly grown. But she was always exercising. Doing a few stretches outside before breakfast. Downward Dogging it in the wee hours of the morning. Lifting weights. Forgetting weights on the counter. Feeding cat. Packing lunch for Papa, lifting a couple more times. Doing a couple more stretches. Why not just take half an hour out of the day and do a solid work-out routine, I wondered. It seemed to make sense – more efficient and more productive.

Ha! Somehow it doesn’t work that way with kids. Maybe it’s a learned behavior I’ve inherited from her (the exercising while doing everything else), maybe it’s the only thing left to do? The insight that I have now is that if I don’t do it this way, I won’t do it at all. I’ll wake up, make breakfasts for all, make lunches, sign permission slips, usher our joyful bunch out, drive them to school or rush to work, at work sink into the work things, and then we already know what post-work looks like. So I find myself dragging my medicine ball to the office with me. Leg-lifting while the children are telling me about this and that. Bending down to pick up trash with a straight back and lingering in that position a few extra seconds for the stretch benefit. Ultimately, all the body parts get a workout, only differently.

The truth of the matter is that, as children, we see our parents as two-dimensional care providers. They are fun, and strict, and warm, and comforting. They are the centers of our world, but we remain egocentric, and as such, we only see them in relation to ourselves. At some point, if we are the thinking types, we realize that parents are actual people, foibles, nose hairs, quirks and all. It seems that the only action following this revelation would be to get to know your parents as people – to ask them personal questions, to probe, to discover. Unfortunately, for us kids, that would mean that we would have to lose the parent, in a way. And unfortunately for the parents, few kids are willing to do this.

homeless

You see them and try not to see them, but there they are: standing on the intersections of boulevards and roads, with dog, child or crutch in tow, and always with a sign. You may think that they are lazy, or unwilling, or you may feel sorry for them, or you may dig into your reliable trove of excuses and explanations and then the light turns green. Few who have not actually stood on corners asking for help and sending cardboard blessings know what it’s like. I have an inkling, and every time I see them, I cringe.

At a certain point in my life, for reasons still unclear to me, I ended up working 15-hour days, 6-times a week, for a full summer. Almost the entirety of each day was spent outside, in the city and suburbs of Baltimore, selling educational study-guides door-to-door. Baltimore summers are toasty, and sometime mid-summer I noticed that I had formed burn-scars on my knuckles from knocking on so many white-hot doors. But what I also noticed, from the very first day, was the inordinate toll that being outdoors, in a man-made environment, takes on a human body and on a human psyche.

Let’s start with the obvious: the elements. You are out there rain or shine, and sometimes you wish it was the rain because after being outside in 90+ degree weather in 100% humidity for a couple of hours, you start seeing things. You are lucky if you come across a McDonalds or a kind person who will offer you water. Mostly, though, you suffer. The wind messes up your hair, the drivers splatter you with puddle-grime, mosquitos sting you, as do bees, spiders, nettles and sometimes dogs. By three in the afternoon you are lobster-boil red, by five your blisters have popped. If it’s cold, you’re cold. If it’s hot, you’re hot. But whatever the weather, you are completely vulnerable, completely unsafe and mostly helpless against it.

Before all of your senses are dulled as a survival mechanism, the smells are as abrasive as the sensations of freezing and heat. You are bombarded with olfactory information that you do not need: gasoline and fumes, garbage odors, toxic whiffs of $5.99 perfume. The tantalizing aromas of fresh, sugary donuts and coffee wafting out of Starbucks wannabes are no better. You are hungry and have no place to sit down and eat your food. And when you have eaten, you have no place to relieve yourself.

The sights, too, are overwhelming. Hundreds of eyes bore into you: questioning, suspicious, misunderstanding, empathetic, apologetic, frustrated, disgusted. Before they know what you’re about, they have already passed a judgement. We all do this, don’t we? Standing precariously close to oncoming traffic, those in need must see a thousand averted glances, a thousand cars, busses, cyclists, trucks, vans – within a span of a few hours. They see everything, and, what’s worse, everyone sees them. There is no place to hide. No place to be alone, to be safe.

You’d think the visual overload would be the worst, but for me, walking up and down the streets of those subdivisions that are now permanently charred into my cerebral cortex, the worst was the noise. The cars screech, the gusts of wind howl menacingly, there is a general hummmmm to the city that insidiously bores into your sub-consciousness and slowly replaces everything else. By 7pm, there are no more songs running through your head, no thoughts, no worries; nothing at all. And this is just the first day.

For years afterwards I had nightmares that I was lost in those streets, alone and helpless and drowning in the intensity of it all. I cannot imagine what such a life does to someone who is forced to live it for months or years. Unable as I am to solve the problems of poverty, when I see folks out on the street, my heart goes out to them because I know that they must be hurting.

for the birds
About a week ago I saw in my newsfeed a motivator. It was a picture of a bird on a branch, with a caption underneath: “A bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because its trust is not in the branch, but in its own wings.” It seemed like a quaint little fortune cookie nugget of wisdom; an uplifting happy thought admonishing us to “Always trust in yourself.” It should have been harmless, but it sparked in me such a retching knee-jerk exasperation that, seven days later, I have to speak out.

I don’t even know where to start. This quote elegantly outlines the biggest problem with our modern, western culture today: we’re too damn self-reliant. We don’t trust the branches, don’t depend on community, on our family, on our friends. We don’t need anyone but our 401K and our life insurance, and as long I have a plan, I am going to pull myself up by my bootstraps through the glass ceiling and into Total Life Success. Unless, of course, I commit suicide because I feel so alone. Or I die of a drug overdose because I had nobody to turn to, no branches to perch on. I was just relying on my own wings. We suffer from so many diseases born out of our isolation, desperation and depression: obesity, alcoholism, migraines…even our own bodies turn on us as, for the first time in history, millions in first-world countries suffer from auto-immune disorders. Wake up, my friends! We weren’t meant to free-fly indefinitely. The tree is there so we can sit on it. The tree is our safety net, it is what protects us, but more importantly, it is what allows us to live life to the full.

Let me clarify.

When God created Adam, He saw that it was not good for him to be alone. He made him a partner. The veracity of that story is not what matters. Even as an ancient proverb, it bears great wisdom. Now I don’t think Eve’s main purpose was to be a helper. Or to play checkers with Adam, or to join him in a rousing game of cricket under the apple tree. The main reason she was created, I think, was so that Adam, and Eve, could both do the one, most important thing that all of us are created to do: to love.

How are you going to love, if you’re alone? It’s quite problematic, isn’t it? My frustration with the absurdity of the sentiment of that motivator overwhelms my ability to write without sarcasm. But I will try. Not only will we feel sad, lonely, etc., pretending that we’re perching on a branch but really only relying on our own wings, but we will not be able to realize our full potential as lovers of each other. Because love demands vulnerability. And trust.

People! We don’t need our wings. Where are we going to fly? What are we going to do, out there, alone, in the stratosphere?! Man is a social animal – this seems so obvious, it hardly needs proof. Surely we are drawn to one another, surely we feel more joy, more fulfillment, when we are in close community with each other. Statistics on happiness and health testify to this: people in close-knit communities thrive, while those in isolation perish. Sure, it is risky to depend on the branches. They do break sometimes. We might actually fall. But are we really willing to risk the richness of life gained through loving one another for an illusory security? Who are we, after all, that we shouldn’t break a bone once in a while? Since when has my main purpose in life become protecting my precious person from bruises and upsets? Businesses prey on people like us, who are afraid of falling, and use that fear to control our actions, our resources, and ultimately, our lives. I am reminded of Pink Floyd’s Machine: Did you exchange a walk-on part in the war, for a lead role in a cage? A chilling, prophetic question.

So, returning to that ridiculous motivator, I implore us all: let’s take that risk. Let the tree wrap its arms around you. Rely on others and put your weight on those branches. Forget your wings.

trees

Often I marvel at the profound intuition that Jesus exhibited when talking and teaching. Why should it be so surprising that he knew the needs and quirks of the human soul, after all, He created us. But what continues to strike me is that by and large, we seem to have gotten the purpose behind the message wrong. In his teachings, Jesus instructs us to treat other people in a certain way, and we naturally think that this is done for the good of those other people. However, we are mistaken. It is, first and foremost, done for the good of us.

One of the most prominent teachings Jesus offers is that of forgiveness. We are to forgive when others do wrong against us, whether they ask for forgiveness or not; regardless of what is in their hearts, we are to let go. And for good reason: the internal anger that is the opposite of forgiveness is terribly destructive. On a physical level, it keeps us grinding our teeth to a pulp, our faces are taught, our jaw muscles hurt. We do not take deep breaths and our brains are short of oxygen. No wonder we cannot think clearly. Countless papers testify to the negative physiological effects of anger. In terms of our intangible inner life, anger keeps us emotionally constipated. We cannot move forward. Dwelling and mulling become our pastime, productivity and creativity dwindle. Also, without forgiveness we continue feeling like the victim, helpless and bitter, and live our lives accordingly. So it turns out that letting go is first and foremost beneficial for the one doing the forgiving.

A closely related topic is that of humility. With word and action, Jesus taught his followers to think of others better than of themselves, to be humble, to let go of pride. Granted, everyone benefits when the haughty become the meek, the world would be a better place with less arrogant people. But here too, I find that the person that benefits most from this abandon of pride is the one that lets it go. While you are busy preserving your self image, that frail ego inside that shudders with every threat, you could be out joyfully trying new things, falling on your face and getting up again, interacting with people you wouldn’t normally come in contact with…We fear that if we let go of our pride, our whole being will whisp out of existence. At least I fear this. But what I discover is that with every bit of that perceived “self” that you give up, you are actually gaining psychological leg room. You can think freer, plus you have more energy to do so, since you are not wasting it on preserving the dignity of the self. And, incidentally, letting go of pride leads to less cases of that pride being hurt or offended, which helps with not getting angry and having to forgive those who “sin against you”.

Through all of New Testament scripture we are reminded to pray for those close to us. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes it a step further and instructs his followers to pray for those who persecute them. Prayer, in my mind, has always been an exercise that you do for the benefit of other people. Please heal my child from his pneumonia. Please strengthen my grandparents in their time of need. Please be with that individual who yelled hurtful things at me…Surely, this kind of petitioning with prayer is done for the sake of the recipient of the asked-for blessing.  Surely, but actually, not really.  When I pray, work is being done within me. As I pray “for my enemy”, I am inevitably forced to think of them not in terms of what they’ve done to me, but in terms of what they might need prayer for. This in turn forces me to see them as a person, not a source of my pain. Prayer gives way to empathy, which in turn brings about healing. Through prayer, you realize that we’re all in this together, not very different from each other, all needing forgiveness sometimes; all needing love.

Love. Yes, this is the glue that holds it all. The two most important commandments are to love the Lord your God, and to love your neighbor as yourself. If you think about it, why would the Lord, who is perfect love and who, within the Trinity, already gives and receives his love, need ours? From the first glance this seems to be the case: love God because he needs it, love others because they need it too.  But actually I think there is another, perhaps most important component: love because you need to love. You were designed to love, and you are realized as a human being through sharing this love.  Not surprisingly, close relationships between people are a key characteristic both of the so-called “Blue Zones”, pockets of communities with the most centenarians, and of the countries with the most happy people overall. When we live surrounded by love and expressing love, we live longer, happier lives.

This is why I think Jesus was a talented therapist: by following his instructions and focusing on doing good to others, we are in fact healing and transforming ourselves.

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