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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.

A week and a half ago, Sunday, the kids and I went to church. As usual we were late, and as usual I made my way to an empty seat during the worship part of the service. There were empty seats on both sides, and as I often do during worship, I sang and looked around the people gathered in the sanctuary that Sunday. (The sanctuary is amphitheater-shaped, so it’s easy to see the folks below and around you.) And yes, as usual, I saw families, couples, groups of people that I knew came there together. As I raised my hands high and bellowed out praises, I felt a pang of sadness seeing the empty seat next to me. How many times had I come to church alone? How many times did I long to share with my spouse the joy of worship, of that greatest communion of believers? I wondered if the couples standing and sitting below me truly appreciated what they were experiencing there, together, refreshed and united through word and song. Yes, sometimes my husband came. But he was not with me – he would often leave before the service began, or endure the sermon, fighting sleep and boredom. Sitting next to each other but desperately alone, abjectly looking forward, we did not feel any closeness.

I also thought about Eve and her curse. Two lines haunt me often: Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you. That curse is as relevant today, as it was when it was first uttered. On a global scale, man continues to dominate over woman, holding most positions of power, violating women, killing them through war, political conflict, domestic violence. And on the level of each family, each couple, the husband more often than not dominates not only because of his sheer strength and cultural/ethnic traditions, but because the woman desires him . Her desperate need makes her vulnerable, and even if the man does not mean to do so, he has control over her. In the end, she is ruled by her own desire and her desperation. The tragedy of the curse is that both people become hostages – the woman needs from the man that which he cannot provide, the man feels inadequate because the woman’s need is too great. Of course the answer is simple: the woman needs to turn to God.

Only the Lord can fill that need. But how incredibly difficult it is to change focus! All we need to do it turn, and God would heal us (Matthew 13:15). But within the context of the intoxicating draw that women feel towards men (and vice-versa), this conversion seems to border on impossible.

The singing continued, and I imagined the possibility of another man standing next to me. What if there was someone out there, who would want to live worship together? Who would understand the importance of this shared experience, who would do it gladly, openly? I glanced at the seat again. It was still empty but suddenly I fancied that I saw Jesus there, smiling and worshiping, grinning at me. It’s like He was saying, “I’ll come – take me along…” And I imagined the various scenarios from the minutiae of getting to church – buckling the kids up in their car seats, me climbing in the driver’s seat, Jesus hopping in the passenger, popping Ella and Louie into the CD player, rolling down the windows… Walking to church, me holding Leo’s hand, Him holding Vierra’s. The pain lifted. I grinned back and sang louder.

Sunday came again, and again we went to church. This time my husband wanted to go, and we went together, all four of us, as a family. The kids went to their program and we went to the worship service. And so we sat there, peaceful in the eye of the tornado of our marriage unraveling all around us. The tethers and cords that held that frail entity in place were snapping, tearing off, breaking under the strain of so many hurts. But there in that warm and well-lit place we felt safe. My husband put his arm around me, and I instinctively huddled closer. Now we looked like that stereotypical, happily married Christian couple. Now I had finally received, after many years, that which I had yearned for. But I…

I didn’t need him there anymore.

Sitting at a stoplight, I must have looked quite distressed. Next to my car, a monster truck pulled up and the man in the driver’s seat also had his windows down. We sat there in silence at the stoplight. It was dark, the kids were quiet in the back. Suddenly the man turned to me and said out of his window, “Hey, it’ll be OK”. I said, “Thank you.” The light turned green. We drove away.

Then just the other day, I was sitting in my car, alone, parked at the grocery store. I was receiving a private therapy session from one of my favorite bands, listening to their song. Then a woman came up to the car parked next to mine, started putting away her groceries. She peered into my car and asked, “Are you alright?” “Yes, I’m okay. I’m just sitting here listening to this song…” I replied. She didn’t seem convinced. “You’re sure you’re going to be OK?” I swallowed and nodded. She continued, “It’s a beautiful song. What’s the name of the band?” I told her it was a Russian band. She told me she likes a band with five of them Celtic women singing in it. Did I know that band? I nodded in the affirmative. Of course I did. “Well alright, honey. You take care now…” I smiled again. “You too.” I said.

I wondered what is it in these people that allows them, so effortlessly, to show empathy and compassion to others, and what stops some from doing it even when they want to. It must be an internal peace with self. It must be a lack of self-consciousness. “What if they’ll think I’m weird that I’m talking to them? What if they just want to be left alone?” Such thoughts cross the mind of the failed comforter. These are my thoughts, though I know the truth – nobody wants to be left alone when they are suffering.

Two episodes I regret: one – we were at a playground in San Diego, and there was a young couple with a small girl there. The man was saying hurtful things to the woman, I didn’t hear them but I could tell by the body language. He was bent over her, almost, she was shrinking into herself, holding on to her little girl. Then he walked off, she put her girl in the swing and started pushing, silent tears rolling down her cheeks, choked sobs, shoulders shaking. I wanted to come up and tell her that it will be alright. That she needs to leave him. That I understood. I wanted to hug her because I knew that’s exactly what she needed. She was so alone. Alone with her grief. But I just stood there, paralyzed, thinking up excuses, angry at myself because I couldn’t get over myself and just go and help her.

Two – my husband and I were at a coffee shop and at the next table there was a group of three people, getting ready to pray. I wanted to get up and just go over to them and ask them if I could pray with them – pray for them, and then maybe they could also pray for me? I needed someone to pray for me. Where two or three gather in My Name, there I am with them. And so I wanted to be there, where He said He would be. But I just sat there and stared at them hungrily. Oh, the regret.

There in the parking lot I also thought about Pierre Bezouhof from War and Peace – about his final transformation, his coming to God, his realization that the most important things to be had in this life are right here and that God is right here too. Through tremendous pain he lost his inhibitions. He also lost his doubt. Now he no longer questioned the decisions he made. He just knew, and acted on it, and didn’t analyze it. He had peace. Through the difficult times in my life I have felt that God was trying to cleanse me of my inhibitions as well. He wanted me to lose so much that in the process I would shed the baggage – the pride, the self-consciousness, the fear. And sometimes I feel these things slipping off, agonizingly, slowly. And other times I feel like I am clinging to them. At those times I am fearful because I know that this means that there is more pain to come.

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