Tilting at Windmills

It is not the responsibility of knights errant to discover whether the afflicted, the enchained and the oppressed whom they encounter on the road are reduced to these circumstances and suffer this distress for their vices, or for their virtues: the knight’s sole responsibility is to succour them as people in need, having eyes only for their sufferings, not for their misdeeds.
~Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

They brought it on themselves we say as if it matters. Of course it’s often true – regarding others, regarding me. But the very statement reveals a blindness of the heart that replaces compassion with blame and shame. They brought it on themselves.

Who hasn’t? Who among us doesn’t contribute to a significant portion of our own suffering? Am I less in need of compassion because I’ve been the root of my own troubles? Am I somehow more worthy of God’s unmerited favor if some wrong has been done to me rather than by me?

We have a reputation, we who call ourselves Christian people, religious people, spiritual people. We’ve garnered our fame in much the same vein as Don Quixote. So certain of our truth, our headlines and sermons and personal encounters are too often filled with an almost fervid insanity as we go about tilting at windmills.

We, who have knighted ourselves in our own faith, justify wars of weapons and words waged upon those whose convictions and vices vary from our own. Cultural wars, denominational wars, political recriminations, all carried out, so we claim, in service of our King.

If this were, in fact, true –  then the King is sending some very mixed messages.

It serves a certain purpose to vilify those with whom we fundamentally, or sometimes even superficially differ. It proffers both provocation and justification.

Sometimes in light of a personal attack or an attack on my belief system or an attack on someone I love – sometimes I respond by turning the other cheek. Without guile or defensiveness I wish only for light and peace and grace for the other.

Sometimes. Sometimes I remain in a state of grace. Sometimes not.

How can we, who are the benefactors of God’s irresistible grace which binds our wandering hearts to Him, offer anything other than The Good News, grace without merit in return? How is it possible that we can be supplicants of God’s unmerited favor one moment and turn His words into a weapons the next?

When the suffering run from us rather than to us, perhaps it’s because we’ve forgotten our calling to live compassionate lives that succor rather than scourge the wounded.

I’m Done Being Nice

Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.
― Henry James

I’ve always been a nice person. By always, of course, I mean overall, not every single moment. But generally speaking, I think even people who don’t like me much probably would describe me as nice. There are many fine behaviors that I lack, but nice I can do.

And therein lies the problem. Nice I can do and have done and in-spite of all my niceness, I’ve remained fundamentally unchanged at my core.

I gradually became aware of the cracks that can’t be papered-over with niceness. My feelings could be easily hurt. I was quick to take offense. But the real tell was that I was critical of other people’s choices when they differed from my own in everything from parenting to politics. I made  character and motive assessments (i.e. He/She is so: raciest, arrogant, judgmental, moody, harsh, deceitful, critical, greedy, selfish, needy, negative etc… )

Get the irony, here? How arrogantly critical and judgmental of me to feel so free to evaluate others. While I kept those thoughts largely to myself, there they were, fermenting and staining my heart.

I’m done being nice. Instead, I want to be kind.

Niceness is a presentation. Kindness is a condition. I want a heart conditioned by grace to be kind. I can be nice in action without being kind-hearted. I can act warm when my thoughts are cold. Kindness requires a depth plumbed by God and infused with His grace.

Nice is pleasant, polite, agreeable, satisfactory. Niceness is about what I do.

Kind is having a sympathetic or helpful nature; having a forbearing (patient) nature; affectionate; loving; gentle. Kindness is about what I am, about what I hope to become.

Being nice wins favor, but being nice is transitory. Niceness easily evaporates in the light of unmet expectations. But out of a kind heart comes compassion and forgiveness and the generous act of thinking of others.

Kindness is spiritual practice. It’s a deep current that runs beneath the surface, supplying the grace to respond to both adversity and adversary with a gentleness that doesn’t come naturally. Grace is required and that grace is abundantly supplied to all Seekers.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Ephesians 4:32

Commentary

The letters before your name, the letters after your name, the books published, the awards won – all that is just commentary. What we really want to be is good people. ~ Harlan Coben

I have a dumb job. That’s what I say sometimes – just to my friends and family.

I used to have a smart job.

I had a job where people took copious notes when I spoke and stood up and applauded when I finished. It made me feel important. It made me feel like what I was doing mattered. Over time, I think it made me feel like I mattered.

No one applauds me now. Working the night shift as a gate guard on an oil rig is lower than the lowest rung on the ladder. Sometimes I mix up what I do with who I am and I wonder if I matter at all anymore.

Last week my friend died. He was driving to a rig when a truck crossed the center line and plowed into him. He was only 45. To be honest, I didn’t even realize how very much we’d become friends until after his death. The persistent ache in my heart is a tangible testimony now.

Lee didn’t have any letters after his name. I don’t know if he finished high school. I don’t think so. Maybe. I’m pretty sure he never had a room full of people stand up and applaud him. He didn’t need applause to feel important. I don’t think feeling important was particularly important to Lee.

But he was important and he did matter. He was kind and fair and unassuming. He brought me chicken at midnight and I miss him. I’ll probably miss him for a very long time.

I learned a lot from Lee about what important people do. Important people are generous. They extend grace. They go out of their way to be encouraging. They don’t think too much of themselves or too little of others.

My life was better because he was a part of it.

Lee, with no awards or extra letters, reminded me that all the rest is just commentary.

How TO Help the Hurting

Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say “My tooth is aching” than to say “My heart is broken”.  ~ C.S. Lewis

Before listening, before doing anything or saying anything to the hurting person, we have the task of keeping our own attitudes in check.

We won’t always understand another person’s struggle. We won’t always agree with their choices. And we certainly aren’t called to be their fixers. If our approach to the hurting person is to fix them, we’re likely to do harm, however well intended. God heals. We’re just here to lighten the load.

A few things to try;

  • Listen – Listen without assumption. Listen like you’ve never heard or experienced anything like this before so that you really hear what’s being said, not what you expect to hear.

*Caveat – Not everyone wants to talk. And even if they do, you may not be the person they choose to share with. There’s a difference between being an attentive listener and going in with a crowbar.

  • Touch – Sometimes a touch on the arm, holding a hand or a hug conveys caring in a way that words can’t.

*Caveat – Some people don’t like to be touched. It’s not up to you to decide that what they need is a good hug. If a person stiffens or pulls away from your touch, honor their physical space without disconnecting emotionally.

  • Pray – If you have a shared faith, you may want to pray out loud with them.

*Caveat – If the individual doesn’t share your belief system, praying can be construed as preaching. Your lips don’t have to move for God to hear your heart.

  • Act – Look for practical ways to lighten the load. Give a gift a certificate for a pizza, do yard work, run an errand etc…

*Caveat – We often say, Please call me if you need anything and almost no one does. If you know there is a need (and the need isn’t always for yet another casserole) assist or enlist another to assist when you can’t. Don’t expect the hurting person to ask. That said, it’s important to be certain that the hurting person is OK with your help. Honor their boundaries.

Above all, remember that it takes immense courage to be vulnerable. When someone trusts you enough to truly let you in, tread softly because you will, without a doubt, be leaving footprints.

How to NOT to Help the Hurting

We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world. ~ C.S. Lewis

We’re often at a loss when it comes to coming along side someone who is hurting. In this post, and the next, I’ll share a few suggestions. Sometimes it’s helpful to look at what comes naturally that doesn’t help before moving on to some ideas that might be more useful. Here’s a partial list of things not to do if we want to encourage a person who’s experiencing emotional or physical pain.

  • Don’t view pain as a teaching moment.

Be sensitive and compassionate in your use of Bible verses and exhortations. We are very hard of hearing when we’re suffering. Leave the megaphone to God.

  • NEVER say: I know how you feel

Of course you don’t. Each person’s pain is unique.

When you’re hurting, I have no idea how you’re feeling no matter how similar I may think our experiences are because I’m not you.

It’s tempting (and often preached) to try to understand how someone else is feeling by walking a mile in their shoes; putting yourself in their place etc… In other words, I should try to understand how you’re feeling by thinking about me. But I’m not you!

While we may have gone through similar situations, every other experience that has led you to this moment has shaped you into who you are and how you experience emotional or physical pain.

In our eagerness to show empathy, we often share our story, inadvertently changing the focus of the conversation from the other person to ourselves.

  • Toss the cliché’s

Time heals all wounds. Time isn’t magical.

What doesn’t kill you makes you strongerBlatantly untrue. What doesn’t kill you will change you but it may or may not make you stronger.

Other’s have it so much worse. Comparing pain is minimizing.

You need to be strong. Why? For whom? What does that even mean?

Take care of yourself. Don’t tell a hurting person what they need to do when they’re already doing all they can to hang on.

Your loved one wouldn’t want you to be sad. Completely irrelevant (and may or may not be true). This moment is about the hurting person, not someone else.

I’m sorry for your loss. This isn’t all bad, but the word loss is problematic and once again, minimizing. Try just I’m so sorry (leaving off the loss). It’s genuine and doesn’t sound like you picked it up on Law and Order. 

In the next post I’ll share a few thoughts on ways to help and encourage someone who is hurting.

Fake It ‘Till You Make It

God loves you unconditionally, as you are and not as you should be, because nobody is as they should be. ~Brennan Manning

Fake it ’till you make is a popular catchphrase in successful sales programs and some good recovery programs. It hasn’t, however, worked well for me as a spiritual practice.

I took a special math test in 7th grade. I scored high enough to be in the small group that were ‘fast-tracked’. That meant skipping 8th grade math and going straight to Algebra. I was a good student. It would have been great except I really didn’t get math.

From Algebra all the way through Calculus, I was completely lost so I faked it. It’s tricky, faking math. There aren’t any subjective Blue Book exams. There was a right answer, period.

Mr Huth, who sang at weddings and taught all of the advanced math classes, had only one struggling student (me) and one solution. I’d ask a question after class (not during because everyone else got it) and he’d send me home with his Teacher’s Guide. We did that same dance for 5 years.

I had the problem. I had the solution. I had no idea how to get from one to the other so I memorized everything. I memorized pages and pages of sample work and applied it well enough to maintain a B. I tried. I listened. I took notes that I didn’t understand and I faked it.

The same+ b = c  happened to me when I was on the spiritual ‘fast track’. I’d have (a) problems and (c) The Answer Book. I tried so hard. I listened. I took notes. I memorized Scripture. Still, I often didn’t (b) know how to make real life equations work.

Everyone else seemed to be getting straight A’s so I faked it. I didn’t fake my faith – that was real. But I substituted what I truly thought and felt for how I thought I should think and feel. I gave all the right answers until I was numb.

We long to know the grace and mercy of God in our lives but we find ourselves tripped up by failure, by temptation, by ambivalence. Fearing disappointing others and the ensuing pep talk (usually a scriptural exhortation) and the have more faith talk. Or worse, that internal voice that says you (and you alone) aren’t getting it right, compelling us to continue to fake it ’til we make it.

The message of grace shatters our fake facade. Grace says:

(aGod loves us as we are  + (b) not as we should be  = (c) because no one is as they should be

Grace frees us to love each other as the Father loves us. We can weep with those who weep because real people weep. We can rejoice with those who rejoice because we’re freed from self-obsession.

No grades, just grace.

Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

Bad things do happen; how I respond to them defines my character and the quality of my life. ~ Walter Anderson

It’s a common question: Why do bad things happen to good people? I watch the news with a broken heart as one gut wrenching trauma replaces another like a slideshow, clicking from disaster to disaster.

I watch and pray and, if I’m honest, there’s a small part of me that’s relieved that this time it didn’t happen to my family or my friends, or to me. Not this time. But something will, sometime, because bad things happen to good people.

There’s a second question: Why do good things happen to bad people? Where the first question saddens, the second challenges. It’s easier for me to grieve for the sorrows of the good than to be glad for the blessings of the bad.

When I focus on experience and expectations, rather than the exegesis, both questions have the same answer. Life here, on this side of heaven, isn’t fair. Thank God it isn’t!

An eye for an eye, that’s fair, but there’s nothing fair about turning the other cheek. There’s nothing fair about forgiving 70 x 7. Maybe the injustice of it is why it’s so hard?

The fact that good and virtuous traits like turning the other cheek don’t come naturally to me, leads me to ask a third question. Am I really a very good person who occasionally experiences bad things or am I a very flawed person who often experiences undeserved blessings? The sick don’t need a doctor. The good don’t need grace because grace, by its nature and definition, is entirely unfair and unmerited. I need grace, daily grace, so there’s the answer.

Jesus was direct: … love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who insult you and persecute you.

Bad things happen. Love, bless, do good and pray (for the good people and for the bad people). Those are the responses that will define my character and my quality of life.