Praise, Potato Chips, and the Dark Side

During the last week of 2017 and the first couple of days of 2018 on the Star Wars movies, binged I did. I heard Yoda warn me that fear, anger, and hate to the dark side, leads it does. But what about the various expectations that praise produces? People praised Anakin’s powers, particularly Obi-Wan Kenobi in his belief that Anakin was the promised one, the one to bring balance to force. Granted, Anakin lamented to Padmé that he did not feel he was good enough for Obi-Wan, pointing to Anakin’s own sense of shame. Yet how much did the praises and expectations of others fuel his shame? The storyline reveals Anakin’s fear of loss. Does this include his fear of losing another’s approval? To what degree may praise implicitly set us up, particularly when we are afraid of losing it? Is there a dark side to praise?

Now before you believe that I am issuing an ultimatum that demands we refrain from giving praise, let me assure you: this is not the case. Instead, this blog is an invitation to reflect upon the possible dynamics of praise when we are hooked on or addicted to the praise of others. Several weeks ago, I wrote about loving the enemy within, i.e., the inner critic, the inner jackal voice, or the tyrannical conscience. I noted how fear and anxiety demonstrate a need that is going unmet in us. In this blog I am underscoring the inner critic’s feeding frenzy on anxiety and fear that is fostered by praise (it is important for the reader to keep in mind, as stated in that blog, that this fear and anxiety points to our own unmet needs, so this is an opportunity to be curious about ourselves, not more demanding of us).

I am specifically speaking about nebulous praise. Like potato chips, it satisfies for a little while, but it lacks substance.

  • Excellent!
  • You’re amazing!
  • You’re so gifted and talented.
  • You will go far in life.
  • You have a destiny.
  • God’s hand is upon you.
  • The pastor hearing, “Great sermon!”
  • Receiving 105 likes on a Facebook post.

When we first hear it, we may inhale it without much reflection, feeling encouraged, uplifted, and buoyed by it. Like a moth to a flame, we are magnetically pulled towards it. However, in a short period of time, its light, fluffy content leads us to wanting more. Like a bag of potato chips, we cannot stop at one chip (You know, an open bag is an empty bag). We must have more. Like a fish seizing the bait, we are hooked. It is at this point we may notice some mild anxiety surfacing.

  • If we are pastors, the anxiety may appear as we prepare for the next sermon as we wonder, “How can I top last week’s sermon? What if they don’t like it?”
  • If it is about the lasagna we made that was described as “the best ever,” we sense a little tension when we make it again. After all, we made it the same as every other time, so how was the last one “the best ever”?
  • If it is a paper we just wrote for a class, we may experience internal pressure to do another repeat performance, only better.
  • If we just graduated, we may have received many accolades both verbal and written about our future destiny as a major change agent; however, when weeks turn into months and then years, we may wonder, “How am I suppose to go far in life without a job? What do they think of me now? Have I disappointed them?”
  • If our hilarious Facebook post generated the recognition of most of our friends, we may become apprehensive when our next post fails to do it again.

Like eating one potato chip, we desire more praise. When it is not forthcoming, we may try harder as we sense the anxiety increasing, which is fodder for the inner critic. The inner critic begins to interpret the silence of others as disappointment, disapproval, or abandonment, which nurtures feelings of shame. We intuitively know that somehow we have to match or exceed our last effort if we do not want to disappoint others, and thereby receive more praise (potato chips). Unfortunately, when we are set up by nebulous praise to live up to another’s expectation, we do not specifically know what that expectation is. How high is their bar anyway? How far do we need to reach to impress them?

Perhaps it would be helpful to discuss nebulous praise in light of criticalness. Unlike another’s criticalness which signifies the other’s need has been unmet, nebulous praise indicates a need has been met. Yet criticalness and praise share a common trait: both fail to inform us what the needs are. These unknown needs (unmet and met) can be like a whip that drives us to do better in order to gain the other’s praise. Herein lies the dark side of praise. For instance, if a pastor hears, “Great sermon,” the need for encouragement may have been momentarily met, but the pastor is not being specifically informed what made the sermon great, which may provide more satisfying and lasting encouragement. Was it affirming? Validating? Growth producing? Healing? Convicting? Intellectually stimulating? If the person says, “Pastor, in the first point of your sermon, I felt so excited because it affirmed what the Spirit has been speaking to my heart about my own walk with God,” the pastor is more able to celebrate with the parishioner about a certain way in which the hearer experienced God’s ministry to him. Notice the difference. Nebulous praise is imprecise, leaving the hearer wanting more which may lead to attempts to meet another’s unknown and indeterminate expectation that is followed by anxiety and perhaps shame (similar to criticalness). Expressed specific appreciation, however, concretely informs the person what it is that has transpired for a specific individual in a particular instance at a certain time, which may be followed by positive feelings such as satisfaction because a need to contribute was met.

Like potato chips, nebulous praise tastes good, but the lack of real substance fuels our desire for more. We want to be satisfied, and we mistakenly believe that nebulous praise will accomplish this task. Unfortunately, nebulous praise tends to be performance-based, not being-based. This means, rather than centering on who we are, nebulous praise highlights what we do. That is, the other is judging that we have done something well. This tantalizes our taste buds, pushing us to excel more so that we become dependent on others to be our gauge without knowing the precise measurements. In summary, with nebulous praise we make an interpretation, internalizing an unexpressed, indeterminate expectation of us. This in turn generates anxiety and the inner critic’s voice that produces shame. This is the dark side of praise.

In reflecting on the Gospel of John, I see Jesus’ resistance to the specious pull to praise’s dark side with its performance-based underpinnings. The introduction to John (chapter one) highlights Jesus’ being—who Jesus is. He is God (v. 1); he is eternal (v. 2); he is the Creator (v. 3); he is life and light (v. 4); he is human and divine (vv. 1, 9-11); he is the Lamb of God (v. 29); and he is the tabernacle of God (v. 14 and 2:19-22). Through the very person, the being of Jesus, God ministers to the world. As I have stated in previous blogs, Jesus’ being is God’s action.

More importantly, Jesus knew who he was so that he refused to bow to the pressures of humanity. This is indicated in John 2:23-25, which reads:

Now while Jesus was in Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover, many people believed in his name because they saw the miraculous signs he was doing. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people. He did not need anyone to testify about man, for he knew what was in man.

As we read this, we notice that the miracles, or the signs, pointed towards Jesus and who Jesus was, but the miracles alone failed to generate a lasting belief. Later in John we see the people praising Jesus out of an expectation that he would be their King and overthrow the Romans (12:12-16). Rather than submitting himself to humanity’s desire to do what they wanted so that they would continue to believe in him (e.g., more signs, overthrow the Romans), Jesus resisted the pull of humanity’s approval. Jesus understood that God chiefly ministered to the world through Jesus’ being, and he was not dependent this approval given by human beings, but that of God the Father (chapter 17). In essence, he knew who he was.

How does Jesus’ resolve to glorify the Father and his embrace of himself influence our reflection on the dark side of praise? I believe that God does use our actions to minister to others, but I wonder if our performance-based culture causes us to overlook how much God uses who we are. Our personality and the family and friends that shaped that personality. Our interests. Our desires. Our passions. While others’ nebulous praise and our interpretative expectations tend to accentuate what we do, causing us to focus on our performance, our successful acts are not the full picture. John presents us with an invitation to minister out of who we are and who we are becoming. In other words, ministry flows out of who God made us to be.

I leave you with lyrics from a song by Sara Groves called “This Journey Is My Own”:

So much of what I do is to make a good impression
This journey is my own
And so much of what I say is to make myself look better
But this journey is my own . . .
And why would I want to live for man, and pay the highest price
And what does it mean to gain a whole world, only to lose my life . . .
And now I live and I breathe for an audience of one
Now I live and I breathe for an audience of one 



 

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The Significance of Re-membering over Dis-membering

It’s that time of year where we will see cartoons of Father Time juxtaposed to Baby New Year, representing 2017 and 2018 respectively. Prior to cradling that newborn, we naturally tend to linger in our holding of Father Time’s hand, so to speak, by reviewing, or remembering, the departing old year. Just google “a year in review,” and I doubt you will be surprised to see such news features as “The 50 Stories from 50 States”; “The Top 10 Biggest News Stories”; or the simply stated, “The Year in Review.” From our personal year in review on social media to national newspapers and magazines, this is the time of year where we as individuals and as a whole nation go backwards prior to going forwards. One could say this process of remembering is actively grieving a loss—the ending of another year—making it the one time our American culture collectively embraces grief by looking back before moving onward. One news agency even captures this theme in the title, “2017: Year in Review and Look Ahead.”

Remembering is a natural response to any ending or loss. To borrow from pastoral theologian John Patton, it may be more aptly termed re-membering. It is the re-telling of a story, an event, or series of events in order to incorporate that happening(s) more fully into our lives. It involves putting the pieces of an ending together so that they are better woven into the fabric of our own lives. As we re-member 2017, we are integrating last year’s experiences into who we are now, making us more complete or whole.

At the risk of sounding gruesome, I find it helpful to recognize that re-membering is the opposite of dis-membering. Dis-membering occurs when I dismiss or deny events. In this case, I am separating or tearing away an incident from my being through the keeping of secrets or even flat out rejection. I am disconnecting a piece of me that generates incompleteness, or wounds, within me.

When I experience an ending, e.g., the death of a person, the loss of a job, the ending of a year, a broken relationship, there is a dual process in grief that involves looking backwards and looking forwards. This may sound like a no-brainer, but it is surprising how easily we forget this little tidbit when we come face to face with a loss—either our own or someone else’s. As I grieve, I will move to and fro between going backwards and moving forwards. In the beginning, I may spend an exceeding amount of time re-membering, particularly the most recent events, e.g., the immediate circumstances surrounding a death, and very little time looking towards the future. As I continue the process of grief, my re-membering slowly gives way more to the looking forward to a future.

This has been very much my own process in relation to endings which I have experienced, the most recent one being the death of my father. In the last several months I have repeatedly reviewed not only the last eight weeks of my father’s life, but I also have re-membered his last year. As I have re-membered these events, I have been seeing in light of his death how much he shut down relationally, emotionally, and physically and also noting more signs of increased dementia. Through this process, then, I am integrating my father’s life, his decline, and his death into my own story and carrying this with me to a future life where he is physically absent.

Unfortunately, there is a growing tendency in our culture to not permit people to embrace the above process by grieving publically—that is, mourning. An excellent example of this is seen in a shift in our culture when a family experiences the death of a family member. Previously, when someone died, the family wore black for a whole year, signifying, “I am mourning.” In this way, mourning was normalized, and the mourner had easy access to support because society willingly acknowledged the other’s grief when the bereaved wore black. Currently, our culture is moving away from public grief, the taking of that which is internal and making it external. Instead of a funeral, families are increasingly embracing celebrations or even parties where people are told not to be sad but to celebrate and laugh (Think: New Year’s Eve party). Since celebrations and parties look ahead towards a future, we bypass the necessity of going backwards and thereby we interrupt the natural grief process. Is this a way we are dis-membering ourselves? It could be for, as Alan Wolfelt notes, many of these bereaved appear in his office several months after a so-called party, wondering how to process their loss. As a result, Wolfelt persuasively argues for funerals because it is the place we form a support base to help us in our grief. It is a place that we are publically able to re-member; a place where others validate our grief process; and a place that helps us to integrate both life and death into the very fabric of our being.

The concepts of re-membering and dis-membering are also seen in the church’s theological praxis of the Lord’s Supper. As Christ-followers, we are to re-member, to incorporate the life and death of Jesus Christ into our whole lives so that we may become more complete, and a regular reminder of such a calling is a sacrament of the church referred to as communion. The concept of re-membering is captured in Jesus’ words in Luke 22:19 when the disciples are told to eat the bread and to drink the cup “in remembrance of me.”

We see both concepts in 1 Corinthians 11 when the Apostle Paul writes, “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took bread, and after he had given thanks he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, he also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, every time you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ In other words, the church is to re-member, a re-telling of the Jesus’ story in order to weave our story with God’s story so that we may be more whole. However, Paul reminds the Corinthians that the church is guilty of dis-membering when we neglect to honor all the members of Christ’s body, namely, the church (vv. 17–22, 26–29).

As in the dual grief process, communion is a time of looking backwards, of reflecting on Jesus’ death and recognizing his physical absence on this earth; thus, it is a time of sorrow. But it is also a time of moving forward. Matthew 26:29 says, “I tell you, from now on I will not drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” It is a reminder to us that we are being pulled towards a future of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, a meal we will share with Christ. We are being pulled toward a time when God’s presence will be all in all. Meanwhile, the practice of communion serves as reminder to us that as the church, we are to proleptically integrate the future reign of God. That is to say, we reveal Jesus Christ’s presence through the body here on the earth as it is in heaven. As Sara Groves sings in her adaptation of the hymn “Lead on O King Eternal”:

For not with swords’ loud clashing

Nor roll of stirring drums

But deeds of love and mercy

The heavenly kingdom comes

Let your kingdom come

And your will be done

Right here, on the earth

Like it is in heaven.

As we re-member 2017, may we integrate its experiences, both positive and negative, into who we are, while being pulled forward to a future where God’s reign is more readily displayed through the church, and more specifically, in me.

When Christmas is NOT as Advertised

As I walk through the mall, I see and hear the sights and sounds of Christmas. The music plays, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light. From now on, our troubles will be out of sight.” The ornate window presentations implicitly exclaim, “This gift will definitely make your loved one smile!” Then I spy Santa with his naturally white long hair and beard, who so genuinely looks the part that his appearance generates warm, blissful feelings, bringing out the child in me that wants to say, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!” Everywhere I turn, the festivities of the holiday season indicate, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

Yet, this Christmas, I find myself pausing and wondering about such a sentiment. As I reflect, I notice how the one predominant emotion advertised at Christmas is happiness. Granted, such expectations begin for us as children, but the intense anticipation does not seem to dissipate as we grow into adults. With all of the colorful decorations, the cheerful music, and the gift giving, our culture declares, “’Tis the season to be jolly.” The church culture also proclaims a similar message, as an old carol commands, we are to rejoice, “With heart and soul and voice!”

Such an emphasis reminds me of a grand musical production. All the bright lights, pretty wrapped gifts with ribbons, scrumptious sweets, and happy music are part of a slow crescendo with a goal to lift the audience to mountain top heights with feelings of exuberance, excitement, and exhilaration. But in this production, we are not only in the audience, but we also are the participants. Each home, family, and person is responsible to help create an experience of euphoria as we march towards the grand finale.

Yet, many of us are not up to such a challenging task. Many do not have the external and/or internal resources to match the intense anticipation of the buildup that is promoted in our culture during the holiday season.

  • Some are like myself, being aware that there will be an extra, empty chair at the table this year for Christmas.
  • Some individuals are experiencing the gradual loss of a family member via dementia.
  • Others are sitting in a hospital room, wondering if their loved one will survive, or the family has just placed a family member on hospice, knowing that the end is imminent.
  • Some divorced couples are attempting to work out a schedule of how to shuttle the kids to the other’s house and still remain civil.
  • There are those whose finances are super tight as they experience unemployment.
  • Others are facing the reality they have no home in which to celebrate Christmas due to a disaster such a flood or fire.
  • Some have rarely experienced Christmas as a joyous time of the year as Dad hits Mom or drinks too much, becoming violent.
  • For others, Christmas is like every other day—a day of depression.

For these and so many others, the holiday season is not a beautiful sight in which they are happy tonight. Rather than walking through a winter wonderland, they are experiencing the journey through a winter sorrowland.

As I reflect on this Christmas juxtaposed with the losses humans experience, it is interesting that in a similar fashion of no room at the inn for Mary and Joseph, there is no room for grieving during the Christmas season. Yet . . . the story of Jesus’ birth includes sorrow with joy.

Consider with me for a moment the Messiah’s birth narrative of Luke. Pentecostal Martin Mittelstadt writes in The Spirit and Suffering in Luke-Acts that this main theological scriptural text for Pentecostals (i.e., Luke-Acts) is not only about miracles and joy but also suffering and sorrow. The story of Jesus’ birth is no exception. While Luke 2 speaks of the angels’ joyous announcement to the shepherds of the Savior’s birth, it also predicts suffering in verses 25 through 35. This is the story of Simeon, a righteous man who entered the temple at the time Mary and Joseph had brought the infant Jesus to be presented to the Lord. Mittelstadt reminds us, (particularly Pentecostals) that Simeon prophesies over Jesus, speaking not only of Jesus being the salvation for all but that there would also be division as a result of him; thus, both acceptance and rejection are predicted and are part of the divine plan. And as for Mary . . . she too will not automatically believe, as Mittelstadt writes, but will struggle whether to accept or reject Jesus as her Redeemer.

Joy is juxtaposed with sorrow.

But Luke is not the only Gospel writer to include grief amidst exultation.

In the account in Matthew we notice the awe-inspiring wonders that are placed alongside the horrors of cruelty. We will marvel at the miracles that occur in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, such as Joseph being visited in a dream by an angel to take Mary as his wife; the star over the place where the baby Jesus lived; and the mysterious wise men who travel a great distance to worship Jesus, bringing him gifts. Granted, the story of the magi who come from afar to worship Jesus in Matthew is not originally a part of the birth narrative that occurs in the stable in Luke, but it has often been included in the Christmas story. However, if we are to do justice to Matthew’s story, we cannot close our eyes to the brutality that also transpires: Amidst these glorious wonders, there are the murders of children under the age of two by a paranoid and jealous leader, Herod the Great. Matthew 2:18 reads, “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud wailing, Rachel weeping for her children, and she did not want to be comforted, because they were gone” (NET).

Joy is juxtaposed with sorrow.

Thus, unlike the American cultural version of Christmas, there is room for grief in the joyous events surrounding the birth narratives. In fact, Matthew highlights that Jesus, the human-divine one, is present in the midst of suffering. Matthew clearly says, that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us (1:23). He is not simply God who dwells among us amidst joy, but he is God who tabernacles among us in the midst of sorrow, too.

This Christmas if we are discovering in our own lives that the season is falling short of the culture’s advertised hype, may we find the courage to join the Spirit of the Lukan birth narrative who embraces both acceptance and rejection. May we who are unable to meet the high expectations of exuberance rediscover anew in Matthew’s account the God who is present in the wonder and in the weeping.

God truly is Emmanuel, who is with us in our grief as well as in our joy.

A White Elephant in the Room

There is game that is frequently played this time of year called the White Elephant Gift Exchange. While a game of many adaptations, one version states that each participant finds something at home she no longer wants and brings it as a wrapped gift to the party. As the gifts are placed in the center of the room, each person receives a number to determine the order of the opening of the gifts. Player one chooses one of the gifts to open, but player two can choose from either player one’s opened gift or take a chance with an unopened gift. Player three has three options: the opened gifts of players one or two or risk opening another gift. If player three chooses player one’s opened gift, player three selects another gift from the pile for player one to open. The game, has unpredictability and mystery and can be hilarious, providing uproarious fun.

I want to talk about another kind of gift. Like the saying, “There is an elephant in the room,” it is a gift that is ubiquitous but silent, and like a white elephant gift, it is one that is unwanted and/or traded for something else because of the unpredictability that surrounds it.

It is the emotion of fear.

It is often unspoken. Think about it. How many of us told someone today, “I am afraid”? Did you post on social media, “I am fearful”?

If you are man, you are more than likely conditioned in our society to not reveal fear but to be the strong, silent type. As women, we may not want to portray too much fear in an age where we are striving for equality and mutuality. Let’s face it: whether we are men or women, showing fear could result in being victimized—bullied. It may come as no surprise, then, that our American independence fosters a strong and fearless persona that says, “I will pick myself up by my own bootstraps.”

Fear is unwanted, and so we have a tendency to attempt to trade fear for another, more acceptable emotion in our society, such as anger. Psychologists tell us that anger is usually not the primary emotion but a secondary one. Could it be that the primary emotion is fear? This causes me to wonder if this is the reason anger seems to be more prevalent in our fractured culture. Could it be that many rants on social media stem not from anger but from fear?

Recently, it was mentioned in grief group that men may express their grief through anger, masking the sadness or even fear. Fear can be a part of grief. Who am I to become now that I have completed my degree and graduated? Who am I after the death of a dream? What will I do now that I am unemployed? Who will I be without this person by my side? How will I go on now that this person is gone? If a house was shared with the person, there may be a fear of being alone that is coupled with a fear of participating in a couple’s world. Fear, or an anxiety, is evident in some grievers who go to ER with the presenting symptoms of a heart attack, only to learn they are having a panic attack as a result of grief. As I write, I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’ comments in A Grief Observed that his grief manifested itself in a manner similar to fear.

I, too, am aware of fear in various degrees and forms in my own grief. Six months ago my father died, and I am in a new space that is larger than that to which I am accustomed (to borrow from Tara Mohr’s Playing Big). In the natural order of things, Dad’s life served as a buffer to my own mortality; however, with both of my parents now gone, I belong to the next generation in line to die. The awareness of the transience of my own life has been magnified. A couple of weeks ago, my husband retired which intensified this realization. Since he is older than I, I am more cognizant of my future of being his caregiver and his eventual death, demonstrating how various forms of fear (e.g., anxiety, apprehension, concern, angst, dread,) is a part of grief.

Yet, fear in some forms may also be a gift. I believe that Tara Mohr’s discussion on fear may be helpful here. She references two kinds of fear that exist in the Hebrew language. The first one develops out of our anxiety as we conjure up in our imaginations possible future scenarios. What if the cruise ship sinks? What if he divorces me? What if I never find a job? I think you get the picture. In relation to my last blog, this type of fear may be the jackal voice, the voice of the inner critic who demonstrates a lack of a secure base. It is here we inquire, “What need is going unmet? What is frightening my inner critic?”

The second one is an emotion that occurs: when we find ourselves in a space that is bigger than that to which we are accustomed; when we suddenly experience more excitement and/or energy than what we had previously; or when we encounter God. For example, my husband and I have entered into a new adventure. Since our caregiving responsibilities for my father have ended, since my doctoral studies are successfully completed, and since my husband has retired for the first time, nothing is keeping us in our current location. The world, in some respects, is our oyster. This is a larger space than I have previously occupied, and it is generating energy and excitement while being frightening. As Christ-followers, we have been praying and asking God for direction, and we sense God leading us, but the path is not completely clear. I find myself anxious and energized at the same time. Attachment theory reminds me that I long for that secure base, but my trust in God says, “Embrace the uncertainty,” which produces both an exhilarating and a grateful affect. I believe I experience both types of fear mentioned above in that I move back and forth between the two. My actions demonstrate the trust in God while my own finitude longs for a secure base.

In some sense, both types may be viewed as a gift. Both reveal our need for others. Fear portrays in attachment theory our need for a stronger, wiser one to come alongside, to comfort us. A child cries in fear when there is a loud clap of thunder until the caregiver comes and soothes the child, providing that sense of security, enabling the child to explore his world. While we may learn as adults to self-soothe, we never outgrow this need for the other— there will always be things that are bigger than we are. God created us as relational beings, and attachment theory powerfully portrays this characteristic.

Fear also reminds us of our vulnerability and of our humanity. Fear taps us on the shoulder, saying in a sing-songy voice, “Hello? Don’t forget. You are finite.” Maybe that is why some of us work so hard to mask it. We attempt to overpower fear by using anger as its cover. Hostility gives the pretense that we are powerful and in control. It presents itself as formidable. It pushes people away while protecting ourselves. If fear remains unrecognized, it can be an instigator of conflict, division, and war.

In the church, we learn that admitting one’s fear is taboo. We are told, “Perfect love casts out fear,” or “We have not received a spirit of fear.” Despite platitudinizing such Scriptures, the fear frequently remains, becoming the banned white elephant that is still in the room but is hidden as it is expressed in other ways. If our fear is masked as anger, then those outside our circles are unable to witness the love of God that we profess. In reality, fear is not cast out but persists in clandestinity.

As I ponder the emotion of fear, I am reminded of familiar text that is read multiple times during the Christmas season.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:8-12)

Verse 10 says, “Do not be afraid.” A commonly repeated phrase in the Scriptures.

A phrase that reminds us that God is aware of our vulnerability and our finitude. If we were to encounter messengers from God, such as did the shepherds, we would be immediately aware of our own human limitations. To say that we would be outside our comfort zone is putting it mildly. In that moment, we are in need of a secure base, but there is none to be found. No self-soothing will generate enough comfort to alleviate the fear produced by such an experience! We have come face to face with unpredictability and mystery. Yet, this phrase underscores God’s acknowledgement of humanity’s longing for security. It is God’s soothing voice (or in the Lukan case God’s messengers) that provides comfort. In essence, God is exposing the hidden elephant in the room—a core emotion for humanity—our fear. By bringing it to the surface, God not only reveals our limitations but also provides the comfort for which we long. God recognizes our need for a stronger, wiser one, and in this case, it is God.

This Christmas may we recognize the gift that is present in fear—the need for another and more importantly, the need for a Savior.

 

Learning to Care for the Enemy . . . within

  • You post something on Facebook, and only one or two people respond, and you wonder, “Everyone responds to my friends posts that are similar to mine. What’s wrong with me that no one is interested in my life?”
  • You just preached your heart out, firmly believing it was of the Spirit. Yet, other than the obligatory, “Nice sermon, Pastor,” from the standard people, no one in the congregation said a word. You berate for yourself for your inadequacies as a minister, and you are discouraged and depressed as you think about preparing yet another sermon for the next week.
  • You are conversing with a friend who is really hurting, and after talking with her, she seems just as depressed as when the conversation started. You second-guess yourself for several hours saying, “I shouldn’t have said that . . . I should have said this.”
  • You send a text to a friend, and there is no acknowledgement that they received it. You tell yourself, “Why did I say that? I should have kept my mouth shut.”

This is the voice of the shoulds and the should nots, the all-or-nothing talk such as everyone or no one, or the internal blame. It can be loud and hostile, making it impossible to ignore. The voice can seize our attention as it dictates merciless demands colored with blame. Its unforgiving nature can heap shame on its hearers. Like a tyrant, it wields so much power that those under its may rule believe they are powerless to overthrow it. Could it be that only death is more formidable than it is?

This inner voice goes by many names:

  • Tara Mohr calls the voice, “the inner critic.”
  • Compassionate Communication names it the inner jackal voice.
  • A good friend of mine refers to it as the tyrannical conscience.
  • It is commonly seen as “beating yourself up.”
  • Christian artist, Andrew Peterson sings about it in his song, “Be Kind to Yourself”: “Gotta learn to love, learn to love your enemies too.”

This voice has a secret, yet potent, reign. It is the silent voice no one else hears, but it may become the loudest voice in our ear.

While its hidden realm is not usually openly discussed, I hear evidence of its rule as we attempt to conquer it.

We may couch the voice’s power with culturally acceptable phrases such as I hear while facilitating grief groups: “I am giving myself a pity party.”

Pity Party.

What does that mean? Seriously. What does it mean?

It is a story we tell ourselves in an attempt to find the security, acceptance, and love we longingly desire when we are feeling discouraged, depressed, or distressed. Thus, this becomes a tactic that disguises the way we may distance ourselves from our own pain and our own vulnerability. (It would seem, then, it also indicates that if we use the phrase to describe someone else, we are attempting to distance ourselves from the other’s pain.) In our attempts to distance ourselves from our pain, we are inadvertently judging ourselves for that pain. Allow me to explain.

Pity Party.

At first glance, the word “party” seems fitting in a culture that extols happiness (e.g., the pursuit of happiness). But I wonder do we use the word “party” to make it easier to swallow the bitter pill of our malaise?

Then there is the word “pity.” I define pity as seeing one as inferior. The image I have is a person with her arms folded towering over and looking down on the other. In other words, it denotes a power over rather than a power with someone. Thus, if I am describing myself as having a pity party, I am exerting power over myself by seeing myself as substandard. In essence, I am shaming myself. I do not know about my readers, but shaming myself usually does not empower me. It has the opposite effect.

What about simply using the Bob Newhart approach of “Stop it!” to silence the inner critic? For some, this tactic fails because it is like handing more ammunition, and maybe even weapons, to the tyrant. It gives the inner dictator more power—it promises to be helpful, but it injures rather than assists. Now, the tyrannical conscience is enabled to become critical of self for being critical of self. It is a never-ending, downward spiral.

I suggest a different tactic: Caring for the tyrant, the enemy within. What if we begin to see the inner critic as signal that a need is unmet for us? When we do not receive a high number of likes on Facebook and the jackal voice says, “You shouldn’t have posted that,” it becomes a signal of negative feelings such as anxiety or fear. These negative feelings point toward an unmet need. Maybe there is a piece of us that is longing for affirmation, a sense that we matter, validation, or normalization, and we thought that our FB friends liking our post would provide that for us. This is caring for the enemy within. It is paying attention to a part of us that expected a need to be met in a very particular way, and when it was not, our internal tyrant kicks in gear with all kinds of shoulds and should nots due to a lack of a secure base that allows us thrive and explore.

Attachment theory reminds us how important our basic need for security is. When a child is frightened by a loud noise, the child cries as the attachment behavioral system kicks in. When a caregiver holds and comforts the child, the child is enabled to gain a felt sense of security, and the attachment behavioral system is deactivated. This sense of a secure base enables the child to continue to explore her world.

But our need for a secure base does not simply disappear when we turn eighteen years of age but remains throughout our lives. The main difference as adults is hopefully we have also learned how to offer self-compassion. Some of us have not learned this skill, which now leaves it up to us to make small steps toward learning to care for ourselves. One small step is to recognize that this inner critic is a part of us and that it may be fearful and/or anxious. Then, in the same way we would reach out to care for the other who is fearful, it becomes an invitation to care for ourselves.

Theologically, I believe that self-compassion is a way to participate in God’s own ministry to ourselves. Compassion is an act that demonstrates suffering alongside that may be expressed through the giving of clothing, food, or empathy. God’s acts of ministry reveal that God is characterized as being compassionate. In Exodus 33, Moses requests that God reveal God’s glory to him, and God responds with “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” That is, the revelation of Yahweh includes the underscoring of God’s compassion. Notice how this appears thirty chapters after we see indicators of Moses’ inner critic. In Exodus 3 and 4, Moses claims he is unable to speak eloquently when he is to participate in God’s ministry of freeing the Hebrews from slavery. Whether or not Moses really could not speak well in addition to believing he could not speak well, we do not know. It was a belief he had about himself whether or not it had some truth to it, and his inner critic took this opportunity to protest. I could imagine his inner critic is probably anxious and fearful . . . I mean, whose wouldn’t be! Moses had not exactly left Egypt on the best of terms. Who knows? Maybe he was still kicking himself for killing that Egyptian. So while he herded sheep out there in the wilderness, maybe his inner critic was having a heyday! Yet, Moses at some point in his life experienced God as compassionate, the one who suffers alongside. As the first theologian (thank you, Ray Anderson), Moses communicates that to us in Exodus.

If we were to compare Yahweh to the gods of the other nations, we would find that both Yahweh and the other gods create, save, and judge but with one difference: Yahweh alone is compassionate (see Diane Bergant, “Compassion in the Bible,” in Compassionate Ministry). As Diane Bergant notes, the Hebrew word for compassion is the plural form for the Hebrew word for womb; thus, compassion carries the meaning of inward parts, of new life or birth, a bond, and of protection and safety. This informs us that when our inner tyrant shows up, as an indication of our need for protection and security, God is the one whose very essence meets that need.

As a Christ-follower, I believe God’s compassion is embodied in Jesus Christ. God suffers alongside humanity by physically walking on this earth with us. Being the embodiment of God’s compassion is signaled in how the word “compassion” is used in the Gospels: It is only associated with Jesus or the God-figure in Jesus’ parables. For instance, we see compassion in relation to the in-breaking of God’s reign through Jesus’ performing of a miracle as in the feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 8), and we see Jesus’ compassion when the people are described as harassed and helpless (Mt 9).

I also witness this in Jesus’ interaction with Judas. There are indications Judas’ internal tyrant was powerful. I note his criticism of Mary who uses an abundance of perfume to wash Jesus’ feet (John 12). Criticism such as this is often an indicator of a tyrannical conscience. But perhaps the strongest indicator to me of Judas’ inner critic is his completion of suicide (Mt 27; Acts 1). I can imagine how much he longed for forgiveness, but the inward tyrant laid down its terms and said, “No. It can’t happen. You are evil.” Yet, I see Jesus continuing to reach out to his enemy in the Fourth Gospel. In John 13 we observe Jesus loving his disciples (including Judas) by washing their feet, and in 13:26 it says that Jesus dipped the bread and handed it to Judas. There are suggestions in ancient literature that this is a custom to indicate favor; thus, it is as if Jesus is lovingly reaching out to Judas and caring for his enemy (see Craig Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 918-919).

We often see our inner critic as our enemy, an enemy we must expel. However, it is when we care for this enemy that I believe we participate in God’s own compassion towards us. The image is one of a park bench on which Jesus sits with his arm around us, caring for us. When we, too, are alongside ourselves, sitting beside ourselves, expressing compassion and caring for the enemy within, that is how we are participating in the power of the Spirit in the ministry of compassion that Jesus embodies towards us.

 

 

What’s Our Mentality? Scarcity or Abundant?

This summer a headline in The Washington Post declared, “Christians are more than twice as likely to blame a person’s poverty on lack of effort.” The Washington Post teamed up with the Kaiser Family Foundation and surveyed 1,686 American adults. They reported that 46 percent of those who are Christ-followers and 29 percent of those who are not followers of Christ attribute a person being poor to a lack of effort. When some of the statistics were broken down, 53 percent of white evangelicals, 50 percent of Catholics, and 31 percent of those who were atheist, agnostic or without a religious affiliation placed the blame for a person’s poverty on a lack of effort compared to 41 percent, 45 percent, and 65 percent respectively, who stated it was due to circumstances. Based on the research, the article asserts, “When comparing demographics and religious factors, the odds of Christians saying poverty was caused by a lack of effort were 2.2 times that of non-Christians. Compared to those with no religion, the odds of white evangelicals saying a lack of effort causes poverty were 3.2 to 1.” [See Julie Zauzmer, “Christians are more than twice as likely to blame a person’s poverty on lack of effort.” The Washington Post, August 3, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/08/03/christians-are-more-than-twice-as-likely-to-blame-a-persons-poverty-on-lack-of-effort/?utm_term=.33a234cc2983]

What was my reaction when I read this article? Saddened. It demonstrates how a “pick-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps” mentality is a part of our culture, and conservative Christianity is no exception. But besides displaying this type of rugged individualism, I also wonder how much it reveals our reluctance to embrace another’s pain, to be present to another without judgment.

Let’s face it: as Americans, we have an aversion to difficulties in our instant society with our happy-go-lucky worldview. We hold dear to the mantra, “You can be anything you want to be,” and we uphold stories of the exceptional as proof. From movies on the big screen to weekly reality television shows, we tout this philosophy. Think about a movie that I have personally enjoyed, The Pursuit of Happyness. A favorite actor of mine, Will Smith, plays Chris Gardner, a homeless father with a son in tow who overcomes impossible odds to eventually open a successful brokerage firm. Based on a true story, it demonstrates courage, perseverance, and tenacity with a happy ending while peddling the ideal of the American dream. Or consider the reality-based competitions, such as American Idol, where frequently the lucky winner announces to the world, “Just keep trying. You can have your dream.” Hmmm…tell that to the tens of thousands who did not even make the cut.

Is a person’s inability to become another American success story or overcome difficulties simply a matter of a lack of focus, perseverance, or tenacity?

I recently ran across a book that sheds a different perspective on the answer to this question. Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir offer some enlightening research in Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much in which they define scarcity as “having less than you feel you need.” When thinking of scarcity, we may naturally call to mind the subject of poverty; however, the authors highlight various kinds of scarcity besides not having enough finances, such as a scarcity of time or a social scarcity in which people have too few social bonds. The authors make an important distinction between “physical scarcity” and “the feeling of scarcity.” Physical scarcity is everywhere in that we all have a limited amount of money, but the authors believe that the feeling of scarcity is not as pervasive. They provide some possible examples such as if we were to imagine a day where our schedules were not full, we may call a friend we have been meaning to call or take a more leisurely lunch. However, if the day was scheduled with back-to-back activities, we may be more likely to focus, using every minute productively. In both examples, each day has the same number of hours (physical scarcity), but our feeling of scarcity dominates one and not the other. Another example is with toothpaste. Have you noticed the tendency to be more liberal with toothpaste when the tube is full and how you are able to use less when the tube is almost empty?

According to the authors, the feeling of scarcity literally “captures the mind” with or without the person’s permission. Such changes in the mind reveal both a positive and a negative trait of scarcity. On the one hand, scarcity makes us more attentive so that we make fewer mistakes; thus, when our schedule is full, we are more focused on our work, resulting in being more creative. Think about it: How many times have you heard or said, “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it”? On the other hand, our intense centering on one thing generates neglect of other things. The authors call this tunneling, in which we center completely “on managing the scarcity at hand.” Thus, when we are focused on a soon-to-be completed project, we are more creative, but we forget an important meeting. The authors state, “Scarcity in one walk of life means we have less attention, less mind, in the rest of life” (41). This means when we experience scarcity, we have less bandwidth, which means less of an “ability to pay attention, make good decisions” (41–42). The project on which we are focused, then, so consumes us outside of work that we are distracted when assisting our children with homework or conversing with our spouse, or we make a poor decision by adding another project. In the case of poverty, when the mind is captured by scarcity, which generates less mental bandwidth, the authors argue “that the poor do have lower effective capacity than those who are well off. This is not because they are less capable, but rather because part of their mind is captured by scarcity” (60).

Whether it is poverty, time, or relationships, the authors make a strong statement: “Scarcity does not just mean less room to fail. It also means a greater opportunity to fail. . . . [I]t provides more opportunity to err, to make misguided choices” (84).

As I sit in middle-America with my middle-class style living, I wonder, “Am I able to have an abundance of presence to others who struggle in an area of scarcity such as food, poverty, loneliness, or busyness?” Or do I reinforce their not-enough mentality?

If a bereaved person speaks to me about being overwhelmed by loneliness which is compounded by her realization it is a couple’s world, do I meet her in her loneliness, giving her space to explore it, or do I say, “Well, you need to go out and meet someone! You should join a local widow’s group, or how about I sign you up on a online dating website?”

If a lonely person who has recently moved says, “I miss my friends back home,” is my tendency an attempt: (1) to make him feel better by immediately saying, “You should stop thinking that way. Soon you will have more friends,” or (2) to reminisce with him about his previous life back home because I know in order to go forwards, one must first go backwards (to borrow from Dr. Alan Wolfelt)?

If a person laments, “I don’t have enough time to get everything done,” how do I respond? Do I instantly try to problem-solve and help the person come up with a plan to accomplish the to-do list? Or do I meet the person in that place of busyness, joining her in her lament?

When a friend of mine lands on a hard times that are quite extended, do I quickly offer advice because I am so uncomfortable with my friend’s ongoing arduous situation and my own vulnerability? Or do I hear the person’s feelings and needs and attempt to normalize my friend’s experience by saying, “Of course you are alarmed. These difficulties can generate feelings of helplessness as you long for some stability in your life”?

As humans, we have a knee-jerk reaction to want to fix things. It reminds me of a story from my husband’s life while we were living in Asia. He had fallen HARD on a very slippery sidewalk; however, before he could assess whether or not he had all of his limbs still intact, some caring nationals immediately came to help him up. To make it more difficult, he didn’t know enough of the language to even tell them he wasn’t ready to get up!

This is a great illustration of what we tend to do: we run ahead of people who are in pain, who are experiencing a difficult situation, or who are simply lamenting, and we attempt to pull them up before they are ready. Rather than being present to them, we are quick to give them another should or should not, which pushes them down, not lifts them up, and contributes to their not-enough thinking.

Sometimes the person may not know they are not ready to move forward, and they try to propel themselves out of their pain. Once again, I turn to my husband’s life for an illustration in which he was hit by a car at age 10 while living in another country. He attempted to stand up prior to assessing he had a broken leg, which resulted in him falling to the ground. After crawling to the side of the road, he looked at his foot and saw it was 180-degrees opposite his knee (by the way, he didn’t speak the language enough to tell the compassionate bystanders, “My Mom lives right up there in that apartment”).

This portrays what I have heard in grief groups: “I shouldn’t be crying,” says a woman whose husband of 40 to 50-some years has died less than five months ago. Or it may appear when a widower quickly marries another woman after his wife of many years has died. Of such a situation, Dr. Alan Wolfelt succinctly stated in a recent seminar, “There are now three in the marriage, not just two.”

I believe that rather than a not-enough mentality, I want to invite us to cultivate a mentality of abundance when we encounter others who are facing difficulties or simply lamenting. To be clear, an abundant mentality is not one of prosperity and health as some Christian traditions proclaim, including some within my own tradition. Such an emphasis, unfortunately, has left some people feeling shame and alone because somehow they are not enough since they do not have wealth and/or health that they have been told Jesus provides. Instead, by drawing from the Gospel of John, I am speaking of abundance in presence when we engage those who have been hit with scarcity thinking. I believe this is the kind of presence that Jesus has.

In September, I posted about John 9 and 10, commenting how these two chapters inform each other. Without restating what I wrote, I want to revisit John 10, focusing on verse 10: The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly (NET). As we read the Fourth Gospel, it seems John depicts Jesus’ whole ministry to be characterized by abundance:

  • Ch. 2—wine in abundance at the wedding at Cana;
  • Ch. 4—water in abundance as in the words “whoever drinks some of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again”;
  • Ch. 6—food in abundance at the feeding of 5,000;
  • Ch. 10—life in abundance;
  • Ch. 21—fish in abundance when the disciples are fishing.

In chapters 10 and 11, it is not only Jesus’ ministry that is about abundance, but we read that Jesus brings abundant life, and that Jesus himself, his very being, is life; thus, he embodies this abundant life of which he speaks.

In chapter 10, Jesus contrasts this abundant life with a thief who steals. For me, the thief has a scarcity mentality—what he has is not enough. But Jesus is not like this. Neither is he like the hired hand who abandons the sheep and runs away. Instead, Jesus remains with the sheep. That is, part of this abundance that Jesus brings is himself . . . his presence. He is present with humanity in his very being in that he is both human and divine. His abundance is not of the kind like the thief that is competitive or individualistic, clinging to what is his. Jesus does not cling to his deity (Phil. 2) but empties himself to be present to humanity. This abundance in presence is so magnanimous that he lays down his very life for us. He, who is life, loves to such an extent that he gives his very life so we may have life abundantly. This is being present to us in the fullest way possible.

John does not stop with Jesus’ abundant presence to us, but he illustrates how another follower, Mary, has a similar type of presence with Jesus, by giving abundantly. In chapter 12, Mary becomes present to Jesus’ upcoming death through her giving of an expensive perfume to wash his feet in preparation for his burial, and the implication is that she is present to the reality that Jesus will not always be among them. As in chapter 10, the issue of the thief who steals surfaces as Judas is called a thief. Like a thief, Judas judges Mary’s actions as not being good enough: she should have sold this and given it to the poor! His not-enough perception is in contrast to Mary’s lavish gift that is offered in abundance so that the aroma of her action permeates the room.

The above incident precedes an additional demonstration of love through the washing of feet in chapter 13 where John highlights another meal prior to the Passover with Jesus and his disciples. Jesus’ actions of washing feet exemplify a love that serves the other while instructing Christ-followers to display in his absence an extravagant love for each other. . . even when faced with betrayal and denial.

Today’s Prayer: Lord, may I be so sensitive to your presence with the other that I love him/her by providing a sacred space of abundant presence and thereby, just maybe, the other becomes more whole.

Thoughts on Conflict, Violence, Humanity, and the Church While Jet Lagging

I recently traveled to Asia to teach a class on pastoral care. It has been a number of years since I had travelled overseas, so it is possible that the contrasts of culture I experienced was more striking to me than in previous years. Having experienced the kindness and hospitality of more than one Asian culture during this trip, I was struck by the harsh contrast when I returned to USA soil. As I waited in an American airport for my final flight towards home, I noted how Americans isolated (or maybe a better word is insulated) themselves from other Americans via cell phones by texting, listening to music, watching movies, or searching the Internet. I did not experience the polite, friendly interactions while waiting in line despite my attempts, and I experienced those in service oriented airline jobs as being efficient but distant and preoccupied. I wondered, “What has happened to the friendly American? Is our country so polarized that we seek to protect ourselves through insulation?”

The above experience was in contrast to another experience I had a week ago when I was part of a funeral procession in another state. As the string of cars weaved through a city of 150,000, I watched in amazement as cars and pedestrians stopped out of kindness to honor the deceased and the mourners. This was the America I knew: a sense of community with complete strangers, a recognition of our common humanity which involved a common enemy—death.

Perhaps it was my recent trip to Asia that has caused me to wonder and reflect on the polarization of our nation but even more so on the division in the church. As I read through posts on Facebook, I am reminded how a combative nature has infiltrated the church. I confess that as a Christ-follower, I am not immune to using violent language in speaking of those I see as the enemy. On more than one occasion I have thought or verbally jeered at the opposing side. “That’s the way to tell them!” or “How ridiculous!” I recognize that this blog is a risk in that I may find myself alienated from people on both sides of the conflict, and this thought, I confess, saddens me.

Let’s face it: we are embroiled in conflict. Respect the flag vs. a call for justice. Black lives matter vs. all lives matter. Fake media vs. Real news. Trump vs. Clinton. Conservative vs. Liberal. Rather than diminishing, the division seems to accelerate as I hear of FB friends being unfriended on the basis that they do not agree or are perceived as too liberal or too conservative. Personally, I am now wondering if social media is intensifying our conflict as each side becomes more entrenched and as name-calling and labeling become more acceptable, but that is another topic.

For me, the theme of this blog is not the conflict per se, but it is a reminder to see the humanity of the other. It is commonplace for humans in conflict to perceive the opposing side as the enemy. The other becomes the enemy as we formulate black and white thinking about the opposing side, becoming competitive and insulating ourselves from views that are different from our own. Rather than generating curiosity as to what need a person is meeting by embracing an opposing view or the reason for their strong opinion, a difference in opinions seems to cause us to automatically label the other as stupid or an idiot. Unfortunately, this current conflict in our nation seems be of no exception. The tragedy of a conflict of this intensity and magnitude is what we, as the church, are communicating to the world around us. Rather than communicating kindness, gentleness, peace, and self-control amidst our differences, I wonder if we have hunkered down in our own corners, perceiving different voices as a personal threat to us. Rather than an opportunity to learn, to differentiate, to see beauty, or to change, our differences seem to point towards a lack of a secure base, causing us to react to protect ourselves. In some circles, it seems Christ-followers are doubting whether the other is a genuine sheep who is in the fold if he/she holds any view that opposes their own.

When I read through Scripture and study theology, human conflict is ubiquitous. As L. Gregory Jones has argued in Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis, we, as humans, embody violence. Compassion Communication (a.k.a Nonviolent Communication) holds that interpretations, labels, judgments, evaluations, and blame demonstrate the violence of humans. That is, the way in which humans think and act are characterized by violence. Therefore, when I speak of violence, I am not limiting its usage to fists, knives, guns, and bombs or physically harming or killing the other. Instead, I am expanding its definition to include harm to self and/or others so that such harm could be physical, emotional, or spiritual. It includes words and actions. In short, it is sin.

The way in which we are violent or judging of others is clearly seen in the Gospels. (I am indebted to Jones for generating my thinking in this regard). Humanity judged Jesus, God’s Son—this is the one who is sinless, the Prince of Peace, and human and divine. Hence, even if someone is without sin among us, we as humans embody violence to such an extent that we judge and kill him. As a result, God judges humanity for judging the Son, and God’s judgment against humanity calls for humanity’s death. However, Jesus not only is judged by humanity, and God judges humanity for that judgment, but Jesus becomes the actual penalty or the judgment that God places on humanity; therefore, Jesus is judged by humanity and becomes the judgment that God places on humanity. That is to say:

  • Humanity judges the human-divine one, who is the Eternal Judge;
  • God judges humanity for judging the Judge;
  • The Human-divine one becomes the judgment or the penalty by dying;
  • God resurrects the human-divine one so that judgment for judging the Judge is complete.

The above synopsis portrays that humans judge each other. Period.

But in this theologizing, let us not miss how God responded to humanity, the very enemy of God: God becomes human while remaining divine. God sees that we are human, and God enters into our humanity, joining us in our humanity. In other words, God sits at the table with us, eats with us, walks with us, and weeps with us, all the while knowing we will deny and/or betray him by judging him. This is powerfully illustrated in John 13 when Jesus is sitting with his disciples, eating the evening meal with them. In this account, Jesus embodies an act of love, his washing the disciples’ feet, while knowing they will desert him, Peter will deny him, and Judas will betray him. Jesus is not an automaton for the passage speaks of his own distress even though he has foreknowledge as to what is about to transpire. Neither does his foreknowledge stop him from loving his disciples, including Peter and Judas as demonstrated by his washing of their feet. He then instructs his disciples to do the same, to love those even if we know they will betray us. This reminds me of Hebrews 4:16 which speaks of Jesus being our high priest who has been tempted in every way as we have been but without sin. I want to underline that he has been tempted in every way, which means that he shares our humanity while being divine. He knows what it is to share humanity’s love for others while being betrayed, and we are the offending party. Jesus’ actions demonstrate that be it differences, enemies, or even sin, these are not to stop us from loving actions and words toward others who share our humanity.

As I reflect on Jesus’ sharing our humanity, I wonder if this points toward a key for us who are in conflict and who are seeing the other as the enemy. Are we to see the other’s humanity? Maybe this is the understanding of loving our neighbor as ourselves—we love others by seeing the commonality of our humanity. We see they have feelings and needs similar but different from our own feelings and needs. We see how they too long to be seen, to be heard, and to matter. We see how their actions are attempts to embrace longings and/or deep values. We note how they desire for their intentions to be seen, and they too want security and protection. In other words, my differences from the other do not eliminate the common humanity that we share. Rather than our differences being a threat, our differences may provide increased self-awareness and may also be used to expand our own understanding and to learn and grow as humans.

Several years ago I met a man who I experienced as embodying kindness. The gentleman was a middle-aged, successful businessman as evidenced by his living in the community of Scarsdale, NY. When we inquired as to his kind nature, he informed us that it was not always that way. His work was known to be highly competitive, a dog-eat-dog world; however, it was his concern for his sister that changed his perception. He realized in every area he excelled, his sister with a disability was unable to do so as a dependent adult. He surmised that since he yearned for others to treat his sister kindly, he was to treat others in this same manner. In short, change occurred for him when he embraced the shared commonality of humanity: treat others as I want to be treated, or in this case, how I want someone I love to be treated.

In chapter four of the letter to the Ephesians, the author reminds the readers there is one body, one Spirit, one Lord, and one baptism and continues by saying that in Christ’s body, everyone is connected. The chapter concludes with the following instructions, with which I close this blog:

Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift. Don’t grieve God. Don’t break his heart. His Holy Spirit, moving and breathing in you, is the most intimate part of your life, making you fit for himself. Don’t take such a gift for granted. Make a clean break with all cutting, backbiting, profane talk. Be gentle with one another, sensitive. Forgive one another as quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you. (vv. 29–32, from The Message).

Amen.