Christ Calls Christians to Compassion, NOT Comfort

I know everyone is passionate about what is going on in the country right now. There are a lot of legitimate reasons for people to be concerned about the direction we are heading, and emotions on all fronts are understandably close to the surface, which makes it really hard for us to listen to each other. But for a moment, I’d like to talk to the Americans who call themselves Christians. Everyone else, of course, is welcome to read on, but I’m specifically directing this towards those who strive to be Christ-like.

First of all, no one is perfectly Christ-like. That is simply unattainable. But if we are going to call ourselves by his name, that should be our aim. It is what we should strive for, and we should always be pressing towards that goal, to get as close as we are able.

There are a lot of words that you could use to describe Jesus’ three-year ministry on Earth. But the aspect of his character that always seems to shout the loudest to me is: compassion. Indeed, it is compassion that brought him to Earth in the first place. But almost every interaction that you see between Jesus and nearly everyone he came in contact with (perhaps with the exception of the religious rulers) was dominated by compassion. Here are just a few examples (in no particular order):

The (Samaritan) woman at the well,  John 4:4-26

Even though she was a “half-breed” Samaritan who would have been rejected by many of the Jews of her day, Jesus was not reluctant to associate with her, listen to her, and offer her a chance to accept him as the Messiah (who most Jews felt was exclusively for them)

The woman with twelve years of constant bleeding, Matthew 9:20-22, Mark 5:25-34, Luke 8:43-48

This woman had exhausted every penny she had going to doctors for healing and had found none, for twelve long years. We don’t know if she was in a lot of pain (although many of the conditions that cause constant menstrual bleeding are quite painful), but we do know that because of the restrictions on cleanliness there would have been many social and religious aspects of life she would have been excluded from.

 The feeding of the multitudes (two events), Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:31-44, Luke 9:10-17, John 6:5-15; and Matthew 15:32-16:10, Mark 8:1-9

Jesus and the disciples were exhausted. A seemingly never-ending stream of people with physical and spiritual needs had left them with no time to rest, relax, and restore themselves. In fact, the “feeding of the 5000” was right after they found out about John the Baptist’s murder. They hadn’t even really had time to mourn. But when the disciples wanted to send the crowds away, Jesus instead asked what they had to offer the hungry masses. He blessed it into enough not only for the crowd at that moment, but enough to send them home with leftovers.

The children who came to him, Matthew 19:14, Mark 10:13-16, Luke 18:15-17

 Again, these guys are wiped out. The crowds were pretty much constant at this point, and the wear on the disciples was beginning to show in their crabbiness as they tried to shoo away the children and the parents who tried to bring them to Jesus. But Jesus urged them to allow the children to come to him.

 Mary and Martha (when their brother Lazarus was dead), John 11

There are tons of commentaries on this passage and the background of this family’s relationship with Jesus, and I am no scholar. The point I’m trying to make here is that he cared very deeply about this family, and his compassion moved him not only to tears, but to action.

Even on the cross, he was more focused on his compassion for others than on his own suffering:

Praying for forgiveness for those who were carrying out the orders to crucify him (Luke 23:34)

Assuring the thief on the cross next to him that he would join him in paradise (Luke 23:43)

Bidding his mother and Peter to care for one another as mother and son after he was gone (John 19:25-27).

Why am I prattling on about this? Because I believe that if we are going to label ourselves with his name, then this profoundly fundamental aspect of his character should be something that we are continually working towards. But what exactly does that look like in our current society?

I believe it looks like this:

Whenever we have an opportunity to ease another person’s suffering, we should do whatever we can to do so. Close to home, this may mean volunteering at a soup kitchen, supporting ministries that provide shelter for the homeless, medical and mental health care, sanctuary for abused spouses and children, etc. As we expand our outreach to those beyond our borders, I believe it should include humanitarian aid to victims of natural disasters, war, famine, etc. We should offer what we have to give to relieve the suffering of refugees, immigrants, and the like. Christ didn’t say only to care for those who believe as you do, or behave as you wish them to. In fact, he said exactly the opposite:

Luke 6:27-36 New International Version (NIV)

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.

The crux of this passage is that we (as Christians) should never sacrifice compassion for the sake of comfort. We should be willing to sacrifice our comfort for the sake of compassion. Yes, that means temporarily sacrificing our physical comfort in order to give our coat to someone who needs it, but I think it also includes something else. I think we are FAR too unwilling to sacrifice our psychological comfort for the sake of compassion. Follow me down this path for a moment, and maybe I can explain what I mean. If seeing a homosexual couple makes you uncomfortable, are you willing to sacrifice your comfort for the sake of interacting with that couple in a compassionate and loving way? If the Black Lives Matter movement makes you uncomfortable, are you willing to sacrifice your comfort for the sake of maintaining a dialogue, coming together in a spirit of reconciliation, and a true desire to right the undeniable wrongs that continue to be an issue? If the militarization of the police force makes you uncomfortable, are you willing to sacrifice your comfort to maintain a dialogue with them, addressing their very real fear for their safety, and the changes that need to be made in selecting and training our police force? If the Women’s March made you uncomfortable, can you sacrifice your comfort for the sake of reaching out to minister to the needs of those women, instead of calling names, labeling, or dismissing them?

Now, I don’t claim to know where the line should be drawn between the expected actions of an individual, and the prudent actions of a nation. But I do know that Christ did not call us as individuals to act out of fear, or greed, or entitlement, or paranoia, or anger, or retribution. If we are attempting to follow him, we should be acting out of compassion. And while I do not believe that a nation can be “Christian” (I believe that is a title that can only be assigned to individuals who have made that choice for themselves), if we would like to claim that we are a nation that is led by at least some fraction of Christian individuals, the decisions they are making should at least in some measure reflect compassion, even when difficult decisions have to be balanced with other concerns.

Obviously my sphere of influence doesn’t include our nation’s leaders. But if you’ve read through this far, maybe I can encourage you. Don’t let fear make decisions for you. God’s love is perfect, and perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18; note that it is in present tense, meaning it is an ongoing process–it continues to drive out fear, not that it drove out fear once and for all). Let us not belligerently withhold desperately needed aid in the name of self-protection, or nationalism, or entitlement. We are one of the richest countries in the world, in so many ways. We should be sharing that abundance. Do we have needy within our own borders? Absolutely. But we are blessed with such abundance that this should never have been an either/or discussion–we should be doing what we can to help both our fellow Americans in need AND our fellow human beings in need around the world.

Is there a way that you, personally, can sacrifice your own comfort for the sake of compassion?

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Christians, Let’s Get Back to Basics

You know, sometimes I wonder how often Christ rolled his eyes at his followers while he was here on Earth. I imagine that he was imminently patient with the frustrations of dealing with people who had spent three solid years with him, listening to everything he said, but were still just not getting it. But there is no sin in a sigh as you have to restate the same things over and over, an occasional head shake, maybe pinching the bridge of the nose, or even an eye roll. He was, after all, human.

He tried repeatedly to simplify things for them (and for us). He used parables in the hopes that the important things would click, and because he knew people have a tendency to remember stories far better than lectures. And he tried to break things down to basics. Probably the best example is this: love God, love your neighbor. Three of the four gospels have a version of this quote (John is a little different from the other three, but I’m not gonna get into that–it’s for Biblical scholars). Bear with me as I give you three copies of the same fundamental idea.

First, a little background for the passage. A teacher of the law asked Jesus which commandment was the greatest. Now we don’t know much about this guy other than that he was a Bible scholar (which for him, would have been the Pentateuch (the first five books of our Old Testament) and the books of the prophets). It says that he “tested” Jesus with his question. We don’t really know what his motivation was; it could be that he was a true seeker, and wanted to know if Jesus measured up to the hype, or that he was trying to trick Jesus into some objectionable offense (this was a pretty common occurrence). But it doesn’t really matter why he asked the question. Jesus used it as a teachable moment, one I’d dare say was one of his most important. Here are the three versions of his response, in the NIV (please don’t be upset if I didn’t use your favorite translation–I’ve read lots, and they really do come out the same; you can read yours if you prefer). Note that in the Luke quote, Jesus turned the question back to the enquirer, and the words are his, but then Jesus said he answered correctly.

Matthew 22:37-40

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Mark 12:30-31

30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[a] 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] There is no commandment greater than these.”

Luke 10:25-27

27 He {the scholar} answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[a]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b]

Both of these quotes come from the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 6:5[a] and Leviticus 19:18[b], if you want to look them up). While we modern day people think of the commandments as “the big ten”, he was talking about far more than that. There was a huge list of laws, some applicable to the entire nation of Israel, some specifically for the Levites (who were supposed to be the spiritual leaders of the nation), and some even more specifically for the Levite priests. But with all those rules to choose from, Jesus felt these two were the most important, and they even managed to capture the essence of all those other laws.

Basically, Jesus said, “There is too much, let me sum up.”

If you boiled everything down to its most basic roots, you’d have two categories in which all the other laws fit. Loving God involves not worshiping other gods (even things or people we treat as gods). It also includes a desire to please God by behaving as he wants us to behave. And the most important of those behaviours, what Jesus said was the biggest thing in all of the laws and guidelines God set out, was “love your neighbor as yourself”.

And what happens next? The scholar asks what all of us want to know: Who is my neighbor?  That’s right, I want to know exactly whom I have to be nice to. Jesus follows up with one of the most recognizable parables in scripture, the story of the Good Samaritan. The point he’s trying to get across to the people is this: everyone is your neighbor.

Wait, do you mean the meth addict in the line at the pharmacy? The gay couple sitting together at the coffee shop? The single mom on welfare who’s pregnant again? The girl with tattoos and facial piercings who visited the church last weekend? The unemployed man begging for change at the entrance to the shopping plaza?

Yep. All of the above. And everyone else too.

But don’t I get to decide whether they’re worthy?

Sorry, nope. That’s not your job.

There is absolutely no encouragement to do so. In fact, one of the primary points of the good Samaritan story is how lowly the Israelites thought Samaritans were (for cultural reasons), but HE was the only one who was a good neighbor.

Read the next part of the passage: (from the account in Luke)

Luke 10:29-37

29 But he {the scholar} wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

I think it’s kinda funny that Luke added “the scholar wanted to justify himself”. Common disease of the human race.

And after the story, Jesus asked him who he thought was the neighbor. The (potentially imperious) student of the scriptures knew the right answer. Even if he didn’t like it, it was glaringly obvious. And Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Jesus said, Don’t be like the priest, who was supposed to be one of the highest spiritual leaders of all Israel. Don’t be like the Levite (the tribe from which the priests were selected) who were in charge of being support staff for the priests, and caring for the temple and the other spiritual needs of the nation. Pause and think on that for a second. Don’t be like the “spiritual” people, but instead be like one of the lowliest outcasts, and put someone else before yourself. Because the “spiritual” people refused to do so.

The Samaritan didn’t say, “He shouldn’t have been walking through such a rough neighborhood.”

He didn’t say, “He must have been up to no good, or he wouldn’t have been here.”

He didn’t say, “He doesn’t deserve my help. He’s probably in this predicament because of bad choices, and now he’s suffering the consequences.”

There was no victim blaming anywhere to be found in this story.

He didn’t even say what I think might have been most understandable: “His people and my people have hated each other for a long time, and I doubt one of them would help one of us. Why should I?”

It just says, when he saw him, he took pity on him. I think an even better translation of that word, in the context of the passage, is that he had compassion.

At that moment, it didn’t matter how or why the man was in the condition he was in. It didn’t matter what his race, upbringing, or fundamental beliefs might have been. All that mattered was that the Samaritan saw a need and did everything he could to help. He had compassion. In fact, he went above and beyond. He not only lifted the guy out of the disastrous situation he was in, he made sure there was enough money to help him recover fully and get back on his feet. He didn’t offer his help based on whether the man deserved it, or earned it after the fact, or groveled at his feet in thanks for his marvelous generosity. He also didn’t let the innkeeper bear the expense of a decision that he had made. He offered to cover any additional expenses the next time he was around. He lived out his convictions to the fullest. He put his money where his heart was.

So I ask you: Is this how Christians behave? Is this what the rest of the world sees when they look at people who claim Christ’s name as part of their identity? Sadly, it has been far too often not the case. We definitely have a tendency to be more like the priest and the Levite, turning our heads to people in need. And it seems to have gotten even worse lately. This is something that desperately needs to change. If the majority of non-Christians see the majority of Christians acting in ways that are the exact opposite of what Christ called us to do, in fact, the opposite of what he said was one of the most important concepts of all, it’s no wonder there is animosity towards us.

So how can we turn this around? I truly believe it starts with each individual. If I claim that Christ is important to me, then my behaviour should reflect that. I should be willing to reach out to those in need, regardless of whether their need is a result of their own mistakes, or whether their beliefs align with mine. All of the people. I should be prayerfully considering how God can use my own special gifts and abilities to show his love to a hurting world. I should be working on me, not dictating how others should be spending their own money and gifts. I’ll ponder on this, and I ask that you do as well, and next time we’ll delve a little more deeply into specific instances, because there are so many people in need in this world.

I Am Heartbroken for My Country

It’s less about the outcome of the election and more about how we’ve been responding to that outcome. At this point, it doesn’t matter much whether you voted Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Green Party, Little Green Men, or no one at all. The fact of the matter remains, Donald Trump will be our president. But whether we are elated or distraught, the thing I think we’ve most forgotten how to do is truly listen to one another. I was desperately hoping that after the election we would start to get back to a minimal sense of unity, as is usually the case after elections, but it seems most people are only interested in talking over one another instead of listening and carrying out a truly productive dialog.

The problem is, fear is one of the most powerful motivators there is. And people who have been whipped up into a frenzy of fear tend to make irrational, emotionally biased decisions.

The people involved in the Black Lives Matter movement are frustrated because so many white people aren’t truly listening to their concerns and grievances. They feel marginalized because saying “all lives matter” in response doesn’t acknowledge that there is a definite issue that needs to be dealt with. If we can’t understand why the Black Lives Matter movement has resonated so strongly with so many people, we’re never going to be able to address the issues that brought it about. While there are plenty of white people who have lived their entire lives in poverty, living in dangerous neighborhoods, they still don’t fully comprehend how it feels to know that you have a much higher chance of being shot and killed if your skin is dark, or what it’s like to be “guilty until proven innocent”. It’s even harder to understand for white people who have grown up in middle class or affluent neighborhoods.

The police force is frustrated by the public perception that they are bullies, and they are worried every day that they might be sacrificing their lives in the line of duty. If we can’t understand the fear that motivates policemen to respond to threats of violence with violence instead of deescalation, we will never be able to overcome the “us vs. them” mentality that has resulted in so many wrongful deaths recently.

The LGBTQIA community is frustrated because they are being discriminated against with very specific, confrontational legislation, and bullied or attacked because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. If we can’t understand why people with a different sexuality or gender identity are genuinely afraid for their safety and sometimes even their lives, and that all most of them really want is to be accepted members of society, we are not ever going to be able to be allies and make sure that they are treated with fairness and respect.

Muslims, and indeed anyone who even looks like they might be Muslim or from a “terrorist country” are legitimately afraid for the safety of their families. There is still so much residual distrust and suspicion haunting us since 9/11. We need to understand, acknowledge, and attend to the fears that they have, as well as the fear that non-Muslims have about another potential terrorist attack.

The Christian right is frustrated because they fear they are losing ground on what they see as moral issues: abortion, gay marriage, etc. I’ll talk about Christians and the culture war in another post. Or several. Probably several.

Women are afraid that our country indulging a man who has repeatedly disrespected women will send the message that appalling “locker room talk”, sexual harassment, and even worse behaviours are perfectly acceptable, even expected.  Young boys will grow up seeing women as objects instead of equals.

People on both sides of the gun control issue are frustrated with, well, the adamant stance of the people on the other side. If we don’t even attempt to understand the fear that motivates both sides, we’re never going to be able to meet in the middle.

I hope you’re starting to understand what I’m getting at. Each of the major issues I’ve listed has at least some element of basic fear involved, and there are many more that I didn’t list. The thing about fear is that it’s hard to overcome. Many of these fears are quite justified; some, in your mind, may not seem justified, but that doesn’t change the fact that some people do feel them. We can’t really dictate to people what they are and are not allowed to be afraid of, nor should we want to try. It’s also pretty counterproductive to tell someone that their fear is ridiculous, unnecessary, or overreacting. That just shows more clearly that we’re not really listening to their concerns. If we don’t come together, acknowledge that there are some major issues that need to be dealt with, and start working toward some resolutions, we are going to continue to have ghastly, horrific, divisive political campaigns like the one we just endured. We have to realize that the majority of Americans are not acting out of hate, but out of fear. Unfortunately, fear has been responsible for some particularly reprehensible actions (consult the annals of history). The thing is, it just doesn’t work to tell someone that they shouldn’t be afraid, or that they shouldn’t act in response to their fear. It’s part of the human condition.

But we’ve forgotten how to put ourselves in another person’s shoes. In fact, most of the time it seems like we’ve forgotten how to, or perhaps lost the will to even try. It’s so much easier to click share on that smug article gloating about the outcome of the election, or the one bemoaning how horrible it is, and that it’s the end of our country. We’d rather lash out at our opponents, instead of remembering that ultimately, we’re all in this together. While it’s true that there are certainly some extremists on both sides of every issue, the majority of people are somewhere in the middle, in spite of the way it seemed during the election. This is somewhat easier to recognize when we view people as individuals rather than groups (i.e., those people), and if we try to refrain from using exceptionally inflammatory language like calling one another evil, Hitler, Antichrist, etc.

I’d like to propose something. If you see something on social media that makes you feel affronted, afraid, defensive, defiant, incensed, indignant, offended, or outraged, stop for a minute. Take a deep breath. Pause and try to pinpoint exactly what you’re feeling, and why you feel that way. Then, take a second to fact-check and make sure that the objectionable story, article, or statement is founded in truth. Please, please do not pass on misinformation or opinion pieces as fact, or worse yet, pass off satire as truth. Next, take a moment or two to try to see where the other person is coming from. Sometimes this is the hardest part of all. There are simply some aspects of another person’s state of mind that we can’t ever truly comprehend. But at least give it a shot, for the sake of the country. Then, consider what you’d like to accomplish by passing something on. Are you trying to help people understand one another, or are you really just trying to engender outrage at the actions of a few unrepresentative obnoxious individuals. Are you pursuing unity, or are you deliberately encouraging division?

The comedian Craig Ferguson, former host of The Late, Late Show, has a stand-up routine themed “Does This Need to be Said?”. I think we would all be well-served to try this approach as much as possible; it boils down to this:

  1. Does this need to be said?
  2. Does this need to be said by me?
  3. Does this need to be said by me right now?

I might even add a corollary: Am I using the most effective, least divisive language and tone that I can, while still getting my point across?

Regardless of whether you were for or against Hillary, if we want to Make America Great Again, we have to acknowledge that we are Stronger Together. United we stand, divided we fall. Those are not trite platitudes, it is an absolute necessity, especially if we are to surmount the challenges that will face us from without.

We’ve got some pretty ugly tears in the fabric of our country. Let’s start the process of mending them, because we’ve got a lot of work to do.

With utmost hope for our restoration,

Karen

Sometimes, Life is a Roller Coaster

The last year or so has been quite a roller coaster ride, particularly the last few months.  Last spring/summer I was dealing with debilitating, unexplained pain which had me nearly wheelchair bound.  This turned out to be severe endometriosis, which culminated in extensive surgery.  I felt far better immediately after surgery than I did for the months preceding.

But then not long after I was allowed to resume normal activities, I spent several months fighting a recurrent sinus infection, which turned out to be MRSA in my sinuses.  I haven’t had surgery for that, but it may be necessary soon, probably before cold and flu season hits full swing.

In spring of this year my daughter was struggling with severe depression, for which she ended up medically withdrawing for the semester and spending a short stint at a mental health hospital. Then at the beginning of summer, I broke my ankle.  A month later, our 15 year old dog and my grandfather, who I was extremely close to, died within a couple of days of each other.

So yeah, the family has been through the ringer.  I’ve been generally crappy at savoring anything lately, and not really accomplishing much at all, to be honest. I’ve been far more inclined to become a hermit. I’ve withdrawn from people, from activities, from life. But I am acutely aware that it’s not healthy for me to continue that indefinitely.

In the process of trying to diagnose my unexplained pain, one rheumatologist said he was pretty confident I had fibromyalgia.  Not long after that they found the endometriosis, so honestly I kind of dismissed the fibro diagnosis.  I think I was mostly hoping that with the surgery, anything that could not be attributed to my other illnesses would be resolved.  Unfortunately, that has turned out to not be the case. I am still really struggling with “swiss cheese brain” (fibro fog), pain and swelling in various muscles, and profound weakness and fatigue which doesn’t respond as well to my Addison’s medication as I would like. So it’s put me in a state of not remotely caring about much at all. I haven’t even been doing things that I normally enjoy.

Of course, those of you who have dealt with depression know that this is prone to happening to someone who is sinking into that quagmire. We don’t feel like doing things, so we stop doing things we enjoy. We don’t feel like interacting with others, so we withdraw from everyone. Naturally, this makes the situation worse. Depression is a black hole that sucks you in and spirals down further the more you cut yourself off from those things.

I’ve talked before about depression, and I’ve been on medications for it at a few different points in my life.  But not one doctor has urged me to see a counselor, or even suggested that it might be a good idea. I’m not trying to diagnose or treat anyone else, but I think that tends to be a mistake. I have become more and more convinced that in most cases, if your depression is affecting your life enough that you seek medical help, then medication PLUS therapy would usually be better than just medication alone. If you can find the right therapist, of course.

So I’ve been doing just that. If there is something I can do to help myself feel better, both mentally and physically, why would I NOT try that? Honestly, why haven’t I tried it before now? It may be partly because no doctor ever suggested it. It may be that I was subconsciously buying into the cultural assumption that only REALLY messed up people see a psychiatrist. But if it can help me cope better with the unrelenting, rapid-fire garbage that life has been throwing our family lately, it’s all to the good, and I’m in with both feet.

I’ve seen my new therapist a half dozen times now. I think one of the biggest benefits for me is that I feel like I’m taking some of the pressure off my husband. I am often a physical drain on him because of my health, I am a huge financial drain on the household, and I know the stress of worrying about me doesn’t help. But unloading to an outside person periodically has seemed to at least take some of that emotional burden off him. And although I’m not sure I’ve learned anything groundbreaking about myself, I think it’s helped me process the difficult stuff, especially the grieving. Stay tuned for progress updates, and cheer for the return of the enthusiastic, optimistic person that I am at heart. I’ve missed her, and I’m sure my family and friends have as well.

And if you’re struggling with depression, self-harm, or suicidal thoughts, please don’t hesitate to reach out for help. No matter how alone you feel, there is someone out there who wants to help you be well: a family member, a friend, maybe even someone you haven’t met yet, in the form of a doctor, counselor, or a hotline volunteer. Always keep fighting.

 

Are There Limits to Forgiveness?

I’ve written on forgiveness many times, because it’s something that is very important to me.  I don’t think it’s healthy to hold on to hurts that people have done to us, even if they have never asked for forgiveness, and don’t “deserve” it.  I realize that forgiveness is extremely difficult in some cases: I was not physically, emotionally, or sexually abused by a parent, family member, or spouse.  I have never been raped, mugged, or any of the those other horrible things that some of you have had to deal with, so maybe you think I can’t understand how difficult it is to forgive.  And you might be right.  But I do know what it is to be deeply hurt by something that someone has said or done to me.  And I know that holding on to that hurt, nurturing it, has never done anything but bring me further pain.

So maybe my definition of forgiveness is different than most.  What I mean by forgiving someone who harms you, regardless of whether they ask for or deserve it, is that you choose not to let it continually rip you apart.  You acknowledge that the damage has been done, and that the person who did it is probably broken in some way.  This does not require that you condone what they did to you, or make excuses for their behavior, or spout trite phrases about how you’re glad it happened because it’s only making you stronger.  True, it may make you stronger, but you don’t have to be happy about the situation.

I have also blogged more than once about removing destructive people from your life.  And when you look at these two ideas side by side, they may seem contradictory.  But really they aren’t.  It is never healthy to have constant contact with someone who is harmful to you, whether it be physically or emotionally.  So how do we reconcile these two ideas?  Well, that is far easier than the forgiveness itself.  Let’s take one of the more extreme cases: spouse abuse.  Nearly everyone will agree that it is best for you to remove yourself from the situation if your spouse is causing you harm.  Completely removing that spouse from your life is far easier if children are not involved, but even then contact can be kept to an extreme minimum, and limited to only situations where you (and any children) remain safe.  Don’t assume that I think this is EASY.  I’m just saying it’s possible, and that it’s the best possible response to a terrible situation.  However, just because you have removed that person from your life does not mean that they can’t continue to harm you.  And here’s where forgiveness comes in:  only if you make a conscious decision to forgive (not excuse or condone) the abuse, can you begin to heal.  This is the difference between letting the wound develop a scar and developing “proud flesh” around the wound.  Make no mistake, whenever someone wounds us deeply, there will be a scar.  But if we are constantly ripping open that old wound, it will never have a chance to heal. You can choose to forgive without remaining in a place where you are at further risk. If you are in an abusive relationship, please contact someone outside the situation, like The National Domestic Violence Hotline or a local abuse resource; something of this magnitude is something no one should have to deal with alone.

Now that we’ve talked about such an extreme example, it seems ridiculous to compare the little things that people do to hurt us.  But I dare say that we sometimes hold on to these little hurts just as tightly.  When we have someone in our lives who has hurt us repeatedly, we start to assume that everything they say or do is explicitly meant to belittle or cause pain.  Maybe that’s human nature; maybe it’s an attempt to protect ourselves from future harm.  But I’m going to throw something out there for you all to contemplate: there are very few people out there who are intentionally horrible people.  Certainly there are some who are inherently self-centered and inconsiderate.  But most of the time, they do not consciously make the decision to deliberately hurt others.  Does this excuse their behavior?  Absolutely not.  But there may be a legitimate reason that this person is so emotionally stunted that they are unaware of how their words or behavior are harmful.

So at this point we have a choice:  Is it possible for us to sit down and discuss with that person the things that they do that are hurting us?  Obviously this is the ideal situation.  It may be that once the person realizes they are being hurtful, they will make changes to prevent it from happening again.  If it is a repeated behavior, the change may not be instantly complete, but we must make efforts to acknowledge that the person is at least working to change.  Because certainly there are things about myself that I am working to change, and I’m not always successful.  (Keep in mind, I am no longer talking about the extreme case mentioned above; I am not suggesting that a victim of abuse sit alone with their abuser and tell them how they have hurt them.  There are other, safer ways to deal with that situation.)

If we refuse to let someone know that what they are doing is hurtful, we can expect them to continue with the hurtful behavior.  We take away from them the opportunity to grow and improve themselves as a person, and perhaps we even fail to protect others from their harmful behavior in the future.  We haven’t even given them a chance to change.

So when I have advocated removing detrimental people from your life, I have been talking about those who have been told that they are harming us yet willfully continue to do so.  If there is someone in your life who continually puts you down, belittles your life/dating/career choices, or otherwise makes you feel small and worthless, even after you have tried to express to them how this hurts you, it’s time to limit your exposure to them.  Like I’ve said before, it’s not always possible to remove them from your life completely, but it is possible to limit their opportunities to hurt you.

If there is someone who is constantly attempting to suck you into their drama, constantly wailing and bemoaning all the little things that are wrong with their life, it’s time to limit your exposure to them.  We should definitely strive to have more positive people in our lives than negative ones.  Does this mean that we abandon friends when they are going through a tough time?  Of course not.  I’m talking about those people who refuse to see the positives in their lives, regardless of how much they have going for them.  I’m talking about people who would rather complain about what they don’t have than be thankful for what they do.  If you have attempted to point out to that person how their negative attitude is harmful to themselves and others, but they shrug it off by saying that’s just the way they are, then they are not interested in growing and changing and they don’t need to be a huge influence on your life.  But don’t just cut them out of your life without giving them a chance to better themselves. And acknowledge their attempt to change, even if that change is slow.

I have really been struggling lately not to fall into the “poor me” trap.  It’s hard some days not to think, “Ugh, I’m so miserable, why me?”  There are few days that I can honestly say that my pain level and my energy level allow me to behave like a “normal” forty-two-year-old, performing tasks that I SHOULD still be capable of at my age.  Most days I feel more like eighty than forty.  Some days I am in mourning for the loss of my youth, and all the things I wanted to do with my life.  Some days I find it easier than others to remember that before I was diagnosed with Addison’s, one of the very real possibilities was MS, which would unequivocally been far worse. I truly hope that if I get to the point where I am spending too much time wallowing in self-pity and I’m bringing others around me down, that someone will tell me rather than just cut me out of their life because I’m too depressing.

So I guess what I’m saying is the same thing that most of my posts come down to: balance.  We have to strike a balance between forgiveness and protecting ourselves.   Balance between giving people the benefit of the doubt and realizing they’re not interested in changing.  Balance between being there for someone going through a rough time and keeping our own positive outlook on life.  It’s not an easy balance to maintain.  But it’s definitely worth the struggle.

Investing in Relationships

Last time I wrote about simplifying our holidays, and one of the things I mentioned was giving fewer, but more heartfelt gifts. My daughter has a quirky habit that whenever she introduces herself to someone new, she follows immediately with something along the lines of, “What’s your favorite color? Mine is green.” And I realized, I don’t know even this most basic information about the likes and dislikes of many of my friends and family. It seems like a simple thing, and I guess it is, but if I were choosing a birthday card, or wanted to knit a scarf, or buy a blouse for a friend, wouldn’t this be good information to know?

The thing is, knowing little details about people takes TIME. We have to invest time in the relationship to know what their favorite authors, movies, shows, hobbies, activities, and styles are. Unless we are just unnaturally lucky, we can’t really get them something they like if we don’t know what they like! I can’t pick something that you would want to hang on your wall if I don’t know how your house is decorated. And I don’t really want to spend the time to knit you a sweater in your least favorite color.

So I guess I’m starting a New Year’s resolution a little early. Especially during the holidays, and then continuing throughout the year, I’m going to try to pay a little closer attention to what colors and styles people wear, what programs/movies they watch, how they decorate their homes. Because even if it’s a small, inexpensive item, it will be much more appreciated if it’s a clear sign that you know what they like. That you care about them enough to invest the time to really “get” them.

How do you plug in to your loved ones to learn what they like? How do you keep track of it all? I’m considering keeping a year-round “gift-giving list” for just such a purpose. I’d love your input!

Worthy of Love

I saw a post on Facebook a couple of days ago that said, “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy”.  And it really got to me.  It was posted on a faith-based page, and I think it’s primarily directed towards Christians, but we could all benefit from adopting this attitude.

There is no passage in the Bible that contains qualifiers for the mandate to love one another.  Nowhere does it say, “love people who deserve it”, or “love people who never sin” or “love people who love you in return”.  It just says, LOVE one another.  There is no restriction on age, color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, wealth, or any other of those lame excuses we come up with to justify NOT loving one another.

So the challenge for us as Christians (and I dare say everyone else too) is to decide what actions constitute loving one another unconditionally.  No restrictions or qualifiers.  One need not embrace the homosexual lifestyle to love a homosexual, just as we don’t have to be the same color in order to love one another.  I guess I developed this attitude pretty early on in life, because one of my very best friends in early elementary school was a black girl, and I was completely baffled as to why the color of her skin should have any bearing on whether or not we should be friends, any more than someone’s hair color or eye color should.  I never really have understood that.

This also kind of underlines how prejudice is a LEARNED behavior.  We don’t pop out of the womb automatically disliking someone based solely on some random characteristic; the sad truth is that we TEACH this to our children.  We teach them by words and deeds to treat someone differently because of their beliefs, their race, or who they choose to spend their lives with.

Until we reach the point where it simply doesn’t matter, we haven’t found true equality.  This includes those who think they should be treated better simply because their group has been treated so poorly in the past.  In fact, even if you personally have been mistreated, it doesn’t mean that you are entitled to preferential treatment to “make up” for it.  That’s not any more equality than the mistreatment.

So that should be our goal: to get the the point where it makes absolutely no difference what color you are, or where you were born, or who you love.  I can love you regardless, for I should not be judging whether you are “worthy”.  That is the pinnacle of equality.