Loving People in Pain: Humility and Compassion

Sometimes we are impatient with the weakness of others. When those closest to us exhibit neediness, it’s easy to recoil in judgment. Their vulnerability triggers our fear: fear of being blamed, fear of unreasonable demands, and fear that our own neediness will become visible. The result is distance, leaving the other person feeling abandoned in their pain. While this reaction may provide a fleeting sense of control, over time it erodes trust and makes intimacy more difficult.

When people experience weakness, their soul cries out for compassion and support. They need trusted loved ones to draw close, to empathize and tell them that they are still loved. Deep down inside, most of us want to offer these gifts, but fear and pride compel us to withdraw. If this results in shame, we can justify our callousness in the name of tough love or healthy boundaries, thereby increasing the disconnect and adding insult to injury.

The cure is humility.

Humility is a misunderstood virtue in our culture. It is usually associated with impotence and confused with humiliation, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Genuine humility is about self-awareness. It’s about knowing, showing, and embracing our strengths and weaknesses, our beauty and brokenness. It’s an affirmation of our common humanity (our imperfection), which counteracts the tendency to elevate or degrade ourselves in relation to others. Humility teaches, “The weakness that I see in you is the weakness that resides in me.”

When clothed in humility, our response to neediness can be supportive. Instead of compulsively withdrawing in fear and judgement, humility empowers us to connect with the pain of others through empathy, and in this way humility is the gateway to compassion.

Contrary to popular opinion, humility and compassion require enormous strength. It is easy to react in fear, defensiveness, and judgment, leaving others feeling abandoned and bereft. It is difficult to enter someone’s pain and hold them there. In fact, we cannot muster enough courage to love in this way without drawing on a power greater than ourselves, without grace.

So, let us pray for that which makes love possible: humility, compassion, and patience. And let us practice these virtues as others trust us enough to show their weakness and pain.

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Don’t Label Me! The Subtle Violence of Judgmentalism

No one likes to be labeled or reduced to a stereotype. But without even realizing it, we often experience a person and then cast him or her in a role that becomes the basis of all future interactions. The problem is that once we start thinking of John as a “bully” or Jane as a “manipulative person,” it’s difficult to relate to them in any other way.

This is particularly true with interactions that involve conflict. When someone gets angry with us, their natural human response is to look for reasons to legitimate their anger. This leads them to trace offending behavior back to some personality or character defect. In doing this, it is not uncommon for them to inadvertently hit-on one of our growing edges, which are undesirable ways of thinking or acting triggered by stress. In reality, these growing edges are fragments of our total person, and usually not characteristic of our normal ways of being and acting. However, in the hands of the offended these fragments are magnified into stereotypes that not only legitimate aggression but also provide a basis for writing someone off as a “difficult person.”

Stereotyping in this context is subtle form of violence and is highly effective at triggering guilt and shame because it’s a distortion of something we already know to be true about ourselves. When someone is looking for reasons to justify their anger toward us, they usually don’t fabricate things out of thin air. Rather, they hone-in on a small piece of who we are, something with which we already struggle, and magnify it in ways that eclipse all of the other aspects of our person. Since many people are not only aware of their growing edges but also deeply ashamed of them, when someone latches on to these undesirable traits and effectively says, “This sums-up the kind of person you are,” it can really hurt.  

In Christianity, this is a form of judgmentalism, something that Jesus sternly warns against: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1-2). Some of Jesus’ most severe criticism was aimed at the religious leaders of his day who were driven by a judgmental spirit to condemn those who failed to meet their expectations. Going even further, Jesus also said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).   

Clearly, judgmentalism is wrong, and when treated this way we face a twofold challenge. First, we must find ways to resist the label. This is not to say that we should actively deny our shortcomings through the power of positive thinking. We should be honest about our failings and work diligently to grow past them. But we should also actively resist any message that says, “This shortcoming defines who you are and makes you undesirable or defective.” The best way to combat this temptation is to make a list of scriptural affirmations that ground our identity in Christ, and meditate on these affirmations during times of prayer. For help in doing this, see my message, “Overcoming Insecurity.” In addition, we can surround ourselves with spiritually mature and emotionally healthy people who know us, love us, and focus on our strengths to inspire change. These are people who help us see our faults in the overarching context of grace and our progressive sanctification. This is an exercise in discernment: To whom should I listen?   

The second (and much more difficult) challenge is to not become that which we hate. Our natural response to judgmentalism, is to say, “What a jerk!” and then fantasize about (and even act on) ways to reestablish respect, dominance, or superiority. “I am not going to let anyone treat me like that!” If we are really honest with ourselves, all of us struggle with being judgmental, and it is much easier to see it in others than it is to see it in ourselves. While it is important to consider past interactions when making important decisions about present and future interactions, we cannot effectively combat judgmentalism with judgmentalism. In addition to resisting stereotypes, we also have to resist stereotyping and allow for the possibility of grace-empowered change. The only way that I know how to do this is by praying for people that I’m tempted to condemn or write-off. 

Whatever judgmentalism, labeling, and stereotyping you face today, remember to ground your identity in Christ and pray for those who mistreat you.

To Thine Own Self Be True: The Path to Lasting Joy

“Franciscan alternative orthodoxy doesn’t bother fighting popes, bishops, Scriptures, or dogmas. It just quietly but firmly pays attention to different things-like simplicity, humility, non-violence, contemplation, solitude and silence, earth care, nature and other creatures, and the ‘least of the brothers and sisters.’ In Francis we see the emergence of a very different worldview, a worldview that is not based on climbing, achieving, possessing, performing, or any idealization of order, but a life that enjoys and finds deep satisfaction on the level of naked being itself–much more than doing or having.”

This quote by Richard Rohr gestures toward my own Lenten focus this year.
What are the things that give you deep joy? What activities make you feel alive and energized? What deepens your sense of meaning, value, and beauty? What are your natural abilities and spiritual gifts? What are you passionate about? What are the things you have always known how to do without having been taught?
As you patiently ponder these questions and answers emerge, you will discover your gifts to the world–things you can offer that add value to the lives of others and provide a deep sense of belonging. You will discover your purpose and unique contribution to life. These are birthright gifts that no one can take away, gifts that you can enjoy and share wherever you are, regardless of your circumstances. And if you build your life around these things, you’ll be empowered to develop what Henri Nouwen calls a “holy indifference” to the wavering opinions of others.
Remember, most people in the world form opinions of you based on how you conform to their expectations. Since everyone has a different set of expectations (that vary in degrees of spiritual and emotional health), it is impossible to make everyone happy all the time. So allowing other people to define you and tying your happiness to the approval of others is like playing a rigged casino game–you will always lose.
In contrast, the path to lasting peace, joy, and love is figuring out who you really are as a beloved child of God and living in that truth come hail or high water. “To thine own self be true,”  and let the chips fall where they may.
“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” -Jesus

Contemplating My Wife’s Mortality: An Ash Wednesday Reflection

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I spoke these words to many people last night as I made the sign of the cross on their foreheads with a finger dipped in ashes. This is a common practice among Western Christians marking the beginning of Lent, a forty-day season of spiritual preparation before Easter characterized by prayer, fasting, meditation on scripture, repentance, self-denial, and reconciliation. The ritual is a symbolic reminder of our mortality. All of us will die, and our only hope is the resurrection power of God. Contemplating our mortality invites us to confess our need for God and God’s gracious salvation in Christ. There is good news on Ash Wednesday, but it is mediated by the sobering prospect of our own death.

While Ash Wednesday has always been one of my favorite services since first receiving the ashes as a college student, it took on new meaning for me last night. For the first time since I was married in August 2015, my wife stood before me to receive the ashes. This caused a surge of emotion that blindsided me as many others stood in line behind her waiting to receive the sign of the cross.

From the dust . . .” These were the only words I could say before my eyes welled up with tears. For the first time during this ritual, I was not contemplating my own mortality, but that of a person I love dearly. I could hardly bear the thought, “One day, my wife will die.” And in that very moment, my eyes were opened to a whole new way of seeing the other people coming forward to receive the ashes.

As husbands and wives came forward together, I thought, “Their spouse is going to die too.” A young mother came forward and presented her new born baby to receive the mark of the cross . . . babies die too. An older couple came forward, reminding me of all the people who had died after receiving the ashes from my finger . . . old friends won’t be around forever.

This new way of seeing the people as they presented themselves one-by-one came as a startling surprise upon contemplating my wife’s mortality. And while it might seem morbid, all of these thoughts of death led to some powerful reminders: life is short, no one is guaranteed tomorrow, and those we love are a profound gift from God to be cherished daily.

You might be thinking, “Great. I have spent the last several minutes reading a blog post that ended with, not one but three, clichés!” But these reminders come as clichés only when we forget the profound truths of which they speak. Indeed, part of our sinful condition is perpetual forgetfulness. We forget who we are and what we have. We forget what’s really important in life. But experiences like the ones evoked by a good Ash Wednesday service can provide lasting reminders that empower us to confess our need for God and more deeply love those we so often take for granted.

Bah Humblebug! What is Humility and Why Is It Important?

As counter-intuitive as it might seem, the humble are the most powerful people in the world. They are also the most dangerous to those in positions of power, because they are difficult to manipulate with flattery or fear. God’s assessment of their life is what’s most important, so people pleasing is left behind. Since they do not feel compelled to project and defend an idealized self-image, the humble do not need the praise and admiration of others. This enables them to live authentically. In the teaching that follows, Pastor Mark explains how the virtue of humility has been distorted in our contemporary context. Drawing on the example of Christ and the Christmas story as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, he goes on to explain the true meaning of this virtue and why it is important for Christians today. The audio is also available on Pastor Mark’s iTunes podcast. Other messages in this Advent series can be found on Pastor Mark’s YouTube channel.

Take Up Your Glock and Follow Me: Whatever Happened to Martyrdom?

As a pastor, I am called to minister to a variety of people who have differing political views, social ethics, and interpretations of the Bible. This being the case, I try to be careful about what I say regarding polarizing issues and resist getting sucked into social media threads where people are not having intelligent conversations but taking potshots in defense of their tribe. However, after reading comments on numerous Facebook threads written by some of my Christian brothers and sisters on the issue of gun control, I cannot remain silent. Sometimes we have to risk speaking out when something important is at stake. There are some things for which we should be willing to suffer. Indeed, there are somethings for which we must be willing to die, and that it is what this article is about.

In the wake of the mass shooting at Emanuel AME church in South Carolina, N.R.A. Official, Charles Cotton, argued in an online discussion that Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator who was shot and killed in the attack, bore some responsibility for the deaths because he had opposed a change to South Carolina’s gun laws that would have made it legal to carry a concealed weapon into a church. He said, “Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead” (“N.R.A. Board Member Deletes Criticism of Victim in Church Massacre,” http://www.nytimes.com, 6/19/15). While these comments were abhorrent to me, it was not totally surprising to hear this coming from an N.R.A. representative. However, what has been most shocking is the number of Christians who have adopted and expressed this view in social media venues with no critical reflection on their own faith and what it means to be a Christian.

What would it mean for us to start bringing guns into church? I am not primarily interested in whether this would result in more safety or danger for our congregations. In my opinion, to focus on the practical effects serves to obscure the real issue for Christians. Indeed, to make a decision about guns in church simply based on the practical effects without any critical reflection on the relationship between power and salvation in the New Testament is already to capitulate to the anti-Christian idea that we should secure our own existence through violence, and the more subtle assumption that salvation somehow comes through force. The idea that one might be willing to die at the hands of someone filled with hatred to be a living and breathing testimony to the love of Christ and the power of cruciform love has become unthinkable for many in our churches today. While the soil of the early church was watered by the blood of Christian martyrs who knew the saving power of love and would rather die than engage in violent retaliation, martyrdom has become completely unthinkable in most Western churches today. I am increasingly convinced that this is a root problem when it comes to questions of gun control.

To say that we should not create more sensible gun control in our country because it would make it more difficult for law abiding citizens to purchase guns to protect themselves from criminals who easily get guns illegally in the streets is to completely miss the point. Indeed, to start with the question, “How can I secure myself?” is to obscure a deeper question, “Is securing my physical safety the most important thing in life?” If the life and theology of the early Christian community has anything to say about it, then the answer is clearly, no. Our ultimate concern should not be to secure our earthly life and well-being, but to live in obedience to God, even if that means dying.

So what does it mean to live in obedience to God? Christians answer this question by looking to the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. So what message is proclaimed by Jesus Christ? In Matthew 5:38-39, Jesus say:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”

In Matthew 5:43-45, Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

Without settling the issue on how these kinds of sayings in the Gospels can be deployed in politics, what do we do with these sayings on a personal level? How do we respond to Jesus? Was he not in some sense revealing the heart and character of God, and God’s strategy for defeating sin, evil, and death in this world? We are quick to dismiss these kinds of statements as rabbinic hyperbole, but this position is called into question when we realize that Jesus didn’t just say these things as a teacher, but lived them in a way that cost him his life!

For example, when the Romans came to take Jesus by force, which secured him for an eventual execution, Peter pulled out his sword to protect him. Jesus said, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). If we continue reading in this passage, it becomes clear in the story that Jesus could have protect himself and retaliated. He tells Peter that he could call twelve legions of angels to wipe out the enemy. But this was not a practical decision aim at protecting himself; it was a theological decision based on his understanding of God and the way God works in the world. It was a moral decision based on what it means to live as a reflection of God’s character in very concrete ways. The important point here is that Jesus could have resisted or retaliated, but he chose not to! He intentionally absorbed the hatred and violence in his body as an act of self-sacrificial love, precisely to save us from hatred and violence. This is how God saves the world, not by returning evil with evil, but by returning evil with good. It was precisely by not fighting back, by becoming defense-less, that Jesus was the clearest embodiment of the love of God. It was precisely by not fighting back that the saving power of love was released for the transformation of the world. In this way, God redefines power in the cross of Jesus Christ.

It is not only with his words, but also the shining example of his life, that he calls out to us: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This is what it means to be a Christian, to live and die like Jesus. How can we claim to be a Christian if our life is not in some sense cruciform? How can we claim the name of Christ if we do not bear testimony with our life and death to the saving and healing power of a self-sacrificial love, which is the only thing that can ultimately conquer violence?

If you want to understand the logic of the gospel of Jesus Christ, listen carefully to these words:

“Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.” (Luke 17:33)

Paul understood this well. As one who, prior to his conversion, used force and violence to accomplish his political, social, and religious agenda, he says after an encounter with the risen Christ, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Again, we read in 1 Peter 3:9, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.”

The problem is that most Christians find the way of the crucified Messiah unthinkable. I can just hear the internal dialogue: “Seriously? Refuse to resist an evil person and become defense-less in the face of violence? Turn the other cheek? Love my enemy? Pray for those who persecute me? Repay evil with good? Be willing to die in order to bear testimony to the love and saving power of God? Absorb violence self-sacrificially instead of retaliate?  Be willing to lose my life so I can find it? Well, that’s just crazy!” I know this is a hard message to hear, and to say that Jesus’ plea, “Come and die,” is “good news” just seems nuts. But there it is, and that is why it is easier to talk about gun control than the logic of the gospel, which is not “Take up your Glock and follow me,” but “Take up your cross and follow me.”

This Gospel runs contrary to our very nature. This Gospel is offensive. This Gospel strikes a deep cord of fear in our hearts. This is one reason why Jesus says repeatedly, “Do not be afraid.” He knew that once we really got what being a Christian is all about that it would terrify us. Many people want Jesus to save them from sin and hell, but they have no interest in following him to Golgatha. They want access to the power of God to secure their own existence, without a life structured by self-sacrificial love.

I remember when it was popular in youth groups to wear WWJD bracelets. While I don’t think that asking, “What would Jesus do?” provides easy answers to all of life’s questions, it can sometimes help focus us on what is most important. When thinking about the massacre at Emanuel AME church, what would Jesus have done if he were sitting in a pew when Dylann Roof opened fire? Would he have pulled a gun to shoot and possible kill this young man? Given everything I know about Jesus, I think it is safe to say “No!” Rather, I think he would have spread his arms wide in love, even if that meant giving his life to show this young man the way, the truth, and the life.  Jesus would rather die (and did) than use violence in an attempt to save us from violence. The day we capitulate to fear (and the consequent lust for power) by bringing guns into churches is the day the enemy has gained the upper hand in the struggle of good versus evil.

So what is the solution to violence in our country? I don’t have all the answers, but the Gospel seems to suggest that that we need fewer gun-slinging cowboys and more people for whom martyrdom is a real possibility if they are called to show with their death the truth of redeeming love. You might think that all of this crazy, and it is according to the standards of the world. Jesus knew this when he said, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:6). And Paul knew it too when he said, For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

Brothers and sisters, it is one thing to say, “This Gospel is really hard, but I wish I had that kind of faith,” and it is another thing to say, “I refuse to accept the logic of the gospel and follow a crucified savior.” I often find myself deeply struggling with what it means to live a life of non-violent, self-sacrificial love. I am not recommending that we seek out martyrdom. The early Christians would have found this odd, because for them martyrdom is not something that we chose for ourselves, but a special calling with a special grace to witness to God’s love in a special circumstances that are in certain ways beyond our control. I certainly do not want to glorify suffering; human suffering is always heartbreaking, even when it is redeemed by God and yields unexpected goods. Like most human beings, I naturally want to defend myself and repay evil with evil. But I also want the voice of Jesus to penetrate my fear so I can clearly hear the truth, no matter how difficult it might be for me to accept. I want to have the courage, strength, and hope to follow his way, no matter what the cost. I want to grow so that my faith might shine as bright as the Christian martyrs both in the past and in the present, both at home and abroad. What would it be like to have that kind of faith? How would life be different if we were willing to fully trust God not only with our lives but also our deaths? What would it be like to drop our defenses and be so filled with love that we no longer fear death? Now that would be real power! This is the kind of power that was released when the families of those who were killed at Emanuel AME stood up and said, “I love you and forgive you!” May we aspire to have that kind of faith!