Saturday, October 10, 2009

Silver Linings

We tell each other that "every cloud has a silver lining," when times get tough. We cling to this phrase as a single strand of positivity that will keep us from losing all hope. As much as we need silver linings, though, they still feel like a consolation prize to us. We often measure the value of the silver lining only by its ability to ease the pain caused by the cloud. I've come to realize, however, that  oftentimes the silver lining is the entire point of the cloud. The Bible uses imagery of pruning plants and burning away chaff in a purifying fire to explain how God helps us grow. If we imagine ourselves in the place of the bush being pruned or the metal being purified, this doesn't seem like a very fun process. We don't want to be cut or burned, but we do want to grow and mature. I've noticed that many of the hardships that I have faced have caused me to solidify my foundation of faith and to become closer to God and more able to love others in the end. I consider those experiences to be blessings that only looked like curses because I could not discern the importance of the silver lining at the time.

When we are suffering, it can be so easy to see nothing but the cloud and forget all about the silver lining. We may think that the blessing is worthless if we have to go through such difficulty to receive it. But I have learned that when I think that way, I'm really missing the point. The suffering I endure as a result of being under the cloud will not last forever. But the silver lining carries a gift from God that will be with me and help me to grow for a long time. I've come to realize that in challenging circumstances, the silver lining is the true purpose, and the cloud is just the pruning shears or the purifying fire. I don't want to get so distracted by the discomfort brought by the cloud that I miss the silver lining. That would be a terrible, pointless waste.

I wrote a poem many years ago that illuminates my thoughts on blessings in disguise very well, so I would like to share it here:

And It Was
"Beautiful," she said, and it was
But they did not understand
It was raining and dark
The sky was filled with clouds
And all were soaked and cold
Still she smiled and lifted her hands heavenward
"Beautiful," she said, but they did not see it
For they were cowering on the ground
Their eyes clenched shut
Praying for the tempest to end
Thus they did not see the shaft of light
The single beam that broke through the clouds
Illuminating the tiny flower at her feet
That reached its petals toward the welcome rain
The sweet, life-giving, rain
Yes, the thunder was its music of renewal
But to the people it was terror
And as she sang "Beautiful"
They moaned and refused to look
When suddenly the drops upon the petal
Began to shimmer and shine
And they caught the ray of light
Throwing a rainbow across the dark sky
A single strand of hope in the cold night
But they did not see because they were afraid
They did not know because they only felt the fear
But she saw and knew and rejoiced
She sang and danced through the rainbow
And she stood in the light and let it take the chill away
Horrible, awful, they thought with a shiver
But she only laughed, for she knew the truth
"Beautiful," she said, and it was.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Necessity of Love

We are consciously designed to give and receive love. In the beginning, God craved love, and that is why He created humans. We are the only part of God's creation that can love Him. As the psalms attest, the rocks and trees and even the animals can praise God in their own way, but they cannot love Him as we do. God knew that in order to love, we would have to be like Him, so He made us in His own image. The likeness of God within us gives us the ability to love, but it also gives us the same craving for love that God has. Love is like the food of God—it is a perfect nourishment that never runs out and constantly makes us more and more like our wonderful Creator.

Love builds on itself and sustains itself. All of us have multiple relationships in our lives that fuel us, and God is no different. God has countless souls to love Him, and He encourages us to love each other, because that only increases our love for Him. The more we love someone—even God—the more we love in general, and that love overflows into every relationship in our lives.

Occasionally I find myself feeling alone and isolated. While there may be people in my life who like me and compliment me and smile at me, I have trouble finding anyone whose love runs deep enough to help me when I am in trouble. I feel scared and alone, and God's love feels like a tenuous lifeline that I could accidentally sever with no one to help me sustain it. Whenever this happens, God will inevitably help me connect to a single person who is willing to step in and support me in my weakness. That one loving connection becomes like a strong shining thread, holding me up when I had felt about to fall. I cling to it, and it makes me feel steadier and gives me the courage to seek out someone else to reinforce that love. And then with each new connection another beautiful thread is added until I have a strong rope of love that sustains me and gives me the courage and energy to give more and more of my own love in support of others. When I am loved by many, I am not easily shaken by the trials and tribulations of the world because I am at my strongest.

I wish that we were not so guarded and that we did not devote ourselves to transitory tasks instead of nurturing our relationships. I wish we could make ourselves vulnerable enough to let others truly love us and that we could be selfless enough to give more deeply of ourselves. When we do, we become stronger and stronger because we are doing what God made us to do. Through our love we also strengthen each other's connections to God, bringing us all closer to the one who gives us life. Love is our highest purpose—more important than our careers, our material prosperity, our personal security, or any other obligation we have in life. I find that the more I give and receive love, the healthier and stronger I feel within myself. For this reason, I endeavor to find more opportunities to share love with others, and I wish that everyone would make the same commitment so that we could all prosper together.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Compassion Challenge

Compassion is a very important part of love. It helps us care about people who are in need and motivates us to take action to help others. But society has taught us some very interesting lessons about who deserves our compassion. Sometimes we think that if people have brought their trouble upon themselves, then we shouldn't waste our concern on them. I want to challenge that assumption by widening the scope of compassion to include some people that society often neglects.
  • People who should know better. We have a lot more patience with children than we have with adults because children are just learning and don't have the same level of cognitive function that adults have. We expect children to be led astray by their emotions, but we demand more cool logic from adults. When people make choices that we think were obviously poor or repeat mistakes they have made before, it can be hard to feel compassionate. Sometimes we think they deserve the consequences. To be fair, though, I haven't immediately learned from all of my mistakes, and I've done a lot of stupid things. Sometimes I knew I should have known better, and then I felt even worse. That's when I most needed someone to have compassion on me and comfort me while I recovered from whatever mess I had made. When I see someone who's done something particularly boneheaded, I need to remind myself that that person may be more in need of my compassion than ever.
  •  People who have done really bad things. We don't often have a lot of compassion for criminals. The worse the sin, the less likely we are to be sympathetic to the sinner. Jesus left us a much different example, however. He was kind to people who had really messed up their lives. After all, how can sinners be expected to change without loving support? It's not very charitable of us to just write people off. If we start trying to meet their needs, we could help these 'bad' people become good and productive citizens and restore their broken relationship with God in the process.
  • People who aren't sorry for their mistakes. It's kind of hard to relate to people who just don't care about the damage they've done. While the sin is indeed repugnant, the state of these lost souls is just sad. Each person has to make the choice to repent for him or herself, and there may be nothing we can do. But instead of rejecting those people, I think that Christians should pray for them and continue reaching out to them as much as possible. Our attempts at kindness may be rebuffed, but even broken, twisted souls should be treated with basic human dignity. How else will they have any chance of learning what it means to feel respect for themselves and for others?
  • People who have hurt us. Sometimes our compassion evaporates when things get personal. It can be hard for us to really care about the problems people who have hurt us face because we are more concerned about the problems they've given us. I still struggle with this problem, and I sometimes find myself hypocritically applauding karma when something unfortunate befalls a person who has injured me. I need to remember that I sometimes hurt others too, and I don't really want people sitting around and eagerly waiting for something bad to happen to me so that they can have retribution. 
Society encourages us not to waste our compassion on people who don't 'deserve' it. But from a Christian perspective, no one is past redemption, and everyone was made in the image of God. That means that God loves everyone, so if we value God's opinion, we should be willing to be compassionate even to the people who frustrate and anger us the most. God has been generous with His love for me, so if I want to be generous with my own love, I need to concentrate on what people need, not what they deserve. Sometimes people are most in need of compassion when they've made a huge mistake or are lost and warped by sin. That's certainly true for me—often I need compassion the most when I least deserve it.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

I Am a Hypocrite

If we want to be perfectly honest about it, nearly everyone is a hypocrite. None of us are perfect, so no one who strives to live an ethical life can live up to their own morals completely. The bigger question for me is how much of a hypocrite I am. How often do my actions deviate from my beliefs? Do I notice when I'm being hypocritical, or am I in denial about it? Am I taking steps to improve my hypocrisy record, or am I just sweeping my failures under the rug?

In order to stop being hypocritical, I first have to admit when I'm being a hypocrite, and that can often be the hardest part. 'Hypocrite' is considered a really offensive term in our society, so we often feel driven to defend ourselves against being branded hypocrites instead of honestly examining the circumstances under which we actually are hypocrites. If I really want to stop being hypocritical, then I have to stop getting angry when people call me on my hypocrisy. If others call me a hypocrite, it's far more constructive for me to ask them to elaborate than it is for me to instantly deny it. Maybe they have some criticism to offer that I need to hear in order to improve.

I've discovered that one of the biggest problems with hypocrisy is that trying to cover it up or deny it usually leads to even more hypocrisy. After all, if I lash out at someone who is offering a valid criticism of my conduct, then I am betraying my beliefs once again. Every time the Pharisees and chief priests took offense when Jesus called them hypocrites, they became even bigger hypocrites. Hypocrisy is very dangerous for Christians because it blinds us to the truth and alienates us from the God who saves us. Just as hypocrisy drove the Pharisees and the chief priests to reject the only person who could free them from their sin, our hypocrisy drives us away from God's saving love.

It's true that I am a hypocrite sometimes. Instead of denying it, I will endeavor to critically examine my behavior against my beliefs so that I can fall into the trap of hypocrisy less often. When I admit my hypocrisy and apologize for it, I rob hypocrisy of its power to mislead me. I believe that there is never any harm in honest and sincere discussion about personal conduct. Even if I don't agree with the person who is calling me a hypocrite, their observations (especially if offered in a respectful manner) still give me a useful opportunity to really think about my beliefs and my behavior.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Importance of Apologies

I actually like to apologize. I don't reserve the phrases "I was wrong," or "I made a mistake" or "I'm sorry" for huge incidents. I encourage myself to be generous with these words and to be honest with others about the impact that my faults and misconceptions can have on our relationship. I've noticed several benefits to being free with apologies, and I'd like to list them here:
  • By apologizing, I am being open about the fact that I am not perfect, and I therefore free myself from trying to live up to an unattainable standard in the relationship. I don't want people to expect me to never make a mistake, so I remind them that I can love them even though I am not perfect by apologizing when I do make mistakes, even if they're minor ones.
  • Apologies help me keep the relationship honest and sincere. It's very popular in our society to kind of gloss over mistakes and try to pretend they never happened. But I've found that this strategy introduces secrecy, deception, and barriers into relationships. We can't talk about the mistake or how to learn from it if I'm pretending it doesn't exist, and I'm carrying on a ridiculous facade if I pretend that I never make mistakes in the relationship. By apologizing, I can keep the relationship open and sincere.
  • My apology communicates my commitment to the relationship. When I apologize, I am in effect saying, "I'm not going to let my imperfections or my pride get in the way of our relationship. I am committed to overcoming these obstacles because I love you." This then gives the other person a chance to also reaffirm his or her commitment to the relationship by accepting my apology. By reconciling with me, that person is in effect saying, "I love you even though you're imperfect, and I'm also committed to this relationship."
  • Frequent, open, and uninhibited apologies make apologizing less of a big deal. The reason we avoid apologies is because they seem like terrible and momentous things. If we make apologies a routine part of the relationship (just like sharing affection or giving compliments) then they doesn't feel so bad. If we keep our pride and stubbornness out of the relationship altogether, then we don't have to fight them so hard when problems crop up. It's silly to think that apologizing means that we're admitting failure in the relationship. On the contrary, we're renewing our relationship through honesty and affirmation of love.
  • When I apologize, I send the message that it's OK for the other person to apologize too. I'm not the only imperfect person in the relationship, after all, so I don't want the other person to feel scared or ashamed about apologizing. Through my own willingness to apologize, I can show others that I will be sympathetic when they make mistakes, readily accepting their apologies.
Some of the most profound moments in many of my relationships have come when I apologized. An apology once transformed a peripheral friend into a close one and once renewed a special friendship that had been languishing for years. Apologies take away the despair I feel about problems in my marriage and help me remember that I am a good person and a good wife even when I mess up. I am not afraid to apologize anymore, because I've realized that an apology marks the depth of my love, not my failings.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Lessons From My Pets

People can be very devoted to their pets. Why do we respond so positively to our pets, and what can our feelings about them teach us about relationships? I've been thinking about these questions, and here are some things that I've come up with:
  • Loyalty. When I was growing up, I had a black lab mix named Princess. Princess would come whenever I called her and would happily spend long periods of time with me. She was willing to follow me around while I did chores or sit next to me on the porch while I read a book, and she even put up with me hugging her and sobbing into her fur when I was upset. Princess responded the same way to me no matter what clothes I was wearing, how much I weighed at the time, or even how recently I had showered. No matter what, Princess was always ready to greet me with a wag of her tail, and I really appreciated her for that. Perhaps her unconditional acceptance of me can teach me to judge less and support more and challenge me to be a faithful companion myself.
  • Soothing Presence. I have two beautiful and soft Bengal cats. They can charm nearly anyone by cuddling and purring ostentatiously. It's as though they are saying, "I'm happy just to be here with you," and then they back up that message by being all warm and soft in your lap. When it comes to interpersonal relationships, there are often personal space issues to be considered, but many of us benefit from physical proximity with other people. We like to have loved ones around even when we're doing independent tasks, because we feel soothed by the other person's presence. It's special to know that someone is content to just be with us even if we aren't being particularly entertaining, that our company is worth something in an of itself. I've found that this is even more true at times when we are emotionally vulnerable. Sometimes we don't need our loved ones to do anything but just be there with us, to tell us by their presence that they care and that they're willing to support us. I would like to learn how to be more like the cat whose purring tells people that the world is a friendlier place than they might have thought or the dog who stays beside its crying master.
  • Playfulness. We like to watch our pets play. Sometimes, we even join in and play with them. Society often pressures us to give up the playful parts of our nature when we grow up in the name of maturity and responsibility. But even as adults, we don't want to have to feel self-conscious all the time—even we want to be able to laugh and play sometimes. I may have a more playful personality than others, but I love to play games, and sometimes I even like to dance around with my friends or be outright silly. Manners are important, but it's also essential to have chances to connect with others on a more open and authentic level and to unburden ourselves from social pressures to behave in a certain "adult" way. 
  • Physical contact. I realize that not everybody likes physical contact. I don't like it all the time, but sometimes I really do. It can be really nice to have a warm animal in your lap or sleeping next to you. Likewise, I really enjoy having some sort of physical contact with people I love. I'm a big fan of hugs, and I don't mind if someone clasps my hand when we're talking. Sometimes even those brief or seemingly unimportant physical encounters help solidify a relationship, and I've noticed that being comfortable with having someone in my personal space and being emotionally comfortable with that person often go hand in hand for me. Of course, I realize that everyone has different preferences for physical contact, and that there are sexual taboos that we need to be respectful of, but I think that physical contact can be a positive part of a wide variety of relationships.
I feed my pets and see to their needs because they're counting on me to take care of them. While the people in my life are much more self-sufficient than my pets, I need to remember that they may be counting on me, too. We all have needs, and we all need loving individuals in our lives to help meet those needs.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Believing in Fairy Tales

Inside each of us is an ongoing battle between the part of us that wants to believe in miracles and happy endings and the part of us that fights not to believe for fear of disappointment. I hear people saying that being grown up means that we have to put away our affinity for fairy tales and that believing in miracles is akin to believing in Santa Claus. But I disagree. Maybe fairy tales look too good to be true, but I think they have several story elements that apply to a Christian perspective.

Fairy tales are about all sorts of people. We have stories about royalty or knights errant, but we also have stories about regular people who end up involved in something extraordinary. Fairy tale heroes and heroines also have a variety of missions. Some of them want to find love, some of them want to get out of some sort of trouble, and some of them want to help someone else. They're searching for some sort of fulfillment, and in the modern understanding of the fairy tale, we expect that by the end they're going to find something good, even if it wasn't exactly what they had in mind when they began.

Fairy tales often involve magic or have the protagonist benefiting from a prophecy, really good luck, or a series of serendipitous encounters. When we read these sorts of things, we think, "Yeah, right." But let's take a step back and reconsider. I believe that there is a good and loving God who is watching over my life and constantly helping me. I have already experienced miracles, and over the course of my life, I expect to see many more. These miracles are of all different types, things great and small, and I may not have even noticed all of the divine help I've received on my life's journey. But as a Christian, I know it's been there, whether I could see it or not. I don't need a fairy godmother, a magic sword, or a wand because I have God. Miracles do happen, even in everyday life. They're just not necessarily the miracles we expect.

It's also important to remember that even though fairy tales have happy endings, the whole story isn't happy. There are journeys to be made and struggles to face and enemies to overcome. When things in our lives get rough, that's often when we remind ourselves that life isn't like a fairy tale and we start to get jaded and lose hope. But haven't those same struggles and doubts been experienced by many a fairy tale protagonist? Of course life is difficult. That's what makes the payoff of the happy ending so appealing. I recall once hearing a quote that went along the lines of, "If you don't have a happy ending, then it isn't the end." That's what I believe as a Christian. My life is full of all sorts of mini-stories. Some of them have happy endings and some of them don't. I believe that a happy ending is always possible, but I realized that people are flawed and things get messed up and that God isn't going to intervene every time. But God has guaranteed me a happy ending to my life, because He knows that's what's most important. In the end, I will get to live forever with people I love, always rejoicing and never suffering. That's way better than prince charming. I literally am going to live happily ever after.

I've discovered that my life really is a lot like a fairy tale, after all. I can expect a happy ending, even if there are painful struggles in the middle. I can expect divine help when I need it most, and I can expect to become a richer, more capable, and more beautiful person by the end of the story. Miracles will happen, but not always the ones I want at the times I want. I may lose a few challenges along the way, but in the end I will win. It's guaranteed. Just like a fairy tale.
Christian Love Lessons - Free Blogger Templates - by Templates para novo blogger