Saturday, October 24, 2009

Unconditional Love

God loves me unconditionally. Whether He is proud of me or disappointed in me, God loves me the same. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. But what does that really mean? After all, God isn't like some over-indulgent parent who lets us get away with anything. God has high moral and ethical standards that He wants us to uphold, and there are consequences when we sin. Sometimes God even gets angry with us, but God still loves us even when we reject Him and His standards. God wants good things for us no matter how bad our actions are, and He wants to save us more than He wants us to pay for our sins. Unconditional love means that even when we're at our worst, God is looking and hoping for our best, and He's dedicated to helping us improve, if we'll let Him.

Unconditional love is a lot harder for me than it is for God. I don't have God's wisdom and patience, and I'm not invested in my peers the same way God is invested in His creation. What motivates me to commit to loving flawed individuals, no matter what happens? In the end I realize that I try to love others because I love God. God gives me really good reasons to love Him—He is after all a flawless and amazing being who gives me good gifts and is committed to my well-being. Because I love God, I try to do what He wants me to do. God's commandment to me is "love your neighbor as yourself," not "love your righteous neighbors but hate the evil ones." God wants me to love unconditionally, so I try to comply out of love for Him.

I realize that love and like are not the same. I'm sure there are times when God doesn't like us very much because we're being so stubborn and destructive, but God still wants things to turn around for us. God is more focused on rehabilitation than retribution when it comes to dealing with sinners—His love for us trumps His dislike of our actions. Sometimes it's hard for me to feel the same way. It's hard to imagine being faced with someone like Hitler and thinking, "I wish you could be healed so that you would stop hurting people and become a healthy, whole person," instead of, "I hope you burn in Hell for what you've done." While I don't care to speculate on what happened to Hitler after he died, I honestly think that God really wants to reform everyone if possible, even people who have done truly terrible things. I certainly don't have to like these people, and I have a right to be angry when they do terrible things to other people, but if I love them I should still hope and pray that they can become better people and be saved from the evil that has taken over their lives.

Love is the basis for compassion, and I cannot hope for healing in others' lives unless I have at least some small bit of compassion for them. I think that people who do really terrible things must be suffering dreadfully inside because they are mutilating their souls by behaving in a way this is so contrary to the purpose for which they were created. It can be hard to have compassion on people who are willfully hurting themselves and others, but I think it's still necessary. Compassion allows me to look for the causes of bad behavior to see if there's something I can do to alleviate those causes. A person can be both victim and villain, and sometimes if you help the victim, the villain disappears. As long as I can see a trace of humanity left in a person, I have to hope that he or she can be reached, that a better future is possible. It can be so difficult to find humanity in someone who has done awful things, but because I know God can see it, I challenge myself to look for it too. I may not have the power to divert others from a path of destruction and depravity, but as long as I still have some love, compassion, and hope for them, I have made my love stronger than their sins. There's something very empowering in that.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Small Contributions to World Peace

People all over the world are praying for world peace. Violence seems like such a huge problem that the thought of working for peace often seems overwhelming. How can we stop armies and terrorists and gang members from wreaking havoc and shattering lives? Most of us don't have the resources to effect the sweeping change that we would like to see in the world. Still, together, we can all make a difference with small contributions to world peace. Each of us has the power to build a more positive atmosphere, even if it is only in our own community at first.

Everything we do to work for peace in any relationship or context is a contribution to world peace because we are interconnected members of the same world. If enough people focused on small actions, together we could make a very big difference. To that end, I've been thinking about the things I can do each day to contribute to peace. The following list is not exhaustive, but it is a start.
  • Think before speaking. This seems obvious, but it's so important. Sometimes people say things that I think are stupid, but in nearly every case it's better for me to keep that thought to myself than to voice it. I don't need to go around contradicting every opinion I disagree with or picking arguments over inconsequential topics. Even if the subject at hand is one I care deeply about, there's no point in offering a counterargument if the other person doesn't seem interested or receptive. I will voice my dissent if someone says something really out of line, but even then I should try to make my comments as polite and concise as possible and avoid being drawn into a pointless argument.
  •  Make criticism constructive. Criticism is an important part of life, but it can also start a lot of conflicts. I believe that the point of criticism should be to help others improve, not to try to make them feel bad for their failures. People do need to understand that some actions are unacceptable because of their negative impact on others, but we can convey that idea without employing harsh and overly judgmental language. When I try to relate to people as individuals who also have valid needs and concerns, I am more likely to be able to offer criticism that they will accept and learn from. 
  • Try not to be easily offended. Some people disagree with me, but that's not really worth getting worked up about. There are plenty of people who think my beliefs and ideals are stupid. I'm sure there are also lots of people who think my haircut looks bad, that I wear terrible clothes, that my house is too small or boring, or that it's embarrassing that my truck still has hail dents on it from three years ago. They may even think my job is lowly or that I'm not much of a success. It's just not worth my time to get into fights over stuff like that. Even when people insult my dearest beliefs, I can't really make an attempt to extend Christ's love if I'm too busy being offended on God's behalf. I think God would rather that I try to reach out to the people who disagree with my Christian values instead of repelling them by taking offense.
  • Help people in need. So many people lash out because they're suffering from some unmet need. If we want to prevent violence and conflict, we need to look around at the needs in our community and around the world and make efforts to meet those needs. Some people are hungry. Some are oppressed. Some don't have enough educational or extracurricular opportunities. Some can't get good jobs. Some don't have decent homes. Some people need affirmation or a chance to express themselves, and some just need a friend. None of us can meet all the needs we see, but we need to be more generous in meeting the needs that we can meet. Even small donations of time and money can make a big difference to people in need, and if we are really invested in peace, we should make these contributions a priority.
This list is far from complete. There are so many things we can do to make our communities and our relationships better and more peaceful. When we work together with others, we multiply the impact of our efforts. With enough people, even regular people like me can make a sizable impact on world peace. I hope that those of you who are reading will make a conscious effort to join me in making small contributions to world peace.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Dealing with Reckless and Rude Drivers

Bad driving seems to be an epidemic in America. All too frequently I encounter a driver who runs a red light or stop sign, violates my right of way, or cuts me off. Nearly every time I go on a road trip, I have at least one scary experience in which another driver's bad choice could have resulted in big trouble for me if it weren't for my own fast reflexes. Whenever something like that happens, I have to decide how to respond. I could choose to retaliate in some way—blare my horn, make obscene hand gestures, or use my vehicle to get the offender's attention by tailgating, passing, or driving aggressively. In complete honesty, I've done all of these things before. I've also had other drivers do them to me, sometimes when I had made a driving mistake and sometimes when I had done nothing wrong. After all of these experiences, I have come to realize that angry or aggressive responses to bad driving are not very helpful or Christian.

When I am behind the wheel of a car, I have a responsibility to both myself and others to remain focused on my driving. It's bad enough when someone endangers me by driving recklessly, but if I respond in kind with aggressive behavior, I am also endangering others on the road, and that is not responsible behavior. Even if I limit myself to fuming in the privacy of my own vehicle, my anger can distract me from my driving. Beyond my responsibility to other drivers, I've realized that I simply shouldn't give bad drivers any more power to disrupt my life. Bad choices made by other drivers could endanger my life, but if I allow them to provoke an angry response, then I also allow them to manipulate me into becoming a worse version of myself. Even if no one is there to hear the angry things I say or think, why should I allow someone else's rude behavior to make me become crass as well? My anger not only makes me less able to focus on my driving, but it also separates me from God and from my own grounding in love.

It's hard not to get angry when someone shows such little concern for my rights and my safety, but I've realized that it's in my own best interest to remain calm in these situations. If I keep my cool, then the incident can be over and will have no more power to negatively impact my life. Bad driving is just one of many irritations and dangers that invade my life, and I don't want any of them to distract me from my Christian life.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Making the First Move

Our world is full of standoffs. There are warring factions waiting for each other to disarm, arguing couples waiting for each other to apologize, and shy strangers waiting for someone else to approach them with an introduction. Waiting for someone else to do something can be excruciating, but I've come to realize that I often have another option. I can make the first move.

I get into arguments with people I love sometimes, and when someone does something that hurts me, I may really want an apology. I've come to realize, however, that I'm usually not blameless in these situations. Even if my offense seems the lesser of the two, there is no reason why I can't apologize first. By showing others that I am ready to heal a rift before they even offer an apology, I am demonstrating how much I value the relationship and issuing a loving invitation for them to move forward with me in the relationship. My pride may suggest that I shouldn't have to initiate healing if I didn't initiate the argument, but love tells me that I'll be happier if I do. Why should I suffer through a long estrangement when I could take the initiative to extend the olive branch myself?

Sometimes I'd just like to be closer to others. I may want them to invite me into their lives or to spend more time with me. I've learned that sometimes the best way to get them to do that is to offer them my time or to issue an invitation myself. If I want to get to know someone, I can invite that person to share a meal with me to or to come to a social function I'm hosting. If I want others to call me more, I should make sure that I'm also taking the initiative to call them. I think that it's easier for people to make the kind of commitment to me that I want them to make when they can see that I'm committed to them. Sure, it's hard to be the one who's always initiating, but if that's what it takes to keep a cherished relationship going, I'm willing to do it.

I've learned along the way that there's a difference between making the first move and being pushy. That line is different in different relationships, but I need to be on the lookout for it. At the same time, I don't want to relinquish all responsibility for taking action just because the other person might not be receptive. There is no harm in simply attempting to make or restore a connection. I can make one or two overtures, and if they aren't well-received, I can desist. I should be able to offer a gentle invitation without pressuring someone into giving me what I want. Sometimes things don't always work out the way I want them to when I make the first move, and I have to be able to just let it go and move on. Still, I think my chances are better if I at least try to take take action than they would be if I did nothing.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Humble Confidence

Sometimes my ego can be a very fragile thing. I balance myself precariously between the pitfalls of arrogance and self-doubt, and I worry about straying too far towards either side. I need to believe in my ability to do the work I've been given to do while recognizing that ability to be a gift from God and not the result of my own merit. I have to be confident but not cocky, humble but not overly self-critical. Trying to walk this fine line is one of the most difficult things I do as a Christian. I work hard to try to see myself and my talents as God sees them and to be happy with my work while still challenging myself to do better.

One thing that is difficult for me is dealing with the compliments and criticisms of others. I don't want to fall short of others' expectations or become complacent when others respond well to me. I used to try to solve this problem by telling myself that I don't care what other people think, but that's simply not true. So much of what I do is intended to be for the benefit of other people. If I am unable to make a positive impact on their lives, then I will feel that I haven't been wholly successful. I have realized, however, that even though commentary from others can help me improve, I needn't live by the praise or complaints of others. Compliments and criticisms can be helpful to me, but they are feedback, not judgment. People's opinions can be useful, but God's opinion is the one that really counts. His is the one I should truly care about. I endeavor to listen to what God is saying and to try to see things from His point of view.

One thing that God has taught me is that I don't have to achieve objective excellence in everything I do. It really doesn't matter whether I win awards or rise to the top of my field or community. What's important is the impact I have on the lives of others and the way I spread God's love in the world. I don't have to be 'the best' to positively impact the lives of others. For example, I frequently sing in church, and for a while I was really frustrated with my performances. My vocal technique was not as good as I wanted it to be, but every time I sang I would still receive many compliments from people who had been moved by my song. I felt embarrassed and frustrated by their praise because I knew I hadn't done my 'best'. I slowly learned, however, that my real goal was to touch people with my music, not to sing with technical perfection. I began to be able to feel good about my musical contributions even if I hadn't sung perfectly.

It's a beautiful thing that God has granted me success in spite of my imperfections. I don't need to be superlative in order to touch people's lives—I just need to be loving and faithful. My pride won't help me reach others, so I can learn to let it go. My failures can be salvaged by God's power and through the understanding of others who love me, so I don't have to punish myself for them. All I have to do is try, and God will turn my efforts into something truly magnificent, no matter how average they may seem on the surface.

Monday, October 19, 2009

In Sickness and In Health

It's not very fun when my husband gets sick. When he doesn't feel well, he's inevitably crabby and whiny and I can't count on him to help out around the house at all. His sickness may place more demands on my time and energy. I may have to stay home and help out when I would rather have been out doing something else. I may find myself getting really irritated with him when he's sick, but I need to keep one very important thing in mind: sometimes I get sick too, and I'm just as cranky and useless when I do.

Relationships are at their best when both people are contributing and when things are balanced and healthy. With all of the obstacles life throws our way, however, none of us get to live that ideal all of the time. People get struck with sicknesses of both body and soul, and difficult issues crop up that we have to deal with. The people we love may develop special needs that require extra attention and energy from us. Sometimes we have to make allowances for people who are suffering and concentrate more on their needs than on what's fair. When that happens, it's not much fun for anyone.

God doesn't want Christians to be fair-weather friends. He's certainly not. I know that God has put up with a fair amount of trying behavior from me, and after all that He's still here supporting and strengthening me. At difficult times in my life I have screamed at God, cried and cried over a perceived lack of support, and even given God the cold shoulder by wandering off and trying to figure things out on my own. Still, God reached out to me even when I wasn't reaching out to Him. He gave 90% when I was only able to give 10%. But eventually things got better and our relationship stabilized, so it was all worth it as God must have known it would be.

I endeavor to be loyal to my loved ones even when it's hard. I want to be able to say "I love you" even if the other person can't say it back. I'm willing to be awoken at 4 a.m. for a tearful phone call. It's OK if I need to pick up the pile of used tissues or even if I need to help pick up the pieces when things fall apart. I can reach out to people who need me to make a special effort because they're unable to reach out to me, and I can make sacrifices to help people who can't deal with everything on their own. I believe that going 'above and beyond' when a loved one is sick or in trouble is really nothing more than behaving like a true friend. I promised to be faithful to my husband no matter what happens, but I feel that way about a whole host of people that I love. I'm going to be there for them through thick and thin because that's what love demands of me. It's a price I'm more than willing to pay because the resulting relationship is so beautiful and precious to me.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


People from all different cultures and traditions have strong feelings about family. Many of us feel special ties and obligations toward our family members. We would go out on a limb to help a family member, and we care deeply about family loyalty. Most of us expect family members to be with us when we celebrate—on holidays, at graduations, at weddings, and at our children's baptisms and educational milestones. We also expect them to be there when someone dies, when we are in the hospital, or when we're dealing with difficult issues. Our family is a support system built of blood and genes and heritage, and many of us really depend on it.

This strong expectation of family support can carry some heavy risks. Squabbles that might seem minor in another relationship can turn into major rifts within a family because the relationship is so emotionally charged. Family relationships can feel like a contract signed in blood, and when we feel that contract has been violated, we can get very upset. What's more, when family relationships become broken, it's harder to just walk away. I can always say that so-and-so used to be my friend, but I can't say that someone used to be my relative. We'll still be related by blood even if we aren't speaking, so I can never entirely erase that person from my life. That is part of the reason why I feel so motivated to maintain healthy family relationships and to put in the extra effort to deal with the emotional problems that may crop up. The fact that my family is always going to be there is actually a really positive thing. If I put in the work to keep those relationships strong, I'll know I have someone who will feel motivated to help me in my times of need. Even though maintaining good family ties may take more work than some of my other relationships because of all those emotional issues and heightened expectations, it's still worth it to me.

When I was in college, I had a tightly-knit group of friends. Some of those friends used to call me 'sister'. That seemed a bit odd to me at first. Some of them had strained relationships with their nuclear families and I could understand why they were looking for family elsewhere, but I didn't feel like I had that kind of void to fill. Still, I loved these friends very much, and eventually it didn't seem so strange to call them 'sister' in return. I started relying on these friends more and more, and in some very important ways they became like family members to me. A few years into our relationship, we had a clash of opinions on a very personal subject, and everything fell apart. I had betrayed their expectations of loyalty without meaning to, and the intense trust we had built up evaporated. We were having a family rift. It was more painful than any friendship problem I had ever experienced. I spent years trying to figure out how to erase them from my life, but they were always there in the back of my mind. I valued these relationships too much to leave them broken. Eventually I realized that I was not the only one who felt this way. Even though it had been years, we finally came back together to heal the wounds and restore our bond. And now here we are, family once more.

Jesus said that the entire fellowship of believers were members of his family, and the early apostles referred to each other as beloved brothers and sisters. I have read these things in the Bible many times, but it took these dear friends to teach me what it meant to expand my family beyond blood. I'm not replacing my relatives, I'm just growing a larger family and therefore building myself a stronger foundation. Jesus' family encompasses the whole world, so I don't think there's any such thing as too much family or too many loved ones. It's a wonderful feeling to have so many people to rely on and so many people to invest in. It's true that these relationships carry expectations that will place demands on my time and energy, but they're worth the extra effort. I am even willing to risk more painful family rifts, because I know that all of these altercations can ultimately be healed if there is enough love in the relationship. I can think of no better investment that I can make than sustaining a growing and loving family and providing them the same support that they give me.
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