When I was young, I fought with my brother tooth and nail (too often literally) seemingly all day, every day. Today, my siblings are my best friends, a blessing I don't even care has been negatively stereotyped for homeschoolers. Seriously. Sour grapes, I say.
One reason why this epic gruelling battle went on for so many years (I think it was responsible for most of my mom's white hairs) was that I wouldn't and couldn't see how I was to blame. Obviously my brother was the main culprit--because if he hadn't been so hyper active/noisy/interfering I would have happily stayed at my desk writing my stories and drawing my endless pictures of anthropomorphic cats and dogs in medieval dress (I don't know what this scores on your WeirdoMeter, but that's precisely how I spent the bulk of my free time for many years.) I was what they call a 'diem' child--or as one personality test diagnosed, an introvert (albeit a high-functioning one.) Happy to be by myself, doing my own stuff. Of course, it was my brother's fault for poking me first--annoying me--being noisy--causing me to lash out.
''It's HIS fault!" I wailed every time my mother had to separate us. "He started it first! He's irritating me!"
I see this same mentality when I work with kids. Fingers point. Defiant glares. Tears. "He keeps bothering me!" "She pushed me so I pinched her!"
We all have certain people in our lives who annoy us.
Maddeningly slow, reminiscent of the sloths in Zootopia. (loved that movie, by the way.What a fun and witty satire on human nature and the chemistry between different personalities...)
Nit-picky and hard to please, always criticizing so that you cringe whenever they volunteer their opinion.
Ungracious in the way they talk. Perhaps their humour makes you wince inside behind a strained smile.
Maybe stuff they've borrowed has a bad habit of never coming back.
Or perhaps they simply have bad breath, or a habit of standing intimidatingly close when they talk--
Maybe they simply have really different opinions, backgrounds, and priorities from us. Just deciding on a place to eat makes you see how different your budgets and expectations on food are...'so you think you're too good for Mac's?' 'what, vegetables? Seriously? Are you a health freak or what?' 'How on earth can you eat so little/so much??'
It's easy to get annoyed, even when other people don't mean to be annoying. When I was small I often got impatient and was rude to a young friend who kept calling. Like every day. Just wanting to talk about unimportant stuff. Unfortunately I had lots of IMPORTANT STUFF (and I even saw them in my mind capitalized) and the last thing I wanted to do was to be forced to listen to a long, unending phone call about virtually nothing at all. I'm afraid without being downright rude (thank God my parents would never have let me get away with that) I managed to be pretty unkind--curt, impatient, and brilliant at finding excuses for not being able to take a call.
I look back and realize the same entitled mentality lay behind my hasty 'bye got to go tell me next time' and my 'He started it!' defensive wail when my mom had to act as mediator and judge between my brother and I. Just because someone was annoying--whether unintentionally, or even purposefully--didn't justify my being mean to them. This was something my mom kept trying to impress on me all those cat-and-dog years, in her attempt to balance the invariably one-sided punishment.
I only realized and accepted this later when I was seeking salvation and, knowing I needed to truly see my own sin in order to repent and be saved, prayed for God to show me. He answered, in a very direct and real and personal way, when it felt near impossible, first by showing me this.
Just because I was annoyed, just because someone had done something which prickled me, didn't automatically give me the license to retaliate, to punish them for disturbing my peace or my happiness. It's harder to realize this when it is a legitimate wrong done to you, because indeed, wrong has been done and every conscience with its God-given ability to tell right from wrong knows that punishment must be meted, deserves to be meted.
But--a standard takeaway concept from many superhero and action movies, where it becomes what separates the good guys from the bad guys; their refusal to replicate the evil in the name of revenge.
Jesus, after all, suffered much more than mere annoyance, though I'm sure the dense disciples often got on His nerves with their inability to understand so many things.
He loved us selflessly when we hurt Him most.
I am someone who is easily and heavily influenced by emotion, and discouragement is very much an emotional issue. Like depression, it often comes as the convergence of various issues which are small, which you could handle on their own, if they weren't all hitting you at the same time; the combined weight of which knocks you down. You lie limp and passive under the heavy cloud of discouragement, without strength to move, without motivation to try and get up, without hope that you could escape even if you tried; and wonder why you had ever been excited about life at all, and thought you could ever do anything.
As such, I've often struggled with discouragement--recently, to be honest; reminding me it's a lifelong battle which no amount of spiritual maturity can immunize you against--something I should expect as long as I'm human, and by correlation, emotional. Spiritual maturity helps in dealing with discouragement, but it cannot completely prevent it.
I was clearing my storage space recently. That means boxes of old diaries, letters, schedules, notebooks of stories, sermon notes, travel journals. It was sobering and yet uplifting as I flipped through the little stack of well-worn, rather shabby, but very precious spiritual journals. Reading what I'd written over all those years made me realize that the discouragement and despair I had experienced--so often the reason for an entry (if only it was natural to document happy times as it is, ironically, to document sad ones; not because I actually want to remember them, but as a coping mechanism, a therapy of sorts)--could be categorized as discouragement with my own failures, and discouragement with the failures of others.
Forgive me for falling into sin so easily, so often, the same sin. I thought I could be wiser, stronger, but I'm seeing just how pitiable and helpless I am in the grip of sin and my own weak nature...a little beast, that's what I am. O God, forgive me even when my heart is numb and cold and I don't feel as sorry as I should--when I wilfully decide to do it, when I come crawling back again in shame asking for forgiveness. Break me out of this vicious cycle of my own making and set me free.
I feel so helpless, struggling not to feel guilty or depressed over everything I couldn't do, everything I wish I could do, everything I couldn't do as well or as much as I wanted to....God help me. Human limits are staring me in the face.
Self-pity. Despair. Loss of faith in grace (forgetting its very definition.) It alienates you from others--alienates you, most of all, from God. You draw away because you feel like you don't want them to know how unworthy you are, because they all seem so much better than you.
I feel disappointed and angry and hurt. I knew this is part of growing up but I never expected it to happen so traumatically. It makes me feel almost scared to think that everyone is as messed up and mistake-prone as myself, that perhaps being an adult doesn't so much mean you're mature now, but rather realizing that others aren't so much more mature than you as you'd always assumed...I feel so emotionally crippled by all this, unable to interact with people without feeling wary or speculating on their motives or imagining what they've heard or what they think.
Alternatively, people-oriented discouragement works the other way. Cynicism, resentment, frustration, even bitterness. Feeling disillusioned or disappointed in people. Feeling betrayed, let down, when you gave so much effort and time and invested yourself emotionally in someone. It embitters your relationships with others, alienating you from others as well if in a different way. You draw away because--to say it bluntly--you feel that they are not worth your interaction, whether specific people or just the whole of humanity in general.
I'm not sure which type of discouragement is more poisonous. Pulling yourself out of these ruts can seem almost impossible when you're lying at the bottom. How to trust grace? How to try again without feeling like a hypocrite? How to trust people, or avoid becoming cynical and defensive when a similar situation arises? How to rescue a relationship you feel disillusioned with?
I found an old post-it in my Bible, scribbled carelessly and tucked away so it obviously had been written at a time when it didn't mean as much to me as it eventually would. "What must we do if we find ourselves spiritually empty? Firstly, confess and put away any sin in our lives. Then we need to seek God's face in prayer and through His word" (this was taken from Desma Lewis' Fellowship Bible Study on 1st Samuel.)
In discouragement--regardless of what type--we must first confess and put away the sin in our lives. In discouragement with yourself, it's easy to confess. You see everything you've failed and done wrong already like a neon billboard. What's more challenging is to put it away. That means not only resolving not to continue in them--whether in sins of selfishness, idolatry, but even lack of faith--but also to move on. When we put away something we stop turning it about in our hands and staring at it from different angles.
On the other hand, discouragement with others requires a commitment to confront and confess our own sins with relentless honesty even as the sins of others loom big in our eyes--something, I think we would all know, is not easy. In bitterness, in pride, in being unloving and judgmental. I have sinned. When we acknowledge our own failures in God's eyes we stop pointing out the failures of others to God.
Why the Word? After the humbling process of confessing and putting away our sin, hopefully we've been recalibrated, so to speak, for a more balanced perspective--whether with which to see ourselves or to see others. In the first case, one which isn't so devastatingly self-centered; in the latter, one which (equally devastatingly) doesn't include ourselves. Hopefully we're able to let go of the very human prejudice of emotions and accept the objective truth of the Bible. Which means that no matter how big our sin--or the sin of others--Christ's death is bigger. Which means no matter how empty or incapable of trust we feel, God's power to enable and empower remains the same.
It's not easy. Discouragement is such an intensely personal and predominantly emotional trial that objective truth sometimes seems the last thing, in all its dryness, that can help us. But ironically, the very cold impersonality of objective truth is what we need when we're attacked by blinding, overwhelming, and often irrational or imbalanced emotion.
Looking through my journals, I was reminded of another phrase which had once been very important to me, at the time when all the uncertainties, fears, and doubts of college applications were the biggest thing in my life. That was the metaphor of driving on an unlit road at night--I experienced that once, as a passenger of course, during a violent tropical rainstorm in Malaysia; and it really was a tense, unreal experience. You couldn't see any further than the five feet in front of your headlights, in the dark and the thickness of the rain. But you had to press on, in faith, as long as those five feet were clear. The temptation to stay where you were was an illusion of safety--to stop would very well be fatal, even if moving forward posed a risk. The only way to get through was to keep going--slowly, perhaps, but ahead, as long as the five feet of road in front of you was clear.
Sometimes it was as simple--or more accurately, as hard--as that in discouragement. I might not know much but what little I knew was the right thing to do lay in front of me like that lighted space of five feet in the dark and storm. To do my best to resist bitterness and resentment. To fight for joy. To love others as well as I could with Christ as my example. Perhaps that meant the simple things I'd already been doing. Perhaps it meant something as unexciting as going back to the Bible, persevering in prayer even though it felt dry and meaningless, or simply just controlling myself.
'Show me in the way in which I should walk' (Psalm 143:8) has been a prayer of mine increasingly, in uncertainties but especially in discouragement.
Sometimes this 'way' isn't a significant choice or crossroads but simply the five feet in front of our headlights. To confess and put away our sin. To find guidance and comfort in the Word. No matter how alienated we feel from others or from God, to continue in what is right, until we hear the storm dying away, or see the dawn break through the rain.
The image above, which has been the header picture for the last years this blog has existed, is very meaningful to me.
That piece of sky was where I grew up. Which sounds strange, but shouldn't really because of the apartment tops peeping into the picture. Because that's exactly what apartments are, once the actual building's been torn down--which is what happened to my childhood home almost seven years ago.
That phrase threatens a deluge of sentimental nostalgia, I know, but I feel embarrassed at 22 to be very nostalgic, so don't worry.
However, it's thought-provoking to realize that I spent so many years of my life in a home that was so real and so important--down to the scratched parquet floors, doors with flimsy locks which we as naughty children knew exactly how to manoeuvre for various pranks, the whitewash coming off in neat round patches where we'd stuck up our drawings with BlueTac, the 'growth-wall' (possibly the only blank wall in the house) which we used to record the heights of everyone who lived in the house or visited the house, including our rabbit. So very real and tangible at that point of time. So necessary. And now merely a space in the air.
I spent all those years of my life in a space in the air. There's no mark of me there at all now--no stain on smudge in the sky to indicate all the intense living which took place there. It's sobering and just the littlest bit painful--there's the nostalgia for you--but also a very poignant reminder to me of what the word 'temporal' fully means in a Biblical sense, as the antonym of 'spiritual.'
We know the definition of temporal but we don't grasp the full impact of it. Which is understandable because all we've known is being temporal, and only sometimes we glimpse of our capability for anything more in vague longings and emotions.
To realize that actually, that is what life here on earth is. Very tangible. Very important and necessary, and legitimately so during that period of time. But one day all that will simply cease to exist--something greater will take its place--you won't have the satisfaction of being able to point and say 'ah, there's my mark.' 'There's where I was--I did that.' We won't spend our time in heaven looking down and reminiscing about our time on earth, the way we do when we look at old photo albums or get together with old friends.
Perhaps all we really take away is our memories, and how our experience changed who we are. I have so many memories of that home--beautiful, ecstatic, painful, important, and sometimes simply that warm swelling feeling pressing against your ribs, that quiet full feeling of contentment. I know the marks all those experiences, all that time I spent behind those now nonexistent walls, looking out of the now invisible windows, have made on me. But that's all. To cling to the physical entity of it, to mourn and idealize it as if there was some sort of magic in the concrete and plaster of that house, would be foolish, would be the sort of unhelpful and soppy nostalgia one sometimes sees and is vicariously embarrassed by in adults.
I remember when we first moved out we mourned, as sincerely and extravagantly as only children on the brink of growing up--consciously on the brink of growing up--could. Moving the last box out was a cruel ritual which left us close to tears. Every day in the new home made the old one a beautiful idyll so even memories of the leaking toilet became mildly romantic. Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov captured this sense of yearning so deeply associated with looking back on childhood: 'There is nothing a man cherishes more than the memories of his early childhood in his parents' home; this is always true as long as there was at least a little love and harmony in his family.' We made plans, I remember, if one of us became a millionaire (no big deal; no pressure) to recreate our home--not just the actual apartment we stayed in but the whole complex, and move all our dearly loved neighbours back into their old places (assuming they'd be overjoyed to be reunited with us.)
We knew we were being silly even as we planned this in all seriousness. What really lasted, what mattered at all, in fact, was how our memories and experiences in that home changed and affected us, made an impact on us and thence on the future.
One day in heaven, perhaps we'll look back and laugh to think how important everything here once was to us. The way we laugh when we remember how we once thought our life was over because of that dumb thing said or unglamorous picture someone posted online.
One day we'll be able to see that everything here crowding and pulling at our hearts and minds was just temporary--part of being alive, part of being temporal, important perhaps while it lasted but not even close to the ultimate meaning and purpose we were made for, except in how they changed us.
A while back in class I studied two works by Franz Kafka--The Metamorphosis and The Trial.
I'd read Metamorphosis before, identified with poor Gregor, felt I more or less understood its themes of alienation and dehumanization, but The Trial was beyond me. I didn't end up preparing it for my exams, but what little I read and was taught about it didn't make me feel I'd made any progress understanding or even identifying with it than if I'd been reading it on my own. (which is highly improbable; I would have put it down after the first chapter.)
Basically the protagonist K is told he's under arrest, for unspecified reasons, but is allowed to continue living his life per normal. He tries vaguely to get a lawyer, never really finds out why he's being arrested--or really seems to care as much as we'd expect--and finally after a long interlude is taken out by two officers and shot. This summary sounds very inadequate and probably is, but that's pretty much the main plot.
Apparently one of the central themes of The Trial is the significance of guilt to the human condition, within the philosophy of existentialism. Kafka's own life story was pretty tragic and very much revolved around guilt, not surprisingly.
That aside, I didn't quite see the point. Guilt as central to being human? Really? Of course I said nothing in class, assuming that maybe I hadn't really understood it, or didn't know enough abut existentialism, or just hadn't lived long enough (which is more often the case than we'd like to admit!) After all, I was twenty-one and very much in love with life...
Now at twenty-two (and still loving life, albeit for different reasons) I think I won't be writing The Trial off so easily. Guilt really is probably one of the most crippling and horrible things that we could faec in life, looking at life from an existential perspective.
The Bible talks about guilt without God as 'worldly sorrow', and acknowledges its bleak hopelessness. (2 Corinthians 7:10)
If this earth is the only thing we can expect to experience, what happens to us here and what we do have terrifyingly final significance. Our one chance, our one experience of life, can be ruined by one mistake. You can't turn back time.
If ourselves and others are the only ones we can look to, we have no hope of ever really remedying our mistakes. What's done can't ever be undone. We can only try, often as not messing it up too--and live with the consequences as well as we can. We were made for ideals, and the conflict that subsequently comes of the less-than-ideal state of ourselves and the world only highlights that.
As such, guilt would be without hope. Guilt would be horrible. A psychological and internal disease we can't ever resolve completely, which we will inevitably suffer, and which will haunt us to the end of our lives as reminders of our failure.
I have so many things to feel guilty for, which could so easily warp how I see the past, and cripple how I see the future. People I have let down. Relationships I have let go when I should have fought for them. Selfish decisions or carelessness, or just plain ignorance, which hurt myself and hurt others. It's so easy to obsess over these things, to agonize over what-ifs and if-onlys, to beat yourself up over what went wrong. These things haunt you years down the road, ruin quiet moments of reflection, crush you repeatedly every time they surface in your mind.
But that's guilt without God. Or 'worldly sorrow,' as the Bible calls it.
Because we believe that this earth and our linear existence under the bondage of time, our limited knowledge and consciousness, and most of all the significance of this life--aren't everything.
Because we believe that there is a God Whose existence transcends the sort of existence we know, Whose knowledge transcends our knowledge, and Whose being is in itself evidence that life as we know it in this earthly form is not the ultimate. Because we believe that there is more than our limitations and our life here. Because we believe that even our mistakes and sins are not final.
Christ's death transformed the concept of guilt by enabling hope.
"The best writing--whether 'realistic' or 'fantasy'--tends to involve us in life more deeply...Good literature may give us escape, but it also brings us back, rearmed with insight for our everyday experiences and with a new appreciation for the texture of actual life. Bad literature makes us despise our lives, wishing we could be like the fictional people we read about and causing us to regard our ordinary lives are boring. Good literature makes us understand and appreciate our lives, opening our eyes to the drama and significance of the story we are living."
(Reading Between the Lines by Gene Edward Veith)
To continue on the concept of glamour, I learnt something surprisingly similar to Veith's observation.
After all, I'm no different. I know what glamour looks like and how it makes you feel. I envied a lifestyle which certain pictures and blogs and captions evoked--I didn't know exactly why, but they gave me certain vibes, good vibes obviously, which I wanted to have when I looked at my own life. Interestingly, it was hard to define what exactly I wanted when I closely examined this feeling. And in a moment of insight that I've been grateful for ever since, I realized that sometimes I was aimlessly envying the vague vibes of this personal definition of glamour, when I already had my own version in my life.
When I broke them down into something as concrete as possible I realized that--discovery of the year!--I actually had many of them in my life already. Except they weren't packaged the same way. They weren't picture-perfect and sometimes they didn't look the same on the outside, but deep down, the essence of what I desired was there.
For example--which is embarrassing but probably necessary, since I lack C.S Lewis's genius for expressing an idea with breathtaking clarity and simplicity.
Those idyllic images of cushy window seats with an open book and a steaming cup--half of them feature a girl in floppy oversized sweaters and her hair in a deceptively messy-chic bun (I have never been able to pull off a bun, which probably added to the allure of it.) Bonus point if it's raining outside. (reference above image for a good example, pulled from thousands of others on Pinterest.) They were especially appealing when my bedroom was a mess, I ought to have been studying, and I could see my schedule in my peripheral vision (I learnt this impressive phrase from my physiotherapist sister,) lying open with its pages woefully full of empty boxes to tick and scribbly dog-eared memos falling out...
Pictures like that exude a warm, fuzzy, but admittedly vague sense of comfort and serenity. They make me feel '...if only my life was like that, if I had moments like that, I would know I had it together...I would be happy.'
Which is pretty much the effect of glamour which John Berger describes (though window seats and books may not be exactly what you associate with glamour.)
I'd overlooked my 6 am quiet mornings, with an orange mug that's unabashedly ugly but able to contain a glorious amount of that wonderful beverage tea; an old Bible filled with fading bookmarks, and an open journal covered with my spidery handwriting. Not much of a view, because the sky is black still; but the magic peacefulness of a house when its humans are asleep. Forget about the window seat and messy bun (one day, maybe.) When I see photos like that on Pinterest, I can relate the feelings they evoke to moments in my life, enjoy both better, experience the aesthetic delight of the spectator without the taint of envy.
And so Veith's comment on how good literature--and good art, I would suppose, though not being an artist I shouldn't dare speculate--should empower you to live your real life more fully, with greater appreciation and value and understanding, became something that adjusted my perspective of Pinterest. (you weren't expecting that now, were you?)
I thoroughly enjoy Pinterest, as should be pretty obvious, and as such Veith's words were helpful in learning to have a balanced relationship with it. As with anything else, it can become a black hole of time wastage. In particular you can end up constructing your ideal life vicariously in boards, neglecting your actual life. (I used to think that the temptation to get lost in virtual reality was absurd in computer games and Sims etc, but here I see its very real appeal!) Apply Veith! It's pretty straightforward with Pinterest--your pinning ideally should end up enhancing your real life. Master a great recipe or learn how to create something, throw a wonderful party, or have a badass room makeover. Whatever. It's a good sign if it gets you excited to get off the screen and do something about reality.
I appreciate Veith's wisdom and John Berger's insight, for helping me be more conscious of the effect that certain things in the media have on me. For helping me appreciate and value my own life better, and be better equipped to use it better. And of course, for helping me to identify life-changing value in what I read and see--whether through the experience of truth (and I think of Dostoevsky) or beauty (and I think of Shakespeare) or--what a great blessing!--both (and I think of C.S Lewis and John Donne.)
One of the most interesting books from my first year of literature studies was John Berger's Ways of Seeing.
Besides the fact that almost half of it was images (interestingly; since in my experience books with such a ratio of images are usually labeled children's books) its insight on different topics was fascinating; especially the section in chapter 7 where Berger discusses publicity images, consumerism, and the modern concept of glamour.
...since reading his book, this concept has been unconsciously marinating in my mind for a long time; every now and then a new thought or idea on the subject gets added into the marinade...and makes me wonder, in finally writing this, if it's possible to serve up everything...
...but let me first present to you John Berger.
According to Berger, 'the happiness of being envied is glamour.'
The appeal of glamour is 'its promise...not of pleasure, but of happiness: happiness as judged from the outside by others.' He also notes that 'Being envied is a solitary form of reassurance. It depends precisely upon not sharing your experience with those who envy you. You are observed with interest but you do not observe with interest--if you do, you will become less enviable....the more impersonal they are, the greater the illusion (for themselves and for others) of their power. The power of the glamourous resides in their supposed happiness...it is this which explains the absent, unfocused look of so many glamour images. They look out over the looks of envy which sustain them.' (Ways of Seeing by John Berger)
I don't now about you, but when I read through Berger's analysis on glamour I immediately decided:
glamour is not a Biblical concept.
Of course, the very word 'envy' should ring a bell--if we haven't already been desensitized by the careless prevalence of that concept today. ("Ooh, I'm so jealous..." "body envy"... even the ambivalent "I covet your prayers," which somehow I could never quite be comfortable with. Why is it so impossible to get me to pray for you?)
But besides that.
As Christians, we are called to contentment, which is an expression of trust in the goodness, providence, and wisdom of God.
As Christians, we are called to be thankful for and humbly learn from those we admire, instead of envying or idolizing them, because we believe that they too, are sinners; they too, are instruments that can be used for God's glory, which manifest His glory.
As Christians, we are called to relate to others on a personal, humble, and selfless way; in a way which brings out the best in both of us, without fear in acknowledging the worst. As epitomized in Christ's relationship with us--His love for us at once embodies the recognition of our worst, and the potential of our best.
Berger's insightful social critique should reveal how many unChristian characteristics there are in a lifestyle and culture like this; the fostering of discontent, envy, and pride (to name a few;) those seemingly small sins which are all the more dangerous because you can get away with them. No one sends you to jail when you gloat over the number of followers you have. More dangerously, when everyone else seems to be envying someone or other, we may never realize that actually, why should we?
In our culture, glamour (and coolness, which after Berger's analysis on glamour should be recognizable as very similar) have become significant influences in how we relate to others as well as how we relate to ourselves.
I don't want to go on a social media rant, but this is so intrinsically linked that it must be mentioned. Our social media immersed culture has been hugely important in developing this mentality. As Berger notes, 'Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion;' and social media, unfortunately, does a very good job making that 'personal social envy' mainstream.
Social media. I joined Instagram about a month ago, and its explicitly visual nature made Berger's argument on the power behind publicity images even more obvious than say, on Facebook (which every teenager I've met assures me is now the realm for dinosaurs.) There are even hashtags making it easy for you to find specific types of 'personal social envy': #fitspo; #relationship goals; #nofilter; #blessed--! But I don't want to lambast Instagram--I've enjoyed my Instagram experience so far--it's really the attitudes and assumptions that, along with so many other social media platforms and advertising and celebrities and basically so many aspects of our culture today, help contribute to this mentality.
For instance--celebrities. (I've never really liked the phrase 'fangirling' with all its connotations, so perhaps I'm a little biased here.) Berger mentions how the modern concept of celebrities defines them as 'the creature of other's envy.' The impersonal aspect of this sort of glamour, as Berger has observed, should immediately indicate just how flimsy it is; the only reality about it is human nature's predisposition to envy. Whether your celebrity crush is based on personality or good looks, glamour only exists because one is distanced from the reality. The backstage effort that goes into creating a deceptively spontaneous/'natural' beauty, talent, charm. Or even just the ratio of normal human-ness and 'goriness' to the good admirable qualities of a person. (Think the massive disillusion that the protagonists of The Fault in Our Stars experience when they finally meet the author of their beloved An Imperial Affliction. That book was the distillation of the best of Peter Van Houten, isolated from the ratio of his weaknesses or just plain 'normalness' as they experienced when they personally knew him. That distance was necessary for the book to have the effect it did.) The 'impersonal,' as Berger says, is crucial.
Acknowledging there is a place for admiration of great people and great art, and goodness--there certainly is!--where to draw line, how do we know? Gene Edward Veith's quote on one of the characteristics of good literature came to my mind and got added to the marinade of thoughts on this topic: "The best writing--whether 'realistic' or 'fantasy'--tends to involve us in life more deeply...Good literature may give us escape, but it also brings us back, rearmed with insight for our everyday experiences and with a new appreciation for the texture of actual life." (Reading Between the Lines by Gene Edward Veith)
This quote addresses the problem of contentment, which is the consequence of the 'personal social envy' mentality that our culture promotes so enthusiastically and pervasively. What draws us to all these different forms of envy is the underlying common sense (but often very vague) of something good and desirable, that these things evoke. We want something of that--what exactly, how exactly, isn't always clear; often doesn't make sense, seldom is actually true.
For the Christian, true goodness is defined by the person of God, where it begins.
True goodness should inspire us, not cripple us. We should be empowered to appreciate and make use of the lives we are given--with all the challenges, all the messy parts, all the not picture-perfect moments. True goodness should reflect truth, and inspire hope. True goodness causes us to lead outward-facing lives instead of becoming more and more self-centred. True goodness, in other words, points towards its Source.
God has given us richly all things to enjoy. We just need to learn to see Him in them.
As I once learnt through Steve DeWitt, and as Elizabeth Barrett Browning said so beautifully:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries...
(to be continued...)
Mark 10:21--'Jesus, looking at him, loved him.'
He knew all that was in that heart. He saw clearly the pride and complacency, the underlying streak of materialism, even as He saw the urge to live a pure and blameless life, the vague but urgent desire to know God.
Christ's love for the eager young ruler has always been what struck me most about this one incident in His life, as recorded in the book of Mark. Even at the very moment when the young ruler seemed to have failed the test, so to speak--at the very point he clearly demonstrated that his heart was given to idols.
Jesus did not push him to make a decision, guilt-trip or pressurise him. Jesus did not condemn him or fling up his hands in dramatic despair. He knew that this was much more than the physical, external act of getting him to sell all he had and give to the poor, even of following Him. This was a battle of the heart first and foremost, a heart which needed to be won and transformed and given willingly through love, not about impressive charity stunts and dramatic life turnarounds.
This love, I believe, was what enabled the young ruler to understand, and more importantly, accept when Jesus told him--gently--but poignantly, probingly--'One thing still you lack...'
John Freeman's wise words brought this part of the Bible to my mind:
When we reduce people to their sin or rebellion, we often react out of a deep motivation to set things right because our own sensibilities are affected.
If, like Jesus, we stop focusing on the sin in other people's lives which we want to see changed, rather than how as a person, as a soul, they need Christ, our response to them, no matter how well intentioned, will not end up being helpful. Judgy. Pushy. Condescending. Those adjectives are ones which Christians should pray that by God's grace they manage to avoid. If, like Jesus, we learn to love them, not because they fit our idea of what they should be like, or make the choices we think they should, even and especially when they don't, our attempt to help them and to share truth with them will not be pushed away or dismissed, even when they don't agree.
How do we love them?
Resisting the urge to add, 'Let me count the ways'--John Freeman also noted that In loving by listening, we learn much more about people and discover why they have sought after other gods.
Loving by listening is one of the simplest, yet most underestimated ways of showing love to someone, in our culture today where we're programmed to be visual, to be instant, to not waste a second, and most of all to proclaim and focus on our own opinions and feelings--as discussed here.
Too often, I make the same mistake. Unlike Christ, there are times when I look at someone and see only the sin in their life or the obstacle keeping them from grace, and forget to love them. I forget that as an imitator of Christ--who loved us first before He died for us--love comes first.
Sometimes, that means I need to listen patiently, humbly, to things I don't agree with, or things I think I already understand. Sometimes that means I need to just listen instead of thinking I have to always give advice or provide a different view. When we know their stories, when we understand what is important to them and what they believe can make them whole, and why, we see them with the same grace-filled love that looked out of Christ's eyes when He spoke to that young ruler.
It's not necessary to always be justified.
We have an innate sense of justice--at least, when it comes to ourselves. In my interactions with children I've noticed that injustice strikes one of the deepest chords of emotion in children, even the very young ones. Emotions are at their most transparent and raw state when expressed by children. I was startled to see how strong the sense of injustice could be, in even a three year old. He glowered at one side like a little thundercloud, watching the other children silently with steadily reddening eyelids. Finally, when no one noticed him--ah, that swelling unhappiness when our hurt goes unnoticed by everyone else!--he confronted me in a voice gone shrill and curly with pent-up aggrievement, demanding justice.
From this, and other experiences, I learnt another important lesson on working with children and developing relationships with them. Justice is very important. We all know--and dislike--that kid who cheats at games, pinches people on the sly, and pushes others out of the way--then claim they 'didn't do anything.' It's true that children take quickly and naturally to deceit and unfairness once they are allowed to see their own self-interest as more important than right or wrong. But just as true is the fact that every child has a deep innate sense of justice. Even the mean and sneaky ones, who interestingly enough are often the loudest to complain of 'not fair!' if someone else pushes them out of the way. Protecting and acknowledging this sense of justice in concrete and consistent ways sometimes does more to earn you their respect than presents or pep talks. If kids know that they can be sure of your attention and action whenever they have experienced injustice--and just as importantly, when they have perpetrated injustice--they will respect you. If they see you turn a blind eye to little inconvenient incidents, or brush them off, you are telling them that they can get away with things if they do it right; and that they can't depend on you for help if they need it. Children, who of all people should be the most conscious of how helpless and dependent they are, are naturally drawn to someone they feel they can trust to protect them when they are wronged, even if that also means someone who will punish them when they have wronged others.
Unfortunately this sense of justice for ourselves isn't always conducive for resolving quarrels. Just as the concept of justice isn't always as straight forward 'in the adult world.'
Sometimes peace may be more important than immediate or complete justice. Sometimes--more significantly--mercy and forgiveness have to resolve what justice only begins, what justice could only add more hurt and destruction to. There is a place for mercy and forgiveness, as well as justice, in the child's world as well as the adult's world; if either are ignored, there are horrible consequences.
Maybe that means you have to sit the red-eyed baby down and explain that though it wasn't fair, things like that unfortunately do happen; and that's why they shouldn't do similar things to others. It doesn't mean, however, that you pretend nothing happened, or brush it off--because they have been hurt, and they are going to hurt more if you don't address it, or don't acknowledge it.
Similarly, when we quarrel--what a embarrassing, immature word; but who hasn't?--it's not always necessary to justify ourselves. I have learnt that, the hard way, by causing even greater misunderstanding and pain when I insisted on showing how more right I was than the other person thought. Perhaps we need to swallow our pride and simply settle for 'I'm sorry you misunderstood me', and focus more on 'I'm sorry I hurt you.' Ken Sande had a very good reminder in The Peacemaker that effective apologies should not include 'but's: 'I'm sorry I said that but you started it' not only reveals pride and unlovingness, but also clearly isn't going to help with reconciliation. There is a place for justification, of course; but the problem is that when the context is conflict and argument, the thin line between justification and proving the other person wrong because you were right, also known as winning the fight, gets really, really hard to define. Our hearts are deceptive and they're not good at helping us see when our motivations are not purely justice, but have self-righteousness or pride stirred in, when they're stewing over the fire of conflict. And it quickly turns bitter, and burns us when we try, suddenly aghast when we realize the consequences, to stop.
After all, God Himself showed us mercy instead of justice.
It is God who arms me with strength, and makes my way perfect.
He makes my feet like the feet of deer, and sets me on my high places.
He teaches my hands to make war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.
You have also given me the shield of Your salvation;
Your right hand has held me up,
Your gentleness has made me great, so my feet did not slip.
I found an old entry in a prayer journal on this section of Psalm 18. yes, I had scribbled, and the (extra) spidery appearance of my handwriting indicated that it was a very heart-felt yes--I need the impossible. I need help to do the impossible.
I want to do so much more than I am doing now, though I'm already engrossed just keeping up with everything.
I want to love people and serve and care for them even though I struggle with bitterness or burn-out from serving.
I feel like I'm at my limits. Because I'm at my limits, because I can't see myself being able to fulfil that, I need God to 'enlarge the path under me'--I can't walk better or keep from tripping.
This may sound hard to understand, but it ties in to another verse in this psalm, a phrase that I never understood until I had my first experience of great grief: Your gentleness has made me great.
I am learning, growing, in so many painfully precious, staggeringly significant ways, because of pain and trouble. I see so many huge mistakes and blindspots and cesspits in my maze of a heart, which I couldn't have seen otherwise. A whole new aspect of God's goodness and love; learning to value both so much more, in the war ground of crisis.
because I am weak--
I cannot take much pain.
I'm lousy at suffering. If I was pushed into the heat of the fighting I probably wouldn't survive. Just struggling along the fringes of it is bad enough--one flesh wound, and I feel like I'm dying.
I know that what I struggle with now is nothing compared to what I see others having to deal with. I see how, even as I feel burdened down, how much worse it could have been, or become. A lesson which comes in the shape of an open, smarting wound, but which could have likewise come in the form of an amputation
--which, at this point in my immaturity, I likely wouldn't be tough enough to survive for long.
He is gentle with me. He knows just how shallow my thresholds for pain and suffering are. He gives me what He knows I can bear, and with these relatively small, easy lessons, moves me forward in guided baby steps towards greatness.
Greatness of mind, and soul, and heart.
Greatness of faith.
But it's a balance too. Earlier on it says that He 'makes me feet like the feet of deer'. He gives me skills and ability that aren't even within my species, that are so far from my natural ability, to put it another way. To bend a bow of bronze--besides the lovely imagery and cadence of this phrase, I never actually realized the impact of the metaphor until I read Elizabeth George Speare's The Bronze Bow and discovered that actually the very idea of a bow made of bronze was in itself a symbol of impossibility.
Sometimes, He helps us by enlarging the path for our dragging feet, catering to our individual limits with the gentleness that one would hardly dare to expect from One who is God.
Other times, He helps us by gifting us with the skills and abilities and wisdom that seem so unnatural now, enabling us to do what would previously have been the impossible, to bend the bow of bronze with hands suddenly deft and powerful.
He gives grace in both ways, according to our needs and His will.
As I read verse 5, I started wondering why David emphasized the concept of God being his inheritance.
An interesting idea. I'd never really thought of 'inheriting' God (other than as the Christian heritage of a Christian family background); it seemed strange quantifying God, so to speak. At any rate, I agreed wholeheartedly with David--He was a good inheritance.
The idea of goodness immediately brought to my mind all the things that I find myself thanking God for almost every day: life; family; love; comfort; work; passion; beauty. The small things like the morning cup of tea or the hug of a child, or the extension of a deadline (which actually is not a small thing at all but ranks close behind the parting of the Red Sea and deserves its own psalm of praise!)
Goodness. That wordless, subtle feeling that presses against your ribs like a swelling breath of warm air--it's contentment. There's another feeling--a sharp, brilliant tingle, a mental gasp of joy that makes you feel like a Youtube video suddenly switched from 720p to 2160p. That's delight. Both these feelings stem from the experience of goodness. Yes, life was full of goodness from God's hand.
But I realized suddenly, in the midst of all these nice warm fuzzy thoughts, that these were God's gifts reflecting His goodness. David wasn't just thanking God for the glorious view from his palace window, he was thanking God for being Who He was, and for being his.
God, not His gifts, was David's inheritance.
There's a difference between a gift and an inheritance. Gifts can be large and inheritances can be small, but gifts are typically uncertain, one-off; in contrast, inheritances are both expected and meant to be effective in the long-term.
Our portion in life, our inheritance, is not any of these wonderful gifts which we can see God in; it is God Himself. David knew to enjoy the goodness of God, not just in His gifts but in His Person; to rely on, to be empowered by, to be satisfied in that alone.
When he was on the run, hiding in the wilderness from Saul, he found comfort in that inheritance.
When he was in the wilderness and weary with the grief of Absalom's treachery, he found comfort in that inheritance.
When seemingly all the gifts were taken from him, David's joy remained in his inheritance: the person of their Giver.
As Sheldon Vanauken said: 'God gives us many gifts, but not permanence: that we must seek in His arms.'
Our inheritance--which we can rely, enjoy, and draw strength from for our every day life, which we know we can count on to last us for the long term--is none other than God Himself.
You are the portion of my inheritance, and my cup; You maintain my lot.
The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places;
Yes, I have a good inheritance.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are