“… that doesn’t make it garbage.”

Everyone has seen videos of people in Manhattan walking past homeless people. Some people treat people who are homeless as invisible (at best) or worthless or a blight (at worst). Last night I was spending time with New York City Relief, making friends with people currently living on the street. I had an important list of names of individuals we had talked to and their prayer requests. (The International House of Prayer church prays faithfully for these people each week baEzra and Eddy, Noah and Chris and I thoughtsed on these lists.) Anyway, I absent-mindedly wrote down what one couple wanted from a fast food restaurant on the back of that list, and sent a couple team members to bring back the food. The volunteers came back with the food, but (of course) not with the list, which was now in the garbage! My mistake! And I was responsible for that list! I asked them to go back for it and try to “rescue” it, while I continued speaking with another homeless man who stopped by and wanted to talk. He’d been living on the street for “many years.” He saw the little drama unfolding about our potentially lost list, and said to me, “Just because something is in the garbage, that doesn’t make it garbage.” It was slightly out of the blue, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since. And the great thing is, it wasn’t me telling him that, perhaps to encourage him, but it was him telling me. It was a beautiful moment where we thought together about a simple but profound truth – and for me, it came from a surprising source. (I’m supposed to be the one dropping profound nuggets out there, right?) The thing is, it shouldn’t be surprising. Whether the woman suffering because she doesn’t have her meds, or the young guy who’s relationship with his father has devastated him, or the woman on the street because her husband’s violence almost killed her – these people are just like us – they have truth and wisdom like like we do (sometimes more than we do) – and only a few minutes spent talking to one or two of them makes that obvious.

When we’re down should we be “kicked to the curb?” When we desperately need help should we be considered a blight? Is our very presence a problem, so that others should rightly treat us as “invisible?” No, because no matter what happens to us, no matter where we are, we know who we are. We know who made us. We know who depends on us. We know who still believes in us. We know what we have to contribute.

It’s no different with people living on the street. They’re humans. They’re moms and dads, siblings, parents, aunts and uncles. They’re old and young. They’re single and married. They’re Christians, Muslims, Jews, and seekers of all kinds. They’re God’s handiwork. Others depend on them. Some are lucky enough that others still believe in them. And they have something to contribute. As Jesus said, you just have to have “eyes to see.”

So, next time, try to remember with me, “Just because something is in the garbage, that doesn’t make it garbage.”

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Irritating People and Why they Irritate

Today I was praying, and for some reason started to think about someone I know who irritates me. (I admit that I’m too easily irritated, but that’s for another post.) When I had this thought – about this irritating person – I remembered a question from Geri Scazzero that I’m learning to ask:

“What does my response to [fill in the blank here – in this case,
the person’s name] say about me?”

And before I answer, let me clarify. I’m referring to people who are loud (I’m quiet.), people who are pushy (I’m accommodating.), people who are messy (I’m organized.), people who are crude (I’m usually fairly well-mannered.), people who talk too much (I’m often quiet.), people who are confrontational (I’m conflict avoidant.), people are all emotional (I’m subdued.), people who are arrogant (I’m ever so humble.), people … well, you get the picture. (I’m sorry if I offended you, my friend, please read to the end before you dismiss me entirely.)

So, “What does my response to a person who irritates say about me?”

Well, that question led to others:

Why do certain people bother me so much?

Is it because they’re not like me?
Do I think it would be better if they were like me?
Do I think it would be better if they were at least a little more like me?

And what exactly is the problem? Why is what irritating people do so irritating or frustrating to me?
Why am I so critical and often so judgmental?

Is it because I’m forgetting God’s “signature” in all his creation – the amazing diversity?
Is it because I’m fooled by the “disguises” that people come in? (Mother Teresa talks about how Jesus himself appears to us regularly in the disguise of the poor.)
Is it because I’m forgetting what a poor template I would be for this new humanity?
Am I threatened by people who are different from me for some reason?
Am I resentful of the extra work it takes to engage in a relationship with and love these people?

Oh, wow. I think perhaps this is where we were headed from the start. It could be that. I suppose that’s what God wanted to say to me today. This is why we started with irritating people in our prayer time. Ouch. Don’t you just hate it when that happens?

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“If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed –
but hate those things in yourself, not in another.”
Thomas Merton

“Until we have seen someone’s darkness,
we don’t really know who they are.
Until we have forgiven someone’s darkness,
we don’t really know what love is.”
Marianne Williamson

Henri Nouwen, Richard Rohr, Peter Scazzero, Pope Francis, Jesus – and The Big Bang Theory

Bob Newhart appears again as Professor Proton in the most recent episode of CBS’s the Big Bang Theory. In a private conversation with Leonard, Professor Proton decides to ask Leonard something he’s been wondering about when it comes to his roommate Dr. Sheldon Cooper – “Why are you and Sheldon friends?” It’s a natural enough question, but particularly easy to understand in this episode where others and Sheldon all agree that he can be very “annoying.” Sheldon’s “quirks” shine through in every episode.

Sheldon exhibits a strict adherence to routine, a total lack of social skills, a tenuous understanding of humor, a general lack of humility or empathy, and displays textbook narcissistic behavior. He also has a very hard time recognizing irony and sarcasm in other people although he himself often employs them.  … Despite speculation that Sheldon’s personality traits may be consistent with Asperger syndrome, obsessive–compulsive personality disorder and asexuality, co-creator Bill Prady has repeatedly stated that Sheldon’s character was neither conceived nor developed with regard to any of these conditions. (Wikipedia)

It’s in this context that Professor Proton wants to know, “Why are you and Sheldon friends?” When I heard Leonard’s answer, I was in a mild state of shock. “He’s broken, and he needs me”, he said, “… and I need him.”

Leonard doesn’t explain how or why he needs Sheldon. Is it because he’s broken too? Is it because of what he learns from Sheldon about himself? about life? about loving well? about what really matters?

Does he learn from their relationship how to look beyond the shell of a person? past the dysfunctions? past the brokenness? past the likely diagnoses? Does he learn not to insist, like so many of us do, that others ought to “be like me” or be “normal” in order for us to accept them? welcome them? truly love them?

If you’ve read much of what’s been written by Henri Nouwen, Richard Rohr, or Peter Scazzero  (among others) you’ve been reminded how much God means for us to learn from marginalized people (children, the poor, the dying, the elderly, the despised, etc.). If you’ve heard Pope Francis lately, or seen what he’s done, you’ve seen him living out the love of Jesus towards people like Sheldon who don’t fit in.

I remember early in my first year of Bible College, seeing one of the jocks – a really handsome guy, sitting and talking in the Snack Bar with someone who was a “reject” by most standards. You know – not attractive, not athletic, not particularly smart, not cool – not popular! I’m ashamed now to say that I still remember that incident because, at the time, I couldn’t understand it. “Why was he doing that?”

I’m sure that jock was not only more athletic and handsome than me, but also a lot more spiritually mature. Maybe if I would have asked him back then for an explanation, he would have said, “He’s broken and he needs me … and I need him.”

I hope I’ve grown enough since that day that I wouldn’t be so confused seeing something like that now. I want to be like that jock, and like Leonard Hofstadter in his love for Sheldon Cooper. I want to love someone who doesn’t fit in, who isn’t cool, who others ignore – or despise. I want to love someone who, as I love them, God uses to teach me about myself, about life, about what really matters – even simply about what it mean to love in the first place.

Downward Mobility and Marriage

“Love must be learned, and learned again and again;
there is no end to it.
Hate needs no instruction, but waits only to be provoked.”
Katherine Anne Porter
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The verisimilitude in Porter’s quotation cannot be denied. There’s brilliance in these short comments. Have you mastered what it means to love? Probably not, but even if you have, tomorrow is a new day. Love must be learned – and then “learned again” – and after that, learned “again.” There is “no end” to this learning. You might master many things, but not this one. It’s like mastering God. You can’t do that either. (Funny to think about it this way, since the Bible says “God is love.”) If this sounds unnecessarily negative, review the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 – and please, don’t think of weddings! Instead, think of marriages:

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way.It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged.It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.”

These are such beautiful words. So powerful. So timeless. They give a profound definition of love that can be “road tested” in any relationship – but especially in marriage. I remember in my teens when I contemplated marriage. I just knew I was going to be a great husband. (I had the same misplaced confidence about my parenting skills before I had children.) Then reality hit.

Skipping ahead some (so as not to unnecessarily depress or disillusion the reader, or to cause myself to want to stick my head in the oven), I find myself now married for the second time, and sometimes the strangest thing happens. Sometime my wife says something about me (a criticism) that I remember hearing from my first wife. Now, you know when that happens, you have to at least try to pay attention. There’s a pretty good chance that, in addition to the spouses, God is speaking to you.

And here can we turn back to Katherine Anne Porter for more illumination. She described marriage as “… the great revealer, the great white searchlight turned on the darkest places of human nature.” I’m telling you, she should have been a theologian. More valuable insight confronts us here, for here we learn that “human nature” has its “darkest places.” (You may have noticed this theme in the Bible as well.) And marriage, she says, acts like a searchlight, seeking out those previously hidden places, and acting as “the great revealer!” Relationships of all kinds will do this of course, but not like in marriage where there is more intimacy, an abundance of time spent together – and no escape! Remember this proverb, “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool mom.”? Well, it’s the same with your spouse. All the crud and cruelty,  the shallowness and selfishness, the defensiveness, the laziness, and all the behavior driven by fear or lust or greed or pride – will all be “revealed.”

Porter provides a great service by letting us know we’re not alone. It doesn’t matter. She’s speaking to everyone. It’s not just you. It’s not just your spouse. In the words of C. S. Lewis, we’re all either “sons of Adam” or “daughters of Eve.” This is what we bring to our marriages – a distinct resemblance to Adam and Eve. Do you remember how they turned on each other? How in the end, the lovers sold each other out, like Julia and Winston in Orwell’s 1984? When our first parents turned from God, the logic and order of their lives was destroyed. (There was “a disturbance in the force.”) Now they would think of themselves first, refuse to take responsibility for their actions and shift the blame to the other – just to mention a few endearing new behaviors. These behaviors would come to them quite naturally, like Porter’s hate, “which waits only to be provoked.” In contrast, something beautiful and so very necessary as love, would be counterintuitive and almost impossible to practice consistently. It must be “learned, and learned again and again.”

Looking at it another way, we could say that the things that are required in marriage are anything but mysterious: Put the other person first. Control your temper. Let the truth prevail. Humble yourself. Be courteous – and so on. Just do these things – just show love in these actual behaviors, and you’ll be fine. It’s clear that anyone can have a good marriage. It’s only necessary to practice these simple behaviors which everyone understands. (It’s not like figuring out the “sound of one hand clapping”, or whether or not a tree that falls in a lonely forest makes a sound.)

But looking at it yet another way, we could say that the things that are required in marriage while simple, are also simply nearly impossible – or at least let’s say “exceedingly difficult.” (Many people seem to find it so at least, if we can gather anything from high divorce rate, as just one measure, or the Six Word Memoir book on Love and Heartbreak. which is full of painful insight.) What’s simple to understand proves not-so-simple to do. We find we disappoint ourselves, our spouse, others we know – and God. What I believe we find is that, without his help, we can hardly do it. Without his help, we have little chance of success. (I’d like to say “no chance”, but I’m trying to be academically credible. Really though, I mean “no chance.”

What then to do? I think I know. Again, it’s simple and it’s not. I’ll give you a hint for now. It’s not more information, more motivation, or just trying harder. It’s not those things – as helpful as they sometimes are. It’s more than that – or maybe less.

I’m going to separate it from this blog entry though, because this is one is long enough, and out of sympathy for my readers, both of whom must be pretty worn out by what I’ve said already. Pray for me then, as I attempt to compose part two – and what is much more challenging and not at all as much fun – living it out.

In the next installment of this discussion we will really see the centrality of downward mobility in marriage as an approach which can lead to fullness of life and love.