I Love You But…

Let’s be honest, there is always going to be something we don’t like about our friends and family.  No one is perfect and we all have flaws, but what I’m interested in is how we love people despite their imperfections.  I know it must be possible because I’ve felt it; I’ve experienced genuine love from people who knew my flaws and failures. Sometimes it seems like this is a result of ignoring or overlooking these seemingly small issues and choosing to see only the good in people.  Other times it can be accomplished by choosing to see flaws as quirks or alternative life choices instead of deep moral failings.  That’s not what I’m talking about, though, because people can tell the difference.  People know when there’s a silent “but” at the end of your “I love you.”

I think a key component is realizing that you can’t really love someone if you are overlooking their flaws.  Turning a blind eye to something potentially harmful isn’t love and neither is harboring anger and judgement and simply avoiding the topic.  Don’t get me wrong though, I’m not saying to just modify your feelings, thoughts, beliefs etc. in order to make space for other people’s hangups.  This is where the difficulty lies; as with most things, I think the key is hidden somewhere between the two extremes in some mythical middle ground.

While I wanted to discuss this in a more generic way without relating it back to LGBT stuff, I think it’s important to note that in many cases, the “agree to disagree” approach just isn’t sufficient.  When the topic is something external and relatively innocuous, this may work, but when talking about something as personal and emotion-laden as a person’s sexual or gender identity, a key aspect of who they are as a person which touches nearly every aspect of their past, present, and future, simply agreeing to disagree often times just won’t cut it.  I think they key to this conundrum might lie in our definition of love which my pastor always describes as “willing the other person’s good.”  If you are truly and honestly seeking the best that God has for your friend or family member, you should be able to convey your disagreement in a way that doesn’t make them feel attacked, ashamed, rejected, or insufficient.  You should be able to make it clear that this minor point of contention is nothing when compared with the overwhelming affection you feel towards them.

As I mentioned in a previous post, this has been a tough piece to write, primarily because the questions it asks are at the heart of the conflict that has raged within me for the last few years: the place where my desire to love like Jesus meets my futile attempts at living as a righteous child of God.  Matthew 5 concludes with the impossible directive to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” and that is a command I have tried to take very seriously in my life despite the fact that I’ve never been anywhere near achieving it.  However, I think it is also important to note what is said just before this, a reminder that “He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” That’s God’s way of showing His love for us: no matter how badly we’re failing at living up to His standards, He set a flaming orb in the sky to give us heat, and life and light and He causes droplets of moisture to condense in the air and fall down on us to our delight and dismay. Wherever we are on that continuum from perverse to perfect, we all experience the same rain and the same sun.

Comparing Suffering

At church this morning, my pastor continued a series called “The Fifth Gospel” based on the book of the same name by Bobby Conway.  The idea is that many people will never read the Bible so, to spread the Gospel, we need to live it.  In today’s message, he talked about being an example by the way we respond to the suffering in our lives.  During the message, he brought up people who he believed exemplified this trait to share their stories.  One couple’s story hit me pretty hard and it was difficult to keep from tearing up while listening to the multiple tragedies they’ve suffered together.  Unfortunately, I found myself responding in an abysmal way that is regrettably way too common for me.  Often times, when I hear someone talking about their misfortunes, I immediately begin comparing them to my own and, more often than not, I determine that what I’ve had to deal with is worse.  It’s an awful habit that I frequently catch myself falling into, but today, God really convicted me of it and showed me how it can be harmful in multiple ways.

First, it numbs me to the pain others are feeling.  While I can still empathize and grieve with someone during this process, the effect is stunted by the belief that my pain is more significant or substantial.  Supporting someone through a difficult time is much less effective when, in the back of your mind, you’re thinking they should just suck it up and move on because they don’t know what real pain feels like.  I find this often manifests when someone is mourning the loss of something I’ve never had and I’m reminded of the old saying, “It’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.”  While I’m perfectly aware that this is a horrible response, I’ve yet to be able to overcome much of the bitterness that stems from my lot in life.

The second way that this attitude is harmful is that I’m constantly feeling sorry for myself and bemoaning the ways in which I’ve been wronged.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve asked God to help me overcome this attitude, but I continue to focus on the negative aspects of my life much more often than the positive.  I try to stop and thank God for all the blessings He’s provided, but as I do, my thoughts inevitably drift to the things that everyone else takes for granted and that I long for so desperately.  My overdeveloped sense of justice kicks in and I begin complaining to God that it isn’t fair that everyone else gets to experience love and family while I’m often left feeling lonely and empty.

I know that this is a big hurdle I need to overcome and I could use all the help I can get so please pray that God will help me better appreciate the gifts He’s given me and that I can stop trying to out-do other people’s pain.

I’m Not the Same Person

A thought occurred to me the other day that, as I’m slowly growing and maturing, I essentially become a new person every decade or so.  I imagine this is true of most people and I began to ponder the theological implications of this.  When I first accepted Christ, I was around four years old and I did it because my mom wanted me to.  I don’t remember much about the situation and what I do remember, may not be completely accurate, but I seem to recall my mom asking me if I wanted to ask Jesus into my heart and I could tell by the way she asked that my answer should be yes.  Then she asked me to repeat after her and I did and she was happy.  Not long after that, I was baptized  and I pretty clearly remember that my primary motivation for that was the fact that the baptism was in a pool and I was promised I could go swimming afterwards.  Now, I’m not saying this to slight my mom or her methods of discipling me, that’s a topic for another post.  The reason I bring this up is to show the mindset I was in at the time; I was a child and therefore my understanding of God and what it means to follow him were limited.

Years later, towards the end of my time in high school, I realized just how ignorant I was when I first gave my life to Christ and decided to re-dedicate myself to Him.  This time, I wasn’t baptized, but I did go forward during a youth event and pray with my youth pastor and, for a time, I felt that I had become a mature Christian.  It’s only recently that I’ve become aware of just how little I knew back then and this has lead me to wonder if, as Christians, we should somehow formally re-dedicate our lives and possibly be re-baptized as we grow into these new people with new understanding.  At least for me, it feels like the promises I made at four to follow Christ don’t mean much, they were a misguided attempt and being a obedient.  My re-dedication in my teen years was more authentic, but still lacking much of the maturity and wisdom I now poses.  It almost feels like I need to check in with God and say, “Even though I am now able to perceive more of what following you means and how difficult it can be, now that I know it’s not going to solve all my problems and may at times create more, I’m still in this.”

Thoughts on the Pete Heck/Michael Kimpan Debate

Recently, Michael Kimpan, executive director of the Marin Foundation, was a guest on Pete Heck’s radio show discussing his views on the same sex relationships/actions.  The Marin Foundation’s stance is one of “intentional and strategic neutrality on this subject” siting Romans 3:23, James 2:10, and Matthew 7 to show that: we’ve all sinned, having sinned, we’ve broken God’s entire law, and that, as sinners, we must attend to our own sin before pointing the finger at others.  Pete, on the other hand, believes that refusing to point out the sins of those around us “leads people away from the grace of Christ.”  As someone who finds biblical arguments both for and against same-sex relationships to be less than completely convincing, I often find myself torn between the two sides in these debates.  I understand Pete’s desire to call a spade a spade and to help people turn from their sin, but I also see the value in Michael’s instinct to love first to build relationships with our neighbors.  I appreciate the Marin Foundation’s refusal to proclaim people’s sins from the rooftops and to point an accusatory finger in the face of every gay person they meet, I just hope that, when asked one-on-one by an LGBT person about the Bible’s stance on same sex relationships, that they are willing to have a thorough and honest conversation about what it says and not ignore the fact that scripture does seem to have something to say on this matter.

In the second half of the discussion, Kimpan brings up the story of the woman caught in adultery to show that Jesus refused to condemn the woman when Pharisees insisted the law stated she should be stoned.  Heck, on the other hand, chooses to focus on the end of the story when Jesus tells her to go and leave her life of sin.  It’s interesting because I think these are both important parts of the story.  First, Jesus protects the woman; He sees her and loves her as a beloved child of God and chases away those who condemn her and then refuses to condemn her Himself even though, as the sinless Son of God, He had every right to.  The thing is, Jesus didn’t need to call her out on her sin, she knew what it was.  It was common knowledge that adultery was a serious offense.  The people dragging her through the streets made sure she knew what she had done.  However, it was only after they were alone that Jesus privately tells her to go and leave her life of sin.  So, if we are viewing LGBT people as the woman in the story, do we want to be the accusers publicly dragging the sinners through the streets parading their shame in front of everyone or do we want to be the ones to love and protect first, and then, when we’re alone, encourage our brothers and sisters to sin no more.

The Theological Difficulties of Romans 9

After reading another great post by Prodigal Paul (http://goo.gl/CtNhLh), I decided to look at Romans 9 again, a passage that’s caused me some theological distress in the past.  Verse 18, in particular causes my over developed sense of justice and equality squirm.  On the surface, this verse appears to say that God can and will, on occasion, choose to harden a person’s heart and bar them from ever accepting His gift of salvation and I believe this is how it has traditionally been interpreted.  I don’t necessarily intend to refute this interpretation, but merely to offer another possible meaning.

One of the primary reasons I have a hard time with this traditional interpretation of Romans 9:18 is that it appears to conflict with Jesus exhortation in Matthew 18 to forgive others’ offenses against us 70 times 7 (typically believed to mean an infinite number of times).  Presumably, the reason God would choose to harden a person’s heart is because of their repeated offenses against Him, but if He asks us to forgive infinitely, it seems strange that there could be some limit to His forgiveness of us.

In an attempt to find new meaning in this troublesome passage, I looked at the verse in the original Greek*, particularly the word that every version I checked translated as harden.  The Greek word here is σκληρύνει (sklērynei) the root of which is σκληρός (skléros) which BibleHub translates as “hard, violent, harsh, stern.”  This seems to mesh well with the original translations and interpretations of the verse so, for my purpose of finding new meaning in the passage, it was a dead end.  However, I thought for fun, I might try entering skléros into Google translate.  It also came back with a definition of hard, but it also included another word: tough.  If we were to translate sklērynei as toughen instead of harden, in conjunction with the rest of the verse, it could convey a vastly different message, one that fits so much better into the picture I see painted by the rest of scripture.  Read this way, it could be saying that for some of His children, God chooses to grant a grace and a relatively peaceful life, but others, he chooses to toughen by gifting them with trials of many kinds.  It still doesn’t sit well with my sense of justice and equality and it may be completely unbiblical, but it’s just a thought.

*Disclaimer: I am by no means fluent in Greek (in fact, I don’t know any) nor can I be considered a Biblical scholar by any stretch of the imagination.