I came across a funny little story in a magazine the other day:
A man went into a pet shop looking for a pet that was unique. No puppies or kittens for this guy; he wanted something that no one else had. The clerk at the pet store had just the thing – a talking centipede! The man was excited to be buying such an unusual pet. He carefully carried the centipede home in its little house and put it in a safe place so it could get used to its new surroundings.
On Sunday morning, the man asked his new pet if it would like to come along with him to church. He expected to hear something from this talking centipede, but there was no answer from inside the little house. Confused, the man asked again, “Would you like to go to church with me?” Still no answer from inside the tiny house.
The man starts to wonder if he’s been duped by the clerk at the pet store. Is this really a talking centipede? With irritation in his voice, he asks again, “Would you like to come to church with me?” Before he can finish his sentence, a tiny voice is heard from inside the little house. “Hey, buddy, I heard you the first time. Be patient with me. I’m still putting on my shoes!”
Alright. So, whether you laughed at that or groaned a bit, there are points to be taken from this story. One is that we don’t always understand one another’s struggles. Something that’s relatively easy for some of us (like putting on just two shoes!) can be a real struggle for someone else. It’s easy to become impatient with a person who seems to have a hard time doing something that comes easy to us.
There’s even an old saying that you never really know a man (or woman) until you have walked a mile in his (or her) shoes. To stand and walk around in another person’s shoes means to internalize that person’s perspective on life; the pain, the fears, the experiences, the worries and doubts, and what brings that person joy. When we take the time to do this with one another, we start to understand why some people feel like they have a hundred pairs of feet to move around in order just to walk through life.
Maybe there’s a person you know who seems to have “too many shoes;” a person who makes you feel impatient and frustrated. Or perhaps there’s someone in your life who makes you feel angry, or who has disappointed you. There’s plenty of anger and disappointment to go around, especially in this fearful and contentious season of public life.
It may even be that the person you feel most impatient and frustrated with is yourself. In spite of your best efforts and expectations, you find that you’re falling short of the kind of person you want to be, and of what you’d hoped to accomplish in your life.
One of my favorite Scripture passages is Ephesians 3:14-21. The writer of this epistle reminds us that we take our “name,” our value and our worth, from the One who knows what it’s like to walk in our shoes. Through the Incarnation in Christ, God entered into our human condition in love. Regardless of our present life’s circumstances, as we look to Christ, we are being rooted and grounded in that love. That means we have an eternal source of patience and understanding for one another and for ourselves, if we just tap into it.
With prayers for your journey,
Do you ever have days when memories of all the bad, foolish, and wrong things you’ve ever done flood your head? I have a day like that occasionally. I don’t know what brings those days on; whether it’s feelings of insecurity about something I’m facing, or whether it’s just an occasional hyper-awareness of my human fallibility. But such days are not fun. I might recall an embarrassment from 6th grade, or thoughtless words uttered years ago that hurt another person’s feelings. I might recall a behavior that put another person at risk. I might have a flash of clarity about something I said or did with my children that was not kind or helpful. I might even remember a pet, and wish I’d been more patient and inclusive with an animal that was part of our family. When those “beat-myself-up” days come, I know they will pass and that I need to keep them in the context of my larger life. I also know that when I’ve asked for forgiveness for my known wrongs, from God and others, I need to let them go.
But it’s easy to get hung up in the memory of our mistakes. I’ve known people who were so caught up in the feelings and memory of one particular mistake, that it kept them from moving forward in life. The memory of their “big mistake” had paralyzed them from making progress in their career, their relationships and in their spiritual life with God. Perhaps you’ve known someone like that. Maybe you’ve even experienced this yourself, when the weight of some past sin or wrong decision caused you to feel frozen in time, attached to your guilt and your regret. When we get caught that way, we may wonder, “If I messed up so badly in the past, how can I trust myself to make good decisions moving into the future?” We may even subconsciously hold ourselves back from accomplishments or happiness as a way to punish ourselves for our past sins.
When I think about how regrets over our past words and actions can hold us back, I remember Peter from our New Testament. One of the twelve disciples of Christ, Peter displayed both passion and loyalty, but also foolhardiness and even disloyalty at a time when it mattered most. If anybody could claim to have made “The Big Mistake,” it was surely Peter. When Jesus predicted that his disciples would become deserters upon his arrest, Peter promised, “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.” (Matthew 26:33) And yet, Peter did. When he was recognized as a companion of Jesus, he denied it. He even swore and cursed, saying, “I do not know the man!” Then he remembered what Jesus said about him, and he “went out and wept bitterly.” That is the reaction of a person who knows he’s made “The Big Mistake.”
But here’s the thing about Peter. Through the love of Jesus, Peter recovered from his Big Mistake. Not only did he recover, but he went on to become one of the most important witnesses for the Gospel of Christ during the early years of the Church. The writer of John’s gospel describes a beautiful episode following the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus interrupts the fruitless fishing of several of the disciples who had gathered at the Sea of Tiberias. He provides a bounty of fish for them, and then serves them a meal he’s prepared there on the shore. Then just as Peter had earlier denied Jesus three times, Jesus gives Peter three chances to declare his loyalty and his love. Jesus then says to Peter, “Follow me.”
If you are being held back by the memory of a Big Mistake in your life, you may wonder about your ability and your worthiness to live out the life to which God calls you. While it’s true that the earthly consequences of our mistakes sometimes follow us for the rest of our lives, it is also true that in Jesus Christ we can be free for a future of purpose and of love. Peter knew his mistake, and he regretted it bitterly. But when the opportunity came to declare his love and loyalty to his Savior, he embraced it; “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” (John 21:17) In accepting Jesus’ invitation, Peter got instructions for his future and he moved forward with his life.
The same is true for you, and for me. Regardless of our mistakes – even if we’ve made a Big Mistake – we can respond to Christ’s question of love with “yes” and find our future and our purpose in our Lord.
With prayers for your journey,
I often start communications to our congregation by saying, “I hope you are doing well.” That is always my prayer, though I know that many are dealing with difficulties of illness, disruption of life or livelihood, lingering grief over the loss of loved ones, and deep feelings about what we’ve seen and heard happening in our communities in recent weeks. We find ourselves grasping for hope, sometimes, even as we affirm God’s sovereignty over life and nature and our future as human beings. After weeks of dealing with the impacts of COVID-19 on our daily lives, we now witness the opened wound of continued racial divisions in our society. This has made itself evident both in acts of violence and civil disobedience, and in powerful statements of unity among people of various races, backgrounds and ethnicities. For those of us old enough to have lived through a number of political and social cycles, it’s discouraging to see that we are still dealing with the same things that were dividing us fifty years ago; not only racial divisions, but also political polarization on nearly every issue that makes the news.
It may sound odd to hear me say this, but if you were to ask me today how I feel, I would tell you that I feel hopeful. I believe that the difficulties with COVID-19 in recent months have exposed many of our vulnerabilities and helped us reexamine what’s important in our own lives; and I believe that the festering wound of racial division in our nation has been recently opened in such a way that it can be cleansed and begin to heal. The cleaning and healing of old wounds is a messy business. It can even be pretty ugly in the beginning, as you’ll know if you’ve ever had an old wound on your body that had to be opened and retreated. The process of cleansing and healing of old wounds takes time. It also takes great care and regular attention. So, where will you put your attention, today?
I don’t know who said it first, but I’ve heard it repeated many times in recent weeks that it’s not enough to just be a “nice” white person. I confess that has been my approach for much of my adult life; that somehow if I were just courteous and fair and friendly in all my dealings with people whose race is different from my own, that I would be doing my part for racial justice. What I’ve come to realize is that while these things are important, they are not enough. Being “nice” is not enough when I am not seeking to understand the intricacies of systemic racism and to respond to how it affects the everyday lives of others.
Our Bible is full of instances where justice for marginalized people is held up as an ideal that pleases God. In the railings of the Old Testament prophets, there are two themes that emerge time and again; that the people have “forgotten God” and that they have committed injustices toward others. Jesus as God incarnate had an eye for the presence of injustice and discrimination in the culture around him. If you and I are followers of Christ, then we are to be in the “justice business” in Christ’s name. Often, the first step in advocating for justice for others is recognizing and understanding our own privilege, even and perhaps especially when we think we are not privileged; by the color of our skin, by the resources at our disposal, or by the safety and access we enjoy.
It’s easy to look around at some of the things that are happening right now and to find fault. It can be hard to muster empathy for people who destroy businesses, deface public monuments, and who shout insults at well-meaning law officers who are just trying to do their jobs. There are even some who use moments like these to advance causes that have little to do with the issue at hand. But you and I can’t let the worst of what we see deflect our attention from the best of what we can see. This is true of any situation, and it’s especially true right now. Look for the words and actions that hold up the principles of Godly love and justice, and join the fight.
This is a message to myself, as much as it’s a message to anyone else. Doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with our God (Micah 6:8) is hard work. But we have the greatest Helper on our side, and the greatest Healer for the old and deep wounds in our souls and in our society. We are the reason Jesus went to the Cross, and there’s nothing he wants more than to see us love him with our whole heart and mind and strength, and to love our “neighbor” as much as we love ourselves.
With prayers for our shared journey,
A friend of mine commented recently about having “pandemic topic fatigue.” Many of us who feel responsibility for speaking encouragingly about what is happening in our culture right now feel like we are running out of things to talk about that anyone will want to hear. Most all of us have dealt with disrupted schedules and measures of frustration and fear, and many of us have felt the loss of uncelebrated events such as graduations, birthdays, and time with grandchildren and other loved ones. Many people I talk to are ready for all this social isolation to be over with, and yet, they still feel afraid. There are so many unknowns about this COVID-19 virus, and an effective vaccine and good “therapeutics” seem too far away to give much comfort right now.
One way that some people have chosen to deal with their fear is to latch onto conspiracy theories that claim the pandemic is not “real,” or that it was all engineered for political purposes. While following this kind of intrigue can give relief from weariness or fear, it’s not healthy or productive when we stop listening to our credible scientists and place confidence in circulating information of unknown origin or credibility. Social media in particular has exacerbated this phenomenon, but it’s an age-old problem; in the midst of crisis, we are susceptible to whomever tells us what we want to hear. Many would rather believe that the pandemic is not “real” or that it’s overblown, than to accept the fact that a new illness is circulating among us that is killing tens of thousands of vulnerable people and for which we don’t yet have a good solution.
It’s no wonder so many of us feel afraid. Fear is a natural human response to threat, but it can be taxing on us when it goes on indefinitely in the face of the unknown. Our fear response is helpful when the threat is clear and immediate, such as our ancestors’ facing wild animals, or when our child runs out into traffic. Our adrenaline rushes and we’re able to accomplish feats that we might not otherwise be able to carry out in order to remove a predator or to save a child from danger. But when our anxiety remains high over a period of time because of what “might” happen to us or to someone we love, it wears on our bodies, our minds and our spirits. That’s how many people feel right now.
I can’t wave a magic wand and make your fears go away. But I can direct you to the Source of all comfort. When we can center ourselves in the steadfast love of God in Jesus Christ, we can find peace. We can step away from all the “what ifs” and the “how longs” and the nagging anxiety of COVID-19 and other problems in our lives, and put those things in perspective as we simply enjoy being in the presence of God. To regularly experience God’s presence in this way through prayer gives us strength and wisdom for dealing with all that life brings to us, both now and in the future. It enables us to live out of love, rather than out of fear.
The earliest followers of Jesus faced threats that most of us can only imagine. To these followers and to us today, Jesus offered the promise of God’s Holy Spirit, whom he called “the Advocate.” This Advocate dwells with us when we accept the grace that God offers to us in Jesus Christ and as we seek to follow Christ's teachings. Jesus also offered his disciples – and us – his godly peace.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)
If you are lacking in peace right now, present yourself to the Prince of Peace. Tell him exactly how you feel, and ask for what he has to offer. Then listen as he speaks to your heart and to all your fears.
With blessings for your journey,