Breaking Up Was One of the Best Things to Ever Happen to Me

BreakingUp

A couple of friends on social media have posted recently about the difficulties they’re having after breaking up with their boyfriends. I can empathize. That emotional vortex can tear you apart for a few weeks and make you feel like your whole life is destroyed. But, for me, it turned out to be one of the best things to ever happen to me.

Relationships are wonderful things. We humans seem to crave them. We can feel isolated, lonely, and incomplete without them, as if our lives have little or no meaning unless someone else is there sharing it with us.  And there’s good reason for that. We are by nature social beings. (Most of us, that is. There are always those rare birds who thrive on being unattached.) I think it’s built into our DNA — the only thing recorded in the Genesis creation story that God said was not good was that man should be alone.

But what happens when those relationships end? For whatever reason — irreconcilable differences, death, infidelity, or simply growing in different directions — the sudden absence of someone who up till that moment played a significant role in your life, in your identity, can leave you reeling. You have to begin to pick up the pieces and rebuild yourself, rebuild your life.  And that can be a wonderful thing. A gift. An awe-inspiring blessing. It was for me.

We’d been together for 15 years. It was a rocky relationship, full of its ups and downs. Emotional highs, heights of passion, random warm moments, holidays, birthdays. Arguments, shouting matches, feeling completely misunderstood or neglected, … holidays, birthdays. Yeah, all of it. But in the final analysis, we weren’t happy. Not that we expected each other to make us happy — we both knew happiness was our own responsibility. But when the chemistry of two radically different personalities creates more negative reaction than positive, it’s time to reconsider the relationship. And we did. And we mutually agreed to end it.

The separation didn’t happen overnight. We discussed who’d get what, who’d move out, who’d stay, which dogs would go with whom. And we allowed time for that to happen. I kept the house (since I was the main bread-winner and he couldn’t have afforded to keep it), and he made plans to move across state to be closer to his family. And I itched almost every day, waiting for everything to fall into place so he could be gone.

When the day finally came, we packed up a U-Haul truck and moved him out. And I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Literally. It felt like I could breathe again.

BreakingUp2The first thing I did was rearrange the furniture. I was going to make the house “mine.” Then came all the other little changes. The decisions. I decided to eat better, to cook more, with more organics and meat that was humanely raised — and even for my dogs to eat better.  I decided to drink better quality coffee. To live more earth-friendly. To improve my social life. Dating — sure. (The whole world had evolved since the last time I’d dated. AOL was the thing back then. My friends had to clue me in about Adam4Adam, OkCupid, Match, and the host of phone apps available to help meet new people.) But also simply spending more time with my friends, going out to dinner, theater, movies … just rebuilding my life without him in it.  (I wrote about some of this back in the early days of my new-found singleness in “BYOB – Gay and Single (Again) After 40.”)

And this one word kept going through my head. “Rediscovery.” I wasn’t just “re-inventing” my life. I was rediscovering myself, who I was, digging back up those aspects and activities I used to love that had somehow become buried over the years together. Things he didn’t like to do. Parts of my personality that got overshadowed by the “us” of being with him. I rediscovered what it was like to be “Steve.”

I even stuck an index card on my refrigerator to remind me every morning —

“Create a life for yourself
that reflects your values,
builds on your gifts,
fulfills your purpose,
and satisfies your soul.”

The power of those words burrowed deep into my soul. “Create a life for yourself…”  It was an active process, not something I just sat back and let unfold. I spent time re-evaluating just what were my values, my gifts, my purpose? What satisfies my soul? I had the chance to re-create my life. I had that power. It was like a rebirth.

Oh, and yes, I did jump into the dating game. I was online every day, checking my apps multiple times during the day. Going on coffee dates (the safest thing for first dates, I discovered), getting to know different guys. There were months of feeling almost desperate: “I gotta find somebody. I wanna be married again.” I got emotionally attached to a couple of guys, even knowing there was no real long-term possibilities there. Got my heart broken once or twice. But gradually, as the clouds of desperation slowly faded from my mind, I woke up one morning realizing that I actually liked being single. I enjoyed my freedom. I loved the fact that I could meet someone, spend time with them, but go home afterwards to my own place, my home, my refuge, my dogs. And be okay unwinding on the couch, grabbing some movie off Netflix. By myself. Without having to worry about what someone else wanted to do.

I began to love myself again — and to like myself.  Whoever the guy was who’d eventually play a significant role in my life again, he’d have a pretty tough act to follow. He’d have to treat me and love me better than I loved myself. I wasn’t gonna lower my standards.

It’s been 4 years now. I’ve found someone who doesn’t trigger my red flags, who doesn’t irritate me (most of the time), who treats me with great respect, who has a depth of character and integrity that is a “must have” for me, and who has a life already established for himself. He’s good for my soul.

But more important than that. I’m happy. I wake up in the morning, grab my first cup of coffee of the day, and gather my thoughts. I pray. And I thank God for this good life. I think about the things I’m grateful for, the things I’m relieved about, excited and expectant about. The future. The present. The simplicity of things. A deeper spirituality. And the second chance at building my life.

The breakup gave me that chance. I got to re-think, re-define, re-discover who I was, and re-introduce elements of life that bring me joy and peace. Even my friends have commented on the change. I’m a better person now than I was before, and my life is richer. That break up with my ex was one of the best things that ever happened to me.


A version of Stephen’s post originally appeared on The Good Men Project.
Photo credits: Jonathan Emmanuel Flores Tarello, cc; “Bachelor Pad,” crystalsquare apts, cc.

Plan B – When God’s Promises Don’t Work Out

planB_black

The morning started out like most of them do for me.  I paced my livingroom and kitchen with a cup of coffee in my hand, and tried to focus on the reality of the presence of God. A tough sell, some mornings.

And for some reason, an old unanswered question was rolling through my head again. What went wrong?  Why didn’t it turn out the way I envisioned, the way I felt God had promised me?

I was referring to my failed “marriage” of 15 years. Sure, failed marriages aren’t that unusual. And most people (I imagine) get through them without having to re-examine their whole theological and spiritual framework.  But, ya know, I’m weird that way.  When we first got together, X and I (I’ll just refer to him as “X” here, since I’m not trying to drag his name through the mud) — when we first got together, there were all kinds of divine indicators that we were on the right path, that we had a bright and purposeful future ahead of us.  There was every indication that we had the divine seal of approval, the go-ahead, a mission, and the blessing.  (Okay, if you’re not of a particular charismatic bent where you believe God speaks in sometimes very powerful and mystical ways, then don’t freak out. Just skip over that last part, and read on.)  But those things didn’t pan out.  The visions didn’t materialize, the promise of that loving and purposeful future evaporated, and instead of becoming more focused, we grew more and more estranged from each other. And then we ended it.

No major drama. That’s not the story here. We both knew we failed. We both recognized that we hadn’t lived up to our own expectations and obligations. We knew we had vast differences  that we’d stopped trying to reconcile; it was just too much work and too tiring to continue. Somewhere along the way, at different points for each of us, we’d just given up.  Nothing extraordinary about it — it was/is a completely human story.  I understood that part of it.

But what I still couldn’t make sense of
was how all that spiritual stuff fit in.

Hadn’t God told me that he was “the One”?  Didn’t God tell us …?  Weren’t there specific promises, clear descriptions of what would happen?  And even if we blew it, what did that say about the divine side of it all? How do “alternate endings” — ends of the story that deviate from the original plan — fit with in the divine scheme of things, especially when “God has spoken”?

So, sipping my dark French roast, trying to wake up and clear my head for the day, that question rolled in again out of nowhere.

Okay, whatever; I thought.  Let’s move on. Got lots to do today.  And I cracked open my Bible (cuz, you know, it’s always a good idea to start your day out that way, right? And if you’ve got unanswered questions rolling through your head, ya never know what might jump out at ya from the pages and make things clearer.)

And there it was. Simple. Seemingly inconsequential. And it hit me like a ton of bricks.

And the LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, seeing I have rejected him from reigning over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go. I’m sending you to Bethlehem, to Jesse, for I have chosen one of his sons to be king …”  (1 Sam 16:1)

Not getting it?  That’s probably because you hadn’t just read the few preceding chapters in 1 Samuel the day before.  Ancient Israel had been ruled for generations by a series of Judges, inspired leaders, who lived normal lives and then did extraordinary things when the nation was in danger.  But they wanted a king, like all the other nations.  God wasn’t crazy about the idea, knowing the particular weakness humans have when it comes to power, and seeing it as a rejection of Him as their true King.  But, like an indulgent father, he gave in to his whiney children and let Samuel anoint Saul as the first king of Israel. And as confirmation, when Saul was anointed, he became a changed person. His heart changed, he prophesied, and he did some amazing things. And he was promised a lasting dynasty and a blessed future. (Seeing the connection now?) But Saul ignored some basic commands from Samuel — instructions his kingship rested upon.  His position was dependent on God’s empowerment, and it was conditional upon his particular obedience. And he blew it. Twice. And finally God had enough.

And Samuel said to Saul, “You have done a foolish thing. You have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you. If you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time.  But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him to be ruler of his people, because you have not kept the LORD’s command.” (1Sa 13:13-14)

It was over. And God sent Samuel to go anoint David, Jesse’s son, as the next king.  And that “kingdom established forever” promise now went to David.

God can be pretty tolerant. He puts up with a lot of stuff from us, his kids. But when it comes to important stuff — usually involving other people he cares about, things he’s made you responsible for — he can reach a point, draw a line in the sand, and say “that’s it. You’ve had your chance. I still love you, of course, but I’m giving this job to someone else.”

Plan B-whiteboardPlan B. Alternate ending.  And nevermind about all those blessings and that glorious future he promised.  His love is unconditional and eternal. But promises, it seems, are another story. Promises that go with a particular job, role or function, depend on the performance of that function.

And me and X, well, we’d given up on that function, particularly where it came to dealing with each other.  Sure, we had a mission and a purpose in our joint venture of a life beyond the love and mutual care-giving of a committed relationship.  I’m not sure if the two were dependent on each other (the mission and the love), but the mission definitely wasn’t happening when the love part got neglected.  And, like Saul’s kingship, our reign ended with a whimper instead of a bang.

But the good news is, the story doesn’t end just because the ending changes.

That’s Plan B. It’s a message of hope. A promise (this one unattached to performance) that God will work things out for our good, even if the characters and the plot of our story get changed.

“How long will you keep mourning?
Now get up, … I have provided a replacement for you …”

That’s what hit me like a ton of bricks.  My story isn’t over (not that I ever doubted that it was; eh hem!)  Those divine visions and promises for the future for X and me were performance-based.  We failed.  We didn’t hold up to our side of the promise.  And yes, we’re forgiven.  Yes, we’re still loved.  But that story line is ended.  And I don’t need to worry about it, don’t need to fret — don’t need to mourn it any longer.  A new ending is being written — an alternate ending.  And that “established kingdom” — how ever that figuratively translates into my own personal life — is being established through another.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying all marriages are mission-based, but they all may very well be performance-based. If you don’t fulfill your marital duties to each other, you can’t really expect that marriage to last, divine promises or no.  But our God is a God of second chances, of alternate endings. Of Plan B.  Hopefully, we’ll do better this time around.

I’ll send you an invitation to the wedding …

 

 

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STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He blogs at CafeInspirado.com, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.
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Resetting Your Most Important Relationship


[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #e10069;”]R[/dropcap]elationships are probably the single most important thing in life. And they’re impossible unless the people in them know themselves and each other. Kinda basic, right?

Okay, now without getting all churchy and religious, the single most important relationship you’ll ever have in your life is between you and God — because it affects everything: the way you see the world, how you view yourself, what gets you through difficulty and hard times, influences how we treat each, even how we live on this planet. How you see yourself is important. And how you see God will in turn influence how you see yourself.

And most of the time, we get it ALL WRONG. Religion and the Church have basically done us a great disservice because they’ve painted pictures of God that usually alienate us from God.

Case in point: just talking about God, what’s the first image that comes to mind? Chances are, it’s something based on images from Renaissance art, or Hollywood movies, or (even worse) fire and brimstone preachers. Church can really mess you up sometimes if you let it. And, frankly, a lot of those preachers don’t know much more about God than you do — I mean really, his personality and character, his heart, not just Bible facts and head-stuff. If they did, we’d see a lot more water-into-wine miracles happening all around us, a lot more Hanukah lamp-oil generation, and a lot less public stonings.

So let’s try to undo some of those mental images that have been drilled into our heads, and start over.

Let’s start over

Introductions are important. When you’re meeting someone for the first time, that first impression can either launch or kill a new relationship.  So let’s let God introduce himself. Scrap the images we’ve been carrying around most of our lives about what God is like, and let him tell you himself. What does God want you to think about him?

Famous first words — everybody knows them: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Book of Genesis, chapter one, verse one. And we could camp out here for a while, but I am especially moved by the next sentence. “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

There’s an image for you. “Hovering.” The Spirit of God was hovering over it all, over the mass of chaos and emptiness. And out of that mess, he brought order and life. Good life. (And if you happen to be going through some chaos in your own life right about now, that simple thought may hold the key to keeping you sane.) This is who God is. This is how he introduces himself. The hovering one.

The English language doesn’t do this justice. The word used there is a rare one in Hebrew. It only occurs 3 times in the entire Hebrew Bible, and those other references paint a powerful picture of what’s going on here. The image is the protective action of a bird, caring for its young, wings spread over them in the nest, fluttering. In fact, that is a better translation than “hovering”: fluttering. The other reference in Deuteronomy describes this protective love God has for his people: “In the desert God found Jacob, in a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them on its pinions” (Dt 32:11).

God introduces himself, as soon as he steps onto the world stage, as the protective, caring one. His Spirit flutters over the empty stuff of time and space, and embracing it between wings of love, transforms it, nurtures it into his beloved creation. This is your God. This is how he wants you to see him.

After he transforms the empty void of space and time into a paradise, he creates humanity and places us in it. A garden. This is significant too. God is not a stingy God; he is not austere, harsh and severe. He created an extravagant garden for us to enjoy. The ancient Jewish rabbis described it as God first setting an elaborate banquet table, and then when it was all prepared, invited us as the guests of honor. And even the Apostle Paul says that God created all things for our enjoyment – that’s the heart of a loving parent. And then we see God walking and talking with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day, enjoying their companionship, sharing in the good things he created for them. We were created for this: for fellowship, for relationship, for love, with the God of Eternity.

This image is reinforced later in the Biblical story when Moses is dealing with the harsh realities of leading a strong and stubborn people. He confronts God and demands a greater revelation of him. Kind of like “If these are your people, then I’m gonna need to know you better so I can lead them better.” He wants to see God face to face. Of course God knows this would kill him; Moses would vaporize in the unfiltered presence of full glory. So God puts him in a cleft in the side of a mountain, covers him protectively with his hand, and then passes by, declaring his name, revealing himself to Moses: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished…” (Ex 34:6).

God describes himself in the way he wants to be perceived and understood by us. Compassionate. Gracious. Overflowing with love and faithfulness. Loyal. Forgiving. And Just.

How have we missed this? How have we turned this loving, protective, caring, compassionate and gracious God into something other than that? How have we turned him into a vindictive, white-bearded and cranky old man, catching us in every fault, counting every sin, every failing and mistake on his eternal abacus? Maybe it’s human nature. We know God is perfect, and our imperfections are glaring in comparison. We think he must be angry or displeased or at the very least disappointed by our shortcomings. Or maybe that’s what we’ve heard so often from angry pulpits. But, as King David once noticed, God knows that we are but dust, he knows we fail. And he loves us anyway. He eagerly accepts us back into his presence — full of grace, compassion and love.

Religious people just don’t get it

God’s own people – religious folks, ones claiming to know him best – may be the worst at misunderstanding him. Jesus one day stood with his protégés in the Temple of Jerusalem, surrounded by religious people, some hungry, some self-satisfied. And he called out with aching heart, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem. You who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you. How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you were not willing…” (Mt 23:37). As he faced rejection by the people he came to love, Jesus again and again showed the heart of the Father, even in the very choice of his words. He longed – and continues to long – to gather us under his wings of love. Yet we are so often not willing. We don’t get it. But this is your God. This is how he wants you to see him.

We may have missed this introduction for ourselves. Or maybe our impression of God got skewed because of the way he was introduced to us by over-zealous preachers wanting us to live holy lives – or at least “holy” as they understand the term. Now, just like back in Jesus’ day, religious people are often the ones who understand the heart of God the least.  And if you’re gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender, someone who may not fit traditional models of “holy” lifestyle, chances are you were on the receiving end of a slanted misrepresentation of this God. But there it is, in black and white, in every translation, in every language, the clear description God gives of himself.  Not what we’ve been told. Not how he has been portrayed. Not the Angry One, or the One who rejects us.

He describes himself as the one yearning for relationship with the humans he created. Hovering – fluttering – over us, turning chaos into a place of safety and beauty for us, gently caring for us as a bird sheltering its young under loving parental wings. This is the Eternal Father, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love, full of forgiveness. The God who longs to walk with us, like he did with Adam and Eve in those early days of creation.

If we miss this introduction, this self-description by God himself, we can walk through our day to day lives seeing God as someone other than he really is. We’ll live our lives under false impressions, and miss out on the most important relationship we can ever have.  So let’s start over. Let’s let that loving, caring, compassionate, hovering God re-introduce himself to us personally. And turn our chaos back into a paradise.  That’s worth a reset, isn’t it?

 

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STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He blogs at CafeInspirado.com, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.
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Enlightenment is Not the Goal

enlightenmentMy buddy Jill made a profound statement on Facebook the other day. It was in response to an article about how wimpy liberal Christianity is because it offers little that can’t be found in liberal secularism. But the point is equally valid for “Bible-based” churches as well:

Unless there is something distinctly profound, ecstatic or unqualifiedly transcendent that happens in the religious space, why bother? Just go to brunch.

I had one of those moments today in church. In fact, it’s a regular part of my Sunday experience. The powerful, palpable presence of God. It warms the air, surrounds you like a comfortable quilt on a chilly morning, brings peace to your restless heart and wrestling mind, and puts all the whirling chaos of life back into proper perspective. And if you don’t have that, why bother?

And it was during one of those moments soaking in the divine presence that I was reminded of a simple truth. We were — I was — having an encounter with a very personal God. A person, not a force. Not some cosmic consciousness or the energy that permeates the universe. A person who speaks my name aloud, whose name I know. God is everywhere, in all things at all times, and no place escapes his presence. God is in all, but that does not mean that all is God. We were created in his image, and we can have his Spirit living in us, but we are not divine. We do not occupy the Throne of Eternity. As the book of Job reminds us, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” We are the creation; he is the Creator. He is immanent in all his creation; he holds our hands in all the stages of our lives; but he remains transcendent, above and beyond creation, distinct from it because he created it and it all exists because of him.

“The heavens declare the glory of God,” scripture tells us, and “the whole earth is full of his glory.” But the universe is not God, nor is God the universe.

For the hungry soul searching for truth, dissatisfied with the drivel and hypocrisy of established religious institutions, there is sweet beauty in the simple image of the God who created us walking in Eden in the cool of the day, calling for Adam. Calling for us. God in search of man. Revelation so profound and powerful, yet simple and beautiful.

The purpose of life is not to attain spiritual enlightenment. Neither is it to achieve prosperity or personal success. Inner peace, clarity of mind, even human unity and universal harmony are not the highest pursuits of our existence. The goal is relationship. The Living God and us. The Creator of all is not just “Universal Father” but also “Abba” — a personal, intimate and tender relation — the One who walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden, calling them by name. The great “I AM”, the Eternal One, is also the personal “God of your fathers, of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” Not only does he call us by name, but he calls himself by OUR names! He has established an irrevocable bond with us that is so much deeper and more personal than just the sharing of energy and essence. The personal intimacy of our relationship is woven into the very fabric of the universe. If we will just listen, our very souls cry out, “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.”

That is the highest truth. That is the greatest revelation and personal achievement: an awareness of the Lover and being the Beloved.

At the end of our days, when our spirits unwind from our failing bodies, we will not just be reabsorbed back into the energy of the universe, or even rejoin the “higher mind”. No such impassive future awaits us. But we will be reunited with the One who loves us with an everlasting love; “I and Thou”, distinct and separate, but in an inseparable union. “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither things present nor things to come, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And what greater existence could there be? What higher truth could we want than that?

You’ll Move to Africa for Jesus, But You Won’t Help Me Move Across Town?

movingOkay, I know I’m sticking my foot into it now, ’cause I’m guilty of this most of the time myself. But how many times do we lay claim to a deep spirituality and a love for God yet turn a blind eye to the difficulties of other people around us? In my case, it looks more like “sure, I’d love to sit with you and chat about deep theological issues, but if you don’t mind, please don’t trouble me with your messy life.”

You know that story of the Good Samaritan in the Bible? It’s a bit troubling to me. I don’t like it, because it places demands on me that are inconvenient. But here’s the bottom line: if you want a real relationship with the Eternal God, it will only go as far as your involvement with other people.

In that story, in Luke 10, a religious expert comes to Jesus and asks his advice. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Sounds heavy, but really the guy is just expressing the emptiness he’s feeling inside. He knew his Bible; he lived it as best he could. He was an expert. But something was still missing; he knew it, but he just didn’t know what it was. So he asks the guy who had become famous for his connection with Heaven, who’d healed all kinds of diseased and injured people, who’d set people free from dark forces in their lives. Surely, he would know. And Jesus, being the good Jewish rabbi that he was, turns the question back on the man: “What is written in the Torah; how do you read it?” And the man responds with the classic and correct answer: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” “That’s right,” Jesus affirmed, “do this and you’ll have life.”

Standard Answers Won’t Do

But it was the standard answer the man knew his entire life. And it wasn’t enough. So he probes deeper, “but who is my neighbor?” Basically, I believe the man is asking Jesus to show him how to make it work. “What does this look like in real life? How am I supposed to do this?”

And then comes the famous parable. A man is walking from Jerusalem to Jericho and gets way-laid on the road by robbers. He’s beaten and left half dead on the side of the road. Two religious types, a priest and a Levite, walk by, see him laying there, and cross over to the other side of the street to avoid him. But a Samaritan sees him and has pity on him. He walks over to him, cleans his wounds with wine and oil, bandages him up, places him on his donkey and takes him to an inn where he pays the inn-keeper to care for him. Which of these acted as a neighbor to the beaten man? Obviously, the Samaritan. The point is simple enough, and the religious expert gets it.

Catch the Details

But there is some really rich subtlety in this story we might easily miss. Jesus describes the beaten traveler as “half dead”, and I’m struck by his choice of words. I think they’re deliberate. After all, the original question he was asked concerned obtaining eternal life. So the word-play involving life and death would be striking. And our impression of the two men in the story who walked by, ignoring the injured man, would naturally be one of revulsion. “How cold-hearted. How hypocritical. And they call themselves ‘religious,’ that priest and Levite. That wounded man may be half dead, but those two guys are completely dead inside. The Samaritan, on the other hand, taking compassionate action to help the man, now he is fully alive, fully in-tune with his humanity. He’s the one with ‘true religion’; he’s obviously got a clue about what true godly life is all about.” In Jesus’ deliberate choice of words, we can already see what is involved in “inheriting eternal life.” It’s not about what happens to us after we die; it’s not just about life in the “age to come.” It’s about the quality of the life we live in the here and now. We can go around as religious zombies, dead to those around us, or we can live a rich, fulfilling life involved with others. When God’s life invades us, it will change the way we interact with people.

And look at what that Samaritan man actually does. He sees the beaten victim and is immediately moved by compassion. In the story, this is the first reference to any kind of emotion, any type of personal connection with the robbed man. The Samaritan is emotionally engaged in the situation and with his fellow human being. Next, he cleans and bandages the man’s wounds, he touches the man. He gets his hands dirty. He is now physically as well as emotionally involved in the man’s plight. Then he puts the man on his donkey and takes him to a place where he can recover. That means he has to walk. He gave up his own comfort to help the man; he readily puts up with the inconvenience. And finally, he even pays the man’s medical bills. This Samaritan was fully engaged in the situation — emotionally, physically, materially and financially. He knew what life was all about. He had what that original seeker was missing.

Full Impact

The full impact of this can be seen when we go back to the answer Jesus elicited from the religious leader. What is needed to participate in the divine life? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength … and love your neighbor as yourself.” In answer to the man’s follow-up question, “But how do I do this?”, Jesus shows that loving God is inseparable from loving people. If we are supposed to love God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength, then those are exactly the same qualities we must use to involve ourselves with others. Like the Samaritan, we must love others with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength. That is what loving God is really about.

To put it another way, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but closes his heart against him, how can the love of God be in him?” … “If anyone says ‘I love God’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. … Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 3:17; 4:20-21).

Interestingly, in the Gospel account, Jesus turns the religious man’s question around. Instead of asking “who is my neighbor,” we should be asking, “who can I be a neighbor to?” You can’t claim to have a deep sense of spirituality or a great love for God while at the same time ignoring the needs of people around you. To love God, you must love your neighbor, you must be fully engaged with those around you — emotionally, physically, materially and financially: with your heart, your soul, your mind and your strength. In a word, it’s about relationships. It’s about real human-to-human involvement. If we want a more meaningful life that only a closer walk with God can bring, that’s what we must do. “Now go, and do likewise,” Jesus tells us.

So the next time someone asks you to help them move, you may just have to double-check your initial reaction. “Help you move? Of course I will.”

An Ox on the Sabbath

Compassion trumps correctness.
Relationship is more important than being right.

Over the past few weeks, my brother and I have been having a lengthy theological discussion over a point of Scripture.  Both of us see our stance as reflecting the heart of God, both see our point as being crucial to the future of people’s lives and immortal souls, and both of us seem committed to our respective sides of the truth.  (Hmm, could it be that we’re both right?)  I won’t prejudice the discussion by elaborating on it here since it is still ongoing, and although it is unlikely, knowing our personalities, that we’ll reach a point of agreement, what is remarkable to me is the willingness on both our parts to even have this dialogue. 

I respect my brother.  He is an honest man, one who seeks after God’s will, and as far as I can tell, he is a commendable husband and father and a successful businessman.  More important than all of that, I love him.  If we never see eye to eye on this particular “crucial” issue, I hope it never becomes a wedge in our relationship.  Oh, that this were how I felt about other people in my life with whom I have serious disagreements!

In the Bible, after hanging around Jesus for a while and slowly learning what is important to his master’s heart, Peter begins feeling a bit proud of himself, a bit holy.  He’s made strides in his spiritual life, he’s in tight with God’s appointed Messiah, and has been promised a prominent position in judging the tribes of Israel in the coming kingdom.  At one of those confident moments he asks Jesus, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (Mt 18:22).

We’ve all had these thoughts.  Usually over some matter of personal offense: a common source of disharmony between close people, and a poisoner of relationships.  Peter probably thinks he’s going over the top with his generous offer. Seven times!  (Jewish tradition at that time suggested that one ought to forgive an offense up to the fourth time — that is, forgive three times, but the fourth offense has crossed the line — so Peter’s offer is twice the going rate.)  Jesus’ answer shocks everyone and puts Peter’s generosity to shame.  “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”  Even today, we devoted believers find this number hard to swallow.

But along with the point that we shouldn’t be counting offenses and should forgive as many times as we’d like to be forgiven ourselves, Jesus illustrates the point that we should never let our disagreements, our offenses (no matter who is right), be cause for breaking fellowship. We’re to put up with each other’s faults, bearing in mind that we’ve got plenty of our own — that whole “don’t try to remove the speck from your brother’s eye when you have a log sticking out of yours” thing.  The relational bonds between people are more important than being right, or getting our just deserves.  Everyone needs forgiveness, everyone needs compassion.  We’ll never reach perfection in this lifetime, so we’re going to need as much forgiveness and compassion as we can get.

This is a spiritual law higher, and more important, than other laws we seem to become preoccupied with.  It is too easy for us to focus on our differences, to see what is clearly wrong with someone else.  It is too easy to hold grudges, to cut that person off, to dismiss them from our lives, or to surrender to the position of “irreconcilable differences” over matters that are in reality insignificant.  We focus on the trivial; we love the letter of the law.  We love to critique each other, and show how the other is falling far short of the standard.  This is our basic instinct, our flawed human nature.  But, borrowing an image from common life in ancient Palestine, if an ox falls into a pit on the Sabbath, isn’t it better to break the law forbidding work on that holy day, and save the poor beast out of simple human compassion?   The law of love, the principle of compassion, the bonds of relationship, override other considerations.  It makes all other disputes insignificant in comparison. 

What does this mean in real life?  Where does the rubber meet the road?  Whether it’s some major doctrinal disagreement between brothers, or a deep, grievous personal offense among co-workers at the office, disharmony is the greater evil.  Letting the offense fester and become a bitter source of division is a bigger wrong.  In the long run — and I believe, in God’s eyes — who is right is less important than preserving fellowship.  Being correct is less important than dealing compassionately with one another.  After all, God’s presence, his power, and his love are displayed most clearly when people united by a more powerful bond are gathered together.  And isn’t that a better thing than being right?

It’s all about Relationship

I hate disappointment.  It messes me up.  Especially when it’s directed at God.  “What? Can God disappoint?”  Sure — if our expectations are off the mark.  God never promises to give us the desires of our hearts if our hearts look to things he doesn’t want us to have.  And in my case, it may not be so much that I wanted something he didn’t, as much as it wasn’t time yet.  It’s a future thing; a timing thing.  Like a kid being told to wait until Christmas to open that present he really really wants right now, I felt that frustration and disappointment.  And like a spoiled kid, it affected my feelings toward God.

This morning, apologizing to God for reacting to my bruised feelings, I began thinking again about what it means to really trust.  Like that kid trusting his parents will take care of him, even when they say “No” and he doesn’t get his way all the time.  And I realized again, that it’s all about relationship.  And really, that’s all God wants from us.  Our imperfections and failures, our faults and bad behavior do not trouble him as much as our disaffected relationship with him. 

When we’re in need, when we try to work up our faith enough to believe for our requests to him, our actions, our performance will never be enough. “It is all by his grace — not about you … not by your works so no one can boast” (Eph 2:8-9).  We can’t try to muster up our faith by recounting how we’ve succeeded in keeping his commandments, how we’ve mastered sin in our lives, how many good things we’ve done, or how holy we’ve become.  We approach him with the confidence that only comes through an intimate relationship with him — a relationship based on what he’s already done for us.  And ultimately when we stand before him on that Great Day of Judgement, he will gladly overlook our shortcomings, cover them over and erase them with his Son’s blood — all because of our relationship with him. 

Somehow, that eased my mind, calmed my disrupted peace.  “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy …” (Tit 3:5).  So, I messed up.  I missed his timing.  I got disappointed and my feelings hurt.  But I can trust in this guy who loves me so much that he did everything that is required for me.  He laid out his plan well in advance. He placed gifts along the road for me to pick up as I cross them.  He prepared good things for me to do long before I ever reached them.  I can relax in that.  I can let it go.  My plans and my timing aren’t that important.  I just have to keep walking and he will move the road so that it goes in the right direction. Or like riding a tandem bicycle, he’s in the front seat steering, and I’m in the back seat.  I don’t need to know exactly where we’re going or how to get there.  I just gotta keep on pedalling, and he will get us to where we need to be.  But life truly is “built for two”: if I stop moving, we don’t go anywhere.  I have a crucial role to play too.  But it’s not my job to steer.  It’s my job to pedal.

All these images merged in my mind, re-inspiring my trust in him, and rekindling the love that my buised feelings masked. It’s by his grace, his work, his plans, his timing, his steering.  All I have to do is keep moving through life, tied to him, and he’ll get us where he wants us.  And for that, I can let go of my disappointment. Things don’t have to go the way I expect or when I expect them. I can let my agenda and timetable fall to the floor. It’s okay.  When I consider that he’s done all that’s required, I can trust him.  That’s the very foundation of my relationship with him.

And as long as I keep pedalling in his direction and don’t get bogged down in the mud of disappointment and mistaken expectations, I can relax and enjoy the ride.