Tilting at Windmills

It is not the responsibility of knights errant to discover whether the afflicted, the enchained and the oppressed whom they encounter on the road are reduced to these circumstances and suffer this distress for their vices, or for their virtues: the knight’s sole responsibility is to succour them as people in need, having eyes only for their sufferings, not for their misdeeds.
~Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

They brought it on themselves we say as if it matters. Of course it’s often true – regarding others, regarding me. But the very statement reveals a blindness of the heart that replaces compassion with blame and shame. They brought it on themselves.

Who hasn’t? Who among us doesn’t contribute to a significant portion of our own suffering? Am I less in need of compassion because I’ve been the root of my own troubles? Am I somehow more worthy of God’s unmerited favor if some wrong has been done to me rather than by me?

We have a reputation, we who call ourselves Christian people, religious people, spiritual people. We’ve garnered our fame in much the same vein as Don Quixote. So certain of our truth, our headlines and sermons and personal encounters are too often filled with an almost fervid insanity as we go about tilting at windmills.

We, who have knighted ourselves in our own faith, justify wars of weapons and words waged upon those whose convictions and vices vary from our own. Cultural wars, denominational wars, political recriminations, all carried out, so we claim, in service of our King.

If this were, in fact, true –  then the King is sending some very mixed messages.

It serves a certain purpose to vilify those with whom we fundamentally, or sometimes even superficially differ. It proffers both provocation and justification.

Sometimes in light of a personal attack or an attack on my belief system or an attack on someone I love – sometimes I respond by turning the other cheek. Without guile or defensiveness I wish only for light and peace and grace for the other.

Sometimes. Sometimes I remain in a state of grace. Sometimes not.

How can we, who are the benefactors of God’s irresistible grace which binds our wandering hearts to Him, offer anything other than The Good News, grace without merit in return? How is it possible that we can be supplicants of God’s unmerited favor one moment and turn His words into a weapons the next?

When the suffering run from us rather than to us, perhaps it’s because we’ve forgotten our calling to live compassionate lives that succor rather than scourge the wounded.

Invasive Species

Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul. ~ Thomas Merton

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I’m unable to be simultaneously perturbed and in a state of grace. I’m increasingly aware that when I choose to be annoyed, I take a step away from grace and open myself to invasion.

In ecology, invasive species are generally non-native plants or animals that harm the environments they invade. Removed from their natural habitat, you would think these transplants might struggle to survive, but in fact, they thrive. Imported, invasive species are largely without natural enemies, leaving them free to multiply and overwhelm their environments.

In the spiritual realm, the soul is like loamy soil, able to sustain most anything planted in it. Sacred spaces, our souls are designed to be nourished by wisdom and love and grace.

But soul health has its own delicate ecosystem. One of the most common invasive soul species are pet peeves. Here are a few of the things I often hear mentioned:

People who don’t use turn signals/ tailgate/ take up 2 parking spaces
People who intimidate/ humiliate/ ridicule others
People who let their dogs bark/ children scream/ babies cry incessantly
People who act superior/ arrogant/ patronizing
People who throw trash out the car window/ on the beach/ on the sidewalk
People who text/ read a book/ shave/ apply make-up while driving
People who leave shopping carts in the middle of the parking lot
People who are self-righteous/ defensive/ argumentative
People who rant about political/ religious views that differ from your own
People with a full cart of groceries in the express line
People who allow their children to yell/ fight/ run in restaurants
People who lie/ gossip/ back-stab/ stir-the-pot
People who make excuses for their mistakes/ their children/ their habits
People who continually criticize/ correct/ find fault
People who ask for advice and then do the opposite of what you suggest
People who talk on their cell phone/ to each other/ walk around at movies
People who are prejudiced/ judgmental/ bigoted/ racist                               People who whine/ complain/ feel sorry for themselves
People who are always negative

If you’re like most folks, there’s something that consistently bugs you. My personal peeves are comprised more of attitudes than actions, which makes it easy for me to justify maintaining them. It isn’t hard for me to make a case against arrogance or bigotry or cruelty. If I start down that path, my mind rolls those peeves over and over until they’ve taken root in my all too accommodating loam.

Most invasive species do not spread randomly, but move along corridors through suitable habitats. ~ Indiana University Pub

My heart’s desire is to be peeve-less.

I’m trying to be diligent about what I plant in the corridors of my soul. Pet peeves thrive because they aren’t native and don’t belong there. Unchecked, they choke out the love and compassion and kindness I’m called to offer.

Plant a peeve and it will grow. When Grace is the gardener, peeves get plucked. But when we lose sight of Grace and instead, begin petting our peeves, they will most certainly flourish, causing real harm to our souls.

Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul.

Level Ground

Thunderously, inarguably, the Sermon on the Mount proves that before God we all stand on level ground: murderers and temper-throwers, adulterers and lusters, thieves and coveters. We are all desperate, and that is in fact the only state appropriate to a human being who wants to know God. Having fallen from the absolute Ideal, we have nowhere to land but in the safety net of absolute grace. ~ Philip Yancey 

I was slow to believe in the level ground concept.

For most of my life my thinking was something like this: I’m not perfect but at least I’m not like ______. I may sin (you know, just the small stuff) but I would never ______.

I lived a fill-in-the-blank spirituality. As long as I could find a sin worse than my sin, my sin didn’t really need grace, it just needed a good excuse.

Mixed in with my self-righteousness were days of self-recrimination when I felt hopelessly less than. That was equally un-level ground sloping in the opposite direction.

Having fallen from the absolute Ideal, we have nowhere to land but in the safety net of absolute grace.

When I finally found my footing, grace became both my comfort and my counsel.

I learned that I need grace.

And I learned that no one has ever needed it more than me.

That’s level ground.

Taking Stock in the Checkout Line

While standing in line at the checkout counter, the lady in front of me pulled out food stamps to pay for her groceries. It was obvious as she unfold the currency that she, I, and the checkout girl were quite uncomfortable with the interaction. The woman never lifted her head as she organized her bags of groceries and set them into her cart. She walked away from the checkout stand in the sort of still movements a person uses when they know they are being watched.

On the drive over the mountain that afternoon, I realized that it was not the woman who should be pitied, it was me. Somehow I had come to believe that because a person is in need, they are candidates for sympathy, not just charity. It was not that I wanted to buy her groceries, the government was already doing that. I wanted to buy her dignity. And yet, by judging her, I was the one taking her dignity away.  ~ Donald Miller

While reading Miller’s story, I thought of the times I’ve looked at someone’s life and felt sorry for them. I’m certain I’ve done this with people who are perfectly happy and content. My reaction isn’t based on their lack, it’s based on mine.

When I compare my circumstances to another’s and feel pity, I’m assuming they want the same things I want – that they feel how I’m guessing I would feel in their place. It’s so easy to rob someone of their dignity by making assumptions and by practicing pity instead of compassion.

While there may be an element of good-will in pity, there is almost always an underlying strain of pride. Pity is a place, just far enough removed, where we can look down while keeping clean and safe. Pity urges a turning away, or at its best, a temporary cure which mostly serves to make us feel better about ourselves. Pity is presumptive and demeaning.

The word compassion comes from the Latin meaning to suffer together with. Compassion not only calls us to care rather than judge, it also calls us to comfort instead of always trying to cure. Compassion moves in and takes the time to learn the heart of another.

Pity says: There but for the grace of God go I.

Compassion says: There, by God’s grace, I’ll go with you.

You Like Me,You Really Like Me!

We started reading through Matthew, and I thought it was all very interesting, you know. And I found Jesus very disturbing, very straightforward. He wasn’t diplomatic, and yet I felt like if I met Him, He would really like me… I can’t explain how freeing that was, to realize that if I met Jesus, He would like me. I never felt like that about some of the Christians on the radio. I always thought if I met those people they would yell at me but it wasn’t like that with Jesus.  ~ Donald Miller

We’ve all heard parodies of Sally Field’s second Oscar acceptance speech: I haven’t had an orthodox career, and I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect. The first time I didn’t feel it, but this time I feel it, and I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me! It was so uncool to let on that being liked mattered.

We’re supposed to pretend that it isn’t important. Just like yourself. That’s all that counts. That’s what we’re told. But it’s not true. Being liked does matter.

The new convert in Miller’s story was drawn to God because she felt that if she met Him, He would really like her. She didn’t say I thought God would love me. She said I felt like if I met Him, He would really like me. Liking matters.

Sometimes I find myself thinking of God like a family member who has to love me because we’re related but may not like me all that much. Maybe that’s because there are days I’m not my greatest fan and I only see through the mirror dimly while God knows every dark part of my heart. If I know He loves me, does it matter if He likes me?

This is what I’ve always thought about liking and loving: There are people who I like but don’t know well enough to love. And there are people who I love that I know too well to like. That’s what I’ve told myself when I base love on relationship and commitment and like on actions and attitudes.

I don’t know if you’re this way, but when I sense someone doesn’t like me, even if they profess to love me, my walls go up. There’s something so compelling about being genuinely liked. Loving is a cake walk compared to liking. Liking requires listening and giving and a huge dedication to understanding. If we have any hope of being a light, we’d better learn to do the heavy lifting of liking because liking does matter.

Prisoners of War

A group of Navy SEALs were performing a covert operation, freeing hostages from a building is some dark part of the world. They stormed into the room where the hostages had been imprisoned for months. The room was filthy and dark. The hostages were curled up in a corner, terrified. When the SEALs entered the room, they heard the gasps of the hostages. They stood at the door and called to the prisoners, telling them they were Americans. The SEALS asked the hostages to follow them, but the hostages wouldn’t. They sat there on the floor and hid their eyes in fear. ~ Donald Miller

Miller goes on to describe the events that followed. The SEALs were at a loss. The ones they came to rescue didn’t trust them until one of the men put down his weapon, took off his helmet, and curled up tightly next to the prisoners. He softened the look on his face and put his arms around them, something no prison guards would do. He was trying to show them he was one of them. He waited until eventually they began to meet his gaze. Then he whispered that they were Americans and had come to rescue them. Will you follow us? he asked. As he stood, one by one, the hostages did the same until all of them were willing to follow him to freedom.

The soldier had shifted from a position of authority to becoming like the hostages in their suffering. Miller says this is the story that helped Christianity make sense to him. He could see the parallel of God becoming a man, joining us in our suffering so that we would know it’s safe to follow Him.

I think it also applies in another way. We’re often at a loss when those we’re trying to rescue won’t follow. Maybe it’s because of our tendency to storm into the room, armed with all of the answers.

As we seek to serve the One who sets the hostage free, it’s time to put aside our weapons that wound (attitudes, words, actions), soften the look on our faces and the condition of our hearts, and get so close that we touch those we hope to reach. It’s a risky operation, all of that touching instead of just telling. There’s a universal code word for it: grace.

There, but for the grace of God …

There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford.                    ~ John Bradford

The exact origin of the saying: There, but for the grace of God, go I is unclear. Most attribute it to a derivation of something John Bradford said during his imprisonment in the Tower of London. Bradford is thought to have said There, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford as he witnessed a group of prisoners being led to their execution. Bradford, who was later martyred himself, was known as a kind and gentle man.

There, but for the grace of God, go I is something I’ve heard a lot. It sounds good on the surface, but it’s always bothered me.

On the one hand, I do think there are a few, like John Bradford, who are truly compassionate. They step down from the judgement seat and say Given the right combination of events, that could be me.

But more often there seems to be an underlying tone… Thank God, at least I didn’t do that. At least I didn’t go there!

Jesus told a story about it in Luke 18:

 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

So the question is where is my there? Where but for the grace of God haven’t I been? And what about those who are there? When I can identify that place I need to tread very carefully in my heart, lest I, like the Pharisee, become a stone collector.