Holey Heart, Uncategorized

Right, or Happy?

“Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?” That quotable rhetorical question is attributed to TV talk show host Dr. Phil. The first time I heard it posed, my immediate internal sarcastic response was, “I’ll be happy when ‘they’ acknowledge I’m right.” I resented the suggestion the choice was binary. I resisted the idea that my happiness could only be achieved if I allowed others to be painfully wrong, uncorrected.

Then when my ex-husband and I split up, I heard another variation. “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be divorced?” The meaning was clear; in order for the separation and divorce to progress there would inevitably be things I’d have to compromise on.

Another person put it this way, “Is that the hill you want to die on?” What a refreshing dose of perspective! When I don’t see eye to eye with someone, this is the question I strive to ask myself before engaging in a confrontation. I’m naturally non-confrontational, so the answer is almost always, “no.”

Except on Facebook.

I didn’t start out nine years ago as confrontational internet troll. I shared photos of my kids and my meals and kitten memes like everyone else. But two presidential election cycles took their toll, and I found myself asking that question a lot. Then, I found myself asking it a little less. Nine times out of ten, I ask that question, and nine times out of ten when I ask that question, it has been my choice to be happy rather than publicly right. If I had a dime for every time I didn’t respond to someone I disagreed with, I’d be a very rich woman. Still, it has been disheartening to discover so many other people I know and love who appear to care more about being right than happy. With so many people drunk on their own self-righteousness, is it any wonder I found it difficult to remain “sober” myself?

Those one times out of ten when I chose being right offered me enough proof that the choice really is binary – being right did not bring happiness, but its opposite.

I hit bottom, you could say. Someone posted something that I took personally, that I experienced as a public shaming, and instead of letting it go, I took the bait. I responded. I knew (and still know) I was right. And it made me miserable. So, I quit, cold turkey. No more Facebook on my phone or on my computer. No more Messenger. If someone wants to have a relationship with me, let it happen the old-fashioned way, with interpersonal communication. They know my phone number, I reasoned.

In Sunday’s old testament reading the prophet Ezekiel gives his reason for choosing to be right over being happy: “If . . . you don’t speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked will surely die from his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.” I think of all the self-righteous jerks (yours truly among them) who have used that passage of scripture to justify their nanny-state finger wagging, and I shudder. Last time I looked at my birth certificate, the name on it was not “Ezekiel,” and I don’t know anyone else by that name either. Sure, we may have been baptized “priest, prophet, and king,” but we were baptized into Christ, who gave a richer, more descriptive directive for us for when we find ourselves right, or being wronged.

Matthew’s Gospel passage last weekend lays out step by step the approach to be both right and happy. First, confront the person who has wronged you privately, one on one. If that doesn’t work, confront him with one or two witnesses (not an entire social network). If that still doesn’t work, take it to the church (or the socially trusted arbiter of morality and justice, which again, is not the court of public opinion on Facebook). And if he still refuses to listen even to the church, then, and only then, is it acceptable to treat him, as Jesus puts it, like a gentile or tax collector; in other words, like an outcast.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He reminds us all that while we may be justified in shutting out the evil-doers in our lives, we still have the authority, power, and choice to let it go. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

I can let my righteousness bind me forever to a person whose beliefs, actions, and attitudes irritate or run contrary to me. Or I can free myself. Jesus gave us that power. We can be right, but we don’t have to be smug about it. We can even let it go.

When I was in seventh grade, there was a girl in one of my classes who for some unknown reason decided she didn’t like me and wanted to fight me. I’m not talking a verbal argument; she wanted to physically beat me up, and she tried to bait me into fighting her at lunch. It would have been no contest. She was twice my size and mean as hell. She was also all bark and no bite. “Why won’t you fight me?” she taunted. “Are you scared?”

In seventh grade I’d stay awake for hours at night thinking up witty retorts to the insults I would receive daily from my verbally abusive classmates. I was never very quick in the moment, but hours later, I’d fantasize about what I could have said. I can’t say that it brought me peace, but at least it helped me sleep at night.

So when this girl wanted to fight me, I don’t know where the words (or the courage) came from, but the words that came out of my mouth were, “No, you’re just not worth it.” That mean 160lb 12-year-old who’d had it out for me all year never bothered me again.

Most of the time, being right isn’t worth it either. “Being right” is the bully who wants to make others feel small so they can feel important, or relevant, or smart, or righteous. Today, I can take some pointers from my 12-year-old self, wise beyond her years, and my Savior. Being right is not worth it. Taking a break from Facebook is the best strategy I could employ to avoid the bullies there who want to pick fights, or worse, to avoid becoming one myself.

I don’t plan on dying on any hills that social media serves up.

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Holey Heart

Salvation From Serpents

One of the things I love about the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is that I don’t have to believe that any of it is factual to see the truth in it. Do I really believe that the Red Sea actually parted just like it did for Charlton Heston? Does it even matter whether or not I do?

Fortunately my faith in God has never depended on blind belief in any particular translation of an ancient text. It’s based on experience; mine, of course, and also the experiences of others. So when I listened to this weekend’s Old Testament selection about Moses and the seraph serpents, it wasn’t with a literal ear, but with an ear longing to relate my own experiences to the story, and I was rewarded with an interesting interpretation.

The story takes place well into the Israelites’ wandering in the desert after fleeing Egypt. They’d starved and thirsted. They’d been fed with manna and quail. And they were weary from wandering in circles and living the Hebrew version of the Groundhog Day movie. They grumbled against God.

How many times have I done the same thing? I beg God to save me from whatever mess I’ve gotten myself into, and no sooner does He provide a way out and I’m complaining about my new circumstances! My discontentment will follow me wherever I go, if I allow it.

So in the story, God punishes this discontentment with serpents to bite the people, killing some of them. This does not sound like the God in which I believe! My God is loving and compassionate and would never deliberately harm me! This is why people reject Christianity, I think to myself.

And that’s when I ponder, maybe God didn’t send the snakes. Maybe the Israelites attracted them, and God simply chose not to stand in the way of a crisis.

And maybe they weren’t literal reptiles. They are called “seraph” serpents. The word means “burning.” Most people interpret this to mean “poisonous snakes.” But a seraph was also a sort of angel in the book of Isaiah. What if they were spiritual “serpents” who were attracted to the Israelites who were “feeding” them with resentment after heaping resentment? (I do believe in spiritual beings, both light and dark. Again, based primarily on personal experience.)

How many of my own resentments grow when I feed them until they turn on me, poison me, and bring me to death’s door, spiritually speaking? How often does my anger at God bite me? I’m a figurative snake handler.

God provided Moses with specific instructions for a remedy. Make a serpent, mount it on a pole so everyone can see it, and instruct the people to look at it, so that they will be saved. Christian theology interprets this as foreshadowing of the Crucifixion of Christ, as the words of Jesus in this weekend’s Gospel clearly state. But as a stand-alone story, it is also an analogy for how I can be saved from the spiritual serpents that plague me when I am grumbling against God.

I need to take a good, hard look at my resentments.

For me, this takes the form of a written list. In one column is the name of the person I resent. In the second column is why. It’s a freeform exercise, like brainstorming. I don’t judge myself, and I don’t censor myself either. I write it all down. I don’t consider whether resentment is justified or just a selfish indulgence. I just get it out on paper. Like mounting it on a pole. Then I look at it, hard.

Making this list is kind of like drawing out the poison from a snake bite. Sometimes I have to make a little cut in the skin of my pride and suck the poison out. It can be painful. I have to be careful not to let it get into my spiritual bloodstream while I’m doing it. I have to sit still.

I also have to consciously make the decision to let go and forgive. Like Jesus on that cross, I have to say, usually out loud, as much to myself as anyone, “They didn’t know what they were doing. They were sick. They were poisoned. They were hurt, and hurt people hurt people.” I don’t believe it yet. At this stage it’s just an intellectual exercise, but it’s a start.

Then I have to look at myself. In what ways have I engaged in the same behaviors I’m resenting? If I’m being honest in my search, I will find an absolute gem of a gift – compassion. I will find my own dark side, and I will sit with it. I will ask, where did that dark side come from? What payoff do I get by indulging it? Is my dark side just one of my talents or survival skills taken to an extreme?

And I go back to my resentment list and recall that anger is nothing more than a mask for fear. I fear these people on my list, and in fearing them I give them power that isn’t really theirs. Why? I name the fears. I remember that fears and worries are like prayers for a negative outcome. That fear is the opposite of love, that it will destroy me as certainly as any physical harm. I take the power back. I look in the mirror at my own darkness and find compassion for myself, and for them, and I cut the strings that bind me to the pain they may have caused me. I forgive. For real.

I look at my darkness and ask, what gift is there in this negative trait? There’s always a gift. Maybe I’m overly critical; that’s just the extreme form of being discerning. Maybe I’m competitive; if I tone that down I’ll discover a healthy drive to achieve excellence. As I look at every negative thing about myself and search for the positive within it, I find gratitude. Gratitude for all these wonderful gifts I never realized I had, and gratitude for that pain that drove me to look in the first place.

I ask God for help to see the patterns, and I ask Him to remove whatever of these characteristics keep me from being of service to others, and to help me stop hurting people. And I ask Him to show me how to repair the relationships that have been harmed by my poisonous resentment. Maybe I was only 10 percent of the problem, but I want to clean up my 10 percent.

Then a miracle happens. When I accept my faults, and when I start to take responsibility for them, no one can use them against me! I walk secure in the knowledge that I’m human and that God loves me.

This weekend’s gospel included the most well-known, often-quoted verse in the whole of scripture. Even atheists know it. John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”

It’s too bad that’s the verse everyone knows, because John 3:17 is even better. I wish Christians of all denominations would display this at sporting events and on their license plates and church billboards, because most have them seem to have forgotten it.

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

The seraph serpents, the resentments that eat away at us – they are not a condemnation. They are the gift that compels us to look within and then turn to the source of salvation.

Musical Meditations

Forgiveness

I posted yesterday about being tested, about being back at square one, about being given the chance to make different choices.

I suppose it is important for you to know that in the past, the choices I made included nursing my pain, blaming others for my pain, resenting those I believed were the source of my pain, and beating my head against a wall trying to change the people I resented so that I wouldn’t have to resent them anymore in a futile attempt to end the pain.

The person I resented most was myself.

Pain sucks. And it is inevitable. I am powerless over pain. But today I have choices over how I respond to it. Today I can chose forgiveness.

Today I share two songs about what forgiveness is. It is NOT what I give to someone else as the reward for their sincere apology. That gives them too much power over my life, and I’m through with that. Forgiveness means allowing them to have the dignity of their own choices and accepting that they are who they are. It means choosing to believe that all people are doing the best that they can, and their hurtful actions are a result of a sickness in them that they either don’t know about or don’t want to face. Sometimes it means loving them from a safe distance so that I don’t give them the choice to continue to hurt me and give me reason to nurse the pain. It means that I chose to let go of the pain. I can’t necessarily let go of the feeling of pain. But I can let go of the actions I take that feed the pain.

Forgiveness by Matthew West. Sorry about the quality of the video. The song hasn’t officially been released yet.

Losing by Tenth Avenue North. This is a fantastic video.

I know a lot of people out there are going to disagree pretty vehemently with me, and that’s fine. But here’s what I’ve found. My pain is MY responsibility, whether the injury was caused when I was an innocent, helpless child, or whether it was something that happened yesterday.

Mostly, I need to forgive myself. I’m doing the best I can, and beating myself up is not going to make me do any better. Who I am to hold myself hostage when God Himself died to set me free?

When I take responsibility for my pain and choose forgiveness, I find peace. It works for me.

 

 

Musical Meditations

How Beautiful

The year was 2001. I’d attended the most beautiful Holy Thursday liturgy I’ve ever experienced, either before or since, at my parish of the Church of Redeemer in Mechanicsville. The liturgy consisted of the entire congregation washing each other’s feet, climaxing in a celebration of the Eucharist reflecting the Last Supper, followed by a silent procession to the church’s dimly lit social hall for Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. There on the bare floor we knelt quietly. Then Cindy, our music director began to sing Twila Paris’ How Beautiful.

Tears poured out of me. Not just because the song was so moving or the night so emotional, but because for more than a year I had been struggling with letting go of someone I loved but was unable to forgive. I was completely torn up inside but had been going through the motions, moving on with my life – I had gotten a wonderful new job, I was engaged to a nice man. But I felt hog-tied by my own inability to let go and forgive.

The next day was Good Friday. Catholics do something at their Good Friday liturgy called the “veneration of the Cross” in which a cross or crucifix is displayed and the congregation is invited to kiss the cross or touch it and say a quick prayer. Redeemer’s version of veneration took it a step further. Each of us was given a small sticky note and invited to write something down that we were struggling with so that we could “nail” it to the cross during veneration. I wrote down the name of the person I couldn’t forgive and couldn’t let go of.

I desperately wanted to but just didn’t “feel” it inside. I took one step in willingness and nailed it to the cross. God took me the rest of the way. Within months, the feelings of forgiveness came. Within a year I was able to be in the same room with the person, and over the course of the next several years, our relationship has experienced healing. Sometimes the healing has been uncomfortable, like a scab you want to pick at. Sometimes it’s been downright painful. There’s been grieving, and there are scars. But there is hope, too. There is new life, for both of us.

When I was a little kid, veneration of the cross made me uncomfortable. It was weird. Today, I welcome that moment to stand at the foot of the cross, to offer my sin and suffering to a Savior who invites me to walk with Him, not toward death, but through death, to beautiful new life.

Musical Meditations

The Past Is History

I got into this “argument” with a friend recently. I can’t remember the details of what it was about, but the next day, I still was holding on to it. I sent her an apologetic text, and she texted me back something along the lines of, “Would you care to join me in the present?”

I think that’s the first time in my life I truly experienced the feeling of forgiveness. And it didn’t just come from her words signaling that she had let go and there were no hard feelings. Forgiveness was my choice more than it was hers. I could have continued to beat myself up for being wrong, looked for the lesson in whatever it was I had done, or justified myself. Or, I could let it be history, because that’s what it was.

As I was driving to church yesterday this Matthew West song History came on the radio, and I thought of how my friend chose to let history be history and how I chose to do the same.

It occurred to me that I can make that choice to live in the present even if those who are angry and resentful at me are not able to make that choice. When I make a mistake, some people will be able to show me grace and forgiveness, and some will not. My decision to forgive myself is independent of their decision to hold a grudge.

As we journey ever closer to the Christian remembrance of the cross and resurrection this Lenten season, we are reminded that when Christ chose the cross, He literally made every sin we could ever commit “history” in His sacrifice.

In John 12:31-33 Jesus says, “‘Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.’ He said this indicating the kind of death he would die.”

When He was lifted up on the cross, Jesus drew every sin that ever was and ever would be up there with Him and made it history. Every sinful choice you or I have ever made and ever will make was already forgiven over 2,000 years ago, and the human grudges and resentments I choose to hold onto are powerless over the crucifixion. Who do I think I am, that I can withhold forgiveness when God Himself already gave it? What makes me think I can sit in judgment? Is it because someone hasn’t seen the error of their ways and apologized? Perhaps I need to remember that God’s forgiveness was unconditional; He forgives us before we say we are sorry. I’m not much of a Bible quoter, but Romans 5:8 tells us, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” If God doesn’t need my apology in order to forgive me, why should I require your apology before I forgive you?

When I withhold forgiveness from you, I’m not holding anyone but myself bound by those chains of hurt, anger and resentment. And when I withhold forgiveness from myself, I am deliberately rejecting the sacrifice that was made for me on the cross. I’m choosing to separate myself from the God who loves me. I’m choosing hell. It is not God who condemns me to Hell, but I who condemn myself. Who am I to play God?

I used to frequent an online forum dedicated to healing broken marriages, and there was a woman  who participated who called herself “New Every Day.” She was married to an alcoholic who sometimes lived in sobriety, and sometimes didn’t. Most people who haven’t loved an alcoholic would probably think she was nuts to stay with him – I know I did. Her screen name reflected her strategy for being able to live with the man she loved in spite of his disease. She lived in the moment. The mistakes of yesterday, both her own and his, she left in yesterday, and she chose to be new every day, and see him as new every day, too. Not that she lived with blinders on. She protected herself from harm by being financially self-supporting. She didn’t endure emotional abuse, instead removing herself from the situation if he was behaving in an unacceptable way. She cultivated a vibrant social and spiritual life outside of her marriage and surrounded herself with the support of friends who understood what she was going through so that she was not emotionally dependent on a man who was incapable of consistent emotional support. She lived forgiveness. Eventually, she chose to leave the relationship. She did not do so from a place of anger and resentment, but rather from a place of love. She loved herself too much to continue to stay in a partnership that wasn’t a partnership, and she loved him too much to continue to be his enabling soft place to land every time he hit bottom with his drinking.

Forgiveness is the only door to freedom.

Musical Meditations

Time After Time

There were many emotional moments at my brother’s wedding this past weekend, but perhaps the most touching for me was when Trish, my brother’s bride, danced with her preteen son, while my brother danced with his nine-year-old new stepdaughter, whom he’s known since babyhood. They danced to this version of Cindy Lauper’s Time After Time, covered gorgeously by the late Eva Cassidy.

I sat on the floor, holding my youngest daughter in my lap as we watched, and I cried. I cried because of the broken road that led my brother and Trish and her kids into each other’s lives. I cried because, if only for a moment, all was right and perfect and filled with love. I cried because I’m on my own broken road, and because of my choices, so are my kids. I cried because I dare to hope that our broken roads will lead to such love.

I cried because in that moment, I felt God’s love surrounding me, and I heard His voice in the lyrics:

If you’re lost you can look and you will find me
Time after time.
If you fall I will catch you, I will be waiting
Time after time.

I am grateful to believe in a forgiving God who always takes me back, no matter how far I stray, who loves me unconditionally and longs to bless me with gifts beyond my ability to imagine. I hope I can be so loving with my own kids. They need to believe in unconditional love if they are to put one foot in front of the other on the broken road to happy destiny.