Bunk Mates in Heaven
A pastor friend of mine quipped the other day: “There are some people I couldn’t warm up to even if I was cremated with them.”
I laughed, and then didn’t.
I know exactly what he means. There are people who, no matter how hard I try, I just don’t like. They grate on me. They get under my skin. Their laugh, their voice, their manner, their habits, their prevailing attitude or tone or bent – something about them irks or irritates me, and just their showing up forces me to practice Lamaze breathing.
I know this confession outs me for the spiritual pygmy I am. But there it is.
Jesus commanded us, in no uncertain terms, to love each other. But then gets meddlesome, and goes on to define the scope of “each other”: friends, enemies, the least of these, the worst of these, the brother who sins against us again and again and again. It’s a big list. He virtually leaves no one out.
Fine and well. Alright, I’ll do it. I love them. There. You happy?
But you never said I had to like ‘em, right?
Ah, but I’m a pastor. I have, on top of the general command to obey everything Jesus says, one large extra burden: I will be judged more severely if I get it wrong. I cannot become an accuser of the brethren. I cannot choose which sheep I feed or protect, and which I leave in the gulch or to the wolves. I don’t have the luxury of contempt or neglect.
So over the nearly quarter century I’ve been a pastor, I’ve learned and practiced, failed at and started over with, several disciplines that help me love – and even like – those I’d rather avoid. Here are four (of many):
- Remember the state I was in before Christ found me. Jesus wasn’t drawn to me because of my winsome ways or attractive personality. I was a wretch. I was a starving ragged stinking prodigal, still dripping with piggish muck, when he ran to kiss me. It was my desperate condition that awakened his compassion. He welcomed me and rescued me, not because of who I am, but because of who he is. He calls us to love like that.
- Tap the power that is in me through the risen Christ. Paul says (in 2 Corinthians 5) that Christ’s loves compels us, because we are convinced his death and resurrection are for everyone. And so, he says, we no longer look at anyone from a worldly point of view. Christ not only gives us a heart transplant: he gives us an eye transplant. The more we steep in his love and grace, the more we see people – everyone – from a “heavenly point of view.” Christ gives us his very own eyes to see people with. Use them.
- Value others above myself. Paul commands this in Philippians 2. It’s one of the most convicting verses in Scripture, because it’s not limited only to people we like. Paul is talking, for instance, to Euodia and Syntyche, two women who want to rip each other’s faces off (see Phil. 4). It is a sobering and humbling exercise to actually, tangibly do this for someone you don’t like – to value them above yourself, and then act on that value. Try it.
- Remember where this all ends. I have a theory: the person we least like on earth will be assigned our bunk mate in heaven. I don’t think God will do this as a prank, though. I think he’ll do it so we can laugh with that person for a few thousand years about how petty and small-minded and self-centered we were, and rejoice with them for all eternity at how great is the love of God that he lavishes on us, that we should be called his children, and made one another’s brothers and sisters.
There may be people you couldn’t warm up to if you were cremated with them. But could you if you knew you were to spend eternity with them?
When I practice these things, and more besides, God changes me, slow but sure. My LQ – Love Quotient, Like Quotient – goes up.
How’s that going for you?
I decided to write one more post on handling criticism and praise. My wife noted an omission in my last two posts: any discussion on how to guard our hearts when praised or criticised. So this is that.
Both praise and criticism can damage us. Praise can swell our head, criticism poison our heart. Praise can lull us into vanity and complacency. Criticism can waylay us with resentment and defeat. I’ve been on both sides of this. I’ve had seasons when so many people were applauding me, I became entitled and smug. And I’ve had seasons (why do they seem so much longer?) when so many people found fault with me, I became testy and sullen.
I call it the criminal/god syndrome: one minute, people treat you as sub-human, the next they hail you as super-human, with hardly a pause in between to see that you’re only human.
The Apostle Paul’s suffered the criminal/god syndrome, and gives us a model of how to deal with it. Two stories from Acts illustrate. One is in Acts 14:8-20. Paul, with Barnabas, is in Lystra and heals a man born lame. The crowd goes wild. They hail them as gods, and try to sacrifice burnt offerings to them. They protest vigorously but barely restrain the crowd from worshipping them. But that soon changes. Some of Paul’s enemies show up and persuade the crowd that he’s really a scoundrel. Next thing, the crowd stones Paul, drags him outside the city, and leaves him for dead.
He goes from god to criminal in a breath.
The other story is in Acts 28:1-6. Paul is shipwrecked on the island of Malta. A poisonous snake slithers from the brushwood and bites him: “When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, ‘This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.’ But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god” (Acts 28:4-6).
He goes from criminal to god in a blink.
No one is immune to this syndrome, especially leaders. The more you try to make a difference in the world, the more liable you are to be seen as one or the other, a criminal or a god: one minute a hero, the next a villain; one minute a sage, the next a fool; one minute worthy of swooning adulation, the next deserving brutal rejection.
How did Paul handle it?
Simply and profoundly, he knew his identity in Christ. He knew his role and value in the eyes of God. He took his deepest cues from his Father in heaven. Whether treated as a criminal or a god, Paul remained rooted in his true identity: a servant of the Most High God, and a servant of others.
He best sums it up in 1 Corinthians, to people who had swung from lionizing him to vilifying him. He writes to them:
This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God (1 Corinthians 4:1-5).
Herein lies a whole spirituality of dealing with the criminal/god syndrome, of handling praise and criticism. Here are the key points:
- Know your identity in Christ and your call in God. Paul knows he’s a servant of Christ – his identity- and that he’s entrusted with the mysteries of God – his call. He is bound to this, not to anyone else’s expectations or demands.
- Be unswervingly faithful to that identity and call. Paul lives, neither to win man’s applause nor to avoid man’s criticism, but for one thing alone: to hear God’s “Well done, good and faithful servant.” He plays to an audience of One.
- Care very little what others think of you. Paul simply refuses to give much weight to anyone who does not acknowledge his identity and purpose in Christ. The Greek for “I care very little” carries the sense, “your opinion is the least of my concerns.” Again, I emphasize that Paul is dealing here with those trying to pressure him to compromise his God-given identity and call. He is not deaf to honest critique: he’s just deaf to useless distraction.
- Care very little what you think of you. Paul refuses even to judge himself. He knows how warped and skewed, how self-serving or self-defeating, our own self-assessments can be. So he avoids passing final verdict on himself.
- Be able to look God in the eyes. Paul says his conscience is clear. How I apply this: Can I look God in the eyes? Am I confident that I can stand before God and, without shame, tell him what I’ve done and why?
- Don’t assume you’re right. Even still, Paul does not pronounce himself innocent. It’s possible, he acknowledges, that he’s wrong. The jury’s still out, and so he denies himself any self-righteous posturing.
- Trust God to judge finally and rightly. Paul knows that God in his time will render a perfect verdict – vindication, or condemnation. At that point, no earthly court’s verdict matters a whit. No human opinion, our own or another’s, means a thing. God deals with the real stuff – the motives of our heart – and gives a true, just and final judgement. It’s the only one that matters. Wait for it.
- Live in such a way that you anticipate God’s praise. Paul anticipates that he will receive God’s praise. He lives for it. He endures brutal opposition in the hope of it. He never compromises his identity or his call, because he knows that man’s praise without God’s praise is nothing, but God’s praise, with or without man’s praise, is everything. The only prize he sets his sights on is God’s praise.
Who sees you as a criminal? A god? If that is messing with you, apply Paul’s remedy. I’d love to hear about it.
We're on a night train to Paris – a marathon journey that starts in Venice, the City of Bridges, stops at a handful of Italian centers – Padua, Vicenza, Verona, Brescia, Milan – before heading into the Alps and ending, almost 14 hours later, in the heart of Paris, the City of Lights.
Our 12 days in Italy have been amazing – from the spectacular coastline of southern Italy, to the lush vineyards of Tuscany, to the magic of Venice's canals and gondoliers.
Best of all, Cheryl and I celebrated 27 years of marriage today. We began with breakfast on the Grand Canal of Venice and finished in a dining car somewhere between Padua and Milan. In between, we threaded through a maze of Venetian streets and wandered in and out of shops of handcrafted glassworks and Italian leather and silk.
I'm a blessed man, to walk with Cheryl by my side these past three decades – it's been that long if you count our courtship. Every year gets better – we get more playful, more thoughtful, less reactive. We value the other more deeply. I think we are more hopeful. We've been through a lot – glories and messes, breakthroughs and let downs, tragedies and windfalls. Such things either season you or shrivel you. Mostly, I'd say, it's seasoned us.
It's not that we don't have our episodes – crankiness, testiness, wondering when this person will finally fully get with the program. But those moments get further apart and shorter in duration. And what more and more rises to the surface is deep abiding thankfulness, to God and for each other.
I'm on a night train to Paris, and think I'm the luckiest man alive.
To the lady of my life, all my love, always.
My Painting of a stream flowing under a stone bridge.
Nicola's painting of an Island in Cardigan Bay