Difficult People

bunckmates

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?

 

 

Are you Stoning Your Prophets? Part 3

Are you Stoning Your Prophets? Part 3

 

 

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.

Celebrating 27 years

Celebrating 27 years

 

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.

Shalom

Mark

Golfing In Hades

 

 
 
 
 
My new friend Tony – ethnically Chinese, culturally Welsh – has managed what I thought no man could: lured me back into the game of golf.
 
It's a hateful game. A soul-wrecking, aggravation-stirring time-waster. It plays to all our basest instincts: pride, delusion, anger, pettiness, rivalry. That a fellow Scotsman first concocted this awful sport and inflicted it on the world is to my everlasting shame. The idea of spending several hours snookering a ball around a booby-trapped field is inherently absurd: to call it fun, and pay exorbitant amounts to engage it, hare-brained.
 
There. I got that off my chest.
 
It didn't help that I was mentored in the game by a father who fumbled away at it his whole life but, maybe to compensate, was a stickler for the rules. So I know that you don't touch the head of the wedge to the sand before hitting the ball out of a trap, but never managed to hit it well anyhow. I know that even to nudge the ball before laying into it is counted as a stroke, but rarely make the shot count all the same. I know all the intricate arcane rules of putting – there are dozens – and still can't putt. 
 
I'd given the game up years ago. When anyone asked if I'd like to play, I'd politely decline. In my head I reckoned it would be cheaper, faster, and provide roughly the same sensation to just to buy a box of straight pins and stick them in my arm. 
 
Then Tony – he who cooks like an angel, he who regales me with stories of God's astonishing healing power, he who, along with his wife Marian, has embraced us bedraggled displaced Canadians like we're long-lost relatives – asked me to go golfing. Tony loves golf, and I love Tony, and besides, I have a lot of time on my hands these days. So I said yes.
 
And I like it. 
 
I still play like a fool. I still torture the ball, just never into submission. I still can't drive, can't chip, can't putt. I still hear my father's pedantic lectures and stern rebukes every time I break the rules, which is pretty much constantly. But darn if it ain't fun.
 
Well, there's Tony to liven things up. And there's Hades, not once but twice, to get the adrenaline pumping.
 
Hades I and Hades II is what Tony calls hole 6 and hole 8 on The Cliffs, a par-3, 9-hole course in Gwbert, just north of Cardigan Bay. Both holes involve treacherous shots across wide chasms over churning water. But that only begins the test. Both holes have greens – especially Hades I – that sit on a narrow plate of earth: undershoot, overshoot, shoot to far to the right, and your ball is gone, swallowed in outer darkness.
 
I would happily play those two holes, over and over, all day. I would, of course, go through a mountain of balls (on Wednesday, Tony and I together lost about a dozen). But there's something compelling about matching your wit and skill, modest as these things are in my case, against the abyss. It is grievous pain to lose at it. But it is joy unspeakable when you win. One good shot over Hades is worth a thousand brilliant ones elsewhere. 
 
Surely God is speaking through such things.
 

In the Eye of the Beholder

My Painting of a stream flowing under a stone bridge.

 

Nicola's painting of an Island in Cardigan Bay

 

I wanted to push myself creatively during my sabbatical. In one sense, this plan was built into my time in Wales: I assigned myself the task while here of writing a novel (which hums along nicely, now nearing 300 pages – but more of that in a future blog). And, as I bragged about in an earlier post, I have been trying my hand in the kitchen. But my efforts there, though edible, are neither aesthetic nor culinary masterpieces. They fall yards short of being creative. I throw myself wholly on the mercy of a recipe, and even then reproduce something that bears little resemblance to how the original looks or, I suspect, tastes.  
 
So I needed something more. And I found it a mere skip and a jump away, in the tiny village of Henllan, next to our tiny village of Pentre-cwrt. There, in her little one-room studio beside her home, artist Diane Mathias plies her trade, with oils and pastels. She hangs a sign by the roadside inviting all passers-by to stop in for a peek at her art and a cup of tea. So we took her up on it. One thing led to the next, and last Friday Nicola and I signed up, with 3 others, for a 5-hour art class with Diane, using the medium of pastels. 
 
It was both hard work and pure fun. She got us down to the task right away, no preliminaries. We each chose a photo from a thick pile she had on hand, and within minutes we were wrist-deep in the chalky residue of pastel crayons. Our hands look like we'd smeared them in buckets of condiments – mustard and ketchup and guacamole and refried beans. Diane walked around, said encouraging if vague things ("Well, that's coming along, isn't it?"; "My, that's colorful!" "That's an interesting way of depicting that tree!"), and gave pointers. Slowly, our smudges and blobs emerged into something half-way recognizable, rough facsimiles of the photographs we were working from.
 
The results, as you can see, are clumsy and amateurish. 
 
But something woke up in me during it. As I struggled to capture the shapes, the shades, the hues, the textures of the picture I was trying to render, I realized how much the visual is its own language. It wants to tell a story. It wants to articulate, not just what things look like, but how they feel, what they mean, why they matter. I know that my pastel drawing captures none of this. But I sensed it. I felt its pulse. I glimpsed what skilled artists are able to convey: the deeper reality beneath the surface reality, the inner beauty that gives the outward form its mystery and its potency.
 
In some ways it's like worship. Art is taking the world as we find it, transforming it through sustained attention, and offering it back. It is rendering the everyday into the everlasting. It is an act both of surrender and of thanksgiving. 
 
My first attempts at this are childish. 
 
But I don't think the Father minds.
 

Working All Things Together For Good

I am learning to cook. 
 
One of the rules Cheryl laid down before we came to Wales was that she was only preparing a meal every third night. If we were to eat the other two nights, Nicola and I would have to figure our way around a kitchen. Slowly, clumsily, with growing daring, we're managing.
 
It's more pleasure than I imagined. There is an artistry to cooking that I've long admired but feared to attempt. A tasty dish from raw ingredients is like a poem from a pile of words, or a sculpture from a lump of clay, or music from a violin, something that in less skilled hands can be wince-inducing, but with a master's touch can evoke heaven. 
 
I haven't made anything yet that would rank as a culinary masterpiece, and I'm almost slavishly bound to recipes (though learning to be adaptive since I can't always get the listed ingredients), but so far I've not food poisoned anyone, or even made them crumple their napkin on their untouched mound of food and push their plate away. Sometimes, they even have seconds.
 
I've made jambalaya, and pear-pancakes (with homemade syrup), and Cajun haddock, and roasted parsnips tossed in olive oil and fresh garlic, and apple muffins, and a dozen things besides.
 
It amazes me, cooking: the alchemy of it, the way flour and baking powder and raw eggs – things inedible or unpalatable by themselves – combine to make something tasty and nourishing. Every time I go into the kitchen now, I'm newly excited by the possibilities (please keep this to yourself – I don't want Cheryl finding out and expecting the Wales ruling to apply to Canada). 
 
I think this is how God works. He takes things in our lives that, by themselves, are hard or impossible to swallow. And he mixes them in such a way, and puts them in intense heat for just the right amount of time, that what comes out bears no resemblance to what went in. What goes in can be revolting. What comes out might be delectable. And yet, it wouldn't be this way without all the ingredients, even or especially the ones we'd never consume by themselves. 
 
Are you going through an ordeal right now, or a time of deep loneliness, or the sting of a loss or a failure? On its own, it's disgusting, and hard to swallow. But see what God does with it, what he mixes it with, what fire he refines it with. 
 
It may turn out to be your best meal yet.