Honor One Another

Right now, people you know and people I know — people we see every day — are feeling a bit desperate. They’ve been scrolling through social media, and they’ve seen picture-perfect families, lit-up Christmas trees, and December graduations that have shown them how far they are from measuring up. They’ve seen group poses and party pics that have reminded them of their own disconnectedness.

They feel defeated, deflated, and discouraged.

Many in our culture — the one that promotes wealth, success, status, and achievement — have compared themselves to a curated social media standard or to the people they see at school or at work — the polished public facade of put-togetherness — and have found themselves lacking.

And this sense of inferiority has implications.

The National Institute of Health reports that 19 percent of the US population suffers from anxiety and over seven percent have suffered from a major depressive episode in the last year.

On an average day in the United States, 129 people commit suicide.

This year alone, 409 Americans have committed mass shootings, injuring 1,466 and killing 441.

Why? Why are people picking up weapons and intentionally seeking to hurt others? Why do so many try and succeed in ending their own lives? Why are such high numbers depressed and anxious?

Of course the answers to these questions are complex, but could it be, at least in part, that people simply don’t know their own worth? Their own inherent value?

With all of our emphasis on achievement, success, and wealth, have we lost the ability to see the inherent value of each person — the implicit value that is separate from our accomplishments, our status, and our ability to present a flawless front to the world? Are we unable to find that value in one another and in ourselves?

Our pastor, Gabe Kasper, in his recent series on the Culture of Christmas spent an entire Sunday on how we, as a community, can create a culture of honor in which we recognize, value, and honor each person — where we see the implicit value in each individual.

Is this possible? Can we create (or re-create) such a culture in a community that is made up of people like me? I struggle to get my focus off my self and my to-do list for long enough to even see the people around me, let alone honor them!

I was in the mall the other day, and I was on a mission. Bent on hitting my step goal while finding two specific Christmas gifts, I put in my earbuds and got to it. I stepped my steps and found my gifts. Mission accomplished. It wasn’t until the next morning that I realized that other than the salesperson who helped me, I didn’t remember one single face from that trip to the mall. Although it’s mid-December and the mall was crowded with people, I was so totally focused on finding my gifts and getting in my steps that I didn’t notice one other person. I didn’t give honor to anyone.

Honor, Pastor Gabe said, is the recognition of the value, contribution, and importance of others; it recognizes their implicit value.

What does that look like?

I’m pretty sure it doesn’t look like me, fully engrossed in the podcast playing in my ears, motoring through the masses on my seek-and-find mission.

No. When I picture honoring someone — truly seeing their inherent value — I imagine myself figuratively cupping their face in my hands, looking straight in their eyes, and seeing, with wonder, what their parents saw in them on the day they were born. In honoring them, I acknowledge the miracle that despite all odds — despite illness, dysfunction, calamity, neglect, and abuse; despite chance and hazards and accidents and trauma– a human being has been created cell by cell, has grown to its current state, and has survived. Whether or not the being whose face I am beholding has accomplished anything in life beyond that survival, he or she is a miracle — a child of God, someone’s hope and dream, and a life worth acknowledging, an existence worth honoring.

And honoring the inherent value of all people means I’m holding the faces of a lot of people who don’t look like me, don’t agree with me, don’t want to listen to me, and might even annoy me.

Over the last couple of weeks, perhaps nudged along by Pastor Gabe’s message, I’ve attempted honoring others by taking one small action — yielding the right of way. Instead of speeding up to get in front of others, I’m trying to remember to let them go in front of me. (It’s a baby step; I know.) I’m driving into parking lots slowly, allowing others plenty of space to find their spot as I’m staying out of their way. I’m walking through stores (other than my recent journey to the mall) with the intention of not cutting anyone off, of anticipating where others are going, and of allowing them to step in front of me. I’m trying to show that I recognize that people have inherent value.

It’s a very small action. To be fair, I can’t actually walk up to people, take their faces in my hands and say, “Wow! You are quite a miracle!” I’m pretty sure that would be counterproductive. However, I can look the sales clerk in the eye, smile, and thank her for bagging my items. I can turn to my coworker when she speaks to me and listen to her instead of continuing to fill out the document I’m working on. I can acknowledge that my student is ticked off because he has to do two hours of instruction with me after he’s already been in school all day and honor the legitimacy of that feeling. I can walk through the mall a little less intensely, seeing the other people in my path, smiling, nodding, allowing them to step in front of me, and noticing their humanity, their worth, their inherent value.

It might mean I might have to slow my roll, overlook some grinchiness, and give up my right to have everything in life go exactly according to plan, and it might mean I get to a few places a little late, but what difference will it make?

Will my small changes stop gun violence? Will they put an end to depression, anxiety, and suicide? Will my small attempts to make eye contact, to listen, and to acknowledge the worth of others cause significant cultural change?

I hardly think the actions of one middle-aged woman in Ann Arbor, Michigan can shift a whole culture, but they might cause an ever-so-minute shift. If I notice one person’s value and they then notice another person’s value, perhaps together, we might create enough space in which a few more people can live and breathe, where they might begin to have hope, where they might discover a reason to keep living.

I’ve been accused of being too hopeful, too idealistic, too pie-in-the-sky. But guys, I’ve been changed by people who noticed me, who looked in my eyes, and who acknowledged my inherent worth.

Small actions can yield huge results.

Is it possible that as we pause to acknowledge the value in the lives around us that we might become like mirrors in which people begin to see their own inherent worth and that we might, in turn, more fully understand the value of ourselves?

Is it worth a try?

Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.

Romans 12:10

prayer helps, a re-visit

Our pastors started a seven-week series on prayer two Sundays ago, at the beginning of Lent. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this Lent, more than any time I can remember, has me turning to prayer — for our country during this election cycle, for the world during this coronavirus pandemic, and for my family as they weather transitions, health struggles, and other life challenges. On Monday, I wrote about the power of prayer to turn us From Fear to Peace; today, I re-visit a post from August that further explores the power of prayer.

Over the weekend I talked with my 90-year old godmother, who has now lived for over a year in her home alone — ever since her husband, my godfather, fell and broke his hip. She is so sad and lonely; her load is heavy — managing a home, driving to and from the facility where he lives, and dragging herself out of bed every morning. One thing sustains her — prayer.

I saw my mother this weekend, too. She has chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) and severe joint pain throughout her body. Each day for her, too, is a struggle — getting out of bed, managing her symptoms and the side effects of the medication she takes, and completing the tasks that give her life meaning: preparing meals, sending care packages, and praying for her grandchildren.

Life has taught these women the power and solace that can be found in prayer. They have learned that, more than anything else, prayer has the ability to affect change — on the grand scale and in their every day lives.

I’m no expert at prayer. I’m a novice — I have good intentions and I love to dabble, but I haven’t developed the discipline nor done the due diligence that lead to excellence.

My first reaction to any problem is to strap on my gear and get busy finding solutions. It’s muscle memory from years of survival in the trenches. See problem? Find solution.

In fact, just last night I was watching news reports about two mass shootings over the weekend — one in El Paso and one in Dayton. From my tired Sunday afternoon haze I practically jumped to my feet, incredulous: Why is this still happening? Why haven’t we done something? These are real people with real families! We need an immediate buy-back program, followed by a targeted approach to identifying people at risk, and an extensive program for eliminating hate speech and bias and building strong relationships among the diverse people of our country!

I was on a roll. And we do need to act. Immediately. But all my sputtering in my living room on a Sunday evening won’t likely make a difference. I might play a role in ending gun violence in our country, but my frantic single-handed strategies don’t usually get me anywhere.

Eventually I run out of steam, and I begin to hear a faint sound calling me to prayer.

Someone recently said to me, “Don’t talk to me about prayer. That helps you; it doesn’t help me.” That’s not entirely wrong.

Praying does help me. When I pray, it’s often because I can no longer keep trudging along under the weight of the overloaded backpack of worry, concern, hope, and expectation that I find myself lugging around. I collapse under its weight, drag it into my lap, and pull out some of the weightiest pieces.

I take a good long look at each one and then hold it up for examination. I see a pair of hands extended toward me, waiting to accept each burden.

I lift each concern, each person, each hope as I say, “Please…..would you? I trust you. You’ve got the power… the wisdom…the patience…to manage this. I do not. You have the perfect answer. I do not. I’m so tired of carrying it… Please…do your best… heal… restore… redeem… renew… forgive… support… please.”

And this does help me. It does. When I lift my burdens to the hands that are strong enough to carry them, I’m lighter, and hopeful, and relieved, because the God who created all things is able to do what I cannot do. He is able to take those items from my backpack and transform them into beautiful treasures — reminders of once-worries, once-pains, once-griefs.

But that is not all.

My prayers, your prayers, our prayers combined don’t just help us — no. They transform the world. They call upon the Almighty, the One who owns all the might, and they enlist His power, all the power, and He, our great Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer takes JOY in answering.

But, sadly, prayer is not the first place I turn. No, I’m pretty strong, so I can lug that backpack around for quite a while as I climb rocky trails of possibility, moving boulders and downed branches out of my way. I am confident that I can solve each dilemma, rewrite each tragedy, and heal every hurt.

I’ve got stamina, too. I can wake up in the morning with a plan for how to restore a broken relationship and rehearse reunion scenarios in my mind all day long, alternating settings, dialogues, and supporting characters. By the time I fall into bed, I have imagined countless scenes and accumulated unfulfilled hopes by the dozen, but I haven’t brought two people back together again.

But I’m resilient. I can get up the next day and try again on another issue, perhaps the upcoming election, the educational crisis in public schools, or the unconscionable prevalence of mass shootings. I can toss around solutions in my head all day long — examining candidates, exploring school reform, and designing gun legislation. You’d be amazed at what goes on in this mind as I’m driving to work, walking at lunch, cutting up vegetables, or folding laundry. I expend all kinds of energy in my attempts to solve the world’s problems.

But all my scene-writing and strategy-planning is not making a difference. It’s merely my futile attempt at managing the items in my overloaded backpack. It’s my way of coping — my way of not sinking under the weight.

And, to be honest, it’s not even soldiering. Soldiers don’t strategize or rewrite history. They obey orders. They execute strategies. They complete missions. They report back.

My writing of scenes and brainstorming of strategies is not an attempt at soldiering, it’s worse –it’s an attempt at commanding. I not only want to carry the backpack, I want to give the orders.

I believe that’s called insubordination.

Sigh.

So much energy expended and none of it is necessary.

In fact, I don’t even need to carry the backpack.

I’m lugging it around trying to find my own answers and solutions, when I’ve been invited (some might say commanded) to turn it over, to lift it up, to surrender it.

And when I surrender it, change happens.

Change in me.

Change in others.

Change in the world.

Because those hands that are reaching out to receive the items I’m lifting up, are able (unlike mine) to heal, restore, redeem, renew, forgive, and support. Sometimes I am invited into the process, and sometimes I’m invited to stand still and behold the work of the Lord.

And that does, in fact, really help me. It changes me. It renews me. It gives me hope and strength.

I know that tomorrow when I wake up, I am very likely to forget all this, strap on my backpack, and start lifting up boulders in search of answers, but I pray that I tire quickly and remember to sit down and surrender my load into more capable hands.

The Lord has heard my plea; the Lord accepts my prayer.”

Psalm 6:9

Puzzling

I like working on puzzles — dumping a thousand pieces or so onto a table, finding the border, sorting by color and shape, and beginning to bring order from chaos. I know there’s an image that’s been shattered, and I like the focus and intention it takes to put it back together.

It’s a broken I know how to fix.

Several years ago, I had a puzzle sitting on a small table in our family room. Our teenagers liked to watch television and movies, and, though I didn’t always like what they were watching, I did like being around them, so I would plunk myself down at the puzzle table and listen to the laughter and the commentary. I just liked being where they were.

But even though I was right in the room, bringing insignificant order to meaningless chaos, I was overlooking the broken pieces that had flung themselves on our couches. I was oblivious to the hemorrhaging from a brutal assault; I was ignoring simmering depression; and I was wishing away the striving for perfection. I was not hearing the silent crying and unspoken questions hanging in the room.

I just was just puzzling.

I’ve been sitting at a different puzzle table here in our house by the river — the nest that was emptied, probably too soon, of all the wounded who set off flapping, trying their best to soar.

I’ve been bent over this puzzle since January — sometimes for five minutes, sometimes for five hours — trying to find where each little piece goes.

Puzzling

It’s various shades of gray, black, and white, and the images on each piece are minuscule, so I actually have to examine each one closely, holding it very close to my eyes, so that I can see which way it is oriented and if it has any specific identifying marks. It’s a long process that won’t be rushed.

So I keep on puzzling.

Some might accuse me of trying to escape reality; I prefer to believe that I am embodying metaphor.

What if I approached every problem the way I approach puzzling — what if I dumped the whole mess on the table, examined each piece, and then, without rushing, sorted it all out and found something beautiful.

To be clear, this has not been my traditional approach to problem solving. No, I have often preferred what I call the slam-and-jam method.

Someone presents me with a problem — sick child, malfunctioning computer, or, say, gun violence — and I immediately spout out a list of strategies for solving the problem.

It looks like this:

Adult child: “Mom, I’m sick. My throat hurts, I’m tired, and I have a headache.”

Me: “Zyrtec, Motrin, rest, and fluids.”

Or this:

Co-worker: “Kristin, I keep losing my internet connection with my student.”

Me: “Refresh. If that doesn’t work, restart. If that doesn’t work, have the student restart. If that doesn’t work, have the student re-set his wifi.”

Or this:

Everyday newscast: “One person was killed and three injured in yet another attack on a synagogue. The accused is said to have used an AR-type assault weapon.”

Me: “Get those damn assault weapons off the street, prohibit violent shooter video games, and provide more access to mental health services.”

Now, I’m not gonna lie. My rapid-fire reactions to these types of solutions are pretty accurate and effective most of the time (although the gun violence theory has yet to be tested), but they are really just first-level responses. They are quick fixes. I am the master of quick-fixes — patch ’em up, move ’em out. But here’s the thing — the wounded lying on my couches didn’t need quick fixes. They needed a slow deep examination of each piece. They needed me to pour over the mess for five minutes or five hours every day…sitting, puzzling, searching, seeing.

Actually, many problems need a quick response — immediate attention– and a longer look. Once the initial crisis is somehow averted, we need to look at causes, repercussions, and long-term solutions.

Like this:

Me: “This is the fourth time you’ve called me not feeling well this month. Are you eating right? getting enough rest? How many days have you had to miss work? Do you think you should see a doctor? attend to more self-care?”

or this:

Me: “It seems you always have tech issues with this student. How much instructional time have we lost? Can we have IT evaluate the situation? Do we need a new computer?”

or this:

Me: “What causes a 19 year old kid to drive to a synagogue and shoot at people? Why did he have an automatic weapon? Why are there so many attacks on faith communities — Jewish, Muslim, Christian — lately? How many lives have been lost to gun violence since Columbine? What damage are these attacks doing to the fabric of our nation where “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Which right is more important — the right to worship in safety or the right to own an automatic weapon? What would it take for Americans to come together and decide that enough is enough? What will it take?”

Sometimes you have to sit with these pieces, move them around on the table, look at them from different angles, and see them in ways that you never saw them before.

I had been working on my black and white puzzle for several months. Actually, I’d been kind of shuffling by it, nudging two or three pieces, and then walking away. I was getting nowhere. I couldn’t find any movement. I was beginning to consider tossing it back in the box unfinished. Was it really worth my time and trouble? Certainly I’d never finish this one.

Enter my brother-in-law, Jerry, who, with my sister-in-law, was staying with us for a few days. I jokingly said, as I say to everyone who comes in our home, “bonus points to guests who sit at the puzzle table and put in a few pieces.” He laughed and shook his head, “oh, man, that looks like a tough one.” Then he, like most people do, turned his back to the puzzle and chatted with me while I prepared dinner. Just as I figured, he wouldn’t bite. I was on my own.

A couple hours later, I was sitting in the other room, and Jerry walked in, “Hey, I got a couple pieces put in.”

“You did?” I said, standing and walking to the kitchen. At that point, it was hard to tell if any progress had been made. Two to three pieces out of 1000 do not a dramatic difference make, but Jerry stayed at our house for three days.

He developed a system and brought me in to collaborate. We spent twenty minutes here and twenty minutes there puzzling together. And guess what happened — we began to see progress.

Jerry at the puzzle table.

We sat together, looking at hundreds of black and white pieces, putting them in place, and watching an image slowly appear.

Now, did I craft this metaphor? Did I intentionally select an image of Abraham Lincoln, a great American liberator, to work on during a season of unprecedented gun violence? Did I consider that the black and white pieces might match the attitudes that I and many others have held about race, religion, and guns? Did I imagine the time it would take to sift, and sort, and examine before a coherent image would begin to appear? Did I understand that complicated problems often require collaboration? Did I know in advance that black and white and gray can come together to create something that has complexity and depth?

No.

Sometimes, this stuff is sitting right in front of us, and we don’t recognize it. Sometimes we get so frustrated we want to walk away. Sometimes we need to let others see the mess on our tables (or on our couches) and invite them to help us sort it out, see it in a different way, partner with us in finding solutions.

Got any brokenness lying around your place? Let me know if you’d like a partner to sit at your table to help sort the pieces.

you take brokenness aside and make it beautiful, beautiful.

All Sons and Daughters, “Brokenness Aside”