Broad Strokes Paint Poor Portraits

I know this has been happening since time immemorial, but in the past year, I have been increasingly disappointed by seemingly rational people casting wide, sweeping generalizations of all sorts over all types, classes, races, religions, and genders of people. The Left is ________. The Right is ________. Gay people are ________. Evangelicals are ________. Millenials are ________. Gen Xers are ________. Men are ________. Women are ________. Feminists are ________. White males are ________. Black Lives Matter are ________. Police are ________. Christians are ________. Muslims are ________.

Things, unfortunately, are not that simple. I think viewing the world through the filter of Facebook has made it feel like a growing epidemic because 95% (this is not a real statistic) of the people on the internet say things that they would never say if even one human being from whatever populace they are discussing were standing in front of them. And therein lies the problem.

Broad strokes paint poor portraits. Anytime you try to categorize people, shove them into a box, make them fit whatever stereotype helps you make sense of the world, you are distorting them as individuals.

Because each of these groups of people is made up of hundreds of thousands of individuals who have hopes and dreams and mostly want good things just like you do. Whether they agree with what good is or go about getting it the same way you do is not the question. Disagreement does not even come into play in this discussion. We’re not discussing ideologies, but humanity and the intrinsic worth and complicated emotions and desires that come with it.

Portraits are unique and distinct. They are nuanced and shadowed and, in good ones, there is something intangible that helps you almost feel like you know the person portrayed. If you could look at the details, the histories, the loves, and the fears of each individual within any person your world view has tried to turn into a cliche, you would find a soul just as worthy as your own.

Our broad strokes are embarrassing. It is like drawing a stick figure and saying it is the spitting image of everyone in whichever subset you are discussing. This is not only rude; it is illogical. It is the thing children do when they are afraid. We are scrawling children’s drawings on people’s faces and turning them into boogeymen instead of human souls.

I am completely aware that some people fit stereotypes. That’s why they exist. But only the ignorant actually judge people by them. Because there are many, many more who do NOT fit the blanket categorization applied to them. No person is just one thing. They are infinite worlds unto themselves that we will never be able to fully comprehend.

Portraits are not something you create overnight. You must be engaged with someone in order to see them fully – to see them around corners and in the dark, behind doors and when the curtain is pulled back. It’s not always pretty, but let’s refrain from painting over three-dimensional people with our flat preconceived notions.

To Say or Not to Say

I am a “say-er” of things. By that, I mean that I almost always say something if I think it needs to be said. If I have a poor customer service experience, someone is probably going to hear about it. If someone hurts my feelings, I’m probably going to tell them. If I am treated unjustly, I’m probably going to fight it.

I have tried to curb this as I’ve gotten older and realized that 1) some battles can’t be won, 2) some people don’t care, and 3) sometimes I just need to let things go (this is VERY difficult for me).

I have gone through phases of being better and worse at it, that’s for sure. I do attempt to think before I speak more than I used to. I have a big problem accepting it when people don’t do what they say they will, especially, when they have presented themselves as Christians, or, at least, as people of integrity.

I had one such experience the other day. I don’t want to give out the details. It was one of those that put me in a bad mood due to someone’s disregard and negligence and subsequent lack of remorse or apology, though it was something that had been agreed upon long before, and resulted in me being out some money.

I held my tongue. It was hard for me to hold my tongue. I took Thumper’s advice: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”

The next day I found out something about that person’s circumstances that made me really glad I had not responded in anger. Regardless of the fact that the actions were wrong, if I had spoken my mind in that instant, I would have regretted it the next day.

So, I’ve been trying to think back to other scenarios when I felt that I should keep my peace. Any time I’ve felt strongly that I should not go to bat for myself, and I’ve actually obeyed that little voice – in the end, I have been happy that I kept silent.

I should state that there are times when I feel no compunction at all about standing up for whatever situation or whatever wrong has been done. There are many times I’ve been happy that I spoke out.

But I think there are a too many instances when I have NOT listened to those little whisperings from the Holy Spirit and continued on with my rampage despite feeling like I shouldn’t. Those are the times I regret.

Some people don’t have the same issues I do. Some people have trouble standing up for themselves at all.

It’s a line that only the Holy Spirit can draw for us, whether it’s one of those times that something needs to be said, or one of those times we need to let it go. Hopefully, I’ll remember this next time I hear that little voice!

Different and Confused

This world is hard.  We all know that, though some to greater extents.  But sometimes things happen that just make you look at that fact…look at it square in the face as if it were a person.  They hit you in such a way on a certain day that you want them to change your life, to change your heart, to change you forever and not just to pass you by with a glance, but you WANT to look at them that way in order to be forced to acknowledge them.

Yesterday I had a couple of those experiences.  They weren’t my own sufferings, and probably were the more poignant for it.  There was a woman with her daughter.  I didn’t think anything of it, the daughter was probably around my age and looked normal.  Then she started talking to me.  And I couldn’t understand her.  It was immediately clear that the girl had what I assumed was a developmental disability or something of that nature.  I thought I was catching some words, but really the only one I was certain of was “confused,” which I got that she was saying as a reference to her mother who was a bit frazzled. The daughter continued to talk to me, and, in the circumstances, not really being able to hear or understand her well, I just nodded and smiled.  Before they left, the mother said, “Confused is her word for weird or out of place.  She was in a car accident and when she woke up, the first thing she said was, ‘I’m different now, and confused.'”  I know that life-long disabilities have seemingly insurmountable challenges, but something about suddenly understanding that this girl used to be just like me, and that tragedy changed her, couldn’t settle in my brain.  The idea of her understanding what she had lost, and the thoughts of what the parents must have felt knowing their daughter was probably never going to do the things she had aspired to do before – it just hung with me.

Then I went to a store to exchange something on my lunch break.  I heard a woman who worked there say something behind me, and I thought she was speaking to me.  I asked her what she said because I didn’t hear her well, and she said, “I was just praying for God to rescue me from my life.”  We had a few back and forth interactions.  She told me that she already served her time in prison and she couldn’t take this anymore, clearly intimating that what she was living now still felt like a prison to her.  I didn’t really offer her anything of substance…I just gave a tiny bit of listening.  In hindsight, I wish I had done all kinds of things, but that doesn’t matter now because I can’t go backwards in time, so I’m trying not to dwell on it.

When I was leaving the store, the woman from before was there with her daughter, and I suddenly felt blasted with other people’s pain – not in such a way as in I wished that it hadn’t happened, but in such a way that I was suddenly overwhelmed by the magnitude of it.  Not just their pain, but the pain of the billions of people whose sufferings they represent.

And I felt my smallness.  I don’t just mean in that way of, “Oh, I wish I could help everyone, but you can only do so much.”  I mean in the way that I know I could do a lot more for people than I do…I felt my emotional and spiritual smallness.  I was inadequate.

I had a lot of thoughts throughout the day.  I thought about how often I feel “different and confused” myself, which on the surface seems like it would be in a very different way from the daughter, but then I wondered how different is it really?  Different and confused is different and confused no matter where you’re coming from.  (I’m not saying all of the thoughts I had are true, I’m just telling you what they were.)  And I wondered if that car wreck actually could have saved that girl from some other unspeakable horror.  She seemed genuinely happy.  Maybe it wasn’t the worst thing that could’ve happened to her?

I thought about the other lady and how sometimes all of our lives can feel like a prison, and how sometimes that is just life and I even found myself wondering if she was just lazy.  (Many of my thoughts are not highly honorable, I’m just being honest.)

I think that a lot of my thoughts were being formed by the sub-conscious desire to make sense of it, to compartmentalize it and make it OK.  But the fact is that it’s not OK.  Just because suffering is common to all man does not mean it is something that we should walk un-feelingly by or be able to dismiss because it falls into something we can categorize as “acceptable” or “understandable”.

I came home, and though I wasn’t thinking of it in relation to the days happenings, and quite unintentionally since I meant to be reading Proverbs, I began reading in Ecclesiastes.  I couldn’t have read something more appropriate.  Vanity indeed.  All of the things we seek and all of the atrocities that occur because of it are pointless.  What was comforting was the acknowledgment of evil:  “If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not marvel at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them.” – Ecclesiastes 5:8

God is the highest of those high officials, and he is aware of injustice and suffering, and He’s got it.  Though all the seeking of pleasure and riches and even wisdom (though he admits it better than folly), he considers vain, it all boils down to what he says at the last, “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.  For God will bring every deed in to judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”  It is also interesting to me how even in what seems like a most pessimistic view, Solomon still wants you to fight for justice.  We are to mete out the mercy as God’s emissaries, indeed, it’s part of those commandments we are advised to keep:  “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” – Psalm 82:3-4

I want to be severely affected by the reality of other people’s pain.  I want God’s mercy to flow from me to the hurting and oppressed.  I want to cease the vain attempts at satisfaction that, from experience, Solomon tells us will never fulfill.

If Only I Had an Enemy…

Lately I’ve had a lot of thoughts about my lack of concern for other people.  My husband and I have been talking a lot about all of the times the Bible, often through Jesus, says to be kind to the strangers, to show hospitality to them, to visit the sick, to care for the orphans and widows, to feed the hungry, to clothe the poor, to love your neighbor as yourself (expounded on in the story of the Good Samaritan), etc.  There are a lot of them.  Here are a few:

Galatians 5:13-14: For you were called to freedom, brothers.  Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.  For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

James 2:8-9: If you fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “Thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself,” you do well.  But if you have respect to persons, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

John 13:34-35: A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one to another.

John 15:9: As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue in my love.

John 15:12-13: This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you.  Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

John 15:17: These things I command you, that you love one another.

Matthew 22:37-40: Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the Prophets.

Mark 10:42-45:  And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  But it shall not be so among you.  But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man [Jesus] came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

James 2:14-18: What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith, but does not have works?  Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body what good is that?   So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.  But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.”  Show me your faith apart fro your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.

James 1:27: Pure and undefiled religion before our God and father is this, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

I could keep going, but the point is, I think that I have somehow overlooked the radical nature of what it means if I actually DID this consistently in my daily life, and not just as an occasional “act of kindness” in order to make me feel good about myself.  Right here, my flesh really wants to defend myself, and tell you that I do sometimes do nice things…and I do, but I think I recuse myself from this responsibility far too often.  Sometimes it is time-related: I say I am too busy, but I still manage to fit my favorite TV shows in.  Sometimes it is comfort: I feel that I need some sort of embossed invitation in order to make sure that putting myself outside of my comfort zone is what God wants of me.  Sometimes it is pure laziness: I just don’t want to.  Sometimes it is fear: what if I try to reach out and it is not welcomed, appreciated, effective?

I was kind of down a few weeks ago; I was (and still am) feeling convicted about how little of my time is spent intentionally reaching out to others in distress.  I was reading in the Bible and came across chapter 58 of Isaiah.  I was stunned…we had been discussing all of the Scriptures telling us to help others, to love others, and I was in a sort of spiritual funk, feeling like I didn’t know how to get out of it.  And then I read this:

Isaiah 58: 3-12: “Why have we fasted and you see it not?  Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?”  Behold, in the day of your fast, you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers.  Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist.  Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high.  Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself?  Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?  Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?  Is not THIS the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?  THEN shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your  healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.  THEN you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’  If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, THEN shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.  And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy YOUR desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.

It’s a lot like some things Jesus said in the New Testament as well, that acts of “religion” are not regarded by him:  Matthew 6:16-18 – “Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting.  Truly, I say to you, they have their reward in full.  But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others, but by your Father who is in secret.  And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  And also as it says in Psalm 51, “For you do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; you are not pleased with burnt offering.  The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

He doesn’t want us following a list of rules; he doesn’t even want us (per Isaiah 58) to pray and fast and mourn and cry out to him if we don’t plan to act on his words about helping those around us.  He wants our hearts.  He wants them because he wants them to love…him first because that enables us to do the second, which is loving one another.

As I said, I was feeling pretty down before I read Isaiah 58, but it literally gives you a cure for depression.  It says (paraphrasing), “Care for these people, and your gloom will lift.  Meet the desires of the afflicted, and the Lord will meet your desires.  Where you felt disconnected from him (the Lord), he will show up.  Where you were feeling empty and destroyed, you will begin to bloom again.”  Wow.  Depression is caused by selfishness?  It actually makes sense.  We are depressed largely because we are wanting something for ourselves, which we are not getting, feeling, experiencing.  Even if those things are good things, i.e. the presence of God as it discusses in the chapter, we are depressed over them because we are self-focused instead of others-focused.  It’s like all of the things the Lord asks of us, He asks for us to give up self, to die to self even (Galatians 2:20), but it is all because that is what, in the end, will satisfy our deepest longings.  “For this light, momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory, beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen.  For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18)

There is a song by Mumford & Sons with one single line that has run over and over in my head since the first time I heard it…”if only I had an enemy bigger than my apathy, I could have won.”  I often think that our battle would be more easily won if the enemy were like David’s.  As he was speaking to Goliath, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.”  At least in our American culture, our enemies are much more subtle: 2 Corinthians 11: 14-15 – “And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.  So, it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.  Their end will correspond to their deeds.”  My enemy is indeed a master of deceit, he is Satan, the Father of Lies (John 8:44) disguised as my own feelings of laziness, apathy, selfishness – if I were to see those things as they really are, even my flesh would rail against them.  I would be appalled at their ugliness.  I watched a video recently about reaching out to the poor and hungry, though I can’t remember what it was from.  At one point in the video, there is a man, clearly starving and malnourished, on his hands and knees, reaching out his hand to a man walking by…but the man doesn’t stop.  He doesn’t even look.  That image has also run through my mind over and over since I saw it.  I am the man who is just walking by, not looking.  One hundred years ago, in our world, we had the excuse of ignorance, the excuse of the logistical difficulties of helping, even if we learned of an issue around the world.  Now, we have no excuse.  Even if there were no hurting, no starving, no poor, no sick around us (which there are), it is so easy to send aid to anyone anywhere in the world.  We have no end of information about those who need help, and no limit to the ways we can help them.  My enemy has become more clear, as I have pictured that man, reaching out to me as I walk out of my house to my car, as I walk into church.  I cannot escape him as he stretches out his arm, pleading for aid.  My enemy is my self-absorption…my desire for a smart phone, though with the extra $ I would pay on my monthly bill, I could probably feed that man each month; my desire for a vacation that, even on a budget, would probably cost more than that man has ever seen, because I “deserve” it…as if that man does not deserve to eat…to live.  If there were a starving man outside my door, even one starving man, I would be callous and cruel to walk past him each day, living comfortably in my relative luxury, but taking no notice.  But there is not just one starving man, there are 15 million children dying every year, and they are all reaching out to me.

So, what will I do?  I am not sure, specifically.  But I know that I MUST cease pretending I am obeying Christ’s words while only nominally reaching out to others who need help.  I must view my apathy as the enemy that it is.  I must take the Scriptures I have included and am including below to heart.  Here’s an interview that my husband did with a man who has done just that, transforming his Christian life from what he acknowledges was just going through the motions, to a life that reflects Christ and his power: Victor’s Story.  Please listen, and note how he embodies the precepts in the texts below:

Matthew 25: 31-46: When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.  Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’  Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  And when did  see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.’  Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  Then they will also answer saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’  Then he will answer them saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’  And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

Luke 10:25-37: And behold a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

I Corinthians 13: If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

On a Bad Day…

OK, so most of the people who know me are aware that I am, ahem…forthright.  On a good day, this is generally an asset for me.  On a bad day, it sometimes gets me in trouble, i.e. my bluntness makes people mad at me, and thereby my bad day just gets worse.  But yesterday the opposite happened.

I was at deli with some friends, ordering a sandwich that was $6.35.  I’m thinking this is pretty expensive for a sandwich and I had already had a somewhat frustrating day.  So, after I ordered it, the following conversation ensued:

Me: “What comes with that?”

Deli Guy: “Chips and a pickle.”

Me: “Can I get something besides chips?”

Deli Guy: “Yes.  For 99 cents, you can get pasta…”

Me (interrupting): “What if I don’t want to pay 99 cents?” (You know, I’m already thinking I’m paying an awful lot for a sandwich.)

Deli Guy: “Then you get chips.”

Me: “What if I don’t want chips?”

Deli Guy: “Then I won’t give you chips.”

Me: “Am I still paying for the chips?”

Deli Guy: “Yes.”

Me: “So, I have to get the chips or I’m paying for nothing?”

Deli Guy: “Yes.”

Me: “Give me the chips.”  But before I moved on, I added, “I’m sorry.  I’m just grouchy.  It’s not your fault.”

So, we went and sat down and ate.  The deli had slowed down a bit by now and we were in conversation, when all of a sudden a hand appears in front of me with a bowl of fruit.  I look up, and it’s the deli guy.  He sets it down, and says, “I hope your day gets better,” and disappears.

And my day did get better, thanks to him.