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April 2009

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Recreational Repenting of Others


I was walking along Canal Street in New Orleans with Bob, a friend, colleague, and a good Catholic man. He described his continuing challenge to be the man he wants to be. Often he falls short in one area or another. He told me that God occasionally taps him on the forehead with a twig—inviting him to overcome a fault. If he doesn’t respond, God starts tapping him with a stick. When that doesn’t stir him to repentance, God uses a railroad tie. Then he described a specific kind of challenge that often gets to him. “When people are overbearing, it gets me every time.”

I’m not sure if God uses railroad ties as one of His teaching methods. I’m not sure He even uses sticks. But I think that Bob was right about the central idea. When there is a flaw in our characters, God patiently provides opportunities for us to trade in the faults for a little more divine nature. The irritation we feel is an invitation to change the way we think and feel. Unfortunately, human nature commonly prefers our faults to His mighty change.

This provides an expansive opportunity for Satan. The prince of darkness tries to convince us that our faults are actually virtues. He laughs when we sin and feel noble about it.

You make me so mad!

Being angry is a prime example. We regularly get indignant when someone does something rude and thoughtless. Each of us has different triggers. But almost all of us have some predictable trigger that ignites our irritation. If we dwell on it, our irritation grows into anger and wrath. Someone is being wicked and we see our wrath as the instinctive (and righteous) response to badness. We put on the prophetic mantle and call them to repentance.

We only rarely sense that we add our own sin to the offender’s sin when we respond to badness with judgment and anger. Then the offender gets upset and defensive. He and I work furiously to justify ourselves and nobody repents. Satan laughs. We have been sucked into the vortex of judgment by our stubborn self-righteousness.

The call to repentance

Let me express the idea more baldly. When I am irritated, it is my fault. The irritation I feel is an invitation for me to repent.

Let me give examples. I try hard to be a positive guy. Sure, I have all the natural man scripts running like Muzak in the background of my mind. But I try to choose to see the good and dwell on it.

I have had amazing friends, teachers, and bosses who are wonderfully positive. Phil Ellis is one of those. His encouragement years ago still blesses my life. But I have also had bosses who are negative, critical, and seem to never see any good in my work.

My instinctive response to such bosses is to be defensive. I look for faults in the boss. I brood. Then my brooding spills into discussions with others. Pretty soon I have created a battleground on which truth and goodness are the inevitable casualties. I have responded to negativity with negativity. I am guilty of the very sin that offended me.

If confronted with my misdeeds, I might protest: “What was I to do in the face of such corrosive negativity?” Eternity whispers the reply: “You might have been a Christian.”

Ouch. That hurts.

“But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;” (Matt. 5:44).

In every experience of irritation, Jesus invites me to become more like Him. I can see the offender with compassion and I can act with charity. To be specific, I can see a boss who is stressed and overwhelmed. I can see jibes as an attempt to connect and communicate. And, if I call on the Fount of goodness, I can respond redemptively.

A parenting example

We have a grandson whose boundless energy regularly gets him crosswise with the world. The doctor says he has ADHD. His teacher says he is careless. His parents are overwhelmed with the unique challenges provided by him and his three siblings. One day, playing ball with me and his sister, he knocked her down in his drive for the ball. I am tempted to be angry with a boy who seems to always be hurting people around him. The natural man is inclined to lecture and punish him. But, if I apply compassion and charity—as God is inviting me to do, I respond differently.

Compassion calls me to realize how often this goodhearted little boy gets in trouble. I realize that he doesn’t get much kindness and appreciation to soothe his soul. Such compassionate thoughts soften me. With compassion in my heart, my mind is energized to think redemptively.

I put my arm around the boy. “Oops. You knocked your sister down. Let’s sit and think for a moment.” The boy sits while his sister and I continue to play. He knows that his job is to take a few deep breaths and prepare to do some repenting. After he has a few minutes to self-soothe, I sit by him. “Can you tell me what went wrong?” He starts to tell me what his sister did wrong. But I figure that each of us should repent only ourselves. “Take a couple more minutes and see if you can figure out where you went wrong.”

His sister and I play a couple more minutes and I sit with him again. I put my arm around him. “Can you tell me where you went wrong?” He is softer now. “I pushed my sister in order to get the ball.” “Yeah,” I reply. It hurt her, didn’t it?” He nods. “What do you think you could do differently?” He sighs. “I could play gentler.” “I think that would make you a better ball player and a better brother.” I squeeze him. “Are you ready to try again?”

If we play very long, there is a good chance that his energy will again bump into some else’s well-being. We will have another chat. It takes a long time to learn to manage all these human impulses–especially when we have so much energy. But we who love these little people must be prepared to provide healing love and patient teaching for a lifetime.

A marital example

In parenting, irritation comes and goes. Marriage is the perfect arena for steady irritation. In fact, if we practice our irritation faithfully, we can learn to think of our partner as “a teeming flaw colony,” as Dave Barry described the attitude.

At the beginning of most relationships, things were different. We dwelt on the good and minimized the bad. Over time some of the shine wore off. We became less willing to focus on the good. We let the irritations bother us more. Eventually irritation can become the theme of the relationship. We’ve all seen it, couples who have been together forever but argue about everything. They live what the song title describes: “I’m So Miserable Without You, It’s Almost Like Having You Here.”

Let me give you an example of a newlywed couple we love dearly. The husband is an easy-going and funny guy from a small town. The wife comes from the city, works in the fashion industry, and is wound tighter than her husband. You can see the battle coming, can’t you! He is heedless of appearance and says things she considers goofy. She appreciates his kindness but gets irritated by some of his actions.

Being in the early years of marriage, they are laying a foundation for what is to come. She can pester him about his shortcomings. He will become more distant and sullen. Or maybe he will deliberately annoy her. The years will pass and the bad feelings will accumulate. They will be one of those couples that can’t stand to be together and can’t stand to be apart.

Or there is another choice. Each partner can see his or her own irritation as an invitation to repent. Irritation is not so much about what my partner is doing wrong but how I am thinking wrong. I can repent. I can choose to see the good. I can see the differences as a blessing. I can allow my partner to be different from me. I can choose to learn from my partner and to feel blessed by my partner.

Fixing people is really God’s prerogative. Only as we become more godly should we presume to change another person. And here’s the great irony: As we become more godly, we enjoy people more and more just as they are. I don’t care if they change.

Let’s all repent.

Uncategorized

Bailing Water and Building Souls


A sage and revered man asked a question in our high priest group meeting: “We believe in helping people. We helped the Jones family when their basement flooded. But it floods every few years. When do we stop helping them?”

In the group were past bishops and stake presidents. For them the question was very real; they had faced the same or similar issues while representing the Lord in their wards and stakes.

There was a lively discussion with very different recommendations. Once again two true principles came into tension. Compassion versus responsibility. Caring versus stretched resources.

One brother asked whether the ward was robbing the family of growth opportunities by jumping in to help with basement repairs. “When will Brother Jones learn to sheetrock if we keep doing it for him?”

This is the clash of the titans. We believe in choice and accountability. The war in heaven was fought over agency. Yet, on the other side, is compassion. Jesus kept surprising and scandalizing His contemporaries by showing compassion where they were inclined to slap sanctions or pile penalties. The woman taken in adultery. The injured man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The woman at the well. The lepers.

I don’t believe that a brutal battle between compassion and responsibility is the way to settle this continuing struggle. I recommend two different solutions.

Making creative use of tension

In the research on marriage, one of the stock recommendations is to make creative (rather than destructive) use of differences. Rather than batter our spouses with their “inadequacies,” we can learn from our different strengths. But this will only happen when our hearts and minds are right.

Curiously absent from most marital battles and many discussions of helping the poor is life-giving creativity. We are tempted to settle challenging issues with petty rule-applying. Sometimes a smallness of soul is evident in our harsh judging of folks who are facing hard times.

Yet God is supremely creative. When we get His spirit, we are too.

In the group discussion about flooded basements, one gentle brother jumped in: “The best way for Brother Jones to learn to sheetrock is to do it with us.” That is one creative solution.

There is still another way creativity might be applied. Rather than periodically repair the Joneses’ basement, maybe we could draw on the resources of the ward to come up with a long-term solution. Rather than complain about the repeated repairs, maybe we could find a way to divert the water that has periodically flooded the basement.

Creativity keeps surprising us. One brother in the group told about an Eskimo woman he knew in Alaska. Her utilities were often shut off. The church would rally to get them turned on again. Yet it wasn’t long before the utilities were again shut off for non-payment. It finally dawned on the ward members that this good woman was used to living without utilities. She was used to chopping wood and hauling water. So they provided different help. They supplemented her wood supply. As she aged and her body began to fail, they provided more wood and helped her haul water.

A young couple in our ward is without regular work. They are trying very hard but keep falling short. So when Kroger’s has a sale on cases of peanut butter, we buy a case for us and a case for them. Food was never better stored than in the soul of one of God’s children.

Like many people, I worry about giving to panhandlers who ask for money because they are hungry. We have all heard stories of money poured into alcohol and scammers who prey on the gullible. I am tempted to ignore my responsibility by issuing a summary judgment on their souls. Yet I have known for years that I am dishonoring Jesus when I do that. So, in an imperfect attempt to be both creative and compassionate, I have started carrying a few jars and cans of food in the car. I do not know if the panhandler is genuinely hungry or merely idle, but I can be prepared to feed those who claim to be hungry.

Being gracious

My second recommendation is to be gracious. We who must repeatedly cross the bridge of mercy should not blow it up for others. We should thank God who built it and we should thank all who maintain it every time we cross it.

Those of us who have lived relatively safe and privileged lives should be very cautious about judging and condescending toward those for whom life has been a relentless struggle. We might become like Pharisees shivering at the sight of a leper. We might start to drink the Calvinist punch that wealth and well-being are signs of God’s approval.

We who are less than the dust of the earth should be constantly grateful for the breath that God lends us, the sacrifice He made to rescue us, the mansions He labors to prepare for us. It is painfully ungracious to judge ourselves as deserving while judging others as undeserving. Is it possible that the Jobs among us are enrolled in spiritual graduate school while God allows many of us to repeat 3rd grade until we are ready to advance a mere grade? We who take untold years to learn the basics ought not to judge harshly those who groan under the demands of advanced training.

Heading toward Zion

And the Lord called his people ZION, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them. (Moses 7:18)

Along with creativity, we need a change of heart. If there are no poor in Zion, it must be because all people work together. We are of one heart and one mind. When a tree falls on any house, it is felt in all souls. When water fills any basement, it calls all neighbors to action.

I remember when Nancy and I suffered another in a series of miscarriages. A family in the ward brought us dinner. We did not really need the food. Yet we wept with joy because of their compassion and graciousness. We were lifted by their love.

If we are to be followers of Jesus, we must lead with compassion. Responsibility is the framework; compassion is the heart and soul of a saint.

I do not believe that we should create dependency; I believe in responsibility. But only an inspired priesthood leader has the right to regulate the flow of church resources. My personal responsibility is to do all I can to help God’s children. My job is to be a messenger of hope and grace—to have a giving heart and ready hands.

God does not expect me to run faster than I am able; all things should be done in wisdom and order. Yet I have learned that, as I am more willing, God makes me more able. How many times would Jesus want me to bail and repair the Joneses’ basement?

Maybe seventy times seven.