Why do I HAVE to Love People I Don’t Even Like?

If I say I love chocolate (which I do…INTENSLY!) that seems like a very extreme version of like. After all, I’m sure my reaction to my first taste was, “Hum, I like this stuff.” But, liking chocolate is not pining for it, dreaming about it, or finding every opportunity to indulge in it. That came later. Probably not much later.

If I just liked it I wouldn’t ask my husband to hide it from me and then search for it when he’s not here (kinda funny since the only place he can think to hide it is in the freezer – “Oh, my…there it is!”). And, I might add, I have grown to delight in it in a manner likened to the Matthew 13:46 hidden treasure! That’s pure unadulterated love!

Relationships can be very different. You may be in a relationship with someone you have never liked. If you’re stuck there how do you get to the love part?

eddie vacation

I have been reflecting on that question in light of my own relationships. In particular, my family of origin – more specifically, my relationship with my brother and sister. A little background would be helpful here: My sister is eight years older than me, and my brother is two years older. So, you know what that makes me – that’s right – the “baby.”

me as baby
What’s not to love here?!

Being the baby of the family never really afforded me any special perks. Even so, my siblings treated me like I needed a constant reminder that I was NOT special. When we were left alone they relentlessly tormented and bullied me. To be fair, I was probably obnoxious. But that didn’t give them license to beat me up, and then do everything in their power to get me in trouble when our parents returned home.

three stooges

When I was younger, my mother forced my brother to play with me because I had no friends to play with. He and his friends would use me for their football, throw things at me, and try to dismember me with a Frisbee. That damn thing hurt, but I never let them see me cry! Sometimes they would just chase me around the yard until I gave up and went inside, only to return the next day for more.

My sister would initiate fun activities for her and my brother, and intentionally exclude me. One time, I was so angry with my brother’s unrelenting teasing that I put my fist through the glass of a door he slammed shut on me. That hurt too, but no tears from this tough kid!

wonderwoman

I’m not sure what my parent’s reasoning was the Christmas they gave my brother and me one sled – to share. That ended badly when his friends chased me down the hill on theirs trying to intimidate me into leaving. I swung mine around just in time to knock out the two front teeth of one of them.

shit just got real

It was pretty satisfying, even when my brother ran home to tell my mom, and his friend ran home crying. I knew it was not going to go well for me and I didn’t care.

As bad as all that was, what makes it worse is that I do not recall any happy moments to off-set our feelings toward each other. Soon after our mother died, I called my sister, she had been drinking at the time. She cried, saying over and over “Mom loved you best”! – I was so surprised to hear her say that. My recollection was that our mother never loved anyone.

After our father died, we rarely saw each other. Often, I can’t remember how long the gaps are between our conversations. If I had to guess I would say that I speak to them about three times a year. The times we do talk, or see each other, we say, “I love you.” Truth be told, we would have been hard pressed to say we ever even liked each other. I always believed that too much pain had divided us and lack of forgiveness left open wounds.

Then, recently, I read and reread the story of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis (37:1-50:21). Poor Joseph didn’t have just two siblings to deal with, he had eleven! And most of them hated him because he was their father’s favorite. They hated him so much they plotted together to kill him. If not for his one brother, Judah, they would have succeeded.

Here’s the part that caused me to think more deeply than I ever have about my relationship with my brother and sister. Before Joseph was raised to a position of power, he suffered as a slave in Egypt. Years passed before he saw his brothers again. When he did, he wept for love of them. What kind of love is this? It was the time of the seven year famine, and he controlled the grain bins. His brothers used to laugh at him because he dreamed of greatness. Their fate was now in his hands. Revenge would have been so sweet right then.

As Christians, we are taught that God loves us deeply. But, how often do we ponder just how much he likes us? I mean really, really likes us? And, if we are called to be Christ-like towards others, then it stands to reason that if we don’t like others, then we can’t possibly, truly, love them.

How often, when I tell my sister or brother that I love them, do I consider what those words really mean in the context of my Christian faith? What I should believe about love, I have failed to live, because it’s too demanding, so I give it lip service. Because we are supposed to love everyone, even our enemies, we settle for spewing empty words that sound like love, in an effort to rid ourselves of guilt. That’s cheap love.

Then it happened. Recently, (compelled, I’m sure, by you-know-Who), my husband and I drove to the house I grew up in and knocked on the door. The lady that bought the house from us still lived there, and welcomed us in. As I walked through the house, everything looked different. What surprised me was that my past experiences of that time in my life no longer seemed to have a claim on me. They did not dredge up the anger I felt for so long.

Later, we went to my brothers to visit, and then to my sisters. Again, the experience was different. When we left, and I said, “I love you” to them, I meant it. More importantly, I felt it! And, I do believe that they really do love me as best they can. And maybe, just maybe, our mother loved us too – the best she could.

I can tell you that my heart has changed, but will that translate into my being a more loving sister? Will I call more often, visit more often, pray for them, and think of them lovingly? Will I actually like them? Will they like me?

After Joseph was reunited with his brothers he gave and gave and gave to them without asking for anything in return…and…as far as we know…he never got so much as a “thank you” or “gee we’re sorry about that whole pit incident and selling you off to slavery.” After their father died, Joseph’s brothers feared he was hiding anger that would explode into revenge. To their surprise, he was not angry or vengeful. He did tell them, “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good….” (Genesis 50:20). God used that experience, just as he uses ours, to turn our pain and hurt into compassion and mercy for others.

As for me, I know that all that has happened in my life has had a profound impact on the person I am today: The good, the bad, and the ugly. But, if I allow God to work in and through those areas of brokenness, by his grace, good will prevail.

Now, as I pray for my brother, sister, and their families, I pray they will know God’s love and mercy, and that in some small way I can manifest that love. I once heard the expression concerning people we encounter, in particular people we don’t like, “You may be the only Christ that person meets.” That is a responsibility of all Christians; to be Christ to others; the Christ who loves deeply and unconditionally.

me and sister
Yeah, she’s smiling now. I’m bigger and faster than her! It’s a good thing I love you Sista!

Do You Want to be Made Well – or What?

I love today’s gospel of John (5:-5-6), “Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’”

do you want to be healed

REALLY!? Come on. Why would he ask that? Jesus could end thirty-eight years of misery for this guy! Is there any possibility that he would say, “no”? Well, yes there is. I know that for a fact, because I have said “no” to God longer than that! I turned my back on Him and suffered a life of emptiness for years. Truth be told, I still suffer the consequences every time I close my heart to God and choose to go my own way.

Most of my life I was angry and self-indulgent (I often still am). My faith was shallow and lifeless (it, maybe not so often, still is). I continually picked at the scabs of the wounds inflicted by others, refusing to forgive, and at the same time denying my own sinfulness (yeah, you guessed it – still doing that).

As I began to really listen to God’s word, and began to meet and know some faithful Christians, I became aware of an unexplainable longing in my heart. That was God, though I didn’t know it at the time. I found myself getting bolder at reaching out to God and to others, and proclaiming my faith. Though I still considered myself unworthy of anyone’s love, especially God’s love, and I could not allow anyone to minister to me.

I was also learning, belatedly, to become a better parent. God had a plan that parenting skills would be passed down from generation to generation, but some of us have to look elsewhere for guidance. As much as I resented my mother for abusing me, and as determined as I was not to be like her…I was. Her way was the only way I knew. But then God showed up, initially in the ministry of Dr. James Dobson (author of several excellent parenting books), and I’m forever grateful for that.

As I poured more and more of myself into my children, however, a new reality was setting in. My husband and I were headed for disaster. I begged him to look honestly at our relationship, all the while refusing to do it myself. I prayed that we could work harder to mend our hurts and strengthen our marriage. But my pleading fell on deaf ears and my fears were becoming a reality.

One by one, our children were leaving home and my husband and I became lost in the deafening silence of our empty nest. So, after much thought, counseling, and prayer, I made the heart-wrenching decision to leave. Each of our children reacted differently to the news of our separation, but all of them were devastated. It was probably the most difficult decision of my life! And, even though I truly felt God was okay with my leaving, I had no idea what the outcome would be as a result of it. I will say this in hindsight though: I know I did not sense that God was approving of my decision or that He was telling me to leave. But, I am certain that He intended to use my decision “for His good”. (Genesis 50:20)

So, off I went. I decided to go to Kentucky to volunteer for an organization that worked with the poor in Appalachia. Before I left home, I prayed a prayer that I had never prayed before: that God would change me, not every other person in my life, ME! God was just giddy with excitement! And, oh, the lessons I was about to learn!

How can I describe to you the soul-cleansing that I endured during that time; what those eight months were like for me? Every single day seemed to bring to light another of Linda’s issues to deal with. I didn’t enjoy confronting my pride, anger, and resentfulness. As a matter of fact, it was, in essence, like being in hard labor – for eight months. Non-stop. With no anesthetic!

“Come on, breathe for me,” says the doctor. “Breathe for me? Breathe for me? I’ll give you breathe for me! How about if you try to breathe for me while my hands are around your neck, choking you? How about that?” (Oh, sorry, I must have been having a flashback.)

Anyway, for the first time in my life, my longings, my brokenness, and my hope that maybe I was worthy of love, were laid bare. God was beginning to change my heart, though I hardly knew all the implications of that at the time. It was a beautiful example of how He can work in our lives when we “allow” Him to do what only He can. All of my past attempts to change had failed because I tried to do things my own faulty way; by my own strength. I refused to yield my will to His, and I had failed time and again.

The fulfillment we seek can seem elusive. It can be confused with something as insignificant as a new outfit or something as unattainable as somebody else’s life. When I’m removed from my groundings, and feeling overpowered by my struggles, God reminds me that I’m right where He wants me – in the fray is where I’ll learn to be most like Him. That’s where I’ll learn that my joy cannot be stolen unless I allow people or circumstances, rather than God, to define me. Coming to grips with that truth will open me to the fullness of life.

John 10:10 says, “The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.”

Sheer desperation began leading me to accept whatever God deemed necessary to change my life. No strings attached that would allow me to yank control back if things became too hard, or too painful. I would resist the impulse to switch to an easier route, though that was my normal reaction when I was afraid. And what did I receive in return? Oh, not much…just a new relationship with God; with my family; with my husband of forty-three years; a purpose that fulfills me; and the joyful hope that endures, even during the most difficult of times. In short – an abundant life I could never have imagined on that fateful day I left home.

Henri Nouwen, in his most beautiful book, The Return of the Prodical Son, enfleshes all that I have experienced; all that I have been so afraid to admit or even look at honestly. His vulnerability and openness about his own struggles gives others the courage to trust that when Jesus comes to us and asks, “Do you want to be made well”? Our “yes” can be the beginning of more than we could ever imagine or hope for. (Ephesians 3:20)

Nouwen talks about his own “coming home”; about being in his Father’s embrace where:

I so much want to be, but am so fearful of being….It is the place where I have to let go of all I most want to hold on to….It is the place that confronts me with the fact that truly accepting love, forgiveness, and healing is often much harder than giving it. It is the place of surrender and complete trust.

And, I believe Henri Nouwen would agree that it is the place where Jesus’ call and our self-emptying “yes” meet in the fullness of God’s grace.

All these years later, I’m still being challenged daily, and I don’t always respond as I should. My sinfulness is constantly a force to be reckoned with. After all, I’m still a messy human being. But I know that God longs for us to claim the gift of His extravagant love in the very midst of all our messiness. If we’ll only look within ourselves, we can see what is already there. We can become who we already are. God offers that joy to all of us. All we have to do is claim it. When Jesus asks, “Do you want to be made well”? – and your answer is finally “yes”…strap yourself in for the ride of your life!

roller coaster2