Who aggravates every fiber of your being? Come on, you know someone in your life – past or present – you have wanted to throw from a moving train in one of your most angry moments!
Perhaps it isn’t your mother (like Danny Devito in Throw Mama from the Train) You love your mother. How about Uncle Bill? Uncle Bill makes you dread holidays! Every. Single. Blessed. One. He hates holidays and, in short order, makes you hate them too. He also hates your new living room set, your cheesecake, thinks you’ve put on too much weight, and wants to borrow another $200.
How about that annoying and relentless neighbor who causes you to lock your doors and pull your shades when you see her coming? Sometimes she catches you off-guard and holds you hostage in your own yard as she rants incessantly about absolutely nothing! Oh yeah, and she thinks your new birdbath is tacky (she might be right about that).
Anyway, you walk away, dazed and confused. Ewwww, she got you again! She makes you want to smoke more, drink more, or kick the dog. (Don’t do that. It’s not the dog’s fault.)
It’s really not the dog’s fault, Uncle Bill’s fault, or your neighbor’s fault. It’s your fault because you choose to allow others to control you. Don’t think they’re doing that? When you allow another person to upset you, for whatever reason, they are controlling you. How do you like being controlled? If you’re like me, you pride yourself on being the one in control and refuse to believe anyone could have that kind of power over you.
NEWS FLASH: When we cling tenuously to control or give it up to another, that is the prescription for misery.
Mark 7:14-23, “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile. From within the man, from his heart, come evil….”
My dear mother-in-law recently passed away at the age of ninety-eight. Before her health took a turn for the worse, she was happy and content and loved being with her family, especially the grandkids. She was always very giving of herself and generous to a fault. But, the last few years of her life, she was miserable. Daily she expressed that misery to us, “Why won’t God take me?!” She felt like a burden, that her life no longer had purpose. She was angry, frustrated, and confused. Throw in hip pain, a bad back, possible strokes, and dementia, and of course, she was miserable!
But what’s my excuse? What’s your excuse? I believe we have forgotten who we are. Life presents a series of blows to our fragile ego, and the joy God intended for us is overshadowed by misery. Misery that we inflict on ourselves, all the while blaming others.
“Wounded by sin, clouded by temptation, we are our own worst enemy. Everything we say and do arises from within our own hearts. If our hearts change, it stands to reason that our actions will follow.” Terry Modica (http://gnm.org/good-news-reflections/ )
We see misery played out powerfully in the lives of the Pharisees during Jesus’ time. He not only came to show us by his own life how we are to live, but he also used the Pharisees as a prime example of how we are not to live. They were pious and arrogant! They were mean, vengeful, and always trying to trip up Jesus. Their hatred for him was palatable because he was constantly exposing their sinfulness. No one wants to be exposed. If they could just get rid of him! Mark 8:11 tells us that Jesus “sighed from the depth of his spirit” because of their actions.”
He could have retaliated, but he didn’t. We would have liked him to so we could justify our own reaction to the hurt we feel from others. But, he humbly walked away, and in the end, he humbly received the torturous beatings and crucifixion.
Misery can be a stern mother. But Psalm 119 tells us that being afflicted is a good thing, “It is good that I have been afflicted, that I may learn your statutes.” Also, sometimes, we can learn from others’ afflictions. Take my mother-in-law, for instance. I learned more from her at the end of her journey when she lay dying and unresponsive. I learned more about compassion that cannot be measured, love that cannot be returned, and inexplicable joy in the midst of it all.
When I would sit vigil in the evening with her, I could sense God’s presence, as in Genesis 28:16, “…surely the Lord is in this place.” The joy I felt during that time was unmistakable. The joy of knowing that Catherine would soon be in God’s presence. Truth be told, I was a bit jealous. I recall saying to her several times, even though she could not respond, “Aren’t you excited?! You will soon see all of your family and friends that have gone before you. They’re waiting for you. God is waiting for you. Oh yeah, and don’t forget to put in a good word for me – I need it!” I thought I heard her say, “Yes, you do!” once, but it was probably my imagination.
In all the training and experiences I have had as a Hospice volunteer, you just know that God is present. You can’t explain it or quantify it. You just know. For me, the most intense times of joy are these experiences and the Lenten journey we are now on. The joy that comes in knowing God never forsakes us; never abandons us. These are times when he asks me to return to him. Joel 2:12 says, “Even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart…”
Listen to this beautiful song by John Michael Talbot.
Every Lent, I read Henri Nouwen’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son”. I am enthralled by this book and Nouwen’s honesty about his life and struggles. It is a beautiful and powerfully written account of a story most of us know, yet few of us delve so deeply into it. Nouwen uses Rembrandt’s portrait of the Prodigal Son to tell the story:
The son made a choice. He chose to leave his father and go his own way, to take his inheritance and “set off for a distant country, and there he squandered his wealth in wild living” (Luke 15:13). Soon, he was broke and in the midst of a famine. He was hungry, but no one offered him anything to eat.
This is a very telling example of what happens when we turn to the world to meet our needs, but all we meet there is misery. We want the world to fill us with all we ever thought we wanted, but what we want is never enough. The world can’t/won’t satisfy. The world only takes and leaves desolation in the empty places of our souls.
Notice, though, that the son finally, instinctively, knew where to turn when he was starving – his father. Though he felt he wasn’t worthy of his father’s love because of the shameful way he acted, he also hoped his father would at least feed him as the servants were fed (15:17-20). That was all the son hoped for. Imagine his surprise when he didn’t even get his well-rehearsed words out of his mouth…
HOLY FATTED CALF, BATMAN!
Being willing to receive crumbs, the son got the surprise of his life when “the father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” (15:20) There’s no way my father would have done that, and my mother would likely have changed the locks on the doors when I left. The father had compassion for his son because he knew he was a miserable, lost soul – but now he was found. It was a time to celebrate; it was a time of joy and thanksgiving.
Well, okay, the oldest son was not so joyful and was not willing to offer his brother the least bit of sympathy or support. He was also angry with the father because it all seemed so UNFAIR! Here’s that “misery gremlin” again! Sucking the fullness of life and joy from anyone too self-absorbed to notice.
Nouwen says, “It seems to me now that these hands have always been stretched out – even when there were no shoulders upon which to rest them.” And of the son, he says, “He realized he had lost his dignity as his father’s son, but at the same time, he is aware that he is indeed the son who had dignity to lose.” He says, “I am loved so much I am free to leave home.”
Think about that.
What brings the joy we so long for? It’s a choice we make in how we respond to our circumstances. You can be the younger son who learns from the misery he inflicted on himself or, the older, bitter son who doesn’t seem to “get it”. It is a daily, sometimes minute-by-minute choice.
Nouwen says, “And this concerning the attitude of the elder son: “Am I so ensnared in my own self-righteousness complaints that I am doomed, against my own desire, to remain outside of the house wallowing in my anger and resentment? God says to the elder son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours.”
The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” … [My dark side says,] I am no good… I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.
God always has more for us. We are always only at the beginning of love (you must understand) Jesus is pleased with you right now. He sees how much you’ve already done. He wants to see you overcome the next hurdle and get that much closer to the finish line. He is committed to taking you there.“I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)
Often, my prayer is that God will not give up on me and that I will daily surrender to this love that is beyond my understanding, that I will let go of all those hurts and sorrows that steal my peace and joy.