The Chilling Effect of Envy

photo by Tony Ross

The last thing I wanted to write about on the anniversary of my husband’s death was the subject of “envy.” Thinking about it took me back, and I didn’t want to go back. I lived through it once and learned from it once; now I wanted to leave it. More than that, I wanted to escape from those memories — leave them on one side of a chasm and leap to freedom on the other. However, in this life there is no “envy free” zone to jump to.

I never considered myself to be a particularly envious person. I had what I had and was pretty much satisfied with it. Like everyone else, I could do some things pretty well and stank at others. When I was young, I figured it was the luck of the draw. As I got older and was busy raising children, I hadn’t the time to take more than a cursory peek at other people’s accomplishments and possessions. When you have to wash urine-soaked bedding every day, you don’t covet someone else’s designer duvets.

I don’t know whether widowhood brought my human failings into sharper relief, or if I became a more envious person after my husband’s passing. Probably, it was a bit of both, but however it happened, I began to envy with a vengeance. I envied friends who showed me photographs of their happy anniversary trips; couples who strolled through Home Depot; spouses who sat together, shoulders touching, at church. I have no idea whether my Grinch-like attitude was obvious to others, but it was freezing me out. Every time I envied, I felt the darkness descending, cold and isolating. What was happening?

After a while, the answer came to me: envy occurred when I thought (even for a split second) that God loved others more than me. Whether I angrily positioned myself at the center of the universe and demanded answers, or miserably sunk into deep resentment, the effect was the same: I became a frozen, dormant being, unable to enter into the joy of the people surrounding me. Yet, didn’t scripture urge me to “rejoice always”? Wasn’t I supposed to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep”? The sin of envy kept me from interacting with others while it sent my spirit to sleep. The only cure for that kind of sleep was to wake up, and the only way to do that was to move away from envy toward the ultimate source of warmth and light.

After a while, I stopped wondering whether God loved others more than me. For all I knew, He might, but He loved me so much that the question became irrelevant, even when situations looked unfair. The critical choice I had to make each time envy reared its head, was whether or not to trust His love. In the end, trusting Him has made all the difference.

Standing in a Sandstorm

photo by Kyle Broad

Pregnant, barefoot and running late, she piled her four children into the car and hustled them to school. On the way, one of her sons tossed a flour bomb back and forth in the back seat. Catching sight of this in the rearview mirror, she warned, “Stop that! You’ll mess up your clothes; we’re late as it is.” He heard and disregarded her imperative, casting it off with the nonchalance of a born mischief-maker, and the inevitable happened. The bomb exploded and coated the regulation dress attire of the siblings just as they reached their destination. Mom held the younger son back so that she could wipe off his outfit, allowing her older son to cross the street alone so that he wouldn’t be tardy. At this point, the mother received a sharp reprimand from a crossing guard for putting a child at risk. She was humiliated and demoralized. She’d strained every nerve to be a good mother, but by 8:00 a.m. she felt like a failure. It’s a very common tale.

Discouragement is isolating. At the moment of failure, we feel: stupid, naïve, inept, hopeless, embarrassed, unworthy— the negative adjectives strike our souls like grit in a windstorm, pricking umpteen places at once. We can hole up, lick our wounds and wait for the storm to pass, but the subterranean sting of discouragement remains until we feel loved again.

Although some people are naturally loving; others, like me, have a hard time learning it. A cherished friend told me once that I “was truthful but not kind,” and I’ve meditated on that comment for over thirty years. It’s not that I want to inflict pain, it’s just that my tendency is to be in a hurry, to rush toward my goals without noticing the needs of others. And there’s the rub— my goals often conflict with the goals God has for me. While I want to change my circumstances, He wants to change my character. He wants me to learn to love.

All of us are, in one way or another, slow learners on the subject of love. Opportunities to love rush at us when we aren’t paying attention. In the moment, we don’t think fast enough to say, “Oh, my goodness, you’re having quite a morning! Allow me help you. By-the-way, this street can be very busy, so. . .” That type of response does not come naturally. So, seeing that we are “love disabled,” what do we do?

The apostle Paul’s advice to the Galatians was “walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal 5:16). Or, as Eugene Peterson put it, “live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit.” I see this as a lifetime endeavor: acknowledging my need to change, becoming teachable, and practicing love until it becomes the “default” impulse. Paul’s instruction to the Philippians to “look out for the interests of others” (Phil 2:4) is only possible because we have the indwelling Spirit, who is eager to show us how.

Thirty years ago, I had an idea that love somehow included triumph; if I did it right, I’d look like Jesus. It was really about me checking off boxes. Eventually, I gave up on becoming biblically picturesque, realizing that I just plain couldn’t do it. When I comprehended that neither love nor kindness resided in my “flesh,” I began sincerely asking for help, and help was given. I’m still not great at selfless love— no one would mistake me for Jesus— but, by God’s grace, I am improving at it.

Wind Dance

My four year old granddaughter pointed them out, “Them are mean ducks,” she warned. She was remembering when she got too close to a Canada goose in the park and it came after her, hissing and flapping its huge wings. Such scary behavior might nominate the wild goose as a symbol for aggression, but the crazy Celts chose it to represent the Holy Spirit. What were they thinking?

Aside from their reputation for belligerence during nesting season, wild geese have excellent qualities: they mate for life; carefully attend their young; distribute seeds and reduce pests. But these beautiful birds are primarily known for their cooperation with each other during migration. Look up during spring or fall and you’re likely to see geese traveling in a “V”, honking as they go.

As a matter of fact, geese make more noise in the sky than on land. This seems like an odd expenditure of energy when one considers the amount of power they need to generate 30 mph flapping, but they do it to keep the flock together until they reach their destination. Like feathered drill sergeants, they “honk out” position changes, letting the weary leader rest as he yields the position of highest wind resistance to another. In a carefully choreographed wind dance, geese work together so they can all move forward.

What geese do instinctively, Christians find difficult. While we find relief in the risen Son, we flinch at following the Spirit, and because it’s hard to pursue an invisible leader, we simply stop trying. We neither follow the Leader God provided nor encourage others along the way. Basically, we quit before we reach our destination.

The disciples had certainly lost their motivation; they were battered, scattered and bewildered. Their beloved leader was gone, and the light in their lives was extinguished. In the crucifixion horror, they temporarily forgot what Jesus had promised before He died:

” I will ask the Father, and He will give you another helper, that He may be with you forever. . . “ (John 14:16)

Then Pentecost came, and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit was miraculously manifest to those who were watching for it. Luke records that “Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles” (Luke 2:43). So, what happened to the awe? Where did the Holy Spirit go?

The good news is this: the strong leader who Jesus promised, and the Father sent is here within us. To our discredit and detriment, we don’t recognize the significance of this. If we think of Him at all, we think of the Holy Spirit as a quiet traveler in the passenger’s seat. Watchman Nee wrote:

“To many Christians, the Holy Spirit is quite unreal. They regard Him as a mere influence, an influence for good, no doubt, but just an influence for all that. In their thinking, conscience and the Spirit are more or less identified as ‘some thing’ within them that brings them to book when they are bad and tries to show them how to be good. The trouble with the Corinthian Christians was not that they lacked the indwelling Spirit, but that they lacked the knowledge of His presence. They failed to realize the greatness of the One who had come to make his abode in their hearts. . .”

The tragedy of our situation is that while we have unlimited access to an untiring, unerring leader, Himself, very God, we forget about Him because He is quiet. For most Christians, He exists as part of the creed and nothing more.

We are not called to passively cool our earthly heels until the heavenly party begins, or to slog through life the best we can. Christians are commanded to walk “in” or “by” the Spirit with the understanding that heavenly life begins here. Too many of us have accepted the lie that walking with the Spirit is a ball and chain kind of life, but the amazing truth is that it is unimaginable liberation. Like dancing in the wind.

Remembering Bonnie

Dedicated to Dr. Joe D’Amico, the best veterinarian I’ve ever known.

I haven’t seen them in a long time, but somewhere in my parents’ house is a box of old home movies, films which were loaded on reels and mounted on a Bell and Howell projector that played them with a clacking sound. I recently discovered that the clacking sound was made by something called the “Geneva mechanism,” so called because it was also found in Swiss watches.  A more interesting discovery was that you can watch the movies and identify traits in the children which lingered into adulthood. I recognize the quiet hunter in my brother, David, and in the ever- grinning, always- curious Dennis, the future mechanical wiz. With eerie clarity, I also recall a movie of three year old Debby walking through a sea of rough collies. Was that when my craving for collies began? If so, it lay quiescent for a long time.

Through the years, we had lots of hunting dogs— Labs of every color and a Brittany. They were cheerful canines, stoic and gentle: Nellie, Finnegan, Murphy, Mick and Dugan. They weren’t slobbery or demanding, which Jon liked; he said that a good dog should be dignified. Well, they were good dogs, but when I was old enough to have a mid-life crisis, I decided that I wanted a different kind of dog. And for some reason, maybe because I loved Phillip Keller’s books, I began looking for a border collie.

She was the last puppy to go. The breeder thought it was because she was tricolor, instead of the more popular black and white. I think she was meant for me. When I first saw her, she was barking furiously at a kitten that was sauntering past her kennel; it was not a ” come in and play with me” kind of bark, either; it was rather, “if I get out, I will render you inoperative.” I concluded that it was a very good thing that our cat was twice her size.

Like most herding dogs, she was intense, insanely intelligent, and impatient to “get to work.” She was a breeze to train—  if I couldn’t get the commands out fast enough, she made up her own and executed them. I’d never seen a dog like her before. I laughed a lot during those early training sessions. Her eyes never left my face as she waited for my words. “What,” she seemed to wonder, “is so funny? Get on with it!” Our vet observed that she was different. ” It’s unusual for herding dogs to lie quiet and look you in the eyes,” he said, “she makes contact.” Then he said, “I had a dog like this once.  Only once.”

Even “once in a lifetime” friends eventually leave us. When Bonnie was 14, she developed a chronic blood disease, and when she was 15 1/2, in spite of the extensive efforts of her admirers at the veterinary hospital, she died. There are three other dogs living here, but when I returned home after her last car trip, the house felt immensely empty. I put away the rolls of gauze, the tape, the expensive ointments. I cut the last  piece of liver into fewer pieces. Without my consent, life had gone and changed again.

I thought I saw her yesterday, lying at the foot of the stairs the way she used to when she was waiting for me to come down. I heard a thump of a tail, and automatically turned to see her, but, of course, it was one of the other dogs. He was happy enough to greet me; he wanted food, and after I fed him, he was happy to go outside. Carefree and jolly, he wasted no time searching my face for clues. He didn’t care what I was thinking— there were squirrels to catch!

Often, when a good dog dies, people will say, “That dog was almost human.” Well, Bonnie was not almost human; she was as canine as they come. But she was a daily reminder of what it means to keep your eyes on your master and joyfully follow his commands. I hope I never forget it.

Psalm 100:2

  Serve the Lord with gladness;

Come before Him with joyful singing.

Jesus and the Border Collie

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The nativity set I purchased for my grandchildren has a border collie in it- not a Roman drover dog, not a Canaan dog- a border collie!  And the Scottish canine isn’t the only mistake. The smiling camel, which presumably carried the three tubby wise men, shouldn’t have showed up until much later; the angel on the roof is nowhere mentioned in scripture ; and- a PIG!  Apparently, these Jews didn’t keep kosher.

Whether or not the designer of the nativity set knows anything about Jewish culture,  he certainly understands how to attract little people.  My youngest granddaughter is completely mesmerized by our set.  She will stand quietly arranging and rearranging its components so that, in her mind at least, they are just right.  Last night, I discovered that the angel had flown away and the border collie was keeping watch from the top of the stable.  One sheep had assumed a position up a palm tree, and the prohibited piggy sat grinning in the donkey’s cart.  The holy family lay scattered around-  apparently, Mary had decided that sheep are easier than babies, and was abiding in the field.  Periodically, my older grandchildren will wander by and put the set in order, but invariably, little Elinor will come back to fix it the way she wants it- with the angel gone and the border collie back up on the stable roof.

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What did the nativity really look like?   Was Jesus born soon after His parents’ arrival in Bethlehem, or had they been there for a while?  Did the birth occur in a stable or a cave, or was the couple simply assigned a room at the lower level of a house?  Did Mary have help, or was Joseph forced to be midwife?  Were animals there? The presence of a manger- a feed trough- implies it, but doesn’t prove it.

A lot of talk has been devoted to the idea that Jesus was born in the filth of a stable, but there is no mention of manure or drool-soaked hay in the good doctor’s account.  And I’d like to defend Mary here.  What mother would wade through manure to plop her newborn into a bare feedbox?  Wouldn’t she find a swept corner of the room, and insist that Joseph grab some fresh hay and  a sheet for the manger crib?  Jesus needn’t have been born in muck;  it was hard enough that He was born amidst the squalor of the human condition.

The children’s nativity set has smiling people wearing brightly colored clothing.  It has a barn and a palm tree, a donkey and cart, a tiny mouse hiding in the hay.  It all makes a happy scene, and serves an important purpose- to teach the child the elements of the Christmas story and establish the centrality of its serious message- that God came to earth as a baby to save us from our sins.  The joy of that message should be reflected on every human face.  If they could comprehend it, even the animals would rejoice.

A happy border collie by the manger?  Well, border collies herd lambs after all.  Perhaps the nativity’s designer was wiser than I thought.

“…Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”   John 1:29

Peace in Real Time

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photograph by Mahkeo on Unsplash

 

When my mother was a little girl, she and her siblings were separated and sent from home to live in bad places. Her brothers were shipped to an orphanage almost 500 miles away, and Mom was left to grow up with her paternal grandmother, a mean-spirited, angry woman. Upon arrival at her new home, she was assigned a bedroom in the back of the house where she wouldn’t bother anyone. She lay scared that first night; it was dark and lonely, unfriendly to the abandoned eight year old. She told me that when she asked God to help her, she was filled with peace and the assurance that He was there, and would take care of her. Her life thereafter wasn’t easy, but she survived it and grew up to pass on the story. It made an impression: times might be hard, but God was good.

Spending time with my paternal grandmother was a totally different experience. Instead of being exiled to a dark back bedroom, I shared a room with her. I still remember the feel of the pink, plaid, flannel sheets on the ivory twin bed. There was an off-white, wind-up clock on the dresser that lulled me to sleep with its loud ticking. I recall hearing trains as they passed through in the night, their mournful whistles advancing and fading. And even now, I can conjure up the comforting sound of Nannie’s rocker in the next room. It was easy to fall asleep there. Nothing was going to get me. There was clock- ticking, rocker- creaking, whistle- blowing peace.

The “Peace Candle or the Angels’ Candle is the fourth candle we light during Advent as we recall the amazing appearance of  the heavenly host, who sang or spoke  historic news while the shekinah shone around them: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” (Luke 2:14)                                                                   

Mark the moment. The Savior had arrived. The plan for cessation of hostilities between God and man had been initiated . The first part of the message made it plain: this was a God-originated, unilateral peace treaty, which men could either accept or reject. It was gift of love: “. . . not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”  (1 John 4:10)

Through the Son men could regain favor with God, although the mechanism wouldn’t be revealed for another thirty plus years, when Jesus, “the propitiation,” died on a Roman cross. The skies were dark when Jesus died. No angels sang. On that day, it looked like hope for peace had expired with him. But then — He wasn’t dead any more! At the tomb, another angelic message was delivered: “. . . you are looking for Jesus, the Nazarene who has been crucified. He is risen; He is not here. . .” (Mark 16:6).

Life is hard. It was hard for the shepherds; it was hard for the disciples; it’s hard for us. God did not send his Son to make life easy, but to make a way to eternal life. My mother and grandmother understood that. Their peace came from confidence in the one who gave himself up for them. The only one who can give us peace.

 

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A Visitation of Joy

The third advent candle is the “joy” candle. But, what is joy? Most of us equate the word with “happiness,” except that it’s happiness on steroids, a”delight”, an “exhilaration”, an “exultation” even.  Happiness is all about earthly satisfaction, but joy, which may arise from terrestrial circumstances, also contains an element of the sublime. There is no better illustration of this than the joyful meeting between the Bethlehem shepherds and the angels:Image result for free images of shepherds and sheep at night

 In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night.  And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people;  for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” Luke 2:8-14

The first emotion the shepherds felt was not joy, but terror. The sudden appearance of an angel had them shaking in their sandals. Imagine cowboys sitting around a campfire, shooting the breeze to stay awake, when suddenly the dark night splits open, and an alien from another dimension steps out of the breach, backlit by radiation of unknown origin. They’d probably  choke on their coffee or swallow their chewing tobacco! They might pass out. Only on this occasion, the anonymous angel had to keep the shepherds conscious because they needed to hear the joyful tidings. “Don’t be afraid” (that was an understatement) “because I bring you good news of great joy.”

Good news would have been the last thing they expected. When had they ever received any? Their profession had fallen into disrepute since King David’s day. Nobody wanted to grow up to be a shepherd. They weren’t invited to parties. They weren’t admitted as witnesses in court. They were nobodies, exiled from good society. Yet the angel was delivering a message— a momentous message, a joyful message— to them! And it was a communique‘ even they could understand. Their Savior had come, and was available for viewing at a local manger. After the army of singing spirits withdrew, the excited shepherds set off to find him.

Scripture says that after they had seen the babe, they went back “glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them“. I think it is reasonable to see this as “rejoicing.” But what had changed to make them joyful? They were still uncomfortable, underpaid, and undervalued, and would most likely finish their lives in this unhappy condition. How could news of a good change that might not occur for another thirty years bring about joy? Could it be that they realized their Creator still cared, and he cared about them? For a few minutes, these common, earth-bound men of dust had touched eternity, and it changed their lives forever. Ours, too. God be praised: joy is not restricted to those who meet angels in pastures, but is the birthright of all who believe.

 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.  For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” John 3:16-17

 

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The Power of Love

 

 

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In the sixties, Patricia McGerr published a short story entitled “Johnny Lingo’s Eight Cow Wife.” Yesterday, when it came to mind, I thought I’d have to spend days digging in internet archives for it, but I was mistaken. You can still easily find this tale about the transforming power of love. In the story, a young man offers to pay eight cows for the plain, dejected, Polynesian girl he loves. Her father is elated— he thought he’d be lucky to get one cow for her. The neighbors think the suitor is a sucker. The girl. . .well, that’s telling.

We all do crazy things for love. Yesterday, I sat hunched in front of a computer screen for hours looking for Greek and Roman toy soldiers. The reason? I wanted to give a grandson something special for Christmas.  We all strive to give those we love satisfying and suitable gifts. Time and money are of little matter—extravagance is in the nature of the lover.

We light the second Advent candle in memory of God’s unequaled extravagance. He clothed the second person of the trinity in baby flesh and gave him to humanity. It was a satisfying gift because it met the need; a suitable gift because we could identify with it, and an extravagant gift because it cost God everything. Was this Bethlehem baby a crazy gift? In no way. For to those who receive him, he gives eternal life.

Most of the time, we take this gift for granted. We forget our former situation and the colossal chasm of sin that separated us from our creator. We’ve become so used to the story that we lose sight of  its consequences— that the chasm between us is closed, and the way is clear. We miss the glorious significance of it — those of us who believe are sons and daughters who have a hope and a future.

Johnny Lingo paid an exorbitant price for his wife, and then took her away from those who devalued her. He gave her a new life on a new island, and— surprise! She became beautiful. A curious visitor acknowledged that Sarita was stunning, but asked Johnny why he’d paid so much for her when she was still homely and unloved. Johnny’s reply? “Because I wanted an eight cow wife.”

McGerr’s story is fiction, but it reveals the truth about love. Love does what nothing else can; it rescues and then beautifies. That is what God did; what he is doing; and what he will do.

Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,
Nor have entered into the heart of man
The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9)

 

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Hope in the Desert

 

Desert, Drought, Composing, Dehydrated

 

I didn’t know where I was, but I was standing on a vast gray plain beneath a leaden sky. The ground was hard and the grass was dead. The light, dim and dreary, revealed no colors except the everlasting gray. The air was stale and hot and barely breathable. There was no sound, either of birds or insects or wind. There was no evidence of life—somehow I knew there was none. Life, with all its richness of color and sound and relationship was gone forever. But death was gone, too. There would be neither sleep nor death to relieve the despair of this existence.  Prayer was useless; hope was extinct.

Abruptly, I was elsewhere. I saw, streaking toward me through the swaying, gleaming grasses, a black and white dog. Her coat was shining and her eyes were full of joy. Hope rushed back into my soul, and I woke up.

Hope- what is it, and why do humans need it? The Oxford English Dictionary defines hope as “a feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen.” It would seem that modern linguists equate hoping with wishing:

          I wish it would stop snowing.

           I hope it will stop snowing.

I have a strong desire and expectation for it to stop snowing because it is May!

But what if it doesn’t? What if it snows all through winter and is still snowing in June? What if it never stops snowing? What then? Is all hope gone?

Back in the day, circa 1828, that is— Noah Webster wrote: “. . . hope differs from wish and desire in this, that it implies some expectation of obtaining the good desired, or the possibility of possessing it. Hope therefore always gives pleasure or joy; whereas wish and desire may produce or be accompanied with pain and anxiety.”  Mr. Webster attached four scripture references to his definition; apparently his concept of hope included the idea of trust in God.

On the first Sunday of Advent, we light the hope candle to remind us of God’s promises to send a savior. Many would consider this an archaic concept: aren’t we all just fine? No. We definitely are not fine, and it only takes a moment of reflection to figure this out. Things are out of whack in our world; there is trouble within us and without, and there is no wishing it away. Nor is hope to be found here. Hope must come from outside. And that is the reason we light the hope candle— as a reminder that, no matter how hard things get, hope has come. For God “has sent the son to be the savior of the world” (1 John 4:14).

 

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