Envy

I cannot believe how insidious envy is.  As we are in a time of learning about the power of our possessions in our life this is particularly clear to us, to me.  We are learning what’s most important and who our money ultimately serves.

As you list out how you spend it is startling to see your priorities.  Sad. Even embarrassing at times.  Self serving  much?

Okay not always.  There are admittedly many good things that our money is applied toward — ongoing, frequent requests at church to help those with less, extra scholarship money for public school field trips for the kids that can’t afford, the bonus $5 at the grocery store for whatever cause they are raising money for or the extra bag of food for the shelters.  Public Radio.  Our church.  World Vision child.  Compassion International child.  There are lots of ways to give in our culture and it feels pretty good.

But still.  I envy.

Envy is something innocuous.  Invisible.  Like a vapor.  Of the heart.  And the mind.  Originating in the soul.

I read an email vacation message yesterday that said:  “Someplace warmer.”  Envy.  I am not there, that someplace warmer.

“Beautiful jacket” I tell my friend.  Envy.  Mine is from St. Vincent’s is already pilling.  And it is not even close to being “this season.”

Vacations.  Nicer cars.  Newer stuff.  Season tickets to whatever.

Things.  Activities.

Envy. Envy. Envy.

It’s a constant pull. And, possibly because we’re older and are beginning to make wiser choices apparently so they tell us, our children “suffer” for our wisdom.

We put 15% of our budget into retirement.  We haven’t been on a vacation with our kids for three years (since we stopped using our credit cards frankly.)  We limit Christmas presents and birthday presents.  We no longer (I no longer) shop for entertainment.  We haven’t bought furniture in years, though ours is “trashed” by our cats and kids.  I have a nice car (Tom’s belongs to work) and still, I look at the car I wanted, seeing it everywhere, wishing I had the sun roof, leather seats, V6 engine, and a GPS.  Yes, two years after I bought my beautiful almost new Honda Accord I still wish I had upgraded it to to have those features. Will I ever be content?  That is envy.  That is it right there in its ugliness.

The insidious cancer of the discontented my pastor called it.

And yet, reading in 1 Corinthians 13 in the New Testament this morning it says (the Mel paraphrase):

Won’t you just do love, it is what is most important.  Those “spiritual” things that you act like are so important  — they’re not.  Devoid of love, they are nothing.

Even more important than faith and hope, love is what I want you to do.  Because to love the people in your life is to be patient and kind in your responses to them.  Not irritable.  If you are loving you are glad when truth wins, whatever that might be.  Love never gives up or loses faith.  It is always full of hope, and can endure every circumstance.

Love is not JEALOUS. It doesn’t boast.  Don’t worry about what others think of you or about what makes you look good!

It is the opposite of self-glorification.  It is humble.   Love does not demand its own way rudely.   Love does not keep a record (even in your head) of being wronged.  Love is not happy at injustice.

Love is your highest goal.

Not all that stuff?  No.  I haven’t achieved that.  Thankfully Jesus also said in 2 Corinthians 12:9

“My grace** is enough.  My power perfected when you admit you are weak.”

Thankfully I don’t actually do.   He does it in me. And he is perfecting me more every day as I wake up to his priorities.  His focus.  His purpose for us all.

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** If you don’t know what GRACE is, you should look it up.  It’s pretty amazing.  And it is what Jesus gave us as a gift.

dance on the tightrope of life

The feet of a tightrope walker.
Image via Wikipedia

That cosmic space

where we balance so gingerly,

where we so often live

between discontent and content.

Surely it has a name?

Presuming I know, I believe we are meant to live in that space as Christ followers.   If one becomes too content we become apathetic to the cries of the world and to God’s priorities.  We forget to listen for his voice .  We may even stop believing that Jesus has the power to do something important in our life.  We forget what it was like to just be walking in the garden of Eden with Jesus.  An easy stroll in the twilight of the day — a peaceful not frantic moment. We just forget when we are too content.

But I can easily fall into discontent and quickly be overcome by bitterness and then I become hard to be around.  Yeah, I know this about myself.

And so there I am dancing on the tightrope of life.  Right now.

D i s c o n t e n t.  With a capital D.

God’s quiet voice seems to be saying “Don’t push so hard Melody.”

I have wrestled hard.  With myself.  With God.  With the voices in my head.  I feel angry. And anxious.  And lost.  And frustrated and simply scared to be in the place that I am.

No real job (at least not for money) and no real prospects in the middle of the recession of the century.  I am ten years out of the marketplace and have only worked at one organization for my entire short career of thirteen years.  I do have certain abilities and gifts that have risen to the surface over the last ten years but they have little to nothing to do with my previous job experience. I could go on, but I won’t.

I am not content.  I am so not!  Right now, I am anxious.  Feeling uncertain if God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit truly care about this conundrum I am in.

(But before you despair for me read to the end — there is hope in the struggle.)

Psalms 75 says “The righteous do not exalt themselves.  God will promote them in the proper time.”

RT Ritenbaugh says of this, “In the meantime, it is best for all of us to be content with where He has put us …  The cure for presumptuous behavior is realizing what God has given us, where He has placed us, and what is best for us at the time. If we work within the parameters He has set for us,we will grow and we will perform the task He has asked us to do.”

Eventually!???

There is a verse in Song of Songs that talks about “bringing contentment.”  Wow, that strikes me like a fist in the face, as even in my best days I am not that kind of person.  I am afraid that my very soul is defined by what is aggravating me.  By what is causing agitation.  I look for it.  Yes, I seem to seek it out.  I’ve always seen this as a asset, or at least a (somewhat) good thing, in that my voice is one that (perhaps) needs to be heard?   But I also have my doubts about whether this is true, or effective, with such a state of discontent radiating through it?   Yes, my heart and mind and soul gets shaken and moved by the things of this world — stories of the downtrodden, powerless and those that are experiencing injustice. And yet, I so long to be a person that brings contentment.  It’s an amazing concept.

It’s so not me.
The dance on the tightrope of life just became more challenging because of this.  And it’s more than trite smiling while you balance there on your tippy-toes.  True contentment is peace.  Bringing shalom (contentment or peace) to a world that is so chronically dissatisfied, stale, empty, barren, hungry, and afraid.

My soul longs for that to be true.  Of me.

In the Hebrew, the word that is translated “contentment” is shalomCompleteness, soundness, safety, peace, quiet, tranquility, contentment, friendship, peace (from war). The noun comes from a verb that means to be in a covenant of peace, to cause to be at peace, to be complete, to be finished, to make safe, to restore.

Being that person won’t just happen.  It is uncomfortable to think about how little I bring that to people I meet every day!  May I have courage enough to ask God for that!  That is my prayer.

These are the questions I wonder:

Am I a safe person? Do I help others to be more at peace?  Do I cause others to hide from me?  What aspects of my life bring restoration, peace and safety to others?  Even the Apostle Paul says he learned to be content. (Philippians 4.)  If Paul the great agitator can learn it, surely I can.  Apparently that didn’t just happen for him when he became a follower of Jesus, but he found over time that he could count on Christ to meet his every need.

I guess being discontent conveys that we don’t totally trust that God has a plan.  Something good.  It makes me remember the Israelites in the OT who were such a terrible group, an example of  lack of trusting God for any goodness in their lives.  Such chronic whiners they were constantly rejecting the manna, which was provided by God, a daily source of strength.  They thought wasn’t good enough.  Too blah, too bland.  That is eerily familiar.  Yikes, I have to ask myself honestly:

Am I also rejecting God’s provision saying “Too bland Lord.  Surely there is m o r e?”

Jesus is the “true manna which came down from heaven.” (John 6:33)  Am I not throwing my own cosmic tantrum saying  that it’s inadequate?

Is Jesus enough?  Can I forget about my surroundings (of being a jobless stay-at-home mom) long enough to walk with him in the garden?

The dance on the tightrope of life just became more challenging if true contentment is:
  • to be with Jesus in the garden.
  • to trust Jesus to make me into a person of peace, safety and restoration.
  • to not allow my circumstances to distract me from what is important and true.

And then, and only then, I may be a person that brings peace, Jesus’ shalom, to a world that is so chronically dissatisfied, stale, empty, barren, hungry, and afraid.

My soul longs for that to be true.

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This is what got me writing today which was not in the plan.  Reading the blog: A Holy Experience.

Humility is hard. Humiliation is harder.

A Krispy Kreme store in Atlanta, Georgia with ...
Image via Wikipedia

I was asked to write some brief thoughts about the application of Philippians 2.1-11 to my life.

My thoughts are neither brief nor, sadly, do I see them applied very well thus far in my life. Thankfully, the journey of faith is a road slowly traveled and full of grace.

Melody

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united in Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had: Who, being the very nature of God, did not consider equality of God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death–even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

Obviously one cannot compare their life, whether you are a spiritual person or not, in any way to what Jesus Christ, the Son of God, gave up — his stature in heaven with God the Father — and Jesus did that for you and me.  And yet, that’s the irony right?  And the beauty.  We are so very human and yet in the words of the Apostle Paul in Philippians we are taught to behave so unnaturally, even supernaturally.  And we can’t.  We can’t do anything like that.  A human life can’t possibly compare.  What then?

Reread this section of Paul’s letter to the Philippians 2.1-11 in Today’s NIV (above).

Honestly, the Apostle Paul rubs me the wrong way, at times.  Especially the way he seems to command the church to do and not do so many things. That I have issues with control is no secret.  So, I struggle with Paul’s emphatic tone and his sometimes enigmatic letters full of instructions that are not always clear in their application today. (Just my opinion here.)

But I have come to respect Paul’s story; his passion, his purity of purpose, his agape love for each church that he started, his strong prayer life, and especially as it applies here, his willingness to make personal sacrifices every day for the cause of Christ.  What he was instructing the Philippians to do, he most definitely lived out himself.

Writing from a prison cell, it is striking that he says “fulfill my joy” or “make my joy complete” (depending on the translation) by having “the same mind and the same love, by being of one spirit and intent on one purpose.”  He’s not saying here’s a way to become a “cookie cutter Christian” thankfully. What he is saying emphatically is do this to be united! And he continues, be humble because it is impossible to be “one church” if you are living for yourself, for your own desires, agendas and needs; If you are constantly seeking those things that only create a better life for yourself, you are not united. And then, as if that were not clear enough he goes on to say don’t do anything out of selfishness and think of others as better than yourself.  And if you do this, the result will be unity.

I’m thinking at this point: “Okay, no biggie.  Have some humility.  Live for others.  Give up your “rights.”   Be unselfish.  Wow, I need to work on this!”  I just haven’t had it put so emphatically before.  It is as if the message of Christ depends on it. Unity. And I should want to live that way!  I guess it’s time to spend some time reflecting on whether that is true in my life.  I’m four verses in and I’m totally convicted that I rarely live as if  others are more important me.

Incredibly to me, at this point Paul becomes gentle so I guess he has a softer side.  I’ve judged him from the lists of dos and don’t in Corinthians.

In a poem he goes on to describe in beautiful words the utter humiliation of Christ for us — Christ’s descent from the throne of God to death as a human on a cross.  That is the humility Paul challenges the church of Philippi to and that is our example — Christ chose humiliation.  As Christ became human, he gave up being seen as God and emptied himself taking on the limitations of human flesh.  He never ceased to be fully God, but for a time he actually gave up GLORY for us.  If your mind isn’t blown at this point, well, you’re not fully taking it in.  It’s mind-boggling.  It is worth pondering a while over the Advent season.  It’s incredible.

Christ became human for me and wants me to become humble and unified with other believers in order to be more like him? NT Wright, in Paul for Everyone, says that an inner life of unity seems unattainable.  No kidding.  But, as we mature these things (paraphrased) should be true about us:

“1 We are to be bringing our thinking into line with one another.

2 Know the Gospel is the the final aim, not simply unity.   If “it” doesn’t align with the Gospel, we could be unified around Krispy Kreme donuts, but that’s not what Paul’s promoting.

3 We are to perform the extraordinary feat of looking at one another with the assumption that everyone else and their needs are more important than our own.”

Humility is hard. Humiliation is harder.

When Paul was writing about this idea to the church in Philippi, it must be said, that they didn’t hold a high view of humility.  No one aspired to be humble or to humiliation in the Greek world.  If I am totally honest, do I really hold that high a view of humility?  Being humble is hard!  When was the last time I gave up my rights?  My power.  That is a form of humility and I honestly do not even know.  That’s not really esteemed in our culture too much.   Paul says we are to regard others as higher than ourselves. And in case we’re still unclear, we are to voluntarily give up our rights (like Jesus.)

As a part of the bigger picture of Philippians, Paul says “True people of God are united by thinking of others as more important than themselves.”

These are difficult times.  The recession has effected so many people, that if you happen to have kept your job you feel incredibly grateful!  If you have lost a job or may have been forced by circumstance to live with family or a friend, you know you are one misstep away from potential disaster.  Perhaps even from joining the most powerless in our society — the poor, the elderly, many children, victims of domestic violence, youth fleeing abusive homes, many immigrants working two or three jobs to get by.  None of these groups of people have power or influence in society.  They are definitely “the least of these.”  Their lives are a struggle and at times unbearable.  At the bottom of this list, rock bottom I think, are those that are have lost their home and live now on the streets.

We make assumptions about the homeless and never question them.   For the most part we avert our eyes and walk quickly past.  There are homeless downtown that are the “stereo-typical homeless person —  male, impoverished, smelly panhandlers that smell like alcohol and are acting slightly off.”  But, actually, the average age for the homeless in Dane County is nine years old. My youngest is nine and he’s just a kid lucky enough to live in a house.  Why him?

hu. mil. i. a. tion. 

n.

1 degradation;2 the state of being disgraced; shame; 3 a humiliating condition or circumstance.

I cannot think of anything more degrading or humiliating than being homeless.  Often, if we think of the homeless at all, we convince ourselves that they somehow deserve it.  It’s not a clear thought and if we keep it ambiguous and undefined we don’t have to face it.  But we probably think that somehow homeless people chose.  I challenge that idea completely.

When you are homeless no one knows who you are or where you are.  You have lost everything:  your old life, important relationships, job safety, the security of a locked door, and more importantly being known by someone, giving and receiving love, feeling content, the goodwill of being in community or a family — They chose to give up all that to be a wanderer known by no one? With no history —  “lost” to your family and society — invisible — and somehow you chose that? This idea is absurd and is based on our chosen ignorance. Even selfishness.

Yes, the truth about homelessness is that it makes us uncomfortable.

A few facts:

The top three reasons people are homeless are:

1 mental illness,

2 domestic violence,

3 inability to pay rent.

In Dane County in 2008:

3,894 people were served in emergency shelters.

3,636 were turned away.

More than three thousand children, teens, elderly, veterans, mothers and fathers, uncles, aunts, PEOPLE were turned away from shelter for lack of space and resources in Madison alone.

A Simple Story.

As a member of BH Downtown, I was recently asked for$ .75  by a panhandler just outside of the Majestic.  I was disconcerted because this wouldn’t happen on the west-side of Madison and I was unsure what to do.  But I was with my kids.  So I dug in my pocket and gave it to him, mainly thinking we have so much and my kids know it.  And I wanted to show them that generosity is important.  (Subsequently I learned giving money to panhandlers in Madison is illegal.)  Looking back I think it is laughable that they might learn anything from our giving up less than a dollar to a homeless person.   There was no sacrifice and there was no lesson learned.

Actually, I have learned because as a member of a downtown Life Group I learned that there are “real” ways to help. (more later)

When it comes to the homeless in Madison, in the past I have consoled my aching conscience with a few dollars and moved on.  And I spent some hours thinking, reading, fretting about the complexity of the homeless situation, growing ever more hopeless about resolving the grander issues of funding and public apathy.

But, being downtown every week, if I choose to see the homeless, they are there.

There is a group here in Madison that does see the  homeless.

Free Food gathers once a week, at three o’clock in the afternoon on Sundays, at the top of State Street, bringing whatever food and goods they have and giving them away.  Variations of this group have been doing this for years.  They give what they have — any kind of food, sometimes new socks.  And now that it is cold they are seeking hats, gloves, blankets and anything to help someone stay warm on the street. (If purchasing some of these things interests you, shoot me an email and I can connect to pick them up.)

As I’ve thought about the Apostle Paul’s challenge to give up yourself for Christ, I see the actions of this group as an example of what Paul is talking about.  I cannot think of anything more humiliating than living on the street, not knowing your next meal will come from; perhaps only having water and a meal once a day.  Being constantly cold.  It sounds horrible.

Homeless people likely did not lose everything by choice, perhaps simply bad luck or a series of unfortunate circumstances.  The less power you have the more difficult it is to regain it.  Powerlessness begets powerlessness in America, that’s a fact.

Paul says regard others [the homeless, or anyone] as higher than yourself. Voluntarily give up your rights. One way to do this is to serve the humiliated.  See them.  Go to where they are. Listen to their story.  Be a friend.  Or just be a meal.  In these cold nights of Wisconsin winter you might even save someone’s life by providing a coat or blanket or warm meal.

If you want to help on any given Sunday you will find these good people giving away food and other resources.  Week in and week out, over the years, people have given up their time, money and things for the lowest and most humiliated in our city.

So even as I write these words in the comfort of my heated home and my belly growling just a bit from “forgetting” to eat dinner, I am convicted.   In my humanity I cannot do anything and I don’t really even want to sometimes. It’s unnatural to put yourself in a situation like that.  And, it is moving into winter and Sunday afternoons are cozy family times at home.  My mind is full of dozens of reasons why I don’t really want or need to help out.

But we are instructed to behave supernaturally.   Jesus Christ, the Son of God, gave up equality with God for you and me.  That’s the rub.  So I need to perhaps get cold and uncomfortable.  Go be something more than I really am, because Christ did so much more for me.  Not because I owe Him but because I am so grateful and humbled.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition

or vain conceit.  Rather,

in humility value others above

yourselves, not looking

to your own interests

but to the interests of others.

I am challenged by these words of Paul to be more like Christ.  Jesus was known for giving up his rights for the sake of the world. What am I known for?

And you?

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Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, Tom Wright, Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.

The NIB Commentary, Volume XI, Abingdon Press, 2000