To Do: Nothing

banksy - peaceful hearts doctor - 4

(Photo credit: Eva Blue)

There’s a wrong way to do everything. I know this from experience. The other night I was doing the dishes in preparation for welcoming a guest into our tiny, humble home. I was feeling moody for reasons I can’t even remember now, and I did those dishes in the most sullen, hateful way ever. The kitchen was spotless, and my soul was filthy.

I could almost hear Jesus say from the kitchen doorway, “Can I call you Martha?”

I remember the day I read that passage in 1 Corinthians about how there is no message too beautiful, no achievement too grand, no faith too pure, no deed too noble to be rendered utterly worthless by lack of love and I thought to myself: Wow, am I in big trouble. I can’t make myself loving. I’ve tried. Where am I supposed to get this love without which my life is nothing?

I realized the answer later while reading another book: God is love. That’s where you get it: by hanging out with God. You sit at his feet and listen long enough and it seeps into you, sneaky as yeast spreading through dough.

Next problem: how can I, so easily distracted and seduced away from connecting with the people right in front of me, devote my entire heart and soul and mind and strength to an invisible God?

Once again, the answer is there: go in your room and shut the door. Hoard away a tiny slice of silence in your day, an island of peace in the middle of all the meaningless bustle. Put that phone down. You can do it. Forget all the other things on your list and do the only thing that really needs doing.

Nothing. Nothing but soaking up love. Nothing but learning to love again.

So if you’ll excuse me, I need to sit here for awhile with my eyes closed, being super unproductive. Please try not to disturb me. It’s very important.

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Thoughts on Turning the Other Cheek

The following was partially inspired by my friend Tonia’s meditations on Christian nonviolence and analysis of Walter Wink’s book Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. I highly recommend her series of posts on this subject, of which this is the most recent (and contains links to the others).

*****

I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also… Matthew 5:39

This is what it means for me to try to live these words.

You hurt me, whether with your hand, with your actions, or with your words. Here’s what’s not happening: I’m not running away or cowering from you. Neither am I hurting you back. I am standing my ground and engaging with you in a way that makes me vulnerable to another strike. Understand, I’m not inviting another strike. I’m not giving my permission. I’m telling you I refuse to play that game. You hurting me won’t make me submit, nor will I let it suck me into using similar tactics. I am rooted and established in love, and it’s with love that I will respond to your attack.

This is so hard, maybe the hardest thing to learn to do. In the moment, instinct primes us for flight or a fight. Neither does society show us another way. Eye for eye and tooth for tooth is justice, plain and simpleYou get what you deserve, neither more nor less. Done well, this kind of justice is undoubtedly an improvement over violence that escalates.

But love calls us to do more. Love says, When you hurt me, you’re hurting yourself too. I know this. Consider your debt paid. Just stop it. Let’s not be victim and aggressor anymore. Let’s see each other as we truly are: family.

Turning the other cheek takes guts, takes knowing who you are, takes knowing Whose you are.

It sounds like, “I know we’re always fighting and I’m sorry for my part in that. We need to make things better. What can I do?”

It sounds like, “I’m sorry I haven’t called. Even though we’ve had our differences, I want us to be close. We’ll always be family.”

It sounds like, “Do what you will, but I will wear you down by my capacity to love you.”

These things are not easy to say. I get them out, if at all, chokingly, through tears. But I need to live this way. The alternative is letting my fear control me, make me hide or lash out. I need to let these words work in me, change me, set me free.

How Christians Fail

 Red sofa

I went to Bible Study Fellowship the very first week of college, still so new to faith I had never called myself a Christian out loud. It was with a giddy, electrified feeling that I sat in the college chapel basement in the circle of couches and chairs. Someone led us all in prayer and we took turns reading that night’s chapter out loud verse by verse. We dug into the brownies someone had brought and we wrestled with questions about the Book – politely. This was Minnesota, after all, so we kept it nice.

It was the first of many times I’d come to Bible study that year, but I never made any lasting friends there. Christians at my college were a tiny minority, and I came to know most of them by sight and many by name, but aside from a few conversations with a senior in my major, we rarely spoke outside of the basement. Maybe it was the rainbow pride button pinned to my backpack. Maybe we were just from different worlds. These were the kids of pastors and missionaries, and my childhood had been half-heathen, my teenage years fully so. I’d never known their style of prayer, spontaneous and somewhat pleading, or their style of music, simple but full of joyful praise. I wasn’t sure yet where (or whether) I wanted to go to church, and I didn’t really know where they went. No one ever invited me to come with them.

I never quite felt at home with these people. I wasn’t sure if they really liked me. I made other friends, most of whom were not Christian. These were the people who invited me to eat meals they’d cooked, have movie nights with them, sit next to them in class. My problems never saw the industrial fluorescent light of the Chapel basement, but they were spilled out for friends who shared cafeteria tables and dorm rooms with me, who invited me to swing dance on Saturday nights and baked me cinnamon rolls on lazy Sunday mornings. I drifted in and out of campus Christian culture, mostly too concerned with finals and volunteering to carve out much time to explore my faith. The Christian kids and I passed each other in school hallways and smiled, but rarely did we talk.

If we were all sitting in that room again, nine years later, sunk into the plush couches with a panful of brownies between us, I would want to ask them why. Why did they see me, the weirdo at Bible study, clearly curious but unfamiliar with this new world, and not eagerly embrace me? Why didn’t they try to teach me what they knew, ask me questions about my life and the pride button on my backpack and really listen? Did they not want to risk the awkwardness, the discomfort? Were they convinced I wouldn’t listen? Were they too preoccupied with passing their classes? Did gaining or losing a new member of the Body seem so trivial to them?

Of course, I have to own my own failures too. I was the one who lacked the passion to show up at Bible study much after that first term, who visited many churches in the area once and never went back. I never asked them to a meal either or asked them probing questions about their lives. I was certainly very preoccupied with classes and made very little time to think or talk about God. These things can’t be discounted. But what I barely realized, and what I’m sure was clear to them, was that I needed guidance and encouragement in my faith. There I was, having just escaped Egypt, dazed by my new freedom, facing many temptations in the desert, and utterly at a loss for which direction to move in now. I needed someone who cared enough to guide me.

Their failure in my life was small, a tiny symptom of a terrible trend in the whole Church: lack of love. It was lack of love that stopped them from befriending me, and it was lack of love that’s led to torture and holy war and the culture wars. We Christians fail at the clearest, most important instructions we’ve ever been given. We don’t love our neighbors enough, we don’t love our enemies enough, and sometimes we don’t even love each other. Jesus said we would be known by our love for each other. That’s easy to say and to intellectually believe, but what does love look like? Sometimes it simply looks like listening to people talk about their lives, serving them dinner, inviting them to church. The basics.

Of course, now I’ve been a Christian for almost nine years, and I’m much less clueless than I was, but I still fail at this very thing all the time. Now I live in a city, walk to work through crowds, sit in a cubicle maze, and I’m surrounded by people who in so many ways are lonely and hurting and confused, and I do not love them like I should. I’m shy, I’m lazy, I’m preoccupied, I’m self-absorbed. I try not to be actively unloving, but I forget to be actively loving.

I believe God, with infinite patience, forgives me my lack of love. Likewise, I must try to forgive myself and all the other Christians who have failed and continue to fail at love. Because the really glorious thing in all this? We Christians fail all the time, but God cannot fail. Our best love is conditional and flawed, but God’s love is complete, touching everything in the world, falling like rain on parched, cracked ground. I want to dance in that rain, cup it in my hands, save it by the barrel, and quench somebody’s thirst on some ordinary day, maybe in a dingy church basement.

Gray Hair and a Woman’s Beauty

Yesterday I discovered not one, but two silvery-white hairs on my head. That’s right, I’m going gray at twenty-seven.

And I couldn’t be happier about it!

Seeing those silver hairs reminded me of two things. First, it reminded me of my dad and my Grandma Rita, both of whom I love dearly and from whom I apparently inherited the early-gray gene. I’ve always admired my dad’s hair, which was salt-and-pepper throughout my childhood and has been pure white for years now. Once, when my stepmom was teaching an art class, he let the kids add rainbow colors to his hair with markers on the last day. He’s just that cool.

Second, I was reminded of the birthday song I learned while I was living in Greece. Translated, it means, “May you live many years, [name of birthday person]. May you get old, with white hair. May you spread the light of knowledge everywhere, and may everyone say, ‘What a wise person!'”

When I tell Americans about this song, they are often shocked that anyone would wish another person white hair. For their birthday, even. We see white hair as a sign of old age and all the negative associations that carries in a culture that worships youth: ugliness, undesirableness, loneliness, abandonment. But in traditional Greek culture, the elderly are treasured, and white-haired wisdom is seen as a quality worth wishing for.

Wisdom, of course, makes me think of the book of Proverbs. I love the first few chapters especially, where it talks about the quality of Wisdom personified as a woman (I always imagine her with beautiful silver hair). In Proverbs 8, Wisdom stands “at the highest point along the way, where the paths meet,” so she can call out words of truth to save those who are stumbling blindly toward destruction. In Proverbs 9 she is described as setting a generous table and calling all who need insight to come to her feast. Throughout the book of Proverbs, the woman Wisdom is shown as helping and serving others and sharing truth that gives life. Wisdom is described as “more precious than rubies,” a phrase that’s used to describe another good woman in Proverbs 31. She leads others in the way of peace, and she is a blessing to those who embrace her (Proverbs 3:17-18).

As a woman, I love having Wisdom for a role model. I love that the Bible shows her in this specific, female shape. Not because wisdom is the property of women – it’s something we all need to seek! – but because when I’m no longer twenty-seven, when my white hairs have overtaken me and culture tells me that I am ugly and undesirable and I need to buy a bunch of things to fix my appearance, I can read these words and know the truth. I can know that while my worldly beauty wanes, my spiritual beauty can increase if I follow Wisdom and look to her example. Rather than yearning for the gifts of youth, I can treasure the gift of wisdom, the ability to care for others and to speak words that give life.

“… gray hair is the splendor of the old…” Proverbs 20:29

A Pentecost Post: My Fear of the Spirit

Something in me is pretty suspicious of spirits, spirits that fill you and speak to you and move you.

Somewhere deep down, I connect all that with the mental illness several people I love have experienced. Sometimes when you’re in a manic state you feel filled with holy fire that cannot be contained. Sometimes you can hear voices that seem to come from somewhere outside you to guide your path. Sometimes everything in the world seems to line up mystically, and you feel at one with everything, and then later the same “spirit” that lifted you up suddenly abandons you, drops you, and you’re so bruised by the crash you can’t get out of bed for days.

It scared me to watch from the outside. I’m sure it was even more terrifying from the inside.

My dad called me awhile back. The last time we’d seen each other in person, he’d felt so spirit-filled that he didn’t eat and stayed up all night conversing with spiritual guides. Now he called me in a state of hollowness, utter emptiness – full of nothing but shame and disappointment that it had all turned out to be crazy and wrong.

“Do you ever hear the voice of God?” he asked, hopefully, wanting to be understood.

I thought, Not really. Not like that. My default has always been to err on the safe side: drink responsibly, keep regular hours, pray quietly in my native language, and don’t invite any visions or voices.

But my internal emphasis on level-headed safety started to bother me the more I thought about it. Would I have been too scared to follow in-the-flesh Jesus? Would I have pushed past the rumors of demon possession and heresy to touch the real man’s robe and meet his eyes? Could I have stood his promise that he’d send his Spirit to come and dwell in me, or would I have turned away?

Was I turning away now? Did I have eyes to see, and ears to hear, all that there was? Was I missing out on the Spirit?

I pondered these questions, turning them over in my heart like smooth stones in my hand. I studied the story of my life and the Story a certain Book tells and I tried to see if they lined up at all.

The answer surprised me.

I looked inside myself and I saw, yes, a lot of fear. Fear of being overwhelmed by God, fear of being too close to God, like we were still back in olden times and touching Mount Sinai was like walking into fire. Fear of looking like an idiot if I let go and let myself be possessed by something greater than myself. Fear of losing my grip on reality.

And I also saw that the Spirit had been there the whole time, working around my fear with the delicacy of a watchmaker and the gentleness of the most loving mother. God understood my fear and was grieved by it, but also was not about to let it stop the Spirit.

The Spirit found cracks in my heart of stone and it made its glory small and wormed its way in.

God knew my fear of whirlwinds, earthquakes, fires. So the Voice came during quiet moments, when I had finally relaxed. So gentle was the Word spoken to me that it had almost seemed like utter silence.

One moment stood out in my memory: sitting in my cubicle toward the end of a long day of paperwork, another day consumed by anxiety that I’d never get out of this windowless building, with no concrete evidence to the contrary. And suddenly I felt myself relax, and I could see past my dark little cubicle and the confines of the dark moment in my life. I hadn’t heard the words, but they were there in my mind: It will be okay. There is more than this.

And also, there was dancing to Reggie Houston’s Box of Chocolates, the New Orleans Jazz band, playing “The Saints Come Marching In.” It was my church’s annual fundraising auction: we had just raised tens of thousands of dollars to keep on giving our homeless friends food and a place to stay in dignity and peace, and now we were celebrating Mardi Gras. I was stone cold sober and utterly high, waving my arms and jumping around in sheer spasmodic joy. People were probably watching, we Catholics being overall a sedate lot, but I didn’t care. I felt like I wasn’t dancing but being danced. Something powerful was moving through me in a way I could understand and embrace.

I’ve now decided I want to hear that voice, give it permission to speak louder. I want to get knocked over by waves of Spirit and lose myself like water in the ocean. I need to say to my primal fear, “Thanks for playing your part in keeping me alive. But I want to see where you’ve held me back, where I could go without you. You’re going to need to move out, ’cause perfect love is moving in.”

It will take some moments of courage and trust, and it will also take some practice. If I hear anything these days, it says to me, Keep listening. Keep your ears open and your eyes peeled, and don’t harden your heart. Just for today: listen.

The Bible Vs. My Monday

Red phone

It was a typical Monday morning at my customer service job. Call after call came in, many of the callers angry and ready to take it out on whoever was on the other end of the line. I sat at my cubicle, the voices coming out of my headset saying things like, “This is the fifth time I’ve called about this, and you people still haven’t done anything?” (When people start speaking in italics, you know you’re in trouble.) I also had someone hang up on me, twice. Okay, it wasn’t a typical Monday morning after all. Things aren’t usually that bad.

Several years of customer service work has taught me that some people are going to be angry no matter what I do. Never mind the fact that I hadn’t caused their problem, and in fact hadn’t even known what their problem was until they told me. Never mind my best efforts to be polite, stay positive, and focus on solutions. Sometimes people just want to rant, or place blame on anyone they can find, or hang up on you.

After several uncannily bad calls, I was in a mood myself. I wanted to let off some steam. It was only natural, after all. No one would blame me for that; at my workplace, we love to trade horror stories, especially on a Monday.

I swiveled my swivel chair around to vent my frustrations to the person who sits behind me, ready to tell her all I’d gone through. But she wasn’t at her desk. I bit my tongue on my rant and in that moment of semi-silence, this thought popped into my head:

Isn’t it better to suffer for doing good than for doing evil?

Uh oh. My morning Bible reading was relating a little too well to my life. Again.

Just hours before, I’d read that passage in 1 Peter about suffering for doing good. But wait, that part of the letter was about the addressees being persecuted for their faith by the authorities, right? Surely to apply it to myself here would be to take it out of context. Besides, what would be the harm in pointing out how nasty they were?

With our tongues we praise God, and then we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s image. Brothers and sisters, this should not be.

Okay, James, fine, I thought to myself. It was going to feel so good to rant about what jerks those people were to me. But what about their harsh speech towards me? They started it!

Why don’t you take the plank out of your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye?

I sighed and hung my head. I really hate it when this happens, when I actually have to try to apply what I’m reading. It’s so much easier when I can read the text as merely academic, referring to some other people in some other time. I hate when my own mind turns on me like this.

But then, later, I’m always glad I listened.

My phone was ringing again. I took a deep breath and turned around to answer it.

“Hello, my name is Rachel, how can I help you today?”

“I just need to know where my order is, please,” said the voice on the other end.

“Okay,” I said gamely. Twenty-something Jesus probably got bossed around by his carpentry clients all the time. We could get through Monday together.

Maybe I wouldn’t even have to hit up the vending machine for chocolate.

Do I Really Love My Neighbors?

Apartment building typical of the neighborhood.

I’ve lived in my current neighborhood for over four years, which honestly is a little scary when I think about it. It seems like just yesterday my beloved and I moved into our tiny, poorly ventilated, poorly lit studio apartment, with sticky kitchen drawers that drove us nuts and a wee oven I nicknamed “the Barbie stove.” We moved here quickly and didn’t plan to stay more than a few months, yet here we still are.Why? Above all else, we have stayed for the neighborhood. Within comfortable walking distance, we have a branch of the library, at least three parks, three supermarkets and a food co-op, amazing restaurants and coffee shops, and a discount movie theater.  Incredibly, considering our city’s abysmal job market at the time, I scored a job within walking distance after we moved here. My partner decided to go back to school a few years later, and we discovered a free shuttle to the college with a stop just blocks away. And of course, my wonderful church is close as well – I actually live within the official parish boundary. Aside from the apartment itself, what’s not to love?

Yes, I love my neighborhood. But do I love my neighbors?

Well, with a few notable exceptions I don’t really know them. I have a chronic case of crippling shyness, even in cases when connection should be easy, and also, genuine connection with strangers is something pretty countercultural in many parts of this country. I was just reading a compilation of international students’ first impressions of Americans, and I was struck by a quote from a Colombian student to the effect of “I was shocked to see all the young people here who live alone, eat alone, walk the streets alone. The United States must be the loneliest country in the world.” Many of the students responded similarly, many of them commenting that Americans seem outgoing and friendly, but their connections with others rarely go beyond social niceties.

I more or less fit this stereotype. I see a lot of people when I’m out and about, and I smile and say hello, and often I see them so often that I know them by sight, but rarely do I put in the time to learn their names, much less get to know them. Recently I decided to stop being such a chicken and make an effort to learn people’s names and a little bit about them. So now I know the first name of that guy who’s always sitting on the patio of the pizza place near my house. I finally frequented the restaurant of the young man I pass in his uniform going to work while I’m on my way home from my office job. And I’m working my way up to having a conversation with that amazing violinist whose music I catch an earful of on my weekly trip to the grocery store.

The neighbors who live even closer than that, in our building? With a few exceptions, most of them seem to be stopping by on their way somewhere else… an apartment with better ventilation, if nothing else. It’s hard to establish contact when things seem so transitory. Yet there are relationships I could build on here too, like with our next-door neighbor who always gives us first dibs on clothes that would otherwise go to goodwill, or our neighbor on the other side who let me use her cellphone when I’d locked myself out of the apartment first thing in the morning (don’t ask).

I feel Jesus gently nudging me toward forging a deeper connection with all of these people. In the bigger picture, I feel he’s calling me to continually evaluate my life in terms of whether or not it’s blessing my neighbors, to ask myself how I can bless those around me. Tutoring at the local high school? Cleaning up public spaces? Becoming really engaged with local issues? Seeking to understand, listen, and care more and more about the most vulnerable of us? There is so much more I can do than just passively enjoy the neighborhood.

On a certain level, it’s truer than ever that physical proximity is not what makes us neighbors, at least in the sense Jesus meant. We also have global neighbors, anyone whose common interest we share, which really includes everybody. However, I need to make sure I direct a certain amount of attention to my literal neighbors, not in order to limit the scope of those whom I care about, but to practice caring in a concrete way. To quote Mother Theresa, “Help one person at a time and always start with the one nearest you.” When I choose to care for those near to me physically, I can draw the whole world near to me spiritually.

My Faith Autobiography, Part 2: Bread

Big Round Loaf

(Photo credit: mystuart)

At last, I continue this story! You can read Part 1 of my faith autobiography here.

This post is dedicated to my family, whose unconditional love and acceptance were breadcrumbs on my trail to God.

* * * * *

Thirteen was the age I slid my first brown loaves out of the oven at three or four in the morning, well before anyone else woke. Like so many at that age, I loved the late-night dark, my time to be alone, to dream and ponder without interference from the diurnal world, with its rules and schedules and standards and judgments, anathema to my tender mind and body. I’d sneak into my room and slip my head onto the pillow at the first sounds of others stirring and sleep through my parents’ seething at my floury fingerprints all over the kitchen. But they’d also eat some of the bread, heavy and inexpert as it was.

What makes a thirteen-year-old want to bake bread? You’d think I might be imitating my mother, and in a way I was. I used her copy of Laurel’s Kitchen, which I never remember her opening, but which was nonetheless as tattered and cracked as my old copy of Harriet the Spy. Though she’d never baked us bread, she’d nourished us well in our childhood, not just with whole grains and carrot sticks but also with swimming lessons and library trips and freely given hugs.

But my mom had needs of her own, dark powers to wrestle, and they seemed to be winning. She’d spent the last few years in and out of rehab centers and mental hospitals, the rest of the family trying to hope for change and cope as best we knew how. I was wrestling myself with strange memories from the last few years. Long drives to distant treatment centers while my dad blasted bluegrass music in an effort to lift the mood. Cleaning the house spotless every time Mom returned home like a lucky charm that would keep her well. Calling an emergency line in the middle of the night when I found her strung out enough to try to vacuum up a broken glass she’d dropped on the floor, water and all. Since I’d left grade school, my parents had split up and gotten back together again, we had moved from rural desert to snowy city and back, and I didn’t know who to trust anymore.

My logic went like this. Fact one: Mom was tough. She hiked to the summits of mountains in her spare time, could hold her breath underwater like a dolphin and whistle through two fingers as loud as a drill sergeant, and once she lobbed a giant rock at a half-coyote dog who had nearly bitten my arm off. Fact two: Mom was lovable. She gently freed the spiders that sent us kids into tizzies of fear, all the while giving them a tiny voice: “I’m more afraid of you than you are of me! I just want to go outside, where I belong!” She coaxed me into letting her brush my matted, snarled hair by becoming “Miss Barbie,” my personal beauty consultant with a silky Southern drawl. Most of all, while she could and did get angry with me, I never feared her rejection. I knew there was absolutely nothing I could do to make her love me less.

If a woman like this could fall into shadow, how could I hope to survive? And who was I supposed to imitate, since my parents’ future terrified me? How to navigate from childhood to womanhood armed with only my own wits?

I went back to basics. I baked bread.

I found the process magical: waking up the yeast, kneading the pliant dough rhythmically with all my weight, punching it down and waiting for the slow rising. I could never see the rise happening, but nonetheless it did, the dough doming beautifully in the bowl the first time, then cresting over the edge of the bread pan the second time. Good old Laurel taught me to thump a loaf and listen for a hollow sound to test for doneness. Then I’d slice into it, maiming it horribly, watching the steam escape. I would eat half of it myself, just like a teenager, always hungry.

Of course, I couldn’t live by bread alone. (You knew that was coming, didn’t you?) My hunger for love and acceptance continued, but my family’s fragmentation and my lack of friends had given me a dark gift: the realization that the love of people was not enough to fill me. However, I wasn’t sure where else to look. I read fluffy self-help books and Ayn Rand, introductions to Zen and Wicca, and the entire nine-book Conversations with God series. I read a lot of Anne Lamott essays, stories of her recovery, the theme of redemption hammered home again and again. To me, all these were nothing but fairy tales, if addictive ones. I read a lot of other people’s ideas of transcendent reality, hoping if I squinted I’d see a sign, but I was always unconvinced, trapped as ever in my own prosaic world.

But I kept coming back to the bread, with its ritualistic instructions and the hours of silence it demanded, the hush of the midnight kitchen like a meditation hall as the dough rose unassumingly but unstoppably. Like the book of Esther, this chapter of my life didn’t allude to God by name, but God was there. Despite my shyness, awkwardness, and deep distrust of other human beings including my own parents, I longed to connect. For the first time, I wanted not just to be accepted but to somehow find a way to feed people, uplift them, renew them. Even then, I felt instinctively that bread was not meant to be hoarded but to become a gift of energy and life, to be blessed and broken and freely shared with all.

My Pain Is More Important Than Anyone Else’s

Headache

(Photo credit: Lel4nd)

Like that title? It’s shamelessly appropriated from a work by slam poet Edward Thomas-Herrera entitled “My Pain Keeps Me Regular.” Out of respect for my readers, I’ll warn you all that clicking on the link will treat you to a really funny live performance of said work which also contains two uses of the f-word. Personally, I’m not bothered by it, but please follow your own conscience and be fully convinced in your own mind.

Anyway, enough about that. On to today’s post about MY PAIN!

Yeah, you laugh, but that is pretty much how I refer to it in my head while it’s happening. In all caps. Even little things, like a backache, or a stranger being short with me on the phone. I admit it, I’m a total wuss about pain, whether emotional, physical, or spiritual. If you think I am a nice person, well, I can be niceso nice, until I get a splinter.

I have recently realized that I will do just about anything to avoid or alleviate pain above a very low threshold. I’ll drag others down with me, jeopardize trust I’ve worked to build for months or years, blind myself to others going through similar or worse things. Subconsciously, buried under geologic layers of rationalization, I think that I can and should and must alleviate my pain by any means necessary. Maybe this doesn’t seem like a huge revelation to you; maybe you are also a lot more self-aware than I am. This perfectly obvious line from the book of James was written for me: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight.”

One of the things I love most about Jesus is that he is not a stranger to pain. The Gospels reveal that he wasn’t a superhero; there were many moments when he is, touchingly I think, revealed to be overwhelmed. Not just his sorrow at Gethsemane or his tears over Lazarus, but a thousand tiny blink-and-you-miss-them cues to his tender humanness: often hungry, exhausted, sick of crowds, Jesus was truly “tempted in every way we are,” even in the little things.

And also, he was so kind to wusses like me. I definitely see myself in Peter, with his bold protestations of a love stronger than death and his immediate abandonment at the first sign of trouble. It reminds me of that time when I was twelve and a new friend of mine and I were hanging out near the edge of the middle school playground. My friend was struggling at the time with certain school rules she felt were not fair, and she took a small, deliberate step outside the official school boundary, just to make a point that crossing this arbitrary line granted her freedom. Two school security guards found us apparently trying to escape and escorted us sternly back to campus. My friend stayed stoically silent, but I broke down in tears, insisting I’d done no wrong and begging not to share in any punishment. As it turned out, there was no punishment, and instead of justifiably scorning me for my cowardice, my friend went on to become my best friend. Such a man was Jesus, making traitorous Peter the rock of his church, associating with the strong and the weak alike, showering them equally with love in imitation of his Abba in heaven.

The apostle Paul suffered from some unspecified pain, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual we do not know. He begged repeatedly for relief from this “thorn in his side,” but was denied. God’s answer was, “My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness.” I pray that I would let go of my instinctive understanding of my pain and weakness as a license to seek relief by any possible means, however destructive. Instead, let me bear with the emptiness I feel, and let it become a vacuum that can ultimately be filled with all the fullness of God’s love.