Month: February 2020
Some have heard me tell the story of one of the most vivid memories of my childhood. I got bullied a lot in middle school, mostly because I was small and awkward and not at all athletic AND because my best classes were English and literature. (I should add I was raised in a local culture that placed the highest value on things like sports, math and science.) In my 8th grade English class was another boy, Donald, who also got picked on. He, too, was awkward, bookish, and had verbal skills well beyond his age. But he seemed to relish his nerdiness (or maybe he just had a healthier ego than me). Now, the only thing more embarrassing than being picked on for knowing all of the answers in English class was not knowing an answer in English class… and one day that happened. The teacher posed a question. And, when no one responded, he called on me. Not knowing the answer, I felt the flush of embarrassment and insecurity and I panicked. Then, I heard the brutal words fly out of my mouth laced with sarcasm: “I don’t know, ask Donald. He knows everything.” The room erupted in laughter and, for once, they were laughing with me, not at me. But, I couldn’t enjoy the moment because I stole a glance at Donald. We weren’t good friends, but I suppose you might say we were joined in our nerdiness and when I made that stinging comment; well, he looked as if all the breath had been knocked out of him. It was as if I had dealt him a punch to the gut.
Where did those words come from? I knew better; I’d been taught better. I never behaved like that. But in my moment of panic and insecurity, my 8th grade ego felt its very survival under attack and it felt the need to fight to survive.
I’m not unique, I imagine. I’m guessing most of us can remember a time in our lives when we did something cruel because, in the panic of the moment, our egos defended themselves in a “damn the torpedoes” fashion.
Likewise, I’m guessing we’ve all been on the receiving end, as well. After all, if I hadn’t been bullied, I probably wouldn’t have been so quick and cruel in defending myself… not that that is any excuse; it’s just the harsh reality of human nature…
which is why we need to be cautious about our trust in other humans. I have some wonderful friends and family members. I trust them. And yet, there still have been times when their words have hurt and stung. There have been times when I needed their emotional support and they weren’t there. There have been times when I shared something important with them and their response went beyond lackluster. And, I am sure they could say the same for me.
The picture to the left is a pic I took walking Pompano Beach in Florida. I was stunned to capture this scene of a gull capturing a fish and toying with it (at least it appeared that way to me). I got about a half dozen pictures of this gull dropping, grabbing and pecking at this poor fish. It looked pretty cruel. But, knowing nothing about gulls, I’m guessing this is how they fish and its actions were necessary for it to survive. Nature can be pretty brutal.
My point is this: We all need relationships and people we can trust. But we also need to recognize that trust in humans can only go so far. We all have egos that are reactive and prone to strike back when they feel they’ve been dealt a blow. God alone is the only one in whom we can have absolute trust. No matter what happens, regardless of what we say or do, God will always, faithfully act in our best interest. Despite all of the cultural jokes about God smiting people, God isn’t like us. God doesn’t get offended and react by lashing out in the heat of the moment.
God’s love, grace and mercy are everlasting and all-encompassing.
As I mentioned in my prior blog, the shells along Pompano Beach in Florida were stunning. Each day as I walked I would take my time, looking down to spot the most beautiful shells. I wanted a wide array of colors and sizes and shapes, even different textures… but I also wanted beauty because… well, who wants an ugly seashell, right? Sometimes I would pick one up but, looking at my current collection, realize that I already had one that bore a striking resemblance. Sometimes a shell would be partially buried in the sand or was being washed over by the waves. I would reach down to grab it but, as I pulled it out and examined it more closely, I would notice cracks or pieces broken off. I was flying back on a plane so I had no interest in taking up precious carry-on space with redundancy or imperfection. (You can probably see where I’m going with this!)
One morning I noticed a shell upside down on the shoreline. Its underside was bright and vivid… beautiful! I thought, “If that is what the underside looks like, I can’t wait to see the beauty of the outside.” I turned it over and my spirits sank. The outside of that shell was drab and ugly; a blah, grayish shade with random bumps. Instinctively, I throw it back into the ocean.
But as I walked in silence along the shoreline, my knee jerk rejection of rejecting that shell caused me to reflect: how often do I fail to notice the interior beauty of people because they don’t match my initial expectations? How often do I allow first impressions to stop me from engaging more deeply with people? Had I seen the outside of that shell first, I would have never stopped to examine it. I would have kept moving along, just ignoring it.
Now, it’s not a big deal when it happens with a shell. I’m pretty confident the shell I threw back didn’t cry tears that mingled with the waves. It’s an inanimate object. But I am also pretty confident that there are times when my judgment of what I see at first glance prevents me from seeing deeper, hidden beauty in people.
I now regret that I didn’t bring that shell home. I could have put it on the table in my study where I do my morning prayers. It would have been a really helpful reminder to me to focus more intently and seek out the beauty hidden within regardless of what first meets the eye.
Listen to my recent sermon podcasts at http://www.trinitylafayette.org/sermons and check out my new book, Companions on the Journey: Foundational Spiritual Practices at https://wipfandstock.com/companions-on-the-journey.html or view links on my home page]
I recently was able to spend a week in Florida. I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder so a boost of warmth, sunshine and ocean air helps me make it through these dreary Indiana winters. My long, renewing walks on Pompano Beach yielded some beautiful spiritual insights…
I did a lot of shell collecting. The shells along Pompano Beach are amazing. I grew up in Pennsylvania and spent time on the Jersey shore on vacation. It was rare to find a stunning seashell. But at Pompano, they are abundant.
My first morning out, I noticed a woman whose pace seemed close to my own… mostly impressive because she was clearly quite elderly. She had a Ziploc bag in her hand. I was mostly focused on my shells, mostly looking down to spot beauty and keep an eye out for jellyfish! Looking up, the elderly woman was approaching me with bag in hand. In English still laced with a strong accent, she offered me her bag of shells. She was super excited about it. She pointed out some of the more beautiful ones. She told me about the artwork she does with shells, some of the things she makes, where to buy the best glue for gluing shells. I thanked her. She asked me where I was from… Thankfully, because I was curious to learn where she was from. “Russia,” she said. She had immigrated 30 years ago. She’s now 80. I asked her what part of Russia she’d lived in – Moscow. Honestly, she didn’t seem super excited to discuss her life in Russia, so I didn’t push the topic. We continued our own walks. Later, she doubled back to offer me more shells she’d collected.
Perhaps it is because Washington has become such a nasty, partisan place in recent years and xenophobia seems to be skyrocketing…. But, like my many experiences on my sabbatical journeys last spring, I was so struck by such kindness and generosity from a complete stranger. She was observant enough to notice something that brought me – a complete stranger – delight: collecting shells. And she wanted to be a part of it. She wanted to contribute to my joy… The joy of a complete stranger. In a certain sense, she showed me hospitality.
I’ve thought a lot about hospitality in recent years (in part because of my time spent with the sisters at Benedict Inn in Beech Grove). We tend to define the word in such a narrow way. But the foundation of hospitality is an opening of our hearts to others. True hospitality springs from the desire to contribute to another – to add to their joy, their peace, their comfort, their wholeness.
As I rush through my days, can I slow down enough, as that elderly Russian woman did, to notice what it is that brings others joy – even complete strangers – and to find ways to contribute to their joy, their peace, their comfort, their wholeness? Certainly, it is worth the effort.
[Listen to my recent sermon podcasts at http://www.trinitylafayette.org/sermons and check out my new book, Companions on the Journey: Foundational Spiritual Practices at https://wipfandstock.com/companions-on-the-journey.html or view links on my home page]