The contented heart

It was a summer day, and we woke up to rain. Nothing to be done about that, we set aside our plans. I brought out my sewing machine, glad to have a chance to tackle a long-awaited project. Baby built block towers, looked at books, and emptied the kitchen cabinets of their contents. Together we ate strawberries and listened to music, and the day passed in what turned out to be the best way of all.

Contentment, I think, is a rainy summer day. Life has a way of stopping our ideals short, disappointing our hopes and making hash of the best laid plans. Worse, it can bring heartbreak, trauma and unspeakable grief. How and why should we be content in the face of the inevitable challenges of life?

The scriptures aren’t silent in this discussion. In fact, it seems that the theme of contentment is central to our life as believers. It’s essential to be content in our lives so that we’re available to be “kingdom” in the world. Contentment is finding yourself “full” in Christ, like the feeling after a delicious meal. It’s a call to be present in the moment, satisfied, lacking nothing. Only then are we able to be fully present, tuned in to Holy Spirit and listening for how we can serve in the moment.

Paul wrote this in the letter to the Philippians:

“In union with the Lord I greatly rejoice that now, after this long time, you have let your concern for me express itself again. Of course, you were concerned for me all along, but you had no opportunity to express it. Not that I am saying this to call attention to any need of mine; since, as far as I am concerned, I have learned to be content regardless of circumstances. I know what it is to be in want, and I know what it is to have more than enough — in everything and in every way I have learned the secret of being full and being hungry, of having abundance and being in need. I can do all things through him who gives me power.” Philippians 4:10-13 CJB

We can see that in the context, verse thirteen means that in any situation, whether ideal or adverse, it’s possible to be at peace. God gave Paul power to rest in any circumstance, though at the beginning of verse ten Paul is rejoicing greatly that someone has finally been able to meet his needs. We see, then, that contentment is a state of power, not an absence of need.

“Contentment is a state of power, not an absence of need.” @theholydaysblog

There are so many enemies to our contentment; barriers to our ability to take up our power of peace in the midst of our harried lives. I realize social media gets relentlessly bashed, but there’s certainly a negative effect from the constant barrage of ads that can’t be ignored. We’re being pummeled with content every day, telling us to buy more, do more, be more. If contentment were to nudge its way into our consciousness it’s instantly squashed again by the nagging fear of lagging behind.

I’ve had dear friends whose dreams seem to be on hold, desires from God that don’t seem to be getting anywhere in spite of their best efforts. It’s difficult and often heart-wrenching to be in that waiting space, between what is and what should be. It’s the hardest thing to feel powerless in bringing about the much-needed changes in your life.

It reminds me of the years Joseph spent in prison, between his visions of kingship and his eventual release. When he was in the cell, how could he know what was going to happen? But even there, God gave him grace. In prison, Joseph gained favor with the guard and was even put in a position of authority over the other inmates. The purpose God had for him wasn’t put on hold. Joseph had an opportunity, even in his waiting, to be fully alive. Prison is the ultimate symbol of waiting, literally at the mercy of others, but the power of contentment is that we can be used “in the meantime,” right where we are.

Content, as we can see, doesn’t mean complacent. Complacency is lax inaction, an inability to live with awareness in the present while disregarding its impact on the future. It’s letting that jail cell tell us it’s time to give up.

Let’s choose to seek contentment like a rainy summer day: a welcome break, a pause in the harried noise of life. A chance to be present in the moment, perhaps to practice the skills we’ll need to fulfill our greatest calling. Let’s live in the hope of the freedom of Christ, and be fully satisfied in him. Even when life is hard, let us find the power within us to be content.

Building walls

Like a city breached, without walls,
    is a person who lacks self-control. Proverbs 25:28 CJB

Another way to think of self control is self direction. As I wrote in my last post, self control isn’t about stopping yourself from doing things, it’s about setting yourself on the path you want to go. Which means saying “no” to other paths, other opportunities, and committing to a direction.

Lately I’ve been studying about boundaries, a topic I’ve touched on here before. Boundaries are like fences (like the one in the photo above keeping the cows safe, fed and out of the way of motorists). We can also think of boundaries as the walls of the house we are constructing. Without walls and boundaries, the city is breached, the house is ransacked. There’s no protection for those inside. Healthy boundaries with ourselves and others are the first step to effective self control.

Recently, I had to go on an elimination diet for medical reasons. For a month I went without gluten, dairy and eggs to see if I had any allergic reaction on reintroducing them. In the end, I didn’t discover any allergies but along the way I learned something interesting about myself. Turns out I am very uncomfortable having people make allowances for me. I hated feeling like a “nuisance” and having to speak up about my needs and refuse things people offered me. I hated offending my kind friends, and I realized that I’ve taken great pride in my ability to go with the flow and not cause drama. I’d always seen it as a virtue, the virtue of needing nothing and becoming invisible.

Humility, wrote C.S. Lewis, is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. It’s tempting to take pride in our lack of boundaries, thinking ourselves martyrs to a greater cause. But without a framework, the sacrifices we make mean nothing — and if they lead to secret pride, they’re harmful.

Building walls after years of letting them be torn down and trampled over can feel like “being mean” and pushing people away. But as I’m learning with my son, boundaries are necessary for communicating love, and they lead to confidence and security in our relationships. Toddlers are meant to look for the limits — that’s a normal part of their development. They’re supposed to say “no” and test our rules. They are learning who they are as a separate person from mom and dad. They are developing into an individual, and finding their place within the family and the community. As I raise my little one, I have to say “no” more firmly and more often than I enjoy. But if I only listen to my own comfort and his temporary emotions, he’ll never develop a strong confidence in his identity. He’ll never feel secure with me because I’ll be unpredictable. And he won’t learn how his actions impact those around him.

It’s also important for us to learn to say no to ourselves. This helps us take responsibility for our own needs. It isn’t someone else’s job to make me happy or take care of my daily obligations. As in the example with my son, my role in parenting him is to take care of the things he isn’t able to do himself, but my goal is to raise him to take care of himself. At this point I brush his teeth, bathe him, and give him snacks but as he grows he takes more and more responsibility for his own “house.” It can be difficult to see the line between our own responsibility and someone else’s, but effective walls keep things inside as much as they keep things out. My boundaries aren’t working if I place the burden of my needs and feelings on others.

I’m sure we all have a long way to go, I know I do. I have a hard time gathering the courage to speak up for what I need, just like when I was on a special diet. But if I can’t learn to control my “house”, or my self, I’ll be vulnerable to the enemy who is looking for a way inside. Without boundaries, the house is unprotected. Without direction, the ship will drift. Self control means bringing these together, under God’s lordship, and seeking his strength to stay on the right path.

Grace for guilt

There’s something on the inside of each of us that desires holiness. Created in God’s image, we each bear this mark of God on the inside of us, and something within us desires to feel clean and “good.” Different people seek to satisfy this desire in different ways, even if they’ve never heard of God.

In our searching, however, we have to deal with this pesky feeling of guilt that bubbles up time and time again, destroying the balance of our conscience and driving us to question our decisions. It’s natural to seek “goodness” over “badness” and to desire to be righteous within ourselves. Feelings aren’t inherently bad — they are important indicators that give us clues, just like pain in the body tells us something needs attention. It’s helpful to listen to feelings, even though we don’t want to be ruled by them. Guilt is a messenger that something is not right. Sometimes this means we need to seek forgiveness. But other times it’s just empathy for another person’s emotion that is threatening to blow us off course.

Dr. Henry Cloud, renowned for the Boundaries books he co-authored, shared on his podcast about this topic recently. I’ll recap some of his ideas, but I encourage you to listen to the podcast (he discusses this topic for about the first twenty minutes).

When we feel guilty, we feel that our goodness has been compromised. Feeling we aren’t “good” it’s a very uncomfortable place to be, as though our very value is in question. In seasons of my life when I haven’t been secure in my identity and the truth of God, guilt has harassed me relentlessly. I’ve been “tossed about” (James 1, Ephesians 4) and subject to everyone’s opinion of me. It happens in the vulnerable seasons of our lives, when God is asking us to grow in trust and live out who he made us to be.

Often, guilt creeps in when we’re holding a boundary. We worry that we’re being selfish for saying no, and convince ourselves to give in just this once. We want the discomfort to go away, so we’re tempted to assuage the feeling by reacting to it. It’s easy to be influenced by the emotions of whomever we’re holding space with, whether a crying child or a disgruntled adult. The tense emotions that mask sadness at our decision produce feelings of “badness” in us, as Dr. Cloud describes. We want to restore ourselves to feeling “good,” so we’re tempted to be reactive, and make the decision that will make our guilt go away.

The truth is, boundaries help our relationships thrive. We show people that we respect their “otherness” when we hold our own space. We show them that we value our differences when we don’t treat “no” as a scary word. Differentiation is healthy and normal. With a child, holding boundaries makes them feel secure. They need to be confident that we are in charge, and it helps them to trust us if we’re consistent. I have a feeling it’s not so different with adults. Holding our boundaries helps others trust us, even if they’re upset by it in the moment.

There are times when guilt is telling us we’ve genuinely done something harmful to another person. As Dr. Cloud says in his books, sometimes things hurt others but are not harmful. It’s important to use discernment to find out what’s really going on.

But what about when we feel guilty for saying “yes”? It’s almost as though we’ve transgressed a personal boundary, like eating something we feel we shouldn’t, saying yes to a purchase, or allowing our children greater latitude than usual. Some choices like these make us second-guess ourselves and bring up those familiar negative feelings. When we feel guilty for a yes, it’s important to remember our long term goals. Purpose and values give us a framework for making decisions that we don’t have to feel guilty about. Self control isn’t about stopping yourself from doing things, it’s about setting yourself on the path you want to go. Willpower isn’t very effective if we’re working against ourselves.

Another cause of persistent guilt can be legalism. When we live our lives according to our own rules, seeking holiness by our own works and discipline, we are choosing a life apart from God. Of course we’re vulnerable to frequent attacks of guilt if we believe that the key to our holiness is within ourselves. In my own experience, the Holy Spirit convicting me of sin hasn’t brought up feelings of guilt, but of deep sorrow at the way the sin kept me from a right relationship with God. True conviction in the Holy Spirit leads me to say “I need you,” and keeps me well away from the source of the sin. It’s effective, and it leads to true behavior change and reconciliation with God. This contrasts with nagging guilt and indecisiveness. In the Holy Spirit, things are made clear.

Next time you’re assailed by guilt, remember there is grace for you. It’s natural to desire holiness — God desires holiness for us too. So let that guilt go and listen to the Holy Spirit’s leading as you walk in love towards your fellow man. Let’s repent when repentance is needed, and hold our boundaries in love when they need to be held.

Breaking ground

It’s easier to see the purpose of the pain in retrospect. In the moment, it can be difficult to understand the pain of growth, unless we know there is purpose in the suffering. Just as a child endures a stormy week of tears before reaching a new developmental milestone, so we often struggle when on the cusp of a new stage of maturity.

Last week I shared vulnerable thoughts about a necessary perspective shift that’s happening in my life. Truly, I’m in awe of the way God takes my mess and turns it into something beautiful. There are times when I’ll have a song or scripture on my heart for months, and gradually discover it holds a clue to the developmental work that is going on inside me. For two years now I’ve continually had the song “New Wine” on my heart as God revealed necessary growth being prepared in me. He’s been taking things apart so he can rebuild.

When my husband began breaking ground for his latest building project, the excavators found an existing foundation from a church that had once been on the property. The basement was intact, full of broken bottles and other remnants from the past. All of this had to be removed so the ground could be properly prepared for new construction. If it had been ignored and built over, the new foundations would have collapsed within a few years. To keep the structure’s integrity, the work had to be done completely.

Moments like I shared in last week’s post are seasons when the old is being broken down. The bigger the structure to be removed, the more painful the process may be. You may have heard this referred to as “tearing down strongholds,” anything we have constructed to shield ourselves from needing to live the reality of trust. Anything we’ve been using to protect ourselves from the pain of change and growth.

I had a vision not long ago of a stony ruin, old walls that were breaking down under the persistent growth of abundant flowers. The walls represented pride; strength that comes from man’s ability to have it all together. The flowers were grace, mercy, peace, and joy overtaking the ruin of the former structure.

Trusting God means letting him lay waste to our structures of self sufficiency. We construct strongholds of fear; fear of being known, fear of coming to harm, fear of running out. Trusting God means letting all of that go.

I’m reminded of the familiar parable of the sower in the book of Matthew. Jesus says, “The seed sown on rocky ground is like a person who hears the message and accepts it with joy at once, but has no root in himself. So he stays on for a while; but as soon as some trouble or persecution arises on account of the message, he immediately falls away.” (Matthew 13:20-21 CJB) For the reality of the kingdom to take root, the ground must be prepared. This is the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

God is turning up the soil in me, clearing the rubble and preparing my heart to build a structure that will last the ages, far longer than my own strongholds can last. I’ve got to surrender to the pain of change, knowing the purpose of the work. He’s breaking ground.

Choose today

It’s Monday as I write this, after a long and difficult night with a teething baby. Lately, I find myself at a crossroads. Life is beginning to demand more maturity and strength than I have ever given before. Some days, defeat looms large over me before the day has even begun, and anxious thoughts threaten to sabotage my peace and patience.

The platitudes don’t help. “It could be worse,” or “everything happens for a reason.” Worse still, the endless stream of suggestions from well-meaning friends. And sometimes even “choosing happiness” is not enough to overcome the tide of melancholy that inevitably rises. In life, we encounter real pain, real difficulties, real circumstances that can’t be wished away. How do we cope; how do we keep going?

Growing through all of this, I’m learning that I won’t always have everything I want or even need, but I still have to face the day and live it abundantly. Is this what Jesus meant when he said “take up your cross and follow me.”?

Sometimes I reach out my hand for support and there is nothing there. Somehow I still have to keep up with my responsibilities, help or no help. Friends may listen and show empathy, or they may not. Some days I just want someone else to take over so I can take a nap — can you relate?

Here is the thought that keeps me pegged down on the difficult days, shaping my outlook and my reality: choose today.

When demands are coming from every side and my resolve is beginning to crumble, I wonder how I’ll make it to someday, the ideal future I have in my head. But someday doesn’t really exist; all we have is now. This is my life; I can choose to take charge of it, or let it defeat me. Perhaps I didn’t choose these circumstances, but I can choose to take what I’ve been given and make it into something like what it should be.

Meanwhile, God is working on my heart. He still teaches me, even when I’m unfaithful and self-focused, his infinite wisdom eclipsing my lack and revealing truth. In the practical, he’s teaching me to speak up, hold my boundaries with grace, and ask for what I need. Personal responsibility is a bit of a byword lately, but it won’t ever be irrelevant. Pragmatically, it means holding your space and not expecting someone else to do it for you. All I have is today; this is my only life. No one else can do this for me: no one else can be my son’s mother, no one else can communicate with my husband, no one else can live my life for me. And no one else can have a relationship of vulnerability and trust with God on my behalf. It’s up to me to choose this every day.

I’m reminded of another scripture where Jesus said, “Go in through the narrow gate; for the gate that leads to destruction is wide and the road broad, and many travel it; but it is a narrow gate and a hard road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14 CJB)

Perhaps he meant that few would be willing to find it within themselves to shoulder their own burden, to live in the hope of Christ while facing the challenge of the day to day. It’s the great paradox of life, that we can live in victory while carrying a cross. But that is the message of Christ. Paul wrote, “To Jews this is a stumbling block, and to Greeks it is nonsense; but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, this same Messiah is God’s power and God’s wisdom!” (1 Corinthians 1:23 CJB)

All we have is now. There’s no promise of better days tomorrow, but there’s blessing in the struggle. No one can do it for you. You’ll find your joy again, you’ll find peace. Be present in this season; choose today.

Love of strangers

No series on women and the home would be complete without a section devoted to hospitality. I remember hearing a good deal on the subject when I was growing up; maybe it was a trend at the time. I used to put together elaborate tea parties for my sisters, and pore over beautifully-illustrated books about etiquette and making the home a welcoming place (always with references to neatly plumped pillows and tea trays with fresh-picked flowers). Fancy, thoughtful touches like these can be such a treat, an act of service by someone with a gift for it. I still love putting together theme parties for little girls (especially at Purim), but I think somewhere along the way I realized that in the context of hospitality, the rules and frills all make me miss the point.

Now we find ourselves in a post-pandemic era of isolation and fear. Depression and anxiety can make the work of hospitality seem like too great a burden to bear, especially if we believe there are rules and everything must be clean and pretty and perfect. We have Martha Stewart in the back of our minds, hostess extraordinaire, who at the drop of a hat can host thirty friends and whip out a cake she just happened to have in the pantry.

I got curious about why this happens. Why does hospitality feel like such a burden? Why do we have the self-proclaimed introvert never-hosters on the one hand and the hospitality queens on the other? Why is the topic such a buzzword and yet such a bust? For the answer, I searched in my Bible for writings on hospitality.

“Share what you have with God’s people, and practice hospitality.”

Romans 12:13

When I looked up the word used for hospitality in Romans 12:13, the pieces began to fall into place. In the original language, it means “love of strangers.” If we take a step back and look at this phrase as a concept, it casts things in a new and fascinating light. Could it be that the hospitality the church was meant to show was one of eschewing cliques and offering an open door to the unwanted? The church met in homes, and was instructed not to show favoritism, as we see in other scriptures. In addition, it seems that in this letter the Romans were being instructed to keep welcoming those who were different, strange, or “other.”

Nowadays we have a bit of a different culture surrounding hospitality than was reality in Biblical times (most people want you to call or text before dropping in, for example). But a common theme in the writings to the early church is telling them to be more open to the people around them in their cities. What a beautiful picture this gives us of how the love and grace of God is shown in our Christian life. The hospitality of the church is in its welcoming spirit; not forming clubs of people who all agree on current hot-button topics or style of dress, but believers who will receive with joy any outlier into their midst.

As I dwell on this meaning, it seems that this concept of loving the stranger is central to our identity as the church; a physical manifestation of a spiritual concept. As gentiles (“Greeks” is also frequently used, meaning not-sons-of-Abraham), we have been adopted into the family of God, given an inheritance as sons, grafted on to the tree. God has opened his heart to those who were previously not included, we are all made “clean.”

“Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take your inheritance, the Kingdom prepared for you from the founding of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you made me your guest, I needed clothes and you provided them, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:34-36)

A beautiful door in Santa Fe

If our physical actions set into motion spiritual concepts, then welcoming a stranger is a holy deed. And this doesn’t have any rules attached to it. You don’t have to host your entire small group in your tiny apartment. You don’t have to meet some magic number of invitations for dinner. And it especially doesn’t have to be perfect, or themed, or boasting a homemade cake or flowers in vases. When the realization of this grace God has shown us permeates our hearts, I imagine many acts of hospitality will come more naturally. As we welcome God in to dwell with us, we will become more willing to dwell with others, and the stranger becomes a neighbor who we love just because they’re his precious child.

Let’s release our need to perform and impress — let’s be willing to sit with others who are different from us, listen and share. Let’s love strangers and take each opportunity to welcome them into our midst. You’re free of all the rules and expectations. Follow the spirit as he teaches you how to love as you have been loved.

Grace for comparison

As we undertake the building of our emotional well-being, there are several issues we may meet along the way. I’ve noticed common themes in my own perpetual struggles as well as in my conversations with others. I’d like to speak to some of these in the coming weeks, not to beat you over the head with what I’m sure you already know, but to offer grace for these issues and encourage you on your way to overcoming them.

Let me define what I mean by grace, to begin with. Countless books have been devoted to the topic and we are still singing about how amazing grace is thousands of years after Jesus came and gave us the first ever grace. It truly is amazing: Grace is the most beautiful gift you can give another soul. And Jesus brought it for all mankind (not just a chosen few), laying himself down as a servant, taking our iniquity on himself to give us a chance to go free.

In the day to day, grace says, “You can do better. Try again.” It’s a chance to realign ourselves with the heart of God. His mercies, fresh as the dew every morning, mean we can keep on seeking grace time and time again. Forgiveness does not need to mean that there was no wrong committed, just as grace doesn’t mean we can keep on sinning.

Here is the grace I want to give you today: You don’t need to compare yourself with others and endlessly try to keep up. You’re free from what other people think of you, and you are not here to compete with the crowd. God gives you what you need to content your heart with your own identity and purpose, and to pursue the ideals he has put in your heart.

I’m sure you’ve heard again and again how social media exacerbates the problem of comparison, so I won’t belabor it here. We know there is a superficiality to social media that makes such comparisons hollow anyway. But what about our constant comparing ourselves to our friends and family in real life? Or perhaps the compulsion to compare takes the shape of a general need to compare what is with what could be. A perfection-driven performance mindset that is masked in a seemingly positive ambition to always keep improving. A “growth mindset” — although if we observe nature, we see that growth is slow, natural and never forced.

Let’s offer ourselves a little grace for the desire to compare, first off: as with many of our drives, there is likely a biological basis for it. If we think in terms of our survival in primitive scenarios, perhaps we are wired to compare ourselves with the group in order to mimic behaviors that lead to survival. And we wouldn’t have compared ourselves with just anyone, either, but the group that we perceived was stronger, healthier, and more likely to thrive. So to counteract this compulsion, it follows that we need to know we are safe from the threat of being rejected.

It may be helpful to think of the biological drives we have as the “flesh” Paul talks about in his letters. When we live in the primal fears of our bodies, we are not living in the spiritual reality that we are created in God’s image. We are not living in our true identity when we are fettered by the animal drives, out of touch with our Creator who calls us sons and daughters.

We won’t be distracted by comparison if we are captivated by purpose.

Bob Goff

You are a beautiful, truly amazing, daughter of God. Where ever you are in life right now, you have access to His strength to overcome the challenges and grow into the person you were created to be. You have divine purpose — a calling to be like Jesus and invite others to do the same. God has given you the gift of eternal life and called you his own precious daughter. With an identity like that, who can challenge your worth? When he loves you so much the way you were made, why would you want to be like someone else? Our difference is our strength, each of us bringing different gifts and strengths to the table to create a beautiful, meaningful masterpiece.

Here’s a challenge for you: This week, when you see another woman doing something brilliant that would threaten the old you and tempt you to compare yourself, tell her she’s doing a wonderful job. Let’s foster an environment of encouragement and grace, building each other up and by so doing, building ourselves up in confidence.

I’ll conclude with a quote I read in Brennan Manning’s Ruthless Trust: The Ragamuffin’s Path to God from the movie Chariots of Fire:

“God made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure.” (Eric Liddel)

How did God make YOU?

Thoughts on influence

If you have sisters, you’ve likely seen influence in action. I have five sisters and a mom who is like a sister to me, and I cherish each one’s advice and perspective. Last year I visited my mom and two of my sisters for the holidays, a joyful time of making lots of good food and sharing wine and too much coffee. As we were spending time together, talking and laughing, I looked down and realized — all three of them were wearing the exact same pair of shoes. How funny!

From targeted ads by Instagram influencers to the rather hilarious friend group trends, we have a culture of influence, on one level or another. It’s a natural phenomenon: we trust a friend’s opinion and their experiences become part of the fabric of our stories, too.

When I write that discipleship is about influence, it’s important I think to make a distinction about the type of influence I mean. In Christ, we aren’t selling a product or building up a following for our lifestyle brand. The beauty of the church is its diversity. The body has many members, and they are all different in gifting, appearance and lifestyle. Christ-followers are unique! It’s the beauty of the body of Christ that we can be united around the good news of hope and freedom. It’s the gospel that brings us all together into a family.

“Jesus has called you to make disciples to Himself and His kingdom, not converts to your opinions.” Frank Viola wrote on his blog Beyond Evangelical.

It saddens me when the message of freedom in Christ gets distorted or watered down by things we hold up as equally important. This can look like anything from our political views to our favorite brand of avocados. It’s tempting to make it into gospel of self: “live like Jesus, which means live like me.”

Jesus specifically addressed this prideful spirit in the religious leaders of his day. “Everything they do is to be seen by others,” he said in Matthew 23, describing how those in religious power placed heavy burdens on their followers; rules to abide by in order to achieve righteousness. I don’t have space to republish it here but I’ll link to the chapter elsewhere and I encourage you to read it in full. Jesus did not speak mildly about this problem. He must have known it would continue to be a temptation to anyone with a following of any size.

Pride keeps us from treating others with respect, because to the prideful mind, others are just the currency in the transaction of elevating our own self-image. Jesus warned not to set ourselves up as teachers or leaders, because we are all brothers in the Kingdom of God.

Those who follow Christ are called to value people, and to treat everyone with respect as a precious child of God. As I raise my own first child, someone I hope to influence and disciple, I’m learning how to treat him with respect to create an environment where trust can grow. I’ve been surprised to learn that these principles apply to all my relationships. Here are some of the principles I’ve learned:

• Respect requires communication and honesty. Pride will hide the ugly or regular parts, wishing to make itself look better than it really is.

• Don’t do for someone what they can do for themselves (unless they asked you to, and even then, it might be better to refrain). Pride sometimes takes the form of martyr-like serving, but the serving is ostentatious and won’t take no for an answer.

• Allow negative emotions but commit to your boundaries, and honor those of others. Pride keeps everyone’s emotions under a tight rein of what is “appropriate” according to its narrative. Pride gradually crosses boundaries and makes demands of others.

• Empathize and seek to understand rather than offering advice. Pride wants to be the one with the perfect solution, but can’t be bothered to see things from a different perspective.

Even though I just typed out the above list, each line still stings with conviction. I’m definitely guilty of disrespecting the people in my life, especially the ones closest to me.

The opposite of respect is contempt. It’s all too easy to let this relationship killer seep into our hearts. Contempt says, “I am better than you.” Any version of this thought is pride, and will erode the trust we have built with others and the integrity of our influence.

*Note, contempt can so easily turn into abuse. An abuser justifies his actions by feeling superior to his victim. Controlling behaviors are the dark side of influence, which is why we must be so careful not to seek to control others in any way.

In contrast, Jesus came as a servant, washing the feet of his disciples. He told them to take this as their example of leadership. Washing feet requires getting down on the ground in front of someone to take care of a dirty task. It’s humbling because it reminds us that we all get dirty feet.

May our influence be through love and humility, bringing the beautiful good news of grace and peace into all our relationships.

“Love always bears up, always trusts, always hopes, always endures.” (1 Corinthians 13:7 CJB)

Cherish every soul

How does one quantify the value of a life? All we have are memories, moments, impressions. From the womb, a person’s full, colorful personality is aglow in all its richness and complexity. As they grow we see it mature, but if you have had children you know that the essence of a person never really changes.

As I watch my baby sleep, his jaw set in a determined frown, I wonder if in some sense he always was. I wonder if his soul preexisted his conception and was there in the heavens with God before making an entrance on this earth; a timely answer to my prayers for a son. As we watch him grow, it seems as though he always would have been, even if we hadn’t received him. Maybe this is nonsense, but seeing such a fully formed person from birth, I can’t help but wonder.

We laid the body of my grandfather Charles in the ground on a beautiful sunny day in May. To his last days, the vibrance of his spirit was alive through his jokes and determination. From a young age, he lived with grit, steadfastness and strength. He loved people, taking every opportunity to talk to friends and strangers alike. He worked with his hands, building the house my mom was raised in and building furniture and machinery. Most of all, Charles loved music. One day, someone brought him a violin that was damaged and unusable. Charles took the time to learn how to repair it, seeing the value and potential of the broken instrument and working painstakingly to make it play again.

After this first violin repair, Charles learned how to make instruments and soon perfected the art. He built and repaired violins for me and all my siblings, and paid for music lessons for us. We played together as a band for many years, but as we each married and started families of our own, we disbanded and went our separate ways.

For his funeral, we took our instruments out of their cases and played and sang together again. How beautiful to have this tangible representation of Charles’s legacy. I still can’t believe he’s gone, his life and breath fading away so suddenly. Still, his legacy will live forever, the ripple effect of a soul visiting earth for 85 years.

I see that same determination and self-sufficiency in my son’s face, and it makes me wonder about the early years of my grandpa’s life as he figured things out on his own. It shows me the necessity of valuing every human life, and teaches me to look into the soul and see the spark of God on the inside of every person. We’re just visiting earth for a brief time, and then we will return to the bosom of God.

An integrated life

What an age we find ourselves in. It’s an era of taking postures, keeping up appearances and outing anyone whose logic is faulty or whose actions haven’t measured up to their ideals. I see teachers and leaders issuing statements and caveats, and now that everyone has their own small platform it seems we are all required to take a “stance” on one side or another in order to keep apace.

Doesn’t it all seem a bit bewildering? How can we maintain our sanity if we are constantly being bombarded with demands to draw a line in the sand on this issue or that?

If I may be honest (indeed, I must), I am really grappling with the concept of integrity right now. I find my world challenged lately, the type of shift that happens every few years when maturity demands that I question things I once took for granted. I’m left wondering whether my inner beliefs are reflected in the life I choose to live.

For me, the strongest motivator in my life is my trust in Jesus; this is the backdrop for everything I value. And yet, are my actions consistent with my belief? Is my world structured around living out the love and trust central to his teachings? As I shift my mindsets lately, I’m forced to examine the fabric of my life and see whether it measures true to my ideals.

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone claims to have faith but has no actions to prove it? Is such ‘faith’ able to save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food, and someone says to him, ‘Shalom! Keep warm and eat hearty!’ without giving him what he needs, what good does it do? Thus, faith by itself, unaccompanied by actions, is dead. But someone will say that you have faith and I have actions. Show me this faith of yours without the actions, and I will show you my faith by my actions!” (James 2:14-18 CJB)

Lately, I’m being challenged to integrate my life. I find myself confronted with a sharp realization: we all have some measure of influence on the people in our lives. This goes far beyond the temporal facade of social media, often decried for its superficiality and one-dimensional commentary on life. In all areas of life, we are influencing others, normalizing behaviors and attitudes by our words and actions. It’s a bit frightening, quite frankly. It feels vulnerable. It’s a big responsibility.

In the Christian faith, influence is embraced as discipleship (a mandate from Christ just before his ascension, see Matthew 28). Because of my faith, I am motivated to make sure my influence is pure and right. Discipleship is bringing people into your life and saying, “walk this way with me.” It’s impossible to do discipleship without integrity. The inner world of values must be integrated with the outer world of actions. (The inside of the house must match the outside. Whitewashed sepulchers, anyone?)

Taking a stance on an issue is tempting. We can write a statement and tweet it out, or simply repost from someone we agree with. The issues all look black and white on paper, especially if someone else has already done our thinking for us. I think when we do this, we want to align ourselves with people we respect. We’re looking for validation by belonging to a group of people we approve of.

But perhaps more egregiously, we are ignoring the very real people in our daily lives who don’t need our statements. My sisters, my son, my friends need empathy. The homeless man on the corner needs food tonight. The woman considering an abortion needs support, help, a friend. The homosexual man needs a revelation of his identity as a cherished child of God.

When we have integrity, it isn’t as simple as forming a broad opinion. The people in our lives are going to emulate our attitudes, and they need our honesty. They need real, concrete love and the Good News of Christ. There isn’t much room for our stances when our hearts are overflowing with love. Grace is the truth given with mercy. A hand to hold while we get our mindset in order. God has given me grace — and now I must turn and offer it to the souls around me.

Here’s a challenge for you this week: Read and meditate on Luke 6:20-49. The words of Jesus sound radical to us even now. What is God saying to you through these scriptures?