Sign of a loving heart

The true sign of a loving heart is that it does not give up even if treated as unworthy of any love in return. The sign of a loving heart is that it continues undaunted despite its expressions of love being ignored, rejected, resented, misunderstood, criticized, or maligned. No matter how love is perceived or received, it persists, not in weakness but in strength.

Love does not beg for scraps of affection, for morsels of approval, or for token acts of kindness in return. Love does not grovel, nor is it masochistic. Instead, love lifts up its head, squares its shoulders, and acts with dignity.

Love never fails.

The signs of a loving heart are patience, kindness — in other words, the virtues of Jesus, the embodiment of God’s love. The true sign of a loving heart is that it realizes it is incapable of such holy love, and thus it asks to be a conduit of our Savior’s love. We may fail and fall way short in our bumbling attempts to love well; we may love out of wrong motives; we may offend the very ones we are attempting to love; we may be tempted to give up and retreat to safety; we may find the task of loving our enemies to be a near impossibility; but Christ’s love does not and cannot fail.

Beholding Beauty | Fashionless Friday

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

For years those words haunted me: am I only beautiful if someone else considers me to be so? And, as someone who has never met our society’s conventional beauty standards, why couldn’t I just accept this fact — why was I so hung up about wanting someone to find me beautiful?

As a young teenager, I used to fantasize that there was a boy somewhere on this earth who would look at me — in all my skinny scrawny shapelessness, with my frizzy unruly hair, buck teeth, acne, freckles, and weird-looking bony knees and feet — and somehow find me beautiful. And, since I was fantasizing, I imagined him as a nice, sweet, wholesome, kind, sane boy rather than as a desperate, lunatic boy with low self-image and poor taste. Finally, that fantasy seemed too ridiculously improbable, even for me, so I began dreaming of a boy who would overlook my outward appearance and even my misfit personality, and would somehow manage to fall in love with a hidden inner beauty that hitherto no one — not even me — had ever managed to discern.

I was thinking about all that recently, as I had the enormous privilege to kneel — and I mean this as literally as possible — at someone’s beautiful feet. As I rubbed these dear, sweet, painful, elderly feet with soothing lotion, I thought of the verse, “How lovely are the feet of those who bring good news!” My mother has truly announced “good news of happiness” to many. Her feet are beyond beautiful.

All that has made me think, yet again, about my notions of beauty and my desire to be found beautiful. I’ve written about it before, about three and a half years ago.

That post was about, among other things, purposing to cling to “my other-worldly notions of beauty, and of what makes someone attractive to me”. I ended by stating:

After all, the thought of hearing the words “my good and faithful servant” means far more to me than even the most flattering words and opinions of mere mortals.

What does that have to do with beauty being in the eye of the beholder? I realized, as I knelt at my mother’s feet recently, that God has been changing my eyes — not my physical eyes, but the ways in which I see and appreciate beauty. There is so much more to loveliness than most of us can recognize, especially if our eyes and hearts have been trained by societal norms.

One of my favorite people to pray with has hands I find absolutely beautiful. She sees hands damaged by hard work and arthritis; I see hands that have served Jesus oh so very well, hands that have soothed the dying, hands that have brought me flowers she lovingly tended in her garden, hands that continue to bless everyone she touches. I see hands so beautiful that they have moved me to tears.

Back when I was that young teenager, facing constant mocking and bullying at school, desperately dreaming up fantasies of sweet boys who would find me beautiful rather than ugly, I began looking at myself through the wrong set of eyes. The people who truly loved me never considered me ugly — not even when my actions and attitudes were. It has taken me decades to be able to look at pictures of young teenage me and not feel embarrassment and humiliation… and self-loathing.

“Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’?” (‭‭Isaiah‬ ‭45:9‬ ‭ESV‬‬)

Ouch. That’s what I was doing. I was telling my Creator that He did a lousy job when He knit me together in my mother’s womb. I was accusing Him of shoddy workmanship… just because some people, including myself, were looking at me through the wrong eyes.

Love sees beauty even when others don’t.

That’s the kind of eyes I want, so that I might be a beholder of beauty, whether it’s mine or someone else’s. I want to have beauty in my eyes, so that I might see beauty wherever it is to be found.

False narratives

There are people who believe we create our own reality, or that we somehow attract into our lives the events — even the worst of trauma — that happen to us. Some of that sounds new-agey and off-putting to many Christians, yet a similar ideology has crept into many churches as well. Recently I posted the following to a discussion of some of the impact Norman Vincent Peale’s positive thinking message has to this day:

Many people have no idea how much Peale’s positive thinking ideas have infiltrated so much of Christianity, and have impacted people who have never even heard of the man. I have a friend who would not even tell me what she had been diagnosed with and — when I insisted on knowing — she whispered the name of her condition as if she was forced to pronounce some horrible obscenity and hoped no one would actually hear it. Her reason? She didn’t want to “come into agreement” or “speak out” anything negative.

…then there are those who refuse to “hear a bad report”. I’m all for not listening to gossip, but I think it’s silly to avoid negative news about someone, and I think it’s dangerous and immoral to silence those who are victimized by someone else. There is nothing righteous about burying one’s head in the sand and refusing to hear anything that might make us uncomfortable, challenge our worldview, or even cause us distress.

I wonder if these people, who claim to be Christians, actually read their Bibles. Thing is, the Bible is full of “bad reports”. The prophetic books of the Old Testament seem to be focused on getting people to wake up and face some hard truths about themselves and about their society. The Psalms are not “happy clappy songs”, but are all too often laments. (I didn’t understand this as a kid: why did God not punish King David for all his complaints, and why on earth were they included in the Bible?)

That’s not to say that those of us who claim to be Christians should be all doom and gloom, and focused on negativity. But I would think that those of us who claim to have an eternal hope, those of us who claim to be in relationship with the God of the Universe, would be able to be capable of facing reality without playing all sorts of mind games, pretending away what we don’t like, and claiming that perception matters more than truth.

Today I was reminded of a flip side of this: negative thinking versus positive thinking. Actually those are not the only two alternatives, contrary to what some people have insisted. “Negative thinking” — focusing on the negative to the exclusion of the positive — is just as much in error as its opposite extreme.

Perception never matters more than truth, even when it is our own perception.

For most of my adult life, I believed a false narrative about God and about myself. That doesn’t mean that everything I believed about God was a lie, or that I was delusional about myself. While most of what I thought and believed was based on truth, the way I lived my life, the way I interacted with people, the way I prayed, the way I interpreted situations — all that was woven together in such a way that was not completely true. I am still unraveling the general narrative I created about life, and holding it up to what I now know and believe to be true.

A big part of therapy for me was what I eventually called “replacing lies with truth”. A wonderful couple that ministered deeply to me preferred to call it “replacing ungodly beliefs with godly beliefs”. Much healing has come to me as a result of pondering the question: Will I allow myself to be defined by my past experiences, traumas, and sins, and by what people tell me about myself, or by the God Who created me, loves me, and knows me best?

For years, the people I was most comfortable with were those who agreed the most with the narrative I’d woven together to make sense of my life. I was filled with self-blame and shame, so it felt familiar to hang out with people who blamed me and shamed me. There were a lot of things about me that I viewed in a negative way, and I thought people were a bit daft if they didn’t agree with me. Now I wasn’t all negative — in fact, I would get quite annoyed at people who didn’t affirm what I thought to be my good points. While I don’t believe in what some call the “Law of Attraction”, I do believe that we tend to choose to associate with people who feel familiar, who agree with us for the most part, and who don’t try to shake up our entire worldview. So, whether it’s intentional or not, we often tend to befriend and even marry people who will reinforce our beliefs about ourselves, about God, and about the way the world works.

I’m reminded of a woman I know who married a man who — even before marriage — described her in rather negative terms, and let her know by word and deed that she wasn’t very important to him. And you married him? several people asked her. Even after the things he said and did to you, the way he insisted that his friends, family, and career would always come before you? She would answer, “I couldn’t blame him. He was right. I’m not that important, and I should be thankful that someone like him would even want to marry me, with my past and all my faults.” She and her husband may have been in agreement, but it was with a lie.

For years, I believed that certain things I had done left me somewhat tainted. Yes, God forgave me, but… Because of that, I surrounded myself with people and with churches and with teachers who agreed with me, who reinforced my narrative about a God who forgives but somehow isn’t quite able to wash every last stain of my sins away. I even allowed someone close to me to repeatedly remind me that I was not “pure”.

And then…well, I realized the lie of that. What upset me most — once the lie was exposed — is not that it was a false accusation against me, but that it was a false accusation against my Savior, as if His blood shed on the cross was not fully capable of cleansing sins as grievous as mind. (I’ve written posts about that, and about the whole “purity culture” thing on this blog, as I’ve worked through much of the false teaching I once eagerly embraced because it made understandable the pervasive sense of shame I carried throughout my teens and most of my adult life.)

Today I’ve been pondering some of that. I feel as if I’m still basking in the wonderful aftermath of receiving the Sacrament of Confession. I am more at peace, and less defensive, about the fact that I am prone to wander and sin — and yet I am more grieved by that propensity than ever. It seems contradictory, but it isn’t. I realize how desperately I rely on my beautiful Savior…and more and more I realize that this doesn’t make me a uniquely flawed and terrible person, but just a human.

Besides, even if I once was all that terribly flawed and horrendously awfully sinful as I once believed, not even the faintest stain of that now remains. Yes, I still sin. Yes, I still have flaws and failings. But the new narrative — the truthful narrative — of my life is that God did not create some cosmic mistake when He formed me together in my mother’s womb. In fact, some of the very things that I thought were flaws and defects, or that others think are flaws and defects, might actually be the way He intended to make me all along. Thank God that He is still working on me and that, as He promised, He will bring that good work to completion.

That’s the narrative worth embracing.

Confession

“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”

– James 5:16

 

“There is no form of therapy, no technique, no method, that even comes close to being as healing as the simple and courageous act of becoming truly and honestly open with another human being, and then being fully accepted by them in return.”

– Matt Atkinson

During my years of therapy, I eventually spilled everything, all my deepest darkest secrets, all my worst thoughts and deeds. There was much healing in that, far more healing than I had dared hope for. But something was missing…and, as a Baptist Preacher’s kid, what I longed for seemed crazy at times, the result of watching too many old movies, of having an overwrought imagination, of longing for the impossible…

My spiritual journey has been taking me into the Anglican Church. So on two different afternoons I found myself at a coffee shop with the priest, pouring out my story to him. The telling took two installments. It was a confession of sorts — he was even wearing his collar.

But something was missing, and by then I knew what it was.

Our particular flavor of Anglicanism believes in and practices the Sacrament of Confession. So I went last Saturday for my first ever real confession. I’d prepared prayerfully, and I felt an overwhelming grief over the enormity of my sins, even though I’d confessed most of them to God and fully believed myself to be forgiven.

It was not exactly how I’d always imagined from childhood on…I didn’t slip into some beautiful cathedral and find myself in one of those mysteriously beautiful wooden confessional booths, separated from a priest who seemed to always be there, hidden in the shadows, just waiting to hear my confession.

It was more simple…two chairs back to back. I faced the altar in our little church, where I could see the Crucifix.

That broke my heart. My beautiful Savior…

I confessed.

The priest said the perfect words. He stood in the place of Christ for me, because that is what the Church and its ministers are supposed to do and be — we are supposed to be the Body of Christ, His representatives here on earth.

He gave me penance…not punishment, not a “work” to “earn” forgiveness, but ways in which I can better care for my soul.

The whole thing was far more emotional than I expected. And it wasn’t as hugely and immediately transformative as I’d always imagined, when I used to tell people — only halfway joking — that I wouldn’t have needed years of therapy if I’d had a priest to confess to.

But as I was processing the whole thing, after I’d done my first act of penance (which seemed more like a wonderful reward and blew my preconceived notions of penance right out the window) it suddenly struck me that I felt cleaner somehow…lighter…a greater sense of freedom.

Forgiveness was no longer a theological concept. It was real. It had a voice, not just any voice, but a voice that spoke authoritatively. (Yes, I still believe in the priesthood of all believers, but I also believe in…well, in the priesthood.) Forgiveness had emerged from the abstract and from words on a page — even from sacred words on sacred pages — and had become immediate, here and now, part of the physicality and reality of my everyday life.

The next day I had the awesome privilege of doing the reading from the Old Testament and the Epistles during Mass. It’s been years since I’ve read Scripture out loud during a church service; there isn’t as much of a call for that in most protestant evangelical churches. But I remember that, each time before, I approached the responsibility with great fear and trembling, not out of nervousness about reading out loud in front of people, but out of a sense of inadequacy. I am a woman of unclean lips…how dare I read God’s Word in church? Yesterday I still had a sense of reverance and responsibility, but I knew my lips were clean. I felt much joy.

Partaking of the Eucharist was even more precious than ever.

Today I sent a text to my priest, wanting to make sure that he knows that I want to be confirmed in the Anglican Church when our bishop visits us in January. As I was sending the text, I joked to myself, Haha, after hearing my confession, Father Chris is going to tell me that I should wait several years until I’m hopefully less of a vile sinner! but then I remembered:

I’m forgiven.

The Bible says so. My priest says so. The Church says so. The saints and angels say so. Most importantly, God says so. He has always said so, but now…now I know.