Vision New England Blog

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The general blog of Vision New England dedicated to equipping and encouraging New England Christ followers to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly and make disciples.


The Parent

The Parent

 

I’m about to discuss a subject that I usually tend to avoid, because I generally believe the topic can’t really be articulated very well within the confines of human language. Nevertheless, this theme keeps popping up in my life, and I’ve been feeling very pulled to write about it lately, so I’ve decided to stop resisting.

 

Today I want to talk about one of the only things that I really get (even if it’s hard to explain) about life and how we should live it: unconditional love.

 

Jesus teaches that we should strive to love one another unconditionally. Because we are human, though, this is often close to impossible for us to do with most people, many of whom we probably don’t even like. Even so, we should still try to achieve this feat in one form or another, even if it's less a matter of "love,” so to speak, and more a degree of acceptance – relating to others humbly, and showing people mercy and justice regardless of their situation, and what they may or may not have done to/for you.

 

While Jesus is the quintessential example of unconditional love in The Bible, in all honesty, I've learned the most about this quality from the modeling of my own father, Bruce, who I've seen exhibit more profound and moving displays of love than any other person I've ever met. I could provide seemingly endless examples, but unfortunately, as with most personal anecdotes, without a certain amount of lengthy context (much of which is too sensitive and intimate for this sort of article) their real force and meaning would be lost. Therefore, I'm mainly going to omit these illustrations, and rather just focus on what, specifically, I've learned about the nature of unconditional love from my dad, and explain why I believe that reaching for this ONE quality is the most important thing we can do in trying to live lives of mercy, justice and humility.

 

Unconditional love is not about an outcome. It's not about someone loving you back, or gaining anything from your relationship with them. When you love someone regardless of if they love you - despite whatever horrible things they may have done to you - and whether or not they are even in your life at any given moment, this is the most magical, beautiful, and powerful gift that we can give to someone. This sort of love is how God loves, and if we can find this for even a small number of people, it's a truly incredible thing.

 

It can be really hard to manage this sort of love as a human, with all the instincts, emotions and volatility with which we experience life. Jealousy, anger, fear, and desire, all have an annoying ability to obscure the real meaning of love. These feelings leave us dissatisfied, wanting more, or wanting better. Often we try to make people into something they aren't, and change them, or we try to force them into a role that they don't want or aren't ready to adopt. When we have these expectations associated with what we think is love we can get so hurt, and go so far astray because none of this is actually what love is really about.

 

My dad will sometimes say to me, "I love you anyway," rather than, merely, “I love you.” What he means is that he loves me even though I'm not perfect - even though I sometimes disappoint him, and even though he sometimes doesn't agree with things I say and do. While I would never do it, I could say the most hateful things to him, and he would love me anyway. I could storm away from him in anger, and never speak to him again, and though it would hurt him and make him sad, to say the least, it wouldn't destroy him because he'd love me anyway. That's part of the wonder of unconditional love. It sustains you even when people fail to live up to what you may want from them. Of course we are going to want things, but when we can love without the necessity of these hopes being reality, we gain a special kind of peace that's hard to find, because we have that love in us, no matter what, and that love is from God.

 

In addition, loving unconditionally is the purest way to understand and learn justice, mercy and humility, and to recognize how to put these qualities into practice, because love is, simply, all of these things. Like God, love is the parent of these three qualities.

 

When we can set aside our own self-interest for the sake of helping and supporting someone; when we make time for them, and work to understand them, even when it’s inconvenient, or show them patience and encouragement, even if it’s a challenge, we learn true justice. Through unconditional love, we learn that sometimes justice requires sacrifice and suffering, and that we don’t need to resent these parts of life, but can embrace them as being used for something greater.

 

When we see people for all that they are - mess and everything - and we can treat them with love, respect, and kindness, this is true mercy. These people may have hurt us, and they undoubtedly have the potential to hurt us more (because love requires vulnerability) but we can overcome the fear of this pain, and the scars it may have already caused, with forgiveness and acceptance.

 

And when we can finally internalize that our own plans, hopes, and desires aren't the most important thing in our relationships we can experience true humility, where we finally acknowledge that there is something much bigger than ourselves at work in the world. When we surrender to loving others in the way that God loves us, this is sufficient. It is through unconditional love that we learn how to cast off the selfishness that can be so hard to overcome, and in doing so we further perpetuate our ability to do justice and show mercy, both with those we truly love, and to others in general.

 

Essentially, this is my less eloquent way of paraphrasing the classic 1 Corinthians 13 passage. Of course, it’s a great collection of verses, both beautifully written and also incredibly meaningful, but I think people often reference it more because it’s poetic than because they really appreciate what it says. In reality, the message is incredibly challenging, and mercy, justice and humility often don’t come easily. However, this is perhaps the most important reason why we need to use the few sources of deep and meaningful love in our lives to refine and practice these qualities, so that they may permeate the rest of our life. It is within this context that we graduate from an intellectual (and ultimately insufficient) understanding of love – one which can be discussed in words – to a complete understanding of love, which cannot.


Joanne

Joanne

In honor of Mother’s Day, I find it suiting to write about my mom, Joanne. I should initially note that I’m pretty fortunate to have a mother that I’m able to talk about in the context of the topics of this blog; sadly I’m sure that some mothers fail to exhibit the qualities of mercy, humility and justice – or even just general love – to their children. My mother, however, has been exemplary in these regards, and I believe (and hope) that I have adopted these traits in part to her credit.

Joanne is something of an unsung hero in my family, and I admittedly contribute to this most of the time, myself. One reason is that my dad has a very unique personality, and there’s a lot of psychological mirroring, so to speak, between us. As a result, we have a weird and close relationship that I don’t have with my mom, even though I don’t love or respect her any less. Nevertheless, I understand how it could be easy for her to feel like she is taken for granted, particularly by my sister and me, who she has consistently sacrificed and fought for. In honesty, though, the paradox is that the very fact that she is the kind of person that can silently be taken for granted is exactly what makes her so special and beloved by her family. If she asked for appreciation and gratitude, not only would we be unable to repay her appropriately, but it would somehow take away from what she does, too. This said, the fact that she simply plays her role quietly is both incredible and important.

There is much to admire in the person who refuses to turn away when others need help, even if helping and supporting someone takes away from their own happiness, and even if they can’t fully understand what the other person is going through. This is the heart of altruism, which I think could probably be best defined as mercy, justice, and humility coming together through love, and Joanne has personified this countless times throughout my life, both towards me, specifically, and also towards others. Her family is everything to her, and no one exemplifies what it means to fiercely love your family more.

Joanne has advocated for my sister and me over and over, and she has supported us through all of our activities. She attended every one of our sporting events, rain or shine, even if the temperature was in the single digits. She even carted me around 6+ hours round trip, when needed, so that I could play AAU basketball in Bangor, and then get to Hampton to play field hockey team. She went to every basketball game one year, even though I only played 45 seconds the whole season, just in case I got in the game. She would rebound for me when I would go into the driveway to shoot baskets, and she built me a regulation field hockey goal so that I could practice at home. She would even throw me balls to practice catching and fielding for lacrosse, even though she knew little about the sport.

My mom remained resilient through my dad’s constant health struggles, first his battle with cancer when I was six and my sister was four, and later the vascular complications that arose as a result of the chemo and radiation. Perhaps even more demonstrative of her strength and love, though, was her treatment of me, during a particularly difficult period of my life.

When I was suffering from severe mental health crisis, and was periodically in and out of the hospital during 2012, Joanne would visit me in Portland every day, usually bringing me snacks to cheer me up. When I was home she would read me Dr. Seuss’s “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” every night, to remind me how much she believed in me, and because I’d become illiterate and couldn’t read myself. She had no idea how to relate to me, or help me, but she kept trying every single day, and I know that watching me, and being helpless, made her suffer. I don’t know how many times I broke down into a hysterical, incoherent mess of agony, tears, and snot that she simply sat with, unable to do anything more. I can’t truly comprehend how she felt, but I imagine that having to go through the stress and pain that I put her through – with all the uncertainty of not knowing if I’d make it – had to be one of the hardest things for a parent to go through. Yet she did it with so much strength that she didn’t even know she was helping me just by enduring and being there with me, not giving up on me, or treating me like a menace, no matter how menacing I was. You may think that any decent mother would have done the same, but I truly don’t think this is the case, knowing exactly the sheer living Hell that I created for my family over that time. Yet Joanne endured, regardless of the pain. This was justice and mercy that I can’t fully fathom, but have benefited from more than I can explain; it helped keep me alive, and she didn’t even realize what she was doing. She just did it, because that’s who she is.

On the night of my 20th birthday, I had my first major mental breakdown. I went out of my room, over to my dad, and fell at his feet in panic. After a few minutes of making a huge commotion, and my dad being unable to calm me down or understand me, he decided to take me for a drive until I could articulate. Awoken by the fuss, my mom came into the room, confused, and wanting to help. My dad essentially told her to go back to bed and that he would handle it, and Joanne was left standing there, perplexed, knowing only that something was terribly wrong and that I hadn’t involved her. You see, even with as strong as my mom has always been with me, and as much as she has fought tirelessly to support and understand me, anytime I chose to seek direct help, or talk about my struggles, I would run to my dad. It was always Dad that I leaned on, even though all my mom wanted was to help me. Which she was (and is.) Still, she receives little credit. But, she never stops.

Today when I talk to my mom, fully conscious, and cognitive functions (relatively) intact, I sense a sadness and a feeling that her family doesn’t appreciate her (even though she doesn’t tell me outright.) I think she feels like she’s been penalized for the fact that she’s never had to surmount some sort of insurmountable challenge – such as my dad did in overcoming alcoholism or cancer, or I have in growing past my severe mental illness – because she can’t connect to or understand us as well, or maybe she thinks we don’t respect her because of it. I think she sometimes feels like a martyr, because so many people in her life have suffered, and have required her to be the source of strength; to be the proverbial “rock” without recognition. The sad thing is that she doesn’t realize her altruism is the most valuable gift she can give others; she should feel accomplished, rather than taken advantage of, for the fact that she gives us something we can never repay. This is a truth about justice, and mercy: in many cases, they can’t be repaid. I can never repay my mother for all she has done for me; she has just done it because she loves me, and because it’s the right thing to do as my mother. We should all hope to give such gifts to others with true humility – expecting nothing in return, and finding the true satisfaction of our actions in knowing that we have given people something they desperately needed, which they could find nowhere else.



Not Doing Justice Equals Doing Injustice

James 4:17
If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is a sin for them.

 

 

Since being asked to write this blog, I’ve been praying for focus and direction. It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the result has challenged me, and forced me to face some realities that I had previously been quite content ignoring; after all, God loves to challenge us, and push us to be better versions of ourselves. Nevertheless, what I’ve realized has still made me uncomfortable, and highlighted certain crucial shortcomings that I’ve been blatantly ignoring.

 

I’ve never been politically motivated. In fact, I’ve generally regarded serious discussions about the workings of the world as dangerous. I’ve also never felt like there was anything I could say or do that would change even the slightest thing about the problems society faces. Lately, however, I’ve been experiencing a profound shift that I would like to share, because I think it’s completely relevant to our responsibility to “do justice.” This shift began as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, and I read something that made me think about Adolf Eichmann.

 

During my final year at college, I was assigned to read a book called Eichmann in Jerusalem, by Hannah Arendt. It became one of four books that have had a profound influence on my life. The book details Arendt’s journalistic investigation into the psychology and personality of Adolf Eichmann (one of the major organizers of the Holocaust) during his trial in Jerusalem in 1961. In this exploration, Arendt discovers the disturbing truth about Eichmann, and about humanity in general; she calls it “the banality of evil,” and highlights it in saying that, “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.” When you consider Eichmann’s admitted role in genocide, and that he was responsible for the horrific deaths of millions of Jews, you realize just how grim a revelation this is.

 

In addition to her discussion of Eichmann himself, Arendt also examines the actions of other groups and governments during the Holocaust. In doing so, she finds that these illustrations also depict the banality of evil, and how the majority of evil in the world is done by normal people, not monsters, who simply refuse to stand against injustice, are only doing their jobs, or obeying orders. For example, most countries failed to resist the identification and deportation of their Jews, and they more or less cooperated with the Germans in this task. Furthermore, most Jewish leaders themselves even cooperated with Nazi officials in organizing the Jewish population, a fact that Arendt points out led to gravely more deaths than what would have occurred had the leaders refrained from doing so. Only in Denmark was there real, direct, organized opposition to the Nazi’s efforts, and Arendt explains that because of this the Germans were virtually ineffective with their task. In fact, Arendt writes that, “It is the only case we know in which the Nazis met with open native resistance, and the result seems to have been that those exposed to it changed their minds. They themselves apparently no longer looked upon the extermination of a whole people as a matter of course. They had met resistance based on principle, and their ‘toughness’ had melted like butter in the sun.” What happened in Denmark is an example of political, decisive action, as opposed to the banality of evil, and it is the only thing that led to justice in a time when the standard was fear, and compliance.

 

What Arendt shows throughout her book is that evil reigns when normal people face injustice and refuse to do anything about it. They adhere to the means, and execute their orders, no matter how unthinkable. Actually, they don’t really even think about what they are doing at all; they simply obey blindly, because that is what we’ve all been brainwashed to do, and if they experience a moment of doubt, their fear of what will happen if they break away from the status quo cripples them, and they return to their unthinking, believing it to be safer than taking a stand. The only way to confront this is to take a definitive, unyielding position against wrongdoing, and model what it means to be political by taking action (as was the case in Denmark.) Only when this happens will others become willing to act as well.

 

Fear is a powerful motivator, and we live in a world of fear. These fears are both big and small, and they are tearing the world apart on countless levels. Fear of failure, fear of inadequacy, fear of others, fear of ourselves, fear of war, fear of pains – these are all commonplace, and they cause us to walk through life looking over our shoulder, under our beds, in the mirror, across the ocean, and everywhere else we could possibly conceive there to be danger. We create danger that wouldn’t even exist because we are afraid, and this illusory danger can even frequently overshadow real threats that we may face. Fear allows sin and injustice to thrive, and it needs to be confronted with courage.

 

I’ve been thinking about these themes quite a lot lately as I’ve seen different events unfold in the news, and even in my own life. Take a look at our broken world. It is easy to tune out all the suffering, wrongdoing, and hate, and deny that it’s happening, because accepting that this is the reality is not only terrifying, but it challenges us to the very core. Arendt states that “under conditions of terror most people will comply.” This inability to resist injustice and evil actually perpetuates it, and therefore is a sin and crime itself, and in my avoidance of conviction and action I have been an accomplice, like many others. This does not sit well with me.

 

Because of this realization I’ve decided to become political. I’m not running for government, or starting a political movement, or anything like that, but I’m choosing to be more informed, and to act on my convictions and beliefs. I’ve begun to challenge myself to advocate for others, and reach out with compassion (even when it’s inconvenient) when I see them treated unfairly, rather than remain silent because this just spreads darkness and despair rather than love and hope. I’ve decided not to turn a blind eye to the injustices of the world, but to confront them whenever possible. I’ve committed to engaging in respectful discourse with others, even if they hold different beliefs than me, in an effort to understand them better, and to help them understand me, rather than continuing to feel threatened by one another. I refuse to sit back any longer, staying out of the mess and being comfortable, because the mess has gotten out of control, and I will not be a part of the global bystander affect that has allowed this to happen.

 

I think as Christians, it is our duty to challenge our fears, to act courageously on the convictions God has placed in our hearts and, moreover, to actively search ourselves for these convictions. Even if it’s not something overtly political that we are standing for, we need to be political about something. We can all do something. It doesn’t need to be a largescale display, we just need to do what we can in whatever situation we face. We need to be for justice, because allowing injustice when you can prevent it is as equally wrong as directly committing it.