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.


The Humbled Gunslinger

            Do you remember Ken Jennings? Maybe a better question is: do you know who Ken Jennings is? When I was younger, I went through a phase where Jennings was one of my heroes. During his run of 74 wins on Jeopardy!, watching him crush his competition was one of the highlights of my day. In many ways, I felt I related to him, because he was a bit of a know-it-all, and I considered myself one, too (although I definitely would have qualified this remark by adding the caveat: “for my age,” to create an excuse for not being as much of a know-it-all as I liked to think.) Naturally, because of how much I enjoyed watching Jennings on Jeopardy!, I tuned in to watch him, and fellow human champion Brad Rutter, face off against what was considered the latest breakthrough in artificial intelligence: IBM’s Watson. Over the course of the tournament Watson – literally a thinking computer – completely destroyed the two most prolific champions in the show’s history, giving hope to his creators that they had successfully created a piece of technology capable of quickly and accurately processing oral information, finding the appropriate solution, and then conveying it in actual human language with appropriate context. In all fairness, as much as I would have liked to see mankind triumph over technology, it was amazing, and the evolution of Watson’s practical uses today is just as incredible (albeit subtly terrifying.)

            Recently I came across a TED talk given by Jennings. During the talk (link below), he explained how he felt about both his dominance on Jeopardy!, as well as his loss to Watson. Though the speech wasn’t overtly about humility, I realized some interesting points about the importance of being humble from what Jennings said. These lessons are relevant to us, both as Christians with the direct responsibility to walk humbly, and moreover as global citizens who face challenges every day that push us further away from community, due to a societally created value of self-promotion, external validation, and superficial appearance.

            I was quite struck by hearing Jennings discuss how, after losing to Watson, he wondered for a time about what his life meant, because something had been created to replace him in the only thing he felt he was ever good at. He had achieved widespread fame and wealth due to his performance on Jeopardy!, and naturally he was proud of this accomplishment, and it made him feel validated and important. We can all relate to this in some way or another, because success, accomplishment, external validation and recognition have all become enormous parts of our culture. While I think we should strive to accomplish great things, and take pride in them when we do, I completely admonish the fact that the majority of our worth has become wrapped up in how others see these accomplishments; because this causes us to fear one another, and avoid challenges, thinking they will possibly disturb our sense of value if we fail. We see this reflected not just in our never-ending search for approval, but also in the way we relate to one another. We water down all of our relationships to mere superficial, tenuous, highly controlled interactions, in which we can show others only the positive, and only the success; we don’t have to be threatened by others being better than us, and this attitude is detrimental to both us and our society on the whole.

In truth, though, Jennings shows that we need to all have different strengths and areas of expertise. I found it very humbling when Jennings spoke about how it is virtually impossible to be a Renaissance Man today, and to be an expert on a variety of different subjects. As someone who is probably pathologically competitive, and who has to regularly confront my tendency to try to outdo and one-up everyone, Jennings’ message that we need to embrace the fact that we all have different knowledge and skills, and that we should use this as a basis for community and relationship was one that I really needed to hear.

It’s no secret that I have many unflattering narcissistic tendencies; most of my family and close friends have always known this. My dad used to lecture me when I would go off on some tirade or rant about publicly taking down my “idiot” classmates, and he would often say, “You know, there’s always a faster gun.” Normally I would just respond with anything that would get me out of being lectured through the use of dated gunslinger references, but I heard this line in my head while listening to Jennings’ talk. When we don’t embrace humility, and consider the beauty of our differences with others (even when these differences make others better than us at certain things) we walk through life with a disproportional view of our abilities, and we think we can’t be beat. Additionally, because we fear, deep down, having this grandiose perception shattered, and we create a life for ourselves in which we stifle our own progress by shying away from challenges. In reality, though, there’s always a faster gun, and failure to accept this means you will be dead when you eventually encounter it. With Ken Jennings, this could have come in the form of Watson, beating him when he was originally so confident in his chance of winning. Where Jennings really showed his genuine intelligence, though was in his description of how this experience made him realize that failure doesn’t need to be devastating, but that we should all humble ourselves to the fact that each of us has something unique to offer one another.

Nothing, not even IBM, can take away Jennings’ accomplishments, and the fact that he is one of the greatest trivia wiz bangs to ever live, but his true value doesn’t come from the opinions of gameshow viewers, or prize money, or even the approval of his family and friends. It comes from within, and I think one of the beautiful things about humility is that when you embrace it, you not only find it easier to see your sense of self-worth truly within yourself, independent of society, but also to see others’ worth in the fact that they may be better than you at somethings, and this isn’t scary, hurtful, or shameful, but necessary.

We weren’t created to live in isolation, but our world instills values and beliefs in us that separate us further from one another, replacing real, deep, meaningful connection – where we can rely on one another’s strengths and weakness and see these things as gifts – with superficial, fearful exchanges in which we constantly feel threatened by the mere thought of someone being better than us. Fortunately, humility offers us a solution to this problem. We don’t need to stop trying to learn, grow, know, and achieve, because this fuels community advancement, but humility takes the emphasis off ourselves as individuals, and focuses on the bigger, collective picture, by allowing us to realize that everyone plays a role. This view of humility should help us set a practical foundation for our relationships, in which we teach and learn from one another, and we admire rather than envy one another. Walking humbly helps us bring each other up, and elevate one another, rather than incessantly living condescendingly in order to feel better about ourselves. With humility, we don’t have to go through life, regarding ourselves and others as simply cocky gunslingers that need to be avoided and feared for the sake of psychological survival. Instead, we should appreciate our coexistence with people who are both better and worse than us in different areas, and both learn from them, and educate them in return. This is how we were created; to be neither the best nor the worst, but to live in relationship with others, and humility is the key to managing this in our society that is so focused on competition and success.

 

Link to video: https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_jennings_watson_jeopardy_and_me_the_obsolete_know_it_all?language=en