Compare One Another’s Burdens

I’ve recently noticed I have a tendency to compare.

A while back I was talking with my daughter when I realized I passed along that tendency. We were comparing our lives to others. It wasn’t a comparison of our looks or clothes. We weren’t talking about how we wished we had awesome vacations like other people.  Nothing fun like that.  We were comparing burdens.  You read that right.  We weren’t bearing one another’s burdens, we were comparing them.

It sounded something like this.  “I heard so-and-so complain the other day about an ingrown toenail. She said ‘this is the WORST PAIN EVER! I can’t walk another step.’ What does she even know about pain?  She should try dislocating her shoulder and tearing a rotator cuff or living with someone in chronic pain.  Has she had a baby without an epidural or watched her husband have a heart attack?  She has no idea what real pain is!”

Okay, so the conversation wasn’t verbatim and most of those things were probably said by me, not my daughter, but you get the gist of it, right?

There’s a hierarchy of pain.  At the bottom of the scale is an ingrown toenail (sucks to be you) or an itchy scalp – unless that itchy scalp is caused by head lice, then you move up the pain scale rapidly!

At the top level of that hierarchy is unrelenting chronic pain, permanent disability or the death of a child. Serious stuff.

You better know where you are in that hierarchy or you will get NO sympathy from me. Yeah, you heard me right, lady in the grocery store who is enraged over the quality of the kale this week.  You are somewhere at the bottom of the hierarchy and need to just zip it!

Appearances can be deceiving though, can’t they?

There are some people who definitely need to put on their big girl panties and stop their whining but how can we know who that is, exactly?  Where’s our x-ray vision that gives us a peek into their hearts or their lives?

I’ve endured days and weeks of unrelenting pain and heartache and have managed just fine only to have a splinter send me into a spiral.

Pain and burdens are like snow on the roof of a house.  

One by one, the flakes fall down, lighter than a feather. They pile up on the roof and become heavy but the roof is strong and holds up fine.  Then there’s that one, final teeny-tiny snowflake that slowly drifts down, down, down…

Black and white

As soon as that snowflake hits the roof, everything caves in.  

It isn’t that the single snowflake is heavy, it’s the accumulation of millions of snowflakes that causes the collapse.

I have no idea what you deal with in your life.  You may think, by reading through some of my blog posts that you have me figured out, but really, you don’t.  I pick and choose what I will share.  Sometimes good, sometimes bad.  Most of the bad I keep to myself.  There are things that nobody knows.  Things I only share with my Heavenly Father.

I would imagine it’s the same for you. You share a tiny portion of your life and keep the rest private.

We shouldn’t think, for one moment, that we have a clue why that man is standing on the street corner begging for food, or why that couple’s teenage kids are such hooligans, or why that mother in the grocery store can’t make her kid shut up, or why the house on the corner has paint peeling and weeds growing on their lawn or why that young girl throws herself at every man she sees. Only God knows our past. Only he can see what’s in our hearts.

I love these words in Galatians,

“Live creatively, friends. If someone falls into sin, forgivingly restore him, saving your critical comments for yourself. You might be needing forgiveness before the day’s out. Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law. If you think you are too good for that, you are badly deceived.” (Gal 6:2 MSG)

How beautiful is this?  

Restore. Avoid criticism. Stoop down. Share burdens. 

The bottom line is this. Comparison is rarely, if ever, a good thing. It presumes we know more than we do, pits us against each other and ultimately, is a thief of joy. I for one, need to do way less comparing and a whole lot more burden bearing. How about you?

low-beams with quote

(Photo by Jay Mantri)

Who Is My Neighbor?

She was sprawled on the sidewalk, her head flung back and her mouth wide open – a real life rendition of The Scream. I couldn’t hear her cries from inside my car but it was clear she was in great distress. I noticed her as I drove out of the hospital parking lot. It was Sunday morning and I was on my way back to church after visiting a friend.

I said a quick prayer under my breath and continued on my way. It was still early and I figured I could catch the tail end of the sermon. We were in the middle of a series about Neighboring.

That’s when it hit me.

Go back! Your neighbor’s there on the sidewalk. Church is here!

I made a quick U-turn and pulled over. As I approached, I could hear her howling, the sound like an animal stuck in a steel trap.

In front of me was the figure of a woman in obvious agony. My presence barely registered with her. Her creased leathery skin was toasted a deep brown from years spent living out in the California sun. Her long auburn hair was tinged with streaks of gray. With every wail, she brushed the back of her sleeve across her dripping nose and into the tangled mess.

Bending down, I assessed her physical appearance to see if she was injured. She slumped to the side, leaning against a large white plastic bag filled with clothes.

“Are you okay?” She shook her head and wailed even louder.

As I looked closer, I changed my initial opinion of her. Her nails were freshly polished with a deep purple lacquer and there were beautiful silver rings on her fingers. Her brown leather sandals were new. She wore a pretty lavender cardigan that matched her nails and, with the exception of the snot smeared on the sleeves, it was clean.

Her plastic wristband and bright white scrub pants indicated she had just come from the hospital. She was a paradox.

I sat down beside her and touched her gently on the shoulder. “Are you in pain?” She whipped her head up and down in affirmation. “Do you need to go back to the hospital?”

Her swollen, hooded eyelids popped open at that question and she spit out the words. “NO! They kicked me out!” Her mouth contained a line of rotted, stained teeth.

I need to mention at this point – the most distinct thing about her appearance. The smell. She looked clean and bathed but her whole person reeked as if she had been pickled in a vat of whiskey. The alcohol seeped out her pores and the odor emanating from her was palpable. I could taste the alcohol in the air and long after I left, the sensory memory of it burned at the back of my throat.

I plied her with questions and she shared her sad story between gasps and tears. “I have cancer. I’m dying! There’s nothing they can do for me so they kicked me out.” This triggered a fresh round of tears.

During this time, I kept my hand on her shoulder and tried to console her but I finally decided a firmer hand was needed and said, “You have to stop crying now. I want to help you but we can’t talk if you’re sobbing. Take a deep breath and let me help you.”

She hiccuped and breathed deeply. When she regained some composure I asked her name. “Patterann,” she mumbled.

“Pat or Ann?”

“No. Patterann. Ina Baptist preacher.” She spoke as if her mouth was filled with marbles.

“I don’t understand. Is your name Ann?”

She lifted up her head and looked me squarely in the eye. “Ann*. Ann! Angela! My name is Angela and ina Batist preacher! They call me PASTOR ANN!

With every word, the volume and intensity increased until she was spitting out the words like bullets.

“Okay, Ann. It’s okay. My name’s Karen. I’m here to help you.”

At this, she slumped her head forward and lay down in my lap with another flood of tears. Suddenly, something in her clicked and she bolted upright, screaming and ranting and clutching at her necklace. She grappled with the beads, struggling to turn them around. I saw the cross that had been hanging down the back of her neck. She yanked the necklace off and threw it to the ground.

 

rosary crucifix

I didn’t know what to do. She was deeply intoxicated and in such emotional turmoil that I just stroked her back and began to pray. I reminded Ann (and God) that she was His precious child. There was nothing she had done or could do to be separated from that love. I prayed for peace. I prayed for strength.

I ran out of words and just repeated a solitary name.

“Jesus.”

“Jesus.”

“Jesus.”

I chanted that sweet, holy name and prayed that in it she would find some small measure of comfort.

Finally, the tension released in her shoulders. I asked if she wanted me to get someone from the hospital. She did not. I asked where she was going. She said she was homeless and lived in Huntington Beach.

“I just want to go home.”

“To Huntington Beach?”

“Yes. I need to go there.”

“Do you have any family? Any way to get there?”

At this question, she sat up and the faintest shadow of a smile crossed her face.

“Tom. My son. Tommy!”

“Do you want me to call him?”

“Yes!”

She gave me his number and after a few rings, a deep voice answered. “Hello.”

“Hi. My name is Karen and I’m here with your mother. I…”

“Is she conscious or unconscious?”

His words were a blow. The deeper meaning behind them was clear. This was not the first time he received this type of call. He spoke slowly with a heaviness that revealed a weary heart. I choked back the tears as I imagined my own sweet son being placed in this position – the child as the parent, unable to help, yet called on time and time again to do so.

I reassured him that she was okay but in distress – explained where we were and asked if he could come take her home.

“Let me talk to her.”

I passed the phone to Ann. Her words were incomprehensible as she sobbed and whimpered her story to her son. I understood one word that she repeated over and over again – “Mommy”. She referred to herself in the third person – “Mommy is…” and used the endearment as though this word would somehow lessen the impact of what was happening or bring her son a measure of comfort.

She finally passed the phone back to me and Tom, apologizing, told me that he was at work until 4. “There’s really no way I can leave. Are you able to help her?”

I reassured him that I would. My mama’s heart wanted to say something to comfort his fractured spirit but all I could offer was the assurance that I would find a way to get his mama back to Huntington Beach.

As I hung up the phone, I noticed a bus drive by. “Do you take the bus? Do you want to go back home?” She nodded yes.

I grabbed her bag of clothes and helped her as she stumbled to her feet. When we got to the corner, she waved wildly at the bus driving past. The driver pulled over to the side of the road and waited for us to cross the street.

We climbed in and I asked if he was going to the Huntington Beach Pier. Pam’s condition was obvious to the driver and everyone else yet he treated her with respect and spoke with kindness when he said, “No. It doesn’t, but there’s a transfer.”

“I can help her get her transfer,” said a voice a few rows back.

“I’ll make sure the other driver gets her where she needs to go,” reassured the gentleman behind the wheel. “We’ll take care of her ma’am. She’s in good hands now. God bless you.”

I gave him her fare, stepped back out of the bus and looked through the window at Ann’s tear-streaked face. She waved at me and yelled “Thank you!” over and over again as the bus pulled away.

As I walked back to my car, I saw it lying there among the flowers – her necklace – a rosary with a string of black beads and a solid black cross. I picked it up and ran it between my fingers. This will be my reminder to pray, I thought to myself – the first Catholic rosary I’ve ever owned, probably given to Ann the Baptist Preacher by someone else along the way, attempting to bring comfort to her troubled spirit.

That’s it. No happy ending.

I called her son and let him know his mom was heading back home – ‘home’ being a park bench somewhere down by the pier. He thanked me softly and told me he would see her on Monday at the Starbucks where they usually meet.

I drove back home and hugged my own son a little bit tighter than usual.

I recorded this narrative a few months back and have been troubled ever since, with the nagging feeling that I should have done more. What could I do?

Since that day, I’ve begun working with the homeless in my own city and the more I become involved, the more conflicted I become – the more I feel as though it’s not enough or that we’re putting bandaids on gaping wounds.

The rate of homelessness in Orange County is climbing with every passing year. The causes of homelessness are complex and include overpriced housing, insufficient shelters, low wages, drug addiction and mental illness. But it seems to me there’s an even deeper cause that statistics don’t show. A lack of connection and deep-seated loneliness. So, how do we cure that?

I admit, there are moments I wish I could go back to the time before I noticed, before I cared. But now I see it. Now I care. What do I do?

What would you do?

 

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Want to read more about the issues of homelessness in Orange County and beyond?

http://www.endhomelessness.org/library/entry/SOH2016

The Simple Beauty of Uncertainty – Making Room for Mystery and Wonder

I’m right and you’re wrong. Period. End of story. End of discussion.  

 

Whether it’s how to raise children, how to deal with the homeless, whether the toilet roll should go over or under, which candidate is sending us down the road to mayhem and destruction or what the government should do about ISIS – or healthcare, or immigration or… you get the point. I know what’s right and why you’re wrong.

This is the tone that currently dominates all avenues of media.

Those of us in the religious community are particularly susceptible to stating our claims with a stubborn dogmatism.  But this attitude isn’t evident in religious opinions alone.  Every day, as I read and engage with friends on-line, firmly entrenched points of view are presented on every subject imaginable, ranging from the current political climate to health issues and, of course, the raging debates among mommy bloggers about an infinite variety of parenting topics!

There is little room for doubt or uncertainty.  And if you do doubt, we certainly know what that means.

You’re weak or stupid.

Let me admit something to you today.  As I get older, I’m uncertain about most things – judge me how you will.  

The stubborn, entrenched stance that I used to take on EVERY SINGLE ISSUE now happens less and less.  

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a strong-willed person and am not known to shy away from voicing my opinion (just ask my family).  Most of my life, I expressed those opinions with absolute certainty but lately…I just don’t know.

After raising three children, I am bereft of parenting advice. The candidate choices we are left with are…confusing at best and my opinions about how to deal with ISIS, immigration and healthcare are, more often than not, lacking in conviction.

Thirty-five years in and I don’t know what the key is to a lasting marriage.

I have more questions than answers regarding pain and suffering and bigotry and hate and mental illness. I don’t know why these things even exist.  

Here’s the thing. Being uncertain has allowed me to listen with respect to what others are saying and has forced me to dig deeper into the wisdom of God’s Word.  

Certainty doesn’t allow for wonder.  It dismisses mystery.  It denies paradox.  It doesn’t leave room for growth or learning or listening. It traps God in a very small box.  And that box cannot possibly contain Him.  

But, I’m coming to peace with the not-knowing because this is what I DO know.

Wonder encourages empathy. Mystery invites creativity. Paradox stimulates conversation and insight. Doubt forces us to ask bigger questions. And God is big enough to handle that.

What do you think? Does the unknown terrify you? Does being uncertain rock your world?

For I am convinced [and continue to be convinced—beyond any doubt] that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present and threatening, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the [unlimited] love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:38-39 AMP

Are the Beatitudes For Suckers?

Have you read The Beatitudes lately?

I recently revisited the gospel of Matthew, chapter 5 and was struck by how contradictory Jesus’ words are to the voices dominating the present-day North American church. Divisive political rhetoric, an emphasis on a Prosperity gospel and fearful discourse are currently drowning out all other points of view.

Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount are directly opposed to most of what the modern-day evangelical church has come to represent. It made me wonder. What would The Beatitudes look like if we wrote them today?

Perhaps they would look like this.

Cursed are the poor in spirit, for they lack faith.

Cursed are those who mourn, for they aren’t thinking positive thoughts.

Cursed are the meek, for they will always be failures.

Cursed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be called idealists.

Cursed are the merciful for they are suckers.

Cursed are the pure in heart, for they are naive.

Cursed are the peacemakers, for they will be conquered.

Cursed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for they were not well-armed.

Cursed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Complain and feel sorry for yourself, for you need to maintain your standard of living and nobody has the right to call you names.

Contrast the above with the following. Here’s the setting. Jesus has just returned from his time of testing in the desert. He is traveling around Galilee when he encounters Peter and Andrew, then James and John. He invites them to become religious radicals, taking up arms to defend themselves and overturn the Roman empire.

Scratch that.

He invited them to be ‘fishers of men’. He hung out with the sick, the diseased and the mentally ill and brought healing.  People were drawn to him and large crowds followed him throughout the area.

That’s when he spoke the following words.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” 

Matthew 5:3-12 NIV

Blessed are the pure in heart

 

 

When you read the true, tender words of Jesus, they ring clear, like a melody, they wash over you in a wave, like a benediction. They also sound radical and revolutionary in a terrifying and beautiful way.

So, how did we get to the point where…

  • we mistake our comfort for our rightful inheritance.
  • we hoard our abundance in disdain of the poor.
  • we let fear dominate our lives and influence our decisions.

Are you tired of the clanging and the noise? Does the constant stream of anger and division wreak havoc on your spirit? I know it does mine.

I invite you to join me – let’s spend more time meditating on the words of Jesus instead of the rants of a political pundit, an angry talking head or a religious spokesman and let the truth of God’s Word bring clarity to our minds and peace to our souls.