Christmas

When Love Is a Foreign Language

Once there was a teenage girl who sought love by giving herself away, only to have a man respect her and simply ask, “Would you like a hand to hold?” rather than just taking, like so many others. She had not seen pure, innocent love for so long. She felt awkward, unsure of how to respond.

This type of selfless love that had no agenda  was unfamiliar to her.

Sometimes love is a foreign language.

This is true for many of us. If one has not seen pure love demonstrated, one might find it hard to recognize, and even more difficult to openly and freely accept.

As we seek to love others (and allow ourselves to be loved), we need to learn the language of love. I’m not talking about the Five Love Languages as written about by Dr. Gary Chapman, which outlines five ways to give and experience love as gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service (devotion), and physical touch (intimacy). Those have validity, but I’m talking about language that allows us to practically give and receive love, and the boundaries that we have that prevent us from accepting love. And this differs from person to person.

Because we are human and we live in an imperfect world, many of us find the language of unconditional love foreign and difficult to understand. We can be defensive and suspicious, which creates walls that make it difficult to experience true love, whether in giving or receiving.

When we are truly interested in loving others extravagantly, we accept the challenge of becoming a Love Interpreter. An Anthropologist. An Investigator.

We must be creative, so that we can love people in a language that they can understand and easily accept. With a gracious heart and without judgement, the eyes of our heart need to be able to see what is hidden beneath the surface. We need to investigate – what is the felt need? How can we best meet that need? And what might hinder the receiver from openly accepting the act of love?

I know that some people think of the Christmas story as just that, a made-up story. But it makes so much sense to me – if indeed there is a God of the universe (and I believe there is), why he would send his Son to earth to become a man.

"Adoration of the Shepherds" by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

“Adoration of the Shepherds” by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

He came to love us in a language we could understand. He became a Love Investigator, Anthropologist, Interpreter from God to the people of the world.

John 1:14 The Message (MSG)

14 The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.

Philippians 2:7 MSG

When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges.

Hebrews 4:15-16 The Message (MSG)
 We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin. So let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help.

As we strive to learn what it means to love one another in a language they can understand, I’m reminded of Paul’s words.

1 Corinthians 9:19-23 The Message (MSG)

19-23 Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!

How can we be in on it? How can we show pure, unconditional love to those around us? How can we love extravagantly, with reckless abandon? How can we be Jesus with skin on?

Here are some examples where love might be a foreign language. What is the best way to show love in a language they will understand?

The autistic child, who can’t look you in the eyes, and is overwhelmed by outside stimuli. 

The overwhelmed single mother suffering from postpartum depression.

The bipolar middle-schooler who overheard his teacher say he might be a psychopath.

The new bride who is having flashbacks of her childhood sexual abuse.

The twenty-something atheist who has nothing but contempt for organized religion. 

The teen who was adopted from a home of origin full of violence and abuse. 

The WWII veteran who has never talked about the war. 

The refugee who fled their home after the rest of their family was brutally murdered. 

The divorced woman who feels she will never have a healthy relationship. 

The empty-nester in a dead marriage. 

The mentally ill homeless man you pass on the corner each morning as you head to work. 

The curmudgeonly senior citizen who has spent years alienating their family and is now terminally ill and dying alone.

The sex trade worker to whom touch means something other than love and respect. 

That annoying co-worker who you’re sure is out to get you. 

The cancer patient who cannot answer one more “How are you doing?” query, and just wants to be ‘one of the girls’ again. 

The recently divorced empty nester, who longs for love but can only see the ways that she has pushed it away. 

The single dad, who was a player in high school, who now has a young daughter and must learn to treat women with respect.

 

When we look beyond the surface and discover ways to love – creatively, extravagantly, purposefully, unconditionally – it will be a foreign language to many. Key points to remember:

LOVE WITHOUT AN AGENDA: Don’t expect a thank-you note. Pure acts of love are not so other people can see how awesome you are. Pure acts are not so you can post about how loving you are on social media. We are all tainted by mixed motives, but as much as possible, check your ego and expectations at the door.

LOVE IS PERFECTLY IMPERFECT: Pure love is not finding the perfect gift, or always knowing the right words to say. Acts of love that seek to meet felt needs are often imperfectly perfect. It may feel awkward or uncomfortable. Love anyway.

LOVE DOESN’T ALWAYS MAKE SENSE: It is likely you will feel or even look foolish to outsiders. Love doesn’t always make sense.

LOVE MIGHT COST YOU SOMETHING: It takes time and effort to be a Love Investigator, to discern how to love in a language that can be understood and received. It might mean giving your time, your attention, or even spending some money or giving your material goods.

LOVE MIGHT NOT BE WELL-RECEIVED: Your efforts might not be well received. There might be so much brokenness or the walls might be so high that each act of love might just plant a small seed that needs to be nurtured until it can grow. Don’t give up. Just keep watering and letting the sun shine in.

LOVE JUST SHOWS UP: Listen to your intuition. If that little voice is prompting you, MOVE. If you don’t know what to do or what to say, just show up and be present. Often that is just enough.

LOVE WINS: If it’s awkward, imperfect, poorly received, that doesn’t matter. Just keep practicing love.

1 Corinthians 13:13b The Message (MSG)

Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.

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When You’re Just Not Feeling the Joy

This morning I woke up with a pit in my stomach. It’s one of those mornings when things just feel off, and my heart is unsettled. Often I can pinpoint the cause, but sometimes it eludes me. I will try to distract myself or medicate it away with sleep, sugar, caffeine, mindless tv, or more sleep. I think this feeling is not uncommon, particularly as we get close to the holidays.

It’s supposed to be a joyous time of year, but sometimes we just don’t feel like rejoicing. Is there something wrong with us?

Let’s look at the messages we are taking in. We are bombarded with commercials that tell us that we are unhappy and that our lives are less than perfect unless we buy a certain product. On social media, people are posting holiday pictures and discussing family, but for many, it is not a happy time of year, and it can be magnified when we feel like everyone else around us is happy and festive. And to be honest, the state of the world and the amount of social and political unrest is unsettling, particularly as things become more and more divisive.

We can feel uneasy or unsettled at any time, not just during the holiday season. So this morning I am going through my mental checklist, because if there is something significant and I don’t deal with it, it will show its ugly head later, so it’s best to just deal with things now, if I can. Perhaps this checklist will be helpful for you as well. Here are some things to think about when you’re feeling unsettled and you don’t know why:

  1. Do I have unrealistic expectations for the holidays? Am I looking for THIS holiday season to make up for any unpleasant or unsatisfactory experiences I had growing up or in the past? Or is it something more basic, not necessarily connected to the holidays?
  2. Is it a gnawing conscience? Sometimes when there is this uneasiness in my heart, it’s because I’ve said or done something hurtful or insensitive, and I need to make amends. Have I been hurtful, unkind, or insensitive? Do I have unfinished business with someone, and my heart isn’t letting me ignore it?
  3. Is it shame? Did I say something out of turn, or behave in a way that I wish I hadn’t? Is it legitimate shame (where I have truly done something that I shouldn’t have) or is it misplaced shame, put on by myself or others, to make me feel ‘less than’? Is this a sign that I am looking for significance in the wrong place, or letting outside forces determine my worth?
  4. Is it undiscipline? Am I putting off a duty or responsibility that I need to be working on? Am I distracting myself from some things that must be done with things that are unnecessary? Am I spending time on things that I call ‘time sucks’ – like social media, Pinterest, mindless tv, binge-watching Netflix, etc – rather than prioritizing the important things that I should be doing?
  5. Am I not setting good boundaries? Have I said  “yes” to something because I felt obligated rather than called to do something? Have I said “No” to something or made excuses when my heart knows I really should have said yes? Have I let someone have more power in my life than they should? Am I allowing another’s actions or words to affect my sense of self?
  6. Am I placing my sense of personal significance in the wrong place? Am I basing how I feel about my own worth on the opinions of others? On whether or not I have convinced them how awesome I am? On how many likes or comments or views I get? On whether or not someone agrees and supports my opinion? Am I comparing myself or my experience with others online (whose real lives are likely completely different from what they portray online)?
  7. Am I connected and in community? Do I have people with whom I can share my heart? Am I lonely and missing loved ones? Is there unresolved grief? Is there loss that might feel particularly strong at this time of year?
  8. Am I living my purpose? Am I just going through the motions, or am I living a meaningful purpose, fulfilling what only I can do in this life? Do I know what makes my life meaningful? (okay, getting a little too deep, time to move on to the basics)
  9. If you still cannot pinpoint what’s causing you to feel unsettled, look at the basics: Are you getting enough sleep? Are you eating healthy foods? Are you eating too much sugar (studies show sugar withdrawal mimics depression)? Are you getting outside and getting some exercise? Are you spending time in the sun? (or if it’s dark where you live, are you getting enough vitamin D?) Are you drinking enough water? Are you spending time with those you love? Are you working too much? Are you practicing good self-care? Are you spending time each day having fun? When was the last time you laughed? If you’re a spiritual person, are you staying connected spiritually by praying, reading, meditating?

Often just thinking about and labeling the cause will help to put things in perspective. It also helps me to talk to a friend – sometimes just processing things out loud helps you see things in a different light. I’ve found that sometimes the answer is as simple as taking a break from social media. I don’t think people realize the amount of angst it can create until you step away for a time.

Sometimes the feeling of being unsettled can signal anxiety or depression. This can be temporary, but if the feeling doesn’t dissipate, you may need to look at outside help and get some counseling and see a medical doctor. If you need to seek help, do it. You’re worth it.

Wishing you a holiday filled with love. And joy.

 

I Really Want to Love Advent

*Disclaimer: Writing about how sometimes I don’t love Advent does not mean that I don’t love Christmas. Just as writing about my longings for changing the church does not mean that I don’t love Jesus. Just as writing about how my marriage could improve does not mean that I don’t love my husband. Just as writing about my hopes and dreams for my children does not mean that I don’t love them. You get the idea.

I want to love Advent. Really I do. It is not something we practiced growing up. In fact, I had never heard of Advent until I was a young mother, and heard a talk about it at a MOMS group as a meaningful alternative to the commercialization and Santa-frenzy of the Christmas season. It sounded good. Taking time out of the chaos of the holiday season to focus your heart each week to prepare for the spiritual reason for the season – the coming of Christ.

Oh Lord, let my soul rise up to meet you as the day rises to meet the sun.

What is Advent?

It is part of the liturgical church calendar, beginning the fourth Sunday before Christmas (this usually falls the Sunday after Thanksgiving). The season focuses on the expectation and the anticipation of the coming of Jesus. Often there are four candles placed around an Advent wreath, with one candle being lit each week on Sunday, representing hope, love, joy, and peace. There is sometimes a candle placed in the center to represent Christ, and that is lit on Christmas Day. As each candle is lit, there are readings, hymns or songs, and scriptures for each week, often meant to be read together as a family.There are variations of the practice of advent, but those are the basics.

It sounds lovely, and it can be. There are times that I really appreciated being reminded to push pause and reflect. I particularly loved getting up early Christmas morning and lighting the center candle and just spending some quiet time praying and reflecting before everyone else got up and the busy day began.

But honestly, it often felt like one more thing to do during the Christmas season. And three little boys weren’t particularly keen to sit quietly and participate in readings (unless it was their turn to light the candle). Most of the time I was unprepared when that first Sunday of Advent rolled around, because not only did it mean putting away my fall decorations, it meant finding and putting out my Christmas decorations, or at least my Advent wreath. To add to this pressure, two of my boys have birthdays the first week of December, so we often put off decorating for Christmas until after we celebrated their birthdays. And when I finally got my act together and had everything set up, it often felt like a forced ritual, rather than a meaningful time of reflection. And if I’m truly honest, it was sometimes a source of pride and self-righteousness that I was practicing Advent and down-playing Santa. Yes, that is the ugly truth of it.

O come, O come, Emmanuel : and ransom captive Israel

So as I’ve started my search for the sacred, I am trying to look at Advent with new eyes. And evenso, I was not ready for the first Sunday of Advent. We moved across the country this summer, and I had to find my Christmas boxes among the piles of boxes up on the third floor. (And also, the mid-season finale of The Walking Dead was on). Ummmm. Yeah, so there it is.

But by the first of the week I had found my advent wreath and bought my candles and started reading each day. In my journey to discover the meaningfulness behind the church calendar, I have been reading Common Prayer: a Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, and I am trying to rid my life of some of the distractions so that I can learn to focus on what is important.

Praise to you who lift up the poor : and fill the hungry with good things.

Which is truly difficult for me – I am strongly ADD and my life is centered around distractions. I thrive on them. So this learning to be still and focus and remove distractions and have discipline is scary, uncomfortable, and very, very difficult at times. It does not come easily for me, but I am slowly learning.

There are many readings that go along with Advent – some are quite formal, others a little more laid back. If you have never practiced Advent, or like me, sometimes just went through the motions, I encourage you to look at Advent with fresh eyes and an open heart. There is something truly sacred about pausing and reflecting, not as a duty, but out of a sense of wonder. This year, along with the readings from Common Prayer, I am following Sarah Bessey’s writings for Advent. I love her writing  because she speaks hard truths with a sweetness and gentleness that draws me in. So if you’re a late starter, like me, you can begin here:

Week One:  Hope

Week Two: Peace

You speak in my heart and say, “Seek my face” : your face, Lord, will I seek.

Lord, help me to learn to turn from the many distractions that, although they may be good, serve to distract me from the best. 

Lord, help me learn to be still and quiet, so that I can hear your voice. 

Lord, give me open eyes to see truth, and a mouth that can speak truth in love as well as hold its tongue for the sake of grace and peace.