374. Misery

Miser, misery, miserable. Notice the connection?  In old Latin miser was an adjective that meant wretched, unhappy, pitiable, or in distress. Miser, the noun, is a person who hoards money or valuables, choosing a wretched lifestyle in order to hang on to his filthy lucre. Ebenezer Scrooge is the classic miser until he repents.  Misery is a state of wretchedness, distress, suffering and just bad, bad juju. In fact, you can have plural miseries, which at first glance looks like miniseries, only it’s missing the middle -ni-, and it fits, don’t you think?  Because you could feel as if your life were a miniseries featuring a new misery each weekly episode if you lived like a miser, penny pinching and always focusing on what is owed to you. In fact, you’d be downright miserable, lower than the hardened gum stuck to Neil Young’s ultra-depressed boot heels.

What I have found in the counseling field is that many self identified miserables are also bone collectors, i.e., folks who hang on to old, even ridiculously ancient hurts or debts. Remember the play/movie Les Miserables?  A lot of unforgiveness and vengeance in that story of the policeman chasing the former prisoner. Why would someone hold on to vengeance so long, even risking his own life in order to make another man pay his perceived debt to society?

My buddy Chuck shared a story of his 80 year old neighbor, Sonny. One day he and Sonny went to the hardware store over in Slippery Rock. As Chuck parked the truck outside the store, he noticed Sonny was glaring a double stink eye at another old man who had just gotten out of his pick up truck.

“Who the Hell is he?” asked Chuck.

“My cousin”, was all Sonny replied.

“Why the double stink  eye, man? Did he hurt you?”

“We haven’t talked since we were kids.”

“Why the Hell not?”

“Well, his dad, my uncle, stole some land from my dad back before the War.”

“You’re kidding me,” Chuck exclaimed. “You’re stuck on something from before World War II?”

“No,” Sonny continued, ” World War I.”

True story minus the anonymous reductions. How long can one person hate on another?  Till Death, I suppose. You don’t have to Google search bitter misers to find them. You most likely already know one or more, though they may not hoard material goods. Some misers hoard compliments, gratitude, love, or especially, forgiveness. They squeeze these blessings so tightly that no one can pluck one from their bony, pinched fingers with a John Deere tractor.

Oh, and their anger burns below the surface, like the old coal mining town of Centralia, Pennsylvania in northeast PA.  The state imposed eminent domain on the few folks who chose to remain in that ghost town, below which a manmade inferno slowly bellows. No one knows for sure if the underground fire began in 1932 or 1962, but everyone agrees that it is too dangerous to live near Centralia as the coal seams slowly burn to cinders and the ground above them collapses. What a way to go! Can you imagine picking spring flowers one moment, and the next moment you are melting in 3,000 degrees of coal fire. Hey, let’s just give Johnny Cash the microphone…

“I fell in to a burning ring of fire

I went down, down, down and the flames went higher

And it burns, burns, burns

The ring of fire, the ring of fire.”

Oh, indeed the fire of anger does burn, burn, burn out a bitter man’s soul. In fact, parts of an angry man may collapse like Centralia building lots when he least expects it.  Angry folks have a greater likelihood of heart attacks. No wonder. When resentment rages for years through your arteries like a mine fire, consuming all available oxygen and living things in its path, it hollows you out. Once it gets going down deep in the caverns of your soul, only Death will extinguish bitter anger.

Unless, of course, you practice forgiveness and quit your claim on a debt that would be paid in Confederate money anyway. Yammering for your pound of flesh… from a corpse will never satisfy any need. Forgiveness is the foam that rushes on top of waves of conscious love into every deep, inflamed crevice, extinguishing even Pacific rim lava flows. In the time it takes to kiss a baby, water absorbs the heat of melting rocks. Columns of steam vapor rush away from the cooling volcanic rock. Seawater transforms itself to heal the angry molten rock and stop its plasmatic advance. Still,  bitter folks will say the water is sacrificing itself for no reason. Water did not start the fire or condone its growth, gurgling up from the bowels of the earth. The wise, however, observe that water’s nature is to transform the earth not to judge it. And so water transforms the natural landscape as surely as forgiveness or bitterness shapes the inner universe. One of my favorite Shakespearean lines is this

“The quality of mercy is not strained; it droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven on the place beneath; it is twice blest: It blesseth him who gives and him who takes.”

Sweet nectar there, honeysuckle and lavender combined into one ointment– fresh love. Such fragrance held close to your nose can overwhelm the stench of burning coal mines. We still put flowers on graves today, slapping death in the face with life and beauty, however fleeting they may be. Death is the original miser, after all. You have a choice, Bloggilillies: bitterly wait in a coal mine for someone else to make things right, or let go and move on with your fragrant life.

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357. Unexploded Ordnance

That’s an odd title, dontcha think? What exactly is ordnance, you ask? Military weapons and ammunition. Why explode it anyway?  Well, a few miles from my office is an Army depot where occasionally, on perfectly still days, engineers blow up old ammunition that dates back to World War II and the Korean War. Apparently old bombs or missiles become unstable and need to be properly disposed of like excess picnic food. And that’s what these explosionists do– blow up piles of ordnance on beautiful summer and fall days while eating chicken salad sandwiches. Thunderclap sonic booms roar across the valley and resonate off the opposite foothills range. Boom, boom, boom. Pretty simple. No one gets hurt.

However, I’m thinking of invisible unexploded psychic ordnance– old hurts and pains, guilts and shames, bones of contention, griefs, losses, heartaches, and traumas. Stuff you swallowed because you had to, long ago. Not that you drool over it like a dog over his morning puppy chow. Not like that at all. No, you’d much rather not consider any of these things. Instead you cover them with work and life’s many intense experiences. You steer inflated conversations away from these razor wire coral reefs that may shred the fragile underbelly of your soul. Yeah, and all the while these patinated brass canisters are corroding, leaking acid like old forgotten batteries inside your chrome Boy Scout flashlight.

Down under your defense mechanisms the equivalent of land mines wait for your foot’s pressure to trigger a demolition. You buried them like corpses, deep and still but still alive. Perhaps you find yourself sucked into a conversation that seemingly takes on a life of its own. Strange energies arise. Big feelings too. Verbiage flows like dammed water down a spillway. The back pressure is so great and this gushing release feels right, but it’s wrong. Kaboom, boom, boom. Your mouth outruns your cricket conscience, and you make an ass out of yourself. Your foot flies by your face and you see gum stuck to the patterned sole of your nice suede shoes. “I liked those shoes. Didn’t notice the gum.” And you walk on, limping actually, on your ragged new stump.

Since it’s all metaphorical, you feel no physical pain. Still, your guts twist like sheets in a tropical storm. How can you empty yourself of this old debris? Surely there is a psychic trash hauler who can pick up the toxic tonnage for a fee. A landfill in the next county that safely disposes of the waste. A site supervisor there who monitors the wicked gases of devolution. It would be clean, convenient, and so evolved if we had such advanced soul carpet cleaning enterprises. In lieu of such mechanisms we have the same old system of honest repentance where you lay yourself naked and humble before God and your garbage… and seek the precious balm of forgiveness. You must regurgitate the hurts and guilts and shames and claim them in your self disgust, like so many muddy catfish sliming out of your gullet. Amazed, you gag at the sinful catch in front of you.

“I did that!” you gasp. Words aren’t heavy enough, foul enough to describe your vomitus. You writhe on jelly legs. No rest, no rest comes to your hurricane beaten conscience. Flakes and splintery surfaces blow off your crusted soul. Ship wrecked, wave tossed, you just hang on. It’s a long nightmare you float through under a placid face. When will my undeserved  sunshine of forgiveness break through these awful torrents? My mind goes decades deep in memories to Pinnochio on the big silver screen. He was so cute and innocent and foolish. He wound up in Monstro’s belly. Pinnochio was not a monster, but his continuous lies and bad choices led him there. Exactly where he needed to be, turns out.

In the belly of the whale he faced his father Geppetto  and the cat Figaro he’d abandoned. They were swallowed while searching for Pinnochio. The puppet boy finally comes to the end of his foolishness and begins to take responsibility for others. He builds a fire that causes Monstro to sneeze and exhale their little raft. Pinnochio redeems himself, saves Geppetto, but appears to drown in the process. If the movie stopped there, every child would be in grief therapy on Disney’s nickel. But it continues. Geppetto takes Pinoak home and sadly lays him out. He grieves again for the boy he loved.  That night the Blue Fairy returns and transforms the water logged wooden puppet into a real, fleshy boy. He is finally worthy.

That’s where repentance ends: when we shuck off the crud of sin and humbly accept our God given worth. Narcissists over value themselves. Low self esteemers under value themselves. Most folks just ignore the question. Too deep. But that’s where the healing happens, down deep in the black crevices of our souls. Covering, endlessly covering the ordnance does not detoxify or empty it. So, Blogagogers, cough it up with me. Come clean. Let’s blow up the sunken city of  port-a-potties so that no one gets hurt. Pry open the pearl of great price and behold! As surely as sin turns you into a braying donkey, the grace of redemption returns you to the image and likeness of God.

337. Holy Bird Poop!

A thousand topics flitter across my brain like bats and barn swallows at sunset. Zippity dooo daah day. That’s how it feels. One will eventually rest on a branch of my mammalian brain, causing a little bounce action I may attend to. Darn work and life get in the way, however, and off flies the batty swallow idea, never to be seen, heard or felt again. I am left with a tinge of frustration, like the early winter night an owl settled in the hickory tree at the end of our lot. I stood quietly on the upper deck, watching the branch bounce beneath his downy weight. I was breathlessly quiet, hoping to spend some time in communion with this creature when my youngest daughter screeched for me on the other side of the sliding door. Whooosh! Away Mr. Owl flew, a big fat missed opportunity. Dang it!!

Now I’m not claiming that some bird is more precious than my precious daughter. If the situation were reversed and I had an owl in my house and my daughter bouncing on a hickory branch, I’d be just as upset when he screeched and she flew. Fair is fair. What I am saying is that opportunities do knock, and sometimes no one is home. Sometimes, through no one’s fault, you just can’t respond, and something like a tragic spasm rips across your abdomen. Yeah, most of us walk around with invisible machete slashes near our navels. “Senor Zoro was here.” At some point we have all been emotionally eviscerated… and can never forget the cold  blade plunging through the rib cage.  You fill in the blank, my friend. Betrayal, grief, shock, horror, disgust, or Donald Trump.

 These things are inevitable if you live long enough. Disappointment and hurt, anger and bitterness can settle in our bones like arthritis, occasionally flaring bursts of pain into our calcified disjointed days… if we let them.

What is far more rare are the twin doves of mercy and grace. I was recently given a HUGE shipment of both from my long suffering wife. Let me just say here, I am not easy to live with. I am snippy and snooty and impatient and hemorrhoidal at times. And unlike the written word, you can’t edit out unartful snarkiness and selfish impatience. Once you ring that rusty iron bell of “me first justice”, you can’t unring it. There is no memory eraser thumb drive that sucks out the stupid, rude bloviations that come out of my mouth. I’d love to get one with a historical rewind feature, but they don’t exist. So we have the hardened crud of negative interactions dried onto the memory plate, burned on the sacred skillet of marriage. Can I get an amen? Or am I the only husband in America who frustrates the woman he loves to the point where she wants to kill him with a ball bat but pulls back due to the holidays and family feelings and the fact that she just bought me Christmas presents?  Maybe in the new year, once things are settled down, she can kill me without so many complications, while the local police are at domestic violence conventions in Florida.

You see, I am a part time (okay, full time) mockingbird. Annoying, and yet sometimes welcome. For instance…

… the title and central metaphor of the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. In that novel, mockingbirds are portrayed as innocent and generous, and two of the major characters, Atticus Finch and Miss Maudie, say it is a sin to kill a mockingbird because “they don’t do one thing for us but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us”.

Well, they can still be quite annoying. Just ask a cat on a still summer day as a mockingbird swoops and squawks at it relentlessly.  I confess, I have swooped and squawked at many a cat, wife and kid around my house. It’s not right but it is true that we show our worst, our crowiest selfus

to those closest to us.

I don’t know what mockingbirds eat, but I do know what forgiveness tastes and feels like– it is the finest honey anyone ever poured out and the purest balm on an open wound.  Makes me feel like a hummingbird amid an oasis of divine nectar. Unearned joy erupts in my heart’s furious flutters– it’s a recovered onside kick with 18 seconds on the clock and victory is suddenly possible again after hope was dashed on cruel rocks. (Yes, the Packers game is on behind me; however, I am vigilantly on task against mixed metaphorical language.)

So let me go with the big message here. You can’t unring the rusty bell of justice, Blog sparrows, true. Our world is broken and sinful, and I am good at both brokenness and sin. Maybe you are too. That morbid iron bell rings out our trespasses and failures, calling us to the shackles of the past. The only antidote I know is the crystal bell of mercy that says it’s all behind us now. This bell calls us to a banquet of mercy and grace, milk and honey, love and faith. Long ago birds were seen as messengers between mortals and God, since they traversed the heavens but nested on earth.  Well, maybe they still are. Even mockingbirds.

 

 

302. Forgiveness vs. Emotional Constipation

 

Lots of folks are stuck, or as I like to say, emotionally constipated. They can’t get past some hurt or offense, some slight or inconsideration.  So they slaver over their hurt like a dog with a meaty bone. Try to take it away and you will lose a limb. It does not make sense on first thought that someone would cling to a hurt as if it were a family heirloom. Why hoard an infection or grasp possessively  at cancer? The indignant victim claims “Justice! I want justice!!” but all they have is anger that distills into wormwood bitterness over time. One sip will blind even the man who has built up tolerance to lesser liquors.

Well, let’s look closer. When a person is hurt by someone else, there is a split second or more in which the mind determines what emotional reaction to display. Often the reaction  is limited to sadness (letting go of the hurt) or anger (gripping tightly to the offense). Sadness yields control; anger seizes it. If you visit a pre school, watch what reactions arise when one toddler takes another toddler’s toy. Tears or hitting, whimpering or screaming. But there are other combinations of emotional responses one can make, depending on maturity and modeling examples.

Now a concrete fictional example. My buddy calls and says, “Hey, I got free tickets to the Steelers game in Baltimore from my brother-in-law. December game. Wanna go?”

“Are you kidding?  Of course. What do I need to do?”

“Nothing. There are four tickets, so I’m gonna see if my son and grandson want to come along too.”

“Awesome! Keep me posted so I can keep my schedule clear.”

“Okay. Later.”

Time goes by. We chat here and there, but instead of getting clearer, it gets fuzzier. Eddie is vague and talks about if he gets the tickets instead of when. “What do you mean, IF?”

“Well,  Tom is backing up on the offer. He wants me to take his grandkids now.”

“Are they coming?”

“One of them wants to…”

“So what does that mean?”

“You’re out, man. Sorry.”

***************************************************************************

Here’s where the menu of options and combos arises.

1. Anger with some guilting attached.

“Bolsheviks, man! Couldn’t you have just not dealt me in to begin with?”

2. Victim drama and operatic exit.

“I can’t believe it! I mean, the hurt and betrayal are overwhelming. I have to go puke.”

3. Just tears and sobbing.

“No, sniffle, sniffle. How could you? No, uh, uh, uh, the hurt hurts so stinkin’ bad.”

4. Reverse energy attack.

“You spineless scumbag! You lied to me and aren’t man enough to keep your word.”

5. Pure guilt.

“After all I have done for you. I gave you blood, man. I gave you my kidney back in ’08. I want it back. NOW!!”

6. The fake with a twist of sour grapes.

“Oh, no problem. I wasn’t that interested anyway. I have a free community concert to go to that day anyway. No blood, no foul, man. It’s cool. Actually, I don’t like either team, you know. Plus, that late in the season they’ll be playing for nothing. Bunch of thugs anyway. No worries.”

7. Revenge.

“Oh I understand completely…which is why I am uninviting you to our New Year’s party. Yeah, just tear up the invitation if we send you one by mistake.”

8. Humor.

“That’s really funny, man. You got me going for a second. Pulling the rug out from under me. I mean it, you got me. A masterful ploy. Oh that’s too funny. You kill me. I get it. You punked me, Dude. Well done.”

9. Denial.

“This is not happening. It’s impossible. You are lying. I am going. I can’t hear you. Lalalalala.”

10. Passive aggression.

“So, okay. Um, but I booked a hotel room for that night, you know. Baltimore is sold out of rooms for that weekend. So, uh, if I cancel I’ll be out $160. So you’re gonna cover that, right?”

11. Self blame.

“I knew it was too good to be true. I’m a fool. No one really likes me for me. I’m a loser. I wouldn’t take myself to a pro football game either. I’m a waste of time and skin.”

**********************************************************************************

Image result for psycho face  pictures

Not one of these reactions is a very healthy way out of the situation. Each of these options will keep the actor stuck in a place of bitterness and repetition rather than a healthy resolution. So I offer forgiveness as the preferred response to hurts.

The uninvited guy played by me… “Well, thanks for telling me. I can see it was hard for you.”

Ticket withholder buddy, “Yeah, I was dreading this scene. I’ve gone over it a hundred times and could not find a respectful way to tell you. I’m just sorry, man.”

“Okay, it really sucks. I was excited and told everyone I was going, you know, I really played it up.”

“Oh, no. Look, just tell them I blew it. It’s on me not you.”

” It’s not really. You got stuck in the middle. I’ve been in binds like that before. Remember that painting job I got into where the paint never hardened?”

“Yeah, what a nightmare!”

“It was my painting Vietnam. I got hung out to dry and abandoned by the paint guys. They could have resolved the situation easily, but they chose to lie to me. Thanks for not lying to me.”

“Whew. Are you pissed at me?”

“No. I’m disappointed and a little embarrassed, but I’m not angry with you. You are the messenger, Eddie. You are my friend. That’s more important than a stupid maybe awesome football game.”

“Thanks for handling this so graciously. I felt so stupid and rude. I told Tom I wasn’t going to the game.”

“No, don’t do that for me.”

“It’s not about you. I don’t like getting jerked around either.”

“So you’re really not going?”

“Yup.”

“Can I have your ticket?”  (Followed by edgy laughter.)

“You suck, man, but you’re my buddy. Thanks.”

221. The wall of excrement

In the movie Slumdog Millionaire there is a scene early on where the main character’s abusive and jealous brother locks the Slumdog boy into a public outhouse to prevent him from experiencing the arrival of a Bollywood movie star in the slums.  Hundreds of poor kids run to meet the movie star as he arrives by helicopter like a divinity descending. All the slum children clamor for his attention and autograph.  Slumdog is desperate to meet this celebrity, so desperate that he takes his only available option to freedom…he plunges about 8 feet into the poop tank below the outhouse. He comes up covered in human waste and runs headlong toward the crowd around the star. Because of his repulsive appearance and stench, everyone moves out of his way, allowing him to meet the star and gain his autograph. His brother is incensed by this stroke of fortune and sells the autographed picture in the next scene, thus stealing his little brother’s joy. This theme of jealous power and resentment versus innocent love and forgiveness continues throughout the film.

However, the excrement covering the Slumdog is not his own. It really just reflects his older brother’s sin. His brother knew exactly what he was doing to the innocent Slumdog. He did not want Slumdog to have this extra-special experience. Instead he greedily sought the whole thing for himself only.  Good old human nature does not vary by culture. Whether it’s Jerusalem in A.D. 29 or Calcutta in 2009, people behave badly. We may recoil at the caste state of India and the hierarchy of Jewish culture in Jesus’ time, but we have our own pecking order in modern America. The great melting pot ideal still excludes the poor, the tired, the huddled masses, and the wretched refuse of teeming (foreign) shores that are welcomed symbolically by Lady Liberty. They can come in the back door, thanks very much, just to do the dirty jobs and then leave quietly.

As I’ve thought about human sin, I’ve thought about excrement. Our sin is like that—repulsive to God and boiling in its own stench. It creates a barrier between us and God, who would love to embrace us. Unfortunately, in our stench and mess we simply add to the barrier with anger, jealousy, resentment, envy, hopelessness, etc. We smear sin all over our spirits, then layer sin over sin like icing on a decadent, poisoned cake. God wants us to abandon the barrier, to disengage from sin. By turning toward God we are cleansed. He wants to autograph our hearts but sin gets in the way. We don’t need to be perfect to approach God, but we cannot continue to sin and gain access to His holy Presence. We must repent.

Salvation is free never earned. Like the movie star’s autograph, salvation is a gift, a sign that the Slumdog met his movie idol.  How great it is to have Jesus Christ’s autograph on your heart!  Others may try to steal or destroy your salvation. Demons may attack you, but they cannot destroy or steal your salvation. Ever. It’s tattooed onto every cell of your existence.

Later in the movie the Slumdog appears on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?  He moves through each round’s question by recalling memories from his life, during which he finds the answers to these obtuse questions tattooed on the folds of his cerebral cortex.  He does not have to provide the movie star, just his name. He does not have to produce a U.S. hundred dollar bill, just the name of Benjamin Franklin. He does not have to produce the gun that was aimed at his face, just the name Smith & Wesson. Likewise, just calling out the name of Jesus Christ is enough. His name protects you, completes you, and advances you. It’s tattooed on every cell of your existence.

 

Slumdog advances round by round and becomes a national phenomenon while the girl he loves seeks him, and his prodigal brother finally repents of his sins. Simply naming someone or something by faith keeps Slumdog alive while his brother sacrifices his own life as a sort of guilt offering to free the Slumdog.  The movie’s plot is told in this fashion, through random questions whose answers create a linear narrative. The driving force throughout the movie is love. Love triumphs over seemingly insurmountable evil, including the rigged t.v. show and its greasy host.

Salvation is free not earned.  Though a greasy Prince of Darkness would cheat you out of your reward, he cannot. Why? Naming Jesus Christ is the key to each moment, each round, the entire contest of life. Jesus has called us to an exuberant, abundant life with Him not to millions or celebrity. He wants us to run boldly in our faith and not to cower in fear. Understanding that sin is our own hardening excrement is the beginning of wisdom. Repenting and washing it away is the critical first step for us to embrace God’s Holiness and to reflect His Glory.

Satan attempts to condemn us as Slumdogs who are hopelessly covered in excrement, while Jesus redeems us as His precious children, pure and simple. And we each have a choice as to which voice we will believe: the excrement of sin or the sacrament of love.