Leadership Lessons in a Blade of Grass

I once gave a speech likening our personal development to grass. I am reminded of this speech today as I try to enjoy a late afternoon nap. You’ll understand the connection in a moment.

I was a senior in college and president of a student organization that was welcoming its next class of inductees. The room was filled with students and friends, faculty and administrators. Even the college president and his wife.

It was a big deal.

I talked about growth, about perseverance over time, about coming back when our dreams have been mowed down. The speech was inspired by the cantankerous lawn mowers that always revved outside my dorm window the moment I tried to sneak in a late afternoon nap. It never failed that right then is when they decided the grass needed trimming.

My fellow students could relate.

“But no matter how often life cuts you down, you must continue to grow,” I exhorted.

The audience laughed at the right moments and listened at the serious points. I was in my element. When it was over, the president stopped by and shook my hand.

“That was one of the best student speeches I’ve heard,” he said.

Now let me put this in its proper context. It was a small college. The type of place where the president might pass you on the sidewalk on the way to class and say hello. Even if he didn’t quite know your name, he’d certainly know your face. He had no doubt paid similar compliments to dozens of student leaders. I hadn’t done anything extra special, and he hadn’t said anything extraordinary. But 20 years later, I still remember the compliment.

The memory returned to me this afternoon when a lawn mower jamboree broke out in my neighborhood the moment I tried to sneak a little nap. (It still never fails.) The longer I laid there counting grass blades and trying to sleep, the stronger the lesson became. That moment, out of all the moments, was significant enough for me to recall it so many years later.

The price of leadership is often high: High stress, high pressure, high stakes. But some of the longest lasting impacts of leadership happen in between all the important stuff.

You take time out of your schedule to attend an inconsequential event. You look someone in the eye. You shake their hand. You tell them, “That was a fine job.”

And 20 years later, that still means something. Those words are still pouring fertilizer on a blade of grass that has been mowed down and mowed down and mowed down – but is still continuing to grow.

How many contracts expire within a few years? How many business dealings degrade within a decade? Do you even recall what was discussed at last Tuesday’s meeting?

There is an opportunity in between all of that to have a real impact.

Every one of us can take time out of our schedule to attend to an inconsequential moment. We can look someone in the eye. We can shake their hand. We can tell them, “That was a fine job.”

We may never know what those words mean. But all around us, lives could be growing. Not because of some big, sweeping contribution we made. No, quite the opposite.

We simply need to implement the leadership lessons contained in a blade of grass.

This post originally was shared at inspireafire.com. I hope you enjoyed it!

Hope in the Sticky Middle

Picnic Table
This post was first shared at inspireafire.com.

A previous picnicker must have left a smudge of something sweet along the table edge. A drop of jelly or a splash of lemonade. The source didn’t really matter, but I watched as an exploring ant raced toward the smudge and then slowed, step by step, minuscule antennae wiggling. I couldn’t tell if he was gorging on this tremendous find or becoming mired in the stickiness, but his path across the table quickly slowed. Which made me reflect on my own sticky struggles.

Perhaps you can relate.

When a personal trial or the loss of a loved one first hits, there is a period of free-fall into blackness that leaves me scrambling for any hand or foothold I can find. There aren’t many. I wonder when I will ever land, or if I will ever land, and how I will ever move on from this.

It is a period of questions. Like why, and how, and what if. And a period of such immense blackness that any spark, no matter how fleeting, is a reason to hope. It is during these times that I learn how pain begets hope and what it means to hope in the darkness.

Like the ant running headlong across the table, I do everything in my power to get out of there.

An unexpected thing happens next. The pain is not so intense, but neither is the spark of hope. Like a star fading out in a lightening sky, the hope that I clung to in the dark, while still present, does not seem nearly as bright.

I did not expect this. After all, as things stop spiraling out of control, and as life, though forever altered, begins to resume its cycle of days and weeks and years, I expected even greater reason to hope. As I see God delivering on His promises to care for me in a hundred tiny miracles, how could I not feel more hopeful for the future?

Winter

Yet instead of feeling my hope increase, I feel mired in what can best be described as grey.

I have moved far enough from my starting point that I can no longer look back upon it. Going back is no longer an option, a frightening proposition in itself. Yet, I am still so far from where I am going that I see no clear path forward. Behind me is darkness, around me is greyness, and I haven’t got a clue what is ahead of me.

I am someplace in the sticky middle.

Which is how I came to relate to this journeying ant. Rushing from where I came from only to slow at the first hint of anything sweet.

I don’t want to settle for greyness when God is calling me fully into the light. And what the slogging ant can’t see but I can, is that something even better is waiting up ahead. Not simply a smear of something sticky, but a veritable feast of crumbs. But only if he doesn’t get distracted and lose heart along the way.

The same may be true for me. And for you.

I don’t know if the ant ever makes it. I leave him to his journey and I continue mine.

It’s easy to settle when traversing the sticky middle. But God invites us not to crumbs; He invites us to the feast of the lamb. He offers us not just “enough,” but more than we can ever ask or imagine. Having hope while in the sticky middle means having gratitude for the gifts of today while we still reach and push and pursue a brighter tomorrow.

Even when we don’t know what that looks like. Even when hope feels amorphous and fading.

Don’t ever forget, my friends: the stars are still there, even when we cannot see them. And so is our hope.

Advice from a Friend

This post was original shared at inspireafire.com

If the words would come, I would tell you about friendships and advice. And how I recently changed my perspective. You see, a few years ago I received advice from friends who knew me well and cared for me deeply. Their words were accurate and true, but there were layers I was sorting through that even they did not understand.

The experience made me realize how very little I know about those I love the most. No matter how clearly I can see the path of another, there is always the possibility that what I share will not actually be right for them. It might be accurate and true, but it might not be the right time, or the right lesson, or the right path for them.

Who knows why we sometimes take the paths we do? Only God.  And sometimes ourselves.

Trail

This lesson made me hesitant to offer advice. After all, what do I know? The lesson I learned was to keep my mouth shut. The lesson I think I was supposed to learn was an appreciation of complexity.

Even when others share perspectives that are true, there are still different ways to implement their advice. Even if I am not going to take action on their suggestions right away, I have found that hearing my friends’ thoughts gives me a deeper understanding of my situation, and sometimes myself. Sometimes I need to hear a lot of different perspectives and consider them alongside my own before I can fully grasp what is the right thing for me right here and now. The answer is not to stop the advice; the answer is to hold the advice in its proper context.

This is some of what I would share, in a much more eloquent way, if the words would come.

Ironically, I once gave advice to a friend who repeated it back to me tonight: just write something. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

So that’s what I’m doing. I give my apologies to you, dear reader, for having to wade through the result of my own advice.

Here is the other thing I learned recently. It’s easy to be very hard on myself in comparison to others. Why am I not more… fill in the blank. I suspect I’m not alone in this. But those qualities in others that threaten to condemn us are actually an opportunity to strengthen a part of ourselves.

When I watch my most determined friend set her mind and then take off after something, I can learn a little something about determination. Perhaps I can do that too, in my own way.

When I am amazed at my friend who rehashes a recent soirée by rattling off the names of so-and so’s second cousin’s best friends as though she has known them for years, I can learn to be more intentional in my connections. Perhaps I can do that too, in my own way.

When I talk at length with my friend who splices apart social complexities the way some people slice through cake, I can learn to be more analytical in my thinking. I can do that too, in my own way.

I love the complexities of my friends. Their differences, their strengths, and their weaknesses. I hope they never stop sharing their perspectives with me.

Questions from God and the Devil, Part 1

I am a big fan of questions.

Except for when I’m not.

What I mean is that most of the time, questions serve me well. They allow me to engage empathically with others, they help me understand different viewpoints, and they teach me diligence in my thoughts and actions.

But sometimes the questions get out of control. Sometimes they keep me awake at night replaying conversations or inciting possible scenarios. Sometimes their incessant whirling brings such doubt and confusion that I could easily be led away to despair.

Then, questions are no longer my friend. Perhaps this has also happened to you.

The question that arose about all these questions (ironic, I know), is this: How can I tell if a question is good for me to think about or if it is one I should avoid?

I have three answers.

The first answer comes in even recognizing that there are some questions that are not helpful, and that we can choose to dwell or not dwell on a particular thought. The Bible tells us that we should take every thought captive to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5) That means we can think about what we are thinking about, and ask God for guidance in discerning what thought paths we should pursue. As simple as it sounds, pausing for a moment of metacognition – thinking about what we’re thinking about – can reframe our thought paths.

When I started to do this, I was shocked at the thoughts that were playing through my mind. The chatter was so familiar and incessant that I didn’t realize some of the patterns I was getting stuck on. I couldn’t even begin to tell if a question was good for me to dwell on until I first became aware of my thoughts and what questions were already there. That’s step one.

The second way we discern questions worth thinking about is through the fruit of the question. In other words, does dwelling on a particular question bring clarity and peace or confusion and despair?

This isn’t always black and white. Our thoughts are complex and we can’t always consider a single question and leap immediately to either clarity or confusion. Sometimes we have to walk through uncertainty as we seek our answers. Sometimes questions raise emotional pain that we do need to walk through and not avoid. But there is a different feeling to wrestling with doubt, fear, or sadness while seeking clarity versus the feeling we have when we are churning on a question that repeatedly plunges us into darkness. When dwelling too long on a particular question produces only increased anxiety, set it aside. It may be that the time is not quite right to consider those thoughts. We can ask God to show us when the time is right. He will bring resources across our path to guide us.

The problem with using the fruit of the question as our identifier is by the time we realize a particular question is leading us in a bad direction, we are already well down the path. While it’s a little helpful to recognize after the fact – perhaps we can at least not go any further! – it would be even better if we could distinguish a priori whether a particular question is a friend or foe.

I think there are ways we can. Once we have identified a detrimental question by its fruit, we can be cautious of that question in the future. When we recognize it creeping back into our thoughts, we can displace it with something else.

Steps one and two can lead to this preemptive third step: recognize the detrimental questions at their onset.

Additionally, and importantly, we also identify detrimental questions at their onset by recognizing the spiritual component to our thoughts. There are questions God asks us that we should spend time thinking about. Conversely, there are questions from the devil, or our own wandering mind, that we should avoid. Knowing which type of question is knocking at the door of our thoughts can help us identify whether it is a friend or foe.

The outstanding question, of course, is this: What are the questions God asks us, and what are the questions that come from the devil or our own wandering mind?

This, my friends, is a question worth pursuing.

So I am embarking on a Bible study to see what I can learn. The good news is that since the spiritual patterns of thought that began at the beginning are the ones still with us today, we can learn a lot by studying the questions in scripture. There is nothing new under the sun, Ecclesiastes tells us.

In some upcoming posts, I’ll share what I am discovering. We’ll start with the very first question the devil asked… and the counter question from Jesus millennia later. Do you know what it is?

Letting Go While Letting Go

View from hammock.
This post was first shared at inspireafire.com.

There are always two parts to letting go.

Whether it’s a person, an idea, a dream, or a relationship, there is the letting go of the thing (which is a book unto itself). Then there is the letting go of the emotions that accompany the letting go.

If you’ve ever gone through this, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, then stick this in your pocket, friend, because some day this may help you.

The emotions of letting go don’t knock politely and enter one at a time. They tear down your windows and doors, blow off your roof, and attack your foundation. They come in waves, first as one feeling and then another: fear, sadness, anger, resentment, jealousy, bitterness, resignation.

Letting go of the thing without letting go of the accompanying emotions hardens your heart. You need to “let go in love” as author Melody Beattie has said. Otherwise the dark emotions become an unforgiving root within you.

The question is: how do we do this?

It’s not possible to push emotions away. Like the evil spirit who came out of a man and brought back seven other spirits more wicked than itself (Matthew 12:43-45), trying to simply sweep away emotions often causes them to get stronger. Instead, emotions need to be walked through.

There have been experiences in my life where writing a single letter regenerated my insides. More often, I am still catching a flare-up several years later. Emotions are like a red hot poker. I keep circling until it has cooled enough to grab onto and extract. In the meantime, every time I touch it, I get burned.

Every burn is a reminder that letting go is not a one and done process. And every burn is a reminder that I need to consciously ask God to help me understand what I need to learn from this emotion and replace it with a more appropriate fruit of the spirit.

I am learning that one way to extract a burning emotion is to grow a new one until it is large enough to displace the old. Here are some I am exploring.

Replace fear with trust. The more I learn to trust God, the less power fear has in my life. Building trust takes time and happens so gradually I can miss it growing. I need to pay attention when God cares for me, because the more I notice Him working in my life, the more I begin to trust Him.

Replace resignation with hope. By its very nature, resignation seems to be an embedded element of letting go – being resigned to the ending of something I once held dear. Yet the Bible says we have been given a living hope. Even when all else fails, hope remains. Maybe not hope in the thing which we are letting go, although God may do something there, too. More importantly, hope in what God will do next. No matter the situation, there is a burning in my spirit that tells me that out of this, even this, God works for good. God can bring beauty from ashes. Begin to think about that.

Replace sadness with happiness. It’s not possible to simply manufacture happiness. But I’m finding moments of contentment can be a close cousin. Expressing gratitude for the simplest things starts me down the path of appreciation and contentment; feelings of happiness aren’t too much further down the road, even if I don’t feel them yet.

Replace anger with peace. The coolness of peace is as slow to develop as the heat of anger is fast to flash. I circle that red hot poker like the walls of Jericho waiting for it to crumble. There is no shortcut. Anger is the emotion that tells us a personal boundary was crossed or an expectation wasn’t met. We may need to step through and identify those foundational causes while we cling to the peace of God’s promises to us. He will be our vindicator. He will teach us how to seek peace and pursue it. He promises to us that He will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast upon Him.

There is a great exchange that God offers to us. It started with Jesus on the cross, but it continues into every thought, word, and action we express. As we grow the fruits of the spirit planted within us, He will help us to let go.

In letting go, we find ourselves clinging to that which we most need to cling: God Himself.

Hope from the Father

clouds parting

I first shared this post at inspireafire.com.

I’ve heard it said that you can live several weeks without food, several days without water, and several minutes without oxygen; but you can’t live one second without hope.

If this is true, I want to know what it means to have hope.

I once had a friend describe to me a difficult time she had faced. She ended the account with these words: “But now, I have so much hope.”

I didn’t understand what she meant. I, too, had come through challenges, but hope had never entered into my retelling. I’ve thought a lot about this in the years since, as the cycles of life continued and I’ve faced even more challenging times. In those dark nights of despair, here is what I’m learning about hope.

Hope is believing that God will work all things together for good, even if it’s not in the way we would have chosen. And when we don’t feel like we believe that, hope is waiting to see if God will come through for us anyway. Hope, I have learned, has very little do to with feelings. Hope is not the same as peace. Hope is not the same as happiness. Hope is an expectation and a waiting and a holding on.

Three strands and cross

Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “When you’ve reached the end of your rope, tie a knot and hold on.” That, my friends, is hope. In fact, one of the original Hebrew words used for hope can also mean a cord used for attachment.

That cord is our hope in God.

Not in a person. Not in a certain outcome.

When the world plunges us into darkness, hope is hanging onto God.

Hope is waiting for God when there is nothing else to wait for. Hope is continuing to live for God when there is nothing else to live for.

Hope is also the baseline for faith. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Faith is being sure of what we hope for.“ Faith is putting hope into action.

Think about the experience of driving on a dark road and needing to make a left turn. In that split second before your headlights swing around, you turn into pitch darkness. It can feel as though you are about to drive off a cliff. You cannot see anything, and you know the world outside is moving very fast.

In that moment, hope is believing that when you turn the car, the road will be there.

Faith is actually turning the car.

Lantern

And this, as Paul said, is not by our own doing, but as a gift from God.

Hope in the darkness is not something we do alone. On the other end of that cord is a loving Father, strong enough to defend us, loving enough to protect us, and gentle enough to hold us. When we have done all we can do, our only job is to stand firm. Hope is waiting to see what God will do next. (See Ephesians 6:13.)

Hope in the darkness may not be the blazing light I thought it was. But the darker it is, the less light we need to see by. And as I wrote once before, God will teach us how to hope in the dark. There are times when hope may feel like a thin thread between our hands, but do not let that fool you.

Hope is as strong and as long and as wide as the Father’s arms that hold us.

When God is all You Need

I recently shared this post at https://inspireafire.com/when-god-is-all-you-need/. I hope it speaks to you as much as it does to me!

It sounds a little too spiritual, if you ask me.

Like a white-bearded guru sitting cross-legged on a mountaintop basking in nothing but the company of God: You never know that God is all you need, until God is all you have.

Nice in principle, but down here in the real world, I need food. And friendship. And meaningful work.

I didn’t begin to understand this saying… until recently.

It happened when I began to rely too heavily on one individual to be my source of joy and inspiration and comfort. If you asked me, I would have told you that of course I understood that one person, no matter how special, can never meet all of our needs all of the time. I thought I knew this, but deep down I apparently did not. And eventually, that relationship shifted like sand beneath my feet.

Three strands and cross

Then I found out what you do when God is all you have.

You hurt. A lot. And you wonder what people mean when they say God is all you need. You think they must have never felt anything quite like this, because you’re gripping God with two fists and it still feels like half your soul has been ripped away. You’re gripping God with two fists and there is absolutely and undoubtedly something more that you still need.

But you keep hanging on. And then you begin to understand.

At least, that’s how it’s unfolding for me.

“God-is-all-you-need” does not mean that we can live long, productive lives without food, friendship and meaningful work. It doesn’t mean we can live without pain when those we love are no longer with us. In fact, God created us with physical needs and emotional desires. Our bodies are designed to require regular inputs of energy and rest, emotional connectivity, and mental stimulation. ”God knows that you need these things,” Jesus told His disciples.

The catch is in what Jesus said next:

“But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (See Matthew 6:31-33.)

It’s counterintuitive, but when we seek God first, we allow Him to meet our needs in any way He chooses.

When we need physical affection, God can send someone to give us a hug.

When we need money to cover expenses, God can send someone to offer us a job or provide what we need.

When we need wise counsel, God can send His word through what we read or hear.

He may not use the person we expect, or even the person we want. God doesn’t provide us everything we need from the same person – or the same activity or the same source – all the time. The longer we think we may be the exception to this rule, the more shocking the collapse will be.

We have an amazing capacity for more. It is in the seed of eternity that God has planted in our hearts. It points to our eternal glory with Him. But when that drive for more shifts off its intended focus – God – and onto anything else, then we are blocking God’s intended provision.

“Your Heavenly Father knows that you need all of these things,” Jesus said.

Trust Him to provide for all your needs in His way and in His timing. Actively receive His gifts in whatever way He chooses to send them.

God is all you need, because ultimately, God is all you have. Everything else is simply a gift from Him.

Washed Away

This post was first shared at www.inspireafire.com. Special thank you to C.J. for sharing her artwork. Photo credits to J. Canino. I hope you enjoy!

Hours of careful effort had etched the colorful chalk drawings into the sidewalk. They were there to brighten the day of the neighborhood and the mail carrier. They certainly brightened my day. A small gift from the hands of the artist.

And then they were gone. Washed away in a pop-up thunderstorm that ran the color into the ditch and down the drain.

Just like that, only grey sidewalk remained.

Why is it that the things we want to stick around never seem to, while the things we want to wash away always seem to stay?

Regardless of whether we’re talking about people, events, or emotions, the good times seem so fleeting, while the challenges seem to endure. Anger, rejection, sadness, anxiety – negative thoughts and bad habits – these things cling to us like dark chalk on sticky fingers. The more we try to brush them away, the more they seem to cover us.

I cry out with David and the prophets who pleaded with God across the pages of the Old Testament: How long, O Lord, must I call for help?

The answer may surprise you.

Because the answer is that He has already answered us. The problem is that we might not always like His answer.

First, He answers us with His forgiveness. That part we like. But then He answers us with change. Not the change of the situation that we were hoping for, but a change of us that we may not have seen coming.

Like drops of rain chiseling into stone, we may find layers of what we once held dear washed away along with that which needs to go. There may be layers of color and layers of grey. There may be flashes of sunlight and coverings of darkness. We hold our sin-stained hands to Him, again and again. We let His promises and His works do the washing that we ourselves are powerless to do.

It does not feel good.

The Bible tells us that weeping only tarries for the night (Psalm 30:5), but oh what a long night it sometimes seems! It feels as though the darkness will never end. It feels quite the opposite of God’s promises – indeed it feels as though joy is fleeting and hardships endure.

But all of this is allowing for the deeper and ever more beautiful creation to be revealed.

There is joy in the very center that God is helping us find. He is teaching us to cling to His promises like the lifeline that they are. Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed. His mercies are new every morning. Joy itself will come in the morning. (Lamentations 3; Psalm 30)

I’ve asked God many times how to actually do this. How does one cling to an invisible God? How does one believe when unable to see in the dark? I do not have a perfect answer, but here is what I am learning:

  • Some nights I fall asleep gripping my Bible in my hand.
  • Some nights I sit on my bed and write scriptures on my wall.
  • Some nights I read pages after pages in my Bible, underlining the word love.
  • Some nights I plead with God to do all the things I cannot, including telling others all the things I can no longer say to them myself.
  • Some nights I write out every verse I can find that tells me something about God’s character.
  • Some nights I write out questions to God.

Every night I am waiting. I am waiting for God to fight my battles, restore my peace, and fill my spirit with joy. You have been washed, the Bible tells me (1 Corinthian 6:11).

And I continue to be washed.

Coming After Me

Sheep & baby

This post was first shared at inspireafire.com. Enjoy!

Anyone living in my region has probably noticed the freak snowstorms we’ve had three of the last four Wednesdays. I’m pretty sure it’s my fault.

Let me explain.

Winter

The other day I was listening to a video where Cory Asbury talks about his song Reckless Love. And no, watching the video wasn’t directly causal to why we’ve had a flurry of snow squalls, but stick with me. Cory talked about Luke 15, where Jesus tells the parable of the good shepherd going after the one lost sheep. “And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home” (Luke 15:5).

Can you picture that sheep? Scattered, lost, possibly bruised and banged up. Most definitely frightened. Being swooped up by strong arms, and carried, safely, atop the shepherd’s shoulders.

I’ve seen lambs carried this way. They may let out a “baaa” at the sudden perspective change, but most of them look downright happy on their new perch, surveying the world from a whole new vantage.

I can tell you that I do not feel like that found sheep.

I feel more like I am being dragged kicking and screaming through the valley of the shadow of death. There are burrs in my wool, thorns in my path, and rocks bruising my feet. My bleating is closer to a death wail than the triumphant “baaa” of return.

Perhaps this is a sign that I am still running.

God warned the Israelites when he brought them into the promised land that if they turned away from the one true God they would be handed over to their enemies. An iron yoke would be placed around their neck (Deuteronomy 28:48). Destruction, confusion, anxiety, and despair would ensue. And that, of course, is exactly what happened.

Contrast this with the yoke Jesus offers in Matthew 11: A yoke that is easy and provides rest for our souls. A leader who is gentle and humble in heart.

All we need to do is come to Him.

I don’t know why I seemingly choose the iron yoke time after time. Why don’t I let my Shepherd pick me up and place me on His shoulders? Why do I run bleating through the wilderness away from the One who can calm my fears and set me on the right path?

I don’t know why; but I know I do. And I am coming to know, deeper and deeper, just what it means for the Good Shepherd to keep pursuing me no matter how far or how hard I keep running.

God knew, for example, that there was a certain Bible Study I needed to attend. I wanted to attend, but another class conflict was going to allow me to attend just the first couple weeks.

Until it snowed. And my class got cancelled and Bible study did not.

And then it snowed again. And my class got cancelled and Bible study did not.

And then it snowed again. And my class got cancelled and Bible study did not.

And that was the week I needed to be there. That was the week I had people speak words into my life that I needed to hear. That was the week I had people pray with me specific prayers I needed to pray. That was the week I took one more step toward not running.

And one more step, I am coming to realize, is a big deal. Because Jesus may be gentle, but He is also relentless. He will orchestrate weather – as many times as needed – to allow for that one more step. He will inconvenience others – as many times as needed – to allow for that one more step.

He will come after me. He will come after you. And I may never look at an inconvenience the same way again.

I may be disappointed by a cancellation or a freak storm, but here is a new window into that same story: it could be that because of that very moment, someone’s soul is being saved. Jesus is lifting a lamb to His shoulders. Or at the very least, the lamb has paused, looked back, and is considering this gentle, relentless shepherd that is coming after.

Mercy. A Story of Unrequited Love

This post was first shared at http://www.inspireafire.com, and I wanted to also share with you!

I’m conducting a little Bible study. You’re welcome to come along if you’d like.

Love Never Fails sign

It starts with the second greatest commandment – to love our neighbor. In Luke 10, the expert in the law wanted to know how to define neighbor, but I’m more interested in the other key word in this commandment: love.

Fortunately, in the exchange that follows, we get the answer to this question, too.

After telling the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus asks the expert in the law which of the men in the story was a neighbor. The reply: The one who had mercy on him.

And there we find the answer to not just the who, but also the how. To love others is to show them mercy.

“Go and learn what this means,” Jesus told the Pharisees. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (Matthew 9:13)

If Jesus told them to go learn what this means, then I think I better go learn it too. Here is just a tiny scraping of what I have learned so far.

The Greek word used here for mercy is eleos, and has a meaning of active compassion, of helping another. Mercy is not just something you have or something you feel; mercy is something you give.

Our modern word mercy comes from a Latin word that refers to the price paid for something. In other words, to show mercy to someone is to pay the price for them.

When someone is hungry, you may show them mercy by paying for their meal. When someone needs help, you may pay the price of your time to help them out.

Those are the easy ones.

Then there are the times when someone hurts you. Or when you feel like someone is taking advantage of you. Or when you’re already paying the price for someone else’s actions through no choice or fault of your own.

Then you pay the price of forgiveness.

And this, not of your own doing, lest any man should boast.

There are some things that are impossible to do on our own. Perfectly loving others, and sometimes even imperfectly loving others, is one of those things. Oh, it’s easy when you’re in a loving relationship to jump at every opportunity to demonstrate your love through concrete acts of mercy. It’s easy when there is a basic reciprocity so that everyone’s needs are being met. But here’s the thing. If everyone’s needs are being met through simple acts of human effort, then there is no space, nor even need, for God.

The harder kind of mercy is when no matter how much you give, it feels like it’s dropping into a dark abyss and there is nothing positive coming back out. This kind of mercy can only be given by God. And when you stop drawing on the relationship itself, when you stop drawing on any kind of reciprocal payment, then you cry out for God Himself to supply the mercy. When you have nothing of your own left to give, then you start giving from whatever God provides.

Three strands and cross

And God always provides.

“Go and learn what this means,” Jesus said. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” And if we turn to Hosea 6:6, which is the verse that Jesus was quoting, we see something remarkable. There is an “and” at the end of this quote. There is more to this sentence. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings.”

How do we love even when it hurts? By acknowledging God. By drawing first on his mercy and on his perfect love with which he loves us, so that we may only then turn and love others.

God, be merciful to me, a sinner.