Monday, February 18, 2013

Lent for Everyone, Day 6: Confrontation and the MPSH Personality Type

Good evening, interwebz.

We are gonna get right down to business today, because I have some serious stuff I want to discuss with you.

Today's reading is on Matthew Chapter 5, the Sermon on the Mount.

Starting out, the author points out that while for some of us it is a primary instinct to take it as such, the Beatitudes were never meant to be taken as a rules list, but instead should be a source of joy for us. Now personally, that caught me by surprise, because even though I tend to be one of those rules-lawyers by nature when it comes to Biblical exhortations, I've rarely ever gotten anything but comfort from Jesus' mountaintop declaration of blessings.

Now probably it's just because I think I'm doing pretty well in these areas...

Matthew 5:3

“Blessed are the poor in Spirit” 

Having always seemingly had a hard time “hearing” and “feeling” God, I've frequently felt very poor in spirit. I long for Him to be real in my life, to know with certainty His leading in every situation, and to feel His presence every time I sit down to do some quiet time with Him. I've even been known to scoot out a chair and put a cup of coffee down in front of it so that I can pretend God is actually sitting there with me when I pray. I feel pretty desperate for my faith to be more real to me all the time, yet this doesn't seem to be a gift that God has blessed me with. A friend actually shares this problem, and I've remarked to him before that perhaps this is just the unique trial God has given people like us to test our endurance and build up perseverance in us. It makes sense to me. Perseverance is not a trait I typically default to. When the going gets tough, the Stephanie typically gives up and logs on to browse Facebook, leaving her quiet time on the table. But that longing and desire always brings me back, hoping that if I just keep trying, if I just keep praying and seeking and knocking, one day-- maybe tomorrow, maybe years from now-- it'll all pay off, and I will suddenly feel a clear, open line of communication with God. But for now, I am poor in spirit, dwelling in abject spiritual poverty, and just struggling to make ends meet, to glean enough from my day-to-day interaction with God's word and people to keep going. And this encouragement has always been a big one for me. One day, I will be rewarded for that poverty I currently must live with. Hallelujah!

Matthew 5:4

“Blessed are those who mourn”

Confession time! I'm a drama queen.
I really don't mean to be, and it's one of the traits I truly despise in myself, but it must somehow be hard-wired through nature or nurture, or possibly both, into my personality, because every time a conflict arises, people might notice that I am suddenly conspicuously absent. And when they go looking for me, they might find me sitting on my bed, crying my eyes out, because I am so upset over the possibility of disappointing someone or knowing that they are going through something difficult, whether or not it has anything at all to do with me. I am an emotional sponge, especially so for negative or difficult emotions, and I feel things very acutely, so much so that I have had to end friendships before because the other person's clinical depression was rubbing off on me. Consequently, mourning is pretty much a constant state for me. I mourn over friends' divorces, over custody battles and illnesses, over deaths in the family and friend's family crises. At the moment I am in a state of dread over breaking some bad news to the mother of the little boy I watch that I will be moving in three to four months, because I'm terrified to disappoint her, despite intending to make every effort to ease the blow with time and offers of assistance with finding a new caregiver. Yep... that's my life. Pretty constantly disturbed over something. And try as I might I seem to be nigh incapable of turning it off. Hubby has even tried to give me lessons in compartmentalizing my emotions, but that only seems to work in short bursts, and they're always waiting there to welcome me back with open arms and a tissue. But Jesus promises here that I will be comforted! And that is such a relief to me, that someday God is going to make it all better and life will be good, all the time. No more mourning. Praise the Lord!

Matthew 5:5

“Blessed are the meek”

So according to a quick Google search, the definition of “meek” is Quiet, gentle, and easily imposed on.” Now I'm rarely quiet, and I'm not always gentle, BUT... Hubby IS constantly on my case because I AM very easily imposed on. I have a habit of bending over backward to make other people happy. Now my motive is probably more often out of fear of disappointing people or a desire to be liked than a real sense of humility and a desire to glorify God, but whatever my motive, I can proudly proclaim that I am-- in practice at least-- pretty darn meek. So... Beatitude #3: check!

Matthew 5:6

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”

It's funny how everybody has different aspects of godliness that come more naturally than others. Hubby, for instance, is excellent at trusting God. He's usually the one comforting me in the face of a difficult time, reassuring me that God will take care of us because he always has. He is also a natural prayer warrior, praying regularly as he goes throughout his workday and always reminding me when I'm fretting to cast my cares on God. I really rely on him for these spiritual talents to supplement my lack of belief in certain areas, and there are many other areas in which I rely on support from the body of Christ and my believing friends to remind me to work on my own spiritual disciplines. But I do know of at least one area in which I'm usually pretty on top of things. For the sake of brevity, we'll just say I have a bent toward self-improvement. I'm always working on a new project to improve my outlook, behavior, lifestyle, or knowledge in a new area. If it's not using cloth diapers, it's recycling, or eating healthier, or losing weight, or memorizing scripture, or any number of other things. Once I've reached a higher level of “compliance” with ideals in one area, I'm on to the next biggest problem. I'm never satisfied just being “happy the way I am”; I always want to become a better person. Being a “meek” person, I necessarily tend to have a somewhat deflated view of myself, and it's easier for me than perhaps some people (people with better self esteem perhaps, lol) to recognize when I have a weakness, sin, or struggle that needs work. Now this doesn't always mean I don't need things pointed out to me to recognize them, as you'll see in a bit, but once I see the problem, I'm on it like me on chocolate ice cream (that's a better analogy once you've seen me with a bowl of chocolate ice cream). And, let's face it: I'm a pretty imperfect person, especially spiritually. So I would say I am in a pretty constant state of hunger and thirst for greater righteousness in my life. Which means, if that perseverance God is working with me on pays out, someday I will be satisfied! Huzzah!

Matthew 5:7-9

“Blessed are the merciful... pure in heart... [and] peacemakers”

Well, I don't know that the first or even one of the top ten words that come to mind when my friends think of me would be merciful or pure. Probably not. They're not really identifying factors for me, per se. But I wouldn't say I'm cruel, nor am I typically a morally questionable sort of person (probably due more to excellent parenting and marrying a godly man pretty much fresh out of my parents' household than any particular piety on my part, but I'll take it). But I am a peacemaker. I hate to see people I love fighting, and since I love easy, that makes me one of the more eager peacemakers I can think of. Whenever it depends on me, I am there trying to inject peace and harmony into the situation, even when it's perhaps none of my business. And I hate fighting or conflict, as I mentioned. I will do anything to avoid it. (Which is pretty funny when you consider that two of my favorite hobbies are martial arts and wargaming!)

Matthew 5:10

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness's sake”

This one is a difficult one to define, especially in America where we are privileged to live under the banner of religious freedom. “Persecution” for our Christian beliefs in this country is laughable in the face of what believers in many other countries face, and I would never want to make light of that. I have it easy. But, like any other believer, I have undergone losses for the sake of my Lord. Sometimes it has been in the form of sacrificing a closer bond with family or friends I might have had if I was willing to fudge on the subject of my beliefs. Sometimes it has meant not pursuing relationships that were tempting to my hormonal teenage self. Sometimes it has even meant-- GASP!-- confronting other believers on sinful behavior or destructive decisions. And we all know by now how much I hate anything to do with confrontation. But I have been known occasionally to screw up the small amount of courage I possess and march bravely into the fiery furnace of other people's ill opinions for the greater cause of Christ, at least as I believed it to be at the time.

So altogether, based on that list, I seem to be doing pretty well. I'm almost a natural, a Beatituder! That's me, part of the in-crowd with Jesus. I'm set, I'm saved, and I'm golden! It's smooth-sailing from here until Judgment day.

But... (there's always a but)...

Christ follows up that list of “blessed”s with a command that I somehow always missed on earlier readings of this verse:

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
 Matthew 5:13-16

Hmm... salt and lights. Interesting...

Now what stands out to me is how different these analogies are, when they could have been pretty similar. The salt losing it's saltiness would have implied to me that the parallel analogy, the lamp, would have involved someone blowing it out. But no, instead the light is not put out or lost, but instead hidden. So first you have useless salt, because it is no longer able to be used for what it was intended for. And then you have a lamp that is fully capable of functioning, but it's not. Instead, it's being hidden from others' view, under a basket, no less. Not only is this a silly use for a lamp, but it's a waste of fuel too.

Now I don't know about you, but I find it interesting that this exhortation of being light and salt comes immediately after the part where Jesus was handing out the awards for the meek, peacemaking, self-deprecating and humble. Innnnnnnnteresting...

Do you think maybe... just maybe... it was because one of the most common problem for meek, peacemaking, self-deprecating and humble people is speaking up on controversial issues? As one of those people... I certainly think so!

I have frequently noted how witnessing to others actually gets harder for me personally the longer I am a Christian. Now you'd think it'd be the other way around: the longer you do something, the easier it gets. But this is a tricky thing.

See, the longer I am a Christian, the more I notice how much everyone else around me doesn't really like Christianity all that much. Or really, religion in general, but Christians-- perhaps because in America we are the majority religious group-- tend to receive the brunt of it. Christian's are easily the most made-fun-of religious group in comedy and on TV. We are regularly belittled in art and literature.
Things we have long taken for granted, like mentioning God in the pledge of allegiance or being able to pray pretty much anywhere we please are suddenly becoming topics of debate. And while I cannot say I have experienced any personal instances of “pushback” for being a believer in years, a person can only live in a culture directly opposed to their lifestyle and beliefs for so long before they begin to get a bit of the victim mentality. Now for some people this manifests in the “fight” portion of the “fight or flight” response (and as I write this, I suddenly have a new appreciation for the more outspoken ranks of the LGBT community- aha! Now I get it!). But for those of us who are meek and tend to question ourselves and our own abilities an inordinate amount, we will always default to flight. Avoid the conversation, run away from the confrontation, and stay as quiet and inoffensive on the controversial topic as possible. It's simple self-preservation instinct kicking in. But here's the thing: as a believer, chosen and appointed by God to witness to an unbelieving world, we are tasked with really only one purpose. To share the Good News. And that sometimes means walking knowingly into that aforementioned fiery furnace of other people's ill opinions. It means telling the truth instead of avoiding the question or equivocating to seem less judgmental. It means caring more about what God thinks of your actions than what some or even all of your peers think. And it's TERRIFYING!

Because of the few bad experiences I've had, and the larger cultural outlook on evangelical Christianity, I tend to cover up my faith as much as possible in circles where I fear it may receive more of the same. I either keep silent, or try to explain it in such a way that nobody is offended (often going above and beyond and rambling on and on in nervous chatter, as some of my friends can attest). But maybe offense isn't the worst thing I can cause. People are necessarily offended when a higher standard demands change in them, and God often does just that. And the result of offense can often be dwelling on a subject because of the emotional response it caused, which leads to deeper thought, and sometimes to change. It's happened to me, many times. It could certainly happen to others around me. In fact, it did happen to me, over the weekend. And I intend to share that with you, perhaps tomorrow. It was a hard lesson to learn, and the correction hurt and honestly made me really angry to begin with. But then as I remembered the lesson I had learned about delaying action to wait on God, it started to sink in that I could learn a difficult but essential lesson from the words given to me, much as they hurt.

The correction came at the right time, and I was ready to receive it. And that was definitely God's doing, not mine. If God can work in such a timely way to correct me of my own prejudice and ignorance through the word of a friend (who last I checked was not a professing Christian), then surely He can do the same in other lives... in other hearts and relationships. And while that might mean that I have to risk offending people, maybe even to the point of losing friends and being disliked, there is a greater good than my own in that situation. The truth. And even though the truth often hurts-- a LOT-- it's essential for helping us become better people who please God more deeply. And for those of us MPSH personality types, that is the greatest way to fulfill the Beatitudes, because not only do we follow Christ's directive to let our light shine, but we also offer the opportunity to others to share the blessings that Christ's people for being the kind of people God loves to bless. And that's definitely worth the risk.

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