Toxic Anger

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I wonder what goes through a snake’s mind. I’ve seen blacksnakes and garter snakes. I’ve chased water snakes at a lake. I’ve seen many different kinds of snakes in my lifetime, but had never seen a poisonous snake (in the wilds) until I started to ride my bicycle near Ohiopyle – on the Great Allegheny Passage.

I wonder if a poisonous snake knows it’s poisonous. Do poisonous snakes know they can send people to the hospital? Do poisonous snakes intentionally hurt people who don’t want to harm them? I wonder if a snake (like the copperhead that’s pictured above) can be toxic for so long that striking-out at other creatures feels “natural” and “acceptable.”

I’ve always believed that anger is natural. We get angry when others hurt us or take advantage of us. We get angry when people abuse us and physically harm us. We, also, have a right to get angry when others hurt people we love. Anger tells people that they’ve gone too far. Our anger tells people that they’ve crossed-the-line. Anger is quite natural; and, in fact, I get nervous when people tell me that they never get angry.

But, I’ve also seen “toxic anger.” I’ve watched people grow bitter because they can’t forgive. I’ve seen folks drag childhood anger into their adult life. I’ve watched toxic anger ruin friendships and families. Toxic anger alienates people. Toxic anger destroys relationships and leaves a long trail of injured souls behind it. Toxic anger wears-out friends and family members. Toxic anger, ultimately, leaves us alone.

I suspect that the copperhead I saw on the bike trail didn’t intend to intimidate me.  I’ve read that copperheads are non-aggressive, and that they usually hope that their enemy will walk away. I’ve read that copperheads “freeze” (so that they blend their surroundings) and that they sometimes don’t inject venom on a first strike. Perhaps, the copperhead that I saw didn’t want to scare me? But it did! I knew that the copperhead could hurt me. I knew that the copperhead could make me sick with its toxic venom. I get scared when I see people with toxic anger, too. I avoid them because they’re harmful. I stay away from them because I don’t want to be hurt. Many people with toxic anger don’t understand that. Perhaps, they’ve been toxic for so long that they no longer realize there’s a problem?

I’m sure we’ve all been hurt. Some of us were physically abused and some of us were betrayed. Some of us have been the victim of a crime, and some of us have been stabbed in the back by someone we trusted. Those things make us angry. Those kinds of things create angry responses that are healthy. But, when we allow our anger to froth and foam for a long period of time, it creates a problem. We can even become somewhat “angry at the world” when anger grows inside us. And that’s when we become toxic. We become “toxic” when we strike-out at people who haven’t done anything wrong. We become “toxic” when we start to hold people accountable for things they didn’t do to us. We become “toxic” when we refuse to release our anger and hold it inside. We can know that our anger has become “toxic” when people withdraw from us because they are tired of being hurt by us and of putting up with our bad behavior.

God helps us to forgive. God helps us to release the hurts we’ve experienced. We can let the past be the past. We can experience freedom from the anger that poisons us when we give-up our “right” to continue punishing those who hurt us. God helps us experience healing in our lives before the anger we hold inside of us destroys us and alienates us from what’s most precious to us.

A copperhead might know that it’s poisonous – and it might not. We sometimes know we have “toxic anger” – and we sometimes don’t. That’s why it’s important to forgive. That’s why it’s important to allow God to work in our lives before our anger gets a life of its own. Is there someone you need to forgive? Have you been hurt in a way that you can’t forgive? Why not allow God to work on that today? Why not allow God to help you release some of the anger in your life before it becomes a “toxin” that destroys what you love the most?

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Held in the Hands of God

Art fascinates me. I haven’t been blessed with much artistic ability. I recall struggling in art class even as a child. Artists have a gift. Artists have a way of looking at the world and of presenting their perspectives to the rest of us. I saw that truth again, last week, as I walked through the halls of an aviary in Pittsburgh.

The Pittsburgh Aviary provides a home for hundreds of birds. You can see bald eagles, toucans, owls, and penguins. A short walk can provide a glimpse of finches, parrots, roadrunners, and hornbills. But, there’s something different on one wall. There’s a picture that’s been painted by Elizabeth Myers Castonguay.

Elizabeth’s painting was, at first, rather confusing to me. It was filled with odd shapes and bright colors. Elizabeth’s painting contains sweeping stokes and wild designs. But, if you look at her painting carefully, you’ll see birds. The picture (above) is a piece of her larger work. The picture (below) is another part of the same painting. Birds are hidden by sweeping strokes. Beautiful birds are concealed in chaos. And life can be like that, can’t it? Life is filled with distractions. We sometimes get lost. We can focus upon things that aren’t important. We remember things that we should probably just forget.

One of the things I’ve noticed in life is that hurts and worries tend to move into the center of our minds. Close relationships can end with a few harsh words. A good imagination becomes a liability when it creates distressing “future possibilities.” Good things become hidden. Blessings lose the battle. Goodness sometimes disappears when bad things happen. God even appears distant when life becomes hard or when friends let us down.

Elizabeth’s painting can remind us of an important truth. The images of the birds remain – even when chaotic colors combine on canvas. The birds remain intact even when most of the canvas becomes filled with broad strokes that resemble nothing. God’s present when things go well and when they don’t. God continues to be the solid rock in our lives even when the canvas becomes filled with distracting “noises” that catch our attention. God is our “refuge and strength.” God walks with us in the happiest moments and in the most difficult. God lifts us, fills us with faith, and gives us courage. God remains a constant even when God “appears” to be hidden.

I began to do something, several months ago, that’s had a powerful effect on my life. The first thing I do every morning is take a deep breath and, then, I say to myself: “I know that I’m held in the hands of God.” No matter what’s happened to me – “I know that I’m held in the hands of God.” No matter what’s coming in the new day – “I know that I’m held in the hands of God.” Whether the day that I face is going to be a good one, or one filled with problems and fears – “I know that I’m held in the hands of God.” Even if I don’t know it – and even if I’m about to begin what will be the last day of my life on the earth – I begin that day by saying, “I know that I’m held in the hands of God.”

Elizabeth’s painting reminds me that life is filled with distractions. We carry our past into the present, and our present into the future. Our lives are sometimes a rather confusing mixture of memories and events (both good and bad) that cause us to miss the “right now.” I need to spend more time in the present. I need to remember that God is with me – even when God’s presence is hidden in the rest of the chaos in my life.

Please join me by beginning each day with a deep breath. And, before you start to worry about all of the tasks you need to accomplish – before you begin to think about your past – before you begin to worry about what’s going to happen – stop for a moment and quietly say: “I know that I’m held in the hands of God.” God’s with you. God’s present – even when your life is filled with chaos and distractions. That’s what I learned by looking at a piece of artwork. And, perhaps, that’s what the artist wanted me to see.

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Punishing Penn State

(Picture taken by Wayne Gillespie at Historic Hannastown in Pennsylvania)

The news has been filled with scandal. Many people hadn’t even heard of Jerry Sandusky a few months ago. Joe Paterno was admired for his accomplishments; and, when anyone mentioned Penn State, people thought about a solid university that’s known for good academics and great football.

But it’s different today. We think about “something else” when someone mentions Penn State. I’m sure that, when someone mentions Penn State, most of us think about about a man who molested children and about all of the people who kept it a secret. And that happens because what happened at Penn State was both horrible and inexcusable.

What happened at Penn State violates every rule of human decency and it’s disgusting. And yet, the same thing happens every day. The U.S. Justice Department reports that 1-in-4 girls and 1-in-6 boys will be molested before the age of 16. The Justice Department reports that what happened at Penn State happens every day, and much of it isn’t reported because the victims of sexual crimes are violated – and other folks don’t want to talk about it.

Bad things happen when leaders fail. People suffer. Things happen that shouldn’t happen. There’s always pain when leaders fail. And that’s what the Bible says in the book of Jeremiah. The kings of Israel and Judah made horrible mistakes and worshiped false gods. The kings had allowed their children to marry “foreign” spouses, had endorsed phallic Asherah poles, had led people into disbelief, and had even killed prophets. And the kings, and the people of both Israel and Judah, were punished for that failure.

Many people don’t like to admit that God “punishes” – but in Jeremiah 23:1-6 – “punishment” is what we see. Bad behavior brings judgment. The judgment we see in the book of Jeremiah is focused and severe because, when bad behavior occurs, the “magnitude” of the punishment reflects the “seriousness” of the crime. Jerry Sandusky is in jail. People who hid Sandusky’s crimes are being punished. There is no excuse for what happened at Penn State. We, as a society, cannot allow that kind of behavior to go unacknowledged. We must punish those who sexually abuse children and we cannot allow anyone who knows that a child is being molested to walk away without saying a word to the authorities.

But then, God flips the coin. There has to be more than “punishment for punishment’s sake.” The failed leadership is clearly punished, and the punishment is harsh and severe. But then, God moves on. God speaks about “bringing the flock back together” and about His flock being “fruitful” again. God says that He’s going to raise-up new leaders. “Deserved punishment” is not something that endlessly continues. God speaks of “restoration.” God points toward a “new community” that’s marked by justice and righteousness. He tells us that “Judah will be saved” and “Israel will live in safety.” And, as hard as it may be for us to accept it right now, that’s what we need to remember as we think about the future of Penn State.

The “offenders” are being held accountable for their actions and Jerry Sandusky will spend the rest of his life in jail. Is that enough, or will our need for justice only be satisfied through the sanctioning of a football program that’s filled with “innocent” people? Will we insist that the NCAA impose a “death penalty” that will undermine businesses in State College that are owned by “innocent” people? Will we insist upon the revoking of scholarships that have been given to “innocent” students who may not be able to attend college without financial help? If we solely focus upon creating justice by imposing penalties – when will we say, “Enough is enough”? How does the cycle of punishment end?

I am NOT saying that those who were responsible for the outrageous crimes at Penn State shouldn’t be held accountable. But I AM saying that we need to look beyond “punishment” if anything good’s going to come from this mess. I am NOT saying that we should “sweep the mess under a carpet” and “move on” as if nothing happened at Penn State. But I AM saying, “If anything good is going to rise from the ashes of this horrible mess, we need to understand that it’s NOT going to come solely through the “punishment of the offenders.”

If something good’s going to happen, it’s only going to happen after we move past the gut-level temptation to focus solely upon retribution and when we start to consider how things we have learned through this tragedy can reshape our communities. We will only find healing when we discover ways that this “tragic mess” can help us to reshape our society and help us to think about child molestation in a new way. Perhaps, the tragedy at Penn State can help us to create a “new” and “more informed” community

  • Where people are more sensitive to the fact that child molesters are all around us – and that they’re not just on the football field at Penn State
  • Where people don’t close their eyes when they know that crimes are being committed against children (or adults) because they “don’t want to get involved”
  • Where children who are molested don’t have to feel “embarrassed” to talk about what has happened to them
  • Where people are more able to “talk about things that make them feel uncomfortable,” so that the victims of sexual crimes can get the kind of help and support they deserve.
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Your Inner Beauty

The world is such a beautiful place!

I’ve been spending a lot of time outdoors this summer and I’ve been taking a lot of pictures. I’ve noticed that, when I have my camera, I see things I would otherwise miss: sunlight landing on a child’s face, a butterfly crawling on a flower, a church steeple silhouetted against the darkening sky at dusk, the twinkle in my aging dogs’ eyes. Beauty is all around us. I’ve heard that “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” but have come to see that many of us miss that beauty because we’re not very good at “beholding.” Beauty is inside of us, too. God has filled us with wonderful gifts like love and compassion, but we sometimes forget that. We’re usually hard on ourselves. We are often our own worst critic. We sometimes beat ourselves up after we do something wrong and can be unduly harsh. We can even lose sight of our “inner beauty” when people hurt us or when they try to get us to look at ourselves with a warped perspective.

Phipps Conservatory is a beautiful place to visit when you’re in Pittsburgh, PA. The displays are constantly being tended by people who have an eye for beauty. You can see a wide variety of orchids, cacti, bonsai trees, and other flowers in just a short period of time. I captured this shot of a butterfly the last time I visited Phipps. The Conservatory had converted a large room into a butterfly sanctuary. Beautiful butterflies were emerging all around me.  All I needed to do was “stop and see the butterflies.” And the same thing is true for all of us every day. Take some time, today, to “see the butterflies” that are all around you.

Many people in the church talk about something called the “image of God.” The Bible says that people were originally created in the “image of God” – but that the “image of God” (that God gave to us) was irreparably shattered when things fell apart. Christians say that people “sin” because they live in a “broken” state. Christians say that “sin” is not simply a long list of the things we do wrong – “sin” is actually a “state-of-being” that causes us to do things that are wrong. We are “broken” and in need of healing. But, the fact that we are “broken” doesn’t mean that we can’t be “beautiful,” too. We still have the capacity of love each other and to display mercy. We can still make lasting commitments to each other and stand together. We can be people who bring-out the best in others and who lift them up to new heights. We can forgive – speak a healing word – help other people to see that they’re “beautiful” – and look-past what’s “shattered” in order to embrace what’s “whole.”

One of the things we need to realize, when we’re on a journey of healing, is that people who “hurt” us do not “destroy” us. People can physically hurt our bodies and shape our perspectives with their harsh words, but they can’t destroy the “beauty” of our souls. We need to realize that the “beauty” that God pours into our hearts doesn’t just “disappear” when we’re hurt. We are still valuable people. We continue to be people who can be cherished by others and who can live a good life. We do not stop being “beautiful” simply because we experience the “bad behavior” of mean-spirited people. No one has the “right” to tell us who we are – but God.

And so, the next time you are stunned by the beauty of something you see, take a few moments to remember that you are beautiful, too. Take a few moments to remember that there is an untouchable part of your soul that is beautiful and that that part of you cannot be destroyed by the bad behavior of others. Your ability to love and express compassion are treasures that God has given to you. Your desire to have a “good life” – even after you’ve been hurt – is a sign that you haven’t been forever-destroyed and that, in fact, God’s still at work to create something good in your life. Be gentle with yourself. Focus upon things like love and compassion, mercy, and your commitments to the people who are important to you. You may have been “hurt” – but you haven’t been “destroyed.” Always remember that the “beauty” is still there!

 

(To see some of the beauty of the Phipps Conservatory’s 2012 Spring Flower show – please take a few moments to watch the video that I recently created.)

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Your “right” to have a better past….

 

“There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot-at without result.”

These words of Winston Churchill came alive last week. I was on vacation, and my fiancée and I decided to visit Gettysburg. We had, originally, planned to tour the battlefield on our bicycles and to join my sister (at the Dobbin House Tavern) for a celebration of her 50th birthday. The trip was uneventful and the parking lot at the Lutheran Theological Seminary was empty when we arrived. It was warm and sunny. My mind drifted-back to life as a seminarian. And then, quite unexpectedly, gunfire shattered the silence!

The Battle of Gettysburg was the turning-point in the American Civil War. The three-day battle (fought in 1863) was bloody! The Union and Confederate armies lost a combined total of 46,000 men. “The Peach Orchard” – “The Wheatfield” – “Devil’s Den” – and “Little Round Top” became famous. Civil War buffs still gather in Gettysburg to reenact the Battle and, for three days, the roads through the battlefield are dotted with “soldiers” dressed in blue and gray. “Soldiers” scream. Cannons break the silence. Men charge across fields. Tourists take pictures.

People who reenact famous battles enjoy it. They enjoy dressing in uniforms and facing each other in mock battles. It’s almost as if they believe that an important part of history would disappear if it wasn’t re-lived and re-experienced. Reenactors remind us of important events. Reenactors remind us that wars can occur at home. Reenactors remind us that wars are tragic. Reenactors keep history “alive.”

I suspect that we’ve all reenacted battles. We tend to remember times when we’re hurt – and we, sometimes, re-live hurts (in our minds) for many years. I suspect some of us remember harsh words. I’m sure some of us remember times of betrayal.  We say that we “forgive” others – but we, also, admit that it’s hard to “forget.” Being hurt changes us. We can find that forgiveness is elusive, especially when we continue to reenact “battles” that have created the hurt. Some of us remember hurts vividly. Some of us can’t “let go” of things that happened in the past. Sometimes, when people are hurt, they start to think that they can never be “normal” again. This kind of thinking keeps us from forgiving people. Reenacting battles keeps the war alive.

The pain was necessary to know the truth,

but we don’t have to keep the pain alive

to keep the truth alive.

I think that we make a horrible mistake when we continue to reenact “battles” in our lives to keep them from “fading-away.” We can start to believe that, if people who have hurt us don’t see what they’ve done, our suffering has been for nothing. We can begin to long for apologies that are never going to come. We can begin to live as “wounded souls” who crave the attention of others because we confuse pity with love. “Wounded souls” don’t want people to forget that they’re “wounded.” Some people who are wounded learn to define themselves by their “wounds” so completely that they stop believing that they deserve to be loved.

You see, when we’re hurt by others, healing can only begin when we “give-up our right to have a better past.” The healing of our souls begins when we realize that, even though our past wasn’t what we wanted it to be, each new day is a new and exciting beginning. In essence, we have a choice. We can continue to reenact the “battles” in our lives, or we can let go of the past and move forward. We can continue to pick-at the scabs that cover our wounds – or we can turn our eyes to the future and embrace the new life that God sets before us.

Reenactors keep history “alive.” But Reenactors, who force themselves to re-live painful battles, can put themselves through a horrible ordeal.  We cannot afford to define ourselves by our “wounds” – no matter how bad they are. When we’re hurt by others, we cannot allow those hurts to destroy us! Sometimes, in order to be healed, we need to “give-up our right to have a better past.” Sometimes, in order to be healed, we need to stop defining ourselves by the actions of those who have hurt us – and start looking to the God who wants to give us something new.

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Fossils of the Mind

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I remembered that I have a really good memory this week. I remember things that happened many years ago and things my sisters have long forgotten. I remember riding rollercoasters at Six Flags Over Texas; and climbing pyramids at Teotihuacan, Mexico. I remember standing in total awe at Bryce Canyon and riding a horse in Glacier National Park. Some things that I remember are good and some are not so good. I’ve learned that a good memory is both a blessing and a curse, and suspect that you’ve discovered that truth as well.

Ohiopyle State Park is a wonderful place to visit in Pennsylvania. I ride my bicycle to Ohiopyle almost every week during the summer. I’ve enjoyed ice cream at the Falls Market. I’ve snapped pictures of the waterfall. I’ve taken a swim in the always-cold waters of the Youghiogheny River and I’ve meandered along paths that are cut through the woods.

I discovered a Lepidodendron fossil (at Ohiopyle) last week. Lepidodendron flourished in the once-tropical climate of Pennsylvania during the Carboniferous Period (360 to 286 million years ago).  The “scale trees” grew to heights of more than 130 feet and sported heavy trunks with 6-foot diameters. Lepidodendron are extinct now. They perished when the climate changed. But the distinctive imprint of Lepidodendron bark can still be found on fossils. The earth has a long memory. The earth has a longer memory than I do.

I suppose I could have studied the Lepidodendron fossil I found – but there were other things I wanted to do. I had never been on the “other side” of the river and I wanted to take a picture of the falls from a different angle. I climbed on rocks. I talked with people. I watched for snakes along the path – because Ohiopyle is known for its copperheads and rattlesnakes. And, when I arrived at the falls, the view was spectacular!

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I’ve thought about that, many times, in the last few days. There was so much to see. God’s creation was all around me and all that I had to do was open my eyes. But, the Lepidodendron fossil was alluring. I suspect I will always be drawn to things like fossils because they remind me of times long-passed. Fossils are a way that the earth remembers its own history. Fossils are an “imprint” that the earth places on a stone – just like a memory is a “fossil” we make in our minds.

Every time something “big” happens in our lives, we create an “image” of it and we retain that “image” as a memory. We (consciously or unconsciously) make “fossils of the mind” every time something “significant” happens. And that can be good or bad because memories affect the way we look at life. Good memories support feelings of “love” and “connection” that are so important in relationships with others. Bad memories tell us we can’t “trust” others and “bond” with them. Good memories encourage us to be “open” in our relationships – while bad memories teach us that we need to be “guarded” when others draw near. Fossils are a way that the earth remembers its history for millions of years.  Memories are a way that we fossilize significant events for a lifetime.

But you will, also, notice something else if you look at this picture of the Lepidodendron fossil. The fossil has started to fade. Time and the forces of nature have worked-on this fossil and the “image” has changed. This fossil, in fact, shows us that even the earth doesn’t have a permanent memory. “Images of the past” can be washed-away with the passing of time. And God brings healing into our lives in the very same way. The passing of time can help “images of the past” to fade. God’s healing power can heal wounds, and empower us to move forward with new energy. We need to remember that even a “long memory” doesn’t have to be “permanent.” There’s a difference between “remembering the past” and allowing the past to continually shape our “today” in an unproductive way.

So, what kinds of “fossils” have you created? How do memories of the past shape your present? Do you have some “fossils” that need to fade – or even be erased – by the God who’s at work in your life?  Can you see the difference between “remembering the past” and allowing “fossils” to continue to shape your “present” in unhelpful ways?

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Letting Others In

ImageI’ve recently been thinking about boundaries and fences and walls. I’ve thought about healthy boundaries that I’ve created to shape my relationships and to protect me from the bad behavior of others. I’ve thought about relationships that were changed by my “lines in the sand.”  I’ve thought about people who didn’t honor my boundaries because they didn’t respect me. And I’ve thought about “fences and walls” that are probably bigger and stronger than they need to be – and that even interfere with relationships I cherish. With all of those things in mind, I decided to visit a fort.

Fort Ligonier is located in the beautiful mountains of Pennsylvania – about 50 miles east of Pittsburgh. The fort was originally built in 1758, and was designed to serve as a supply depot for British-American soldiers who were determined to capture Fort Duquesne during the French and Indian War. George Washington spent time at the fort. Today, we also know that General John Forbes named this place “Fort Ligonier” in honor of his superior, Sir John Ligonier.

The “fences and walls” at Fort Ligonier are impressive! The Fort’s boundaries are made of wood and they are topped with long, wooden spikes. Visitors will also notice some holes in the walls. But, at each of those little holes, there is a cannon that is ready to “fire back” at folks who try to attack. The Fort is secure. People who lived at Fort Ligonier were safely protected from those who wanted to hurt them. And that’s good – at least when you’re trying to defend yourself in the midst of battle. But “walls and fences” aren’t very helpful when you need food, are they?  The great, wooden walls could even separate you from other soldiers who are trying to defend you! And that’s why there are gates at Fort Ligonier. Gates can be closed when times are bad and they can be opened in good times. Gates are holes we create in the midst of “boundaries”; so that, we have choices. Gates can be tightly locked to defend us from attacks and inappropriate behaviors. Gates can, also, be unlocked – or even opened – when we want relationships to grow. And the best part about “gates” is that we control them. We can choose to be “selectively vulnerable” even after we’ve been hurt by others. And that’s good to know – because it reminds us that, even after we’ve been hurt, we don’t have to be alone.

God tells us, in the story of Creation, that it’s not good for us to be alone. I’ve often told people that I know far more “good people” than “bad people.” I enjoy close friendships.  I’ve watched people stand beside me in difficult times. I’ve celebrated times of great joy with others as I’ve baptized newborns, participated in weddings, worked with children, and enjoyed holidays with my friends and family. Oh, yes! I’ve met some “clunkers.” I’ve been poked in the eye.  My toes have been crunched. I, just like you, have been hurt.  But, I’m not ready to close the gates forever. I’m not willing to withdraw from others so completely that I find myself “alone” in the midst of caring people. That’s not God’s plan! That’s not how God wants me to live.  And, guess what? That’s not how God wants you to live, either. Our lives can be tremendously enriched by others. We are created to be people who are connected to each other. Gates can be opened and closed.  And even when we’re deeply hurt by the “bad people” in our world, we need to remember that the world is filled with “good people,” too.

We all need healthy boundaries. We all need to be able to build strong houses that protect us from the Big Bad Wolf. And, when we find ourselves in a difficult relationship, those boundaries and fences and walls need to be strong because we need to be protected.  But, we also need to remember the importance of gates. We can’t built a fort that “seals-out” the rest of the world simply because we’ve been hurt by other people in the past.

Fort Ligonier served a wonderful purpose. But, Fort Ligonier’s walls contained gates that could be opened and closed at the appropriate time. Do you have “solid walls” or “walls with gates”? How do you actively protect yourself from “bad people” in the world – while remaining open to relationships that God wants you to share with “good people”?

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Looking for Your Response

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Living Behind Walls

ImageI’ll never claim to be a photographer, but I’ve always liked to take pictures. My life as a pseudo-photographer began when my parents gave me a Kodak “Instamatic” camera (without film) and encouraged me to take thousands of pictures of the American West. I still remember film and flash cubes. I’ve watched Polaroid pictures “develop” before my eyes. But now, I’ve gone digital. My Nikon D90 is really more than I need. My Nikon D90 has “bells and whistles” I’ll never use. But even knowing that, I bought a new lens for my camera this week and, right after that, I went to the zoo.

The zoo is a great place to take pictures! The monkeys just hang in the trees and the rhinos are almost motionless. I saw a blue lobster, a polar bear, several gorillas, and a few lions. The tigers slept. A baboon yawned. The camel said, “Cheese!” And the kids – thousands of kids – were the only things that roamed freely. The animals were behind walls and fences. Majestic beasts that roam freely in other parts of the world didn’t seem to care that they were confined. I guess, over time, they got used to it. Perhaps, they got used to living that way in the same way that people get used to it – especially after they’ve been hurt.

I’ve never liked being hurt. I’ve been wounded by nasty words, and I’ve been physically hurt by people who were supposed to love me. I’ve been verbally attacked and humiliated in front of friends. I’ve been betrayed. I’ve been viciously stabbed in the back by other Christians. I was, once, dragged into the middle of an ugly divorce by a dysfunctional woman who thought she loved me. I was clubbed with a purse, and when I asked the woman who clubbed me (at a psychiatric hospital) why she did it – she responded, “Because I know pastors forgive people.”

We all respond to being hurt in different ways. Some of us fight back with ugly words. Some of us get into blow-for-blow physical fights. Some people learn to simply accept abuse and live with it – believing they “deserve” it. Still other folks – folks like me – withdraw. We put up fences and learn to live behind walls. We hide our deepest thoughts and feelings from the rest of the world, so that we can feel “safe.” We, sometimes, get so used to living behind walls and fences that we forget that we can live in a different way. And that confuses people. People can find it hard to get “close” to us. People who love us can feel “distant.” Quite frankly, people who live behind emotional walls and fences don’t like the “distance” either. I suspect that animals in a zoo long for something more “natural.” But, once they’ve lived a large part of their lives behind walls and fences, they redefine what “natural” means to them. People do that, too. When we learn to respond to the “hurts” in our lives by building walls and fences, we begin to lose touch with what God created us to be. And the saddest part about it is that, when we do that, we lose sight of the fact that our lives can be lived in a very different and much more satisfying way.

So, how do you respond when others hurt you? Do you fight back with ugly words? Have you ever gotten into a blow-for-blow physical fight? Are you a person who has learned to simply accept abuse and live with it – maybe even believing that you “deserve” it? Are you a person who builds walls and fences in life – and who, then, hides behind them to feel “safe”?

The picture at the top of this post is one of the photos I took this week.  The monkey is well-fed and lives at the zoo.  It seems to be content.  It’s learned to live behind a wall and fence, and it’s learned to look cute when people take a picture. But, the monkey would probably be happier in a lush, green forest. It’s learned to be “content” at the zoo because it has lost sight of the fact that life can be lived in a different way. Has that happened to you? Are you living behind self-created walls and fences? Do you really want to live that way? Or, would you be much happier if some of those walls and fences could be taken away?

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Three Pigs and a Wolf

Once upon a time, there were three little pigs. Their mother, like most mothers, wanted her kids to be happy. She taught them what she thought they needed to know. She invested time and energy in raising them. She taught them about the dangers of the Big Bad Wolf. And, when she thought her little piglets were ready, she sent them into the world with her blessing.

And we all know how the story unfolds, don’t we? One piglet builds a house of straw. Another builds a house of sticks.  The last piglet – the one we’re supposed to admire – builds his house out of rock-hard mortar and bricks.

One day, while the little piglets were singing and dancing in the woods, the Big Bad Wolf came along, chased them into the homes, and tried to get them to come out. “Little pig, little pig, let me come in,” the wolf howled. And the little pigs said, “Not by the hair on my chinny, chin chin.”  “Then I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house in,” said the wolf.  And that’s what he did. Hurricane-force winds sent straw flying through the woods. Another “huff and puff” sent sticks in every direction. But the “huffs and puffs” of the Big Bad Wolf couldn’t destroy the brick house, could they? And, as simple as that story seems to be, we must always remember that it has a lesson to teach us about life and about healthy relationships with other people.

I’ve already told you that I’m, generally, a person who tries to find something good in people. I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt and I try to look past their flaws.  I believe that most people try to do their best in life and that most of us don’t try to intentionally hurt others. But we’ve all met the Big Bad Wolf, haven’t we? We’ve all met people who “huff and puff.” They might do it because they’re angry. They might “huff and puff” at us because they’re sick.  They might hurt others because they’ve been hurt. But the effect is always the same. Big Bad Wolves leave a trail of wounded souls. Big Bad Wolves put negative “fingerprints” on people. Big Bad Wolves strip-away people’s dignity and beat people down without mercy. And the damage that Big Bad Wolves cause in the lives of other people can last a lifetime – and can even be passed, unknowingly, to the next generation.

I’m sure that, at some point, we’ve all heard about something called “boundaries.”  A “boundary” is a line we draw in the sand. A “boundary” tells other people how they’re allowed to treat us. A “boundary” might tell people they’re not allowed to physically hurt us. Another “boundary” might clarify what kind of language people can use when they speak to us. “Boundaries” tell others how we expect to be treated when we are in a relationship with them. A “boundary” might even make it clear that, if a particular thing happens while we’re in a relationship with another person, the relationship will end.

A great lesson that we can learn from the story of the Three Little Pigs is one that teaches us that, when we find ourselves in unhealthy relationships, we need to keep our “boundaries” both strong and clear. When the Big Bad Wolf begins to howl, straw “boundaries” are blown away. The “huffs and puffs” of the Big Bad Wolf can even rip apart healthy “boundaries” that we create in life – if they are not strong enough. Unhealthy people always try to cross the lines we draw in the sand. Unhealthy people don’t respect limits. Unhealthy people don’t listen to us when we tell them that they’ve gone too far. Unhealthy people don’t respect “boundaries” we create in life – because, on the bottom line, they don’t respect us.

What are some “boundaries” you’ve created? What “healthy limits” do you place upon the behavior of others to keep them from hurting you? Are you in a relationship with a person, right now, where the “boundaries” need to be clarified – or more clearly enforced – to create the health and stability you crave? Are you in a relationship (with a Big Bad Wolf) that needs to change if it’s going to last – and, if that’s true, how could putting some clear “boundaries” in place help things to move in the right direction?

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