Dealing with Contempt

I belong to a spiritual formation group that meets on Monday mornings.  Five women gather on Zoom, first because of COVID restrictions and now because it is just easier to meet without traveling. We follow an outline provided by Renovare which focuses on the seven spiritual disciplines as outlined by Richard Foster in his seminal book, Celebration of Disciplines: Contemplative (The Prayer-filled life), Holiness (The Virtuous Life), Charismatic, (the Spirit-Empowered Life), Social Justice (The Compassionate Life), Evangelical (The Word-Centered Life), and Incarnational (The Sacramental Life). Each week each of  us shares our experiences (and sometime adventures) with one (or more) of the disciplines.

All of us are political animals, so the last few years of American politics have been very difficult. Especially after the events of January 6, our discussions often focus on how we as Christ-followers should respond to the divisive and mean-spirited nature of political actions and discussions.

Recently, hoping for inspiration, I began reading a new book, Following the Call, Living the Sermon on the Mount Together, published by Plough Publishing House and edited by Charles E. Moore. It features essays by more than a hundred of the most well-known and well-read Christian authors who have lived and written during several centuries.

Last week I was reminded about my attitude toward people with whom I seriously disagree.  Now I was struggling with my anger and disgust and contempt with the actions of Vladimir Putin as he made war on the country of Ukraine. I began reading  new section of Following the Call and found these words of Jesus in Matthew 5:21-22:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with brother or sister will be subject.  Anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool! will be in danger of the fire of hell.'” (p.94)

The first essay on this topic of anger was written by Dallas Willard, a writer and theologian who changed my life years ago. I eagerly read what he had to say about anger. He first pointed out that the Aramaic term “raca” was current in Jesus day “to express contempt for someone and to mark him or her as contemptible.” He points out that “‘raca’ may have “originated from the sound one makes to collect spittle from the throat in order to spit” (an appropriate sign of contempt, I thought).

Willard then differentiates between anger and contempt:

“In anger I want to hurt you. In contempt, I don’t care whether you are hurt or not. Or at least so I say.  You are not worth consideration one way or the other (bolding mine) We can be angry at someone without denying their worth. But contempt makes it easier to hurt them or see them further degraded. . . . . The intent and effect of contempt is always to exclude someone, push them away, and leave them out and isolated. . . . In the course of normal life one is rarely in a situation where contempt is not hovering in the wings. And everyone lives in terror of it  . . . . Contemptuous actions and attitudes are a knife in the heart that permanently harms and mutilates peoples souls.  (p. 95-96)

I cannot begin to describe how convicted I was by these words, I do not want to put a knife in anyone’s heart! So much so that when our Monday morning meeting came, I could not wait to share Willard’s words . . . and confess.

A long discussion followed about how we avoid contempt, how we deal with our sins of contempt, how we live in an evil world where contempt seems so appropriate. We struggled with all of it.  Then one of the members of the group remembered a prayer she had read about the situation in Ukraine by the Rev. George de Vuyst, a missionary in Ukraine with the Christian Reformed missions agency Resonate Global Mission who is currently on home service in the U.S. The entire prayer is beautifully meaningful, but the lines that struck our group were:

“Lord, we pray for Vladimir Putin. We pray that you would change his heart and work your miracle of salvation in his life. If he continues in his wicked ways, we pray that you would restrain his evil and have mercy on those who suffer because of it.

I was so thankful! This was an answer to my dilemma: a meaningful prayer which will help me avoid the sin of contempt, a prayer which calls up on God to do what all my contempt can never do for anyone:  change his heart, work your miracle of salvation, and restrain his evil.  All my angry thoughts and words of contempt will never restrain anyone’s evil; only God can do that. My contempt will only harm me. I must leave this to God – and work to help the victims of evil instead instead of cursing those who cause it.

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From My Reading – February

“As I see it, in other words, God acts in history and in your and my brief histories not as the puppeteer who sets the scene and works the strings but rather as the great director who no matter what role fate casts us in conveys to us somehow from the wings, if we have our eyes, ears, hearts open and sometimes even if we don’t, how we can play those roles in a way to enrich and ennoble and hallow the whole vast drama of things including our own small but crucial parts in it” (Frederick Buechner in from Telling Secrets).

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“Choosing gratitude doesn’t just help us transform our bad fortune.  It also helps us integrate our good fortune” (Sage Cohen)

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“As long as we belong to this world, we will remain subject to its competitive ways and expect to be rewarded for all the good we do. But when we belong to God, who loves us without conditions, we can live as he does. The great conversion called for by Jesus is to move from belonging to the world to belonging to God”  (Henri Nouwen).

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“Inspiration is not about some disembodied ethereal voice dictating words or notes to a catatonic host. It’s a collaborative process, a holy give-and-take, a partnership between Creator and creator. . . . God is still breathing. The Bible is both inspired and inspiring. Our job is to ready the sails and gather the embers, to discuss and debate, and like the biblical character Jacob, to wrestle with the mystery until God gives us a blessing” (Rachel Held).

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“If you irritated by every rub, how will you be polished?” (Rumi).

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“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals.  Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others” (Pema Chodron).

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Chickens and Roosters – Guest Post by Coral Swieringa

A few weeks ago, I had some time free from caregiving, and walked through Dittos [a thrift shop]. I found a colorful metal rooster that I knew had to come home with me. There has been this connection in a way, with Les and me to chickens. I never loved them growing up on the farm; I actually detested gathering the eggs from under a “brooding” hen. But when my children were growing up, I had sewn a blue calico chicken that I stuffed into a nice fat hen, and she took her nest in a basket on the wall of the kitchen. She was part of our decor.

That was where she was supposed to stay, but the kids decided to use her in a game of “keep away” from Mom many times after mealtime. Somewhere along in my life, chickens and roosters began to be part of every house decor. Les felt quite differently about growing up with chickens. When he worked on a farm, tending the chickens was one of his favorite chores. In fact, he had one that became a pet, and she would sit on his lap while he petted her.

So when chickens appeared after we married, he critiqued each one and some became his favorites. After the loss of our house to fire, I had to find a few chickens to bring back the country in each of us. In spite of his dementia, Les would often look to the top of the kitchen cupboards to see how they were faring, and he would smile.

This past Monday, Les was admitted to a nursing home. Not because of serious changes with him, but because every joint in my body was crying out that I couldn’t keep lifting him. My own body had quit on me. It had denied me my promise to keep him home until death parts us. I hated it.

The house is empty now. His hospital bed stands in the second bedroom, but it’s empty too. I cleaned up all the other equipment we used and moved it today to the garage. It was while I was in the garage that I remembered I had never brought in the new rooster from the back seat of the car. I picked him up, grabbed the ladder, and found a place on top of the cupboards. He’s a colorful bird and stands tall and proud up there. But I look at him now, and I feel sad that Les won’t notice him there and smile. Such a silly little thing to ponder, but it becomes a symbol of what is yet to come.

Oh, Les didn’t talk much anymore, he didn’t laugh out loud, he didn’t help with anything around the house. He didn’t tell any stories. He couldn’t remember the name of the farmer who owned the farm where he had fallen in love with chickens. But he was present. Perhaps it was caring for him that gave me a purpose. He was the man I had loved for 27 years, and he was no longer here.

Tonight, I was told by a friend who had just come from a visit, that Les was in a fit of agitation when he visited. He couldn’t be quieted or reasoned with for well over 40 minutes. He had never seen anything like that with Les before. I had coped with a few episodes like it. But hearing it now leaves me sad. The nurses told our friend that when I leave, that’s when Les gets agitated. What do I do with that? I’m not there. I can do nothing from here to help.

I know that all the roosters on the cupboard will never bring my man back here to enjoy them with me and smile. All the roosters in the world cannot halt this process of aging that messes with the mind, distorts our space, and takes away the ability to cope. And all the roosters cannot take away the reality of my own aging arthritic body. Chickens and roosters: a simple symbol of the losses that I now feel and perceive are coming.  But as sure as the cock crows in the A.M., I too will have to walk through and experience this and many more losses.

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I’m Back – Part 3

January 27, 2022 was a momentous day! My blood draw earlier that month had revealed the news that the chemo might no longer be working to combat my multiple myeloma.  If the numbers continued to get worse my oncologist had said he might have to stop the chemo.  As we sat in the crowded examining room, my son and I took deep breaths as the doctor began his report. The “numbers” on my latest  blood draw were better, enough of a change that I could continue with chemo – at least for another month – because it seems to be working.

About a week earlier there had been other good news. Taking me off an oral medication that is part of my chemo “cocktail” seemed to have cured the constant dizziness and  shaky limbs that had nearly incapacitated me for weeks.  I could even read again (two 500-page books that week!)  And now I can walk short distances without my walker and stand without fear of falling backwards.  I’m even beginning to get my appetite back, although very little tastes good at this point.

One thing has not changed.  Several weeks ago, after my last fall, I agreed to have a local agency provide an assistant for three days a week from 9-11 a.m.  The idea was to help me get started with my day (without falling) and provide companionship and cleaning and shopping assistance.  Now this service has been reduced to only two days a week and that will end at the end of February.  If my health stays the same, I am sure I won’t need help after that.

However, one issue has still been bothering me.  Here I am sitting in a recliner much of the day and not contributing a thing to the world – after a lifetime of active service.  I know that the fear of being sidelined bothers many of my friends who are my age. We talk about it often:  how are we supposed to handle this guilt?

One of the services the agency provides is “companionship.” One of my helpers loves to chat, so we spend a lot of time being companions. On her first day, she learned that my late husband was Black and asked to see some pictures. Most of our pictures were informal shots from the first five years of our life together, so I gave her a handful of those.  After she looked at them, she said, “You know I am 28 and whenever I think of racism, I think of the Civil War. Did you two experience racism?”

Did we!!! I spent the next hour dredging up the stories I thought she could relate to and she sat, big-eyed, and listening avidly.  When I finally stopped, she said, “You know I was never taught about racism and prejudice.  Thank you for sharing your life!”

While she was dusting the next time she came, she said, “I talked to my parents about your experiences with Fred. They lived for a long time in Oak Park, Illinois, so I asked them if they ever heard stories like yours.” Of course, they had.  They started sharing them with her and her 17-year-old-brother.  “Why didn’t you tell us any of this before?  We didn’t know,” they each said.

The next time she came, she said, “Since we talked, I’ve thought  a lot about you and Fred.  I am now noticing a lot people of other races in our town  and bi-racial couples as well, and I wonder how their lives are going. I hope I can somehow learn a lot more about them.

The third time she came, she immediately settled comfortably in the big blue recliner. No need to vacuum until she had gotten something off her chest. “I’ve been thinking about how to teach my daughter about racism” she confessed.  (She is about 24 weeks pregnant and very excited to meet her baby.)  She had obviously been mulling this over about this quite a bit, because she quickly rattled off the things she would tell her child not to do or not to say or not to think.

I finally said, “Maybe don’t bring up things not to do. Instead model for her and help her understand what you would like her to do: treat everyone the same; welcome people who seem different into her life and get to know them; share her experiences with anyone who wants to get to know her.”

“Oh, that’s a great idea,” she said. “That’s how I will raise her!”

I probably will never see this young woman again; she was working the third day of the week – the shift I canceled.  But I am so grateful to her for showing me that I still have something to give, something to share, something to offer even if I can’t teach a class or volunteer to tutor, or work in a food bank.  My friends and I have a lifetime of experiences, both good and bad, and we can trust that God will bring opportunities to share what we have learned about living in God’s world and with God’s children.

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I’m Back – part 2

On  October 17, 2021, after a long absence from blogging, I posted “I’m Back” a piece about my experience with severe illness.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t back for long. For several months, I have been undergoing chemotherapy for multiple myeloma, an uncurable blood cancer.  Multiple health issues, from infections to general weakness, to lack of appetite and inability to taste whatever I could make myself eat, to unstable blood sugar made life miserable. Build up in fluids required tight velcro stockings on my legs. I fell, hard, five times, once flat on my back on a concrete driveway. My son became a pro in getting me back on my feet after watching the EMTs pick me up using a sheet.  One of the most unusual issues was that I couldn’t read; I knew what the words were but just couldn’t make sense of what they were telling me. The worst symptoms were a debilitating and constant dizziness and times of mental confusion.

To counteract some of these side effects, I had several changes in medication, to no avail.  Finally early in January my cancer doctor took away a pill that was part of a cocktail of medication making up the chemotherapy. He explained that while this would weaken the effect of the chemo, the injection of medication I get would still be effective.  Since the two pages that listed the side effects of this medication included “extreme dizziness” and “confusion,” this pill was my top candidate for causing these problems. I was right. After about three weeks without the pill, the dizziness wafted away, as did the confusion. My son celebrated by claiming, “We’ve got mom back.”

I was happy to be back!  However, there is still a chance that the chemo will have to be stopped.  One number in the test results is getting worse; if that continues, it means the chemo is ineffective and will end.  The doctor said there are “more things we can try” if that happens.  My mind heard, “and more horrible side effects to be endured.”

In my first “I’m Back,” I wrote about how my life was full of gratitude.  It still is, perhaps more than ever!  But recently I read a chapter in the book Following the Call, Living the Sermon on the Mount Together, a compilation of writings on the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount by  dozens of people, gathered by Charles E. Moore and published by Plough Publishing House.  This piece, written by Philip Yancy, quoted a list of the “advantages” to being poor by Monika Hellwig. Here are a few of those advantages: realizing you are in need of redemption; understanding your dependence on God and on one another; being able to distinguish between necessities and luxuries, being able to wait because you have acquired a “dogged patience” born of constant dependence.

I read the entire list of the advantages of poverty several times in the next few days and realized that the same advantages can be found and appreciated by people who are sick. Severe and prolonged illness can result in a grateful acceptance of medication, of treatment, and of a doctor’s words caring words.  It can cultivate an appreciation of the days that are still left.  It can teach us to cherish the friends and family who steadfastly care for and about us. Illness can bring joy in a card or note, in a phone call, a text, or a visit – a  joy that can last for days.  It can foster an ability to “wait and see,” to live the proverbial “one day at a time,” to be calm in the face of bad news.

What I am learning is that a way of life that seems horrible – like living in poverty or experiencing a prolonged illness  –  has its own mercies and  joys.  We can respond with a certain abandonment to whatever life comes our way if we look for the blessings from God in it.

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From My Reading – January, 2022

“If the early church preached and practiced what I preach and practice, would there be a church today?” (Dallas Willard).

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“They [people in AA] also have slogans, which you can either dismiss as hopelessly simplistic or cling on to like driftwood in a stormy sea. One of them is “Let go and let God”—which is so easy to say and for people like me so far from easy to follow. Let go of the dark, which you wrap yourself in like a straitjacket, and let in the light. Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you—your children’s lives, the lives of your husband, your wife, your friends—because that is just what you are powerless to do. Remember that the lives of other people are not your business. They are their business. They are God’s business because they all have God whether they use the word God or not. Even your own life is not your business. It also is God’s business. Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought” (Frederick Buechner in Telling Secrets.)

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“Any amount of regret changes the past. No amount of anxiety changes the future. Any amount of gratitude changes the present” (Ann Voskamp).

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“Christmas means that there are no insignificant or pointless lives. It means that the events and choices of an average day can carry eternal significance. It means that a journey of meaning and purpose – a life of courage and generosity – can begin from whatever desolate place we find ourselves . . . . Even lives that feel relentlessly ordinary or hopeless-ly broken are vessels of divine purpose” (Michael Gerson, The Washington Post).

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“What separates privilege from entitlement is gratitude” (Brene Brown).

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“I am beginning to now see how radically the character of my spiritual journey will change when I no longer think of God as hiding out and making it as difficult as possible for me to find him, but, instead, as the One who is looking for me while I am doing the hiding”(Henri Nouwen).

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“For if we genuinely love Him, we wake up inside Christ’s body

where all our body, all over it, every most hidden part of it, is realized in joy as Him, and He makes us, utterly real,

and everything that is hurt, everything that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful, maimed, ugly, irreparably damaged is in Him transformed

and recognized as whole, as lovely and radiant in His light.  We awaken as the Beloved in every last part of our body” (Symeon the New Theologian – 9949-1022).”

 

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From My Reading – December

“I remember watching someone desperately pour out a question to my dad [Richard Foster]: ​What do you do when your pursuing God feels empty and dry? What do you do when you’re lost in pain, mystery, and God seems completely absent?” Very simply he replied, ​The same thing you do when all is going your way. You remain faithful and obedient” (Nathan Foster in the Renovare Weekly Digest, September 17, 2021).

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“In a time of destruction, create something: a poem, a parade, a community, a school, a vow a moral principle; one peaceful moment.  (Maxine Hong Kingston).

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“Freudians and Jungians, prophets and poets, philosophers, fortunetellers, and phonies all have their own claims about what dreams mean. Others claim they don’t mean a thing. But there are at least two things they mean that seem incontrovertible.

One of them is that we are in constant touch with a world that is as real to us while we are in it, and has as much to do with who we are, and whose ultimate origin and destiny are as unknown and fascinating, as the world of waking reality. The other one is that our lives are a great deal richer, deeper, more intricately interrelated, more mysterious, and less limited by time and space than we commonly suppose.

People who tend to write off the validity of the religious experience in general and the experience of God in particular on the grounds that in the Real World they can find no evidence” (Frederick Buechner).

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” It’s possible to trace the movement of Christianity from its earliest days until now. In Israel, Jesus and the early “church” offered people an experience; it moved to Greece, and it became a philosophy. When it moved to Rome and Constantinople, it became organized religion. Then it spread to Europe, and it became a culture. Finally, it moved to North America and became a business. This isn’t much of an exaggeration, if it’s an exaggeration at all. The original desire or need for a “Jesus” experience was lost, and not even possible for most people. Experience, philosophy, organized religion, culture, business—in each of those permutations and iterations, Christianity was seen as above criticism. It simply was the religion, the philosophy, the culture. (Richard Rohr in Daily Meditation for October 18 2021).

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“In the bigger scheme of things the universe is not asking us to do something, the universe is asking us to be something. And that’s a whole different thing.” (Lucille Clifton)

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From My Reading – November

“Here is the principle: We can only transform people to the degree that we have been transformed. We can only lead others as far as we ourselves have gone. We have no ability to affirm or to communicate to another person that they are good or special until we know it strongly ourselves. Once we get our own “narcissistic fix,” as I call it, then we can stop worrying about being center stage. We then have plenty of time and energy to promote other people’s empowerment and specialness. Only beloved people can pass on belovedness” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, July 4, 2021).

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“In the Christian sense, love is not primarily an emotion but an act of the will. When Jesus tells us to love our neighbors, he is not telling us to love them in the sense of responding to them with a cozy emotional feeling. You can as well produce a cozy emotional feeling on demand as you can a yawn or a sneeze. On the contrary, he is telling us to love our neighbors in the sense of being willing to work for their well-being even if it means sacrificing our own well-being to that end, even if it means sometimes just leaving them alone. Thus in Jesus’ terms we can love our neighbors without necessarily liking them. In fact liking them may stand in the way of loving them by making us overprotective sentimentalists instead of reasonably honest friends. 

When Jesus talked to the Pharisees, he didn’t say, “There, there. Everything’s going to be all right.” He said, “You brood of vipers! how can you speak good when you are evil!” (Matthew 12:34). And he said that to them because he loved them.  

This does not mean that liking may not be a part of loving, only that it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes liking follows on the heels of loving. It is hard to work for somebody’s well-being very long without coming in the end to rather like him too” (Frederic Buechner, originally published in Wishful Thinking).

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“Maybe it’s not that there are two places beyond the door of death, heaven and hell. Sometimes I wonder if hell is just what heaven feels like for those who haven’t learned in this life what this life is intended to teach. I believe with all my heart that God is not willing for even one person to miss out on the joy and glories of heaven. . . . We are becoming on this side of the door of death the kind of people we will be on the other side” (Brian McClaren quoted by Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations (September, 17, 2001).

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“I want to say to you that most of our brokenness cannot be simply taken away. It’s there. And the deepest pain that you and I suffer is often the pain that stays with us all our lives. It cannot be simply solved, fixed, done away with. . . . What are we then told to do with that pain, with that brokenness, that anguish, that agony that continually rises up in our heart? We are called to embrace it, to befriend it. To not just push it away . . . to walk right over it, to ignore it. No, to embrace it, to befriend it, and say that is my pain and I claim my pain as the way God is willing to show me his love” (Henri Nouwen).

 

 

 

 

 

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