Sorting Through the Mess: A Thoughtful Perspective on the Division in America

You know how you feel in December when you pull out the boxes of Christmas decorations and attempt to sort out a million different strands of hopelessly tangled lights? As my husband says, it’s enough to make a Christian want to cuss!

Yeah, that’s how my heart feels right now. 

George Floyd. Ahmaud Arbery. The Media. Riots. Police officers. Pandemic. Politics. To mask or not to mask. 

So many things twisted together, all tangled up in a great big mess.

I am hesitant to even write about it because I’m not sure I can do justice to such important issues. While I know some of my thoughts may not be popular and I’m okay with that, I desperately want to avoid being misunderstood or causing pain to friends who are fearful or grieving. 

And yet, writing is how I best process my thoughts. I am sharing only in the hopes that it will give voice to some of your own thoughts, too, and help untangle this mess in your heart just a little bit.

My first thought is to recognize it is both possible and acceptable to feel multiple emotions at one time.

The sun can shine while it’s storming. People can laugh while they’re crying. You can respect and admire a friend, yet disagree with their perspective. We can deeply love our children and want them to leave us alone, all at the same time. 

I feel sickened by the video of George Floyd. I am angry at the police officers involved, both the one who killed him and those who stood by watching. I feel compassion for so many friends who fear for the lives of their husbands and sons, simply because they were born with black skin. I also fear for the majority of our law-enforcement who constantly place themselves in danger in order to protect lives, and are now in further personal danger because of the horrible choices of some who share their badge.

I grieve for those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 and I sympathize with those who are at risk and afraid, as well as those who have lost their jobs and their businesses. At the same time, I recognize the deception and manipulation on display from every side- disguised as protection, of all things- protection of health, of rights, of the vulnerable, of businesses. Sure, there is truth in all of it, but those seeds of truth are being twisted into whatever happens to benefit the “twister” the most. It frustrates and exhausts me. 

As humans, we are not always sure what to do with conflicting emotions. So often we tend to focus on one and ignore the others because it just seems easier that way. 

But I have found that in life, the easier way is rarely the best way.

However, this is our instinct- to focus on one emotion, in ourselves or in those we view as opposing us, because then we are able to react. More than anything, our difficult feelings hate to be contained and cry out for action. It is much easier to projectile vomit our pain and opinions onto others than to process it amidst the quieter, seemingly contradicting voices in our heads. And when we hyper-focus on one emotion, we tend to lose perspective; we lose sight of our friendships, we lose sight of how God is working, and eventually, we lose our hope.

Setting aside the strand of conflicting emotions, I reach into the tangled mess of lights and pull out another thought: how easily we are manipulated by the power of suggestion. 

I recently saw an article which illustrated this perfectly. It was written by a photographer who was showing how easily we are misled by what we see (and I would suggest hear, feel, etc.). The author used a series of side-by-side photos taken of the exact same images from the exact same angles, but using different lenses. It was truly fascinating! In one photo, it was obvious people were standing several feet apart from one another on a sidewalk, but with the other lens, they appeared to be almost touching.  Another photo showed people spread out all across a park, while the same image using the other lens made it look like they were gathered together in a crowd. The dichotomy continued, image after image. The crazy thing was, if you only saw one photo, you would swear it was reality. No one would be able to convince you differently; we trust our senses so completely. 

The power of suggestion is so much stronger than we realize.

I believe Satan is using this tool to divide us now more than ever. Each of us sees things so clearly from our own perspective that there is no room for anyone to give us a different view of the same image. We forget we all view reality through our own specific lens, and that someone else’s lens is not necessarily wrong- it’s just not the whole picture. 

And neither is ours. 

The truth is only found in the absence of lenses, which often rests in the eyes of God alone. Our best hope is to recognize our own lens and compare our differing perspectives with others in hopes of getting a little closer to the truth. 

I will be honest- I am easily led by my emotions.  Those of you who know me now may not believe that, but if you knew me in my high school and college years, this does not surprise you. My instinct is to react on emotion, but having learned this about myself over the years, I try to be intentional about pausing.  Giving myself time to calm down, gather information, and process different perspectives enables me to respond more helpfully to a situation rather than just react on emotion. It gives me time to employ “critical thinking,” which can be defined as follows:

Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally about what to do or what to believe. It includes the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking. Someone with critical thinking skills is able to do the following:

  • understand the logical connections between ideas
  • identify, construct and evaluate arguments
  • detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning
  • solve problems systematically
  • identify the relevance and importance of ideas
  • reflect on the justification of one’s own beliefs and values

Critical thinking is not a matter of accumulating information. A person with a good memory and who knows a lot of facts is not necessarily good at critical thinking. A critical thinker is able to deduce consequences from what he knows, and he knows how to make use of information to solve problems, and to seek relevant sources of information to inform himself.”

https://philosophy.hku.hk/think/critical/ct.php

Critical thinking looks past the headlines, past our emotions, and past our desire to blame someone and validate our opinion. It seeks the TRUTH, even at our own expense. 

And honestly, that’s not something we value much in America any more.

No, it is easier for us to look at school shootings and decide the problem is, say, too many guns. But if we research it further, we would find that areas with the tightest gun control have some of the most shootings. And while gun laws may certainly be part of the answer, by focusing on that alone we miss so many other pieces of the puzzle, like mental health issues, bullying, family dynamics, and the desensitizing of violent video games.

It is easier to look at the problems in education and blame it all, perhaps, on the curriculum. Obviously, we’ve seen through Common Core (and No Child Left Behind, and standardized testing, and…) that focusing blame on just one area does not fix the problem. Meanwhile, we ignore the lack of resources for teachers, the abundance of paperwork, the impact of home-life on student performance, the rapid integration of non-English speaking students, and discipline and behavior challenges in the classroom. 

It is easy to look at the Coronavirus and decide sheltering in place and mask wearing are the only viable solutions. But doing so ignores the devastating impact of job losses, deaths from other factors due to not seeking medical attention, increases in suicides, rampant child abuse, addiction relapses, and the fact that cloth and surgical masks provide almost zero protection for anyone from air-borne viruses like COVID-19 (bacteria, other germs, yes, but not viruses. If you can breathe through the mask without a filter, you are exhaling and inhaling the virus right through it.) The answer, therefore, is simply not as easy as it seems. By ignoring other factors, we may actually be making the problem worse.

And it is easy to look at various acts of racism and blame policemen or a corrupt justice system or the history of racism in our country. And while all of those may certainly be part of the problem, there are other factors- some very difficult to discuss and address- that greatly affect the issue. I had a black pastor friend tell me years ago that racism in America will never get better until the black community takes responsibility for the ways they contribute to the problem and quit both blaming the “white man” and expecting him to fix everything. Those same words out of my mouth would mean very little, but his sentiment has since been echoed by other other black friends as well (all my age or older). These wise and compassionate leaders have a front row seat and valuable perspectives, but they do not offer easy solutions, so their voices are rarely heard.

Please hear me- this in no way removes responsibility from the people who have committed horrible or foolish crimes. And it does not negate that there are major changes that should be made to various systems in America, particularly in certain areas. 

Instead, I am implying that as long as we ignore our contradicting voices, as long as we are easily persuaded by the power of suggestion, if we continue to react on emotion instead of thinking critically and engaging all aspects of a certain issue, it will be very difficult for us as a society to make any kind of lasting change.

And the enemy loves this. 

Satan loves to distract us and deceive us and divide us. He loves to whisper to us about our rights, about vengeance. He loves to make generalizations and cast blame and stoke anger. And if he can keep us busy fighting each other, he doesn’t have to worry about us fighting him.

But there is One who is greater.

He weeps at the senseless violence and the loss of life. He alone has the right to number our days, and He alone has the right to render vengeance (Romans 12:19). Truth comes not from our leaders or our emotions or the media, but from the Lord. He comforts the broken-hearted and gives wisdom to those who ask. Oh, how we need You, Jesus!

He is the last strand I pull from the tangled mess today

The knots are still there; they are twisted together in too many places and cannot be sorted out all in one day. But when this strand is pulled out and plugged in, it casts Light on all the others and makes the sorting out a bit easier. I wish He brought easy answers, but unfortunately that is not the case.

Instead, He brings His Presence. 

He steps into the chaos of our tangled up issues and conflicting emotions and speaks peace. 

He embraces us in our fear and grief and whispers comfort. 

He sees us in our division and anger and brings hope.

I do not have answers, friends, for all that is happening in our world right now. But I know that the easy way, the obvious way, the emotional way is rarely the best way.

And so I pray… 

“God, grant us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

–Reinhold Niebuhr

The Gift of Hope

It is two days before Christmas. 

A stack of presents sits on the bed waiting to be wrapped. 

There is laundry to be done, food to prepare, and a half-dozen items still left unchecked on my to-do list. Yet, I find myself returning to the gifts. 

I have always loved opening gifts on Christmas morning. When I was a girl, I used to wake up in the early morning hours and sneak into the living room to peak at the gifts before everyone else woke up. Santa never wrapped the gifts he brought, so I would make a quick scan of the room, searching for that special something I had hoped for and making note of anything I thought my brothers might be excited about. Once I had taken assessment of the loot, I would sneak back to my bed and watch the minutes tick by, until it was finally time to get up. 

But it was more than the actual gifts I received; there was something magical about those pre-dawn expeditions to the Christmas tree. The twinkling lights cast a mystical glow over the room, and the packages all looked so beautiful piled one on top of another, each adorned with brightly colored ribbons or bows. I knew I would love the gifts inside, but there was something about the anticipation in those solitary moments that filled those boxes with something else…

Hope.

Soon enough I would find out if all my hinting, asking, and praying had paid off. But in that moment, the real gift was the hope of things to come. The hope of dreams fulfilled. 

Sometimes all we need is a little hope.

I look at these gifts lying on my bed and think about the hope contained in each one. I reach for a football for my little man, and with it I wrap the hope of neighborhood pick-up games and father-son bonding time. Next, there’s an Indoor S’more maker and some board games, each wrapped with layers of family time and the hope of many beautiful, lifelong memories. The socks and shirt for my hubby are enveloped in the hope of good health, resulting in many years of wearing. And the gift cards for our girls seem straight forward enough, but are also packaged with the hope of quality time and great conversations. 

Simple gifts, really, but each wrapped in the hope of so much more.

I think about that Christmas long ago, when Mary watched strangers bring gifts to her baby boy, pondering the mysteries they contained and treasuring those moments in her heart. How her heart must have soared when she opened the chest full of gold; a gift for royalty, stoking her hope in the angel’s promise, that her baby was going to be something more, a King like no other. The frankincense filled her with hope as well- a gift in recognition of the divine role Jesus would play in Israel’s restoration. Her baby really was the Messiah! Oh blessed hope!

But what of the gift of myrrh? Did Mary understand the hope contained in that meaningful gift? I imagine not. Myrrh was used for many things, the most common being an embalming oil. It seems a strange gift for a baby; but it was the perfect gift for a Savior! It was a foreshadowing of His journey to come, and confirmation to us all these years later that none of it was by accident. 

That baby was born so He could die for us. 

He was a simple gift, really, but wrapped in the hope of so much more. He was the hope of things to come, the hope of dreams fulfilled. 

Sometimes all we need is a little hope.

Waiting for Hope

Hope.

That is the word God has been whispering to my heart this week.

It has been in my devotional readings everyday. It has popped up in several Facebook posts. It was the theme running through our College Midweek service. It was even written in glowing Christmas lights on my neighbor’s yard when I drove home last night! (I’m not kidding…talk about a sign!)

It is the first week of Advent in the Christian calendar, and the focus for this week is hope. As I think back on the beginning of the Christmas story, I am reminded that God’s people had been waiting for what must have seemed like forever for the promised Messiah to appear. Hundreds of years, nearly a thousand, had gone by since the prophets proclaimed God’s message of the One who was to come. Their land had been torn apart by savages, their government overthrown, their people scattered among the nations. So much time had gone by that the stories of old were just that… ancient stories, passed down through generations, of a time long before when God had favored their people. But it was clear that God had changed His mind and turned His back.

Their great-great-great-great (you get it) grandparents had let Him down one too many times, trading long-term loyalty for a fast-food faith, and they were left living the repercussions. Sure, even in the midst of their betrayal, the Father had promised the Messiah, the One who would change everything. How they longed for Him to come!

But that was a long time ago…

Perhaps they forgot what it was like to hope.

*******

 Jeff and I were married for 5 years before we had our oldest daughter, Sarah. We spent three of those years trying to have a baby. At first, we waited pretty patiently, trusting in God’s timing and continuing on with life as usual. After awhile, though, we knew something wasn’t right. We read all the articles, counted the days on the calendar, met with the doctors, ran all the tests. It was in God’s hands, we knew; still, our hearts broke a little with every negative test result. At the same time, it seemed like every other young couple in our little church plant chose that moment to start having babies. I remember buying hooded bath towels and lavender bath wash, smiling through all the baby showers and joking about not drinking the water, only to hide my tears in the bathroom where no one could see.  The days turned into weeks, which turned into months, which turned into years.

I remember what it was like to long for someone I wasn’t sure would ever come. 

I, too, almost forgot how to hope.

*******

But then one day, out of the blue, when everyone was just going about their business as usual, an angel appeared to a teenage girl, and the message he delivered breathed HOPE back into the world once again! God had heard His people and He would no longer turn away. It was time. There would be a baby!

Wait, a baby? 

Yes. That baby changed everything.

*******

Our baby changed everything too. I was so in shock when the test was positive, I ran straight to Jeff’s study and handed him the pee stick.  No cute t-shirt or video announcement for us! No, we just sat cross-legged on the kitchen floor and cried at God’s faithfulness. We were so busy having faith that we hadn’t even realized we had lost hope, until suddenly our hearts were flooded with it once again! I think I took at least 4 more tests after that just to be sure! It’s amazing what a little hope can do. God could have chosen to answer our prayer in a different way, and that would have been okay, truly. Our hope came in the form of two lines on a stick that day, but ultimately our hope came in the promise fulfilled all those years ago, when Love chose to put on skin and dwell among us. Emmanuel. God was with us! We were not alone. That is our hope

And so, as we begin this season of Advent, I want to remember what it was like to wait so long that I almost lost hope, to be afraid to be expectant after so much disappointment. I have been there. Some of you are still there, I know.

“But we cannot lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

We must remember God’s unfailing faithfulness…

A Promise made.

A Baby given.

A Savior sent.

“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess,

for He who promised is faithful.” Hebrews 10:23

Let us remember… and hope. 

“For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.” –Romans 15:4

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” –Romans 15:13