Seventeen Life Lessons

A friend of mine asked me to sum up what the past several years have taught me. Kind of a New Year’s reflection sort of thing. It was a fun exercise, so I thought I’d put a few of them on the blog, phrased like I’m giving advice to my past self.

(Side note: have you ever wondered if Present You would be friends with Past You if they were able to meet?)

I will let you imagine the circumstances that prompted each lesson. Here’s a hint: most of them involve me being a jerk, then having someone point that out to me. And to be honest, I still fail at almost everything mentioned below. The difference is…now I know the problems I have, and I’m trying to work on them.

And bonus! You get them for free, without having to learn the hard way.

And so what we have learned applies to our lives today...

And so what we have learned applies to our lives today…

One: There is a difference between listening and waiting to talk. (You mostly wait to talk. Stop that.)

Two: Loving others is more important than being proven right.

Three: Watch for the person at the party who offers to help the host or cleans up afterward. Talk to that person. He or she will almost always be pretty cool.

Four: Also, watch for the person who is gracious to the incredibly annoying person at the party/class/Bible study. Same logic.

Five: If you have to choose between your personal ambition and the people you love, always choose the people you love.

Six: Don’t be afraid to tell people specifically what you appreciate about them, even though that intimidates you.

Seven: Uncertainty is okay. Don’t stay there when there are steps you can take, but there will be some answers you never get and some issues you will never have a strong position on.

Eight: People are hard—they will hurt you, betray you, anger you, and generally make your life much more difficult. But if you avoid difficult relationships, if you only spend time with people who are easy to get along with, you will miss so much. You will learn more about God and grace through those relationships than any other means so far.

Nine: Learn to accept compliments and offers of help graciously. It’s encouragement, not a grenade that you feel like you have to drop instantly.

Ten: While you’re at it, learn to apologize. Whether or not it repairs the damage you’ve done, whether or not you’re the only one at fault, it cultivates humility. And trust me, you need that and probably always will.

Eleven: You know that difficult, broken situation where you actually said, “I don’t think anything redemptive can come from this?” It will. Because that’s who God is and what he does. Wait for it, and don’t forget to be thankful (and a little shocked).

Twelve: Serving others is a great way to show love for God, but it can’t be the basis of your entire relationship with God. At some point, you’ll have to stop and ask: what does my relationship with God look like outside of the things I do in the church?

Thirteen: In a generation that leaves too quickly, stay. Bear with others’ faults and flaws. Commit instead of wandering. Don’t settle for shallow connections. And refuse to write people off as lost causes.

Fourteen: Don’t look at the world in general and the church specifically as vending machines to meet your needs. Come to serve.

Fifteen: Contentment is nearly impossible you if you are constantly missing the opportunities and people you left behind or dreaming of the mythical opportunities and people you’ll meet in the future. The circumstances and people around you right now are not perfect, but they are here and they matter.

Sixteen: Even when you feel uncomfortable in a social situation and do not know what to do, do not make it into a rerun of the Amy Green Show (where you are the host, star, and celebrity guest). This show always gets poor ratings, even from you, so it’s probably time to cancel it.

Seventeen: Other women are not competition. You need to stop comparing yourself to them, and especially subtly bringing them down while in the presence of men. They are your sisters, and it’s critical that you love and support each other.

Your turn! Name one bit of advice (or several) you’d pass on to yourself five years ago.

(And to the dedicated readers who hold me to every word I write here: I know, I said this week’s post was going to be about Rogue One. But I have some more thinking to do on that one, so it’ll wait till later this month. And I know: “What about a blockbuster franchise film could possibly need more thinking?” But just trust me.)

The Best of 2016

It’s The Monday Heretic’s third birthday! To celebrate that and the end of a very long and sometimes exhausting 2016, I’ve complied some of my favorite posts from the past year.

Hope your holidays were a time of rest and refreshment. Regular posts will resume next week! (Probably something related to Rogue One.)

2016

Most Popular Posts

Gold Medal: Lord of the Rings Valentines

Just like last year, my punny valentines climbed to the top. I find this hilarious, and plan to continue the series, though I haven’t settled on this year’s theme yet. I do have plenty of ideas, so we’ll see how long this keeps up.

Summary Quote: I think these you just have to see for yourself.

Silver Medal: Hamilton and the Danger of the Single Story

I’m glad this one did so well, because it links to a TED talk that I hope profoundly shapes the way I interact with people for the rest of my life. Also, a political post that wasn’t too terribly controversial, yay!

Summary Quote: “We will only be able to move forward as a nation if we learn to have civil dialogue on tough issues, if we speak with both grace and conviction. On a smaller scale, our relationships with those around us will benefit if we listen well, if we allow others to be complex and not defined by a handful of tweets, positions, and stereotypes.”

Bronze Medal: Of Course All Lives Matter. But…

I love it when I find an obscure historical scenario that relates to current events (we tend to repeat ourselves a lot, so it’s not surprising). This post is, in a way, the starting thoughts of an issue I’ve been thinking a lot about and will continue to think about, because there are no easy answers.

Summary Quote: “It’s not a matter of pinning blame or parsing statistics. It’s realizing that power can corrupt, injustice breaks God’s heart, and our black brothers and sisters live with fears and struggles we’ll never have to deal with. We affirm that all lives matter when we take the time to defend the lives of others and hear their stories.” (more…)

Advent Stories: The Angel

Fear not!

I figured I should get that out of the way. It’s not the best opening line, but when humans are constantly fainting or having near heart failure every time they see you, you learn to do a little advance damage control.

I realize an angelic appearance can be a little startling at first, but every single time? Come on. When faced with something you don’t understand, you always reach for fear. It’s your way of protecting yourself from the unknown, I guess, but it seems strange to me.

I’ve had more chances to terrify people these past few months since the days of the patriarchs. Not that that’s my goal—although, okay, I’ll admit, it is fun.

No, the point, the whole focus of my existence, is being a messenger of the glory of God.

Sound familiar? It should. That’s your purpose too. It’s just you humans get so caught up in the tiny externals of your little lives that you forget why you’re here.

I’m doing it again. That condescending thing. Sometimes, I have to remind myself, we’re not that different: me, an ancient, heaven-dwelling, genderless, warrior-messenger and you, a weak, mortal human born to live on Earth for a hundred years at most and doomed to fall and fail a thousand times before then.

See? Practically the same.

For example, we both…ah…we’re almost….

Nope. I got nothing. But I’ll think of it, I promise. (more…)

Advent Stories: The Scribe

Some of my best friends have been dead for hundreds of years. It sounds strange, I know, but when your sole occupation is reading and re-reading the sacred texts, you begin to empathize with the writers. There are days when I feel as if I could turn to Jeremiah and say, “At what point does lament become sinful bitterness?” or debate politics with Elijah.

But they never answer. It’s probably for the best. If I really started hearing voices, well…maybe what the others say of me would be true after all.

You see, the prophets, they understand loneliness. They understand captivity. Theirs was Babylon or Assyria, mine is Rome.

Here in Jerusalem, Herod keeps us, scribes of the Hebrews, in his collection of soothsayers and pagan priests, to bring out when the whim strikes to advise him on the will of the gods. As if there could ever be more than one.

These visitors from the East upset him. It was all the court could talk about for days, their magnificent procession into Jerusalem, the city of kings, looking for the ruler of the Jews. Not Herod the Pretender, but our Messiah, the deliverer the prophets speak of.

They saw a star, of all things. Very strange, it seems to me, but what do I know of how God chooses to work? He lit a bush on fire to get Moses’ attention. Why not a star?

“Where is he?” Herod demanded of us. “Where do your holy texts say your king will be born?” (more…)

Millennials: Don’t Abandon the Church

I’m taking a short break from Christmas posts to talk about an article I’ve seen recently being shared on social media: “12 Reasons Millennials are OVER Church.”

The article is funny in places and characterized by the tell-it-like-it-is candor that my generation hates in people they don’t agree with (a certain president-elect comes to mind) and loves in articles that voice what they’re feeling. It also has some useful observations about why millennials are staying away from organized religion.

Are there some suggestions here that some churches should consider? Sure, especially the challenges to listen to, appreciate, and involve younger people (although I should also point out that implementing everything in the article would take a programming-heavy megachurch).

hipsterjesus

This seemed like the right time to bring out Hipster Jesus.

But I had some significant problems with it.

The first was the tone. General principle: when you are talking to people made in the image of God, especially ones who have dedicated their lives to prayerfully trying to lead a group of believers, please be respectful. It’s fine to have difficult conversations, point out weaknesses, and suggest solutions. But you should always do so in a gracious, careful way, motivated by love.

This was not that. (more…)

Advent Stories: The Innkeeper

Pay your taxes, they said. Come to the land of your fathers and be counted, they said. Make Judea great again, they said—Herod the Great’s, that is. But did they tell me about the stress it would cause? No. Me, a hardworking innkeeper in a respectable three-camel town in the middle of nowhere, suddenly overrun by every half-wit peasant whose mother gave birth within a ten-mile radius of Bethlehem.

Nobody thinks of the little guy anymore, that’s the trouble. As I always say, “All roads lead to Rome, all dirt paths with potholes lead to Bethlehem.” And they were jammed with travelers this week for the census. Every room in my inn was full to bursting, every scrap of food eaten, every dish in my house dirtied three times over. Good for business, bad for my back. I’m not young anymore, you know.

My wife and I, we raised the prices a bit, of course. Not nearly as much as those traitorous gouging tax collectors. But as I always say, “When in the Roman empire, do as Romans do.”

I was full up like every other inn when the knock came. Too late for new customers, but I opened the door anyway. There was a man and his pregnant wife—near ready to burst, I’d say—on my doorstep. “Do you have a room for us?” the man asked, almost pleaded. “We’ve been turned away all over the city.”

Now, I’m an innkeeper. We know well the warnings about refusing strangers. We’ve had our ears tanned with vivid stories of Sodom and Gomorrah and Rahab in Jericho. I grew up thinking any traveler I met might be an angel, or, even better, a spy.

Life disappointed me there. I’ve never had any person of note stay in my inn. Probably never will.

But seeing that woman and her child, well, it reminded me of what my dear mother always told me—there is always room. You can stretch the soup a little farther, wear the blankets a little thinner, pack the common rooms a little fuller.

You can decide if she was hospitable or just profitable. As for me, it was my duty, yes, my sacred honor not to turn away that young couple. She looked so tired, and he looked so…all right, if I’m honest, he looked about ready to punch someone. If I’d shut the door in his face, I think he’d have beaten it down.

But I don’t hold it against him. Taxes and a long road trip will do that to anyone.

innkeeper2

I let them stay out in the stable, the cave out back where the guests tether their animals for the night. Oh, it was clean enough…mostly. Manure has to go somewhere. But there was a roof of sorts and what you might call a bed—I threw down some new straw before getting back to the guests. (more…)

Advent Stories: The Cousin

They call it the Holy Place, but given enough time, even holy places can seem ordinary. That’s what I thought seven months ago, when Zechariah was chosen to go into the temple to burn incense before the Lord.

Just another offering. Just the same old temple, the psalms of worship I’d heard so often, the rules and rituals and routine of life. There hadn’t been an incident of smiting in centuries. Or a miracle, for that matter.

Oh, we prayed for one…but we never expected an answer to our prayers. And certainly not one like this.

Even wives of priests forget what holiness means, every now and then.

Now the whole town knows what happened that day. I didn’t even get the excitement of being the first to tell my family I was expecting. Ah, well. We’ve probably had enough surprises this year anyway.

The angel told Zechariah my soon-to-be-born son is supposed to be a messenger like Elijah.

So. Our boy is going to be like the mountain-man prophet who exploded in and out of Israelite politics with declarations of famine and rain, life and death. And he’s to be a Nazarite, a child of oath, like Samson, the long-haired strong man with no self-control and a talent for causing destruction with bones, city gates, flaming foxes, and whatever else happens to be on hand.

Not the role models I would have chosen, but what can I say? You can’t argue with God. Zechariah tried, and look where it got him.

“What does that mean?” I asked my husband. “What sort of gifts should people bring to our son? Fire-and-brimstone resistant blankets? A toy raven, perhaps? A Baby’s First Altar builder set?”

That’s what I said, but what I was really asking was: “Why us? How do we raise a child who will prepare the way for the Lord?”

Zechariah didn’t tell me. Hasn’t spoken a word since he left the temple, actually.

I have to admit…it’s a nice change. I love my husband, but the way he talks…even his studying isn’t a solitary activity. He’ll talk to himself, me, even the long-dead author of whatever Scripture he’s reading. Leave it to him to even read like an extrovert.

Lately, it’s been quiet, peaceful. Almost too quiet, which is why I welcomed my cousin Mary’s visit. And now I know the answer to some of my questions, at least.

Our John will prepare the way for Mary’s child. The baby jumped inside my womb—nearly knocked me over in his excitement—the minute she called out to me, and I knew. Somehow, I knew the news my virgin cousin was bringing to her old, barren relative six months along with child.

I told the story back to her before she had a chance to get it out—that our Lord had chosen her to be the mother of the Messiah.

cousins

It sounds crazy, I know. But what can I say? There’s a bit of the unexpected in our Lord, a sense of humor, you might say, a love for reversing our expectations. A bit like Joseph, Mary’s betrothed. I always liked him. A solid man, but not as serious as Zechariah’s priest friends. They act like “Thou shalt not laugh” is the unspoken eleventh commandment.

If Joseph were here now, he wouldn’t demand to know why Zechariah can’t speak or why I insist on the name John for my son. He’d make a joke about whether I have any pregnancy craving for prunes, then deliver a hand-carved cradle which he would pretend was “nothing much, just a little something I made in the shop.” And he’d never leave Mary’s side.

What will he think, when he hears about Mary? An angelic visitation re-told sounds like a hungover delusion at best and an outrageous excuse at worst. Will the Lord grant him enough trust to believe in secondhand stories of miracles?

And what will happen to Mary if he doesn’t? (more…)