“I said I was sorry, what more do you want?”

My husband and I had just exhausted an unpleasant argument several years ago when he said something that became a ‘click-moment’ for future apologies.  I have taught it to others-clients and friends.

The argument was unbalanced.  Neither of us were innocent but I knew and he knew that this time I was the over reactor and the unfair wordsmith-er.  (He just now read this part, and says that he has no idea of what I am talking about but is getting mad on principle. He also guessed that the phrase that I am soon to reveal is not, “love is never having to say you are sorry”- made famous by 70’s movie and book, “Love Story”).

Aside:   I’m amazed this phrase actually stuck in our collective consciousness even though none of us have ever believed it.  In fact, I got married about the time that movie was still popular and even I, a love-struck young woman, knew that “love is never having to say you are sorry,” was a bunch of hooey.  In fact, once again, before I leave this teaser, I actually included in my wedding vows something about “needing to forgive and ask for forgiveness” (Those were the days when we thought we were too cool and clever to use the traditional vows and now we are too embarrassed to reread what we actually said to each other.)

Back to the argument that taught me what more was needed to be said to mend a broken-hearted fence.

After I came to my humble senses, I confessed to my husband that I knew I was the major provocateur and was sorry.  I even went as far as to say, “Will you forgive me for saying what I said?” He said, “Yes,” and I extended the apology with more words of contrition.  It took me a few minutes, however, to realize that the fence was not mended and it was not because he was still angry with me. He was still smarting and feeling the burden of the offense. Finally, he took a leap of trust and vulnerability and asked me the question that showed me the true nature of the hurt I caused.

“I sense you are sorry but I need to know whether you actually believe what you said about me during the argument.”

My surprised reaction to this question led into a new insight of what it takes sometimes for relationship reparation and healing.  My response was surprisingly a new one for me and possibly a God-inspired one as I witnessed the relief that my sincere words brought to my husband.

“No, I do not believe what I said about you.  I said it because I was angry, hurt and verbally undisciplined. You did not deserve those comments because they are not what I fundamentally believe about you and again I am sorry to have put you through that.”

So, are you wondering what I said that caused the hurt? I am not really sure as it happened awhile I go but I can guess from knowing how thoughtless arguments go among folks that it was probably in the vein of some kind of “you are” character slam like, “You are selfish, or you are thoughtless, or you have to always win or be right, or you are immature,  or you are always judgmental or you always only care about yourself or any number of careless,  lousy communication statements thrown around when disagreements arise among spouses, friends, children, parents, and, more rarely because we don’t take them quite for granted, co-workers and employees.

We have all heard that when we argue we must stay away from the “You are” statements or the “you are always or never” statements and stick with the “I am feeling this or that when you do or say this or that” statements. So, I am not going to bore you with what you already know about good communication practices but maybe don’t always practice!  But I do want to explain why the apology I gave my husband may be necessary for reconciliation.

When we launch a character slam statement something deep and rarely examined is triggered in the offended party and this is so, even if the offended one knows that the statements are over the top and spoken in anger and poor judgment. In every criticism, regardless of its unreasonableness, there is a part of us that thinks there is truth to it.  And you know why? Because there is, even if that truth is only true 1 percent of the time.  None of us are always virtuous all of the time giving unconditional positive regard and love to those we care about.  So, even the one percent truth of the “you are” statement stings and dregs up self-doubt and self-condemnation. The offended one has two hurtles to navigate: one: the unfairness and hurtfulness of the statement, and two: the anger and hurt resulting from a wounded self-worth. An apology that restores respect (“I am sorry, forgive me”) and healing (“you did not deserve that because it is not the big truth about you”) is restorative and therapeutic.

Theological understanding for the offender:

“Don’t judge lest you be judged with the same measure of behavioral standard that you are judging the other “- roughly paraphrased, “For every finger you are pointing at someone there are 3 fingers and a thumb pointing back at you.”(Gospel of Matthew, chapter 7:1-5)

“No one but God is perfect in love and righteous judgment.”  Show respectful humility about who you are and who God is. Muster up empathy and humility to admit that someone did not deserve your harsh judgment. (1 John 1:5-8)

Psychological understanding for the offended – two points and commentary:

When the shame of being exposed by hurtful comments from a loved one arises, wait for the dust to settle and ask for clarification.  (“Is this really what you believe about me?”)

Claw yourself out of self-denial and self-condemnation and humbly realize with gratefulness that true self worth is found in being a forgiven child of God through the sacrifice of Christ not in some attempt to be always well thought of in some feature of appearance, performance or status

Jesus is the perfect one; not me, not you, not anyone.  And after countless generations He is still being loved by many.  He, unlike us, is undaunted by criticism, accusation or even flattery.  He is the perfect self-possessed being and therefore, unlike us, has the only love that “never has to say I’m sorry.”

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Suffering Through Christmas

Many of you will have heard of Kay Warren’s article by now that was originally posted on her Facebook page and then sent on to Christianity Today. By the way, Kay Warren is the wife of Rick Warren, pastor and author of Purpose Driven Life.  Here is the link.

For those of you who have not heard of the article here is the summary: Kay Warren’s 27-year old son died by suicide over a year ago. She reacted to the “cheery Christmas cards” sent to her and wrote about her strong reactions. Read the article as it not only serves as a needed chastisement but it also gives us important suggestions on how to “do” Christmas greetings for the hurting.

I have not suffered the catastrophic loss of a child so I won’t even attempt to venture into the “understanding how you feel” territory except to say that I have had bereaved parents as clients throughout the years. I have humbly listened to the excruciating rough terrain of grief processing- not just one year out from the loss but many years out from that life defining and altering moment of heartbreak.  I usually don’t have clients seeking me out until they feel their friends are no longer available or capable of understanding that they, ”can’t just move on.”  Kay Warren’s article will help you understand how unbelievably hurtful and even shameful it is to sense from others that you should be further along than they are.

The point of this post is to highlight some of Kay Warren’s suggestions while adding a few of my own; but not before I give reflections on two approaches to the Christmas season.

Children and Christmas

Keep it magical, as far as it is possible within your control to do so.  There are monstrous troubles in this world and frankly the Christmas story was not written for children which is apparent by the events surrounding the birth of Jesus as recorded in Matthew’s gospel. A sanitized version to tell children is quite appropriate.  Safety is a primary need of children and I just don’t mean physical safety which is obvious but there is a profound need for children to feel safe for psychological and neurological health.  Children are not developmentally capable to understand that the world is not always a safe place and really never has been. Safety was not part of the baby Jesus story and certainly was not for all the children under two who were killed by a crazed paranoid despot named Herod the Great.  As my pastor said last Sunday, “there is not a single Christmas carol that makes mention of a baby boy genocide or of the refugee status of the Holy family as they fled to Egypt to escape the murderous Herod.”  But these grim realities are all part of the Christmas story as recorded in the gospel of Matthew.

Children don’t need to know of the awfulness that filled the world then and fills the world now (children massacred in a school in Pakistan, just reported) .   Our job is to protect children as long as we can and do our best to fulfill their magical thinking of gifts, sweets, festive decorations and songs.  “Away in the manger no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lays down his sweet head la, la, la…” And “Jolly ole St. Nicholas, . . . “.   I want to sing these songs to my grandchildren and tell sweet baby Jesus stories and build excitement over the festive culmination of gift giving even if it does not quite jive with the Gospel story of Jesus’ birth in its entirety.  I would hope that all children could be transported into a world of glee and cheer throughout the Christmas season but tragically that will not be for so many.

My hope and prayer is best described in Psalm 10:17-18

O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted;
you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear
to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,
so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.

Adults and Christmas

The un-sanitized version of Matthew 2:13-23 gives us some clues on how we need to be communicating with other adults during the Christmas season.

So, how should we do this? Carefully! There is suffering in many of our friends and families’ lives during this season. Maybe it’s not the horrific kind of fleeing refugees or that of Kay and Rick Warren but there are heart aches and heart breaks in spades coming from all sort of sources.  Christmas cheer has a way of making suffering folks feel like losers or at least wistful as they wonder why God has not blessed them in the way that so many “seem” to be blessed.  Kay Warren makes the suggestion that before we send out our perfunctory Christmas cards or newsletters of family togetherness and achievement we need to take the time to painstakingly question ourselves about each person ‘s reality who is on our Christmas card/newsletter list. If we know that there has been a great loss or hardship in a particular person’s life then forgo the newsletter and write something emphatically kind on a card that reflects our knowledge of their pain during this time.  If we don’t know what is going on because we are not super close friends with people  on our list anymore well, then err on the side of caution and write something personal asking how things have been going for them.  If we know that our friends’ lives are going well then by all means send the pictures and newsy newsletters.   I am a grateful privileged person who is two months out of excellent cancer treatment and feeling great and have a family that is doing well.  My friends know this so I am thrilled to get their newsletters and lovely cards with their families’ pictures on it.  I love hearing about their lives and seeing what everyone looks like.   But, I also pray that I am forgiven by those with whom i have not been so careful with in the past.  Kay Warren’s article is a good lesson in paying attention to the suffering around us and making sure we are not adding to it.

The Longest Night service

One of the things that I appreciate about my church in Juneau, Alaska is that for years they have recognized that the Christmas holiday season can be a time of sadness for many.  On the longest night of the year, December 21st (which by the way is really, really long at 58 degrees north latitude) there is a service which mostly includes scripture readings and prayers within in a dimly lit chapel culminating with each person lighting a candle representing their private grief laid before God.

The Balanced Christmas

Let’s set Christmas apart for children, making it as wonderful as we can for as many children as we can.   But at the same time let’s be more gospel minded and set Christmas apart for the broken hearted with its reminders of the hope that is found in a baby named, “God is with us.” More of Him with reverence and worship that serves to condition our hearts to be more about others –a paraphrase of the two greatest commandments – Love God and Love others.

read this-its inspiring

In my last post I promised an article by Todd Billings which inspired the telling of my mild story in comparison.  The following is the article with the link.

Inhttp://www.christianitytoday.com/behemoth/2014/issue-10/deadly-healing-medicine.html?utm_source=gallireport&utm_medium=Newsletter&utm_term=13341127&utm_content=319474811&utm_campaign=2013

Incurable cancer.

I could hardly believe it when I heard the diagnosis. My wife and I had just celebrated our tenth anniversary, and our lives were spinning in joyful commotion with one- and three- year-olds at home. Initial testing brought back some worrying results. I had researched the possibilities, and I didn’t sound like a likely prospect for this cancer. The average diagnosis age is about 70; I had just turned 39. But here it was: an active cancer that had already been eroding the bones in my skull, arm, and hip.

With the Psalmist I cried out, “Heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long? Turn, Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love” (Ps. 6:2b–4).

What was this “healing” for my bones and soul? The cancer has no cure, but it can be fought with special treatment. This treatment to extend my lifespan was not going to come through a gentle pill. Ready or not, I was in the midst of a battle. I needed strong medicine for healing to come. Within a week I was on a chemotherapy and steroid treatment as part of a five-month preparation for this strong medicine: a stem cell transplant.

I soon discovered this was not a regular transplant—replacing a sick organ with a healthy organ, or infusing health-filled medicines into my body. Quite the opposite. Receiving this “medicine” involved taking a lethal poison. First I had stem cells gathered from my blood. Next I received an intense form of chemotherapy derived from mustard gas, a World War I chemical weapon. These toxins attacked both healthy and cancerous cells in my bone marrow; they would definitely have killed me if there were not a way to revive me. My white blood count dropped close to zero, leaving me with virtually no resistance to infection. You can’t live like that. And yet, the only way to heal was to infuse this poison into my blood.

In the third step, the healthy stem cells taken earlier were infused back into my body. At first, they just float around, but the doctors hope that after a number of days, “engrafting” will take place: the healthy stem cells start helping the body produce an immune system again. Because this procedure so compromises the immune system, I would remain hospitalized for a month at a cancer lodge designed for avoiding infection, followed by several more months of quarantine.

The doctors referred to the final bottoming out of white cells as “the valley.”

During my transplant process, I was kept under close watch by doctors and nurses as my white blood cell count plummeted. The heavy toxins were infused into my body from dark bags labeled “hazardous drug” and “high risk med.” As my white counts fell, I experienced bouts of sharp pain, nausea, heavy fatigue, and discouragement. The doctors referred to the final bottoming out of white cells as “the valley.” During this time, I was walking through “the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps. 23:4, ESV). The doctors brought me down the path of death, for the path of death was the only way to healing.

Thankfully, engraftment eventually started to occur; slowly the healthy blood cells joined my body in recreating my immune system.

No Engraftment = No Life

Engraftment is a horticultural practice: uniting a branch to a plant in such a way that the branch is incorporated into the plant, becoming a part of the plant itself. In my case, before the stem cell transplant, I had to sign a consent form indicating my understanding that if engraftment did not occur, I could die. Because of the death-dealing powers of the chemo, the consent form probably could have used a simpler formula: no engraftment means no life.

Engraftment evokes biblical imagery, of course. In Romans 11:13–24, Paul uses rich horticultural imagery from the Old Testament to speak about how Gentile believers have been graciously grafted into the people of God. In the Gospel of John, Christ himself speaks about how he is the vine and his disciples are the branches, who can bear fruit only by abiding in him (15:1–8). For “apart from me you can do nothing” (15:5, ESV). No engraftment means no life.

As I lived through my ordeal, my eyes were opened anew to what it means for sinners like us to receive deep healing from God. We don’t just need a vitamin; we don’t just need a bandage to cover a flesh wound. We need strong medicine—we need death and new life united to Christ in order to be healed. Far too often, I have acted as if the gospel were a self-improvement plan to strengthen a muscle, to heal a small wound, to enhance my success. But the gospel is about losing our lives for the sake of Jesus Christ, tasting death to the old self in order to experience true life and healing. “Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11). Our hope is not in ourselves, but in our engraftment—our union with Christ. “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rom. 6:4).

There is no way to healing apart from death. This is a reality for all of us. God’s gospel medicine is not a light massage or an energizing pill. We cannot have only resurrection, skipping over our union with Christ in his death, our death to the old self. We desperately need healing. And the Great Physician provides this in mysterious ways.

As Martin Luther notes, even our “spiritual trials, sorrow, grief, and anguish of heart” are “the medicines with which God purges away sin.” This purging actually restores true human health. This medicine may feel like poison, and it does involve a kind of death, but it is actually coming to life in Christ. For when we cry out for “healing” we are crying out to a crucified and risen Lord who brings us life by uniting us to both his death and his life. That is strong medicine, indeed.

J. Todd Billings is Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. This article has been adapted from his forthcoming book, Rejoicing in Lament (Brazos Press, February 2015), with permission.

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Also in this Issue

Images and Infusions pointing to spiritual truths

An Image of hope in crisis:

My story:  Half way through chemotherapy I found myself in an acute medical state that would require a rapid response team in the hospital to revive me and three days in the hospital to stabilize me.  Monitoring and intravenous products were needed: antibiotics, hydrating fluids and 3 units of whole blood.

My husband’s story:  “When I brought you into the hospital because of a shocking 104 degree temperature, you were conscious, lucid and chatty.  But while the intake nurse took your vitals you suddenly became unresponsive.  The rapid response team was paged over the hospital PA and within a minute a seeming chaos of a dozen or more people gathered around you.  It was like one of those ER movie scenes where the door closes in the face of the panicked family member who is left in the lobby alone and fearing the worst.  Within those lonely powerless moments, I had a God given image: Christ was in the corner of the room with His arm stretched out over you and all those attending to you.  It was reassuring.”

“Lo, I am always with you even to the ends of the age.”  Matthew 28:20b

“I will never leave you nor forsake you.”  Hebrews 13:5b

“Even if it were possible a mother could forget her nursing child, I will never forget you.”    Isaiah 49:15b

An image of restoration:

Back to my story:  Later in the hospital room as I looked up at the IV pole with a unit bag of blood hooked in its place I thought of all the people who gave their blood for future needy unknown recipients. I was grateful.  Much later, I realized that the blessing of my medical emergency was those 3 units of whole blood.  I had not realized how bad I felt during the past two months of chemo.  That whole blood was a ‘miracle’ of rejuvenation.  I could now face the remaining two months of infusions.  And predictable to someone who thinks “Christian-ly”, my thoughts went to the One who gave His blood that we might have life. The New Testament makes it clear that like a blood donor, Christ’s blood was willingly given for life. In some transcendent and mysterious way that death and giving of blood was meant to secure forgiveness, life and hope.   Christ’s ‘blood shed for me’ was always a reality but it was not quite the obscure reality it once was for the ‘new fortified’ (3 units worth) Dona.

David needed an image for comfort in crisis; I got an image for restoration.  They both were God-given, but our knowledge of the promises of God in scripture provided the brush strokes for these pictures.

It’s not always a crisis that proves the reality of God’s love and presence.  But often an intense emotional experience can give us biblical insight into a reality that is bigger than ourselves.  Cosmic truths reach deep into our personal stories and transform them.

What about you?   Could you go back and revisit a crisis or ‘intense period’ in your life?  What biblical metaphor, image or teaching does the crisis highlight that makes the God of the universe relevant to your finite human dilemma?  And, if appropriate, could you share it in the comment section of this post?

Next week’s post will be someone else’s article, an excerpt from J.Todd Billings’ forthcoming book, Rejoicing in Lament (Brazos Press, copied with permission).  His cancer story will challenge us with the truth of God’s “engrafting.”  It is a seriously moving and insightful story.