Lashon Ha-ra

Two gossiping girls My children and I have developed a way to pass the time during a long drive. We take a simple phrase like “Look at that” and then say it with as many different inflections as we can think of in order to bring out various meanings. It’s amazing how quickly an innocuous statement can morph into one that communicates humor, threat, shock, disgust, delight, or anger, depending on your tone of voice and the way you say it.

In Jewish ethical teaching, it is considered wrong not only to slander someone but to say something that will lower someone else’s esteem in the eyes of others. The Hebrew term for this is lashon ha-ra. So, for instance, you wouldn’t say something like this: “I feel sorry for Joe. Being out of work for six months seems to have made his depression a lot worse.” Or “Too bad about Sarah’s breakup. I thought she finally found a guy who could love her despite her weight.” There are, of course, notable exceptions. You can express a negative truth when the person you are speaking to needs the information. So if your friend is thinking of consulting a financial adviser you know to be incompetent, you are free to tell him what you know. Otherwise you are obligated to keep silent.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin explains that even nonverbal communications can violate this law. “Making a face when someone’s name is mentioned, rolling one’s eyes, winking, or saying sarcastically, ‘So-and-so is very smart’ are all violations of the law,” he says (1).  The same is true when it comes to the use of innuendo—implying something negative without actually saying it.

What if we were to adopt this rule of lashon ha-ra for ourselves? Wouldn’t it help us learn greater control of our tongues and our attitudes? Today make a promise to yourself to refrain from negativity toward others—in both your verbal and nonverbal communications. It may prove frustrating at first, but in the end, doing so will increase your peace and contribute to the peace of others.   More

(1) Joseph Telushkin, Words That Hurt, Words That Heal (New York: William Morrow, 1996), 23.

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How Much is Peace Worth?

A sky-diver preparing to jump out of the planeWhat would you do for a quarter of a million dollars? Jump out of a plane (with a parachute, of course)? Parade around in a Mickey Mouse suit in hundred-degree weather? Eat a gazillion hotdogs smothered in red-hot chili sauce? Go swimming in Lake Michigan in February?

For that much money most of us would be willing to do any number of unpleasant things, as long as they didn’t involve moral compromise or danger to life and limb. But what are you willing to do today in order to live a life of greater peace?

I ask the question because the priceless peace we seek comes only from following the ways of God, which may not always feel easy. Sometimes they will feel downright unpleasant, at least at first. Here are a few examples. The woman filled with bitterness will need to pray for those who have hurt her. The man in an illicit relationship will need to break it off. The woman who has based her life on money will need to realize that everything she has belongs to God. The man who is too busy to pray will need to make time in his life for God.

So often the way toward peace is counter-intuitive, cutting as it does against our instinctive bent toward self-reliance, self-preservation, and self-aggrandizement. But since when does anything good ever come without effort?

If you desire the precious peace of God, decide today to listen for his voice and then do what he asks. Trust him for the results, and you will not be disappointed.  More

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Where Your Treasure Is…

A treasure chest full of coins and goodiesLately corporations seem intent on squeezing more work out of every person on the job. While technology has led to rapid gains, some of the gains have simply come from loading people with more and more responsibility, making them run like mice on a wheel. If you are an employee, there may not be much you can do about it. But some of us bring this kind of pressure on ourselves by the choices we make.

As the pastor of a large church, Jim Cymbala says that he sometimes sees people in his congregation who are working two or three jobs to get ahead. “They are going to expand their business,” he says, “make money for a rainy day, or buy a rental property here or a little side business there, and their assets will grow even faster. Yes, it means missing church on Sunday and missing time with their kids, but they use the old saying ‘Mama didn’t raise no fool, you know.’ In a little while, they tell me, their schedule will lighten up so they can give more attention to the Word and prayer, their service for the Lord, their marriage, their child-raising responsibility . . . soon, but not yet. At the moment, they have to virtually kill themselves for the almighty dollar.” (1)

Cymbala isn’t faulting those of us who have no choice but to work more than one job. He is only pointing out the importance of priorities. Scripture says, “Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be” (Matthew 6:21). A reasonable paraphrase might go like this: “Wherever your treasure is, there your time and money will also be.”

To seek and find more of God’s peace means we need to be ruthlessly honest with ourselves to discover what we really treasure. If we find that our treasure gauge—our measure of what is most valuable in life—is malfunctioning, we have only to turn to God and ask him to help us reorder our priorities.   More

(1) Jim Cymbala, Fresh Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 91.

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Beloved Enemies

I used to think I had no enemies. No one whoTwo fingers made into woman and man puppets with sad faces hated me. No one lying in wait to trip me up. No one with my worst interests at heart. But then I decided to redefine the word enemy. What if, instead of interpreting the word to mean someone who was trying to kill, attack, or take me down, someone who aimed bombs or grenades at me, I also applied it to people who are hard to work with or live with? People who sometimes offend me or who at times drive me crazy by the things they do or don’t do? Not wanting to label them as the Enemy, I started thinking of them as the Beloved Enemy, because often such people are close to my heart.

I imagine that many of those who sin against us most frequently fall into this category. They are husbands, friends, children, coworkers, and members of our churches. These are people we can’t get away from even if we want to. And most of the time we don’t want to because we care for them. Still, because we live in close contact with them, the offenses can pile up, affecting our relationship. This is particularly true when negative behaviors remain frustratingly the same. The husband who keeps those sarcastic remarks coming. The child who continues to act disrespectfully. The coworker who always jumps in to take the credit.

Precisely because such people are beloved, we owe it to them to tell them the truth about how their behavior affects us. And precisely because they are our “enemies,” we have to do our best to treat them as Jesus instructs: doing good to them, even if they aren’t doing good to us.   More

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Jesus in Distressing Disguise

A child pouting in conflict with parentsLet’s face it, children can bring out the best and the worst in us. Before I became a mother, I lived with certain illusions. I thought, for instance, that I was a better person than I am. Cool under pressure, generous, sympathetic, forgiving, someone whose mouth is normally under control. But then came kids, and along with them, unrelenting challenges and too little time and too much to do and buttons being pushed and my not always responding like the good woman I want to be.

At least there is one thing I’ve gotten better at since I’ve become a mother—asking for forgiveness. Having children has made me aware of how much territory God still needs to claim in my heart. I know how much I need his grace. And that is a good thing.

Mother Teresa had a lovely way of talking about difficult people. She called them “Jesus in distressing disguise.” I have found that it helps to use her phrase not just to describe others but at times to describe myself, as well. Whenever I disappoint myself by not acting the way I know I should, it can be easy to become self-condemning. To avoid this trap, I remind myself that Jesus still lives in me despite my many faults.

The next time you stumble, whether with family or friends, ask for forgiveness. And as you do, refuse to wallow in guilt about all your failings. Instead, be merciful to yourself, believing that God will help you. Don’t forget Paul’s counsel to the believers in Rome. Remember that God has given you the same mighty Spirit whose power raised Jesus from the dead. Surely that’s more than enough power to keep you on the path toward peace. More

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Making Peace With the Past

Woman's face with tear-filled eyesIt took guts for the woman to push past the men and through the door of Simon’s house (Luke 7:36-50). She may have recognized a few as clients. But no one was willing to acknowledge her in this more public setting. Inside, only one man turned to look, a smile in his eyes. It was the rabbi from Galilee.

Tears began rolling down her face in a great, purifying stream. Kneeling behind him, she caressed the rabbi’s feet, washing them with her tears. Then, as though she were performing the most sacred of acts, she slowly unwound strands of her coal-black hair, drying his feet and kissing them as she did so. With eyes still welling, she opened the bottle of precious perfume and began pouring it over his feet.

You have probably heard this story many times. But have you ever imagined yourself as that immoral woman? Perhaps it is hard to take on the role of someone who was publicly reviled for her sinful life. But is it so hard to remember the life you led before you surrendered it to Christ? For some, that life was marked by great darkness, by failures and sins and patterns of behavior that alienated us from God.

If that is the case in your life, as it was in mine, don’t let the memory of the past haunt you, overtaking your sense of God’s forgiveness. Søren Kierkegaard got the story exactly right when he said of this woman that “as she wept, she finally forgot what she had wept over at the beginning; the tears of repentance became the tears of adoration”(1).  Today, may our own tears of repentance be transformed into tears of adoration.   More

(1)  Søren Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), quoted in Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006), 169.

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A hand on the wheel of a wheelchairHe sat in his wheelchair in the corner of the church where there were no pews. I had never noticed the man before. As far as I could tell, he was by himself. He must, I thought, have a strong devotion to the Lord to haul himself into church on a blustery Maundy Thursday. He seemed surprised when I said hello after the service. Perhaps few people ever talked to him. I saw him again at successive services, always alone.

Why hadn’t I noticed him before? Perhaps because I didn’t usually sit up front. After my foot surgery, however, it was the only place that could accommodate a knee walker. Having only one working leg, by the way, is no fun. Every night for several weeks after the surgery, I shut the blinds on the stairwell so my neighbors wouldn’t be exposed to the spectacle of my crawling like an oversize ten-month-old up the stairs.

Speaking of spectacles, I created one when I invited my elderly mother to an Easter buffet shortly after my surgery. What was I thinking? I wondered, as the two of us bumped along the restaurant’s tiny aisles on our respective walkers. Since my mother couldn’t handle both a walker and a plate of food, I made several wheeled trips to the buffet table on her behalf, none of which were graceful and all of which were noticed by fellow diners, who gave me looks that seemed to say, “What are you doing here, anyway?”

No one was unkind. It’s just that, like most of us, they didn’t seem to tolerate differences that well. Like them, we may feel uncomfortable, uncertain how to respond—if we even allow ourselves to notice those who are unlike us, that is. Like the man at church whom I had never noticed before. I hope in the coming weeks to get to know him a little—or at least to greet him whenever I see him. Lord, help me to see him.  More

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Ever heard of the adviceA stop sign with "Start" painted over "Stop" to punch pillows or scream at the top of your lungs behind closed doors when you feel angry? Just let it out, and you’re sure to feel better? I don’t know about you, but punching pillows just gets me more riled up.

Words can rile us up as well, adding unnecessary stress to our lives. Compare the doctor who, before performing a procedure, tells you to expect some discomfort to the one who tells you it will be painful. Instead of enabling you to deal with the pain, the latter phrasing will likely increase it. Or what about the person who tells you that your future boss is the boss from you-know-where instead of explaining that she has high standards and can be challenging to work with? Listening to the former kind of talk will likely increase your on-the-job stress.

Similarly, our own words can stoke the fires of stress, even if we say them only to ourselves. Thinking we need to vent, we exclaim, “That’s unfair!” or “I hate this!” or “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard!” or “What a fool!” or “This always happens to me!” Instead of improving our mood, such statements only make us feel worse because they level a once-and-for-all judgment against people and circumstances. Strong words paint a bleak picture that will be hard to alter. Once we have leveled the charge, it is difficult to back away from our judgments in order to work toward solutions.

Stress is all about perception. If you feel backed into a corner, you likely will be backed into a corner. Knowing this, what should we do? One thing we can do is start tuning in, noticing how we feel whenever we or those around us employ such language. The second thing we can do is to tell ourselves, “Stop” or “Calm down” whenever we are on the verge of making such statements. Finally, we can ask God to help us to moderate our language. Doing so doesn’t mean we are ignoring or suppressing the feelings we have. It just means we are doing our best not to inflame them. More

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Old Dog, New Tricks

A bulldog looking up eagerly at its ownerMy brother, Jim, is a dog whisperer. His work is living proof that you really can teach old dogs new tricks. Take the dog that kept running away or the one that jumped up on people or the one that got into fights or the one that peed every time someone rang the doorbell. Jim has helped these and a host of other dogs overcome behaviors that make it difficult for dogs and owners to live in peace.

Though I don’t mean to insult the Holy Spirit by comparing him to a dog whisperer, even if the latter is my brother, I do want to make the point that the Spirit can help us respond to God throughout the course of our lifetime, regardless of how old or young we may be. That means you and I always have the opportunity to grow in peace, not because of any brilliance on our part but because of the brilliant help God is willing to give.

I was reminded of this yesterday. With my earphones plugged in so I wouldn’t miss a word of my favorite Masterpiece Theatre program, I couldn’t help but notice that my daughters kept coming into the room to talk to me for one reason or another. One was whining about an upcoming dentist appointment. The other wanted to know where the nail polish was. Then the two started arguing. Finally, long past bedtime, my youngest came in triumphantly displaying a tooth she had just pulled and asked if the tooth fairy would please deliver. You get the picture.

Before giving in to the usual temptation to let my irritation mount along with each new interruption, I had a sudden thought. What if all these interruptions were more than they appeared to be? What if they were simple opportunities for me to offer guidance, correction, or in the case of the tooth, celebration? So each time, off came the headphones as I responded to the situation at hand.

It was a small thing, true. But what if I could adopt the approach that every unwanted interruption is an opportunity in disguise? What if I could recognize them as the Holy Spirit whispering to me, inviting me to go deeper into the ways of God?  More

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“It Is Finished!”

A book spine labeled "The Story"If you read the Bible from the first to the last page, you will realize that the only parts that are completely happy are at the beginning and the end. There’s the first two chapters of Genesis, when Adam and Eve stroll with God through the perfect world he has made. And then there’s the last part of Revelation, when Jesus comes back, kicks the devil out for good, and establishes his Kingdom, world without end, amen. Everything else is middle. And a lot of the middle is about battle and suffering and confusion—a whole bunch of ups and downs.

Remember the last words of Christ as he hung on the cross: “It is finished.” I used to imagine this as a whispered sigh. But what if it was more like a roar? That would fit, wouldn’t it? Jesus, the great Lion of Judah, using his last bit of strength to shout out the victory. The devil was confounded, his power broken, his kingdom plundered. It must have been such an unpleasant surprise for Satan, who thought himself the great winner of everything as he watched the Son of God hanging in agony on a Roman cross.

As believers, we have the enormous advantage of knowing how the story ends. Because of what Christ has achieved for us, we know that our own stories will also end well no matter what we face in life. With this in mind it makes sense to live our stories from the middle with the end in sight.

But why start in the middle? Simply because that’s where God has placed us—somewhere in the middle of the mess we call life. Like the big story of salvation, our own story is filled with ups and downs. We experience both joy and sorrow. But we also know that in the end, everything will come out right for those who belong to Christ, and that should make our own personal downs more bearable. That’s what I mean by living with the end in sight.

What are you facing today—an illness, a divorce, a demotion, a disaster? Whatever your trouble, Christ has already said your life will turn out well because he has finished the mission he came to fulfill.  More

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