Sunday, January 29, 2012

Frozen in Place on a Hot Day

Being frozen isn't a very comfortable place to be. I grew up in the Midwest and since moved to milder climates. I remember the cold harsh winters of northern Ohio, especially the times when I worked as a hod for some bricklayers, including my late brother-in-law. Most of the time, we didn't work in the snow and really cold weather, but since it was feast or famine in that business, we worked when we could. I wore out many cheap pairs of jersey gloves carrying cement blocks and bricks and mixing mud with bone-chilled fingers. That job was one of my greatest motivators to get a college degree. Not that it wasn't noble work; we worked very hard and did quality jobs for people, took pride in our work and I learned important life lessons in those days. But, I didn't want to stay and had other ideas that required a college education. The winter days in Ohio, whether working, hunting, or playing brought on freezing cold hands, numb lips, cold feet, and slipping and sliding in treacherous driving conditions. It doesn't feel good to be frozen. 

I've been thinking for some time about what it means in a metaphorical sense to be frozen in place. There are many ways to find yourself there: stuck in jobs, habits, behaviors, grief, regret. Those and other conditions can trap us for periods of time, and it always seems best that we figure out how to move on. There is another angle from which to view this idea of frozenness. I wonder how many times I myself have frozen other people in a certain place in time. I knew a them in our past, lost touch with them, and then reconnected. My first inclination is to perceive them just as I knew them way back when, 15, 20, 30 years ago. Since I've gotten onto Facebook, I've connected with a few hundred people from my past. That's amazing in itself. While there is some criticism to be heard about the downsides of social networking, it's incredible to me that technology has made such far and wide connections possible. The first thing I notice is how friends' looks have changed. No great surprise, although sometimes a bit of an initial shock. 

People change outwardly, but also inwardly. People grow. I've been impressed by the growth I've seen in friends and acquaintances who I may have secretly thought would never amount to much. What a judgmental attitude! Here's a great revelation: People are able to improve given the chance and some grace! I've been thinking how much of a mistake it is to not allow -- in own mind -- my old acquaintances to grow. I feel I've grown in many ways, and I think I rob others and myself a certain joy by not giving them a chance to do the same. 

A judging spirit carries with it a natural ability to label, another way to say that we freeze people in place. Once a person does something that hurts me or disappoints me, it is easy to not allow them, in terms of my relationship with them, to get beyond that event or situation. They may well have grown, changed, and become better people and I just won't allow it in my own perception because of my own hurt and reluctance to forgive. This isn't an easy thing, this forgiveness business. But, I think the damage unforgiveness does to relationships is a great loss. I recently had a discussion with a many-years-ago acquaintance. We had recently renewed contact through Facebook. I made a comment on someone's wall and this person immediately tried to throw it into my face. I'm sure he figured "This guy is still just like I was years ago and hasn't changed." So, he judged me and condemned me without even really knowing who I was and had become to this point in my life. He froze me in time, in place, in character. Right or wrong, I let him have it with both barrels, not attacking him per se, but expressing my disappointment that he would make an unfair assessment of me and where I have come from since that earlier point in life. I didn't hear back from him and I'm not quite sure why. Maybe he just crossed me off as not worth the effort. I hadn't been caustic, just direct. In fact, I only defended myself by pointing out to him how I had been spending my life and I have been quite different from the stereotype he seemed to want to cast me in. The sad part to me is that we could have had a healthy dialogue and respect for one another, appreciating and discussing differences that exist without anger and accusation. 

Reading John the New Testament writer's story about a woman Jesus met drawing water from a well seemed to parallel my recent thoughts about this topic. I don't want to quote it here, you can read it yourself in his fourth chapter. This woman evidently had quite the reputation. Guys loved to sleep with her, so she married them, and eventually either she or the guy dumped the other. She did this five times. At the time of her introduction to Jesus, she had evidently given up on the idea of marriage and was just sleeping with a guy. The fact that she was drawing well water at noon is telling, a hot time of the day, certainly not the sensible early morning, cool-of-the-day event that most women participated in. She was alone. I imagine she wasn't welcome at daybreak with the other women, maybe some of them victims of her indiscretions, possibly having lost husbands to her lustful advances. A bit of reading between the lines, but not a stretch. The village of Sychar was a great place for everyone to know the business of everyone else. 

So, her presence among the others was not appreciated. This is a really great story John tells. There is so much to glean about the character of this Jesus I am learning to follow and how graciously he treats people no matter their place in life. I would like to focus though for a moment on this woman's frozen condition. Hot as it was in that part of the world, she was in a very cold spot. Any reception she would have experienced from the townspeople (unless they were men eyeballing her as eye candy with benefits) would have been accompanied by icicle-like stares. It was cold business being a loose woman in a hot little town. Thus, she was lonely at that well, on purpose, no doubt facing a future with the permanent label of the village slut. Frozen. Imprisoned in lust and time with no possibility for parole. 

Then she met Jesus. You've just got to read the dialogue recorded! It's fascinating. The thing about Jesus was his uncanny ability to see past the face of things, quickly dispatch slight of hand obfuscations, get to the core of the matter, and show love like no one else you or I have known. He fielded her muddled attempts at dodging the important issues and deftly moved her to a place where she could thaw out without great shame and embarrassment. You see, we think that shame and embarrassing people is a good way motivate them, to get them to see the error of their sins and change their behavior. Well, that may work to change someone externally for a time, to get them to obey the rules for a season, but what it really does is drive their pain and brokenness deeper. 

Guilt-tripping only extends the pain and really doesn't change anything in the end. What we know about Jesus is that he knows that guilt, condemnation, and shame do not grow people. Love does. Love changes people. Not the mamby pamby cowardice that masquerades as love, but the God kind of love. The love that has power to change, power to go as many miles as it takes to bring a person to wholeness. Sin is its own punishment. We don't need to pile on. The back-bowing weight of one's own mistakes and failures are enough. What people need is grace. People need to be loved out of their character flaws and brokenness. That, in my opinion, is one of the biggest mistakes that the Christian religion has made. Love with a hook. That is today's face of Christianity. But, it isn't the face of Christ. Jesus knows that the only thing that will change us is love. 

And so, our woman at the Sychar well was frozen. Frozen in her own pitiful attempts at finding love. Coldly detached from hope of life being any different. Jesus was the big thaw. Jesus doesn't do what we do by nature. He sees the end from the beginning. He sees that person in view of their potential, the person that we label and hold some grudge against for something they said or did to us maybe years ago. We didn't see the motivation behind what they said or did then, and we find ourselves with little capability of letting them loose from the cage we've put them in. We lose and they lose. We say we forgive, but not really, and we freeze them in their past; they suffer from our unforgiveness, and our relationship continues to bear the pall of feelings lying just under the surface and coloring all our communication with that person. 

This story about Jesus and the forgiven woman has two sides. She needed forgiveness -- which she received from Jesus, and the townspeople needed to forgive her. We don't know the totality of the story. But, we do know that when she went to tell everyone in the town about her encounter of love with the man whose name she didn't even know, one whom she was now believing to be more than just a man, they came in droves to hear him. And, John tells us that many in that town believed in him because of her testimony. 

Did they also forgive her? Was she able after hers and their belief in Jesus to go to the well at daybreak with all the other women? We don't know the answer, but if I was a betting man, I'd put my money on the power of love and forgiveness and its ability to go viral quicker than any other reality of life. 

Here's what I propose. I propose that you think about the people in your life, the good relationships, the bad ones, and the ones that always seems a little strained. Run your emotions through the grid of forgiveness. See if you've allowed yourself to freeze any of those people in their past, distant or recent. Challenge yourself with brutal honesty -- it's easy to kid ourselves. Be willing to take any part you've had in whatever level of cold war exists between you and them. Sure, forgiveness isn't the same as reconciliation. But, it's a start. And, if you can find the honesty within to own your part of the dysfunction, there may be hope. Or, just compartmentalize like most of us seem to have to do, and leave things alone. You can always put another layer of warm denial on and go your merry way. That's a pretty cold way to live though. Maybe Jesus can help, eh? 

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