Practicing Love

Growing up, the weight of deep obligation haunted me every week following Christmas and my birthday. My mom would provide the small cards, the envelopes, the stamps, even the pen. But what would I say? A lack of words left me with a lack of motivation.

This was the dread of writing thank you notes. I knew I needed to do it, but the only reason I had been given was that I wouldn’t get presents again in the future if a thank you note wasn’t written. Those kind of threats work for a period, but eventually it made me hate the task more. How dare you hold my presents for ransom? What kind of person does that?? Good, solid kid logic there.

I always imagined I would reach adulthood and burn all the thank you notes, refusing to do any more.

The practice is too deeply rooted though. It still is not something I enjoy or look forward to, but once I’m in the middle of it I am reminded of the value of the practice itself.

Thank You Notes

By writing thank you notes, I learned how to express gratitude. It conditioned me to find the good in something, even if it wasn’t what I asked for. Each note grafted writing on to my heart, teaching me how to use words and express myself with the diligent effort of putting pen to paper. As my writing ability improved, the notes themselves became a way to say the words I was too shy to say aloud. Thanks. I love you. You are important.

Now, when I write a thank you note, I try to intentionally do two things:
  1. Show my sincere appreciation.
  2. Affirm that person’s value.
We don’t do these things enough. Whether it be verbally, through text, or by physically writing it out, it can seem awkward to tell someone how you feel and praise them for what they have done. I know not everyone gives or receives love in this way, but perhaps that is because we haven’t practiced it enough.

Imagine a world where we practiced different ways of loving people and learned how to feel love in all those different ways. It requires understanding someone else’s needs, showing concern for their perspective, and being open to a different point of view. The world would be a much lovelier place.

Love, like gratitude, is something that needs to be practiced. It can feel like a burden at first, something you don’t know how to start and resent any obligation to. But those are excuses that create a distance of heart, guarding ourselves to the point that no love can get in and no love can get out.

The world is already dark enough, let us practice living a life that brings more light.

I dare you to do something out of the ordinary to express your gratitude and love for someone else this week. Write a thank you note, do the dishes, give a hug, buy a present. You may not know where to start, but by the act of beginning has a magical way of giving us the momentum to continue.

Practicing love intentionally grows love that then becomes unintentionally easier. Even when the effects aren’t seen immediately, it is always worth the effort.

How do you feel about writing thank you notes?
In what ways do you practice love?

When Defeat Meets Gratitude

It seems I dropped off the map again this month. After moving to a new city I rotated through days like playing cards during the game of War. Each day was slapped down in hopes for a high card, a winner. Although they say there is an equal amount of every number card in the deck, it is easy to forget facts and feel as if every day was a 2 or 3 draw instead of an Ace. The low card days involved endless job applications, rejection letters, and a lot of Netflix.

Most post-grads and twenty-somethings can relate to this feeling because we have all lingered in the limbo zone between college and real life. We watch our friends get jobs and secretly resent them, we wonder what we are doing wrong, and we like to blame anything else while still feeling as if it is entirely our fault that life doesn’t come together perfectly. It reminds me of riding Autotopia at Disneyland – technically the track is guiding my car but I still have to steer and it ends up as a bumpy, lurching ride where I leave feeling like a bad driver (and forget that this ride was created fifty years ago).

If I am honest with myself this last month included just as many high card days. I explored beautiful parks full of leafy pathways and ocean views. I met new people with interesting stories. Now at the end of the month, I technically have three jobs: two are seasonal retail positions I picked up to get me through until I could find something more permanent, but as of last week my third offer is a real-life adult position with normal hours and salary pay.

But even as I rounded the bend of a more positive outlook, the skies darkened with bad news from the world outside. I sat in my empty apartment Monday evening refreshing the news pages until finally the result came out: not indicted. This was lower than a low card, it was like throwing a joker on the deck. The worst part was that I wasn’t surprised.  Another defeat, another night of violence, and the war rumbles on.

There has been a lot of conversation regarding this issue, and in a moment like this I do believe that God gave us the feeling of anger to allow the pangs of injustice to seep into our hearts. It is more than ok to grieve and be angry – it is necessary.

But what we do with that anger is another story. I think the distinction comes from gratitude – because there is ungrateful anger, that disrespects other people’s safety and property in rage, and there is grateful anger, that understands grace enough to remember the ways we have been forgiven and use the pain to make a positive change.

Isaiah 53: 3-6 reminds me of several important points in moments of grief and suffering:

     He was despised and rejected by men,

          a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.

     Like one from whom men hide their faces

          he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

     Surely he took up our infirmities

          and carried out our sorrows,

          yet we considered him stricken by God,

          smitten by him, and afflicted.

     But he was pierced for our transgressions,

          he was crushed for our inequities;

          the punishment that brought us peace was

               upon him,

          and by his wounds we are healed.

     We all, like sheep, have gone astray,

          each of us has turned to his own way;

          and the Lord has laid on him

          the iniquity of us all.”

What a comfort to know that Jesus has felt every degree of injustice, he knows personally the experiences of those who are ostracized, and that through his sorrows he gave us the gift of undeserved peace. This is the message I need to remind myself of when it feels like the world might never be fair, when I wonder what has happened to the noble cause of equality for all people, when it feels like history is repeating itself in the bleeding lashes of racial misunderstanding.

Although it may seem impossible to be grateful during a time like this, it is actually more fitting that we should celebrate Thanksgiving in the midst of pain so that we can remember the core of what we really have to be thankful for. Even if I didn’t have a job yet, or if our justice system continues to be faulted, there are fundamental parts of life to be thankful for that I tend to forget.

More than any other holiday, Thanksgiving should be the one to remind us about other moments of injustice and racism that occurred in our history, as well as how we can transform that pain (without forgetting it) into a beautiful thing. Despite the inaccurate and misrepresented history behind the day itself, what it represents now is what makes it great. Even our holidays deserve forgiveness for their past mistakes–as Christians we can acknowledge that the history behind Thanksgiving was actually horrible, but Jesus calls us to move beyond bad history into a future of redemption. The pilgrims slaughtered the Indians, and Paul persecuted Christians. One went on to write a portion of the Bible and found the church, so maybe the others can move past their history as well. Let’s celebrate Thanksgiving the same way we live as Christians, not dwelling on the sins of our past but on a future of reconciliation and hope. We can grieve and learn from our mistakes to change systems of injustice into opportunities for redemption.

On every side of the story in Ferguson there is pain. Beyond Ferguson there is also pain, despite every rejection letter or the months without jobs or any moment of defeat, there are still things to be thankful for. We all have our own grievances, our own guilt, and our own low-card days that we must work hard to recover from. But the good news of Jesus comes with gratitude–no matter how heavy the injustice or the pain we should remember “the punishment that brought us peace was upon him.” Jesus knows that pain, and he will sit with us in our grief. But he can also provide us with a peace that passes all understanding, and being thankful for every moment is what allows us to move forward into a world that does amazing things in spite of pain.

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet 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