I have long been intrigued by the lessons nature teaches us. When I am intentional and aware, over and over something around me in creation has something new to say or to remind me of a truth I need to hear once again.
A few weeks ago the sky in Snowmass was filled with smoke from distant fires elsewhere in Colorado. Our normal blue skies were occluded by the smoke for several days. If a visitor to the area had been here for just that 48 hour period, that visitor may very well have left with a mistaken assumption of what our skies generally look like.
Similarly, 49 years ago this month, my family moved to Los Angeles. In Southern California, fog and low clouds are the norm on many June days. When the fog and clouds clear, the area is often left with hazy yellowish skies with little distant visibility. The week we moved, sure enough, the mornings were gloomy with fog and the afternoons choking with smog.
But then it happened. One morning there was no fog. Instead winds began to blow and the air cleared. From our backyard, the San Gabriel mountains jumped out at me and I was astounded by their beauty and size. Had I only seen the normal June gloom, I never would have known such mountains even existed.
These two snippets are a great reminder of the importance of both perspective and sample size. As the saying goes, not only can you not judge a book by its cover, you also cannot judge a book by one page of content.
We are human beings. The vast majority of people are doing the best they can during this tough time. We all deserve some slack. That said, I have caught myself and seen others exercising snap judgments or opinions in response to seeing or hearing something.
It was just this week, when this happened, I was reminded of what nature has taught me over and over again. That is, there is often far more happening than we can see in the immediate moment and one moment in time is, more often than not, insufficient to reach informed accurate conclusions.
When you read stories in the four Gospels, there are numerous occasions when a person or group of people dismiss the importance of perspective and sample size. Said another way, in the Gospels and in our lives now, sometimes we forget that there is often a backstory, another truth, or something not obvious in a given moment that have a lot to say about what we are observing in a situation or in another person’s actions.
Just as particulates impede seeing a clear sky, when we forget the importance of perspective, sample size, and backstories, such things can act as particulates in our ability to see the whole story, understand context, or in fact empathize in what we are observing in the actions and words of another.
Jesus was a master at seeing the whole story of a person’s life. Because he did so, he was present in the lives of others precisely in the ways they needed the most. It is my prayer for all of us, that we will keep the image of particulates in mind when we are with or around another human being. When we do so, we too may be able to be just what they need at the moment as well.
I was quite excited the other day when our 20 year old daughter connected her i-phone to my car stereo and played song after song from bands I grew up with, including the Eagles. The group certainly was filled to the brim with extraordinary talent, including Don Henley. On one of his solo albums, he worked with Mike Campbell and JD Souther and together they wrote the song, “The Heart of the Matter.”
It is a beautiful song about love lost, the pain a relationship can bring, and how moving on can be a challenge. Here are just part of the lyrics. “I’ve been trying to get down to the heart of the matter. But my will gets weak and my thoughts seem to scatter. But I think it is about forgiveness.”
While forgiveness certainly is central to our walk with Jesus, the line, “I’ve been trying to get down to the heart of the matter,” caused me to pause and in fact think about Jesus and his life. Upon reflection, it seems that Jesus spent much of his time compelling people to go deep, down deep inside, in order to explore motives for taking or not taking certain actions. Motives for taking a position or not. Motives for a decision.
Just some of the questions Jesus asked those around him include, “Why would you not want to heal a person just because it is the Sabbath Day? Why would you want to stone the woman when you yourself fall short every day? Why are you so concerned about the words of what a law says more than the intent of the law? Why are you afraid? Why do you think some people are more important to God than others?”
In addition to these and hundreds of other questions Jesus asked his ultimate question. In essence he asked people, “What is the heart of the matter? In other words, what really is this all about? What is driving you? Where is your heart in all of this?”
As I think about my own actions, inactions, words spoken and words withheld during this time of vast upheaval in our country and world, I feel compelled to ask myself, “What is the heart of this or that matter for me? Where is my heart?”
In asking such questions, I realized that some of what I have done or not done, said or not said is based upon my heart being in the right place. A heart filled with love. That said, I have also recognized that some of my actions and words have come from a place not of love. A place where there is fear and a need for control or power. A place where I like being right. A place where what I like and am used to is at the forefront. A place in which I am in charge.
But Jesus was crystal clear. The heart of the matter needs to be love. Love of God. Love of others. Love of ourselves. Love drives forgiveness, selflessness, humility, flexibility, empathy, compassion, the ability to listen to vastly different perspectives, intimacy with God, and an openness to the movement of God within our lives.
So I invite you to join me in spending some time pondering our actions and words and feelings as of late. Where are they coming from? What is the heart of the matter? How much does love have to do with it? I am confident that when we take the time to reflect in such a way, we will find burdens lifting, replaced by God’s peace that passes all understanding, for God is love.
As our world continues to change dramatically and as the implications of the pandemic evolve, I, like many of you, have missed many things about the way things used to be. Such missing has led me to thinking about so many people who have left this life and now are across the horizon with God. Although he has been gone nearly 21 years, my dad has been on my mind a lot.
He was an amazing fellow and certainly was and remains a big part of my life. His words and actions have influenced much of what crosses my mind. The other day while watching some of the news on the riots, I thought of my dad. In the late 1960’s to 1971 my dad was mayor of El Paso. As a border city there were many challenges. But somehow, across racial, economic, and border divides, many problems were solved.
In 1970, as some of you remember, the Kent State killings happened. It was on May 4th that National Guard troops killed 4 students. The response across the nation was immediate. Protests, both violent and non-violent, exploded on many university campuses.
As mayor, one day my dad was in his office when someone entered and told him that students on the campus of UTEP, The University of Texas at El Paso, were protesting and things were getting out of hand. Several suggested that police arm themselves and dress in riot gear in response. My dad would have nothing of that.
Instead, he insisted that the police remove their weapons, go to the campus, and distribute massive quantities of ice water to the protestors. It was a brutally hot day in El Paso. He also asked the police to tell protestors that the mayor was immediately on the way to meet with them. There was no violence. Conversations began that day that continued for some time between my dad, university officials, the police, and students. I believe it is important to point out that my dad was a Omaha Beach and Battle of the Bulge 1st Army survivor. Weak and conflict avoidant he was not.
Recalling this episode has caused me to think about my own actions, words, and thoughts over the last several days and at other times of national turmoil. I have asked myself some tough questions, some answers of which I know, are compelling me to do some soul searching.
I’ve asked questions such as, “How do I respond when something upsets me? Are my thoughts about this and that likely to be thoughts that bring about peace, healing and resolution, or are they divisive, angry, mean-spirited, and far from empathic? Am I a peace-maker at heart? How can I be the presence of Christ for others when there is conflict? Do my words serve as weapons or as ice water? Am I willing to realize that my worldview is limited and there are other perspectives I will never understand, but I can listen? How can I be a unifying presence?”
While there are other questions, I know I have work to do. As followers of Jesus, we are all on a journey, but I believe that while we are in different places, our Lord invites us to his ways of doing things.
Before Jesus died on the cross he said to one of his followers, “Put your sword back where it belongs. All who use swords are destroyed by swords.” Our walk with Jesus must be one that yields peace, healing, unity, understanding, and love. Yet let us all remember that this is the hardest path there is because such a path led to Jesus’s crucifixion by those who sought, embraced, and lived by the alternatives.