rd. 2 Cor. 11. We all sense we’re supposed to be more “present” in the moment. We know we’re supposed to be present to ourselves, our experiences and our relationships. But for reasons we can’t quite identify, the harder we try to be present in the moment, the more we find our minds drifting. So we tell ourselves more sternly to be more mindful. Yes, yes, we think. Trying harder will do the trick NOW. We’ll try harder to try harder!
If you go to Gwyneth Paltrow’s blog, for instance, as my daughter instructed me to do, you can find a link to a man with a non-BBC yet nevertheless soothing English accent instructing us to be more “mindful” of our food. He shows a cartoon picture of an apple and reminds us to consider the people who labored over making our apple. Ah yes, we say, scooping a mouthful of sticky rice up in our chopsticks. We will think in gratitude of the people who brought us this our daily bread. We picture the kind Thai gentleman bending over a rice paddy in bare feet and a bamboo conical hat in the beating sun… then we remember we haven’t planned our next vacation… then we remember we’re worried everyone we go on vacation with might fight… then we call a friend and go for a walk to discuss the in-fighting in our homes… then we realize we’ve finished our rice and haven’t tasted a single bite.
Gah. Mindfulness has melted away! What’s a person to do? How can we live in the present? Why does trying harder to be mindful somehow backfire? It shoots us into the past or the future or bogs us down in anxieties.
I would suggest that the best way to be mindful isn’t trying harder to FEEEEEL our bodies in the chair, or to force ourselves to imagine our food growing in the sun and rain. Instead, the way to be mindful of our present is to focus on the heaven in our future. Paradoxically, bending our minds forward grounds us in the moment. The reason is that focusing on the glory of heaven lifts the “mud” off our present. The light of what our future holds transfigures our now. Here’s what I mean:
We can take any grief that haunts our present – no matter how big or small – and ask ourselves what it is we really want. We ask ourselves to picture the idealized perfect, the core of our desire. We realize that we don’t like our present for the very reason that it falls short of the perfect. So we could despair over imperfection, or we could lie to ourselves and say we’re fine with imperfection, OR we could choose to remind ourselves of how extraordinarily that desire for perfection will be fulfilled when Jesus returns.
For instance, to take a small example, if we feel irritable because we don’t like our name, or someone calls us the wrong name, or someone calls us a belittling name, or we’ve gotten divorced or remarried and no one knows what to call us, including ourselves – we can remember that in heaven, we will have a new name: “I will give him a white stone with a new name engraved on the stone, which no one knows or understands except he who receives it.” Rev. 2:17 No wonder being called the wrong name irritates us. We’re not petty, after all. We’re bothered because deep down we know names matter. We sense we are all made for our own perfect name – one only God and we will know and understand. How cool is that?
Or if we feel tired, we can remember that in heaven we will run and not grow weary. If we feel sick, we can remember that Jesus heals all our infirmities. If we are dissatisfied with our relationships with our spouses, or wish we had a spouse, we can remember that in heaven we will all in some mystical mysterious way be “married” to Jesus in a way that satisfies our deepest longing for intimate one-flesh connection. If we long for close relationships with our children, brothers, sisters or parents, we can remember that in heaven we will be one spiritual family, knit together in Christ’s love. If we’re weeping, we can recall that in heaven there will be no more tears.
There is no problem we have now that won’t be given its fullest and most perfect solution and completion when God’s kingdom comes. We’re not wrong to long for the perfect. We were made to want God. So a heaven focus satisfies our God-given desire for perfection. That in turn enables us to enjoy the good of this world unmarred by a troubling anxiety that the things of this world aren’t perfect. Our longing for perfection must be satisfied, daily, hourly, moment by moment, by recalling heaven to our conscious selves, in order for us to be truly thankful and present for the imperfect moments on earth.
To further illustrate the paradox of how being mindful of heaven brings joy to the present on earth, let’s look at the troubling phenomenon of how we find ourselves putting up with being treated poorly. We all do it, to greater or lesser degrees. We know it’s dumb, but we do it anyway. We’re horrified by stories of battered wives crawling “home” to their abusive husbands, because in those extreme stories we see a mirror image of ourselves.
For instance, in the Broadway premier of THIS IS OUR YOUTH, we see the classic tale of one guy treating his friend like dirt. Kieran Culkin’s character calls Michael Cera’s character names, swears at him, belittles him, demeans him, jumps on him, cheats him and hits him. Cera’s character whines, complains, frowns and pouts. For two hours. Not only is it disturbing, it never goes anywhere. The only time tension enters the stage is when the pretty Jessica arrives. When pretty Jessica leaves, the tension leaves with her.
But the very thing that makes the play boring – the static relationship between the two young men – raises a very real and interesting question: why do we all put up with abuse? The apostle Paul describes this universal phenomenon with these words in today’s chapter:
“After all, you think you are so wise, but you enjoy putting up with fools! You put up with it when someone enslaves you, takes everything you have, takes advantage of you, takes control of everything, and slaps you in the face.” 2 Cor. 11:19-20.
So why do we put up with fools? Paul goes so far as to accuse us of enjoying being mistreated by fools. Ouch. The easy answer is insecurity. But let’s go deeper. What does the abuser give us? Attention? But why? Why do we want even negative attention? What’s the spiritual explanation. Idolatry? Do we “worship” the person abusing us? Yes, of course. Our hearts are idol factories. We all put up with abuse in all sorts of situations – work, love, parenting, friendships, you name it – because we think we “have to have” whatever it is we’re getting from that situation. But again, why? What is it we’re getting from these abusive relationships and how do we break free? Is the problem that we buy into the abuser’s narrative? Do we accept their story that they’re superior to us? Do we sub-consciously agree that they’re a sort of god, or hero, as Cera puts it in THIS IS OUR YOUTH?
Ah ha. Yes. But here is where the problem is subtle and the solution, yet again, is to consider what we will have in heaven. The reason we put up with fools is that this kind of worship of an abusive person is “half right.” Half may be too strong a percentage. Let’s just say it has a grain of truth. We are all imperfect creatures who find our true selves in worshipping the perfect. BUT….. But what we’re really made for is to be lesser creatures who worship God. And because of the cross, it’s a redeemed love. We’re created to worship a God who, when we cast ourselves at His feet in the dust, He lifts us up and says: CLEAN! When we humble ourselves before God and ask for forgiveness, God “sees us” as perfect because He covered our sins with His sacrificial death on the cross. In other words, we lesser beings are made to worship a superior being who lifts us up and treats us as rightful sons. God shares His inheritance with us. He hands us a free entrance ticket to heaven, paid for by His blood, not ours. We’re safe in that worship. But when we displace that kind of worship into worshipping a human, we’re not safe. We sense there’s a rightness in the unequal nature of the relationship – but we’re pointing at the wrong god.
So once again, the solution when we find ourselves “putting up” with mistreatment by fools, is to ask ourselves what we really want and how we will get that in heaven. When we imagine how perfect God is – how loving, wise, merciful, forgiving and kind – we no longer find any desire to worship a human who claims to be superior to us. When we picture God embracing us even though we are fools, we find the courage to walk away from fools on earth. We find ourselves smiling and shaking our heads at some new indignity, rather than raging at it. If we consider the undeserved but beautiful treatment we’ll get in heaven, we find the courage to walk away from a person who: “enslaves you, takes everything you have, takes advantage of you, takes control of everything, and slaps you in the face.” Again, the focus on the future by definition gives strength for the present.
There’s another possible reason we put up with fools. Allowing fools to keep mistreating us may be a subtle and misplaced form of revenge. Why do we let others take advantage of us, and then find that we keep trying to win their approval? Maybe once someone takes advantage of us, we find ourselves wanting to make them feel really bad about it. So perhaps we go on being nice to them, over and over, to rub their faces in the fact that they made a mistake about us. Ha, ha, we sub-consciously think. You’ll see. I’m awesome and you totally messed up and NOW you’ll realize it! Of course, the problem is that the person who takes advantage of us probably has a hard heart toward us. That means that no matter what we do, they’ll never see it in a positive light. They’ll always ascribe a negative motive to us. And the fact is, they may not have been right the first time they mistreated us, but if we keep on tolerating their behavior to make them feel bad, they are right. We are doing the right thing for the wrong reason, which makes us therefore just as low as they are. Sorry, but it’s true. If our motive in being nice to someone is to make them feel badly for the way they treated us, we are NOT being loving. That’s not love. It’s just revenge gone sour.
The solution is so liberating. Instead of remaining in bondage to mistreatment out of revenge, we can remember that in heaven there is no room for human revenge because God’s justice is perfect. His justice was satisfied on the cross. He forgives and asks us to do the same. We can remember that in heaven anyone who chooses to believe in Jesus will walk in a land of grace. That means we will be filled with the joy of knowing we’re there based on what God did for us, not for those few things we did for God, the few times we actually managed to be pretty selfless. We’ll be totally free of performance anxiety. We’ll be filled with mercy. We’ll laugh with each other about how petty we were on earth. We’ll shake our heads ruefully at the memory of our silly pride. And we won’t even understand for a moment how easily we put ourselves in the power of each other, especially the most abusive and unfriendly people we know.
Because in heaven we will all be swept up in the power of God’s incredible individual merciful love for us all. We’ll clutch our white stones to our hearts, knowing God has a secret name for us that only He and we know. Allowing ourselves to believe something too good to be true, transfigures things of this earth that are too bad to admit. We can face the realities and truth of the present, with its perils from rivers, perils in the city, perils in the desert places, perils in the sea; its sleepless nights; its hunger and thirst; its cold and heat; its anxieties and cares for those we love and can’t protect. We will find a peace that enables us to end all denial. We can trust that no matter who tries to hurt us, if we trust in God we will escape through their fingers, just as Paul was lowered out the city of Damascus through a window in the wall in a basket.
We can embrace the imperfections of our days, knowing and trusting that one day, everything will be better than we could have ever imagined, world without end. Amen.
posted by Caroline Coleman on October 15, 2014. To see more posts, return to the Home screen and scroll through a list of topics on the far right.