This message was preached at Darlington United Church on Sunday the 14th of June 2015.
A BLAZING FIRE was roaring through the forest and the animals gathered at the shore of the lake in order to swim to safety. Unable to swim, a scorpion attempted to convince a tortoise why he should give him a ride on his back. Unconvinced, the tortoise replied, “You are my natural enemy, how can I trust that you will not sting me while we are in the water?” “That would be foolish!” replied the scorpion, “For then we would both die – trust me, I won’t sting you!” So the tortoise allowed the scorpion to climb on board, but half way across he savagely stung his rescuer at the base of his neck. As both animals sank to certain death the tortoise cried out in despair, “Why did you do that?” to which the scorpion replied, “Because it’s in my nature to sting!”
Like the scorpion, there is something in us as people that when confronted with someone we do not naturally like, rather than befriending them we reject and hurt them.
Is it possible to love difficult people? And if so, how do we do that?
The place to start is by acknowledging the inherent worth and dignity of all people. The Jewish philosopher and author, Martin Buber, proposed the idea of the “I – Thou” as the basis for relationships. He simply meant that when we regard another person as a “thou” instead of an “it” we see them as another human being created in the image of God and this profoundly changes how we relate to them. We no longer view them simply as an object or unworthy of our attention but as a fellow traveler through life and in need of love and friendship – just as we are.
“Love springs from awareness” wrote one author, “…the first ingredient of love is to really see the other.”
Looking at people through God’s eyes – created in His image – enables us to treat them with respect and dignity.
It also helps to ask the question “Why?” I am sure many of you have been in social settings with a group of people where anything from sport to politics or the latest book or movie is being discussed. In my experience there is usually one person present who does not quite fit in. They can be extremely introverted or they make a comment which causes such awkwardness in the group that they are politely ignored for the rest of the evening!
For many years it was my habit to make a judgement on people like that and it was not a positive one! But in recent years when I have been in similar situations I have increasingly found myself asking the question “Why?”
“Why is this person like that?”
“Why do they think that way?”
“What experiences in life have they had that causes them to speak or act like that?”
By asking these questions it allows me to stop and think for a few moments about the other person, who they might be and what they might have been through. This does not mean that I will find all the answers to my questions but it slows me down long enough from making a harsh assessment of the person and writing them off.
Something else that helps me to love difficult people is to also admit that there have been times (many!) when I have been the difficult one, the member of the group who did not quite fit in! As I look back over the course of my life I can remember times when I have said or done things that embarrassed or alienated people but I can also see how many of them showed me grace. Their care for me moved beyond mere tolerance to that of genuine friendship and love.
To remind myself that I need others to show me grace helps me to then extend grace to others as well.
It is a difficult thing to love difficult people but when we do we grow as people and so do many who are the recipients of our love.
The 24th June 2013 was a day that forever changed the lives of Selina Bello and Peggy Alexander-Kew.
Selina was five months pregnant and working with her Mum, Angela Ferullo at their hair dressing salon in Como, Perth, Western Australia and Peggy had been a loyal customer of theirs for the previous four years.
Suddenly, around 10.30am a man charged into the salon brandishing two hunting knives and demanding to know where Angela was. The man was Angela’s ex-husband and also the father of Selina.
In this tragic encounter all three women were stabbed by the man with Peggy bravely staring him down and telling him to leave – she had even managed to hit him over the head with a salon chair!
Although Selina (and her unborn child) survived the encounter her mother tragically did not.
Angela died as a result of the wounds inflicted upon her when she threw herself between the attacker and her pregnant daughter.
Reflecting back on that day and what she witnessed, Peggy has no doubt that Selina would have been killed had her mother not sacrificed her own life to protect her. It is little surprise, given the ordeal that these women endured, that Peggy and Selina today share a special bond.
Angela’s sacrifice and bravery – in literally laying down her life for her family – blows me away when I think about it and it poignantly illustrates the depth of the loving bond that a mother has for her children.
Experts tell us that this bond develops between a mother and child while the child is in the womb and I believe that it is an unbreakable bond. I have seen it in the eyes of my own wife Karen for our children and also in the way she has loved, cared and nurtured them over the course of their lives. And it is a love and nurture that continues to this day despite the fact that they are now grown adults, some with children of their own! I truly believe that she would also lay down her life for them.
It is interesting to note that the Bible also acknowledges the intensity of the love that a mother has for her children. Hosea 13:8 uses the imagery of a female bear who has had her cubs stolen from her – such is her love for her lost cubs that she is both fearsome and ferocious in her efforts to retrieve them. It may be going a bit far to suggest that human mothers would go to the same lengths to protect their own children but in the case of Angela Ferullo giving up her life for her daughter and grandchild, is that not a love that is both fearsome and ferocious?
I am deliberately trying to not overstate my case but I also want to point out that the love of a mother for her child is a beautiful gift from God intended to provide children with an environment in which they are raised in safety and security. What a loss it is for the child who does not know the sweetness, tenderness and nurture that a mother’s love provides. A mother’s love is truly one of God’s greatest blessings.
I am also amazed at the bravery of all three of these women – Peggy, Angela and Selina – both during and in the aftermath of this awful tragedy. Bravery that confronted and stared down evil in the face; bravery that produced incalculable sacrifice and bravery that has enabled the two survivors to rebuild their lives. We often speak of the brave exploits of men and rightly so. But there are also thousands upon thousands of women, both past and present, known and unknown, who have shown tremendous bravery in the face of the worst of circumstances. Among them are women I have met in Africa who have witnessed unspeakable atrocities committed against their families and yet somehow they find the courage to serve God, love people and live.
This Mother’s Day pause and offer a prayer of thanks to God for the provision of a mother’s love and the security that it brings to all human relationships. And thank Him also for the courageous women in our world and in your life – what a wonderful gift they are!
The mid to late Eighteenth century was a high point for British navigation and exploration of the world. In 1770 Captain Cook charted the Eastern coastline of Australia and in 1789, following the mutiny on the Bounty, Captain William Bligh navigated a seven-metre boat carrying 18 other crewmen 6701 kilometres to Timor and safety.
It was an era of remarkable acts of courage and seamanship but there was one thing every seaman feared: running their ship aground on an uncharted reef which inevitably signalled disaster for both ship and crew.
The problem was not so much running aground on our coastline’s numerous reefs but the high likelihood that waves would pitch the ship on its side. Constant pounding of the ship’s topside by waves crashing over the reef would quickly break up the ship – a possible death sentence for those on board.
Captain Cook had a close call when the Endeavour ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef, near to Cooktown as we know it today. Although the ship did not immediately pitch onto its side, Cook ordered the crew to dump into the sea whatever was unnecessary to their immediate survival, including the ship’s valuable cargo and protective cannons. During high tide the lightened ship might then float off the reef towards shore.
The plan worked. The Endeavour and its crew were saved because Cook made the hard decision to throw off whatever was literally dragging the ship down to a watery grave.
Think in terms of your life being like a ship which has to navigate its way across the sea of human existence – our experience of life. At the end of the journey we all like to think that we will make it to port, to a safe harbour, secure in the knowledge that we have journeyed well.
Along the way we experience times when our ship of life is sailing well; the wind is for us and we make good headway. But sometimes the wind is against us and there is the ever present danger of unseen “reefs” that we can run aground on.
The “reef” may be a marriage breakdown or a rift with a close friend. It could be the loss of a loved one, a life threatening illness, depression or a breakdown. These reefs are threatening, they are very real and from time to time the ship of our life will crash into them. But they need not spell total disaster!
Like Cook, when we hit the reef, it is time to take stock of the situation, assess the damage that has been done to our “ship” and if necessary, throw overboard the excess cargo that we are carrying that will then enable us to re-float our ship.
The Apostle Paul spoke exactly of this experience when the ship of his life ran aground on the biggest reef he had ever encountered – the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. Years later when he wrote about this experience Paul described his life as a ship that was filled with valuable cargo – his Jewish heritage, his ancestral lineage, his religious fervour and his commitment to the Jewish religion – but he came to the conclusion that “whatever was to my profit I now consider loss” (Philippians 3:7). In other words, the very things that he regarded as being valuable and that would assist him to gain a right standing with God he threw overboard that he might “gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). Paul knew that he had to throw off everything that would hold back the ship of his life from making it safely to shore.
The reason all of this is possible is because of what took place at the first Easter some 2000 years ago. Christ died for the sins of the world on Good Friday and then rose physically from the dead on Easter Sunday to demonstrate His victory over sin and death. And since that time, millions of people have found hope and security in Jesus when the ship of their lives have been threatened to be sunk by the reefs of life. By throwing overboard the cargo that held them back from knowing Jesus they have discovered new spiritual vitality, forgiveness from sin and the knowledge that their ship will safely make it to shore at the end of their journey.
What do you need to throw overboard this Easter?
FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS the family unit has been understood as the foundation stone of society, a place where children are raised to take their place in society as mature, responsible adults and where healthy relationships with others are nurtured and encouraged. Often described as the “nuclear family” it was generally regarded as consisting of Dad, Mum and the children. Author Dale Kuehne describes this model for the family as inhabiting what he calls “tWorld” and it was essentially built around relationships of obligation.
In tWorld an individual was born with several obligations: first to family, then to one’s neighbourhood and finally, to the nation. These relationships of obligation gave an individual both security and fulfilment. An individual’s identity and happiness in life was found through the successful carrying out of your responsibilities to those around you. For example, you cared for, respected and loved your parents and other relatives because they were a part of the family you were born into. You took your place as a responsible, contributing member of society because that was what good citizens did. In return, you enjoyed the benefits of love, acceptance and security that came from being a part of a cohesive family unit and community. Individuals found their personal fulfilment through the successful carrying out of their obligations in these relationships. In contrast to iWorld, the idea that an individual found happiness through the free exercise of their own personal choice was totally foreign! In fact, as Kuehne points out, the only area that the inhabitants of tWorld could exercise personal choice was in the area of friendships – there was freedom to find happiness in the choice of who your friends in life would be. The old saying, “You can choose your friends but you cannot choose your relatives” comes to mind!
This does not mean that tWorld was perfect. Far too many people found themselves in relationships of obligation that were suppressive and extremely harmful to their development. Because of the stigma associated with divorce that has prevailed in society many people remained in marriages that were loveless, ultimately doing enormous damage to themselves, their wider family and especially their children. In particularly tragic circumstance many women remained in physically and emotionally abusive situations because of a sense of “obligation.”
But tWorld is a good description of the world that we once inhabited because it describes the traditional view of the family unit that has been so prevalent and which we are very familiar with. If you want a picture to illustrate this type of family then think of the Brady Bunch: Mum, Dad and the kids all working together as a cohesive unit, the parents dispensing their wise advice when required and everyone seemingly able to work out their relationship differences with humour and grace. Of course, given the darker side of tWorld previously described above, many of us would feel that a picture of the Addams Family would be a more accurate depiction of the family unit!
It is clear to most of us however that we no longer inhabit tWorld but iWorld, a world where the rights and choices of the individual have trumped obligation and the number one goal in life is to achieve personal happiness through the free exercise of those rights and choices.
When I reflect on tWorld what captures my attention is the way in which the Apostle Paul addressed that situation. Writing to a tWorld audience in Colosse, Paul told the followers of Jesus there that they were to live out their faith in their family units by exemplifying sacrificial love, mutual respect and fairness toward each other. (Colossians 3:18-4:1). This was a radical idea because the tWorld that Paul and his readers lived in was one where the man had total power and women and children were regarded as second class citizens.
To such a world Paul says to followers of Jesus; ‘Live differently! Let your faith show up in that most testing of environments, the family unit and show the world the difference that Jesus makes to all of our relationships.’ It was a call to the people of tWorld to live contrary to their culture a call that is equally valid to the members of today’s iWorld. The question is, “How can we do that?” Let’s explore that next month!
The Bond franchise recently announced plans for the 24th movie in the series including the oldest ever “Bond girl”, 50-year-old Italian actress, Monica Bellucci. Commenting on why she won the plumb role, Bellucci seemed un-phased by all the hype because after all, as she told the press, she had “beauty and talent!”
Bellucci’s comments are grating to me, not so much because of their obvious self-focus, but more so that it highlights a prevailing attitude grafted deeply into the culture of our time – that beauty, talent and an emphasis on me and my happiness is what really counts.
Author and pastor, Dale S. Kuehne calls this the iWorld which he writes about in his book, Sex and the iWorld. The essence of iWorld, he says, is an emphasis on the right of the individual to make personal choices that will lead to his or her personal happiness and fulfillment regardless of what traditional boundaries may be in place and which are also perceived as restricting one’s personal satisfaction with life.
To put it more bluntly, in iWorld every boundary is up for grabs if it seeks to restrict your right to make your own choices about what is right or wrong.
We have been moving into iWorld for some time now.
Twenty years ago I asked a newly engaged couple who wanted me to be their celebrant, “How long do you think your marriage should last?”
Normally the couple will respond with “forever!” but on this occasion the prospective bride’s response surprised me: “If it lasts 10 years, well it lasts 10 years; but if it doesn’t, well so be it…”
As I explored this answer with her, it became clear that the idea of committing yourself to another person for the rest of your life (as opposed to her notion of a commitment based on “as long as we both are happy/still in love”) was a completely foreign concept to her.
I realise I may come off sounding quite critical here – I do not intend to be. I simply want to highlight that over the past 40 to 50 years we have moved from a society based on the belief that inter-personal relationships also include thoughtfulness, love and care for others to one where the individual self and personal happiness is exalted above everything else.
The culture of iWorld strikes at the very heart of marriage and in fact, all relationships. For a marriage to grow and blossom it requires two people who not only love each other but who are also committed to the responsibilities and sacrifices that characterise that love.
Promising to stay faithful to your husband or wife at the exclusion of all others requires just such a love.
Getting up to care for a screaming child late in the night while your wife catches up on her own rest requires just such a love.
Listening to your husband’s complaints at the end of a long day at the office requires just such a love.
Sitting through numberless hours lost at your child’s school awards ceremonies most definitely requires just such a love!
But in iWorld, no such love is required or even expected. All that matters is that you are happy and in discovering that happiness you do not restrict another person’s right to their own happiness.
This does not mean that everything about the world that we have moved from was always right and beyond criticism. Kuehne bravely acknowledges this fact about our former world, a world he describes as tWorld. But he does pose this interesting question: Which world will provide us with our best chance of lasting happiness – tWorld, iWorld or is there another option?
In seeking to answer that question we must understand the world that we have come from and the world in which we currently find ourselves before we can consider the possibility of a better alternative. Kuehne believes there is a better world and so do I – I invite you to explore this with me over the coming year as we seek to both grow and find fulfillment in our relationships with each other!