Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Be Happy

He who despises his neighbor sins; But he who has mercy on the poor, happy is he.

                        Proverbs 14.21 (NKJV)

Poor Things

Years back a young woman from South Carolina named Audrey spent the summer with relatives who attended a church where I served as minister of music. We hit it off immediately and hung out together nearly every day of her visit. We lost touch after she returned home, but Audrey’s memory today is as vividly delightful as ever. She was one of the happiest people I’ve known—always up for adventure, yet also content to while away an afternoon over coffee. A gifted talker, she peppered her conversation with a wealth of catch phrases. When I think of her, though, one especially comes to mind: “Poor thing.”

I first noticed it when I took her to Hollywood. As we looked for parking near Mann’s Chinese Theater, Audrey spotted a homeless man no more than 40, slouched unconscious against a wall, apparently unaware he’d relieved himself. “Poor thing,” she said, and before we looked at star footprints, she insisted we leave him some money. I soon learned “poor thing” was how Audrey conveyed empathy, not sympathy. The impatient driver honking angrily in a traffic jam was a “poor thing.” The sullen box-office attendant was a “poor thing.” Teenagers hassling their waitress were “poor things.” Behaviors others despised Audrey viewed as shortcomings, often adding, “They just don’t know any better.”

Submitting to Sadness

In contrast, when another, older Southerner I knew saw similar situations, she invariably said either, “Ain’t that a shame!” or, “There ought to be a law!” She also had terrific senses of humor and adventure, yet as she aged, it grew increasingly obvious deep down she was miserable. Proverbs 14.21 explains the difference between one’s joy and the other’s moroseness. Audrey related to the sorrow behind bad attitudes, and mercy she extended—often in passing, out of hearing—nourished her happiness. The other, however, never perfected the art of looking past her personal worldview to see the frailties and ignorance driving actions that affronted her. By not tolerating others’ failures, she inadvertently submitted to sadness. Yes, it was a shame. And, as it turns out, there was a law—not one lost in the fine print of Deuteronomy, either, but a basic rule Christ taught over and over.

Judgment is Blind

In Matthew 7.2, Jesus says, “In the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” He enlarges on this by defining eagerness to condemn as lack of self-knowledge. “You get all worked up about a speck of sawdust in your neighbor’s eye,” He says, “while paying no attention to the plank in your own eye.” It’s not a matter of denying our faults are more serious and debilitating than those we find in others. It boils down to ignoring them—or worse yet thinking we justify them by leveraging intolerance and shame on others. We say Justice is blind; it disregards surface differences to uphold universal principles. But judgment is blind also. It flails against problems it can’t see plainly or completely because bigger, darker blind spots impede its sight. “You hypocrite,” Jesus says. “First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

We can’t see, let alone address, sadness in others with untreated sadness in our own lives. This presents a dilemma only resolved by turning logic on its head. Not fully seeing sadness in offenses against us, we know—actually, assume—it’s there. We stop judging to practice justice, ignoring appearances to love our neighbors as ourselves. We empathize, showing mercy before fully perceiving its merits. By judging, we submit to sadness, further blurring our vision. Forgiveness dissolves sadness from our eyes. “He who despises his neighbor sins,” Proverbs 14.21 tells us. “But he who has mercy on the poor, happy is he.” To be happy is to be merciful, sight unseen.

Poor things. When we stop judging and show mercy, we see enormous sadness behind their hateful actions.

(Tomorrow: Watch What You Eat)

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