Once upon a time, when I was not yet a teen, my family moved from the city to a new subdivision in a small fishing village. The village was quite insular and the locals didn’t take kindly to outsiders, even those who had just come from 20 miles away. But among the insular villagers were two teenage boys – identical twins – who had been adopted by an older couple in the village. Like us, the twins were “outsiders”, and maybe for that reason they had taken on the role of the village’s unofficial good-will ambassadors. Their job was to smile and wave at every car that drove by, whether or not they knew the car’s occupants.
We quickly learned that our job was to smile and wave back.
Down the ages, I can still see those two boys waving.
Paradoxically a greeting and a farewell, waving is the universal gesture for both hello and good-bye. We usually reserve our waves for people we know, but sometimes we spread them around to strangers, like candy flung from a parade float.
I was taught, as a child, to wave at trains and departing ships, whether or not I knew anyone on them. I still do it. Yes, I’m that random person standing on the overpass or the dock, waving and smiling my fool head off. That’s me; guilty as charged. Sometimes someone smiles and waves back at me, and for a second we connect without touching or even knowing each other.
I mention the waving thing because, as some of you may know, I’m currently living on a former farm in rural Nova Scotia. It has a 100-foot driveway that gets professionally plowed when it snows, but the plow driver doesn’t have sufficiently delicate equipment to plow out the mailbox at the end of the driveway. I have to clear that myself with a shovel, or the mailman won’t deliver the mail.
We got a lot of snow this winter, so I’ve been spending a lot of time at the end of the driveway fussing over the mailbox. While I’m down there, I’ve taken to waving at passing vehicles. I’m not sure how that started; maybe the drivers were waving at me first, like people in the country tend to do, but it’s now developed into a full-blown wave-a-thon. My initial shy wave-like-the-queen tight little hand quiver has blossomed into a NASCAR start-and-finish-line full-body shout-out, which rewards me not only with smiles and waves in return, but also the occasional honk.
I know none of these people who drive by, and none of them know me. And yet there we are, smiling and waving at each other like the best of friends. And for the briefest of seconds, we are.
I’m not sure what kind of biochemical reaction occurs when strangers wave to each other. Maybe on a scale of 1 to 10, it spikes briefly at 7 or higher on the pleasure scale, but there’s definitely a spike. Otherwise people wouldn’t do it. There’s probably also an electromagnetic connection, with the energy from the connecting bodies interacting through invisible waves. Of course, I’m only making this up (I’m not a science nerd), but yet I’m not entirely unconvinced that the biochemical response produced by the physical waving and smiling induces electromagnetic waves that literally reach out and invisibly touch each other. I’m not unconvinced that that is actually what is going on when I’m waving my fool arm off to strangers and they wave back.
Waving is a natural booster. (No needles required!)
When Jesus healed people’s illnesses, he reached out and touched them. Sometimes the touching was hands-on, and sometimes it was done from a distance, but it always involved the gesture of reaching out – the people who wanted healing reached out to Jesus, and Jesus responded by reaching out to them. The reaching out was a form of stylized waving, or is waving a form of stylized reaching out? I’m not sure which way it goes. It sounds like a conundrum along the lines of what-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg? And like a conundrum, it’s not really meant to be solved, just mulled over.
I learned to wave at strangers long before I was born-again. It was handed down to me from my older relatives, like my wavy hair was handed down. It was inescapable. I can imagine my older relatives had learned to wave from their older relatives, just like all the strangers who wave at me likely learned to wave from their older relatives. Down the ages, we reach out in waves and briefly connect in waves, even just for a millisecond.
Sometimes that’s all it takes to heal someone’s day.
THE GIFT OF LIKE
Jesus’ one command to us, his followers, is to love our enemies.
Thank God he didn’t command us to like them.
That Jesus commanded us to love rather than to like is a very important distinction.
You can love someone without liking them. In other words, you don’t have to like someone to keep Jesus’ command to love them.
The world today is premised on likes. We see that now especially in social media, but it pervades every aspect of the world. Likes are in fact the realm of the world and are based on conformism to a specific ideal. They are also heavily weighted and guided by fleeting and superficial “feels”.
Love, on the other hand, can be surprisingly devoid of feelings. You don’t need to feel love in order to do love. Jesus taught us that loving is less a feeling and more a doing – you love your enemies not by liking them, but by praying for them and doing good to them, even as they curse you.
I have found it helpful, over the years, to remind myself of the distinction between liking and loving. It’s been particularly helpful over the last two years, when I’ve been stigmatized and exiled from society not for something I did, but for something I wouldn’t do (cover my face and inject drugs). I despise many of the values that now prevail in Western society. I despise and reject those values, but I don’t despise and reject the people who hold them. I don’t particularly like those people and I wouldn’t want to spend time with them (unless they, on their own volition, wanted to spend time with me), but I don’t despise them. The command is to love them, regardless of my personal feelings towards them.
Even so, I would never tell them that I love them according to Jesus’ command and that I’m praying for them. My words would be unwelcome. If they outright asked for my prayers, I would unhesitatingly tell them that they have them. But otherwise, I pray for them in secret, like Jesus taught us to do.
Knowing the difference between liking and loving and using that knowledge as the basis for how we interact with the world is crucial to living in the Kingdom. We cannot survive as born-again believers – or even call ourselves Christian – unless we love our enemies. But at the same time, we cannot in most cases love our enemies unless we also understand that we don’t have to like them.
Jesus’ command was not to like but to love. Again, it’s a COMMAND, not a suggestion. And like the other Ten Commandments, it has no asterisks after it, meaning there are no exceptions to the rule. No matter what people say, no matter what they believe or how they live their lives, no matter what side of the military or political or social battle they fight on, and no matter how they treat you or those you actually do like – you are commanded to love them, which means you are commanded to pray for them and do good to them. And because they will likely reject whatever good you would do to them, you need to do your loving of them in secret, without their knowledge and without fanfare.
As I mentioned at the outset, I thank God that I only have to love my enemies rather than to like them. But I find that the more I pray for and bless them, the softer my feelings grow towards them (although I would never show those feelings to them, because they would be unwelcome). The softening of my feelings is the presence of God’s Holy Spirit working through my obedience to God. The Spirit doesn’t work through fake like or love, only through genuine submission of the will.
Like Jesus, I submit to no-one but to God. God alone has my heart, and I willingly give him my will as well. And also like Jesus, I don’t have to give God my heart or my will – I’m not forced to do it; no-one’s forcing me: it’s something I choose to do. I have the capacity to do it and I choose to do it. There is no forcing going on.
When we do that, when we willingly put everything we have and everything we are into God’s hands, he can work through us. He can’t (that is to say, he won’t) work through us if we fake it; he’ll only work through us if we’re genuine in our submission to him.
Submitting to God means keeping his Commandments.
Loving our enemies is a choice we make; coming to like them is a gift from God.
I have to tread lightly with this topic so that my words of encouragement aren’t interpreted as condemnation. This is not condemnation. This is encouragement.
We all have a spiritual value. We are all equally loved by God, but we all have a different spiritual value that is expressed as a score. Some of us have a high value, some of us have a low value, and the rest of us have something somewhere in between. We can’t avoid having a spiritual value score. It can change depending on a wide range of factors, but none of us can opt out of having one. It’s calculated automatically in the spiritual realm and is perpetually being updated.
The world also assigns its own forms of valuation in the form of scores. China is leading the way in assigning a social credit score to each of its citizens, while the rest of the world, for the time being, only assigns evaluations such as credit and academic scores. Social media is rife with scores. When I was growing up, men assigned women a value out of 10 as a form of appraisal. (I think many men still do that.) We’re also assigned number valuations in the form of age, income, height, weight, vision acuity, etc., and scores on our various abilities and disabilities, including athletic achievements. Our intelligence is expressed numerically. All of these features are given a value that is almost always a number, so that eventually, in the eyes of the world, we become little more than a collection of numbers that hang off us like so many price tags fluttering in the appraisal breeze.
As born-again believers, we know that our worldly evaluation is unimportant. What people or worldly entities think of us is irrelevant. Our only concern should be our evaluation in the spiritual realm, so our spiritual value score is the one we should constantly work to increase. Counter-intuitively, however, we increase our spiritual value score not by focusing on it, but by focusing on God and his righteousness.
Again, I need to stress here that spiritual evaluation is not meant to discourage you. There is no need to be discouraged. Your spiritual value is in your hands. You determine what it is by the choices you make and by the words and images you choose to entertain within your own mind and to share with others. Unlike with worldly scores, your spiritual value score is not downgraded for failing to accomplish a particular task. In fact, sometimes our failures give us the biggest boost in spiritual valuation, because it’s not necessarily in the winning that we win, but in our sincere desire to do what’s right in God’s eyes.
In Old Testament times, there were hundreds of laws that the faithful followed in order to stay in God’s good graces, as directed by Moses. But we’re currently in New Testament times. Beyond the Ten Commandments, we no longer need to adhere to the Mosaic laundry list of to-do’s regarding purification, ritual, and sacrifice. Jesus took care of all that once and for all time by his sacrifice on the cross. But we do still need to stay in God’s good graces. We can’t go to Heaven otherwise.
So how do we raise our spiritual value score? This is a question we need to ask ourselves because we should always be aiming to raise our score, no matter how high we may think it is. We can’t know our score (only God and those he designates to know can know it); we can only guess our score, and we can definitely guess wrongly. Think of the parable of the sheep and goats. In the parable, Jesus divided them into going to Heaven and not going to Heaven. The goats he dealt with first, telling them they hadn’t made the cut and informing them why. They were shocked that they’d been condemned not based on things they’d done, but on things they hadn’t done. The sheep were also surprised to find that they were justified based on things they’d done without realizing they had even done them.
And that’s my point – we don’t raise our spiritual value score by checking off a laundry list of “to do’s”, like in Old Testament times. We don’t go out looking for people to help; we help whoever God brings to us to help. This is a critical difference. The sheep who were justified did all the right things in God’s eyes without realizing it; they just simply and quietly went about their lives righteously. The goats, on the other hand, ignored the cries for help of those God brought to them, and as such lived unrighteous lives. Even if they’d checked off every box of the Old Testament laundry list of laws, the goats would still have ended up condemned, because they chose not to help those God put in their path to help. Think of it as the Good Samaritan law that we’re all bound by and that’s encapsulated in the Ten Commandments and in Jesus’ command to love our enemies. There are no asterisks (*) in any of those commands denoting exceptions under special circumstances. That includes war.
I don’t know about you, but I want my spiritual value score to be as high as it possibly can be during my time on Earth. I know I’m responsible for it: My score is 100% my doing. I know it doesn’t go up by my checking off a laundry list of to-do’s, but by living righteously in God’s eyes. Whoever he sends to me to help, I help. Whoever he sends to me to forgive, I forgive. Whoever he sends to me to slap upside the head, I slap upside the head, but lovingly, so as not to discourage them. This is how Jesus lived and moved through the world, and this is how we’re to live and move.
I can only imagine how high Jesus’ spiritual value score was during his time on Earth. None of us can ever achieve that, but we can still aim for it.
WHY DID JESUS GO INTO THE DESERT FOR 40 DAYS AND NIGHTS?
Time, as the adage goes, heals all wounds. The passage of time – one tick-tock after another in steady, constant procession – also has the capacity to change one’s focus. Sometimes the best approach to conflict is simply to wait it out, to wait for the anger and emotion to fizzle out, to sleep it off.
In nearly every case, things do look better in the morning.
The two aspirins and a good night’s sleep are in fact all you’ll need to feel better.
But what underlies these changes and apparent miracle healings is time and the things that move and change under the surface and behind the scenes where you don’t (and can’t) see them.
Forty days and nights is a sizeable chunk of time. Throughout scripture, we read time and time again of the 40 day and 40 night timeframe. The rains lasted 40 days and nights during the flood, Moses spent 40 days and nights on the mountain with God, learning the Law and the laws. As well as spending 40 days and nights in the wilderness prior to starting his ministry, Jesus ended his ministry with the same timeframe, appearing 40 days and nights to his disciples and followers after his resurrection and before his ascension.
But why 40? What is so special about 40 days and nights?
I don’t know the answer to those questions. What I do know is what can happen to a human body over a 40-day period. It can change without trying to change. It can survive without food without dying.
It can change without trying and survive without food. I read somewhere that the average time a human can survive without food is 42 days. Jesus, after 40 days without eating, would have been emaciated but still functional. But why do this to yourself? What would be the purpose of fasting nearly to the point of death?
The advantages of fasting are well-known. They include physical as well as mental/spiritual/emotional benefits. I would suggest that one of the main reasons Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights was to gain an extremity of those benefits, and that the reason he went into the desert to do the fast was to change without trying to change. He let the isolation factor of the wilderness and the passage of time change him rather than trying to change himself.
Isolation brings you face-to-face with yourself. It also – and more importantly – brings you face-to-face with God, like Moses on the mountain. Full disclosure here: I have never fasted for 40 days and nights in a wilderness setting, mainly because I haven’t been “driven” to do so, as scripture says Jesus was. So I don’t know what happened to Jesus’ sinless mindset during that time, but it obviously was to his benefit and to ours.
From a purely practical perspective, Jesus left the Martha work (his carpentry) and the cares of the world behind. When your days and nights are not filled with your own and other people’s expectations of what you should or should not be doing, a massive amount of time and spiritual space frees up. It’s like in spring, when you open the doors and windows again to let in the fresh cool air after months of trying to keep it out, only instead of just opening the doors and windows, you also take off the roof and knock down the walls. All you have left is the floor beneath your feet, so you can walk and sit and lie down. You could even dispense with the floor, if you wanted to, and just use the ground.
This is what Jesus did. He walked and sat and slept and on the ground for 40 days and nights – no walls, no windows, no roof, and not even a floor. He had no daily rounds or tasks or carpentry orders. He didn’t have to prepare meals, or eat them, or clean up afterwards. He didn’t have to do laundry or make his bed. He didn’t have to make small talk. He didn’t have to solve people’s problems for them. He didn’t have to listen to local gossip or stay caught up on the latest news. He didn’t have to care about the cares of the world. Simply by relocating himself to the wilderness in isolation, all of the cares fell away. They left him as much as he left them. It was a mutual parting.
From a spiritual perspective, I can only speculate how the isolation and the fasting and the passage of time interplayed with Jesus’ one-on-one with himself and with God. But I get excited thinking about it. It’s like Jesus the caterpillar carpenter entered the pupal stage and emerged after 40 days and nights as the most beautiful of all spiritual butterflies. And all he had to do was to do nothing but be with God.
We ourselves may or may not someday be driven into the wilderness like Jesus. It may or may not be for 40 days and nights; it may or may not involve fasting from food. Each of us is different and has a different relationship with God. Jesus is our example, but we’re not cut-out dolls of him. We are, each of us, unique before God.
What Jesus had to do was very specific to his role in the Kingdom, just as what we have to do is specific to our role in the Kingdom. We follow Jesus’ example, but we don’t mimic him. We don’t go 40 days and nights without food because he did. We don’t wear a crown of thorns and carry a cross around because he did. We are unique before God. What Jesus had to do was between him and God, just as what we have to do is between us and God.
Even so, the benefits of fasting for a prolonged period of time were clearly demonstrated by Jesus. By “fasting” I don’t just mean fasting from food. It could be fasting from anything that takes you away from your focus on God and from doing his will. Time has a way of changing us without our trying to change ourselves. If you remove yourself from the influence of the world and open yourself to God by throwing open your spiritual windows and doors and knocking down your spiritual walls and roof – something amazing happens.
That’s a guarantee.
And then, when time is up and the fast is over, you take that amazingness back to the world, like Jesus did. You shed the caterpillar fluff, like Jesus did, and you get your wings.