Pat on the Back

pat-on-backBe careful not to practice your righteousness in front of people, to be seen by them. Otherwise, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give to the poor, don’t sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be applauded by people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-4)

It’s difficult to walk the line of being an example for others without calling attention to yourself. We want to encourage and challenge others, but we need to do so humbly. And that’s difficult in today’s social media-saturated culture. There are so many voices screaming for everyone’s attention.

But maybe that’s not all that different from the past. Sure, the method of delivery, speed, and availability might be different, but the inundation of voices have probably been challenging in different ways through the years.

And no matter the specific challenges, humility will always be in style. Well, perhaps not in style, but a good goal to have.

Same God, Different Christians

62e0069d78ce2f22a84bf424a23eccd2I took my daily walk along the beach, all the way to the turnaround point…the end of the property, marked by large rocks. I don’t know who owned the rest of the shoreline. It had no houses on it, and sometimes a few people were on the beach or in the water, but they looked local, not like me, a visitor.

This day, I saw a man and two dogs. At first, I saw only one dog in the water with him. I stopped to watch for a moment, because the dog was a lab and reminded me of my own. The lab stayed close to the man’s side as they swam into shallow water. That’s when I saw the second dog, a German shepherd, probably less than a year old. He was running back and forth along the water’s edge, very excited but also very unfocused. The shepherd met the lab and owner as they came out of the water. As the shepherd jumped around and played, the lab looked at his owner for instruction and affirmation. The owner leaned down and talked directly to the shepherd, then whistled and spoke a command that I assume told both dogs to follow him into the water again. He was training them. The lab stayed by his side. The shepherd began to follow but only made it a few feet into the water before deciding he’d rather run along the shoreline. I assumed the owner had brought along the older lab as a role model for the young pup in training. The lab stayed focused. The shepherd stayed unfocused.

They had the same trainer but were at different phases of their lives and training. I’m sure their dispositions were different, too. One had more experience.

I thought of how we as Christians must look to observers at times. We all talk about God, but our behavior is very different and quite confusing. When people look at some Christians, they might think they get an accurate picture of who God is, but then someone else responds to Him and represents Him differently. We know why. We know we’re different people; God created us to be unique. We’ve had different experiences, different amounts of training. We have different baggage and temptations. It makes sense to us. We can be different but serve the same God. But to others, our differences might seem confusing, as if we don’t respond to God well, or, as if He’s incapable of creating any kind of consistency in us.

Our faith isn’t just about our behavior, but we have to acknowledge that our behavior is often the only tangible thing people see of us. We have to be willing to show them more, to be authentic with our struggles and obedience. To answer questions and not get defensive when people seem to accuse us or God because of the discrepancies they see. God is a creative God. We are different. But He is the same God.

He knows who is watching us at all times, and He knows how to use us–our obedience and our distractions–to reveal Himself to others. Are you willing to follow Him through the good times and the messy times, not just for yourself but for others to see, too?

Reaching

I walked along my favorite trail recently. It’s built where a railroad track used to be: a long, straight, flat stretch, including a couple old bridges, a tunnel, and…lots of trees. The trees vary in type and age. I don’t know much about trees, so I can’t give you many details except to say I love the way they make the path feel secluded (when it actually runs alongside a major road).

As my feet shuffled the colorful leaves littering the path, I looked above at one of my favorite qualities of the trail: the canopy of trees. The trees on either side of the trail grow toward the sky and then – well above my head and reach – begin to lean and then reach toward the middle. Each side reaches for another. The branching limbs reaching across the trail and intertwining with others reaching from the other side look like arms and hands. And I think…

We’re a lot like these trees.

We reach for relationships. Sure, some of us reach faster and more assertively than others. Sometimes we’re bold; sometimes we’re shy. But we want to connect in some way. We’re created for relationships.

So we reach and connect… We entwine ourselves with others, which prompt us to bend in unexpected ways. The winds blow, and we get bumped and scratched. We don’t grow well in some positions because we lack the nourishment we need.

Reaching and connecting might not look or feel great in particular situations. But take a step back to see the bigger picture. It’s not just about me, you, us. It’s about community.

The trees reach into an archway, beautiful to see and helpful for protection. The reaching branches create a trail for some animals and insects and a home for others.  The curves of the branches create runways for water and windows of sunlight for smaller plants beneath and among the trees.

You’re going to live in community with others. Take a step back to see the bigger picture. Are your relationships…

  • a (beautiful) example for those around you?
  • (healthy) protection for others?
  • a path for others as they grow?
  • a place where people feel they belong?
  • nourishing for those all around you?

Sometimes my relationships feel more like the uncomfortable bending, bumping, scratching, lacking nourishment kind. How about yours? Take a step back with me.

We’re part of a community, and we won’t see much of the impact our relationships have on others. As we reach for relationships, we entwine in such intricate ways that we don’t see the costs and benefits of every aspect of our reaching. One thing is certain: our relationships don’t just impact us personally.

Keep reaching. Relationships are difficult, but connecting with others is worth the reach.

I do not mean that I am already as God wants me to be. I have not yet reached that goal, but I continue trying to reach it and to make it mine. Christ wants me to do that, which is the reason he made me his. Philippians 3:12