Thursday, May 17, 2007

Love and Sacrifice

After reading the latest entry by one of my favorite bloggers, FancyPants, I found myself doing a lot of thinking about a lot of different things. I don't really have any answers to questions or any solutions to problems, but I do have a few thoughts that I hope will help someone.

My wife's mother has spent most of the past 20 years of her life giving up her own personal comfort and desires to care for other people. One by one, her parents and in-laws, as well as her husband (my late father-in-law) went through long, drawn-out illnesses that eventually resulted in their death. For her, this meant vacations were on hold, life was lived for the convenience of others, and many personal sacrifices were made to comfort and care for those who were closest to her, as they gradually became unable to care for themselves.

My mother-in-law comes from a generation where these sorts of personal sacrifice were considered commonplace. You don't fuss and whine about the hand you've been dealt, you buck up and do what has to be done. It meant that the people who had spent their whole lives working hard to give her a good life could spend their final years at home, in the care of family. They were able to die surrounded by the love of those closest to them, with dignity and tenderness, instead of in a cold, impersonal place where they would be all alone.

But when it's all said and done, hardly anybody has noticed the things that my mother-in-law did. She didn't get any awards or recognition, she doesn't get any sort of payment for her time, she wasn't left any richer or better off. She is a Christian, so maybe there will be some sort of reward for her in Heaven, but that's not why she did it, and I honestly don't believe for a second that such a thought has ever entered her mind. She just did what she thought was right, and did what she had to do.

Throughout the long history of the Church, I'd be willing to bet that an almost infinite number of acts of personal sacrifice and human kindness and decency have been done. Some, like a comforting hug or kind word, seem very small and almost invisible to anyone except the recipient of the kindness (and of course the Lord, who sees all); others have been huge acts of extreme selflessness and sacrifice, putting the good of other people before oneself -- even to the point of a willingness to be put to death for others, or for the sake and furtherance of the Kingdom of God. Most people of God who have gone before us have labored in complete anonymity for long years, many never really seeing the long-term fruit of their selfless sacrifices. We know the names of a few important figures throughout history, but for every one of those, there are a million others who simply did the right thing, and served the Lord in steady and anonymous quietness year after year, never complaining or expecting a reward or recognition.

Because of countless little sacrifices of others throughout the years, we today have a high standard of living, a great deal of personal safety and freedom, and a virtually infinite number of choices set before us. We can decide who and what we will be, and how we will spend our time. By our actions and how we spend our time, we state emphatically which things in our lives have the greatest value to us, and which things are relatively unimportant. It's one thing to say we love our neighbor; it's quite another to go out of our way on a busy day to spend some time just listening to someone talk, or giving someone comfort from loneliness.

If I were to say that today's generation is one that demands instant gratification and instant results, I would be correct. That's all we've been taught, really. But I wouldn't really be solving any problems or making a difference by pointing this out -- I'd just be another complaining voice joining in the continual chorus of criticism that we all hear every day.

So instead, I'll offer what I hope will be a word of encouragement to anyone who understands what I'm saying: Simply, don't grow weary of doing the right thing. Don't grow tired of doing good for other people, and don't buy into the lie that every act of value must be rewarded with a good feeling, or some sort of recognition -- or even an understanding of how our deed fits into the big picture. If the only thing you're accomplishing is to give some weary soul a few moments of rest, or a pain-stricken body a few minutes to forget about the pain, then you are being Jesus to that person at that moment.

Servants of the Lord engage in the work of Christ in tiny increments, over a long period of time. What other things you could have done with that time, or what other things you would rather be doing with your freedom, are among the sacrifices that you are making, and there are no promises this side of Heaven that you'll ever know what a difference you've made, or how much you really helped someone.

I know this is long, but one final thing: I know that whenever there is discussion of doing good works, the subjects of motive and "dead works" come up. That is, if you're doing the right thing for the wrong reason, then you are not earning eternal rewards. Or that humanitarian kindness apart from serving the Lord is of no real value, since it doesn't glorify Him. But I'm specifically addressing Christians with these words. So straight from the lips of Jesus Himself comes this: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Clear, unambiguous, without a bunch of fancy conditions. Obeying this action command from the Lord will involve self-sacrifice, and doing something for the good of someone else with your time.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Things I've Learned Lately

Since I rarely seem to blog, nobody probably noticed that I've been gone for a while. The main part of this time away was spent flying to Texas to get my aging parents all loaded up and moved to Tennessee to be close to family here. Everything went reasonably well, and after a very crazy week, I managed to get my parents, three cats, a yappy little dog, and a whole bunch of stuff (including a very heavy upright piano) moved here, all by myself.

Anyway, during these last couple of weeks, I learned a few things, in no particular order:

1. Houston is not the same place it was when I grew up there. I know that change is a constant, and Houston has been growing rapidly for many years, so no real surprise here. But it seems like it has changed very much for the worse. I grew up getting Season Passes to AstroWorld every year, and things were such that my best friend and I would get dropped off by his parents or mine literally about every other day during the summer, and would spend the whole day there -- alone, unsupervised, and frankly never fearing for our safety. AstroWorld closed a couple of years ago, apparently overrun by gang problems and neglect. Just a few days of watching the news in Houston led me to feel hopelessness and depression (I know that bigger cities have more people, and thus more crimes to report, but there just seems to be such a malevolent nature to a place that once seemed so much friendlier).

2. Southeast Texas is a giant, never-ending road construction project. Okay, I didn't really learn this, but I was certainly reminded of it way too much while there. I guess the sheer volume of traffic on the roads wears them down quickly -- that I can understand. But it also seems like the pattern is to plan a giant new highway project, and to tear everything up completely while working on it, and make everyone drive through ridiculously narrow lanes between cement barriers. Then, no sooner than they finally open the new, wider superhighway, they begin work on the next major upgrade to it. Trying to get out of Texas (from the southwest part of Houston) on a weekday seemed at first to go surprisingly well, as I cruised along the 610 Loop, thinking I had beaten the system by taking a sneaky route around town, avoiding stop-and-go traffic. Boy was I wrong. The entire east side of I-10 heading out was actually narrowed down to a single lane at one point (where they were widening a bridge or something), so traffic backed up for many miles and came to a standstill, for hours and hours.

3. I don't like humidity. Well, this isn't really a new realization, either. Middle Tennessee is nothing like the Gulf Coast, but we do have a few weeks every year during the peak of summer when it does feel sort of like that here. So I know I don't like it. But the humidity in southeast Texas is so constant, so heavy and oppressive. I don't recall it bothering me when I was a kid growing up there -- I guess it was all I knew. When we visited there during Thanksgiving a few years ago, my wife thought she was going to die. There we were, late November, and it was hot and muggy and very unpleasant, and we were sweating and could barely breathe. (Sorry, enough complaining about the weather -- some people probably like it hot like that -- and I realize that people do acclimate to their environment).

4. I hate being away from my wife. For so many reasons. She's my best friend, my lover, my biggest fan and second-harshest critic (I'm first), but so much of the time, she also seems like the glue that helps keep me together. I'm scattered, disorganized, and a whole host of other things, but somehow my wife manages to make me a much better person, on so many levels. I literally thank God for her every day and night, and being separated from her for any period of time is a stark reminder of just how much I have to be thankful for, and how much I need her and depend on her.

So anyway, it's good to be back home. I've been incredibly busy, and have a lot of work ahead of me, but things are great, and I really do have a lot to be thankful for. The Lord is good.