There are two types of people in this world. Those who by all means necessary avoid being affected by others; and those who open their eyes, their ears and their hearts to the people around them. In other words, there are the cowardly and the courageous. I would know. I’ve been both.
There was a time in the not so distant past that I thought courage was plowing forward in the name of progress unscathed by the world around me. When I thought of bravery I thought of public progress and ministry achievements and projects accomplished. When I thought of bravery I thought of the courage to risk trying something new, but I never thought that had much of anything to do with the people around me, unless I was somehow influencing them to dare with me to achieve success. I never for one moment thought courage could mean allowing myself to be influenced through genuine connection with others. That didn’t seem all that brave. In fact, sometimes that seemed altogether foolish. An open heart is a heart with defenses down, a heart susceptible to pain of all sorts with ramifications like disappointment and loss and letdowns and even a broken heart. And if the heart wasn’t ambushed by emotional catastrophe of that magnitude, it would always be vulnerable to it. How could a vulnerable heart ever be anything more than a weakened heart? And how could a weak heart ever be a brave heart?
I didn’t quite know how to articulate this avoidance of well, to put it frank, really caring about the people around me. And if you would have asked me if I loved people, I would have told you, “Of course I love people! I’m a Christian, and that’s what we Christians do.” But love is not something ignited by mere association, just like holding a match close to a candle doesn’t actually do the job of lighting it aflame. No, the wick must collide with the fire in order to burn. Love is never the result of surrounding yourself with religious duty. Love is what happens when one’s heart comes in direct contact with Jesus.
I would never have labelled myself uncaring towards others. That is not the sort of thing believers brag about. But I found my subtle ways to wear my detachedness like a badge of honor. I was quick to mention to others that I hardly ever cried. I prided myself on being great in the midst of crisis- making quick, tough decisions unaffected by my emotions. When others experienced the disappointments that came with loving people like rejection and longsuffering and conflict and compromise, well, I patted myself on the back for never really having to deal with all that ‘drama’.
Don’t get me wrong; I had many friends and was there for them when they needed me and served others at church and preached sermons about loving others and gave godly advice on relational issues… all while conveniently distant from actual people. Sure I would be there for others when they needed me, but rarely did anyone ever have the opportunity to return the favor. I wouldn’t let them close enough to know how to even offer that. And my serving from the outside may have looked commendable, but up close it was a clever way of always being too busy to be deeply moved. And it was quite easy to spout out godly advice on how to bear with one another or carry one another’s burdens or to forgive one another when I wasn’t vulnerable enough to be burdened or hurt enough in the first place to need to forgive.
I thought I was smart. But in reality, I was scared. Because let’s be real, it’s scary, it’s downright terrifying to allow someone else to affect you, shape you, mold you, change you. It means you aren’t in control anymore. It means your life isn’t entirely your own anymore. It means your will is now subject to a mysteriously magnetic force we call Love.
Maybe that’s why so many of us settle into a distant routine with Jesus instead of an up close and personal relationship with Him. We can all show up to church for an hour and a half once a week and listen to a few Christian podcasts and own a Bible and know the lyrics to a few worship songs. That’s easy. It’s shockingly easy to give off the appearance of knowing Christ, without actually getting to know Him. To know Jesus is to wave the white flag of surrender, willingly let down the gates to the draw bridge of your heart and relinquish control as you let Him in. When you are bold enough to not just know about Jesus but begin to actually know Him, walk with Him, and learn from Him; you are opening yourself up to being deeply affected in every possible way.
Of course, in theory we know that is a good thing. When we take Jesus at His word, we believe He is eternal life. And yet, somehow it seems easier to trust Jesus with eternity than to trust Him in the here and now. Yes, He offers us the promise of Heaven, but He wants to begin unveiling it piece by piece, day by day, moment by moment as we dare to get to know Him in our present lives.
For many of us that kind of up-closeness with Jesus or anyone for that matter is truly terrifying.
Following Jesus with an open heart is the bravest thing we could ever do. And not just because it guarantees we will change in ways we never could have predicted, but because inevitably opening our hearts to Jesus will lead us to the sometimes frightening task of opening our hearts to others as well.
And that is precisely where my journey with Jesus has led me… to go from the distant and detached, the unmoved and unaffected to the woman of compassion and joy and yes, at times grief, I am becoming in connection with others.
Where does that leave me?
For starters, I can no longer pride myself on my lack of tears. They now flow freely and sometimes inconveniently, I might add. I may still be able to work well under pressure, but now in the midst of the pressure I feel a deep connection to the people affected by the decisions I make. It’s overwhelming at times, painful at times, but always a sacred space for me to experience the help of the Holy Spirit. And I can no longer comfortably observe from afar what I once deemed the absurd messiness of loving others and being loved. My heart is now covered with the dirt and dust of heavy foot traffic. My soul is now full of fingerprints and smudge marks and carpet stains and worn out armrests from people I have welcomed in.
The messiness of humanity is messing with me, and I am better for it. To put it simply, I am affected by people and it’s having an effect on me.
I am affected by the man sitting next to me on the plane ride who is struggling to find meaning after a car accident has left him unable to continue the career he had built for the last twenty years. I am moved by his loss and his lost-ness, and still find myself regularly praying for him.
I am affected by my friend who at 39 years old is in many ways starting her life over again, hoping this second go will be much better than the first. I am inspired by her courage and full of hope for her future.
I am affected by my 3-year-old nephew who at the end of the day still wants to cuddle and laugh and giggle and whisper silly nonsense for a few minutes before saying “good night”. I am overwhelmed by his simple love and child-like faith.
I am affected by my new friend and her husband who after a miscarriage last year are praying and believing to get pregnant again. My heart is saddened by their struggle and at the same time confident this is not the end of their story.
I am affected by a girl named Gisele in Honduras, whose home I visited with Liberty Foundation, and as we sat in that small space in the middle of one of the poorest neighborhoods of Tegucigalpa, she began to cry and share how difficult it is to grow up without a father. Her tears gave birth to a deep conviction to do what I can and use what I have to make sure she knows she is not alone and not forgotten.
I am affected by my parents and my sister and every single time I hug them I secretly don’t want to let go. My heart wells up with gratitude and childhood memories flood my consciousness like the scent of a familiar and pleasant aroma reaching my nose.
I am affected by the entrepreneur I met who came out of great poverty to become successful on Wall Street and who now spends his spare time helping men in his community out of homelessness and into well paying jobs and better futures. He challenges me to believe in people and to draw out the best in them.
I am affected by the elderly couple holding hands and smiling at one another as they walk down my busy Brooklyn street. A smile forms on my face as I imagine my someday wrinkly and gray-haired self looking into my old husband’s eyes with content and joy.
I am affected by the missionary couple I met this past week who have given up so very much to care for physically and mentally disabled children in Africa. The way they love these children disregarded by so many gives me a greater glimpse of the love of God.
I am affected by new friends who cheered me on as I sang karaoke loudly and off key this past Friday. I am thankful for simple moments with good people full of laughter and nonsense.
I am affected. I am connected. And I am being changed. I am daring to care and the result is a revolution of an internal kind. And I am starting to understand the ramifications… All this daring to care is simply daring to become more like Jesus. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say, Jesus is using my interactions with people to make me into someone else, someone braver than I thought I could be. Braver and kinder.
I have along ways to go, but I have a feeling that as long as my heart stays open that even with all my flaws and shortcomings and failings, I will be able to say at the end of my life that I really lived. I don’t want to waste my life avoiding pain or numbing away feelings or abdicating my responsibility to others and staying so busy I excuse myself from vulnerability and intimacy. I want to be present. I want to see people and love them. I want to share in their pain and share in their joy. I want to give. I want to contribute. I want to win and lose, not independent of others but with others and for others. And most of all, I want Jesus to lead me in all of it. I want to be affected by Him in every way possible, connected to Him at all times possible and changed by Him in every area possible. I want to be with Jesus, and I want Him to teach me how to be with others. It’s brave. It’s daring. And my friends, it’s the only way to really truly live.