I am indebted to insufferable stinkers for a good deal of the understanding I possess. The people I dislike the most, usually have the most to teach me.
I enjoy nearly everyone I meet, but I have come across some corkers. I think this is because God has so much to teach me about myself and love. When I hit a learning plateau, the Almighty with a sly grin sends a new teacher into my life to help me over the hump.
I work in a profession where my job description is to love everyone, including my enemies. Such an expectation holds one’s nose to the grindstone, as the Holy Spirit sets out to polish and refine her servants in the friction of human relationships.
I am grateful that love is deepened in us in this way, because if I could have discounted the difficult, or avoided the boring I would be far more difficult and boring myself. So I give thanks for all the needy, self-centered, mean-spirited, self-pitying, abrasive, annoying, and crazy, scary people, whom Christ places before me to welcome and love.
Without these opportunities I never would have discovered how much I have in common with such lack luster, irritating souls. I would have felt no responsibility to change my impression of them or curiosity about the source of my aversion. I would have missed out on the wealth of gifts they bring to me in their outstretched arms and infuriating ways.
I think you know the sort of people I am talking about: the ones who enrage you, disgust you, upset you, or frighten you. Among these are people who are so easy to dislike, that you may take a perverse joy in dwelling on their shortcomings and talking with friends about just how awful they are.
Forbearance is a word seldom heard these days, except in its legal sense as an agreement to delay a mortgage foreclosure. As the word appears in the Greek scriptures, to forbear means to refrain from doing something and refers to patient endurance and self-control. Forbearance is the virtue of bearing with another’s sins and weaknesses. Forbearance is more than refraining from saying what is on the tip of your tongue, rolling your eyes, or wringing someone’s neck. Love enables us to bear with one another; and disciplined prayer and self-examination help us to love.
Sometimes my negative response to another may involve my unconscious projection of some unattractive attribute of myself, which I have not fully accepted. We tend to see our own flaws more clearly, when they show up in others. The offending party mirrors my own vexing habit. Or perhaps the negative feelings I carry for some other person in my life become attached to the person before me, who has some resemblance to my nemesis, and the unwitting soul must endure my unconscious dislike of him.
Or maybe – I just do not know the whole story.
He stopped me at the end of the meeting. He was the kind of person who, if you were in a hurry, you might duck down a hallway to avoid one of his tedious monologues. The man took forever to get to the point and gave you a whole lot of details that didn’t seem all that important and led to long, winding digressions.
As I listened, I felt the impatience and irritation rising up in me. Yet, because I was called to love and accept him, I took a breath, prayed and listened. I watched my internal irritation, wondering what it might have to tell me about the man and about myself.
I began to see that what I was feeling was instructive and likely how others felt listening to him. How hard that must be for him. What was going on here? Why was it so hard for him to be clear and concise?
I sensed in myself anxiety. Was he anxious too? Yes, I could see that now. He was anxious to be heard, fearful of being dismissed, of being devalued, or ignored. I recognized that needy feeling to be approved and valued in myself.
Who had made him feel this way? Where did it come from in me? That was when, in a flash, I glimpsed his suffering and all I wanted to do was give this man my total attention and acceptance. I realized that it didn’t really matter what he was saying as much as receiving someone’s caring attention. There might be a time later to explore the roots of his digressions. For now I wanted him to know how it felt to be heard without worrying the person you were talking to was eager to walk away.
Compassion rearranged my calendar, and I had all the time in the world to listen.
Rudy Rasmus is the pastor of Houston’s, St. John’s Downtown, a church with one of the most culturally diverse memberships in the country. Speaking to the United Methodist Kansas East Conference in 2010, Rudy said, “The kingdom is big enough for all the people you are afraid of, or think are wrong, or that you can’t love.”
Of the 9000 members at St. John’s 3000 are or were formerly homeless. Part of Rasmus’ success is due to his ability to help his members learn to move past judgment to compassion. In his address last year he asked his audience to practice compassion. His exercise went like this:
With attention on the person [you are judging] say to yourself:
Just like me this person has known sadness, loneliness, and despair in his or her life.
Just like me this person is trying to avoid suffering in his or her life.
Just like me this person is learning about life.