I sat at the kitchen counter in silence this morning, raw honey poised over bitter tea, Bible open to this morning's Gospel, and it hit me in a way that it never has before today. Late last night, I read an email from a reader that began, "I stopped reading your blog because it always made me feel bad about myself. Everything in your life is perfect and if it isn't, you spritualize it until it is."
Stirred the honey into the tea, grateful for the sweet that chases the bitter.
I get some variation of that email pretty often. Usually, my reaction is to be sure that I write something very soon after that makes it clear that I'm not perfect, my kids aren't perfect, my life isn't perfect, and none of us are under the delusion that any of it is. Perfect. This time, though, it didn't hit me that way. This time, I sort of understood what she was getting at.
I read places and come away feeling less than, too. It's not so much about perfection, it's more about something seeming being better :: more peaceful or more beautiful or more hopeful or holier. My favorite social media is Instagram. I love a picture. I really, really do. I love the way a picture can tell a whole story. Instagram (and all its sisters) is a slippery slope towards filling in all the blanks outside the frame and making a false idol of one's neighbor.
Yep. False idol.
Them are fighting words. I have to tell myself that fighting false idols is critical to my spiritual health. This morning, reading today's Gospel, I thought about that email.
As Jesus was passing through a field of grain on the sabbath,
his disciples began to make a path while picking the heads of grain.
At this the Pharisees said to him,
“Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the sabbath?”
He said to them,
“Have you never read what David did
when he was in need and he and his companions were hungry?
How he went into the house of God when Abiathar was high priest
and ate the bread of offering that only the priests could lawfully eat,
and shared it with his companions?”
Then he said to them,
“The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.
That is why the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
In my early internet days, it was easy to see the Pharisaical Danger. That is, I could spot what looked like pharasaical behavior in the women who read other women's words and judged those women's lives "not holy enough." It seemed cut and dried. I'd been hurt by those women, and maybe that's why that kind of pharasaical behavior really wasn't a temptation for me. I learned to avoid those places and, to a great degree, those people, on the web and in my day-to-day life. Those were the esay to recognize Pharisees, so concerned with the letter of of law that they missed the Love of the Lord. But there's something else here about that Pharisee.
And this Pharisee:
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector.I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
There is the obvious puffed up chest-beating, but there's also a more subtle, more insidious, and simpler warning. The Pharisee compares and in his comparison, he makes two mistakes. He wrongly judges his neighbor and he wrongly judges himself. This pharasaical behavior is the one where we think we are one thing, when in the eyes of God, we are something else entirely and the one where we think our neighbor is one thing, but she's another altogether. We aren't the Pharisee who thinks he's holy enough, we are the one who thinks she's not good enough. Or just plain not enough. Further, we might even have a false understanding of the person to whom we are comparing ourselves. The take away? Don't compare. Pharisees compare. It can't be good.
Jesus did a lot of talking about the Pharisees. He really, really wanted to leave us with words which would help us to avoid false images of ourselves and our neighbors. The Pharisees were all about false images of both self and neighbor.
My reality is that regardless of what my blog looks like and regardless of what the graph on my site meter page portrays, I am God's. I belong to Him. He suffered and died for me. It doesn't matter where else I click on the interwebs, I am of infinite worth to Jesus, no more or less valuable than my neighbor. And so is the woman who wrote to me last night. We have value. We are loved just as we are, in all our brokenness. In all the places that would make for ugly or boring or uninspiring blogging. In all the places that blogs don't accurately reveal. And in all the places that look beautiful. He is there. Loving the real us.
It is true that I can click along and take suggestions and gain insight from people who walk with me. And that can be a very good thing. It is also true that I can make false idols of each and every stop on my blog reader. I fix my gaze on my own icon of my neighbor and on the distorted vision of myself reflected in my perception of her.
And then. We have a mess.
Then, I have just surrendered myself on the doorstep of someone else's life and not at the foot of the cross.
Then, I begin to live on my own power and I am destined to sputter to a stop.
Why do we compare? We toss about restless on a sea of images and words that could be used to encourage our hearts and instead, we compare. We become the Pharisee that Jesus was so careful to warn us not to be.
God created me uniquely. Everything in my life--my husband, my particular children, my location, my gifts, my struggles, my infirmities--all of it is God's to use to shape me into His vision for me. His vision for me is different than His vision for my neighbor. He calls me uniquely. There is a life He intends for me and me alone. And so, my life will look different from hers.
We can learn from one another. We should encourage one another. But comparing? Finding ourselves lacking in the light of someone else's life as it is portryed on the internet? That's not what He wants for us. He wants a community that encourages and builds up. He wants us to link arms and look together towards Him. He wants us to look to the community for support in living vocation. Unique vocation.
The Pharisee compared himself to his neighbor. The simple lesson of this Pharisee: don't compare.
I understand why she stopped reading here. I've done the same thing elsewhere. And truly, my heart breaks for her. It breaks for the terrible feeling of clicking away from the beauty in someone else's life, the witness of what God is doing in another family, and feeling lost and forgotten, and not good enough. My heart has hurt in the just the same way. The Pharisees didn't carry iPhones. I wish they had. It would all be so much simpler if it were spelled out: "Don't be like that foolish woman who clicks there and thinks that. Isn't it obvious that's the near occasion of sin?"
But no. It doesn't work that way. We have to discern.
The keys at our fingertips, the windows into another woman's heart, can be among the tools in God's hands to use for our good, to shape us into the person He created us to be. Can we do that without creating idols of the tools; can we look instead to the Master Craftsman to see how He would have us use them?
We have to. We have to leave the bitterness of comparison to be able to taste and see the sweetness of encouragement.