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Have Sympathy

The quickest way to a heart is through a wound.

Weep with those who weep.

Romans 12:15b

The ring of the phone didn’t stop the sobs. But the compassion I heard in Mary’s voice did.

How are you doing, Ab? Please know my heart was breaking for you the second Sarah shared her happy news. I am so sorry you haven’t been able to share news of your own. I love you. I’m praying. 

Mary just knew. She wasn’t even in boat. She had two gorgeous kids of her own. But twelve years older and a state away, Mary still felt the ache of my empty womb. She knew my pain. She knew that after five years of trying, the news of each sister and friend and sister’s friend who conceived was a huge blow.

Feeling Sympathy

Some people naturally bleed sympathy. They’re the ones who know just when to hug and don’t pat your back when they do and always have tissues and ice packs and band aids all ready. They’re the ones like Mary. Pricked by others’ pain, they bleed compassion.

Our word sympathy comes from two Greek words. The first means to be affected or to feel something. The other word simply means with. Sympathy, therefore, means to feel something with. It might include words, as did Mary’s. But sympathy always goes deeper than words.

Sympathetic friends don’t often say, “I know how you feel,” since they truly do know how you feel, they know it’s not so helpful to say it. Lots of times, sitting in silence is truest mark of the sympathetic soul. Job’s friends sat in silence with him for seven days and seven nights, because they saw his suffering was great. And more silence might have been golden.

Henri J.M. Nouwen must have had sympathetic friends too. He describes them, the ones 

[W]ho, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares. (Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life)

Replaying Mary’s message in my mind chokes me up still. She left that message fifteen years ago. And that’s not to mention all the times in that decade of waiting when Mary sat silent beside me. Neither of us even knew if God would ever open my womb, if I’d ever share that happy news.

Regardless, sympathy melts hearts faster than summer sun melts ice cream and Mary locked her place in my heart with a single phone call. With and without words, Mary walked beside me in that barren land and her sympathy went straight to my heart.

Maybe you are one of those sympathetic souls like Mary who ooze comfort and sympathy.

I’m not naturally that way.

All Call To Compassion

I’m Irish for sure. But I’m German, too. And wir Deutsche- well, you know what they say. We don’t wear our emotions on our sleeve and we keep a stiff upper lip. And we expect others to, too.

But German ancestry aside, sympathetic simply isn’t in the top ten words I’d pick to describe myself. In parenting- and I fear in friendship-I’m more of the deal with it type. You’ve made your bed. You lie in it. Bear up. Carry on. Not that I don’t give hugs and cry with friends who cry, from time to time. But it doesn’t always come naturally.

But that doesn’t really matter, if it’s natural or not, because all Christians are called to it. In Ephesians 5:29-30 Paul describes how Christ nourishes and cherishes us, his church, because we are members of his body. And If one member suffers, all suffer together

In light of Christ’s concern for his Body, it’s no wonder that Peter the Rock on whose confession the church was built, would sound this clarion call that we have tender concern for each other. Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart and a humble mind. All of you. Hard or easy, natural or not. Have sympathy.

And sympathy has its rewards.


Sympathy’s Rewards

Is it bad to say, Have sympathy so? To motivate compassion by sharing its perks? I’m not sure, but the God who created us knows us inside and out. And He did build in some perks for his Body to have sympathy.

1. Having sympathy pleases God.
Our compassion for God’s other children, makes our Heavenly Father happy, Sympathy gently mortifies our selfishness. Having sympathy means we are like Timothy, of whom Paul gave this high praise, I have no one like him, who is genuinely concerned for your welfare


Having sympathy looks a lot like the Son of God. Hebrews 4:15 describes Jesus as a sympathetic high priest. God loves to see us looking more and more like Jesus. Sympathy conforms us to the image of his Son.


2. Having sympathy can keep pain from getting proud
Oswald Chambers, author of My Utmost For His Highest famously wrote, Self-pity is of the devil, and if I wallow in it I cannot be used by God for his purpose in the world. 
Pastor Chris Brooks recently observed that fractious separatist movements start when people don’t get sympathy. I don’t fully understand #BlackLivesMatter, but probably somewhere back there was a lack of sympathy. Rather than enable self-pity and victimhood, sitting with a suffering soul might actually reduce the odds of both. Sorrows shared are sorrows halved. 

3. Having sympathy forges strong friendships. 
I will never forget Mary’s sympathy. Odds are, your closest friends have sat silent or cried with you. They’ve shown you sympathy. Genuine sympathy builds trust like not much else can. 

And strong friendships are are platforms for influence. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. If the time should come when hard words must come, a foundation of love has already been laid.

The quickest way to a heart, I’ve heard it saidis through a wound.

Commanding A Feeling

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 1 Peter 3:8

How can Peter do that? How can he command us to have a feeling? How can you force yourself to care for someone else’s concerns? Behavior? Sure. We can do the deed: Show hospitality. Give to needy. Pray.  

But feelings? Can we change those? Can we possibly muster up feelings of compassion and concern and pity?

We can. If God commands, it, he he will enable it. We work out as he works in. Nature can be changed when God is involved. Pastor H. C. Atwool explains,

There is nothing truer than the common saying that habit is a sort of second nature, and we all know that we have it in our power to contract very much such habits as we wish. This fact is at the bottom of all our plans for bringing up our children, that is to say, if we try to bring them up after any sensible plan at all…The fact of being less disposed to feel for other people is no excuse for not trying to do it. We many cultivate it like any other habit, only far more effectually by the grace of God, till it almost seems natural to us to have compassion one of another.  

J.H. Jowett preached in England at the end of the 19th century. He reached the same conclusion when he considered Peter’s all call for us to have a feeling which doesn’t always come so easy. He describes a sort of two-part process- two God-ordained means, if you will, to grow sympathy.

These can take us from Be strong and carry on, to having genuine sympathy.

Commune And Imagine

Let our piety be the basis of our pity; let our imagination extend our vision; and from this area of hallowed outlook there will arise rivers of gracious sympathy. 

John H. Jowett

1. Commune with God. That’s the first step in growing sympathy in our own souls. When we abide in his Word,  the Holy Spirit renews us. He is our Refiner and Counselor and Comforter. The Helper is with us and His purpose, Jowett reminds, is to renew us from the inside out.

“We are renewed by His Spirit in the inner man.” The Refiner renews our spiritual substance, takes away our drossy coarseness, and makes our spirits the ministers of refinement. And what are the conditions of obtaining refinement? The conditions are found in communion: “His Spirit in the inner man”: it is fellowship between man and his Maker; it is the companionship of the soul and God. All lofty communion is refining! All elevated companionships tend to make me chaste! We can see its ministry in the lives of the saints. Lay your hand upon any one, man or woman, who walks in closest fellowship with the risen Lord, and you will find that the texture of their life is as the choicest porcelain, compared with which all irreligious lives are as coarse and common clay. In fellowship we find the secret of spiritual refinement, and in spiritual refinement are found the springs of sympathy. 

So, the first “step” to having more sympathy is taking time with God. The more time we spend in Christ’s company the more we become like him. Our pity, our sympathy, is born of our piety. 

But then there is this second step. It might surprise you.

2. Work your imagination. Disciplined imagination grows sympathy in our souls. We must use the power God has given us to imagine what our eyes have not seen. Mary must have worked get imagination so hard, to sympathize so tenderly with me.

“Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.” Such vision calls for the exercise of the imagination. “Put yourself in his place.” Such transposition demands the ministry of the imagination…Imagination is second sight. Imagination is the eye which sees the unseen. Imagination does for the absent what the eye does for the present. Imagination does for the distant what the eye does for the near. 

Then Jowett gives an example of putting sanctified imagination to work. Let’s say we read a sad fact, say a newspaper headline. It might say,

 “Total of patients treated in the Queen’s Hospital… 31,064.” The eye observes the surface fact and passes on, and pity is unstirred. The imagination pauses at the surface, lingers long, if perchance she may comprehend something of its saddening significance. Imagination turns the figures over; 31,064! Then these afflicted folk would fill twenty buildings, each of them the size of the chapel at Carrs Lane. 

Says Imagination, “I will marshal the pain-ridden, bruised crowd in procession, and they shall pass my window and door, one a minute, one a minute, one a minute! How long will it take the procession to pass? Twenty-one days!” But what of the units of the dark and tearful procession? Imagination gets to work again. Have you a child down? They are like him. Have you a brother falling, or a sister faint and spent? They are like them. Have you known a mother torn and agonised with pain, or a father crushed and broken in his prime? They are like him…This is how refined imagination works, and, while she works, her sister, sympathy, awakes and weeps!  

In some ways, it’s embarrassingly obvious. But how many of us are oblivious or aloof to others’ pain? We grow our sympathy by spending time with our sympathetic High Priest, who is also our friend and our Lord. And then we get intentional about imagining what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.

It really is that simple.

The more we do it, the more sympathy we have. The easier it will be to weep with those who weep about things we’ve never even thought, much less, cried about.

And, God knows, at one time or another we’ve all needed sympathy.

*        *       *        *        *    

Paul told the Corinthian church that the Father of mercies and God of all comfort comforts us so that we can comfort others in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. Jowett wrote“God does not comfort us to make us comfortable, but to make us comforters.” 

That’s staggering. God comforts us, sympathizes with us, so that we can comfort others. Timothy Keller wrote, “Christ literally walked in our shoes and entered into our affliction. Those who will not help others until they are destitute reveal that Christ’s love has not yet turned them into the sympathetic persons the gospel should make them.”

When we abide in him, and train our imaginations to really ponder the pain of others, then we get beyond ourselves and sympathize with others. We allow the gospel to shape us.

And we look a little more like Jesus.

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.

Isaiah 53:4a

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The Dog We Feed

Two dogs are fighting inside you. It’s a battle for your mind. The dog you feed the most wins. 

For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 

Romans 7: 22-23

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind. 

Romans 12:2a

Thursday afternoon was to be all mine. Translated: Four hours of uninterrupted, precious writing time. A very, very rare gift it was, to have nothing at all in the schedule from one to five.

Not. One. Thing. 

You know where this is going. I’ll go there soon.

But first, I was witness to a miracle yesterday. I know it was a miracle because what happened was surprising and welcome and not explicable by natural laws and thus considered the work of a divine agency. Check, check, check and check- surprising, welcome, not explained by natural laws.

And most definitely what happened was a work of God.

Yesterday, I got my mind to mind.

Yup. That’s it.

What I mean is in this. Usually, when little storms like yesterday’s blow through, and change my plans, I recoil. My thoughts stray from the trust in God place they should stay. The place where my lips say to God, You are good and do good alwaysas the storm clouds roll.

The place where I say that and I mean that and that keeps me from going astray and grumbling. The place where I live in light of the truth of God’s goodness. And obey.

It’s the place where the war wages and I take thoughts captive as the come and my mind minds.

Taken Captive Or Taking Captive?

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. 
2 Corinthians 10:5

Often when my schedule is stymied and my plans gets nixed my mind doesn’t mind. 

I’m taken captive and don’t live in light of the truth that as God’s chosen child, He will work all things, including unavoidable little interruptions and surprise storms, for good. I’m taken captive instead of taking thoughts captive to make them obedient to Christ.

But something different happened yesterday. I took some thoughts captives and made them obey. I made my mind mind and really believed that the thunderclouds that ended a tennis lesson too fast for my taste were indeed a good thing.

The stronghold torn down was the one that holds me fast, a lot. That I am the master of my agenda, my desires, my time. That kind of mind must be renewed.

Here’s what I mean.

It started with storm clouds, when the sun went hiding and these beauties blew through. Some thunder, too, cut Son One’s tennis lesson short.

And that little change, caused by the billowy-clouds of one fast-moving front, meant an errand got delayed and another one got added and the day got off-kilter and before I knew it, my precious, all-mine afternoon was almost gone.

Which still does not explain the miracle. That’s coming.

But to see the miracle, you must know this one thing. G.K. Chesterton wrote, and I like to quote, A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it. I’m not naturally a “go with the flow,” kinda girl.

Go With What Flow?

If we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 
Galatians 5:25

That trait is both for better and worse.

And worse shows up when storms blow in and upset my plans and I learn once again, I’m not really in control. That the whole control thing is an illusion, at least when it comes to events and people. My mind knows.

My MO is to fight storms with storms. Short, harsh words to my kids thunder. Or resentful cool fronts push against whoever it was that thwarted my plans. That’s the ugly underside of fighting the current- the woe in not going with the flow.

But for the better part of yesterday afternoon, I did. I went with the flow. When the storm changed my plans, I kept in step with the Spirit. As I did, I was able to test and approve what was good and choose what was better: time shopping with my guys, buying them new tennis shoes, and an unplanned visit with an old friend and, well, before I knew it, it was ten to four.

My mind was renewed by the Spirit. It did mind God’s truth. It obeyed. With each passing hour, each added errand, each little unexpected visit, I was not overwhelmed. I held my peace and didn’t begrudge the delays. My mind minded. And that was nothing short of a miracle. 

Or maybe it was just the best-fed, strongest dog winning the fight.

Freedom To Mind

Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 
1 Peter 2:16

There are plenty of versions of the two dogs story, there’s at least a Cherokee version and this northern version. Billy Graham used this version in his book, “The Holy Spirit: Activating God’s Power In Your Life,” 

An Eskimo fisherman came to town every Saturday afternoon. He always brought his two dogs with him. One was white and the other was black. He had taught them to fight on command. Every Saturday afternoon in the town square the people would gather and these two dogs would fight and the fisherman would take bets. On one Saturday, the black dog would win; another Saturday the white dog would win- but the fisherman always won! His friends began to ask him how he did it. He said, “I starve one and feed the other. The one I feed always wins because he is always stronger.” 

So the ticket to getting the mind to mind is feeding the right dog. Making that dog strong.

But when our minds don’t mind, when we don’t keep in step with the Spirit, when we fuss and grumble against the God-ordained changes in our plans, when- my time is blown away by God’s storm and we rage on, we’re not free. We’re feeding the wrong dog and he’s winning the fights. But that need not be.

We Christians alone can be truly free. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. We can feed the good dog and make it strong. We can wage the war and win.

Our minds can mind. Here’s how.

Feed The Right Dog

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 
Philippians 4:8

This kind of freedom means we can do what we want to do and what we want to do is what we ought to do.  As John Piper puts it, Transformation is doing what you ought to do and loving to do it.

I recently read an article by Philip Holmes, enticingly titled, How to Have a Happy Life. It’s on point. We do have a lot of say in getting our minds to mind. We can set ourselves up to have a good day. There are steps we can take to make our minds mind.

Since our brains are only able to process parts of reality at any one time, it’s impossible to focus on everything going on around us. Our brains filter information out all the time. Because of that, all of us are experiencing “a very subjective, incomplete version of reality.”

[O]ur brains consciously notice whatever is at the forefront of our minds. So if someone is in a bad mood (say you spill coffee on yourself), the brain will recognize that you’re in a bad mood and will begin to shape your perception of everything else in a way that confirms the world is a terrible place. The same goes the other way. If you put yourself in a positive mood, you’ll start to see the world in a more positive light. Another term for this is “confirmation bias” or “selective attention.”

As another example, she points out that if we’re meeting with someone we believe is a jerk, we’re more likely to notice things about them that confirm our judgment. We end up missing qualities that may paint this person in a more positive light. But if we go in aware of our assumptions, we set ourselves up to see and appreciate the good qualities in this person, instead of only noticing the negative. 

This all means that, by understanding “the rules,” and provided Spirit power, we are able to shift how we perceive events around us. Storm clouds and all.

Holmes cites a little Jeremiah Burrough’s book called, Contentment, Prosperity, and God’s Glory. His wisdom is 400 years-old, but it’s timeless. He advises us to have these same “good thoughts of God and his dealings with us.” Training ourselves to think like this will definitely help our minds mind.

Have good thoughts of God and make good interpretations of his dealings toward you. It is very hard to live comfortably and cheerfully among friends when one makes harsh interpretations of the words and actions of another. The only way to keep sweet contentment and comfort in Christian societies is to make the best interpretations of things we can. Likewise, a primary way to help keep comfort and contentment in our hearts is to make good interpretations of God’s dealings with us. 

This doesn’t mean we won’t have hard days, that there won’t be storms that upset our plans. Storms will come. But it does mean, and I quote Holmes again,

If we embrace that reality that the sovereign God who controls the universe knows us by name and loves us as children and heirs, everything that happens to us will be filtered through these promises. We will begin to see everything, even the hard things, as ultimately good things. 

This miracle of the mind doesn’t just happen though. We must act the miracle. Jesus works the miracle. He told the paralyzed man to walk. But that man obeyed. He got up. He acted the miracle.

When the storms come we get up, we talk back to the sinful grumbling mind. We tell ourselves to stop grumbling and get up and walk. The Spirit of Jesus us gives the command-to trust, to believe it really all is good- and we act that miracle.

Miracle, or Best Fed Dog?

But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. 
Romans 13:14

Much ado about a little storm and your upset plans one afternoon, you mumble. Granted.

Sort of.

Because in a way, what happened Thursday was just a little overflow of the Spirit at work inside, bringing God’s truth to mind. It doesn’t make for a miracle. I mean, I’ve been memorizing Ephesians 5 for a month now. So in a way my go with the flow was just proof that if you starve the “my-time, flesh dog” and feed the good, renewed-mind dog, the stronger dog will win.

True enough. The fisherman won every bet. Nothing supernatural here.

Or is there?

Because really, the “best fed dog wins” answer just kicks the miracle question down the road. It really just begs another. Maybe the greater miracle than a mind that minds is that anyone at all would have eyes to see God’s glory and freely want to do his will?

Maybe the greater miracle is that anyone of us would choose to feed the calm, meek dog that’s forever at odds with selfish, my-time me?

Maybe the greater miracle is that God would give any of us eyes to see the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. That He would shine that light through the our little storms so that we’d even want to feed the good dog. And that, if we did, Christ would give us his mind.

I- swim-upstream, fight-storm-with-storm, Type-A agenda-maker and plan-pusher- for one, think it is.

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

Romans 8:6

“For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” 

But we have the mind of Christ.

1 Corinthians 2:16

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Holding Freedom Up

Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it. –Thomas Paine
Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. –Galatians 6:7

Freedom keeping is fatiguing. And I fear we won’t long reap her blessings. I fear, because we weary. We weary of holding freedom up. We trade the spangled banner and wave a paler flag. The strain is tiring so we walk away and throw the towel and forfeit freedom’s blessings. 

As we celebrate 12-score + 2 today, I wonder, How many more?
 
I’m no expert on our nation’s founding fathers. I’m no keeper of rare birth-of-the-nation knowledge. But the little I know assures me of this: It was a ton of work to get this country off the ground. Had it not been for the fathers’ strength to support the burden, we’d not be singing, O Say Can You See? but God Bless The Queen.
 

And as goes the individual, so goes the family. As goes the family, so goes the nation. Our nation cannot be stronger, cannot be better than its constituent parts. On this 242nd anniversary of our Independence Day, I’m fixed on two big ways our founding fathers were stronger than so many of their native sons.

Our fathers bore two immensely fatiguing weights of freedom that today we can scarcely bear.

 

Weight #1: Virtuous To The Core

And let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.
Galatians 6:9

It’s wearisome to be virtuous. The Spirit’s fruit is free, but it takes great effort to pull the weeds.

Virtue is effortful. The strongest battles I face are the ones I fight inside my soul. The ones I fight between submission and self, between forgiveness and grudge, between self-control or glut. Victory with those weeds makes me strong.

Benjamin Franklin nailed the need for personal virtue when he said, It is a grand mistake to thing of being great without goodness and I pronounce it as a certain that there was never a truly great man that was not at the same time truly virtuous. 

Patrick Henry, knew it too. Bad men cannot make good citizens, he said. It is when a people forget God that tyrants forge their chains. A vitiated state of morals, a corrupted public conscience, is incompatible with freedom. No free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue.


Liberty cannot exist without virtue

Our founders well knew this.

George Washington said: “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government,” and “Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people.” 

James Madison stated: “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical [imaginary] idea.” 

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “No government can continue good but under the control of the people; and … their minds are to be informed by education what is right and what wrong; to be encouraged in habits of virtue and to be deterred from those of vice … These are the inculcations necessary to render the people a sure basis for the structure and order of government.” 

Samuel Adams said: “Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt.  He therefore is the truest friend of the liberty of his country who tries most to promote its virtue.” 

John Adams stated: “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. We will reap, we do reap, fruit of our founding fathers’ virtue. We reap the fruit of Washington’s integrity and Hamilton’s fortitude. Of Jefferson’s high sense of justice and Adams’ unflagging perseverance. 

They fought the fatiguing battles for personal virtue that raged within their souls. And because they won their soul’s battles, our nation grew. Their virtue supported freedom’s fruit. 

Do we bear such fruit? Or has it fallen from the vine?

 

Weight #2: Civil When In Conflict

Let each of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members of one another. Be angry and do not sin. Ephesians 5:25-26

Beyond the daily weight of striving to be men of virtue, they bore this other massive weight. One doesn’t need to read too broadly on the fathers to see a lot of conflict. Drafting and ratifying documents like the Declaration and the Constitution required the immense strength of civility.

The term isn’t used much anymore, and a newer term, tolerance has muddied the waters. Civility, writes Gregory Koukl,

[C]an be loosely equated with the word “respect.” Tolerance applies to how we treat people we disagree with, not how we treat ideas we think are false. We respect those who hold different beliefs from our own by treating such people courteously and allowing their views a place in the public discourse. We may strongly disagree with their ideas and vigorously contend against them in the public square, but we still show respect to their persons despite our differences. Classic tolerance requires that every person be treated courteously with the freedom to express his or her ideas without fear of reprisal no matter what the view, not that all views have equal worth, merit, or truth.

With a few notable exceptions, while the fathers didn’t all see eye to eye on every idea, they refused to walk away. Or at least to be gone for very long.

Our fathers stayed engaged when ideas clashed. They believed better was in their grasp and they were willing to work for it. They bore that heavy weight of disagreement with ideas while showing respect for persons.

And that, probably more than virtue, is a weight we don’t much care to bear. We crumble under the slightest weight of disagreement. Our “right” to feel comfortable trumps the right to free expression.

Don’t Disengage

When our ideas conflict with another’s we often disengage. We wander off and find Facebook groups for folks who think like us. We say, You have your ideas and I have mine and never the twain shall meet and dialogue’s done right there. And we are the weaker for it.

Staying civil in disagreement is taxing. Representing oneself lovingly and well with those who oppose our ideas is exhausting. Staying engaged when you’re misunderstood is soul-wearying. Civility is a heavy weight. It requires persevering and persisting and caring. For those with whom we disagree.

Thomas Jefferson was John Adams’ greatest political rival. And 50 year-long friends. The two met at the First Continental Congress in 1775. It waned when the two faced off in the 1800 presidential race. In a truly amazing grace story, their friendship was rekindled with help from their mutual friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush suggested Jefferson write Adams and he did and Adams wrote back and their friendship endured to the day they both died in 1826.

Bearing Freedom’s Weight

I’m no expert. But I know that what makes makes muscles strong is bearing lots of weight. And I know that what makes a marriage or friendship or a church or nation great is not 100% unanimity all the time. What makes us great is working side by side, staying engaged, in relationship, when we don’t see eye to eye. Pressing on and plowing through and virtuously, civilly moving right along.

I do this feebly and sluggishly and sometimes when I disagree, I press too hard or disengage too long. But this is where I want to be. It’s where Jefferson and Adams were.

Fifteen years after Dr. Rush helped the two reconcile, Jefferson and Adams’ friendship ended.

[O]n July 4, 1826, Jefferson and Adams died within hours of each other. Their deaths occurred — perhaps appropriately — on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Unaware that his friend had died hours earlier, Adams’ family later recalled that his last spoken words were, “Thomas Jefferson survives.”

The written words of Jefferson and Adams, however, survive to this day, preserving the rich legacy of their friendship, thoughts, and ideas. In their later years, Jefferson responded to a reflective question from Adams: “You ask if I would agree to live my 70. or rather 73. years over again? To which I say Yea. I think with you that it is a good world on the whole, that it has been framed on a principle of benevolence . . . . I steer my bark with Hope in the head, leaving Fear astern.”

Our founders bore these two weights: the weight of civility when big, founding-of-a-nation ideas were in conflict and the weight of virtuous living.

Pressing On Imperfectly

They did not do either perfectly. There were defeats along the way. Personal virtue flagged. For all his pursuing frugality and virtue, Jefferson’s Monticello was sold for debt upon his passing. Hamilton never resolved his differences with Burr and Jefferson grew so frustrated by the sometime lack of civility that he did resign from Washington’s cabinet. 

General Washington suffered a few defeats along the way, like the one at Brandywine Creek. But the war would still be won. The day after Washington’s defeat by the British, under General Howe at Brandywine, Thomas Paine wrote these timeless words. The first line of his speech began this post. Here is how Paine ended his “short address to [British] General Howe,”

You, sir, are only lingering out the period that shall bring with it your defeat. You have yet scarce began upon the war, and the further you enter, the faster will your troubles thicken. What you now enjoy is only a respite from ruin; an invitation to destruction; something that will lead on to our deliverance at your expense. We know the cause which we are engaged in, and though a passionate fondness for it may make us grieve at every injury which threatens it, yet, when the moment of concern is over, the determination to duty returns.

So we are not moved by the gloomy smile of a worthless king, but by the ardent glow of generous patriotism. We fight not to enslave, but to set a country free, and to make room upon the earth for honest men to live in. In such a case we are sure that we are right; and we leave to you the despairing reflection of being the tool of a miserable tyrant.  

And so we say to our strongest foe, who threatens daily to undo us- who tempts us to lapse in virtue and be uncivil in conflict-we say to him,

We know the cause which we are engaged in. We are and by right ought to be free. We fight not to enslave, but so that we may live as Christ made us to be. We live with these weights and weary ourselves to make room for honest men to live. We now declare ourselves free. 

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.

Galatians 5:13