February 10

“Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves.” Romans 12:19

There are seasons when to be still demands immeasurably higher strength than to act. Composure is often the highest result of power. To the vilest and most deadly charges Jesus responded with deep, unbroken silence, such as excited the wonder of the judge and the spectators. To the grossest insults, the most violent ill-treatment and mockery that might well bring indignation into the feeblest heart, He responded with voiceless complacent calmness. Those who are unjustly accused, and causelessly ill-treated know what tremendous strength is necessary to keep silence to God. (Streams in the Desert)

Tremendous strength and grace are needed to keep silence when tempted to judge harshly and indiscriminately. I faced this dilemma as I stepped outside the sliding glass door and onto the balcony of my 4th floor hotel room. My wife influences my choice of rooms even when she does not travel with me, having convinced me early on in our marriage to always choose space at the end of the hall of the highest available floor of a hotel so as to avoid tromping children overhead, grinding elevators and clacking ice makers. Safe from the threat of disruption above, I stood near the black iron fencerail bordering the five by seven concrete perch, enjoying my bird’s eye view. I noted the ugly details of commercial rooftops in the distance and slow moving ribbonlike patterns of evening traffic, then turned my gaze to more immediate surroundings. I looked down on a woman sitting in a beleaguered wheelchair. She was barefooted and parked facing east on the west side hotel balcony just below my own. A colorful do-rag that reminded me of the bright patterned textiles of Africa barely covered her baldness, and she appeared to be absentmindedly smoking a cigarette that hung precariously from the left side of her mouth, ashes hanging still further down waiting for any kind of breeze to dislodge them. The smoke rose and irritated me. She seemed at home with wheels, and I could easily imagine her as a younger woman sporting black leather, speeding down the interstate atop a vintage Harley. As I watched, she slumped slightly forward and began feverishly swiping gnarled fingers across the screen of her large Galaxy cell phone. She was obviously agitated and voiced her displeasure, oblivious or unconcerned about who might hear. Her demeanor was incongruent to her condition. Although I could not distinguish every word, tone and volume left little doubt as to her state of mind. She was angry, invoking God to condemn someone or something, or a host of both. In knee-jerk fashion I mentally raced to judge, inventing categories to condemn based on deportment and supposition. Almost as quickly, conscience constricted and I reluctantly shifted from insolence to remorse for drawing conclusions about a life I would never have to face myself.

I do not require the vantage point of a high balcony; I am adept most anywhere at condescension. How often do I figuratively look down on outcasts? Why this propensity for avoiding eye contact with those deemed less fortunate? What gives rise to the queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach when one enters a restaurant where I am eating? Where is the grace for others that I freely ascribe to God and greedily apply to myself? I have never sat barefoot and alone, unable to walk, with no one to hear my ranting and with nothing to provide comfort and distraction apart from a cigarette and cell phone. The recognition jerked me to attention, and forced me from judgment into prayer for my anonymous neighbor below and confession before God for a heart grown cold against despair and resignation. Intercession always leads to self-reflection. Contrition chooses to look and see, to hear and listen, to move from pity to empathy. These are not the decisions of a deluded saint; instead, they become inevitable when a sinner admits the awful disconnect of his own heart from those who need it most. Grace is not understood in isolation. Mercy never looks down on anyone.

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