by Stephen Burns
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“He’s an idiot. Just like Nelson. Did you see the chick he brought to the party? I wouldn’t be caught dead with her.”
I glanced over at the table next to me where the man’s nasally voice carried over the music playing in the background. He looked to be in his late twenties, and he was slouched in his chair, his jeans baggy and low on his waist. His hair was long and floppy, and he shook his head periodically to move it off his forehead. The corner of his lips were flipped into a smirk.
“Did you get the work from Jans?”
I didn’t want to listen in to the conversation, but they both had the types of voices that carried easily over the other conversations around the cafe. I fumbled in my briefcase for a pair of headphones.
“Jans is ridiculous. Sometimes he’s okay, but this idea of his is just stupid.” He snorted. “How about that service on Sunday? What the heck was that about? New ministry. Whatever.”
I’d finally put my headphones on, but I left the music off. I couldn’t help but stare at the two guys, especially Mr. Negative. He remained in his slouch, and every person that stood or strolled past got a once over, his lips still curled into that impenetrable smirk.
“Hey,man. Check out the old guy-“
I frowned and turned on the music to drown out his voice, but it was hard to concentrate. I clenched my teeth and forced myself to breath slowly. What a jerk.
And church? He went to church? Wow. Way to communicate the good news, I thought. My body had gone rigid. Some things bothered me more than others, but I was completely offended by the boor sitting beside me.
I bent back to my textbook and let the music take me back to my schoolwork. When I finally looked up an hour had passed and the guys beside me were gone. The residue from the negativity however, clung to me like a bad odour. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered why I’d become so offended. It wasn’t like he was talking to me, or about me, and even if he was, I didn’t care. So why had I found him so offensive?
I picked up my coffee and decided to take a stroll to think about it. I slipped between the tables and headed towards the bookshelves. This particular Starbucks was attached to a huge Chapters bookstore, but the tables were nearly always occupied, and so I limited my time here to once or twice a week. A far cry different from my old Starbucks back in Ottawa where I’d often joked with staff about getting me a cot. I wandered down the aisles, curious as to why my reaction to the guy beside me had been so visceral. It only took me a few minutes to understand my response.
As far back as I can remember, I have loved all things inspirational. Stories, movies, books, people. It seemed to me at a young age that too many people had given up on life, on pursuing their dreams, and they’d done so early. How many times had I heard someone say “I’m just trying to make it through the day,” or “Same old, same old,” or “fifteen years to retirement.”
Slumped shoulders, sad eyes, and hard fought smiles. I’d seen it so often. And not just in others, either. I’d seen it in the mirror, too.
Life wasn’t easy, even on the richest continent on the planet, because life was inherently tragic. But even during the darkest times in my life I'd clung to the belief that joy was possible, especially when we could encourage one another, when people made an effort to celebrate their humanity with one another.
The antithesis of that, however, were the Dream Killers, the people who buried their own hurts and pain beneath their cynicism and preening arrogance. Quick to cast doubt and shadow on anything positive or hopeful, they sucked the life out of everything and everyone around them. I not only resented their behaviour, I resented the people who exhibited it and took their attitude as a great personal offense.
I sipped my coffee and headed down the escalator for a breath of fresh air. Just thinking about the Dream Killer beside me made my stomach churn. I started thinking about Jesus, and wondering if he was ever truly offended by certain behaviours. It was tempting to think that the behavior I resented was the behavior he resented too. Easy to think of the Pharisees, and how much they must have offended Jesus. Easier still to call the people who offended me Pharisees.
Unfortunately, it was an oversimplification and certainly egocentric. We all think we have it right -- about the way we’re supposed to act and supposed to think. We all like to think that the things that offend us would have offended Jesus. It’s a ridiculous notion though, because while I love God with every fiber of my being, I know people who are offended by my ideas about faith. (Christian satire, for example) Conversely, I’m offended by some of their ideas about faith, especially when it comes to prosperity and healing and pietism.
The cold air hit me like a slap as I walked through the doors. Fall had come, and winter seemed around the corner. The clouds boiled gray and menacing and the hint of rain, like a fine, icy mist, permeated the air. I’d just finished my midterms, and I felt both tired and exhilarated all at once. Except for the nugget of discomfort still lingering from the Dream Killer.
So what were we to do with this idea of being offended. It happened often enough, perhaps too often. Taking offense to something or someone created a barrier, a barrier that was all but impossible to break through. In other words, it separated people. The problem, as far as I could tell, was that Jesus had called us to love our enemies. So how could I love my enemies if I was busy getting offended, revealing my disdain and displeasure for certain actions or certain persons.
I walked along the sidewalk past some of the other stores. I stopped outside a flower shop, and stared at some of the bouquets through the glass. The more I thought about it, the more I began to see that when I was offended, it wasn't about the person or the behaviour.
It was about me.
My reaction revealed something important about myself. The more I thought about, the more I realized that while it was okay to not like certain behaviours, it wasn’t okay to be offended. It was, in fact, unacceptable.
Who was I to take personal offense? Did I not offend people every day? Did I not offend God by my tendency towards selfishness and self-promotion? The thing about being offended was that it was generally in response to an inflated sense of pride and indignation or a previous hurt that we'd yet to deal with. It also excused us from doing the hard thing, the thing that Jesus asked us to do. To love people that were difficult to love.
I flicked my gaze from the flowers to my reflection in the glass. I would never understand people who put others down. I would never understand why people seemingly went out of their way to discourage those around them. I would never understand the way people could take the Bible and use it as a club on people. From now on however, I would do my best not to be offended.
The truth is, we all do things we regret, and we all have blind spots. Many times I’ve had to apologize for my actions. I’ve said something offensive or I’ve criticized something or someone without thinking. And yet, God not only tolerates me, but he actually understands and still likes me! And if that’s the case, how can I possibly act like I’m so much better than the people around me?
I smiled at my reflection and headed back towards Chapters. I’d never like the Dream Killer, but from now on I would work less on being indignant, and work harder at loving them.
My prayer this week is that God would reveal to us – not only the things that offend us, but why they affect us the way they do. May he help us to understand that the first step towards tearing down barriers is to recognize ourselves in the people around us. And may he give us the patience to see beyond the surface, and the strength to love that which we don’t understand.
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