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Christian Living

Spiritual Life

Loving the People You are Stuck With

Almost no one had expected it to work. Kate and Courtney? Sisters?! (Okay, stepsisters.) Two years later, no one -- including Kate and Courtney -- could explain how or why it did work.

A nationwide search would not find two thirteen-year-olds who were less alike. Practical, down-to-earth, athletic -- and superorganized -- Kate. Flighty, fashionable, artistic -- and totally absent-minded --Courtney. It was hard to picture them in the same universe, let alone the same blended family. But there they were, stuck with each other -- and, amazingly, actually seeming to enjoy it. Usually. Although there were times -- like Tuesday morning -- when things got a little . . . hairy.

********

My first pet was a childhood Christmas Eve gift. Somewhere I have a snapshot of a brown-and-white Chinese pug, small enough to fit in my father's hand, cute enough to steal my eight-year-old heart. We named her Liz. I carried her all day. Her floppy ears fascinated me, and her flat nose amused me. I even took her to bed. So what if she smelled like a dog? I thought the odor was cute. So what if she whined and whimpered? I thought the noise was cute. So what if she did her business on my pillow? I can't say I thought that was cute, but I didn't mind.

In our pre-dog discussions, Mom and Dad had made it clear that I was to be Liz's caretaker, and I was happy to agree. When she came home, I cleaned her little eating dish and opened her can of puppy food. The minute she lapped up some water, I refilled it. I kept her hair combed and her tail wagging. Within a few days, however, my feelings changed a bit. Liz was still my dog, and I was still her friend, but I grew tired of her barking, and she seemed hungry an awful lot. More than once my folks had to remind me, "Take care of her. She is your dog."

I didn't like hearing those words -- your dog. I wouldn't have minded "your dog to play with" or "your dog when you want her" or even "your dog when she is behaving." But those weren't my parents' words. They said, "Liz is your dog." Period. In sickness and in health. For richer, for poorer. In dryness and in wetness.

That's when it occurred to me: I am stuck with Liz. The courtship was over, and the honeymoon had ended. We were mutually leashed. Liz went from an option to an obligation, from a pet to a chore, from someone to play with to someone to care for.

Sound familiar? That "trapped" feeling that comes with being in a situation you can't escape? Only instead of being reminded, "She is your dog," you're told, "He is your brother." Or, "She is your lab partner, math teacher, picky-aunt-who-means-well . . ." or any other relationship that requires loyalty for survival.

Such permanence can lead to panic -- at least it did in me. I had to answer some tough questions. Can I put up with the same flat-nosed, hairy, hungry face every morning? Am I going to be barked at until the day I die? Will she always use the inside of the house as a bathroom?

Stuckititis

Such are the questions we ask when we feel stuck with someone. There is a word for this condition. Upon consulting the one-word medical dictionary (which I wrote the day before I did this chapter), I discovered this is a common ailment known as stuckititis (STUK-ih-TITE-is). Read it out loud: stuckititis. Here's what Max's Manual of Medical Terms has to say about the condition: Attacks of stuckititis are limited to people who breathe, and typically occur somewhere between birth and death. Stuckititis shows itself in irritability, short fuses, and a mountain range of molehills.

The always-helpful Max's Manual identifies three ways to cope with stuckititis: flee, fight, or forgive. Some choose to flee: give up on the friendship, teammate, teacher, or family member by avoiding that person or quitting the team or changing schools. Though they are often surprised when the condition seems to follow them there, too. Others fight: snapping, complaining, arguing, and just generally making life miserable for everyone.

A few, however, discover another treatment: forgiveness. (Forgiveness: Part patience and understanding. Part generosity. All love.) My manual has no model for how forgiveness occurs . . . but the Bible does.

********

When Kate's mom and Courtney's dad began dating a little more than two years ago, neither girl paid much attention. By the time they realized wedding bells were in the air, it was too late to protest. Not that either wanted to. Kate really liked Courtney's dad, who was funny and kind -- and a real soccer nut. And Courtney adored Kate's mom, who was sweet and understanding -- and a world-class shopper!

About each other, the jury was still out. They had absolutely nothing in common, completely different circles of friends, and no idea what made the other tick. On the other hand, it might be kind of . . . interesting.

Fortunately, it was a big house, with plenty of personal space for when the girls needed a breather from working out their "sisterly" relationship. As it turned out, it wasn't all that difficult-once they realized you didn't necessarily have to get all bent out of shape about differences.

Some differences, in fact, were funnier than they were annoying. Others surprisingly "educational." The rest you just put up with, bearing in mind that your own quirks might be a little aggravating, too.

Though Kate did have to work at not cracking up every time she stepped into Ruffle City (Courtney's ultrafeminine, stuff-everywhere room). And Courtney had to swallow any number of comments about Kate's approach to fashion (Ignore it and maybe it'll go away!).

On the other hand, if it hadn't been for Courtney's passion for dance, Kate would never have known that ballet demanded so much work and focus and . . . sweat. (Why, it was practically . . . athletic!) And Courtney was astonished at the clever footwork, driving pace, and intricate patterns of play when she saw her first soccer game. ("Why, it's like a . . . dance!")

Not that there wasn't some occasional teeth grinding. Getting Courtney anywhere on time-or through the mall without a gazillion detours-was as frustrating as trying to herd cats. And Kate's "fixation" on schedules and deadlines sometimes got on Courtney's very last nerve.

There is, however, more than one way around any block. So Kate learned to allow extra time when she and Courtney went places together. And Courtney tried hard to remember to actually read Kate's frequent reminder notes.

And so it went. Cut a little slack here. Make an allowance there. Hang on to your sense of humor. And learn to say -- with a smile -- "Well, that's Kate/Courtney." And it pretty much worked. Right up until Tuesday morning when a casual comment at breakfast revealed that Kate's soccer awards banquet and Courtney's dance recital (which everyone thought was next week) were both scheduled for Friday -- at the same time. And each girl wanted/expected/needed a supportive, full-family audience!

Which meant that -- unless someone could figure out how to be two places at once -- they were definitely . . . stuck.

********

Jesus himself knew the feeling of being stuck with someone. For three years he ran with the same crew. By and large, he saw the same dozen or so faces around the table, around the campfire, around the clock. They rode in the same boats and walked the same roads and visited the same houses, and I wonder, how did Jesus stay so devoted to his men?

Not only did he have to put up with their visible oddities, he had to endure their invisible quirks. Think about it. He could hear their unspoken thoughts. He knew their private doubts. Not only that, he knew their future doubts. What if you knew every mistake your loved ones had ever made and every mistake they would ever make? What if you knew every thought they would have about you, every irritation, every betrayal?

Was it hard for Jesus to love Peter, knowing that Peter would someday curse him? Was it tough to trust Thomas, knowing Thomas would one day question Jesus' resurrection? Just days before Jesus' death, his disciples were arguing about which of them was the best! How did Jesus resist the urge to recruit a new batch of followers? How was he able to love people who were hard to like?

Few things stir panic like being trapped in a relationship. It's one thing to be stuck with a puppy but something else entirely to be stuck in a family or school or friendship situation. We might chuckle over goofy terms like stuckititis, but for many, this is no laughing matter. Which is why it's such a perfect way to begin our study of what it means to be just like Jesus -- by examining his heart of forgiveness. How was Jesus able to love his disciples? The answer is found in the thirteenth chapter of John, when Jesus kneels before his disciples and washes their feet.

With Towel and Basin

It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. But not without one more display of love...

It has been a long day. Jerusalem is packed with Passover guests. The spring sun is warm. The streets are dusty. A splash of cool water on tired, aching feet would be refreshing.

The disciples enter the supper room and take their places around the table. On the wall hangs a towel, and on the floor sit a pitcher and a basin. Any one of the disciples could have volunteered for the job, but not one does. After a few moments Jesus stands and removes his outer robe. He wraps a servant's sash around his waist, takes up the basin, and kneels before one of the disciples. He unlaces a sandal and gently lifts the foot and places it in the basin, covers it with water, and begins to bathe it. One grimy foot after another, Jesus works his way down the row.

In Jesus' day the washing of feet was a task reserved not just for servants, but for the lowest of servants. In this case the one with the towel and basin is the King of the universe.

Hands that shaped the stars now wash away filth. Fingers that formed mountains now massage toes. And the one before whom all nations will one day kneel now kneels before his disciples. Hours before his own death, Jesus has one concern. He wants his disciples to know how much he loves them. More than removing dirt, Jesus is removing doubt.

You can be sure Jesus knows the future of these feet he is washing. These twenty-four feet will not spend the next day following their Master, defending his cause. These feet will dash for cover at the flash of a Roman sword. One pair won't even make it that far; Judas Iscariot will abandon him to his enemies that very night.

I looked for a Bible translation that reads, "Jesus washed all the disciples' feet except the feet of Judas," but I couldn't find one. Knowing what was to come, Jesus silently lifts the feet of Judas and washes them clean -- cleansing with kindness the one who would betray him.

Behold the gift Jesus gives his followers! He knows what these men are about to do. By morning they will bury their heads in shame and look down at their feet in disgust. And when they do, he wants them to remember how he knelt before them and washed their feet. He wants them to realize those feet are still clean. "You don't understand now what I am doing, but you will understand later" (John 13:7 ncv).

Remarkable. He forgave their sin before they even committed it. He offered mercy before they even asked for it.

Jesus still cleans his disciples' feet. Jesus still washes away stains. Jesus still purifies his people. But that's not all he does. Because Jesus has forgiven us, we can forgive others. Because he has a forgiving heart, we can have a forgiving heart. We can have a heart like his.

****

It was really Courtney's fault . . . the mix-up about dates. I cannot believe she did that, Kate fumed. Doesn't Miss Twinkletoes know what calendars are for?!

It was really Kate's fault . . . Courtney was convinced. Where are Miss Organized's famous "reminders" when you really need them?!

It was really nobody's fault. The scheduling of the awards banquet and the ballet recital was outside their control. Of course, it would have helped if Courtney had noticed that the twenty-third was this Friday. And it was too bad that -- for once-Kate had neglected to "program" Courtney's memory. So things were a little strained that week. And the usual traffic between Ruffle City and the House of Neat came to a halt -- unlike the thoughts racing through two troubled minds.

The problem was, each girl knew the other too well not to know how important both Friday events were. Courtney knew how thrilled Kate was to be up for Most Valuable Player. And Kate knew how hard Courtney had worked on her featured role in Friday's recital.

Neither wanted to see the other disappointed. Neither wanted to see herself disappointed, either! So, 'round and 'round it went. Each time one girl thought of a reason why her event was more important, she'd think of other things, too. For Kate, it was Courtney's patience teaching her the not-as-easy-as-they-look ballet exercises that gave Kate the strongest/fastest soccer legs in the league. Or Courtney's tact in pointing out really cool clothes, without ever mentioning that there was life beyond sweats.

For Courtney, it was the trouble Kate took to help her make sense of math. Or the way she bragged about Courtney's dancing to her soccer teammates. Or Kate's cheerful "No problem" when Courtney showed up late . . . again.

It was Kate -- with typical Kate logic -- who made the decision. It was Courtney who made a plan of her own, and-with very un-typical efficiency -- made it happen.

********

Courtney sank into a graceful bow. It was her third curtain call. And well deserved! thought Kate, applauding with soccer-match enthusiasm from her front-row seat.

Courtney smiled as a piercing whistle cut through the applause. Leave it to Kate! An enormous bouquet (Kate's idea) cradled in one arm, Courtney rose to her feet. But rather than leave the stage, she simply stood there. The puzzled audience grew quiet as Courtney opened her mouth. Leave it to Courtney, thought Kate with a grin. She's going to make a speech! And she did. "Before this evening ends, there's one more presentation to be made." With a sweeping gesture, Courtney cued an off-stage helper, who brought out a gleaming . . . soccer (?!) . . . trophy.

"To be here for me this evening, someone very special gave up her own moment in the spotlight." Then, with a fanfare in her voice, "Ladies and gentlemen, it's my pleasure to present Midvale Soccer League's Most Valuable Player . . . my sister, Kate!" Oh, my. Oh, no! Oh, . . . help! Kate had no idea what to do. But -- with a push from her family -- she found herself, somehow, on stage.

"Courtney!"

"Kate!" mimicked her sister, with a grin and a hug. Then Courtney whispered, "They got the inscription wrong, though. It should read 'Most Valuable Sister.'"

Speechless, Kate just hugged her back. Then . . . "Uh . . . Courtney?"

"Yes?"

"What do we do now?" Courtney laughed.

"We take a bow, Kate." And -- arms filled with roses and soccer trophy -- they did. Together.

Mercy and a Message

Jesus washes our feet for two reasons. The first is to give us mercy; the second is to give us a message. And that message is simply this: Jesus offers unconditional grace; we are to offer unconditional grace. The mercy of Christ came before our mistakes; our mercy must come before the mistakes of others. Those in the circle of Christ had no doubts of his love; those in our circles should have no doubts about ours.

What does it mean to have a heart like his? It means to kneel as Jesus knelt, touching the grimy parts of the people we are stuck with and washing away their unkindnesses with kindness. Or as Paul wrote, "Be kind and loving to each other, and forgive each other just as God forgave you in Christ" (Ephesians 4:32 ncv). "But, Max," you are saying, "I've done nothing wrong. I'm not the one who cheated or lied. I'm not the one with the annoying habits. I'm not the guilty party here." Perhaps you aren't. But neither was Jesus. Of all the men in that room, only one was worthy of having his feet washed. And he was the one who washed the feet. The one worthy of being served, served others. The genius of Jesus' example is that the burden of bridge-building falls on the strong one, not on the weak one. The one who is innocent is the one who makes the gesture. And you know what happens? More often than not, if the one in the right volunteers to wash the feet of the one in the wrong, both parties get on their knees. Don't we all think we are right? Therefore, we all wash each other's feet.

And that's the secret: Relationships don't thrive because the guilty are punished, but because the innocent are merciful. Because the one who is hurt is the one who has the courage and grace to say, "I forgive you. I love you. Let's move on."

Just like Jesus.

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