Lately, each time I've thought about writing a post to get going on Relationship Refinery, I quickly feel like it's futile and almost superficial in the midst of the global events going on. So I didn’t write; I just did a lot of angry texting and fight-picking on Facebook. You may have noticed.
Then, I quit. All of it. Social media, TV, caffeine, sugar, arguing, blaming, and all that. The numbness went away. I began to feel again, to think about things other than politics again. That was a nice week... (baby steps)
During that week, I watched Jim: The James Foley Story for the third time to bring me back to myself.
Jim the film is… well, it’s something I will flatten if I write too much about. It needs to be seen to fully get the picture of who Jim (James Foley) was. But let’s just say the film made me think about Jesus, a lot.
In short(ish), James was a somewhat accidental conflict-photojournalist who first was captured in Libya as he documented their uprising. He was released after 45 days, and to his family’s dismay but ultimate understanding, he went back to document the horrific scenes of Aleppo, Syria.
He was captured by ISIS/ISIL, which at the time was an unknown force-- not even the U.S. government (seemingly) knew about, much less suspected, this group. He was held in the worst conditions imaginable with another journalist for about a year, before being transferred to yet another prison where 16 journalists from other Western countries were being held.
After another year, most of the other journalists were released, while James was taken to the top of a hill, made to read an anti-American script condemning his family and country, and then beheaded on camera in one of the most viral stories of all time.
The documentary was made by his family and does a remarkable job at making the story an uplifting portrait of James, amid the most somber and heartbreaking circumstances. The things I have learned from his example I fear can’t be captured here, but they are by far the most profound things I have picked up from something I watched on TV, and that’s because they helped me better understand Christ and His example.
Here is a person who is in the worst place imaginable, with the least amount of hope and the most amount of uncertainty. The other prisoners talked about how during the torture sessions, they would have much rather taken physical torture than the mental torture of never knowing what was in store for them. James, a devout Catholic, really wanted to pray. In order to do so, he converted to Islam so that even though he wasn’t able to verbally pray to Jesus, he could kneel five times a day to pray to Allah and hope his prayers were being heard.
One of the other prisoners described it this way,
“Religion is like language. It's the love that matters. So even though James prayed to Allah, he needed that. He needed that connection to his God, and he also needed that connection to his mother and family.”
In these dark, dark days, James thought about beautiful things and was known to always be at peace. On Christmas day, as the men sat in a circle telling each other something they liked about the others, one of the prisoners said to James, “You are pure good. There is no evil in you.” He then went on to say that that Christmas, being with James, was the best of his life.
Can you imagine? You’re a prisoner in a literal death chamber, experiencing the best holiday of your life because you’re sharing it with someone who brings light into your heart.
Amid these conditions, Jim was described by every prisoner as a steadying force, unselfish and honest. That although every one of them at some point had “cheated” with food, hoarded food, snuck food without sharing, Jim never did. Jim took the worst of the beatings because he would request the most of the guards- always petitioning for more food for the group.
At one point another prisoner and James had endured excruciating physical torture for hours. The other prisoner, Daniel, was in the corner crying from what he called the worst pain of his life. James, somehow not in tears, reached out to comfort Daniel in the midst of his own suffering.
One of the most powerful examples of his selflessness was when Daniel was about to be released. He thought it would happen any day now, yet James had no word whatsoever that he himself would be released anytime soon. After six days of thinking he would get out that day, Daniel was in the depths of despair because it hadn’t happened and was terrified of what would happen if he didn’t get out. Jim went to his side, put his arm around him, and told him it would be ok. He said, “Daniel, you are going to get out. It’s going to be ok. You will go home.”
He then went to the other side of the room and sat quietly. 15 minutes later, the guards came to release Daniel.
The fellow captives were so certain of Jim’s goodness through and through, that one of them said that he is positive that even while Jim was kneeling before the terrorist, about to be murdered, there’s no doubt that Jim was admiring the view of the sunset as he passed.
Another ex-prisoner remarked, “He died as a free man. I ended up being released; he ended up free.”
My little brother and I watched this film together and afterward he wondered aloud how he himself could make that kind of an impact. Go to Libya? Syria? Zambia? Become a conflict journalist?
We talked about how, even within the best of intentions, that focus can end up being one of the Adversary’s tools used to keep us locked inside ourselves. You can’t do anything if you can’t go abroad. You can’t do anything if you can’t reach the masses. Or change a law. Or unseat a president. Or feed the hungry millions. Or have some big fancy job making a lot of fancy money.
Every time I watch James’ story, I feel immense sadness for his family. But I can’t help but feel their pride as well, particularly his parents’. To have a child die is a tragedy unmatched.
But when I think of how remarkable it would be to discover that my son was known, in the darkest, most hopeless place, to be a person of integrity, unfailing charity, optimism and humility... I can’t help but believe that their joy in that knowledge has gotten them through many dark days.
Nothing would put my heart at more ease than knowing that Charity, the pure love of Christ, was my child’s legacy.
His parents said that they came to know their son through the people in his life, after he had passed, as they met his friends and former fellow captives for the memorial service. People like him don’t go around talking about how they are saving the world one good vibe at a time, so other people have to do it for them.
When I say the film makes me think of Jesus a lot, it’s because I’m given a visual of perhaps how our Savior might have conducted Himself had He been in similar circumstances: serving the poorest and most war-torn among us, giving up all material possessions, remaining faithful and connected to God throughout it all, and always, always being there to comfort another in pain despite His own, likely worse, pain.
That’s why I watch it despite the sadness. It reminds me that if all I do in this life is look outside myself every possible moment, wherever I am, even if no one but a few people in a prison cell will see it, it will be the best use of my life.
Recently I was visiting my aunt and uncle in California with my two toddlers who were out of sorts from a month of travel. My three-year-old had imprinted on this basketball and needed to play with it at all times. He had taken it outside where it was raining, then brought it in and was distraught that it was wet.
Of course my simply toweling off the ball wasn’t good enough for him, and he kept screaming. Since I found this to be unreasonable (“I want it dryyyyyyy”), I was bracing myself for a long tantrum and not giving into his lunacy. My aunt, who was minutes away from needing to leave for church, patiently came over and said, “We could go dry it with my blow dryer. Would you want to do that?”
As I watched her blow dry my son’s wet basketball, a sort of preposterous thing, with a smile on her face as if it were the most normal thing in the world--all while my son’s tears streamed down his face and he calmed down-- I had the thought, this is what the pure love of Christ looks like. I was surprised, because there were a dozen other things she had done that week that might have looked more obviously that way.
But this encompassed the spirit of Charity in such a lovely way that I couldn't miss it. Charity is discerning, but when it has to choose, it errs on the side of looking at something as “helping” rather than “enabling”. It doesn’t ask questions like, “But if I give in this time, then won’t he keep asking for other ridiculous things?” or “Yes he’s sad, but it will be good for him to not get his way.”
It says, “You know what? What would it hurt to help him feel happy? I have the power to comfort him, it’s not hurting him or me, so I’m going to try.” It’s not concerned with spoiling, or only helping those who help themselves, or forcing lessons onto a person. It’s just about giving when we can, and trusting it will all even out somehow.
"There is no such thing as a self-made man. We are made up of thousands of others. Everyone who has ever done a kind deed for us, or spoken one word of encouragement to us, has entered into the makeup of our character and of our thoughts, as well as our successes." -George Matthew Adams
So I’ll write. Because relationships--typically one-by-one and not by the masses-- are how we make the difference, and I need an endless stream of reminders to push me outside of my default stay-in-my-bubble-and-keep-things-medium mode.
I mean, literally as I write this, I just snapped at my husband for looking at me while I'm eating a messy bagel. As I write this thing about being just a tiny bit less selfish and a tiny bit more kind, I'm snarky over perhaps the dumbest thing ever.
I need these reminders more than everyone.
I'm easily prone to overwhelm, so my purpose for this site is to provide a place to remind us that there is much refining to be done without total overhaul. Push ourselves without pushing our own buttons. (Just made that up, clearly. Will someone please think of something catchy for this idea... I'm too overwhelmed.)
Refinement: it isn’t everything at once; it’s something at many times. (Better?)
It's thinking of your spouse or your mother or your neighbor in need even one time when you’d normally be thinking of yourself, and then actually doing something with the thought.
It’s looking at the towel on the floor and making the decision to be happy there is a person in your life to put the towel on the floor, rather than throwing said towel in said person’s face.
With God, it’s kneeling to pray just one of the times you would rather do it curled up in bed, or just praying a little, maybe during a commercial break, when you would rather not pray at all.
With yourself, it’s literally patting yourself on the back (I’m serious, get your hand and put it on your back) after you do that 15 minute workout or make a $5 donation to that GoFundMe page, when you had the strong desire to stay home or keep scrolling.
It’s after a week of tiny things like this, suddenly thinking, see? Little by little, I can do this. I can be better than I ever thought possible. So little has changed this week, but my hope has become brighter than it has been in years.
That’s what’s amazing about refinement. It’s not about the literal amount of change made in a given area; those are drops in the bucket of endless things you could be doing.
It’s about showing up and showing God you haven’t quit. You haven’t thrown in the towel (or thrown the towel), even when your desired outcome (of the election, the marital disagreement, the promotion or the kid’s birthday party) didn’t occur.
Give Him an inch, and He will give a yard.
That’s why I’m here. I’m going to keep showing up to this site, to put on screen things that matter to me, even though my voice is small and far from revolutionary.
If I can help someone think a little more about their spouse’s point-of-view, who in turn is more compassionate to a colleague in need, who is then more motivated to listen to their child with a little more patience, who then goes to school and befriends a lonely kid… then it's a ripple worth making.
There are no sandblasters here, only little chisels and scraps of sandpaper chipping away the calluses we’ve developed from staying in our same ruts, climbing the same mountains, pushing away the same calls to someplace higher. Little by little we can soften up, and ultimately, shine.