A few weeks ago, I had a frustrating week that turned out to be a rewarding week, and I hope even a transformative week. The centerpiece of it was powerful guidance that I received quite unexpectedly, guidance that I had the opportunity to put to the test in a surprising way a few days after receiving it. I wrote a version of this story for the Circle of Atonement newsletter, but I want to tell the story here as well. It’s all about learning how to love other people no matter what they do, and what could be a better expression of “life in the Kingdom” than that?
So, here’s the story: It all started when I went to Mexico City to get a new passport to replace the one I had lost. That went fine, but everything went downhill from there. I was staying in a small Mexico City apartment with Patricia and her daughter, along with Patricia’s sister and her partner. I wanted to get some pressing work done on my computer, but at every turn I was—to put it diplomatically—thwarted by one person or another not conforming to my standards of proper behavior (the common denominator: noise, noise, noise!). I decided therefore to take the first bus back to our big, blessedly quiet house five hours away in Xalapa. (Patricia would remain behind the rest of the week to do some work.) Finally, I would get some work done!
Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. It turned out that I had left my computer’s power adapter in Mexico City, and the computer’s power had been drained dry on my bus trip home. So, there was no way for me to do any work at all, and though I made every attempt to rectify the situation—trying my other adapters, looking to buy a new one, seeking out cyber cafes, etc.—nothing, and I mean nothing, worked. Like it or not, I was going to be in limbo for the next four or five days.
And I hate to admit it, but I was very angry. In my mind, it seemed that the whole world was conspiring to make me miserable. Fortunately, though, I had enough sanity to consider the idea that perhaps the world was not conspiring against me; perhaps instead the Holy Spirit was conspiring for me. My enforced time off looked suspiciously like a divine setup. After all, I hadn’t had a spiritual retreat in several years, and it looked like everything had fallen into place to have one now. So, I decided to make the best of my situation and spend the week in prayer, meditation, and quiet reading.
In my very first session of prayer and meditation, then, I decided to face my anger problem head on. I started talking to Jesus. I told him that I felt angry with other people and situations in my life. I told him that it sometimes felt as if the whole world was conspiring against me, keeping me from doing what I really wanted to do, frustrating me no end. I asked him if he had anything to say to me about this situation.
In retrospect, I think that when I asked him for guidance, Jesus said “Finally!” It seems like he took full advantage of the small opening I gave him, because I immediately got what felt like real guidance from him. Of course one can never be one hundred percent certain about such things, but the thoughts that came to me felt like they came from a much higher place than the usual hamster wheel of my mind. They seemed to drop in out of nowhere, with a power that spoke of a love, wisdom, and conviction far grander than my own little mind and its petty concerns.
What was the guidance? It was very simple, really, and powerful for its very simplicity. It was this: “All of your problems, Greg, come from your lack of love—your hatred, your anger, your judgment, your perfectionism. You need to learn how to love other people. This is the solution to all of your problems.” The tone of it was loving but also very firm. Jesus’ love for me was clear, but there was also a sense of urgency. The sense of it was that I must deal with this problem, because he has work for me to do, and I cannot do this work as long as I’m so embittered and loveless. There was a real sense that I need to shape up and stop wasting my time in pettiness.
I received this guidance with joy, because I knew he was right. It made so much sense to me. I was thinking, “I really do need to learn how to love other people. I’m tired of being this way, so full of anger and judgment—it feels miserable. And I really want to fulfill the function that Jesus has for me.” So, I made a firm commitment to really live the new, more loving life he was holding out to me. And as it turned out, within a few days I got to put that commitment to the test, in an incident so strange that it almost seemed as if it dropped in from Heaven—quite literally, as you’ll see.
First, a little background: An ongoing source of annoyance for Patricia and me has been our neighbor’s dogs. In Mexico many houses have flat roofs, and people use the top of the roof for many things, including a space for their dogs. Our neighbor keeps her dogs on her roof, and unfortunately, they are a constant source of aggravation: they bark incessantly, they often get onto our roof (the houses are closely connected), and they constantly leave the standard canine calling cards—so rarely cleaned up that the wind carries the awful stench to our house. The neighbor is a nice woman and we’ve talked to her many times about this, but to no avail.
Now to the incident: It was night, it was raining hard, and I was headed toward our kitchen to make dinner. As I walked, I glanced out the sliding glass door to our small, fully enclosed patio. And to my amazement, right at that instant, a dog dropped straight down out of the sky onto the concrete patio. I’ve heard of “raining cats and dogs,” but this was ridiculous. Of course, it was one of our neighbor’s dogs, Droopy, who had somehow fallen off the roof two stories up and landed right in front of me. I ran over to the patio, slid open the door, and saw that, amazingly, he didn’t appear to be hurt at all—thank goodness. I couldn’t resist: I said to him, “Hi, Droopy. So nice of you to drop in.”
Unfortunately, there was a problem: We have metal bars on the patio door, bars that only slide open when you unlock them. Droopy was too wide to pull through them, and unfortunately I couldn’t find the key. I called Patricia, but she was out of cell phone range. So there we were: Droopy was whimpering because he was stuck on the patio. I could reach through the bars and touch him, but I couldn’t rescue him. Meanwhile, the neighbor was outside looking for him and calling for him, with obvious concern in her voice. So, I stuck my head out the back door and told her that he had fallen onto our patio, that he looked okay, but that I needed to find our key to get him out.
And unfortunately, once more I have to admit that I was angry. Once I saw that Droopy was okay, the resentful thoughts started streaming through my head: “Here I was going to have a relaxing dinner, and now I’m stuck with yet another problem with her dang dogs. This only happened because they got onto our roof again: He fell off of our roof and is now stuck on our patio. And I can’t find the dang key anywhere. How long am I going to be stuck with this whimpering dog on my patio? There goes the evening. What’s wrong with people? Why don’t they think? Why can’t this woman be more responsible?”
But then it hit me: This was exactly what Jesus said is my one and only problem: my lack of love for others. This was the very thing that he emphatically told me I simply have to overcome. I need to learn how to love other people—and, apparently, dogs too. It felt almost like a test. I thought the guidance I received was so great at the time I got it, but was I actually going to follow it when the chips were down? Now was my chance. I told myself, “Droopy needs my help, my neighbor needs my help—am I going to stew in anger, or am I going to be loving to these children of God who need me?” I really wanted to do the latter. So, I made a firm commitment to that goal, took a few deep breaths, and asked Jesus what to do.
And amazingly, everything fell right into place from that moment forward. I got the idea to call our housekeeper and ask her where the key might be. She answered the phone and told me immediately—as it turned out, I already had found the correct key, but I must not have inserted it properly the first time I tried it. Maybe keys don’t work when you’re angry. At any rate, now it worked perfectly, and within seconds I had unlocked the bars and pulled Droopy into the house. I immediately took him to the front door, opened it up, and my neighbor was right there waiting for him.
What happened next was truly beautiful: I put Droopy down, my neighbor wrapped her arms around him, and then thanked me profusely and gave me a huge hug. She was so grateful! She had been very concerned, and I could tell what a huge relief it was for her that her perrito was safe. I was glad too. I really loved her in that moment and she loved me. It felt like a holy encounter, like I had extended a miracle and she had gratefully received it. Lack of love was replaced by love. I had passed the test, at least for the moment.
Patricia and I discovered an unexpected postscript on the day I began writing the original version of this piece. It turns out that our neighbor’s ex-husband, who owns her house, is kicking her out of it, so she is going to have to leave. She’s giving away the dogs. As much trouble as we’ve had with the dogs, this is in no way good news for Patricia and me; she really is a nice woman and we’re sorry this has happened. Now, I’m all the more glad that, during a time when unbeknownst to me she was struggling with this huge issue in her life, I gave her love and helpfulness rather than anger over her supposedly not meeting my petty needs. Patricia and I will be praying for her and offering her assistance as she goes through this big change in her life.
Well, that’s my story. I can still feel the impact of that guidance and what happened afterward. I’m convinced that there is something deeply true about the counsel I received. I know that I need to keep learning how to love other people. I really do want to fulfill my function in his plan to undo lack of love with expressions of love. Something deep inside tells me that this is the way home for me.
I’m hoping that this story is helpful for you as well, because it seems to me that everyone struggles with problems similar to mine. We spend so much time blaming others, being angry at others, and condemning others for all the ways they seem to make our lives miserable. Surely, we tell ourselves, if only they would get their act together, we could be happy.
But no: As Jesus so emphatically tells us, happiness comes from living in the Kingdom, a Kingdom rooted in loving your “enemies” and loving your neighbor as yourself. In this crazy world where hate and anger and blame seem to be poisoning everything (Exhibit A: the 2016 election), what message could be more desperately needed than this call to love one another? I pray that we all will keep learning, day by day, how to love other people.