“The ability to enjoy a big, spacious, abundant, open-hearted life is directly proportional to your ability to love everyone, especially those who are different from you,” Brian Houston, founder of Hillsong wrote. “We cannot reduce people’s whole lives into one sweeping, judgmental statement.”
I love that sentence… I want that, a big, spacious, open-hearted life. And for that, I have to learn to obey the two commandments that Jesus said were the greatest, and to, somehow or the other, learn to think and act with kindness, not only towards those whom it’s easy to love… but towards those whom it is difficult to love because they are too like me!! and those who are different from me.
And agape love starts with looking, with seeing.
Like everything else in the Christian life, it works by contraries and paradoxes. We become bigger, better, people by really looking at others, really seeing them, really listening, emptying ourselves of ourselves.
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My life and heart have begun to be enlarged and enriched as I talk, whenever possible, to the people of the many races and nationalities and cultures and customs whom I encounter here in Oxford, and when I travel in England and Europe.
When I listen to and meditate on big chunks of Scripture on my headphones as I go on a walk (in The Message, or in German, which I am learning), I can feel myself changing ever so slightly, slowly but surely, becoming a bigger, better, and wiser person. And similarly, I feel my heart and my world-view slowly expanding, sometimes splitting open, as I observe without judgement, and talk to as many different people as I can whose race, culture, stage of life, and backgrounds are different from my own.
Making a conscious effort to have meaningful conversations with people whose life-experience is very different to my own is an enriching, interesting, and heart-expanding experience. At a recent Christian social event, I decided not to chiefly talk to my friends who were there, but to those who were at a different age/stage than I was, or who, like me, stood out in the lily-white crowd. I had interesting conversations with a doctoral student from Singapore, a postdoc from Malaysia, a black South African, and the nicest Iranian couple who became Christians after the wife saw Jesus in a dream (and who loved my daughter, Irene, because, apparently, she looked like their sweet daughter). I spoke to a mum who had recently lost her young child, to a church member with mental health problems, to my daughters’ friends. It was the most fascinating three hours, and I was so glad I had decided not to just catch up with my friends but to seek out those who were different to me.
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And to live with openness, without judgement or fear, is essential in this world which, inevitably, will be increasingly multi-cultural, increasingly shaped by migration. Migration is a potent political issue… one which lay behind Angela Merkel’s plummeting approval ratings after her generosity to migrants in 2015.
I have spent roughly a third of my life in each of three countries: India, England, and the US. And all my friends have wanted roughly the same things: interesting work; a spacious, light-filled house in a safe, quiet location; a good education and opportunities for their children; physical safety, good health and health care, leisure for exercise, to read, watch movies, travel, go to the theatre, whatever; friendship, love. Basically, the stuff on Maslow’s hierarchy of basic needs.
And the migrants among us want, need and seek the same things.
Migration is built into the DNA of all living being. Birds, butterflies, fish, mammals, migrate according to the seasons and the availability of food. At a time when climate change, and the actions of aggressive nations, like China are emptying the seas of sand and fish, and stripping the land of animals and green things, causing increasing desertification and water shortages, and the rising violence which leads to poverty, it is quite natural to want to move to where one can breathe freely, eat healthily, drink clean water, live in safety, and give your children the chance in life that other people’s children have.
I have been surprised by how vehemently some Christians in the US support Trump’s cruel treatment of migrants. And of course, uneasiness about migration was a major element of Brexit, and is shaping European politics.
But migration is and will probably become an increasing fact of life. As Christ-followers living in affluent countries, with everything we need, we must resist fear that migration will lead to scarcity. Cultural shifts, yes, and perhaps exciting ones. Scarcity no; most economists concur in this.
For our own mental, emotional and spiritual health, we must live with open, non-judgmental eyes, open-hearted interest, and a lack of condemnation and prejudice towards other people. And that openheartedness and generous-spiritedness will immeasurably enrich our lives, giving us a big, spacious, abundant, open-hearted life.
Animosity towards others, whether in the sanctuary of our hearts, or expressed verbally, online, or in our facial expressions or actions towards others, is like a tiny toxin which will slowly but inevitably affect our own mental and emotional health and happiness. We are what we think. Our negative thoughts change our body chemistry on the molecular level as stress hormones like adrenaline build up. Unkind judgements of others, and racial or religious prejudice, are like disease-causing carcinogens affecting our soul and spirit, which, if not checked, will eventually affect our mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health. And will spill over into a less happy family and society.
Conversely, open-heartedness offers a happier, more peaceful life-experience, and is a pathway to a rich, “big, spacious, abundant life.”
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As with any change, it comes through two factors, our own decision and actions, and the grace of God.
“The Baptism in the Holy Spirit is a baptism of love,” Andrew Murray wrote; another favourite sentence. Sometimes, we just need to ask for God’s wise, kind, egalitarian eyes to see the world and people as he sees them, and to change our hearts and make them a bit more like his.
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