When we left Indiana and moved to Texas, one of the things I missed the most was my John Deere tractor. I loved my John Deere. But more than that, I loved mowing my grass. Some would say I was a little bit perfectionistic about having a perfectly manicured lawn. A friend once asked me if I snapped a chalk-line before I mowed so my lines would be straight. He was mocking me, but I took it as a compliment. We had a little house on an acre and a half, and spending time in my yard was therapy for me. For two hours, I would hear nothing but the drone of the tractor and get lost in my own thoughts. I would brainstorm solutions for problems at work, I would dream about the future and I would reflect on the people most important to me.
And I would think about the jerk who lived next door.
I really didn’t know Tom that well. We each had four kids, and they all went to the same schools. Tom worked for the utility company and was really a nice guy. But evidently no one had taught him how to water his grass. I had thoroughly researched the type of grass in our lawns and our local climate conditions, and I knew that you should water thoroughly in the morning three or four times a week. Give it a chance to soak in and then dry out, and the grass roots will go deep toward the water, creating a much healthier turf.
Not Tom. He would water his grass all day, every day. That’s not an exaggeration—he ran three-hour cycles, and he did it three times a day. How do I know this? Because I snuck into his garage one time while he was gone and looked at his irrigation timer. He literally watered his grass nine hours every day.
I shouldn’t have cared, except our lawns bordered each other, and my yard was downhill from his. His water runoff would flood my grass every day. It was hard to keep it growing because it never dried out. If I tried mowing that section, I’d leave muddy, rutted tracks.
I can fix this, I naively thought. Once Tom understands the error of his way, he’ll change his sprinkler settings and my yard will stop flooding.
No such luck. Tom and I had a short conversation, and he set me straight: “My lawn guy set this up, and I’m not changing it.”
I let it go for a few weeks, but every time I mowed, I would get to that side of the lawn and my blood would start boiling. I was thinking some not-very-nice thoughts about Tom.
I learned that Purdue University had a turf science department, so I printed off some of their documents and took them over to Tom. I thought he’d appreciate knowing that his lawn guy was wrong. The next day, I noticed his sprinklers were still running nine hours a day. And the day after that. And the next week. Nothing changed.
Then one day while I was on my John Deere stewing about the idiot next door, it hit me: It isn’t Tom who needs to change. It’s me.
What was so wrong with my heart that I would allow this anger and hatred to grow over how much a guy waters his lawn? He wasn’t doing this to hurt me. He was just living his life. He wasn’t doing anything unkind or illegal or unethical. Yet I was building him into a monster in my own mind because he was messing up my perfect little lawn.
Perhaps you have experienced a similar situation. Have you considered what makes us respond in unloving ways? Why do we so quickly assume that another person is an idiot or a jerk—or whatever term we choose?
I’d like to suggest three things you can do to help you become a more loving person:
1. Create Space in Your Life.
I live in the fourth largest American city with 6.7 million of my closest friends, and traffic has become a regular part of my life. My office commute typically takes about an hour. And it’s not a laid-back hour either. It’s a fast-moving, high-paced, lane-changing, horn-honking, stop-and-go, heart-racing hour. And it’s not unusual for me to yell “Idiot!” at a driver who cuts me off or drives too slow in my lane.
How I respond to others while I’m going seventy miles per hour in traffic may be the clearest regular indication that I have not yet mastered being marked by love. If I’m ever self-deceived enough to think I am the poster child for what a loving human looks like, I need to consider the inner dialogue and, I’ll be honest, occasional verbal outbursts that happen when I’m in a hurry to get somewhere.
The solution? Margin. Space. Room to breathe.
When I’ve only allowed myself forty-five minutes for a forty-five-minute drive, I’m going to be on edge. I’m going to be irritable. I’m going to get mad at the people who get in my way. But if I leave seventy-five minutes before I need to arrive, then suddenly I’m more patient, more caring and more tolerant of the people around me.
In his book Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Richard Swenson, MD, describes margin like this:
“Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating.”
Everything in our culture tells us to ignore margins. Spend more money than you make. Work longer and harder. Drive faster. Do more. Be more. Buy more.
But when we don’t intentionally leave space in our lives, we become individuals who are not very loving. Why? Because loving others takes time.
When you’ve filled your schedule from the time you get up until you go to bed, you don’t have time for the people you meet throughout the day who need a listening ear or an encouraging word.
When your outgo is bigger than your income, you have no room in your budget to respond to people in need.
Margin makes you pleasant. No margin makes you grumpy. Margin allows you to be generous. No margin makes you Scrooge-like. Margin helps you listen. Without margin, you come across as someone who doesn’t care.
I like what Kary Oberbrunner wrote about margin in his blog, Igniting Souls:
Margins Create Space for …
• Laughter: You can’t laugh if everything is serious.
• Generosity: You can’t give if you have nothing left.
• Memories: You can’t remember if you weren’t present.
• Prayer: You can’t pray if you’re self-sufficient.
• Dreams: You can’t dream if you can’t imagine.
• Love: You can’t love if you’re self-absorbed.
• Exercise: You can’t exercise if you don’t value yourself.
• Creativity: You can’t create if you’re merely a machine.
• Experimentation: You can’t experiment if you don’t have time to fail.
• Reflection: You can’t reflect if you don’t value rest.
• Spontaneity: You can’t be in the moment if you’re stuck in the future.
• Rest: You can’t sit if you can’t stop.
• Joy: You can’t pour out if you haven’t been filled up.
• Peace: You can’t breathe deeply if you can’t catch your breath.
• Friendships: You can’t expect to have friends if you fail to be one.
When I live on less than I make, I have the financial margin that keeps an unexpected expense from capsizing me. That way, I can respond in the moment to someone else’s real need. When I leave space in my schedule, I have time to stop and listen to someone who needs an ear or time to jump in and help a neighbor pick up his car from the mechanic. I will be sensitive enough to notice someone around me who is obviously hurting. I saw this happen in real life a few years back when I was eating at a restaurant in Miami. We had chosen to be seated outside in front of the restaurant on the patio, close to the sidewalk. I watched a guy come in off the street and approach each table, one by one. He was obviously looking for money, so I assumed he was homeless.
At each table, he was quickly turned away. People just wanted to eat their meals without being disturbed. I could see patrons looking around for the restaurant staff, hoping someone would tell this man to go away.
That is, until he approached the table next to us. I had noticed these two gentlemen. They were having some type of business discussion. It looked serious to me. But at the arrival of Homeless Harry, they instantly gave this vagrant their full attention. I’m guessing he asked for money, but it was the response of the man at the table that still sticks with me all these years later: “I might be able to help you. But I’d love to hear your story first.”
And he listened patiently, asking questions and seeking to understand. He didn’t condemn. He didn’t shoo him away. He didn’t demean him. He treated this man with dignity. He intently listened to his story and expressed compassion. And then he gave him a twenty-dollar bill.
Homeless Harry walked away after that, and the restaurant patron returned to his business conversation without missing a beat. I could tell he wasn’t trying to impress anyone. This is just who he was. Margin was a way of life for him. On that day, he had space for the person who came across his path. And he had a $20 bill in his pocket available to meet a need.
I have so much to learn.
2. Remove the Things That Make You Unloving.
A verse in Philippians offers some great advice.
“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” —Philippians 4:8
I think the opposite is also true. Perhaps it might be written this way:
Whatever pulls you down, whatever makes you less loving, whatever is a negative drain to your life, whatever takes you to an unhealthy place—if there is anything that makes you marked by negativity instead of love—remove those things from your life.
Let me make this incredibly tangible. On November 7, 2012, I stopped watching cable news. That might not seem like a big deal to most people, but I was a news junkie. For years, I probably averaged seven to ten hours of news-watching a week. I loved watching the news, hearing different angles on the news and listening to incredibly smart commentators share their opinion about the news.
I would increase my intake of cable news during the election season. I loved watching every debate and then hearing the debates about the debates. For me, politics was a game and I was spectator number one. But that all changed on the eve of the 2012 election, when I turned it off, cold turkey. I was done. I didn’t know for how long. I just knew my steady diet of cable news and commentary wasn’t good for my soul. So I walked away.
After about six months of detox, I noticed that several things had changed in my heart and mind as a result of this (for me) significant life change. First, I no longer felt hopeless and defeated. I no longer thought the world was going to end or that “America, as we know it, will cease to exist.” That’s the ridiculous, never-ending chant from those who make their money from those who believe their rhetoric and keep coming back for more. (The truth is, America as we know it ceases to exist every day, and I’m okay with that. As we all contribute to solving problems and helping our fellow citizens, we continue to make America a different place.)
Second, I became less cynical toward politicians. I realized that many of them are hardworking Americans who love their country and are trying to do the right thing. It occurred to me that they need more of my prayers and less of my high-and-mighty criticism.
Third, I began to grow an appetite for hearing from people with whom I didn’t agree. During my years as a news junkie, I lined up pretty well with most conservatives. When I consumed a steady diet of commentators telling me every night that “liberals” were evil, that they hated America, and that they were trying to take my kids and my freedoms and my rights, then I had no interest in sitting down with “those people” to hear what they believed, how they thought, what they valued, or what drove their worldview. I didn’t want to hear it because I already knew. My favorite news personalities had told me it was true. But by shutting it off, I became more compassionate. I began to really care what people thought, even if I disagreed with them.
Finally, I became more interested in what Jesus would do than I was in holding the right political stance or what would happen in the next election. For example, when I look at illegal immigration through the eyes of Jesus and focus on how he would care for human beings who are trying to survive or find a better life, I land in a different place than when I think about it logically or economically or politically. If my filter is first loving God and loving others instead of making a point or winning an election or passing a law, then it makes a big difference in my life and in my attitude and focus.
Shutting off my excessive intake of cable news made me more loving, less tense and more hopeful. I developed clearer thinking about real solutions for real problems, and my compassion for people around me began to increase. I began to want to know about other views and felt some of my own long-held beliefs shift as I released myself from the quicksand of groupthink. This will seem elementary to many, but I also discovered that Jesus is not a Republican and that “Christian” and “conservative” are not synonymous terms.
The bottom line is that this decision put me in a much better place. My soul is healthier and I am more kingdom-minded. I still love America, but I am more aware that Jesus died for the whole world, not just the U.S.A.
For me, it was cable news that was making me less loving. For you, it might be a person who is pulling you into a cesspool of negativity. It might be an environment or a workplace. You may need to change what you read, watch or listen to.
If you truly want to be a person marked by love, then remove the things from your life that keep you from being who you want to be.
3. Pray for a Change of Heart.
I find it interesting how people use prayer. Many pray that they’ll get the job, that they’ll meet their sales goals or that their car won’t break down during the upcoming road trip.
I know that really smart pastors and theologians disagree with one another on weighty issues such as prayer and sovereignty and the work of God in our everyday lives. I tend to think pretty pragmatically about prayer, and that causes me to ask questions.
If God loves you so much that he gives you the job, does that mean he doesn’t love other people who also applied and were praying just as hard? Do you think God supernaturally cleans your carburetor or patches the leak in your radiator?
I’m not saying God can’t do those things. I’m just not sure that’s where our prayers should be focused.
I’m more convinced that God wants to work in my heart, at a deep personal level, and that he can:
• Help me be more loving.
• Give me the strength to get through this tough conversation.
• Help me be more patient.
As I was mowing my lawn, instead of choosing to live in the cesspool of my own anger and bitterness, I began to pray. I prayed that God would change my heart. I prayed that I would become more loving. I prayed that I would stop obsessing about things that didn’t matter. I prayed that I’d have opportunities to build a friendship with Tom. I prayed that God would help me become more loving.
And you know what? Before long, I stopped caring as much about that corner of my yard. Yeah, I still wished it were green and manicured. But more than that, I cared about Tom. I began looking for opportunities to express love in tangible ways to Tom and his family.
I don’t know how prayer changes my circumstances or whether it does much to change someone else’s. But I know prayer can change my heart. Because it has. And it does.
Excerpt was taken from Marked by Love by Tim Stevens with permission from Barbour Publishing.