A Horrible Bird Named Jealousy

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“You can’t keep a bird from flying over your head, but you can keep it from building a nest in your hair.”

You’ve probably heard a form of this saying, usually referring to some sort of temptation.

I like the old Jamaican version: “You can’t keep crow from flyin’, but you can keep him from pitchin’ ‘pon you head.”

What birds are circling nearby for you? Lust? Anger? Hopelessness? Greed?

Yeah, I’ve got those. But there’s another kind of bird that wants to roost in my hair. It’s nasty and dirty, with grey oily feathers. It’s heavy and clumsy and foul smelling. It’s eyes, they’re a dull green. It’s name is Jealousy.

This is not the kind of righteous jealousy felt by God, whose name is Jealous (Exodus 34:14). No, my jealousy makes me lay claim to things that are not my own. If there are taller people in the room, not only do I look for a box to stand on, but I’m also tempted to kick the feet out  from under them. There’s nothing attractive about Jealousy, and the nest it wants to build is repulsive, as well, made out of frustrations and excuses, crooked sticks, rusty paper clips, snakeskins, and used Band-Aids.

Jealousy is the offspring of a strange combination of parents: One is “You’re not good enough,” and the other is “You deserve better.”

It’s been hovering close by for a long time, like a loyal friend. But it’s not a friend. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. And yet, there it is.

As a missionary, there were so many for me to be jealous of: those who speak the language better, report more baptisms, talk to larger crowds, plant more churches, have more guests in their home, are better able to “do it all,” and have more and better relationships, opportunities, ideas, and influence.

And now that I’m no longer on the field, Jealousy hasn’t disappeared: I see people with nicer houses, better jobs, higher salaries, more blog views and Facebook shares, and more faith.

Then there are those who are still “over there.” It’s not that my wife and I wish that we were back overseas. It’s that we wish that our desire to be there outweighed our need not to be there. And as others stay longer, as others report success, my first thought is too often “Yeah, but” or “I could have, too, if.”

What an awful way to think. What a horrible bird Jealousy is. Oh, how I’d love to wring its neck. And yet . . . .

With no small amount of fear, I ask, “Am I the only one?”

But after that first thought, I am getting better at formulating a second thought, which consists mostly of a prayer. It’s not a complex prayer. In fact, it’s only four words: “I’m sorry” and “Thank you.” The complete prayer is this: “I’m Sorry. Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you.”

And somewhere in the midst of my prayer I smile. I smile because God is good, because God is working, because others have great stories to share, because it’s not all about me, because smiling makes my face feel better even when my heart disagrees, even when the smile doesn’t last very long.

It’s like waving my arms above my head—the “sorries” and the “thank yous,” the prayers and the smiles—scaring the birds away.

As you’re out and about, watch for me. I’m the guy with the messy hair and the violently flailing arms. Maybe someday Jealousy will quit trying to pitch ‘pon my head and will leave me alone. But until then, please pray for the strength of my arms. They get so tired at times. And if you need me to, I’ll pray for the strength of yours.

[photo: “Home Improvement,” by Mike Timberlake, used under a Creative Commons license]

A Turnip for the King

Two brothers lived in a kingdom long ago. One survived off the land as a poor farmer. The other was very rich.

While tending his crops one day the farmer noticed one of the turnips had grown huge. He pulled it from the ground and it filled a wheelbarrow. The idea occurred to him to present this unusually large turnip to the king as a gift. The king, touched by the generosity of the peasant, received the gift with gratitude. The king sent the poor farmer on his way with gold, treasure, and other fine gifts.

Upon hearing about how the king so greatly rewarded his subject for a mere vegetable, the other brother prepared a gift, too. He presented the king with thoroughbreds, special silks, and rare spices. The kind king told the wealthy man that he had only one thing to give him to match the rarity of the gifts he had presented. The king had the servants roll out the cart-sized turnip and gave it to the man.

The man had no choice but to receive the enormous turnip from the king.

turnip

In two recent books I read the authors recount this ancient tale. They used the principles to make their separate points. I am sure many variations of this same story can be found in a variety of cultures. One site attributes the Brothers Grimm (here).

Looking at the heart motives of the two brothers gave me pause to turn my eyes inward. I asked myself why I do the “good works” that I do. I wondered if I regarded my years of service as the wealthy brother did his gifts for the king.

Do I feel as though God owes me something?

Am I attempting to purchase the favor of God?

Could my jealousy or greed be dirtying the efforts I have set my hand to?

We read in Isaiah a description of the works we consider righteous:

When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags.

The the Apostle Paul tells the Romans:

Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us.

What would change in the way we do things if we considered every effort our hands produce as nothing more than a surprisingly large turnip? We could humbly come before the King and tell Him, “Hey, look, I was out there working and kind of by accident this great big crop grew out of the ground, and I just want you to have it.”

We live extreme and exotic lives overseas doing great and wonderful exploits. Be encouraged today that God is pleased with you. May our good works be the overflow from a heart of gratitude to our Lord. Peace.

[photo credit: cape cod life]

When Envy Rots the Soul

Cairo, Mosque

We sat in our postage stamp size garden, tea and home made cookies in front of us. The weather was beautiful — a cloudless seventy degrees, typical of a Cairo spring. It was early afternoon and the call to prayer had just echoed through the area from a nearby mosque.

We were talking about language learning, the time it takes, the struggle, how we vacillated between feeling like idiots to feeling like small children reduced to no verbs and minimal participles.

“I wish I had language ability like Claire. Her Arabic is so good!*”

The cloudless sky darkened and green entered my soul.

“Well – if you and I had been here as long as she has and if we didn’t have as many kids our Arabic would be good too!” I said it lightly with a laugh – eager to hide the ugly of my envy.

She laughed, whether in agreement or out of politeness, and the moment quickly passed.

But it didn’t. Not really.

Because this had happened more than once; this ugly envy that entered my soul around a myriad of things. Whether it was language learning or how many Egyptian friends I had, envy had this way of creeping in and affecting my friendships, destroying unity.

I have met the most gifted people in the world who are involved in life overseas. Men and women who have left much of the familiar and entered into countries where they are guests, forging their way in territory that is unfamiliar from language to food choices. The list of characteristics of what it takes is long and impressive. Adaptability, perseverance, compassion, adventurous spirit, capable of ambiguity, linguistic ability, great sense of humor, empathy — the list goes on and on. But take a group of people, all with the same goal and similar characteristics, insert jealousy and envy and unity is no more.

Because envy is insidious in its ability to destroy relationships. It loves to disguise itself in well-meaning jargon and light humor. It snakes its way into conversation and behavior. It is called the green-eyed monster for a reason.

I’m a definer – that means I like to start with definitions. Definitions have a way of clarifying things for me. And so in the case of jealousy and envy it has helped me to note the similarities and differences; Jealousy at its simplest is fear of losing something I value; envy is wanting something that someone else has. They have no redemptive value – they are vices. I realize I am envious of those most similar to me. In the case above it was someone who was living in Cairo, same stage of life, a mom with kids, who communicated in Arabic far better than I did.

There is nothing quite like envy that renders me ineffective. I am paralyzed on the outside while my insides have a monologue with God. A monologue that boils down to two questions:

Why her?

Why not me?

There are no simple answers but I’ve found a few things help:

1. Honesty and admission of sin. This is my first step in fighting this ongoing battle of envy. Honesty. For if I cannot be honest, this vice will rot my soul and slowly but steadily infect my body.

2. Confessing the sin. It is not enough to just admit my envy. I have to take this next step – confess this to the God who knows me and sees me raw, loving me anyway.

3. Recognize the ‘why’. In the case of language learning the ‘why’ was easy. I love talking and I wanted to talk with ease and fluency. I didn’t want to stumble over my words.  The ‘why’ was reasonable and commendable. The ‘why’ is not the sin, the envy resulting from the ‘why’ is the sin. Recognizing the ‘why’ is crucial in my journey from envy to peace.

4. Thank God for the person. I hate this one, but it works. Because in the course of giving thanks I am reminded that the person is loved by God, gifted by God for His purposes. As I thank God, I am ever so slowly able to accept and even rejoice at the ability or gifts of another. Rejoice that we are part of God’s redemptive plan, a plan far greater than any of us know.

5. Pray for acceptance of who I am and how I am gifted, or not. So much of my envy comes from insecurity and inability to accept who I am, how I’m wired, my strengths and my weaknesses.  As I work through accepting how God made me, the circumstances where he has placed me, envy is squashed. I learn more about trust and faith.

Would that envy could be erased once and for all, the answer an easy formula. At times I believe I will never be free of this vice, that it is so much a part of my journey in this broken world that I will struggle until I am face to face with the God who made me.

So I raise my prayer to the Master Designer who knit me together, who knows my comings and my goings, knows where I sit and where I stand. A God who knows my thoughts before they are voiced, knows when I am prone to envy, to insecurity. I raise my prayer and ask for a heart free of envy and full of peace, giving life to the body and health to the soul.

A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones~ Proverbs 14:30

Have you dealt with potential competition or envy with fellow workers who are overseas?  It’s a hard but important question!

*name has been changed!

Marilyn Gardner – grew up in Pakistan and as an adult lived in Pakistan and Egypt for 10 years. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  She loves God, her family, and her passport in that order. Find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries and on Twitter@marilyngard

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