Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Courage in Relationships

One of my favorite parts of the holidays is the way it brings together friends and family. I’m not great at sending birthday cards or having long phone conversations, so I appreciate cultural norms that bring us face to face. There’s nothing like really connecting with others when you share space.

I also love people-watching. When I was working on my undergraduate degree, I nearly got a minor in sociology – the academic way to say people-watching. And in seminary, I took family system classes – the theological, psychological way to say people-watching.

So I couldn’t help but watch during holiday get-togethers. I noticed how unkind one dear woman was to herself. When something would go awry, she would often preface her aside with “well, that was stupid…” or “I’m so stupid…” I was saddened that a mature, faithful woman would speak so harshly to herself. And you know that there was probably more going on internally.

I noticed the curious way we all fall back on old habits when we are around our family of origin – the family we grew up with. When we’re with our parents, we can’t help but become something like the children we once were, and sometimes that’s not very pretty. We follow long standing patterns of relating with siblings – teasing them about weight, lateness, etc. – no matter how old we are.

Recently I’ve been trying to read my Brene Brown book, The Gifts of Imperfection, again. I can race through novels in under a week, but I’ve been trying to read this book for over a year because it’s like rich fudge – I can only read a little bit before it’s too much. I have to set it down to reflect.

Brown says that the three gifts of imperfection are courage, compassion, and connection. The latter two I get and value already. But she points out that the three are inextricably linked together. So it took me a while to unpack what she had to say about courage. It rang a bell in my mind because “courage” was the word I chose to guide my journey in 2014.

According to Brown, courage is less about heroics and more about the original definition of the word, which meant to share your heart by telling your story. If you think about it, and how all of our stories are complex messes of sweet successes and utter failures, you’ll have a good idea of why this is the definition of courage.

Brown also happens to be a shame researcher and it was through her work that she came to discover these gifts. Because shame can’t stand courage. Shame thrives on secrecy, embarrassment, and fear. When we overcome shame by having the courage to share our story, connecting with another in authentic relationship and receiving compassion, shame is banished!

Watching the dear ones in my life these holidays, I wondered how much of our familiar ruts are based on shame and just how much courage it would take to intentionally speak the truth of our lives to one another. And how much stronger our bonds could ultimately be if we did.

We’re built to live in relationship, with each other and with God. It’s no coincidence that Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them" (Matthew 18:20). It’s also not coincidental that this teaching comes right before the question of how many times we have to forgive one another. To be in relationship, we have to be ready and willing to exercise forgiveness muscles that may be weak from lack of use.

Another point Brown makes in her book that made me stop to reflect was about self-talk. If we are called to forgive our brothers and sisters, we are also called to forgive ourselves. And yet, think about your typical day. If you’re anything like me, you probably find yourself lacking in the mirror, on the scale, on the road, as a parent, and on and on. It’s easy for us to become our harshest critics.

But if we are to be loving and kind toward others, we have to start practicing that with ourselves. So, next time you find yourself slipping into the easy, unredeemed rut of speaking negatively toward yourself, remember the magnificent God who made you and have courage. You are a beloved child of God and nothing can change that. Praise be to God!

Friday, December 19, 2014

How do We Know?

When we come to faith in God, our response is to witness to God, to help others know the God we have come to know. And yet, God is so transcendent, so other and yet so near, that we can never wrap our minds completely around this mystery.

We often get stuck in post-Enlightenment thinking that lifts up analysis, descriptions, and theories as the best or only ways of knowing. It’s head knowledge.

But you know as well as I do that there are lots of other ways of knowing things, ways that come through our spirit, our gut, or our intuition. Limiting our ways of knowing to our heads downplays what we might learn in other ways.

We are minds, to be sure, but we’re also bodies. At this time of year, when we celebrate God’s incarnation, when God consented to life in a body, it’s worthwhile to see how our bodies might teach us.

Bodies have ways of knowing that are different from and yet intimately connected with the mind’s ways of knowing. Some neurobiologists hypothesize that we automatically, almost reflexively, confront an unknown stimulus with the question “What is it?” If we think of God as the ultimate first, we can understand our constant questioning, trying to understand “what is it?”

Even as our minds are constantly trying to know the world, the primary way we have to do this is through our bodies. While Enlightenment thinking would tell us that we can use “pure” reason, realistically we know that everything we consider with our minds passes through the filter of our bodies.

The ancient church had a saying for this - lex orandi, lex credenda – which just means that what the people do truly reflects what the people believe. If we say we believe in serving the poor, clothing the naked, and feeding the hungry, yet do nothing toward these beliefs, you can be pretty sure we don’t really believe those things.

One intentional way we teach ourselves through our bodies in through ritual. Theologian Theodore Jennings writes that “ritual action is a means by which its we discover who we are in the world and ‘how it is’ with the world.” Or, to put it more simply, the way we learn to do things is by doing them.

Sounds ridiculously simple, right? But consider learning to ride a bicycle. If I were to say to someone, “Here is a bicycle. There are two wheels, which are attached to a metal frame. The brakes stop the wheels by friction by either pads or discs and are controlled by levers on the handlebars, which you hold with your hands. To ride the bicycle, you sit on the seat and balance on the wheels. To move forward, place both feet on the pedals and push them around in circles.”

This is only one silly example of how many times people learn how to do things by doing them, rather than by explanation or instruction. Jennings goes on to say that “the performance of a ritual, teaches one not only how to conduct the ritual itself” but also how to behave “outside the ritual space – in the world epitomized by or founded or renewed in and through the ritual itself.”

To put it another way, just as a bicycle teaches us how to ride it, the bread and cup at the Lord’s Table teach us how to be fed and share with one another. In baptism, we gently, carefully use water to symbolically wash a body, knowing that there’s also a soul being renewed. It’s simple, but indescribably beautiful.

We can be transformed by the rituals we follow. The hope of all of our Christian rituals is that the way we are in worship – loving, kind, patient, attentive, joyful – might become the way we are in the world. In worship, we practice being a citizen of the Kingdom of God so that we can carry our passport into the world, re-presenting God to all we meet.

Christmas Eve is a rich time for ritual. When I was a child, we baked cookies and put the best ones out for Santa Claus with a big glass of milk. When I became a Christian, I added the ritual of worship – hearing the story of the Christ child in the manger, sharing communion, and lighting candles. If you want to know God, consider joining us at the Krum Church at 7pm. There’s always a place for you at God’s house!

Friday, December 5, 2014

the Grateful Life

When my husband and I first got married, we were rich in things and short on cash. We had plenty of clothes and two great cars thanks to our parents’ generosity all our lives and plenty of household items thanks to our friends’ and families’ generosity through wedding gifts.

But not having a lot of disposable income taught us that there was a lot more to life than stuff. We survived just fine on PB&J’s and canned soup. And when our first anniversary came around, the simple spaghetti dinner that my husband cooked meant more than eating at a fancy restaurant.

So when our first child was born, we, like many parents, wanted the best for him. But our fervent prayer, as we were once again blessed by the generosity of family and friends was this – May our child have everything he needs and only some of what he wants. May he have to save up for some things and learn to be satisfied and happy with what he already has.

Now as Christmas draws near and my firstborn is old enough to really want things, I’m having trouble figuring out how to help him live into this prayer. I know I wanted things when I was a child, but my husband would tell you that I’m notoriously hard to shop for now. And the reason is that I’m usually more than content with what I have.

So as my son sat busily circling things in the Toys ‘R Us catalog that came in the mail, I wondered how I could help him learn what I’ve learned, even in the middle of one of the most consumeristic times of the year. It’s important to me, because this season is really about God and God’s generosity in giving God’s own Son to be our Savior.

I don’t have it all figured out and there are plenty of other areas where I struggle, but here are some things we’re going to try to teach our children to live the Grateful Life rather than the greedy one.

1) Be a gratitude role model. I have to live what I preach, even at home. In my prayer life, I count my blessings. Saying these blessings out loud can reinforces this type of modeling. “I’m so happy you are in my life.” “I’m so grateful to have good friends.” “Your Dad is the best Dad in the world.”

2) Give thanks. Children of all ages can write or draw a picture of the things they are thankful for. Some grown-ups call this a blessing journal. Or start a simple bedtime ritual of asking what your child is grateful for each day.

3) Treat others with kindness. In these busy, crazy times of social networking and little connection to real people, it’s important to be present in the moment whether that means letting someone merge on the highway or holding the door open. Saying “thank you” is a first step. Rudeness toward others speaks of entitlement – that others are not as important and are in our way.

4) Take action. Recently the librarian at my son’s school fell and broke her hip. When we got home, I asked him if he’d like to make her a “get well” card. He was delighted! He got busy with stickers and markers, then helped me mail it. Simple acts are great ways to share joy and nurture gratitude.

5) Keep it simple. I’m guilty of wanting to take my firstborn to every class and special event. I want him to experience everything! But when we take our walks around the neighborhood, I’m reminded that any moment can be special if you take the time to be present. When we focus on people, relationships, or the wonder of creation, it’s easy to find awe and gratitude.

6) Talk about the world. It’s easy to get frustrated when my child asks “why?” for the 200th time in the day. But even as I’m in the midst of changing brother’s diaper, cooking dinner, answering the phone, and who knows what else, I try to respond to my son’s honest curiosity. Why rain is important to the earth, where our food comes from, and all the other things that are important to our family. I want him to be able to see the world from outside his four-year-old shoes because our gratitude grows when we’re able to understand the other side of things.