“Perfect Weddings” and Jesus

dog eats wedding cakeGoogle “Perfect weddings” and you will get about 100 million hits in all manner of categories: perfect wedding ideas, planners, colors, pictures, gowns, flower arrangements, cakes, settings etc…

Who doesn’t want to think of their wedding as being perfect?  Who goes around saying, “I hope my wedding is a bust or I hope it turns out to be a disaster or I hope I am disappointed, or, worst yet, I hope I get really embarrassed or shamed at my wedding?”  Most of us can tolerate the image of a blunder or funny mishap but not humiliation. Nope, no sane person would wish that for themselves.

Sure, we get carried away with obsessing over goofy details and expectations that should have stayed in childhood fairy tale books. And sure, stressors can mount to the point of bridezilla outbreaks or stupid groom stupors.  But, all in all, there is nothing wrong in longing for “the perfect wedding.”  The wedding is a momentous occasion of promise and commitment rivaled by no other kind of relationship ceremony. Within that ceremonial show of pomp and circumstance there is a public announcement that speaks to a new life anchored in the mystery of “two becoming one.”  And we, the spectators, are judging.  Yes, we are judging, not in a petty superficial way (hope not).  We are asking ourselves, “What is the basis for this wedding?”  If the couple are believers then the answer is straight forward.  The couple is sanctifying their union before God and that comes with promises that include martial faithfulness, and a commitment to support each other for better and for worse and for richer and for poorer.  If there are to be children then they will be raised in the context of faith and safety. This is a big order and is not always fulfilled.  Nonetheless, these are the time-honored promises and we, the guests, are celebrating the couple’s willingness to undertake such a risky and hard commitment.  For the marriage veterans who know the rocky bumps ahead we rightly view the seriousness of this event.  The couple is undertaking an amazingly mature path; one of life’s greatest risk-reward ventures.  We ask ourselves, “Does this couple have what it takes?”  The wedding couple believe they do and so we get behind them and we whoop it up with them as the love and wine flows at the reception.

But for those who are not “religious” or perhaps have lived together for years; why the longing for the “perfect wedding”? I would suspect for basically the same reasons – thinking themselves mature enough to take on this commitment of faithfulness, love and partnership in all matters of life together. Placing their commitment on the time/space continuum of human history. On such and such date at such and such a place a public and legal commitment of fidelity and love will be made and thus the reason for celebration. And we their guests are hoping that the marriage proves their hope correct in spite of grim statistics.  We humans are forever hopeful and love the chance for love.  And so we celebrate.

Weddings for millennium have been the grand community or village event; better than the celebrations surrounding royalty or political governing powers. Why? Because weddings are celebrations among peers.  There is reciprocity.  Weddings are even a transaction, so to speak, between the wedding party and the attendees.  We, the guests, are expected to show up, dress appropriately, celebrate enthusiastically and give gifts.  And our expectations as guests are rather primal. We want something to see, eat and drink.  And that something should not be the banal everyday fare. We want to be honored witnesses. Food and drinks is how it is done.  A wedding is everyone’s party pronouncing family and community legacy and bonds.  Weddings tell us that we are not alone – we belong to the gathering.

The meaning of food and drinks:

The bride may trip and fall into a pool (watch this:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MIbegxOwwpI  ), a groom may badly sing his wedding vows, or the wild flowers picked for the reception begin to release hidden unwanted crawly things.  But if the food and drink run out before every guest is served then you have it – a wedding humiliation! A funny story can be made out of the bride falling into the pool – even the bride has a great story to tell (and a viral video) as part of her wedding legacy but running out of food and drink does not bring the chuckles at family reunions when stories are being told and retold to children and grandchildren.  We would rather forget this poor planning. Giving out of food and drink at a wedding is a major embarrassment, and in some cultures a shame to the wedding party and a great offense to the guests.

All this wedding talk leads me to one of my favorite Jesus stories.  Early in John’s gospel Jesus performs his first miracle, or sign as John calls it.  Jesus and his disciples are invited to a wedding in Cana.  His mother tells him that the wine has run out and Jesus turns water into wine; in fact, really good wine.  This story is rich with gospel imagery and metaphor that foreshadows Christ’s grand cosmic performance-his death and resurrection. Read a few bible commentators to understand how deep this event truly is.  So, don’t make the mistake of reducing this wedding story to one that endorses getting sloshed at parties.  Nor should it be over-spiritualized to the point that it has no real connection to a real wedding and real wedding-goers.  Jesus responds to a potential emotional crisis. He rescues the bridegroom from one of life’s most common and distressing emotions: shame. Think about it. Jesus’ first sign could have been something so spectacular that everyone at the wedding is left slack-jawed; making him the center of attention.  Jesus, albeit reluctantly at first, due to timing factors of revealing His glory and purpose; does not want to stand around and see the bridegroom and his family put to shame. He changes mega stone water jars into a choice merlot and does so with no one knowing but the servants, who follow his instructions, his mother and his disciples.  And that is that. Later Jesus reveals power by healing the sick, facing off demons and controlling natural forces thus becoming the center of attention wherever he goes; but in this first miracle we have an understated Jesus understanding the pitfalls of a shame-based culture. Unwilling for shame to hijack this joyous occasion Jesus insures a “perfect wedding”.

 

 

 

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5 Books that Helped Me Grow Up:  “Good News about Injustice”

The list of 5 books that helped me grow up has to include Gary Haugen’s, “Good News about Injustice.”  Reading this book deepened my prayers  and convinced me that  even I could play a small role as a justice advocate for the global poor.

When my first daughter was born David and I were over the moon as we would be for our second daughter’s birth. We received the typical comments of well-wishing and congratulations.  One comment however surprised and alarmed me. “Maybe next time you will get that son.” From that moment forward I would be set on a course of paying attention to the worldwide preference of sons over daughters. The preference of sons over daughters I would learn was shared by women as much as by men.  I grappled with the implications of such a bias and found it hard to understand. As the only child of Dom and Marie I never picked up that a son would have been their first choice. I was never sent a message that my gender precluded me from doing anything I wanted to do and that included staying single if I so desired.  I enjoyed exceptional family acceptance.  Listening to an NPR report a year after my daughter’s first birthday explained this preferential inequality. Interviews of women in the developing world described their desperate need to be validated as a human beings. Producing sons seemed to be their only ticket to enter the human race as worthwhile people. The voices of these women in conjunction with the sociological and economic narrative made sense to me, albeit tragically sad.

When Maria, my oldest daughter, was a freshman she heard Gary Haugen speak at her college. She recommended that I read his book, “Good News about Injustice.” I did and I knew I could no longer be just a whiner about the injustice meted out to girls and women.

I prolonged the impact of my response to the book by leading a women’s study. The book came with a study guide that included biblical justice verses that would build our biblical justice literacy. I downloaded and showed a dateline special that featured Gary Haugen’s social justice ministry, “International Justice Mission” doing what they do best: exposing the evils of sexual and indentured slavery and human trafficking. This particular dateline special would reveal a sting operation that virtually brought down a popular sexual deviant destination in Cambodia that preyed on children.   The young girls who had either been kidnapped, sold or deceived into sexual slavery by a “Madam” and her minions validated the fear that in many places of the world being female was not only an undesirable gender preference but also a liability. They could and were commodities to be exploited.

I found that my prayers were more intentional for those caught in the web of poverty and sexual exploitation.  And, for the first time I was involving myself in political advocacy work. I was taking baby steps. No, I was crawling.  Off and on for the next decade I would meet with congressional staff members to get important anti-trafficking legislation passed, organize a seminar with an IJM staff worker to speak at my church, write letters to politicians, and work with other members in my church who wanted to push forward the cause.

In other words, “Good News about Injustice” helped me to grow up a little bit more into how one participates within the context of Micah 6:8.  “What does God require of you, but to love mercy, do justice and walk humbly before your God.”

Let me be clear.  I am far from being one of those at the forefront of justice movements.  And I don’t know if my meager involvements in the US or Middle East have made a tangible difference.  But I will say this: my conscience had been pricked and continues to be jolted. I take Christ’s example seriously and I am grateful for all those who work to end the terrible exploitation of the vulnerable for greed and lust. Especially, I am grateful for how God uses Gary Haugen and those he has inspired at the International Justice Mission to make a difference.

Gary Haugen recently gave a “Ted Talk”. He explains a new way of looking at poverty and its relationship to everyday violence.  Believe it, this 22-minute video is a must-see.  Once you watch it read Good News about Injustice and Haugen’s latest book, The Locus Effect.

https://www.ted.com/talks/gary_haugen_the_hidden_reason_for_poverty_the_world_needs_to_address_now?language=en

 

Chipmunk Cheeks, redux

Chipmunk Cheeks redux or my most humbling blogging experience

I’ve noticed from viewing my stats on my blog administrator that one of my most viewed posts is “Chipmunk Cheeks”.  I have written over 50-some posts and this one gets the most new hits.

What is so humbling about this? Well, I didn’t write it; someone else did who happened to capture a concept so familiar to many of us that it bore reproducing.  A friend of mine sent me the article after reading a few of my earlier posts that had to do with reactions to my cancer diagnosis. No doubt, she figured from the way I was telling my story that I could use some encouragement. She kindly wanted to share it with me and me in turn with others. Why? Because it was that good.   But those niceties don’t take care of my wounded blogging pride! From now on all my posts will be titled: Chipmunk Cheeks, Part I, Chipmunk Cheeks, Part 2, Chipmunk Cheeks, Part 3, etc… You get the picture.  It will trick folks Googling ‘cute chipmunks’ into reading my insightful posts.

chipmunkApart from the fact that chipmunks are so darn adorable with their puffed-out, nut- bloated cheeks there is a message in this post that is emotionally dead-on for us anxious types. In short this is written for the worriers and the “what if”-ers.  We are folks with incredible imaginations – not particularly creative imaginations unless you count Stephen King as our role model. We are so good at thinking of all the ways things can go wrong – really catastrophically, cosmically wrong. If you are a 6 on the enneagram, like me, then you are fond of justifying the “what if-ing” stuff as the makings of a great troubleshooter. “How can I do my troubleshooting job if I am not fantasizing on all the pitfalls that a trip to Bermuda can entail?,” I say to my husband who just offered to take me on a vacation. (Hurricanes, bringing back bed bugs, killed riding mo-peds on the wrong side of the road.)  When I go off on one of my “but what-if?” jags he likes to say, “Dona, do ever reread any of your blog posts?”  (Read: do you practice what you preach?)  So annoying.  I am a blogger now, and a writer not a reader.


Troubleshooting only works up to a point. After that point, God waits for us to wave our white flags and allow his grace to attend to our present needs and not for those imagined future troubles.


This is funny up to a point.  The hard core truth is that this habitual way of viewing the big scary world can quickly become faith-numbing insanity. “Dona,” I say to myself, “where is God in all this worry about the future? What are you fretting about? Who do you believe is really in charge?” Me, apparently.  And I can’t know the future and that is driving my control freakishness to a frantic frenzy.  I continue to talk to myself; reminding myself of the Chipmunk Cheeks article.  Gathering all the trouble shooting ammo for all the troublesome future scenarios I can imagine will not enlist God’s grace now for an unknown future.  Grace is operative for me in the present, however it presents itself.  So, dear readers, read the Chipmunk Cheeks post for the first time or reread it.  I am because I need to remind myself of important truths – not just once but many times.  Our brains and our souls are trained by repetition. That is why the Psalms have the frequent refrain of remembering – reminding us who we are and who God is. Troubleshooting only works up to a point. After that point, God waits for us to wave our white flags and allow his grace to attend to our present needs and not for those imagined future troubles.  And that grace is sufficient to carry us through the day.

 

 

 

 

 

What snow berms taught me about Holy Week

My husband and our Buffalo city pastor were having a conversation yesterday about the berms of snow finally melting. Steve, the pastor, told David that one thing he had to get used to when he moved from California was all the foulness revealed as the white beautiful snow began to melt. This is not the kind of image that the awakening of spring normally brings to mind. Yes, these berms are filthy right now as they melt away: ugly mounds of black, gritty toxic-looking snow mounds of street debris and animal foulness. They once were white, pristine-looking, snow-covered Olympic mountain range miniatures but now…….

west juneau snow berms_cropped

SRX_berm_city__t470Spring is coming but now there is that awkward in-between stage.  What was white and pristine now is revealing the ugly.

The celebration of the resurrection of Christ is coming.  A celebration of the victory not only over death but a victory over all that is debased, decayed and disgraced.  But the resurrection of Christ means nothing without that painfully tragic and awkward crucifixion.  The Passion Week signaled the end of Jesus’ humble presence on earth with his teaching, empathy, miracles and wonders…snow covered glistening mounds of purity and beauty.   There was great judgment, yes indeed.   Pure white mounds of snow burned away to reveal dark toxins that had been transferred from us to Him.  And then after that awkward, tragic, ugly time came spring in all its glory.  The Resurrection.

What is my part in all this?  I have a choice. I can deny the ugly with well-crafted exteriors of looks, clothes, charm, sharp intellect, sardonic wit and nice helpful manners, or….. I can acknowledge the foulness not just in my world but in me. I don’t have to be timid or offended at such an image or accusation. I can own it, admit it, confess it and look to the crucifixion for my forgiveness and its meaning of love and then finally be greatly relieved and forever thankful at so great a salvation as Christ’s resurrection promise. This life is not all there is. Thank God! I mean it!  For this is great news if this life has disappointed with its hurt, loss and misery which is by far most of this world’s experience.  He is risen indeed. And so what does that mean for me? What does this grand biblical narrative have to do with me? If I believe it to be true historically and spiritually then it means freedom – freedom from having to pretend.children laughing in fields

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,

The sun forbear to shine

But God, Who called me here below,

Will be forever mine.

– Chris Tomlin, Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone)W

Jesus, the Crying Judge

15 + 6 = 17_revOn March 15, 2015 the Buffalo News published a story about an arranged Indian wedding that ended with the bride walking away from the wedding festivities before the final pronouncement of marriage. Her reason? The groom could not correctly answer the question: “What is 15 plus 6?” When he replied 17 she called off the marriage.  She judged him as uneducated and there was no convincing her otherwise. The bride’s family came to her defense and accused the groom’s family of misleading them regarding their son’s educational status.  According to the local police, who were called by the groom’s family, the incident caused ‘quite a flutter.’  Matters were finally settled when the respective families returned the gifts and jewelry exchanged prior to the wedding.

Both funny and sad, this story is fascinating with its layers of cultural and societal expectations gone awry.  It is an eastern drama that leave us westerners bemused and confused.  Or does it?  If we distill this story down to one of humanity’s basic concepts we should not be surprised by such an outcome.  There is judgment and there are tests to pass in this world in every time and in every place under the sun. Judgement is part and parcel of our interactions with each other despite our modern protests of “don’t judge me,” “don’t judge me,” and “don’t judge me”.  “You don’t have the right to judge me.”  We know how the refrain goes because each of us have either said it, felt it, or been accused of it.

So, does anyone have a right to judge?  And a related question: If someone has the right to judge does it follow that there will there be a judgement day? I think so and apparently Jesus cried out about it. Text reference can be found in the Gospel of John, chapter 12, verses 44-50

If you have been a follower of my blog it will come as no surprise that I am impressed with the articulation of faith and culture presented by the pastor and writer, Tim Keller. I credit his book, “Walking with God in Pain and Suffering, “ as instrumental in helping me through an intensive 9-month cancer treatment last year.  Recently, I have been listening to podcasts of Keller’s sermons from his six thousand member church in Manhattan.  One message, given on February 18, 2015, called, “Accepting the Judge,” I found very provocative as he explained the need for judgement.  To tease you into listening I offer the first two of four propositions that he makes.  Here are the first two: 1) Why we need a judgement day; 2) Why we can’t have a judgement day.  If I listed propositions 3 & 4 they would spoil the sermon for you so listen to the podcast here.  (Click podcast on lower left of the page.)

Post script:  After listening to the podcast I would appreciate your comments.  I won’t publish them but would like to work them into future posts.

Confessional post script: I first wrote this post with the following: “The groom could not correctly answer the question, what is 12 plus 5?  He answered 17 and then she walked out of the wedding ceremony.”  I caught my error before I posted.  I’m grateful the only question asked me at my wedding was, “Do you take this man to be your husband?”

Power and Tears: Part 2

Reflections on the story in John 11 (read previous post for context)

Why did Jesus cry over the death of Lazarus if he knew he was going to use his power to change the natural order( resurrect Lazarus from death) and restore joy to his friends?tears 2

Simply – He cried because his friends were crying.  He became fully present with their suffering. He was not thinking of their future (what he was going to do for them in the next few minutes) nor was he thinking of his own future which was soon to take a dark painful course.

Nor did He feel a need to defend his actions when Mary, the sisterJesus cried of courseaccused of him of insensitivity or procrastination. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (vs. 11). Absent in Jesus was any need to defend his actions even in the midst of laments that if he had come sooner the dire situation would be different. He stayed present.  His friends were grieving and that sadness affected Jesus with empathetic sadness.

Empathy – We may be born with the capacity to empathize but nurture plays a profound role.  We must be taught and modeled the experience of feeling another person’s pain. When people lack empathy we, in the mental health profession, assume, a childhood of abuse and/or neglect or a disorder. We assume that they were never the recipients of empathy nor had it modeled for them by the significant relationships in their lives. We recognize that something is off.

A story of parenting small children:  I was at a playground with my grandsons observing small children and their parents. One man’s daughter fell and cried loudly. The father gently examined her and lovingly reassured her of his presence and his sympathy for her pain.  Another parent noticed the situation and looked on. The child with her tried to reengage her in what he was doing – building a sand castle. I heard the following:  “I will look at what you are doing in a moment but right now I feel sad about that little girl who got hurt so I want to look at her.  Let’s look at her together for a few seconds… (Pause)  She seems comforted; so now show me what you were doing.”

If that intentional modeling continues to be that mother’s practice, the child will catch it and develop capacity for empathy.

But what about those who have been deprived of empathy at vulnerable stages of development? There is hope.  God’s gift of community – godly loving spaces for transformation interfacing with malleable brains is one such place of hope. Brains can be rewired over time through strong emotional connections to develop empathy. The church with all its warts and imperfections is still the functional body of Christ.  It provides opportunities for loving interactions with others that include  listening with empathy  to people’s messed up stories.  According to Curt Thompson, author of Anatomy of the Soul, it is within this context that people who have been formerly deprived of loving attachments begin to sense what an attachment to God feels like thereby understanding God’s grace for them and for others.

Andy (a man in his early 40’s) was a child that had to raise himself.  Without going into detail, anybody hearing his story would label his childhood as harsh and neglectful. Attachments to stable caregivers were absent; normally the harbinger of a distrustful adult. However, there were times when he took advantage of caring interactions. He described living for a brief time in a neighborhood where buses destined for Vacation Bible School and church services would pick up children who wanted to go.  He was one of them. There was a kind neighbor who noticed his loneliness and neglect.  Andy began to sense there was a God who loved.  “I would hear stories in church and something exploded in me about God and it was beautiful.”  However later,  Andy would go down a path as a teenager and young adult that would lead to drug addiction and a stint in jail.

Andy told me, “When released from jail, I did not know what to do with my life. Eventually, I took a woman’s advice and enrolled in a Christian program called ‘Teen Challenge’ (a ministry dedicated to the transformation of young people with substance abuse.) Through their accountability and structured program of prayer, chapel, work, prayer, chapel, prayer, fellowship, counseling, I found myself wanting to know as much as I could about God.”

Andy attended a bible college for a period and did mission work in Asia.  Today he serves others through an urban ministry.  A man full of empathy and warmth, Andy humbly says, “Sometimes being a Christian is the best thing, sometimes it is the hardest thing, but it is the only thing for me.”

Jesus cried. Of course he did.  This powerful empathic being carried empathy where no man or woman has ever taken it – to a cross of suffering for us. Many before and after him have spoken “truth to power”; but He and only He spoke “God’s power into God’s Love.”

Post script:  Tears are filled with the presence of stress chemicals and hormones.

Post script: Tears are a functional way of getting cortisol and other stress hormones from inside us to outside us.  Have you ever wondered why you have felt slightly better after having a good cry? God blesses tears on this side of heaven but there will come a time when he will wipe every one of them away. Revelation 21:4 “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain for the old order of things has passed away.”

end of times

One Journey, Two People: Part 3

My two most recent posts set the stage for a conversation with my husband about his baby boomer angst. Read One Journey, Two People: Part 2 and Part 1 before you judge David’s navel gazing (his words, not mine).

Simply put, he described himself as content a few years back, even to a place where he could “leave this life for the next tomorrow without regret.”  Although far from ready to quit and head for the golf course in his twilight years, a life suddenly interrupted would not be one of ‘I-wish-I-had’s’.  He felt satisfied about his contribution and life’s purpose.  He felt at peace.  An even better description would be shalom; a Hebrew word normally translated as peace but meant to be more – a state where everything is where is should be; a whole and complete existence.  We have all had those fleeting moments when our since of joy or contentment was so complete that we could ‘die this very moment happy.’  To my way of thinking that captures the essence of shalom.

My cancer diagnosis wasn’t the catalyst for Dave’s discontent.  Although often a tremendous strain, providing physical and emotional support to someone you love provides tremendous meaning and purpose.  But he has found himself often flummoxed and pained by not being able to reassure a wife whose fear and angst could be impenetrable at times.  His feeling of inadequacy in being my comforter brought out some deeper stuff.

We both knew that something else was going on.  I agreed to do some research on middle life angst but my findings were not very satisfying to him or me. Previous post explains.

Through this process David has done his own work.  He listed the components of the problem in typical bullet point format.  He felt this angst might be brought on by the following:

  • Loss of influence, insider status or being needed. (This is in part due to his age. Younger people are taking the reins of responsibility and leadership as they should.  Another factor is that at this point in our lives we do not stay in one geographical location long enough to built the connections that can make a difference.)
  • The grand adventure might be over. (Throughout his life David has worked hard to place himself in situations where he could generate stories to tell the grandchrisk-takingildren.  And he does have some great stories that he would love to tell you about.  These opportunities are now mostly in the past.)
  • But still busy. To use a David phrase, “I’m in a rat race in the wrong race.”

David realizes these feelings are not as negative as they might indicate on paper. To his mind, most of the time his world is one of satisfaction and opportunity. He is doing a reasonably good job navigating the transition from the back side of a career peak with its mantle of influence and insider status to one that involves more of a support role. But every so often, and these days more often than he wants, he feels those bullet points as forceful shots across the bow.

Of course, he sees this trap and realizes he must reintegrate himself emotionally into the grand purposes of God.  I say emotionally because he has always put mind and feet to loving God and people.

At this point I have to resist the desire to write something original.  Ego says, “Dazzle David and my readers with my unique insights.”  Common sense says, many wise ones have tread this road before.  If I really want to be helpful then capture their insight.  To quote CS Lewis from Mere Christianity, “Even in literature and art no man who bothers about originality will ever be original whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring two pence how often it has been told before) you will nine times out of ten become original without ever having noticed it.”

So, with that caveat be prepared to hear from a few wise folks who have articulated insights with clarity and spiritual maturity that make sense to David and me.

The Problem:

Tim Keller from his book, “Counterfeit Gods,”

“How can we break our heart’s fixation on doing “some great thing” in order to heal ourselves of our sense of inadequacy in order to give our lives meaning? Only when we see what Jesus, our great suffering servant, has done for us will we finally understand why God’s salvation does not require us to do “some great thing.” We don’t have to do it because Jesus has. Jesus did it all for us and he loves us – that is how we know our existence is justified. When we believe in what he accomplished for us with our minds, and when we are moved by what he did for us in our hearts, it begins to kill off the addiction, the need for success at all costs.

The gospel does not work directly on the emotions or the will. The gospel asks, what is operating in the place of Jesus Christ as your real, functional salvation and Savior? What are you looking to in order to justify yourself? Whatever it is, it is a counterfeit god and to make a change in your life you must identify it and reject it as such.” Tim Keller, page 174 of counterfeit gods.”

The Process

In the book “The Sensation of Being Somebody”, the late Dr. Maurice Wagner, gives a formula for a rock solid self-concept. “God plus me equals a sense of being a somebody.”  He explains that dependence on status, performance and appearance – attributes that many times come out of insecure attachments or over attachments in our childhood – are our default for feeling significant but they end up “biting us in the butt” (Dona’s words).  They are fleeting and unreliable in taking us through life’s challenges and natural aging processes of loss and deficits. They are also dependent on others to justify ourselves as significant. Others, are people like ourselves-imperfect who will eventually die, disappoint or both.

Dr. Wagner gives an explanation for the Trinity that is psychologically unique. From God, the Father we get our sense of belonging as we submit to the Creator of us all; from Jesus Christ we get our sense of acceptance as we embrace the forgiveness he offers and from the Holy Spirit we receive our sense of competence as he leads, teaches, counsels and redirects.  Belonging, Acceptance and Competence are the building blocks of a healthy self-concept and we get them all in relationship with the triune God who is perfect, permanent and predisposed to carry us through all of life’s stages, disappointments and losses into a forever life of ultimate significance and wonder.

So, how do we absorb the above in a tangible way that makes for the closeness with God that we are longing for?  We (David and me) need help to move from intellectual assent and understanding to a heartfelt sense of what truly validates us and makes us feel known and loved by God. Tim Keller tells us what the problem is and what needs to be believed and understood. The late Dr. Wagner tells us the anatomy of true self-worth and significance as found in the trinity.  But, there is another leg to this three legged stool which still needs to be addressed. Part 4 of “One Journey, Two People” is coming next as David and I need to further digest a book by Dr. Curt Thompson called, Anatomy of the Soul.

“I said I was sorry, what more do you want?”

My husband and I had just exhausted an unpleasant argument several years ago when he said something that became a ‘click-moment’ for future apologies.  I have taught it to others-clients and friends.

The argument was unbalanced.  Neither of us were innocent but I knew and he knew that this time I was the over reactor and the unfair wordsmith-er.  (He just now read this part, and says that he has no idea of what I am talking about but is getting mad on principle. He also guessed that the phrase that I am soon to reveal is not, “love is never having to say you are sorry”- made famous by 70’s movie and book, “Love Story”).

Aside:   I’m amazed this phrase actually stuck in our collective consciousness even though none of us have ever believed it.  In fact, I got married about the time that movie was still popular and even I, a love-struck young woman, knew that “love is never having to say you are sorry,” was a bunch of hooey.  In fact, once again, before I leave this teaser, I actually included in my wedding vows something about “needing to forgive and ask for forgiveness” (Those were the days when we thought we were too cool and clever to use the traditional vows and now we are too embarrassed to reread what we actually said to each other.)

Back to the argument that taught me what more was needed to be said to mend a broken-hearted fence.

After I came to my humble senses, I confessed to my husband that I knew I was the major provocateur and was sorry.  I even went as far as to say, “Will you forgive me for saying what I said?” He said, “Yes,” and I extended the apology with more words of contrition.  It took me a few minutes, however, to realize that the fence was not mended and it was not because he was still angry with me. He was still smarting and feeling the burden of the offense. Finally, he took a leap of trust and vulnerability and asked me the question that showed me the true nature of the hurt I caused.

“I sense you are sorry but I need to know whether you actually believe what you said about me during the argument.”

My surprised reaction to this question led into a new insight of what it takes sometimes for relationship reparation and healing.  My response was surprisingly a new one for me and possibly a God-inspired one as I witnessed the relief that my sincere words brought to my husband.

“No, I do not believe what I said about you.  I said it because I was angry, hurt and verbally undisciplined. You did not deserve those comments because they are not what I fundamentally believe about you and again I am sorry to have put you through that.”

So, are you wondering what I said that caused the hurt? I am not really sure as it happened awhile I go but I can guess from knowing how thoughtless arguments go among folks that it was probably in the vein of some kind of “you are” character slam like, “You are selfish, or you are thoughtless, or you have to always win or be right, or you are immature,  or you are always judgmental or you always only care about yourself or any number of careless,  lousy communication statements thrown around when disagreements arise among spouses, friends, children, parents, and, more rarely because we don’t take them quite for granted, co-workers and employees.

We have all heard that when we argue we must stay away from the “You are” statements or the “you are always or never” statements and stick with the “I am feeling this or that when you do or say this or that” statements. So, I am not going to bore you with what you already know about good communication practices but maybe don’t always practice!  But I do want to explain why the apology I gave my husband may be necessary for reconciliation.

When we launch a character slam statement something deep and rarely examined is triggered in the offended party and this is so, even if the offended one knows that the statements are over the top and spoken in anger and poor judgment. In every criticism, regardless of its unreasonableness, there is a part of us that thinks there is truth to it.  And you know why? Because there is, even if that truth is only true 1 percent of the time.  None of us are always virtuous all of the time giving unconditional positive regard and love to those we care about.  So, even the one percent truth of the “you are” statement stings and dregs up self-doubt and self-condemnation. The offended one has two hurtles to navigate: one: the unfairness and hurtfulness of the statement, and two: the anger and hurt resulting from a wounded self-worth. An apology that restores respect (“I am sorry, forgive me”) and healing (“you did not deserve that because it is not the big truth about you”) is restorative and therapeutic.

Theological understanding for the offender:

“Don’t judge lest you be judged with the same measure of behavioral standard that you are judging the other “- roughly paraphrased, “For every finger you are pointing at someone there are 3 fingers and a thumb pointing back at you.”(Gospel of Matthew, chapter 7:1-5)

“No one but God is perfect in love and righteous judgment.”  Show respectful humility about who you are and who God is. Muster up empathy and humility to admit that someone did not deserve your harsh judgment. (1 John 1:5-8)

Psychological understanding for the offended – two points and commentary:

When the shame of being exposed by hurtful comments from a loved one arises, wait for the dust to settle and ask for clarification.  (“Is this really what you believe about me?”)

Claw yourself out of self-denial and self-condemnation and humbly realize with gratefulness that true self worth is found in being a forgiven child of God through the sacrifice of Christ not in some attempt to be always well thought of in some feature of appearance, performance or status

Jesus is the perfect one; not me, not you, not anyone.  And after countless generations He is still being loved by many.  He, unlike us, is undaunted by criticism, accusation or even flattery.  He is the perfect self-possessed being and therefore, unlike us, has the only love that “never has to say I’m sorry.”

Suffering Through Christmas

Many of you will have heard of Kay Warren’s article by now that was originally posted on her Facebook page and then sent on to Christianity Today. By the way, Kay Warren is the wife of Rick Warren, pastor and author of Purpose Driven Life.  Here is the link.

For those of you who have not heard of the article here is the summary: Kay Warren’s 27-year old son died by suicide over a year ago. She reacted to the “cheery Christmas cards” sent to her and wrote about her strong reactions. Read the article as it not only serves as a needed chastisement but it also gives us important suggestions on how to “do” Christmas greetings for the hurting.

I have not suffered the catastrophic loss of a child so I won’t even attempt to venture into the “understanding how you feel” territory except to say that I have had bereaved parents as clients throughout the years. I have humbly listened to the excruciating rough terrain of grief processing- not just one year out from the loss but many years out from that life defining and altering moment of heartbreak.  I usually don’t have clients seeking me out until they feel their friends are no longer available or capable of understanding that they, ”can’t just move on.”  Kay Warren’s article will help you understand how unbelievably hurtful and even shameful it is to sense from others that you should be further along than they are.

The point of this post is to highlight some of Kay Warren’s suggestions while adding a few of my own; but not before I give reflections on two approaches to the Christmas season.

Children and Christmas

Keep it magical, as far as it is possible within your control to do so.  There are monstrous troubles in this world and frankly the Christmas story was not written for children which is apparent by the events surrounding the birth of Jesus as recorded in Matthew’s gospel. A sanitized version to tell children is quite appropriate.  Safety is a primary need of children and I just don’t mean physical safety which is obvious but there is a profound need for children to feel safe for psychological and neurological health.  Children are not developmentally capable to understand that the world is not always a safe place and really never has been. Safety was not part of the baby Jesus story and certainly was not for all the children under two who were killed by a crazed paranoid despot named Herod the Great.  As my pastor said last Sunday, “there is not a single Christmas carol that makes mention of a baby boy genocide or of the refugee status of the Holy family as they fled to Egypt to escape the murderous Herod.”  But these grim realities are all part of the Christmas story as recorded in the gospel of Matthew.

Children don’t need to know of the awfulness that filled the world then and fills the world now (children massacred in a school in Pakistan, just reported) .   Our job is to protect children as long as we can and do our best to fulfill their magical thinking of gifts, sweets, festive decorations and songs.  “Away in the manger no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lays down his sweet head la, la, la…” And “Jolly ole St. Nicholas, . . . “.   I want to sing these songs to my grandchildren and tell sweet baby Jesus stories and build excitement over the festive culmination of gift giving even if it does not quite jive with the Gospel story of Jesus’ birth in its entirety.  I would hope that all children could be transported into a world of glee and cheer throughout the Christmas season but tragically that will not be for so many.

My hope and prayer is best described in Psalm 10:17-18

O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted;
you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear
to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,
so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.

Adults and Christmas

The un-sanitized version of Matthew 2:13-23 gives us some clues on how we need to be communicating with other adults during the Christmas season.

So, how should we do this? Carefully! There is suffering in many of our friends and families’ lives during this season. Maybe it’s not the horrific kind of fleeing refugees or that of Kay and Rick Warren but there are heart aches and heart breaks in spades coming from all sort of sources.  Christmas cheer has a way of making suffering folks feel like losers or at least wistful as they wonder why God has not blessed them in the way that so many “seem” to be blessed.  Kay Warren makes the suggestion that before we send out our perfunctory Christmas cards or newsletters of family togetherness and achievement we need to take the time to painstakingly question ourselves about each person ‘s reality who is on our Christmas card/newsletter list. If we know that there has been a great loss or hardship in a particular person’s life then forgo the newsletter and write something emphatically kind on a card that reflects our knowledge of their pain during this time.  If we don’t know what is going on because we are not super close friends with people  on our list anymore well, then err on the side of caution and write something personal asking how things have been going for them.  If we know that our friends’ lives are going well then by all means send the pictures and newsy newsletters.   I am a grateful privileged person who is two months out of excellent cancer treatment and feeling great and have a family that is doing well.  My friends know this so I am thrilled to get their newsletters and lovely cards with their families’ pictures on it.  I love hearing about their lives and seeing what everyone looks like.   But, I also pray that I am forgiven by those with whom i have not been so careful with in the past.  Kay Warren’s article is a good lesson in paying attention to the suffering around us and making sure we are not adding to it.

The Longest Night service

One of the things that I appreciate about my church in Juneau, Alaska is that for years they have recognized that the Christmas holiday season can be a time of sadness for many.  On the longest night of the year, December 21st (which by the way is really, really long at 58 degrees north latitude) there is a service which mostly includes scripture readings and prayers within in a dimly lit chapel culminating with each person lighting a candle representing their private grief laid before God.

The Balanced Christmas

Let’s set Christmas apart for children, making it as wonderful as we can for as many children as we can.   But at the same time let’s be more gospel minded and set Christmas apart for the broken hearted with its reminders of the hope that is found in a baby named, “God is with us.” More of Him with reverence and worship that serves to condition our hearts to be more about others –a paraphrase of the two greatest commandments – Love God and Love others.

Living the New Normal

I finished cancer treatment over two weeks ago and have returned to my home in Juneau, Alaska.

I left Alaska in January of this year with a vision of myself as a healthy woman with exciting plans of seeing family and friends on the east coast and then a two month ministry in the Middle East; a routine that has gone uninterrupted for the last 8 years.  On February 26th those plans were profoundly interrupted with a sudden diagnosis of stage 3 breast cancer. For those of you who have walked this path or cared for someone who has, you know the common expressions: “Everything changed in a moment’s time.  The rug was suddenly pulled out from under me.  I went from living a life to surviving for a life, and etc…”

David, who likes the country western star Alan Jackson, shared the lyrics from the song Jackson wrote and recorded for Denise, his wife of 33 years, after she had completed her cancer treatment:

Ain’t it funny how one minute your whole life’s looking fine

And a short few words later it all just comes untied?

You can’t believe you’re looking at what was always someone else,

Now it’s staring right there at you, yesterday you couldn’t tell. (1) 

Once the shock was processed then came the emotions: some sadness, some anxiety and some frustration, guilt and worry.

Then the anger starts to surface, lookin’ up, askin’ why

Then you realize He (God) probably wants the best the same as I.

But there were two other emotions that couldn’t be laid to rest.  They would show up in unexpected ways and times.  Gratefulness and humbleness were two friends that would visit uninvited so I began looking for them in unexpected places and, seeing them often, would greet them by name.  Calling a thing by its name whether that thing is a person or abstraction carries its own blessing and power.  Why are we embarrassed when we can’t Grateful humble_revremember someone’s name when we see that person?  It’s because we intuitively know that saying the name out loud will validate that person as significant and valuable in relation to us. “Oh wow, you remembered my name!” Of course I did because you made an impression on me and I gave you enough care and consideration to file your name away.  Unspoken thoughts perhaps, but none the less operating to create meaningful relationship.  Well, it happens much the same way with abstractions.  You name an abstraction in relationship to yourself enough times you will begin to feel its connection and power in your life: love, kindness, endurance, thankfulness, to name a few. The New Testament has a list and refers to them as the fruits of the Spirit.  (Galatians 5: 22-23, Colossians 3:2-17)  If you have read even a few of my previous blog posts you will see these two not-so-now-abstract feelings pop up a lot.

More Alan Jackson:

And the seconds turn to minutes, and minutes wouldn’t last

And the hours, days, and weeks and months, seem endless and too fast

And the blessin’s poured from Heaven, like the rain on that first spring.

But now, there is a new challenge in my life.

The treatment protocol for my particular cancer is complete.  Now there are new thoughts, feelings and behaviors.  I’m learning to live “the new normal.”  I like to compare this state with how I felt when I had my first baby.  Lots of attention from medical staff during pregnancy, delivery, birth and the few days in hospital and then, “voila”, the release into the world with my new human responsibility to figure out how to do this thing of living with baby without the hand holding.

Now, I don’t want to overdo this analogy because in reality there is support after birth and there is support after cancer treatment.  After all, there are the checkups and the knowledge that if anything goes haywire I can pick up the phone and say, “help,” and I will get it.[2]

But since being home I have experienced some trepidation of my future health possibilities, some crankiness and anxiousness reserved for the person who deserves it the least.  (You husbands out there will be happy to know that he doesn’t take it lying down.  He emailed me one of my own past blog posts the other day as a reminder of, hmm… I am not sure but I think it was a clever way to say, “Hey, be nice” or “be true to your blog post”.  Fair enough.)   Now, all of the above reactions are not uncommon for cancer patients and survivors.  There are plenty of studies out there to point to an handholding revincrease of depression in cancer patients after treatment so it does not surprise me that I may be having a few ups and downs since being done with treatment and realizing my cancer care providers are a couple thousand miles away. But, I am now having to learn to live this “new normal” and start fine tuning my radar for gratefulness and humbleness in many different places and circumstances and when finding it, start naming it.  I need these and other “fruits of the spirit” to wash over, overwhelm and subdue the fearful musings and emotions about an unknown future.   The hand holding treatment days may have come to an end for now but the Spirit didn’t go away.  The Holy Spirit is with me reminding me that there is a boatload of gratefulness to be named out loud.

So, I’m going hunting in new territory and I won’t be alone.

 

(1) ‘When I Saw You Leaving’

Writer: Alan Jackson
Copyright: Tri-angels Music, Emi April Music Inc

[2] Help for those of us of the middle class, that is.  It should be like that for everyone but sadly we know it isn’t. And that is not because no one is willing to help. In many places there are those willing to lend a hand.  The problem many times is that the marginalized have a lack of confidence and trust in the system to get what is needed. But then again there are many places in this world where those willing to help are few and far apart. This is all grist for future postings.