Monday, November 28, 2011

God was my second grade teacher

More than twenty years ago, when I first got into the therapy business, I would sit with my clipboard and my intake forms and listen as people described their chaotic, painful, poisonous childhood experiences.  Detail after detail would pour out about abuse of all kinds and neglect and betrayal and everything that should never happen to a child and I would dutifully write it all down.

I remember one session, though, when I just put down my pen and turned my clipboard over and asked, "So how did you turn out so well?"  This young woman was well-functioning, strong in her faith, loving to her own husband and children, hopeful about life and I just had to know how that had happened.  Here's what she said to me:  "I had a teacher who loved me."  I was immediately concerned:  "But if you told the teacher what was happening, she should have reported it."  "No, no," she said.  "I couldn't tell anyone.  I didn't know how and I was afraid of what else what happen if I did.  But I always believed that if I could tell anyone, I could tell her and I knew she would believe me and I knew she would still care about me, even if she knew."

One reason I can share that story is that I have heard stories exactly like it at least a hundred times since then.  I still ask that question on a regular basis and I always get the same answer.  The answer isn't always a teacher.  Just as often, it's a grandparent with a lot of love or a neighbor who took some extra time or a coach who believed in more than athletic talent.  And just as often, I discover that, like the teacher,  the other person has no real idea about the impact they had in this child's life.  They saw themselves as doing their job, maybe living their faith, doing what came naturally and they have no idea that a child was watching and thinking, "Maybe I'm not so worthless after all.  Maybe I can have a different life.  Maybe it's not me."

Today, I was having a philosophical conversation with a young mom and asked her, "So where do you think God was when all this was happening?"  She answered, "God was my second grade teacher."  I believe she was right.

"Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for Me."  ~Jesus

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving 4

In order to understand why I am so grateful for C, you would have to go with us tonight to see the new Muppet movie, where we laughed through the whole thing.  See, I remember the old muppet show and I clearly remember wondering why it was funny.  It was silly, over-the-top silly, stupid even and I truly didn't get it.  We didn't watch much TV in my family growing up and even though I think we had a sense of humor, we didn't really do silly.  And so I married someone for whom silly is an art form . . . and I've been laughing ever since.

C's humor isn't always silly--it's often dry or ironic or sarcastic, actually--but he can always make me laugh.  Actually, when we were in our early weeks of dating, I worried that he would lose interest in me because I was very serious and trust me, not funny at all.  I mentioned this concern to my mom and she laughed and gave me the advice that I've relied on every day for the last 26 years:  "He doesn't need you to be funny; he wants you to think he's funny."  I did and I still do.

So what I'm grateful for, among other things, is a life full of laughter.  We took one of our kids' friends on a vacation once and she said, shaking her head, "Y'all laugh all the time." I'm grateful because home is the happiest place on the planet for me and for my children, thanks to C.  I'm grateful because I learned to laugh at myself and I learned to let people who love me laugh at me, both of which saved me from a lifetime of narcissistic intensity.  Actually, C will often say, "I'm not laughing at you, sweetie; I'm laughing near you."  And that always makes me laugh.

That's not even close to being the only thing I'm grateful for in my life with C but it's a really good start.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thanksgiving 3

I was always taught that the "original sin," the big one that got everyone kicked out of the Garden, was rebellion--the First People's refusal to obey God, one big fist-shake at God's authority.  In Sunday's Bible study, though, we considered another option:  that the first Big Sin was ingratitude.

We looked at it this way:  The way the story goes, Adam and Eve were blessed beyond measure.  They had everything they could ever need and the tangible presence of God in a Garden that had never known the shudder of sin or the searing pain of death and loss.  And so what did they do?  They did what all of us do.  They focused on the one thing they did not have.

That was the temptation, right?  To acknowledge all of God's good gifts and to turn their attention to the one thing that God withheld and then to question His goodness and His love.  It was all downhill from there.  It was not so much dramatic rebellion but petty ungratefulness that put us all in this fallen world where we continue--daily--to follow in their footsteps.

Thanksgiving must be the language of the Kingdom of God.  It's the starting place for shalom and the fertile soil of joy.  It's the way we acknowledge that we love God at least as much as His gifts because we continue to give thanks even when we don't get what we want.  I resist the idea of giving thanks for everything but I love the idea of giving thanks in everything.  As we said on Sunday, I don't get a choice about whether I live my life in a broken world where hard things happen.  I do get a choice about whether I live my life with gratitude or without it.  I choose with.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Thanksgiving 2

I have loved this profound and beautiful little book, given to me on my birthday by my dear friend Pam who knows how these kinds of things speak to my heart.  It nourishes me this Thanksgiving on a deep, deep level and calls me to a richer awareness of gratitude than I have ever known before.

In case you don't want to read the whole book, you can check out Ann's blog but don't scroll through too fast.  Stop and savor.  Also, the classic blog on gratitude is secular, creative, occasionally a little rough around the edges, often hilarious and always thought-provoking.  I highly recommend both for completely different reasons.  Have fun browsing and I'll see you back here tomorrow.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Thanksgiving 1

A lot of people have been posting their lists of things they are grateful for on their blogs or on Facebook.  I'm a big believer in gratitude but also a little behind on everything so I'm just now getting started, at the beginning of Thanksgiving week.

As I was pondering my list, I realized that the number one spot on my list has to be my really unique and remarkable parents.  Some of you are really surprised that I didn't list C first (sorry sweetie!) or Mowgli and Boo or something related to God but the truth is that I wouldn't have the relationship I have with C if my parents hadn't loved me so well (plus, I essentially married my mom but that's another story . . .).  I wouldn't have known how to parent Boo and Mowgli if my parents hadn't parented me so wisely.  And my parents were the ones who first introduced me to God and to the Church I love and represented both so well, so there's that.

My parents really weren't like anyone else's parents, which was something I both appreciated and complained about as a kid.  They listened to me talk for as long as I needed to talk.  They asked a lot of questions and delivered only a few lectures.  They cared what I thought and taught me to care about what they thought.  They required respect but were never heavy-handed about it, and left me with a very healthy respect for authority flavored with only a hint of skepticism.  They taught me to think and never shamed me for my feelings.  More than anything, they loved me so, so well and inoculated me thoroughly against many forms of shame.

So, this Thanksgiving, I'm thankful for my parents, who are also wonderfully flawed and made it okay for me to be.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Cleaning up a mess

Ugh . . . I hate it when this happens.

I hate it when I'm on the receiving end--when someone says something that makes it clear that if they really knew me, they would pretty much hate me.  It happens a lot on Facebook, of course--my friends post their opinions that people who believe differently than they do (in other words, people who believe like I do) are unpatriotic, false Christians, unenlightened, and worse.  In fact, just recently I've been told that I don't deserve to live in this country and that I practice the occult.  Of course, people don't mean to tell me that.  But by saying that about people who believe differently, they're unwittingly saying those things about me.

I hate it even more when I'm the one who does that to others.  In a recent post, I flippantly said that bumper stickers asserting that "9/11 was an inside job" are stupid.  Someone anonymously posted a comment that he/she holds that opinion.  I almost didn't see the comment and in fact, only happened on it last night.  I was immediately sad that I had clearly insulted someone I care about (because I can't think of anyone that I talk to regularly that I don't care about) and that I did it flippantly and unthinkingly.

Now don't get me wrong:  I can't imagine changing my opinion about 9/11.  I know what I believe about that.  But that's not what this is about.  I know how to express my opinion and defend my thinking without calling other ideas and people "stupid" and I deeply value that ability.  I know better.

(By the way, I'm hoping that anonymous will be willing to identify himself/herself and have a conversation about it--not about 9/11 but about any emotional or relational impact of my judgmental statement.  I would welcome that.)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Happy days

"My life is not busy . . . my life is full.  There's a difference."*  

I am doing great.  I'm firmly ensconced in my favorite budget hotel (the Sleep Inn in Stafford--it's fabulous!) after a wonderful supper from Saltgrass.  I had a perfect relaxing massage by an intern at the massage school down the road and she told me that my muscles were mostly relaxed with no serious spots of tension--first time I've EVER heard that!

This is even more meaningful because I fully expected to be a twitching, hyperventilating basket case by now.  10 weeks ago, C and I looked at my schedule and girded our loins for a difficult season.  I've spent at least one night out of town every single week for nine weeks--for a total of 22 nights.  In that time, I've heard some inspiring speakers, visited with dear friends and family, gone to Kansas for the first time,  kept up my usual client load, witnessed the process of transformation in individuals, couples and congregations, taught Sunday School, lost a trivia game with Boo, and managed to work out occasionally.  It's been a wild and wonderful ride and in 3 days, it will be over.

I've been practicing expanding my capacity for this for a long time now and right now feels like crossing the finish line with  energy to spare (which, by the way, I hope to do when I finish a 5K this spring).  More good news:  C and I have actually managed to stay well-connected during this time, although he did comment once, "I didn't think the empty nest would be me and the cat."  The only bad news:  no matter how much you can fit in, it's just not possible to fit it all, so there are still big chunks of unfinished business waiting for me at home and at work and in my relationships . . . and I think I'm learning that there will be time for those too . . . in time.

Lest you think I'm getting the big head, know that this feels like a gift--a great big grace gift from a God who (I believe) gave me this full and wonderful life (I think the word He used was "abundant," actually) and is also teaching me how to live it.

*(Read it in a magazine but have no idea who said it. Google didn't really help.)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Day 21

It's been a really fun experiment.  I was reminded of how much I like to write and how fun it is to put it out there for you to read.  I remembered how stressful it can be to think of things to say and then to craft the words into experiences for you to share with me.  I'm glad I took on this experiment and I'm glad it's over.  Thanks for reading.  Oh, and I'll be back soon.

The End.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Day 20

The McDonald's sandwich (and cult favorite) the McRib is apparently quite a phenomenon.  Because it is regional and seasonal, there are actually blogs devoted to tracking its availability.  It has t-shirts, music, an urban legend, a conspiracy theory and a scandal, not to mention mentions on "The Simpsons" and "The Big Bang Theory."  In case you missed it, it's a processed pork patty shaped to look like a rack of ribs, slathered in barbecue sauce on a long bun.  In theory, it looks like this:

When C and I were in seminary, in the mid-80s, we lived and worked in Waco and commuted to school in Ft. Worth.  We were constantly exhausted and lived for our Saturdays when we could usually sleep late and get caught up.  Early one Saturday morning, the phone rang and my grandfather's voice boomed, "We're taking you and C to lunch today!"  As I tried to rouse myself from sleep enough to focus, I had two thoughts, "Why are you calling me in the middle of the night to tell me this?" and "Cool!  We never get to eat out--that will be fun!"

Then Grandaddy explained that he and Mimi were driving all the way from their home in the Hill Country to go to McDonalds to try the new McRib and they were going to take us along.  They were meeting us at the restaurant (no time to come by our house) at 11 a.m. and they were paying.  Those were our instructions and it never occurred to me to argue with any of it.  By the time we got to McDonalds at 11, they had already been there for 15 minutes and were as excited as children.

We found out pretty quick that ordering something other than the McRib was not an option although my usually frugal grandfather was willing to spring for fries and sodas.  I remember holding the first bite in my mouth for just a few seconds longer than usual because I was so grossed out by the texture that I wasn't sure that an effort to swallow would be successful.  Thankfully, we finished our sandwiches and had a wonderful time visiting.  After that, from time to time, we would receive the early morning phone call, the offer of lunch and the spiritual discipline of eating food you hate with people you love.

My Mimi is gone now and I still miss her.  She was a really good sport where my irascible grandfather was concerned.  Grandaddy is about to be 91 and is remarried to a wonderful woman.  After spending most of his life unable to express his affection (except in the language of processed pork), he will now call and instead of saying hello, booms "I love you!"  Of course, I've always known he loved me, even back when I was a little scared of him but a few McRib sandwiches through the years have sealed the deal.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Day 19

I am deeply grateful that my parents gave me the skills for dialogue.  When I was a teenager wanting to whine about my teacher, I wasn't thrilled when my mom and dad would encourage me to see what she was thinking, why she might have done what she did, what her perspective was.  Now, though, I wouldn't trade that skill for anything.

When he was in elementary school, Mowgli said to me one afternoon, "You'll never be able to go on Oprah, Mom, because you always see every side of everything."  I took that as a compliment.

There's another piece to this, though, that my parents also gave me and that is a commitment to consistency, which is also a commitment to constantly be aware of and make allowances for my biases.  When I was in college and was first introduced to the concepts of cognitive dissonance and perception/cognitive bias, I was so fascinated that I spent a whole semester thinking that I might go on to grad school in social psychology just to study those ideas.

This roughly explains why:

  • When fans of one team are shown a game against a rival team, they perceive more of the officiating errors that favor the other team and fewer of the calls that favor their own team.  And it's not just that they make a different meaning of those bad calls; they literally don't see them.
  • When Palestinians are shown a peace plan that Israelis favor but they are told that Palestinians favor it, they will support it.  Israelis do the same thing.  It works with Republicans and Democrats and with different religious groups.  Show people an unfamiliar plan that has been put forth by the other side but tell them that their group approves of it and they will approve of it too.
  • When it's the other side's candidate who sticks her foot in her mouth, she's an idiot; when it's your candidate who sticks her foot in her mouth, she needs to be given a chance to explain.  When your candidate has a moral failure, it's an uncharacteristic lapse in judgment and doesn't affect his right to govern; when the other side's guy has a moral failure, it's not only characteristic of that person but the whole party and he should be impeached.  
  • When you don't leave a tip, it's because you're stingy; when I don't leave a tip, it's because I'm low on cash.
  • When investigators and prosecutors zero in on a suspect, they become resistant to other explanations for the crime, even taking such suggestions personally.  (There's some really interesting work being done on this; in the meantime, a man will soon be executed in my state without ever having the large amounts of DNA found at the scene tested because prosecutors refuse to allow it to be tested, even at no cost to the state.)
  • When I begin to work with a new couple or family, I will ask each person to describe the problem to me as if they were their spouse or child.  I am trying to assess their ability and willingness to set aside their own perspective and look at things through the eyes of another.  It's absolutely stunning to me how many people can't or won't.
And the most fascinating and infuriating example:  We are very, very good at seeing and acknowledging the biases of other people, especially those we disagree with . . . and very, very bad at seeing and acknowledging our own or even seeing and acknowledging that we might have some.

So maybe this is part of why it seems to be so impossible for people to engage in real dialogue around deeply held opinions.  If we want to grow in our capacity to have productive conversations about the things that really matter to us, we can grow in our capacity to explore and evaluate our own biases and to apply our truths consistently to ourselves and to our opponents.  It's a good place to start anyway.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Day 14, catching up

So today, I'm working on Gmail when I get a popup box asking me if I want to switch to the new format. So what would you have done?

Do you think, "I just figured out the format I have!  Why do they always have to be changing everything?"  Or, "How could Gmail possibly get better?" Or, "I love it when I get to try new things!"  Or, "I'll try it . . . what could it hurt?  I can always change back if I don't like it . . . I hope . . . oh, shoot, now I'm paralyzed . . . "

I'm not sure there's a better assessment of a person's openness to change and innovation than that popup box.  I was really amused by all the things that went through my head.

I clicked "yes."

Day 18

Robert Quinn says that in today's rapidly changing world, organizations have a binary choice between deep change and slow death.  The Bible says that without vision, the people perish.  There are few things sadder than people and organizations that cling to their routines and their mental models and their traditions and their habits right up to the point of self-destruction.

As a therapist, there are few things I do more important than casting vision.  Holding up a vision of who a person can become, what kind of relationships a family can have, what love could look like for a couple . . . that's at least half the job right there.  Without a compelling vision, people have no courage for the deep change that life requires from time to time.

In my work with congregational and other church leaders--leaders of living systems--the same thing is true.  Half the job is helping people to see--to literally see through the powerful eyes of the imagination--in such a way that they will risk the discomfort that comes with change.   What Jesus did so compellingly was to hold up a vision of the Kingdom of God--a vision that no one else had ever seen before--and invite people to join him there.  Two thousand years later, we're still trying to live in the kingdom he described to us.

So when couples and families and churches lose vision, lose heart and lose their way, it grieves me to the core.  But when they can see what is possible--enough that they will reach for it--that's the most lifegiving thing I can even imagine.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Day 17

Whenever I despair that transformation is even possible, I go to my happy place and think about the Ridder Leadership Initiative.  I spent most of last week in Muskegon, Michigan with about 40 or so of the most amazing ordinary people you can even imagine.  They look like a fairly normal collection of pastors and denominational workers who take time out of their busy, demanding lives to focus on their own personal transformation and to build the skills and the character necessary to lead transformation in their congregations.

After a couple of days of fun and hard work, their teams come from their churches and gather around tables to talk about their own discipleship and their dreams for their congregations back home.  These laypeople are deeply committed to the process and take their learning back home to their families and their Bible study classes and their workplaces with renewed focus and courage.

This is my colleague and dear friend JTH with his arm around one of the many unsung heroes of the Ridder Initiative, Mrs. Lenora Ridder.  She and her late husband Bud, a pastor and seminary president, were passionate about caring for pastors and wanted to contribute to their development through a fund they set up and supported.  The fund supported bringing in some of the best minds in pastoral leadership development to the pastors of the denomination and ended up also bringing the authors of The Leaders' Journey.

After an event, several of us gathered around a table at the back of the room and began talking about the implications of our observation that although events are fun and helpful, they don't even begin to get at the mental models that keep us from the change we so desperately need.  Mrs. Ridder, always open to new ideas, agreed that the money in the fund could be used to create an experiential process without even knowing what that would look like.  She attends every gathering and adds her wisdom to the planning process on a regular basis.  Her open mindedness and courage and flexibility and encouragement are what make her one of my best loved heroes of the faith.  I truly want to be just like her when I grow up.

Day 13, catching up

This is the stack of books that sits on my desk waiting to be read.  Sometimes it puts on the Bambi eyes, trying to make me pay attention to it.  More often, it mocks me, reminding me how long it has been since some of these books were bought impulsively and then never even picked up.  Since some of the books are gifts from dear friends, it is often guilt-inducing.

A while ago, I made a deal with myself that I would give away ten books from my shelves and read ten books from my stack before I would let myself buy any new books.  (As I look at this stack, I realize that ten doesn't even really make a dent, but I'm in denial about that.)  Meanwhile, my amazon wish list has 419 items on it, most of them more books.  I've read 7 so far, with 3 to go.

Today, as I was feeling overwhelmed by this, I decided to go at it Dave Ramsey-style, reading from smallest to largest.  As I look at the stack, though, I notice that The Prophetic Imagination by Brueggeman is the thinnest book in the stack but it's also one of the densest, with really small print.  Maybe I'll watch a movie instead.