Tuesday, February 28, 2012

What's black and white and read all over?

I've subscribed to the local newspaper pretty much all my adult life.  Even when we didn't have much money, we always bought the newspaper and a couple of magazines.  Reading the paper is as much of a rhythm in my life as it was my dad's.  I even trained my very young children to leave me alone while I ate lunch and read the paper when I was a stay-at-home mom.  (Now, for the record, they are both very committed readers and they don't seem to hold a deep resentment for newsprint.)

I read the paper methodically--first the front page, then follow up on those stories on  the inside of the first section, then the editorials, then the other columns, and then the comics.  Lately, though . . . and this makes me feel like a curmudgeon . . . it's just not the same.  I miss Calvin and Hobbes and some of the other old comic strips.  Too many of the existing strips are old but they never were any good and they still aren't.  (I mean, seriously, why does anyone think we still need Hagar the Horrible?) I like some of the newer strips but I don't like like them, if you know what i mean.

I got tired of reading news articles that I had already read about in Time or in The Week as if it were new news.  Seriously, if it happened long enough ago that it has showed up in a newsmagazine, it's not news.  I still like the columns but I often read them online because they're in their entirety and not edited for space.

The reason I'm considering unsubscribing, though, has nothing to do with all that.  It has to do with the editorial page of the Austin American Statesman.  Every day, the editorial columns are organized and labeled as "From the Right" and "From the Left."  At first, the "From the Right" column was on the right side of the page and vice versa, but now they've decided to make it tricky and they put the conservative column on the left-hand side of the page and the progressive column on the right.   I don't know, maybe they think that will balance things out.

It just drives me nuts, though, that I, the reader, can't be trusted to form opinions without being told ahead of time whether the content of the column is likely to challenge or reinforce the opinions I already hold.  I guess the idea is to prevent me from accidentally reading something I won't agree with or to make sure that I don't get upset by inadvertently seeing something that doesn't confirm my prejudices.  Maybe the editorial board is just trying to answer the frequent accusations that the paper is "promoting" some agenda by printing articles that the reader disagrees with.  "Look!"  They seem to be saying.  "We're fair and balanced!"  (Oh, wait, that's someone else.)

I understand that newspapers have to compete against other media outlets that tailor the news to their readers' or viewers' already held opinions.  But I worry about the culture we are creating by protecting ourselves from opinions with which we disagree and only going to news sources that are going to tell us what we already think we know.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday

For Ash Wednesday today, we have a guest blogger.  My dear friend Janet Davis, author of 3 books including The Feminine Soul:  Surprising Ways the Bible Speaks to Women and the soon-to-be-released book My Own Worst Enemy:  How To Stop Holding Yourself Back has written these reflections about her own favorite moment during Ash Wednesday observances, which has now become my own favorite moment.   From Janet:

It is quite simply my favorite moment in the church year.  And it happens on Ash Wednesday, that day when someone smears the ashes of the palms from last year’s Palm Sunday on my forehead in the shape of a cross.  That day when I hear once more these words confessing my mortality and finitude: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  That day when I wear my own shadow, my own particular darkness, front and center for all to see.

But it is not the moment of receiving the ashes, nor owning their deep meaning, that transforms me.  It is a little while after that (at least in the flow of the traditional Episcopal liturgy) when I exchange the peace of Christ with my neighbors in the midst of wearing my… our… ashes.  

In that moment I feel the good news of Jesus like no other time in the church year. I remember that, in God, connection happens not in spite of my sinfulness but in the midst of it.  With my head held up, my ash-stained face open, and my hand out-stretched, I touch those around me as our eyes connect and our words entwine: “The peace of Christ be with you.” For just a moment, all shame and blame games are gone, not because my hiding or my attempts to prove myself worthy have worked, but precisely because they have not.  All apologies for my… our…  humanity feel suddenly unnecessary, all defenses silenced as we relax into our brokenness and the ever-present, immediately incarnate, love of God.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Leading a conversation on shame, I was talking about the idea that compassion is the normal, healthy response to suffering, whether it is someone else's pain or our own.  We talked about how to expand our compassion for ourselves by realizing that if others are worthy of compassion in their pain, we can also show ourselves compassion in our own pain.

I was thinking today about how that works in reverse as well.  When we show compassion for ourselves in our own suffering, it teaches us to see and respect the suffering of others.  I have heard Pema Chodron express it best, but spiritual people through the ages have understood the value of converting our own pain into compassion for others.  Although pain naturally and understandably makes us self-centered--and that is definitely how I typically experience it--it also has the ability to open our hearts, even to break them, for the suffering of the world.

I don't often say much about that because I haven't experienced just a whole lot of pain in my life.  The normal stuff that everyone goes through and maybe just a little more, but far less than average.  (A former mentor asked me once, "Oh, so your suffering is still ahead of you then?")  But my neck started hurting yesterday and by last night, I was really in pain. C said I cried in my sleep, but thanks to a Benadryl-induced stupor, I don't remember.

This morning, as I was swallowing 4 Advil gel caps, I thought about all those in my life who suffer physical pain as a normal part of life.  I asked myself, "What would it feel like if this pain was twice as bad as it is?"  I tried to imagine that.  "What if it was ten times worse?"  "What if Advil wouldn't help at all, in any dose?"  "What if I had to go to a physically demanding job?"  On my way to work, I prayed for those (you know you are) that I love who are well-acquainted with pain while I usually go about my life obliviously prayerless, forgetting about their struggles and taking my good health for granted.

Someone asked me last week how we can expand our capacity for compassion.  I answered mostly about self-compassion but I wish I had thought of this--that when we deliberately ask our own suffering to teach us compassion for others, it will.

In honor of Shrove Tuesday . . .

No pancakes today, as far as I know, but some good reflection on what Lent will look like this year.  I feel really ready to take on something substantial this year but I haven't gotten clear about what.  This article has some wonderful ideas and is thought-provoking and challenging.  I hope you enjoy it.  Tomorrow, my friend Janet Davis will be guest-blogging about Ash Wednesday because she says it so well.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy Valentine's Day

Happy Valentine's Day to the one who fills my life with more love than I can hold~

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Sermon rebuttals

Last Sunday, I preached at First Friends Meeting in Greensboro, NC.  First Friends is a programmed Quaker meeting, meaning that they hold a pretty normal Protestant worship service with singing and preaching but with a protracted time of silence at the end.  During this time of silence, parishioners are invited to "hold the silence" by sitting quietly or to break the silence by saying aloud what they sense the Spirit saying in or through them.**

If you like to preach because you like feeling like an expert or because you believe that you have God's definitive word for the congregation on any given Sunday morning, I suggest that you don't preach for Quakers.  After my sermon, as the congregation held the silence, the Spirit actually had a lot to say.

One woman was vibrating, having misunderstood that I said that "anxiety makes us stupid" instead of "anxiety is stupid," which then made me vibrate.  As I was wishing I could clarify, another man, the wise and beloved clerk of the Meeting, tactfully pointed out an error I had made in my description of the gospel story.  He was right, by the way, and applied his point to a specific need of the congregation in a really adept way.  Another woman made an absolutely brilliant point about the story that I had completely missed.  And a man then stood up to start connecting the story to other texts, apparently an unusual happening in this Meeting, according to the pastor.

If, on the other hand, you can stay still and breathe through your nose and hope your cheeks aren't burning too brightly, you can be calm enough to be really glad that the Holy Spirit keeps speaking after you sit down.  I really was.  Anyway, it sure beats the sermon postmortem at Lubys that my tradition practices on a weekly basis.

**By the way, this is in contrast to unprogrammed Quaker meetings in which people sit in silence for roughly an hour and speak aloud only occasionally.  Austin Friends Meeting, which Mowgli attends, is an unprogrammed meeting.

Monday, February 6, 2012

I feel your pain

After only a few years of ministry and counseling, I came to the conclusion that almost nothing is more crucial to relational health and vitality than empathy.  When people have the capacity for empathy, they have the capacity for compassion not only for others but for themselves.  They can see others as separate from themselves and can use their experience and imagination to understand them and their point of view, even if it differs from their own.  People who lack empathy are stunted and immature and incapable of real love.

There are many now (Edwin Friedman in A Failure of Nerve and others) who are saying that empathy is at the core  of many or even most of our problems, whether on the level of family or society.  As a result, they say, we cater to the least mature among us, spending our energy appeasing or satisfying them rather than acting out of our values and our goals.  Through our pity, we allow them to underfunction, not taking responsibility for themselves while we, always well-meaning, take responsibility for them and keep them dependent.  Immature people hijack us with their tantrums or with their neediness and we, with all our maturity and compassion and empathy, allow it to happen.  I completely agree.

How can that be?  How can I say that empathy is both absolutely essential to our wellbeing in relationships and at the same time agree with those who say it is destroying us as a culture?

I think it comes down to our definitions of empathy.  When I use the word, I mean empathy as a way of thinking about other people as being separate from me, with their own thoughts and feelings and desires.  It is a way of becoming unfused from them and removing myself from the center of the universe.  Empathy becomes a way to step back from my own emotional process in order to see the possibilities that exist between us.  This post on Brene Brown's blog is an interesting description of the kind of empathy I so passionately believe in.

When Friedman and others use the word empathy, they usually see it as a way of feeling about other people that leads us to compromise our beliefs and values and prioritizes the feelings and comfort of chronically immature people over our own good and the good of the whole.  It is a way of feeling for people instead of feeling with them.

In Galatians 6, the apostle Paul tells us to "carry one another's burdens."  Just a sentence or two later, he seems to contradict himself, telling us that "each one should carry his own load."  Which is it?  I believe that a healthy empathy allows us to carry one another's burdens in such a way that makes it possible for each of us to carry his or her own load.

So like most important things, it's both/and.  Empathy, defined one way, is mature and life-giving.  Defined another way, it masquerades as compassion but is ultimately destructive.  It's up to each of us to choose and to choose wisely.