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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Following The One We Call the Christ

There are not many things about which I consider myself an expert. I took economic and political theory classes in college and I think I have a pretty good working knowledge of how that fits into current events, informs my voting decisions, and impacts my general outlook on life. But, it is not my area of expertise either educationally or vocationally, so I try not to pontificate on such matters over much. It's good to know one's limitations.

On the other hand, I did study theology quite a bit and did a 10-year stint as a pastor and another 6 as a theology teacher, so that is an area where I feel like I have a bit better footing, as it were.

The reason for this little preface is that what I am about to say comes from my knowledge and understanding of who Jesus is, what he teaches, and what it means, so far as I can tell, to claim to be a follower of this one that we Christians call the Christ. It is not, conversely, a political plan or policy, so, I'm fine about being taken to task if I have misunderstood something about Jesus or the Good News, but if you tell me that my politics are a bit janky, the best I can say is that I may have to agree with you since, as was already noted, that's not my particular gig.

So, here are the things that I know about Jesus:

1) Just before he was born, Mary and Joseph traveled a great distance and arrived at their destination tired and without anywhere to stay.

2) Just after he was born, he, Mary, and Joseph (according to one Gospel narrative) fled to Egypt as refugees in order to ensure his safety.

3) He said that all of the law and the prophets (so, essentially, the better portion of the Hebrew Scriptures) can be summed up like this: Love G-d and love your neighbor. When pressed for a definition of "neighbor," he used as an example someone who would have not only been considered the least of the least, but an actual enemy of those to whom he was speaking.

4) Many of his followers believed him to be the Messiah and they therefore thought that meant he would do politically what they wanted him to do. He did not. It wasn't that he was apolitical, because he definitely reached out to the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized ... but he didn't try to overthrow the Romans, or set up his own power structure, or even to keep the Jewish people safe by political means.

5) He said that if we want to be disciples that we need to follow him and he said that whatever we do for the least among us, we do for him. He also mentioned that what we are not willing to do for one another, it is as though we are unwilling to do it for him.

6) He told his disciples to not be afraid. He promised to be with them and with us always. And, he went to the cross.

Now, there is a lot of stuff that we don't know about Jesus' life and quite a bit that he never said anything at all about. Of those matters we have to speculate, interpret, wonder. There is some biblical study and theological work that can be difficult because of that. Clearly, that's why theological types get paid the big bucks ... or not.

But the stuff listed above, it's pretty clear cut. We can disagree. We can not like it. We can think it is silly or naive or impractical or whatever. But we can't get around the fact that Jesus either said or did it, if we give any credence to the biblical account at all.

And, in the end, I guess that's why I felt the need to remind myself of these six tidbits. I don't claim to know the answers to the world's problems. I do not fancy myself as either a political or an economic theorist. Shoot, most days I'm lucky to make it through to bed time. But it seems to me that those of us who claim to follow this Christ need to be honest about how we're doing that.

If the way of life that he calls us to live is not to our liking ... if we find it impractical, implausible, or otherwise unsatisfactory, I suppose that is okay. We all have to choose which paths we will follow. But, then, let's be honest about it. Let's not preface our political, social, or economic commentary with "as a Christian" and then say or do something that can in no way be reconciled with what the one we claim to follow taught or did.

And, if it is vitally important to us to self-identify as Christians, as followers of Jesus the Christ, then let's really follow, let's at least try to live and teach and speak and love as Jesus did.

It could be that simple.

Monday, August 26, 2013

What I Learned the First Day of School

Some rights reserved by Paradox 56
Today was the first day of public school where I live. It was also the first day that our university students had class. My Twitter feed and Facebook newsfeed were all abuzz this morning about the first day of classes ... pics of back-to-school outfits ... and tales from several friends recounting the first day of kindergarten for their young'uns. And it hit me that despite the fact that in a week my youngest will start his junior year of college, my back-to-school days are pretty much over. It has taken me most of the day to get over that fact and I'm not quite sure I'm there yet.

For the better part of my adult life, my identity has been so wound up with being someone's mom that I have struggled with who I am now that my kids are adults. Yes, of course, I am still their mom ... but gone are the days when my calendar is crowded with who has to be where when. My August was not consumed with finding the right size glue sticks, 15 different spiral notebooks, or khakis with the dress-code-approved pockets. And, however grateful I am not to be dealing with such minutiae, I'm still trying to figure out what sort of minutiae should occupy my time now.

My vocational life as a pastor, a teacher, and a youth minister was consumed, in part, with helping others to realize that they were more than their vocational choices, more than the familial ties that they'd been born with, and even more than the relationship choices they made beyond their immediate families. But, I think that while I was trying to ensure that others were able to find and maintain there own unique identities, I might have forgotten to listen to myself, or, at least to really absorb that those same things were true of me as well. This was brought home to me about a week ago at an adult gathering. When I was asked to introduce myself, the "hi, my name is Pam," was quickly followed by what I figured everyone would consider more important: "I'm <insert kid's name here>'s mom."

It is true, I am their mom ... and nothing has made me happier or more proud in my life. But, it could be that it's time for me to grow up too. Maybe it's time to realize that I am me separate from my kids ... just as they have an identity that is very separate from mine.

Hi, my name is Pam ... 

Friday, August 9, 2013

Taking the Bad with the Good and Loving through It All

Some rights reserved by Avital Pinnick
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." So begins Charles Dickens' classic The Tale of Two Cities. It could also have been the tagline for this week. It was a week in which a flare spontaneously ignited in the trunk of my son's car causing a small fire ... but, it was also the week in which I got cast for a role in The Laramie Project, a play that I desperately wanted to be in. It was a week in which we got some very disappointing news regarding a work situation ... but, it was also the week when both my husband and I had some very enlightening self-discoveries. In other words, like many weeks that all of us have ... it was filled with the good and the bad.

I think that somewhere along the line, many of us learn to think
 of the good stuff as somehow earned or merited. Conversely, the negative stuff is seen as some sort of punishment or deserved suffering. But that's kind of silly when you think about it because sometimes the bad stuff is what leads the good stuff or makes it possible, at least. And, in other cases, something that seemed like "the good stuff" several weeks ago, turns out to be not so good at all once we've lived into it.

More and more, I think that I am beginning to figure out that our lives are full of "stuff" and whether it is perceived as being "good" or "bad, the "best of times" or "the worst" depends upon context, the people involved, our own feelings and/or disposition at the time, and a host of other variables over which we have little to no control. The one thing I can control, however, is my reaction ... my response to the stuff.

Over the past several weeks, I have tried to be much more intentional about taking time during my day to mentally step back and just breathe (both physically and mentally). Whether it's in 5, 10, or 20 minute snippets ... just taking a break to reflect upon who I am and where I am in my life has helped me to put both the stuff that I perceive as great, the stuff that I perceive as horrid, and all the stuff in between into perspective.

So ... those are my words of wisdom for today: Remember to breathe. It's helpful in the best of times. It's helpful in the worst of times.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Putting Things in a Safe Place

Some rights reserved by michaelstyne
I had one of those mornings last week. You may know the kind. It was one of those mornings where I woke up kind of crabby, not feeling great, a little on edge, and proceeded to treat the people I love the most like crap. Of course the realization that this was occurring did not help because once I realized it was going on, not only did I feel crabby and edgy, but I also hated myself for being crabby, edgy, and a bit of a snit.

Later, when I tried to apologize, I was assured that it was okay and reminded that, after all, if I couldn't be crabby and edgy with the people whom I love and who, presumably love me, where would I be safe in doing it? It's a tricky balancing act, I think. And, I think that part of what was so difficult about the morning for me was that instead of realizing that home is a safe place where all of the not so pleasant parts of me can find a safe haven, I instead wanted to look at the crazy woman who was griping at her son and husband over really petty stuff, as someone other than me. The real me would have been in control of her emotions, the real me would be kind and loving even when feeling stressed out, the real me would have been better than that woman ... so clearly, this was some sort of an impostor standing in my kitchen.

I've thought a lot about the ensuing conversation over the past few days ... about how being at home and with the people we love should provide a haven for us not only when we're at our very best, but also when we are at our very worst. And, I'm thinking that what the love of home and family has actually done for me ... you know, after nearly 50 years of living, because sometimes I am that slow ... is to provide a safe place where I can acknowledge that the evil impostor who sometimes invades my skin ... she's just as much a part of the real me as the bubbly, encouraging, carefree me that I enjoy a whole lot more. I don't think any of us wants evil-me to hang around all the time ... but, I'm thinking that maybe, if my family can love her and provide a safe haven for her ... well, then I just might be able to as well.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Thumper ... Revisited

Some rights reserved by printGarden
Growing up, most of us were taught some version of Thumper's famous line from Bambi: "If you can't say somethin' nice ... don't say nothin' at all." Unfortunately, as we get older, all of us find ways to circumvent Thumper's advice. However, very few people want to be thought of as being "that person" who says unkind things, so we develop all kinds of prefaces in the hopes of somehow excusing what follows: "No offense, but..." "Don't take this the wrong way, but..." "I don't want to sound mean/judgmental/racist/rude, but..." The problem with all of those prefaces, however, is the fact that almost inevitably whatever comes next does the very thing that the speaker wanted to avoid. The words that follow are going to be offensive, will be taken harshly, or will sound mean/judgmental/racist/rude. And no amount of pleading that a disclaimer was given beforehand can change those reactions.

I am not proud of it, but I have used some of those very prefaces myself. I can't, of course, be sure as to why other people use them, but I do know that in my case it was always as a way to give myself some sort of permission to say whatever thing I wanted to say in the first place. The very fact that I included any sort of preface at all, warning the hearer not to be offended or that I didn't want to sound mean, was itself proof of the fact that I knew that what I was about to say violated the "if you can't say something nice" rule.

The fact of the matter is that nice words don't need a preface. People do not accidentally get offended when my words are truly kind and loving. No one is going to accuse me of being rude, judgmental, or racist if what comes out of my mouth is loving and not hateful. When my words have been used to build up, instead of tearing down, I've not ever had someone say that I was being mean.

It's really not that difficult. We've known since kindergarten how to share, how to play nice, and how to use our good words when we interact with others. And, we also learned pretty early on that there are times when we don't always want to share, play nice, or use our good words. It has taken a while, but I think I'm also beginning to learn that part of being a grown up is to share, play nice, and use good words even when I don't particularly want to ... or if I simply can't bring myself to play nice, to at least excuse myself and just keep quiet when I don't have anything nice to say.

So, I'm trying (though not always succeeding) to incorporate some additions to the Thumper rule into my everyday life and ask myself before I speak whether what I am about to say is necessary to the conversation. Am I attempting to offer needed information, build others up, lend encouragement? Could what I am going to say hurt someone else, be taken as a slight, give rise to gossip?

Like I said, I am not always successful, but in trying to remember to ask myself these kinds of questions, I have been humbled to discover all the times where I've been perfectly willing to abandon Thumper's sage words so that I could be "right" or seem to have control over a situation.

The older I get, the more I am struck by the fact that we learn almost all of life's essential lessons when we are very young. Them, it seems that it takes a lifetime to figure out how important those lessons are and to effectively put them into practice.

For now, I am working on taking the words of an animated rabbit to heart, and keeping quiet unless I have something nice to say.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

What a difference Thirty-Something Years Makes

Once upon a time I attended Chaparral High School in Las Vegas. The four years that I spent there were some of the most emotionally intense years of my life, a fact which I attribute much more to the reality that 2000 adolescents were crammed into the same space for roughly 7 to 8 hours a day (counting extra-curriculars and whatnot), than to anything peculiar to the place itself. Even "back in the day" prior to cell phones, social networking, or cyber-bullying, there was no drama like high school drama ... nothing so consuming as who had said what about whom ... and nothing quite so exhilarating as being asked to homecoming or prom ... nor so devastating as being dumped by someone you thought was your whole world.

In the years since I was in high school, I've raised my own children and taught quite a few others and I've watched as those same intensities impacted them in various ways, realizing that no amount of my telling them that the roller-coasters of emotions that they were experiencing would be but a blip on their radar screens in the future could convince them that their world wasn't ending. It was something that was so apparent for me in hind-sight, but in their adolescent minds was clearly utter and complete lunacy.

So, what brought about all of this reflection about my own high school days? In part it is due, I'm sure, to the fact that my own 30-year reunion is coming up and former classmates are busy planning, making reservations, and re-connecting. But it was mostly brought about by the fact that my first steady high school boyfriend (we dated for a little over a year) recently contacted me on Facebook. And it was neat, but not in a way I could have ever imagined when we were dating or in the year after we broke up. It was neat because I could genuinely be happy for his successes and the life that he has without having any personally vested interest in it whatsoever. There was nothing about our re-connecting that had anything of "what's in this for me?" or "how does this affect me?" in it ... I could just delight in the fact that someone who had once cared a great deal for me and for whom I still have incredibly fond feelings is doing well and seems to be happy in life.

And, as I looked at pics of his family and saw some of his "life events," it just struck me what a difference thirty-some-odd years have made in how I think not only of him, but of those four years that at the time seemed to be my entire life ... but that now seem so long ago, so far away, and in many ways were just a drop in the bucket of all that I've experienced.

It has been a great "perspective-giver" this ability to look somewhat objectively at that part of my life ... because it has helped me to remember that at any given moment, no matter how happy, sad, angry, exuberant, or whatever I am, the seeming intensity of that instant will one day be but a thread in the much larger tapestry of my whole life.

I've said it before and I'll say it again ... this getting older business is mind-boggling.

Friday, July 5, 2013

We All Have Stories ... Full of Sound and Fury ... That Could Signify Important Things Indeed

 Some rights reserved by Bob AuBuchon
When I taught middle-school, friends and acquaintances would often offer their condolences. But I was one of the rare breed of people, apparently, who actually enjoyed working with middle-school-aged youngsters. One of the things that I longed to share with colleagues who seemed unhappy in their work was the fact that, for the most part, middle-schoolers do not act the way that they do in order to make their parents, teachers, or others mad ... they act the way that they do because it is developmentally appropriate for them to do so. That outlook made all the difference to me, because, in my best moments, even though I sometimes found their behavior unacceptable, I never had to take it personally. I could work to help them move on from behavior that wouldn't suit them in adulthood, without having a personal stake in any of it. The other thing that I quickly learned was that each of my students had a story. Every time that I ran up against a student who I thought was a problem, I quickly learned that the problematic behavior stemmed from some current situation or some past event of which I had up to that point been unaware. And, even though the story behind it didn't excuse the unacceptable behavior, understanding where that behavior was coming from made it much easier for me to respond with compassion and, in many instances, to more effectively help the student to find was of coping that resulted in behavior that was more socially acceptable.

My middle-school teaching days are well behind me now. But I have since learned that it is not just middle-schoolers who have stories behind their behaviors. Everyone has a story to tell. And in almost all cases, a person's behavior, whether we find it pleasant or not, can be tied, at least in part, to that story. When we know someone's story, we are much more willing to make accommodations for behavior that is less than stellar. When we know what another has been through, it makes us more compassionate in our responses. When we understand what someone else has experienced, we are less likely to take words or deeds as a personal affront, instead recognizing that they often arise from circumstances that have absolutely nothing to do with us.

If we recognize that fact when we know the story ... how much of a stretch would it be to simply assume that everyone has a story to tell, even when we do not actually know the particular details? Can we allow others the benefit of the doubt in our interactions with them ... simply because we know that they must have their own story ... even when their own narrative remains hidden from us? Must we exact the intimate details from others in order to respond with kindness, compassion, and understanding, or can it be enough to know that those details exist for them just as they do for us?

What kind of story might we create by recognizing that every person we meet is the protagonist of a tale of sound and fury signifying most everything that is important. What stories would we then be invited to be a part of or could we then create?