• Great Power and Petty Beligerance

    Yesterday, I wrote about how the changing role and nature of authority in our lives demands that we change the way we parent our kids. Which is why my first rule of parenting is to raise good men and women, not good children.

    Of course, as the existence of our prison system and the IRS demonstrate, authority still exists. Our kids do need to know how to submit to some authority other than their own. Even when they disagree with it. So it’s not that I’ve give up all authority over my children. Especially with five kids, there’s no way our family could function!

    Which leads to my second rule of parenting: great powers do not respond to petty belligerence. Especially in Christians circles, a great deal of weight is placed on establishing and maintaining the near absolute authority of the parents. The idea seems to be that the parent’s authority is under constant threat from rebellious children. Therefor, resistance to a parent’s authority must be dealt with as the threat it is.

    I think this is ridiculous. I’m in charge. I know I’m in charge. My kids know I’m in charge. I don’t need to waste my time proving to them that I’m in charge. Nor do I need to force them to continually reassure me that they still recognize my authority. Great powers can tolerate protests, complaints, petitions for change and challenges without fear. Only insecure powers feel that they must respond to and crush every petty belligerency.

    A great deal of conflict, stress, resentment and drama is created in families by parents who take their kids behavior as a threat to their authority. It’s a very ugly dynamic that I’ve seen lead to terrible parenting and destroyed relationships. And it’s completely and totally unnecessary.

    I refuse to take my child’s behavior that personally. They behave the ways they do for their own reasons, not to see if they can knock me off my throne. Even when they are deliberately testing boundaries, it’s no threat. And I let them know that. If they go too far, I will put a stop to it, but otherwise, they enjoy a great deal of freedom. And they are allowed to renegotiate the boundaries from time to time. I’m in charge. I can decide to move boundaries if I see fit.

    Because of this, my children trust me. They know that I’m not engaged in senseless power struggles with them when I do put my foot down. They know that I will show respect for them even if they do not show respect for me, because I’m not nearly as childish as they are. They know that I will remain in control even when they do not. They know I can be trusted to listen to their concerns and deal fairly with them.

    So, the next time you are in conflict with your children, stop and make sure than an unwarrented concern for maintaining power isn’t driving you. Maybe get a t-shirt made to remind yourself, “Great powers are not threatened by petty belligerence”. You’re a great power in a secure position and none of you have anything to prove on that front.

  • Being Kind Without Being Hurt

    My mother always taught me that you can never go wrong being kinder than necessary. I believe that this is true and have tried to live my life with that perspective. However, this outlook can also leave you vulnerable to being mistreated. It’s why a lot of people are hesitant to be kinder. However, if we’re all focused on avoiding being hurt, it makes it very hard for being kind to become normal rather than exceptional.

    Avoiding being hurt is a legitimate concern, of course. Jesus told us to love other “as we love ourselves”, not “instead of loving ourselves”. It is not good or healthy to extend kindness to others at the expense of our own mental and emotional wellbeing. And yet, unless you want to continue living in with the results of human being protecting themselves at the expense of other human beings, we must learn to do a better job extending kindness.

    I have a simple trick I use which allows me to take the risk of being kinder than necessary or called for without leaving myself open to being unduly harmed in the process. Before I take a risk or extend kindness and forgiveness to someone who may not deserve it or be trustworthy, I do a quick gut check. I simply imagine the worst case response from the other person and see what my gut level reaction to the idea is. Hopefully I’ll realize that the worst case scenario isn’t so bad after all. I can take the risk of being kinder than called for, confident that I can deal with whatever result I get.

    On the other hand, if do my gut check and realize that I’m unwilling or unable to deal with the worst case scenario, I respect my own limitations and refrain from taking the step I was considering. Of course, there have been days where I have decided not to make phone calls simply because I knew that I wasn’t up for dealing with the possibility that the person I’m calling would ignore/refuse my call. Which is healthy when your emotions are particularly fragile. But as I said earlier, the goal isn’t simply for us to self protect. The goal is to be kinder than necessary without doing harm to ourselves.

    So, if I do my gut check and realize that I’m not up for dealing with a negative outcome, I consider why that would be. And if there’s anything I can do about it. Sometimes I just need to give myself a little pep talk. Sometimes I realize that I have an unhealthy attachment to the other person’s approval which I should be doing something about. Or maybe I have a fear I need to hand over to God. On occasion, I’ve just had enough of someone’s crap and am perfectly entitled to take a break from dealing with it.

    Ideally, I would be out in the world just spreading kindness with the joy of the Dali Lama and not a care in the world. If I’m not able to do that (and I’m not. Neither are you), that’s a sign that I’m still a work in progress. There’s room for growth and healing. Being conscious of when kindness is a struggle rather than something I do with ease actually increases my ability to be kinder than necessary.

    Sure, this approach means that in the short term, I may hold back more than I ideally would. But it also creates a safe place for me to expand my boundaries. And I’m not going to find myself in a position where I’ve been so hurt or traumatized by someone who responds to my kindness by being a jerk that I’m hesitant to try it again. So, who knows? Maybe one day I will be able to go around spreading kindness without a care in the world. Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world filled with people like that?

  • God and Laughing

    God loves laughter. Humor makes us laugh because it triggers delighted surprise to hear that things we fear – being alone, being unloved, being ridiculed  – aren’t as awful as it seems. And when it is awful, it isn’t as serious as we thought it was. When God gave us a sense of humor, He was telling us not to be so afraid. ~R. Trotter, The Upside Down World

    I have a real soft spot for humor. It is one of the great joys of life. I’d give up sex, wealth, tasty food and reading before I’d want to give up a sense of humor. Hell, we all know old people who made just that deal; they lost all the other joys of life to aging, so now they just sit around and laugh and laugh. And they’re having a hell of a time doing it. If they have anyone to listen to them.

    (Actually, that would make a great TV show. Travel the country visiting the funniest old people and record them talking. It would be like one of those “kids say the darndest things” type shows except the old people’s jokes will actually make sense. And tell us something about life.)

    I was really introduced to comedy by my husband, who I still reside with largely because of how much fun it is to sit around and laugh with him. My family did not do comedy when I was growing up, largely because comedians are crude and crass and talk about sex and drugs. As if they’ve done them, even. Which, you know, isn’t an entirely unreasonable concern. I suppose.

    At any rate, I’ve watched a good bit of comedy over the last however long I’ve been married. And yes, some of it has been crude and crass and fixated on the most obnoxious abuses of sex and drugs imaginable. But on the other end of the spectrum, I’m a big fan of Garrison Keillor. His “Lake Woebegon” stories are masterpieces humor that doesn’t rely on offending or scandelizing anyone. Plus, he gets how religion and sex actually works.

    I have this theory about humor which says that along with just being enjoyable, the primary purpose of humor is to help us learn. Researchers know that when a person is presented with information while they are laughing, they are more likely to accept that information than people who received the same information from an informational or persuasive presentation. Of course, they could have learned the same thing by observing parents with their kids. If you can get a kid to laugh, they are much more willing to admit error or change their minds.

    Continue reading

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    Ego and Pride, Compassion and Healing

    wrong onceOver the last couple of weeks, I have found myself thinking about pride and the ego. There are no end of spiritual teachers who are falling all over themselves to tell us how awful pride and ego are. How they are the root of suffering. How they separate us from God and set us up for a fall. That we can’t live freely and fully until they are driven from our psyche or at least neutralized.

    All of that is true, I suppose. But every time I read something about how awful our ego and pride are, I find that it just doesn’t resonate with me. I don’t find it helpful at all, frankly. Which is why I have been thinking and meditating on it recently. What are other people seeing that I am not?

    I’ve come to the conclusion that the reason that all the railing against ego and pride doesn’t resonate is because it’s lacking in compassion towards poor, frightened, misguided ego and pride. Ego and pride aren’t our enemies to be fought and resisted, it seems to me. Rather they are parts of ourselves which are doing their best to survive in a world where we are lost, confused and frightened.

    I first became aware of the power of pride and ego in my teens. I’ve always had an insatiable thirst for knowledge and understanding. But I had started to recognize that it was unreasonably painful to be wrong. It was actually hard to grow and learn new things because doing so meant facing my imperfections and errors. For some reason, the idea that I was wrong was often unbearably painful.

    I realized that this was, first of all, ridiculous. The expectation that I would know everything and not need to grow and be right in all my thoughts and opinions at 16 was absurd. Logically, I could see how dumb this gut level reaction to things which challenged me was.

    The other issue was that even at that age, it was my plan to continue learning and growing until the day I died. I seriously would say, even back in high school, that I looked forward to aging because I was excited to see what I would know and learn by then. (I’ve always been weird, yes.) Having to deal with this internal resistance and pain every step of the way was going to be a real problem.

    As I thought about the problem, I realized that there was something really deep in me which felt it wasn’t OK to be wrong. That my worth as a human being was dependant on having it all together. I realized that there was a part of my psyche which was afraid that I was always in danger of being exposed as damaged, wrong, unworthy and therefor unlovable. It was this part of me which found the experience of changing or being wrong an intolerably painful threat.

    I saw that pride was, for all its bluster and bravado simply the tool that the broken part of me threw up in an attempt to protect itself. It was strong, yes. But brittle. It didn’t like being challenged and did its best to remain invisible. The trick, I realized was to get it to relax. To let the broken part of me know that it was OK. If I am wrong, that’s OK. It’s not a threat.

    “There’s no harm in considering a new idea,” I would tell it. “Let’s just ask ‘what if?’ and see what it would look like. Maybe we’ll even like it better than what we’re working with right now.”

    In time, my pride became less forceful. My ego started to feel more comfortable and confident. It didn’t feel like it needed to be protecting itself and me all the time. Rather than fighting pride and ego, I began eagerly looking for signs that they were having a hard time. When ego and pride get prickly, that means there was something just itching to be healed or some false belief just dying to be soothed away.

    Many people speak of dying to pride and ego. But I really prefer to view it as healing pride and ego. And yes, it does often feel like dying. Healing often does.

    Sometimes ego and pride still cause problems for me. I have a persistent problem recognizing when I need to just acknowledge someone else’s feelings rather than arguing that they shouldn’t feel them, for example. I know that I don’t have as much joy in my life as God intends because my pride tells me the things meant to bring me joy aren’t important or impressive enough.

    I hope that one day I’ll be healed and whole enough that ego and pride will just relax and melt into the rest of me. But in the meantime, they don’t frighten me. Sure they represent sin. But Jesus died for all that. I don’t need to deny their existence in order to look good – to myself or others. I refuse to blame them for all my suffering or think that they are an enemy to be vanquished. They’re just a sign that I’m still in the process of being redeemed. And a tool to be used to that end.

    So my advice is this: if you’ve been convinced that ego and pride are a threat, an enemy and the source of your suffering, please reconsider. Might it not be that ego and pride are just as much the result of your suffering as the cause? That they are as deserving of compassion as anything in human existence? And that when you befriend rather than fight them, they can be valuable tools and allies in your quest to be conformed to the image of Christ in you? It’s been my experience anyways.

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    Stop Worrying About the Idiots!

    Would you like to hear my opinion on the controversy de jour? Listen to me rip some idiot to pieces for your edification and amusement? Want my incisive insight into exactly why and how an outrageous, provocative statement is wrong and probably a danger to decent human beings everywhere?

    Yeah, sorry. Aint going to happen. Or at least not often. Why? Because a human being who spends their time thinking and talking about stupidity, human failures and what’s wrong with whom and why is like a fish who fixates on water.

    We have a tendency to respond to what’s wrong with people as if it were a remarkable thing, worthy of attention and commentary. But really, there’s nothing more unremarkable than humans being stupid, obnoxious, offensive and idiotic.

    This brew of human idiocy and failure is the water we swim in. It’s pervasive, expected and completely unremarkable. And it should be treated as such. Ho-hum. More of the same.

    What is remarkable and what does deserve our attention are humans being good, kind, generous and courageous. These things are like the coral reefs of life. No one goes scuba diving to look at the water; they’re looking for the bright, the beautiful, the captivating and amazing.

    We’d all do well if instead of fixating on the water of human stupidity, we went looking for the coral reefs of human goodness. You’re not going to get rid of the water by staring at it and yelling at it. Instead, the water gets displaced by the beautiful things which grow in it.

    Or let’s use another analogy. My house sits within view of I-94. So all day and night, we can hear the sounds of traffic going by. Imagine how unpleasant and stressful it would be if I took notice every time a car or truck went by. If I stopped a few times a day to say to my family, “look at those cars and big ass trucks out there! All they do is drive by making noise day and night. Why isn’t there a sound absorbing wall there? When is it going to stop? And look – there goes an oversized load! Geeze those things are noisy!”

    Of course, I don’t do this. No one in my family does. For the most part we don’t even notice the sound of the traffic. But when a bird calls from the trees behind our house, we hear that. We look for it. We put out feeders on the deck to draw them closer. When a deer walks through the yard, we all go to the window to look. When the wind is fierce we stop and listen and wonder at the ferocity of it.

    The traffic is just background noise, hardly worthy of our notice. But the beautiful things, the amazing things, the movements of life – those grab our attention.

    And this is how it should be with us as we move through life. I’m concerned that a lot of us are wasting our emotional energy, nursing divisions and even despairing of the world paying attention to the unceasing traffic of human stupidity.

    Not only is it not good for us, it’s pointless. There’s nothing I can do about the latest murder or war. I can’t get my dog to what I say half the time, much less my elected officials. That pastor or politician or random human being who’s getting a lot of attention for saying something idiotic and inflammatory? If I rebuke them they’re not going to hear about it. Even if they did, they wouldn’t be moved by it.

    But when I see something beautiful, even if it’s far away, that helps me. When I hear of people being good and kind, being good and kind myself doesn’t seem like such a foolish, difficult thing. When I encounter something delightful, it makes my own world look a little more magical. What is good lifts us, encourages us and enlightens us.

    We are so scared of the dark. So certain that the power of evil will run amok if we aren’t vigilant against it. But this gets everything backwards. The power of good is far more powerful than the power of evil. Even in scriptures it says that the evil of the fathers will be visited on their sons to the third generation. But the good a man does? That endures through 1000 generations.

    This is why Jesus says not to resist the evil man, but to do good to those who hate you. He’s directing us to take hold of the real power of the universe – goodness, kindness, mercy, grace, compassion, generosity, courage, love.

    So my challenge to you is to stop thinking and talking so much about what’s wrong with people. Turn human stupidity into just a background hum in your life. If you find yourself alarmed by the news, the stupidity, the obnoxiousness of humans doing what they do, stop and tell yourself, “it’s just water. Traffic passing by. Ho hum. More of the same.”

    But what’s beautiful, lovely, breath-taking and inspiring? Look for that. Study that. Talk about it. Share it. And then when the water of human stupidity finds its way into your little world, you will know what to do. You will be so familiar with and shaped by what is good that you can build your own coral reef and make your own beauty.

    Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things. ~ Philippians 4:8

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    Use Your Wandering, Waiting Mind Well

    You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
    You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways. ~ Psalm 139:2-3

    A few days ago, I began this series on developing a vibrant, faith-building prayer life with this simple observation: if you have no real prayer life, you also have no real relationship with God. To that end over the last three days I’ve been sharing my top five tips for prayer that don’t involve the discipline and discomfort of keeping regular quiet time for prayer. (Not that you shouldn’t keep a regular quiet time for prayer. But realistically many of us just aren’t up to it.) Today, I’m going to share my fourth tip which builds on the three prior tips:

    Use Your Wandering, Waiting Mind Well

    Over the years I have found that one of the most effective ways for me to find time for prayer is to spend time with God while doing other things. As busy as we all are, inevitably we find ourselves doing things which don’t require our full attention. It could be standing in line, long car rides, waiting for something to start (or be done), cleaning, gardening, exercise or some other activity which doesn’t allow us to sit quietly and concentrate but does leave our minds free. 

    Personally, I’ve always been a day-dreamer. Other people tend to spend their mental free-time making lists, puzzling over problems, blanking out, thinking about work, worrying about whatever it is they worry about. Whatever your default mental wandering is, most of the ways we spend the mental free time that comes with waiting or engaging in mindless activities aren’t particularly productive. Some of them are downright destructive, in fact. It’s better to at least occasionally use that time to pray rather than worry, plan and daydream.

    How you do this, exactly, is up to you. For me, simply saying, “hey God” and letting my mind wander from there is surprisingly effective. Other people will use their time to repeat a rote prayer. Or maybe bring what you usually spend your time worrying or thinking about and talk with God about it. Or you could use the centering prayer I wrote about yesterday.

    This seems like a very simple idea – almost a “yeah, duh” sort of thing, but the power of this habit shouldn’t be underestimated. There’s a reason creative people frequently value seemingly unproductive activities like taking walks, staring at nature or engaging in mindless activities. The trick of these things is that it’s harder for your brain to keep up the sort of censoring and defensiveness that we’re prone to when it’s distracted by some other activity. Ideas you’d normally shut down or reject or resist without hardly realizing what’s happening have a chance to slip through. When you direct your mind towards God while it is in this mode, it allows you to bring that same power into your prayer life.

    Using your mental free time to pray is also quite powerful because it brings God into the everyday humdrum of your life. And that’s where real relationships are forged. And as we know from many of our other relationships, our most profound, relationship building moments with the people around us don’t usually happen on special occasions. They happen when we’re doing something – or nothing – together.

    If you want to get a teen to open up, talk to them while you’re driving together. If you want to know what’s going on in a man’s life, help him with some yard work or in his workshop. Sitting and having a cup of coffee together is nice, but there is something special which often happens when conversation is happening alongside some other activity. Sometimes its the shared experience of what you’re doing. Sometimes it’s that too-distracted-to-self-censor phenomena.

    Much like with my advice to expand your concept of prayer to include all of life, this habit grounds your relationship with God into the flow of everyday life. It makes it much less likely that your relationship with God will be a formal, forced or distant affair. Instead, it will take on more of the flavor of a relationship with a friend who knows they can drop by anytime and you won’t worry too much that your house is a mess. Or a spouse who thinks nothing of coming in to pee while you’re flossing naked. Real relationships are built through just this sort of transparent, shared everyday life. And that’s just what God wants with us as well.

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    “You Don’t Have to do Anything . . . “

    be-still-just-be-480x360God, what is it you want me to be doing with my life?

    Nothing. You’re fine.

    Isn’t there something I’m supposed to be doing?

    No. You don’t have to do anything. Just do you. It’s fine. 

    Ummmm . . .

    Okaaaay . . . 

    So I don’t need to be doing anything. And you don’t want or need anything from me.

    But I’d kind of like to be doing something for you. Do you have anything I can do?

    Well, just living your life is plenty to be doing. But if you want I’m sure we can find something you can do for me . . .