Sunday, June 28, 2009

Assuming Truth

"Are you calling me a liar?"  I looked at the person who spoke those words to me, and was stung--not by the words so much as by what I had just said.  It was something to the  effect of "I don't believe you."  By saying that, I was indeed calling that person a liar.  The starting point for me in that conversation was, "I'm suspicious of you; I'm distrustful of your words."  Essentially, I was receiving what was said with a, "prove to me that you are telling the truth" stance.

Yet many years ago, I learned a basic communication principle:  assume that the person with whom you are speaking is telling the truth.  This is the absolute foundation for conversation that leads to healthy openness and closer relationship.  Assume truth, not lie. Believe the best about the other person, not the worst.  

Many of us find this challenging, mostly because we ourselves don't always speak truth well.  Because of that, it is a pretty easy leap to think that others may also fudge the truth a bit or even skate over into outright lie.  More, everyone has at some time or another experienced the stab of betrayal by the apparent lies or mistruths coming from unfaithful friends, spouses, relatives, bosses, clergy, and loved ones.  

So, assuming that the other speaks the truth demands careful intentionality in conversation.  It means receiving statements from others as true even when we want to yell out, "Liar!"  

Why should we do this?  Think about it.  Who would you prefer to be around:  someone who believes what you say is true or someone who asks you to prove every statement?  Most of us really do prefer that others receive our words as truthful. Angood place to start is by treating the words of others as truthful.

But we all know it is just not that simple.  It is especially so when we work from a history of deception or sense of feeling tangled in a web of lies.  We don't want to be foolishly naive, yet approaching conversation with distrust rarely leads to a good outcome.  

Here are a few suggestions:  First let us all speak with love for God, and with respect for ourselves and for others.  We do best if we start by treating everyone else in the ways we want to be treated. 

Second, be trustworthy in your our own speech.  Let us get to know ourselves so well that we speak out of our inner reservoirs of truth and confidence.  We need to know own minds and take responsibility for what it in there.  This means saying what we think, not what we think is in someone else's mind.  It means being honest about our abilities to trust.  It means discovering what it will take in order for us to trust again when we have experienced dishonesty and betrayal.  It may mean that conversation will have to be at a minimum until we decide that we will trust again.

Third, as we are willing be held accountable for what we say, we have the privilege of asking others to be accountable as well.  When others have been caught in deception and outright lies, we do right by asking for clarification on those statements and seeing we if can find out why they might be true to them.  There is often a deeper truth behind deception, a fear that speaking truth will lead to being beat up or castigated in some way.  Go beyond the surface and  see to find the motives of the heart.  

I wish this were an easy process.  But frankly, I find little about living as a faithful Christian to be easy.  I do, however, find it rewarding and exhilarating and full of joy and happiness.  That's worth a bit of effort.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

An Ode to Air Conditioning

The air is hot and so am I.  Work in the yard and garden is restricted now to just the earliest hours of the morning, and even then, I come in drenched with sweat.  Like most other people, I'm keeping the temperature in the house much higher than I have before, but the compressor still seems to run most of the time anyway.

At least it is comfortable.  I know what it is like to live in this area without air conditioning.  When my folks first moved to Texas, they rented a large house near downtown Dallas for a couple of years.  The house was quite old, and built to help deal with the extreme heat.  Deep porches and awnings over the windows kept the sun's rays off the interior windows.  Windows themselves opened easily and were situated to maximize any possible breezes.  Deciduous trees were strategically planted to provide the best shade in summer and the most sun in winter.  An upstairs screened-in porch provided some nighttime relief for sleep.  Smaller rooms could be closed off from one another, so when we did finally break down and purchase a window air conditioning unit, we could keep at least one section comfortable.  Even with all this, the house was just pretty darn miserable for the summer months. 

I don't know who invented air conditioning, but I surely am grateful to that person and to all who have improved the temperature control systems over the years.  Without those systems, this city and many others in the deep south would have stayed quite small. 

Discomfort is a great motivator for creative minds to get to work and come up with ways to relieve it.  I often hear of people speaking of "comfort zones" in a negative or disparaging way, as though there is something wrong with comfort itself.  I think comfort is very much like money--there is nothing intrinsically wrong with either.  It is only when money and/or comfort become the object of our worship and the center of our affections that they become problematic.  As the Bible says, "the LOVE of money is the root of all evil."  Not money--money itself is necessary for many things.  It's the love of it, it is the making of it the center of our lives that causes problems.  Same with comfort--by all means, let us seek to be comfortable.  Let us enjoy our comfortable settings, comfortable rituals, comfortable patterns, comfortable relationships.  They only become wrong when comfort becomes more important than giving honor to God and living in right relationship with each other.

As I muse a little more on my comfort, I am forced to confront the fact that there are some who have little.  Some do not have air conditioning in their homes, or can't pay for the electricity in order to run those the units they do have.  This looks like a hot summer coming up.  People will die from unrelieved heat, especially the vulnerable elderly.  I wonder if all the comfortable ones would consider making a daily check on the ones that they know that may not be as comfortable.  Do you have an elderly neighbor?  Friend who might be in such financial straits that they can't afford to cool their living spaces?  Why not give them a call, make sure they are OK, invite them to spend the night or find some cool daytime relief at your place?  A little move out of your own comfort zone might save a life.  Just something to ponder as we seek first the kingdom of God, knowing that in so doing, all things are added to us.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Tired of Being a Pastor

I am very tired today of being a pastor, even as much as I love this church.  I'm weary.  I'm tired of people refusing to talk with me, and hearing about things being said about me and my pastoral leadership only after the fact.  "Did you know such and such is leaving?"  "Do you know about all the controversy and unhappiness?"  Well, no, I didn't.  Sorry.

I came to this church three years ago, and found a lovely community of people with dashed hopes stuck in the most unworkable church building I had ever seen.  I came and did what I was told to do:  get the building built.  With my type of entrepreneurial personality, with my love of the impossible challenge, with my passion for spreading the news of the Good News of Jesus Christ, it was a good fit.

And so we did it.  Unbelievable hard work, extraordinarily sacrificial giving, countless volunteer hours, a spectacular building committee, all undergirded by prayer and the leading of the Spirit of God:  we did it. 

In the midst of doing this hard work, the incredible people of this church have created new ministries, found new ways to reach out to their neighbors, new ways to care powerfully for one another.  Our membership has grown by 25%, our ministries have grown with a far larger percentage than that.  So many more children finding out about Jesus through these good people.  Our elderly and shut-ins are getting more care and attention than ever.  Almost daily right now, someone says, "I've got an idea for another ministry."  And I say, "It sounds like you are hearing the voice of God.  Go for it!"

Now, I am still who I was when I came here, although I'm older and deeply weary.  I still have the entrepreneurial personality, I still love the impossible challenge, and my passion for spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ centers and drives my life as it has since I was twenty years old.  But now . . . I keep getting this sense that they got what they needed from me, and suddenly I'm supposed to morph into a passive little pastor who spends her time making sure everyone is comfortable and unchallenged.  I'm sure this is a stretch, but I admit it, I'm hurting and hurting badly.  Wounds bleed today.

For weeks now, I've been working 13 hour workdays.  I collapse into a muddled heap when I get home.  People say, "you need more time off."  Yes, and then I'm supposed to ignore those who contact me with urgent health or life and death issues?  With crumbling marriages who need just a bit of time and help to see their next steps?  With dreams for expanding Kingdom work and deserve support and guidance?  My writing ministry is gaining significant attention, and bringing in more people who then offer their services and gifts for the growth not only of this church but of the whole God-with-us world of grace.  I should stop this?  As for preaching weekly . . . how many would really like the responsibility of preparing a creative message week after week after week seeking to interpret ancient literature into modern understanding in a way that fully engages people of wildly mixed ages, interests and educational backgrounds?  And then, remember, the number one fear of most people is that of public speaking.  But I do this multiple times a week.  I'm not immune to that fear any more than anyone else is.

Does anyone understand this?  Can anyone recognize how very hard it is to be up in front, utterly vulnerable to constant criticism, to have every word, every action held up for scrutiny, to have every decision questioned?  To have people really say, "You just work two hours a week."  It is easy to say, "But you choose this work."  And I answer, "this work chose me."  However, right at this moment, I fully understand why the ministry of Jesus lasted only three years, why the crucifixion happened by then.  I just hope I can leave this pity part and find the resurrection as Jesus did. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Sadness and Separation

I recently accompanied a friend to the Denton County Courthouse.  When we entered the courtroom, a trial was taking place.  The judge called for a 15 minute recess, warning the defense lawyer that he might want to make sure his client understood her fifth amendment rights before taking the stand.  During the recess, four divorces were finalized.  Four women, each with an attorney to make sure all was done legally, saw the end of something that had been entered with hopes of romance, togetherness, joyful companionship, and shared goals and dreams.  Somewhere along the line, those dreams shattered.  The fractures in the relationships were no longer repairable.  There is no such thing as an effective relational glue when one or both parties continues to violate vows made at the time of marriage.

Divorce--the very word brings sadness.  Something that was once united by mutual commitment divides into two usually warring parts.  The ramifications of divorce rarely stop in the judge's courtroom, especially if there are children.

For a long time, the church has stigmatized divorce.  This stigmatization springs from passages in the Bible that seem to forbid it absolutely. Goodness knows, no one wants divorce.  But even God found divorce necessary at one point. In Jeremiah 3:6-11, a disturbingly graphic portion of the Bible speaks of the faithlessness of the nation of Israel, and God's choice to divorce the nation, to separate from such a place.  As sad as divorce is, there periodically comes a time when the relationship itself is more evil than the sorrow of divorce.

This week the news headlines spoke of a young mother who had phoned the police, insisting that her baby daughter had been abducted.  It turns out that her boyfriend, father of the child now growing in her womb, probably killed the young girl and disposed of her body in Lake Lewisville.  The mother says she was terrified of him and went along with the scheme because she didn't want to be hurt.  Such a statement makes it clear:  sometimes relationships have crossed over the line into evil, and must end. 

When relationships are maintained with violence or threats of violence--and keep in mind that violence takes many forms, only a few of which are physical--then evil becomes the relational glue.  I speak out of my own hard experience here.  I remember only too well a phone call I received when the news of my divorce many years ago became public.  This person, whom I had trusted as a spiritual leader, called me "an evil and unrepentant woman."  The violence had been hidden too well.  Since I was the one who finally said, "no more," and initiated the proceedings, I was the one who, in the eyes of the church, was technically at fault. 

The evil one--very much stigmatized.  As I write, the memories of much horror comes sweeping over me again.  To stay would have made me a good church woman.  A dead one, more than likely, but a good one nonetheless.  To leave, to choose life over death, to believe that God could still love me with this mark upon me, took an enormous amount of courage. 

We all carry scars of living in this challenging world upon us.  We are not called to live unscarred or untouched lives.  We are called to work out our salvation in the midst of our trials, and to find in our scars the hope of redemption, the promise of life both now and everlasting.  To all who have endured the most searing and devastating of broken relationships, the divorce, I remind you:  you are still beloved children of God.  Do not let anyone tell you something different.  When you find life on the other side of death, you have simply followed Jesus through the crucifixion into the resurrection.  Thanks be to God.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Put Them to Work

The latest fashion among child rearing experts is to bemoan the lack of free, unscheduled time among children and adolescents.  Time to daydream, create, come up with their own games, set their own rules, work out their own relational problems.  Yes, those things are important . . . but I was pondering the purpose of the break from school this summer and thinking perhaps we need to take a different lesson from history.

Summer breaks were originally scheduled in the school year when the primary means of support was the family farm.  All farmers and gardeners know that there are times when the workload is nearly non-stop if the crops are to be properly sown and properly harvested and stored.  In an agrarian society, therefore, all hands were needed at certain times, including those of children of all ages.  Breaks from school were scheduled NOT to give the children and youth any downtime, but precisely because they were needed to work, and work very, very hard.  It was hard work or starve the following winter.

If school breaks were actually designed to give relaxation, they should be scheduled at the times of the year when relaxation is most likely.  Here in Texas, we should be having longer breaks during October and April/May when the weather tends to be the most beautiful and all can be outside playing and creating and day-dreaming.  Instead, we have them in the worst of outside weather, leading to either overly bored children, forced inside by the heat, or overly frantic children and parents, leaping from one activity to another, straining both peace and pocketbook.

I think we should just put all the children and youth back to work.  Turn their summers into long, grueling work days, done without pay and for the corporate good.  Then they'd realize what a privilege it is to be able to go to school, to learn, to better themselves, to find preparation for productive adulthood.

It's time to put them to work, building community gardens, helping the aged and infirm, the older youth pitching in to care for their younger brothers and sisters and for other children in the neighborhoods.  They could mow lawns, keep the city parks clean, do simple repairs, get together, sing and play musical instruments and take their music to nursing homes, run errands for the homebound, and hundreds of other things that may not keep their bodies from starving over the winter, but might keep their souls and minds from starving over the summer.

Just a thought.  

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Dogs, according to dog whisperer Cesar Milan, live fully in the present.  There is no past or future for them.  So, whatever happens happens right at that moment, without regard for future consequences, and, apparently, without learning much from the past.

Now, I have two dogs--a yellow lab, Jake, and a golden retriever, Lacey.  They were rescue dogs, found running across a highway near Roanoke by a couple of friends of my husband's.  These dog lovers picked them up, took them to an emergency vet and discovered that the animals had microchips implanted with their owner's information.  When the owner was contacted, he refused to take them back, citing his frustration at their wanderlust.  He had chased after them one too many times and was washing his hands of them.

We ended up with these beautiful, friendly, well-behaved, and, it appears, remarkably unrepentant (I'm trying not to use the word "stupid" here) animals a few weeks later.  It didn't take long before we discovered what their former owner knew all too well:  if there is a way to escape the backyard, they will find it, and off they go.  Once they leave, they have no idea how to get back--so the chase is on.  They've been picked up by animal control more than once.  I've managed to find them just before they got picked up several other times.

Now, if I'm visible, even a wide-open gate will not tempt them to leave.  As long as they can see me, they feel safe and at home.  I've established myself as their alpha in the pack, and they follow me everywhere, not letting me out of their sight.  But should I disappear . . . I just took a deep breath here because I know only too well what happens.  A couple of days ago, I was getting a tool out of the garden shed when a gust of wind blew the door shut, enclosing me in there.  By the time I found what I needed and emerged, maybe one minute later, Jake and Lacey were long gone.  It didn't matter that I'd been working outside for several hours with that gate wide open, because they had been able to see me that whole time.  For them, living completely in the present, out of sight means out of mind. 

I'm just not sure that we humans are all that different.  We also quickly run off when we lose our awareness of the presence of a Holy God.  We can forget about God as easily as Jake and Lacey forget about me.  Out of sight, out of mind. I wonder if God gets as frustrated with us as I do with those dogs. We run off, happily sure that we can find our way back when we want to, and completely unaware that the chances of our getting badly hurt or lost forever are very, very high.

We are not dogs, however.  We can take steps to ensure a greater awareness that our "alpha," that is, God, is present.  By going to church weekly, finding opportunities to serve others, disciplining our minds and souls into the awareness that we are not alone, but are part of the interconnectedness of the entire created world, held together by the power and love of our Creator God, we can discover our own safe place.  Sounds like a good idea to me.

And, by the way, should you see Jake and Lacey running around, just call them to you--they'll happily come.  And then call me:  214-418-9541.  I'll be out looking for them anyway.