A test ...

"A test: try living the life of a good person and see how it suits you.

Be the one happy with her fate,

rejoicing in his acts of justice,

and bent on deeds of kindness."

(Marcus Aurelius, 121-180)

I must start ...

After a long and contentious political season it is good to pause for a moment,

take a deep, deep breath

and ponder the things for which we are grateful.

Here is my list today:

1. I am grateful to live in a land that is not torn asunder by war. And every day I must pray for peace for those lands that are being torn asunder. I can start - I must start - today.

2. I am grateful that there is nothing holding me back from doing all I can to reach out to those who feel afraid right now. Nothing. I can start - I must start - today.

3. I am grateful for democracy in all its loud and crazy messiness.

4. I am grateful for the church. Despite her sins and blind spots she has the potential to do so much good. And she can start - she must start - today.

5. I am grateful to live in a country where those who voted differently from one another can have civil conversations in an attempt to understand one another. There is nothing stopping me from doing this. I must reach out, ask questions, listen, learn, explain. It is part of what makes our country good. I can start - I must start - today.

6. I am grateful for the brave women who came before me and fought to give me and my daughters the right to vote and make our voices heard. I am grateful for the brave men and women - black and white - who fought to give my black friends and neighors the right to vote and have their voices heard.

7. I am grateful for Jesus' very clear directions for his followers: Love God. Love neighbor as you love yourself. Stop for the wounded on the side of the road, always. Give away your coat. Give away your shirt. Give away your food. Give away your life - all for the sake of others. Do not hate. Do not murder with your words or your thoughts. Do not give your allegiance to the empire, or to Caesar, or to the powers of this world. Live in the awesome power of humility and servanthood. Never use violence to solve anything. The answer to everything is love and grace. 

8. I am grateful that no matter who any of us voted for we can all begin today to reach across divides, across barriers, across ethnic and religious hurdles, across rivers, across languages, to seek reconciliation and common understanding, to offer a hand of peace and friendship, to lift up the burdened, to find ways to free the oppressed, to seek to welcome the weary refugee (its biblical, friends) and to have compassion for all people in the way that Jesus did and does.

9. I am grateful that nothing is stopping me (or you!) from doing any of these things. I can stop complaining and bemoaning the circumstances of the world around me and I can begin to be the change I long to see.

I can start - I must start - today.

Will you join me?

How can I be helpful?

It is so easy to get confused and distracted on our journey of following Jesus.

We clutter up our path with so many "to do's" that we often end up doing very little except wandering in circles drowning in our own busyness.

This is why I love the straightforward writing of some of the saints.

They speak truth in a way that cuts through the cluttered nature of our modern lives.

Here, for instance, is Teresa of Avila on what really matters:

"When one reaches the highest degree of human maturity,

one has only one question left:

How can I be helpful?"

Take that into your Christmas season as your one and only focus.

See what happens.

Clothe yourselves with compassion ...

I am hard on myself during the holidays.

I am certain there are a multitude of reasons:

stress,

lots of "togetherness,"

the internal and external pressure to pull it all off,

cooking,

cleaning,

shopping...

So this morning before my family starts to gather

I sat quietly in God's presence and asked for wisdom.

This is what came to me -

"Read Colossians 3:12 and apply it to your own self."

This is what Colossians 3:12 says:

"As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved,

clothe yourselves with compassion,

kindness,

humility,

meekness,

and patience."

I have always read this passage as a command to treat others in these ways.

But this morning, I read the passage as a command to treat myself in these ways.

The tenderness I felt God asking me to show my very own self brought tears to my eyes.

This Christmas and New Year I will put on some nice, new clothes...

I will be compassionate to my weary self.

I will be kind when I fail and fumble and mess up.

I will treat myself humbly - "Alice, you are not that big of a deal. Just relax."

I will practice meekness - I don't need to have the first or last word. Perhaps not even any word!!

And I will be patient; so patient with myself. I will recognize that it is ok that I don't have it all together once again. I will try to notice areas of my life where I see progress. And I will be grateful for those areas. And patient and kind and humble and compassionate in those areas where I still struggle. I may be in a hurry, but God rarely is.

My hunch is that the only way I can ever hope to live out Colossians 3:12 toward others

is to first live it out toward myself.

What about you?

Do you need some compassion today?

How about kindness?

Or humility, meekness or patience?

The apostle Paul says "put them on yourself like clothes."

They are the most beautiful holiday outfit ever!

 

Nonjudgmental presence ...

The practice of "nonjudgmental presence" explained beautifully here by Henri Nouwen has changed our family dynamic more than almost any other practice.

Parents of adult children... it is no longer our job to "fix" our children (it never was)...

It is no longer our job to tell our children how to live (it never was)...

It is no longer our job to constantly evaluate our children's lives (it never was)...

It is our job, however, to ponder our grown children's beauty, to love them unconditionally, to be amazed at God working in their lives, to offer them the fullness of our blessing...

What might our lives begin to look like if we simply offered others our nonjudgmental presence?

I dare you to try it... 

Listen to how Nouwen describes it:

"To the degree that we accept that through Christ we ourselves have been reconciled with God we can be messengers of reconciliation for others.

Essential to the work of reconciliation is a nonjudgmental presence.

We are not sent to the world to judge, to condemn, to evaluate, to classify, or to label.

When we walk around as if we have to make up our mind about people and tell them what is wrong with them and how they should change, we will only create more division.

Jesus says it clearly: 'Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge;... do not condemn;... forgive' (Luke 6:36-37).

In a world that constantly asks us to make up our minds about other people, a nonjudgmental presence seems nearly impossible.

But it is one of the most beautiful fruits of a deep spiritual life and will be easily recognized by those who long for reconciliation."

(Henri Nouwen)

Slow Down ...

"These days when I lecture,

I say that the two most radical things we can do in America

are

slow down

and talk to people."

(Mary Pipher, The Shelter of Each Other)

The original fake news ...

"The despair from comparing ourselves with others is the original fake news."

(Mark Rice-Oxley - The Guardian)

A letter of reference from the poor ...

"Jesus' human origins lie in Judaism, and he stood and taught within their prophetic tradition of charity and justice.

Hundreds of years before his birth, the great Jewish prophets had already coined this mantra:

'The quality of your faith will be judged by the quality of justice in the land;

and the quality of justice in the land will be judged by how the weakest and most vulnerable groups in society (widows, orphans and strangers) fared while you were alive.'

Jesus inherited a religious tradition that already emphasized outreach and actions to the poor as a nonnegotiable demand within any true religious practice.

The idea was that our standing with God depended not just on our private prayer and integrity

but also on

how

we 

stand

with

the poor...

In effect, Jesus told us that nobody will get to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.

This, although clear in the Gospels and in the Jewish Scriptures,

is often misunderstood or rejected by many sincere Christians."

(Ronald Rolheiser)

Just enough religion ...

"We have just enough religion to make us hate one another...

but not enough to make us love one another."

(Jonathan Swift)

He belongs to the powerless ...

“Jesus is just as loyal to the suffering of Iraqi and Russian soldiers as he is to the suffering of American and British soldiers.

He grabs all our boundaries away from us, and suddenly we are forced to see that we are a universal people.

Most people do not like that being exposed and shared.

Yes, God is on the side of the pain, and goes wherever the pain is (which is abundantly clear in the Gospels).

We can no longer preempt Jesus for our own group, religion, or country.

People seeking power cannot use him for their private purposes.

He belongs to the powerless.”

(Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation)

We get to feel like God ...

It was a pretty normal week for me.

Some good work - both at home and at church.

Saw some good friends, spent good time with my husband, connected with each of my kids.

Enjoyed that spring was finally having its day in the sun, so to speak.

And I was faced with choices - daily, small, ordinary choices - about how I was going to choose to behave.

Should I ask that person how they are doing, or turn away because I am in a hurry?

Should I take an extra 5 minutes to greet a neighbor, or rush inside?

Should I call that family member or put it off?

Should I write that little note of appreciation or assume my friend knows how I feel?

And I don't know about you, but I often don't choose to do the right thing. I just don't. I take the out. I choose the lazy path. I procrastinate. I make an excuse based on all kinds of things - my personality, my schedule, my "freedom in Christ." You know...

But lately, I've experienced an epiphany of sorts.

When I choose the lazy path, the out, the excuse... I feel small. I feel a sense of disappointment; a sadness that lingers.

But when I choose the act of kindness, the extra moment to express care or concern or simple neighborliness, when I make the phone call, write the note, give the hug, I feel alive, buoyant, joyful. It's like a fresh wind blows through my spirit for a moment.

And I started to wonder - Is this part of what Jesus means when he talks about the abundant life?

I mean, I CAN choose to be petty, small, indifferent, narrow, closed-off. I can. I live by grace, not by law.

But those are not the ways Jesus wants me to live.

However, if I choose, in my freedom, to live in ways Jesus taught me to live, a small breeze of abundance seems to float into my life. 

I stumbled across this idea this winter in Ronald Rolheiser's classic book Sacred Fire. Listen to how he summarizes it:

"When we act like God, we get to feel like God.

Conversely, when we are petty, we get to feel petty.

There is a clear cause and effect here: when we do big-hearted things, we get to feel big-hearted; and when we do small-hearted things, we get to feel small."

This is powerful, life-changing truth, friends.

The abundant life may not be "out there" at all; it may be right here, in our next daily choice.

Make the kind, grace-filled, merciful choice next time... and watch for the breeze of the Spirit to blow.

Jesus came to my door ...

Jesus came to my door last night and I turned him away.

He looked and sounded like a woman who told me she needed money for her kids.

I knew her story was probably not true as she had run it past many others in my neighborhood. 

And so I looked her right in the eye and told her (kindly, of course) that I could not help her.

So, she turned and walked away.

And I woke in the night and realized what an opportunity I had missed.

Not to give her money, because I am pretty confident that money is not what she really needed.

I missed the opportunity to give her a human moment... the chance to be seen behind her story.

And I, too, missed being seen behind the story she probably had in her mind about me - a person in a nice house in a nice neighborhood who might possibly "buy the lie" and give her some cash.

She is so much more than her story.

And so am I.

But instead of finding a connecting place as two human beings, we both bought the lies and missed each other.

And I felt sad...

For what I'd lost.

And for what she'd lost.

Now please, do not write me or text me and tell me that I am a good person. Do not tell me that we shouldn't give to those who beg; that she was probably going to spend money on drugs or alcohol or whatever. Do not tell me I did the right thing by turning her away. These things are irrelevant to me.

What is relevant is that I follow a Jesus who told me he would show up in disguise, when I least expect to see him, as another human being in need... and that I should always be prepared to serve him.

And I missed him.

Instead of dismissing Jesus disguised as a woman, I should have walked outside of my porch and asked her to sit on the stoop with me for a moment and tell me about her real life. Tell me about why she is walking the streets asking strangers for money. Tell me what is making her so desperate. Tell me what she really needs.

If she ever comes back, that is what I will do.

But today, I simply mourn the fact that Jesus came to my door and I turned him away.

You cannot truly listen ...

Here's a thing I have been learning:

"You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time."

(M. Scott Peck)

Charlottesville ...

I am disgusted, deeply saddened and troubled by what transpired in Charlottesville this past weekend.

I am not even sure I have words to describe what rumbled up in my soul as I watched people marching with torches and banners of hatred.

The darkness of spirit,

the ugly, arrogant, stupidity of racism,

the cancer-like spread of hate, all on the move.

And then to watch the leader of our country apparently unable to articulate any kind of appropriate moral response without being goaded to do so...

it made me angry,

beyond frustrated

and profoundly sad.

And to think that - in ANY way - the teachings of Jesus, the teachings of Scripture, the message of Christianity, could be used to perpetuate this kind of racial bigotry... well, this fueled the flame of indignation in my soul to the level of a raging bonfire.

A couple thoughts:

1. This whole episode caused me to ponder our relatively recent family trip to Cape Town, South Africa, where my daughter was studying African History. We saw the dark underbelly of the aftermath of church-generated Apartheid. Slums that stretched out further than our eyes could see, surrounded by wealth on every side; white wealth. What felt like stolen wealth. Wealth now fiercely proteced behind barbed wire and guns and multiple locked gates. This stunningly beautiful country - filled with so much hope, yes - ravaged and rent asunder by racial bigotry and hatred, too often fueled by a mutant strain of religion. To read of it is one thing, to see it quite another.

Lord, have mercy...

2. I thought of my parents, over 50 years ago, during the height of the racial tensions of the late 1960's in this country, bravely moving their family of 5 - the two of them, and three young children - across our racially divided town, into the heart of what was then known as the "black side" of the river. They did this in an effort to show solidarity with their black brothers and sisters as they put their shoulders to the plow of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement. How proud I am of them for taking courageous action in the midst of strife, for throwing typical "white" caution to the wind, and doing what they felt they were called to do -- to move toward those who were suffering discrimination, rather than away. To move toward their neighbors, rather than away. To move toward the pain, rather than away. To move toward the marginalized, rather than away. To move toward solidarity, rather than blissful isolation. To move toward the good fight, rather than away.

Lord, give me this kind of courage...

Those are my thoughts right now. I have no answers, no bow, no tidy little 3-step program to end racism.

I just know I am part of the problem.

But I can also be part of the solution.

And if the leader of our country will not speak what I know to be true, then I guess it is up to us, all of us, to do so.

And so that starts with me.

Lord, have mercy...

Lord, give me courage...

Set a guard over my mouth ...

"Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord;

keep watch over the door of my lips."

So writes King David in Psalm 141.

This is my new prayer as I start each day...

Dear God, please set a guard over my mouth.

Keep watch over the door of my lips. AMEN."

I met with some colleagues a few weeks ago to discuss an upcoming teaching series we are working on at our church.

We talked for 90 minutes and I recorded all of it.

Then I played it back.

And I noted that I had no guard over my mouth...

and that the door of my lips appeared to have no watchman.

Yikes!

I am an interrupter.

I am a finisher-of-sentences.

I am a talk-over-another-person kind of person.

I am a listen-just-so-I-can-respond kind of friend.

I am a how-can-I-turn-this-conversation-back-to-me participant.

I am what some call a "conversational narcissist."

This is a super painful admission, but one that is so, so important to my growth.

And so... this is where God meets me.

In love, 

in grace, yes...

but also in a challenging, demanding way.

Because God loves me too much to leave me in the darkness of my own denial. 

And in his kindness, he also had my dear, dear friend give me a book on listening for my birthday.

(Don't you love God's good persistence?)

And I am reading it, and it is painful and powerful.

I will share my learnings...

But for now, l will simply start with this prayer:

(Might it need to be yours, too?)

Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord;

keep watch over the door of my lips.

AMEN.

Conversational Narcissism ...

I am still thinking a lot about the idea of listening...

I have been especially struck by the concept of "conversational narcissism"

wherein people use conversations, not to listen, but as an excuse to find a way

(ANY WAY!)

to talk about themselves.

Once you become aware of this, it is so easy (and so darn painful) to see it in yourself,

and to see it in others.

It was a sociologist named Charles Derber who first observed this phenomenon.

This is how it is described in one of my favorite blogs:

Conversational narcissism is when "people allow their self obsession to manifest in their conversational practices.

Rather than listening to what the other person has to say and responding accordingly, many people shift the discussion to themselves."

I have been trying to experiment as I listen these days...

I think to myself,

"Put Alice aside..."

"Just listen..."

"Ask questions to understand..."

"Encourage them to tell more of their story..."

"Be curious..."

I mostly fail.

But it feels more and more like this could become a way of listening that has real power.

Next time someone starts talking with you,

listen.

Really, really, really 

listen.

You may be amazed at how amazing another human being actually is.

 

More conversational narcissism ...

"Conversational narcissism is pervasive and rooted in our culture of individualism,

a pattern that leads to self-absorption...

by the use of 'I' statements,

by boasting,

by the tactic of asking questions only in order to demonstrate the questioner's superior knowledge

or to top the other person's story with one's own,

and by continual shifting...

The most frequently used written word in the language is 'the,'

but the most frequently spoken word is 'I.'"

(Tom Shachtman)

Let's talk about me ...

Have you noticed how quickly conversations can turn?

One person shares a thought, experience, emotion, or difficulty with another person...

and that other person, rather than asking a question or digging more deeply into the first person's issue,

simply turns the conversation to himself:

"I know just how you feel..."

"I once had that same experience..."

"I knew a person who once..."

"I have been wondering that same thing..."

"I completely disagree with you..."

"Oh my gosh, that reminds me of something that happened to me last week...

This process actually has a name.

It is called the "shift response."

Charles Derber, the one who initially called out "conversational narcissism,"

provides some critical information on this sneaky little maneuver -

"The subtlety of the shift-response is that it is always based on a connection to the previous subject.

This creates an opening for the respondent to shift the topic to himself... when serving narcissistic ends, shift-reponses are repeated until a clear shift in subject has transpired...

The effectiveness of the shift response as an attention getting device lies partly in the difficulty in distinguishing immediately whether a given response is a sharing one or a narcissistic initiative."

Do you see what Derber is saying here?

In conversation, watch out for your own efforts to shift the topic of the conversation to yourself!

It happens all too often, and is most often driven by our own narcissistic need to become the topic of every conversation we are in.

Ouch, I know!

This happens real subtly... but happen it does. And some of us don't even know we are doing it! We think we are just commiserating with someone by sharing our struggles, or are being interesting by telling them our point of view, or we think it is really quite important to everyone that they know our opinion on all topics!

But watch for this in yourself...

When listening to another person, try to stay with them and their story, their emotions, their circumstances.

Don't try to shift the conversation back to yourself. 

Ask genuine, curious, open-ended questions.

Resist the urge to share your own (even though it might be related) story.

Stop trying to one-up people.

Stop thinking everyone always needs to know your opinion.

Enjoy being mysterious!

No more shift-response!!!

This could change your life...

It is starting to change mine.

A selfish heart ...

"The opposite of a listening heart is not a talking heart but a selfish heart."

(Adam McHugh)

Passive conversational narcissism ...

What, there's more?

More than one way to be narcissistic in our listening?

Yup.

We can actively try to turn conversations to ourselves - this is active conversational narcissism.

But we can also passively refuse to really listen to another human being.

This is how Charles Derber describes it:

"Passive conversational narcissism entails neglect of supportive questions at all discretionary points and extremely sparse use of them throughout conversation.

Listening behavior takes place but it is passive.

There is little attempt to draw others out or assume other forms of active listening.

This creates doubt in the other regarding the interest of their topics or their right to attention.

A second very common minimal use practice involves the … delay of background acknowledgements.

Although weaker than supportive questions, background acknowledgements such as ‘yeah’ or ‘uh huh’ are nonetheless critical cues by which speakers gauge the degree of interest in their topics."

How often does this happen in your life?

A person starts to speak to you, you gauge their importance to you, your level of interest in what they are saying...

and then you ACT like you are listening,

but you refuse to ask them a follow-up question,

you barely look them in the eye,

you don't even nod your head or say 'uh-huh' as a cue to them to keep going.

You THINK you are listening,

you may even congratulate yourself on not shifting the conversation toward yourself,

but in no way do you make the person feel listened to.

In fact, just the opposite happens.

Your lack of interest, response, question-asking or non-verbal approval

causes the person talking with you to conclude you are uninterested,

maybe even that they are uninteresting,

and they move on.

Conversation over!

Now you can check Facebook or Instagram to see what your "real" friends are saying...

Ouch.