How a Lab Coat Can Get You Through Thanksgiving, and Other Tips

tab-li-papamarko-thanksgivingjpg-jpg-size-custom-crop-866x650

It feels very arrogant of me to offer tips on talking with others who typically annoy or frustrate you.  How do I know what it’s like to talk with your sister-in-law who treats you like the dirt on her shoe?  I’ve never sat next to your father when he is pontificating, with food in his mouth no less.  True.  But I have picked up a few clues along the way, and if they are helpful to you, maybe you will not be so anxious the next time a holiday rolls around.

With that caveat, I propose a few approaches.

Curiosity has become a very important word for me.  Instead of entering a strained conversation with defenses and arguments at the ready, adopt the position of an interviewer.  On the few occasions when I could muster enough objectivity to ask them, questions like these have turned the conversation in a more positive direction:  This issue seems really important to you.  What is at stake, do you think?  When did you first realize that this mattered to you?  Who or what helps you understand this issue better?

The ability to ask these kinds of questions requires a lot of self-awareness.  When you get upset at someone’s remarks, what is happening in your body?  Where do you get tense?  If you are able, try to take a few slow, deep breaths to soften that part of your body.  You don’t have to keep listening to the annoying babble; you can direct your attention to your own reaction and helping yourself stay calm.  If you are able, you can ask yourself what it is about this exchange that makes you anxious.  That will tell you something about yourself that you probably need to recognize.

One of the problems we have with family members is the memory of past difficulties.  It is very hard to leave old hurts behind and forgive.  (For you this might seem impossible; for example, I cannot imagine how excruciating it must be to sit in the presence of someone who has abused you.  Secrets burn inside and make you feel desperate.  For such things, a few tips cannot help you resolve the problems; you need to get help to deal with all of this pain.)

For those whose memories are not as damaging but are just irritating, you might take on a stance of compassion.  Try to see the other person as not just a representative of a political party or religious group or race or economic status or sexual identity.  Instead, think of him/her as a fellow human being with a story, a history of experiences you have not shared.  If it helps, picture him/her as a child, vulnerable and playful.  Or recall a memory of a touching moment, or when you shared a laugh together.  Remember that the anger/frustration you feel will pass, and you will be able to love your family again if you choose. turkey-lab-coat

Here’s a tricky one: let them have the last word.  Sounds crazy, I know.  But face it, you will never convince them of your position, or get them to see the holes in their own.  You just won’t.  So just sit there and let them expound without responding.  Look at your watch and see how long it takes to say every single thing they want to say, with only an “interesting…” thrown in occasionally if you can’t remain silent.  Imagine yourself in a lab coat testing your theories about opinion-sharing.  If that fails and you actually get into an argument with them, letting them have the last word means they have to deal with the terrible things they said lingering in the air instead of justifying their bad behavior because of the way you reacted.  It really does work, sometimes.

If nothing else, you could try humor.  I love the ideas a counselor once shared with me.  He suggests taking the ideas in the room to the extreme and poking fun at them.  If you think Uncle Bill seems like a misogynist (and you are a woman), wear a fake moustache and ask them if it makes him feel more comfortable.  Not a good idea?  Hmm, then you might use the method from a recent episode of my new favorite sit-com, Speechless, “T-H-A, Thanksgiving.”  The family was dreading the prospect of spending the day with Dad’s annoying brother, wife, and son (and “Joan,” not sure who she was).  They decided to make a game of counting their guests’ annoying habits, awarding a prize for the most “humble brags,” catch-phrases, etc.  Of course the story ended happily with some revelations about the family’s underlying burdens and everybody singing Kum-Ba-Yah, but you get the idea.

None of these works for you?  Maybe you can take a cue from one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott.  Her simple creed: “Breathe.  Pray.  Be kind.  Stop grabbing.”  Or you can follow Sofi Papamarko’s handy tips for avoiding awkward moments.  And then cut yourself some slack for being human, and move on.  They’re family, and hopefully someday soon you will be able to laugh—or cry—with them again.

The Gift of Listening

This was originally written for the Spencer Daily Reporter to be published on Friday, November 25. 

conv_table

Are you a good listener?  Think of a recent conversation that had some substance to it.  Did you interrupt the other person?  Were you preoccupied with waiting for them to finish so you could say what you wanted to say?  Then you probably have some work to do on your listening skills.  If you focused on them and asked questions to help them express their ideas, you are probably a good listener.

Last week I attended a lecture at Drake University by Krista Tippett.  She is a journalist and radio/podcast host who interviews people about their understandings of faith and spirituality.  Her guests are theologians, scientists, business leaders, artists, authors, poets, all of whom have made it their life’s work to explore the connections among humans and with the natural world.  Near the beginning of each interview on her program “On Being,” she asks the guest about his or her story of faith in childhood.  The stories are fascinating.

Tippett’s appearance was well-timed, because she called for civil, more gracious discourse among ourselves.  If recent years of increasing negative rhetoric in the public square didn’t show us that we have to find a better way of being together, the presidential campaign did.  Tippett says, “we are starved, and ready, for fresh language to approach each other.” (from her book, Becoming Wise)  She quotes poet Elizabeth Alexander, who simply asks, “are we not of interest to each other?”

Last Saturday Pope Francis spoke in a ceremony to elevate 17 new cardinals at St. Peter’s Basilica.  He diagnosed the root of the anger that is seething around the world right now.  “In God’s heart there are no enemies…God has only sons and daughters,” he proclaimed.  He said that our gut reaction is to “discredit or curse,” even to “demonize” those whom we view as opponents so we can justify dismissing them along with their ideas.  He reminds us that God’s unconditional love “is the true prerequisite for the conversion of our pitiful hearts that tend to judge, divide, oppose, and condemn.”

We are a society of sound bites, busy schedules, and internet trolls.  I believe that we all yearn instead to know one another more deeply, and to be known.  This is an aspect of being made in the image of God (Gen 1.27).  We are wired to connect with each other, to love and be loved.  When asked what is the most important ethic for our lives, Jesus said that loving God with all of our being and loving one another as ourselves is at the core of authentic human life.  (Matt 22.37-39)

Our fast-paced lives are dominated by busy schedules and information that overwhelm us and leave us little time for meaningful relationships.  Yet it is those relationships that give us life.  We look forward to holidays and birthday celebrations with family, or Friday night beer with a best friend, slices of time in which we enjoy our relationships.  I’ll wager that lying in bed with your child and talking in the dark feeds both of your souls.  Yet we have come to see these as breaks from the norm instead of normality itself.

This need for loving relationships is at the essence of Jesus’ teaching and the pattern of the life he modeled.  He took time to listen to people who lived on the margins.  He told stories about the reign of God, which is focused on people instead of possessions or institutions.  He entered our story, the Word of God come to us as a person who cared and blessed and challenged and forgave us.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” Jesus said.  Those who listen well practice meekness, and they will indeed inherit the earth.  They see people as they are, as companions on a journey that is by turns difficult and delightful, so they recognize and enjoy the riches of life together.

In this holiday season, we can connect with others in meaningful ways, or we can focus on the trappings and keep family and friends at a distance.  It is our choice whether to busy ourselves with unrealistic expectations, or to keep things more simple and enjoy the people around us.  I suggest that a lasting gift you can give to yourself and to those you love this Christmas will be to listen more deeply than before.

In tomorrow’s post, I will list some practical ways to navigate your holiday conversations.  How to look forward to seeing Uncle Bill instead of dreading his political diatribes?  Well, maybe you won’t be able to go that far, but you can approach him with less anxiety.  It’s a start!  Stay tuned.  

What Flows Through

water-pipe

This post was originally written for The Luke Society‘s blog, anticipating a global audience of  their Christian ministry directors doing medicine among the poorest of the poor in their countries.  

We experienced something remarkable in the United States last week.  There was deep disagreement about which of the candidates should be allowed to take the presidential helm for four years.  Much anxiety led up to the election that resulted in a win for Donald Trump.  In aftermath, many people are grieving.  I do not hear much victory talk from the other side.  It is very unusual for the “winners” to be as subdued as they are.  They do not feel proud of their candidate.

What impresses me is that such a large portion of the populace is paying attention to something seldom discussed in the public arena: our ways of being.  A lot of the talk before the election was not about political policies and platforms.  It focused on the candidates’ way of being.  We were disturbed by the ways that they talked about each other, and stories of how they have treated people in the past.  We want to look up to our leaders, not cringe at their behavior.

“The deepest way in which we are right or wrong is in our way of being toward others.”[i]  How often have we commented on someone’s leadership skills, noting that we do not take issue with their stance but rather with the way in which they push it on others and defend it.

In the absence of other viable choices, many people said that they were voting for their candidates’ policies, not their character.  How sad.  I suspect that the great anxiety surrounding their campaigns brought out the worst, not the best, in the nominees.  They allowed their hearts to be overtaken by the quest for power.

I find hope in the reactions of many of my fellow citizens.  They recognize that this is not how we are meant to conduct ourselves.  Many have expressed a desire to be more united, more compassionate, more understanding of each other.  I like to think that this arises from the imago dei within every person.

I accepted an invitation to gather at the home of a passionate young woman whose preferred candidate lost in the primary elections.  She and her friends are disillusioned about the future of our society.  They needed to grieve together.  As we talked about the divisiveness in our land, I made a plea for us to strive for loving relationships, to see others as persons and not merely objects representing a stance we cannot abide.  The young man seated next to me said that he realizes he needs to do this, but he has no idea how to begin.  I sensed a yearning for good teachers to show him how to do this.

Jesus Christ our Savior is our beloved, wise, teacher.  “Blessed are the pure in heart,” he said.  Pure hearts do not hold onto resentment.  They are soft, malleable, often broken.  They are open hearts, intent on listening and understanding.  They are hearts at peace, for they have been washed and made new by the One who loves them without condition.  They contain hope, love, and joy.

Many make the mistake of thinking that such hearts are too soft, sentimental, weak.  What they have yet to learn is that pure hearts are strong and enduring.  They are not easily invaded by threats of danger.  They persist in expanding and embracing the other even when the risk of injury seems obvious.

Hearts that are pure continuously flow with God’s love that cleanses them, enlivens them, and washes into the hearts of the neighbors they serve.  In this case I am not imagining purity of substance, but of form.  Think of a conduit that is straight and true, completely clean so as not to impede that which flows through it.  Because it is pure, the force of love is not slowed by it, clearing away any detritus that might otherwise linger from secret sin or tainted memory.  Such a heart has great capacity.  It needs not reserve any of the love that courses through it, as the flow itself gives life to the vessel.

A pure heart will not get you elected to public office in my country, I’m afraid.  It is regarded as a sign of weakness.  Yet it was a pure heart that hung on the cross and in so doing, changed the world.    Indeed, pure hearts change the world today.  God is using the pure-hearted vessels of his people everywhere to give life and offer hope in every corner.

I must not leave Jesus’ observation incomplete: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”  Yes, they will.  They will see what God sees, and respond with love.  They will see “the least of these” and know that Jesus’ face is hidden there.  Their way of being will be the way of love, and it will call forth the image of God in others.  Thanks be to God for showing us the way of being pure-hearted in a hard-hearted world.

[i] (Author not given) The Anatomy of Peace, 2015. (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers), p. 59.

Terror and Promise

 

word-war-ii-trench

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”  (Luke 21:5-6)

“Isn’t it perfect?  I wish it could always stay this way.”  How many times have you felt that, said it out loud?  A golden moment with family gathered, everyone getting along, or at least keeping the peace.  The leadership team enjoying synergy, on a roll with ministry that seems to be making a difference.  Your house/life/marriage is finally in good repair, everything humming along smoothly.

Peter said it on the mountain when Jesus was transfigured:  Let’s just camp out here!  (Lk 9.33) Who wouldn’t want to stay where the kingdom seems to have settled into place all around you?

“Well, don’t get too attached.  It won’t last forever.”  (Lk 21.6, my paraphrase)  Jesus doesn’t say it to be mean.  He simply reminds them of what he has been saying all along, that the things of this world do not last.

It is hard to know whether he is talking about the temple system—religion they know it—or whether he is talking more globally.  Either way, he tells them that it is going to get a lot worse than they can imagine.  They can barely picture the temple being destroyed—unthinkable!—but Jesus says that isn’t the half of it.  The threats will come from everywhere: natural disasters, war, strange sightings in the heavens, persecutions.

But his predictions include a curious caution:  Don’t listen to the people who make predictions.  Isn’t that what you just did, Jesus?  In one breath you tell us that the future looks bleak, and in the next breath you order us to disregard such negative talk.  You can’t have it both ways.

Perhaps the key to this puzzle is in their question: How will we know when it is coming?  They want a heads-up, so they can get ready for it.  This business of preparing for the worst seems to be what Jesus is telling them to avoid.  He reinforces it when he says, “make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance” (Lk 20.14) when you are arrested and called to testify.  “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” (Lk 20.15)

So, terrible things are coming, and here is how I want you to be ready for it, Jesus tells his followers.  Don’t be led astray by people who want to help you get prepared.  They might even claim to be me, but they will be lying to you.  Don’t prepare your arguments.  Make up your mind that your position throughout all of it will be to trust me.

Do not be surprised by disaster or hate or violence.  Be unfazed when you are singled out as one of my followers, because I will not abandon you.

There he goes again.  Jesus reassures us in a way that nobody else can.  “My peace I give you,” he tells them before all hell breaks loose and he is crucified.  (Jn 14.27)

Whether it is the biblical warning of persecutions to come (today’s reality for so many of our brothers and sisters in the global church) or the erosion of trust in our political leaders or the rising tides of terrorism and internal strife, there is plenty to keep us awake at night.  We want to find a safe place to dwell, but it is elusive.  We are even unsettled by controversy in our modern day temples, our churches.  Only one thing remains: Jesus’ promise.  “I will be with you.”

What difference does that make in all these things?  For one thing, he will give us “words and a wisdom” that will defy contradiction.  He will help us see it in a way that will ground us, and help us respond without panicking.  He knows ahead of time what will eventually take place, and he will personally escort us through even the worst of it.  He promises that by trusting him to help us withstand the onslaught, we will experience the life that is truly life.  (Lk 21.19)

Sometimes we wish our circumstances could remain the same, like those golden moments with family, like our confidence during a robust economy, like the disciples admiring that beautiful Temple in Jerusalem whose stones were not yet overturned.  Other times we wish they would change. We pray for it, beg for God to do something.  Some of the terrifying events Jesus predicted would come to pass in the lifetime of his disciples.  Today, for some people, the outcome of the 2016 election feels awful.  Whatever your source of anxiety, personal or global, your prayer might be, “God, please do something!  Make it better!”

Jesus’ promise is that God will not abandon us in such times.  God’s presence is as complete and profound, as life-giving and enduring as God has ever been or ever will be in our lives.  We do not get more of God at some times, and less of God at other times.  God is fully present with you; Jesus is with you; always, always, always.  God is our refuge, the psalmist says, “our very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea…” (Ps 46.1-2)  And the writer of Hebrews: “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.  What can anyone do to me?” (Heb 13.6)

In November we honor our veterans, who know more than anyone what it is to go through sheer terror, to be forever changed by the horrors of war.  I know little of my father’s experiences in the infantry during World War II, because he never talked about them.  But I can read the poem he jotted down, a testament to his faith that Jesus Christ was with him in the trenches as they fought their way through France.  It is dated December 28, 1944.  I quote it not for patriotism’s sake, as much as that means to us.  Loyalty to our country is important, but it will not save us.  Only Jesus Christ can do that, and he does it every moment of our lives, in good times and bad.  Here is an excerpt of John Janssen’s testimony:

“Amidst this conflict we ever finddad

Our comfort, our strength, our guide

One who will never leave us behind

And be ever present at our side.

 

In prayer we bow our heads to say,

“Dear God, Lead us safely on,

Safely on the upward way,

Till life’s battles shall all be won.”

 

“I will be with you.”  Jesus knew that these are the words we would need.  Matthew records them as Jesus’ last words to his disciples.  “I will be with you always,” until the curtain is drawn at the last moment of this age.  Thanks be to God.