I want that! (No, I don't...)

Sunday mornings, for parents who also go to church, can be the worst. These mornings often involve grumpy children, yelling parents, and breaking speed limits. Exacerbating the delays, the tension, the meanness, is often a subtle despair that Sunday mornings should not be like this!! On the way to church, for goodness’ sakes!

And yet, things are often not like they ought to be. My family’s Sunday tradition involves getting donuts on the way to church. Yes, it unfortunately means having to leave earlier, but yes, it also means no breakfast making is required, so it’s a win overall. A few years ago my kids were on the trampoline, in pjs, wrestling, on Sunday morning. I, using my I’m-an-amazing-mom-gently-reminding-you-that-we-need-to-leave-soon voice, calmly yelled out the back door that if they wanted donuts we had to leave in ten. 

“We do! We do want donuts!”  Wrestle-mania continued.

Three minutes went by. Still wrestling.

“Hey savage ones! If you want donuts get in here and get dressed!”

“We do! We do want donuts!” More Bouncing. More wrestling.

Three more minutes went by.

“You have lost your everloving minds if you think I’m getting you donuts if we are not pulling out of this driveway in 3 minutes. “  Less gentle. Less amazing.

“We do! We do want donuts!”

“Really? Cause I can’t tell AT ALL. You say you want donuts but you are doing NONE OF THE THINGS REQUIRED to get donuts. At some point you have to move your bodies toward your closets if you actually, in fact, want donuts. You can’t just keep saying it while performing pile drivers on each other.”

And just like that, 4 little bodies tumbled out of the netting, onto the grass, up to their closets, and into the car. Donuts received, along with tardy slips from Jesus.

As we slide into 2019, there are lessons here for us. Like children—especially when it’s resolution time—we wholeheartedly claim to want things we have no intention of pursuing. The kids adamantly asserted their desire for pastries, but really they just wanted to play. Last week I suggested we do the self-reflection required to tell the truth in the new year. If we want to share meaningfully engaged lives with others, we must work to stop our subtle practice of defending ourselves, seeing only our best intentions, and revising history to make ourselves seem noble in every encounter.

Extending that thought, it is helpful to recognize that we often say we want certain realities in our lives without taking steps to realize them. Some examples are easy:

We say we want to be healthy, but we like Doritos more than running.

We say we want a good night’s sleep, but we drink too much or watch TV late into the night.

We say we want to be less busy, or to have less distracted kids, but we overcommit everyone we care for without blinking an eye.

We want to be people who read, but we pick up a book and then pick up an iphone…and then an hour disappears.

For the next few weeks I’d like to slow the tape for us, offering time to think about how we talk about the things we hope for.  Approaching middle age, it is easy to imagine one day looking back on a few decades of failed attainment. I never got the rhythm of rest and work down. I never got my kids to put their phones down. I never got the whole family dinner made at home thing to work. I never had the relationships I wanted with my neighbors.

My fear is that this narrative of failure is coming for all of us, and rather than understanding how we got here, we will revise history to make ourselves seem disciplined and intentional, while painting our dreams as idealistic or impossible. In other words, we will easily assume we all live in a circle of failure because it is too hard to be the people we hope to be. We tried, and repeated for years that we hoped for X. Since X never happened, it must be that X is impossible.

Our tendency to assume our unrealized hopes are impossible is another way we lie to ourselves. For instance, I talk and teach a LOT about neighboring. This is a clunky word, but it conveys the idea that we want to care well for the people we know. We literally want to be good neighbors to our neighbors. We want to be people and have people to call in a pinch. We want to share meals and watch babies and walk dogs. Nevertheless, for many of us, we say we want this while we actively chose our own agendas at the expense of those very relationships.

 For years, I said I wanted to be a good neighbor. However. When a knock came at an inopportune time, or when a never-ending chat in the yard made dinner late, or when being outside somehow beckoned a visit, or when a big party landed cars in my space or noise in my ears, I got annoyed. Without realizing it, I longed for friends-like-family neighbors while actively avoiding such relationships. The truth is that I only wanted amazing neighbors when I needed a favor, or on the one night a year when communal grilling and cocktailing seemed like all I ever wanted in life. I said I wanted to be a good neighbor while sort of hating all the things neighboring requires.

Alas, our capacity for hypocrisy is enormous. We will spend a few weeks here examining the dreams to which we aspire. For now, pay attention to the oft-repeated hopes of your frustrated soul and then examine the ways you approach or fail to approach those hopes. I suspect our problem is not that our dreams are out of reach, but that we fail to understand all that they require. Do not abuse the dream because you lack the stamina to realize it.

Happy New Year. Stop Lying!

A few years ago I decided to stop lying as a New Year’s resolution. This seemed like a reasonably positive development in my growth as a human. I would not have identified as a chronic misleader, or as a person with a strained relationship with the truth; I was certainly not pathological. My resolution was not an attempt to correct some deep character flaw unique to me. Rather, it felt like a worthy goal—and maybe a necessary one if I wanted to enjoy meaningful relationships—to raise my awareness of how I think and speak. I hoped to pay full attention to the way I characterized my actions in order to do the hard work of fully owning my junk.

 When I told others about my plan to stop lying, many laughed, intrigued, but some were appalled. They seemed to be mostly bothered by the implication I left floating out in the air: If I had resolved to stop lying then I was suggesting to others that I had a big problem with lying. They wanted to protect my reputation from me, and urged me to stop describing my resolution in a way that reflected so poorly on me.

In this way, they missed the point entirely. I resolved, in fact, to stop protecting my reputation. It is exactly the urge to protect ourselves that causes us to edit out our mistakes, misgivings, selfishness, and failings. It is our need to appear good that incentivizes us to not look too closely at our selves. I realized I had a tendency to revise my life in real time in a way that helped me seem awesome, with little regard for others. When I openly shared I planned to confront said tendency, some people lost respect for me, a fact that strikes me as absurd.

More than absurd though, such a reaction confirmed for me that most of us are wholly unwilling to even admit all the ways we subtly choose our own narratives over the narratives of others. Put another way, most of us are pretty good at critiquing others, but we often view ourselves sympathetically. The term myside bias sums this up nicely: we are more likely to truthfully and critically evaluate the arguments of others than we are our own. When it comes to self-reflection, it is difficult to see clearly. Indeed, we often even lie to ourselves, and we have to stop if we want to enjoy lasting community with others.

I have often shared my conviction that defensiveness destroys the possibility of meaningful relationships. In a very real way my commitment to stop lying was less about my own integrity and more about my desire to collaboratively create meaning with those around me. Driven by a need to defend ourselves, we cut off the possibility of discovering truth in community. On the other hand, what if we could learn a new way to be that makes self-defense an odd waste of time? What if we disciplined ourselves in such a way that overcame myside bias by actively inviting others to help us in the work of reflection?

Today, as 2019 begins, I’d like to offer self-honesty as a way to make room for meaningful relationships in our lives. For me, as we’ve just discussed, this work begins with a commitment to stop lying. It then quickly requires me to correct these mistakes, to confess and make amends every time I notice my need to revise history in a way that defends or favors me. My hope is that this personal work will impact our communities in transformative ways.

In the Holy Scriptures that record the life of Christ, there is a story of a man sent before the Messiah to prepare the way for the Lord. His job was to get people ready for the Savior who would bring Good News to poor and broken people. He did this in a few ways: First, he realized that the status quo was to live in a way that protected and defended the self at the expense of others. He instinctively knew this way of being in the world was incompatible with embracing the Messiah, so he rejected a lot of society and lived counter culturally. Next, he was crystal clear about his own weakness. He caused a stir everywhere he went, but he continually stated he was not the main event. He helped people realize they could be honest about their own disappointments and even failings because a Savior was coming to rescue them. Finally, and this is my favorite part, he loved to call out people so committed to their own lies about themselves that they could no longer see the impact of their selfishness on the people around them. He called them snakes sometimes, which feels a bit harsh. But he followed that up with this amazing suggestion: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”

Long story short, this man, John, who lived his life trying to help people get ready for a Messiah who came to create a community of honest people who thrived in their need for each other, knew that self-honesty always led to apologizing and forgiveness, and that doing that kind of self-work always produced fruit. The fruit of honesty is the ability to belong to a community. To be a part of a large and messy we. To stop trying to be right, or well-defended, or exceptional, or deserving. The fruit of repentance is an ever-expanding sense of “us.”

To be a person who fully owns her mess miraculously makes me a person safe for the mess of others.

In 2019, let’s stop lying. Let’s stop revising history to make us look good. Let’s be people willing to see our flaws, to name them, to repent of them, and then to enjoy the fruit John talked about. To enjoy each other, because we have lifted our eyes away from our own reflection long enough to see the beauty in those around us. Happy New Year.

 

speaking up (even around turkeys)

I am an infuriating parent (Yes, I am sometimes also infuriated, but that’s a discussion for another day). I find phrases that apply to multiple situations, that might hold true over decades, and then I repeat them ad nauseum until my children want to file for emancipation. When they were in the early stages of language acquisition, I heard parents absentmindedly remind their whining children to “use your words.” I understand where this phrase is coming from, and what it is supposed to accomplish. I’m not a fan.

Despite the fact that I don’t tell my kids to use their words, we have to teach children to articulate their perception of their needs, wants and opinions. In our house we use, “speak up.” I say it to them when they are 2 and can’t get the right sounds out, when they are 5 and whining, when they are 9 and punching someone, and when they are 15 and moodily brooding. “Speak up,” I say! Articulate how you feel and what you need. It is crucial in relationships to speak up when you feel uncomfortable, wounded or treated badly.

I suppose we learn to use our words, but many adults don’t know how to speak up. Some of us don’t feel worthy, or are uncomfortable with discomfort, or struggle to find the right words at the right time. There is another reason though. Increasingly, our cultural norms teach us to stay quiet. Norms can be subtle, hard to acknowledge or even recognize, but they hold great power. Lately I have observed the power of norms to help people betray their own stated values. In the cultural context of Nashville, we are taught it is bad manners to disagree. It is rude to argue publicly. It is “getting political” to express concern over dehumanizing policies or speech from an elected official. For many Christians, it is “losing sight of Jesus” to speak up against oppression. It is causing trouble to defend a peer when they are treated unfairly.

Instead, we are taught to stay loyal, even through silent support. Stay loyal to the power in charge, loyal to your tribe, loyal to the status quo. We are primarily committed to our hive, not our convictions. We easily get the two confused, and our cultural norms reinforce the idea that speaking up is not a good idea. I understand these impulses, but as a person trying to imitate the convictions and habits of Jesus, I can’t follow them.

The life of Jesus, as recorded in the Biblical text, is a tale of speaking up. When he publicly announced he was the Messiah, Jesus claimed that he was the One the prophets spoke about. In the early days of the Kingdom of Israel, and later of Judah, the people had a king, but God also gave them a prophet. Prophets spoke up. They reminded the people they had a loving God, and they reminded them God cared about how they treated each other. They challenged kings who led with corrupt power or who led the people to care more about idols than about doing justice and loving mercy. Jesus indeed came to fulfill those prophecies, preaching good news to the poor, and challenging news to the powerful. Over and over he spoke up to defend the vulnerable, to challenge the greedy, to address brokenness. He enraged people with his willingness to rock the boat. He was murdered for speaking up.

And yet, I see the community of folks calling themselves Christians around me rejecting that life altogether. I hear pastors warning against those who speak up, as if they are an example of those who have lost sight of the Gospel. I see the discomfort at lunch if a person utters concern about the policies or bigotry of a “Christian politician.” If the hive says support that person, then an individual in the hive better not speak up in a way that might undermine them, even as an act of faithful obedience to the teaching of Christ. Having lost the will, and atrophied our ability to speak up, we keep our heads down and remain silent when the people who represent us behave and speak badly.

I recently heard about an elementary school in Tennessee where the kids are celebrating Thanksgiving with costumes and a play. The handout told parents their kids could choose to be an Indian or a Pilgrim, and should dress as such. In addition to using a word to describe American First Peoples that they themselves have described as offensive, the assignment contained no suggestion of intercultural awareness, humility or curiosity. I understand why a parent wouldn’t want to speak up. No one wants to be “that parent.” A parent might not feel like they know enough about history to speak up, or might not have time to get involved. What if you did though? What if we could speak up in a way that created new possibilities and offered a way forward for the teacher?

I know one parent who felt uncomfortable but did not speak up. Another taught me how to imagine speaking up in this context. She read the assignment and then asked if she could meet with the teacher. She spoke up with solutions, not accusations, with honesty, not blame. It went something like, “When I read the assignment I was very excited the kids get to celebrate this holiday. I was sad when I saw the word Indians instead of Native Americans. I think this simple change teaches our kids culturally competent language, and helps all kids feel welcome in our classroom. I wanted to offer a few ideas on how we could honor the legacy of First Peoples that we celebrate at Thanksgiving, since our history together is much more complicated than a shared harvest meal. I also totally understand that it might be too late to change for this year, and if we can’t I wanted to let you know I’ll keep my daughter home that day. I want her to understand that pilgrims learned a lot from Native people, and they also abused their trust and treated them badly. With a little tweaking this lesson could teach us to celebrate our good moments and learn from our mistakes.” This is a lot! I get it. But our kids and their teachers deserve parents willing to speak up to improve learning. Remaining silent in this instance teaches a class full of kids false history and to use a word hurtful to other Americans. When is the dignity of other people worth risking your comfort and capitol for? In what situation would you be willing to speak up?

Speaking up is seen as a threat to the status quo because it is a threat to the status quo! Importantly, speaking up does not have to be denouncing. It can be an invitation to reflect, to align one’s actions and behaviors, to be a part of a larger community. Speaking up can start a conversation that never ends where we share the work of making meaning together. Speaking up can inform, creating space for curiosity and examination. This week if you find yourself sharing a large table with a group of people from various hives, can you find courage to speak up when hurtful words are spoken? This Thanksgiving, instead of stuffing down your wounds or discomfort, try to speak up, and see where the conversations leads.