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.

 

what the flowers told me: on beauty in pain

You belong, among the wildflowers.
— Tom Petty

Living in Scotland, one gets used to gray skies and rainy mornings. On the cusp of adulthood, I discovered there that I was a closet introvert. I tend to live with everything I’ve got thrown out in the sun, engaged from head to toe. The Latin roots of extrovert explain the word suggests one who is turning outward, and I spent the first half of my 40 years doing exactly that. I constantly turned outward, to adventure, to relationships, to thrilling fun. I laughed hard and lived loud.

Then came the rains of Scotland. Walking often alone in Edinburgh, I discovered I liked the quiet. I loved to think and read and eat alone. Gray rainy days gave me the gift of my self. Nature has a way of teaching us how to be in the world, if we will only pay attention. 20 years later, my blood pressure drops a few notches when the rain comes. Rainy days wash forgiveness over us, giving all an excuse for being late, a reason to cancel plans, a lowering of expectations. Rain reminds me that enough is okay, that accomplishing less might be more enjoyable, that we should all just slow down.

For a productivity addict, the calming effect of rain provides a necessary pause. The rain reminds me there are lessons to be had if only I will pay attention. It remind us that the way we live is not the way we must, that our patterns might not define us. We withdraw, we hide away, we indulge, we rage, we distract ourselves, we pretend like we are fearless. When the pain of life delivers us at the end of ourselves though, those coping skills often seem inadequate. As the rain of Scotland exposed the beauty of turning inward and slowing down, I find myself looking again to the natural world for advice on how to survive the times that hurt and try us.

Yesterday I spent a lovely morning with a dear friend in a field of wildflowers. She is a pursuer of beauty, a chaser of wonder, and it is good to be in her presence whether I am happy or sad. As we drove through small towns, past barns and rolling fields, we began to learn the lessons Mother Nature offered up. Here are a few:

Consider the sunflower. Big, bright and beautiful, she is iconic. The deep brown center, the flaming bright petals, she stands tall with a stern stem. Today I observed her, and noticed the sunflower seems so sturdy, but those yellow petals are quite frail. The stem is thick, straight as a backbone, the brown center large and open, but the leaves, which provide the color for which the plant is known, are rather tiny. We love sunflowers for the brilliant contrast of the yellow and brown, for the large center, so stable, so open. I tend to minimize my frail parts, wanting to hide my fragility from the world. But the sunflower is the sunflower because we see the frail parts, because that flash of yellow is such a gift around the orb of brown. The sunflower teaches us to turn ourselves toward those who give us life, exposing our fragility and trusting others to call it beautiful. Could we learn to know we need to face the sun, that we must turn inward or outward toward those people and practices that give us life? Could we learn to bring our full selves, stable or fragile, toward the light, toward that which will carry and comfort us? Is it possible that our hurting, broken places are actually the most lovely? That our weak parts are made beautiful when seen alongside our strength? The sunflower has much to say if we will listen.

As we walked through the fields we also saw butterflies, fireflies and bees. Everywhere fluttering and buzzing, reminding us of the grace of rest, the freedom of flight and the necessity of nourishment. Ubiquitous, I found such pleasure in watching them dance. I saw there a beautiful reminder that perhaps the best path is not a path at all. Fully existing in a moment might require us to flit about, finding nourishment or rest wherever it is provided, unsure from where it will come. Don’t stop the journey because the rest ahead is unclear. Fly anyway, enjoying a reprieve whenever it appears. Perhaps the best paths meander.

Amidst the gorgeous bright sunflowers were also wildflowers of every shade. They were wild and bushy, mostly messy green with small pops of color. Lovely all the same though. Step back and survey the mess of life, looking for the precious color within. Might we trust that in every disaster there are moments of peace, that in every mess that is fleeting beauty? Some of the sunflowers looked like they were dying, but their burnished leaves added such depth to the sea of gold. Look for beauty in the dying, in the mess. No heart can bear only bad all the time. Allow yourself the gift of beauty if you stumble upon such wonder.

Buried beneath the flowers, we learned, would soon be tulip bulbs. Burrowed deep for the winter months, they will break through the ground in the spring, bursts of color growing toward the sun. In the beautiful wonder of our created world, cycles of life abound. God created this world to live and thrive and decay and die, only to nurture and grow new life. I am learning to face each death I encounter, knowing that in God’s baffling and cyclical economy, some gift is being deposited for the new life to come.

The natural world is a wild and lovely place. It is helpful, when the path ahead feels riddled with the traps of pain and despair, to remember that we were made to live as observers and partakers of the world around us. There are gifts of comfort and lessons of wisdom hidden within the plants and bees and rain and sun. Although we live our lives in a line, we grow in cycles large and small, as grace and pain somehow work together to teach us how to pay attention.

The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first; Be not discouraged - keep on - there are divine things, well envelop’d; I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.   
— Walt Whitman