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Imaginary friends

Sunday November 23 2014

Imaginary friends

When I was three years old we lived in a neighborhood with very few children, so I created my own friend. My imaginary friend played with me and my Raggedy Andy doll every day. We drank tea together at the little table my parents bought for me. My imaginary friend got me through that year. When I was four and we moved to a new place, I jumped into friendships with real life children.

Characters in well loved novels function like imaginary friends in my life today. After a busy work day, I like nothing better than to curl up with a familiar novel. It feels like being with friends in a non-demanding way. I know what the characters will say and do. I enjoy spending time with them.

I truly believe I don’t use novels as a way to escape from real relationships. When I’m tired, I simply don’t have the energy to meet up with friends, phone them, write them an email or check on Facebook to find out what they’ve been doing. The familiar characters in novels meet some of the same needs that would be met by getting together with a friend.

I was wondering if this was a little bit crazy when I heard some people talking about the television show West Wing.

“Those people are like my friends,” one person said. “I love to play a DVD of the show before I go to bed at night to have a little time with those people.”

Someone else said, “After that show was cancelled, I found I missed spending time with those characters.”

A few weeks later, I was reading A Memoir of Jane Austen, written in 1870 by her nephew, J. E. Austen-Leigh. He writes about some of the favorite characters in the Jane Austen novels, “who have been admitted as familiar guests to the firesides of so many families, and are known there as individually and intimately as if they were living neighbours.”

There’s a lot of black and white thinking about friendships these days, perhaps precipitated by the rise in social networking. I am continually amazed at the polarized views about Facebook that I hear. People seem to view it as all bad or all good. Why can’t we have a more nuanced approach?

The same applies, in a smaller way, to the question of imaginary friends. Some people will probably read the first six paragraphs of this post and decide that I must be wildly neurotic. And they may wonder if I have any real-life friends at all.

If I spent all my free time with familiar characters in novels, I would worry. If I expected all my real-life friendships to mirror the friendships in the TV show Friends or the friendships in novels, I would be treating my friends unfairly. But I don’t. I spend time with familiar characters in novels when I’m too tired to communicate with living human beings. Sometimes I learn things about friendship from novels, which is a nice bonus. And when I’m not reading, I do my best to love my real-life friends as much as I can and as often as I can.

When I did the interviews for my book on friendship, Friending, I heard so many polarized views about friendship today. In the book I have advocated for friendship practices centered on the kind of love described in 1 Corinthians 13, which mirrors the character of Jesus. Whether we’re talking about imaginary friends or Facebook use, our criteria for evaluation ought to be the characteristics of love modeled after Jesus Christ which requires some careful reflection, analysis and prayer. 

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Grace gifts versus guilt-inducing obligations

Monday November 17 2014

Grace gifts versus guilt-inducing obligations

I’ve been speaking and writing about the Sabbath for almost a decade, but I recently had an aha experience about Sabbath keeping in my life and its connection to other spiritual practices.

Much of my speaking and writing flows out of my own Sabbath observance, which is close to its 35 year anniversary. When we were young adults, my husband and I lived in Israel for 18 months. Our apartment was in a Jewish neighborhood in Tel Aviv, so everything was closed on the Sabbath day. Everything. We didn’t have a car, and the busses didn’t run, so it was a day with incredibly few options and a very slow pace.

For the first few months, we chafed at the sense of confinement, but later we relaxed into the rhythm of six days of activity and one day of vastly reduced options. When we returned to Seattle, we decided to adopt a Sabbath pattern of our own. Thirty-five years ago, Christians weren’t talking about the Sabbath at all, so some of our friends thought we were a bit weird.

Some people told us we were legalistic. We were stunned by their comments, because we had experienced the slow pace and reduced options of the Sabbath as a major gift that we wanted to keep on receiving. Sure, the fourth commandment calls for a Sabbath, but we never experienced it as an onerous command. We had learned to receive it as a gift, and we wanted to keep receiving that gift.

My recent aha moment came when I compared Sabbath keeping to having a daily quiet time. In my early years as a Christian, I was taught that a daily quiet time in the specific form of cognitive-based Bible study and intercessory prayer is a non-negotiable, something all Christians have to do. I have often tried to have a daily quiet time in that form, and I have succeeded only intermittently. I have felt a lot of guilt around my quiet time failures.

I think about my grandfather, who grew up in a family with a very rigid Sabbath practice. For his parents, a quiet Sunday Sabbath was non-negotiable, and little boys were forced to sit still for one whole day every week. My grandfather stopped attending church as a young man, and seldom darkened the door of a church for the rest of this life. Far from being a gift, for him the Sabbath was one of the factors that drove him from the church.

Encouragement to have a daily quiet time didn’t drive me from the church, but the guilt associated with my failure to measure up hasn’t done much to nurture my faith. Yet the Sabbath has taught me oceans about God’s grace and love for me. The Sabbath has been a factor in shaping me into a person who loves God, receives good gifts from God and tries to respond in faithful service. The Sabbath has helped me understand that my form of a daily quiet time needs to involve stillness and silence, not serious study of the Bible and not just intercessory prayer.

We call spiritual practices “disciplines” because they require an act of the will and persistent obedience. Yet it seems increasingly clear to me that the necessary discipline and persistence need to be rooted in receiving practices as gifts rather than as obligations.

My questions of the day: what Christian practices in your life feel like a gift? Do you perceive any ways they are shaping you?

(If you'd like to read some articles I've written on the sabbath, click here and scroll two-thirds of the way down the page. You'll find a half dozen articles about the sabbath. Here are links to my Sabbath book and my Sabbath Bible study guide. My book Joy Together has a chapter on communal Sabbath keeping. This post originally appeared on the Thoughtful Christian blog, Gathering Voices. If you'd like to receive an email when I post something on this blog, sign up in the right hand column under "subscribe.")

Words matter

Sunday November 9 2014

Words matter

My husband remembers her as peaceful and serene. I remember her as a contented woman with a cheerful, almost fey, personality. Remembering her makes me smile because being around her was a joy.

Lately I’ve been thinking about this particular woman. We knew her when we were in our thirties. Perhaps I’ve been thinking about her because I’m so concerned about the lack of civility in public discourse today. I wrote about that last week.

Words shape us. Words give us lenses through which we view the world. We need to be so careful with words because of their impact on the us – the one speaking or writing the words – as well as on the hearers or readers.

This woman I’m thinking about was slim and pretty. I always knew there was something a bit odd about the skin on her face, but I never really focused on it because her lovely personality and graceful way of moving overshadowed anything about her skin. After I had known her for several years, I learned that she had been in a car accident when she was about 10. The windshield exploded into her face, and she had hundreds of small scars on her face.

The plastic surgeon told her mother that the most important thing the mother could do was tell her daughter she was pretty. So this mother obeyed the surgeon, and the result was a confident woman who was lovely inside and out, even though she still had tiny scars all over her face.

Words matter. The words that come out of our mouths can indicate what’s going on in our hearts and minds. Jesus is absolutely right when he says, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Sometimes, though, our hearts are in the right place, but we simply don’t speak the words of affirmation or comfort that we’d like to say. Perhaps we’re afraid to sound stupid or vulnerable.

Words help us describe reality, and words shape the way we understand reality. James uses the metaphor of the tongue as a rudder that steers a ship. Sometimes we need to speak up, in a positive or encouraging way, so our own hearts and minds will be steered more profoundly in the direction of love. And we need to speak up, with encouraging and gracious words, in order to describe and even shape the reality of the people God has put around us.

(This post originally appeared on the Thoughtful Christian blog, Gathering Voices. If you'd like to receive an email when I post something on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right hand column of this webpage.)

Of spiders and civility

Saturday November 1 2014

Of spiders and civility

On a crisp, clear morning in early summer, I stepped onto the back porch and saw an odd movement on the railing. I looked closer. Dozens of tiny spiders were swarming on the top surface of the railing, emerging from one of the fuzzy spider egg sacks that had been attached to the railing all winter. One by one the baby spiders threw up a circle of silk an inch or two in diameter, and the soft breeze carried them away.

I was transfixed. I had heard that baby spiders dispersed from their egg sack in this manner, but I had never seen it. I heard a step behind me and thought that my teenage son, who had been eating breakfast in the kitchen, might be joining me. I turned, planning to draw his attention to this miraculous event, but all I could see was his back, heading inside. I didn’t want to miss a moment of action, so I turned back to the baby spiders, watching with awe as, one by one, they flew away.

I heard my son’s step again, then the hiss of an aerosol spray. In his hand was a can of Raid, which I didn’t even know we owned, and he was spraying the baby spiders. I yelled “Stop!” and he did, but not before a good number of the cute little spiders had been killed.

To me, the birth and dispersion of those baby spiders was a miracle of nature, something amazing and awesome to be appreciated and savored. To my son, those baby spiders were a threat, a nuisance, and something to be destroyed. How could two people, I wondered, interpret the same event so differently? And not just any two people, but a mother and son, who had spend endless hours together talking about all sorts of significant topics. A son to whom this mother had tried to communicate her values and priorities.

I still shake my head about that morning. I have continued to have moments like that with people who are close to me, times when I am incredulous about another person’s perspective. I can hear God’s voice to me when I reflect on that incident with my son and when I think about other people who baffle me. I know God is calling me to treat other people with respect and civility, even when I totally, completely cannot comprehend their motives, actions or perspectives.

Jesus is unequivocal in his call to refrain from judgment, to embrace peacemaking and to love even the people who are hard to love. Several years ago Sojourners came up with a Peace and Civility Pledge, annotated with scripture references, which may be a place to start. In this time of increasingly polarized political discourse and inflammatory divisive speech, I continue to remind myself of God’s call to me to view others – even those I disagree with or can’t understand – with respect and even love. I find this to be shockingly difficult.

So here’s my question of the day: What helps you view others with respect and love, and listen to them with respect and honor, even when you disagree with them or can’t understand them?

(Here's an article I wrote about coping with some of the inner noise that so often rises inside us when we listen to someone we disagree with. This blog post originally appeared on the Thoughtful Christian blog, Gathering Voices. If you'd like to get an email when I post something on this blog, sign up in the right hand column of this web page under "subscribe".)

What is compassion like when you haven't experienced what the other person is experiencing?

Thursday October 23 2014

What is compassion like when you haven't experienced what the other person is experiencing?

A friend of mine, who I’ll call Jane, had a rough year. Just over a year ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and the past 12 months were filled from beginning to end with surgery, chemo and radiation. She felt horrible most of the year, the degree of horribleness rising and falling with the treatments, but week in and week out she was dealing with very low energy and discouragement.

I felt a lot of compassion for her and was able to give her fairly consistent support because I know what it’s like to feel awful for long periods of time. I’ve had four major diseases, two of them lasting for many months. I’ve never had cancer, so I haven’t experienced chemo or radiation, but I do know that discouraging state of feeling awful for a seemingly endless period of time.

Jane’s husband, who I’ll call John, told me this week that he is aware that he didn’t do a good job supporting Jane last year. I’m not sure if he’s right about that, but he said he just doesn’t know what it’s like to feel bad for very long, so he had trouble entering into her state of mind. John is energetic, enthusiastic and physically fit. He told me that when he occasionally wakes up with a headache, he takes a painkiller and feels fine within an hour. He gets colds and flu, but they seldom last longer than a day or two. The longest illness he can remember is mononucleosis, which he contracted in high school, and he was sick for a week!

My conversation with John got me thinking about compassion. Jesus models it in a great number of his encounters with individuals: the leper, the woman at the well, and the woman caught in adultery, to name only a few. Paul also models compassion and endorses it as characteristic of relationships that build healthy communal life (Philippians 1:8, 2:1, Colossians 3:12). Compassion seems to be a component of the kind of love that is commended for Christians throughout the New Testament, and compassion plays a role in the kind of justice advocated in the Hebrew Scriptures. 

The roots of the word “compassion,” from the Latin, are “with” and “emotion.” In Jane’s case, compassion came easily to me because I could easily remember feeling in similar ways to what Jane was experiencing.

Have I ever experienced or expressed compassion for someone who was feeling something I haven’t experienced or imagined experiencing? I’m not sure. I am sure that carefully listening plays an important role in compassion in any circumstance. Attentive listening enables us to hear the specifics of the other person’s situation, which may not be as similar to our own as we imagine it to be or which may be totally different from anything we’ve ever imagined.

My question for the day: what helps you listen to others in a way that nurtures compassion, especially when you've never experienced anything similar to what the other person is experiencing?

(This post originally appeared on the Thoughtful Christian blog, Gathering Voices. If you’d like to get an email alert when I post something on this blog, you can sign up in the right hand column under “subscribe.”)

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