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First post in a new series: The friendship skills of asking, giving and thanking

Friday June 22 2018

First post in a new series: The friendship skills of asking, giving and thanking

Daniel, in his sixties, was raised with notion that men are supposed to be independent and strong, able to meet their own needs. He jokes that the Simon and Garfunkel song, “I am a rock, I am in island” summarizes the philosophy of manhood he learned as a child. In his childhood, the stoicism encouraged for men spilled over to all of his family life. Even his mother was afraid to acknowledge weaknesses or needs. The shame of needing someone’s help was very strong.

People have told Daniel that asking others for help can be a way to build intimacy. He has found it difficult to act on that idea, but he has tried. He can see that the extreme self-reliance of his parents wasn’t good for them or for their children because it resulted in isolation and alienation from neighbors and family members.

Daniel volunteers with an international student ministry at the local university. The small group of students decided they would like to hold a retreat over spring break. As Daniel was praying about the possibility of holding a retreat, he remembered that a couple he knew from his church had a holiday cottage. He wondered if perhaps they might be willing to loan the cottage to the student group for the retreat.

He didn’t know the couple well, but he got up the courage to ask about the cottage. They were enthusiastic about the idea, and asked Daniel and his wife to meet them at the cottage for lunch a couple of weeks later.

The lunch was fun, and Daniel got a good preview of the cottage so he could begin to make plans for the retreat. As the retreat drew nearer, Daniel consulted with the couple about some of the plans for the retreat, and afterwards Daniel was able to share with them some of the good things that happened. All those conversations about the retreat drew Daniel closer to the couple, and after the retreat was over, Daniel realized he knew them much better. Asking for help had indeed increased intimacy and set him on a path toward friendship with that couple.

Friends ask for all sorts of things: help with physical projects, a listening ear when times are tough, prayer support in the midst of challenges, companionship in activities, a few moments to brainstorm possible solutions to a problem, and many other things. The give and take of asking and receiving is an integral part of friendship.

Why is asking so hard for so many people? I have observed that the most isolated people often have a hard time asking for help.

Daniel’s story illustrates the impact of the “rock and island” philosophy of being a man. “What’s wrong with you that you can’t figure it out on your own?” These words float around in Daniel’s head when he considers asking for help. The pride of being self sufficient is a strong motivator for many men, and it influences many women as well.

In fact, Daniel’s mother experienced as much, if not more, shame than Daniel’s father when she had needs. She found it excruciatingly difficult to ask for help or acknowledge a weakness. She experienced a major health crisis without telling her family members. When they found out about it many years later, they were stunned that she had not been able ask for support and encouragement in the midst of a medical challenge that could not possibly have been considered to be her fault. She died a lonely, isolated woman. Her inability to acknowledge her need for help played a significant role in her isolation.

Pride in self sufficiency and shame in asking for help are two major forces that make it difficult to admit we have needs. In addition, we may fear that our friends are too busy to help or have too many struggles of their own. We don’t want to impose on people who are already stretched. We don’t want to be a burden.

(Next week: Giving, asking, noticing and thanking. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

This post is excerpted from my book, Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World. To learn about what the book covers, look here. I have several boxes of the book and I am hoping to sell them at low cost to people to use in groups. Every chapter ends with discussion questions, and numerous groups have used the book and told me it generated great discussion.

Here are prices for the United States, including postage:
     5 copies - $25
     10 copies - $40
     15 copies - $55
     20 copies - $70
Contact me at my email LMBaab[at]aol.com if you’d like to order books, or if you’d like to get prices for New Zealand, which are sadly much higher because overseas postage is so much.

Contrasts: Engaging in spiritual practices because of grace or guilt

Thursday June 14 2018

Contrasts: Engaging in spiritual practices because of grace or guilt

I’ve been speaking and writing about the Sabbath for more than 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 about spiritual practices flows out of my own Sabbath observance. The Sabbath taught me how spiritual practices work: we know God loves us, so we set up structures in our lives to draw near to this God of abundant blessings.

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, more than 35 years ago, we decided to adopt a Sabbath pattern of our own. At that time, 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 with two specific components –  cognitive-based Bible study and intercessory prayer – is a non-negotiable, something all Christians have to do. As a young adult, I often tried to have a daily quiet time in that form, and I 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 my grandfather as an active little boy was 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 (although I don't use that name for it) needs to involve stillness and silence, many forms of prayer in addition to intercessory prayer, and meditation on the Bible rather than cognitive study.

We call spiritual practices “disciplines” because they require an act of the will and persistent obedience. Yet it seems increasingly clear to me that this 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?

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

Some resources about the Sabbath:

articles I've written about the Sabbath       
my Sabbath book              
my Sabbath Bible study guide                    
my book Joy Together has a chapter on communal Sabbath keeping

Contrasts: Guests and hosts

Saturday June 9 2018

Contrasts: Guests and hosts

Two people meet a stranger on a road. As they walk together, the stranger gives them a new perspective on the Hebrew Scriptures. When they arrive at their home, they invite the stranger in for a meal.

At the meal, the stranger picks up bread, breaks it and hands it to the other two. In that moment, the stranger is revealed to be Jesus.

In the Road to Emmaus story (Luke 24:13-35), a guest at the meal – a stranger – briefly becomes the host, the Lord Jesus Christ. People who write and teach about hospitality call this the guest-host shift, and this shift changes the power dynamics in hospitality interactions.

Mother Teresa brought this shift to the world’s attention when she talked about meeting Jesus in the poor, sick and dying to whom she ministered. I can remember, back in the 1990s, feeling befuddled the first time I heard someone quote Mother Teresa about this. Meeting Jesus in someone we are helping seemed like such a strange idea. When we help people in need, aren’t we – the helpers – the ones who are acting like Jesus and representing him? How can the opposite be true?

Later, in the early 2000s when Christians began writing about the theological significance of hospitality, Mother Teresa’s ideas began to make more sense to me. I began to see the connections with Matthew 25. In verses 31 to 34, Jesus describes a scene where the Son of Man separates people into two categories, and the ones who are placed at Jesus’ right hand hear these words:

 “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (verses 34-36).

The people at Jesus’ right hand ask when they gave food, drink or a welcome to him. Jesus replies: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (verse 40).

When we host people in our homes for meals or extend a welcome of any kind to another person, we can expect that we might meet Jesus in that person. And if we are meeting Jesus in someone else, then that person in effect becomes the host because Jesus is the King and Lord of all.

Why does this matter? Extending care to another person has the tendency to promote the carer to a position of prominence. After all, we often say, “It’s better to give than to receive.” If I’m doing the giving, caring or welcoming, then I’m the generous one. I’m the one whose life is together enough that I have the resources to extend a helping hand. I’m not needy or vulnerable or weak. Look at me, I’m strong! Look at how wonderful I am!

Jesus turns this upside down. The person receiving care gives to the one who appears to be strong. In fact, the person receiving care takes the form of Jesus, revealing unexpected truth.

This Jesus, a man of humility, calls us to be humble in the same way. He calls us to watch for the ways he is revealed to us through unexpected people.

A prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, give us hospitable hearts. Help us to convey a warm welcome to people in all the settings of our lives. As we try to love people and as we receive love from others, help us to be open to the shift from host to guest, and also from guest to host. You are our model and the One who empowers us. Amen.

(Illustration by Dave Baab: buskers at the Dunedin Farmer's Market. If you'd like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right hand column.)

Previous posts on hospitality:             
          Hospitality and listening                                                                
          Benedictine spirituality: hospitality, service and work