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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.”)

Two little coins: the God of very small things

Tuesday October 14 2014

Two little coins: the God of very small things

On one memorable night in high school, I watched a world record being set for the 100 yard backstroke. The swimmer, Kaye Hall, went on to be an Olympic gold medalist. When I saw her on TV during the Olympics, it was fun to remember that night that I watched her swim in person.

The event took place in a high school swimming pool in Tacoma, Washington, in the context of a high school boys swim meet. The warm-up was my first clue that something amazing was about to happen. Most of the high school boys were swimming freestyle laps to warm up for their events. Kaye Hall was on her back, warming up her backstroke kick, and she was moving through the water about half again as fast as the boys.

I’ll never forget that sight. Using only her legs, she was powering her body through the water much, much faster than the boys, sliding past everyone in the surrounding lanes. Backstroke with arms is generally not as fast as freestyle, yet she was so strong and so well trained that she could do a backstroke kick, passing freestylers using their arms and legs.

We sat through some of the typical events of a high school swim meet, and then it was Kaye’s turn. She swam 100 yards of backstroke all alone in the pool, and when she finished, the announcer said that a new world record had been set.

Recently, I've been thinking about that night. To see such excellence was a privilege. But I wonder how those boys in the lanes next to hers felt as they warmed up. I also wonder how they felt when they swam their races that night. Did think their races were silly and meaningless, because they weren’t Olympic class? Because they weren’t setting world records?

I believe that one of the most significant spiritual practices in daily life is to offer to God what we are, what we have and what we can do. Sometimes we are reluctant to act because we feel what we have to contribute is so small. Not Olympic class. Not remarkable. Just ordinary.

In an odd little incident in Mark 12:41-44, Jesus pointed out a woman to his disciples. She was putting two small coins into the treasury at the temple. Jesus knew she was giving a lot; her gift represented more than the sums the wealthy people gave. She gave “everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Perhaps, on that night in a high school swimming pool in Tacoma, one of those high school boys performed even more heroically than Kaye Hall. Perhaps one of those boys was even more courageous than Kaye as he swam his race. I’ll never know. But I do know that my job each day is to offer what I have to God, even if it feels pitifully small and insignificant.

(This post originally appears on the Thoughtful Christian's Gathering Voices blog. If you'd like to receive an email update when I post something on this blog, sign up in the right hand column where it says "subscribe.")

Two options for what to do when the news overwhelms you

Thursday October 9 2014

Two options for what to do when the news overwhelms you

I've decided to fast for a while from national and international news. I don't view this as a long-term plan, because I'm committed to knowing what's going on in the world so I can pray. But for right now, I'm going to see what 1-2 months without news feels like. In the past few months I've been feeling increasingly overwhelmed and demoralized by the news: Syria, Iraq, Hong Kong, Ebola, the abducted girls in Nigeria and on and on.

The last time I felt this way, I took a different path, and I wrote about it in a blog post right after the tsunami in Japan in 2011. I'm going to re-post what I wrote, even though some of the specifics are out of date, because my response in 2011 is another good option. Re-reading this post is a bit of a time tunnel, and it shows how the deeply disturbing events at one stage get a bit lost with the passing of time.

Here's what I wrote in March 2011: A LOT is going on in the world these days. The earthquake in Christchurch and the earthquake and tsunami in Japan with the attendant nuclear fears. The brand new war – or is it just “air strikes”? – in Libya. Agitation for democracy in numerous other countries. Elections, wars, unrest, flooding and environmental disasters elsewhere. 

How can we summon up the enthusiasm to pray for yet one more huge and pressing need? How can we pray wisely?

I got some advice 25 years ago that I think I need to resurrect now. In the mid 1980s I was engaged in a steep learning curve about Christian relief and development ministries around the world. Someone told me to learn as much as I could, but with respect to financial contributions and prayer, to narrow my focus. Many times, I have passed that same advice onto others: Pick one country or part of a country to pray for and contribute to. Or pick one kind of ministry – wells, microcredit, education, medical, etc. – on which to focus your contributions and prayers. Don’t feel you have to care passionately about everything, because you simply can’t. Trying to care about too much results in compassion fatigue, which leads to caring about nothing.

I wonder if that isn’t good advice right now. I was praying frequently and passionately for the people of Christchurch until the events in Japan and Libya came along. Now I find I’m not praying for any of them very often because I am frankly overwhelmed at the needs.

This morning I learned about a colleague in Christchurch, the minister of an inner city congregation. I had spoken to her some months ago, and she told me that after the earthquake six months ago, her building was so severely damaged that the congregation was facing difficult decisions about the future of that building. She described how stressful it was.

This morning I found out that she can’t get into her office at the church, because the building is in the zone of the city that is still not accessible after the recent quake. In addition, her home was so severely damaged by the recent quake that she can’t live there. Mercifully, she has access to her home, so she can get stuff out. However, the things she need in her church office continue to be completely inaccessible.

Maybe I need to pray for her and her congregation, and trust that God is raising up other people to pray for Japan and Libya and all the other hot spots that are in the news. It would be better for me to pray for her and her congregation than not to pray at all, and I am humbled to realize how frozen I’ve been in the past couple of weeks as I’ve tried to pray and then stopped right away. I’ve been so overwhelmed I haven’t known where to start.

If you've been feeling overwhelmed or frozen like I have, what one situation might God be calling you to pray for?

(This post originally appeared on the Gathering Voices blog, sponsored by the Thoughtful Christian. If you'd like to get email alerts when I post something here on my blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right hand column.)

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