Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Key to Happiness

"Consider your own call, brothers and sisters:  not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.  He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus ... in order that, as it is written, 'Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.'"  --  1 Corinthians 1:18-31

A couple of weeks ago I was leading a Mission Camp for young teens.  It was a fun week of outreach into the community and learning centered around the theme "The Key to Happiness."   The kids learned that the key to happiness is sharing our hearts, and our gifts, to bless the lives of those around us.  I learned a few things, as well:  (1) my unconditional acceptance of and interest in the kids helped them learn this lesson; (2) the busier we were, the better -- especially for the young boys; and (3) many of these kids do not know how uniquely gifted they are.  That last point, especially, got me to thinking...

Henri Nouwen tells us in "Life of the Beloved" that we are all the beloved of God.  But claiming that is sometimes difficult, especially "in a world filled with voices that shout: 'You are no good; you are ugly; you are worthless; you are despicable, you are nobody -- unless you can demonstrate the opposite.'" (pg. 31)  Now, I can't imagine anyone ever saying these specific things to anyone aloud, but I do understand that we are much better at recognizing a person's faults than their attributes.  And I also understand that we remember criticism much more easily than we remember praise.  So it shouldn't have surprised me so much that many of these kids found it challenging to think of three things they liked about themselves.  But it did.  They could think of things they liked to do (sports, engineering, travel), but not what they liked about themselves, or thought they were good at. 

When I discovered this, midway through the week, I wondered if there was a way for the kids to see things differently.  How could they realize how much God loves them and why?  Nouwen writes that "we have to dare to reclaim the truth that we are God's chosen ones, even when our world does not choose us."  And he suggests thanking people who remind you of your chosenness.  "Gratitude is the most fruitful way of deepening your consciousness that you are not an 'accident' but a divine choice."  (pgs 57-59)  This fit in well with our tasks for the week already, as our first mission had been "Expressing Gratitude."  But I also recalled keeping a Gratitude Journal during times when life seemed especially difficult.  It was a way of recording all the good, the easy, and the pleasurable moments of my day.  When I recorded my gratitude specifically to God for these daily happenings, I became much more aware of God's care of me.  So, I gave the kids each a homemade Gratitude Journal at the end of the week, and encouraged them to keep up with it as their final mission.

Recognizing God's love for us is the first step on the road to happiness.  But something more is also required.  We also need to understand that God made each one of us uniquely special and gifted.  Nouwen writes, "From the moment we claim the truth of being the Beloved, we are faced with the call to become who we are. ... Becoming the Beloved means letting the truth of our Belovedness become enfleshed in everything we think, say, or do."  (pgs 43-45)  This is the key to happiness:  taking our unique passions and gifts and using them to help bless the lives of those around us.  When we use what is uniquely ours, we become our best selves.

I did not realize it until recently, but there is a great new movement afoot in the business world, trickling into other fields, that focuses on one's personal strengths instead of one's weaknesses.  I came across the book, "Now, Discover Your Strengths," by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton, PhD, when I was hanging out in our local used bookstore a couple of days ago. These authors describe how using and strengthening our natural in-born talents is essential for our productivity and satisfaction not only in our work, but also in our life.  "Talents have not only an 'I can't help it' quality to them, but also an 'it feels good' quality."  Our brains are wired to react in certain ways, which in turn sends pleasure signals back up the track.  "With these signals flowing smoothly back and forth, it feels as if the line is reverberating, humming.  This is the feeling of using a talent."  (pg 60-61)  It is your bliss.

I was fascinated by their description of how this all plays out in our brains.  By the time we are a couple of months from being born, one hundred billion neurons have been formed in our brains, and we begin making connections between them.  "By the time you are three, each of your hundred billion neurons have formed 15,000 connections, or synapses."  That's 15,000 times one hundred billion synapses!!  "Then something strange happens," the authors write.  "For some reason, nature now prompts you to ignore a lot of your carefully woven threads.  As with most things, threads that are neglected fall into disrepair, and so across your network connections start to break... By the time you wake on your sixteenth birthday, half your network is gone."  (pg. 51)

This seems like a waste and a shame, and yet this is how we become uniquely who we are.  The authors quote John Bruer in "The Myth of the First Three Years":  "Your smartness and your effectiveness depend on how well you capitalize on your strongest connections."  If your brain didn't automatically do this, you would not be able to think or feel or connect with other people.  And, you would be talentless.  (pg. 54)

I was curious what these authors would determine were my top 5 talents, so I took their online test at   The test revealed that my (1) is "Intellection" -- which means I like to spend a lot of time alone musing and reflecting; (2) is "Input" -- which means I am inquisitive and like to collect things, like information, words, facts, books, and quotations; (3) is "Learner" -- which means I love to learn, the whole process of studying is exciting and energizing; (4) is "Strategic" -- which means I am good at sorting through a lot of clutter and seeing patterns, and I like to ask "What if..?" questions; and (5) is "Connectedness" -- which means I believe things happen for a reason, and that I believe in my soul that we are all connected, and part of something larger.

What do you think?  Did they get them right?

Clearly, whatever our talents, they are inherent.  They are God-given.  We have nothing to boast about in them.  We have no control over them.  We can only control how we develop and use them.  And when we cherish and use them to serve the needs of other people we are following our bliss.  That is why we were made, and that is why we are special.

Dear God, thank you for this week of discovery.  I hope that I may always put my talents to good use, always following your great guidance.  Yours, Pam

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Making Assumptions

 I went up in response to a revelation...  I had been entrusted with the gospel for the un-circumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised ..."   -- Galatians  2:2, 7

Paul frequently makes a distinction between the circumcised and the un-circumcised.  In those days, the "circumcised" were the Jews.  They already knew God.  They were what we would call "church-goers" today.  The "un-circumcised" were the Gentiles.   They may not have believed in, or even known of, the God of Abraham.  They are like the people outside the church community.  God wanted these two different groups of people to have different messengers.  I never thought too much about why, until recently.

Last week, I was leading a Mission Camp for young teens at our church and was preparing the lesson for a day in which we would make a meal for a local shelter.  I wanted to talk to the kids about the significance of breaking bread together and I remembered Henri Nouwen's book, "Life of the Beloved," which is organized around how Jesus shared breadthe bread was always taken, blessed, broken, and given.   I read this short book again, and prepared my lesson.  Reading the book again, however, reminded me that the whole reason Nouwen wrote this book was for a friend and his companions, "who no longer [went] to churches or synagogues and for whom priests and rabbis were no longer the obvious counselors."  His friend asks, "Can you speak to us with the same conviction as you speak to those who share your tradition, your language, and your vision?  ..  Speak to us about the deepest yearnings of our hearts, about our many wishes, about hope ... trust ... love.  ...Speak to us about ... God." (pg. 21-22)  So, like Paul, Nouwen felt called to speak to a group of very secular people about God.

Unfortunately, Nouwen failed to realize how his most basic assumption, that God exists, would be a stumbling block for his friends.  Nouwen could not doubt God, of course; his whole life was inspired by the knowledge of God's love.  But this assumption was just too advanced for his friends.  They needed to start at a much more basic place, like: Who is God?  So, while "Life of the Beloved" conveys deep insight for those who already believe in God, it failed to speak to the unchurched people Nouwen was writing to.  Nouwen failed to grasp how wide was the gap between unbelief and belief.

This gap is a part of my life.  There is such a variety of belief and unbelief in my own family.  But normally, my awareness of it stays in the background.  However, this week, I was continually reminded of it.  Nearly every day someone asked me why my children weren't involved in the Mission Camp, or whether they will be involved in Vacation Bible School, and whether my oldest son will attend the youth retreat in July.  They see that I am very involved in church, especially with youth faith formation, and they see that my children are rarely involved with me, and they are puzzled.  They assume that my children all believe in God the same way I do.  But, they do not.  And since they do not, church activities are not always the greatest place for them.

The church, like Nouwen, assumes a belief in God.  Of course it does -- it was founded on the belief in God.  But, unfortunately, because of this assumption, the church does not speak to all of my children.  While all of them are quite willing to help me at church in other ways (as my assistants for example), being a participant just reminds them of how different they are from everyone else.

I should say "almost everyone else" because I have a sneaking suspicion that there are others who feel like they do, but are better at hiding it.  After all, we don't ask people if they believe in God before they are welcomed to participate in worship or other church activities.  We welcome everyone.  And we encourage our youth to invite their friends, some of whom I'm sure may not belong to another church.

Clearly, people come to church for all kinds of reasons, not necessarily out of faithfulness to God.   Some might come for the fellowship.  Some of our youth come because their parents make them.  Some adults also may come because of external, societal, pressures.  Certainly those who attend church only at Easter and Christmas fall into this category.  And yet still others might come because they are searching for answers to their questions about life, like Nouwen's friend.

Can we, the ones who believe, be open to and accepting at church of the ones without belief?  Can we be open to their most basic questions?   Do we encourage such questioning?

The other day at Vacation Bible School, amidst everyone talking about how "God's love helps us stand strong," one of the preschoolers asked, "What does God even DO anyway?"  It was clear that this little boy felt out of the loop a little bit.  I was glad he had the courage to say what he wanted to say.... but, preschoolers are pretty good at that.  It gets a little harder when we get older.  But if we don't ever ask our most basic questions, what is the likely result?

Perhaps, the result is similar to what happens frequently to kids in math.  For many kids, it's a big leap to go from arithmetic to algebra.  Suppose a young girl has a question... something basic, like "What is a variable?"  But everyone else seems to know what's going on already.  So, afraid to stand out in the crowd, or of looking dumb, she doesn't ask her question.  And she falls further and further behind.  Until, eventually, math is the last thing she wants to think about. 

I think that sometimes happens to people when it comes to God.

I wonder what would happen if there was a place for beginners of all ages at church, not just preschoolers.  What would that look like?  Or what if we just didn't assume that everyone at church believed in God the same way?

Paul, apostle to the outsider, says that he did not come preaching the gospel with lofty words of wisdom.  He came preaching only Jesus Christ, and him crucified.  He didn't start with God, he started with Jesus.  He described these early lessons as like milk for a baby.  Only later did he feed them meatier topics about God. 

Clearly, for some people, the idea of God is just too far removed from their experience to be easily understandable.  Maybe that is why we have Jesus.  Through Jesus, God has come down to earth. Through Jesus we can think about God in a way that speaks to us as human beings.  And so, through
Jesus, we just might be able to teach someone about God.

Dear God, you bless me daily with your guidance.  Please help me to be a blessing to all those around me.  Love always, Pam 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

One Man's Response

"If, because of one man's trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.  Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.  For just as by one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.  But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more..."  -- Romans 5:17 - 20

I've been thinking about discipline this last week or so, thinking about how I respond to wrong-doing in myself, my children, and other people.  In the passage above, Paul looks back at Scripture to explain just how radically new was Jesus's way of responding.  This passage resonates with my own musings. 

When it's my own wrong-doing, I'll admit that I have sometimes responded like Adam and Eve.  I may not have hid from God behind a bush, but I have tried to hide my transgressions in other ways, pretending to be better than I am.  Like Adam and Eve, it's so much easier to blame someone else than to look in a mirror at my own poor choices.  Unfortunately, the way we respond to our own wrong-doing can easily start a vicious cycle:  we blame someone, and they in turn blame us, or someone else.  Hiding mistakes and blaming others only leads to alienation and unnecessary conflict -- as it did for Adam and Eve.  The cycle won't end until we start doing things differently.  Jesus's first word as he began his ministry tells us how to start doing things differently:  Repent.  What does repentance require but that we look at ourselves, recognize our own transgressions, and admit our own responsibility? 

How then do I respond to the wrong-doings of someone I have charge of?  I'm a parent, so I'm thinking of my children.  But if you lead a different kind of organization the response might be the same.  Very often, like Moses, we make laws.  Sometimes, more and more laws.  Each one a response to the specific wrong-doing we see.  The reasoning goes that since everyone is capable of the same bad behavior, the laws need to apply to everyone, and so we all are more and more strictly confined. 

In "The Week," a news magazine I enjoy reading, one of my favorite  columns is titled "Only in America." It usually describes some ridiculous restriction that's the result of this kind of over-zealous law-making.  For example, a kindergartner is suspended for coming to school with a mohawk haircut because it distracts students from learning; or a middle school requires all students to be drug-tested before participating in extracurricular activities -- even something like chess club; or a preschool banns "super-hero play" to calm over-active imaginations.  Seriously?  

And yet, as a parent, I'm sure I'm guilty of a bit of this, too.  In order to prevent bad behavior, I often have to make rules and enforce consequences.  But, how far do I go?  Do I really need to make specific rules about what you should wear to bed, about putting the lid back on the toothpaste, and about not sitting on your brother?  I hope not.  Do I really want to have consequence for every little thing they do wrong?   No, I do not.  I would rather not have this kind of relationship with them, one overwhelmingly focused on rules and consequences.

I wonder if God felt the same way about his children when Jesus began his ministry.  He saw how carried away the religious leaders had gotten:  you must wash your hands before eating in this five-step method; on the Sabbath, you must not lift a finger to help anyone, not even yourself, etc.; with dire consequences for every mis-step.  I, too, would much rather my children were governed by more important things, like kindness, integrity, generosity, and thoughtfulness.
Okay then, how do I respond to a person who is my equal when he or she does something wrong, to me or to someone else?  How do I want my children to respond to each other, and to other people in their lives?

Well, one very common way is to respond in kind, an eye-for-an-eye or tit-for-tat, so to speak.  The Golden Rule becomes:  do unto others as they have done unto you.  If someone is rude to you, be rude back.  If someone treats you unfairly, hate them, hold a grudge, seek retaliation.  The result is, however, an unending chain of revenge and heartache.  The history of man, unfortunately, is littered with these chains.  I don't want my children or me to create chains like this.

What other response is there?  Well, there is Jesus's response:  forgive.

Philip Yancy in his book "What's So Amazing About Grace?" writes eloquently that forgiveness is the only response that breaks the chain of retribution.  He tells the story of Gordon Wilson, a devout Methodist, who went with his daughter to a Veteran's Day event in Belfast in 1987.  An IRA bomb went off, killing eleven people, including his twenty-year-old daughter.  Her last words to him were, "Daddy, I love you very much."  Gordon Wilson responded to his daughter's murder with forgiveness:  "I have lost my daughter, but I bear no grudge.  Bitter talk is not going to bring Marie Wilson back to life.  I shall pray, tonight and every night, that God will forgive them."  His words were televised around the UK, and received such publicity that Protestant extremists decided it would be political suicide to retaliate against the IRA.  Yancy writes, "The Irish Republic ultimately made Wilson a member of its Senate.  When he died in 1995, the Irish Republic, Northern Ireland, and all of Great Britain honored this ordinary Christian citizen ... for his uncommon spirit of grace and forgiveness."  (pg. 118) 

I used to think that forgiveness was something I had to do, especially as a Christian.  But now I think that forgiveness is a choice.  I realized recently that responding negatively to negative people means that I am letting another person determine who I am.  Do I want to be an angry, judgmental, vindictive person?  No, I don't want those feelings to become a part of who I am.  Neither did Mr. Wilson.  His daughter's last words were of love, and he was determined to keep that love uppermost in his mind for the rest of his life.  I would much rather be my own person.  So, I will choose to respond to people in a way that is not based upon someone else's bad behavior, at all, but on my own moral compass.

Jesus's first words were of repentance.  His last words were of forgiveness.  The two go together.   Knowing I too need forgiveness makes it much easier for me to forgive others.  Perhaps that is why the central verse of The Lord's Prayer is,  "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive the trespasses of others."  

But doesn't that mean that our own forgiveness comes at a cost?  That we must give forgiveness in order to be forgiven?  Doesn't that mean that God's grace actually does have a price?

Ah, but once again, God through Jesus defeats our logic:  Jesus forgave even though he did not need to be forgiven.  Here is where God intervened, making anything possible, even undeserved grace.

Dear God, I see the goal that I want to reach.  I rely on you to keep guiding me forward.  Love always, Pam