Monday, September 29, 2014

Teachable Moments

"We are always on a journey from darkness to light."  -- John O'Donohue*

"If we turn away from darkness on principle, doing everything we can to avoid it because there is simply no telling what it contains, isn't there a chance that what we are running from is God?"  -- Barbara Brown Taylor

A few weeks ago, I taught an ESL class for adults, substituting for the teacher for the day.  I used to teach math, and so usually substitute for math teachers, not English teachers, but I thought... Why not?  I do, after all, love to read and write.  Besides, I would have lesson plans to follow.  Thankfully, the lesson plans were very thorough and gave us more than enough to do for the three-hour class.  It was a lot of fun, too, for the teacher had provided us with many learning games to play to get us thinking of English words and their usage.  She also wrote in her lesson plans: "Be open to teachable moments."   I'd say, in hindsight, that any time the students got stuck, made mistakes, or had questions, those were teachable moments.

Shortly after this, I finally got around to watching a new television show called "Utopia."  It's about 15 very diverse strangers who are confined to an isolated, semi-developed compound for a year and asked to form a cohesive, sustainable community.  It's not pretty.  Almost immediately, it's clear that these 15 adults are at varying stages of maturity.  Some rise to the top, staying out of the fray, and some sink to the bottom, creating the fray, when faced with any sort of opposition or adversity.  And others are somewhere in between.  These in-betweeners are the ones who make mistakes, but learn from them.  They're the one I relate to the most.  When one of them asks another, "Are you teachable?" it struck me as a somewhat odd thing to say, but really, when you think about it, that's what's makes it or breaks it in life; and, that's what ultimately distinguishes a child from an adult.   

Are you teachable?

None of us are born wise.  We are born with a certain level of intelligence, yes, but whether we grow in maturity is something altogether different.   That takes, first of all, a will to learn, a desire.  Secondly, it takes a readiness to learn, a certain level of mental or physical maturity to begin with.  And, thirdly, it takes the ability to learn, the freedom and opportunity to learn.  We have to be ready, willing, and able to learn in order to learn.  If one of those components isn't in place, we won't learn.

Having the freedom and opportunity to learn is not always up to us.  Having the desire to learn is a part of our personality, and differs from person to person.  For example, I, for one, have no desire to learn about cars, and never have, so it's not too surprising that I know very little about cars.  On the other hand, I have a great desire to learn about God, and have throughout my life.

So, I wonder why has it taken me so long to learn about God.  I've written before about how, although I've gone to church for as long as I can remember, for most of my life, my understanding of God grew only in rare moments of crisis.  It wasn't until I was thirty-six years old that I started asking questions about God, and even then those questions came slowly.  Why did it take so long for me to start asking questions?  The desire to know God was there from an early age.  The opportunity was there, as well.  But clearly something was missing.  Was it just that I had to be at a certain level of maturity?

I see a similar lengthy learning process with parenting.  When I became a mother, I didn't even know how to change a diaper!  So, I took whatever advice I could get and read loads of books about parenting, wanting to be the best mother I could be.  After a couple of years, feeling confident with one easy-going child, we had another, who was so different from the first, it was like starting over from scratch.  The third was equally as different as the other two.   Unfortunately, there's no parenting manual that fits every child.  However, with lots of opportunity to learn about parenting, and a keen desire to do so, maturity has come in baby steps.

Maturity, like wisdom, is not something we are born with.  It comes gradually, over time, as the need arises, from having the opportunity to get stuck, to make mistakes, and to be confused, combined with the desire to learn, to get unstuck, to do better, and to ask questions.  These "teachable moments" come one after the other, hopefully, for as long as we live.

I wonder if God waits for "teachable moments," also, and gives us just what we can handle in the moment, no more and no less.

As a parent, unlike God, I have wanted to shield my children from difficulties, to prevent them from making the same mistakes I have made, to prevent them from making any mistakes at all, if possible.  And while some of my protection has been warranted, most of it just creates in them an overactive sense of caution, or sheer obstinacy, depending on the personality of the child.  Neither one are desirable.

In "The Return of the Prodigal," Henri Nouwen writes that the fulfillment of the spiritual journey is for us as individuals to move beyond acting like the prodigal son who rebels or the elder brother who always does what he is told, and to become like the wise, compassionate, and generous father -- this father who lets his sons make mistakes, get stuck and ask questions.

We know that the prodigal son learned.  Darkness and difficult times are perhaps our best teachers, our only teachers, as Barbara Brown Taylor beautifully describes in "Learning to Walk in the Dark."  For, in these dark nights, there is a special kind of light to be found, one that only shines in the darkness, if we can but see it.

But what about the elder brother?  His darkness was hardly noticeable, the bare hint of a shadow, in an otherwise light-filled life.  Unfortunately, it's sometimes very hard to see shadows.  It's hard to notice them on others when the light seems to shine so brightly on them, and it's hard to see our own shadows.   However, it's the students and "Utopians" who never think they make mistakes who are most likely to crash and burn.  Since the elder brother did not recognize his shadow -- at least, not as far as the parable of the prodigal son reveals -- can he even learn?  Can we learn if we are never aware of being stuck, of being in darkness?  I don't think so.

At least, not unless we have a teacher who is willing to come and point out our mistakes -- like Jesus did.  Or, a substitute who is willing to follow the lesson plans.

May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you 


* from "Anam Cara:  A Book of Celtic Wisdom," by John O'Donohue (Clift Street Books ed, pg. 4)

** from "Learning to Walk in the Darkness," by Barbara Brown Taylor ( Harper One ed. pg. 57)

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Coincidence of Opposites

"The fruit of education... was the activation of that inmost center, that scintilla animae, that 'apex' or 'spark' which is a freedom beyond freedom, an identity beyond essence, a self beyond all ego, a being beyond the created realm, and a consciousness that transcends all division, all separation....  This realization at the apex is a coincidence of opposites.... The 'spark' is not so much a stable entity which one finds but an event, an explosion which happens as all opposites clash within oneself." -- Thomas Merton*

I have made no secret of the fact that my husband and I are fairly opposite in many ways.  Some of these differences are benign, some compliment each other, and some clash.  For example, he likes to be the center of attention, I do not; he likes to tell jokes, I couldn't tell a joke to save my life; I believe in God, he does not; he likes to get things done, I like to procrastinate; I like to question, he likes being decisive; he likes to talk about doing, I like to talk about being; he's a computer guru, I'm always, somehow, getting computer viruses; he likes a sink to be free of dishes and doesn't see the messy counters; I like clean counters and am not bothered by dishes in the sink.  I could go on.  Some of these differences are laughably minor, but at one time or another they have all been the source of aggravation between us -- usually when I wish he was more like me, or he wishes I was more like him.

Now, I've described, in an earlier post , that the way we met was definitely a God-moment.  But we also met on April Fool's Day.  So either these opposites are there for a reason, or the whole thing has been one cosmic joke.  Only time will tell.

Many of our differences we have learned to accept as unchangeable parts of our personalities.  The only difference between us that we can't accept, and which has been a continual stumbling block for us, has to do with how we want to raise our children.  We, of course, what to raise them in the way that we know best, the way we were raised.  Yet, the way we were each raised is about as different as you can get.  My husband was raised in a caring family, in which you did what you were told without question because a person in authority over you said so, and you were rewarded for your achievements and punished for your mistakes.  I was raised in a caring family in which you were expected to figure things out for yourself and you were never rewarded for achievements or punished for mistakes.  His parents emphasized success and my parents emphasized personal happiness.  It's as if the elder brother and the prodigal daughter got married and had kids -- think law vs. gospel.

Being a parent isn't easy, but when the parents are on opposite ends of the parenting spectrum, there is an extra dimension of difficulties.  We both want our kids to be successful and happy.  However, accomplishing that when we have such different parenting styles has been a challenge, to say the least.  We have, in turn, tried his way, then my way, then his way, then my way, getting more and more frustrated in the process because neither way worked completely:  either there was too much unhappiness, or too little success.  It's been so challenging that, more than once, I have considered divorce, thinking that parenting would be so much easier if I could just do it my own way!  I wouldn't be surprised if my husband thought the same, on occasion.  The thing is, however, since we both love our children, and because our kids are thoroughly a mixture of both of our personalities, they really need both of our parenting styles.

After about fifteen years of parenting, we are finally learning to lean toward each other rather than to see-saw back and forth when it comes to parenting.  We are finally figuring out the right balance, a happy medium, between his way and my way, that also works for our children.  Four essential ingredients have made this possible.  First, we want the same things for our children:  success and happiness.  Second, we love each other and are committed to staying together, despite the differences between us.  Third, we have learned to talk to one another calmly, face-to-face, about our concerns.  And fourth, we are willing to acknowledge both the negatives and positives in our individual styles.  That last ingredient was the hardest to find.  For both my husband and I can be fairly obstinate.

Related to all this, as I hinted at above, is the idea of Law and Gospel.  I used to not understand the Lutheran emphasis on Law and Gospel.  Why do we need the Law?  The Gospel is good enough for me.  Back then, I associated Christianity with the Gospel, and Judaism with the Law.  For I used to think the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament, was all about the Law -- ordinances, statutes, rules, and rewards and punishments -- and the New Testament was all about the Gospel -- forgiveness, mercy, compassion, and unconditional love.  But after studying the whole Bible, I know that while the emphasis in the Old Testament is on Law, and the emphasis in the New Testament is on Gospel, there is both Law and Gospel throughout, from beginning to end.  Wrapped-up in the Law of the Old Testament is a God who loves his children and who continually forgives them despite their transgressions.  And wrapped-up in the Gospel of the New Testament is a God who show his children how they should live and who continually warns them to change their ways.  It is actually impossible to separate love from the Law and the law from the Gospel in God's word.  The prodigal needs to learn right from wrong, and the elder brother needs to understand mercy and forgiveness.  For the father loves them both, equally.

So why do we, especially as faithful people, try to separate them?

I think we must all be fairly obstinate people.  We all like to do things our own way.  So we emphasize the wrong-doings of the other, and forget to understand, love and forgive as God understands, loves and forgive us.  And, none of us likes to be corrected.  So we emphasize understanding, love and forgiveness in order to avoid correcting the wrong-doings of the other. 

Somehow, if we are all going to live successfully and happily in this world of six billion different people, we are going to have to figure out how to marry both Law and Gospel.  And the only way I know how to do this is, first, to seek common ground; second, to stay in community with one another, despite the differences; third, to speak calmly, face-to-face; and finally, to acknowledge both the positives and the negatives of each party.

You know, everything I have learned about unity in the midst of diversity, about loving our neighbor as much as we love ourselves, a matter that is the foundation of God's will, has been learned in this one relationship.  The rest is just repetition and practice.  And for that, I thank God.

May the Peace
which passes understanding
be with you 


*from "Love and Living," (Harcourt ed.), pg 10