Thursday
Nov012012

This Article is not about Marriage

In Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” he describes John Gottman, a research scientist and psychology professor who has gathered data by watching couples interact over a point of conflict. He and his students watch freeze frames of couples arguing and, after encoding their expressions, use the database to collate the information. He developed a model using that data that can help predict whether a couple will be divorced 15 years later.

 

What does the model look for? Lots of different things, but four in particular are red flags: expressions of defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism and contempt. Gottman particularly identifies contempt, even more that the other three, as a major problem. Rolling eyes, expressions of disgust and disdain, that sense of being higher and better than someone else is the most destructive. Gottman says, “You would think [criticism] would be the worst, because criticism is a global condemnation of a person’s character. Yet contempt is qualitatively different from criticism. It’s trying to put that person on a lower plane than you...what disgust and contempt are about is completely rejecting and excluding someone from the community.”

 

My mind went back to this book recently, but it had nothing to do with marriage or divorce. Instead, I was thinking about the various campaigns that we are being exposed to in the run up to the elections and some of the conversations I have had with people in the last month or so. The members of our church are certainly not univocal when it comes to politics; neither are my friends and family. I have had discussions, occasionally heated but always respectful, about the issues at hand that shape not only the campaigns, but what the meaning of these elections hold for all of us. I have watched some of and seen lots of coverage of the presidential debates. We have all seen the local ads on TV purchased by various interests.

 

I think we are all rightly concerned, not just about where our country is going, but where our politics is going. Divides deepen and sharpen between left and right, liberal and conservative, red and blue. A nastiness has crept into our politics that goes beyond mere criticism to become contempt and disgust. We have gone from, “I think you are wrong,” to “I think you are bad;” from “I disagree,” to rolling our eyes and saying, “I can’t believe even you could be such an idiot.”

 

This dangerous move to contempt, disdain, and dismissal is tearing our country apart, making our political decision processes worse and it is driving us to irrational levels of fear. When so many of us worry that our major political problems arise from gridlock, why do we favor candidates that seem incapable of compromise? Should we not be electing candidates who can find common ground and make common cause for the common good?

 

As for fear: In one of my former congregations, they were so bent in one direction that when a candidate from the other side won the presidency they offered what amounted to a support group so people could come and commiserate over what dismal future lay ahead of them. Even now there are commercials on TV warning that electing this candidate or another will ruin your future, your family, and your life.

 

Jesus said: Whoever is not against us is for us. I believe most people, and most candidates, really want to serve and do right by the American people. I believe that they want a stronger economy, our children to be well educated and to help those who need it. There are different, sometimes very different, philosophies on how to do that. However, as the elections come to a close, and our nation makes its decisions, for our own sake, for the sake of neighbor and stranger, and the sake of our nation, it is time to stop treating one another and our ideas and ideals with contempt and work together.

 

Sunday
Sep302012

Darkness and Light

Summer has stretched out a bit more than usual it seems, but it is definitely starting to get darker. When I 
wake up in September there is usually still a bit of light, but when October comes around, the darkness 
lingers. It takes the sun longer to get up over the horizon; it takes me longer to get up out of bed. We are 
creatures of eyesight, and darkness is for sleeping.
And not the morning only, but the evening as well. The day darkens sooner. The days grow short, people 
get indoors earlier. I know the rains are coming even if they aren't already here.
Not that October is all bad. It is also a time of changing leaves, harvest festivals, and crisp days. October, 
as my wife was telling me, is unpredictable. You could be cold or warm, sunny or dreary. You never know 
what to expect in October, other than the days shortening. Then towards the end we begin to get excited 
about holidays and the busyness and joy they will bring.
It is that time of transition at the beginning though that gets me. By the time November comes I'm used to it, but the first few weeks of dark can be difficult.  It's in those times that I think about psalm 139:
   even the darkness is not dark to you;
     the night is as bright as the day,
   for darkness is as light to you.
The psalmist in this poem is reflecting on God's love and care for us. That God will never leave us or 
forsake us:
  If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
     if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there
  If I take the wings of the morning
     and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
  even there you hand shall lead me,
     and your right hand shall hold me fast.
Many of us grew up with the idea that God is “everywhere.” But if you take a look at the passages that talk 
about God being “everywhere” you will find that the point is not so much that God is in every single space in 
the universe, but that God is everywhere “for us.” God's presence is not just an arbitrary dispersal. It has 
intention. God is there in order to be with us, wherever we go, whatever we do. We cannot escape God, 
even in the dark.
   If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
     and the light around me become night,”
  even the darkness is not dark to you;
     the night is as bright as the day,
     for darkness is as light to you.
If it is the creeping dark of changing seasons, or a darker place in our lives, we can trust that God is still 
there with us. The dark has no power over God.  Even if we can’t see him, he can still see us.

 

Thursday
Sep062012

September

And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet and learn to be at home.
                                                                                                                                    -Wendell Berry


We bid farewell to summer this month.  I realized this last week when I woke up to a clear, brisk, morning.  Gone was the threat of sweltering days and the need to practice what I like to call our “heat discipline:” the careful opening and closing of windows, blinds and curtains to keep the house from getting too hot during the day.  We’ve even had a bit of rain, and the real rain can’t be too far off.

There is also that sense that things are getting back to the routine.  Summer vacations are wrapping up, schools are starting classes again, summer activities like festivals, carnivals and fairs are coming to a close.  We are all getting back to “real life,” which can sometimes seem a bit of a letdown, I guess.  

We love summer, and it is a great gift.  How many times have you seen advertisements that feature the name of that season prominently  in all caps with a big exclamation point:  SUMMER!  You never see an advertisement that says: FALL!  Maybe fall is little boring.  It’s not something to get all riled up about, and we all know that that is not how advertising works.

But if fall is a little boring, that’s okay too.  I don’t know about you, but when I’m bored, my mind wanders, and when my mind wanders, I usually think about things I don’t usually think about.  Some people might call that day dreaming, others might think it’s meditation, but I believe it is good to think thoughts that are new or reflect on what is well known and loved.

A friend of mine posted the quote above by Wendell Berry. You may have heard of him; I’m not sure.  When read it I thought about the fall.  If summer is about going out, about the grand endeavor, getting away,  the adventure, then surely fall is about returning home, about routine, about work, about everyday life.  

We are led to believe that the good life is out there, in the getting away, the adventure and excitement.  Berry challenges that lie we have been told, that lie we tell ourselves. The good life is here.  With us.  At home.

I have heard there is saying:  It is better to have lived ten thousand days in one place than one day in ten thousand places.  A journey not that is not broad but deep brings a wisdom that cannot be found simply by dipping your toe in here and there.  

If you really watch that tree in your yard, see it change over the seasons and years, if you come to truly know it and love it, you will understand more about the world and God’s work here than any botanist or philosopher that ever lived.

 

Tuesday
Jul312012

We do not live in a Lasting City

Like millions of Americans I was sitting in a dark room at midnight on Thursday night, several friends and my wife gathered around me, anxiously waiting, excited, like kids on the way to the amusement park. The lights had gone down, the trailers were over, and as the icon of one of the great mythic heroes of Western civilization appeared on the screen, people cheered.

In that small way, at least, millions of people around the United States have some solidarity with the audience in Aurora, Colorado, before the tragic events of that night set them apart. When these things happen, the horror of it, the glimpses into people's personal lives, the tragedy of the loss of so many young people, we are left with questions: why did this happen; who could do such a thing; how could it have been prevented? These questions are asked, and always there are those who are quick with their answers, whether political or religious, whether blaming society or guns or moral failure or even God's will.

That last one particularly gets to me, as a pastor, and as one who tries to help others see God more clearly. That anyone would say something like that, and mean the God revealed in Jesus, is not just wrong, it is appalling. Consider the story of Jessica Ghawi. She narrowly missed being present at a shooting in Toronto's Eaton Centre food court. She had just stepped out of that area of the mall because she had a funny feeling when someone started shooting, killing one person and wounding seven others. Some might say that it was God's will, that a guardian angel was watching over her; that she was saved for some purpose. Just over a month later she was killed in Aurora at the theater. Where was her guardian angel then? If this was all wrapped up in “God's will,” what exactly does that mean? If she was saved for some “purpose” had it been fulfilled and now it was “her time?”

I know we talk this way sometimes as an expression of our bewilderment at the nature of the universe and its apparent arbitrariness. I know that it is often a simple expression of faith that we have not been abandoned by God. On the other hand I don't know that this language is very helpful, either for us as we contemplate the tragedies that have been visited upon us and our community, or when we are seeking to comfort those who mourn.

Bishop James Conley, a Roman Catholic bishop, addressed and prayed at a prayer vigil in Aurora this last week. He did not offer platitudes, and he did not try to make sense out of something so obviously senseless. He did, however, offer hope, hope founded in a God who offers love and mercy and who mourns with us. You can find the full text online, but here is an excerpt:

I would like to point out the banner being held up by people in the very back which reads: “Angels walk with those who grieve.” I really think this is true. Thank you!

Let us mourn for those who have perished. Let us grieve with their loved ones who mourn their loss. Let us acknowledge the real evil which has wounded our community. In our mourning, Our Lord, who is the great comforter, is truly present to us. But we do not grieve like those who have no hope, my brothers and sisters. We grieve with the knowledge that neither death nor life can separate us from the love of God. His abundant love is our consolation.

And he offered this prayer, which I hope will be your prayer with all those who mourn:

Loving and merciful God, we praise you and we adore you for your great mercy. You are truth, goodness, and beauty. You are the source of all that is good and all that is holy. You hate what is evil.

You respond to evil, O Lord, with love. In your boundless love, you have conquered sin and death. Your victory over death is our hope – for we know that we do not live in a lasting city.

We entrust our beloved deceased to your love and mercy. We entrust our community to your comfort and peace. We entrust our fear, our doubt, our uncertainty, to your providential care, O Lord. Be present to us. Help us to love as you love and help us to build a community of peace.

We pray for the victims of this terrible crime, for the survivors, and for their families. We pray for their friends and neighbors who loved them. We pray for the conversion of the perpetrator of this terrible crime. And we pray for our city – for healing and for strength to go forward.

You are our hope, Lord. We look to your Resurrection as a sure sign that death does not defeat us – that death is not the end. Instead, we pray that each of us may join in the victory of your Resurrection. We ask this as we ask all things through Jesus Christ Our Lord,

Amen.  

Thursday
Jun282012

Somer is a comen in


Middle English

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med

And springþ þe wde nu,
Sing cuccu!
Awe bleteþ after lomb,
Lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel singes þu cuccu;

Ne swik þu nauer nu. Pes:

Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!

Modern English
Summer has arrived,
Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
The seed grows and the meadow blooms

And the wood springs anew,
Sing, Cuckoo!
The ewe bleats after the lamb
The cow lows after the calf.
The bullock stirs, the stag turns,
Merrily sing, Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing, cuckoo;

Don't ever you stop now,

Sing cuckoo now. Sing, Cuckoo.
Sing Cuckoo. Sing cuckoo now!

To hear the music: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMCA9nYnLWo

 

The above song is one of the oldest non-liturgical pieces of written music we have. It is a round, meant to be sung like Row, Row, Row, your Boat. I re-encountered it by accident a couple of weeks ago when I was doing some research and it kind of stuck with me in an ironic way. Here we are almost in July and while we have had some nice days, I'm sure we are all wondering when summer is going to really arrive. We live in the Northwest, and summer seems to peek in on us in May and then go away again for another six weeks until we get into July. It's usually about this time that I began to despair whether summer will ever arrive, whether the sun will come out for more than just a few days at a time, whether I can put my sweaters away. Will I always need my raincoat?

 

This time of year, summer can seem like a promised, hoped for, but unrealized blessing. Just when you think it is here, it slips away again. Then suddenly it is here. Such is life. Consider these psalms:

 

Psalm 13

1  How long, O  Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
      How long will you hide your face from me? 
2  How long must I bear pain  in my soul,
      and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? 

3  Consider and answer me, O  Lord  my God!
      Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death

Psalm 34

1  I will bless the  Lord  at all times;
      his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
4
  I sought the  Lord, and he answered me,
      and delivered me from all my fears. 
5  Look to him, and be radiant;
      so your-  faces shall never be ashamed. 
6  This poor soul cried, and was heard by the  Lord,
      and was saved from every trouble. 

We remember summer and winter, but how often is life about the in-between times, the time of waiting and watching, the time of being faithful and trusting that God is guiding us, even when we don't know where we are going. How much of life is just waiting? Yes. There's a psalm about that too.

 

Psalm 27

14  Wait for the  Lord;
      be strong, and let your heart take courage;
      wait for the  Lord!

 

Happy Summer

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