Tuesday, November 25, 2014

vive la différence!

Image from petsfoto.com
Over the past few weeks and months I have spent a bit more time than usual with people who have slightly different views or priorities than I do. It has happened in church meetings, at school, in social settings, and in random encounters. My conservative heritage tended toward steering clear of people with different worldviews, but I have found that real connection with those who adopt another way of looking at things is, in general, good for my personal growth as a follower of Jesus. Instead of responding to different viewpoints as threats (fear-based), I have learned to see them as instructive occasions. This is because they challenge me to differentiate between core values (guiding principles that I live my life by) and superfluous add-ons which are mostly based on preferences, tradition, or culture and which can change in different circumstances and times.

As important as this personal discernment process is, there is another, equally important, relational aspect to hanging out with those who are different. These encounters give me the opportunity to practice empathy, compassion, and unconditional love. But only if I let go of some bad habits which I often use to protect and insulate myself from otherness. Too often self-protection or self-promotion can be our default instead of doing the hard work of accepting and serving others like Jesus did.

Bad habits (don't do these):
1. Name dropping or recounting our past accomplishments: This may seem like a legitimate effort to connect with someone, but it is not. It is quite obvious, at least to the other person, that we are trying to set ourselves up as someone to be admired, someone important, someone with valuable experience, someone who is very capable, someone who brings a lot to the equation. In other words, someone who is better than them. In contrast to this, Jesus suggested that humility is the best approach.
2. Criticizing instead of discerning, feeling superior instead of compassionate: When we see different practices, it is natural to compare them to our own practices. There is nothing wrong with this, but I have to admit that the leap from noting differences to criticizing them is a small one for me. I dismiss others' practices because they are so obviously inferior to my own, so immature, so much less nuanced or sophisticated, so uninformed, so "been there, done that." And that's a problem, because these stinky attitudes will drive people away instead of inviting them to dialogue. I will also miss any chance of learning anything new. Criticism and compassion just don't go together.
3. Talking instead of listening: When I do find some point of connection between a person whose viewpoint is different than mine, I can latch onto that one subject and talk and talk and talk and talk. This is bad news because it tunes that person out, I have become a lecturer and instructor instead of a fellow student, and unless someone specifically asks for a lecture (preferably in writing), one should never offer one. Once again, I have assumed a superior role and that is unattractive.
4. Leaving when things get uncomfortable: I used to do this a lot. I would find myself with a group of people who had different values than I did. I would start to feel uncomfortable and my first instinct would be to leave, to escape, to protect myself. It never crossed my mind that I might have something to bring to that particular situation, perhaps a gift of generosity or kindness or acceptance or hope which would be graciously accepted if I could just get past my fear and be brave enough to offer something. Nope, I just thought about myself. Thankfully, things have changed. Now, when I get uncomfortable in an unfamiliar setting or in strange group, I take a deep breath and ask the Spirit if there is anything I can bring to the party.
5. Pointing out differences instead of celebrating what we share: This is another way of separating ourselves from others instead of building bridges. Jesus was a master at making people feel safe and accepted instead of alienated and inferior. Let me offer the same atmosphere to those I encounter, especially those whom I identify as the other. It helps when I remember that through openness we more easily find our way to repentance, surrender, and transformation. And I love transformation!

Thanks to all those others, those not like me, who have made my life richer and taught me much.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Perfect Gift

The cat is sleeping on the bed behind me. An early snow is resting softly on the balcony outside, deaf to my passive-aggressive hints that it take a hike. The kettle has just boiled for my second cup of chai green tea. After a few busy days and weeks, including another research trip to University of Notre Dame, I am back to reading, researching, and thinking about the idea of "gift."
Image from verona1992.blogspot.com

It is exciting and frustrating at the same time. Gifts should bring out the child in us, making us ready recipients and willing donors, eager to participate in generous interactions without calculating future obligations or feeling the pressure of expectations. But it turns out that a true gift is really hard to find. Scholars and researchers write about the dark side of gift, the contradictions in gift-giving practices, the evaluation of the gift economy as a system which provides much-needed social cohesion and stability in our relationships, the importance of self-giving, and the near impossibility of separating giving from taking. Sigh. All those things which should be associated with gift - altruism, compassion, love, spontaneity, joy - seem to have faded into the background. It's a bit deflating. But pretty accurate when I think about it.

As Christmas approaches, I am warmed and inspired by the idea of celebrating the greatest, most astounding gift ever (Jesus), but to be honest, that all too often takes second place to feelings of being exhausted and overwhelmed by the flurry of activity, the obligations and expectations of gift-giving, and the stream of family and social events. Call me Scrooge if you want, but I won't accept the moniker. I don't believe I am particularly stingy nor a habitual party-pooper. I think my disillusionment with Christmas, at least in part, stems from a profound desire for genuine gift(s) to be more present in our lives.

One bright light in my reading thus far (there will be more, I am sure...it's early) has been an article by Russell W. Belk entitled, "The Perfect Gift." [1] He is a business and marketing professor who researches the meaning behind collecting, gift-giving, possessions, and materialism. He contends that "the perfect gift symbolizes the giver's agapic love toward the recipient" and the only source of the perfect gift is God. Whoa, Russell! That's crazy stuff for a business professor to be saying! He goes on to say, "When agapic love motivates a gift, it is not selected and given to communicate a calculated message at all, but rather to express and celebrate our love for the other. It is spontaneous, affective, and celebratory rather than premeditated, cognitive, and calculated to achieve certain ends." Keep talking, Russell! I am starting to get excited about giving!

Professor Belk goes on to describe six characteristics of a perfect gift, gleaned from well-known stories in literature and drama which have resonated with people for a century or more. He suggests that people intuitively recognize a perfect gift.

1) The perfect gift involves extraordinary sacrifice, displaying selfless generosity and wholehearted commitment to the other.
2) The perfect gift is motivated by altruism. The other's well-being is truly more important than our own. If the recipient suspects otherwise, the gift is not perfect.
3) The perfect gift is extravagant, having an element of luxury. It is not a necessity, not fulfilling lower-order needs but addressing higher-order needs for love, self-esteem, or self-actualization. The extravagance of the gift is "a tangible demonstration of the richness and depth of the love the giver feels toward the recipient."
4) The perfect gift is appropriate. This means it is not impersonal (like money) but unique and specially suited for the recipient.
5) The perfect gift is a surprise. To ask for a gift negates its value because a true gift is not reciprocal or obligatory. It is not a market transaction nor a disguised self-gift. With a spontaneous gift, there is little doubt that the giver is motivated solely by the desire to please the recipient.
6) The perfect gift results in delight. Any gift given to secure some form of reciprocal action or behaviour is more of a bribe than a gift. It turns out that when creating the perfect gift, receiving is as important as giving. Russell suggests that a gift falls short not because the gift itself is wrong, but because the gift-givers and receivers have become entangled in something other than agapic love.

Now I realize that some may find the above description of the perfect gift rather intimidating, but I find it reassuring. It is an ideal, to be sure, but ideals are what give direction to our lives. We all want to be better at loving, hoping, and creating (to name just a few) and this is why we read inspiring stories and watch movies which tell of courageous men and women. We are pulled forward and upward by ideals. Russell's description of the perfect gift gives me hope. It inspires me to step away from the "have to" and "should" which so often characterize the Christmas season in our North American world and moves me toward cultivating deeper and more genuine love for my family and others. If I give an extravagant gift but have not love, I am nothing. If I give out of obligation, I have entered into a business transaction, not celebrated love.

Let me protect and nourish the child giver in me, the one who does not hesitate to draw wild, colourful creations to present to loved ones, who will spend an afternoon baking lopsided, blue cupcakes to serve to guests, and who will take their own beloved, ragged stuffed bear and give it to another. This is the purity of heart with which I want to give gifts. It will take practice. I will get it wrong sometimes. But it is the only way great skills are developed.

[1] Russell W. Belk. "The Perfect Gift." In Gift Giving: A Research Anthology. Edited by Cele Otnes and Richard F. Beltramini. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Press, 1996, 59-84.

Monday, November 17, 2014

My Name is Matte and I am a Control Freak

There. Now you know. I have little problem identifying this tendency in my life now, but it was not always this way. Control, like pride, can be difficult to identify in oneself. Business writer Shelley Prevost believes that controlling people seldom know that they are acting in inappropriate and unhealthy ways. She says: "Control freaks rarely know that they are one. They believe that they are helping people with their 'constructive criticism' or taking over a project because 'no one else will do it right.'"

So...what is a control freak? A control freak is someone who is focused on controlling outcomes. They attempt to control their own lives, the lives of others, and circumstances in general. An extreme form of control can be found in Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder where people are rigidly preoccupied with details, rules, lists, and dominating others at the expense of flexibility and openness. Control freaks can be perfectionists and often struggle to embrace spontaneity. It is probably no surprise that control freaks are generally bad listeners.

When things do not go "according to plan," a control freak will have a negative reaction, often disproportionate to the situation. Outwardly, they can exhibit anger, violence, become very vocal and demanding, have an emotional outburst, have a temper tantrum, or more subtly, resort to manipulation, payback, or passive-aggressive behaviour such as giving someone the silent treatment or engaging in emotional blackmail. Inwardly, control freaks can suffer from anxiety, fear, jealousy, and emotional paralysis as well as an inhibited ability to make decisions or act. But being a control freak is just a symptom of a deeper issue.

Let's take a look at the story of the rich young man in Mark 10. He approaches Jesus and asks, "Good teacher, What must I do to gain life in the world to come?" Notice something here. The greeting, "Good teacher," was an unusual one at that time. Some scholars believe it might have been a bit of flattery or an attempt at subtle manipulation. Whatever the case, Jesus recognizes that something is a bit off in the way this man approaches him and he calls him on it. Jesus doesn't make a big deal out of it, just enough to let the young man know that he is not fooled. Then, he gets back to the young man's question. Jesus responds by citing some of the commandments of Moses and the young man indicates that he has done all of these things since he was a child.

So here we have a young man who is concerned with attaining a certain outcome (eternal life) and very good at keeping rules. He is also a man who assumes the outcome relies on his own ability (he asks, "What must I do?"). Jesus recognizes that the young man is sincere and responds out of love for him. Jesus is good like that. He says there is one more thing which the young man must do, and that is to sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor, exchanging treasure on earth for treasure in heaven. And after that is done, the young man is to come and follow Jesus.

The young man believes that Jesus can give him what he wants (eternal life). He is looking for a profitable transaction, but Jesus sees right through the young man's intentions and reveals what is at the heart of the issue. By asking the man to give up his financial security and set aside his future plans, Jesus upends the young man's agenda and puts him at a crossroads, There are basically two ways to react when things don't go according to plan: either one embraces the change or withdraws and tries to regain control. The young man chose to walk away.

Though the desire of the young man was a good desire (gaining eternal life), he could not accept how it was to be received. He was more interested in attaining a certain outcome than in following the way of Jesus. Jesus' challenge exposed the young man's self-constructed world which made him feel safe and secure and in control. Jesus' way would have put him out of control. Tough stuff, indeed. Clinging tightly to our own little world makes us incapable of participating in the kingdom of God, because the kingdom of God operates on trust, faith, surrender, and loving freedom. With humans, this equation is impossible, but with God, all things are possible. Instead of asking the question, "What can I do to gain eternal life?" a better approach for the young man might have been, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

Here are the underlying issue(s) which I see behind being a control freak:
1) We attempt to control because we want to feel safe and have our version of a perfect world.
2) We attempt to control because we want to avoid the anxiety of unknown outcomes.
3) We attempt to control because we are afraid to fail, to be rejected, to experience pain and loss, and to re-live bad outcomes.
4) We substitute rules, standards, restrictions, and planned outcomes to avoid the risks involved in relationships which require trust, vulnerability, freely giving and receiving, and above all, living in love.

So how do we move away from control and toward loving submission and trust? Here are some practical ways to counteract the tendency toward being a control freak.
With respect to ourselves:
1. Ask Jesus to help us let go of outcomes and cling only to him.
2. Say Yes more than No (exercise spontaneity).
3. Be okay with imperfection (everyone is on a journey).
4. Be vulnerable with people, invite mutual trust.
5. Be realistic in our expectations.
6. Accept that life is filled with unknowns.
7. Accept that pain, rejection, failure, and suffering are all part of life. Following Jesus does not eliminate these things from our lives, but it does transform them into places of healing, strength, and beauty.
With respect to dealing with others:
1. Ask Jesus to heal and transform others; fixing others is not our job.
2. Quit the passive-aggressive nonsense - be direct.
3. Avoid blaming others; let us take responsibility for our own well-being.
4. Never try to control a controller. Instead, let us adopt a direct, caring approach.

I don't believe that we can ever root control completely out of our lives; we are willful, independent beings who want our own way instead of submitting to God and to one another. It takes daily diligence to walk in trust instead of control. With that in mind, let me offer this.

The (recovering) Control Freak's Pledge:
I trust in God, not a particular outcome.
Outcomes are in God's hands, not mine.
God's outcomes are vastly superior to any I can dream up. Help me believe it and act like it!
Relationships are more valuable than results; let me act accordingly.
Perfection in this life is not possible; healing and wholeness through Jesus are.
Therefore, nothing in my life is off-limits to God.
Jesus is my outcome. I pursue Jesus.

A summary of the talk I gave at my faith community on November 16, 2014.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Names of God - Lord of Hosts (Part 5)

Here is the summary of the talk I gave on Sunday, November 2, at my faith community.

This week we are looking at the name of God, YHWH Sabaoth. You will remember that the word, YHWH, often pronounced Jehovah, means the Existing One and suggests the idea of "to become" or "to become known." YHWH is translated LORD in most Bibles. The most common compound name used with YHWH is Sabaoth, occurring 261 times in the Hebrew Bible. Sabaoth means hosts or armies and can refer to angel hosts, armies of heaven, and every living thing. Therefore, YHWH Sabaoth can be said to be the military name of God. It means the all-powerful ruler of the universe, the One who commands armies of heaven and will eventually defeat all enemies. All power and authority belong to YHWH Sabaoth. We find the Sabaoth name (also used together with Elohim) frequently in the writings of the prophets, especially Isaiah (84 times), Jeremiah (80 times), the short book of Haggai (14 times), Malachi (25 times), and Zechariah (50 times).

Since YHWH Sabaoth is a military name, I thought it would be appropriate to hear from a reliable source regarding what a military commander does. Lieutenant General Russel Honoré (retired commanding general of United States First Army, known for leading the military's relief efforts following hurricane Katrina) says that his role is "to provide wisdom, vision, and motivation." General Honoré indicates that a leader does not boss people around, but seeks to set them on the right path. He says, "Leadership means forming a team and working toward common objectives that are tied to time, metrics, and resources. The purpose of the commander and the staff is to do the planning and then to motivate the execution." Thanks, General.

A closer look at the English word, "host," introduces some additional, important nuances. One of the Latin roots is hospes (where we get "hospitality") which is someone who invites in and cares for others, like the host of a party. Another related Latin root is hostis (where we get the word "hostile") which refers to a stranger or enemy. Both of these meanings, a God who cares for others and a God who is the conqueror over enemies, are present in the Old Testament. A third Latin root which is relevant here is the word hostia which means "victim" (sacrifice, offering), and it is the word we use for the bread in the Eucharistic Body of Christ. [Thanks to Mark Hart for these insights.] So in YHWH Sabaoth we have the Lord of hospitality, the Lord who overcomes enemies, and the Lord of the victim. Let's take a look at biblical examples of each one of these.

Image from reformedtheology.ca
1. Lord of the victim and underdog. The story of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1 (the first occurrence of YHWH Sabaoth) gives us a story of a woman who is childless, ridiculed by others for her barrenness. This causes her great sorrow and shame. On a visit to the temple, she decides to take her distress to God. We read in 1 Samuel (Names of God Bible): "Though she was resentful, she prayed to Yahweh while she cried. She made this vow, 'Yahweh Tsebaoth, if you will look at my misery, remember me, and give me a boy, then I will give him to you for as long as he lives.'... And Yahweh remembered her. Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel [God Hears], because she said, 'I asked Yahweh for him.'" Her appeal to the LORD of Hosts indicated that she believed God would not only listen, but could and would do something to change her circumstances, to relieve her distress.

Image from pulsosocial.com
2. Lord who overcomes enemies, opposing forces. Here we turn to the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. The Philistines have declared war on Israel, and instead of mounting an all-out charge, they bring out their champion, the giant Goliath, and challenge Israel to send out their own champion to fight him. The winner of the duel would win the victory on behalf of their people. This is basically a no-win situation for Israel for no one is seen to be capable of or willing to try to defeat Goliath. David, a young shepherd boy visiting his brothers who were in Israel's army, happens to be there when Goliath marches out and issues his challenge. David immediately jumps into action, rightly discerning that this is essentially a challenge to God's power. He says to those around him, "Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should challenge Elohim Chay [Living God]?" David, with utmost trust in God, indicates that no one should be discouraged, and he is willing to fight Goliath. "David told the Philistine, 'You come to me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come to you in the name of Yahweh Tsebaoth, the Elohim of the army of Israel, whom you have insulted. Today Yahweh will hand you over to me.'" (Names of God Bible). And we all know how the story goes: Goliath, with all his battle regalia and weapons, comes lumbering down the valley, David runs out to meet him with his slingshot, takes a stone, and with a single shot, fells the giant. The LORD of Hosts grants an impossible victory.

Image from shellyduffer.com
3. Lord of hospitality. Our last story has to do with the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 6). Though the name YHWH Sabaoth does not appear in the passage, the idea is clearly present. The king of Aram is fighting against Israel, and every time they launch an attack, Israel is always ready for them. This annoys the king greatly, and he sets about trying to find the traitor in their midst. He is soon informed that there is no traitor but there is a prophet, Elisha, in Israel who seems to know everything they say to each other in Aram. The king determines to capture Elisha and sends horses and chariots and soldiers to his location. When Elisha's servant gets up the next morning, he sees that they are surrounded by enemy soldiers! He panics and asks Elisha what they should do. Elisha replies, "Don't be afraid. We have more forces on our side than they have on theirs." The eyes of Elisha's servant are opened and he sees a heavenly host of fiery horses and chariots surrounding the enemy army. In a dramatic turn of events, the soldiers of Aram soon find themselves surrounded by the Israelite army. The king of Israel asks Elisha whether he should kill the enemy soldiers and Elisha's response is rather surprising. He says, "Give them food and water. Let them eat and drink. Then let them go back to their master." So the king prepares a feast for the enemy soldiers and sends them back to their master. And the Aramean troops stop raiding Israel's territory. In this case, the kindness and hospitality of the LORD of Hosts lead to peace (see also Psalm 23:5).

It is important to understand that the ultimate goal of any military commander is not war nor conquest over another nation, but to bring peace, to make friends out of enemies. Interestingly, we find the name YHWH Sabaoth in Isaiah 9 which outlines the reign of the Messiah, the Prince of Peace. Here we find that the reign of justice and righteousness is brought about by YHWH Sabaoth, the LORD of Hosts.

In summary, here are some of the ideas we can pull from the name, YHWH Sabaoth.
1. YHWH Sabaoth is the name of God we find used when someone is at the end of their rope.
2. YHWH Sabaoth is the God who is greater than any other power or force, so we do not need to be afraid or discouraged.
3. YHWH Sabaoth is the one for whom nothing is impossible, the one who hears our cries for help and is able to do something about our situation.
4. YHWH Sabaoth is the all-powerful one when we are powerless, the one for whom victory is never in question, the one who instills confidence in his people.
5. YHWH Sabaoth is the one who brings us out of fear and anxiety, out of feeling small and outnumbered, out of being troubled in our spirits, out of timidity and doubting and hopelessness ... to being confident that the LORD of Hosts is present and able to help us.
6. YHWH Sabaoth is the one who brings peace.

If you want to take a few minutes to meditate on the name of God, YHWH Sabaoth, perhaps you will find this song helpful: Be Still My Soul.