Friday, October 20, 2017

Food for Thought: Problem Solving and Personal Management

1. The Power of Anti-Goals

“…So, instead of thinking through what we wanted our perfect day to look like, we thought about the worst day imaginable and how to avoid it. We inverted and came up with what we call Anti-Goals.”

Source:, H/T Tony Sheng

2. Top Three Work-from-Home Problems and Their Solutions

- Lack of discipline (“Learn good time management skills…”)
- Feeling out of the loop (“Be persistent... go after the information you need to do your job.”)
- Going stir crazy (“You’ll have to make extra effort to avoid becoming a creepy recluse.”)

Source: Grammarly

3. Busy Season

Personally, this is turning out to be a busy time for me. Four Perspectives classes, all involving overnight travel. Weekly editions of both Missions Catalyst and Pioneering Prayer to get out. Email, social media stuff, misc admin. Several plates spinning in the background, all projects I plan to wrap up or hand off by year's end. That will help but means extra pressure now. Meanwhile, it became clear I needed to fit in a trip to Orlando as well. So Monday I'll be flying to Florida for the rest of the week.

Glad Someone else is looking out for me when in comes to planning, though. When I reluctantly told a Perspectives coordinator I couldn't come teach for her class in February (my next really busy month), she wrote back:
 “Here’s a neat God story… I went on the Perspectives website this past weekend and saw the amount of classes you were teaching and had some concern for you and almost sent an email telling you that. Just so happens, my husband goes to the JAARS day event this past weekend and strikes up a conversation with someone who wants to get more action teaching Lesson 6 but I already had the invite out to you. God is faithful to take care of you and to take care of providing an instructor out of the blue! How cool is that??? So, no worries! I think we’re going to be OK. I sure hope I get to hear you teach sometime. You come highly recommended.”

Thursday, October 19, 2017

How Not to Sabotage Your Efforts

From the archives... a favorite post from 2013, describing one of the most helpful things I picked up along the way through grad school.

One of the objectives of the class I'm taking this summer is to develop a personal awareness of the ways one is most likely to sabotage relationships. Well, specifically, cross-cultural relationships with people who happen to be Muslims. Seems a lot of us get a little touchy when others -- Muslims, or anyone -- look at the world very differently than we do, open their mouths and talk about what they think and feel, and reject or even criticize things about how we think and feel. We think we're being attacked. We may have the same reactions in marriage, or getting along with our coworkers, watching the evening news or reading things on Facebook.

One of our books includes a chapter called "How Not to Sabotage Your Efforts to Reach Muslims." As the author points out, Christian books about reaching Muslims tend to externalize the tension we feel, as if Muslims are the problem, and if they just wouldn't be so Muslim we wouldn't be so upset about things. But if Muslims are just being themselves, do we have to get ourselves upset about it?

It shouldn't surprise us that people sabotage their efforts to reach Muslims the same way they -- or should I say we -- sabotage all kinds of efforts and relationships. If we are upset, likely our communication and behavior is going to be affected. And underneath that agitation are unhelpful thought patterns like these:
1. Demandingness: Absolute shoulds, oughts, musts, “have to’s”, and needs (I need to be perfect, people have to listen to me, they shouldn't reject me if I tell the truth, etc.)

2. Awfulizing: Believing that something is terrible, horrible, or awful (maybe dwelling on and inflating something negative and being unable to accept or let go of it).

3. Low frustration tolerance: Believing that you can’t stand something, that it is too much, or intolerable. (thus increasing your own sense of psychic pain -- you think it's more than you can take and will make you explode or crumble or something).

4. Self-downing: Believing that you, yourself are no good, beyond hope or redemption.

5. Other-downing: Believing that someone else or a group of people are no good, beyond hope or redemption.

6. Overgeneralization: Believing about a situation, person, or group that it will always be a particular way or will never change.

Source: here.

I don't know about you, but I recognize those thoughts as pretty familiar ones. And they sabotage me in life, generally, and especially in relationships.

When our emotions are those of anger, frustration, anxiety, depression, and fear -- rooted in such thought patterns -- we then engage in unhelpful behaviors like defensiveness, blame, aggression, avoidance, rudeness, and dwelling on the negative. Those kind of emotions and behaviors may be normal and seem justified, but they don't help build relationships, do they? So, if our goal is to build effective relationships or have a "ministry," we need to find a way to deal with those emotions and behaviors -- and the thoughts that lie beneath them.

I found it helpful to hear my professor, who is a practicing psychologist, talk about "upsetting ourselves" instead of "being upset." That kind of language helps me take responsibility for my own emotions and emotional reactions -- I have to acknowledge that nobody is forcing me to be upset, to worry, to be stressed out. Those things are not mandatory.

One problem, he said, is that we don't have an effective theory of emotions. Most people believe that circumstances, the behavior or speech of other people, or the way we are raised are the causes of our emotions, despite the fact that research and other sources of authority (e.g., the Bible) do not support these theories. So our instructor offered us what he called the "ABC model of emotions." This is easy. I think I can remember it. And, in digging a little deeper, I see it comes from cognitive behavioral therapy.

A = Activating event, or trigger. The situation or experience (past, current, or anticipated).
B = Beliefs about that event. Thoughts we have when the situation or experience happens.
C = Consequences. Our responses, both emotions and behavior.

Most people believe A causes C. (e.g., that situation frustrates me; that person makes me mad, etc). But A triggers B, and B is what causes C. Our emotions and behaviors are largely caused by our thoughts and beliefs about the way things are supposed to be. Our expectations. And that is good news, because we can't change other people and often cannot change our situation. While changing our thinking is difficult, it can be done if we're honest with ourselves about what we think, willing to work at thinking differently, and ask for God's help in doing so.

So, how can we avoid sabotaging our relationships and other efforts? Stop and consider what things are getting us upset -- or, more precisely, what things we are upsetting ourselves about. What are our unhelpful responses when we are upset? What are we thinking? Is what we are thinking actually true? Is there another way to look at and think about the situation or something else we can focus on that might be more productive?

Friday, September 29, 2017

So, God loved the world...

[Reposted from 2013]

So, some people really don’t like to read or hear sentences that begin, unaccountably, with the word "so." To me it suggests a continuing conversation. To the purist, it's a conjunction, and should no more lead off your sentence than a "but," "and," or "though." Now you know!

An odd assignment in a biblical hermeneutics class I took as part of my seminary studies had me exploring uses of the little word in various contexts in the book of John. What does John mean when he says so?

There are some variations in meaning for this word. The Greek version of it shows up in John 3:8, 14; 4:6; 5:21, 26; 7:46; 8:59; 11:48; 12:50; 14:31; 15:4; 18:22; and 21:1,  and in most these passages it means (and may be translated into English as) "this is how" or "in this way." Not "to this degree." So, more "thus," less "very." John's using the word as a conjunction, not a modifier.

The reason for this assignment? Turns out that when "so" sneaks into the uber-famous King James Version of John 3:16, there's good reason to believe it means the same thing there, despite tradition and appearances. Not like this:

"I asked Jesus, 'How much do you love me?'
And Jesus said, 'This much.'
Then He stretched out His arms and died."

Sorry! Actually, I'm not sorry. Always found that Christian T-shirt/poster sentiment rather creepy.

Some scholars disagree, but how John uses the word elsewhere suggests that here, too, it refers to the manner and expression of love (this kind of love), not the degree of it (this much love).

Small difference? It's enough to use a different translation.

English a few centuries ago, in the day of ol' King James, used "so" primarily in the same sense as the book of John ("this happened, so that did"). Today's English, though, tends to use "so" primarily as an adverb indicating degree. ("I am so totally ready for the weekend, what about you?")

That renders the King James version of this verse -- and the many translations that do homage to it in this particular cases -- a bit misleading. For 21st century American readers, ol' John 3:16 might be better rendered "this is how God loved the world," not "this is how much God loved the world."

Does that change the meaning much? I think so. I think it moves the emphasis from God's warm fuzzy feelings to God's world-shaking actions, from the greatness of his heart to the greatness of his gift. As the saying goes, love is a verb.

For more on this translation issue see So, What? John 3:16 and the Lord's Prayer (God Didn't Say That: Bible Translations and Mistranslations).

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Great Conversation

“There is nothing that makes me happier than sitting around the dinner table and talking until the candles are burned down.”  ― Madeleine L'Engle, A Circle of Quiet 

I used to say that nothing makes me happier than a good, meaty conversation. 

As the years have gone by, though, I have felt less and less able to pull my own weight in conversation. 

I run out of things to say or ask the other person about. Maybe I'm just not interesting enough? Have I stopped reading, learning, and growing, so I have nothing to bring to the table?

Whatever it is, when I'm on the spot, I often can't think of a way to take the talk from "small talk" to at least "medium talk," if that's a thing.  

Part of the problem may be that the conversations that dash my hopes are often one on one. The ideal number of people for a discussion that is simultaneously relaxed and stimulating, I propose (or at least prefer), is four. In a group of three to five, no one need carry the conversational ball alone, yet there's space for everyone to have their say. My new team at work is a team of four, and that feels just right.

Do you have any strategies for stimulating great conversations? What works for you?

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Fandom Fancies

Yesterday was game day, a fact well-advertised (at their own expense) by a good many of the residents of Columbia, South Carolina. As we went about our Saturday errands I noticed how many sported crimson gear demonstrating their allegiance to the South Carolina Gamecocks, especially when it comes to football, the sport currently in season.

The Need to Know

We didn’t watch the game, but felt we had to be in the know. As the evening progressed Hubs inquired about the score each time he asked Siri how the University of Oregon football team was doing in a simultaneous match against Wyoming. Though Oregon won 49-13, a sell-out crowd here in Columbia watched the Gamecocks lose 23-13. Had they won, the crowing would have continued throughout the city for another day. Instead, I suspect a hush has fallen over the topic for most fans, for now. Still, as Hubs connects with local guys he works with over Facebook or around the proverbial water cooler on Monday, he wants to have a basic grasp of what happened.

What's the Appeal?

It still catches me by surprise that so many people find their identity in the sports teams they cheer for, yet I have to admit enough interest to give a fair amount of my time to following my favorite teams. I’m not a “true fan” of any sport, I suppose; I use it primarily to establish or maintain common-ground with others, such as friends and family members back in the West, and to some extent, to those who aren’t.

Yes, I think that’s it. Showing allegiance to teams from the hometown or alma mater makes a statement of place both to those who share it and those who don’t. It’s part of my “I am from…” statement. Not as much as Puget Sound and Mount Rainier, blackberries and bookshelves, but a part.

Appealing to Allegiances

On a recent trip to the Northwest I went to an arts festival which featured Northwest icons in a prominent way. Not the sports things: as a juried art show, it did not have Huskies, Seahawks, or Mariners gear, at least not that I noticed. But it did feature more natural Northwest icons. I brought home a piece that managed to include Mount Rainier, Puget Sound, a Washington State ferry, and someone riding a bike down a hill during a sunset, all together in the form of a paper-cutting by a Japanese artist. All those points of appeal to my allegiances in one piece were hard to resist, and this one seemed made to fit in my suitcase and my frugal price range, too. So now it’s on my wall.

I suppose that makes the same kind of statement as the football jersey or baseball cap.

Now Consider the Funatics...

Attending the art festival meant skipping another Everett, WA event, the opening of a new headquarters for Funko, a Northwest company that got its start making bobble-head dolls and grew into what may be the world’s largest manufacturers of licensed toys and pop-culture collectibles. Who knew? They’ve made their new HQ into quite the interactive consumer experience, like a seamless blend of Disneyland and the Disney store. It features sections catering to fans of Marvel Comics, Harry Potter, Star Wars, and more. They were expecting thousands of "Funatics" to attend the grand opening.

Sports and pop culture, all in one.

Taxonomy of Fandom: Justified or Unfair?

I find my own prejudices affect how I view the world of fandom. Picking up watercolors of Mt. Rainier and ferryboat knickknacks seems like healthy home-town-ism to me, while my-country-first rhetoric seems like dangerous patriotism. Why? What's the difference? Is it that Puget Sound is real and worth celebrating, not costing anyone else, whereas American Dream is a political philosophy or fiction with a high pricetag for other people and the planet?

Sports fans seem, to me, sometimes excessive, but ultimately more acceptable than pop-culture collectible collectors. Why? What’s the difference? In both cases we’re talking about commercializing on someone else’s achievement, licensing the work of a team of athletes or artists and selling overpriced “gear” so others can identify with it. Is it that a quarterback is a real person while a comic-book character is not?

In the end I think my taxonomy is little more than a ranking of prejudices... concluding that while I'm entitled to my opinions, so other people are entitled to theirs. Cheer for who you will and collect what you want; we all have our preferences and our own ideas about how far we'll go to proclaim or protect them.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Considering Cohousing

Until a few years ago, many of the grad students at the Christian college campus where we live made their homes in a community called The Village. This cluster of mobile homes out in the woods had been there a few decades. Many of them were pretty run down and plagued by mold and dry rot, but the married students and families who lived there loved the sense of community they shared.

When a complex of new, modern apartments was complete, The Village was closed down and the rotted-out trailers sold, given or hauled away.

The apartments, no longer limited to the same population, include not only graduate and seminary student families, but also older single students, faculty and staff, and alumni like me. They are clean, well designed, and a big step up in luxury.

But no longer do all the residents know one another. Sometimes nearest neighbors still share meals and families with young kids still get their kids together to play, but it isn’t the kind of place you can easily meet people or shoo your little ones out the door and know they will be looked after. In fact, we have policies against that which help protect the children. I was glad those policies were in place when a young daredevil crashed a scooter and broke her arm coming down the hill outside our building not long ago. No, we don’t want the kids running wild. But in The Village, I think they pretty much could. It was a tight community.

What keeps the apartments from creating that same sense of community? In part it’s the architecture. American housing is set up to protect values like luxury, convenience, and privacy. It’s not like The Village, where everyone would see each other coming and going and know who lives where. I imagine some would put up a cute wooden sign with their name in front of their trailer. I suppose I could still put a sign on my door, but with few shared stairwells, who would see it? So, physically, we can't create that atmosphere. We don't have balconies or patios; most can't see each other come and go. While there is a good amount of shared space, many avoid it.

We do have a nice community center which hosts events, formally and informally. There's coffee, and a printer, and some places to study, play games, or hang out. Staff and residents do what they can to foster relationships. The laws and ethics placed on apartment managers require them to protect the safety and privacy of their residents, though. They feel that their hands are tied. No nametags at community events, for example, and they are rather cautious about introductions, though they love to see us meet one another. We also have a Facebook group now. That may help. Our shared faith and values certainly help.

But most who become friends know each other more from taking classes together or working together in a campus office, not from being neighbors. Counseling students, bonded by the forced intimacy of their small classes, stick together. MDiv students meet to study Greek. People form alliances according to their sense of direction or stage of life, along, of course, with their level of interest in forming connections with others.

There are people who never show up at events; they want to go their own way. So that points to another reason we don't have as much community as we might: a lot of people don't want it. That's not necessarily what they are looking for, here.

On the other hand, some of the moms and single students seem to have hoped for more community and find themselves lonely or isolated. We have a lot of international student families. I think it's pretty tough on them, maybe especially if they come from more communal settings. Last year I heard one of the Chinese students say his wife cried every day. She was at home with little children and didn't speak much English. Ouch. I need to try harder to connect with my other Chinese neighbors!

Then there's the size of the place. There are too many of us, too spread out. I'm glad they stretch the net wide enough to include people like me. But the size of the group? You can't be friends with that many people. It’s a lot to overcome.

No, I don't want to move into a trailer park. "The Village" is gone and even if it weren't, I'd find my clean, new apartment a better choice. Yet I wish we could have the sense of community that from all accounts they seem to have enjoyed.

Meanwhile, my dad and stepmom, as they get older they are looking at joining or starting a co-housing community. It’s a trend that has spread to the US from Denmark, in part, where a large percentage of people live in some kind of intentional community. Some buy up houses, tear down the fences, and put up shared kitchens, dining halls, laundry facilities, and gathering spaces. Others take over small apartment buildings and remodel them to overcome that American push for privacy. They plan social events and work parties, plant gardens and hold community meetings. Apparently, in the US, it’s illegal to require residents to commit to volunteer a certain number of hours in serving others, but that kind of thing is encouraged or understood.

A key distinctive of co-housing, it seems, is intentionality. It's there in the architecture, in the number of units, in the way the place is managed, and in the expectations people have in choosing to live there. These things don't tend to come together accidentally through a few people trying to create them, not when others are pushing for privacy. It works best if everyone knows this is what they are opting into from the beginning.

On the other side of my family tree, my mom and stepdad have moved into a retirement community that offers many of the same benefits as co-housing, plus services needed more by the elderly, including multiple levels of nursing care and help with transportation and shopping. On visiting, I thought the amount of interaction one could have was great. Everybody has dinner together every night. You don't have to come every night, but you're paying a lot of money for them to make you dinner every night, so most people are there most of the time. Other services and activities are purely optional, but diverse and appealing enough that people can easily form friendships through them.

Every person or couple has their name on their door, and there are shared hallways. It's easy to run into someone in the elevator or on the way to the dining room, bistro, meeting room, or post office. It's easy to make friends. A newsletter uses people's names and apartment numbers freely, and many wear their name tags to dinner and activities. I like that.

I also saw how it could feel a little pushy. It's not as counter-cultural as full-on co-housing, but it's still a little weird. Mom and I went to visit a nearby church and I wondered if she would want to go back given how many of her neighbors noticed us there and remarked on it when we ran into them later. It's one thing to have dinner with the same people every night (as Mom has begun to do) and be missed if you aren't there or if you eat at a different time; no big deal. It might be annoying, though, if you just wanted to sleep in and people bugged you about missing church or a fitness class, as if you need to do this because it's good for you and why weren't you there?

What's accountability and inclusion, and what's just annoying? Intrusive neighbors could really restrict one's sense of independence. When it comes down to it, being independent is a much stronger value in America than being interconnected.

Would you want to live in co-housing? How far would you be willing to go to share life with others to whom you weren’t related? What things do you think you'd enjoy most about it, and what things would be hard for you? Intergenerational families living together assure me that each woman needs her own kitchen! What else?

To learn more, see The Cohousing Association of the United States.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Advertisers as Guides

“The American self characteristically chooses advertisers instead of apostles as guides,” says Eugene Peterson.

I recently felt the pressure myself as we were driving the ad-saturated route to the tourist town of Myrtle Beach. We decided to count the billboards advertising a single “attraction,” a dinner-and-show experience called Pirates Voyage (“The Most Fun Place to Eat! TM).”

We counted 57 billboards. Our hotel lobby also had brochures, and “Pirates” had provided the little sleeves for the hotel key cards.

Is it any wonder I picked up the message, “a trip to Myrtle Beach would not be complete without going to ‘Pirates’!”?

Nevertheless, we did not go there.

We also failed to visit almost all of the hundreds of beach supply stores, despite their loud fluorescent signage, as well as the many all-you-can-eat seafood buffets and pancake houses. We did not play a single round of miniature golf. We never made it to Ripley’s Believe It or Not. (Believe it or not.)

I don’t say this with an air of superiority, as if I am above such things, but one of acknowledgement. Though I am not a person interested in fun (per se) I still felt the strong tug to check them out.

Advertising. It's powerful stuff.

Image source