Friday, July 31, 2009

Life's Great (and Changing) Questions

In his book A Resilient Life, Gordon MacDonald tells a story about teaching at a conference for church worship leaders:
"When I first entered the meeting room, I was startled to realize that almost everyone present seemed to be a twenty- or thirty-something person ...

"These men and women were charged (and presumably gifted) with designing and leading worship for their congregations. That meant they selected songs and Scriptures, said prayers, and in general, attempted to escort people into the presence of God through acts of reverence. They had better know their audience, I thought: who the people were, how they felt, what their hopes and dreams were, and where they sensed or feared their lives were headed."
And yet, do we know our audience(s)?

MacDonald shared with the worship leaders about the small group he and his wife attend, made up mostly of people their own age. The group meets once a month simply to share a meal and tell stories about what is going on. By the time they are done, everybody has a basic sense of the important issues in each other person's life. And one topic that never fails to come up one way or another is death.
"I could almost sense their incredulity. When you are in your twenties and thirties, you rarely talk about death (at least not regularly, in a small group) unless it has been pressed into life through sudden tragedy.... "
Similarly, for a substantial number of people in our churches, says MacDonald, death is one of the most important and frequently considered subjects. The young people he was teaching, on the other hand, seldom think about death. They are concerned about careers, willpower, and relationships, he said - subjects that have little interest for him personally.
"How are you going to usher people into the presence of God if you don't know the questions that form the big pictures in the hearts of the various generations you are leading? I suspect that there are different questions for every age in life, perhaps every decade. Knowing them helps us to deal with people sensitively, and it gives us a better understanding of how to build a larger view of our own lives. ... You won't be asking the same questions ten years from now that you are asking today."

People in their twenties are asking questions like these:

What kind of person am I becoming? What will I do with my life? What is it I really want? Where can I find people who will welcome me as I am? Can I love, and am I lovable?
"Twenty-somethings are becoming aware that they can no longer get away with irresponsible or unsocial behavior. Life patterns, habits, and personality quirks need adjustment if one is to get along. So the question, what parts of me and my life need correction? arises.

As people move into their thirties, the questions may shift:
"Since there is usually an expansion of responsibility and no expansion of time, thirty-somethings find themselves asking the question, How do I prioritize the demands being made on my life?
Loneliness can start to be a significant issue, especially for men. Gone are the opportunities to simply hang out with one's friends for hours on end.
"Old friends have drifted away; often, new acquaintances simply do not have the time to build the satisfying relationships that were part of the younger years.

"The spiritual questions no longer center on the ideals of youth but on the realities of a life that is tough and unforgiving.

"Thirty-somethings find themselves asking, why am I not a better person?"

For many, entering their forties means entering dangerous, uncharted waters:
"The complexities of life further accelerate, and - this is worrisome - we begin to recognize that we can no longer fob off our flaws and failures as youthfulness and inexperience."
Many at this age feel trapped, and may fight disappointment in themselves and the ways their lives have turned out. This is a good time in one's life to take a sabbatical, stripping down one's lives to the bare bones and evaluating one's life journey, perhaps plotting a new course for the second half.

Similarly, those in their fifties, sixties, and seventies see different questions rise to the surface:


Why is time moving so fast? How do I deal with my failures and successes? Who are these young people who want to replace me? What do I do with my doubts and fears? Will we have enough money if problems come?

When do I stop doing the things that have always defined me? Why do I feel ignored by a large part of the young population? Do I have enough time to do all the things I've dreamed about? Who will be around me when I die? Which one of us will go first? Are the things I've always believed in capable of taking me to the end? What have I done that will outlive me?

Seventies and Eighties

Does anyone realize or even care who I once was? Is my story important to anyone? How much of my life can I still control? Is there anything I can still contribute?

"I was struck with how little we know about each other across the generations. And how important it is to understand what questions form the larger pictures of another's life. This is the pathway to resilience: knowing what's up ahead, what we are likely to face, where the possibilities and obstacles lie."
What do you think, do these questions resonate with you? He has more to say about each age than I have shared here. I found this a helpful chapter. Certainly I've seen these threads in my own life, and it's good to look ahead.

What he doesn't really address is how then one can effectively lead a mixed-generation worship service, small group, or congregation. I seldom find myself in groups that only include people who are in my own "decade." Nor, I think, would I want to be.

(Quotations from Gordon MacDonald, A Resilient Life, pp. 47-58)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Looking Back on Lessons Learned & The Problem with Experience

Looking Back on Lessons Learned

Wednesday morning I spent some time looking through my journals from 2002. I was living overseas for about a year on “sabbatical.” It was also a time of rather intense personal growth, both because I’d taken off from my regular job for a season for just that purpose, and because if I wanted to survive in a cross-cultural situation, I knew I'd have to dig in and pay aggressive attention to my surroundings and my own feelings and how I was responding to both.

Found it somewhat helpful, but also painful, to see my day-to-day experiences from that period and how I processed them in those journals. I don’t do that as much anymore. I haven’t been growing at that aggressive rate, either. Hmmm, connected?

Of course, opportunities to talk about what life was like for me, in English, were rare. That was another reason I journaled so avidly. I couldn't talk. Or at least not much more than babytalk. As a single person and a beginning language learner, I was discouraged from spending much time with teammates or other English speakers. Hard, but good. So I did a lot of writing.

I also realized that I still have some of the same problems as I did there and then. I'd like to do a better job at anticipating them and facing them down when they come. Well, I have different ways of processing things too. And these days life is not nearly so dramatic, most of the time... That's fine with me.

The Problem with Experience

One of the things I struggled with then seems to have more and more a place in my life as I get older. In fact it seems part of the cost of getting older. Simply this: Others seem to think that you know what you are doing.

Something about my personality encourages this, and age exacerbates the effect.

Now, there are pros and cons to that. It does open doors so I can serve people in ways I might not otherwise be able to consider. But it can also mean others treat me as an omni-competent person and take my contribution for granted. I don't get as much affirmation, encouragement, or recognition as I think I would if I were younger, newer, or more obviously struggling to accomplish the things that I do. I don’t like that. I really like to be appreciated and affirmed. (Publicly, if possible!)

I think one helpful response is to reevaluate where I find my significance and identity. Just who am I trying to please, and why?

You know, there may not be so many opportunities to get affirmation, encouragement, and recognition as once there were, but there are more and more opportunities to GIVE it in a meaningful way, aren't there?

I don’t think this dynamic is unique to me. Is this part of how it feels to be a parent? Oh, dang, do you suppose I'm turning into a grownup?!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Searching for...

Here are some of the funny things that bring people to this website... according to Google Analytics, the tool I use to see who's reading and how they get here.

So as not to create a self-fulfilling prophecy, I'll distort the search terms just a bit.
poe*ms about losing cell ph*ones

song*s we sang in sch*ool in the 40's

how many w*ords in a 20 m*inute talk (I get this one, or variations on it, a LOT)

ca*leb-project-eur*ope (I also get this one a lot... should probably figure out why. My friends who once used this name no longer wish to be associated with it, I believe)

fun*eral sermon medita*tion

hand m*otions to john jac*ob jingle*heimer sch*midt
The top terms that have led people to this site in 2009, though, are these:
theo*logy of listen*ing

screams * in the des*ert

short Bi*ble studies

Iso*bel K*uhn

tel*ling se*crets
I'm glad that the theology of listen*ing is something others are searching for. Maybe I should revisit some of the posts people land on and adjust how they are linked and organized.

I'm still interested in writing something for publication on the "listening" topic, though I don't know who might want to publish it.

What brings people to your site? Do you know?

Monday, July 27, 2009

July Reading Roundup - Part 1: Fiction

(See also part 2 - nonfiction)

I think I'm done reading novels for the month. (Perhaps I could finish a few other things in my life if I got out of the family habit of saying "just one more chapter..."!) Here's the list.

The Man in the Queue, by Josephine Tey

Sometimes I wish our library had a section for books written before I was born – both the out-of-print and hard-to-find gems, and the things that have really kept their value even to the point of staying in print throughout the decades. Josephine Tey is great. This 1929 mystery introduces her main sleuth, the winsome Inspector Alan Grant.

Forest of the Pygmies, by Isabel Allende

I’ve always thought I ought to try reading something by Isabel Allende. Now I wish I hadn’t. Perhaps I’d have lower expectations if she weren’t such a “famous writer.” This one may not be her best: just happened to be on the shelves and looked accessible. At any rate, it’s part three of a series featuring a couple of teenagers who (I guess this is realistic) think they are different from everybody else and have the whole world figured out, and that nobody understands them – except each other, of course. When trouble comes (this time on an African jungle safari), they outwit all adults on the scene using their convenient magical powers. I found them very patronizing and annoying.

The Christian missionary in this story was particularly two-dimensional and unpleasant, which was odd since the author apparently dedicated her story to the man on which he was modeled.

Silence, by Shusaku Endo

“Shusaku Endo is Japan’s foremost novelist, and Silence is generally regarded to be his masterpiece.” It tells the story of a seventeenth-century Portuguese priest who goes to Japan, illegally, at the height of the terrible persecution that was destroying the Christian community of that nation (which once numbered 300,000). It’s a very moving exploration of what it’s like to be a foreigner working in a very different, sometimes wonderful and sometimes hostile situation, where the deepest commitments of your life are seriously questioned by those around you.

One thing really bothered me. A chief aim of the government leaders at this stage was to destroy Christianity in Japan by forcing influential Christians to recant their faith (by trampling on holy images). Some were brutally tortured. The Portuguese characters in this book found themselves in an excruciating situation: Though they desired to lay down their lives for the Japanese, their resistance to apostasy meant many Japanese died for them. The torturers put it on their heads: apostatize, and we will let these peasants live. The only way to be like Jesus and show mercy on the people was to deny Jesus. What would you do? None of the characters point out that it’s the torturers who are destroying the Japanese Christians, not the missionaries. So frustrating. But I’d certainly recommend the book.

It’s haunted by the absence of God: in these terrible situations, why is God silent?

Remake, by Connie Willis

“It’s the Hollywood of the future, where moviemaking’s been computerized and life-action films are a thing of the past…. Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe are starring together in a remake of a A Star Is Born, and if you don’t like the ending, you can change it with the stroke of a key.” Creative, interesting, and chock full of tribute to classic movies.

Not bad, but not her best either. So I strolled over to the Connie Willis shelf in our library and picked up D.A., my all-time favorite. It’s short: you can read it in less than an hour. But really fun. (Meg says her favorite CW book is Lincoln's Dreams, and many are the fans who favor To Say Nothing of the Dog.)

Seaside, by Terri Blackstock

Christian novella about two sisters, both operating under a great deal of stress and somewhat jealous and resentful towards one another. “And what neither of them realizes is how their frantic drive for achievement is speeding them headlong past the things that matter most in life.” Their mother (whose life has recently taken a more spiritual and sane turn) realizes they are just the kind of women she always encouraged them to be, and regrets it: “I taught you to run the treadmill and now I want to teach you to get off,” she says. So she invites them to spend a week of vacation with her and goes so far as buying their plane tickets, then watches them fight over the phone because neither is getting away, willingly (and somehow there isn’t any cell phone coverage at their Florida cabin!)

I enjoyed this novel and am a bit challenged – as I am by the stories and examples of several around me – to think again about my sometimes-rocky relationship with my own sister.

Jane Austen’s Charlotte, by Julia Barrett

When Austen died she left notes or drafts for this novel, now fleshed out by Julia Barrett. The colorful Parker family has a dream: they want to see their community on the Sussex seaside become the next great, fashionable watering hole. Like some other Austen tributes this one tries too hard to recreate her style and plays up things that she probably took for granted. I had to Google the “bathing machines” and “dippers” who operated them, a Victorian/regency excess that went out of use in later years. This book moves slowly and has a large cast of characters; we do not see the leads very much.

This book did get some really terrible reviews on Amazon, I see now (though they liked the other 'completion' of this novel, titled 'Sanditon').

Once I adjusted my expectations I enjoyed it as bedtime reading. Charlotte herself is a houseguest, a young woman from inland farming country invited to stay with the Parkers. She sees through them yet is charmingly loyal to her hosts and (of course) meets her future husband before we’re done.

The House of Bilquis, by Azhar Abidi

“A haunting novel about a mother and son and the emotional consequences of leaving home.” What happens when an aging Pakistani aristocrat, comfortably surrounded by her servants, realized her foreign-educated son is never coming back? Samad has married an Australian girl and plans to stay in Melbourne. He invites his mother Bilquis to join them, but it would mean leaving everything she knows – or, that is, what is left of it, because the Pakistan she once knew is slowly disappearing. Recommended.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

This Place

Friday marked fourteen years since the day I arrived in Colorado.

I did not think much of the place back then. I was accustomed to the wildness and wet of the Pacific Northwest. Compared to the Olympic and Cascade mountains, the Rockies seemed so brown and barren.

I complained – vociferously – about the lack of water. For five years of my childhood we lived on an island in Puget Sound. Most of my years in Washington I’d seen water every day; it was part of the landscape.

Here in Denver – well, there is a river that runs through town, but it’s far too hemmed in and has no beauty to recommend it. There’s no ocean. Most lakes are man-made. Even now, I find a sunset with no beach, no waterfront, somehow lacking.

But somehow, without even noticing it, I fell in love with Colorado.

It was probably the sunshine that hooked me first. Almost every day is partly to mostly sunny, year-round. Sure, there is snow, but not so much as people think; not in the city, anyway. It doesn’t stay on the ground very long. Lots of times it doesn’t even melt, but tidily evaporates and leaves the pavement dry.

Everything is spread out, and open, and spacious. Few places have traffic problems. You don't feel closed in. It's not flat, like some parts of the Midwest where you can see forever but there's nothing to see. Here, it's not flat, but it's open. Sometimes people from other parts of the country have a hard time with that: they feel exposed. And all this space, well, it may seem wasteful.

Colorado’s best feature may not be its mountains, or its prairies, its people, or its wildlife, but the broad, fascinating expanse of sky that stretches out above it all. It’s really our dominant feature, much more so than the Rockies.

The sky here is big. It has "presence." You notice it.

Colorado has great clouds. All kinds and forms and shades and colors. And they all have shape to them, piling up, spreading out, catching the light.

Not like the Northwest where you have more a “cloud cover” than “clouds.” I know all that cloud cover provides the moisture that makes the Northwest such a green growing place, a fruitful garden.

I would like to see more of that here, it’s true.

But you can’t really have it both ways.

So, I’ll choose to look up and enjoy the sky overhead.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

watermelon watermelon watermelon

"I bought watermelon today," the roommate informed me. (She's been on a special diet. On Monday she welcomed dairy back into her life. And she's still rejoicing over fruit, added back two weeks ago.)

"I bought watermelon so cute I want to NAME them!"

This is a seedless "pureheart" miniature (pedigreed?) watermelon. You can watch a video about how these are Fruit of Legendary Perfection, here.

This one is pretty adorable, I had to agree.

Nevertheless, Greenie went under the knife last night.

Wouldn't you like a piece?

Book Club Report

Quite a few years back Barb M. started a book club for the women of our dear-departed organization, and some of our friends. It was great fun...

We met on Friday or Saturday nights at different people's houses and always had a big meal - usually coordinated with the book we were reading - and the wine flowed rather freely. So did the laughter and levity. A number of the women in the group were mothers of young children and enjoyed the chance to get out with friends.

Like most such groups, this one included a mix of avid readers and those who wanted a bit of a push to read. Both types enjoyed the lively conversations that ensued.

When core members of the group moved away we found it difficult to continue, and eventually more or less gave up.

Several of us met in March 2008 to discuss having a women's book club once again, or to relaunch the old one. We discovered that it was easier to schedule meetings and to pull off logistics if we met in some neutral location (no one would have to cook or clean!) We've been meeting at a local coffee shop from 8-10 on a Saturday morning, when few other things are scheduled. We gather about every six weeks.

Factors that affect our choice of books include:

  1. Quality (we like things that are well written and enjoyable, and not sleazy)
  2. Length (we avoid things that are too long)
  3. Availability (most of us get the books from the library)
  4. Content (e.g., we have all traveled fairly extensively and enjoy reading things with an international flavor)
  5. Familiarity (it's good if one of us has already read the book, but not all of us! That way we'll be stretched but not into places we are unlikely to want to go)
We read both fiction and nonfiction (though the nonfiction tends to story, e.g, memoirs)

Here are the books we've read in the last 15 months or so. (Go to "Search this blog" for my response to some of them.)

Khaled Hosseni, The Kite Runner
William Young, The Shack
Philip Gourevich, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda
Ron Hall and Denver Moore, Same Kind of Different as Me
Robert Cormier, I Am the Cheese
Alexander McCall Smith, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
Anne Lindbergh, Gifts from the Sea
Anne Tyler, Digging to America
Greg Mortensen and David Relin, Three Cups of Tea

So... Any suggestions for future reads? Our next one is Harry Bernstein's The Invisible Wall.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


I'm getting closer to some solid plans for a sabbatical/study leave for this winter. I’ve been working steadily for seven years since the last time I took this kind of a break.

Told my team leader that when he returns from Africa in a few weeks he'll find a proposal on his desk. I don't know if we'll be able to make it work. But what a privilege to have the kind of job where six months "off," paid, just might be possible. I'd really like to enter the next decade strong. This could make all the difference.

If you're the praying type, lift up this process and pray that it come together in a way that will make it worthwhile. Or, if it doesn't come together, that God would bring me the inward renewal I need through other means.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Togetherness & Belonging

This week has stood in marked contrast to the lonely summer I've been whining about. Think God is trying to show me something?

Wednesday morning I had a rich time with my dear friend Andy and someone he wanted me to meet: a young cross-cultural worker who needed some help and encouragement in the challenges she faces raising support.

Came away encouraged, myself, about the process of inviting people to be involved in what I do. There are certainly lots of different ways to fund ministry, but I love the privilege of participating in this "raising personal support" model - and being on both sides of it. Feel like part of my legacy lives in the lives of those touched through the people I, too, support, in various ministries around the world.

Also, I can say truthfully each time I see Andy that I'm doing great; he and his wife Donna are among those who turn the lights on inside me. There's actually a pretty long list of people who have that effect, but few whom I see on a very regular basis.

So even though I was happy because of my morning appointment, I knew I needed to dig into some darker issues and did some writing to that effect that afternoon. Really brought me down. I slipped into that dark place, tending to believe I am destined to be rejected, excluded, overlooked, or forgotten. Why am I so ready to take on that role of an outsider, as if that's where I belong? Apparently I need some more prayer, more healing, in those areas. I don't think I've been ready to recognize that, to face that, to work through that - until maybe now.

Yet the events of the next few days did much to give me more and more evidence that I am - well, wanted. So very hard for me to believe; I need a lot of convincing. But that very evening I got a call from another favorite friend who hoped I'd join her family for the latest Harry Potter movie; there was a free ticket waiting for me, and how soon could I come?

The next day, friends who live in SE Asia dropped by the office right about the time everyone was leaving. Catching up with them was wonderful. As they left, both my phones were ringing; turned out some other friends from that part of the world were getting together - and would I join them? These are some of my favorite people; I've known most of them since the mid 1990s. I had just heard about the gathering, and might have easily slipped into sadness again about not belonging with them (they were all part of a team). But they made extra efforts to include me, somehow, anyway.

Two warm, spontaneous, personal invitations in two days. Hmmmm.

The next few events were planned. Friday, my small group met for dinner, worship, prayer, study - all woven together beautifully by the Holy Spirit to refresh and renew us all. Saturday night I attended an open house for a couple I support in Singapore. Sunday, a commissioning service for some friends doing church planting locally.

That's five parties in five days. Amazing. Too much, really. I'm not THAT much of an extrovert! But it sure helped me feel as if Someone is looking out for me.

Anybody remember this old song?

Brother, let me be your servant.
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I might have the grace
To let you be my servant, too.

We are pilgrims on a journey.
We are brothers on the road.
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load.

I will hold the Christ-light for you
In the night time of your fear.
I will hold my hand out to you;
Speak the peace you long to hear.

I will weep when you are weeping.
When you laugh, I'll laugh with you.
I will share your joy and sorrow
Till we've seen this journey through.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Do You Suffer Status Envy?

Do you log into Facebook (or its ilk) and wish that it were YOUR best day ever, your wonderful vacation, your achievement or good fortune being proclaimed to the world in a sentence or two?

Situations in which I might easily enjoy with my friend - were we talking face to face or even in a more lengthy internet medium, such as a blog – may seem, when summed up in just a few words, to hit that “jealousy” button much more easily.

From the comments people leave each other and the complaints they also post, I sense I am not alone.

Of course the same evidence suggests I've been on the other side of it, stirring the envy of others with my adventures and discoveries. Or even just the news that I’m spending a quiet evening with a cup of a tea and a good book, an existence only dreamed of by my busy, child-rearing friends.

What do you think? Are these tensions inevitable given the tendencies of the human mind and heart? Or is there something that can be done to reduce status envy?

I came across a word that places the blame on the one who posts the update:
Facebrag: To use Facebook as a platform to brag. Normally about a job, internship, trip, purchase or anything else that nobody really needs to know but you'd like to tell everyone because you're awesome. (Urban Dictionary)
On the other hand, the heart of the writer may be quite pure, don't you think? They only want to proclaim the situation which is causing them happiness. They may not be bragging at all. And still it sparks status envy.

Maybe the only real solutions lie within the receiver. Where are our hearts? Where are we finding joy, purpose, and acceptance? Do we see our friends as competitors, or companions? If we're healthy and mature, maybe this wouldn't be a problem, at least not very often.

Perhaps we could reduce status envy by not logging on when we're feeling sorry for ourselves, are particularly vulnerable, etc. Hmmmm... but since social networking seems so mindless and addictive, perhaps that’s just when we’re most likely to do it.

What do you think?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Flexible Strategies

The house behind us - so our back yards face one another - is inhabited by a young family with a pair of twin girls. Samantha and Alexandra, aged three, are cute little towheads, quite active, and very friendly. They don't know our names but will always call out a cheery "hi!" if one of us comes outside when they are playing in their yard. They like to be noticed.

Deb reports that Sammie and Alex were out swinging on their new swing set one recent afternoon.

Buck naked.

"Come back in, honey!" called Mom.

But she was not going to fight the losing battle of getting clothes on her little girl:

"I've still got to put sunscreen on your little bottom!"

What battles are you fighting which might be approached differently? :-)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Summer Challenge

Since I am more likely to verbalize things - here or elsewhere - than to treasure them in my heart, you may be aware that I really don't like summer. OK, I LOATHE summer. I like fruit and flowers and sunshine as much as anybody, but several other factors outweigh these things so much that I am more likely to be miserable during the summertime than any other time.

One big reason is climactic. I hate being cold, and summer, ironically, is a time for being cold. That's because of the combination of summer clothes and air conditioning. At home or in my car I can more or less control the temperature, but elsewhere I'm at the mercy of others. It doesn't turn out well for the "easily chilled."

So, more and more, I have come to the conclusion that summer clothes are not for me. I'm dressing as if for winter. Socks and shoes in place of sandals - long skirts or pants - sweaters and scarves. Really.

It's working. You know what? I'm not cold this summer. At least not so often.

The other big reason is social. In the summertime, most of the people I enjoy are unavailable. Everyone's focused on their families. It's time for reunions and camping trips and vacations and backyard barbecues and other quality time with one's nearest and dearest. If outsiders are included, they are probably other couples, or other families, simply because that means more points of connection.

I know that resenting this is petty of me, ridiculous, unfair. And that when I let my loneliness sour into bitterness, I become terrible company, and cannot receive love and friendship even when they are offered.

So, it's been a tough summer, already. Holiday weekends are the worst. But there's still more summer left to go; I still have a chance. I can respond to these tensions differently, if I choose.

What is the equivalent, on the social front, to putting on socks and sweaters so the A/C won't bother me?

I have a couple of ideas. The key is to pick little things that are under one's control and can be changed without enormous effort. But here are the general areas...

- Choose to rejoice in the freedoms and pleasures I DO have: count blessings.
- Allow myself to be sad about the things that are missing in my life: acknowledge griefs.
- Make choices that feel good and are good, instead of those that just feel good: eat right, rest well, get exercise, etc.
- Look upward and outward. Prioritize putting effort into my most refreshing relationships.

What do you think? Can I win the "summer challenge"?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Prayer and Cheer for the World’s Most Popular Life-sustaining Potion

'''Coffee,' Hannah breathed and it was more of a prayer than a statement. She needed caffeine and she needed it now, before Newton’s First Law of Motion, the one about inertia, came into play. A body at rest tended to stay at rest. And applying this principle of physics to her own life meant that if she didn’t get up soon, she might fall under the First Law and just sit on the edge of her bed, staring at the wall all day.

"'Coffee. Coffee now!' it was as close to a cheer as she could come up with in the cold predawn of a December morning, but it served to whet her appetite for the hot, aromatic brew her great grandmother Elsa had called Swedish Plasma.

"Before she had time to think, which would only have served to confuse her, Hannah was on her feet. And then her feet were moving, heading down the hallway toward the kitchen. The coffeepot that had been activated automatically five minutes before her alarm clock had sounded was now sitting on the counter with a full carafe of the world’s most popular life-sustaining potion, just waiting for her to imbibe."

Joanne Fluke, The Candy Cane Murder, p. 52.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Thank you thank you thank you

Here's a good example of the kind of emails I like to get. You probably do, too. This one showed up in my in-box Friday morning.
"O my goodness. I cannot believe that you finished ________! Wow. Awesome. ... Thank you thank you thank you for all of the time and energy you put into that ...

"Marti, you have been such an encouragement to me. Thank you. You are wonderful.

"And you were right about _________. I have found that it makes a huge difference. [concrete example here] I am encouraged. And even in the past couple of days I have thought of ways I can change certain things for the better ...

"Thanks for reading, Marti! Hope you have a wonderful day today."
My friend Elizabeth wrote this. She's very much an encourager. (Can you tell?!) She's also very open to input from others. So, it's easy for me to bless her and make a difference in her life, too.

The circumstances of our relationship don't hurt. Elizabeth is about half my age, and she's overseas this summer doing work for which I trained her. We spent a good bit of time together last summer, and she confided in me about her hopes and struggles, and I've shared some of my own with her as well.

Now she's back on the field, leading a group of people who, for the most part, have not done this kind of work before. She doesn't have a lot of people she can turn to for feedback and affirmation. It isn't surprising that she'd be particular responsive to any helpful words I send her way.

Her expressions of gratitude are not due, then, to me being so wise and wonderful. They are more due to Liz being in a vulnerable situation, and to her being so tender, and open, and in the habit of speaking words that bless and encourage.

I could learn a lot about affirmation from paying attention to how Elizabeth does things.

* * *

I don't have a knack for encouraging. I'm more of a trouble-shooter, the kind of person who points out nuances or problems or issues that others might not see. That can be good, too. But my skills in encouragement are not so sharp.

This year I've tried to keep my message to Elizabeth and her team pretty simple. I think it's getting through. What I have to say to them is this:
    "You can do it!"
I bet I could put THOSE words to use in more places, too.

I've been thinking a bit about resilience, lately. What is it that develops in people the kind of flexibility and endurance that can see them through ambiguous and changing situations, and remain content?

One thing my scanty research* has turned up is that it's good to have high expectations. I've often heard that if you want to do well, cross-culturally, you need to be willing to go into it without any expectations, or with low expectations. I have never known how to do that, or how to teach other people how to do that.

But the people who research psychological resilience seem to say that on the contrary, high expectations are helpful. People rise to the occasion when they feel empowered, when they believe that others have high expectations from them and expect them to do well.

The people who get beat up in crises are those who feel helpless and incompetent. So, the message "You can do this!" equips people to cut their way through the emotional jungles.

Have you seen this in your own life? Who is there in your life that says to you, "You can do it!" Have you had a parent, teacher, pastor, mentor, or friend who spoke those words into your life?

* Yes, that's right, I looked in Wikipedia - shh! But this entry looks pretty solid.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Blog Reader's Digest

Technologies to create a stream of news and entertainment tailored to one's own taste are not only easy to find, they become (driven by the needs of advertisers) hard to avoid.

I have more than 80 subscriptions in my Google Reader account, mostly blogs. Some of these bloggers write just a few times a year; others have probably stopped, but I keep them there just in case they post again.

Many are personal friends; some are friends of friends. Others are colleagues and former colleagues, contacts through work.

And some just write really well, and/or write about things that interest me. I have pretty catholic tastes; I'm interested in hearing what other people are interested in.

A growing number of the blogs I read are written by people I've never met face to face - like the three I'm about to mention.

Here are a few recent well-written posts I've enjoyed. Thought you might as well.
  • Jon Swanson - who writes both 300 Words a Day and Levite Chronicles - just posted "No wonder we are confused." It deals with different ways we rest, or grieve. Good stuff, and helps me push guilt and judgment a little further back on the shelf of my mind.

  • A man with whom I collaborated on a project a few years ago - he blogs very rarely, and prefers to remain nameless in unprotected cyberspace - offers "Hero or Narcissus." (Might the recent death of a controversial celebrity have come to mind as he was composing it?)

  • Molly often writes about raising kids. True, my life does not include that, but since when do you have to live in someone else's world to appreciate it? I enjoyed her recent "The 'You Are Stoopid' Love and Why It Wins."

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Mexico, Honduras

It's easy for me to look at world events in a somewhat distant, maybe overly Calvinist way - recognizing that struggles and suffering are part of life and sometimes the very means of bringing growth and opportunity.

In other words, I don't get easily upset by world problems.

But then people's first-hand account will bring me up short.

For example (without really thinking about it) I've been sort of pleased to see the violence in Mexico keeping our local churches from flooding the Mexican border towns with well-intentioned (but sometimes ill-advised) short-term service teams.

Yet listen to Leo, in Cd. Juarez; he's one of the ezine subscribers I recently contacted with a blanket email soliciting prayer requests. Turns out his ministry has really relied on those teams coming from America.

Now they struggle just to survive:
"We have 3 orphanages, one recovery center for adults, one Teen Shelter for teens on drugs, an old folks house, and many more ministries. Due to the violence, many groups that used to help us by doing missionary trips, have almost disapeared. We are struggluling to stay open and specially fighting to keep our of this war that has afected many loved ones. People are dying by the hundreds and everyone is advicing that we leave Mexico, but we will not, we will be faithfull to our call. Please pray for us, for we are trully working on a war zone. This recession is really affecting the core of the ministry. Please pray."
And what about this coup in Honduras?

I read a story in Mission Network News that reported that lots of people from the US are having to cancel or pull out their staff, summer interns, or short-term teams.

But (as MNN's article pointed out) how do such things affect the most vulnerable of those they serve, the poorest of the poor? As always, they pay the highest price. Without someone feeding them, they may not eat. Without water, or electricity, their children sicken and die.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Celebrity Christians, Religious Myths, and AA's 12 Steps

In his sermon last weekend my pastor addressed some of the recent episodes of moral failure among high-profile Christians, and how media and believers have been responding.

He mentioned Miss California, recently de-frocked (if you'll forgive the pun), that governor who ran off to Argentina for an affair, and "Jon and Kate" from "reality" TV.

I'm not very oriented toward the world of celebrity. While I was aware of all those stories, had not been focused on them or thinking of any of them as being representative of Christianity. But apparently all of them have been seen that way.

The pastor said the ways people have been responding show how often we buy into several popular Christian myths.... I don't remember exactly how he summed them up, but it was something like this:
  1. That if we Christians just try really hard, we're going to become good people; that there's nothing we can't do if we work at it hard enough.
  2. That if enough Christians become good enough, the societies we live in are going to get better, restoring our civilization to its rightful place as a light for the world.
  3. That our tendency to mess everything up, instead, is a huge setback for God's plans.
Of course, it's not only Christians who make these mistakes. Other religionists and humanists alike can fall into such traps.

None of those myths is true. The truth of the gospel is more along the lines of AA's 12 steps. The more we realize this, the more we'll be able to get in touch with real freedom and change. Just look at the first three steps.
  1. We admitted we were powerless over our addiction - that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood God.
Sounds a lot more sane, doesn't it? Of course, there are still nine more steps. But if you don't start with the foundation of these three, how well do they work?

Friday, July 03, 2009

June Reading Roundup

June was a big reading month for some reason. Some of what I read was serious and had to be read slowly and chewed on; some of it was light and fluffy and I swallowed it whole.

The Lost History of Christianity, by Philip Jenkins

While many people in both the East and the West now associate Christianity with its Jesus-to-Paul-to-Rome-to-Europe-to-the-colonies trajectory, that’s only a small part of the story. Christianity existed and often flourished in non-Western context long before the Europe discovered the nations. This interesting volume is full of stories from the early churches of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. It pulls together much little-known history, spreads it out on the table, and looks for patterns. Not an easy read, but like all the Jenkins books I’ve read, I’d recommend this one highly.

Behind the Scenes of the New Testament, by Paul Barnett

Barnett, an Anglican Bishop in Australia, looks at the cultures and context of the New Testament characters, places, and events, helping readers to appreciate and interpret the writings, and in analyzing both the writings themselves and other historical documents, provides a mild apologetic for trusting the contents and the theologies that arose from them over the years.

Annie John, by Jamaica Kincaid

This short coming-of-age novel sees the title character from her wonder-filled childhood in Antigua through the confusion of adolescence to the brink of adulthood, exploring the topics of death, friendships, religion, disappointment, and independence. It’s the sort of books the critics would call “luminous,” which means it’s beautifully written, creative, and a bit sad and wrenching.

What Is the What, by Dave Eggers

The intense, apparently only slightly fictionalized account of one of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan, including both life in Africa and his life in America; I also wrote about this here.

I also read a couple of children’s books, the first several in L. Frank Baum’s series: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Marvelous Land of Oz, Ozma of Oz, and Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz.

“Marvelous Land” is a hilarious tall tale/satire. I’d forgotten. There are definitely some bits that would be quite politically incorrect, today, and the ending was a bit shocking. These are all in the public domain, so I read them in ebook versions on my computer (starting when I was stuck at the Savannah airport for several hours). Here's one of my favorite lines:
The Scarecrow sighed. "In an emergency," he announced, "it is always a good thing to pause and reflect. Please excuse me while I pause and reflect." The Marvelous Land of Oz, p. 101.
Hannah Grace, and Long Journey Home, by Sharlene MacLaren

Fair-to-middlin’ “Christian” fiction. “Home” is a contemporary novel about a single mom coming out an abusive marriage and falling for the guy who moves into the apartment next door; “Hannah” is a turn-of-the-century novel set in a small western town that, imagine this, just got a new sheriff. Both have that romance-writer-turns-Christian-novelist feeling; e.g., the main characters steal passionate kisses even when they are not sure they trust each other and somebody might be involved with someone else? But of course (I’m not spoiling anything, am I?) guess who ends up engaged at the end. Maybe I should limit my exposure to this genre!

Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, by Alexander McCall Smith

In this most recent installment of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, the eccentricities of Mma Makutsi (Precious Ramotswe's assistant) stood out to me. I both thought, "I am like her," and "I am sometimes surrounded by people like her": "having all those peculiar ideas and insisting on them." Here’s a taste:
"Have you noticed? We are becoming lazy…. These days nobody knows how long it takes to walk anywhere because we have stopped walking, Mma. … and here’s another thing. Have you heard of evolution? Well, what will happen if we all carry on being lazy like this and drive everywhere? I can tell you, Mma. We shall start to grow wheels. That is what evolution is all about… Oh yes. Our fingers have evolved so that we can do things like typing. That is well known. Why should our legs not evolve in the same way? They will become circular, I think, and they will turn round and round. That is what will happen, Mma, if we are not careful.”
Of course, as Mma Ramostwe recognizes, there is always a grain of truth, sometimes more, in Mma Makutsi’s opinions.

Also read another novel which Alexander McCall Smith wrote as a newspaper serial, and the whole thing is online. It’s called Corduroy Mansions. Check it out.

Buckingham Palace Garden
, by Anne Perry

I hadn’t read any Anne Perry mysteries for a long time and did not remember them to be so dark. Her books are set in Victorian times, and in this one the less-than-admirable Prince Edward finds himself in trouble when a prostitute he has hired is found dead, the next morning, in the linen closet. It’s up to our detective, Thomas Pitt, and his maid Gracie (who takes on a job in the palace), to figure out what happened.

Dead and Berried, by Karen MacInerney

Cozy if not highly original tale about a single woman who likes to cook and runs a B&B, dating a man in law enforcement, and of course seems to get herself in the darnedest scrapes. Set on an island in Maine. Charming stuff.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Love/Hate Relationships - Got Any?

I love my Internet life - sending and receiving email, blogs and blogging, social networking, finding and sharing information, etc. For a writer and resource-connector, it's bliss.

But so much energy goes into these wonderful long-distance relationships, while my close relationships remain weak, and I start to feel like the Internet has taken over my life.

So, some days (especially when I've been at the office too late) I'll leave the laptop at the office or in the car. Not knowing if anyone has written to me and not being able to "check" the various things I'm in the habit of checking can be disconcerting.

Yet when I'm less connected I'm also less fragmented.

I need those breaks to learn how to be whole. I used to fast from radio, newspapers, magazines, and novels, one day a week, too. I haven't tried that in some time; living in such silence sounds so difficult!

So, the internet? I have a love/hate relationship with it. It's a tremendous tool, opportunity, blessing - and a big time-sapper, soul-sucker, distraction, bane.

Do you feel the same way?

What other things are, to you, a blessing and a bane?