Thursday, November 29, 2012

Love is a Dialogue

I am friends with a couple whom I have known for many years.  They have been together for a long time and are well liked and respected by many people.  Over the years, however, I've noticed something about them that seems to be pretty common.  I am using them as an example in this post, but I'm not meaning to single them out or pick on them.  What I've noticed is most obvious with gift-giving and communication, but really permeates many aspects of their relationship.

For this example I'll use Christmas, since that is a major gift-giving holiday and right around the corner.  Each year, the man tries to come up with a wonderful gift for the woman.  He will sometimes enlist my help or the help of another friend to fulfill his Christmas surprise, but he always comes up with the gift idea himself.  Some years, it is some specific piece of jewelry she has told him she wants.  Other times it is a very specific item she has mentioned, from a top-of-the-line appliance for the kitchen to an instrument she wants to learn to play to some new and expensive tech gadget.  No matter what it is, the idea always originates from something she said she wanted that he paid attention to and filed away for the right time.

Sounds sweet, right?  The problem is, that when the woman says "I'd like a top-of-the-line Cuisinart ice cream maker," what she really means is "You know me well enough to know that I would never, ever use that and that it would sit on our counter collecting dust.  I would really like you to take me on a date every week."  And when she says, "I'd love to have the new iPhone," what she really means is, "I would have no idea what to do with an iPhone, but would you make plans for us to go out of town some weekend and surprise me?"

Sadly, in both cases, the guy thinks "Track down a Cuisinart ice cream machine and give it to her for Christmas." Or, not being a tech-guy, he thinks, "Find someone to help me purchase an iPhone and load it with any apps that might be interesting to her."  So that is what he does.  And when she opens the gift, she always reacts in a way that lets him know he didn't win.  Oh, she may act shocked or even tell him thank you, but then she will make some comment about not knowing how to make ice cream or how expensive it is probably going to be to have an iPhone.  So she will end up disappointed with her gift and he will left be wondering how he got it wrong.  Again.  When he got her exactly what she wanted.  And he will not ask her what is up and why she never loves the gifts he gives her that she'd said she was longing for.  They never talk about it.

And I see this type of thing time and time again.  Maybe it isn't always with gifts, but a similar miscommunication happens in many relationships   Most books and movies and television shows seem to perpetuate this idea that if a person loves you, they will automatically know what you are thinking and what to say to you and what you need. Buying into this keeps us thinking that a person's devotion somehow hinges on their ability to acquire magical, mind-reading abilities to summon up exactly what you want them to say at the exact time you want to hear it or to know exactly what you want even if you've never let on it's what you want.  And if they can't, well, then clearly they just don't really love you. 


I think that rather than helping people foster healthy relationships, all this myth has done is damage people and stunt relationships that might have otherwise turned out to be something beautiful. 

In romantic relationships, open, respectful communication is one of the most important aspects to foster.  If you cannot communicate when you are getting to know each other, you sure as hell are not going to be able to do it when the going gets rough.  Why, oh why do we buy into the idea that in a good relationship there should not be the need to say what we mean and what we need?  In the words of Carly Rae Jepsen, "This is crazy."  Why do we seem to think that someone doing something incredibly sweet or thoughtful or romantic is tainted if we had to tell them it was what we wanted? 

If what you really want is a weekly date night, then say, "What I really want is a weekly date night."  Don't say you want a french horn because you'd like to take lessons at some point and hope the other person knows that what you really mean is you'd like standing reservations for the two of you at the local French restaurant.  Seriously.

And I'm not just talking about romantic relationships either.  The same applies to friendships and family relationships.  Yes, when you've known each other a long time, you will know each others "triggers," that the person who just made a sexist comment made your friend's blood boil or that Aunt So-and-So needs to be distracted if she starts talking to your sister about why she hasn't settled down and started a family.  But there are things we need from our friends and family that may be different from the things they need from us.  It doesn't mean someone loves us less if we have to tell them that we just need them to listen without offering advice or we really need a night to watch funny movies and hang out without really talking.  If we tell them what we need and they show up and deliver, guess what?  That is love.

I know this has turned into a bit of a rant, but I was thinking this morning about yet another Christmas around the corner, after which I will have to listen to this woman complain about what I'm sure is going to be another totally awesome gift, and having to see this man be disappointed yet again that he didn't make her happy and knowing they will not have an honest conversation about it.  And I got really irritated.

Love is not some mind-reading, all-knowing, bag of magic tricks.  Love is a dialogue.  You can't say one thing and hope the other person hears something different.  You can't not say anything and hope the other person figures out what you need from your silence.  Speak the heck up.  Say, "I need" or "I want" or "Please."  That is what will tell you if someone really loves you.  If you say what you want or need and they come through for you, think of how wonderful that is.  If you don't say what you want or need or you say something totally different from what you want or need.... and they don't do what you really want or need, whose fault is that?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

My Heart

I know it's Thanksgiving weekend and we are all focusing (or trying to focus) on what we are thankful for.  Social media is full of posts and tweets with daily thankful thoughts and reminders to give thanks.  I realize the importance of focusing on what we have in our lives that makes us thankful.  I understand why we should back away from the stress and the noise and remember the good.  I love Thanksgiving and giving thanks and I am so, so grateful for countless people and good things in my life.

Lots of good has happened in the past year or so.  In my circle of family and friends there have been babies and promotions and successes and new homes and new jobs and... good.  So much good.  And my heart is thrilled thinking of all of it.  Sometimes life is amazingly wonderful and I love that there are people in my life that much amazingness has happened to and that even in a small way I have been able to share their joy. 

Yet, in the midst of all the thanks and happy and good, part of my heart is very heavy.  In my circle of family and friends there has also been loss and pain and heartache.  So much heartache.  Some have experienced hideous, catastrophic loss that takes my breath away when I think of it.  Others have endured one shitty thing after another piling up, to the point that they wonder if things will ever turn around.  Sometimes life is horrifically awful and I hate that there is nothing I can do to ease their heartache.  I hate that all I can do is keep a place in my heart where their pain is neither forgotten nor trivialized.

So, while I anticipate this holiday weekend with joy and and thankfulness in my heart, these are tempered with lament for the anguish of others. My heart will give thanks and celebrate the good and my heart will hurt for my friends and family whose thankfulness is eclipsed by pain.  My heart will be filled with thanksgiving, but also with hopes of peace and comfort for those enduring heartache and with prayers for them for better days ahead. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

All That I Still Have to Learn

While on vacation this summer, I read the book “Leaving Church” by Barbara Brown Taylor.  Near the end of the book, there is a passage where she describes the things she is keeping as she moves on to where life takes her, and the things she is going to pack away.  She writes first of a cross, made out of nails and gifted to her when she first arrived at the parish she is preparing to leave, that it had been lost for years and just then recovered and returned to her.  She continues:
I’m glad to have it back, although I have many more, which I liked to wear back when a cross meant only love to me.  Now I know too many people who regard it as a weapon.  Some have been cut too deeply by it, not once, but over and over again, while those who wield it like a rapier seem to believe that their swordplay pleases God.  Either way, I find myself reaching for symbols with less violence in them.

The one I wear most often now is a silver circle with three waves curling toward each other in the center.  Jesus is one of those waves, but he is not the only one.  When his wave breaks, the Holy Spirit’s wave picks up where his left off, and when the Holy Spirit’s wave breaks, the water spills back toward the Wave Maker.  The clerk who sold me this circle told me that it did not stand for anything, but I knew better.  I knew I needed a symbol for the fullness of God, which cannot be reduced to any one name alone.  While I wear the circle, I will keep the cross, even though I am not sure that the symbol can survive its abuse.

When I read this, I immediately knew that I wanted a tattoo of the three-wave circle.  It’s not a religious symbol, at least not the way a crucifix or a rosary is, but it has deeply significant meaning to how I have come to understand and embrace my faith. The more I turned it over in my mind, the more meaning it took on.

It is difficult to fully explain all that this symbol has become to me and why I wanted it as a tattoo.  I attempted to explain it to Chris, the artist who does my tattoos, and never found the right words.  Of course, I was trying to explain it out loud, which I struggle with.  I’ll make an attempt to do it justice here, in written words, but I some things mean more than words can express. 

This tattoo does symbolize the fullness of God, but that is only the beginning.  It also symbolizes learning to embrace my faith and finally understanding that my faith is made real in the wrestling, the questioning, the re-evaluating, the storms and the peace.  It stands for the vastness of all I still don't know, but the grace to keep growing and changing and letting new revelations wash over me. 

Finally, it signifies that I have made peace with knowing that the way I experience God and understand my faith is not the same way many of the people I love and respect experience God and their faith.  Just as the vastness of the ocean can affect us all differently and evoke different responses from different people, the same is true for how each of us experience God; that is part of the beauty and mystery of both God and the sea. 

When I first started getting tattoos, I thought that they should all have a deep and personal meaning, but I’ve since realized that it’s fine to get a tattoo just because you like it.  My next tattoo may simply be something beautiful that will compliment my magnolia.  But this one is deeply significant to me and will likely take on more meaning as my faith evolves.  The fullness of God, embracing my faith with all that I still have to learn, and being at peace with how I experience God – that's the meaning I explain for now.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Trouble With Explaining Things

A while back, someone I knew during childhood posted that her young son had heard something about abortion on the radio and she had explained it to him.  She made a point of stating that it was funny that her 6-year-old could understand how bad abortion is when so many adults can’t seem to.  I wasn’t there so I don’t know for certain, but I’m guessing her explanation was along the lines of equating all abortion to killing babies with no discussion of the differing views on when life begins or why there are caring, loving people who may see the issue differently.  Abortion, like many other divisive topics, can be explained in a variety of ways.  I often struggle with how to explain these topics to my kids. 

How things are explained to us and how we hear them discussed in our environment as we’re growing up form the foundation for how we think and what we believe.  As parents, we want to teach our kids to know the difference between right and wrong and how to make good choices and all the basics that will help them turn out to be good people.  Many of us also attempt to impart our religious and political beliefs to our children as part of teaching them what is right.  These last two things are what have concerned me recently.  There is nothing wrong with teaching these views to our children; my concern is more about how we do this and how differences are explained.  

The family I was raised in was very conservative and vocal about sticking with conservative, “biblical” values.  I knew from a young age that Republicans were the “good guys” because they care about things like saving babies and keeping God in America.  I vividly remember overhearing a conversation between my parents when I was about twelve years old, in which my dad revealed to my mother that, although he had been voting Republican for years, he was still a registered Democrat.  He’d simply never gotten around to changing his registration.  I remember getting this horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach, wanting to say something and yet knowing I couldn’t since I really wasn’t supposed to be listening.  MY DAD?  A Democrat???  How was this possible???  Why on earth would he want to be associated with the very people who killed babies and wanted to take God’s name off our money?  I obviously don’t have to tell you how all these things had been explained to me… either directly to me by my mother or by absorbing it from the Christian publications in our home, hearing people speak about them at church, or overhearing the conversations of concerned adults.

If you know me at all or if you’ve read many of my previous posts, you know that my beliefs have changed quite a bit since I was twelve.  I wouldn’t say that my views are the total opposite of how I was raised, but I am certainly the minority in my family now and I am not teaching all the same things to my kids that I was taught.  So here is what keeps tugging at my heart: Twelve-year-old me would have been horrified by present-day me.  Twelve-year-old me would have thought that someone like present-day me had taken too many steps down the slippery slope and plunged into darkness.  Thinking about this, I realized that when we are teaching kids to hate, fear, disrespect, or disparage the politicians and political parties and points of view we disagree with, we aren’t just teaching them these things in big, nebulous ways.  When we do this, we are teaching our kids to view their neighbor or their teacher or their grandmother or their aunt (or even their future-selves) as a villain, as someone who should be hated or feared or disrespected or disparaged.  It was the aunt thing, especially, that hit home with me this week.

My sister has an almost-three-year-old son and three tiny one-month-old babies.  I love these four kids as much as I love my own kids.  My sister and I had a brief conversation yesterday about something my mom mentioned to her about something I’d said about a certain political viewpoint and was concerned about.  Knowing that my sister and her husband agree with my mom on the matter, I got to thinking later about how much I love my family and how much I love my sister and brother-in-law and how much I love their kids, regardless of any disagreements on certain issues. 

Then I got to thinking that it's possible that the way things are explained to them as they grow could influence my nephews' and niece's opinion of me.  How would I feel if the triplets didn't think of me as the aunt who cried when she held them for the first time and drove to their house in the middle of the night once a week when they were tiny to feed them and cuddle them so their mom could get some sleep?  And it devastates me to think that their big brother could one day not care that I was the aunt who would pick him up and spin around until we both got dizzy and fell on the carpet laughing or the aunt who would sneak him fruit snacks and let him drink chocolate milk straight – not mixed with white milk (at least at my house).  It absolutely breaks my heart to know that although I would give my life for any of them in a second, they may one day think of me as a political enemy, someone to look at with scorn and disdain.  Not because I'd done something terrible, but because they realize that I think about things differently from they way they were taught was "right."  Tears are streaming down my face as writing this, just thinking that it is a possibility.

I am not in any way whatsoever insinuating that my sister and brother-in-law would ever tell their kids to think of me in such a hurtful way, because they would not do that.  I am not saying they would ever even tell their kids to think badly about anyone.  But what I am saying is that this is where what we say about others in generalities goes from a seemingly justified political or spiritual rant to becoming a real, face-to-face, heart-to-heart hurt.

This made me wonder about what I'm teaching my kids with the way I talk about what I believe.  It breaks my heart to think that based on how I explain things to them, my boys might one day look at my sister and brother-in-law as anything other than the people who love them as much as their dad and I do.  I hate to think that anything I would say to my kids about a view my sister and brother-in-law happen to hold might make my boys think badly of them.  Their aunt and uncle are two of the most generous-of-spirit and big-of-heart people I have ever met in this world.  They have stayed in our home with the boys and spent countless hours manufacturing all sorts of fun projects and silly games for them and showered them with love and affection.  I honestly don't care if we disagree about certain issues and I would never want the way I talk about things to cause my kids to care either. 

But since I am raising my kids with a few different views from some my sister's family holds, how am I doing that?  Am I teaching them the same exact thought process I was raised with, but only with different villains?  Or am I teaching them love first and foremost, regardless of political or religious differences? 

Our political or religious beliefs are only part of who we are and as we are searching and questioning and trying to grow, they can change.  That doesn’t mean we become completely different people.  In some cases, like mine, I would say that the evolution of my religious and political beliefs was more a process of bringing them in line with the person I am.  It doesn’t mean I love my loved ones any less because they may not agree with me.

So here is what I think we should do:  The next time we are tempted to act as though what we think or believe is the absolute, 100%, no-questions-asked right thing to believe and that we know the exact right way assert it to "stick it" to dissenters.... before we start to type or say words that demonize or disparage anyone, we should think of the people we love most in this world.  I want us to think of how we SHOULD discuss the matter if those people we love were the ones on the other side.  We should think of all the things we love about them, all the wonderful things they add to our life, all the things that make them individuals instead of the labels we assign to people for their beliefs.  We should think of how we would feel or what it would mean to us if we were speaking those hateful words to those we love -- to their face.  We should think of how we would be destroying something precious by directing those words to them and teaching our kids and those around us to do the same.  If that doesn’t give you pause, well, it should. 

We need to stop.  We need to think.  We need to remember that those groups and parties and politicians and other-side-ers we so love to rant about are representatives of individuals.  They represent individuals we know and love.  We need to teach our kids and the people around us that there is another way, that who we are and how we treat each other is far, far more important than whether or not we agree on things that are decided in the voting booth or can only be believed rather than proven. 

That, my friends, is what I intend to explain to my kids.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Church. For Now.

I have not been to church since sometime mid-summer. That is to say, I have not attended a church service in months. When I think about how long it has been since I was a part of a church, I really can't say. I want to be. I know it is important. And yet, there is this... what I read in the Bible about what The Church is supposed to be like:
Acts 2:42-47
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

This description above is almost impossible to reconcile with the churches I have experienced.  To be fair, I have not visited every church, but I simply cannot reconcile the above scripture with what I typically see.

What I typically see is that a church has devoted themselves to a charismatic leader, who sees the church as his family business, getting rich and building enormous buildings as a monument to his leadership er... as a monument to the blessings of God on his people.  Sometimes, lacking such a leader, a church will devote themselves to the few scriptures they have pulled out and made an idol of.   I also see a lot of making sure people don't have everything in common, because women are treated as though they are less and must have the blessing and permission of a man to do any kind of serving or ministry.  The one part I usually do see is church people getting together for fellowship and meals.  With other people.  Who are just like them and who toe the line.  So, basically, many churches I have experienced are nothing like the Acts 2 church.

I am well aware that my above statements show that I have some deep wounds and a train car full of baggage from my time spent attending church.  I am also aware of the need to work through all of that.  But what I have a very difficult time with is how to get past it when every time I turn around I am seeing something similar.  I've tried visiting some churches.  But what I see when I visit or what I hear when I talk to other people about their church, typically reflects at least a few of the things I've called out above.  (Oh, and the last visit ended in total disaster, complete with having to quite disruptively leave an outdoor service in the middle because the gospel quartet singing the special music keep cranking up the speaker volume to the point that it was physically painful and one of my kids was covering his ears and crying at the top of his lungs that his eardrums were damaged.  No lie. These are the kinds of things that happen to me.  At least that one made for a good story.)

I just don't know where to go from here.  Church "shopping" is exhausting and challenging to do with two kids who love routine.  Plus, we live in a rural area and there are only four churches within a fifteen mile radius, two of which have the same pastor because individually they are too small to support a full-time minister.  Once you start attending a church outside of your community, it is extremely difficult to fit in without making a lot of time commitments that require a lot of driving time.  Then there is the whole issue that my husband and I have opposite work schedules and most church activities taking place during our designated family time.

I've given up.  At least at this point.  I don't want my boys growing up with the same baggage I have and I don't know how to find a church that seems to be striving toward what my Bible and my heart tell me a church should be.

If there is one thing I've learned over the past year it is that if you don't learn to own your faith, to truly understand what you believe and why, then you may as well not believe anything.  When your faith is based only on what other people have told you that you should believe, you have to close yourself off from people who think differently from you, lest they ask you questions you can't answer or find gaps in your story.  I don't want that and I don't want it for my kids.

For the past couple months, I've been getting up on Sunday mornings and curling up on my couch with a book of sermons by Barbara Brown Taylor.  Her words cause me to think and they speak right to my heart.  They give me different perspectives on stories I've heard a thousand times.  I feel refreshed and challenged.  I have some ideas churning in my head of what I should do next, but that is for another post.

After my own reading time, the boys and I talk about some questions we have about God or stories we've heard, then we find a scripture on that topic to discuss and memorize.  Luke and I write the verse in our notebooks and Owen draws a picture of what he learned from it in his.  We talk about what the verse has taught us about God or how we can apply it to our lives.  They sometimes ask questions I don't have answers for and I tell them I don't know.  I want them to own their faith, not memorize canned answers.  There are a lot of things we just don't know.  There's no sense in pretending otherwise.

I know all the stuff about the fellowship of believers and not giving up on meeting together, but this is working for us.  For now.  And didn't He say He would show up wherever two or three are gathered?  There are three of us.  I think that is enough.  For now.