God, the Paraeducator

This month we made a big deal out of Teacher Appreciation Day at our schools, and rightly so. Teachers are amazing and deserve every bit of support and encouragement we can offer. There is also a Secretaries’ Day on our Hallmark calendar, and we show our gratitude then. But there is no day for the paraeducators at our school, and this month as I saw gift cards and flowers go home with teachers, I also saw a half dozen paraeducators go home empty handed, and it made me think.

We are the grateful recipients of the care of paraeducator support in schools: trained, patient staff who work alongside special needs students to offer support, redirection, and supervision so that our kiddo can participate in school meaningfully. Ours is an inclusion school district, which means that kids with special needs are not siphoned off into special classrooms or schools: they’re kept in the mainstream classroom and additional support is provided for that student there. I think it’s a beautiful thing: both for special needs kids who need to belong to the community at large, and for the able-bodied and neuro-typical kids, whose borders are enlarged by interaction with all types of people. Special needs kids have something to give, too, as this months’ feature article at Christianity  Today so wonderfully demonstrates.

Yoko Fines, a paraeducator in MD, at work with one of her students. (http://www.hcpss.org/news-posts/2017/06/yoko-fines-paraeducator-cedar-lane-school/)

But to get back to the paraeducators: one of the signs of a really effective, excellent paraeducator is how invisible their work becomes in the classroom. When things are going really well, you hardly notice that they are there, because the child is able to engage seamlessly with the classroom. The metrics of success are somewhat counter-intuitive: peace, and a remarkable absence of “issues”. In a way, it reminded me of the work of the Holy Spirit, whom I remember someone once describing to me as the “shy member of the trinity”: the Holy Spirit is always directing our attention towards the Father and the Son. When our love and actions are focused on God and others, that’s a sign that the Holy Spirit is really at work. The evidence of His presence is, in similar ways, quiet and beautiful. Love, peace, patience, gentleness, self-control. Jesus described the Spirit’s work like the wind: you see its effects, even if you don’t see the wind itself.

Which of us learned to ride a bike without the skill, support, and encouragement of a seconder?

We have a family friend who has been a career paraeducator and has served students with all sorts of disabilities through her school career. I have long known she is a woman who embodies a quiet strength, and the students she has worked with may never know how much thought and prayer she put into their flourishing.

But this disposition of hers—to become the most skilled supporter she can—runs into many areas of her life beyond her profession. In her personal life, she has taken in many frazzled young moms and offered seasons of support, prayer, welcome, and volunteered childcare. She and her husband loved our young family this way for a while, and it was the most beautiful, invisible gift to entrust our children to capable, kid-loving, safe people in a season where we desperately needed some respite care.

Among her long list of quiet gifts, she had a bus-driving license for some time, so that she could drive a 15 person passenger van for church outings if needed. She is credentialed and has a master’s degree, and so can support in multiple staffing ways in a school (the library, for example), in seasons when there are needs. She loves to exercise, and has completed training to be a coach and seconder for athletes at competition level. Professional athletes need someone to help them know when to rest, when to warm out, and how to train if they will be their best. These are just a few of her skills… In all these things—professionally, spiritually, physically—she is not in the limelight. But because of her skill and proximity, she is able to offer support and guidance in ways that few can.

Which brings me back to thinking about the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and God as a paraeducator. For a truly excellent paraeducator is not just a “supervising adult”, or an extra set of hands when needed. A truly excellent paraeducator is a specialist in the support that that person or situation uniquely needs, with eyes focused on providing just enough support, correction, and encouragement to enable the person to grow, learn, participate, and flourish as only they can. They are nearby. They are focused. They are FOR YOU in a way that no-one else can be. In the race of life, they are the ultimate seconder.

I confess I have long had a fairly mushy idea about the work of the Spirit. Like a gentle presence. Or a light current in the water. But thinking about the strength of the best paraeducators: their attention and presence, their skills, the prayer and resourcefulness and intentionality they bring: this reminds me that when Jesus said he’d send a counselor and a helper – a paraclete, in Greek – he was sending us the most skilled paraeducator of all. Each of us has a full time aide at our side, specifically trained to help us make it through the day.

And just like I realized on Teacher Appreciation Day, I don’t often notice it. But our Paraeducator is present, hard at work, a Specialist par excellence. And he is WITH us, every step of the way.

Help: How do I stop liking someone?

Dear Bronwyn,

How do you stop liking a man? I’m in college and I met a guy who has fantastic personality and character, and I find incredibly attractive. BUT, he doesn’t have a relationship with Jesus – which is a deal breaker for dating (which I’d like to be with the intent of marriage).

We went on three dates before I discovered he was missing the most important thing, and I can’t continue a romantic relationship with him. I’ve been praying for these feelings to be taken away for weeks – and despite the fact that I am literally surrendering our relationship EVERY morning, I can’t stop thinking about him or liking him.

What do I do? Signed,

Too-Many-Feelings

Dear TMF,

I have very bad news for you: I don’t know of a single way to just get rid of a crush we wish we weren’t feeling. In my early twenties I liked a guy for well over a year and WISHED and prayed I didn’t wouldn’t feel the way I did… but I couldn’t make it go away no matter how hard I tried.

So what would I say to you that might be of comfort or help?

Maybe this thing first: relationships can bring a WHIRL of passions and thoughts that can feel overwhelming. That we can feel that spark and depth is part of what makes life exciting and wonderful: it’s a sign that we’re alive and we care and that we are responding to people and the world. Having big feelings doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong, even if those feelings are unwelcome. You’re alive and the feeling/wanting/desiring/loving part of you WORKS. I think part of the work of adulthood is learning how to attend to our feelings: to notice them, listen to them, learn from them. What do those feelings tell us about who we are and what we want in life?  How do they reveal how God has made us? How do they reveal our gifts and talents, or our vices?

We are children of a culture which really values THINKING but hasn’t paid a huge amount of attention to the messages that our emotions or our bodies give us about the world. And so, I just want to put a little oar into the water against the relentless thought-driven cultural currents we live in and say: there’s an invitation to attend to your feelings here. Note what you like about this guy. What is it about the conversation that made you feel good? What parts of YOU did you like in your relationship? What was exciting? What was scary? There are things to learn and grow in from this experience.

Attending to feelings is not the same as being a CAPTIVE to your feelings (the “go with your heart” message has its dangers, too), and it is not the same as ignoring or mastering your feelings. Growing in maturity brings a confidence that you will be able to handle, and indeed make good use of, your feelings.

Your feelings of attraction aren’t wrong, per se. They’re feelings. Feelings are facts. We can name them, listen to what they’re telling us, and then try to care for ourselves as well as possible in light of them. But feelings are (frustratingly! awfully!) disobedient. Not once ever have I managed to make myself not feel scared by saying “don’t be scared!” or not feel angry by saying “don’t be angry”. Learning to figure out why I’m scared or angry (or crushing) in a situation helps me develop some compassion on myself, and sometimes even – a game plan for coping.

Which brings me to my second thought—and maybe this is something that a trusted friend or mentor or a parent can help you talk through—which is to encourage you to figure out how you can best care for yourself while you are experiencing these feelings. You won’t always feel this way (“this, too, shall pass” could be something you write on a sticky note for yourself!), but while you do feel this way, what would help you to manage? Would it help to have less contact with him? Maybe not be friends on social media? Or maybe it would help to just see if you could cross paths in large group settings? (sometimes it isn’t helpful to quit seeing someone cold turkey because then we gild them in our imaginations) Would it help to journal through all the feelings? Would it help to figure out what times of the day or in what situations the thoughts and feelings are most difficult to cope with, and then think about how you can acknowledge the feelings (maybe a quick written prayer?) and then have a game plan for what you will do next (a craft project? A walk? calling a friend to talk about the netflix show you’re binge watching?)

Time will pass and these feelings will change – but I don’t think that just waiting for time to pass is what does the trick. Learning a little more about yourself from the experience, paying attention to the messages your heart is giving you about who you are and what makes you tick, and learning how to care for your whole self in this season is the work you get to do during this time. And it’s work that will serve you well the rest of your years.

Wish I could give you a cup of tea as you read this.

Grace and peace to you,

Bronwyn

 

Got a question you’d love to ask? You can ask me anything – drop me a note here.

 

 

I love you, friend, but I don’t want your essential oils (or leggings, or mascara…)

If you’ve been around church women for any length of time, chances are you’ve been invited to some kind of product party: a “no pressure, just-a-bunch-of-girls get together” with food and a presentation of jewelry, essential oils, makeup, leggings, cleaning products, accessories, nutritional supplements, skin care miracles, or (fill in the blank) on display.

Or, you’ve been invited to an online shopping party to buy books or mascara that will Change your Life.

Or, (and this might be my least favorite), you’ve been added to some FB group you did not ask to join and now have live videos appearing in your feed of someone applying their makeup.

Church life, it seems, is a hotspot for business. Multi level marketing (the I-sell-to-you, you-sell-to-your-friends, your-friends-sell-to-their friends model) is a 34 billion dollar a year industry, according to Christianity Today’s feature article on the topic… and a vast proportion of those sales are by and to women, and church ladies are at the forefront of the salesforce. There’s a reason your facebook feed is filled with church contacts selling stuff.

I used to think it was just me who got an icky feeling every time I got one of these party invites. I don’t like shopping at the best of times (I can feel my soul leaching out of me with every step I take deeper into the mall), but I’ve been wrestling for months on what it is about this particular type of shopping that makes me so antsy, and more and more I’m realizing it’s not just me… and getting closer to articulating what it is that bugs me.

So let me start out by acknowledging the good things about this trend. Targeted primarily at women who cannot engage in the workforce full time (because they’re caring for kids or parents) and women who need additional income because they’re in lower-paying jobs (I know multiple teachers and medical assistants who are keep ‘consulting’ businesses on the side for this reason) – these businesses do something wonderful: they acknowledge the talent and leadership potential of women, and give them opportunities to use their gifts in a significant way. The trainers invest time in developing women’s gifts, and they encourage them and build community among their participants.

Let me say from the get-go that I FULLY believe in acknowledging, developing, and encouraging women as able and ready world-changers. The world has come a long way in the last fifty years, but office space and church life still remain places where women sometimes aren’t fully welcomed as adding significant value. These companies SEE the incredible power and potential of women in the pews in a way we could learn from.

I also want to acknowledge that for a handful of women, these stay-at-home businesses have provided significant income opportunities, allowing women to help put their kids through college, or pay off student debt. That’s a wonderful thing. They work hard. I’m thrilled for them. And yet, I know a much bigger number of women who landed up investing more than they earned, and for whom the hours invested and nights away from home hosting parties have yielded very little. So, there’s that.

So why do I feel icky about it? Is it that I loathe the free market so much that I can’t bear to see people sell stuff? Nope, that’s not it. Is it that I am jealous of others’ success? Nope, that’s not it either (I wrestled long and hard about this.) I think, when all is said and done, the unease I feel about this phenomenon is for two main reasons:

First, it muddies the waters of friendship. True friends are one of my chief life lines as I cope with the stresses of this life stage (I wrote about it for Christianity Today this month here, if you’re curious.) Knowing that there are people whose care for me is genuine makes the world of difference, and it feels yucky to doubt overtures of friendship from other Christian women: am I a friend to them? Or just a potential customer they’re being friendly to? When someone who’s never been active on social media all of a sudden becomes highly active, liking all my posts, and posting highly hashtagged pictures of herself “living the dream” after years of never posting a thing…. I smell a rat. If the first time you message me after ten years is to “connect” and ask me about what’s up in my life and oh-just-breezy-sharing that one of the things you’ve been up to is starting this or that business… it doesn’t feel like friendship to me. 

And I hate feeling like a bad Debbie-Downer-Doubting-Thomas mashup about friendship. I think one of the most precious resources we have is our friendships, and I cannot shake the feeling that these billion dollar industries are muscling their way into sacred spaces they have no right being in. Especially when the language of the company is such that purchasing their product is seen as “supporting your friend’s business”. I don’t want a price tag imposed by some third party on how well I support my friend. I don’t want the first time I’m invited to your house to be for a sales/pampering/shopping party… that doesn’t feel like friendship, either. I love and believe in girl’s time, but I don’t want to be on my guard when someone invites me to spend time with them: will I have to resist a sales pitch? do I have to rehearse my awkward excuse? How many polite refusals can a friendship endure?

I feel some real grief for women wanting to build a business in these models: they are gifted and talented and I know they are trying to make an honest living in a way that supports their family… but the relational cost to have to look at a significant part of emotional support base all as potential clients has to be something that weighs heavily on them. It is no small wonder that I see friends engaged in these businesses bonding more and more closely with other women in the same business: new communities beyond the church where no-one has a before/after comparison on how their friendships are now.

My second big concern is this: these companies make us spend our invitations on a product instead of on Jesus. The model for sales is actually eerily evangelistic: consider the way we are encouraged to share our faith..

Be such a great friend, and live such a good and flourishing life among people that they will be drawn to you. Pictures of radiant smiles, testimonies of how your life is different, celebration of community and change all help show this.

Invite others to share in the joy of what you’ve found.

But do so with gentleness and grace.

And if anyone asks you for a reason for your hope, do so with gladness. 

Invite others to join the “family”, and hope that their joy will be contagious, too.

But what’s the source of the joy? My feeling is you can’t say “It’s Jesus. Oh, and also my amazing product,” in the same breath.

The evangelism model above works for the gospel… and remarkably well also for Tupperware, Young Living, Pampered Chef, 31 Bits, Doterra, Arbonne, LulaRoe, YouNique, NorWex, Beach Body, Premier Jewelry, Rodan+Fields, Urborne Books, and fill in the blank. Perhaps I also need to add here that the quality of the products that are being sold is often really great (such cute leggings! and necklaces! And your skin really does glow!) But the question remains: what do people associate with you, when they imagine you completing the sentence, “__________ has made all the difference in my life.”

Often we only get one chance to invite people into our lives, and one chance to share the story of what’s made the difference. My deep concern is that person-to-person sales leverage relationships for the wrong purpose: it uses our opportunities to build relationship in service of a product and not the Person.

I don’t ever want to be a person who has their overtures of friendship met with suspicion. No-one wants to be friends with the person who “just wants to evangelize them”. Whether for God, or their product. I think I have a way to go (we have a way to go, really) in learning how to develop and believe in women. I believe women can lead. I believe there are ways of developing and supporting income-generating projects. But I don’t believe the model we have on offer from companies that make their billions by exploiting my friendship-list is a healthy one. I know a handful of women who manage to walk this line of friendship and business remarkably well (and I should say, most of these are involved in justice-motivated ventures to support entrepreneurial women in developing countries)… but these women are exceptional in more way than one.

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to buy your product. But I really, really do want to be your friend.

 

 

 

Is it okay to watch Game of Thrones? (some thoughts on freedom, fear, and viewer discretion)

 

“Dear Bronwyn,

 

Is it okay to watch Game of Thrones? I have Christian friends who want to get together and watch it, and other Christian friends who think it’s the Show Satan Made. Any thoughts?

 

Thanks,

HBgO or HBnO?”

 

Dear HBOer,

I don’t know if it’s okay for you to watch Game of Thrones (or any other show, for that matter). I’ve only watched the first episode, and I know it’s not for me. Here are some of my thoughts in trying to figure that out, though.

We like binary answers: black or white. Yes or no. Wrong or right. And for sure, there are things that are absolutely black or white: it is ALWAYS wrong to murder. it is ALWAYS wrong to steal (and that includes pirating movies, BTW).

But the Bible also has all sorts of things where the answer is neither black nor white. Rather, the situation calls for discernment. Take this frustrating pair of verses from Proverbs, for example:

When arguing with fools, don’t answer their foolish arguments, or you will become as foolish as they are.” (Proverbs 26:4)

followed by,

When arguing with fools, be sure to answer their foolish arguments, or they will become wise in their own estimation.” (Proverbs 26:5)

Huh??

And then there are the passages in the new Testament that talk about how for some, eating a certain diet and neglecting certain religious days is sinful, while for others it is fine (Colossians 2:16, Romans 14). So in other words: sometimes the answer to whether something is right or wrong is IT DEPENDS.

It depends on the context. It depends on your community. It depends on who you are and where you are at in life.

We are coming out of a generation in Christianity that has been bounded up with lots of rules, well intentioned (I think) to try and keep us from sin. Rules about clothing, dating, dancing, modesty, music etc have abounded in church culture, and I do believe for the most part this has in an effort to pursue holiness. But often it’s gone the way of LEGALISM.

In response, I’ve seen so much about Christian freedom: critique of purity culture and some very fundamentalist ways of doing church/discipline etc. But often it’s gone the way of LICENSE.

I think neither legalism nor license help us navigate the complexity of living well in our world. We need DISCERNMENT for the vast area between the “I don’t watch any TV at all!” and the “I can watch ANYTHING AT ALL!” extremes. I don’t know that we talk about (or teach) discernment enough.

Discernment has to mean more than a “do what works for you” policy. I think we do need to have better, wiser conversation on helping one another gauge these things. In between legalism and license, we need WISDOM. “Everything is permissible,” said Paul, “but not everything is beneficial.” (1 Corinthians 6). So the question is: how do you figure out what is beneficial?

One of the hallmarks of growing in maturity is learning to pay attention to your own sweet self. Listening to your body, being aware of your emotions and thought patterns etc are all part of our journey in discipleship. We are not good at this. We need to be better at this. Rest (and with it, reflection and self-examination) are important parts in us helping live meaningful, intentional lives. We need to pause and take stock on how things are affecting us, what we’re learning, how we’re growing or being shaped by the choices we make… in order to make better and wiser choices.

It is simply NOT TRUE that what we can watch/listen/engage in whatever and remain neutral and unaffected. We absolutely ARE shaped by the stories we expose ourself to. In books, TV, movies, pictures and real life – each story we expose to leaves its mark in our formation. The stories in our lives shape the way we approach the world: they sculpt our vision of the “good life”, they spark our imagination, they make us want certain things and hate other things… and if we are not paying attention to what is being sparked, nurtured, or drowned in our desires, we can land up in serious trouble. Like Rom Coms with the underlying message that it’s the “proposal moment” (or the dramatic chase to the airport departure chase) that brings the moment of clarity that you’ve met “the one”. Or like porn giving us really messed up scripts for what to expect in sexual intimacy.

 

I think it’s a healthy practice to talk through our show choices with friends or family and think through questions about what the underlying messages and values of a show are, and how they are affecting you. Naming the issues is a big first step in being aware of the impression they might have. A deeper level of conversation needs to happen in then considering what impact those messages are having on you: how do you feel after watching the show? Turned on? Angry? Riled up? Triggered? Numb? Disappointed and disillusioned with your own life?

 

Here is how this has worked out with me in considering a couple of shows:

  • We started watching New Girl and stopped a couple seasons in – the room mate drama and sex were getting too much for me. I have a high view of sex and I was just getting tired of how often (and how poorly) it was addressed in the show. Sex shouldn’t be the butt end of most of a show’s jokes, and I don’t want to curate a jaded view of sex.
  • We watched 24. I couldn’t cope after season 2, but my husband was okay watching through the end. I think the show really showed how ALL of us are corruptible, but I just so desperately needed someone honest and reliable (a redeemer!) in that storyline. Also, I was continually frustrated that no-one ever seemed to need to use the bathroom or eat.
  • The Good Place has received critical acclaim, but I chose not to watch (and wrote about it) … matters of eternity are close to my heart.
  • I loved season 1 of Crazy Ex Girlfriend: so clever and funny. But when I realized she wasn’t just kooky, but that there were actual mental health issues at stake, somehow it just wasn’t funny to me anymore. I think I’ve just met too many people really hurting from mental health issues to engage that way anymore. I know, I’m a real party pooper. But I’m trying to care for people with these issues and a show which makes fun of them (and where no-one knows the problem is a problem) was a problem for me.
  • I watched all the Friends seasons, and felt aware of (and distant enough from) the very different relationship values in them. My husband, on the other hand, was perpetually frustrated by how the friends lie to each other (or conceal things from one another) as the center point of every episode’s drama. I hadn’t noticed it before, but he’s right. They really do hide things from each other. He didn’t watch.
  • We watched Parenthood. I thought it was excellent. He thought the family arguments had too many people talking at the same time (and shouting at each other) – it stressed him out. He was paying attention.
  • He watched Lost. I can’t. I know my imagination cannot handle the paranormal or big suspense stuff. It makes me anxious and weepy…
  • I didn’t watch (or read) 50 Shades of Gray. Jamie the Very Worst Missionary did watch it and she was fine. Her post makes exactly this point: you need to know what you can handle. And ask questions about what’s drawing you into the story again and again.
  • I watched Outlander, which has plenty of sex. I don’t think this would have been helpful for me to watch in my early 20s (age matters), or maybe if I was single (“don’t awake love before it desires”, is Song of Songs’ advice to young women). But as a now older, married person – it was okay. except for the violence parts, which I absolutely cannot handle. I skipped those parts in the book and the movie.

Which brings me to your question: what about Game of Thrones?

It depends. From the brief part I saw, and from the bulk of what I’ve heard, this is a show with PLENTY of graphic (and unhealthy) sex, and PLENTY of violence. I think we are, in general, overexposed to those things, and thus in danger of being numb to the power of those stories’ shaping power. So there’s a caveat, and there’s a LOT of wisdom in erring on the side of caution in these things. One of the big dangers in movie and TV watching is that you can’t unsee things. So if it’s likely that you will see things you might wish you hadn’t (if you don’t want them turning up in your dreams or your fantasies), then maybe rather not.

But that doesn’t make for an automatic no. My questions for your consideration are: what impact is that show having on you? How do you feel afterwards? What does it make you want more of in life? If you think of God being present in the room with you as you watch, how does that change your awareness regarding the content of what you’re watching? What if you were watching with your parents?

 

As disclosed above, I’ve watched some TV that for others, is dangerous or damaging. I think in general GoT has a very high risk of being dangerous and damaging in how it kindles our imaginations. But that’s for you, the Holy Spirit, and wise counselors to wade through. I find the “it may be permissible, but is it beneficial?” grid to be really helpful for me to think this stuff through. I hope it is for you, too.

 

Best,

Bronwyn

 

Got a question you want to send my way? Find the Ask Me page… I’d love to hear from you 🙂

Feelings are our Friends

I spent some time recently talking with a friend who was a hot mess over a situation. I recognized the symptoms of hotmessery fairly quickly, having been there myself just days before: the big feelings, the confusion about what to think and what to do, the desire to make sense of the bits of the story and respond well, the feeling-stuckness in the complexity of it all. And perhaps worst of all, the sense of disorientation about why this issue, which was admittedly not a big deal, loomed at the forefront of their mind all day. “I feel bad that I can’t get over this,” my friend said, “I know that my reactions here are much bigger than the situation warrants but I just can’t figure it out.”

Yep.

Me too.

As we talked, a couple of things began to crystallize for me: fragments of books I’d been reading and random notes in my prayer journal came together to form something of an 3-D picture, and I finally found the words I’d been scrambling for for a couple weeks:

Feelings are our friends.

There are times when we feel swamped and confused by a swirling mass of thoughts and feelings, and in times like that, it’s helpful to remember that these feelings can be our friends. Perhaps this is obvious to you, but it hasn’t always been obvious to me. For much of my life I’ve thought of feelings as powerful, but unreliable bandits: things to be quashed or, at the very least, treated with deep suspicion. But the idea that feelings could be friends and allies (rather than foes) in figuring out life and truth is something relatively new to me.

Feelings make frighteningly terrible masters: it is a terrifying thing to be at the mercy of one’s emotions (friends with anxiety and depression, I hear you). Feelings also make frustratingly terrible servants: which of us was ever able to stop feeling worried simply because we told ourselves to do so? But feelings—like our bodies—sometimes can give us information and tell us the truth about a situation which our rational minds cannot (or will not) attend to.

For example, we might be walking down a dark road and tell ourselves that we’re not scared and there’s nothing at all to be scared of… but our pounding heart and clammy hands tell the truth that we are, in fact, terrified.

Or, as happened with my friend and I, we might be sitting in a coffee shop and telling a story and saying “it’s fine, it’s no big deal,” but our churning emotions and the lurking sense of anger or shame tell us that there’s more at work here than we’ve admitted.

This is what Brene Brown so compellingly invites us to do in her (incredibly helpful) book Rising Strong: to notice our feelings and get curious about them. What is this feeling we’re feeling? Is it anger? Is it fear? Is it disappointment? Is it envy? And then she encourages us to get curious about those emotions themselves without rushing to judgement: what is it about this situation that is making me angry, and what does that tell me? She writes:

“The opposite of recognizing that we’re feeling something is denying our emotions. The opposite of being curious is disengaging. When we deny our stories and disengage from tough emotions, they don’t go away; instead, they own us, they define us. Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending—to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, Yes. This is what happened. This is my truth. And I will choose how this story ends.”
Brené Brown, Rising Strong

I have a couple friends who are reliable mirrors to me as I share stories about my life: they reflect what they’re seeing back to me, and it helps me to be curious about what’s really going on beneath my emotions. They say things like “you seem angry about that” when I’m telling a story, and then will sometimes gently ask whether I’ve done any thinking about why I might be angry about that. If, instead of just telling myself to “not be angry” about a thing, I can take the time to be curious about why I got so angry, it can give so much good information about the desires and beliefs that simmer so much deeper in my soul.

I may say, for example, that I don’t care about a promotion or a salary increase… but if I’m incredibly angry that Joe Bloggs over there got a raise, that anger might be a clue that I care more about money, or being recognized, or knowing that I’ve made a contribution (or whatever) than I recognized. My wise friend Jen calls this “sifting our desires”, and she’s right: I can do a devilishly good job of deceiving myself that I don’t care about certain things and do care about others – but my feelings (of gloating, envy, schadenfreude etc) will sometimes tell the truth despite me, and a little bit of courageous digging can reveal hurts or deep longings or idols or dreams that I hadn’t faced squarely before.

I re-read Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful novel Gilead this month, and fell in love once again with the tender and wise heart of John Ames, the elderly pastor whose voice tells the story. Writing of how he came to process grief and disappointment, he says this:

“I have never found another way to be as honest with myself as I can be by consulting with these miseries of mine, these accusers and rebukers, God bless them all. So long as they do not kill me outright.”  

He was a man who had befriended his feelings, even the miserable ones. Especially the miserable ones – for by consulting with them he learned to be honest with himself, just as I’m learning to be honest, too. I want to be a joyful, gracious, generous person; but then I have days when I’m grouchy and angry and irrationally mean-spirited. To dismiss those feelings and say to myself: “that was a bad day, I’ll try again with kindness tomorrow” is not a terrible route to walk; but there’s a better route still: to hold my grouchy, angry, irrationally mean-spirited feelings in my hand and look on them as allies: “well, hello there, little feelings – what has got you so upset? and how can we learn from this together?”

It’s messy, brutal, humbling work. But its truthful, and good, and the journey all the richer for the companionship of my hotmessery of feelings.

 

Knocking on Death’s Door… with Cookies

We moved into our new neighborhood a little over six months ago, and while we’ve had longer conversations with a few of our neighbors, there were a few we haven’t seen much of yet (apart from a quick Trick-or-Treat hello on October 31st). “Invite the neighbors over for dinner” is on our year-long bucket list, and we’ve only made partial headway.

When a hospice van pulled into the driveway of one of our less-known neighbors a few weeks ago, I was filled with all sorts of confused feelings. When hospice comes calling, it means a family is facing loss: it’s a time when you can be sure emotions are running high and you need your community to hold you like never before. But what if you’re the next door neighbor? And you don’t know their names? I felt so close to their grief, and yet so far away. Surely of all the times to make a new friend, this would be the most inappropriate?

I poured out my sadness for them on Facebook: lamenting that we hadn’t connected with these neighbors sooner and now feeling so helpless. Within minutes, friends chimed in with their own stories of grief and comfort as they had cared for and lost loved ones, and how a neighbor showed up and offered a hug… Or a meal… Or a card… Or a plate of cookies. “What a difference it made”, they said. “Now is not the time to hide because you don’t know them well,” they said. “Show you care, even if it feels awkward. It matters,” they said. I cried reading every one of their comments. I am sometimes just overwhelmed at the goodness and kindness and generous wisdom of my online and real life friends.

I am usually a “take a meal” kind of person, but knew this family were Jewish and was anxious about trying to prepare a meal that may not be kosher. So I opted for cookies. My daughter and I defied a school-night-bedtime, and we wrote a note offering to take trash out or walk their dog, and just generally to say we had noticed the van and we were sorry and we care and we were praying. I wrote what my Facebook friends said to write. Our neighbors weren’t in when we stopped by. We left the note with their relatives. It didn’t feel like enough. But I trusted my friends’ advice.

My neighbor texted me her heartfelt thanks a few days later, and then walked over the following week to say that her mom had passed away, and that they would be sitting shiva for a couple days, if I’d like to come visit with them. Since the little I knew about shiva came from the high drama of Jonathan Tropper’s book (turned movie) This is where I left you, I did a little more research to find out about the traditions of shiva and Jewish mourning. In short: Judaism provides a structured period of mourning of up to a year, allowing mourners to go through the various stages of grief. Families will often sit shiva for up to seven days after the funeral: a dedicated time of staying together (often sitting on the floor or low to the ground), and many will open their home to the community to come and mourn with them. Shiva.com is an excellent resource on understanding shiva, how to plan for it, what to bring, and much more.

I baked bread, and my friend who’d followed the story since my first Facebook post added a jar of homemade berry-orange jam; and on the day after the funeral I made my way over to the neighbors for our first real conversation. I spent an hour with them: hearing about the incredibly sophisticated and talented women their mother had been, admiring her art, enjoying a snack, and sharing stories and even laughs. I met their children and looked at photos and it was, quite honestly, the most genuine and lovely hour of meeting neighbors I can remember. I had showed up that first day with cookies wanting to be a blessing, but in truth I walked away so much richer than when I’d arrived.

I’ve thought about that afternoon often, and marveled at the gift of a community tradition like sitting shiva. My white, western, christian culture doesn’t have anything like it in comparison. We see and experience grief and death, but so often my experience of grief is that the mourners are so lonely and overwhelmed, and the friends around them just aren’t sure what to say or do… and so keep their distance.

This is exactly what we shouldn’t be doing, though, as Sheryl Sandberg has repeatedly urged after losing her husband and walking this devastating road last year. “Just show up,” she counsels in her advice on how to speak to people who are going through a hard time.

One of the beauties of the shiva tradition is that it walks the whole community through the process. The bereaved know there are grieving rituals and time periods that honor the months-and-years-long stages of grief. The community around them know that there are appropriate and welcome ways for them to show up and show support, and the family knows they can count on that. I think it’s a beautiful and profound and deeply humane thing. I wish we had something like shiva traditions: death and mourning are something we are pretty bad at, I think.

So I share this story not because I’m holding myself up as an example of someone who knows how to do this well. I share this story as someone who is actively wanting to learn from others how to do this better. I took the advice of my friends who had walked this road and I showed up. At death’s door. With cookies. And then I took Sheryl Sandberg’s advice. And I’m learning from the deep, relational wisdom of the Jewish community whose curated shiva practices are comforting and profound in a way that I ache for.

I know I’ve needed that kind of comfort myself, before. I remember with crystal clarity opening up an email twenty years ago, in the week after terrible crisis, and reading these verses a friend had sent me from Job 2:

“And when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place… They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him….. and they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” (Job 2:11-13)

I remember sobbing in the computer lab as I read those words: tears of grief that needed compassionate space. My friend’s willingness to be near and offer that space spoke volumes.

Perhaps there is nothing quite as comforting as having people willing to just sit with us in times of great loss. It strikes me as remarkable that even though he knew he was going to raise him from the dead moments later, when confronted with his dear friend Lazarus’ death and the throng of grieving friends, Jesus’ first response was to weep (John 6:35). To share in their grief before rushing to make it go away.

Just show up, says Sheryl, you don’t have to say or do anything.

Let’s show up.

 

 

Unreliable Mirrors

A woman poses in a fun fair hall of mirrors, circa 1935 (BBC.co.uk)

I’m never sure if it’s a compliment if someone says “you’re really photogenic”. Do they mean “you are attractive and this photo shows it!” Or do they mean “this is a nice photo of you… in real life you don’t look really as good?” One thing is for sure: depending on the photographer and the angle, the same face can look a variety of different ways.

My children and my husband, for example, have a different perspective (literally) on what my face looks like. One looks more down on my hair, the others get to see much more of my chin (I try not to think about this, actually.) As for me: I see myself eye-to-eye in the bathroom mirror, which is the closest I can get to seeing an accurate reflection of what I look like. But often, others can reflect things to me that I don’t see: the tag sticking out of my shirt at the back. The bit of fluff behind my ear. Or, later in the day, the proverbial piece of spinach between my teeth. We need mirrors—glass or human—to tell us what we’re like.

Much more important than our physical appearance, though, is that we all rely on others to reflect back to us what we are really like as people. There are no bathroom mirrors that can tell us if we are kind, or self-deluded, or mentally unstable, or genuinely hilarious. We gather information about what we are like from the human mirrors around us: our family, our friends, our communities.

However, we human mirrors vary wildly in our ability to reflect truth. None of us are perfect mirrors: every part of us is affected by sin (this is what I understand by the phrase total depravity… not that we’re as bad as we can be, but that every aspect of our being is tainted by it). We all are prone to self-deception, self-focus, and self-interest; we are finite, fallible, and foolish—as one of my professors used to say—and so we all give somewhat “warped” feedback to the world around us.

But, some people give healthier reflections than others. And this post is my reflection (<< cannot resist puns) on whether the most significant relationships in our lives are providing us with reliable or unreliable mirrors about who we are as people. So much of our emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being depends on it.

The healthiest of relationships are ones where a person show us, as closely as they can, how God sees us. They see our dignity, our gifting, our strengths. They also see our flaws and our struggles, and they are able to reflect back to us when we might need to “take a good, hard look at ourselves.” They are able to help us identify our talents. They are able to name our blind-spots. The best of friendships, and the best of marriages, are those where we are loved by a reliable mirror. This person doesn’t always take our side in things (they are not a permanent instagram filter for our character!), but they are not critical by default (like the mirrors in the Target dressing room).

The most toxic of relationships, by contrast, are ones where the person is close enough to be playing a major role in you forming your self-perception of you, and they reflect a deeply distorted version of yourself. This, I think, is what gaslighting is at its worst (you need to know what gaslighting is. Read about it here.) This is what abusive relationships look like: where you begin to see yourself as a crazy, awful, terrible person and a blight on human existence… but the terrible twisted image you are seeing of yourself is not accurate because it isn’t you which is twisted as much as the twisted mirror which is reflecting back a distorted image.

So my question to you is this: take stock of the relationships in your life, and consider how reliable the “mirrors” are among your inner circle.

Are your mirrors telling you that you are wonderful and perfect and lovely all the time? If so, your mirrors may need to be sharpened up a little. We need others to help us see and identify our weaknesses, to gently point out where maybe we took offense too quickly, or are responding to some trigger from a past insecurity rather than the person in front of us.

Are your mirrors just pointing out your flaws? Do you feel like you’re always failing? Always responsible for someone else’s bad behavior? That you might be a little bit crazy? Do they see you for who you are? Or for what you can do for them? We need mirrors that also see our strengths, that hear and validate our voices and our value. If your primary relationships (with your parents, spouse, boss, best friend) show the signs of being deeply unreliable mirrors, please – get help. Not all our loved ones reflect the truth about ourselves back to us accurately.

Are your human mirrors reflecting both the beautiful and the broken in you? And do they love you, regardless? Ultimately, this is the way God sees us, and this is the self he wants us to see when we look at him. One day we will see him face to face, we will know and be fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12, 1 John 3:2), but until them he has given us Scripture as a mirror in which we can see our true selves, and he has given us other people who, as they themselves become more and more like Jesus, should also be better able to reflect true to us.

I’m hoping and praying that we will be increasingly reliable mirrors to others, and be loved and known by increasingly reliable mirrors in return.