Monday, July 27, 2015

Fight fair

A few weeks ago Todd and I had an argument. Regrettably, it was in front of the kids. Our voices were raised and our anger and frustration was obvious. It was more intense than I anticipated; we were both raw and thin with each other after a few long days of emotional junk had piled up between us.

Of course, it occurred during the harried-even-on-a-good-day bath and bedtime routine. What is it about these kinds of mundane rituals that make us want to snap?

As I was helping towel off my middle daughter (bless her heart) she whispered her concern to me with tears in her eyes: "Are you guys going to get a divorce?" 

Todd and I don't argue that often, and almost never in front of the kids, so she didn't know what happens next when adults fight. I reassured her that sometimes the people we love most are also the ones who drive us the craziest, but that arguments are normal and our marriage is fine.

I declared a personal truce for a moment and whispered to Todd that if we had to have this argument in front of the kids, we should at least show them how to properly finish it. He agreed, and we apologized to each other for our sharp words and loud voices and promised to resume the conversation later with cooler heads. We hugged it out where the kids could see, then resumed the bedtime routine of brushing teeth, reading stories, and saying prayers. All was calm again.

We did pick up the argument again later, after we'd both had a chance to figure out what was really bothering us. 

Arguments are not bad. Conflict can be good when handled correctly. But I know many Christians who think the end times are upon us if they see their leaders disagreeing about marriage equality or racism or the economy or women's rights or whatever issue is currently dominating the news cycle. They think public arguments are divisive and work against Christian unity. They fear the bad optics of a poorly argued point reduce Christians to squabbling children, not bearers of the good news of God's grace. And just like Ava, they're afraid these rifts will cause permanent damage. 

Not so. Fighting isn't bad, especially when done fairly. Here are 5 things I've learned about fighting fair:

1. Arguments often come from a perceived imbalance of power. When I feel like I've been doing more than my fair share with the kids and the house and my job, I'm more likely to complain about it. Or if I feel I've been treated unfairly, it's pretty certain that I'll say something. And if you tell me to just let it go? Watch out. But when I feel like I've been heard, even if you disagree, I'm much more likely to check my anger and proceed calmly. When the scales are balanced, it's easier to speak freely. 

2. Arguments are brave. How many times have you just thrown up your hands and given up instead of saying what you really needed to say? When you decide to engage in an argument, you've decided you are worth being heard and that the relationship is worth repairing. And the person who is listening? Also brave! Being compassionate can cost you, but it points to a willingness to work through a problem rather than amp it up or stuff it down. Brave. 

3. It's not what you say but how you say it. I can get snarky, sarcastic, and dismissive when I feel attacked, so I have to work even harder to say exactly what I'm feeling in a just-the-facts-ma'am tone. But I find that I can say literally anything to my husband if I say it calmly. Another tactic I employ is asking questions, like, "please tell me what you were thinking/feeling when you said/did that". This strategy helps me get down to why something happened without name-calling or character assassination. 

4. Notice patterns. Do you argue more when you're limping toward payday? During the long, dark, cold days of winter? Following an illness? Just before a business trip or family event? Take these things--and the underlying emotions that go with them--into account before launching into a tirade. A little compassion goes a long way. Do you argue about the same things over and over again? Start looking for patterns. Encourage your partner to do the same. This can turn an argument into a less emotionally-charged problem-solving experiment.

5. A fair fight is like a fire: it makes room for new growth. It might even bring you closer. 

In what ways have you learned to fight fairly? What would you add to this list?

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Using our words

A few weeks ago, my Sunday school lesson was about the prophet Jeremiah. The lesson focused on how young Jeremiah didn't think he could do what God was asking him to do because of his age and inexperience:  

"Alas, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you...Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. (Jeremiah 1:6-7, 9)

I shared with my students that a common prayer I say before teaching or attending a meeting or giving a presentation or correcting a child is "Lord, please put the right words in my mouth." And I mean it, because I know how important words are. 

But lately I've been thinking about how we Christians use our words. Sometimes our words paint a pretty picture but lack action. And sometimes our words are truly harmful and do serious damage in God's name. Like Bob Goff says, "We shouldn't say everyone's invited if we're going to act like they're not welcome when they come." 

Our words matter. Our actions matter more. 

I read an article recently that talks about how we talk about the church across age groups and the "cultural commute" we have to travel to have such conversations. Rev. Erik Parker explains it this way:
"When I go and talk to unchurched millennials about baptism, I often get asked about why faith and church is important to me. This is often is the most exciting part of the conversation. Yet, when I ask churched boomer and older members about why faith and church is important to them, I get uncomfortable looks and uncertain answers."
I often hear criticism that Christians have a vocabulary all their own.
Short break for humor:

But seriously, when it comes to using our words to describe why church is important to us, our words just don't line up with our feelings or actions. Why is that?  Is a a generational thing? Why can't we articulate what church or our faith means to us? We live in a world that can distill our feelings on any number of news or cultural events to 140 characters or less, but we can't tell friends and loved ones about our relationship with God? 
I challenge you to formulate an answer to the question, "why do you go to church?" This response may be the greatest (and only) outreach opportunity you get with a loved one seeking answers. Keep it the length of a Facebook post if you must, but make your words count. I'd love to hear what you come up with--post your answers in the comments! 

Friday, July 24, 2015

Going home

I put two laundry baskets full of clothes in the car. He stood and watched me pack, wordless. I buckled two small bodies into the car and didn't say goodbye or make eye contact. He never asked where I was going or for how long. And I just drove away.

I was at my breaking point. He had been out of work forever. I was teaching full-time while he cared for our babies at home. He had no obvious plans, at least none that he was sharing with me. And when he did share, the direction he was heading made zero sense. I was stressed and stretched by my family and work demands. This was not the picture of life I had imagined for us. We were barely speaking. So I left with the kids. I went to my parents' house. I had no idea what I was doing. I felt everything and nothing all at once.

I'm not sure how many hours or days passed, but he reached out to our pastor, Rev. Dr. Dennis Paulson, as he had in recent months while dealing with his depression and confusion about his future. I had no idea what they'd been talking about, but he always seemed lighter after they'd met. But I wasn't seeing progress at all, at least not fast enough. 

He invited me to church to come talk to him and Dr. Paulson. I knew I should go, and I wasn't sure I wanted to, but I went anyway. 

Dr. Paulson saved my marriage in three words: Go back home.  

It was cold and I was wearing a heavy cowl-neck sweater. My palms were sweaty. I felt small on the oversized couch, but my anger felt big. Cocooned in my sweater and my rage, I glared at both of them. "And if I go home, can you promise that things will get better?"

"No. But I can promise to try. I'm working some things out."

As the saying goes, when the student is ready the teacher appears.

Dr. Paulson led my husband and I through discerning a call to ministry. He gave us the good news and the bad news about itinerancy. He and his wife, Gerrie, openly shared their life experiences in ministry while raising young children. He could see the big picture and knew that our marriage could withstand these storms, but he also recommended a good therapist. 

Dr. Paulson gently but intentionally guided us through the ordination process in Detroit. And when that process didn't yield the results we had been hoping for, he was angry and confused right along with us. He blessed us to go forth to Illinois, where he had begun his own ministry as a young man. 

And now our friend and mentor has gone back home. He passed away suddenly this week in a boating accident. His wife was with him at the time of the accident. I can only imagine her pain. 

Todd and I attended his funeral today. His friend and colleague, Rev. Bill Dobbs gave the eulogy. Among the scriptures he referenced was Romans 8: 38-39 which reads, "For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Rev. Dobbs went on to elaborate that God is waiting to wrap God's arms around us and bring us home. 

This is something I am certain Dr. Paulson did not fear in life, but instead embraced. While I am sure he didn't know the hour nor the manner in which he would die, he was not afraid of death. He had peace. He had been a good and faithful servant; he had run his race. I pray for the same peace to be upon his friends and family and all those who he's touched throughout his life as they learn to rebuild a home without him. One only needed look upon the faces of those gathered today to see the impact he had in his life. 

Sometimes going home is hard. 

Friday, July 17, 2015

Cutting the line

I felt the looks before I saw them.

It was hot. I had been home all day with the girls and hadn't sat down once doing the usual picking up, switching laundry, tending dinner, making phone calls, refereeing sisters dance with which most moms are well accustomed. It wasn't a bad day, just a tiring one. 

Todd was away for a meeting, so I was flying solo that evening. The baby had the angriest diaper rash I'd ever seen (!!!) so I dragged all three girls to the dollar store in town on an emergency mission for extra-strength diaper cream. Forget my crunchy hippie-dippy remedies, this called for Desitin NOW.  

I put Harper in the car without pants or shoes and absolutely wailing. The other two had been playing outside in the unreasonable heat and were sweaty. Ava had actual marks on her face where the sweat had dripped down her cheeks and wiped away the dirt in tiny streaks. I had visible boob-sweat and realized too late that my homemade (hippie) deodorant may not have been designed for the kind of day I was having. We looked...rough. 

If I had been a bystander and seen us walk in--a literal hot mess--I might have stared. Ten years ago, when I was a teacher but not yet a mother, I know I would have judged. 

I immediately felt eyes on us. A teenage boy and his mother literally stopped dead in their tracks when we walked in. Another middle-aged woman I knew from town winked and just kept on walking. 

As I swiftly and efficiently (not) located the magic cream and pushed the tiny yellow cart to the checkout, a kindly older lady made eye contact with me and said, "You go ahead, dear. You look like you're in a hurry." I half died, but managed to choke out profuse thanks and scooted that cart and two flip-flop shuffling children to the front of the line. 

It dawned on me as I drove home, squirming from the back sweat now dripping down into my waistband, that it really didn't matter what anyone thought of me. I knew I was a good mom. I was secure in my ability to raise my tiny humans. My kids were loved. We were OK. Though we looked half-feral, we were just having a bad moment (entire day). I was proud of myself, because I finally extended myself the same grace I extend to others. I'm often the line cut-ee, but not the line cutter. 

I've been witnessing a lot of ugliness on social media lately. It seems many Christians feel like others are "cutting the line" and are being extended unfair advantages (or equality). I see Matthew 7:13-14 often quoted as a means for this positional jockeying: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few."

These are Jesus' words as he explains how we enter the kingdom. It's not easy. There is hard work involved. It might even give some people anxiety to think that if the gate is narrow, maybe not everyone can enter. But the verse just before it is Matthew 7:12: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets."

Friends, we will not get to heaven faster by cutting in front of others, thinking that because we went to church more or for longer or gave more in the collection plate or were created straight instead of gay or identify as Methodist instead of Catholic we somehow deserve it more or sooner. We get to heaven by being secure in our relationship with God. And if we're not, we need to work on it. But we don't get to cut the line, nor does anyone else, because THERE IS NO LINE. The gate is wide enough for everyone. 

Not everyone is in the same place in their faith journey. I'd consider myself a bit down the road, but that doesn't make me any better than someone just starting out. It's in the journey that we find God. We will encounter others along the way. God is watching how we progress and how we treat our fellow travelers. But he's not keeping track of who's first.  

Know how we get to heaven? By helping someone get there before you. So, you go ahead, dear ones. I can wait. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Staying Connected

Image taken from

On a recent date night, my handsome husband took me to see Pixar's new film Inside Out. It's about a little girl and her emotions. I'll admit, I feel like I'm kind of an expert in this area already with three dramatic daughters at home, but the movie made an impression on me.

Riley, the pre-adolescent main character, moves with her family from an idyllic Minnesota childhood filled with friends, family, and hockey to bustling San Francisco to support her father's new business enterprise. Things do not go smoothly. Even the strongest of family units can be jarred by the stress of relocating, and cracks begin to show in Riley's family almost immediately. The moving truck is delayed, the new house and school aren't exactly what Riley had expected, and Riley's dad is overwhelmed with setting up his new business and investors.

The movie dives into what is going on in Riley's head as she forms new memories and attachments in her new home. The characters Joy, Anger, Sadness, Disgust, and Fear all play parts in forming her new identity. She is trying to make new connections to old ideas, to the things that make her uniquely her--her friends, her sense of humor, her love of hockey, her family. But these old pieces of her identity are being seriously strained. She misses her old friends. She struggles to try out for a new hockey team. She's not feeling like her silly self. And it seems like her family unit has been irreparably damaged. She just wants things to go back to the way they were. 

The most important pieces of Riley's identity become untethered until all that's left is her family, and even that is hanging by a thread. But then a strange thing happens: she begins to form new islands of her personality. And the old ones return--a bit different, but still there. Who Riley is is a fluid thing, influenced by her new environment, but no less beautiful than before--just different. 

I think ministry life is a lot like the movie Inside Out, and I encourage you to see it for yourselves. Appointments and the friends and support network that go along with them are in a regular state of flux. It might feel after a particularly difficult meeting or big move that you are unsure of who you even are anymore.  But as you undoubtedly know already, you are always growing and changing, becoming the person God is shaping you to be. Sometimes this change comes easily, like adding honey to your tea--the addition makes the end result sweeter and more comforting. But sometimes this change is hard, like boiling water for pasta--messy, hot, and time-sensitive, but eventually everything softens.

When change comes, it can be helpful to maintain meaningful connections to the things that make us us--friends, family, pets, and hobbies. Social media like Facebook and Twitter has made it easier than ever to stay connected with friends and family. My family finds it helpful to stay in contact with old friends through Face Time or Skype. We try to combine new as well as old when we move, so that there is familiarity along with the newness--same bedspread but new curtains, for instance. Maintaining routines, like morning prayers and devotions or keeping a regular sabbath, can also help.

We also add people to "our tribe" in each community we live, forming a beautiful and varied network of support everywhere we go. We do this through inviting other young families in our church or nearby clergy to dinner once a week, or by striking up conversations with people we meet at the park or grocery store. I'll admit that this is easy with young children, as they are a reliable source of conversation starters, but you'd be surprised how much you have in common with people once you start talking. That "me, too!" moment is the best feeling of connection I know.

You don't need to be in ministry to experience these issues! Tell me: how do you maintain meaningful connections during challenging times?

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Year in ministry {2015 edition}

It is important to periodically take stock of your life and work. Are you achieving the goals you've set for yourself? Most of us do this in January at the turn of the New Year (and I'm no exception). But for those in ministry, July is when we review and renew, as most appointments begin and end July 1. 

Each year that we've been in ministry I've compiled a photo collage of the highlights of our year (you can find 2013 here and 2014 here ). This year's collage is below:

If you had to make a collage of your year so far, what would you include? What would you leave out? What work is still in progress?