Featured Post

Tastes like ... what??

When our son Ben was a toddler, he was struggling to learn colors, and to develop new food tastes. One day as we pared pieces of a golden de...

Friday, July 22, 2016

On Kindness

Today an envelope with no return address arrived in our mailbox. This is not unusual since many marketing firms use this tactic to draw you into their message. Typically we toss those envelopes aside and maybe, but only maybe, open them days or weeks later.

But for some reason this one seemed a bit more legit. Maybe it was the full salutation to me, my wife and family that seemed a little more personalized. I opened it.

Wow! Inside was this brief note and some cash. As I read the note out loud to Kim, both of our eyes teared up. An unexpected act of anonymous kindness. What a blessing! Our spirits indeed were lifted.

So now I'm thinking about kindness.

There really is a lot of kindness in the world. This article about Rosa's Pizza Shop, where the hungry and homeless can get a pre-paid pizza slice, is an inspiring example of how one person's kindness gave a store owner an opportunity to serve and generous patrons an opportunity to share. All it took was a post-it note or two or a thousand!

This morning while exiting a local coffee shop, someone held the door open for me and my family. There was a second door; we returned the favor. Kindness.

It seems to me that there are different types of kindness. If we pay attention to those around us we can both recognize those acts and offer them ourselves.

One form of kindness is the incidental form of respect we offer to one another as we interact around daily routines. Holding the door, saying "please" and "thank-you," offering our umbrella, speaking gently to one another, and so on, are the moment-by-moment things of kindness.

A second type of kindness seeks to inject some surprise and goodness into a stranger's life. Perhaps this form of kindness is best exhibited in the drive-through phenomena whereby I pay for the order of the person behind me in line. I likely don't know them, will never meet them, and can only imagine the smile it brings to their face (unless of course I'm lingering to watch in my rearview mirror). The drive-through employee actually gets to witness the confusion-followed-by-smile when the customer realizes that they don't need to pay for their order. Often they choose to pass it on to the next customer.

Another form of kindness is also extended to a stranger, but as an act of charity. This type of kindness is the story of Rosa's Pizza Shop. A gift is given with the expectation that someone in need, someone we do not know but who is coming up short in some aspect of life, will benefit from it.

The kindness we received through the mail today is different still. It is intentional anonymous kindness. This kindness is offered when there is specific knowledge of a need of someone we know and we reach out to help meet that need without letting the recipient know who we are. Today's gift came from someone who is aware that both Kim and I have been unemployed. We are so grateful they blessed us in this way. They chose to do so anonymously, but they did so knowingly and as friends.

Some kindnesses are offered in ways that cultivate deeper friendship. These kindnesses are those which we share openly and directly. When a friend delivers a meal post-surgery, that is a kindness which further strengthens the bonds of friendship. When someone offers to keep your kids so you can get out for a mommy/daddy date, or just get some grocery shopping done in peace, that is kindness that further builds a friendship. When your buddy spends a week on your roof helping you re-shingle, that is kindness that cements a relationship.

What other forms of kindness can you think of?

The rhetoric of today's world is often fear, separation, and hatred. But the rhetoric is not the reality. I suppose it is possible to allow the hard rhetoric of division to suck us in, but I prefer to believe that there is more power through simple acts of kindness.

Where have you witnessed kindness today? What kindness have you received today? How have you been kind today?

Thank you to our intentional, anonymous friends! Indeed our spirits have been lifted. And your simple act of kindness has encouraged me to think about how I, too, can be more kind.

Imagine how beautiful our world will be when everyone is infected by kindness and celebrating acts of generosity!

Monday, July 18, 2016

Our Counseling Culture: Saving us or ruining us?

I had been seeing a really awesome counselor for over a year. He helped me work through a bunch of pretty intense and painful things. But then I left my job, and my insurance changed, thus ending my bi-weekly visits. A few months out and I've been reflecting on the role of a counselor in my life, and the role of counselors in our society. Here I'll wonder out loud:

Is our counseling culture saving us or ruining us?

Saving us: why we need these companions on the way

1.  Counselors help us work through some really tough stuff. They may not have seen and heard it all before, but they've seen and heard enough to sit there and take anything we can dish out. Deep grief? There beside you. Burning anger? Got it. Huge questions? Go ahead. Weighty depression? Understood. These trained professionals won't shy away when our going gets rough. In fact, they'll lean in and help us find a way through it, as much as they can.

2.  Counselors are safe. We know that when we share something with a counselor it won't come back to haunt us. It won't be shown sympathy today and then used as ammunition tomorrow. They won't collect our stories and then broadcast them to others. They're not a part of the gossip network. We can say what we need to say, and they will protect it.

3.  Counselors are, as stated in point #1, professionals. At least the ones that I'm talking about are. They are trained and continually monitored to ensure that they are doing good and not causing harm. There is not a lot of room with a professional for "good intentions." They have particular knowledge about how to listen and support their clients, and then know when they're in over their head and need to suggest different help for us.

4.  Counselors keep the focus on us. They make sure that we're doing work on the things that we can work on. Ourselves. There's no dodging our own crap, or ignoring our own goodness. We're constantly redirected to the next level of self-understanding, whether it's encouraging or hard.

5.  Counselors want us to get "better." They really do. I believe they have our best interests in mind. The counselors that I have known have an inherent belief that humans are good, and that even when broken, damaged, or failed, our human calling is to health and well-being. That health looks different for each of us, but our counselor never gives up on us.

Ruining us: why we should think more critically about our companions

1.  By saying that counselors are our "only" safe space, we are failing to cultivate the types of vulnerability required for intimate relationships. Why can't, and shouldn't, we have friendships that are equally safe? What does it take to have friends and communities of people that allow for such vulnerability? Why we are satisfied with and/or resigned to professionalizing our spaces of vulnerability?

2.  If we depend too much on our counselor, then we become lazy. We can get away with not asking ourselves the questions because we expect the counselor to ask the questions. We can stop thinking on our own because our professional will think for us. Yes, it can happen.

3. Counselors keep the focus on us. Here the downside is that we are reinforced in our already-present narcissism. The problems are about me. The struggle is about me. The solutions are about me. But very few if any things are ever so exclusively about me. Of course good counselors help us understand our systems, but they're always our systems.

4.  Counselors rely on our sickness to maintain their financial wellness. This reality is not meant to imply that counselors would keep a client on in ways that are not necessary, or that counselors are money-grubbers. At this point professionalism (and insurance companies!) step up for some checks and balances. But admit it: there is a whole, huge, economic system built on people's pain and fragility. Should our suffering and struggles be an industry?

5.  Counselors provide an excuse to divest from others. When confronted with the anguish and struggle of those around us, we can get away from it by asking, "have you seen a counselor? Maybe you should." Too often I hear this statement as code for "I don't want to deal with you and your stuff" or "I just don't have the time." Come back after you've worked it out with your counselor, and I'll see if I can work you back into my life.

I don't really believe that counseling and counselors are saving us or ruining us. I do know that mine has been a tremendous help to me, and I know lots of people who swear by their counselor. I also know a few people that I think should go see a counselor. In the end I support that counselors can and do play an important role in mental health.

But I also earnestly wonder what the impact is for our culture when it relies so heavily on professionals to help us address our emotional condition.

Maybe I'll ask my counselor. I just got approval from my insurance provider to go see him again.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Perceived enemies

"When things get bad, you create a perceived enemy, 
especially when there is already resounding endorsement from all quarters. 
The myth grows greater than the reality. 
All human beings do it -- personally and politically." 
 from The Music Room by Namita Devidayal, p 106

Things must be bad. We have created so many enemies.

Not only have we created enemies, but we have turned our perception into a palpable vitriol, expressions of suspicion and hatred that rub across our skin like sandpaper and work their way into our soul like grains of sand. But those grains of sand do not turn to pearls. They become festering wounds, infected sores within ourselves, and between us. They become symptomatic of the harsh landscape of which we are a part.

To combat those sores, to fight the pain, to overthrow the "enemy," we turn to the powers we hold and unleash them.

When my wife was being treated for her severely infected gall bladder, the doctors pushed large amounts of strong antibiotics into her system. Through i.v.s and pills, they sought to overwhelm the infection with a violent force that would drive it out of her body, or kill it off. The problem is, however, that like in chemotherapy, the aggressive fight against infection can also damage the good cells and actually compromise the immune system. That is indiscriminate power.

We see such power unleashed every day in our world. Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Michael Smith, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa, and Brent Thompson.

Where have we gone so wrong? I wish I knew. I am tired of hearing that my black brothers are being gunned down. I am tired of hearing that police officers are being picked off while they serve to protect. I am tired of Chicago celebrating that we had "fewer" murders and "less" gun-related violence on this 4th of July weekend. I am tired of the toll of wars and bearing the weight, small as it is for me personally, of the rumor of wars.

But this movement in which a myth grows greater than the reality...... This movement is one I understand. It happens in my head, so it's not hard to imagine that it happens in much larger ways in the world. I am a worrier, so things often become realities in my thoughts even though they are far less (or far more) substantial in concrete life.

We perpetuate and feed these myths, but why? I wish I knew.

Actually, what I really wish I knew was how to stop them.

I wish I knew how to stop the myth that there are no structural barriers to racial equality.

I wish I knew how to stop the myth that to advance the cause of justice for one person or group of people is necessarily to dismiss, demean or devalue another.

I wish I knew how to stop the myth that power exercised by blunt force will produce sustainable peace.

I wish I knew how to stop the myth that everyone should be able to do "it" on their own, to realize that great American dream, to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

I wish I knew how to stop the myth that white people are superior to people with darker skin tones.

I wish......

          .........so many things.....

But wishing, no matter how bright the star, will not get me, will not get us, anywhere.

I wasn't a fan of the show "Myth Busters" the way many people were, but I do appreciate the effort to take things that are commonly thought to be true and actually test them. I am, however, a big fan of snopes,com and wish more social media users would take 30 seconds to check their stories before perpetuating them.

In fact, it's a simple place to start when we want to move beyond wishing. Start by asking questions.

Ask things like "is this factually true?" "How is it that I consider my sources trustworthy?" "What is an alternate point of view?" "What is the energy behind this point of view?" "What am I afraid of?" "What am I hoping for?" "What would the other in this situation say? Better yet, what do you say, victim, perpetrator, bystander?"

Ask things like "I wonder what it feels like to be _______ (in that position, or those shoes)?" "How am I feeling, and where did those feeling come from?" "Could I be wrong?" "What does it mean if I'm right?" "What more can/must I learn?" "What is my power, and how can I utilize it responsibly?"

By asking questions we challenge the endorsement of an unreality pointing toward the necessity of an enemy.

The myth we're living with these days is that things are getting bad, that enemies are lurking around every corner. Maybe instead of jumping on the bandwagon we might ask some questions and consider the inquiry of others.

Gus and me - photo by Samuel Sarpiya
Today I visited an amazing outreach in Rockford, IL. You can read about it here. The mobile lab was parked half a block behind a house in which there was a shooting last night. One of the kids in the lab saw it happen. And yet there he was today, working and playing games on the computer.

What is the myth? What is the reality? What are the questions?

For those of us who are Christians, getting beyond the myth has a definite God element to it. The reality we seek to uncover beneath the myths we have fostered has particular characteristics. They include things like compassion, reconciliation, justice, love, joy, sacrifice, and service.

What are the myths? What are the questions?

God, help us to see a different reality,

Personally. Politically.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

While we wait

While we wait the world keeps on turning.
While we wait lives flipped upside down.
While we wait our cities, they are burning.
While we wait and watch the fleeing drown.

Where will the love come from to take us 
to a better place than this?
A love to break the chains that hold us bound to sin and death?
A love to shock the anger, terrify the fear,
Convert us all to humanness, heartbeats strong and clear.
Where will the love come from to save us 
for a better world than this?

While we hope despair is taking over. 
While we hope depression has its way.
While we hope sadness keeps on risin’. 
While we hope our grief still fills the day.

Where will the love come from to take us to a better place than this?
A love to break the chains that hold us bound to sin and death?
A love to shock the anger, terrify the fear,
Converting us to humanness, heartbeats strong and clear.
Where will the love come from to save us for a better world than this? 

While we watch relationships are crumbling. 
While we watch mothers brace for pain.
While we watch fathers lose their dignity. 
While we watch children fail to gain.

We are waiting, we are hoping, we are watching.

Where will the love come from to take us to a better place than this?
A love to break the chains that hold us bound to sin and death?
A love to shock the anger, terrify the fear,
Converting us to humanness, heartbeats strong and clear.
Where will the love come from to save us for a better world than this?

Here comes the love, the love to save us, for a better world than this.

You can hear a rough recording of While we wait on my YouTube channel 

Text and music copyright(c)2015  Jonathan A Shively

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The myth of "self care"

For decades, well-meaning people have told me to take care of myself. Often it's the common, innocuous parting wish, simply stated "take care." When I am not well, it's offered as a more immediate concern, "take care of yourself," meaning "do what you can to become well again." Other times it has been offered as a philosophical admonition to participate in ongoing activities which signify self care: eat right, exercise, rest, love, participate in life-giving activities, pray, etc.

This latter instruction has actually become a nauseating mantra, popularized I think by the baby boomers, but readily adopted by most generations. Not surprisingly, it has also been adopted by the church.

Perhaps the most frequent refrain that is repeated to pastors is "take care of yourself." The line of thinking goes something like this: you have to be responsible for your own well-being, ALL aspects of your well-being. If you are responsible and take care of yourself, you will be a good pastor; if you don't, most likely you'll end up a burnt out, failed, or fallen pastor.

Same mantra goes for parents. "Take care of yourself" so that you can support your spouse better and be fully present in your children's lives. And it goes for us as employees as well. "Take care of yourself" so that you can be at your best when the pressure is on in the workplace.

I believe this sentiment. We need to have self-responsibility. We need to take action in our own lives to support our own well-being.

But I also don't agree with a word of it. Nothing I do is ever isolated enough to consist solely of self-care. If self care were to be true, I wouldn't be married, wouldn't have kids, couldn't be part of a church, couldn't pursue gainful employment, and couldn't enjoy avocations. Unless of course I'm an entirely narcissistic person, which no-one who ever tells me to practice self care would endorse.

The truth is that I get to make very few choices based exclusively on the need for self care. When I make food choices, because I share meals with my family on a daily basis, they are actually family decisions. When I choose to go for a run, I do so with a keen understanding that this choice will affect the daily rhythm of my family's life. When I say I need rest, someone, somewhere is not getting time or attention that they need equally significantly. If I go on retreat, I am shifting the burden of daily responsibility to others.

As the father of a special needs child, now young adult, the idea of self-care is almost laughable. When I run out of energy to deal with Ben, I can't just "turn him off" and go on a retreat. At best my wife and I can secure a respite caregiver to spend a few hours or even a few days without him, but during that time we'll receive at least 50 phone calls from him and live with the lingering fear that something will go dramatically awry. When it does go awry, there is no choice but to deal with it, irrespective of my need to "take care."

As I said earlier, the church repeats this mantra to its leaders all the time. It's one of the cardinal rules of pastoral ministry and church leadership. "Take care of yourself." What I've seen most often, however, is that the church's needs almost always supercede any effort a leader makes at "self care."

What do I mean? Let me count the ways. Financially. Take care of yourself, but we will pay you only what we can, not what you need. Time. Take the time you need for yourself, but only after you have met our needs, and only until we need something else from you (pastors "on call" during vacation). Family. Make sure your spousal relationship is strong, but don't forget you're married to the church. Don't neglect your children, but don't forget they're in the spotlight right alongside you. Spiritual life. Pray, read scripture, retreat, but mostly when it's convenient for us and in the end for our benefit. Behave. Always maintain composure and professionalism, even though the church will protect people who behave atrociously toward you. Play nicely. You must "take care" so that you can function transformatively in an organization that refuses to deal with its own shortcomings, pathologies, and sin.

I'm sure there are more.

I recently wrote a blog post about care. You can read it here if you haven't already. But it's not self care. It's community care. It's friend care. It's the grace-filled care of God.

We DO need to find better ways to take care, to take care of each other. Instead of a congregation telling it's pastor to use his/her vacation, how about building a strategy with the pastor so that the vacation is actually refreshing. Give them extra money to spend. Make sure there are alternative pastoral coverage people in place. Ask them to turn off their cell phone, and covenant not to leave urgent messages. Plan to complete work that needs to be done while they're away, not just put if off to double the load when they return. Mow their lawn and feed their pets. Stock their refrigerator for when they return.

What ways does your church care for its pastor/s? What other ways can you think of? I know some churches are working hard at shared care already. What can we learn from you?

Like I said, my beef with self care is not intended to get us off the hook for making better choices and following through. But I do think we need to examine how our ideas of self care are embedded in our culture's selfish and self-serving defaults, and how self care is at odds with a Christian perspective on relationships. Rather than a call to abandon self care, there's an opportunity for us to pick up shared care. There are lots of words for these alternatives to self care: compassion, friendship, covenant, mutuality, community, love.

It's a very rare day or hour that I feel capable and privileged enough to practice self care. The rest of the time, the vast majority of the time, I absolutely cannot do it alone. I wish we could stop pretending that we can take care of ourselves. I pray that we will stop putting the pressure on one another to take care of ourselves. Instead, let's take care of one another, extending grace and caring support so that together we might be well.