Thursday, September 22, 2011

Have you seen the scene?

I ended up in quite a heated argument with my brother-in-law the other day. There is a great point at the end that has nothing to do with Lord of the Rings, so even if you aren’t a fan, wade through. It should be worth your time. Here’s what happened:
I am a great fan of the Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien — both the books and the movies. One difference between the books and the movies, I think, creeps in from the worldview of the screenwriters for the movies. I don’t think screenwriters Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh  believe in nobility of character (or, at least, they don’t believe it plays well on screen).
Without getting taken up in an analysis of the entire movie, several characters who display what I would call a “noble character,” (they recognize their own limitations, sacrifice for greater good, won’t hurt people who aren’t an immediate threat to them, etc. Treebeard, Faramir and Aragorn, to name three for LOTR fans) are lowered so that their character is less noble.
My brother-in-law and I were arguing about this. He saw my point, but when I brought up the following scene, he said it wasn’t in the movie. I knew it was because it is so un-Aragorn that it sticks out like a sore thumb: Among the less-than-noble actions of the noble-in-the-book characters is a moment when after speaking for a few moments with an unarmed emissary from the dark lord, Sauron, Aragorn rides to the side of the emissary and lops off his head!
My brother-in-law said it never happened. I said it did. He said it didn’t. You get the picture.
There was only one solution: pull out the movie and check the scene. We did. He saw it. And he swore that he’d never seen it before. He’s got a great memory, so I believed him.
Then it dawned on us. We were watching the extended director’s cut and he had previously only seen the theatrical release. We were, in fact, both right!
Not all, but many of our disagreements can be resolved to the satisfaction of all parties involved if we are willing to take the time to be honest with others and respect their right to have a different viewpoint from ours.
We discovered how we were both right because we are each both honest about the truth as we saw it and also respected the other’s viewpoint. Instead of arguing or getting mad, we respectfully disagreed and continued to push the point until — lo and behold! — we found the source of the disagreement.
When you find yourself in a disagreement with someone, don’t just get in an argument with an eye toward winning, quickly swallow your opinion, or agree to disagree. Gently, lovingly push on the disagreement for a while. Why do you think that? How did you come to that conclusion? I really see things very differently from the way you do. I don’t think it happened that way at all. Ask the other person questions about how they came to their views rather than bringing up their parentage or questioning their standardized test scores. Speak for yourself about yourself.
The Bible gives us great wisdom for times of disagreement: “Speaking the truth in love we will grow up…” (Ephesians 4:15) No one has a corner on truth — it’s always to some degree “as we see it.” On the other hand, love is clearly defined in 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient, love is kind, love is not jealous or boastful or rude or self-seeking…”
You may end up disagreeing still. But, speaking the truth in love, you might learn something. Speaking the truth in love, you both might come to a different opinion than the one with which you started. And, speaking the truth in love, you are much more likely to keep the relationship whole. And, who knows? You might both be right!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Avoid Spilling Metaphorical Coffee

It was a hectic morning trying to get our three kids off to school. I was carrying a cup of coffee as I walked into my office to get I-don't-even-remember-what. A slightly bulging box rested on top of the blanket chest that sits under some bookshelves. It was from these bookshelves that I needed to get something (not a book) that had to do with the morning. 

Being in too much of a hurry to walk across the room to set the coffee safely on my desk, I put my cup on the slightly bulging box. Can you guess what happened next? The box rocked a bit.

When I looked down and saw the box rocking gently, I reacted quickly. I reached down and grabbed the cup. In the process of grabbing the cup, I spilled the coffee.

I could — and probably should — draw the lesson from this event that I should just slow down enough to put the coffee in a safer place. But that's not what sticks in my mind.

What I remember is that the coffee cup, though teetering a bit, was still safely on the box when I grabbed it. When I reacted quickly, grabbing for the coffee mug, I spilled it. Looking back on the situation, the coffee probably wouldn't have spilled at all. I just got nervous. In my fear of spilling the coffee, I became anxious and reacted rapidly, causing the very thing of which I had been afraid.

Strange as it may seem, this caused me to think about relationships. How often have I, through rapid, anxious reaction, "spilled the coffee" in a relationship when a thoughtful and reflective pause would have brought about a better result? How often have I felt angry or hurt and, by reacting quickly and instinctually, "spilled the coffee"? How many times have I made things worse by my own reaction, perhaps even causing quarrels where none would have started?

There are all sorts of ways we "spill the coffee" in relationships. A quick retort. A hurtful word. A glaring silence. Stomping from the room. Dredging up old offenses and hurling them in the face of the one who is hurting us. Playing "eye-for-an-eye."

The lesson here is that if you are talking to someone and feel yourself getting anxious, uptight, nervous, angry, scared — whatever you call it, you know what I'm talking about — those feelings may be reasonable. But it's worth a pause, a moment of reflection, a deep breath before you react. It's true the coffee may be spilling anyway. Whoever you are talking to might even be spilling the coffee on purpose. But just a moment of consideration before you respond may make a great deal of difference in how your conversation and your relationship proceed from there.

Pause. Think about how you are going to respond. Remember that the other person is an object of God's love as much as you are. Remember that the other person is a person. A person with feelings. A person with a back story. Even if the hurt is intentional, why that person hurting you? You might be reaping a harvest someone else has sown. This may be a chance for you to bring love and peace into the other person's life. Might a healthy does of grace do more for the other person and be the best thing for yourself, too?

A moment of reflection before you speak won't fix everything. That's for sure! But it can be very helpful. I can tell you from experience (as, I'm sure, you can tell me, too), that it's much easier in the long run to avoid spilling rather than to clean up, whether you're talking about relationships or coffee.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Wrestling with God

A few weeks (maybe months) ago I taught a lesson on prayer during our Sunday service. Using major biblical characters as examples, I encouraged people to approach God in prayer honestly and boldly.

Abraham bargained with the angels about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Jacob wrestled with the Angel of the Lord. ("Let me go!" said the angel. "Not until you bless me!" said Jacob.) Moses tried to weasel out of God's call on his life. Later on, when God was going to destroy the Israelites and start a new people for himself, Moses pointed out that the Egyptians would say that the Israelite's god brought them out into the wilderness to kill them. "God relented.

I cannot fathom the mysteries of the ways of God. After all, even God's "foolishness" is wiser than our wisdom. I don't know in each instance why prayers are answered or not (at least in a discernible way). But I can clearly see the example set by people historically lifted up as "heroes of the faith." This is why I encourage people to pray honestly and opening. Make your case. Wrestle with God.

People who want to be good Christians can fall into the "thy will be done" trap. There's nothing wrong with the phrase, of course. It's straight from the Lord's Prayer. But sometimes saying, "your will be done" at the end of a prayer is really another way of saying, "Whatever. You're not going to do it anyway." Or sometimes people jump straight to "your will be done" because they lack real trust in God's loving listening.

After experimenting for a semester with schooling at home, Kelly and I wanted to send Anya to a small Christian middle school near our home but couldn't swing the tuition in cash. So Kelly, a stay-at-home mom, offered to work at the school to cover the tuition costs. She and the principal agreed that she could do reading pull-outs for students who were falling behind. When she arrived for the first day of work, the principal asked her if she could do math pull-outs that day instead reading pull-outs. Kelly ended up doing math pull-outs all year long! Not a single reading pull-out. (Kelly has many strengths, but math is not one of them. Kelly has many joys, but math is not one of them.) She persevered for the love of our daughter. As summer came to a close, anxiety began to grow in Kelly's spirit as she faced the prospect of another year doing math pull-outs. After hearing my sermon, she began wrestling with God over this situation. She was willing to do it for Anya's sake, but would really rather not if there was another way.

This is the pattern Jesus sets for us in his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (I am not comparing the situations — only the pattern!) Be honest and pour your true desires out to the Father. Then trust him with the result.

If you have not found peace through prayer, it may be that you are not really being honest with God. God tells us that he is like a father — but better than any imperfect earthly father could be. Can you imagine your disappointment as a parent if every time your children came to talk to you they tried to say what they thought you wanted to hear instead of sharing what's really in their hearts and minds? Tell God what's really going on with you — what you really want, if that's what's going on — and then trust him with the result.

Honesty and openness are an integral part of finding peace in prayer. So, be honest.

Oh, and here's what happened to Kelly this week. She was going to start the math pull-outs last week, but that didn't work out for a variety of reasons. She went in this week to begin math pull-outs. The principal pulled her aside and asked if she would mind doing reading! Mind!?! Oh, yeah! Thanks, God! We don't always understand what you are doing, but we sure are grateful for this one!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Well, that week got away from me!

I spend this last week writing, but it wasn't a blog entry. I was applying for a grant to fund a 12-week sabbatical next year. Since we have been encouraged by the scriptures to be bold in our prayers to God, I would ask my friends who are of the praying type to pray that I am receive the sabbatical funding grant. The money will fund some travel with my family along with a variety of other expenses that go with putting aside my pastoral ministry for 12 weeks (including guest preachers).

Here's the short summary of my sabbatical proposal from my grant application, in case you are interested:
I have found many loves on this journey of life. I love my Savior. I love my family. I love my church. I love preaching and teaching. I love writing and other creative projects. I love hiking in the wilderness and exploring new environments, both urban and rural. I love fantasy stories, from children’s literature such as “The Chronicles of Narnia” to high fantasy epic journeys like “The Lord of the Rings.”

I propose a sabbatical of renewal in life and ministry that encompasses my many loves through relational connection, challenging journeys, and the chance to be creatively energized.

Fantasy fiction often resonates with my soul. The struggles, triumphs and failures of a well-written character mirror those of real life. The applicability of fantasy fiction to Gospel teaching has been part of my ministry for a long time. Fantasy stories from “Toy Story” to “The Hobbit” offer fertile ground for contemplating and illustrating our spiritual journey as Christians.

My sabbatical journey will include a variety of actual journeys — a road trip with my family, a solo hike on the Appalachian Trail, walking through various city and country environments — and the journey of writing fantasy fiction that wrestles with biblical teachings.