Saturday, March 30, 2013

Holy Saturday: Why should your heart not dance?

Today is Holy Saturday, the in-between day. The disciples are gathered. For them, this is a horrible day. Their friend and teacher, a man they thought was the Messiah, has been crucified. He died and was buried. What seemed the most amazing adventure of their lives has ended.

If they only had the perspective we have! They would have been preparing a welcome party for Jesus instead of being huddled in a locked room. They did not understand that Jesus had to die and rise again even though he had told them plainly. Can you imagine the disciples huddled in a locked room if they knew — knew — that Jesus would be coming out of the grave the very next morning? Inconceivable!

We also live in an in-between time. Jesus has told us that he will come again to take us to be with him where there is no more sorrow, sickness, suffering, pain or death. How, then, do we live? This is a question of faith. If you don’t believe Jesus is coming back, huddle in fear. Make what you can of your life. Love carefully and cautiously. Protect yourself and prepare to die because you are but a mist that appears briefly and then vanishes. But if you do believe Jesus is coming back, why not live in joy now? Why not live in peace now?

Tomorrow morning we will say, “Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!” We have the perspective that those poor, grieving disciples lacked. We have the word of the risen Christ that death has been conquered. The grave is the door to eternal life. All is right with God through Jesus. Of course this life has times of difficulty and pain, but why should your heart not dance?

Why should your heart not dance?

Monday, March 25, 2013

Should marriage take work?

"Why do marriages take work? That doesn't seem right." That's what my daughter said to me a few days ago. Do marriages and other relationships take work? Oh, yeah. But let's delve into that just a bit further because we don't want to give people the wrong idea.

How would you define, "work"? I think that when people think of "work" they think of unpleasant or difficult tasks that need doing. Is marriage "work" in that sense? It sure can be.

If you blow it badly and need to apologize to your spouse, coming clean and apologizing is an unpleasant task that needs to be done. If you have to work out your spending priorities with very limited income, developing a realistic spending plan can be a difficult task that must be done. Marriage does, from time to time, require "work" in that sense.

But because the phrase "Marriage takes work" gets thrown around so often, I think my daughter may have been coming the conclusion that marriage is a long string of unpleasant or difficult tasks that need doing. As much as it can seem that way at times :-) when marriages are not strong, "work" may not be the best word for the ongoing tasks that are part of a healthy marriage. It can leave the wrong impression.

I prefer "tending."

Marriages are like gardens. A little bit of regular tending goes a long way. For most gardeners, the regular tending of the garden is a pleasant task they look forward to. Such is the case with marriages functioning well. Tending needs to happen — dates, kind words, extra chores, physical intimacy, conversations about your spouse’s internal life, etc. — but the tending is a pleasant part of the day's tasks. My wife and I spend a few minutes nearly every day sitting and talking, either over coffee in the morning with a brief devotion or a glass of wine in the evening... or both! This is the "work" of marriage, which is why "work" probably isn't the best word. "Tending" is much better.

All marriages take work from time to time. But if you are diligent in tending your marriage, you will learn to delight in the tasks that are part of the tending of your relationship and you will minimize the frequency with which you marriage really does require unpleasant or difficult tasks.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Mathematics of Happy Marriages

Dr. John Gottman has scientifically studied marriage for decades. Some of his findings validate conventional wisdom, some turn conventional wisdom upside down.

One of his findings is what he calls the "magic ratio." This is the ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions that lead to spouses feeling like they have a happy, successful marriage. The ratio is 5 to 1. 5 positive interactions or experiences for every one negative one. For some people that seems pretty low. Others may feel like this is the last nail in the coffin of their marriage because they can't imagine having 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative interaction.

The good news is that you are largely in control of this. If you need to get in better physical condition, you don't say, "Well, I'm just not the kind of person who exercises or eats well. I'm not strong or fit. I'm just weak." No, you make a decision and you begin to do things differently. And that is what you expect. Lifting weights might not be enjoyable at first, but you do it knowing that it will produce the strength in your muscles that you desire. Taking time out for running or walking doesn't come naturally at first, but you do it knowing that it will produce the fitness you desire. Low and behold, if you do the things that lead to physical fitness, you become more physically fit!

We often think of our personalities and relationships as things that just are the way they are. "I'm just not that positive a person." "We just don't get along that well." "My spouse will never be happy with me for who I am." We think this, but it is generally not true. Our positive feelings and interactions are as buildable as our muscles.

Just like it's not fake to lift weights when you are weak because you want to be stronger, so it is not fake to choose different actions in hopes that the dynamics of your relationship will improve. Specifically, to choose actions that will lead you toward and beyond the magic ratio of 5 to 1.

Note that it is important to have some negativity. This means you are sharing who you really are. You and your spouse are not going to see eye-to-eye on every issue.

But that ratio appears to be important, so it's worth proactively addressing.

These positives do not have to be large and difficult things or grand gestures. Anything that you know makes your spouse feel good (not just what you think makes your spouse feel good, because you might have a wrong assumption. And when you assume you... well, you know what happens when you assume!) But if you are out of the habit, it will take some concentration and practice.

Unless the four horsemen (criticism, contempt, defensiveness and withdrawal) have really taken up residence in your marriage, you can probable find more ways to interact positively just by being aware of the need to do it. It may not happen in a day or a week, but by choosing positive interactions, you will likely begin to have a more positive sense about your relationship. After a while, you will think "Hey, I'm feeling more positive about our marriage."

You may also have to condition yourself to find the positive things (just like conditioning your muscles to be strong). Pick something you can say that's positive and affirming, even if it's one among nine other things you don't appreciate at the moment. If your spouse cooked a meal that didn't turn out particularly tasty, you can say "Thanks for cooking. It's always nice to have a hot meal. I really appreciate it." If things are on the negative side in your relationship, your spouse might say, "What? You didn't like it did you? You don't appreciate what I do." You can reply with honesty and appreciation. "Listen, I'm not trying to comment on the meal, honey. I'm trying to tell you that I recognize and appreciate the effort you put into it. Thank you."

The point is that the magic ratio has been verified by research. It's something you can influence through your own choices. Choose to plant positive interaction seeds and they will grow into marital happiness flowers.

Like the rest of Gottman's marriage research I'm blogging about for a few days, I am just touching on this subject. But he's got a lot of great stuff on his web site:

Here are some blog entries from his team on the subject of the magic ratio:


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

"You're not listening!" "No, I REALLY can't hear you."

In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell explores moments of rapid cognition. Among the many fascinating discoveries of psychological research he discusses is a kind of stress-induced temporary autism. Under times of stress, our ability to take in and process information from the external world diminishes, sometimes dramatically. Police officers who end up firing their weapon in the line of duty (more than 90% go their entire careers without ever firing a shot in an actual exchange of gunfire) report strange things, like never hearing a gunshot. This is because the stress responses of the body close down all sorts of functions temporarily.

Now we shift to John Gottman's research with married couples. He has observed a similar phenomenon, albeit at a lower intensity. Couples who are in heated disagreements are subject to what he terms, "flooding." Flooding refers to a person's rise in physiological stress indicators in response to the way a conflict is being worked through. Heart rate and blood pressure increase. When you are flooding, you feel pressured and shell-shocked. All you can really think about is protecting yourself either by fighting back or leaving. Your ability to perceive and respond with love and creativity — even with attitudes and words that are your normal way of relating — takes a nose-dive.

When you are flooding, you need a break. It's not a weakness. It's physiological. It's what your body and mind do under stress.

Here's an important point: most of us are not very good at judging our own stress level. When arguments get heated and people say, "I just need a break," they usually feel like they "got a handle on it" after about five minutes. Unfortunately, this is not true and it makes re-entering the discussion problematic to say the least! Gottman’s research indicates that when you start flooding (indicated by, for example, your pulse increasing by 10% or more over your resting heart rate), it really takes about 20 minutes for your physiology to leave the stress state. That's important for couples to know when a disagreement gets hot.

There is good news, though, for both police officers and couples. Gladwell and Gottman both report that training can alter your stress response. Policemen train regularly for that firefight that has a greater than 90% chance of never happening because they want to be prepared. They know the stress response will come.

For couples, there is a 100% chance that disagreements will happen from time to time, so preparing for conflict (NOT preparing for battle!) is a wise idea.

The first step is to learn to recognize flooding when it happens. Your heart rate increases. Maybe you feel nervous or trapped. Or you’re getting ready to fire back instead of listening. You feel your normally calm way of thinking begin to contract. Gottman suggests that in the beginning it can even be helpful to take your pulse because the physiological reactions that are part of flooding often happen before self-awareness that flooding has begun. Learn what your resting pulse rate is and check it during the discussion.

Step two is to agree together that if either of you begin to experience flooding, take a break. Taking a break is not the same thing running away from the argument. It’s a physiological need. A break is a temporary halt with the commitment to continue the conversation when both parties are better able. During the break, do whatever helps you relax: read a book, go for a walk, work out, whatever. If your goal is to make the relationship work, do not continue a heated discussion when one of you starts to feel flooded. Even the agreement to take a flooding break if needed can reduce flooding because you feel less trapped when you know that at any point you can call a 30-minute break. If your spouse calls a break and you feel like, "Wait a minute! I'm not done here!" remember that your spouse will be unable to hear and respond in a reasonable way until the flooding subsides. Whatever it is that you want him or her to understand will be much more easily received after the stress response calms down.

There is a great deal more that can be done to prepare for good conflict in relationships. But this is enough for one blog post. If you feel stressed by that, please take at least a 30-minute break before you email me. ;-) 

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Four Horsemen of Marriage Apocalypse

John Gottman, Ph.D. has studied marriage relationships with more scientific rigor than just about anyone. If you and your spouse sit in his lab and have a conversation about a disagreement in your marriage, he can tell whether the marriage will last another 5 years with 90% accuracy in just 15 minutes (80% accuracy in five minutes!).

He has identified what he calls the four horsemen (taken from the four horsemen of the apocalypse found in the book of Revelation in the Bible). When any of these are habitually present in your marriage, you cannot continue your current relationship patterns and reasonably expect to keep your marriage/family together.

The four horsemen are:
  • Criticism
  • Contempt (this, btw, is the baddest of the bad guys)
  • Defensiveness
  • Stonewalling
The good news is that you are not stuck even if you regularly see one or more of the four horsemen galloping around your relationship.

Dr. Gottman has written some of the best books on marriage that I have read. I plan on reading more. I am currently listening to Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, and How You Can Make Yours Last and I am reading 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work (I can barely put it down).

You can visit his web site at

You'll hear a few more things on this blog about Gottman's research before long. His work is fascinating.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Is Diet Food Bad for our Spirits?

I'm just thinking...

Last week I preached on gluttony which, contrary to popular belief, is not simply eating too much. Those who have contemplated and considered gluttony as one of the seven capital vices see it as something much deeper. One can eat too daintily, too sumptuously, too hastily, too greedily, or just plain too much/too often.

Gluttony is a disordered relationship with food. It is the vice that keeps us from enjoying the good gift of food in its proper place.

The thought that occurred to me is this: is being able to consume calorie-reduced food spiritually neutral? Is eating a whole Boston cream pie a neutral act as long as it doesn't overload my metabolism with unnecessary sugar, calories or fat? Or does "diet" food enable me to gorge my taste buds while ignoring the fact that my relationship with my food is out of whack?

In Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner writes, “A glutton is one who raids the icebox for a cure for spiritual malnutrition.”

So I began to wonder if there isn't something spiritually unhealthy about some "health foods" if they have been artificially altered to reduce or remove the natural consequences of eating. It seems that things like artificial sweeteners or indigestible fats free a person to further disregard their proper relationship with food. By removing the natural consequences of the disordered relationship with food, "diet foods" remove some of the naturally occurring pressures to have a proper relationship with our food (like an alcoholic who never gets hangovers). This leaves us free to be unhealthy rather than pushing us toward wholeness.

I haven't developed this line of thought very far, but I think it's worth thinking about.

(BTW - if you want to experience my message on Gluttony, you can watch it hear, listen to it here, or download an MP3 here.)

Monday, March 11, 2013

Mother Teresa's Prayer

This is the prayer that was written on the wall of Mother Teresa's home for children in Calcutta. It seemed worth posting to me.

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.

What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.

The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.

In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Sherlock Holmes & God

To Sherlock Holmes, the small oddity is the thing that directs an investigator toward the truth of a case. Three used wine glasses but only one has sediment in it. The dog did not bark. Why was the paper on the desk of a different make than the paper in the victim's pocket?

To solve a crime, everything must be accounted for and the outlier — the small detail that one might be tempted to ignore as random or insignificant — is often the very thing that sets the great detective on the path to catching the real perpetrator.

The explanation must fit all the evidence. This is a great piece of advice for considering one's worldview.

We dare not selectively ignore things that do not fit our current concept of the world. We also need to be careful not to manhandle the interpretation of events to force them into explanation in which they don't fit.

So here is my outlier:
I was at a three-day pastor’s conference in Atlanta, Georgia. The first night of the conference concluded with a worship service. I was sitting in the front row. At these conference worship services an offering is taken to help fund a local mission.
The time for the offering arrived and the offering plate started to make its way down the row toward me. I decided in my own mind to give five dollars. The Bible says that the Lord loves a cheerful giver. I could cheerfully give five dollars. I pulled out my wallet and discovered a problem. I had a one-dollar bill and a twenty-dollar bill.

As the offering plate approached, I had to think quickly. I had already decided to give five dollars. I didn’t think I ought to go lower and give one dollar. People really shouldn’t highball God. But, then again, twenty dollars was quite a bit of money to me at the time. I also thought about the fact that, as a person in the front row, I become somewhat of a standard-bearer. People might follow my lead – either generously or miserly as the case may be. The mission that was to receive the offering might get a great deal more support if I lead with a twenty.

Time was running out, so I decided to pray about it. I didn’t hear an audible voice, but a truth came into my spirit. “Money is not a problem,” said the non-voice. “It’s all mine anyway. I can get you money whenever I want to.”

So, with that, and the fact that my expenses were already covered anyway, I dropped the twenty-dollar bill in the plate, feeling like I had done the right thing. I didn’t think anything more about it.

Two days later, I left the conference a little early and was riding MARTA to the airport. MARTA is the rapid-transit rail system in Atlanta. I was dressed business casual with my carry-on bag and a black leather briefcase. I decided to get my Bible out and do some reading to prepare for a class I was teaching.

At one stop, a young man got on the train. He looked to be college-age with baggy nylon pants, a nylon windbreaker and a large duffle bag slung over his shoulder. Kind of a jock. He sat down in the seat right across the aisle from me in the nearly deserted train car.

After a few moments, he asked what I was reading. I told him it was the Bible. We had a short, light conversation and I went back to my reading.

A few stops later he stood to get off the train. He told me it was nice to meet me, handed me a note and walked off. I was dying to open that note to see what this complete stranger had written to me but, since I wanted to be cool, I stuck the note in my shirt pocket and told him it was nice to meet him too. As soon as we left the station I yanked the note out of my pocket. I unfolded it and read, “Nice to meet someone who loves the Word. Take care, sir.” Inside that note was a twenty-dollar bill. (no, that is not a typo)

Now, this incident doesn't prove all of my Christian faith, not by a long-shot. But it is a significant experience that is too improbable to be simply brushed off as random.

It is a concrete event. It is not "just" an internal comfort of the soul or a sense of God's presence (though I am not discounting those as part of a life of faith). It cannot be brushed off as a mental or emotional state, as skeptics are wont to do with so many faith experiences.

I think Sherlock Holmes would cry, "No, Watson! It's too improbable. There must be something more going on."

If you were me, how would you make sense of this experience?

Monday, March 4, 2013

Doctrine - Fortress or Palace?

Every religion has doctrine. "Doctrine" simply means "teaching." For many Lutherans, our doctrine is a fortress. When you live inside, it feels safe and comfortable. Learn the words. Learn the meanings. Learn the teachings and you are safely ensconced in the "truth." Stay in the fortress where you are "right" and keep a sharp eye out for people attempting to leave the fortress... and tackle them.

I hate that view of doctrine. As though something as profound as creation, as deep as God's love or as mysterious as the Trinity could be completely and accurately formlated for all time in human language. 

For me, doctrine is a palace. It's a structure for me to explore. Two thousand years of study, prayer and contemplation in which to wander around. The Trinity is like a tower to be climbed. What can you see from these high windows? It's amazing! God is a complete unity, yet God is a swirling vortex of relational love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Wander through every room and you will find evidence of love expressed in some form, whether it is the disciplinary love of the guiding parent or the sacrifical love that calls out the deepest sacrifices on behalf of the beloved. There are plenty of mysterious passages, too. There are a few rooms that are built and decorated in ways that I may never understand. (I'm thinking, for instance, of hell, which is very hard for me to come to grips with.) But even those rooms are places to wander through.

One thing I know. When I think of doctrine like a fortress, it feels cold and stuffy and boring and like I am constantly in danger of being slapped for coloring outside the lines. When I think of doctrine as a palace, a structure full of wonder with unexpected architecture, amazing views from newly discovered (or made) windows and some rooms that need repainting because somebody didn't have all the information they needed to choose a beautiful color, I don't mind it so much. It doesn't feel like someone is trying to stuff me into their box. It feels more like a gift that gives some structure to this mysterious and amazing life.

So, that's what crossed my mind tonight.