All in Our Family

How are you staying in touch with your grandchildren during the coronavirus  lockdown?

Somehow during this strange semester while wearing a surgical mask, face shield, delivering content online, interacting via email all day long, zooming here and there, trying to keep up with grading again and again…I ended up teaching three different courses about marriage and family. It wasn’t in the original plan but it just happened.

It reminds me over and over again how essential our families are to us as individuals and to our entire civilization. I’m never sure how well a job I do at convincing my students – especially during this strange semester full of stress.

“The home is the ultimate career. All other careers exist for one purpose, and that is to support the ultimate career.” ― C.S. Lewis

Maybe the root of so many of our problems is that our families are falling apart?

While our society seemed to be falling to pieces every evening on the television screen, for so many reasons, depending on who you were hearing from, I couldn’t help but think there was a basic cause. For a long time I have looked at the numbers, the outcomes, the long term effects and I honestly think that almost everything that’s wrong with our society right now can be traced back to the fragmentation of our families.

We decided during the decades of revolution (Civil Rights, Sexual, Youth, Women’s) that our own personal happiness was the ultimate goal in life. It’s in the Declaration of Independence, after all! This goal was so much easier to pursue once our economy boomed after WW2 and we could focus our attentions on inner and subjective desires for satisfaction, instead of external and objective standards of success like surviving the winter or having enough to eat.

Fragmented families started to happen because we decided that other people (our spouses and children) weren’t making us happy anymore. Instead of leaning on each other to help and making sacrifices for the sake of someone else, we started looking at our family members as sources of our own happiness. If they dropped the ball, it was time to bail and maybe find a replacement. I need to find someone who will make me happy, not I need to make someone else happy.

Here's The Number One Reason Couples Fight In The Run Up To Christmas |  Her.ie

What do families in America look like today?

During the current quarantine the divorce numbers in America are twice as high as they were a year ago at this time. What’s really discouraging is that newlywed divorce numbers are ALSO twice as high as the were a year ago! Being locked up and facing a seemingly unending crisis together is just too much for many.

People don’t just wake up one day and decide to become self-centered. Our culture is one with an economy that’s oriented around selling more and more stuff. The prevalent hook is guaranteeing happiness – buy this pillow and you’ll get a good night’s sleep, feel rested, refreshed (and so much happier the next day).

There are more couples living together than married. People who live together do so for approximately five years – then they either break up or get married. It’s not a step before marriage, not an alternative. People are afraid of the marriage commitment, of failing at something so important, at not finding happiness.

Right now, less than 20% of households in our country are composed of a married couple and their children. This is true for 86% of African-American children. This practice is setting these children up for an almost impossible future and brings harm to society as a whole.

“Childhood, after all, is the first precious coin that poverty steals from a child.” ― Anthony Horowitz

A majority of children in America will spend part of their growing up years in a single-parent home. On average, children from single-parent homes don’t do as well in almost all measures of life (health, school, social, economic, etc.). Every semester, my student learn this yet the overwhelming majority tell me that if they were in a marriage with children and were not happy they would get divorced. Ending marriages for the sake of personal happiness is today a very strong belief and practice here in America.

Happy Single Mother and Teen Stock Footage Video (100% Royalty-free)  15559906 | Shutterstock

Even though they are working outside the home in more numbers than ever before – many more in college-prepared careers – (more women attend college than men) women still feel the bulk of the responsibility for home and family work. He’s not really sharing the burden very well.

In times of social conflict why don’t we look at our families as a possible cause?

  • I think juvenile delinquency has roots in fatherlessness.
  • I think teen suicide and depression can also be addressed with family counseling.
  • I think children need both their parents.
  • I think we focus too much attention on the isolated examples of families that go wrong and use that as an excuse to abandon ship.
  • I think being a member of a family is hard work – but it’s worth it in the long run.

While families in our society are in collapse, we feel helpless. What can I do to stop the flood from spilling over the levee? All you can really do is to keep loving your own family. Sometimes that means keeping your big mouth shut and just loving people in the middle of their mess. Praying for someone you love is different than talking about them to others. Criticizing never does anything good. 

“When everything goes to hell, the people who stand by you without flinching — they are your family. ” ― Jim Butcher

Let’s do something right now to tighten our gripe on our family bonds

We are approaching the season of family gathering. There will be new precautions in place that prevent us from some of our traditional social customs. That doesn’t mean we ought to let this year pass or ignore our family members because it’s inconvenient or unsafe. Make some extra efforts to connect and in so doing reinforce these essential bonds. 

How about an extra phone call? Go find a corny holiday card and mail it. (Sometimes I dig up an old birthday card and send at Thanksgiving.) Text some spontaneous photos of your family and send to your extended groups. 

Maybe there’s someone in your family who’s out on the fringe and really needs a touch, a word, some kindness out of the blue. Take a chance right now and affirm that connection, draw someone back in, plant some seeds. 

“You can kiss your family and friends good-bye and put miles between you, but at the same time you carry them with you in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world but a world lives in you.” ― Frederick Buechner

 

What to Talk About When There’s Nothing to Say?

Didn't everyone standing in a crowded elevator imagine how someone could be  murdered?”– author V. M. Burns – Lana's Blog

What do you talk to strangers about? What do you talk about when you don’t really have anything to say? What do you say when silence just feels too uncomfortable?

There’s the small talk that we use when at social gatherings with strangers. I was at an event recently and talked with someone about foot surgery and the evolution of late night talk shows???  There’s also the small talk we engage in everyday in the normal routines of passing in the hall, riding the elevator, sharing over the fence and catching up before a meeting.

Small talk seems trivial, but these days, I think it’s worth thinking about. 

There’s all sorts of advice out there about how to improve your small talk so that you can be more successful especially if you find yourself frequenting social events with strangers (and need to make a good impression).

  • Make eye contact
  • Ask questions
  • Don’t interview
  • Read the room
  • Don’t converse too deep (politics, religion), stay medium (pop culture, restaurants)
  • Show your emotions, smile!

“My father has a tendency to start conversations in the middle of sentences. He’s also suspicious of anything modern – like nouns.” ― Mike Rowe

Cut little Boy sitting on the Tree by Mosuno - Kid, Park - Stocksy UnitedPersonally, I can’t stand getting stuck in social events and having to generate small talk. I can put something together and perform okay but I have much more fun sitting in the corner and watching other people interact. Especially strangers. I was walking through my neighborhood recently. It was evening, the sun was setting and I came up on a driveway with a large circle of lawn chairs filled with older neighbors all sharing. I really wanted to climb up in a tree and eavesdrop.

Maybe, for many of us, this season of quarantine has limited our access to small talk?

What about the simple talk we use every day with our friends, co-workers, neighbors and spouse? The trivial, mundane, “lovely weather we’ve been having” conversations. They pop up and then vanish like the clouds passing overhead. This kind of small talk is almost random in nature. Yet, I think it connects us to each other in all sorts of ways like the seams in our clothing.

Old people's stories more boring - study | Stuff.co.nz“My father could out-weather anybody. Like people anywhere, there were times when it was the only topic where people here felt comfortably expressive, and my father could go on earnestly, seemingly forever. When the current weather was exhausted, there was all the weather that had occurred in recorded history, weather lived through or witnessed by a relative, or even heard about on the news. Catastrophic weather of all types. And when that was done, there was all the weather that might possibly occur in the future. I’d even heard him speculate about weather in the afterlife.” ― Louise Erdrich

We are so oriented to doing business talking and venting important feelings. We use our phones to get directions, restaurant ratings and wiki knowledge. Less and less are we cluttering up our days with the small conversations, stories that don’t really have an ending or a moral. Sharing what we did, felt, the memories and bits of our story.  But I think it’s good to be reminded of how valuable small talk can be at cementing our society together, strangers, friends and lovers alike. Since March, we’ve had less and less opportunity for casual, unplanned conversations with others we pass in the halls of living our normal lives. Who can do small talk with a mask on? I think it comes with a cost.

Each time I leave a social encounter I realize how little I actually listened. These days I talk too much, without a whole lot to say. Too much isolation can produce this. I wish I could listen more to the small talk all around me. When you give time to someone else you are giving a little bit of you. It’s like a gift. So rare these days. Maybe what we all crave is someone to hear us – not what we say, but just to sit in the same room and nod, smile and acknowledge our significance. 

“In the best conversations, you don’t even remember what you talked about, only how it felt. It felt like we were in some place your body can’t visit, some place with no ceiling and no walls and no floor and no instruments” ― John Green

How To Use Empathic Listening To Cultivate Great Personal Relationships

People might be talking to others less because of perceived threats.

  • What if we get into a political debate?
  • I’m so sick of talking about this virus.
  • My feelings lately have been so down in the dumps, I’m not sure anyone wants to hear.

Actually, these are the conditions when talking MORE is the best medicine! During this time isolation, to one degree or another, people around us may have less to talk about and fewer people to talk to about it. Yet, even the small talk is critically important in everyone’s life. It’s worth staying in practice.

  • Call someone while you’re driving
  • Send more texts about not much at all, just how you’re feeling
  • Compose a great email to your kids and close friends
  • Write a card, how about a letter (remember those?)

Making an effort to just pass the time with others is a valuable investment in helping someone else survive one more day – reminding us all that we’re not alone.

“When you have once seen the glow of happiness on the face of a beloved person, you know that a man can have no vocation but to awaken that light on the faces surrounding him. In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”  ― Albert Camus

All The Little Things

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.” ― Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

It is what it is

I did it again yesterday. I went to class and got all set up. Which is not quick task. I waited and waited. No one showed up. I was discouraged. It was a beautiful day, after all. Once I realized no one was going to show up, I proceeded to unplug and pack up. As I headed to the hall and stairs my students shouted at me from across the way. They had been waiting for me in the right classroom. I had once again been in the wrong room. 

A Closer Look at Salvador Dalí | Spanish Trails“Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.” ― Salvador Dali

 

I’ve written before about Automatic Thinking. Our brains can’t deliberately keep everything on the front burner all the time. That’s a strategy for fast overload. What the brain does – it shifts routine activities to what we call automatic thinking so that it doesn’t need to be completely conscious and can use effort and energy on other tasks that are more urgent and important. This is why I always seem to “wake up” in the parking lot at work having rehearsed my important speech but can’t remember at all how I got from home to there!

A lot of little things to think about all at once!

My next door colleague at work told me he’s just exhausted. It’s because he has to be conscious of everything he’s doing now. Maybe that’s what I feel as well. With so much new going on in my daily routine, there’s less automatic going on in my brain. I realize how much I take for granted in each day. Little things:

  • What’s for dinner?
  • Why did I forget to upload that assignment?
  • What day of the week is it today?
  • I haven’t heard from ________ in weeks!

What Are Your Financial “Ducks” and Why Should They Be in a Row? - Private  Client Wealth Advisors

When the semester started for me there was mostly panic as I tried to get and keep my ducks in a row. A lot is falling into a little routine now (except showing up to the right classroom!?). Some of that is healthy, some not. I am a little more aware of the taken-for-granted now. I know first hand what it’s like to be thrust into a new and uncomfortable situation. Feeling powerless to fix things makes me feel angry, frustrated and isolated. 

“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Maybe this can help me to be more aware of these same experiences and feelings in others? Once things settle down and get back to normal (?) I hope I don’t forget. I’m sorry Herr Pastor Bonhoeffer, but most of the people I encounter each day I am evaluating on the basis of what they are doing or not doing. This is going to take some serious conscious thought on my part. I’m going to have to be far less automatic in my responses, emails and feedback that I post. 

Our current state of chaos has given each of us an opportunity to pay attention to some of the details we once sped past too quickly. 

My wife was never really very good at gardening. She always liked to get involved and pick out plants at the nursery. Choosing the right ones and actually getting them in the ground was another story. But, we faithfully went through the ritual. I remember her grabbing a very deep purple colored little plant several years ago. It looked too delicate. I didn’t think it stood a chance in our sweltering climate and sporadic watering. It struggled and strained and eventually I lost track of it, knowing it had gone the way of hundreds of its ancestors from our flower beds over the years.

“The small things of life were often so much bigger than the great things . . . the trivial pleasure like cooking, one’s home, little poems especially sad ones, solitary walks, funny things seen and overheard.” ― Barbara Pym

Image preview

There has been more watering lately in my yard. I was coming in to the house the other day and peeking out by the bed near the front door were those dark purple leaves and spindly stalks of that plant she put in the ground a few years ago. It made it after all. It was a little thing, a quick glance as I hauled plastic bags in before the rain came. A little thing that shouted so loudly, if I would stop for just a moment to hear.

I’ve got several close friends who are paying attention to family and friends in crisis right now. Some are strangers to them, others very close. I can’t help but think that this unusual time of stress and strain has also sharpened people’s focus on human need.

“Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the wrong. Sometime in life you will have been all of these.” ― George Washington Carver

This season of fear and uncertainty has drawn our collective attention toward large crises. I’d like to challenge you to draw your eyes away from the burning dumpsters and look for little things that demonstrate God’s presence and the gifts of love all around you. Maybe that’s all anyone ever wanted – was to be loved. 

“Treasures are hidden away in quiet places.  They speak in soft tones and often become silenced as we approach.  They don’t beg to be found, but embrace us if we do happen to find them.  They are the product of completely ordinary circumstances unfolding in wonderfully extraordinary ways.  They are found hidden in the nooks and crannies of our existence; all around us if we quit allowing our attention to be captivated by that which is noisy and listen for that which is quiet and still.” ― Craig D. Lounsbrough

There are people you pass by each day. I was speaking with a number of friends from the past the other day. It made me think about all of the silly and sensible conversations we had over the many years. I realized how much I had been given by the everyday people in my past. My memory sweeps past so quickly, jumping from tragedies to monumental turns in the road. But really, my ordinary life has been constructed one brick at a time by so many, so many who knew me and so many who never will. 

In the chaos and crises, make time to pay more careful attention to the people around you, what they are saying and NOT saying. 

I saw a quote the other day from the writer George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans 1819-1880). It made me think, and keep thinking about all the people that surround me who accomplish so much for so many by the hundreds of little acts of service and kindness. Never thinking about what they do, as natural as the wind blowing through the grass. Their hidden lives make all the difference in the world. They always have.

“..for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” George Eliot, Middlemarch

Instead of trying to change the world, try making today count. Try making someone else’s life count for just a minute or two in that brief interaction. Try to stop that “automatic” flow of events and instead do or say something intentional and meaningful. You don’t have to change a life, just a moment.

Keep on the Sunnyside!

Well, there’s a dark and a troubled side of life
There’s a bright and a sunny side too
But if you meet with the darkness and strife
The sunny side we also may view

Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side
Keep on the sunny side of life
It will help us every day, it will brighten all the way
If we keep on the sunny side of life

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“McQueen! Where are you?”

That’s what my grandson and I yell throughout his house when we are trying to locate one of his cars. He probably has a hundred. Some of his Disney cars have character names. They are easier to call out by name and then listen to see if they will honk back for us to come and find them. Losing cars is fast becoming one of his great skills in a very young life.

This is making me think about all sorts of loss. We each go through life missing people, places and things don’t we?

“Every one of us is losing something precious to us. Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back again. That’s part of what it means to be alive.” ― Haruki Murakami

I remember many years ago going back to the city where I grew up and driving by the house I lived in as a child. Everything was very shabby and run-down. The years, so many, had left their brutal mark on the whole memory I carried with me. You really can’t go home again. I drove the car away quickly, I didn’t want this harsh reality to spoil what I had hidden away deep inside, the joys and the pains.

The truth is – those places of memory will not last. It’s best to cherish them and not go looking for them in the present. The best way to keep them alive is by sharing with others – your family, friends and ancestors. Don’t lose those places by trying to find them again, but make them real by sharing what means so much with someone else. I’m saving those times together peering under the couch searching for cars.

As you wander through your house, especially when you pack and unpack from moving, you run across things that hold cherished memories. There are photos of loved ones and important places that hang on the wall or got pushed back in a box. My daughter recently spoke aloud about all she remembered when I pulled out some of her childhood toys. They weren’t just something new for my grandson to play with, they also bore magical history for her.

Somehow I ended up with my great-grandmothers cane. What I remember is walking with her a time or two down her long dirt road to get the mail. It was delivered off the state highway. She lived and raised her family in a whole other world. A world of pastures, sheep, horses and red dirt. I think I spent every summer of my childhood swimming and fishing in the river. See, that little tiny cane sitting by the front door of my house is filled with wonder. I was thinking the other evening about how I would explain it all to my own grandchildren. Your great-great-great-grandmother??

There are artifacts all around you, especially if you are a collector (hoarder?), that bear so much significance. This too has to be passed to others. Those memories are inside of you not attached to each item. You’re the one that must cast the aura of significance and pass it down to others.

And of course, people leave us for many reasons. Friends pass through our lives. If you’re blessed friends from the past may come back into your life again once you’ve grown by a few more pounds. There will be times in all our lives when people you love depart. Sometimes it happens all at once and other times as part of the normal course of life. But there are days and even years when these losses are almost impossible to bear. When people leave your life, with the memories of love left behind the cost is often a part of yourself.

I’ve used this quote before…

“Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night. I miss you like hell.” ― Edna St. Vincent Millay

Maybe the most important memory you promise to pass on is the ones you have with the people in you life – those still here and those who’ve traveled on to heaven. We all sat around my dining room table one night, friends from forty years ago at college. Photos were passed around the table and all the bits and pieces of long ago were reassembled and put back into place in all our hearts. Right where they were meant to be.

“Sometimes things become possible if we want them bad enough.” ― T.S. Eliot

Don’t let people slip away from your dreams. Pass on to others why they were so important and in so doing who you were (and have become). I passed on a song to my niece this week as she was recuperating. She told me it was soothing. This is her first semester away at college. My memory to share with her was that this was a song sung in a concert during my first weeks at college. The first week at college of her aunt who has been gone to heaven now for a year. When we connect our memories with others it binds us together in a wonderful web of shared hopes and dreams.

“And the memories of all we have loved stay and come back to us in the evening of our life. They are not dead but sleep, and it is well to gather a treasure of them.” ― Vincent van Gogh

During these days and weeks and months of shared suffering, separation, isolation, fear, uncertainty and some hope – work harder at remembering. Help your family and friends to stay anchored to love and faith. That means you’re going to have to do something. Maybe something each day.

We’re still looking for some cars. I’m hoping to keep searching for memories and never give up.

“The things you do for yourself are gone when you are gone, but the things you do for others remain as your legacy.” ― Kalu Ndukwe Kalu

 

 

Your Country Needs You, I Need You

2020, So Much We’d Like to Forget!

How would you describe your 2020 so far? I’m sitting just a little west of Houston right now with Hurricane Laura barreling down on the  Texas/Louisiana border late tonight. We just started the Fall Semester this week at HBU.  Like most colleges and universities in America we are doing a hybrid model with students attending and online. Well, once the hurricane predictions got more accurate, it was decided to go completely online (remote) for the rest of the week. We have students commuting from all over the region. Much better to play it safe!

Have you had time to make a list of what 2020 has really been like for people in our country (not to mention the rest of the world)?

  • Pandemic forces the closing of businesses and an economic shutdown.
  • Quarantining at home keeps people safer. Most of us have been in lock down for six months.
  • Childcare has shut down and parents have had to scramble to find other solutions – that is if they themselves haven’t lost their jobs or were furloughed.
  • Online education replaced public and private school last spring and is happening for many this fall. That means an adult at home is having to supervise what once took place in classrooms.
  • Healthcare and even deaths have dramatically changed our experiences with healthcare professionals and hospitals. You can’t be with loved ones in the hospital!
  • Veering away from the COVID crisis, have you been paying attention to the political circus? This is really the best that the greatest nation on earth can put forth?
  • For so many, the year has brought about loss in one way or another. Dramatic changes in employment, benefits, childcare, and school have created catastrophes in every social class.
  • Well of course, we’ve become increasingly disconnected from one another over the past six months. We took the physical presence of others for granted. In quarantine we only had a text or email. Even now, trying to communicate past a mask while distancing doesn’t do away with all the frustration. It doesn’t bring enough solution to our deeper problem.
  • What has your life been like in lock-down? Too much TV? Not enough church? Have you reached your togetherness limit? Who do you think you’ve become after this much change in your normal routines? Are you finding out what you’re really made of? (Considering posting some homemade music videos?)

Anyone can put together a bad news list. How depressing.

What’s needed are some old fashioned heroes.

Normal, everyday folks like you and me.

Even under the mask, someone who will carry a smile into every frustrating situation, and keep it no matter how deep the fear and anger gets.

“There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing.” ― G. K. Chesterton

Someone who will think first and speak second. Who listens carefully and tries to hear what’s behind the inflamed words and withdrawn quietness. People have been cut off from others in lots of ways. Listening is an urgent first step to helping and healing others.

We need everyday heroes who will pick up the slack in our broken political and social culture right now. That means you might have to sit on your opinion, no matter how mad you are. As uncomfortable as it makes you, loving others who are from the opposite end of the spectrum may be just what the doctor ordered.

“It’s a civic virtue to be exposed to things that appear to be outside your interest. In a complex world, almost everything affects you – that closes the loop on pecuniary self-interest. Customers are always right, but people aren’t.” ― Clive Thompson

This virus that has struck the whole world has provided an opportunity for each one of us to see what we’re really made of. It’s a crisis for each of us individually but it’s also a crisis for our family. It’s a crisis for our neighbors and our city – even though we are locked away and socially distant we’re still citizens with a responsibility to others. It’s a crisis for America. Who do you think this will turn us into?

“Democracy gives us citizens a measure of political power. That power comes with a responsibility to foster a culture that makes it possible to live and work well together for the well-being of all.” ― Diane Kalen-Sukra

*************************************************************************

I am late with posting on my blog.

Trying to get ready for the semester has had me all in a fog of panic. All my courses have to be filmed with a new laptop while I’m teaching all medically sealed up and safe for my half class each day (the other half comes on the next day). I just knew I’d fumble the ball. I went to training demonstrations and watched film clips online. When Monday arrived it seemed I knew which buttons to press. Tuesday was a different story.

On Monday, the problem was I had inserted the wrong textbook in the class syllabus and everyone was mixed up about how to launch with their assignments due that week. Ugh!  Then, that afternoon I went to my second class, got all the wires plugged in and waited and waited, no one showed up. Once the time was almost over, it was made clear to me that I had gone to the wrong room. My class had been waiting for me in the right room. Ugh!

So, I had cleared up the fog but remained lost. In the past, I never worried much about instructional technology. My wife’s EdD is in that field. I just always took it for granted that I would have someone to help me over every obstacle. She’s gone to heaven now. In two weeks it will be a year. Every day it has seemed to me as if she just walked out the door.

This has probably been what has slowed me down from blogging. It’s also what has increased my stress about jumping back into this new routine at school. I’m so glad to be back out of my hostage crisis and back with people again. But I think I’m not really aware of my constant broken heart. I’m so thankful for all the heroes in my life.

“We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them. And if only we arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful. How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.” ― Rainier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Name Them One By One

My in-laws came over for lunch the other day. Upon entering the front door I said that I had been counting my blessing, making a list and they had made it to the top ten! They are incredible.

I really had sat down that morning and instead of just mildly giving thanks for so much in my life, I decided to be literal and start a list. I’ve been putting things down on my phone for several years now. What not to forget at the grocery, random thoughts to flush out later and even a poem now and then. So why not my running list of blessings to count?

“The unthankful heart discovers no mercies; but the thankful heart will find, in every hour, some heavenly blessings.”  ― Henry Ward Beecher

 

Make A List

I began an itemized list of names, situations, and things that are blessing my life now, in the past and in days to come. This is a strategy to make the unconscious a more powerful force in the conscious day-to-day. By turning the hypothetical into something concrete (a list) anyone can increase its power and influence over attitudes, decisions and interactions.

Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God has done!

This is the first part of the chorus to that familiar hymn. Each verse describes a bitter trial. When we face hard times and suffering one way to increase our courage and march on toward the light of day is to remember all the ways we have experienced blessings in our life. It’s always too easy to forget our blessings and spend too much time on our miseries.

“Our life is what our thoughts make it.” ― Marcus Aurelius

 

What I’m urging you to do is to literally start right now to write down;

  • names of people who have been a blessing to you and yours
  • the material possessions that are yours that help to make your life rich
  • all the circumstances that have occurred along the way that have shaped your life in ways that brought you to the right place

As I made my list I discovered that it didn’t take much time at all. Over time, I found that it really did help to correct my steering – get my thinking back between the lines of reality. It made me happy. One item would often lead to another. Thinking about people would trigger situations and encounters that had been so important to my journey. There were of course people that came up that I wasn’t particularly thankful to have had in my life – but as I thought about it – I had learned valuable lessons and knew that the damage these people had done created valuable scars. Can you believe that?

Don’t waste idle time sitting in the waiting room. Turn off that TV for a few minutes. Use this practice to start or end each day. Going to bed every night with these kinds of thoughts is so much more healthy than a head full of worries. Instead of another trivial conversation with your spouse, family member or best friend, what about taking a few minutes over dinner to work on your list together?

Over time, keep adding to your list. Your life is a work in progress. Don’t forget to keep track of how God is taking care of you and the ones you love. The constant practice will keep your heart and mind in the right frame. You will be less likely to wander off into the bushes of doubt and despair. Ask someone to help you if you lack the motivation.

The list I carry around on my phone is now a resource. It’s a treasure, like money in my wallet. I can consult it on a bad day or when truth becomes too shallow. You’re going to say, “Oh I know my blessings, I don’t need to keep a list.” I even know who you are that’s saying this to yourself. But I’m telling you, there is great value when human beings engage in deliberative action to think critically about their experiences. So start writing.

Your blessings are not as powerful a force in your thought and action until they are made real by intentional activity.

When you hit a wall of difficulties and start to feel anxious or fearful about your circumstances, consult your list. God has taken care of you and there’s no reason to think he won’t continue his work in your life. He has promised this in his Word and in your life (take a look at your list!).

Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have because He has said, “I will never leave you; I will always be by your side.”  – Hebrews 13:5

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Who Are You Talking To?

“Women speak because they wish to speak, whereas a man speaks only when driven to speak by something outside himself-like, for instance, he can’t find any clean socks.” ― Jean Kerr

I talk for a living.

These days I am living by myself. This situation is made even more solitary by the quarantine situation we are all enduring. I find myself roaming through the house doing a lot of talking aloud and often stop and wonder, “who are you talking to?”

I do realize that my situation leaves me brimming with words to spill out on to others when the rare social occasion arrives. This seems odd to me because historically I’ve not usually someone who feels the need to share – I will always entertain, but not always reveal. But these days, I can’t seem to stop talking.

Dear friends had dinner with me last week. I had told myself AGAIN to please keep my mouth shut and listen more. Halfway through the evening I realized I was feeling hoarse and suddenly became horrified – have I really been talking that much? Like some sort of prisoner released from solitary confinement out of the Russian gulag? What’s wrong with me?

Is this need for social connection really that powerful? This desire to communicate, to be heard, to share our experiences, to know deep down that we are not alone? I think I’m bumping into a yes answer to much of this. I can show you in all sorts of textbooks why this is true, but now I seem to know it from my own lived experience.

“When you have once seen the glow of happiness on the face of a beloved person, you know that a man can have no vocation but to awaken that light on the faces surrounding him. In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” ― Albert Camus

Even using technology; texting, emails, zooms, and face-timing have all made this life we are now living so much more bearable. We complained before about how technology had wormed its way into every crook and cranny of our living – but now we ought to be so thankful for these tools that allow human connections to continue – people are joking about that guy’s funny shirts on laptop meetings.

Where would I be if I didn’t have all of these people in my life constantly throwing out lifelines of connection to me? All those taken for granted bits of small talk, shared experiences and personal updates? These little webs of interconnection hold us together AND hold us individually together inside (keep us from turning into a cat lady).

Some Down and Dirty Rules for Talking

Listen to yourself: if you’re talking so much, so fast, dominating the time and space, then you’re not hearing yourself. You’re breaking the speed limit. Slow down when you’re no longer aware of what and how you’re speaking to everyone else in the room. Don’t become a mindless word processor that doesn’t know when to shut up or slow-down or back up.

Listen to the other person: The best conversationalists are not the talkers but the hearers. How do you know someone is hearing you? They look you in the eye, they ask follow up questions, their expressions match the mood you are setting with your story. Don’t stomp all over the end of each other’s conversation because you’ve become over-eager to tell your own story. As we get older I think this might happen because we’re all afraid if we don’t spit it out now, we will forget!

Watch your body language: Being isolated like this has kept us from being in shared space where we use body language to communicate so much of our experiences. Now, wearing a face mask will continue to make this difficult. The eyes become that much more essential conveyors of emotion. But if you’re not even going to look at someone or if you’re on a computer screen with your eyes off camera watching something else, body language is lost. This is such an important dimension of communication, when we miss out on it, it’s too late that we discover the poverty of the interaction.

Who ARE You Talking To?

What if this season of isolation was a time when you could do some more talking with God? Maybe you could make some good happen out of this misery? It’s been my experience that when we regularly talk with God our levels of frustration, fear and despair seem to diminish. Circumstances might not change, but our outlook and perspective is altered when we are consistently talking with God.

“For many of us prayer means nothing more than speaking with God. And since it usually seems to be a quite one-sided affair, prayer simply means talking to God. This idea is enough to create great frustrations. If I present a problem, I expect a solution; if I formulate a question, I expect an answer; if I ask for guidance, I expect a response. And when it seems, increasingly, that I am talking into the dark, it is not so strange that I soon begin to suspect that my dialogue with God is in fact a monologue. Then I may begin to ask myself: To whom am I really speaking, God or myself?” ― Henri J.M. Nouwen

I think this is exactly right! But maybe now there is time, time to be silent, time to be still and wait. Maybe during the lock-down in your life, there is time to listen for an answer – maybe even one that’s been there all along.

 

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What Matters the Most?

I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.  – Romans 15:13

It’s July in Houston. I think anyone here would tell you that having the air conditioner on and working is essential for living. I’m still not sure how they got the Republic of Texas launched back in 1836 with no AC.

You can decorate for the holidays and go all overboard some years. But then there comes a time when there’s just too much going on or an out of town trip is planned or the kids have grown up. The way you celebrate Christmas often changes throughout your seasons of life. But you must agree, when you walk through the door, if that Christmas tree isn’t there, something essential and right is just missing.

There are aspects of our lives and of living that are really important to each one of us. Everyone has their own list. How about this for a start:

  • having the dishwasher loaded in just the right way
  • taking the trash out when it’s full
  • replying to emails
  • being on time
  • thank you’s
  • access to WiFi
  • gas in the car
  • everyone in the family pulling their weight
  • moving the clothes from the washing to the dryer before it’s too late

Confusing our “important” items with what’s really essential is a common error in judgement. Frustration and anger can cloud thinking very effectively.

“Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.” ― Robert A. Heinlein

I am right now working through the first year of life after the passing away to heaven of my wife. During her final weeks, I told her each night as I went to bed, if the boat for heaven comes, be sure to get in it. Ten months ago at midnight she did. She spent that summer in hospice here at home. She had fought cancer as a determined soldier, never even stopping to rest. She was and still is pure inspiration.

Now, as I wander through the house during quarantine a day doesn’t pass that I don’t have the feeling that I’m in the wrong place – a place that’s just not right. As if someone broke in, knocked everything over and then tried to put it all back but didn’t get it exact. As I gaze across the room, something seems off.

“…it’s not just the person who fills a house, it’s their ‘I’ll be back later’s’ their toothbrushes and unused hats and coats, their belongingnesses.” ― David Mitchell,

I can’t always give words to the feelings I experience when I look around for my wife. It takes me a few seconds to remember that she’s not coming home late from work. She’s not sitting quietly with her laptop in another room. I have to stop and tell myself again that she’s gone and isn’t coming back.

Living up against each other during this quarantine might be like a hostage crisis for some. It’s easier right now to get pushed to our edges. What’s important to each one of us might be starting to feel as if it’s essential. Arguments can escalate. Pettiness can swell. Words pour out as if a volcano had erupted.

Take Steps to Diffuse Yourself

Stop trying to fix everyone else! It’s probably not you, or her, or him or them. It’s probably the situation. The situation is certainly not as essential as you feel it is. Why don’t you go spend some time standing in a closet or walking around the block or sitting on your roof or somehow being by yourself.

But don’t hurt anyone else because of things that aren’t really essential.

“…you can never love someone as much as you miss them.” ― John Green

Missing my wife isn’t at all like trying to find a shoe that’s been kicked under the bed. Her absence in my life – something no one else experiences every minute as I do – produces feelings more closely resembling the loss of what’s essential. Like having the air conditioning on during July in Houston.

Be extra careful during this time of conflict, worry, uncertainty and chaos to stop and count to ten more often. Keep telling yourself, even out loud if you have to, it just doesn’t matter. Most of what bothers us doesn’t. Loving those people near you is essential. Drawing them near in every single way you can is essential. Sometimes the best way to do this is to shut up and smile more.

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know…

As I walk through the house with so many reminders of my wife, something inside of me is still searching each room for her presence. Nothing seems right about my day to day routine – everything is up and running (even in lock down mode) but the tree is missing and how can we have Christmas without the tree?

 

 

How Much Worse Could It Get?

“Groans that words cannot express are often prayers that God cannot refuse.” ― Charles Spurgeon

In my young adult life and during the early years of my marriage I used to pray very specifically and ask for help with real problems I was facing. As I look back on that time, it seems I got in God’s face in some very bold ways.

Later as I experienced more and more control over my life, my prayers became more generalized and less focused on real problems. Maybe I didn’t need to have any answers right away or at least anything that I could count on?

“To be in hell is to drift; to be in heaven is to steer.” ― George Bernard Shaw

I’m now noticing, as I travel through a year of grieving and am spending most of my time alone (thanks to the quarantine too), that I’m getting back to being more daring with my prayers. I noticed it the other day as I said to God very deliberately that I needed to hear some specific directions that would guide me into the next chapter of my life.

After spending too much time by myself, perhaps I was getting forthright in my conversational style with God. Or maybe just desperate. I secretly think that God hears desperate prayers first.

“The sea is endless when you are in a rowboat.” ― Adolfo Bioy Casares

In my opinion, when we pray we should be specific and speak aloud, straight from our heart. None of this reciting beautiful prose (save that for public prayers). When you pray alone in your closet, be yourself!

But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you. – Matthew 6:6

Sometimes, trying to solve problems on our own can make the mess even worse. Praying ought to be a first step before venturing out into the storm of life. Praying often brings about waiting. Waiting on God can be the best step in any plan.

If you’ve never prayed very much, there’s nothing wrong with that. Get started now. No better time than a pandemic! The way to start talking with God is “hello.” Why not start each day by saying hello to God and telling him what you’re planning. Don’t forget to wait, listen and move when the Spirit nudges.

Jesus was asked by his followers to teach them how to pray. They must have seen and heard him. That’s where we get what we call The Lord’s Prayer. There’s a part to it that I’ve always thought very earthshaking.

May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.  – Matthew 6:10

Well, by asking us to pray for this, it means that God’s plans are not necessarily happening all around us every day. He’s not practicing his ability to control everything. He want’s us to get involved in his great work here in the lives of others. When you and I don’t pray, we’re keeping heavenly work from happening, as it is in heaven.

One of the big lessons you can see that I’m learning is to be more bold and specific when I do pray. Every time I talk with God like this – he responds in some way. He doesn’t do a Santa Clause, but he does let me know in all sorts of ways, that he hears me and he hasn’t left me alone.

So we must listen very carefully to the truth we have heard, or we may drift away from it.  – Hebrews 2:1

Why don’t you start praying something specific today?

Why don’t you start asking to get involved in God’s will on earth? Why don’t you think of something specific and bold that will give your faith something to stand on?

“Grandpa had made the Lord seem so real, I wouldn’t of been surprised if he’d said good night to Him. But after a long pause he just said a-men.”  ― Olive Ann Burns

 

Are You and God on Speaking Terms?

“Perhaps all the good that ever has come here has come because people prayed it into the world.” ― Wendell Berry

Americans have a strong belief in God

Here are some findings from the Pew Research Center on religion in America:

The vast majority of Americans (90%) believe in some kind of higher power, with 56% professing faith in God as described in the Bible and another 33% saying they believe in another type of higher power or spiritual force. Only one-in-ten Americans say they don’t believe in God or a higher power of any kind.

Trust Magazine

Americans also believe in and practice prayer

[Out] of 102 countries examined for frequency of prayer by Pew Research Center, the U.S. is unique in that it has both a high level of wealth ($56,000 per-capita gross domestic product in 2015) and a high level of daily prayer among its population.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2014 found that 45% of Americans – and a majority of Christians (55%) – say they rely a lot on prayer and personal religious reflection when making major life decisions. The same survey found that 63% of Christians in the U.S. say praying regularly is an essential part of their Christian identity.

A large portion of Americans believe in God and communicating with him on a regular basis. I do too.

“Believing takes practice.” ― Madeleine L’Engle

Have you and God been speaking lately? What has he been speaking to you about? What have you been speaking to him about?

Last week I was feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. In my prayer (I also write these down so I can keep track) I asked God to help me figure out how I was going to manage the next chapters of my life. I was thankful for all of the ways that he had helped me – in very tangible ways. I named my blessings one by one. But, the bottom line was, help!

A few days later, instead of an “everything is going to be okay” answer – I got some bittersweet news that would mean the next chapter of my life was going to be even more difficult than I could have imagined. What kind of answer to my prayer was that?

“The wise man in the storm prays God not for safety from danger but for deliverance from fear.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

A friend sent me a bird feeder to add to what I’ve already had hanging up. It’s been fun to watch the squirrels work so hard to try and get at it. I’ve been wondering why I didn’t have more birds these days – then realized, those blasted squirrels had taken over the neighborhood and run all the birds out. It’s no longer safe to nest around here.

But the other evening there was a loud and exuberant birdsong in the trees at the back of the house. I craned my neck again and again to try and see which kind of bird it was. It was full of joy and went on and on. Happened again the next evening as I sat and wondered about my answer to prayer. That prayer that seemed to have gone off the rails.

“In Gethsemane the holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup might pass from Him. It did not.” ― C.S. Lewis

My Bible study group at church is going to be studying the New Testament letter to the Hebrews next. I will be doing the teaching. In preparation I’m reading it in several different ways. First I went over the whole letter as an outline. I read it in different translations. Next I focused on all of the familiar verses that have meant much to me over the years. Right now I’m reading it slowly, sentence by sentence, to see how God might use it right now speak to me.

So, there I was, downcast about the latest bad news and not very hopeful about my future life. I was starting to slowly look at Hebrews while that bird was going to town out in the back. And there it was…

In the first sentences of Hebrews, the writer explains that God used to speak to his people through his prophets. Now he has spoken to us through his Son, Jesus Christ. That brought to my memory some of the last words Jesus spoke to his disciples as he was preparing them for his leaving,

The Father is sending a great Helper, the Holy Spirit, in My name to teach you everything and to remind you of all I have said to you. (John 14:26)

So that means God doesn’t only use intermediaries anymore, He speaks directly to his people now. So when I sit there reading Hebrews, hearing that bird singing to Kingdom Come, I open my ears to hear…

In Chapter 2 of Hebrews the writer warns, “That is why we ought to pay even closer attention to the voice that has been speaking so that we will never drift away from it.”  Remember, in this reading my goal is to listen and hear from God. Well, while I’m busy worrying about my future (feeling sorry for myself, boo hoo) I am called to remember all of the ways God has taken care of my life so far – why do you think he’s suddenly going to stop? Go back and look at all you’ve written down, read some of these very verses you hi-lighted years and years ago and remember how God provided for you. What are you so worried about?

“We tend to be preoccupied by our problems when we have a heightened sense of vulnerability and a diminished sense of power. Today, see each problem as an invitation to prayer.” ― John Ortberg

Pay attention to the voice that has always been speaking to you.

And if you’re still too thick in the head to get it, I’m going to send a very loud bird to sing and sing and sing in the middle of the squirrel kingdom to remind you not to worry or be afraid.

Look at the birds in the sky. They do not store food for winter. They don’t plant gardens. They do not sow or reap—and yet, they are always fed because your heavenly Father feeds them. And you are even more precious to Him than a beautiful bird. If He looks after them, of course He will look after you. Worrying does not do any good; who here can claim to add even an hour to his life by worrying?  (Matthew 6:26-27, The Voice)

Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and then all these things will be given to you too. So do not worry about tomorrow. Let tomorrow worry about itself. Living faithfully is a large enough task for today.  (Matthew 6:33-34, The Voice)

What should you be talking to God about right now?