The Other Side of Lent

As I write this post, Ash Wednesday is five days away, and the discussion on social media is starting to heat up. What are you going to do for Lent? What are you going to give up? Should we give up social media? Read a Lent book? Give extra money to the poor?

Maggi Dawn pointed out years ago that this is actually a very modern discussion. For the vast majority of Christian history, the Church told you what to give up for Lent (mainly meat and dairy, in case you’re interested), and since everyone in the community was giving it up with you, there was lots of support! Nowadays we’re much more individualistic, and as a result we’re so spoiled for choice that often just making a decision can be very difficult.

One thing that’s occurred to me this year is that I tend to gravitate toward Lent disciplines that are attractive to my personality type. I’m an introvert, so my Lent disciplines tend to be private disciplines: prayer, fasting, reading, and so on. I tend to focus on my personal relationship with God (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength”), but I don’t often take on Lent disciplines that focus on my relationship with others (“Love your neighbour as yourself”).

So here’s a thought: if Lent involves embracing a bit of discomfort for the sake of our own growth, then maybe we should consider Lent disciplines that aren’t easy for someone of our personality type. Maybe this year I shouldn’t focus on personal stuff at all. Maybe I should think of some creative ways to love and serve my neighbour (whether that’s a family member, a church member, someone in my neighbourhood, my music community, someone in the developing world etc.).

For me, I know this means spending time with people. In the end, this is the most valuable gift we can give to one another. There’s a reason we call it ‘spending time’; once it’s spent, it’s spent! You’re never going to get that hour of your life back. So it’s a real act of love to spend that time with someone else, rather than on yourself and your own amusements.

So maybe this Lent, introverts like me should be looking for Lent disciplines that push us out of ourselves a little more. And maybe extroverts should be looking to embrace solitude and silence and longer times of personal prayer.

A few weeks ago I read Brené Brown’s excellent book The Gifts of Imperfection. One of the themes that runs though the book is her triad of the three components of Wholeheartedness: ‘Courage, Compassion, and Connection’. Courage, to her, often means the courage to speak what’s really on your heart, honestly, without giving in to fear. Compassion is not so much about feeling compassion as it is acting in compassionate ways (and it also includes paying proper attention to boundaries, so that we can be more effective in that). And we grow in our sense of connection by actually going out and connecting with people.

I like that. Looks like a good plan for Lent for me. Now to firm it up with some concrete ways of putting it into practice.

Let’s Listen

This week we had Bell’s ‘Let’s Talk’ day. I’m not sure how long this has been going on, but a lot of people are taking part in it on social media. The basic idea is to break the stigma about mental illness and mental health by talking about our struggles. This, I’m sure, is a good thing. Most people don’t have a problem talking about broken bones and heart disease; why shouldn’t we feel just as free to talk about anxiety and depression? And so this week I’ve seen many brave people opening up on social media about their struggles with mental health, hoping to encourage those who are still suffering in silence to find a friend they trust and talk about their issues.

But there’s a corollary, of course, and I’m not so sure we’re as good at it as we should be. If we’re going to encourage people to talk, we also need to be good listeners. And listening isn’t something a lot of people are good at. It’s not always something I’m good at.

Sometimes I’m too distracted to listen carefully. I’m sure you know the sort of situation I’m talking about. I come home from church, and some of the conversations I had during the coffee hour are replaying in my mind, and I suddenly realize that someone said something that might be really significant—and I didn’t pick up on it. I was distracted (and probably tired), and I wasn’t paying attention.

Sometimes I’m not willing to take the time to really listen. I’ve got a hundred things to do, and only limited time for this conversation. So I listen just long enough to delude myself into thinking I’ve got a good grasp of the issue, and then I start firing off well-meaning advice. But I haven’t really understood the full complexity of the situation the other person is describing for me, and so my advice is not helpful.

And anyway, chances are good that the other person wasn’t really looking for advice. Often, people aren’t. They’re looking for assurance that they’re not alone. They get that assurance when we really listen to them and don’t try to minimize or dismiss their struggles, and when we show by our answers that we understand and empathize with them, and assure them that the way they feel is valid. But if we’re too quick to answer, they don’t get that assurance.

Sometimes I find it hard to deal with the darkness people are struggling with. I want to fix it. I need to be able to fix it, so that I can keep my confidence that the world is a place where everything can be healed and set right. So I offer what I think in my arrogance is a very good solution, and, not wanting to upset me, the other person pretends to be grateful. But inside, they’re feeling disappointment and loneliness, because they know I haven’t really understood.

I need to learn to be a better listener. The letter of James in the New Testament says, ‘Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.‘ (James 1.19 NLT) Usually, when I consider this verse, I skip to the last phrase: ‘slow to get angry.’ But I need to pay attention to the first part too: ‘quick to listen, slow to speak…’ Those velocity descriptors are important: ‘Quick to listen, slow to speak…’ I need way more practice with those two.

So yes, ‘Let’s Talk’ is a good thing. But in order to be really effective, it needs to be coupled with ‘Let’s Listen.’ God help us all to learn to be better listeners.

P.S. This fuzzy picture is Ken Burningham and me, back in the 1990s. As I said yesterday on Facebook, Ken was a real mentor to me in my early days of ministry in Saskatchewan. He was also the best and most intentional listener I’ve ever known. When I know I need to learn to be a better listener, I think of Ken.

Tim & Ken

‘I must’ or ‘I choose’

I’ve been reading and reflecting on Brené Brown’s excellent book The Gifts of Imperfection, which is subtitled Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. A big theme of the book is authenticity—which I as a Christian would define as ‘taking the risk of being the person God designed me to be, not the person I think I should be or the person other people want me to be.’

It has reminded me of something C.S. Lewis wrote to a god-daughter on the day of her confirmation service. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it’s something like this: ‘Always remember that there are only three things anyone must do: (1) duties, (2) necessities, and (3) things we take pleasure in.’

‘Duties’ means moral imperatives: commands of God, given to guide us in wise, loving and holy living (eg. ‘Love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself’). ‘Necessities’ means things we have to do to live and be healthy and well (go to work, eat sensibly and get good exercise, brush your teeth etc.). ‘Things we take pleasure in’—well, that of course will vary widely, depending on our tastes.

The problem is, so many people have added fourth and fifth categories: (4) ‘things other people want me to do’, and (5) ‘things I think I should do because I think they’re what other people expect.’

Of course, ‘things other people want me to do’ can be duties and/or necessities—for instance, if they’re part of my job. If I’ve taken a job that includes certain responsibilities, I can’t then turn around and say ‘I don’t want to fulfil some of those responsibilities because I don’t enjoy them.’ They’re job requirements, and if I want to draw a pay cheque, I’m obligated to fulfil them.

But in so many cases, (4) and (5) aren’t job requirements; they’re things I feel compelled to do, so that other people will like me and approve of me. Many of us are so insecure that we bend ourselves into pretzel shapes, trying to be who we’re not and do what we’re not suited to do, in the desperate attempt to win people’s liking and approval. And it’s all an empty quest, because even if we succeed, the person they like and approve of is not the real me; it’s a fake persona I’ve created to impress them.

I’ve noticed that some people seem bound by the language of compulsion: ‘We’ve got to do such and such’. I often feel like saying, ‘No, we don’t. We live in a free country, and we can choose what we do. But every choice we make leads to consequences, so we get to choose which set of consequences are important to us.’

I’m commanded by Jesus to love my neighbour as myself. But that doesn’t mean I have to do everything my neighbour wants me to do or asks me to do. Some of my neighbour’s expectations of me may well be unreasonable and/or impossible. Some will be things my neighbour can and should do for herself. And some of them are legitimate needs, but better suited to the expertise of others. For instance, my neighbour may need some repairs to his vinyl plank flooring, but I’d be foolish to offer that help; I’d just make the problem worse!

As I look back over my life, one of the things I regret the most is the amount of time and energy I’ve wasted on being a people-pleaser, rather than a person who relaxes in the certainty of God’s love for me, and chooses freely to love people appropriately and wisely, not out of a sense of compulsion. The Gifts of Imperfection is helping me reflect on that problem, and find a better way forward. As I go into this new year, I look forward to the next steps on that journey of freedom.

Clean

‘And then (Jesus) added, “It is what comes from inside that defiles you. For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you.”’ (Mark 7.20-23 New Living Translation)

The verses immediately before this passage are a discussion about eating ritually clean and unclean foods. That doesn’t tend to be a big issue in Christianity today, but many of us still seem to believe that ritual acts can purify us.

Jesus takes a different view. What goes into the body doesn’t makes you dirty; it’s what comes out of your heart that does that. He lists all the ‘vile things’ that spew out from us into the world on a regular basis. Want to be clean? Work on changing that list!

But how do we do that? Well, we’re told in several places in the New Testament that love is the fulfilling of the law. Love is also the first fruit of the Holy Spirit and the theme of Jesus’ great commandments. As we gradually learn to centre our lives on loving God, our neighbour, and ourselves, we will find these ‘vile things’ getting weaker, and eventually shrivelling away to nothing.

So let’s work on practising love for God, our neighbour and ourselves, and let’s pray that as we do so, the Holy Spirit will cleanse the poisoned well within and transform us on the inside into people formed and shaped by love.

Godly Sorrow

Seven-and-Neelix-seven-of-nine-30912665-500-382For your Monday morning edification: pastoral theology with Seven of Nine. (‘Star Trek: Voyager’ Season 6 Episode 14 ‘Memorial”)

NEELIX: Seven? When you were a Borg, you were involved in some unpleasant activities.

SEVEN: I helped to assimilate millions.

NEELIX: I don’t mean to be insensitive, but do you ever feel shame about what you did?

SEVEN: Frequently.

NEELIX: How to you manage to keep going, knowing that you’ve done such horrible things?

SEVEN: I have no choice.

NEELIX: Guilt is irrelevant?

SEVEN: On the contrary. My feelings of remorse help me remember what I did, and prevent me from taking similar actions in the future. Guilt can be a difficult, but useful, emotion.

I have been reflecting on this dialogue ever since Marci and I watched it on Saturday night. I have thought for a long time that much popular Christian spirituality has been heavily influenced by pop psychology from the sixties, that sees guilt as entirely negative. And indeed false guilt can be negative and manipulative. But not all guilt is false. Paul talks about a godly sorrow that leads to repentance. I should not try to escape from that guilt. I should listen to it, and fix what needs to be fixed.

Honesty

One of my fundamental convictions is that life goes much better for us in the long run if we tell the truth. Don’t try to gild the lily. Don’t make promises (about the spiritual life, for instance) which aren’t going to be fulfilled. Be a real human being with others, not a fake superhero.

What stops us doing that? I would suggest two things: having something to cover up, and having nothing to cover up.

The first is obvious, of course: if I’ve got a skeleton in my closet, I don’t want you to know about it. If I’m in a relationship with you and there’s a big, dirty secret about my life, my fear is going to be that if you find out about it, you’ll end the relationship. So I’m going to do all I can to keep that secret in the dark. In other words, the root of my lie is my fear of being rejected.

But what does the second thing mean: ‘having nothing to cover up’? I mean that we’re trying to cover up ‘nothing’. Or at least, we think it’s ‘nothing’. I don’t see myself as a particularly impressive person – not especially smart, or particularly good looking, or unusually clever in any obvious way. I think I’ve got ‘nothing’ to offer, and I want to cover up that fact (at least, in my own mind it’s a fact). So I’m going to play a role, pretending to ‘have it all together’, in an effort to pull the wool over your eyes and make a good impression on you.

I think the second factor may be far more powerful – and far more common – than the first. And at its root, it’s about fear too – the fear of being tried and found wanting. The fear of being discovered to be the fraud we believe ourselves to be, deep down inside.

I think in some people these factors may lessen with age. I’d like to think they are lessening with me. I don’t have that many people left in my life I need to impress. I think that pretty well all the people I want to love me, already love me, and have proved over and over again that they’re pretty stubborn about loving me. So there’s not a great amount to gain for me in lying. As I get older, it’s harder for me to keep track of my own lies, anyway; it’s far easier just to tell the truth!

But it’s not that way for everyone. The current occupant of the White House, for example, seems to have an enormous need to fake his own impressiveness every hour of every day. Sometimes (often) I think the only reason he’s in politics is to shore up his own desperately fragile self-esteem.

The problem with getting people to love a fake identity, of course, is that you then have to sustain that fake identity. And that takes a lot of psychological energy – especially if, like some people, you have a number of fake identities, depending on the company you keep.

I believe it’s much better – and in the long run it may even be much easier – just to be real. Jesus said “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32, New Living Translation). Seeing the world as it is, and accepting that reality and living accordingly – that is a liberating thing. And who is the one who truly knows the world ‘as it is’? Surely the one who made it has the best view!

That includes seeing myself as I am, knowing that God sees that reality and loves me anyway, and being willing to be that person in the sight of others as well. This is me, warts and all, fears and hopes, successes and failures, loves and hates. God loves me despite all that, and God calls me to love the other imperfect human beings in my life, too, and to let them love me. And if we can do that, I believe that in the end life will be a lot better for us.

On Being Happy

In one of the final chapters of his book ‘Sapiens‘, Yuval Noah Harari raises the issue of whether all the ‘progress’ the human race has made in the last few thousand years has actually increased the happiness of individual humans to any great degree (not to mention the happiness of the other sentient species on Earth).

I won’t give the game away by telling you his answer, but I would like to share a short reflection on one section of this chapter. In this section, Harari points out that happiness has a lot to do with body chemistry and temperament. Some of us just seem wired to be more cheerful than others. For example, one person might have a ‘happiness range’ (on a scale of 1-10) of 3-7, averaging out at a five. Another might have a range of 6-10, averaging out at an eight. There isn’t a great deal they can do about that, although of course upbringing and choices do have some impact on where we land up in the range.

I found this liberating.

I am well aware that I have been handed a somewhat melancholic temperament. It’s easy for me to see the dark side of any issue. I panic easily, I worry a lot, and I tend to make negative observations about situations and people.

Looking at my families of origin, I can understand this. It’s in our genes. It’s not something I need to feel guilty about.

However, I do have a choice about where in my ‘range’ (let’s call it a 3 – 7) I average out. And there are things I can do, choices I can make, habits I can form, that will increase my happiness. Gretchen Rubin wrote an excellent book on this subject called ‘The Happiness Project‘. No, I can’t flip a switch to change my emotions. But there are behaviours I can engage in which have a cheering effect on my disposition. I’m talking about things like doing acts of kindness to others, sticking with my diet and exercise disciplines and so on. I know that when I’m intentional about these things, I’m a happier guy.

And I’m also more pleasant to be around. Which is why making decisions that increase my happiness is not a selfish pursuit. Generally speaking, happier people lift up the people around them, while gloomy people drag others down. I want to lift others up.

I can’t do anything about my temperament, but I can do something about my actions. I’m going to try to remember to do that.