Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Build-A-Bear & Human Creation (Repost)

A few weeks ago, I went to Pawsenclaws & Co. to celebrate my goddaughter's third birthday. Pawsenclaws, the lesser-known predecessor to Build-A-Bear Workshop, is a custom teddy bear factory. As with most things, building a custom teddy bear involves a process.

First, you go to what's called the Fur Salon to choose the body for your stuffed animal. There are about a hundred choices of various animal types, colors and grades of fur, and overall appearances. 

Next, you go to the Recording Booth, where you record a message onto a sound chip that is placed inside the bear. So, every time the recipient squeezes the bear, he or she hears your message. For someone like me, who can spend an hour recording and rerecording a voice mail greeting, this can be quite a daunting task.

After that, you choose a heart (a small, color-coded, heart-shaped disk) for your bear. Each color represents a different attribute with which your bear's heart will be filled: love, smiles, joy, bearhugs, laughter, and the like. The store is geared toward 2- to 8-year-old children, so clearly lust, greed, deceit, and malice aforethought were not among the choices. 

Finally, you go to the "StuffnVator", where the bear heart and sound chip are inserted and the bear is shot up with polyfil. You can decide how much polyfil to add - less for a softer bear, more for a firmer bear. You hug the bear, squeeze its limbs and test out the sound chip, and then head over to buy it some clothes and learn how forge a birth certificate on a PC. And that’s it, you’re off to the check-out counter.

It occurred to me later, that we were created in much the same way. Each of the million trillion people who have ever lived were custom made. God went to the Skin Salon and chose our complexion, mixed and matched each feature, chose our color and grade of hair, and placed moles, pimples, dimples and freckles exactly where he wanted them. Instead of polyfil, he inflated us with his own breath to just the right fullness. God finished us up and sent us off as gifts to the world.

Of course, he didn’t pack us up without the most important parts. Like the bears, we have hearts filled with different attributes. Unlike the bears’, though, our hearts are not colored disks. Our hearts are pieces of God’s own heart, so our hearts could not be filled with anything that is not in God’s heart. So, contrary to what many people like to think, the lust, greed, deceit and malice aforethought were not part of the original recipe. 

Along with our hearts, we were each given a message recorded in God’s own voice to share with the world: "I love you," "I forgive you," "I see you," "I miss you," "I am with you," "I died for you and you were worth it," etc.

It is for that reason, that he calls us "wonderfully and fearfully made." Mainly, because he made us by hand. And, if we were made by a perfect God who never makes mistakes, how could we be anything but wonderfully and fearfully made.

Naturally, we may have a different concept of perfection than God, and many of us take exception with the complexions, features, hair and level of fullness that God chose, and his placement of the moles, pimples, dimples and freckles. We often work feverishly to hide and change them. 

There is also the small matter of the things that happened to us once we arrived on Earth. Often, we have a hard time thinking of ourselves as perfect because of the things that we've done and the things that were done to us.

But, that difference of opinion is just a matter of perspective. Whether or not you feel perfect, God calls you perfect because you’re perfect for the job that he sent you to do. Everything about you, from you hair to your mistakes, makes you perfect to share with the world the heart and the message that he put inside of you. God looks on you with love and pride because what he sees is the heart and what he hears is the message. To him, the heart looks just the way it looked when he created you and the message sounds just the way it sounded when he recorded it.

So, your mission – should you choose to accept it – is two-fold. First, you must look in the mirror and see what God sees. Learn to look past the fur, past the polyfil to the heart. The perfect heart. Learn to hear past your voice and your words to God’s message. And, share that heart and that message with the world. After all, they’re not for you. You’re just the giftwrap.

Secondly, you must learn to do the same for other people. Look at them and see their heart. And every once in a while give them a squeeze and listen to their message. Nothing is sadder than someone who never gets the chance to share their message from God because no one ever squeezed them.

It is only apropos that I end this schmaltz-fest with a quote from a children’s book. Here it is:

"Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once your are Real, you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand..." - The Skin Horse (from The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams)

Friday, March 27, 2015

Worth Winning

It’s been said that a thing is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it. This concept is important to remember in our relationships.

We often make sacrifices and give gifts of ourselves to the people we care about. We give them our precious first few moments after we walk in the door from a hard day at work. We cuddle and hug when we really don’t feel like being touched. We give them the last word even when we know we’re right. We give them freedom to make decisions that might hurt us.

As we do, it's important to keep in mind the exchange rate of worth. What a sacrifice costs us isn’t necessarily what it’s worth to the other person.

Using the first example, I have always been a huge proponent of silence and solitude when I come home from work. I live alone now, but my first roommate always greeted me at the door. As I walked in, I was usually thinking, “If I see one more person, I’m going to a bell tower with a rifle.” On the other hand, he was thinking, “I haven’t seen my roommate all day, I’ll see how he’s doing.”  The ensuing conversation, which could last anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours, was just a daily check-in to my roommate. It was something slightly more costly to me.

We also have to remember that the opposite is true. What something is worth to us is not necessarily what it cost the person who gave it to us. What we consider trivial or “the least they could do” might be a major sacrifice on the part of the other person.

Author, Catherine Wallace says that exchange within relationships must be thought of in terms of reciprocity not equality. It’s a reciprocal trading of my ability to meet your needs for your ability to meet my needs. The abilities and the needs don't have to be the same or equal. And, most of the time, they won't be.

Loving others means that I recognize and value their individuality and uniqueness the same way I recognize and value those things within myself and expect them to. It means that I may have to meet some needs in them that I don’t have or even understand. It also means that when I put a price tag on a gift they give me, I have to take into account what it cost them.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

…They Had All Things In Common - Acts 2:44

As humans, we spend an inordinate amount of time and energy hiding our flaws, weaknesses, and struggles. We fear being exposed as imperfect will cause us to be ostracized from all of the strong, well-adjusted and emotionally stable people who make up our families, circles of friends, churches, and workplaces.

Contrary to our fears, our weaknesses do not define us or distinguish us from those around us. It is our frailty that unites us. It is the thing that we all have in common. No one is uniquely damaged or broken. On the other hand, every person is uniquely gifted and able.

Don’t believe me? Try really talking and listening to the people around you. As they reveal their pains, mistakes, fears and regrets, you’ll notice everything sounds strangely familiar. You’ll also be amazed at how uncreative the devil is and what a small bag of tricks he has.

It’s when you hear their passions and dreams that things really get interesting. Yes, some of it will be weird, random, and maybe even troubling. But look past all of that and see the incredible variety of gifts and visions that God has birthed in his children. Unlike the devil, our Father is infinitely creative and uses every bit of his creativity to help us set and reach goals that will make him proud.

My old pastor would say that every person has two destinies: a common destiny and a personal destiny. 

Our common destiny is to bring God glory and pleasure through a life of worship in reaction to God’s mercy and grace. As irony would have it, without our flaws we can’t get grace and mercy. Without grace and mercy we can’t worship. Without worship we can’t fulfill our common destiny. So, our common destiny depends on our brokenness, our hurts, our mistakes, and our flaws.

Each person also has a personal destiny, a purpose that only you can fulfill. God designed you and so that you alone would have the precise combination of skills, gifts and experiences it will take to pull it off. There are people only you can reach, words only you can say, feats of faith only you can achieve, adventures only you can brave, and aspects of God only you can reflect.

We must make peace with our infirmities and learn to glory in them just like Paul did. Just the same, God is challenging us to enjoy being who we are. The bad stuff is part of our story - there’s no denying that - but our unique identities are rooted in the good things that only God could place inside of us.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Leave It To God...

Leave it to God to not let me rest in a state of moral superiority. In talking with one of the kids I work with, I was struck by the fact that he invested far more energy in avoiding of the consequences for his bad decisions than in making good decisions in the first place. As I lamented and joked about this phenomenon, God pointed out all of the speeding tickets I'd prayed away, all the prayers that my fast food meals would nourish my body, and all of the prayers that a lottery win would wipe away debt and student loans. I needed a laugh at that moment, not a mirror.

Quick Thought: Dunno

Tonight, as I was coming home from the movies with a friend, I met a homeless guy outside of Union Station. He whispered a request for help. Or maybe it just sounded like a whisper filtered through the anti-homeless force field that is deployed when I'm in city walking mode. Anyway, I was already a few feet past him, when I felt a twinge that maybe I shouldn't just walk by. I had no cash, so I offered to buy him some McDonald's.

Once we got to the restaurant, he asked for a chicken sandwich, but switched to McNuggets. He said he didn't want the meal, because of bad fry experiences. I ordered and paid, all the while trying to look like I was just grabbing fast food with a friend, not like the businessman buying dinner for the homeless man.

I felt a weird sense of guilt, even though I was doing what I believe I was meant to do in this situation. At least until I noticed the cigar burns on his back and arm. Then I lost track of myself, overwhelmed with sadness and intercession.

As a counselor, I hear so many true stories I wish weren't true. This was the same feeling. And I felt just as helpless as always, wondering how God can watch this stuff happen and not do something.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Paradise? Lost?

I hate decision making. I hate it in the same way I  dislike most things I'm not good at, I suppose. Thinking about the decision-making leads me to think about the original decision: to eat or not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The original decision, in my opinion, was a trap. It is one of those things that leads me to question God's motives.

The phrase "Persian flaw" refers to the practice rug makers in Persia to intentionally weave an imperfection into the pattern of each rug. This flaw signified the truth that only God can create perfection. The forbidden tree in the center of the Garden seems to be Eden's Persian flaw.

Granted, God never called Eden "perfect" or "paradise". That is a human attribution. My question to the people who call Eden paradise would be how can you have paradise when sitting right in the middle of it is what amounts to a self-destruct button.

The only thing special about Eden was the overwhelming sense of order and God's bodily presence. Regardless, I have to ask why He bothered to put the Tree in the Garden, at all? And, why in the center of the Garden?

It wasn't to tempt Adam and Eve. The Bible says that God doesn't tempt us. But he definitely forced a choice - a nearly constant choice - just the same. God's challenge in planting the tree was, as Pastor Bob Purdue put it, for them to walk past that tree everyday "and choose life." Purdue also noted that there's no telling how many times they walked past that tree and chose not to eat from it.

I also question the notion that Eden was "lost." With the reconciliation of the Cross, we return to Eden at least symbolically. We again have the choice to live in a state of God-ordained order with constant access to God's presence. We can have healthy relationships with the people around us. We can subdue the Earth and every natural force that exists on it, including life and death by the power vested in us through the Holy Spirit.

But, just like in the real Eden, we can throw it all away with a decision to step outside of God's will. Unlike the real Eden, we can always come back. There are no angels blocking the entrance to God's will or blocking our access to eternal life. We have a grace that Adam and Eve didn't have, through forgiveness and redemption in Jesus. But that makes it seem almost more arbitrary.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Lent Writing

Maybe it's cheating, but most of my Lenten writing has been focused on writing responses to op-eds. It's been great to have increased reading as an added bonus to the fast. It's also been fascinating to read opinion pieces and the comments people write in response to them.

By fascinating, I partially mean scary as hell. There are some wackjobs out there. A number of comments are from seemingly educated people who are wildly, and seemingly intentionally, hateful and misguided. It portends poorly for our world if these people exist en masse. Still, I guess it's better to know than to be lulled into a false sense of societal sanity. Like racism, crazy is a dish best served overtly.

The other thing that is fascinating is that op-ed are essentially just blogs. Some of them have as much basis in fact or reality as Enquirer stories. And, before you say "duh," I already know that's why they are called opinion pieces. I assumed, though, that op-ed writers had some level of credibility and gravitas beyond the garden variety tweeter. Guess the old adage about assuming comes true yet again.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Simple Math?

Encouragement - Accountability = Enabling

I struggle sometimes, in my line of work, with knowing the difference between encouraging people and enabling them. The line between encouragement and enabling might be even thinner than the line between love and hate. The claim that people don't change is false, but they do change at such a glacial pace that it's easy to understand why that belief if so popular. And, all that you do to build them up in the interim can feel like enabling them to stay the same. It's only in hindsight that it all makes sense and the difference between encouragement and enabling feels more than semantic.

Accountability - Encouragement = Abuse

The other delicate balance in this equation is how much accountability to apply: too much, and you're a monster; too little, and you're a doormat. Further complicating matters is the fact that there's no universal right answer. It's different for each person. There might even be a different balance for each of the different struggles an individual faces. It's pretty daunting.

Luckily, there's no shortage of practice...

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Lent Me Your Ear

As I was trying to decide how to "celebrate" Lent this year, I decided that once again I would do an additive fast. What I decided to add was writing. So, everyday I have to write something - a blogpost, a tweet, a comment - in reaction to something in my world. It's been a long time since I've written anything except for emails and case notes for work. A written voice, like a mind, is a terrible thing to waste.

The prayer that goes along with my fast is for presence, the state of being attuned to what is happening right here, right now. Wherever my right here, right now is, I want to be there, too. Presence has never been a skill I've had. I'm always in my head, making a to-do list, making a done list, reliving the past, preliving the future. Luckily, I can multitask. Just the same, I want to occasionally just be and enjoy where I am.

This writing challenge does help with the presence, because it tunes my reticular activating system to look for things to write about. And the presence helps my writing, because it lends detail and connection to my subject matter. So, I'm hoping that my fast and my prayer will continue to have a symbiosis, of sorts. We shall see...

Friday, August 03, 2012

LATE POST: Gay Marriage: Political Windfall, Religious Red Herring

[Note: I wrote this post seven years ago, but somehow forgot to publish it.]

In a post-mortem discussion of the 2004 election, Karl Rove, campaign advisor to George W. Bush, said that the elevation of moral issues helped Republicans in both the Presidential and Congressional races. A poll published in the Chicago Tribune supported Rove’s claim. It revealed that 22% of voters polled cited moral values as the election’s key issue and overwhelmingly chose Bush as the candidate with the strongest moral stance. Rove cited, in particular, the role of the same-sex marriage debate. He said that Massachusetts’ move to legalize same-sex marriage had "captured and colored the national imagination."

Prior to the election, I had seen countless news reports and articles about Christian organizations and churches coming out in support of Bush, and his position against gay marriage and for the Constitutional ban of gay marriage. There were even interviews with Black pastors and parishioners, who typically skew more  Democratic, proclaiming the same support for the Republican candidate.

Most surprising to me were discussions of these news stories with my Black, Christian friends. I jokingly mentioned that Black people were on the news campaigning for a Republican candidate, en masse, without insisting that their faces be blurred. In response, I was scolded for not doing "the Christian thing" and supporting the candidate that stood for Christian values. My voting along traditional party and racial lines was considered a compromise. Stern references to Sodom and Gomorrah were bandied about.

It was these interactions that led me to develop what may be considered a radical position in the same-sex marriage debate: none. I don’t care. What’s more, I’m convinced that God doesn’t care either. As such, I think it is wrong for the Christian church to take a stance one way or the other in this debate, especially in the name of upholding Christian morality.

Don’t get me wrong, the Bible is very clear on God’s stance on homosexuality. Rarely one to mince words, God calls homosexuality an "abomination" in Leviticus 18:22, and has other choice words to say on the topic in various Old and New Testament verses. That fact established, I have little doubt that God doesn't care about same-sex marriage. Admittedly, I did not comb the Bible for a verse describing God’s position. So, my conviction is based solely on the Godly principle of logic.

The gay marriage debate is not a matter of "sin," as some would like to claim. It is, instead, one of sin management. That is, it explicitly or implicitly makes allowance for sin, by stipulating a subsequent condition or action. The position being put forth as the religious and moral imperative is essentially, "as long as you are a homosexual, you cannot get married."

According to the Bible, being a homosexual is a sin. What one can and cannot do as a homosexual is not really discussed. The reason, I propose, is that God’s only goal for a person operating in a given sin is to get them to stop committing that sin, not to inconvenience them while they are operating in that sin. It is the equivalent of saying people who commit adultery can only have sex in cars and cheap motel rooms. Like homosexuality, God is clear in His assertion that adultery is a sin. So, would God’s interest be in dictating where a couple can commit adultery or would He be more interested in their not committing adultery? The Ten Commandments say "Thou shalt not..." They do not go on to say, "But as long as thou doth..."

Speaking of adultery, for an illustration of how God would have Christians to deal with people operating in sin, we need look no further than Christ himself. In John 6, we see how Jesus interacts with a woman who was caught in the act of committing adultery. One of the reasons I love Jesus is because he had a sarcastic streak, which only came out when he was dealing with hypocritical religious fundamentalists. In this instance, they told Him they caught the woman and reminded Him that according to the Law she was supposed to be killed by having heavy rocks thrown at her. After ignoring them for a few minutes, Jesus said, (and I’m paraphrasing) "Sure, go ahead and kill her, and whichever of you has never done anything wrong gets to throw the first stone." None of them wanted to voluntarily admit to being perfect, on the record, so they all left. Once they were gone, Jesus told the woman that she was safe, he forgave her, and she should stop sleeping with men who are not her husband.

Elsewhere, namely in Romans 13:14, Galatians 6:1, and 2 Corinthians 5:20, the Bible confirms that the Christian position on any matter of sin is to be one of love, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration into right relationship with God. It’s not about judgement. It’s not about self-righteousness. And, it’s not about making allowances for sin.

While I could argue the merits of the alleged Bush/Kerry dichotomy in the same-sex marriage debate, that is not my point here. My issue is with the merits of the Christian Church, as an agent of God, taking a stand on one side or the other in this debate. If neither side in the same-sex marriage debate is arguing the stated position of God – a position of love, forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration – then the Church has no place in the debate.