Sunday, July 26, 2015

Paying Attention

Psychologist Daniel Goleman, an expert on emotional intelligence, wrote, "The act of compassion begins with full attention."

Meditate on that for a moment.

"The act of compassion begins with full attention."

Compassion, which we can define as the empathetic desire to help someone who is troubled, requires us to see what the trouble is, to understand that trouble and how it affects a person, and to act if there's anything helpful we can do about it.

Who around you is suffering? How can you exercise your compassion attentively?

Very often, the answer to that second question is quite simple:

Compassion can be tough in a world that tells us the important things are big...big gestures, big words, big generosity. Silent support seems too little, too ordinary, too unimportant.

Truth is, we all appreciate it when someone really listens to us, pays attention, doesn't try to fix things or offer up suggestions for how we can make the pain go away. I've been struggling with headaches for several years now, more than likely the result of menopause.  It's been fascinating to watch people's response to my pain. Some email me 10-point lists of suggestions, and some tell me how their aunt's sister-in-law's cousin had the same thing and found instant relief by using a combination of aromatherapy and crystals to align her chakras. Others stick to suggesting medications or dietary changes.

Three years ago, I had no idea there were so many options for treating headaches.

I listen to most of the suggestions and weigh them against everything else I've tried, although the aromatherapy-and-crystals idea came from a total stranger who saw me looking at essential oils at the high-end grocery store. Aromatherapy can't hurt and might help, but crystals are against my religion. Otherwise, I appreciate the suggestions. Once you've exhausted medical options with your doctor, you'll try almost anything for relief.

The best thing that has come out of other people sharing their experiences with mid-life headaches has been the comforting assertion that they will go away. They will end. The change will be over. Hope is always useful! And through suggestions for treatment, I have found some things that truly provide relief.  

One friend, however, hasn't suggested a single remedy or treatment. All she's done is listen to me whine and complain about having tried ten different medications and oy vey nothing helps! She asks me always, "How's your head?" And gives me her quiet attention. She's my safe place. Her full and quiet attention helps me get over myself and laugh at the pain, which gives it a lot less power over my moods.

My husband George has been wonderful through all this, too. He doesn't take offense when I get grouchy; he simply ignores my mood and sympathizes with the pain. He's brought ideas for treatment from other people, googled for information, and generally been there in sickness. I appreciate his attentiveness more than I can say.

I am blessed with so many wonderful friends and family!

God blesses us to be a blessing to others. Many of my friends are dealing with far more tragic or difficult situations than headaches. Divorce, loss, cancer, mental illness, and caring for sick or dying loved ones...these people are suffering, and they need attention.

Matthew 25:35-40   For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
The act of compassion begins with full attention. It continues with love.

Who in your life needs your full attention? Do they need advice from you or do they need you to take the quiet, compassionate option of sitting beside them? Pay attention to the situation. Ask the person how you can help. Listen carefully to the answers.

What we do out of love and compassion--no matter how seemingly small or insignificant--we do to the glory of the One who died for us. So let's pay attention!

PS My own headaches are probably the result of muscle tension of "unknown" physiological origin (as opposed to psychological origin). I say it's the hormones, and so do a number of older ladies at my church who have been here, done this, and gotten over it. I'm treating with a combination of things (medications, massage, acupuncture, meditation, and well patches). If you're suffering from mid-life headaches, best wishes for finding relief that works. There certainly are a LOT of options out there.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Truth and Generalizations

Last fall, I fell into the weirdest exchange I've ever had at a military base hospital. For the record, I've had some bizarre experiences in base hospitals over the of the entertaining perks of military life, I suppose.

On that fall morning, I walked into the blood-draw room, which was packed with technicians and patients. Most of the patients had been fasting and were, like me, understandably grumpy and quietly impatient for their morning coffee. The techs, however, were deep in a lively discussion over science and religion.

One tech, an older man, declared, "I am a Christian who doesn't believe in evolution."

Oh, Lord, I prayed. What have I walked into? I haven't even had my coffee yet.

The tech tying the tourniquet around my arm looked up and said, "Well, I thought all Christians believe evolution is a lie."

Oh, Lord, I prayed, please give me the words.

"Excuse me," I said, reaching for the cross hanging around my neck with my free hand. The tech gave me his full attention. "Not all Christians think evolution is a lie. I am a Christian and see nothing inconsistent between what I read in the Bible and what science has to say about evolution or the big bang theory. And I'm not alone. Plenty of Christians respect science."

"Really?" he asked, appearing rather shocked.

"Really," I replied, putting as much confidence in my voice as I could.

"I had no idea. Thank you so much." He sounded sincere. I hope my words shifted his thinking just a bit.

How disconcerting to encounter the false generalization that Christians all think alike! The truth is, about the only thing all Christians believe is that Jesus is the Messiah...and I bet if you search hard enough in the fringe corners of our faith, you'll find heretical quibblers on that issue, too. Christianity has hundreds (some count thousands) of denominations, and even within a single denomination, you'll find numerous variations of belief.

Actually, within a single church congregation, you'll find huge differences of opinion, a reality that becomes obvious if you sit through a single church committee meeting.

And if this is true of Christianity, isn't it also true of other religions?

A few years ago, I invited some Mormon missionaries to share their faith with me because I knew how ignorant I was, despite having been bombarded with extensive media coverage of polygamists and child abusers. I recognize that the information we have on LOTS of issues comes filtered and packaged by a media with an agenda...and it isn't objective or thorough.

I found the missionaries to be thoughtful, kind, and knowledgeable about their faith. While nothing they said convinced me to convert, they taught me plenty about Mormonism, and for that I was thankful. I still don't know "everything" about the subject, but that's okay. At least I learned enough to overcome a simplistic, one-size-fits-all (and completely faulty) generalization.

But how often do we judge a group--religious or otherwise--because we've consumed a sensationalized, partial, or highly biased view presented by the media? Our friends? Our pastors? How often do we judge based on a single personal experience? How often is our judgment clouded by false generalizations and fear?

Given recent riots in Baltimore, the church shooting in Charleston, and the media spotlight on police prejudice and brutality, we need to be aware of how our opinion is being manipulated, how our fears are being played on. And most of all, we need to be very cautious in making broad generalizations based on limited evidence.

"That mass shooter was schizophrenic, so all people with schizophrenia are murderers and dangerous."

"Those terrorists were Muslim, so all Muslims are terrorists."

"Those Christians hate gay people, so all Christians hate gay people."

Faulty generalizations can be so very easy to make, so very strong once made, and so very wrong! It's human nature to want to know with certainty, and all of nature abhors a void. Are we filling our mental void with accurate, complete information?

Probably not.

My classical education taught me that we never, ever have all the information we need to see all the nuances of the big picture. Our perspective is limited, necessarily so. We cannot know everything, and our judgments should consequently be provisional, cautious, thoughtful. Paul describes our incomplete viewpoint as "looking through a glass darkly" and Proverbs tells us not to lean on our own understanding but to trust the Lord. God's got the big picture covered. We need to do our best with what's in front of us, what we can see.

With these limits to our understanding humbly in mind, let's try to moderate our more forceful opinions with the certain knowledge that we only see and know part of the issues and that our generalizations, like those of the medical technologist I encountered, might be completely wrong. May we do this in a spirit of love and compassion for ourselves and others that daily advances God's kingdom on earth.

For reflection: Have you been a victim of faulty generalizations How did that make you feel? How did you respond? What generalizations do you make? How might you learn a more nuanced view of those generalizations?

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Lines in the Sand

Have you heard the one about the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan? It goes something like this:

A lawyer asks Jesus what he should do to have eternal life. Jesus asks him what the Law (which we call Scripture) says. The lawyer replies, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." Jesus applauds the lawyer for giving the right answer, but the lawyer then asks, "Who is my neighbor?" (Just like the lawyer in all of us...quibbling over definitions, looking for loopholes!)

To answer, Jesus tells the story of a man going from Jerusalem to Jericho who is attacked by robbers, beaten, stripped naked, and left for dead on the side of the road. A priest sees him and moves to the other side of the road, passing without helping. Then a Levite does the same. When a Samaritan sees this poor, beaten Jew, he responds in love, bandages his wounds, takes him to an inn nearby, and pays the innkeeper to care for the wounded man, promising to come back and check on him to be sure the innkeeper does the job right.

Jesus ends by asking the lawyer which man was a neighbor to the victim. "The one who showed him mercy," he replies. Then Jesus says, "Go and do likewise."

"Go and do likewise."

It's not a joke.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the hardest teachings Jesus gives us. Samaritans and Jews were mortal enemies, For a Samaritan to be the good guy in a story told by a Jew to a Jew...well, that was just unthinkable. That was a line in the sand that shouldn't be crossed.

Jesus crossed it.

In doing so, Jesus makes a bold point about the Law. The Jewish priests and Levites were leaders who had become overly preoccupied with the details of the Law relating to purity. If they stopped to help the man, they would be rendered impure by touching a possibly dead body or getting human blood on their hands or robes. They had forgotten about the most important Law of all, the Law upon which all the other laws were based, the Law that leads to eternal life: Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.

That's the bottom line.

What did it matter if the priest and Levite were inconvenienced by weeks of ritual purification? Someone needed their help, a fellow Jew, one of their own, and they walked past him.

I think we all can use a few weeks of ritual purification now and then, no matter how inconvenient, but we are such selfish creatures. We put our own needs and convenience first, and turn a blind eye to the needs of those in the ditch. A few years ago, as I was walking with my husband, his sister, and her husband around the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin, in search of dinner, I saw one of the many homeless people struggling to roll his wheel chair up a rather steep hill. The Spirit nudged me to offer help...but I kept walking.

When I stand before God, I will have to answer for that failure. Perhaps you know exactly the knot I get in my stomach when that memory hits me, the shame I feel for not answering that nudge, the knowledge that I failed God in this one small thing.

How must I be failing Him in even larger ways unconsciously, thoughtlessly, carelessly, every single day?

Yet God loves me anyway, forgives my sins, pours out blessings on me so that I may be a blessing to others. I don't deserve that sort of love. Not a bit. I fail every day, and He never quits loving me, and He never quits loving you, either.

When I feel that unbounded love--a love that erases all those lines in the sand we draw--I want to go and do likewise. I will fail, sometimes spectacularly, but I will keep trying. Winston Churchill said success is going from one failure to the next with no loss of enthusiasm. When we get stuck, when we give into despair, when we lose our enthusiasm for loving and let not loving become a habit so ingrained we can't even see it...that's real failure.

Are we judging others, condemning them, separating ourselves from them because we don't want to get dirty? If we're honest, we probably have to answer yes. We do this, every one of us, because we have lines we won't cross in sharing our love. Some people won't love gays or homeless people or the mentally ill or potty mouths or Muslims or Christians of other denominations. Some people won't love the people who won't love gays or homeless people or the mentally ill or potty mouths or Muslims or Christians of other denominations.

We've all got lines we won't cross with love. When we are self-centered or afraid, the line we won't cross gets closer to us, and the circle where we love shrinks, and we push people outside the line, teaching the falsehood that God's love is conditional and contingent just like ours.

Jesus wants us to be like the good Samaritan, to be a neighbor to everyone, but it's just so hard. Perhaps daily we need to ask Him to push back our lines just a little bit, expand the circle where we love to be a bit more inclusive, a bit less comfortable and convenient, even if it means getting our hands dirty. If we keep doing this, an awesome thing happens: we pull more and more people closer to that Perfect Love...including ourselves. And the bigger our love gets, the more like Jesus we become.

Are you shining God's love out into the world or are you guarding it close to you, keeping it pure and unsullied by the touch of sinful neighbors in a sinful world? Where were the Samaritan's lines drawn? Where did he give his mercy?

Go and do likewise.