Archive for the ‘Relationships’ Category
Years ago I had a life-changing experience in a nursing home. I was visiting an aging parishioner and, as is so often the case, she was sharing her room with another resident. Both ladies were out having tests run, so I was left on my own to wait.
While I did, I noticed that my parishioner’s roommate had a photo on the dresser. Given the vintage of the picture, it was clearly a picture of my friend’s roommate, but what was captivating was the subject matter. Taken when she was a young woman, it included her twin sister.
Both women were clad in leotards and hung by their legs, side by side on a flying trapeze.
That image has stuck with me for over thirty years. It taught me to never make categorical assumptions about people, never assign behaviors or perspectives to them, and don’t ever fail to honor the individual pilgrimages they have made through life. Not everyone with white hair is a grandmother or grandfather. No one who is can be reduced to that role. Each is a real person with hopes and dreams — some of which were realized, some of which were not.
The same could be said of endless numbers of other groups. Labels simplify life, but they are as dangerous as they are convenient. Texans, Bostonians, gays straight, conservative, liberal….these and many other labels may lend simplicity to the world, but none of them capture the totality of the life that each bears and none of the labels possess definitive, predictable content.
I have conservative and liberal friends, old and young friends, friends who have a considerable amount of education and those whose education was shaped by experience —- the differences and complexities are endless. More to the point, each of their pilgrimages are singular, undermining the value of the labels.
Yet, far too often we prefer the self-righteous and smug value of labels to the richness of the conversation about our respective journeys.
Why does it matter spiritually to resist that kind of labeling?
One, it is a flight from love. Too much of the labeling that we do is rooted in a desire to establish what we do or don’t like about someone and then dismiss them.
Two, it feeds arrogance. To label someone else is to say, “I am the arbiter of good and evil, right and wrong, sophisticated and clueless. I stand in the right place, you stand in the wrong one.” We can and should engage in critical dialog about what we think, but labeling has nothing to do with being critical. Labeling should alert us to the sin of self-righteousness — and sloth — because labeling people is not simply a function of arrogance, it is the child of laziness.
Three, labeling closes you off to what God can teach you through others, foreclosing on the stories of spiritual pilgrimage that can enrich our own. Labeling has a way of narrowing the permitted story lines in life, refusing to be surprised, educated, or broadened.
Where is this in Scripture? In the Book of Jonah, in the calling of Jeremiah to be a prophet to the nations, in the teaching of Jesus, in the churches of Paul as they spread out across what was an alien world to the fledgling faith. It always has been the invitation of a church that preached the gospel to whosoever will and who found a place for people – even those who persecuted her.
When I listen to boomers talk about inclusion and diversity as if we are the generational originators and guarantors of something new, I am always a bit bemused. The church has always been inclusive and diverse. Oh, there have been those who were forced to the margins and refused entrance, but that has always been at odds with the Gospel and those who closed the doors on others were never as like-minded as they supposed.
And then there are those who freely wield the language of diversity, who, in truth, are prepared to embrace only a few, preferring the love of categories to the embrace of real people.
The fact of the matter is that Scripture has always preferred the language of reconciliation to the language of inclusion — and for good reasons:
Our end lies not in the special character of our journeys, but in God
God does not just invite us, God invites us with conditions.
God does not simply include us, God includes us with an eye to changing us.
Someone once said, “To the world you may be one person, but to one person you may be the world.”
Both the former and the latter are inevitably true.
Even people who enjoy considerable fame mean very little to most of us. They may represent or embody some measure of shared longing or common commitments, but as individuals they are strangers; and the attention that their lives receive often deludes us into thinking we know them better than we do. What we know about them is, in fact, what we are told about them and nothing more.
“Famous people” — who don’t appear to be one among many — are placeholders of a kind. It would be a mistake for us to think that they have transcended the very human obstacles to loving and finding love; and it would be a serious mistake for them to think that their notoriety is a substitute for loving and being loved.
To think we can mean everything to everyone is grandiosity; to think we do mean everything to everyone is narcissism. And both are huge obstacles to healthy loving relationships.
There are countless gifts in owning that we are one among many…
- the gift of putting God first in our lives and of trusting those we love to the only one who can finally bring balance and meaning to their lives
- the gift of humility, which allows us to shed the burdens of grandiosity and the suffocating preoccupation of narcissism
- the gift of real relationships in which we are loved for the person we are, rather than the role or aspirations we may or may not fulfill
- the gift of giving love, which frees us from most of life’s more soul-destroying selfishness
- and the gift of participation in the life of God, who is the source of our capacity for love
“What do you mean nothing? You’re something! A person! You’re flesh and blood and bones and hair and nails and ears. You’re not a fish. You’re not a buffalo. You’re you!…You walk and talk and cry and complain and eat little green pills and send suicide telegrams. No one else does that Felix. I’m telling you, you’re-the-only-one-of-its-kind in the world!…Now drink to that.” (Neil Simon, The Odd Couple, 33)
Friendship is not something that we talk about very much, except in passing. But nurturing friendships should be an intentional enterprise and it is one with genuine spiritual value.
A good friend can be a window into your soul, a source of encouragement, a sparring partner who sharpens your skill, and deepens your virtues.
Look for friends.
Be a friend.
Check in, stay in touch.
At dinner tonight my wife and I watched a family of four at a nearby table.
Two daughters — one about eight, the other about thirteen. The eight year old engaged in the experience. Leaning toward her parents, she participated in the conversation, both contributing and listening. The other daughter’s demeanor was completely different. She half slumped in the chair. Her eyes were half closed, her attention was firmly fixed on her telephone, and she was playing one of the games she had downloaded. She could have been anywhere.
Over the years I have heard an increasing amount of helpless nonsense from parents about what they cannot expect of their children. And in response to most of the pleas I frequently ask, “Who’s the adult?”
Set rules about when and where video games can be played.
Start early — the day they get one.
Prohibit their use in social settings — on pain of confiscation.
And follow through.
In other words, parent like an adult.
Most of the sushi we have had, we eat at home, but we ventured out to a Japanese restaurant last night. The food was delightful.
I noticed when we walked in, though, that the hostess, servers, and cooks called out to one in another in Japanese when we arrived, when others arrived, and throughout the time we were eating.
I asked our server, “What is the staff saying, when they shout out across the restaurant?”
“Oh,” she said, “well, part of it is the concept of an open kitchen. So some of what is being said announces that food is ready for you or for someone else. But when you arrive and when you leave, another part of it is a welcome and a farewell and thank you.”
I watched as we left and responded. Noticing that, in fact, the cooks and servers did exactly as she said they would, smiling warmly and bowing. What I also noticed was how simple gestures of hospitality made you feel instantly welcomed and part of a place.
Our homes and churches should be places that signal the same kind of warmth.
Among the things that undermine many marriages, one of the unnamed corrosives is the set of assumptions we bring to the relationship.
Men, for example, often assume that if they are effective wage earners, then their only responsibilities revolve around sex and the car battery. They set aside responsibility for nurturing intimacy, helping with domestic tasks, and child rearing.
I have even heard men talk about the “deals” they have struck with their wives in the effort to define what they will and won’t do. The language is telling and if you are dating someone who uses that kind of language, run, don’t walk — unless you are more interested in mergers and on-going turf wars.
You can’t nurture Intimacy by drawing lines and defining responsibilities. You can only nurture it by sharing vulnerably and freely with someone else.
An elderly man lay in his bed at home, struggling for breath, hands pressed against death’s door, trying not to go. He was ninety and frail. Hospice care attended to his needs once a day.
Then, one morning he awoke to the smell of chocolate chip cookies wafting in from the kitchen down the hall.
He thought to himself, “My dear wife has made my favorite cookies.”
Dragging himself out of bed, he half-crawled down the hallway to the kitchen. There on the top of the stove was tray after tray of the cookies spread out to cool. Grasping the oven door handle, he pulled himself up as far as he could and made up the rest of the distance by fully extending his arm. Then, just as his hand reached the edge of the tray a dough-covered wooden spoon came down hard on the back of his outstretched fingers. Drawing them back, he cried out in pain.
Standing over him, his wife scowled, screaming, “Don’t touch those! They’re for the funeral!”
“I’ll be there for you?” You will?
Being there entails being there with what the other person needs, loving as the person needs to be loved, not loving as you want to love. Being there means being there without qualification — without a laundry list of reasons why you would be there, if —- if —- if — it weren’t for this, that, and something else.
“I’ll be there for you.”
Don’t say it if you don’t mean it.
So, what did I end up telling the newlyweds? Here it is. I addressed them specifically, but I’ve left there names out here.
To fall in love is to project the best part of ourselves and even our longings for God on another person. When we do, that person becomes the bearer of everything we long for and consider holy. But that is the experience of love from one end of the pendulum’s swing left and right. When the reality of the other sets in, love can turn to disillusionment. No life experience can be more trying, unless we learn to love the other person as they truly are.
This is the profound psychological and spiritual reality that lies behind the theology of the readings that we have heard tonight —- readings that explore the divine origins of love; the enduring character that should mark that love; and the rich dimensions of love between a husband and a wife.
The occasional difficulties that we experience in distinguishing between the projections and the realities, as well as the process of growth that it requires, should not concern you. Oh, to be sure, you will make mistakes. You will expect more of one another than you should. You will want another to meet needs that you cannot satisfy. And, from time to time, you will fail to love one another as you should.
But these are not the mistakes made by climbers living on the edge of a precipice, where the slightest miscalculation could lead to disaster. These are the mistakes we make living “on the border of the Holy.” The mistakes made in wonder and joy. The process of finding balance, stepping gently, and offering a hand to the one we love as we climb together is a part of the adventure.
And herein lies the key to enduring relationships. Love is not simply a matter of emotion and still less simply a matter of fulfilling needs. At its heart love is the nurture of wisdom, the shaping of a life narrative in which we embrace one another in gentleness and care; listen deeply; and nurture one another into the presence of God.
It is the merciful transformation of two lives as they learn more about one another and their God. We start by projecting those golden characteristics upon the one we love, because we know that we need more.
So, these are days of great beginnings: of new-found companionship; the adventure of shaping a shared identity; the joy of creating memories that only the two of you will share. The only greater days are the days when you will find yourselves fully in the presence of God. Along the way you will glimpse the possibility. Yes, you will see one another in a more human light, but that seeing will be grounded in God’s greater love for you both and in the wisdom that only God can give.
God’s keeping, dear friends.
(The opening observation is paraphrased from the work of Robert Johnson, though I have made a similar observation over the years.)
Famously, Jean-Paul Sartre declared that “Hell is other people.” The observation, which is made in a play called “No Exit,” portrays the conversation between three people who are isolated in a room by a valet who accompanies them there. They expect to be tortured or punished for the lives that they have led, but instead they discover that they are there to torment one another and they do. When one of them cries out, the door is opened, but none of them avail themselves of the opportunity to leave.
An existentialist and an atheist, Sartre believed that the only way in which we could define ourselves was in a masochistic desire to be limited by encounters with others. Small wonder he thought other people were hell.
In the Christian tradition, people can certainly be hell. But that’s not what God intends. The best of God-given relationships are those that nurture our growth in God.
Not all friendships are capable of doing that, of course. They vary in their depth and length of connection. They vary in the extent to which they allow for self-disclosure and meaningful conversation. But to the extent that they nurture God’s presence, they can be a bit of heaven.
Find and nurture that kind of friendship. Be that kind of friend.