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Monday, February 19, 2018

God’s test of trust

Yurts — photo taken with his permission

ONE relationship I’ve had over the past three years that has significantly tested my trust, I am thankful to say, is one God has surprisingly nurtured.
The relationship is with a neighbour: a man named Yurts.
Why has this relationship been a test of trust, you might be thinking? Well, Yurts is an eccentric fellow with a passion for wandering barefoot on the hottest days ridding the neighbourhood of ants — yes, ants. When I first saw him operating when we moved into the area I thought he was plain weird. Many neighbours felt the same way; some do to this day. I have to say, as well, this neighbourhood is unusual in that the park that fronts the home we have just vacated draws about three blocks worth of families — a hundred or more use it regularly. Never have we lived in such a connected neighbourhood. It is alive with connection — many people seem to know many people. It has been the ideal place to bring up our son from under two years to now, nearly five years of age.
Back to Yurts.
Beyond his eccentricity, Yurts is one of the friendliest and most knowledgeable people you’d ever meet. But on first glance, he doesn’t appear friendly or knowledgeable. He had worked for many years for a utility provider, and, of all places, in Antarctica for a length of time. Perhaps it’s the richness in his life experience that impels his eccentricity. Time and again he has proven to be generous of spirit and patient.
Whatever it is, I would not have learned the value in God’s test of trust had I not been exposed to this situation. I claim no credit. Over three years, God has shown me both my propensity to shrink back, and His capacity to draw me forward.
God has a test of trust for every one of us; in truth, there are several at every given time of our lives. The relationship with Yurts was clearly one where God constantly invited me to step out toward him, even when many times I would have preferred to avoid him. God wasn’t just inviting me to be nice, but he was inviting me to be truly open of heart, to listen, and to dignify the man — especially when I was fearful of his eccentric nature.
One thing God shows us about our relationships with people is our bias for self-protection when it comes to those who are very different to ourselves. God reveals to us our fear. This comes out as skewed perceptions of pre-judgment (the word that means prejudice). Whenever we are negative about any person, God is inviting us to check ourselves for prejudice.
God invites us to step out of our comfort zones to embrace those we would avoid.
God invites us to go beyond our first glance perceptions to plumb the truth about others who seem threatening. Very often, though not always, our perceptions are righted when we approach them in a friendly and warm manner.
God has so much to teach us as we approach those we would prefer to avoid.
God also teaches us a great deal when we step into our discomfort zone.
Yurts has given his blessing to words of gratitude, which I have endeavoured to portray here. I have changed Yurts’ name for his privacy.

The only caveat I make to this article is when we have very good reason to need to protect our family’s safety.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Love when exhaustion sets up camp

“LET’S just do this,” my wife said firmly, yet in a whisper quiet voice, looking straight at me. It was a moment in time when every fibre of me simply walked in unison with this most previous instruction. Five seconds beforehand, I definitely wanted to quit!
I did not want to do it, but again, seven years hence, she whispered me.
It’s the power of her wonderfully feminine love — she is persuasive when she is desperate. A husband who promised not to moan, who did groan, when she herself wanted every bit to have herself some of that action.
But she didn’t. She wouldn’t. For her, there is no purpose in bathing in defeat, though every sinew in her weary body was pulsating with pain. For her, there was too much wisdom to sacrificed… what, for folly?
Our mini-interaction highlighted what it is for all couples — a forwards-backwards land of compromise and acceptance.
How do partners in coupledom operate when they are both exhausted leading the family enterprise? Sure, they may bicker. It might be tense for a few minutes. But one soon stays quiet. The other, too, reflects. And the one who was harsh comes. They come in the mood of hope but inflected toward repentance. They turn the ship around with their confession. And, exhausted, they begin again, continuing the working together, giving their energy to the task of being one, whatever it takes.
There is one person I want to be with whether we’re exhausted or not. Love does not shift just because the season is arduous. Love bunkers down, does what is necessary, gets through, keeping the faith.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Single or otherwise segregated on Valentine’s Day

I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but I see Valentine’s Day like Mother’s and Father’s Days. It is a divisive day. I’ve come to dislike these days because it segregates the have nots from the haves.
We don’t love our mothers and fathers one day a year, so why do we pledge our love one day a year to our spouse or friend?
It is a commercial bonanza, which is good for our economies, but such traditions do little to enhance relationship. It is good for families and partners to get together but only if it doesn’t cause divisive conflict. Of course, the only issue is the expectation of our partner. In many cases it’s wise to acquiesce. How many more arguments, and even breakups, occur because of Valentine’s Days that were not done ‘right’?
There is so much social division in our world that is covert in nature. Racism is both overt and covert, and there are all sorts of other vagaries of discrimination. But we hardly imagine how days like Valentine’s Day, and Mother’s and Father’s Days, segregate subtly. There are always those who miss out. There are the singles, many of whom would trade almost anything to be in the sort of relationship that celebrated Valentine’s Day. But there are also those who are in relationships closer to death than romance. There are also those who simply cannot afford to do what they would like to do for their partner. And social media has only made it worse, because there are always positive posts that remind other people of what they don’t have.
Pledge a public love for one day in 365 or pledge a private love for 365? What is love about when it needs to be promoted for others’ approval? Don’t worry, I’ve done it so much in previous years, so I’m a hypocrite. But no more.
Darling, if you ever read this, I pledge to continue to learn and know how to love you. Thank you for forgiving me when I get it wrong. God, help me to love not only my wife, my children, my parents, but everyone, better 365 days per year.
A word on expectations. Often, they’re so subtle. And they always seem based on what we see as fair. But the reality is our expectations are nearly always unfair, because unchecked they reveal our selfishness. People can only disappoint us.
Better than lavishing our partner one day per year is to freshly commit to being a better lover 365 days per year.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Loneliness makes two

Photo by WEB AGENCY on Unsplash

THEY say that it is what we lack that compels us to appreciate and go after our purpose. Of course, that’s it. Wherever we’re fulfilled there is no need to search a thing out.
Meaning in life comes from absence — when the void becomes too much and must be filled. If a lack of meaning does not despair us, then absence creates a vacuum, and we’re impelled to address the shortfall. Meaning and purpose flood in.
In relational beings, loneliness in one and another makes two. Each person brings their paucity to the relationship. It is hoped that each has something to give. If both have only the capacity to take, each will drive the other far away. If one takes and one gives, it works for a time, but if in giving the person also receives there is a happy medium. It can be sustained. Relationships are all about balancing transactions.
Loneliness makes two wherever currencies of lack are complementary. One brings ‘this’, the other brings ‘that’, and with ‘this’ and ‘that’ everyone’s happy.
Life is inherently about lack. Lack is not a bad thing. It simply lets us know what we crave and must go after. It makes us hunters and gatherers. There’s nothing wrong with lacking something, especially as we consider a rule of life is that everyone lacks something.
Let there be gratitude for this fact: my lack is not any worse or better than your lack is. It is just different. You are not better than me, nor am I better than you. We are simply different. Yet we subscribe to the lie that life is full of ranking.
My lack is designed to be completed in ways that only someone else can fill. And another’s lack will depend on me to fill it. We are not better because we fill. We are not worse because we lack.
Life is pretty simple. We need each other.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Year our Marriage Grew

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

AT around our tenth wedding anniversary, we had a realisation.
The realisation we had was this: despite all the quality marriage counselling we had received from our wonderfully gifted and skilled marriage counsellor early on, we were, at that time, still not enjoying satisfaction.
We now knew the principles, but now we had to apply them. Knowledge of principles provides no satisfaction, only application provides satisfaction.
The year our marriage grew coincided with application. Instead of believing in concepts and talking about them, we decided to commit to working the concepts out in our marriage. This inevitably meant adapting the marital wisdom we had learned so it worked for our unique coupling, for our inimitable family structure.
We had had twenty counselling sessions, and I think our counsellor was at pains to say, ‘Go and do what we’ve been talking about; what I’ve been showing you’… initially it even got worse. It had nothing to do with the standard of our counsel — it was like growing pains in our marriage. Things tend to get worse before they get better.
Inevitably, we as partners had to learn to commit to each other in ways we had never thought we would need to. Our covenant to each other was solid, but we now had to commit to love this other person in ways that worked for them, not simply ourselves. Without even recognising it at the time, we began to accept each other like we had never done before. That is true love: unconditional acceptance at the deepest level. And it takes time.
The year our marriage grew was Year 4. Indeed, the previous three simply proved our commitment to each other. We hadn’t torn each other apart. But there were some horrible experiences. Whilst those first three years were unbelievably tough, they set us up as we pressed on into the hard work required in finding our way into the space of marital peace (which is punctuated with conflict that is managed well in the main).
My wife and I are believers in marriage; that marriage is not only wonderful but hard work. We believe, as we experienced, that counselling works; but not only that, there’s a limit to what counselling can do. I say that as someone who gives marital counsel.
It must be applied. There needs to be a time where a couple weighs anchor and begins the work of reconciling the problems on the high seas of their marriage. It can take years, but don’t be despondent. You learn to survive when it’s just you and your spouse. Sure, we all need tune-ups, prayer and support, but others’ help is limited.
This is what we learned: marriage seems best when the foibles of one are acceptable to the other. What seems like an easy concept can demand years of work to arrive at.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

How to Teach a Child Empathy

Photo by RĂ©mi Walle on Unsplash
SITTING with a little girl in tears, Aaron, himself just a little boy, doesn’t say a word. He just sits there with her, looking like he’s trying to imagine how she feels. She soon seems to feel a little better. When they both get on with the next activity, Aaron appears to think nothing of what has happened; his help was offered and received with the minimum of fuss. Aaron doesn’t look for kudos as an adult might.
As an adult looking on, I was astounded as to what appeared to take place. Something simple was done and it seemed to have such a profound effect. It was striking that neither child thought much of what took place, nor did any other adult observe it.
Aaron expressed empathy in a very simple and substantial way. A significantly foundational character trait of otherness, I wondered if this behaviour in Aaron could be described as empathy. I also wondered if it is possibly the greatest gift a child can receive, especially when they’re hurt. It certainly seems such a valuable attribute for a human being to have. Young Aaron displayed what parents would find alluring, and wish for their kids to have, but many might instantly distance themselves from the possibility that their child could behave that way. As adults, we understand how challenging it is to be consistently empathic.
If we lack faith in our own ability to be empathic, we must certainly lack faith that our son or daughter or grandchild could achieve it.
One of the key barriers to empathy in children are social biases that all people tend to experience, like the in-group bias that suggests we tend to favour those we like; those we’re already in community with. My wife and I noticed this recently when our four-year-old son started at a new school. We’re now acutely aware of this bias. No matter who the child is, there seems to be so much rejection to face before inclusion is finally experienced.
A 2014 study from the Netherlands found that such an in-group bias can be overcome by inducing empathy in a child toward another child in need of help.
In this study, children aged between 8 and 13 were asked “How do you think he or she feels?” A control group of children were not asked this question. Both groups of children were asked, “Would you help him or her?” In a significant number of situations, children overcame the in-group bias and were prepared to help out-group children when they were asked the simple question to induce empathy. This suggests that empathy overcomes social barriers in a powerfully positive way. We might well imagine Aaron being acutely in touch with the little girl’s feelings, concerned that she was feeling what he himself might find unpalatable.
In simple terms, if we want children to help other children, we can see that empathy helps. We should want our children to help other children, so they are responsible citizens. It also helps us verify the status of their moral compass. The practice of empathy draws out observable helping behaviours where everyone is a winner.
“When we know how someone feels we are more likely to help them.”
Probably most significantly, the research shows that, through empathy, typical group boundaries can be transcended, simply by asking a child how another child seems to feel — no matter whether they are in the in-group or not. Children are not likely to feign politeness like adults do, especially when they know nobody is looking, but knowing someone is feeling poorly appears to be a powerful influencer.
Another study showed how empathy in adults helps them value the person in need of help more. If children like Aaron are any indication, they can empathize more meaningfully when others are feeling negative emotions.
Teaching empathy to a child can be as simple as asking them frequently how they think other children (or animals or adults) feel. This is an attempt not only to connect them with someone else’s feelings, but to connect them with their own feelings, for our own feelings are always important to us.
Teaching empathy to children is powerful in their development, because empathy is shown to transcend social biases all humans struggle to overcome. The interaction between Aaron and the little girl epitomizes this. And, because empathy is also a vehicle for empowering a person along a forward trajectory, it gives back to the person giving it out. What parent would not want this for their child?
When children are empathic like Aaron was they show kindness, care, and compassion that overcomes barriers to helping. They experience a virtuous feel-good power emanate from within themselves. This begins to occur even as a child asks how another person feels.
Isn’t this something we would want for our children and grandchildren to experience? Isn’t it worth modeling? And isn’t it a great idea to ask children how other children could be feeling as we nurture empathy within them?
Source information:
Sierksma, J., Thijs, J., & Verkuyten, M., “In-group bias in children’s intention to help can be overpowered by inducing empathy” in British Journal of Developmental Psychology. © 2014, British Psychological Society. Vol. 33. Issue 1. March 2015. pp. 45-56. DOI: 10.1111/bjdp.12065.
Batson, C.D., Turk, C.L., Shaw, L.L., & Klien, T.R. “Information function of empathic emotion: Learning that we value the other’s welfare” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1995, 68, pp. 300 – 311. DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.68.2.300.
Information on the author of the article:

Steve Wickham is a pastor, school chaplain, and counselor, holding degrees in science, divinity, and counseling. He is married and has four children, three of whom are adults.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Ugly responses are not the end, but the beginning

1969 was the year that the motion picture The Good, The Bad and The Ugly was released. In that sentence, we can see how ‘ugly’ is worse than bad. It is not about the appearance; in this context it’s deeper than that.
Sin is ugly. Let’s face it. Let’s call it for what it is. And it’s everywhere. Especially in our homes. I’ve been in ministry long enough to know that it happens in your home, and in mine.
Indeed, it happened again recently, where annoyance and frustration boiled over in one person’s situation causing stress in another’s, sufficient that a fuse blew. No long-term damage done, but it was far from an ideal response. In another situation, on the same day, one person’s fun in joking around, and their lack of regard for another, left the other feeling hurt. Okay, children were involved, but neither are adults always rational. I know I’m not.
But these moments were reconciled. As a family we agreed to make our heartfelt apologies, embrace each other again, and endeavour to make some changes.
Sin is not the end of the story. It cannot ever afford to be. Indeed, as Christ’s death on the cross portrays, sin is only the beginning. There is a response that can be made. Christ’s crucifixion was the forerunner to His resurrection. Had Jesus not died He would never have been brought back to life.
Our sin is not the end of the story, neither is our guilt nor our shame. We feel ugly within ourselves regarding our sin, but there is always a way to reconcile unsavoury matters.
That is to be honest. That is to be courageous. That is to pay the price of restitution. That is to take responsibility and make it right. That’s the gospel way. Christ took responsibility for that which we could never pay. All so we could enjoy this connection with the Father that we all have the luxury to spurn.
As conflict is the basis on which all interesting stories run, it is part of our lives to enrich us. Our opportunity is to embrace it and do what we can to redeem our relationships. Conflict doesn’t exist in our lives to destroy us or to keep us at a distance from each other — it exists for the purposes of recovery.
Relationships cannot improve in trustworthiness until conflict is met, negotiated and overcome.
Sin, whilst we should never glory in it, actually facilitates redemptive solutions.

When you sin, be encouraged that it’s not the end. It heralds the opportunity of redemption. Run with the feet of forgiveness.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Swings, Roundabouts and those competitive comparisons

“Don’t waste your time on jealousy, sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind… the race is long, and in the end, it’s only with yourself.” (Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen, 1997, Baz Luhrmann)
MANY times, I have counselled people in the phenomenon of the level playing field that life invariably is, generally. Some get off to a flying start in their twenties, succeeding at everything they do, whilst others seem to fall very far behind the eight ball. Some of us ride the swings, others of us ride the roundabouts.
Then a peculiar thing happens, over the decade and the next, in our 30s and 40s. Life levels us all out, provided there’s comparative effort. We swap the swing for the roundabout, and vice versa.
Those who got off to a flying start like the hare, getting degrees, marrying, having children, succeeding in their endeavours, and possibly avoiding loss that would have held them back, face hardship at some point. Complacency cost the hare.
Those who, like the tortoise, took some time to get out of the blocks, who suffered loss and rejection, somehow steel themselves, having floundered and recovered. Paradoxically, they become equipped to handle what their compatriot is about to suffer. But the character traits learned in grief are not transferrable. Tenacity motivates the tortoise.
Success is a fickle business in life. Subtle nuances generate significant effects.
As the Sunscreen Song suggests, sometimes we’re ahead, sometimes we’re behind… remember the race is long… ultimately it really is only with ourselves.
Yet, maddeningly, we’re ever jockeying for position in this oft narcissistic world.
Wisdom suggests that we don’t get too cocky when we’re ahead nor too despondent when we’re behind. Fortunes vacillate, and they change, and we only have so much control over them.
If you’re behind the eight-ball in any key area of your life, keep working hard. Don’t grow weary but keep doing good, because you will reap a harvest of blessing if you don’t give up.[1]

[1] From Galatians 6:9.

Friday, February 2, 2018

The great antidote to Entitlement

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

I honestly hate it when Millennials are attacked for being entitled. The simple fact is we’re living in an entitled world. None of us, no matter our age, is immune to feeling entitled.
Take me as a ‘for instance.’ One of my greatest epiphanies came as a result of reading John Townsend’s The Entitlement Cure. I had what Dr John calls a ‘pocket entitlement’ — it’s aligned with my personality. I’m a helper, so I like to be appreciated. When I’m not in a good place I can tend to feel I deserve appreciation. This is not good for me or anyone else for that matter.
I discovered that the word ‘deserve’ sits at the heart of entitlement. If we’re honest, we acknowledge we all have sacred areas of our lives where special rules of entitlement apply — idols of the heart where, when others transgress, it evokes anger within us. These are danger areas where sin lurks wanting to remain hidden, waiting to be defended, warranting protection. We protect idols to our eventual peril.
But I have found the long-term, sustainable cure to entitlement… Dr John talks a lot in his book about what are the by-products of this thing. And there are so many! Most of it could be summed up in the concept of taking responsibility, but there is something more hyper-relevant.
The great antidote to entitlement is gratitude.
It is impossible to deserve anything when we’re grateful.
The truth is, of course, that we deserve nothing. We actually deserve less than nothing. (Yes, of course, God knows we have needs and He provides.) But in our entitled age we don’t like to read that we deserve nothing.
So, let me finish on the positive:
The more we engage our spiritual muscles in gratitude, the less we will be bound by entitlement, and the more we will be a blessing to others. Diligent Christians are deeply grateful people.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The good news of God’s gift of Gratitude

Photo by Brigitte Tohm on Unsplash
NOTHING worthy in this life seems to come for free, but truly the best things are free. We just need hands and hearts big enough to receive and hold them.
With hands and hearts audacious enough to ask in faith for gratitude, hearts are lit, and hands are filled.
About gifts
God gives in no small portion. All true gifts are spiritual and are truly from above, and each of these is perfect, meaning they are full of abundance and thoroughly good in more ways than a human mind can conceive. And God’s gifts are not subject to depreciation nor spoilage:
“Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
— James 1:17 (NRSV)
In direct contrast to our human frailty for being “driven and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6), God is wholly reliable in every way. The fact that God gives gifts in this way is in itself a gift.
About gratitude
If we’re grateful all the rest of our mental, emotional and spiritual life falls into suit. Gratitude is all about the right-fitting of our perspective. Our well-being is in alignment with whatever may be; gratitude equips us to bear reality.
The gift of gratitude is arguably only available through God. Only when we fully appreciate humanity’s limits do we truly understand the need to credit God with everything for everything.
About the gift of gratitude
All this applies as God gives us the gift for gratitude. Of all the gifts we’re grateful to receive, the gift of gratitude is worth as much as anything, because it wells up within us the fruit of joy and peace.
Gratitude is a gift, like all the gifts of God, that keeps on giving.
A gift that keeps on giving is a gift that is sustained. Only God can give us what we need to be truly grateful, because it is in following Jesus that the gratitude comes.