Intimacy and the Meaningful Life, Genesis 3:1-8

One childhood game that seems to have survived from one generation to the next, even in this age of multiple electronic devices, is hide and seek. All of my grandchildren have enjoyed that game at some point in their childhood, including one who cracked me up by hiding her little brother in the clothes hamper and then proudly announcing to us that she put Ryan in the hamster! The game is fun – but only up to a point. The late great preacher Fred Craddock told a story about a great hiding place he found at his grandparents’ farm. He hid under the front porch of the old farm house and proudly told himself “They’ll never find me here.” Minutes went by, which began to seem like hours. The seeker ran by the front porch several times without ever looking under it, and Craddock says he suddenly found himself saying, “They’ll never find me here!!!”

The solution to that problem is figured out even by young children who start making subtle or not so subtle noises to reveal their presence. As adults however it is often much harder to be “found” when we are hiding from each other and even from ourselves. Why do we do that? To be able to live out the other qualities of a meaningful life we need the confidence that comes from being fully known and affirmed by one or more other people and ultimately by God. That’s intimacy.

Intimacy is a tricky word in our culture. It is laden with overtones of sexuality. We talk about undergarments as “intimate apparel.” Being intimate with another person is often code for having sex. For that reason I struggled with whether should use the Genesis 3 account of the fall for this sermon. We know the story: Adam and Eve disobey God and eat of the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And suddenly they realize they are naked and make loin cloths for themselves. Next they hear God walking in the garden and they try to hide themselves.

This story is a way to explain why human life is full of sin and difficulties, but the reference to nakedness has confused people for centuries about “original sin. I want to suggest this story is really about a loss of intimacy. In order to understand that I invite you to make a mental leap to a deeper understanding of nakedness beyond the literal meaning. On an emotional and spiritual level nakedness is about being vulnerable and defenseless. It’s about being uncovered and unhidden in the eyes of God. Adam and Eve were playing hide and seek with God and of course they were quickly found. When it comes to God that old adage is especially true – “you can run, but you can’t hide.”

Adam and Eve are afraid and try to hide from God, but not because they have no clothes. We know that because they have already made their figgy loin cloths before this encounter with God. Their nakedness is of a much more serious variety. They are ashamed and afraid because they are naked and defenseless before God in their disobedience to a direct order. They now know the prime evil, which is not about sex, but is alienation from their creator. They are afraid and ashamed. And so they try to hide from God, which of course is foolish. We live in a cyber society where our location is tracked 24/7 by GPS and countless apps in our phones that are smarter than we are. We leave a trail of where we’ve been and what we value every time we use a credit card. But from day one there has been an even more powerful force in our lives that knows where we are and what we do all the time. It’s not GPS but G-O-D. We cannot hide our mistakes from God. Just ask Ryan Lochte how well trying to cover up a stupid mistake with a lie can turn into an international incident! We all make mistakes because we are all fallible. And yet how much time and valuable energy do we spend trying to hide who we are from God, others and even from ourselves?

My friend Mebane McMahon recommended an excellent book on intimacy to me and I highly pass that recommendation on to you. The book is “The 7 levels of Intimacy” by Matthew Kelly. Relax, I am not going to try to cover all 7 levels of intimacy today and can only begin to scratch the surface. But the fact that Kelly identifies 7 levels and has written a whole book on the topic is an indication of what a complex subject intimacy is.

We like to simplify complex topics, which is one of the reasons that it is tempting to just equate intimacy with sexuality. But being in a relationship, even a sexual one, does not guarantee the safety and security we feel in a truly intimate relationship where we feel loved and affirmed unconditionally. We can all be lonely in a huge crowd or sitting in a church service if we are hiding from God and others.

When I was much younger and even more naïve than I am now I had no idea of the difference between sex and real intimacy. I still believed the fairy tale notion of finding one true love that would meet the need I couldn’t even yet identify as intimacy. When I fell in love in college with the woman who became my first wife there was a popular song, “The Theme from a Summer Place,” that seemed to capture what we were expecting and hoping to find in our relationship. The song lyrics say this about that summer place:

“There are no gloomy skies
When seen through the eyes
Of those who are blessed with love
And the sweet secret of
A summer place

Is that it’s anywhere
When two people share
All their hopes
All their dreams
All their love.”

Isn’t that what we all hope from in our most significant relationships – whether they are sexual or not? Someone with whom we can share ALL of our hopes and dreams and love. And yet how often are we disappointed because most relationships don’t live up to that ideal? Ironically, when I recently googled the movie for which that song was written, I discovered that it is all about broken relationships and extramarital affairs, things that happen when we start looking for love in all the wrong places.

Intimacy, like all the marks of a meaningful life, requires work and a lot of it. That’s because love is not a feeling, it’s a choice. We can learn to control how we deal with feelings and impulses, but we can’t determine when they appear, often in unexpected and uncomfortable situations. Intimacy with others and with God requires conscious choices and actions. Like Michael Phelps or Simone Biles have to work hard and dedicate themselves for years to their goals for Olympic gold, intimacy is a quality of life that requires discipline and determination. Too many relationships fall short of gold medal status because we lack the discipline to work on the relationship when it gets difficult and uncomfortable.

The same is true of having an intimate relationship with God. Jesus’ followers are called disciples and that word comes from the same root as the word discipline. All disciples of Christ in 30 A.D. or 2016 must make a choice to follow Jesus each and every day. It’s not a one and done deal. The forces of worldly temptations for material rewards or cheap pleasures all pull us every day toward the wide and easy road that leads to destruction.
I decided to use the Genesis 3 story to talk about intimacy primarily because Kelly points out in “The 7 Levels of Intimacy” that shame is one of the greatest enemies of intimacy that must be overcome. Chapter 3 of Genesis, commonly called “The Fall,” describes what happens when Adam and Eve disobey God and get caught. Unlike a game of hide and seek, the stakes here are existentially higher. Eve and Adam make the classic mistake we often resort to when we screw up; they play the blame game. Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent. Instead of simply confessing their transgressions and asking for forgiveness, they continue to try and hide, and the consequences are severe. Because of their disobedience they are evicted from paradise – where everything they needed was provided in abundance. Instead they are forced to grow their own food and survive by the sweat of their brow. The pain of childbirth is greatly increased for womankind forever and she is made subservient to the rule of her husband. And finally they are made aware of their own mortality. Ouch!

Pretty gruesome stuff if the story ended there, right? Unfortunately many of us get stuck in our spiritual development with that image of a judgmental God, and when we do we cannot ever achieve true intimacy with God because we are afraid of the consequences if we have to come before God naked and defenseless. Worse yet, the shame and guilt we all carry in some degree also gets in the way big time when it comes to human relationships. If we are using up a lot of psychic and emotional energy playing hide and seek from God, we simply to do not have enough gas left in our tanks to create and maintain an intimate relationship with other people, no matter how much we love them or they love us.

But here’s the Good News – the Judeo-Christian salvation story doesn’t end with Genesis 3. The rest of our Scriptures tell a glorious story of redemption. Like a parent ticked off with disobedient children, God puts Adam and Eve in time-out. He stations Cherubim to guard the gates of paradise so the naughty children can’t sneak back in. But like disappointed parents or partners or true friends, God can’t and doesn’t give up on the wayward ones. Genesis doesn’t say this, but I’ll bet this is the first time it was ever said, “This hurts me more than it does you.” And so the other 1986 chapters of the Bible tell the story of God’s persistent, faithful efforts to redeem and restore an intimate relationship with humankind. Why1986 chapters? Because we are slow learners. We keep trying to play hide and seek to cover our nakedness while God bails us out of one mess after another.

Intimacy is the key that unlocks the gate to paradise and salvation. Intimacy with God is the truth that sets us free to be open and vulnerable and honest with ourselves, with others and with God. This truth is described repeatedly in different ways in the Bible, but it boils down to the same basic ingredients – trust, honesty, confession, and forgiveness and grace.

Ephesians 4 puts it this way: “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” Intimate relationships are those where we trust each other enough to speak the truth in love. That’s different than brutal honesty that flows when we allow our emotions to rule our tongues. It’s different than “telling it like it is,” without regard for the other person’s feelings or perspective. Balancing honesty with the sensitivity and compassion of love is sorely lacking in many social media postings and much of our political discourse, but it is absolutely necessary for the most important relationships we have with loved ones and with God.

That kind of openness and honesty is not a New Testament creation – even in the Hebrew Scriptures where God is often portrayed as a judge to be feared there are glimpses of grace. The prophet Isaiah in the very first chapter has God speaking to his rebellious children and says, “Come now, let us argue it out, though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” In other words, don’t play hide and seek – come to me, no matter what your sins and they can be forgiven. My favorite New Testament verse about the power of confession is in I John 1:9. “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” No sin is bigger or wider than God’s mercy; so what are we hiding from?

I wonder how different Adam and Eve’s story would have turned out if they had known that simple truth about intimacy. We’ll never know – but what we do know is the sacred truth that sets us free to live meaningful lives. That doesn’t’ mean it is simple or easy to live it. The world still is playing one giant game of hide and seek based on deceit, manipulation and false pride. But God will provide us with the faith and courage and discipline to play a different game–to stop hiding and trust God enough to confess each time we fall short of the gold medal. God will pick us up and dust us off to try again, but we have to be brave and honest enough to ask for help.

So my friends, church is not a place to play hide and seek. It’s safe to be real here without fear of judgment. So blow your friends minds – tell them next Sunday you’re going to church to be intimate with a few hundred of your friends!

A Lament for Unity

“Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses,
but our pride is in the name of the LORD our God.
They will collapse and fall,
but we shall rise and stand upright.” Psalms 20:7-8

I don’t have time to write much today but feel an urgency to respond to the disheartening news coming out of the UK this week. ISIS must be dancing in the streets. Their epidemic of fear has toppled the British Prime Minister and dealt a terrible blow to European unity. I find it very ironic and sad that it was the older population in Britain who voted in favor of leaving the EU. They should be the ones who remember how well Nationalism worked for Europe throughout history and most recently in the 20th Century.

European Nationalism engulfed the entire planet in two horrible world wars and left a trail of death and destruction throughout European history. Why would we want to try it again? Fear does terrible things to the human mind, and there is much to fear in this rapidly changing world we inhabit. But putting our trust in chariots and horses, i.e. strength and force and defensive isolation that turns its back on millions of refugees is not the answer. To resort to abandoning the most hopeful effort at unity and cooperation the world has seen in centuries because of current fear and hardship is short-sighted and tragic.

Those who put their faith in chariots and horses will collapse and fall, but those who put their pride in the peaceful, loving, cooperative ways of the Lord will rise and stand upright. It takes faith and a lot of it to believe that, but the alternative is to try and return to methods that have proven hundreds of times to fail. Come, Holy Spirit, and breathe courage and faith into every trembling heart.

Post Script: I went out to mow my grass after writing the above. I do some of my best thinking on the lawn tractor. Today I had one mowing meditation I want to add. It may be because I am neither young nor fearless, although it was a favorite of mine even when I was young and fearful, but a line from a great old hymn came to mind as I reflected more on the rise of nationalism in both Europe and here in the U.S. It was written in 1931 as nationalism was raising its ugly head in Germany. I’ve never served a church where it is a popular hymn because it is too challenging and uncomfortable, but I think it’s time we listen. The whole hymn is profound, but what echoed in my mind today is the third verse:

“O help us stand unswerving
against war’s bloody way,
where hate and lust and falsehood
hold back Christ’s holy sway;
forbid false love of country
that blinds us to his call,
who lifts above the nations
the unity of all.” “O Young and Fearless Prophet,” by S. Ralph Harlow

A Response to the Orlando Massacre

“Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Jesus

Another mass shooting, another record broken for innocent lives snuffed out, more prayers and tears and hand wringing. This one is worse because it targeted the LGBT community and people of color – an all-purpose hate crime. My heart is broken again, but I haven’t yet heard the expected hateful tweets from Trump and his ilk calling for more violence and stronger defense. Trump recently said his favorite Scripture is “An eye for an eye;” which says volumes about his lack of Christian faith. I have intentionally avoided Fox News all day, as I do most days, because I’m not sure I can take much more vitriol and fear-mongering.

I fully expect this tragedy to be used for political gain by Trump, and anticipate he will blame the work of ISIS on President Obama’s “weakness;” so I want to counter that bogus argument right now. To blame the rise of terrorism here and abroad on “weakness” and to call for more guns and more military action in response is to forget recent history and to engage in bad theology. The full context of the Scripture above is as follows:

“ While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48 Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” 49 At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. 50 Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. 51 Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Matthew 26:47-52

You can twist the interpretation of that text, and many do, to mean that Jesus was saying those who commit violence deserve to suffer in turn. But that is not consistent with the full life and teaching of Jesus that blesses peacemakers, advises turning the other cheek, loving one’s enemies, and praying for those who persecute you.

Human history is so full of violence against creation and humankind that I don’t know where the origin of that cycle of vengeance could ever be identified. We only get four chapters into Genesis before the first murder occurs! And in that story God marks Cain, the murderer, not to punish him but to protect him from retribution. That lesson was lost immediately.

The warfare in the Middle East goes back before recorded history; so it is difficult to assess blame or to solve that Gordian knot. But that is no excuse to twist more recent history to justify a dangerous political ideology. I would argue that the rise of terrorism in recent years is not because of American weakness but because of unjustified invasions of that region by former President Bush. Those of course were in response to 9/11, which was I’m sure justified in the eyes of the terrorists by US imperialism and the decadence of our society. My point is that there are always those who can find an excuse to get revenge on those we label as “enemies.” But military strength does not bring peace. We are the strongest military power in the history of humankind, and we are still not safe and secure. Violence can never bring peace. World War I sowed the seeds of WWII, which created the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. And on it goes.

And Jesus said, “Put away your sword.” Till the cycle of violence is broken, till we confess our own guilt for profiting from fear by selling more guns and security systems, and selling arms to other countries, the military-industrial complex President Eisenhower warned us about 50 years ago will continue to beget more violence. The U.S. currently gives $5 Billion dollars a year in military aid to Israel, and ¾ of that money is spent back in the US to buy weapons produced by US manufacturers; and the US Congress, which can’t agree on anything else, wants to increase that amount! What price are we paying as our infrastructure and education system collapses while we profit from bigger and better ways to kill each other?

People who are afraid have a hard time hearing Jesus’ words to be peacemakers; so I don’t expect this reminder to be popular in another moment of tragedy. But what we are doing is obviously not working and to double down on violence and power as the solution is not the answer.

Not a Spectator Sport: Matthew 7:24; James 1:22-27

One of my favorite literary characters is Zorba the Greek. Zorba is a daring, brash, risk-taking, fun-loving rascal—all things I admire but am too chicken to try. Zorba is described in the novel bearing his name by Nikos Kazantzakis. The novel is narrated by a character Zorba calls “Boss” because the boss hires Zorba, ostensibly to manage a mining operation for him. In reality, The boss hires Zorba so he can live vicariously through him for a little while.

Zorba is based on a real life Yorgis Zorba that Kazantzakis met on an actual mining venture and the boss, a writer and spiritual seeker/philosopher, is Kazantzakis himself. Zorba chides the boss for being a book worm and “quill driver” because he merely writes about life instead of living it. My love affair with Zorba and Kazantzakis’ other work began 45 years ago when I discovered them in the syllabus of a course on “Theology and the Modern Novel.” I fell for Zorba, but I identified with the boss. I’m much better at observing and reflecting on life than living it in person with gusto.

That same theme shows up in a much more controversial Kazantzakis work, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Critics of that novel and the movie of the same name mistakenly assume it’s about Jesus being sexually tempted by Mary Magdalene, but they miss the point. Our suppressed attitudes about sex often distract us from more subtle and deeper issues. In The Last Temptation what entices Jesus to abandon his divine mission is not lust, it is the desire to live a “normal,” safe life as a husband and father. Those roles are not wrong, of course, they were just not what Jesus was called to do and be.

On a trip to Boston recently I visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. As a child of the ‘60’s it was good to relive a bit of that turbulent period of history. There is the expected pro-Kennedy bias to the museum, of course. There was no mention of the young, martyred president’s human frailties or moral weaknesses. Like all mortals, especially powerful ones, he had has share. But there was also a sense of altruism and service in the Kennedy-Johnson policies so sorely lacking in today’s populist political posturing. JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” may sound like a cliché or hopelessly naïve today, but it is far nobler and more Christian than racist slogans to “make America great again.” And it has endured as one of the most famous lines in an inaugural address because Kennedy lived those words he wrote.

No one short of Jesus or Mother Theresa has totally pure motives, but with all their faults, there’s a quality of public service and commitment to justice exemplified in the Kennedys and others of wealth and privilege all the way back to Washington and Jefferson that seems lacking in today’s political atmosphere. JFK failed his physical for military service for a variety of chronic health issues that would have kept most of us on the sidelines. He didn’t have to and probably should not have gone to war. But he used his privileged status, not to avoid service, but to pull strings and join the navy in spite of his medical problems because he felt it was his duty. He’d lived in Europe as a young man in the ‘30’s and knew first-hand the evils of Nazism while most of America was still in favor of isolationism.

After the war Kennedy felt called into politics, not for what it could do for him, but for what he could do for his country. He was already a twice published author and Pulitzer Prize winner (for “Profiles in Courage”) but chose not to be a safe and comfortable spectator/quill driver and instead became an active participant in causes he believed in passionately.

Kennedy’s achievements in his 1000 day presidency are truly remarkable: avoiding nuclear disaster in Cuba, signing the first nuclear arms control agreements, launching the Peace Corps, taking on organized crime, and advancing civil rights and social justice causes than extended American ideals in very significant ways.
He made mistakes in Southeast Asia and domestically, but one does not have to agree with every action or consequence of his policies or legacy to affirm the altruistic spirit of his life. He overcame great physical pain and ultimately gave his life for the country he loved because he chose to be a “profile in courage” instead of just writing about others who did.

In another part of the JFK library is a display I didn’t expect devoted to the life and works of Ernest Hemingway. I was surprised by that until in good quill driver fashion I had time to reflect on why the two share that space. The factual/historical explanation is that Hemmingway’s tragic suicide in 1961 occurred during JFK’s presidency and Kennedy helped assure that Hemmingway’s papers and original manuscripts were collected and preserved.
With all the cold war, domestic and political turmoil on Kennedy’s plate, I asked myself, why would he take time to preserve some quill driver’s papers? My guess is because like Kennedy, Hemmingway was not just a writer; he was a larger than life Zorbatic actor in the narratives he wrote about. He was able to write about the horrors of war because he lived them as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross in WWI. Like Kennedy he foresaw the coming of WWII because he lived in Europe and described the Spanish Civil War as a precursor to another world war.

Why does all that matter to me? Other than the obvious political connections between then and now, a lot of “normal” life has been going on for me since I last wrote here. Grandchildren graduating, having birthdays, my beloved United Methodist Church going through its quadrennial soul searching and public embarrassment about social justice issues, spring time challenges of yard work and gardening chores, coping with the challenges of aging – mine and my father’s; and all the while wrestling with my own temptation to play it safe, enjoy a “well-deserved” retirement, and avoid the conflicts and confrontations of social activism.

All that is far from a new struggle. Twenty plus years ago I wrote a paper about that tension in graduate school and called it “They Shoot Prophets, Don’t They?” Fear is a great excuse for cowardice. “Normal” life concerns and creature comforts are seductive temptresses to avoid faithful living and prophetic witness. Before retirement I often thought I was compromising my values for a parsonage and a pension. Now that only one of those two remains I feel somewhat less constrained to say what I think and feel.

All of that surfaced for me as I reflected on my Boston trip and the realization that “normal” life has kept me from writing here for the last few weeks. With all the critical issues confronting our world and the church right now, that seems like a shirking of my responsibility as a citizen and disciple. Life is a balancing act of tending to both personal and communal needs, and that is very hard work, at least for me.

Part of our responsibility to the larger community is to be informed and think critically about issues that affect the common good. Far too often we have a very limited perspective and base our beliefs and values on what is best for me and those close to me. It’s much harder to think across class, race and social boundaries to ponder and act on what is the just and right thing to do for all of humankind and beyond that to all of creation. We have a tendency to stay within our different comfort zones because, well, they’re comfortable. Intentionally or unintentionally we tend to live, work, go to school and socialize with people who look and think like we do. Historically when immigrants have come to this country, and that includes all of us or our forebears unless we are Native Americans, from the first settlements in this “New World” different ethnic groups, different faith groups, different classes settled together in different locations.

The American melting pot has in reality been more of a collection of separate but unequal boroughs, ghettos, subdivisions, colonies, and territories, from our inception. Now we are engaged again in that struggle Lincoln described so well at Gettysburg to see if a nation conceived and dedicated to unity in diversity can long endure. Unity does not mean conformity. We tend to forget that when we choose up sides and turn our differences into debates instead of opportunities to learn from each other. Our win-lose culture is based on economic and political systems where in order for one side to win someone else has to lose, even though that “losing” side might be 49% of the population.

We saw this win-lose struggle again at the recent United Methodist General Conference where stalemate and status quo left no one satisfied. A truce was called by the Council of Bishops to prevent division of the church and a special commission authorized to study the issues of sexuality that have consumed far too much time and energy and prevented other critical kingdom work for more years than Moses and the Hebrews wandered in the wilderness. I hope that commission will practice what Krista Tippett calls “generous listening” in her book, “Being Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.” Her insights are so important I want to quote several passages from Chapter 2: “Words: The Poetry of Creatures.”

“Generous listening is powered by curiosity, a virtue we can invite and nurture in ourselves to render it instinctive. It involves a kind of vulnerability—a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity.”

“Our cultural mode of debating issues by way of competing certainties comes with a drive to resolution. We want others to acknowledge that our answers are right. We call the debate or get on the same page or take a vote and move on. The alternative is a different orientation to the point of conversing in the first place: to invite searching—not on who is right and who is wrong and the arguments on every side, not on whether we can agree; but on what is at stake in human terms for us all. There is value in learning to speak together honestly and relate to each other with dignity, without rushing to common ground that would leave all the hard questions hanging.”
“But the pressure of coming to agreement works against really understanding each other. And we don’t understand each other.”

“More importantly, you have got to approach differences with this notion that there is good in the other. That’s it. And if we can’t figure out how to do that, and if there isn’t a crack in the middle where there’s some people on both sides who absolutely refuse to see the other as evil, this is going to continue. There’s a lot of pressure, and it’s much easier to preach to the choir versus listening to people who agree with you. But the choir is already there; the choir doesn’t need us. The crack in the middle where people on both sides absolutely refuse to see the other as evil—this is where I want to live and what I want to widen.”

Not bad advice for Congress and our political process either! But generous listening takes time and critical thinking skills that cannot be achieved in a 5 minute speech or a 140 character tweet. It requires a willingness to practice what we write/preach, to be in the words of Jesus and James, “doers of the word and not just hearers.” I want to simply close with those words and encourage all of us to read them with new eyes and generous ears and pray for inspiration and guidance to be both wise observers and daring actors on the stage of life.

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” Matthew 7:24

“But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves[a] in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. 26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” James 1:22-27

Introvert Musings II

Introverts
Like a good introvert I thought of some things I should have said in yesterday’s blog a few minutes after I posted it. Researchers say it takes a typical introvert about 12 seconds to think of a response to a comment. Extroverts can only stand about 3 seconds of silence before they speak again; so you can easily see why introverts don’t say much. We introverts need time to process things before we speak while extroverts do their best thinking out loud. Neither is right or wrong; it just helps communication and relationships to understand the differences.

So, I was on my lawn tractor mowing after I wrote the piece on curiosity. I do some of my best thinking in the solitude of mowing. What I realized was that, at least for me, it’s not lack of curiosity that keeps me from asking questions, it’s just that I don‘t think fast enough on my feet or seat to figure out what to ask in a timely manner. For example, I mentioned asking doctors enough good questions about treatment options, side effects, prevention of health issues, etc. I have excellent docs who take time to answer my questions when I ask them; so this isn’t about them, although I know there are some docs who are less willing or able to take much time with each patient. And even the best of them are overworked and usually behind schedule; so there isn’t much time for introvert introspection while in the exam room.

Especially in serious situations, when questions are even more important, the stress can make it even harder to think. I’ve had a couple of situations where I got unexpected bad news from doctors, and there just isn’t much time to recover, process and respond. For what it’s worth, I have found it very helpful to do several things: 1) I take a written list of questions and topics with me into doctor’s appointments; 2) if it’s a serious issue I try to take my extrovert wife with me to help ask good questions; and 3) if she can’t go with me I have her brainstorm questions with me before I go.

I don’t know what the current stats are, but a few years ago I learned that introverts were only 25% of the American population. So it can sometimes feel lonely in our culture that favors assertive go getters in most areas of life. Mutual understanding of personality traits in a non-judgmental way goes a long way to improving relationships and communication. Introverts need to understand that extroverts aren’t insensitive and aggressive; and by the same token extroverts need to not take offense when introverts need to tune out and take time to recharge our batteries with some solitude. It’s not a lack of curiosity or caring, it’s just a different way of being. And when understood, those differences can benefit any group or relationship by both kinds of personalities contributing insights and perspectives that others won’t.

Give me a few minutes and I’ll probably think of something else….

Musings of a Curious Introvert

inherit the wind
I am not by nature a curious person. Until recently I did not see that as a big problem. What sparked my interest in curiosity now is two-fold: 1) the Peace Ambassador Training I just participated in raised the issue a few weeks ago in two sessions, one on Nov-violent Communication and one on bridging cultural divides. The point was that curiosity is necessary for not being judgmental and fearful of things or people we don’t understand. Asking questions is an important part of active listening so others feel that one is genuinely interested in them, respectful of their point of view and willing to try and understand where they are coming from. The essential qualities for transforming a situation on an interpersonal or international level are self-awareness, nonjudgment, and curiosity. The speakers acknowledged that this is not a natural way to be for many of us and requires effort and courage. Especially in our polarized society, we need to remember that the basic human need is not to be right but to be heard and respected. To create a safe place for that kind of communication people need to know that we are willing to stay in connection with them, even if we disagree.

I can’t speak for extroverts, but I know for this introvert that kind of behavior feels risky. If I have to ask for information it means I have to admit I don’t know everything and I can’t figure it out in my own head. It means admitting that I need other people, and that means outgrowing the two-year old inside of me that still wants to say “do it self.”

2) My wife frequently comments on my lack of curiosity, e.g. when I fail to ask doctors important questions about my medical conditions, or when I am content to be unaware of what’s going on in the lives of friends and family members. She is much more of the “inquiring minds want to know” school while I often subscribe to the “ignorance is bliss” philosophy of life. I have often used my introverted personality as an excuse for not being curious, but when the Peace Ambassadors from the Shift Network made such a strong case for the value of curiosity to be a peacemaker, I got curious enough to explore that issue further.

My first question was why curiosity often has a negative connotation and that resulted in a quick Google search of the phrase “curiosity killed the cat.” I will summarize what I found but if you are curious and want more information the sites quoted from below are: http://www.phrases.org.uk/ and http://www.knowyourphrase.com/. The familiar proverb that curiosity can be fatal for felines began with a slight but very significant difference. “The ‘killed the cat’ proverb originated as ‘care killed the cat’. By ‘care’ the coiner of the expression meant ‘worry/sorrow’ rather than our more usual contemporary ‘look after/provide for’ meaning. That form of the expression is first recorded in the English playwright Ben Jonson’s play Every Man in His Humour, 1598: “Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care’ll kill a Cat, up-tails all, and a Louse for the Hangman.” One of the actors in that play was a chap by the name of William Shakespeare, and he borrowed the phrase for a line in “Much Ado About Nothing;” and the phrase stayed in that form for 400 years.

“The proverbial expression ‘curiosity killed the cat’, which is usually used when attempting to stop someone asking unwanted questions, is much more recent. The earlier form was still in use in 1898, when it was defined in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: ‘Care killed the Cat. It is said that a cat has nine lives, but care would wear them all out.’” That same year, the earliest of the precise current form of the proverb in print is from The Galveston Daily News, 1898: It is said that once “curiosity killed a Thomas cat.”

The original phrasing seems to recognize the well-established negative impact of worry on the human spirit and body. Even felines with their nine lives can worry themselves to death. I get that, but why the switch to curiosity? I found no hard evidence to satisfy my curiosity about that question but I agree with The Phrase Finder, http://www.phrases.org.uk/ site when it says the phrase is “usually used when attempting to stop someone asking unwanted questions.” Anyone who has experienced a toddler’s persistent asking “why?” about everything from observing a stranger’s behavior to why the sky is blue understands that motivation.

When she was just learning about the differences in male and female anatomy our then three-year-old’s favorite question when seeing a male out in public was “Does he have a penis, Daddy?” Her curiosity didn’t kill any cats but it did create some embarrassing situations.

But stifling curiosity has much more serious ramifications, and while discouraging some curiosity may be for good reasons, e.g. sticking a metal object into an electric socket to see what happens, when we overgeneralize and frown on all curiosity the negative consequences outweigh the benefits.

Christian theology has been a major contributor to negative attitudes toward curiosity. As early as 397 CE Augustine wrote in “Confessions:” that, in the eons before creating heaven and earth, God “fashioned hell for the inquisitive”. John Clarke, in Paroemiologia, 1639 suggested that “He that pryeth into every cloud may be struck with a thunderbolt”. In Don Juan, Lord Byron called curiosity “that low vice”. That attitude is easily traced back to the dangers of temptation and resulting sin with its roots in the Genesis 3 account of the fall because of humanity’s access to the “knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). It is interesting to note that the explanation of the tree’s appeal comes from the serpent, not from God. God just said, “Don’t eat from that tree.” It’s the serpent who convinces Eve they can become wise “like God, knowing good and evil” if they disobey and partake.

It’s not seeking wisdom that’s the problem; it’s trying to be like God. We are not like God. I have long been enamored with the other creation story in Genesis 1 where God creates humankind in God’s image (Gen. 1:27), but of late the overwhelming forces of human evil and cruelty in the world have forced me to seriously rethink what that doctrine of Imago Dei means. The divine spirit is within all of creation. It’s part of our genetic makeup, but that spirit has to be nourished to even begin to tap its potential. And curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge to be the caretakers and stewards of creation and of each other, seasoned with a healthy dose of humility, are all part of our human responsibility. (See my post from 12-13-15, “Fear of Knowledge.”)

My own experience with education and my family of origin was heavily influenced by the cat killer curiosity mentality. I didn’t learn to do any critical thinking till I got to grad school, and yet I was always praised as an excellent student. Why? Because I knew how to play the school game. I am blessed with a good ability to memorize, and I learned early on that “learning” what the teacher wanted on tests was the path to success in our educational system. Obedience to the rules kept me out of trouble at home and at school because I learned quickly to be accountable for what was expected of me. But there is huge difference between being accountable and being responsible. Responsibility requires critical thinking, adjusting to situations and applying knowledge and principles to new and unfamiliar circumstances. It means asking the right questions and pursuing where they lead rather than just obeying or repeating what we have been taught to do.

That reality struck me hard when I turned 18 and got ready to leave the safety of a well ordered, structured environment. My parents had always made it very clear what the rules were in our house and what was expected of us. Rarely did I test those limits but magically on my 18th birthday I was told it was now up to me to make my own decisions. It’s like handing the car keys to a kid and saying “here, you’re old enough to drive now” without providing any driver’s education.

When I got ready to enroll at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio some of our church members discouraged me because that school had a reputation for being too liberal. There was too much freedom of thought and curiosity there. But faith is strengthened by doubt. Our spiritual muscles or intellectual ones are strengthened by being exercised, just like other muscles. I didn’t know any of that 45 years ago. I wasn’t curious enough to ask good questions about the college and seminary I chose to attend. I went to Ohio State University and MTSO because they were close to home, i.e. not too far outside my comfort zone. Would I make different choices today about my education knowing what 69 years of life experience have taught me? Probably, but I am forever grateful for the grace of God or dumb luck that led me to both of those places where curiosity and inquiry were instilled in me.
Do I sometimes wish I could go back to not being curious? Sometimes I do because life was easier when the boundaries of my world were smaller and less filled with ambiguity. But curiosity is like toothpaste, you can’t put it back in the tube.

The other reason curiosity and non-violent communication seem especially important to me right now is the divisive and hateful tone of the political process in this country. It seems more and more people on both sides of the political spectrum are talking/yelling at each other and not much active listening is going on. Our instant gratification attention spans are much to blame. Curiosity takes time and a willingness to dig deeper than catch phrases, sound bites, and campaign slogans. Curiosity asks questions like what does “Make America Great Again” or “Hillary for America,” or “Feel the Bern” really mean? Curiosity requires working at understanding, not just reacting emotionally to grandiose promises.
Honest curiosity is not taking short cuts or settling for easy answers to complex problems. The Gospel of John (8:32) says, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” But that truth isn’t free and curiosity is the price tag.

One of my favorite quotes from literature about critical thinking and curiosity comes from “Inherit the Wind,” by Lawrence and Lee. The play depicts the Scopes evolution trial, but at a deeper level it’s about freedom of curiosity. Henry Drummond tells the following story near the end of the play in Act III to encourage the young teacher, Bert Cates, who is on trial for teaching evolution, to never lose his curiosity and zeal for seeking the truth. It’s about a toy horse in a department store window.

“I was seven years old, and a very fine judge of rocking horses. Golden Dancer had a bright red mane, blue eyes, and she was gold all over, with purple spots. When the sun hit her stirrups, she was a dazzling sight to see. But she was a week’s wages for my father. So Golden Dancer and I always had a plate glass window between us. But—let’s see, it wasn’t Christmas; must’ve been my birthday—I woke up in the morning and there was Golden Dancer at the foot of my bed! Ma had skimped on the groceries, and my father’d worked nights for a month. I jumped into the saddle and started to rock—And it broke! It split in two! The wood was rotten, the whole thing was put together with spit and sealing wax! All shine and no substance! Bert, whenever you see something bright, shining, perfect-seeming—all gold, with purple spots—look behind the paint! And if it’s a lie—show it up for what it really is!”

They say cats have nine lives, but we have only one; and this introvert is planning to use his one to look beneath some paint and show things for what they really are.

p.s. If you’re curious about the picture at the top, that’s a much younger me playing Bert Cates in “Inherit the Wind”.

Distracted Living: Practical Mindfulness Lesson

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One of the few things I remember from high school Latin class is the phrase “experientia docet.” It means “experience is the best teacher,” but I find that not always to be true. I am more often described by a much more recent proverb attributed to Oscar Wilde: “Wisdom comes with age, but sometimes age comes alone.”

I had a misfortunate experience yesterday that was also in retrospect incredibly good fortune, and I hope the lessons it was trying to teach me for the umpteenth time, at least, will take this time. Briefly the experience was a car mishap that could have been a much bigger tragedy. I was driving down my driveway yesterday morning on the way to my mechanics to have a problem with my steering checked out when the parts of the front axle I don’t understand gave way and the right front wheel keeled over like a wounded duck. I had been alerted by a warning light on my dash as I was driving home the evening before that indicated a problem with the steering. Since I was planning a 200 mile road trip the next day I immediately called my mechanic, and he said he would check it out the next morning before I left town. Needless to say that trip was postponed.

When the car arrived via flatbed tow truck at his shop he called to inform me that some critical part (sorry I am terrible at mechanics) had somehow become cracked and when it gave way it took several other expensive pieces of the 4-wheel drive mechanism with it. That’s the bad news. The good news is that this could have happened while I was driving down the freeway instead of safely in my own driveway, and you can imagine the potential consequences.
The mystery was that my mechanic had no explanation for why this had happened. He said he checks the wheels and axle every time he changes my oil and had not seen any problem a few weeks ago. He said he had never seen anything quite like it. That made me very nervous to trust the car down the road (pun intended). But then in the middle of that night I remembered an incident that suddenly made sense of the whole sequence of events.

Before I share that big revelation I want to set the stage for why it is more important to me than just explaining what happened to my car. For years I have been attracted to the practice of mindfulness meditation. I have made several unsuccessful attempts to establish a meditation practice and to become more mindful and fully present in whatever situation or relationship I’m in. As I get older I find it increasingly more important and more difficult and more necessary to really pay attention to what I’m doing in order to remember things. I do enjoy getting more steps on my Fitbit when I go to the other end of the house and can’t remember why I’m there, but that’s the only benefit I can think of for being more forgetful.

This past winter I took a course that combined my need for mindfulness and my interest in being a peacemaker in a most serendipitous way. The on-line course offered by The Shift Network was entitled “Peace Ambassador Training” and included a strong emphasis throughout the 12-week course on mindfulness as a key to inner peace and therefore a prerequisite to working for outer peace in relationships and communities, local and global.

I am grateful that course gave me the motivation I needed to begin and maintain a daily practice of meditation and increased attention to mindfulness and presence in all that I do. And by that circuitous route I’m back to my discovery of the reason for my broken axle. I remembered in the middle of the night after it happened that about two weeks earlier I had suffered a lapse of mindfulness while driving. We hear a lot about distracted driving these days and cell phones take a well-deserved amount of blame. But there are many other ways to be distracted while behind the wheel. Again on this occasion I was fortunate to be going at a very slow rate of speed on a deserted street when I reached over on the passenger seat to pick something up as I was making a turn from one street onto another. I swung too wide to the right and while not going very fast hit a new and rather high curb hard enough to rattle me physically and emotionally.

I got out of the car to make sure the tire was not damaged, was relieved that it seemed ok, drove home and promptly forgot about it. Until I realized that was undoubtedly when the whatchamacallit under my car was cracked and began to weaken until it gave way two weeks later in my driveway.

The repair bill for my car along with the realization that my lack of mindfulness could well have had fatal consequences for me or others on the highway will ensure that this particular lesson will stay with me. And I share it in hopes that my “experientia” can be a teacher for others about the value of living mindfully and alert and present all the time. Mindfulness in all we do is critical for staying alive, fully alive and not just going through the motions on auto pilot.