Archive for the ‘Spiritual Disciplines’ Category

“Lucy means light and additionally (the name) carried extra significance as my maternal grandmother, Lucille, was a spiritual rock in our family, before her untimely death on my birthday in 2009. I loved that the strength of my grandma might have an opportunity to live on in her great-granddaughter and was very pleased when Jaime was the first to suggest that we name her Lucy.”

Our shining star's bright light

Lucy – our shining star’s bright light

Four days before The Amazing Home Birth of Lucy Fisher, amidst a second blizzard in as many weeks during the relentless January snow of 2011, we received a visitor.

I was standing at the changing table situated directly under a window facing our backyard. Perched confidently outside our second floor apartment, overlooking the children’s bedroom, was a breathtaking cardinal against the backdrop of snow. I called the attention of the whole family to come marvel. But it wasn’t just the cardinal’s symbolic beauty amidst the storm that was so captivating, for as in continuing to observe it I felt strongly that it had arrived here on our branches purposefully.

A symbol of beauty amidst continual storm may have been something even more

A symbol of beauty amidst continual storm, this cardinal’s arrival may have been something more

I am not sure I would be able to explain it to a skeptic, but as has occurred to me on previous occasions, I sensed that this particular bird in this exact moment was there specifically for me. That it was present to deliver a message and would be content to remain watching over my household until I received it.

The cardinal stayed long enough that I eventually was compelled to grab the video camera and record it’s appearance. The picture to the right is an actual screen shot from the recording on that winter day. I could not shake the feeling that this sighting was not simply fortuitous but meaningful in some way. I have never been inclined toward interest in animal spirits, but decided out of curiosity to Google possible meanings for the overt arrival of a cardinal.

The first website I found spoke of a cardinal as potentially representing the spirit of a deceased loved one signaling that they are still with you. I immediately thought of my grandmother Lucille, who had very unexpectedly passed away in her sleep two years prior in January 2009 on the birthday I share with her husband Vern.

Grandma Lucy and Vern (or Pops as we called him) had been very formative in my life, despite living some distance from us. It was Pops that gave our family our first computer and Grandma Lucy made a habit out of sending the whole family homemade birthday cards printed on her PC. It was humbling to think that I may have been the last person she wrote to while still alive. After receiving notice of her passing earlier in the day, one of my grandmother’s signature “Lucilove Creations” birthday cards arrived in the mail for me. Inside was a clip art picture of a bursting balloon with text that said, “Popping out of the balloon to wish you a Happy Birthday!” and a handwritten note that read, “Love, G’ma + Pop – thanks for the Holiday picture of your family. – Clara is so cute. –” It was not only a balloon, but our hearts that had indeed been burst.

I had been unable due to finances and work responsibilities to fly out to California to attend her memorial service and regretted that. I felt maybe in some small way that Grandma Lucy was trying to tell me that it was okay. I went and found the birthday card she sent me in order to re-read her last words once more.

It was not until much later upon revisiting that birthday card that I noticed the sticker seal (pictured) my grandmother had used on the envelope and my eyes widened.

Cardinal Stamp

Did the last piece of mail my Grandmother sent before she unexpectedly passed away contain a meaningful sign of things to come?

Maybe it had been my grandmother after all.

This notion was not dispelled at all within me when a few years later, I noticed again on my birthday and the anniversary of her departure that a Facebook friend had unwittingly changed their profile picture to an image of a solitary cardinal perched on a snow covered barren tree branch.

However, it was not until this week that a greater picture started to come into view. My wife was out on a winter walk with the two little ones when a cardinal flew up to them and landed right next to our daughter Lucy, who carries the name of her great-grandmother she was never fortunate enough to meet.

Or had they met?

Was it possible that our blizzard cardinal had arrived in anticipation of our little Lucy just days before her birth? That even before we had decided on her name, Grandma might have known? That perhaps her presence was in some way paying another birthday visit the day before Lucy would turn four years old?

I am not one to put much stock in fortune tellers, mediums and the sort, but I found it strangely compelling when someone very close to us recently paid a visit to a psychic and was told, with no inquiry at all, that my deceased grandmother was watching over Lucy.

And why not?

Jaime and I had often joked that in the transition from two to three children that an extra set of eyes would be helpful. The reality of having three small children within the span of less than three and half years is that you cannot attend to all of them the way you would like. You give it your best shot and pray to God it works out. Is it possible that God in His infinite wisdom and boundless sense of humor may have answered our prayer by letting Grandma Lucy look out for her namesake on occasion?

And if so, what is it that Grandma Lucy has seen?

LucyLove

LucyLove

I imagine she is seeing what the rest of us have been fortunate to experience, a wildly determined yet emotionally sensitive little girl with a heart full of love. Lucy is a scene-stealer in the best sense of the term.

My grandmother was a huge college basketball fan, perhaps she has laughed along with us enjoying every moment of Lucy’s annual March Madness NCAA bracket picks, including “Hot Mexico” in 2013. Maybe it was my grandmother who put in a good word for Shabazz Napier and UConn last year which resulted in our whole family losing to a 3 year old.

The Bracket champ gets to choose the lunch of their choice at the destination of their own choosing. In true Lucy fashion she selected to eat Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches at our local children’s museum Kid City. Even better was the time she won our “Easy A” inspired Family Member of the Week vote and decided we would all eat hot dogs and rice as her celebration meal.

As the third child, Lucy is regrettably and constantly subjected to influences we never would have let our eldest children be exposed to. But as the older kids reach new developmental milestones and as our hands have become increasingly tied, she is most often right there in the mix. Last year as the big kids discovered Star Wars, the result was a phase where Lucy would make her presence known by singing the infamous Darth Vader intro “The Imperial March” followed by mechanical breathing at the dinner table.

She seemed to struggle a bit naturally with the arrival of our youngest Miles. They are 32 months apart, the largest age-gap between any of our four, and I think she enjoyed be the littlest. But her infectious giggle and sharp wit have carved out a place all her own. Just a few months ago she began playing nicely with her baby brother and then remarked to Jaime, “I am not jealous of Miles anymore. I know I am everyone’s favorite!”

Never have we met a more fiercely independent young lady. I have worked with many kids over the years in various capacities and found that the vast majority can be convinced to alter their behavior given enough time and the right approach. Lucy defies the odds. Once she makes up her mind, you will not be able to change it in the interim.

Before she even had teeth she wanted to brush them alone. Just last week she had nearly psyched herself up for a visit to the dentist before changing her mind onsite. I had to hold her straight jacket style against me a week ago, wrapping my legs around the feral beast and holding her jaw open in order to get a halfway decent dental cleaning. To her credit, her oft-independent brushing has yielded no cavities. These tendencies along with her strong joyful passion for dancing through life has earned her the family nickname “Wyldstyle”. photo 2

But be not fooled by her rough exterior. She is a true romantic at heart, magnetized to love stories and dreams of being a princess. Whereas I made a semi-intentional effort to squash some of this in her older sister, I have Let It Go with Lu-Lu and enjoyed watching her be herself. The theme of her four year old birthday party was “Pink.” We decided to play with some Power Rangers action figures the other day and when in character as Troy the Red Megaforce Ranger I asked her Pink Ranger what we should do today, she replied, “Maybe… get married!”

I will have to keep my eyes on her and welcome any assistance from Grandma Lucy in this task.

But ultimately, what I admire most in our little girl is her kind hearted and loyal servant nature. She loves to help Jaime bake in the kitchen. She is so infatuated with her BFF that she goes about re-naming everything in our home “Shianna” in her friend’s honor. She even passed a test of Dumbledore’s earlier in the week.

I recently started reading through Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with the kids knowing that my 7 year old bookworm Clara would latch on to the compelling story, and in true fashion Lucy came along for the literary ride, though she would have probably preferred nightly stories about princesses. After we finished reading the book, we rented and watched the movie.

The next morning we ran into a bit of inter-sibling conflict over which show they would like to stream on Netflix while I got ready for the day. Clara and Shepard were arguing over which of their selections should trump Lucy’s desire to watch Strawberry Shortcake. I decided to employ a little Harry Potter parenting and see which of the kids may have been able to internalize one of the major messages of the Sorcerer’s Stone.

I will make no spoiler apologies for a book that will reach the age of adulthood this summer, so as more of a refresher, Harry stumbles upon the Mirror of Erised with an “inscription carved around the top: Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi.” Ms. Rowling does not spell it out, but the cryptic inscription when read backwards says, “I show not your face but your hearts desire.” At the climax, Harry uses his familiarity with the mirror to foil the villain and secure the titular Stone, but is somewhat confused as to how he accomplished the feat:

Harry: “How did I get the Stone out of the mirror?”

Dumbledore: “Ah, now, I’m glad you asked me that. It was one of my more brilliant ideas, and between you and me, that’s saying something. You see, only one who wanted to find the stone – find it, but not use it – would be able to get it.”

Using this little nugget of wisdom I designed a test for my children. I first asked them, “What do you want to watch?” and all three provided their individual answers with no overlap. Next I posed the question slightly altered, “What do you think would be best for you all to watch?” Child One and Child Two maintained that their selections would not be only in their best interest but also for the greater good. Only Lucy deferred her personal preference. Therefore, much to the chagrin of the older siblings, Strawberry Shortcake it was.

Lucy wins again.

My prayer is that my daughter will be able to maintain her fiery independent spirit in balance with her demonstrated ability to sacrifice her own desires for the sake of community.

Grandma Lucy – Any assistance you can offer in helping your namesake and this little light of ours shine along the way is genuinely appreciated.

Lucy wins again!

Lucy wins again!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks for reading.

If you are interested in watching Lucy in action, here is a little impromptu interview we did last week recapping life as a 3 year old when Wyldstyle got out of bed reporting she wasn’t “sleepy”:

 

I am a protestor. This is the first in a three part series outlining my thinking and position as it relates to racial injustice in our society and lamenting racial divisions within the Church. In observance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday last Thursday (1/15) and this weekend’s observance of the Holiday set apart in honor of his legacy, Part One highlights Dr. King’s own words from a half century ago that still ring loudly in their call for freedom today.

I wrote these words for everyone who struggles in their youth, who won’t accept deception instead of what is truth. It seems we lose the game before we even start to play. Who made these rules? We’re so confused, easily led astray.

Sometimes it seems, we’ll touch that dream, but things come slow or not at all. And the ones on top, won’t make it stop, So convinced that they might fall.

Lauryn Hill “Everything is Everything” (1998)

On September 1, 1958, writing from New York City, Martin Luther King Jr. publishes “My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” in the September issue of Fellowship, an abbreviated version of chapter six of his book Stride Toward Freedom. Citing Jesus in Luke chapter 4, Dr. King writes, “The Christian ought always to be challenged by any protest against unfair treatment of the poor, for Christianity is itself such a protest, nowhere expressed more eloquently than in Jesus’s words: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.’”

The Reverend continues, expanding on his long held deep concerns about the gap between superfluous wealth and abject poverty. Dr. King notes, “Capitalism is always in danger of inspiring men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life.” These words would be exponentially prophetic, especially highlighted by the needless death of Eric Garner over sales of loose cigarettes in Staten Island, New York on July 17, 2014 in which we became aware that the situation had escalated to one in which capitalism is now more concerned about protecting a living than taking a life.

Four and a half years later, on April 16, 1963, amidst an eight-day incarceration in Birmingham, Alabama for engaging in direct nonviolent protest, Martin Luther King Jr. pens an eloquent defense of work being done to advance Civil Rights and a stinging critique of the critical clergy who have failed to support the movement.

Dr. King gives the benefit of good will to his fellow clergy, but explains that their charges fall outside of the Biblical mission of Shalom, saying, “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

Dr. King’s appeal here lays the moral and ethical stare decisis for those listening to the Sprit’s prophetic voice to become involved in addressing injustice where they are able.

In his treatise from Birmingham, Dr. King expounds on the value of nonviolent protest explaining that the intent of such direct action is to create opportunity for negotiation, “to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

Is it possible that this is what theology looks like?

He continues, “privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily… We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.”

For Christ followers, especially those like me who enjoy asymmetrical power and unmerited privilege in our culture based on gender and race inequality, the challenge is to look to Jesus’ example of a King voluntarily stepping down from His throne and to ask myself if I am willing to pay the same severe price of such a costly interruption.

Mug shot of Martin Luther King Jr. (1963) "One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

“One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

After outlining a multitude of the inhuman offenses of the racism which he suffered, Dr. King makes a plea that, “when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”– then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait… One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

Our brother and hero in the faith then shares his broken optimism lamenting the racial divisions in God’s church, “I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.”

“When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.”

The temptation is to say that things have changed; that Dr. King’s “Dream” was eventually realized and that a post-racial society has been achieved over the course of the last half-century. That simple academic knowledge of the Bible is we need to make things right. This would make me feel better. Allow me to discount the narratives that do not fit my worldview. But if we are willing to listen to our brothers and sisters of color, to hear the minority report, we find an entirely different story altogether.

Is it possible, as comedian Chris Rock recently pointed out to Frank Rich of New York Magazine, “When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before. So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years.”

Is it possible some of us just discounted the above statement because it came from a comedian and used that as an excuse not to hear the experiences and wisdom that could be gleaned from hearing a black man out?

Regardless of what you have come to believe about the character of Michael Brown following the tragic untimely end to his young life, are we willing to hear the anger and distrust of the Ferguson community? Even if it costs us something?

After a sixth bullet struck Michael Brown he fell facedown onto the double-yellow lines of Canfield Drive. Mr. Brown’s blood began to run in a small river down the pitched road. His body lay prostrate in forced submission to the police where he remained, at least partially uncovered and in view of neighborhood residents and onlookers for four and a half hours. In the aftermath, a 21 year old Ferguson resident, Alexis Torregrossa, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “They shot a black man, and they left his body in the street to let you all know this could be you. To set an example, that’s how I see it.”

Do we have ears to hear Ms. Torregrossa? If so, we must acknowledge that we have more work to do. Work that starts with listening, not to why all lives matter, but to how and why for so long the lives of black people have been placed at such a grave discount.

Are we willing to listen?

Jan 2015 New Yorker Cover

“I’m so humble, it’s crazy. I’m like the Kanye West of humility.” – @AnnaKendrick47 tweet 4 Nov 2014

My wallet is more Hoarders than Mise-en-place, full of just as many memories as items of practical use. Among the bank and insurance cards, there is a note from my son scrawled in blue marker that reads (with an inverse P) “Sheq I ♥ You” and a mini-letter that my Mom snuck into my belongings when I first went off to college, always good for getting choked up, “I love you more than words can tell. My oldest son who was once so shy that he wouldn’t leave my side. You have grown up and become a fine young man. Thank you for being you! I’m proud to call you my son”. Others can have their streamlined wallets and flat pockets, but I prefer the Oompa Loompa look if it allows me to carry precious people with me wherever I go.

But also buried in my wallet is a token of a different type. A grayed parking garage ticket from the Woodland Hills Cheesecake Factory stamped 9/27/03 PAID: $5.00, overlaid in bold faced red crayon print, a loud reminder from my past self that “I AM AN IDIOT!!” I AM AN IDIOT!!

We were in the valley that evening to celebrate our good friend Wednesday’s birthday. Jaime and I were just six months away from being engaged, but you never would have known it judging from my behavior and her justified disgust. I am not the most self-aware guy even now, but over a decade ago I was certainly blind to the sheer intensity of my own faults. We had gotten into an argument of some sort walking back to the car, flustering me greatly. As a result upon getting into the car I was unable to locate the parking ticket provided to pay the attendant. There was a sign up that noted loss of a ticket would result in paying the maximum garage price, and as we were in L.A., this was an unreasonable sum for borrowing some concrete real estate for a couple hours.

So I did what any hot-headed, arrogant, complete jerk would do. I quite naturally assumed, genuinely believed and was outrageously adamant that this was NOT my fault. Clearly, the parking garage attendant had neglected to give me a ticket. I stormed over to the poor fellow who appeared to be a immigrant from either the Indian subcontinent or Asia-Pacific, but I couldn’t tell you definitively because I was clearly not preoccupied in any way with this gentleman’s humanity. I absurdly bullied this man with a lie I believed and did not relent until my parking had been validated, though my version of events had not. I found the actual ticket in my car later that evening much to my dismay.

What had I done? What kind of man treats another human being that way? How could I expect to be in a relationship with this woman I loved when I could not look past myself to listen to her advice? Advice which had been loud and clear in both speech and body language in that garage.

I could not. So I wrote myself a note on the fabricated ticket I paid $5 and took someone’s dignity for and decided to carry it around for the many times I need to be reminded of my great tendency to get in my own way, despite the best intentions of those around me willing to help. This week was one of those times.

You would think, especially seeing as I officially lost the first 17 disputes of our marriage as confirmed by Google and phone-a-friend tactics, that I would have wised up to the reality that not only is my beautiful wife a good-willed person, but she is most often right. Both first-born siblings, she was the first to regularly call me out on the use of what she deemed “big brother facts”, the times when elder siblings use their aged status as pretext for fabricating all manner of knowledge in order to increase or maintain status over younger siblings. She would have none of my confidently asserted falsehoods, for she too had played that hand.

But approaching 10 ½ years of marriage, I still can act quite the fool, as evidenced at least three times just this week:

Sunday evening – Against All Odds: Wham! Lamb! Thank You Ma’am

With my brother-in-law Robert in town for a visit, we settled in for some Catan on our well-worn board. Early on I felt confident of my positioning, with settlements on all five resources and a couple of prime probability real estate properties including an “8” Wheat hex. With the first Development Card action of the evening Jaime deployed the robber though not to the Wheat of higher probability, but instead blocked accumulation rights on a less probable “9” Sheep patch.

Jaime chooses to block a less probable hex, and of course makes the right decision relegating me to last place

Jaime chooses to block a less probable hex, and of course makes the right decision relegating me to last place

I literally asked her, “Out of curiosity, why did you place the robber there?” Insinuating the Wheat stoppage would be better game strategy, after all “No Wheat Means Defeat.” Jaime was unfazed and said she felt like blocking the Sheep. I made an offhand comment that it was a move I wouldn’t have made. Insert foot in mouth here.

As fate would have it, that Sheep would remain blocked for the majority of the game along with a plethora of “9” dice rolls. Without an ability to collect Sheep I had little D Card prowess, thus unable to deliver my Sheep from the thief. Meanwhile, my vaunted “8” Wheat produced a grand total of three rolls throughout the entirety of the game, solidly cementing me in last place while Jaime and Robert vied for the title. In retrospect, I should have asked my wife, “Out of curiosity, with your brilliant unorthodox strategy there, should I just retire early to bed? Because you have effectively and preemptively shut me down. Well done.”

Tuesday morning through Wednesday morning – Out in the Cold

Even after a decade of living in cold weather climates, I still have a tendency to act foolishly when it comes to the bitter winter months. My wife of more practice and wisdom often tries to help my ignorance, which I then foolishly ignore.

Monday was my 32nd birthday, Jaime and Robert tag teamed to prepare fish tacos and mint chocolate chip/chocolate/coffee milkshakes affectionately referred to as Dead Frogs. We then went out to see Selma capping a lovely evening. Earlier in the day, Jaime had gifted me a nice shell jacket, which is basically shorthand for something you could wear in the Fall on its own merit, but should practically be used as a layer in winter months. But because it was new and I am an idiot, I thought “Hey, why not wear just this?”

Jaime of course, quickly caught my mistake and warned me it was cold out. I big brother fact-ed that it was indeed warmer out, based not on any meteorological evidence or research, but more on the feeling I had that I wished it was warmer out. While I did not freeze, I certainly was not comfortable at various points in the day, which easily could have been avoided. Rather than immediately admit my mistake, I elected instead to focus on the relatively little time I had to spend outside.

Even better, the temperatures dropped into the single digits overnight. Sometime in the early morning hours, Jaime whispered. “I hope our pipes don’t freeze.” I immediately responded that they would most certainly not, for just last week the temperature hovered at zero for a day or so and the house had handled things just fine. Predictably by now, I ate a large helping of humble pie for breakfast upon waking up to find toilets that would not flush due to frozen pipes. Cue flashback of parking garage ticket.

Friday night – Don’t Bring a Baby to a Gunfight, Please

So even after I thought I had re-learned my lesson, Jaime and I were lounging on the couch last night putting the kids to bed when she stumbled across one of those terrible Buzzfeed car wrecks that you cannot not click on.

This one was a series of pregnancy announcement photos with the tag line, “Some things you can’t unsee.” Aside from one strangely mesmerizing photo of what appeared to be a pregnant mom draped in a white satin curtain flowing in the wind, atop a horse somewhere in the Shire, there was all manner of pictures I wish I could remove from my memory. Not the least of which was a picture of a man pointing a gun at the photographer while reaching around to caress the pregnant belly of his lover. This was so alarmingly bizarre that when a second photo later in the collection showed a similarly dressed bare bellied mom-to-be with her admiring gaze on her man and her hand on a firearm in his waistband, I could not reconcile that this could possibly be two different couples. I said as much. Jaime countered and of course was correct upon review.

So what have I learned?

Being wrong is a part of life. But the manner in which I am frequently, confidently and immediately wrong, especially in interactions with my loving and patient wife is something I am dedicated to improving on. As much as some of the above may seem trivial or laughable, the fact that my behavior has been consistently poor in this regard over the span of a decade is not funny. It does not amuse me when upon finally apologizing to my wife for not listening to her, she is able to matter-of-factly state that she is used to my foolish attitude and actions.

Jaime deserves better. My children deserve better. Our son Shepard who wrote me that little note in my wallet is now 5 years old. He crawled up on my lap at one point while writing this. He is watching how I treat my wife and taking notes about how to value the thoughts and input of women, of his mother. Much the way his younger brother Miles will as well. My daughters Clara and Lucy are also watching, looking to see how it is they should expect to be treated by men in their lives. If I hope for better behavior and action for my sons, in their interactions with women and significant others someday, I must model it for them. I cannot simply hope to change. More so, I cannot only hope my kids will see my foolishness for what it is, folly and not a blueprint. They will repeat and replay whatever it is I show them.

Often before the kids leave for school we review our family rules. Rules I unapologetically lifted and revised from friend Bret Wells of the Missional Wisdom Foundation. “Pay attention. See Jesus. Be Jesus. Do not be afraid to mess up. When we mess up, we help clean up.” The monastic wisdom gleaned from the Rule of St. Benedict teaches the need to listen to the people we live with, that life together is an opportunity for the presence of God to be made manifest. As Joan Chittister continues in her book, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, “Not to listen then, is not to grow. But more than that, to be unable to listen is to be unable to give as well.”

I pray that I can pay attention to my wife, see Jesus in her, be Jesus to her. To model this for my children.

But prayer without action is empty, so In an attempt to clean up my own mess, I am trying on a new philosophy of saying yes. Much to my initial chagrin, Jaime proposed completing a video workout together. Whereas my Seasonal Affected self would much prefer to only bundle up and eat chocolate, I agreed. In so doing, I discovered that apparently jogging a 5K once a quarter does not translate into physical fitness. After 20 minutes of a rather basic cardio workout, plus a push-up challenge I was so physically spent that I had to lie down for the next 20 minutes in order to avoid vomiting. I’d say it was embarrassing, but the glowing look in my lover’s eyes communicated, “I am being heard.”

Maybe there is hope for this idiot after all. I certainly have more to give.

In a society inflated on independence and engorged on ego, we do not look kindly on regulations or discipline. Little thought is given to what can be learned and discerned through mutual submission and thus we all suffer. This is America. This is me.

Our overemphasis on individuality is clearly seen in our culture’s meager attempts at group meetings and decision making, whether in school settings, work conference rooms, book clubs or church bible studies. We sit down in a room full of others to discuss a particular topic or to make an important decision. But despite good intentions, folks often leave feeling disenchanted or apathetic, rather than productive or encouraged due to overly loquacious leaders, filter-less and frequently repetitive comments from a few and the silence of a fearful or disinterested majority. Ever been here?

I confess I have camped in all three spots, ineffective group facilitator, discussion dominating personality and hidden among the mass of the disenfranchised or unengaged; I am not above the fray. But as I prepare to teach a class along the lines of “Re-Visioning the Church” this Fall, here are some thoughts on how we can perhaps improve on ineffective interactions and shift the paradigm from individual to communal contribution.

***

Seasoned improvisational comedians are a joy to watch because aside from wielding uncannily quick wit, they demonstrate superb collaboration. Tina Fey of Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock fame, was recently interviewed about her new memoir, Bossypants, and was asked what she learned during her time with the Chicago based improvisational comedy group Second City and at ImprovOlympic, a comedy theater and improv school a block from Wrigley Field.

Communal Discernment advice can be gleaned from theologians (St. Ignatius) and comedians (Tina Fey) alike

Her response was intriguing and insightful. She noted that when she would teach improv to new students, she would begin by asking “When do you enter a scene?”

“Well, when you have an idea,” the rookies would say.

“No,” she would reply. “When do you enter a scene?”

“When you think of something funny to say.”

“No,” would come the rebuke. “ The answer to ‘When do you enter a scene?’ is, ‘When someone needs you’. You are only to enter when someone needs you.”

Fey stated, “It’s this great mindset of contributing, but as a group.”

Contributing as a group requires that people enter the conversation when they are needed. Brilliant. But how do I know when I am needed? Surely, the arrogant or overconfident are likely to believe they are needed frequently and the quiet or those with low self-esteem will underestimate the value of their contributions and err on not speaking enough.

Enter the Conversation Covenant, to which I was first introduced in November 2009 during a New Monastic School for Conversion weekend in North Philadelphia. The folks at the Simple Way and Camden Houses did not shy away from asking us to enter this covenant of respect as a matter of first importance, believing that in order for conversations to be most fruitful and transformative, all persons must consciously make room for the Holy Spirit to move among the community.

Rather than attempt to reinvent the wheel, here are the guidelines of the Conversation Covenant, slightly modified, as written up recently by the New Monastic folks for use in their fourth P.A.P.A. Festival held just a couple weeks ago outside of Philly:

Conversation Covenant

1.          All persons must agree to the covenant of respect.

2.          We commit to respecting each person in the group, especially when we have different viewpoints. We will listen to what the Spirit is offering us through each other. When we are challenged by another’s perspective, let us lift up our confusion or concern to God, that we may achieve greater understanding.

3.          Let us speak the truth in our own heart. Let us not argue with each other. During appropriate times, may we engage in a mutual search for deeper understanding of the complex and multi-faceted faces of God.

4.          Let us make sure that each person is heard, that there is a balance of sharing among all participants. During discussions, let us not speak twice until every other person has had the chance to share.

5.          Let us allow a brief period of silence after someone has spoken before the next person speaks, that we may drink in the meaning of what each has offered.

6.          Step Up / Step Down: If you are a person who tends to share readily, it is your responsibility to be mindful and make room for others to speak. If you are a person who tends to be quieter, it is your responsibility to take opportunities to make your voice heard.

7.          Priority of voice: People of color and women will be given first priority in speaking or sharing.

8.          Let us allow someone to pass if they do not wish to share. After everyone has shared, let us make room for those who have passed to add their thoughts.

9.          Let us remember with gratitude that the Spirit of God is in each person in our circles.

The Step Up / Step Down guideline, number six above, is a beautiful expression of the interdependent nature of Shalom and challenged me throughout that first weekend as it continues to today. I frequently struggle to limit myself to only one comment in group settings until everyone has had a chance to share, but when I make the effort to try to step down, I listen to others’ contributions more attentively and value their comments to a greater extent. Even comments I disagree with allow opportunities for me to “make my enemy my teacher.” Limiting what I share also hopefully allows my own contribution to be more efficient and effective while forcing me to acknowledge that if God wishes to speak, He can do so through any and all of us, reminiscent of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

St. Ignatius, a 16th century Spanish theologian and founder of the Jesuits, believed communal discernment of God’s will could be assisted by asking a series of three questions. Following his lead, should you find yourself in a group setting with something to say, first ask yourself, “Does this need to be said?” If yes, the follow up question should be “Does this need to be said now?” If again in the affirmative, the final question is “Does this need to be said by me?” or as Tod Vogt of Mission Alive rephrases it, “Am I the one to say it?”

The discernment process outlined by Ignatius limits my own will and intervention in a conversation and fosters trust as individuals are brought to recognition that if God has something to say or to reveal, it will be said or revealed through someone in the discussion. We need everyone’s voice, not just the usual suspects. When a group is willing to step up and step down in this manner, relying on the Spirit to speak, we can feel confident that God’s voice can be heard and that His direction can be made clear.

While listening to Morning Edition on NPR on Monday morning, I heard the following during a segment on technology:

Mr. Smith: Seniors, for instance, are the fastest growing group in terms of their use of social networking sites. And we also found, in this study, that six in 10 seniors own a cell phone.

Steve Inskeep: Okay, the study says that the typical American under the age of 45 owns four gadgets – things like smart phones, mp3 players, and e-book readers like the iPad or the Kindle. Smith says these new media gadgets are continuing to change the way Americans live.

Mr. Smith: You’ve got a few minutes free, you can text your friends, you can call someone, you can play a game on your cell phone, you can listen to music on your iPod. So, you know, the times where you were just, you know, sitting at a table, you know, kind of doing nothing or just contemplating the world, I think are becoming fewer and further between as more of these technologies permeate our daily lives.

Renee Montagne: No more contemplating.

Ms. Montagne continued to speak after stating “No more contemplating,” but I found the statement so shocking, I didn’t really hear the rest of the segment. In part, the shock was caused by the recent time spent dwelling on contemplation as a necessary component of spirituality while Jaime at I were at Mission Alive’s Theology Lab in Dallas last week.

As a Christian living in a western culture, there is quite a lot to learn from Jesus’ commitment to a contemplative life. Scripture appears to indicate that Jesus’ time spent alone in prayer was not only a large component of His life, but that it was necessary to His success and enabled His incredible service and attentiveness to God’s will. I think many of us admire Jesus’ commitment to contemplation in the Gospels, but rarely give thought to the work and discipline such a life requires. We especially seem to give little regard to the connection that Jesus’ prayer life appears to have with fasting and meditative breathing. But in the land of the obese and gadget-obsessed, we have no discipline or time for such a lifestyle. And then we wonder why we are so unhappy.

It doesn’t figure to get better any time soon. I saw a 12 year old almost crash his bike the other day while trying to ride and talk on a cell phone. No joke. Soon there will arise a generation in our country who will never have known a world without the internet, Google, instant answers and social networking. As NPR noted, now even our seniors are getting in on the loss of contemplative time. While I do not believe technology to be intrinsically good or bad, it appears that in the face of increasing technology we may be facing a continuing loss of our humanity.

Tod Vogt of Mission Alive shared this excerpt of a T.S. Eliot work with us during the Theology Lab that I believe illustrates the point:

“The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All of our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us closer to death,
But nearness to death, no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.”

Eliot wrote this in 1934. Imagine what he might have written after witnessing the 21st century.

As Tod pointed out, contemplation is not everything. For without action “(contemplation) can degenerate into mere escapism,” but without contemplation action is reduced to a “frenetic attempt to impose one’s will on others or the world.” I believe there is a strong case to be made that our cultural pendulum is approaching its extreme in favor of action and that this mode of operating is unsustainable.

As entropy in our relationships and social structures progresses through continuing technological innovation, I pray God will use His church to show us back toward a contemplative life and ultimately toward Himself. For as Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove of the New Monastic movement writes, “Contemplation is not about a “quiet time” when we can feel safe with God. In contemplation we learn to trust God precisely because we need him.”

Wilson-Hartgrove in his chapter of Schools for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism goes on to say, “Contemplation is the flame through which our own souls find liberation.” In the face of our greatest trials and doubts, Jonathan notes that it is the through a life of contemplation that “we can trust God. We can believe that the darkest darkness may indeed be a light so bright that it is blinding our weak eyes. We can believe that beyond death there is resurrection.” Amen.

No more contemplating? No thank you. Let’s turn off our gadgets for a while and practice being silent so God can speak into our lives. Let’s give Him an opportunity to rescue us from ourselves.