Thursday, December 1, 2011

Shivering with love…

My dog does something I call the “Shake of Love.” It happens when I (or anyone, really) spend more than four seconds giving her undivided attention. We could be wrestling, or I could be scratching her belly. Whatever initiates it, she deeply enjoys such encounters, her speedily wagging tail being all the proof I need. And if I (or anyone, really) keep it up long enough, she’ll get so overwhelmed with joy that she stops and shakes herself as fast as possible, as if she’d just been doused with water. As I said, the “Shake of Love.” After which, she bounds back to me (or anyone, really), making it abundantly clear she wants the tummy rub, wrestling, personal attention continued. It’s all very cute. Until it’s not, and I have to make her stop wrestling with or licking me. Fawkes the Dog is nothing if not…persistent.

And consistent. Because this pretty much occurs without fail. Again, fulfill every above condition and Fawkes, she’s a-shakin’. Therefore, naturally, I’m jealous. My enjoyment of or ‘love’ for others decidedly does not arise so quickly, so excessively, so exuberantly, so easily. Not usually, at least. Sure, some would say, “Shane, dogs are different, more trusting.” But why should that be? Dogs get scared too. And especially for us Christians, we who follow the leader who once implored, “Love you neighbor as yourself.” Though we can’t wick water off our bodies with wild gesticulations (thus our shakes of love would look a tad different), why aren’t we as generous and enraptured with our love of others as my dog?

I wonder if the key here is memory. Our dog trainer said, “Don’t discipline Fawkes if she chews up the sofa, but you weren’t around when it happened. Her short-term memory is limited. So she won’t associate your discipline with her actions.” Humans, by contrast, remember much, much more. I read recently about the memory-making wonder machine that is the human brain, how we form richly detailed memories, how frequently that occurs, how we translate those memories into general impressions (and biases) about the world, ourselves and others.

And particularly, how amazing we are at… distorting what happens to us. Apparently, studies show that when a person’s wronged, s/he often amplifies how bad what happened actually was. But when the shoe’s on the other foot, we “remember” ourselves being much more conscientious and considerate than the person we wronged says we were. Of course, in some situations it doesn’t matter whether a person amplifies the offense or not. Some wrongs are truly horrific, regardless the excuses an offender gives. But in the everyday rush hours and pushy airport lines of life, it rings true to my experience that people (not me, of course) would remember the actions of others in more negative lights than the actions of self. And therefore- perhaps- be more reserved with offering love, trust, kindness than our short-term limited, lovable pets.

Fortunately for us, though, another human capacity is change, i.e. if we’re open to the possibility that maybe someone ‘remembers’ an issue differently than you, we can adapt our feelings of hurt or frustration by seeking common ground. I wonder, even, if this has something to do with what Jesus meant by, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” We’re often quick to see extenuating circumstances in our behavior, accept complex motivations for what we do, or excuse an oversight or thoughtless action. Sometimes we’re even capable of forgiving ourselves. What if we extended the same treatment to others? What if we did so repeatedly enough, even, that our instincts weren’t based on the pained, fearful, unloving or selfish memories we’re so good are creating and storing, but on the loving, joyful, patient and accepting attitudes we allow for our own behavior? That need not be mean indulging another’s mistakes, idiotic actions or downright malicious deeds. Our big brains can tell the difference. But perhaps if we accepted that most others as, basically, the same wonderful, flawed humans we are, we’d find ourselves shaking with love more often. And life would be sweeter for it.

Grace and Peace,
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Hope for the Holidays…

One decent part of how our culture “celebrates” the holidays is the expectation that it be a joyful season. Sure, much of that festivity seems wildly manufactured; loud TV announcers declaring “THE DEAL OF THE CENTURY”, cheesy marketing posters showcasing smiling families in name brand clothing. Some of what counts as ‘holiday cheer’ can mask a kind of greed, or shallowness of spirit, or something. Nevertheless, we could do worse than encouraging joy this time of year. Imagine we gave into the dark days and cold nights, hunkered down, hibernated, awaited Spring. Depressing, amen?!

Fortunately, we don’t. We sing carols, wear bright sweaters, resurrect time-honored traditions and put on a happy face. The desire to feel joy- to bathe in it and share it with others- that lifts many a mood. Even if it feels forced at times.

Because it can, right? Often, it does. After all, coupled with glossy coupons and internet deals are news reports of impeding economic doom across the pond and here at home, continued uncertainty at work, reminders of family turmoil. Minus the holiday sentiment, our communities’ collective mood resides currently near the drain. At least, that’s how it seems to me, though I suspect I’m not alone.

A cynical person, then, might sneer at holiday cheer, deriding an anchorless culture that tries to buy its way into feeling better. I’ve heard that said before, even felt such frustration or protest or despair sneak its way into my soul. Yet I simply can’t find a way to give into the doldrums or awash my worldview in anger. Sorry to say, my friends, but I’m grateful to be alive.

And not just in the, “I’m supposed to say that” sense. I’m truly, blissfully humbled for the gift of life in this world. I type these letters on a wizard machine, or so our ancestors would assess computers. Given prudent saving and a little luck, I might fly somewhere for vacation, eventually. Even if I pay more for bacon and Brussels sprouts that I’d prefer my regular food choices are by all objective measures dazzling. Assuming I don’t mess up the cooking!

Yes, life can be hard. My responsibilities and stress levels this past year have been, at times, overwhelming. But I’m well aware that what I struggle with is nowhere near as tough as many- most?- of the world’s population. So forgive me if I don’t share the culture’s dire assessment of life today. I want things to get better, absolutely; I especially want life to improve for the poor, the lonely, the jobless and abused in our midst. For that reason, I give money, time and more to benefit ‘the least of these.’ But I’m also frustrated with the doomsayers, those who just can’t find anything good to say. Especially when such commentators have a lot to be thankful for.

Thus, I’m hoping that our congregation will buck trends this Advent, and celebrate the joy of Christmas with guileless, uninhibited abandon! Remember, the story of our Savior’s birth isn’t without dark sides or rough edges. There was no room in the inn; a manger crib certainly stank! When it ended, Joseph and Mary returned to fragile peasant living. Nevertheless, the Holy Mother said, “My soul magnifies the Lord!” For she believed, and in time Jesus would prove definitively, that the Author of Creation showers all our days with love, desires abundant life for all life from now until the end of time. Indeed, through the eyes of faith, we see in that Christmas babe a vision of what God’s great heart intended- a good, good life for all God’s children, united through grace.

So I invite you, as we worship together this holiday season, ring bells and give gifts and swap stories old and new, to claim personally the deepest truths of our faith- that joy is our inheritance, that love will always win. And even if it feels forced at times, more a hope or prayer than a heartfelt fact, for now, to declare that the life we lead is a good, good life indeed. For as Jesus’ followers we know, Christ was born for this.

Grace and Peace,
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