Wednesday, November 9, 2016

An Umbrella in the Rain

A few weeks ago, I passed a young woman standing at a bus stop in the pouring rain. From the vantage point of my dry mini-van, I looked out in dismay as she was soaked by the downpour. Reflexively, I reached down and grabbed the extra umbrella stashed in the driver's-side door. But the young woman was on the opposite side of the street, the light was green, and traffic was moving fast. There wasn't any way to get to her with the umbrella unless I turned around and went back, which was a complicated proposition on this particular stretch of road. I drove on.

I shared the experience with my Sunday school class the following week, where we were discussing following Jesus' example of compassion in the world. I was dismayed that I hadn't made a great effort to respond to the woman's need.  Our participants listened kindly, and a visitor to class assured me that it would be impossible to act on every compassionate impulse.

Fast forward to today. Anyone who knows me or reads my Facebook posts knows that I am one of those who are reeling in disbelief and distress at Donald Trump's victory in the electoral college. As I drove around doing my errands, once again in the pouring rain, I was mulling things over: the Clinton concession speech, the Facebook posts I had been reading, the conversations I'd had with my children surrounding the election.  In my distraction, I almost missed noticing a young man walking down the street, with a soaked hoodie unable to withstand the downpour. I was past him before my thoughts pulled away from the election to focus on him.

No way. No way was I missing out on this chance again!  He had been walking on the sidewalk in the opposite direction from me, on the same side of the street. To get back to him, I had to drive around the corner and turn around in a side street.  Back out to where he was walking, I was now on the opposite side of the street. I laughed out loud, saying to myself, "Poor guy, I'm literally chasing you down." I turned around in another side street, and finally caught up to him. Grabbing the umbrella and slowing the car, I called out the window, "Sir, will you take this?"  He told me "Thanks," and I saw him pop it open in my rear-view mirror. I was flooded with emotion. It's been an emotional kind of day.

When you share a "good deed" you've done, you run the risk of looking like you're asking for some kind of "high five" for what a great person you are. Instead, I'm sharing it because it occurred to me that these kinds of small deeds, done daily by the millions, will be a way to secure the fabric of our nation in the absence of moral leadership in our government.

Throughout the presidential campaign, I heard and saw our President-Elect target, insult, mock, and threaten various groups, including women, immigrants, Muslims, refugees, the disabled, and Mexicans, both through his current-day words and actions and in his words and actions over the years. These observations led me to fear throughout the campaign that under his leadership, our country would move even further from our national ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (for all but a limited group). When roughly half of our country does not find it necessary to hold our highest elected official to a rather basic standard of human decency, then the future of our country appears grim.

[Because I see again and again in the Bible that God does not protect His people from their mistakes, and that He usually allows us to live out the consequences of our poor choices, my concerns for our short-term future are not assuaged by my ultimate and foundational faith in His goodness and love. Yes, I believe that God will ultimately work all things for good, according to His plan. But I also know that the path to getting there could get very uncomfortable.]

On Facebook today, I suggested that we give ourselves a day to wallow in our disbelief, but then engage in proactive efforts to prepare ourselves for the future, to protect our brothers and sisters who have been targeted and threatened, and to represent the values and beliefs that have not been prioritized in this vote. I wrote that while I don't have a "To Do list" of what needs to be done, I hope I can help to develop one and to begin to carry it out, rather than waiting around to watch new leadership wreak havoc on our country's progress.

My "umbrella in the rain" experience clued me in to a starting point, though. Our call to action might have to get big and ambitious FAST to respond to our new circumstances, but for now, my answer lies in small acts of kindness, one person to another: acts of kindness between people of different sexes, ages, genders, races, social groups, religions, political viewpoints, economic levels, and any of the other demographic divisions we have created for ourselves.

Whether it's a smile, a door held open, a heavy grocery bag loaded into a car, a sincere compliment, a moment of conversation, or an umbrella in the rain, these small acts of civility that create a point of connection--human being to human being--are the starting point of holding ourselves together when roughly half of us fear that we as a nation are going to fall apart.

Can such small acts possibly matter? I say, yes. As Howard Zinn wrote, "We don't have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world." We can't afford to waste any more time crying, moping, or passive doomsaying.

Grab your extra umbrellas and get out there!


The Good and Beautiful Life: Chapter 4

In chapter 4 of James Bryan Smith's The Good and Beautiful Life: Putting on the Character of Christ, Smith writes about learning to live without anger.
He recounts a time when he grew increasingly angry sitting in California traffic, thinking that he might be late for a church retreat.  His anger moved through his body until he could feel it taking over. His brother, driving, remained calm, knowing that they were just in a temporary bottleneck, and would be flying along the freeway soon.  Jim does, in fact, reach his retreat on time, with room for a shower, rest, and prayer time before it began.  His earlier anger embarrassed him in retrospect, but led him to think about the roots of this kind of emotional response.

Jim determined that anger develops from a combination of unmet expectations and fear (often in the form of insecurity or a sense of threat). In Jim's case, sitting in traffic, he had been hoping for some downtime before the retreat would begin, and he was afraid that he might actually be so late that he would be a "no show." The thought combination created a major angry response.

But the stories he was telling himself turned out to be false narratives.  Jim lists several examples of false narratives we have a tendency to tell ourselves--narratives that only lead to problems.  His list includes things like, "Something terrible with happen if I make a mistake," "I must be in control all of the time," and "I need to anticipate everything that will happen to me today."
Looking at the list on page 73, which one of these false narratives is most common in your life and how does it lead to anger?
All of these false narratives are grounded in fear and the need to be in control.  Jim identifies this need to control and live from our own resources instead of God's as "walking in the flesh" (page 74).  He contrasts "walking in the flesh" with "being led by the Spirit."
How is it sinful to live in the flesh?
How would you describe/ explain the difference between the false narrative our author first talked about, and the kingdom narratives we should replace them with (found on page 76)?
On page 74, Jim says, "Unrighteous anger rarely happens when we are led by the Spirit. It is spawned by not seeing our situation in light of God's kingdom." This led me to ask myself, "How would it change things to see my situation [whatever it is at the time] in light of God's kingdom?"

Further, on page 76, he writes about new "kingdom narratives" and it made me think:
"If I truly believe in the reality of the presence and power of God, then it will change the way I see things."
God never loses sight of us and never permits anything to happen to us that he can't redeem and use for good.
How does this impact anger? Do you have any evidence from your life of anger diminishing as you come to know that God is near you and working for your good?
Describe "the good kind of anger."
The good kind of anger is a correct response to injustice, to the things that anger God. The good kind of anger leads to remedying wrongs.  The good kind of anger motivates us to work toward change.
Give examples of righteous anger in today's world.
In closing, spend time with these words from Galatians 5:16-17:
"So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want."
The Soul Training exercise for this chapter called for us to keep a Sabbath as a spiritual exercise to help us better deal with our anger.  Because "anger is about unmet expectations and fear" and "sabbath is about trusting God and his ways,"  Sabbath becomes a kind of antidote to anger. Rather than trying to keep things going by our own strength, we take time out to rely on God's grace.  
"Rest. Trust. Surrendering control. These are the core elements of sabbath keeping, and they can help us deal with anger" (page 81).
How did you attempt to keep a Sabbath, using Jim's suggestions on pages 82 and 83?
What connection did you experience between keeping a Sabbath and controlling anger?
What did you learn about God or yourself from your Sabbath rest?
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