Saturday, October 26, 2019

The Transferable Nature of Love

After the joyful busyness of our wedding in May slipped into happy memories, Mike and I got down to some practical tasks as we attempted to combined households for the first time. Among them was one many newly married people undertake: we opened up a joint checking account. A bit mundane, perhaps, especially in comparison to the preceding weeks, but still exciting in its own private, utilitarian way. In the process of figuring out how we will manage our finances, I have had occasion to consider bank transfers, specifically how money that once belonged to one of us becomes officially ours when it gets deposited into that account. This is also true with the house that we live in. On May 25, 2019 and for the fifteen years prior, it was Mike’s house, but as of May 26, 2019, it was our house. [And, for the record, it is technically in the middle of our street… you’re welcome. :D]. 

I’ve been thinking about how relationships can work this way too. 

Long before our wedding—in fact, in the first few weeks of knowing Mike—I came to love his family and friends. Now, it just so happens that they are fundamentally wonderful people. They are good, good folks who are really enjoyable to be around; I would spend time with them even if Mike weren’t in the picture. But the fact remains that my love for them is informed by his love for them.

Part of being in love with Mike involves stepping into his love for other people; I don’t see my love for his people as a separate entity from his:


Rather, I see it as mapping directly onto his:

He transfers his love to me, which explains how, over time, they become no longer just Mike’s people but our people.

I realize that you might be saying, “Sarah Jackson, this is all very obvious. As people spend time with their loved ones’ loved ones, they tend to take them on, as it were. All you’ve done is add a few Word doc-quality graphics to illustrate the point.” Granted. But I would add two things: 1.) I am a child of the 90s and will never stop marveling at the ability to apply a gradient to a basic geometric shape at the click of a button. 2.) I’ve recently begun to think that the transfer of love can be more complicated and profound than I originally thought.

I have a friend—we’ll call her Maggie—who has someone in her life—we’ll call her Kate—who is, by most standards, a bit of a mess. Without going into too many details, I will say that Kate’s series of personal struggles have landed her in legal trouble, have hindered her from having fulfilling romantic relationships, and have caused much angst and heartache to the few people who have stuck with her through it all, Maggie being chief among them. The entire time I’ve known Maggie, I have heard stories about Kate and have been impressed by Maggie’s continued love for Kate even as she attempts to navigate the relationship so it is healthier for herself. While Maggie has distanced herself somewhat from Kate out of necessity, her love for her friend is undiminished. 

A few months ago, I happened to think about Kate, whom I’ve never met, and realized, to my surprise, that I love her. This was quite a shock to me because, apart from the love I owe her as a human, there is no reason for me to love her. She has hurt my friend deeply and repeatedly. She has chosen paths in life that are destructive to herself and others. I do not think she is someone with whom I would like to spend any significant amount of time. And yet, there it undeniably was: a love for Kate.

The only possible explanation I can think of is that over time, Maggie transferred her love for Kate to me. Her love turned into my love. This wasn’t a conscious choice on either of our parts. I think it is just the nature of love.

In the Christian Bible, we read, “We love because [God] first loved us” (1 John 4:19). This is one of the most popular verses in Christian circles and I’ve heard it over and over since I was a child. Most of my life, I understood it in one of two ways, one instructional and one phycological. First, I considered how humans are capable of love because we have God’s primary and preeminent model, most especially in the person of Jesus. In other words, “We love because God showed us how to love.” Any love we have is an imitation of God’s much bigger love:

The second interpretation that I’ve considered is that humans are capable of love because we feel loved. In other words, “We love because God’s love for us brings forth our created capacity to love.”  My love is a response to God’s much bigger love:

I think these ideas get at some of the truth, but I’m also starting to see the verse in more spatial, even geographical, terms. If I love God, if I am in love with God, then I step into God’s love that already exists. In other words, “We love because we can choose to enter God’s infinite sphere of love.” My love is a location within God’s love:


The particular coordinates of that location depend on my environment, circumstances, and personality, but the main point is that I have a choice to dwell in God’s loving activity. While I can’t get away from God’s love for me, (Psalm 139 and the book of Jonah make that pretty clear!) I can (and sadly often do) choose to step away from the participatory action of God’s love. But like an eternal dance, God’s love is ongoing, and I can rejoin at any point. 

This way of understanding 1 John 4:19 is helpful to me because I don’t feel like I have to muster up love from nothing or from deep within myself. Instead, I need only look for God’s love around me and join it, knowing that when I do, God’s love for people, for the world, for Godself, for me, for 90’s quality gradients, probably—all of it!—transfers to me.

Have a good week! 


Monday, December 24, 2018

"Prepare Him Room": In the Company of Children, Sinners, and Much of the Senate

Hi, everyone!

A few months ago, I was getting ready for bed on a Saturday night, thinking through my plans for the following day. In the morning, I’d be going to church, as I often do on Sundays, but I was especially looking forward to this service. My church, like many Protestant congregations, celebrates Communion only on the first Sunday of the month, and this week was it! 

I should back up a bit here and explain that Communion has become an increasingly central aspect of my religious practice. Christians believe many different—and at times conflicting—things about what Communion actually is, but almost all practice this ritual in some form. Among other beliefs about the Lord’s Supper, my traditions have taught me that it somehow, mysteriously, connects us to other Christians who have participated in it throughout the world and throughout all of time. This is an incredible notion. It means that when I share bread and wine with Christians in Columbus in 2018, we are somehow joining with the Christians I have worshipped with in Savannah in 2011, or South Africa in 2008, or France in 2006, or Tacoma in 2003, or Spokane in 2000. It means that I am sharing a meal with at least some of my ancestors, from generations stretching across centuries, as well as all those who will come after me, stretching until the end of time. When I consider this, that the mere act of walking up an aisle and putting a tiny scrap of bread and a few drops of wine into my mouth could bring me into the company of such a group, I am floored.

You might say this is all in my imagination, and perhaps it is. But one of the benefits of spending so much time around fictional narratives is that I have seen how sometimes the deepest truths can be communicated only through the imagination. What’s more, I am learning that communal imagination is a pretty powerful thing (a common view of the past, a common understanding of the present, a common goal for the future). We can’t know exactly what is happening when we join together in Communion, but this mystery is part of what makes it compelling; we know that it is good for us, we know it unites us, but we can’t know exactly how. All of this is to say that this upcoming encounter gave me much to think about as I was brushing my teeth that Saturday night.

Mingled in with my thoughts about my schedule and my excitement about church were more distressing ones about the big news story of the past few weeks: the Kavanaugh hearings. Like many in the country, I had been horrified at the way Dr. Ford had been treated by some Republicans senators, and I was furious at a few in particular who I believed to be acting with the basest, most heinously political motivations, caring far more for their party than for truth and justice. (I realize some of the Democrats involved were far from blameless during this process as well, but my anger was directed primarily at a few key Republicans.) Eventually, my many, scattered thoughts bumped up against each other long enough that I was left with a startling realization: Most, of the senators are practicing Christians, which means that most, if not all, of them have, at some time or another, taken Communion. This quickly lead to another, even more stunning idea:

I was being asked to get ready to share a meal—the central meal of my faith—with Mitch McConnell.

I was dumbfounded. I was going to be connected with people I not only disagree with, but who I believe are creating policy that actively hurts many of the people I love. That was not something I was mentally, emotionally, or imaginatively prepared to do. It is one thing to unite with some vaguely imagined early Christians. It is something else altogether to voluntarily share a meal with someone against whom you have railed tirelessly for the previous six days.

I realized I was holding a great deal of anger toward people whom God loves and whom I too, therefore, am called to love. The Christmas carol, “Joy to the World,” has a line I tend to gloss over: “Let every heart prepare Him room.” God makes it abundantly clear in the Bible that we love Him in large part by loving the people He loves (i.e., everyone). So if my heart is to prepare Him room, it has to prepare room for, well, everyone. And as I finished flossing my teeth, I knew at that moment, though I was ready for bed, my spiritual preparations were far from complete. There simply wasn’t room in my heart for Mitch McConnell and all the others. But how do we do that? How do Christians make room in our hearts for those we believe to be the worst among us? For those who are ruining lives and spreading a spirit of mistrust, division, and even hatred?

Partly through this ritual we claim to value. 

One of my most fundamental beliefs about the Lord’s Supper is that it is relentlessly, radically, nonsensically inclusive. The story we recall every time we “eat this bread” and “drink this cup” involves Jesus and his Twelve closest followers and friends. But what I don’t often enough consider are the words that many Christians use to begin Communion: “On the night he was betrayed…” Jesus chose to share this last meal with people who he knew would betray Him. Just a few hours after they ate and drank together, these people would deny knowing Him. They would fall asleep when He needed them most. One would even turn Him over to the authorities so that he could be killed. These were the people that Jesus chose in order to initiate this ultimate demonstration and experience of unity? These were the ones with whom He broke bread and shared wine, knowing they had already let Him down in ways they could never undo?

If Jesus included Peter, James and John, and Judas in His Last Supper, I was realizing, I had better make some room in my heart for Mitch. And Lindsey. And Brett.

And the only way for me to truly do that, I think, is through this ritual. Because Communion doesn’t just unite us with all Christians throughout all time. Ultimately, I am in the company of all of my spiritual family only because I am in the company of God Himself. And coming into God’s presence forces me to recognize how I too have betrayed the divine in myself and in my neighbor. Rather than participating in a potluck, where each party contributes a dish, I am lining up at a soup kitchen to receive nourishment I can’t provide on my own. 

In the Catholic tradition, there are several groups of Christians who are asked not to participate in Communion: children who have not yet gone through the process of learning about the Catholic understanding of the ritual; people who have committed what is called a “mortal sin” for which they have not yet gone to Confession; and Protestants. I don’t agree with the reasoning behind these requests, and my own inability (as a Protestant) to participate fully in Communion in Catholic mass has been a source of ongoing struggle for me. However, one benefit of this system is that it has reminded me that I am not above the “least of these”—children, sinners, and religious outcasts (those, as it turns out, with whom Jesus was most frequently, and scandalously, known to associate). 

So to the extent that there is communion among those of us in line for this soup kitchen meal, it is because we recognize that none of us deserves to be here, but we have been invited nevertheless. It is a phenomenal paradox: we prepare our hearts to share a meal with those we cannot stand, those whose motives are mixed, or even those who may soon turn away from God, by sharing a meal with them. 

Another fundamental paradox in Communion is the marriage of justice and mercy. God cannot and does not turn away from the deep wrong we wreak in the world. Just because He broke bread with Judas doesn’t mean Jesus wasn’t killed because Judas literally sold him out. “Joy to the World” also tells us that God “makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness and wonders of His love.” All of us, and especially those in positions of power, will be held accountable for the degree to which we have proven God’s righteousness and love. The inclusivity of Communion isn’t letting anyone off the hook. Rather, it exposes that, apart from our status as being beloved by God, we are perhaps most united in our failure to love Him well.

I have been challenged this Advent season to remember the importance of Herod in the Christmas narrative. It’s always struck me as a bit unfortunate that we have to talk about him in what would otherwise be a story filled with wonder, joy, and some cute animals. There is a reason our Christmas songs dwell on all the characters but him; it’s just not pleasant to consider the political ugliness and violence of Herod. But this year, I am grateful for his presence in the story, even if I am not grateful for him. He reminds us that God knowingly chooses to enter a world made ugly by our violence and division. He reminds us that Jesus came to save Herod as much as He did Mary. Put another way, he came to save Mitch as much as he did Mouse. Whatever Herod and Mitch do with that offer is not my business. I am called only to eat with them if ever they join the table.

Have a wonderful week! I’m assuming if you have made it this far, you celebrate Christmas, so I’ll wish you a happy one! 


Monday, November 26, 2018

Re-formation Part 4: Six Reminders

Hi, everyone! 

This is the last in a series on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation which I started a year ago and am only now finishing (because, well, PhD...), six months before our wedding. Today, I conclude my list of twenty lessons I’ve learned from being in relationship with my fiancé Mike. He is Catholic and I am Protestant, and this difference has been the source of many discussions, much learning, and, at times, tension. 

I began with seven attitudes I’ve found have helped as we move forward in an intentionally ecumenical relationship. Last time, I discussed seven mistakes I am prone to make when I consider our religious differences. Now, I end the list of lessons with six things that I’m trying to keep in mind, knowing that some of our differences of opinion and belief cannot be easily (or ever) resolved.

15.) I need to be willing to cut the conversation short. 

Mike and I love to talk about anything, but where religion is concerned, we could (and sometimes do) go on for hours. In theory, I appreciate that we will likely never come to neat resolutions on some issues, but in the moment, I find myself wanting to continue until we have reached a point of agreement (or at least until I have made all of the points I wanted to make!). I’m not great at conversational cliff-hangers, especially when they mean that I might not have been fully understood.

This can lead to conversations that are heated or long—usually both. Mike is much better about recognizing this tendency than I am, and he can table the conversation, knowing he can return to it later. Inspired by this, I’ve started thinking of this practice as a spiritual discipline. In the same way that someone struggling with overeating might decide to stop munching on snacks even in the face of cravings, I need to learn to exercise restraint when it comes to discussions (as anyone who has ever had a conversation with me in a car or past 11:00 pm can likely attest). 

16.) I need to be patient, recognizing that a single topic may take multiple conversations to discuss. 

I am much more willing to cut a discussion short if I remember that some topics need time to sit and develop. One of the very best things about marrying Mike is that we literally have the rest of our lives to talk! Some conversations are like poems or short stories, intentional and meaningful, but short and contained. Some are novels, lengthy and rich, but still digestible as a single unit for those who are up for the challenge. Many of our conversations, though, are the equivalent of the Harry Potter series. Epic and expansive, they have to be experienced in installments. Characters and themes weave in and out, and I find myself growing up and growing deeper as we return to them over time. It takes discipline to put down a compelling book halfway through or to wait for the next installment in a series to be released. But waiting, I’ve learned is part of the process; waiting is where much of the processing and transformation happens.

17.) I need to seek practical solutions even if we there aren’t ideological ones. 

Mike and I have come to understand a lot about each other and at times have even changed our minds about long-held beliefs. However, I realize that there are some things about which we will never be in exact agreement. A relationship is lived in reality, not just in ideas. How, we have to ask ourselves, do we work toward a concrete compromise without letting go of beliefs that are important to us as individuals? 

One example involves a few aspects of wedding planning. There are a lot of Catholic traditions and requirements for a wedding service that simply aren’t important to me, and a few which I object to for one reason or another. Mike understands my perspective and even shares some of my objections, but because it is important to him that our marriage is recognized by the Catholic church, we have to follow the guidelines we have been given. If we each took a 100% ideologically pure position, we would be stuck. And that would be ridiculous. One of the few things I’m 100% sure about is that I want to marry Mike, so to make that happen, we each budge a bit. We will be married in a Catholic service, but we are asking a Protestant minister to be a concelebrant. The Scripture passages read in the ceremony will be among those permitted in a Catholic wedding, but we will attempt to choose ones that reflect a vision of marriage that I am willing and wanting to sign up for.  

Just this one situation has involved a lot of hard work and has taken months to hash out, and I know that there will be many more examples in the future. Being with Mike will continue to challenge me to be a person of both principle and compromise.

18.) I need to remember the Lund principle. 

This principle comes out of the 1952 World Council of Churches in Lund, Sweden, and says that churches of different denominations should do everything together except that which, in good conscience, they must do separately. What I find so helpful about this challenge is that it assumes we have more in common than not. Most of the time, in other words, we should be living life together. The times when we need to act separately are actually quite rare. While the Lund principle was intended for ecumenical relations among Christian denominations, it is a helpful reminder for Mike and me as well. 

I’ve discovered that I have a strange tendency when it comes to people who are different from me. The more different we are, the more likely I am to find and celebrate our similarities.  

Paradoxically, the more similar people are to me, the more likely I am to focus on the areas where we differ. 

This is ludicrous, but I know I’m not alone. Certainly there are conflicts based on major categories of difference, but some of the most ardent disagreements come about the most minute variations in opinion or belief. How many fights have people in the same congregation had over worship style or the type of bread at Communion? How are we able to focus so intently on such minor differences? 

That’s not to say, of course, that the differences are always insignificant, or that we should pretend they aren’t there. But if the majority of what Mike and I believe is the same, maybe we should be spending the majority of our time living out those beliefs. Together.

19.) I need to see the bigger picture always. 

One of my favorite picturebooks is Seven Blind Mice, by Ed Young, an adaptation of an old Indian fable in which seven blind men try to identify a new object. Each man (or mouse!) encounters a different part of the object and describes it to the rest of the group. One compares it to a snake. Another insists it is a pillar. Another says it is a fan. It is only the last man (or mouse!) that investigates the object thoroughly, reporting that while it has the characteristics of a snake, or pillar, or fan, all together, it is an elephant. The truth comes from many perspectives, from seeing not just the parts but the whole.

If I had to choose a life motto, it would be “There is always a bigger picture” (well, that or, “Strive to be a balance of Bert and Ernie”). So how does this sentiment apply to my relationship with Mike? There are, I think, two ways: First, it encourages me to remember there is a bigger picture to Mike than what I experience in any given conversation (see lessons 1-5 and 8-12). Second, it reminds me that the bigger picture of our relationship is one of joyful agreement, unity and partnership. 

I recently came across a TEDx talk in which Julia Galef suggests two metaphors for the way we interact with information. We can be soldiers, wanting to defend our beliefs, or we can be scouts, wanting to see the whole truth clearly. I want to be a scout (and not just because I like To Kill a Mockingbird). 

20.) I need to remember that my job with Mike is the same as it is with every human: to see and respond to God in him. 

I don’t think I’ll ever be un-astounded at this aspect of my faith. As he is wont to do, C. S. Lewis puts it best: “The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. [. . .] it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.” So when Mike and I disagree, which we will continue to do at times, I need to respond as though I’m speaking with God Himself. Just typing that sentence gives me shivers. What an honor. What a responsibility. What a gift.

One of the little attention-focusing devices I came up with while I was teaching preschool was to ask the children to turn their ears on (we then pretend we’re turning a switch by each ear and say “Bing! Bing!”), and turn their eyes on (“Bing! Bing!”). The kids seemed to like it and I often found myself using this technique half a dozen times or more in a given day. How would my life change—how would my relationship with Mike change—if, even half a dozen times a day, I turned my eyes on (“Bing! Bing!”) to see the divine in those around me? Would I still focus on ideological and doctrinal differences, seeing people in categories of “us” and “them”?

From what I can tell, the people who model this ability to see the divine in others don’t. Rather, they approach people with loving curiosity, intentional empathy, and relentless humility. They don’t deny genuine differences among people, but they also don’t make differences the defining features of a relationship. That's quite a lot to aspire to. But, as evidenced by the incredibly divided nature of our politics, our religions, our families, and our communities, there are plenty of opportunities to practice! 

I’m sure I’ll write more about my relationship with Mike later, but for now, I’ll end by thanking those of you who have responded in person or online to these thoughts. Thanks also to the many of you who have inspired or encouraged these thoughts in the first place. Please keep the conversation going! How are you dealing with the divided world in which we live? How do you work and learn alongside people with whom you disagree? What lessons can you share? 

Have a week full of unity, curiosity, and love! 


Friday, December 22, 2017

Re-formation Part 3: Seven Mistakes

Hi, everyone! 

This is the third entry in a series regarding lessons I’ve learned through my relationship with my fiancé, Mike. The first week, I made a case that the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation serves as a timely reminder to reform our beliefs and practices to reflect ever-richer understandings of truth. At the same time, however, it can remind us to be continuously re-forming ourselves into a unified body, even with people with whom we do not always agree. Last time, I discussed seven attitudinal approaches which I have learned I need to work on as I (a Protestant) continue to build a relationship with Mike (a Catholic). 

This week, I am focusing on seven mistakes I either have made or could make as Mike and I discuss our religious differences.

8.) I need to not mistake the whole for the part. 

While I know other Catholics, Mike is the first with whom I have spent so much time comparing notes, so to speak. This means that most of what I know about Catholicism is from him or from resources he passes on to me. I have to remind myself that his perspective, as well informed and rich as it is, is only one of many that make up Catholic experience. While there are some fundamental similarities in practice and belief throughout time and across cultures, there is an undeniable—and remarkable!—diversity in Catholicism as well. This means I need to remember to ask questions like, “What might other Catholics think about _____?” alongside ones like, “What do you think about _____?”, recognizing that they may yield different responses.

9.) I need to not mistake the part for the whole.

Just as Catholicism is more than Mike, Mike is more than Catholicism. This is so obvious, but I confess that in the midst of a debate about doctrine or practice, I can have remarkable tunnel vision. I can forget that the person in front of me is a person with ideas, not an idea posing as a person. Occasionally, when I am disagreeing with a particular concept in Catholicism, I find myself associating it so totally with Mike that he becomes an ideological position in my mind. I am learning that I need to be able to distinguish between, “I think Mike is wrong,” and “I think _____, which Mike believes, is wrong.” The former conflates Mike and the belief we are discussing while the latter acknowledges that there is more to him than this one position.

10.) I need to not forget that our relationship is bigger than any debate we may be having.

Mike and I talk about religion a fair amount. But we also don’t. We ride bikes, and go on walks, and tell jokes, and make dinner, and watch movies, and have thumb wars, and go on road trips, and go to concerts, and do any number of other things. And yet, in the middle of a disagreement, I can forget the rest of our relationship for a moment because I am so focused on my point.

A while ago, we were on a walk on a gorgeous fall day in one of Columbus’ awesome metro parks. As we went, we became embroiled in a debate about something or other. The further into the woods we got, the further we got into our disagreement. After some time, I could tell I was becoming tense and I realized I hadn’t been paying attention at all to our surroundings. So, I interrupted us and asked for a break. We looked up at the trees around us, and I tried to take a minute to breathe in the golden afternoon—as I stood in a beautiful place with a person I love. We eventually returned to the conversation but when we did, I was also able to be grateful for Mike’s commitment to spending time in nature with me.

11.) I need to not speak for him.

Last week, I wrote that part of truly listening to Mike involves me being able to articulate his position on an issue. While I do think this can help me get a handle on his ideas, I cannot assume that I am always accurately expressing what he would say. I need to check in with him often, making sure that I’m getting his position right. For instance, before posting these blogs, I ask Mike to read over them and I make revisions based on his feedback as I attempt to better capture his reasoning, wording, and tone when I convey his ideas.

12.) I need to not assume Mike is thinking and feeling the same things I am. 

We are on the same page about most things, but we will always be two different people with two distinct personalities, perspectives, and experiences in the world. And as much as we can try to understand how the other is thinking or feeling, this will never be fully possible. 

One major difference between us is how we think about the future. I consider it emotionally as well as logistically, experiencing emotions about events or upcoming changes long before they actually happen. Mike plans logistically but deals emotionally with events as they happen. I admire this approach and am trying to adopt it, but for now, I need to keep in mind that he may not be currently experiencing the same anxiety, grief, or frustration I may have about a particular aspect of the future. This doesn’t mean he won’t eventually feel these things or that he doesn’t care. It is essential, though, that we realize we’re coming from different places.

The players on a doubles tennis team work together and are usually even facing the same direction, but they experience the game from different positions. Mike and I are on the same team, facing the same direction, but inevitably experience our life together through our distinct perspectives. 

[An important and related aside: these twenty lessons I am sharing here—including the mistakes—are ones that I have experienced. There is undoubtedly some overlap in his experience of our relationship, but I am speaking for myself in these blog posts, not for him. If you are curious about his take on any of this, you can ask him!]

13.) I need to not assume Mike is thinking and feeling something different from me.

I have come to realize that I have a paradoxical task during conversations with Mike. I have to remember that disagreements may arise because we are thinking differently about a topic and because we are thinking similarly about it. Sometimes, it seems, we are arguing the same thing but this is hard to see because we are doing so from our different perspectives. 

One example came up during our discussions of the Reformation. It was only after revisiting this topic many times that I saw that Mike and I were both speaking about our respective traditions as the original faith. Catholics might see themselves as the most authentic expression of Christianity because they had been around for hundreds of years before the birth of Protestantism and because they believe the leadership of the Catholic Church can be traced back to the original Twelve Apostles. Protestants, on the other hand, might see themselves as being closer to the original Christian message because they rejected some Catholic practices and doctrines that had developed over time in order to return to what they believe is a truer vision of Christianity found in the Bible. Mike and I may not agree on what, exactly, we think God’s original vision for His church is, but through these conversations, we demonstrated that we both want to be as close to it as possible. These kind of reminders are essential because they help me remember that Mike and I want the same things for ourselves and the world.

14.) I need to not be emotionally binary. 

Emotions can be powerful things. They can overrule thoughts, instincts, and even other emotions. Just as I need to remember that Mike is more than his Catholicism, I need to remember that I feel more than one thing about him. My feelings change over time, sure. That’s not hard for me (or anyone around me!) to recognize. A much harder challenge is to try to feel more than one emotion about Mike at a time. Rather than being happy, then mad, then happy again—a sort of emotional binary—I am trying to experience multiple sentiments simultaneously. Even in the midst of a tense discussion, when feelings of anger or frustration arise, can I recall—not just intellectually but also emotionally—the other feelings I have about Mike? Not often, to be sure. But when I can, I am operating out of a more holistic understanding of our relationship. 

Over the past year or so, I have made most, if not all of these mistakes, and I am sure I will make them again. But spelling them out helps me be aware of my tendency to slip into these habits. 

Next time, I’ll conclude this “mini-series” with some of the ways I’ve been challenged to live in a loving relationship in which not everything can be neatly resolved. Until then, and if you have a moment, consider asking yourself what habits you have needed to break in your relationships in order to live well with someone with whom you do not always agree. 

Have a good week! 


Sunday, November 12, 2017

Re-formation Part 2: Seven Attitudinal Approaches

Hi, everyone! 

Last week, in recognition of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I wrote about how my understanding of this monumental shift in Christian history has changed since being with Mike, my fiancé. I discussed how I’ve been challenged to think about reformation as being about reforming practice and doctrine and about re-forming ourselves into one body. 

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to share twenty different lessons I’ve learned by being with Mike. He is both a person whom I love so much that I’m willing to spend my life with him and a person with whom I sometimes disagree due to our different Christian cultures and beliefs. We both love talking and learning about religion and we are finding that the frequent conversations about our differences are helping us grow intellectually and spiritually. We are also learning about how to be in relationship with someone when you don’t always find perfect consensus. My hope is that these twenty lessons might have wider application for us all as we continue to try to live alongside people who don’t always share our worldviews or beliefs. 

This week, I am focusing on seven lessons I’ve learned about my attitudinal approach to being in a relationship with Mike. 

1.) I need to foster and demonstrate curiosity. 

As the daughter of a journalist and as a teacher, I have long known that questions are my love language. If someone takes the time to ask me a question about my life, they demonstrate that they care enough about me to want to know me better. 

That said, not all questions are created equal. A question can be well worded and intellectually stimulating, but if it is not coupled with authentic curiosity, I will take it as a display of verbal prowess rather than an attempt to truly learn about me. Questions, in other words, can be both selfish and selfless. 

I have learned that I need to ask Mike questions about Catholicism in ways that show I am genuinely interested in what he and the Catholic Church has to say about a matter. This means asking open-ended questions. It means saying things like, “Tell me about the Catholic view of _____,” rather than, “How could Catholics believe _____?” It means asking for examples of what he is describing so I can better understand his points. It means continuously checking—and recalibrating—my motivations when asking him about his beliefs. 

2.) I need to constantly try to see Mike’s perspective. 

Being curious about Mike’s point of view is not enough. I need to also attempt, as best I can, to see the world from his point of view. This is hard; he and I will always view the world differently. But if I am going to try to live and build a life with someone who believes some things I do not and who doesn’t believe some things I do, I need to try to imagine what it would be like to see life from his set of experiences and his personality and his belief system. 

I am lucky because I spend my life surrounded by stories, which help build my empathetic imagination muscles. But, especially when we are dealing with a topic I feel very strongly about, I need more than the practice I’ve had. I have found that there are some specific things which I can do to help me get a sense of his perspective: 

a.) I can ask him further questions to clarify his point. This is obvious, perhaps, but essential. For example, we have talked a lot about the Catholic practice of going to a priest for confession, as opposed to confessing to God either individually or corporately during a service (which both Protestants and Catholics do). During these discussions, I can ask what confessing to a priest is like for him. Even if I am not convinced that I should change my practices, I can at least try to understand why his are so important to him. 

b.) I can ask other Catholics I know about their take on the matter. At times, a fresh perspective or even a simple change of wording helps me grasp a concept I was struggling with. 

c.) I can look online when I’m on my own. This has been a particularly helpful trick for me, and I often find myself googling, “Why do Catholics believe _____?” Mike can’t be expected to fully explain his complex beliefs on the spot, just as I couldn’t with mine. Looking for articulations of his perspective online helps me to encounter a variety of explanations of a particular belief with incredible efficiency. If, after doing so, I still disagree with the perspectives I’m encountering, this method also allows me to have emotional or intellectual reactions in solitude rather than with Mike. I don’t hide those reactions from Mike, of course, but I can sort through them and tell him about them when I’m calmer. (For the record, I certainly don’t attempt to keep my emotions from Mike; I just want to be sure that I truly am approaching something he loves dearly with respectful curiosity rather than antagonism or anger.)

3.) I need to truly listen. 

So much of the time when I think I’m listening to Mike (or anyone, for that matter!), I’m not. I may be hearing what he is saying. I may even be able to repeat what he said. But can I articulate his position to someone else? Can I explain not just his words but his argument or perspective? Even if I fully disagree with everything he says, can I at least understand why he is saying it? This is a humbling and constantly challenging task. But without an ability to truly listen to each other (and opportunities to demonstrate that we have done so), we will not feel respected or heard.  Our words will be ships passing in the night rather than two ends of an oar pulling a kayak in a single (albeit possibly as-yet-unknown) direction. 

4.) I need to assume the best in Mike, trusting that he is saying something worth saying. 

Like most humans, I don’t always say what I mean on my first try. I stumble and say the wrong thing or forget to say something crucial. So I know as well as anyone that someone might need a bit of time to hash out what they’re trying to say, especially with something as complicated and deeply rooted as religion. When Mike makes a point that seems irrational or even offensive to me, I have to try to remember the bigger picture. Normally he makes a lot of sense to me and he never wants to offend me; I have to assume that he is making sense from his perspective, even if I don’t yet understand how.

5.) I need to focus on my love for him and his love for me before and more than any attempts at persuasion. 

Both Mike and I enjoy a hearty debate from time to time, and especially when it comes to issues we have discussed before, we have moved beyond an initial curiosity into solid disagreement. He believes he is right and will bring whatever arguments and resources he can to the issue, and I, believing I am right, do the same. But I have to remind myself before, during, and after these debates, that our love for each other is bigger than any point one or the other of us might think we’ve won. Again, like many of these lessons, this is so obvious, but heated debate has a way of distracting us from our priorities. 

6.) I need to have a sense of humor. 

Disagreement, by its very nature, is often quite tense. It is serious and passionate. And yet, as in a Shakespearean tragedy, some lighthearted comic relief can go a long way. We don’t always get this right: I have a strong sense of sarcasm which isn’t always charitable, and Mike tends to speak in hyperbole which I often mistake for his actual opinions about a matter. But our attempts at humor are still worthwhile because they provide points of agreement (we both think this joke was funny), opportunities to serve the other (I will take up your bid to be funny and laugh), and reminders that any disagreement we are having is probably not ultimately as important as it might seem in that given moment. 

7.) I need to be grateful for our disagreements. 

One of the first things that brought Mike and me together was our interest in religion, and most of our first conversations involved faith to one degree or another. So as frustrated or even angry as I might be in a disagreement, I try to remember how rare it is to find someone who is not only invested in his faith, but also wants to talk about it as much as I do. In other words, I am so thankful that I have someone with whom I can disagree so vehemently and so frequently! While they are not the only factor in our relationship, these conversations are instrumental in forming us into the individuals and couple we are. Just as I am grateful for difficult periods in my life that have shaped my moral, relational, social, and spiritual growth, I am grateful for discussions that challenge me to think beyond the comfort of my own (sometimes unexamined) beliefs. 

I should be clear: while I am learning that these attitudinal characteristics can be helpful, I am far from being able to embody any of them on a regular basis. I see them as goals, not as descriptors of my habits or character. Also, while I’ll talk more about this in the coming weeks, it’s important to emphasize here: Mike and I have much more in common than not. In fact, our frequent conversations about minor religious differences are possible (and enjoyable!) only because we are already on the same page about so many other things.

Next time, I’ll discuss seven mistakes I have made or continue to make in relationship with Mike as we continue to work toward unity without uniformity. For now, I’ll simply end with a challenge: what attitudinal shift can you make regarding someone with whom you disagree? 

Have a good week! 


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Happy (and Sad) Re-form-ation Day!

Hi, everyone! 

As many of you may be aware, today is not only Halloween, but also the 500th anniversary of Reformation Day. This marks the day that Martin Luther posted his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg (in what is now Germany) thereby setting off the Protestant Reformation. This was never a day I celebrated, but as a Protestant, I understood the significance of Luther’s actions and saw them—and the Reformation more broadly—to be largely positive events. After all, in addition to speaking against the undeniable corruption in the Church at the time, Luther’s writings spell out the foundations of some of the main tenets of Protestant belief. Moreover, some of the changes which Luther and other reformers proposed (such as the ability for people to both read the Bible and attend services in their own languages) have now been adopted by Roman Catholics. 

It is only in getting to know my fiancé, Mike, this last year that I began to understand more deeply the other side of this monumental shift in Christian history. Mike, who is Catholic, has helped me see that for many Catholics, the Reformation was less about purifying church practice and returning to scriptural essentials than it was about the fracturing of the Church. And this is especially tragic because, as most Christians believe, the Church acts as the body of Jesus in the world. So the divisions between Catholics and Protestants and the subsequent divisions between the hundreds of Protestant denominations represent more than a difference of opinion about doctrine. They also represent the fragmentation, division, and separation of Jesus’ very presence. It is no wonder that many Catholics pray regularly for the reunification of the Church. (For the record, many Protestants do too.) 

In talking about our different Christian backgrounds, Mike and I realized that we have rather different pictures of Luther and the Reformation. I tend to see Luther as a hero of the faith, someone who followed God’s call to purify religious experience and return to the essentials of Christian teaching. I see him as a prophetic force for good who began his own alternative sect of Christianity only after his calls for reform were rejected by those in power. Mike, on the other hand, sees Luther as a well-meaning priest who, in a much needed attempt to re-focus the Church on God's mercy and love, ended up creating a new understanding of salvation that seemed to be incompatible with the teachings of the Church. I certainly acknowledge that Luther’s theology has some questionable aspects, and Mike certainly acknowledges that Catholicism eventually adopted some of the changes Luther and others called for. On the whole, though, we saw the Protestant Reformation from different perspectives based on the stories we’d each grown up hearing.

We like to think and talk about religion, and we spend a good deal of time discussing and debating various aspects of our faith. We’ve had many conversations about all of the typical points of disagreement: transubstantiation (does the bread and the wine at Communion become the actual body of Christ?); the apostolic succession vs. the priesthood of all believers (who gets to be a priest?); salvation by works and faith or by faith alone (do we in any way earn our salvation?); and many more. Not surprisingly, we haven’t been able to resolve in one year what Christians haven’t resolved in 500. 

As I have thought more carefully about a Catholic understanding of the Reformation this year, I have been challenged to think more carefully about the word reform. I have always understood the “reform” in “Reformation” to be about making positive changes to bring us closer to the Church’s intended purpose. But now, when I think of the sadness with which Catholics speak of the splintering of the Church, I can’t help but consider that reform might also remind Christians of our need to re-form ourselves into one body. There is no doubt that Christianity is divided, maybe as divided as it has ever been. And I believe that this is not only a cause of great sorrow to God, but also an explicit contradiction of our call in 1 Corinthians 12:12 to be “one body” having “many parts.” 

So how should we balance reform and re-form? How do we live in unity but not uniformity?

These questions are not just for Christians. In the last year, in addition to the joy of meeting Mike, I have also experienced the despair of seeing my country sink further into its political divisions than it has in my lifetime, perhaps ever. In the last year, a president was elected precisely because he boasted of borders and fanned the flames of fracture. In the last year, people in the U.S. and around the world have been forced to ask whether they truly want to be unified with the other side, with an abstract other, a them. Increasingly, it seems, the answer is no. 

Though this is not one of the reasons Mike and I are getting married, one benefit of living alongside someone with whom I disagree is that I get regular practice at balancing reform-ation and re-form-ation. Choosing to live your life with someone forces you to un-them-ify your perspective. It forces you to acknowledge that the opposing view is held by a human—a human whom you love and who loves you—not merely a faceless name on the Internet. It forces you to return to basics while also hashing out specifics. 

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to share a number of lessons I’ve learned about living with and loving someone with whom I don’t always agree. I don’t claim to have any answers whatsoever, but my hope is that sharing these thoughts might prompt some more for all of us as we face one of the biggest challenges of our times.

For now, I’ll just say this: happy and sad Reformation Day. May both the happiness and sadness of this day drive us to keep reform-ing our beliefs and re-form-ing ourselves. 


Friday, July 21, 2017

"In love"

Hi, everyone! 

As many of you know, for the past year, I have been dating a man named Mike. I think he is kind and smart and playful and hilarious and weird and wonderful and I have felt so, so lucky to know him, let alone spend so much time with him. There is so much that I love about him, but I also just love him. 

As we were first getting to know each other, some of my friends would ask me what I was already asking myself, “Are you in love?” This seems like it would be a straightforward question which, for some people, might take time, some serious thinking, and even intense soul-searching, but which should eventually yield a clear “yes” or a clear “no.” However, I found it quite difficult to answer. The problem was that I’ve always been a bit puzzled by what being “in love” really means. 

The issue, I think, is a deluge rather than a dearth of definitions (side note: I fully admit I included the previous sentence primarily for my father and brother; the alliteration for my father and the potential band name idea for my brother). Hollywood, of course, has a significant investment in defining “being in love.” According to most romantic comedies, it involves two (usually heterosexual, white, non-disabled, middle- or upper-middle-class) people who are both palatably quirky (and one of whom probably works too much) finding each other, falling for each other, having a fight or at least a misunderstanding, followed by one of them rushing to the airport to catch the other one before they leave for good. 

Scientists tell us that being in love involves chemical changes to our bodies (mostly a lot of dopamine) and that the behavior and brains of people who are in love resemble the behavior and brains of drug addicts. So that’s cool. 

And as always, I’m interested in what children have to say. A few years ago, I asked the kids at my school a bunch of questions, including “What is love?” I realize this is different from asking about being “in love,” but I think the range of their responses reflect some of my bafflement about how to understand the phrase: 
  • “Someone who takes care of the other one.”
  • “Love is called Frozen. Elsa said love . . . can I have some distance ‘cause everything seems small . . . [hums]”
  • “It’s when someone likes you and wants to be your friend.” 
  • “It’s something where people get married and they um . . . and they also go to shops with people. And that’s all I know about love. Oh, and they also kiss.”
  • “It means you love somebody. It means you love them forever and they’ll always help you.”
  • “Like you love your dad, your mom, or your teacher, or your friend.” 
  • “Love is love.” [That’s right, people! A four-year-old in southwestern WA had this phrase coined long before Lin Manuel Miranda did…]
  • “My mom. Love is going to school and a party.” 
  • “Love is ummm . . . green!” 
  • “Love is about happy things.”
  • “Something when you hug each other.”
  • “Love is giving something to other people.”
  • “Love is something when you love something and I don’t know what love is.” 
  • “It’s a . . . it’s like . . . if you share something with someone.”
  • “When someone likes you and wants to marry you.”
  • “Love means you love someone that you haven’t married yet, so that’s what love is. And when you’re asleep, the Easter Bunny will bring you Easter treats and Easter trains and even a firetrucks.” 
  • “It’s just what we do.” 

That last one makes the most sense to me. defines “in love” as being “infused with or feeling deep affection or passion.” And to me, that’s what living is all about; it’s just what we do!

Now, I realize I probably pay more attention to prepositions than most folks, but I do think that the humble word “in” deserves a closer look. My computer’s dictionary (the New Oxford American) offers the following definitions for “in”:

  1. expressing the situation of something that is or appears to be enclosed or surrounded by something else.
  2. expressing a period of time during which an event takes place or a situation remains the case.
  3. expressing the length of time before a future event is expected to take place.
  4. expressing a state or condition.
  5. expressing inclusion or involvement.
  6. indicating someone's occupation or profession.
  7. indicating the language or medium used.
  8. as an integral part of.

Like most prepositions, “in” is an incredibly flexible word. And as I’ve written about before, so is “love.” So to me, putting these words together necessitates a rather wide range of applications. When seen through the lens of love, most, if not all, of the definitions of “in” above add meaning and nuance to the experience. I’ve known people who want to experience being “in love” either for the first time or again. And while I recognize that being single in a world that often seems designed for couples can be exhausting, lonely, and even humiliating, I suspect our culture puts too much emphasis on a very narrow definition of “in love.” Maybe if we consider that love is something that can surround us, that is a state or condition, that includes and involves, that can be both a profession and a language, that helps people understand that they are an integral part of something—in other words, maybe if we allow ourselves to enter fully into the metaphoric resonances of that phrase—we could live more full and loving lives. The way I see it, if I think of love as a space I can choose to step into rather than only a condition that can overtake me, I can always be in love! It’s just a question of with what or with where or with whom.

So when my friends were first asking me whether I was in love with Mike, my initial answer was, “Well, of course I am. But I’m also in love with elephants and my family and Pad Thai and God and my friends and the USPS and grilled cheese and South Africa and my students and the Northwest and hot chocolate and preschoolers and books and Cezanne and Werther’s Originals and, most recently, miniature stop signs.” I already thought of myself as “in love,” just not in the way most people define it. But I knew my friends weren’t really asking about that. They wanted to know whether, in the words of my student, I liked Mike and (maybe, possibly, eventually) wanted to marry him.

This may surprise you, but over the course of the year that we’ve been dating, I did even more thinking and reflecting. And I came to an answer to the question my friends were really asking. So last week, when Mike asked me to marry him, my answer was a clear and immediate yes. Followed by about twenty more all in a row.

Am I in love with Mike? Yes. Absolutely. And I’m so excited to marry him and spend my life with him. But part of the reason I knew this was the case as early as I did was because I’d had a lot of practice being in love and I am fortunate to be surrounded by people who model being in love with so many aspects of life. It’s just what they do! 

Have a great week, and may you be in love each day!