Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Two-Faith Marriage


            For thousands of years, people have expected their children to marry within their family faith and culture. Family life, in its largest sense, is easier this way. Marriage partners are easier to find among shared communities like synagogues, mosques, parochial schools or parishes; families know more about each other and often form smoother in-law relationships. Religious rituals bind partners to preceding generations as well as to their future children and to one another. All the thousand small, nearly invisible connections shared faith creates helps to enable more stable marriages and thicker, stronger emotional ties between parents, children, in-laws and the larger religious community.
            It isn’t the distrust of the outside world as much as the desire to sustain the uniqueness of a specific religious worldview that has linked Catholic to Catholic, Jew to Jew, Muslim to Muslim, Hmong to Hmong in marriage for generations. The practical, easier simplicity of shared meanings between spouses hold traditions and expectations in place. And so, for generations, parents have expected their children to partner with people of their faith traditions; this has been especially critical to religions that have relatively small numbers compared to the general population, as Jews are, for example, in the United States.
            So, if a good Jewish young adult woman, whose faith teaches her that mothers are the parent who “passes down” the identity of Jew to the children, should begin to form a long-term relationship with a young adult male Gentile, a non-Jew, the tide of family anxiety may be loud. But now imagine an adult Jewish man planning to marry a Gentile woman: his children would not be considered religiously Jewish. The emotional hew and cry from his extended family may be so loud as to disrupt that planned marriage. While all this anxiety about blood lines and religious identity may be unwelcome and distressing, it’s quite understandable from a cultural point of view. But it doesn’t make it easier to manage this all within your own family. So what’s a “mixed marriage” couple to do?
1.      Understand and respect the family’s loyalty to their faith. While the family comments and distress may be pointed at you, it’s really not about you, personally. It’s about your possible intention of breaking community tradition and expectations.
2.      Take your time. Be sure those thousand small communal connections of the faith become more visible to you and that you try them on for size. They need to fit you, or at least be interesting and acceptable enough to have them become part of your life. What is simply a bother now may become intolerable. And intolerable isn’t good; it will kill a marriage.
3.      Negotiate before you commit. Work out the details of a future family life as much as you can. What is preferable you attend (Sunday service) and what is mandatory (Baptism)? Can you tolerate these agreements for the long run? Are they mutual? Talk them through, and even write them down.
4.      Can you agree to live within this negotiated difference? Expect this topic to never go away, but be a continuing area of adjustment, compromise and some level of sacrifice for the both of you. The larger presence of extended families, religious holidays, rituals, leaders and language will only increase this difference as you have children. Can you both embrace the long-term challenge in a positive, adjusted way?

            The two-faith marriage couple is on the increase across Western culture. And while such unions can appear to weaken a minority faith, sharing traditions can also strengthen the tolerance, appreciation and respect the majority has for minority traditions. It’s not all bad news! But a two-faith marriage is not easy, and is not for the faint of heart. Know what you need to do before you say “I do,” and your years together will much smoother.
           

Sunday, April 25, 2010

For teens texting is the new talking | Minnesota Public Radio NewsQ

Though late to the game, I have become a fan of the short-hand email version of communication, texting. At least, the positive, stay-in-touch with my teenagers feature of it.

But for this coming generation of near-adults, it seems that texting is the primary mode of relationship connection. What will that mean to them in the future?

Listen in to Kerri Miller's MidMorning talk show on MPR this week to hear a discussion of this topic.

For teens texting is the new talking | Minnesota Public Radio NewsQ

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Glad They Didn't Call

A couple of weeks back I wrote an essay for the Savage Pacer, one of the columns I have done for the paper every few weeks or so since 1997. This time, I wrote about my disgust with the Roman Catholic leadership about the decades of cover ups of child abuse and pedophilia that continue to be discovered. I am just one of the hundreds of people writing, blogging, speaking, and interviewing recently on this continuing scandal. My ideas are certainly not unique in any way, and are informed by my 25+ years of study and personal service as a pastor of the Church.

Want to read it? Here it is:  Savage Pacer column

It generated a lot of feedback. I'm happy I have more than a few readers, and that I can continue to inspire people with my words. But the most angry people respond, of course, and their letters to the editor were printed in the paper last week. I decided I didn't need to read them myself. I guess they were pointed upset and shocked. I'm just glad they didn't write to me at my house, or call me personally. For that, I thank those readers.

Those who agree with me, who have applauded my point of view, are not members of the Roman Church. They are my Lutheran, Episcopalian, and other religious and non-religious friends and readers, who see the same things I do, and despair that this Pope will make significant changes in the design and culture of Roman Catholic institutions.

With my column, I haven't made any new friends in the local Roman church, and I may have lost some. But I guess that wasn't my goal. My goal was to think and write about what is out in the world through a spiritual lens. Pedophilia and child abuse is part of the Church. If the safety of children in the Christian community isn't assured by every Christian, we have no business claiming to be communities that follow Jesus.

Despite all the emotion and distress by loyal believers, it's just that simple.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Easter : As Simply as I Can

I see it this way : God is part of the human experience. Constantly.

I believe that God uniquely joined with the one called Jesus and through him embodied the will and desire of God.  I hear in the NT gospels the constant pull of God toward healing, God's compassion for all human suffering, and God's dreams for a more just creation.

When Jesus was executed / crucified, I see the worse of human power brutalizing and silencing truth. God doesn't answer. Death happens. God allows the silence to speak.

And then God raises Jesus up from death. God heals Jesus even from death itself.

This is the central proclamation of the Christian faith: God is our Creator force whose hallmark is life, healing, and restoration. Along with others of the Christian community, I bear witness to God's drive to heal and restore the world. I have been healed. Over and over again.

And in death, even then, I will be healed and rise.

These are the central powers of God. And this is what Jesus, the Cross, the silence, and the Resurrection mean to me.



Image: "White Crucifixion," Marc Chagall, 1938

Friday, March 19, 2010

Family Travels

The weather’s slowly warming across the country, and along with snow melt and longer days comes that familiar family travel time known as Spring Vacation. And though they may not be, as Charles Dickens’s wrote, “the best of times, the worst of times” in your family’s lives, travels together as a group can be some of the happiest as well as most stressful times you have together as a family.

Time away from our regular routines is essential for good mental health. We do tend to thrive with a healthy balance of the familiar and the different, and vacations are one way many of us create difference in our lives. We can put away the same responsibilities, schedules, foods, sights, people, and weather for something different, a change that can make for a sense of escape as well as renewal upon our return. When we travel with our families, we get a chance to make shared memories and then recall them again and again in the future. Many of us remember the time spent in the back seat of our family station wagons going somewhere together as hallmarks of our childhood.

But like everything else with our families, traveling together as companions is a mixed blessing. While we can anticipate one another’s reactions and find pleasure in those shared experiences and understandings, we also make instantaneous assumptions, judgments and responses to each other that can zap the joy out of the newness of travel. In other words, it can be great and awful at the same time! (Recall the Clark Griswold’s of the 1983 movie, “Vacation,” and you’ll instantly know what I mean).

So, before you come unglued in your rush to close the house and get on that plane for that long-awaited winter escape, consider a few things that may make for a more relaxed, pleasant and renewing family trip. If you have some more ideas to share, be sure to add your comment at the bottom of this post.

1. Stay Within the Budget
Nothing can kill the joy of a family trip than spending more than you can afford. No one wants to be paying off credit card travel expenses 11 months after that dream visit to Disneyworld. Do all you can to stay inside your planned budget, making room for the spontaneous and unexpected, and you will have a much less stressful time while vacationing, and particularly, upon return.

2. Prepare to Travel
Don’t wait until the night before you leave to know if you have enough cash, if you have or need your passport, if your favorite shorts still fit, if the car needs an oil change, or if you have renewed your daily prescriptions at the pharmacy. None of us needs the emotional turmoil of last-minute, rushed packing. It can take all the pleasure out of the first part of your vacation, and can really stall your trip through airport security!

3. Lower your Expectations
No destination is going to be as great as the travel brochure, the website, or your dreams set you up to expect. Even Hawaii has problems. Lower your expectations of your perfect honeymoon or family trip, and instead, ready yourself to be pleasantly surprised and flexible. More fun will be had by all!

4. Manage your Job
Most successful employers know that we are better at our jobs when we can leave them for awhile. While it’s tempting to stay connected via email, texts, photos or even phone calls to work, unplug from the people at work and turn toward the people you’re with. After all, it’s your family that will stick around long after that job is over. And if you are self-employed like I am, make a plan to limit the contact you need to have with your business and stick to your plan.

5. We Bring Ourselves with Us
Your son isn’t automatically going to be well behaved just because he’s visiting grandma, and your spouse isn’t miraculously going to be easy going, generous and relaxed just because you’re in a different place. Remember that while your family is pretty much the same wherever they go, so are you. Cut everyone a little slack.

6. Staying with Extended Family
Nothing says “emotional overload” like traveling with your family and staying with even more. Be sure to treat the family you visit with respect, do your share of the extra work you create, and make time to get out from under their feet, and you will probably be invited back!

7. Returning
Some of us appreciate more time at home before the rush back to the normal begins. I know I need time to get some of the laundry done, to make sure there’s enough milk in the refrigerator, and to sort the mail before I go back to work. Others don’t need much re-entry time, eking out as much vacation time as possible. Know your preferences and honor them. That way coming home will be as pleasant as possible.

And in all journeying, safe travels!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Memoirs R Us

American readers seem deeply interested in memoirs this year. I've been wondering why.

What books people write, publish, review, buy, share and talk about tend to go in waves. Some years, historical fiction rules; in others, fantasy and other worldliness (think Gone With the Wind and the Harry Potter series as examples). A few years ago biographies were flying off the shelves; last year, anything vampire sold. All it takes is one, big, humongous publishing success and it seems like we are all off to the races.

I read a lot of book reviews, in search of the next great American novel. And while the great novel is still being written, more memoirs are available than ever. Of particular note are two of the more famous memoirists: James Frey (A Million Little Pieces) and Mary Karr (The Liar's Club; Cherry; and now, Lit). You may remember that a minor brouhaha erupted after Frey admitted to fictionalizing some of his drug addiction and treatment story; Oprah, who had chosen the book for her Book Club brought him onto her show to confront him. While Karr, a brilliant writer and poet, seems to have been spared the public skewering that Frey endured, her 3 volume story of degradation and personal reform seems impossible to fit into one small lifetime. 

Americans are endlessly interested in how other people live their lives. But what seems to have shifted in our culture is that the lives we want to read about are less about strength, courage or righteousness and more about failure and secrecy. Instead of presidents and religious leaders, we buy books about drug addicted professors or single women on a quest for God. We want to peer behind the curtain to reveal the humanness of those around us, and not only confirm our own brokenness, but also heave sighs of relief when our own lives aren't so dramatically distorted and bent.

It fits with the trends of paparazzi following the famous, the famous repenting on television, and the not so famous watching this all on 24/7 news cycles. It also follows on the decline of the organized Church, where not too long ago the lives of saints, old and new, were held up as models of faithful living.

People are always going to look for help in living their lives, and trying to understand their own through the lens of another is one powerful way to do it. But I wonder: is it helping anyone to lead a better, more satisfying life when all the stories we buy and sell are those of deep failure, relationship pain, and the crawling back toward the shores of self respect? Or does it set us up for lives of lower standards, lives measured against the latest and biggest personal fall?

Among other things, we are what we spend time reading and thinking about. Garbage in, garbage out?  

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

In Praise of the Institutional Church

In celebration of Ash Wednesday, and my struggle to maintain my confidence in the Church, I share this wonderful paragraph from the Christian Century (1/12/2010), Slow Motion Conversion, p. 30:

Carol Zaleski writes: 

"How would we know Christ without the institutional church? Who else would preserve the great secret of the gospel for us through the centuries, keeping it safe in the wilderness of opinions? We live in a world of institutions or in no world at all., and the institutional church is surely the greatest institution the world has ever known. It is the mediating institution between the family we are thrust into and the government that is either forced upon us or chosen by us from a distance. It equips us with every grace, every insight, every support for a decent life and then, like so many parents, is disappointed but not surprised when we turn around and say - we dont' need you, we can do this on our own, you are a fossil, an impediment."


Thanks be to God for the broken but holy Church, that despite itself - by God's grace alone - has preserved the sacred texts and still reads, proclaims, studies and attempts to live the gospel of Jesus. All so that each believer, in their own life of faith, might experience forgiveness, hope and belonging, and share that with those they love, and those they may not . Amen


Monday, February 15, 2010

I Don't Want to Be Governor

Tim Pawlenty has my sympathy.

It's budget time, and he's trying to lead our great state in spending only what it takes in. That's a very painful equation now with a depressed economic climate, declining federal support and increasing demands on education and health care.  He says he wants a budget that will cut everything but K-12 education, safety and veteran's benefits.

I get it, but it is going to be insane. And I mean that literally. The hospitals and programs that care for the most chronically mentally ill are being stripped of millions of dollars. That means that institutions like HCMC in downtown Minneapolis are not going to be able to run the adult emergency mental health unit as it has, and will have to turn people away everyday.

What does that mean? It means that those chronically mentally ill, many of whom are in and out of hospitals, chemical dependency units and homelessness are going to be showing up at your local emergency rooms. The sick in mind and body will have to share the same time with the ER docs, and that isn't a good use of anybody's time, energy or money.

I worry about this. Yet, what can be done but cut the budget? This seems like a weird turn of affairs in a state that just a handful of years ago (can you say Jessie?) had more money than it could spend and sent millions of dollars back in rebates. I wasn't in favor of that then, and I am angry about that now. We need savings, even in government, for the downturns and rainy days. If this isn't that time, I don't know what is. We don't get major earthquakes here in MN. But this budget crisis seems like an earthquake to me.

Good luck to our legislators, and the same to our governor. But Pawlenty should cut all his maybe-I'll-run and maybe-I-won't weekend runs to the presidential primary states. That is getting very old, Governor. It's crunch time in our great state. Iowans don't need more face time with you; Minnesotans do. Stay home, Tim, stay home!  

Monday, February 1, 2010

Helplessness & Haiti

It's been over two weeks since the earthquake devastated the people of Haiti.

Tens of thousands have died, including people you may know. And along with a desire to help, and a deepening sense of helplessness as we watch that impoverish nation respond, I am struck by a familiar conflict, or perhaps it is an observation about human life.

I continue to wonder how my life can go on in its normal way while massive, untold despair, suffering and death occurs around me. It's the same experience those who suffer grief describe: how does the world continue on its way while my life seems to have stopped?

I struggle with a low-grade angst; not a guilt exactly, but close to it. As if I have witnessed a massive car crash from the safety of my own vehicle and go careening by, with just a glance in my rear view mirror. I continue on, glad it wasn't me in that car, confident someone more capable is responding.

I believe this soft anguish reflects this existential truth: we are single human beings. We are separate from one another at birth, and will die that way. In between, we live daily life as multiple connections. When connections are broken, by suffering we cannot solve, or death we cannot stop, we are brought up short by the truth of our singleness of self.

What is grief but the crashing in of this solitude, and the choice to risk connecting again?

Kyrie eleison.    Lord, have mercy.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Church in Recession : What Now?

My occasional column for the Savage Pacer was just published yesterday. I wrote about the financial free fall the mainline denominations are in with the current recession. If you want to read the full column, go here.

Here's my concluding paragraph:
The storm that my denomination finds itself in will one day blow through, and a different way of being the church in the world will have to be found and lived. In every generation, it has never been the largest, the wealthiest or the most powerful church that makes a difference in the world. It has always been the individual person of faith, who joins with others with that same hope and vision, to feed the hungry, protect the innocent, lift up the fallen, and proclaim God’s vision of peace. It’s the lives of the faithful that proclaim the truth of the Gospel, not their buildings, or budgets, or institutions. And that reality is what holds me, and I hope, holds you, in the midst of our current religious storms. 

I believe what I wrote; that size and prestige don't make a church. But money does matter, in all things that a church wants to do. While I am curious about how this is all going to shake out, I have to tell you, I am very worried for every pastor and career church worker I know. The stress on them in these many months of recession is enormous, and everyone on their leadership board is looking to them for answers. There aren't any right now, except to hold on, keep doing what is done best, and press toward a different future.

I can't stress enough the need for every pastor and staff member to mind their own mental health right now. What once was standard procedure is up for grabs. What once was a 'steady as she goes' ship is one that is seriously imperiled by its own failures and the hurricane of economic shrinkage, and is taking on water. I pray that those leaders care for themselves, for they are those to whom we look for leadership and courage in difficult times.

I was finishing seminary and waiting for my first call during our last major recession. I am glad to not be doing the same again now. Pray for those leaders and students preparing to serve, their loved ones and families. It's going to be a very bumpy ride.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Economy: Learning to Trust Again

We are designed to be trusting animals, you and me.

Paul Zak, professor of economics at Claremont University, and researcher in the emerging field of "neuroeconomics," discusses the way human brains work when we interact with one another in a APM Speaking of Faith broadcast from July, 9, 2009. Here's the link: http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/2009/neuroeconomics


I urge you to take the time to listen. Zak asserts that the brain hormone oxytocin, the same hormone that is released in the brain of women while nursing, and in all of us during sexual arousal (the attachment hormone as I have come to think of it) is released in 98% of us when we interact with one another with trust. And this is particularly important, he asserts, in our interactions around money. We tend, he says, to begin with trust, and when trust is reciprocated, that trusting is reinforced. This is how an economy functions; we fundamentally trust one another. In particularly stressful times, the natural levels of our trust hormone go down.

When we are hurt by someone untrustworthy, another hormone, testosterone, is released in the brain and we universally demand revenge or justice. (He mentions the Enron failure and investment manager Bernie Madoff as key examples of this response.)


So in the large scheme of economic life, we are primed to be trusting, emotionally driven people in the market place. My takeaway? When our trust returns more fully, the economy should begin to restore itself.

This research has me thinking about how amazing it is that we are naturally designed to trust one another, and what to think about those 2-5% of human beings who lack this capacity. It explains to me something of what happens to those we think of as psychopaths, those who lack the capacity for human empathy. Perhaps one day, we will be able to run blood tests and brain scans and know more about how to treat the most violent among us. But that is a post for another day.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

And Furthermore

While pain is the energy that moves us toward change, the absence of pain isn't enough to sustain it. This is one of the factors that makes change so hard: we experience the lack of pain as relief, as a kind of balance or homeostasis. We tend to rest there; we're comfortable again.

We take a few pills, and our pain decreases. We see a therapist once or twice, and we don't go back. Many of us aren't really that interested in change. We just want a rescue from pain.

Pleasure is what I think is on the other side of relief. In order to move us from pain to relief to change, human beings need regular, positive reinforcement. We need to really feel that our effort is giving us something new and different than just relief; it's creating a welcome, desired difference. And that difference needs to be sustained in order for us to trust our effort is working. We need positive, consistent reinforcement of our efforts. In other words, rewarding ourselves keeps the balance tipped in the right emotional direction.

Take weight loss, for example. Many of us know that we want to have smaller, lighter bodies, but that it takes a great deal of effort to change our food intake. Most of us can create some small amount of weight loss, generating a sense of relief, but if we don't see regular, sustaining difference, we lose our energy. This is part of the argument among weight loss professionals: should clients weigh themselves daily? On the one hand, small amounts of loss may be visible from day to day, creating a positive reward. On the other hand, not seeing the desired difference can steal motivation fast.

Many of us who try to lose weight give up our efforts when the scale is stalled. We haven't been able to get the reward we need to sustain our effort. The same holds true for other habits of body and mind, like smoking or drinking. If we don't constantly work to boost our sense of pleasure and reward for our new behavior, relief will not be enough to keep us there.

If you are attempting a change process this year, and really want to make it work, make sure you have personal rewards built in to your efforts. What is it that gives you a healthy sense of pleasure? Make a list and figure out how you can add those activities, things, and experiences into your life as rewards for your sustained effort. When you see the change you want, focus on how that change feels in your mind and body, and then create a small, reinforcing reward. It's what keeps our minds moving forward on that narrow, rocky road of personal change.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Be It Resolved

I think about change for a living.

Psychotherapy is an interpersonal process meant to help people achieve personal goals. It's a form of reflective conversation. Clients talk; I ask questions, make observations, teach them models that describe their experience. Our sessions remind them they are not alone in their private pain or struggle, and that some real things can be done about it.

It's an assumption in my field that people can't change until they are ready. Until, (in my theory of change), they feel enough pain that they are ready to move away from the familiar and attempt something different.

That's why most New Year's Resolutions fail. Most of us who make these promises haven't really reached that critical change place of too much pain. Those who do, who have prepared themselves with reflection, remorse, planning, and hopefulness may be successful. They will be the ones who used the calendar to prepare themselves for the new behavior, thinking and emotion that change requires.

The rest of us will fizzle out in a day, a week, a month. Frustrated, chagrined, shrugging off another attempt at New Year resolutions without much thought.


If you are interested, like I am, in how human beings change, I recommend a book to you: Changing for Good, by James Prochaska. Prochaska has studied how people change themselves, such as quitting smoking or drinking cold turkey. He has found a common change process that we can duplicate when we are seriously interested in making changes
in ourselves, or helping others do that for themselves.

As for me, I have personal goals, but I try not to link them to the calendar. I try to pay attention to the level of distress I feel before I attempt change, knowing that I will probably fail if I keep sliding into acceptance or denial. There is a level of comfort in ourselves that keeps us stuck. Turn up the heat a bit, and we will feel the interior pressure more vividly, making us more willing to create change.

Best wishes to you for turning up your internal "heat" as you look to 2010. What kind of change are you pushing yourself toward this year?