Honor One Another

Right now, people you know and people I know — people we see every day — are feeling a bit desperate. They’ve been scrolling through social media, and they’ve seen picture-perfect families, lit-up Christmas trees, and December graduations that have shown them how far they are from measuring up. They’ve seen group poses and party pics that have reminded them of their own disconnectedness.

They feel defeated, deflated, and discouraged.

Many in our culture — the one that promotes wealth, success, status, and achievement — have compared themselves to a curated social media standard or to the people they see at school or at work — the polished public facade of put-togetherness — and have found themselves lacking.

And this sense of inferiority has implications.

The National Institute of Health reports that 19 percent of the US population suffers from anxiety and over seven percent have suffered from a major depressive episode in the last year.

On an average day in the United States, 129 people commit suicide.

This year alone, 409 Americans have committed mass shootings, injuring 1,466 and killing 441.

Why? Why are people picking up weapons and intentionally seeking to hurt others? Why do so many try and succeed in ending their own lives? Why are such high numbers depressed and anxious?

Of course the answers to these questions are complex, but could it be, at least in part, that people simply don’t know their own worth? Their own inherent value?

With all of our emphasis on achievement, success, and wealth, have we lost the ability to see the inherent value of each person — the implicit value that is separate from our accomplishments, our status, and our ability to present a flawless front to the world? Are we unable to find that value in one another and in ourselves?

Our pastor, Gabe Kasper, in his recent series on the Culture of Christmas spent an entire Sunday on how we, as a community, can create a culture of honor in which we recognize, value, and honor each person — where we see the implicit value in each individual.

Is this possible? Can we create (or re-create) such a culture in a community that is made up of people like me? I struggle to get my focus off my self and my to-do list for long enough to even see the people around me, let alone honor them!

I was in the mall the other day, and I was on a mission. Bent on hitting my step goal while finding two specific Christmas gifts, I put in my earbuds and got to it. I stepped my steps and found my gifts. Mission accomplished. It wasn’t until the next morning that I realized that other than the salesperson who helped me, I didn’t remember one single face from that trip to the mall. Although it’s mid-December and the mall was crowded with people, I was so totally focused on finding my gifts and getting in my steps that I didn’t notice one other person. I didn’t give honor to anyone.

Honor, Pastor Gabe said, is the recognition of the value, contribution, and importance of others; it recognizes their implicit value.

What does that look like?

I’m pretty sure it doesn’t look like me, fully engrossed in the podcast playing in my ears, motoring through the masses on my seek-and-find mission.

No. When I picture honoring someone — truly seeing their inherent value — I imagine myself figuratively cupping their face in my hands, looking straight in their eyes, and seeing, with wonder, what their parents saw in them on the day they were born. In honoring them, I acknowledge the miracle that despite all odds — despite illness, dysfunction, calamity, neglect, and abuse; despite chance and hazards and accidents and trauma– a human being has been created cell by cell, has grown to its current state, and has survived. Whether or not the being whose face I am beholding has accomplished anything in life beyond that survival, he or she is a miracle — a child of God, someone’s hope and dream, and a life worth acknowledging, an existence worth honoring.

And honoring the inherent value of all people means I’m holding the faces of a lot of people who don’t look like me, don’t agree with me, don’t want to listen to me, and might even annoy me.

Over the last couple of weeks, perhaps nudged along by Pastor Gabe’s message, I’ve attempted honoring others by taking one small action — yielding the right of way. Instead of speeding up to get in front of others, I’m trying to remember to let them go in front of me. (It’s a baby step; I know.) I’m driving into parking lots slowly, allowing others plenty of space to find their spot as I’m staying out of their way. I’m walking through stores (other than my recent journey to the mall) with the intention of not cutting anyone off, of anticipating where others are going, and of allowing them to step in front of me. I’m trying to show that I recognize that people have inherent value.

It’s a very small action. To be fair, I can’t actually walk up to people, take their faces in my hands and say, “Wow! You are quite a miracle!” I’m pretty sure that would be counterproductive. However, I can look the sales clerk in the eye, smile, and thank her for bagging my items. I can turn to my coworker when she speaks to me and listen to her instead of continuing to fill out the document I’m working on. I can acknowledge that my student is ticked off because he has to do two hours of instruction with me after he’s already been in school all day and honor the legitimacy of that feeling. I can walk through the mall a little less intensely, seeing the other people in my path, smiling, nodding, allowing them to step in front of me, and noticing their humanity, their worth, their inherent value.

It might mean I might have to slow my roll, overlook some grinchiness, and give up my right to have everything in life go exactly according to plan, and it might mean I get to a few places a little late, but what difference will it make?

Will my small changes stop gun violence? Will they put an end to depression, anxiety, and suicide? Will my small attempts to make eye contact, to listen, and to acknowledge the worth of others cause significant cultural change?

I hardly think the actions of one middle-aged woman in Ann Arbor, Michigan can shift a whole culture, but they might cause an ever-so-minute shift. If I notice one person’s value and they then notice another person’s value, perhaps together, we might create enough space in which a few more people can live and breathe, where they might begin to have hope, where they might discover a reason to keep living.

I’ve been accused of being too hopeful, too idealistic, too pie-in-the-sky. But guys, I’ve been changed by people who noticed me, who looked in my eyes, and who acknowledged my inherent worth.

Small actions can yield huge results.

Is it possible that as we pause to acknowledge the value in the lives around us that we might become like mirrors in which people begin to see their own inherent worth and that we might, in turn, more fully understand the value of ourselves?

Is it worth a try?

Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.

Romans 12:10

The Occasion, revisit

This post, first written March 2018 and updated February 2019, is further exploration of the topic, the process.

As a student, I hated group assignments. I dreaded the moment when a teacher would put me with two or three other students and give us a task to accomplish. I would groan, shoot the instructor a micro-glare, and reluctantly join the others who were equally ‘enthusiastic’. Why did I hate it so much? Was it because every group has a slacker and I hated the imbalance of effort? Or was it the fact that I would have to approach a problem in a way that I was unfamiliar with? Because if a teacher gave me a page of math problems, I could fly through them pretty quickly and end up with fairly accurate results. If I had to answer comprehension questions on a chapter in US History, no problem. Zip, zap, zoop. However, if a task involved more complexity and I had to sit in that complexity with a group of people who approached problems in different ways than my slam and jam method, that was uncomfortable for me. I didn’t like it.

You might think that as teacher I have avoided assigning group work because it made me so uncomfortable as a student. Not true. It’s been a bit of a psycho/social experiment for me to watch my students obediently trudge from their desks to the groups that I have put them in. The ones who are like me grab the paper and just ‘get it done’, huffing and rolling their eyes the whole time. They are missing the point — just like I was.

Often learning is not about the product, but about the process.

Teachers don’t put students into groups so that they can find the answers.    Teachers put students into groups so that they can witness the processes of other people and so that their own processes might be refined.

In my current position, I am working with two students on a course of elementary science. One student is a nine-year-old who is sitting beside me in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She has pretty dramatic difficulty with reading and paying attention. The other student is an eight-year-old with less dramatic learning challenges who is sitting in front of a laptop in London, England.  We meet every day from 10-11am EST, which is 3-4pm in London. As you can imagine, this arrangement requires involved technology, elaborate communication, and creative scheduling. Why go to all this trouble for two little girls? We go to all this trouble because — and I have witnessed this first hand — the girls learn better together than they do apart. Not only that, they share their lives with each other — tales of pet cats, horseback riding, and learning accomplishments. They giggle together as they squish clay to discover the properties of a solid, pour water to measure the volume of a liquid, and watch a steaming kettle to see a gas. They are learning about science, yes, but they are also learning how to learn and that the process of learning does not always have to be drudgery.

As a student, I was always pretty good at learning. Give me the problems; I’ll find the answers. I could figure things out on my own, thank you very much.

I’m writing about this like it’s ancient history, but as you might’ve already guessed, not much has changed. I still think my systems are working pretty well. Give me a problem; I’ll try to find a solution. Slam, jam. I don’t go out of my way to find the refining process, nevertheless, it finds me.

Recently, our pastor, Gabe Kasper, in a message titled “The Healer”, referred to Kirkegaard’s, ‘occasion’. The ‘occasion’ is any moment in which we meet a challenge to our preferred way of thinking and living that produces personal transformation.

I am not a fan of such ‘occasions’.  I do not like change, perhaps because in order to change I have to acknowledge that my system wasn’t the best one after all. My slam and jam method of getting assignments done wasn’t (isn’t) really teaching me anything other than how to check off boxes. It wasn’t (isn’t) allowing me the space to sit in the complexity of a problem. My box-checking was (is) productive, but not transformative.

I recently picked up Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark. Just few pages into the introduction, I found myself face to face with ‘the occasion’ — a challenge to my preferred way of thinking and living. I had grabbed the book in the middle of a sleepless night, so I faced a choice at 2am — step into this transformational space or put the book down and forget I ever saw it.

I stepped in.

Taylor’s premise is that we are conditioned from childhood to avoid dark spaces.  Our parents tell us to come into the house when the streetlights come on — We have night lights beside our beds. We know where the emergency flashlight is for when the power goes out. When things go dark — literally and metaphorically — we rush to grab a light. My approach to getting caught in the dark is similar to my approach to math problems–I quickly find a solution. I turn on a light. Taylor suggests a different approach. What if, she says, we sit in the dark spaces for a while? What if we acknowledge the complexity of difficult situations instead of rushing to find solutions? After all, she says, “when, despite all my best efforts, the lights have gone off in my life (literally or figuratively, take your pick), plunging me into the kind of darkness that turns my knees to water, nonetheless I have not died…Instead, I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again” (5).

I have another student who reminds me of me. He wants my help super-fast so that he can score well on the test and get a good grade on the paper. I sometimes get frustrated with him. I say, “I know you want a good grade on the test, but I am more concerned that you fully understand the concepts.” He sometimes blurts back, “What? You don’t care if I do well on the test?” I do. I do care about his test, but life has taught me that the test will be over in a blink; the lesson might matter for much longer. If we don’t master the concept, we are going to have to revisit it over and over until we finally have it.

Like my student, I want a super-fast solution to my problems. I don’t know why, because each time I find a solution to one problem, another one takes its place as though it had been waiting in the wings. I continually find myself standing in the dark.

In fact, at this very moment, I (and maybe you) face several circumstances that are pretty dark. I would really like to turn on some lights, clean up some messes, and make everything perfect. However, I’ve been using that system for most of my adult life, and I’m beginning to see that it’s a flawed strategy. So, I’m going to take this occasion. I’m going to get comfortable here and just observe the space. I’m hoping that “the things I learn” here will “save my life over and over again.”

And guess what — I’m not approaching this lesson alone. I’ve assigned myself to a group project. I’ve asked a few of my dear friends to join me because I know that although it’s not my preferred way of learning — I’d rather hunker down and check off all the boxes myself — they have different approaches that I can learn from. What’s more is that they are willing to sit in the complexity with me for a while — not trying to turn on lights and clean up messes, but just sit and observe and learn from the dark.

The people remained at a distance,while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.

Exodus 20:21

Tell Me Your Story, re-visit

This post, written in January 2018, further examines the assumptions we make about one another — assumptions that can prevent connection. I repost it here in the wake of this week’s post, Of Reality and Social Media.

I am a hypocrite.

Although I have stood on my soapbox pointing out injustices and crying out for equity, I am a prejudiced person. I’m racist. I’m classist. I’m sexist. I’ll judge a person based on one Facebook status or incriminate a whole group of people for their stance on whether they think athletes should stand for the National Anthem or not. I’ll sort you into a category so fast, it’ll make your head spin.

It’s embarrassing, actually.

I’ve lived my professional life encouraging students to write narratives – to tell their stories of defining life moments — their parents’ divorce, the death of a sibling, a betrayal of friendship, a proclamation of love. These stories cross all lines of race, class, gender, political affiliation, musical preference, and lifestyle choice.

Our stories reveal our humanity; they connect us to one another.

In my classroom I have made space for students to laugh with one another, cry with one another, challenge one another, and embrace one another. I, too, have laughed, cried, challenged, and embraced. I have revealed my humanity to an audience of twenty or so students at a time. I have met and loved kids who are rich, poor, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Arabic, Christian, atheist, Jewish, male, female, gay, straight, fat, thin, extroverted, introverted, funny, serious,…

It’s not hard to love someone – anyone – once you have heard his or her story. But in order to hear that story, you’ve got to risk getting close. That’s the challenge for me, because I’m prejudiced. I look at your hair, your clothing, your skin color, and your car. I see who you hang out with, what you share on Facebook, and what you retweet on Twitter. I know who you are, I think to myself.You are ‘that kind’ of person. I sort you into a clump and make assumptions about you before I even hear you speak.

I recently returned to a job after two and a half years away. Since I left, my former supervisor, who I loved, had resigned for health reasons. I had had a couple interactions with the woman who took her place, but before I had even worked with her one day, I had decided that she would be not as amazing, not as on top of things as my previous boss. I pre-judged her. Then, during the last hour of a two-day-long training, the new supervisor partnered with me for some role-playing activities, and I got my first up-close glance at her personality and heard the first few lines of her story. My prejudices were confirmed, but they were also dashed. She isn’t, actually, exactly like my previous supervisor; rather, she has her own unique personality and gifts. (Shocking, I know.) I wasn’t anticipating laughing with my new supervisor as she pretended to be a precocious nine-year old to my role of reading instructor, but there we were – giggling like close friends lost in make-believe.

People are hard to hate close up. Move in.”

Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness

From a distance, even the length of my arm, I can keep you handily sorted into a category – liberal, conservative, educated, ignorant, friend, or foe. However, if I ask to hear your story, everything can change. My beliefs can be challenged, my assumptions destroyed, my heart opened.

Years ago I picked up my first Jodi Picoult book, My Sister’s Keeper. It’s the story of a girl who was conceived by her parents in the hope that she would be a donor match for her critically ill older sibling. Gasp!  One glance at that premise and I formed an opinion. How could they?  What kind of parents….? However, Picoult, I soon learned, is a master at using narrative to bring her readers in close to see issues in their complexity – issues that most of us find ourselves firmly positioned on – euthanasia, gun violence, infidelity, and abortion. She weaves her narratives, often from multiple points of view, to expose these issues as more than dichotomies. She can move me from my Gasp! How could they? to a Wow! I can’t even imagine that kind of love! in 400 pages or less!

Real-life stories are no different from fictional narratives – they are full of complexity and factors that don’t appear on the surface. If I judge someone based on her skin color, clothing, language choices, or friends, I am missing out! I am missing her story – all the characters and plot twists that have led her to today. Not only that, I am diminishing her humanity – I am relegating her to a category rather than appreciating her individuality. Most importantly, I am denying the connectedness that she and I share as members of humanity – children of the Creator.

Our pastor, Gabe Kasper, spoke recently about the necessity for genuine relationships in the church (read or listen to the full-text here). He said that genuine relationships are characterized by vulnerability, empathy, love, and the willing of good for the other person. We don’t often enter into such relationships because 1) we are afraid of getting close to people, and 2) we don’t want to take the time. However, if we are willing to risk getting just a little closer, of asking others to tell us just a little piece of their story, everything — EVERYTHING – can change. Story has the power to transform us – our understandings, our experience of life, and our relationships. Imagine the impact of a couple hundred people who have chosen to be vulnerable, empathetic, loving, and supportive of one another — intentionally and consistently. What ripple effect might that have?

Are we willing to, knowing better, do better. Are we willing to call out our prejudices and stereotypes? Are we willing to set those aside, step in close, and hear the stories of people who may not be just like us?

Consider this: Because I am a 50-something white woman who has been a teacher and a pastor’s wife, you may draw some assumptions about me – that I’m Christian, heterosexual, pro-life, Republican, and financially secure. You might believe that my family is immune from tragedies such as chronic illness, sexual assault, alcoholism, eating disorders, family conflict, depression, or anxiety.  Some of your assumptions may be right; most would certainly be wrong. How will you know which is which? You will have to lean in and listen to my story.

Some of the things you learn about me might be confusing. They might challenge you. You might not agree with me. You might choose to walk beside me anyway. And, in that walking, I might learn some things about you that confuse and challenge me. I see us taking lots of long walks together, learning about one another and growing together.

I imagine that if we are willing to take the chance to move in close and learn the stories of those who we might have previously sorted into categories, our assumptions will be destroyed, and we will never be the same again.

Are you willing to take that risk? Are you willing to tell me your story?

Romans 12:10

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.