Wednesday 26 April 2017

For the love of rules

Most of us like a sure thing. Even the “adventures” we take are within pretty controlled limits. A sure thing can mean safety, comfort, and confidence. But sometimes, when we hang on too tightly, we get stuck. In one of my roles in life I teach church governance. Part of that deals with rules and regulations, the constitution and bylaws, by which the church governs life together. Not exactly the subject of the next Hollywood blockbuster! Many people are inclined to sneer at the rules. They get upset when the rules seem to get in the way of their next great idea.
I generally feel differently about rules in general. I associate them with a level playing field. If the rules are written down somewhere and we all have access to them, one person or group can’t snag power. Or at least it gives those on the margins access to ways to push back. Sometimes our preferences and habits can become “rules” too. We may not notice it until someone challenges the way we believe life should be.  Then we’re thrown off kilter. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be. We may even claim: “I’m following the rules – what’s wrong with you/them?”
Unwritten rules – whether personal or group – are dangerous. “We” (whoever “we” are) know that they work and we expect everyone else to live by them too. That quick response can often stifle our ability to find new ways, to hear new ideas, to entertain new thoughts. We shut down, we fail to adapt, we miss the possibilities of strong relationships. The more offended we feel, the more rigid we may become.
Here are some thoughts that might help:
·      Often rules are in place because of something that went wrong. Someone, sometime, did something and it led to a mess. So, a rule got put in place to prevent that unfortunate occurrence again. Since we humans are endlessly creative in messing up, the rule-writers never go out of work! So, it’s important to think about the “why” of a rule that annoys us or we are committed to.
·      Rules can sometimes be put in place to protect power and privilege. If my rules keep certain people away from authority, responsibility and power, I may tell myself that it’s for the common good, but it may be because I don’t want to share. So, we need to think about the “what” of the rules.
·      Rules – or the violation of “our rules” -- can prompt a reaction. It’s not fun to realize how much of a stickler I may be. But it’s important to recognize that so we don’t find ourselves backed into a corner.  So, it’s useful to look at the “why” of our reaction.
·      Sometimes rules serve as a handy cover for an inclination to judge others. Other people’s behaviours lead us to generalize about their character, upbringing, intelligence, and so on. If you find someone’s rule challenge leads you to those kinds of thoughts, ponder the “who” of your rules – who do they exclude and why? Does violating your rule really point to a character flaw.

Sometimes, if we can explore our stickiness around rules and step back we may discover some things. Perhaps we and they agree on the end we’re seeking, but just not the means. Maybe, from your concern for why rules exist, you can helpfully point out possible pitfalls even while celebrating new and diverse opportunities. You can, in fact, build on what you already knew. You will be more appreciated by others because of your openness matched with experience. You might develop a reputation as someone who gives others a fair chance. Your concern for rules is a gift – try not to let it get stuck.

Friday 21 April 2017

Prayers of Privilege

I'm fortunate to have travelled a fair bit in different parts of the world.  One thing I've noticed is that Christians in other countries -- often in very difficult situations -- do not ask for the challenge or pain to be removed. Instead they pray, "God, give me strength to bear this trial."

I hasten to add that I am not, for a moment, questioning the sincerity of anyone's prayers.  I've stood in too many hospital rooms and beside too many death beds for that!  I just wonder. is it just a First World challenge? When life is good and we are living the dream, is it easy to imagine that we're responsible for all the good stuff?  After all, isn't that sort of individuality what our society preaches, pushes, and sells. It's easy to believe that when life is good, but when the world rolls over on someone who, just last week was sitting on top of it, where do we turn? Using a biblical phrase, where shall we go for the word of life?

Over the last couple of years it appears that hatred, bigotry and close-mindedness of a number of varieties have received a new legitimacy. I'm not convinced they're newly formed, but different forces have allowed them to come into the light of day. There have been important folk willing to articulate them in the brashest of ways. I don't think Donald Trump created the wave that he rode to power any more than those candidates for leadership in Canada's conservative party who are channeling "extreme vetting" or "Canadian values" politics created those. The spokespeople for Brexit didn't create the conditions. In each case, however, for whatever reason, they detected and vocalized -- and therefore legitimated views that were often held quietly and privately.

There have been some terrible tragedies: violence against Black Christians at Mother Emmanuel Church; against LGBTQ in Orlando; against Moslems in Quebec -- to name but a few. In each case it has been intriguing to watch the mainstream media grapple with the willingness of some to forgive those who murdered their loved ones out of fear, racism or bigotry. Most reporters didn't get it.  They couldn't, because that doesn't resonate with our prayers of privilege.

In this week after Easter, I'm reminded that the first Christians, and many in suffering communities today, did not follow a Jesus who overthrew Rome or rewarded his followers with pomp and wealth. They followed and still follow a Jesus who was betrayed, falsely convicted, and judicially lynched. The very flesh of God who gives a presence that no easy word or superficial promise can match. Faith in one who was not rescued from the cross but who changed the world through the cross can lead us, ever so slowly sometimes, to different prayers.

God's is the last word -- even when we'd rather not hear the words that come before it.

Wednesday 19 April 2017

Benefits of Gratitude

Perhaps it's just who I listen to, but it seems like there are complaints everywhere. The challenge with a steady diet of complaints is that our ears get number and our hearts get cold. If everything is a complaint, then why listen. It even gets hard to sort out the complaints -- the relevant from the petty. So it's easier to just shut down.

The reality is that, if we focus on gratitude, we'll have less space and energy for complaints. Some call it replacement thinking -- not to make the bad stuff go away but balancing its impact. Plus, for most of us it's easy. We just have to pause, take a breath, and cast our minds over the last 24 hours.  Let me ask you:
* did you wake up safe and warm this morning?
* do you have food and clean water?
* can you access medical care?
* are you relatively secure and safe?
* do you have circles of friends, family, faith, co-workers?

If any of those are true for you -- as they are for me -- then we're better of than a huge majority of the human family, through history and today. And since most of that comes to us by accident of birth, there's no reason to be smug about it.  The only real response is gratitude.

For people of faith there is also a sense of gratitude for our connection to the Divine - call it God or Allah or The Force or whatever you want. Many faithful people get hung up in thinking we need to earn the care of the Divine.  That's just a manifestation of our society's individualism where, if I don't earn it, it won't happen. The challenge to that thinking is that we can never get ahead of God. Everything you can imagine doing? God's already acted. So everything we do is a response.  May as well make it a response of gratitude.

Since there's not a lot we can do that God needs, we get to do it for the rest of God's creation -- whether our human brothers and sisters or the other part of the glorious, wonderful web of life. Sometimes it's called "pay it forward."  When we do something kind or generous for someone else, without expecting anything in return -- even thanks. Maybe you might ask that the receiver pay it forward in turn.  But even if they don't, he or she has been impacted in a positive way. Maybe it will make them smile on a challenging day.

There's an old Christian maxim to do for others as we would have them do for us.  Doing good for others has multiple benefits:
* it makes us feel good
* it makes them feel good
* it's contagious -- imagine a contagion of good sweeping your community

There are no rules, no minimums, no limits -- nothing is too small, in case you're worried about that. Even the word "pay" can be misleading, since it doesn't need to involve money at all. Try writing anonymous notes and poems and leaving them to be found, encouraging people. Look for someone to mentor or befriend.  Nominate people for awards; write thank you letters to the paper; when you get good service, ask to speak to a supervisor to commend the staff person. Think of it as an opportunity rather than a burden (I'm helping a friend out of a jam). Take time to reflect on what you've done and the benefits you receive from doing good -- another reason to be thankful.

It can be a game changer.

Want some more ideas of the power of gratitude.  Check out the site of my friend Steve Foran.  he does gratitude for a living!! How cool is that?  His company is called "Gratitude at Work".