July 2008


That’s what the Geek Squad guy at Best Buy told me this morning, anyway.

I was at the counter with Martin’s laptop, hoping that his difficulty connecting to our wireless network might have an easy (read cheap) fix. I had a fighting chance, I thought, since the woman behind the counter and I go to the same church and I trusted her to give me it to me straight. A guy in his early 20s stopped and looking over my friend’s shoulder as I described the problem.

Here’s how she introduced us…

“This is Joan–she and I go to church together.” I smiled and reached out to shake his hand.

“And this is John (not his real name), he’s an atheist.”

This may have been the first time in my life I had ever been introduced in this way. It was a little strange and totally random but, since I had spent more of my life as an atheist than I have as a churchgoer, her outting John as an atheist didn’t phase me a bit.

“I was an atheist for many years,” I told him, hoping that a little small talk to take the edge off of the otherwise awkward exchange. I expected him to respond with an equally random bit of nothing and be on his way, but instead he said matter of factly, “Then you weren’t really an atheist.”

Have you ever had one of those moments that you were completely surprised by your own response to something? This was one of those moments for me. I wasn’t really an atheist? I thought. What do you mean I wasn’t really an atheist. Before I knew it, I found myself defending my former atheism. “Actually, I was an atheist,” I told Geek Squad guy pleasantly, yet indignantly. I even provided him a dramatic and somewhat personal example of something I’d done when I was a kid that proved my former atheism which he promptly pooh-poohed.

If I go to church now, he told me calmly but emphatically, then I wasn’t a “real” atheist then.

He walked away and I got back to Martin’s computer, but I couldn’t stop thinking about this exchange. At first I focused on what I perceived to be his faulty logic. Of course I could be an atheist then and a theist (Christian) now, I thought.

But then I realized that his logic (or lack thereof) was not the most interesting or relevant part of our short conversation.

Why did I care whether or not Geek Squad guy believed that I had been an atheist in my 20s?

As I pondered (and continue to ponder) the question, one thing is clear to me. No matter how deep my desire to put relationships over being right or how many times I commit and recommit myself to pursuing dialog over debate, it is still incredibly easy for me to fall into a tit-for-tat over anything. And I mean anything.

No topic is too small or unimportant for me to fall into the trap of self-importance if I am not intentional about how I interact with the people around me.

Thanks for the reminder Geek Squad atheist-guy. I appreciate it.

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Today is the first day of a new project. I have felt for some time that I am supposed to be fluent in Spanish. It isn’t a huge stretch, really. My husband is from Uruguay and English is his second language. My in-laws speak English, but Spanish is far more comfortable for them. I studied the language for about 8 years in high-school and college.

I am poised to be able to do this.

And yet, while I have started time and time again, I’ve never really followed through to fluency. So, from morning to my head hitting the pillow on Wednesdays from today forward I plan to communicate solely in Spanish when speaking to Martin, my son Ian (who understands Spanish but does not speak it) and anyone else who will tolerate me.

I got through my shower (lluvia) and out the door this morning without a hitch, although as I tried to talk to Martin through the curtain I got a taste of what it is like to have many thoughts and a stiflingly small vocabulary with which to express them. As the morning continued and Martin and I went to pick up my car, I started to laugh out loud as I stuttered out — Miercoles en Enspanol esta bien para vos entonces yo no hablo nada. Translated–Spanish Wednesdays holds a surprise bonus for you Martin–less chatter from the passenger seat.

But then I realized that there may also be a surprise bonus for me.

Few words require a precision of thought and expression that I am not used to practicing. It will be interesting to see what I learn about communicating in my native English by requiring myself to communicate solely in Spanish.

Yo hable un poquito Espanol. Pero yo pienso que yo nessesito aprender hablar, leer y escribir fluida en Espanol. Mi esposo, Martin, naces in Uruguay y hablas Espanol, entonces es mas facil para nosotros hablar en Ingles en la casa. Es la reson hoy y todos los miercoles en la futuro nosotros hablare solamente en Espanol. En la casa, en la telephono, en text–todos. Y yo escribere una blog post (no se como dice blog post en Espanol). Los posts sere simple, para practicar. Yo appreciado ayuda de amigos que lee o comprende Espanol. Muchas gracias para sus paciencia y apoyo.

In Part 1 I’m learning that I am a day late and a dollar short when it comes to accepting (and, by association sharing) God’s love. I’m chewing on 1 Corinthians 13…particularly 1 Corinthians 13:4 and beyond…to get a taste of what it is that I am missing…

Love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud, it is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs, does not delight in evil and rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes and always perseveres. It never fails.

When I take my spiritual temperature by this guidepost I’m encouraged…at least at first. I’ve been working on this Christianity thing in earnest for more than 5 years and I can see some indication of what appears to be a genuine change of heart. While I know that I haven’t “arrived” I can see that I am a little more patient than I used to be. And, as my well-constructed wall of bravado continues to crumble, a kinder, gentler Joan appears to be peeking out from beneath the rubble. Of course I’d love to report that I never envy or boast, or that I’ve kicked the pride and self-seeking habits to the curb, but these still require daily attention. But they have my attention–which, I think, can be half the battle.

As I continue through the list, however, things started to darken up. Love is no easily angered? It keeps no record of wrongs? It’s like I’m walking along, whistling a tune and promptly step into quicksand. Not only am I quick to anger and a notorious record keeper of wrongs–I have not spent nearly enough time or energy concentrating on this particular weakness. Sure, I know that forgiveness is important and that resentment is damaging, but is it front of mind? Not really. So I let it go. And, as usual, I got every opportunity to practice operating differently.

How, you ask? Unfortunately…I mean fortunately…I have not stopped running into people against whom I harbor resentments. And, I am not just running into them–they want to talk to me. Catch up. Shoot the breeze.

The first is a woman who I was very close to that I haven’t spoken to for over a year. It wasn’t until we were a minute or two into the conversation that I got it. Standing there on the street trying to pretend that my skin was not crawling, I saw that I had to figure out a way to genuinely have this conversation without keeping a record of wrongs. Woefully illequipped for the task (I come from a long line of grudge-holders) I found myself half listening and half praying for help. By the end of the conversation, I can say that my skin wasn’t crawling–a step in the right direction.

The next morning I meet a guy (an adult) who had treated my daughter poorly (a teenager) when she was sick. I’ve seen him a half a dozen times since then, but this time he decides to stop and talk. This time I know what I was up against, so I get down to business and pray. This time the skin stopped crawling a little more quickly and I felt a little compassion (it was noon and I could smell booze on him.)

That same afternoon I’m reading a book in the park and a guy who dated (and mistreated) a friend of mine years ago walks up and startw talking to me. This time I just laugh to myself. I’m gonna get to learn this lesson whether I like it or not.

I’m not exactly sure how I will keep myself from adding up new records in the future–or what will happen as I continue to learn about mercy and forgiveness and the other elements that make up what love is and isn’t. What I do know is that I have a new committment to learning to place love in it’s right place–at the center of this ongoing spiritual journey.

I go to a Benedictine Monastery for a 24-hour silent retreat with the express purpose of listening.

No agenda. No ‘what’s my purpose?’ or ‘what’s my next step?’

This was not my first visit to Holy Cross, but it was the first time that I chose take the lead of the StoryCorps program by trying to honor and celebrate God by practicing the Act of Listening. I won’t go into the play-by-play on what I did and how I did it–that’s for another post. Instead, I’ll just cut to the chase and share what I heard.

It winds up that, unbeknownst to me, I am utterly crippled when it comes to receiving love from God.

Go figure.

And, it seems that, since I’m not receiving it very well, I must not really be sharing it very well either, since it’s pretty hard to share something you don’t have.

It’s amazing, really. Despite hours and hours of praying, reading, studying, seeking God’s will, trying to treat other people well and being as obedient as possible, I missed the main event. Sure I know that God is love and that he loves me. You can’t get too far in the Bible without catching hold of that one. Yet, somehow, despite throwing myself into this life with complete abandon, I still didn’t know it.

I’m guessing its a head-knowledge versus a heart-knowledge thing combined with old crap from my childhood, but there is plenty of time to look at the ‘whys?’ later. For now, I find myself landing on a big ‘what?’–specifically, what is God’s love and how does it manifest itself?

Not being a theologian, I have no intention of trying to break that question down here. Yet, I had some Holy Spirit serindipity around 1 Corinthians 13, which gives some insight into what love looks like, so I’ve been chewing on that scripture for the past week or so.

I’m glad I landed on this scripture, since it is familiar to a lot of people–and familiarity sometimes breeds inattention. For instance, it is fascinating for me to think that–despite the fact that I was seven years away from becoming a Christian–1 Corinthians 13 was read at my wedding 12 years ago, setting a pretty high standard for Martin and I in the love deparment…

Love is patient, kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud, it is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs, does not delight in evil and rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes and always perseveres. It never fails.

Ouch.

Breaking it down characteristic by characteristic, I have to admit that by this definition of love, I fall woefully short much of the time.

And here’s the rub.

The beginning of the chapter reads…

And now I will show you the most excellent way.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging symbol. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge and if I have a faith that can move mountains but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

So, I can go to church and write a book and help people and read the Bible and have a deep faith–but if I don’t do those things in love I am nothing. If I do not do those things with patience and kindness, without envying or boasting or being prideful and if I cannot hold back from being abrupt, easily angered or self-seeking I gain nothing. If I keep track of who has hurt me or angered me or disappointed me and respond to them based upon that track record…well, you get the picture.

So, now what?

I’d love to say I have the three or five or ten easy steps to turning this around–but I don’t.

I’m just going to start by recognizing the weakness, being willing to change and asking God to shake things up.

I can’t help but love an organization whose stated mission is to “honor and celebrate one another’s lives through listening.” StoryCorps (www.storycorps.com) is a not-for-profit that sets up listening booths all over the country (maybe the world now) and helps people to record stories and conversations about their lives. Some are joyous, others tragic, all are real people talking in their own voices about their experiences. I have no affiliation with this organization other than thinking what they do is fabulous.

(Click here and listen to 94 year-old Betty Jenkins talk about her mother’s gift of a blow up bra for a great example.)

StoryCorps provides a mechanism for people to be heard. To feel like what they do matters. To believe that their experiences and the wisdom they have garnered from them have meaning beyond themselves. What a gift it is when we give someone our full attention and actually hear what they are saying–the words, the nuance, the depth of emotion.

Unfortunately, I am a terrible listener.

Unless I conciously focus on it, my listening skills are fraught with a combination of impatience and self-centeredness that results in 1) interrupting with one pearl of wisdom or another, 2) contemplating my next pearl of wisdom to be shared when the other person is done talking or 3) becoming distracted in my own thoughts on some other matter and losing the other conversation altogether.

So much for honoring and celebrating with listening.

Me and my poor listening skills are leaving in about an hour for an individual retreat at a Benedictine Monastery where I’ll spend the rest of today, tonight and most of tomorrow in silence…trying to listen.

When it first came to me a day or two ago that I needed to spend some one on one time with God, I thought it was a splendid idea. I’m in a bit of a transition time and I would love to get a little guidance about what is next.

But, what if its not about that at all? What if I’m just supposed to listen. Simply listening as an act of honoring and celebrating, without a personal “what’s in it for me” agenda.

I think I’ll give it a shot. I’ll let you know what happens when I get back…