Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Hospitality Interrupted

We used to host people for dinner. On Thursdays, friends and family often shared our table. Then we invited a young lady to live with us for a year; she and her boyfriend became our standing guests. The girl married, moved, out and we had seats to fill. 
Then my wife became anxious. Food triggered her stress. Mealtimes lost some meaning, morphing into a “just get through it” ordeal. We stopped issuing invitations. Liz’s gluten-intolerant-dairy-restrictive diet and my daughters’ selective palates did not help the situation. Most nights Liz would prepare three separate meals, and she didn’t want any of them. I consumed my share and more. We still had seats to fill.

And then we adopted a son from Ethiopia. In our training sessions we were encouraged to guard our home life, limit visitors, and slowly introduce our son to extended family and friends. At this advice my wife and daughters breathed a sigh of relief. Our home would be a refuge, not a thoroughfare. Sensi fills our empty seat and shares leftovers with me.

During the past few years--of boarding and waiting, anxiety and adjusting—our hospitality has taken a hit. I must confess: I miss the table fellowship—conversation with family, laughter with friends, and sharing with church family. I miss setting the table, arranging chairs, and creating a mood with music and candlelight. I miss watching the children excuse themselves to play with cousins or friends while the adults pick at food scraps and pour another splash of wine. I miss the stiff legs from sitting too long and strain on the belt from eating too much. I even miss the mountain of dishes left as physical evidence of an indulgent evening.
But there as seasons in life where some virtues are sidelined. In midlife crisis, our first responsibility is survival; hospitality can take second place. Empty-nesters can fill empty seats. Retirees can plan family reunions. Cousins can host Thanksgiving and Christmas. And we thirty-somethings can focus on survival. Hospitality may be interrupted for a few years. Or a decade. God can manage without our fancy plates for a time.

The allowance extends to any crisis, not just the strains of middle age. Families poised to move homes can interrupt hospitality for a time. Families facing serious illness or recovery can interrupt hospitality for a time. Families with newborns or aged parents or ornery teenagers can interrupt hospitality for a time. Bickering couples or grieving widows or lonesome singles with no cookware can interrupt hospitality for a time.

But no interruption should be permanent. God made the table to share, and Jesus modeled this with his body and bread (Matthew 26:26-29). Hospitality is an intimate act of kindness. Some followers of Jesus will have a special knack for it—those with cloth napkins and cheesecake—but God requires hospitality from all his children (Romans 12:13; 1 Peter 4:13). For when we receive others into our homes, we open the door to Jesus himself (Matthew 25:40).

I look forward to some glorious Thursday, when the interruption ends, and Jesus dines with us again.

Hospitality by Eugene Peterson 

Benedict taught us well: Receive
Each guest as Christ. The bell rings, the door
Opens. Some unexpected, and some, yes,
Unwelcome. Our guest book spills out photos.

  Christ abused, Christ the fool,
  Christ sullen, Christ laughing,
  Christ angry, Christ envious, 
  Christ bewildered, Christ on crutches.

Like Gospel writers of old we pray
And reminisce over left-behind guest signs --
A bra, a sock, a scribbled thank you --

  And let them grow into stories. Sometimes
  It takes an unhurried while. Then,
  There it is: absences become Presence. Resurrection.

(from Holy Luck [Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 2013], pg. 46)

Monday, October 17, 2016

Hacking My Wife's Habit Loop

These days my wife is a bit anxious.  Too much "people time" triggers her nerves. Too much "alone time" makes her worried. She talks about it, prays about it, practices self-care and swallows little pills. Nevertheless, she may have shingles and cancer and swollen glands. 

I've wanted to help my wife. I've watched her get caught in repeated patterns of worry. I've wanted to hack into her habit loop and bring her back to sanity. (NOTE: She did ask me to fix her, but as a husband I excel at the art of problem-solving, not empathizing.)

Here is my wife's loop:
  • Cue: She feels a tingle on her arm
  • Routine: She inspects her arm with anxious eyes for traces of shingles.
  • Reward: She finds no shingles and regains sanity for a minute or two.
She may swing through this cycle a hundred times a day. It makes me dizzy, and she is exhausted. Yesterday we started our hack.
According to Charles Duhigg's perceptive book, The Power of Habit, every habit follows a similar path: cue - routine - reward. While it is helpful to identify cues (e.g., driving triggers my nail-biting) and acknowledge rewards (e.g., biting my nails helps me stay attentive), Duhigg argues real change comes from modifying routines. He illustrates below:
My wife's deep longing is to feel secure: safe, healthy, and okay. She is not opposed to pain; I've seen the woman endure some pretty gritty births and one unfortunate death. But given such limited control over her world and body, security feels elusive. And shingles... certain. Something about this tingle - inspect - sanity cycle grounds my wife momentarily. 

I can't explain it - I'm merely a witness - but I can suggest a tweak. Yesterday I made my suggestion. After catching my wife running her index finger along her forearm for the fourty-second time (she is not as subtle as she thinks), I offered an alternative. "Every time you feel your shingles coming back," I said, "do a few squats."

"Really?" she replied, as if my suggestion was crazier than her obsession.

"Sure. You need a new routine. Every habit..." [Blah, blah, blah. Insert explanation of Duhigg's habit loops.]
"Okay. I'll try," Liz replied.

This conversation transpired in the kitchen. Liz stood by the table while I loaded the dishwasher. As I set a few cups in the top rack, I noticed her squat: one, two, three. I rinsed some plates and mixing bowls and placed them in the top rack. Liz began to squat again: four, five, six. Before I finished filling the dishwasher, my wife had completed the fourth round of her new routine.

Success: I hacked her habit loop. Instead of shingles, she can worry about sore thighs.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Spheres of Influence - where daily life and discipleship intersect

I just finished an article about equipping people beyond the walls of the church. I laid out a neat-and-tidy four-step process: raise awareness, state the challenge, provide accountability, and sustain momentum through celebration. My theories sounded so good, I might actually try them!

Sadly, the notion of equipping God's people often revolves around improving ministry performance within the walls of the church. We train teachers and give tips to greeters. We line up nursery workers and sign up volunteers for the next outreach event. Our sermons give practical advice (I hope) for daily living (e.g., guarding your tongue, fighting depression), but our ministry training times and team meetings tend to look inward.

As I church leader, I must realize my people spend the majority of their time beyond the walls of the church. They are parents and spouses, siblings and children, workers and citizens, coaches and consumers, neighbors and friends. And so am I. They wrestle with conflict management, lack of courage, anxiety, financial insecurity, pride, greed, people pleasing, doubt, gluttony, and a host of other soul matters. And so do I. They struggle to pursue God in their homes, prioritize God in their marriages, integrate faith into their work, and manage their time with ministering to "the least of these" in mind. And so do I (except for that faith-integration thing!).

These areas, where daily life and discipleship intersect, are called spheres of influence. They deserve more emphasis from pastoral leaders. Hence, I made a call to raise awareness.
I may spend inordinate amounts of my time tuning clocks, polishing sermons, and arranging programs within the walls the church. My congregation inhabits another world. A wider world. A world full of spheres where God intends to use them. And use me, too.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Reflections from a 10-Year-Old Adventure

I stole an idea from Bob Goff and adapted it. The author of Love Does described giving each of his children an adventure for their tenth birthday.
The idea was simple. The kids got to pick something in the world that captured their imaginations, fanned their whimsy, or sparked their curiosity, and then we said we'd do it together. There was no planning, no preparation, no thinking about all the details. We'd just go do it (pg. 128).
Goff is a man of great financial means. He can afford whimsy - London and India. My budget is whimsy prohibitive: It set me in the middle seat of the thirtieth role of the third boarding group of Frontier Airlines on a midweek flight to an off-season lodge room of the YMCA Snow Mountain Ranch. But our lobby had all-you-can-drink Douwe Egberts, and I had my almost-eleven-year-old daughter, which was well worth the hidden baggage fees.
Image result for dewey egbert coffee
On her actual, tenth birthday, I had provided Claire with a map of the United States. On the map I highlighted three cities: San Diego, Denver, and Boston. Next to each city, I printed off a picture of an animal and description of her adventure. We would whale watch in the Atlantic Ocean and tour historic sites. We would take a behind-the-scenes tour at the San Diego Zoo of the Polar Bears & Friends. Or we would ride horses and hike mountains in Colorado. The choices were tailor made for my daughter Claire, who loves animals more than athletics and food.

What Claire does not love is making choices. She took days before deciding on the trip to Colorado with her dear-old-dad. Between her waffling, school schedules, adoption traveling, and summer vacation plans, we had to postpone her adventure until last week.

Our itinerary provided Claire a four-day hiatus from school, visit with her aunt and uncle, tour of her birthplace, book purchase from the Tattered Cover, and recreational opportunities galore. We rode horseback through the morning chill and changing Aspen trees. We climbed rock walls and swam in an indoor pool. We rode down a summer tubing hill and climbed up several steep hills. And any time we needed to rest, we returned to our bedroom and read books, played games, and (I) posted picture montages on Instagram.

The images captured the adventure at its peaks. Social media excels at highlights. Hidden behind the filters was my bruised abs, Claire's scratchy throat, my anxiety about expenses, Claire's pathetic pallet. While we were thick on adventure, we were thin on conversation and calories. If it were not for the Wendy's in the neighboring town of Fraser, my daughter may have survived on M&Ms and Kix cereal. And try as I may, engaging conversation topics remained elusive.
I had hoped for a rite of passage on this 10-Year-Old Adventure. I wanted to bestow on my daughter treasures of spiritual wisdom. I wanted to spark her wonder with God's glorious creation. I wanted to stir her passion to serve Jesus. I wanted to walk beside her and watch her take ownership of her faith.

These things did not happen. What I did experience was quiet companionship from my firstborn who does not need an adventure to know her father loves her. And I do.

Sometimes my ambitions for Claire rise above her ten-year-old head. Yes, she's growing up fast. All kids do. But at ten (almost eleven), she is still just a kid. I do not need to urge her into adulthood; she will get there soon enough. Some day her faith will be her own, her diet will be balanced, and her want for wisdom will prompt her to ask me for spiritual advice.

And she will, because she knows I love her. Because I have walked with her.

The disciples were unschooled and ordinary like my kids, like all of us. They didn't need all the details because they were on an adventure with a father who wanted to take them. You don't need to know everything when you're with someone you trust. (Goff, Love Does, 136)