Monthly Archives: December 2021

Start a Reaction

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Our family sat around a big table at a local restaurant eating one more holiday meal together before my brother-in-law Rich and sister-in-law Mary and their kids headed home to Oregon from Dallas the next day. They were discussing their travel plans when Mary asked if they’d be home in time to go to work at their company. Rich said they’d be home too late for him to go in and “start a reaction.” Rich is a chemist, and their company is a lab, so this statement made sense. But I said, “how cool is it to say I’m going to work to start a reaction.”

In the days that followed, that phrase “start a reaction” played over and over in my head. Whether we intend to start a reaction, the bottom line is we will cause some sort of change wherever we go. When we enter any space – at work, school, or home – we will make things different than they were the moment before we came in. And the people around us will react to the way in which we behave, the words we say, or our inaction or silence. My kids probably react most quickly when I go quiet – they immediately ask, “what’s wrong, Mom?”

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuroscientist who had a stroke that left her unable to talk or communicate for a period of time in the hospital. She could only sense the positive or negative energy of the people who came into her room. After her recovery, she wrote a book “My Stroke of Insight” and appeared on the Oprah show, which was the first time I heard her say, “Take responsibility for the energy you bring into this space.” Depending on the energy with which we approach any situation, we can evoke very different reactions in the people on the receiving end.     

One of my favorite quotes is from the poet Rumi, who wrote, “Wherever you stand, be the soul of that place.” I appreciate the concept that we can define the essence of a place by our presence. Rumi’s and Bolte Taylor’s words remind me to be intentional about the ways in which I interact with others. That even if I don’t speak or act, I bring energy and can be a healthy or unhealthy influence simply by being in the room.

When Jesus walked the earth, he brought love into every situation. He wanted those at the bottom rung of the societal ladder to know that he loved them despite what the culture said about them. Some people reacted to Jesus’ audacity to love everyone by following him and some reacted by hating him because he challenged the status quo with his radical love. But make no mistake, Jesus started a reaction wherever he went. 

It’s easy to forget that we can make a difference in others’ lives just by going about our daily business. Sometimes, we are so consumed by our own issues that we be become blind to the ripple effects we can cause. Often, we don’t believe we have the power to make a difference. We feel we don’t matter that much and therefore won’t have an impact. Although we may not start a reaction that will change the world, rest assured we are constantly starting reactions that impact others. 

In the new year, I wonder what would happen if we recognized that we can start reactions at any time. I’m not advocating for false cheerfulness or displays of inauthentic happiness because people will see through those demonstrations. But I think God wants us to show genuine caring and compassion for others and, in so doing, start a love reaction that can make a difference in their lives and in ours.   

Blanketed in Love

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Our family has a slight obsession with blankets. No matter the time of year, we wrap up in soft, plush blankets on the couch. We tuck ourselves into bed with multiple layers. When we go to the movies, we troop in with our blankets slung over our shoulders like Linus from the Peanuts comic strip. Our road trips are epic for the number of blankets that make the journey. We are blanket people.  

Many times, a blanket comes to represent a special place or time in life. For instance, each of the kids have multiple blankets with their summer camp’s insignia. We each have our favorites, of course, but when someone else tries to use another person’s favorite, our dark sides emerge. “Give me my blanket.” “Don’t get anything on my blanket.” “Who has my blanket?” “Don’t take my blanket.” I wish I could blame the children solely, but each of those phrases has come out of my mouth. We always have another available pile of blankets from which to choose, but we are reduced to toddlers who yell “mine” when our “blankies” are threatened. 

Blankets provide physical warmth, but they also symbolize comfort and security. Perhaps we should more graciously offer our blankets to one another. We could share our blankets rather than keep them to ourselves. Lately, our culture tends more toward possessiveness and less toward sharing. We live in a mindset of scarcity, of mine and yours, of have and have-nots. But our tightfistedness is not limited to physical objects. We have a hard time extending kindness and caring. Simple words or gestures of appreciation are scarce, yet we could freely give them. We isolate from others instead of welcoming people into our communities.  

But God is not miserly with us. Our God is boundless in love and lavish with grace. God wants to take care of us when we hurt and celebrate with us when we are happy. The Psalmist said, “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart” (Psalm 91:4). I imagine God wrapping us in the softest, coziest blankets to shelter us. Then, God pulls us close, puts his arm around us, and comforts us as we tell him what is on our hearts. 

God will never refuse to give us support and reassurance. And God wants us to demonstrate that same type of care to those we encounter. We may not literally provide a blanket to everyone, but we can show compassion and empathy. We can spread kindness instead of being callous or indifferent. 

When we wrap ourselves in blankets this season, let us remember that God blankets us in love every day, always. May we spread the blanket of God’s love wide to cover others so that they too may experience the warmth of God’s refuge.  

Love, 

The Carter Family

2021

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

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Almost every holiday season, a familiar song will strike me in a new way. One of my favorite Christmas songs is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” When I heard it on the radio recently, the word “ransom” caught my attention. In the song, we adopt the persona of the people of ancient Israel summoning God to obtain their release from captivity. The first verse of the song says:

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

And ransom captive Israel

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the Son of God appears

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel 

Shall come to thee O Israel”

The people are begging God to hear their cry and save them from their exile. In other verses, the people ask God to free them from Satan’s tyranny and save them from the depths of hell. Then they ask God to drive away the night and bring them light. The people ask for God to close the path to misery later in the song.

“Rejoice! Rejoice” repeats in every verse, but the rest of the refrain explains the reason to rejoice: God shall come someday and rescue them. But that day is not today in the song. That day is in the future at an unknown time. The people are hanging their hope on the idea that God will rescue them even though they struggle and live in misery now. In reminding themselves to rejoice that there will be an end to their suffering at some point, they also remind God of his promise to come to their aid.

This Advent hymn, which has origins that span over 1,200 years, is a song of lament in keeping with the tradition of lament found in the Psalms when the authors cry out for God’s intervention. In Psalm 44 (v. 23-26), the author said:

“Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?

Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.

Why do you hide your face
    and forget our misery and oppression?

We are brought down to the dust;
    our bodies cling to the ground.

Rise up and help us;

   rescue us because of your unfailing love.”

The people of ancient Israel didn’t gloss over their hard times but told God directly what was on their minds. Then they claimed God’s goodness and faithfulness by reminding God of his love for them, by recalling how great things had been in the past, or by telling God how faithful they had been to him. They weren’t afraid to be honest with God. And neither should we.

When we sing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” we channel the plight of the Israelites of old but can take comfort in their open and forthright relationship with God. We can also express our pain to God in excruciating detail. But then, let us follow the song and the Psalms and hang on to God even in the midst of struggle. We can express our belief that God is ever-present and has not abandoned us. We can rest in the hope that Jesus brought to earth when he was born. We believe that the Son of God, in fact, has already appeared in order to save us.   

We can be authentic and truthful with our God and trust that he hears our cries. We can ask God for comfort and claim the promise of God’s love for us. After all, Emmanuel means “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). Let us call on God to be with us and be involved in our lives in both the good times and the bad. Come, Emmanuel, come.      

Candid With Our Lives

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Scrolling through pictures on my phone, I smiled at one of my son Alex and my niece from Thanksgiving. They were discussing a video game when I snapped the candid shot to remember the sweet moment in time. Seeing that photo reminded me of another day this year after my daughter Riley’s dance recital. Riley has an eye for photography that she inherited from her grandmother and great-great grandmother, so she is quite particular about photos – lighting, placement, facial expressions, everything. The dancers had taken numerous photos in various groups when Riley said, “Let’s take some candid shots.” She then asked the other girls to join her and said they should all pretend like they were talking and laughing for the photos. I looked at another mom and said, “that’s the exact opposite of candid.” Instead, she’d staged the whole thing as though they were in a marketing ad.  

Candid photos are meant to show reality, in a behind the scenes type of way. The photographer tries to blend into the background and take photos unbeknownst to the people in the shot in order to capture the essence of the situation. Some of my favorite wedding photos are of our guests in conversation or dancing – unposed, unplanned.  Candid pictures portray the truth of what is happening just as candid conversations are supposed to be truthful.

Being candid sounds great in theory, but sometimes, we balk at the idea of living authentically. We would rather put on the masks, stage the scene, and pretend everything is fine. Especially during the holiday season, when stress is high, we just wish everyone would play along and fake it if necessary. We may desperately want a picture-perfect time with family without conflict. We crave the Hallmark movie ending. We dream that the kids will love every gift and not compare their haul with what their siblings or friends receive. We idealize what the holidays should be year after year even if our histories don’t support the fulfillment of such aspirations. We have the script written in our heads, and when our people don’t live up to our expectations, we are disappointed or downright mad. And instead of taking a step back to realize that it’s okay if everything doesn’t go as planned, we may throw up our hands and say, “whatever, I quit” and spend the rest of the season stewing in resentment. 

But what if we could let go of the fantasies, which will ultimately let us down, and focus on forging real and lasting connections? We could abandon our efforts to fit everyone into pre-formed boxes with sparkling wrapping paper and let them be themselves. God doesn’t expect us to be perfect, and we shouldn’t expect that from others or ourselves. When Jesus walked the earth, he hung out with and loved imperfect people from his devoted followers who often didn’t understand him to the outcasts who society considered sinful. They couldn’t create a pristine Christmas dinner, buy expensive gifts, or force everyone to take photos continually until they got the perfect shot. Life was messy for Jesus and his people. I imagine that for them to live and work together out on the road pursuing Jesus’ ministry, they had to be pretty candid with one another. I don’t think Jesus would’ve wanted it any other way.  He wanted genuine relationships rooted in understanding and truth.  The only way to get those types of real relationships is to drop the façades and really, truly communicate with and listen to one another so that we might forge deeper and lasting ties.  

Let us take candid photos this season – the real ones, not the manicured ones – and see what we learn about our people. I venture to guess that we will find happiness and maybe even sadness on the faces of those around us. But no matter what we view through the camera’s lens, we can rest in the belief that being real is the only way to create the candid life we all want.  

I Resent It

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My phone dinged indicating I’d received a new text, so I glanced down, saw my teenage daughter Riley’s name, and the first words of her text, “I resent it…” My heart skipped a beat – what had I done that made her feel resentful? Then, I read the rest of the text, “I resent it to you” with a smiley face emoji. She’d sent a new version of a college scholarship essay for me to edit. She’d previously sent me this essay for initial edits and now she’d sent it again.  Her use of “resent” now made sense to me. Why wouldn’t this be the proper word just like “replay,” “redo,” and “repeat?” Yet, without a hyphen (“re-sent”), its meaning was extremely different, and my brain immediately headed down a negative track.

After this wordplay confusion, I felt the need to look up the definition of “resent,” which means to “feel bitterness or indignation at a circumstance, action or person” (lexico.com). And then, being the word nerd that I am, I looked up “bitterness” and “indignation,” and they both involve anger resulting from unfair treatment. Resentment means more than just anger; it’s rooted in the perception or feeling that we’ve been the victim of an injustice. 

The concept that life is unfair has always been a point of dissatisfaction for me. As a “right fighter,” I want justice to roll down like a river. I wish things in life would add up like a math equation: do good, play by the rules, be kind, and all will work out favorably. But obviously, that’s not my experience or anyone else’s. 

I’ve realized that some teachings about God and spirituality that I’ve heard have added to my misconception that life should always be fair. Lessons like those found in popular prosperity gospel say that if one has strong faith and engages in good behavior, then one will be healthy, wealthy, and wise. The theory also implies that bad things happen to one because of mistakes or sin. The trite phrase that “everything happens for a reason” can send an analytical person like me down a scary rabbit hole looking for God’s “reason” behind everything. And the reassurance that God has a plan I don’t understand does not provide comfort in the face of suffering. I feared God’s disappointment, disapproval, or wrath if I wasn’t perfect. And when my best efforts didn’t lead to good results, I felt disappointed in myself because I wasn’t good enough and disappointed, maybe even a bit resentful, in God for not holding up his end of the bargain. 

But God didn’t actually make that bargain with me or anyone. God did not promise a math equation in life that leads directly to reward or punishment. In one instance toward the end of Jesus’ earthly life, a woman named Mary anointed him with expensive oil, and the disciple Judas criticized her saying she could’ve sold the oil and given the money to the poor (even though the scriptures note he didn’t really care about the poor but wanted the money). Jesus rebuked Judas, saying “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me” (John 12:1-8). To declare that the poor will always exist sounds completely unfair to me, but Jesus understood that in our human weakness, we make poor decisions, uphold corrupt systems of wealth and privilege, and act selfishly. We will never have a perfect world in which everyone gets what they deserve – good or bad. But God asks us to try to make the world a better place on his behalf. To work to cure injustice when we see it, in big or small ways. Life will not be fair, but we can help by lifting others up and showing them God’s love.

I’m not yet free from expecting or yearning for fairness in life for all people, especially those whom I care about the most. Just this week, I’ve told God on two separate occasions that I felt upset because these unrelated and completely different circumstances were both “not fair.” I’m sure God will never be free from my complaining about the lack of fairness. I inevitably ask God why the unfairness I see exists and further ask God what he’s going to do about it. But maybe God looks back at me and poses the same question in return: “You’re right. Life is not fair. Now, what are you going to do about it to ease my people’s burdens and relieve their resentment?”