Difficult Relationships and the Four Minute Rule

I was visiting in a home one day when the six-year-old granddaughter who lived with her grandparents arrived home from school. Her mother had died when she was only three. It was a hard time for the child. I had gotten to know the grandma and really liked her, which was why I was so surprised when I saw her interaction with her granddaughter. From the moment the girl opened the door, her grandma was on her case. There was one put-down after another for this little girl. Before she knew what was happening, she was sent to her room to stay there the rest of the afternoon. I know the grandma loved her, but it must have been hard for her granddaughter to sense that at all. The little girl is all grown up now. I hope she has found better ways to parent her own children.

I once read that the first four minutes of every encounter are the most important. In those first four minutes the questions: “Do you still care about me? Do you accept me? Am I important to you?” find an answer in our words and expressions. What we do in those four minutes sets the tone of the remainder of our time together. It takes that long to reassure ourselves and the other that our relationship is still OK. This is even more important when the one we are greeting is going through a period of grief, loss, or an otherwise difficult time.

It is essential that during those four minutes that words that are affirming and encouraging are said, to avoid giving the wrong message. When the first words to a child are, “Did you get your chores done?” or “Take off that good shirt.” Or the first words to a spouse are. “You never . . . All you ever do is . . . ” your relationship suffers. Each of us needs to know that we are loved. Each of us craves affirmation . . . what otherwise has to be said, can wait four minutes.

Take a look at those troubled relationships. How often do you begin an encounter with, “Why didn’t you . . . ?” or “How come you . . . ?” Or, “I don’t like the way you . . .”  How many times  does that strained relationship become even more strained as blaming words are dumped on someone else? Do your words or actions indicate that you care about that someone?   We can never change other people.  What we can do is change ourselves.

Try out the four minute rule. See what it does in some overly stressed  relationships.  The mark of any true Christian community or Christian family is seen in the love and respect members have for one another.  The Biblical book of Acts tells us that the early Christians were known by their caring relationships. It was said of them, “See how they love one another.”

All Things Working Together For Good

My sons were seven, six and four the summer they decided to poison their two year old sister. The two neighbor boys, who were generally down on girls and helped with the plan, were six and seven. I was never certain just what possessed my sons to do this. Their sister liked to tag along after them. But that could never justify in my mind, how they decided to put together a concoction of shaving cream, toothpaste and what they assumed to be poison mushrooms. Mostly, I remember my despair when the neighbor mom called and told me the plan my boys and hers had cooked up. Even now, I’m appalled when I think about it. I will tell you that I was not a calm mom at that point. I couldn’t wrap my head around what they wanted to do. There was never any real danger that my daughter would have tasted the mixture. Still it was a painful moment of recognizing that my perfect children were as vulnerable to imperfection as any others.

I wonder how the patriarch Jacob felt when he learned the true story of his son Joseph’s disappearance and presumed death. Recorded in the Biblical book of Genesis (chapters 37 through 50) the story of Joseph has intrigued generations of readers. Joseph with his special coat was sent to check on his older brothers. His brothers resented him and what they perceived as special treatment. Eight of Joseph’s brothers decided to kill him and rid themselves of the troublesome sibling. One, hoping to teach the boy a lesson and bring him home safe, convinced the others to put him in a pit. Unfortunately, he wasn’t around when traders arrived and the others decided to sell their brother into slavery. Soaking Joseph’s coat in the blood on an animal, they let their father assume a wild animal must have killed his beloved son.

What they didn’t realize, in all of their scheming, was the devastating effect that losing Joseph would have on their father. The light just slipped out of his life. He was no longer the father they knew, but a broken man grieving for a lost child. Years would pass with Joseph’s brothers carrying a load of guilt and shame. Eventually, starvation led them to Egypt and their lost brother. By then, Joseph had risen to a status almost as great as Pharaoh.  His wisdom  prevented mass starvation in Egypt.  With the excess food that has been stored  he  can feed his brothers,  saving them and their famlies from famine.  Joseph could have treated his brothers with contempt. Instead, after revealing himself to them, he offers them forgiveness. It is not lost on the brothers that Joseph holds the power of life or death over them. To their surprise, Joseph tells them that what they intended for evil, God intended for good. The apostle Paul would say “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.” Romans 8:28

My son’s intent to poison their little sister has proven to be a handy reference point, when I hear one of the three adult sons complain about children who are behaving badly. It is a a quiet reminder of their childhood and what behaving badly really looks like.

Lent – A Season of Turning Around

IMG_8923 When Jesus began his ministry he said, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Mark 1:15  Repentance is not simply feeling remorse for wrongs done.   Rather it is a time of turning around.   True repentance is a radical  reassessment of how we live our lives, opening ourselves to change our whole way of thinking, reasoning and being.  It’s letting ourselves see the world as God sees it and  turning away from those parts of our lives  which limit our compassion, our goodness and our following Jesus.  Lent is such a time of reconnecting and of turning around.

Many years ago, I knew a woman who could not let go of her anger at a sibling. The event in question had happened in her childhood. By then the woman was growing frail, yet she continued her long grudge. Her sibling had reached out many times in the sixty years since that breach. Other family members had intervened. She, however, refused all efforts, all kindness, all willingness to understand. She would not allow herself to be reconciled.

As I listened to her reasons, I thought how sad that she would allow those thoughts to destroy the friendship of a sibling who genuinely cared about her. I thought of a relationship she had missed out on and the family gatherings she had excluded herself from. I thought of her ongoing loss. What I found especially sad was how much healing would have come to her,  if she had only been willing to let go of her pride and forgive.

That we are willing to forgive others is important to Jesus. Who other than Jesus, or a mom with a brood of kids, insists that we forgive each other?  The problem with hanging onto resentment is that eventually it will eat us up. Long term grudges imprison our possibilities. We cannot live our lives with joy, while simmering with resentment.

The need to forgive is just as real and genuine as our need to be forgiven.  Not forgiving destroys our spirits and our souls. When we refuse to forgive it causes not only us grief, but God. Paul said as much when he wrote these words to the people of Ephesus: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander together with all malice and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.” Ephesians 4:30-32

In your life there may be a person who needs your forgiveness. There may be a person who really needs to know that you have decided to forgive. Who in your life might that be? What can you do to express that forgiveness? What symbol can you share? May God give you grace to forgive, even as God has forgiven you.

*The season of Lent begins this year with  Ash Wednesday on March 1.

The Gift of Setting Boundaries

Vinyl-Fence-Picket-5-lgPokemon Go has raced around the globe since it was launched in July. My daughter tells me, not only is it a great way to get exercise, it’s also a way to meet people who are visiting the same Pokemon Go hot spots. Churches, parks, monuments, gyms, Senior centers, overlooks, beaches, museums, national memorials are all places’ one can find a Pokemon character. But, like all good things, there are limits to be learned. Preoccupied players have crossed barriers they ought not to have crossed. Some have walked into police cars, fallen off cliffs, wandered into ponds, irritated Veterans at memorial parks and forgotten to be attentive to sacred space.

Boundaries exist for a reason. Boundaries define what is ours and what is someone else’s. The Bible warns, “Do not move the ancient boundary stone.” (Proverbs 22:28NIV) Boundary lines keep peace between nations and neighbors. Boundaries in relationships create space which is essential to healthy relationships. We may not name them as such, but we know when a boundary has been crossed.

I grew up on a small fishing resort in Southern Minnesota which included cabins, boats, and a restaurant. The restaurant was a gathering place for the neighborhood. Our business was only a few years old as I grew up, started shortly after my birth. From the beginning, even as a small child, I learned from my dad that when it came to boundaries, “The customer is always right.” While I loved my father that was not a good means to learn about healthy boundaries. The way that played out in my childhood was a boy named Gary. Gary would come out each Sunday afternoon with his grandpa. His grandpa would be playing cards in the restaurant area and Gary would be back in our living quarters playing with us. I use that term loosely. What Gary would really do, is dig into the toy chest and pull out every toy, spreading small toys over the entire house. Inevitably, he would head home and we were left with the mess. We groaned whenever we saw him walk through the door. Not only did he make a mess, he was also a bully. If we complained to my mom and dad about Gary, we would be reminded that Gary and his grandpa were customers. There appeared no boundary Gary could not cross. My parents never set limits on his behavior. Nor did his grandfather. One Sunday Gary started a fight with my brother. When the fight was over, Gary had broken my brother’s collar bone. I remember my brother in pain, nursing his shoulder, and my upset parents as they headed off to get medical care. I don’t know what was said, between my parents and Gary’s Grandpa. Some new limit was made. A boundary was set. His grandpa continued to come out every Sunday afternoon, but Gary was rarely seen after that

There is a place and a time to set limits on what we will allow. The apostle Paul, writing to the people in the area of Ephesus, used the term “Speak the truth in love.” (Ephesians 4:15) He knew that no one can live in community, without speaking truth, setting boundaries and respecting the physical and emotional space of another.

Waymarks on the Journey

In the summer 1987 my family took off from our home in Minnesota on a long awaited trip to Yellowstone National Park. The park is primarily located in Wyoming, and partially in Montana and Idaho. This unique national treasure sits on top of a volcanic system. All of which has made it the place to go if you want to see eruptions of lava, geysers and sulfuric springs. I had always wanted to visit the park. The intrigue of “Old Faithful” known for its regular display of water intrigued me. We would visit other sites along the way.

I suppose it would have been better if I had, had a better car. At the time money was scarce. We borrowed a tent from a friend and rented a camper trailer. Then we set out with one adult, and five children ages ten to seventeen. My almost 19 year old son had just joined the Navy and would miss the trip. Meanwhile, we would be meeting my oldest son at Yellowstone. I had an old, yellow station wagon with fake wood trim which had seen better days before I ever acquired it. The shock absorbers had worn out to the extent that at night there was a noticeable upward swing to the headlights. This made for a bit of an impediment with hundreds of miles of night driving ahead.

From the beginning of the trip we were plagued with car and trailer problems. The rented trailer hitch would regularly fall off the station wagon. As a family, we rapidly learned how to reattach the hitch. We had gone a couple of hundred miles when the station wagon stalled along highway 90 in South Dakota. Eventually, the highway patrol stopped and checked on me. I told them about my AAA travel coverage and they told me that there was no AAA travel coverage in that area of South Dakota. They also taught me a new term: “vapor lock.” I learned it was not uncommon and if I tried to start my station wagon, it just might start. We made it to our destination that night in fits and starts, resting the engine till it would work again. Near Wall Drug in South Dakota, I found a person who could help with the car. I felt better looking at the letters posted on their wall from people around the country and some overseas, who had stopped at their repair shop and gotten help. We were blessed with some honest people, who quickly took care of the problem at a minimal cost.

Our first big item on our trip was to go up Mount Rushmore to see the famous heads of presidents’ George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln carved into the mountain stone. The journey up did not go at all as planned. We had to stop and let the car cool down several time when it overheated. After getting to the top, my sons aged 17, 13, 11 and my daughters ages 15 and 10 headed toward the monuments, while I turned toward the cool of the visitor center. I was trying to figure out if we could continue the trip, if we ought to continue it or if we could even get down off of Mt Rushmore. I was feeling alone, frustrated, worried, and wondering why on earth I had ever set out on that trip. Standing in line at the concession stand, hundreds of miles from home, I was feeling isolated and lost. Then I heard someone call my name. Behind me was a friend from seminary. I was worried about a car, but what I really needed at that moment was a friend. I thought I needed help, but what I needed was someone to listen.

God often operates that way in our lives. We venture out on faith. Answers don’t come the way we expect. When there is trouble, we’d like to see steps far down the road. We want assurance we will get to our destination and home safe again. God offers us a listening ear instead. When we travel in faith, we discover waymarks on our journey, places and signs of God’s presence – a certainty of God’s blessing. We face larger challenges than we signed up for, then discover God’s grace is more abundant than we thought.

Oh, we did get down off Mt Rushmore without the car falling apart. There was an hour stop to let the brakes cool down. Yes there were more problems. A blown tire here and there. We regularly stopped to get the trailer hitch back in place. As we traveled around the winding roads of Yellowstone at night, with lights pointed to the sky instead of the road, my then 13 year old kept asking, “Mom, if we fall into a hot spring, will the ice cubes melt before we hit the bottom?” The car made it and we made it. This troubled vacation with all of its problems and trials is a special blessing to us today. We remember it, not for the sights we saw at Yellowstone, but what it taught us about each other. I think that was part of what God had in mind when we set off on the journey.

“Please, Don’t Let Me Look Dumb”

I had ordered a burger and ice tea at McDonald’s. The girl who filled my order was new and clearly stressed. I headed off with my tray when suddenly the same girl appeared with french fries. Putting them on my tray, she said. “You forgot your french fries.”

“Oh, I didn’t order any fries.” I replied.

“Would you please take them anyway,” she asked, “so I don’t look so dumb?”

One of our great fears is not measuring up to our own or other peoples expectations. We don’t want to “look dumb,” especially in front of people we are trying hard to impress. Our egos are fed on the praise of others. The problem is that none of us are perfect. We will inevitably make mistakes. We will fail at times when we most want to look good. Failure is one of the ways that God keeps us humble. Our readiness to admit that we may have made a mistake keeps us human.

Pride can be healthy or unhealthy. There is the healthy pride one takes in a labor of love, completing a degree after facing tremendous obstacles, or nurturing children into people of compassion. We experience healthy pride completing a job which has brought joy to others. Unhealthy pride is the opposite. The Bible says of that pride, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18) The pride the scripture writer is speaking of, is the kind of pride which becomes destructive. It’s not the healthy pride of a job done well, rather it becomes a negative force in our lives. Unhealthy pride keeps us from seeing another person’s point of view. It prevents us from caring about what other people value. Unhealthy pride separates us from one another. It separates us from God.

Pride can keep us from relating to a family member or old friend. Pride can interfere at work, school or church. Pride can make a stand, where stands do not need to be made. Stubborn pride even refuses efforts made to reach out to us. It can build a wall declaring judgement on whole segments of the population. A child, a brother, a sister, a co-worker may well feel the full sting of our prideful wrath. Pride can keep us from admitting to anyone, even ourselves – that we may have made a mistake. Pride slinks into our spirits, often leaving us feeling defensive and not quite at peace in our hearts.

The good news is that the sin of pride is not terminal. Confession, really is good for the soul. “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:9) Jesus said, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matthew 23:12) A little humility goes a long way in restoring our relationships with God and with each other.

Is there someone in your life that needs to hear from you a word of reconciliation? Today is a good day to restore a relationship, mend a friendship, swallow some pride, and allow God’s grace to work in and through you.

The Long Arm of God

My father never knew his father or did he ever really know a father’s love. When my grandfather walked away, he didn’t know that his sons would carry an empty spot in their hearts for him. One the fullness of years could not remove. He left home on the day of my father’s birth, leaving behind my grandmother and three small children. This grandfather has always been something of an enigma for his grandchildren. We’ve puzzled over his life, tried to fit pieces together and to make sense of who he was. I don’t think my grandmother ever stopped loving him. As a rather impertinent nine-year-old, I once mentioned to her that if they hadn’t gotten divorced, they would have been married fifty years. In her acknowledgment that “Yes, they would have,” tears sprang to her eyes and a deep countenance of sadness was written on her face.

One of my uncles remembered his father as a likeable person. Another carried so much pain, he would refuse to talk about him. My grandfather’s major flaw was that he was a compulsive gambler. According to family lore, he had gone through all of my grandmother’s inheritance. There were hard words spoken. The year was 1918 and a deadly flu was racing around the world. A priest was sent for, my newborn father was baptized and then my grandfather left his home forever. My grandmother was devastated. Three weeks later she caught the flu and nearly died. But, she was a strong woman, who took what life threw her and did what she could with it. Her courage was born of her faith. Eventually a divorce would end her marriage, and cause her to be excommunicated from the church of her childhood. A stinging pain would remain with her as she embraced another faith tradition.

I don’t know if anyone realized at first how permanent my grandfather’s absence would be. The family heard about him occasionally, as someone bumped into him in the Twin Cities, a very distant place in that time and era. To my knowledge, no one ever received a telegraph or letter from him. He died of smallpox, a lonely, broken man six years later. At his death, neither those who were working with him nor lived with him were aware he was the father of three sons. I doubt he believed that anyone cared about him or for him when death came. His life has always been something of a cautionary tale, of what can happen when an addiction takes over a life. I suspect that my grandfather was quite ashamed of the mess he’d made of his life. I imagine deep regrets for his lost sons and his inability to know them.

My faith tells me that he and they, all of us are held in the loving arms of God, who never forsakes us or leaves us. I’ve always felt sad when I’ve heard a person say they couldn’t believe anyone – even, or especially God – could love them. The scripture points to a different reality. The psalmist says of God, “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. (Psalm 139:9-10) There really is no place where God is not. God waits for us, chases after us and celebrates each returning child. While we are still running fast and furiously away, God’s hand is hovering over us, anticipating the moment we will realize that God has been there, with us, all the time.