Fighting for a Win-Win in Dating and Marriage: Tips for Handling Conflicts from the Gottman Institute (Book Review)

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This coming week, my church’s Biblical Dating in the Digital Age series will focus on “Dating and the Church of God” – or how a love relationship between a man and a woman that starts with dating will eventually become, in marriage, a visible sign of the invisible grace of God: the relationship between Christ and his bride, the Church.

At the same time as the series has been running, my husband and I have been co-leading a premarital counseling course for several couples that are approaching marriage. The bulk of our course is based on research from the Gottman Institute. Researchers there have been taking a scientific approach to the study of marriage (and divorce) for the past twenty years. Gottman’s book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, is based on those insights, which include an over 90% ability to predict a couple’s eventual divorce simply by the way they react to each other over the course of a normal conversation or day spent together. Many of these insights, though discovered in the context of marriage, are also applicable to dating.

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One of the most helpful insights Gottman uncovered is this: Couples are going to argue. Expect it. In fact, 69% of conflicts between even happy couples are what he terms “Unsolvable.” In other words, they are issues that may appear surface and temporary, but at root are core differences in temperament, values, and beliefs that are not going to go away. Ever. What’s key is not whether you fight, it’s how.

So what’s a dating or married couple to do when faced with the billionth fight over the same topic, whether it’s the frequency of date night, someone’s inability to buy good gifts, or who gets to wield the remote?

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Simple. (Sort of.) You realize that you, buddy, are not going to win this one. Neither is your partner. Not completely. You recognize that you are two people who think differently about what’s important and you agree to disagree.

Let’s say, either while you are already married with kids, or while you are projecting your dating life into its possible future, you begin discussing holidays with the parents.  You think it’s important to spend every Christmas with your parents, and your partner wants to take vacays to Disney with the kids. You are adamant that your family is the most important thing in your life and you want your kids to spend time with their grandparents. Your partner (who is as not as close to his or her parents) is equally adamant that getaways for your nuclear family will help cement your bond and create lasting memories. At the core, the two of you are fighting not about a holiday, but about definitions of family and priorities that you’ve been forming since childhood. Neither of your experiences or values is going to change.

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You could fight about – or sweep under the rug – both the surface and the deeper issue every Christmas for the rest of your lives, and let the bitterness of the perpetual conflict – or perpetual repression – seep into the rest of your relationship. Or, you negotiate. You compromise. You find a middle ground in which neither of you is right, neither of you is wrong, and neither of you gets completely what you want. But both of you win.

You win because you’ve stopped an unsolvable disagreement from spilling into those areas of your life where are in accord. You’ve drained the toxin from a conflict that has the potential to poison your marriage. Now, you agree to spend most Christmases with the grandparents, but every third year you see them on Thanksgiving instead and head to the Magic Kingdom for Yuletide. Is either of you getting exactly what you want, every time? Nope. But both of you are getting some of what you want. Both of your needs and concerns are being valued. And you get to keep a healthy relationship. That’s the definition of a win-win.

(Just know that for me this is an imagined scenario only. In reality, I think I’d commit seppuku with a rusty nail clipper rather than be anywhere near Disney on Jesus’ birthday. I’m not anti-Disney, exactly. Just anti-peak holiday crowds, interminable lines, and exorbitant prices for a stupid sipper shaped like Mickey’s head that, btw, is both creepy and bad for the environment. Let me tell you: it’s exhausting to spend a whole day on your feet while feeling morally superior to the people you are elbowing out of your way.)

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Remember, it’s a beautiful castle, but the wicked witch and her spinning wheel are hiding upstairs. (image from disneytouristblog.com)

That’s just one example of how couples might begin practicing the art of the “win-win” while they are still dating. Whether it’s who pays for those Broadway tickets or how many evenings you need to spend with just the two of you vs. hanging out with friends . . . find a way to negotiate. Give a little to get a little. It sounds manipulative, but it’s not. It’s practical. And it’s loving. You have a perspective that your partner needs. And your partner has a perspective that will help you grow into a fuller, richer person.

I’m not saying don’t have non-negotiables. I’m saying be realistic about how many you have. And ask yourself: If I bend on this a little, what am I losing? What am I gaining? What might my partner lose or gain?

You might gain years together. You might get a marriage as it was meant to be: two people who are willing to mutually sacrifice for the other’s good.

Or, on the flip side, you might decide your non-negotiables are exactly that and save yourself years of fruitless friction in a relationship that doesn’t allow you to express your authentic self, nor appreciate who your partner truly is.

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Either way, it’s a win for both of you.

Find more resources for couples from the Gottman Institute on gottman.com

To follow Vineyard One’s Dating and God series, watch the sermon series on Facebook Live at 10:30 am EST, or at any time after the live stream concludes, or visit vineyardone.nyc.

Everything I Know About Love, I Learned from “Bachelor Nation” (Book Review)

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In tribute to my church’s current series on God and Dating, I’m continuing to review some of the books I’ve read relating to love, romance, dating, and marriage.

Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure isn’t really about dating, in the sense that it’s not a “how-to” primer, the way The Four Man Planwhich I wrote about last week, is. But entertainment journalist and author Amy Kaufman definitely uncovers some of the secrets to making people feel the pulse-pounding onslaught of love (or maybe just lust) – whether or not they’re there for the “right reasons.”

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Let it be said, right off the bat, that the Bachelor producers come off in this book as beyond Machiavellian. They make the author of The Prince, the scourge of the Medicis, look like a rank amateur. They are manipulative, scheming, ratings-grubbing, and drama-mongering. And they are obviously geniuses at what they do, because, well,  we’re still watching.

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An Actual Bachelor Producer

Well, I’m not. Anymore. Mostly because it’s faster for me to skim the recaps.

What were my “right reasons” for beginning to watch the voyeuristic marvel that is the Bachelor franchise? Way back in 2002, my husband and I had a new baby that Would. Not. Sleep. After four months of stumbling around like zombies on Ambien, we gave up and sleep-trained her – an esoteric process otherwise known as “let the baby cry herself to sleep, already!” The problem was, we were in a very small apartment and had nowhere to go away from the crying. So, we turned on the tv, and lo and behold! Like a light shining out on our desperate existence, there was Chris Harrison! And the Bachelor! And 25 Bachelorettes!

Reader, it was the distraction we needed. We were hooked like big, bug-eyed catfish and stayed hooked through the second season, when the lovely former cheerleader Trista graced our screen and flitted out with a proposal from Fireman Ryan, he of the sweetly terrible – I mean just horrendous – poetry. We watched their wedding, when the couple bizarrely decided they only needed to recite thirteen-and-a-half out of fourteen lines of Elizbeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

People, you just cannot truncate a sonnet of its final couplet. It becomes a painfully unfinished thing.  It’s like . . . if Pygmalion hadn’t wanted to bother with styling Galatea’s hair and just left her brainpan open. IT CANNOT BE DONE.

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Etienne-Maurice Falconette, The Walters Art Museum
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Trista and Ryan, ABC

Sorry, had to get that off my chest.

Anyway, back to the book. Here, in no particular order, are the 10 secrets to falling in love a la Bachelor Nation. (Have no fear, I will also list more broadly applicable secrets for the rest of us who like to visit Reality TV Land but wouldn’t want to live there.)

  1. Alcohol. Lots and lots of alcohol. So much alcohol. Because people without inhibitions can be coached to do anything!
  2. Sleep-deprivation. Also not known to promote rational, self-protective behavior.
  3. Isolation. You know all those women can’t leave the house, right? Not even to run to CVS for toothpaste.
  4. Complete lack of privacy. Cameras everywhere! Eventually, contestants can’t keep their guard up all the time any longer and that’s when things really get rockin’.
  5. Ruthless editing. By manipulating camera angles, cuts, and voice-overs, and splicing together exactly the words they want someone to say, the producers can make a perfectly pleasant one-on-one date seem like an encounter between Attila the Hun and the Roman army. Or vice versa.
  6. The same interrogation techniques used by police when they’re trying to get someone to confess to murder. “Oh, come on, Ashley. You know you’re for falling for Justin. We’ve been in this room for 15 hours without daylight or water or even those little 100 calorie cookie packs from the vending machine. Why don’t you just cry a little and say you’re ready to marry him and we can all go back to our tequila?”
  7. Pursuant to numbers 4, 5 and 6: An iron-clad contract. Everything you say and do can and will be used against you in the court of reality television. Even if you didn’t actually say or do it.
  8. Boredom. There is nothing to do in the Bachelor/ette mansion. No books, no tv, not even jenga. Eventually, there is nothing to do to entertain yourself except fall in love, form Survivor-like alliances, and acquiesce to whatever cunning narrative the producers want to tell the viewing audience. They want you to wear a tiara and a ballgown? Sure, what else have you got to do?
  9. Using women’s biology against them. Did you know that when a bunch of women stay in the same place for an extended time, their menstrual cycles start to sync up? The Bachelor producers sure do. Mass outbreaks of crying, moodiness, and exhaustion make for must-see-tv!
  10. The producers conspire against you. They cultivate your friendship and then they lie, lie, lie. Say Rudy tells Tania – to her face! – that he doesn’t know how he feels about her but he does think she’s great in the sack. The producer whom Tania trusts the most will then assure Tania that Rudy is a deep, sensitive guy who is already halfway to the altar.
  11. Did I mention the alcohol? Because I think they might fill the swimming pool with it.
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The Bachelor Pool: Powered by hormones, mixed drinks, and impaired decision-making.

Now, for those of us who have no designs on the Fantasy Suite, here are Bachelor-inspired dating insights for normal people:

Love is many things, but among the most measurable is a neurochemical state. The culprit is dopamine, “a stimulant that gives us motivation, energy and focus” (Kaufman 135). When you’re in love, dopamine floods your brain and you feel elation, drive, even obsession. The Bachelor puts its contestants in situations that prime them for dopamine surges. Maybe we can’t all have twenty-five people vying for the favor of our attention, but there are some things we can do to stimulate dopamine production on our way to finding that fairy-tale ending:

  1. Go looking for love. Just the expectation that you might meet someone drives up your dopamine levels. Proximity to other people looking for love can also increase dopamine production.
  2. Put yourself in novel situations. Combine your romantic quest with new experiences. Try new things in order to meet new kinds of people. And when you’ve met someone, try new things with them.
  3. It’s even better if the new thing is something you’re slightly afraid of. Conquering fear or facing imagined danger with a potential or actual romantic partner will bond you even more. The Bachelor calls these “adrenalin dates” (Kaufman 133) – rappelling down a cliff, zip-lining over a forest, swimming with sharks, dashing to Macy’s on Black Friday. The surge of endorphins on top of all the other hormones will increase your feelings of connectedness and euphoria.
  4. Keep your clothes on. Also known as the “Don’t Give Away Your Goodies For Free” postulate*. Why? Because when you’re in a state of heightened dopamine – which everyone at the beginning of a relationship is – it’s hard to distinguish between lust and love. The instant sex enters the picture, your dopamine system basically explodes your brain. It conspires against your reason, wisdom, and self-preservation. You can go instantly from a superficial interest in someone to feeling like he is the Romeo to your Juliet, the Lancelot to your Guenivere, the Jason Mesnick to your Melissa Mycroft. And we all know how well those stories turned out**.

 

*I heard a mom tell her teenage daughter this on the subway. It was probably the funniest #overheardinnyc moment I’ve heard yet, even if the daughter didn’t feel the same way.

**Also, because reportedly the number one reason would-be contestants get turned down for the show? Previously undiagnosed STDs.

******

Want to learn more about love? Join Vineyard One NYC for our sermon series on “Biblical Dating in the Digital Age.” Find us at vineyardone.nyc or stream our services Sunday mornings at 10:30am EST on Facebook Live.

A Math Nerd’s Dating Manifesto: The Four Man Plan (Book Review)

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In the annals of crazy-pants things to do with your time, our church’s decision to have a sermon series on God and dating feels up there. For one thing, the Bible has no advice whatsoever about dating, although my husband did notice that wells seem to be a good place to meet your future spouse (Zipporah) or your future spouse’s marriage broker (Rebecca). Also, dating seems to be the kind of topic about which you can talk endlessly and come to very few solid conclusions or universal recommendations. There are too many variables at work: individual temperament, family history, cultural zeitgeist, shifts in gender roles and expectations, not to mention “the economy, stupid.” (Poor economic conditions discourage people from getting married, particularly women.)

Let’s get real: if there were a surefire way to find lasting romantic love, it would already be free to Prime members. (And the rest of us would have to save up our order for weeks or throw in extra q-tips until we reached the free shipping threshold, not that I’m bitter or anything.)

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Still, in the interest of research for said sermon series (and not at all for the pure entertainment), I’ve been reading books about dating. I’ll share my thoughts about some of them here in the next few weeks.

First up is The Four Man Plan: A Romantic Science, by Cindy Lu.

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First of all, Cindy Lu is an awesome name that reminds me of that time when the Grinch gave back Christmas. Just because of that, I’m tempted to believe anything she says.

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The Four-Man Plan is billed as THE BEST HOW-TO-DATE-BOOK EVER, which given the author’s wicked sense of humor, has to be at least somewhat of a joke, along the lines of “THE MOST DRAMATIC ROSE CEREMONY EVER” or “THE MOST PEOPLE AT ANY INAUGURATION EVER.”

Important to know: This book is only for heterosexual women. Women, according to Cindy’s own story and the case studies in her book, can successfully use the Four-Man Plan to date up to 16 men at a time on their way to finding their Three-and-a-Half man, or, in Cindy’s math, THE ONE. (You really have to read the book to understand the calculations.) Men, of course, have never needed much encouragement to spread themselves around. (See: All the Biblical patriarchs.)

The gist: Cindy says that by assigning men mathematical values (from 1/4 to 3 1/2) and keeping track of them on a grid with 16 squares, the odds for finding a fulfilling relationship are ever in your favor. In practice I can’t imagine having time for that many men – When would you sleep? Go to work? Binge-watch Netflix? – so it’s good to know that 16 is a ceiling, not a goal.

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Snow White’s 4MP grid (from the book and website)

By juggling suitors, all of whom are fully aware of your actions (no being a Sneaky Susie), and never sleeping with more than one at a time (the math won’t allow it), you will spur men’s innate competitive nature, which means they will invest more energy and thought in pursuing you; you will open yourself up to becoming simultaneously a more adventurous and more patient dater (because you will not be fixated on getting any one person to put a ring on it); you will not be ruled by your fickle and, frankly, not very bright, hormones; and by virtue of having lots of guys to compare to each other, you will begin to understand better both yourself and the kind of guy that will fit with you.

My husband’s response: This seems very empowering for women. But I don’t have the same opinions about what motivates men or what men are looking for as Cindy does.

My response: If I ever had to date again, I might try this method. It sounds like a way to reduce a lot of the angst and pressure, particularly for Christian singles who are feeling anxious about marriage. I’m all for formulas, and this one almost makes dating sound fun and confidence-building and not like something I would maybe do as an alternative to getting my bunions shaved.

The takeaway for church folk: Not written from a Christian perspective – or any particular ideological or theological bent – but from a practical one. Cindy is concerned not with how we think men should be, but with how she has experienced them to be, which is why I think my husband had trouble relating to her portrayal of men. There are definitely Christian men who – like my husband was – are only looking to date one woman at a time with an eye towards marriage. The plan actually accommodates those men; it just instructs the woman to let the man initiate that discussion, not bring it up on her own.  (This aspect of the plan seems practical and smart and also kind of icky and disempowering, all at the same time. I’m not fond of it, but I can see why it might work.) Cindy also mentions that singles who are planning on abstinence til marriage can still use the plan. In fact, that person will have more space available on her grid for potential dates (because in Cindy’s schema, a sexual partner has a higher “value” and thus takes up more space).

Resources: You can go to Cindy’s website to find testimonials, blog posts, and (if you buy the book) a private Facebook group with 4MP coaches. Or join Vineyard One NYC on Sunday mornings at 10:30 am EST on Facebook Live to check out our sermon series, “Biblical Dating in the Digital Age: How Would Jesus Swipe.” (I’ll let you in on a little secret: The subtitle is a big misdirect. Jesus would totally be a Coffee Meets Bagel guy.)

 

Tacos, Tires, a Tofu Box: A Story of God’s Providence

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A few weeks ago, my husband Ryan, our daughter Deise, and I drove up to Syracuse for a regional church conference. While there, we hung out with our good friends Kurt and Amy at their apartment complex pool. Our girls got to swim together while the adults caught up. As we left the complex, this happened:

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We were driving down a busy street in front of a large shopping complex, and an elderly gentleman pulled out without seeing us. My husband braked hard, and no one was hurt, but our car was toast. (Or rather, it was fixable, but it was so old and its mileage so high that the insurance company decided the repairs would cost more than the worth of the car.)

Here’s the crazy part. Less than half an hour ago, we’d gotten four new tires. Which were now on an undrivable car. Wanna know why we’d gotten those tires?

It happened like this: While driving up to Syracuse, we stopped to see my son, Daniel, who was at a math camp at Bard College for a few weeks. (Yes, my son is a math nerd. Since he’s returned from camp, he’s been busy trying to discover algorithms to solve Rubix cubes.) We rescued him from cafeteria food for the afternoon (“They serve tofu dogs. They’re terrible.”) and let him pick his food of choice. He picked tacos. So we drove to this little place we’d seen in town. As we entered the driveway, we heard a loud pop or crack under the car. We stopped; Ryan checked around to see what had hit us and saw nothing. We found out the taco place was closed and went elsewhere. End of story, we thought.

Except, that when we got to Syracuse, it turned out our tire was leaking. Ryan filled it with air once, but that was only a temporary solution. There happened to be a tire store close to Kurt and Amy’s house, so while we girls swam, Ryan and Kurt took our car to the tire store. The tire guys took one look at our tires and said all the treads were dangerously worn down. So Ryan got all the tires replaced, then hopped in the car to pick Deise and me up. That’s when the accident happened.

So, let’s review the sequence of events:

  1. Daniel’s taco craving leads us to a leaky tire. And the taco place isn’t even open!
  2. We replace all 4 tires, to the tune of $200.
  3. 15 minutes later, we get into a car accident. Those $200 tires are now on a worthless car. (We joke about posting the picture of our wreck on Instagram with the hashtag #look ma, new tires!)

Oh, yes, and we’re on vacation!

Not a great story, right? $200 down the toilet, plus a wrecked car, during what’s supposed to be a rejuvenating getaway.

But what if we tell the story a different way? What if Daniel’s taco craving actually ended up preventing us and the other driver from serious injuries? What if, because we had four new tires with new treads instead of four old tires with substandard treads, those new tires were able to slow down the impact of our collision enough that we all walked away, unhurt? What if God used Daniel’s hankering for Mexican and a mysteriously flat tire to look out for us all?

Now, can we prove that’s what happened? Empirically, beyond a shadow of a doubt? Of course not. It’s absolutely possible that this sequence of events was random. We could absolutely choose to lament those beautiful, shiny new tires that are going to waste on a busted car somewhere in a collision repair shop in Syracuse. But we’ve chosen to focus our attention elsewhere, to tell a story of God’s providential timing and protection.

Life of Pi author Yann Martel summed up the meaning behind his novel like this: “Life is a story; you can choose your own story; a story with God is the better story.”

Sometimes faith is not just believing in God in the abstract; it’s the story you choose to tell.

What’s your story?

sdrP.S. Here’s our “new” used car, a Toyota Scion XB. When we briefly lived in Hawaii, we had an older version of this car that the locals called a “tofu box” because, well, that’s what it looked like. This more recent model is less boxy, but the name has stuck.

 

How I Got There: The Tale of a Spiritual Pilgrimage (Book Review)

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Not everyone has heard of the Vineyard, but if your church service sings contemporary worship songs, has a rock guitarist and drummer in its worship band, and is filled with people in jeans and t-shirts instead of suits and ties, you have been influenced by its existence. John Wimber, a “self-proclaimed chain-smoking, beer-guzzling, drug abuser” and a former member of the Righteous Brothers, launched the first Vineyard Church in Southern California, and the movement has since had a global impact on worship music as well as a key role in the charismatic renewal of the American Evangelical Church.

Earlier this year, I was privileged to edit a memoir by Mike Turrigiano, former pastor of the North Brooklyn Vineyard Church (and also my former pastor), entitled How I Got There: The Tale of a Spiritual Pilgrimage. Mike tells the story of his unlikely journey from heroin addiction in the Bronx to being mentored and befriended by John Wimber and other pioneers of what today is the Vineyard Association of Churches. Mike likens himself to the “Forrest Gump” of the Vineyard  – just an ordinary guy who happens to be on site when extraordinary, history-making events happen. He describes himself as “Gumping” his way through life and ministry.

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Not Mike
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Char and Mike (mainandplain.com)

Mike intertwines his personal story with that of the early days of the Vineyard: His entrance into Teen Challenge and subsequent work with Don and David Wilkerson, his whirlwind courtship of his wife, Char, their introduction to the Vineyard movement and friendship with Lonnie Frisbie (the charismatic, flawed leader of the Jesus People Revival), the miraculous highs and tragic lows of working on the frontlines of Vineyard church planting in the Northeast, Mike’s take on the controversial Toronto Blessing at the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church, and his leadership of a church that met in the iconically seedy and smelly Trash Bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Through all these events, Mike reflects on his own faith journey as well as the development of the Vineyard church.

Mike writes like he talks. He is down-to-earth, conversational, frank, and funny. He’s made no attempt to sand down the rough edges of his life or those of the other people he writes about, but he also treats everyone with tremendous grace and looks through a lens of deep gratitude, trust in God, and an awed appreciation for the experiences he’s had and the people he’s encountered. The book is a short read – only about 100 pages – but you won’t want to rush through it. Besides being necessary reading for anyone who is interested in the history of the Vineyard movement and its impact on the church, it is also a moving and quietly dramatic story of how Mike has been shaped – and continues to be shaped – by continually saying “yes” to the Holy Spirit. Read it and be challenged and inspired to say “yes” to whatever God is asking you to do or become.

Better than Redemption (Bourbon)

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This past Christmas, my church co-hosted a Christmas party in Long Island City. Our good friend Cici, owner of the Mighty March Liquor Store in Elmhurst, donated three cases of wine to the party. (My dad, a staunch Nazarene until the day he died, is probably giving me judgmental glances from heaven right about now. Nazarenes, who are both teetotalers and cessationists, don’t even get “drunk” in the spirit, much less on a good Chardonnay.) As a thank you, and to prepare for my in-laws’ upcoming visit to New York, we bought a few bottles of red wine. My husband had also – I can’t remember why – decided he wanted to drink bourbon.

So what else is a good Christian wife to do when she sees a bottle labeled “Redemption” but tell her husband to buy it? I’m pretty sure that’s what John Calvin would do, right? (Martin Luther, of course, was a beer guy.) Not that I had to flex many of my persuasive powers: As I said, he was on a bourbon kick for some mysterious reason. (For the purposes of this post, I’m not going to dwell on Redemption’s problematic claim that it’s a “true reflection of ‘America’s Native Spirit.'”)

Now, my experience with hard liquor is very limited. My husband is a scotch drinker, but scotch to me tastes exactly like a band-aid smells – rubbery, sharp, and with a whiff of bodily damage having taken place somewhere. Bourbon doesn’t rate much better with me, although the smell is more nail polish remover than plastic adhesive. So believe me when I say that the only reason I chose this particular bottle was its name. (There’s probably some sub-SAT level analogy there – choosing a book : its cover :: choosing a liquor : its name. Alas, I think analogies have been scrubbed from the SAT, which means millions of high schoolers are now illiterate in the mysterious symbology of analogies. Which I think was one of the rejected tracks from Schoolhouse Rock?)

Not that it matters, since I have no idea what a “good” bourbon should taste like. My husband seemed to like it okay, although he quickly moved on from straight shots to making Old Fashioneds with Angostura bitters. He hasn’t chosen to re-purchase Redemption, though. (That sounds like the boozy equivalent of re-committing yourself to Jesus, which, to my recollection, every good Nazarene does at least half a dozen times a year.)

Last week, I visited Wilmore, Kentucky, home of Asbury Theological Seminary, for a conference. Since Kentucky is the birthplace of bourbon, it only made sense to pick some up as a souvenir for my husband, whose Redemption had long run dry. (The puns are endless.) While my traveling companion Larry and I were hunting down a liquor store on the way to the Bluegrass Airport, three different people recommended Woodford Reserve as the best local version.

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The people at Woodford Reserve, besides having apparently thoroughly mobilized the airport-adjacent population of Kentucky on their behalf, are conscientious folks. I couldn’t even click on their website without putting in my birthdate to prove I am above legal drinking age. I am more than a little confused by this precaution, given that the limit for legal consumption of html is somewhere around infinity. Their website also helpfully informed me that their bourbon has zero caffeine, zero carbs, zero protein, zero sodium, and zero sugar and is friendly to butterflies, watercress, and native white pond lilies. Except for the part where it can cause inebriation, lead to poor romantic choices, and smells like I should be scrubbing my toenails with it, this makes it no worse for your health and arguably better for the environment than Diet Coke.

My husband likes the way the Woodford tastes, too. He said it tastes like “burning velvet.” (My oldest daughter says this would be a great name for a band. She’s too young to have heard of the Flaming Lips.) Asked for a comparison to Redemption, he thought for a second and said, “The Redemption had the burning, not the velvet. And not even as much burning.”

So there you go, folks. Better than Redemption, and with more burning. Do with that what you will.

(P.S. I made gentle fun of the Nazarenes here, but I grew up with them and consider them my family. I jest with love.)

 

 

The Dandelion Days of Summer and God’s Unconditional Love

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If you have allergies like I do, and like my kids do, the arrival of warm weather in New York is like a birthday party and a mildly horrific movie wrapped up into one. We love the sunshine, taking out bikes and scooters, shrugging off the coats and sweaters. We love far less the itchy, swollen eyes, stuffy noses and clogged throats, eczema, sneezing, and chemical dependency on every over-the-counter remedy in the known universe.

The other week as I tromped to the drug store in search of antihistamine eyedrops with my son (13) and younger daughter (6), I was struck by how utterly and completely themselves they both were. Deise (pronounced “Daisy”) was in ecstasy over the dandelions populating our neighbors’ lawns. She wanted to pick all of them and bring them home. She kept saying, “They’re so beautiful! Look how beautiful they are!” Daniel, however, was impressed neither by his sister’s enthusiasm nor by its objects. “They’re weeds,” he pointed out. “They’re an invasive species and they’re bad for the rest of the plants. You shouldn’t pick them.”

 

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If you know my kids at all, these reactions typify their personalities. Deise lives in an enchanted world of play clothes and pretend. She’s been sleeping at night in a multicolored tent in our living room, surrounded by the stuffed animals that “I love so so much, even though I know they aren’t real.” I took her to her piano lesson not too long ago and the trees by her teacher’s apartment were in full bloom. She was enthralled and spent time gathering not only tree blossoms but more dandelions. She named each one of her blooms: Blossom, Berry, Cherry, Pitter, Patter, Packer, Mrs., Droopy, Goldilocks, and Bitter (because it was small). She also picked up individual petals from the ground and gave them the catch-all name “Hatchling.” She is the embodiment of joie de vivre.

(Her names reminded me of the classic children’s book Make Way for Ducklings, with its eight siblings Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack.)

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Daniel, my chess player, mathematician, and pessimist, is interested in facts, strategy, and planning for worst-case scenarios. (Also, Marvel comics.) When Daniel looks at a dandelion, he sees not “scope for the imagination,” as Anne Shirley would say, but an invasion waiting to happen. His response to dandelions is to leave them alone lest anything worse come to pass.

(Sophie (16) wasn’t with us that day, but if she had been, she would’ve had a snippet of a Broadway song and a playfully sarcastic comment for all parties. Her spiritual gift, like her father’s, is snark.)

What I felt as I watched Daniel and Deise respond so differently to the same environment, and even as I waded in to stop them squabbling over their different perceptions, was an overwhelming wash of love, acceptance, and delight in them, exactly as they both are. And I also felt God’s love for them – unconditional, perfectly knowing, perfectly celebratory of their uniqueness, gifts, and potential.

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I think this is how God loves each one of us: whether we are imaginative and sunny or rational and gloomy, an Anne Shirley or an Eyore.

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Sometimes I think we are afraid that he has rankings in his head, that he prefers one type of personality or one set of talents over another, and that whoever we are is far down the list. But the truth is that God delights in each one of us exactly as we are. Zephaniah 3:17 tells us that:

. . .  the Lord your God is living among you.
    He is a mighty savior.
He will take delight in you with gladness.
    With his love, he will calm all your fears.
    He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.

If your insecurities are snarling at you today, spend some time meditating on this Scripture passage and letting its truth sink in. You are as beloved by God as the brightest summer bloom. You bring God joy! What could be more beautiful and freeing than that?

Imaginative Prayer and “Sticky Faith” for Kids (Book Review + Podcast link)

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I reviewed this book about a year ago, but I’m reposting because its author, Jared Boyd (also my spiritual direction teacher!), is being interviewed on a podcast with the Missio Alliance, a fellowship of churches and other organizations dedicated to the health and vitality of the North American Christianity. You can find the interview, “How Imaginative Prayer Helps Children Connect with God,” here:

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One of the main insights from the book Sticky Faith: Everyday ideas to build lasting faith in your kids, by Dr. Kara Powell and Dr. Chap Clark, is that how parents practice and talk about their faith with their kids is crucial to passing on authentic faith. If parents hope to cultivate a Christian identity in their children — one that survives the tumultuous teen and questioning young adult years when young people are “discovering who they are and making the commitments toward who they want to be” — they have to do more than just go to church, pay their tithes, and send their kids to youth group.

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The authors’ research, conducted under the auspices of the Fuller Youth Institute and Fuller Theological Seminary, concludes that “it’s never too early” to start building faith that sticks into your children. To do that, parents need to go beyond teaching Christianity primarily as a system of “do’s and don’t’s” and obedience, and instead help kids experience what it is to know and trust Christ. Practical ways to do this include: surrounding your child with a Christian community (mentors, peers, family) that will dialogue honestly about even difficult issues and doubts; using rituals and celebrations (like prayer at birthdays) to reinforce identity; focusing on character growth rather than behavior; and modeling a relationship with God.

As I read through Jared Patrick Boyd’s new book, Imaginative Prayer: A Yearlong Guide for Your Child’s Spiritual Formation, I immediately thought back to the lessons of Sticky Faith. In his introduction, Jared invites busy parents to slow down, to recognize and live out their importance as the most important influences in their children’s spiritual development. He writes:

As a father of four girls one of my greatest desires is to pass on to them a deep understanding and awareness of the experience of God. My hope is that they would feel connected to God and the story God is unfolding in their lives and in the world around them. Will they see themselves as part of God’s story? Will they feel close and connected to God as they navigate decisions that come their way and pursue risks on the horizon? Will they say yes to all that God is inviting them into?

Jared’s language and spiritual practices are steeped in the Ignatian tradition and borne of out his long experience as a contemplative practitioner, spiritual director, and teacher, as well as his pastoral ministry in the Vineyard, an association of evangelical churches explored at length in Tanya Lurhmann’s When God Talks Back. Lurhmann’s psychological and anthropological study of the Vineyard and its practices of listening and prayer leads her to conclude that connectedness to God, while full of mystery, is a learnable skill.

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Taken together, Sticky Faith and When God Talks Back (not to mention the larger backdrop of Western Christianity’s well-documented and ongoing failure to pass on faith to the younger generations) provide strong rationales for exactly the kind of imaginative prayer experience and sustained spiritual formation that Jared’s book is meant to guide parents and children through.

Over the course of a year, the book explores six theological themes: God’s Love, Loving Others, Forgiveness, Jesus is the King, The Good News of God, and The Mission of God. Each theme is divided into 7 weeks, with six weeks of imaginative prayer sessions followed by a week of review.

Each (non-review) week is further broken down into repeated sections. “Connection and Formation” introduces the theme for the week, through a theological reflection, poem, perhaps a story. Next, a “Q&A” provides a brief catechism to help children remember the theme. The “Imaginative Prayer” is the heart of each week: a guided prayer, rich with imagery, sensory information, and metaphor that invites children to enter into an experience with God that they can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. The “Q&A” is then repeated, to emphasize the theme that the child has now experienced in their own imagination. Each week concludes with reflection and devotional prompts for “For the Parent or Mentor” and a reminder for children to journal (write or draw) for twenty minutes, based on a question that will lead them to reflect on their life that week — not “just” the spiritual formation part — in light of the explored theme. The review week wraps everything up by bringing back all the creedal questions (catechism) from that section and through suggested activities and questions.

As a sometime homeschooling parent, a professional educator, and a writer of curriculum, one of the things I appreciate about Jared’s book is how thoroughly it’s planned. Each activity is nested within the credal theme for the week, which is nested within the theological theme for the section, and everything is meant to contribute to the larger goal of the intertwined spiritual development of children and parents. As an example of Jared’s attention to detail, each imaginative prayer script is timed down to a range of seconds! Jared has also created a Conversation Guide for teachers, for those churches that want to bring to book to a Sunday School classroom in partnership with parents. (It’s a supplement to, not a substitute for parental involvement.)

One of my favorite imaginative prayers in the book is Jared’s picture of Jesus coming to defeat the power of sin. He asks the child to imagine a deep cave filled with seven giant faucets, all spouting different-colored water, one faucet and color for each of the deadly sins. Together, the faucets fill a cave that is “dark and murky and smelly.” The child is asked to imagine a wheel that will turn all the faucets off. It’s too heavy – the child can’t turn it. But Jesus steps in and turns the wheel right off, and instantly the cave fills with clean air, with sweetness and light. In this and many other instances, Jared’s metaphors are concrete, vivid, and fresh, and I believe will help children — and their parents and other spiritual mentors — understand, experience, and remember abstract theological concepts in a new and “sticky” way. Jared’s focus on building a shared theological vocabulary to go with a shared experience of God also lays the groundwork for many years of faith-building conversations between parents and children, between siblings and Sunday School peers, and between each member of the family and God.

“To Steal, Kill, and Destroy”: Anxiety and Spiritual Direction

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I’m excited to share that I just had a short article published in Connections, the online publication of Spiritual Directors International, which is – quite self-explanatorily – an organized community for spiritual directors, also known as spiritual companions, or people who help other people become more aware of where and how God is present in their lives. (Hint: He’s everywhere – if we just learn to look!) SDI claims “more than 6,500 members in 42 countries around the world.”

In my article, “Facing Performance Anxiety in Spiritual Direction” (p. 7 of the newsletter), I describe a bit of what it’s like to be a new spiritual director and to feel my inner “demons” of insecurity and fear triggered by something that happens in a direction session as well as how my peer supervisors helped me get to the bottom of what was bothering me.

Here are two short snippets from the piece.Screenshot 2018-05-25 at 11.42.41 AM

 

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And here’s the header image the editor chose: Screenshot 2018-05-25 at 11.47.33 AM

That’s me, facing down my fears! Obviously on a day where I’m wearing fake eyelashes.

(You can find the complete article and the full edition of Connections here.)