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.

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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.)

 

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.

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.

God’s Voice Within: Ignatian Discernment for Beginners (Book Review)

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God’s Voice Within, by Mark E. Thibodeaux, SJ, is an extremely practical book on Ignatian discernment. Meant to both simplify and elucidate the process of decision making, it’s filled with helpful anecdotes about discernment done well (like responding to genuine vocational calling) and discernment gone off the deep end (like dropping out of college without consulting anyone because of a poorly understood emotional crisis).

Although the book is accessible to those unfamiliar with St. Ignatius and the Jesuits, Thibodeaux does rely on a few terms that are essential to Ignatian discernment, as well as to Ignatian spirituality generally, beginning with desolation and consolation. At its most basic, consolation is the movement of your spirit towards God, evidenced by an increase of faith, hope, love, peace, and a sense of God’s closeness, while desolation is the movement of your spirit away from God, evidenced by fear, secrecy, anxiety, boredom, or apathy. However, these are tricky concepts because not only do you have actual consolation and desolation, you can also experience false consolation (an apparent increase of faith, hope, love, and peace that is actually disguising desolation) as well as deep suffering and distress that feel like desolation, but, because they cause you to turn towards God, actually produce consolation. Also, depending on where you are in your spiritual journey, consolation and desolation can take on different forms.

Although whole books have been written about desolation and consolation, true and false, God’s Voice Within helpfully offers charts and checklists that help you determine which one you are feeling, and how to respond once you know. Simply put: When in consolation, store up in your memory what consolation feels like and the practices that are sustaining you. When in desolation, buckle down and do the same things that came naturally to you while in consolation, no matter how much more difficult they are now. In fact, do them with even more determination, deliberately turning towards God even though your emotions and experiences are telling you to do the opposite. Perhaps most importantly, desolation is not a time to make any major decisions, particularly if doing so would reverse a decision made while in consolation.

Once he’s explained desolation and consolation, also known as the movement of the spirits, Thibodeaux reminds us that the basis for all discernment is the Principle and Foundation, a “mission statement” that Ignatius formulated to remind us of the essential truth of who we are, why we are, and what we are doing: “Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul . . . [Therefore,] Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created.” Our purpose and goal are greater and truer love and service towards God, which, in Ignatian thought, goes hand in hand with more fully becoming the person God designed us to be.

From the Principle and Foundation, Thibodeaux derives a helpful question to answer at the start of a discernment process: “What are you looking for at this time of your life?” In other words, what are the goals and purposes that drive you? Thibodeaux recommends writing your own version of the Foundation and Principle, using a process that includes remembering what it was like to first answer the call of Jesus, naming your gifts and which you are most grateful for, and naming each of your vocational callings.

Once you’ve clarified your own Foundation and Principle, discernment can proceed through its four phases: Get Quiet (cultivating a habit of regular and concrete prayer), Gather Data (about yourself and about the choices before you), Dream the Dreams (get in touch with your deep desires), and Ponder the Dreams (test the response of your spirit to your choices, or what Thibodeaux calls “praydreaming”). These four phases are folllowed by tentative decision making, seeking confirmation, and final decision making, and Thibodeaux provides helpful guidelines for knowing when confirmation, or disconfirmation, has come.

But what about when confirmation doesn’t come, despite your best intentions and efforts? Almost as much as I valued the process outlined in God’s Voice Within, I appreciated its tips on making a decision when confirmation doesn’t come: the acknowledgement that in the end, sometimes we simply make our way through the twilight as best as we can, trusting God has been and will be with us no matter where we choose to go.

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

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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.

Raising Wild Things Without Becoming One: “How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen” (Book Review)

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Day 14 of my 30-day writing challenge

Last week, I dusted off my flute and fumbled by way through a Poulenc Sonata whose second movement is my favorite piece to play. It’s a slow, haunting, minor melody with dramatic bursts of dissonance. I learned it as a young college student, and the thing I remember most about that process was my female teacher telling me, only half jokingly, that it was a passionate song and that I probably needed to be deflowered before I could do it justice.

The comment mystified me at the time, and looking back, I think I get it even less. I think there’s some fallacy that young people – children, teens, even young adults who are short on romantic experiences – don’t feel things deeply, and are unacquainted with the joys and sorrows that we bigger people have access to. As though there is some sort of sexual experience card that buys you admission to an elite club of emotions.

One of the few things that I took away from a graduate school class I had in Children’s Literature is that children feel things very deeply indeed, and the best children’s writers understand that and don’t condescend to them. To read Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” is to be invited into a world of primal love, rage, fear, attachment, rejection, joy, and hunger. It’s to see in vivid colors and sprawling crosshatchings that children can seem monstrous to adults, and to themselves, because they feel so much, not because they feel so little.

As I read How to Talk to Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life With Children Ages 2-7 by Joanna Faber and Julie King, what stands out is the authors’ respect for the inner lives of little ones, one that carries across from the preceding book in the series, the classic How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlisch.

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The first principle for talking to your youngsters comes early in the book:

Children depend on us to name their feelings so that they can find out who they are. If we don’t, our unspoken message is: ‘You don’t mean what you say, you don’t know what you know, you don’t feel what you feel, you can’t trust your own senses.

Children need us to validate their feelings so they can become grown-ups who know who they are and what they feel. We are also laying the groundwork for a person who can respect and not dismiss the needs and feelings of other people.

John Berger famously wrote that women are always watching themselves being watched. Children, however, are always watching themselves be watched by their parents or other important adults in their lives — not, as women do, to make themselves objects of the male gaze — but instead to help them affirm and shape their own subjectivity and agency. Again and again, my kids say, “Mommy, watch me! Dad, did you see me do this?” If we don’t watch them, they are unsatisfied. It’s almost like the action didn’t happen. So it makes sense that the same is true for feelings as well.

I’ve long been the prototypical dismissive parent when it comes to feelings. My son is mad because his sister is mistreating a toy that he just threw on the floor in a fit of temper? Well, that makes no sense! My daughter is crying because she has to leave the park? Does she not appreciate that we spent two hours there already? This is, I’m afraid, a classic East Asian-influenced upbringing: Whatever you feel, you shouldn’t. Stop it!

Faber and King’s strategy for affirming feelings instead of yelling and berating — thus setting your children on their way to becoming adults with compassion for themselves and others, while also helping to direct them in a way that adults can live with  — is simple. The formula goes like this:

I understand / hear / know (your feelings about x). The problem is (explanation of parent’s perspective)

In my house, examples might be:

I understand that you’re angry that you can’t run around the house naked when you’re hot. The problem is we have guests over for dinner, and they don’t really want to see bare bottoms with their broccoli.

I hear that you’re sad that you didn’t get to eat ice cream for dessert. The problem is that you already had cake for breakfast and too many sweets aren’t good for your teeth or your tummy. (. . . Wait, what? You had a lollipop, too? When did that happen?)

I know you want to watch more Netflix. The problem is you’ve already watched seven episodes back-to-back of “Puss N’ Boots” and Mom has to at least pretend to be a responsible adult. 

There is much more to the book, which includes tools (and stories of parents implementing them) not just for handling emotions, but also for engaging cooperation, resolving conflict, expressing praise and appreciation, and for parenting kids who are on the autism spectrum or have sensory issues. There is also a chapter that will appreciated by skeptical parents: an acknowledgement that there are times when all these tools will fail you, including when your children are hungry, sleep-deprived, overwhelmed, or being asked to do something beyond their capacity. These caveats seem more than fair, considering that adults don’t do very well in those situations either. Listening and affirming skills are crucial, to be sure, but there are times when all of us just need a cookie and a nap.

Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation (Book Review)

Day 12 of my 30-day writing challenge

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Many Christians undertake Bible reading, prayer, and other spiritual disciplines like fasting out of a desire to “work for Christ” or out of guilt for not doing more. Ultimately, these activities can drain and frustrate, drawing us further away from God, not closer. God invites us to something different: spiritual transformation and a deeper life with him. 

Ruth Haley Barton’s practical, introductory book, Sacred Rhythms: Arranging our Lives for Spiritual Transformation, is for all of us who experience an “invitation” to a deeper life: a longing and searching for connection with God. Barton helps us to recognize and follow this invitation to deepened relationship through the practice of spiritual disciplines. Prompted by the desires of our truest selves, we enter into the mystery of God’s transforming presence. 

Sacred Rhythms leads us through step-by-step guides to a number of spiritual disciplines, with the goal of making these disciplines part of our regular practice. These disciplines include approaches to Scripture reading and prayer, but because they are focused on being with God, rather than doing for God, they lead us towards a new way of life in relationship with God instead of more task-oriented work. As we embrace these disciplines, we will discover openness to the “everyday beauty and fullness that comes from paying attention and finding God in the midst of it all.”

In each subsequent chapter, Barton introduces a new practice or grouping of practices: solitude (especially important in an age of technology), Lectio Divina, prayer (silent, breath, intercessory, community, and life-as-prayer), cultivating bodily wholeness (caring for and listening to your body through exercise, prayer, and meditation), the examen of conscience, Sabbath rest, and creating a personal rule of life. These practices do not necessarily have to be learned in the order the book gives, but they each build on and support each other. Together they all lead up to the logical end of creating the rule of life: a set of prayerfully determined, individualized commitments to “values, practices and relationships” that determine what one does daily, weekly, monthly, yearly in order to sustain openness to God.

The book is a valuable resource for any individual seeking a deepened journey with God, whether new to the spiritual disciplines, needing a reminder, or hoping to create a rule of life. It can also be used by a small group, a spiritual director and directee, or a couple.

Appendix A is a guide for taking a group through the book, with prompts for the leader and study questions for everyone. Barton emphasizes that anyone who wants to go through this book as a small community must commit to the journey together – to the prayer and practices outlined, as well to creating a safe environment of support for all, where God (not any person or persons within the group) is understood to be in charge of each person’s spiritual transformation. Appendix B offers a short list of disciplines that may help an individual counter particular sins and negative patterns; for example, the practice of Sabbath keeping as a way of transforming patterns of over-busyness.

Although Barton confesses at one point that it is only in solitude with God that she does not feel lonely, she also establishes the importance of entering into spiritual transformation within the context of Christian community and spiritual friendship. She names Christian community as a discipline in itself, and a vital element of the formation process. It was first modeled by Jesus and the disciples – both by the larger group of 12, and by the select few that he choose to be with him in more vulnerable moments.

Barton is a gentle and encouraging guide, modeling the kind of unhurried listening to self and to God that she is advocating. Without making the book about herself, she helps the reader identify with the physical and spiritual exhaustion that led her to seek transformation. Her simple confession at the end that she has slipped out of her own sacred rhythms while finishing this book also demonstrates the generous acceptance of self that comes from a fuller understanding of God’s love for each of us, and his patience for wherever we may be on our journeys.