Love Thy Neighbor Matthew 22:36-40

I feel compelled to write about the recent events in our country. With the shootings of African-American men by police officers caught on tape, the shootings of police officers in Dallas and the bitter political climate, I’m left with a plethora of emotions. I’ve gone from anger to fear; from sadness to apathy; from hopelessness to optimism. And back again to anger.

I’m not sure what you think or feel about the recent happenings, but I am certain you think and feel something. This got me thinking. I am fortunate to live in a diverse neighborhood. I love seeing the different colors of skin, the assorted culture and the intertwinement of ethnicities. My walking partner and close friend is Caucasian (I’m not!) and we can walk and discuss our lives, husbands, families, work and religion with no difficulty.

One thing I noticed however, is that with all that I have been feeling and thinking, I’ve only been able to talk about these emotions with my family or African-American friends. And the only people that have opened up to me about their feelings about racism and the current environment are people who look like me. My church and my work placed are filled with people that look like me and with people that don’t. Even in these environments I haven’t had one conversation about #blacklivesmatter, police shootings or anything pertaining to these topics with someone who is not African-American. This disturbs me. How can I feel so connected on so many levels with those around me that are different, yet on this topic, we stay clear of each other?…………….

Most Christians, if asked, would be able to answer the question, what is the greatest commandment? Well, if you’re unsure, here is the answer. When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment, He says this: To love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. Then Jesus offers up a freebie, even though He wasn’t asked. He goes on the say that the second greatest commandment is just like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.

I can’t help but think that we as a people, as a nation, are not doing well in keeping these commandments. Jesus is so right (of course!) that the first and most important is to love God with all we are and all we have. And that there is nothing else we can do in obedience to God without this – including loving our neighbor as ourselves. Our relationships with those around us cannot be right if our relationship with God isn’t right. All of our efforts to be united, peaceful and unbiased towards one another will fail if our foundation isn’t the rooted in the greatest commandment.

This doesn’t mean we have to agree. It doesn’t mean we have to understand. It means that we have to be willing to hear each other. Why don’t we engage in these conversations with each other? Fear? Lack of understanding? Anxiety over saying something you might want to take back? .

There are many problems in this country, including racism, classism, ignorance, abuse of power, hatred and the list goes on and on. And there are so many proposals as to how to go about changing this. I believe that if we truly lived according to these commandments, we could erase all these prejudice. And it would start with us being comfortable enough, loving each other enough, to engage in conversation with one another about sensitive matters.

I welcome any and everyone who would like to discuss anything with me. I promise to listen with the intent to hear and not with the intent to reply, criticize or force my views. Can you do the same?

Summer Breeze

Don’t you just love it when one of your favorite songs comes on the radio, especially a song that you haven’t heard in a while? Yet even though it’s been a while, you still remember some if not all of the lyrics, and there are distinct memories attached to the song. That’s what happened to me as I was driving home recently when “Summer Breeze” by Seals & Crofts started playing on the radio… “Summer breeze makes me feel fine, blowin’ through the jasmine in my mind.” As I was happily singing along, warm memories from my youth started replaying in my mind like a movie. For me this sort of thing happens with many classic songs and the theme that runs through them are memories of home and get togethers with family or friends.

It’s interesting that the memories attached to those songs are really simple ones: having a family BBQ in the backyard or going to visit with friends. They weren’t special occasions and did not require elaborate planning. That’s not to say that going to Disney didn’t create spectacular memories, but big trips were usually few and far between. The most plentiful memories were those that simply involved spending time with people we loved.

Reflecting on those memories makes me pause to consider how I spend my time today, and I hope it does the same for you. We live in a fast-paced society, and it is easy to get caught up in the busyness of our schedules. Yet there’s something inside of all of us that longs for a slower pace and being able to spend more time with others. It is in these quiet moments when we scroll through the images of those closest to us and certain feelings and emotions surface. This brings to mind the thought that perhaps our memories are not only fond remembrances of the past but are also gentle reminders of what the future could be.

Three years ago on July 1, 2013, Rolling Stone magazine rated “Summer Breeze” the 13th “Best Summer Song of All Time”. While the song is a classic, may be the reason why it has remained so popular over the years is that it evokes memories of a simpler life with those we love:

Sweet days of summer, the jasmine’s in bloom.

July is dressed up and playing her tune.

And I come home from a hard day’s work

and you’re waiting there not a care in the world.

See the smile a-waitin’ in the kitchen, food cookin’ and the plates for two.

Feel the arms that reach out to hold me in the evening when the day is through.

While it may be idealistic to think that life can be that simple, perhaps there are things we can do, minor adjustments we can make, that will enable us to re-establish or enhance our connections with others. For some may be that means taking every thought captive so that there is time to be deliberate about choices. For others it may mean redefining priorities, asking the question, “Is this still a priority?” Wherever you find yourself, the good news is that making memories does not really require a grand gesture to show how much we care for the other person, but it does require two uncompromising elements: you and your time. So, as you begin clearing your calendar, think about the invitations or opportunities you have passed over. Consider going to lunch with that friend you keep putting off because you’re too busy, invite your neighbor over for a backyard BBQ, or actually go on that date night you and your wife keep talking about. Whatever it is you choose to do, the important thing is to spend time with a loved one because it is during those moments when warm and lasting memories are made.

Blue Vs. Pink

I recently attended the Love & Respect conference by Dr. Emerson Eggerichs, who has his doctorate in Child and Family Ecology. His book, Love & Respect, introduces the idea that in a marriage, women are motivated by love and men are motivated by respect. This idea, he explained during the conference, is based on the biblical command in Ephesians 5:33 that says “However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband (ESV).” Dr. Eggerichs explains that by disobeying this command we activate the Crazy Cycle in our marriage: “without love she reacts without respect and without respect he reacts without love”. He elaborated that although we all need love and respect in our relationships, the primary need for men is respect and for women is love. He presented differences in perspectives using colors: men see the relationship through blue lenses and women through pink lenses…”neither is wrong, just different” he says.

It’s a simple enough idea, and assuming you agree with it and you and your partner are on the same page, the question arises, how do we practically apply it? Shouldn’t he start loving me more and then I’ll respond with respect? After reading some reviews on the book, I realized that a few men and women were offended by his simplistic explanation of what makes marriage work. Their interpretation of his idea became, “I’m supposed to respect my husband even though he doesn’t deserve it so then I can get the love I’m yearning for?” or “I’m supposed to love my wife even though she doesn’t deserve it to get the respect I’m yearning for?” Dr. Eggerichs was very strategic during the conference addressing the possible skeptics in the audience, wondering how this could be applied to their marriage. He explained that it takes one mature person to step up and break the crazy cycle. Mature people understand that they are in control of their reactions and responses to others. They can choose to be kind, loving and respectful. I could already imagine the skeptics challenging that statement with, “but he or she makes me be unloving or disrespectful!” According to Dr. Eggerichs, that would be a response coming from an immature person. To be honest, I understand the skeptics. It’s nice to read an idea on paper about how fulfilling our roles in marriage will create this Energizing Cycle described by Dr. Eggerichs as “His Love motivates Her Respect,” but reality is much more complex. Individuals who lack boundaries or present with maladaptive ways of relating to others (in a dysfunctional or abusive marriage, for example) may need to address other primary issues before venturing into this love and respect journey. It’s important to be wise and to know when enough is enough. Clearly, Dr. Eggerichs is not encouraging a woman being abused to respect her husband in the midst of it and to merely be a doormat for more abuse. His strategies should be applied once the abusive or maladaptive behaviors has been dealt with.

For those couples who are ready to apply his methods, the obstacles that keep this type of intervention from working could be a past hurt that hasn’t been healed, trust that has been broken, a heart that is too tired to try again or even hope for change. It takes faith to decide to expose oneself and show love and respect to the other person without knowing what will result. It also requires a forgiving heart to give someone something they haven’t earned or deserve. Throughout the conference I felt like a pendulum, agreeing on one end and disagreeing on another. It was as if the worldview and the Godly view were at war within me.  Wanting to believe that God’s plan for marriage is a perfect one but knowing that even in this perfect plan there are challenges. Is it all worth it? I truly believe that God has placed our spouses in our lives to re-create or redeem us into the versions of ourselves that God intended…in other words, to become more like Christ.

It’s very difficult to address all marriages because they are all different and complex. We can’t assign the same formula to every marriage and expect the same result. There are couples that are ready to start trying something new to better their marriages, and there are those who have already given up hope. Are you struggling but still wanting to work things out, or are you so wounded that you have no energy to even consider things could get better? Although reading books on marriage can be extremely helpful, it can be even more beneficial to have a counselor look into your relationship and facilitate a healthy dialogue to help begin the healing process in both of you. Once healing comes, you both will be strengthened and encouraged to show one another the forgiveness, love and respect that marriage was designed to display.

Building (and rebuilding) Balance

Balance in our lives is NOT a destination, meaning that once we arrive, we are done.  It is not a static goal we achieve and then maintain forever.

I like to call it “building” balance; as opposed to “achieving” balance—because like building a house, it is a work in progress, it requires maintenance, and occasionally needs reworking.   So how do we “build” this elusive thing called balance?

1)     Stay Present.  Live in the moment instead of fretting about yesterday or worrying  about tomorrow.  If you feel angry about something—feel the anger and work through it.  When you feel joyful about something, embrace the joy fully.

2)  Stop the “Spinning”.  Learn to recognize an manage your internal conflicts. (Anything that disturbs your inner peace, such as unnecessary guilt, excessive worry, unhealthy people pleasing, etc).  Be honest about who you really are and don’t be afraid to stray from the norm.  Live life according to your core beliefs.

3)  Simplify Your Life.  The more “stuff” we have and the more activities we have to manage, makes it more difficult to find just the right balance.  Learn to set appropriate and healthy boundaries for yourself.  This means allowing yourself to say “no” when necessary without feeling guilty!

4)  Know What You Want.  Take time to know WHO you are first.  Figure out what you value, by examining each aspect of your “self.”  Make active choices that lead you toward balance.  If your choices don’t line up with who you are and what you value, then you are not holding fast to your own integrity and your life will feel out of balance.

5)  Nurture Your Spirit and Embrace Love.  We all have a spiritual element to our being and with that comes an innate need to love and be loved.  With all the ups and downs in life, love is the gift that balances it all and brings us back toward a more peaceful state.  Exercise your faith.  Enjoy nature.  Keep your soul filled with positive and inspiring activities.  Be brave enough to let go of activities and relationships that squelch your spirit and prevent you from being your authentic self.  It is then we will be able to give generously of ourselves.

Balance is a fluid state that changes from day to day.  Just like the ocean tide moves in and out, look at whether your life is moving away from or toward balance.

Assess it over a period of time—one or two stressful days here and there does not mean your life is out of balance.  BUT, if chaos is the norm for you, try some of these ideas!

Hopefully, it will be a good “jumpstart” toward building better balance in your life.

Six things all children need

When I was in school, I had many professors teach about Abraham Maslow. He had a huge impact on psychology and many of his theories and studies have become the foundation for much of the work that we do with clients. One of his theories on motivation stated that we, as humans, are motivated not just by rewards or unconscious desires. He stated that we are motivated to achieve certain needs. What came of this idea was dubbed the hierarchy of needs. It’s basically a food group triangle but instead of grains, vegetables, and fruits, we have biological/physiological needs, safety needs, and love/belongingness needs among others. This makes a lot of sense to me seeing as how it would be difficult for a person to achieve intimacy with a friend or loved one if that same person is hungry (actually hungry- not skipped lunch hungry) or hadn’t slept in 2 weeks. Children operate much in the same way I think. The only difference is, children require care; they don’t come out of the womb ready to survive and take on the world all by themselves. After the bottom tier of the needs hierarchy is “achieved” (being fed, clothed, and kept warm), the 6 things that all children need sort of get all mashed together into one, large tier until they grow up.

The first thing all children need is acceptance. Acceptance by parents is the basis for forming a positive relationship from which they are able to learn to like and accept themselves. You can show acceptance through simple gestures that may seem mundane but often have a significant impact on children. For example, separate the deed from the doer. Looks like this: instead of “you are a bad kid”, go for “you made a bad decision”. See the difference?

Next may seem a bit obvious- Attention and love. Attention, along with acceptance, is what a child needs to feel loved, and is what is important for developing rapport with your children and positive feelings about self. As most of you parents may know, children WILL get attention- whether good or bad, they’ll get it. Their style of seeking attention and learning what gets them that attention will become a part of their self-image. Spend time with your child. It’s about quality, not quantity. Try this: ignore the unwanted behavior and praise, praise, praise the wanted behavior. I know, I know- you can’t ignore a kid taking a Sharpie to the wall. But take time to notice the little things your child does. Think about it. Nobody really pays a whole lot of attention to the child who’s sitting quietly, playing nicely, or uses good manners. It’s the kid who’s rowdy, out of control, or talks back who gets the attention. Tell your kid how awesome it is when they say “thank you” or “yes ma’am/yes sir”!

Next is security and safety. Yes, this is on Maslow’s original hierarchy of needs, but it looks a bit different with children. Assuming that the child already has “safety”- as in a roof over their head, no tigers chasing them, and not living in the streets of a post-apocalyptic city- boundaries and clear expectations are what we’re talking about here. Children need to know where you draw the line. Now, it is completely developmentally appropriate for children to push those boundaries- it’s what they are supposed to do! But parents, it is SO important for you to stand firm. The second that you allow a behavior that was once against the rules, your child now knows that you can be pushed past that old boundary. And trust me, it’ll only get worse from there. If your child doesn’t know where a boundary is, then there’s really no point of it being set. Make your expectations clear and consistent!

The forth thing all children need is understanding. Communicate. Listen. Get on their level and demonstrate interest and mutual respect- this encourages each of you to express your feelings and opinions openly and without fear of rejection. This includes problem-solving with your child. If your child comes home from school sad and looking dejected, your first instinct might be to call the mother of whomever did this and chew her out. But sometimes all kids need is your presence. Sit down next to your child and let them know simply that you care- “Oh man Sarah that must’ve really hurt your feelings. I’m so sorry honey.” You may sit in silence for the next 30 minutes but YOU ARE PRESENT. And that’s what is important.

Next is discipline. Create structure in your home by determining appropriate expectations. Much of what goes into discipline aligns with providing safety and security. Make sure the punishment fits the crime and stay consistent; not only with the punishments, but also between parents. Easiest and most common way to manipulate parents? Figure out which one will let you get away with the most and only ever ask that parent for permission. Your children can put a wedge between you and your spouse very quickly- unwittingly, of course.

Finally, children need values. Values are one of those subjects that are not easily taught in a lecture type setting. Can you imagine sitting your child down with a Power Point behind you and saying “Today I am going to teach you about kindness.” No! Values are best taught through what we call experiential learning. Your children watch what you do. So next time you’ve dragged little Billy to the dry cleaners with you and they have lost all of your clothes, try your hardest not to snap completely. Instead, opt for calm, cool communication to resolve the matter- your little Billy will learn that biting the dry cleaner’s head off in a fit of rage doesn’t get your clothes back. But being polite and respectful might get you a refund and payment for the amount of what your clothing costs. When it comes to teaching our children values, actions often speak louder than words.

Life Lessons from my Lab (George) #4: I Love You No Matter What

George inside the back door when I get home.
George inside the back door when I get home.

As I turn the key to unlock our back door, I can’t help but laugh. Through the glass, I watch as George springs into the air awkwardly. I use the word awkward because my VERY large yellow lab does not look anything like a dog when he jumps to greet me after a long day at the office. Instead, he resembles a cat. Let me see if I can describe a snapshot of him in mid air. He takes off of all four paws at the same time. When he reaches maximum altitude his back is dramatically arched and his toes are pointed like a weird ballerina dog… Do dogs point their toes?!? I digress. He does not touch the back door. He does not put his paws on the glass. He leaps into the air over and over again, reaching the same height each time, a good 3 feet off the ground. At the top of his bounce he has a grin on his face and his tongue hangs out of his mouth. Okay, tell me that’s not AWKWARD!

The interesting thing is, though I can expect George’s excited reaction when I come home, it still makes me smile every day. Yes, he is a dog, but George accepts me no matter what I do. Even when I neglect to walk him in the morning, or even when I get home later than expected, George’s reaction does not change. This got me thinking about human relationships: relationships with ourselves, relationships with others, and the ways we allow our judgments to interfere with the potential for deeper connection. Ask yourself the following questions, and it might shed some light on the ways you may be hindered in your relationships.

Do you value yourself based on what you do or based on who you are?

Are you hard on yourself when you make mistakes? Are you hard on others when they make mistakes?

Do you consider yourself to be a human-doing? Or a human-being?

Does your acceptance of others change based on what they do or do not do?

Do you withhold love and kindness from those close to you when they mess up?

Do you withhold love and kindness from yourself when you mess up?

Do friends/family/loved ones show you their imperfections? What about your reactions makes you a safe or unsafe person to open up to?

What if we were all able to see one anther honestly, for who we truly are?- loveable, imperfect people in need of grace.

Decoding Valentine’s Day

By Jill Early, M Ed, LPC Intern and Jerry Duncan, M Div, LMFT

Valentine’s Day is a time designated for demonstrating how much we value another person. Some people associate it with things like chocolates, jewelry, expensive dinners, and/or greeting card companies making billions of dollars.  Unfortunately, it is also a time when many people feel anxious about whether they are right in their “guessing” what would demonstrate that sense of being valued for the other person.

Therein lies the problem in most relationship decisions.  We tend to operate as though “I should just know” or “he/she should just know” when it comes to most decisions regarding what helps the other person feel loved in a close relationship.  This could include holidays, anniversaries, birthdays, weekends, social preferences, or simply where to go to dinner. This belief often leads to a fear of simply asking or simply telling each other our preferences. We act as if telling each other what we prefer diminishes the thoughtfulness of what is given, done, or expressed, and then “it doesn’t mean as much”.

This belief also reveals another relationship challenge called “ignorance”.  That word may sound pretty harsh and is laden with emotion; therefore a definition is important for clarity.  It means the absence of information.  Our culture, our families, our schools, (pick someone to blame if you want), only teach us to talk, not communicate.  If we ask for the solution to above-mentioned problem, most don’t know the answer because we were never taught or had it modeled for us.

The solution is to learn how to:

  • express our honest feelings
  • ask for information that we need but don’t have
  • discover what another person INTERPRETS as being an expression of love, adoration, and being highly valued

Consider these steps:

  • Both partners read the book The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman
  • Discuss what you read
  • Clearly TEACH the other person what helps YOU genuinely believe you are loved

An example for Valentine’s Day that can be applied to everyday situations might sound like this:

“Because I love you so much, it is really important to me that I make Valentine’s Day the best day it can be for you in ways that you would most want for me to do them.  Would you be willing to let me know what some of those ways might be?”  The answers will vary widely from the usual to the unexpected, from jewelry/chocolate/flowers to vacuum out my car, clean the big window in the den, give me a massage that isn’t sexual, or just ignore it altogether.  The list of answers could be infinite and surprising.

May you have the courage to ask then act on what you learn.  May your Valentine’s Day and your relationships be more rewarding and intimate because of your efforts!