The Source of Honor

My girls have just been through a few weeks of karate training at their elementary school. As a Quaker and a pacifist, I wasn’t too thrilled about it, and I was especially un-thrilled when my girls came home requesting that we watch Karate Kid for our next family movie night.

But I didn’t interfere with my children learning the basics of karate, nor did I refuse to watch Karate Kid as the family movie. My belief is that forbidding things will only make them more tantalizing to my girls, and as my regular readers will know, I believe there is a gift to be found – if I am open to it – even in things with which I disagree. I know enough about martial arts to know that the goal is to avoid using violence rather than seeing force as the solution to a problem, so I was hopeful about finding a spiritual gift and having rich family conversations. I found the richest gift in Karate Kid II:

The old karate master, Miyagi, flies back home to Okinawa with his young protege Daniel when they learn that Miyagi’s father’s health is failing. Daniel learns the reason Miyagi left Okinawa: Miyagi and his friend Sato were in love with the same woman and Sato challenged Miyagi to a karate fight to the death. Although Miyagi tried to talk his friend out of fighting, Sato insisted that fighting was the only way to restore his own honor. Miyagi left Okinawa rather than engage in an activity that would leave one of the men dead. When Miyagi returns with Daniel to Okinawa, it turns out that Sato is still intent on having the fight. Sato throws insults at Miyagi, destroys his belongings, family home, and does everything imaginable to provoke Miyagi into a fight. Still, Miyagi refuses to fight.

Thankfully I don’t need to reveal the ending in order to move into my theological reflections:

This movie made me think about what honor is and where it comes from. In my reading of current events, it seems to me that a lot of violence is ignited when someone feels insulted, whether it’s a real or perceived insult. On the home front, when one of my daughters whacks the other, the one who hit almost always justifies it as the correct response to mean words or actions on the other girl’s part. In sports, there was the French soccer star who headbutted his opponent during a crucial World Soccer Cup match when the rival said something insulting about the star’s sister. Much street violence seems to arise when someone feels “dissed” and wants to restore their dignity by harming the “disser”. Even some recent wars and threats of war seem to have much to do with real or perceived insults – both the invasion of Irak and the continued escalation of international tension between the USA and Iran seem to have large elements of wounded national pride.  

These situations seems to presume that a person or nation has honor if they are treated well and their  dignity is respected by their surroundings. At one level, that is how it is with me, too. I know from my own life how hard it is to hold on to my own feelings of worth when someone finds fault with me.

But Miyagi, this quiet, unassuming karate master’s sense of honor is different. It is unrelated to what others say about him or do to him and his belongings. Instead, he seems to measure his honor in terms of his own ability to stay true to his principles: He will not fight except to save a life. He will not threaten under any circumstances. He will make any personal sacrifice – such as walking away from his home, family, and the woman he loves – in order to avoid being understood (or misunderstood) to be a threat to a person whose sense of his worth is more fragile than his own. 

We have had wonderful conversations at home with the 7 year old and the 9 year old this week. Although we all understand and like Miyagi’s ideas, my daughters still whack each other occasionally and I still raise my voice when I feel overwhelmed by a situation. But we have developed a shared understanding of the goal we are working towards – to know that we are beloved-of-God and to act out of a deep knowledge that we and all people are God’s beloved. Honor does not come from the outside, but from the inside. As God says through Isaiah in chapter 43: we are honored and precious in God’s eyes. Being precious and honored by God is the source of our own sense of worth.

If in my lifetime I manage to be half as honest and faithful as Miyagi, I will be pleased with myself. And yet, my husband and I have turned down the girls’ pleas to do karate camps this summer. Our ideal goes one step further than Miyagi – Miyagi knows that he COULD neutralize Sato if he had to. For our part, we follow in the footsteps of Jesus. His Way was to allow himself to be killed rather than fight. We do not want to think of using karate even as a last resort, nor do we want to gain the skills to use force effectively – for any purpose. Our hope lies in using no defenses, except the power of the Holy Spirit.

Query for prayerful consideration:

What is the source of my sense of honor and self-respect? Am I grounded in what I want to be grounded in? If not, how do I shift to a better source of honor?

Ups and Downs and Hope

One of the stories I like to tell is the Biblical account of the life of Joseph (Genesis 37-50). I especially like to use this story when I’m with someone who suffers with depression, whose life seems to have lost meaning, or who is feeling overwhelmed at the hardship of their life.

Here is his story in a nutshell: Joseph is his daddy’s favorite child, and he gets all kinds of special treats. Imagine what it feels like to be Joseph and to feel so loved.

Unfortunately Joseph likes to brag to his brothers about how special he is and how he is going to lord it over them. Not surprisingly, the brothers decide to kill him (after all this is the Bible, with stories of great passion and drama!) One of the brothers manages to persuade the others that they should spare Joseph’s life. Instead, they sell him off into slavery in Egypt. Imagine what it feels like to be Joseph now.

When he arrives in Egypt, things are actually better than they might have been. He gets a decent job for someone close to the Pharaoh and becomes quite successful in his service! Imagine what it is like to be Joseph now. 

Then things take a turn for the worse again: Joseph’s employer’s wife makes a pass at him, and when he does the honorable thing and rejects her, she gets back at him by accusing him of rape. Joseph is thrown in prison. Imagine what Joseph is feeling now.

Fortunately for Joseph, he spends his time in prison together with two men who are very close to the Pharaoh. Joseph helps them out by interpreting their dreams correctly. One of them is later in a position to bring him in to interpret two dreams for Pharaoh himself, and Pharaoh gives Joseph a very important position in Egypt. Imagine what it is like to be Joseph now.

Pharaoh’s dreams, which Joseph interpreted, help the Egyptians to be prepared when a 7-year long drought struck the Middle East. Eventually 10 of Joseph’s brothers come pleading for food and they beg his forgiveness. He forgives them, feeds them, and is able to bring his entire family and tribe to safety and comfort in Egypt. Imagine what it feels like to be Joseph now.

After Joseph dies, the descendants of all the 12 brothers end up as slaves in Egypt, until Moses comes along and liberates them after centuries of toil and suffering. Imagine how Joseph would have felt if he had known the plight his descendants would end up in.

What I like about this story is that it shows the ups and downs in a person’s life in great detail. At each change in Joseph’s life, I ask my listeners what they think Joseph might be feeling. Many can relate to what it is like when Joseph is carted off into what must be a bleak-looking future in Egypt, or is thrown in prison.

Then I ask my listeners whether those hardships in life mean that God is punishing Joseph. Every one so far has said, “No, of course not”. I love the moment when my listener says that. That moment is almost always followed by a swelling of hope: Hope that the hardship in the listener’s life does not mean that God is punishing him or her. Hope that God loves him or her. Hope that hard times will be followed by good times. Hope similar to what Joseph knew when he could say to his brothers in Genesis 50:19-21: “Though you intended to harm me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”

For prayerful consideration:

Though bad things happen in my life, God will use all things for good. I need have no fear; God will provide for me and my little ones.

Money, money, money…

I must confess that I started my work at the Recovery Cafe (see 12.5 blog entry) with some misgivings about the cliches that seem to me to emanate from 12 Step environments and all the Saturday Night Live-type routines that have grown out of them. Maybe the program is a bit simplistic and ritualized? Maybe as a Quaker I have a bit of a bias against “programs”? Anyway, since my job was to lead an exploration of Ignatian prayer practices, I figured the 12 steps would be at a bit of a distance and it would be fine.

However, this committed Quaker, who has come to love and use the tools of Ignatian spirituality and discernment, has now discovered – experientially – some core spiritual practices at the center of the recovery movement that she thinks might speak to our spiritual condition. This discovery ties in with my month-long blog exploration of how hard it is for comfortable middle class people like me to experience and trust in God’s abundance.

Here are the gems I have found and wish to share with you:

People in recovery are supposed to focus on the good things in life and not dwell on things that are painful or unfair. The idea being that if addicts get to feeling sorry for themselves, that puts them in danger of using that old coping strategy of drinking or using. So the recovering addict focuses on looking for things in life for which to be grateful. Also, s/he is encouraged to take for granted that life will bring many disappointments, injustices, and pain. No big deal. Certainly no excuse for “needing a drink” to feel better. And the third component of avoiding self-pity is to exercise the compassion muscle by focusing on helping and supporting other people in their times of trouble. 

Gentle reader, I wonder if my focus on needing a new computer, my fear that choosing a path of greater simplicity might harm my marriage or my daughters’ well-being, my need to set money aside for my retirement or my daughters’ college fund are sometimes just an unhealthy coping skill in response to self-pity? Don’t miss the word “sometimes” in the preceding sentence.

The greatest gift of the recovery process to my spiritual life is the way I think it helps me discernment between the things I truly need and the things I only imagine I need. If I steep myself in gratitude, compassion, and acceptance that life does indeed bring disappointment/injustice/pain, I believe I can be more trusting of the next impulse to, say … put money in my daughters’ college fund? I’ll know it’s less likely to be the old unhealthy coping skill of relying on money to fix things, and more likely to be a genuine response to the calling God has given me by entrusting my daughters to my care.

The women and men of Recovery Cafe have shown me the perfect antidote to our society’s addictive reliance on money as the tool with which to address the injustices, disappointments, and fears that life inevitably will bring: compassion, gratitude, and acceptance.      

Query for prayerful reflection:

God, I admit that I am powerless over money – my life has become unmanageable.

Joyful Ineptitude

I’ve started taking piano lessions again, just like I did when I was a teenager. I played the piano for about three years back then, and then I quit because I wasn’t very good at it. You see, I’m pretty much tone deaf and I’m also rhythmically impaired. 

Now I’m playing the piano, not because I’m good at it, but because I enjoy it! What a spiritual awakening these piano lessons have been: It has made me aware just how often I try to be good at something. It also makes me aware how much those who love me also want me to feel that I am good, they want to build up my feeling of “goodness”. You see, when I talk about how bad I am at playing the piano, everyone rushes in to say “Oh, I’m sure you’re not that bad!”

The truth is that I am having a lot of fun with my piano-playing. It gives me so much pleasure to make noise, and whereas “not being very good” was enough to keep me from playing when I was a teenager,  it really doesn’t matter very much to me now. What freedom there is in doing something, not because I am good at it, but because I love to do it!

Is this a taste of the freedom God created us into? Galatians 5:1: “It is for freedom Christ has set you free. Stand firm, then, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery!”

Friends, I am bad at playing the piano, and I am having fun. I am free!

Queries for prayerful consideration:

What freedoms might I be missing out on because I want to be good?

Abundance and LOTR…?

What do my thoughts about abundance and Lord of the Rings (LOTR) have in common (See post from 11/14)? 

J.R.R. Tolkien explained that although LOTR was published soon after World War II (1954-55), the books were neither a metaphor for the evils of war nor the evils the war was intended to conquer. Instead it was a commentary on industrialism and the damage industrialization did to rural living. So I think of LOTR as a parable about people becoming more preoccupied with industrial or commercial productivity and seeing the value of people, things, and time according to their place in “progress”. It is also about losing touch with nature, community, and all the things in life that aren’t productive. It is about wanting more, thinking we don’t have enough. The ring is the opposite of abundance, the ring makes us lose sight of the value of  “unproductive” things like love, compassion, sharing, giving, laughing, playing, resting, spending time in another’s company, just being.  The ring is the thoughts or actions that make us tense our muscles in fear and stiffen our bodies so that God’s abundant love can’t keep us afloat.

Like Frodo, we know that justice and our duty to God demand that we destroy the ring that we all bear, as members of a consumer society. Like Sam, we are filled with God-given love and loyalty to our own family and friends and sometimes the wider community. Like Gollum, most of us can’t even contemplate being separated from our house, car and other stuff – our passion and greed have a hold on us.

So which is ultimately more important in getting the ring into the volcano? Duty, justice, love, loyalty, passion or greed?

In Lord of the Rings, all of the characters and all of their qualities were essential to the destruction of the ring. In life, God can use all of us and all of our traits to destroy our addiction to things and the productive and consumer mindset. The ring will be destroyed, one way or another. As we all know, we can’t take “things” with us when we go. The question is whether we will lose our life and soul as Gollum did, a finger and our physical and emotional health like Frodo did, or lose nothing in Sam’s case (although he is burdened with sorrow for those he loves).

Query for prayerful consideration: 

How do I want to live my life? Will I fall into Mount Doom holding the ring on a finger I bit off? Will I lose a finger and live a sort of a life? Or will I follow love and loyalty wherever they lead me? 

Abundance

Abundance.

What a difficult concept for a financially comfortable person to comprehend!

As I let myself sink down to float on the ocean of God’s abundant love, my mind encounters thought after thought that causes my muscles to tense with fear and my body to stiffen so that the waters of God’s love can no longer hold me up.

“What if my husband doesn’t desire the same simplicity God invites me to? What if my choice to live more simply causes problems for my children? What if my choice eventually means they can’t go to college – or can’t go without incurring debt? What if our electrical system gives out – where will the money come to pay for it? What if I give more of my money to alleviate poverty, will I have enough to live on when I retire? What if …?”

Am I really that enslaved by fear? Can the power of fear really be stronger than the power of God’s love? 

Take a deep breath, Susanne. Nothing is more powerful than God’s love. Nothing. This is not a question of whether God’s love is powerful enough to cast out fear. Instead it is a question of whether I can release my fear to God.

The story of Frodo, the hobbit in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, comes to mind. (Warning: I am about to reveal how the story ends.) Frodo has come by a ring that gives its bearer incredible power, and of course all the bad guys want the power the ring will give its owner. Frodo knows he must destroy the ring and has been traveling for thousands of pages to get to Mount Doom, a volcano into which he must throw the ring to make sure it is permanently destroyed. Frodo has two companions on the way. One is his faithful friend Sam, who would do anything for Frodo, and indeed has to carry a weakening Frodo the last part of the way up Mount Doom. The other companion is a despicable critter called Gollum, who once owned the ring. Gollum is really only coming along in the hopes that he can get the ring back from Frodo. Frodo is disgusted by Gollum, but he also has compassion once he learns that Gollum used to be a nice little hobbit before his craving for the ring turned him into this disgusting creature. Frodo can relate to Gollum – he knows first-hand how powerfully seductive the ring is and how it weakens its bearer’s will.

On to the climactic ending of the story: As Frodo stands on the edge of the volcano with the ring, he can no longer resist its seductive power and puts it on instead of throwing it into Mount Doom. Gollum bites Frodo’s finger off to get the ring back, but then falls into the volcano holding the ring. The ring, and Gollum, are destroyed. Frodo and Sam go back home, but Frodo never recovers from the spiritual damage the ring did while he owned it and finally goes off to another land, hoping that he will be healed.

And now I will leave you wondering what the point of telling this story was and how it relates to abundance until my next blog entry. Until then,

Queries for prayerful consideration:

Who is most helpful in the ultimate destruction of the ring: the just and dutiful Frodo, loyal and loving Sam, or passionate and greedy Gollum? And what trait is most helpful in the destruction of the ring: justice, duty, loyalty, love, passion or greed?