Whose Fault Is My Failure?

Life-changing lessons can be learned even from the most painful of situations. I know we all know this, but it can be hard to remember when you're struggling to make sense of a situation that brings you to your knees with pain and grief.

This year saw the gradual deterioration and sudden, painful end of a friendship that was important to me. My former friend turned out to be . . . not the person I thought he was. (In fairness, I'm sure he probably feels the same about me.) He deceived me (intentionally or not, doesn't matter), but that isn't what makes me saddest. Lately I have been pondering the many ways we deceive ourselves, and this friend is a prime object lesson for me. From my perspective it appears that he sees himself one way, while the people who know him well realize he is something else altogether — not a fundamentally bad person, but not nearly as enlightened or honest or generous or open-minded as he truly and sincerely believes himself to be. As a friend, it has been excruciatingly difficult to watch him sabotage his future by his own actions, while he blames other people for his misfortunes and his inability to accomplish his dreams.

But this post isn't about him or my opinion of him. It's about what I am learning by observing my friend's self-deception and its destructive consequences. Because rather than dwelling on and analyzing my friend's weaknesses, I have tried hard to turn my analysis on myself, asking this question: How am I deceiving myself? What do I truly and sincerely believe about myself that simply is not true?

This is, of course, a far harder task. Each of us can easily see the flaws in other people's reasoning and beliefs, but we often are blind to the flaws in our own. Our choices and actions generally make perfect sense to us, while we can identify with crystal clarity the irrationality or error in the choices others make. What we do is wholly justified (in our minds); what others do is inexcusable. That's why we can blithely demand justice for others, but beg mercy for ourselves.

I cannot help my friend, but I am trying to learn from what I've seen my friend do to himself. I'm trying to ferret out the assumptions about myself that underlie my own choices and behavior, and analyze those assumptions carefully and with as clear an eye as it's possible to turn on myself. Daily I try to honestly evaluate my actions. This choice that I've made — is it really based on what's best for my family, or is it about my own selfish wants? This thing I've said to a friend — is it really coming from a heart that loves and wants to help, or am I trying to bolster my own fragile self-worth by finding a weakness in another?

I know the kind of person I want to be, and I become more aware all the time how far I am from being that person. I still tend to make excuses for my failings — looking outward for the reasons why I can't do the things I dream of or be the person I should be. As I've watched my friend do exactly that over and over, I have become vividly aware of how often I do it too. So I am working hard to catch myself mid-excuse and remind myself that, no, it's not somebody else's fault that I behave the way I do. It's not my circumstances that prevent me from fulfilling my dreams. I choose.

I choose.

Every moment of every day, I choose how to think, what to say, how to act. No matter how other people or my circumstances might seem to conspire against my dreams, the truth is that I can choose, moment by moment, one step at a time, to keep pressing forward toward becoming the person, and living the life, that I want.

It's painful to admit that my failures are solely my responsibility. Human nature wants to find another explanation — “I want to, but. . . .” But when we stop looking for excuses, when we look deeply and honestly at ourselves and take full responsibility for who and what and where we are, then an amazing thing happens: we realize that we can control those outcomes, because we can change our choices. If I am merely the victim of circumstances and other people, then I am trapped where I am, helpless to ever live the life I dream of. But if it's my own choices that have brought me to a place I don't like, then it's entirely within my power to make different choices and start moving toward the place I want to be.

It is so much easier to judge others than to judge ourselves. But we can't “fix” anybody else, can we? We can love and pray and hope that they'll see the light, but we cannot change another person, so it's a waste of time and energy to focus our attention on what someone else is doing “wrong.” Instead, we each need to learn to see ourselves clearly and then act on what we see. That, my friends, is a full-time task!

Lessons to Learn from 9/11

I hesitated to write a blog post about this tenth anniversary of the 9/11 events, because it almost seems cliche to do so. I know so may others are writing magazine articles and editorials and blog posts about it, and I have nothing to add. But I just spent a little time watching some clips from the ten-year anniversary coverage. My heart still breaks, watching the speeches and the singing of the national anthem and the moments of silence, and I sat here at my computer, crying while I watched.

Even now, ten years later, it's hard to comprehend the hatred that propelled those planes into those buildings. Some (even some Americans) blame America for the attacks. Some believe that we caused the hatred and invited retribution by our arrogance toward the world's other nations. I reject that argument. Just as I reject absolutely the suggestion that a rape victim invited her attack by her choice of clothing.

There's no doubt that we as a nation do and have done many things wrong. We are human, and like all humans, we make the wrong choices and do things for the wrong reasons. But still, nothing this country has done merited the violence that was done to us that day. Not because we're America, but because we are human, and no human deserves such violence.

Last week I read an article about the ceremonies that were being planned in remembrance of the 9/11 tragedy. Several commentators objected to the often-repeated phrase: “We will never forget.” One writer suggested that we should forget, noting that she never was sure what it was that we're supposed to remember, and that maybe it's time to just move on.

I disagree. This country changed irrevocably that day. And I think we should remember it always, not only out of respect for those who died, but for the lessons we can take away from the events and the aftermath of that horrible day.

The 9/11 attacks taught us in the most vivid of terms that hatred is real. For whatever reasons — our country's political choices or their own religious beliefs — there were in 2001 and are now people who hate America. They hate what we've done, and they hate what we stand for. As individuals, we might disclaim any responsibility for the actions that drew the attention of these haters, but they do not distinguish between the decision-makers in political leadership and the “innocent” citizens just going about their daily lives. The people who planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks knew full well that they were targeting innocent civilians who as individuals had done nothing to harm them or their families. They didn't care.

The truth is, we are all responsible. America is a democratic republic, and those who lead us carry out the policies we allow them to pursue. If we believe that our nation's leaders are making the wrong decisions, then we have the right, the power, and the duty to change the country's direction either by persuading the current political leaders or by replacing them.

We learned a hard lesson ten years ago about the hideous effects of hatred and divisiveness. We also learned that we are not as invulnerable as we once thought. The world changed that day. We cannot unsee the sights we saw or unfeel the fear and grief. We likely never will return to the days when we could greet our visiting loved ones at the airport gate.

I hope that we don't forget that day. But I hope that we all choose to think deeply about what happened, and why, and what can and should be done to make sure it never happens again . . . and how to do that without losing our soul as a nation.

Women of Faith – Dallas

It's been a week since I came home from the Women of Faith conference in Dallas. I originally intended to blog about it during and then right after the event. But I decided to wait — to give myself some time to absorb the experience and think about what I'd seen and heard there.

I'm not a fan of big crowds, and this type of event usually involves too much hype for me, and not enough “meat.” So after signing up to attend, I had second thoughts, and might have bailed if not for the fact that my oldest daughter also registered to go. Once I got there, though, I found myself enjoying it, and I'm glad I went. I came away with some inspiration and motivation to take some steps in my own life that I'd been thinking about for awhile.

The Women of Faith conference took place at the American Airlines Center, the big arena where the champion Dallas Mavericks play, and where I've attended concerts by big acts like Celine Dion, Rascal Flatts, Rihanna, and Keith Urban. I appreciated how well orchestrated the event was. The big crowd of women attending moved quickly through security. Every session began precisely on time, and ended when scheduled, without feeling rushed. Even the delivery of the box lunches went smoothly and quickly — with some 25,000 (? blind guess) women to feed, I expected long waits in line to get my sandwich and apple, but they moved everyone through the lunch line posthaste. These may seem like minor details, but to me, the timeliness and precision with which the event was run evidenced a respect for the attendees' time, and I appreciated it.

I wish that this respect for others had been shared by all of the attendees, but unfortunately that was not the case. I was unpleasantly surprised by how rude the women were — walking down the aisles or around the back of the room while the speakers' were talking, carrying on full-voice conversations, completely oblivious to (or uncaring about) the fact that their voices were disturbing and distracting the other participants who were trying to hear the speakers. Similarly, a woman sitting next to me took a phone call during one of Andy Andrews' segments and proceeded to carry on a phone conversation right there in her seat, without so much as an “I'm sorry” to me and without an effort to lower her voice. Unbelievable. If this had happened once or twice I could have understood it in a room that size, but this was a pattern throughout the event. Apparently Christians are not immune to the rampant bad manners infecting our society. It's shocking to me how perfectly willing people are to interrupt others and/or disrupt events like this as if theirs are the only purposes or rights that matter.

Despite those distractions, the Women of Faith “Over the Top” conference was well worth attending. Each session began with a brief time of “praise & worship” music led by the Women of Faith worship team — four attractive women with beautiful voices and gorgeous harmonies that caught the crowd's attention and got them focused and ready for the speakers. The music was well done — God-centered lyrics well sung. The program was engaging and nicely paced. Patsy Clairmont and Andy Andrews in particular were great speakers — both are very funny but also managed to convey profound messages through their humor. Their multiple presentations were supplemented by inspirational talks by the other guests, including Lisa Welchel, Brenda Warner, and Sandy Patty, and musical performances by Mandisa, Sandy Patty, and Amy Grant.

I took notes throughout the event so that I would remember, and could later ponder, some of the speakers' comments that most caught my attention. The thoughts that lingered for me? Patsy Clairmont insisting that “Your will is stronger than your emotions.” So often we (especially we women) feel that we're at the mercy of our emotions, but Patsy told us that that's not true — we can choose to control our emotions. She encouraged us to put boundaries on our emotions, reminding us that the Bible tells us that “a fool vents all her feelings.” The starting point, she said, is to harness our thoughts. Some thoughts are not worth our time, so we should refuse them (“casting down imaginations”), replace them with better thoughts (“think on things that are true, good, lovely . . . “), and repeat that process as many times as it takes until we have our minds and emotions under control.

Andy Andrews addressed a similar theme from different angles. He is hilariously funny, but shares a profound message through his humor. I have a lot of notes from his various talks, but one of his statements that struck me the most deeply was that in this society that is so obsessed with “feelings,” the cold, hard truth is that nobody really cares how you feel; they only care how you act. He went on to point out that nothing ever happens to you because of how you feel, only because of how you act / what you do.

As a woman who has often struggled with how and when to act on my feelings, I'll be meditating on those statements' truth for a long time.

This was a well planned, well executed event. The speakers all were engaging and inspiring. Although I was to some extent reluctant to go, I'm now very glad I went. Perhaps the best thing that happened to me at the event was something Andy said near the end of his first session. I should preface this by saying that one of the reasons I first considered going to this event was a bit of restlessness I've felt during recent months, a feeling of sadness that, as a woman in her early fifties, all the great experiences of my life are behind me, and a wondering about what's left for me in the years I have left. Andy made a statement that went straight to my heart. Basically, it's this (and of course I'm paraphrasing):

If you're still alive, then your purpose for being on the planet hasn't yet been fulfilled. That means that your best days are still ahead of you, because the fulfillment of your life's purpose is still in your future.

 That's what I needed to hear — a “word in due season” that brought encouragement at just the right time. And that's why, when the Women of Faith conference comes back to Dallas in 2012, I plan to be in the room.

Women of Faith – Dallas

This morning I'll head over to the first day of the Women of Faith conference here in Dallas at the American Airlines Center. I live more than 50 miles from downtown Dallas. Although I commute in daily for work, I decided to splurge on a hotel room for the conference, so I'm staying at the W Hotel, across the street from the AAC.

I'm not sure what to expect from the conference. I've not attended something like this before. I'm not a big fan of crowds. But I'm keeping an open mind and plan to enjoy the experience. I'll share my thoughts here in this blog as the event unfolds. If anybody's reading this who happens to also be at the conference, drop me a note to say hi – maybe we can meet up at the event.

Book Review: What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? by Martin Thielen

I recently was given the opportunity to read a galley version of this book, provided to me at no cost by the publisher. Subtitled “A Guide to What Matters Most,” Thielen’s purpose in this book seems to be to winnow out the essential tenets of the Christian faith from among the many doctrinal tangents that churches divide over and Christians argue about. For that purpose, it’s well worth reading. I have long felt that too many (all?) churches spend too much time focused on nonessential matters. Thielen addresses that issue, starting with a list of ten things that Christians don’t have to believe. He starts that list with the idea that “God causes cancer, car wrecks, and other catastrophes.” For each idea that he discards on this list, he offers a brief explanation for why it’s not necessary to believe it to be a Christian.
The second half of the book is Thielen’s list of (and justification for) the bare minimum concepts that a person must believe in order to be considered truly a Christian. That list starts with the obvious—Jesus’ identity—and continues with discussions of Jesus’ priorities, his work, his example, his resurrection, his legacy, his promise, and his vision. He ends with a discussion of what it means to be “saved.”
What’s the Least I Can Believe is well written and well reasoned. In concept I agree with much of what Thielen included on his lists. I disagree with some of his reasoning, in particular where he seems to rely on the idea that “God wouldn’t do (or support) this because it wouldn’t make sense.” My problem with Theilen’s reasoning in some of these areas is that he assumes that we, as humans with finite minds, are capable of fully comprehending the ways of an infinite God. Just because something seems unfair or unjust to us (e.g., sending some people to hell) doesn’t mean that God wouldn’t do it. While I agree that being a Christian doesn't require us to believe, for example, that Jews who don’t accept Jesus will go to hell, I hesitate whenever anyone imposes human standards of “fairness” or even “rationality” on God. As God reminds us in the book of Isaiah, His ways are not our ways, his thoughts are not our thoughts.  “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).
For a long time I have thought that Christians spend way too much time focusing on, and fighting about, nonessentials, and that denominations in general have been built upon doctrines built upon a tortured interpretation of a few verses, rather than looking at the core concepts that Jesus himself focused on. I appreciated Thielen’s attention to Jesus’ teaching regarding the Great Commandment (“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all of thy heart, soul, and mind”) and the second that he said is like the first (“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself). It seems to me that believers in Christ could both unite around those two principles and spend the rest of their lives trying to live by them, and we could discard a whole lot of arguing and law-giving.
Although I disagreed with some of Thielen’s reasoning, I generally agreed with his lists and found this book well worth the reading. It provokes thought, which always is a good thing. I recommend it to any of my thinking friends, Christian or otherwise.
What’s the Least I Can Believe is published by Westminster John Knox Press. Martin Thielen is Senior Pastor of Brentwood United Methodist Church in Brentwood, Tennessee.