Friday, October 31, 2014

Making Space for Kindness, Technically

Yesterday morning during a work break I pulled up Facebook on my phone. Right away I noticed a post from Sporting News about the Most Valuable Player ceremony after the World Series game the night before. I didn’t see the ceremony. My team lost, it was already late, and Thursdays have an early start time. The post was titled “Madison Bumgarner’s MVP Ceremony was Incredibly Awkward.” It included video of a Chevy regional manager very nervously presenting Bumgarner with a new truck as the MVP winner. I watched the poor fellow stumble shakily through the presentation and two thoughts came to mind. One, Chevrolet should have had a more experienced spokesperson present the award. And two, I am tired of all the critical posts from Sporting News.

The post I’m referring to followed an earlier post I noticed first thing that morning that was critical of the woman who sang God Bless America at the game last night, which followed postings all week long criticizing nearly every person who sang either the National Anthem or God Bless America.

It’s all about click-throughs. Getting people to click through your Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest page to your website is the name of the game. It’s the key to generating advertising dollars. But I can’t help but think it’s having a bad effect on us as a society. It’s always  been difficult and risky to be the man or woman “in the arena,” as Theodore Roosevelt famously put it. But it’s never before been as easy as it is today, thanks to technology, to criticize anyone who steps out, who does something creative, someone who takes a risk. Do we run the risk of creating a culture where no one steps forward for fear of being lambasted on social media? Well, maybe not. There will always be people who want attention and will do anything to get it, even risk being criticized on social media. My fear is that increasingly the people with the very best ideas, the most to offer, will decide it’s not worth the personal price they might pay and keep their creative work to themselves. There have been good people over the years who chose not to run for political office because they decided it wasn’t worth the price their family might pay.

I fear what it’s doing to our country, but I fear even more what it is doing to us individually, what it’s doing to me. If we’re not careful we can easily fall into the habit of criticizing, of finding fault. “You’re right, that was a terrible rendition of God Bless America.” “OMG, can you believe that guy forgot the words to the national anthem.” I see it stir something in me that relishes stories like this and pounces on them. Last week I read on that the Tennessee Titans were going to start their rookie quarterback in their next game. A few hours later they had posted a headline with the quarterback saying “it’s my team now!” “What an arrogant thing to say,” I immediately thought. “This kid should just go play the game and let his play on the field do the talking for him. Why would a rookie quarterback jump out there with a ridiculous ‘it’s my team’ claim?” And then I read the story and discovered he hadn’t really said that, at least not in that way. What he had said was more along the lines of “any quarterback who’s starting for his team has to have the attitude of ‘it’s my responsibility now to do all I can to prepare myself to help my team win.’” Which sounds very different to me than what the headline suggested. But the false headline was very effective at getting me to click through to read the story, and that’s all that really mattered to ESPN.

I love technology. I love holding that powerful computer in my hand. I can make calls with it or look up directions to a restaurant. I can snap a picture of my daughter and immediately share it with others on Facebook and get my bucket filled up with all the adoring comments. I love to pop onto Twitter during a ballgame and watch what people around the country are saying about the game. But I know that even as one who tends to shy away from conflict and tries to be thoughtful about what I say there are comments and posts I would take back, comments I would never have made if it wasn’t so darned easy.

And maybe that’s the risk with technology and how it effects us relationally. It’s so quick and easy to say something, and once it’s said you can’t take it back. As a counselor working with addictions I am always trying to help people create a space where they can think through what they’re about to do so they can make a better choice. When we’re deep into our addiction there’s no space. Someone who uses sugary things to soothe themselves, like . . . like me, for example, might come out of a food trance and say, “well, what do you know? I just ate the bag of Halloween candy.” (Which, as a side note is why we don’t buy Halloween candy until the day before Halloween). There’s no space between feelings and actions. Indeed, there’s no awareness of even having any particular feelings. It’s not until the addict can slow things down and create a space that they can begin to understand “hey, I’m feeling really lonely or bored or angry and I’d better be careful. At times like this I’m tempted to eat an entire pan of brownies.”

Again, people have always been criticized. Mankind got started right away with that particular sin. But the lack of technology created some space where people could think through and reconsider what they were about to do. “Am I really going to fire off a letter telling this person what a rotten piece of garbage they are?” “Will I really pick up the phone and start calling my friends to see if they heard the awful job the singer did with the national anthem?” Sure, a lot of toxic letters were sent, a bunch of nasty phone calls made. But how many more weren’t made because the person stopped to think and reconsider?

I’m not getting rid of my iPhone. There are so many great things I can do with it, things that, if used correctly, deepen my spiritual life and make me more available for relationship. But I’m thinking there are times when I am feeling angry or irritable that I would do well to put my phone at the other end of the house. That way when someone stumbles through an awkward awards presentation I’ll have to get out of my chair and walk to the other room to get my phone, and in the space that’s created I can consider whether I really want to pop onto Twitter and add my voice to the chorus of hecklers? Or instead choose what’s better, not only for the person absorbing the criticism, but for me personally, in not giving myself over to becoming just someone who criticizes?

Friday, June 20, 2014

Learning To Pray From My Daughter

Lately, it has occurred to me that my daughter may be teaching me how to pray. It's not so much her theology, which she certainly does not have nailed down at age seven. No, it has more to do with the spirit with which she approaches prayer.
For one, there are her singing prayers. Often, she wants to say the blessing for our meals and sometimes she will ask if she can do a "singing prayer." At first, I didn't know what to think of those. She will launch into her singing prayer with a lot of enthusiasm, making up the words and music as she goes, telling God the things that make her worry; things about her day, and thanking God for providing our food. Understandably, Linnea’s “singing prayers” can be a bit awkward to the occasional visitor to the Roberts home. But Susanne and I have come to love these prayers. As I thought about it recently I thought of the fact that many of the Psalms, which were Israel's hymn and prayer book, were originally sung. I have to be careful about applying my feelings to God, but I always smile during these prayers and imagine him smiling, too. 
Actually, Linnea was five when she first taught me something about prayer. I was trying to wake her up one morning to go to her pre-school and upon my second or third trip to her room to tell her it was time to get up she turned her head toward me and said, "shhh, Daddy, I'm praying."  I walked away fairly convinced she had stumbled onto a surefire strategy for getting herself more time in bed, but I walked away just in case she really was praying. A few minutes later I went back to her room and she was on her back now with her hands folded like a steeple above her chest. Then I really thought she was working me. But just after I entered her room she said, "okay, I'm done," and climbed cheerily into my arms. 
A few minutes later, as we were eating breakfast, she said, "Daddy, I'm sorry I took so long praying, but I was letting God and Jesus have a turn."
"Letting God and Jesus have a turn? What do you mean?"
"I was letting them say something. It's nice to let others have a turn, you know."
"It sure is. And what did God and Jesus have to say?"
"They said they want Uncle Rodney to feel better, too, and for your shoulder to feel better and for me to not be sick."
After that conversation I thought a lot more about my own prayers and how they were filled with my own speaking, in spite of the many things I had read about contemplative and listening prayer. It reminded me that prayer is supposed to be a two-way conversation but that too often my own prayers are the kinds of encounters I've sometimes had where a friend dominated the conversation and I hardly got to say a word.
I think it's Linnea's openness that often inspires me the most about prayer. As children do, she will say whatever she is thinking in her prayers, which, if the Biblical scholars I read are correct, is exactly what God wants us to do. It's modeled for us, not only in the Psalms, but in other places like Habakkuk and Jeremiah. It reminds me of the time, long ago, in the church I grew up in, when a new Christian prayed one night in our Wednesday evening prayer meeting. She hadn't been in church long enough to learn how to pray, fortunately, and she said all kinds of things—things we didn’t usually say out loud—that night that were beautiful in their honesty and simplicity. She changed the entire tenor of that prayer meeting. I remember thinking that night, "I would never say those kinds of things out loud but I really wish I talked to God that way." I still all too often offer up safe, tame, and completely boring prayers that fall far short of what is really going on inside me.
The other day we were driving home from our vacation through an Oklahoma construction zone and I hit a strip of metal. I groaned out loud about this and the likelihood that we would get a flat tire because of it. I said a quick prayer about it, but I was still pretty sure we would be pulling over soon with a flat. It never happened. The next morning as Linnea and I were driving somewhere she said, "Daddy, do you know why we didn't have a flat tire yesterday?"
"No, honey, why?"
"Because I prayed about it. It's what I'm made for. We wouldn't want to be stuck with a flat tire in Oklahoma where we don't know anyone."
Of course, one of these days she will need to learn the opposite lesson, of being stranded somewhere with a flat tire or broken down vehicle and seeing God's provision in that circumstance. (And God, if you could just let me know ahead of time when that's going to happen it would really be helpful). But what warmed my heart about that exchange was her statement about prayer: it's what I'm made for. It reminded me that I am, we are all, made for prayer. It's what God wants with all of us, an ongoing conversation as we move through the events of our lives. Years ago I read the fantastic novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. It has stayed with me all these years, and the thing I was most drawn to in that book, and still often find myself thinking about, is the way Reverend John Ames prayed in that novel. He talked to God often, honestly, about everything. 

I think God has left the thought of that with me to remind me that it's what he wants with me and that it's what I long for, too. And now he's using a seven year-old girl to remind me of it.