Stepping outside the comfort zone.

I have been reading ‘Radical Hospitality‘ by Father Daniel Homan and Lonni Collins Pratt. Its a wonderful book about Benedictine Hospitality – of which I *thought* I understood, but am learning that I didn’t really know what it truly meant until I started reading this book. We have come to know the idea of hospitality in terms of the social niceties that exist in society today – serving someone a warm meal, offering a place to stay. These are ideas that exist within Benedictine Hospitality, but the idea goes much deeper in its need for us to open ourselves – not just our homes – to strangers.

Hospitality means bringing strangers into your heart, which may or may not result in inviting strangers to the table.

True hospitality requires that we open our very selves to strangers and be willing to listen and care. Doing so, however, doesn’t require that we need to bring people into our lives forever as a result. Someone who gives of themselves

… does not have to attach himself to every person who passes through this open heart of his, however: he can love them at the moment and let them go on.

I am only half way through the book, but there clearly a recognition that asking people to open themselves in this way in this day and age is a radical departure from that which we are used to. Today we fear strangers. We keep a distance from them as we go about our busy lives. We think that the issues and troubles of others are of no concern to us. Asking people to modify this way of thought requires a change of heart and behavior. Changes such as these require most of us to step outside our comfort zone. These days, however, we do not welcome the idea of being outside the comfort zone.

Advertising today shows us that the primary goal of our consumer centered society is to find ‘comfort’ in some way. Comfort can be our feeling good about ourselves because we wear beautiful clothes that are in-style making us feel a part the well-dressed in our society. Wearing the latest styles also gives an appearance that we can afford to throw away our ‘old’ clothes at the whim of designers and clothing companies that need to change styles in order for us to continue to consume. Comfort can also be found in the ease and convenience provided by various products – smart-phones, kitchen appliances, GPS mechanisms in our car, prepared foods. The list goes on and on. Consumers today want ways in which our lives can be made easier – less work means more comfort. We step further and further away from the idea of knowing what it feels like to be outside the comfort zone.

Yesterday, I worked outside in our yard. There was much work to be done and it was a warm day outside. I thought about the comfort zone as I went about completing the yard work in the heat of the sun. My body felt progressively tired and I was starting to feel aches in my knees from bending down and pulling up semi-dead grass that was growing among the spaces in our rock garden. It occurred to me that as we have moved away from an agrarian and rustic society and toward more highly concentrated urban centers, we have stepped further and further away from understanding the challenges of physical labor and more and more toward a society of convenience.

After our second child was born, I began to run more regularly and eventually decided to tackle the challenge of running a marathon. If one ever wants to step outside their comfort zone in a physical sense, run a marathon. For those just starting to run, a 5k can be just as much an accomplishment! When I began to run more competitively – a relative term meaning that I ran in an attempt to improve my time and compete on a local level, I enlisted the help of a coach who would be able to walk me through the training necessary to improve my speed. What I began to learn is what any athlete will be able to tell you – that to improve and excel at a particular sport means being required to step outside of your comfort zone on a physical and mental level on a regular basis. For runners, it means running faster than you intended to run your race and holding that pace for extended periods of time. For distance runners it means logging lots and lots of miles on days when your legs are already tired from a tough workout on previous days and the cumulative effects of already having run lots of regular miles. Doing these things brings discomfort to your body which requires a strong mind in order to overcome and be willing to keep going.

We have also taken the willingness to step outside our comfort zone of pain in child-birth and even breastfeeding with the advent of pain suppressors and formula. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking anyone who opts for the epidural or a shot of Demerol. I fully understand that there are no medals given for women who choose to give birth drug-free. I have to confess that I opted for a shot of Demerol in the birth of our first child because I was feeling as though I was coming a little ‘unglued’, but did manage to relax and overcome the pain of childbirth with our second child and was able to do so drug-free. I share this not to give myself a pat on the back and will confess to you that my choice to do so in both cases was two fold – i) knowing that women have done this for thousands of years and survived made me understand that I would be able to do so and I really wanted to avoid bringing un-natural drugs into the experience and ii) I am petrified of needles and a medial procedure weakling so the thought of an epidural scared me far more than the thought of the pain of the experience which I fully understood would end as soon as my sweet baby was born. Once our beautiful babies are born, many opt to not breastfeed and instead choose formula. I’ve heard a multitude of reasons for this – but the great majority seem to center around either the discomfort that can arise during the initial period of breastfeeding, the inconvenience and embarrassment of breastfeeding in public, not wanting to have enlarged breasts for an extended period of time, or going back to work and not wanting to pump. The theme throughout is the idea that ‘this isn’t going to be a great experience for me’ for some reason or another and will require extra effort. In both cases, my attempt isn’t to criticize anyone who opts for the drugs during childbirth or not to breastfeed – to each his own, but to identify the idea that we are again – in the most natural experiences in our lives – drawn toward the experience that will give us the most comfort.

The ways in which we move toward comfort in our lives are too numerous to mention. Contemplation led me to begin to understand that reaching toward comfort is allowing us to spend our time focussed on a self-centered life and concerned mostly about our own comfort level. How then, can we expect to fully and freely move outside our comfort zone? And if we aren’t willing to step outside our comfort zone, are we truly capable of significant and radical change enabling ourself to give back to those we encounter every single day? This is going to be a wonderful exercise!

Being a good steward.

On our daily drive to school, my children and I spend the few minutes between our house and the carpool line in prayer. Some days they like to pray, and on other mornings they are tired or cranky and less enthusiastic. We begin our prayer in thanksgiving and spend time asking God to look after others, but also to look after us.

We ask God to help us be ‘good stewards of the gifts and talents He has given us’. I think I added this specific line to our prayers at the beginning of this year. This morning, my sweet boy decided to ask me what ‘steward’ meant – which, of course, at first led me to wonder to myself what he thought we’d been praying for all year. I kept that little thought to myself and instead turned to gratitude for his being inclined to ask and want to know.

I explained to him that being a ‘steward’ meant that we were taking care of or looking after something – something that usually belonged to someone else. We then talked about how God – through his grace – gave us the gifts and talents that we all have. We all have beautiful things to offer this world and everything in it, and that each of our gifts has a very specific purpose in order to help create harmony. I explained to my son that the gifts and talents that we have are a gift from God and that, by giving us these unique abilities, He wants us to use them for a greater good and to their fullest potential – so, in that sense, we are to be a ‘good steward’ of our abilities.

My heart was warmed as each child began to list off what they believed to be the gifts and talents they possessed. I reminded them that it was important that they be respectful and appreciative of those gifts and to only use them for a greater good.

Discussions like these make me stop and ponder whether or not I am using my gifts and talents to their fullest potential. Truthfully, I’m not sure I have ever sat down and listed what I think that these might be… which suggests that I am likely not only not using them to their fullest potential, but may not also be always using them for a greater good.

Perhaps its time for a period of discernment to prayerfully consider these gifts and talents and determine where it is God would like to see me use them in His name and for His glory. How wonderful that a simple conversation with children can lead us to an opportunity for deeper thought, consideration and discernment.

Time for a little love.

Today is the day after Mother’s Day – aka the day when all the stuff I let slide for the day yesterday has come back to haunt me. Isn’t that what happens when Mom’s stop for a day? Truth be told, yesterday was the best Mother’s day I have had. Ever. I have a tendency to not stop or slow down until my body gets sick and forces me to do so. Yesterday was a beautiful gift of a day from my family. It was a day in which I could stop. Truly stop. The beautiful thing is that it wasn’t *just* yesterday – it was the WHOLE weekend!

Amazing things happen when we slow down. We stop and smell the roses. Wait – that would be a *great* quote to put on a needlepoint pillow! We hear it so much that we don’t even really think about it anymore. This weekend, though, I was given the greatest gift that one can receive; love.

My husband was busy during the day on Saturday, but the weather was spectacular for being outside so I dragged my somewhat reluctant kids to the ‘Revival Market’ about 10 miles outside of town. It was a wonderful little open air market featuring every kind of reclaimed door, window and piece of something you really didn’t need that one could want. And, egads, my kids even enjoyed it! It didn’t hurt that they had a talented singer there with his guitar singing acoustic versions of their favorite songs like Katie Perry’s ‘Firework’ (why is it that mediocre songs by mediocre singers seem to be so enjoyable to the pre-tween audience – thankfully, my kids do have a thing for Mumford and Sons as well as Coldplay so we do see eye to eye on *most* music). We enjoyed our hour or so rambling through the stalls filled with all sorts of gems. Amazingly, we managed to walk away empty handed.

On Saturday night, I went to hear my friend, Sally Robb, speak at our Church. It was a small and intimate gathering where she talked about love. She’s a brilliant woman who has been blessed with seeing every drop of beauty in the expansive world that is the Catholic faith and manages to help those who hear her speak understand their faith in a way that is both eye-opening and life-changing. In roughly an hour, she managed to explain the beauty of God’s love in the most spectacular of ways.

We hear it over and over and over… but we don’t grasp it. ‘God is love.’ How simple and beautiful it is. God is love. Why did God create us? Because He wanted someone to love and wanted to be loved. God, in His majestic glory, sent his only son for our salvation to become love personified. Everything that Jesus did during his short 33 years here on earth was an act of love. Everything. The gospels tell us that He never spoke ill of anyone, never harmed anyone, taught us through acts too innumerable to document in just one book how to love one another.

God who created man out of love also calls him to love the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being. For man is created in the image and likeness of God who is himself love. Since God created him man and woman, their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man. It is good, very good, in the Creator’s eyes. And this love which God blesses is intended to be fruitful and to be realized in the common work of watching over creation: “And God blessed them, and God said to them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.’” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1604

Sally shared with us, through her beautiful wisdom, the idea that not only must we love others – but we must love and see ourselves as God sees us. God sees the most perfect version of ourselves that we can be. He knows what that is and He sees us in that way. We, however, see ourselves as the imperfect sinner. Does that mean that God doesn’t see our sin. Of course He does – but He is saddened by us, not angry with us. We do that to ourselves. Those with children will understand the feeling when our children defy us in some way. We feel sad that our children haven’t listened to us – if they loved us they would have listened. Not listening must mean they don’t act in a loving way toward us, and that makes us feel sad. This is how God must feel. He has given us the ability to live our lives and to *choose* to love him and also to accept His love. When we sin, we turn our backs on God’s love for us just as our children do to us. Its painful and it hurts.

Though, if we open our eyes and our hearts, we can see the gift of grace in God’s forgiveness of our sins. Every time we are aware of our sins, we become more and more aware of our relationship with God. We draw closer and closer to Him, just as we draw closer to those we love when we hurt them and realize how it must make them feel. We also learn that which we are to be working on within ourselves to become the best version of ourselves – the David with Michelangelo’s block of marble.

We must be able to love ourselves the way in which God loves us in order for us to love others. If we cannot fully experience our love of self, how can we share that love with others? Part of loving imperfect selves is understanding that God loves our imperfect selves. Love feeds love.

Its no accident that I started reading ‘Radical Hospitality‘ on Sunday. Its a beautiful little book that discusses the depth of true hospitality – not just the idea of welcoming strangers with a warm meal, but welcoming them by creating a ‘sacred space’.

At the heart of monastic hospitality is the discipline of listening, of allowing a guest to feel safe and loved. – Radical Hospitality

Kathryn Jean Lopez was live Tweeting from Cardinal Dolan’s commencement speech at Catholic University of America on Saturday. He had some wonderful things to say, and I’m grateful for her willingness to take the time to post them to her Twitter feed.

and

God places these wonderful little messages in my path when He’s trying to tell me something. Thankfully, this message was delivered in a gentle and kind manner – unlike the baseball bat to the head that is sometimes the method of delivery.

Turning back to my Mother’s Day, I had a new and deeper appreciation for my role as a mother and an awareness of how much I loved my family and how much they loved me. My role as a mother is a gift from God. He entrusts my husband and I with two of his most precious children – and they are all precious. The God of the universe who IS love, has blessed me with a husband with whom I could create the two most beautiful little people I could ever imagine having the privilege of raising.

As I continue on my journey through my life and walk the path of my faith, I learn more and more about God. What I learn changes my perspective as I realize that the most important gift I can give my children is to teach them that they are loved by God for all that they are and that God sees in them the beauty and perfection upon which He bestowed upon them as His creation. My role as a mother is also to impart on them that, I too, see that beauty and the gifts and talents they have been given. Like God allowing me to make mistakes in order that I will become more self-aware, I too must allow my children to stumble in order that they can learn – and, hopefully, in the process we can grow closer as they learn that in order to love them I must give them that freedom.

As we spent time together as a family on Mother’s Day, I saw a happiness, love and familiarity in my family’s eyes that had been missing for some time as we went about our lives busying ourselves with something or another. That was the greatest gift of all.

Who is being bullied and who are the bullies?

This past fall we had dealt with a situation in which our young son was being bullied at school. It had been taking place for almost two months without our knowing. What we did know, however, is that his sweet and cheerful disposition had changed and he had become prone to sudden outbursts of physical and emotional rage. His behavior had become so extreme that we contemplated seeking professional help from a counsellor to try and learn why this might be happening. It was torturous to see him so unhappy and feel helpless in trying to understand why. He’s never been one for sharing his feelings in discussion, so it was very difficult to try and determine the root cause of this change in behavior.

In late October, our prayers of understanding why this was happening had been answered. We went to our scheduled parent-teacher conference and learned that on that morning a boy had written an unkind note about our son and had showed it to him in order to have him feel badly. We spoke with our son about this note and the floodgates opened. We discovered that this had been just one in a series of incidents that had been taking place almost daily. The cumulation of this behavior by this boy had caused our son to feel terrible about himself. We, with our son’s teacher, told our son that this behavior would change and that he could freely and openly tell us about these incidents going forward. While we didn’t realize it at the time, we noticed within that very week that our son’s cheery disposition was starting to return and his moments of rage had begun to diminish.

I’ve been more alert to bullying and its impact since this happened. I admit that I had read of teen suicides as a result of bullying in the past and had wondered ‘How could the parents not know what was happening?’, and – after having our son experience someone telling him repeatedly that he was worthless for two months and not know though knowing something was happening – I can say that I now understand how I understand how they could not have known.

Watching the news the past few weeks, I have seen examples of bullying take place in very public ways and it has been appalling to watch. A bully is defined as ‘A person who uses strength or power to intimidate those who are weaker.’ and the act of bullying is ‘Use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force him or her to do what one wants.’

The most prominent example of this blatant bullying took place when prominent anti-bullying advocate, Dan Savage, founder of ‘It Get’s Better‘ (widely endorsed by the Obama administration) took the opportunity to use his pulpit at a teen journalism conference to speak horribly about the Bible and Christians who believe in the validity of sacred scripture. During a lengthy anti-Bible rant, Savage noted that

We can learn to ignore the bulls-t in the Bible about gay people.

He went on to refer to those who, offended by his behavior, got up and left by calling them names like ‘pansy-asses’. It is astounding to me that a young gay man who has been the subject of much name calling and criticism of his choices in life – so much so that he would start a foundation to speak out against it – would be so hypocritical to exercise the same behavior he abhors to a group of teens who thought they were coming to hear about journalism. Dan Savage has become the bully (we become what we hate?).

Sadly, this behavior is being exercised from the top down by our own President here in the US as ‘Obama for America’ had the audacity to publicize the names of donors to the Romney campaign whom they deemed to be ‘questionable’. The point here isn’t to discuss the merits of whether or not Romney has ‘questionable’ donors, or even to point out the hypocrisy of President Obama doing so when his own list of donors contains their own questionable characters (John Corzine?, Jeffrey Katzenberg? George Kaiser?), but rather to illuminate the poor example it sets for our children when the highest office in the land to abuse its position of power and threaten those who speak out (or donate) against it. Isn’t this considered intimidation of those weaker than the office of the President – which would be essentially everyone in the US.

I’ve been doing my very best to stay away from being political on this blog… I really have! Reading this story yesterday, however, combined with the revealing of Savage as a bully prompted me to write this today. The story reveals how the publishing of questionable and inaccurate materials on the Obama for America website about Frank VanderSloot, the CEO of Melaleuca, Inc. has cost Mr. VanderSloot significant business deals. Other articles regarding the matter indicate that Mr. VanderSloot is considering libel lawsuits – and rightly so. The first line of the article states

Here’s what happens when the president of the United States publicly targets a private citizen for the crime of supporting his opponent.

It is saddening that we would find ourselves with the individual occupying the highest office of the land speaking out against bullying, and then using the same tactics he criticizes in those who bully in an attempt to hold on to that office.

How can we teach our children the importance of respect for one another and treating those with whom you may disagree with dignity and respect if those who occupy prominent places in the media don’t do the same and exemplify that behavior? Its even worse when those who speak out against it turn around and do the very thing against which they speak.

Thankfully, there is always the opportunity to share with our children the idea that Jesus taught us loving others as He loves us.