Monday, September 24, 2007

Sermon on the Mount: Practice the Presence of God

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that Matthew 6 is one of the most uncomfortable chapters to read in all of Scripture because "it probes and examines and holds a mirror up before us, and it will not allow us to escape. There is no chapter which is more calculated to promote self-humbling and humiliation than this particular one." All-righty, then!

In Matthew 6:1, Jesus warns his followers to "be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them." Those last five words do not merely comprise a redundant modifier, but rather they hold the key to understanding the principle that Jesus is laying out.

If Jesus had ended his admonition with "before men," he would seem to be contradicting his earlier words, recorded in Matthew 5:16: "Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." But instead, he adds, "to be seen by them."

Mr. Peevie said that when he was in college, he and his peeps would go running. They'd make sure that their course took them across the center of campus so they could log some "face time"--an opportunity not only to be seen, but to have their healthful virtue admired by professors and peers alike.

Jesus says, essentially, don't do your good deeds with the motive of face time. Don't do them to be seen and admired by other people, and in fact, don't even let your left hand know what your right hand is doing! Don't dwell on them in your own mind; don't congratulate yourself for giving your left-over sandwich from lunch to the homeless guy at the train station. Don't think twice about what a good person you are because you gave up your seat on the El to a blue-hair.

This, for me, is way harder than it might seem on the surface. My favorite theologian, John R. W. Stott, wrote, “So subtle is the sinfulness of the heart that it is possible to take deliberate steps to keep our giving secret from men while simultaneously dwelling on it in our own minds in a spirit of self-congratulation.” Ouch. That is me to a T.

The positive expression of the principle that Jesus is getting at here is this: aim to please God only and always. This is, as Brother Lawrence put it, practicing the presence of God.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Housekeeping: Not my forte

"Do you have any idea why there is a baggie with a carrot in it in the middle of the hallway?" Mr. Peevie just asked me.

This is the kind of question that is "normal" in my home. We have the kind of household in which it is not entirely unexpected to encounter miscellaneous fruits and vegetables, in or out of containers, in non-kitchen parts of the house.

Grapes that aspire to become raisins could obtain asylum here, because chances are good that they will find themselves wrinkling up, forgotten and unmolested, in a random corner of the living room.

I have found dried-up apple cores resting comfortably under Power Rangers, and zip-lock bags of cereal salad in purses that I haven't used in six months.

Sometimes my house reminds me of Mel Gibson's house in Signs, when he played a widowed dad with a young daughter with a weird (and fortuitous) glass-of-water fetish. There are empty, half-empty, and nearly full glasses sitting around on most flat surfaces: window sills, counter tops, end tables, and shelves. Water-solvent aliens beware! Also, Diet Coke-solvent, and wine-solvent aliens.

My kids tend to melt down into puddles of woe and angst when they are hungry, so I try to avoid this by always making sure that I have healthy snacks with me. The end result, however, is that the rejected snacks gang up together to form science experiments in the car; or they find their way into the crevices between the couch cushions and start organizing a government and forming armies. I'm sure they will soon be powerful enough to split atoms, and then it will be time for us to move.

My housekeeping goal is to not make my kids or unsuspecting visitors ill. This is just another operational example of my life's motto: Low standards are the key to low stress and happiness.

You are welcome in my house anytime. Just make sure that you look behind you before you take a seat.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Tasty Treats

Lisa's Italian Ice in Park Ridge is my new favorite non-guilty treat.

My kids love it too. Lisa's got about 20 different flavors, and they are all her own recipes. Some are exotic, like capuccino and passion fruit; and some are more traditional, like watermelon and raspberry.

She's really worked on making her ice flavors pop and zing. The lemon-lime was even too zesty for my delicate taste-buds, but two little girls with me sucked theirs down without a single pucker. I found the mango to be very mango-ey, and the raspberry to be absolutely delicious.

My own spawn love to get chocolate combined with other flavors, such as banana, vanilla, or capuccino. (Lisa will combine two flavors in one cup at no extra charge.)

And here's what I really love about Lisa's Italian Ice: Lisa had a dream. She left her job as an accountant to pursue it, and opened up her own business. Her shop in downtown Park Ridge is cute and sunny, and I hope you'll stop by and support her. You'll find her at 10 South Northwest Highway, just around the corner from the Pickwick Theatre.

Oh, and one more thing: Lisa's ices are very affordable, especially compared to the pricey ice cream across the street.

What's not to love?!

(FYI: This is NOT a paid commercial announcement. I just like her product, and I love it when women pursue their dreams and start businesses. Good luck, Lisa!)

(And also, the photo came from Flickr.)

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Sermon on the Mount: Manifesto for Kingdom Living

I'm teaching Sermon on the Mount, Part 2 (Matthew 6 & 7) starting tomorrow, and I thought I'd post weekly (or sporadic) updates on what I'm learning in the process of teaching.

In the spring we studied the first part of the Sermon, Matthew 5. That's all I was able to cover in nine weeks. I reminded my class that there is nothing more ironic than me teaching other people about meekness, being pure in heart, and hungering thirsting for righteousness. (Just ask Mr. Peevie, or any of the Peevies, for that matter.)

Fortunately--blessedly!--the Sermon is all about grace. It's not about my own level (or lack of) spirituality. It's not about how Jesusy I am. It's all about grace, about knowing that--thank God!--what Jesus wants is not for me to grit my teeth and swear I'll be more pure in heart tomorrow. Jesus wants the Sermon to bring us back to the reality of the cross.

Look at the beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) if you don't believe me. I like to call them a Manifesto for Kingdom Living. The manifesto is a description of the character of the believer--and yet none of the characteristics and behaviors it describes are natural human tendencies.

None of us is naturally poor in spirit. We don't automatically mourn over our sin, or meekly put the well-being of another person ahead of our own well-being--especially that guy that just cut me off in traffic.

Instead of hungering and thirsting after righteousness, we pursue substitutes that we desperately hope might fill us. Sometimes these substitutes are legitimate, harmless, or neutral in themselves--like watching TV, or drinking wine. But for me, these substitutes often spoil my appetite for righteousness.

We'd rather punish than show mercy; and we are painfully aware that our hearts are far from pure. Look at our world--at the relationships between nations, between partisan segments of government; look at our violent cities, our segregated neighborhoods, our broken relationships. We are not natural peacemakers in any sense of the word.

None of these characteristics is a natural personality trait or temperament. Each one is produced by grace alone. They are fundamentally spiritual, and they can only be produced by the Spirit.

OK, I've gotten carried away. I didn't mean to preach a sermon. (Jesus already did that!) I'll keep you posted--but in the meantime, I'd love to know what you think.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Goodbye, Mrs. Whatsit

My first favorite author, Madeleine L'Engle, died yesterday at age 88.

You may have discovered Madeleine L'Engle as a child, like I did, when you read A Wrinkle in Time. But you may not have realized just how prolific she was, and how diverse her writings. L'Engle published more than 60 works of fiction, poetry, autobiography, prayers, plays, and short stories since 1944, according to her official web site.

I loved her stories because her characters were so real to me. At least one of them was me: Meg Murray, an under-performing oddball who doesn't know the meaning of moderation and who wears every emotion on her sleeve. I loved the way L'Engle seamlessly spliced science, fantasy and faith together to create an intense, smart, mystical, and compelling plot. She was a brilliant, out-of-the-box storyteller, whether she was writing a memoir or crafting fiction.

In Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage (reviewed in this very blog) she contrasted her own upbringing with that of her husband, Hugh: he had siblings and warm relationships in a traditional family; and she was an only child raised, as she says, in a house full of artists of one kind or another, and educated primarily in boarding schools.

She was born in New York City, but her family moved frequently, and she lived for periods in the French Alps, Switzerland, Florida, and South Carolina. L'Engle attended Smith College in Massachusetts, and moved back to New York in 1941 after graduation.

Working in theater in New York, she met and married the actor Hugh Franklin. After their first child, Josephine, was born in 1947, they moved to the country. Their old white farmhouse, the eponymous Crosswicks, became the setting for four memoirs. Son Bion was born in 1952, and seven-year-old Maria, daughter of close friends, became part of their family in 1956 when her parents died suddenly.

The family moved back to New York City in 1959 so that Hugh Franklin could resume his acting career. L'Engle became re-engaged in the life of the city, volunteering as a librarian at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine (where she also was writer-in-residence for many years), teaching, speaking, and serving as president of the Author's Guild.

L'Engle's writings often include spiritual themes, and the Newbery Medal winner claimed, "It takes a lot of intellect to have faith, which is why so many people only have religiosity." Let's talk about what that means in a future blog post, shall we?

Her writings have won many awards and prizes, including the John Newbery Medal (for A Wrinkle in Time), Newbery Honor Book (A Ring of Endless Light), and the American Book Award (A Swiftly Tilting Planet), among others. L'Engle herself has been awarded many personal honors as well, including 17 honorary doctorates. (Just by way of comparison, I still don't even have my first honorary doctorate.)

Here's a link to L'Engle's obituary in the New York Times, in case you're interested.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Book Review: A Thousand Splendid Suns

A Thousand Splendid Suns is the complex, horrifying, tender, and perceptive story of Mariam and Laila, two Afghani women. The book traces their lives and unlikely friendship over nearly 40 years, beginning when Mariam, at age five, learns that she is the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy man.

Mariam and her epileptic mother, Nana, lived for 15 years in a tiny shack an hour's walk from the city where her father lived with his three wives and nine legitimate children. Tutored by the village mullah, Mariam longed to go to a real school like her father's other children. But her mother refused, telling Mariam she needed to learn only one lesson: to endure.

At 15, Mariam finds herself living in Kabul, married to a much older man, Rasheed, a traditional Muslim who requires her to wear a burqa. "A woman's face is her husband's business only," he tells her. Her life in Kabul becomes a study in endurance, interspersed with brief moments of hope and happiness.

Laila grows up five houses away, the daughter of a modern, educated, bookish father and a bipolar, neglectful mother. Her dream is to marry her childhood playmate, Tariq, but when bombs drop on Kabul, Tariq's family leaves for Pakistan. Fourteen-year-old Laila, secretly carrying Tariq's baby, becomes Rasheed's second wife, and eventually, Mariam's friend and ally.

Hosseini writes easily and convincingly from the perspective of an Afghani woman, capturing Mariam's ambivalence about the burqa (at times unnerved, at times comforted by the anonymity it offered) and her surprisingly tenacious grief after a miscarriage.

His tale spans four decades of neighborhoods pulverized by rockets; political power bouncing between the Communists, the Mujahideen, and the Taliban; and zealous misogyny. But it’s interesting that Hosseini’s novel, that chronicles so much sorrow and suffering, bears an optimistic title borrowed from the lines of a 17th century poet:

Every street of Kabul is enthralling to the eye
Through the bazaars, caravans of Egypt pass.
One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs
And the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.

Year after year, Mariam hardly noticed the wars and the upheaval. She endured; she survived. “The past held only this wisdom,” Mariam believed: “that love was a damaging mistake, and its accomplice, hope, a treacherous illusion.”

But Hosseini’s title is not a broken promise. Mariam discovers that her mother was wrong: life is more than endurance. Love, friendship, beauty, hope—all of these glint like ribbons of mica in a chunk of gray shale.

A Thousand Splendid Suns took me on an epic and heartwrenching journey, and as journeys do, it changed me. It gave me new insight into a distant land and an even more distant culture. At the same time it reminded me that, even though the forms and features of societies can be vastly different, suffering still demands justice; beauty still inspires; and love still conquers all.

Diversity Training: Is anyone measuring outcomes?

When I think of diversity training--often otherwise known as the "Blame and Shame Game"--the first thing that comes to my mind is the episode of The Office called "Diversity Day." If you have diversity training coming up, and you have not yet seen this show, you must stop reading right now and go watch it.

Are you back? All-righty, then.

So Mr. Peevie has a full day of mandated diversity training coming up, and honestly, if it were me, I would have a really bad attitude about it. I can't help but wonder if diversity training has ever been shown to have a positive effect on a person who would otherwise have Neanderthal attitudes about someone because she looks, acts, or thinks differently than he does.

My guess--and this is just a WAG, mind you--is that most organizations that mandate diversity training do so not because it's evidence-based, but because it's expected. So, being the responsible blogger that I am, I googled "diversity training + outcomes" or "+ research." Here's a sampling of some of the relevant hits:

A study described in a 2004 article abstract in Group and Organizational Management concluded that diversity training resulted in a "resentful demoralization of trainees" and that organizations should be aware that "diversity awareness training may not have the desired effects in the absence of a supportive work context."

I totally get this. As a person who values diversity, and who somehow got on the mailing list for Black Expressions book club, I would be totally irritated if I had to take an entire day away from my actual work just to have a 20-something diversity cheerleader lead me in a role-play about diversity. "Resentful" does not begin to describe it.

Another researcher concluded that "Diversity training creates as many problems sometimes as it solves." Uh huh.

And a British blogger pointed me to a 2006 article co-authored by Harvard sociology professor Frank Dobbin with a title that says it all: Best Practices or Best Guesses? Assessing the Efficacy of Corporate Affirmative Action and Diversity Policies. The paper suggests that "there are reasons to believe that employers adopt anti-discrimination measures as window-dressing, to inoculate themselves against liability, or to improve morale rather than to increase managerial diversity."

The study also concludes that "practices that target managerial bias through feedback (diversity evaluations) and education (diversity training) show virtually no effect" and "they sometimes show negative effect."

I think (and really, that's what we're all about here in the Green Room) that organizations should swear off of diversity training unless the training is connected to real-life organizational goals and specific, measurable outcomes. I'm not talking about participants saying, "Oh, my this was wonderful!" I'm talking about outcomes that definitively demonstrate that the training actually makes a difference in how people think and act; that it has a positive impact on organizational meeting organizational objectives; that it's not just preaching to the choir.

Michael Scott's idea of diversity training was to stick race labels on people's foreheads, and then have them simulate offensive encounters with one another. In one scene, Michael says to Oscar, who is Mexican: "Um, let me ask you, is there a term besides 'Mexican' that you prefer? Something less offensive?" The Office is the All in the Family for the new millenium.

Here's my idea for making sure that managers are appropriately diversity sensitive: Have them watch this episode of The Office while hooked up to brain sensors. If they register a pre-determined minimum level amusement at the show, leave them alone. If they don't get it, and the sensors register "um, whatever": fire their asses.

Problem solved.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

One Little Walk

Is there anything that engenders more optimism than the first hour of a diet or exercise program?

Yesterday I had my whole house and my whole day to myself. No kids, no work projects, no scheduled dates with friends, no urgent errands. It was like a mini-vacation. And I said to myself, "Self, here's your opportunity to start on a road to a healthier you."

So my long-ignored Reeboks and I went for a long, brisk walk on the Other Side of the Tracks. I tried to swing my arms because I read in Prevention Magazine that arm-swinging makes you walk faster and burn more calories--but I felt like a goofball, so I stopped.

All during my walk I planned how I was going to work my hiney off after I got home, doing things I usually assiduously avoid, like de-cluttering the office, washing dishes, and scrubbing spots out of carpet. And here's the totally insane part: I actually did it!

That one walk set the tone for the whole day yesterday, and even for today. This morning, I was positive that my capri jeans fit a little more loosely. Instead of slipping into my comfortable but hideous faux-Crocs, I snapped along in my cute and strappy (but still comfortable) sandals. My body has the same sags, the identical bulges, the exact beauty flaws that it had yesterday--and yet today, I find myself standing straighter, and I feel fitter, prettier, healthier. What's up with that?

One little walk, and I'm a new me.

Caveat: Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. I'm just saying.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Movie Review: The Bourne Ultimatum

This movie is hopped up on a speed and adrenaline cocktail. It’s pretty much non-stop action, with very little character development, minimal dialogue, and no Life Lessons.

You don’t watch this kind of movie because you want to sit around over lattes discussing the meaning of this camera angle or whether that object was a metaphor for the futility of human existence. You watch this kind of movie because you like testosterone and adrenaline, and you get a rush from watching action sequence after action sequence, and the good guy is Matt Damon, who’s kind of sweet to look at, with his squared off nose-profile and his regular guy chagrin-face.

There’s not much chagrin-face going on in Bourne, though. It’s all intensity and fierceness and fast camera angles that might give you motion-sickness, especially if you’ve eaten too much popcorn with fake movie butter.

Regarding Julia Stiles: I don’t know how much she got paid for this movie, but it probably came out to about a million dollars per word. Every time the camera looked at her, she looked back wordless and wide-eyed, like she had forgotten her lines, and the director just said, “Hey, we’ll use that! Don’t worry about the lines, JJ. It’s all good.”

Don’t watch this movie if you’re looking for the complexity of the Bourne novels; but if you love edge-of-your-seat action connected with the movie-Bourne character, the Bourne Ultimatum delivers.

Vagina Dialogues IV: Catch-phrases

I’ve already mentioned one nominee for catch-phrase of the weekend:

“That moth is a metaphor for your farts. Get it OUT of here!”

As the conversation and beverages flowed, other potential catch-phrases for our Girl-Power Weekend in the Woods came up. Dr. Vespinator scribbled them on a handy travel magazine so that they would not be lost to future generations.*

So there we were, sitting around on the screened in back porch that Arid Queen was using as a bedroom. We listened to the loud conversation and raucous laughs coming from partiers around a firepit at a nearby cabin, and we thought about crashing their fiesta.

But we had our own festival of intimacy and hilarity going on. We listened to the saga of the long-lost-now-found adopted daughter; we rode the Tilt-A-Whirl of emotions with our friend as she relived the fear, doubt, hope, anxiety, guilt, joy, and tenderness she’d been experiencing over the past three years in the process of rediscovering her child, and part of herself.

We recounted work tales, relationship woes, and parenting frustrations. In the space and freedom of a weekend we found ourselves able to listen more deeply and share more honestly than we normally can do in the time-cramped quarters of our usual gatherings.

So I felt relaxed enough to spread out comfortably in an Adirondack-style chair, one leg stretched out in front of me and the other hooked over the arm of the chair. But this relaxed—but fully clothed, mind you—posture provoked a less-than-relaxed commentary.

“Do you have to sit like that? I’m staring right at your vagina!” said Bob the Builder. And Dr. Vespinator chimed in, “Yeah, it’s not very lady-like!”

Do I really have to worry about being lady-like when I’m sitting on a log-cabin porch in the dark with a bunch of chicks?

So J. Cool took it upon herself to demonstrate the ridiculousness of the tattling tittsters. She threw her legs up in the air in a giant V—and this is a woman with serious back issues, mind you—and yelled, “You got a problem?”

A minute or two later, after order was restored and we had returned to the non-genital topic at hand, someone directed a question to Rock Star.

“I don’t know,” she said, “All I can think about is J. Cool’s vagina!”

Now that’s what I call a catchphrase.

*Remember the scribbled catch-phrases not to be lost to future generations? Well, I’m sorry to say that they were entrusted to me, and hence, lost to future generations. Let that be a lesson to all of you.