Saturday, January 13, 2024

Thieves and Scammers

  For Christmas this year, we received a number of gift cards.  Almost all had been purchased at Safeways around the country, and all of them had been tampered with.  All had already been used, all had been “scammed” in that someone had gone into the store, scanned the numbers on the cards, put them back into the envelopes so that once they were “activated” they were picked up immediately and put into someone else’s account.  The amount of money lost in this way to us personally ended up being around $500.  That was just in our own family.  I wonder how many other people lost money in this way, and I wonder how much money others were able to obtain by “stealing” these gift cards in this way.

Then, after Christmas, we ordered some supplies from Walmart using a bonus card David had received from his work.  (We don’t usually buy from Walmart, but again, this was a card we were given). This card was delivered digitally and so it “worked” for us in that we were able to order the supplies using the card to pay for them.  However, we received a notification that they had been delivered to our house at a specific time, and they never were. The total spent was about $100.  Fortunately, we now have REO cameras installed and we could see that no one had stolen anything from our porch: these items were simply not delivered, despite the company saying they were.  My guess is that these were stolen by the delivery person, though it is possible that they were delivered to the wrong address.  Either way, when we have packages wrongly delivered to us, we take them to the right address.  The fact that this never happened makes it clear that someone took something that was not theirs at some point in the process of delivery.  On another note, we tried to follow through with Walmart as well as the gift card companies.  David spent probably 10 hours on this, but Walmart made it impossible to contact them or to file a complaint. We still tried, not that this will make any difference.  Walmart is a billion-dollar company who does not care about the little amount we lost and will suffer no consequences for failing to make it right. (This is just one of the many reasons we don’t normally shop there!)   

I have several thoughts about all of this.  The first is that scammers and thieves seem to be more numerous than ever, at least in the United States, at this point in time.  Why?  Perhaps it is the general depression, anxiety and despair that so many are feeling that leads them to stop caring about morality or doing what’s right.  Perhaps it is the rising hatred and anger that is also leading to these choices.  Perhaps it is the huge increase in poverty that we are experiencing, the swallowing up of the middle class as the rich become richer and more greedy. Maybe it is that it is so easy to steal in these ways, and there is little consequence to doing so.  It is difficult to find those who have stolen packages, and the police generally won’t waste their time on small thefts or small vandalisms, even as they add up.  We know this because our church has had a number of thefts as well as vandalism lately and the police have admitted that they will not act until the amount stolen or the damage done in each instance is over $1000.   Whatever the cause, if you plan to give gifts this year, I’d encourage you to think through how you choose to do that, considering ways your gifts might be scammed and perhaps choosing the old-fashioned route of purchasing the gift itself and delivering it directly to the recipients.

My second thought was to remind myself that while we “lost” a total of about $600, that all of it was from gifts, things we did not earn, things we did not save for, money that was not expected or needed.  We have enough.  We have always had enough.  My own theology says that nothing we own is ours, anyway.  All of it is lent to us by God to use for the good of all people.  And while it is not ideal that it is scammers who took the money and the items we ordered, perhaps they are people who needed those resources.  I don’t know, and I never will.  The point is that this is something I need to let go of.  The things we received that didn’t work and the things we didn’t receive were gifts.  And it is the energy and care that went into the choosing of gifts and the giving of gifts that matters, not the receiving of more things that we don’t need anyway.

My final thought is that I feel like our lack of connection to others is also a huge part of the issue.  We have forgotten that we belong to one another, that we are deeply connected, that we are all children of God and as such siblings to one another, and that what effects one of us, at some deep level effects all of us.  The more that we can practice our connectionality and the more we can be kind to one another, even those who are very different from us, even those who we don’t necessarily agree with or like, the more we can change the world for the better.  Also, it is harder to scam people when you have come to care about them. I am reminded that it is my job to get to know those people I don’t usually interact with, including delivery people and the shady people I might see in the grocery store.  It is my job to get to know the unhoused persons who are damaging our church, to talk to them and find out their stories.  It is my job to tear down the walls that protect me from others and to reach across them to make connections instead.  This is our job as human beings.  It might not make a difference today, it might not change the number of scammers who are out there tomorrow.  But I have to believe that each effort for good that we choose matters in the world, and that all our efforts for good can add up, just as all the efforts that do damage have been adding up as of late.  It has to start with me.  It has to start with you.  And it has to start today.

Monday, November 13, 2023

Revenge in our hearts?

     I’ve been thinking about comments I’ve heard recently that basically come down to, “Because I’ve suffered, you should too.” Or even, "Because WE'VE suffered, you should too."

“Because I had to take that test in order to get into that job/profession/group/activity other people should have to as well.  If they don’t, it’s not fair!” 

“Because I received corporal punishment as a child, I think this next generation of kids should also have corporal punishment.  It didn’t kill me so it won’t kill them!” 

“Because I had to go through several rigid screenings in order to be part of this group, everyone else should as well.” 

"Because we have been hurt, we need to make other people hurt too."

Recently there was a huge controversy that involved one of the ordination exams that was offered this past year.  A scripture was chosen for those studying to become Presbyterian pastors that they needed to translate from original Hebrew, do an extensive biblical study on, and then create a congregational bible study from that passage.  This is a part of every exegesis ordination exam that every Presbyterian pastor must take to be ordained in our denomination.  The scripture they picked this last year, though, was one that could have been considered deeply traumatic for many.  It was Judges 19 in which a Levite’s concubine was gang-raped, murdered and dismembered.  Survivors of sexual assault were outraged at the insistence that they be required to study and write about this passage and basically called the committee’s choice that they handle such a passage a form of “hazing”.  Without going too far into the controversy, I found it interesting that one of the arguments for continuing with this passage again came back to the “well we had to look at hard passages to become pastors, so they should too.”  The use of the word “hazing” to describe the exam also backs this idea.  Those who are hazed remember what they had to do in order to “join the club” or the fraternity and they feel it is, therefore, only fair that those who follow should also have to suffer as they did. 

While these examples take many forms and have been said in many differing situations, they all come back to that same thing: I suffered, so others should too.

               This is very problematic.  While I have written about this for my congregation, I wanted to say something more about this using words that are not as "churchy" because, while I think this is especially problematic for people of faith, I also believe it is simply problematic just because as human beings, we should be striving to do better.  Every single day there are so many good things that come to us that we did not earn or deserve.  And there are so many gifts that come our way that we can take no credit for at all. On a small scale, how many times have you gone over the speed limit, or failed to use your turn signal but have not been given a ticket?  How many times have you made a mistake such as talking behind someone’s back, exaggerating a story in a way that you knew would be hurtful to those you spoke about, or were cranky with someone you valued in a way that could have ended the relationship, only to have the experience of finding that those mistakes have not led to the terrible consequences which could have followed?  How often have we experienced being forgiven for the harsh words, or loved beyond the mistakes? 

         In the bigger picture, did you do anything that earned you where you were born?  Did you do anything to have been born into a family that had enough resources to feed you, to house you, to educate you?  Did you do anything to deserve classes and lessons and friends and family who have been kind and loving?  Did you do anything to deserve going on family vacations or trips to the park or zoo or circus as a kid?  How many times have you just barely scraped by on an exam or in some other way and experienced others simply being kind because they could be?  

       But as a people we don’t tend to focus or remember the times we've experienced such beauty or kindness or grace nearly as intensely or as often as we focus on and remember what we consider an injustice to ourselves.  And as a result, we fail then to find the gratitude to extend that grace to those around us, but instead insist that because we suffered, others should too.  And while this may be very human, "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind."  We need to do better.  We need to focus less on revenge and on the idea that because I have suffered, you should too, and instead choose more often that because I've been gifted in so very many ways in this lifetime, I will extend those gifts and that grace to you as well.  

     We have the power to create a kinder, gentler world.  And it doesn't take much to move from "it's not fair!" to "How can I help?  What can I do to make your world a tiny bit better?"  My hope is that we could all try to move in that direction, one step at a time.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

You Are What You See

               "You are what you see."  This is a quote that I was told came originally from Thick Nhat Hanh but as I tried to clarify this online, it seems many people have said this, and with good reason.  Psychologists say that what we internalize through life, media or other parts of life can deeply affect who we are, what we believe, and how we function in this life time.  I read an article in Psychology Today that named the deep effects on a person's psyche of watching too much negative news.  Watching negative news can lessen our sense of joy, increase anxiety, and lead to deep depression. Similarly, there are numerous studies that show watching too much violent TV or engaging in violent video games encourages children and adults to act out that violence in their lives.  Considering how much time people spend watching violent TV or playing violent video games, is the increasing rage and violence in our country surprising?

           There is a common misperception that if you are feeling angry, you can dispel those feelings by acting out violence towards non-human targets (punching bags, pillows, shooting images through a video game).  In fact, the opposite has been found to be true.  Once you begin to act out violence towards ANYTHING, the possibility of becoming violent towards the living beings around you increases. That is a consistent finding.  Psychologists knew this 40 years ago (I remember learning it in my psychology classes in college) and studies continue to bear out this finding, yet people still claim they are "getting OUT their anger" through violence when instead their behaviors increase those feelings and violent tendencies. When we see, feel, hear or act out violence, even if it is aimed at inanimate or video objects, we increase the violence of our own beings and our own tendencies to harm others.

            This also manifests in what news we watch.  While we choose our news channels based on our beliefs, at the same time it becomes circular in that the stories we hear and see reinforce and tend to cement us into the beliefs we already had.  They make us who we are as much as we choose them because of who we are.

            Still, today I heard the phrase, "you are what you see" differently.  While I believe that what we see, what we engage with our eyes, our ears and our actions (such as playing violent video games) does change how we interact with the world, I also heard and understood this phrase at a deeper level.  We have choices about how we see the events around us.  We make decisions about how we interpret events.  As I have shared before, I knew someone who regularly said that every action of every person was a play for power.  I don't agree with her that this is true of everyone.  I do see that it is true of her own behaviors.  She projected onto the world her own internal reality.  She chose to see the world through the lens of others' playing for power and as a result, this "sight" of hers effected everything that she did as well and encouraged her choices to continue to be plays for power. 

    I am very close to a few people who have a condition that is a common part of ADHD called Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria.  Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria affects the way in which they see the world in that they experience perceived slights as rejection.  This may sound familiar to some of you who may experience this in your own lives as well.  Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria means that if someone forgot to invite you to something, or didn't look at you while they were speaking, or said something in a way that could have been perceived as a slight, even if that was never the intention, you assume you are being rejected, you assume you aren't liked and aren't valued.  While this is a common part of ADHD, there is still some choice in this.  There are activities that encourage those with this condition to consider other possibilities for the behavior they saw as rejection.  If these activities are practiced with regularity, they can change the way the person sees and interacts with the world.  

       Another example: Once a person starts seeing the world as divided into "good" and "bad" it is easy to see that mirrored in the world.  By "easy," I mean just that.  Considering why a person or group of people behave in a certain way takes effort, it takes work to refrain from casting certain people or groups of people as "bad guys."  It also usually means a person has to be more self-reflective and look at their contributions to the negative behaviors in the world, and that can be very painful.  But that effort, that work is deeply worthwhile as we strive to heal the world, bring peace to the world, create a better world, and become more whole people ourselves.

       What do we choose to engage in with our eyes, our ears, our time?  Do we choose to invite into our beings the violence that is so prevalent on TV or in video games, or even in the news?  Do we try to balance the negative news we hear with positive news, reminding ourselves that there still is good in humanity and in the world?  (Because that is the solution here: ignoring the news is not a good option.  Choosing to balance it out with positive stories is more effective as well as healthier.) But more, how do we choose to see the world?  And can we choose to see with eyes of grace, compassion and love?  If we make that choice, how will our behaviors, and our very souls be impacted and effected?  I believe this choice would change each of us, and in doing so, has the potential to change the world for the better.  

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Longing for Childhood

    Today as I sat in my office and heard one of the kids in our children's center crying his eyes out, I realized that there are things I really miss about being a child.  Okay, yes, I realize that sounds odd: I'm hearing a child crying and I'm missing childhood.  But at the moment that I had that realization, I truly wished I could have been crying my eyes out too.  There are too many moving parts in my life right now and expenses piling up this month that are deeply worrying.  I have felt like I can't draw breath over the last few days because of all the many different things that have demanded my attention: sick kids needing to go to urgent care, the car breaking down again, the cat also needing to go to the cat eye doctor (an hour's drive away) for possible melanoma of the eye, helpers hired for a problem with our backyard who need to be supervised and paid, window shades and material for drapes needing to be bought to block out the intense heat that's been making our kitchen and family room into a sauna, people in my circle of influence being hurt and offended who need consolation, compassion and perhaps a different understanding of comments and events, issues at Presbytery that need addressing yesterday, trips out to the airport and even an overnight "step away" that just went wrong as well as my regular work...And all of this hit at once.  
    As I sat listening today to the boy crying I thought, I want to be able to do that.  I don't want to have to be responsible in every single moment, following the rules and expectations when I just would rather be having a temper tantrum and hoping someone like the teacher outside with the crying boy was there to hold and comfort me.  
    I miss other things from childhood too: daily nap time, snack times that don't add pounds to one's body, the tiny squabbles that erupt from concerns no bigger than who gets to play with what toy in this moment rather than over how to pay the bills.  I miss being able to just be whoever I am, and say whatever crosses my mind rather than needing to be thoughtful and intentional about saying the right thing in the right way.  It's exhausting striving always to live up to others' expectations as well as my own.  I miss being able to just BE. 
    Don't you feel that way at times too?
    I found myself saying to my kids today that I look forward to retirement because at that point I'm just going to say what I want to say and act how I want to act, but I know it's not true.  That time of being exactly who we are and saying exactly what we want to say has passed.  It was a gift we didn't recognize we had when we had it, and now it is gone.  I care too much about what other people think and feel to be able to return to that obliviousness or carelessness.  I don't ever want to be someone who is thoughtless in the face of other's potential pain, so I won't choose that, ever.
    But the reflection today did give me two gifts.
     First, it caused me to think about what gifts I currently have that I take for granted and will miss at a later time.  One of those is having meaningful work.  I need to be more appreciative of this time when I can and do work.  Another is a functioning body that allows me to exercise and move in the ways I want.  I also still have a sharp mind, and that too may not be permanent.  I need to pause and remember that these gifts, like all gifts, are temporary and fleeting.  I need to appreciate them now.
    Second, I found myself thinking about how to reclaim some of those things that I am missing from childhood.  How can I express myself more honestly, but in a way that is not damaging or hurtful to others?  Can I take five minutes to cry my eyes out before returning to my work, just to give myself permission to have those feelings and to express them?  How can I create room for my needs as well as the many pressing needs of my family, work and friends?  How can I create some space to step back and breathe?  
    Each age has different gifts.  Recognizing them now can be a gift in itself.  Recognizing them in hindsight can give us insights into what is missing from our current lives that call us to change, to try something different, to adjust.  My yearning today for those earlier, easier times of childhood was a bit of a wake-up call to make some adjustments in my life.  What are your yearnings and longings saying to you?

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Media Honesty

            As a country we are struggling with polarization.  Part of that has to do with what media we listen to, what media we believe to be telling us the truth.  And while I definitely have strong opinions about what media I believe is the most accurate and honest, I'm coming to feel that even the sources I believe to be reliable are questionable.  

          For example, I shared in another blog about what had happened at my youngest daughter's high school.  30 kids on the night of their graduation went to the campus and vandalized it with hate speech graffiti as well as damage to buildings using things like firecrackers.  I understand they have been arrested and are waiting sentencing.  I learned about this through letters from the school informing all parents of the class of 2023 that the entire class is now banned from the campus permanently.  They informed us immediately after the event that the senior trip was canceled, though later, when the 30 kids were caught, those who were "cleared" of culpability were still allowed to go on their trip.  In the span of 24 hours we received half a dozen emails letting us know what had happened and what the consequences were going to be.  

        But despite the large amount of vandalism and damage, there was not one word of this event in the local media.  Not one word.  Why?  Well, apparently the charter school they attend is afraid of losing their credentialing so they were able to keep the information out of the media in an effort to preserve good public opinion of the campus.  At another local school another hate crime incident received a great deal of coverage about what had happened on their campus.  But my daughter's school, which tends to be slightly more affluent, and to have many prominent and wealthy members of the community as parents, was able to put the lid on information going out to the larger community.  

      This event alone causes me to question what we hear in the news.  When the affluent and powerful voices are the ones who determine what makes it into the news and what does not, then everything we hear is skewed towards the rich and powerful.  Where are the voices of those who were hurt by the homophobic and racist slurs painted on the campus?  And more, what else are we failing to hear because it is about damage done to those we don't value as much, don't see as often, don't care about as deeply?  

       I know there is still valuable information in the news stories that are out.  But I will tell you honestly that I canceled my news subscriptions after this last event of media suppression.  As a person of faith, I am called to hear the voices that are being silenced, to uplift the oppressed, to focus my care on the "least of these" who are being harmed, ignored, and made invisible through our cultural practices.  If my local media does not lift up those voices as a priority, then I am not interested in supporting what they share.  It breaks my heart because I always thought media was supposed to be about exactly this: giving voice to those things we would not otherwise hear.  Instead it appears to be another cog in the wheel of a society that bows down before wealth and fame while ignoring the cries of the poor.  I do not choose to be part of that.  

Monday, June 12, 2023

A Moment of Kindness??

     Last week I was walking with the two young adults who are currently at home.  We were stopped at the corner of a busy intersection waiting for the light to change, when a car full of teenagers also stopped at the light.  One of the young men in the back seat of the car called out to us, "Hello!"  

    I said "Hello," in response.  

    He then said, "You're beautiful!" to which I responded, "Thank you.  So are you!" and then the light changed and we all moved on.

    My youngest turned to me and said, "Mom, he was being sarcastic and mean."  

    I said, "How do you know that?"

    "I know it because he is the same age as the kids at my school and that's how they are."

    Hm.  Perhaps my daughter did not believe a teenage boy could possibly think I was beautiful. Perhaps the boy was referring to my two kids when he said, "you are beautiful," in which case, the "thank you" still held for me: "thank you for seeing the beauty in my progeny."  Still, I would be lying if I said that the same thought that maybe he was just being sarcastic and mean had not crossed my mind as well.  Perhaps when they drove off they all had a good laugh.  Maybe. But several things occur to me.  

    First of all, we can't paint everyone, including boys of a certain age, with the same brush.  It isn't healthy for us to stereotype or prejudge others.  Assuming others' motives is not helpful for anyone.  

    Secondly, once again I had a choice about how to see or frame this situation.  I could have chosen to be hurt by his "meanness."  I could have chosen to discount him as "just a kid being unkind because that's what boys of a certain age do when they are with their friends."  Or I could choose, as I did, to be bolstered and uplifted by the kind words of a stranger.  There is a wise 12-step saying, "It's none of my business what you think of me."  What is my business is how I am treated and how I choose to respond to the treatment that comes my way.  I choose to take kindness at face-value and to appreciate those moments when good is offered by strangers, whatever the thinking behind it might be.

    Finally, I was saddened by my youngest child's cynical view of the world.  I asked her, "So, are all your friends at school mean like that?"

    "Well, no," she said.

    "Then why would you assume that these kids were being mean?"

    "Well, my friends would not have said anything to a stranger."

    "Then that is their loss, isn't it?  If you have an opportunity for kindness, I would hope that you and your friends would take it, even if that moment of kindness is being offered to a stranger."

    I am troubled by this conversation.  Are we raising cynical children who expect unkindness, maybe especially from their peers?  Perhaps her expectation protects her when cruelty comes.  But also, sometimes people rise to the level of expectation.  And if we expect our teenage boys, in particular, to be cruel won't that expectation inevitably encourage them to be just that?  What if, instead, we expected them to be polite, respectful, to go the extra mile to be kind?  

    As I have often said, I believe we tend to project out onto others our own thoughts, feelings and behaviors.  So my conversation with Youngest continues.  I want her to take the opportunities to uplift all those around her, even strangers.  Perhaps if it were habitual in her own behavior, she would not be so cynical about expecting others to behave in the same way.  

    My youngest may be right and again, the boy in the car may have been having a laugh at my expense.  But I do not choose to be brought down by that.  Instead, I choose to take in the words, "You are beautiful" from a stranger and to pass them back, "So are you!"  It made my day brighter, regardless of my daughter's interpretation.  

Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Becoming more whole - only when we have to

          In the movie, The Family Man, the main character is given the opportunity to see what his life would be like if he had made different choices.  In his real life, Jack is CEO of a prominant company and Alan, who works under Jack, is timid, unsure, unable to make any decisions without Jack holding his hand.  In Jack's "glimpse" into a different life, Alan is the CEO.  As the CEO, Alan is a man of strength and of courage.  He stands up for what he needs and does not hesitate to make decisions or to fight for them.  When Jack eventually returns to his real life and meets up once again with the timid, unsure Alan, he makes the comment, "Somewhere inside of you there's a much more assertive person."

         In my own life, if I had not been put in a position where I was forced to be in charge of... well of everything, I, too, would not have stepped into that position.  I was comfortable being an associate pastor and later, a co-pastor, not wanting to make the hard decisions.  In my family, while it looked like I was the alpha, the big decisions, all of them, were made by my husband.  He decided when and where we should live, what schools our kids should attend, when we moved out of state and even what jobs we had.  He wasn't domineering. I just was more comfortable having someone else make those decisions.  I didn't trust my own voice, I didn't trust my ability to choose well.  But along with that beta position in my own life came a sense of inferiority, of incompetence, and frankly of deep insecurity.  Being forced into a position where I raised my kids alone, worked as the sole pastor of a congregation and the lone income provider for my family, being the only adult who had to make every decision for the family: while the transition was difficult, it also helped me to grow in my own strength, my own abilities, and ultimately, my own sense of wholeness, happiness and well-being. Additionally, I learned how to do things.  I learned how to mow the lawn, how to do small repairs in my own home, how to invest money.  Before, it had been simpler not to learn these abilities.  But I am grateful I now have them. While I never would have chosen what we lived through, the deep truth is that I would not be half the person I am today without having survived it, and thrived through it.

       I look around and I wonder what certain people could be if their lives forced them to step up.  More, I've been thinking about how we sometimes enable people to be lesser versions of themselves through our care for them.  When we make all the decisions, are we disempowering others to make their own choices?  When we take charge of certain aspects of another's life, are we disempowering them from being able to take charge of those aspects themselves?  When we stand up for one another, are we disempowering them from standing up for themselves?  

       No, this is not a political argument against aid.  I believe there are universal rights people have: the right to clean water, food, shelter, healthcare, education.  All people should have these, and there are  people who absolutely need help. You cannot teach a person to fish who is so hungry they can't hold the rod or net.  But aid would undoubtedly be more empowering if we were to also teach, and more, to help folk make the connections they need to get the work they often want.  

      While sometimes we are thrown headfirst into needing to take more control of our lives, it is easier if we are gradually empowered to grow.  With our children, they are given more responsibilities as they grow up.  If a person is not used to making decisions or doing things for themselves, easing into those behaviors is certainly better than being thrown headlong into the deep end.  Also, I believe we can support one another in ways that do not take away another's opportunity to make decisions, stand up for themself or learn a new skill.  But these take thought.

        There is a Murdock Mysteries episode where Murdock's wife was arguing with their boss about her right to do something.  She turned to Murdock expecting him to defend her, but he did not.  Afterwards she confronted him angrily that he had not stood up for her.  But his response was, "You did not need me to do that for you!  I knew that you were a strong enough woman that you did not need to be ‘rescued’ or ‘saved’ by the big powerful man.   If I had jumped in, the police chief never would have come to respect YOUR strength and your ability to speak for yourself as a full human being.” 

        I wonder how often we think we are rescuing or helping someone when in fact we are disempowering them from becoming the best, most whole people they could be.