We got away earlier this summer.
The road leading away from the island airport was well paved and passed by a stately resort with neat lawns and waving palms. As we drove further, the taxi driver began choosing his path carefully to avoid bumps and dips, and the homes set back from the roadside became simple and livable. After fifteen minutes, as we neared our destination, we saw a sign: Welcome to Paradise.
I smiled. The sign looked hand-painted and sat at the intersection of two humble roads where tin-roofed houses and empty beverage containers crowded its shoulders. But I knew what the writer meant—the small village, however modest, was in Antigua, West Indies, a kilometer from surf, white sand, and pleasure.
The Genesis story came to mind. God made light—life-giving, back-warming light. Then sky—with clouds never-the-same against azure gray; then earth meeting sea creating horizons pointy and flat; then vegetation like hibiscus, date palms, and aloe; then sun and moon for warm days and nights; then living creatures like laughing gulls, mongooses, and lizards; then amazing people. And God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. Paradise.
The resort where we stayed had a restaurant overlooking the bay—a Caribbean layout resembling a forest station lookout with three walls, some poles, and two Whitewood trees crawling skyward. A tradition at the restaurant is to leave one’s mark by writing your name on wooden planks and nailing them to poles, wall, or trees. Hundreds of signs crowd the view.
So we made one too: “Bill + Shelaine, 2017, ‘… and it was good’.”
So very good.
Welcome to Paradise.
“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” Genesis 1:31
Dear God, Thank you for all you made that continues to be very good. May we respect, enjoy, and steward the world around us and not take it for granted. May we marvel at the wonders of your hand, and your sustaining presence, in your creation.
[I write this when our beautiful province is ablaze with over 100 forest fires, and smoke has leached its way to where we live three hours away. May we be careful camping, and be wise with soaring temperatures and poor air quality.]
Need stocking stuffers?
Love to share relationship wisdom with someone?
In the spirit of Black Friday, Relating Redemptively kicks off an opportunity for winning a copy of The Relationship Project. Starts today, and draws held the next three weeks through December 16.
1. Post your story of virtuous relating in the 'comment' section of this post. Make it about self-control, humility, relational work, faithfulness, and/or wisdom.
2. Each week all contributors' names will be put in the draw, and one selected randomly.
3. Winners will be contacted at the end of each week (Fridays).
4. We will mail out hard-copies in time for Christmas.
Thanks for participating.
To my American friends and relatives, Happy Thanksgiving! In the spirit of this grand holiday, and Christmas around the corner, I offer this look at hospitality through the unlikely story of ... Zachhaeus.
Luke records part of the story this way: “When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly." (Luke 19: 5-6)
Have you ever considered that Zacchaeus gladly welcomed Jesus to his home? Given his occupation—a tax collector whom many despised—you might think he would have hid among the leaves of that sycamore tree. But he didn’t; he came down, escorted Jesus to his home, and threw a little party, and an unplanned one at that.
I wonder who else joined them. Probably not those who watched this happen; they were muttering, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” I can see them with arms crossed and faces scowling.
But something tells me Zacchaeus would have welcomed his enemies to his home that day. Consider his new heart when he says, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” His generous heart flowed in love for the poor, and his pocketbook with justice for mistreated clients.
What explains his change of heart? One clue is the reason he climbed the tree—“he wanted to see who Jesus was.” And who did he see? He saw someone worthy of calling “Lord.” Perhaps Jesus’ reputation preceded him, and Zacchaeus knew that with Jesus wine overflowed, blind saw, lame walked, and dead people revived. Jesus was a rock star, and the rich tax man had to catch a look. And now, with Jesus present in the flesh, Zacchaeus humbled himself, acknowledged his wrong-doing, and sought to make things right. So right was his heart as shown through his speech and actions that Jesus declared, "Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. for the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost." (vv. 9 & 10).
What will our response be to the present Christ this season? Will we open our homes to celebrate the Lord of the universe? Will we give away our wealth to help people in need? Doing so may put us outside our comfort zone, or require more effort than usual. But in the grand scheme it will indicate our relationship under God as one of his children eager to gather others into his community of grace.
Dear God, thank you for sending Jesus to show us a life worthy imitating. May I bow in awe of his glory and from that place open my heart to people. Show me whom I may invite to my home to celebrate the presence and love of Jesus. Amen.
These last several weeks have been hectic with preparations for our son’s wedding and the start-up of a new school year, but it’s good to be back.
The wedding was special for my wife and me as it was the first among our three sons. We were blessed with a warm August day (tucked between scorcher and cool days) for the outdoor wedding. I have never seen my son so happy nor his bride so beautiful. Their loving vows, hopeful hearts, and faithful commitment made me think of Paul’s love chapter in I Corinthians.
There he warns us that fine-sounding speech, ramped-up knowledge, and super-spirituality amount to nothing if we fumble on love.
That truth brings conviction to a professor like me at a Christian university: I’m paid to be articulate, know lots, and integrate faith into my curriculum. I wouldn’t want my students to grow thick of brain yet thin of heart. I hope I’m loving too.
Along these lines, the tale is told of Henry and Margaret who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. During the program the guests were allowed to ask questions of the couple to gain nuggets of marital wisdom. Someone stood up and asked, “Henry and Margaret, if you could go back and do anything differently in your married life, what would it be?”
The two looked at each other, and then Margaret answered, “Well…I would have Henry tell me he loved me a whole lot more.” Everyone got quiet and turned their eyes on Henry.
Henry stood up, adjusted his tie, and said, “Margaret, you’ve known I loved you, because the day we got married in 1966 I told you so, even twice if I recall. If I had ever changed my mind, I would have let you know!”
Sometimes knowledge falls short.
Have you told someone lately that you love them? It never gets old.
When we struggle to find personal humility, we can ride roughshod over others. Kendyl condescended on her husband as he struggled to finish his graduate education. She tells her story.
My husband Jim was facing the comprehensive exams for his PhD, and when the time came to take the exams, he didn’t take them—he put them off. He felt he wasn’t ready and didn’t know enough; I felt that he had procrastinated and hadn’t worked hard enough to prepare. I was incredibly judgmental of him, because I am a person to whom deadlines are sacred. I even became physically ill because I felt so alienated by what I perceived as Jim’s failure—I felt that it reflected on me, and I felt ashamed that he missed the deadline.
I feel that my failure to exercise humility in relationship with my husband caused damage to our relationship at the time, though I know he has since forgiven me. I was the one who “failed.” I deeply regret not being humble enough to encourage, support, and stand along side my husband during this stressful time in his life and in our marriage.
I define humility as recognizing the goodness in another person, not inflating one’s sense of self-worth by deflating another’s and not judging another person harshly by one’s own standards. Humility is egalitarian—it says that we are on the same level, and we can help each other out sacrificially. Humility allows God to work through me to help another.
The opposite of humility is pride. I define it as a self-centered, self-seeking vice that does not seek the good of the other but only the good of the self. Pride is hierarchical—it says that I am better than you, and my needs are the only ones that matter. Pride says that I am godlike in comparison to you, and I don’t need any help.
Kendyl’s story shares a common tale. We have expectations in relationships, and when friends fall short of our ideals, we have a decision to make. A knee jerk reaction is to judge and blame, however a more serving response requires us to listen, understand and support.
Kendyl's story is in Chapter 4 of The Relationship Project.
Get a glimpse of your humility. Take the quiz.
So we connect a lot through social media. I’m a digital immigrant and yet I sport a Facebook site, accounts with Twitter, LinkedIn, and Pinterest, a phone and of course Skype. That’s a small list compared to app-happy millennials who are digital natives.
Some critics praise social media for bringing us back together in the 2000's after television confined us to our living rooms from the 60's to the 90's. Now grandkids can chat with Oma up north cheaply and full-screen. Yet others point at the casual language of Likes, posts and comments and say we’ve lost the art of significant conversation, even if we call everyone a Friend.
My reading this week dug into that place where social media and relating meet, and I discovered a few myths that need debunking.
Myth 1: Using social media cheapens communication and leads to less satisfying relationships.
Actually, just the opposite. We know that technology doesn’t shape relationship quality, but that quality of relationships determines our use of social media. For example, people who are highly connected offline are highly connected online, but people who struggle in real-world relationships tend to use social media less. Also, even “thin” social media such as email and texting can draw us close if we say the right relational things and use emoticons well.
Myth 2: People are fake in their profiles and routinely lie to make themselves look good.
Part of this is right—we use social media to manage impressions people have of us. But except for a small percent of crooks, most people describe themselves in accurate terms on Facebook and even on dating sites. The ‘fake’ part is that we tend to post the happy, positive, beneficial aspects of our personality or accomplishments—which are true—but tend to avoid posting the negative. It’s like a big cocktail party—everyone’s putting their best foot forward. But we can’t get away with too much gloss, because some digital environments allow others to post comments and keep us in check. Also, knowing we might someday meet an online acquaintance offline keeps us honest.
Myth 3: The more Friends you have on Facebook, the more popular you seem to others.
Sorry, but the more Friends you have over 500, the more likely people will perceive you as needy, and their perceptions may be right. Self-esteem has been shown to predict the high and low end of how many Friends we keep online: people with lower esteem tend to compensate by Friending tons, or, conversely, shy away and Friend under 100 people. The sweet spot is the 150-300 range where most people fall who generally feel good about themselves.
Of course we all know people who don’t fit these trends, or who fit them for other reasons (like celebs attracting tons of Friends.)
Social media seem to be an extension of our emotions, identities and offline friendships. This prompts the idea that if we invest in good friends face-to-face, we can enjoy rich virtual connection too.
Source: Chambers, Deborah, Social Media and Personal Relationships: Online Intimacies and Networked Friendship (Palgrave-McMillan, 2013).
All four sat in silence waiting for their meals to arrive. One couple was to our right, the other to our left in a popular lunch spot in town.
Shelaine and I were debriefing an event of the day, and then I whispered, “No one nearby is speaking”. She nodded; she had noticed too.
Each couple was in their 60s; each seemingly married; each looking past their spouse to other patrons or out the window.
And then their food arrived.
More silence. This time with justified reason—it was time to chow down.
Meanwhile earlier that day we had learned that a saintly man at our church had passed away unexpectedly. While his health was not good—he suffered from Parkinson’s since 1993—his wife of fifty-four years had just visited him the day before and said he was in good spirits.
We attended a gathering to commemorate the deceased and support the family. After others had spoken, and hymns sung, the new widow stood and gave testimony of their life together. “There were good years, and there were difficult years, but overall, it was good.” Heads nodded in understanding as people likely recalled his twenty-three years of declining health and her faithful care during it all.
I was reminded of research that shows that couples married over forty years typically refer to lifetime commitment, loyalty, commitment to sexual fidelity, and commitment to spouse and marriage as reasons for their longevity. Three cheers for commitment and fidelity. I am sure the church couple were committed and faithful.
But there we sat, in the restaurant, with another picture of what long-term unions might look like—that grin-and-bear-it version. Perhaps these two couple stuck it out for the kids, or to protect their assets, or because they had no better options.
And then, after their table was cleared, the gentleman on our right reached his hands across the table, open-palmed. His wife smiled and said, “What?” He smiled back, and soon she reached up and put her hands in his.
Speaking of long-term relationships, have you seen this photo?
Book Summary: Relational Masks: Removing the Barriers That Keep Us Apart (Russell Willingham, IVP Books, 2004)
Russell Willingham serves as executive director of New Creation Ministries, Fresno, California, an organization dedicated to helping people heal from sexual addictions and relational brokenness. Based on decades of individual and group counselling experiences Willingham provides an insightful proposal of how the wounds from our youth show up as ‘masks’ in Christian circles.
He builds his typology around seven hurtful beliefs we often carry into adulthood:
1. God can’t be trusted.
2. The Bible doesn’t apply to me.
3. I don’t need other people.
4. Intimate relationships bring only pain.
5. Romance or sex will meet my deepest needs.
6. I must do everything perfectly or I am worthless.
7. If I am honest I will be abandoned.
Willingham thinks these twisted beliefs, in various combinations, are the root of relational masks. Those masks include:
1. The Avoider: because of so much hurt the avoider believes it best to check out of life. The avoider doesn't address problems, avoids people, and procrastinates from getting at anything important. Believes they can’t help the way they are.
2. The Deflector: ignores deep pain by becoming a jokester who keeps conversations superficial, stays busy with work or children, and avoids talking about their emotions. Prone to say “Sure, I have my issues, but what about him?”
3. The Self-Blamer: sees childhood wounds as deserved because of their own incompetence or sin and carries heavy guilt and self-condemnation. Believes God is the critical parent who is mad, disappointed or disgusted with them.
4. The Savior: succumbs to “idolatry of serving” through workaholic activity for others and the church. Prone to take on too much responsibility ‘saving’ needy others, boasting of ‘service’ on the surface yet prone to bitterness down deep.
5. The Aggressor: hides deep hurt through high activity, controlling others, and dogmatic expression of their ideas. Likely to think building a successful church program is more important than worshiping or knowing God intimately.
6. The Spiritualizer: baptizes everything in Christian terms, holds “right beliefs”, and has strong us-and-them ideas about who makes up God’s kingdom. Thinks human problems are solved by more prayer and Bible study, confession of sin, and a closer walk with Jesus. Knows a lot of information, but is slow to share personal problems with others.
The author concludes with two chapters: The Secret to Life with God and The Secret to Life with Others to underscore God’s primary work among us right now is to restore us to intimate, trusting, loving relationship with himself, and among His people. In doing so he shows ways the avoider, deflector, self-blamer, savior, aggressor, and spiritualizer may know God’s sufficiency, and genuine healing through the church community.
For readers who are acquainted with the ideas of attachment and wounds, you will find Russell Willingham’s Relational Masks a welcomed Christian perspective to the conversation.
Available through IVP Books.
Why do I favor windows for a site dedicated to close relationships?
If I went with people pics I would be tempted to use straight-teethed, model-types found in iStock. Life’s not like that.
Windows show character. The ones on this site are simple, functional, worn, and in need of some putty and paint. They are unlike cathedral windows, ship portholes, and those double-layered barriers you speak through to officials at airports. When people interact with us they experience what we’re made of. Will they come to know us as pretty yet fragile, strong yet small, or maybe impenetrably closed off?
Windows come singularly, in pairs, in groups, and sometimes in waffle-iron rows and columns. Their numbers make statements from “I’m doing well and fine all by myself” to “I feel like I’m one-in-a-thousand and easily replaceable.” I’ve chosen a two-some image to represent the partnerships we knit together with friends, colleagues, spouses and children—social bonds that give us meaning in the larger edifice of our lives. Despite Facebook promoting otherwise, we need and manage well only four to five meaningful ties, and usually one at a time.
Windows provide a vision of life for people inside the building as to the world on the outside. When windows face north we see less sun, more darkness, and shadows stretching east and west. Windows that become opaque from dust or moisture may hide what’s outside for ill or for good. People from or in hurtful relationships struggle to see the world in positive terms, while others in supportive and mutual ties have reason for hope and peace. Both offer insight to the human condition.
Windows also show a creator’s craftsmanship—the effort, skill, and creativity required to assemble glass and frame into something beautiful and functional. For the kid in her tree house with hammer and nails, a piece of Plexiglas may be all that protects against wind and rain. It’s not quite the Pantheon’s oculus or Bernini’s dove window at St. Peter’s, but even simple windows can be artful and practical when we craft them with care. My conviction is that people and relationships flourish when approach them with effort, skill, and creativity.
When I was young I read The Adventures of Silly Billy, a story of a boy whose parents thought him not serious so he set out to find others truly silly. He came across people racing in and out of a windowless house with large flat metal pans. “Why?” asked Silly Billy. “To bring in the light! But it’s not working!” lamented one man. Billy sat them down, explained how windows worked, and got everyone renovating. Soon the house brimmed with brightness.
How are your windows?
Sheldon and Leonard play bows and arrows on a Nintendo Wii. Sheldon comments that his father taught him archery when he was a boy, and that doing so brings back the smell of cheap bourbon. In another episode Sheldon explains to Leonard that his parents took very different paths when their marriage began to disintegrate: his mom Mary took to religion while his dad George chased a ‘bottle-blonde bartender.’
George Cooper Sr., Sheldon’s father, dies before TTBT begins, but one thing we know about him is he drank a lot. He had “driving whiskey” in his truck that Sheldon’s brother nipped periodically. He offered Sheldon beer at his high school grad but Sheldon was just eleven and his mother intervened. George’s temper showed up against Mary by skeet shooting her vintage Franklin Mint collectible plates, and rifling the TV when his Dallas Cowboys lost to the Miami Dolphins on Thanksgiving Day 1993. As to his parenting, Sheldon concluded that after his sister Missy gave their father a "World's Greatest Dad" mug George “coasted until the day he died.”
While we might explain Sheldon’s anti-social behavior and fear of intimacy as a personality disorder, an equally valid perspective is understanding him as an adult child of an alcoholic (ACOA). And while good science tells us that such kids don’t exhibit a neat little check-list of symptoms, the ones that do crop up look a bit like Sheldon Cooper.
In families where spirits play a central coping role, the relational webs that result resemble spider webs in outer space—stable yet disorderly. They are stable in that partners and children develop rules to maintain balance even if the resulting equilibrium enables the drinker to drink or helps the family hide the problem from outsiders.
Children who arrive home to a parent passed out on the couch, or one suddenly violent over spilled milk learn to watch themselves, to tread lightly, to get away and isolate. They experience conflicting affections because the very person they want to run to for comfort is the same who inflicted the discomfort.
We are not surprised therefore that adult children of alcoholic families tend to report greater conflict, less family cohesion, and less parental care than non-alcoholic families. These kids also rely more on escape and avoidance to cope, and they take this flight reaction into their adult lives.
For example, when Sheldon gets fired at Cal Tech his mother swoops in from Texas (anything for her “little Shelly”) to find him now three weeks stowed up in the apartment weaving a sarape. Leonard has tried in vain to get Sheldon to apologize to Dr. Gablehauser for doing what got him fired. Mrs. Cooper tries to reason with Sheldon.
Mrs Cooper: Sweetheart, your little friend is concerned about you.
Sheldon: Yes, well I’m not a child, I’m a grown man capable of living my life as I see fit. And I certainly don’t need someone telling on me to my mother. [He begins to leave.]
Leonard: Where are you going?
Sheldon: To my room, and no one’s allowed in.
Mary may have made George’s drinking worse for Sheldon through triangulation—by relying on Sheldon, rather than her husband, for emotional support. This pattern forces children to grow up quickly and become in tune to the uncertain behavior of their inebriated parent, and to the emotional needs of their sober one. The sober parent might work extra hard to shore up the slack only to find efforts fruitless which can lead to learned helplessness and depression. Thus kids lose both parents to the dance of the bottle and get doubly ignored.
This wound of neglect—by one or both parents—shows up later in ACOAs adult relationships. Why invest in friendship and romance if they only lead to pain?
Not surprisingly adult children of alcoholics have difficulty developing relational intimacy, trusting and opening up to others, and functioning sexually. They remain hyper-vigilant expecting the shoe to drop in close relationships. And male ACOAs turn independent and autonomous. Gosh. Sounds like Sheldon.
The good news for Dr. Cooper is that he lacks other issues common to ACOAs. He drinks very little and then only under special circumstances. His girlfriend Amy is not a problem drinker even though about half of ACOAs wind up with alcoholic mates. Sheldon is not depressed regularly, or aggressive, or a high-risk taker—all common among ACOAs generally, but not in every case.
If we had to account for how well Sheldon functions despite his father’s addiction, it may be due to his mom. True, she wished to put ground up glass in her husband’s meatloaf, and successfully put hamster poop in his tobacco when he was stoned. And she referred to George as Sheldon’s “dumb-ass daddy” in front of Sheldon and the gang, and over-fed George to an obesity-related death. But Mary Cooper relied on her God to get her through it, and even if deemed a crutch, it was a good one. Respected clinical psychologists promote the idea that personalizing a faith, and engaging its community of followers, provides a lens to interpret afresh dire situations, and find hope with like-hearted people.
We also know that kids in alcoholic families can develop emotionally as long as family and friends provide support, empathy, and meaningful relationships amidst the challenges. Perhaps that explains why Sheldon continues to mature in emotional and relational aptitude: he’s got relatively healthy friends and a doting mom.
Sheldon’s Take: Adult children of alcoholic parents exhibit psychological tendencies toward anti-social behavior, uncontrolled behavior, depression, anxiety disorders, interpersonal anxiety, distress and maladjustment. ACOAs display psychosocial difficulty in various forms but not uniformly in areas such as low esteem, interpersonal distancing and boundary-keeping, marital conflict, problematic parenting, and dyadic adjustment. Results however are not categorical as ACOA status is mediated by degrees of family conflict, cohesion, care, and escape/avoidance coping in predicting adjustment.
The Penny Drops: Growing up in an alcoholic family may result in a host of personal and social issues that make relating in close relationships a challenge, but it doesn’t have to. Understanding yourself and getting along with others is possible if you got care and connection with family or friends amidst the chaos. And if you didn’t, a trained counselor can help you on your journey to healing today.
Dayton, Tian. Heartwounds: The Impact of Unresolved Trauma and Grief on Relationships. Deerfield Beach, Fla: HCI, 1997. Dayton, Tian. The ACoA Trauma Syndrome: The Impact of Childhood Pain on Adult Relationships. Deerfield Beach, Fla: HCI, 2012. eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed August 6, 2015). Dumont, Karin McPeak. "God's Shield: The Relationship between God Attachment, Relationship Satisfaction, and Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACOA) Status in a Sample of Evangelical Graduate Counseling Students." Doctoral Dissertations and Projects (2009): 288. Stratton, Patricia David. "The factors that moderate and mediate outcome in children of alcoholics." Dissertation Abstracts International, 1998. PsycINFO, EBSCOhost (accessed August 6, 2015).
Bill Strom, Author
I am a believer by faith, a professor by vocation, a husband by choice, a father by blessing, and a friend by hanging out. Along the way I have learned about close relating through my experiences, biblical models, and social science research. Hopefully my ideas and encouragement show up here in ways meaningful to you.