Tuesday, October 27, 2015

On Accidental Saints and Made For Goodness - Week 1

I can't always make it to church, and that means missing book group. So I'm participating via blog, at least on the weeks I can't make it.

Overall Impressions

The choice to read these two books together was brilliant. They echo each other using different voices for much the same message, and it's a good and powerful message. So far, I'd say the message is, "You are worthy - it'll be okay."

Nadia Bolz-Weber's voice in Accidental Saints - Finding God in All the Wrong People is humorous, at times irreverent. She uses swear words! She sounds like someone I'd like to have coffee with. It's refreshing to "hear" someone speak on Godly matters without the lofty speech that often makes books on the subject inaccessible to the average Joe.

Desmond Tutu's voice in Made for Goodness and Why This Makes All the Difference is grandfatherly. Kind, approachable, instructive. His text is a little denser than Nadia's, which is why I think it's a good thing that we typically read three chapters of her book to two of his. He has a much different outlook than Nadia (for some obvious reasons), but still manages to relate to the American experience.

What Spoke to Me

One of the best quotes from Accidental Saints is: "There is nothing we have done that God cannot redeem." It's really hard to internalize this one. Tutu helps a bit: "God already loves us perfectly; God cannot love us one iota more. Equally, there is nothing we can do that will make God love us one iota less." This, too, is difficult to internalize, but remembering God's love is perfect is helpful.

The next quote from Accidental Saints captures the idea that we are all complicated. I think this speaks to the idea that we're all marred by sin in some way, but also reflects the idea that we're all saints, too: "On All Saints' Sunday, I am faced with sticky ambiguities around saints who were bad and sinners who were good." This pairs nicely with one from Made for Goodness, which reminds us that even though we are all complicated, we're also all good: "There is not a single person that God gives up on, because God knows that we are made to be like God, who is goodness itself."

Nadia talks about her struggles with racism, and that resonated with me. She says that for all her anti-racism talk and liberal leanings, she can't get around the fact that she reacts differently to (for example) young black men she sees on the street. She also references white privilege and her empty outrage at the inherent racism in our society. She says she feels that if she could just "show the right level of outrage, it'll make up for the fact that every single day of my life I have benefited from the very same system that acquitted George Zimmerman." Tutu has a slightly different take on it: "If wrong was the norm, it wouldn't be news... Murder and mayhem are not the norm. The norm is goodness." This brought me hope. It's easy to feel discouraged watching the news. Whether it's local stories or international news, there are atrocities everywhere, and there's so much of it I can't do a thing about. I like this reminder that while it may seem that stuff is everywhere, there's also goodness everywhere. It's almost like he's speaking to her outrage, here.

Desmond Tutu devotes a lot of time to explaining that our efforts to "be good" get in the way of our recognition that we "are good." One of the things he says is, "Attached to that notion of "being good" are all the "oughts" and "shoulds" that we think will win us... God's love and divine favor." I've been in therapy a few times. One of the more recent was because of the stress I was facing with accepting a decision that meant our family was geographically spread out, and I was (temporarily) a single mom. I had stopped sleeping. I had almost stopped eating. I was consumed by anger and stress. The therapist worked with me using cognitive behavioral therapy - changing your thinking in order to better control your thinking. He talked about "musterbating" - allowing too many toxic thoughts into your head. "It must be fair" (no, it isn't always fair), "I must do the dishes" (no, you don't have to do the dishes, but maybe there's a way to remind yourself that you want to), "I must be understood" (nope, that doesn't always happen, either). Focusing on that stuff will drive you certifiably crazy. Tutu also said, "We cannot choose how we feel. We can choose what we do, how we act." I'm not sure I agree with this. I think you can make choices about how you feel. I think my therapy did just that. I think when we are angry, that's as much a choice we make as when we decide to move forward from a set-back.

One of the first things I highlighted from Accidental Saints was a quote about the saints in our lives: "Saint Paul describes the saints as "a great cloud of witnesses," so when they have passed, we still hold them up, hoping perhaps that their virtues... might become our own virtue, our own strength." I had never considered our (Episcopal) view of the saints in this light, but I like the idea. It was an "aha!" moment.

There's this, on leadership, from Accidental Saints: "I'm a leader, but only by saying, 'Oh, screw it. I'll go first.'" I wonder how much of corporate leadership is this "Fine - I'll go first" kind of attitude and how much is "We (meaning you) need to go this way." Is one way better in the corporate world? More effective? Is there room for high-level corporate leaders to "go first"? I'd like to say that going first is the best leadership... But honestly, I'm not sure the guys at the top can do that. Not in any "corporate vision" kind of way. Maybe they can sometimes. I don't know.

The Discussion Questions

1. I rarely think of myself as a saint. Mostly, I realize how broken I am - I'm so mean, sometimes. Often, even. I've said before that if my mom, my aunt, and my husband are praying for you, you're going to be okay. While each of these people is merely human - they each have their flaws - I also know that they can be my strongest supporters. I've always felt their spiritual health was really high, even when they were in crisis or questioning their faith.

2. I think I'm often in places where I say the wrong thing, or I react the wrong way. I think loving (in a Christian kind of way) the people around you helps you empathize with them more, and might help you not say the wrong thing, but I think getting it right 100% of the time is impossible for humans. I think Desmond Tutu answers this better, by encouraging us to not try to say the right thing or do the right thing, but to remember that we are good, even when we're not.

3. Figuring out just what crap I've had exchanged for Jesus's blessedness is pretty hard. I know I've got a lot of crap. Figuring out which has been more or less directly exchanged is a tall order. I suppose, I could say that there have been a few times when I said exactly the wrong thing to someone... And those people chose to keep talking to me, to be my friends, to forgive me. I guess that's my crap for His blessedness.