Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Couple's Therapy

Do ordinary discussions become arguments?

Do you feel lonely even when you are with your spouse or partner?

Are you or your partner struggling to overcome an affair?

Couples In Step Counseling can help.

This is, of course, my wife Irene Oudyk-Suk's Couples Therapy practice in Toronto. Irene has three kinds of opportunities that you can take advantage of. She offers regular therapy on a weekly or biweekly basis.

Irene has also pioneered Intensive Therapy weekends. In this mode, you and our partner will receive 18 hours of therapy over three days. Clients for this service come from all over North America. Irene has spoken to her professional association's international conference about pioneering this approach and is well-recognized for leading these sessions. She is aligned with Emotionally Focussed Therapy as developed by Sue Johnson (check out Sue's book, too, "Hold Me Tight.")

Twice a year Irene also offers fun and engaging weekend marriage retreats for people looking for more insight into their relationship.

Check out Irene's website at

And, share this note on your webpages and Facebook! Having moved from Mississauga to Toronto, Couples In Step could use the links to keep her high page rank for web searches!

Monday, March 25, 2013

When "The Faith" Won't Have Our Children

Normally, we expect our children both to do as they’re told and to think as we think—we parents, that is. But it doesn’t always work that way.

For example, Republican Senator Rob Portman, from Ohio, recently changed his mind about gay rights on account of his son. Portman has a strong record of voting against gay rights. But two years ago his son Will came out as gay. So this month Portman announced that he has changed his mind. He now favors same-sex marriage.

Similarly, in Toronto—well, until he was recently fired—another father in the same boat was Brian Burke, former GM of the Maple Leafs. Burke always played the gruff, dour, tough-talking macho role in his hockey career. But when his son Brendan came out as gay Burke immediately adopted a very public role in the fight against homophobia.

However, the spiritual and moral influence of children isn’t limited to the issue of gay rights. In my case, my children helped me change my mind about basic faith issues.

My two boys are crazy about social justice. They both work on behalf of the marginalized—refugees, those who have been attacked on account of xenophobia, victims of racism, and the poor. They have the idealism and energy of youth as they pursue political and social goals for the good of humanity.

But both have stopped going to church, too. At least, they don’t go very often! It isn’t that they’re against church or Christians. They have deep respect for many Christians. Both have been deeply influenced by their years in church and Christian ideals. But they see both sides of the faith coin—the idealism and the hypocrisy, the achievements and the failures. And so, overall, it doesn’t appear to them that you can count on the church, or on Christians, or on the Christian God to get the heavy social-justice lifting this world needs now, done.

Plus—this is my view, and my boys might differ with me on this—the whole Christian story lacks plausibility for them. Talk about God becoming human, immaculate conceptions, dying and rising, as well as insisting that you have to believe the right things about these stories—well, it doesn’t compute for them. Too much fairytale and not enough plausibility or coherence.

In my previous faith-community, my boys’ perspectives would have been seen as a reason for thinking that they might be out of favor with God and headed for some sort of eternal calamity. And their leaving the church would have been perceived as a shadow over my own work.

But I can’t agree with any of that—and much more—any more. Now, looking back, I see that my boys have helped me change my mind, too. They have given me a deeper and I think truer appreciation for the fairytale-like qualities of scripture, and for how Christians can’t agree about the meaning of much in scripture.

Most importantly, I love my boys and their dreams. This makes me wonder about God’s love. Surely, if God is a Father—or a divine Mother—God could not love my boys less than me! God is love, after all. And if God was going to make his love dependent on our getting ancient history, or interpretations of scripture, or doctrines right then God would surely have written a clearer explanation of that sort of stuff than what we find in the Bible.

Well, just for starters (and keeping in mind the eternal calamity that some Evangelicals are so concerned with) there is the matter of who is saved and why. Most Christians think people are saved by grace. But according to Matthew 25 the sheep and goats of the world are separated not on the basis of grace, or doctrine, or faith, but on the basis of works. Those who receive eternal rewards are those who feed the poor, give water to the thirsty, and entertain strangers. It is a passage that ought to make most Christians who have defined themselves as “saved,” and who sit in their comfortable pews week after week, squirm.

The long and short of it, though, is that whatever the theological particulars, my children’s perspectives on faith taught me much, even though I had the PhD. Their experience and questions, their searching and convictions, and their hypocrisy barometer all led me to revisit my own spiritual roots. And so I changed my mind. I left my old faith community and found a new one that better fit my new, evolving convictions.

And so I have learned that my love for my boys should not be directed just outwardly, at them. No, my love for my children also needs to be open to their insight and wisdom. Otherwise I might not ever change my mind or heart.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Who Will Go To Bree?

Some time after the destruction of the one ring—which you can read about in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings—Middle Earth’s new king, Aragorn, who had led the forces of good against the evil Lord Sauron, made it known that he wanted to visit The Hobbits of The Shire. So Sam Gamgee, mayor of Hobbiton, the largest village in The Shire, proclaimed a great feast. There would be fireworks. There would be pie eating contests. There would be excellent pipe weed on the house. Best of all, though, there would be plenty of food: tables full of meat and potatoes, red wine and bread, as much as any hobbit could eat or drink—which was to say, quite a bit. All because King Aragorn and his Hobbit friends had won a great victory.

Anyway, Mayor Sam Gamgee—a hobbit, who had with his dear friend Frodo, played a large role in the victory over evil Sauron himself, though that is another story for another time—Sam Gamgee proclaimed a great feast. There was only one problem. King Aragorn wanted Shire hobbits to invite humans from the village of Bree to join them.

Now, humans and hobbits had together, with the help of assorted elves, dwarves, and wizards, worked together to defeat the evil, odorous, Mordorous Sauron. So, said King Aragorn, hobbits and humans should nevermore live in suspicion of each other, as they did in the dark days of the War of the Ring. No, from here on in, said Aragorn, hobbits and humans would comfort each other; they would speak tenderly in each other’s villages and proclaim that their hard service had been completed and that the dark cloud of Sauron had been lifted. Henceforth humans and hobbits would deal with each other justly and walk humbly together in obedience to King Aragorn.

So Sam Gamgee proclaimed the feast. Everyone in the Shire was to come. Even the humans who live in Bree. The problem was that no hobbit in all the Shired dared be an ambassador to Bree.

Go to Bree? No way! Bree wasn’t even in the Shire! Bree was over the Brandywine River, beyond the East Farthing and Buckland, way on the other side of the High Hay Hedge, beyond the old forest—in the world maybe, but certainly not part of their Hobbiton world.

You see, most hobbits were born cowards—Sam and Frodo, Merry and Pippin being the notable exceptions who proved the rule. When it came to adventure they wanted to be left alone to read Left Behind, which was about as much anxiety as they could take. Hobbits liked nothing better than cocooning in their hobbit holes. So in all the Shire, even though the Hobbits feared King Aragorn, not one was found to take to the hiways and byways to make an appeal on Aragorn’s behalf—“come to the feast, you humans of Bree, and be reconciled to hobbits.”

Not one. After all, going to Bree meant living large. Going to Bree meant walking on water—or at least over it, on a bridge and out of the Shire. Going to Bree as an ambassador for King Aragorn means taking a—however miniscule—risk. So who was Mayor Sam Gamgee to send to Bree? Send you, perhaps, to Bree? Could you be an ambassador for Aragorn?

I mean, how many people do you know that are “Mister” or “Madame Ambassador?” In all of our Shire, Canada, only about two hundred people are so honored. Being an ambassador is a big deal. In fact, if I think about it, I personally know one recently retired American congressman, and two Ontario MPPs. I’ve sat down for a cup of coffee with Amway’s Richard DeVos once, and he told me about how, hours before he met with me he had tea at the White House with George Bush and his mother Barbara. I even know three people who shook hands with pope John Paul. So, I know some big shots—but I’ve never met a real flesh and blood ambassador!

But let me tell you something. Being an ambassador for Steven Harper--as special as that might be (or not)--is nothing compared to being an ambassador of the Lord of heaven’s star-fields and earth’s ocean depths. Being an ambassador for King Aragorn is nothing compared to being an ambassador on behalf of the King of glory, the LORD strong and mighty, the LORD who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases.

Now, I need to stop here for a moment before my excitement carries me away. I understand that the way I just described God, using Biblical language and allusions, is a bit much for some of us. We recognize that such language about God is actually metaphorical, and that whoever and whatever God really is, God isn’t a white-haired King sitting on a throne.

Still, close to the heart of the gospel is this idea that whoever, exactly, God is, what God hopes and dreams for us is that we will make this world a garden of shalom, a place of love and compassion, justice and mercy that would make Jesus, our model for being a divine ambassador, proud.

We are God’s ambassadors of reconciliation, says Paul in 2 Corinthians 5. In fact, being ambassadors from God to all the Shires of this world is exactly what Christians do for Jesus. And like all ambassadors, you are an ambassador whatever you do, wherever you go. It isn’t just a job, you see—it is your profession, it is what you do with your whole lives—it is your reason for being.

Whether you’re in your hobbit hole or at church; whether you are taking a break at work or sitting down for a cold one at the nineteenth hole with some golf buddies; whether you are making an big energy purchase for your industrial conglomerate or just recycling CD batteries—in each case, you are an ambassador of the exact kind of reconciliation that Jesus was an ambassador for. As an ambassador, you are someone who isn’t hobbled by an earthly point of view, says Paul, but someone who is a new creation, who has put hobbit cowardice and fear behind him or her, someone who is ready and eager to live large even when it is scary to do so.

Of course, ambassadors need certain skills. For example, and perhaps most importantly, ambassadors need a words, like Moses needed Aaron and like Gimli the dwarf needed his axe.

It is through listening to the Word, after all, that we come to know Jesus and love his way, even though we have not personally seen his wounds. It is through the Word that the Spirit grabs our heart and bends our wills, even though we never felt the flames of fire on our heads.

And then with the Word lit within us, we can speak our own words after wherever we find ourselves. Using words we can urge our government to replace its CF18s with pruning hooks, and urge terrorists to trade their bombs for watering cans. It is through words that we can warn the world, as the White Wizard Isaiah did, long ago, that it is folly to put our trust in horses and chariots, and—like most Hobbits, to spend our time chasing after worldly goods and comforts rather than justice and peace for our neighbor. Only words—confirmed by our actions and lifestyles--can convince our neighbors that there is an ironclad law of God written into the very structure of Middle Earth—and that is that grace wins.

This is the meaning of life—to let the Word live in us so that we live out the word, so that the love we speak about isn’t just a boast, but an in out of the cold reality.

But back in the Shire and the rest of my story about the visit of King Aragorn. As I said, no hobbit could be found who would go to Bree as King Aragorn’s ambassador of good tidings. So finally, in desperation, Sam Gamgee asked the only hobbit he could even imagine might be willing to go. Sam asked a little hobbit woman, Annie Agon to go. After all, she had more than a little Brandybuck blood in her.

And Sam Gamgee said, “Annie, I know other people think you’re a fool, being a swimmer and a dieter and nonsmoker. I know that people think lowly of you and because you’re brave enough to test the Brandywine River. Hobbits tell me that you’ve even been known to invite visiting rangers to your hobbit hole for tea and crumpets. You’ve spoken up for Tooks who have been wronged and laughed at Grima Wormtongue by giving him your larder when all he wanted was the coat off your back.

So, Sam Gamgee said, Annie Agon, I know you ain’t much—but you’re just the one to be an ambassador to Bree and invite those humans in; invite them to our great feast. Being Aragorn’s ambassador doesn’t mean that you are going to change Shire history all by yourself or make trolls and ogres shake in fear. But you have the Aragorn’s word! You have good news! Go!

And then what was Annie Agon to do? Rise to the occasion, deliver the good news, and have an adventure? Or for that matter, what are we to do? Mind our own business? Go along with the rest of the Hobbits to get along? Or make our lives’ work living and speaking the good news that evil has been defeated and we can love?

What shall we do? The people of Bree are waiting.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Do No Random Acts of Kindness

We’ve all seen the bumper sticker that reads, "Practice Random Acts of Kindness." I like that. It sounds counter-cultural. After all, unexpected kindness, especially from strangers, is rare. Kindness isn't very macho and it takes time and effort. Worldly-wise people believe in survival of the fittest, not survival of the kindest.

But random acts of kindness also impress me because I know what it is like to receive kindness from others. For example, an old friend recently sent me an unexpected letter. He named some things that had gone wrong between us. He didn't blame me, even though I was not entirely innocent. He affirmed what was good in me and wished me the best. A letter seems a small thing, but it lifted my spirits.

Over the years, unexpected acts of kindness have startled me in a nice way. When I was in seminary, Irene and I sometimes received huge baskets of fruit and vegetables from people who just liked to share. Come to think of it, we've received baskets like this as recently as this Fall! Fellow church members and friends have, over the years, loaned Irene and I their tent-trailers, vans, and lawn mowers. Once, at 6 am, a group of more than twenty friends parked themselves under our bedroom window to waken us with song. We thought we had died and gone to heaven, but it was wonderful.

Churches especially need acts of kindness. Congregational life is rife with temptations to sharp disagreements. Maybe the sanctuary needs painting. “Maybe not,” say others. Maybe we should sing more contemporary songs say some. “Don’t think so,” say others. Maybe we should let nonmembers join us at the communion table, say some. “Definitely not!” say others. Christians too often speak and act as if they are falling out of love with each other.

Some people will object. They say that too much talk about kindness is moralistic and simplistic. They will say the Bible is about larger themes like creation, fall and redemption. What matters is when, exactly, the tribulation (if there is one) fits in compared to Jesus’ return (if, indeed, he’s coming back).

But the truth is, whatever doctrines we think we can derive from scripture, morality in general and kindness in particular are an important part of the gospel. Hosea says the purpose of life is to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God,” (Micah 6:8). Paul says, “Love is patient, love is kind” (1 Cor. 13:4). And, far from being a peripheral consideration, the Bible is full of stories about kindness. From God's faithfulness for unfaithful Israel to Ruth's kindnesses to her mother-in-law, from Jesus' miracles for the poor and marginalized to the early church's taking up a collection for Jerusalem the Bible doesn't skimp on stories about kindness.

Kindness is love dressed down in work overalls. Kindness is love without romance or reason other than that it is your neighbor before you, and few of us can afford to be extravagant all the time--so we are are kind, instead.

All of which actually suggests that the bumper sticker that says, "Practice random acts of kindness" comes close to the truth, but in the end misses the point. Don't practice merely random acts of kindness. Practice kindness all the time, without exception.

So this Lent, give up randomness. Practice kindness when you get up in the morning, when you bump into strangers during the day, and for your next-door neighbors in the evening. Be kind. Always.