A Lot of Words

by Becky De Oliveira

Shutterfly reminded me yesterday that this past week, 10 years ago, I was on spring break with my children and parents in Kentucky, at Mammoth Cave National Park and Dinosaur World. My kids were ten and six. My parents couldn’t join us for the cave tour since my mother has Parkinson’s disease and would have been unable to manage the rough terrain, tight spaces, and stairs. Later, when we met up with them to stroll around the surface of the park, my six-year-old began enthusiastically explaining to Grandpa everything we had seen and done. When we passed the entrance to the cave tour, where the operator had spent perhaps 20 minutes orienting us to the realities and rules of the experience (he was particularly concerned that we understand just how tight the section called “Fat Man’s Misery” really was so we wouldn’t freak out underground), my son said. “And Grandpa, this is where a man said a lot of words.”

That boy is now 16, and his enduring ability to distill almost anything he sees to its basic and most essential quality occasionally astonishes me. Watching a reality TV show about couples, he will say something like, “This relationship is 99 percent her and only one percent him.” Since we’ve all been in a de facto shelter-in-place for the past week here in Colorado—going out only to take walks and make the occasional dart to the grocery store, or, on Monday, to McDonald’s for St. Patrick’s Day shamrock shakes obtained through the drive-thru—he has had more opportunity than usual to share his insights. “Dad is more religious than you are,” he said.

“How do you figure?” I asked, resisting the urge to demand an operationalized definition of the construct religious. I don’t disagree with my son; my husband is more religious than I am. But I’m not sure why. And I really wanted to know how the difference between us appears to a 16-year-old who has spent his entire life watching us, quietly amassing data.

“Dad reads only religious books,” he offered as his first piece of evidence. “You read things like Fifty Shades of Grey.” (For the record, I have never read a single word of the Fifty Shades franchise. He is thinking of Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, a book I embarrassed him by bringing to school when I substitute-taught his seventh-grade class, thinking I could read it during lunch and gym class, my free periods. I assumed the kids would associate the name with the county in England. This was a grave misjudgment on my part.) He went on to explain that Dad also prays more often than I do, that he encourages prayer as a solution to problems, something I never do, and that he thinks and talks about religion all the time. “If I have a problem,” my son said, “you offer a solution. Dad tells me to pray.”

On the one hand, being the person that I am, I found this assessment quite flattering. I am a rational being—one who offers solutions rather than magical thinking. But in the midst of the crisis in which we find ourselves, I’m not, to be honest, finding solace in much of anything. People are saying a lot of words. Some of them are what I would describe as religious platitudes. (“Let go and let God.” “He’s got the whole world in His hands.”) Others are based on data or reason or common sense or any of a thousand other epistemological models, and they pretty much add up to…a lot of words. I’m adding to those words right here, on this page, as I type. Words are the only thing I know how to do, the only skill I have, and here, right now, they begin to fail me.

We are facing the kind of uncertainty none of us ever expected. I have friends who have lost jobs, lost their salaries for the foreseeable future. Schools and universities closed. If we’re lucky, we are working from home—and wondering how long that will last. Worrying about how many will get sick, about what happens if food runs out. Most of us have lost investments. Some have to put off retirement, like what happened in 2008. One of my clients told me this week he lost just under a million dollars, but he was pretty sanguine about it. He has lost more than money in his life—his wife died suddenly nearly 20 years ago when his daughters were teenagers. “Don’t worry, Becky,” he said. “We are people of faith and we have to believe that God has us, through everything that happens.”

Well, no. We don’t have to believe that. Or anything. We can be skeptical, can let our thoughts go to dark places, thinking of all the people who have had faith that went unrewarded. Anne Frank and her family. The Tutsis in Rwanda. Everyone you’ve ever known who died of cancer. But maybe this is a good time to experiment more with faith—not just words but faith. That feeling of peace that can suddenly wash over you, unbidden, that makes you quite certain that no matter how cliché it might sound, you really do believe that God has us, through everything that happens.

 

Becky De Oliveira is a doctoral student in research methods working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.

2020-03-22T14:34:56-07:00March 23rd, 2020|Living God's Love|

Some Thoughts on Toilet Paper

by Becky De Oliveira

Who doesn’t have thoughts on toilet paper these days? I grew up hiking with my dad, and he always said, “Toilet paper is mountain currency.” Who knew it would someday be currency off the mountain as well? The United States—along with much of the rest of the world—seems neatly divided into two camps: those who hoard toilet paper and those who make snarky remarks about those who hoard toilet paper. I have staked my claim firmly in the latter camp but mostly with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. I’m not yet particularly angry about the toilet paper hoarding. People want to feel a sense of safety and control. As a former anorexic, I can’t hate anyone for that. I well know the feeling, the heady sense of euphoria that comes with having your ducks in a row.

Perhaps it’s more accurate to say I won’t hate them for that. Or for anything. To paraphrase Chief Joseph, “From where the sun now stands, I will hate no one else forever.” Last week in Connect Group (what our church calls Sabbath School) my husband tells me they discussed the character of God and a few people argued about it. I was resting from a hard week and Mohs surgery for skin cancer on my face, and it’s just as well I wasn’t there. I would have raised this question: Why are we worried about the character of God? What we need to ask right now is what is the character of me? Because things are not really bad yet—and they don’t ever have to be. They will only be bad if we start to turn on each other, bitter, snarling, taking chunks of flesh.

In the last 48 hours, my oldest son’s university—currently on spring break—asked its students not to return until April 13 at the earliest. They will conduct classes online. My son is on a school trip to Death Valley National Park and has to return to campus before flying home. There was much online discussion over whether the students would be allowed in the dorms at all, with everyone posting different theories, opinions, or reports of what they’d heard. He emailed the rector and asked whether he could spend the night and the rector said yes. Whew.

A few hour later, my university announced it would go online after we return from spring break, starting today. We will not return to campus until April 6 at the earliest. My high school-aged son is out for three weeks. My niece, in Washington State, is out until the end of April. My husband is working from home. So is my brother. My parents, both well over 70, are self-quarantined.

People are stockpiling water, cleaning supplies, tissues, paper towels, rice, beans. My friends are posting photos of empty shelves. One friend had the last packet of toilet paper snatched from her hands by another shopper in Holland, Michigan, which used to be called the happiest place in America. I went to the grocery store last night myself in preparation for having a houseful of males (two of them growing) rifling the cupboards for sustenance, and I found what I needed with a minimum of difficulty. A huge bag of dog food had spilled on the floor and the poor checkout clerk swept some of it out of the way and stepped aside to let me pass. We smiled at each other. “That sucks,” I said. We laughed. This whole situation sucks.

All of you know exactly what I’m talking about. You are living your own versions of the same story: closures, cancellations, shortages, uncertainty. For some of us, the situation is much more serious than for others. If my major problem right now is less toilet paper than I might ideally like, I think I can say I am truly blessed.

When one of my classes met earlier this week to discuss our contingency plans should the university go online for the rest of the semester, the professor said, “Now I don’t want to hear anyone talking about whether or not people should be hoarding toilet paper. I don’t want you to say whether you think it’s right or wrong. Some of you are talking about it (was she looking at me?) while others of you have bought a lot of toilet paper. No one needs to feel bad. It doesn’t matter who is right and who is wrong.”

I take her point but also feel the urge to question it a little. What is a crisis for if not to learn, to clarify your own beliefs, to determine which lines you will not cross? Here’s a line I will not cross: I will never snatch a package of toilet paper from another person’s hands. But if you did do this, dear reader, you and I can still be friends. I have probably crossed lines that you would never cross, done things you would find disgusting, beyond the pale. We can be judgmental—maybe even occasionally snarky—without becoming enemies. We can learn from each other. Can’t we?

Becky De Oliveira is a doctoral student in research methods working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.

2020-03-13T12:22:23-07:00March 16th, 2020|Living God's Love|

A Case of Denial

by Becky De Oliveira

As a child, I was routinely taught that scientists were most just “guessing” about their theories. “They have to have faith just as much as we do,” teachers and other adults said. These adults made scientific-sounding arguments for a young earth, evolution being the primary scientific theory they were eager to debunk. When my children were in elementary school, they came home telling me they’d been informed that dinosaur bones had been placed in the earth by Satan himself, to trick us and cause us to lose our faith.

“Interesting,” I said. “That certainly is a theory.”

My oldest son has gone on to study environmental earth science at university—basically, geology. This sits uncomfortably with certain Adventist church members, who raise their eyebrows and cluck about the “dangers” involved in studying earth science.

What are those dangers?

I suppose the primary danger is that increased knowledge would lead to a corresponding and highly correlated decrease in faith. That is possible. But as many a wise person before me has pointed out, faith that is untested is not faith at all. Faith based on ignorance is…what, exactly?

Skepticism toward the scientific community has led to some foolish and destructive behavior by individuals and leaders, in this country and many others. How many outbreaks of measles have resulted from an insistence—against overwhelming consensus to the contrary from the medical community—that the MMR vaccine is responsible for autism? It is interesting that so many people are convinced of the likelihood that doctors, medical researchers, and other experts are conspiring to cause harm to millions of people (for profit perhaps)—but that the sources they trust that call these experts’ claims into question are blameless and trustworthy with no ulterior agendas whatsoever. Why would that be the case?

Sometimes it is easy enough to see why people reject evidence they don’t like. Certain discoveries may “touch on people’s lifestyle or worldviews, or impinge on corporate interests” (Lewandowsky & Oberaur, 2016). Other times rejection of science appears to be an identity-based decision, a sort of tribal impulse. Perhaps alignment against a much-hated political party?

One interesting factor with climate change denial is its association with low tolerance for ambiguity (Jessani & Harris, 2018). The science surrounding climate change is complicated and messy and contains a high level of complexity. People with low tolerance for ambiguity like familiar explanations and black-and-white conclusions. I am reminded of a person who wrote to me about a year ago complaining that I raise unsettling questions in my writing and, at that time, on the podcast I co-hosted. She did not want to think about hard or uncomfortable things. And fair enough. It’s a free world. But it’s also a complicated world, which won’t get any easier from our collective refusal to see problems. If we truly have faith, perhaps it’s time to stop being so afraid of what we may see if we look. “Gold there is, and rubies in abundance, but lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel” (Proverbs 20:15, NIV).

 

Becky De Oliveira is a doctoral student in research methods working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado. This blog will also appear in the spring issue of Mountain Views, the quarterly magazine of the Rocky Mountain Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

 

References

Jessani, Z., & Harris, P. B. (2018). Personality, politics, and denial: Tolerance of ambiguity, political orientation and disbelief in climate change. Personality and Individual Differences, 131, 121-123.

Lewandowsky, S., & Oberauer, K. (2016). Motivated rejection of science. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25(4), 217–222.

2020-03-08T19:38:12-07:00March 9th, 2020|Living God's Love|

Good at Heart

by Becky De Oliveira

“Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” –Anne Frank

The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam has more than a million visitors each year. I was one of them back in 2014 when I decided to brave the two-hour-minimum line to visit with a former student of mine who now lives in The Netherlands.

“What makes this place so popular?” I wondered idly, looking around at the hordes of people

standing patiently in the cold. (I’m always surprised to find anyone wanting to do the same things I want to do. On other occasions, like my recent trip to Las Vegas, I find myself quite alone, the single customer in Bauman’s Rare Books, tucked away safely away from the madness of the Strip and looking longingly at a first edition of 1984 for $8, 200.) The evening before, I’d walked past the house at almost 9:00 p.m. and found a line of equal length even at that hour. Tickets sell out months in advance.

As I made my way through the house, up steep staircases and through unfurnished rooms

containing textual information, photographs, and other artefacts, I was conscious of the constant creaking of the floor. There was a hushed, almost reverent quality to the way the crowds moved through the house, so the noise was hardly the result of wanton trampling. We walked meekly, gingerly, trying to be quiet—much, I realized, as the Frank family must have walked during the more than two years they remained hidden in a secret room in this very building. “How that must have driven them nuts,” I thought. Especially Anne, who was an exuberant and lively girl, just in her very early teens at the time of her death. And an extraordinary girl, who was able to capture her thoughts and experiences in a wise and mature voice that is at once honest and unfailingly generous. I’m not certain at what point she wrote the words at the top of this article—obviously it was before her betrayal by a person or persons unknown, a betrayal that resulted in her incarceration and death at Bergen-Belsen—but I think it is likely that she would have penned those same words even after her arrest: “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.”

Was she right about that? Are people good at heart? I like to think so. I certainly hope they are—reliant as I so often am, as we all so often are—on the goodwill of strangers. There are days, weeks, months, years even, when the news is so bad that one can become discouraged and begin to doubt humanity. Perhaps this is OK and even natural. Perhaps we can only have faith in the good of humanity because we can have faith in the goodness of God, who created us and who has instilled something of His own nature inside each of us. We make choices as to whether we allow His goodness to influence the way we live our lives, and the good news is that a large number of us seem to make reasonable choices most of the time. We are generally kind and caring toward others, even in our fumbling, inept ways. We don’t—most of us—intend to cause harm. We line up—millions of us—just to see the house in which a young girl who was generations removed from any of us wrote a diary in which she expressed her faith in all of us.

Coming back from that Las Vegas trip last week, I went through CLEAR, a service that uses biometrics (retinas, fingerprints) instead of ID documents. I’m not thrilled about belonging to this service; I worry about privacy issues. My husband, who never worries about anything, nagged me into signing up nearly a year ago at 4:30 a.m. when I was still bleary and half-awake. As a result, I’m usually grumpy when I encounter CLEAR. It makes me think of everything I hate about the world. “Have you had a good time in Las Vegas?” a cheerful CLEAR employee asked as he urged me to move my forehead toward the screen, all the better to position my retinas.

“No,” I answered flatly. Las Vegas also reminds me of everything I hate about the world. I’d come to the airport five hours before my flight just to get away from it.

Instead of responding to my tone with equal irritation, the man flooded me with empathy. He carried my bags over to security, wished me a safe flight, hoped the rest of my day would be better. He smiled at me with genuine warmth. Later, when I got an email survey asking me to rate CLEAR, I gave it the highest rating I ever have (only a 7, but normally I give a 0). In my comments, I noted my continued concerns about privacy and the use of biometric data but praised the staff at McCarran International Airport for lifting my spirits more than I would have thought possible on that day.

That CLEAR agent reminded me of everything I love about the world. Are people good at heart? Sure.

 

Becky De Oliveira is a doctoral student in research methods working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.

2020-03-01T12:38:58-08:00March 2nd, 2020|Living God's Love|

Be Love

by Japhet De Oliveira

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, ESV).

I had booked a flight from Denver to Sacramento in the middle of the Super Bowl. Passengers were bumping into one another, their eyes fixed on their cell phones as they tried to follow the game. Crowds huddled around tables in restaurants offering a live broadcast of the game. I sat in a corner, just out of earshot of the game, waiting for my flight and working on my laptop to create a presentation for later that week. I enjoyed the occasional noisy distraction when one of the teams had clearly scored or had a near miss. I felt closer to the other 102 million viewers just by being in the airport. I felt I belonged.

The last professional American football game I had seen was with my friend, Terry Swenson, a lifelong fan of the 49ers. We sat in BJ’s Brewhouse, ordered too many fries, caught up on life, and watched the game (49ers vs. Saints) on multiple big screens. It was easy to see which of our fellow patrons were 49ers fans and which were Saints fans. They cheered, laughed, and applauded the tension. One group of eight adults sitting next to us was made up of fans from both sides who were still friends at the end of that game.

This feeling of community was quite different from what I observed in the office the week following Super Bowl LIV. Bob—a fake name I use in all my stories when anonymity is required—was passing by my desk when we struck up a conversation. Bob’s partner is a really keen 49ers fan, so Bob has also become a 49ers fan. The week before the Super Bowl, Bob decided to wear a 49ers jersey in support. As Bob moved around the building, there were all sorts of wonderful comments by fans of other teams. But there were also some genuinely hostile comments. These took Bob by surprise. Some people physically turned away in disdain or made snide remarks under their breath. If not for the fact that there was work to do, Bob would have avoided certain areas. The week after the Super Bowl was even harder because the 49ers lost, and the comments from the “winners” were sometimes hostile and hurtful.

I am from England, where football (soccer) is also a passionate sport. Some fans, often known as “football hooligans,” have started riots and perpetuated all kinds of violence. When you buy a ticket for a game, you want to make sure you are sitting on the side of the team you support. Once, when I was in Australia, I attended a State of Origin rugby match with the NSW Blues against the QLD Maroons. Good idea to keep the correct colors on in your seating area! The culture of the fans (excluding some of those sitting near me) seemed to dictate tense slanderous teasing. Yet, I also saw fans congratulate the winning competition after the match was over. I felt I belonged.

This is not always the case. There are people who take competition too far and don’t understand what they are doing. They make other people feel as if they don’t belong. What happened to Bob happens to all of us at some point. Others may think they are only teasing, or they may very well be being intentionally hurtful—either way, the effect is the same. It cuts to the core of who we are. We feel we do not belong, as if the same jokes are made about us all the time. We remember what it was like to be the last one to be asked to join a sports team during recess at kindergarten. This feeling weighs us down.

What do we do? What should we tell Bob? What should we tell the little kid who gets picked last every time? What should we tell the friend who feels they are the butt of all the jokes? Grow a thick skin. Give as good as you get. Just ignore them. Or could there be a better way for us to live God’s love? Could we pause and listen more? Could we grow our capacity for empathy? Could we, like Jesus, see the potential in others and make space for everyone to belong?

My friend, Lisa Clark Diller, shared a phenomenal reflection at the One project gathering in Boulder, Colorado, in mid-February. The entire message was groundbreaking, but there was a single thought that I need to share with you today. In addition to all that the Incarnation was, it was also Jesus taking on a disabled body. Because every single human is disabled in some shape or form. We all need help. Listening to her speak, with hundreds of other people, I felt I belonged.

When I read John 1:14, I see that Jesus chose to live among us so that we would understand what it is to live love. Try it today. Live God’s love by lifting up the person next to you instead of tearing them down.

 

Japhet De Oliveira is administrative director for the Center for Mission at Adventist Health in Roseville, California.

 

2020-02-24T09:31:23-08:00February 24th, 2020|Living God's Love|

When God Calls

by Becky De Oliveira

“Anyone who withholds kindness from a friend forsakes the fear of the Almighty” (Job 6:14, NIV).

Today at church, a casual acquaintance confessed his feeling of being completely overwhelmed by the needs of others. He works in one of the “caring” professions, and his office is understaffed. He is all things to all people—and while he enjoys being useful in this way, he is lately finding the experience draining. He’s approaching burnout and doesn’t know what to do about it.

I can relate. My belief—more or less—has always been that God sends people to me. That is to say, anyone who comes within my orbit was likely sent my way because they need something that perhaps only I can—or am willing to—provide. On top of that, I am a natural people pleaser. According to Psychology Today, this means I am driven by fear of rejection and fear of failure. Yup, sounds about right.

As pathological as it may sound, this is usually a fun way to live and very rewarding. God seems to send problems I actually have the capacity to deal with. He has never sent me anyone whose problems seem insurmountable or that will threaten to bury me. And yet, I sometimes feel fed up and exhausted when people ask me for favors. This last week, a fellow student in one of my classes asked me to take notes for him since he had medical appointments and would miss two classes. Fine. No problem. Happy to do it. But then another friend asked me to read and check the APA style on her 59-page research paper. Sure. Someone else wrote to ask if I could give an opinion on an essay they’d written. An hour later I received another request—almost identical—from someone else. And then I discovered I needed to begin editing a joint paper for publication and tracking down the contributors who had not yet contributed. Before I knew it, there went my spare time over the weekend—used up reading and editing other people’s writing. This on top of the reading and editing I do for money. I do not—to be honest—even think I’m all that good at reading and editing. “Who cares what I think?” I fumed to myself as I looked at my ever-growing to-do list, made up primarily of tasks that I do not super enjoy, and thinking about how there are some people who watch TV on Saturday nights, people who make popcorn.

I had recently begun to put my foot down on requests for my time. I had a firm policy and I enforced it for a few weeks. (This must have been a short-lived New Year’s Resolution.) I do things for only one of three reasons, I told myself: 1) Money to pay for my son’s college tuition, 2) Professional growth, or 3) Because I really want to do it. It’s ideal if the task in question ticks all three boxes, and really, it should knock off at least two of them. I’ve said “no” to a few friends in recent weeks and even felt proud of myself for creating boundaries and sticking to them. But then here I am, fallen off the wagon. I said “yes” to all these recent requests even though I have a growing backlog of my own work that never seems to get any smaller. Even though not a single one of the tasks fulfils even one of my requirements. There’s nothing in doing this work for me—except, of course, that warm glowing feeling, that sense of having achieved some kind of purpose in the world. There’s that.

So here I am, taking a break from all the editing, to compose a blog about finding balance. Is there anyone who gets this right? Well, me—some of the time and only through God’s enormous grace. Even as I type these words, I find myself growing stronger. I remind myself how honored I feel that people choose to ask me for help, what a privilege it is to have another person care what I think, actively seek my opinion and guidance. I know these thoughts are God, whispering in my ear. He’s saying, “You have asked to be of use in this world. Right now, this is all I’m asking of you. Read a few pieces of paper. Respond with a mix of warm affirmation and constructive criticism. What else do you have going on?” And really, nothing. It’s been a long time since I’ve cared much about TV. And nothing’s stopping me from making some popcorn and having a little editing party. Thank you, God, for speaking into my life. Again.

 

Becky De Oliveira is a doctoral student in research methods working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.

2020-02-16T17:51:59-08:00February 17th, 2020|Living God's Love|

Bad, Redundant, and Needless People?

by Rajmund Dabrowski

“Keep watch over me and keep me out of trouble” (Psalm 25:20, MSG).

Christians have their prayers. All of us do. Our prayers are not always original or even heartfelt. Most of us will have to admit to having prayed a prayer or two that we learned by heart and repeated more out of duty than need. I enjoy listening to how people pray. I love prayers that make me think. I crave prayers full of fresh expressions. Such prayers are not driven by a routine of formality.

If ever there was a time to pray, it is now. We all need a shake-up regarding our spiritual center. How clear is our morality? How pure is our speech? Is it perceived as divisive, hateful, and toxic—or does it bless even those we may regard as enemies? Each of us is vying for power—to move faster, be more important, be on top, be louder, be somebody. We need readjustment. If Jesus is the answer, as we profess, we need to reject that which is bad and redundant.

Henri J. M. Nouwen is instructive when he puts his finger on the issue:

“Against my own best intentions, I find myself continually striving to acquire power. When I give advice, I want to know whether it is being followed; when I offer help, I want to be thanked; when I give money, I want it to be used my way; when I do something good, I want to be remembered.”

He continues:

“Can I give without wanting anything in return, love without putting any conditions on my love? Considering my immense need for human recognition and affection, I realize that it will be a lifelong struggle. But I am also convinced that each time I step over this need and act free of my concern for return, I can trust that my life can truly bear the fruits of God’s Spirit.” (The Return of the Prodigal Son, pp. 127-128.)

So, have you rattled off a prayer lately? What was it about?

I will always remember the prayers of my parental home. Prayer was a time of family warmth. These were the moments upon which we hinged our own social and faith life in the present as well as the future. And there she was, my mother, praying for God’s guidance over our childhood days. “Dear God, protect us from all evil,” she prayed. “From people who are bad and needless.”

I wondered what she meant by these simple yet puzzling words. Did she mean needless as in redundant? Why was this important to her? I recall asking her to explain, and she said that she prayed for protection of our young lives from people who might introduce us to undesirable, wrong choices. Dozens of people marched through our home and our young feet often entered the trail of someone else’s life. Perhaps one of these individuals was “bad and needless.” She was praying that our future be built in a wholesome, values-driven way.

How does one recognize a bad person, anyway? How do you reject someone and deem them as being redundant or needless? When does value turn into uselessness?

When no one is around, most of us are bothered by our loneliness. When we are surrounded by people, we seek to be alone. How human this is! Perhaps some of our fellow-sojourners are those in the category from my mother’s prayer—bad and needless. Yet…

Look around. You will come into contact with someone who will take away your time, strength, goodness, or values. Yes, even your hope. Some may love you for profit. You may hang out with people whom you regard as members of your weekly feel-good club, where growth is optional, and the environment is rich with protective space.

Our naïveté may prevent us from noticing that we are at their disposal—until we realize that our soul has been stolen, along with our goodness, leaving only emptiness. Or could it be that some of us are making ourselves redundant in the world of others?

Life is rich with challenges and opportunities. There is a dire need for people whose values can embrace the needs of others. There are people to avoid because of the way they look, people who are different and whose love is hidden and needs to come out! But we have not placed ourselves in their circle of need.

My mother’s other prayers called for God to help us be kind, compassionate, and loving. It is that angle that challenged me when I heard former Seventh-day Adventist World Church President Jan Paulsen, my former boss, say in one of his sermons:

“It is our anxieties which erect the barriers between people. In order to experience hope and an attractive future we must be secure and strong and open enough to step outside of our protected space and take part in the lives of people who are different from us—different nationally, racially, and religiously. How is your and my social circle composed? If I am incapable of showing warmth to a stranger, I will also be incapable of feeling pain and distress at his or her suffering. There is nothing noble in accepting people who are replicas of ourselves.”

That little prayer of my mother’s was her caring interest in my dignity, her plea that no one would rob me of it. The price was too big: to lose one’s dignity. Could it be taken away by someone useless and bad?

 

Rajmund Dabrowski is director of communication for the Rocky Mountain Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Denver, Colorado.

2020-02-09T15:21:08-08:00February 10th, 2020|Living God's Love|

To Literally Try

by Becky De Oliveira

“I don’t understand what I am doing. For I don’t practice what I want to do, but instead do what I hate” (Romans 7:15, ISV).

The word literally almost always means figuratively—based on the way it is actually used in the majority of everyday conversation. “I literally died.” “My head literally exploded.” It is pretty much guaranteed that anything the speaker claims “literally” happened or will happen did not or will not. Ever. You didn’t literally starve when you were stuck without snacks and your flight was delayed at the airport. You are not going to literally rip anyone’s head off if you have to wait one minute longer in this slow-moving post office line. It’s nice—if a bit obvious—that those who help us define what we mean when we use language (in this case, dictionaries) have officially acknowledged what everyone has known for a long time: Literally almost never literally means literally. It is probably enormously helpful—and something of a relief, I suspect—for those learning English as a second language to discover, upon anxiously scouring the dictionary, that no one will be literally eating a horse. The jury is still out on whether or not anyone ever literally “freaks out,” because it is very difficult to define precisely what behaviors or states of mind constitute a freak out. Most people who claim to be literally freaking out are laughing and smiling in a good-humored manner. But who knows what might be roiling beneath the surface?

I would like to see the same acknowledgement of redefined meaning based on actual usage extended to the word try and most of its variations, most specifically the phrase “I’ll try,” which almost always means “I will not try.” If you ask a friend if he or she is coming to your birthday party this Saturday night and he or she responds, “Yeah, I’ll definitely try to be there,” this means (literally): “Five minutes from now I will have forgotten we even had this conversation. No, I’m not coming to your party. And you can forget about a card too.” And there is an inverse correlation between how hard people say they are going to try and how hard they will actually try. You’re more likely to get a no-show from someone indicating that they will try their “hardest” or, worse, the guy who will “try everything in my power.” The harder people insist that they are going to try to do something, the less hard they actually seem to try. The superlatives are probably thrown in unconsciously as a way of assuaging a guilty conscience. When we say we’ll try, what we really mean is that we would like to try. Or even that we would like to be the kind of people who would like to try. It’s more an expression of an attitude or of a vague sort of good will than an expression of actual intent to follow through on a course of action.

So, what does all this mean in the life of faith, a life in which perhaps all we can do is try? My friend Nathan Brown published a book a few years ago called Why I Try to Believe. I wrote a review of it in which I made the following observation:

The cry of the man in the Gospel of Mark, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’ (9:24) is one to which we can all relate. Sometimes a commitment to trying is the best we can muster—in our relationships, our work, our faith. Circumstances cause the ground to shift beneath our feet. Most of us will hit spiritual lows, or experience setbacks and tragedies that make us wonder what life is all about—and if our faith in God is pure foolishness. What we choose to do at that point—and Brown makes it very clear faith is an active choice— marks a clear fork in the road.

We often do have good intentions that we forget about or lose sight of along the way. I, for example, try to say only positive things about other people—to their faces, behind their backs. This is my intention. But then I’ll have a bad day and feel weak, frustrated, and annoyed, and before I know it, I’ve griped about someone for no good reason at all. To make myself feel better? To make myself look better? I have no idea. This is where the earnest definition of “try” should be put into practice. I will try to do better. I will remind myself that perhaps the positive words I put out into the world will harness the winds, clear the clouds—if only for a moment, an hour, a day. That trying is not futile and neither should it be taken lightly. It is the work of a lifetime and the most important work there is.

 

Becky De Oliveira is a doctoral student in research methods working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.

2020-02-02T19:13:53-08:00February 3rd, 2020|Living God's Love|

Dressing for the Weather

by Becky De Oliveira

My grandmother came to pick me up for breakfast one morning when I was visiting Seattle from my home in England. I was at least 30 years old. It was a dreary day, overcast, maybe drizzling a bit. Not warm but not bitterly cold. I chose to leave the house in a long-sleeved t-shirt.

“Where’s your coat?” grandma asked.

“I don’t need it,” I said.

“It’s cold!”

“I don’t feel all that cold.”

My grandmother rarely lost an argument. This was down to her unique set of dialectical skills. “Don’t be stupid,” she barked. “It’s snowing in New Jersey!”

Left speechless by her unassailable logic, I went inside and got my coat. Zipped it up to my chin. Would have donned a pair of mittens and perhaps a thick wool scarf if I’d been able to find any. Grumbled—half laughing at the absurdity of the whole situation—in my head, “Why does she treat me like such a child?” (She yelled at me in Hawaii for wearing the wrong shoes on the beach once too, when I was 20.)

How many times do these kinds of scenarios play out in interactions between the generations? Behind door number one, we have an older person with wisdom to dispense who gets angry or hurt when it is disregarded. What do you know about life? You’re only a kid. People die of pneumonia. Behind door number two, a younger person who kicks against the unmistakable feeling of bondage and disrespect. What do you know about life? Times have changed. Ever heard of a miraculous invention called penicillin? Nothing good comes of this. We talk across each other. Dig our heels in. Either someone gets bullied or someone else’s feelings get hurt.

I few years ago, I came across a simple printed sheet of paper with a row of tear-off contact details on a community bulletin board, wedged between flyers for eco-friendly house cleaning services and yoga classes. The advertiser, a 75-year-old man, offered to share the “wisdom collected over a lifetime” in about 15 different areas ranging from “staying married for 50 years” and being a “published author” to “gun control” and “auto mechanics.” The man promised that this service was entirely free, that he had no intention of selling anything, and that he guaranteed he had no “get-rich-quick schemes” to suggest. This last point, I must confess, I found enormously disappointing. Still, I gazed at this ad for a long time, feeling suddenly and desperately sad at the idea of an old man alone by the phone, hoping for a call from a stranger in need of advice. I felt so sad I actually contemplated ringing him up myself, but I couldn’t think of a good question to ask. It’s not that I feel I have all the answers, but few of my big questions concern gun control and even fewer relate in any way to auto mechanics. Anything else seemed too personal—and far too specific to my own circumstances. Knowledge is not always directly transferable; how one couple stayed married for 50 years might not work at all for another. Also, I was only passing through this town. No possibility for establishing a permanent relationship with this individual (probably not the smartest thing to do via an anonymous flyer anyway)—which I sensed was the thing he was really looking for.

Genuine relationships between the generations are, I think, extremely valuable—but not so much in terms of the giving and receiving of wisdom or advice. While this can sometimes work out rather well, more often it is the love, acceptance, and understanding between people that gives us strength, in spite of our different experiences and world views. It is about abiding together through whatever life throws in our way. What I learned most from my grandmother—what I’ll remember as I grow older myself—are all the things she never talked about at all but simply did. She denied herself treats so she could treat others. She made herself presentable and put on a cheerful face no matter what kind of day it was. She bragged—shamelessly—about the people she loved. She adopted people that no one else cared about and acted as though they mattered. I’m sometimes bad about remembering my coat—and utterly hopeless at selecting the right footwear for the beach in Hawaii—and I have probably failed to do most of the things my elders in general have ordered, but I’ve been watching and learning all the same. I still believe it’s within me to do them proud.

 

Becky De Oliveira is a doctoral student in research methods working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.

2020-01-26T10:39:45-08:00January 27th, 2020|Living God's Love|

The Diamond-Water Paradox

by Becky De Oliveira

My husband and I were in London for a few days just before Christmas. We stayed in the city center and enjoyed the parks, the Christmas lights, and shopping—although on many occasions it was mere window shopping. To get to Selfridges, a large department store on Oxford Street that features what I consider to be the finest food hall in the city, we wandered along Old Bond Street that later turns into New Bond Street. These two streets are lined with luxury shops such as Hermés, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany & CO., Gucci, and the like. I was mostly dismayed to note the closing of Bateel, a shop that sold stuffed dates (the kind of luxury I can afford), and fascinated to try to quantify the value of the inventory along these two conjoined streets that together comprise less than a mile and that do not include Selfridges itself, not to mention Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Fortnum & Mason, or any other of the countless purveyors of luxury goods that exist in London—or every other large modern city in the world.

“It has to be millions,” I kept saying. Earlier in the week, we’d stopped at Harrods and noted several Rolls-Royces parked outside the store with the engines running. There are people in the world who are driven to Harrods in Rolls-Royces by people who wait for them to finish shopping and take them home again. The drivers of these cars are neither waved off by angry police officers nor ticketed. This is how the other half (half?) live. I’ve often tried to think of a way to estimate the value of the goods in Harrods alone and given up. Who knows? A lot.

While browsing the food halls at Selfridges, I came upon the item that I decided earned my vote for the most crazy-expensive thing I’d seen this trip. In the past, the honor has gone to a pen for $20, 000, a vase for $90, 000—you get the picture. This was, in comparison with those items, quite affordable at just around $1, 700. But here’s the deal: it was a jar of honey. A smallish jar of honey, one I could have easily fitted into my handbag had it not been encased in protective glass (kidding—about the shoplifting, not about the glass). Obviously, this was no ordinary honey, as the price tag suggests. It was mānuka honey from New Zealand, produced from the nectar of Leptospermum scoparium, also known as the mānuka tree and believed to have medicinal properties. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is no evidence for any medicinal benefits, by the way.

Of course, I began to scoff and judge anyone who might make such a purchase. “Not even if I were a billionaire,” I said, affecting a sort of Bernie Sanders accent for the word billionaire as I seem to do these days to amuse myself. But then as a thought experiment, because there is little I love more than a thought experiment, I began to wonder under what circumstances I might purchase that jar of honey. It had, it must be noted, an MGO (methylglyoxal—the compound that makes the honey so prized) of 1700, whereas the average mānuka sold in shops in New Zealand and Australia, according to my friends from down under, is more like 100-200 MGO. So, we can agree it’s “better” when assessed according to these terms. I found this particular honey online and learned more about it, not least that only 1, 000 people “will be able to possess a jar.” Unless, of course, one of those people buys all the jars.

Now, I say nothing could persuade me to spend approximately the equivalent of a mortgage payment on honey that has no proven health benefits—but what if I or one of my children had a health condition that was painful and debilitating and that did not respond to conventional treatment? Might I be willing then? Out of desperation? Hope? And just to continue the experiment, how much easier would it be for me to make that decision if the cost were not the equivalent of a mortgage payment, if I were in fact a billionaire? Maybe even I, sanctimonious as I am, would buy all the jars and hoard them selfishly. It’s a sobering thought.

This week on the radio there was a segment on the news that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos gave a million dollars to help the Australia fires. The hosts pointed out that when you compare that donation to his overall wealth, it is the equivalent of an “average” person donating about six dollars. But, of course, the million will go much farther in addressing the fire efforts than six dollars would. Is it the amount of good the money does that matters or the amount of pain it costs the giver?

Jesus seemed to suggest the latter when He praised the widow who gave two worthless coins (Mark 12:41-44). He said the rich “all gave out of their wealth. But she, out of her poverty, put in what she had to live on, everything she had” (NET).

It is interesting to think about how we assign value, how we determine affordability. In The Wealth of Nations, economist Adam Smith outlined the water-diamond paradox: namely that while water is vital to life and health and diamonds are merely ornamental, diamonds are much more highly valued. One of my goals for this year is to reassess what I assign value to and question that rigorously. How will this affect how I give and what I put my efforts toward?

 

Becky De Oliveira is a doctoral student in research methods working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.

2020-01-17T15:52:46-08:00January 20th, 2020|Living God's Love|