Destructive Goal Pursuit

by Becky De Oliveira

D. Christopher Kayes, a specialist in organizational behavior, wrote a book called Destructive Goal Pursuit that focuses on the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, finding there insights about the dysfunctions that are common in goal-setting. He identifies a problem he calls goalodicy—a combination of goal and theodicy—a philosophical term he coined to describe the actions of people who hold onto beliefs even when all evidence contradicts the validity of these beliefs.

Research has shown that gamblers and investors have a lot of trouble weaning themselves from putting money into losing prospects. Organizations with established goals tend to stick with them, going in the same direction regardless of consequences, rather than changing course. Kayes refers to this “escalation of commitment to a failing course of action.” He cites research indicating that the greater the insecurity a group feels about their chance of achieving the goal, the harder they’ll try. The more likely they consider failure to be, the more entrenched they become in their particular set of behaviors. As they observe their surroundings—say the weather—they will interpret conditions more negatively than they really are, almost searching for further evidence to suggest the likelihood of failure. Indicators of likely failure cause the group to put even more effort into achieving the goal.

I can see destructive goal pursuit so clearly in other (often well-intentioned) people. Maybe they are those seeking unity for the church—and seeming to push it ever closer to discord. Those who want to make America great—but whose rhetoric seems to weaken the very values of inclusion, acceptance, opportunity, and democracy that have made this country great.

Can I see it in myself?

One thing I really do believe—that might qualify me as a bona fide delusional—is that the majority of people are trying to do the right thing. They have different ideas about what the right thing is—and different driving forces. And they sometimes do destructive things—probably without flat-out intending to.

I use my grandma Elsie as an example. She’s been dead now for several years, and she was my grandfather’s second wife. They married before I was born, so I always knew her as my grandmother. And she was a rigid and hypercritical person. She worried about everything—whether my clothing indicated that I was a schizophrenic, whether it was a sin for my brother to eat pizza, whether naming my youngest son Jonah was theologically suspect since Jonah was not a wholly positive Biblical character, having elected to disobey God.

“Oh, I just love you so much, Becky,” she’d say from time to time, without warmth. She was hard to love until I became old enough to understand something important about her. Her only son, Bob, died in a motorcycle accident when he was only 16 years old. They found a pack of cigarettes in his pocket. In my grandmother’s Adventist universe, smoking was a big sin—possibly a barrier to salvation. She was not at all sure Bob would be in heaven—but, but on the off chance that he made it, she wanted to be sure she was there as well. She could not afford to put a foot wrong. And I think she did love me—all of us—but her love for her son and her fear of losing him forever was so much stronger than any other emotion she was capable of feeling or expressing.

She probably told herself that she criticized us in order to help us, to make sure that we were in heaven. She probably figured we’d thank her. And to be honest with you, should I see her again, I will thank her. I think she did the best she could. Her capacity was limited—as is mine in other, different, ways. I understand her now. I sympathize. And I still think it’s the wrong way to live. But why? What’s wrong with having heaven as your goal? Well, nothing. Unless having heaven as your goal makes you so unpleasant and judgmental that you compromise the image of God you’re projecting to other people.

We have unbelievable challenges to face as the rhetoric in our country and our faith group seems to grow ever more bitter and divisive. What is the best way to live out our Christian faith?

I would not presume to tell you what your priorities should be—or which hill you should die on, if any. I would only suggest that you remember to check in with yourself about your goals and activities to make sure they really reflect the things that are most important to you as a disciple of Christ. I’m not suggesting you allow yourself to be driven by fear or that you become timid or cowardly. As people of faith, we have every reason to be bold. Live boldly in the knowledge that what you do can make a tremendous difference to other people. Isaiah 54:2 reads, “Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes” (ESV). This seems like a good place to start as we consider how to make a difference in a big, complex, beautiful, awful, wonderful, tragic, depressing, and exhilarating world. A big tent. Strong stakes. Lots of people inside. What can we do to bring meaning and joy and self-worth and courage to the people around us?

The three rules of mountaineering: It’s always further than it looks. It’s always taller than it looks. And it’s always harder than it looks. The first rule of Christianity: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9, ESV).

Becky De Oliveira is a teacher, writer, and graphic designer working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.

 

1 D. Christopher Kayes, Destructive Goal Pursuit: The Mt. Everest Disaster (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), p. 46.

2019-07-22T14:19:38-07:00July 22nd, 2019|Living God's Love|

My Little Starfish

by Ray Tetz

I have a starfish on my desk. It’s a delicate little starfish, about an inch across. Medium brown in color, with five spindly legs.

The starfish is encased in plastic—resin, actually—the physical result of a Pathfinder honor class in “Plastics and Resins” that I took back in the sixties. The class was offered by my church. My classmates were friends from church and school, and Pathfinders was just one of dozens of things that we all did together. It was one of my most important and earliest communities.

In the supervised mayhem that barely passed for an honor badge class of boisterous fifth and sixth graders, we made cool and useful little things. Like paperweights and bolo tie slides out of dried up natural stuff (shells being the favorite) and resin—now known as plastic. We got to mix up the resin, which was guaranteed to make a mess. There were colors—called pigments—we could add to the mix if so inclined. There were these little molds that we placed our natural objects into, and then we poured the resin in around them. Sometimes we had to create a layer of resin that the natural object would rest on before pouring in the rest. There were popsicle sticks for poking things around and getting them situated just perfectly in the resin. And then there was the strong stuff—the catalyst! It made the resin harden more quickly. Even with the catalyst, the trays of molds had to go into the dark cupboard for a full week of waiting before we could pop out our newly created treasures and slip them onto our ever-fashionable bolo ties!

I was quite proud of my little starfish, unique in all the world. Now I realize that the honor badge for this particular activity was itself an embroidered picture of a little starfish encased in plastic, just like mine. This is mildly disappointing, I admit. It is probably accurately described as the baby boomer’s dilemma: nothing you do is unique or different from what everybody else does. But I learned a lot of lessons in that class I haven’t forgotten.

In Resins class I learned that a catalyst is an external agent that, when added to a substance, accelerates the rate of change. I’ve benefited from knowing this bit of wisdom for more than 50 years. And I learned it in Pathfinders.

I learned about processes and how you can’t speed them up. I learned that mistakes happen and will need to be cleaned up. I learned that not every idea works. I learned that there is always someone who can do things better than you can. I learned that you quickly develop a special affection for what you create yourself, regardless of how it turns out.

The starfish is unchanged after all these years, a product of another era. But I’ve changed.

I keep the little starfish on my desk as a reminder of all the things that childhood taught me, of friendships made long ago, of how small things can be important things, of how resin became plastic that became lightweight, bulletproof, polycarbonate that became cellphones and fenders and a menace to the environment.

I keep it around because it reminds me of who I was once, and of who I’ve become, and of the values I want to carry forward into my life.

I keep it around as an anchor with my traditions and as a reminder of what happens when a person doesn’t change. And because it’s portable enough to have successfully moved from one desktop to another—all the way from 6th grade until now.

It’s an artifact, a relic, a symbol, an icon, a remembrance, a pointer, a keepsake, a reminder, a beacon, a piece of history, a moment in time. Embedded with that little starfish in the resin you can probably still find my DNA. You can certainly find the roots of my future life.

I still have my starfish—it’s been on my desktop for as long as I’ve had one. Rubbing my finger across the resin, I’m still grateful for those patient Pathfinder leaders who helped me make it. And for everything else they did for me, too.

Ray Tetz is the director of communication and community engagement for the Pacific Union Conference.

2019-07-15T17:30:24-07:00July 15th, 2019|Living God's Love|

Five Smooth Stones

by Ray Tetz

The confrontation between David and Goliath is so exciting that almost all of our attention is on the moment of conflict—when David brought the giant down with nothing more than a stone flung from his shepherd’s sling. But take a look at the verse that just precedes the showdown with Goliath; what did David do just before he took his place in front of the mighty giant? “Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine” (1 Samuel 17:40, NIV).

From the swiftly running water of the stream, David chose five smooth stones. Stones that had been shaped by the elements into effective little missiles that would fly straight and hard when launched from his sling. Stones that were not too big to carry and not too small to have the desired impact. Exactly five—three might be too few (the fight might not be over with just a shot or two) and eight too many (the weight of the load might limit his effectiveness). Perhaps he chose a stone for the giant and each of his four brothers (they ran off, apparently).

Regardless, when it came right down to the battle with his giant, David had to leave everything else behind, and he went equipped with just five smooth stones—and with just one he brought the giant down and won the battle.

Imagine that every morning as you begin your day, you pick up your metaphorical shepherd’s bag and stock it with an equally metaphorical “five smooth stones,” the just-the-right-size to carry with you daily missiles that will help you win the battles against any giants you might encounter. (Yes, metaphorical giants. Stay with me here.)

What are your five smooth stones? Of all your choices from that babbling brook of values and beliefs and experiences and expectations, which ones do you prioritize as most important? Here are five I would choose.

The first stone is confidence in the goodness and graciousness of God. We know that we are loved by God and that we have freedom to approach God with the details of our lives. That confidence gives us courage and clarity in how we live out our faith.

The second stone is the belief that God takes an interest in our lives, which are important to Him. The details of our lives matter. Nothing falls outside God’s attention and care for us; we pursue our calling and our mission, including the development of our talents and gifts, in the power that God provides.

The third stone is the community that we are a part of as believers. God has intentional plans for His grace to transform our personal lives, our families, our communities, and the organizations and institutions that we cherish. We are each part of a community that loves us and helps to care for our needs—and also requires our love and service for all those “within our gates.”

The fourth stone is returning service. This means to take seriously the presence of God in our world, and to protect and value the quality of our lives and the world around us as an expression of our faith, and an act of direct service to God.

And the fifth stone, of course, is the gospel—the story of Jesus. Each day provides us with an opportunity to bear witness to God’s power and to proclaim the gospel message of restoration and redemption. This is the primary motivation in the benevolence of our churches, hospitals, and institutions; it means to serve as Christ served, for His sake. It has given life to a consistent witness of faithful and sacrificial service that is found in Adventism, expressed across a wide array of ministries.

So many stones in the brook! The way we live each day is ultimately the way we slay our own giants. The choices we make about what we will carry with us each day—the things that truly define our values, character, and behavior as we journey through the world—are no less important than the stones that David selected when called upon to face Goliath.

 

Ray Tetz is the director of communication and community engagement for the Pacific Union Conference.

2019-07-08T10:46:56-07:00July 8th, 2019|Living God's Love|

Muzzling the Talking Heads

by Raymond Dabrowski

Visitors to my communication office in Silver Spring years ago often asked me about the meaning of a crafted ornament hanging above a doorframe. They understood that it represented something, but exactly what? At that time many of us were discussing the ministry of and for women in the church. What they saw was a woman’s head with a scarf covering her mouth. It gave her the appearance of being muzzled.

When visiting Krakow and its Wawel Kings Castle a few years ago, I did the tourist thing and went through the castle’s royal apartments, taking note of a ceiling ornamented with dozens of head sculptures by Sebastian Tauerbach and his partner craftsman, Hans Snycerz. They had created 194 masterfully crafted and realistic polychrome heads depicting people who lived in the early 16th century and were the subjects of King Sigismund I the Old. Immortalized in this creative manner, the faces offered expressions of a symbolic poignancy. For me, the head of the “silenced woman” suggested an intentionally stalled communication. When I purchased a replica at the Sukiennice Cloth Hall crafts stall, I asked for the story behind the ornament.

The shopkeeper said that among the many legends was a story that King Sigismund II August, upon hearing that a woman had been caught eavesdropping on a conversation between the monarch and his advisors, opted to put a gag on her. Rather than having her imprisoned, she was to bear testimony that not everything is for public consumption—and heaven forbid that it become fodder for gossip.

He was a crafty king, I concluded. The explanation was consistent with the king’s experimental policies in civil rights and freedoms, including religious tolerance.

There is another legend associated with the head of the “silenced” or “muzzled” woman who is a part of the decorated ceiling in the Envoy’s Hall of Wawel Castle, the very room where the king met with foreign diplomats, held audiences, and issued judgments. The king was known to be a procrastinator, often liking to leave decisions for the next day. However, one day, bored with executing judgments, he made a rash and unjust pronouncement. One of the carved ceiling heads spoke out in protest, saying, “Rex Auguste, iudica iuste” (“King August, judge with justice”). The king became angry and asked the court craftsman to add a gag to the talking head’s mouth.

The placement of the scarf could be interpreted in a symbolic way, we are told. The Jagiellonian dynasty is remembered for curbing political rights for the benefit of the ruling class—the nobility.

Might the talking head have been a precursor to the WikiLeaks syndrome of today? The 16th-century approach to justice and human rights is not the best example of how to silence our contemporary talking heads. Gagging can only serve the temporary needs of someone who has something to hide. In our internet world, where everyone can be a publisher, we serve our interests best when we are open, honest, and transparent.

Privacy requires guardianship. If you are sloppy in guarding your parlor, don’t be upset when we all become observers of your actions. This applies to both personal affairs and the way we run society, its organizations, and communities. The realm of religion is not excluded. The Bible is full of stories in which mixing God’s realm and personal affairs lead to a crooked result. Notwithstanding the proverbial washing of dirty linen in public and attempts to kill the messenger, the common good, whether we like it or not, requires public exposure and scrutiny of motives and actions. When secret deals are cut and laws are circumvented, and when our common benefits are tampered with, watch out. We will be found out. In a church setting, the consequences for gossiping and spreading rumors can be applied. Any one of us could be muzzled—and quite often, at that.

Consider this poetic query by Cyprian Kamil Norwid, an animator of the literary Age of Romanticism who wrote about freedom and responsibility: “Is this bird ill that fouls its own nest? Or is it that one who does not let anyone talk about that?”

As a photographer, I was intrigued by a muzzled head carved in a coffered ceiling of the Envoy’s Hall. What was behind this ornamental detail? In the same way, I wonder what stories and lessons might be found behind the graffiti on many a city wall. As I photograph the images of eyes and mouths, I wonder if perhaps they speak a message: it’s not only what you see that matters but also what others see. Consider that somebody may be watching you, too.

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

Photo caption: “Woman With a Scarf on Her Mouth.” Replica. Wawel Castle, Krakow, Poland.

2019-07-01T10:52:42-07:00July 1st, 2019|Living God's Love|

The Road She Travelled

by Ray Tetz

The note from her uncle trembled in the young queen’s hands. She fought back the tears and shook her head fiercely as if to shake off the meaning of the words Mordecai had written. And then Esther, a queen far too inexperienced to be tested so dramatically, straightened her shoulders, took a deep breath, and turned back to the messenger to render her reply.

The world that she lived in was being roiled by political intrigue and turmoil. Unchecked selfishness and ego had already cost the faithful queen Vashti her life. Esther, the new queen, had been thrust into the spotlight through a series of seemingly impossible events. And yet here she stood, at the very portal of extraordinary influence. She had only begun to realize how powerful she could be, and there were those within her queenly court who were quite willing to help her wield that power—including, it seemed, her uncle and guardian, Mordecai.

But the appeal that he made in the note she held in her hands was not for prestige or power. Esther’s predicament was not about the nation; it was about Esther. “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13-14, NIV).

Yes, it was a dark time for the people of God. Gone were the days when their wisdom was sought after and their character and righteousness valued and revered. The falsity of human ambition and domination could now be seen and heard in the unbridled rhetoric of the king’s court and in the callous manipulation of the law of the land for selfish and devilish purposes.

While Mordecai’s note to Esther acknowledged this situation, it was not his primary focus. Mordecai knew that God would save His people. He believed that the survival of the people of God was not in Esther’s hands. It was in God’s hands. If Esther was not the means to help bring God’s purposes to pass, most certainly another means for their salvation would be made clear.

As her uncle and her guardian, Mordecai wrote to Esther not on a matter of state but on a matter of personal importance. He sought to focus her attention on the single most important thing in her life: her own destiny.

Mordecai was not concerned that God would fail to bring His purposes to pass. He trusted God. But he was concerned that Esther would not be a part of God’s redemption and that the purpose of her life would be unfulfilled. His message was not meant to save God’s people; God had already taken care of that. His message was meant to save Esther.

“For such a time as this.” It was an appeal for Esther to remember who she was, and where she was, and the grand purpose that God had for her life. It was a call to embrace the purpose of her life. It was an invitation to view all that happened through the eyes of faith.

And so as Esther turned her attention to the response she would send to Mordecai, her eyes were shining with the recognition of God’s great purpose for her life and her heart was pounding with excitement that her destiny was truly in God’s hands.

While her earlier responses had seemed to indicate a quizzical or even reluctant attitude, Esther responded with courage and clarity to this message, just as Mordecai had hoped she would. “Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:15-16, NIV).

The die was cast, the pathway chosen, the decision was made. Not only would the people of Israel be saved but Esther would be counted among them as one of the faithful. Youth and beauty notwithstanding, it is clarity of purpose and personal courage that Esther would forever be known for. She saw the way forward, and placing herself completely within the abundant care of God, she resolutely took up her destiny.

 

Ray Tetz is the director of communication and community engagement for the Pacific Union Conference.

2019-06-24T11:36:01-07:00June 24th, 2019|Living God's Love|

A Cure for Boredom

by Becky De Oliveira

I used to get bored. “Mom,” I’d wail, “there’s nothing to do!” My mother would always retort, “Clean your room.” This was not even remotely satisfying as a response and just made me wail harder. My mother was unmoved.

I continued to experience boredom until I was 21 years old—a full three years into a college degree. Living in Walla Walla, Washington, I’d often moan about how there was “nothing to do in this pathetic small town.” I never reflected on the meaning of my boredom—what it might reveal about my character. It seemed a given that the world should be doing more to keep me entertained and occupied. It was the world’s fault (Walla Walla’s anyway), not mine.

And then I found myself on a Norwegian train for 34 hours—all the way to the Arctic Circle (a town called Lønsdal) and back down to Oslo—with nothing to read, no paper to doodle on, and nothing to munch on except stale bread and a jar of gummy raspberry jam. I spent these hours gazing out the window and adjusting my position (dismally seated upright in a two-seats-per-row configuration) whenever my backside or legs began to feel numb. I watched Norwegian children scurry up and down the aisles with bottles of Coca-Cola, huge poppy seed muffins, and bags of chips from the snack trolley and considered the possible ramifications of distracting the kids long enough to steal their food, which tended to land on the floor anyway. I was dehydrated, but made frequent trips to the restroom anyway—just to have something to do. At some point along the way, I realized that my boredom was a fatal character flaw. You will probably never see any of this again, I thought. Soak it up. Pay attention. So I started to really look and to feel. Even now, I remember the landscape. I remember how it felt to be so hungry.

A few years ago, I was again traveling to Norway and I ended up in the Copenhagen airport waiting for 13 hours for a connecting flight to Stavanger. This could have been a boring situation—but lucky for me, I was in my 40s and permanently cured of boredom. As airports go, Copenhagen’s is pretty interesting. I had 10 Danish krone (about a $1.50) that I had received in change for something I’d bought on my SAS flight from Chicago, and I created a little game for myself in the airport. First I went through every shop, every newsstand, slowly, and made a list of everything I could afford to buy for 10 krone. That list is as follows: an apple, a pear, a banana, a packet of yeast. There were a number of items that were just out of my price range (potato chips, morning buns, candy bars). I’ll spare the suspense: in the end, I bought the pear and it was delicious. I ate it very slowly while watching all the interesting people scurrying past. I had a pretty good day.

Nowadays, I never say I’m bored. This is partly because I have raised two children and my part in this particular life sketch has changed—my line is, “Clean your room,” and I utter it with the conviction that many a classically trained stage actor would envy. But I also never say I’m bored because I generally don’t feel it—and if I begin to feel the stirrings of anything approaching boredom, I deal with it like a hypochondriac reaching for the bottled zinc at the first sign of a scratchy throat. (Perhaps I even clean my room.) I remind myself that life is a gift and my presence here in this moment is nothing short of a miracle. If I can’t find some interest in the world around me, what’s the point?

I wonder what a cure for spiritual boredom might be. So many of us struggle with our relationship with God—perhaps looking for novelty, for something exciting (but not too exciting!) to happen. We expect a lot from our lives and from our spiritual journeys—adventure, romance. It can be difficult to accept the daily plodding quality of fulfilling duties, faithfully and with joy. I appreciate this verse: “I am not saying this because I am in any need, for I have learned to be content in whatever situation I am in” (Philippians 4:11, ISV).

 

Becky De Oliveira is a teacher, writer, and graphic designer working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.

2019-06-17T09:32:43-07:00June 17th, 2019|Living God's Love|

Engaging

by Becky De Oliveira

 

My most finely-honed skill is waking up in the morning, and it’s probably the thing about me—other than the fact that I attended a Nirvana concert when Kurt Cobain was still alive, back in 1992—that tends to most impress other people. I get up at precisely 4:46 a.m. every day. Yes, even weekends. My birthday. Christmas Day.

“Wow,” people say. “You must be so productive.”

You would think. But no. Not really. I run. Walk a bit. Read a bit. My day pretty much goes downhill from there. I work, of course, but rarely accomplish as much as I’d planned. In the morning, the day stretches ahead, filled with possibility. There are all kinds of things I might achieve! I make lists of them while I run. I tell myself that I will spend no fewer than 30 minutes writing and that I’ll start the minute I get my kids out the door for school. This almost never happens; I tend instead to work in sporadic bursts of energy interrupted by long periods of inertia.

The fact is that I am, and always have been, a whole lot better and more productive in my head. I have had to struggle to become any kind of doer. One of my favorite children’s books is Oh the Thinks You Can Think by Dr. Seuss. “You can think about red. You can think about pink. You can think up a horse. Oh, the thinks you can think!” I’ve thought of some great stuff. Story plotlines. Poems. Novels. Paintings. T-shirt designs. Ball gowns. How I might win the Olympics in shot put. Birch bark canoes. Ways to make my own shoes.

And as a kid, thinking was pretty much all I did. I made up stories, invented contraptions, and tunneled all the way to China, in my mind. What I disliked about doing was that nothing worked out quite the way I’d imagined it would. I could never quite pull off the intricately beaded Indian costume, the full-sized battering ram, or the igloo. Nearly every project ended in profound disappointment. In my head, I landed my round off/back handspring/back tuck every single time—to the thunderous applause of a huge audience—but at the gym, I mostly landed on my head. It took me a long time to learn how to actually do things and accept their inherent imperfections.

A large part of doing is really nothing more than making a simple decision to act. It sounds simple, but can be incredibly hard to do sometimes.

For example, during my senior year of high school, I went skiing with a group from school. About the time we got in our cars to drive home, the road through the mountain pass was closed because of concern about avalanches. I was already in the car with a woman and her daughter—people I did not know particularly well but had ended up riding with. The two of them walked back to the lodge—as did many people—and ate French fries and drank hot chocolate and generally made merry. Not me. I decided that the road would open more quickly if I hunkered down in the back seat of the car, damp and cold. I had nothing to eat and became increasingly grumpy and miserable as the hours crept by. The woman and her daughter came back eventually and ate an entire bag of chocolate chip cookies without offering me a single one, and I fumed and stewed and became increasingly miserable. The roads finally opened, and I got home in time to jump in the shower and get ready to go to school. Not a high point in my life.

Contrast that with another day—similar in many ways, but one that I consider among the best days of my life. Perhaps three years later, I was driving back to college and crossing the same mountain pass. Again, an avalanche warning closed the highway and I, along with dozens of other drivers, was diverted to a truck stop. For maybe half an hour I sat in my car, wrapped in a down sleeping bag and staring out the window. Then, for some reason, I decided to get out of the car. Just that one simple thing: I got out of the car. And magic! Lining up to use the pay phone—this being the era before mobiles were widely used—I met two other people around my age and we formed a sort of posse of activity. We three pushed cars out of ditches and drove around rescuing people. We sat in the diner and drank free coffee and listened for updates with the other stranded travelers. We exchanged stories and made friendly banter with waitresses and truck drivers and elderly people. Together all of us in the diner cheered when, near dawn, the pass was reopened and we continued on our respective journeys, never to see each other again. I’ll never forget the profound sense of community and accomplishment I felt that night. All because I worked up the nerve to do the thing that so often eludes me: Engage.

Engaging—whether with other people or with your own work—requires courage and action. It requires you to overcome both fear and inertia—for real, not just in your imagination.

Becky De Oliveira is a teacher, writer, and graphic designer working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.

2019-06-07T16:49:51-07:00June 10th, 2019|Living God's Love|

Reflections on a Film Festival

by Becky De Oliveira

 

Last week I attended Mountainfilm 2019 in Telluride, CO, for the first time ever, as part of a large and loosely connected group of people. A couple of them I knew well, a few more I’d casually interacted with in the past. The rest were completely new. I’m talking only about the 40 to 50 people who made up the group I was with, not the hundreds of absolute strangers I queued with and shared restaurant, restroom, trail, theater, and gondola space with over the four days.

Here’s the astonishing thing: Every single person appeared friendly, positive, upbeat, and eager to connect. The people of Mountainfilm 2019 struck up conversations on the gondola, in the normal queues we joined at least one hour before any film or event we wanted to see, and in the super queue that many of us joined four hours before Oprah was due to appear onstage with guest director Cheryl Strayed. We languished in the grass under the hot Colorado sun and talked about what we’d seen, where we were from, what we thought was exciting in the world today. One possible chink in the conviviality of Mountainfilm 2019 seemed to appear when Q cards were handed out for Oprah 90 minutes earlier than they normally would be, but I didn’t personally observe any anger in the prospective audience members who were turned away. I intuited it from the volunteer staff who, when I asked if I could go inside to use the restroom, said, “Sure, just don’t talk to us about the queuing process!”

The group I was with mostly identified as Christians, but certainly not everyone else in attendance would have thought of themselves this way. I’ve been going to church for long enough to know that groups of Christians don’t always manifest this kind of pure bliss. Sometimes I wonder: Do they ever? If so, when? What unique blend of circumstances and ingredients results in the synchronicity of seemingly very different people from all over the country, previously unknown to one another, meeting up and immediately feeling connected in the pursuit of higher ideals and values? Certainly this is the intention of an event like Mountainfilm that focuses on “environmental, cultural, climbing, political and social justice issues that matter.” One attendee, the ethnobotanist Wade Davis, is quoted as saying, “All the best people I’ve ever known, I met at Mountainfilm.” It is entirely possible that some people leave this event deeply alienated and embittered, feeling disrespected and abused, hurting in ways that will take a lifetime to heal, but I saw no evidence of any of these problems. Most of the people I talked to were frequent attendees; many proclaimed the festival an annual must.

What is it about church that turns out so very differently for so many people? On the surface, these two things have a great deal in common. Both are seeking to bring people together around a set of ideals. Both appeal to the concept and practice of love. Both want to communicate their visions of how to make the world a better place for the billions who inhabit it. What makes Mountainfilm a resounding success in this pursuit and many churches, well, less successful?

Another way to look at this question might be to ask if there is anything that could cause Mountainfilm attendees to go away hurt and angry. I’m not certain, but I imagine that if the attendees picked on one another, criticizing clothes and hairstyles, that might affect the vibe. What if some people were told that they weren’t welcome because of their gender or sexual orientation? What if only a very narrow range of films were on offer and these promoted a worldview that is more closed than open? What if those attending couldn’t eat what they liked without disapproving glances from everyone else? Or what if everyone showed up with a critical attitude, ready to hate everything they see?

I’ve been perplexed by the issues in churches for as long as I’ve been involved with them at close range. Why are we so eager to criticize each other? Why are we so quick to take offense at almost everything that happens? Why do we not focus more on the high ideals we share and less on the logistics?

Author and director Cheryl Strayed gave one example of putting positivity back into the world at the closing discussion on Monday morning, which happened to be Memorial Day. She told the story of a man who became enraged with her in traffic while she was driving a group of teenagers. She’d accidentally cut him off, and he swore and screamed and called her names. At the next light, she pulled up beside him, rolled down the window, and said, “Sir, I apologize for upsetting you. I can see you’re having a bad day. I hope it gets better.” Completely stunned and disarmed, the man immediately apologized for his behavior: “I should never have spoken to you that way. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Maybe this is all that it would take—simply remembering every day, many times a day, as often as it takes, that those around us are only human. They need love and grace and forgiveness—from God, certainly, but also from us. And we need those things too.

Becky De Oliveira is a teacher, writer, and graphic designer working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.

2019-06-02T17:02:51-07:00June 3rd, 2019|Living God's Love|

We Still Have This Hope

by Connie Vandeman Jeffery

 

“When all hope is gone, sad songs say so much,” sings Elton John in his classic “Sad Songs.” His song is way too sad for me. When I’m feeling hopeless I gravitate toward hopeful songs. “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” And, “We have this hope that burns within our hearts.” These are the songs that “say so much” to me. How very blessed we are to have this “Hope” with a capital “H”—the kind of Hope that can come from Christ alone.

Even though I was born with an abundance of hope and joy, I’ve been from hope to hopeless and back to hope a number of times, like a mini rollercoaster of hope. When prayers weren’t answered the way I thought they should be, I’d lose a bit of hope.

From the age of six, I prayed for my brother Ron to be healed of schizophrenia, the chronic paranoid variety of the disease. From a complete nervous breakdown at the age of 21 through to his death at 68, he remained a very sick man. His illness was unpredictable, often scary, and always a complete mystery to me. Our family “hoped and prayed” for decades for the miracle of healing that never happened. We “hoped against hope” because “hope springs eternal.” I learned all the “hope” quotations and acronyms (Having Only Positive Expectations or HOffers Peace Every day). And I especially learned the verses of Scripture about hope, like this one: “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?  But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Romans 8: 24-25, NIV). We waited ever so patiently.

My parents never lost hope. But I did. There were breakthroughs, new therapies, setbacks, some improvements, and more setbacks along the way. It wasn’t until a few years before Ron died, and many years after our parents had passed away, that I came to the life-changing realization that Ron’s once-beautiful mind, which had become so tortured and twisted with mental illness, would be made beautiful again in the earth made new. Hope began to stir anew and took root once again in my heart.

We had a conversation a few years before he passed away that was completely lucid on his part and ultimately healing for me. We almost never spoke of spiritual things. And yet, Ron asked me that day if I’d read the Gospels. “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,” he said eagerly. “Have you ever read them in one sitting, beginning to end?”

“Of course I’ve read them,” I said, “but not in one sitting. Why do you ask?”

“Because the ‘Story’ is in there and it’s so simple,” he said.

“And what’s the ‘Story,’” I asked hesitantly.

“Jesus took our pain!” he declared triumphantly.

“Jesus took our pain,” I repeated, completely dumbstruck that my mentally ill brother could grasp the essence of the gospel story in just four words. I told Ron that even our dad, great preacher that he was, could never have explained the gospel as eloquently as he just had. Ron liked that.

I know I’ll see my brother again, with his mind and body restored, because I’m holding onto “this hope that burns within my heart.”

My favorite HOPE acronym is Hold On—Pain Ends. I know Ron would like that one, too.

It was 57 years ago that my brother Ron had a nervous breakdown that launched our family into a four-decade journey into the unknown world of schizophrenia. It was also 57 years ago this month that “We Have This Hope” was introduced as the theme song for the 1962 General Conference Session in San Francisco. Wayne Hooper of the Voice of Prophecy wrote the song specifically for the session, the theme of which was also “We Have This Hope.” The song was used again as the theme song for the General Conference sessions of 1966, 1975, 1995, and 2000. It remains an Adventist classic that we sing at camp meetings, in churches, at memorial services, and anywhere Adventists gather to praise God. For me, it’s my personal anthem of hope that fills me with assurance and faith. We still have this hope. Let’s never stop singing it!

Connie Vandeman Jeffery is the host of All God’s People, a weekly short video series highlighting the people and ministries of the Pacific Union Conference, and has had a long career in media.

2019-05-27T16:40:57-07:00May 27th, 2019|Living God's Love|

Birdeaux

by Ray Tetz

 

It was a big decision to get a cockatiel—one of those little grey parrots with the cheerful yellow and orange crest. We debated whether or not we had the patience to raise and train a young bird, especially when we’d heard that they could be reclusive and slow to respond to human interaction. We were young and newly married. What did we know?

One young bird was sitting off by herself in the cage, apart from the other cockatiels, and when I extended my finger as a perch, she jumped right on as if she had been waiting for me.

Thus began one of the great relationships of my life.

We called her Birdeaux. She was not reclusive; she was effusive. She was verbal, animated, engaging, funny, and endlessly curious. She didn’t like her cage much but loved to be with us—all the time. She took to sitting on my shoulder while I read or worked. She could hear my car coming home from a half mile away, and she would start squeaking and screeching until I went back to her cage and opened the little door. Then she would jump onto my finger, climb up my arm, and settle onto my shoulder—filled with all the news of the day that she just had to tell me.

Sometimes I would forget she was sitting on my shoulder—she was so much a regular part of my day—and she would remind me that she was being ignored by nibbling at my ear. And then one day I forgot she was there and walked outside—and she flew away.

We could see her climbing higher and higher in the sky, could hear her calling and we called to her, but she didn’t come back. She kept climbing until she was out of sight, and then she was gone.

We were brokenhearted. We drove through the neighborhoods with the car whose sound she knew, posted signs, took out ads in the paper—nothing. Four days went by; it seemed like forever. Her cage was empty. We would have given anything, done anything, to have her home.

Then the phone rang. “I think we’ve got your bird,” the voice said. “She landed on the balcony and she won’t leave us alone. And she won’t stop talking either.”

We had her back. I’m not sure who was the happiest at being reunited, for there was a lot of cooing and talking and scratching of her little head. She wouldn’t leave my shoulder for anything.

Cockatiels weigh about three and a half ounces. They are all feathers and voice box. Their brains are not very big—and if Birdeaux was any indication, they are dedicated entirely to describing the world around them and showing affection and appreciation for the things they recognize, understand, and love. Being loved by a bird—and loving a bird—was one of the purest and most rewarding experiences of my life. Decades after her death (they don’t live forever), I still miss her.

The day she flew away was one of the worst in my life. The day we got her back still shines in my memory.

If losing a bird can break your heart—what can it be like to lose a whole world? No wonder the redemption story is so sweet with emotion and love. No wonder there is great rejoicing over even one who returns to Father’s care. No wonder the reunion is heralded by the greatest song (and winged creatures, I must add!).

Amazing redemption, how sweet the sound!

 

Ray Tetz is the director of communication and community engagement for the Pacific Union Conference.

2019-05-21T09:08:55-07:00May 20th, 2019|Living God's Love|