Faith, Family, & Focaccia

A faith and culture Mommy blog, because real life gets all mixed together like that.

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Why It’s So Hard to Love My Neighbor

I’ve recently been using a new book in my morning devotional time. I’ve turned to it in part because it offers a very simple formula that I hope may help with my consistency, and in part because it is based on the writings of Teresa of Avila (a contemplative, spiritual author, and Carmelite reformist), whose life and writings demonstrate a deep and transformative understanding of prayer in the Christian life. The formula that so appeals to me is as follows: 1) a morning reading, drawn from Teresa’s prolific writing, 2) a “mantra” from the day’s reading to write down and repeat to myself as a guide for meditation throughout the day, 3) an evening prayer that draws from the reading and focuses me on seeking God through whatever truth has been germinating in my daily reflection. No formula is perfect, but I have been finding Teresa’s words inspiring and the task of day-long meditation very fruitful.

Particularly today!

I won’t reproduce the full morning reading here, but the theme it explored is the teaching that is commonly referred to as the first and second commandments. Stated most simply in the opening of the reading, “Our Lord asks but two things of us: love for God and love for our neighbors.” It is an imperative so familiar to the lifelong Christian that it is sometimes hard to take in the full import of those words. They are formulaic instructions that do not often take active root in the routines and responsibilities of daily life. This day’s reflection, however, managed to give them new life for me. Teresa makes the point that it can be hard to evaluate how genuinely we are loving God, but it is much more obvious how we are doing with our neighbor-love obligation. What is more, this neighbor love, although “second” in priority can actually be the means to factually, concretely loving God. As summarized in my mantra for the day:

If we possess a true love of neighbor

we will certainly attain union with our Lord.

I found this argument compelling, but hard to really grasp. I’ve had the experience in my Christian life of what has felt like quite the opposite — where love for people (whether they be within my own family or disadvantaged groups for whom I have advocated) has felt like it is in competition with my love for God. Not that God doesn’t approve of the love and devotion I show to these others, but it is too easy for me to misprioritize and leave my devotion to God in the shadows of my more practical, visible loves. How then can my practice of neighbor-love be actually the route through which I achieve the union with God that manifests true, committed love?

As I began my day, I was wrestling with this question, unsure what answers I would find but sort of vaguely asking God for revelation. My morning agenda offered little opportunity for really exploring the concrete practice of neighbor love. There was some casual chatting with other moms at school drop-off, and a few facebook posts to respond to, but mostly I had a solitary morning of working on my book. I glanced at my post it note a few times, trying to internalize the message, but that was about it.

Then, 1:00 hit and I went to grab my shoes. Wednesday is an optional half-day at school from Year 2 and up, and I had promised Princess Imagination that I would collect her early for a little special Mommy-Daughter time without the Gigglemonster. Perhaps it was the morning spent perched sideways on the couch typing away; perhaps it was the final devolution of that knot in my back that has been bugging me for days. All I know is that I reached down to fasten my shoe, and I suddenly saw stars. The pain was like a micro explosion in the center of my back that radiated pulsing pressure in every direction and temporarily stole my breath away. I couldn’t move. Even just inhaling hurt.

As the minutes ticked toward the 1:30 pick-up I imagined my Princess’s shining face as the gates swung open, searching the crowd of maternal faces for mine. I can’t let her down! I have to be there. On a slow, relaxing inhale I used my hands for support as I eased back against the wall. Once my back was vertical it felt a little better. The stabbing pain disappeared as long as I didn’t try to move. That left only the pressure of an elephant compressing my spine. But I could manage that. I had to! I closed my eyes and breathed a prayer for miraculous healing, but added grudgingly at the end “not my will, but yours be done.” Apparently, sudden miraculous freedom from pain was not God’s will for the moment.

So here was my first chance to practice neighbor love – to go pick up my daughter instead of calling the school to cancel and then lying on an icepack for the next two hours. When I pictured her desolation if I failed to show I didn’t feel like I really had that much of a choice, but still it was a chance to see what Teresa was talking about.

The problem is, Teresa was talking about true love and that goes beyond making the painful drive to pick up the eager 6year old. That requires actually focusing on her needs over and above my own. I tried. I let her pick the art activity of her choice, and once I’d finished my 20 minutes of floor-bound ice packs I joined her at the table and happily made play dough spaghetti for the next hour. I know from her glowing smile and the energy exploding out of her for the rest of the day that this was a really special time for her. But…

This wasn’t really the neighbor love Teresa was talking about, the love that brings us into union with God. I knew that when each stab of pain made me wish I hadn’t promised her this afternoon together. I knew it when her enthusiastic pull on the purse slung on my shoulder ejected a verbal slap from my lips (“Don’t pull on my purse. My back is hurt!!!“). I hadn’t elected the most selfish option possible for my afternoon, but neither was I really putting her first.

As the afternoon progressed, and the ibuprofen and ice packs did their work, my pain relented to a reasonable degree and we went to pick up the Gigglemonster. After homework and a few books and cuddles the kids involved themselves in independent play, so I went scrolling on Facebook. What I found there was a Sojourners post about a Rick Warren controversy of which I hadn’t been aware. I won’t belabor the details, but apparently the well-known pastor (or his staff) had made an ill-advised post on twitter and Facebook. It was an image drawn from a propaganda poster for the Red Army and it was supposed to present a picture of the kind of motivation and commitment displayed by their church team. The blog post offered a strong (though I thought reasonable) critique, not only of the use of the image, but primarily of the justification that was posted after the image was removed. The critique argued powerfully for why the excuse of irony and joking displayed a failure to understand how hurtful and inappropriate these posts had been. (To see the blog post:

I nodded my head vigorously, though figuratively (unnecessary spinal motion is still severely curtailed). The post exposed how unloving it is to ask an oppressed group to “take a joke” and I found a connection to the mantra I had been contemplating all day. However unintentional or uninformed the original decision to post the image had been, the real damage was done by the failure to take responsibility for causing pain or to even ask forgiveness. This was a key element to this love of neighbor that Teresa was describing. Love of neighbor requires humility, the willingness to respond not just to others’ physical needs but to their emotional needs as well. And sometimes, others’ emotional needs might require us to accept that we don’t always have the right to make a joke. By being vulnerable to another’s pain, even a pain we can’t really relate to, we make ourselves more open to union with the God who took on all our pain.

Feeling pretty good about my spiritual insightfulness I scrolled through the comments following the blog. Most of them were “like-able,” applauding the author’s clarity and message. Then I came to a response that rebuked the author for not offering enough grace to Rick Warren.

Wait a minute! I wanted to scream into my tiny I-phone screen. Did you even read the article? Warren’s the privileged white guy who does something really offensive and then whines that he was just trying to be funny. He’s not the victim here! If he won’t look for the truth in the negative feedback he gets, then he needs more negative feedback, not grace!

And then my eyes fell on that little post it note. If we possess true love of neighbor we will certainly attain union with our Lord. Well, I wasn’t feeling terribly unified with my Lord at the moment. Not that God never expresses righteous anger, but the thing with God’s anger is that it really is utterly righteous. There is no shadow of pomposity or strident self-justification. If God is angry it’s because the Source of perfect goodness has been violated and that demands justice. My self-righteousness, on the other hand, has a lot of personal ego and defensiveness and other less-than-savory ingredients added to the mix. I can’t really agree with the comment that rejected a valid critique because it lacks “grace,” but I’m not loving my neighbor when I compose scathing responses to his ignorance, even if they are just in my head.

With that stinging conviction on my brain I got dinner on the table. As the kids sat down I asked the Gigglemonster to pick a prayer. (The kids have a few books of children’s prayers on the dinner table and they take turns selecting prayers at meal time). Here is the gem he picked out for tonight:

Dear God,

People are all different, but you love them just the same,

Please teach me how to do this, Lord — to love them in your name.


Stated here so clearly, in the language of young children, was the truth about love that I had been struggling toward all day. Loving my neighbor, and thereby drawing into union with God, is not about me! Love that builds unity is about understand God’s love for others that transcends all our differences. That kind of love doesn’t fall back on excuses for how I’m in pain and I really need to put myself first. That kind of love doesn’t ask others to understand my point of view. That kind of love doesn’t get defensive and self-righteous when faced with difference. It loves “just the same.”

I think I am starting to understand how Teresa can claim that true love of neighbor can draw us into union with God. I am very, very, far from that kind of true love, but I am starting to understand it and to at least want to be able to practice it.

Please teach me how to do this, Lord. Amen


My “Innocent” Addiction

Hi. My name is Serena, and I’m addicted to my I-phone. I have been clean for about 30 minutes.

OK. With that confession out of the way, I want to apologize to anyone reading this who has had their life ravaged by addiction (be it to a controlled substance, or food, or gambling, or whatever). I know my addiction has not risen to the bar, or dropped me to the depths, that typically moves someone through the doors of a 12-step program. Nor is it so extreme that I expect my husband and children will be seeking consolation in a support group. I do really know that because I spent a year of my MSW program running a weekly spiritually group for homeless addicts in recovery in Trenton, New Jersey. I have seen just how destroyed rock bottom can be, and I’ve never been there. I’ve never even boarded the bus whose final destination is Rock Bottom. I have deep compassion for people who lose everything to addiction and awed respect for those who somehow find the courage to try to climb their way back up from the chasm. I would never make light of their struggles and strengths.

I borrow the language of recovery, however, because I can recognize the patterns of addiction, even in an apparently innocuous form. I see the classic subterfuge when I am hiding in the bathroom with my phone on mute so that the tell-tale sounds of yet another failed attempt to master level 29 of Candy Crush won’t betray the real reason I told the kids I needed “privacy.” I recognize the addict’s twitch when I hear my phone ding its  friendly notice that “I have mail,” and my instant reaction is to move toward the sound, salivating to my own personal Pavlovian bell. I blush at the misplaced priorities when I feel compelled to “just send this quick e-mail” to the random mom is my daughter’s class while that flesh-and-blood daughter lays waiting for me to read her bedtime story (Really? The clarification about next week’s field trip can’t wait 20 minutes?). These symptoms warn me that I am giving control of my time management, and my emotional equilibrium, and most importantly my attention, to an innocent little device that slides so comfortingly into my back pocket.

While I won’t elevate them with the label “rock bottom,” there have been a few moments in the last week that have made it impossible to hush a persistent little whisper in my mind that murmurs “danger, danger, you are losing yourself and your professed moral priorities to the herald of mindless distraction.”

The first incident was last Friday night, while my family was out to dinner at our favorite little restaurant just around the corner. To say it had been a hard week is rather imprecise, since that category can cover so many diverse levels of challenge. We weren’t in Boston (or Darfur, or Syria) so on one level we had no cause for complaint. But, we were dealing with the follow-up steps after a medical crisis in our extended family, and Tyler had faced some frustrations at work over and above the norm, and we had both missed our 7 hour nightly sleep minimum by a mile, so we were feeling drained and exhausted. Time to leave the cooking to someone else, and get away from all the mess in the house, and just enjoy a quiet dinner in familiar surroundings. While Tyler took the Gigglemonster to the bathroom Princess Imagination asked for her sticker dolly dressing book, seizing the opportunity to maximize her time with that coveted entertainment that is generally rationed out for pre-food restaurant moments like this. Rather than just soak in the few moments of restful silence, my hand groped in my purse for its little blue companion, and within moments I was washing my brain with the flow of status updates, political “posters”, and pictures of various cuties from my friends’ progeny that is my Facebook newsfeed. Tyler and the Gigglemonster returned from the bathroom with the news that he had thought about peeing standing up (but opted for the alternative in the end),  but the excitement of the news slipped away as our little man’s fingers locked on the he had left on the table and he was lost in the world of Cars2. I clicked on “just one more” FB post whose picture had caught my attention, when Tyler’s tired voice called me back to the present. “My daughter is playing with her sticker book, my son is on the Leappad, and my wife is surfing Facebook. I’m so glad I took my family out to dinner!” Oops! Sorry. The phone went back to the purse and I resolutely clenched my fingers for the rest of the meal whenever its dinging voice called for their companionship. I have a problem, I told myself. I need to set some limits, and I clearly need to set a better example for my children!

Fast forward to last night. The frequent post-dinner fog hovers over my exhausted mind in the indeterminate hour before 9:00 bedtime, and I have slipped into the wishful assumption that Tyler is moving the kids through the necessary preparations so that I can have 5 minutes of blissful vegetation. (He is actually asleep on the living room floor while the Gigglemonster zooms cars over his stomach and around his head, but his far more excessive sleep deprivation entitles him to this mini-coma.) Enter Princess Imagination, searching the house for a mother who has answered her persistent, eager calls for attention only with vague promises of “in a minute, Sweetie.” “Whatcha doing, Mommy?” asked with the bright-eyed curiosity that I pray she never loses. “Oh, I just want to finish this one post, Honey. I’m almost done.” I’m ashamed to admit that this satisfies her – my little Observer who sees everything around her as an opportunity to inquire and learn doesn’t even bother to ask what the post is about, or what it means to “finish a post” on my phone. That’s old news, and the quicker she stops bugging me the quicker I will finish and give her some attention – she has learned that lesson very well. I finish the sentence and click the little blue button to send my “wisdom” off into the world wide web, but the irony isn’t lost of me. The subject of my post? My two cents on a comment string from the “positive parenting” web group about dealing with toddlers who throw tantrums when rushed through daily tasks. And the irony? In my post-toddler-stage-wisdom I was sententiously preaching about how you need to make sure you build extra time into your routines so that your children can move at their own pace, not yours.

Zing! That was the boomerang of self-righteous superiority circling back to hit me right in the solar plexus.

After bedtime last night my soul was feeling a bit staggered from the force of the dual-blows dealt to my self-image by these two obvious failures to live up to my own standards for decent parenting and partnering. I sought healing in the pages of a book Princess Imagination had inquired about earlier. The Book of Dads is admittedly not written exactly to me, but its humorous and soulful reflections on the other half of parenting might still offer me some commiseration in my failings. The introduction was witty, and real, and just what I was looking for, and I dove into the first essay full of expectation that I had struck on just the right pick-me-up. This particular reflection was from a Dad experiencing the very earliest stages of fatherhood, but his comments reached back to a time before parenting, when he watched his sister mothering her children and was awed by her example:

“…it was her nonstop selflessness that intimidated me, how she gave so much of herself, always, every day, a perpetual gusher of soul and spirit that left me exhausted just watching it.”

I had to stop reading right there. It just hurt too much.

You see, my younger sister said something very similar to me once, as she watched me mothering Princess Imagination a few years ago. This was before the I-phone, but also before I had the luxury of so much work-free time. In fact, this wonder-filled comment about selflessness had come when I was working fulltime and caring for a toddler while pregnant with my second. How was it that just a few short years ago I really did think nothing of devoting every moment of the wake-time I had with my daughter to focusing on her needs, but now, when my daily routine includes 6 whole hours of child-free time, I couldn’t put down my web-conversation with perfect strangers to respond to her call?  I clearly have a problem. I have lost my bearings in the world of easy-access information and entertainment and I am worried that I am wasting the precious time I have to be a mother who is actually sought out by her children. Worse still, I worry that I am setting an example of disengagement and distraction that could trap my children in a lifetime of electronic addiction as well.

The I-phone: the miracle restaurant entertainment.

The I-phone: the miracle restaurant entertainment.


And so, I started this post with a confession, and I am ending it with a request. Please help. If you have struggled with this or a similar “innocent” addiction, I covet any advice you can offer to aid in my recovery. And if you are one of the readers who has contact with me in the “real world.” Please hold me accountable. You see, I started thinking about the danger of the technology-vortex last summer! It was going to be my third or fourth post. But other topics kept coming up that were more located in a specific moment. This was something I could blog about at any time. Besides, once I blog about it, I have to start doing something about it, and that might be too hard. But what would be really hard would be to gradually lose the most precious relationships in my life to the pernicious pull of electronic distraction. I would rather live the rest of myself without a single moment of electronic mail, or games, or status updates, than to see the light of excitement just to talk to me fade from my daughter’s eyes.