Tag Archives: parenting

In Memory of Robin Mittenthal

Jay and Terri Mittenthal are friends who for several years opened their home to welcome students of A Course In Miracles to gather in their living room to talk about the course and share their life journeys.  In December 2017, they lost their son, Robin, when he was crushed under a tree that fell on him. As testimony to Robin’s impact among the people whose lives he touched, this GoFundMe account has gathered not only funds for his children but also a host of reflections to honor his heartfelt value to those who contributed and left comments.  https://www.gofundme.com/honoring-robin-mittenthal

Now I want to share with all who seek to live courageously with compassionate hearts this poem that Jay was inspired to write:

Grief
Tibetan flags stream on the cold air,
gusty flutter of surprise
like our son’s parka,
never again caught up to wear,
still in his apartment as we enter from the funeral home.
How can this be?  That’s the great surprise,
gone in an instant, back snapped like a limb
of the tree he was cutting down.
We are left behind, bemused, bewildered.
Weary of grieving, reluctant to stop,
we slide again into the abyss when once we start,
wandering in a labyrinth
where movement is a search
for what is not.

Within these lines may all who have ever been separated from loved ones by any cause see our common ground in our steadfast search for peace and love.  In resting motionless there we will find each other and our selves in the heart of Love.

God is an Authority Figure Unlike Any Other

The heart of Jesus’ mission has always been to reveal that God is an authority figure unlike any other we may have known – or even heard of or imagined – throughout our lifetimes.  Followers of Jesus have the same mission.  Most of us have resisted the opportunity to fully benefit from this mission because we remain hung up on our experiences with human authority figures.  We acquired hang-ups as earthly authority figures exercised power over us in clumsy, perhaps even cruel ways and now we tend to automatically hang up on Jesus when he calls us to walk with him through our past experiences to know and show God as an authority figure unlike the earthly ones of our past.  I write this post to encourage all of us to listen when Jesus calls and hear and heed the more completely heart-satisfying message about God’s authority and power as he offers it to us.  We miss out on the grace of God when we ignore Jesus’ call to share the true nature of God with a world that hungers to know an authority figure of His/Her qualities.

How does God differ from earthly authority figures in offering to relate to us?  Let’s explore several differences among the many that exist.

  1. As we grew up, we experienced parenting figures, older relatives, teachers, coaches and others who wielded authority that we were taught to obey (or at least appear to obey) as quickly as possible to reduce the risk of wearing out their patience and tolerance. When we did not obey quickly enough to satisfy our authority figures, we usually endured punishment in some form, what the authority figures commonly called “consequences” for behaving in ways unacceptable to them or for being too slow or inattentive.  Even when not caught misbehaving, we often still felt guilty about violating our authority figures’ rules and not complying with their expectations.  We took their values, rules and corresponding expectations to heart and learned to feel guilty for not following them instantly even long after they ceased to be actively in our lives as authority figures.  As we adopted their values, rules and expectations as our own, we learned to believe them to come from God “on high.”  In this manner, we learned to confuse God with earthly authority figures and failed to see the significant distinctions highlighted in this post.

In contrast, God is an authority figure who 1) holds us to high expectations of progressively greater excellence but not instantaneous perfection and 2) does not punish us nor want us to feel endless guilt when we fail to uphold divine standards in our human lives.  Our conscience’s feelings of guilt may be helpful guidance when we realize we’ve not met God’s expectations but God does not want us to hang onto any guilt we may feel.  She/He wants us to forgive ourselves and let guilt go because He/She knows that guilt interferes with our freedom to learn the lessons in wisdom and grace that we gain from our failures to fully satisfy God’s standards of excellence.  He/She also knows that fear of punishment does not improve our capacity to learn and grow on account of our experiences in life.  Fear only inhibits our growth towards the mature wholeness God wants us to enjoy.  In helping us to grow strong enough to clear every hurdle of God’s expectations, Jesus introduces us to God’s forgiving nature that we might be free of guilt, no matter what we may or may not have done to fall short of God’s healthiest expectations or how many times we may have stumbled on our journeys.  Lightened of all burdens of guilt, we are more likely to gain mature humility and soar higher to clear each hurdle the next time it appears in our lives.  God generously grants us limitless opportunities to do so.

  1. Throughout our lives, we likely encountered earthly authority figures who played favorites and recruited people to their side in order to demonstrate the influence and significance they held and impress us with the losses we risked in being uncooperative. These experiences set us up to assume that other authority figures, including God, would relate to us in similar ways.  We learned to believe that popularity and social status are desirable, especially popularity and favor with influential authority figures whose opinions of us might make a difference in how things turn out for us.  In the process of relating to such authority figures we may have developed habits (mostly unconscious ones) that came to control our words and actions – perhaps even our thoughts – as we did all we could to seem to be on the side of the authority figures who ruled our lives and remain in their favor.  On the other hand, we may have developed habits of rebelling (perhaps secretly) against authority figures and did not allow them to directly influence our lives much at all.  From either perspective, many of us failed to develop close, meaningful, mutually respectful and fear-free relationships of trust and transparency with our earthly authority figures.

In contrast, God is an authority figure who does not play favorites in any way and has absolutely no need to be popular or have others on His/Her side in order to be powerful.  It’s a mistake to believe that God needs approval from anyone to be the Supreme Authority Figure in the Universe.  He/She has no more need for social approval than He/She needs to inflict pain, guilt or punishment in any form on anyone.  If you think about it, you’ll realize that earthly authority figures react to our mistakes as if they’ve taken them as personal insults – as if their egos have been bruised by our failures to live according to their expectations.  Since God has no ego and does not need our approval, why would God react this way?  It is only in the interests of earthly authority figures to claim that God reacts this way so that they can claim that God backs up their earthly authority.  Such claims are the ultimate expression of the desire for earthly authority figures to recruit others – including even God – to their side to demonstrate their power.  God takes no sides in expressions of earthly authority and seeks only to guide earthly authority figures to exercise authority with wisdom born of humility and to avoid hubris.  Since God does not play favorites in any way, He/She does not favor one earthly authority figure over another but rather seeks to guide them all, regardless of the degree to which any may be inclined to listen to Him/Her.  As Jesus’ life reveals, as our Divine Parent, God invites us all – earthly authority figures and the rest of us – into close, meaningful, mutually respectful and fear-free wholehearted intimacy with Him/Her even as She/He serves as our Ultimate Authority Figure.

  1. It is commonly said of earthly authority figures that power tends to corrupt them and absolute power tends to corrupt them absolutely. In this manner, the higher up the ladder of power that an earthly authority figure rises, the more likely it is that he or she will wield power with decreasing empathy, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, humility and grace and with increasing hubris.  Studies have discovered scientific evidence of changes in our brains and how we think as we rise to wield earthly power. Although these changes do not occur uniformly in everyone, the risk is great that they will occur unless disciplines are in place to curtail their development.  (For more about this topic, visit http://www.daedalustrust.com/ and read “Power Causes Brain Damage” in the July/August 2017 issue of The Atlantic Monthly at theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/07/.)

In contrast, God is an authority figure who is not corrupted by any degree of power, even absolute power.  By nature, God is infinitely powerful and yet also incorruptible. He/She never stoops to bullying, bribing or being bribed.  If anything, His/Her grace and mercy expands the more we try to no longer conform to the patterns of the world and instead allow our hearts and minds to be transformed as the means of demonstrating God’s good and perfect will towards everyone.  That is, the more diligently we strive to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God regardless of social disapproval we may encounter and the failure of others around us to do likewise, the more He/She welcomes us to be close and comforted even in the midst of our most troubling testings and trials.  How few earthly authority figures compare well to God on that standard!

  1. By their nature as “earthly,” our human authority figures are physically outside of us and rule over us while we grow from childhood into adulthood.  As they train us to conform to their spoken and unspoken rules, expectations and way of life, they hope that we’ll internalize their dominating values, ideas and attitudes and allow them to rule unquestioned for all our lives as if our parents and other earthly authority figures are eternally with us and as absolute in knowledge and power as God is. It is common for this to happen. We are apt to struggle throughout our adulthood trying to take back our true power from such internalized authority figures in order to value ourselves and recover our freedom to outgrow their training and become our own persons with power to question what we’ve been told.

In contrast, God is present within us from the start – when we were first created – and reigns beneath, alongside and around us as the nurturer of our true nature and source of health and wise guidance.  Rather than be a source of rules for us to obey and expectations for us to satisfy, God is the source of all we need to fulfill our divine destinies as Her/His children.  God’s resources are offered freely and abundantly to us from within as well as outside of us.  Guidance, wisdom, love, motivation and the energizing opportunities of life are some of His/Her most precious gifts extended openly to each of us.  We are each God’s favorite child of the model and design we are because we are each uniquely who we are.  No one can compete to take our place in relationship with God.  If a person tries to compete with us for a relationship with God, that person is merely abandoning his or her natural relationship with God and trying mistakenly to substitute a lesser quality relationship.  That’s a foolish choice made by all who continue to fear God and seek to come into Her/His presence disguised as someone else rather than to approach the throne of grace “just as I am without one plea.”  Unlike many earthly authority figures, God is not poised to pounce upon us with a judgmental, fault-finding attitude as many people mistakenly believe but rather is peacefully and lovingly at rest within us, continuously inviting us to be at ease within Her/His inner embrace.  As we accept love’s invitation to be at ease, we release stress and have far less reason to take on any dis-ease.

  1. Unless a human authority figure masters the art of humility and disciplines himself or herself to rise beyond ego’s claim on his or her mind, to one degree or another, he or she will engage in hypocrisy. His or her actions will to some degree conflict with each other and with his or her words.  He/She is likely to hold differing standards for himself/herself as well as for others as part of playing people against each other or currying favor with some in preference to others.  She/He may make mountains out of molehills while overlooking some mountains as if they were molehills. Blowing hot and cold, using double standards and playing games with emotions will be part of his/her typical patterns.  Worse yet, he/she may be petty, vindictive, heartless and too little concerned about the welfare of others whom he/she tends to undervalue as a matter of routine.

In contrast, God is free of hypocrisy and remains steadfast in His/Her orientation towards each and every one of us as a divine child welcome to participate in the divine family business as Jesus did.  God holds out holiness as the universal standard for Himself/Herself and for us too.  Since holiness is the same as healthiness and wholeness shared in oneness with God and each other, it is a high standard worth attaining.  It is also natural to us because it is the nature in which we are all created as extensions of the Holy Parent.  God indulges in none of the traits of an ego and sustains positive regard for all of us regardless of how well or poorly we may satisfy His/Her standards of health and wholeness from time to time.  Jesus told the story of the prodigal son to illustrate God’s commitment to our well-being for all eternity.

I hope that these thoughts stir up hope that many of your assumptions about God’s nature and your relationship with God are based on fallacies acquired along the way in your life.  None of these fallacies needs to continue to interfere with your awareness of God’s presence within you because you have the power to change your mind and allow your heart to be cleansed of all fear moment by moment by God’s love flowing freely from the throne of grace to you as a tree of life planted astraddle the river of life.  The river of life flows with God’s love for all of us, without exception – no matter what we may have said or done or what we or anyone else may think of us.

I encourage you to set time aside to rest with God as Jesus frequently did as he spent time away from the crowds and even from his disciples.  Put down your roots into the soil of unconditional love and drink of the river of life as often and as deeply as your heart desires.  There is no more promising way to use your time than to put a smile in God’s heart by smiling there with Him/Her.  She/He delights to share your joys as well as your sorrows and other heartfelt emotions throughout your lifetime because in your open sharing She/He knows that you have come to trust that you are best off when you spend time regularly in God’s home within your heart.  None of us is banished to live as a prodigal child for any longer than we want to.  When we decide to come home to God by welcoming His/Her presence within us, we’ll know it has happened forever.

© Art Nicol 2017

 

Social Justice Impact of Idealizing the Nuclear Family

Many conservatives among Christians, including those grouped as fundamentalists but also many members of mainline churches, idealize the family structure of a married man and woman together with their one or more biological children as the optimum goal for families. This idealized configuration is called the “nuclear family.”  Some flexibility is allowed for adding non-biological children and perhaps even an occasional step-parent into the mix.  Typically little or no flexibility is allowed for parenting by same-sex couples or for recognition of single-parent families as potentially healthy models for raising children. As is typical of moralistically oriented believers in God, the top-down thought-structure of this ideal renders anything less than its attainment a failure to comply with God’s only ordained family lifestyle.  Those who fail to engage in child-rearing as continuously married, opposite-sex parents are second class citizens who deserve to be burdened by guilt and shame for their failure to “do family” God’s way.  Conformity to the “model” nuclear family many conservatives claim as their narrow definition of family is frequently at the heart of what conservative advocates mean by “family values.”

In the days when wealth was deemed proof of one’s worthiness in the eyes of God, poverty was a sign of sinfulness and disfavor with God – or at least a sign of second class citizenship and loss of voice and influence in the Church.  In modern times, participation in a man-woman nuclear family is similarly argued to be necessary to prove one’s worthiness in the eyes of God and to qualify to be empowered within the Church while participation in any other style of family is deemed a sign of disfavor with God, mostly likely associated with sin.  In Jesus’ days on earth, legalistic religious folks asked him if a man were blind on account of his sins or the sins of his parents on the assumption that sin had to be somewhere in the family tree to cause his blindness.  Today, legalistic believers now seem to ask if a child’s participation in a family structure other than a man-woman nuclear family is due to the child’s sins or the sins of the child’s parents.  The assumptions inherent in this question overshadow the child with dark implications of unworthiness and disfavor before God – either directly or by parental association.  Although the child has no choice in structuring the family in which he or she is raised, legalistic folks place false burdens of guilt and shame on the child on account of the family’s structure.  Where poverty once condemned children regardless of the fact that they did not determine their economic status today both poverty and family structure often cause a child to suffer from self-doubt and loss of social status regardless of the child’s lack of power to control either social factor.

Children raised in poverty and/or within non-nuclear family structures have an empowering opportunity just as the blind man had.  They can turn to Jesus to gain freedom from any blinding pain and distress caused by their society’s misrepresentations of God’s standards.  They can regain clarity of sight by learning to allow God’s grace to be proven to be sufficient just as the blind man proved it in Jesus’ day by accepting sight at Jesus’ hand.  So long as believers in Jesus continue to adhere to their myopic prejudice that gives higher social approval and value to families structured as a married pair of opposite-sex adults plus child(ren) they will remain at odds with God’s position on this matter and continue to mislead many others to believe as they do.  God’s position is based on grace, not upon any moralistic rules or rigid definitions about family structure.  If believers want to reflect God’s position on this issue and “do justice” towards children raised in non-nuclear families, we must “love mercy” beyond the law and “walk humbly with God” as if God knows better what our position on this issue – and our response towards members of these families – should be.   We distort and impair social justice so long as we allow any position other than God’s gracious one to prevail within the body of believers upon whom Jesus calls to comfort, heal and bless the children who come unto him.  We are precisely the ones Jesus expects to set the children free rather than burden their innocence with false guilt and shame on account of matters beyond their control.

James 1:27 reports that the “[r]eligion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”  At the outset of the industrial age, as family units moved from rural settings, where extended families were normal, to take up residence in urban settings, many family units rapidly trimmed down to parents and children as older adults failed to survive the transition.  To make ends meet the parents in many families worked long and exhausting hours, sometimes even dying in their attempts to provide for their children. Children were also put to work.  This two-tiered, struggling family unit became the new ideal due to economic realities as interpreted by adults who proudly strove for independent self-reliance in cities where they often did not know who else to trust.  Success was defined as having struggled to achieve financial stability sufficient to support a nuclear family while not allowing anyone to play you for a fool.  The stresses of the identity crisis of the industrial age coupled with the assumption that independence was the touchstone of maturity as an adult drove a wedge between adult generations.  A similar wedge-mentality now justifies a belief among many youth and young adults that older adults are too “out of touch” with modern advancements to have much of practical value to offer to the young.  What some conservative Christians lament as the “breakdown of the nuclear family” began as a breakdown of the extended family and advanced into a breakdown throughout all strata of society.  Over the course of several generations, the cohesive village so needed by children vanished into a pile of disintegrated lives.

At the dawn of the industrial age it was deemed necessary to set aside the traditions of extended-family, village-like societies and adopt the nuclear family as a new-era practicality.  The tyranny of the old had to be thrown off just as the tyranny of King George had been thrown off.  Pioneers moving into the industrial age to settle it with a new population capable of surviving there had to leave old ways behind and fend for themselves in self-reliance as they fashioned a new set of values and priorities suited to the industrial age.  By institutionalizing the nuclear family as ideal, subsequent generations of settlers in the industrial age have kept pace with the demands of change that became even more accelerated under the influence of increasingly expanding technology.* Today the accelerating pace of this technological revolution is driving wedges between thinner and more fragile layers of society and splintering the whole into wafer-thin shards.

Along with the wafering of society came a decline in parental energy, focus and attention directed towards child-rearing.  When parents allowed conformist pressures of the marketplace economy to shape them into income-earners and product-consumers, the quality of life for all family members declined as media-driven standards of comfort and convenience became new social norms. The absence of extended family structures and “villages” to offer children alternative havens of physical safety, emotional comfort and exposure to elders’ wisdom has been an unrecognized source of harm one might call “passive neglect” of the best interests of the children.  Yet this neglect is hard to spot when it is the normal condition under which children grow up.  What is missing and forgotten for generations becomes invisible.  This invisibility is a form of blindness that Jesus would help us to overcome if we ask him to.  He will restore the sight of those who want to see what’s best for children.

On account of social wafering, emotional as well as social orphans and widows abound in modern society in various disguises.  Yet many who call themselves Christians fail to look after them in their distress and instead look down upon them to add to their distress.  Such so-called followers of Jesus fail to follow his example when to follow would conflict with their desire to ascend into and conform to the conveniences and cordiality of modern society’s more privileged ranks. Even the modestly privileged focus on advancing up the social ranks rather than follow Jesus into fields that are white with the harvest.  Of course, those who conform to the world rather than be transformed are reluctant to classify their conformity to convenient social norms as “being polluted by the world,” but that’s precisely what it is.  To focus on building, maintaining and providing for a nuclear family to be proud of on society’s terms too often leaves the orphans and widows unlooked after in their distress, feeling ashamed as second class citizens in both the world and within the body of believers.  Prideful glorification of the nuclear family and of so-called family values that idealize a narrowly defined family structure shortchanges Jesus’ ministry to all whom society (including many Christians) presumes to be unworthy of God’s grace and favor.

Social justice is the core of God’s outreach on Earth.  God would use believers in Jesus as restorers of justice – as ones who give sight to those who are blinded by the guilt and shame that society shifts to them to excuse its neglect.  There is no excuse for conforming to the values of the modern industrial-technological era in place of the values, priorities and perspective Jesus modeled while on Earth and calls us to honor even now.  Perhaps for a person who never heard of Jesus or, having heard, chose to ignore what he or she heard, there may be the excuse of ignorance.  But for those who claim to know and honor Jesus there is no excuse.  It is not enough to rely upon the grace of God and assume that Jesus will once again pray “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”  It is time to stop relying upon God’s future forgiveness.  It is time instead to repent of our mistaken preference for worshipping socially approved pride in place of spiritually disciplined humility, accept forgiveness now and rise up to serve as the Father would have us serve.  As Jonah demonstrated, the forgiven make powerful messengers of God’s grace and forgiveness.

As he promised, Jesus has sent us the Spirit who leads us into all truth. The Holy Spirit exists.  Its holy function is to comfort us in our afflictions and lead us beyond them in service to others to whom God assigns us.  The afflictions of pride are multiple.  The afflictions of pride associated with idealizing the nuclear family are not our only afflictions but we need to be set them aside and overcome them for the sake of the orphans and widows who remain in distress until the people who call themselves followers of Jesus come to their aid. In God’s eyes, the race, religion, creed, ethnicity, economic class, educational status, gender or sexual orientation and historical background of the orphan or widow do not matter. How they may have become orphaned or widowed does not matter.  Jesus calls us to care for them in their distress until their distress is fully relieved and their vision of God as their loving Divine Parent is restored.  Jesus calls us not only to pray for them but to be his means for answering those prayers as we welcome them into his Kingdom.

If we have any style of family we take delight in, Jesus does not object so long our delight remains laced with gratitude to God and does not turn into pride and cause us to fail to invite others to participate within those experiences that delight us.  If our families are valuable to us and to God, sharing them with others who lack such family delights will relieve them of their lack-based distress and loneliness as social outcasts who are all too well-acquainted with grief.  To invite orphans and widows to be included in our family delights and to welcome all who co-create delightful families by any structure pleases the Divine Parent of us all. It matters not to God whether our family structure is traditionally rural, industrial or post-industrial or innovatively adaptive to prevailing social conditions.  It’s time to focus on pleasing the Head of the Family instead of making elaborate plans to please ourselves while we forget the orphans and widows routinely left out of our self-indulgent plans.  It’s time to suspend our habits of judging those who live within non-nuclear, non-traditional family structures, especially if they are reaching out to orphans and widows in distress more effectively than we are.  Until we’ve learned to reach out at least as effectively we may need to admit how much we have to learn from those we’d previously looked down upon and failed to welcome with humbly open arms and hearts.

* The potentially toxic bloom of technological algae has been labeled “high technology” but it remains to be seen by what measure it is deemed “high.” Perhaps the high is false.  If “high” refers primarily to the capacity of such technologies to produce higher outputs per units of input by humans at faster and faster rates in order to generate greater financial profits with declining payrolls and other benefits to human resources, it may not, in the long run, be directing humanity towards anything higher.  It may promote the worship of mammon.  As a reflection of the worship of the false idol of maximized profits, “high tech” may be leading humanity towards adopting lower and lower standards of character and conduct as “normal” while humans fail to learn to make wise decisions in nano-seconds.  Wisdom may take longer to process and adopt – perhaps the length of time that councils of elders used to take before deciding the fate of their communities.  Data-crunching computers may not be capable of discerning wisdom at any speed.  Like the Corvair, computers may turn out to be unsafe at any speed unless their friendly users are intentionally setting adequate time aside to commune with God at the speed of Stillness.  Stillness may be the escape velocity humans need to attain in order to escape the downward pull of ego’s brazenly self-congratulatory gravity.  Otherwise we risk remaining trapped in orbit around the ego while spinning evermore chaotically and oblivious to the more expansive and enriching possibilities that await us if we were to travel serenely inward to know ourselves as one with God and not as a separated, self-reliant, lonely egos at all.

© Art Nicol 2015