"Christmas is the time for looking ahead courageously through the gates of the swiftly approaching new year...of resolving that the coming months will reflect a kinder, more forgiving and less heedless person than mirrored in the past."
~ Ellen V. Morgan
Season's Blessings to you, dear reader, and your family! May you enjoy a relaxing, love-filled holiday season together!
Last week I had coffee with my friend, Eleanor Stanton, the associate pastor at the Presbyterian-New England Congregational Church in Saratoga Springs. We talked about her work with teens in the high school youth group, her pastoral counseling, her experience of cancer, and most of all, her use of stories. You can find the first part of our conversation here.
Jennifer: I’ve noticed that when you preach, you like to walk around and hold your printed page at your side. Did you have storytelling experience before you became a minister? What are the mechanics of how you do what you do when you are preaching? How did you come to that? How did you make that choice?
Last week I had coffee with my friend, Eleanor Stanton, the associate pastor at the Presbyterian- New England Congregational Church in Saratoga Springs. She talked about stories, working with teens, about being a minister, about having cancer, and about being a minister with cancer. Throughout our conversation were implicit and explicit observations about courage. This is the first of two installments of that interview.
Jennifer: So, I have some questions for you about courage and about story. Let’s start with this. If somebody came to church on Sunday, somebody new in town, and there you are, you’re wearing your collar, your robe, and you have no hair. So they may quickly make certain assumptions about both your story, and your courage –
Eleanor: I thought you were going to say, my orientation!
Jennifer: Ha! No! So whether their assumptions are correct or not, odds are that they are going to be making them. What’s your response to just the fact that that happens? That whereas somebody else may not present a whole lot of clues, for example –
Lisa's son performing his personal Black Belt form
I recently wrote about Jennifer's daughter and my two children's Tae Kwon Do Black Belt journey in a post entitled The Black Belt Wall. All three children faced their own individual courage challenges over the four years of study required to attain their Black Belts. Over the course of the final two days of testing, a couple of weeks ago, each Black Belt candidate was required to perform approximately ten different belt forms (a set series of jumps, kicks, chops, and other martial arts moves), a lengthy work-out, 100+ sit-ups, 100+ push-ups, 500-1,000 jump ropes, a 15-minute run, several sparring matches, their own personal form performed for all attendees, and finally to read a personal essay about their individual journey to becoming a Black Belt. I'm happy to report that each of them successfully completed their test and were subsequently awarded crisp new Black Belts embroidered with their names! It was truly inspiring to be witness to such a motivated, talented group of young people, ages 9-16, each achieving a long-cherished and hard-won goal.
As parents, we provided the gas, transportation, monthly school fees, and the "You can do it!" motivation (when needed). It was our kids, however, working under their martial arts instructors' mentorship, who had to show up for each class, dig deep in moments of fear or boredom, and have the emotional, intellectual, social, and physical courage to stick with a sport that is learned one move at a time. Like in the classic movie Karate Kid (1984) when young Daniel is asked to help Karate Master Mr. Miyagi, one paint brush stroke at a time (instead of getting his much-desired and expected martial arts instruction), our kids not only had to develop trust in their instructors and themselves, they had to develop the kind of patience with the process that is in short supply in our instant gratification culture. The courage development associated with this kind of time-honored teacher-student relationship and the courage challenges involved: priceless! Jennifer wrote a great post about this recently, too, in Wait for it...Wait for it!
I’ve offered a lot of traditional stories on Lion’s Whiskers over the last several months. How many of you are telling them to your kids? Maybe not a lot of you, and that’s okay! But I hope you have gathered something from these stories. What I hope you have picked up on is this: around the world, in every culture, people have been telling stories not simply for entertainment, but for creating metaphors for understanding their world. I also hope I can persuade you that some form of storytelling – whether with traditional narratives or your own “When I was a kid” yarns – can be a powerful parenting tool, and may help your kids to develop the six types of courage.
Here on the Lion's Whiskers blog we have had much to say, recently, on the topic of moral courage and morality - how it is learned, how we can help our children develop it and how we can support it in them and ourselves. In its simplest terms, we can say that being guided by a moral conscience means being able to tell the difference between right and wrong, good or bad. And although there are certainly cultural differences that shade those words, "right" , "wrong", "good" and "bad" in slightly different tones, I suspect most people would agree that if they saw a child bite another child and grab the toy away, they would discourage that behavior; and if they saw a child helping another one to stand up after a fall, I suspect they would mostly all want to encourage that. A deeper appreciation will also involve understanding why something is right or wrong, good or bad, understanding what values may be involved and why we might want to promote them. Our justice system recognizes a difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, and a robust conscience will always, I hope, seek to follow the spirit behind the letter rather than rigidly adhering to the letter and allowing the spirit be distorted. Children can be adroit litigators, triumphantly reminding us of our exact words when we suspect they knew full well what we meant to imply when we said them. This is definitely good training for a parent or teacher in being really really really crystal clear, but it also leaves behind the uneasy feeling that some moral quicksand may be nearby, that queasy sensation that my child just "got away with" something right in front of my eyes, and we both know it. We want our children to consider our explicit words and their implicit meaning, taking account of what our family's lived ethics are.
Candles are magical. The Lovely K. and I light candles at dinner most nights, and try to bring someone into our circle of flickering light as we do so – grandma and grandpa, friends far away, soldiers fighting in wars, someone who is sick or facing a difficult challenge. Making the candle’s flame part of a ritual enhances our reverence and our awareness and our gratitude for our meal. It always seemed to me that having this special fire available on a nightly basis made sense, that it would be a way to make fire a familiar member of our family instead of an exotic and dangerous stranger.
I taught K. how to light matches and how to blow out candles without spraying wax on the table.
Her school has a number of traditions that involve the children lighting and carrying candles. These events are beautiful and spiritual, and tell the kids, “We trust you with this special gift.” The children are always careful and make themselves worthy of our trust. When I was a child, we had special candle holders from Germany for the Christmas tree. Each year on Christmas Eve we would turn off the lamps, light these candles and then sit, almost breathless, watching them fill the living room with candle light. This would last ten minutes or so until my parents reached the limit of their nerves and we blew them out. Beauty with danger added magic to the expectation of the night.