Saturday, March 21, 2009

"Unconditional Positive Regard"

Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ 
came down from heaven to be the true bread 
which gives life to the world: 
Evermore give us this bread, 
that he may live in us,  and we in him; 
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, 
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

You could call St. Andrew's appearance in John 6:4-15, the Episcopal lectionary Gospel for the 4th Sunday of Lent, a cameo appearance.  He's almost incidental in the story about Jesus' feeding of the crowd.  As in other parts of the Gospel, Andrew is just Peter's younger brother, an ordinary chap who stays in the background, doesn't make any waves, and seems to always be in the right place at the right time.  He has an uncanny ability to offer whatever is available: ordinary things, ordinary gifts, which help get the job done.

In the story Andrew accepts and brings to Jesus' attention a young boy's five loaves of bread and two fish.  The whole miraculous feeding turns on these simple, ordinary supplies.  When Jesus blesses, breaks, and gives them, they prove to be more than adequate to satisfy the immediate need.  In other words, ordinary people and ordinary gifts can sometimes be life-changing.

So often you and I, our society, and even the Church seem to hold up and onto only important people, heroic ones, "big names", as examples for imitation.  While it's true that we need great figures to inspire us, frankly, such heroes can often be depressing to us ordinary folks because they make us feel so inadequate, so klutzy, so ungifted.  Most of us figured out long ago that we're not and never will be "heroes", or great leaders, or statesmen, or notable saints.  History focusses on the great and generally ignores the countless host of "little people" who oftentimes make the great ones possible.

Recall for a moment the ordinary people who've been crucial in your own life and development.  When you were an awkward teenager, struggling to grow up, was there, perhaps, an adult who really believed in you?  who encouraged you to be confident enough to take a risk?  Think of the ordinary people who've stood with you at each crossroad of your life and have given you wise counsel.  Where would you and I be today without these ordinary folks who shared with us their ordinary gifts?

That you and I may never be remembered in dramatic ways by posterity isn't at all to say that you and I aren't important. Ordinary as we are, each one of us has countless opportunties to encourage others, to be sensitive, to heal, to forgive, to be open to another's hurt, to offer some small, ordinary gift: as ordinary as bread or fish.

Part of the problem is that we too often think of ourselves as unimportant, even useless, because we focus on our deficiencies, rather than on our gifts and skills.  Every one of us has some disability or handicap.  Some of mine are: flat feet; one leg shorter than the other; and the inability to understand advanced math! For others it may be a birth-mark; an ugly nose; not being able to whistle or ski.  Still others are limited in learning, physically challenged, or unable to communicate because of a visual, hearing, or language impairment.  2% of our population are developmentally delayed, mentally retarded, autistic, or severely emotionally disturbed.  All of us have some limitation, deficiency, or disability, to a lesser or greater degree.  That fact, however, should never become the occasion of convincing ourselves that we have nothing to offer to others to enrich their lives.

For two and a half years back in the 1980's I was privileged to work as a classroom aide for the Sacramento County Office of Education in a special education program for young people, age 14-22.  They were, and still are, truly special to me.  Before becoming involved in the program, I'd stared at such people, avoided their company or dealing with them, mostly out of uncertainty and fear.  Once they accepted me into their lives, however, I came to discover both their ordinariness and their incredible giftedness, in some areas far beyond my own "normal" abilities.  My life would have been immensely impoverished had I not been the beneficiary of their very ordinary, but special, gifts.

One day, in the course of my duties in the program, I'd taken two of our students to a training center where, along with others who had various disabilities, they were involved in a work program where they could earn a bit of money for packaging a product.  As I and the other teachers and aides were looking on, a heated argument broke out between two of the young men there.  Such outbursts often tend to "set off" inappropriate behaviors among some of the severely handicapped, so the atmosphere at that time was immediately quite tense.  There was a long silence.  No one knew what might happen next.  And then one of the young men involved, without looking up from his work, said, very audibly, to the other young man: "I'm sorry."  An ordinary person, with an ordinary gift of reconciliation in two simple words!

Writer Mary Lou Redding captures the warmth of the gift of ordinariness thus:

Grandma isn't beautiful like Esther or brave like Deborah.  She's almost blind and not always pleasant.  When I was a little girl, Grandma would hug me and I'd feel the flesh of her upper arms kind of wrap me up.  She always smelled faintly of vanilla extract (Grandma made wonderful muffins, and I got to help), and she was soft everywhere.  But most important, Grandma thought I was wonderful.  Psychologists call it 'unconditional positive regard,' I think, but to me it was just being with Grandma.
Grandma's very old now.  Thick glasses obscure her dancing eyes.  She doesn't hear really well, either, but we just pull our chairs real close together so she can see and hear.  I go and sit with her and we talk and rock and she tells me about when she was a little girl and when I was a little girl.

Last time I went to see her, Grandma and I stood hugging when it was time for me to go.  She put her hands on my arms and said, 'You were always my favorite, you know.  I know I'm not supposed to have favorites, and I loved all you kids.  But you were my favorite.'  And I can't see her eyes, but I can feel them dancing.  Grandma just plain loves just plain me, and she loves me all the time." 

It's hard, if not impossible, for you and me to see God's eyes, but we can feel them dancing.  And that unseen, mighty and holy God "just plain loves just plain [you and] me", and God loves us all the time! Julian of Norwich, in a rather startling statement, assures us:  "Because of the great endless love that God has towards all mankind, He makes no distinction in love between the blessed soul of Christ and the least soul that shall be saved."   

Unconditional positive regard, indeed!        

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