Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Unrealistic Expectations

It is easy and not at all uncommon to become the victim of unrealistic expectations. It happens when friends or clients or even our own children develop mythologies about our power and wisdom. We do not want to disappoint people who think highly of us, even when they think more highly of us than is justified by fact. It feels good, initially, to be put on a pedestal, but eventually "pedestal people" encounter significant dilemmas when expectations exceed capability.

This can happen to some degree to almost anyone, but I do not know of any two professions where practitioners are more likely to get into trouble over unrealistic expectations than clergy and doctors. It does not take very long to discover that a pedestal is about as lonely a prison as any other limited space. One of the greatest dangers of being the object of unrealistic expectation is when we begin to believe the mythologies people have about us. We begin to work hard to fulfil those expectations. We neglect other important aspects of our life, such as family and friends and social obligations in the community, in order to do (or appear to do) all the miraculous things that are expected of us. I have seen people neglect their own physical, spiritual and emotional health trying to fulfil unrealistic expectations. Marriages have fallen apart because expectations drove a husband or a wife to do more good than was good for them.

Another by-product of being trapped by unrealistic expectations is a growing sense of guilt about not being able to do all that is expected. And yet another by-product is the temptation to fake it, even to lie to ourselves and others rather than admit we are in over our heads - that we are just not that powerful, wise or tireless. When you allow the thoughtless expectations and the unrealistic mythologies of others to become your personal agenda, you are headed for some very serious problems in some important areas in your life. You may know people who are living that kind of life, or you may be people who are caught in that trap. It is much easier to get on the pedestal than it is to step off.

It can happen to almost anyone; doctor, lawyer, clergyperson, social worker, banker, community "do-gooder", parent, teacher. You name the profession and I can tell you how it can happen. There is one unchanging truth that should be a mantra for anyone: "What lies beyond my power also lies beyond my responsibility". Let that thought play across the backdrop of your mind when you are considering expectations that you or others have of you.

When the Rev. Dr. Fred Craddock was briefly the acting dean at Phillips Seminary, the secretary came in his office and told him there was someone to see him. A woman came in and asked him to come out to the parking lot. He followed her to the parking lot and her car. She opened the back door, and slumped in the back seat was her brother. He had been a senior at the University of Oklahoma. He had been in a bad car wreck and in a coma eight months. She had quit her job as a schoolteacher to take care of him. All of their resources were gone. She opened the door and said, "I'd like for you to heal him". Dr. Craddock said, "I can pray for him. And I can pray with you. But I do not have the gift of healing". She got behind the wheel and said, "Then what in the world do you do?" And she drove off. Dr. Craddock said he went back into his study, stared at his books and tried to forget what she had said.

No matter who you are, if you are on anyone's pedestal, get off. It is not a safe place to be.

Friday, September 19, 2008

UNTIL THE BELL RINGS by Thomas Lane Butts

When I was young, school started in mid-September. We had to get the cotton picked before we started school. But, here we are a month into another school year. Vacation-worn parents are probably glad!

The certifiable heros in our social structure are the teachers. As a profession, they are over-worked, often under-paid, and under-appreciated. They are the stop-gap against ignorance and the second most prominent source for teaching civility in a society where civility is sorely needed and often missing.

When you take your child to school, tip your hat to the teacher, and say an encouraging word. They are the best friends in your child's future. Whatever we accomplish in life we owe to a long line of teachers whose lives and lessons have influenced us.

In some cases, we may have forgotten the lessons, but seldom do we forget those who taught the lessons.

Many people mistakenly think that the yardstick for measuring good teaching and good learning is the extent to which a student can remember the details of content. The teachers who helped me most are those who taught me how to think and made me want to learn. Most of us remember very little detail from our education, but we remember principles and process and people. Every time I write (and try to punctuate) a complicated sentence, I see my high school English teacher, Miss Annie Hagood, standing at the blackboard diagraming that sentence.

My high school experience ended 60 years ago, and the dear lady who taught me is long since dead, but as long as I write and speak the English language, she will be alive.

When I was in the tenth grade, the wife of the principal of our high school informed her husband that she would like to teach Latin. He told her that it was not likely that rural children would be interested in Latin. This self-willed, white-haired lady informed her husband that if he would approve the class she would recruit the students. The next day, during recess, Mrs. Weathers walked across the playground and drafted nine students for her Latin class. Only after I was a grown man did I understand why I was selected. (Certainly not for my academic excellence!)

Today, when I am able to understand some strange words of Latin derivation, I always remember how this beautiful white-haired lady would shake me by the hair of my head and say: "Now conjugate that verb again and see if you can get it right". I know that you don't teach school like that anymore, but you can teach almost any way you want to teach if your lessons are laced with love.

Teaching has always been the profession from which all other professions emerge. Whatever you do, somebody taught you to do it. Members of every profession must pass through the hands of teachers. We very subtly move from the role of student to the role of teacher in life. All of us are teaching something, every day: from simple addition to calculus, from skipping rope to brain surgery, and from learning to live in a family to learning to live in a world.

Life is a classroom. We are all being taught, and we are all teachers - until the bell rings.

AN ENCOURAGING WORD written, 2008, by Thomas Lane Butts, Pastor Emeritus, Monroeville First Methodist Church

Monday, September 8, 2008


Seven years ago today, the foundations of our world shifted, and we have never been the same since, and probably never will be. Politically and emotionally, it was as if we had been struck by a great earthquake. We did not see it coming! It has shaken our long-held understandings of reality about ourselves as a nation, and our illusions of security. It has shattered our naive notion that we are universally admired and respected by the rest of the world, and, if not admired and respected, at least feared by any who would dare attack us. We never dreamed that anything like 9/11 would or could happen. Most of us still vividly recall our feelings of shock, sadness and rage on September 11, 2001, and with very little effort we can recover those feelings with the original intensity.

I made my annual visit to New York as Summer Guest Preacher at Christ Church ten months after 9/11. I thought that my initial intense feelings had been laid to rest, or at least put into perspective. I was mistaken. Having something of the soul of a teacher, I took my fifteen-year-old grandson to Lower Manhattan to see that terrible hole in the ground with the idea of giving him a well reasoned "Grandfather lecture" on how and why this happened. The sight of ground zero brought back all the feelings I thought I had worked through. Instead of getting a reasoned lecture on history and religion, my grandson saw what the combination of sadness, anger and fear can do to an old man. It wasn't pretty. I hope he did not hear some of the things I muttered under my breath.

What has happened and what have we learned in the seven years since our world changed? In an attempt to find and destroy an ubiquitous enemy, we launched one of the strangest and most expensive wars in which this country has ever been engaged, not just in Afghanistan and Iraq, but in other places around the world where we suspect the enemy might be. It has, in many ways, been like fighting a ghost. The enemy is here and there and everywhere. We see where the enemy has been but not where he is. Our fears rise and fall with successes and failures in the search, and we just cannot seem to find the serpent's head. It is somewhat like our experience with the Vietcong in another war, except worse, because the battle is not confined to a specific geographical area. It is essentially world-wide. In this whole experience we have lost our innocence. The illusion that we are safe because we are bordered by two huge oceans and two friendly countries now lies in shambles at our feet. And, our fear rises and falls as the hunt goes on.

We have learned how much we are hated and mistrusted by so many. We have seen how easy it has become for that hatred and mistrust to get expressed not only in terrorist attacks, but also in political defiance by countries we thought respected, if not admired us. This has wounded our national pride and put our collective political consciousness into a state of shock.
Having heard the rhetoric of politicians and preachers who have always urged us on to a more zealous expression of patriotism and religious faith, we have been shocked to see what happens when religious fanaticism and mindless nationalism are combined. It is a real witch's brew! It produces people who are willing to die for "the cause". People who are willing to die for a cause are always on the cusp of being willing to kill for it. We have seen it happen.

When we think of the pathos and pain this senseless terrorist attack has caused, it stirs the dregs at the bottom of our souls. And yet, this is a time in which we should be very intentional in calling forth what President Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature". Two sure ways to lose the battle against terrorism would be to cringe in paralyzing fear, or to let their ways become our ways. We should leave justice to those whose duty it is to administer it, and we should leave revenge to God. Let our anger be tempered in the cool springs of prayer, and let the faith about which we speak be acted out.

Remember 9/11, but do not forget that we live in an increasingly small world which requires a greater and greater measure of tolerance and temperance for mutual survival.

Think about that, and do your best to have a nice day.

AN ENCOURAGING WORD written, by Thomas Lane Butts, Pastor Emeritus, Monroeville First United Methodist Church