Dancing in the Sanctuary

Our son and daughter-in-law have been worship leaders since they were married in 1999, and their vocation routinely involves rehearsals on Wednesday nights. 1 We often have the privilege of hanging out with their kids for part (or all) of these midweek evenings. One recent Wednesday night we had taken the older children, Ella and Zion (ages 6 and 8), to dinner, and were planning a quick drop-off to church where their mom and dad were preparing the band for next Sunday’s service. We were grateful that the night was still young, because we both had several things on our “must do” lists before hitting our pillows by midnight.

The chairs in the sanctuary had been put away for an event the day before, leaving a very large expanse of wide-open, carpeted space. Phoenix, 10 months old, had been with Mommy all afternoon and was now happily exploring what from his vantage point looked like a five-acre field. The band was rockin’ out on the stage, and so Teri picked him up and started whirling around the room. Paul found a mini-Frisbee and started playing catch with Ella and Zion. The praise music provided a joyous accompaniment as we danced and played and ran around that big room, on and on into the evening.

We were on holy ground. The drop-off had turned into an unexpected, wonderful, serendipitous, shimmering moment with those precious children. When would we next have an opportunity to play with our three grandkids in an unobstructed huge space like this — and with a live worship band to boot?

No one appreciates the wonderful possibility of the present – this moment, right now — like a protected, well-loved child. Anyplace, including the church sanctuary, can become a playground; joy might be found suddenly just around the next corner. The expectation of imminent pleasure is the operating belief of innocence. Children raised in love and safety have a great capacity for appreciating what goodness can be found in this all too sad world. For busy adults, the opportunities to drink from that well usually show up when we least expect them, and are so easily lost as we push our way through the daily stuff.

There have been a number of times when we have had a pile of urgent whatevers on our desks, but chose to seize a moment that involved time with people we love. Without exception, we can recall vividly the backyard ball game, the spontaneous Uno tournament, the shared sunset – or in this case, dancing in the sanctuary – long after we had forgotten the urgent whatevers.

Whenever we speak about marriage we usually mention the threat of the marginless, hurried lifestyle – something we know way too much about. One antidote we often propose is subjecting any potential new commitment to the “end of life” test: When I’m on my deathbed, will I care about all of those commitments/diplomas/achievements/piles of stuff that filled my days and nights, or my relationships with people – especially those who were closest to me? We have no idea what was on our list of tasks that just had to get done that Wednesday night, but we will never forget the sparkle in our grandkids’ eyes, and the peals of laughter, that arose from that spontaneous experience.

Teri was raised with the belief that dancing was a tool of the devil. That night, it was a direct glimpse into heaven.

P.S. We are going to be featured on two Focus on the Family Broadcasts, in a conversation entitled “Navigating Tears, Tantrums and Toddlers.” These will air on Friday May 18 and Monday May 21, and may be heard online at any time on or after those dates by clicking here.

©Paul and Teri Reisser, 2012.

Paul Reisser is a family physician who has been in private practice for more than three decades. He has served as the primary author of Focus on the Family’s Complete Guide to Baby and Child Care and Complete Guide to Family Health, Nutrition and Fitness. Teri Reisser is a marriage and family therapist and author of A Solitary Sorrow, which deals with the emotional fallout of abortion. Together Paul and Teri have recently written Your Spouse Isn’t the Person You Married.

1 For the record, we can state without reservation that they are very good at what they do.

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A Valentine’s Day Public Service Message

Like many of the 110 million or so Americans who watched the Super Bowl on February 5, I was more interested in the commercials than the game. At $3.5 million per 30-second slot, advertisers are highly motivated to grab the fleeting attention of chip-munching viewers. Humor is thus frequently on display, as are beer bottles and shiny things that go fast. Because of the large number of males in the audience, good-looking women also make numerous appearances during Super Bowl ads. If most or all of these elements can be skillfully interwoven for half a minute, the sponsor is likely to get its money’s worth.

One commercial that caught the eye (and maybe some other areas) of the male demographic in a big way was mounted by Teleflora, the network of 18,000 florists in North America and 20,000 more worldwide. As waah-chicka-waah-waah music and female moaning played in the background, the camera lovingly observed Brazilian supermodel Adriana Lima applying the finishing touches to herself for a hot night out, while offering some convincing come-hither looks. Actually these were “I’m-going-thither” looks, indicating that whoever was thither would be having a grand and glorious evening.1

The male viewers no doubt didn’t notice the floral arrangement on Ms. Lima’s counter, until she glanced at it and purred, “Guys, Valentine’s Day’s not that complicated. Give, and you shall receive…” The flowers remained on the table as she left, and the words “Happy Valentine’s night” appeared. The message was delivered along with the flowers: For $69.95 – the cost of the Teleflora XOXO Bouquet that sent the supermodel into a supercharged libidinous state – you can have a similar experience. (This flower arrangement is the first thing that appears, at least this week, when one visits www.teleflora.com.)

Aaah, Valentine’s Day. Say the word to my wife and she’ll roll her eyes – not because she doesn’t appreciate a little romance, but rather because this highly commercial festival generates a number of visits to her counseling office by women who were disappointed because the clueless men in their lives didn’t deliver the goods on February 14. Sadly, all too often their expectations are as much a fantasy as those of the male Super Bowl viewers who believe that XOXO Bouquets will set off a sexual firestorm. In a way, the vast amount of money that changes hands every year during the first two weeks of February – an estimated $17 billion in the U.S., according to the National Retail Federation2 – is emblematic of a grandly wrongheaded (but nonetheless profitable) perception of love as commerce:

  • If I give her what everyone says she wants, (flowers, a nice dinner and some bling), she will give me what I want (sex, sex and sex). If she doesn’t, I’ll start looking for someone who will.
  • If he loved me, he would do _____ (some extravagant gesture, even if only for one evening) to demonstrate it. If he doesn’t come through (even if he has no idea what extravagant gesture I have in mind), that means he doesn’t really love me, and he will reap the consequences.

How do I love thee, in the fantasy world of Valentinian commerce? Let me count the conditions, unwritten rules, unspoken expectations and manipulative gestures. Actually, if I’m honest about it, I really don’t love thee, but rather I love the way thou makest me feel, or at least the way thou shouldst make me feel.

How might I love thee, in the real world of imperfect people and relationships that will always be in progress?

  • By being patient, kind, protective, trusting, and neither self-seeking nor easily angered, among other things.3
  • By looking out for the other person during the 364 days of the year (actually 365 this year) that aren’t February 14.
  • By complimenting and thanking rather than criticizing and complaining.
  • By forgiving and asking forgiveness, relatively often.
  • By taking out the trash, making the coffee, changing diapers, massaging a pair of tired feet, mending a shirt, or fixing a drippy faucet.
  • By listening, being fully present in the conversation, with the cell phone, TV and computer monitor turned off.
  • By seeking to serve rather than demanding service.

How do I love thee, if there is no thee in the picture?

  • Do a random act of kindness for someone who is lonely, isolated, ill or not particularly attractive.
  • Adopt a child through World Vision or Compassion International.
  • Adopt a pet at the local animal shelter.
  • Buy a meal for the guy on the corner with the “Will work for food” sign.
  • Send a note of encouragement to someone who isn’t expecting it.
  • Smile at the bank teller, grocery checker, waitress or other all too easily anonymous person who assists you in some everyday transaction.
  • Get to know the Thee who is the ultimate source of love and compassion. Start with a modern translation of the gospel according to Luke, my favorite historian/physician.

©Paul and Teri Reisser, 2012.

Paul Reisser is a family physician who has been in private practice for more than three decades. He has served as the primary author of Focus on the Family’s Complete Guide to Baby and Child Care and Complete Guide to Family Health, Nutrition and Fitness. Teri Reisser is a marriage and family therapist and author of A Solitary Sorrow, which deals with the emotional fallout of abortion. Together Paul and Teri have recently written Your Spouse Isn’t the Person You Married.

1 According to Wikipedia, Adriana Lima is a devout Catholic who attends church each Sunday and is married, with a 2-year old daughter. The Teleflora ad would have been much more interesting if it had shown her wearing her wedding ring and meeting her husband for a romantic interlude.

2Report: average person will spend $126 on Valentine’s Day.” Scripps Media, 2-7-12. http://www.abc2news.com/dpp/lifestyle/report-average-person-will-spend-126.

3 For more details, see the iconic passage in the 13th chapter of Paul’s first letter to those living in Corinth.

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A New Year’s Relational Resolution

We’re baaaaa-aack!

I’m embarrassed to note that our last blog was posted shortly after Labor Day. That would be four, count ‘em, four months ago. Since then I have been editing three, count ‘em, three books, which presented deadline after deadline like high hurdles on a never-ending racetrack. I thought I would be done with them by Halloween. Then Thanksgiving. Oh, no – I really don’t like deadlines for Christmas! Wait! The Rose Bowl is on and I’m still editing??!!

I am now happy to report that my review of the last set of galleysi has been completed today, and to celebrate I decided to break the silence at paulandteri.com. I will report at a later date on the aforementioned books when I have news of their impending release.

To add insult to inactivity, we found out that our website had been hacked and infected with malware, which sounds like the name of a distant capital city but could in fact do damage to anyone paying a visit, as might happen in a few distant capital cities I can think of. I am thus grateful to Internet wizards Michael Lee and Ben Grahl for dispatching the malware to wherever such miscreants go, and to Google for doing some sort of sweep that confirmed that the site is safe for all visitors. Whew.

I will note that I took time-outs from medical practice, editing and galley reviewing to enjoy the aforementioned holidays with my family. (I did miss out on Black Friday, and thus avoided getting pepper-sprayed or trampled by frantic shoppers.) One event that we celebrated for the first time in many years was New Year’s Eve. At the Reisser home, the evening of December 31 normally could be the subject of a new holiday song, “The Most Boring Time of the Year.” This is because we have never been party people (except to celebrate family birthdays), but also because in Southern California there are no New Year’s Eve destinations where anything of great interest happens. For example, for Y2K, when spectacular fireworks were blasting off of the Eiffel Tower and the Sydney Harbor Bridge, Los Angeles rang in the new millennium by lighting up the Hollywood sign at midnight. Zzzzz.

When the sun goes down on the last day of the year, Teri and I typically watch a DVD, then at 9 p.m. watch the ball drop at Times Square courtesy of CNN, then think about turning in. This year, however, I procured some heavily discounted tickets for a close-up magic show at a nice venue in L.A., made reservations at one of our favorite restaurants that happens to be nearby, and then presented this as a Christmas gift to Teri and our daughter Carrie. Needless to say, we had a great time. One notable ingredient of our great time, however, was a little exercise during dinner called “Put the phone down.”

I have come to the conclusion that mobile devices may lead to the decline and fall of direct communication between human beings. They are powerful and endlessly fascinating. They draw eyes to themselves like moths to the flame, with their irresistible flow of tweets, posts, texts, e-mails, games, apps and even an occasional phone call.ii I happened to receive an upgrade (three generations worth) on my iPhone for Christmas, and have greatly enjoyed the speed and efficiency of its new processor. The thing just begs to be played with. So here the three of us sat at this lovely restaurant, each intermittently compelled to look at the miniature screen sitting next to our water glass, eyes and fingers twitching in anticipation of the next surge of electrons. In a moment of mutual clarity, we realized how ridiculous this was, and simultaneously relegated the little contraptions to places out of sight.

I have observed variations on this scenario too many times in too many restaurants or other public settings. Couples (married or otherwise), parents and kids, kids and kids, sitting together but tapping away at their handheld devices and never locking eyes with the others who are with them. True, these are wonderful tools. But they cannot bond two or more human beings like good old fashioned, attentive, face-to-face communication.

Indeed, few events are as powerful as one person saying to another, with words, expressions, gestures and body language, “You have my undivided attention. I have nowhere to go. I am all ears. I want to hear and know what you are thinking about, and what you are feeling.” For relationships – especially between husbands and wives, but also between parents and children, between friends, even between co-workers – this type of engagement is life itself. For those who haven’t experienced it for a while (or ever), it is like water in the desert.

So for this New Year, I’d like to propose a toast on behalf of the life and health of our relationships: Put the phones down, and let the conversations begin.

©Paul and Teri Reisser, 2011.

Paul Reisser is a family physician who has been in private practice for more than three decades. He has served as the primary author of Focus on the Family’s Complete Guide to Baby and Child Care and Complete Guide to Family Health, Nutrition and Fitness. Teri Reisser is a marriage and family therapist and author of A Solitary Sorrow, which deals with the emotional fallout of abortion. Together Paul and Teri have recently written Your Spouse Isn’t the Person You Married.

i By galleys I am not referring to cooking on a boat, but rather a printed copy of the pages of a book as they will appear when published. This is short for galley proof, a printing term: “a proof, originally one set from type in a galley, taken before the material has been made up into pages and usually printed as a single column of type with wide margins for marking corrections.” Origin: 1885–90.

Galleys have to be reviewed with a fine-toothed comb, because they inevitably contain mistakes of various sorts that have escaped the wary eyeballs of author and copy-editors alike

ii I especially like the ring tone that sounds like a really loud old-fashioned table phone. It always manages to erupt during a quiet moment of a movie or perhaps during prayer time at church, and inevitably arises from a phone buried deep in someone’s purse, in a hidden recess where it cannot be turned off. Priceless.



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Looking for a Real Man? Consider Forrest Gump

Recently I sat down with a Blu-Yay1 of “Forrest Gump,” a film that I enjoyed in 1994 as a good-natured tall tale.  I had admired the wily interpolation of Tom Hanks’ Oscar-winning performance into historical newsreels and videos, the broad canvas of the story, the mix of vintage popular music and an expert score by Alan Silvestri, and above all the emotional core of the film:  the relationship between Gump and his childhood friend Jenny.

On this viewing, something hit me like a brick:  Forrest Gump is arguably the best male role-model we have seen on the silver screen, or anywhere else, in decades.  This may seem like an odd statement, given that he is known primarily for his subnormal IQ and his aphorisms from the park bench (especially, “Life is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get.”)  But as the film unspools, his character and his emotional intelligence rise to the surface.  Consider the following:

  1. Forrest is relentlessly cheerful and optimistic, even in the face of sorrow and loss, which he acknowledges very appropriately.  When he misinterprets circumstances playing out in front of him, he does so with a mindset devoid of cynicism.
  2. He is fiercely loyal to his friends and those he loves.  At a moment’s notice he risks life and limb on their behalf.  This is a sacrificial reflex, not counting the risk or cost to himself.
  3. He is color blind, forming a lasting bond with Benjamin Buford Blue, better known as Bubba, in whose honor he starts the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, now immortalized as a chain of restaurants inspired by the film.2 Later he joins an African-American church — and fits right in with the choir, robes and all.
  4. When his shrimp business, and a ground-level investment in Apple Computers (which Forrest identifies as a “fruit company”), provide him with financial independence, he is both unaffected and generous.  He builds a chapel for his church, funds a new medical center, and gives Bubba’s mother a share of the company’s profits, the size of which literally causes her to pass out.
  5. With the exception of his iconic cross-country run, he is remarkably well groomed and dressed.   In a military uniform, he looks like a million bucks.
  6. When attacked, his instinct is to escape, which he does handily as a world-class sprinter (“Run, Forrest, run!!”) rather than fight back.  When insulted with taunts such as, “Are you stupid, or what?” Forrest’s response is always a statement of incredible wisdom: “Stupid is as stupid does.”

All of these qualities are most powerfully portrayed in his relationship with his beloved Jenny.  She befriends him when others hurl insults and rocks, and they become companions like “peas and carrots.”  He becomes her haven of safety as a child, and her fierce protector as an adult.  One of the films most powerful subplots is the arc of Jenny’s gradual disintegration in the wake of horrific mistreatment at the hands of her father.  Having been sexually abused as a young child, she later sexualizes her life and relationships, drifting from one predatory partner to another.

But to Forrest she is his beloved, the one whom he loves unconditionally and will defend from any and all threats at a moment’s notice.  When she attempts to sexualize their relationship, he is caught completely off guard.  Taking advantage of her is not on his agenda.  On the contrary, much to her dismay, on three occasions Forrest leaps into ferocious action when he sees men mistreat her — the only times in the story when he becomes aggressive in any way.

After hitting bottom and nearly taking a suicidal leap from a building, Jenny finally comes home to Forrest for a season.  He cares for her tenderly while she recuperates, and in a poignant scene proposes to her.

Forrest: “Will you marry me?  I’d make a good husband, Jenny.”
Jenny: “You would, Forrest.”
Forrest: “But you won’t marry me.”
Jenny: “You don’t want to marry me.”
Forrest: “Why don’t you love me, Jenny?  I’m not a smart man.  But I know what love is.”3

Indeed he does.  In fact, he embodies the functional definition of love famously penned by St. Paul:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  (I Corinthians 13: 4-7, NIV)

I would like to offer a challenge to men who want to learn how to treat women: Take some cues from Forrest Gump.  He’s a tough act to follow.

©Paul and Teri Reisser, 2011.

Paul Reisser is a family physician who has been in private practice for more than three decades. He has served as the primary author of Focus on the Family’s Complete Guide to Baby and Child Care and Complete Guide to Family Health, Nutrition and Fitness. Together Paul and his wife Teri have recently written Your Spouse Isn’t the Person You Married.


1. I have avidly followed the progress of home video formats for the past 3 decades, and any new device that improves the viewing experience provides an occasion to revisit some of my favorite films.  I began with an RCA VHS “portable” VCR (the size of a small suitcase) in 1981 and now enjoy the sensational picture and sound available with Blu-Ray.  Our grandson dubbed this format “Blu-Yay” for a while, and the name stuck.
2. One great gag in the film:  Forrest and Bubba become such good friends during boot camp that, upon arrival at their base in Viet Nam, Lieutenant Dan Taylor (Gary Sinese) jokingly asks if they’re twins.   They have to look at each other for a moment before coming to the conclusion that they’re not.
3. You can watch this scene (after a short commercial) at http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi677905689/

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News from Uganda

On June 27 we returned safe and sound from our fourth trip to Uganda.  Now that we’ve finally aligned our sleep cycles to Pacific Daylight Time, we’d like to offer the following report:

We returned to Kaihura, the small trading center in western Uganda that has yet to make it on the map, but which now has not only electricity but also some actual running water taps around town.  It is literally a wide spot in the highway that connects Kampala, the teeming and dusty capital, with Fort Portal (aka Fort Pothole), the nearest city of any consequence.   On our first venture in 2008, Paul spent several days at the HopeAgain Medical Clinic, receiving an intense introduction to the health issues that challenge virtually every village in sub-Saharan Africa:  malaria, typhoid, and (most ominously) HIV/AIDS, which has decimated the population and left 14 million orphans in its wake.  (Uganda alone has more than one million of them.)  Later in 2008 the HopeAgain Clinic moved from a haggard roadside building to a newer, more flexible setting across the highway, while its staff dreamed of building a center that would better serve the surrounding population of 35,000.

That dream is now coming to pass, brick by brick.  Last year the site of the new clinic was graded and a foundation laid, and this year walls and a roof now define what is an impressive structure for this area.   Much remains to be done before the clinic can become operational, but in the meantime the HopeAgain staff supplies 1,500 HIV-positive people every month with life-preserving maintenance antibiotics, and serves as the dispensary for anti-retroviral drugs for 200 people who have full-blown AIDS.1 And that’s but one facet of the ongoing, unbelievably difficult medical challenges that these brave and caring workers deal with every day.

After our 2008 visit, we felt compelled to do some work on one of the primary roots of the HIV epidemic:  unstable marriages and families.  During each subsequent visit we have spent quite a bit of time learning about the complex blend of cultural and practical issues, not to mention some common but counterproductive attitudes (primarily held by men), that have contributed to widespread social chaos.  Needless to say, while we feel comfortable teaching marriage and parenting principles to anyone who will listen in the U.S., we initially approached this task in Uganda with some trepidation.  Would anyone listen to, let alone apply, what we might say about building healthy families?

We are both pleased and humbled to report that we have had an enthusiastic reception to our marriage conferences — what we like to call “Marriage Improv,” because we make a lot of adjustments on the fly to accommodate each audience.  This year we did 3 conferences, speaking to 400-500 people and taking our teaching a step beyond what we have done in previous years.  We have come to understand that the vast majority of couples in Uganda who consider themselves husband and wife are in fact not legally married.  There are a variety of reasons for this, but the net effect is a destabilizing effect on families.  (One of the many types of fallout: If either person feels dissatisfied with the other, there is less resistance to seeking solace elsewhere, often with disastrous results. Long-term relationships are now recognized as a major setting for the transmission of HIV in Africa.)  With the encouragement and support of local pastors and government officials, at the end of each teaching day we encouraged cohabiting couples to commit to making their relationship legal, public, exclusive and permanent.  Overall some 68 couples came forward to “take the pledge,” so to speak.  Some of the local churches are planning to host weddings for multiple couples, to reduce costs and assist with other logistics.

By the end of our time in Kaihura we were told that we had created a new problem:   Several pastors from other areas who had attended the conferences had asked if we could come to their villages to give the same message.  Now that we’re home, we’ve been pondering how we might multiply what we do, since visiting one village at a time would require years to work our way through even one district.  Stay tuned for further developments…

We were not alone on this trip, but rather part of a team of ten from the U.S., and the other members were engaged in a host of worthwhile activities.  Earlier we mentioned the HopeAgain clinic, and it is but one project of Bringing Hope to the Family, the local NGO/ministry with which we partner.  Bringing Hope also cares for more than 70 orphans, provides vocational training for adolescents and helps families in the community develop sustainable incomes.  (See www.bringinghope.org for more info and photos.) Working with Bringing Hope staff, our team members:

  • Converted a ramshackle office and dirt courtyard — ironically, the original clinic space in which Paul had labored in 2008 — into a pleasant and comforting space that now serves as a hair salon.  This will provide a number of affordable services for those who would otherwise travel several miles for them, and also serve as an income source for Bringing Hope.
  • Assisted with medical and dental patients.
  • Taught hundreds of rural pastors
  • Pinch-hit in the classroom for a couple of elementary school teachers who were ill.
  • Mentored groups of adolescents who crave attention and encouragement from adult role-models.
  • Organized a group of young men into a volleyball team, the Kaihura Kings, which played an exuberant and good-natured match with a team from a neighboring village.
  • Provided dozens of new dresses and shorts for the children who live at HomeAgain, Bringing Hope’s home for orphans.
  • Distributed mosquito nets to poor families in neighboring villages.

We were grateful that all of these good works (and many more that can’t be listed, including a lot of time spent holding orphan kids) took place without any illness or injury of any consequence.  More than that, we are grateful for the generosity and prayers of so many who supported our efforts this year.  Their participation was a great blessing for us, and for everyone on the team.

We dedicate this post to them, with much love and appreciation,

Paul and Teri

©Paul and Teri Reisser, 2011.

Paul Reisser is a family physician who has been in private practice for more than three decades. He has served as the primary author of Focus on the Family’s Complete Guide to Baby and Child Care and Complete Guide to Family Health, Nutrition and Fitness. Teri Reisser is a marriage and family therapist and author of A Solitary Sorrow, which deals with the emotional fallout of abortion. Together Paul and Teri have recently written Your Spouse Isn’t the Person You Married.

1. We were told that the cost of supplying all 1,500 patients with the antibiotics they need is about $100 per month, and there are times when the clinic is unable to keep up financially with this expense.  We’re hoping to find a couple of donors who might be willing to help sustain this particular function of the clinic.

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Epic. Fail.

Recently Teri and I watched “Inside Job,” the film that took the Oscar for Best Documentary of 2010.  The award was well deserved.  “Inside Job” is riveting, beautifully photographed (get the Blu-ray version if you have a player) and thought provoking.  It is also incredibly disturbing.  In case you hadn’t heard, this film explains the genesis and impact of the recent financial crisis that has caused such great distress worldwide.

Not long ago I listened to about a third of the audiobook version of Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, which tells much of this same story.  Though Lewis is an entertaining writer, I got bogged down trying to understand the financial physiology of subprime loans and credit default swaps, and finally gave up on it.  The good news is that “Inside Job” clarifies a few things about the big players on Wall Street and elsewhere, and what they were up to.  The bad news is that, in so doing, it paints a depressing picture of greed and testosterone1 gone wild, of financial rapaciousness turned loose by a fatal convergence of deregulation and moral relativism.  Energy and creativity were given free rein to invent unsustainable and fraudulent schemes that reaped astronomical fortunes for a few, and left millions high and dry.

The film makes the case that those who should have blown the whistle didn’t, or were simply reaping too much of the gravy to want to stop the train, or even slow it down a little.  One exception was Elliot Spitzer, the Attorney General and later Governor of New York.  Spitzer was starting to pursue the schemers, but was upended by his own disastrous moral failure — also involving testosterone, reckless compartmentalization of his life and well-paid prostitutes2 — which ultimately forced his resignation.  (Another excellent documentary, “Client 9,” tells Spitzer’s story, and hints that his downfall was expedited by investigators serving the financiers he was about to go after.)

“Inside Job” is an equal-opportunity critic of U.S. Presidents and their administrations spanning the past three decades, including the current occupant of the Oval Office.  Unlike the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s, which ultimately resulted in more than a few executives spending time in prison, no one seems terribly interested in pursuing the perpetrators of the current crisis.  A lot of connected dots strongly imply that money talks, and really big money outtalks everyone in the private sector, academia and the highest levels of government.

So why am I on such a rant about this topic?  Because this film crystallized something I have been fretting about for quite a while.  I’m sorry to sound like a geezer rocking and complaining on the back porch, but the fact is that we’ve been through a seismic cultural shift over the past half century.  We’ve adopted the notion that we’re all derived from billions of years of random chemical reactions, that no one is keeping score, that there are no transcendent values (especially those involving the destination of one’s private parts), and that self-fulfillment is the ultimate ideal.  Given this seemingly relentless trend, the whole financial meltdown is a giant, sad answer to the questions “What did you think would happen?” and “What could possibly go wrong?”  While we’re at it, our insane waste of resources on addictive substances (which also fuels unending carnage in Mexico and elsewhere), the spread of HIV/AIDS and a few other misanthropic organisms around the world, and the disgrace of human trafficking are also answers to the same questions.

Bottom line:  You can’t have true freedom in a society without virtue, restraint, self-discipline and respect for other people.  If these are not reasonably prevalent, the result can only be either utter chaos and widespread abuse, or massive attempts to regulate everyone’s behavior by governmental authority.  I would like to invoke at this point a U.S. President who made this case long before I ever took a breath.  In 1798 John Adams wrote, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion . . . Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”3

Why talk about this subject in a blog devoted to marriage and parenting?

Guess where critical virtues are taught to the next generation.

©Paul and Teri Reisser, 2011.

Paul Reisser is a family physician who has been in private practice for more than three decades. He has served as the primary author of Focus on the Family’s Complete Guide to Baby and Child Care and Complete Guide to Family Health, Nutrition and Fitness. Together Paul and his wife Teri have recently written Your Spouse Isn’t the Person You Married.

1. The film points out that the vast majority of the financial hanky-pank involved those of the male persuasion, who in turn rewarded themselves not just with huge homes and big shiny things but also with drugs and women whose expensive services were for sale.
2. I am deliberately avoiding the silly term for this profession that is widely used in professional medical literature:  “Commercial sex worker.”  Gimme a break.  Does that mean that a pimp should now be called a “Commercial sex worker procurement agent”?
3. Letter to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts (11 October 1798). http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/John_Adams.  Adams was the second President of the United States, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and an all-around smart guy.  See David McCullough’s excellent biography, or the outstanding HBO series it inspired, for further details.

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Seeing Phoenix

At 8 a.m. on April 20, 2011 Phoenix Michael Reisser, all 6 pounds, 14 ounces of him, arrived safe, sound and crying lustily.  There was, to be sure, great joy and celebration among family and friends.  There was also a fair share of fatigue to go around, since Phoenix’s mom had labored through the wee hours of the previous night.  I held him for a few minutes that morning, got a glance or two later that day, and then finally took an unhurried look the following evening after things had quieted down.

As I spent some time studying Phoenix, now sporting a little less of his newborn facial puffiness, it dawned on me that he looked an awful lot like his father – my son Chad – at the same age.  I have to confess that my first look at Chad was marred by distraction and discouragement.  Teri had had a cesarean section and was miserable.  My mental refrain was, “Our lives will never be the same,” and I didn’t mean that in a good way.  My mom, on the other hand, drank in Chad’s face and form with utter abandon.  Indeed, she modeled something Teri and I gradually learned to do with our own kids, and have relished as grandparents: being fully present with someone.

I have come to the conclusion that this particular life skill doesn’t come naturally.  In fact, I think it has to be cultivated, especially in the 21st century.  Indeed, if being fully present was challenging when our kids were young 30+ years ago, I suspect it is far more difficult for parents now.  Added to the daily stuff of life, and whatever inner distractions might be rumbling around in our brain (angst, ambition, etc.), we now have mobile devices, social networking, hundreds of cable channels and all of our favorite websites competing for our ever-besieged attention.

A friend of ours has written about a profound challenge in her life, one that brings this issue into poignant focus.  Dr. Elaine Eng is an extraordinarily insightful psychiatrist who teaches all over the world, often travelling unaccompanied — a courageous choice, given that she is blind.  In the thick of her residency in obstetrics/gynecology, one in which she was acutely torn between the extreme demands of training and the needs of her young children, Elaine’s vision began to fail.  She was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary condition that would before long rob her of her sight.  Knowing that she would soon be blind, Elaine quit her residency and became acutely focused on a different priority.   As she relates in her book The Transforming Power of Story,

I now had the opportunity to be a full-time mom to my babies and watch them grow while I still had some eyesight left.  Those images and memories are permanently ingrained in my mind…

I enjoyed every aspect of motherhood:  feeding Brian and Gen, singing songs to them, teaching them, reading to them, and playing with them.  I still had some eyesight left so these activities were possible. I also could see their little happy faces, images that are now ingrained in my memory as clear as a photo album.1

Imagine finding out that you would not be able to see your children change as they grow up, or gaze on their babies, should they start their own families.   You would, like Elaine, burn the images of their faces and hair and hands into your memory.  But it is all too easy to have our physical faculties intact and yet be blind and deaf to what is happening now with those who are closest to us – especially our children as they are growing up.  The faces in front of us will never look the same.  Their voices, and the way they form words and sentences, and the ideas brewing in their young minds are constantly changing.   We have, of course, the ability to take photos and videos to capture those sights and sounds, and they can be a great treasure, especially after many years have passed.  But how often do we actually take the time to study those images from the past – especially when we won’t take the time to study what’s in front of us now?

Teri had I have been blessed with grandchildren who live nearby, and we have had numerous opportunities to watch them, in the fullest sense of the word.  When our granddaughter Ella was a couple of weeks old, we did our first official babysitting job while her mom and dad went out for dinner one night.  We simply sat on the sofa for two hours, passing her back and forth and studying her face and tiny features.  One afternoon when Ella was 2, Teri spent nearly 90 minutes sitting on the floor with her, observing a prolonged “show and tell” session involving the contents of a dollhouse.  Teri felt no need to be somewhere else or to “move things along.”  She was completely undistracted, fully present and attentive for this experience.  She realized how rarely she had been “in the moment” like this, and wondered how often we are able to be fully present with our kids or grandkids or spouse – or, for that matter, a good book, a beautiful piece of music, a sunset, the night sky, or the God who made all of them?

I have to confess that I have spent far too much time not being in the moment, but instead living with half of my attention somewhere else, thinking or planning or worrying about something other than the person or experience in front of me.  However, I think I’m getting better in this area as the decades pass, and can say without hesitation that our grandchildren have contributed mightily to that improvement.  We’re thus very thankful not only for Phoenix’s safe and sound arrival and for his mom’s equally safe and sound birth experience, but also for another chance to study carefully a little person who changes our universe.

©Paul and Teri Reisser, 2011.

Paul Reisser is a family physician who has been in private practice for more than three decades. He has served as the primary author of Focus on the Family’s Complete Guide to Baby and Child Care and Complete Guide to Family Health, Nutrition and Fitness. Together Paul and his wife Teri have recently written Your Spouse Isn’t the Person You Married.

1. Elaine Leong Eng, MD and David B. Biebel, DMin, The Transforming Power of Story. (Roseland, Florida, Healthy Life Press, 2010), pp. 19-20.

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Thoughts about Helen

There is no such thing as accidentally winning the relationship lottery, whether in marriage or in other friendships. Instead, a truly great relationship is built over time as two very imperfect people share experiences, conversations and a long track record of valuing, the other.

This is where you might think I’m going to start talking about my incredible husband.  But that would be too predictable.  Instead, I’d like to talk about my second-best friend Helen.1

Helen and I became “foxhole buddies” 32 years ago because we were both fairly new to our neighborhood and were striving to maintain some semblance of sanity in the midst of raising young children.  She had a pool in her back yard (luxury of luxuries!) and I had an endless supply of Suisse Mocha instant coffee.  We panted after wild children careening up and down the street on Big Wheels, coached peewee soccer together, and made elaborate plans for each other’s back yards.   We faced late weekday afternoons together, gathering strength for that last stretch before the husbands came home to “take over.”  I don’t know what I would have done without her during those years.  That random relationship of mutual need and support became the basis of a lifelong friendship.

If there were such a thing as a “matching service” for friends, neither one of us would have been likely to single out the other as a potential candidate.  We were (and remain to this day) two very different people in terms of personality and interests.  I am ashamed to confess that in the years of early adulthood, I didn’t understand the value of my friendship with Helen.  As our children grew older and the occasions for sharing those late afternoons began to dwindle, I got into a lazy pattern of counting on her to initiate our get-togethers.  Somewhere along the line (thank goodness) I did start to get it, and became more intentional about cultivating the bond.  I’m so grateful that I did.

One fine day in 2008 Helen said to me, “Hey! Let’s train for the 2009 L.A. Marathon!”  At that point, my idea of daily exercise consisted of walking to the mailbox.  On a whim, I printed out a year-long training schedule for walking a marathon, and thus began a new phase of our friendship.  When you walk with someone twice a week for one to five hours, you get to know her on a whole new level.  We learned more about each other’s fears and dreams than we’d managed to figure out in the previous 29 years.  Unwittingly, we had created the same kind of “checking in” exercise that I prescribe for all the couples I counsel!  After the Marathon – which we finished in a record-breaking 8 hours — we missed our walking/talking times so much that we just kept scheduling half-marathons (having figured out that walking 13.1 miles is much easier than walking 26.2).  We are thus always up to speed with what is churning around in the other’s head.

Helen and I are not primarily fast friends because we are “perfect” for each other.  The friendship we have is the result of a mutual commitment to make the relationship a safe place for each of us.  Interestingly, although we have known each other for more than three decades, it has only been in the past few years that we have each deliberately invested time and effort toward the friendship.  It’s almost like we just kind of bumped along for most of the distance, and then suddenly realized we had something that was increasingly precious.

In the marathon of life, Helen and I have walked through some hard things together, and as we press on toward our finish line – one we both hope is some distance away — we no doubt will have some hard things ahead of us.  I’m reading a book right now about African culture, and this statement popped out at me while I was thinking about this blog:

Connections are essential so that there is someone to turn to in case of need in any of a multitude of problems that are bound to come up…  When public institutions and services are weak, ineffectual, corrupt or nonexistent, and therefore impersonal means of meeting basic needs and services are unavailable, friends are the resources needed for achieving a decent life.2

Needless to say, this quote doesn’t just apply to Africa.  Even where public institutions and services function well, friends are still “the resources needed for achieving a decent life.”

Helen is a treasure in my life.  There are perhaps five people (apart from my immediate family) whom I could comfortably call during a 2 a.m. crisis, and Helen is at the top of the list.  We started out as random neighbors, and we have become sisters.

I raise my glass to you, my friend.  And I am looking forward to our 12th half marathon this Sunday in Paso Robles!

©Paul and Teri Reisser, 2011.

Teri Reisser is a marriage and family therapist and author of A Solitary Sorrow, which deals with the emotional fallout of abortion. Together Teri and her husband Paul have recently written Your Spouse Isn’t the Person You Married.

1. I am blessed to be married to my best friend.  Sadly, I have found in my personal and professional life that this is more often the exception than the rule.
2. David Maranz, African Friends and Money Matters. (Dallas, SIL International, p. 69).

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There Is a God, and My Dog Is Not Him1

Teri’s 2008 Christmas wish list included an unlikely item:  a small “therapy dog ” who could sit quietly in her office and snuggle up to clients who were willing to have an animal help them relax.  While I wasn’t too wild about this idea (or the thought of adding a dog to the family), I have seen impeccably groomed canines serve a similar purpose during short visits to recuperating patients at our local hospital.  Prompted by a little scouting by our daughter at the Barkworks store in our nearby mall, and making an impulse decision — not necessarily the best kind when acquiring an animal — I brought a puppy home on Christmas Eve.  He was, and is, a Morkie, a designer-mutt blend of Maltese and Yorkshire Terrier.   In honor of his pure white color and the season of the year, we first called him Jack Frost, but that was quickly followed by an ever-evolving series of monikers based upon his behavior and our mood.   These have included:

Jack-Jack (in honor of the explosive kid in “The Incredibles”)
Jaq-Jaq (the name that Teri actually engraved on his dog tag – go figure)
The Jackatollah
Jackson Hole, Wyoming (if I was really mad at him)
Jackson-Pratt (a surgical drain with an attached suction device)
Jacksonian democracy

He eventually became just Jack.   While he was growing up he served ably as Teri’s assistant during some counseling sessions.  He also proved to be very cuddly, when he wasn’t in motion.  But he carried another trait in his genetic code, one that led to his retirement from that position:  he is fiercely territorial.   He will defend our home with loud, ear-splitting barks, should it be endangered by people strolling by, airplanes flying overhead or air molecules striking one another.  We know when guests are turning into our driveway – before their car even comes up the street.  Pity the poor cat, possum or butterfly that wanders into our yard.

He is most ferociously territorial about Teri, no pun intended.  Apparently during their first yuletide encounter he bonded with her to the degree that he is convinced she is his mother, wife and personal assistant.  He likes me too – until bedtime.   If Teri has preceded me, Jack will inevitably join her.  When I enter the room, he suddenly goes into full-blown Cujo killer attack mode.  Oddly enough, and fortunately for both him and me, he has never bitten me during one of these mad dog rages.  It’s hard not to laugh at his theatrics, except that they disturb Teri, who has often just drifted off to sleep.  So I will usually grab him, flop him on his back, and give him the quiet stare that says, “I’m the alpha dog here.”  He’ll usually stop his rant – until I use the bathroom and then enter the room again, at which point he will start over, as though I were a complete stranger.

Sometimes I’ll consign him to the shower for a few minutes, just so that I can prevent several repeat performances while I’m getting ready to retire for the night.  Once I’m in bed he’s okay, and will even cuddle up to me.  But if I get up for even a minute during the night, guess what?  He acts like I’m Paul the Ripper.  I have had several conversations with Jack about his crazy, demented behavior, and I haven’t been able to penetrate the deeper recesses of his dog brain to find out what drives him to such frenzy.  I have read that terriers can be wildly protective, but so far I haven’t convinced him that I’m always his friend, even when I’m coming to bed.

Recently Jack was having a particularly unruly night, and as I rolled him on his back for the umpteenth time I blurted out my version of a great line from John Ortberg’s latest book:  “There is a God, and you are not him…”3 Teri thought that this was funny, and I immediately realized that there was a take-home lesson somewhere (even though I was already at home):  We all have that instinct in us, claiming some little patch of turf as our domain and reflexively refusing to yield it to the One who made and loves us.  This is my body, my stuff, my time, my relationship I want to control, even my deity that I want to manipulate through my rituals or incantations or would-be good works.

The insanity of this universal bent among humans, myself included, is that we somehow think that yielding to a loving God and his agenda is going to lead to a constrained, constricted, and (worst of all) boring life.  For some reason Jack, in his dog-brain rebellion, doesn’t remember that I was scratching his head one minute ago, and that I have his best interests at heart.  For some reason I, in my human-brain rebellion, don’t remember that God has provided gifts of life, sustenance, family, animals (including Jack), sunsets, galaxies, waterfalls and wonders beyond my imagination.  Greatest of all, he provided himself, an event we celebrate every December 25 and (sadly, often less fervently) every Easter Sunday.

I’m quite certain I would never be willing to become a dog in order to communicate with Jack in language he might understand.  But God was infinitely more generous in that regard with all of us, and now Jack, with his wild bedtime antics, will for me serve as a reminder of that ultimate gift.

©Paul and Teri Reisser, 2011.

Paul Reisser is a family physician who has been in private practice for more than three decades. He has served as the primary author of Focus on the Family’s Complete Guide to Baby and Child Care and Complete Guide to Family Health, Nutrition and Fitness. Together Paul and his wife Teri have recently written Your Spouse Isn’t the Person You Married.

1. I’m not going to yield to the urge to repeat the joke about the dyslexic atheist, in case you were wondering.
2. ”Datsun” was our grandson’s name for the dog, based on his pronunciation at that time of “Js” as “Ds” – so that, for example, Trader Joe’s was “Trader Doe’s.”
3. The exact quote is: “There is a God.  It is not you. This is the beginning of wisdom.” (John Ortberg, The Me I Want to Be, Zondervan, 2010, p. 60.)

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All Hands on Deck

Earlier this week I left the office well ahead of my normal quitting time, which is usually long after sunset.   The occasion was my grandson’s performance, at the age of five, in a 25-minute children’s musical at our church.  I almost said that this was his first performance of any kind, but I now recall that he has been in a couple of preschool Christmas pageants, neither of which I could attend because they took place during my office hours.  This week’s event was, however, his first to involve costumes, songs and choreography, and I was curious to see if he would stay in step or march to his own drummer.

I wavered for a moment before setting off for church, because a formidable pile of charts stared accusingly from my desk.   I apologized to them, but noted that I would see them tomorrow and make up for my early departure.  (Indeed, the following evening I kept them company until 10 p.m.)  I have learned many times over the years that I will remember a special event involving my wife / kids / grandchildren long after I’ve forgotten whatever was sitting on my desk at that particular moment.  My decision to watch a stage full of five and six year-olds proved to be no exception.

It was, in a word, a smash.  Zion, my grandson, was focused, knew his songs and moves, and even spoke a couple of lines of dialogue.  The audience of parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and friends applauded and whooped after each song, especially at the finale.  Hugs and high-fives were exchanged afterwards, along with a couple of Hot Wheels vehicles, since flowers aren’t of great interest to five year-old boys.  Most importantly, he knew we were there. I could see his eyes glance in our direction several times during the presentation, though he didn’t mug, wave or otherwise break his concentration.  But he looked out at that roomful of people and saw several whom he knew from the home team, smiling and clapping and taking pictures.

Zion probably won’t say much in the immediate future about the fact that six adults showed up to watch him, but I have no doubt that this deposit in his memory bank will yield its benefits over time.  I was blessed by being born into a family that (among other things) was good about showing up for things:  piano recitals, little league games, choir concerts, graduations, you name it.  I didn’t think much about this when I was focused on remembering the notes to “The Mosquitoes’ Parade” or trying not to strike out (again).  But their consistent presence at these events sent a clear message:  What you do matters to us.  You’re not an afterthought, or a nuisance.

I’ve been happy to see the value of “all hands on deck” modeled in the NBC series “Parenthood,” now well into its second season.  While I will readily disclaim approval of some of the behavior portrayed on this show, you won’t find better writing or ensemble acting anywhere.  Furthermore, nearly every episode contains 1) at least one extraordinarily well-written and thoughtful interchange between family members, 2) a scene involving an engaging family meal, and 3) someone’s ball game, performance or other event at which everyone in the extended family shows up, with bells on.  It wouldn’t hurt if a few million American parents watched and followed these examples, while taking note of some of the show’s cautionary tales as well.

Nearly thirty years ago, a talented singer/songwriter named Bob Bennett wrote a wonderful tribute to his dad, who understood the importance of showing up.  I’ll leave you with the lyrics to “A Song About Baseball,” which could have been called “A Song About Thoughtful, Intentional Parenting.”   You can hear it at this link:  http://drivebymedia.wordpress.com/2008/04/01/bob-bennett-a-song-about-baseball/.  Grab a cup of coffee (or perhaps a hot dog), and give it a listen.

“A Song About Baseball” by Bob Bennett

Saturdays on the baseball field, and me afraid of the ball;
Just another kid on Camera Day — the Angels still played in L.A. –
I was smiling in living black and white.

Baseball caps and bubblegum – “I think there’s a hole in my glove.”
Three-and-two, life and death; swinging with eyes closed, holding my breath;
I was dying on my way to the bench.

But none of it mattered after the game,
When my father would find me and call out my name –
A soft drink, a snow cone, a candy bar,
A limousine ride in the family car.
He loved me, no matter how I played.
He loved me, no matter how I played.

But none of it mattered after the game,
When my father would find me and call out my name.
Dreaming of glory the next time out,
My father showed me what love is about.
He loved me, no matter how I played.
He loved me, no matter how I played.

But none of it mattered after the game,
When my father would find me and call out my name.

©Paul and Teri Reisser, 2011.

Paul Reisser is a family physician who has been in private practice for more than three decades. He has served as the primary author of Focus on the Family’s Complete Guide to Baby and Child Care and Complete Guide to Family Health, Nutrition and Fitness. Together Paul and his wife Teri have recently written Your Spouse Isn’t the Person You Married.

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