Ruth Woodliff-Stanley

Year A

Fourth Sunday of Advent


December 22, 2019

Revised Common Lectionary

Spirituality & Psychology

10 Behaviors Toxic People Display Before Revealing Themselves

Power of Positivity

An article outlining 10 charactistics commonly present in people who routinely practice toxic behaviors.

Review the 10 behaviors; consider what life events elicit these behaviors in any of us and what can call us to transcend them.

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Spirituality & Psychology

The Power of Being Seen for Who We Are

Omid Safi

On Being

An article about the impact a person can have on our lives by seeing us for who we are.

Pay attention to Omid's teacher's awareness of Omid's likely difficulty in finding breakfast at 4 AM. Consider what this says about what is involved in seeing another person.

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Science & Nature

The Beauty of the Cosmos as Seen by Hubble


High resolution images from the Hubble telescope.

Just take it in.

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When our perspective about another person has become myopic, what can call us back to expansive sight?


Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Isaiah 7:10-12

Ahaz, king of Judah, had two enemies allied against him. God assures him in the portion of Isaiah just preceding today's lesson that these enemies would not prevail over him. To give evidence of this promise, God tells Ahaz to ask for a sign–anything he wished–from the depth of hell to the farthest reaches of the stars. It was an offer without bounds; yet Ahaz refuses God. This response to such a lavish, divine invitation to think expansively bears the mark of one pressed down, overwhelmed, flooded. Ahaz had developed a narrative–that God was not trustworthy or approachable. It is into this narrative of Ahaz's making that God issues a specific promise–the promise of presence. Emmanuel: God-with-us. God also issues both mercy and judgment to Ahaz. But the promise that endures and is picked up by Matthew in his narrative about Jesus is singular: Emmauel.

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” Matthew 1:20b-22

This exquisite assurance came to Joseph in a dream. During sleep, while his mind rested from the short-sighted story he was constructing about Mary and how her pregnancy might threaten to destroy his reputation, he could receive God's much bigger narrative.

When we face threats or enemies and when we become a threat or enemy to another, somewhere in the equation there usually is a lack of perspective. Our capacity to imagine something beautiful, something majestic, is overrun by very basic needs to protect ourselves. Fluidity gives way to rigidity. Narratives are invented from bits and pieces. They are rehearsed and become fixed, as Ahaz's story about God and Joseph's about Mary. Our perspective about the person in front of us becomes myopic. Where there may truly be opportunity, we only see threat.

In today's first spirituality and pschology lesson, "10 Behaviors Toxic People Display Before Revealing Themselves," the writer cites a long-term study done with 10,000 subjects spanning more than 12 years. In the study, researchers discovered the subjects with more negative, toxic relationships were at a greater risk for heart disease than their counterparts with more positive relationships. The behaviors toxic people display share the characteristic of practicing the habit of not seeing another person's true self in order to make it easier to objectify that person.

The experience of being acted upon by a person who habitually practices toxic behavior takes its toll on a life. And the toll taken on the person deemed toxic is hidden, given that one of the characteristics of such people is their unwillingness or inablity to share their true selves with others. Hidden, but arguably as great or greater a toll than the toll taken on the receiving end of their behaviors.

So, what is it that can lift us out of these places of myopic sight and small-minded action?

In the second psychology and religion lesson, "Being Seen for Who We Are," Omid Safi prefaces his compelling stories about himself by naming what happens when people are not seen–namely, the experience of being erased or made into an "other." These experiences are common when on the receiving end of toxic behaviors which are designed specifically to make someone into an "other." Safi's answer to the question of how we can lift out of these places of being made invisible or making another invisible is simple. Simple, yet demanding.

It is, Safi notes, to see one another. He tells compelling stories of being seen as a Muslim on a campus where he could have easily been made into the "other." Instead, he had inviting experiences, including when his teacher, Shawkat Toorawa, saw that Omid, as a Muslim during Ramadan, would have no place to eat a full breakfast at 4 AM on campus and took him with other Muslim students to eat a breakfast that would sustain him through his fast. Granted, the teacher was also a Muslim. So, he was indeed seeing someone with whom he shared much. But here's the thing: the practice grows. A commitment to noticing, to seeing who is in front of us can forge in us a robust spiritual habit of looking for who is there–whether we share their perspective or not. When we practice the habit of seeing others, as well as when we are truly seen, the result is an opening of the spirit. An opening that at once grounds us in self-wisdom and increases in us the capcity to participate in a much larger narrative than the myopic ones that can ensnare us when we do not see and are not seen.

Today's science and nature lesson, "The Beauty of the Cosmos as Seen by Hubble," gives us in a matter of minutes perspective grand enough to transcend any objections we may raise to the thought that there is value in developing a robust habit of seeing someone. Seeing is an act that expands our vision in a universe, or perhaps a multiverse, that is begging us to lift our gaze, open our eyes, and behold. Emmanuel, indeed.