Friday, December 24, 2010

Light in the Darkness

It is Christmas Eve and I am sitting alone in my motel room. It is cold as I have been gone all day but just came back and turned on the heat. As I reflect back on all that has happened in my life and my family's life in the last year, it is all so different than Christmases past. There is sadness, some of it sweet and tender, but some of it is just plain painful and even a bit scary. But that does not mean that I do not believe. That does not mean that my Christmas is terrible or ruined. No - it teaches me more about what Christmas is and what it isn't.

There are some things that I have known or suspected for a long time. Christmas is not about hunting high and low to find gifts for our friends and family, nor is it about expectantly tearing the paper off of brightly wrapped packages. It is not about watching children's excitement when they rush at their presents Christmas morning. It is not about sending cards, decorating a tree, baking cookies, hanging up lights or singing Christmas carols. It is not even about spending the day going to church or being with family. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these activities nor am I suggesting that we not do these things at Christmas time. It is just that they are not Christmas.

Although there is historical evidence that the man, Jesus, lived and walked this earth, we do not know exactly when he was born. The ancient writings of the scriptures tell us stories about how and where he was born and a Christmas mythology has developed around those stories. I am not using the term "mythology" to suggest that the stories are not true, but rather that the stories have been elaborated upon to convey a meaning in our culture that goes beyond what is historically knowable. If we listen to the words of our favorite (or worn out by now) Christmas carols, we can see this, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing", "Little Drummer Boy", "Away in a Manger", etc. There is nothing inherently wrong with these products of our cultural Christmas. It is just that they are not Christmas.

Christmas is about love. About unconditional love. About the giving up of self so completely as to risk it all. This sort of love is not always pretty (or happy or fun or even interesting). In Christmas language, it is about a very pregnant young woman having to travel for days to satisfy the need of a ruler to count people in a census. It is about her being forced to give birth for the first time, away from home, with little help and in a stable with animals, feed and manure. Or it is about a husband-to-be making the same journey, risking being made a fool of for trusting that his betrothed is truly chosen by God rather than cheating on him. In Christmas language, it is about the Creator of the entire universe (now estimated to involve billions of galaxies) allowing himself to become as small and vulnerable as one human baby on one little planet, doing this so that he could help his lost children find their way home. Doing this even if that meant allowing them to insult and murder him. It is a love beyond anything we can imagine - if only it is true. If we want to celebrate Christmas, it is this we must celebrate, this love that goes beyond everything, that enters suffering and isn't always happy or beautiful in the ways we tend to think of happiness and beauty.

To truly celebrate Christmas, we are called to become students of this kind of love. If we know this, there is no harm in the fun celebrations of the cultural Christmas. However, if the cultural Christmas is all we have, we may find ourselves on the edge of a dangerous precipice. One year, there may be an illness, a job loss, a death or any of a number of other sufferings that will make that cultural Christmas seem utterly meaningless. If we have not known what Christmas truly is, we may find ourselves facing a gaping emptiness as the holidays approach. We may find that we don't want Christmas to happen and we may even feel that all of our past beliefs were just stories that held no truth at all.

Yet to celebrate the true Christmas is no small or easy endeavor. It may frighten us as we recognize how incapable we are of grasping this sort of love. (Our world tends to tell us that the great cannot be concerned with the small, so those billions of galaxies can make it inconceivable that the Creator could care about us, broken creatures of one small planet in one little galaxy.)  We may feel overwhelmed by the inadequacy of our own attempts at love. It is hard enough just to love and get along with those I am supposed to love (family, friends). How can I possibly learn to be part of this love that gives all?

A favorite passage from a famous novel, The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, comes to mind:

"Never be frightened at your own faint-heartedness in attaining love. Don’t be frightened overmuch even at your evil actions. I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you, for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labour and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science. But I predict that just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting farther from your goal instead of nearer to it- at that very moment I predict that you will reach it and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you."

How do I even begin to become a student of this "harsh and dreadful love" that is true Christmas? To begin as a student, I first must realize that I need to be taught, i.e. that I cannot possibly understand it or figure it out by myself. Then, I must find a Teacher. Fortunately, there is One who has come to teach us, to show us the way. Our Teacher is here to take us by the hand and guide us, to walk with us on all parts of the path - the parts that are fun and full of good feelings as well as the parts that are lonely, painful or frightening. Our Teacher teaches us the way of love by being with us and loving us. If we but accept the love, we will begin to carry it in our hearts. In our hearts, it becomes a light in the darkness - perhaps a very small light at first, but a light nonetheless. As we share it, even in the smallest of ways, it grows...

(Below is my little gift to you - and yes, it includes a Christmas song, played with love...)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A voice in the wilderness...

"A voice cries in the wilderness: Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight." (Isaiah 40:3) For those of us who have grown up in or around Christianity, these words are familiar at this advent time of year that leads us to Christmas. We are called upon to prepare for the Coming.

As I reflect on this, a story comes to mind. All of my life I have been very shy, though it may be less evident now than it was when I was a young child. I recall when I was in the third grade, the teacher engaged the class in a small activity where each of us was to take a turn speaking into a tape recorder. Of course, I was very anxious at the thought of doing this but did what I was told to do. When the tape was replayed, an even more terrible thing happened. When the recording of my voice was played, this deep, dull, croaking sound emanated into the room and everyone laughed! I was sure there was some mistake and was horrified to think that this was how I sounded to others. I had never thought much about my voice before that but suddenly, in that moment, I came to think of myself as a person with an unpleasant voice, one that certainly should not be overused, muchless recorded or amplified. Certainly the laughter of my classmates had made that clear.

After that year, I was probably more shy and quiet than ever. By eighth grade, I was one of two voted "most quiet" in my class. (The boy who was voted in as my male counterpart, had a soft, high pitched voice and was often made fun of.) However, as I evolved through my adolescence, I found that I had ideas, things that I really wanted to say. This need to speak pushed me beyond much of my shyness. I became more able to talk to strangers because I needed to, if I wanted to offer help. I spoke up more in groups because I felt that somehow I could not hold in the ideas that came into my mind. I even ventured into becoming a lector (reading the scripture readings) in my church because it felt so important to me to do. But I still thought I had this awful, odd sounding voice. Without knowing it, I had allowed a giggly group of third graders to define a part of me and years later I was still believing them.

A funny thing happened. As I became a more experienced lector, people sometimes came up to me after church and commented on how they loved listening to me read and found my voice so easy to listen to. This was really quite startling to me. I had worked at learning good technique for reading, but my voice? As I pursued my graduate studies and career in psychology, I started making relaxation tapes for my patients because so often people requested help in practicing the techniques that helped them relax in my office. Again, this strange thing happened. People started telling me how they found my voice so soothing, so calming. Sometimes people have told me that they just felt better hearing my voice. Despite all of this feedback, this still seemed strange to me. It still seemed that my third grade classmates were the ones who knew what I really sounded like and all of these other people were just being kind.

As I have walked the way of growth with so many patients over the years, I too have grown. I can see now that my shy and sensitive child-self had taken a message from my peers and blown it way out of proportion, leaving me thinking something about myself that was a distortion. (I am not claiming to have a great voice, but I do know now that I don't sound like a bull frog.) Perhaps even more important though is that I have learned that so much of my focus on me was completely unnecessary... all of the worrying and wondering about the approval of others, the fear of their judgment. I am not here for myself. And neither is my voice.

Going back to the words of the prophet, we find often ourselves, like the wandering people of Israel, in a "wilderness". While the biblical stories tell us of the forty year journey of this ancient people through the desert, the desert was not just a dry, arid place without enough food and water. It was also a state of their souls, their spirits. They were (as we often are) a people "bewildered", straying, lost, wandering and not knowing what direction to go in. A wilderness is a place where there are no paths, no roads. A wilderness can be a frightening place to be.

I am far from being a biblical scholar, but it is interesting to see what comes next in the instructions to the prophet, "Make a straight highway for our God." So here we are in the wilderness, the place without paths, lost, not knowing the direction to go in - and we're to build a highway? If you are at all like me, you may be thinking: how can I build a highway, especially a highway for God, if I don't have any direction, if I don't even know if there is a God or where he might be found? If God really is coming, can't he build his own highway? Certainly we might assume that God knows how to get here more than I know how to get there.

As I look out my window, I see snow starting to accumulate with predictions of more to come. Oddly, I think of snow shoveling, the creating of a path. While people coming to see me might be able, with great exertion, to walk through a foot of snow to my door, a path lets them know they are welcome, that I want them to come and find me here. So perhaps if One is coming, I can make a little path. I can make a space that says "I want you to find me. I am lost. I have no direction. Come. Show me what to do and where to go."

It strikes me that perhaps making the path is what prayer is about. I have often wondered about prayer. God, if there is a God, certainly knows what I need and how I feel. God, if God is good, doesn't need me to tell him or persuade him to do the good thing instead of the bad. I cannot imagine that God really needs me to say words at all. But perhaps I need to say them. Perhaps the saying of them is the way I clear the path, the way I make a "highway" for the One to come and find me in the wilderness. To let him know he is welcome and I want to be found. Perhaps when we say prayers together or when we pray for one another, we become connected. As people spiritually connected, the wilderness feels a little less scary and the making of a path a little less overwhelming. Hearing the voice of another as we wander through the wasteland helps us to feel not quite so alone.

If you'd like to, join me. I will use my voice. (If you don't feel ready for prayer, it is OK to not listen in - you'll still be connected because I'll pray for you. If you aren't sure what you believe but would like to hear my voice in your wilderness, you are welcome to listen and just let my words wash over you. There are no obligations or expectations here.)

(Since I do not know how to build highways, I will use the tool provided by the One who comes; I may use slightly different words than you are used to, but we will still be spiritually connected, since the words aren't the important part.)


Thursday, November 25, 2010

My left foot...

It is again Thanksgiving, a year since I starting writing this blog. I began with some fear and trepidation, I must admit, though it is hard to pinpoint why. Although I have long liked to write, I have generally been a rather private writer, putting my deeper feelings into a journal or on a scrap of paper that gets tucked away. I cannot say that I have been totally anonymous however, having written letters to the editor since I was a teenager, but somehow starting this blog seemed different. I began with the notion of writing some encouraging words to my patients for times I was not available but, as soon as I started writing, it became something more: a sort of spiritual symphony that I didn't seem to be orchestrating. Once I noticed that, my fear eased and I had only to make the time to allow it to happen. There were words that needed to be written and I realized that the story was not about me.

Speaking of stories, there is one that came to mind as I wondered what I would write this Thanksgiving. Years ago, when I was in college, I became friends with several people with physical disabilities who were activists, striving to be heard in world that largely ignored the disabled. I learned of a book, an autobiography published in 1954, by a man named Christy Brown. Christy was born in Ireland in 1932 with a severe physical disability (cerebral palsy) that left doctors thinking he was incapable of any intelligent thought. He didn't have control of his spastic muscles and could not even hold his head up as a young child. He could not speak and his siblings moved him about in small cart because he could not walk. However, his family, ignoring medical recommendations to institutionalize him, raised him as they did their other many children. When Christy was 5 years old, he surprised everyone by grabbing a piece of chalk from his sister, using his left foot. He struggled to write the letter "A" on the ground. Although his condition was not curable, once he made known that he could communicate, there was little holding him back. He typed his autobiography with his left foot, the only part of his body over which he had enough control to attempt this task. He also learned to paint with his left foot. Hence, the title of his book, "My Left Foot", which was made into an award-winning film by the same name in 1989.

As I reflect on this past year this Thanksgiving day, I am struck again by how many things there are to be grateful for. Each year, of course, has its challenges as well as its joys, and not always in equal proportions. But there are always simple things, things so basic to our lives that we often do not notice them or think to consider them "gifts". I can walk. I can talk. I can hear (most of the time). I can see. I can read. I can write. I can breathe unassisted. I have a home to live in. I have access to clean water. I have food to eat. I am loved. I am able to love. I have so much that the list could go on and on. For me, each of these things is just a natural part of life. But that is, of course, not so for many people. Some who are reading this may be lacking in one or more of the gifts I take for granted. Yet each of us has some of these "simple gifts" and it is a celebration of them that I would like to share today.

To celebrate the simple gifts, I would like to share a brief video (below) where I am celebrating the simple movement of my muscles to the Shaker hymn, "Simple Gifts", written by Elder Joseph Brackett in 1848. Note that I am claiming only to move, not to dance, as I am not claiming any skill or talent. Thinking of Christy, I begin my movement with my left foot, out of gratitude that I can move it - and the gratitude then moves through my body with the song. If you are able to move, celebrate thankfully with me by moving too, even if just a hand or a foot. Or sing (the words to Simple Gifts are printed below). If you are thinking you cannot sing, remember that I cannot dance. But I do it anyway. Out of gratitude...

'Tis the gift to be simple,
'tis the gift to be free,
'tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
It will be in the valley of love and delight.

(Refrain:)

When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed.
To turn, turn will be our delight,
'Til by turning, turning we come round right


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Acceptance

Fall is a season with which I have long had a love-hate relationship. It is hard not to love fall, at least a little, with all of its beautiful colors enveloping us. There is a sense of awe that comes as the ordinary green leaves of summer transition to gold and orange and bronze. They even seem to make the cool, rainy days seem less bleak as their brilliance stands in contrast to the deep black of wet tree trunks.

Yet part of me has, in past years, allowed myself to take on a dread of the fall season. When caught up in this world view, I mourned the lost idyllic summer days, long with sunshine and blue skies, while I conveniently forgot the stifling heat and humidity that often accompanied them. I dreaded fall because I knew what came next: cold, dark days with snow and ice. While I was hardly unique in not welcoming the Cleveland winter, I was losing sight of the beauty before me, replacing it with dreadful imaginings about the future. And this did not have to be: I allowed it, though perhaps I did not realize it at the time.

In the last year or two, I have begun to shift my view of life and its seasons. While part of that has been a conscious effort to live more in the present, my walks with my camera have, to my surprise, made this seem so much easier and more natural. I find myself looking for the beauty now - and I am not disappointed. When I have my eyes open, there is beauty right before me - and sometimes in unexpected places. While I expected to see beauty in the maple trees' changing leaves, I didn't anticipate seeing it in a dried up weed or a seed pod exploding its progeny into the world. Yet there it was...

Even with this gradual shift in my view, it still seems that autumn is a bittersweet season. It involves a sort of "letting go", evident even in our term for it: fall. The trees are full of magnificent color ... but then the color fades and falls and decays, becoming a brown mush barely distinguishable from the muddy soil. It is like a death - and there is something in us that resists death. We fear it. We dread it. It makes us cry... We simply don't want to let go of what we have come to love.

A few months ago, I hired someone, a "tree surgeon" he called himself, to come and trim my trees. Although I have lived in this house for a good number of years, I had never done this before, being unsure of when or how often one is supposed to do this sort of thing. He was a pleasant man with an honest way about him that put me at ease as we discussed trees and how to care for them. In the course of the conversation, he shared a bit of information that both surprised and fascinated me: the best fertilizer for a tree is its own leaves. The system was set up, before we humans started tinkering with it, so that the leaves would fall from the tree, enrich the soil and nourish the tree so that it could grow and produce its blossoms in spring and its fruits in summer... This seemingly insignificant bit of information about trees reminded me of something that I already knew deep inside of me. That the seasons have a rhythm, a purpose, and that the yearly letting go and dying was an important part of the living. I have often heard biblical words to that effect ("...unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit," John12:24), but as an urban dweller, I did not particularly notice that this process was happening right in my back yard, though of course it was.

In a sense, each season is a "letting go", as each exhausts its role in the cycle of Life, allowing another to take its place. In some ways, each day, each minute of my life is like that. I give up one experience so that another can unfold. I can try and try to hold on to the moments I like, hoping to avert the ones I dread, but I only end up frustrated. The experiences and the things and the people I love inevitably slip through my fingers, no matter how hard I hold on.Yet if I open my hands and accept the letting go, the beauty of now passes through my hands, leaving them open. Open and ready to accept the next gift, born in the new moment, fertilized by the ones that have passed. Yes, even the brown mush of decay from the trees' lost leaves is a gift, a Gift that nourishes and renews life.

My life too has seasons. I accept the cycle of Life, learning to live and die in its rhythms, my hands open, letting go of one Gift so as to be ready for the next... My eyes are open and I see the Beauty...

(To share in what my camera and I have encountered, click on the image below and you will leave this site to go to a web album I have created. Click on the slideshow button to watch; hit the escape button on your keyboard to leave the slideshow.)
Images of fall...

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Simplicity

This time of year often leads me to reflect on simplicity - in finding the beauty in the the small and ordinary. The flash of summer is gone, which sometimes makes me sad, but it is also a time to settle into cups of tea and warm blankets and good books as the days get cooler and shorter. However, what really draws me to thoughts of simplicity are the feast days, the days in my church where we remember and honor holy people who have gone before us. I wrote of this before as the "community of many loves", the eternal community of both the "saints" we have known in our lives and those we know by history.

On October 1, we remember Thérèse Martin, a young girl growing up in France who traveled to see the pope in hopes of getting permission to enter a convent at age 15, a wish that was eventually granted her. She suffered a number of severe physical, emotional and spiritual ailments before she died of tuberculosis at age 24. One would not expect such a short and uneventful life to have a great impact on the world and yet "the little way" of  St.Thérèse of Lisieux, sometimes referred to as "the little flower", did just that. The simplicity of her total commitment to love is deeply moving, especially when one considers how much she suffered in her short life. She wrote:

 "Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love."

Then, today, on October 4, we remember Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone (His father called him "Francesco" and we know him as St. Francis of Assisi), who is also revered by Catholics and non-Catholics alike around the world. His story includes being born into wealth and casting it all aside to live a life of poverty and devotion to God. He is remembered for embracing lepers, people he had previously shunned as did most people in his era. He gathered a small group of brothers who lived simply, joyfully and single-heartedly for God. He wrote:

"...we must be simple, humble and pure. We should never desire to be over others. Instead, we ought to be servants who are submissive to every human being for God's sake. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on all who live in this way and persevere in it to the end. He will permanently dwell in them. They will be the Father's children..."

                                                             ***
Yet, with all of this deep reflection on simplicity, I find my own life feeling anything but simple. (One bit of evidence supporting this feeling is that it is now October 8th, four days after I started writing this little essay.) In the intervening time, there has been more to do than I could fit into the hours available. There were many patients to see, documentation to complete. There was conversation with a dear friend who lost her mother unexpectedly and with another whose elderly mother is a great challenge. There was an oil change that turned into a $500+ expense. Dishes to be washed, garbage to be taken out, plants to be watered. As I listen to my litany of activities, I realize that I do not regret any of these events, nor do I regret that I still have many more things waiting to be done. My list of things to do is not what keeps me from feeling, as the holy ones did, a joyful simplicity in life.

No, it is not the list. It is me. It is me rolling all of these things over in my mind, as though what things I had to do in the past and those I need to do in the future were terrible burdens. They are not burdens. They are the living of my life. I go back to the words of little Thérèse, where she talks of scattering flowers, the flowers being each little thing done out of love. It doesn't matter if there are five little things to do - or twenty-five, if each is done with love. The simplicity lies in the fact that every moment has the possibility of becoming love, with every activity (hard or easy, big or small, unwanted or wanted) being one more expression of that core of Love I am invited to carry within me. Like Thérèse, I can be scattering flowers ... even as I type this...


Another thought came in my reflections on simplicity, especially as I remembered my friend, Francesco from Assisi. He was known to have a great love of animals, to the point that he could communicate with them as the members of his family that they were. My life is often full of computer screens and microwaves and books and automobiles. But since I have taken up the camera, I find myself noticing the little creatures who share my urban terrain. I love trying to catch them with my camera so that I can invite them further into my life view. And I have noticed that, the longer I've been doing this, the more connected I feel to them in their lovely simplicity. I open a door or raise a window shade and catch myself exclaiming: "Hi there, little friend!" to the squirrel looking at me from halfway up the tree. His little life is in sync with the Creator, as he eats and gathers and scampers without complaint. I watch and I start to recognize how I too was made to live in harmony with the One who made me and provides my every breath ...

Of all of the animals, I must admit that there is a special place in my heart for sparrows. There is a rather long-ish story behind that but I shall share the shortened version. When I was in college, a creative instructor of mine wanted to demonstrate an awareness technique to a group of us. She posed the question, "If you could be any animal, what animal would you be?" I knew immediately that I wanted to be a butterfly. As we were invited to play out our roles, I delighted in "flying" from one person to another (my "flowers") and (secretly) delighted in my colorful wings. At that time, of course, I did not know that a major emotional upheaval was around the corner for me. (This is where the story could get really long, but won't.) As I was talking over my anguish with an older friend, the story of my butterfly image came up. My friend said something very wise to me, though I didn't like it at the time. He told me that butterflies were too fragile. I needed to be something else. What else could I be but a butterfly?! Because I knew I liked to "fly", I considered birds and thought maybe I could be a dove. My friend rejected that and I knew he was right. I could not just pick out a symbol of peace to find my own inner peace. I needed to find me. After sleeping (fitfully) on it for a night or two, I knew. I was a sparrow. I would be a tiny bird chirping and flying through life. (And a sparrow does not fall to the ground without the Father knowing it - see Mathew 10:29 - a great consolation to me at the time.) I told my friend and he beamed his approval. Sparrows, he told me, had great endurance, staying through the winter while the other birds went south. That confirmed it. I had to surrender my glorious butterfly-color to become a common brown bird, a bird that would endure through the cold winters of my life and the lives of those I encountered. And yet my little bird self could still soar through the heavens...

My spirit-brother Francesco, like many beloved people of old, has had many stories told of him. Because he lived so long ago, it is impossible to sort the "truth" from some of the legends. But legends often contain much truth and so I will share one. Francesco and his companions were walking near the town of Bevagna when he saw a large number of birds off in one direction. He left his brothers for a short while, telling them that he needed to preach a sermon to the birds. Rather than flying off, as birds typically do when humans approach, these birds remained in place, as though waiting for him. This is the sermon we are told he preached:


"My sister birds, you owe much to God, and you must always and in every place give praise to Him; for He has given you freedom to wing through the sky and He has clothed you... you neither sow nor reap, and God feeds you and gives you rivers and fountains for your thirst, and mountains and valleys for shelter, and tall trees for your nests. And although you neither know how to spin or weave, God dresses you and your children, for the Creator loves you greatly and He blesses you abundantly. Therefore... always seek to praise God."

And so, let us go forth, scattering flowers, loving all of creation, with simple hearts full of gratitude.

(Just for a little smile, click on the arrow to view my short You Tube video, captured without skill through a window, since the birds won't sit still for me. Don't expect anything funny or spectacular, just a simple moment in time.)




Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Sacredness of Food

Years ago, I occasionally went on private retreats for a couple of days to allow myself time to grow closer to God. On one particular occasion, I reserved myself a little space with one of the local convents, set in a quiet and peaceful area near the Rocky River reservation. Often during these retreats, I would pray, meditate, read or even climb down the hill to the river to experience God in nature. On this one particular retreat, however, I do not remember much except one simple experience. My accommodations gave me access to a small refrigerator in which I could store the food that I had brought for myself. Early that first evening, after settling in, I retrieved from the refrigerator a beautifully ripened pear that I had brought. I cored and quartered it with a small knife. I ate it slowly, allowing myself to savor its cool, juicy sweetness. It was a simple moment: just God and me and the pear.

Ever since then, I’ve told people (who then look at me oddly) that pears are a sacred fruit.

Of course, all food is sacred. The cycle of seeds growing into plants that blossom and bear fruit can only exist because of a creative life process that transcends anything we humans could do on our own. The process appears to have been established with a great care that enables it to keep creating, nourishing and re-creating the living things (of which we are part) that inhabit our earth. The more I read and learn, the more awe I feel for this holy process. Before we humans came along and set about "improving" things, the system seems to have worked remarkably. Plants grew and produced their fruit which animals ate. The animals grazed on to neighboring land, dropping undigested seeds into new soil along with some natural fertilizer, allowing crops to be "rotated". Nutrients from the soil were absorbed into the plants and their fruits, nourishing the animals who in turn returned nutrients to the soil. What could be more perfect?

So what has happened to us? To our relationships with food, our bodies and the earth? How is it that we have come to consume so much that is not really food? We eat our own creations that often fail to nourish while neglecting the whole foods ("holy" foods) that the Life cycle produces for us. We extract, refine and add back all kinds of ingredients in our "food" industry - as though we knew better than the Creator what would nourish. And we wonder why our bodies don't feel good or look good. Of course, when we start to notice that something is amiss, it drives the development of yet more industries, to create and sell more products (from make-up to medications), in hopes that they will make us feel good and look good. Our earth is depleted, our bodies under-nourished (but often over-fed) and we no longer know how to eat.

I remember when I first came to Cleveland as a young adult as part of a spiritually-based volunteer corps, I had an unusual lunchtime practice that I engaged in now and then during my lunch hour. (That was back in the days when people still had lunch hours). I would leave my workplace with my little bag of food and find an isolated spot, so that I could have lunch with God. Sometimes I walked to my house, crawled out an upstairs window and sat on the roof (you would have to know the building to understand how this could work). Then it would just be me and God and my sandwich and the fresh air and the sky. No multi-tasking. Just eating and being aware of Divine Presence in me and around me. And sometimes my coworker friend and I would pick up some inexpensive vegetarian fare and find a bit of grass to sit on while we ate and talked and experienced a holy Presence in those lunchtime moments. A number of times lately I have thought: I’d like to do that again, to have lunch (or any meal) with God. It perturbs me that I find it so very difficult now. It seems too hard to do just one thing, to eat and be in this moment, in this experience. And so I eat while doing other things and discover that my food is gone and I barely noticed how it tasted… I received a holy Gift but made no time to savor it, to celebrate it.
                                                  ...

After writing the above, the beginning of this essay, I took a break because I needed to cook my dinner, the dinner I would re-heat most nights this week. I had a nice time, chopping and sauteing, cooking and seasoning, with the result being some curried lentils on brown rice (it has some cauliflower and peas in it too), topped by plain yogurt with chopped cucumber in it. I also cooked up some peaches and cherries, with a bit of cinnamon and nutmeg, for dessert later. As always, this cooking project took a bit longer than I expected. It was fun giving my time and my hands to these whole (holy) foods, but I was tired by the time the preparations were finished. But I decided to do it. To have my dinner with God. I fought the temptation to read something or listen to something while eating. I just took my bowl and sat in a comfortable chair, with the ceiling fan swirling coolly overhead, allowing a quiet space for God.

Nothing dramatic happened. The food tasted good. I thought of God, but then my mind wandered. I drew my mind back and off it wandered again. And that was all right. It was a beginning, an effort to return myself to a simplicity I seem to have misplaced as my life grew and expanded. I do not regret the way my life has evolved at all. My life feels very full at times, but with that comes a richness. Yet, as I get older, I realize there may be a time coming when my life will not be so full and I will need to rediscover the richness hidden in simplicity. For it is not how much I do, but how I live that is most important... 

And so I have begun. Not some major life change. Just another little step on the journey.


If you'd like to join me, you may (no lentils required!).

Begin with something simple, something whole (holy).

Allow yourself to taste it,





To savor it, in this moment.

Allow its holiness to become part of you

as your body accepts its nourishment.




Enjoy this little step, this Gift, this moment. Enjoy who you are becoming at each step along the way.

(I am hoping to do some more writing on such things as eating, breathing and other basics of living. Watch for a link - though who knows how soon?)

Saturday, July 31, 2010

A little something for your soul

It has been awhile since I have written and, once again, the time in my day evaporates with so many things that need to be done still unfinished. But I want share a little something, a gift long forgotten that I came across while going through an old box of things I had saved back in my high school and college years. It is a gift, not because someone bought it and wrapped it up for a special occasion, but rather a gift because it speaks to my heart. May it speak to yours as well.
It is part of the poem, Desiderata, written by Max Ehrmann in 1927. While the entire poem is soul-provoking, I am sharing just the final verses ...

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life
keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

(It is interesting to note that the old reprint I have of this poem had an error in it that I only discovered tonight as I looked the verse up online. Instead of "Be cheerful", my version says, "Be careful." I think, oddly enough, that I like the mistake better than the original. Be careful ... be full of care, for yourself, for others, for the universe. Our world can be a harsh and dangerous place but it is also full of beauty. Be careful.

To remind you (and me) of the abundance of beauty that has been poured out before us, I invite you to enjoy some more photos I took while walking in my neighborhood this summer. I didn't have to walk far or look hard. Beauty is there for me to drink in, if only I keep my eyes open.

(Click on the picture of the sunflower below and you will be taken away from this blog to a web album of photos I put together. Click on "slide show" in the upper left corner to watch them in that format. Hit "escape" key on your keyboard to leave the slide show. You are welcome to download any of my photos for personal use if you would like to.)
More beauty...

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Eternity


As I write this, it is a beautiful, warm summer day, with blue skies and an occasional cloud. Sparrows and robins are playing in my back yard. The sun is shining and it is Sunday, a day of rest from the usual labors. For many of us in Northeast Ohio, this is the sort of day we cherish, because it seems so often our climate affords us only cloudy grayness and rain or snow. It almost seems hard to imagine that that is true as I type this, but we all know it is true. Like many people, I tend to feel more relaxed and hopeful on sunny days.


I often finding myself with a longing for times like this to last. Why does summer have to slip away and winter take over? As silly as it sounds, there are many things that I just don't want to go away. Something in me resists change. It may be something as simple as having to throw away a favorite item of clothing because it is worn out. Or it might be a moment of beauty slipping by, like seeing the red rose drenched in glistening rain drops that will soon dry (as in the picture in my last posting). It could be shared moments of love with family or friends, the joy of hugs or the comfortable sharing of thoughts, that I have to pull away from long before I am ready. Or it could be a truly sacred moment, where a greater Love seems to fill my soul, inviting it to greater heights - but then it is time to eat breakfast and attend to the day's work. As much as I want to hold on, each passes and I cannot stop it from slipping through my fingers.


It seems like there is something etched inside of me that longs for a permanence, for an eternity where I don't have to give up my heart's desire when it feels like I have just started to discover what it is.


On the other hand, there are a great many other things that I am glad do not last. I am so glad that showers came and freed us from last week's stifling heat and humidity. I am grateful that migraines and head colds and stomach viruses do not last. If moments didn't pass, my troublesome emotions and worries and memories would always be in my mind - without relief. And even if I could stop the people I love from ever dying, I would be condemning them to a forever of this life, something I could never wish for anyone.


It also seems that there is something etched inside of me that longs for change, for newness and relief from the old. I want to experience new moments and feel new joys. I long to see new blossoms on the trees, but I also love to watch them be replaced by fresh fruits that can only grow once the blossoms fade and die. I want to grow too and my spirit can only grow by letting go of what has been and being open to whatever comes.


How can I have it both ways?


Over thirty years ago, I was flying in an airplane and I wrote down a few thoughts in a small notebook I carried with me. I still have that notebook, though it is quite tattered and the pencil jottings barely legible. I wrote:


Never forget how relative your perceptions of things are. Your vision is so limited that, unless you are willing to live on faith, you will find yourself living much below your capacities.


From my observation point on earth, it appears that on some days the sky is blue, on some days it is cloudy gray. I fly in an airplane above the clouds to find that the sky is always blue. The appearance of clouds is only a temporary obstacle that prevents me from seeing what is the reality.


This is quite a simple and obvious truth in an age where air flight is so common. Yet how many more things there may be for which this is true. There are those underlying realities which we are at times unable to see because of "clouds". But through our faith, we are enable to penetrate the clouds in our consciousness - to live our lives in terms of realities and not appearances.


If I can live, knowing that the sky is always blue, despite how it momentarily appears, what does this mean for my life? It means, quite simply, that all my words, actions and thoughts are rooted in eternal joy, constant hope and complete assurance. Thus, clouds, although they may cast occasional shadows, ultimately have no power over me. I know them for what they truly are: temporary obstacles.


I can take this even a step further. With this faith-understanding, I can live with the inner certainty that there is no absolute evil. I know that evils are only temporary appearances and therefore I do not believe in their significance. I can then learn to live without any fear.


Indeed, eventually, my consciousness can grow to know the blueness of the sky in every living moment. In less metaphorical terms, I then know in every moment that my life is eternal. I know every moment that I am in the presence of God. There is then no anxiousness or waiting, for I know the reality of my life's fulfillment now.


While re-reading this and typing it, I found myself wanting to edit - or at least make footnotes. Having lived 30 plus years since I wrote it, I still find some truth in it. However, I have also experienced and witnessed a lot more now than I had then. There are not just clouds that keep me from seeing the sun. There are, at times, raging storms. I have had my share of fears over the years and certainly have not felt "complete assurance" or "eternal joy". However, many years ago, during one of those storms, my therapist said to me an interesting thing. He said that he had a feeling that, down deep, I knew that ultimately I would be all right. As miserable as I was at that moment, I had to admit that this was true. Something in me knew that there was indeed a sky that was always blue, even though I could not see it.


And so I believe in the Eternal. The Eternal I cannot see. I caught a glimpse of it a few weeks ago while flying in an airplane, high above the clouds. I know that, if I could go back to that same spot in the sky, what I saw would now look different. But that would just be appearances. In each experience of truth, beauty, love, there is a reality that endures, no matter how different it may look to my human eyes. But my heart knows. My soul knows.


I invite you to see what I saw - not because showing you a picture can make it your moment, but because in showing the picture, you may come to believe that such moments are possible.







(photo taken from my airplane window)

Monday, June 14, 2010

Glimpses of God...

I have a poster, framed and hanging in my reading room, that says it all. I don't remember when or where I bought it, but I do know that once I saw it, I had to have it (an unusual experience for me). It has a large photograph of Albert Einstein and quotes his words, "I want to know God's thoughts ... the rest are details."

There is so much that I don't understand about life. I think of Moses when he encountered the burning bush - while certainly he was being called to no easy task (get Pharoah to let the people go, then lead them to the promised land), at least he had a chance to ask God a few questions. (from Exodus 3).
God: "Moses, Moses!"
Moses: "Here I am."
God: "Take off your shoes, for the place on which you stand is holy ground. I am the God of your father.."
God: "I have seen the miserable state of my people ... I have heard their appeal to be free ... I am well aware of their sufferings. I mean to deliver them ..."
Moses then went on to ask God what his name is, to ask what to do if no one would believe him or listen to his words. He even protested that he wasn't a very good speaker so his brother was sent with him to help him. He still ended up having to face Pharoah and spend about 40 years leading a grumbling people through the desert - but at least he got to ask some questions, to learn some things about God's thoughts. It is even written in one place that God's glory passed by him and that Moses talked to God face to face.

I have so many questions for God. And I hear so many others who have questions for God. Why does an innocent child have to die from illness or accident? Why are some people born into disaster zones like Haiti while others are born into privilege and comfort? Why are people allowed to be so cruel to each other? Why do people get away with molesting, raping, beating and murdering people who have done nothing at all to deserve this? The list of why's could go on and on. We may have the opportunity to ask God questions - but we cannot tell if anyone is listening. We do not hear answers. We do not see God. How can we believe that any of this makes sense?

I want to know God's thoughts.

On more than one occasion, suffering people have related to me how they asked God for answers or for help and the answers and help never came. They could not keep believing in a God who abandoned them in their time of desperate need. Sometimes I have asked people: if God did hear you and wanted to help, how would that help come to you? Often people do not have an answer, but the continuation of their suffering is sign enough that nothing has happened. God was too busy. God might care about other people but not me. Maybe there is no God.

I do not have the answers. But on a few occasions, I have had the audacity to suggest to a person that maybe God sent me to help them. Whenever I say this, I must admit that I have inwardly cringed at the nerve I have shown - to suggest that God might send me, as though I were someone special, about to perform a miracle. But I have suggested this at times for a couple of reasons - and neither of them have anything to do with my own goodness or virtue. First of all, I suggest it because that is how God has often helped me in times of trouble - by putting someone in my path who had the willingness, caring or knowledge to help me when I felt on the verge of hopelessness. If God has helped me through others, maybe he helps others through me. A second reason that I suggest this possibility is because often, if we do ask God to help us, we have some notion (that we probably never put into words) of what that help will look like. Probably most often we anticipate that the bad feeling or bad situation will just go away, and go away fairly soon. If it doesn't, God must not be listening.

I want to know God's thoughts. I want to see God face to face.

But maybe God is here and I need to learn how to see him. Maybe his help is waiting in the next person I meet and I need to be open to the possibility. Maybe I am surrounded by God's loving help and I don't even know it. Maybe God knows of my suffering and has a plan to deliver me...

Enjoy with me part of a verse written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

“Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes -
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”

Let us go looking together for signs of God. Let us open our eyes to see, our ears to hear, our hearts to find hope. Let us consider the ground we walk on every day to be holy, that we might catch glimpses of God in the ordinary, when and where we least expect it. 

(If you would like to see some of what I saw this spring, while walking in my neighborhood, click on the picture of the little bird. This will take you away from this site to a public Web album I created. It may take a moment to load or focus. To watch it as a slide show, click on the "slideshow" button that will appear in the upper left part of your screen. To stop the slide show, hit the escape button on your keyboard. My apologies to the true photographers - I 'm just a person who bought a camera ...)
Spring in my neighborhood...

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Into the heart of God...

A couple of years ago, I came home from work late on a Tuesday evening in April. It was already dark outside and yet the house next door, inhabited by good friends, seemed to have every light in the house on. There were extra cars in the driveway. I had an ominous feeling. Jack was older and his health had been slowly declining. As I took my mail from my mailbox, I found the dreaded note that said to stop over, regardless of the time. I went over, fearing I might already be too late.

I was greeted into a home so long familiar to me, now filled with both a sadness and a sense of peaceful anticipation. Jack's wife took my arm and told me that there had been a sudden change and hospice had come. He was no longer able to speak more than an occasional word and the dying process had begun. In the months preceding that evening, I had often wondered how I could bear a world without Jack in it. We had been friends for 30 years. He was family to me - not by blood, but by spirit. I did not know how I could bear it, yet I knew that I was on the path that would teach me.

I walked into the bedroom where his hospital bed was, afraid of what I would see. It was Jack's body, but his face was now almost frozen into a new expression I had never seen before: eyes closed, mouth stretched open wordlessly. When I voiced my thought that perhaps he was asleep, I was simply told, "This is how he is now..." Much of the day, people had been calling and the phone was held to his ear so that friends from around the country - from around the world - could say their loving farewells to him. As I entered the room, I wondered if this was to be my farewell time with him. What could I possibly say?

I sat with him for a long time. Most of the time I said nothing. But I told him I loved him. Since Jack had always been a joker, I waited for the teasing remark that did not come. I grew bolder. I commented on how hard it must be to keep living in a body that was so sick and worn out. (He responded with a low groan of acknowledgment.) I told how much I would miss him but also expressed awe and wonder that he would soon be meeting face-to-face the God he had spent his whole life serving. I left his side so others could go in and I talked a bit with his family. It was very late by then and it seemed time to be going home but ... would this be the last time? I went back in and held his hand again. Finally, his eyes still closed, his voice came forth so clearly that it startled me: "Thank you for eveything." I was floored. He was thanking me? I thanked him, leaned over and kissed his cheek. As I left his room for the last time that night, I said in a light voice, "If you go to God before I get back, tell him I said 'hi!'".

The next day, Wednesday, I spent a bit more time with him but his spirit was pulling further from his body and there were no more words. I told him that it was OK for him to go, that we would be all right. I assured him that we would not stop loving him, whether he was in his body or not. Thursday morning came and he was still alive. I stopped over and kissed him before I went on to work. When I came home that night, he was gone. His spirit had left his body and his body had been taken to the place where empty bodies go... He went into the heart of God and we were left behind.

As I grow older and my family and friends grow older, the passing from this life seems more and more a reality. Of course, I have known others who have died and I have heard the stories of passings that many others have shared with me. Certainly not all (or many) of those stories have been as sweet and peaceful as this one. People coming to me in pain have told me of horrifying fatal accidents, perpetrated by strangers - or even worse - themselves. I have been told of the murders of loved ones and the suicides of children and parents and friends. Strangers come to me and share how much they miss their moms or their dads or their sisters, brothers and best friends. The tears flow, more often agonizingly than peacefully. As the years progress, I know that the time draws closer when these stories will increasingly be mine, in some form or another. It can be no other way.

When I return now to my fearful question of the past - how could I endure in a world without Jack? - I have discovered that it is not nearly as terrifying as I had expected. Have no misunderstanding: I miss him in the way that I knew him, that is, I miss his physical presence, his touch, his voice, his laugh. And yet he is not gone from me. I do believe that, when he left behind his worn out body, his spirit - the true essence of Jack - was drawn into the heart of God. When I meditate and pray, opening my heart to God, Jack is there. His body is long gone, but he is there, living more perfectly than ever the love of which his life here was just a beginning. He is part of a whole community of love, a community made up of many, many loves - some I have seen and known in my lifetime; others, from different times and cultures, I have known only in spirit. As I know Jack, I know my grandma and grandpa and a few friends who have passed. But I also know Francis of Assisi and Therese de Lisieux. I know Maximilian Kolbe and Elizabeth of Hungary. There are many, many loves in this community and I have only begun to know them.

This all sounds so beautiful, so hopeful. But what of all of the horrible deaths - the unfair ones that make no sense? What of all of the deaths still to come that I cannot imagine bearing? I don't know. I can't know. I cannot know if there is something around the corner that will leave me feeling as broken (or more broken) than the many people who come to me and share their stories. I can only hope that, if I come to be in that place (or perhaps I should said when I come to be in that place), the community of many loves will surround me and hold me, supporting me along the journey until it is my turn to enter the heart of God more fully.

Come, let us walk together. When we feel empty and sad and frightened and angry and overwhelmed by our losses, we will walk together. Whether the loss was yesterday or 50 years ago, we will walk together. We will close our eyes and trust, hoping in the loves we cannot see, hoping in the One who will one day draw us all back into his heart, where together we will dance.

("Jack's bush", planted in his yard at the time of his death, here blooming in the April sun, 2010.)






Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Let my heart be broken...

"I remember the exact moment I stopped believing in God," she said, a trace of guilt in her voice. "It was on March 4, 2003...about two in the afternoon, a little after lunch," she said. "That was the day God took my grandmother."

These words were related by Kevin Ryan, president of Covenant House, an organization that shelters and aids homeless kids. He was quoting a teen he called Angela who had no father and whose mother had died when she was five. After her grandmother died in 2003, her older sister died, when Angela was but 17. I am quoting this story simply because I cannot quote the ones told to me by my patients in confidence. But the brutal pain of life's tragedies is not limited to an anonymous teenager in a fund raising letter. It is right here, in our midst, often masked behind faces trying stoically to go on in a world that seems impossibly empty. 

As I think back to my special posting for Easter, I contemplate my reference to "His victory over death" and wonder - how could I write such a thing in this world where death and suffering abound? Where is the victory? My lovely sentiments may seem to make some sense when we suffer the loss of a loved one who has lived out a full life, leaving their families the physical and emotional means to carry on. But so many deaths are not like that. What about the deaths of children? What about the deaths of countless innocents in natural disasters and wars? What about the death of someone so vital to our existence that we can no longer fathom the possibility of a loving God?

I wish I knew the answer to that. I truly do. But since I don't, let me share a spiritual experience from my own life that has kept me hanging on to faith even when it seems to make no sense to do so. This occurred on an ordinary day when I was in college, on 10/7/75, to be exact. I know the date because I wrote it in a journal. As I have related elsewhere, in my younger years, I was relentlessly pursuing (or perhaps pursued by) God, all the while questioning, believing, then doubting again. One day, some words came to me while I was sitting in my dorm room and I wrote them down. I do not remember the exact context, but I know that I was at a point in my professional growth were I was feeling deeply the horrible pain experienced by people I was sent to serve in my field work in social services. The words that came to me were these:

In My wounds shall be your stronghold.
No longer shall you be standing and watching My
   Passion from afar,
but you shall be right there,
   in My hands,
   in My feet,
   in My side,
   sharing in My most intense pain.
And only when you have come to understand
   the depths of My suffering
shall you come to share in the joys of My resurrection.
Be patient
   and endure with everlasting trust
   and inconquerable love.
I shall remain with you,
   and you with Me,
   now and forever.

As I reflect back, it seems that the appearance of these words in my life were an important part of learning who I was and who I was to be in relation to Him. I could be a believer who went to church on Sundays. I could be a kind person who lived a good life. Or I could enter into the suffering with Him. The notion of the crucified body was not just the corpse of a man executed 2000 years ago but it was a body made up of the suffering people around me. And I was being invited into the wounds, the most painful parts of that body. I was going to share in that pain. There was no other way.

My life has been process of saying yes to that invitation, often in ways that I have not anticipated. I had thought when I started out that I was just saying yes to being with others and sharing in their pain. I didn't know at the time that it also meant that I would have my own pain and others would come to share it with me. However, along the road of life, I have discovered that both parts are essential - for how could I truly be with you in your pain if I had no idea what it was like to suffer myself? The path to His victory, I have  learned, is not an easy and glorious one. It is one that is sometimes dark and without direction and sometimes so senseless that it makes you want to scream. But then you share the path with someone or they share it with you and there is a power in the love that makes everything else in life seem trivial. There is a strength and a beauty to the victory that goes beyond any accomplishment of this world. We only catch occasional glimpses of it. But it is real. I have experienced it, though not through any doing of my own.

My title for this posting is also the title of a book I came across in a used bookstore, some years after the above words came to me. It caught my attention. When I opened the book to understand its intriguing title, I read the full quote:

Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.

And so my heart breaks with you when you are in pain. And His heart breaks with you in your pain. But it is not a destructive breaking. It is the outpouring of the Gift. I do not understand it - but still I embrace it and every day keep trying to say yes.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Gift

Some of the worst horrors our world has ever known occurred in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. And yet even there, the Gift was present. In 1941, in Auschwitz, there was an escape of one or more prisoners from the camp. As was the practice, the commandant in charge walked through the rows of prisoners, choosing ten to execute so that the prisoners witnessing this might be deterred from trying to escape. Of those selected to die, one was a farmer named Franciszek Gojowniczek, a man who had served in the Polish army. When chosen, he cried out in anguish for the wife and children he would never see again. But then something very unusual happened. Another prisoner, # 16670, stepped forward and offered to take his place - to die in his stead. And, amazingly, the exchange was permitted, so that #16670 died and Franciszek lived. However, the death of #16670 was not a quick or easy one. He and the other nine were placed naked in an underground bunker with no food or water, to slowly die of thirst and starvation. Nonetheless, prisoner #16670 led the condemned group in hymns and prayers, until over a period of 10 days, one by one the other nine died. However, even then #16670 remained alive, alert and serene until finally, he was given an injection of carbolic acid to ensure that his body would die. An eyewitness to his death reported that, "his face was calm and radiant". As for Franciszek Gojowniczek, he was liberated from the camps and lived on until the age of 94. However, he did not die until he had appeared many times around the world to bear witness to this story. One of those occasions, in 1982, was when Pope John Paul II recognized prisoner #16670, Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, as a saint.

This story is but one of countless stories of the Gift made known in the midst of our broken world, whether made known in a way so extraordinary that it is recognized by churches and history books - or in a way so obscure that only one or two notice or experience it. One person in Auschwitz died in place of another; others, from other faiths and walks of life, simply shared with another a bit of bread that they desperately wanted for themselves. In our day-to-day world, the Gift may be made known in the sharing of time, a written word, a song, a picture, a kind touch or a glass or water. They may seem like ordinary gifts and yet they are somehow different...

As much as our culture makes a big show of gift-giving, with Christmas, birthdays and countless other occasions, many of us are uncomfortable with receiving gifts. I remember, as a young child, it always seemed easier to me to say a polite "No, thank you" when offered something as ordinary as a snack at a friend's house. "No, I mustn’t take something that is yours", I thought - and yet I don't really know why I thought that. I suspect that some of us may think that we are not worthy, feeling that some better or more deserving person should receive the gift.

Sometimes perhaps we are reluctant to accept a gift because we feel like we don't have anything to give back, "I'm sorry, I didn't get anything for you!" we cry, feeling that we cannot simply open our hands and receive. And yet other times, we may be afraid to accept a gift because we fear that there are strings attached, that somewhere beneath the surface of that gift there is going to be an expectation - or worse, an obligation that we didn't sign up for. It may seem safer just to take care of ourselves and our own needs, so that the giver will not have some claim on us.

So what is this "Gift" that I keep writing of? Quite frankly, I am not sure I know. Yet it is no accident, of course, that I am writing of it on Easter. Or perhaps I should say, that I am writing of Him. I remember that, through many of my early questioning and doubting years, I often pondered the question of what was so special about the suffering of this man, Jesus. Undoubtedly, he suffered and died - but certainly many other people have as well, some with deaths that appeared more excruciating and prolonged than his. A new awareness came to me only recently, however. And that is that if Jesus is indeed the Son of God, as Christians believe, his suffering was much, much more.

And herein lies the Gift. Perhaps, just perhaps, God, in Jesus, suffered not just once in time, but is suffering over and over as he chooses to join me in my suffering and to join you in your suffering and everyone else in theirs, now and throughout time. This would mean that he is not a God who watches our pain from afar, but one who out of love, suffers our suffering with us, taking us “by the right hand”. And in so doing, if we are willing, he leads us through to a new level of living where this outpouring of love transforms everyone and everything in its wake. This outpouring of the Holy is, I think, the Gift. It is the Hope we seek. It is the Love we seek. As we begin accepting the Gift, it changes us, gradually or in leaps and bounds, until one day we notice that the Gift is being given through us and we rejoice in our unworthiness... A gift becomes the Gift, as we see that all of the wisdom and hope and beauty and kindness is not from us but from the One who, out of love, has poured himself out. It is given to me and it is given through me. It is given to you and it is given through you.

I realized that I have run the risk of getting far too theological for those among us (all of us?) who are not sure what we believe.


The beauty of the Gift is that you don't have to know what you believe.

You do not have to be worthy.





You may feel too sad to go on.

You may feel full of rage.

You may feel abandoned by God.

You may feel confused.

You may have made horrible mistakes in your life.

You may feel that there is no one who loves you.




The Gift is still given.


And given ...

Today,

tomorrow,

the next day

and in a year from now ...




It is always there,

waiting to be accepted

little by little

or all at once.

There is no Easter

unless Easter is every day.






I know that words and pictures and music do not make the difficulty of life go away.



But as you read this,

please know that you are not alone.








Finally, I invite you to pray or meditate or simply listen with an open heart to a beautiful expression of the Gift, a musical celebration of His triumph over death:

(The music that played here has been removed on 5/23/10, the end of the formal Easter Season, per my agreement with the copyright holder. If you have an interest in learning about Taize music and meditation, you may click on this link: http://www.taize.fr/en_article681.html)




(Thank you to the following people who, without knowing you, offered to share their glimpse of the Gift with you - at no charge and with no strings attached: Caroline Benken for the first two photos, Janis McGowan for the following four photos, and the Taize Community for granting permission to play their copyrighted music on this site through the Easter season - special thanks to Sabina for facilitating that...)

Friday, April 2, 2010

Friday

As I walked toward my church for Good Friday services today, a middle-aged, African American man approached me. His skin had the rough look of someone who has spent a lot of time outdoors and his eyes appeared not to have slept well in days if not weeks. There was a tear on his face, not quite dry. "Why has God forsaken me?" he cried out to me. "Doesn't God love me?" he pleaded to know, as I walked closer. "I have been homeless for 8 months. What have I done wrong?" As I stood and listened, I tried to just be present to his anguish. "Maybe I would be better off dead. I don't know why I was born," he exclaimed, peering into my face. "Does God love me?"

As he repeated his litany of questions, we talked a bit about the homeless shelters nearby. However, it was clear that the man was troubled and that he longed for something more - far more. Unlike many of the unfortunate who walk the streets, this man did not ask for money. He just wanted to know if God loved him - and, if so, why was he still homeless? I asked him his name. I told him that God does love him and that I was sorry that he was suffering so. I told him that I knew I could not solve all of his problems today, but asked if it would be all right if I gave him something. I gave him some money, purposely touching his hand as I did so, telling him that I hoped at least this would help today feel a little better. I told him that I would pray for him. He thanked me and I went on to church, feeling his spirit nearby as we commemorated the crucifixion of Jesus.

Let us hold this man, and the many thousands like him, deep in our hearts.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Twenty-some years ago, I walked into my therapist's office and read the following words, softly, slowly, my voice cracking with emotion:

"Lord my God, I call for help by day;
I cry at night before you.
Let my prayer come into your presence.
O turn your ear to my cry.

For my soul is filled with evils;
my life is on the brink of the grave.
I am reckoned as one in the tomb:
I have reached the end of my strength,

like one alone among the dead;
like the slain lying in their graves;
like those you remember no more,
cut off, as they are, from your hand.

You have laid me in the depths of the tomb,
in places that are dark, in the depths.
Your anger weighs down upon me:
I am drowned beneath your waves.

You have taken away my friends
and made me hateful in their sight.
Imprisoned, I cannot escape;
my eyes are sunken with grief.

I call to you, Lord, all the day long;
to you I stretch out my hands.
Will you work your wonders for the dead?
Will the shades stand and praise you?

Will your love be told in the grave
or your faithfulness among the dead?
Will your wonders be known in the dark
or your justice in the land of oblivion?

As for me, Lord, I call to you for help:
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Lord, why do you reject me?
Why do you hide your face?

Wretched, close to death from my youth,
I have borne your trials; I am numb.
Your fury has swept down upon me;
your terrors have utterly destroyed me.

They surround me all the day like a flood,
they assail me all together.
Friend and neighbor you have taken away:
my one companion is darkness." 

Although what I was reading was Psalm 88, I read these words as though they were my own. I don't recall what my therapist said when I was finished, but I recall sensing that he understood. He did not have to tell me that he suffered too, in order for me to know that I was not alone in my experience of pain. One of the most distressing and, unfortunately, common experiences in our lives is that of feeling forsaken or abandoned. Some of us have experienced that quite literally: parents who have hurt us or left us; people who promised to help us and then were nowhere to be seen when we needed them; spouses who vowed to love us forever only to abuse us or choose to love another instead. However, for those of us who have believed (or tried to believe), perhaps there is no sense of abandonment greater than that we feel when God is silent. We have tried to believe that God is all-good and all-powerful, and yet it seems that God did nothing when we called out for help. According to our belief, God could have intervened to stop the bad things from happening - but he didn't and we don't understand why.

Some who read this may be surprised to know that I have seen a therapist or that I have ever felt an anguish as deep as that expressed in the words of this psalm. However, those who know me well, I'm sure, are not surprised at all...This anguish, of course, is not unique to you or to me. In fact, in my church, in the office of readings, we are invited to read these words of Psalm 88 every Friday night. Whether we are in good times in our lives or bad, we must never allow ourselves to forget the cry of anguish - for that cry may be my cry or yours or my brother's or my mother's... And it was also the cry of Jesus, whose Father allowed him to be betrayed by friends and violently killed by those who opposed him. We are told that the Jesus accepted this fate, though afraid and wishing he didn't have to.

The story does not end here. I am not just talking about the fact that the word "Easter" appears on our calendars in a week. It is about the Gift. The Gift is here and now and every day...
(Please check back. I will be writing more about this soon...)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Ask and you will receive...

"And I tell you ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you." (Luke 11:9)

I remember, as a young child, waking in the night during a storm and being frightened by loud crashes of thunder. I must have been taught that I should pray under such circumstances (though I don't actually remember what I was told) because I would start out with "Hail Mary, full of grace..." For a few minutes, it would seem that my prayer must have hit the mark because the thunder would pass and I would start to doze off once more. However, just moments later, another sudden crash would come. "Hail Mary...", I would start up again, figuring that more prayer was needed to appease my noisy God.

While I can smile at that memory now, it brings to mind a deeper issue that gnaws at any of us who have ever thought about or made an attempt at prayer. Such questions arise in our minds: does prayer really work? Why bother to pray if what I ask for never comes about? When life is going fairly well, we may find that we can explain away such uncomfortable concerns with the notion that maybe it's not God's time yet, or maybe God has a better plan in mind. However, at more critical junctures in our lives, such as when we suffer a deep loss or we are in severe pain or we feel totally alone, these explanations do not sit as comfortably. And sometimes, for some of us, they can be "deal breakers", signs that it is time to give up on the God business. Maybe prayer is just superstition, as it seems my 6 year old prayer was when I thought it would change the laws of nature.

And who am I to say that prayer is not just superstition? If I cry out to God for help and help comes, I feel my belief in prayer is affirmed. If I cry out to God for help and help doesn't come, I make excuses for God (he's testing my faith or he has a lesson for me) or I take the blame (I asked for the wrong thing or I didn't have enough faith). Indeed, prayer of this type does sound rather superstitious. God can do no wrong. Ask and I might receive; if I don't, God must have had a good reason.

But perhaps there is a prayer that is something very different from this. It is, of course, natural that we should ask God for things we want or need since Jesus, quoted above, encourages us to ask. And it was natural that my 6 year old self asked God to make the scary noise stop. But what I probably needed more than an end to the thunder was for Someone to be present with me there in the dark, reassuring me that I was loved no matter what, that ultimately I was safe no matter how terrible the storm raging outside my window. I was too young to know it then, but I know now that life cannot be without storms. I can say from my perspective now that all of the storms will pass; they do not last forever. However, when in their midst, I don't know how long they will last or how bad they will get. And so there is a prayer that goes beyond the superstition of "God, I need this..." to "God, I need you."

This, of course, is another one of the scary prayers I wrote about before. It is a prayer of longing for relationship, longing for God as God is, longing for a Love that goes beyond all of the transient loves that appear and disappear in our lives. It is a prayer that cannot be superstitious because it does not put God to the test with events that may be chance occurrences. It is a living, breathing relationship where I learn to open my heart and God gives himself to me; I learn to leave all else behind and give myself to God - and he welcomes me into his heart. And the dance continues, regardless of what storms rage around us. We are not without suffering, but God is there suffering with us, holding us in love as we pass through the pain.

Yet any of you reading this might be thinking, "I don't have any idea how to do that. Maybe she knows how to pray like that and experience God like that, but I certainly don't." And so I must confess to you that I have no idea how to do it either. Much of the time, my prayers are probably just as weak and superstitious (or nonexistent) as yours. When I do receive the gift of this relationship prayer, it is not because I did something right. It is not about me. It is about the Gift. I can only hope that I will learn how to be open to the Gift - and I don't even know what it is I need to learn.

And so is born yet another scary prayer: God, teach me what I need to learn...

"And I tell you ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you." (Luke 11:9)