Saturday, December 24, 2011

When heaven came to earth...


i am the hay upon which she laid Him. 

certainly i am not what she would have wanted
for her precious newborn Son.
yet, so much did she love Him,
so absorbed was her heart in His,
surely she did not notice me
   and how little i had to offer.
i was just there, in the manger, waiting
   when heaven came to earth…   

holy mother
i will hold your Child.
i will cradle Him gently
while you rest from your labors.
i will love Him as my own,
His presence deep within me
long after you have gathered Him
   back into your arms. 

in this world of gold, frankincense and myrrh,
i am nothing and i have nothing.
yet all that i am i give -
   that He might rest in me
      and i might rest in Him. 

i am the hay upon which she laid Him.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Emerging from the longest night...

Our souls know long nights. Sometimes those are literal "long nights" when pain or worry have kept us from sleep. Other times, it is an emotional or spiritual "night" where we long for but cannot see any light to guide us. How often we have found ourselves lost in some sort of darkness and feared that we would never find a way out.

We have just emerged from the longest night of the year, passing through the Winter Solstice. People from ancient times to the present have celebrated this emergence for in it there is a sense of hope that comes in knowing that the day is now longer than the night. People of old sometimes believed there was an actual battle occurring and they waited anxiously to see if the sun would indeed be the victor. While this concept may seem primitive to us today, on another level it is something with which we are deeply familiar ... inner battles, the light and the dark, not knowing who will win.

I have been taking part in a lovely online Advent retreat this year. Jan Richardson, an incredible artist who was one of those guiding us, shared a blessing that I would like to share with you tonight, that it might strengthen you in your longest nights.

Blessing for the Longest Night

All throughout these months
as the shadows
have lengthened,
this blessing has been
gathering itself,
making ready,
preparing for
this night.


It has practiced
walking in the dark,
traveling with
its eyes closed,
feeling its way
by memory
by touch
by the pull of the moon
even as it wanes.


So believe me
when I tell you
this blessing will
reach you
even if you
have not light enough
to read it;
it will find you
even though you cannot
see it coming.


You will know
the moment of its
arriving
by your release
of the breath
you have held
so long;
a loosening
of the clenching
in your hands,
of the clutch
around your heart;
a thinning
of the darkness
that had drawn itself
around you.


This blessing
does not mean
to take the night away
but it knows
its hidden roads,
knows the resting spots
along the path,
knows what it means
to travel
in the company
of a friend.


So when
this blessing comes,
take its hand.
Get up.
Set out on the road
you cannot see.


This is the night
when you can trust
that any direction
you go,
you will be walking
toward the dawn.


© Jan L. Richardson. janrichardson.com
(thanks to Jan for allowing me to share this; more soon...)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving

For many years now, I have had a Thanksgiving tradition. I go to my church in the morning and join others in prayer. But I must confess, one of the main reasons I always make sure to go on Thanksgiving day in particular is to hear the homily. My pastor, also my friend, has his own tradition that he shares with us. For the last 25 years, he has gotten up on Thanksgiving morning and written a letter to someone he should have said thank you to years ago. He then reads the letter in church as his homily. I am not sure a year has gone by when he hasn't broken down and had to stop to compose himself while reading his letter. He then invites us to do the same. To write a letter to someone we've been meaning to thank. This is only my 5th year doing this - but I must say it is a wonderful tradition. And this year, my letter is to you.

My dear readers,

Thank you. If you are one of my patients, I owe you a special debt of gratitude because it was you who inspired me to start this blog two years ago on Thanksgiving Day. I started it for you because I saw and felt your suffering and pain so profoundly. I saw you struggling, trying to figure out how your pain could make any sense in the grand scheme of things. Some of you I have witnessed being steadfast in your faith. Many of you I have seen in doubt or anguish because it has been too hard to believe in a God who could allow such misery and cruelty in our world. Some of you haven't been sure you really believe in anything but you were curious about the spiritual, wondering if there is... if there could be...

I have shared elsewhere in this blog about my adolescent struggles to try to figure out if there is a God and whether life has any meaning. Of course, I could never arrive at an answer with certainty. I had to take a "leap of faith" at some point. But the one thing that kept me going in my pursuit of meaning was the idea of trying to reduce suffering. I thought, "Even if there is nothing, if there is no God and the lives we lead begin and end for no reason, my life could have meaning if only I could ease the suffering of others." I realized that this was a grandiose goal and so I reduced my focus to just easing the suffering of one person. I knew I could not change the world. I knew I could not even change the terrible circumstances that some of my neighbors endured. But if I could just help one person hurt a bit less, it would have been worth it.

In the thirty-plus years since I set out on that venture, so much has happened. I have been blessed to walk with many, many people who were hurting. So many have shared their burdens with me, their tears, their anger, their shame. I have felt quite unworthy at times. How could I ever live up to the hope they placed in me? As I matured from my adolescent fantasies, I realized that people's problems were far more complex and difficult to resolve than I had imagined. Simply caring was not enough. Everything I learned in my education was not enough. Even my own suffering and the lessons it taught me, though powerful, were not enough. I began to pray for my patients. I began to pray every night for "a spirit of wisdom, understanding and compassion". I began to realize that I could be a part of the healing of my patients only if I got out of the way and emptied myself, allowing the divine Healer to be at work in me. Learning this has been a long process - and one that is ongoing. I, like you, am a work in progress and my weaknesses would terrify me if I believed only in myself.

I started this blog because I thought perhaps I could offer a bit of hope, especially for patients who were hurting badly. I did not know what would happen when I started out. I began by writing a few thoughts - and to my surprise, the words I wrote relentlessly found their way back to God, even though that hadn't been my initial plan. I sometimes found that the words flowed in ways that amazed me, as though they were not mine. Other times, I found myself struggling to write, only to realize that I was trying to make something happen. Once I let go, something far better took its place. I then found myself wanting to add something visual - for hope cannot be just a thing of words. I borrowed photos that first Easter and they were beautiful. But then I bought a camera and came to realize that with it, I could begin to see in a way I had not before. Beauty began to appear before me. It had always there but I had not been noticing it. I wanted to capture it, so that I could share it with you. I wanted you, in your suffering, to see what I had started to see. And something similar began to happen with music. The piano that I had lost interest in came back to life in my soul. So much has happened in this sharing of hope...

So why am I thanking you, my readers? Because it was the possibility of you that triggered this experience of cascading spirituality and art within me. The thought that you (even the you's I have not met yet) looking to this blog for a bit of hope has led me to find more hope, more beauty than I could have ever imagined. I have found it and enjoyed it immensely. So my life is richer. But it would not have been richer without you. Had I taken the photos or played the piano just for myself, it would have meant little. Doing it so that I could share it with you drew me into a creativity that I can only call Divine. For I do not create the beauty - but I am invited to live it, to express it, to share it (and so are you, in your own unique way).

(By the way, if you are not one of my patients, I still thank you deeply. The very first time I clicked on the "publish" button for this blog, I was terrified. I was afraid to have even those of you who are closest to me read what I wrote. I was afraid of your judgment - not just of negative judgment, though that is scary - but also of positive judgment. I was afraid that your reactions might cause me to lose focus and think this was all about me. I was afraid I would start writing to gain your approval. The experience of knowing that you could be reading ended up being a grace - as it enabled me to push past such silly fears and let God lead the way...)

So, a happy, blessed Thanksgiving to you, my readers, whether there are two of you or two hundred (though I seriously doubt the latter). It has been a glorious fall season and I have been blessed once again with the experience of discovering a staggering beauty in our world of sorrows.

Please allow me once again to share it...

(To view my fall photo album, click on the image below. You will leave this site and be taken to the album. If you would like to view it as a slideshow, click on the "slideshow" button in the upper left; hit the "escape" button on your keyboard to exit the slideshow. As always, you are welcome to download any of my photos for your personal, nonprofit use. You may access all of my public albums at any time from the left sidebar of this blog.) 

Thanksgiving, 2011

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Surrender

It is that time of year again. As we go deeper into fall, I must surrender summer, the season I always seem to long for. Yet I realize in doing this, what I am surrendering is the mythical summer, the one deep in the recesses of my memory. In that summer, the days are warm and sunny and endless. There is no school and time puts no constraints on the opportunity to play and wander the neighborhood. I can walk to the lake and spend an afternoon watching the sun sparkle brightly off the little rippling waves. Or I can sit up in my warm stuffy bedroom and read for hours, with no one disturbing me. There are fireworks on the fourth of July and long car rides through the country ending at Grandma and Grandpa's. And Grandma will have baked sugar cookies for us. That is the summer of my soul.

Yet that summer slipped away countless years ago. Grandma and Grandpa are long gone from this life. And summer is no longer a liberation from all responsibility - as I like to remember it. Still, there is something in me that longs for summer each year, thinking, "I'll do this during the summer", with the idea that I will have more time then. Then, as summer leaves, I mourn that I did not seem to really experience it as I had hoped. It has escaped me again. I could not resurrect the myth and then hold onto it so that this time it wouldn't get away.

It seems that life is constantly changing. Sometimes it seems like I am constantly losing someone or something. It may be something simple, like the holiday I looked forward to being over. Or it may be something overwhelming, like there never being another holiday with the one I loved. Either way, life keeps changing and I cannot hold on to anything really. Anything or anyone may be taken away from me at any moment and life will never be the same.

Often, particularly when we are suffering, we see the changing seasons of life like this, a sort of surrender not unlike that of the battlefield, a painful giving up because we are broken and have no choice.

Yet there is another sort of surrender, one that leads us into hope. For the constantly changing nature of our lives also means that the bad parts do not last forever either. When I am mourning my mythical summer, I am forgetting the miserably hot, humid days and the night when the power was off, leaving the 90 degree air unmoving. But when I do remember, I can breath deeply of fall's fresh cool air and find beauty even in the wind and rain.

And so it is with the other parts of our lives. The changing seasons remind us that our physical and emotional pains do not last forever either. There is a mercy that took my Grandpa from the nursing home at 87 when in his dementia and depression he no longer smiled. There is a mercy that will also take my parents from this world, much as I do not want to lose them. Someday, that mercy will come for me too. We cannot always see the Mercy. Oftentimes we do not want to surrender. We cannot see any point or see how our letting go will bring us new Gift.

Oddly, the surrender that leads to hope is the one that completely empties me out, where I give up holding on to anything that I want or desire. But unlike the other surrenders, forced upon us when the battle is lost, this surrender is one we offer out of love, surrendering our very being like one lover does to another. Only this surrender is not to another person, who like everything else will come and go, but to the One who is the begining and end and the endless, Creator of the life that is our core.

Many of us, if we were raised with any sense of God, were raised with a notion of God as a supreme being outside of us and that it was our sinfulness that separated us from him. Since we inevitably do wrong things, this notion may leave us feeling that we are always just about to lose what ultimately matters most. While many religions offer a remedy to this separateness, it may leave us feeling at times that God is the one who takes away, that forces our surrender. How often I hear mourners lament, "why did God have to take him/her from me?". This sort of God forces separation on us, separation from him, separation from those we love, when we aren't good enough for him.

This is not the God I believe in. The One I believe in has never been separated from me and has loved me from the moment of my conception. I believe he lives deep within each of us, the very Being of our being, waiting for us to discover him. Sometimes I imagine his presence within to be like a tiny seed in me, upon which I (and the world) have heaped so much that I can no longer see that the seed is there. Longing for a Presence and not seeing one results in the perception that we must be separate ... and it must be my fault.

Certainly I am a sinner and my faults and failings lie heavy on the tiny seed. But also heaped upon the seed is so much else: unhealed wounds, mindless distractions, angers, hurts and guilts, both deserved and undeserved, wants and pleasures, pious thoughts, attention-seeking ego longing to be loved and admired, all kinds of busy-ness, some of it doing "good" things and some just squandering of precious time. All that is heaped on the little seed convinces me that I am separate from my God- until I start the emptying out. The surrender.

This surrender is the one I choose. The one that longs for nothing and no one more than Him. The emptying is indeed a labor, a clearing away, a letting go, a forgiving of myself and others. It is a healing and a hope. For as I allow myself to be still and empty of all else, I discover that He is there, that He has always been there. And I discover that He is in all others and all others are in Him, so that nothing has really been taken away.

Now, here, in my imperfect life, I cannot fully see or understand. Loss still frightens and hurts. But there is a greater Truth, a sacred Truth, that beckons. I will learn to be still and open... I will begin again and again.

Please join me.








(photo taken on this rainy day in autumn...)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Journey





















strengthen me
for the journey
O my God…

i feel you drawing
me Home
pulling me toward you
on a journey
far too great
for my fragile
little self.

how can i find
my way
to a Home
I have never seen?

how can i know
where to go,
when there is
no map
(except the one
you have written
on my heart)?

you have given me
beauty to drink
and i am
filled,
sated…
yet thirsting still
with all my being.

my heart
goes flying,
searching for
your Heart,
flying
and
flying
until
i can fly
no more.

and then
at last
i rest

you are there.
i am Home.

      - mary

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

(a small annoucement)
 
Greetings! This is just a short message to alert you to something new. I have decided to start "micro-blogging" on Twitter. For those of you who are not familiar with Twitter, it is used by many for social networking but by others, such as myself, for very brief blogging. Brief, because every posting is limited to 140 characters! I am going to try to post a few words there every day in the same spirit as this blog.

 I will continue to blog here, with longer reflections, photos, etc. I am simply adding the Twitter so as to be able to be in touch more frequently. To go there, see the side bar at the left of this page.


(Note: if you and I have a professional relationship, please do not try to contact me through my Twitter account. It is a very public forum and not a good place for discussion of personal issues. You may always be in touch through our regular modes of contact. Thanks.)


Friday, August 26, 2011

Day 5: An abundance of grace


It was just a week ago that I came home after a day of working on the edge of migraine. My brain was foggy and my body tired. I had come home from work a little earlier than usual, looking forward to getting some much-needed rest. As I was driving toward my house, I glanced over at a neighbor's garden where I have taken some lovely photos this summer. Something looked a little different but, from my car, I couldn't see what. Was there something new in bloom?

Parking my car in the garage, I emerged with the thought: I could take a little walk over and look. Another part of me argued back that I was so tired and I didn't feel well; I should just go in and rest. However, dropping off my things in the house, the curious part of me won out. My camera and I went over to investigate. It was not a long walk.

I paused at the fence, scanning the somewhat overgrown garden for something new. Everything looked about the same as the last time I had come... I had never met this neighbor before and no one ever seemed to so much as peer out of a window when I ventured onto the driveway to get a better shot. On one occasion, in fact, I had been so bold as to go up the drive to their private sidewalk because I had seen a beautiful tiger swallowtail butterfly flitting around their butterfly bush. No one had emerged to object but the butterfly had been a restless sort, not taken to sitting still and posing for amateurs like me. Thus the few photos I had taken were blurred by my rushed attempts to capture the image of the tiny creature before it skipped on to its next destination.

I was about to go up the driveway once again that evening, to explore a bit further, when I saw him: a man leaning into his car right in front of the house. "Why did I come?" I thought miserably. "If this is his house, I can't just  walk up the driveway like I have a right to be here." My shyness suggested that I just forget this silly escapade and go home... Yet there was something in me that didn't want to leave. "Excuse me," I said to the man's back, "Do you live here?" He looked up, puzzled, and stated that he did. I held up my camera and asked if he minded if I walked up closer to his garden. He was granting me his permission and guiding me up his driveway when I saw it. A large, beautiful, almost perfect tiger swallowtail, gliding toward his butterfly bush.

Moving toward it, all thoughts of fatigue and shyness vanishing, I drew up my camera, ready to take a quick shot as the butterfly landed. It landed gracefully and remained still, perhaps drawing its nectar or just basking in the evening sunlight, its wings lazily opened. I focused and took my first shot. The butterfly did not seem to notice as I walked around it, trying new angles and distances. It fluttered to another cluster of blossoms, resting as contentedly there as on the first. After nine shots, I decided that I had had my fill of the "nectar" I had come for and I headed back to the neighbor who was watching from his doorstep. After exchanging a few words and offering my thanks, I returned home full of joy.

It was not hard to choose words to complete the poster above. An abundance of grace. Not because the butterfly itself was graceful, though certainly it was. Abundant grace that there are butterflies... grace that my spirit was unknowingly drawn to a beauty that I had been chasing, only to have it given to me with utter generousity at the moment I most needed it... grace that my focus on my fears and my ills did not keep me from following... grace that I can now share this with you.

An abundance of grace... my wish for you always.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Day 4: That which God said to the rose...


It has been a long day and it is late. Perhaps I shall learn to be brief.  :-)  I was later than usual coming home because a therapy group for women had its final meeting tonight. They had first gathered 7 weeks ago, coming together in search of self esteem. Some had experienced abuse, many had experienced divorce, almost all had bad feelings about their bodies. In the course of the 7 weeks, we discussed a number of topics, reflecting on such things as boundaries and assertiveness and self talk. We talked about life as a process with all of us being works-in-progress, and the group just a few steps on the journey.

When I came out to get them this evening, they were all sitting together in the waiting area and burst into laughter when I walked in. Not just a little laughter. Uproarious laughter. They later confessed that they had been placing bets on what time I was going to come out for the 7 o'clock group. (The times wagered upon ranged from 7:06 to 7:15). When I thanked the 7:06 person for her confidence in me, another member quipped that it was just that all the longer times were already taken. More laughter. And they generously told me I was worth waiting for. (For the record, I came out at 7:08 pm...) Such lovely, lovely women.

In one of my neighborhood walks recently, I noticed a small, carved wooden sign planted amidst a simple garden in front of a church. I had walked that way many times before but had never paid much attention to it. Most of the church postings were in Spanish but I could read this sign: "Matthew 6: 26-34". Of course I took a picture of the sign, complete with a little sparrow perched on top, peering down with curiosity. An excerpt from the passage:
"Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? Why are you anxious about clothes? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them." 
In the the picture above, I see that splendor in the rose. I see it and I wonder: what could God have said to "cause it to laugh in full-blown beauty"? Of course, I do not know. But, as he implies in the passage from Matthew, this is just the beginning, "are you not more important than they?" And the Sufi mystic Rumi intimates that God says the very same thing to my heart. And to your heart. And to the hearts of the women tonight, some of them just beginning to learn to laugh their full-blown beauty.

Let us laugh out our beauty, each in our own unique color and size and shape. Let us laugh it together, with all our imperfections and doubts and fears. And let us watch it multiply and multiply, becoming "a hundred times more beautiful".


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Day 3: Everything that lives...


I took a walk this evening, up to the park to pray and watch and listen - my camera at my side, of course. It is a warm evening with a lively breeze - fine walking weather for late summer. I had just finished taking a picture of some beautiful red roses, when I heard a man calling out. I looked up and he appeared to be waving at me and calling out to me in a friendly way. Since I didn't recognize him but no one else was around, I pointed at myself with a quizzical expression. "Yes", the large black man called out, hurrying up to me and shaking my hand. He reminded me that we had met, that he was the guitar player. Then it came back to me. I had passed him once, months ago, when he was sitting on the park bench with his guitar. He had stopped me to ask me if I knew that Jimi Hendrix was god. I hadn't heard this news before but we had parted under amiable circumstances. Now here he was before me again, greeting me as though we were old friends. He asked if I would like to take his picture. I agreed and he posed for me with a dignified smile. I showed him the picture in the camera viewer and he said, "Yep. That's me." He told me his name and we went our separate ways.

After my brief meditation, I headed on home. Just after leaving the park, I spotted an older white man with a cane, standing in the bus shelter. He had an interesting appearance and I mused that he might make a nice photographic subject - but I decided not to ask as I didn't want to risk disturbing him. I glanced at him with a vague smile as I walked by. "Are you all right?" he asked. Secretly wondering what about me had prompted the question, I replied, "Yes, I am. Thank you for asking.... Are you all right?" "Yes." "Have a good evening then," I said and continued walking.

I took the above photograph in late June, when the summer was still fresh and new. It was not hard to match nature's finery with William Blake's words, "Everything that lives is holy..." - each little leaf lined up in a neat row with its brothers and sisters, playing with the sun to make shadows on the large leaves, delicate pink blossoms in contrast. This holy bit of life had been springing forth in an abandoned community garden in the inner city, unstoppable and oblivious to funding cuts. Today, when I walked by, the large plot was quite overgrown and weedy looking - not so fresh and lovely, but still wildly alive and chirping with crickets.

"Everything that lives is holy, life delights in life." I delight in today's glimpse of the vast array of life - the guitar man, the older man who cared, the overgrown weeds with their crickets - they are all holy, as holy as the fresh young blossoms captured in my photo. Each is living out the unique lifespan bestowed upon it by the Creator.

I am holy. You are holy. Not holy like a sinless saint, fasting and praying in church - but holy with Life infused in each of our cells and organs and limbs (even the ones that aren't perfect). Go ahead - let yourself know your holiness, without judgment. Live it. Delight in it...

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Day 2: Random Acts of Kindness


Many years ago, I was browsing at a craft bazaar when I was felt myself drawn to a table with t-shirts and sweatshirts that displayed different messages and designs. One sweatshirt caught my eye: it had a dark green background with white lettering that read, "Commit random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty." Although that phrase has now been around for awhile, at the time, it was new to me and I fell in love with it. I wanted to display it to the world. The only problem was that they only had one sweatshirt like this and it was a size extra-large (which I am not). I bought it. I wore it some but it was really, really too big for me - and bulky enough that it didn't fit well under my coat. I finally gave it away - not in a random act of kindness - but because I was admitting defeat. It didn't fit. I was far from ready at that time in my life to see the irony that my inner self wanted to keep the message rather than give it away.

I cannot honestly say that I have completely grown beyond that. However, I recently have been playing more with random acts of kindness. The thing that is so delightful about them is that they are so random. To give when it is expected, to someone I know or to someone who will reciprocate, can still be generous. But to give randomly has a recklessness about it that is simply liberating.

Allow me share my little story. I took the photo above while out on one of my morning walks to the park to meditate. As you may know, I have a special fondness for sparrows that I have written of before. That morning, once again, I found myself trying to capture the image of one of these flitty little creatures. Suddenly, one landed on the large cross in front of  a lovely old neighborhood church. Knowing I had only a few seconds, I focused and "click", there it was in my camera. The lovely little sparrow had seemed to pause to ponder the great Mystery ... before flying off in search of its breakfast.

There is a moment of joy that comes with a fine photograph. But then there is the need to share. So I used Google to find the name of the church's pastor - whom I had never met - and found his e-mail address on their website. I composed a small note to his congregation, thanking them for their presence in the neighborhood. I attached the photo and wished them continued blessings. It was such fun to send this bit of joy randomly, to someone I didn't know, for no particular reason but to share. (The pastor sent a lovely e-mail response; even if he hadn't though, my "random act" was still a great gift to me.)

Join me. Commit a random act of kindness. Let us fill the world with them. Blessings...



Monday, August 22, 2011

Day 1: On the path...


(I have been absent too long. My apologies. In an effort to make it up, I am planning to post five short posts, one each for the next five days. Each will involve a photo and brief text. Let's see if I meet my goal.)





A couple of weeks ago, while visiting my parents, I received an e-mail inviting me to join an online "poetry party". I used to write poetry fairly often, usually in times of suffering when I could find no other way to express what was inside of me. However, I had not written a poem in a quite a long time and I found the idea intriguing. I had a bit of extra time, in the motel late at night or when my parents were dozing, and the invitation included a theme. The theme (posted on the website abbeyofthearts.com) was to write of great journeys you have taken or dreamed of, the markers along the way, the risks you must take.

I found myself writing that first night in the motel. I say "I found myself..." because it just seemed to come out of me, without a specific plan or idea of what I was going to write. In fact, it did not even seem to be what I considered my usual style of writing. Yet I wouldn't want to give the impression that it was effortless. I wrote a number of lines and revised them, later revising after re-reading it, repeating this process many times until it seemed complete. I realized as I was writing that I am on a journey. Of course, we all are and I have been all along, but I hadn't thought very much about my life journey in recent years. I have been fairly settled in the routines of how I live my life, with the questionings of my youth no longer so urgent.

This poem, unlike the poems of the past, was not born out of suffering. I am still listening to it as I often "listen" to the things that come forth, wondering what it has to tell me. I would like to share my poem with you, so that you can listen too and perhaps write your own poem. (A word first about the image above: if you read my June posting, "You will show me the path..." this photo/quote may seem familiar. However, this image of the path is a bit different: narrower, winding and with rougher terrain. A new perspective on the journey?)

    poem

which way?

there are many paths…
or perhaps just one.

looking ahead,
i see my path.
the signs all point that way.
i plant my foot firmly on the road.

a moment later, i look up -
everything has changed!
all of my landmarks are gone.
in their place are
strange new signs i cannot read.

i want to pull my foot back -
perhaps this was a mistake.
yet my other foot pushes forward,
as if it knows something i do not.

i scan the horizon for some
sign or signal to assure me.
ahead of me, there is vast emptiness.
looking back, i find there is nothing.
there is no way back!

i panic.

knowing nothing else to do,
i look down to the earth beneath my feet.
i kneel.
… i see something there:
a tiny seed, planted long ago,
only now beginning to sprout.

my labor begins.
i cultivate the soil,
watering it with my tears.
the little seedling grows,
its tiny leaves opening one by one.

soon laughter and hope,
like sunshine breaking through the clouds,
warm the seedling’s roots
as they grow deeper and deeper
into the earth.

then come the blossoms,
too beautiful for my eyes;
then the fruit that nourishes me,
before dropping to the ground
and becoming new seed.

the path – it is within.
it always was.
and so my heart follows,
into His abounding joy.

               -mary


Sunday, July 10, 2011

Morning Light

I woke early yesterday morning - or at least earlier than I intended, having stayed up a bit the night before. My body said that it wanted more sleep but I could see that my mind wasn't permitting it. I got up reluctantly. I could see that the sky was clear and the sun was pushing its way through the houses and trees that rim the sky of my urban environment. It occurred to me that I could take a walk. I have never been an early morning walker but I have always thought that it would be a lovely time to be out, with the day still new and fresh and cool.

Almost immediately, my mind was confronted with all of the reasons why I should not do this. After all, getting up early was a good opportunity to get more work done and I certainly had enough of that to do. Even more ridiculously, thoughts occurred that I should not disrupt my morning routine that includes drinking water and meditating. Besides, I was hungry. And if I took the time for this walk, would I be able to get everything done so as to be ready for an appointment that was still hours away?

I filled a water bottle from the kitchen tap, packed a bit of dried fruit and put both into a roomy canvas shoulder bag. I stuffed in an old towel as well. A long-sleeved cotton shirt over my t-shirt protected against the still cool air. And I grabbed my camera. The park was only a few blocks away and the sun was rising. I must go if I want to catch the morning light.

Artists often talk of the morning light. Ancient traditions have long directed people to pray facing east and many churches have sunrise services on special occasions. What is this morning light? I wondered. What have I been missing while making excuses for why I couldn't possibly go out walking in the early morning?

Just the night before, I had signed the "Monk's Manifesto", declaring (online) that "I am a monk, by the grace of God." This may seem a little surprising if you, like me, think of monks as men in robes, living solitary lives away from the rest of society. But I found a group online (by chance?) that tells of being a "monk in the world" who "does not live apart but immersed in the everyday with a single-hearted and undivided presence, always striving for greater wholeness and integrity". It did not hurt that this monastery without walls also is a wellspring uniting spirituality and expressive arts, even offering a class on "photography as contemplative practice". I had felt my spirit connect. Perhaps that is what gave me the extra push to move past my excuses and seek the Morning Light.

Come, walk with me. (The few photos the follow were taken as I went out into the morning light. Although I cropped and straightened a couple of them, I did not alter the lighting or color when editing, as I wanted to capture for you, as much as possible, what I actually saw...)



I stop by my neighbor's garden,
taking a picture of a rose
with its petals unfolding
in the early morning light...


In the lot next door
where the old gardening shed
hides in the shadows,
I see the sun breaking forth
upon random leaves and branches,
setting them ablaze
with its brilliant light...


As I approach the overpass,
with the smell and noise of
cars and trucks whizzing by,
I spot one weed among
the many that grow untamed,
a weed that in the sun
becomes a flower...



I cross the seldom-used alley
separating the convenience store
from the towering old church.
Even the bricks of this old path
seem aglow and living
in the light of new day...



I am at the park.
I roll out my old towel
upon the dewy grass.
I sit yoga-style, facing east.
Even with my eyes closed,
the light is too brilliant.
My extra cotton shirt
becomes my eye shade.


I am there, in the park, morning meditation upon me as usual, but not usual. The brilliant light. The air warming. Birds around me chirping and cheeping. Sudden loud barks of a dog being walked startle me for a moment until I settle back in, trusting that all is well... "Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. Amen. Alleluia." I open my eyes and stretch. I drink my water and eat my dried fruit, looking and listening to all around me.


I walk to the far end of the park.
The sun is higher in the sky now.
There is beauty,
more beauty,
as the morning light
brings creation into focus.


I take another picture.
I must show you
what I've seen.
I cannot keep something
like this to myself.
The light, the beauty
is for all of us...


I put my camera away and walk home. As I approach my house the words come to me:

My soul is awash with God.

The Morning Light has washed me, cleansed me, refreshed me. I am ready once again to be "immersed in the every day", my heart set apart yet still fully in the world.

* * * *

(If you are curious about the "Monk Manifesto" I signed, you may read it by clicking on the link below. Since I am a newcomer there, I am not recommending that you spend money at this site - that is your decision - but the free gift that came with newsletter membership was very nice.)



http://abbeyofthearts.com/about/monk-manifesto/

Friday, June 10, 2011

You will show me the path...

("You will show me the path to life, abounding joy in your presence..." Psalm 16:10)

I have not written in quite awhile. I have been busy, of course. But it has been a sort of curious experience for me, because I have wanted to write. The inspiration just didn't seem to be there. I could think of things I might write of, but the thoughts, the ideas, did not seem to coalesce and flow. I began to wonder why. Sometimes this happens because I am not taking enough time to be open to God. Sometimes I will have an idea to write of something but only realize later, when I have been set straight, that I was going in the wrong direction.

Another thought occurred to me this time though. I thought: what if it is over? What if writing this blog was something God called me to do for awhile and now it is done? Maybe there is something different I should be doing. First, let me say that I don't believe that to be the case. Nor do I necessarily see God as a micro-managing sort who has plans that dictate my every action. But the thought was an important one because I truly love writing this blog. It has brought me much growth and joy. If, for some reason, God did not want me to do it anymore, could I just let it go?

I remember that I was fairly well into my young adult years when it occurred to me that I had always assumed that what I wanted was what God wanted. It was almost as though, prior to that, I believed that if I liked, loved or enjoyed something, then certainly God wanted that too. Of course I see now that there are some major pitfalls in that perspective. As Thomas Merton (Trappist monk and writer) put it, "I was living as if God only existed to do me temporal favors..." Certainly a nice sort of God to have - one whose only goal is to make me feel good. What I want is never wrong and never has to be sacrificed. If dealt good fortunes in life, one can coast along this path for awhile, mistaking comfort and ease for harmony with God. However, when life suddenly isn't feeling good, it is almost impossible to make sense of it. How could God allow me to feel bad? Especially, to feel really, really bad.

A story is in order. I remember back when I was in elementary school, attending the neighborhood Catholic school, missionaries would sometimes visit our classrooms. They would tell us of foreign lands where they had served, living in great hardship with the native people. Although I don't remember many details, I recall mention of primitive living conditions, lots of bugs and diseases like malaria. My spiritual education blended into these accounts the stories of the martyrs, the great saints of old who risked and bravely gave everything, even their lives, for God. I was quite impressed by all of this as a young child. So impressed, in fact, that for some time, I imagined myself following that path, enduring the hardships without complaint, heroically suffering and maybe even dying... It never occurred to my childlike mind that following this path would feel anything other than good. I wasn't yet capable of conceiving of true suffering and was very far from realizing that I wasn't at all good at enduring it.

Fast-forwarding to a few years later, in my early teens, I remember a thought coming to me while sitting in church one day. I suddenly had the idea that my sufferings in life were going to more mental/emotional than physical. I don't know why that thought popped into my head but it had the feel of truth - and I certainly didn't like it. As I have grown through the 40+ years that followed that thought, I must admit that so far, this premonition has largely come true. And a major realization that has come with it is that I don't get to choose my suffering. In fact, it is the lack of choice that makes it true suffering. In my childhood fantasy, I was bravely embracing a self-serving scenario that would lead everyone to admire me and I would just slip painlessly into the glory of heaven... Real life, of course, is nothing like that.

The Buddhist perspective on suffering, as I understand it, is that most if not all of human suffering comes from our wanting reality to be something other than what it is. Whether we have suffered physical or mental ills, whether we have lost people or jobs or possessions, it is our fighting, our outrage, our rejection of what is, that makes that experience "suffering". When we learn to accept, the undesirable experience is noticed, felt and passes by, just as the more pleasant experiences also pass. Nothing, neither the wanted nor the unwanted, lasts forever. Avoiding suffering, in a sense, is accomplished by not desiring anything: I accept the pleasant and the unpleasant and it all passes, one moment unfolding into the next. (My apologies to those more knowledgeable than me; I'm sure my portrayal of Buddhist teaching in woefully inadequate.) I do believe that Buddhism has much to teach us about life and suffering. But it is not my path... for without desire, the path does not seem to lead anywhere. How can there be love, without desire?

("You will show me the path to life, abounding joy in your presence..." Psalm 16:10)

I have chosen His path. Or more correctly, He has chosen me and I am learning how to say, "Yes, I'll come. No matter what". If His path were to lead me away from this blog (that ponderous thought I started with tonight), I would still go. But there are many possible, even likely, twists and turns the Path may take that are far more terrible (and terrifying) than that. The Path may lead through wrenching pain - pain in my body, pain in my heart, pain in my mind. And I will not get to choose. I may choose to be on the Path, but what happens next is not in my hands. The wrenching pains will not be the glorious fantasies of my childhood. They may even push me to the very limits of my endurance. I may wonder why did I ever take this path... where is it leading? Is it leading anywhere?

I take this Path because it is the path to Life. Not more of this life, with all of its ups and downs and absurdities. The Path to Life - a Life infused with love and hope and beauty. The Path is not one I can walk alone. To try it alone would be to be forever lost, thinking that I have figured it out, that I know how to get there - and then, at the next twist or turn, find that I have no idea where I am going or why.

There is, however, One to lead me - to show me the path to Life. He does not show me by simply giving me a road map or a set of directions. He walks the Path with me. He is with me through all of the terrors, the twists and the turns, the sufferings that are not at all glorious but that appear to my eyes meaningless and absurd. He suffers with me, to help me get there. And it is the suffering-with-me that is Love.

No, I am not a Buddhist, because I do desire. I desire that Love - not just for me - but for you, for all of us.

Let us walk the Path together. Toward the abounding joy...

(To share some of my path, click on the image below. You will leave this blog and be able to visit my web album of photos from this spring. To view as a slideshow, click on the slideshow button in the upper left; to stop the slideshow, hit the escape button on your keyboard.) 

Abounding joy

(Something new: I have put a link to my all of my public albums in the left sidebar, under the "About me" section. This will make it easier to find previous photos that have been posted at other times in the blog's history. You are welcome to download any of my photos for your personal use.)

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Dancing...
Easter continues... In my church, we formally celebrate Easter for the same number of days that we experienced Lent. So the joy goes on ... and on.

Therefore, I would like to share with you the entire "Butterfly collection", that is, the little paintings I have been making for the last few months, a few of which I shared in my Easter posting. I have created a short video with the paintings, the background music being "Butterfly Waltz" by Brian Crain (unfortunately played by me instead of him, but a gift from him nonetheless; if you like his copyrighted music, visit his website at http://www.briancrain.com/).

So let us dance our hope and joy along with the butterflies. (Even if you are not feeling hope and joy now, perhaps the butterflies will help you along...).





Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Promise

A couple of years ago, I was out for a walk and decided to stop in a small neighborhood bookstore to browse a bit. I didn't have any money with me but I always enjoy the browsing. As I was leaving, I saw that there were some mugs for sale and I glanced through them, even though I didn't need any more mugs. I found one that had a proverb on it that really struck me: “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly”. That mug, purchased on a return trip, remains in my office today.

I read somewhere recently that the notion of the Easter bunny, ironically, precedes the whole event of Easter. It seems that the rabbit was associated with spring because spring is a time of fertility, with plants beginning their yearly new growth and many animals preparing to mate. And since rabbits are so, well ... fertile, they became associated with spring fertility and therefore Easter, our spring holiday. However, at the risk of offending Easter bunny lovers, I believe that the butterfly represents what Easter is so much more deeply. Easter, while about new life, is about so much more than fertility and flowers blooming.

Easter is about new Life. It is about a process of giving up our lives as we know them, letting go of the things that are certain in order to be open to the uncertain. Like the caterpillar, we need to give up being caterpillars in order to become butterflies. However, in order to be transformed into the new life we were created for, often we find ourselves in places of darkness. We feel almost lifeless in our cocoons - for we see no light, no future, no hope. We do not know, while we are in the cocoon, whether we will ever enter the beautiful life that was promised to us when we gave up our old, familiar (caterpillar-like) selves.

However, unlike the caterpillar, if we give up our old lives, we do so not out of some nature-directed life cycle, but with a completely free choice. I choose to give up myself, to cast behind me my worm-like ways. I choose out of love, out of faith and hope that the new Life is truly possible for me. A new Life that is more beautiful than anything imaginable to me in my current state.

It is a scary thing to do. And yet it is the only thing that makes sense to do.

_ _ _

Around the beginning of this year, for no particular reason, I started painting little butterfly pictures (using Microsoft's Paint program). I have written elsewhere of my love of butterflies and it just came to me one day when I felt like playing around with color. I found myself attaching different words (and eventually different phrases or quotes) with each little painting. They started out simply, with "hope" and "peace" and "joy". But then, as so often seems to happen in my life, I entered a journey that I had never really intended to start. I kept feeling drawn to paint more. It was fun and relaxing after a long day because it absorbed my attention. I assumed that I would soon run out ideas and that would be that. However, ideas kept coming to me. And the messages became increasing spiritual, until I realized that I was on the journey toward Easter. As I have experienced when writing, sometimes the things I painted amazed me, that is, they felt like they came from somewhere (Someone) beyond me. I felt compelled to continue - until finally I realized, just this last week, that it was finished.

Allow me to share a few. Join me in the journey toward Easter - a journey that continues every day as we await our transformation.












But, "Wait," you may say, "I am still in the cocoon. I am alone and afraid. I do not know if there really is anything more that this darkness I am in."

And that is where the Promise comes in.

I am in the darkness - but I am not alone. There is Someone with me who knows the way. And he has told me he will remain with me always, however long it takes for me to be transformed into the Life that was promised to me.

Let us together work to keep the promise alive in our hearts. Listen with me to, "Promise", composed by Brian Crain. Thanks to Brian for permission to post my inadequate playing of his copyrighted music. (To learn more about his music and hear it played right, visit his website at www.briancrain.com)




       

Thursday, April 21, 2011

O, the deep, deep love...

(Holy Week, part II)

Emptied of self, I am now ready for what it was I wanted all along.

There is nothing wrong with wanting love. It is indeed what we are made for. But it is easy to seek out the wrong kinds of loves - the ones that ultimately hurt or disappoint.

I believe there is an Eternal Love. A deep, deep Love...

Listen. A Gift.                         



"O, The Deep, Deep Love of Jesus" © 2000 arranged and performed by Jeffrey Bjorck 2005 Pure Piano Music, available at http://www.purepiano.com/
[Thanks to Jeff, a gifted musician and fellow psychologist, for permission to post this for you at no cost.]

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Into the dark night...

(Holy Week, Part I)

I first started writing poetry and keeping a journal when I was a young teen. There was so much going on inside then - doubt, anguish, joy, longing - and no way to express it all except on paper. Writing gave me a profound comfort as I witnessed deep parts of me being born into words in the spiral notebooks before me. Sometimes what appeared were ideas that seemed to come from somewhere beyond me, surprising me when I re-read them later, wondering where such depth came from ... certainly not from me.

Imagine then my dilemma when my high school English teacher, whom I liked and admired, made writing a journal a homework assignment. Suddenly, this sacred place where my deepest thoughts and feelings came forth was homework that had to be turned in and scrutinized by a teacher! I recall considering writing two journals, the real one and then another to turn in. But how could I do that? What could I say in a fake journal?

And, interestingly, it was not so much that I didn't want my teacher to know my thoughts and feelings. She had been kind to me and shown a special interest in me by inviting me to a spiritual discussion group for young women. I think, if anything, I really did want to share with her - to reveal all of this to someone and have them understand - but I was simply too scared. I was scared, I suppose, of being known and understood just as much as I was afraid of not being understood. Probably even worse though was that I secretly wanted to be liked, loved and admired for what I wrote. I suspect that I had to keep that desire secret, even from myself, because to want that somehow contaminated the whole thing.

So I was stuck. I wrote in the journal and turned it in, all the time struggling with self-consciousness and embarrassment. I found myself writing things that I didn't like. It was me before the audience, rather than me before God. I breathed a sigh of relief when the assignment was over and I could go back to my sacred place.

I am reminded of this during this Lent, this time in my church where we prepare ourselves for Easter. It was a tradition in my church when I was a child (non-negotiable, by the way), that we give something up for Lent. Usually children of that era gave up candy or cookies - it had to be something we liked - with the idea that denying ourselves this bit of pleasure would strengthen us spiritually. In more recent years, this practice has gradually been modified, with more emphasis on doing positive spiritual things or sacrificing something and donating its monetary value to the less fortunate. In other words, we have a lot more leeway in our spiritual practice and the question, "what are you giving up for Lent?" is seldom asked anymore.

I don't usually tell anyone what I am doing or giving up for Lent. Somehow that seems to make it more for show than for inner change. However, I am going to share with you what came to me at the beginning of this season. I say it "came to me" because I didn't set out to think of it or to really think of anything. It came to me this year to give up my self for Lent. If the thought knocks the wind out of you, know that it knocked the wind out of me too. It zeroed right in on that secret - the one that makes me want to be liked, loved and admired for what I do. As much as I want to tell myself otherwise, there are vestiges of self that like to imagine that the gifts coming forth in my words or my art are my own creation. There is a self inside waiting for the audience to stand up and applaud. A self that wants to be god, rather than be His vessel.

Of course, I have no idea how to give up my self or even what that means. I have to hope that God is doing in me what needs to be done, as I watch myself tripping and floundering through the forty days, seeming to get worse rather than better... One thing has become apparent: the Gifts that have come to or through me were not meant just for me. In fact, they have little to do with me. As the words in my early journals suggested, the Gifts came from somewhere beyond me. I can only write them, say them, photograph them, paint them or play their melodies.

There is a Gift that came to me 25 years ago, in Lent of 1986. It came during a time of great suffering for me and the writing of it was Gift for me, like balm on painful wounds. In the last 25 years, I have (until now) shared it with only one person, and then with fear and trembling. I have often wanted to share it - truly thought it should be shared but didn't know how. Now it is time to share it, my self set aside so as to not get in the way of the One who gives.

It is a simple thing actually and it may mean nothing to anyone but me. But I share it anyway.

In the tradition of my church, there is a prayful reflection known as the Stations of the Cross. Sometimes it has been called The Way of the Cross (or Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows). Its history dates back centuries, taking many forms, from actual pilgimages to Jerusalem, to painted images of Jesus at different points on his way to crucifixion, to prayers, traditional and otherwise, commemorating these steps or stations. More recent tradition marks fourteen steps along Jesus' way. In the audio that follows, I read for you the "stations" as they came to me in Lent of 1986. They are in a poetic form, different from traditional versions that some readers may know. One further note (since I know my readers come from varied backgrounds): my reference to the "dark night" is an allusion  to "the dark night of the soul", an experience of spiritual darkness or desolation written about by St. John of the Cross and others.

As always, feel completely free to listen, not listen or stop listening - there are many Gifts given and if this is not your time for this one, there will be others - always more and more Gifts being given...

Saturday, March 26, 2011

( If you would like to listen to this posting, scroll down to the end...)

 Stories of healing    

I like to think of myself as a person of prayer. Yet I have recently noticed something a bit interesting about the way I pray: I don't often ask God to heal me. Now granted, I am not a particularly sickly person and I do ask God to bless me in other ways. But, if I am suffering with something specific, I don't often say to God, "Please heal me."

As I have pondered this, it has occurred to me that perhaps I am afraid to ask so directly, so specifically. Perhaps I am afraid I won't be healed and then I will have to wonder why not. It may seem safer to ask God to help me in some very general way so that the omission will not be so glaring if he doesn't do it. It takes a lot of courage to ask to be healed.

I was thinking of a particular story of healing recently. Allow me to share it with you:

A leper came to Jesus and pleaded on his knees: "If you want to," he said, "you can cure me." Feeling sorry for him, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him. "Of course I want to!" he said, "Be cured!" And the leprosy left him at once and he was cured.  Jesus immediately sent him away and sternly ordered him, "Mind you say nothing to anyone, but go and show yourself to the priest, and make offering for your healing prescribed by Moses as evidence of your recovery." The man went away, but then start talking about it freely and telling the story everywhere, so that Jesus could no longer go openly into any town, but had to stay outside in places where nobody lived.  Even so, people from all around would come to him. (Mark 1: 40-45)

I have always liked this particular translation of this story because of the enthusiastic response of Jesus, "Of course I want to!" It is almost like he is saying, "How could I want anything less for you?" As I am reading the story again though, some other things strike me as well. How bold and courageous of that man to state his request so directly, especially including the words, "if you want to"? With those words, any outcome other than healing would have suggested that Jesus did not want to, that he did not care about this leper, this outcast. The man did not try to hide the ugliness of his condition from Jesus but laid it right before him. He was, in a sense, asking Jesus, "can you really love - even someone like me?"

While the tension of the moment is relieved with the response, "Of course I want to!", there is something more. The passage tells us that Jesus reached out and touched the man. When we stop and remember when this occurred, when "leprosy" meant almost any skin disease that might be the beginnings of that horrifying, deforming condition, to touch a leper was unthinkable. People typically would not go near enough to even talk to lepers. At best, a charitable person might leave some food for them at a distance. Yet Jesus touched this man, this leper. And, in the touching, it seems almost as though he were saying, "I don't see you as a leper, I see you as a human being, the person you were made to be". Being seen as his true self, the man became what Jesus saw, a person, a beloved person, someone whole and complete...

With this in mind, why am I, why are we, so afraid to ask for healing? While it certainly may be that I don't want to face the possibility that what I ask for won't be given, I suspect it is more than that. After all, it is not difficult for us to see that praying for healing is not like placing an order in a store or online, where we ask with relative certainty that we will get whatever we ask for. We can see that it doesn't work that way. Yet part of the problem is that we don't see what way it does work - or if indeed it ever works at all.

Or perhaps we do get a glimpse of how it works and it is that that scares us. We have to put our "leprosy" out there, to allow our entire selves, with every good or bad or shameful aspect unhidden, to be entrusted to the One who sees the truth. It is as frightening as leaping off of a cliff in the dark, trusting that there is a Loving One there, waiting and wanting to catch me, to bring me back to safety. Could he see my truth and still accept me, still love me?

It is both our hope and our fear. Given how difficult it is for most of us to accept and love ourselves, it is not surprising that we are afraid to bring all of our pain and brokenness to the Creator. It is hard to imagine that he would be willing, much less wanting, to touch us after all we have done with his gifts ...

Let me share another story:

When Jesus returned to Capernaum, word went round that he was back; and so many people collected there that there was no room left, even in front of the door. He was preaching the word to them when some people came bringing him a paralytic carried by four men, but as the crowd made it impossible to get the man to him, they stripped the roof over the place where Jesus was; and when they made an opening, they lowered the stretcher on which the paralytic lay. Seeing their faith, Jesus said to the paralytic, "My child, your sins are forgiven." Now some scribes were sitting there, and they thought to themselves, "How can this man talk like that? He is blaspheming. Who can forgive sins but God?" Jesus, inwardly aware that this was what they were thinking, said to them, "Why do you have these thoughts in your hearts? Which of these is easier: to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven' or to say, 'Get up, pick up your stretcher and walk'? But to prove that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins," he said to the paralytic - "I order you: get up, pick up your stretcher, and go off home." And the man got up, picked up his stretcher at once and walked out in front of everyone, so that they were all astounded and praised God saying, "We have never seen anything like this." (Mark 2: 1-12).

I don't know that I ever really noticed that this story comes right after the story about the leper. It seems that the cured (but disobedient) leper went around telling everyone about his healing experience, resulting in the crowds getting so large that many people could not get close enough to see or talk to the Healer. It occurs to me that, while undoubtedly there were people in the crowd who were hoping to be healed, there were probably also people there who were just curiosity-seekers. They heard about this leper who was no longer a leper and they wanted to be there and see something happen. The story teller also lets us know that there were some skeptics in the crowd, some that wanted to find fault with the Healer because they didn't believe that things like that really happened.

What is interesting is that the next person to approach Jesus - coming through the roof no less - was someone who was paralyzed. Someone so completely broken and helpless that he had to depend on others to get him to the Healer. Certainly there must have been some dramatic suspense when this paralytic came through the roof. This was the moment they were all waiting for: now we will see if there is really going to be a miracle.

And what does the Healer say? "Your sins are forgiven"! Certainly a let-down to the curiousity seekers. And a great opportunity for the skeptics. But it is interesting that the story teller doesn't tell us that the paralyzed man complained. Certainly he must have wanted very much to be healed of his paralysis. Like the leper, he had taken a great risk by publicly placing himself before the now famous Healer. He most likely felt shame, because people of his time generally assumed that physical afflictions were punishment for sin. So the paralytic was placing himself and his shame before not just the crowd, but before the great Healer. What if nothing happened? What if he was found unworthy?

It seems that Jesus saw the brokenness, the helplessness, the stuck-ness of this man in a way much deeper than just his body. In telling him that his sins were forgiven, he opened the man's heart and freed him from his inner pain, his shame. He was liberating the man from the paralysis in his soul, seeing the goodness of him as the person he was made to be, thereby enabling his body too to be freed. And then he simply told him to go on home.

These are marvelous stories. But are they just stories? We don't see miracles in our world. I have never seen a leper cleansed or a paralytic get up and walk. Sometimes we pray and something wonderful happens. We start feeling better from our physical or mental ills. A job is found. A rift with a loved one starts healing. But other times, it seems like we only pray and suffer, pray and suffer ... and sometimes some of us just stop praying, thinking that healing, if there is such a thing, must be for people other than us. He wouldn't want to touch me. He wouldn't be able to forgive my sins. There is no point in even laying out that kind of ugliness before him. How could anyone, even the Creator, love a creature gone so wrong?

I have seen the miracle.

I have seen it many times over.

I walked with someone for over five years of wanting only to sleep life away or commit suicide. And then, without any clear explanation, the inner pain eased and life began to have joy again. And years later, it still did.

I walked with someone who for decades had searched for something to ease the anguish of a life that began with abuse and continued with years and years of broken living. And then, in their 8th decade, that someone discovered the experience of loving and being loved for the first time.

There are many other stories. Not just stories that I could tell, but stories that are carried around in other hearts and perhaps never told.

And yet I know too that there is still much pain, much sorrow, much shame within us and around us.

Among us are devout believers, skeptics and the curious. Many of us may be all three.

I, like you, am afraid to ask.

So let's ask together.

God, if you exist,
Heal me.
You know what in me is broken.
You know my shame.
I know I can never deserve your Gift.
I am afraid to ask.
But I am asking.
Please heal me.
Please forgive me.
See me as the person I was made to be.
(And let me see, too.)
Amen.

(To listen to this posting, just click on "play".)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The face of God

"What do you think God looks like?" my therapist asked me many years ago.

I responded with immediate enthusiasm, "Light!"

No, he told me, what he wanted me to do was describe what I thought God looked like in human terms. This I had to ponder a bit. And then I told him that, if I had to choose a human image for God, I would choose a an older African American man I had passed in a shopping center some weeks or months before. He had a beautiful dark face, framed with a snow-white beard and closely cropped white hair. Why him, my therapist wanted to know; was it because he was old? No, I replied, it was because his face was just so gentle, so beautiful...

At that time of this discussion, I was a young adult, plagued with all sorts of excessive guilts. Undoubtedly my therapist was anticipating drawing out an image of a stern or punishing God. But that was not what came forth. To this day, I smile when I remember that old man's face and its God-likeness. My image was of a kind God - and yet I was still afraid of breaking any of the rules.  I suspect that there was a much more judgmental "god" inside of me, one that said I must do everything right, one that anticipated punishment when I failed to meet that standard. What others might view as minor misdeeds were to me catastrophic and I could not see it otherwise at the time.

I was reflecting on this memory since it seems so often that people come to me in their suffering with a fear or a belief that they are being punished. "What did I do?" they ask. "What did I do wrong to deserve this suffering?" Others might protest to me that they did not deserve this punishment, while others may maintain that they did. The "punishment" might be any painful circumstances in life - illness, chronic pain, job loss, death of a loved one, depression.

If we examine the evidence in the world around us, we can see that there is no rhyme or reason (that we can see) to who suffers and when and why. People who have apparently led exemplary lives sometimes suffer horrible tragedy. Even worse, the obviously innocent - babies and small children, have bad things happen to them with surprising frequency. We also observe people who are known to have behaved rather badly in life seeming to cruise along without any major bumps in their roads. Yet, in our efforts to make sense of our suffering, we try to figure out a reason for it. In our efforts to come to terms with our real or perceived misdeeds, we weave theories that we must be getting what we deserve. The stories of love and healing and the forgiveness of sin get lost.

Recently I heard read aloud the familiar words to the Beatitudes (Mathew 5:1-12). I think perhaps my favorite of them is this: "Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God." As a child growing up in Catholic schools, I probably assumed early in life that to be "pure of heart" was to not have bad thoughts or the "stain" of sin on my soul. This certainly created a dilemma for me because I didn't seem ever able to control my thoughts or my actions well enough. I could not make my heart pure and keep it that way. And yet I wanted to see God. To see God is still my life's greatest longing. However, as I have walked my life's path and joined others on theirs, I have seen a whole different dimension to these words that Jesus left us about purity of heart

The reality is I cannot do it. I cannot make my heart pure. I am always going to mess it up somehow, with some nasty thought, impatient word or selfish deed.

And my belief now is that I do not have to. To be pure of heart does not mean that I make myself perfect. To be pure of heart means that I allow God to do that within me. I simply need to be willing - and even finding that willingness may take me a lifetime - but I have a God who is not in a hurry.

"Cleanse me with hyssop, that I may be pure; wash me, make me whiter than snow." (Psalm 51:9)

Snow is something we are quite familiar with in northeast Ohio. Although many of us tend to dread its arrival, it provides a powerful image of how a loving God might cleanse me, of how my heart might become pure in his care. And so I pray - I ask... cleanse me, wash me, purify me... not because I deserve it or have earned it ... but because I long for it. I long to see your Face...

As this process begins and progresses, I find that indeed I do start seeing God. Not because God appears to me in visions but because I begin to see him where he has been all along. I see him in the snow... in the sunrise ... in a tiny sparrow shivering by a frozen Lake Erie ... in a frolicsome squirrel outside my window. I seem him in the faces of the strangers I pass as well as in the faces of those I know intimately. I see him in your face. I see him everywhere, for he is now opening the eyes that have been shut so long because of fear or guilt or anger. My heart has been blessed. And the process has just begun...

(You are welcome to join me in viewing some of what I have seen this winter. Click on the image below and you will leave this site to view my public photo album. To watch it as a slide show, click on the slide show button that will appear in the upper left corner; hit the escape button on your keyboard to stop the slide show. You are always welcome to download and save/print any of my photos for personal or nonprofit use.)
 
Winter blessings