Suffer Into Meaning

I met Dr. Jenkins in the hallway of the sprawling Erlanger Hospital on my way from the room of my sister-in-law, who had become ill while visiting us in Chattanooga for my husband’s seminary graduation, to the NICU in the children’s section of the complex. I moved as if in a fog, my grief-drenched, hormonal mind barely processing reality in the wake of the birth of our daughter, Stephanie Jane. Born three weeks post due date, tiny Stephanie weighed about five pounds at birth and was whisked away from me as soon as she was delivered. This same Dr. Jenkins, our pediatrician, had entered my own hospital room just a few days before and pronounced the dream crushing words that Stephanie had trisomy 18, a third chromosome on the 18th pair, rendering her body and mind woefully deficient and incapable of sustaining life. Now, he met me in the hallway with a strange greeting. “I want you to pray for so and so.” Time has erased memory of the name of the other mother suffering the grief of her own baby’s devastating illness or what that illness was. “She and her husband work at the Bethel Home for Children,” he continued. “Okay,” I stammered, somewhat taken aback by his seeming insensitivity to my devastation.

Subsequent conversations with this doctor over the brief span of Stephanie’s life always included this directive, to pray for this other mother.  I remember feeling puzzled at his insistence that I remember someone else’s pain, but somewhere at the outskirts of my mind, I realized that he wanted me to know that I wasn’t alone in my suffering. He wanted to keep me from diving deep into the isolation of self-pity and the feeling that I had been singled out for anguish by Providence. It was an introduction to the universality of suffering, an invitation to solidarity with another soul in agony. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was an important voice in shaping the way I embraced my own heartbreak and stumbled through it.

I was reminded of all of this when I read the words of Paula D’Arcey in a daily meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM. She told of the torment of losing a child, along with her husband, in a tragic accident and how God spoke words that began to soften her heart and help her move out of the silo of grief. “The pain of loss is not yours alone. Disappointment is the human condition.” She speaks of how “indescribable light fights its way through the impenetrable dark.” When this happens in a life, one enters liminal space, that betwixt and between place where transformation occurs.*

Many people are writing helpful words of admonition and encouragement about how to make our way through this global pandemic. One such voice attracting my attention is Rabbi Reuven Bulka, a Canadian who writes, “suppose that, in isolation, we gain a more profound understanding of what it means to be alone. And further suppose that this understanding gives us a better insight into what others are going through in their isolation.” He advises readers to suffer into meaning. Bulka helps us to shift perspective from the ubiquitous, “why me?” to a better question. “What should we do in the face of adversity?…We have turned ‘suffering from’ to ‘suffering towards.’”+

This is the same thing Dr. Jenkins was guiding me towards decades ago in my own “end of the world.” Suffering into meaning involves the awakening of my soul to the suffering of others, finding ways I can stand in comradeship with those to whom chronic suffering is no stranger, who experience this pandemic as just an added layer to the struggle of their lives. It helps me to honor their pain. Suffering into meaning rouses in me an awareness of a culture that rewards the powerful to the detriment of the powerless, think federal bailout money going to large corporations instead of small businesses that will be snuffed out without assistance. Suffering into meaning means cutting elastic for a business which is making masks for health care workers scrambling for personal protection equipment. Suffering into meaning means sharing a stimulus check. Suffering into meaning means standing in support of organizations like Border Angels which seeks to ease the distress of desperate travelers. Suffering into meaning means praying: praying for the sick and dying, praying for the bereaved, praying for the unemployed, praying for the invisible people of our society, praying for the mentally ill, praying for the prisoners, praying for folks in underdeveloped countries, praying for immigrants and refugees, praying for healthcare workers, praying for religious leaders trying to figure out how to minister in an unprecedented situation. 

This is incarnational. The Christ has given us the example that we should follow in his steps. He shunned not the suffering of the world of the first century C. E., refusing to grasp his rightful position as Deity, making his home among the lowly while offering invitation to the mighty. His life carried the most meaning of any human, and he suffered into it and through it, constantly self-emptying. Suffering involves self-emptying, loss of power, relinquishment of position or right. We are being given a taste of the suffering of the world, the frustrating loss of control and the fear of death and dissolving of expectations. The shelves of stores with their yawning gaps where once we saw bounty are constant reminders. This is a new experience for Americans, but in some places in the world, this is commonplace. 

Can we in this temporary juncture in time, taste and even embrace this affliction, transcending time and space to hold metaphorical hands with masses who endure with us? Humans are meaning- making creatures. We strive to make sense of things, to assign blame, to find solutions. Can this posture of affinity with other suffering people help us construct meaning out of our present tribulation? Can we suffer into meaning and thereby find solace for our own souls? My experience says, yes. 

*Paula D’Arcy, Waking Up To This Day: Seeing the Beauty Right Before Us (Orbis Books: 2009), 51–52, 53, 55. Shared in cac.org, daily meditation, 4-27-20.+

http://www.convivium.ca/articles/a-meeting-place-of-meaning/?fbclid=IwAR3MOcLXcgf8o91nVC5kgqduIxM7v4E_dJLZGODqCuP4zDzntBJm5FJtZPk#.XqSbxsWWh7w.facebook

Honoring the Vulnerable

Whether or not people are thinking about the actual word, vulnerability, or not, the world collectively is experiencing vulnerability because of the Covid-19 pandemic. We are vulnerable individually with regard to personal health, financial security, mental health status, etc. We are vulnerable collectively as the systems that have served to provide stability in our lives are suddenly threatened. Wall Street is erratic; businesses are shuttering; the economy has practically ground to a halt; many people have lost the ability to earn an income for the present; there are shortages of goods in some places; people worry about meeting their basic needs. Those in the health care profession suddenly find themselves on the front lines of a war, sometimes without the necessary equipment. The control we thought we had in our lives, at least as middle class Americans, has essentially vanished. We can’t make future plans and literally don’t know if our world will resemble the familiar when we come to the other side of this experience. Brené Brown in, The Call to Courage, defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. That’s right where we are, all of us.

Vulnerability doesn’t feel good, and most of us don’t do it well, but is it possible to realize radical good from this period of global calamity? Great suffering can result in transformation, as Father Richard Rohr has said in many places, so I’ve been wondering what some of the lessons of this time of great collective suffering might be, in what ways might we see meaningful change in our lives. Specifically, how can we honor vulnerability in our own lives, and more importantly, in the lives of others? What perspectives and practices can we begin to incorporate that will not only help us love others better during this crisis, but also serve as a path of greater love on into the future?

Two things have come to mind. We can honor vulnerability by protecting another person’s dignity and privacy in our conversations. In order to do this, we might need to change the way we casually interact with friends and guard our exchanges from transmitting information about other people. Secondly, we can honor vulnerability by recognizing that many people in the world at large and in our own communities live constantly in a state of vulnerability because of race, class, gender, socio-economic status, or refugee/immigration status. What we are temporarily experiencing is a way of life for some people. Acknowledging this in a spirit of empathy should help us seek ways of standing in solidarity with and offering support for those vulnerable populations. Naming and embracing our own feelings of vulnerability now can open our eyes to people whose constant condition is one of vulnerability.

Honoring the vulnerability inherent in conversations is a concrete and fairly straightforward way to begin respecting and giving dignity to other people. I genuinely admire people who find it easy to chat with other folks and can engage in friendly banter. It truly is a gift because that kind of conversation often is a forerunner to deeper exchange and a necessity in many cases to prepare people for more substantive dialogue. My husband gets into extended conversations with others wherever he meets them: service persons coming to inspect or repair something in our house, a hiker sharing a mountain path, a fellow customer in Home Depot. That happens rarely with me. It’s a gift or a cultivated ability that makes a person easy to be around. It’s an invitation to engagement.

However, I’ve been thinking about how casual conversations can quickly descend from common pleasantries to the divulging of someone else’s personal information. Even though I might think that telling about another person’s upcoming surgery is innocuous information, that person might not want the general public to know. A cliche criticism of exchanging prayer needs in a group is the sharing of personal information about another person (who is not present in the group) ostensibly so that people will pray for that person. You know, “pray for so-and-so because she is struggling with a shopping addiction.” The guise of praying for a person becomes a platform for gossip. It’s easy to talk about people. It doesn’t take any deep thought and doesn’t require any risk. It’s basic level communication. This can be a problem in any social situation, not just a religious one, but when it happens in a faith context, it can be especially harmful. The line between sincerely wanting to support someone in prayer and feeding curiosity can be blurred quickly. When that happens, people don’t feel safe and vulnerability is not honored. It is not the way of love.

Even though I am a verbal processor and desperately need interlocutors, I’m a pretty private person, especially with highly personal pieces of information, but also with mundane things. For example, I want to be the one to spread the news that I had apple pie for breakfast, not a person I had a text exchange with that morning. I don’t like it when other people take liberties with my story. Now, I have learned not to get twisted up when this happens over benign pieces of information like where I buy my groceries or how fanatical I am about feeding birds. Most of the time, it happens because people are genuinely interested in my life. There is no malicious intent. But I notice, and twitch a little bit, when I hear how my words or actions get circulated. I’m not sure what causes this aversion to the free spread of personal minutiae. Maybe it’s just a personality thing which couples with a woefully inadequate ability for casual conversation. However, I’m pretty sure that I’m not alone in feeling this way. Lots of people really don’t want the little details of their lives, or the big ones, talked about by other people when they are not present. Learning to honor and guard another person’s vulnerability must include being careful of what we freely share about that person. Learning to have conversations about our own stories and meaningful ideas instead of spreading information about the lives of other people will head us in the right direction. Remembering to talk with a person, not about a person, might be helpful.

A more global way to honor vulnerability is to begin to think about people who have little power or social standing in society, people who might be on the margins. We don’t tend to think of our own personal efficacy, but especially those of us who are white middle class citizens have tremendous advantages over others in our culture. I remember vividly the time I drove into a gas station in Phoenix shortly after my husband and I had both lost our jobs without warning, and we had become “homeless.” As I pulled up to the pump, a group of men came toward my van. I was a little startled, but I rolled my window down as one of the men approached. He asked me if I needed any day laborers. I replied that I was sorry, but I did not, and the men turned and walked slowly back to where they had been standing or sitting in hopeful anticipation of employment. Tears instantly sprang to my eyes as I realized that these men were unemployed, depending on the daily scavenging of labor to feed themselves and maybe their families. I felt a slight kinship with them, while at the same time realizing that I had a safety net of family and savings account with the hope of future employment that would make right our situation. These people probably faced an entire lifetime of living in survival mode. I had, of course, known about migrant workers but had never before encountered someone who daily waited at a gas station in hopes of an opportunity to earn money. I felt empathy and compassion and prayed for their well-being and provision. Because of my pain, I was able to be in community with them and see them as brave men, full of dignity.

There are many others in the corners of our society that, like these day laborers, live in a state of vulnerability, unseen and unprotected, sometimes living hand to mouth. Refugees and immigrants, migrant workers, single mothers living paycheck to paycheck, homeless folks, drug addicts, racial or religious minorities, runaways, and sex workers are likely to live in a constant state of vulnerability. They are unable to make long-term plans, are unsure about the future, and are many times powerless to change their status in society. They carry the same fear and uncertainty that now grip us all. John Pavlovitz expresses a genuine question in his article, “Are You Understanding Migrants and Refugees Now, Conservative America?” He wonders if we are beginning to connect the dots and asks, “Can you see the lengths decent human beings will go to in order to protect the people they love: when threat comes, when terror overtakes them, when unprecedented crisis visits?” Maybe if we think about what we would do to ensure a loved one got a life-saving ventilator, how we would behave in a desperate situation, the lengths we would go to secure a loved one’s safety or life, maybe then our perspective on asylum seekers and undocumented people would shift. Maybe we would start honoring their vulnerability. Something to think about.

Will this experience increase my empathy and inform my decisions in ways that give dignity and value to the lives of others? As a high school teacher, I used to explicitly try to teach empathy and human dignity to my students. Right now, we have an unmatched teachable moment for the entire world. I hope that this juncture in our lives will serve to deepen our compassion and encourage our resolve to do what we can to protect the privacy and dignity of friends and to honor people who live in constant states of vulnerability. I hope we are transformed into a kinder, safer, more generous humanity.

Brené Brown, “The Call to Courage,” https://www.netflix.com/title/81010166.

Richard Rohr, cac.org

https://johnpavlovitz.com/2020/03/16/are-you-understanding-migrants-and-refugees-now-conservative-america/

Confession of fear

I will preface my confession by saying that I have been relatively silent in public about my political beliefs, and I really hate conflict. I understand that good people can have vastly different views with regard to ideologies and current events. I respect the right of people to disagree me with me, but I bemoan our society’s inability to have authentic and loving dialogue about our differences. I believe that a large number of people in this country get their information primarily from one source, and I believe that is perilous and prevents understanding different viewpoints. Truthfully, disclosing my thoughts in a public place takes courage. I don’t have confidence in my own ability to logically explain my views, and I hate making waves. However, I have been reading and thinking a lot about vulnerability lately and being willing to be vulnerable. So here goes. I am compelled to use my voice.

I experienced my first palpable fear this weekend about the pandemic we are experiencing. That fear was spiked by two things. First of all, I found out that the virus is in a nursing home here in Yucaipa with multiple residents testing positive and one death, so far. I think I had held out some snippet of hope that the virus would bypass our little hamlet, but now it is here. There is no escaping. The second thing that generates fear in me is reading an article about how extreme Trump supporters are circulating a campaign of distrust of the leading doctor in this fight. I think that scares me more than anything. The blind homage to a man who vacillates, sends mixed messages, and at times seems, if not unhinged, than at least incapable of providing a clear and realistic path forward, who is more focused on his own image than on anything else, is terrifying and mystifying to me. We have witnessed before a disdain for science and objective fact and a penchant for fanciful thinking. Conspiracy theories abound. This time, unlike disputing the facts about climate change where the consequences are at least a few years out, discrediting the professionals and casting doubt the on advice and wisdom of the medical experts could have immediate effect on loss of life, indeed already have. The denial and minimizing of the threat two months ago cost precious time in mobilizing testing, which could have better prepared us for and maybe prevented the onslaught of cases. Obviously, most countries have been behind the curve in this crisis, but even the general public was able to observe what happened in China months ago and Italy weeks ago. Simply closing our border to Chinese flights was not enough to stem this invasion.

There have been other times in history in which the populace gave allegiance to a leader because of one or two issues. Even people who claim to know God and God’s will have succumbed (think Crusades or Spanish Inquisition for examples that won’t touch anyone’s buttons). However, it behooves us to consider leaders in a more comprehensive way. There is always more than one important issue. The economy can’t be god; neither can issues of abortion and homosexuality. We must remember that sometimes these issues that might be ultimate to us are politicized to the detriment of society as a whole. The hot-button issues of contemporary America have divided us as a society and made us weaker and susceptible to blind allegiance to a person who courts strong blocks of voters while living a life that goes contrary to what those voters profess to believe. These are dangerous times, times for serious prayer that does not assume we know the mind of God, times for an honest and open-minded quest for truth.

Reset

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” Kahlil Gibran

The word keeps popping up in my mind and conversations–reset.

We’re experiencing an unparalleled time of confusion, fear, uncertainty, and isolation. It’s fair to say that this will be a time marker like Pearl Harbor and 911. We will mark time by this, before Covid-19 and after the Covid-19. It’s that big. It’s easy to either feel numb with somewhat flat emotions because we in the U. S. have had no practice with this type of crisis and “this does not compute,” or to feel panic and despair. This is our first time with a global pandemic that threatens lives and livelihoods. We’ve watched movies of war times or crisis of apocalyptic magnitude, but we never dreamed we would actually experience something so catastrophic. The pictures of hospitals and healthcare workers battling to care for overwhelming numbers of patients is terrifying. Some doctors may have to choose which patients receive ventilators and which will not. I can’t imagine a worse predicament to be in. It is a grim time, and it’s good to name it.

However, it is also an incredibly rare opportunity to take stock, evaluate our lives, personally and communally, and that brings me to the word, reset. Reset is a little like repentance, a change of direction or thinking. Turning around and going in another direction. We have been stopped in our tracks, so to speak, brought face to face with our own vulnerability and the vulnerability of complete systems upon which we depend. And we have no control. There is no certainty, no accurate prediction about what will happen or how long it will take for this to pass. Anyone who dispenses unrealistic assurances should be ignored, no matter who he or she is. It is no more business as usual. It is an occasion for self-reflection and change, an opportunity to begin again in a better way when we come out on the other side.

So I’m sitting with this word and wondering what things need to change. What areas of my life and the life of my community could benefit from a reset? For some, this might be a wake-up call to begin a serious pursuit of a more robust spiritual life. Maybe some relationships need to be changed or hard things addressed in open, honest conversations. Maybe some priorities need to be reevaluated and energies reallotted. Maybe it is a time to lean into more concern, acceptance, and real love for other people. Maybe it is a time to start listening to people who see the world differently. Maybe it is a time to begin to get unstuck from patterns of thinking and behaving that might seem noble and right but be fundamentally flawed.

There’s a lot wrong with what the world is experiencing right now. We have an enemy that can’t be seen, that stealthily and indiscriminately attacks, but we also have a chance for new beginnings when we have made it through this somber and perilous time. Though we may be scarred, I hope we emerge from this time of suffering as stronger souls.

Lesson From My Body


The Avowal

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
free fall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.

Denise Levertov (1923–1997)

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot this past year about being present to my body, listening to it, paying attention to what it tells me. One of the things I appreciate about the historic, liturgical slice of Christianity to which I belong is the emphasis placed on incarnational presence through the body’s participation in worship and, of course, the Eucharist. So much of my former religious experience shunned the body and sought to stay in the intellect, the rational spaces of human existence. The current wave of teaching and practice of mindfulness is raising awareness of the necessity of attending to the body and integrating it with mind and soul. The practice of centering prayer, particularly as taught by Thomas Keating and others, is a meaningful and powerful way of quieting the “monkey brain” (Richard Rohr’s words) and bringing the soul into unity with the loving Presence of God. It is with this backdrop that I entered the classroom of the body recently and became more aware of the lessons it has to teach me.

I decided to tackle the small mountains, really just foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, at the edge of my neighborhood a few days ago. I have walked the trail close to the road but had only one time ventured a short climb. This day I would see how far I could get in a couple of hours. The hills are not really that high, compared to the surrounding mountains, but the initial ascent is steep without the dips and level areas that some small mountains provide. So it was with considerable effort that I labored up the slope, stopping frequently to catch my breath even though I am in fairly good shape from a faithful habit of daily walking. I was rewarded as I eventually dipped and turned behind the hills visible from my home to an area that boasted small purple flowers growing on shrubs, trees overshadowing the trail, and a spectacular view of a mountain that I had barely noticed previously as it was tucked behind the foothills. It was almost as if I had stepped into a “Narnian” world eerie in its solitude and seclusion, a breathtaking gift. 

But as everyone knows, mountain top experiences don’t last forever, literally or metaphorically. I almost dreaded the downward trek because, as difficult as the hike up had been, I knew that the descent was going to be challenging. I imagined myself gliding as a bird back to level ground instead of navigating the steep trail covered in loose gravel. Fanciful thought. There was no choice. What goes up, must come down, so they say.

As I neared the part of the trail that would take me to the bottom, my body tensed, and I rigidly placed one foot carefully in front of the other fearing a cascading slide as gravity exerted its force and gravel slid beneath my shoes. Though no longer straining my lungs with the huffing and puffing that accompanied my upward climb, this would be a slow and arduous journey back to the trailhead. I could feel my neck, shoulder, and leg  muscles clench as I almost visibly braced for a fall when I heard a voice in my head that said, “Just relax.” Relax as a downward momentum threatened to pull me tumbling headlong? Yes. Relax. So I listened and shook my arms free of their mannequin pose and allowed my body to glide down the hill, picking up speed as it bounced gently along. Each time fear of falling tugged at my mind and my body instinctively tensed, I remembered the words, “just relax,” and did what was counterintuitive to me, releasing the energy that kept muscles and tendons fiercely at the ready.  Amazingly, this brought me down the mountain swiftly, safely, and without a tension headache at the end. 

The classroom of my body teaches me more than a better way to descend a steep slope. It reminds and instructs me to pay attention to whatever situation causes bound muscles, whether it be a challenging physical experience, an uncomfortable social encounter, a difficult relationship, recurring or persistent emotional struggle, loss of control, internal and external conflicts, crushing disappointment, or any other thing. Tensing the muscles of my psyche might seem like a good defense against that which threatens, might seem like a way to get through. In reality, though, just as tensing the muscles of my neck and shoulders results in pain and stiffness, the mustering of my inner defenses causes hardening of the soul, rigidity, and greater risk of harm.

So I pitch my soul in a peculiar direction, choosing release rather than defense, trading strain for serenity. In the words of Denise Levertov, “so would I learn to attain free fall, and float into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace, knowing no effort earns that all-surrounding grace.”

(Poem shared by Journey with Jesus–https://www.journeywithjesus.net/poemsandprayers/623-denise-levertov-avowal)

 

 

Love and Truth

Love and Truth must go hand in hand,

Justice and Peace must kiss.

 

Friends who claim “no judgment” serve

Little to heal the writhing soul.

Failing to identify toxicity

Masquerades as loving acceptance

And applauds the descent to death.

Will someone not take the risk and

Pull back the veil of lies for love’s sake?

 

Love and Truth must go hand in hand,

Justice and Peace must kiss.

The Most Unexpected Way

I tied my shoes, turned on my earpiece, found Fr. Richard’s third Sunday of Advent homily in my podcast player, and set out for my morning hike. Fr. Richard’s homilies are too short for my liking but always have something to ponder. Today I grabbed his statement that God shows up at unexpected times and in unexpected ways. So stay awake! I switched to another podcast with that thought lingering in the back of my mind, but it was soon replaced by other reflections. By the time I had finished listening to the second sermon podcast of the day, I was at a point on the trail where I needed to make a decision. Would I follow the well-known path back to where I was lodging, or would I follow another path previously untraversed? I opted for adventure and headed in the new direction thinking that surely at some point, it would lead me back to the neighborhood of origin.

The trail led down into a valley and then back up another foothill, and I had gone too far when I realized that the path would not lead me back easily to my point of origin. On the heights of the hill, I could see where I needed to go, but discerned that the road would be longer than anticipated. What was there to do but plod on? So it was with quiet resignation that I headed out of the hills and into the neighborhoods hoping to find my way. The only stress I had was the knowledge that I had an appointment later in the morning, and I wondered exactly how long it would take me to get back “home.”

Believing that I needed to make a series of right turns in order to get to my destination, I took the first right turn and found it to be a cul-de-sac. Not to be deterred, I took the only turn off the cul-de-sac and walked up an incline only to find that this street was also a cul-de-sac. After retracing my steps, I set out again in another direction. I had no fear nor was I in any danger, but I was effectively “lost.” As I was not making much progress, I begin to consider whether or not I would have to make a phone call for rescue in order to make the morning appointment, when seemingly out of nowhere, a large dog of husky mix ran up from behind me under my left arm so that my hand brushed along her body. I was momentarily startled, but quickly fascinated to see that she ran on ahead of me glancing behind her at intervals as if to see if I were following. Though I had never witnessed it, I had heard stories of dogs doing such a thing, so I decided to follow and see what happened. Amazingly, this dog continued to run ahead of me staying to the right side of the road at all times and repeatedly stopping to glance back at me with inviting eyes. I had nothing to lose but time by following her, and I was entranced. She continued to lead me always several feet in front, making turns at various points until she led me to a street I recognized. I think I actually said aloud, “I know where I am now,” and thanked my guide as she ran to sniff some bushes. I thought maybe she was finished with me, but when she saw me make the turn onto the familiar street, she again ran on ahead, and to my utter surprise, she made the final correct turn onto the street where I was staying. When we reached the house, I told her, “this is the place,” and she followed me into the yard, stealing a drink from the fountain by the door. By this time, I was crying with the wonder of it all. I fed her some cheese and posed for a picture. That was the last time I saw her.

It’s Christmas Eve, and after a month of Advent preparation, we’re waiting for Jesus to come. I have needed God Incarnate to come to me. While this has been a season of answered prayer and great promise, it has also been a season of difficult transition (though soothed by generous and hospitable people) on the heels of a year of stress and loss. So I have needed comfort in the deep places of my being. Comfort has come in predictable ways–the kindness of new friends, the warm welcome of a new parish, quiet time with my spiritual director, the inner confidence of finding the right home, the circle of our new church family holding candles in the dark and singing, “Silent Night”–but grief can swell up unexpected as Christmas approaches, especially a Christmas that is different, devoid of familiar faces and traditions. Such was the case early Christmas Eve morning as I began my solitary hike, but God came, incarnate, visiting me through a creature that would speak uniquely to me, as my heart has longed for a canine companion for more than a year. The gaze of those Husky eyes and the feel of that thick coat hover in my mind as tissue memory, and I am comforted. I am comforted because I am not alone. God sees me. I am comforted by the hope of having my own four-legged companion sometime soon. God hears me. I am comforted by a God who knows and loves me in my peculiarities and who speaks to me in particular ways, sometimes in the most unexpected ways.

 

All Shall Be Well

Memories of Christmas past and ideals of what should be
Rush toward me.
I hold them at bay
Not knowing if my soul can
Look them in the eye.
I can experience Advent anywhere
And in any condition,
But Christmas is attached to people and traditions.
When those are lost or even absent for a year,
Where does the heart go?
When there is no space for creating
new memories because of illness or isolation,
Where does the heart go?

I must not hurry to the obvious answer,
(Of course, the heart goes to Jesus, the one for whom we wait.)
But I must sit with the sorrow
and disappointment, acknowledge it.
(Was Mary disappointed to give birth in an animal shelter? Did her mind protest or her heart grieve over a situation out of her control?)
Incarnation, the joining of spirit and matter, divine and human together,
Always encounters, embraces, the human condition of loss and bitter pills.
And so must I.

I encounter and try to embrace or at least sit side by side
With a Christmas that feels empty
And at the same time full of sadness,
Sadness at the loss of sharing the season with the people who are most precious to me
And knowledge that these dear ones also suffer
Because of geographical separation, job and financial constraints, illness, and broken relationship.
All is not well in our world.

So I honor this time, this space, this season and give an offering of tears.
And in doing so, a peace slowly settles over my soul,
Not a removal of the sadness, but a confidence that somehow, sometime

“All shall be well
All manner of things shall be well.”

A Non-anxious Presence in the World

A few years ago, a phrase in a Sunday morning sermon caught my attention and has remained a pursuit for my life–Jesus has called us to be a non-anxious presence in the world. The thought captivated me. I have sought a non-anxious presence all my life, in others and in myself. I long to possess that steady, calm, peaceful demeanor that I picture in my head when I hear this phrase, and I’m attracted to people who exhibit it. This doesn’t come naturally for me as  an Enneagram 1 (probably), passionate, high-strung individual, but it is a presence that I have desired to cultivate. I have incorporated practices to help me be more centered, grounded, mindful, trusting, and patient. I thought I was making progress.

So it was with surprise when I saw the exact opposite seep out of the cracks of my life recently. I was reading a blog post by Fr. Michael Marsh entitled, “A Non-Possessive Life.”  Fr. Michael was addressing the topic of the Kingdom of God through the passage in Luke 12:32-40, a passage in a larger context that includes a lot about anxiety and fear. He makes the suggestion that the Kingdom is not something to be possessed, but actually living a non-possessive life. Reading his words brought to mind how recently I had baulked in my spirit when asked to loan one of our possessions to someone I didn’t know very well. My inward, Gollum-like response was to clutch that possession closer and whisper, “my precious.” It was a pretty disgusting response, especially considering that the item was only worth about $40 and could easily be replaced if not returned intact. However, instead of generosity, my spirit was bound by fear in that moment, fear of not having enough, fear that the demands of life and the things that I wanted would not be met, fear of scarcity instead of abundance. All that fear was represented in the releasing of a very mundane item. Things like this sneak up on us and catch us by surprise, revealing areas that need to be transformed and healed.

Fear is all about scarcity. Fear is bound up in the thought that I won’t have enough–enough money, enough health, enough intellect, enough emotional strength, enough goodness, enough time, etc. Jesus addresses fear and anxiety repeatedly in Luke 12, and he does so in the framework of Kingdom living. “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). This declaration seems a bit incongruous since the instructions immediately following this statement actually sound like not receiving something, but rather giving something up. Essentially, Jesus says to sell possessions, have moneybags with nothing in them, and don’t own anything that a moth could destroy. Jesus regularly spoke from an other than literal plane, often with metaphor, parable, or even hyperbole, so I don’t believe he was elevating poverty as a virtue or something to be sought. However, he was addressing the kind of posture we should have if we want to live a Kingdom life, a posture characterized by holding possessions loosely and not grounding our security in material things. Interestingly, this admonition to re-evaluate the source of our treasure caps an extended section in which Jesus repeatedly speaks of fear and anxiety. If I have counted correctly, the word fear appears five times and the word anxious appears four times in the passage. This kind of repetition calls us to pay attention.

Fear is evident at the beginning of the narrative of God and creation, in Gen. 3:8-10, when because of disobedience which stemmed from fear of not having everything desirable (fear of scarcity), the first recorded humans hid themselves from the presence of God out of fear of being seen in their naked state. Fear kept them from the presence of God. Maybe this is why Jesus confronts our propensity for fear and anxiety so forcefully in the Luke text. If I don’t deal with the issue of fear and anxiety in my life, I will effectively hide myself from the presence of God, the only place of joy and freedom.

So Jesus says…

  • Do not fear those who can kill you.
  • Do not fear that God will forget you.
  • Do not be anxious about defending yourself before others.
  • Do not be anxious about your physical provision and well-being.
  • Do not be anxious about your ability to provide what you need.
  • Do not be worried about scarcity.
  • Do not fear that you will miss the Kingdom.

“Because it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

And what is the Kingdom? Not power, material wealth, success, domination, security. It is actually the release of these things. “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17), which brings us back to the concept presented by Fr. Michael that the Kingdom life is a non-possessive life, a life not characterized by the fear of scarcity and the incumbent grasping of possessions but, rather, a mien of resting in the abundant supply of God’s love and provision, not only of physical, tangible needs, but also of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. As Fr. Michael says, “Do not be afraid of a non-possessive life.”  Letting go of fear is the only way to be a non-anxious presence in the world, a presence that embodies the Kingdom.

https://interruptingthesilence.com/2019/08/12/a-non-possessive-life-a-sermon-on-luke-1232-40/

The Only Prayer a Groan

The words appeared unexpectedly in text

Crushing, searing, trampling my heart.

Unlike the typical antiphon to painful verse, no tears came

Only a sucking in of air to ward off feelings of suffocation.

Lungs constricted by grief hauling in oxygen

Unable to sate the quest for air.

The only prayer a groan.