Friday, December 28, 2012

The Joys of Reaping

When Lot's wife looked back, she paid a dear price and for centuries since, the story has been a cautionary tale about disobedience and attachment to the past. But how could she not look back? As a wife and a mother, really anyone with roots in love and hearth, craning our necks to see the past conjures sweet memories. Those reflections ground us and give us courage to take risks. The past makes us a promise: you were loved and comforted then and you will be loved and comforted again. It's why babies need nurture and cuddling from birth. These earliest memories are imprinted in our cells and so when the tidal wave of life's challenges hit, we are still moored to love in our hearts.

So it's the end of the year and time for the reaping -- both removing and holding onto what gives you life. Years ago, I learned this meditation practice from Matthew, Dennis and Sheila Linn, one which they had adapted from the spiritual practice of St. Ignatius. First quiet your mind and then put yourself in a safe place. (I am very fond of meadows nestled in ancient woodlands or beaches on the edge of an endless ocean.) Imagine God's love flooding your heart. It's okay to receive such tremendous tenderness; you deserve it. Then ask yourself the two most important questions: In the last year, when did you feel connected to God and when did you feel most distant. Since it is a year end examination, it may be a long list on either side of the equation, or not. Then take this vow -- do more of what brought you into God's light and less, or not at all, of what didn't. Simple.

This isn't a happiness exercise; that highly overrated and fleeting emotion, as misused and misunderstood as grace. Just after Hurricane Katrina, I volunteered with people fleeing New Orleans. I relished every moment. When a friend later asked what I thought of the experience, I said with sheer joy and glee, it was "fun." FUN, really April! What I really meant was I felt involved in something important for which God gave me the energy to do. I felt joy -- joy and happiness are not the same. This meditation is an exercise about joy, but beware, joy and connection to God do not always bring us happiness. More on this complicated topic in a later post.

Today, I will go for a long walk (in real and meditation time) and while on the trail, I will look back with courage and sift out what I should do more of in the next year. Like Lot's wife, some moments will turn me to salt and bring me to tears. But salt and tears are cleansing and will open my heart, my mind and my soul to the new year possibilities.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Senselessness of Senseless Suffering

A few years ago, a doctor friend and I would argue about human suffering. Our discussions were not academic. He was a pediatric oncologist and palliative care specialist working with children at the end-of-life, and I was a pediatric chaplain working with the same population. It doesn't get more real than that. He stated that all suffering had meaning but I wasn't buying it. There is some suffering so outrageous its only purpose is to degrade, debase and destroy. For me, the death of a child falls into this category.

Maria was a bright and energetic 13 year old whose cancer had come back for a third time in her short life. There would be no cure. As the family gathered around her bed in her darkened hospital room for what would be her last night on Earth, Maria's mother made an unusual request; she wanted to hold her daughter one last time. Unusual because Maria was an adult-sized child but it didn't stop her father from picking her up, gently as if she were a baby again, and placing her in the arms of her mother. Mom cuddled her child while Dad stroked his daughter's head. As Maria drew her last breaths, her mother's heel bobbed up and down in a nervous tic like a needle in a sewing machine.
"This is the hard part," she cried over and over until Maria took her last breath. There are no words to describe the sound the parents each made when their daughter died -- a hound from hell would sound more pleasing.
When I remember the pain and heartbreak of Maria's parents, I don't see dignity or grace. I see only suffering and it is impossible to make sense of senseless suffering. It stings. It comes with no easy answers. It doesn't make us better people.It doesn't make us stronger and sometimes it kills us. It isn't part of some grand plan by God to teach us or train us or punish us. It doesn't go away with words of comfort or our best dishes. It wounds, maims and destroys and we are never the same. Never.

So what do we do in the face of such suffering? Do nothing and be help-less. Don't do. Be. Sit and listen to the pain expressed. Or sit and be silent if the one who suffers doesn't want to talk. Be willing to hear the death story, the illness story, the horror and the violence story one hundred times or more if necessary. Have soft tissues or hankies available. Don't flinch at the details no matter how horrible. Resist the temptation to check the time. Be available. After a few weeks or months when the time seems right, gently offer outings and excursions and gracefully take no for an answer because one day there  maybe a yes. Don't stop asking. Don't give advice unless asked. And don't ever say, "Aren't you over this now." 

And why do such gestures make a difference? A pastor once said, our roll as ministers was to bring the wounded into the light and snarky me thought: "Hello. You had better be willing to go into their darkness first." Be in the darkness with them. At least with you there, they are not alone.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Where Was Your God on Friday?

Like a lot of folks, I turned to my Facebook community for support and comfort last night. Mostly, I found it -- in the prayers, wisdom and anger of my friends. What struck me was how many people wanted to know God's activity, or lack of it, in such a tragedy. Mike Huckabee had the answer -- the carnage happened because we no longer force children to pray in public schools. Good going Huckster. I'm sure you made plenty of dough off such infantile, blame the victim beliefs. But every medium from The Christian Left to Fox News had the same question:. Where was God and why didn't God do more?

If you are one who believes God is omnipotent and in control of every moment, or one who believes God is the architect of our pain and suffering, then you've come to the wrong page. Mike Huckabee don't stop here. I don't even believe God is totally omniscient. God's best hope in me is this: I follow God's will and I put myself on God's side but if I'm a paranoid schizophrenic, a sociopath, or just your average, greedy, stingy, narcissistic human being and I flout God's will, then God and you are SOL--sorry out of luck. While the system allows for free will, evil and suffering will happen to the best of us and despite our goodness.

I don't know all God did to prevent or even stop the tragedy, but the carnage reflects our unwillingness to meet the needs of others. Whether we have too many guns in our society, we don't support the mentally ill or a combination of both, we are to blame for the destruction of twenty-seven plus families.

But I do know where God was yesterday, today and tomorrow -- comforting those whose hurt and loss are so impressive and palpable that if their pain raged as a wildfire scarring the earth, the gaping wound would be visible from space. God weeps with them.

God and children belong together. Whether it is Jesus calling the little children to him, the happy Buddha playing with the young or Rumi inviting us to be children to know God, when we look in the face of a child, we see divinity.

So what next? Do we let it happen again? Do we do nothing until next time? If you are wondering what God demands of you, try this exercise: see the face of a lost child. Hold that face in your heart. Imagine God's love surrounding the child. And ask yourself this question: What could I have done to keep this child safe? What should I do to keep all children safe?

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Proof of Heaven

Even at 50 years of age, my default approach upon meeting an elderly person assumes s/he cannot contribute equally to me in cognitive depth, wit or speed. I am in my prime and life has passed them by. In another words, an elderly person cannot keep up. Like all prejudices, I am guilty of committing them even before I can consciously rebel against my stereotypes. These are just some of my assumptions about old people: can't hear, can't see, slower to process information or respond to it, dismissive of current popular culture, physically slow, and disagreeing with them means disrespect. They are the fragile, precious vase you put on a pedestal and treat with care or you might break it. I fight these prejudices but I have not conquered them.

Just the other day at a luncheon, I sat next to a gentleman in his 80's. The forty pounds plus he had lost a year ago when he had nearly died remained absent from his frame. His suspenders drooped over his shoulders like the the slender branches of a weeping willow. He is frail by any measure and he is old. I've known him tangentially for a few years in what I call an "across the room" friendship; I know something of his past, I cheer his successes, and speak my sorrow for his trials, but beyond this, I have the thinnest of connections. Like the vase, I have politely but dismissively regarded him from afar.
I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in what happens after death. Well-written, intriguing and impossible to put down.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Walking Hymn of the ClusterF#*ked

Despite the imagery of bald men calmly processing in saffron robes, the bombastic certainty of a preacher or the confidence of the saints painted with angelic halos, spirituality is a messy business. I can't take a year off to Eat, Pray, Love (although I did devour the book), nor do I have the luxury (Read: cold hard cash, Baby) to write full time or be a stay at home Mom. Like most parents I"m lucky to find 5 minutes to myself with a cup of coffee before my family gets up and the craziness of the day begins. So how can I lay my heavy burdens at God's feet? I talk the walk of the ClusterFucked.

Other's have come up with their own ways to bring a bit of the divine into everyday living. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love encourages her readers to keep a Happiness Jar. With each moment of gratitude experienced or grace witnessed, one writes the moment on a slip of paper, puts it in the empty vessel and watches the jar fill up. Sorry, but not for me. I would get depressed seeing the container empty all the time.  Besides, there are some days, some weeks, some months I can't even muster the energy to focus on the possible. Do I see a glass half empty or half full? Jesus, I'm just surprised there's a glass with something in it and I'll probably have to clean it out and put it in the dishwasher.

The dark side of life is something of an occupational hazard for me.  As a grief counselor and chaplain working in hospice, I have recited Psalm 23 for the dying and the bereaved hundreds of time and still every line stops me and I hear it anew all over again. Here's just one example:

"Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . . ."

The King James translation can't convey the full weight of the words' meaning, although for poetry it is some of the most beautiful in the English language. To get at the passage's guts and to hear it fresh, exploring the Hebrew grammar helps. The voice used for the word walk indicates a strong verb, (as opposed to a passive one) but it also takes on the imperfect tense and for we grammar nerds that means the action takes place in the past, present and future. The walking is ongoing. Here's a better although not as poetic translation:

Even though I walked most of my yesterdays, all of my today, and most of my tomorrows through the darkness . . . .

Or -

I walked through the Valley of the Shadow of death in my past, I'm going to do it again today, and I'm going to keep walking through it during my tomorrows. . . .

The psalmist isn't a pessimist nor does s/he reject the love of God which protects and nurtures, but s/he is a realist. Most of the walking we do in this world is in the shadow of death.

So I came up with my own Walking Hymn discipline years ago to reflect my Eeyore nature and the Psalmist's worldview. 

I thank God for the Crap of God.

A few days a week I head out to a local hiking trail for a long ramble. I tie on rattlesnake chaps, lace up my hiking boots, grab my walking stick and don a hat. Fortunately, no photographs have been taken of me in this ridiculous get up. While walking the ruts of righteousness, with the steps of my boots and the striking of my staff, I rhythmically pound the earth and thank God:

Bills are piling up: Praise the Lord; I hate living in Texas: Praise the Lord; I'm as big as the NY Port Authority Building, thanks a whole bunch for that one God: Praise the Lord; The Muslims, the Christians and the Jews are killing each other again: Praise the Lord; (followed quickly by) The Peacemakers are among them: Praise the Lord; My kids are growing older and moving on with their lives without me: Praise the Lord; The diminishment of youth crushes my bones: Praise the Lord; I have Meniere's, FM, CFIDS, Thyroid Disease and RA -- Jesus, Mary and Joseph: Praise the Lord; Children were murdered in the Middle East, in a crowded theatre at midnight, by their nanny, 
by fucking cancer --Fuck you God: Praise the Lord.

Sometimes I walk my Walking Hymn with laughter, a beatific smile, dusty cheeks smeared by tears or a balled fist striking the air.

God doesn't cause our suffering but in becoming flesh, suffering is what we signed on for; it makes us human.  I acknowledge God's presence in the mess, muck, and catastrophes so I will remember it's not all good. If I pretend there is no darkness or if I manage to skirt around it, then I miss out on walking with the others who are in the valley, too. We are called to traverse these ruts together and while we carry each other's burdens, God carries us. 

Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil.  For Thou art is with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

God's Moments in Time

My 22 year old daughter, Blythe and 17 year old son, Atticus sometimes despise each other. Despite my best efforts they have fought, scratched, screamed and cursed over insignificant slights like who left the lid up on the toilet or who used up all the bandwidth on our crappy internet service. He believes she got most of the goodies and the attention from us because she was sick with cancer for much of her childhood; she believes he got off easy -- handsome, tall, athletic, smart and healthy --because he's never had to deal with illness or disability.

We moved her out to college last August and she has adjusted very well. For her first trip home, I wondered if old wounds had healed between them if only from the time apart.

Somewhat, I suppose.

The best moment of the Thanksgiving weekend was when the three of us engaged in a tickle fight while my husband watched from a safe distance. Atticus's arms are long and he easily pushed Blythe and me away so we couldn't reach the tickle spot under his armpit. Our hands reached and grasped but neither of us could make our mark until Blythe made a fake play for his ribs but tickled Atticus's neck instead.  He crumbled under our assault. The laughter rose to the rooftop. These moments in time make the challenge and sometimes horror of parenting all worth it. Rough turbulence becomes soft landings.

I imagine God feels the same way. Whenever we extend kindness, forgiveness, and redemption or when against all odds, we actually do God's will, then we become God's tender moments in time. Whether we are protesters in Tahrir Square, workers walking out of WalMart on Black Friday, gay people marching down Main Street, neighbors helping each other after Sandy or the millions of other seemingly small but significant tidal waves of goodness in this universe, we are the ones God has waited for.

This morning Blythe left to go back to college but not before Atticus got up from his opportunity to sleep in on a Sunday morning. Wrinkled jammies, hair sticking up and crusty-eyed, he got out of bed to hug his sister good-bye. Then he went right back to sleep. He was so out of it, I'm not even sure he'll remember. And this after last night's screaming match at 1am on who was making the most noise. These are the moments I live for.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Labor of Love

I spent the weekend at Mo-Ranch, a Presbyterian camp on the Guadalupe River near Kerrville, Texas. I watched hundreds of kids splashing in the water, playing tennis, tossing a football and promoting mayhem wherever they went. They were doing something my mother did not know too often in her childhood: Play.

She picked cotton from the time she was three until her father lost his sharecropping livelihood and the family moved to town. If she'd been an urban kid and born just twenty years before, she would have worked at any number of places -- sewing warehouses, factories, coal mines or mills. If she'd been a boy, she might have been a newsboy hawking papers along street corners.

Unions put an end to most of this outrage and gave our children a real childhood. On this Labor Day, send a prayer of thanks to all the workers, organizers and pickers who fought and died for a living wage, a 40 hour work week, and a childhood for our children. Say a prayer of thanksgiving for the unions of today who continue to protect these rights and organize for more such as adequate paid time off, meaningful family leave, and healthcare for all.  They endure being called communists, socialists, leeches and all because they fight for the working and middle class.  Enjoy the video. It features a kid going down the water slide at Mo-Ranch.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Be Foolish

The worst part about turning 50 and sending the oldest child off to college is that most of the current and future transitions of life will not be about "hellos" but "goodbyes." Maybe it's been that way all along, but before there was a balance. Now the scales tip toward endings instead of beginnings. Yes, I get it -- my life is starting a new chapter but what could possibly top giving birth, kissing the back of your kid's neck, singing silly songs, watching them play sports, taking them on vacation and most importantly, reliving the wonders of the earth, nature and the universe through their eyes. It's been a terrific ride, bringing up babies, but the future looks hazy through my misty eyes. As my sister said, "It maybe the best of life is over." And so what if it is.

We baby boomers are writing a new book and not just a chapter. Until the last century most folks died by their 50th birthday. "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in at this steady pace," so said the guy who died at 52. For only the third or fourth generation in history, humans will live the majority of their lives after their children grow up and leave home. How to spend the time?

The danger of aging is not staying relevant. It's a chore, but keep at it.  Read what the young write. Listen to their music. Hear their ideas as if their fresh; relish the fact there is nothing new under the sun, but smile knowing it is new to them. Change careers. Travel. Take risks. Exercise every day. Paint. Play piano. Learn a new language. Learn Welsh! Write poetry. Write bad poetry and I dare you to read it at an open mic night. Be Foolish.
We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human one.
Teilhard deChardin