Category Archives: Paradox
I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.
My seven-year-old grandson sleeps just down the hall from me, and he wakes up a lot of mornings and he says, “You know, this could be the best day ever.” And other times, in the middle of the night, he calls out in a tremulous voice, “Nana, will you ever get sick and die?”
I think this pretty much says it for me and for most of the people I know, that we’re a mixed grill of happy anticipation and dread. So I sat down a few days before my 61st birthday,and I decided to compile a list of everything I know for sure. There’s so little truth in the popular culture, and it’s good to be sure of a few things.
For instance, I am no longer 47, although this is the age I feel, and the age I like to think of myself as being. My friend Paul used to say in his late 70s that he felt like a young man with something really wrong with him.
Our true person is outside of time and space, but looking at the paperwork, I can, in fact, see that I was born in 1954. My inside self is outside of time and space. It doesn’t have an age. I’m every age I’ve ever been, and so are you, although I can’t help mentioning as an aside that it might have been helpful if I hadn’t followed the skin care rules of the ’60s, which involved getting as much sun as possible while slathered in baby oil and basking in the glow of a tinfoil reflector shield.
It was so liberating, though, to face the truth that I was no longer in the last throes of middle age, that I decided to write down every single true thing I know. People feel really doomed and overwhelmed these days, and they keep asking me what’s true. So I hope that my list of things I’m almost positive about might offer some basic operating instructions to anyone who is feeling really overwhelmed or beleaguered.
Number one: the first and truest thing is that all truth is a paradox. Life is both a precious, unfathomably beautiful gift, and it’s impossible here, on the incarnational side of things. It’s been a very bad match for those of us who were born extremely sensitive.It’s so hard and weird that we sometimes wonder if we’re being punked. It’s filled simultaneously with heartbreaking sweetness and beauty, desperate poverty, floods and babies and acne and Mozart, all swirled together. I don’t think it’s an ideal system.
Number two: almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes — including you.
Three: there is almost nothing outside of you that will help in any kind of lasting way,unless you’re waiting for an organ. You can’t buy, achieve or date serenity and peace of mind. This is the most horrible truth, and I so resent it. But it’s an inside job, and we can’t arrange peace or lasting improvement for the people we love most in the world.They have to find their own ways, their own answers. You can’t run alongside your grown children with sunscreen and ChapStick on their hero’s journey. You have to release them.It’s disrespectful not to. And if it’s someone else’s problem, you probably don’t have the answer, anyway.
Our help is usually not very helpful. Our help is often toxic. And help is the sunny side of control. Stop helping so much. Don’t get your help and goodness all over everybody.
This brings us to number four: everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy and scared, even the people who seem to have it most together. They are much more like you than you would believe, so try not to compare your insides to other people’s outsides. It will only make you worse than you already are.
Also, you can’t save, fix or rescue any of them or get anyone sober. What helped me get clean and sober 30 years ago was the catastrophe of my behavior and thinking. So I asked some sober friends for help, and I turned to a higher power. One acronym for God is the “gift of desperation,” G-O-D, or as a sober friend put it, by the end I was deteriorating faster than I could lower my standards.
So God might mean, in this case, “me running out of any more good ideas.”
While fixing and saving and trying to rescue is futile, radical self-care is quantum, and it radiates out from you into the atmosphere like a little fresh air. It’s a huge gift to the world. When people respond by saying, “Well, isn’t she full of herself,” just smile obliquely like Mona Lisa and make both of you a nice cup of tea. Being full of affection for one’s goofy, self-centered, cranky, annoying self is home. It’s where world peace begins.
Number five: chocolate with 75 percent cacao is not actually a food.
Its best use is as a bait in snake traps or to balance the legs of wobbly chairs. It was never meant to be considered an edible.
Number six —
writing. Every writer you know writes really terrible first drafts, but they keep their butt in the chair. That’s the secret of life. That’s probably the main difference between you and them. They just do it. They do it by prearrangement with themselves. They do it as a debt of honor. They tell stories that come through them one day at a time, little by little.When my older brother was in fourth grade, he had a term paper on birds due the next day, and he hadn’t started. So my dad sat down with him with an Audubon book, paper, pencils and brads — for those of you who have gotten a little less young and remember brads — and he said to my brother, “Just take it bird by bird, buddy. Just read about pelicans and then write about pelicans in your own voice. And then find out about chickadees, and tell us about them in your own voice. And then geese.”
So the two most important things about writing are: bird by bird and really god-awful first drafts. If you don’t know where to start, remember that every single thing that happened to you is yours, and you get to tell it. If people wanted you to write more warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.
You’re going to feel like hell if you wake up someday and you never wrote the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves of your heart: your stories, memories, visions and songs — your truth, your version of things — in your own voice. That’s really all you have to offer us,and that’s also why you were born.
Seven: publication and temporary creative successes are something you have to recover from. They kill as many people as not. They will hurt, damage and change you in ways you cannot imagine. The most degraded and evil people I’ve ever known are male writers who’ve had huge best sellers. And yet, returning to number one, that all truth is paradox, it’s also a miracle to get your work published, to get your stories read and heard. Just try to bust yourself gently of the fantasy that publication will heal you, that it will fill the Swiss-cheesy holes inside of you. It can’t. It won’t. But writing can. So can singing in a choir or a bluegrass band. So can painting community murals or birding or fostering old dogs that no one else will.
Number eight: families. Families are hard, hard, hard, no matter how cherished and astonishing they may also be. Again, see number one.
At family gatherings where you suddenly feel homicidal or suicidal –remember that in all cases, it’s a miracle that any of us, specifically, were conceived and born. Earth is forgiveness school. It begins with forgiving yourself, and then you might as well start at the dinner table. That way, you can do this work in comfortable pants.
When William Blake said that we are here to learn to endure the beams of love, he knew that your family would be an intimate part of this, even as you want to run screaming for your cute little life. But I promise you are up to it. You can do it, Cinderella, you can do it,and you will be amazed.
Nine: food. Try to do a little better. I think you know what I mean.
Number 10 –grace. Grace is spiritual WD-40, or water wings. The mystery of grace is that God loves Henry Kissinger and Vladimir Putin and me exactly as much as He or She loves your new grandchild. Go figure.
The movement of grace is what changes us, heals us and heals our world. To summon grace, say, “Help,” and then buckle up. Grace finds you exactly where you are, but it doesn’t leave you where it found you. And grace won’t look like Casper the Friendly Ghost, regrettably. But the phone will ring or the mail will come and then against all odds, you’ll get your sense of humor about yourself back. Laughter really is carbonated holiness. It helps us breathe again and again and gives us back to ourselves, and this gives us faith in life and each other. And remember — grace always bats last.
Eleven: God just means goodness. It’s really not all that scary. It means the divine or a loving, animating intelligence, or, as we learned from the great “Deteriorata,” “the cosmic muffin.” A good name for God is: “Not me.” Emerson said that the happiest person on Earth is the one who learns from nature the lessons of worship. So go outside a lot and look up. My pastor said you can trap bees on the bottom of mason jars without lidsbecause they don’t look up, so they just walk around bitterly bumping into the glass walls. Go outside. Look up. Secret of life.
And finally: death. Number 12. Wow and yikes. It’s so hard to bear when the few people you cannot live without die. You’ll never get over these losses, and no matter what the culture says, you’re not supposed to. We Christians like to think of death as a major change of address, but in any case, the person will live again fully in your heart if you don’t seal it off. Like Leonard Cohen said, “There are cracks in everything, and that’s how the light gets in.” And that’s how we feel our people again fully alive.
Also, the people will make you laugh out loud at the most inconvenient times, and that’s the great good news. But their absence will also be a lifelong nightmare of homesickness for you. Grief and friends, time and tears will heal you to some extent. Tears will bathe and baptize and hydrate and moisturize you and the ground on which you walk.
Do you know the first thing that God says to Moses? He says, “Take off your shoes.”Because this is holy ground, all evidence to the contrary. It’s hard to believe, but it’s the truest thing I know. When you’re a little bit older, like my tiny personal self, you realize that death is as sacred as birth. And don’t worry — get on with your life. Almost every single death is easy and gentle with the very best people surrounding you for as long as you need. You won’t be alone. They’ll help you cross over to whatever awaits us. As Ram Dass said, “When all is said and done, we’re really just all walking each other home.”
I think that’s it, but if I think of anything else, I’ll let you know.
The most important thing I have learned in the fifty-two years since I experienced the unconditional Love of God through Jesus. Every miracle I’ve experienced came as a response to suffering. Every healing insight I’ve had came out of suffering. Every experience of forgiveness came out of suffering. Every increase in strength came out of suffering. Every increase in faith came out of suffering. Every freedom to love more came out of suffering. Every recognition of the power of Grace came out of suffering. No matter how much I resist this truth emotionally, I cannot deny its reality. Jesus certainly fleshes this out. I glimpsed this truth many many years ago as seen in this poem I wrote in my early forties. Even now, accepting it doesn’t take the pain out of the process, though it does seem to shorten it.
I hunger to be born again,
to take my hurts and failures
and mulch them into new beginnings,
to turn them into fertile fields
of understanding and compassion.
To experience again the greening out
of the frozen landscapes in my life
and gain a rich new Spring perspective
that builds on leaves and logs of yesteryear
to bring forth the ripe good fruit of love.
Loneliness does not come from having no people around you. It comes from not being able to communicate what seems important to you. Carl Jung
Been reading our Sunday School lesson about some differences of opinion between the famous preacher and composer of hymns, Harry Emerson Fosdick and the theologians Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. Two of their issues still speak to our condition: Grace vs. Accountability and God as a best friend vs. a transcendent Glorious, Almighty and Powerful God.
To nobody me, the unconditional love of God does not preclude consequences to our choices. Those are more or less built into the nature of things and are how we learn from our bad choices. So we are loved at our worst, but are unfinished at our best. And the way we grow more loving is from a combination of learning from unpleasant consequences and being able to change through the grace of unconditional love. It’s not either/or. It’s a paradox. And after a while we should learn to avoid those bad choices. (Some of us are slow learners.)
When I got to know Jesus not only as my Savior, but as a friend, I was still Catholic. The liberal priest had changed the golden tabernacle to one of simple wood and moved it from the main altar to a simple table where we walked close to it. I was so full of love for Jesus then that I thought of the “Presence” in the tabernacle as the “Body of Christ” and I would gently and tenderly pat the top of it as I went by. The next priest was an old fashioned conservative and he moved the Host back into the golden tabernacle and put it on the central altar and expected people to genuflect when they were going to walk anywhere in front of it. I wasn’t into the genuflecting bit, but I recognized how much it expressed many people’s adoration of God. The next priest was another liberal and without telling me, he added a Directive to the list of parishioners that were Welcomers and Scripture Readers for each Mass that I created for each month without adding his name to it. It was a Directive to NOT genuflect. So many people got mad at me. And I was mad at the priest because I didn’t see why genuflecting, if it expressed their love of God, couldn’t be allowed, so the next time I was a Reader and had to walk across in front of the Tabernacle, out of sheer perversity, I genuflected. When I did, I was suddenly completely overwhelmed by the awesomeness and glory of God. I didn’t want to get up from my knees. Once again it is a paradox. Jesus is the physical human expression of the Love of God. God is Love. But God is so much more than our tiny brains and hearts can grasp, in the times when we get glimpses of God’s awesomeness, glory, power, brilliance, and love all we can do is kneel and bow in awe and joy.
It seems to me that Christians, and I guess all humans, spend centuries arguing, even warring over, things that are both true. Somehow we don’t know how to educate humanity to understand paradox.
Focus on mainly one aspect of Christianity: Unbalanced Scriptural Interpretation, A Hierarchy that comes between God and humanity, Over emphasis on either this life or the next, ALL lead to idol worship.
Fundamentalist Christians have to struggle not to make an idol of scripture. Jesus is the Word of God. Scripture is vitally important, because scripture introduces us to Jesus. Jesus speaks to where individuals are and calls each to growth now, just as He did the people in the scriptures. He wasn’t adding more rules. The Jews had plenty of them. Our call is to an ongoing, deepening relationship with a living Savior who continues to show us the way of love that changes us. Though scriptures may be like letters from God about Jesus, they are not God, and He is not limited to them. And Jesus himself, was sent to awaken us to God’s Spirit within us and all around us.
Catholics have to struggle to not make an idol of the hierarchy of the church. Again, Jesus is the Word of God to each of us. The spirit of God grows in us through a personal relationship with Jesus. The church can be a rich place of nurture with its tradition of spirituality, but ultimately we are personally accountable for growing in our relationship to God through Jesus, the Way of love. The Church may be our mother, but it is not God, and God is not limited to it.
Liberal Protestants tend to idolize ideals for our physical world and this life. Which once again, are good things, and part of our call to stewardship and love, but are not God or our ultimate reason for being, because physical life is not all there is, either now or forever. That’s what the resurrection was about. Humbling though it may be, it is not just about our intellectual ideals for this life. It’s about recognizing our incompleteness and accepting the call to a growing relationship with God through the human expression of both His love and the spirituality that He is calling us to, Jesus.
The Scriptures and the commandments; the church and its traditions of spirituality; caring for the physical well being of others and our world, are all good and absolutely vital parts of Christianity, but none of them is God. None of them are a substitute for a personal relationship with God, which for Christians is given life and nurtured by our relationship with Jesus who is the love of God fleshed out for all.
Out of that relationship can flow a love for scripture, a love for the spirituality and community of the church, a love for all creation and all humanity and a valuing of all of these and appreciation for those whom God has given gifts in each area. It is not any one or two of these. It is the balance found when we value all equally. There is one God, expressing Love in Jesus, and empowering us to grow and minister to others by the gifts of the Spirit within each of us.
We are all children of God, but we are born with different personalities that have different gifts and ways of both seeing and being, so we need each other. When we only value one aspect of the kingdom of God, the one that is easiest for us, we have turned a good thing into an idol. Our inability to value and incorporate others’ focus and understanding, has led us to a church on every corner claiming to have a monopoly on truth, all of the truth and nothing but the truth, which pretty much is a claim to being equal to God.
Jesus, Himself, was sent to lead us to God, not just to Himself. His love, laying down his life for us, is the Way to God. He was taken away, so that we too would be filled with and led by God’s Spirit. And God’s Spirit is love, love for all His creation and all His creatures. And the world will know that we are His by our growth in love, love that will free us to lay down our life with its hubris of believing we have a monopoly on truth.
Anything else is an idol.
One midnight in pristine newly fallen snow, I walked alone into a field on a hill where billions of stars gave light to the night. The silence was so profound, I could feel it like a soft comforter around me. As I gazed into an endless sky of light, I felt myself shrinking, almost disappearing into the vastness of the universe. Then suddenly, my boundaries disappeared and I was one with it all. I was inseparable from every star, every person, creature and mysterious molecule in that vastness. And I could no longer see anyone or anything as “other.”
The first thing you should know about me is that I am not you. A lot more will make sense after that. (Melissa Skidmore)
A scripture that has echoed through my mind over the years is the one about getting the log out of our own eyes, instead of judging others. The problem with that is that the log in our eyes keeps us from seeing ourselves. We ALL have blind spots when it comes to seeing our whole selves.
Years ago I began to work with a personality indicator called the Myers/Briggs Type Indicator ( MBTI.) It was spooky to take it and then read the description of my way of being in the world. How could anyone know those things!!
The MBTI helped me become more aware not only that we come into the world with very different ways of being, seeing, understanding, valuing and responding, but that the world needs all of these diverse ways of being. It also needs us to become aware not only of our gifts, but of our blind spots. That’s the only way every ones’ gifts can be valued and work together for good.
The MBTI years ago when I studied and taught it, focused on affirming our gifts. So kind of naturally many of us just focused with relief on our own gifts, not realizing the importance of “gifts differing.” And not using the knowledge to rid ourselves of our blind spots. Belatedly, I recognized that there’s a built in pattern of growth in us where we become more receptive to the gifts we did not have and usually did not value equally to our own natural ones.
There’s a catch to this. To develop in the area opposite to our strongest gift or way of being in the world requires dying temporarily to our own way of being and seeing. It’s a dying to self. Technically, the MBTI doesn’t make any religious claims or statements. But believe me, this dying to our most valued gift is a real part of becoming whole, of becoming the best person we have the potential to be.
Unfortunately, dying to our “selves” is never easy or comfortable. By my age, I have seen creative people bog down in misery when their gifts seem to have dried up. I have myself panicked during a time when the Scriptures no longer spoke to me. I have heard others panic when ritual or their life long way of praying no longer works for them. But, I have also seen accountants become “creative” in good ways, artists learn to keep accounts, and engineers open their eyes and hearts to the mystical.
What I have witnessed and experienced convinces me that the universe is designed for opportunities and challenges to come our way at a time in our life when we are called to die to our strongest gift and become not only more balanced and whole, but more humble, and thus more understanding of those “others” that we have judged harshly most of our life.
What I found through sixty years of living with a man who was totally different in every area of being from me, is that only by becoming free to understand and value opposite ways of seeing and being in the world do we become free to truly and humbly love.
Recently I discovered that in the twenty years since I worked with it, the MBTI has been further developed in ways that help this process. It begins by helping us become aware of and accepting of our way of being in the world. Then, it can also help us accept not only that our way is a gift to the world, but that it isn’t enough. We then can begin to see how this dying to self can free us to become whole or “holy” and better able to understand and truly value both ourselves and those who are very different from us. It isn’t either/or. And no way is better, because no way is whole without the others.
Many years ago I was taking a turn preaching to a sizable group of Directors of Religious Education from very diverse denominations at a training week for DRE’s. I was going to use Paul’s scriptures on the Body of Christ and how all of the parts were equally important. As I was reflecting on this scripture, suddenly in my mind’s eye I saw a figure coming toward me. It was coming very slowly and jerkily, because the legs were clumsily, tripping over each other and the arms were flying in different directions and the head twisting back and forth. My immediate response was horror. “This is what we have done to the Body of Christ!” And I cried out, “Lord, what can I do?” And into my mind, clear as a warning bell I heard, “Admit what you can’t do.” As I have grappled with many aspects of this challenge over the years, two things have become clear to me, One: The world needs all of us, different political thinking, different religious understandings, different cultures’ values, gender traits, racial strengths, talents, skills, on and on and on. And Two: Only the grace of each of us truly knowing ourselves and knowing with heart and mind that we are loved as we are by God, can we become humble enough to love those very different others, just as we are loved. And that is the only way we can ever live in peace. We need all of us.
The MBTI isn’t gospel. But it can be an amazingly helpful tool for knowing ourselves better, and coming to value ourselves in a way that allows us to equally value others who seem completely different from us.
There’s a site on line called “16personalities.com” that offers greater understanding of the going with the flow of letting go and developing in new areas until the day we die. I am finding it both challenging and helpful in learning to let scary changes open my eyes to opportunities in my new life at eighty-two as a widow.