Category Archives: relationships

The Ultimate Intimacy

Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person the two are almost indistinguishable.
(David Augsburger)

Reacting is not the same as responding.  Reacting just reflects our own preconceptions.  Responding involves letting new ideas into our hearts and minds to dance and even wrestle with our preconceptions.

Truly listening with an open heart and mind is the ultimate intimacy and offers us daily opportunities for dying to self.  (Eileen Norman)

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We See Through the Glass Darkly: We Need One Another

Human beings, even in the same families, are born with unbelievably different ways of being in the world. It seems like God really complicated life on earth by making us this diverse. Yet, the mystics of all the world’s religions insist that the spiritual reality is that we are all one.

And even the Apostle Paul tells Christians, that we, the person next to us in the pew, and presumably the Christians worshiping God across the street and around the corner, are the Body of Christ. Every single one of us is an indispensable part that needs all the other parts to function as Jesus Christ’s visible presence in the world today. When the smallest, least important part is ignored or neglected, the whole body suffers.

Some years ago, when reflecting on this scripture while preparing a sermon for a group of Directors of Christian Education from diverse denominations, a very disturbing image suddenly filled my mind. I saw a person with their arms flailing in different directions, their head twisting side to side, and their out of sync legs struggling to stumble forward even a little with each step.

I felt like I had been hit in the stomach as I grasped the reality that this is the Body of Christ now. I literally cried aloud, “God, what can I do?” And immediately into my mind came the answer, “Admit what you can’t do.”
Well, that took me several decades. 

But I have finally realized that neither I, nor any of us, can discern God’s will unless we recognize with Paul that we see through the glass darkly. No matter what our natural gifts or spiritual ministries are, we need to be humble enough to consider other visions, so we don’t block what the Spirit is saying to the Body of Christ at any particular moment in time. Our vision may be valid, but just not in God’s timing for a particular part of His motley crew of Christians.

And like Paul, I have finally come to see that the most important gift really is love. That no matter how wonderful our own gifts are, unless we do the work of God with hearts open to all, with gentleness, sensitivity, patience and above all, humility, we become a noisy clanging cymbal that cripples the Body of Christ and blocks our broken hurting world from hearing the love of God expressed in Jesus.

The Broken Body

Reflecting on the Body,
you the hand, I the foot,
Christ the head, perhaps the heart,
all at times the hidden part,
I let the Scriptures
flood my mind with images,
with suddenly one image,
a moving picture
so harshly real
I gasp aloud.
A person staggers
stumbles forward,
arms flailing, head jerking
back and forth in spasms,
body parts all pulling
different ways.
This then, reality,
Christ’s earthly body now.

God, forgive us.

The prayer of my heart:
“Jesus, I want so much to use the gifts God gave me and the gifts of your Spirit to bring your love to our broken world and hurting people. Give me both the courage to let God use me and the humility to accept God’s timing. But most of all teach me how to love humbly, so that I do not become a clanging gong or clashing cymbals blocking others from knowing your love.”

Living Only in the Present Moment: the Downside

A cautionary tale of our religious ancestors:
First we have Esau, an outdoors, physical kind of guy who lives in the present moment. And in this story he is so focused on his physical hunger in the moment that he’s oblivious to the long term consequences of his choice. Seriously, sell your whole future for the quick fix of a bowl of stew? (Jelly doughnuts maybe, but not stew.) Esau might have skipped lunch, but he isn’t starving. And then there is his twin brother, Jacob, a guy who not only thinks about the future, but wants the security of being number one so badly he robs the person closest to him of his birthright while he’s feeling weak. Obviously, there’s nothing new about dysfunctional families.
Like Esau and Jacob, we also have hungers that we justify as needs, because they dull the pain of being imperfect and vulnerable in a scary world.
I don’t know about you, but I’m often a bottomless pit of needs and wants.  Which makes me inclined to addictions, the need to control, and often being judgmental in my heart. And those are just the things I’m willing to tell you about.
But, thanks be, Jesus himself tells us that God’s love for all of us, not just for the goody two shoes, is like the tender love of a mother and father for their own tiny new baby. I’ve experienced that awesome unconditional love of God through Jesus. And though I believe the title ‘chosen’ leads to hubris and the word ‘saved’ can delude us that we are finished, I do know heart, mind, and soul without any doubt, that I (and all of you) are tenderly and totally loved by the God that created us.
Then why is life, even with its beauty, pleasures, love, and joy, so darn hard? Perhaps, the problem is that humanity is still childishly frozen in the terrible twos’ stage, where like Esau, we want what we want when we want it, no matter the consequences.
Whatever Jesus being one with God means, the human Jesus took on our frailty and struggled just as we do. Like us, he often learned the hard way by trial and error. Think of Mary and Joseph- frantic when their twelve year old stays behind in Jerusalem without telling them. Finally, only after his mom makes him realize how unkind that was, Jesus goes home and by obeying them, ‘grows in wisdom and goodness.’ He didn’t come into the world finished. At the wedding in Cana, we see the thirty year old Jesus reluctantly start his public ministry when he is again nagged by his mom to be kind. Later, the now amazing miracle working Jesus, not only gets totally exhausted, but sometimes is so overwhelmed by the huge crowds of needy people, that he tries to escape them. Then we hear him venting his frustration with his followers for always missing the point. And near the end, he gets so upset and angry that he calls his best friend Peter, ‘Satan,’ for tempting him to deny the suffering ahead. NOT kind! He even breaks down and weeps from the heartbreak of failing to reach his own people. This is a Jesus we can identify with. After first resisting what were then heretical challenges, he shocks everyone by allowing women, unbelievers, and even an enemy Roman to convince him to include everyone in his ministry to the ‘people of God’. That’s a BIGGIE.
But his most important example for us is that over and over, he needs one on one time with God. Because God is his number one source of wisdom, power, strength to persevere, and most of all – love. And he knows that the Spirit of God is within, so he goes to the mountain top to get away from the clamor of daily life so he can hear that quiet voice. If he needed that, how much more do we need to take that time to listen.
In the garden when he faces all that he must lose and suffer, in an absolute agony of fear, he sweats blood. He even begs God to spare him, but then his first-hand experience of God’s love frees him to trust God’s will. Still, at the very end, rejected and betrayed by his friends, he cries out in desperation when he feels like even God has abandoned him. But, even in the depths of that terrible loneliness, he chooses to commit his spirit to God.
Jesus living in the limits of humanity is able only because of His always deepening relationship with God to survive the failure of his best efforts, rejection by his own people, betrayal by those closest to him, and even death, all without becoming embittered or unforgiving. From the cross he prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Ultimately he shows us, that from a close relationship with God, all loss, even death, can become a doorway, not an ending. To me, without the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, life obviously not only doesn’t have a happy ending, but wouldn’t seem to have any lasting purpose, never-the-less a reason to keep on struggling to learn how to forgive and love unconditionally.

Grieving Life’s Diverse Losses

Today I am realizing that when our children or couples we love divorce, there’s a mourning period involved. Particularly with friends that we only knew when they were married. We have to mourn and let go of those we have loved in relationship. It has nothing to do with thinking they should or shouldn’t divorce. It just involves coming to grips with the differences.

With a child we knew and loved long before they married or divorced, we at least have something to look back to, but not with the spouse that we only knew as a unit with our child. They simply aren’t the same person now that we have only known. There really is a necessary time of mourning, particularly if we truly came to love them as part of that unit. And mourning involves the stages of grief…..denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

I think recognizing this can help us not bog down hopelessly at any point in the process. I am also beginning to reflect on the possibility that we have to go through a similar process when either people we love or we ourselves change because of aging or illness.
I realize now that I need to cut myself some slack and take time to reflect on the effects of this recent period in my life that includes my own losses of abilities and joys through age and illness, my husband experiencing losses from these also, one of our adult children and a spouse that I loved deeply as a couple for many years now being divorced, and friends that I have loved and only known as a couple divorcing.
The last year and a half have simply been overwhelming and I have been bogged down in emotional denial of some of these things and in anger over others.
Hopefully, recognizing this  and my need for grace will help me move through to the peace of acceptance.

Forgiveness, the Heart of Love and the Core of Christianity

In the Gospel of John, when the risen Jesus appears to the frightened disciples, he says something unexpected and amazing. He tells them, if they forgive anyone’s sins, they’re forgiven. But if they don’t, then they aren’t. This isn’t power, this is responsibility. Jesus has spent three years trying to make them understand that receiving forgiveness and forgiving others are inseparable. In his agony on the cross he prays, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” That prayer was not only for all those who played a part in his physical crucifixion that day, but for all of us who continue to crucify him in each other.
The humbling, often heartbreaking, recognition of the harm we have done to someone is designed to bring the life changing acceptance of God’s forgiveness that gives us the grace to forgive others. It’s all one spiritual process. Sometimes, our first clue to what we need to ask forgiveness for is what we cannot forgive in another.                                           And over and over the message is the same: forgiveness is the heart of love, the core of Christianity, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and it’s our commission. And there is no escape clause in the small print even about forgiving repeat offenders. Remember the seventy times seven?
In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says, Whenever you are praying, forgive if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. This isn’t just a whim of God. It’s a cause and effect that was designed into the human condition.                                                                                                                                   Listen closely. Jesus died so that we might be forgiven, but in order to accept forgiveness, we have to admit humbly and sorrowfully when we need it, so we can be freed by grace to pass forgiveness on. This is the key to the kingdom of heaven that Jesus gave us, because all fall short of the glory of God.

Note:  Forgiving a broken person does not mean allowing them to abuse you or anyone else.  God forgives them, but doesn’t remove consequences that can make them recognize the need to change.

Sources of Grace for Scary Times

This is a break from my series, because so many of us are struggling right now with fear and depression:

So, I am being redundant – again. (That’s a lot of redundancy.)

My two hands-down favorite authors of a spirituality rooted in Jesus, but not religion, are Henri Nouwen and Anne Lamott.

Henri Nouwen writes incredibly healing and understandable theology saturated with the love of God. He chose to spend the latter years of his life living in a community for the mentally handicapped. For an introduction and short overview of his writing, I recommend,” A Spirituality of Living.” Also another short book: Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, which changed some of my deeply rooted prejudices.  He was a Catholic priest, but wasn’t limited by it. 🙂

For our nitty-gritty stuggle to live a grace filled life, I don’t think there’s a better author than Anne Lamott. Anne’s spiritual journey has been through alcoholism, abortion, single motherhood, great losses, and a terrible bitterness toward her mother on to the freedom of self- honesty, the grace of humor, and an always growing acceptance of others. She finds this amazing grace from a personal relationship with a risen Jesus, who is still calling us, healing us, walking with us, forgiving us, and suffering for and with us. I think she belongs to a small Presbyterian church with a woman minister. Or it might be non-denominational or both. She’s definitely eclectic in her spirituality. She has written novels, but I much prefer her autobiographical books. She is the most personally honest writer I’ve ever read. Here are several of her books: Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Grace (Eventually). She also has a marvelous face-book page that will share to your own page her day to day struggles with discouragement over our current political situation.

I realize that we are all very different and these authors might not be everyone’s cup of tea. I am by personality focused on relationship, but not everyone is. These authors’ writings are what help sustain me in my journey by always reminding me of my greatest (though not, only) source of grace, the Love of God expressed in Jesus.

Law and Pleasure: Gifts from and Paths to God, but Not God.

The perceived conflict between body and spirit precedes Christianity and has alternately been absorbed and rejected by both Christian and non-Christian cultures over thousands of years. Generally, humanity goes from one extreme to the other by simply reacting, rather than responding, to excesses. This is a human evolutionary issue, not limited to Christianity. We just live in a society where reactionary Christians are the loudest right now.
Idols are subtle issues and vary between making an idol of the Law to making an idol of Pleasure by simply making one of them THE priority without taking into account the resulting human suffering this causes.
Both Law and Pleasure are gifts from God and both can be paths to God, but they are NOT God.
When we make Law into a God without any allowance for preventing brutality to other human beings, we defeat the purpose of law. Law is simply the beginning stage of logic and love. To live together humanely, we need laws. The minimum of loving others is to not kill, rob or use them for our own purposes.
As those humans inclined to consider future possibilities have evolved, they have challenged the rest of humanity to value not only pleasure and propagation, but relationships between humans: from mates, to parents and children, to families, to tribes, to nations, to hemispheres, to the world, to the natural world, and now, the universe. Humanity, however, does not mature easily or smoothly, but progresses in extreme zig-zags between ideal goals and present practical realities. Unfortunately, there are seldom any serious attempts to balance or blend the two.
Our concept of love has evolved from don’t kill or rob each other, to love others as you love yourself, and hopefully, we are finally beginning to recognize that when Jesus gave his life for us, he was both illustrating and calling us to whole new level of love. “Love one another as I have loved you.”
This brings us to the challenge to integrate body and spirit. Limiting ourselves to body ends up in hedonism, making pleasure an idol. Limiting ourselves to spirit ends up in an unrealistic asceticism that makes law an idol. Recognizing that we separate body and spirit at our own peril, we can find that when blended they both become paths to God/Love. Being loved by a human being is our appetizer, our small taste of the Spirit of Love that is God. Only when we integrate the two, do we avoid the pitfalls of the idols of hedonism and asceticism and even begin to want to learn to love one another as God loves us.

Hoge Poge and My Brother’s Birthday

I promise you I have been off any pain meds except Tylenol for over two weeks. Pain medicine makes my coffee taste terrible for a couple of months after I quit taking it and I am definitely addicted to my coffee.  But, as usual for someone who loves thinking about theories or possibilities instead of paying attention to the actual world around her, peculiarities still happen. I got to a doctors appointment recently and as they were taking my blood pressure, I realized I had my blouse on inside out. Of course, me being me, I didn’t keep quiet and just take the first chance alone to right it. The two nurses swore they hadn’t noticed. Which worried me a bit, because I like my medical people to stay aware of the real world in front of them, particularly when I am it.

Then a few nights ago when I was still wearing my back brace at night, I awoke to make one of my usual trips to check out the plumbing, but couldn’t get up because I was unable to move my arms. Luckily before I panicked, my attempts to free my arms made that noise peculiar to Velcro being tugged loose. It happens that the two wrist braces I wear at night for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome have Velcro similar to that on the back brace. Somehow, I had Velcroed my arms to my body. I woke my husband up with my laughter, but managed to get loose without help.

Strange things also come to memory when I have way too much time on my hands while recuperating from back surgery.
Today is my brother’s birthday. He’s my only sibling and ten years younger than I am. I was trying to remember anything about the day he was born, but couldn’t. I don’t know if I just wasn’t sufficiently impressed with that event or perhaps I was significantly depressed and blotted it out. Because I do remember riding the train with my very pregnant mom back to St. Louis when my Dad got a job there after being in the army. She was very uncomfortable in the old Pullman berth and needed my pillow. I think that was my first clue that this wasn’t going to be like getting a kitten.
I remember living on the seventh floor without air conditioning and only having screens on the windows. And when my brother was about eighteen months old I found him sitting on the window sill in the bedroom with his face pressed against the flimsy screen. I didn’t scream or grab for him, but I did get mom.  Then we had to live with those child gates on all the windows. Kind of like a kiddie prison decor.

He had natural talent in art and music, but as the “late” child never got lessons. Where as, my nun piano teacher after three or four years suggested they try me on the drum instead. Life is not fair, is it? But when he was twelve and I had married and moved to Tennessee, I sent money for him to go to the Fine Arts Museum for Art Lessons. Unfortunately, I think my mother quit driving him to them, when she found out they were doing life painting of nudes. Oh, well, at least I tried.

I have wonderful memories of the many years he came to visit us in our hundred acre, Winnie the Pooh wood.  We two city kids, that had lived seven floors up, thought we’d died and gone to heaven. He enjoyed the country even more than I did, being willing one summer to haul water in buckets up to our garden during a drought. I would have just waved good bye to those tomatoes from the house.  I fell in  love with all the weeds and rocks and spent years making crafts with them. And he would bring an empty suitcase to take back full of rocks and fossils from our creek.  He taught a class in geology in Houston which only had sand and shells.

He and I would talk until sun-up about everything from politics and religion to physics and geology. He had so much passion about everything, I loved every moment. When he was teaching in a huge high school in a very impoverished neighborhood, he was constantly at war with the administration, who seemed only interested in their own survival, not the kids welfare. I know he was a good teacher, because when he retired, the adversarial principal told him grudgingly that no matter what they asked his students, (one of whom had held a knife to my brother’s throat once), they would never “rat” him out!

So, happy birthday to my “BRO” who all my friends think is much funnier than I am. He needs to be the writer in the family, but since retirement, he has opted to fight nature and turn a flood plain into a botanical garden.  Not too different from teaching .

Giving the Devil His Due: Senator Alexander’s Response to My Letter on Same Sex Marriage

A Mother’s Plea to Not Reinforce Prejudice and Precipitate Violence

My Letter to our National and State Congressmen and to the Editor of the Tennessean and our Senator Lamar Alexander’s letter in response.

1. Freedom for and from religion are the same thing. We need to protect that freedom.

2. Homosexuality is not a choice. My great-great aunt became a pediatrician and established a clinic for the poor in the early 1900’s. She lived with the same woman all her life. My brother has been in a twenty-five year monogamous relationship with another man. My son and his partner of seventeen years teach children born HIV positive in South East Asia. Legal recognition of same gender commitment relationships is crucial on many levels, from health insurance to the same degree of acceptance and safety from persecution that heterosexuals have. A return to legal reinforcement of prejudice could very well precipitate violence.
3. I want all people to experience the unconditional love of God expressed in Jesus, so He can become their Lord. History shows that making people pretend Christians by law, violence, judgment, or discrimination does not accomplish that. If we could make and enforce secular laws against making pleasure a God, many heterosexual people would be in legal trouble. The purpose of marriage is a committed relationship, not just pleasure. Let’s support that.
4. Married to the same man for fifty-eight years, I have come to believe marriage is designed not to just populate the world, but to challenge and enable us to really know and love another imperfect (not abusive) person. Let’s not limit anyone by law to deceit in order to experience that.

Alexander’s Response possibly indicates he may have actually read my letter.

Dear Eileen,
Thank you for getting in touch with me and letting me know what’s on your mind regarding the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage.

I believe that the states, not the courts, should be responsible for deciding how to define marriage. However, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruing is now the law of the land. Congress will have to carefully consider the effect of this ruling on religious liberty and religious institutions.

I’m grateful you took the time to let me know what is on your mind regarding same-sex marriage and I’ll be sure to keep your comments in mind as this issue is discussed and debated in Washington and in Tennessee.,

Sincerely,

Lamar Alexander

Maybe he read my letter and this response is his and not an aide’s. It’s the only response I’ve gotten from Senators or Representatives at state or federal level that even slightly sounded like someone actually was responding to what I said. It encourages me to continue writing on other issues also.

I have been calling, emailing, and writing letters and post cards. The responses to my emails didn’t make sense. The calls were answered
by interns politely and were hopefully at least counted. Letters get slower responses because of security checks, but they may be what actually gets read. I plan on keeping on doing all of the above.