Pressing On

This blog is awesome, because it’s not theory, it’s the reality of what a difference faith makes.

Unshakable Hope

Happy New Year!

Yeah, I know I’m late, but I have an excuse.

I spent the last ten days battling a respiratory infection. For someone who lives with only thirty percent of his lungs functioning on a good day, pneumonia and respiratory infections are, putting it lightly, really bad. So, I don’t care what the date on the calendar is, I’m declaring that today is the first day of my year. Those of you who have already broken your New Year resolutions might want to join me in this do-over.

It may be a weird coincidence, but two years ago I spent the first week of the year in the hospital battling a respiratory infection. If you want excitement on New Year’s Eve, just go sit in the ER at a nearby hospital.

As many of you know, I almost lost a battle with pneumonia three months ago. During that…

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New Year’s Day classic: Great moments in marriage — bluebird of bitterness

Herb had too much to drink at the office New Year’s party, and when he woke up the next morning his head felt ready to explode. He could recall almost nothing of the previous night, and he dreaded the thought of facing his wife, who he suspected would have a few choice words for him. But when he opened his […]

via New Year’s Day classic: Great moments in marriage — bluebird of bitterness

What the Heck is Grace?

Repentance is now considered a negative word. It implies sin, guilt and shame to the modern mind. Yet, the truth of the biblical quote, “All fall short of the glory of God” (which is perfect love) is pretty obvious.

The problem seems to me that somewhere along the way, we decided that seven was old enough to recognize right from wrong and twenty-one was old enough to take responsibility for our choices.  End of story.  The reality that we not only can grow in our understanding of and capability to love ( of morality), but were designed to do this at least to the day we die, got lost in the shuffle between Adam and Eve and their apple of damnation and Jesus Christ and the cross of salvation.

What if we use the word “unfinished” to describe our falling short?  What if we use the word “growth” for the change implied by the word “repentance.”  And then recognize that grace is simply “unconditional love ” in many different guises. And that is the fertilizer, the good soil, that enables growth and change.

Important note:  Love does not protect us from the pain of natural consequences from our imperfect human choices.  But love/grace stays with us through the whole learning process and has the power to free us to change when we recognize our need for it.

What percentage of the world’s population experiences perfect love from birth to seven?  More, probably, than between seven and twenty-one. But where in the world do children experience only that kind of love?  In an imperfect world of disease, hunger, greed, war, and TV is it even possible to protect children from knowledge of the fear, pain, and hunger in the world?

Even in a loving family, in affluent circumstances, traumas can still happen at critical stages of a child’s development.  I knew a family who had several children and when the youngest  was a toddler, the mother stayed with the oldest who had to be in the hospital for a week. After they returned, the youngest would have a panic attack if the mother even went out the front door and could no longer go to sleep except in bed with the parents.  Up until a certain age, a child experiences “out of sight” as “gone forever.”   By school age, the child seemed to outgrow the fears, but years later, in retrospect, the mother recognized that a profound fear of abandonment has been a strong influence even into adulthood.

We probably all experience the crippling effects of forgotten, even innocently caused traumas, unaware of how they influence our responses and choices in adulthood.  The key to freedom is recognizing them, feeling sorrow for how they have wounded us and caused us to misuse others, and then by taking responsibility for seeking healing.  Recognition is the beginning of the process.  Sometimes awareness alone can free us to break a pattern of response.  Other times, it takes time and we can only replace the destructive response with a less harmful one, during the process.

We are terribly vulnerable human beings in a scary and confusing world in a humongous unknown universe.  Both, addictions to pleasures and to behaviors that give us the delusion that we are in control, dull the pain of awareness of our human vulnerability.   I personally am not into housekeeping.  Dust reappears the next day; no feeling of control there.  But sorting and organizing lasts a lot longer and is much more satisfying. But sorry you will be, if you come along and disturb my order.  And when dealing with painful realities in the middle of the night, but too tired to organize anything, I’ve been known to stand at the kitchen counter and eat half of a peach pie.  These are not terribly destructive painkillers, unless I use them to indefinitely avoid looking at what is the  root of my particular pain at that time.

I’ve never known anyone that thought this life is heaven.  Though there have been times I thought it might be hell.  I am definitely no longer a Pollyanna, who saw only the good, because I felt too fragile to deal with the pain of life.  Nor am I my midlife self that became a cynic, who expected and tried to prepare for the worst.  With grace, I’ve become able to see both in each day; to experience the deep sorrow of loss and the joy of beauty all around me at almost anytime.

When we believe we are loved at our worst and still unfinished at our best,  most days we are able to try to be open to how our lives are challenging us to grow. Sometimes, like Peter Pan, my theme song is “I Won’t Grow Up!”  But then I remember that life does not give up challenging us, which means I’m just dragging out the process.

We are all a work in progress.  Awareness is the key to progress. And that comes in different ways: discomfort within,  overloaded responses to people and events, even just something we seem to suddenly read or hear all around us.  We will be able to perceive the cues in different ways through different stages of our own life.   When I got brave enough to make the leap from agnosticism to faith in grace, I could suddenly make sense of the scripture in spite of all its anomalies.  But I met many life long Christians that admitted sadly that they did not really find meaning there.  Then later in life, they suddenly found great joy in it.  I had loved the Scripture from my early thirties, but during my fifties and sixties it simply became like reading the back of cereal boxes.  We all go through stages, but they differ in timing because of our various personalities. So, don’t assume because you have never enjoyed or understood something, that you never will.  Like it or not, we grow and change with both losses and gains during the process.

All of this can be seen as psychological or spiritual or both.  Mostly, it’s just the way life is, but how we perceive it can make a huge difference in becoming the people in process that we were created to be.

 

 

Humans: Small Unique Irregular Pieces in a Large Perfect Puzzle

Obviously, we don’t become perfect in this life. I know a lot of dead people and many of them were very altruistic, but none of them were perfect.
Even if you believe in reincarnation, I don’t know anyone alive claiming they’ve reached the ultimate in human possibility.
Christians generally believe they are called to become like Jesus, though accepting His saving grace is the ticket to heaven, not reaching perfection.
Catholic Christians used to see life as unfinished on earth for most of us, leaving us dependent on those left behind to pray us the rest of the way. I think that may be being reevaluated these days.                                                                                                  I don’t have a theology that would make sense to everyone, but personally, I think we are all dealt a different hand, so the finished product won’t be the same. Only God will know if we’ve done the best we can with what we have.                                                        And in my own life discovering Jesus as not only a model, but a source of grace for growth made a difference in my persevering in playing the hand I was dealt.                                                        As to reincarnation, maybe I just don’t want to go around and around again, but somehow I think the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And that means I just have to become the best imperfect me, that I was created to be. Like a jigsaw puzzle, I just have to fit a particular small space to become part of the perfect whole. It’s about growing into the unique, irregular shape to fill my designated space, which won’t require me to be anyone else’s idea of perfect.                                                                                  And all of life, the good, bad, easy, and difficult shape me. Again personally, without Jesus fleshing out the unconditional love of the Creator, I think both some of the blows that life has dealt me and some of the mistakes I’ve made would have shattered me beyond repair. So, for me Jesus is my source, my way, my Savior.  But also, many things that are true and good in non-Christian religions have been used by God to affirm my faith and clarify my vision of God’s plan for my life.                                                         And actually, the mystics of all the world’s major religions say the same thing.  That we are all parts of a greater reality.  We literally are all one.  So, what we do to anyone, we do to Jesus and the whole puzzle, which includes ourselves and everyone else.  Can’t you just picture yourself making it out of this life and finally “getting the whole picture.” I can just see me slapping the side of my head and shouting,”WHAT WAS I THINKING?!!”

Silence: Loneliness or Presence?

It’s weird to recognize that there’s a difference in the sound of silence from when my very quiet husband used to be working in his office in our apartment. He was so quiet, I often had to stop and try to remember if he had gone somewhere or was there to ask him something. Even living in an apartment where I can often hear neighbors, traffic in the parking area in front, and birdsong from the woods in the back, sometimes I suddenly realize that it is so still I can hear my breathing if I listen. I used to feel a sense of peace when I realized that. Now it feels heavy with loneliness and I want to turn on some music or go on face book to connect with other people. I have begun to listen to the sounds more closely though and respond to them more than before. There’s a train that passes near enough to hear and I now stop to listen to it. It sounds sad at first, but then it triggers memories of travel in Europe and evokes all sorts of pictures, sounds and even smells. As always, a downside and an upside. Even now that I am often stunned by the reality of my loss, the sound of a small child’s laughter is a fountain of joy.  I think eventually the heavy silence will come to feel like a comforter and help me focus on illusive intuitions I am now missing. I have always responded to the silence of a new snow in the woods with a vibrant sense of the presence of God.  It really seems like an Advent experience, now that I think about it.  Waiting for the silence of the presence of God.  I think there must have been that predawn moment of silence as Jesus was being born that erupted into angel choirs with the coming of the Son.  Let’s wait for it, our hearts filled with longing and hope.

The Prayers of Our Lives

It is a prayer of faith when someone struggling with depression continues to face each painful day by clinging to God even in their desert night.
The act of hope of parents who lose children and risk loving again is prayer given flesh.
The breadwinner who quietly quits their job rather than go along with corruption is a light on the path to the Kingdom of God.
Couples that struggle to forgive and rebuild relationships that have crumbled under human failure are living prayers of love.
The many sitting vigils at the foot of a suffering loved one write bright prayers across a winter sky of faith that does not have to see.
And when a rough hewn, weary farmer speaks softly of a moment when twilight mists in freshly mown fields fill his heart with awe, I see that, for that moment, creation and creator have become as one.
Perhaps the purest prayer of all is when an autumn breeze swirls golden leaves like sudden showers and a tiny toddler spontaneously and joyfully applauds. Then the praise of angels has touched us here on earth.
Prayers have flesh and bone and walk among us every day. There are myriad ways to pray.

The Variety of Grief

I once heard a very kind priest friend say of a well-known priest author, “That man has never had a thought he didn’t feel he had to express.” I was a momentarily taken aback, because my friend was a very kind man who never said anything negative about anyone. I realized then that he was expressing the same mystification most introverts must feel about extroverts. Of course, extroverts frequently misinterpret introverts’ silence and need for privacy as dislike or disinterest or even distrust.
After years of studying and working with the Myers/Briggs Type Indicator, I have admitted that I don’t really know what I think about something until I manage to express it in words. And verbal dialogue is also intrinsic to my sense of relationship. I’ve learned that this is not only problematic for introverts that live or work with me, but often downright irritating.
Luckily, I have lived long enough to experience the wonderful outlet of the internet. I can express and hear myself in print at any hour of the day or night. And no one has to listen unless they want to and only when it’s convenient for them and only as long as they wish. And the introverts don ‘t have to say anything unless they feel like it and even then, all they have to do is hit one key to make a response.
Recently, I’ve been experiencing life changing challenges and I really do need to explore my feelings and insights by expressing them. Also, I think it’s possible that my describing what I’m feeling and learning may be some help to someone else out there. And happily, if not, they don’t need to waste their time reading what I write.
One of the challenges I am still facing is that we really do differ in our ways of dealing with grief. No matter how many stages are described as general, we don’t experience or work through them all the same. Partly because of differences in personality, but also because of many different factors about the way a loved one died, the timing for them and us, and past experiences with our own grief and others’ ways of grieving.
My husband was like a cat with nine lives. When I read back over his medical history, he came through so many close calls with death, I lose count. And in the last few years he fought valiantly with cardiac issues with stents and a pacemaker, AFIB, Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, successful surgery for a malignant tumor in his lung, a return of lung cancer that was inoperable and that spread beyond the lungs as stage 4 cancer, stage 3 Kidney disease…..all of which weakened him too much to risk chemo therapy. He was in and out of ER’s, hospitalizations of various lengths up to two weeks several times, and finally five months in a nursing home, first attempting through therapy to get strong enough for chemo, then failing that, for nursing care and hospice.
We have five grown children who have been simply awesome in their active care giving and support through all of this. And each of them is grieving in their own way now. And I have realized that not all of them are finding my way easy to understand.
To begin with, I generally live in the future of possibilities, both negative and positive ones. In other words, I worry way ahead of things, but I also like to explore new ways of being happy or productive or creative or loving.
When my husband was diagnosed with IPF over two years ago and I learned it was incurable, fatal, and a horrible way to die, I began to worry and pray that he would be spared that death. Of course, heart failure seemed a much better way to die, but with a pacemaker, less likely. My husband’s strongest trait was perseverance. When he grew weaker and no longer able to work effectively at what he loved, he became stressed and began to have some memory issues.
Finally he had to admit that he could no longer continue working. Now he was suffering anxiety attacks, frequent pneumonia and bronchial infections, then surgery to remove a tumor in his right lung, and then cellulitis contracted during a hospitalization, and finally kidney issues and depression. The physical and emotional stress affected him in many ways and by the time he entered the nursing home with stage 4 cancer, he simply wasn’t the strong silent gentle man that I had lived with for almost sixty years.
I did not love him less. I loved him more. And I gladly learned how to take care of many of his medical needs. But long before he could accept that he was dying, I began to work through my fears, experience loneliness, take over unfamiliar tasks, and try in many ways to prepare for having to survive on my own.
The wonderful physical, financial, and emotional support our five children gave us helped me to do this. And my faith and the amazing love and faith of caregivers at the nursing home lifted me out of my darkest moments. And the nurses and support staff of Hospice were able to help me anticipate and understand the rapid changes that were happening toward the end. The dying need very different things than those who are able to try to get well.
Some of the influences on my way of dealing with the loss of my husband were my tendency to anticipate and plan ahead, my deepest fear of his having to suffer terribly fighting to breathe, my having seen my very strong mother simply close down when my father died totally unexpectedly at fifty-two, watching her die by inches with Alzheimer’s for fourteen years, but particularly my many experiences of grace and glimpses of meaning in my own and sometimes others’ suffering over my eighty-one years.
I have usually dealt with short crises fairly well. It’s been the long haul attrition kind of things that could defeat me. So, over the two and a half years of constant crises, I have learned to watch for beauty, kindness, love, tiny joys like sunshine and flowers and birds and small kindnesses and laughter. I see these as grace, as the gentle touches of God. They are all around us every day if we watch for them. They seem small in the face of death of one we love, but they are myriad.
I am a weak person, easily overwhelmed by too many practical details and emotionally vulnerable to the unexpected blow. Having a large caring family help me deal with details has been an incredible blessing. Having time and medical personnel who have been down this road before me to help me understand each phase softened each blow. The blessing of the final gentle pain free death from his heart stopping before his having to fight to breathe has kept me from despair.
At times the reality that he will never be with me again in this life feels heart breaking and overwhelms me. But so far, at least, it has not robbed me of gratitude for my caring family, of healing laughter, hope for creativity in my life, the energy to try to keep reasonably functional, or my many memories of the love and joy my husband gave me.

Jeremiah, an Eeyore With Faith

Had forgotten I wrote this. Appropriate for our political world today and my personal loss also. God is our bottom line.

Laughter: Carbonated Grace

I used to avoid reading the prophet Jeremiah. He seemed so negative, a real downer. But I’ve come to realize that he would make a great character in a modern novel. He has such a complex and conflicted personality.
Babylon’s long siege has brought terrible suffering to Jerusalem and its army is now battering the gates. Good old Jeremiah is loudly proclaiming, “Babylon is gonna win! They are going to haul King Zedekiah off. You might as well all defect and get it over with, because you can’t win. This is God’s retribution. You brought it on yourselves.”

Jeremiah’s really great for morale in a war zone.

But at the same time the Lord also tells Jeremiah to buy his cousin’s land officially, in front of witnesses, for the time when God will return Israel to Jerusalem. That would be like buying an ocean front house in Florida in the…

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Zip Codes in Heaven?

I had a fun blessing this morning.

The other day when exhausted, I attempted to close my husband Julian’s RX account with the Medicare medicine insurance. I didn’t have the correct number in reach and the recorded voice kept saying “I can’t understand your answer and kept asking for the same thing over and over, even after I kept answering, “He died.” Finally, I shouted, “Go to hell!” and hung up. Needless to say, the recording was unimpressed. Today, I started over, with the attitude that I was too tired to do anything else, so sitting down arguing with recordings was as good a way as any to spend this day.  I at least had one of the magical thirteen digit numbers, so I finally got to speak to a person. After explaining that I wanted to close my husband’s account because he had died and thanking the woman for her condolences, she asked, “What is his zip code?” Of course, I couldn’t resist that. When I replied, “I don’t think they have zip codes in heaven,” there was a profound silence, followed by a smothered giggle.  I rescued her by apologizing and admitting that I just could not resist that.
After that we quickly developed a rapport, so she apologized profusely each of the six times she put me on hold and I cheerfully told her it was fine, their music was lovely and I didn’t want to do anything today anyway. \And actually the music was lovely and soothing and during one protracted wait, I found myself kind of floating around in my head thinking about the oneness of all things and that the Spirit is in each of us and we are all in the spirit, and everything is one whether in this life or elsewhere and I actually felt close to Julian and comforted. Who knew? Attitude is everything.
Anyway, when she came back to tell me she needed to transfer me to someone with Medicare, I was very mellow and thought that was great, because I needed to call them anyway.
The transfer presented challenges however and at one point she and I both thought we had been disconnected. But what once was lost, now was found and we parted friends forever and I got a new person and new music. We played the “on hold” game for a while and then she announced cheerfully that she was going to transfer me to a live person. That made me wonder about her for a moment, but in the spirit of cooperation, I assured her that I definitely had a preference for alive people.

Deaths and Resurrections

This from a favorite author resonates beautifully with my inner journey right now after the death of my husband of almost sixty years.

 

Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation
From the Center for Action and Contemplation

Death and Resurrection
All Things New
Sunday, November 18, 2018

Behold, I make all things new. —Revelation 21:5
As I’ve recently faced my own mortality through cancer once again, I’ve been comforted by others who have experienced loss and aging with fearless grace. Over the next few days I’ll share some of their thoughts. Today, join me in reflecting on this passage from Quaker teacher and author Parker Palmer’s new book, On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Getting Old.
I’m a professional melancholic, and for years my delight in the autumn color show quickly morphed into sadness as I watched the beauty die. Focused on the browning of summer’s green growth, I allowed the prospect of death to eclipse all that’s life-giving about the fall and its sensuous delights.
Then I began to understand a simple fact: all the “falling” that’s going on out there is full of promise. Seeds are being planted and leaves are being composted as earth prepares for yet another uprising of green.
Today, as I weather the late autumn of my own life, I find nature a trustworthy guide. It’s easy to fixate on everything that goes to the ground as time goes by: the disintegration of a relationship, the disappearance of good work well done, the diminishment of a sense of purpose and meaning. But as I’ve come to understand that life “composts” and “seeds” us as autumn does the earth, I’ve seen how possibility gets planted in us even in the hardest of times.
Looking back, I see how the job I lost pushed me to find work that was mine to do, how the “Road Closed” sign turned me toward terrain that I’m glad I traveled, how losses that felt irredeemable forced me to find new sources of meaning. In each of these experiences, it felt as though something was dying, and so it was. Yet deep down, amid all the falling, the seeds of new life were always being silently and lavishly sown. . . .
Perhaps death possesses a grace that we who fear dying, who find it ugly and even obscene, cannot see. How shall we understand nature’s testimony that dying itself—as devastating as we know it can be—contains the hope of a certain beauty?
The closest I’ve ever come to answering that question begins with these words from Thomas Merton, . . . “There is in all visible things . . . a hidden wholeness.” [1]
In the visible world of nature, a great truth is concealed in plain sight. Diminishment and beauty, darkness and light, death and life are not opposites: they are held together in the paradox of the “hidden wholeness.” In a paradox, opposites do not negate each other—they cohabit and cocreate in mysterious unity at the heart of reality. Deeper still, they need each other for health, just as our well-being depends on breathing in and breathing out. . . .
When I give myself over to organic reality—to the endless interplay of darkness and light, falling and rising—the life I am given is as real and colorful, fruitful and whole as this graced and graceful world and the seasonal cycles that make it so. Though I still grieve as beauty goes to ground, autumn reminds me to celebrate the primal power that is forever making all things new in me, in us, and in the natural world.