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This Life: Appetizers Only

During a Jungian inner journey in my late fifties, I had a very vivid dream. My husband and I were in a dining room on a boat on a river cruise. They brought us a series of small appetizers one at a time, which my husband ate with great pleasure, but I ignored while waiting for the main course. At some point, I realized there would be no main course. I was furious and went searching the boat for another dining room. When I found one, they only brought me an apple, which I threw against the wall in frustration. I went out on the front deck of the boat to see where we were going just as it began to go through a dark tunnel which became so small that I had to hunch down as we went through it. I felt total despair at first, but became hopeful when I saw some light at the end of the tunnel. Since then I have learned to delight in and treasure the small joys of life, while accepting the pain of failures and disappointments that are part and parcel of being an imperfect human being in an imperfect world. I used to live focused on the future with its possibilities, missing both the joys and the grace available in the difficulties of the present. At seventy-nine, I am pretty much running out of future! But since that dream, I have had many experiences, both joyful and heartbreaking that have become grace for me. Life is about spiritual growth from living in awareness and finding meaning in the whole reality of the journey, not ego or worldly gains or idealized scenarios.

Heartbreaks that have brought grace:

The pain of loss filling me with hate, but persistence in prayer freeing me to let go and accept not only loss, but mine and others’ flawed humanity.

Letting go of past ways of experiencing tenderness and intimacy and becoming open to new ways of feeling deeply cherished even in my helplessness and physical pain.

Accepting that one of age’s delights, sharing laughter with the one I love the most, has an expiration date, because it brings on debilitating coughing spasms due to his progressive lung disease, then finding peace instead in quiet moments of just holding one another.

Letting go of the need for understanding, so I can begin to love instead of need.

Sadly recognizing my own vulnerabilities in the generations following me and knowing the pain these will bring them, but beginning to see that God can bring them through to joy as he has me time and time again.

Knowing that life will not get easier, but believing that grace will continue to bring the fruit of love from both heartbreak and joy.

Appetizers on the journey this Christmas season:

The tree full of cardinals outside our windows, children’s laughter, babies’ smiles, hugs from my husband Julian, people being kind and friendly in a crowded grocery store right before Christmas, Americans’ amazing kindness to the handicapped, Christmas decorations, Julian sitting quietly in the dark enjoying his Christmas village, both Leonard Cohen’s Halleluja and Handel’s Messiah, getting to do the sermon from the molehill at our worship service on Christmas day, our son Mike’s photos and delightful descriptions of his students at the Cambodian orphanage for children born HIV positive, our son Chris getting an interesting new job and so many people in Dickson telling me how wonderful he is, my suicidal friend now ministering to others, seeing friends find new hope in the person of Jesus without having to buy into the hang ups of any denomination, Tylenol taking away all my pain for a while, my loyal friend Margie being a constant in my life, my sister-in-law’s mouth-watering fudge cake, my first cup of coffee in the morning, Christmas memories on face book, our son Steve’s humor and willingness to take care of us Aged Parents in bizarre experiences in foreign airports, all of our grandchildren and great grandchildren, grandson Josh and wife Paula and seven year old Eisley’s adventurous spirits, grandsons Jordan and Jake’s caring hearts and courage, Nativity scenes, granddaughter Hadley so happy wearing her Unicorn Onesie at Norman Family Christmas, granddaughter Emma and her BFF talking and laughing non-stop in the back seat while I drove them to the mall, getting freed from my temporary insanity of hating someone by saying a prayer for love and peace each time while writing it on over a hundred Christmas cards, our teen-aged granddaughter Sophie hugging Julian whenever she sees him and laughing and discussing great books with nephew David, the HO HO HO’s – my friends who are not afraid to color outside the lines, my very own fun super drummer boy great-grandson Aaron, our daughter-in-law Molly’s incredible ability to continue to love even those that bring her heartbreak, our daughter Julie’s infectious laughing attacks that we call “Julie moments”, eight year old Bella’s unfettered enthusiasm for life, memories of waking up to a snow covered world, grown granddaughter Carmen’s resilience and lightning quick sense of humor, the delight of making vegetable soup to share with sick friends and the poor, becoming friends with our fascinating and loving cousin Mary Eleanor, my ninety-four year old friend, Barbara’s children coming to see her in shifts from all over America this Christmas season, grown up great grandson Ryan still having good memories of going downtown with me before the stores opened to earn nickels by sounding out words on signs, some people actually responding to my blogs, being able to keep up with my best friend from High School and College on line, getting to know interesting and friendly people in Canada, England, Nigeria, France, New Zealand and other countries across the globe through the internet, my Study Club women friends, who have miraculously bonded across huge differences in religion, politics, age, background, economics and interests.

These are just a few parts of the wonderful collage of my life that bring me seasons of joy in what sometimes momentarily seems like the “cesspool” of life. 

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The Freedom of Forgiveness

If we can forgive that another person cannot give us what only God can give, then we can celebrate that person’s gift. (Henri Nouwen)
I think as we go through life, we end up having to forgive our parents, our siblings, our children, our spouse, our friends,- etc. etc. etc.- for not being able to be what we need and want because they aren’t God. And our own neediness isn’t love either, so we end up having to forgive ourselves also. Forgiveness frees us to heal and move on.  
The core of love is forgiveness. (*This doesn’t mean allowing ourselves to be victims.) It means realizing that we all fall short of perfection, so we can let go of bitterness and even self-hate as we continue to become the unique, imperfect, but with the grace of God, slowly ever more loving, person God created us to be

A Hunger for God

Pretty much all my life I have hungered for God except for a time when personal losses and the suffering in the world overwhelmed me and I sought escape in the diversions the world offers. But they did not satisfy that longing and I began to seek Him in most of the main religions, both Christian and others. But did not find Him. Finally He found me through friends who not only witnessed verbally to the love of God expressed in Jesus, but literally gave up all they had to follow him. I returned with great joy to a Christianity that included people from many denominations who had found a life changing relationship with God through Jesus. As I grew in my relationship with Him, it changed and I found Her in even more and sometimes unexpected places and people who were on the same journey, but a different path. God was bigger than any of our “breadboxes.” I struggled with the differences I found even within denominations between those who had a vibrant obviously growing personal relationship with God and those that seemed to just cling to a spiritual tradition, a spiritual club, a spiritual insurance policy, or a set of rules or formulas that made them feel spiritually superior. (To be continued in: Which of These Is Not Like the Others?  Which of These Doesn’t Belong? Child of God, Loved Unconditionally, Born again, Personal Relationship with God,  Personal Relationship with Jesus, On a Spiritual Journey, Spiritual Seeker, In a Dance of Grace and Response, Process of Sanctification, Saved, Law Abiding, Righteous, Finished?)

Death Where is Your Sting? or The Dance of Eternity

In my seventy-eight years of life I have held the hands of those I love as they died, I have lived to walk again after years of a crippling condition, survived to laugh again after scary strokes, and suffered enough prolonged pain to free me to embrace the relief of death.  And I have, in turn, been freed by each of these to experience greater joy in living.
One of the gifts of age is learning not to take the smallest beauty, kindness, insight, or experience of love for granted. I can see the door from here, which reminds me daily that this moment may be the last of life as I know it now. Yet knowing that life’s greatest mystery lies on the other side of that door gives an aura of light around its darkness.
Though I realize that getting through that door may be terribly hard, sometimes I imagine all my atoms,  with my spirit now one with the Spirit of All within them, being freed from the limits of my body to join in the dance of eternity.  I can almost feel them shooting off joyously into the farthest embraces of the exquisite glory of pure beauty, truth, and love…..in other words, God.

Becoming Free to Hear God

I just want to reiterate my theme song: We are all born different.

I don’t have expertise in much, but personality differences have been my area of specialization since the early 1980’s. I used to be a consultant on their implications for marriage relationships, teaching/learning styles, approaches to spirituality and even management skills.

We are different in both what and how we take in information from the outer world
We are different in how we process what we take in.
We are different in what we value.
So, we are different in how we respond to what we take in.
We are incredibly different in how we communicate.
We are different in how we live in the world……whether goal driven, pleasure driven, influenced by others or our own built in agendas.
We are different in whether we are focused on the present moment, the past or the future.
Words have different meanings and even a totally different impact for each of us.
It is an absolute miracle that any random group of us can agree or act in concert on anything, even in the same family, church, culture or country, never-the-less across cultures, religions, and nationalities.

However, both my studies and experience have shown me that after midlife we have a natural inclination to grow and develop more in the opposite strengths and orientations. So, age may have its perks and probably the greatest of these is a greater potential for peacemaking.

Here is a part of my personal journey that hopefully illustrates this possibility.

In my mid-forties I was accepted into a three year course of preparation for Lay Ministry.
A part of it was taking a battery of tests ranging from IQ to personality tests. Then we were given feedback on areas that might be problematic for ministry.

I was told that I had two areas with a potential for limiting my effectiveness in ministry.

#1. My IQ was high enough that I most likely always assume that I am right in any conflict of opinion. This is a weakness, because no matter how smart anyone is, no one, but God is right all the time. And….(here is the zinger) the most necessary quality for hearing God is humility.

#2. I was over sensitive and thus, easily offended.(My humorous, but pitiful first gut level response to this was, “If you know that, why would you hurt my feelings by telling me?”)

It has been a long and somewhat painful process of integrating these truths into my conscious responses to life.

Several years ago, I got into a conflict with my church’s Minister and the leadership of the church. This culminated with a woman Elder telling me that I was just an unhappy person who was never satisfied with anything. Frustrated, hurt and angry, I left organized religion for about two years. During this period I focused on trying to listen to God and my relationship with God became much closer and more fruitful. This culminated in the realization that I was, in fact by nature, both extremely idealistic and a perfectionist. These traits have a good side; I have been at times a change agent for the better. However, since no person or organization is perfect, they tend to make me critical of pretty much everyone and everything.

The realities and practical limits of an imperfect world filled with imperfect people, including myself, are like a pebble in my shoe. Coming to grips with the reality that in this life, we can only inch toward any ideal, never reach it, is as painful for the idealist as accepting the call to change is for the pragmatist. The ultimate challenge for all of us is becoming free to hear God in each situation. Sometimes God’s choice is a matter of timing, sometimes what seems good, may need to be let go to make way for something better as yet unseen, sometimes more time is needed for grace to change other hearts.

This is my prayer variation: “God, help me to change what you want me to change, to accept what you want me to accept, and to hear which you are calling me to do in each situation.”

Here are the challenges that I am still in the process of learning on how to hear God:

#1. I must let go of the assumption that my way of seeing an issue is the best or God’s way. It might actually be, but I cannot see the whole picture or the long term effects like God can, so I cannot make my opinions into idols.

#2. I must consider the realities or practical limits of the situation and be willing to inch toward or even let go of what I consider the ideal.

#3. I must let God heal the hurt behind the anger that any conflict carries with it, such as feeling unappreciated, rejected, like a failure, or somehow inadequate.

#4. I must trust that God is in every situation and can teach me and others what we need to bring about spiritual growth and good out of what seems so wrong.

#5. It may be necessary for us to take time and space to heal our wounds, but we need to avoid burning bridges. Sin isn’t feeling hurt or angry or even needing time away from a situation.

Sin is refusing to take the time to seek the grace and do the work needed to reconcile, however long that may take.

“Find God Within and Love Her Fiercely.” (Unknown.)

We are in the process of moving with all the sorting and prioritizing that goes with downsizing.
So when I ran out of stamina for bending and lifting to pack things, I started going through 30 + years of journals. I have already found quite a few quotes I liked and that I have seen confirmed in the intervening years.

“Ministry is often a confrontive service, taking away the false supposition that there should be no pain or suffering.”
“Hospitality gives space for the other to find their own soul. It takes away the illusion that wholeness can be given to another.”
“Don’t identify with your feelings, they are not the whole of you. Simply pastor them gently.” (All three from Henri Nouwen, I think.)

“Important consequences are often side-effects: A bee gets honey, so nature gets pollinated.” Buckminster-Fuller

“Perfectionism and the stress it causes make small achievements feel larger.”
“Admit that no one, including you, can please everyone.” My paraphrase of some others’ ideas.

“Use suffering to end suffering. Welcome it, because it alerts us to our own inner needs or illusions and frees us by helping us to face and accept reality.” Sadhana

Reading my journals from the eighties, I can see some ways I have changed. Back then I was struggling unsuccessfully to even love, never-the-less, like myself. Now, I realize that I still don’t like me very much, but because I have come to know with all my heart that I am loved by God, I do actually love myself. And that has freed me to love others that I don’t like very much. I’m thinking this may be enough. Perfection is best left to God”

One of my most cherished beliefs has been that we are capable of growth, of spiritual evolution. So as I read my journals, at first I found myself thinking….yes, I love more deeply now, in spite of the reality that loving people more and loving more people brings more heartbreak along with the joy. And then I decided that I was also more honest, since I am not as addicted to pleasing everyone. And remembering how little stress it used to take to paralyze me, I felt pretty sure I’ve grown stronger. And I definitely stick with people and and goals through the disillusionment stage better than I used to. (Please realize I am not saying I do any of these well; just better than I used to manage.)

But then I realized that I’m still the same wus I always was. The difference is that now I admit it and I waste less and less time trying to solve everything with my own limited strength, wisdom, and ability to love the unloveable.

I know more and more what Paul meant about praying unceasingly. He meant it literally. And in weak moments when I have trouble praying with much faith, I gather prayer support from all the praying friends and family I can rally.

Though it’s been a long and sometimes difficult journey, as I look back across the decades, I get glimpses of a somewhat meandering path, but one that seems custom designed to get me to my final destination.

Zombies and Monsters and Black Holes, Oh My!

I’ve never been into the Goth thing, the zombie thing, or the demons thing, probably because I have enough trouble coping with my own inner demons and dark side. I don’t believe anyone has a black soul, but I heard a description once that made me think that I and others might have an inner “black hole” like the ones in space that suck the light out of their surroundings.
The description was: “A bottomless pit of needs and wants.”
I decided that for a considerable number of years that described me perfectly. And since being needy prevents us from being loving, it explained why I had trouble even loving myself, never-the-less others.
Discovering that God was alive and well and loving us all unconditionally, even us “bottomless pits of needs and wants,” helped free me to begin depending on God’s love (grace) instead of other people and circumstances. And that is what fuels the lifelong process of learning to love both ourselves and others unconditionally. Then we each can grow into the unique, imperfect, but more and more loving, person God created us to be.
I am definitely in God’s slow learner group and I may never become as loving as many other people do, but I trust God and the process enough to believe I will reach my personal potential, however limited that may be. And that is all I am called to do.

The Self-Destruction of Christianity

Martin Luther didn’t plan to start a new religion. He hoped to renew the heart of Christianity. But from the time when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion, the church had appropriated the power structure of empires and monarchies, claiming the God given right to rule, complete with the assumption of a monopoly on truth. The shepherd’s role was transformed into that of a tyrant with absolute power and no accountability. Christianity’s history quickly became one of violence against dissenters.

Even now, when violence is rejected, the lack of dialogue and openness to growth in our understanding of the gospel has become the root of the ongoing splintering of Christianity, So we continue to waste our time and energy fighting among ourselves.

Few institutional religions have adopted a democratic structure, so they become stagnant through lack of diversity and through power structures devoted to preserving the status quo. As chaotic as democracy is, it gives even the least of its members a voice and the hope of change, so that diverse people with extremely divergent views can remain united without the violence that tyranny provokes.

If humanity is evolving, so will our understanding of our relationship with God and one another. Jesus listened to diverse voices, not only responding to the needs of the outcaste and foreigner, but even allowing them to challenge his assumptions about his mission.

Unfortunately, the power structures with vested interests in institutional religion generally have kept Christianity as the rear-guard of the status quo, rather than as leaders in social change and spiritual growth in unconditional love. We still throw stones at the prophets in the name of God.

The tension between the value and rights of the individual and the good of the community calls for on-going dialogue. We witness the break-down of Christianity over and over as each new call for inclusion of those different from the majority occurs. Institutional Christianity has become about power and preserving the status quo. It is no longer the answer to our human search for meaning. Secularism isn’t destroying Christianity. Christianity is self-destructing.

Conflict Resolution: Just Cutting People Out of Your Life Is Conflict, Not Peace

A women’s group at my church, known as The Doves, is having a Scripture based class on Conflict Resolution. Several people have stopped coming to our church because someone hurt their feelings, sometimes even just because someone seemed to ignore them. But when I invited them to the class, they said they didn’t have any conflicts to resolve.

In the past avoidance was one of my favorite ways of escaping conflict. I have shared before about getting my feelings hurt, then just cutting people out of my life, and even letting them die before ever resolving or reconciling. These people didn’t even know they had hurt me, because it was unintentional. With age I have gained a new perspective on many things, and I deeply regret abandoning these friends.

During the first gathering of the new class, a lot of unresolved hurt came out, even with each other in the class. But almost no one spoke in anger or in judgment. We simply admitted our feelings of hurt and listened when people explained a situation from another viewpoint or when someone pointed out the good in the offending person.

No one is perfect and we all bump into each other. Most times when we get seriously offended, it is because the other person has unwittingly blundered into an area where we feel particularly vulnerable.
Some people deal with the world mostly through logic and fact. And often are unaware of their own or others’ feelings. Since truth is their highest value, they do not automatically understand the effect it might have on another person’s feelings.

On the other hand, many of us simply see the world through our feeling values and respond to it straight from our feelings. Often, we have great difficulty working through them to logic.
For those whose values are truth, fact, and logic, even ordinary everyday conversations with feeling types are like exploring a minefield without a map.

Learning either how to say the truth tactfully, or when it might be more diplomatic to not say anything, is a serious challenge for them.

For those of us who live in our feelings, it helps to become aware of areas of insecurity and try to become free of them, and failing that, to learn to risk telling others how what they said made us feel. At least in a long term relationship, this will give the truth and logic partners a map of the minefield!

I have a friend who told me that when she was about six or seven, there was a rich little girl who came to their Sunday School in fancy clothes and white Mary Jane shoes. My friend was jealous of the little girl and took advantage of every chance she got, to scuff the bottom of her shoe across the pure white top of her Mary Jane shoes.

Sometimes, we really consciously mean to hurt others, but most of the time it is either inadvertent or an unconscious response.

I discovered late in life that I quite often scuff people’s Mary Janes in more subtle and less conscious ways, but it still leaves people feeling diminished. Most times before the last decade or so, I was not conscious of it, and sometimes the victims didn’t even know exactly what made them feel scuffed.

For conflict resolution to become an effective tool, it first takes commitment on everyone’s part and a willingness to become self-aware, even uncomfortably so.

Our group cares about each other and most of us have learned to love even the people we don’t always like. But still it’s a scary venture into our dark sides.

Prayer and knowing we are loved unconditionally, at least by God, will hopefully give us the grace to learn to use this tool for peace. All prayer for grace for us is greatly appreciated.

Spiritual Growth is Not Hierarchical

Human beings are complex and we vary greatly in numerous ways from one another.
We come into the world different because of our genes, personalities, genders, types of intelligence, talents, birth order, parents, health, looks, racial and ethnic differences, and many more variables. A mother can name numerous differences noticed in their first six weeks of life between any two or more of her children, and a kindergarten teacher can tell quite a lot of differences between the children in her class by the end of the first week.
Most strengths have a corresponding weakness. Extroverts are naturally better at talking than listening. It’s the opposite for introverts. Some children will notice and remember details about things in a room, others will remember more about the people. Some people are more visual and others more verbal. Some are more concrete and others theoretical. None of these natural strengths are better than others, in and of themselves, but life requires us to develop survival skills in all of them.
In the early part of our lives we will tend to use and hone our strengths, but as we mature into adults, life will throw us challenges in our weaker areas. The hardest part is that to develop what might be called our inferior or weakest trait, we have to let go, even “die” to our strength. It resonates with the biblical call to die to self. When life throws us into situations requiring capabilities that are not only undeveloped, but unnatural for us, we become aware of an increased need for grace. Again, the sequence of traits needing development will vary from person to person at different life stages, but often in recognizable patterns.
When we reflect on the Spiritual aspects of traits (virtues) and the seemingly almost individualized pattern of development of them, we realize that most of us, if not all, will be immature (unfinished) spiritually in some areas even close to the end of our lives. And that where we need to grow may be the exact opposite of our spouse, friend, or even a mentor.
We grow more or less in a circle to reach wholeness or holiness. Our patterns of growth are so varied, that though we can learn from each other, no one is ahead on some sort of ladder of spiritual achievement. And sometimes the things we say sound so opposite that it’s hard to realize that both may be true. A specific decision based on rules may be the same as that decision based on values, but it can also turn out to be different. It helps, if we can learn to both articulate our reasons, and listen across the differences. Hearing across differences isn’t easy any time, but there’s more possibility later in life, when both decision makers have become developed enough in their weakest area to be able to value what once was foreign, even threatening.
When Jesus was ready, God sent people to challenge his assumptions, to grow and change even in his understanding of his ministry. Jesus was able to be open to the ideas of an unusual assortment of people, women without credentials, men from outside his ethnic or religious group, even those considered the enemy. We are called to be like Jesus, to not close our mind to the possibility that God is using an unlikely person to call us to a new way of seeing.