This fallowing time

Summer Dry GrassLast week slipped away from me in a sudden rush of busyness. Now I’m back in the freedom of these sabbatical days, doubly grateful for them, knowing that they need to come to an end soon. I confess I’ve enjoyed being spoiled with a season of what has sometimes felt like irresponsibility. I haven’t been free of the constant demands of paid employment since I was 16 (not counting time later in schools and study that carried a different but equally high set of demands and obligations). This unexpected freedom in my life has been a blessing I never expected to have.

I confess I’ve found it hard not to feel guilty for being so free and unproductive. I intended it to be a very productive time, full of fresh energy and bursts of creativity. Instead, I’ve come to experience it as my fallowing time — letting myself, like a farmer’s unplanted field, lie at rest, replenishing, storing up nutrients in order to become more productive, and maybe to produce a different kind of crop when returned to work. Soon I think I’ll be re-seeded and put to work again, but all in good time. As the scriptures say, “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”

I rejoice in this season of freedom and count its blessings, which are many. For instance: I’m sinking my roots deep into the soil of prayer and finding little shards of truth emerging out of the solitude and silence. I’m re-connecting with my family and cherishing the time I’m spending with them. I’m having more time with my aged mother, whose life is not endless and whom I’m coming to know better now, just as her years are beginning to wane. I’m studying lots of things, some planned and some on a whim, spurred only by my curiosity and unhampered by the feeling that “I don’t have time!” I’m trying to craft a re-balanced life, caring for my health in ways I’ve long neglected, and for the most part succeeding, if slowly. I’m grateful for all of this.

But… I also find myself thinking more than ever of all the people in the world – most of the people in the world, if the truth be told – who never have the luxury of free time and rest, whose labor must be constant just to survive, whose lives are constricted by poverty and the unending need to find food and create shelter for themselves and their families, constricted still further by the demands that others lay on them, whether employers, or officials, or terrorists and thugs, or the faceless, soulless powers of bureaucracy. People whose lives have no weekends free, no paid holidays, and certainly no long sabbaticals. Why should I be so blessed to be free to pray for hours if I like, or read for hours, or write long notes to people I don’t know, or to dream, when others’ backs are breaking under the loads they must carry? They are, all of them, equally worthy of this freedom I enjoy, and I know that somehow in the unbalanced and interconnected scheme of things their poverty is the price of my freedoms.

It’s coming home to me, among the other gifts of this time, what the Hebrew and Christian scriptures have been telling me for years: that we who are given more than our share of the wealth of the world (whether money, or talents, or time and opportunity) are expected to use it to enrich others. That doing good works for others is not a gift we give but an obligation we owe. That compassionate works aren’t charity, but simple justice. So while I enjoy myself now, I know all this needs to issue somehow in giving back and “paying forward,” to use the wealth I’m receiving to help others find their blessing. The possibilities, large and small, for helping to lift someone else up and set them free are endless and all around me. I can’t do everything. But I can do something. Undoubtedly far more than I realize.101037411 greeting the morning

But then, while I think of all these things, and feel the weight of responsibility, I also keep hearing an insistent, nudging invitation to remember that joy is the first responsibility of life. To be joyful in life and to bring joy to others’ lives… to remember that the reason for working to relieve suffering is so that others may share in joy and all our joy increase.

I don’t exactly know where all this is going, or how it will play out in my future. But just putting it into words feels important. A first step.

Blessings and peace — and joy — to you! Continue reading “This fallowing time”

#Bring Back Our Girls

I’m so grieved that girls and women are treated with contempt that I’m speechless with an angry sorrow. What will it take for men and women to say no to the mistreatment of women and girls and hold the men who do this to account? Racists and misogynists are soul-sick people who need our prayers for deep healing. The world will never be a wholesome place until all women and men and boys and girls can live in dignity and peace. We all need to find a way to join action to our prayers, to find every way possible to bring an end to the arrogance of violence.

‘Nuff said. As I’m sure yours are, my heart is breaking.

Family lessons and legacies

family treeI’ve been sleuthing for the mysteries of my family. In our small nuclear family of four (now three) we knew nothing of my Dad’s paternal line, and even less on Mother’s side. So when I began digging into the family history after my father died, it was like beginning a journey of discovery for all of us. You might think there wouldn’t be much to find, with such fragmentary information to begin with, but in fact the search is yielding some unexpected, and sometimes moving, results.

It’s true what they say: some things run in families — and not just DNA, disease, and family resemblances. Attitudes, values, and perspectives tend to make their way down through the generations, of course. But behavior patterns and their consequences also show up. Emotional wounds, psychological coping mechanisms, and just plain quirky habits, run like an elusive but definitely present thread (now you see it, now you don’t) through both sides of our family tree, right down to where they meet and mingle in my generation. It has caused me to pause and think.

We receive and benefit from the best that our families give us. We also receive and suffer from the worst they pass on. But even if all they have to pass on is dysfunction and pain, we don’t need to be the victims of our families. We are imprinted with the patterns of struggle that the family passes on, with the nurture (or lack of it) that we receive, and with the sorrows and strengths that each generation has found within themselves. But are we indelibly imprinted? Or are parts of our inheritance malleable? Can the legacy be transformed, healed, or in some other way amended? I believe it can. That’s the story of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures: healing and hope. Healing and hope are meant to be part of our story too.

Some families inherit and pass on great love, blessing the next generation with healthy patterns of loving and commitment. Some families inherit a more difficult legacy. Most families pass through great suffering in one form or another and are faced with challenges not of their making. But in every generation, I see people doing the best they can, sometimes with very little help, wanting to be good. Wanting to love and be loved, and sometimes just not knowing how.

In the process of thinking about the people who have gone before me, I’m finding some singular blessings: growing understanding, a new birth of compassion, a new sense of connection and rootedness. But more than all that, I’m beginning to think more clearly about what kind of legacy I may be leaving behind.

I’m thinking that I want my legacy to be one that has healing in it. It will not go to my children, of course; I don’t have any children. But we each pass on something to everyone our lives have impacted. And I know that most of us need some help to heal from the wounds of living and from the judgments that are made about us. I know that healing begins in forgiveness, whichever side of the wound we are on.

I want to breathe forgiveness into this world so that someone, somewhere, can breathe it in as freedom and peace and then pass it on. That’s my hope.

Thanks for listening. Blessing to you in whatever hopes and dreams you are holding today!

Holy invitations

Fleur de printemps au soleil

“If nothing fits anymore, if we don’t seem to belong where we are, that’s a call to begin again.
If we have more to give than we’re giving now, that’s a call to begin again.
If the relationships that defined us break down, it’s time to become the rest of who we are.
If something is missing where once everything seemed to be full, that’s a state of holy invitation.”

Years ago I spent a month in a hermitage on the grounds of Mt. St. Benedict monastery in Erie, PA, a guest of the gracious Sisters who live there. That’s where I came upon these words you just read. I don’t recall anymore whether I read them or heard them, whether they were printed or preached, or perhaps illustrated in a piece of art on a wall. But I’m grateful I had the sense to write them down and preserve them so I could stumble upon them again these many years later.

There’s something deeply encouraging to me in the idea that what presents itself at first as a difficulty – things not fitting, relationships not working, a haunting sense of wanting something that isn’t there – is actually a gift, a call from the Divine to re-enter the adventure of living in a new way. These words, “to begin again… to become the rest of who we are,” stir me with a sense of poignancy and hope. I love the idea that not only can I do that, there is already a power at work beguiling me and urging me toward it, ready to assist, loving me with the offer of some wonderful new possibility.

Tonight I’m praying for new possibilities, for myself and for you!

[Photo courtesy of Thierry RYO – Fotolia]

Grist for the mill

IMG_0033Do you ever wish you could run away to live in the woods or in a shack by the beach and throw away your cell phone, your telephone, your computer, your tablet, and your modem? I’m on the edge of considering becoming a hermit to set myself free from all those sometimes fun and useful things. They’re great when they work in the background and don’t get in the way. Today it felt like everything was getting in the way. (Can you tell I’m feeling frustrated?)

This afternoon I hoped to write on a book I’m working on. Instead, I dealt with technology. If only I did not have to deal with misbehaving software, forgotten ID’s and demands for unique 20-character passwords with special requirements from every single internet site I visit, online-only support options when websites don’t work (expecting me to sift through pages and pages of FAQs that don’t apply), and telephones that answer electronically with 10 menus to choose from (none of which cover my particular need at the moment)! On top of that, my landline telephone has turned into a magnet for every sales marketer, scam artist, and charitable-contribution-solicitor east of the Pacific Ocean, so that I sometimes think I’m paying for my phone service just so they can have the benefit of using it for their purposes.

All these things that seem to have hijacked my day raise the issue of time for me – it all feels like they’ve wasted my time. But, I have to confess, once I face this fact I realize that it’s actually a question of patience: my lack of it. If truth be told, my reaction to these things, the frustration I indulge in, reveals to me the hidden bias I have of my own entitlement. How dare they waste my time this way? Why should I have to jump through hoops to get the help I need? Why do these things not work the way they should (which is to say, so that someone as hurried and untutored as I am can operate them without needing an expert’s help)? Why isn’t it easier so that it doesn’t keep me from doing the things I want to do, the things that seem important to me?

And suddenly I’m back in Lent, facing my own faults. Not fault in the sense of blame, but in the sense of a flaw. I am a flawed human being, living in an imperfect world (i.e., one that isn’t oriented toward assuring things are easy for me!). Running away from people and things that test me won’t change that. That’s when I discover (once again — I’ve been here before!) that the world’s imperfections actually can serve a strangely positive purpose. They help me to recognize my own flaws, and that can inspire in me a fresh touch of humility and challenge me to practice the patience with others that I sometimes lack. We rub against each other, and in the chafing of our faults together either we learn tolerance and forgiveness or wither in resentment. Running away from whatever frustrates me – technology, people, situations, challenges – is only running away from myself, and we all know that doesn’t work!

So I guess I need to learn to be grateful for the frustrations of life. They seem to be the gift of God to this rough-hewn stone (me!) that needs some polishing. Surely God is good! In the wisdom and grace of God everything becomes grist for the mill. Everything points in the end to grace. If only I can remember to take the trouble to see things in the right light.

I hope you’re having a decidedly UN-frustrating day today. But whatever the day brings you, I wish you peace — and maybe just a small gift of self-discovery to spice your day!

Happy Eastertide!

Looking but not seeing

Cottontail bunny rabbit eating grass in the gardenOnce many years ago I lived in a house in the country. The field just beside my house lay fallow and overgrown with weeds, giving homes to a variety of wildlife including rabbits, raccoons, hedgehogs, and a variety of other animals that were usually unseen during the day, at least whenever I was around. One day I was out in the yard and noticed a rabbit sitting perfectly still just at the edge of the field, and it struck me as odd that it hadn’t run when I came by. I was fascinated by the stillness of the creature and turned aside to look more closely. I moved slowly toward it, expecting it to bolt at any moment, but it didn’t. The longer it remained still, the more curious I was and tried to come nearer; the closer I got the more amazing it seemed.

I got down on the ground and moved slowly, until eventually I came so close I could have reached out and touched it. I looked directly into the rabbit’s eyes, and it looked back at me. I stared for some minutes, unable to fathom the mystery of why it didn’t move. It just kept gazing steadily at me. Then, suddenly, with a shock, I saw the light go out of its eyes. One moment it was alive, and in the next breath the living creature was gone. The rabbit had died while I lay gazing at it. It was only then that I saw the tendril of weed that had become tangled around its neck. Whether it died of strangulation or terror I have never been sure. But the rabbit that I failed to rescue that day, that I failed to see clearly or to understand its situation, even under my steady gaze, has haunted me ever since. It’s one of the regrets that will follow me to my grave.

fasciaSince that day, more than once (more often than I like to admit even to myself) I have failed to see what I was looking at. It’s a humbling, painful experience to realize that has happened — and how often it does happen! I think many of us actually do this most of the time, looking without seeing clearly. We don’t notice, don’t grasp, what we might have understood better if we’d let go of our assumptions, or maybe if we just opened our eyes a bit wider. I think of the people we only half listen to because we have put them in a box and labeled them in our minds… the husband or wife (or child or friend) who is telling us something but we keep missing the point… the people and things we don’t see because we think we understand already “where they’re coming from” and what their situation is… when we look without giving them our full attention. That day in the field with the dying rabbit, even with my attention fully engaged, I didn’t see what was in front of me.

How many times have I failed to hear what someone was trying to tell me, failed to see what was right in front of me as someone told me their story? It has happened for me again in recent months. My mother, who is blind, has been dropping a lot of things because she misjudges where the table top is. She has told me the story of how she broke at least half a dozen glasses in the course of a few weeks until my sister found an acrylic version she would drink from. She tells us how she has spilled things because she thought her hand was on the table, but it wasn’t, and so when she let go of the dish or the glass (or the pitcher or the sugar jar), she missed and instead it went on the floor. There are the countless times she walked too close to a counter or a table and ran into it, hurting her arm or her hip. Most recently while sitting in a chair she went to cross her legs but misjudged the distance so that the heel of her sneaker caught on the fragile skin of her other leg and tore it open.

It wasn’t until we were sitting in the doctor’s office and I was thinking about this that suddenly I realized it wasn’t her vision that was the problem. It was as if the light went on in me: she hadn’t been able to cross her legs without one hitting the other – something we all can do with our eyes closed! — something she should have been able to do even in the dark. Everything she’d been telling me for weeks fell into place in that moment. I told the doctor about it, and he prescribed a brain scan to see if something more than aging and her vision is causing this “position displacement” (there’s even a name for it!). Until we do the scan we won’t know if there is a larger issue causing this, of course, but it seems obvious to me now that I’d been missing something significant all along, even while I’d been listening carefully and watching her steadily. I just didn’t give it the thoughtfulness that it deserved. I assumed I understood what was going on, when clearly I didn’t.

So we can watch, and listen, and still not “get it.” We can thoroughly misunderstand another’s person’s point of view, or the significance of what they’re telling us, or the meaning of their silence, or the nature of the troubles they’re dealing with, though we may have the best intentions. It isn’t a benign problem, even when our intentions are good and our misjudgments are nothing more than thoughtlessness. Other people suffer unnecessarily when we’re not careful to see them clearly and we don’t strive to understand them and their situation.

There were people in Jesus’ day who looked right at him and didn’t see him clearly. They called him the spawn of the devil. They saw him as an enemy to be defeated. The most religious of his countrymen were suspicious of him. In the end, people who thought they knew what he was and considered him a danger, killed him. Sadly, it isn’t ancient history; it happens today as well. I’m reading Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, and it strikes me that the people who espoused apartheid and who looked on the Africans and despised them – like the people in our country who look at every African-American or person of color in the same way – were more blind to those men, women, and children than anyone can be who is only physically blind.

Jesus said once, “… if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” [Matthew 6:23 NRSV] He wasn’t speaking of the physical but of interior sight – of our capacity to see what we are looking at, to see it clearly and truly. To look on someone who has holiness inside them and see it. To look on someone in need and understand their need. To see a situation and not brush it off without clear thinking. To look without prejudice and the kind of pre-judgment that edits out possibilities and potential.

Instead, so often we look without really seeing, to this day. We do it in our churches, in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces, and in our homes. We label even those we love, like our children – often to devastating effect (Judy is “the smart, quiet one;” Janie is “the pretty and popular” one)! The minute we do that we stop seeing them as whole persons. We especially label our enemies, or those we think of as enemies, and never see the persons who are actually in front of us.

Sometime read the 9th chapter of John’s Gospel. It’s a story of profound blindness, the gift of seeing and of the dangers of not seeing! It’s a call to wake up. It we really listen to that story it will shake us up!

How great is our darkness? That is the question. How much do I not see, while I’m staring right at it? How much do you not see? And how can we best begin to make the scales fall from our eyes?

Blessings to you, with peace and joy, as we open our eyes a little bit wider!

Life in the wilderness


Dramatic Wild Landscape

“I alternate between thinking of the planet as home – dear and familiar stone hearth and garden – and as a hard land of exile in which we are all sojourners…. We don’t know where we belong, but in times of sorrow it doesn’t seem to be here. It doesn’t seem to be here that we belong, here where space is curved, the earth is round, we’re all going to die, and it seems as wise to stay in bed as budge. It is strange here…” [Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk]

“A hard land of exile.” This has been the experience of life for many people, myself included. This is Good Friday, so I think it’s a good time to remember how extraordinary good has come through to me, even in the most desolate times and places.

The Hebrew Scriptures tell us how, many centuries ago, the people of ancient Israel were uprooted and exiled from everything safe and known to them. They had suffered a devastating siege and seen their Holy City destroyed and their nation broken. The pain of their almost-total loss was like the stinging of a sword tearing flesh apart – as many swords had done, literally, at the fall of their great city. They were forcibly uprooted and exiled to languish in a foreign land where they were in danger of dying off as a people distinct in the world. There seemed to be good reason to believe they had been abandoned by their God. Yet at that very moment in their history the prophet Jeremiah spoke to them with a surprising message of hope:

Thus says the LORD:
The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, the LORD appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! [Jeremiah 31:2-4]

Finding grace in the wilderness of life: this is what I want to remember today, not to escape the memory of sorrow and loss, but to remember how I’ve experienced grace in the past, had pain healed and life renewed. I want to remember because in remembering I’m freshly empowered to move through any new wilderness on the strength of that memory and its promise.

Grace is an especially beautiful word. It has the advantage over “love” in our vocabulary in that it has not been trivialized in ordinary language. It holds a fullness of meaning. It gathers up like a fragrant bouquet all the wonders of God’s giving nature. Grace is the profoundly needed but unmerited gift, freely and generously given to us out of love. It is God pouring out on us everything that we need for healthy, wholesome life, all that we can’t create for ourselves, giving “without measure and without price” (Isaiah 55:1). Grace names that quality of wholesome, divine Love which is active, outreaching, powerful, freely spent in kindness, giving self away for the good of the other.

Grace is not usually what we expect of wilderness, and we don’t easily recognize it when we find ourselves in desolate places. We are accustomed to look for God in the things that give us joy, peace, or contentment. We have a more difficult time believing that God’s graciousness is with us in the painful times. Our hurt and judgment, attachments, or false desires, all cover our eyes, stop up our ears, and build a wall around the heart, so that we miss the signs of God’s presence and power. Yet God’s grace is the hidden inhabitant of every wilderness experience.

God meets us in the wilderness as in no other place, and leads us as one would lead an obstinately independent but beloved deaf-mute through a difficult terrain to a place she’s not sure she wants to go: firmly, tenderly and compassionately. I know this because I’ve been the deaf-mute, and I’ve experienced the healing and discovered the grace. So I know that whatever we find it to be, and however we get there, wilderness is not just a ground of suffering. It is also the ground of grace because God meets us there, where our lives are most broken. Then wilderness becomes both school and holy ground, a place of re-planting and reform. There we find out what we are made of, and we meet the One who made us, filling up our failures and fears with love and hope, showing us the way home.

The blessing of God to you through all your days, and especially this day, whether of sorrow or joy. May joy come to you in the morning!