Life Transitions

 return slowly

(The Hermitage sign along the driveway for departing guests).

 

Greetings from Three Rivers, Michigan! My husband and I moved here almost a month ago—sold our home, sorted, packed, donated (and donated, and donated), and moved to join the residential community of The Hermitage, a contemplative retreat center.

At one point we seriously considered joining the residential community but it never seemed the right time. During a conversation with the Hermitage board someone asked Kevin is he was finished his library career and he realized there was more he wanted to explore. Within the past two years he sensed an inner restlessness and began to discern that he was ready to move on from library work. After pondering and praying we approached The Hermitage about joining the residential community. And here we are.

We are settling into our new home, new work, new schedule, new life. We are learning what it is to pray together as a community six days a week which includes weekly celebrating the Eucharist with one another. We are learning to work together which involves explaining and absorbing details such as which towels and sheets go into which guest room. Working together involves discussing and challenging and yielding and releasing of “my way.”

As Benedict stated in his rules for monastic life: Ora et labora. The literal translation is “Prayer and work.” It can also be translated as “Our work is our prayer; our prayer is our work.”

I discovered this prayer from the Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals which describes my inner restlessness and reflection these past several months:

Prayer for Major Life Transition

Lord, help me now to unclutter my life, to organize myself in the direction of simplicity.

Lord, teach me to listen to my heart, teach me to welcome change, instead of fearing it.

Lord, I give you these stirrings inside of me. I give you my discontent, I give you my restlessness. I give you my doubt. I give you my despair. I give you all the longing I hold inside. Help me to listen to these signs of change, of growth; help me to listen seriously and follow where they lead through the breathtaking empty space of an open door.

 

Befriending My Depression

befriending depression (2)

 

As I meet with a new doctor she reviews my list of prescriptions.

“Do you still need this one?” she asks while pointing at my anti-depressant medication.

I take a deep breath and proceed to tell her my history with depression: “I had my first depression when I was 13 years old, the next one at age 19, another one in my mid-20s, then again when I was 40,” I said. “That last one was deeper and longer than any of the others and I started the medication.”
“Okay,” she said while nodding. “Sounds like you’re a lifer for meds.”

“Yep, probably.”

***

I’ve had this conversation with a variety of physicians, including a dermatologist who said, “You look fine to me!” To which I replied, “That’s because of the medication—it helps me not to be depressed.”

Another doctor suggested I see a therapist and I said, “I’ve done years of talk therapy and have met with four different therapists during my life. I know my depression well enough that if I need a therapist, I see one.

***

My depression is part of who I am and I am well-acquainted with it. When I notice the inner flatness I take a survey: how have I been sleeping? Do I need to increase my vitamin D and/or B12? Do I need to get out of the house and move more? And, as an Enneagram 4, am I veering toward the unhealthy attributes? If so, do I need to do a life correction and move toward the Enneagram 1? Or, is this the return of “darkness, my old friend?”

***

For decades I’ve been ashamed of my mental illness.My friends remember my depression at 19 and describe me as sitting in the corner at Bible Study with a pullover hoodie and greasy hair. I’m ashamed by that description. A few months after I began anti-depressants I wanted to stop because I was “feeling better and don’t need them anymore.” My husband wisely said, “You feel better because of the medication. You have a disease—the mental illness of depression.”

I don’t like the phrase “mental illness” because of the portrayal of people mental illness in popular culture—scary, erratic, irrational. I want to appear normal, steady, and have-it-all-together, not someone who lives with a mental illness.

***

When I first learned of the “dark night of the soul,” I wondered if that’s what I experienced. I asked one of my seminary professors and he quickly responded, “No, that’s depression, not the dark night.”

“How can you tell the difference?” I asked.

In the dark night you still function in life and you have full expression of your emotions,” he said. “With the dark night God is silent. God’s silence is leading you into a deeper or newer form of prayer.”

***

A wise friend suggested that I “befriend my depression” which seemed ridiculous to me. Nevertheless, I’ve pondered this idea and I have come to understand that to befriend my depression is to accept it as an essential part of me as much as my delight at a good joke. To befriend my depression means not disowning and heaping shame on this part of me in an attempt to appear normal. I will never be cured of my depression but medication helps me manage it. I know I will need to introduce this friend to future doctors as “my friend.”

I consider my daily pill as a gift from God. And because that pill is a gift from God it is a daily reminder of my dependency on God. I cannot make myself whole, only God can and there is the grace which allows me to befriend my depression.

befriending depression (4)

A Lesson in Yielding: St. Kevin of Glendalough

(St. Kevin of Glendalough’s Feast Day is June 3 and I returned to my reflection just after we returned from our trip to Ireland in 2016. I offer it again to you.)

 

Kevin of G.

 

Last fall Kevin and I participated in the The Soul’s Slow Ripening: Monastic Wisdom for Discernment pilgrimage in Ireland. We learned about St. Kevin of Glendalough, an important figure in Celtic Christianity and we were intrigued with the most famous story about St. Kevin holding a bird in his hand while he prayed.

A little background: the original Kevin is somewhat mysterious—it is challenging to know where the facts about him end and the myths begin. For instance, it is said that Kevin was born in 498 and died in 618 giving him about 120 years of life.

He lived as a hermit in a cave in Glendalough yet he attracted people and created community—his cave became the hub of a monastery.

Many of the stories about St. Kevin suggest that he had a deep relationship with the natural world. For example, one legend is that the loneliness of a hermit’s life was alleviated when “the branches and leaves of the trees sometimes sang sweet songs to him.”

Then there is the famous story of St. Kevin and the blackbird.

One day, as the story goes, Kevin was praying with his arm outstretched in his cell in the monastery. The cell was so small that his right arm had to poke out through the window. As he was praying, a blackbird came and nestled in his hand. Then the blackbird started to build a nest. When the nest was complete, the blackbird laid an egg.

Once Kevin realized that the nest and the egg were in his hand, he decided not to move until the egg had hatched and the fledgling had flown away. He didn’t want to risk breaking the egg.

One of the great things about legends is that simple stories are never that simple. This one works on several levels: a good deal of Celtic spirituality is about finding love in hard places; it is about both blood and stone. So, here we have St. Kevin, in his austere cell, undertaking something which is painful and difficult. Another level of the story is the small chick, a fragile creature for which Kevin feels great tenderness, inviting nurture and the pain that might involve. And another facet is yielding to what is emerging.

When we returned home, I ordered the Dancing Monk icon of St. Kevin (from Rabbit Room Arts) then found a small wood hand sculpture and I added a small nest with a bird. These reminders of St. Kevin have been on our home altar since October and I pass it several times a day and  I reflect on these invitations:

*I am invited to yield to what is, to what has been, and what will be.

*I am also invited to pray for the patience of St. Kevin because I sorely lack it.

*And I am invited to submit to God’s work in me, in (my) Kevin, and in our lives.

Kevin of Glendalough Dancing Monk

Seamus Heaney wrote this lovely poem:

St. Kevin and the Blackbird

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff

As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands

And lays in it and settles down to nest.

 

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked

Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked

Into the network of eternal life,

 

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand

Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks

Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

 

*

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,

Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?

Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

 

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?

Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?

Or has the shut-eyed blank of underneath

 

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?

Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,

“To labour and not to seek reward,” he prays,

 

A prayer his body makes entirely

For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird

And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

The Spirit Level, 1996

 

Also, Christine Valters Paintner wrote this exquisite poem here.

Questions I ponder:

  • How many times in my life do I reach out my hands for a particular purpose and something else arrives?
  • What needs to be surrendered or yielded in my life for new life to emerge?
  • What might need nurturing? Is there anything holding me back from nurture: fear of pain, fear of loss, fear of what it might cost?

Ashamed No More

blog--2-20-18 broken chains

Millions of people are familiar with Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability and shame beginning with her 2010 TED talk on YouTube. Brown originally thought only a few hundred people would watch the video but it was quickly forwarded and shared around the internet world. She has admitted to feeling enormous shame over doing a TED talk about vulnerability and shame but she is learning to “embrace vulnerability and transform the shame.”

Brown is a social researcher who has studied the connection of shame and vulnerability. Her research reveals that our shame blocks our ability and willingness to be vulnerable and to live, as she describes it, “whole-hearted lives.” According to Brown, there are three universal truths about shame: 1) we all have it; 2) we’re all afraid to talk about it; and 3) the less we talk about it, the more we have it.

The Lent season invites us to face our shame and allow God to transform our shame into honor before God. I read in Leader magazine that “To be shamed, to be recognized as less than the image one has carefully crafted to bestow honor on one’s family and community, destroys people psychologically and spiritually.” The writers continued: “We need salvation from the disgrace we suffer and need to have our honor restored.” This is our Lenten journey—to allow the old patterns of disgrace and shame to be broken by what God has done in and through Jesus. Because Jesus Christ’s shameful death by crucifixion is redeemed by his resurrection, our shame is also redeemed.

To talk about shame in church, and especially in worship, takes courage and conviction because shame touches the deepest places of our hearts. Shame is even difficult to talk about even with those we are closest to, because shame indicates the disgrace we feel in failure—either by actively having done something wrong or by having failed to do something right, as we see in Prov. 14: 33-35: “Wisdom is at home in the mind of one who has understanding but it is not known in the heart of fools. Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people. A servant who deals wisely has the king’s favor, but his wrath falls on one who acts shamefully.”

When Adam and Eve ate the fruit of knowledge, their eyes were opened—dare we say they felt shame?–covered up their nakedness from one another, and then hid from God. What happened after God confronted them? Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the snake. They covered up, they hid themselves, and they blamed others (Genesis 3).  Adam and Eve give us the first example of shame. It seems that shame is embedded in us at a cellular level—and because it embedded in us, that only an act of God can heal our shame through Jesus Christ. The transformation of our shame is a gift from God.

But, while transformation is God’s doing, we cannot be passive recipients of God’s healing, transforming work rather we must be active participants with God. Ever since the day God formed us from the dust of the earth and breathed life into us, we have been called into partnership with God. God seldom works alone. God often works with and through humanity. We are coworkers with God to bring about healing and transformation. We co-labor with God to bring about God’s reign here on earth, as in heaven. We participate with God in our own healing through our faithfulness to God.

As collaborators with God, then we need to consider what we can do to transform the shame in our lives and in our congregations. According to Brown, we need to talk about shame for healing to take hold in the depths of our hearts. This might mean talking privately with a pastoral counselor, spiritual director, or a psychotherapist. Or, we can learn from Twelve Step groups who do talk about their lives and the things they are ashamed about for it is in the talking—the confessing—the shame begins to be healed.

If a church does dare to talk about shame, there will probably be some pushback—or some kind of resistance—because people will not naturally or willingly talk about shame and woundedness. But what if a congregation does embrace God’s offer to heal shame this Lenten season? Then I think we become close to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s preference for a church to be “a church of sinners rather than a church of saints,” as he describes in Life Together.

Brown describes this healing as becoming “authentic” and “risking vulnerability” and she frames this as “wholehearted living.” I would reframe her language to the abundant living of carrying Jesus’ yoke from his promise in Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

To live as Jesus does gives us an opportunity to live in the Spirit and to take his light burden means to live in freedom from shame and the isolation that being bound in shame does to us. Carrying Jesus’ yoke restores us to honor—to trustworthiness, freedom, and humility. Humility means making peace with our shame because we know ourselves to be both forgiven and loved by the One who is without shame.

This Lent season provides us with a framework to touch those tender, wounded places of shame, to talk about the shame, and in turn, offer it all to God for God’s healing, forgiving touch. God is doing a new thing, recognizing our true nature and making a way for us to become fully human again. By the time we arrive at Easter we can boldly sing with the hymn writer of “And Can It Be”

“My chains fell off, my heart was free,

I rose, went forth and followed Thee.”

We can joyfully proclaim, “Ashamed no more!”

 

Listening as an Act of Love

listening (3)

In the late 1980s, in a small group gathering, Dallas Willard said: “Listening is an act of love.” I had chills as I recognized the truth of his statement and I quickly wrote it down. I’ve been ruminating on this phrase for thirty years now. And I try to listen lovingly as a spouse, a family member, a friend, a spiritual director, and a church member. When I listen with love or am listened to with love, the competing, clamoring internal voices are quieted down and God’s own voice can be heard.

 

During the recent Christmas holiday my husband, Kevin, and I traveled to Southern California to be with my family. We live in Michigan and don’t often see my family but connect via phone and/or social media and had not visited my family for a few years. I was anxious because I’m not always certain how we will be received—will we be in the way of everyone else’s plans? Will people make time for us? Will people be interested in our lives? Will they listen to us and our stories?

 

My anxiety is grounded in my (unhealthy) desire to not be a bother to people. I don’t want to make presumptions on others because what if I am rejected? I am not certain that people are interested in me and my life so I fret before a visit home.

 

I did make plans to for us to visit Dennis, Susan, and their sons on Susan’s birthday. I’ve been friends with them for forty years while their friendship with Kevin is briefer and as my spouse. I wondered: will they be interested in Kevin? Will my friends talk with Kevin or only to me? Will they ask him questions about his experiences, observations, the state of his soul?

 

As our time together progressed, Susan began asking Kevin about his work. As she talked with him, she leaned toward the dining table and rested her elbow on it with her chin cupped in her hand. She was listening intently to his story of vocational discernment. And the more she listened the more Kevin shared. As she asked follow-up questions about his discerning process he moved into deeper descriptions of his conversation with his spiritual director. Susan listened carefully with a caring heart and his story unfolded. He was feeling heard by Susan. He was feeling loved.

***

When I lovingly listen to another I am giving of myself to that person. I am giving of my time, my mental, emotional, and my spiritual energy as I clear away my own concerns in order to give full attention to the other person.

As Jan Stairs wrote in Listening for the Soul, “Listening happens best when we pause and take time to hear more deeply and reflect upon the depths we hear. Our souls simply cannot thrive in a fast-paced life without claiming some time to take things in, uncover what lies deeply within, and mull things over … listening for the soul requires ongoing attention and sustained habits of reflection,” (p. 21).

In the conversation between Susan and Kevin, they both paused at moments to reflect—either in response to a question or in the answer itself. Both of them were reflecting on the unfurling of love within the conversation.

 

I have learned that I am able to listen to others because I have been lovingly listened to: by my husband, family members, my former therapist, different spiritual directors, and friends like Susan. Because I have been “heard into speech” (as Nelle Morton described loving listening), and have been accepted as I am, I can, hopefully, lovingly hear others into speech. I can lean in toward the person with open-hearted freedom and hear their hearts just as Susan leaned toward Kevin across the dining table.

***

Several hours later, after we hugged Dennis and Susan goodbye, we left our time with them feeling loved. We described it as “our hearts were warmed” by the attentive, compassionate, open-hearted listening we received.

Prayer of the week: 2018 flu

blog-flu prayer

 

Healing God—
Be present to all of those who are sick—family members, friends, and acquaintances.
Be with them as they rest and repair their bodies.

Healing God—
Be present to the family members and caregivers of the sick ones—give them stamina, patience, and wisdom as they tend to those they love.

Healing God—
Be present to the medical professionals who desire to meet the demand for medications, for full-health for their patients, and to calm fearful caregivers. Give them stamina, good health, patience, wisdom, and a sense of humor as they care for a sick population.

Loving God—
Be present to the families whose loved ones have died due to the flu. Touch their sorrowing hearts as they grieve their loss.

Wise God—
Be present to those in power that they may make wise decisions about both health care and sick leave. Give them compassionate hearts toward those in need and not overly concerned about money.

Wise God—
Be present to the media and give them wisdom and prudence to not make a challenging situation worse by over-reporting. Let the media be of assistance to the community—local and national—rather than creating more fear.

Wise God—
Be present to each of us and enable us to be wise and prudent in how we care for others and for our own bodies. Help us to be gentle with one another. And remind us: “Come, you that are blessed by God, inherit the kingdom prepared for you … I was sick and you took care of me,” Matt. 25: 34-36.

Loving God–
Thank you for listening to our prayers, today and always. Amen.

***

(Not me in the photo but it could have been for the past few weeks. I am grateful for Kevin, family members, medical professionals, and medicine).

 

Where is God?

Wise men with Jesus

The Christmas pageants, nativity plays, and carols all seem very distant as we watch the news, as wars persist in Syria and Afghanistan and Congo and South Sudan, as we watch North Korea and the United States fire words at each other. We do our best to keep these tragic stories at bay and social media and popular culture work hard to collude with us.

Last month we heard, told, sang, prayed a Christmas story of love and peace, of a God who came to save the world.  But there are many who justifiably ask when tragedy strikes, “Isn’t this Christmas stuff absurd in the face of all this conflict?” Where is God in the mess of the world? Where is hope now? The safe, beautiful, idyllic scenes of the Christmas cards seem a million miles from the reality of the suffering people are facing.

But if our faith seems irrelevant or inadequate perhaps we need to share some of the responsibility. Christmas has become tame and domesticated–treated as either a cozy source of emotionally uplifting platitudes or as a way to help our American economy thrive through extravagant Christmas purchases. Perhaps we have neglected to take the stories surrounding Jesus’ birth seriously. It’s hard for us to appreciate the full impact of the stories about Jesus’ birth without entering into the brutality he confronted as an infant and the vulnerability of a peasant family like Jesus’ family encountered.  Jesus was born into a world ruled by a Caesar who spent resources glorifying himself as “savior of the empire” that should have been spent in saving his subjects from poverty, famine, or from Herod himself.  Jesus was born to a people who were delivered from slavery in Egypt, but ruled by a king who drove him and his parents back there as refugees. The gospel stories are very clear about just how great and how oppressive the powers and principalities were at the time of Jesus’ birth.  And when we read the story of the wise men, of Herod’s fury, of the slaughter of innocent babies, and of the fleeing of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to Egypt, we know life after that first Christmas was not the safe, beautiful, idyllic we prefer to portray about Christmas.  The “peace on earth” sung by angels is followed by death, destruction, suffering, and evil.

Where was God?

Last Sunday, we celebrated Epiphany, remembering when the wise men met and worshiped the Baby Jesus. They brought with them on their journey three deeply symbolic gifts. They came prepared to make a particular sort of response to the Messiah. They came with a set of expectations which make it much more likely that they would recognize God when they find him.

First, the wise men came with gold.  If we are serious in our discipleship we will let Jesus impact the material things of our lives. For instance, the way we earn and spend our money. Or, the way we spend our time, use our talents. Or, what we are prepared to let go of, give up.  It’s interesting that people’s first response to a tragedy is to give money—millions and millions of dollars of aid for hurricane, wild fires, and flooding relief. Our urge to be generous is a sign of God at work.

Second, the wise men came with frankincense. Frankincense–incense–was, and still is, used in prayer. It symbolizes openness to a world beyond the material, a world we can see and touch. Frankincense symbolizes our openness to mystery, an openness to the God who is infinitely greater than we can comprehend. We often feel–we often are–helpless in the face of tragedy. Our understanding fails. Our ability to act fails. If we are serious in our search for God we need to accept that we don’t already have the answers. Wise women and men searching for God today bear the frankincense that leads them into prayer, that says, I don’t know it all, I’m open to God’s unknown future, to what God may do next, not just what God has done already.

Third, the wise men came with myrrh. Myrrh is for embalming the dead. It is a bitter herb, a foretaste of the suffering that this Christ child, and those who follow him, would have to face. If we are serious about our search for God at work in the mess of the world, it is no good thinking that the journey will be without pain. Sometimes we feel the urge to turn away from the news. Sometimes we turn away from those in our communities. And sometimes we turn away from our own pain because we’d rather not “go there.” But the message of the wise men is that myrrh is an inescapable part of life. If God is to be found in war-battered places it will be by those who live already live there, the people who have the courage to go there and to stay there, who find the strength to rebuild and hope again.

If God is to be found in the painful places of our lives it will be by facing our suffering, sticking with the questions, not hiding behind platitudes and hoping it will all go away. We won’t find God in the mess of the world if we try to leave the myrrh behind, to avoid the death, to take the easy route.

Where is God?

God is present wherever love is expressed, in the tears of those whose lives are forever impacted by tragedy, and in the hearts and minds of those who respond with compassion, mercy, and devotion.