Sunday, March 31, 2013

a piece of broken glass

(author's note: I am just completing my online course on creativity and monastic wisdom. One of the recent suggestions related to the scriptural accounts of God offering new names to people who responded to His call, e.g. Abram became Abraham. In brief, we were to take a contemplative walk, find a white stone and, if we felt so called, write upon it the new name we were given. The following is what occurred for me in response to this suggestion.) 

The weather was chilly and I knew I wouldn't want to remain outside long. It seemed wasteful of time and fuel to drive to a cold, windy beach or river bank just to find a stone. So I decided to bundle up and go for a walk in my urban neighborhood. "It is an unlikely place to find a smooth white stone", I conceded mentally, "but perhaps God will provide one for me."

I walked down the street as ponderously as I could in the brisk wind, heading toward the bridge. My street is a busy four lane route into downtown Cleveland and, at one point, becomes the uppermost layer of a confluence of freeways. As I walked, I scanned the sidewalk for some sign of a flat stone upon which I could envision myself painting.

The sidewalk over the bridge had most likely never been swept since it was replaced during a construction project several years ago. It contained much debris: cigarette butts, bottle caps, scraps of cellophane and plastic, all likely tossed from car windows or dropped carelessly by walkers like myself. There were many tiny stones of unknown origin as well as decaying bits of old leaves and seeds that might be best described as dirt. All of this - but no stones of the type I needed.

I continued my sojourn. "Just a bit further," I thought. "Perhaps God will provide."

And then I saw it. The remains of a broken bottle. It barely caught my eye at first as the bits of broken glass were spread over an area and brushed up against the sidewalk wall. They were half covered with debris, giving the impression that the bottle had been broken long ago. No labels clung to the fragments to tell the story of what the bottle had once been. Just bits of broken glass, coated with dirt and grime. And yet...

There was one piece of glass lying there that seemed just about the right size for my artwork. Its surface was rounded not flat, but there were no cracks or dangerously splintered edges. Could this be my "white stone", the rock that was to bear my new name?

I bent over and carefully picked it up, my hands well-protected in leather gloves. I examined it briefly and, as my mind began conjuring up visions for its future, I carefully slipped it into my coat pocket. I headed back to my house, my quest fulfilled.

Once home, with hand still gloved, I fished the fragment from my pocket, setting it in the kitchen sink. I turned on the hot water, allowing it to get warm and bathe my "stone" while I hung up my coat. From under the sink, I retrieved some dish soap and an old toothbrush. A few suds later and the many layers of dirt were swirling down the drain. Afternoon sun was pouring through my kitchen window and I was delighted to see the piece of glass sparkle. "You were made for something so much more than this," I told it. "You are so beautiful."

Drying it with a soft towel, I cradled my piece of broken glass gently in my bare hand. Still marveling at my treasure, I carried it to my work area and set it carefully on the heavy white paper protecting my desk. One by one, I dropped little splashes of color onto the concave side of my glass fragment, tilting it this way and that, allowing the inks to roll and blend and dry upon its surface.

As it dried, I contemplated my new name. In my heart, I already knew what it was to be.


But Mary stayed outside the tomb weeping. And as she wept, she bent over into the tomb and saw two angels in white sitting there, one at the head and one at the feet where the body of Jesus had been.
And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken my Lord, and I don’t know where they laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus there, but did not know it was Jesus. 

Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” She thought it was the gardener and said to him, “Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.” 

Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni,” which means Teacher. Jesus said to her, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary of Magdala went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” (John 20: 11-18)

For as long as I can remember, this has been my favorite account of the Resurrection of Jesus. The other disciples had been at the tomb and gone home, but Mary of Magdala remained there, weeping. I can only imagine the depths of her grief. Her mind must have been replaying the horrifying images of his bloodied body hanging lifeless on the cross. So much had He done for her that her love for Him knew no bounds. She had been so lost when she met Him. He had looked at her and saw who she really was, casting out the demons, freeing her from her inner torment. She loved Him and now wanted to properly prepare His body for burial. But someone had stolen the body.

Whenever I hear this Gospel account read, I am with her in her sorrow - until I hear His voice say quite simply, "Mary". In that instant, along with Mary of Magdala, I know and I am known. My spirit leaps with joy for He has spoken to my heart in that single word. As real as His death was - this was even more real. With her, I want to cry out, "I have seen the Lord!" (for indeed, I have). 

John's Gospel tells us that Mary responded to Jesus in Hebrew but it does not tell us what language Jesus had spoken. Because it was her language, I imagine Him speaking to Mary in Hebrew as well.

And so, the ink now dry, I write my new name upon the piece of glass:  מִרְיָם ("Miryam", Hebrew for Mary).


What does all of this mean? Of what possible significance is this little piece of glass on this Easter Day?

It means everything - for its story is the story of what He was done for my soul (and what He does for your soul as well).

Out of love, He comes searching for me. Though I am broken, soiled, cast off and half-buried in the world's debris, He sees me and holds me in His hand. He cleanses my soul, washing from it the layers of grime build up from centuries of sin, (first the world's, then my own). He looks at me with love and somehow sees the beauty of who I was created to be. I am still a piece of broken glass - that cannot be undone - but oh what beauty He has made shine forth from my brokenness! He fills my soul with color. As His light shines through me, it is simply too glorious for words.

Having done all of this, He then speaks to my heart, speaking a word that only He and I will know - a new name that I will bear in His kingdom where death has no more power. As with the other Mary, in the saying of my name, He sets me free that I too might love. And having my heart so changed, I walk with Him through this life of brokenness, seeking out other pieces of glass that lie shattered and lost amidst the world's debris.

Be still and listen, for He speaks your name as well... 

(Blessings to all on this Feast of the Resurrection.)

Monday, March 25, 2013

On sin and mercy

I do not recall if I've told this story before, so please forgive me if I have. Though the event itself was perhaps not such an unusual event for childhood, the memory of it is still quite poignant.

It occurred when my family was still living in Minneapolis and I was a young child. My mother, brother and I had returned from some outing, apparently having taken a bus, since we approached the house from the front. For reasons I no longer recall, my mother instructed me to wait at the front door while she and my brother went around to the back. They would enter the house through the back door and then let me in.

I waited and waited. I did not like being left behind and, in a moment of anger, I kicked the storm door, leaving a dent in it. I was, of course, let in the house and I'm sure the wait was not nearly so long as it felt. I do not remember my parents' response to this bit of acting out on my part - at least not in any words or actions. If I was yelled at, I do not remember it. I am sure I was not beaten for it. What I do remember though was my father trying to figure out how to repair the dent in the door.

He didn't have to say anything. I felt ashamed and knew he was disappointed in me. My father, who worked every day (Saturday mornings too) and then came home to have to house and yard maintenance chores, now had one more thing to do because of me. Looking back, I imagine he must have been angry, but he did not show it. My father was (and is) a kind and gentle man.

I felt a deep shame at my anger and how I lost control of it. I don't remember that I ever said I was sorry. (We didn't tend to verbalize things like that in my family.) I don't remember my parents ever saying that they forgave me either - but their forgiveness was evident in the way life continued as usual. They took care of me as they always did, helping me with school projects, including me in family outings, giving me gifts on my birthdays. My "sin" against them did not change their love for me.

I put the quotation marks around the word "sin" because it seems to be one of those words that has gone out of fashion in the popular culture. In fact, many of us balk at the word these days because of what it conjures up. What it conjures up is different for each of us, depending on what, if any, religious training we may have had early in life. For many, it evokes thoughts of punishment by an angry God - punishment to the point of damnation. To hell: the place where God sends sinners.

As I talk to many suffering people in my daily work, it is not unusual that this comes up in some form or another, even though I work in a secular setting. When bad things happen in life, it is not unusual for people to wonder: why is this happening to me? Is God punishing me? Some who ponder this question have some  regrets or guilt tearing at their souls. Others go searching for something. What could I have done?

It also not unusual for people to tell me, "I know I'm going to hell." (It always breaks my heart to hear this...) Sometimes there is a reason for this declaration, such as some past or present sin, but just as often this belief seems to be born of a general sense of "badness" that people feel about themselves. Often they have been repeatedly told they are bad in one manner or another - often through verbal, physical or sexual abuse.

This notion of the punishing and vengeful God has led some people to reject God all together. And, I might add, rightly so.

If you are wondering if you read that last line correctly, you did. We should reject this notion of God. If you have been taught these ideas about God, know that you have been misled. In most cases, the misleading likely came from someone who meant well but had a limited understanding of Christianity. In a few cases, the misleading may have come from someone who was simply looking for another way to control or abuse, using God and hell as a threat no different than the threat of a Santa Claus who won't bring presents to bad children.

(If you are a traditional believer and find yourself ready to stop reading, please don't. I am not about to mock God or the Bible in the least. Keep reading.)

God is love. God's love is total, unconditional. God loves every creature He has made and He does not withhold His love from anyone for any reason. His love is personal and endless in depth and scope. No exceptions. Not even for the worst of sinners or the baddest of the bad.

As a sinner, I do not have to repent in order for God to love me. I do not have to  pray for God to love me. I do not have to do good works for God to love me. I do not even have to believe in God for God to love me.

To believe otherwise is to suggest that God's love is conditional, not unconditional. "God will only love me if..." This notion of God makes God into a being rather like us, a being who gets angry and wants revenge. In this view, prayer and repentance are reduced to frantic efforts by us to try to change God so that He will love us again. Besides painting a picture of a God who is not very loving (not even as loving as my parents), it suggests that our relationship with God is always in a state of uncertainty, depending on whether we have been able to sufficiently appease Him.

Or, what may be worse, we see our relationship with God being based on whether we are "worthy". Knowing our faults or "badness" then makes it clear that we could not possibly have a relationship with this God who loves only the worthy.

To truly accept God's love, completely free and unconditional, is not nearly so simple as it may sound, however. One might think that such an unconditional love would make us feel free - it no longer matters whether I sin! God still loves me! I don't even have to work at it!

However, while it is true that my sin does not change God's love for me, my sin does change me. My sin causes me to see God differently - to project onto Him my guilt, my attitudes toward myself and others, until in my mind I have turned Him into a wrathful, punishing God who doesn't want me. My sin convinces me that God is not all-loving - so that I reject Him or I reject myself, either course leaving me stuck in despair.

Hence, the prayer, the repentance, the good works are indeed needed - not to change God but to change me so that I can experience and participate in His freely given love.

Furthermore, accepting that God's love as truly unconditional entails accepting that it is unconditional for everyone - even those who may have hurt me terribly or done great wrongs in the world. I need to let go of wrath and vengeance, even for the Hitlers, the child molesters, the mass murders of the innocent.

No, it is not an easy thing to accept that God's love is free and unconditional. Accepting this truth requires me to change - or rather to allow myself to be changed. Without His grace and mercy I could never do it.

This coming week we call "Holy Week" because we commemorate during this time the most abundant outpouring of love and grace and mercy imaginable. Please join me here again for Easter to celebrate the news of how we can be changed by the love of God.

(Others have written much more eloquently than me about the unconditional nature of God's love. Fr. Aidan Kimel, an Orthodox priest, writes and quotes others most beautifully on his blog:

Friday, March 22, 2013


As I have mentioned in recent posts, I have been participating in a online class integrating art and monastic values through Abbey of the Arts. The class is nearly over and one of our assignments was to write an "instructional poem" in the spirit of Wendell Berry's "How to be a Poet". It was to be a reminder to myself of how I want to approach my spiritual/creative vocation. As are most, I consider this poem to be a gift given to me, not because I am worthy of it or talented. Rather, it is a call to me. Perhaps in sharing it with you, it will call to something in you...not that you need to be a psychologist :-) but it may call to something that will aid you in your journey to being you.

how to be a psychologist

get out of bed and wash your face with gratitude.
open your heart and gaze upon God’s face
that you might recognize him
when later you see him at your door.
take care of yourself: eat breakfast, drink tea.
allow time to pray and reflect.
try not to be late.
bless whatever workspace you have been given.
bless the chairs, the pens, the paper,
the very air you will breathe
and remember that this place is to be
a garden where grace and healing can grow.
when the suffering one arrives,
greet him at the door with kindness, whatever his state.
remember that he comes because he is lost
and that he looks to you for hope.
be gentle and listen with care.
do not worry if you do not know what to say.
there may be no words or there may be many.
keep your heart open and your mind tranquil.
there is One greater than you at work here.
when the gift has been given through you
be ever grateful to the suffering one
for allowing you to walk with him.
do not dread overmuch the documenting you must do,
for you are writing the sacred stories
that perhaps no one else will ever hear.
allow yourself to feel their sadness
and do not run from the confusion and fear they hold.
embrace them with a reverence
as you would the wounds of the Savior –
for indeed, that is what they are.
now, go home. rest.
write poems, paint pictures, play music.
express and share the truth you have learned
that one day the world may come to understand.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Journey for Home

I remember the first time I walked into my new house in Minneapolis. I was 3 years old and we came in through the back door. Right ahead of me were the steps to the basement – kind of scary looking but I was determined not to be afraid. We lived in this house until I was 15 years old and it was my home.

The back yard had a large old elm tree that dropped a massive number of tiny seeds. Our yard was separated from our neighbors on both sides by a white picket fence. There was a detached garage, complete with a basketball hoop, set on an alley that ran parallel to the street. Being in Minnesota, the car often got stuck in the icy, snowy ruts that formed in the alley during winter. Neighbors always helped push each others’ cars to freedom.

Both the front and the back yard had plum trees – but the plums were small and sour. The trees were good for their blossoms in spring and for the change my brother and I earned each summer, picking up the rotten plums. Both the back and front yards were makeshift baseball diamonds in the summer where we played catch with my father or annoyed neighbors by hitting balls into their gardens. It was home.

After moving to Ohio just before my 16th birthday, I found myself in a suburban ranch style house in Columbus that did not suit me at all. Though I quickly learned to call it “home”, it never had the same feel to it. When I have driven by my old house in Minneapolis, decades later, it still calls up that feeling: home.

I’ve been reflecting on home – what it is and what it isn’t. I’ve often inwardly bristled when hearing someone say that they are going to “buy a new home”. A home, I have thought to myself, is not something you can buy. A house, yes; a home, no.

I  know many people who are homeless. A few of them literally had no place to live. However, many of the “homeless” I encounter live in nice enough apartments or houses. They do not roam the streets or sleep under bridges. Yet, deep in their hearts and souls, they are homeless.

Though my childhood in Minneapolis was certain not perfect (no one’s is), the “home” I experienced there was the safety of a stable, predictable family and neighborhood. My father went to work and came home again. My mother cooked dinner and we all sat down together to eat it. (No ice cream if you didn't eat your vegetables.) My brother and I could go out to play and not be afraid. We were expected to come home on time. We went to school and church down the street. We had chores and a small allowance.

There was no screaming and swearing. There were no beatings or berating. I never saw anyone in my family drunk or on drugs. I had a bed of my own to sleep in and no one violated it. No one read my diary (as far as I know!) or stole my privacy. If I had a recital or event at school, I never had to wonder if my parents would show up. I wasn't coddled - I was expected to help out – but neither was I made into a maid or substitute parent.

Perhaps you can understand now why I say that I know many people who are homeless. I was blessed to have a home built into my heart by parents who had enough resources and inner strength to carry out the task. So many people have not had this. Perhaps you are one of them. For those who are homeless, life often feels like a perpetual journey to search out a place of safety and security and love.

For those not having had a home built in to their heart as a child, this journey for home often involves many wrong turns as one tries to figure out what safety, security and love really are. Sometimes the one who appears to offer love turns out to be an illusion – or worse, a trickster, preying on the homeward-longing soul. At other times, love is found but then snatched away by death or deceit so that homelessness seems the only fate one is allowed.

One of the things I try to do in longer-term psychotherapy is to be a home-builder. Though we may have only an hour every week or two (or three), I offer my space, both physical and spiritual, to try to create a sense of safety and security and – yes, love. (Not love in any weird way that violates professional boundaries, but love in the sense of true and genuine caring that completely respects boundaries.)  As we build the home within, the terrors of homelessness begin to diminish and fewer wrong turns are made. Gradually, the journey begins to lead somewhere…

Yet there is a catch. I am but a human being. In my humanness, I may hurt or disappoint. Even if I miraculously avoid that, however, I am time-limited. Fear not, I’m not announcing that I am ill – just that I am mortal. Hence, my home-building skills are limited and I cannot promise forever.

And forever is what we all yearn for.

All of us, even me with my white-picket-fence childhood, are homeless in yet another way. Our souls, our deepest selves, search and long for a true home, an eternal home that cannot be snatched away. We want to be able to surrender ourselves to a Love that will not die. But often we are afraid. What if this One they speak of – this Creator among us as Savior – turns out to be but another hoax? Another promise broken?

And what is the promise? How will I know if I can trust it?

Here are just a few of the words of promise:

“Can a mother forget her infant,
be without tenderness for the child of her womb?
Even should she forget,
I will never forget you.” (Isaiah 49:15)

“I will heal their defection, says the LORD,
I will love them freely;
for my wrath is turned away from them.” (Hosea 14:5)

"I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me, because I live and you will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you. Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me. And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him." (John 14: 19-21)

In a word, the promise is Love: unconditional and eternal, with all wrong-doing completely forgiven.

There is, however, no promise that all suffering will cease. Indeed, suffering is predicted – at least for a time in this world. But the promise – the promise of this love is so great, that any suffering felt during this Journey for Home will be no cause for sorrow. In fact, it will be there, alive in the very heart of the eternal Love itself.

(9/11/13: I have removed the audio player and lyrics from this post, in accordance with my agreement with the publisher who kindly allowed this copyrighted material to be posted here for free for 6 months.)