Sunday, July 21, 2013

Day 7: Light

Today is Day 7 of my commitment to post daily for seven days. I must confess that I feel a bit anxious, strange as that may seem. Part of me is wondering: can I do this one more time?

When I started out on this venture, I hadn't fully realized how hard it was going to be to make such a commitment. It has been, for me, much more than a simple promise to do something that I could then carry out. It has been an act of trust that has stretched me considerably. (Being stretched is not all bad, of course, but it is not always comfortable.)

I have been stretched into trusting because, quite truly, each evening when I have sat down at my computer, I have had no idea what I was going to write. I had a word and an image but nothing more. I had to trust that something would be given to me to write - for I cannot do this alone. (I actually cannot do much of anything alone but here, having committed myself, I can really feel it.)

Despite my proclamations of faith, there are many questions lurking in the shadows as I write. What if nothing comes? What if God decides to leave me on my own this time and nothing sensible comes to mind? And more deeply, what if God does not show up and I am left alone in darkness?

This last question, of course, is about much more than just whether or not something worthwhile shows up on my blog. It is about the bigger commitment of relying on the Holy One to guide my every word and action, to be with me in all that I do. I cannot surrender to Him half-way - for that would be no surrender at all and would be a lukewarm love at best. I want to make the full surrender, but I am afraid.

Our world is so full of darkness. I have gotten so that I skip over many of the newspaper articles that report how many people were killed by the latest suicide bomber in the Middle East. Reading daily about the bodies found on my own city streets is almost too much to bear. Beyond the current news reports, humanity's history implants in each of us unwanted remembrances of wars, genocides and unspeakable tragedies. Will it never end?

In a world so full of darkness, it is hard to commit oneself to the Light. While the Christ tells us, "...take courage, I have conquered the world" (John 16:33), looking around me, reading the news, the world does not appear to be conquered. I see darkness. And not only do I see darkness around me; sometimes I also see darkness within me.

I want to believe in the Light but I am afraid.

Some reading this might be surprised. "You? Afraid? I never though you doubted or that you were afraid." It is indeed true and it could not be otherwise. It is one of the most challenging parts of being human: the uncertainty, the not-knowing what is real and true. Even Jesus, the human being, was afraid when He made His surrender.

Hence, it is not wrong to doubt or be afraid. It is, in fact, quite normal. But "normal" does not make it easy nor does it tell us what to do next.

Were it not for the Christ, we would have no idea what to do next. As I reflected on this tonight and gazed upon the image above, a poem was born in me. I share it with you now, as this seven day series draws to a close, in a spirit of hope for all that is yet to come:

my soul,  hard and green,
awaits its reckoning day,
hanging on a tree.

encased in its rind of fear,
it sees nothing but darkness,
not even the promise
of  the tiny seeds
buried within its heart.

“i am alone,” it sobs,
“why have you abandoned me?”
it cries to the heavens.
“are there only storms
and nothing more?”

and then it prays.

“ O holy One,
be with me.
may your Light
ripen my soul,
softening it
with the warmth
of your unseen
make of me
sweet food
to strengthen
the  lost and hungry.
take every bit of me
and feed me
to the earth.
make of my seeds
new life
and lasting hope
until your Light
quenches all darkness
and together
we live forever
in You.


[Note: The seven words that have been the backbone of the series have been central to my life for some time now. I was first called to listen for them as part of an online retreat and later they became my "holy pauses", moments of prayer throughout the day and night - when I remember to pause, of course... :-)]

(You are invited to share your reflections, images or poetry relating to this series, as instructed here.)

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Day 6: Joy

As I sit down this evening to write about joy, I find myself feeling a bit anxious. How does one write about joy?

When I think of my experiences of joy in life, they have been quite distinct from my experiences of happiness.

Happiness seems to be more of an emotion, a feeling that springs up when something goes right - when the weather is beautiful, when a goal is attained, when an experience has been fun or satisfying. Happiness is invariably a "good" feeling - an emotional state that we quite naturally seek out for the pleasure it gives us.

When viewed this way, happiness seems to be dependent on specific experiences. And experiences, we know, are quite changeable in this life. Like the tide with its ebb and flow, the happiness felt in one moment may ebb away from us long before we want it to. The sunset was so beautiful...but now it is gone. The gathering of friends or family was so much fun...but now it is over. Life quickly returns in all of its ordinariness.

Happiness may also be snatched away at any moment, often quite arbitrarily. Everything was proceeding quite happily until...the drunk driver came speeding down the street...the phone rang and they told me...I had a sudden pain in my chest...and so on.

We can increase our chances of experiencing happiness - and often spend much of our lives engaged in this endeavor - but we cannot seem to control its disappearance. It may gradually slip through our fingers or it may be brutally torn out of our hands, but its impermanence is inevitable.

Joy, however, is different.

People speak of joy when they hold their newborn child for the first time. Or when they sit in silence with someone they love deeply. Yet how are these experiences any different? These moments are just as fleeting as all of the others in this life. The child grows up and the love may grow cold...

These experiences we call joy are, I believe, just glimpses of the Eternal for which we all long, whether we are aware of it or not. In fact, Joy itself is a longing, both fulfilled and waiting to be fulfilled, a perpetual dance. It is a longing for the Love that doesn't stop, but continues to empty itself only to be filled yet again.

Joy knows the truth of the Love, even when love is not felt. It is a Truth deeper than the knowledge of my mind or the perception of my senses, known profoundly even in times of pain or emotional dullness.

Joy is my soul resting in God, even when I cannot see or sense that God is there.

Joy is an eternal hope, a growing peace, a gift given in grace and mercy. Joy is a love renewed continually in our hearts by the heart of the living God.

May you ever know Joy...

(You are invited to share your reflections, images or poetry relating to this series, as instructed here.)

Friday, July 19, 2013

Day 5: Love

Me and my stupid promises...I am utterly exhausted tonight and now find myself having to write about love. I can't say that I feel much love right now. Why did I commit myself to doing this?

Yes, I am complaining, despite all of those fancy words I wrote last night. Not enough time to eat and sleep properly. A sink full of dishes that I keep not getting to. Finding a place to repair yesterday's flat tire. An emergency stuck into an already full schedule. Not to mention my cell phone signal quitting during a telephone session with a patient. No, I'm not feeling a lot of love at the moment...

Of course, there is a reason why I am writing my complaint here...

The word "love" is used so frequently and so loosely in our culture that I fear it has almost lost meaning. Love is too often confused with romance or sentimentality as though it were a mere feeling. (Even I succumbed to choosing a pink flower for this photo a couple of weeks ago, as though a reflection on love should look like a valentine.)

I am not feeling a lot of love at the moment but that does not mean that I am not completely and inexorably in love. Or perhaps I should say, in Love.

It is quite natural that we would like love to be of the happy feeling sort. It is no great mystery why our culture directs so much attention to romantic love: when going well, it feels very good. And we like to feel good. That is how we are made.

However, love, in its truest, deepest sense doesn't always feel good. In fact, it often does not feel good at all. Perhaps one of the keenest (and most painful) experiences of this is the new mother who finds that she feels love for her baby rarely if at all. She knew there would be interrupted sleep, dirty diapers and constant demands, but she didn't know how this would affect her feelings. She knows she loves her baby but she doesn't feel it at all in the way she had imagined in her sentimental daydreams. (It is good that we have sentimental daydreams or the species would never procreate.)

There are many other times when love, the feeling, fails to show up. When we are overtired. When a child behaves badly. When a spouse is selfish or chronically ill or emotional unavailable. When our dreams fall apart. And many, many other times.

The greatest act of love in human history most assuredly did not feel good. Not only were there nails and thorns, but there was the betrayal of friends and the humiliation of being treated unfairly. To have done so much good and then be publicly executed like a common criminal. To appear to the world to be an utter failure and to have only trust to hold onto. Jesus, the human being, could not have known that He would rise from the dead. He could only trust that He would - while feeling the blood drain out of His body.

Love, in the deepest sense, is a commitment, an inner knowing, an enduring. It is walking through the darkness, while trusting that there is light. And most importantly, it is not a solitary experience. It is the giving of self to Other (and all others) to which I am committed. It is the inner knowing that another is good when that goodness cannot be easily seen. It is an enduring, not for myself but for the other, even when it seems that I can endure no more. It is a willing entrance into the darkness so that another will not have to await the light alone.

And so I write to you this evening with great love. Not my own love which is weak and complaining - but with a Love that rescues me from myself. It is a Love to which we are all invited and that deepens in us the more we share it.

Come, my brothers and sisters. Let us love one another.

(You are invited to share your reflections, images or poetry relating to this series, as instructed here.)

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Day 4: Mercy

8:20 PM. I was driving home tonight after a long work day when... k-thunk, k-thunk, k-thunk. A flat tire. My cell phone told me that the temperature was 90 (but "feels like 96"). As I began to call for emergency roadside assistance, I could feel the beginning of exasperation, the inner complaint about how exhausting my day had been, how I had not yet had dinner, how my schedule tomorrow begins early and is full. Then I realized that I did not have to be stressed about this. I did not have to complain about how life was treating me.

As I waited, I noticed that the sky was beautiful and an occasional bird circled overhead. There was a slight breeze created by the cars and trucks whooshing by me on the freeway. I was hungry but I knew I would eventually eat. I was hot and tired but knew eventually I would be cooler and could rest. I realized that this moment in time was but a moment in time. I could spend it reviewing perceived "injustices" or I could simply live it and be free to experience whatever happened next as the river we call Life flowed by.

As I consider the twin notions of justice and injustice, it occurs to me that I often have in my mind a concept of how things should be. Generally this concept is based on some imagined principle of fairness. In my situation this evening, I might think that it really wasn't fair that I should have a flat tire under such circumstances, given how "good" I had been today in my hard work serving my patients. I shouldn't have to undergo these discomforts and inconveniences.

But why shouldn't I? Does justice require that, if I do good (or think I am doing good), I should be free of the unpleasant experiences that afflict others?

Or, on the other hand, does justice demand that I be punished with tribulations if I have behaved badly? Would justice have me run over by a truck while waiting if had I been selfish or rude today?

Stated this way, it sounds a bit absurd. Yet I know that the underlying question often troubles people, especially as they try to sort out the dilemmas of suffering and regret. From our limited perspective as human beings, we often assume that our notion of justice, "reward the good people, punish the bad people", is also God's notion.

Yesterday I wrote about grace, the unmerited Divine assistance we cannot earn. Today I write of mercy. Mercy, I think, is a form of grace that reaches even more deeply into our hearts. Mercy is the gift of forgiveness and healing given when I am quite undeserving of it. When I'm guilty and I know I'm guilty, I am offered compassion and not punishment? An embrace instead of a slap? It seems hard to fathom.

In many spiritual traditions, prayers to God to "have mercy" are common and often repeated as though a mantra or a chant. I do not think, however, that this is because God needs to be convinced to be merciful. As with grace, the mercy is already given, a seed planted in our hearts, waiting to be noticed and cultivated. The repetition of the words is not for God but for us. So that we will begin to believe in Mercy.

Embracing Mercy frees us. The grip of guilt that threatens to choke us is loosened. The rages that poison us are washed away. We are free and can love and be loved.

Now, rest beckons. May you rest tonight and always in the embrace of His mercy.

(You are invited to share your reflections, images or poetry relating to this series, as instructed here.) 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Day 3: Grace

At 9:06 PM tonight, I gave in. I turned on the air conditioning. Normally, when at home, I try to tough out the warm spells with fans but tonight I finally capitulated. My thermostat read 84, which did not sound that bad. But I briefly checked the weather report and learned that it was 83 outside but "feels like 90", technology's way of telling me how high humidity is increasing my discomfort.

People often express puzzlement as to why I resist using air conditioning in such warm weather. I admit that it is an odd quirk of mine. Often, when others ask, I say something about energy conservation or saving on costs. However, in my heart of hearts, I know that is not the real reason why.

In the summer of 1971, I had a live-changing experience - or perhaps two life-changing experiences. First, I volunteered with a youth organization to help a summer park program in inner city Minneapolis. At the age of 15, my eyes were suddenly opened to the injustices of poverty and racism. It was not that I had not heard of such things before. It was now that they had names (Jerome, Denise, Chadwick...I still remember). Some were disabled people, others alcoholics. Some were sweet children who seemed to like me even though I didn't know what to do with them. They lived in houses where the doors and windows were always open during the summer heat. One did not see even a room air conditioner in that neighborhood.

At the end of that summer, my family and I moved to a nice suburb of Columbus, Ohio. For the first time in my life, we lived in a house with central air conditioning. Some of the houses in the neighborhood had their own swimming pools. Although my house in Minneapolis had been nice enough, there we swam in lakes and white picket fences surrounded our modest homes. In the suburbs, it seemed that we were immersed in a atmosphere of affluence in which we were supposed to take pride.

I did not. My heart was still consumed with the people I had met and loved in that hot and dusty inner city neighborhood in Minneapolis. How could I sit in the comfort of this nice air conditioned house while they endured the heat from which they had no escape? And I knew that it wasn't just those few people. My eyes were now opened and I saw that millions around the globe suffered from heat and cold and hunger and violence at levels I could not begin to imagine.

Someone recently said to me, "You get what you deserve." Certainly I have heard that phrase before and I can't say that I've ever really believed it. I suppose there may have been times when I worked really hard at something and thought for a moment that I deserved the positive recognition I received. But no - my mind would always be pulled back to the people in that park in Minneapolis, especially the children... Did they have the same chance as me of winning a state science fair award or obtaining a college scholarship? Did they get what they deserved?

The obvious answer brought me shame. And it still does. They did not deserve the hardship of their lives. And I did not deserve the privileges of mine. We were all born into our families as innocent babies and our environments gave us what they gave us. Our only real choices came much later, after the foundation had already been built, for better or for worse.

Grace... the dictionary tells us that grace is "unmerited divine assistance" (emphasis mine) given to purify us, free us from sin, make us whole and holy. This is quite a foreign notion in a culture that teaches us that we get what we work for (or "deserve") and our worth is measured by what we have attained.

By its very definition, I cannot deserve the Divine assistance which is grace. I cannot earn it or achieve it. I cannot claim it as my own - for the minute I try to, it is no longer divine assistance. It is just me pretending to be god.

How then can I receive this grace then if not by my own effort?

I have little knowledge of theology and cannot tell you what any church, even my own, teaches about this. What I tell you I can only tell you because of grace itself.

Grace is already here. Grace is in my heart. It is in your heart too. It is like an overflowing fountain that has no limit or end. It flows and flows. If you have never seen it or heard it, you can begin now. Be still for a moment. Be open and ready.

At first it may seem as though there is nothing there. Please do not let that frighten you into thinking that you are the exception - that you do not have grace in your heart. It takes time to see it and hear it. To recognize what has been there all along. Sometimes there are things we need to face and move past in order to see and hear it more clearly. Do not let fear stop you. There is no need to be afraid. It is there and will make itself known...

You may ask how I know this. Look back at the image at the beginning of this post. How many times in my life have I walked by shrubs or trees with leaves beginning to open and taken no notice? Many more times than I can count and I am sure the same is true for you. However, as I begin to experience the grace within, I start seeing beauty that surrounds me, that has always surrounded me.

And Beauty is one of God's names...

(You are invited to share your reflections, images or poetry relating to this series, as instructed here.)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Day 2: Peace

I came home today after another full day at work and made myself a salad. It was then that I remembered my commitment to write and that tonight I was to write about peace. Suddenly I felt a need to shop. "It won't take long", I thought. "I'll just run into the Target up the street, pick up a couple of things..."

Seduced by the air conditioning on this warm and muggy evening, I found myself wandering about, searching for items of little significance and feeling undecided about what to buy. I finally left with my new stapler and a small tube of hand lotion.

As I was finishing up my purchase, I reflected on whether some part of me had thought that I could find peace in the cool world of retail newness. I knew that no conscious part of me would endorse that belief - but it hardly seemed a coincidence that I suddenly needed the stapler tonight.

The true gift, however, came when I emerged from the building and beheld a sky that had been painted bright shades of pink and orange in my absence. In that sky of setting sun, I was being offered another view at "peace", one that I could not so easily run from.

In my work as psychologist, people come to me in their anguish, crying out, "I just want some peace...", with tears often following. And I know what they mean. Of course, I can never fully know or understand another's pain, but I do know what it is like to feel a great turmoil within. One part of me will make a simple decision - only for another part of me to castigate myself for being so selfish (or whatever the fault-of-the-month may be). Then another part of me will try to reason with the harsh part of me and it can go on and on. If I allow it.

As I gaze upon the image above, I consider that this lovely flower has no turmoil. It lives in simple communion with its Creator, not striving to be anything more than what it is, not judging itself negatively for what it is not. It is simply being itself. If someone were to approach this flower and point out its flaws, real or imagined, the flower would continue its flowerly functions without dismay. Peace is in its nature and it cannot be otherwise.

However, you and I are not like the flowers. Peace within us and peace between us often seems elusive at best. As I reflect on this, it occurs to me how very fragmented we are, in our own minds and hearts, as well as in our species. In our selves, we often seem to be in a state of tension, with one part of self criticizing or negating another part of self. Some of us may experience this severely, with self fragmenting early in life because of abuse or other trauma. But probably most if not all of us experience some lack of wholeness in ourselves that keeps us from knowing peace.

Within our species, with its many cultures, we are also fragmented. We do not see ourselves as connected to one another, with our different colors and textures woven together into a single beautiful tapestry. Instead, we tend to see our own little patch of fabric as the real one, with the other patches in the quilt of necessity (called Earth) barely tolerated. We do not have to look across the world to find that the threads that bind us together are stretched to breaking. We may only have to look to the person in the car next to us in traffic or to the neighbor across the street.

How then can we ever find peace? Can our fragmented selves ever become whole? Is our species doomed to extinguish itself as we tear our "quilt" apart?

There is, of course, no simple answer. However, perhaps we can learn something from our friend, the flower. It is, after all, living in pure communion with itself and its Creator. As I gaze upon its image once more, not just with my eyes but from my heart, I see a truth. Though only one flower, I see that it has many petals. At first glance, they may all seem the same. But closer observation shows me that each petal is unique, perhaps a slightly different length or shape or hue. And each has one end that is free and unbound by the others. And each has one end drawn to a center of oneness. It is whole. It is holy.

Join me in allowing this image to enter your heart... May you know peace always, a living, growing peace that starts in this moment and never ends.

(If you would like to share your reflections in narrative, image or poetry, please e-mail me as outlined in the introduction to this 7 day series here.)

Monday, July 15, 2013

Day 1: Hope

As I begin writing tonight, I say a little prayer of blessing over this endeavor. Having completed my day's work, I find myself tired on this warm and muggy evening, with an itchy rash from the heat. Tiny bugs, like miniature kamikaze pilots, occasionally strike me and my computer screen. I have a bit of a stomachache. And I have promised to write something about hope...

Sometimes I'm not sure what hope really is or where it comes from. But I know hopelessness when I see it. And I see it nearly every day as I walk with people who are suffering. Perhaps you are one of them. Hopelessness, I think, is like a raw, gaping wound at the heart of one's life. When it strikes, it feels like life cannot be endured, like there is no reason to go on. Something vital I have longed for now seems impossible and totally out of reach. Hopelessness is a place of great darkness.

And so, I sense that hope is a deep longing and desire for something more than what I can see or experience in this moment. But even more than that, it is an experience of possibility that there can be change, that there can be growth from where I am now to something more. I do not know what is to come but I wait with an openness and a trust that the suffering in this moment is not all there is. The darkness is what I see; the light is what I believe...

In the image above, I see daisies waiting to bloom. Most of them are still tight in their buds but a few are beginning to open. The evening light and the imminence of their unfolding stir in me a sense of hope. But I cannot say, looking at the picture, that I know that they will flower. Their birth is not certain. A storm could lay them flat. A hungry animal could snatch them as food. There is still an uncertainty at the heart of their growth into fullness. It is not guaranteed.

It is in this uncertainty that we (and all created things) live. Sometimes when too many bad things have happened or positive change has eluded us for a long time, it is hard for us to believe in possibility or to trust that anything good can lie ahead. We may be afraid to hope, to trust, fearing that we cannot survive yet another disappointment.

And this is why we come together. We are not meant to walk this path alone. For when I can imagine nothing but darkness, perhaps you have just emerged into the light and can share an experience that will keep me walking. Or when you feel lost in the dark forest, perhaps I can walk along side of you and tell you stories of how others have found their way out.

We are more together than we are alone. And so, let us walk together. Let us become a people of hope.

(If you would like to consider contributing to this seven day project, please read the introduction and instructions here.)

Something new...

I have been a most negligent go for more than a month without posting anything?! I am ashamed. But I am also repentant and therefore hope you will forgive me.

To demonstrate the genuineness of my contrition, I am starting today a project that will continue daily for the next 7 days. Each day, I will post a word and associated photo, accompanied by a brief reflection. Although the photos and words have already been chosen (and are also posted in my office), I have no idea what I will write each day as I undertake this. But I will write something.

However, the project is not intended to stop there. I am also inviting readers, new and old, to also share reflections on these words/photos. Since this blog is not set up to accept comments, you may e-mail me your reflections, art, poetry, etc. related to the day's topic. Then, in approximately 2 weeks, I will do another 7 day cycle, posting the submissions of others. The reflections/art do not need to be "good", i.e. I don't want anyone to hold back because they think that whatever they might submit would be unworthy. The purpose of this is to share. Even if you think you have nothing to offer, consider that something might be offered through you for the benefit of an unseen other. This is not a contest. It is a gift-fest.

There are to be just a few basic ground rules:

(1) Since it is my blog, I have the right to decide if I think it is better not to post someone's submission. I don't imagine that I will need to invoke this much if at all but it is important for me to put it out there. If you submit something that I don't think should be posted, I will e-mail you back and explain why. (You would then have the option to modify whatever might be the "problem".)

(2) Please keep your submission consistent with the blog's nature and topic, e.g. offering hope, being respectful of others' beliefs (or lack thereof), etc.

(3) Please do not submit anything that is not yours, i.e. poetry, photos, videos, etc. that you do not own the rights to. If you are quoting someone, please say who you are quoting. If you want to include a link, I will check it out and allow it if it checks out OK.

(4) I need to know who you are - so please give me your name in your e-mail. (If I don't know you personally, it would also be helpful to know how you came to the blog.) I will not print your full name unless you ask me to (e.g. if your material is copyrighted or you want to offer a link to your own blog or art). Generally, I would discourage the use of full names for posting purposes and would ask you to tell me what identifier you would like me to use (e.g. initials, made-up name, etc.). If you don't tell me your preference, I will call you "anonymous".

(5) If you are a patient of mine, you are most welcome to participate but please do not submit anything here that is intended to be a clinical communication with me. If you need to talk to me as your psychologist, contact me as you normally would.

(6) You may submit something for each of the 7 days or for just one. There are no rules regarding this - as long as you don't spam me! (approximate deadline for submissions is August 5th).

So - send any e-mail submissions (indicating what day it is associated with), with your full name (will be kept private) and the identifier you would like me to use instead of your name to:
(Please do not use this e-mail address for anything other than this 7 day project because I do not otherwise monitor it regularly.)

So open yourself...allow gifts of words, images and sounds to be given through you...