Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving letter

(A number of years ago, I learned from my priest the beautiful practice of writing a letter on Thanksgiving Day to thank someone. Today, I write my letter here to one of my most faithful readers who passed away yesterday, leaving this life so as to enter the heart of God.)

My dear one,

I'm sure if you were here you would be protesting me writing a letter to thank you. You were always so humble and grateful to me for walking with you, for the time and words I shared with you. Toward the end, I think you began to truly understand that I was but an emissary for the living God who loved you immeasurably. And I'm sure that now you understand it more completely than I do.

I need to thank you, however, and probably should have thanked you long ago. You have taught me so much. From you, I have learned a great deal about suffering and fear and pain and doubt. But more importantly, I learned even more from you about courage and love and faith.

I can hear you protesting, even from heaven. You say that you learned from me, not I from you. You say that you were none of these things. But you were. And you bore witness in a way that I never could.

Over the years, you shared with me some of the deepest pains I have ever heard come from the mouth of another person. I remember, years ago, when you first revealed them, you disappeared from my life for about 2-3 years because that first opening had been so very frightening.

But you came back. Little by little, you told me more, telling me things you had never told anyone before. You entrusted to me your deepest secrets, climbing over mountains of fear and shame.

If that is not courage, I do not know what is.

In the midst of relating the horrible abuses and abandonments of your childhood, you would often tell me that you were sure that there were millions of people who had had it much worse than you. I could not imagine who these poor souls were than could have had it "much worse". One day I asked you. You were thinking of all of the suffering people the world over who did not even have food to eat or roofs over their heads...

In addition to your profound emotional pain, you also suffered serious medical conditions that would scare most of us half to death. And then there was the physical pain, so severe at times that you could only lie in bed, trying to hang on until it eased up.

I know that there were many, many times when you wanted to give up, when you wanted simply to end your life to be free of all of this suffering. Yet for years you fought these demons of despair with the only weapon you had: love. You loved your family (and most undeservedly, me) so much that you endured your suffering so as not to hurt us by your suicide.

You chose the right weapon. And you won the battle. I am so proud of you.

And now, faith. On this one, I can really hear you protesting. You wanted faith, you wanted to believe in a loving God but...

All of us find it hard at times to believe in the One we cannot see or comprehend. But you had more reasons to question than most of us. How could a loving God have taken so many loved ones from you so early in life? How could a loving God have permitted the abuses you endured? Why didn't this loving God take away your pain when you begged Him to?

I could never really answer these questions for you, of course. But I kept writing about them. Did you know that you were the "little one" in the story of The broken wing? (Most especially in the recent sequel?) Of course, there were others, including myself, incorporated into the formation of that character but they were written for you.

These stories, I believe, were given to me by the Holy One Himself to help you - and others like you - with these questions. (By the way, we are all "like you" when it comes to these questions.)

Despite your struggles with faith, you hungered for it like no one else. Even during the times when you could not believe, you returned again and again to this blog to read about the God you didn't believe in. You began to tell me, "I want what you have," and you came to believe that I would help you find it.

I reminded you many times that it was not me but Him who would bring you to that place - but I understood too that perhaps it was in my unworthy self that you felt safest encountering Him.

You asked me to share books with you and you devoured them, everything from Anthony Bloom's Beginning to Pray to C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. Some of them you read 2-3 times before returning them to me. I started running out of things to recommend.

Two years ago, you shared with me a premonition that you would not live much longer. I took this seriously but didn't quite know what to do with it. We talked about it now and then and you didn't seem to feel that your life was going to end in suicide. But you knew you weren't going to be here much longer.

You didn't want to leave behind the ones you loved but it was as though what was coming was as inevitable as the sunrise.

Just in the last few weeks, you practically begged me for any spiritual reading I could recommend for you. I could not think of anything and was in the process of telling you that I'd think about it, when two titles popped into my head: Proof of Heaven, by Dr. Eban Alexander, and Heaven is for Real, by Todd Burpo. (They are both stories of near death experiences, the first related by a neurosurgeon, the second related by a father sharing his 4 year old son's experience.)

Two weeks later, you had read them both. And liked them. Did you know that you were making last minute preparations to go there yourself? I didn't - but I do now.

You indeed had faith. Perhaps not the kind of faith that has answers to all the questions or that can recite dogmas and doctrines. But you longed for God as truly as any saint.

You were always quick to tell me that you knew you were no saint. And that's true. None of us are saints - until God makes us so. And I believe now, at last, He has made you part of the Community of Eternal Love, bringing you back to Himself, back to your true Home. Please pray for us.

And, by the way, thank you.


(I was blessed to be talking on the phone with this lovely person when cardiac arrest occurred. At the time, it was a frightening experience because there was no warning and I could not tell what was happening. EMS arrived and, through emergency medical care, they were able to restart the body's heart for a time so that family could say goodbye. Then, mercifully, God took His loved one to Himself.)

Friday, November 22, 2013

wisdom, understanding and compassion

Some years ago, before I began my journey into private practice, my work as a psychologist was based in a large health care organization. As with many large companies, there were a multitude of statistics and measures rendered regarding how we were doing as individual employees and as a department.

One measure in particular, not well-loved by providers, resulted in our receiving scores based on the satisfaction ratings we received when our patients completed surveys about us. When our scores were lower than the organizational goal, there were long discussions about how to improve the scores. These discussions were seldom if ever pleasant.

As providers, we often complained about a number of features of the surveys that we felt made them poor measures of what we did. I was no different. I complained and pointed out the various measurement problems - some of which were probably quite valid.

However, I'm ashamed to admit that it was quite some time before I did the obvious. It was quite some time before I shifted my focus from the unfairness of the measure to taking an honest look at myself.

In my pride (the wrong kind of pride), I had not wanted to look at the possibility that perhaps those who complained about me were trying to communicate something that I needed to hear. Because I often received positive feedback, I came to expect it as my due - though I never would have admitted that to myself.

Thankfully, there is grace.

I might mention that grace does not always feel good. Sometimes for us to be shaken out of our complacency, our pride, our denial, we need to feel some discomfort. Or at least I need to.

And so it was then. Some discomfort settled upon me and it scared me. It scared me into realizing that maybe, just maybe, I wasn't as good as I thought. Not as good of a therapist as I thought. Not as good of a friend to my friends as I thought.

As I wrestled with this, a most unwelcome awareness came knocking. "Your patients do get better, don't they?" a kind listener had asked, assuming an affirmative response. But instead, I paused. I really wasn't sure. I wanted to blame "the system" for that, of course, for all of the roadblocks it laid in front of my efforts to provide good care, but...

Then, on the heels of the first, a second uninvited awareness arrived at my mental doorstep. I realized that rather often I didn't know what to say to my patients. Again, I wanted to blame the overwork, the lack of sufficient time and so on. Anything in order to not have to look at me.

But then something changed. I began to realize in a whole new way that I could not do what I was doing on my own. I had all of the education and experience one was supposed to have to be a good psychologist. And yet, I knew there was something more, something I was missing.

I didn't simply want to be a good psychologist. A good psychologist can listen to people's problems, carry out the prescribed interventions, collect a paycheck and go home feeling content at a good day's work.

That simply was not enough. What I was listening to day after day was profound suffering. I listened with care - I had not become hardened or indifferent. But, by myself, I was helpless before it.

I came to realize that for true healing to come to my patients, I could not rely on me and expect anything much to happen.

It was not that I didn't know God then or that I had no faith. Quite to the contrary. But, blind as I was then, I can see now that there was simply too much me and not enough God in the equation.

I suspect that most people who knew me during that time would not have described me as proud or arrogant (though I might be surprised!). However, a truly effective vice is one that masquerades itself as virtue, drawing us from the Way of Love while we think we are still walking it.

What happened next in this time of awareness was simple yet profound. I began to pray every night to be blessed with "a Spirit of wisdom, understanding and compassion". I began praying with just a bit of awareness - but an awareness nonetheless - that I needed these gifts.

An odd thing happened. Or at least it seemed odd to me because I wasn't used to giving God more space to act within me.

I would reach the end of a first appointment with a patient and, as usual, realize that I needed to give them some feedback, idea or plan. And I would feel as blank as ever when I looked within to consider what I might say in the few remaining minutes that I had.

But I started speaking anyway. And here is the odd part: wise words started coming out of my mouth!

In saying this, I realize that I run the risk of giving the impression of having become proud or arrogant. But actually, I am convinced that it was the other way around. It was humbling and awe-inspiring to experience words being given to me for another - words and thoughts that I had no awareness of formulating. And yet, as I spoke them, they made complete sense to me - and to the patient as well.

I began to see God working through me - not because I was especially good, but because I had finally started to move out of His way.

(Another odd thing happened as well: my patients' satisfaction ratings of me went up. Way up. And I began seeing clearer signs that my patients were indeed getting better. Hmm...)

To this day, I continue that prayer every night. I do not remember exactly when I began it but it was certainly more than 10 years ago.

And I need to say it every bit as much now as I did then. I will never stop needing to say it - not because God would withhold His healing if I stopped - but because I, in my weakness, can so easily get in His way.

Hearing the words each night reminds me that I too need His healing - and always will. The moment that I think I don't, the moment I take His goodness and label it my own, I have stepped off the path of His way and onto my own...

It is a frightening thought. It is frightening to know my own weakness and to be so dependent on Another. Yet there could be no greater gift than this knowledge - for hidden within it truly is the Way of Love.

Please pray with me and for me:

"God, please grant me a Spirit of wisdom, understanding and compassion..."

(In this "Time of Healing", I hope to write more about each of these three words as well as some others. Please continue to join me on the path. Many blessings.)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


( a little poem that was given to me this morning as I woke knew immediately that it belonged with this image that I received on my 11/3/13 journey in the woods...many blessings. I hope to write more soon.)

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Forgiveness is free

As is often the case, the words and image above seemingly came together of their own accord. I tried to change them more than once, thinking that "forgiveness is free" sounded rather banal. However, each time I replaced the words with something else, it simply didn't look or feel right.

And so my assignment is before me, to reflect on and make some sense of a phrase that I have discovered is far more enigmatic than it appeared at first glance.

Is forgiveness free? If I offer another forgiveness, does it truly cost me nothing? If I accept the forgiveness of another, is there never a price to pay?

And why this image?

Before I attempt any reflection on these questions, allow me to share a short but intriguing story.

After working for a few hours yesterday, I decided to take a short walk with my camera. The weather was seasonably chilly with a brisk wind and leaves were falling around me. I did not venture anyplace far or fancy this time. I walked two lots down from my house, noticing some of the beautiful colors still hanging onto the trees.

As I stood gazing upon the scene, I felt something slip into my left hand. This was a very odd sensation, given that I had not had my hand open or outstretched. I wasn't trying to catch any of the leaves falling around me nor was I grasping at anything.

I looked down into my hand and there was a thin, twisted taupe-colored leaf, nothing particularly special looking. I almost dropped it to the ground but thought twice.

I could not see any meaning or value to this little leaf but it is not every day that the heavens drop something into my hand. Perhaps I should hold onto it for a while, I thought.

I only walked around for a short while but I was very aware of this little leaf in my hand. It felt brittle and so I handled it with care, wondering why it had been given to me.

When I got back inside, I still puzzled. Perhaps I shall take a picture of it in my hand, I considered. I don't know why this seemed important but it did. So I changed the lens on my camera and walked back outdoors, in order to view it in natural light.

Somewhere in the process of this, I detected something I had not noticed before. The center of it was darker and a bit thicker than the edges. It was not a leaf but a seed pod! A seed had been cast out into the wind, to twirl its dance of chance and it had landed in my hand...

What could it possibly mean?

(I realize that the average reader may be thinking: "It probably means nothing. Why is she going on about this?")

Perhaps it caught my attention so for a couple of reasons.

One is that a seed is a very important thing. On a biological level, it holds within it the beginnings of life. Much of the life on this planet would cease were it not for seeds of some sort or another.

On a spiritual level, seeds are very important as well. When it comes to believing in and loving the Holy, it is often a seed that begins the process. Some little seed of wondering or longing implants itself in our hearts, perhaps remaining tenuous for months or even years before it germinates and grows.

This sacred seed also holds within it the beginnings of life. But in this case it is a Life that rescues us from the eternal death.

Hence, that this gift was a seed caught my attention once I recognized it for what it was. But perhaps what had intrigued me first and foremost was that it was totally free. I had not asked for it nor had I been looking for it. It was simply given.

As I reflect on this further, the thought occurs to me: if heaven could give me any gift, if it could freely drop into my hand the seed for any new growth, what would I most hope that it would be?

And I could think of nothing more important, nothing that I would long for more than forgiveness.

Back to the image above. In my lens-view, there are two leaves of the same type. However, they are on separate branches and look as though they have moved as far away from each other as possible. I know this is fanciful thinking on my part...but it also looks a little like the lower leaf is shielding itself behind some twigs.

It is as though they are afraid to get too close to each other. "I'll keep my distance and watch you from here, thank you very much."

We cannot see in the image how they came to be so far apart. We don't know who started it or whose fault it is. Who needs to forgive and who needs to be forgiven is beyond calculation. We can only see a separateness which reminds of us of ourselves in our broken humanity.

Separateness from each other. Separateness from God.

To choose to remain separate is the eternal death. Not because God casts us into hell - but because apart from Him there can be no Life.

It is only through forgiveness that we can find our way back from this separateness, back into the Way of Love.

When we are made hurt or angry, by anything from the slight of a friend to an unfair boss to childhood abuse, we become lost in arguments of blame or hide behind barriers of self-protection.

When we have done wrong and know it, we may torment ourselves with guilt and shame - or we may deny and defend to avoid these unbearable emotions.

In any event, it is only through forgiveness that we can come back to Life again.

In the Way of Love, there is no distinction between forgiving and being forgiven. One cannot be without the other.

This is why the Christ taught us to pray, "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us". I do not think that He was issuing a threat, i.e. "you had better forgive or you will not be forgiven!"

Rather, I think, He was simply stating a fact. If I do not forgive, I will be unable to experience forgiveness in myself. If I do not accept the forgiveness offered to me, I myself will not know how to forgive. It may sound like a circular dilemma, too hard to understand, but it is not.

Forgiveness is free.

It begins as a seed. It has been freely dropped by the heavens into our hands, into our hearts. It may lie there for a long time, dormant, buried beneath our excuses and our fears. We may not know how to make it grow.

Its growth begins as a decision. I may not want to forgive. I may not know how. I may feel unworthy of forgiveness or not believe it possible.

But I decide - and then trust that the seed will grow within me. I choose the Way of love and forgiveness.

I could not have wanted it to be anything else...

(For those who expressed interest in learning more about Corrie ten Boom's experience of forgiveness, I have added an update to my past post which you can view by clicking here.)

Thursday, November 7, 2013

how could I not?

it was not what i had planned -
truly it wasn't.

i left church on Sunday
overflowing with Eucharist
and was only going
to stop at a lake by the library 
for an image or two.

however, on the way to my car
a poem happened.
that was my first sign.
hastily i jotted it down
and changed into walking shoes.

enroute to the library i knew, 
i somehow missed the turn,
my car about-facing me
into the golden woods of autumn.

i was going to turn around,
really i was...
it would have been
the sensible thing to do.
i had bills to pay, 
groceries to buy..

but i looked in among the trees
and saw that God was there.
how could i not go in?

"i'll go in just a little,
just for a few minutes,"
i thought to myself.

but He beckoned further.

"just a bit more," i told myself.
but He drew me deeper.

it no longer mattered where i was.

deeper and deeper my heart into His,
each step a wordless prayer,
each image a vision of His glorious face.
how could i not enter and see?

and then i saw it...

down slippery slope of amber red,
 feet sinking to muddy depths -
a bubbling stream of new life,
spilling its love upon the rocks.

my fingers itched with cold,
 my stomach rumbled its hunger,
 i had no idea where i was -
and found it didn't matter.

never before had i felt less lost.

for i walked in His sacred house, 
 stood before His holy font -
and it was time to trust.
how could i not?

and so it happened...

(to Him be glory forever.)


Epilogue: God led me back to my car without incident, much to my wonderment. I cannot regret this experience - it was a gift beyond measure. But for the sake of those who are kind enough to care about me, I will take my cell phone with me next time :-).

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Time of healing

(As I begin writing tonight, it is late on November 2, All Souls Day. Since I get an extra hour tonight when my clock falls back, I am indulging myself by spending it with you.)

As I was reflecting on the feast, the question arose in my mind: how often does a person go to a funeral and hear a eulogy where the deceased is remembered as a petty, selfish gossip? Or a dishonest, thieving scoundrel?

Not often, I imagine.

When people pass away, it is natural human tendency to remember the good things about them - the parts of them that we will miss. Often we overlook their faults, at least in the acute stage of grieving, so that even the drug dealer shot by the police is remembered for his ready smile or his kind heart.

And this is as it should be. Even those who travel the worst paths in life are children of God who had some good in them or brought a bit of happiness to someone's life.

Often too we grieve for the relationship we would like to have had with the deceased. The opportunity to have a closer relationship with that mother, father, sibling or friend is gone once the life ebbs from their body.

Or so it would seem.

After All Saints Day, I am glad there is day for the rest of us folks. And that is where All Souls Day comes in: a day of prayer and remembrance for the people who made some efforts at faith and goodness but stumbled a lot along the way before they died.

Most of the people we have loved fall into this category. Most of us will fall into it someday as well.

One might wonder why we should pray for the dead. Is it not over for them? Is some sort of begging or pleading on our part supposed to persuade God to let them into paradise despite their shortcomings?

Sadly, there have been periods in church history where such ideas were commonplace. The notion was that God had certain punishments prescribed for the person who dies in sin but that the living can pay off some of the debt by prayer, good works - or worse, paying money.

Such a forensic model of sin and salvation is sad, in my opinion, because it so completely misses the point. And in missing the point, people become lost from the Way.

Some will lose their direction because "paying off the debt" becomes more important than entering into relationship with God. Some may be lost because abuse of the spiritual "legal system" makes it appear to be just a scheme to make the church rich. Many more may be misled into thinking of God as a judge who exacts punishments instead of as a loving Father who longs to bring us home.

And the point is?

The true point is, I believe, that none of us are saved alone. We pray for the dead - as we pray for the living - because it draws us closer to each other and to God. In prayer for another, there is movement toward healing, there is a grace that makes whole what is broken.

The deaths of those we love may leave us with quite a variety of healing needs. We may need the healing of forgiveness. We may be challenged to forgive those who have died. Or we may ache for their forgiveness of us. We may need healing from damage inflicted on us by their sins. Or we may simply need healing from the sorrow that accompanies grievous loss.

Whatever our need, prayer with and for those who have died is the medicine our souls require in order to heal. As our prayer draws us closer to God, it simultaneously draws us closer to those who live on the other side, cleansing both them and us. We all become freer to know God in the fullness of His loving gifts.

As we enter this month of November, let us begin a "time of healing", walking together with each other and those who have passed into God's care.

Allow me to share some words that Scripture offered me today - and then an image received while walking with my camera.

On this mountain,
the Lord of hosts will prepare for all peoples
a banquet of rich food.
On this mountain He will remove
the mourning veil covering all peoples,
and the shroud enwrapping all nations,
He will destroy Death forever.
The Lord will wipe away
the tears from every cheek;
He will take away His people's shame
everywhere on earth,
for the Lord has said so.
That day, it will be said: See, this is our God
in whom we hoped for salvation;
the Lord is the one in whom we hoped.
We exult and we rejoice
that He has saved us.

(Isaiah 25: 6-9)

(God willing, I plan to write more on related themes through the month of November. Please check back or enter your e-mail address for notification of new posts. Many blessings...)