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Sanctuary

My husband and I just returned from a trip to the British Isles, particularly Scotland and Ireland. We had the opportunity to see lots of castles and battlefields and ruined abbeys. The history of this beautiful place is inescapable—reminders of invasions, wars, and bloodshed everywhere. I was most touched by the abbeys—their walls, windows, and arches still standing, but their roofs long gone. There was something profound about being in a chapel that was open to the skies. I could imagine the people who had prayed there, people who had suffered unspeakable horrors in the name of power, land, or God and sometimes all of the above. Their pain echoed through the landscape; whispers of suffering filled my ears. The absence of a roof seemed right. It allowed those prayers to rise up to God without church doctrine and pettiness getting in the way.

Historically, churches literally provided sanctuary to the victims of war, pillaging, poverty, rape. No matter who you were, where you were from or what religion you professed, they took you in, no questions asked, and provided you with food, a bed, and meaningful work to do. Nowadays, the church seems to have forgotten how to do that. Their roofs and their rules seem to keep out the ones who need sanctuary the most. Many survivors of child sexual abuse have difficulty with organized religion. They are sometimes rejected by the church, not because of the abuse, but because of its aftermath—things like drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm, and other hard-to-shake coping mechanisms. It’s not easy to attend church when you feel that everyone is judging you. And it’s hard not to equate God with the church, but they are not the same. God is God, whatever you conceive the Divine to be, and church is a deeply flawed human institution that keeps on trying to be godly, and fails just as often as it gets it right. Maybe they would do better to take the roof off, allow the prayers of human suffering to rise, no longer held within the walls, but received by the vastness of the heavens and the One who listens and offers sanctuary even when no one else will.

Law of the Heart

“Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party.” Perhaps those of you old enough to have taken a typing class in high school will remember this sentence, as we had to type it repeatedly during drills and timed tests. I always thought it was a quote by someone famous during a particular time in our nation’s history. Turns out I was wrong. It was coined by Charles Weller, a typing instructor, for use as a typing drill. However, the sentiment is apt for the times we are facing as Americans. Perhaps it would be better stated as “Now is the time for all good citizens to come to the aid of their country.” I don’t think anyone would argue that we are in a time of crisis, a crucible for responsible citizenship. In Japanese, the symbol for the word “crisis” is a combination of the symbols for “danger” and “opportunity.” It is often helpful to explore what opportunities a crisis is presenting to us, and I think this is crucial to navigating the next four years, no matter which side of the political divide we are on.

One of the biggest opportunities is to stop taking a back seat and letting our elected officials drive the bus. We must get involved! The number of registered voters who chose not to vote is a shameful commentary on how many United States citizens have abdicated their responsibility to this nation that was founded on a democracy, of, by and for the people. The truth is that in order for the democracy to stand, we cannot sit back and let our legislators do the hard work of governing. We cannot rely on them to create a nation that upholds our values for inclusion, generosity, peace and justice. Because mostly what Congress is good at is maintaining the status quo. So it is incumbent on us to bring about the conditions we desire, a government that values every citizen, no matter what color, race, religion, sexual identity, income or social class.

In order to do this, one of the things we must conquer is our fear of the other. The divisions between us must be bridged. We have become so accustomed to the pendulum swing of government, the regular shifts of ruling party, that we have failed to recognize that the pendulum is now swinging farther and farther to the edges of partisan politics. And the wider that swing becomes, the less we feel like talking to each other. We settle into our comfortable encampments and only venture out when we absolutely have to. There’s no need to build a wall on the border, we’ve already built one, an invisible line between ideologies that keeps us from ever having to venture out of our comfort zones. And from within the walls of our fortress, we label everyone outside or different from us as “other.”

As it turns out, this “us versus them” mentality has been around for a really long time. As in, since the beginning of humankind. Think back to what you learned in school about prehistoric times. There were constantly warring tribes that threatened the territory and lives of the “other.” In order for a people to survive, they had to be wary and distrustful of strangers. Strangers could belong to a tribe that wanted nothing less than to slaughter your families and communities and take your land, your food, and your tools. Civilizations have been lost by such events. Cortez demolished the Aztec empire in his zeal to claim Mexico for the rulers of Spain. The early settlers of America soon set their sights on taking all the land “from sea to shining sea” in a vision of manifest destiny that denied the native Americans any right to the land they had inhabited for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.

Through these kinds of experiences, humans learned to be distrustful. The suspicious ones survived when others did not. In a sense, through survival of the fittest, fear of the other became hardwired into our DNA. The most primitive part of our brain, home of the fight or flight response, which drives our need for safety, is also the part of the brain that is not connected to the parts that developed the capacity for emotion and logical thought. It is an instinctive and automatic response to those who are different.

Of course, I am not suggesting that we are incapable of change, just that it takes a lot of work to overcome our most basic human instinct. We have to be courageous enough to reach out, to learn about the other, to dare to be vulnerable in the name of finding common ground. We have to believe in the basic goodness of the other, at least enough to start a conversation. We have to challenge the voices that tell us that the person on the other side of the political fence is a horrible person. The thing is, both sides do it. And yet, I know many people who voted differently than I did who are good, caring people, people who believe in equality and who feed the hungry, support the poor, and practice radical hospitality. You might be surprised at their capacity for compassion. No political party has cornered the market on compassion. In fact, compassion is not something that can be legislated. Compassion is shown by those who follow a law of the heart rather than strictly abiding by the laws of government. Our country will become a better place, not when the “right” political party is in power, but when all of its citizens act with compassion where they are. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all work together toward that day? Administrations come and go, but the heart of a compassionate people never wavers. May it be so.

Nativity Mass

Darkness doesn’t fall

so much as it engulfs,

snuffing light from every furtive corner,

hiding places of shame and pain

and desperate

futility.

The detritus of addiction

litters gritty streets,

invisible remnants of the insatiable

desire to numb, to forget.

No glimmer escapes the cloaking,

oppressive night.

Souls bleed from unseen wounds,

deep red ooze merging

into blackness.

 

Suffering continues

years without end,

and humanity cries out

silently,

yet the clamor pierces eardrums

with its agonizing scream.

Eyes long emptied of a million tears

strain in the dark,

looking, looking

for the faintest hint of dawn.

 

How long?

How long until some One

lights a candle

in the mean streets of Bethlehem,

until a faint glow

begins to spread

and hope long dead

flares,

a tiny flicker in the dark.

Will it be now,

in this infant god,

whose flesh makes all flesh holy,

whose entrance on earth’s dark  stage

sanctifies human experience

and whose wounds heal our own?

Will it be here

that one small flame begins

to dispel the deepest gloom,

that one small flame of love

begins to warm

this long, cold night?

Here and now,

dawn begins to reveal the horizon.

Kinship

“When will we let go of the idea that we’re separate?” These were the opening words of an address by Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, at a conference I recently attended. Living and working in the ganglands of Los Angeles, these words are particularly pertinent. Rival gangs fight to the death over their “turf” on a daily basis. But while the territory may be different and the issues multi-faceted, it seems that we are all fighting over turf in one way or another. Our gangs are not so much Crips vs. Bloods, as they are black vs. white, gay vs. straight, poor vs. rich, Republican vs. Democrat, Christian vs. Muslim—it’s all the same. We all operate by the principle that there are people like us, and then there are the “others.” The most recent election cycle and its sharply defined divisions are proof of that. It seems that Mother Teresa was right when she said, “We have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

It appears that we have lost our common humanity. We wall ourselves off in enclaves of sameness, where we can reassure ourselves that ours is the only perspective that matters. When our ideas do get challenged by the “other,” we can rush off to our fortress, where our friends will confirm for us that we are right, and everyone else is so very wrong—deluded, misinformed, perhaps even subhuman. The more isolated we become, the more different and dangerous the “other” seems, and the less desire to find common ground.

I recently read a comment by Bill Nye that reminds us that there is no such thing as race. Researchers have proven that humans are all one people. The variations in skin color, shape of features, build and musculature are all evolutionary adaptations to environment, climate, and the skills and abilities that were needed to survive in a particular place. “Each of us is much more alike than different,” he says. “We’re all made of the same star dust.”

What does it take for us to recognize this? The best way I know is through connection. When we allow the “other” in, when we get to know them in a deeper way, we discover the depths of heart that exist in all of us. We all laugh, cry, grieve, dream. In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, the character of Shylock is a Jewish lender who has suffered endless mockery and discrimination at the hands of an elitist and privileged merchant named Antonio. Ultimately, their rivalry ends up in court, where Shylock makes this plea: “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?” This moving passage speaks to the common humanity we need to discover if we are to be loving citizens of our one common world.

The power of this connection is best exemplified by one of the stories Father Boyle shares in his book, Tattoos on the Heart. He tells of two homeboys from rival gangs who came to find work at Homeboy Industries. When they were first introduced to each other, they refused to speak or shake hands. They glared at each other, and it was clear that this could be a touchy situation. Nonetheless, Father Boyle decided to put them next to each other on an assembly line. He says that men might not talk much, but working side by side creates a bond that can break down barriers. Ultimately, Miguel and Chico became the closest of friends. Then, as happens too often in the barrio, Chico walked into the wrong bodega one night and was gunned down, his life taken in the split second it takes for a bullet to travel from a rival’s gun into Chico’s chest. When Father Boyle called Miguel to tell him what had happened, he heard Miguel’s anguished wail: “But he was my brother!”

You see, Miguel and Chico had discovered the truth that we belong to each other, not just as a concept, but as a lived reality. They learned that our differences need not divide us. Just like in a choir, it takes more than one note to create a harmony. We are all brothers and sisters in the human family, connected not by blood, but by the star dust from which we all came. Once we find that common bond, there is no longer an “us” versus “them,” only one people, one humanity, riding the same blue planet on our voyage through the galaxy. May it be so.

One More Time

Child sexual abuse is a silent and insidious cancer that eats away at the lives of its victims. It is conducted in silence and perpetuated in silence. Victims are often admonished never to speak about what is happening to them, and these warnings are often accompanied by threats of violence against the victim, their families, or their pets if they ever dare to tell someone about the abuse. Unfortunately, this silence comes at a cost. It is said that what is unspoken becomes unspeakable. In other words, the enormity of what a victim has suffered and the impact of the abuse on their lives grows and thrives in silence and secrecy. When abuse is not spoken about, healing is not possible.

A pastor acquaintance of mine recently told me a touching story of healing that speaks to this issue of silence. Years ago, Claire[1] was conducting a movie theology group in her congregation. During one gathering, a film that portrayed an abusive marital relationship was being viewed by the group. Gradually, Claire began to notice that the behavior of one of the young woman in attendance was becoming more and more agitated. Her discomfort was evident. During a break, the pastor drew the young woman, Debra, aside and asked her if she was okay. After much hesitation, Debra finally shared that she had been raped by her grandfather when she was a young girl. Claire listened and validated her discomfort with the movie, then invited her to come by the church office the next day to talk more about this traumatic event.

Debra did come to Claire’s office as she had been asked and told her story for the first of many times. She shared with Claire that she was the first person to hear her narrative of abuse. Debra had kept this secret for many years until the impact of a movie’s portrayal of abuse unleashed her own painful story. This began a ritual that went on for several years. Debra would stop by Claire’s office and ask her if she had time to hear the story again. Claire would always respond with, “One more time.” Ultimately, it took forty times before Debra had purged herself of the cancer of abuse and received the gift of listening that led to healing. She eventually got married and had children and was able to live a normal and happy life.

Unfortunately, there are many, many stories about child sexual abuse that do not have happy endings. Statistics report that somewhere between thirty and fifty percent of incarcerated women experienced sexual abuse as children. Sixty percent of men and women in drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities likewise report episodes of childhood sexual abuse. This is corroborated by the seventy to eighty percent of adult survivors who acknowledge excessive use of drugs and alcohol as a means to cope with the aftermath of their abuse. In addition, a full seventy-five percent of prostitutes were victims of child sexual abuse. I have to wonder what would have been different for these hundreds of thousands of survivors had they had someone like Claire to tell their story to, someone who would listen without judgment and be a compassionate and loving presence in their lives.

The fact that it took Debra forty times of breaking the silence before she was done strikes me as a vital part of her healing. The number forty figures prominently in biblical narratives. The Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years, and Jesus fasted and prayed in the wilderness for forty days and nights before beginning his earthly ministry. Certainly, the wilderness experience is an apt metaphor for the bleak and barren aftedesertrmath of child sexual abuse. It takes a lot of wandering to find your way after the trauma of abuse. It takes time. The experience may feel like fasting, where there is no sustenance or nourishment for body or soul. And the desert is a lonely place, often with no signposts to tell you where you are or where you’re headed. You can take a lot of wrong turns in the wilderness. And often, something that looks like it might be an oasis turns out to be a mirage. This makes it hard for survivors to trust anything that looks like hope. They might turn away from people who offer help, fearing that it will just be more of the same disappointment or abandonment they’ve suffered in the past. But Debra’s experience with Claire offers hope for something new, something that opens the floodgates of suppressed emotions that hold one back from healing and restoration. And in the sharing of the story, the breaking of the silence, healing can happen.

So, if you are a survivor of child sexual abuse, find someone to tell your story to. Tell it again and again, until you don’t need to tell it any more. Let their caring and nurturing spirit help you heal. And if you are someone whose vocation leads you to walk with those who have painful stories to tell, listen! Listen with compassion. Hold their story gently, offering no advice or platitudes, only your deep sorrow over their suffering and the assurance that they didn’t deserve what happened to them. Be patient, for it might indeed take forty times. And remember that sometimes, when you think you can’t listen any more, you’ll find, with the help of God, that you can do it one more time.

[1] Names changed.

Everything Happens for a Reason?

I got your attention, didn’t I? There are few statements that stir up as many emotions as, “everything happens for a reason.” In fact, there are few statements more designed to make the recipient of such “sage” advice want to smack the speaker in the head! And yet, it is so prevalent. It’s everywhere (especially on Facebook)! And it is the cause of so much anger and hurt in those of you who have been through the worst that life can dish out and whose distress is compounded by thoughtless others whose idea of comfort is to offer these condescending words. Why are people so enamored of using this platitude, and why do the recipients get so upset by it? I think the answer to the second question is that the underlying message seems to be, “I can’t handle your feelings.” It is a highly invalidating statement. Despite the fact that whatever you are going through is extremely painful and worthy of copious tears, blazing anger, screaming, moaning and otherwise being a huge emotional mess, this other person doesn’t want to hear it. It’s too uncomfortable or overwhelming for them to deal with. They want to say something, placating though it may be, that allows them to walk away from the emotional cesspool and tell themselves that they tried to help you but you just weren’t listening. They want you to stop suffering so they don’t have to look at it, acknowledge it, or harbor the thought, even for a moment, that this same thing that happened to you, could happen to them! They cannot entertain that possibility, lest it open up such a deep chasm of fear that they would be swallowed up by it.

Another underlying message in this statement is that the “reason” is about God. (I think they’re wrong, which I will address in the next paragraph.) Unfortunately, one of the harmful effects of this mindset is that, if God is in control of everything, even our suffering, then why bother trying to change anything for the better? It gives people permission to be utterly passive in the face of injustice and evil. It allows them to be indifferent to unfair practices and antiquated laws that allow people to be victimized and ignored. Not only do the words allow the speaker to walk away from the person who is hurting, it prevents them from considering the broader context and the conditions that exist that may have contributed to the situation at hand. And even when the situation is completely random and unconnected to any social ills, there are still things that could be done to ease the suffering of those who are impacted by it. As people of faith, we are called to be forerunners of the kingdom of God, working to minister to a broken world and right the wrongs that we see around us. When our philosophy is “Everything happens for a reason,” it seems to excuse us from responding to John Lewis’s call to arms: “If not us, then who? If not now, when?”012

But let’s get back to the main issue. Does everything happen for a reason? The answer to that question is yes, but they’re not good reasons, and I don’t think God has anything to do with it! The implication with the “everything happens for a reason” gambit is that God caused this to happen for God’s own mysterious purposes, and you had better just be grateful, because something good is going to come out of it, if you wait long enough and quit your whining in the meantime! That’s just bad theology. God does not cause our suffering. God does not willfully put us in harm’s way or devise situations that will cause us unimaginable pain for the benefit of the “greater good.” I just don’t believe that’s how God works. But while I don’t believe God is involved in the “before” of an event, I absolutely believe God is present in the “after”— comforting, strengthening, and surrounding you with people who can understand and accompany you on your difficult journey. And certainly, God is involved in your healing and in the transformation that can sometimes happen in the aftermath of tragedy.

So what are the reasons for suffering? Here are just a few:

…because someone decided to get hopped up on drugs or alcohol and drive into a crowd of people on a sidewalk.

…because a sick and twisted individual decided to act out their sickness by violating an innocent child.

…because a virus ran rampant through a community that had no access to clean water or quality health care.

…because a mutation in one of your genes caused you to be infertile or to bear a child with severe abnormalities and disabilities.

…because a train operator fell asleep at the wheel or a religious fanatic high-jacked a plane or a troubled kid took his father’s gun to school.

The list goes on and on. Everything does happen for a reason, and sometimes the only reason we can come up with is that we live in a random universe where s— happens. But the reason is not God. God is not the cause of tragedy; God is the agent of healing from tragedy.

Homecoming

My dad died two years ago, but last week I got to bring him home—not due to a miraculous resurrection but by taking his ashes to the place of my childhood. When I was a mere infant, my parents bought a lake resort, previously owned by my mother’s Aunt Etta, on a beautiful lake in northeastern Washington. The resort, which still bears our family name, was the perfect place for my dad, a rugged outdoorsman and gregarious host. There was nothing he didn’t love about this place, but after eleven hard seasons, my mother had had enough of the life—the isolation, the long days, the unending work, and the inability to ever take a vacation in the summer—so they sold the resort and moved on.

This wasn’t my first trip back, but my return was different this time. Part of the difference was the fact that my father had died in the interim, making each vista filled with bittersweet memories, and on this trip, my husband and I had brought along our nine-year-old grandson. I was intensely aware of the passage of time as I took in my surroundings on the day of our arrival. Much had changed, but it was still the old familiar stomping grounds—the same black walnut tree which my siblings and I had climbed a thousand times was still a massive and sturdy presence in the yard of our former home; the little store still held shelves of food, Band-aids, fishing lures, and candy. I remembered the anticipation with which we would greet the weekly candy delivery when we would be allowed to enter the truck and choose a sweet treat from the vast array displayed on its shelves. Necco Wafers or Sugar Babies? A Black Cow or Pixie Sticks? The walls of the office and store were still papered with photos of fisher-folk and their big catch or hunters posed with their kill. Back in a corner hung a framed photo of my family standing on the front porch when I was only four or five.

Tiffany's Resort 2015 (56)That first evening, I wandered down to the swimming hole and sat at the end of the dock, dangling my feet in the cool waters of the lake. The water and surrounding hills formed a cradle, and the skies overhead a starry dome. I felt held in this sacred sphere, not separate from creation, but a part of it. The sense of recognition was overwhelming, and tears came easily. Simply, I felt at home. I think we all have a sense of place, an attachment to somewhere we feel at home, where our spirit wants to linger. There are places that have worked themselves into the fiber of our being, that are so embedded in who we are that we can barely define ourselves without them. These places aren’t necessarily where we were born or grew up, but they are always places that speak to something deep inside us, that fulfill some spiritual longing that we may not even be aware of. For my husband, it was his grandparents’ ranch where he spent his summers; for my mom, it was an ocean beach—any ocean beach; and for my dad, it was this place that offered him a fullness of life that no other place before or since had.

As I sat on the dock that night, I understood many things for the first time. I understood why he loved the resort so much and why he was so bitter toward my mother for making him give it up. I understood the loss of the place and the pride of ownership that would ultimately never be replaced by any of his future endeavors. But I had come to bring him home, to mingle his ashes with the earth and the waters, to make him one with the lake and the land that he loved. Over the next few days, I would be swirling his remains in deep green waters and scattering them on sandy beaches and under soaring pine trees. As the water and trees had been a part of his marrow, now his marrow would become a part of theirs and of the God who created them all. This thought gave me a sense of completeness, and I pondered the day when my time on earth would be done, when I would find my way home to the Ground of Being and my eternal resting place. At that moment, I will truly be complete. Until then, I am satisfied to sit and swirl my feet in the waters that birthed me.

Saying Yes

I am beginning to emerge from a cave of my own making after many months of the isolation that comes from being too busy, taking on too much, and imagining that my calendar could hold up under the burdens I have forced it to carry. In fact, in the past two months, my calendar had collapsed completely, and I am just now moving aside the pieces of it in order to see the light of day. It feels so good to look around and see what I have been Iron Goat Trail (12)missing while I reaped the consequences of overwork and an impossible vortex of colliding events in my personal life.

It’s not that I haven’t known this was coming. I did. I knew fairly shortly after one crucial decision, one casual and unconsidered commitment that proved to be one “yes” too far in my already overburdened life. The old saying, “Sin in haste, repent at leisure,” has been running around in my head for almost a year now. And I have repented. Daily. I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on what I got myself into and how exactly it happened. And I actually think I’ve figured it out.

I know that I am not alone in my difficulty with saying no. There are a lot of people who suffer from the same ailment. I know this because so many of the books in the self-help aisle are about saying no, setting healthy boundaries, better self-care, and so on. But I don’t think that it’s as simple as just saying no. I think we (me included) need to spend a lot more time thinking about what it is that we’re too often saying yes to!

Case in point, when I said yes to this particular commitment, I realize now that I was saying yes to a paycheck, yes to recognition, yes to being needed, and mostly, yes to ego. I completely failed to check in with God before I made this decision. I did check in with my husband, and since he kind of likes it when I bring home a paycheck on occasion, he jumped on board without too much persuasion. But I didn’t check in with God, and I certainly didn’t check in with myself. If I had, I would have noticed that I wasn’t particularly excited or intrigued by this “opportunity.” It wasn’t something I had a passion for, and it wasn’t a role that was connected with what I see as my true vocation. So I said yes for all the wrong reasons.

I wonder if most of us do this from time to time or even frequently. Once I started thinking about it, I realized that there are a lot of reasons for saying yes that have nothing to do with God. My list is long, and I bet my readers can come up with a similar list fairly quickly. We say yes to money, acceptance, indispensability, recognition, acclaim, being needed, being in control, and having someone be indebted to us. I could go on. The reasons are myriad and vary with the individual. I know the ones that are most tempting to me, and I now realize that I have to stay vigilant if I don’t want a repeat of this pattern in my life. I know that I have to do something differently if I want my life to BE different! I know that I actually have to take the time to discern whether a particular request or opportunity is something that God is calling me to. That means finding a way to get some space between the invitation and my answer.

For me, I have discovered that an automatic yes is out of the question. I always need to tell the other person that I will have to think and pray about it first. Pray first. That has become my new mantra. And I think it will be one that sticks with me for a long, long time. And what will I pray? I can think of a lot of things—like is this where God is leading, is this something I’m passionate about, is this congruent with what I see as my calling, how will this affect me, my family, and my spiritual life—but they all really boil down to one thing that is at the heart of the matter.  If I say yes, will I be saying yes to self or yes to God? I pray that this simple formula might serve as a guideline for you as well. And if we are able to say yes to God, let it be a resounding YES!

Look Up!

I recently spent three days on a getaway with soul friends near Bend, Oregon. The weather there was a pleasant change from what is shaping up to be a dreary winter in North Central Washington. One morning, desperately in need of some fresh air, I decided to take a walk outdoors during our designated Sunriversilent time. I strolled along a path that meandered along several small ponds, breathing deeply the smell of earth and evergreens. Partially frozen, the ponds shimmered in shades of silver and white. Cracks webbed through the ice like arteries, speaking of life even in the midst of winter’s grip. Grasses and cattails lined the edges, brown and brittle, but lovely still.

The quietude of the landscape was occasionally broken by the cries of geese flying overhead or gathering in distant fields. Small birds twittered in nearby trees, and I came upon a bench where I could sit and observe my feathered friends as they flitted from branch to branch. An avid birder, I was enthralled to see mountain chickadees, pine siskins and even a nuthatch or two that have been absent from my own bird feeder for months.

I spent several minutes in delight over their antics before lifting my head toward the top of the tree. To my surprise, there perched a large red-tailed hawk at the apex of the fir. It must have been there all along, for surely I would have heard the beating of its large wings had it landed while I was sitting there in silence. The bird was regal in its bearing, self-contained in its stillness, beautiful in its majesty. I nearly held my breath, not wanting to startle it.

Red-tailed hawk Reveling in this loveliness, two words dropped into my mind, “Look up!” This was not an instruction, since I had already done so, but a lesson, something I needed to remember from this encounter. It occurred to me that I often have tunnel vision or a singleness of focus that is too intent on that which is right in front of me, and this prevents me from gaining the benefit of another point of view, a broader perspective or new insights. Sometimes I just need to look up, or down, or even sideways to claim the gifts of other vistas. As if to prove the point, I gazed off into the distance and became aware of the looming presence of Mount Bachelor. But this is a lesson that is even more true of life than landscapes.

When we get stuck in a particular situation, looking at it from the other side may help break something loose. When tunnel vision causes us to see only ourselves and our immediate concerns, widening our gaze may help us see the people who are walking alongside to help us through or to see beyond our own problems to the deeper issues that plague our communities and our world. Looking up allows us to see the way that God sees and be grateful for the gift of life and a knowledge of God’s presence with us through all that we face.

I’m at a certain age where I actually need tri-focals, lenses that are divided for distance vision, middle distances and close-up work. Maybe tri-focals can serve as a metaphor for life as well. All of these lenses are important for helping us navigate the journey ahead. We need multiple lenses in order to accurately perceive ourselves and others, the events of our lives and the practice of our faith. So when you discover a need for new perspectives, look up!

Living the Dream

I have been conspicuously absent from the blogosphere for over three months now, and there’s a good reason for that. The reason is that God (in the shape of a good friend) made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. My friend, Juli, who is a district superintendent in charge of some 40 clergy and congregations in central Washington, asked me to serve as interim pastor for a local church whose pastor had just gone on disability leave. Never mind that I wasn’t ordained clergy, she wanted me there because the congregation needed a healing presence, and the fact that she wouldn’t have to pay another pastor to relocate for three months didn’t hurt either! Call me crazy, but it didn’t take me long to say “Yes!”

Why would this be an offer I couldn’t refuse, you might ask. Well, if I’m remembering right, the first time I flirted with the idea of going into ministry was the summer before my senior year of high school. I was 16. It was at that point just a passing fancy, not serious enough to truly endanger my fully entrenched plan to become an English teacher and write the Great American Novel in my free time. Over the years, through routine jobs, stay-at-home mothering, a graduate degree and a 14 year career in mental health, thoughts of ordained ministry would enter my mind from time to time, quickly followed by the realization that it just wasn’t possible. My husband’s high-powered career wouldn’t allow for the itinerancy that is required of clergy in the United Methodist Church. Nonetheless, these occasional tugs on my soul continued to occur. Most of the time I tried to persuade myself that I would probably hate being a pastor, because I hate committee meetings so much!

Such was the state of affairs when I had the opportunity to attend my friend Juli’s ordination service a few years ago. I was excited and happy for her. I was enjoying the liturgy, the solemn vows, the laying on of hands as I watched the other candidates receive their stoles. And then it was Juli’s turn. I started to cry, and then I felt like this deep well of grief just opened up and swallowed me. In a huge crowd of people gathered for this holy (and happy) occasion, I was trying to hold back uncontrollable sobs. The service continued while I struggled to pull myself together. Then, during communion, the bishop invited anyone who felt a call to ministry to come forward and talk with one of the pastors who were strategically placed around the room. Just as I was wondering if I would suddenly find myself propelled forward, I heard God’s voice, clear as day, saying, “This is not for you.” That is when I understood how much I had really wanted to enter the ministry. Over time, I was able to process these feelings with friends, with my spiritual director and with God. I came to understand my own calling more fully and let go of that longing, but every once in a while, I would still feel that little tug, that nagging “What if…?” Ordination-service-at-Shankill-2011

Fast forward to April of this year and my sudden (though temporary) immersion in ministry. You may be wondering if it was wise to give someone with my history the keys to the kingdom. I mean, it had the potential to completely turn my life upside down, didn’t it? And here’s what I learned. It was fun. I enjoyed every minute of it, even the committee meetings. I was good at it. And I had absolutely no desire to keep doing it once my three months was up!

What a gift! A chance to temporarily do the thing I had always wanted to do and then to discover that it’s not what I wanted after all. Instead, it clarified for me that I am exactly where I need to be, doing the things that God wants me to do, in the places God has sent me from Day One. I think there’s a lesson there for all of us. We spend a lot of time yearning for something else. Chasing the Dream. And when we don’t achieve it, we waste a lot of time bemoaning the loss of that dream. We never consider the fact that we might not have really liked the dream all that much once we got there! Or discovered that even if we enjoyed it, it wasn’t a very good fit for our temperament or our skill set. For years, my husband has bemoaned the fact that his grandfather died while he (my husband) was too young to take over the family ranch. And just last weekend, as we were visiting the wheat country and talking about farm life, he said, “I couldn’t have been a farmer. The worry about weather and crops would have driven me crazy.”

So how do we get from Point A to Point B, from the longing to the acceptance, without a whole lot of anguish and regret in between? I think it’s about being continually in a deep process of discernment, listening to God’s guidance as you move through life, and living the life you have with prayerful intentionality and a sense of the sacredness of all human endeavor. It’s about living more in the present than in the past or future, spending more time embracing what God has given you to do right now and less time pondering what might have been. Not everyone gets to sail around the world or write the Great American Novel or become a professional athlete. You might never get your 15 minutes of fame, but you have the chance every single day to make a difference to someone that God puts in your path. The question is, can you be awake enough to notice and to view that person and that path as holy ground? My prayer is that you do.