Self-giving Love

For his 70th birthday my husband Ralph wanted to have a party to celebrate all the people who have contributed to his life.  He invited over 150 people from near and far—family, people in our Quaker meeting, his friends from childhood and now, professional colleagues and other people with whom he worked, neighbors, and more.  Because he wanted them to have a good time, he arranged for food and entertainment, contacting a caterer and persuading some of his talented friends and family to present a few minutes of their music or poetry.

He didn’t want the party to be about him or to be himself the focus of attention—even having me be the emcee introducing the entertainers.  He wanted to get to visit with as many people as he could and to have them mingle, relax, and have fun.

What happened is that people visited with friends, got to see people they hadn’t seen in a long time, met strangers and found amazing connections, laughed, told stories, and enjoyed themselves in a very electric, heart-joining way.  Ralph’s dream came true—although he would like to have invited even more people he cares about.  That people chose to come and be a part of the gathering was a tremendous gift to him.  I call this experience one of self-giving love.  The mark of it was the kind of life and joy that permeated the event.

This is the Christian season of Lent in which we are invited to reflect on our lives to see what gets in the way of our freedom and ability to receive God’s love and to love as Christ has loved us.  Ralph and I are both very ordinary human beings with all the usual flaws, issues, and wounds, which weren’t absent in the planning or the party itself.  But how delightful to be a part of something that had the fragrance of something divine.

Queries:

What is the difference, as you have experienced it in your life, between self-giving love and letting oneself be run over?

How have you experienced love that surpasses all understanding?  What barriers might you erect to that experience and how might you be more open to it?

Prayer:

Lord, make me a channel of your love.

For further reflection:

“…as thou takest up the cross to thyself, and sufferest that to overspread and become a yoke over thee, thou shalt become renewed, and enjoy life, and the everlasting inheritance in that” (Isaac Penington).

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son…” (See John 3: 14-17).

Faith: Form and Tradition or Compassion and Justice?

At one point my Bible study group read Isaiah 58, and very shortly thereafter, in a daily lectionary reading, I read Mark 7: 1-13.  Both passages challenge the observance of proper religious practice forms instead of the true worship of the heart that includes justice.  Isaiah speaks of the people’s fasting while at the same time oppressing their workers and fighting with each other.  Mark speaks of the people following the tradition of the elders about washing their hands, yet dishonoring their parents.

Many of us can be critiqued by these passages.  Those who are good at following the traditions and the commandments, which are significant, may fall short in offering mercy, which is basic.   Pope Francis attempted to re-balance the Roman Catholic Church by calling for a year of mercy.  Those who focus on personal salvation and going to heaven, in the joy of that perceived good news, may fail to pay attention to how God calls us to live together as community—in the present, on earth.

Those who focus on faith as a way of life may care deeply about action and right behavior, giving too much attention to the self and forgetting the immanent and transcendent Other, thereby losing a sense of having good news.  Those who are spiritual and not religious may live with virtue but miss the power of story, the transformation that can come from it, and a relationship with the One who guides.

The challenge of these two passages raises in me the dilemma between contemplation and action.  Either extreme can get away from justice and mercy.  In a conflict situation my instinct is to want to try to reach across the divide and develop empathy and compassion for the other, learning from one another and appreciating the positions and concerns of each other.  But is that simply conflict avoidance?

Having chosen action, I sometimes have found myself and others with no grounding in the holy, functioning from judgment, self-righteousness, and superiority rather than from love—even being simply angry, mean, hateful, and insulting.

How helpful to have been given these two passages with the challenge of self-reflection and a search for faith that maintains justice and brings my heart to God!

Queries:

How do these two passages challenge you?

Is your faith self-focused or God-focused?

Prayer:

“To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.  O my God, in you I trust. . . .Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths” (Psalm 25: 1-2a, 4).

For further reflection:

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (See Isaiah 58: 1-9).

“‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines’” (See Mark 7: 6b-7).

Commitment, Dedication, and Practice

My husband and I have been attending the sports games of our friends’ son since he was in elementary school.  In middle school he made the school basketball team and began to concentrate on that sport.  While I have enjoyed watching him play and cheering him on, I have to confess that I really didn’t think he had the instincts or skill to be much of a force for his team.

But when he got to high school things changed.  He decided he wanted to be a good player and spent last summer in basketball leagues and special camps—learning from coaches and practicing lots.  He now can dunk the ball, blocks are frequent (without fouling!); he runs the court and gets himself where he needs to be.  He scores and rebounds.  His high school team this year was second in their conference, and his contribution was a significant factor in their success.

Committing to something that matters to you and then following through—honoring the need to learn and to practice—makes a difference in what is possible.

Another friend has a gift for caring for individuals and the community.  She has a way of intuitively knowing who needs attention and how and when to give that.  Her care sustains and strengthens those she touches.  She knows of her gift and values the opportunities she has to care.  In the last years she has grown in her awareness of the importance of certain practices that sustain her and allow her to exercise her gift more fully.  She has learned that failure to honor her need for the practices diminishes what she can receive, hear, and give.

Off-and-on-attention to playing basketball or exercising a gift doesn’t give you all that is possible.  It takes dedication and care.  Having an attuned spiritual life also takes that kind of serious commitment and faithful practice.  You can have something regardless, because God is loving, gracious, and merciful.  But there is so much more if you make the commitment and attend to the necessary practice.

Queries:

To what, or to whom, are you dedicated and how is that expressed?

What do you need to do to sustain in you a faithful life?

Prayer:

“Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.  Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long” (Psalm 25: 4-5).

For further reference:

“No one can serve two masters.  Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.   You cannot serve both God and Money” (Matthew 6: 24).

“. . . let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross. . .” (Hebrews 12: 1b-2a).

Control

If you ever thought you were in control of what happens around you, a bathroom remodel project will put an end to that illusion.  The people working on the project at my house are excellent craftsmen and very fine people.  But life doesn’t follow orders from a contractor.  Competent sub-contractors are in demand; I seldom know who is showing up or when they’ll be here—even if they tell me a time.  Planning the rest of my life takes on the same maybe or maybe-not quality.

Trying to be in control simply brings upset and anxiety.  Life works much better by going with the flow and being curious about what will happen.  It can be that the time when people do arrive is actually more advantageous than when they said they would come.

Yesterday at the Contemplative Practices group our song leader introduced us to a new chant, sung in Spanish, based on words from St. Teresa of AvilaNada te turbe, nada te espante.  Quien a Dios tiene nada le falta.  Solo Dios basta.  It presents the opposite of trying to be in control.  Essentially the song says that whoever rests and trusts in God will not be made anxious or upset, and will lack for nothing because God is all that is needed.

I know there are too many people who go to bed hungry, who don’t have money to pay the month’s rent or the electricity bill, who can’t afford medical care, who are running for their lives and have no home.  To be true, Teresa’s words have to be about something more fundamental than basic needs or even survival.  I think she means that God, as the source of Life—its creator and sustainer and redeemer– reaches toward us in Love, in a way that changes everything.  If we can know and receive that Life and Love, we can endure with a kind of peace whatever comes our way.  God alone, and only God, is enough.  We have to have nothing more.

The chant puts my situation in perspective.

Queries:

How does trying to be in control create barriers to God in your life?

How true are Teresa’s words in your experience?

Prayer:

YHWH, the name of God, is unpronounceable.  It is more like the sound of a breath. By breathing in and sounding YH (or Yah), then breathing out and sounding WH (or Weh), you can invite God’s presence and indicate your intent to be open to God.  Repeat the breathing, slow and easy, moving the lips very slightly for as long as you wish to meditate.  You can also do this breathing prayer in moments of tension or upset to turn the situation over to God and allow yourself to be calmed.

For further reflection:

“I am the vine you are the branches.  Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15: 5).

“O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit” (See Psalm 30).

Blessed Are the Meek

Following the lectionary on a recent Sunday, I read what are called “The Beatitudes,” the first words of Jesus’ teaching ministry recorded in the gospel of Matthew—a listing of conditions that result in blessedness or in being happy.  “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” caught my attention.  “Safe are the strong for they will have power over everyone else on earth” seems more like what we think today.  Milquetoast, pushover, weak, passive, unassertive, timid are words usually associated with meek.  These are not words we value or desire to be.  What was Jesus talking about?

In Matthew 11:29-30, Jesus identifies himself as meek and promises that being associated (yoked) with him brings rest and a light burden.  Not weak or timid is this meekness that he claims; Jesus is not a pushover.  Neither is he concerned about worldly status or having power over others.  His meekness is about living in compassion, humility, mutuality, and being grounded in relationship with God.

This meekness offers a different kind of strength.  Some people today call that kind of strength “soft power.”  It is power to persevere.  It is being fully who one is without the burden of trying to please or impress others or of being in charge of everything.  It reminds me of the Civil Rights song, “We shall not be moved.”  It makes me think of the three African-American female mathematicians (Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson) whose work was so crucial to NASA in its early years, whose story is told in the movie Hidden Figures. Their position in society did not allow them to challenge openly the racist and sexist conditions under which they worked.  They took what was imposed on them, persevered, and never let their oppression define them.  I would say they were yoked with Jesus and the “meekness” they displayed was the kind that inherits the earth and changes the world.

Blessed is not a matter of having material treasures and prosperity, or having status, or having the required virtues, but a description of what it is to live in God, which often includes suffering.  “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake. . .”  And being blessed is not something that happens after death in an unearthly exalted place called heaven.  “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.”  The beatitudes are descriptive of what it is like to live in the reign of God—something we can know in part and experience now.

Queries:

Could or would you choose to be meek as Jesus intends it?  With Jesus what would it mean to be meek in the care of the earth?

If blessings are not worldly treasures, how do you experience being blessed, if you do?

Prayer:

Gift us with humility, compassion, and courage for just action in unity with You.

For further reference:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”  (See Matthew 11: 28-30.)

“. . . the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace (See Psalm 37: 1-17).

Wisdom

James Baldwin wrote, “My progress report concerning my journey to the palace of wisdom is discouraging.  I lack certain indispensable aptitudes.  Furthermore, it appears that I packed the wrong things.”

I am in the middle of a project to repair and remodel two bathrooms in my house.  Because the pipes within and from my house to the sewer system have very little fall, I need a new toilet that uses 1.6 gallons per flush rather than the new standard of 1.28 gpf in order to have adequate flow for the gravity system to work.  Much to my delight I was able to order online one that met my needs.

The toilet came by freight truck.  But because there was no way the truck could actually get to my house on the narrow streets and around tight corners, I suddenly had to scramble to find a way to meet the truck and collect the heavy and bulky freight.

Weeks later the plumber came to install one of the toilets—a great source of excitement because it meant that the project was finally underway.  However, I discovered then that I had failed to get the comfort-height that we needed and that the elongated toilet bowl that I had bought extended further into the room than I had expected.  Disappointment took over.

Then after using the toilet I discovered it flushes quickly and quietly—a big improvement.  And the elongated bowl being thin allows the cabinet doors to open better than they had before.

My lack of knowledge and failure to be attentive to all the details has taken me on a roller coaster ride.  And the journey has just begun.

My mistakes have been costly, but I have learned a lot.  Having been a perfectionist most of my life, this experience would earlier have flattened me.  Instead, I have learned that a bathroom is a small matter in the whole scheme of things.  I have had a choice to laugh or cry and I have chosen to laugh; the saga (and there is more I didn’t tell) really is funny.  And I’ve had more practice seeing and swallowing that I make mistakes just like everyone else.  It never hurts to know the absurdity of chasing perfection.

Says St. Catherine of Siena: “Wisdom is so kind and wise that wherever you may look you can learn something about God.  Why would not the omnipresent teach that way?”

Queries:

How are you doing on your “journey to the palace of wisdom”?

How well do you use your experience of life to “learn something about God”?

Prayer:

Gracious, merciful, and loving God, help us keep perspective on what really matters and hold fast to You.

For further reflection:

“. . . neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers . . . , nor height, nor depth . . . will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (See Romans 8: 31-39).

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (See Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8).

Love One Another

Jesus tells us to love one another, to love our neighbor as ourselves, even to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  And he makes clear that our “neighbor” includes people who think and worship differently from us.  It is a lot easier to love people who are like us.  This is hard teaching.  Maybe Jesus was just crazy.

During the presidency of Barack Obama, there were many people who were very angry at him and his policies, who feared that he was bringing Socialism.  Today, at the beginning of the presidency of Donald Trump, there are other people who are very angry at him and the policies he has advocated, who fear that he may be an American version of Adolph Hitler.  Love?  You’ve got to be kidding.

On Inauguration Day I was reading The Grace in Aging (2014) by Kathleen Dowling Singh, whose perspective is primarily Buddhist.  I read:

The mind of anger often appears as judgment….Judging others, we shore up our own beliefs and assumptions.  Judging others allows us to feel superior.  That wish to feel superior is harmful.  It feeds our fictional self, keeping us in ignorance.  Judging others rips us out of interbeing and connection.  It arises from ignorance and obstructs compassion….Judging puts out a directed negativity and adds to the toxicity of the world.

Singh ends that chapter encouraging us as we age to “hold the space for peace in the world.”  Whether we are following her advice or following Jesus’ commandment to love one another, I don’t think it’s very comfortable.  It requires being open and vulnerable, being aware of our limitations, respecting everyone as a beloved child of God who may well carry a piece of truth that needs to be heard.  That’s challenging.  Slogans and put-downs are a lot easier.

Queries:

How do you discern Truth?

What does it mean to love those with whom you disagree?

Prayer:

Richard Rohr, in his Daily Meditation for Saturday, January 21, 2017, describes a prayer of the heart.  “Next time a resentment, negativity, or irritation comes into your mind, and you want to play it out or attach to it, move that thought or person literally into your heart space…,” which is a place where “it is almost impossible to comment, judge, create story lines, or remain antagonistic.”  Then open your heart into the heart of God.

For further reference:

“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” (See Psalm 133.)

“Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.” (See John 16: 1-4.)