Staying at the Table

My husband and I recently celebrated our fiftieth wedding anniversary—an occurrence most people don’t even get a chance at, and I had wondered if we would get to.  Close to the anniversary, by chance I read a novel, watched a movie, and read portions of two books all touching on the theme of the gifts of long-term relationships.

The novelCrossing to Safety, was about the friendship of two couples, whose marriages, despite severely trying challenges, carry a deep abiding, a kind of oneness, arising from the couple’s commitment to one another.  Their long-term friendship also commands attention.

The Netflix movie that arrived at that time was a Chinese movieComing Home, about a man who is sent away during the Cultural Revolution but is rehabilitated after it is over.  When he returns to his family, he finds his wife suffering from psychogenic amnesia and unable to recognize him.  The beauty of the film is how he stays by her.  Again there is the abiding, the oneness, the fundamental commitment even in the midst of serious trial.

In the book portions, one, Witnessing Whiteness, about developing cross-race friendships, named the value of being willing to embrace conflict when it arises, staying at the table.  Being undefended enough to really listen makes it possible “to find the kernel of wisdom contained within the argument” and to build the kind of trust that sustains a relationship.

The other, Invitation to Love, pointed to the gifts that can come in a committed, long-term relationship with its dailiness.  “Difficulties arise,” says author Thomas Keating, “when a committed relationship is succeeding.”  When we feel loved, we are more real and our shadow sides emerge. “When a couple bears with each other’s failures, dark sides, and weaknesses, they minister the love of God to each other.  Human love is a symbol of God’s love.”

When a theme shows up over and over I take note.  I have learned that the struggles of a committed relationship—in marriage, friendship, or work—can be the unexpected wrapping paper for the gifts of God.  Sit tight and be sure to give thanks.

Queries:

What makes a committed relationship?  In the messiness of a long-term, committed relationship how might you experience or express the love of God?

How might you be called to stay at the table with God?  How has your relationship with God grown?

Prayer:

Merciful God, help us to know the difference between times when we need to sit tight through conflict and pain, and when we need to end the relationship.  When it is time to stay at the table, help us to do that.

For further reflection:

“Abide in me as I abide in you.  Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me” (John 15: 4).

“[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (I Corinthians 13: 7).

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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).

Being Prepared

Anne is a birdwatcher (what English people call a “twitcher”).  As a child she began learning to recognize and name the birds she saw—robin, cardinal, blue jay.  Now she has a life list and travels to special sites to have a chance to see birds she has never seen before.  Being prepared, she says, is the key to birdwatching.  But it isn’t the kind of being prepared that one does for some event occurring at a certain place on a certain date.  It is a preparation that allows one to receive gifts whenever they show up.

To be prepared to see birds takes having a body of knowledge that develops little by little; the more you know the more you can know.  It also takes some aptitudes and attitudes—skill at using binoculars, a framework for interpreting what you have seen, practice, patience, and joy at seeing whatever shows up or even nothing.

I practice a kind of Christian meditation called Centering Prayer, promoted by Contemplative Outreach.  It is a method that prepares the pray-er to receive the gift of contemplation if and when it is given.  Like those seeds that, once planted in the ground, wait months or even years for the conditions to be right—enough water, nutrients, and the right temperature—for germination, centering prayer involves staying put and waiting.

I believe that the whole of the spiritual life is about being prepared—both actively preparing and passively being formed and readied (and everything in between)—for living and for death. The elements of such being prepared include experiences and a framework or knowledge base for interpreting those experiences; a deep desire for, commitment or dedication to this life and to the One who gives it; and a community with whom to prepare.  There are also aptitudes and attitudes that help—practice, ability to listen, trust, and gratitude.

I believe that God’s goodness grants us moments of abundant life, and being prepared enables us to notice them and soak up the joy that might otherwise simply fly by without being seen or appreciated.

Queries:

For what do you have a deep desire to be prepared?  What do you need to do?

In what ways have you been prepared and in what ways are you in the act of being prepared?

Prayer:

Knowing rote prayers of the church can be a way of being prepared.  There are multiple ways of praying. Being prepared happens when one prays regularly.  Take on a spiritual practice of prayer.

For further reflection:

“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (See Matthew 25: 1-13).

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (See Luke 3: 1-14 and Isaiah 40: 3-5).

A Reminder and a Witness

I’ve heard the question, “If it were illegal to be Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”  Today, when in many circles being religious is suspect at best, behaving outwardly in a specific way that indicates you are a religious person takes  commitment and courage.

Thomas Ellwood, an Englishman, became a Quaker in the mid-1600’s.  Friends then, acting out their faith, wore plain dress, refused the typical hat honor, and used the same you-language for everyone regardless of their social status.  Ellwood writes:

“A knot of my old acquaintance [at Oxford], espying me, came to me.  One of these was a scholar in his gown, another a surgeon of that city… When they were come up to me, they all saluted me, after the usual manner, putting off their hats and bowing and saying, ‘Your humble Servant, Sir,’ expecting no doubt the same from me.  But when they saw me stand still, not moving my cap, nor bowing my knee, they were amazed, and looked first one upon another, then upon me, and then one upon another again for a while, without a word speaking.  At length, the surgeon…clapping his hand, in a familiar way, upon my shoulder, and smiling on me, said, ‘What, Tom, a Quaker!’ To which I readily and cheerfully answered, ‘Yes, a Quaker.’  And as the words passed out of my mouth I felt joy spring in my heart, for I rejoiced that I had not been drawn out by them into a compliance with them, and that I had strength and boldness given me to confess myself to be one of that despised people.”

Today I know a few Friends who wear plain clothes, and the men uncut beards.  They tell me their appearance is a witness to their faith.  It is also a reminder to them of who they seek to be, and it invites others to initiate conversation with them about religious things.  Recently a local rabbi explained that he wears a yarmulke for many of the same reasons, as a challenge to himself and a witness to others.  And I’ve read that some Muslim women choose to wear headscarves for similar reasons—to witness to their faith and to honor Allah.

I haven’t followed these faithful people yet.  I would be satisfied if I just lived out the words of the song, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

Queries:

What impact does what you believe have on how you live?

What is the difference between authentic, faithful witness and in-your-face offensiveness?

Prayer:

“Lord, make me a channel of your peace.  Where there is hatred let me sow your love” (Prayer of St. Francis).

For further reflection:

“Hear, O Israel:  The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. . . . Bind [these words] as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (See Deuteronomy 6: 4-9.)

“I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long” (Psalm 145: 2).