Simply Receiving

About every other year I get to spend a week at Sanibel, an island off Ft. Myers, Florida. My favorite activity is observing the birds of the area, found particularly at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, as well as elsewhere. By 2014 I had been to the bird sanctuary so often that I began the week with a checklist of the birds I expected to see. I soon found myself frustrated that I wasn’t seeing certain ones, and also surprisingly bored at the whole enterprise.

This year I went to Sanibel without expectations but rather wondering what I would see. I gave up trying to be in control of the experience, and I opened to receive the gifts God provided. I was curious about what would show up, confident that there would be treats. I just didn’t know what, where, or when they would be. This attitude left me much lighter and more joyful. And the week was full of gifts.

If we come to the spiritual life with expectations of how things are to be and what is supposed to happen, we will find frustration and disappointment, and too much focus on ourselves. The spiritual life is about God, God’s work in us, and gratitude for the gifts we are given often in the midst of ordinary living, even without asking or imagining such is possible. A much more abundant life comes when we let go of expectations and notions, simply be real, and open up to where God/Love/Grace may be.

Queries:

Reflecting on your day or your week or your month, what gifts do you notice that you weren’t expecting?

What blocks you from a relationship with God (or Jesus or the Spirit)? Are your intellectual expectations or ways of thinking involved in the blockage?

Prayer:

Imagining yourself in the presence of the holy, hold your hands out in front of you with palms facing down, fingers straight out. Now squeeze your hands into a tight fist, grasping and holding on. Next, turn your fists over so that the closed fingers are facing up. Slowly let your fingers open and release all that you are holding so tightly. Feel yourself relax.

For further reference:

(Remembering that wait means to let time elapse and also to attend or be attentive to) “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. . . . (Isaiah 40:31)

“God’s mercies are new every morning” (See Lamentations 3: 22-24).

“This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24).

Hang in There

There were three of us in the group. One had been married almost 60 years, another 36, and another (me) 48. We all agreed that marriage is full of challenges. Life deals the marriage blows that are hard and the couple’s approaches differ. What is good for one partner is not good for the other. What one does may totally irritate, or even undermine, the other. Our opinions about important things clash. We three also agreed that we are glad we have hung in there even with all of the trials and frustrations.

Struggling through the hard spots, wrestling with tough issues rather than ignoring them or allowing them to escalate out of control, and accepting one’s own and the other’s flaws and limitations—even getting help—are not fun. They are, however, the building blocks of an intimacy and love much more wonderful than the romantic notions I began with as a teenager. It is in those places where the hard edges of my personality could be ground smoother, where the need for God and awareness of God’s saving grace became clearer, and where my heart could be tendered.

There are times, though, when divorce is the right thing. I don’t want to deny that truth. Knowing when to give up and when not to is serious discernment. I just want the chance to say that in many situations there are very good reasons to hang in there, use those hurting times as an opportunity to grow emotionally and spiritually, and reap the benefits long term.

The same can be true for hanging in with other relationships and communities—a church, a school, a job. I have even found it useful to hang in there with the Bible. There are things that upset me earlier that, after much wrestling and study, I have found new, more informed, and faithful ways of understanding. And I’ve learned that I have to leave some things hanging, knowing I don’t understand them yet but the day may come. That humility is a rich benefit of hanging in.

Queries:

Midlife is a time when challenges can hit particularly hard. What helps with discerning the difference between (a)what needs to be changed and can be changed if addressed and worked on, and what can’t be changed but can be accepted, and (b)what is in fact the true breaking point?

What would you say about the value (or mistake) of hanging in there?

Prayer:

“Give us strength for this day and love for each other.” Pray for those with whom you have important relationships. “Help us to change the things we can change, to accept the things we can’t change, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

For further reflection:

“that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and depth of insight. . .” (See Philippians 1: 9-11).

“A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you. . .” (See Ezekiel 36: 26-28).

Vulnerability

When Moses was born, the Israelite people were getting more numerous and powerful than the Egyptians, so the Pharoah declared that all newborn Israelite boys were to be killed. At first his mother hid him. When that became impossible, she came up with a risky scheme to keep him alive. She prepared a basket so that it would float in the water, and placed Moses in the basket in the river among the reeds. His sister stood close enough to watch what was happening to him, so when the daughter of Pharoah found Moses crying and had compassion on him, his sister emerged and offered to find a Hebrew woman to nurse him.

Every aspect of this story involves vulnerability. Suppose Moses’s mother had just kept him with her until he was found by the authorities. Suppose the Pharoah’s daughter hadn’t risked violating her father’s order. Suppose the sister had been too afraid to step forward to speak to someone so powerful. What follows from this story is that Moses becomes the leader of the Hebrew people and brings them out of slavery in Egypt.

If you look at stories of good things that have happened, you can’t help noticing the important role of vulnerability—something we tend, however, to avoid.

Even with friends or family members, co-workers, or one’s community, the vulnerability of speaking truth without being overly guarded or belligerent can make a difference. It requires being what I would call grounded in God, knowing one’s own truth, worth, and inner strength.

I live in a small town in which blacks traditionally have lived on the west side of the railroad tracks and whites on the east. In a panel presentation on growing up in the town in the 1950’s and 60’s, the one black person on the panel spoke clearly of the differences in what was possible and not allowed for her in contrast to what the white members of the panel had known. Exposed and vulnerable, she spoke without anger and with courage. Her truthfulness turned what could have been mere nostalgia into healing and community-building.

I believe that vulnerability leaves space for God to be at work.

Queries:

What is the difference between being vulnerable and being foolishly risk-taking?

What gives you the courage to be vulnerable and take risks?

Prayer:

Breathe in God’s deep and abiding love for you. Let that love wash away the negative and hurtful in you, letting yourself know that you are a beloved child of God and that what you have to offer matters, regardless of what others think.

For further reflection:

“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering. . .” (Matthew 16:21)

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (See Luke 9: 23-25.)

Losses

The recent death of the husband of my eldest cousin brought its own sadness and also, since I have a large family, the awareness that this loss is just the beginning of a long string of losses. In addition, being of a certain age, I am experiencing losses or diminishments routinely. Where is comfort or healing?

Admittedly my first response is protest. I don’t like it! I don’t want to lose what is dear to me! This protest can feel like screaming into the wind, throwing snowballs into a vacuum of nothingness. The facts don’t change. Yet protest, if deeply felt and directed to God, can bring healing, when we are surprisingly met by a loving presence in the midst of the anger, hurt, and fear. I remember as a little girl being so upset by something, crying my heartbreak, and sitting in front of my mother who would quietly stroke my cheek until I calmed. We can get closed in a box of hurt and pain, but Presence and Love open a door into new and ongoing life.

We also experience that Presence and Love through family and friends who stand by our side in times of loss. Anything that recognizes, accepts, and shares my loss matters. I remember years ago when friends went to the trouble to drive over an hour to attend the memorial service for my father-in-law. We were touched and comforted in that place where death and resurrection coexist. I also remember being comforted by cards that were sent me when my mother died—reading and re-reading them, even just seeing the stack of them.

Most amazing are the gifts that come through the pain of losses and diminishments. Only after my mother died did I come to know the depth of her love for me. I can say the lack of earlier awareness is sad. And also I can rejoice that I can spend the rest of my life knowing and living in the fullness of her love. In addition, I can have compassion for those who don’t yet know how much I love them—and compassion for me in not knowing how to let them know. Here is grace and wisdom. As Richard Rohr said, “grace is found at the depths and in the death of everything.” The only way to lose is “to swim on the surface of things, where we never see, find, or desire God or love.”

Queries:

What losses or diminishments have you encountered or do you fear?

How does your faith support you in the midst of losses?

Prayer:

“For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from God” (Psalm 62:5). You may want to put your feelings about losses in the form of a psalm. Do not hesitate to protest.

For further reference:

“Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever” (See Psalm 44: 20-26).

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).

Grace

Grace

On Thanksgiving morning last year all was calm and quiet. No family present or coming. No one from my family, my husband’s family, or our family. This was new, and I felt lonely. But across the miles greeting me that morning was an email from a childhood friend—a blast from the past and a surprise.

Margaret and her four siblings lived on a farm next door to my grandparents whom we visited for two weeks each summer. Two weeks full of fun— feeding baby calves, playing hide-and-seek in the hay barn where we could move bales around to make secret spaces that were hard to find, celebrating her birthday, catching tadpoles.

We grew up. I stayed east of the Mississippi. She married a farmer in Kansas and taught school until her eyesight failed. Our ability to communicate diminished. Our friendship seemed like something from the past. And then last year she got a computer that allowed her to see email with large print. Suddenly we again could be actively in touch, sharing the dailyness of our lives and our families.

So it is her message that arrived first that morning and reached out to my loneliness. Who would have thought, all those years ago, that our lives would be intersecting when we were older than our parents then were? We couldn’t even have imagined being as old as we are now. What a surprise. What a gift. Grace.

Grace is unexpected, unmerited, life-giving goodness.

Queries:

When have you experienced grace?

What helps you notice it when it happens?

Prayer:

Reflect back over the past 24 hours. Notice the moments of grace—moments you especially appreciate, moments that glow as you remember them. Make this a regular practice.

For further reflection:

“Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God . . .” (See Luke 17: 11-19).

“Bless the Lord, O my soul . . . who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy . . .” (See Psalm 103).

Spiritual Gifts of Aging

We recently celebrated what would have been my mother’s 100th birthday. During the time she lived in a retirement community a short walk from my house, she taught me about true strength and graceful aging, none of which she told me in words.

In 1967, I married and left home, my sister went to college, and my father died—all within about a month. My mother found her way through all of that loss. She just kept going. At the time I was too tied up in myself to notice. Only after I saw her move here—clearing out on her own a large home and letting go a lifetime of possessions, quietly adjusting to a new community, and flourishing—did I begin to realize what strength she had.

Years later her Parkinson’s disease progressed until she was too unstable to care for herself. Blessed then with a wonderful part-time caregiver, she turned that relationship into a source of joy and flourished still. Before too long she had to renew her driver’s license. When she was unable to pass the test, she simply asked for a government identification card and graciously let the driving go.

Eventually congestive heart failure sent her to the health care wing. Again she recognized and cooperated with the reality of her condition. She let go more possessions and accepted living in only one room, especially once it had a collection of family photos she could see.

During her last months when I visited her she no longer had energy to watch television or follow her beloved March Madness basketball. She simply glowed at having me present. It began to dawn on me how much she did love me, how much she had always loved me even when I hadn’t felt it, how she had given me gift after gift while I was busy with my own life.

Now it’s my turn to be getting older. How will I cope with the diminishments? Can I let go what I have worked hard to develop and collect? Will I choose bitterness and fear or wisdom and grace? Will I live in regret and disappointment, or can it be with joy and love? As my outward body declines will my inward life grow stronger? These are spiritual questions.

Queries:

What story can you tell about loss or diminishment, yours or another’s, and what have you learned?

What are your spiritual resources for coping and flourishing when you are getting older?

Prayer:

Prayerfully review your life, noticing the ups and the downs, and claim the gifts that accompanied both.

For further reflection:

“There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty. . . In God alone it can rejoice. . .(James Nayler’s last words, 1660).