Dealing with Loss

For the past ten years my husband and I have gathered each New Year’s with two other couples who come from out of town.  Originally we got together so that the three of us who were teaching together could work—and also play.  Each year has been a delight.

This year, for a variety of reasons, most likely was the last.  Everything we did I found myself enjoying at a heightened level, wanting to soak in all the goodness and joy.  The loss feels like it leaves a big hole, and I grieve.

Life is full of losses.  Things come and things go.  Some losses—such as the death of a beloved family member, the loss of a home, the destruction of dreams—are very hard, and sometimes even tragic.  As we age and die, everything our egos have held dear, bit by bit, is lost.  So my poignant loss of the New Year’s gathering is an opportunity to learn and practice the art of letting go.  Maybe then the harder losses can be handled with more equanimity than they otherwise would be.

It seems to me that there are several practices that are a part of letting go.  One is gratitude.  Any loss that we grieve—whether originally a treasure or a trial—had in it something that was precious.   Spending time knowing, feeling, remembering what was good lets us take deeper into our cells that joy.  Adding gratitude is a reminder that these good things are from Something or Someone greater than we are, which adds perspective and a bigger picture.

When anger or deep unhappiness comes with the loss, it may help to look at what is going on with, or what is under, these feelings. Forgiveness may be a key practice for letting go. It lets us release the poison we feed on in our anger while thinking to do harm to the other, and frees us to move forward.

Letting go isn’t easy.  Moses led the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt.  They hadn’t journeyed far before the people began to complain and wish they were back in Egypt.  When Jesus told his disciples he was going to die, they did not like that idea, and when it happened, they were at first at a loss.  But as Jesus’ death opened new possibilities, so our losses can be a door into something new.  May we learn to let go so we can watch for and see the gift that can come in the loss.

Queries:

What is your experience with loss and letting go?

How does faith fit into your practice of letting go?

Prayer:

Loving God, thank you for the blessings that we have known in that which is now gone.  Stand with us and strengthen us as we let go into what is to come.

For further reference:

“You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (See Mark 10: 17-21).

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth” (See Revelation 21: 1-5).

Praise and Thanksgiving

There is a morning devotional that begins, “O Lord, open my lips and my mouth will proclaim your praise” (Psalm 51: 15), to which the response comes, “Thank you, God.”  The practice made me think about the difference between praise and thanksgiving.

When I asked a friend about the difference, her immediate reply was a felt sense or body awareness:  “With praise, my hands are raised, my head is up, and my mouth is open.  With thanksgiving, my head is bowed and my hands are in a prayer position at my heart.”

Thanksgiving is a wonderful practice.  A woman I know begins the day with her partner—sipping a cup of coffee, eating a bowl of oatmeal, and naming things for which they are grateful.  I have benefited from ending my day looking back over it to see the things for which I am thankful.  Often they are things that I would have forgotten about without that reflection time.  And I’m convinced that reflecting like that before I go to sleep makes me more likely to wake up cheerful the next day.

Giving thanks makes us aware that all that comes our way is not of our own making.  There is someone or something bigger.  Praise lets us focus on that source of goodness and grace.  Praise involves acknowledging and rejoicing in what underlies all things.  It arises out of faith and trust, not comprehension.  Praise takes us out of ourselves and into oneness.  For me, praise can be helpful even when I am doubting or discouraged, because it takes me into something beyond myself.  When we praise God, we find our true proportion.

Queries:

How do you understand thanksgiving and praise?  If one is harder or less comfortable than the other, what is the difference for you?

How do you want to express thankfulness or praise at this time?

Prayer:

“Praise and thanksgiving let everyone sing.  To our Creator for every good thing.  Alleluia, joyfully sing.”

For further reflection:

“O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. . . . For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised.”  (See Psalm 96.)

“I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.” (See Psalm 146.)

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).

Time

With the recent return of Daylight Savings Time, my body is all confused about what time it is and what needs to be done, which makes me think about time. My life often seems driven by the clock and the calendar. I think I am somebody if my days are busy and my calendar is full. But the same conditions just as easily can make me feel anxious and overwhelmed.

While I worked a regular job I used to wish for balance in my life, but I never found a way to have that. My time was full of things I was doing, and there wasn’t time to add what I thought would create balance.

I wonder now how it would have been if I had focused on simply receiving the day, and how it would be if I did that now. Our attitude about the day and how we can live in it changes if we realize and remember that each day is a gift from God, even that having both dark and light in a day is God’s creative gift.

Particular spiritual practices can reinforce one’s awareness and gratitude for God’s presence in the day. A traditional morning prayer is, “O Lord, open my lips. And my mouth will proclaim your praise.” Another possibility is the psalmist’s words, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” What would happen if we began the day with a prayer of praise, maybe even shared that experience with someone else? And during the day, before going on to the next thing, we could simply stop and breathe, until we have returned to calm or remembering.

New Testament Greek has different words for time–chronos, which is governed by clocks and calendars, and Kairos, which is set, arranged, ordered by God. Any time of our chronos day may be a Kairos time. At the close of the day, before falling asleep, we can remember and receive the gifts of the day.

Queries:

How would you talk about time as it is experienced in your life? What does being busy mean to you?

How can you be open to receiving the Kairos times in your life?

Prayer:

To start your day, use either of the prayers mentioned above (or your own words) and then name the ordinary, everyday things for which you are grateful.

For further reflection:

“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

“I keep the Lord always before me; because God is at my right hand, I shall not be moved” (Psalm 16:8).

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).

Praise

It had been raining day after day. Still early, we had already had one downpour and lots of showers. When I noticed a slight lightening up of the clouds, I headed out for a walk on the nearby greenway. Immediately my eye was caught by the autumn leaf colors. The yellow, orange, red, and mahogany of sweet gum leaves. The green maple leaves with paint blotches of red. Even the leaves on the ground—yellow, glistening as if sunlight, in comparison with the gold and brown leaves around them. My heart responded—oh my God!

There were birds everywhere. I imagined that they were as happy to be out stretching their wings as I was. They were flying from one branch to another, flitting or hopping among low-lying bushes, twitting and chirping and squeaking. Oh my God! I had to stop and take it in, simply be in the presence.

The night before, we had gone to a potluck at our Quaker meeting. A friend had brought a freshly baked whipped cream pound cake, and blueberry compote to go on top of each slice. Of course I had a piece. The first bite—oh my God!

There are many kinds of experiences that call us to praise our Creator and Sustainer. Maybe it is waking up to the new morning with the one you have loved for a long time. Maybe it is music exquisitely played. Maybe it is being with a group of friends, feeling at one with one another, caring and sharing. Maybe it is that a loved one recovered from a serious illness.

The Psalms express well that praise that arises from the depths of our souls: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless God’s holy name (Psalm 103).” To praise God is not for God’s benefit. It is for us. To praise reminds us of where we fit in things, lifts up humility with no sense of humiliation, and reminds us who we are and Whose we are.

Queries:

Does praise of God come easily to your heart and lips, or are there questions and qualms that block the praise?

Is there value in praising God regularly even if the external circumstances that most likely call it forth are not there?

Prayer:

“Wow!” “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”

For further reflection:

“I will hold you above everything that exists—my God, my Holy Protector, awed by your name always, in gladness as well as sorrow” (See Psalm 145 as translated by Hebrew scholar and poet Pamela Greenberg).

“Praise the Creator from the sky, praise the Eternal from the heights, let all the angels sing out in praise!” (See Psalm 148).

For the ultimate in praise, see Psalm 150. For this psalm I prefer the New Revised Standard Version.

Hoping When There Is No Hope

Ernest needs a place to live, but his lack of income, mental health issues, and past assault and battery charge are slamming doors in his face—despite the help of a well-connected friend who has journeyed with him for a long time. Elsa has been a nurse for several years but was recently dismissed because of coming to work in the morning having already consumed too much alcohol. Her family history is rife with alcoholism. On the international scene, living with the fear of again being exterminated makes completely untenable for Israelis the possibility of being subject to attacks by Palestinians. The oppression Palestinians endure is intense. Caring about such situations, how do we respond?

The world is full of seemingly hopeless situations. To live in despair is to make the world worse; yet to live with false hope can contribute to the existence of the problems or make them worse. How can we practice real hope that doesn’t deny reality?

To associate “hope” with my ability to fix things or with my wishes or expectations sets me up for trouble.   We need to have hope within a bigger picture, one even bigger than what we can see.

We can learn to look for signs of hope—indications that something greater than ourselves is at work. The very presence of caring, compassion, knowledge of the complexity of the situation, and support are gifts–things we can be thankful for. Gratitude feeds hope. And if we are looking, we may see things develop that we hadn’t imagined.

But when it seems that nothing offers hope, it matters to live holding the tensions and the pain without having to resolve any of the pieces, to have the courage to live anyway, as much as we can, in the manner we are called to. To love God and our neighbor; to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Living faithfully is to live in hope.

Queries:           

What is your experience of despair? Of hoping when there is not hope?

What about your faith provides a grounding for hope?

Prayer:

Remembering a particular seemingly hopeless situation, read and pray Psalm 13. Put it into your own words.

For further reflection:

“Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” (See Romans 8: 24-25).

“Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers . . .” (See Psalm 37: 1-9)

Gratitude

When I was a chaplain in oncology, I met an ordinary but quite remarkable woman who had breast cancer. She had four daughters—two who were twins preparing to go to college and two younger girls. Everything that could go wrong did—a complicated kind of breast cancer, a chemotherapy infusion that infiltrated and damaged her heart, and eventually her death before her girls were grown. And yet it was she who taught me most about gratitude.

Despite the negative things I could see in her life, which she knew and acknowledged, it was the positive things she focused on. Every time I interacted with her, she talked about what she was grateful for and what she had written in her gratitude journal. This was no exercise in denial. She in fact bubbled with joy and delight as she talked.

About the same time, if anything had gone wrong in my patient and family visits, the problems were what I remembered as I drove home. Then I learned about the value of looking back over the day to see at what points I had experienced God’s presence. What were the moments for which I was most grateful?

What a change that practice made in my life. In reviewing my day, I saw positive moments that were luminous with God’s grace and presence, moments I would otherwise have forgotten and lost, especially since they were frequently quite small things. Instead of being weighed down by mistakes and failures, gratitude filled my heart, colored my days, and gave me perspective.

Queries:

What is your experience of gratitude?

What have you learned about the nature of God as you reflect on your days looking for the moments for which you are grateful?

Prayer:

Begin a prayerful review of your day, looking for God’s presence. In addition to looking for the moment you are most grateful for, you may also want to look for the moment you are least grateful for. Acknowledge these moments and hear how God is speaking through them. (See Dennis Linn, et al, Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life, Paulist Press, 1995.)

For further reflection:

“You drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock . . .” (See Psalm 40: 1-3).

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