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).

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.)

Loving Those on the Other Side

During the election season in the United States leading up to November 8, we were divided into camps that sometimes seemed like the good guys against the enemy.  Now that the election is over, how do we learn to love our “enemies,” to let it be possible for us to become one people?  What does it take to be enabled to love those with whom we disagree so strongly?

When I turned to the passages in the gospels of Matthew and Luke in which Jesus tells us to love our enemies, I got some ideas.  In Luke the instruction is given to those “who listen,” which means to hear the words and live them.  I find myself needing to acknowledge my feelings, let them go to God, and then to attune myself to God, to let myself become clay in God’s hands.  The temptation is to carry a political or secular agenda, but the invitation is to love.  It’s hard.

In Luke, Jesus tells us to love our enemies, but then adds, “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”  What I hear in these words is that we are to transcend all the hateful things that others do to us, to rise above all that would diminish us.  The religious practices of the Gullah people on the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina emphasized this ability to transcend, and people who encountered them were amazed at their lack of negativity toward white people, who had brought them there in slavery.  It’s possible.

In Matthew, Jesus reminds us that we are all children of God—“for God makes God’s sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”  I hear a warning here not to think of ourselves or others as the evil ones or the good ones, the superior or inferior.  The judging is God’s job.  Ours is, as Friend Johan Mauer writes, “to live in hope and work to bless the community, . . . not letting anyone get marginalized.”  May it be so.

Queries:

What are your feelings about the election?  How might they become part of your prayer?

How can you attune yourself first to God rather than to the secular world?  How are you called to live in love?

Prayer:  

Holy Lord, in you is love in its fullness. Letting go of all fear, of all anger, of all pride, we entrust ourselves to the light of your love.  Remove every obstacle, Lord, which keeps us from the daunting task you have called all of us to perform: to love each other unconditionally, as you love us.  (Jan Brown, Interim Coordinator, Community for Peace and Nonviolence)

For further reference:

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (See Matthew 22: 34-40.)

“Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (See Romans 13: 8-10.)

Friends

I am very fortunate to have many good friends, in my town and around the country.  They challenge, support, and sustain me.  They are the source of lots of fun and joy, whether by phone or in person.  This morning I was out for a walk on a beautiful day when a friend drove past in her truck, recognized me, and waved.  Automatically I waved back, smiled broadly, and felt my heart touched–ah, this is a good day.

I have a friend with whom my husband Ralph and I regularly take hiking trips as couples.  Ralph picks out where we go, my friend finds a place to stay, Ralph picks out the hikes, I find wildflowers and interesting things on the trail, my friend takes pictures of them, and her husband brings up the rear finding things we miss and keeping us altogether.  Each of us has a part to play, and the whole is much richer than any one part or even their sum.

Ralph loves for me to bake a fruit pie.  It doesn’t happen very often because they take a long time to make and no time to finish eating.  I have another friend with whom Ralph once shared a piece of his apple pie.  Ever since then she has been begging me to make an apple pie for her.  One day I will, because her friendship has enriched my life beyond measure, including introducing me to people, places, and ideas that I wouldn’t have known otherwise.

True friendship—with its equality, intimacy, and oneness—is special.  Jesus tells us that if we obey his command to love one another, we will be his friends.  We will not be servants or slaves to a master whom we must fear and obey for the benefit of the master’s business, which of course we do not know.  If we love, we will be one with Jesus and with God, and can do much good that will last.  It isn’t easy to love, but we have help.  It is quite an invitation.

Queries:

Who are your friends and what do they mean to you?  How are you as a friend?

What is it, or would it be, like to be a friend of Jesus?

Prayer:

Begin by thinking of a neighbor friend and hold that person in God’s love and light.  Next, but not too quickly, move to a special friend from past or present and do the same.  And lastly to someone not yet a friend or even to someone who is very hard to like.  Again, hold that person in God’s love and light.  Thank Jesus for his offer of friendship with you.  Thank God for God’s love of you.

For further reflection:

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (See John 15: 9-17).

“And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him” (See Mark 2: 2-12).

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).

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).

The Bible

I don’t want to read the Bible as a book of rules, or of science or history as we now understand those disciplines. I want to read it because it is a book of Life and a book about Love.

I cherish the Bible because it makes me part of a much larger story—not confined to my family heritage, to this culture, this country, or this time. Having heard, read, studied, and prayed the Bible for years, it is part of me and I am part of its story. It guides, comforts, teaches, and challenges me and keeps my life from being just about me. It reminds me that I am loved always and forever. It gives meaning and purpose.  A Vietnam veteran told my husband’s history class that he got through his service in the war by reading a pocket New Testament that he carried.

The Bible is a book for those who are open to faith. Well-educated intellectuals (“the wise”) may read it and scoff while those who have had less privilege (“little children”) understand it well and find comfort and hope. It makes me think outside my box. For example, in a world that sets up so many boundaries and divisions, I read “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ” (Gal. 3:28).

Admittedly I can also read passages that upset or mystify me. Sometimes I dig deeper and search for a way to make sense of the passage. Sometimes I let those go for a time. There may be another context when those passages will open up for me. I once read a single Psalm daily for a week. Almost every day something different in the Psalm caught my attention and spoke to me.

I don’t know what the key is that unlocks the Bible’s treasures for someone. But if one does want to be opened to the Bible, I feel sure a way will be provided.

Queries:

Why do you read, or not read, the Bible?

How has the Bible impacted you, or how could you be open to what it has to offer?

Prayer:

“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119: 105).

For further reflection:

About scripture St. Augustine writes: “What you do not understand, treat with reverence and be patient, and what you do understand, cherish and keep.” See St. Augustine, Sermons for Christmas and Epiphany, trans. Thomas Comerford Lawler (NY: Newman Press, 1952), 70.

“I don’t read Scripture to learn doctrine. I don’t read it to find answers to every question. I read it to find God.” Carole Spencer, 1999, quoted in Catherine Whitmire, Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2001), 118.

Joy

One day I was in a group talking about our favorite part of Christmas. “I love having my grandsons come to my house and make presents for their parents,” Dot said. “They really get into it and get excited. Their love for their parents is so apparent.” While she shared her story, her whole face was a smile, her eyes danced and radiated delight. The joy she felt communicated itself to the rest of us and we too knew joy.

On another time with the group Jim told us about the sudden death of a dear friend of his. We felt his grief and invited him and others to tell us about the man. Their faces glowed as they told of the man’s care for the land and for the people of our area, and of all the quiet differences he had made in our community. Even though the circumstances were sad, joy dwelt in our hearts, because as a group we were united in grief, appreciation for the friend and the land, and love for one other.

Whereas happiness is light and carefree and depends on a positive environment, joy is something different. It is deep and strengthening and can happen in any kind of circumstances because it comes from within. Joy is the condition when the deepest part of me connects with another, united by something ineffably other.

Queries:

What is your experience of joy? Of “something ineffably other”?

How attuned are you to noticing experiences of unity, allowing them to teach and change you?

Prayer:

Make a collage of joy. Play music that touches your soul and brings deep joy. Dance with joy. Open your senses to joy in any way that works for you.

For further reflection:

“Praise God with trumpet sound; praise God with lute and harp!” (See Psalm 150. I like NRSV best here.)

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control . . .” (See Galatians 5:22-26).

Mercy

Pope Francis has declared 2016 to be the Year of Mercy. To grant mercy for people who make mistakes and are repentant or “worthy” of mercy is fine. But what about those people or groups who are doing terrible things, or who might include some who would oppress or do great harm—or even have values different from mine? Don’t we need to judge them, or wouldn’t we rather pass judgment? James 2: 13 says that “mercy triumphs over judgment,” a statement that seems backwards.

J was arrested for selling cocaine. Mary knew too many young men whose lives had been ruined by cocaine. She could easily judge J. She was clear that what he had been doing was wrong. Yet, he was in fact a young man she had known from the time he was a baby. She had been his youth group leader at church. She knew his father abused his mother and had beaten her so badly that she had been blinded, and she knew that his mother had only recently died. She felt compelled to offer mercy.

She lined up his pastor and got letters of reference to take to his hearing, and together she and the pastor went to court and waited all the time it took for J’s case to come before the judge. Convinced by the support that had been presented, the judge, pointedly holding the young man accountable for what he did with this new chance, released him into their care.

Mercy is not the same as passivity or accepting anything and everything. It is a standing with, recognizing one’s own need for mercy, rather than feeling or acting superior and standing on top of. Mercy has costs. It isn’t about safety and security. Mercy recognized for what it is and received has the effect of yeast added to a measure of flour and liquid. Mercy transforms hearts. It comes from Love.

Queries:

What about your life would make you want to receive mercy rather than judgment?

What do you need to leave behind in order for your life to be more mercy-full?

Prayer:

Breathe in mercy. With the outward breath, let go.   An alternative prayer is the one routinely used in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church–“Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.”

For further reference:

See James 2: 1-13, a passage that warns against showing partiality for one group over another and ends with the call for mercy.

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions” (Psalm 51:1).

Freedom to Change

I have certain religious and political/social justice ideas that I value. I can be caught trying to change other people to get them to agree with my point of view. I don’t think those efforts ever work.

Recently I had two experiences that resulted in openings. After the Charleston shootings I was talking with a white friend about racism. I caught myself trying to change him.   What I got was resistance and defensiveness. I was frustrated because if white people can’t talk about racism, how can blacks and whites make any progress in racial equality. So I backed off the arguing and somehow I invited his story. What he shared opened my eyes and changed me. No longer was I the one with superior ideas. We became equals. At that point, unexpectedly and freely, he suggested he could change.

On another occasion I was working on a committee trying to develop a statement about how a person becomes a member of the Religious Society of Friends. Friends in the yearly meeting had different ideas. One point of view was that a person becomes a member at birth if one’s parents are members. That understanding was very important to a number of Friends because it gave them such a deep feeling of long-term belonging and being valued. One such person helped us express the idea correctly. Although her “birthright” membership is in a meeting in another yearly meeting where she hasn’t lived for many years, our effort to include what mattered to her left her feeling very affirmed and valued by a yearly meeting to which she didn’t belong officially. Suddenly and unexpectedly she found herself re-thinking her feelings about her membership. A new decision became a possibility.

From these examples I see that we are not changed by arguments but rather by having our persons respected and our hearts touched. The power of God joins us soul to soul as one.

—————-

Queries:

What is your experience of being in the midst of strongly-held different points of view?

What helps you be open to change? To feel free to change? To know that you are God’s beloved?

—————

Prayer:

Pray with Psalm 131, put it in your own words, until you can feel what it would feel like to be “calmed and quieted like a weaned child with its mother . . .”

————-

For further reflection:

“Not by strength of arguments or by a particular disquisition of each doctrine, and convincement of my understanding thereby, came I to receive and bear witness of the Truth, but by being secretly reached by the Life.”   –Robert Barclay, Apology, Proposition 11, section 7

“Beloved, let us love one another . . .” (See I John 4:7, 12-13).