On Being Soft

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Lent for me was quiet this year. I was sick through most of it, and I spent it pretty much alone, except for the sweet presence of my husband. I didn’t write much. I didn’t paint or craft anything. I was just quiet, and as the forty days passed, I was aware at times of being led by still waters.

Still waters was a spiritual and emotional space I discovered after I was diagnosed with end stage renal disease and throughout my lengthy hospital stays in 2014. So today, I am thinking about some life-sustaining words that were a part of my recovery —  the words of the Twenty-third Psalm, my own version of it.

The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing. I have around me and within me everything that I need.

The Lord invites me to stop and to lie down in lush, green meadows.
He leads me beside still waters, 
He restores and refreshes my soul.

He guides me along good and safe pathways for his name’s sake. And for my sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, 
the valley of death’s shadow,

I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me.
Your grace and your care comfort me.

You prepare a place for me, even in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with the oil of gladness.

My cup overflows.

Surely your grace and and your love will follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell with you forever.

We know the words of this Psalm far too well. We skip past it as a common text we memorized when we were young. We recite it easily. But the Psalm came to life for me during my year-long illness. It was in my heart, and often on my lips, during long, sleepless nights in the hospital. I experienced the Psalm’s comfort as never before.

As we near the beginning of Holy Week, my thoughts are of the resurrection that comes after the passion, for Christ, yes, but also for me. I’m not thinking of “us.” My thoughts tonight are focused on me, how I experienced my illness in 2014 as my own kind of passion, the passion of confusion, grief, worry, fear. I experienced an expansive and disconcerting view of my mortality, and I did not take to the stark reality of it.

I cannot, of course, even begin to compare my passion to the passion of Christ. Yet in some tender way, I experienced suffering. Palm Sunday comes this Sunday, and in Christian churches everywhere, the people of God will celebrate Christ’s “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. We will raise our palm branches and shout “hosanna,” as well we should. But Palm Sunday moves us abruptly into the week of Christ’s passion, every pain-filled, grace-filled moment of it. We must not skip that part.

But back to my own passion story, the one that happened the year I thought I was going to die. First you must know a bit about me before the illness. I was persistent and stubborn, a fierce advocate for abused women and children. I did not flinch in a courtroom. I did not shrink when I faced-off with an abuser’s defense attorney. I did not cower standing between a woman and her batterer. I searched the nation to find legal advocacy for abused women and their children. I stood my ground against court-ordered child abuse that would consistently place children in the custody of an abusive parent. I railed against a system that refused to protect children. I was hard. 

The illness came and went over the course of a year. I did not die. Resurrection did come to me, in bits and pieces, slowly, but with the certainty of faith. I was no longer hard. I was movable, malleable, able to be blown about with good and gentle, life-giving breezes. We settled into a new home in a new state, and mostly, I embraced it over time. I fed hummingbirds, listened more deliberately for birdsong, and discovered the way of mindfulness.

When I recovered — slowly — from my illness, I remember the feeling of being soft, though I was not sure what that meant for me. Most certainly, God granted me the patience to move into my resurrection, to embrace it in God’s time, and to wait for it gratefully.

My family said that I emerged from my illness with a change in personality. I was quiet, they said, not like me at all. Inside myself, I knew that they were right. I felt the change. I sat in my own quiet for months. And even now I sense a quietness that wraps me softly as if it were a warm, light blanket. It’s a good place for me, this soft, warm, comforting place.

It’s a good place to continue my resurrection, to learn more about what it means to be soft. As it often happens, I stumbled upon this quote as I wrote this piece. I love the thought it expresses. It resonates with my soul.

Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard.
Do not let the pain make you hate.
Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness.

— Iain Thomas

These days, I am sensing that a kidney transplant is imminent for me. So to go through that process, I will lean even more into my soft side. That will be a good emotional and spiritual space for me. Soft! Soft facing change and fear. Soft facing uncertainty and new, scary medications. Soft facing the hope of a healthy kidney bringing me a new beginning, a resurrection.

May God continue to lead me beside these still waters. It’s a good place for me to greet resurrection.

 

 

 

 

To the Other Side of Silence

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Barbara Resch Marincel, lifeisgrace.blog

Today is another “Wordless Wednesday.” My friend, Barbara Resch Marincel, is a sister blogger, an insightful writer, and a photographer extraordinaire. You can see one of her amazing works in the image on this post. The image reminds me of a dark time that is slowly changing with the glow of new light. And in that light, the flying birds speak to me of the wind of the Spirit. Barbara’s images are a gift to me, always bringing up a range of emotions.

Here is a bit of how she describes herself on her blog, lifeisgrace.blog.

Blogger, writer, photographer, in varying order. Finding the grace in the everyday—and the not so everyday, while living a full and creative life despite chronic pain and depression.

If you take a few moments of your day to visit Barbara’s blog, you will find enchantingly stunning photography that speaks of joy, pain, life and grace.

Back to “Wordless Wednesday.” So many reasons to be wordless. Some people may not have adequate words to express joy. Others cannot speak of deep sorrow. Some of us have no words because of pain, while others are wordless because they have fallen into the depths of depression.

There is no end to the reasons people are wordless, no end to the seasons in which they find they are without words. I have lived in that season many times, and in that place I could not speak of my pain because words were completely inadequate. I could not speak the pain out loud to any friend, and even for prayer, I had no words. Silence was my close companion.

I love that my friend, Barbara, entitles her blog post “Wordless Wednesday” every week, because in the middle of every week, she reminds me of my seasons without words. Her art is a reminder for me to give thanks that I survived those times, and celebrate that I am now on the other side of silence.

But will not forget that it is no small feat to get to the other side of silence. I must remember that it is not easy to endure silent, grief-filled times and to the other side of them. While living in my seasons of unspoken angst, one passage of Scripture brought me comfort and hope.

The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 
— Romans 8:26 (NRSV)

When grief has stolen our words, when we cannot speak and find ourselves in silence, may open our lives to hope, trusting the intercession of the Spirit’s sighs that are far deeper than words. 

Thank you, my friend, for “Wordless Wednesdays.”

And thanks be to God for allowing me to move to the other side of silence.

Amen.

Together Through Lent

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Watercolor art by Kathy Manis Findley. The watercolor — “Together” — represents the spiritual covenants we share with one another, bonds that strengthen our faith. 

I have always thought of Lent as a spiritual journey we take alone, a solitary season of introspection and self-reflection during which we contemplate our own spiritual well-being and our relationship with God. For me, Lent has always been alone work. But what if it wasn’t? Suppose I experienced Lent with my community — the close community of people with whom I share my spiritual life.

I cannot help but recall the story of Jephthah’s daughter as told in Judges 11. When she faces a terrible crisis that will result in her death at the hands of her father, she makes only one request of her father. “Do what you must do, only grant me this one request: Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my sisters.”

So she will take this journey up into the hills with her sisters — to mourn, to reflect, to pray. She will not make this journey alone. She makes the journey with the sisters who surrounded her in life and now in death. They climb up into the hills together.

Lent’s forty days represent the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, enduring the temptation of Satan and preparing to begin his ministry. He was there alone, and most often the Lenten journey is a time for reflecting alone. But I think that perhaps there is spiritual benefit in making a Lenten journey together, in community, joining together through invisible rhythms of friendship and caring.

As I make my Lenten journey this year, in my mind I will take my community with me. There into my alone places where God comforts me in my contemplative moments, in my repentance and in my penitence, I will be more mindful this Lent of my spiritual circle of friends. I will make a covenant with them in my mind and heart. I will send them positive thoughts as they make their Lenten journey and I will pray for them intentionally and faithfully.

It will be a together Lent, inspired by the sisters who went into the hills with Jephthah’s daughter where they spent a season of grief in community, together.

I hope that, together, we might embrace a sense of community as one of our Lenten spiritual disciplines, that we might journey together for these forty days, praying for one another, seeking together the serenity, the reflection and the transformation of Lent.

In that spirit of prayer, I leave with you this beautiful prayer written by Rabbi Naomi Levy:

The rabbi in me would like to offer a prayer for you.
I pray you will learn to see you life as a meaningful story.
I pray you will learn to listen to your soul’s insistent yearning.
I pray you will learn to believe you can transform your life.
I pray you will learn to live and shine inside your imperfect life
and find meaning and joy right where you are.
Most of all I pray you will uncover a great miracle: your extra-ordinary life.

— From Hope Will Find You by Rabbi Naomi Levy

Tending to Yourself through Lent

5C466354-43F2-463A-9C04-1ACD2A85CE01Do you ever just get tired of tending to yourself? I suppose that’s not a relevant question for a general audience. It is, however, a very relevant question for those of us who are aging and/or have chronic illnesses.

I am in those categories: aging and ill. My life changed, as many of you know, in 2014 when I was diagnosed with end stage renal disease. That means my choice was dialysis for the rest of my life, a kidney transplant, or the unmentionable alternative which, very honestly, is death. I am told that without either dialysis or transplant, a person would be looking at two weeks.

So I tend to myself with all the medications, the medical appointments, the processes, the prevention measures — every day. Sometimes it feels like all day. Without a husband who is an indispensable care partner, I would be sunk. To be honest, my needs require both of us to be constantly attentive, and it is exhausting.

Still, I tend to myself, and I do sometimes get tired of having to. But I tend to myself largely without complaint and with unspeakable joy for the grace of being alive, of enjoying my family, my grandchildren, my creative pursuits and my “one wild and precious life” as poet Mary Oliver would call it.

Tending to myself is not just being sure to address my physical health needs. It is even more important to me to tend to my spiritual well-being. One of the things that means for me is choosing a spiritual path for my Lenten journey. I have just one day to choose. Today is Ash Wednesday, an important day for penitents. “From dust you have come and to dust you shall return” is Ash Wednesday’s message. And then we must begin our Lenten spiritual path.

I have to be honest by admitting that I have not yet chosen my path. It won’t be giving up chocolate. It won’t be as much giving as it will be receiving grace on the journey. So as I have contemplated what I will do, I have gathered some resources that I will share here.

I hope you will tend to yourself through your Lenten journey, and I pray that Lent’s forty days will find you walking your sacred path. Breathe deeply. Reflect on your life. Pay attention to your heart. Attend to your soul. Count your gifts. Speak your prayers. Consider Christ’s journey to the cross. Listen for God’s whisper. Receive the grace that comes to you.

All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.
— Ecclesiastes 3:20

A FEW RESOURCES YOU MIGHT USE DURING LENT:

  • First of all, I would like to share with you the joy of walking a labyrinth or using a finger labyrinth during the days of Lent. 9889AA3B-16BB-4F9F-9B56-D883A74A49AE

You might find a labyrinth near you in a church, a park or at a spiritual retreat center. You can search at the labyrinth locator website listed below. You may also invest some creative time by making a finger labyrinth like the one pictured. Instructions  are at a link below.

Walking the labyrinth is a spiritual discipline that invites us to trust the path, to surrender to the many turns our lives take, and to walk through the confusion, the fear, the anger and the grief that we cannot avoid experiencing as we live our earthly lives.    — The Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress

Walking the labyrinth clears the mind and gives insight into the spiritual journey. It is a form of walking meditation that can enhance and deepen awareness of God. Labyrinth prayer is a contemplative spiritual discipline on a simple marked path. It is based on the ancient practice of pilgrimage. 

On a pilgrimage, a pilgrim intentionally (1) leaves the world, journeying away from the noise and distractions of life, (2) eventually arrives and rests with Christ, and (3) returns home to live more deeply in God’s presence.

The labyrinth invites us to release, receive and return. Walking the labyrinth is not a newfangled technique to jumpstart your spiritual life. It is a slow, quiet, meditative practice that has historically attended to the desire to make a journey toward God. Laid in the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France around 1220, the labyrinth has been used by pilgrims for centuries.

When you experience the labyrinth, you must give yourself to the path, leaving behind the noise and hurry of life. Just as you would pack simply for a pilgrimage, you offer your load to God as you begin your prayer journey. You move slowly toward the center and toward God. 

At times you are close to the center. Further along the path, you may be farther from the center. This represents the reality of the spiritual journey. As you walk the labyrinth, you can see the center, but you can’t see how exactly you will get there, Sometimes you find you are making surprising turns that seem to take you farther away, not closer. However, if you stay on the path, you will get to the center. Then, you will follow the path from the center and move “into the world” to do justice and love mercy. Labyrinths can be a walking meditation, a spiritual practice or simply an opportunity to calm the mind and enjoy peace, quiet and reflection. 

For resources on the labyrinth, visit https://www.gracecathedral.org/our-labyrinths/

To find labyrinths, visit The Labyrinth Society’s website: https://labyrinthlocator.com

For instructions on making a finger labyrinth, visit https://heatherplett.com/2015/01/make-finger-labyrinth-also-piece-art/

  • Living Well Through Lent 2019:
    Practicing Forgiveness with All Your Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind

    Living Compass offers a daily email devotional throughout Lent. You will receive forty-seven daily emails, one for each day of Lent, plus Easter. The emails will begin on Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019. If at any point you no longer want to receive the emails, you can unsubscribe at any time.  https://www.livingcompass.org/lent”>https://www.livingcompass.org/lent</
  • And my personal favorite, LIFT EVERY VOICE

PrintLift Every Voice is a Lenten resource from 2016 that is still relevant in 2019. It addresses America’s original sin of racism through the lens of Ignatian spirituality and includes daily readings. From Ash Wednesday through Easter Sunday, voices from throughout the Ignatian network will lament racial injustice in our communities and reflect on how the Gospel calls us to repent, pray, and act in solidarity with those affected by an enduring legacy of systemic and personal racial discrimination. https://ignatiansolidarity.net/lent-2016/

Hallelujah!

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Those of us who are Jesus people should take note that there are only two days left for “Hallelujahs!” Ash Wednesday is upon us, and that marks two significant things: first, Jesus begins his journey to his crucifixion; and second, we, if we choose to, will join Christ’s journey by traveling our own spiritual journey through the forty days of Lent.

Each of us finds his or her own spiritual path through these Lenten days. Some might enter into a time of self-reflection. Others want to realign their lives to a clearer focus toward God. Some choose to give up things while also taking on life-giving practices. Still others focus on repentance, and others intend to rid themselves of distractions and selfish desires. Some of us just need to take these Lenten days to breathe, slow down, contemplate life, listen for God’s whisper.

How we spend our Lenten days may include prayer, fasting, meditation, Bible reading, taking focused labyrinth walks, service to others, reading poetry, and many other disciplines that can draw us closer to God. 

In two days, some of us might choose one of these Lenten disciplines. But until then, we can fill our hearts with hallelujahs as we contemplate the many life graces we have received. So today, I want to proclaim “hallelujah!” for a caring and loving husband . . .

for a family that is present for me when I need them, 

for a place to live that is more than just a house, 

for a church family that is community for me, 

for my medical care team who take such good care of me, 

for friends from afar who make the effort to continue to build our friendship in spite of the many miles that separate us, 

for friends nearby who listen and love and care, and then listen some more. 

Hallelujah!

Hallelujah for all of that. And Hallelujah for a good and graceful God who gives us life and breath!

Hallelujah!

So I invite you to shout out a few hallelujahs for all the graces of your life. And after the hallelujahs, may you take your journey through a Holy Lent, and on the journey, find quiet joys and a peaceful path. Amen.

 

 

I invite you to listen to a beautiful arrangement of Michael Cohen’s “Hallelujah” performed by Pentatonix here:

What’s Underneath?

A07A5421-F042-40D4-A143-32391BBC79FBToday, a friend’s blog posed a provocative question. It was provocative enough to stop me in my tracks. Likely, I was right in the middle of a tirade of complaints when this question challenged me. This was the question: “If I let go of my complaints, what might be underneath?” *

The question presented a plethora of thoughts for me. It opened up that place underneath just for a second. But then I quickly moved back to the complaints. I have many. Or at least I believe I have many reasons to complain. But I’m realizing that complaints are surface things. They live outside of us and do not always reflect the inner emotions we are truly feeling.

A complaint develops easily and blurts out what’s on the surface of our lives. It flows easily off the tongue and falls upon any willing listener. The empathy we receive from that willing listener keeps the complaints alive. If someone listens to us and responds with caring about our complaint, it is then cemented. We have given it life, perhaps life beyond what it deserves.

This brings us back to the probing question: “If I let go of my complaints, what might be underneath?”

If gratefulness for the obvious graces that we have received replaced the urge to complain, we would be surprised at the result. If, instead of lodging a complaint, we spent some time exploring what lives “underneath,” we might well gain true insight into our emotional state. 

So we would do well to ask ourselves what’s underneath the complaint we speak out loud? Is it true that our complaint rises from a deep place inside of us but hides the emotion there?

If my complaint, for instance, is that I am overworked, perhaps underneath is the constant feeling that I’m being taken advantage of. If my complaint is that I have to endure an illness, perhaps the feeling underneath is that I fear suffering, even death. If I am terrified of death, perhaps I am not certain I left a good and lasting legacy. If I’m languishing in retirement, perhaps the emotion “underneath” is that, now that I am not “ministering,” I am questioning my self-worth.

You might be asking why this is important. It is important because whatever lives inside of us holds the power to harm us physically, emotionally and spiritually. What could we do instead of complaining? 

  • We might begin with silence that moves us a bit towards serenity.
  • Next, we will practice mindfulness that helps center us.
  • We woukd do well to contemplate gratitude for the graces of life. 
  • Then we should pray for insight, comfort and healing, not only praying for what we need from God, but also listening for God, abiding for a while in God’s presence.
  • Then we must take time for what might be the most important practice of all: introspection and self-reflection.

One of the primary goals of introspection is to better comprehend our inward life and to learn to focus it towards fulfillment of self. To go there is to invite vulnerability, healthy vulnerability that softens the hard places inside me that are wounded. Then we need to pull up from our inner resources just a little bit of courage.

When all is said and done, each of us is given a critical choice: do we complain about all that is not right? Or does courage enable us to look underneath our complaints and discover what our true emotions are?

For myself, I have to ponder these questions: What am I grieving? What have I lost? What do I fear? Underneath my whining and complaining (which I am very apt to do) I will find a gift, a treasure that is my very soul and spirit, and the emotions that abide there.

And as a bonus, I will have found a better way to live my “one wild and precious life.” **

* From A Network of Grateful Living

** From a poem by Mary Oliver.