Becoming Our Better Selves

295B6520-B0A5-4F94-A0E7-9462C854C39B

I don’t usually write about charts in my blog. I’m not really a chart person at all. But my friend, Kim Rosby, recently sent me a chart that is worth contemplating. The chart is a snapshot of what it might look like when we become our better selves. It’s entitled “The Comfort Zone,” which is a place most of us want to be. 

That’s the problem. There is no growth and maturing in the comfort zone. It can become for us, not just comfortable, but also stagnant.

So I spent some time contemplating this provocative chart, and it definitely provoked some emotions in me. It appears that there are four zones that are possible for us:

  • The Comfort Zone
  • The Fear Zone
  • The Learning Zone
  • The Growth Zone

There you have it! So let’s unpack this chart a bit. When/if we manage to move ourselves out of the comfort zone, a place where we feel safe and in control, we will most likely enter the fear zone. In the fear zone, we are not at all sure of ourselves. We hang on the opinions of other people and use anything we can find as an excuse to remain frozen in place. If we don’t make a move, we can’t make a mistake. Right? We come to a point, though, where we do not believe we can move. We don’t believe we can change. We don’t believe we can seek another way.

Fortunately, some of us do make it out of the fear zone and thus find ourselves in the learning zone. What a renewing place to be, a place where new and fresh ideas are possible. It is in this zone that we realize we have moved at least a few steps past our comfort zone. We learn new skills and we discover that we can navigate challenges and solve problems. As long as we are learning, our path is clear and a future is possible.

So we move with courage into the growth zone, where we will re-invent ourselves in positive and exhilarating ways. As we conquer the objectives that were holding us back, we begin to believe in the possibility of new life goals, a deeper purpose. And then suddenly, we surprise ourselves with dreams and aspirations for something more in our lives, something fresh that inspires us to be our better selves.

I like my friend’s chart. I also like this promise that also says something very compelling about becoming our better selves:

 . . . I came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.
—Jesus

 

 

Through These Dark Hours

521C7942-66C7-4FF0-A54B-6720CF0EB419

Unafraid, unbound, unleashed from this earth, rising with every step, a dance to lift the human soul.

What do I do through these dark hours? How do I endure them, the lostness, the fear, the spiritual suffering? How do I make my journey and avoid the dark hours that overwhelm me along the way?

Dark hours are a part of our living, a part of our journey. They cover us — even those who are most religious and devout — like an ominous black cloud. Dark hours bring us fear, dread, a lack of hope. Dark hours steal the joy of our faith.

The term “dark night (of the soul)” describes a spiritual crisis in the journey with God, like that described by St. John of the Cross in his poem, “The Dark Night.”

In her letters, St. Teresa of Calcutta described how she endured a dark night of the soul from 1948 almost until her death in 1997, with only brief interludes of relief.

St Thérèse of the Child Jesus wrote of her own experience of the dark night, as she found herself doubting the existence of eternity. She struggled and suffered through a prolonged period of spiritual darkness, declaring to her fellow nuns: “If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into..!”

Examples of the experiences of those we look to as spiritual patrons of the faith do not really enlighten our own faith journeys. We walk our own spiritual paths, always hoping for the best, always striving to experience the holy along the way. And we hope beyond hope that we will not have to endure the suffering of dark hours.

The truth is that dark hours are required on the journey. We cannot walk around our dark hours, moving them aside like the sticks and brush we can so easily move off of our path. Our only option is to keep walking, to stay the course and to embrace the journey just as it is.

As I look back to take stock of my own journey, I see the the dark hours as powerful reminders of struggle and spiritual crisis. As I examine the past, I can say without hesitation that the dark hours were times I do not want to experience again. I can feel the intense pain of them, even now, the formidable affect of them on my spirit. The thought of them brings on a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach that makes me want to quickly move on to the next life metaphor I might use in this post.

And yet . . . And yet, how clear it is from this vantage point that I endured my dark hours and emerged stronger, better, with faith intact and with a living hope to take with me on the rest of the journey. From the cloud of dark hours, I learned that I could believe again, hope again, move farther into my journey with joy — even unrestrained joy — because of God’s grace that gave me strength.

There is probably no writer that inspires me more than Bishop Steven Charleston. He has taught us how to live in his many writings over the years. In this piece, he shows us the way through our dark hours in these beautiful words:

Let us dance through these dark hours, while others crouch down, seeking shelter from a worried world, hiding in the shadows, afraid to hope for tomorrow, let us give them a sign they can see, a message made of music and motion, two dancers spinning light out of darkness, a waltz in an air raid shelter, unafraid, unbound, unleashed from this earth, rising with every step, a dance to lift the human soul. Let us dance so others can dance, dancers from every direction, standing up to join us, music filling the sky, a revolution of unrestrained joy, an invitation to believe again, to hope again, to be free again, dancing through these dark hours, as if dancing was all that we were born to do.

To be sure, I have felt the pressing urge to “crouch down” many times, “to seek shelter from a worried world, hiding in the shadows, afraid to hope for tomorrow.” But in the end, through dark hours I learned to dance.

Dance then, wherever you may be. I am the Lord of the Dance, said he . . .

It’s a good way to live.

It’s a good way to give witness to the world of our living faith and unrestrained joy!

Amen.

Lost

0CECED10-AAF6-4CC4-B9B9-0C0C9D112888

When our Jonathan was a toddler, we took a trip to the mountains of North Carolina. Not a child who ever liked his car seat, his reaction on this trip was far worse than usual with a great deal of squirming, fussing and whining. All of a sudden, he cried out in a panicked voice, “I don’t know where my home is!”

Aha! That was the emotional issue at play here. Jonathan had lost his sense of home and the safety and comfort his home gave him. All of us lose our sense of home at times, sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally. From experience, I can attest to the fact that losing home is a trauma. Years ago, a house fire destroyed parts of our home and many of our belongings. We were displaced for months waiting on the house to be restored and live-able, and in that time, I experienced a great deal of unease and anxiety.

And then there’s the fear of getting lost, for me an irrational fear that simply comes over me at times. It’s a feeling of panic when I feel as if the people and places that mean “home” for me are out of my reach, and I am impossibly and hopelessly lost. For instance, the simple joy of walking in a corn maze terrifies me. So I suppose I must admit to having a phobia just as real as the one Jonathan had when he lost home. 

Some of the most beautiful, comforting words in all of scripture are the words of the Psalmist in the 139th Psalm. I can almost imagine these words coming from a person who knows what losing home feels like. His message to us, and even to himself is this: “It is not possible for me to be lost. No matter where I travel — from one end of my world to other worlds far away — I am not lost. For there is One who holds me fast.”

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Where can I flee from Your presence?

If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.

If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.

Amen.

 

 

 

One Step Past Possible

5F59BC0D-8530-45AE-B0BA-403D4E2DC1F2

All journeys begin with one step, just one step, usually into the unknown. Each step that follows goes farther into a journey that most often is made up of twists and turns and sometimes stones in the road. It takes a little faith, embarking on a journey.

Still, faith does not make things easy. But faith does makes them possible. Mildred McAfee says something very wise about moving forward in faith. She says “If you have a great ambition, take as big a step as possible in the direction of fulfilling it. The step may only be a tiny one, but trust that it may be the largest one possible for now.”

Tiny steps remind me of the book microShifts by Gary Jansen who suggests that transforming your life happens one small step at a time. The book’s message makes it quite acceptable to take micro shifts toward something in your life. As for me, microshifts are important. I have made dozens of microshifts to get comfortable with the idea of a kidney transplant.

Microshifts are still shifts, and that means change that we sometimes fear. Faith slips in on us at this point. There’s a tiny verse in the Gospel of Luke that those of us who are followers of Christ grab onto. We believe the message because we want to. We hold the message close to our hearts because we need to. 

For with God nothing shall be impossible.

That’s it. Luke 1:37. Simple and clear. Without superfluous language, Luke asserts that nothing is impossible. And about the “with God” part. Well, I’m guessing that Luke adds that to remind us that faith includes a contract between us and the God of the possible. 

So I am thinking today about what is really is possible, globally and personally. For instance, is it possible to end hate-motivated violence? It is possible to end racial divides? Is it possible to make sure schools are safe places? Is it possible to protect the earth from the effects of climate change? Is it possible for this nation to hold free, fair, respectful political campaigns and elections?

Global questions like those are endless — so many questions, so few answers.

But then I also ask what is possible on a personal level. What’s possible for me or you? Is it possible to live out our faith on the margins where hurt prevails? Is it possible to carve out time for contemplation, meditation and prayer?

And then there’s the question I often ask myself. Is it possible to envision a day of better health? I am thinking specifically about a kidney transplant. Right now, a transplant seems to be one step past possible, meaning that it’s just a little more than possible that it will happen. The possibility , however small, brings up feelings, emotions that have begun to escape from the place inside me that had them locked up. 

I finally believe that a kidney transplant for me is probably going to happen. The stars have aligned. A brave and magnanimous donor has been evaluated by Piedmont Transplant Institute  in Atlanta where both donor and recipient (me) will have the surgery. The National Kidney Registry will search for matches among paired exchange program participants. Even surgery dates are being contemplated. It’s real! After almost five years of wondering, and doubting a transplant would ever happen, a transplant is imminent.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that I feel panic and fear. My heart beats a bit faster these days. I am taking lots of deep, cleansing, centering breaths. My heart is preparing for a surgery that could well offer a new sense of freedom for me. By coincidence, blasting through my speakers I am hearing one of my favorite old country tunes, Martina McBride’s “Independence Day.” It is reminding me that I lost a certain amount of independence the day I got sick in 2014.

So today feels a bit like an independence day is coming for me. It feels like independence to think about a future of not being tethered to a dialysis machine for eight hours a day, every day. It feels like independence to not have permanent tubing emerging from my body. It feels like independence to be able to travel without the strain of taking large medical equipment and multiple boxes of dialysis supplies.

As with anything medical, things can go wrong. There are numerous disqualifying factors that could still preclude a kidney transplant. But right now, living donor and recipient are fully evaluated and the transplant is at least one step past possible. This is a good place to be.

It’s the Gospel Truth!

8832BB06-FEB5-4DAA-A86D-F8C351B53CA6I was born and raised in the South and spent most of my life in the Bible Belt. In the Bible Belt, one can hear many sayings, expressions and idioms. One of the idioms I seemed to hear continually over the years was, “It’s the Gospel truth!” Always as an exclamation. 

I learned that in life there is truth and there is Gospel truth. I learned that we need both. For instance, in my life at this moment, there is the truth that I am afraid. And there is also the Gospel truth that God watches over me through my fear. 

Sitting on the cusp between daily dialysis and the possibility of a kidney transplant, I entertain varied thoughts and feel disparate emotions. One of them is definitely fear. Thankfully, I feel relatively well physically on most days, but my body never lets me forget that I’m sick. People who know say that a transplant would change my life, that I have become so used to being ill that I don’t know what feeling really well is like. I don’t know about that.

What I do know is that the idea of a transplant is both frightening and enlivening. I also know that it may or may not happen. So I tamp down my emotions, tuck away my fear and basically try not to think about it. Where I am these days is in the place of; 1) not knowing and 2) knowing that God knows. 

As I contemplated this today, I remembered a Gospel song I used to sing back in the day. I have not thought of the song in years, but today its melody ran through my mind over and over. Many well-known musicians have sung it, but the voice I remember most clearly is the voice of Mahalia Jackson.

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise,
When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies,
I draw still closer to Him, from care He sets me free;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me . . .

In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus is sending his disciples out into the world. The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 10, begins with these words: 

Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness. 

In the rest of the chapter, Matthew tells us that Jesus gives his disciples many instructions as he sends them out. Most importantly, he instructs them not to fear. 

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.  And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.  (Matthew10:29-31 NIV)

Transplant or dialysis for the rest of my life? I don’t know which it will be, and that’s the Gospel truth! I do know that I am afraid, but whenever I fear the future, I am often reminded that I am never outside of God’s care. It is a good thing, an important thing, to know that to God, I am worth more than many sparrows. It’s the Gospel truth!

I thought you might enjoy hearing a contemporary arrangement of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” performed by Lauryn Hill and Tanya Blount at this link: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=k7Pk5YMkEcg

Finding Ourselves Lost

C61646A1-BE50-4157-A898-E77F1FF191AABecause I have no sense of direction at all, I have an irrational fear of getting lost. Do not tell me to go north or south. I will have no idea how to do that. You must instead say something like, “When you see McDonalds on the right, go past it. Then go past Wendys, Burger King and Barbaritos. Look just past Barbaritos, but on the other side of the road, and you’re there.” It’s a convoluted way of making sure I don’t lose my way. And if one of those fast food places were to close down, I’m lost. 

So as I am contemplating the fear of being lost, I find in my email this morning a meditation by Richard Rohr entitled, “Practice: Being Lost.” I wanted to slip right past that meditation, as I do not need or want to practice being lost. But something held me there, captive to this bizarre meditation that described being lost as a spiritual practice.

Psychologist and wilderness guide Bill Plotkin* highly recommends wandering in nature and experiencing the great gift of “finding ourselves lost.” He calls it “Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche,” and he means that we should find ourselves lost both literally in nature and metaphorically in the midst of life’s changes.

His words remind me that at least four conditions contribute to finding oneself lost: density that conceals paths, obstacles in the pathways that force you to detour, cluelessness about direction, and darkness. I would not like finding myself in a dense forest with boulders blocking some of the pathways, hopelessly lacking any sense of direction after a few detours, and knowing that the sun is setting and darkness will make everything even worse.

And yet . . . finding myself lost as a spiritual discipline seems to be beckoning to me to enter. As a lost wanderer, I might just learn to look deeply into the face of my aloneness and discover what truly gives me life and what doesn’t. I could discover inspiration, belonging, strength, resilience and wisdom in my own company — all by myself — not knowing which way to turn. Knowing only that God will meet me there and that I can “be” who I am, right where I am, lost in a discovering moment.

As David Whyte writes:

When wandering, there is immense value in “finding ourselves lost” because we can find something when we are lost, we can find our selves . . . 

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn that anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.*   

I would like to be brave enough to give it a try in some spring wood where the verdant trees form a deep, dark canopy of privacy over my soul and where aloneness takes over my psyche. A place where God will meet me, where I can fully embrace finding myself lost, and where I might just find a few sparkles of light along the way.

I have to admit that this is a terrifying prospect for me. Darkness in a dense forest, alone, lost and scared . . . I’m just not sure about that. So maybe I should settle for the swing in my yard that’s just on the edge of the woods. Safer. More acceptable. And God will meet me there, too.

*Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche (New World Library: 2003), 234, 248-249, 263.

*David Whyte, “Fire in the Earth,” Fire in the Earth, Many Rivers Press: 1992, 8.

 

 

 

 

Through the Fire

892264FE-E803-4E0E-B598-C7503D77F674Sometimes life hurts.
We suffer. We heal. We move on.
But sometimes life hits back. Harder.
Lethal in its cruelty.
Shattering us into a million glittering shards
of pain and loss and anguish.
And we suffer, too broken to heal,
to become what we once were.
— L.R Knost

How deeply I know that feeling of brokenness. I am personally acquainted — well acquainted — with the lethal cruelty that life can present. To heal the past requires that I pay close attention to the spiritual and emotional places within me in the present, to make sure I am healthy and whole right now. Only then will I find the strength to invite the pain of the past into my psyche so that I can face off against it.

I have learned through the years that it is not a good option to leave past pain where it is, to let it occupy the place within me it has claimed. This writing by L.R Knost is one of the best descriptions I have ever seen on healing from past pain.

Healing is not a straight and narrow road
that leads from darkness to light.
There’s no sudden epiphany to take
us from despair to serenity, no orchestrated
steps to move us from hurting to healed.
Healing is a winding mountain road with steep
climbs and sudden descents, breathtaking views
and breath-stealing drop-offs, dark tunnels
and blinding exposures, dead ends and
endless backtracks, rest stops and break downs,
sheer rock walls and panoramic vistas.
Healing is a journey with no destination,
because healing is the journey of every lifetime.

Indeed, “healing is the journey of every lifetime.” The reality is that the only way to heal from the pain of the past is to walk directly through the center of that pain in the present. Does it feel safer to just let the pain continue to smolder in the dark parts of myself? Of course it feels safer. It feels terrifying, in fact, downright terrifying.

But the dark places in me will never heal spontaneously. I have to conquer the fear and open up to the possibility that God’s Spirit can breathe life back into those embers of pain snd rekindle the fires of unhealed hurts. So as I sit cautiously at the very edge of the fires of past pain, I cannot help but recall the comforting words of the prophet Isaiah.

When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.

— Isaiah 43:2 New International Version (NIV)

And so many times, I have found deep comfort in singing the beloved hymn, How Firm a Foundation.

When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
 My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply.
 The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
 Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.*

Text: Attr. to Robert Keen, ca. 1787.
Music: Attr. to J. Ellis, ca. 1889

So the flames aren’t there to burn me. The flames are there to light my way through pain to healing. At times, I have approached those flames with courage and confidence. But at other times, I met the flames with terror.

Courage or terror — it didn’t matter really. I just walked through it just as I was, and as I did, the hurt transformed into hope. I had wounds, for sure, and lasting scars. But the scars tell a story of the battles I won and the battles I lost, and most importantly, the scars tell the story of a human who survived. So, in spite of fiery places of past pain, we learn to live as L.R. Knost says

. . . with the shards of pain and loss and anguish forever embedded in our souls,

and with shaking fingers we piece together the bloody fragments of who we were into a mosaic grotesque in its stark reality,

yet exquisite in its sharp-edged story of the tragic, breathless beauty of a human who survived life.

And we move on, often unaware of the light glittering behind us
showing others the way through the darkness.

This is a resilience we can be thankful for, a perseverance we can cherish, a strength straight from a present and faithful God that will ever — forever — sustain us. Amen.

 

* Hear the entire hymn, How Firm a Foundation, at this link:
https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=G0S62se1hAE

Afraid of the Night

Design

From the poem, “The Old Astronomer to His Pupil” by Sarah Williams. The last line of the poem was used as an epitaph for an Astronomer-couple
buried at Allegheny Observatory.

 

 

Almost every night as bedtime approaches, I experience a feeling of panic. I have thought a lot about what is going on in me when this happens. Hoping to overcome the fear, I say to myself again and again, “I need not be afraid of the night.” And yet the panic persists. What I do know is that there is a part of me that fears going to sleep and never waking up. I have thought long and hard about where such a feeling might come from.

I recently worked through this and discovered that the panic is related to my many nights spent in the hospital in 2014. I remember well the long nights of sleeplessness and anxiety. I remember the irrational fear that clung tightly to me following a few brushes with death. I remember that, even when I was stronger and out of imminent danger, I continued to be afraid. And I remember that the nights in the hospital were lonely and seemingly endless.

When I was discharged and safely back home, I continued to be sleepless, eyes wide open every night, all night. I stayed exhausted, of course, and slept soundly during the day. It is interesting to me how the body adjusts itself to changing circumstances and schedules, physically and emotionally, even spiritually. Body and soul, I easily accepted an intense fear of the night. Perhaps I could just as easily embrace the reality of a caring God who watches over me through every dark time. Perhaps I could find the God of the Psalmist.

You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue, you, Lord, know it completely.

You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning,
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”

even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

– Psalm 139:1-13

I need not be afraid of the night.

It is true. Through every dark day, I could not flee from God’s presence. In the “dark night of my soul, in every difficult time, there was a reality I needed to learn, an eternal truth waiting fir me to discover. My discovery was about the captivity of fear, especially fear that descended on me in the dark of night. My discovery was also about a Light that is brighter than any darkness I could ever experience.

I need not be afraid of the night. Thanks be to God.

 

Beautiful and Terrible Things

IMG_5469

We live in a world where beautiful things happen every day. The dawn lights the dew of the night. The sun rises and warms the earth. The rain satisfies the thirsty ground. The foliage wears its lush green and the flowers bloom again and again.

Just in my own family new babies will soon be born. We will celebrate two high school graduations. Our young ones, just babies yesterday it seems, will begin college. To be sure, in the world beautiful things happen.

But terrible things will happen, too. A news story tells of an infant being found with almost a hundred rodent bites. An eight year old boy takes his own life. Syrian children are orphaned by war. The United Nations reports more than 14 million Yemenis are going hungry, 370,000 of them children. Certainly, in this world, terrible things will happen.

I am comforted by these words from Frederick Buechner.

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.

The challenge to our hearts is to live in the world without fear, to live courageously, to live fully with hope and joy.

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

– Isaiah 41:10

The Heart to Conquer Pain

image

No way to escape hardships! It’s inevitable that life will bring us sadness, loss, grief, fear, and all manner of trial. This is a dangerous world, and danger is a part of life. This is a world where pain sometimes strikes us, and there is no way to avoid it.

I recall a terribly dark time in my life when I felt betrayed and abandoned, as if I alone had to face the troubles that had descended upon me. I felt disheartened and despondent. I felt frightened and, most of all, I felt totally alone. It was not a good feeling. It left me bereft of comfort for weeks on end. I could not change the circumstance, and I could not shake the emotional angst.

Prayer was my companion, but I would be lying if I said that prayer worked an instant miracle. Prayer was constant and so was the pain. I was not delivered from it by a prayer or a Bible passage. I simply endured the pain until it began to ease.

Was God present with me during this time? Did God hear my cries? Did God even care that I was going through the valley’s shadow?

My experience was that God was very silent. I knew God’s presence only by faith. I knew God’s compassion only by past experience. I knew I would survive only because I had survived so many difficulties in the past.

Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers but to be fearless when facing them.
Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain but for the heart to conquer it.

– Rabindranath Tagore