Becoming Peacemakers

I’ve been re-cultivating the discipline of push-ups against the door frame lately. Fifteen was a challenge to start with, and now I can do thirty. I’m stronger, but it wasn’t entirely my doing.

I did stick with the activity, remembered to take time most days, persevered in pressing my weight away from the door frame until my muscles complained, endured the sense of weakness as I reached my limit. That much I could do.

But the getting stronger part is a mystery. It happens quite independently of anything I can direct. The body’s own wisdom and intelligence is knit into how we’re made.  It repairs the tiny fissures in the muscles in a way that leaves them more powerful. I invite that repair by exercising enough to stress the muscles without overstraining them. But the growing strength is the body’s own doing. That potential is built into the design of this miraculous embodied experience.

We do our work—physical, mental, emotional, spiritual—in co-operation with the universe. Hopefully over time we learn to make space for the greater wisdom and power available to us. Into that space enters a transformative life force beyond anything we can put there. Trusting that process is what faith means. We aren’t alone; it’s never up to us alone.

Just before I fall asleep at night I know I’m being carried and I can let go. In fact, only if I let go can I sleep. Such a mystery, this space that opens up when I step back from thinking, planning, reviewing, worrying. In that space is an unnameable reality more real, more enduring, than all the plans and work and details that pass away. In that space is the experience of safety, wholeness, and love.

We’re part of the magnificent flow of life. We do our best to do our part, whatever that may be. Whether we’re in the calm before the storm or the storm before the calm, we’re carried by something bigger.

Making space to connect with that source of wisdom can change our perspective. As we rest from our labors, it knits us together stronger. And when we take up our tasks again, the strengthened source of wisdom within helps us offer the peacemaking presence that this world sorely needs.

 

Honestly Facing the Darkness

During the Festival of Faiths a few weeks ago in Louisville, Kentucky, Pastor Mike McBride posed a question that remains with me. He asked: Where is it that we have gone wrong as a culture in our theological formation of people?

Three Streams


It’s an essential question, asking religion to take a long look at its own shadow. The church has come to be seen as condoning questionable ethical, spiritual, and moral conduct. And for those who reject religion because of the darkness in it, the question remains for other cultural institutions and for the individual: What dark part of ourselves are we being invited to bring into the light for healing?

At the heart of this life, our soul’s journey is supported by a deep foundation of compassion. At the base of everything that is, is love. Love gives us the courage to look into the darkness and compassion gives us the strength to bring it into the light. That’s how we find healing and wholeness.

I’m looking within, asking whether I have been part of feeding the darkness. I’m holding in mind what is required of me: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly in the presence of the divine source of all life. Asking about my part in the institutions of our culture is more difficult, as is finding my role in bringing about change. But if we currently have the system we have asked for, then let me be clear. I’m asking for change.

Let us keep before us the ideal of a culture where justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner (standing), Panel Moderator (?), Jim Wallis, Rev. Michael McBride

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner (standing), Panel Moderator (?), Jim Wallis, Rev. Michael McBride

 

 

 

 

Impermanence

As part of the Spiritual Directors International conference in Louisville, April 14-17, 2015, these monks from the Drepung Gomang Center for Engaging Compassion  and the Drepung Gomang Sacred Arts Tour created a sand mandala for the sake of wisdom, compassion, and healing.

 

The monks lean across lines and arcs

like the funnels they wield,

Tibetan Sand Mandala 1

as if tilting a column of sand

up the spine

to pour from a third eye.

 

The grains trickle in rivulets

between skeletal lines

penciled onto a blue field.

Tibetan Sand Mandala 2

This gold, this red,

in precisely this place—

the design takes flesh

in lavish detail.

Tibetan Sand Mandala 3

 

This work is prayer

begun with chant

from which the air yet hums.

Tibetan Chant Ritual

Ringing metal, rubbed like a firestarter,

sings as it coaxes sand

from the tiny mouth of a ribbed silver cone.

Tibetan Sand Mandala Detail

For days the sand pours,

Tibetan Sand Mandala 4

the chants rise,

Tibetan Sand Mandala Detail

the mandala widens.

Tibetan Sand Mandala Nearly Complete

 

Each morning a ritual:

with one hand the leader rings a bell,

with the other he holds a blade.

Tibetan Ritual Table

Beside the completed design

sits a white flower

in a silver bowl.

Tibetan Sand Mandala with Lotus

Atop the lotus of sand

in the mandala’s center,

the bowl becomes a mirror.

Now the blade, ever-present

through all the days of creation,

cuts from the points of the compass

to the center—

destruction from every direction.

Tibetan Sand Mandala Silver Bowl

A brush sweeps the careful work

into swirls of muddied color—

Sweeping Away the Sand Mandala

a heart-sob—

for all the careful tending vanished,


Sweeping the Sand Mandala

for every thing of beauty gone.

 

Tibetan Sand Mandala Brushed Away

 

 

 

Tibetan Monks in Headdress

 

Behind four monks clad in gold,

Tibetan Monks Walking to the Ohio River

a quiet crowd walks to the river.

As if in tribute,

four golden planes fly

in formation overhead.

Golden Eagles Flyover

 

Standing in the current,

the silver-haired leader

tilts a vessel,

Tibetan Ceremony Pouring Sand

yielding to the river

the sand,

the work,

the prayers,

the loss,

the acceptance.

Tibetan Monk at the River

The river carries this embodiment

of compassionate understanding

out into the world.

Tibetan Monks at the River

 

Returning,

the four walk with ease,

smiling, their shoulders relaxed,

Tibetan Monks

while I keep taking

photographs to keep.

Lotus After Sand Mandala Ceremony

 

Susan Christerson Brown

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Different Way to Fight

“Everyone talks about fighting cancer,” a dear friend in the midst of that struggle tells me. “They talk about it as a battle. The doctors say you have to fight.” But she goes on to say that “battle” isn’t the best way to describe what she has to do.

Labyrinth Covered in Leaves

 

A battle implies a clash in which the enemy can be vanquished. It suggests a singular foe. But my friend understands that her challenge is to continue living her life with the people she loves, even as she endures treatment and manages its details. The cancer she contends with is a chronic condition that will, in some way, remain present in her life. The hope is less for a victory than a truce.

For someone who does not want the disease to define her, making it the primary focus of her life would be a kind of giving in. To cultivate the discipline of mind and strength of heart to live and love, even through the ongoing demands of cancer treatment, is an entirely different mindset.

My friend is required to spend a great deal of time caught up in the medical machine that is our health care system. Even with the support of family and friends, she has a difficult task in trying to bridge the gaps between the realms of the different physicians involved in her care, and in navigating the labyrinth of the way our doctors and hospitals practice medicine. All of that is on top of the myriad details in keeping everyday life on track. It would be easy to allow those challenges to take over.

But she continues to be involved in the lives of her family and friends. She spends time with her grandchildren, works on her poetry, has coffee with her writing group. She maintains her interest in politics as well as her walks around the park, and lends a sympathetic ear to others. She remains grounded in her life even as she undertakes the requirements of her treatment.

Her battle is for her life, at least as much as it’s against cancer. She tries to avoid being consumed by the fight, so she can enjoy what is precious to her. She resists being focused only on treatment, not wanting to put off her life until later. Her fierceness is in her determination to live, even now.

She is like a birch tree, rooted in her life, bending with the force of the strong winds blowing and straightening when they subside. I respect her strength and courage, and I appreciate her wisdom. I am blessed to have her as a friend.

 

 

 

Making Room for Joy

Today is the third Sunday of Advent, when we light a candle for Joy. This is the meditation I wrote to read in worship this morning.

At the hour before sunrise, in the subtle turn from night to day, the world that was cloaked in darkness  gradually comes into view. Forms in the distance are hardly recognizable, then silhouettes gain definition: a mountain, a tree, a ship on the horizon. The stars begin to fade in that gray light—a loss, yes, though necessary if we’re to greet a new day. Soon even the brightest planets give way, but in the half-light of early dawn we keep watching, waiting, for something more. Then the sky begins to warm, the rosy color rising from the East until it brings life to everything it touches, from the dome of the heavens above to the glow of our own skin. Morning. The golden sun. Joy.

Joy is not ours to command. We watch for it, make room for it, and feel gratitude when it arrives—a heart-opening presence, a gift from God. It can color the world like the sky at sunrise, or condense to the flame of a single candle that sees us through the night. Joy can feel like the most natural thing in the world, or the most elusive. Its light shines out in a shared laugh or a thoughtful gesture. We know joy in the experience of beauty, or when we offer our best and find that it pulls us into the flow of life.

The angels heralding Christ’s birth bring to us, even now, tidings of great joy. They have amazing news of how much we matter, how near God is, and how blessed life can be. May we turn toward those glad tidings, asking that God prepare our hearts and our lives to receive God’s life-giving joy.

Susan Christerson Brown

 

A Prayer at Easter

 

When the cup we hold is bitter
and its weight heavy to bear
May we look to the One who sustains us
in whom all things work for good.

When we lose our way in the dark
and the night is filled with fear
May we remember that love upholds us
and find strength renewed by the dawn.

And when we find that loss and sorrow
draw us to the tomb
May messengers of life and hope
roll away the stone.

 

May your Easter season bring the gift of life that blooms anew.

 

The Volunteer Blues – What Work is Worth Doing?

The world rests on work that happens outside the realm of work for hire. Family life, civic and religious life, community life of all kinds would disintegrate without it. Society benefits richly from the people and organizations bolstered by such work, but most of the rewards for doing it are strictly internal.

The dedication, creativity, and strength required to raise a family or tend a volunteer organization are unrecognized in economic terms. The work of counselor, organizer, or visionary is valued in the marketplace but seldom acknowledged, much less rewarded, outside of it. Even our president was dismissed and derided by some for his time working as a “community organizer.”

In a world that measures worth by paycheck and position, it seems miraculous that people give so much of themselves to monumental effort that is economically worthless and socially invisible. There may be some intrinsic payoff, but a great deal of the work is anything but rewarding—at least in the short term. Yet they, we, choose to do it. Amazing.

Responsible people take on difficult situations in all kinds of contexts, many of which are frustrating, unpleasant, and hurtful. “It’s part of the job,” they say, acknowledging the balance of good and bad that is part of their position and livelihood. But when the “job” has no pay, no cumulative value as professional experience, and little or no appreciation, it’s hard to maintain that equanimity.

Martyrdom in the service of anything less than the ultimate good seems to me like wasted life. And much of the time it’s hard to know what such an ultimate good would be. But when there’s a choice about what work to do, it makes sense to exercise some discernment about that choice.

I love Bob Dylan’s song, “You Gotta Serve Somebody.” He tells us “It may be the Devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’ll have to serve somebody.” It’s true, but then there’s the problem of figuring out which is which.

What really, truly counts as working for the greater good? What is the measure of good work? What is worth serving? These aren’t rhetorical questions. This week, I really don’t know.

Return from a Dark Journey

I cannot imagine what the Chilean miners emerging from almost ten weeks trapped underground have been through, and it’s almost unbearable to try. But now they are returning to the world, one at a time, through a long narrow portal that they must travel alone. As some commentators have remarked, they are being reborn.

Alberto Segovia, brother of Dario Segovia, one of 33 miners trapped underground in a copper and gold mine, picks up a rosary as he prays outside the mine in Copiapo

The ingenuity and skill, the expertise and determination, the sheer will and powerful life force driving the rescue efforts are heroic. The images of that first rescue pod reaching the chamber deep underground where the miners waited are a visceral experience. The elemental symbolism in this amazing story holds the archetypal images of life itself, male and female, which have resonated throughout the ages.

Yet even with the images we see from underground, each miner emerges from a mystery. We see the opening of the rescue shaft leading from that dark chamber under the earth, and wonder at where he has been and what he has experienced. He steps out of the Fenix capsule to applause and warm embraces, returning to the life to which he belongs. But surely he is changed.

NASA’s experience in outer space has helped facilitate the care of the miners throughout their confinement, but theirs is an experience of inner space like nothing we’ve known before. The world watches anxiously as each returns, asking if it is possible for yet another man to have made the journey back from such an ordeal. We draw reassurance from every sign that they are intact—physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. And we want to share in some part of their journey, to learn from them.

What does it mean to be given life in this world, to be born or reborn? Saints and mystics have sought answers in different ways for centuries. Seekers on vision quests, walkabouts, or spiritual retreats continue to ask for understanding. These Chilean miners may not have sought to make a trek into the darkness within the earth and within themselves, but they have made the journey forced upon them. Reporters tell us that poetry and music, faith and love, have allowed them to endure and help them to sort out their experience.

One of the rescued miners, Mario Sepulveda, said of the experience that it wasn’t a matter of being tested by God, because that’s not how God works. But that life holds difficult experiences, of which this has been the most difficult for him. Yet he was glad it had happened to him, because of how he has been affected by it. “It was a time to make changes,” he said. “I was with God, and I was with the devil. And God won.” He said that it was God’s hand that he took, and that was how he made it through.

What are we learning from the journey we’re sharing with them?

Photo by Ivan Alvarado of Reuters http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38587487

When a Week Holds Too Much

Some weeks I feel like nothing more than clay thrown on the potter’s wheel. Hollowed out by forces beyond my control, I see once again that I am not in charge here. Life presses in, making it clear that I have not reached my final form. The potter is not finished with me.

Yet just as I’ve been pressed and pounded, I’ve also been stretched and shaped. The vessel’s curved sides are taking shape, rising in accord with the potter’s vision in these last few turns of the wheel.

We have a great deal of freedom in what we do with our lives, but we are not in control. Sometimes the best I can do is to be good clay. I can try for the balance of malleability and resistance that allows the formation of a good vessel. I can try to sustain the cohesiveness that allows good clay to hold its form.

The sum of the past several days may feel like more than I can hold—challenge and loss, hope and disappointment, love and sorrow—yet the week has nonetheless brought all of it. So I act as I am able, and respond as I can. I cannot assuage my friend’s grief, but I can offer soup and love. I cannot make the world kind, but I can make laundry clean. I cannot make life easy, but I can be grateful for the ability to work.

I cannot see the future, but I can appreciate the beauty of the world around me. I cannot make my wishes come true, but I can take a risk and reach toward them. I can neither force nor forestall change, but I can accept the love and grace that remain constant.

The wheel keeps turning; a hand I trust remains on the clay. All will be well.

What is the turning wheel bringing to you?

Moving Forward When We Don’t Know the Way

When my daughter was in elementary school, there was one year when math was more than a class—it was a foe that demanded months of wrestling before she could pin it to the mat. Those afternoon homework sessions required a lot from both of us; it took all the patience and humor, strength and courage we could muster.

But the most important breakthrough came when I finally realized that she believed she was supposed to already know how to work the new problems. She cut herself no slack for the process of learning a new skill. If she couldn’t master it immediately then it was too scary, too hard, and too far out of reach. The first thing she had to learn was that it’s ok if you don’t yet know how to solve a problem. You’re not supposed to already know everything. You’re learning. That’s your job.

After that, it was just a matter of learning to work the problems. She overcame her math anxiety—better than I did at her age. And I came to appreciate the importance of not being intimidated by problems we don’t yet know how to solve. Years later, it remains a good lesson to remember when I need to move forward and don’t know how.

We all face problems that we’ve never encountered before, requiring resources and abilities we have never used. People who have passed through a time of change often speak of finding strength they didn’t know they had. They look back and see the growth that occurred as they rose to meet the challenge. Life seems designed to foster our development in this way.

The issues we face have been there for others as well. Whether the challenge arises from a particular situation or in the larger context of the changes in our lives, we are not alone. There is a source of wisdom and clarity that far exceeds anything we can know on our own. That Source is at work, urging us toward where we need to be and helping us to get there. It’s ok to take one step at a time; it’s ok to only see one step at a time. God works through those steps, leading us to move in the right direction. People with insight and experience can also help, and often appear on our path as if placed there by a loving guide.

We can trust that we’re being led forward even when progress is hard to see. It’s easier to remember that when I know how to work the problem. But it’s even more important to remember it when I feel I’m not up to the task. “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid,” are the words of Jesus in John. This deep reassurance is part of the gift of faith. Not knowing how to proceed doesn’t mean I can’t meet the challenge. It means relying on the abundant resources available. It means remembering to pray, and to open my eyes to how prayer is answered.

What helps you move forward when you don’t know the way?