Hope

One of the things we need most as we move into this new year is Hope. Not an expectation of wishes coming true, or anticipation of ease, but the indwelling of life energy that refuses to check out in the face of adversity.

A friend recently shared Jan Richardson’s new meditations on hope for this year’s “Women’s Christmas” retreat. (Women’s Christmas is an Irish tradition of Epiphany as a day for women to take a break from family and domestic obligations, gathering to relax and celebrate together.)  Richardson’s insightful observations are a testament to the journey through grief and faith she has walked for the past few years.

True hope beckons us to do more than wish or want or wait for someone to take action. It asks us to be the one who acts. It calls us to discern what lives beneath our wishes, to discover the longings beneath our longings, to dig down to the place where our deepest yearning and God’s deepest yearning are the same. When we find that, when we uncover those deepest desires, hope invites and impels us to participate in bringing about those things for which we most keenly long.  – Jan Richardson

Our deep and true longings are placed within as a gift. They are a spark of the divine that urges toward what will bring us into health and wholeness. It is painful when what we love or value is taken away, yet the longing for what we know is good continues to call us into life. This energy that pulls us forward is cause for Hope.

Hope has work for us to do. It asks us to resist going numb when the world within us or beyond us is falling apart. In the height of despair, in the deepest darkness, hope calls us to open our hearts, our eyes, our hands, that we might engage the world when it breaks our hearts. Hope goes with us, step by step, offering to us the manna it holds. – Jan Richardson

Trust is a close relative of Hope. When we don’t know how to make things better, when the way forward is dark, being able to trust that we’ll be given what we need allows us to keep going. It helps to remember times in the past when our needs have been met and we have been led forward. We can recall events from our individual lives or from our collective life together.

Hope is not always comforting or comfortable. Hope asks us to open ourselves to what we do not know, to pray for illumination in this life, to imagine what is beyond our imagining, to bear what seems unbearable. It calls us to keep breathing when the world falls apart around us or within us, to turn toward one another when we might prefer to turn away. Hope draws our eyes and hearts toward a more whole future but propels us also into the present, into this day, where God waits for us to work toward a more whole world now.  – Jan Richardson

Hope is a kind of strength, though not a strength that we have to cultivate alone. As we share our disappointments and longings, honoring the authentic yearning of our hearts, we hold space for the new life that wants to come through us and be born into the world. The energy of that life force will not be denied. When we experience its flow we cannot help but dwell in hope.

 

Echoes of Advent in the New Year

Despite my best plans it’s not until now, when we’re on the quiet side of the holidays, that I can fully appreciate Advent. I meant to spend those weeks leading up to Christmas with Kathleen Wiley’s wonderful book, New Life: Symbolic Meditations on the Birth of Christ Within. A good idea, but Christmas gains speed in December and my contemplative intentions scattered.

Ideally, Advent is a season of quiet waiting, preparing for the birth of God into the world and the birth of our highest self into being. The four weeks leading up to Christmas focus on hope, love, joy, and peace as we invite the divine child to be born in our hearts and in our midst. But it’s only now, in the silent nights following the holidays, that there’s time to reflect on how to claim those gifts and live them out in the new year.

Hope, love, joy, and peace speak to the deepest needs of our soul. We need them so much that we’re almost afraid to ask for them, much less trust that our longing will be fulfilled. Yet the message of Christmas is that our hearts’ desires will be met if we allow it. Grace truly abounds, if we can let ourselves be open to it. This is what we are trying to show our children through the gifts we place under the tree. But we forget that grace is ours as well. The tree itself is there to remind us of life’s evergreen gifts and the light of hope, love, joy, and peace.

Back in December, as the solar calendar wound down toward the longest night and the social calendar filled up with holiday festivities, the church calendar brought us through four weeks of meditation on these gifts of the Spirit. Now as the days slowly grow longer and the sun begins its return from the far point on the horizon, I’m ready to retrace the steps through those four weeks. We’ve turned from the innermost point of the spiral, and as we wind outward again into a new year, those mediations await like a trail of breadcrumbs. The challenge is to stay in touch with how these gifts are manifest in our lives, and to find a way to give them expression.

Hope, love, joy, and peace are ours. We don’t have to create them or earn them. We don’t have to craft them or bake them or buy them. They aren’t the result for a perfectly executed holiday, they are the gifts that make our imperfect celebrations beautiful. They aren’t a reward for a perfectly lived life, they are the compass that orients us in how to live. For the next few weeks, I hope to rewind my way through the lessons of Advent and consider how to carry its gifts forward into a year in which we desperately need them. I’ll be listening for the echo of those longings shouted into the canyon of Advent, as they reverberate through these quiet days and carry us into the new year.

Hope as a Practice

“Hope is a choice that becomes a practice that becomes a spiritual muscle memory.”

Becoming Wise by Krista Tippett

Krista Tippett offers these words of wisdom as she introduces the final, soaring section entitled “Hope,” in her new book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. I see three aspects of her conversations with others about hope that apply directly to the cultural climate of our nation: resiliency, relationship, and how we go about looking at the world.

Tippett talks about resiliency as she considers where hope comes from and what fosters an attitude of hopefulness. Resilience contains the expectation of adversity. People who are resilient have been through difficulties, and know from experience that hardship will not defeat them. Their resilience is a fundamental aspect of their hope. It provides perspective and helps guard against cynicism and despair.

One of Tippett’s conversation partners is Brené Brown, whose research into the values and practices of people who live wholeheartedly are reshaping our ideas about strength and relationship. There is nothing mushy about how Brown understands hope. “Hope is a cognitive, behavioral process we learn when we experience adversity, when we have relationships that are trustworthy, when people have faith in our ability to get out of a jam.” In other words, resilience learned from experience, combined with a sense of community and the power of co-operative effort, give rise to hope.

Maria Popova is the force behind Brain Pickings, a wise and enlivening presence on the web. Her conversation with Tippett brings another key aspect to considering the source of hopefulness. Popova recalls William James saying “My experience is what I agree to attend to, and only those things which I notice shape my mind.” James’s observation has everything to do with how we see the world. We see what we are prepared to see. Popova goes on to say, “And so in choosing how we are in the world, we shape our experience of that world, our contribution to it. We shape our world…”

With this election season upon us, our nation has a specific context in which the commitment to hope matters. Resiliency, working together, and the ability to see clearly are needed for the future of our democracy.

Hope is not naïve optimism or myopic quietism. As Tippett states, in “the deaths of what we thought we knew” there is a possibility of rebirth. We can get to a better place together if we can remain courageous and “let our truest, hardest questions rise up in our midst.” Asking the hard questions that arise during hard times, with the humility that allows us “a readiness to see goodness and to be surprised,” is a way to move forward.

We must vote for our nation in this coming election. We must vote for the opportunity to work on problems together. We cannot allow despair to overthrow our ideals of shared government in favor of despotic anger and cynicism. We cannot fall for the dark illusion that “they,” whomever “they” may be, are responsible for all that is wrong. We must ask for clear-eyed vision, and work on the truest, hardest questions together.

There is only one responsible candidate for president in this election. If you can’t vote for Hillary, then consider it a vote against Donald Trump. Vote for the constitution, for our nation, and for the chance to work out our problems in a responsible way. Consider the practice of cultivating hope, not hate, and then vote with your heart.

And in case you missed it, consider this powerful message from Disciples minister, Rev. William Barber.

 

Connecting with the Beauty of the World

This week’s homework assignment for a class I’m teaching on creativity and spirituality is about connecting with the beauty of this world. It can be a stretch to manage that when news of the world’s violence is an assault on the psyche. The New York Times is talking about the need to limit our exposure to media; even the FBI is advocating taking deep breaths.

Daisies in Blue Glass

It may seem counter-intuitive to look for beauty in a time of such turmoil. But we need this life-affirming discipline now more than ever.

Beauty speaks to us of hope, of abundance, of a life force that endures. Beauty assures us, through an affirmation deeper than words, that being alive matters and that what we do has meaning. Acts of kindness, the grace of the natural world, and the perseverance of love and growth are places where I see the beautiful.

The Irish priest and poet, John O’Donohue, spoke of beauty as that in the presence of which we feel more alive. I’ve written more about this kind of beauty as a guiding value here, and you can hear a conversation between Krista Tippett and John O’Donohue here.

The world is worth paying attention to. The part of it right in front of us is as important as any other. Considering that it is the realm in which we have some influence, our immediate environment is most important of all.

There is every reason to focus on the work that is in front of us, and to take refreshment in the beauty that presents itself every day. To move through the day open to perceiving beauty is to live with an open heart. Our world needs more of that.

 

Where is God Hiding Out?

Over the weekend I attended a talk by Ann Belford Ulanov, sponsored by the Greater Cincinnati Friends of Jung. I’m still absorbing and processing the ideas she shared in her presentation, which shared the same title as her latest book, Madness and Creativity. She also drew from a previous book, The Unshuttered Heart: Opening Aliveness/Deadness in the Self, as well as unpublished work in progress. I can’t begin to summarize what she had to say, but following are some of the points she made, and some of the questions she asked, that remain with me.

Spring is Coming

Spring is Coming

Ulanov spoke about the difficulty and the rewards of being fully alive, when we risk “living with openness and engagement, bringing a sense of expectancy to our days, paying attention to our lives, and appreciating the ways we are touched by kindness.” A Buddhist might call this a state of being awake. “Our living fully alive makes oxygen for other people,” Ulanov said. “We make something of our experiences and let them make something of us.”

In this state of wakefulness we find the clarity to engage with the important questions. “To what do we all belong?” is the question of our century in Ulanov’s view. Perhaps by this she meant the question of what we truly share in common, or what is most important about human life and identity, or what is the nature of this universe in which we find ourselves. Neither the church nor the state can answer it for us, and the question permeates our lives at different levels.

It occurs to me that during this tournament season we answer it at one level by wearing the colors of our favorite teams, enjoying a sense of identity with a school or a region. The passion of sports fans shows how relevant the question of belonging is. But when we consider what we might all belong to, the inquiry is more difficult.

As we look around at the world in which we live, and look within to wonder at what we are and what our lives mean, we often find more questions than answers. Ulanov condenses those questions to “What are we living for, and what is worth dying for?” “What is the something more?”

Perhaps an alternate way of considering where we might find the “something more” is in yet another question posed by Ulanov: “Where is God hiding out?”

She suggests that our answer to where we might find God comes through the clues that the psyche offers. If we pay attention to what’s happening in both our inner and outer life, we find instances of resonance and meaning. From beyond the borders of the small version of our lives come new ways of seeing the world and ourselves. Growing beyond our old habits of thought we experience the renewing of our minds, and a renewal of life in accord with what really matters. The spark of life we sense in a conversation, in the spirit of a particular group of people, in the power of a certain image, or in the energy surrounding a certain kind of work, can be an arrow pointing us in the right direction.

We are looking for where we can “plug in,” Ulanov said. How can we access the energy of engagement with life? We miss living with a sense of aliveness and wonder. When we feel exhausted, deadened, cut off from our creativity, we know life can be more than this. “Where is the ignition switch?”

Ulanov posits that we find aliveness, and find God, “in the tiny scintilla that appear in the darkness; the dots of light, bright and hopeful; in the scraps, in the small.”

In this way the deadness, or even the “madness,” that burdens our lives has a positive side. It drives us to find and cling to those scraps of aliveness, to connect the tiny points of light. Even the bleak times come to us in service to the fullness of life and point us toward wholeness. Deadness can point to aliveness, and madness can burst into creativity. The desolation that spurs us to investigate and address its cause takes us to a place Ulanov likens “to the edge of the map of the known world, looking for a connection to the monsters beyond. Crossing this bridge between the known and the unknown is aliveness.” At its best, religion can serve to stabilize this bridge.

Following our own path as wholeheartedly as we can, noticing the places where we feel most alive, is how we find the “something more”—the small places of encouragement where, for us, God may be hiding out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prayer-Filled Air

At the edge of the parking lot at Third Street Coffee is a section of tall chain link fence. It might serve as a divider between lots, but its primary role is that of connection, just as the coffee shop serves to foster community. The chain link canvas is a place for statements to be made without words, a place that emanates prayers.

 

Love Locks for Lexington at Third Street Coffee

Love Locks for Lexington at Third Street Coffee

 

Mostly it holds small padlocks, an echo of the love locks attached to bridges around the world. The practice apparently arose from a poem called “Prayer for Love” by Serbian poet Desanka Maksimovic.  The result has been bridges where so many couples have attached locks as a symbol of their love and devotion that the cumulative weight threatens the structure of the entire bridge. The locks, meaningful as they are individually, become more than the bridge can bear and have to be removed. The fence at Third Street invites Love Locks for Lexington, a sign of commitment to this city.

The image of all those locks, the public statement that the love they represent matters, has power. The symbol of commitment, locked together in love, has power as well. An outward manifestation of an inward grace—that’s the definition of a sacrament. Perhaps that’s the best way to think of this expanse of chain link. It’s a structure that supports something sacramental, an organically arising symbol of devotion. The practice hasn’t been handed down through the ages, but is something rising up, like blades of grass.

Prayer Flags at Third Street Coffee

Prayer Flags at Third Street Coffee

Also on the fence is a line of brightly colored squares of cloth, embellished with simple designs. What can they be but prayer flags, sending prayers and blessings into the world with every passing breeze, through every fleeting glance.

Some devout Buddhists turn small cylinders they carry with the words of a prayer tucked inside, or spin larger wheels built into the walls of a monastery or placed in the river and powered by water. Each spin of the prayer wheel sends the words into the universe, an act of merit for the one who offers the prayer. Prayer flags work the same way, releasing blessings into the air as they flutter in the wind, the air filled with prayer, thick with blessing, a palpable presence, the people changed by breathing power and grace, day and night.

Appropriately enough, there are coffee mugs on the fence at Third Street, too. There are more, of course, inside the café where it’s noisy with talk and laughter and music. The air is filled with the aroma of coffee, and bustles with the delivery of fresh Peruvian beans in a cardboard box, the opening of doors and scraping of chairs, the sounds of connection, conversation, the exchanges that change a day, change a life, change everything.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

A Gift Just for Showing Up

If I hadn’t had a role to play in the service today, I would have skipped church. With family visiting all too briefly from out of town, another cup of coffee together sounded like a better plan. But since I was needed there I drove to church instead, listening to NPR on the way.

I’ve resisted the anniversary observances of 9/11 this year, wanting to avoid dwelling on the suffering in that event and the dismay at what has transpired since then. But the reminders are everywhere this weekend, and this morning’s coverage left me feeling the weight of the past ten years.

I found myself thinking that if I had to be going anywhere I was glad it was to church. If nothing else, I was glad to be offering up the events and emotions of this anniversary with others, as part of a service that makes remembering more bearable and perhaps even more meaningful because it is shared.

As I waited in back to follow a cherubic acolyte up the aisle during the opening hymn, I had a vision of the sanctuary I had never experienced before. The glass walls at the back of the sanctuary caught the light in just the right way to reflect the trees in the garden behind the church.

The reflection of their trunks blended with the wood of the pews on the other side of the glass, so that the trees seemed to have taken root in the sanctuary. A canopy of green appeared to shelter the worshipers and the center aisle was like a tree-lined garden walk. As a breeze lifted the branches and rustled the leaves outside, the reflected movement seemed an image of the holy spirit, stirring gently among the congregation.

Knowing I couldn’t possibly do justice to the scene, I pulled out my phone and snapped a photo anyway, just to help me remember. It’s the picture you see here, the photographic equivalent of an illegibly scribbled note.

I’ve written about trees in a church before—something I find to be a meaningful symbol. That’s why this scene of a worship service overlaid with the life of a garden felt like a gift. In the fullness of late-summer growth, brought to life by a gentle wind, the reflected image of the trees spoke of suppleness and fruitfulness, deep roots and new branches, life and hope.

At its best, that’s what a church is all about. And because I showed up today, I was able to experience a reminder of the good that can come from people gathering together. On today, of all days, I’m glad I was there.

I’ll leave you with a verse from the opening hymn we sang:

Yes, on through life’s long path,
still singing as you go,
from youth to age, by night and day,
in gladness and in woe
Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice give thanks and sing.

 

 

 

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.

 

When Searching Doesn’t Work: Being Prepared to Find

For the past few weeks I’ve had a single silver earring hanging from the stand on my dresser. The forlorn half of a pair, it hasn’t been worn since the day I lost its mate.

I looked everywhere I could for the missing dangle—in the weave of my sweater, the folds of my scarf, the lining of my coat; behind the seat cushion of the car, in the carpet on the floorboards, among the detritus of a day of errands; on floors and countertops and inside grocery bags. I could only conclude that it lay somewhere among the miles of parking lots and store aisles I had crossed that day.

The earrings were a pair I wore often. They were simple and well-formed, bought years ago from a local artist. Back then I stretched a bit to afford them, though given their price per wearing they were a bargain. I was sad to lose something that fit so well into my life.

Today an easing of winter’s onslaught inspired me to sweep the garage, motivated mostly by the prospect of less dead leaves, dirt, and crud to track into the house. Pushing a mound of debris in front of the broom, I noticed a glint of light. When I stopped to look, yes, there was the earring missing for these many weeks.

I had examined the garage floor in my search, and since then had crossed and re-crossed the path where that familiar silver form must have fallen. But somehow I missed it.

Not until I swept things clean, tumbling the leaves and dirt and trash together, re-ordering that small part of the world, could I find what I had searched for so diligently and nonetheless overlooked. There’s a lot to be said for a cleaning binge. In sweeping out and putting things in order, there’s no telling what you’ll find.

It pays to do the chores with eyes open, to notice what gleams among the debris. It helps to have some idea of what we’re looking for as well. Remarkable things, even the things we search for, sometimes show up in unexpected places.

What are you looking for?