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

 

 

 

 

The Wisdom of Gratitude

At the site of a friend’s silent retreat this fall, a ginkgo tree happened to shed its leaves on the same weekend. She was drawn to the gentle drama unfolding over the course of a day, the air so thick with fluttering yellow fans they sounded like rain as they pooled on the ground. Had the retreat not offered the kind of presence that happens through silence, she might have seen them drop but missed the sound, the music, of falling leaves.

Loretto Retreat, et al 071

It’s a mystery how life can hold such beauty at the same time it holds so much pain. The world is hurting. Each of us is injured from violence inflicted far and near. Wrenching scenes repeat on our screens as we attempt to grapple with unfolding events and respond to the world we live in. As the news cycle continues, fear and hate seem quickest to find their voice, filling the world with noise and making it harder to listen for wisdom.

Yet reminders of wisdom rise up like seedlings through concrete. Teachings on compassion become part of the conversation as people share those scriptures that serve as compass points for their lives. Discussions of the values that shape the identity of our nation are held in earnest. People are sharing and responding to heartbreak in a way that compels action for the sake of justice.

I am grateful for those giving voice to generous and searching hearts. I am grateful for models of resolve shaped by wisdom, strength, and love. They remind us of what is good in this world, and help show us the way forward.

Into this milieu, with perfect timing, comes Thanksgiving.

It is literally good for the heart to be thankful. A daily practice of naming two or three things for which we are thankful actually improves our physical health—this report on those findings is not only fascinating, but encouraging. In a previous post I talked about making space in our lives, giving ourselves breathing room by easing up on our expectations and allowing something new. Gratitude helps to do that.

In remembering to be thankful we make space for something more than the worries that beset us. We open ourselves to other possibilities, and perhaps to seeing new ways to meet the concerns and challenges of our world.

Centuries ago the Sufi poet Rumi wrote:

But listen to me. For one moment
quit being sad. Hear blessings
dropping their blossoms
around you.

May this Thanksgiving be an invitation to wisdom. May we listen from the quiet center of the heart, and rest for a moment in gratitude.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Compassion and Ourselves

I keep thinking about an article I read from the Atlantic recently, “Alcohol as Escape from Perfectionism” by Ann Dowsett Johnston. Its poignancy comes from Johnston’s ability to put her finger exactly on the place where the determination to live up to an impossible ideal leaves us vulnerable.  Intellectually, I know that unreasonable expectations are unhealthy, but I didn’t expect to be so deeply touched by the place in life she describes.

Third Street Stuff Wall Ishiguro  2013-11-19

My children are young adults now, and I have grown since they were children. But as if it were a coat hanging in my closet, I can still wear the sense of responsibility from those years, and I can easily wrap myself once again in a state of mind that said I was never doing enough, or doing it well enough.

I thought there was a right answer for how life should be lived, and my job was to reach that answer, claim it, and make it work. That applied to having a family, making a home, serving the community, and somehow finding my own work. There were standards for living a good life, a worthwhile life. They had to be met. I couldn’t have told you that’s what I believed, but it was the water I was swimming in. There were things I was supposed to do. Whatever it took, I had to find a way to accomplish them all. Except, of course, it wasn’t possible.

Measured by the distance from where I thought I should be, my life fell short.  I fell short. All I could see was the gap, what wasn’t done, what I hadn’t achieved, where I hadn’t reached.

Where did that come from, that certainty about what I was not? The dismissiveness about what I was? Who pointed to that place out of reach and said that was where I should be? Who insisted that nothing else mattered as much? I don’t know why I was so unkind to myself.

As a young mother, Johnston would sip wine to ease her transition from the day at work to the evening and its responsibilities at home. It was a pleasant ritual, then it became a necessary one. She wouldn’t give herself a break on what she expected of herself, but she would pour herself some wine. Genuine self-care wasn’t part of her world, but she kept wine in the fridge. Until little by little, the wine took over.

I didn’t rely on wine, but I nonetheless recognize the state of the soul that Johnston describes—the refusal of compassion for oneself. I turned my back on myself and accepted what the world said: Just get it done. All of it.

I wish I could have told my younger self that I was good enough, that my needs mattered, that kindness to myself was not the same as self-indulgence. But perhaps I can pass that message along to someone else who needs to hear it.

It doesn’t always come naturally to show ourselves the kindness we would offer to a good friend, but there are good resources that help. My thanks to Lisa Gammel Maas for pointing out the work of Kristin Neff on self-compassion.

May you be well.

* The wonderful artwork above is by the inimitable Pat Gerhard, and is found on the wall of the warm and welcoming Third Street Stuff and Cafe in Lexington.

The Path Back to the Garden

I’ve recently read two good books: Women Food and God by Geneen Roth and The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. At first glance they seem to be about very different subjects—making peace with food and making art. But reading them in close proximity has me thinking about them together and finding connections I didn’t expect.

Geneen Roth’s work arises out of her experience with compulsive eating and her years of helping others separate food from the emotional issues tangled up with eating. But her insight is into addictions of all kinds. Seeking refuge in the addiction is how we abandon ourselves, withholding the attention to our own hearts that can show us what we most need to know.

She describes it as:

an attempt to avoid the absence (of love, comfort, knowing what to do) when we find ourselves in the desert of a particular moment, feeling, situation. In the process of resisting the emptiness, in the act of turning away from our feelings…we ignore what could utterly transform us.

Steven Pressfield’s work is about overcoming the resistance that arises in anyone attempting to do something new. An artist must recognize and conquer the impediments that inevitably arise when we try to shape a new creation, realize a new vision, or express a new idea. Resistance would enforce the status quo, having us abandon our risky calling and with it our highest self.

He writes:

To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be. If you believe in God (and I do) you must declare Resistance evil, for it prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius.

Both writers see the work we’re called to do as deeply connected with the divine. Both understand how easily we are kept from that work, and the heartache that ensues. Roth urges us to remain present to ourselves when we’re tempted to flee. Pressfield insists that we show up to do the work even when it feels impossible. They are connected.

Being present to ourselves allows us to do the work. Doing the work makes us present to ourselves. Both place us in the presence of God. Taking refuge in addiction is a kind of resistance to the life we’re called to live. Allowing resistance to come between us and our true work creates a false refuge in which we can never find a fulfilling life. Both are an attempt to hide when God calls our name.

An addiction cuts us off from the Tree of Knowledge standing in the center of the Garden. But as soon as we bring our attention to our behavior, to the thoughts and emotions driving it, the addiction shows us the way back. Likewise resistance keeps us out of the garden we were created to tend. No other work will give us satisfaction until we climb over the walls that stand between us and our calling.

What’s the next step leading back to the garden?

Stretching Gently

You probably know how it feels to wake up with a crick in your neck. That happened to me a few mornings ago, a ghost of which remains when I turn my head to the left. I wonder how it’s possible to be in a position that does me harm and yet sleep through it. I could have avoided pain if my body had recognized the strain and awakened me with a complaint. But apparently I was too tired to notice, and remained in a contorted position until the damage was done.

This makes me keenly aware that discomfort helps keep us from harm. Restlessness is a message that we’ve held the same posture for too long. When visited by dissatisfaction and an urge to try something new, we’re goaded into making the changes we need.

These stirrings, even if unwelcome, are the energy of the soul pushing us forward. They are the whispers of God beckoning us toward the life we’re called to live, or at least to a healthier place. But exhaustion can block the message, and fear can convince us to ignore it. They tell us it’s not the right time to make a change, and sometimes they have legitimate reasons.

But we have to sort through the reflexive warnings and determine how we can stretch. And when they’ve outlived their usefulness and we’re fed up with being depleted or afraid, restlessness can overpower even those elemental emotions. The need to grow is as legitimate as the need for shelter and rest.

Though I wasn’t conscious of it, I got myself into the predicament of developing this crick. I have a new appreciation of how the neck operates, how often it’s called into use, how easily and naturally it turns and bends. And now I’m trying to guard its health. I turn my head gently and stretch the neck carefully, even though it hurts. I need to use those muscles, but carefully. Every time I stretch it gets a little easier. I expect that in a few days I’ll be able to enjoy the freedom of movement I took for granted just a few days ago.

Is there something your body is telling you?

What it Means to Say “You’re in My Prayers”

Sometimes life comes at a person I care about in ways that challenge anyone’s ability to cope. When my actions, or theirs, have no power to change those circumstances, all I can offer is presence and concern. And prayer.

But when I tell someone, “My thoughts and prayers are with you,” or “I’ll keep you in my prayers,” what does that really mean? And what does that person want when they ask me to remember them in my prayers?

We all have different hopes and expectations, as we have differing experiences of prayer. But I see at least seven things conveyed when I offer to pray for you:

1)      It acknowledges the crisis and pain in your life

2)      It says that I am concerned about you, I am with you in your suffering, and I won’t forget about you when we part

3)      It recognizes that our lives are subject to things we cannot control, and that we share that position of vulnerability

4)      It reminds us both that we have access to spiritual strength that helps see us through the difficulties that life brings

5)      It holds faith in the possibility of strength and healing, in some form, through means we cannot predict or understand

6)      It points to an interconnected web of life strong enough to contain suffering and still hold beauty, meaning, and love

7)      It promises that you are not alone

A promise to pray is itself a kind of prayer, but I don’t think the promise is fulfilled simply in making it. In my next post, I’ll talk about how we might pray for someone.

You might also be interested in a more recent post, “Positive Energy and Prayer.”

In the Wake of a Natural Disaster

The photos and reports from Haiti show a scale of suffering that is painful merely to absorb, much less live through. What can we do? Send money. Pray. Help weave a web of compassion to hold the people there.

I’m supporting the efforts to help through donations to Week of Compassion and Church World Service, who are experienced and effective agents for responding to disasters around the world. Even a dollar helps. For a more tangible means of giving, Church World Service is also in need of hygiene and baby supply kits.

What else can we do?

Perhaps, as in the wake of any disaster, we can practice seeing our own lives more clearly.

  • I’m reminded that my life rests on the relative luxury of counting on water, food, and shelter
  • I’m thankful for the health and safety of my loved ones
  • I’m mindful that it’s having my basic needs met that allows me the privilege of working towards a fuller and more meaningful life
  • I’m grateful for the ability to share the journey of body and spirit with others, and to offer help
  • I’m appreciative of the organizations in place to deliver assistance to people in need

Life is fragile, and we are missing out if we don’t try to make it as rich and good as possible.

The outpouring of concern and support from around the world is a reminder of the human connection that binds us all together. My heart goes out to the people of Haiti, those who have lost loved ones, those who cannot feed and shelter those they love, those who are injured and suffering, those who need some reason to hope.

Sometimes it’s hard to see that we’re all in this together. Sometimes it’s easy.

What’s on your mind as the news reports continue?