Thursday, May 14, 2015

Thankful Thursday

I'm reading an absolutely fantastic book called, How, Then, Shall We Live? by Wayne Muller, the same man who wrote Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight in our Busy Days and A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough - both of which I have read. Great books. Gratitude. Slowing down. Being Grateful. So much wisdom. So many excellent stories of lives transformed by love, grace, simplicity, and rest.

In this book, How, Then, Shall We Live? Muller is exploring four questions that have moved me to think and plan and pray my way through my days in a deeper, more meaningful, more intentional way. Here are the four questions:

1. Who am I?
2. What do I love?
3. How shall I live, knowing I will die?
4. What is my gift to the family of the earth?

In my usual geeky style, I have copied quotes into my journal, expanded on those four questions, and pondered ways in which I can incorporate what I'm reading and learning into my life journey. For today's Thankful Thursday post, I will share a few of my favorite quotes from this book. Between the quotes, I will include my thoughts and responses to the passages and some of what I am grateful for.

We all need some touchstone, some simple act that helps center us into a remembrance of what is already whole and beautiful. This morning I picked some daffodils, early gifts of spring, growing in the warmest places along the south face of the house... The stems are supple and green, fresh from the warm soil of early spring. The cups are the most brilliant yellow, loud, exuberant, unselfconsciously yellow. Beautiful things such as daffodils catch our attention; they fill our eyes and our noses and surprise the body with a delightful, unreasonable glee. When we allow ourselves to slow down and be touched by this singular springtime moment, we glimpse a different perspective on our true nature. For an instant, without even meaning to, we realize that this is prayer. (pages 198-199)

the deep beauty of irises
a bouquet of roses for Mother's Day
the deep red flesh of watermelon
the fresh scent of a recently peeled orange
birds settled on the bird feeder in the backyard
the scent of homemade soy ginger caramel that will be poured over asparagus

Gratefulness slows time. For those close to death, there is little time to waste. When we give thanks for each moment, when we say a silent "thank you" for every meal, every touch, every morning, then we truly feel the richness and breadth of our lives, and things do not go by quite so fast. Last summer I was teaching at the Omega Institute. After a long morning session on Saturday, I was hungry and anxious for lunch. I walked the path from the cabin to the cafeteria with food on my mind. I passed by a lush variety of flowers, trees, and bushes along the path, but I did not really see them. I was thinking only of what I was wanting - lunch - and not at all about what was in front of me. After lunch, properly fed, I walked the same path back to the cabin. I saw the reds and purples and greens, touched the flowers, smelled the August humidity in the air, watched the clouds change shape in the summer sky. I felt tremendous gratitude for such beauty. When I got back to the cabin I realized the walk back had taken no more time than the walk to eat. The walk to eat had felt rushed and stilted; the walk back had felt spacious, restful and easy. The only thing that had changed was my appreciation and gratefulness for what was around me. Gratefulness slows time. (pages 222-223)

How many times have I walked past animals and people, flowers and fields, ponds and lakes, trees and bushes without noticing them? How many times have I not said "thank you" - both audibly and silently? How many mornings have I awakened anxious about the day to come and not grateful that I have yet another day to live? How many meals have I hastily prepared, thoughtlessly eaten, and grudgingly cleaned up after? How much of my life have I walked through asleep? I hope and pray that gratefulness will slow the time in my days more often.

Our meals come from the farmers, the gardeners, the plumbers who brought water, the people who pulled the weeds and turned the compost, those who harvested, the migrant workers, poor children, those who made the boxes to carry the vegetables, those who made the cars that transported the food, the truckers and their families, the grocers, the cooks, the servers - innumerable labors indeed. So many stand silently with us at every meal, and we are indebted to each and every one as we partake of the gift of nourishment. To feel their presence and be thankful for their many gifts to us is to be more accurately aware of our place in this large and generous community of beings... We constantly rely on others for our well-being. Farmers rise at dawn to grow our food, poor immigrant women work in sweatshops to sew our clothing, truckers leave home for days to bring us whatever we need, men and women work in sun and rain and cold to build our homes - these people are offering their labors to us every day, people we never know but who give us their gifts that we may simply live... In all ways and in everything we are immeasurably interdependent; to give thanks for those who serve us is not mere sentimentality - our offering a word of grace is both spiritually accurate and necessary. (pages 226-227)

There are so many people whose hard work made this very moment possible. People I will likely never know or see in this lifetime. The geeks who came up with the idea of the computer and the internet. The designers and engineers, electricians, glass makers. The hands that created the components. The miners who dug out the ore and metals and silver and stones of the jewelry I am wearing. The workers who grew the cotton for my clothing and wove the fabrics and ran the sewing machines. The men, women, and children who worked in sweatshops somewhere along the path of the manufacturing of my clothing and shoes and jewelry and vitamins and supplements and pots and pans and chairs and tables and carpet and cloth napkins. The doctors who have helped keep me alive. The farmers, the supermarket workers. The teachers who taught me to read and write. My mother, who taught me to type. The power company that provides the electricity. The designers, architect, contractors, and many skilled laborers who built this house back in 1988. And my parents and their parents your parents and you - and all the stories that intersected to make this moment, this interaction possible.

How can we not be grateful? How can we not want to bow our heads and weep at the beauty of it all, the impossibility of it all, and the simple wonder of it?

Even as we face death every day - because we could indeed die this very day -
every time we get in our cars and risk having an accident,
every time we take a train and risk a derailment,
every time we take a flight and risk a crash,
every time we enter a building and risk it falling on us,
every time we enter a place of worship, a store, a movie theater, a school, a library, or even while walking down the street, and risk running into a lunatic on a rampage,
every time we eat a meal and risk choking or food poisoning,
every time we do a self-exam of a body part and risk finding a lump,
every time we encounter another human being or animal,
every time a weather phenomenon threatens to destroy our land -
even though things could go wrong and sometimes does go wrong,
in the midst of it all, before it happens, and even after these things happen,
we can, I can, and I choose to find reasons to be grateful.
Uncommonly grateful. Unceasingly grateful. Unreasonably grateful.
There is so much beauty, so much love, so much joy, so much companionship - even in the face of sorrow, death, illness, loss, and suffering.

These things I love - they are the things of ordinary life, miraculous threads that have been woven through the fabric of my days on the earth. These are the seeds I have planted. These are the moments I place on the altar of my life, to guide me home. (page 82)

These things I love are also woven into my life through other people.
Things like my love for travel, for Spain, for Italy, for good books, for foreign movies.
My love for deep and loyal friendship, for long and winding conversations.
My love for yerba mate tea, for espresso, for nutritional yeast, for seedless watermelon.
My love for the library, for thrift stores, for bookstores, for the supermarket.
My love for the old hymns of the church, for prayer, for the Word of God, and for the people of God.
These are seeds planted into the soil of my heart and mind, spirit and life by so many other people.
These miraculous moments are blended into my prayers of gratitude to God for all the goodness and grace, provision and presence, all the joy and all the tears as well.

Quoting a novelist and newspaper reporter named Claudia Slack, Muller writes: "Like knowing you're to be hanged at dawn, [kanswer] concentrates the mind wonderfully." He goes on - When she says that "[kanswer] concentrates the mind wonderfully," the point, of course, is not the [kanswer]; the point is the light the [kanswer] sheds upon our life. If we follow what we love, if we live deeply and attentively in this moment, we will not feel bound by regret at the moment of our death. We will live with reverence for all things and a deep gratefulness for the gift of a single day upon the earth. This our death begs us to live well and with joy. As Jesus told his followers, the message of his life and death was simple: to remind them to be awake and alive. "I have come that you may have life," he told them, "and have it abundantly." (page 159)

We are all dying. Sooner than we would like, I'm certain.
There is no escaping that truth. None of us is getting off of this planet alive.
So what are we going to do before the day, the moment of our departure arrives?
What about living joyfully and gratefully?
What about living attentively and abundantly?
What about getting to know who we are and why we are here?
What about figuring out what gifts we have been given and how we can share them with the world?
How, then, shall we live, knowing that we are indeed going to die?

Pay attention.
This is your life.
How shall you live it?
(page 165)

Acceptance of death is acceptance of freedom.
Freedom to live each day with clarity and courage.
(page 166)

May we all, may we each live with freedom, clarity and courage.
Today, tomorrow, and every day that we have yet to live.
Thanks be to God.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Food - Or Drink for thought

The Cup of Life - from Henri Nouwen's Bread for the Journey

When the mother of James and John asks Jesus to give her sons a special place in his Kingdom, Jesus responds, "Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?" (Matthew 20:22). "Can we drink the cup?" is the most challenging and radical question we can ask ourselves. The cup is the cup of life, full of sorrows and joys. Can we hold our cups and claim them as our own? Can we lift our cups to offer blessings to others, and can we drink our cups to the bottom as cups that bring us salvation?

Keeping this question alive in us is one of the most demanding spiritual exercises we can practice.


This morning's devotional reading got me to thinking... and writing. 
It got me asking questions about my life and the way I am choosing to live it.
Lots of questions.

What cups do I need to claim as my own? 
What challenges are mine to drink down to the dregs?
What sorrows do I still need to mourn?
Which joys are worthy of celebration?

There is a part of me that is learning to embrace the sorrows more deeply. To appreciate the difficulties, the breakdowns, the crack ups, the stretching, the scars, the shifting, and the shattering. I find myself asking - what am I meant to learn from this? What am I meant to be grateful for, even now, even in this midst of this moment of deep pain? How will this predicament serve as a lesson for me and for others? 

There is a part of me that is learning to experience the joys fully as they happen without expecting or hoping or praying that the joy last forever. I am reminded of the Gospel account of Peter's desire to build a house up on the mount of transfiguration. "Lord, this is such an awesome moment. Can't we just stay up here forever?" Nope, we can't. Enjoy this - and then let it go. 

Eat this meal with gratitude, Gail, and then move on to the next task at hand. Bask in the depth and power of this relationship and then release your grip on and expectations of this person. Teach this class, and then sit down and learn something new. No hoarding - not even good things. 

I consider the cup of life I have been given. 

The highest highs - graduating from high school, from college, getting married, having children, living in homes I have loved, traveling extensively, loving and being loved, teaching, learning, kissing, hugging, making sweet love, being embraced by a community of faith that welcomes me and my family completely just as we are. I have been profoundly blessed in this life.

The lowest lows - watching my father die, September 11th, the Sandy Hook shooting (which happened to be on my birthday - I will never forget that day), illness, job loss, depression, hospitalization, hearing stories of deep pain and suffering in other people's lives. 

We all have experienced joy in this life.
We all will again. 
(That is my prayer anyway...)
We all have experienced sorrow in this life. 
We all will again. 
(I am praying against this...)

The question Henri Nouwen asks here raises so many more within me. 

Will I lift the cup that is mine to drink, whether that cup contains blessings or sorrows? 
Will I lift it in gratitude and with grace? Or will I lift it with complaints and bitterness?

Will I lift it with hope, with joy? 
Will I lift it equally high with my tears streaming and my heart cracking open? 
Will I drink it to the bottom no matter what is in it? 
Will I walk with and bless others as they drink their cups of both joy and sorrow? 
Will I turn away and try to avoid the sorrowful times?

This morning's Henri Nouwen devotional has given me much drink for thought.
Thanks be to God. 

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Thankful Thursday

Today is The National Day of Prayer here in the United States.
A day for the nation to pray. For peace. For justice. For wisdom.
For healing. For forgiveness. For equality. For unity.
I sat with some people I know and some people I didn't know earlier today to pray.
To remember those in need, those who are hungry, those who are in power as well.
For the unemployed. For the homeless. For the broken and sorrowful.
We also spent time giving thanks for many of the blessings we have received.

The blessings of the beautiful country we live in.
Family and friends and fun and fellowship.
The church community, the neighborhood community.
Our President and other national leaders as well as local leaders.
Doctors, nurses, teachers, and others who serve.
Police officers, firefighters, ambulance attendants and medics.
Places to live. Clothes to wear. Food to eat.
Water to drink, to clean with, to bathe in, and to swim in.

I am grateful that when I left that time and space of prayer, I had the chance to go downstairs and be the answer to some of those prayers by spending time with guests of the Loaves and Fishes pantry. I am enormously grateful for the businesses, the churches, the individuals that donate tons of food for distribution to our neighbors in need. I am grateful for the courage of men and women to ask for help and for the grace with which they receive the food. I am grateful to attend a church and be in relationship with people who are committed to serving the community, the city and the world.

I am grateful for the time I spent in the minivan with Kristiana on Tuesday afternoon. On the way home from picking her up at college, we found ourselves in more than an hour of "stand still and turn off your engine" traffic in the mountains of North Carolina. Rather than banging on the steering wheel in frustration, I began a conversation with my dear daughter about the Sunday School class we will be teaching together on Sunday. It will be called, "Stacking Stones and Breaking Bread: In Remembrance of Me." We will be talking about the memorial stones the people of Israel collected and stacked on various occasions in the Old Testament and the ritual of communion, the breaking of bread that Jesus - and how both of those acts are meant to point us back to the goodness and grace and providence and love of God. We will talk about other things we can do and look at and think about in remembrance of the God who loves us.

I am grateful that we were able to talk through the Bible passages we've chosen and come up with questions to ask even in stand still traffic. I am grateful that at one point we were laughing so hard that the driver in the car next to us looked over at us. Yes, we can laugh even in this situation.

I am grateful for the chance to teach a class with my daughter.
I am grateful for the chance to reconnect with her after the end of her school year.
I am grateful for the fact that she cooked dinner tonight - she's an adventurous cook.

I am grateful for the warmth of spring, for roses and irises in bloom.
I am grateful for turtles and squirrels and birds.
I am grateful for cool morning air, for quiet mornings, for long walks before the neighborhood buzzes with activity and noise.

I am grateful that I didn't scream when I saw not one, but two snakes in my neighbor's mailbox.
I am enormously grateful that I have never seen a snake in my mailbox.

I am grateful for questions because they send me out in search of answers.
I am grateful for doubts because they prompt me to more deeply consider my faith in God.
I am grateful for lonely times because they remind me to value those who walk my life journey with me.
I am grateful for darkness too, because it deepens my longing for the light.
I am grateful for scars too, because they remind me of falls and battles and victories won.
I am grateful for silence too, because it sharpens my ability to hear the still small voice.
I am grateful for rain too, because it slows our pace and reminds us that water is the elixir of life.
I am grateful for tears too. And the friends who allow me to shed my tears so freely.

I am grateful for Moral Monday marches.
I am grateful for peaceful protests.
I am grateful for second and third and fourth chances for forgiveness and reconciliation.
I am grateful for the countless people who are working for peace behind the scenes, in schools, in communities, in churches, and in other public gathering places.
I am grateful for the thoughtfulness and wisdom of my friend, Launa. Look at the piece she wrote for The Atlantic about her students and a planned trip to Baltimore. What a gift to read an article about how we can talk about these very difficult issues with young people and encouraging them to form their own opinions while sharing ours as well.
I am grateful for the audacity of hope - hope for peace, hope for life, hope for love.

Thanks be to God.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Make Up Day

Back in January or February, it snowed here in Charlotte.
Less than an inch of snow. But there was a thin coating of ice on everything.

Trees. Grass. Cars. Minivans. Driveways. Roadways.
Which meant that my hometown became a home town.
As in - everybody stayed home.
It was a Tuesday - which meant that my writing class was cancelled for the day.
I spent most of the two hours I would have been in class sitting at the kitchen counter writing and editing, journaling and reading, and also wasting time on Pinterest.

The writing class was originally scheduled to end tomorrow.
One final gathering, followed by a potluck lunch, and summer break.
But because of that icy Tuesday a few weeks back, we will have a make up day.
Next Tuesday will be our final class, followed by lunch.

Tomorrow, after spending time with the writerly crew I have come to know and respect, I will drive up into the mountains of North Carolina to pick my daughter up from college.
My daughter who will graduate from college in December.
My daughter who is still the bravest person I have ever known.
My sweet girl will be home for the summer.
Her brother, my sweet boy, is already home for the summer.

How is it that they are both done with their spring semester in college? When I was in college, back in the last century, we packed our bags and left for home the week after Memorial Day. How is it possible that college is almost four times as expensive now as it was back then, but they spent nearly four fewer weeks on campus?

Anyway, my babies are coming back home.
Our nest will be full again. So will my heart.
But neither the pantry nor the refrigerator will be full again for quite some time.

How is it possible that my two babies are college students?
Where have the years gone?

Today, I had a follow up visit with my oncologist. All is well with this aging and scarred body of mine, thanks be to God. Toward the end of the appointment, I asked the good doctor how he was doing, and I asked about his family as well. (Why should he be the only one who asks questions?) He spoke about wanting to go on a golf trip with his father and brothers. Perhaps returning to Scotland - a trip they took a year or so ago. He said that his sons, who are 14 and 10, would be upset if he went on another golf trip without them. I suggested that, before they try their hand at golf overseas, they could visit a few golf courses near the coast in South Carolina. He also spoke about going away with his wife to celebrate their anniversary. Life is so short. Life is too short to work as hard as he does, to see as much suffering and death as he has seen, and not enjoy time with his wife and sons.

I reminded him of what he already knew: time flies. Love the ones you're with, Doc. Don't wait. Don't save the money for some future time when you have more time. None of us will ever have more time than we have right now. This is the time that we have. This is the day that we have. This is the moment.

There are no make up days for our lives.
No make up days for trips not taken.
No make up days for conversations not had.
No make up days for hugs and kisses not given.
No make up days for stories untold.
No make up days for lessons unlearned.
No make up days for grudges held.
No make up days for relationships neglected.
No make up days for love unspoken. 
We cannot go back and do any of this again.
But we can do it now.

Say it now. Experience it now. 
Write it now. Pray about it now.
Whatever "it" is.
Love them now. Forgive them now. 
Listen to them now. 
Whoever your "them" may be. 
See your beautiful, wise self now. 
Love yourself now. Listen to yourself too.
Now is the time. Today is the day. 

Thanks be to God for the gift of this night.
This day. This hour. This moment.
This wonder-filled life.