My love-hate relationship with fall

October 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

At the end of our always-hot summers in the Midwest, I find myself eager for fall. I look forward to wearing jeans, seeing the leaves turn colors, and cooler, darker evenings perfect for bonfires, football games and trick-or-treating. This anticipation leads my mind quickly to perhaps my favorite holiday of all, Thanksgiving, where family, friends and good food reign. Other than cooking and cleaning, the focus is truly on what matters most to me: relationships.

There’s a downside, though, that I always conveniently forget about fall as I enter it with delighted anticipation. The Northern hemisphere’s tilting away from the sun brings more hours of darkness, and eventually, cold temperatures beyond the pleasantly chilly.

Why is this juxtaposition so hard on me? I want to continue to move at the speed of light – sunlight, daylight, summer light – to keep up with the holiday joys! But Mother Nature is trying to slow me down.

Does anyone else feel this drag on your energy? Do you, too, feel reluctant to get out of bed at your normal waking hour? Do you find yourself less interested in running errands or getting anything accomplished after dinnertime because it’s now dark and cold out?

I’m becoming ever more sure that God and the universe are sending me a strong message with the fall: You can’t maintain the rhythms of spring and summer all year long. Just as you need sleep, you need periods of slow progress and rest.

How I resist this message! “No, I can get it all in,” I tell myself. “Just a few more projects/to-do’s/ideas … and then I will embrace being wrapped in a blanket with a cup of hot chocolate.”  But the cumulative effect of air temperatures, earlier sunsets and later sunrises, the earth’s orbit and the turning of all of nature around me, push back.

“Not later, now,” they say. “Not blossoming and bursts of growth, but rather letting go and turning inward,” they remind me. I see the trees around me preparing to release their extra weight, and I know I must also. I see fewer animals out and about, and look sadly at my long list of errands, knowing I will not finish it before darkness sets in. I look for the intense heat and light of the sun, and find it muted, subdued.

My hope this fall is that I can embrace the darkness – lean into it, turn towards it, and trust that it, too, brings gifts. Whether it is human nature or my own personality, I feel drawn toward activity and productivity. However, I trust the beauty of the earth and the wisdom of the Creator that tell me I need a counter-balance to this instinct.

What will slowing down and letting go this fall bring me? What will it bring you? What does it offer our families, our commnities, our culture, our earth? What does it mean that half of our world is experiencing the exact opposite transition of seasons at this very moment?

For me, this mystery is powerful every year. I give thanks for the opportunity to experience and learn from it again this fall.


Schooled in the Art of Pausing

October 7, 2011 § 3 Comments

My article on how motherhood changed me was published in America this week: Schooled in the Art of Pausing

Are there ‘bad’ people?

October 2, 2011 § 2 Comments

In the car this morning on the way to Church my 6-year-old son asked: “What is the opposite of evil, Mom?”

I said, quickly, thinking of my many theology classes, “Good.”

He was quiet. Then I started thinking of teaching opposites to first graders and questioned my assumption as well as my tendency to provide answers when I’d really like to encourage questions.

“Well, maybe it’s love. What do you think?”

“I think it’s love,” he said with certainty, as if he’d been waiting for a better answer. “Like a bad guy would say ‘Deliver us from love,’ instead of ‘Deliver us from evil.’ You know, like a bad guy.”

Ah, the ever-mythical “bad guy.” He haunts the imaginations of little boys, so necessary for war and fight games.

I said, “You know, sometimes I wonder if there are any bad guys, or just good people who make bad choices.”

From the way back of the minivan came the voice of my 9-year-old son, “Yeah, I think there are just good people who don’t know and they do bad things.”

“Yeah, I think there are just good people because I’m good, but sometimes I lie,” said the 6-year-old.

“I think so too, and I think you guys are right,” I said, restraining myself from preaching further and letting the importance of this insight sink in. I think we all pondered it for a bit more of the ride.

I know I did, as we took our short cut through East St Louis, studying the bars on windows, pondering the news of a possible break-in attempt a few houses from ours last week, wondering about homes with tarps on the roofs and boarded up windows and children who walk streets of litter and decay.

What separates the ‘good’ from the ‘evil’? Are there any bad people? How do we conquer fear and fight crime simultaneously? How can we see criminals as human? How can we reach them and reach ourselves? Would I feel differently if someone hurt me or my family? What would my response be if someone broke into our home?

Are there bad people? Or are there people who are tired, desperate, addicted, broke, and damaged by years of abuse? Are there people who “don’t know” what is right? Or perhaps people who “don’t know” that they are good? And maybe some people who actually need a kick in the pants?

This problem of categorizing people as “evil” or “bad” seems fundamental to me. Law enforcement and a working criminal justice system are essential, but so is the belief that all people are basically good and capable of change – not only for a sense of security but for a sense of shared humanity and hope in tomorrow.

Deliver us from evil, O God, wherever it truly resides.

Hungry for someone to listen

September 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

Many people are unaware of the experience of spirtual direction, or even if aware, few have tried it. I cannot recommend it highly enough. To speak for a set period of time about your experiences of God, of prayer, of struggling to understand your own place in life and in the universe – and to have someone listening who not only cares but is skilled at asking good questions, praying with you, and noticing God’s movement in your life patterns – it’s truly a luxury and a gift.

Religious men and women (priests, nuns, brothers) have been enjoying it for hundreds of years! And lay people can, too. A wonderful program in the St. Louis area offers a mini-experience of spiritual direction to anyone who wants it – any denomination or type of seeker – for free (unless you want to donate a reasonable amount to offset the cost of the program). The program is called “Week/Month of Guided Prayer.”

I can vouch for the authenticity and dediation of its director, Clarence Heller. Also, the prayer guides (spiritual directors) involved are people who truly care about those they will listen to and guide.

So many people are hungry for someone to listen, and even more, for the guidance of a spiritually-grounded mentor. That’s what we have here. It might be hard to find this in a friend, family member, counselor or even a pastor. These guides are unattached, wtihout agendas, and truly open to simply serving as one who listens, gently offers insights, and exposes you to new ways of praying or news ideas about God and faith.

I encourage you to consider participating in a month of guided prayer experience. I think you will find a hunger filled, and realize the hunger points to the desire to grow ever-deeper in spiritual awareness.

Franzen makes me think

July 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

I cannot stop reading or thinking about this article by Jonathan Franzen. I think my favorite part is this:

The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships. Sooner or later, for example, you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person. Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you’re having an actual life.

Suddenly there’s a real choice to be made, not a fake consumer choice between a BlackBerry and an iPhone, but a question: Do I love this person? And, for the other person, does this person love me?

There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of. And this is why love is such an existential threat to the techno-consumerist order: it exposes the lie.

This is not to say that love is only about fighting. Love is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are. And this is why love, as I understand it, is always specific. Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on the self, on the self’s own moral or spiritual well-being. Whereas, to love a specific person, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.

I find this section challenging on many levels as well as confirming things I have felt for a long time.

First, the idea that a real relationship involves conflict. I have always thought that couples who say, “We never fight,” could not be very deeply engaged with one another. Sure, some people argue more often than others, and some end up as “fights,” while some don’t, but there is basically no one on this planet with whom I would constantly agree or never be irritated by. I don’t see that as a bad thing. It just is. And the opposite just doesn’t seem real.

The next point, that you can’t like everything about someone but you can love everything about someone … wow, that’s true, but quite tough. I think I could spend my whole life working on loving everything about someone. Yet I think that is the challenge of love through God’s eyes, or love with divine inspiration.

Finally, his point that loving “everyone,” is noble but not as hard as loving one person — this is SO TRUE. I have long had a big heart for children, people who are suffering, the poor, the oppressed, and while I am glad to feel that way – compassionate, it is not as hard as loving my husband. Or my sister. Or my child. It is work to be committed to one person, to love them and be patient through difficulties, to decided that this will always be my sister/husband/son, so I need to figure out how we’re going to get through this. I need to understand this part of him/her, and I need to embrace it. Again, lifelong work here.

Franzen’s article  – and I suggest you read it in its entirety – posits that technology is leading us further away from real relationships like the ones described above. I’m still considering whether or not I agree.

I think many of us resist the commitment and love of real relationship and I don’t know how connected it is to technology. I think it might be that it’s just plain hard work. Or maybe that we don’t have many skills for doing so. Or encouragement.

I think he’s probably right that Facebook and the like don’t help. If I spend a lot of time in superficial FB “liking” and self-promotion, I am not growing much as a person, nor in my participation in face-to-face relationships. If I am constantly checking my iPhone (guilty!), that is less time I spend learning how to love the others right in my midst.

Still, could this avoidance of the challenge to really, truly love another be more of a human condition than a casualty of technological advances? Perhaps, has it always been with us and always will be to need to be challenged to love wholly and unconditionally, rather than anything less?



May 29, 2011 § 2 Comments

Lately, I’ve been experiencing bittersweet moments.

bittersweet, adj.: being at once bitter and sweet; especially : pleasant but including or marked by elements of suffering or regret

The end of the school year for my children was one of those moments. They, and all the children in grades K-5, sing for the parents on the last day. One of the songs was “Summer’s in the Air.” As the kids sang about summer, I knew that my children and  many others on the stage would be truly having a classic summer – splashing in the pool on hot days, having friends over for pick-up games of soccer/baseball/football in the backyard, walking to the corner ice cream store, waiting for Dad to come home to barbecue on Friday night, laying in a safe bed at night while it was still light outside the window.

Unfortunately, I knew some of the kids on that stage would have nothing of the sort. They would spend most days inside, playing video games or watching TV – for all kinds of reasons. It’s not just kids without means to join a pool or get ice cream. One grandmother told me recently when her grandchild invited friends to go to the park, they got there and didn’t want to play – it was too hot and they were too tired; when could they go back and play Nintendo?

I also know that a few kids on that stage would probably truly be neglected this summer, perhaps due to a parent exhausted in the struggle to put food on the table, or possibly because of addiction or family dysfunction.

Watching the kids on the stage was intensely bittersweet.

On top of the mix of joy at innocent childhood summers and the pain of inequality and poverty, I was also acutely aware of my children growing older as I watched the singing. They have recently reached an age at which I can feel, or anticipate feeling, them slipping away from me, into the world and into their independence.

I have no plans to hold them back or cling to them, but my heart breaks just watching the process. I have been lucky that they have wanted to hug me so long, enjoy spending time with me, and let me know how they love me. I hate the thought of them lessening their attachment to me, yet I know the development is important.

I also recently chose to spend some time at home alone rather than travel with my husband and children. When you become a parent, it is shocking how life changes from individual to communal. Besides trips for work or a very occasional overnight by my children at a friend or family member’s house, we’re all here together, day in and day out. My life is full of my family. We live together. This, of course, was the very reason I wanted the time alone – to think, to write, to work, to clean, to organize, to relax – alone.

And yet, as soon as they left, I was stunned by the loneliness. I am so accustomed to sharing home, life, schedule, meals, noise and rest with them. The feeling was again, deeply bittersweet.

As I think about how poignant and intense these bittersweet moments have been, I wonder what it is about them that point to something greater? I think, perhaps, that in these moments of loss, of inabililty to control, of awareness of imperfection and even injustice, we sense mortality. Our humanity, rather than divinity or immortality, is keenly felt.

To me, that explains why these moments bring tears to my eyes. I have always been afraid of death. I’m terrified of being alone. I’m sick at the thought of losing control of my life and relationships and happiness. And yet, I know that this is part of life, and may even be a moment of transformation into something more.

The juxtaposition of bitter and sweet taps directly into the contrasting emotions associated with death and finality. The circle of life continues despite us, and we cannot change it. In moments that bring us joy and pain, we understand on some deep, intuitive level that this is all of life: birth and death, joy and sorrow, beginning and end. We recognize that even death may bring new life, but how hard to let go of what we know!

I wonder what more these bittersweet moments may have to teach me?



Bodies and prayer

May 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

I recently led a short practice of yoga sun salutations for a group at a meeting. I told them that yoga is not about “exercise.” Rather, it is embodied prayer. Come to think of it, what prayer is not embodied?

Still, I know why I said that. Yoga, as I understand it, starts from the premise that breathing in certain ways or putting our bodies in particular positions can lead us closer to the divine.  It is prayer that pointedly enlists the body’s help.

Most of us in Western, Christian traditions have not been taught to use our bodies to help us pray. We use our minds, our hearts, our souls, but not our bodies, to pray. This is true in much of our lives, even – we work with our minds and maybe our hearts, but fewer and fewer of us actually use our bodies to work (well, maybe our fingers to type). Hence our national weight issues.

When I look at my children, I cannot understand how we as adults become so sedentary. I love to do nothing but lay poolside while my children swim, jump, dive, wiggle, throw and wrestle in the pool. (Yes, I have boys). I don’t mind a meeting where we sit talking for hours (as long as there are breaks). How did we turn from active children into inactive adults? And could even our prayer be suffering as a result?

I am presently taking an exercise class, and while I sometimes dread the time or the effort, once I’m there, I am glad to be using my body, even if not quite “enjoying” it. Afterwards, I feel radically different than on a morning I don’t exercise. Of course, with yoga I feel not only relaxed and enlivened mentally and spiritually, but I physically feel better – stronger, lighter, looser.

I think we are most likely meant to use our bodies for most things, or at least more often. Prayer might be another instance where our bodies could be more involved.

It doesn’t have to be yoga or tai chi, those obvious types of embodied prayer. What about just being more conscious of the role of our body in reading Scripture, reflecting, or praying silently? What about calling our morning walk prayer, or reflection time? We could even acknowledge the gestures, postures and rituals we enact in our churches as bodily activities, and pay a little more attention to those components, while worrying a little less about every word spoken or sung. I bet we could learn from our fellow Christians who dance, shout, lay on hands, speak in tongues and faint in prayer.

I’m going to make an effort to pay attention to my body the next time I experience any type of prayer. Might God be calling me through my body, and asking me to respond with it as well?

Worn down and easily inspired

May 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

It might be that I am a little worn out from travel and life of late, but on a day I finally have to think a little, I am finding myself grateful and inspired. I’d like to share two reasons why: 

I do not know much about this organization yet, but a friend forwarded me the link with the song on it. It is truly worth taking time to listen to. Absolutely affirming, inspiring and true. We are doing our best as mothers, and it is enough.

Joan Chittister may be the wisest woman I have run across. Almost everything she writes I find myself thinking, “That was just what I need to hear,” or “I was thinking that but didn’t know how to say it.” This post of hers is another example.

My question for today is: why don’t I seek out inspiration more often?

Grateful for the gathering

April 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Last Monday, 50 women attended the “Gathering of Women in Search of God.” I was moved by the numbers and energy of the group. I can only assume there was something in the description, below, that spoke to them:

 “If you are experiencing changes in your understanding of God, Church, and faith, come together with other women to explore the question of image of God. The evening will include presentation, personal reflection, small group sharing, prayer/ritual, creative work and information to take home for further exploration.”

Something vitally important happened in bringing together women who share this search and similar questions. In the introduction time we offered an image of or idea about God we held – past or present, and in the voicing of so many ways of knowing God, we each grew in our understanding of the divine, ourselves and one another.

There was a small table in the center of the room upon which women placed an object that somehow represented an image of or idea about God that appealed to or intrigued them. (I am, of course, now kicking myself for not taking a photo of that table). The art, books, music, photos, elements from nature and accessories collected there drew us in with their symbolism and the awareness of the depth that lay beyond them.

Upon reflection at home, I realized what I longed for most of all in the gathering was the chance to hear every woman’s story of who God is and was to her, her experiences of God, and her questions about God. I was not able to hear each woman’s unique journey, for lack of time and the size of the group. I did, however, hear many things that night and afterwards. Some comments were made in the large group, shared widely. Other thoughts were communicated in pairs and small groups, intimately. Additional insights were passed on between friends that evening or as days passed afterward. Still other reflections are held in hearts, not yet spoken.

I heard women who are bold and adventurous in their exploration of God outside church limitations.

I heard women who found the evening emotional, meaningful, and important, but couldn’t yet explain why.

I heard women who are afraid for their adult children who have rejected God or simply find God unnecessary.

I heard women who have been seeking God in small groups and at other presentations, as well as through books such as Joan Chittister’s Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir and Rita Nakishima Brock’s Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of this World for Crucifixion and Empire.

I heard women who delight in God’s many ways of being revealed to them, but wrestle with how to reconcile that God with a faith community or worship experience.

I heard women who write prayers and poetry, intentionally choose sacred objects to place in their home, create jewelry and art, respond to nature and listen deeply to music  – all as paths to God.

I heard women who give thanks for churches, women role models, mothers and mothering, friendships, prayer circles, and life experiences that have led them closer to God.

I heard women ask for more reflection on images of God, discussion of cultural messages about God, and opportunities to share with one another. Some would like to meet again.

I believe this may only be a beginning of a long conversation about the mystery and beauty of God.

If you were there, what more do you have to say?

If you couldn’t be there, what would you have said?

If you were to come in the future, what do you hope to share and hear?

The Object of Prayer

March 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

An ongoing question for me has been: Whom or what does prayer affect – God, the world, and/or me?

Of course, the answer may be both/and, not either/or.

Still, it’s an important question for me. Growing up, my answer would have been “God hears my prayers and answers them – by acting or not acting.” I think many Christians see prayer this way.

The older I got, I did try to pray that God would first change me. Even more than I wanted something to work out the way I hoped, I asked to be open to God’s will, so that I would be at peace with whatever God caused or allowed to continue.

As I have learned more about Eastern religions, namely Buddhism and Hinduism, my understanding is that prayer in these traditions is more about how it changes the person praying, and later, possibly, the world.

At first, this may seem a lesser power of prayer. Rather than asking God to bring about a miracle, or even to possibly do something powerful or possibly not, but make me attuned to His will, prayer in these religions seems to be asking for less: simply bringing my own spirit to peace or awareness.

But is this lesser, or even more simple? That is the appeal of Eastern spirituality to me in general at this point: could it be that to change my own heart, to reach greater inner peace, to be more centered and focused in my own life, is actually the greatest miracle? I don’t mean this in an egoistic way, although perhaps I am wrong about this. What I mean is that the greatest task in front of each of us is not to stop fate, or disrupt a natural process by our prayed desires, or even to bring about an end to world hunger (not that we don’t desperately want that), but to actually transform our own minds, hearts and souls?

I think this is the goal of meditation, yoga, and various Eastern prayer practices: to change how we think, how we move, how we act, how we eat, how we talk, how we love, how we work. By doing this, the world will be changed – both because we live differently as a result, and also, literally, by our greater presence of peacefulness. I believe this to be true both because of personal experience, but also because of the smallest inkling of understanding I have regarding advances in science that have told us more about how one molecule affects another. (Definitely read a book on this one if you are interested – I barely “get it,” but it’s amazing stuff! Try “quantum theology” or “process theology”).

I might also be wrong that this is mostly an Eastern perspective on prayer. There are Western/Christian traditions of prayer that are mostly meditative (such as centering prayer) or mystical. But I hear most Christian talk about prayer suggesting we ask God to act. I don’t think this is wrong, but I do think we may be missing an important half of the picture if we are not equally aware of the power of our prayer to change us, and that, consequently, to affect the course of events.

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