Such a Time as This

“Courage and optimism are your best traits,” reads a fortune from a Chinese restaurant years ago. I’ve kept it so long because it speaks to my best self. Even so, on my dark days, I despair. I know you don’t need me to list everything that sends me to the depths because I think you feel them as well as I do. They’re like tall ghouls laughing at our puny hopes and futile attempts to bring order to the chaos in the world.

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Be still. Stop. Breathe. Look out the window. Remember whose world this is, and how you came to be in it. We have been in a near constant state of war for years now, so imagining a different approach to global problems seems impossible. But that’s what God calls us to do: imagine a different way for events to unfold, for people to engage with others. What is the faith that makes this possible? Waiting and walking with God. When we wait upon God, God draws near to us.

 

Clarissa P. Estes emboldened many with her 2004 essay. She said, “We were made for these times….do not lose hope….Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul…will help immensely.”

 

While the talk of walls and hate preys on our fears, I watch a robin’s nest outside my window with three hardy babies straining to fly. The strongest one is jumping and trying to flex his wings while his siblings still sit with their mouths wide open for the parent’s next visit. Yesterday a murder of crows was flying about, gathering strength and calling for others to join forces. I went out with a broom to ward off any attack that might come to this nest tucked on the joist beneath our deck. Only one or two robbers flew over the house, but I was at the ready to wave them off.

 

This is a time for the courage to imagine different ways to engage with the world far beyond us, or right in our back yard, with our friends and allies. This is soul work. Soul work requires that we rely on God’s promises. If we wait upon the Lord, we will renew our strength, even fly like eagles. [Isaiah 40:31] How can we resist? It may be our only way to refrain from spreading the gloom.

Recovering, All Over Again

I can’t quite make myself get going. The haunting horror of the killings at the Pulse gay club in Orlando hangs over my head so that I can hardly look to the heavens to see beyond it. How do I bring light, not to mention love, to others if my own heart is dark and afraid?

Some say, “This, too, shall pass.” But it seems to belittle the tragedy. I scour the New York Times and Facebook for ideas, projects, and movements that will limit people’s access, particularly to AR-15 machine guns. What group action can I join? Could churches across denominations, or associations like Faith in Action turn their corporate power against the gun lobby? Do we have that much power?

Why do things like Orlando happen? Why are they impossible to thwart?

William Hazlitt said, “Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be.” So we experience the mass shootings that mount up in our current history, wringing our hands, feeling powerless.

A character in Herbert Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game laments: “…if only it were possible to find understanding….If only there were a dogma to believe in. Everything is contradictory, everything tangential; there are no certainties anymore….Isn’t there any truth?” [1943]

Well, yes. There are truths. There are commonly held truths. People of faith—of whatever kind—find meaning in their community held truths, a chosen understanding of how darkness, some say “sin,” comes into the world. And when darkness overwhelms the light of our privileged lives here and now, we gather together, march in solidarity, hear or read uplifting, motivating speeches and homilies and prayers, and then pledge energy and money toward new, more stringent guidelines for guns and mental health in our city, state and nation.

But inevitably, disaster will come again. James Hollis says, “To experience some healing within ourselves, and to contribute healing to the world, we are summoned to wade through the muck from time to time. Where we do not go willingly, sooner or later we will be dragged.” I find that each such dark experience teaches me something. And so does scripture.

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Mt. of Olives; Jesus Weeps over Jerusalem

In the farewell talks in John, Jesus says, “Do you really believe? An hour is coming—in fact, it has already come—when you will all be scattered and go your own ways, leaving me alone; yet I can never be alone, for Abba God is with me. I have told you all this that in me you may find peace. You will suffer in the world. But take courage! I have overcome the world.” [Jn 16.31-33] We will suffer in the world. But we are not alone.

Like Shooting Fish in a Barrel

Like shooting fish in a barrel. Music so loud dancers couldn’t distinguish gunshots from base notes. No one could be heard if they tried to speak. So dark splashes of blood seemed at first like roses or swirls of color on white shirts or bare backs. Slowly, knowing and horror dawned together in the dark pre-dawn hours. Then the blast of the beat lessened, shouts must have been heard, people rushed to aid those who had fallen, and still the ghastly scene ran on for two or three more hours until the law was able to overpower the shooter.

Who would do such a thing? Intentional, well armed and well timed. Alone—without friends. Others so different from him, he believed they were wrong and he was right. They did not befriend him, so he rejected them. His religion empowered him. Strangers ought to be more like he was. But he wasn’t recruiting. This scenario blossomed in his brain. It would be like shooting fish in a barrel. So cool. So chilling.

What is it that causes a person to hate so intensely he or she builds anger into fervor. Hatred so pure nothing modifies or lessens it. It has to explode. The perpetrator sees nothing but death for those so free they’re dancing mindlessly and drinking and enjoying themselves, something he doesn’t allow himself. Or she has buried her own attraction to just this thing so deeply she hates those who can freely choose it. Hates to the point of murder.

In the aftermath, stunned, we eagerly need to know who the perp was. We know now he declared he had pledged to ISIS. He killed everyone he could to disrupt our ways and thus—this is the part that puzzles me—raise the flag of his religion. Really? His “religion” demands he kill? How unlike the major religions of the world, at whose heart is a law of love—especially for the stranger in our midst. How vulnerable we are to such ghoulish motives. How can laws ever protect us? We see ourselves in school rooms, theaters, dance halls, and malls, even churches, now vulnerable, now fearful.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy. This is a human problem—the work of an angry man, a bully to his former wife. Any political or cultural or race group convinced it is right may force its “faith” on everyone. Even if it is part of such a group, no one is to blame. All are to blame for fomenting hate over love. For not welcoming the stranger, as all ancient faiths believed. It is a desert commitment.

In this world there are many reasons to hate and many reasons to love. It’s a choice. We who don’t shoot—even if we hate—have made choices. All of us share normal feelings that range from love to rage, wrath to laughter. Emotions move through us every moment as we interact with others and share our lives. Feelings move through us. And we recognize, evaluate, and express them as we can in safe places, or seek out safe people to share them with. We need to try to understand them, and to understand ourselves.

Pick up a stone to throw at an enemy. Or resolve to wait, to withdraw to think about why you’ve made an enemy. St. Paul writes, Every marvelous thing you may do with your life, if you do it without love, you’ve gained nothing. [1st Corinthians 13.]

Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always ‘me first,’ doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep scores of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end. [The Message 1 Cor. 13]

The Orlando shooter knew nothing of love, knew nothing of a death that is not the last word, but an opening of the gates to greater love. In fact I believe that a movement—not of death—but of love and solidarity can rise out of Orlando, out of Florida, out of states as well as cities, and out of rich and poor, young and old, GLBTQ, religious or spiritual and everything in between. We who love need to be smart, strong, and vigilant. The world is too wonderful for us to shrink to being so afraid we build walls instead of bridges. To work toward the sister and brotherhood we all crave, to do Tikkun olam (repair the world), we need to trust steadily in the Holy One, hope without ceasing, and love extravagantly. The greatest of these, is love.   [1 Cor. 13.13]

 

 

 

 

Legacy

I was just 12 when my beloved piano teacher Bernice died of brain cancer. Since the fifties were years when children were kept from the traumas of life, I felt shut off from telling her I loved her, even saying goodbye. I remember one rainy Sunday afternoon waiting in our parked car in Seattle at Virginia Mason while my parents left my brothers and me to visit Bernice. When they returned sober-faced, we stopped at St. James Cathedral to pray—unusual practice for us American Baptists. Awed by the space, the silence, the candles, I was drawn to prayer. I missed Bernice at our lessons and was frightened for her. And when she did lose her life, my parents would not take me to her memorial.

In a family much given to seriousness and not a little fear of doing the wrong thing, Bernice brought me laughter and joy, not to mention piano technique. Her vivaciousness prompted smiles even in my dad. When she and her husband Jim visited our home, making an uproarious entrance, it was usually Saturday night. We shared our pancakes. Mom scrounged for the coffee pot (my parents drank only tea) so that the fragrance of coffee accompanied the boisterous laughter in our kitchen—a wondrous visitation.

One of the four great truths is that there is suffering in life. And since most of us at my age are dealing with this reality every day, we need to help one another cope with the losses that come, rather than feeling singled out or badly treated, or that God is looking the other way. Quaker Parker Palmer comments, “The good news is that suffering can be transformed into something that brings life, not death.” Jesus said, “I come that you may have life, and have it to the full.” Jn 10.10

 For years after I had become a competent pianist and organist, each time I began to play I dedicated my music to Bernice, not so much to my mother, a soloist whom I spent hours accompanying as she sang at memorials and teas and worship services. I had not heard all of Bernice’s music. Her song was cut off. I felt more bonded with her who championed my growing musicianship and my inner need for appreciation. Of course my talents were to be offered to God through others. But my parents saw to it that the gifts were given without having acknowledged the musician.

Whenever I remember Bernice, she is perched at my right hand on a small chair with one hand on the page of my music. I was eight then, warmed by her joy and inspired by her faith to live with hope in spite of the losses to come. In place of the darkness of her absence, she brought me delight that lasts to this day.

 

 

Here’s the Deal

My cat Sugar’s presence often invites petting—because I need a hug. She’s a 10-year-old tuxedo with elaborate white whiskers and silky thick black fur. Sometimes she tries to ignore me. Sometimes she accepts me with stillness, then purring, other times a tail warning that she is not available just now. Often, in the evening she comes near eyeing my lap, testing my tolerance. It is a balance. We are respectful of each other’s being, listening inwardly both to ourselves, and then to each other. When Sugar comes seeking togetherness, she is pure gift, the soul of our home.

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Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed—to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.

 This belief of Parker Palmer’s is the wisest advice to those wanting to help others. We have many, many other skills, such as attentive listening, and reflecting the emotions we detect behind the words, but the basic gift to be offered to the sacred being of another is our attention. I experienced the touchy-feely 70s and the needy 80s, encounter groups, trust exercises, and probably too late for some, boundary lessons. We experimented with hugging everyone, then giving others distance, then asking permission to hug, which today, comes fairly naturally to most. I learn when I meet someone what her preferred distance is.

I learned to pay attention at home. I paid attention to my dad who ruled the roost. I paid attention to my mom because she had a lot to share and considered me her best friend. That first obligation, to listen without any limits, led me into a world of unbalanced relationships. When would I have the time to be heard? How would I know?

I hadn’t learned to listen to myself.

God asks us to love the Holy One with our whole heart, mind and strength, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. It is this last clause that we too often overlook. We reach out to those who suffer without asking basic questions: how am I doing right now? Do I have what I need for myself, or am I reaching out reflexively from an old habit of doing for others what I, myself, need—a certain route to self-denial.

To be honest, we all do a little of both. But as long as we’re aware of our balance point, and not exceeding what we know we can afford to give, to sacrifice, even, for our neighbors, then the joy of giving, of listening to a friend who needs to share with us, will replenish the energy of our giving.

 

An Afternoon of Writing

I was ready to write when I came home from lunch last week. I had a great opening line and confidence that more would follow; my mind was alive with images. Not something a writer ignores. On the way to the house I wondered if aphids were still after the perennial hellebores. I’ve been spraying them with dish soap and water, but I saw aphids still ruled. I’d also forgotten to clean out last year’s old leaves lying dyspeptically on the ground underneath the new, moldy with rot and now covered with the insects. I was dressed casually enough that I didn’t need to change clothes, so I dropped my purse inside the study, grabbed the spray from the garage, and headed out front.

Writing could wait a few minutes. This exercise would be good—as well as a fresh break from staying indoors too long with good books.

I sprayed, noticing the various developmental stages of the tiny white nits, light green eggs (maggots?) and winged predators. Some of the darker leaves were so sticky with aphid poop I had to wash them by hand. That took longer than I thought, but there were essentially only three plants to focus on, so I kept at it. These hellebores and two newer hosta spent so much time in the shade of the coral bark maple and dogwood, not to mention the neighbor’s huge camellia, that surely other shade-loving plants were not as infested as these. Blended chartreuse, lime and celery-green leaves nestled along the stone walk that wound its way to the front door. They were fine.

Who knew a hellebore could grow so large! I had to hunt for an old bamboo stake and pound it in with the back of a hatchet to prop up a mature, tall branch. Some of the wilted bottom leaves refused to be pulled out and crumpled by hand, so I went back to the garage for a pair of clippers, the kind with gears that protect my joints—not that these juicy stems needed that much strength. As an afterthought, I grabbed the white 5-gallon bucket I use for yard waste to stow what I pulled out from under and within the plants.

I had a line or two in mind for the article I planned, but for a moment I let it drift. It would come back to me. Scoping out the larger area where I was working revealed that the pebbled slab where the birdbath stands was three-quarters covered with dirt. I would need the rake and then a whisk broom to spiff it up. While I was at it, it would help if I raked over the mulch after everything else was done.

Back to the garage for the rake and whisk broom and then, pleased by the fragrance of freshly-turned earth, I surveyed this half of the front yard, pulling out several more dying leaves, shaking off the wilted blossoms of the crabapple tree that had fallen on the plants below. As I had suspected, more sun kept those hellebores freer of aphids.

Finally I stood up, straightening my tired back. Following the sounds of calling crows, I looked up to see a murder of them harrying a young eagle who led them on a chase around the east side of the adjacent cemetery behind fir and cedar, his white tail gleaming against the azure sky.

What time was it? I had started this project before sitting down to write. It was not yet two. Now it was four. Satisfied, I had still to finish the overall raking, toss my clippers, gloves, spray bottle and whisk broom into the bucket with the detritus of hellebore and hosta, bundle up the rake and a stake I had not used, and head for the garage.

Now, what was that line I had in mind?

The Little Things

            Being human cannot be borne alone. We need other presences. We need soft night noises—a mother speaking downstairs, a grandfather rumbling in response, cars swishing past on Philadelphia Avenue and their headlights  wheeling about the room. We need the little clicks and sighs of a sustaining otherness.

 

John Updike describes the comforting “clicks and sighs” of the presence of others in our lives, our awareness of parents talking quietly downstairs, or brothers murmuring in the next room, traffic on Colby cruising to a stoplight.

 

Jesus’ appearances after his resurrection are that kind of presence. Not only does he speak peace to his friends, he appears unannounced as if the dead regularly materialize in our living rooms, urging calm and trust.

 

My favorite story is of the disciples coasting close to shore where Jesus has prepared a small fire on the beach. He is grilling a few fish and some bread. (Jn 21) He calls to them to come closer, tells them where they’ll find more fish, and once they’ve beached their boat, to bring more fish to the fire. They don’t even recognize him at first. And then they’re astonished. You can imagine the smoke blown into the hills behind him, the welcome warmth in the chill salty air, and the fatigue—not only from a night of fishing, but another whole net full of fish pulled in as they arrive.

 

So schooled was I to expect Jesus’ return at any hour of any day, one Sunday night before evening church I thought I saw him standing near a staircase in a brilliant white robe, light shining round about him. I thought Jesus had returned! A second later I realized it was just the pastor in his white baptismal robe standing under a 100-watt light bulb.

 

So much for peace and presence. I was taught that the Lord might return just this way, all of a sudden, in the middle of a football game or church picnic, and especially in spectacular sunsets over Hat Island. Anticipation overran my imagination.

 

I grew up with a “Jesus-and-me” complex, a relationship so tight that I always felt him at my side, walking in the fields together. Years later when this assurance had faded, I began to realize the limitations of my naïve familiarity and the millennia that already distanced believers from its magic. At the same time, there was an other-worldliness to the ways I discovered we can still expect the Mysteries of God in our lives. The soft night voices of those we love, the reflection of the back porch light, phrases of music suddenly distinct when the furnace shuts down, the gifts of clean sheets and hopes for tomorrow.

 

It may not be grilled fish on a rocky beach, but the fragrance of coffee and toast in the kitchen. These little clicks and sighs of a sustaining otherness still speak to us of the love that will never let us go.

 

 

Rev. Cathy Fransson blogs at SpiritStones.net, and sees individuals for spiritual direction

Wandering on Purpose

It is true that media, over-programmed days and American work hours are hard to avoid. If we work hard, we also play hard. And judging from my recent retirement I know I am not the best person to suggest our work need not be all-consuming and endless. Before you jump to defend yourselves, hear me out. Twenty-four hours can also include the luxury of trying to wrest meaning within the chaos of busy-ness.

Of course, for me, days go by without meetings, or someone asking me to do something, or my contacting my friends or their me, doing some or no work at all (housework, laundry, gardening, reading, writing, grocery shopping), and napping when napping feels like the best thing at the time. I cherish separation from the world of work and relish the conversations that surprise me on the path.

I retired at age seventy-two. I can hardly remember when I didn’t work except when I hadn’t yet begun piano lessons: so I was 7. I worked in high school and all the way through college and university, and then after hours after I had begun to teach full time in public school. I taught English all day and played the organ for churches on weekends between shifts of taking evening and summer coursework toward advanced degrees. I’m one of the rare (old) persons who paid for their entire university career themselves. In these varied “careers” I learned many roles, some of them unawares, because I was a willing listener, too. As I became more skilled, listening itself became my vocation.

It was listening to my day at a deeper level that invited me to contemplate the larger realities in the many events I was thrown into. Parker Palmer admitted to no scripted contemplative techniques in The Active Life (1990). Instead he wrote, “life compensates…by providing moments of unintentional contemplation….life makes contemplatives of all of us.” He lists four such invitations: feelings of disillusionment, pain, dislocation, and unbidden solitude.

It is easy to turn to busy-ness simply to avoid facing painful feelings. In churches some people identify as do-ers because they’re proud they get so much done for the rest of us. While they’re indispensable, they rarely risk finding time to sit with others to discern a new path, or attend a small sharing group.

In the familiar parable of Mary who sits listening to Jesus teach, Martha has several choices. One is to continue to do what she’s doing and NOT complain, another is to join Mary so that the two sisters can get the meal together afterwards. Instead she triangulates with Jesus, asking him to get Mary to help her. Instead, Jesus rebukes her for her anxiety that prevents her from making a better choice.

If we spend all our time dashing about from home to work to errands and house keeping and back again ourselves, how can we be thoughtful about anything? When can we be quiet and solitary? When do we think? Or do we simply react to circumstances? Parsing over life stories and the dilemmas our lives so easily create can be done while running, or at the gym, or even occasionally, sleeping in. Watching less television. Squeezing one fewer activity into the day. It is not so much the way we choose to contemplate as it is to choose a way when we must.

I continue to find deep conversations, contemplation. A rest from action—a necessary balance to action in fact, lest in any calling I go off in all directions at once. Listening has been part of every position I have held. Many times, even though I didn’t know what I was doing, listening was my chief gift. When I felt called to seminary in my mid fifties, my whole life was walking toward this door. When I opened it I believed I would never need to retire again. The calling (a strong spiritual attraction to prayer, the interpretation of scripture, and listening) felt the most like me, the most appropriate of my gifts.

Now after nearly seventeen years serving the church, I am exploring who I am anew. My denomination calls me a “ wandering minister.” Imagine! Permission just to wander. Wandering I understand. Putting one foot in front of the other, often turning to draw near to a curious thicket of leaves in the eddy of a stream, or a knot of words among individuals, become walking meditations. Both require my attention to everything from dust motes floating in a beam of winter sun, to the half-heard sounds of laughter in the room next door and the inner messages that keep me tethered to the Mystery of living in this age.

So, I wander. Listening for sparks of thought, the messages that recreate me over and over again for the years ahead. Life beckons even as it grows shorter, tantalizing, summoning, gesturing, “Come here! Come and see!” There will always be time for our heart’s desires to spring forth, or burble up, or slowly dawn on us. Even death is a portal to the undiscovered.

           Look, I am about to do something new; even now it is emerging. Don’t you see it?