Category Archives: Life Lessons

What I have been learning

Surrender

The post-resurrection stories in Mark 15:9-15 depict Jesus’ disciples as doubters, as people resistant to change.

After hearing the accounts of how Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene and two others, Jesus’ companions did not believe. Not until Jesus appeared to them did they believe. Jesus rebuked them for “their unbelief and hardness of heart.”

Why do we resist? Why do we stick with our own certainties and refuse to see things in a different way? Why do we close ourselves to new ideas?

Jesus had predicted that he would die and rise, so it wasn’t as if this was completely new information for the disciples. But still, they dug in their heels and refused to be moved.

My word for Holy Week was surrender. During prayer times and church services, that one word kept coming back to me: surrender.

What, I wondered, is going on in my life right now that I am resisting? What certainty am I clinging to irrationally?

We, like the disciples, can find change difficult. Change is a kind of betrayal—it is as if the truth we knew and believed wasn’t really the truth. Changes shifts the ground upon which we have been standing—like an earthquake—and when the shifting stops, nothing looks the same.

How do we make sense of it?

In the disciples’ situation, Jesus appeared to them to dismiss their doubts. That is unlikely to happen to us in such a dramatic fashion. So how does it happen?

I recently attended a talk on mindfulness and the speaker talked about trees and how they change four times a year. Trees appear dead in winter, but then bud and leaf, before losing their leaves and appearing dead again. Every year, the same cycle of change. But, she noted, the tree does not resist. Rather, it simply changes.

God-mindfulness-surrender

Be the tree, I said to myself. Embrace change. Lean into it. Welcome it. That is what it means to surrender. Not insisting on my way or my beliefs but living in the kind of openness that invites change, living in the reality of every moment instead of getting stuck in the past or worrying about the future.

If I had been one of Jesus’ companions in Mark’s Gospel, how would I have reacted to Mary Magdalene or the two people who met Jesus on the road? Would I have been quick to believe? Or would I have been incredulous and cynical? Would I have needed to see for myself? Would Jesus chide me for my lack of faith and hardness of heart?

I fear the latter. But I want the former. I want to be like a tree that moves smoothly through the changes in life, that welcomes and celebrates every season and sees the beauty of each. I want to let go of my certainties and be quick to believe.

Surrender is a discipline to be practiced—letting go of the past and living in the present with a heart open to change.

Advertisements

New life

Holy Saturday is a day of quiet anticipation, a kind of limbo, when we are suspended between death and life.

It is a day that invites me to remember times when I have lived in that liminal space between death and life. Those are usually times when I have failed at something and have taken a step back to regroup—or have been so devastated by disappointment that I am incapable of moving forward and need to pause to pull myself together.

God-vulnerability-faith

The Holy Saturday experience is a model for living in trust, believing that all those pauses in my life—those times of disappointment and loss—are really stepping stones to something new and different.

Richard Rohr, in Everything Belongs, uses the image of Jonah inside the whale to describe that pause.

We must go inside the belly of the whale for a while. Then and only then will we be spit upon a new shore and understand our call.

Rohr’s words remind me to ponder those times of transition, when I was suspended between death and new life, and how they turned out to be springboards for a deeper understanding of my call.

The story of Jonah has always been a favorite because I relate to his attempts to escape his call, thinking he could outrun God. I, too, tried to outrun God. But even as a young woman, I imagined Jonah shaking his head at me and saying, “Learn from me. You can’t outrun God.”  

Surrender is the word I associate with Jonah, but I was taught never give up. Like Jonah, giving in to God was a hard lesson for me to learn.

Over the years, though, I have had quite a few experiences of being inside the belly of the whale, suspended between what was and what will be— opportunities to throw my hands up in surrender and admit that God holds all the cards, to accept life as it is instead of how I wanted it to be.

Actually, I am in one of those times right now. The nonprofit where I work recently merged with a larger organization and we are assuming a new name and new identity. What has been will be no more—and what will be has yet to be revealed.

We are in transition.

Letting go of what was can be a challenge, especially for those who have a long history with our organization and feel invested in what we have built. Disappointment at losing what was and fear of the unknown future can create anxiety.

Accepting change and adjusting our expectations is a process that takes time.

God-vulnerability-faith

Holy Saturday extends the invitation to enter into that process of transformation from death to new life—looking back with gratitude for what has been, letting go of expectations connected with the past, accepting what is and looking forward to what will be.

I pray for the grace to let go of the past so that I can welcome new life.

God-vulnerability-faith

Who is driving?

What more must I do? the rich young man asked Jesus. (Mark 10:17) That question has stayed with me since the beginning of Lent, popping up at random times throughout the day and often while I am praying.

The answer for the young man was to sell everything he had and give his money to the poor.

It seems that his possessions were a burden or a barrier which prevented him from being spiritually free. I am not rich, so I have been considering what other burdens or barriers prevent me from being spiritually free.

As I have been pondering the question these past few weeks, I have had greater clarity around the fact that I tend to focus on the doing part of the question. Do more, my inner critic prompts me. But God has often invited me to focus on being rather than doing, so maybe God is asking me to do less instead of doing more.

Perhaps I am being asked to silence my inner critic and step away from my need to achieve.

God-vulnerability-faith

Then I started reading Luke 11:14-23, Jesus was driving…. I did not get any further into the reading because an image of Jesus driving a car came to me. Funny—and not how I usually imagine Jesus. But, I let the picture emerge.

Jesus driving; I am a passenger.

What kind of passenger would I be? Would I be giving Jesus directions? Suggesting alternative routes? Knowing a faster way?

Could I trust Jesus to drive? Let him choose the route and the destination? Could I just enjoy the ride?

God-vulnerability-faith

A few days ago, something prompted the memory of my decision to move to l’Arche. When I made the decision, I didn’t think of l’Arche as a one-year volunteer stint, but as a way of life. It was the radical commitment I was seeking, the community I could see myself in forever. I had incredible clarity about being called to live in l’Arche for the rest of my life.

But that was not what happened. l’Arche turned out not to be the perfect fit for me—or me for l’Arche. My need to be in control and to be doing made me ill-suited.

It turned out that working in non-profit organizations was a better fit for my personality, giving me the kind of time and space I needed to grow in self-awareness. In the nonprofit world, being a doer is highly valued. Plus, my need to control and deep-seated stubbornness pushed me to accomplish things people said could not be done.

People praised me for what I achieve, and I loved hearing their praise.

A radio commercial for a local spa asks what would change if I really took care of myself (by spending an indulgent day there.)

I wonder what would change if I let Jesus drive the car, if I silenced my inner critic and focused more on being than doing. Perhaps I would be able to relax and enjoy the ride.

God-vulnerability-faith
God-wisdom-courage

Becoming courageous

“I want to be you,” a volunteer at my work recently said to me.

“Me?” I asked incredulously.

I admire your courage and kindness,” she said.

Over the years, I have told other women that I want to be them. These are women who embody the virtues I aspire to—patience, compassion, kindness, wisdom and self-acceptance. I want to embody those same virtues.

So when I heard these words being said to me, I was surprised.

I suppose most of us carry around images of ourselves that focus on our insecurities, where we see ourselves falling short and not living up to our own standards, let alone expectations others might have. I know I do.God-wisdom-courageI used to move a lot and hanging curtains was one of the first things I did to help me feel settled into my new place. I remember after one move, a woman at work asked how I was settling in and I told her I had my curtains up so I was in good shape. “Who hung them for you?” she asked, knowing that I was single. “I did them myself,” I replied with both a tinge of incredulity that she asked the question and also a sense of pride. She considered hanging curtains rods a challenge.

But, I have been in my current house for five years and only last week put up the last of my window treatments. I was nervous about drilling into the plaster wall. Drilling into wooden window frames is easy, but plaster?

I googled installing curtain rods in plaster walls and then I called my brother for further assurance. He concurred with the You Tube video.

So I charged my drill, mustered my courage, measured and began. I even used the level to make sure the rod was straight.

The finished product pleased me.God-wisdom-courageWhy had I been so resistant? So fearful?Even though others may see me as courageous, I know my inner fears. I know how I can be paralyzed by the smallest thing (like putting up curtain rods).

When this paralysis strikes, I wonder if it is a matter of accepting my limitations or being challenged to overcome a fear.In my early thirties, my therapist encouraged me to do things scared.

Act as if… my therapist advised me. We had been talking about my fears, and there were many. He suggested I act as if I had no fears, with the idea that acting as if would lead to a change in behavior, that my fears would disappear.

I was doubtful, but it actually worked, and each time I did something that frightened (or even terrified) me, I gain confidence.

From another therapist, I learned is to ask, What is the worst that can happen? In most circumstances, the worst is not so bad. (In the case of curtain rods, it would mean some repair work before reinstalling.)

Doing things scared and weighing possible outcomes have helped me become less fearful and more courageous.God-wisdom-courage

 

caregiving-vulnerability-forgiveness

Lessons in letting go

“By the time your thirty, you’re going to have arthritis in your knees,” my dad used to tell me when I went out in winter wearing what he considered to be a too-short skirt. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” would be my response. I wore short skirts because they were in style, and thirty seemed so far away.

“Too cool to be cold,” was how I came to think of teenagers when I lived in Winnipeg and saw teens standing at the bus stop in winter with unzipped jackets, no scarves, hats or gloves. By then, I was in my thirties, and I wore a parka, hat, mittens and leg warmers. Then my dad said I looked like Nanuk of the North.

But I had moved beyond caring about style and cared more about warmth.

I was reminded of that shift in my thinking when I took my ninety-two-year-old mother to church last week. It was twenty degrees outside, and she wore a lightweight jacket. “You need a winter coat,” I said. “This is a winter coat,” she countered. “It has a flannel lining,” she said through chattering teeth.

At church, I pointed out the way people around us were dressed—most of them wearing down-filled parkas. She harrumphed.

When I picked my mother up on Thanksgiving, I got her winter coat out of the closet and helped her into it. No discussion.

I have come to realize my mother’s body thermostat is wonky, and maybe this is something that is true for young people and old people. In the summer, my mother sits in stifling heat and does not seem to notice. “I understand why people die from heat stroke,” I said to her one summer day when her house felt suffocating to me. She was not bothered in the least.caregiving-vulnerability-forgivenessWhen I was taking care of my friend Jim when he had brain cancer, I learned a lot about letting go. It seemed that every day, I was faced with some situation that reminded me that I had no control and needed to let go of my expectations or agenda.

In the midst of caregiving, when I was exhausted, letting go seemed easier. I did not have the energy to fight, so I gave in. “God has him,” I would remind myself when he did reckless things like come downstairs while I was out or try to walk without aid of his walker.

“God has her,” I now say about my mother when she goes to the basement or second floor of her house for no good reason. My mother is very unsteady on her feet but still drives (“I don’t fall when I am sitting down,” she explains). She is incorrigible.

Picking your battles, I think parents call it when trying to teach their children things that are in their children’s best interest.

Short skirts or winter coats—I have a much better understanding of my dad’s concern; I would like to apologize for being so headstrong.caregiving-vulnerability-forgiveness

 

 

 

God-Advent-trust

Reframing

Lately, I have been aware of the invitation to reframe situations and issues.

At the day of reflection I facilitated last month, one of the volunteers shared that she felt unprepared for the ministry she had recently begun. She lacked experience and feared she would not meet the expectations of her ministry site. She said she was “not good at” doing what she was being asked to do.

I suggested that she reframe the issue and instead of saying, “I don’t know how to” or “I am not good at…,” she might say, “I am learning to…” or “I don’t have much experience with this but I am willing to try.”

Reframing the issue and seeing herself as a learner changes her expectations of herself and also sheds light on assumptions she has made about others’ expectations of her.

I became aware of my need for some reframing when I stopped to pick up a package at a local store. I was impatient while I waited for my package, grousing as if I had been stuck in some limbo for forty days—or even forty minutes, when it was actually closer to four minutes.

My impatience stemmed from a lack of understanding the process, and that made me feel vulnerable. Rather than accept and embrace my vulnerability, I became defensive.

Step back, Madeline, I thought. Become a learner.

Being a learner presumes that I would not know how the process works—I am, after all, still learning. Being a learner shifts the focus from assuming I should know how things will go to assuming I don’t know and am willing to learn. It enables me to be curious and to wonder, and to ask questions of those who do know, allowing them to share their knowledge.

Not all situations that would benefit from reframing are that obvious or easy to discern another approach.

I am stuck in a negative loop concerning upcoming travel and am having difficulty letting go of my expectations based on past experiences of flights being cancelled and luggage being lost. The anxiety is not helping, but how to reframe the situation is unclear.God-Advent-trustAs we begin Advent, I feel invited to reframe my expectations around the ways God enters my life. I want to look from a different perspective and see with new eyes. I want to approach this season with a sense of curiosity and wonder and be surprised at the gifts God will bring me.

I want to make this Advent a time of holy anticipation and joyful waiting and be open to every experience of God breaking into my world.

The young volunteer last month taught me to be on the lookout for situations where I am limiting God’s intervention by my own closed mindedness, my fears and expectations. I hope that by stepping back to get a different perspective, I will be able to see the potential in every person and situation.

I pray for the grace to experience what is possible.

God-Advent-trust

gratitude-mindfulness-kindness

Thankful every day

A big part of living in gratitude is noticing little events throughout the day that have a positive impact on us—and taking the time to register these small events as the gifts they are.gratitude-mindfulness-kindnessFor example, the other day, I received a check from a doctor I had seen two years ago. The accompanying letter said an audit showed they owed me a refund. Being somewhat skeptical, I called the billing department (I didn’t want to cash the check and then find I had actually enrolled in a Vitamin of the Month club). The billing department confirmed this check was legitimate.

“Merry Christmas to me,” I said to the billing department staff person. Yes, this was a gift, pure gift, and I was grateful. It was only $20, but it was an unexpected $20, something I didn’t have the day before.

As I drove to work soon after that call, I recalled the check, my response to the billing department staff person and my happiness at having received this unexpected gift. I added “unexpected gifts” to my litany of gratitude for the day, and reminded myself to be more mindful of other unexpected gifts throughout the day.

I didn’t have to wait long.

When I got to my office, I found a note taped to the door with a picture attached—just someone thoughtfully stopping by to say hi and to leave a little gift.

I allowed myself to feel the delight that welled up inside me, and the gratitude for this person’s thoughtfulness. Again, a small thing, but one that touched me because it was unexpected and because it was a random act of generosity.

Later that day, a volunteer came into my office to work with me on a project. This one-hour meeting would lead to her spending many more hours of follow-up work at home, all of which will strengthen our nonprofit organization. She embraces her volunteer work enthusiastically, happy to be able to use her skills to build up our nonprofit, and her commitment to our organization makes a big difference. I was grateful, thanked her, and added her to my litany of gratitude.

And so the day went. Seemingly little things adding up to make a big difference.

It can be easy to see what goes wrong in a day—the rude driver or the phone call that does not end in my favor or the volunteer who doesn’t show up for a scheduled meeting. But, shifting the focus to what goes right and giving more energy to noticing the good things creates fertile ground for gratitude to grow.

It can be a subtle shift, but one that results in significant changes because we are more likely to see what we look for. If we only focus on what is going wrong, we cannot see what is going right.

Focusing on what is going right sets us on the path to seeing and receiving more good things—more things for which to be grateful.gratitude-mindfulness-kindness