God-vulnerability-service

Vulnerability as a gift

Every winter, my church participates in a rotating shelter program for people who are homeless; this year, thirty men are staying with us for a week.

Our parish school closed years ago, but for this one week, classrooms are converted into bedrooms, the gym into a cafeteria, and a large meeting room into a gathering space with televisions, games and snacks. It is an excellent example of repurposing.

I love the outpouring of generosity this program elicits, as parishioners step up to serve as hosts, prepare meals, provide transportation and do laundry. The planning for this week is spearheaded by one couple who start months in advance to make sure they have enough volunteers lined up to meet the needs of our guests this week.God-vulnerability-serviceMost nighttime shelters are set up for sleeping, and the people who are staying usually have to leave for the day. The rotating shelter program operates under the same rules, but holidays are the exception.

On New Year’s Day, I was one of four volunteers who spent the afternoon with our guests.

The day before, I was aware that our guests were arriving that evening. Throughout the day, I held the guests, organizers and volunteers in prayer. I was conscious of how blessed I am to have a home with heat—and to earn enough money to be able to pay my heating bills. All day, I thanked God for my blessings.God-vulnerability-serviceTwice in my life, I have been without a home and had to rely on the generosity of others to have a place to stay. Both times, I was humiliated and felt incredibly vulnerable; and I did not like it.

So being able to offer hospitality to others through this program is especially meaningful to me.

The afternoon started with lunch in the gym/cafeteria. Each table was decorated with a small bouquet of fresh flowers, creating a feeling of spring inside—in sharp contrast to the sub-zero temperatures outside. I sat with two other volunteers, and after we had finished eating, one of the guests came to our table and offered to clear away our dishes.

“Thank you,” we each said as he carried away our trays.

“I like to help,” he commented.

Being vulnerable and needing to rely on the generosity of others can create the sense of being a taker, of having little or nothing to offer. It took me a long time to understand the gift of vulnerability—the gift of seeing myself as being an opportunity for others to be generous.

My time as host on New Year’s Day included refilling water pitchers, replenishing snacks and helping guests with their medications. Last summer, I learned to play Euchre (a card game that is popular in Michigan), and I spent part of the afternoon in a Euchre game.

I can think of no better way to start the New Year than to put myself at the service of others, and also to be an opportunity for someone else to serve.

 

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kindness-compassion-faith

Seeing a kinder world

A recent social media post about a random act of kindness was met with a variety of responses, most of which were some version of “too bad more people don’t do that” or “that used to be the norm.”

I wanted to comment that many people still do that, and that kindness is everywhere—if we are open to see it.kindness-compassion-faithDuring a recent visit with a woman I knew as a teen, she lamented the bad things that were happening in the old neighborhood. “Every day,” she said, “someone gets shot there.”

“Really?” I asked. “Have you been back to the old neighborhood?”

“Of course not,” she said, seeming shocked that I would even suggest it. “I watch the news.”

Aha.

Many people seem to believe that the news is a comprehensive and honest portrayal of daily life. They have forgotten the maxim coined by news outlets: If it bleeds it leads.

I acknowledge that the proliferation of guns has made our country a more dangerous place to live, but crime is not new. The overexposure to violence on the twenty-four hour news cycle is what is new, and it creates the impression that only bad things are happening in our world. The truth is that bad things have always happened—alongside good things.

But if we are convinced that only bad things are happening, we will miss the good things that are happening all around us.kindness-compassion-faithRandom acts of kindness are not sensational so they don’t get much press, but I see acts of kindness every day. Mostly, they are small things that do not rise to the level of television newsworthiness. They do, though, contribute to the creation of a caring community.kindness-compassion-faithAt work the other day, someone suggested taking up a collection for a man who has been extra helpful this year (his random acts of kindness would fill a whole book), and someone else asked what we can do for a volunteer who is having surgery. A representative from a local company called to say they had collected gifts cards for us. Later, two people suggested sending cards to people in particularly difficult situations.

Kindness abounds, but we can easily miss it if fear colors our outlook and keeps us locked in our homes. We cannot see goodness when we are only looking for evil.kindness-compassion-faithBeing more aware of kindness helps to counteract the negativity of the news.

Performing random acts of kindness also helps because it predisposes us to seeing the good by being the good.

My New Year’s resolution:

  • To perform at least one random act of kindness every day;
  • To acknowledge the kindnesses I witness by saying, “You are so kind” or “that was so kind;” and
  • To accept acts of kindness with heartfelt gratitude.

kindness-compassion-faithI invite you to join me in focusing on acts of kindness—performing them, acknowledging them and accepting them. Perhaps then social media will explode with stories of kindness, and we will see kindness as the norm. kindness-compassion-faith

advent-God-vulnerability

Open to the unexpected

advent-God-vulnerability

My father could be quite the bigot. He thought that anyone who was not Polish was somehow less than. My grandparents all came from Poland, and in my dad’s eyes, Poles were a superior race. He could go on and on about the inferiority of other races—Italians, Irish, etc.

But his two closest friends were Irish and Italian. How did he reconcile that?

When he was disparaging people from Ireland and Italy and I would ask about his friends, he would say, “That’s different.”

He felt similarly about people of African descent. But, when he was much friendlier with our new African-American neighbor than he had ever been with our old Polish neighbor, I asked how that made sense to him.

“That’s different,” he said.

My father could differentiate good people from bad—despite race or ethnic heritage. Our old neighbor, the Polish guy, was not a very nice man. He was the kind of person who yelled at kids playing in the field next to his house, the kind of man our mother told us to avoid.

Our new neighbor, the African-American guy, was the opposite.

Skin color and ethnic heritage had nothing to do with it. The same was true for my dad’s close friends. Because he saw them as individuals, their ancestry did not get in the way of their friendships.

Jesus healing the ten lepers and the one foreigner who came back to give thanks reminds me of my dad’s biases.

I can imagine this scenario today with a Catholic Priest, Protestant Minister, Rabbi, Imam or any other religious leader, healing ten people—nine of whom are from their religious tradition and one is a foreigner—an outsider, someone who is seen as other than, perhaps from some demonized group. And only that foreigner, that one who is thought of as less than, comes back to say thanks.

We can get caught up in believing we know how people will act and react based on some preconceived notions. We can rationalize our prejudices and excuse ourselves when we condemn whole groups of people.

During Advent, we reflect on Mary, Joseph and John the Baptist—Biblical characters who could easily be looked down upon and judged as less than because of their life circumstances or ethnic background.

Mary was an unwed, pregnant teen. John the Baptist lived in the desert and proclaimed a radical message. Mary and Joseph were relegated to sleeping among the animals.

Yet, we celebrate John the Baptist for speaking truth to power. But today, people who do the same are likely to be castigated. Pregnant teens, homeless people and refugees are more often thought of as problems to be solved than people we can learn from. We can use the word foreigner as an slur.

Jesus challenges our preconceived notions and invites us to be open to and surprised by the unexpected.

And as my dad’s experiences taught me, moving past biases opens the door to unexpected relationships that make life richer. advent-God-vulnerability

God-hope-cancer

Small miracles

I am a fan of the less is more philosophy.

I prefer chamber music to the full symphony, off-Broadway to Broadway and dinner with friends to a huge party.

Oh, I was wowed by Cats when I saw it on Broadway and Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera, but I am much more inclined not to seek out the spectacular. Opulence and pageantry just don’t interest me that much. I generally prefer less to more and simpler to more complicated.

My preference for smaller also extends to miracles.I work in a cancer support center where I regularly talk with people who are hoping and praying for BIG miracles—say, a miraculous cure of stage four metastatic cancer.

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe in miracles.God-hope-cancerYears ago, at a healing service, the healer invited everyone to come up—even if we personally did not need healing. “Think of someone you know who needs healing,” he suggested. As I stood in the line inching toward this man who would lay his healing hands on my head, a woman I hadn’t seen for a few years popped into my mind. As I approached the healer, I pictured her and remembered times I had spent with her.

A few months later, this woman’s mother told me her daughter had been hospitalized and almost died a few months earlier. I remembered the healing service I had attended and prodded her for dates. You guessed it: her daughter started to get better at exactly the time I was at the healing service.

So, yes, I do believe in BIG miracles.

But I wonder if focusing too much on big miracles—perhaps to the exclusion of considering the possibility that the big miracle may not happen—might mean missing many of the little miracles that are happening all around us every day.God-hope-cancerRecently, I have been thinking about a family that came to our cancer support center last spring. The mother had lung cancer, and she and her two adult children were grappling with end-of-life questions. The three came together to talk. Then, over the next few months, they came separately, each needing to have someone to listen to their concerns, fears and hopes.

Shortly before the mother died, she came in with her daughter. The mother talked about wrapping her head around the fact that she was going to die soon and wondering how best to live until she died. The daughter talked about knowing that her mother was going to lose her life and that she was going to lose her mother. That level of awareness was amazing and their courage in asking difficult questions inspired me.

It may be a small thing—this one family dealing with sickness, death and grief—but their acknowledgement of their situation and the way they dealt with their mother’s illness and death was extraordinary.

Accepting the reality of their situation seemed to free them to live life fully—and that seems like a miracle to me.God-hope-cancer

 

 

advent-God-mindfulness

Getting my attention

When my friend Jim had brain cancer, many people sent him cards and notes. I thought I had gone through all of them, and then I found one more box. In it, I found this:

The Brick

 A young and successful executive was traveling down a neighborhood street, going a bit too fast in his new Jaguar. He was watching for kids darting out from between parked cars and slowed down when he thought he saw something.

As his car passed, no children appeared. Instead, a brick smashed into the Jag’s side door! He slammed on the brakes and backed the Jag back to the spot where the brick had been thrown.

The angry driver then jumped out of the car, grabbed the nearest kid and pushed him up against a parked car shouting, “What was that all about and who are you? Just what the heck are you doing? That’s a new car and that brick you threw is going to cost a lot of money. Why did you do it?”

The young boy was apologetic. “Please, mister, please. I’m sorry but I did not know what else to do,” he pleaded. “I threw the brick because no one else would stop.”

With tears dripping down his face and off his chin, the youth pointed to a spot just around a parked car. “It’s my brother,” he said. “He rolled off the curb and fell out of his wheelchair and I can’t lift him up.”

Now sobbing, the boy asked the stunned executive, “Would you please help me get him back into the wheelchair? He’s hurt and he’s too heavy for me.”

Moved beyond words, the driver tried to swallow the rapidly swelling lump in his throat. He hurriedly lifted the handicapped boy back into the wheelchair, then took out a linen handkerchief and dabbed at the fresh scrapes and cuts.  A quick look told him everything was going to be okay.

“Thank you, and may God bless you,” the grateful child told the stranger.

Too shocked for words, the man simply watched the boy push the wheelchair down the sidewalk toward their home.

It was a long, slow walk back to the Jaguar. The damage was very noticeable, but the driver never bothered to repair the dented side door. He kept the dent there to remind him of this message: “Don’t go through life so fast that someone has to throw a brick at you to get your attention!” God whispers in our souls and speaks to our hearts. Sometimes when we don’t have time to listen, He has to throw a brick at us. It’s our choice to listen or not.

A sticky note was attached: “I know you don’t need this, but someone you know might.”

In the ways that brain cancer got our attention, slowed us down and shifted our focus, I think it was a brick.

This Advent, I am praying to be aware of the ways God is trying to get my attention.

advent-God-mindfulness

 

 

 

vulnerability-trust-spirituality

Falling apart

I think most of us have had something painful or difficult in our lives, experiences we might rather move away from (quickly) rather than examine for life lessons. My living in l’Arche was like that for me.

l’Arche is a Christian community where people with and without developmental disabilities live together and create community. Sounds idyllic, right? For some people, it is. But I was not one of those people. For me, living in l’Arche was very painful.

My plan had been to live in l’Arche for the rest of my life. I had quit my job, given away my furniture, packed the rest of my belongings into my car and headed to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. I quickly realized, though, that my plan was not going to work out, and I left the community before my first year was up.

I was devastated—and humiliated and angry. This was the most difficult and painful situation I had gone through—and I had gone through some pretty painful things.

I think what made this more difficult was that I had brought it on myself. No one had coerced me or forced me. I had decided to go to l’Arche. It was a decision I had freely made with prayer and planning—and then it did not work out.

Shortly after leaving l’Arche, I sought spiritual direction to help me process my sorrow and grief.

All of my hurt, disappointment and frustration poured out in that session. Tears of sadness mixed with tears of anger. I was confused and felt like I had just been through an extreme spiritual battle—a battle I had lost.

Did I give up too quickly? Had I not been persistent enough? Doubt wracked me.

“I think I am falling apart,” I said to the spiritual director.

“I think you are falling together,” she replied.

Her words stopped me cold.

Had I been looking at this apparent failure from the wrong angle? Was the whole point of my moving to l’Arche to break me down, to uncover what I had so carefully kept hidden? Was I meant to fall apart so that God could put me back together in a different way? Had this experience revealed deeper truths to me that I might not have learned any other way?

Laying out the pieces of my shattered dreams and allowing someone else to look at them was a turning point. Where I had been stuck trying to piece things together in one way, she was able to offer a different view. It was like a jigsaw puzzle—one where I could not see the whole picture.

Great mysteries are sometimes hidden in unexpected places.

Advent is a wonderful time to reflect on the hidden mysteries of our lives and to be open to growing in trust that God sees the whole picture of our lives.

More often that we might think, God is helping us to fall together, even when it might feel like we are falling apart.

 

justice-vulnerability-rape

Please don’t judge me

The fact that women are vulnerable is not new to me.

My dad was a cop, and when I started driving, he gave me the usual safe-driving talk. He also told me never to stop for a cop at night but to slow down, put on my blinker and drive to a gas station or other public place. He knew what some cops did to single women drivers in the dark of night.

I was forewarned that some men abused power, and I needed to be vigilant.justice-vulnerability-rapeMy supervisor at a temp job right out of college was a man in his late fifties. He often made suggestive comments to me, which was creepy, and after multiple pleas for him to stop, I went to his supervisor. “He is harmless; just ignore him,” was his advice.

I did not stay long in that job because I did not feel safe; I had no power or protection.justice-vulnerability-rapeEvery day now it seems that another powerful man is being called out for his dark deeds.

Please don’t judge me, but I am taking a fair amount of pleasure in watching these men being publicly outed—and imagining other men worrying if they will be next. Men who believed their power and/or wealth could protect them are now having to face the fact that they are as vulnerable as the women they abused.

It feels like justice has finally found its way to our world, and I am delighted to welcome her.

I was raped by a man who had power. His advice? “Don’t bother to tell anyone because no one will believe you.” I knew he was right and so I kept quiet. Why subject myself to a process that was not going to bring me justice.

In the intervening years, I have wondered if he has raped again, and how many times. When there are no consequences for bad behavior, people tend to continue behaving badly.

The guy who raped me apologized a few weeks later (we worked together). I am pretty sure that the hatred in my eyes told him he was not forgiven. As if a few words of contrition could erase the damage he did to me—the damage it took years to repair.

I remember thinking this must be his M.O.—rape and then apologize. As if that let him off the hook.

Now, all these years later, I wonder if he is wondering if I and the others he raped will call for accountability. Is he worried his life will be shattered by his dark deeds? Just imagining him squirm brings me pleasure.

The sweetness of it—that taste of justice.

Are we finally developing into a country where women matter? Will women no longer feel that we have to ignore or “get over” situations that feel unsafe? Do we now have credibility? Is the atmosphere changing so much that no abuser is beyond accountability?

This a form of climate change I can live with!