Tag Archives: community

God-vulnerability-faith

Is the parade passing by?

A friend recently invited me to her community theater’s production of Hello Dolly.

I tend to avoid musicals—too unrealistic for me. All that singing and dancing in the midst of poverty and despair is not how I remember the poor people in the neighborhood where I grew up or in neighborhoods where I have lived since.

When I saw Les Miserables, I remember thinking that most of the people in the theater would probably be afraid to walk through my neighborhood, yet they seemed to enjoy watching this upbeat depiction of oppression and wretchedness.

I worry that portraying poverty and human misery so light-heartedly can assuage the guilt of those who have the power to make societal changes. (Look how happy those poor people are; singing and dancing their way through despair—why change anything?)

God-vulnerability-faith

But, to support my friend, I decided to move against my resistance and go see Hello Dolly.

This particular community theater is no-cut, so the cast was large and included people of all ages.

I quickly got caught up in the music, costumes and pageantry of the play. It was all quite cheerful, and I found myself smiling as I searched the faces of the cast for my friend.

At some point, though, I realized the story was about Dolly’s desire to move past grieving her husband’s death.

In one scene, Dolly says to her deceased husband, Let me go. It’s been long enough.

I, too, have sometimes felt chained to my past and have pleaded to be let go. I want to be set free and move ahead, but sometimes the link to the past is so strong that it seems inescapable.

And, it isn’t always a relationship that holds me back. Sometimes (and perhaps more often) it is an unhealthy or unrealistic belief about myself—my own lack of confidence—that can keep me trapped.God-vulnerability-faith

When Dolly sang, I’ve decided to join the human race again before the parade passes by, I could feel the tears well up in my eyes.

Then Dolly admitted that no one else’s life is mixed up with mine, and I felt found out and exposed.

Through this upbeat, light-hearted musical, this play was speaking deep truths to my soul and inviting me to examine the current state of my life and just how free I am.

Am I open to mixing up my life with others? Or am I keeping to myself?

Am I participating in the human race? Or am I sitting on the sidelines?

Is the parade passing me by?

Grief can take on a life of its own, and great loss can make it difficult to re-enter life fully. But, I know it is possible, and Hello Dolly invited me to let go and live more fully.

Perhaps Les Miserables and other musicals portraying oppression and poverty work the same way on those who have the capacity to effect social change, exposing vulnerabilities and offering insight for transformation. Maybe I judged too harshly.

 

 

 

 

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God-vulnerability-faith

Growing in self-awareness

ring the Day of Reflection I recently facilitated, I introduced the volunteers to an adaptation of the Johari Window—four panes of a window designed to increase self-awareness.God-vulnerability-faithI suggested that their year of service is a wonderful opportunity for them to come to deeper self-knowledge because of the spiritual framework of their community and their service to marginalized people—two invitations to touch their own vulnerabilities.

Preparing for this day, I remembered a break-through in my own self-awareness journey. It happened a few years after college, when I was the caretaker for my university’s guest house.

Fr. Shawn Tracy was the director of Campus Ministry, and he was also a leader in the Handicapped Encounter Christ (HEC) retreat movement.

HEC is a weekend retreat where people who have physical disabilities come together with able-bodied people to pray, ponder and celebrate their lives. HEC creates a prayerful atmosphere for people to reflect on their lives, to learn from one another and to support one another in a lively celebration of community.

The planning meetings were held at the guest house where I lived, and I got to know those involved with HEC—and they got to know me.

By the time I went on my first HEC retreat, the planning team knew me quite well, and Fr. Shawn asked me if I would give one of the weekend’s talks. I agreed.

I don’t remember the topic of my talk or even what I said; what I do remember was Fr. Shawn’s introduction of me to the group.

It was a fall day and dark clouds skidded across the sky. Occasionally, the sun would break though, filling the meeting room with bright light. God-vulnerability-faithIn his introduction of me, Fr. Shawn compared me to the sky that day. He talked about how I could be like the dark clouds gathering and casting a gray pall over everything, and then, suddenly, like the sun, break out in brightness. He talked about the mystery of me, the complexity of me and my passion for life.

Hearing myself described in those terms was like a thunder bolt. How could he see all that in me when I saw none of it?

Was I really that tumultuous? Was I a complicated mystery, a passionate person?

Rather than give my talk, I wanted to go outside, stand under that tempestuous sky and contemplate the words and images he used to describe me.

I knew that I could be moody, and I knew I kept secrets—two things I saw as negative. But Fr. Shawn made them sound appealing. It was as though my moodiness and secretiveness invited him want to get to know me and understand me.  I remember thinking, “He cares.”

After that introduction, I had a difficult time pulling myself together and giving my talk. As soon as I was finished, I went outside and stood under that dark sky and anticipated the breaks of sunlight. This is me, I thought, mysterious, complex and passionate.

 

 

 

 

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

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.

 

grief-community-ritual

Healing and hope

Recently, I went to San Francisco for a workshop called Entering the Healing Ground: The Sacred Work of Grief. The workshop combined several things I love: poetry, writing, dancing and singing.

It also involved something I don’t particularly like: sharing my personal story with a group.

I am okay with talking about my public self, and I have gotten better at sharing some of my personal story, but there is a whole other layer buried deep inside that I rarely touch and even more rarely share. Dipping into my shadow, admitting my weaknesses and revealing my secrets—ugh.grief-community-ritualThis workshop invited me to dig deep and root around in the darkness where I hide my most private self. It invited me to touch my pain and to allow others to see the real me—not just the strong, independent me, but also the vulnerable me who has been hurt and experienced loss.grief-community-ritualThe facilitator talked about self-compassion, which was exactly the message I needed to hear. I know I need to be tender with my brokenness in order to coax my hidden self into the light.­­­­­

The workshop sessions began with drumming, dancing, singing and poetry. The facilitator talked about community, ritual and grief.

And then we wrote.

Each writing exercise began with a prompt. Over the course of three days, these prompts help me go deep within:

  • I remember
  • It is true
  • It hurt me
  • I survived
  • It is not okay with me
  • I miss

After each ten-minute writing session, we read what we had written to two other participants, and then we were given the opportunity to share with the larger group of twenty-four.grief-community-ritualI usually don’t speak in group settings; I listen and learn from others but rarely take the risk of speaking.

However, I am trying to move against my resistance.

At this workshop, I waited until the last opportunity on Saturday to share with the large group. Then I took a deep breath and read what I had just written prompted by I survived.

My writing was about something from my childhood, something I have only shared with a few close friends. I felt exposed and incredibly vulnerable—ugh.

That evening, I spent some time alone. I knitted, prayed and took a walk around the retreat center grounds. That is my pattern—to withdraw and isolate when I feel vulnerable.

There I was at a workshop focused on accepting our brokenness and grief, forming community, trusting—and when I most needed to be with others, I withdrew.

The next morning, I returned to the group a bit more self-aware, open and ready to dig a bit deeper. Writing on Sunday morning to the prompt I miss revealed an unhealed grief, and it was cathartic to release my sadness through tears.

grief-community-ritualThe weekend was a rare opportunity and I felt incredibly blessed to have participated. As we were leaving, another participant said, “A great gift brings great responsibility.”

What will I do with this great gift?

 

 

vulnerability-courage

Moving from safe spaces to brave spaces

Last week, I facilitated a retreat session for eleven young adults who are spending a year of volunteer service in Detroit. They live in community and work at a variety of nonprofit organizations.

Their orientation in August introduced them to the concept of brave spaces as opposed to safe spaces.

I think most people commit to a year of service because they want to be a catalyst for change. They believe they can help people who are marginalized or change systems that have become corrupt.

It can be daunting to speak of our convictions on behalf of people who have no voice, especially when we are speaking to those who claim to have the same vision as we do. This often happens in large institutions where upholding rules and regulations can take precedence over individual needs, but it can happen anywhere.

People tend to habituate to their environment; a new person with a fresh perspective can shake things up—which can be seen as a threat to people who are comfortable in their certainty that they are already doing a good job.

Courage is needed to step into these situations, and these volunteers will be called upon to step out of their comfort zones to speak truth to power.

Unlike the nonprofits which are already established, however, living in community is different because they are creating it as they go. By its very nature, community living can be intense, and being able to state our own needs while being sensitive to the needs of others can be a challenge.

I invited the volunteers to recall one of those challenging moments in community as a starting place for their reflection.

Living in community offers many opportunities for self-reflection. Other community members are wonderful mirrors, offering insights we may not have seen before.

vulnerability-courage

When I lived in l’Arche, I would say that I met myself every day—and it was ugly. What I saw reflected back to me was my worst self. I saw my fears and insecurities, my need to control and my need to be right. I saw how petty and judgmental I could be.

And when I saw these things, I became defensive, because this safe space was all I knew.

But God was inviting me to let go of my false self and discover who I was meant to be.

I needed to step out of my safe space where I had convinced myself that I had control and could manage my life on my own, and into that brave space where I faced my fears and insecurities. It was painful to truly see myself and to accept that reality. I had to be open and vulnerable every day so God could heal me.

I invited these volunteers to look at their interior safe spaces to see where they need courage to step up and speak truth to themselves, because standing in that brave space is perhaps the change that will make the biggest difference in their lives.

vulnerability-courage

Vulnerability Part II

I wondered what it takes to get people to admit that they have been hurt or frightened or felt vulnerable. I wondered what fear prevents us from speaking these deep truths.

 Another blogger reposted these statements from my previous post, and when I read them, I realized they were really rhetorical questions for me. I know what fears keep me from showing my vulnerability—fears of disappointing someone, of looking weak, of seeming needy and incapable of taking care of myself, fears of being rejected.

I have learned, though, that those fears are unfounded and that, in reality, when I show my vulnerability, instead of being rejected, I am much more likely to be embraced, a lesson I learned most clearly after I left l’Arche.

Living in l’Arche was the most difficult thing I had ever done, and when I left, I was broken—emotionally and spiritually. I had failed at living in l’Arche, failed miserably, and was too embarrassed and too proud to return to Pennsylvania, despite friends’ encouragement to come back. My shame was overwhelming and paralyzing; I was in a deep funk.

Then a friend invited me to live in her community and made arrangements for me to live in a house down the street from her. I was welcomed into this home and given a second-floor bedroom in the front of the house. My room had a big window that let in lots of sunlight and I remember being deeply aware of the contrast between the light streaming in from outside and the darkness I felt inside.

My energy level was very low and I did not have much to give to this new community. Mostly, I moped around during the days, and in the evenings I watched the community members enjoying their time together. Because my sense of self-worth is closely connected to what I am contributing—and I was not contributing anything of value—I had no expectations that these people would accept me.

But they did not seem to mind if I needed to sit at the kitchen table and look out the window for hours on end or if I sat in my room feeling the warmth of the sun pouring in. They kept extending invitations to join in their community activities, but without pressure. Eventually, I started to join in, and their welcome and acceptance started to heal me.

My image of my life at that time was that I was drowning when I left l’Arche and my friend had tossed out a life-preserver. For a while I clung to that preserver, and it kept me from going under. In time, I started to float, and then bit by bit, the community members pulled the rope ever so gently and I came closer and closer to them.

I recall that time whenever I am feeling vulnerable and fears start to surface. I remind myself that fear is useless, and what is needed is trust.