Tag Archives: expectations

“…where there is sadness, joy.”

Before my cousin was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer ten years ago, I did not think much about cancer. Since her diagnosis, though, I have thought about it a lot. In the five years following her death, five other important people in my life died from cancer. How could I not think about it? Cancer invaded my life.

When my cousin was diagnosed, I wondered what I would do if it was me. Would I react as my cousin had?

After reflecting on that question for a while, I realized I could not possibly know what I would do. There is just no way to predict how one will react to a cancer diagnosis because so many factors come into play at the time of diagnosis.

Having worked at a cancer support center for the past four years, I understand that truth even more deeply.

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While praying this morning for someone who is newly diagnosed with stage four metastatic cancer, I realized I no longer think about what I might do if it was me. Instead, I try just to be present, to listen and to accept the decisions the person who has cancer is making.

This particular person was on my mind as I prayed St. Francis’ prayer his morning, and the words that jumped out at me were, “where there is sadness, joy.”

How can I speak joy into the sadness of this person’s life? I hear the anxiety in his wife’s voice and think of the pain he is experiencing; I feel their sadness.

And yet, as I talk with this couple, I notice little sparks of light at the edges of the darkness. A joke about how he is the cook in their relationship so being in the hospital is rescuing them from her cooking. Or how lucky they are to live near a national cancer institute so he can be assured of the most up-to-date treatment. Gratitude and joy creep in, even in the darkest moments

St Ignatius prayed, “Take, Lord, receive, all my liberty…give me only your love and your grace; that is enough for me.”

It is a prayer of surrender, of letting go.

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A cancer diagnosis can be one of those moments in life when leaning into God may be the only thing we can do. Even if we put our bodies at the mercy of medical professionals, our spirits belong to God.

Both St. Francis and St. Ignatius—and others who have come to this place of understanding their complete dependence on God—know that God is truly all we need. Letting go of our desire for control and our illusions that we actually have control is the path to peace.

Cancer comes out of the blue. It can be life-changing and even life-destroying. Like all challenges in life, though, it can be the gift that leads us to true peace, freedom and even joy.

No matter the darkness that might invade my life, I hope I react with trust and hope.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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Living in God’s grace

God-vulnerability-expectationsI think most of can relate to St. Paul’s “thorn” and have possibly even used the phrase “a thorn in my side” when referring to some troublesome person or situation.

It can be a family member, co-worker or friend who can get under my skin. Everyday situations and encounters—even a two-minute wait in line at the bank or grocery store—can feel like I am being pricked by a thorn.

When I am impatient, when I am reacting rather than acting or when I am rolling my eyes, I know I am having a thorn moment, that someone has done something that pushes my buttons.

What I find most helpful in those moments is to step back, take a few deep breaths and try to get some perspective.

Why is this particular person bugging me? What about a particular situation frustrates or upsets me? What is happening in my life that is unsettling me?God-vulnerability-expectationsI gained a deeper understanding of St. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians when I lived in l’Arche, where I lived very closely with people not of my choosing—people who came from different cultures and had different values. Clashes were bound to happen.

Facing disappointment after disappointment was disheartening, and it took me some time to see what was really happening—that that I was facing my unmet expectations. You are not in control, God seemed to be reminding me. Your way is not the only way. Those were tough truths to see and accept.

I learned many things in l’Arche, including the theory that when someone is pushing my buttons it is because they are revealing some part of me that I don’t particularly like and don’t want to see. Every time I was annoyed, I needed to stop looking at the other person and start examining myself.

The thorns in my life can reveal deeper truths about me, if I can be open and willing to face those truths.

The person I think is being stingy invites me to look at my own stinginess or lack of generosity. The one I see as needy invites me to look at my own insecurities.

The person who zips ahead of me in a line of cars reminds me that I, too, sometimes feel self-important. The person who exaggerates or even outright lies reminds me that I, too, sometimes may want to seem more accomplished than I am. The person who insists that her way is the right or only way to do something reminds me that I, too, like to have my way.

It can be easier to insist the problem is the situation or other person, but, I think, not very helpful.

With God’s grace—and lots of thorny experiences—I have come to see that every button-pushing experience, every thorn in my side, is really an invitation to growth in self-awareness and self-knowledge.

Accepting my weaknesses enables me to live in grace and to allow God to be in charge of my life.

 

 

 

 

 

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Formed by God

This word came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Rise up, be off to the potter’s house…I went down to the potter’s house and there he was, working at the wheel. Whenever the object of clay which he was making turned out badly in his hand, he tried again, making of the clay another object of whatever sort he pleased. Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do to you…as this potter has done?…Indeed, like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand…” Jeremiah 18:1-6

I love pottery and started buying it when I was twenty. My collection grew quite large until a friend who was helping me pack for one of my many moves said, “New rule: no more pottery.”God-vulnerability-prayerThe uniqueness of each piece of hand-thrown pottery fascinates me.

It is understandable then that the image of the potter at his wheel in Jeremiah has always caught my attention. How I would love for God to tell me to go to a potter’s house!

I can easily imagine a lump of clay being shaped and reshaped. I imagine that some of the form comes from the potter and some of the form from the clay. It is a partnership—the potter’s concept and the clay’s malleability.

That, perhaps, is where using the potter and clay to analogize my relationship with God hits a snag. Am I as pliable as clay? Am I completely open to being shaped and reshaped? Unfortunately, I think not.

As I read these words of Scripture the other day, I tried to imagine how God would reshape me at this point in my life. What would I look like if I dropped all of my defenses and allowed myself to fall into a vulnerable heap? How would God remake me?

I have some sense of that level of vulnerability and defenselessness from times in my life when my hopes and expectations were not met (crushed, really), and I had to accept that I was not in charge. Those times of raising my arms in surrender, of giving myself completely to God, were freeing and also terrifying. Accepting my vulnerability and admitting I have no control is so very difficult for me.God-vulnerability-prayerAnd yet, I do know that God holds all the cards.

As I read these words from Jeremiah, I remembered my spiritual director’s suggestion that I start with a clean sheet and imagine my life. I actually did the exercise, which in itself is a sign of how God has reshaped me—all of my past spiritual directors can attest to my resistance to these types of suggestions. And, like other times when I have moved against my resistance, this exercise was very insightful.

Perhaps I need to start each day visualizing myself as an unshapen lump of clay, and ask God to shape me into a vessel that will be most useful to carry out God’s will on this day and.in this place.God-vulnerability-prayer

 

 

 

 

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Moving on

Celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a regular part of my spiritual life. Reviewing my thoughts, words and actions, looking at where I need to make changes and admitting my shortcomings to another human being helps me live more intentionally.

One transgression I don’t ever remember confessing is envy—because I tend to be quite content with my life.

Recently, though, I heard myself saying words I regretted the moment they out of my mouth. I knew I needed to apologize, but before I did, I wanted to understand what had prompted this comment.

I prayed for insight.

Pondering the situation, I realized I envied the woman I had spoken to; I was envious of a part of her life that reminded me of what I used to have but have lost.

Five years ago, I moved “home” after having lived away for almost forty years. That move changed my proximity to some friends and the things we used to do together. I hadn’t realized how much I missed that part of my old life until I heard this woman talking about a trip she had recently taken with her friends.

I was happy for her and the fun she had, but a week later—and not even thinking or talking about her trip—I said something totally irrelevant and rude. I was speaking out of the past, a past I have lost and apparently still mourn.vulnerability-grief-hopeUnderstanding doesn’t change or fix what is wrong, but it helps me to apologize sincerely and to figure out what adjustments I need to make to act differently in the future.

In this situation, my words led me to reflect on developing more friends in my new home—or perhaps initiating more with my family and the friends I do have.

When I moved home, I decided that I would not expect people to accommodate me—to make space for me in their lives—because I did not want to have unrealistic expectations. I knew that their lives had gone on without me while I chose to live away.

Developing realistic expectations can be tricky because expectations that are too high can lead to disappointment and expectations that are too low can lead to—well, I think in this situation, loneliness.

I realized that a fear of disappointment or rejection led me to develop extremely low expectations.

As I look back on the five years since my move, I can see that some of my attempts at initiating have been rejected and I have been disappointed on occasion. But more often, family and friends have embraced me and responded positively to my suggested activities.

Building a new life has been a challenge, and even though I am deeply grateful to be living near my family, my rude comment tells me that I still have a ways to go before I am totally content with my new life. Admitting that is the first step toward changing it. Letting go of what was also helps.vulnerability-grief-hope

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Hope transformed

Spirituality was the topic of one of the presentations at the recent cancer caregivers workshop I attended. About two-thirds of the way through her talk, the speaker told the story of a family member who had been in treatment for cancer. When the doctor told them there were no more treatment options, the presenter said, “We gave up hope.”

Gave up hope? How could they give up hope? Without hope, we despair.hope-cancer-GodHer words were so jarring to me that I had difficulty listening to the rest of her talk. I wanted to stand up and shout, “Go back to that part about giving up hope.” But I didn’t.

Instead, after the talk, I composed my thoughts and shared with her how upsetting her words had been to me.

I suggested that hope is not restricted to life versus death, that it is not a one and done kind of thing. Hope can be transformed; it is malleable, adaptable.

I told her that when my friend Jim was diagnosed with a very aggressive, non-curable brain cancer, I had no hope he would survive it and accepted that he was going to die. His neurosurgeon was quite clear and definitive—short of a miracle, there was no way that Jim would survive Glioblastoma.

Some people grabbed onto that hope of a miracle and were convinced Jim would be miraculously cured.

I chose to accept the neurosurgeon’s prognosis; I am actually better when I accept the reality of a situation. Ambiguity and abstraction can make me anxious; facts steady me.

If a miracle had happened, I would have been absolutely ok with that; but, in the face of scientific fact, my hope went in a different direction.

I hoped Jim would survive surgery and live long enough to understand what was happening to him. I hoped he would have the strength and grace to accept his condition and to make peace with himself and God. I hoped he would be able to look back on his life with gratitude. I hoped that he would die peacefully.

I also hoped that I would be able to step up to the challenge of caring for him and helping him to live out the rest of his life as fully as possible. I hoped I would see God’s invitation to me and be able to respond.

I believe that in the cancer journey, hope must be transformed—again and again—to meet the challenges of the roller coaster ride of cancer. Giving up hope means giving in to despair.

Correlating hope with cure can put so much focus on the future that the present is overlooked. All of the goodness and blessings that are happening right now can go unnoticed.

For me, accepting the reality of Jim’s situation helped me to focus on the present and live in the moment. I knew every day might have been his last, and so I tried to make every day our best.

Death is inevitable; hope brings life.hope-cancer-God