Tag Archives: faith

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

 

 

 

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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

God-kindness-love

Walking with Jesus

I once asked a friend how often she thought about God. The question came out of my admiration of her—she seemed so peaceful and holy, and I figured it must be some kind of God thing.

“Throughout the day,” she said, and then she told me about her practice of intentionally bringing God into situations in her everyday life.

“How often do you think about God,” she then asked me. “Not that often,” was my reply.

I wanted to be more aware of God throughout my day and decided to adopt her practice of intentionality. I quickly realized that I needed to adapt the practice a bit. I am a very visual person, so it was easier for me to imagine Jesus walking beside me throughout the day.

Petition and praise became the two categories into which I slotted events as each day unfolded.

A cashier at the grocery store who seemed to be having a difficult day would elicit a prayer of petition. Or a mother struggling with a tired child or my own impatience. I would turn to Jesus and ask him to help.

Someone holding the door for me, children playing happily or a kind word would bring forth a prayer of praise and gratitude.

Each person and every event took on a different hue when I turned to Jesus standing beside me and tried to look at each person or event through Jesus’ eyes and with his compassion.

Where I might have negatively judged someone who was being rude, Jesus invited me to imagine that person’s back story and consider what awful thing might have happened to make that person that way. I started to pity people who were angry or mean, reminding myself that I would not want their lives.

Judgment faded; compassion increased.God-kindness-loveWhen I went to work for the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, I learned of Mother Cabrini’s practice of living from the heart of Jesus. She had exchanged her heart for the heart of Jesus and saw the world through the eyes of Jesus’ heart. Even more intimate that visualizing Jesus standing beside me was visualizing my heart swapped out for Jesus’s heart.

As the days, weeks, months and years passed, the practice became more a part of life, and I found myself more aware of God.

When my mother was hospitalized last month, one of my first thoughts was, God has her. The medical people could do what they could and I can do what I can, but ultimately, I know that God is holding my mother, and that awareness brought relief and peace.

Reflecting back, I realize how much the years of practicing bringing Jesus into everyday circumstances has become a part of my life and how much more quickly I can let go of worry because I know I am not alone in any burdensome situation. Just as God has my mother, God has me and that is the safest place I can be.God-kindness-love

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

gratitude-God-spirituality

Fill my heart with gratitude

Re-reading a journal from three years ago, I came upon an entry about my friend Ted, who had gone through surgery and treatment for esophageal cancer the previous year. Nine months after being declared “cancer free,” it was clear that something was wrong. He was understandably a bit reluctant to go and get checked out—who would want to face the recurrence of cancer?

During that time between realizing something was wrong and getting checked out, I wrote this: “I pray for Ted to be present to what is instead of wishing for something else.”

Then I wrote, “How about me? Being present to what is instead of wishing for something else? Accept, surrender, stop resisting.”

A few weeks later, Ted found out the cancer had come back, and he died a few months after that.

Facing truths that we might not want to face, and accepting those truths can be so difficult. Fear comes into play, usually accompanied by anxiety.

As I was thinking about how Ted faced his illness and death—and pondering my own fears and anxieties—this prayer came to me: Lord, fill my heart with gratitude.

Gratitude helps me focus on what is, on the reality of my life right here and now. It helps me identify and accept the truths in my life—both the things I find difficult to accept and also those I easily embrace.

I believe that gratitude, like love, casts out fear.gratitude-God-spiritualityAnd yet, some realities of life can understandably create fear. Cancer is one of them, but there are others—loss of job, betrayal, death of a loved one, etc. Without looking for them or wanting them, we encounter bumps in the road—things beyond our control that upset the order of our lives.

It can be very difficult to be grateful in the midst of some horrible life situation, but that may be the point. It is easy to be grateful when things are going well, when everything is turning my way and everything I touch succeeds.

Being grateful when bad news outweighs the good news is the challenge—and the invitation.gratitude-God-spiritualityI work at a cancer support center, so every day I hear from people who have received bad news. Helping people find something for which to be grateful as they are facing surgery, chemotherapy, radiation—or even death—can be a daunting task. I think, though, that people come to our center not just to vent, but also to find hope.

Gratitude and hope go hand in hand.

The difficulties and challenges don’t go away, but gratitude has a way of robbing bad news of its power. Gratitude changes the focus.gratitude-God-spiritualityI have so much for which to be grateful—a home, job, family, friends, health, faith….

I want to revive the Litany of Gratitude I created when Jim was sick, add to it every day, and read it regularly. Then I will be more open to allowing God to fill my heart with gratitude.gratitude-God-spirituality

 

God-trust-vulnerability

Travel light

Take nothing for the journey. Luke 9:3

This is the instruction Jesus gives his apostles as he sends them to preach the Kingdom of God, and it is what he tells us, too.

Take nothing for the journey.

Just thinking of beginning a trip with nothing—no money, no clothes, no food—causes me a bit of anxiety. Not even my driver’s license? Or cell phone?

Even when I go out for a short walk, I take a house key. But I can see how the house key connects me to what I have left behind and binds me to my house.

If I did not have my key, my house would be unlocked and I would worry about what I might find when I returned home. It would not be a very relaxing walk because I would constantly be worrying about what I had left and what I might find on my return home. Past and future, instead of being open to the present.

When I lived in l’Arche, two Jesuit seminarians lived with us for a few months. After l’Arche, their next step in formation was to make the kind of journey Jesus commands. They would be dropped off in Cleveland, Ohio, and would have to make their way home to Milwaukee, Wisconsin—with nothing for the journey.

They would have to rely on the generosity of strangers.

Both of these young men were a bit anxious about this upcoming adventure, which I could certainly understand.

Most people came to l’Arche with very little—a suitcase or backpack with clothes and maybe a few books—but I came with my car, and it was fully packed.

I had gotten rid of furniture and most of my books, but I just could not part with so many of my possessions. Pottery, cookbooks and gifts that held special significance got packed into the car. Even my sewing machine accompanied me to l’Arche. I did not travel light.

Living in l’Arche helped disencumber me, though—not necessarily of my material possessions, but rather of the emotional baggage that caused me to cling to material possessions. My overstuffed car was the symbol of how much emotional baggage I was dragging behind me and helped me understand how all that stuff held me back. It was as if I was pulling two-thousand pounds of emotional baggage along with me.

And that is another way to read Jesus’ instructions to take nothing for the journey. Jesus invites me to depend on him and to be free of unhealthy relationships and emotional dependence on others.

That kind of freedom is both attractive and somewhat scary. I find comfort in what is familiar—even if it is unhealthy—and stepping away from the familiar can be unsettling.

Every day, God invites me to take the first step of the journey of proclaiming God’s Kingdom, to leave everything behind and trust that God will provide for my needs—just like the first disciples and the Jesuit seminarians.

God-trust-vulnerability