Tag Archives: gratitude

Lent-God-spirituality

Being open to the presence of God

Sometimes my liturgical seasons seem to get their wires crossed—I experience Lenten contrition in August or Easter joy during Advent. This year, I am resonating more with Advent than with Lent.

Advent begins with the image of the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light (Isaiah 9:2). That is what I am experiencing as Lent begins—walking in light. The darkness of the grief that has gripped me for the past six years seems to have lifted, and my spirit feels light and free. Instead of donning sackcloth and ashes, I feel like laughing and dancing.

Joy and gratitude have taken up residence; contentment reigns. For as long as this feeling lasts, I want to enjoy it.Lent-God-spiritualitySo, about Lent.

True confession: I am addicted to chocolate and rarely go a day without it.Lent-God-spiritualityOne year, just after college, my housemate and I gave up chocolate and alcohol for Lent. I thought giving up alcohol would be more difficult, but it was not. At the grocery store, I repeatedly noticed candy bars on the checkout conveyor belt. How did that happen? I would wonder, knowing full well that I must have put them there, even though I was completely unaware that I had done it. Giving up alcohol for Lent? No problem. But chocolate? No way.

I have a desk drawer at work designated as the snack drawer—it is stocked with chocolate in a variety of forms—granola bars with chocolate chips, chocolate covered almonds and straight-up chocolate candy. It is not a secret stash, and anyone is welcome to dip into this treasure trove of sweets.Lent-God-spiritualityOne Lent, a staff person said she wanted to give up chocolate and asked if I would be willing to join her. She wanted me to empty my snack drawer because she feared the temptation would be too great for her. I explained that I give things up for Lent to become holier—or at least more focused on God—and giving up chocolate would only make me grumpier.

My fasting for Lent tends to be more about giving up being judgmental or being critical or being impatient—more attitudes than actual things. Changing my attitudes seems to have more potential to be transformational in my spiritual journey than changing my eating habits.

My Lenten reflection book encourages making Lent “a penitential season,” and says the purpose of penitential practices (prayer, fasting and almsgiving) is “to open oneself more fully to the presence of God.”

This Lent, I want to fast from judgmentalism, scarcity, stinginess and fear—and feast on  abundance, joy, trust, generosity and gratitude. This Lent, I want to bask in light and live in freedom.Lent-God-spirituality

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hope-grief-cancer

Giving voice to grief

Upon hearing that Saul and Jonathan had died, David lamented:

Alas, the glory of Israel, Saul, slain upon your heights; how can the warriors have fallen! Saul and Jonathan, beloved and cherished….how can the warriors have fallen…I grieve for you, Jonathan, my brother…. (2 Samuel 1:19-27)

Reading David’s words, hearing the grief pouring out of him, reminds me of the importance of giving voice to our sorrows.

But after my friend Jim died, I could hardly put two words together, let alone compose a lament as David had done. Then, one day a few months after Jim’s death, a voice on my car radio sang the words that released the floodgates of my grief:

Oh I swear to you

I’ll be there for you

This is not a drive by

(Train, “Oh I swear to you”)

A drive by—that is what it felt like. Where I had thought Jim would be around forever (or, at least another twenty years), that was not to be. He was gone—no longer there for me—and all the swearing in the world would not change that. It did not matter what either of us might have wanted, I was left to deal with the reality that he was no longer with me.

I pulled over to the side of the road and sobbed.

Those three little lines tapped into my grief and expressed a sense of betrayal I did not even know I was feeling.hope-grief-cancerEvery time I hear this song, I still sing along on the refrain, my voice loud and full of emotion. It still feels like a drive by and this refrain helps me to give voice to my grief.

In 1984, my friend Gerry was diagnosed with leukemia; without a bone marrow transplant, he knew his death was imminent. He chose two songs to be played at his funeral, and although thirty-one years have passed since his death, I still think of him whenever I hear these songs:

 Sometimes in our lives we all have pain, we all have sorrow.
But if we are wise, we know that there’s always tomorrow.

Lean on me, when you’re not strong and I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on.
For it won’t be long ’til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on….

(Bill Withers, “Lean on Me”)

and

What did you think I would do at this moment
when you’re standing before me with tears in your eyes
….
I’d fall down on my knees
Kiss the ground that you walk on
If I could just hold you again….

(Billy Vera & The Beaters, “At This Moment”)hope-grief-cancerDavid’s lament over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan seems raw and immediate, but perhaps he took some time to process his grief before he wrote.

Giving expression to our sorrows can open us to a different perspective; sadness can sit side-by-side with gratitude and hope.hope-grief-cancer

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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

Advent-God-gratitude

Getting ready

In my religious tradition, Christmas is a season that begins on Christmas Day. The weeks leading up to Christmas are a separate season—Advent.

Some years I am more attentive to Advent than others, and this year, I feel called to pay attention to Advent.

The differences between Advent and Christmas are easy to see. Advent is a time of waiting—just think of a woman in her ninth month of pregnancy. It is clear that something is about to happen, and family and friends eagerly anticipate the birth of a child. There may be some anxiety (it is possible that something could go wrong or not turn out as expected), but for most people, the expectant hope and joy outweigh the worry.

Christmas, on the other hand, is the time of celebration. To continue the analogy, the baby has arrived; it is time to rejoice.

In our culture, Advent seems to get overlooked, and we move right to Christmas (now as early as October, if we are to believe retailers). That would be like a woman who is only six or seven months pregnant acting as if her baby had already been born.

The weeks leading up to Christmas are often seen as a time of gearing up, but Advent really invites us to slow down and pay attention to the movement of the Spirit within.

I used to write bulletin reflections for a priest friend, and one Advent he asked me to encourage parishioners to resist the secular celebration of Christmas during Advent and to truly celebrate Advent.

I felt a bit guilty completing this assignment because I always unpack my Christmas mugs on the first Sunday of Advent, and every day of Advent, I enjoy coffee in a Christmas mug. Not very Advent-ish of me.

In my defense, I love my Christmas mugs and they get so little use (December and early January).

But, I wrote the reflection piece and gave some suggestions on celebrating Advent.

I have been pondering ways I might use Advent to get ready for Christmas. Some ideas:

  • Practice patience—check frustration, yield, wait;
  • Reach out to someone who is alone or lonely and offer companionship and comfort;
  • Seek forgiveness and reconciliation;
  • Take a break from some popular-culture activity that consumes leisure time (television, texting, movies, sports, etc.) and spend that time in prayer or service (maybe for just one or two hours each of the weeks of Advent);
  • Do at least one act of kindness every day, totaling twenty-two acts of kindness—hold the door for someone, offer a compliment, pay the toll of the person behind you, add something extra to tips, thank someone….it does not have to be extraordinary to be meaningful;
  • Save all Christmas cards and open them all on Christmas Day or during the days of the Christmas season (which ends with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, January 8, 2018);
  • Practice gratitude.

Advent offers quiet blessings and insights if we slow down and pay attention.Advent-God-gratitude

 

 

God-cancer-hope

Why words matter

The last thing you say to someone might be the last thing you say to him. These words came to me as a memory from the day my friend Jim had a seizure which left him unconscious. That day ended with a diagnosis of a very, very aggressive, non-curable brain cancer.

In the midst of being told that Jim may never regain consciousness, I wondered, “What was the last thing I said to him?”

Fortunately, I had spoken to him shortly before the seizure and my words were positive.

I know, though, that I don’t end every conversation, every interaction on a positive note. Sometimes I speak out of frustration or anger. Other times, I am distracted or tired or…God-cancer-hopeThat question, though, from the day Jim had a seizure has stayed with me and is a reminder to try to end every conversation on a positive note. That is particularly significant because I work at a cancer support center.

One of the women who came to the center for a couple of years had not been around for a while. Phone calls and messages went unanswered. We knew she had stopped treatment and began to wonder if she was still alive.

Sometimes families don’t notify us for weeks or even months, so we often live in a kind of limbo. But, we learned of this woman’s death within a few days after she had died.

Remembering this particular woman, I wondered what had been my last words to her. I hope they were something that let her know that I was glad to see her and that I cared about her. I hope she felt accepted, consoled and even uplifted.

She had been very realistic about the path she had chosen. She knew that without treatment, the cancer would end her life. But, I don’t think she knew that the last time she came to our center would be the last time. I did not know that the last words I said to her were the last words I would ever say to her.

Some days, I am overwhelmed by the sadness of my work. People learning they have cancer, enduring treatment, anxious for results from scans, some of them dying—it can be so sad.

Other days, though, I am overjoyed by the good news of my work. People learning that the cancer is in remission or that they are cancer-free, optimistic that life holds promise, hopeful for a future they once feared would never come.

Balancing these emotions, this ups and downs of cancer and its many ripple effects, can be difficult for me. God invites me to hold both the joys and sorrows.

I am reminded of St. Paul’s words: I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation….I can do all things through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:12-13)

Strengthen me, Lord.