Tag Archives: gratitude

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

 

 

Advertisements
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.

resiliency-faith-cancer

Fashioned by family

Last weekend, I drove my 91-year old mother to northern Michigan to visit her younger sister. I hadn’t been up north for two years, and my aunt wasn’t doing very well then. Now, though, she is doing remarkably well; it is amazing what a few medication tweaks and some lifestyle changes can do.

They caught up on news of family and friends, and we played cards in the evening. My cousin visited and brought pumpkins from his garden and apples from his tree.

Conversations with my mother and aunt gave me family details. I learned which uncle was my grandmother’s favorite and which uncle was lazy. I learned that my Aunt Betty’s real name was Scholastica and that we were never close to my grandmother’s side of the family, but they did not know why.

My mother and I visited the cemetery after Sunday Mass, but it was drizzling and windy so she stayed in the car while I collected the flower-covered crosses my cousin had put at our relatives’ graves last spring. Most of my relatives are buried there, including my grandparents and my dad. It is the place my mother wants to be buried.

These days went the way so many others have during past visits up north.

While we were there, I kept thinking about how much of our lives are shaped by our families—and where God’s grace enters the picture to enable us to become more than our pasts. Like most women, I have watched myself become my mother and sometimes I rejoice in that, and other times I rebel.

My mother is one of those tenacious, feisty, determined elders. She does her own grocery shopping, tends her garden and cooks; she is strong and fiercely independent (and, yes, she still drives).

She taught me to be resilient and persistent.

A friend in college said to me, “I wish my mother had taught me to be as persistent as your mother taught you,” when I refused to quit looking for something she had lost.

Never give up could be my mother’s motto.resiliency-faith-cancerMy father used to tell us, “If you come home and think I am dead, go out for another hour to make sure.” He never wanted to go to a hospital, and when he had a major stroke, my mother had the inner strength not to call 911. She gave him the kind of death he wanted—at home with family.

My father died ten years before Jim’s death, and I know that her example gave me the strength to give Jim the kind of death he wanted.

For example, when his oncologist insisted Jim be hospitalized for a blood clot, I said “No,” because Jim was done with hospitals by then. I was terrified, and I remember thinking about my mother in that moment and how terrified she must have felt when my dad had that stroke.

I am grateful that I can see the blessings in how my family shaped me.resiliency-faith-cancer

 

God-hope-cancer

Reality check

Working at a cancer support center offers many opportunities to hear people talk about hope. Most often, people hope for a cure—or at least remission—of the cancer that has taken up residence in their bodies.

It takes courage to endure chemotherapy and radiation, which disrupt daily life and can be painful (sometimes very painful). Often the treatments work and the cancer is cured or goes into remission. But sometimes the treatments don’t work. What happens to hope then?hope 4Recently, a woman came in after her oncologist had informed her that the treatment had not worked. Months of painful radiation and chemotherapy had failed to stop the growth of the tumors in various parts of her body. The doctor recommended a different type of treatment—something experimental—and this woman had made an appointment to discuss this new treatment.

Before that appointment, though, she wanted to talk about her situation. “Even if I take another round of treatment,” she said, “I know I will be right back here at some point, maybe in three months or six months, but this is where I am going to end up.”

I remained silent, but inwardly agreed with her that it seemed unlikely that the cancer was going to go away.

“My question is,” she continued, “how do I talk to myself about this? How do I wrap my head around the fact that I am going to die?”

Good questions.

I applauded her courage for even facing this reality.God-hope-cancerIn the three years I have been in this job, I have only met a few other people who were willing to admit they were going to die and who wanted to try to figure out how they could best live until they died. Mostly, people seem to deny the reality; they keep hoping for a cure or remission until the moment they die.

And sometimes, even when the person who is dying accepts it, their families and friends refuse to admit it, depriving the person of expressing what they need to at the end of life.God-hope-cancerWe then talked about hope.

What is she left with, she wondered, when her hopes for remission have been dashed? I suggested hope for something else—for inner peace, for gratitude for the life she has left, for the ability to see goodness in the midst of struggle.God-hope-cancerOne thing I have learned is that if we allow our fears of dying to shape our lives, we can never really live.

God invites us to live every day trusting in the kindness of the people around us and in the goodness of God. That looks different for each of us every day. Some days, it is easier to be full of hope and joy and gratitude; other days, even finding one small gift or grace can be a challenge.

My father used to say, “No one gets out of this life alive.”  I hope I always remember that and live in the freedom it brings.God-hope-cancer

trust-God-vulnerability

Which path?

My bucket list included the Cotswolds, so when I was planning to visit friends in Ireland, I decided to tack on a few days to explore English villages with thatched-roof cottages and hillsides dotted with sheep.

trust-God-vulnerabilitytrust-God-vulnerabilityI had been hiking in the Lake District of England some years ago, so I had a basic understanding of how hilly the English countryside can be and how difficult it can be to follow hiking directions. On that trip, our “leader” was a friend who had hiked in the Lake District several times before and assured us his guidebook was reliable.

We got hopelessly lost the first day, and since it was November, the sun began to set in late afternoon (our “leader” had only hiked there in the summer and had not taken into account the shorter days of November). His confidence waned along with the daylight. Fortunately, we found our way back to our village, but we were a bit more skeptical the rest of the trip.

Over the next few days, I came to understand that the guidebook was written with locals in mind—people who had grown up hiking these hills and would know which stile was the one just past where MacDonald’s barn used to be. We were in the dark, and I quickly began to mock the guidebook. Turn left after the second black sheep, I would offer, because that was about as helpful as the directions in the book.

Walking in the Cotswolds seemed more reliable because there is actually a path called the Cotswold Way, a walk of about 100 miles from Chipping Campden in the north to Bath in the south. I planned to hike only the first part of the Way and thought, “How difficult could it be to follow a path with a name?”trust-God-vulnerability

Silly me.

My B&B host gave me maps with the local hikes clearly indicated and instructed me to follow the signs for the public footpaths which would take me to the top of Dover’s Hill and the start of the Cotswold Way. There I would find signs decorated with acorns to indicate the Way.trust-God-vulnerabilityI crossed through the first two fields with no problem, but the third gateway was surrounded by sheep, and I was hesitant to scatter them—not out of fear, but out of politeness. Why should they have to move just for me?

So I turned right and followed the fence line up the hill. Eventually, I found the footpath again and managed to find the start of the Cotswold Way.trust-God-vulnerabilityThe walk from Chipping Campden to Broadway is 4.5 miles and I knew that walking across the fields would take longer than a straight 4.5 mile walk back home. But after more than an hour of walking and no sight of Broadway or the Broadway Tower (which I expected to be able to see from a distance), I was getting discouraged.

trust-God-vulnerability

Broadway Tower

Just then, I met a young man walking in the opposite direction and asked if I was on the path to Broadway.

“Yes,” he said. “You go on this path another quarter mile and then cross through two wheat fields.” He paused before adding, “Broadway will be on your right.”

At the end of the two wheat fields, there was still no sign of Broadway—only another field on my right.

Eventually, I found my way to Broadway and enjoyed an afternoon in the village.

I decided to take the bus home.

The next day, I planned to visit Hidcote Garden which was three miles in a different direction. Rather than risk getting lost on the footpath, I decided to take the bus to the town a mile from Hidcote and then just walk from there. Armed with my map and directions from my host, I felt confident—only to walk much more than one mile with Hidcote nowhere in sight.trust-God-vulnerability

Fortunately, lots of people walk the paths, and I am not averse to asking for directions. Sure enough, I was on the wrong path. Once pointed in the right direction, I found the garden with no problem.

By then, I had begun to reflect on the paths as a metaphor for my life.

At the end of that day in Broadway, I had allowed myself a little pity party. I am alone, I whined to myself. Oh, I have loving family and friends, but since Jim and Ted died, I am not loved in the way I once was. I am not important to anyone in the way I once was. Poor me.

Here I was in England, staying at a lovely B&B, visiting churches and museums built hundreds of years ago, wandering through exquisite gardens and enjoying fine meals—and I was feeling sorry for myself. That was not the path I wanted to follow.

Rather, I want to be on the path that continually calls to mind my blessings, the path that invites me to gratitude and generosity.

Perhaps, like Broadway that first day, the destination is not visible as quickly as I want, but my days in the Cotswolds remind me to relax and trust that God is guiding me, and if I can do that, I can appreciate wherever I am along the path and eventually get to where I am meant to be.

God-hope-letting go

Holding on and letting go

A woman I know became sick a few months ago—suddenly. I learned about her illness through social media. Her family asked for prayers and said she was “gravely ill,” but it was not until they used the word “hospice” that I realized how gravely ill she was. In a matter of a few weeks, she went from posting pictures of her husband, children and grandchildren on social media—to dying.

Life is so fragile.

When death is near, what is happening in the rest of the world seems distant and unimportant. The passing of a loved one becomes the most important thing and offers great clarity about what really matters.

I try to remember those moments—the times when I had great clarity about what truly matters in life.God-hope-letting goThese thoughts came back to me while reading the Gospel of Mark. I wonder if St. Mark had clarity as to what was really important, if he had a sense of urgency about spreading the story of Jesus’ life and message.

I thought of how God uses us to spread the Good News. Was Mark a writer? Or was he just compelled to write the story of Jesus? As I pondered Mark’s mission, I was reminded of some notes I received when my friend Jim was dying from brain cancer.

Several friends wrote to me during Jim’s illness reminding me that we were living the Paschal mystery—facing death and resurrection every day. It was true that we knew Jim would die soon and yet every day we found a way to laugh and every day we recited our litany of gratitude.

Jim was unable to read for most of the time he was sick, so I read his mail to him, and I also read any notes I received. One of the notes about the Paschal mystery sparked a conversation about the everyday deaths we faced.

Jim’s physical decline was an obvious death, but there were others that seemed as significant. We kept being faced with situations where we needed to let go so that we could truly live.

Holding on and letting go was part of our daily conversation.

At some point, I realized that it was not just at the time of one’s death, but that living the Paschal mystery was a continual invitation to see things in new ways, to look from different angles and to be open to change.God-hope-letting goAs I reflected, the words to Unsteady by X Ambassadors, popped into my mind.

Hold

Hold on

Hold on to me

‘Cause I’m a little unsteady

A little unsteady…If you love me, don’t let go.

Holding on can offer a sense of security and stability, but there’s always the question, What am I holding on to?

While our world may seem to be spiraling out of control, Christians are called to remain “steadfast in faith” (1 Peter 5:9), not caving in to popular culture or the “prowling Satan” but holding on to Jesus’ message of hope.

 

prayer-examen-garden

Do more of this

I recently attended a workshop at a local nursery called Hydrangeas 101, covering the basics of successfully growing Hydrangeas. I had questions about the one that came with my house, as this is my first experience with this particular flower.

When I moved here, I had Googled “pruning Hydrangeas” and learned that pruning was a no-no. Numerous websites advised planting them where they have enough room to grow to their full size. Mine has room; I was more interested in knowing if it needed to be pruned for its health.

At the end of the hour-long workshop, I had the answers to my questions, and I walked out of the nursery aware that I was feeling light and happy.

Gardening is one of my favorite things and learning about flowers is as much fun as the actual gardening. I joined the local garden club when I moved here four years ago, to learn what is indigenous and what grows best in this zone. Now, I watch Monarch butterflies on Echinacea and hummingbirds at the Rose of Sharon.prayer-examen-garden

But, back to the workshop and the lightness I felt when I left.

I am by nature a curious person. Not nosey (I barely know my neighbors or their habits), but inquisitive; I love to learn.

As I walked out of the nursery, the words that popped into my heard were, Do more of this. The feeling was similar to the one I have when I am leaving my Polish classes—happy, light and free.

Entering with the awareness that I am seeking knowledge and leaving having acquired something—a clearer understanding of what my Hydrangea needs in order to be happier, or perhaps one new Polish word—it does not have to be much to make me happy.

Do more of this. The words reminded me of a prayer practice developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola called The Examen.

St. Ignatius saw the benefit of periodically stopping during the day and looking at how the day was going. Was he drawing closer to God through his words and actions? Or was he moving away from God?

I have heard The Examen explained in a number of ways, but the main point is to look at how the day is unfolding, to look at patterns in our lives, and to do more of the things that draw us closer to God and less of those that take us away from God.prayer-examen-gardenI tend to think of gratitude as an indicator of how my day is going. If it am feeling grateful, things are generally good. If I am feeling resentful or jealous or put upon in some way, I know I need to change something because what I am doing is moving me away from God.

The Examen can be helpful in leading me away from toxic people and situations. It can help point out patterns that are harmful and also patterns that are grace-filled. The Examen redirects me toward God and freedom.