Tag Archives: Joy

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.

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

patience-faith-god

Patience and faith

The forsythia in my back yard had very few flowers the past three springs. I pruned it every spring since I moved here, hoping it would produce abundant blooms. A friend who knows about such things told me there are some varieties that flower less and suggested I consider getting a different variety. I was about to give up on my forsythia, and then it bloomed.faith-patience-GodBe patient, Madeline, I heard God saying.

A few weeks later, I was at a retreat center that has a labyrinth. During a workshop break, I visited the labyrinth and started to walk meditatively along the outer circle. At the first turn in the path, I stopped and looked at the stone in the middle. The brochure had said it was a symbol of Jacob meeting God. I pondered that for a bit and then I had an impulse to just walk to the middle, to skip the layers of circles and jump to the center.faith-patience-godThe words of Teilhard de Chardin came to me.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

 And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

 Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

 Be patient, God again said to me.

Patience is a virtue that I can work on, and it seems God is inviting me to develop this virtue.patience-faith-godFaith, on the other hand, is a gift that is about desire and openness.

Taken together, patience and faith invite me to let go of my expectations and my rush-to-the-end attitude. They invite me to accept what is just the way it is, and to move against my tendency to want things to be other than they are.

Patience and faith invite me to lean into God and let God lead me, to accept what is with gratitude and even joy. Opening my hands to receive what God offers, waiting for the gift and holding it loosely enough that I don’t crush it—that is the stance of patience and faith.

Like the forsythia in my yard, I want to surprise the people who have tended to me by trusting God’s grace and becoming the person God intended.
faith-patience-God

self-care

Better self-care

My Polish classes started a few weeks ago—five adults gathering every Tuesday evening at a Catholic church, each with our own reason for wanting to learn this difficult language. My classmates are all new to Polish, but I have been studying it off and on since 2009, including Rosetta Stone at home and a two-week immersion course in Krakow in 2010.

adult-educationI had wanted to enroll in this class last winter, but my work schedule got in the way. This fall, though, I am committed to attending Polish classes.

As I left the building at the end of the first class and walked across the parking lot to my car, I felt a deep sense of joy, and that feeling has accompanied me to each succeeding class. I love this class. It makes me happy.

It is not that joy is foreign to me. I have known many joyful times in my life. But the past ten years seem to have had more hardship than happiness and I think I had grown accustomed to the sadness.

More joy is what I want and what I believe God wants for me. “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete,” Jesus says. (John 15:11)

Complete joy.

Talking with my spiritual director about the joy of my Polish class, she suggested that perhaps I have been overly-focused on the needs of others for the past number of years, to the detriment of my own needs. She recommended that I look for more opportunities to do things that are just for me.

Her suggestion reminded me of an incident from a past job. A colleague and I were looking at calendars, trying to figure out when we could schedule a meeting, I noticed her calendar had “TFM” marked each day. Thirty to sixty minutes were blocked out every day with this three-letter notation.

“What is ‘TFM’?” I asked.

“Time for me,” she said.

“Every day, you take time for yourself?” I asked somewhat incredulously.

“Good self-care,” she responded.

Even then, I knew that I was not particularly good at self-care. I promoted it to others—“be gentle with yourself,” I might say or “take care of yourself,” but I am not good at following my own advice.

I take quiet time in the mornings, but once the day starts, I tend to steamroll through, often ignoring the signs of stress or exhaustion.

Perhaps it is time to revisit the concept of “TFM” and plan to do more things that will bring me joy. Perhaps it is time to resurrect that list of things I like to do—sewing, going to plays, hiking, visiting museums, walking through gardens, poking around in little shops—things that make me happy, and schedule them into my calendar.

The thing about self-care is that no one can do it for me; I have to decide and then follow through. Only then will I know more joy.

joy

 

 

 

One particular day

I suppose most people can remember one particular day when something happened that caused a major life change. That day for me was five years ago today—July 8, 2011. My friend Jim had a seizure while sitting at his desk, hit his head when he fell, and was unconscious when found several hours later. A CT scan at the hospital, checking for a concussion, instead found cancer in three lobes of his brain; and not just any cancer, but a very, very aggressive, non-curable cancer. I knew nothing would ever be the same.

Jim had always believed that our life experiences brought lessons—and really difficult experiences brought really important lessons. During his cancer journey, he continually asked God, “What is the invitation in this?” and “What am I meant to learn from this?” His lessons ranged from letting go of important parts of his identify to allowing himself to be physically cared for to deepening his belief that he was in God’s hands. Jim became much more trusting while he was sick (although I think he maintained a certain level of skepticism when it was time for the daily injections I had to give him).

Every day we laughed and every day we were grateful. Even on bad days, when everything that could go wrong did—like the day Jim needed emergency surgery just three days after being released from the hospital or when he developed a blood clot the day before we were going to the ocean—even on those days, we found humor and gratitude.

In the face of a non-curable, aggressive cancer, it was actually fairly easy for me to admit I had no control. If a neurosurgeon, radiologist and oncologist could not get rid of the brain cancer, what could I do? Instead, I asked God, “What is the invitation in this for me?”

And God responded, “This is what you are to do: you are to love Jim unconditionally, forgive him without limit, and let him go.” They were words from a prayer I had prayed every day for ten years, and God was pointing out to me that this was my chance to practice what I had been praying —every day for almost nine months. I wanted to be more loving and forgiving and less controlling and here was a great opportunity.

While he was sick, we talked about my moving back to Michigan to be near my family, and when my sisters came to visit, he gave me to them. Two days later, he died a very peaceful death, at home with his dog by his side.

On that day of Jim’s diagnosis five years ago, I could not know the difficulties, heartbreak and sorrow that was to come. Nor could I know the gifts, joys and blessings.

When I look back at July 8, 2011, and everything that has happened since, I am both amazed and deeply grateful. Life has changed, and it is good.

 

Set free

unbind-her

“Unbind Her” by Anna Woofenden, 2014

Anna Woofenden’s picture Unbind Her prompted me to ponder the difference between being bound and unbound. Her depiction of breaking free from the bindings and leaping away conjures up images of being free enough to soar into a new direction.

The idea of breaking free and leaping into some unknown future is appealing. But, breaking free can be difficult—just ask anyone who has walked away from an addiction to alcohol, drugs, unhealthy relationships, food, shopping or anything else that had kept them bound. It can be very challenging to walk away from a life lived in bondage, no matter how unsatisfactory or even painful that life might have been.

It is not always easy to walk away from people, situations or self-images that bind us. The old way is familiar, and finding a new way can present lots of challenges. Change often calls for a great deal of determination, discipline and perseverance; it involves saying “no” to what was previously a “yes.”

This Lent, I have been reflecting on times in my life when I turned away from relationships, jobs and behaviors that were holding me back. Sometimes my turning away was short-lived and I quickly returned to that which held me bound—old habits die hard. Other times, though, I have been able to stay strong in my resolve. Mostly, though, I feel I have been slowly chipping away at behaviors and beliefs that needed to be changed, those things that bound me.

Incremental changes over the years have added up and I can see that I am a much different person today than I was forty years ago. The invitation of Woofenden’s picture, though, is to ask if I am free enough to leap.

At the Easter Vigil last night, the priest talked about the leap of faith required of the apostles to believe the reports of Jesus’ resurrection and how we need to make that same leap to be followers of Jesus.

As he spoke, I imagined the scene at the tomb when Mary Magdalene and the other women had gone to tend to Jesus’ body and found that Jesus was gone. I could see them telling the apostles, and the apostles disbelieving them. I imagined Peter running to see for himself. Their emotions must have been all over the place—sadness at Jesus’ death, confusion that his body was gone and hope that something fantastic was happening.

Even imagining this emotional firestorm gave me pause. Am I free enough to feel strong emotions? Or do I keep my emotions in check? How would it feel, I wondered, if I let myself experience the range of emotions Mary and the others felt that first Easter?

I fear I have been afraid to feel.

My Easter prayer is to be set free so that I may experience deep joy, be open to possibilities, and be courageous enough to respond to God’s invitation to live fully. I want to leap into the future and trust that the best is yet to come.