The great blue heron
stands at the edge of the lake,
facing the horizon,
scanning water and sky.
“Look at what I see,”
she seems to be saying,
“and see what is possible.”
(Photo taken at Lake St. Clair, MI)
The great blue heron
stands at the edge of the lake,
facing the horizon,
scanning water and sky.
“Look at what I see,”
she seems to be saying,
“and see what is possible.”
(Photo taken at Lake St. Clair, MI)
I love to read novels and mysteries. Last month, I read American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. I had requested it from the library before the pandemic, and when it finally came in and I started to read it, I found the subject matter quite difficult.
American Dirt tells the story of a woman and her son fleeing a Mexican drug cartel and joining other migrants coming to the United States. It is a harrowing story of riding atop trains, making snap decisions about whom to trust and the deep desire to stay alive.
After American Dirt, I needed something lighter and so I read one of David Rosenfelt’s books about Andy Carpenter, a lawyer who also happens to be a dog lover. Rosenfelt’s writing is laugh-out-loud funny, and I appreciated the break from the seriousness of American Dirt. I recommend Rosenfelt’s books for some light reading (and an inside look at life in New Jersey).
Then another book I had requested before the pandemic was ready for pick up at the library—The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. A few pages into this book, I realized it was about a family in France during World War II.
Normally, I like to read books about that era because they remind me of how evil can take root and grow in a society.
But my life feels heavy enough right now, and once I realized the subject matter of this book, I was tempted to stop reading. But I didn’t because I think it is important to remember what people have endured, how they survived, and how some can even thrive after enduring horrific atrocities.
The Nightingale tells of two sisters, each facing the invasion of France in her own way—the younger sister joins the resistance movement while the older sister remains in her home waiting for her husband to return from the front. Her home is sequestered, and her life becomes one of daily challenges for food and safety.
Although I was resistant to reading about the difficulties of these life situations, these books were just what I needed to read during this time when my usual routines have been interrupted. There have been times when the grocery store shelves were fairly empty, but that inconvenience lasted a few weeks—not the four years of the German occupation of France.
The requirement to keep social distance and to wear a mask can feel arbitrary because the virus is an unseen enemy. I would know to hide from an invading army driving tanks through our streets and not complain that I was being inconvenienced by having to stay inside if I saw my neighbors dragged from their homes and shot.
These books remind me that most of my challenges are really inconveniences that can be managed. Torture, starvation, and other atrocities of war are real problems. I am grateful that I have not had to face those kinds of trials.
I will gladly stay home or wear a mask to stay safe.
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.As 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.
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.Every 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”)
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”)David’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.
Does it bring you joy? Someone suggested asking this question when paring down my possessions.
After some pondering, I realized that when considering holding onto or getting rid of some possession, I am more apt to ask myself, would letting it go make me feel guilty?
I have been incredibly blessed by generous people throughout my life, and my house has lots of objects I received as gifts. I imagine if I had bought all of those things, it would be easier to let go of them, but so much of what I own has a story and a memory connected to it.
Is it possible to hold onto the memory and the story—and let go of the object?Many years ago, I read a book about holding onto the gifts of retreat.
Retreats can be sacred moments in life, creating space to step out of daily routines, clear my mind of everyday worries, and focus on God and God’s will for me. Retreats offer the opportunity to get some distance and perspective, to look at how I am living and to consider any needed course corrections.
While on retreat, I often talk with God about what in my life needs to go—usually old fears, insecurities, anxieties and hurts.Holding onto those insights from retreat once I am back in my daily routine can be a challenge. Daily prayer helps. Regular meetings with a spiritual director also help. This book suggested asking these questions about everyday situations:
The second set of questions has been the easiest for me to answer because I can see how insignificant many everyday occurrences really are. These questions have helped me let go of a great deal of hurt and anger. How much energy am I going to give to something that really has very little long-term significance?
The other questions, though, continue to challenge me. Like the question about what brings me joy, asking what I want or need seems somewhat foreign to me. It must be the way I was raised—spend very little time or thought on my own needs; focus more on the needs of others. This is also the message I take from the Bible.
Of course, I know that I do have wants and needs, and over the course of my life, I have come to see how much healthier I am when I get in touch with them.
So, what is it that brings me joy? The objects in my home? Or the memories attached to them?
It is definitely the memories that remind me how blessed I have been.
Last year, I committed to writing a “love” letter every day in February—a note to someone who had blessed my life and brought me joy. I called it twenty-eight days of love. I thank I will do that again.
My friend Jim had a way of continually inviting me to look at situations from a different perspective, to consider “the other side” of the story. Jim had a great gift for seeing both sides—which sometimes made it difficult for him to make decisions—but which helped him to be objective.
He cut me no slack when I wanted to promote my side of a story as the only/right/best side, but rather challenged me to look beyond my viewpoint, to try to put myself in the other person’s shoes and see the other side of the story.Jim used to talk about my “arms waving,” and I knew just what he meant. Often, when I felt dismissed or wronged, the extent my arms flailed usually corresponded to my sense of indignation and self-righteousness—and to how deeply intransigent I was. The more my arms flailed, the deeper my heels were dug in.
I could be very certain of my rightness.With a great deal of patience on Jim’s part—and much practice on mine—I came to recognize my own intransigence more quickly and got to the place where I could identify that I was flailing my arms before Jim had to say anything.
Jim’s encouragement helped me develop a deep understanding of the importance of stepping back from my certainty so I could see someone else’s viewpoint.
Now, when someone is telling a story, I remind myself that the storyteller’s perspective is just one side of the story, that there is another person involved in this story, and that person saw this experience from a different vantage point. It is not that the person in front of me is lying or concealing something, but I remind myself that there is another side.
I frequently hear myself saying, “There are two sides to every story.”
It happened recently when a middle-schooler asked for advice in dealing with a teacher who seems to have singled her out since the beginning of the school year—after this girl questioned the dress code (she said there was no edge to her question).
After listening to the middle schooler’s story, I pointed out that her questioning the dress code might have reminded the teacher of another student (or perhaps many students over the years) who asked the same question.
I suggested that perhaps the teacher was reacting to her from the vantage point of the teacher’s history with middle schoolers. Maybe one of those previous students issued the same challenge with an edge and the teacher was reacting to that.
Could this young girl see that? Could she see this situation from the teacher’s perspective? Could she even see that her side was just one side of the story?Considering other perspectives does not diminish my own experiences or feelings. Nor does it require that I change my opinions or beliefs.
Considering other perspectives helps me to be less reactionary and self-righteous—and seeing the other side helps me to be more objective.
“Purple and green,” my five-year-old niece responded when I asked, “What is your favorite color?” I was planning to sew her a dress.
Purple and green? Two colors I would not have put together.
But to please her (and because I had asked) I set out to find fabric with those two colors. It turned out my niece knew more about colors than I did; I found lots of fabric in combinations of purple and green. How had I never noticed this color combination before?
Ten years later, this same niece instructed me, “Expand your color palette, Aunt Madeline,” after I had commented that the scarf she had selected for me in shades of gold and brown was unlike everything in my closet.
I doubt that my niece meant anything deeper than encouraging me to diversify the colors in my closet (I mainly wrote black clothes accessorized with colorful scarves), but simple words often hold deeper meanings.
Both her “favorite” color combination and her color palette comment have come back to me on numerous occasions—sometimes when I am considering a clothing purchase, but also when I find myself looking at something as I always have and am resistant to change the way I see, those times when I hold tight to what I believe, when I know what I know.
What if I could see things differently? What if I expanded my palette to see situations from different perspectives?
“Look for golf balls in the trees,” our Alaskan tour guide instructed us. “Each one is the head of an Eagle.” Where before I could not find even one Eagle, all of a sudden I saw many; trees were full of them. They were right before my eyes; I only needed to know what I was looking for.
This kind of looking and seeing requires an awareness and an openness. I need to be able to admit that I have narrow vision and preconceived ideas in order to consider seeing in a different way. And I need to be open to reality from a different perspective.
Difficult for me to do, especially because I like my views—and my friends tend to agree with me—so I must be right—right? What if God does not care about my need to be right?
After the U.S. presidential election last fall, a friend got an interesting assignment in her inter-faith dialogue group. The group leader invited them to interview someone who had voted for the “other” candidate. The caveat was that they were just to listen to the response—not to challenge the person’s decision or to defend their own votes, but just to listen.So often, I think I know why people do what they do—without even asking.
What if God is inviting me to ask questions and listen for answers that might not support my view? What if God is asking me to use my eyes to see and my ears to hear? To truly expand my palette?
Leading up to my trip to the Cotswolds, I watched multiple episodes of a British detective show called Midsomer Murders, set in a fictional English village. Although the murders are often gruesome, the detectives who solve them are soft-spoken and polite.
After watching about a dozen episodes, I was left with one key question: “Why do Brits go into the woods?”
Many of the murder victims are just walking through the woods surrounding the village when disaster strikes.
I vowed that I would avoid the woods.
But, the truth is, I did go into the woods in the Cotswolds—it was the only way to get to the next village or to the gardens I wanted to visit—and I went alone.Visions of Midsomer Murders accompanied me, and I was aware that this might not have been one of my brighter ideas, but, when in Rome….
Going into the woods alone is something I would never do at home. I avoid places that are isolated or secluded; I stick to the beaten (paved) path. But there is something about traveling—to another country and culture—that enables me to be more open, daring and trusting.
As I walked through the woods in the Cotswolds, I remembered a trip to Kruger Park in South Africa. I was traveling with two other women, staying at a lodge on the Crocodile River. One evening, three South African men picked us up for a night Safari. Off we went into the growing darkness, in an open safari truck. The men had guns—in case we encountered lions.
Once inside the park, we drove on the paved road for a while, spotting a leopard, elephants and other wild animals.
Then our driver turned off the paved road onto a rutted path and past a sign announcing that the road was closed. Yikes!
Here we were, three women, heading into the deep bush with three armed men we did not know. I remember thinking that this would never happen back home. But, when in Africa…
We drove about a quarter mile into the dark woods and then stopped. The men jumped out of the truck, helped us down, and led us on foot deeper into the bush—until we reached a clearing about a hundred yards away.
In the clearing were three more armed South African men, standing around tables filled with food. Several types of barbecued meat (Kudu is the one I remember most clearly), a variety of salads, breads and desserts were set out for us. It was a veritable feast.
We sat at a table covered in a chintz cloth. We ate, drank wine and chatted with our guides (mostly about American pop culture). I felt incredibly blessed—and incredibly grateful.
Foreign travel is usually that kind of blessing for me. Once outside my comfort zone, I am open to new experiences and able to see things from a different perspective. I can let go of fears that usually hold me back.
“How are the fall colors?” my friend in Virginia asked the other night. She is coming to see me in Michigan in a few weeks and hoping to be in time to see the vibrant colors of our fall.
“We haven’t had a frost yet,” I said. “It is actually quite warm here—it’s in the 70’s.”
“What?” I asked.
“It is in the 70’s here, too,” she said, “and I was going to say how cool it is.”
Perspective. Same temperature but different conclusion.
I think so much of what goes wrong in relationships is because we jump to conclusions without seeking clarification or understanding another’s perspective.
Yesterday, I facilitated a retreat session for a group of local volunteers. My topic was theological reflection, a process that helps look at things from God’s perspective, that invites God into a situation and asks, “How does God invite me to see this person or situation?”
In preparation, I spent some time practicing theological reflection A friend from whom I am feeling disconnected came to mind, so I asked God, “What are you inviting me to learn from this disconnect?”
When I open myself to this conversation with God, I usually hear God ask me to love unconditionally, to forgive without limit and to let go. God invites me to see the person or situation from a stance of compassion and mercy. No matter how hurtful something might have been, when I look at it from God’s perspective, it looks different.
From God’s perspective, the person who hurt me is loved as much as I am. God invites me to see that the hurt was a result of my unrealistic expectations and/or that person’s limitations or brokenness. Theological reflection helps me understand the Biblical injunction to love my enemies and to pray for my persecutors (Matthew 5:44).
During the retreat session yesterday, I asked the volunteers to recall a specific incident which showed that their expectations had not been met, a time when they thought, “I didn’t expect that” or “That is not how I imagined it.” Unmet expectations often lead to disillusionment, and disillusionment can lead to negative feelings and actions.
Once they had an incident in mind, I asked them to invite God into the situation, to describe to God what happened and to sit with God and look at the person or situation through God’s eyes.
Reframing the situation from God’s perspective helps to see a bigger picture. My unmet expectations then become more about me instead of about the people or situation that let me down. Changing my expectations—or at least being more aware of them—can change my perspective and help to me understand people and events in a different way. When I see things from God’s perspective, I can more easily let go of hurt and anger. I can be more open to compassion and mercy, less judgmental and more forgiving. I can move toward freedom.
Brain cancer became my reference point after my friend Jim was diagnosed with a non-curable and very, very aggressive form of it. While Jim was sick, any drama at work led me to ask, “Does anyone here have brain cancer?” It may seem harsh, but I did not have the energy to deal with what often constituted a crisis at work, and I would tell my staff to “work it out among yourselves.”
That brain cancer standard has served me well these past five years and has helped me to let go of things that might once have upset me. If nobody is seriously ill or in imminent danger, I can have a more realistic perspective on what really matters. I can step back and reassess most situations quite quickly.
Last night at church, for example, a man came in terribly upset that one of the side doors was locked. He had parked near that door and had to walk to the next door (approximately fifty feet). “Someone has to do something,” he demanded. Another man standing nearby shook his head and said to me, “Some people.” He then told me that he had had a bout with cancer last winter and now he knew that a locked door was not really that big of a deal. I agreed, and I felt sorry for the man who was investing so much energy in such a small matter.
Recently, though, I have had two events in my own life that required me to step back and evaluate my reactions.
One was in my personal life and the other at work. Both involved unmet expectations.
One thing that can help me let go is to reframe the experience, to step outside of it and look at it from another angle. I am an extrovert and it helps me to talk through what happened in order to begin looking at the event from a different perspective. For both of these events, I called a friend who is an introvert; I find an introvert’s viewpoint opens up different options, often options I had not considered.
The personal event had made me angry because I had wasted some time and money. But no one had brain cancer, no one was going to die, and in the bigger scheme of things, wasted time and money are not that big of a deal. I asked myself, “Will this matter next month? Or in a year? Or at the end of my life?” Probably not. Let it go. I refocused my attention away from what was lost (time and money) to what was gained (the positive aspects of the experience).
The work event, though, has a broader impact and I needed to consider not just my unmet expectations and disappointment but that of others, too. I am still working on it.
Wise people throughout the ages have advised keeping things in perspective and maintaining balance—not holding on too tightly and not making more of something than it is. That is how I want to live.