Tag Archives: spirituality

Jesus-faith-vulnerability

Hunger

Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. (John 6:27)

I remember attending Mass at a beautiful old church in North Philadelphia. The church was surrounded by large, brick homes that had once housed the city’s upper middle-classes and now served as a refuge for people who had nowhere else to go. Some were boarding houses, but most had been abandoned.

The church itself was in need of attention. Water marks decorated the walls and broken stained glass windows had been replaced by clear glass, creating interesting contrasts.

This wasn’t one of those inner-city churches that attracted suburbanites to venture into town on Sunday mornings; this was a parish of the neighborhood. Some of the people in the pews wandered in from the street, disheveled and distracted. Most, though, were intentional about coming to church; the men wore suits and the women wore dresses and hats.

Mass was as it is everywhere. The choir was small but their voices filled the church with the sounds of praise.

After Communion, one woman sang a meditation song. I was unfamiliar with the song and I don’t remember the words. What I do remember was the raw emotion with which she called on the name of Jesus; and that emotion still haunts me.

As she sang, it was as though the rest of us disappeared and she was having a private encounter with Jesus, expressing to him her deepest needs, desires and love. She knew Jesus was her only hope, her very survival, and she was not ashamed to admit it.

I was awestruck. When had I felt such a deep hunger for Jesus? His mercy? Had I ever let myself express my dependence on him so publicly?Jesus-faith-vulnerabilityJesus fed 5000 people with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. And then he told them that he was the true bread; he was the food they needed to consume. At that, many walked away; the message was too challenging.

Pondering John’s gospel took me back to that church in North Philadelphia and to the questions that popped into my mind as I listened to that woman pouring her heart out to Jesus. Her singing was true love and devotion that sprung from her deepest need. She wasn’t singing to please the congregation but to convey to Jesus her deepest hunger.

Knowing Jesus in that way requires that I admit that I am needy, and that I believe that Jesus is the answer to my needs. Like the many who walked away, I can find it challenging to be that vulnerable. I want to believe that I can manage. And mostly I do—until I don’t.

The woman crying out to Jesus in that North Philadelphia church still calls to me, inviting me to stay in touch with my poverty, reminding me that only Jesus is true bread and that I need him to survive.Jesus-faith-vulnerability

 

 

 

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God-vulnerability-prayer

Formed by God

This word came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Rise up, be off to the potter’s house…I went down to the potter’s house and there he was, working at the wheel. Whenever the object of clay which he was making turned out badly in his hand, he tried again, making of the clay another object of whatever sort he pleased. Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do to you…as this potter has done?…Indeed, like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand…” Jeremiah 18:1-6

I love pottery and started buying it when I was twenty. My collection grew quite large until a friend who was helping me pack for one of my many moves said, “New rule: no more pottery.”God-vulnerability-prayerThe uniqueness of each piece of hand-thrown pottery fascinates me.

It is understandable then that the image of the potter at his wheel in Jeremiah has always caught my attention. How I would love for God to tell me to go to a potter’s house!

I can easily imagine a lump of clay being shaped and reshaped. I imagine that some of the form comes from the potter and some of the form from the clay. It is a partnership—the potter’s concept and the clay’s malleability.

That, perhaps, is where using the potter and clay to analogize my relationship with God hits a snag. Am I as pliable as clay? Am I completely open to being shaped and reshaped? Unfortunately, I think not.

As I read these words of Scripture the other day, I tried to imagine how God would reshape me at this point in my life. What would I look like if I dropped all of my defenses and allowed myself to fall into a vulnerable heap? How would God remake me?

I have some sense of that level of vulnerability and defenselessness from times in my life when my hopes and expectations were not met (crushed, really), and I had to accept that I was not in charge. Those times of raising my arms in surrender, of giving myself completely to God, were freeing and also terrifying. Accepting my vulnerability and admitting I have no control is so very difficult for me.God-vulnerability-prayerAnd yet, I do know that God holds all the cards.

As I read these words from Jeremiah, I remembered my spiritual director’s suggestion that I start with a clean sheet and imagine my life. I actually did the exercise, which in itself is a sign of how God has reshaped me—all of my past spiritual directors can attest to my resistance to these types of suggestions. And, like other times when I have moved against my resistance, this exercise was very insightful.

Perhaps I need to start each day visualizing myself as an unshapen lump of clay, and ask God to shape me into a vessel that will be most useful to carry out God’s will on this day and.in this place.God-vulnerability-prayer

 

 

 

 

God-mindfulness-faith

Potential for growth

My mother has a large vegetable garden, and I usually come over at the beginning of May to get a jump on the weeds that tend to take over the raspberries. This year, I was away at the beginning of May, and the raspberries dropped off my radar.

Needless to say, the weeds are now overtaking the raspberry plants.

Talking to my spiritual director, I used the weedy raspberries as an example of just one more thing in my life that needs attention.

“Let’s stay with the image of the weeds and the raspberries,” she suggested. “Can the raspberries be saved or is it too late?” she asked. Good question. I knew she had moved on from the actual raspberry/weed problem and was talking about the “weeds” in my life that may be choking out my growth.

We started talking about what was working and what wasn’t in my life. I happened to mention that I had been eating a lot of comfort food recently. “Why do you need comfort food?” she asked. Another good question.

Then I told her about someone who had emailed me that morning asking for career advice. I suggested that this person “act and not react.” As I wrote those words, I knew I was also talking to myself.God-mindfulness-faithMy spiritual director suggested I start with a clean sheet of paper and imagine my life—how I want it to look, what I want to do, etc. She encouraged me to look at both my work life and my personal life. She also advised I not try to put new wine into old wine skins—she is big on looking to the future instead of the past.

I can get stuck in the past, even though I know that what once was will never be again and that what once worked might not work any longer.God-mindfulness-faith“Start where you already have clarity,” she recommended.

I have clarity around my personal life—being near my family, my house and garden, hobbies, interests, etc.

I also have clarity about working at the cancer support center. I am well suited to work with people who are facing cancer and even facing death; I can be with people in painful situations without running away or trying to minimize their experiences. The work can be difficult, though, and I am finding some parts of the job very challenging. Some parts just don’t get done and can feel like weeds choking me.

“Can you see everything as a blessing?” my spiritual director asked. She was full of good questions that day!

As I pondered her questions and prayed for insight, I realized just how much energy I give to what once was, to what I used to do and to past hurts and injustices.

What would be more helpful is to let go of the past, live in the present and visualize the future I want. Then I will be more like a well-weeded garden with lots of potential for growth.

God-mindfulness-faith

 

mindfulness-cancer-faith

Wisdom from my dad

I grew up in a bacon-loving family. When I was seventeen, some scientist discovered a connection between bacon and cancer. I immediately announced I would no longer eat bacon. My dad replied, “You think you are not going to die because you stop eating bacon? No one gets out of this life alive. Eat the bacon.”

Less than a year after that conversation, a friend was killed in Vietnam. At Lonnie’s funeral, I recalled my dad’s words and understood that not only do we not get out of this life alive, but some die very young.

I decided to eat bacon—in moderation.

My dad’s pragmatism and Lonnie’s death helped me develop a realistic view toward life and death.  mindfulness-cancer-faithThe cancer caregivers workshop I attended last month reminded me of my Dad’s admonition that “no one gets out of this life alive.” It also reminded me of the oncologist who treated Jim.

Jim’s oncologist was focused on what was best for Jim’s body—new treatments, a stay in the hospital, etc. Keeping Jim’s body alive was his priority, and he was frustrated when we would not do what he wanted. More than once, he warned that he would not continue to treat Jim if we did not go along with his directives.

He taught me the lesson that doctors treat.

Jim and I were more focused on Jim’s spirit. We knew Jim’s body was going to die—but that his spirit would live on. Our stance was that we are spirits inhabiting bodies rather than bodies that have spirits. We were more concerned that Jim’s spirit be at peace than keeping his body alive longer.

It was as if we were speaking two different languages. His oncologist could not understand why we would not try every possible treatment to keep Jim’s body alive—as if he did not know that Jim’s death was imminent.

The cancer caregivers workshop consisted of presentations followed by small group sessions. The presentations were given by doctors and other medical professionals who introduced a variety of mindfulness practices—breathing, movement, guided imagery, etc.—all within a medical context.

After working in adult education for ten years, I understand that adults learn best when instruction is contextualized. So, for medical people to understand new material, it is best to present it within a medical framework.mindfulness-cancer-faithI had lunch one day with a young doctor. He asked about my work and what I had learned from people facing cancer. I told him that I repeatedly hear that people don’t want to be told what they should, ought to or need to do. “I do that all the time,” he said. “And your patients probably don’t like it,” I replied. He looked stunned.

Perhaps it is time to reform medical training so that doctors and patients can speak the same language and be partners in care. Working together we can help people live healthier, fuller lives—while still understanding that no one gets out of this life alive.

 

 

God-vulnerability-faith

Suddenly

One of the readings at Mass on Pentecost Sunday was Acts 2:1-11. When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly…

The word suddenly caught my attention—and held it. Throughout the rest of Mass and in the days since then, I have been repeating it.

Everything changed for the disciples on the first Pentecost. In one moment, the old life was gone; a new life started.God-vulnerability-faithI thought of times in my life when suddenly everything changed. My own Pentecost experience on March 7, 1973, was a life-changing encounter with the Spirit. I had new hope and vision after that encounter. Life looked different; the possibilities seemed endless.

That was a good suddenly.God-vulnerability-faithThere have been other times, though, when things changed suddenly, but not in a positive way. Jim’s cancer diagnosis was like that. One day, he was fine and then, suddenly, he wasn’t. Life looked different, but the possibilities were not evident.

Fortunately for me, in between those two events—the first when I was twenty-one and the second when I was fifty-nine—I had plenty of other times when my life was going in one direction and then changed course. All of those course shifts taught me the importance of restoring balance as quickly as possible—and of trusting that no matter the direction, God was always with me.

But, why now did this word take hold? What is the significance?

I prayed for insight. Every time I found myself repeating the word, suddenly, I would ask God, “What is the invitation in this word?”

The next weekend at Mass, our pastor talked about personal missions—not going on mission or being a missionary—but rather having clarity about my specific mission, God’s plan for me with my exact history, gifts, skills and talents.

One would think that by my age, I would have great clarity about my life mission, especially since I have spent most of my life working in mission-driven nonprofits.

But then I think of Sarah and Elizabeth having babies in their old age, and I know that God does not have the same expectations of age that we do.

The thing about sudden events is that there is no way to anticipate them or to plan for them. But there is a way to live that makes it easier to receive them.

For me, that means letting go of expectations, dropping my defenses and keeping my cynicism in check. It means being open and vulnerable and willing to be born again in the Spirit.God-vulnerability-faithNext Friday is the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, an invitation to ponder unfathomable love and an invitation to keep my heart open to receiving and giving love. If I can do that, the Spirit’s sudden movement will be a breath of fresh air.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

vulnerability-faith-hope

Finding my voice

When I approached the presenter at the cancer caregivers workshop to share my reaction to her words about hope, she responded, “I wish you would have said that at the mic.”

At the end of each presentation, we were invited to come to the mic and ask questions or share reflections.

But, I don’t do that; I don’t share in front of groups.

Ironically, I love public speaking and have done a fair amount of it for my nonprofit work. But there is a difference between telling other people’s stories and sharing my personal stories. Other people’s, ok. My own, not so much.

As a child, I was told that what happened in our house stayed in our house. We also did not talk inside our house about anything that happened. I felt invisible, as if no one cared what I was going through—or even noticed that I was there. I didn’t seem to matter.
vulnerability-faith-hopeBy my late twenties, I was an emotional mess and started going to therapy to help me process growing up in a chaotic house and to reconcile my past.

However, growing up in a home where I was told never to talk about what happened made sharing extremely stressful. Every time words formed about an experience or feeling, an alarm would sound inside my head. Do not say that!vulnerability-faith-hopeI was incapable of identifying what I was feeling, much less talking about it.

Early on in therapy, I shared one of my earliest memories.

I was four years old, playing in my back yard, when I found a dime. What luck! Even at that young age, I knew a dime could buy me something special. I remember how shiny it was and how fortunate I felt. And then my older brother saw what I had and claimed it was his. “No!” I shouted. “It’s mine!” He tried to take it from me, and I knew he would triumph, so I swallowed it.

My therapist commented, “And you have been swallowing every challenge since them.”

I once heard Fr. Richard Rohr talk about our shadow side, and he described it as a sack where we stuff all the negative things from our lives. The image that popped into my mind was of something like Santa’s bag—this huge sack, dragging behind me. I could feel the weight of it pulling me back.

My shadow bag was filled with twenty-eight years of negative experiences that I had swallowed and tamped down deeper and deeper.

As I began to unpack my shadow bag in therapy and at retreats, and look at my history, I started to realize that surviving those experiences had made me who I was; they had made me strong and resilient. Learning to talk about it—especially at the mic—is still a work in progress.vulnerability-faith-hope

 

 

God-caregiving-cancer

Lessons from caregiving

During my friend Jim’s illness, we received many cards expressing care and concern; and then after his death, condolences. I recently came across one of the condolence cards. The message read:

I know Jim was/is a good man…a good friend and is sorely missed. But for you a great source of comfort must be what a friend you were to him.

 “What you do for the least of my brethren that you do unto me” really resonates—not that Jim could ever be considered the least but he was/is a beloved friend who needed help and you certainly gave it.

 You also deserve and I’m sure will have a high place in heaven when you meet again. Thank you for a wonderful lesson.

I had read this note six years ago, but reading it now, the last line caught my attention and I felt invited to a deeper understanding of my taking care of Jim.

For me, being a caregiver meant thinking of Jim first. When asked about anything else, I would say, “Right now, my focus is on Jim,” while gesturing with my hands to show my tunnel vision.God-caregiving-cancerI was committed to giving Jim as much independence as possible and letting him make as many decisions as possible.

I had learned this lesson from my mother. When I was a child, my Uncle Steve came to live with us when he got cancer; my mother cared for him until he died. The sacrifices she made for him, her brother-in-law, showed me what caregiving was all about.

Similarly, when my dad had a major stroke, my mother honored his wishes not to go to the hospital. We called in hospice, and my dad spent his last three months of life at home.God-caregiving-cancerSo, what I did for Jim was what my mother modeled for me. I was certainly not thinking of any lesson; I just did what I could for him. Only recently have I started to consider the magnitude of my caring for him.

The cancer in Jim’s brain weakened the right side of his body. Early on, he said, “I guess I have to become a lefty.” For most of the time he was sick, I was his right hand—bathing, dressing, shaving and feeding him. We walked up the stairs in tandem—his right foot resting on my left.

Jim was both very private and very proud. He did not want anyone else to help him. When he started to fall (one of the signs of end-stage brain cancer), it could take me up to forty-five minutes to get him up because he had so little strength to help. Once he was up, I would flex my biceps and joke that I was going to challenge Arnold Schwarzenegger to an arm-wrestling match.

Taking care of Jim was physically demanding; knowing that he was going to die soon was emotionally taxing; and putting his needs ahead of mine was spiritually enriching. So many lessons in one experience.God-caregiving-cancer