Friday, December 31, 2010

people all around

I am ending the year with a collage of faces that are unexpected and which affect me deeply. Laura is a large woman, probably forty five, no coat, trudging down Hwy 27 on her way north. She has mental illness, and religious delusions. A voice has instructed her to 'go north.' Very bad advice, considering the weather. So she lumbers north on the highway, with no destination in mind and no resource. There is no warm home waiting for her, no friend wondering where she is (apparently - I hope I am wrong.) She cries and mumbles prayers as she goes.

Ashley is 25. She has two young children, ages 2 and 4. Two weeks ago her husband beat her so severely that she has been crippled in her back, tense with pain. She too is trudging up Hwy 27 without a coat. She says she is going to Georgetown, stubbornly making her own way - she will walk. She is carrying a small square box that contains a carton of cigarettes and a few personal affects. Her mother is stoned on drugs and has just kicked her out of the house, her last refuge upon release from the hospital. She does not have the health insurance to pay for her needed surgery. Christmas has been hell. The children are with their grandfather. She is also crying. She prays every night in desperation.

And then there is the woman who cuts hair, today with too few customers and too much debt. She wears a brave and positive face, but has spent Christmas at war with her second ex husband who attacked her in November. They have been to court already, without much sympathy from the judge. She has just read The Shack. She wonders if she could know a God like that who would not judge her. God - or maybe a man - this is what she needs. She has signed up on a dating site and is choosing her profile picture.

This is my town, 2011.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

a Christmas Miracle

"Think of it this way," my friend said. "My dumbness has hurt lots of people. If God can use my dumbness to make someone feel happy, I think that would be a great thing."

It happened on Christmas's eve's eve. I had declared the day The Day of Marilyn. I told my men that I needed a quiet day. A day of peace and thought to still my soul before all the Christmas hullabuloo. So when the day started I prayed. I prayed that God would show me how to use my day. That God would unfold what might be good for my soul.

I began by driving to my office to finish up a small project. When I got there I was surprised by an e-message from a friend - and on it was a piece of scripture. I printed it off and stuck it to the front of my car so I could read it now and then during the day.

Second, I mailed a box to my kid in Indonesia and then thought to call a dear friend and have a light lunch together. I had been promising her forever, and I love to be with her. She was delighted and we chose simply - Appleby's soup and salad combo.

Lunch was average. The service was non-descript. When the bill came, a mere $17 something. I said I would pay. I pulled a twenty out of my purse and then added four ones. I thought, this is Christmas. I will be generous. How generous I am!

The waitress came back with the folder and change and I said to her, "Oh no, I don't need change. It is for you. Merry Christmas." Silly me. The waitress said, "Really?" I said, "Of course. It is for you. Enjoy." Enjoy your $6.82.

She picked up the folder and held it to her breast. "Thank you!" she said. "This has never happened to me before. Thankyou!" I felt confused, and started getting that sick kind of feeling in my belly. Hmmmm.

I didn't want to say anything much to my friend so I just kept on conversing. The waitress came back and knelt by our table. She said, "Really, I want to thank you. You don't know what this means to me. It has never happened to me. I can really use it."

[This was clearly not the time to say, "Could I just check that change again?"]

I knew now that I had put something in the cash that I was unaware of. I was desperately trying to figure it out while smiling and looking calm and cheerful. I didn't know what to say, and what I said was kind of dumb. "Apparently God loves you." I smiled. Apparently.

After I took my friend home I looked at my cash and found that I had given a twenty and three ones and a hundred dollar bill. It was my grocery money. I looked out the window at the brown grimy snow. It had been a kind of 'forced generosity." Sitting buckled into my car, engine running, my purse spilled onto my lap, I started laughing. And i phoned a friend to tell her the story.

"If I knew that God had wanted me to do this," I said, "I would feel better. But I think it was just me being dumb." That was when my friend said the brilliant thing I needed to hear. "My dumbness has hurt lots of people. If God used my dumbness to make someone feel happy, I think that would be a great thing." Touche.

on gentleness

I am reading (read that as 'am reading' and 'have been reading' and 'will be reading') Come Creator Spirit, by Raniero Cantalamessa. Currently the thoughts are focused on the anointing of the Spirit.

The Spirit, he writes, makes the trials and pain of life bearable, even gentle: in labore requies, in aestu temperies - rest in weariness and cool refreshment in heat.

The idea of gentleness has been an organizing principle of my thinking for some years now. Gentleness is a disposition of character that is both tender and strong, expressing energy in truth, love, self control, openness etc. Gentleness is the antithesis of manipulation, the sister of self regulation, the mother of loving justice and mercy. A gentle person is sometimes called an 'old soul' (although there are other meanings to 'old soul') because, I think, one has to have responded to life in a certain way to find gentleness. Gentleness is twinkling wisdom, humble power, ragged beauty and sips of the best wine.

That the Holy Spirit comes to us as rest in weariness and cool refreshment in heat for the purpose of gentling our lives is an idea I want to run into. I find myself at the end of a year of labor, longing, faithful attention to life and persons, diligence to a sometimes ridiculously crowded calendar and heartfelt concern for many situations, in a state of inner tension. I have a pinched nerve in my soul. smile

So this advent, Come Creator Spirit. Spirit who makes life gentle. Who teaches me gentleness. Who defuses my self promotion and self concern and brings me by the hand into laughing conversations. Come Creator Spirit, my rest, my refreshment, and show me the baby whose coming means that I am not destined to live by my own devices, but I can allow myself to be led into green pastures.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

on the great contexts

"I owe this book to ten years of conversations and company with extraordinary men and women. While we made use of the guises of student and teacher, therapist and client, researcher and subject, colleague and colleague, in order first to meet, I want to thank them here as the persons they are, before, during and after all these roles - persons who let me learn with them and from them. ... If I cannot always say who is speaking I can at least identify, and gratefully acknowledge, the person and arrangements that make up the context from which I speak."

I am reading Robert Kegan's book, The Evolving Self. I am reading this to push new questions into my ponderings, to extend my understanding of how people grow and what matters, to expand the context in which I think about human formation.

And then I stumble across an acknowledgement at the beginning of the book - and I sit here, stunned and full of thought. (At this rate it will take me months to read this book.) With a small bunch of words Kegan has cracked open my sometimes selfish sense of 'me' and given me words to express the real experience of life as I have known it.

We meet people using guises. We come to each other as pastor and seeker, as teacher and student, as colleague to colleague but we are, first and last, people. The learning is passed from one to another especially when we let the other see our true humanity. Getting beyond the guises is something I have long pursued. But they serve us. They bring us together in the beginning and if we are wise, we move beyond them.

And when we speak we speak from our own experience or what we have heard and learned and very often we do not know who is speaking, if we are honest. If there had been no rich context of so many other lives we would have nothing to say. That is fact. So who can say who is talking? We can say, though, that we are part of a rich context that is so tightly woven as to be part of our very souls.

Right now, I know I am speaking and Robert Kegan is helping me speak. And you are part of my words. Part of the understanding and experience that makes my thought possible.

So ... I put these lines out into the stream ~

What does this say about 'the great cloud of witnesses' who provide the context for our faith? What of my faith is really their voices speaking? And how can this understanding give us courage to do our small part in participating in the lives of other people, in their faith journey, in their journey to find meaning and courage to live?

And how can we learn to use and discard guises that bring us together and enable conversation? I don't mean that we throw off all roles and responsibilities to and for each other. That would mean chaos. I just mean - how can our actual interactions (flowing from our deepest understanding of the sacredness of a person) be changed simply by how we see people. (Every one of us knows when we are not considered valuable - no matter what the other person is putting on or saying.) The human person is a profound treasure. Things we measure that person by - from lines on their face to the girth of their panus (waistline, so Vincent tells me) - these are like mud caked on a diamond. Or things like possessions - even possession of intellect, special knowledge, abilities - functional development - these might determine a person's contribution but not the value of what they bring as a person.

I am also reading Thomas Keating - Foundations of Centering Prayer. I know - what happened to reading a good novel? On the pages I am reading he is talking about the humiliation that true self knowledge brings. Self knowledge is about a ray of light shining on our hidden darkness, the place of our greatest self deception. Self knowledge brings humiliation at first, and then a proper humility of knowing our true selves - in the glory and the darkness of being human.

These two books are being served to me out of one cup. I feel a well of gratefulness swelling up in my heart for all the wonderful and exceptional people who have been part of my life for a moment or a year or decades. I know that you are my rich context of learning and growth and joy and pain and all of this together is the gift enabling me to speak.

Merry Christmas my friends - my great cloud of witnesses - my people for life and my people for a moment.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Tragic News from Canada

This came to me from a Canadian friend. Canadian humor. I am still laughing.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

cookies or no cookies - that is the question

A small choice at our church has created the platform for a small discussion. Here's the situation - on Sunday mornings we have coffee in our lobby between services. Not Starbucks, not a coffee bar, just good hot coffee. On these two Sundays before Christmas we have also have several trays of cookies with the coffee.
So, on Sunday, the lobby was electric with cookies. Well, maybe that is an slight exaggeration. But it's not exaggerating to say that there was more lingering, more laughing, more gathering around cookie in hand, than normal. I loved it ... somehow the small act of generosity created a moment. A festive moment. A kitchen table moment.

The discussion then, is whether we should spend to provide cookies on these two Sundays, when a church we partner with in Canada sometimes can't pay their heating bill. We do not NEED cookies - certainly. Our collective heft proves that. And there are real needs all around us, some more poignant than others. It hurts my heart to say it, but there are no doubt families in our church who have trouble paying their heating bill.

So.. what about it? This is a tricky question because there are so many ditches to fall in on either side. Extremes, subtleties and specifics abound to complicate any opinion.

But in principle, I am for the cookies. The reason is simple: we all need moments of generosity. I have lived in poverty and when I found ways to be generous, even then, I became rich. Generosity is not the property of abundance. Generosity flowing out of need is stunningly beautiful. And in my life, it has been those times of shared need when shared generosity has been at its best. Think fish and loaves that become a feast. I remember Judy Rollins, my neighbor with whom I shared one roll of toilet paper on a hot month in June. We both had three kids - we were both on the edge financially - and we would have our kids run the roll back and forth when it was needed. I have learned more about generosity in those times than in times of abundance.

My second reason is based on the understanding that God is everlastingly generous. The character of God is rife with abundance, joyous communion and generous hospitality. He gives until he has given himself away.

But I hear the push back - when we put cookies by the coffee we are not simply giving to ourselves? Feathering our own nest? I draw from my experience as a mother to think about this. I learned in the nineties that the best gift I can give my family and community is my own wellness. To choose for my wellness feels selfish, often, and everything in me can fight against it. But from my wellness flows my home, the gifts of my life, rest for the souls of my family and those who come through my life. Some people don't have beds, but I will work to put warm quilts on my beds. And then I will fill those beds. Some people are hungry, but I will put a meal on my table whenever I am able, and sit with people, and listen and talk and laugh together over food. Some people don't have order, but I will do the work to create order in my life and invite people into the peace of it.

Somehow when we put out the plate of cookies we are saying that life is valuable, generosity is God-like, and for this moment we are living in the abundance of God. It is a moment of sacred remembering. It is a sacrament of a lower order.

So, I have learned that generosity is not about what you have. It is about how you think. And I think the cookies are some of that.

Monday, December 6, 2010

on seeming to be

One dilemma I am aware of is an inner conflict of desires - wanting to live out of who I uniquely am, and also wanting to fit in. For me, this conflict is played out between wanting to be free to be the (slightly) ridiculous woman I am, while knowing I represent so much of what people want to experience as a 'mature Christian woman.' I am not sure the two are in conflict, but they can SEEM to be in conflict. Am I willing to 'seem' to be something or content to simply be it?

Let me give an example. To date I have not donated money directly to the seminary where I work. Ah... don't misread me. I frequently give to those who attend the seminary. I give to students who are in a crisis, help out in areas that don't have funding, contribute meals and household goods, donate gifts for events, money to couples who desperately need a date, and help with groceries and expenses for families who are under stress. Stuff like that.

Because I do not give in the official ways my name is not on the published giving list. And I wonder, do I want to 'seem' generous or do I want to simply BE generous ... even though I don't seem to be.

I guess this is about the opinions of others. You might say those opinions don't matter, but in fact our reputations hang on them. And our reputations are one of our most valuable assets.

My antenna are up this season with sensitivity for the working (and unemployed) poor. I pass the Salvation Army buckets every day.My heart wants to put money into every box - to seem generous. I want each worker to know that I care, that I am glad they are doing their part, that I am aware of the empty cupboards in our area. But then, this is just seeming, isn't it? I decided that I will give in a certain way, but that I will look every bell ringer in the face and tell them thank-you for doing this. And merry Christmas!

So every day I keep choosing. Seeming to be or just being. Seeming is a lot easier. Being takes courage.