Sunday, July 28, 2019

A Confession at 22,000 Feet

A few years ago, Mike and I went to visit our daughter, Sarah who lived in Denver. We walked down the ramp boarding the plane and a man wearing cowboy boots turned to me and said, "If you're following me, I don't know where I'm going." I laughed, taking the edge off the anxiety that often comes when I fly.

We shared the row with this gentleman. Mike sat on the aisle, I was in the middle, and the gentleman with the cowboy boots  had the window seat. Mike brought a book to read, I had a small quilt to make, and the man brought nothing to do.

Shortly after we took off, he started talking to me. He was going to Denver to spend the week fishing with his sons, whom he had not seen for two years.

"I've been a truck driver for 30 years. I drive all over the country for a large company," he offered.

I asked a few questions about his work, and told him what Mike and I did.

That opened him up. He began.

"I've done a lot of things I'm not proud of. I fought in Viet Nam. I saw and did a lot of things I didn't want to do."

I set my stitching aside to look straight into his pale, blue eyes. He continued.

"I went to church, but people judged me for riding a motorcycle, for the clothes I wore, my tattoos, my job, my divorce. I want to be married, but I can't seem to hang on to a woman. Takes a special woman to stay married to a truck driver. I regret my marriage didn't last. I didn't go back to church. I feel what happens to me after I die is between me and God."

I listened and felt like I was hearing a confession. I told him I was sorry for his experience at church. I regret he didn't try another church and will only know God when he dies.

He continued to talk as I rested my hands on the small quilt for a baby shower in a few weeks.

"My wife didn't want the boys so I took them and raised them best I could. We skype and stay in touch that way."

"Sounds like you did a good job. Spending a week together will give you lots of time to talk."

"Yes, we'll have fun in the peace and quiet. I've got bear spray just in case!" he laughed.

"Oh, my! I pray you have a wonderful vacation."

"Thank you. We will."

Our conversation ended just as the "fasten seatbelt sign" flashed and the attendant alerted us the plane was making the final descent.

I took a few pins out of the little quilt. Quilting is a way I feel God's presence and holding the quilt provided a holy background for the outpouring of this gentleman's heart. As I folded the quilt to tuck away in my bag, I knew that all I heard and carried to God was held in the fabric resting on my lap.

Reflection Questions

1. When have you provided a listening ear for someone in an unexpected place?

2. Is it hard or easy to put down your agenda for the time and be completely present to another?

Prayer:  Thank you, God, for putting me next to this stranger who had a need to express thoughts living deep within his heart. Help me always to stay present to those I encounter and keep me mindful when I need to pause and listen to one of your children. Amen.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

"You Can't Force The Heart"

 Sue Monk Kidd's  ( author of The Invention of Wings, The Secret Life of Bees, and other novels) early writings appeared in Guideposts and other books and magazines addressing spiritual topics. One of my favorite pieces of her writing appeared in "Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life," November/December, 1990, The subject of the bi-monthly publication was "Compassion."

Sue described an experience when she was 12, visiting a nursing home with her church youth group. She wanted to go swimming with her friends on this particular day close to the end of summer, but her mother made her go to the church event.

Sue first visited an elderly woman whose appearance saddened her - "the worn down face, the lopsided grin, the tendrils of gray hair protruding from a crochet lavender cap." Sue gave the woman a bouquet of crepe paper flowers.

"The woman looked at her and said, "You didn't want to come, did you child?

The words stunned me. They were too painful, too powerful, too naked in their honesty. 'Oh yes, I wanted to come,' I protested.

A smile lifted one side of her mouth. 'It's ok,' she said. 'You can't force the heart.'"

My Own Heart Experience

Many  years later, after reading the article in Weavings, I had a similar experience. When I was employed as a speech pathologist at St. Vincent Hospital, Indianapolis, I worked two weekends a quarter. I worked an eight hour day on Saturday, but Sunday, I could keep my pager on, and only go in if there was an emergency.

One particular Saturday, I was tired, I wanted to stay home and dreaded going in. When I reached the hospital, checked the stack of patient folders left from Friday and started making my rounds. Most of my patients were on the neurology floor.

Entering one gentleman's room, a stroke patient, I introduced myself and explained what we were going to address. He looked at me and said, "You didn't want to come in today did you?"

He shocked me into reality. How could he know my thoughts - that I really wanted to be home spending time with my teenage daughter?

I stumbled for words, just like Sue did, and finally said, "Oh, no! I'm glad to be here."

What betrayed my heart? Was it something in my facial expression or demeanor that conveyed my true feelings? Even though he'd had a stroke, he was able to perceive what I did not want to express.

When I walked out of his room forty-five minutes later, I remembered Sue Monk Kidd's article.

I couldn't force my heart. My face had betrayed me and the compassion I wanted to convey to this patient as well as to all my other patients that day was empty and gone. I was dishonest with God, with myself and especially with a patient I wanted to serve.

The Rest of My Day

Walking up and down the hospital halls seeing patients the rest of the day, I asked God to take my weariness and give me strength so I could be present and focus sincerely on each person I encountered. I did receive energy as the day progressed and felt the return of heartfelt compassion which I usually brought to my work.

When I drove home reflecting on the day, I realized I needed to be honest with God before I left home especially on the Saturdays I worked, in order to have a heart ready to give care that would honor God, despite what I was feeling. Putting "myself on the shelf" for the duration of my work is attainable with God.

For your Reflection

1. Have there been times when you didn't want to go or do something, personally or professionally, but had to? What was your experience?

Prayer: God, many times our feelings surface in ways that prevent us from being as sincere and compassionate as we desire. Sometimes we do have to force our hearts, to go through a day when we are overcome with our own struggles, desires or fatigue. Help us remember Jesus' words, "Come to me all who are weary and heavy and I will give you rest." Hold and carry our hearts and give us strength to complete our tasks until we can rest in you.  Amen.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Sustaining Presence of Rituals

Ritual - an established procedure for a religious or other rite; a book of rites or ceremonies.

Almost everyone has rituals for beginning their day - awakening, a shower, eat, got to work, stay at home, have lunch, dinner, sleep. That's a basic outline with many individual modifications.

Athletes sometimes observe rituals before a game - eating certain foods, listening to favorite music and wearing specific clothes. Before I jump into the water to swim, I ask God to bless my time as I go back and forth, making these moments holy and meditative.

My ritual each morning links me to God, shortly after I awaken. I go to my desk, say the Lord's Prayer out loud twice, pray for my family and friends, record my gratitude from the previous day, reflect on a few verses of scripture and if an image surfaces, I record it. These practices are observed before I go downstairs, ground my day in God.

Now that I am retired, I have the luxury of spending more time in the morning reading the Bible and in prayer. When I worked, however, I developed an abbreviated form of centering, using my 30 minute commute to pray and then read a prayer before I got out of my car. Sometimes, it's necessary to be creative and find a meaningful ritual with God.

Coffee Ritual

The March, 2016, issue of The Oprah Magazine, had a short feature called "Coffee Mate." The author describes how she got to know the barista who filled her coffee order each morning. He always greeted her with a smile and asked how her day was going. She, in turn, got to know him as he shared stories about his family and desire to return to school. She said, "I've never told him my last name, yet he knows me from the milestones to the minutiae. Sure, he's a total stranger, but when he asks how I'm doing, he actually wants to know."

My daughters, Sarah and Anna, stop each morning for coffee on their way to work. They enjoy a light camaradarie and familiarity with the baristas who take their orders. When I asked Sarah, what she thought about "Coffee Mate," she replied, "It's all about the ritual."

And it is. There is something sustaining and familiar about being greeted by the same person at the coffee shop each day. Often the barista has the coffee waiting before an order is placed. Exchanging pleasantries and conversations builds a connection that can be foundational for the day.

Rituals to Sustain in Challenging Circumstances and Illness

Rituals can offer secure attachments for all stages of life. For moments of celebration, such as a birthday or graduation, we often have cake with words honoring the occasion, scripted on the top. Inivtations are sent, family and friends gather. Cards and gifts find their way to the person of honor. We know the pattern for celebration - the ritual for gathering and honoring has been set in place for many generations.

Daily living also brings challenges, such as a job loss or serious illness as well as frustrations or inconveniences like a broken computer, a tooth crown that comes off, glitches in event planning or a flat tire. Rituals to sustain in these circumstances can involve coming to church.

I grew up attending the Episcopal Church. Its Book of Common Prayer contains all of the services of worship for the calendar year. Holy Communion is celebrated the first Sunday of the month, followed by three Sundays that use the service of Morning Prayer. For the occasional fifth Sunday, Morning Prayer is repeated.

Despite living in an unpredictable, chaotic home, I knew what to expect each Sunday. I came to love the comforting presence of the ritual that became familiar over the years. The words and liturgy buried deeply in my heart, grounding me closer to God.

The January 18, 2016 Patheos blog, had an article about the importance of liturgy, written by Jonathan Algner who lives with depression. "The Black Dog, The White Pill and Liturgy," offers Algner's thoughts:

"If it wasn't for liturgy, I really might have been done. My depression is worlds better than it was last fall, but there are still times when I feel disconnected. I don't always feel my faith. I don't always feel God's presence. I don't always believe.

But I still go to church, and I say, sing and pray when my heart is often unable to do. Even when I don't believe, I say it (the liturgy) anyway. 'I believe in God, the Father Almighty ....' Even when I don't mean it I pray anyway, 'They kingdom come, they will be done...' Even when words fail, I listen anyway, 'The Body of Christ broken for you. The blood of Christ, shed for you." And I know that I am no longer alone. It's restoring. Renewing. Reconciling.

And it's life giving. Even if all I can do is muster the energy to show up and do my job, the ritual of the liturgy, the word and sacrament, nourishes my faith at its weakest points and gives me strength to carry on.'"

Questions for Reflection

1. What rituals form your day?

2. What rituals are meaningful in worship and help practice your faith?

Prayer: God, part of our forming closer to your image involves rituals to increase an awareness of your presence to sustain us at all times. Guide us as we seek you each day. Amen.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

The Value of Pauses

Pause - a temporary stop or rest, especially in speech or action; a cessation of activity because of doubt or uncertainty; a moment of hesitation.

A few years ago,  I tunneled through frenzied Christmas shoppers at a local mall to reach a place of quiet in the second floor movie theater. My youngest daughter, Anna, had seen the movie "Brooklyn" in mid-November and thought I would enjoy it too. Since I was spending a few days with Anna at the end of the week, I wanted to make sure I saw it before our reunion.

My friend, Emily, who was almost twenty, joined me. After the movie I appreciated her observations giving me a youthful perspective on the plot.

The story was about a young, Irish woman, Eilis, who ventured to New York City to start a new life. She lived in a boarding house, found a job in a department store and quickly met a charming young man. Although her early months go smoothly, she misses her mother and sister.

Pauses in the Movie

Throughout the movie, I was captured by pauses that occurred. "Brooklyn" wasn't fast-paced, the plot evolved slowly and deliberately.

The pauses occurred in many spots, more than I remembered in most movies. When her boyfriend told Eilis he loved her, she paused, looked at him, put her face down and walked away. The audience was held in suspense wondering what she would say to an expression of love early in their relationship. Her pause and non-verbal reply seemed appropriate.

Whenever Eilis received letters from home, she held them in her hand before opening. Her pause  reflects her anticipation and excitement for the greetings from her mother and sister.

One day at the store, Eilis saw the priest of the church she attended and watched him move slowly toward the counter. She paused in the middle of a sale and watched his actions. Her affect continued without expression as the customer leaves. The priest paused, trying to find words to deliver the news of her sister's unexpected death.

Pauses in the movie illustrated the value of taking time to reflect before responding or experiencing the gift of a letter communicating unknown, but treasured contents, and wondering about the visit of a priest to a place of employment.

Pauses in everyday life offer space to think before speaking or writing. Quick answers during conversation can result in words not chosen well or feelings expressed in anger. Taking a few moments to pause before answering can lead to healthier and more meaningful conversation. The odds of harmful words or inappropriate expressions can decrease when pauses happen.

How Did Jesus Pause?

In John chapter 8, verses 1-22 Jesus was confronted by the teachers of the law and the Pharisees when they brought a woman to him who had committed adultery.

"Teacher," they said to Jesus. "this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. In our law Moses commanded that such a woman must be stoned to death. Now, what can you say?" They said this to trap Jesus so that they could accuse him."

Now this question carried great meaning and importance as Jesus was being "put to the test" so to speak by well-respected people in authority. Jesus, however, took a moment to pause before answering. He bent over and wrote in the ground - or as some described "in the dust that covered the land." His pause caused the Pharisees to pause, too, which might have increased their distress over not receiving an immediate answer.

Jesus finally replies, "Whichever one of you has committed no sin may throw the first stone at her."

After Jesus answered the question, he paused again, bent over a second time to write on the ground.

The Pharisees and teachers did not receive the answer they expected, so they went away.

Jesus demonstrated that pausing to reflect before answering questions is an important part of communication.

Can We Pause Today?

Pauses in our age seem few and far between. We push the pause button on movies to get more food or use the bathroom and then resume our feature. Often our answers to questions are "rapid fire," so we can move on to other topics. The art of pausing to reflect on an answer before speaking can give us time to collect our thoughts, to organize words so we can say what we want to convey.

Pauses in conversation are often seen as "awkward silences," but this awkwardness can give those engaging in conversation valuable time to reflect on what has been said, plan words and put together sentences that are most helpful.

A Way to Pause Last Lent

I recently found a book that I used during the past Lent called Pauses for Lent - 40 Words for 40 Days. The author invited the reader "to make a commitment to pause during each day of Lent, to read each brief meditation, and reflect on the word for the day." I appreciated the way the art of pausing created space in my life to listen to God and have continued to pause more frequently during my days to hear God's voice.

Emily and I left the movie theater chatting about our impressions. We were touched by the poignant scenes when Eilis said good-bye to her mother and sister before leaving Ireland. Emily focused on Eilis' character development throughout the movie, while I mentioned the pauses. The pauses framed tender moments in the movie making each one stand out in importance.

Later that evening, I remembered how Jesus paused twice before responding to the Phariseses. I appreciated the pauses practiced during Lent, encorporating the practice in every day life.

Prayer: Pausing seems counter-cultural, God, in our busy world where we are so connected with others, but must be intentional to stay connected to you. Guide our moments to include pauses when we can stop and reflect, for in these pauses we can seek you for words or insight as a way to dwell deeper in you. Amen.