Longing and Belonging

The idea of the spiritual, another realm of existence that is intricately woven into where I live my everyday life, is about surrender, rather than control.  I hold too tightly to trying to “figure it out.”  It is  true that I want to push, to find, to search, to strive to see; to be in the metaphoric light, to see what is in front of me.  I’m already forgetting what is. I have relationships that sustain me. I’ve always had a job and a place to live.  There is always meaningful work to do. However, like yesterday, I am derailed by comparisons to “others” named and unnamed who seemingly have, do, or are ….. and expecting — it doesn’t even matter what– to meet my constructed standard.

The real dilemma is that I want to belong, to have a place to stand– that is valued by the world.That is what seems to be elusive, no matter where I am.

In the book whose title I borrowed, longing and belonging, Allison Pugh considers how children and parents in particular interpret and use the ubiquitous consumer culture to construct belonging. I do that too, I consider the whacked out hierarchy that my academic world holds up as true, even though I can pay attention to another way of seeing.

Much like the hunger that Marjorie Thompson likens to “an empty stomach aching beneath the sleek coat of a seemingly well-fed creature, it reveals that something is missing from the diet of our rational, secular, and affluent culture.”

What am I missing?  Frederick Buechner in The Longing for Home ends with the notion that

The danger is that we hold on only to the moments that one way or another heal us and bless us and neglect the others… Woe to all of us if we stay only in the bright uplands of the Gospels and avoid like death, avoid like life, the dark ravines, the cave under the hill.

Bad things and even not so bad things that seem discouraging happen.  What do I do with those?  Underneath, above, around and through the dark and unknown places there is another, a Source, a Presence that blesses my struggle. There are moments and even many days when I don’t think the “right” thing; when I ponder the worst case scenarios and wallow around in the dark ravines.

I wonder, if like some others, will I always be on this journey?  Is there a promised land or is this it– what I can see but don’t continually live in.  I wonder and yet do see glimmers of hope in now.  Buechner’s piece ends with this ineffable mystery; that we know the divine presence in our experience of unknowing.

Another way of seeing…

Gratitude for what is, what you are now, and to move toward the edge of possibility…   

I heard these words this morning.  I’ve come across that “edge” idea on a couple of occasions.  One, in exercise, means to take yourself to the edge.  This means that as I squat down slowly, heals up, balancing on my toes, my arms extended straight out in front of me; my legs are shaking, trembling uncontrollably.  Another edge is in academic work.  Now emeritus, Dr. M., didn’t just encourage, but demanded that what we did, how we considered what to study, began at the edge of what was now known.  In other words, I am expected to jump off that cliff or at the very least to lean forward enough to solidly peer over it.

What is the edge of possibility?   As I begin a new semester doing what I’ve been doing for a while, what could be new?  It is so easy to settle.  To settle in, settle for…to comfortably sit, not near the edge, but way back where I know it is safe; where I can be successful for now or not expect too much.

It is not personal striving, I need to make that clear to myself.  It is not working harder to reinvent the wheel, what has already been done.  Going to the edge of what is possible means to push the limits of what I know and have experienced so that I actively look for newness, the unexpected, beyond what I know is possible.  Possible is a limiting word.  What might I learn or experience if I do go to the edge; even the edge of what I’ve done many times before from another perspective?

I’m reminded of Patrick Overton’s poem that when we walk to the edge there will be something solid for us to stand on or we will learn to fly. 

So, it is possible to believe six impossible things before breakfast, I just have to be on the edge where I have another view.  And probably loosen my grip… let go, even a bit.

What if God was one of us?

One of my favorite television shows was Joan of Arcadia– yes, like Joan of Arc, she saw her own kind of vision. Joan, a teenager, encountered God– a physical form of God– in seemingly everyday people. This form of God challenged her to take some kind of action or risk that eventually resolved a previously unknown dilemma  or supported another person on their journey through a particular life event.  The refrain of the theme song I can hear now,

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make his way home

That isn’t even the part I think I want to talk about though or maybe it is.  Although God does walk “around in muddy boots, sometimes rags and that’s the truth,” as Carrie Newcomer so eloquently sings.

Joan, in the TV show, did very ordinary everyday things that responded to an ordinary everyday need.  This example will no doubt conflate several episodes but you will get the point.  “God” was sometimes a custodian changing a light bulb at her school, a child swinging on the playground, or a young man with tattoos, spiked hair, and face piercings that she met on the bus.  Sometimes when she was encouraged to “do something” or “pay attention” she wasn’t sure about the what.  The point was that she did it; asking the lady who was crying on the bus if she needed some help to end up babysitting for the lady’s terminally ill child so the mother could attend class that evening.  And, along with the support she builds an incredible relationship, even in the short term, with a child who caused her to learn more about life from his perspective.

Richard Foster in the introduction to Celebration of Discipline discusses “three empowering catalysts” in his own life. Two he termed “sharp and dramatic encounters” and the third that was “protracted and inconspicuous.”  These were amazing stories of events and people that foregrounded those things that come in our lives that are beyond our control yet are what a friend calls “cosmic flirts.”  Things that make you consider or know a path or truth for your own life even if you don’t know how to get there yet.

So I guess I’m wondering now where this is going. When I started it seemed to be that I wanted to be a catalyst. And I still do.

However, I’m thinking of the little nudges; casual comments, not so casual expectations, and those hidden thoughts that I am even sometimes afraid to think might be true. It’s so much easier to focus on what could be instead of what I can do in the moment to be. It takes courage and a catalyst to take a step into the dark of the unknown.

Thinking back to Joan…is that how God works?

Framing a Life

I’m not a planner.  At least I don’t think I am.  One of the things I cherish about my days now is that I don’t have to get up and leave my house each morning.  I do get up early, write first, do some “work” that includes emails, writing, learning kind of things like reading & figuring out, and planning for class or meetings.  I have flexibility in how I structure my time for the majority of time.

For a prolific thinking and feeling recluse, this kind of freedom can be a little messy but I like messy structure. They can coexist.  I am learning that I don’t have a “plan”– that kind of structure– but I do have a framework. What is the difference?  A lot.

What I have to do everyday isn’t tied to my job or even the running of my household.  It is necessary for the running of my overall self.  Here begins another paradox.

I must read something everyday that elevates me.  This is the part I’m not sure I know how to explain.  What I read; a novel, a memoir, the bible, or a spiritual classic–old or new is not as critical as how I read.  When i say “elevates” I don’t mean that  it makes me more important– actually I forget myself–the part of myself that wants to be in charge, important, and foremost in my mind.  A space is created to remember that there is another realm of reality, another way to expand my view, another One who is intricately woven in.

I probably need an example here, to show you rather than just tell you.  I continually struggle with the question of what do I do and what does God do in my life.  The problem is the dichotomy, the first part anyway.  The second is that it isn’t so simple as either or.

Feeling a bit anxious about what to do on a recent day, I happened– okay probably a prime example of the combination of the two “do’s”– upon Frederick Buechner’s piece on anxiety. Buechner surmises that Paul, writing to the Phillipians to “have no anxiety about anything” does not deny, try to minimize or explain what happens away as God’s will, judgement, or testing our spiritual fiber.

He simply tells the Philippians that in spite of them–even in the thick of them–they are to keep in constant touch with the One who unimaginably transcends the worst things as the One also unimaginably transcends the best.

A framework.  Another way to consider that my spiritual self is my real self. And even to be so bold to know that this One and I are there together.  Now, this doesn’t mean that when I go about my day I don’t get sucked into the world as one of my wise sixth grade friends says; but it does mean I don’t have to stay there.

Choosing Each Day

Choosing life.  Choosing each day whom and what to follow.  Choosing each day how to pay attention and respond to what is and even seeing it as what could be.  I do believe this is a choice I make each day that counts.  There aren’t wasted days or days with nothing important that happens really.

This truth flowed through these words from Mitch’s sermon last week about Moses.

Why didn’t Moses get to enter the Promised Land?  If anyone had earned some time in the land of rest, it was the one who had worked more tirelessly than anyone to get the people there.  So why was he left on the outside looking in?  If that were the end of the story we would have have have to say that the summation of his life would only involve “He didn’t make it.  He missed out.”  You never see an obituary like that.

This sermon, based on the old testament story from Deuteronomy 34, recounted Moses’ final look at the promised land before his death and then his “obituary” if you will.  Mitch titled the sermon “An Unfinished Life” imagining that Moses would say he wasn’t “finished” with this life when he died. However, the lesson is how he lived his days not how he finished.

Part of [his story] Moses could tell and part would have to be told after he died.  First, the part he could tell.  You’ve heard about Moses and the burning bush; of enduring the plagues in Egypt before Pharaoh allowed the people to leave; of being chased by the Egyptians into the Red Sea and crossing on dry ground; of surviving the people’s grumbling, moaning, complaining, hunger and thirst in the barren wilderness when they all thought they were going to die as they marched toward the Promised Land. More mumbling, groaning and complaining, “Why did God send us out here just to die, we should have just stayed back in Egypt.”

Then God complied, “I’ll give them water.  Speak to the rock and from the rock it will come.” Moses mad, frustrated, and tired of people’s complaints at anything and everything– didn’t speak to the rock, but instead hit the rock.  In fact he lashed the rock. The people got water and Moses got heartbreaking words.

The heartbreaking words, that he wouldn’t go into the promised land are heard for me to hear.  I want happy endings.  But if I focus just on this part, on this disappointment however great, I miss the more important story.

After his death, what people remembered, or at least the writer of Deuteronomy chose to record for all time, was that Moses’ “eyesight was stellar and his energy never wained.”

…I think it means that Moses saw things that others didn’t see and that he didn’t give up when others gave up long ago. His obituary continues. His influence with other people was far reaching.  He had been an influence in Joshua’s life; so much so that people of Israel respected and followed Joshua because of what Moses had meant to Joshua and taught Joshua.

These verses indicate that the Lord know Moses “face to face”, knew him intimately and personally.

Do you think knowing the Lord face-to face means that you begin to look like God?  To resemble God’s character, to become similar in actions, attitudes and behavior?  Read on…He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders the Lord sent him to perform and for the mighty deeds and displays of power that he did perform.  Does that seem to mean that he did what God asked?  Even though he didn’t make it to the Promised Land, people were changed and people’s lives were influenced because of who he was and what he did.

This part wasn’t in the sermon but a few chapters before the writer of Deuteronomy reminds: We have set before us each day life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life.  These are choices that matter.

God Alone

god alone

This gate is the entry to the monks’ side of Gethsemani, the trappists’ monastery in Kentucky where I spent Mother’s Day weekend this year.  I was on the waiting list and this weekend was the first opening and perfect timing for my retreat there.  I didn’t think too much about these gates that were visible out my room’s window.  Instead I often looked at the small pond that was at the top of the steps in the photograph, a beautiful garden where I never saw a monk.  Actually, I entered the retreat house door that was directly across from this gate, a gate that was not open to me as a guest.

What strikes me now are the words “God Alone” that I came across in my morning pages from early in June. I’d already spent the weekend at the retreat house with the monks of the Abbey and was reading The Practice of the Presence of God, a compilation of writings of Brother Lawrence, a Carmelite monk in the 17th century.

On the day I wrote the pages I was avoiding something that was uncomfortable, that challenged my ego– or how I “looked” to others, feeling out of place, inadequate or self concious. Thinking about my resistance I wrote, “when I feel self-conscious or scared I’m thinking too much about myself;” quite a revelation for me.

Part of Brother Lawrence’s wisdom is that when he had an “outside” (he lived in a monastery) duty or upcoming event he didn’t think too much about it beforehand. He developed a satisfaction with what he did in God’s presence.

His example teaches people like me not to perseverate, as I sometimes (I changed from ‘often’ because I am learning) do, about what I will do and how it will go or even if I should go.

Brother Lawrence’s work as a monk was for God alone. To do something for “God Alone” I think means to take the human out of it, which I didn’t get at first and is becoming clearer.  To take the human out of my action means to take myself out of it…whatever the “it” I am doing.  To be unselfconscious– to not consider how I will look or what will happen to me or how/what it will do for me but to pay more attention to the people and the task before me.

To let God alone be in charge of the outcomes.

Decisions

Yesterday I had a big decision to make.

Well, actually it seemed like a big decision but it wasn’t. You see the washing machine wasn’t working…most of the time. The repairperson came, on time. He quickly accessed quick fixes like the machine was unbalanced on the sloping basement floor.  The basket couldn’t spin properly bumping up against the front of the machine. And, there is a problem of too much soap; filling the cap full, a learned practice reinforced by the size of the cap. Why didn’t the manufacturer change the size if that is all you are supposed to use in newer machines? Does anyone read the directions on a bottle of detergent?

Now to the decision. Technically, according to the diagnostic computer assessment, there was nothing wrong. “From my experience,” he said, “the control panel is going out. You can replace it with a new one or with a refurbished one, that will work fine—it is refurbished in the same factory with the same warranty as a new one—for $291.13.”

However, “the machine seems to working fine now. You can pay $84.00 service charge and If… and then…” more decisions within the decision. Simply fixing the washing machine wasn’t so simple.

Does it really matter what choice I make? I could spend $300 and the machine could work for 91 days (1 day past the guarantee) or I could spend $85 dollars and the machine will run for 2 more years or many, many other scenarios that easily clutter my mind.

Overthinking. Trying to make the “right” decision (that means I have control of the situation). Holding this small inconvenience, or even a big one, too tightly doesn’t strengthen my grip but weakens it.

Have no anxiety about anything...seems too glossy here, but true. Today is a new day full of possibility, even that the washing machine will work.