Thursday, December 31, 2009

Thinking It Through

It is early. Out the window over my desk, I watch the cattle graze in the pasture. Even in the winter they graze, or try to. They scavenge for the hard brown grass that pokes through the crusted snow.

Later in the morning, when their storage stomachs (rumen) are full, they will bring the grass back up and chew it. They stand immobile when they do this, their jaws barely moving.

Ruminate. That's what they do. They chew it slowly, over a period of hours, until it's fine enough to digest.

"In our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom by the awful grace of God" (Aeschylus).

Dreaming, thinking, listening, being still … it's all ruminating. The coarse, undigested stuff of life comes up from its storage place when it is ready.

I have been dreaming at night. I say at night because I usually do my dreaming during the day, a coping mechanism I picked up when I was young. At night, when my mind is quiet, my imagination is free to filter through the facts of my life, instead of being bound to escape them.

Even when we don't remember our dreams, our imaginations are still doing the work of sifting through the events, facts, feelings of our days. I like what Thomas Moore says about dreams in "Care of the Soul," that we do not interpret our dreams: they interpret us.

Imagination numbs us from feeling the pain in our lives or invigorates all our senses. We use our imaginations when we're in denial. To make believe, in the face of hard facts, that a problem does not exist, takes a lot of work on the part of our imaginations, whether it's justifying destructive behavior, faulting others for our failures or behaving as though everything was grand.

I do not like feeling raw, vulnerable to life's elements. Those who have lost their childlike ability to imagine need help to numb the pain – alcohol, food, spending money, religion, a sports car, other people's problems – anything that can be obsessed about.

Cattle would not grow if they thought of the coarse grass, "I can't handle this," and refuse to eat it; or spit it out once they found it was too hard too chew; or keep it repressed in their storage stomachs. Neither do we grow when we choose not to eat that which life sets before us, that which appears unpalatable.

The same imagination that enables us to deny engages us in hope. To hope when there is no hope, our imaginations must find a grain on which to nibble, to ruminate. And with each thought, each dream, each talk with a friend, each small act of belief, what we hope for comes that much closer to our grasp.

In its raw state, grief is undigestible. When a death or tragedy first occurs, the real stuff of it gets stored away. Then, over time, it comes up to be broken down into digestible substance, as tears, memories, confusion, anger, conflict, remorse, honesty, laughter, truth.

Regret, shame and guilt are undigestible. Those things that, when recalled, drive us crazy, that are hard to even think about. No amount of psychological analysis or justification or excuses can wipe it away.

Over time, drop by tiny drop, wisdom comes: Because of who I was then, it could not have been any other way.

If I am alive, I cannot avoid pain. Some people's lives are so filled with it, it doesn't seem fair. Yet many refuse to be bitter, refuse to become the "living dead," instead letting their pain be redeemed.

Imagination, which, in truth,
Is but another name for absolute power
And clearest insight, amplitude of mind,
And Reason in her most exalted mood.
-- William Wordsworth

Meditating on and imagining truth can lead us anywhere. Who would have thought man would walk on the moon? Who would have thought we could converse with someone in China? Yet mankind, through the centuries, walked toward its own unbelievable possibilities.

So it is with each life. It starts with ruminating, thinking slowly and deeply on that which is set before us, the dry coarse stuff as well as the delicious, then imagining that raw material into whatever shapes we desire, and making our life with it.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Yes, There is Christmas After Santa Claus

It was a few days before Easter when I realized there was no such person as Santa Claus. My second-grade classmates had made fun of me for believing there was an Easter Bunny. I ambled home with my eyes on the sidewalk, not even stopping to watch the ducks on the creek.

"Mom!" I shouted, opening the front door. "Mom!" Mom appeared at the archway into the living room. "There no such thing as the Easter Bunny, is there, Mom?"

She hesitated, then shook her head. "No, honey," she said.

And that's when it hit me.

"That means there's no such thing as Santa Claus, either," I said. Mom made no reply.

No Easter Bunny I could handle. But no Santa Claus? No Santa Claus? I felt like I'd been had.

But when I remember past Christmases, the Christmas Eve following that revelation is the one that stands out.

I hadn't divulged that adult secret to my younger brother and sisters: why spoil it for them? After they'd gone to bed, Dad took me to my Aunt Joyce's house, a few blocks away. He, my grandfather and I sat on the couches in front of the fireplace.

I remember the crackling and warmth of the fire, the scented candle burning on the coffee table and the sound of their hushed voices, talking into the night. It was one of those rare occasions when time seems suspended and all is well with the world.

Christmas Eve was, is, still magical.

There was the warm Christmas Eve that Kim (my husband) came home just after noon with a round bale from Ray Comer's. When he tried to drive up the hill to the house, the bale fell off, bursting its cords as it hit the ground. The whole family, adults and little ones, spent the rest of the afternoon scooping up great armfuls of the hay, still fresh with the smell of summer fields, and throwing it back on the truck. Sometimes little Rachel picked up so much we couldn't see her as she carried it to the truck bed.

When we finally got most of it off the ground, Kim drove across the pasture to the barn. Daniel and I got on the truck and pushed off the hay in huge heaps, and when we pushed the last heap, we fell into the manger on top of it, laughing all the way. Then everyone else jumped in.

There was the much colder Christmas Eve , when our friends the Clarks came over. A few inches of snow were frozen to the ground from a snowfall a few weeks earlier. We shared a candlelight meal at the table in the great room, close to the woodstove.

After dinner we made candles and ornaments with the beeswax, wicks and forms Melissa had brought from home. The children enjoyed this, delighted with their creations, and then they went sleigh riding. The green floodlight was on outside and they spent hours whizzing down the slick driveway and tugging the sleds back up. Every so often a child would come in, red-faced with cold and excitement, to warm up with a cup of hot chocolate, and then dash right out again.

Rachel remembers this as her favorite Christmas Eve, one she would like to live again.

What is it that transforms these ordinary events into something magical and memorable? Is "the true meaning of Christmas " really definable, solid, able to be grasped and held?

Can anyone explain how God came to Earth as the man Jesus, as one of us; surrounded by, as Walt Whitman says, "beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing (and I would add sweating, whining, sickly) flesh?" It is far-fetched. Can anyone understand how each of us is created in His image . . . making every birth, every life an incarnation?

To me, it is a mystery. And I find I must salvage my childhood imagination, my childhood faith and the "love I seemed to lose with my lost saints" -- Santa Claus, Mom and Dad and all the others through my life who've disappointed me -- to believe it.

The wise men brought gifts to the child Jesus, Emmanuel -- God with us -- and we, in turn, bring gifts to each other.

There is a doctrine that states God created man because he was lonely and wanted fellowship. Bah, Humbug! Would that not make God selfish and needy, a co-dependent kinda guy? It is simply a case of man making God in his image.

God is love, and the first thing I see him doing is creating -- Earth, sun, moon, stars, trees, birds, animals -- and he saw that it was good. Then he made man and woman, patterned after himself, to give it to.

I see God incarnate in my husband as he works in the garden, in my daughter Heidi when she paints still-lifes, in my friend Margie as she arranges dried flower bouquets, in my mother-in-law as she puts dinner on the table. I see the creator in my editor, (though he would deny any resemblance), when he explodes through the newsroom door in the morning and rustles open the paper to look at the page he created the day before. And he sees that is good.

I see God in my family as we create the Christmas tree -- an icon -- and in the faces of people -- who seem happier at Christmas, when they are being generous.

"The fullness of joy is to behold God in everything," said Lady Julian of Norwich.

As the sun sets on Christmas Eve the children start saying, "Light the candles, Mom, let's turn out the lights." And so we light the bayberry candles. The twinkling lights strung on the beam overhead faintly illuminate the transparent paper angels hanging there. The tree- and bell-shaped cookies, the cheeses and crackers, the eggnog, the breads and wine are brought and placed on the red and gold cloth-covered coffee table. The Christmas songs -- "Away In A Manger" and "Silent Night" -- play softly on the stereo, or I play them on my guitar.

In this gentle light we gather. I look on the radiant eyes, the contented smiles of the ones I love. To be here together is enough. Even our laughter seems hushed, hallowed.

As Spock would say, "It is not logical." But no matter.

It is a most holy night.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Pain and Problems Do Not Take a Holiday

At Christmas, life should declare an official cease-fire.

One of the tenets of this cease-fire would be that no tragedies, no major life crisis occurs from Thanksgiving to Epiphany. No parent would lose a child, no child a parent, no woman a husband, no husband a wife. Nobody would be diagnosed of a fatal disease. No houses would burn down, no marriages would break up, no mom-and-pop stores would go out of business. Nobody would lose their job. No war would keep families apart.

Our losses and difficulties color our emotions for years afterward. It is difficult to celebrate. We have memories of Christmases past when all was well with our world, when our joy was untainted by calamity. We wish the whole season would just go away: the music, the movies, the decorations … all of it.

My parents, who fought constantly throughout my middle childhood, declared a cease-fire at Christmas, so that I have good memories in contrast to the rest of the year. Not all families do. For some families, the holidays cause the war to escalate. There is more drinking, more fighting, more manipulation, more drama.

Maybe this is why we love Christmas movies. All of our favorite Christmas movies are about broken relationships, bankruptcy, ruin, violence, betrayal, disappointment.

In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” for example, George Bailey loses his mortgage company’s money. He is caught in a life he did not choose. Although he feels trapped by his circumstances, he has found a way to make it a good life anyway. He loves his wife, feels accepted and respected by his friends and family, and serves his community in an important way. When the money disappears, George concludes that he cannot face the shame, that the world would be a better place without him. He is driven to commit suicide.

In “White Christmas,” Betty and Bob fall in love, but they have a communication problem. She does not trust him. She believes he is motivated by his ego to embarrass the old general on a popular TV show. Betty decides to end the relationship.

In “Joyeux Noel,” the French, Germans and English are stuck in the trenches as Christmas approaches in World War I. They are far from home. They can hear their enemies in nearby trenches. Periodically, they are ordered to attack the enemy, only to be mowed down by machine guns.

In all these films, redemption comes on Christmas Eve, but in unexpected ways. Just as George Bailey throws his body into the icy waters of a river, God sends an angel. George discovers that the world is actually a much better place because of him. His friends come to his rescue and all is well.

After Betty leaves Bob, she goes to New York, where she sees him on a TV show making his appeal for the general. She realizes she had totally misjudged him. She apologizes and they are reunited.

The Germans set up Christmas trees in the trenches. The English sing hymns. The commanding officers call a cease-fire and the soldiers leave the trenches to fraternize. They discover they all miss their homes, wives, girlfriends and families. They celebrate and worship together. For 24 hours, there is peace. Afterwards, they cannot be enemies again.

In real life, these situations are happening today. People are losing their jobs, their companies, their fortunes. Feeling hopeless, some are committing suicide. Close relationships are strained, estranged, severed. Men and women are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, foreign countries where they face the real possibility of dying a violent death.

Into a world like this, Jesus Christ was born.

“For unto us a child is born, to us a child is given … and his name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). In all these names are all we need to heal our wounds, our hearts, our lives. Many things could be written about each one of these names. What they mean to me, however, may not apply to you. Perhaps you could take a few moments to think about each one, or one in particular, and how Jesus is that to you. In your life, now.

“And from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16). Grace and grace upon grace.

Let every heart prepare him room.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Our Choices Can Lead to Chaos or Joy and Peace

Your life is without a foundation if, in any matter, you choose on your own behalf. ~ from “Markings” by Dag Hammarskjold.

Haunting words. They pierce like a fish knife, slicing through the flesh and pulling it back to reveal my heart.

I don’t like what is there: selfishness, self-centeredness, self-absorption. How unwilling I am to lay aside my own interests to attend to someone else’s. Why should mine be most important? How did I get this way?

Oh, little town of Bethlehem …

My mother had a habit of almost promising to do things. Maybe I’ll do this for you or maybe I’ll do that for you. Her good intentions were enough, she thought. I despised that. And now I am the same way.

It seems I often choose on my behalf. I always have a project going. I will do this for you when I am done with my own. I may miss the deadline if I interrupt my project. Yet … yet, the scriptures say I am to think of others.

Hammarskjold says “any matter.” Any?

This does not mean being a doormat. Being a doormat is not a choice, but a self-preserving reflex. We’re talking about choosing another’s behalf. Sometimes choosing another’s behalf means to say no, when you are really doing it for yourself or when it makes them beholden to you. But these are not usually my problems.

Now I understand my mother. How easy it is to live a fantasy life in which I am generous, caring and kind. If I imagine doing something good for someone, in my mind, it’s as good as done.

Elsewhere he says, “So, once again, you chose for yourself—and opened the door to chaos. The chaos you become whenever God’s hand does not rest upon your head. …”

The chaos is my enslavement to time, to my fears, to an illusion of control. It affects my neighbors. When I have the power to do good but withhold it, people are left uncared for, forgotten, ignored. They get the message.

Just the other day a friend was telling me about a woman who has always been friendly to her. But when she recently saw the woman in a store, the woman looked at her vacantly and rushed by. I said the woman was probably preoccupied. My friend felt snubbed, rejected.

Does my self-absorption actually offend or hurt others? Does it come across as rejection?

In the weekly prayer of confession at my church, we say:

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and what we have left undone.

We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves...

It is the “what we have left undone” that undoes me. The nudges to visit the widow, put a few dollars in the pot, call someone, do something, that I ignore.

In Matthew 22:37-39, Jesus said there are two commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

These are not just one-time choices, but many. C.S. Lewis puts it this way:

“Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a creature that is in harmony with God and with other creatures and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God and with its fellow creatures and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.”

Is this the foundation vs. chaos that Hammarskjold is talking about? I think so.

The historical Jesus built his life on the foundation of loving God and loving his neighbor, wherever he encountered his neighbor. The living Christ does the same. I am—we are—his hands, his feet, his eyes of compassion.

This is incarnation. This is “Oh, little town of Bethlehem,” Now.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Even in the Darkest Night, There is Hope

The economy is not rallying as expected. The President is sending more troops to Afghanistan. Tiger Woods cheated on his wife. The world may be headed for another Ice Age.

More jobs lost. More homes foreclosed. More war. More breaches of trust. More doom. More gloom.

Yet there is hope. “He will have no fear of bad news; his heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord. His heart is secure, he will have no fear” (Psalm 112: 7-8).

These are the Bible verses for the first day of Advent in my devotional guide. Most days consists of a scripture and a short reflection. The usual format. It is full of faith, hope, love, comfort and encouragement. But something about this devotional guide makes it different than any other I have used. It was not written by a spiritual giant, like Henri Nouwen, Max Lucado or Walter Wangerin, nor by Joan Chittister, Beth Moore or Joyce Rupp.

It was written by the people in my church. In its pages, I find that I am surrounded by humans who hope in God.

Some of these people I know well. Others, I’ve had occasional encounters with. The rest I know only by name. For each of them, life has its ups and downs. In their lives, over the few years I’ve known them, have been graduations, weddings, the birth and adoption of babies, new job opportunities, trips abroad, successful operations, healing, mission trips. There have also been houses burned down, car accidents, sick children, heart attacks, mental illness, lawsuits, divorces, estranged family members, rejection, lost jobs.

Yet there is always hope.

It’s called fellowship. An old friend used to define fellowship as “a bunch of fellows in the same ship.” When one rejoices, we all rejoice. When one grieves, we all grieve.

Walking through life together with others makes everything bearable. Of course, there are other good friends, too, not in my church, people with whom I have a longer history of rejoicing and grieving. Friends I know and who know me well.

So in this Advent guide, when I read this reflection, I know this friend has had her share of bad news. I have seen, over the past four years of our friendship, how she trusts in God, not only for herself and her family, but for all those she comes to care about.

Bad things happen. God does not promise a life free of trouble, my friend writes. As a matter of fact, Jesus says we will have trouble. But we are not to be afraid, not to worry.

Fear and worry take over my thoughts as I read the headlines, dwell on the circumstances, wake up in the night. Oh my, at night everything looks worse.

In difficult times, I always run to God for refuge. He always gives me a Bible passage, a truth that becomes a real and solid thing inside me. When I wake up in the night, afraid and anxious, I turn on the light and read the verses.

For instance, when I had cancer a few years back, the verses were these from Psalm 103: “Bless the Lord, oh my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases.”

This passage becomes my prayer. Prayer is what brings it all together. I want to pray according to God’s will, so I seek it in the Bible, in the Psalms, the Gospels or the letters. God’s will is expressed in the life of Jesus, so we can see that God wants to heal, comfort, deliver, restore.

My friends and family pray for me, with me, and I for them. There are times when I pray, “Lord, have mercy.” This a powerful prayer. God is merciful and longs to give mercy. The truth, in the end, always prevails. God has always worked all things out for good. God has always been faithful.

We do not get to choose what happens in the world, what happens to us, what happens to those we love, but we do get to choose how to respond:

Love or hate? Blessing or cursing? Despair or hope?

Advent is all about expectation, expecting God to appear, here, on Earth, in our lives. Thanks to the people in my life, prayer and God’s promises, there is always hope.