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They say there are two primal reactions to any situation: fight or flight. Let me suggest a third: holding for a moment, letting God make the decision for you. As fearful as you are, as stressful as the situation might be, God will hold you up. It is a moment I often forget to take, as used as I am to thinking I am in total control of my life (a laughable concept). But a necessary one. As usual, I illustrate in poetry:

Plunge in.
The water’s cold,
so cold it stops your heart
for a moment. And then
you come back into yourself,
all at once, water — wet, breath — held,
eyes — open, to clear blue impossibilities.
You will panic or be at peace;
it doesn’t matter which,
except in terms of long-term survival.
You will swim, after a fashion, or not.
It will be easier if you let your body go,
but that requires a yes you may not be ready for.
Try to say it anyway. The tide will lift you,
even if the yes is a lie.

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Turns out the Texas shooter abused his wife, his child and various animals. Then there’s the guy who snapped a woman’s neck and gouged out her eyes for daring to reject his marriage proposal. And the ongoing accusations of exploitation and rape by Hollywood power brokers against women and children. Seems like hurting someone smaller and weaker than yourself is so endemic, it’s become part and parcel of ordinary life.

It probably always was, of course. Landowners abused serfs. Queens abused ladies-in-waiting. Children attack smaller children. It’s a jungle out there, folks, in the truest sense of the metaphor: Unless you’re an apex predator, watch out.

If you want to know where God is in all of this, look down, to the smallest and weakest of us. God always stands with the abused, the poor, the people on the fringes. That’s where God lives. Don’t believe me? Read the Sermon on the Mount again. Count the number of times and ways Jesus says that the last will be first, and the first, last. Picture poor Lazarus in paradise while Mr. Dives smolders away for all of eternity. And (at least from what we know), Dives never actively abused Lazarus; he just ignored him. How much greater will the punishment be for those who do mete out abuse?

So what can be done? Must we patiently wait for the next life for justice? Me, I’m going to pray The Litany of Nonviolence, written by the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods, IN. Feel free to add your voice.

Provident God,
aware of our own brokenness,
we ask the gift of courage
to identify how and where we are in need of conversion
in order to live in solidarity with Earth and all creation.

Deliver us from the violence of superiority and disdain.
Grant us the desire, and the humility,
to listen with special care to those
whose experiences and attitudes are different from our own.

Deliver us from the violence of greed and privilege.
Grant us the desire, and the will, to live simply
so others may have their just share of Earth’s resources.

Deliver us from the silence
that gives consent to abuse, war and evil.
Grant us the desire, and the courage,
to risk speaking and acting for the common good.

Deliver us from the violence
of irreverence, exploitation and control.
Grant us the desire, and the strength,
to act responsibly within the cycle of creation.

God of love, mercy and justice,
acknowledging our complicity
in those attitudes, action and words which perpetuate violence,
we beg the grace of a non-violent heart.
Amen.

In the eighth grade, my best friend had a crush on the class’s most unavailable boy — unavailable in that he was dating one of the more popular girls in our class. I remember my mother telling my friend that she was so much prettier than the girl in question, but my friend didn’t see it. Probably because children (teens included) lack far-sightedness: While the “girlfriend” had almost certainly done her “blooming” already, my friend had barely begun to nudge at the edges of her life-long flowering. At 52, she is still in her prime, and as any reader of Muriel Sparks knows, “Prime is best.”

It takes time to wake up to the possibilities of ourselves and to allow the negative grip that others have on us to diminish. I think that’s why so many young people feel depression and act out on it — they can’t see the way ahead. Time is the one gift we cannot bestow on another, and it’s just the gift so many need.

In my own life, I had nightmares for years about a bully from high school. I went to an all-girls’ school, and while we did not have to contend with toxic masculinity, I am here to tell you that toxicity is just as lethal in the female of the species. In our school it took shape in passive-aggressive cattiness, sudden shifts in friendship and verbal abuse. I let this person take roost in my subconscious for years because I was afraid of her. And then a funny thing happened: Time passed.

Specifically, social media happened. And it was here that I learned the truth: She was just another struggling human being. She had no power over me or anyone else. Her life was no picnic. No one’s is. And with that knowledge, she lost her hold on my psyche. I don’t dream about her anymore. I feel, if not empathy, sympathy for her. And all it took was the passage of years.

I have a young friend who is currently contending with nightmares about a person who deeply hurt her. I long to hug her and tell her that it will take time, but healing is not only possible but probable. God has given us such a gift in time. It is not a gift we can instantaneously take advantage of, however. But maybe that’s the beauty of it. In the dark days of struggle, we learn about ourselves. And we are forced to turn outwards toward God if we are to survive at all.

I hope my young friend will keep reaching outwards and allow time to show her that those who loom large today can evaporate into nothingness tomorrow. All we need do is wake up to the power and possibility we each possess. All it takes is time. And God has that well in hand.

Wildfires in California, mass shootings, disease, distress, acts of God…the last few weeks have pushed us all to the very brink. It is almost shocking that we can still be shocked. And yet.

When I am upset, the words pile up in my head in messy heaps, struggle like fish vying to surface. My brain bubbles and freezes, too knotted up to make sense of things. Sometimes, when life has you all but beat, there is nothing you can do but pray.

Where is the sense in senseless?
How do you mean for us to parse
a life sentence that confounds us?
Where noun is chaos and verb can
never be undone? What then?
Now is the time for old words,
rich in thous and thees.
When nothing comes
but humble prayer,
the rest, at last,
is silence.

Every time a mass shooting occurs, The Onion runs the same headline: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” And every time a mass shooting occurs, Facebook explodes with opinions from both sides of the gun control debate. Because apparently some people are perfectly content living in a country where they and their children are 20 times more likely to die by gun violence than in any other civilized country on the map.

There are no arguments. Not anymore. Don’t tell me “guns don’t kill people; people do.” Yes. People with guns. Do you not get that? Don’t explain patiently that the killers on 9/11 didn’t use guns. I know that. And we immediately did something about it — we changed the way we fly; we put people on lists; we went to war (with the wrong country, but whatever). But there’s nothing we can do about guns? Fine then. What’s the other near-constant in gun violence? White guys. Shall we legislate against them? Oh wait. They’re the ones in charge of absolutely everything.

Well, I’m done arguing. Your right to own an object does not supersede my right to live.

In better, calmer times, I wrote the following (as Ruth recently reminded me). I’ve decided that it will be my version of The Onion article. Get used to seeing it, folks. Because we may worship God here in America, but guns — ah! Those are our real deity.

It was a week
to shake the faith
right out of our bones.

But faith cannot fall
to such a small god:
a god of bombs, bullets, ripped limbs.

Seek God elsewhere.
He is there in the helpers.
In solace, yes, and mourning, too.
In healing hands, in hope.

Look to those who know the truth:
What is not love
cannot be God.

Hate destroys.
Love restores.
There is your answer.

 

(for my mother)

“I hope you never go through this,” she says, but there is no other way.
All roads lead here. All things must pass.
Think of life as a beautiful bird,
watch as time plucks your feathers one by one.

You sail through childhood like a happy ship
until you hear, “Girls can’t do math.”
Or “girls aren’t strong.”
You are young enough to wonder why. Pluck.

You grow into womanhood, revel in newness
like a just-born foal, kicking up its heels.
The world notices in strange new ways.
You learn fear. Pluck.

Then — when did it happen? You’re not so young
and it comes to you at once that your worth,
the price tag of your being, was bound in what you were.
You disappear like vapor. Pluck.

Menopause takes what you’ve finally learned to love,
memory, ripeness, uncanny feminine ability.
You ask yourself, what are you now?
Thinning bones and lost days. Pluck. Pluck.

When does it dawn that you are mostly chicken flesh,
shivering and practically naked?
When do you know that you
no longer know?

Perhaps when the last feather falls you see:
God was there all along, collecting your plumage,
saving it, knitting it into a most fantastic garment.
And when you die, you wear your feathers anew, this time as wings.

And you soar, at last.

Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash

The other day, I watched a church service live-stream on Facebook. It occurred to me that I was seeing the exact moment of the lie taking place – yet no one was lying on purpose. The pastor asked if anyone wanted to accept Christ, and many came forward to pray. At the end, he said, “Congratulations! Now you’re born again! All things are made new!”

The lie is in the mood music they’re playing. The warm, welcoming church workers guiding people into their religion. The parishioners nodding as if you’re doing a great thing, this is a big step, your life is about to completely transform!

But that’s the lie of it. That’s the production. The musical number of it.

We expect all vestiges of our former life to just fall away. For all of our insecurities and problems to disappear. Poof! For this encouraging crowd of fellow believers to be there for us always, patting us on the back and giving us a high-five.

Not that anybody’s lying about what faith can do for you. It truly can change your life completely. But that’s the heart-work. That’s work you and God do together, and it happens over time, like a scroll unfurling. No one else can do it for you, and there is no magic prayer to make it happen instantly.

When I took the altar call years ago, in my mind it was more like the “alter call,” as if it would completely change my life instantly. What I came to conclude is that you walk the path with God and maybe alchemizes into of course. Is that you, God? solidifies into a firm foundation of faith.

It’s like that “Just Say No to Drugs” commercial from years ago, that showed an egg frying in a pan, with the voiceover, “this is your brain on drugs.”

In our version, we’ll show the sun rising, flowers blooming, and the earth turning. Massive, mystical, magical happenings – the only common denominator is the One holding it all together.

Good people, This is your soul on God.

1. Never sneeze with half-chewed nuts in your mouth. I’m still picking bits out of my hair.

2. If your wife makes something for the potluck, remember to actually bring it. (Owen, that’s you I’m talking to.)

3. Folks can say in one breath that they voted for Trump because he is pro-life, yet in the next breath fully countenance the forcible removal of immigrants, the yanking of health care to thousands — making pregnancy a “pre-existing condition,” while simultaneously denying prenatal care, and failing to understand why Black Lives Matter.

4. When one only has herself to cook for, one tends to eat sporadically and strangely. Creamed kale for supper, anyone?

5. God makes God’s-self known in loud trumpeting…and barely perceivable whispers. Both. I am much better at hearing the trumpeting. Although it is jolting.

6. As a brilliant artist friend reminded me with his painting of Jeremiah being lifted from the cistern (the biblical prophet’s enemies throw him into a dry cistern; a court official rescues him, not just with rope, but — thoughtfully — with pieces of cloth to place under his arms while he is being lifted, so the ropes don’t chafe him), you can lift a person up by throwing them a line and expecting them to be grateful for it, OR you can lift someone up with special attention to their individual needs — i.e., gently. How do you lift people up?

7. There is always a third option: To not lift people up at all. This is becoming less and less acceptable to me, yet more and more common in the world.

8. I need to speak less and listen more. This will render me pretty much selectively mute. That’s okay; the world has enough noise in it. It will, however, make phone calls awkward.

9. I need a nap. A year or two ought to do it. Now, if you’ll excuse me….

Pope Francis spoke out this week in support of Dreamers and in opposition to climate change deniers. (And before you say, “Who asked him, anyway?” let me tell you — journalists.) I am proud of my Church’s Papa, proud that he puts love and justice and mercy above other considerations. He is walking with Christ on these issues, welcoming the stranger and being a caretaker of God’s bountiful gifts to us.

In other news, Steve Bannon railed at the Catholic Church for its support of illegal immigrants, saying the Church needs them to “fill the pews.”

Oh really?

Immigrants to this country bring with them their faith. My own great-grandfather helped build the first Catholic church in South Dakota, knowing full well there weren’t any priests in the area, but believing nonetheless that one would come. Mr. Bannon’s ancestors, who arrived with the tide of Irish fleeing the potato famine (and who, by the way, never had official papers of any sort, who were reviled by so-called “natives” and blamed for lack of employment, among other things) brought theirs. Somewhere along the way, Bannon lost the thread of the narrative, which has always been love. A Christian who is without love is no Christian at all. The fact that his own predecessors were the Latin Americans of their day seems to evade him entirely. If you are glad that this great country embraced your own ancestors, how can you deny that embrace to someone — anyone — else? Who are you to say “too many”?

But back to Dreamers. And walls. Specifically, walls that the Mexican government will never, ever pay for, not now, not ever, never. The recipients of DACA are not criminals. They never have been. And they contribute significantly to our GNP. If we lose them, we lose money — lots of it. Surely, that’s an argument even the most hard-hearted can understand? How does America become “great again” by cutting off its nose to spite its face? And then building a wall around it to point out its stupidity in the most glaring of ways?

Love, mercy, justice. Anyone who claims ownership to faith in Christ must claim ownership to these qualities in their everyday, working lives. Day in, day out. Even politicians. And, yes, even “street fighters.”

I love words. The textures, the shapes, popping p’s and sharp t’s, languorous l’s and sighing h’s. I reckon most writers love words. But we also know that words are powerful. You remember the old schoolyard chant: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”? Flagrant lie. And secretly, we all know it.

There ought to be a retirement home for words that no longer serve us, words that have changed meaning over time, or worn out their old meanings. “Meet,” for instance. Sure, we still use “meet” quite a bit — “I will meet you for lunch,” “Tommy has a swim meet” — but we no longer use it to mean “proper” or “appropriate,” as in “it is right and meet that we should join this couple in matrimony.” That’s okay. “Meet” still has a lot of life left in it. But words that no longer make sense in society — words we’ve learned are hurtful — those are another story. Like statues that serve only to remind an oppressed people of their oppression, words that hurt should be dropped for something more relevant.

Words should also be used with equality. I saw two photos of people braving the horrors of Hurricane Harvey recently. One showed a white couple, wading through chest-deep water, and the caption said something along the lines of “Bob and Judy So-and-So are seen leaving a grocery store after finding bread and water.” Hold that sentence in your mind. The other photo showed a person of color doing the exact same thing as Bob and Judy So-and-So, only this caption reported her action as “looting.” Either taking bread and water is looting or it is surviving. It cannot depend on the color of one’s skin. Words aren’t inherently judgmental; the people using them frequently are. That’s not okay.

I’m not suggesting the implementation of “word police” (although if that ever becomes a real job, sign me up!). I’m not talking about “political correctness.” I’m talking about using words thoughtfully. We’ve become a nation of blurters, led by a Blurter-in-Chief, who frequently does not seem to have the slightest idea what is coming out of his mouth. I’m all for speaking one’s mind, but surely the state of my mind — of anyone’s mind — isn’t worthy of being expressed every minute of every day. Surely we’re all aware enough to recognize that just as you wouldn’t put any old thing into your mouth, you shouldn’t let any old thing come out of it.

We are currently in the wake of a tragedy, and there is no better time for self-examination. So let’s talk about words, how we use them and whether or not we ought to. Just like the woman in Houston who finally lost her temper after having microphones shoved into her face and repeatedly being asked “how she felt” about being uprooted, we must reserve the right to be sensitive about words. Because words will hurt us, just as surely as any force of nature.

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