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We’re keeping things easy this time around, my husband and I. No New Year’s resolutions, just a loose plan to eat at one new restaurant every month. It’s simple, enjoyable and doable — we’re destined for success. And yes, we do need to lose weight, fix up the house, get organized…all of the typical fronts tackled by most folks’ resolutions. We’ve failed at those enough times to know that it’s not worth making a commitment you can’t keep, one that’s sure to end in unhappiness when you just can’t live up to it.

Resolutions are funny things. They are based entirely on what we want for ourselves. Certainly God isn’t asking us to run a mile a day or clean out our closets, except in the most general and generous of ways: God wants what is best for us. God wants us to be healthy and happy. Everything else we resolve to do is simply to satisfy our own image of what our lives should look like. Our lives should be more, better. Or so we think.

Instead, I urge you in the year ahead to do less. Take one thing off your list; excise one of the rules you live your life by. Not something central, but a tangential and self-imposed thing — the lawn must be lush and green year-round; the dishes cannot sit in the sink overnight; you must never eat a carbohydrate. Get rid of the script in your head that tells you “I’m too fat to shop for clothes” or “whenever someone perceives me to be a bad mother, I must feel guilty.” You don’t have to do or feel or think or be anything, no matter what anyone else expects, feels, thinks or chooses for you.

This year (2018) I did something difficult — I stopped dyeing my hair. And it was hard and it is hard; every time I look in the mirror, I have the knee-jerk reaction that I’ve let myself go. But…go where? What is it that I think I owe to other people when they look at me? In something as silly as embracing my natural hair, I’ve found more opportunities for self-examination than I ever guessed I might.

Take it easy on yourself in 2019. Resolve to just be happy. Because if you can’t be happy with yourself as you are, no resolution will ever make you so.

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This one’s gonna be different. Don’t we tell ourselves that every year? Don’t we start out with enthusiasm, with actual, resolute resolutions that by gum we are going to follow through on? Aren’t we certain that we can cast off the shadow of the previous 365 days simply because the date on the calendar now has a new number attached to it?

Well, don’t we?

I submit that the new year is a fraud, a sham, a flim-flam, a bamboozlement. A year can’t change things. Only we can. And it’s harder to do than a simple resolution might convey. To change one’s self fundamentally requires radical thinking and aggressive discarding of old thoughts, habits, and relationships. Most of us won’t ever do it. We’re too comfortable as we are. Only the most terrible and unexpected events — natural disaster, death, fatal illness — are enough to shock us out of complacency. And then, perhaps, only temporarily.

So…what to do with 2018 and its bright, shiny promises of change and renewal? Start small. Change one way of thinking. Give yourself a mantra — “first impressions are always wrong” for instance — to nip a habit of snap judgment in the bud. Or start each morning by doing one new thing: making your bed, trying a new stretch or simply saying, “I will be open to new possibilities today.” Repeated actions have a tendency to work their ways into our lives in ways we cannot foresee.

Or take up reading a new blog regularly. Work your way one chapter at a time through the bible. Smile at people you don’t know and won’t see again. Anything that might trigger a new, green sprout of thinking, a tiny revelation, an awkward step in a new direction.

And if it all falls apart, don’t berate yourself. January first isn’t the only day for changes. You can do that on February third, April 17th, or November 30th. You can do it anytime. Let yourself be open to nudges and signs and questions. Sometimes that’s the most essential part of change.

If we each turn ourselves one degree, together we can make a revolution — literally and figuratively.

Last night, my husband and I attended a meeting of our local Earth Care congregations.  If you know me at all, you know I’m not a meeting person.  I’d much rather scrub the shower floor than attend a meeting.  And if you’ve seen my shower floor . . . well . . .

But this meeting was dynamic.  A group of 20 people from 8 churches had come together to discuss ways that we can conserve resources and work to improve our communities and our world.

There wasn’t any “why aren’t you doing this yet?”  Or “how come you haven’t tried that?”

It was all about “this is what we are doing better than before.”  Small steps.  Steps that are attainable and affordable.

What change can you make today?

–SueBE

I don’t yet have the strength to write about the election in a prayerful way…I’ll leave that to greater minds than mine. (That’s your cue, SueBE and Ruthie!) I can, however, write about this.

My dear friend Alice once told me that she’d spoken to her spiritual advisor about forgiveness. Alice couldn’t bring herself to forgive someone. Her advisor told her to pray for the desire to forgive. That advice seems wonderfully cogent right now.

I can’t be happy yet. I can’t say that everything’s okay, and let’s just hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” (which we actually used to sing at our parish in Buena Park in the ‘70s). But I want it to be. I want to feel peaceful and prayerful and hopeful again. But right now, the best I can do is to pray for the desire to move on. I don’t feel it yet. But maybe if I pray hard enough, I’ll want to feel it. And wanting to feel it is the first step toward feeling it.

This is not to say that I will not allow myself to be angry. Jesus was angry when he threw the money-changers out of the temple. If it’s okay for Jesus to be angry, then it’s okay for me to be angry. But there’s a time and a place for anger, and a time and a place for hope. (“Turn, turn, turn,” sing the Byrds.) I’m not ready to stand in that place yet — and that is my own problem and my own sin — but I’m going to pray that tomorrow I will want to. And maybe, just maybe, the day after that — I will stand there again.

To everyone out there who is hurting, for any reason whatsoever, I understand. God understands. God is, after all, the God of those on the margins, the God of all of us who struggle. If we were perfect, we wouldn’t need God. Today I need God desperately.

So desperately, that I am willing to open the door, just a crack, to hope. Or, at least, to the desire for it. In this case, maybe wishing will make it so.

leopardThis video of a charity tennis match with Rafael Nadal really caught my attention. A woman in the crowd loses her child and Nadal stops the match as security helps her.

What really got to me was the part at the end, when the camera focuses on tennis great, John McEnroe. In days of yore, he would have ranted at the woman, You can’t find your kid? You have GOT to be kidding me! But it doesn’t turn out the way, and this made me wonder: can people really change?

How about this question: can a hermit flip a switch and suddenly become an extrovert? The Swiss town of Solothurn seems to think so. They recently placed an ad seeking a professional hermit with a charismatic personality willing to engage in small talk with the public.

Of course, there are many things that you can change, including your name and your appearance.

Do you know who Ilyena Vasilievna Mironoff is? She’s an actress you may have seen in such movies as The Hundred Foot Journey and The Queen. Not for nothing, but at 68 years old, she’s got the figure of a swimmer!

Do you recognize this famous face? jennifer-grey-mindy-friends She (and her original nose) starred in the movie, Dirty Dancing, but I saw her in a rerun of Friends recently, and I didn’t know who she was!

“I went into the ­operating room a ­celebrity and came out anonymous,” she told The Mirror in 2012. “It was the nose job from hell. I’ll always be this once-famous actress nobody ­recognizes because of a nose job.”

Surely, these things are malleable, but what about who-we-are at the very core? Can people change at the most basic level? Saul did, on the road to Damascus, and finding faith led him to become the Apostle, Paul.

After once calling himself an “amiable agnostic,” CS Lewis experienced God’s “compelling embrace.” Remember Matthew 19:26: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Well, if Johnny Mac has become an old softie on the tennis court, heck, maybe anyone can change!

Be glad and rejoice — it’s Lent!

I know that’s a tough sell. Lent has always been perceived as a trying time, a time for sacrifice and teeth gritting, fasting and selflessness. Not exactly joyous concepts. But my pastor has convinced me differently. He says that Lent is the most joyous season in the Church calendar, a time for transformation and salvation. And what could be happier than that?

We all start off the year with resolutions; few of us stick by them. One of the problems is time: A year is an awfully long time to commit to anything on a daily basis. Life gets in the way. But forty days? That’s hardly more than a month. If you use Lent as a time to change/better/renew your self and your soul, you have a real chance of succeeding. And that’s exactly what these forty days are for!

There’s long been a perception that Lent, in the Catholic Church, is about “giving up” something. That’s only partly true. If (as my pastor also explained), you give up chocolate for Lent, only to rip open a three-pound bag of M&Ms on Easter Sunday and gorge yourself, you’ve missed the point entirely. The idea is to improve yourself and your soul. Giving up cigarettes for forty days, if you can convert this trial into a long-term plan to salvage your health and live longer for those who love you — now there’s a proper challenge. Or if you can give up using plastic water bottles for Lent, then continue this small kindness to the planet in the days that follow Easter — that is what Lent is about.

Moreover, Lent is about addition, rather than subtraction. It is about adding forgiveness to your daily schedule. Or being kinder to others, more charitable, more positive in our interactions. It is about taking on new behaviors that will improve the state of your soul on a permanent basis. Lent is a step forward in a year — in a lifetime — that we seem to spend going in circles. It is spit-polish for the soul.

And we want to get our souls shined up. Because the other element of Lent is salvation, specifically the salvific act of Jesus, who died to save our souls. The promise of Heaven has been given; it is up to us to hold onto it. How are we doing that, if indeed we are doing it at all? Lent is a time for self-examination, a yearly check-up of sorts.

Most of all, Lent is about love, God’s love for us and our love for each other. Let us be loving this Lenten season. And rejoice! A “new you” has just begun.

In Hamlet, our droopy Dane laments, “O, that this too too solid [to drive home the theme, this should be pronounced to sound like ‘sullied’] flesh would melt!” I’m with you, Hamlet. When I am forced to look at myself — really look at myself — I see a fleshy mass of undesirable traits. Too much here, not enough there. A face that requires (to quote Sylvia Plath), “Soap, water and good Christian charity.” A pile of parts as mismatched — one leg longer than the other, one shoulder rounder and less broad — as Frankenstein’s monster.

And yet, we are made of the same stuff as the stars. “Little less than angels,” the Bible contends. Really? From the mites in our eyelashes to the sloughed-off skin bits we leave behind us like a crumb trail, human bodies are really pretty gross. But we are also formed in the image and likeness of God. I find it hard to imagine a God with ingrowing toenails or knobby knees. God ought to look like Paul Newman in his prime. Or like Lupita Nyong’o. What does God have in common with a common slob like me? (Not that I am, in any way slobby or sloppy. I give myself that much credit.)

These are the thoughts that plague me when I am forced to contemplate the link between humankind and God. Wouldn’t God do better to have the image and likeness of a graceful swan or sleek gazelle? If you could look like anything, why would you want to look like a doughy, clumsy, mostly hairless biped? There are better options out there.

Of course, the first Homo sapiens didn’t look exactly the way most of us look today. They were more hirsute, for a start. What if God looks more like that? What if God looks like a Bigfoot? (Author shakes head vigorously.)

What God is made of — what we are really made of — is more eternal than an ordinary body. Bodies wither, decay, are riddled with diseases. Ultimately, they do not stand the test of time. But something in us does, and that is the way in which we resemble God — in the speck of eternity that, in the end, defines and antecedes us. God is everything and forever. We are a little piece of that forever.

Maybe that’s the piece we should focus on. Oh, not that I’m advocating allowing one’s self to go to wrack and ruin. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s — that is, try to keep your body well and safe. But give to God what is God’s — your soul — and make it the most beautiful soul you can. Beauty, even interior and hidden beauty, must be cultivated by hard work and consistent effort. And it doesn’t require the services of a high-priced plastic surgeon, either.

A new and more beautiful me! I won’t see it in the mirror. As long as God sees it, I’m good.

I saw a new doctor last week, and while I was being poked, prodded, and otherwise probed, it dawned on me: We regularly have a professional check out our physical well being, but seldom (if ever) do we inquire into the health of our souls. But how does one go about doing a soul-check? Here are a few ideas. Please feel free to contribute your own!

  1. Examination: How is your conscience feeling? Any lingering guilt? Are there issues, addictions, emotions you’d like to put out of your life? Who help you with these problems? Perhaps a member of the clergy or a psychologist would be of benefit. Or maybe you just need a good listener to bounce ideas off of. Maybe you can find someone who struggles in a similar way and make a deal to work on yourselves together. There is strength in numbers, after all!
  2. Resuscitation: Is there someone whose forgiveness you badly need? Contact them immediately! Is there someone who you need to forgive? Do so, whether in the quiet of your heart or in person. Let go of past hurts. Breathe out the bad and breathe in a new start.
  3. Everyday Health Practices: What can you do to give your soul greater sustenance? Maybe you could set up a time for quiet prayer or meditation. Perhaps reading a good spiritual book (the Bible, for instance) every day, when you first wake up in the morning or before bed at night, would be a way to bring energy to the day or closure before rest. I appreciate the hour I spend in our church’s chapel every week. I read, pray the rosary, recite prayers. Sometimes I just listen to my own heart. It’s a peaceful practice, and couldn’t we all use more peace in our lives?
  4. Setting up a Problem List: My doctor created a list of my major health issues, including allergies, asthma and osteoporosis. Where are your weak points: Charity, mercy, forgiveness? Are you open-hearted, embracing of others who differ from you? Do you judge or condemn others? These are all problems of the spirit. Don’t dwell on them; just make a list and start to work on the places you fall short. Awareness is the key. You can’t fix what you don’t acknowledge.
  5. Give Yourself a Gold Star: Don’t just concentrate on your failings. Pat yourself on the back for the things you get right. I am a big fan of water; I seldom drink anything else. Good for me! What are your particular talents? What in your spiritual life comes easily to you? These things are important. God made you as you are, with your particular strengths, to serve good in the world. Knowing your talents can help you identify ways to do this most effectively.

The health of our souls is every bit as important as that of our bodies. But we often ignore our sick souls; they don’t cause us to limp or cough. They don’t itch or ache. All the more reason for us to check in our spiritual selves from time to time! An undiagnosed disease can kill you. An undiagnosed soul-problem can wreak havoc, too — mentally and physical, socially and personally.

We are both body and spirit. Let’s remember to take care of both.

 

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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