“I Have a Gift for You”

“Imagine that we could live each moment as a moment pregnant with new life. Imagine that we could live each day as a day full of promises. Imagine that we could walk through the new year always listening to the voice saying to us: ‘I have a gift for you and can’t wait for you to see it! Imagine'” (Henri Nouwen).

I have devoted many years to attempting to live in the moment, with varying degrees of success.  I have also worked on bringing a positive presence into the world; the onslaught of Donald J. Trump for the past three years has gotten the best of me in that spiritual discipline.  However, when I read, “I have a gift for you and can’t wait for you  to see it,” I was filled with hope. The Creator of the Universe has a gift for me and is filled with anticipation as to whether I will find it and what I will do with it.

What if I could wake up every morning in 2020 and before I maneuver my rickety old body off the bed hear God say, “I have a gift for you and can’t wait for you to see it.”  How would that change my day? And how would those days change my year? How would that change me?

I began to ponder.   What might those gifts be?

Maybe the gift as I limp into the Cancer Center will be the renewal of God’s promise long ago on the shores of Lake Michigan,  “My child I will always take care of you.”

Maybe the gift will be a “Wow, look at that, Karen” so I notice a baby’s smile, a courteous driver, a helpful sales clerk, a flourishing plant, a turn of phrase in a new book,

Or perhaps my gift will be an idea for a food my husband might be willing to try, or a joke I ran across to lift his spirits. Or perhaps my gift would be a prompting to go in his room and sit quietly by his bed and keep him company.  And now that I think about it, maybe the time when I was ready to pop off with a critical comment and suddenly saw it as mean and unnecessary was a gift from God.

My gift could be a scripture verse, or a musical phrase, or a memory that pops into my mind and brings me joy. It could be an encouraging thought during a dark day or a reminder to deal positively with whatever the day brings.

If I am willing to listen, my gift could be a jolt when I recognize I am about to say something critical or mean or share something a friend has told me in confidence.  The gift could be a kind response to a negative person, a reminder that God delights in him or her, too.

The idea of this project is not to expect gifts from God, but rather to live in anticipation of communing with God and to respond in a way that brings him pleasure.  Imagine!

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From My Reading – January

“Our own happiness, our own peace, can never be complete until we find some way of sharing it with people who the way things are now have no happiness and know no peace. Jesus calls us to show this truth forth, live this truth forth. Be the light of the world, he says. Where there are dark places, be the light especially there. Be the salt of the earth. Bring out the true flavor of what it is to be alive truly. Be truly alive. Be life-givers to others. That is what Jesus tells the disciples to be.

That is what Jesus tells his Church, tells us, to be and do. Love each other. Heal the sick, he says. Raise the dead. Cleanse lepers. Cast out demons. That is what loving each other means. If the Church is doing things like that, then it is being what Jesus told it to be. If it is not doing things like that—no matter how many other good and useful things it may be doing instead—then it is not being what Jesus told it to be. It is as simple as that” (Frederick Buechner, The Clown in the Belfrey).

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For the Christian, politics entails an inevitable spiritual journey. But this is not the privatized expression of belief which keeps faith in Jesus contained in an individualized bubble and protects us from the “world.” The experience of true faith in the living God is always personal and never individual. Rather, it is a spiritual journey which connects us intrinsically to the presence of God, whose love yearns to save and transform the world. We are called to be “in Christ,” which means we share—always imperfectly, and always in community with others—the call to be the embodiment of God’s love in the world”(Wes Granberg-Michaelson in From Mysticism to Politics,” “Politics and Religion,” Oneing, vol. 5, no. 2 (Center for Action and Contemplation, p. 17,  2017).

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“Your whole life is filled with losses, endless losses. And every time there are losses there are choices to be made. You choose to live your losses as passages to anger, blame, hatred, depression, and resentment, or you choose to let these losses be passages to something new, something wider, and deeper. The question is not how to avoid loss and make it not happen, but how to choose it as a passage, as an exodus to greater life and freedom” (Henri Nouwen, You are the Beloved).

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“Mind renewal—becoming true—requires pacing. It takes time to wear in. We become true gradually, like a riverbed deepens, unhurried, year after year” (Jonathan Bailey, (jonathan@jonathanrbailey.com), October 27, 2019).

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“There is a light in us that only darkness itself can illuminate. It is the glowing calm that comes over us when we finally surrender to the ultimate truth of creation: that there is a God and we are not it. . . . Then the clarity of it all is startling. Life is not about us; we are about the project of finding Life. At that moment, spiritual vision illuminates all the rest of life. And it is that light that shines in darkness” (Joan Chittister, Between the Dark and the Daylight: Embracing the Contradictions of Life).

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A Space for Grace

One of my  writing groups is focusing this month on revising an old piece to make it sharper and clearer and more cohesive – the best writing they are capable of. I picked a post from 2015. As I worked on it, I thought that this foundational understanding of spiritual formation would be a good post for the new year. Here is the revised standard version of that post.

I knew something was different when I calmly thought, “Guess I’ll have to go to the gas station after all.”

 I had taken on the task of vacuuming my car because for weeks my husband had ignored my hints and eventual nagging to do “his” job.  One Saturday it became obvious that if the job were to be done, I would have to do it. I began looking for quarters to take to the gas station. Then it dawned on me that we had recently acquired an old hand vac from my mother. The first task was finding it.  Then I grabbed it, went outside, and got to work.

I was happily vacuuming the back seat when the bag flew off the vacuum.  The dirt and dust I had just vacuumed blew all over me and the newly cleaned car!  I looked at the ruined vacuum cleaner and “Guess I’ll have to go to the gas station after all.”

On the way home from the gas station, it occurred to me that several of my usual behaviors had not taken place that morning. I had not nagged my husband nor complained about doing “his” job. When the vac fell apart, no “blue” language (learned by osmosis from my years of tutoring in the county jail) flew from my mouth. I had not thrown the vac across the yard. I had not moaned and complained to my husband about the tragedy of the exploding hand vac. I had not said, “I’m NOT cleaning this car again!”  I had merely found a solution and finished the job.

How could this be?!  Then it dawned on me. After two years of training to be an apprentice of Jesus, behaving like Jesus was becoming a way of life. The more I see myself as one in whom Christ dwells and delights, the more I am choosing to act like Christ.

CHOOSING TO ACT LIKE JESUS

Sometimes I don’t even realize that I am different until I look back – as with the hand vac incident.  Other times I need to make a deliberate choice to act differently than I have in the past.  In his book The Good and Beautiful Community, James Bryan Smith calls this choice-making a “space of grace.” He relates the story of an architect who was asked, “Can we build a [church] building that will help us compete with the church down the road?”  The architect paused and said, “Give me a second.” He took a deep breath before he said, ‘I needed to think for a minute whether I was going to answer that question from inside or outside of the kingdom of God.”

As apprentices of Jesus, we learn to stop and consider if the word we are about to speak or the action we are about to take comes from inside or outside of the Kingdom. The idea of taking a pause before we speak or act mimics a fact from the natural world of physics. Long ago I learned from Stephen R. Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People that in our universe there is an actual space between each stimulus and response. In human relations the space between a stimulus (being insulted) and a response (returning the insult or remaining quiet) is our “greatest power – the freedom to choose.” That space allows us to choose a response based on our emotions or a response based on our values.

Covey says, “As human beings we are responsible for our own lives. Our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions.  We can subordinate feelings to values”.  .  .  . [Our behavior can be] “a product of our own conscious choice, based on values, rather than a product of our conditions, based on feeling.”

Christians can act from our false narratives and/or our cultural conditioning or we can act from our training to live by the example and words of Jesus.  Jesus says, “Do to others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31: NIV) and “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matt. 20:15) and “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13; NIV).  We are in training to become more like Jesus.  If we give ourselves the space of grace, we can act and speak from a Christ-centered place!

Posted in Living as Apprentices

Going Deeper with God – Handling Hard times (Romans 12: 11-13)

In Eat this Book, Eugene Peterson teaches us to chew on a passage of scripture, digest it and then put it to use in practical ways. Romans 12 tells us to take our “everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating going to work, walking around life – and place it before God as an offering.” The verses below focus on having a vigilant and persistent attitude during hard times.

                            Romans 12: 11 – 13 (The Message)

“Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant, don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder.

CHEWING

In his introduction to the book of Romans in The Message, Eugene Peterson says that “whenever this letter arrived in Rome, hardly anyone read it, certainly no one of influence.” He goes on to say, “Yet in no time, this letter left all other writings in the dust. The quick rise of this letter to a peak of influence is extraordinary written as it was an obscure Roman citizen without connections. This letter to the Romans is a piece of exuberant and passionate thinking.”

One of the most celebrated chapters of this celebrated book is Chapter 12. It lays out a road map to living as an apprentice of Jesus. First we are told, “Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature” (Romans 12: 2, CEB). And then we find a long list of very practical ways to live a transformed life. I was struck recently by verses 11-13 where we are given advice on how to stay focused on who we are and not on what has been done to us. This advice applies to weighty life issues, but it can also help us develop transformative habits that will bring us peace of mind and encourage living peaceably with others. 

DIGESTING

It’s been one of those weeks. My husband Fred ran out of coffee and we had to try three places all with parking lots full of Christmas shoppers before we found the kind he wanted. The pharmacy didn’t have Fred’s pain medicine because the doctor sent it to the wrong pharmacy. Two utility companies have said we’re past due because I did not renew an Automated Payment plan when we moved in October. The dashboard light to “check tires” went on; we filled the low tire; the light is still on. I came home empty handed from Sam’s Club one morning because I’m not a Sam’s Plus member and therefore can’t shop until 10:00 AM (who knew?).  To top it all off,  a shelf fell down in a kitchen cabinet.

We all have these frustrating and aggravating little inconveniences – certainly “first world “problems.” But they can often throw us off our intention to live by Jesus and into a whirlpool of anger and discouragement. How do we deal with the petty things without losing our  cool and our patience – and perhaps our witness?

Here’s how Paul’s letter helped me manage some of these situations:

  • My mother-in-law had an interesting saying: “If you are upset because you have no shoes, think about the man with no feet.” When I’m feeling sorry for myself, I usually focus on the much-publicized photo of the three-year-old boy in blue shorts and a red shirt, lying on the shore after drowning when a boat load of immigrants capsized. This child lost his life looking for freedom! How do I dare feel put out because we had to negotiate traffic to find coffee! “Pray all the harder.”
  • Paul says, “Don’t quit in hard times.” When I came home from Sam’s, I swore never go back there again. The clerk could have let me stay line with my two items just this once But she made me leave the store because I was unwittingly too early. My righteous indignation felt great! But not going back would be foolish – we have a year-long membership, and I need the items. I made a choice (the foundational element of all spiritual formation) and  went back the next day after 10 o’clock.
  • Don’t burn out,” warns Paul. Dealing with my husband’s continual need for pain medication is a constant exercise in staying centered. So many things go wrong. This week I almost lost my cool with the pharmacy tech when she found no record of a prescription I knew had been requested. I was stopped by her wail, “Please don’t yell at me. I just got off the phone with another angry woman.” I stopped short and made a choice: say calm and take action. Even though several days ago, we had watched the doctor send the prescription to the pharmacy, we decided to call the office. We learned he had sent it to a pharmacy we haven’t used for more than five years. Another choice:  blow up and yell at the nurse on the line or ask for a rush order to our right pharmacy. About four hours later, I picked up the prescription and told the tech that nobody at the pharmacy was to blame, least of all her.
  • The shelf that fell down was the second such event in two weeks. The first time I managed to catch the shelf with my shoulder and saved myself from cleaning up a lot of broken dishes. This time the shelf evidently fell in the middle of the night.  In the morning Fred opened the cabinet (to get his coffee!) and we discovered all the spices and some baking utensils hanging on for their lives. I groused a bit and then chose to be “cheerfully expectant” – well at least “expectant.”  I called the maintenance man for the apartment complex – someone I have come to dearly appreciate. Two hours later he had replaced a dozen “shelf holders” in the two cabinets, and all the shelves were sturdy again. He also replaced a light bulb we couldn’t reach and fixed a closet door. Serendipity!

I’m learning that choosing to react like Jesus when faced with little issues builds my resolve and stamina to handle bigger problems.

More Food for Thought: Romans 12: 14 -21 (The Message)

Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.

Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone.If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.”

Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.”

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A View of Life as We Wish it to Be

This blog now contains 871 posts. Once in a while, I re-post a favorite of mine, hoping that it is, or will become, a favorite of yours.  This blog was first published on Nov. 22, 2017.  Merry Christmas!

About a year ago, I rather sheepishly revealed a guilty pleasure: Hallmark Christmas movies. This year [2017], a year of ugly politics, horrific tragedy, and un-relenting gloom, I am watching even more and learning why these movies attract us. We love them because they give us a view of life as we wish it would be. And this wish is not as superficial as it may seem.  

We are “hard-wired” by our Creator God for a life of  sweet harmony  – with God, with other humans, with the garden we live in, and with ourselves. A new book by James Bryan Smith, The Magnificent StoryUncovering a Gospel of Beauty, Goodness & Truth, describes three “transcendentals” which help us live as a person created in the image of God should live. These values,  (which every human longs for) are:  beauty, goodness, and truth. And love is intertwined with them all.

Beauty, according to Thomas Aquinas, “is that which, when seen, pleases.”  Smith remarks that whenever we see beauty, we say, “Wow!” A friend of mine recently said, “I make a point of attending concerts and visiting art museums as often as I can because I crave beauty!” Another friend suffers with the return of daylight savings time. The world is dark and she misses the beauty of the sun. We are created to respond to beauty. When  it is missing, life becomes cold and stark. 

Goodness, says Smith, “is that which when experienced, benefits.” It provokes the response “Thank you!” Goodness is all around us, but some days we have to look for it: A mother responding lovingly to a toddler in a grocery store. Food collected by churches and families to feed the hungry. Money raised online to fund a life-saving surgery. A team of people helping a refugee navigate her new world. A young man on the roadside  changing a tire for a senior citizen. In this dark and angry world we live in, goodness benefits the world.

Truth is especially difficult to find in 2017. Smith says that something is true “when it aligns with reality.” Reality is the way things actually are, but in our world reality and truth are always under attack. Smith says, “Truth is that which, when encountered, works.” When we hear the truth, we say “Yes.” Truth is essential to building and keeping relationships, creating public policy, keeping law and order,  reporting the news,  finding community in a church.  

Smith concludes, “We see God best when we learn to see and experience beauty, goodness, and truth.  When we see them we get a glimpse of God.”  And we also get a glimpse of the promised eternal kingdom of God. 

The hallmarks of every Hallmark movie are gorgeous scenery (beauty), people caught in acts of kindness (goodness), conflict that is always resolved (truth), and love that always triumphs. They always provide what everyone is looking for: a happy ending. A Christ-follower’s happy ending comes after a life of living in beauty, goodness, truth, and love.  We call that happy ending  “heaven.”

Posted in Living as Apprentices

From My Reading – December

“Politics—government—does not exist for itself and, if it does, that is precisely when it becomes at least death-dealing if not entirely evil. Nation-states and empires have all “died the death” in the wake of such power run amuck, of such distortion of human community” (Sister Joan Chittister, quoted by Richard Rohr in his Daily Meditation for November 20, 2019).

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“In North America and much of Europe, we are witnessing a dramatic increase in ‘nones,’ people who don’t identify with a particular faith tradition. While I ache for those who have been wounded by religion and no longer feel at home in church, the dissatisfaction within Christianity has sparked some necessary and healthy changes. Episcopal Bishop Mark Dyer (1930–2014) aptly called these recurring periods of upheaval giant “rummage sales” in which the church rids itself of what is no longer needed and rediscovers treasures it had forgotten” (Richard Rohr, Daily Mediation, October 27, 2019).

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“Conservative tendencies often signal that fear is outweighing hope. We get defensive. We hang on. We hoard. We try to collect manna for tomorrow, today. We don’t believe that God’s future will be as great as God’s past, that what God will do can be as great as what God has done. There is a distrust of God in a lot of our conservatism. We must conserve, protect, and maintain, because God, it appears, is not doing it adequately. We do not like the future that God has in store, apparently” (Steve Mathonnet-VanderWel in Reformed Journal: The Twelve, October 22, 2019).

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“[Building spiritual resilience] could mean that when you are in worship or in another gathering or conversation and one of the preachers or one of your fellow congregation members makes a comment that causes your stomach to get tied up in knots, or makes your face flush with anger, or just increases this sense of tension in your soul, because you know you do not agree with what was just said—with this developed spiritual resilience, you could still be fully present in that service or gathering or conversation. With that kind of spiritual resilience, even in your disagreement, you could still honestly try to listen deeply for what they really mean, without needing to prove you are right or trying to throw them off the cliff.

We need to develop this kind of resilience for each other sooner rather than later, because, friends, we are called to lift up our voice. We are called to be a public witness. We are called to live with and in this tension. The issues and the struggles will change but not the call. It is who we have always been” (From a sermon by Shannon Kershner, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, October 6, 2019).

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You cannot, in the same moment of thought, wish to do something good to someone or to harm that person. Those are mutually incompatible, like hot and cold water. So the more you will bring benevolence in your mind at every of those moments, there’s no space for hatred. It’s just very simple, but we don’t do that. We do exercise every morning, 20 minutes, to be fit. We don’t sit for 20 minutes to cultivate compassion. If we were to do so, our mind will change, our brain will change. What we are will change” (Matthew Ricard is a French-born, Tibetan Buddhist monk. This quote is from an interview with Krista Tippett which originally  aired on OnBeing on November 12, 2009).

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“I have thought with renewed amazement lately about the clear patterns in scripture: God is always working with remnants, the most unlikely people, the most unlikely things, the losers and the people without power. Little seeds, mustard seeds. That’s how God likes to work. Reformed folk tend to love big systems and big dreams. We do quite well with institutions. That’s our Kuyperian heritage, perhaps. And our systemic thinking is one of our most important distinctives. We perceive systemic sin and we set out to battle it—with God’s help. We perceive systemic possibility and we set out to build it—with God’s help. That’s all good. But when we face so much disruption in our social and cultural infrastructures—including our churches—we have to remember how God loves to work. We may be watching it crumble, but meanwhile, God is creating those little refugia” (Debra Rienstra in The Twelve blog, November 23, 2019).

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Life Lessons from the Barnwood Builders

Recently I suggested that members of one of my writing groups choose a piece of writing from the past and try their hands at revising it. The idea was to make the writing sharper, more precise, more readable, and more memorable. The group had mixed reactions: “Once I finish a piece, I’m done with it”; “It’s more fun to write a new piece”;  and variations of “It’s too hard.” We discussed this project for several minutes, and then I encouraged each person to try the re-writing assignment.

The next morning I woke up thinking about the process of rewriting and why it is so hated but at the same time is so important. As I mused, one of of my favorite TV shows, Barnwood Builders, came to mind, and provided a perfect metaphor for rewriting stories – and for life.

Mark  Bowe and his team of weathered and bearded “hillbillies” travel the country to rescue and reclaim decades-old decaying log cabins and barns. It is a sacred task for all of them. They carefully deconstruct the building on site and choose what to do with the timber.  If they are planning to reconstruct the building on another site, they count and label all the logs so that they can perfectly re-create the structure. Sometimes they can’t save the whole structure, but they can save logs for new builds. These they move to their “bone yard” which may be hundreds of miles away. Timber and barn wood that cannot be used to build or restore a cabin are saved for building furniture. Tin roofs and sturdy windows are salvaged and recycled. Nothing is wasted; even farm tools and equipment found in the barns are saved and donated to museums. 

The Barnwood builders teach that 100+ year-old log cabins have value, though they may have to “edited.” Sometimes a log may have been invaded by termites or bees and those damaged parts have to be cut out. Sometimes the notches on a log may have have been damaged by rain and other weather events and have to be re-cut. Sometimes boards are worn and gray and need sanding and re-staining to bring out their former glory. Despite the work that needs to be done on them, these logs and beams can be made beautiful again.

This example from the real world can be encouraging to writers: re-writing or re-imagining can make a piece of writing even more enjoyable or valuable. When we revise, salvage sentences and paragraphs that are well-written and rewrite or re-imagine weaker sentences. To the Barnwood team, the structure of a barn or cabin can be elegant, but it may also be enhanced by the finish work they can do. To a writer, strengthening the structure of a piece of writing and enhancing it with more precise or elegant language can make our goal of memorable writing possible.

The Barnwood team gives us a life lesson as well. We should never give up on the work of art our lives can become. Old mistakes can be studied and learned from. Tired excuses can be sawed out of our thinking. Lack of confidence can be sanded over and bright new ventures constructed. And just as Mark Bowe and his crew can cherish a barn that has lost its former glory and imagine its reinvention, we can see a vision for other people who may have lost their way. Most importantly, we can remember that God sees the image of himself in each of us. He also sees the damage that time and life have done and understands that nothing goes to waste. And he yearns for the transformation that can blossom when we work with the Carpenter to become what He envisions.

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A Smaller Life

“Today, at age 76 — as I weather the autumn of my own life — I find nature a trustworthy guide. It’s easy to fixate on everything that goes to ground as time goes by: the disintegration of a relationship, the disappearance of good work well-done, the diminishment of a sense of purpose and meaning. But, as I’ve come to understand that life “composts” and “seeds” us as autumn does the earth, I’ve seen how possibility gets planted in us even in the most difficult of times. (Parker Palmer, Autumn: The Season of Paradox, published in On Being, November 9, 2019)

I‘ve been sitting in “my chair” quite often lately musing on how to describe how my world is changing. I’ve decided that it is getting smaller. (Parker Palmer might call it “diminished.”) Smaller means less involvement, less travel, less excitement, less input, connection.  Like Palmer, I’ve also decided that a smaller and diminished life is okay.

For a while I worried about becoming smaller.  Many of my friends and family members who are my age are still taking on new, sometimes complicated responsibilities, travel even more widely, are heavily involved in church or social justice activities while I slowly but surely have let much of that go. I suspect my strongly introverted nature is encouraging me down this road, but I am sure that my friends would urge me to “stay active.” I would tell them that I am  very active – in my  mind and soul. 

During my entire professional life (which lasted until I was 74), I was a planner, an organizer, an entrepreneurial dreamer of possibilities. (In fact, many of my dreams during sleep are still are about organizing, teaching, creating new things.) But now I have accepted ceding the planning and creating and building to others.

One reason my world is smaller is that I am my husband’s caregiver; this drains my energy and emotional strength.  Another reason is that my own health now limits my activity.  But health issues are not, I’ve discovered, the major reason that my world is shrinking.  I have always been more of an observer than a participant; now I can accept that part of myself and even relish it. Parker Palmer has helped me understand that even in “diminishment,” possibility is planted. I don’t mourn the losses. I focus, instead, on the calling: to read more,  muse more, sit quietly more, listen and observe more, write more, appreciate more – and  let go more.  

Henri Nouwen writes extensively about loss and how we choose to deal with it. He says,

[E]very time there are losses there are choices to be made. You choose to live your losses as passages to anger, blame, hatred, depression, and resentment, or you choose to let these losses be passages to something new, something wider, and deeper. The question is not how to avoid loss and make it not happen, but how to choose it as a passage, as an exodus to greater life and freedom” (Henri Nouwen, You are the Beloved.)

My smaller life, I am finding, is a passage, “an exodus to greater life and freedom.”

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