“This Little Light of Mine”

Recently I posted an anecdote from the life of A.J. Muste (1885-1967), a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church who became one of the leading activists of his time in the areas of war resistance, civil rights, civil liberties, civil liberties and disarmament. During the Vietnam War, Muste stood in front of the White House night after night with a candle – sometimes alone.  A reporter interviewed him one evening as he stood there in the rain. “Mr. Muste,” the reporter said, “do you really think you are going to change the policies of this country by standing out here alone at night with a candle?” A.J. responded, “Oh, I don’t do this to change the country, I do this so the country won’t change me.” 

I have tried to wrap my  mind and soul and heart around recent events in Charlottesville, VA where neo-Nazi and white supremacists rioted in the streets, killing a young woman. Just as mystifying and horrifying were our president’s comments about it all. I thought about Muste and how important it is for each us to stand out in the world with our candle. Everyone has a different calling and a different candle, but we all have the charge by Jesus to be a light on the world and to stand with others in a city on a hill so that light can be seen (Matthew 5:14).

So I’m starting a new series of occasional blogs called This Little Light of Mine (from the Negro spiritual often sung at civil rights rallies) to suggest ways that each of us can hold our candle in this dark time.  I would love to feature the ways that you are planning to do that as well. Just describe your ideas in the “Comments” section below.

This first idea is very general.  It’s our life-long strategy of living a life of surrender.  In his book The Walk, the Life-Changing Journey of Two Friends, Michael Card describes a time in his life when he was frustrated and bitter about the state of the Christian music industry. His emotional state was affecting his work and relationships.  His mentor, Bill Lane, gave him this advice.  “Let the excellence of your work be your protest.” He went on to say, “Take the energy you are wasting with complaining and bitterness and focus it on your craft.”

This strikes me as a useful, though very difficult, strategy. Closing our mouths, remaining pleasant, and concentrating on our “craft” of living a life of obedience to God are much harder than obeying our fight-or-flight impulses when we or a cause or a person we are passionate about are attacked or demeaned. First we use that helpful little word “choose.” We always have the option to choose our responses to the negative and evil forces in the world.  My guideline has become the Serenity Prayer. Can I change this situation? If so, what action will give the best results without harming someone or escalating the situation?  If  I can’t change the situation, the next step is to just move on. 

Local and/or national political battles – complete with lies and misdirection that fly like bullets into the atmosphere – can be infuriating and draining and harmful. Instead of pumping up our will power to refrain from attacking back, acting defensively, or just ignoring the situation, we can concentrate on a positive response. We can let the “excellence of our work” as apprentices of Jesus speak for us. This is one way we can  light a  candle in our families, in our neighborhood and in the darkness of a bitter and angry world.

And as Muste, stated, lighting my candle can keep this world from changing me.

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From My Reading

“As Christians, we need to make it a top priority to care for God’s creation and the abundance it is meant to provide for all of God’s children – especially the poorest and most vulnerable – now and in future generations.  In some cases, that may mean denominations, congregations, and churches officially pledging to meet Paris [climate accord] targets with their own facilities and operations. It should also mean continued pressure on political leaders at the local, state, and federal levels to commit to the goals. We also need to continue to make the moral and spiritual case for global climate action and environmental justice.  As God’s children, we are called to treat the Earth – our only home and a sacred gift from our Creator – with the love and respect it deserves” (Jim Wallis in Sojourner magazine, August, 2017).

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“As we all are well aware, we live in a divided and divisive time.  We have always had our differences, but in the U.S. today, and in many other countries, there is a polarization that cuts right through, leaving us fearful, angry suspicious.  Underneath, many of our most divisive arguments are a disagreement about which is better – – deep or wide.  Should we hunker down with the people who look and think like we do? Or should we embrace the diversity and internationalism of the age?

Fortunately, the answer to this question is right here in this song [the hymn Deep and Wide].  All we have to do is listen for the most important word.  It’s not “deep.” But it’s not “wide” either. It’s “and.” There’s a fountain flowing deep and wide. Not deep “or” wide.” Not deep “but” wide.  Certainly not deep “versus” wide. A fountain flowing deep “and” wide.” For people of faith, this fountain represents the depth and breadth of God’s love for us. . . . Scripture tells us we were created in the image of God, suggesting that we, too, were meant to be both deep and wide.  Deep engagement with faith and wide engagement with others are not only compatible but complementary, reinforcing each other”  (Dr. Charles Green, professor psychology at Hope College in Holland, MI, speaking to the graduating class of 2017, published in News from Hope College, Summer, 2017 ).

 ◊   ◊   ◊   ◊   ◊

Jesus’ story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) and his story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) are both wonderful illustrations of how Jesus turns a spirituality of climbing, achieving, and perfection upside down. In both stories, the ones who have done it wrong and are humble about it (the younger son and the tax collector) are the ones who are forgiven, transformed, and rewarded. Those who are proud of how they have done everything right—but also feel superior to others, or feel they are now entitled—are not open to God’s blessing.

This is Jesus’ Great Reversal theme. He turns religion on its head. We thought we came to God by doing it right, and lo and behold, surprise of surprises, we come to God by doing it wrong—and growing because of it! The only things strong enough to break open our heart are things like pain, mistakes, unjust suffering, tragedy, failure, and the general absurdity of life. I wish it were not so, but it clearly is.Fortunately, life will lead us to the edge of our own resources through such events. We must be led to an experience or situation that we cannot fix or control or understand. That’s where faith begins. Up to that moment it has just been religion! Only on the other side do you know that everything has been preparation” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation for  August 3, 2017).

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“I see our history in a rather long perspective.  Twenty billion years of this universe.  Six billion years of the solar system. Four and seven-tenths billion years of the earth.  Three billion years of life on earth. Three million years of human life. Ten thousand years of civilization. And then a trivial two hundred years of the Industrial Revolution to bring us to the edge of self-distinction” (George Wald, “Therefore Choose Life” in The Sun, August, 2017.)

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We Surrender to Win – Guest Post

This is a guest post. The writer wishes to remain anonymous.

I grew up in a family where it was considered important to always “be right;” we were often corrected for any mistakes in speech or behavior. This bred a strong fear of failure and of making mistakes.  I became anxious and defensive when criticized or corrected. My primary reaction was (and often still is) to argue or defend my opinions, because to be “wrong” was considered to be stupid or inferior.  Being unaware that this belief was false, I set myself up for a life of conflict and difficult relationships in my family and friendships, not realizing my part in creating conflict and hurt feelings.

I love my two sisters and we are still emotionally close even though we live far apart. However, our need to be right creates conflict and competition to “win” arguments, even petty ones.This has caused dissension and hurt feelings during the last few years as we face difficult decisions in caring for our mother who has Alzheimer’s disease. It is harmful to all of us, including to my mother who senses the tensions even as her mind and memory slip away. Things got so bad we even stopped communicating for a while, and it almost tore our close family apart.

I knew something had to change. I finally realized I had to change. So I am learning to say things like “I see your point” and “You may be right”. I can choose when and how to respond in situations when there are disagreements and conflicts.  I am learning  that we cannot change or control anyone but ourselves, and we can’t even change ourselves without God’s help. We need to let his Spirit guide us and teach us. The Twelve Steps  teach  that our addictive behaviors (like my need to control and be “right”) have made our lives unmanageable. We must surrender our will to God’s will in order to grow and change our destructive behaviors. That’s very hard for a control freak because it feels like losing. Surrendering to win (as both Jesus and the Twelve Steps teach) is a  difficult lifelong process.  I am making slow progress on this journey–often veering off the path but inching along with God’s help.

 

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The Spiritual Discipline of Washing Dishes

I was making breakfast when I noticed that the kitchen sink was clogged up.  How in the world did that happen overnight?!  I could see my vision oan orderly day going “down the drain.” I turned the garbage disposal on and off. It was still clogged. I went about my business for a few minutes and tried it again.  I stuck my hand down the disposal, looking for errant chunks of something. Nothing worked. I told my husband about the sink. He told me to do what I had already done (as usual).  So I did. Nothing happened. After breakfast I piled the dishes by the sink (still clogged) on top of some others from evening before.

Then I e-mailed the apartment manager and asked her to send Lonnie, our very wonderful maintenance guy.  I waited rather patiently, I thought.  Lonnie drove past our building two or three times in his all-purpose golf cart, but he didn’t stop at our door.  Finally, it was lunch time; I dirtied a few more dishes.  At about 3:00 in the afternoon, I walked past the sink and thought, “There must be a way to solve this.”  I decided to go “old school.”  I got a large bowl out and poured dish soap in and washed several dishes.  I carted them to the bathroom and awkwardly rinsed them in the sink. I brought the bowl back to the kitchen, dried those dishes, put them away, and put more in to soak.  I did this three times.

Somewhere along the way, I thought of a spiritual practice, suggested by James Finley, a core faculty member at the Center for Contemplation and Action. It had been hi-lighted in a recent Richard Rohr Daily Meditation. Finley proposed that “meditation and the performance of daily tasks might gradually flow together in an habitual state of present moment attentiveness.”  His suggestion:  wash dirty dishes mindfully.

“Begin by first sitting in meditation for about twenty to thirty minutes. Then slowly stand, and walk in a slow mindful manner to the kitchen sink full of dirty dishes. Stand at the sink, mindfully gazing for a moment at the dishes. Slowly and mindfully put soap in the sink. Fill the sink with hot water, attentive to the simple givenness of the sound of running water. Wash, rinse, and place each item in the drainer with mindfulness.

When the dishes are finished, pull the plug, listen to and watch the water going down the drain. Rinse out the sink with mindfulness. Dry each item and put it in its proper place with natural and deliberate mindfulness. Wipe off the counter tops with mindfulness.”

Of course, I didn’t start the job with mindfulness, although I was much calmer than I sometimes am when my plans are interrupted. But as soon as I thought of dirty dishes as a spiritual exercise, I did as Finley suggested.

I didn’t do the twenty minutes of meditation after the dishes were done, as Finley prescribed, because as soon as I had wiped off the counter tops, the doorbell rang. It was Lonnie, with a short “sink plunger,” which when applied forcefully, did the trick immediately. A bit embarrassed about asking him to climb the stairs to our second-floor apartment with all his tools to do a twenty-second job, I told him I would buy a sink plunger. He said, “Oh, no, don’t do that. I like these easy little jobs!”   

Here is some of what I learned that day:

♥  It is very difficult to live every moment as a sacred moment.  This is not a new insight for me, but it is one that requires  continual practice – especially when living with the reality of incurable cancer. 

♥ Lonnie is a mindful person – at least on the job. His attitude always seems to be that your particular problem is the most important one of the day. And since he is a “jack-of-all-trades,” he loves to do whatever turns up – and teach you something along the way. Sounds a bit like Jesus, I thought; I would like to be more like Lonnie.

♥I don’t want to anthropomorphize God, but I couldn’t help but think that God was chuckling as he watched help come just after I figured out a way to take care of the dishes myself. Maybe sometimes before we plead for help, we should see what we can do about taking care of things on our own, because God is in it all in some way or other. Of course, I still needed to have the sink unclogged, so maybe the lesson is that if we take the first step, God provides the help we need.  It certainly is true (as Finley who is channeling Brother Lawrence suggests) that “surrendering to the present moment” makes any task or attitude better.

♥ Having the right tool for the job is important, in spiritual life (meditating about dirty dishes instead of getting all riled up) as in real life (having a plunger on hand).

At the end of Finley’s little article he asks the following:

What would it be like to open and close doors, take some boxes out of the garage, file papers, answer the phone, not as rude interruptions into a carefully sequestered-off contemplative life, but, to the contrary, as living embodiments of the hands-on divinity of daily living?

What  would it be like?  If you try one of these, let me know and we’ll compare notes. 

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“Crank up your Volume”

This is not a political blog site, but Christians live in a highly politicized atmosphere in all parts of the globe  including America.  The politics of a nation are the purview of a blog site whose title is Living as Apprentices (of Jesus) and whose tagline is “becoming like Jesus for the sake of others.”

Last week was supposedly Donald Trump’s “worst week yet.” I have a feeling that most weeks in the future will bear that title. I strongly believe the survival of our democracy is at risk. This president (“king” in his own mind) continually spews disrespect and hatred no matter who the intended the audience  might be. The flood of lies about major issues and inconsequential facts continues to fuel distrust of anything he might say or any belief he might sign onto for the moment. His addiction to being LOVED and slavishly complimented motivates every action he takes.   

So . . . I sat in my recliner on a Sunday afternoon and wondered what is to become of us all. How can we sustain hope for our country in an atmosphere of narcissism, fear, personal aggrandizement, chaos, and confusion? In despair, I pawed through the magazines on the end table and ended up with the 500th issue of The Sun, a magazine I highly recommend. The August issue features a long section entitled “One Nation, Indivisible,” which features interviews and articles from the magazine from 1974 to the present, as well as “Sunbeams,” a representation of quotes from past issues.  There I  found my marching orders:

“I love the story about A.J. Muste, who, during the Vietnam War, stood in front of the White House night after night with a candle – sometimes alone.  A reporter interviewed him one evening as he stood their in the rain. “Mr. Muste,” the reporter said, “do you really think you are going to change the policies of this country by standing out here alone at night with a candle. A.J. responded, “Oh, I don’t do this to change the country, I do this so the country won’t change me” (Andrea Ayvazian).

“Realize that for every ongoing war and religious outrage and environmental devastation and bogus Iraqi attack plan [substitute ISIS or Afghanistan], there are a thousand counterbalancing acts of staggering generosity and humanity and art and beauty happening all over the world right now, on a breathtaking scale from flower box to cathedral. . . .  Resist the temptation to drown in fatalism, to shake your head and just throw in the karmic towel. . . . Realize that this is the perfect moment to change the energy of the world, to step right up and crank up your personal volume; right when it all seems dark and bitter and offensive and acrimonious and conflicted and bilious . . . . there’s your opening” (Mark Morford).

So – – here’s my “candle in the rain” to make sure that this “country won’t change me.” And this is me cranking up “my personal volume.” And this is our “opening:”  Our voices for truth, love, and justice must be heard. Never stop speaking up or against! Don’t let our vitriolic political struggles change you or the way you treat people. And be one of those “counterbalancing acts of staggering generosity and humanity” right where you live.  

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Spiritual Withdrawal Symptoms

The dictionary definition of the term withdrawal is “the act of taking out.” Withdrawal can refer to taking money from a bank, removing your name from consideration for committee or a job, or leaving a college class. The most frequent use of this term is the “group of symptoms that occur upon the abrupt discontinuation or decrease in intake of medications or recreational drugs,” also from the dictionary. Actually, we can experience “withdrawal symptoms” when we attempt to stop any addictive behavior: gambling, Facebook, video games, over-eating, or just thinking we are always right.

I have been musing about the possibility of suffering from withdrawal symptoms when we attempt to curb any of the defensive behaviors hiding in our shadow selves. Most of these dysfunctional behaviors have been building up for years as a protection from pain and insecurity. Sometimes we don’t even realize how we respond to life; we just know we have to be wary and in control.

Testing my hypothesis, I searched back in my life for times when I was trying to change inappropriate behaviors.  For example, as I tried to curb anxious thoughts when I woke up at 3 a.m, my symptom of withdrawal was fear (which became more and more obvious) that I was going to miss something, forget something, or, worst of all, be unable to handle or control something. I learned to turn my fear into faith by remembering that I live in the Kingdom of God. No matter what happens, I am safe.

For much of my life, I believed that the more I accomplished the more value I had in the eyes of human beings and even in the eyes of God. When I was deepest into this false narrative, I rarely sat down to do something “unproductive” because I was afraid of being caught at being lazy. As I tried to change this behavior, I found myself choosing to read a book, or take a nap, or  just sit only when no one else was home.  It took many years of intentional behavior, with its accompanying withdrawal symptoms, to get that false assumption out of my mind and heart.

More recently, as I tried to stem the flow of critical thoughts (and sometimes comments) that erupted almost instantly when someone overlooked me or disagreed with me, I felt weak and “off my game.”  When I stopped building up my arsenal  to respond to “attacks,” I felt even more vulnerable to “attacks.”  I had to choose, over and over again, to recognize the feeling and remember that my value and worth come from being a child of God, not from the recognition or approval of the people around me.

Spiritual withdrawal symptoms are just as uncomfortable as physical withdrawal symptoms. They tempt us to give up and go back to the behaviors or wrong thinking we are trying to eliminate. We lessen their effectiveness by having a plan to counteract them.  Twelve Step programs give us a tool for this: HALT. When we find ourselves in the following physical or emotional states, we will be vulnerable to relapse into the behaviors  or thoughts we are trying to shed.

  • Hungry – not just for food but also for attention, or understanding, comfort or companionship
  • Angry
  • Lonely
  • Tired – not just physically but also feeling emotionally overloaded or overwhelmed

We need to be vigilant in noticing these symptoms.  When we become aware of them, we need to halt and take care of them.  And then we need to remember that the Holy Spirit is at our side, eager to help us free ourselves from behaviors that keep us from becoming like Jesus.

 

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Being “Reasonably Happy”

This blog is home to more than 660 posts.  Occasionally I re-blog a post that seems particularly important for life in 2017.  This post was first posted on February 19, 2015.

serenity prayer 2

When I  worked for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, I collaborated on educational programming with a psychologist who taught “realistic optimism.” He encouraged people to be practical about coping with their diagnosis, dealing with symptoms, and planning their futures. For example, “I know I will be cured” was an unrealistic expectation. But thinking “I know there are now many options for treatment; I will find the one that is best for me” is realistic as well as optimistic.

It seems to me that the Christian concept of hope is similar to this strategy. We are realistic about what can come into our lives:  pain, suffering, loss, challenge, unwanted change, and heartache.  And yet we also believe that God is in control and that we are safe in God’s hands. We proceed through our lives in the Kingdom of God with realistic optimism.

That is the intellectual and spiritual foundation for getting through our lives here on earth.But how do we put that foundation into practice?  I think the Serenity Prayer has the answers we need. The most popular version of that prayer was written by Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) and has been universally adopted by Twelve Step Groups.

The first several lines are very familiar.  We are taught to accept the things we cannot change, which is most everything in life – except ourselves. We are encouraged to change the things we can; this gives us a sense of action and mission – and possibility.  Then, most crucially, we are encouraged to learn recognize what we can and what we cannot change.  This then is how we grow hope: by being willing to pursue the wisdom to know what we can and cannot change in our lives and acting accordingly.

The second part of this prayer is not as well-known, but it, too, leads us to hope through realistic optimism:

“Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.  Taking as He did this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it.  Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with him forever in the next.”

Sometimes Christianity is promoted as the solution to all problems and a carefree path to happiness.  Realistic people know that this is not true.  We realize that such expectations fuel resentment. We understand that the journey to hope means living with God in the moment, recognizing that the world cannot always deliver what we wish for, but trusting that we will be “reasonably happy” in the Kingdom of God on earth and “supremely  happy” in the Kingdom of God eternal.

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Becoming a Gritty Christian

I’m “back in the saddle again,” co-leading a group studying Breathing Under Water, Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, by Richard Rohr. The lesson this week focused on the life-long process we engage in as we look deeply into our “private self” – the person we are when no one is looking.  Rohr calls this “hidden me” our shadow self. He encourages us to engage in shadow-boxing – an internal boxing-match with whatever we uncover deep down in that shadow self.

This is a difficult and wearying process – and we don’t always score a knock-out immediately. It includes:

  • recognizing that I can’t heal what I don’t acknowledge.
  • digging down deep with the Holy Spirit to learn who I really am when no one is looking.
  • nurturing what I find that is Christ-like and tossing in the dumpster the parts that are not.

As I recalled the shadow-boxing conversations I had with this group, the term “true grit” popped into my head. Shadow-boxing takes grit. When you hear the phrase “true grit,” you may flash to one of the movie versions of the novel, True Grit by Charles Portis, in which a stubborn teenager enlists the help of a tough U.S. Marshal to track down her father’s murderer. Since grit means perseverance, firmness of character; tenacity, resilience, and determination, the movie is a great representation of the term.

While grit is not a term we often encounter in a spiritual context, it may be one of the most important characteristic of  spiritual formation.  We are on a journey of  “long obedience in the same direction” (Eugene Peterson’s definition of discipleship).  Tenacity, resilience, and determination are required for any journey, let alone a journey of transformation. 

Our goal is to become like Jesus. That process demands a hardiness and grit that Jesus warned us about. He said that we should expect to mourn, to be meek, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be merciful, pure in heart, and to become peacemakers, accepting persecution as we go.  He advises:

  • sell all you have and follow me; deny yourself and follow me.
  • let me lead; I am in the driver’s seat, not you.
  • turn the other cheek; walk another mile.
  • find  your treasures in God’s kingdom, not on this earth.
  • take the log out of your own eye, before you attempt to remove the splinter from another’s eye.

Living like this takes grit. It takes bravely searching for who we really are and the vulnerability to reveal that person to others. It takes learning spiritual disciplines and soul training habits and practicing them our whole lives. It takes the acceptance of powerlessness and the practice of surrender – which takes the most grit of all.

Spiritual transformation doesn’t happen in a day or  a week or a month or a year, although the desire to change from a worm to a butterfly may arise suddenly. Our transformation requires  faith that the Holy Spirit will reveal what qualities in us must die or rise. It needs trust in God’s plan for us so that we can walk the journey bravely. And it takes grit to weather the struggles and conflicts of life and bounce back with tenacity and perseverance. Our reward for that journey is the healing Jesus promises.

____

Find more information on shadow-boxing

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