A Box Full of Darkness

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”  (Mary Oliver)

“When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

We all have those moments when life seems overwhelmingly difficult and dark and lonely.  I remember the autumn I was planning to return for my second year of an on-line Masters of Spiritual Formation program.

The first year had been life-changing and challenging and thrilling; I quickly knew this was where I was supposed to be!  Now it was time to go back for the second year. I had worried all summer about how I would pay for this. I was now retired; my husband was ill.  Some funding I had thought might be available fell through. I finally decided to apply for a student loan – at age 65, my first ever. It had been granted, and now I was looking at the syllabus for the year; we were going to spend our two weeks “in residence” in Malibu with Dallas Willard!!

Suddenly I heard a Voice, “Karen, you can’t go this year.”  I had heard this Voice before. I was at a camp on Lake Michigan for a three-day solitary winter retreat, required by the Master’s program. I was standing on a dune on a gray, windy day gazing at the stormy sky and listening to the huge waves pounding on the beach.  Suddenly I heard, “My child, I will always take care of you.”  It was so real I turned around to see who was speaking.  Then I realized that God’s voice was speaking just to me. Years of fear and anxiety were transformed into gratitude.

I knew the Voice and I knew I had to listen.  I resigned from the program and entered into months of sadness and depression. My passion seemed to have been squashed just as it was getting started. I wondered where I was to go from here. After several months, I opened “the box full of darkness” and began to work through my grief.

I got the list of books being used in the master’s program and studied Ignatius of Loyola and Thomas Merton. From them I learned about the importance of relinquishing, letting go – a gift that has kept on giving. I now was beginning to see the stars in the darkness. It took more than a year for me to let go of the sadness – and, as I did, I found a career as a Director of Spiritual Formation (while my beloved friends were still finishing the MA program). I have always been grateful that I listened; I could never have repaid that student loan!!!!

Why do we have to go through crushing disappointment, extreme anxiety, the loneliness of loss or the squashing of a dream? So we can trust that walking through the darkness with God can bring us back into the light of the stars.

Posted in Living as Apprentices | Tagged , | Leave a comment

From My Reading – February

The root choice is to trust at all times that God is with you and will give you what you most need. . . . God says to you, “I love you. I am with you. I want to see you come closer to me and experience the joy and peace of my presence. I want to give you a new heart and a new spirit. I want you to speak with my mouth, see with my eyes, hear with my ears, touch with my hands. All that is mine is yours. Just trust me and let me be your God.

This is the voice to listen to. And that listening requires a real choice, not just once in a while but every moment of every day and night. It is you who decides what you think, say, and do. You can think yourself into a depression, you can talk yourself into low self-esteem, you can act in a self-rejecting way. But you always have a choice to think, speak, and act in the name of God and so move toward the Light, the Truth, and the Life.”(Henri Nouwen).

♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦

“What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the Son of God 1400 years ago and I do not give birth to the Son of God in my own person and time and culture? . . . We are all meant to be mothers of God” (Matthew Fox, paraphrasing Meister Eckhart).

♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦

“In American churches, particularly in evangelism, our emphasis on bringing people into the faith has had the unintended consequence of not being spaces where the work of discipleship is being done. Many churches are just not equipped to be helpful to people who seriously long to learn to live as Jesus lived in the midst of their particular lives.

The loneliness and isolation that many earnest followers of Christ experience is profound. And while . . . educational programs can provide a wonderful community, they leave some convinced they cannot have similar experiences locally. This is hugely problematic. The local Church is important, exceedingly important. And, jumping headlong into service and leadership is not the answer. What’s desperately needed is for us to intentionally and creatively look for ways to carve out environments that help foster a deep commitment to Jesus Christ, places where we can “provoke one another to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24)” (Nathan Foster, Renovare Weekly Digest, January 6-2020).

♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦

“In 869 AD, a Norse army invaded England, and captured its king, Saint Edmund the Martyr. The Viking ruler ordered Edmund to renounce his faith and rule as an underlord. When Edmund refused, the chief threatened him saying, “Don’t you realize that I have the power to kill you?” Edmund replied, “But don’t you realize I have the power to die.” The power to die is the supreme expression, the consummate example of the fierce and final freedom we receive as we grow ever deeper into the likeness of Christ. But how is it achieved? By grace, no doubt. But also by someone who has been dying all their life, someone who’s grown so accustom to sacrificing the inward-self, that sacrificing the outward-self is not an onerous choice but an obvious one” (Jonathan R. Bailey in jonathan@jonathanrbailey.com).

♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦

“When somebody you’ve wronged forgives you, you’re spared the dull and self-diminishing throb of a guilty conscience.  For both parties, forgiveness means the freedom to be at peace inside their own skins and to be glad in each other’s presence” (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking).

Posted in Quotes | Tagged , , ,

“I Figured it out by Myself!”

A few days ago, I told my husband the story of Jim, a literacy student I worked with decades ago.  It brought tears to my eyes -not for the first time.  I thought I had written a post about so I searched using the words “file cabinet.”  There it was – posted on Feb.25, 2015. I’m re-posting it to remind us  all of the possibilities in all the people God brings into our lives.

He was tall and hefty and always spoke with his outdoor voice. He worked for the county Road Commission. In his 40’s he came to the Family Literacy Center looking for help with his reading. He had collected dozens of “coffee table books” because he was eager to learn about a variety of subjects.  He believed that if he could just learn to read he could do anything, inclman readinguding finding a job that was not backbreaking work.

As the director of the program, I interviewed and tested him.  He was basically illiterate and suffered from the worst case of dyslexia I have ever seen.  I gently attempted to steer him away from this impossible goal, but he would have none of it.  He wanted a tutor!  I decided to tutor him myself because I didn’t know if any volunteer would have the patience.

We worked together for several years. I finally decided that the key to helping him was to convince him that he was not dumb or stupid but had a disability that was preventing him from learning to read. We worked hard at slowing down and attacking words letter by letter so he could be sure that he was seeing the right letter in the right order – and then applying what he had learned about phonics.  It was excruciating process to watch, but a liberating process for him.

About halfway into his tutoring experience, he came into a session and said he wanted to quit. He had tried to drive by himself to Atlanta to visit family, but when he got on the freeways leading into the city, he couldn’t  find the right exit.  Finally he  got so frustrated, he turned around and came  home. All the self-esteem we had worked so hard to build went right out the window. We talked for an hour. I explained that I have the same problem driving in unfamiliar areas.  But he was devastated by the experience and quit.  I didn’t blame him.

After several months he stopped by the office.  He wanted to try again.  So we began again. I used every technique I knew, including writing in sand, but still he struggled.  Eventually we began having discussions about being happy with who he was as a person even if he couldn’t read much better.  He would always shake his head and say he wanted to keep trying.

One day he came into the room with a big smile on his face and a gleam in his eye.  He sat down and the story poured out.  He had gone to work that morning and gotten his work orders as usual. In his truck, he looked at the paper. As the years had gone by, he had memorized many street names, but he wasn’t familiar with this one. He had no idea where to go. Somehow he learned the area the road was in and drove up and down the streets looking for the intersection. Finally he came up to a road that he thought might be it.  He stopped his truck and, as he had learned to do, compared the letters on the paper to the letters on the sign – one by one.  It was the road!!

He looked at me, grinning,  and said, “I figured it out by myself!”  We talked about what a great feeling it is to accomplish something on your own.  Finally he said, “I think it’s time to stop the reading lessons.  I’m never going to be able to read the books I bought.  It probably was silly to buy them.  But it’s okay. I can do what I have to do.  And better yet, I’m proud of who I am.  Thank you so much!”

A few months later I saw his truck pull up to my house. My heart sank a bit; I hoped he wasn’t going to ask if he could be tutored again. He unloaded something from the truck and then knocked on the door. “This is for you,” he said.  “It’s my thank you. I saw it in the dump and I said to myself, “I bet I can fix this up for Karen. I’m sorry it took so long, but it was a lot of work!” He stepped aside and I saw a beautifully finished three-drawer wooden file cabinet. “I figured with all the papers you have, you could use this.”

I could barely speak.  “You got this out of the dump?”

“Yeah, it was pretty damaged and it took a lot of sanding and a bunch of coats of stain, but I think it looks pretty good.” the least of these

I said, “It’s beautiful!  Thank you!”

As he turned to go he said,  “Well, you always said that I was talented and to be proud of who I am even if I can’t read.  It was a lot of work, but I proved to myself that you were right.”

(“‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one
of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”)

Posted in Living as Apprentices | 2 Comments

Doubly Blessed

Note:  E-mail followers and LinkedIn members received this post last week. But for some reason it disappeared from the actual Word Press blog site. After a half hour of “back-and-forth-ing” in the Help Chat Room yesterday, the expert and I agreed that the post was gone forever – who knows why or where. I decided to republish it because I think the statement it makes is important. So if you get a second e-mail notification for this post, just ignore – or read it again and be doubly blessed.

Gratitude makes us feel bursting with delight just to remember the gifts we have received. Thus we are double blessed when we receive something; for the gift itself and later, in the recall, for the memory of having been given it.  M.J. Ryan.

Since we moved into our new apartment a few months ago, I have been wishing for an inexpensive floor lamp for a dark corner in the living room. But medical expenses made that an unwise use of money. A few days ago a friend called from the Bibles for Mexico thrift shop saying that she has been looking for a lamp for us and thinks she has found one. She didn’t like the shade, and as we were talking, she said the switch didn’t work.  She would see if the store would trade out the shade and get her a new switch.  “I’ll call you in a minute,” she said in great excitement.

I sat down in some confusion.  Why is she getting me a lamp? What if I didn’t like it? Soon the phone rang, and my friend reported success. The lamp was ready to go. Could she come over now? I said, “Sure, do you know how to get here?” I started giving directions and she said “That’s enough. I’ll call you back when I get that far.” Which she did.  Soon she was standing at the door – lamp in hand.

We went in the house and I put the lamp where I had always imagined it. It fit just right, just as I had imagined it! I was really excited. She turned it on, demonstrating the three-way switch, and we stepped back. “It’s perfect!” I shouted.” I might have even jumped up and down. She smiled and smiled and smiled.  “Why did you do this? I asked.  “Because I love you,” she said, “and because God put your need for a lamp in my mind and heart and I couldn’t let it go.”

“But it’s so perfect!” I said teary-eyed. “It’s just right. Look how cozy the room looks now! How did you know what I wanted?”  She just smiled.

I have had the lamp for about a week. I smile at it fondly every time I go past it.  I turn it on first thing in the morning.  In the evening, it stays on until I go to bed. Every time I look at it, I am reminded of the friend who listened to God’s “marching orders” until she found me a lamp. And as M.M. Ryan says in the quote above, I am “doubly blessed” by the gift and how it constantly reminds me of how God cares about my life.

Posted in Living as Apprentices | 1 Comment

“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!

Posted in Living as Apprentices | 1 Comment

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).

♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦

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).

♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦

“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).

♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦

“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).

♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦

“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).

Posted in Quotes | Tagged , ,

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.”

Posted in Going Deeper with God | Tagged