Daring to Dream; Taking a Leap

“Daring to dream what is deepest in our collective longings is
what makes us most human and fully alive.”
– Wendy Wright, The Vigil

I’ve been offline a great deal because I’ve gone back to school – enrolled in an academy that meets once a month for 11 months. It came about suddenly, and is proving to be filled with blessings. I’ll share the story with you, in the hope that it will bless you, too.

Paris door What happened is this: a door closed at the end of 2012/beginning of 2013. The video project about family-centered care on which I have been working for the past couple of years ground to a furious halt, incomplete, and it took a valued personal and professional relationship with it. 

I had to assess where I was, what was possible, and do my best to discern where wisdom was pointing. But before that, I had to recover from the shock and pain of the way the end of the project had transpired. It is not an exaggeration to say that this was the most difficult thing I’ve encountered since Katie died.

I had no idea whether it was wise to try to have the video finished or not. I did not have the emotional wherewithal nor the financial freedom to do it. It was difficult to discern whether this meant that the video was not “supposed” to be finished (a sign from the universe to stop the work I have felt led to do), or whether this was simply a problem that needed to be resolved. 

How was I to interpret the situation:  press on with diligence, or walk away and let it go? Which was the grace-directed path? Did I really have anything that important to say – important enough to suffer and sacrifice even more for it? I honestly did not know.Rose Window Chandelier

I consulted people in the field of video, marketing and the law. I prayed. I cried. I stressed. I talked it over with trusted advisers. And one day, I received a kind message from a stranger – a doctor who is the acquaintance of a friend of mine. 

At my friend’s suggestion, I had written to this doctor (a few months before any of “the troubles” began,) and, receiving no reply, had forgotten all about it. His message therefore came as a complete surprise – and a welcome one. This doctor is a nationally recognized speaker and trainer. His business/ministry involves helping to motivate people and transform their lives. He has worked on the front lines, aiding the public after numerous natural disasters. His name is Dan Diamond, and he invited me to call him.

Here is an excerpt from Dr. Diamond’s website: “Our mission is to resuscitate and equip people to thrive when times are tough. We believe in empowering and inspiring people to make a difference and discover significance. Only in giving life away does one actually find it.” I was excited to hear what he had to say.

In the course of our conversation, Dr. Diamond told me about a group to which he belongs, called the National Speakers Association. He suggested that I contact the local chapter. This one phone call would lead to encouragement, sharing of resources, support, kindness, generosity, understanding and an invitation to join the group, which was just about to launch a brand-new academy. Jan McLaughlin of Your Communication Connection is the Dean of the academy, and she offered an insightful, listening ear and a warm welcome.

NSA was described to me in this way: We are not a group that believes there is a pie with only so many pieces to go around; we are a group that says, “We’ve made a pie; come and have some!”

But to go back to school when I felt confused, beaten and stymied? Why would I do that? What could the National Speakers Association possibly have to do with me – and what would I have to contribute? I’m not a “national speaker” – not a “national” anything.

The following anecdote arrived in my INBOX around this time:

“There’s a famous story about the lion who came upon a flock of sheep and to his amazement found a lion among the sheep. It was a lion who had been brought up by the sheep ever since he was a cub. It would bleat like a sheep and run around like a sheep. The lion went straight for him, and when the sheep-lion stood in front of the real one, he trembled in every limb. And the lion said to him, ‘What are you doing among these sheep?’ And the sheep-lion said, ‘I am a sheep.” And the lion said, ‘Oh no, you’re not. You’re coming with me.’ So he took the sheep-lion to a pool and said, ‘Look!’ And when the sheep-lion looked at his reflection in the water, he let out a mighty roar, and in that moment he was transformed. He was never the same again.”  – Anthony de Mello, Awareness

Because of the demise of the video project (and the way it happened), I had begun to doubt myself, my ability to be of service to others, and my path. In soul-searching with a spiritual director, I did my best to be honest about my mistakes and shortcomings, but also to be honest about the role of others – and to see the larger context. And then, this quote appeared:

“Without being discouraged on account of our sins, we should pray for God’s grace with a perfect confidence relying upon the infinite merits of our Lord. God never fails offering us His grace at each action, as I have distinctly perceived it myself… unless my thoughts had wandered from a sense of God’s Presence, or unless I had forgot to ask His assistance.”
– Br. Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God

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and then, this one popped into my INBOX:

“Do you allow Jesus to be the Lord and healer in your personal life, family, and community? Approach him with expectant faith. God’s healing power restores us not only to health but to active service and care of others. There is no trouble he does not want to help us with and there is no bondage he can’t set us free from. Do you take your troubles to him with expectant faith that he will help you?  ‘Lord Jesus Christ, you have all power to heal and to deliver from harm. There is no trouble nor bondage you cannot overcome. Set me free to serve you joyfully and to love and serve others generously. May nothing hinder me from giving myself wholly to you and to your service. ‘ “   –DailyScripture.net

and significantly, this one arrived:

“Don’t be afraid to take a big step if one is indicated. You can’t cross a chasm in two small jumps.” David Lloyd George

Tofino (48)

and finally, this: And I am convinced and sure of this very thing, that He Who began a good work in you will continue until the day of Jesus Christ [right up to the time of His return], developing [that good work] and perfecting and bringing it to full completion in you.” – Phil. 1: 6

I copied and pasted these quotes into a Word document, and referred to them for encouragement. They fed me, by grace. After consulting an informal “clearness committee” of friends and family, I decided to take a leap of faith, applied to the class, and went back to school.

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photo courtesy of David M. Gerstenberger

The dean, the instructors, the curriculum and other students have already blessed me greatly. They are helping me to take my somewhat fuzzy vision of what I would like to do and put it through a rigorous process of questioning and refining. It requires a lot of homework, but it feels energizing, right and good.

I still don’t know what will happen with the video, nor is it clear what I am being called to do next, but I am working to improve my skills, willing to share and serve, and listening for insight. 

This experience is not simply about me, my story and my work, but touches upon the question of what is meant to be for the greater good (which includes me and you, as parts of a whole). It is a process, more than a product – it is not static. We don’t have to be “perfect” now; we do need to wake up, give thanks for what we have, offer ourselves wholeheartedly to what is in front of us, and listen for the next step.
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“I am sure God wants us to be whole and healthy in every way possible, 

but love neither depends upon these things nor ends with them. 

In fact, blessings sometimes come through brokenness  

that could never come in any other way.”

– Gerald May, The Awakened Heart

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Going to Hell

I recently participated in a Bible study class written by Beth Moore, called “Believing God.” I had read the book over the summer, and wanted to enter a weekday study with other seekers. Sunday church is not something that Gregg wants to attend, so I thought it would be a good idea for me to go during the week for worship, prayer and study with my sisters in Christ.
The class was offered by a local church, and open to the public.

This church is about as far to the right as any church I’ve entered, and I am way to the left of their theology (as stated on their website). However, I felt that, if we are all sisters in the faith, we could come together in the love of God and His Word, and find fellowship there.

It is simply amazing to me that there are so many, vastly different belief systems and doctrines under the one umbrella called Christianity. It was an eye-opening experience to take this class in this environment; we heard the same message week by week, yet we interpreted it completely differently. Though some of the ladies were very kind, it was clear to me that I did not fit into their mould, and never would.

I eventually found that the class was depressing me. Not Beth Moore’s teaching, which I loved, but the host church’s interpretation and presentation of the Biblical themes. Please do not misunderstand: I am thankful that I was welcome to join this class, and I am thankful to the church and its members for providing it. I just did not feel comfortable with their view of God, man, creation and our mission and purpose for existing.

This is not to suggest that I am “right” and they are “wrong.” These are my sisters in Christ, and they are living their belief system with integrity – an admirable thing. I just didn’t see the JOY, FREEDOM – and most importantly, the unconditional LOVE – of God in it. The further into the class we went, the more I missed those essential elements, and the darker it seemed.

I’ve been wondering about the concept of hell lately, probably because of the time I spent in this church, listening to their views.

Those of us who feel we’ve already seen hell, or lived there, seem to have no need to create or believe in another, later-destination version of it. Those who have experienced hell seem to want to bring heaven to earth as much as possible, with love, kindness, ministry, compassion, forgiveness, healing and tenderness. Those who speak and express the most concern about hell (as a place one might go after death) make me wonder if they really live in daily fear of it – and wonder if they’ve ever truly suffered here in this life, or are simply braced against it.

In my opinion, if you’ve already been there, hell is no longer an intellectual construct, a doctrine or a place to be sent after death, but a reality of this broken world that cries out for redeeming, here and now. It is illness, decay, depression, death, the suffering of mankind…what could be more hellish than those?

I wonder if we aren’t actually called – each one of us – to “go to hell” here in this life, and to come out of it with a heart transformed. That seems to be one way of looking at the Paschal pattern. To be frank, it’s one of the only ways that I can make sense of the past six years of my life.

I love God deeply, but experience has made me a bit wary of what He allows, as the price is so very high – it’s everything! (Yes, I am mid-life, flawed, and still not totally surrendered to Him.) Yet what other option and relationship do we have? “Lord, to whom shall we go?” He is the One – the Way, the Truth, the Life, the great source of Love – our Creator.

I truly desire to serve Him and participate in His work of love in this world; it’s the only life worth living anymore. I prefer to see it as bringing a bit of His kingdom – heaven – into the present time and place, rather than fearing a possible hell in the future.

What do you think about heaven and hell? Are they here and now, in the hereafter, neither, or both?

A Different View of Hopelessness

I am a Christian, with a rather colorful religious background. To Jewish people, I believe I am considered Jewish, due to my mother’s family heritage. To Christians, I am a Christian, a member of the body of Christ, baptized and ordained as a Deacon in the Presbyterian Church. In my own eyes, I am a former Christian Scientist who left that religion, was drawn through a “new-born” experience of Christ into membership in a community, who left that community and am at present not a church-goer. See what I mean by “colorful?”

I read, study and pray, attend worship and seminars occasionally, and do the best I can to honor my relationship with God by being a loving, grateful daughter and servant to Him. My faith in Him is sometimes shaky; my attitude is not always trusting. I am doing the best I can under the circumstances.

(Image from Wikipedia)

Though I am a Christian, my journey has been enhanced and enriched by other teachings than Christianity: Buddhist, Sufi, Jewish and other schools of thought have helped to balance and stabilize my walk on the path. Two Buddhist teachers have had a great impact on me: Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chodron. I have been reflecting lately on Pema Chodron’s writings and how they contrast with the Gospel. They take me back into paradox, the land of “both/and” describing truth, “rather than either/or” being true.

Buddhist teachings give us tools for getting comfortable with discomfort, for learning to accept what we think is unacceptable, for making peace when we want to fight, for “surrendering,” even when surrender looks like death. The teachings offer an alternative to looking for healing, change, and help…and yet, paradoxically, they can be agents for healing and change. Let me give you an example.

This passage appeared in my inbox from a Christian devotional. I loved it, and found it comforting:

“…we are called to die to various ways of life in order to follow Jesus. The pain of some losses is much greater than others, but having experienced his own losses and death, Jesus is always there to understand, support, and love us. It is in experiencing the pain of our losses that we become stronger followers of Jesus, increasing in our knowledge, understanding and love for Him.” – Susan Tinley, quoted from Creighton.edu in A Daily Spiritual Seed

Now compare that with these words (taken from various pages) in Pema Chodron’s book, “When Things Fall Apart:”

“The spiritual journey is not about heaven and finally getting to a place that’s really swell…Thinking that we can find some lasting pleasure and avoid pain is what in Buddhism is called samsara, a hopeless cycle that goes round and round endlessly and causes us to suffer greatly…

“Hopelessness means that we no longer have the spirit for holding our trip together…we long to have some reliable, comfortable ground under our feet, but we’ve tried a thousand ways to hide and a thousand ways to tie up all the loose ends, and the ground just keeps moving under us…

“To stay with that shakiness–to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge–that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic–this is the spiritual path. [This is also a very good description of learning to survive as a parent of a patient in the cancer ward of a pediatric hospital]

“…Nontheism is finally realizing that there’s no babysitter that you can count on. You just get a good one and then he or she is gone. Nontheism is realizing that it’s not just babysitters that come and go. The whole of life is like that. This is the truth, and the truth is inconvenient…

“The first noble truth of the Buddha is that when we feel suffering, it doesn’t mean that something is wrong. What a relief. Finally somebody told the truth. Suffering is part of life, and we don’t have to feel it’s happening because we personally made the wrong move…

“If we’re willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation…Begin the journey without hope of getting ground under your feet. Begin with hopelessness…

“Having a relationship with death in everyday life means that we begin to be able to wait, to relax with insecurity, with panic, with embarrassment, with things not working out. As the years go on, we don’t call the babysitter quite so fast…

“Giving up hope is encouragement to stick with yourself, to make friends with yourself, to not run away from yourself, to return to the bare bones, no matter what’s going on…we can gradually drop our ideals of who we think we ought to be, or who we think we want to be, or who we think other people think we want to be or ought to be. We give it up and just look directly with compassion and humor at who we are…

“…the source of wisdom is whatever is going to happen to us today. The source of wisdom is whatever is happening to us right at this very instant.”

For some reason, to me, this teaching is permeated with the unconditional grace and acceptance of Divine Love, or God. But to a Buddhist, it is apparently non-theist (please note that she does not say “anti-theist”). Whatever. It is a peace-giving and healing teaching, which seems to me not hopeless at all, but on the contrary, very hopeful indeed. The hope is that we can stop punishing ourselves and learn to live with compassion, for ourselves – in whatever the present moment has to teach us – and then, for others, as well.

Living with the Questions

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What do you do with a statement like the following, when your hopes have not materialized, your loved one has died, your partner has left, you have been swindled, or your prayers have not been answered as you had prayed they would?

“I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall be ever in my mouth.

Let my soul glory in the LORD;
the lowly will hear me and be glad.
The LORD has eyes for the just,
and ears for their cry.
The LORD confronts the evildoers,
to destroy remembrance of them from the earth.
When the just cry out, the LORD hears them,
and from all their distress he rescues them.
The LORD is close to the brokenhearted;
and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.
Many are the troubles of the just one,
but out of them all the LORD delivers him;
he watches over all his bones;
not one of them shall be broken.”  Ps 34:2-3, 16-17, 18-19, 20-21

 

There are so many points to take up in that Psalm! “From all their distress He rescues them.” That didn’t happen the way I interpreted it – I thought that RESCUE meant extrication from the crisis, healing for Katie, cancer defeated, life restored. You know, like a rescue in a lifeboat – you don’t go down with the ship, you get off the ship and it goes down without you. You are taken to land and you pick up the rest of your life – you may have lost your luggage, but not your loved one, not things you thought you couldn’t live without.

Well, that is not what happened; Katie died, and we were left to go on without her. There was plenty of distress, inside and all around. So how can I accept a piece of writing such as that Psalm? What can it possibly mean? What value can it have for me?

Immediately following Katie’s death, it would have created tension and angst in me, but five years later, I know that it is true. He “is close to the brokenhearted; and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.” He is close, when I call on Him. He has saved me; though my spirit has been crushed, it is being renewed through His grace. The writer of the 2nd letter to the Corinthians says it better than I can:

2 Corinthians 4:7-12 New International Version (NIV):  But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”

What a collection of paradoxes! But does paradox mean they aren’t true? I think not – I think that it may take paradox to speak to mysteries that are larger than our human minds can grasp. How can we speak of such divine activity except in similes, metaphors and parables? This is where Richard Rohr’s writings help me navigate the uncharted waters:

“I don’t think the important thing is to be certain about answers nearly as much as being serious about the questions.

“When we hold spiritual questions, we meet and reckon with our contradictions, with our own dilemmas; and we invariably arrive at a turning point where we either evade God or meet God. Mere answers close down the necessary struggle too quickly, too glibly, and too easily.

“When we hang on the horns of dilemmas with Christ—between perfect consistency and necessary contradictions—we find ourself in the unique place I call “liminal space.” Reality has a cruciform shape to it then—and we are taught best at the intersection of order and disorder, where God alone can make sense out of the situation and we must surrender. All real transformation of persons takes place when we’re inside of such liminal space—with plenty of questions that are open to God and grace and growth.”  – Richard Rohr, adapted from Holding the Tension: The Power of Paradox (CD, DVD, MP3)

Whatever your questions are, your unresolved grief, crisis, or catastrophe, I pray that you will hold onto the hope that you are not abandoned – because you are indeed beloved. Time itself doesn’t heal, but being patient and looking for the light, day by day – sometimes moment by moment – will yield evidence of goodness, which leads to gratitude. Gratitude sheds light on reasons to hope, and the light gradually becomes brighter.

As I listen and watch for God’s movement, it is apparent that reality does have “a cruciform shape” – that the cross is the pattern of our life here on earth. There is suffering inherent in the frailty of this existence. It isn’t personal, but the loving interaction between God and His creation (which does not always look like RESCUE) is indeed personal. God is for us, and we are made for God (if you can’t make peace with the word “God” just now, you could try substituting the word “Love”).  As it says in 1 John 4 (J.B. Phillips’ translation),

“God is love, and the man whose life is lived in love does, in fact, live in God, and God does, in fact, live in him. So our love for him grows more and more…”

The experience of catastrophe is an opportunity to go deeper into that Love, if we are willing to take the risk of surrender. We can also choose to turn away, because God does not force us. Trusting after a catastrophe is not easy; in my experience, it is not neat and tidy, it is not a straight line forward, and it is not painless. It is not even welcome – I would prefer to have Katie back, and would much prefer not to know what I know now – but that is not an option open to me.

I first truly saw the cruciform reality of my life in the place where I had to let Katie go, and begin to come to terms with God in that intersection, with the facts  of her passing (which I dislike intensely) standing all around me. It is a work in progress, to be sure. There are days when I wonder whether this place, this earth with all of its brokenness, is some form of hell; there are days when it seems like heaven. I have no answers, but I am learning to live with the questions.