Trouble the Waters

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on May 18, 2019 by thecrossingchicago

I can relate to whoever said, “I wonder as I wander.”  These words that originated in Appalachia resound with me because I tend to do a lot of both and usually at the same time.  At any given moment, my mind is awash with musings and questions and in a place like this (Roslyn Retreat Center Richmond, VA), one can get rather contemplative.

I wonder if Meister Eckhart, Therese of Liseux, Thomas Merton and the like had sudden blazes of revelation – breakthroughs that stayed with them for the duration of their lives.  There are stories of ecstatic visions, but most are balanced with accounts of traveling aimlessly through the dark night of the soul – their hands outstretched in front of them to feel their way along in the shadows lest they injure themselves on a rock or tree.  This seems to be where most of us find ourselves at one time or another.

My guess is that these mystics existed in a place somewhere in between these extremes, much like the place where we tend to exist.  To have a constant view of the sacred would be overwhelming.  It’s less about these mystics being especially chosen to receive the light as it is about their ability to wait.  In the waiting and watching they developed eyes to see that which was always there.  The long periods of contemplation gave them occasional glimpses of the Divine that would fade, but serve as a constant reminder that there really was something holding us together.

Most of us don’t have the luxury or the mindset to remain in a state of introspection for long periods of time.  Instead, we seem to be constantly wading through troubled waters trying to get to some place that we don’t even know.

Maybe this is a blessing.  Surely we don’t see it this way.  But who can really bear to look upon something so beautiful for any period of time without going blind?

During our retreat today, we sang the old spiritual, Wade in the Water.  As the melody washed over me and the words crossed my lips, it served as a timely reminder.  It was a prompting that we don’t have to be ashamed when we feel like we are a wreck.  We don’t have to be afraid just because we don’t know what’s on the other side of the river.

Come to your own river with wonder and hope.

Stand there on the muddy shore.  Let the wet loamy sand rise between your toes as you sink into it.  Lift your foot and take that step into the cold water as it swirls around your legs.  Don’t worry, you’ll keep your balance.  You won’t get swept away.

The place where you step stirs up the silt at the bottom and clouds form above your feet.  Wait.  Watch.  What’s left when the cloud dissipates and the silt settles?  Your One and Truest Self.

Nothing is born from the water unless it is troubled first.  And so it is with you and with me.  Amen.

Awareness

Posted in Uncategorized on May 14, 2019 by thecrossingchicago

I went for a hike today on the grounds of the Roslyn Retreat Center in Richmond, VA where the UCC is hosting a time of reflection and centering for clergy from across the U.S.  The lush green hills and blooming flowers reminded me that, in some places, spring hasn’t forgotten to come.

I made my way into the woods and down the trails not so much afraid of getting lost as of missing something.  Pausing frequently to inhale the smells of nature, I could feel an at-one-ment with God and a creation that reflects the beauty of the holy so aptly captured by the Psalmist.

The aroma of lilacs was overwhelming.  I wanted to bottle it up and take it home.  The entire feeling of walking down this trail with the butterflies in the air around me, dragon flies lighting on rocks, and deer darting back and forth between the trees brought joy to parts of me that are easy to forget exist.

The desire to take the whole thing with me was almost unbearable: the cool breeze moving the sun-warmed air, the way the rays pierced through the leaves above me, the sound of the stream and the occasional fish that broke through the surface.

I realized though that being able to put it all in my pocket and carry it with me would ruin it.  I could carry the essence, but not the substance; and I finally realized that was better.

It was like a place that I’d seen so many times before, yet had never seen in my life.  It reminded me of what Barbara Brown Taylor shared in Holy Envy when she was a child and her dog ran away on a walk.  She finally caught her dog by the tail and led it back toward home.  Eventually the farm buildings came into sight and she could see a barn, but she couldn’t tell which neighbor’s barn it was.  In some ways it looked like one neighbor’s and in some the other’s.  She felt disoriented and confused, but ultimately, she realized it was her own barn.  She just had never noticed it in the same way before.

Everything I took in seemed so familiar because I still carry the essence of other such glimpses of something otherworldly in thin places that were different, but quite the same.

These gifts are only visible when I’m really paying attention.  It’s not that they aren’t always there, it’s just that I’m not always seeing.  Such encounters don’t only happen in nature, but in people as well.  In his book, Life of the Beloved, Henry Nouwen shares what his friend Fred reminded him: “[L]ook attentively at what you see, and listen carefully to what you hear.  You will discover a cry welling up from the depths of the human heart that has remained unheard because there was no one to listen.”  It takes times like this when I’m fully present to be able to see and hear both the serenity and the longing – that in nature, in another person, and even in the depths of my own being.

I recall a conversation we recently had in church about the trinity.  It’s utterly baffling and seems to be a formula constructed by humans to explain the inexplicable.  In many ways this is true.  But when you’re in the thin places and see the shadow of the divine in a person or a place, it seems to become something much more beautiful and much more necessary.  Perhaps the trinity is as much or more of an expression of our need for God to be certain things to us at different times as it is for God’s need to be revealed to us right where we are at – if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

I, Judas

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2019 by thecrossingchicago

It was an intimate moment between the two of them.  Sure, there were others around.  Some were undoubtedly watching with their own interpretations wondering what it was that they were seeing.  Perhaps there was some dis-ease among a few, but then again, they were likely preoccupied by the fact that they were eating dinner with and talking to a man who was long enough in the grave to have a stench.

Judas made his opinion known as Mary used her hair to apply the mixture of nard and tears to Jesus’s feet in her final act of love this side of the tomb.  It was a frozen point in time special to the two people who were in it, who got it, who knew they needed it because it would be their last opportunity before the hands of fate would wrap them in its hatefully morbid grasp.

Like Judas imposing his own concerns about selling the expensive perfume instead of “wasting” it on Jesus, we often find ourselves in similar situations where we are assigning our own bias from the periphery.  Who knows if Judas was lining his pockets with the treasury money, but we do know that he was inserting himself into a space that wasn’t meant for him.

I dreaded carrying the pager.  Every chaplain in the hospital had to take turns, but I seemed to get it on days when I just wanted to set my mind on cruise control and get the day done with no interruptions.  That Monday was no exception.  When the pager started playing its irritating tune on my hip, I knew that I wasn’t going to get that luxury.

The number on the pager told me that it was the ER.  Most of the time, you don’t have any trouble finding your destination when you go to the ER because there is a flurry of activity and you make your way to it like a moth to a flame – occasionally with the same effects.

Diego’s mother was sitting in a chair just outside the bay where her three year-old son was covered in what looked like bubble wrap to keep him warm.  Tubes extended everywhere from his small body and machines were whirring and humming all around.  His father sat to the right of the bed with his head in his hands occasionally looking up at his boy in dismay.

His mom was understandably in hysterics and I knelt by her side to try to offer some comfort.  There wasn’t much I could do other than just be there and sometimes that has to be enough.  There were no magic words or incantations that were going to undo what had already been done at the bottom of a pool covered in a tarp that the unknowing tot had apparently mistaken for a trampoline.

She wanted something tangible to hold on to because she couldn’t hold her baby.  The team was doing their best to bring him back to life, but most knew it was futile.  I was doing my best not to show my emotions so that I could be strong for this broken woman, but I about came undone when she fell on the ground and clutched his tiny little shoes to her chest.  Seemingly washing them with her hair and tears in a Mary-like gesture for one who would not be raised.

It’s hard to forget things like that.  I wondered how Diego was doing and eventually assumed he had already died as I went about my week tending to other emergencies.  It was that following Thursday when, once again, that dreaded piece of plastic was clasped to my belt.  With the same desire to go about my day uninterrupted, I looked with disdain at the number on the display as it played its foreboding tune.  I didn’t recognize the extension and had to call to see where I was headed.  Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.

I pressed the button outside the unit and waited for a nurse to buzz me in.  As the doors opened, the antiseptic smell of rubbing alcohol and every antibacterial potion filled my nostrils.  Being a lifelong member of the I-Hate-Needles Club, it never failed to make me wince.

Making my way to the nurses’ station I made eye contact with the nurse in charge for that shift.  She tilted her head toward the open door down the hall and I looked wondering who was in there.  I could see Diego’s mom poking her head out the door sobbing, looking down the hall and then briefly at me before she went back inside the room.  So it was going to be one of those days.

I had no idea what had happened to Diego and his family.  The days blended together and other patients, other crises didn’t necessarily make me forget about them, but at least took them from the forefront of my awareness.  Now I at least knew they had made it this far.

I came around the side of the station and stood to the right of the nurse who was pouring over some documents.  She looked up at me with a look that I occasionally got from nurses that said, “What the hell do I do?”  She looked down the hall a few doors down from Diego’s room to where I could see people walking in a circle and hear music of some kind as they undulated to the beat.

“He’s gone and I ain’t going in there to tell them, Chappy.”  She looked back up at me.

“Alright.  I’ll do it.”  I took a deep breath and shook my head as I made my way toward the sound of what seemed to be praise and worship music in Spanish.  The people were waving their hands, some crying, as they threw prayers to the ceiling as if the intensity of their prayers was proportionate to the distance they would travel to God’s ears.

“I know God hears your prayers.”  I gulped as they all stopped and began to gather around me.  “But we need to pray for comfort and peace now because he’s gone.”

The weeping was of biblical proportions – tearing of clothes and heaping of ashes.  It was almost too much to bear seeing these people come apart.  Some collapsed into each other in a melee of tears and others began to pray through the sobbing as they once again began their circular dance.

I led a group of them back to Diego’s room and wasn’t prepared for what I would find.  I took a deep breath before I entered the room and unlike Lazarus, there was no smell of death.  Although he never regained any of his brain function after his fateful swim, he remained “alive” on machines until minutes before.

With the kind of grief that only a mother could feel, she held his lifeless body wrapped in a brown coarse blanket almost like a saddle blanket.  She hugged him close to her breast and I could see her shoulders tremble and heave from behind as she wept.  I placed a hand on her shoulder and once again did everything within my power to keep from losing it myself.  As an empath, it’s sometimes almost too unbearable to stand so close to a burning bush.

She turned to me and held out her little boy.  At first, I didn’t know what to do.  I stood frozen as I looked at the shell of this tiny life and then back up at her.  Then I got it.  I took Diego in my arms and held him tight for a few moments.  I kissed his smooth precious forehead and turned and passed him on to the person next to me – probably an aunt.  It was hard to see her face through my tears and that was ok.

As I watched each person hold Diego and anoint his face and hands with their tears, my feeling of dismay and discomfort gave way to a better realization.  Where I initially felt an extreme dis-ease around them passing this body around and that they were somehow doing something wrong, I became aware that it was I who was wrong.  It wasn’t that these people were doing something horrific or unconscionable.  It was I, who like Judas, had walked into a thin place and imposed my own interpretations as I wasn’t immediately able to see the pure holiness of it all.

Groping Around in the Dark

Posted in Encouragement, true self with tags , , , , , on March 30, 2019 by thecrossingchicago

In a world where being sure about everything is the way of life, embracing mystery can be incredibly difficult.  Unfortunately (or fortunately), there are many aspects of our life to be gleaned in those dark places, so we shouldn’t forsake them.

It’s easy to feel that life would be so much easier if we could just know everything clearly and be able to define every occurrence accurately without having to take time for interpretation.  If we could know ourselves without all of the soul-searching and contemplation, wouldn’t life be so much better?  I don’t think so.
Those walks in the dark where the ambiguity is the rule and not the exception, are transformative.  Barbara Brown Taylor said that “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion.  I need darkness as much as I need light.”  Groping our way around in the darkness teaches us things about the world and ourselves that seeing them in the light never could.
During Lent, we learn to embrace the darkness so that we can appreciate the light.  That faint glimmer of sunshine that pierces through the gap between the stone and the cave wall is not a reassurance that we will be saved from the darkness, but rather a reminder that the darkness is good, too.  Light and dark need each other to exist.
When Thomas Merton was starting his writing career and making his early attempts at being a novelist, some of the beauty that would emerge from embracing the spiritual writing that he was best at shone through.  In this excerpt, Merton is having a conversation with a couple of Gestapo officers in London through the window of a bombed out house as he writes.  They ask him why he writes and he replies that it is so he can learn about the world and himself.  The officers then inquire as to whether it would just be faster to see things clearly from the beginning and that writing to figure things out would lead to many volumes of wasted paper and meaningless books.  Merton’s reply was:
No doubt.  But if I if it were all clear at once, I would not really understand it,
either.  Some things are too clear to be understood, and what you think 
is your understanding of them is only a kind of charm, a kind of incantation in your mind concerning that thing.  This is not understanding: it is something you remember.  So much for definitions!  We always have to go back and start from the beginning and make over all the definitions for ourselves again.
 
Even the things that can be seen clearly in the light aren’t always what they seem to be: scripture, the actions of another, our own lives, even.  It’s in the overcoming of the discomfort and the dis-ease of our own being that we finally start to reach out in the dark without fearing the monster that may lie waiting beyond our fingertips.  It’s in those moments when we really get to know the world as it really is.

On Grief

Posted in peace with tags , , , , , , , on November 20, 2018 by thecrossingchicago

Grief. It’s not something that happens in the background as we go about our regular daily activities. It’s something that has to be actively and intentionally done.

As a hospice bereavement counselor, I often hear people say that they are processing their grief by staying busy. Nope. This isn’t grieving, it’s avoiding. If you think it all just goes away at some point, then

I’m sorry to say that this isn’t the case. The grief will always be there, but it doesn’t mean that it has to be a bad or unbearable thing.

Any change or transition requires grieving. Most think of it as something that happens when someone dies, but it’s not limited to death. A breakup, divorce, losing a job, moving, loss of mobility, loss of autonomy, change of role – these are all reasons to grieve. Even intentional acts such as when you are the one to walk away from a relationship or a planned retirement are causes to grieve.

So how do we do it in a healthy manner? As much as we want to run at every uncomfortable feeling, just the opposite is what’s required to come to a place of peace. Sit with the pain, the loss, the uneasiness. Stare it in the face. Embrace it. To feel means to know we are alive, even when the feelings hurt.

This time of year with the holidays as a constant reminder of our losses, old wounds are ripped open and many come to the realization that, although so much time has passed, it still hurts. This is because we didn’t allow ourselves to go through the process.

It’s never too late to grieve. Sit in the silence and take note of what you are feeling. Don’t fight it. Let the emotions wash over you and don’t try to be logical about it. It’s tempting to believe that if we can just find a good reason for it that make sense to us, then it won’t be so bad, but this isn’t true. There is no way to reason loss. It’s both a mystery and a reality, so let it be just what it is.

Grief is not a clean cut linear process. There is no rhyme nor reason to it. You will have good days and bad days, good moments and bad moments. Sounds, sights, smells will trigger grief. So don’t beat yourself up by thinking that you should have progressed farther and shouldn’t still be feeling emotional. The emotions will always be there, but eventually you will own them instead of them owning you.

Lastly (as if there ever is a “lastly” to such things), be vulnerable. As Brene Brown so aptly says, we have to leave the wound open to get to the deep places. That’s where the grieving happens. Don’t give in to the “get over it” mentality. Don’t think that it will ever go away if you don’t address it. If you do dare to sit with it, though, you’ll find that it’s not so scary and the pain isn’t in control. You’ll gain new perspective, you’ll find peace, and things will be ok, even when they’re not. This is serenity.

 

War and the Corporate True Self

Posted in ego, peace, service, true self, war with tags , , , , , , on November 9, 2018 by thecrossingchicago

Another Veterans Day is upon us and, as I do every year, I ask myself what it’s all about.  There is a cynical side of me that says we are glorifying something that should never happen under any circumstance.  The idea of exterminating human beings for the sake of being right seems appalling to me and to celebrate those who have participated in them in any way causes me to feel the mournful disdain of glorifying violence.  But, after much contemplation, I can see that, as in all things, there is another side of the coin.

Of course I realize that we are celebrating valor and the courage of those who were willing to risk (and sometimes lose) their lives for a cause greater than themselves.  Sure, some may have entered military service to avoid jail time, some to kill, and some to enforce their ideals.  It is sometimes, however, those very ideals that perpetuate the violence in the first place.  Our addiction to being right all the time can lead to the reinforcement of a false truth.

On the way to the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, NC this year, I was listening to a podcast with Fr. Richard Rohr.  He said that we know we are operating from the False Self, or the ego, when we are individually offended by some action or words.  As I drove on, with much time to ponder, I came to the conclusion that the opposite is also true: Any time we are offended on behalf of humankind, we are operating from our True Self.

So what does this have to do with war?  We have been called to defend and empower the least of these.  If someone is marginalized and oppressed, it is our duty to lend our voice to stopping the oppression and even to joining a revolution against it.  As we know, sometimes revolutions require force.

In his New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton calls the church to being in a constant state of revolution.  He says that the church must return to tradition, which seems like an oxymoron when placing tradition and revolution next to each other in synonymous relationship.  For most, tradition is the very enemy of reform as we do things “the way we have always done them.”  For Merton, though, the tradition is the revolution: “[T]his tradition must always be a revolution because by its very nature it denies the values and standards to which human passion is so powerfully attached” (143).

In other words, tradition is the outward manifestation, in practice, of the church’s True Self.  If individuals have a True Self and organizations are living organisms comprised of individuals, then they too must have a corporate True Self.  Too many churches and organizations have not only lost sight of who they are, but likely have never cared to know.

This is no less true for entire countries who allow or even create structures that lead to systemic oppression.  When it comes time to upend these systems, we hope that the revolution can be a peaceful one from the inside with the death of the individual and corporate False Selves.  According to Merton, “all the others demand the extermination of somebody else” (144).

If violence is the only means of insurrection and not an internal death of False Self giving birth to what is True, then indeed

There will be violence, and power will pass from one party to another, but when the smoke clears and the bodies of the dead men are underground, the situation will be essentially the same as it was before: there will be a minority of strong men in power exploiting all the others for their own ends.  There will be the same greed and cruelty and lust and ambition and avarice and hypocrisy as before (144).

It is arguable, and likely a fact that more wars have been started over religion than any other issue.  Dogmatic absolute “truths” lead humans to carry their ideologies on their backs into battle with sword and gun in hand. If we can hold our own created beliefs at arm’s length where they are visible to us and see them for the “dry formula of a dogmatic definition” that they are, then perhaps we can approach our ideas with humility, grace, and a fair reflection of our True Selves.  Instead of creating individual “truths” from a False Self that only leads to the extermination of human lives, let us find our oneness in the source of all being, the one in whom we find the image of who we really are.

Wearing Another’s Mask

Posted in true self, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on August 14, 2018 by thecrossingchicago

Everything was perfect – theoretically anyway.  I had finished an MBA and a Masters in Geriatrics and the world was my oyster.  I had a consulting business, a care management business and was working in sales while I continued to grow my companies.  But I hated it.  I just absolutely could not stand going out and trying to sell machinery that I could not possibly care less about.  Because of my lack of interest I completely sucked at selling.  I didn’t have the drive to market my own businesses and was utterly miserable.  So, I went to seminary.

This is not to say that seminary is for everyone.  Ministry happens to be my vocation and passion, so it works for me.  If it wasn’t, I would merely be continuing to feed into my False Self – the ego that led me to go to law school and business school in Japan.  If I was a lawyer or a businessperson, surely people would approve of me and I would have the status that I needed.  Of course this all only served to feed the fears of inadequacy that I was trying to quell in the first place.  As the cognitive dissonance grew, so did my misery and the awareness that there was another “me” that was being ignored.

That self is the True Self.  Richard Rohr defines this self as “the mask that I wore before I was born.”

In his New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton warns for himself that if he puts on the mask of another and tries to be someone that he isn’t, then, “I shall spend eternity contradicting myself by being at once something and nothing, a life that wants to live and is dead, a death that wants to be dead and cannot quite achieve its own death because it still has to exist.”

When I was four, my dad put me up on the kitchen counter in our small apartment in Rochelle, IL and told me that he was moving out.  He said something along the lines of things weren’t working out with my mom and it wasn’t my nor my brother’s fault that he had to go.  He failed to convince me because I did think it was my fault.

A year later, he asked me if I wanted to go to preschool or stay with him at his girlfriend’s house where he was living.  I knew he would just sleep all day and get upset if I woke him for anything because he worked third shift at the Delmonte can plant.  So, I decided to go to preschool.  That was the last time I would see him for 12 years.  He took his girlfriend’s luggage and left for Florida, Alaska, Arizona, and eventually back to his birthplace in Utah where I would meet up with him years later.  I often wonder how things would have went if I would have elected to stay with him.

For much of the years to come, I would have a sense of inadequacy.  An impostor syndrome coupled with the perceived need to be good enough for those around me followed me wherever I went.  I had a recurring dream that I ran into my dad at a truck stop.  Pumping my gas, I saw him on the other side of the pump, usually with one of my half brothers.  I would tell him to wait there while I go in and pay for my gas, and invariably I would come back out to find him gone, again.  I’m not sure if the likeness of the dad in my dreams was accurate or not because by then I had probably forgotten his face.

I can’t fully blame the insecurities that would follow on my dad as I was responsible for dealing with my own issues.  I had to initiate the healing and for a long time, my failure to do so only resulted in me hurting others.  It’s true what they say: hurt people, hurt people.

I finally realized that I had created a False Self to protect me from my fears who usually just hurt myself and others.  Like Merton, I finally had an awakening, noticing that to be seen I would “wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself.”

When these bandages finally come off, however, (and they always do), we see that there is no substance.  There is only a hollowness temporarily filled with things that never have and never will exist.  Merton says that these things are “all destined to be destroyed.  And when they are gone there will be nothing left of me but my own nakedness and emptiness and hollowness, to tell me that I am my own mistake.”

While our stories are our own, we rarely own them.  Instead, we see ourselves as the culmination of mistakes – our own and those of others.  We spend a life time trying to cover the hollowness with things that are no more real than the void we wish to hide.  Deep inside that void, however, is the real us, the True Self.

The Self that is us in God and God in us is the point at which we are all interconnected.  At this point, there is redemption, there is forgiveness, and there is at-one-ment.  Far beyond the sins of our fathers lies a reality that is more real than the stories we tell ourselves.  It’s a point in time, space, being, and all that is.  When we awaken to our True Self and decide to do the inner work required to find the real me and the real you, we not only find ourselves, but we find God.  As usual, Merton said it best: “At that moment the point of our contact with [God] opens out and we pass through the center of our own nothingness and enter into infinite reality, where we awaken as our true self.”