Opening lines

When I was in college, my American lit teacher told us that our final would include 50 quotes to identify. We would have read 49 of the items, but there would be one quote from something we had not read in her class–but that it would be very recognizable. It was.

“Call me Ishmael”…from Moby Dick. That’s probably one of the most famous opening lines in a book…along with “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

Many years later I read another book that had an eye-catching opening line. The author, M. Scott Peck, received the Community of Christ International Peace Award in 1994, and I was reading his book The Road Less Traveled. The title had caught my attention because it was taken from one of my favorite poems by Robert Frost. To be quite honest, I don’t remember a lot of the book–but I do remember the opening words: “Life is difficult.” Peck went on to say

Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult–once we truly understand and accept it–then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

Those first three words have stayed with me because there is profound truth in them. We want life to be easy…we want things to go our way without us having to struggle. Sometimes I think we envy those who seem to have no problems, no challenges–but that’s only because we haven’t walked their paths.

“Life is difficult.” That doesn’t mean that we have to give up. Far from that! But once we understand that we will face struggles…that things will not always go our way…then we can be prepared to meet those issues and challenges and be ready to find ways to get through them.

Sometimes life is difficult because of things beyond our control; sometimes it’s because of choices we have made. Yet it’s in struggling through those challenges that we have the potential to grow. I’m reminded of the story of a man who saw a butterfly struggling to get out of her cocoon. He watched for a while and then–feeling sorry for her–cut the cocoon open for her. But instead of opening her wings and flying away, she remained shrunken and shriveled, living only a short while. She needed to struggle in order to grow strong and become what she had the potential of being.

We do need support from others–and we need to be available to support others as well. Even though life is difficult, we cannot use that as an excuse to turn our backs on others in need. But in doing so, we need to be sensitive to the kind of support needed–a support that builds and strengthens rather than taking away initiative.

Powerful opening lines stay in our memory because they speak truth…because they challenge…because they can bring hope. “Life is difficult”…but once that is accepted, we can learn to live with it–and it is no longer important. It just is.

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Healing spiritual wounds…

I’ve mentioned before that a few years ago I was deeply wounded by people in my church–people who were in leadership positions and who made decisions that impacted me and many of my friends in negative ways to the point that I wondered if there was a place for me in the church that I had spent my entire life in, worshiped in, and worked for. Thanks to some wonderful counseling, the gift of presence from a couple of other individuals in leadership positions, and the grace of God I’ve been able to come through that situation with healing, although the scars will always be there.

Recently someone (and I can’t remember who) recommended a book that I checked out of the library and have been reading through. It’s a book I wish I had had during that very dark night–but I also am not sure that I would have been ready to read it then. Because I find myself still sometimes dealing with feelings triggered by actions or words that remind me of that time, it’s a book I’m going to buy and actually work through. With it being a library book, that’s been harder to do…I can’t write in it, and I need to get through reading it so that it can be returned on time!

It’s titled Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God after Experiencing a Hurtful Church by Carol Howard Merritt. While her experiences were different from mine, she has some good exercises for working through hurts that have been caused by churches and church people. 

Some of those hurts sometimes seem to be intentionally caused because of a specific theology. Sometimes the hurts are unintentional–people simply fail in living up to the ideals they espouse.

But either way, the hurts can be deep…and they can leave us wondering how–and if–we can heal…whether there is a place for us in our spiritual home.

It is possible–and this book can be very helpful in working through the process. 

Outward sign of an inward grace

The title of this blog is a phrase I hear used at times in reference to the sacraments of the church–that they are an outward sign of an inward grace. But I’d like to look at them another way today…

What we do–how we act–is also an outward sign of our inner beliefs. That’s how people see us…and know whether to believe our words or not. If our words and actions are the same, that sends one message; if they’re not, then people get mixed messages–and they’re far more likely to believe our actions than our words. It’s like an expression my minister father used to use in his sermons: “What you do speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

So…if my words say I’m a follower of Jesus, are my actions an outward sign of that? I hope so, although because I’m not perfect, I know I make mistakes.

But what did Jesus say? and who did he spend his time with? He spent his time with the marginalized…with those who were seen as “less than”…with those who were open to hear his words, regardless of ethnic background, gender, social status…

And what did he say?

  • Love your neighbor.
  • Feed the poor.
  • Visit those who are in prison.
  • Clothe the naked.
  • Be peacemakers.

When I look around today and both hear and watch some of those who are either religious leaders or who call themselves followers of this Carpenter, I get very mixed messages. Words and actions don’t match–and I find myself returning to my father’s statement: “What you do speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

I hope my words and actions match. I try…and try again, because I believe that my actions are an outward sign of my inner beliefs.

…to be reconciled to each other

I’ve been thinking about the word “reconciliation” for several days now…pondering how it might apply to the climate we find ourselves in.

How do we reconcile to each other?

It’s not easy.

But I think it’s imperative…and for those of us who consider ourselves followers of Jesus, it’s a commandment.

So what is it?

While there are different definitions, the one I’m thinking about is “the restoration of friendly relations.” The origins of the word trace back to a couple of Latin words meaning “bring back together.”

It certainly doesn’t take much looking around for us to see the need for reconciliation…in our families…our churches…our society.

But who is going to take the first step? and what is that first step?

We can’t reconcile with each other unless we are willing to acknowledge the division between us. That doesn’t mean placing blame…doing that doesn’t get us any closer to reconciliation. In fact, it may make the division even deeper.

When South Africa ended apartheid, it would have been easy to say “Okay, we’ve ended it. Now everything is fine and dandy.” But the divisions were too deep. Instead, they went through a difficult process of acknowledging the division…of allowing and encouraging individuals to acknowledge their own role in that division…and only then was is possible for reconciliation to take place.

Was it easy? No. Did it accomplish everything hoped for? Again, no. But it began a process.

In American, there are so many divisions. They cross every spectrum you can think of, and they are not helped by the language we hear far too often today.

Where do we start? By being willing to listen to each other, even if what we hear is difficult or is something we don’t agree with.

Each of us has our own perspective on what is going on around us. I may not agree with yours–but you live your life according to that perspective. Unless I am willing to truly listen to what you believe is happening, I am not willing to reconcile. That doesn’t mean that I have to agree with your perspective…but if I want you to hear what I am saying, then I have to listen to you as well.

I may want someone else to make the first move, but that can only continue to lead to a standoff.

Jesus said that if I bring a gift to church and remember that my brother (or sister) has something against me, then I should put my gift down and make the first move to be reconciled. (Matthew 5:23-24)

Easy? No.

I like to hold on to my “rightness”…and this challenges me. I might still be right, but this calls me to take the first step.

Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.–Desmond Tutu

In the end, reconciliation is a spiritual process, which requires more than just a legal framework. It has to happen in the hearts and minds of people.–Nelson Mandela

May we have the courage to truly reconcile with each other.

 

The need to listen…

There’s been an awful lot going on this last month…and sometimes it’s left me feeling discouraged.

  • Hurricanes leaving incredible devastation in their wake…and what feels like an inability (or unwillingness) to respond to the needs of the people who have lost everything and who must be wondering just where do you even start to recover…
  • Earthquake in Mexico…again leaving devastation and sorrow in its wake…
  • The protests against injustice and inequality…
  • Listening to incredibly painful stories of members of the LGBTQ+ community…

And yet…there is something to be learned–and hope to be found.

Recently I was at a weekend focused on history of faith communities that come out of the same heritage mine does. For many, many years, the various faith communities refused to talk to each other. We talked AT each other and we spent much of our time pointing out the differences between us and how we were right. More recently, though, we have talked and worked together–and that has been a blessing. We are still aware of our differences both in understanding our history and in our theologies…but we have found that there are many ways in which we can work together to make a difference.

Responders to natural disasters also at times need silence so that they can listen…listen to hear voices calling for help.

And as I watch the protests against justice and inequality–and listen to the responses about those protests–and listened to the stories of young (and older) people who have experienced incredible pain and sometimes severe trauma as they have struggled to be true to who they are…I have learned much.

It requires us to listen. Not just to listen–but also to hear. And sometimes that requires us to be silent.

I’ve just finished reading a book I’d highly recomment–On Living by Kerry Egan. She’s a hospice chaplain, and the book contains stories shared from her experience–both personal experience she had after the birth of her first child as well as stories her patients have encouraged her to share. I’m a minister in my faith tradition–and this quote from her book really spoke to me:

“When we dismiss an experience as “not real,” what we are actually rejecting is the person’s attempt at making meaning of the experience. That’s a cruel thing to do. Attempting to find or make meaning is perhaps the central task of the spiritual life.”

So what does that have to do with the issues I pointed out above? I think it has a lot.

We can get so caught up in all the horror of the natural disasters that we don’t really hear the cries for help.

We can have such a visceral emotional response to a protest that we are unable (or unwilling) to hear the pain that causes the protest.

What if we asked instead this question: “What does that [action…fear…event] mean to you?” And then, what if we really listened to the question? Really listened…

“Listen with curiosity. Speak with honesty. Act with integrity. The greatest problem with communication is we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply. When we listen with curiosity, we don’t listen with the intent to reply. We listen for what’s behind the words.” —Roy T. Bennett in The Light in the Heart

Carefully taught…

I’m sitting here, listening to the quiet noises of my grandchildren as they take their naps…and it seems so far removed from the events of this weekend. And yet…

There are a couple of pictures I’ve seen as a result of this weekend that have really touched me because of what they say about us. Neither is from this weekend–the first from 1992 and the second from an earlier rally in July 2017. But I think they say a lot about us and the challenges we face.

Many years ago I learned/realized that Rodgers and Hammerstein always put a “teaching song” in their musicals. Never in a way that distracted from the story, but always–somewhere–a song that challenged current thinking. I fell in love with the musical South Pacific…and ached with Lieutenant Cable as he struggled with his love for Liat, a young Tonkinese woman…as well as Nellie’s struggle with accepting Emile DeBecque’s children by a Polynesian mother. The musical–premiered in 1949–had to have been a challenge for those who saw it. After all, we had just come out of a war waged against racism/hatred/genocide, and yet we were still struggling with our own home-grown racism. I wonder what it would have been like to have heard these words for the first time in that context?

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

 

The other picture that touched me is one from an earlier KKK rally in Charlottesville (in July).  I wonder what was going through the mind of the policeman standing there, quietly protecting the rights of the individuals protesting behind him–people who, if they had their way, would either gladly force him to leave the USA or kill him. He stood there quietly, listening to hate, and yet protecting those who hated him and what he stands for.

I also watched a video documentary made by HBO on the weekend. A link to it is below. Elle Reeve embedded for some of the time with one of the white supremacist leaders–I can’t imagine how she must have felt by the time the weekend was over. It’s not a long documentary–nor does it sugar coat that some of the counter protestors were also violent. But to listen to the language–the words used towards those who disagreed with the white supremacy beliefs and perspectives…it’s chilling. These people do not represent the America I believe in. But where did they get it from? Where were they taught it?

Children are not born hating others. They have to be carefully taught. But if they can be taught to hate, they can also be taught to love…and that is the task that lies before us. It will not be easy…and we will find ourselves disagreeing at times. But unless we can learn the power of love, we face a bleak future.

Whenever you are confronted with an opponent, conquer him with love.–Mohandas Gandhi

We look forward to the time when the Power of Love will replace the Love of Power. Then will our world know the blessings of peace.–William Gladstone (1809-1898)

Love is the only force capable of turning an enemy into a friend.–Martin Luther King, Jr.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.–Martin Luther King, Jr.

The way of peace is the way of love. Love is the greatest power on earth. It conquers all things.–Peace Pilgrim

The basis of world peace is the teaching which runs through almost all the great religions of the world. “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”–Eleanor Roosevelt

 

Parenting…the never-ending journey

I’ve been thinking the last few days about what I thought I knew about parenting (before I became one) and what I’ve learned in the many years since.

I think what I was most surprised about is that parenting is a never-ending journey. I figured that once my kid(s) reached maturity (somewhere around 22 or so), they would be on their own–either married or leading a successful single life–and then I could just sit back, wait for grandkids (that I could spoil), and relax. Doesn’t happen that way!

When the kids are little, your parenting involves helping them learn…and part of that includes helping them learn how not to get into trouble or get hurt (hopefully). It’s a challenging time, but it’s also fun watching them try to make sense of this world around them.

Then they become teenagers–and everything changes! You still want to help them stay out of trouble, but sometimes they have to learn things the hard way. So you keep your fingers crossed…pray a lot…and hope that they’ll actually survive to adulthood. It’s far more stressful than when they’re little because they tend not to be as willing to listen to the wisdom you would so much like to share….and while you can see that some of their choices will be things they’ll regret later in life, they don’t.

Eventually they reach maturity. They’ve gotten through college or other training…have found someone to love and are entering the adult world. Finally–you can relax! Not so fast…now your worries include whether they’ll find a job that will pay enough for them to pay their bills (and whether it will be a fulfilling one). You worry about their budgeting (or lack thereof)…their decisions about renting/buying…whether they will stay close or move a distance away… But you can’t do anything about all of that…you just have to let them go–but you still worry about and for them.

Then grandkids come. They’re a delight! But then the journey takes new directions. Sometimes–especially if you do a lot of the babysitting–you want to do things differently from the way their parents do, but you realize that they’re not your kids and you need to support the parents. Okay…you can deal with that.

As the grandkids grow, they also sometimes struggle with making wise choices–and you struggle as well. Your heart sometimes aches when you see them making decisions that they will regret down the road. But your role is different now. Sometimes the grandkids are more willing to listen to advice from you than from their parents…sometimes you are simply a safe place for them.

But the journey never ends. Once you have a child, you begin a never-ending journey. Yes, sometimes you would like to get off the train…to not be concerned about the kids/grandkids/great grandkids and their decisions and choices. But unless you completely cut ties, that’s not going to happen–and cutting those ties so completely carries with it its own worries and challenges.

Every stage of parenting has challenges…but it also has joys…never-ending

It’s not only children who grow. Parents do, too. As much as we watch to see what our children do with their lives, they are watching us to see what we do with ours. I can’t tell my children to reach for the sun. All I can do is reach for it, myself. —Joyce Maynard

The attitude you have as a parent is what your kids will learn from more than what you tell them. They don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are. —Jim Henson

Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you. —Robert Fulghum