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Surrender

I am told that life guards are trained to keep clear of a swimmer in distress, so long as that swimmer is attempting to save himself. A panicked swimmer can sink himself and his rescuer. The life guard is told to stay near, but out of reach, and observe. Once the swimmer is exhausted, then he can be saved.

I spent much of my life striving to apprehend God. Chasing Him. Trying to please Him. Serving. Doing. Giving. Begging. Cajoling. Bargaining. Flailing and grasping. And always, a distance remained.

A line I could not cross.

An intimacy I could not find.

Until….

I quit.

I despaired of EVER being good enough. Of ever doing enough. I was exhausted. Spent. And more than a little angry.

And I told God so.

I told Him I was done chasing Him.

I gave up.

Sometimes, I like to imagine Him in that moment….

Long, deep sigh.

Fatherly smile.

“Now, my child, we may begin….”

In deep nights I dig for you like treasure.
For all I have seen
that clutters the surface of my world
is poor and paltry substitute
for the beauty of you
that has not happened yet….

My hands are bloody from digging.
I lift them, hold them open in the wind,
so they can branch like a tree.

Reaching, these hands would pull you out of the sky
as if you had shattered there,
dashed yourself to pieces in some wild impatience.

What is this I feel falling now,
falling on this parched earth,
softly,
like a spring rain?

~Rainer Maria Rilke

As a Man Thinketh…

As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he. ~Proverbs 23:7

We all know that person…

She walks into the room just as everyone is celebrating someone’s good news: A job promotion, a college acceptance letter, a new baby. Her response is predictable. Something along the line of:

“That’s SO not fair! Nothing like that EVER happens to me. Must be nice…”

How is it that some of us simply cannot rejoice with those who rejoice? Why must their good be a source of jealousy and bitterness?

We all know that person…

His cancer is incurable. The pain is intense. He is a good man. A loving husband and father. He has given so much. It is not “fair“. And yet… Those who come to encourage him are encouraged by him. He radiates a renegade joy that defies explanation. His last days on earth are a continual giving of himself to those who will soon walk without him.

How does he do that?

As a man thinketh…

Maya Angelou tells of a difficult time in her life. She is a single mother, barely making ends meet. Desperate. Hopeless. She meets a man who challenges her to make a list of things she is grateful for. It seems ludicrous at first. But she is just desperate enough to try it. She pulls out a yellow legal pad, and excruciatingly digs for some small grace. She scratches the first thought across the paper. Then the next. All of a sudden, she can’t write fast enough. She is still adding to that list today. That single act was a turning point in her life. Nothing was ever the same.

In her beautiful book, One Thousand Gifts, Ann Voscamp writes of a similar challenge. Grieved and embittered by life experiences that seem too much to bear, she just wants out. But she too is challenged…first by a friend…then by this: On the night when he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took some bread and gave thanks to God for it.” (I Cor. 11). The challenge: to give thanks. In the middle of the hard. For ordinary, extraordinary things. Specific things. Things like…

1.  Morning shadows across old floors.
54. Moonlight on pillows.
243. Clean sheets smelling like wind.

It. Changes. Everything…

We tend to find what we are looking for. When we believe life is sacramental and that God has given us every good thing, we expect to find our days filled with gifts. And they are. When we are cynical and suspicious, and constantly on the lookout for those who will cheat us and take what is ours, we find that too.

It is easy for me to see this in others. It is more difficult to recognize when I myself am doing it.

You wanna know something crazy?

I have been doing it about this very thing.

I am grieved because someone I love often sees life through suspicious, cynical eyes. Unable to rejoice in the good gifts that have been given to her. Unable to rejoice in the good gifts given to others. My grief becomes frustration. Then anger. And suddenly I can only see her through my own bitterness and suspicion. I am blind to the best in her. Arrrggggh!

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. ~Philippians 4:8

Incidentally, I do not advocate some Pollyanna naivety about what is true. But all of us pass “truth” through filters. If those filters are clean, we will find the true and the beautiful even in the most agonizing situations. But if our filters are polluted by self-interest, suspicion and greed, we will be unable to see good even when it is handed to us on a silver platter. With chocolate on top.

Father, please wash my heart and my mind. Help me to see as You see. Help me to filter the atmosphere around me with the atmosphere of heaven…

The Kingdom of God creates within us an atmosphere of heaven, as opposed to the atmosphere of hell that is radiated by a person when hades abides in his heart. The role of Christians in the world is to filter the atmosphere on earth and expand the atmosphere of the Kingdom of God. ~Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica

May it be so.

empty

No one has to teach us to inhale. It’s instinct. So strong, in fact, that the very first act we perform on this earth is a great, frantic grasp for air.

However, exhaling is something most of us do badly. Or, at least, incompletely. Yoga instructors spend a great deal of time teaching students to slowly and completely empty their lungs. Creating space for air requires great purpose. Filling it does not.

Life looks very like that sometimes…

I am a threshold kind of girl. I love reflecting, evaluating, dreaming, setting goals. I always do this at the threshold of the New Year. But this year it has been difficult. As I have pondered new challenges and activities, they have felt like so much clutter.

Inspired by the OneWord365 project, I thought perhaps I would instead select a word to give shape to the coming months. But this too eluded me. I read posts from others who had selected their words–words like Choose, Begin, Discover. I loved them! I tried to steal borrow their words. But none of them fit.

On Monday night our priest came to bless our home. As we were talking afterward, he shared with us a concern that has been on his heart of late. He talked of how we constantly seek to fill ourselves, when what is required of us as followers of Christ is that we be emptied. In fact, it is impossible to pour into a container that is already full. But emptying is much more difficult, more unnatural, than filling.

Just like breathing.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this. And the longer I pondered, the more I knew that I had found my word. The word that tied together the random longings that have been swirling round in my heart. That bristled every time I tried to decide what I was going to add to my life this year.

empty

I am only beginning to imagine what this will look like for me over the next twelve months. But here are a few places where I hope the word will have its way with me…

To stand silent and empty before God. Without demand, without pretense, without excuse, without words. To be still. To be with. It is harder than it should be. For me. But I am learning. A little.

To empty myself of arrogance and self-sufficiency. To walk humbly with others. Most especially with my family. And close friends.

To empty my life of clutter. Frivolous pursuits (ie: the black hole of the internet, mostly), Items I no longer use (which could benefit another, and occupy space in my home), Things I might like to buy (or that might be a really good deal) but I don’t need, etc…

It scares me a little. This idea of seeking to be emptied. Quite frankly, I have always seen emptiness as something to be fixed. But I believe it is the next right step.

Here goes….

I am not the weather.

God is plotting against me again. A Divine Conspiracy to bring me understanding through a stereo of voices on one topic. Presently the topic is this:

I am not the weather.

The marvelous world of thoughts, sensation, emotions, and inspiration, the spectacular world of creation around us, are all patterns of stunning weather on the holy mountain of God. But we are not the weather. We are the mountain. Weather is happening—delightful sunshine, dull sky, or destructive storm—this is undeniable. But if we think we are the weather happening on Mount Zion…then the fundamental truth of our union with God remains obscured and our sense of painful alienation heightened. When the mind is brought to stillness we see that we are the mountain and not the changing patterns of weather appearing on the mountain. We are the awareness in which thoughts and feelings (what we take to be ourselves) appear like so much weather on Mount Zion.

~Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land

When someone I Love is hurting, I feel responsible…for causing it…for fixing it.
When there is chaos around me, I become the chaos.
If people think well of me, I am ok.
If they are angry at me, I am not.

I am the weather.

In our candlelight Liturgy for the Feast of Epiphany, Father Stephen spoke of the light of Christ that illumines all and enables us to see ourselves as we really are. As He sees us.

As…a mountain?

Then, this morning, this:

Repentance is a great understanding. ~The Shepherd of Hermas

To repent is to look, not downward at my own shortcomings, but upward at God’s love; not backward with self-reproach, but forward with truthfulness. It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of Christ I can yet become.

~Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, The Inner Kingdom

I see.

So….

If it rains, I will be wet. But I am not the rain. If those I love are hurting, I can comfort and care for them without owning their pain.

When a blizzard howls and rages around me, I will suffer the cold of it. But I am not the blizzard. When chaos reigns around me, I need not contribute to it. I can be the still point. Unshakeable.

When warm sunshine and sultry breezes caress me, I can rejoice in their warmth. But I am not the sunshine. When people think well of me, I will give thanks. But I will not covet their praise.

Hail storms may pummel me and pock mark my surface, but I am not the hail. Unkind words pierce like arrows, but they are not the truest thing about me. At least, not the only true thing.

Mudslides might mar me, but I am not the mud. I will sin. I will fail. Over and over again. But I am not the sin. Repentance will heal me and wash me and make me new.

I am not the weather.

Neither are you.

Whoever trusts in the Lord is like Mount Zion: Unshakeable, it stands forever. ~Psalm 125:1

On Eating an Elephant…

“How do you eat an elephant?”

“One bite at a time.”

~African proverb

I suppose there is a certain wisdom that comes with age. Even without purposeful cultivation. A warfare wisdom born of much folly and error.

Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons is the brilliance of  “one bite”.

I fought it when I was younger…and “smarter”…than I am now.

When striving to master a piano piece, I would “warm up” by playing the portion I already knew. Then work for a bit on the despicable part that gave me trouble. Then play the part I knew well again. And again. Then play it all. And predictably train wreck at the difficult part. Then play the part I knew again to re-assure myself. Etc……..ad nauseum.

If I had applied all that time to only the prickly part, I would have mastered it.

But it overwhelmed me.

Most tasks (projects…goals…resolutions…changes…you fill in the blank) overwhelm if we persist in seeing the whole of it in one glance, when it would yield to us if we would only take on one bit at a time.

I see it in my kids:

Piano scales played badly because mediocre and fast somehow seems better than precise and slow (which would eventually become precise AND fast).

Paralysis to clean a room run amok, when tackling one corner…one shelf…just the floor…would, over time, slay the beast.

Every now and then I still see it in me.

A teenager infested house that “refuses” to be put to order.

Chaotic days…a frantic schedule…that seem out of my own control.

An inability to “find time” to write of late. Which makes me uncomfortable and ill tempered.

Today I began learning a new piece of music. An acapella vocal work with unusual harmonies. Almost without thought, I began dividing it into little bits. I rehearsed each til I knew it, then added the next little bit. Remarkable how soon I was making this very difficult work my own. One bite at a time.

It made me eager to take on another project. Just so I could practice dividing it into tiny, conquerable bits.

In this season when many of us have set audacious goals for ourselves–when attendance levels at the gym will tell the story of grand resolutions made and abandoned–when juicers, and pilates videos, and self-help books will fly off the shelves like gang busters (and show up on eBay in a few weeks)–I challenge you to stop intriguing and buying stuff  and plotting how to eat the whole elephant at once. And just make one change.

Take one step.

One bite.

Then take the next.

And the next.

And watch what happens…..

*Drawing at top of post by Sean Gallo. See more of his fine work HERE.

Top Posts of 2011

Writing is sometimes just for me. Thoughts I need to work out. The words give place to that. But, mostly, writing is about communing with another. And it is always most satisfying when it resounds in the heart of someone…or many someones. These are the posts that this year connected most deeply, based on number of visits, shares, and comments.

Thank you for reading. I would still write if you didn’t. But it would mean far less.

Godspeed  In January, our dear Father Seraphim was laid to rest. He was an artist and a man of peace. He will be much missed. Herein I write my impressions both of him and of the service which ushered him into the Presence. (This post was transferred from my previous blog without comments. You can read those HERE if you like.)

Delicious Agony  A Lenten post. Of the futility of striving to apprehend God, and the extravagant grace of receiving Him. Incidentally, the song featured in this post has become a lullaby for my granddaughter. Would that she could understand the truth of it without the folly and error I required.

Just Show Up  What if all that is required of us…to care for our friends, to live out our faith, to create…is simply our presence? Our willingness to be…

Soul Stink  A confession.

Daughter of My Daughter  An attempt to capture a crack in time. One of those moments that will live in the memory for always. The day my daughter became a mommy.

Dream Wall  A fanciful construct, inspired by David McCullough’s book, The Greater Journey, which struck an unexpected cord. For the lover of art. Or the would be lover of art. An invitation…

Pray in Me  Of the words which bury themselves inside us, if we will let them. Of the Spirit who prays Himself in us with groanings too deep for words…

Before They Leave  Of the books I would have all our children know before they leave home.

You Don’t Have to Shave Yo’ Legs  A playful look at a volatile subject. Love that loves all the time, no matter what. Love that chooses to see good. Plus, a little ditty from Keb Mo. 🙂

Book List: The Lost Books  My most popular book list EVER. If you were stranded on a deserted island, which books would you want to have with you? Be sure and read the comments. They Are GOLDEN!!

Fringe Benefits  Of perseverance and persistence. Of the unexpected gifts that come with doing the hard things.

A Blessing Unsolicited: Part II  Sometimes the most beautiful gifts come in unlikely packages…

Empty  Of a costly exuberance. Of pouring out too much.

Booklist: On Writing  My favorite authors on the crafting of words. Again, some great info in the comments.

Lord, Make Me Humble, But Not Yet  A raw, honest confession. Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.

Of Being a Grandmother  Being a grandmother is, in fact, the bombdiggity. 🙂 Here’s why.

Postcards From Atlanta  Of a spectacular weekend with Women of Faith.

If I Were Really Brave  On daring and audacity, and risking it all.

11 Films to See More Than Once  The most popular of a series of 11 posts I did in October. Films that are so rich that they bear repeating. Another one where you want to read the comments.

Exultant Explosion

Joy

The Incarnation is…..a very complex thing.

Its unique note is the simultaneous striking of many notes;
of humility, of gaiety, of gratitude, of mystical fear,
but also of vigilance and drama…
There is something defiant in it also;
something that makes the abrupt bells at midnight
sound like the great guns of a battle
that has just been won.

All this indescribable thing that we call the Christmas atmosphere
only hangs in the air as something like
a lingering fragrance or fading vapor
from the exultant explosion
of that one hour
in the Judean hills
nearly two thousand years ago.

But the savor is still unmistakable,
and it is something too subtle
or too solitary
to be covered by our use of the word
peace.

~G.K. Chesterton

 

*Artwork: Soliloquies-Joy by Makoto Fujimura

Lonely…

Somewhere we know that without a lonely place our lives are in danger. Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, without distance closeness cannot cure. Somewhere we know that without a lonely place our actions quickly become empty gestures…
~Henri Nouwen

This has been a raw, cantankerous, no one will answer my emails, tired, overwhelmed, everybody needs something from me, tears in the dishwater kind of week. I am not sleeping. I have no talent for sleep anyway, so it is usually the first thing to go. That, of course, only makes matters worse. I am frenzied, withered, spent.

I have been here before. And I have come to understand that when it seems as though everyone is conspiring to make me insane, the problem is probably not with “everyone“.

And even though it never works, I begin by trying to eliminate the stresses in my life; by wishing everyone would just do what I need them to do.

It’s kind of like putting perfume on sweat. The first impression might be tolerable, but it doesn’t take long before the stink wins out.

I was awake last night. In the middle of the night. Again. This time, instead of repeatedly calculating exactly how much sleep I will get if I fall asleep right now, or fretting over everything in my life that needs to be done for the next 2 weeks years, or trying to escape by planning our next vacation… I picked up a book…one of the books I began reading at the beginning of Advent…and found the familiar, but forgotten, words above. And I began to understand…

I had made a worthy start to Advent. Finding time for stillness. For peace. Peace that I could carry with me into my days. And give to others, if need be. I’m not sure where things went wrong…

You cannot bring peace to others if you do not have it yourself.
~Fr. Alexander Elchaninov

Today, roughly half way through the season of expectation and longing, I begin again. Pursuing loneliness. For myself. For my family and friends. I will follow the One I love to the lonely place. I will sit with Him. And I will invite Him to set me aright so that I might love as He loves. So that the sweet aroma of Him might linger upon me…

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. ~Mark 1:35

Image of the Invisible

Starry-night-sky-615

Was there a moment, known only to God, when all the stars held their breath, when the galaxies paused in their dance for a fraction of a second, and the Word, who had called it all into being, went with all his love into the womb of a young girl, and the universe started to breathe again, and the ancient harmonies resumed their song, and the angels clapped their hands for joy?

Power.  Greater power than we can imagine, abandoned, as the Word knew the powerlessness of the unborn child, still unformed, taking up almost no space in the great ocean of amniotic fluid, unseeing, unhearing, unknowing.  Slowly growing, as any human embryo grows, arms and legs and a head, eyes, mouth, nose, slowly swimming into life until the ocean in the womb is no longer large enough, and it is time for birth.

Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, Christ, the Maker of the universe or perhaps many universes, willingly and lovingly leaving all that power and coming to this poor, sin-filled planet to live with us for a a few years to show us what we ought to be and could be.  Christ came to us as Jesus of Nazareth, wholly human and wholly divine, to show us what it means to be made in God’s image.

~Madeleine L’Engle

Abide…

The Father spoke one Word, which was His Son, and this Word he speaks always in eternal silence, and in silence must be heard by the soul.
~St. John of the Cross

Yesterday marked the beginning of the Advent season in the Orthodox Church. For us it is a forty day affair, much like Lent. A season of preparation. Of expectation.

On Sunday, our priest encouraged us to approach the Nativity season with two thoughts: Rest and Abide, Search and Seek.

Rest and Abide: The Soul of the Shepherd  Distractions keep us from abiding in the field of our hearts and keeping watch, he said. We are to guard our hearts against distraction. To be still.

Search and Seek: The Mind of the Magi The Magi were seeking. They were looking for signs and knowledge. We are to seek Christ.

The two of these might seem antithetical. One implies stillness, the other journey. But perhaps this is a journey within.

There are two contemplative practices of fundamental importance in the Christian tradition: the practice of stillness…and the practice of watchfulness or awareness.
~Martin Laird

Parallel  messages of silence and awareness have come to me from three different sources over  the past three days. Even I am not dull enough to miss the significance of that. Thus, I am embracing this theme for my Nativity journey this year. A cultivation of stillness, and a practice of watchfulness.

Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God. ~Matthew 5:8

Here are a few resources I will use to help me remember. To be still. To watch.

Into the Silent Land: A guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation by Martin Laird

The Inner Kingdom by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware

The Winter Pascha: Readings for the Christmas-Epiphany Season by Father Thomas Hopko

Watch For the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas

Daily Advent Readings from the Merton Institute

I will avail myself of the services of the Church. I will strive to keep the fast. I will, to the best of my ability, make room for silence. And in that silence, for the Light.

How are you preparing to receive the Christ? What will Advent look like for you?

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