Like a Tree Planted Near Running Water
“Blessed are those who trust in God, whose trust is in the Holy One,
They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:7-8)
The other day I sat at the bedside of a patient who is walking with cancer. In her graciousness she allowed me to begin the prayer of petition and trust for her healing. As I prayed her strong voice lifted up several “Yes Lord, you know I love you…hear us Lord…etc.” When we finished the Lord’s Prayer we traded places as I sought to bring the “Amen’s and hear us Lord, to her strong and steady prayers of petition and gratitude.
She was a woman of great faith and it was clear that her roots were planted in the strong steady stream of trust in God’s never ending love and faithfulness. She prayed a long time. I wanted my prayer of support to be as fervently as hers, but in my shyer quiet support voice my deeper prayer was that God would trust my heart felt intention.
About two-thirds into the prayer time, I became aware that my eyes had glazed over and I had fallen into staring at electrical plug-ins in the wall in front of me. At the hospital the plugs are lit up, so it is easier to find them, especially at night. As the ears of my heart and my sight focused I realized with no uncertainty that this holy woman, whose bedside I was at, was truly plugged into God’s holy presence. Her prayers were spoken with such tenderness and surety, that I felt both honored and embarrassed at the intimacy that I was hearing.
Today as I heard the words of Jeremiah read at the liturgy, this prayer warrior…this woman of great faith filled my awareness. The other day her words brought streams of running water to my eyes. Deep down I felt renewed in that deep desire to pray from that place where the intimacy of God is a given, not a theological discussion.
As I move into this new week, may I dare to take into my prayer the heartfelt believe that my roots that are planted deep in running streams…and that the greening of my soul is being cared for by the Master gardener.
The Home Coming Welcome
In Luke’s gospel today (Lk.15: 1-3, 11-32), we hear the story of the father who welcomed home his son. The son who had taken his full inheritance, started a whole new life far away and blew his wad on adventures that were not life giving. In a moment of deep insight and humility he goes back home asking to be taken on as hired help by his father. The father sees in his son, not someone who squandered everything, but rather he meets him heart to heart, a child who was dead and has now come to life.
In the latter part of the story we meet the father’s hard working son, who is furious when he hears about the party and kindness that the father is offering the returned son. Understandably, tough words come from the older son, questioning this generosity for the younger son. And more to the point, words questioning why the father has not done this for him, who has stayed and worked. The father then speaks to this son all he has belongs to the son, he only needs to ask for what he wants or needs.
This gospel of Luke is tough. I have each of these primary actors living in my cells and at different moments each of them show up in my words and actions. This morning I remembered the last few days of my mom’s dying process. Each of us in our own way had “growing experiences” that had created wrinkles on Mom’s face. All of us had at different points in our lives spent our wads in ways that were contrary to popular wisdom. Some of us had not been as present to her during her old age, and others of us had wanted more from her in praise. (Much like the older son in the story.)
On those final days, each of us was present to mom in all of our humanness, each speaking and asking for what was needed. My Mom was also very present. As each of us spoke to her of both our love for her and any stories that separated us, to that child she would speak of her love for him or her. She held her adult sons and daughters in her arms as we cried. She created a banquet of love as she too, expressed her care and love for each.
I have to admit, there were times as this loving forgiveness was given out, that I was like the older son…still harboring memories of times when I witnessed my mom’s disappointment about this situation or that situation. Yet, who was I to hold back her freedom to forgive and love, the truth was that I too had experienced her love and forgiveness to me during those sacred days.
I witnessed in my Mom a reflection of the kind of love that God always embraces me…I also witnessed in myself places where God’s love is waiting to be embraced and lived.
The other day at the hospital Don, one of the Environmental Service staff, was greeting people by name as they passed him. There was such an exchange of joy between him and those who returned his greeting. He was sitting at a cross roads where people normally just buzz by each other, barely taking the time to look at each other. He merely raised his hand in greeting, smiled and said hello.
I was moved by how little it took for people to become more present to each other… a mere greeting. We are celebrating these days the many ways in which the Risen One showed up in ordinary ways just like Don… walking down a dusty road with two disciples mourning the loss of the leader, preparing breakfast for fishermen who were returning toward the shore tired after catching nothing despite their best efforts, showing up looking like a gardener near the tomb…yet each of these encounters became moments of epiphany as the Risen One was recognized.
Our days have the potential of encountering the Risen One through each other; if we make room for the ordinary to invite us into the holy presence of surprise and connection.
Recently my eyes have focused on situations where children with different kinds of disabilities have charmed nearby adults. The other day at the hospital cafeteria a three or four year old boy waved to and chatted with anyone within a ten-foot radius of his table. Being just a few feet outside that radius I fell into the happy position of watching. I don’t think the little guy was able to say much with clarity of word, but his message of connection and love was so genuine, it didn’t need much.
I try to imagine what the world would be like if this was the given approach to all communication…that being, reaching out to all within a ten-foot radius, trusting that the receiver will have the ability to translate the heart’s message with generosity. I have some things that I will have to let go of in order to do this. Here is the beginning of my list: the times when I am more sure of myself than others, the times when I react from a place of hurt, the times when I am afraid that I am not visible to others and so I flash my credentials, and the list goes on.
As I picture this young fountain of connection, this epicenter of hospitality, that list melts in the face of one who invites from a spaciousness that is generated from who is he, not what he can’t do. Today, I shall try to move from his spaciousness.
Grocery Store Parking Lots
Last weekend I went to visit some friends who live out of town. I go to see them periodically. Slowly I am getting a bit more familiar with the surroundings and the folks who hang out in their neighborhood. On Sunday I went to the grocery store to pick up a few things that we needed. Outside of the store a woman in her thirties approached me and asked me for money to fix the tires on her truck.
As I listened to her, I remembered her from my trip in January, as she had asked me for gas money for her truck to get back home, which was thirty miles away. In January I gave her a ten-dollar bill and wished her a safe trip. I was worried for her, as she had a tracheotomy (the surgical formation of an opening into the trachea through the neck esp. to allow the passage of air) and although she seemed to be able to speak okay, it was winter and thirty miles seemed a bad combination.
After we said good-by that night in January, I wondered what had happened that she needed this surgical procedure and how long she had dealt with it. I was glad that I had money in my pocket…I think I may have even felt good about my decision not to be so selfish. I also felt gratitude for my own good health.
However, when she approached me again last Sunday I felt angry and judgmental. I had believed her in January and last Sunday I just felt like she was lying to me. In my self righteousness, I told her that I had encountered her in another parking lot with a truck story a few months before, and that I didn’t believe her, nor was I going to give her money.
I don’t know…if she had just come up and asked me for money, I am not sure what I would have said. I saw her again a few days later hanging out at the same store…approaching shoppers for money. I asked myself, “What would Jesus do?” Would he give her money out right…regardless of past encounters? Would he question her deeper needs and still give her money? Would his presence have been so full of love that just approaching him would have changed her?
I have to say that I didn’t get to most of those thoughts or options. For me I struggled with one primary question: would giving her money encourage her to continue in this practice?
So here I am, holding a new story of invitation…an invitation to hold with holy reverence that the gospel may be simple, but in my humanness with my need to be in control of truth…living it out is not always so easy.
Miracle or Coincidence?
Sometimes, I wonder how we know if something is a miracle (an unexpected appearance or experience of the Holy) or just a coincidence. Last weekend I attended a workshop on “The transformation of old patterns into healing.” I was with a group of people with whom I have attended other workshops, which made for a space of trust for actual change to happen. For the most part the workshop sessions were held outside, which allowed me to attend to the changes happening in nature.
During the very last session, each of us was invited to take a few moments and speak about how we were doing after our learnings. As I was speaking, I found myself touched by a deep insight and a profound gratitude for this circle of friends and teachers who had guided the weekend. At the very same moment of spoken and unspoken gratitude, a humming bird appeared out of nowhere and flew a circle around my head. I was aware of the buzzing noise, but did not see the bird.
Following that session a friend came up immediately and told me about the humming bird. Wow, I thought how remarkable…in some Native American spiritual beliefs, the humming bird represents joy…wow! Later in the day on the drive home with a friend I mentioned the humming bird’s appearance and fly by. This friend thought the bird probably came to me because I was wearing a red baseball cap. My heart quivered when I heard her logical experience for this unexpected grace.
Miracle or coincidence?
I think it is a miracle or at the very least good grace! God’s appearances can always be explained away into something else. Our invitation today is to be open to grace appearing and allowing the power of it appearance to be a doorway of transformation.
The Light was Red
Today, as I was driving to church I came upon my first intersection guided by traffic lights. I looked to see if the light was green and what the pedestrian light was saying. Satisfied that I had followed all the guidelines of good driving I preceded to motor through the intersection…until a speeding car to my left ran through the red light. I put on the brakes and fortunately for me, the other car hit only the front corner of my car.
I am not sure whether I came to a complete stop in the middle of the intersection…or whether I drove to the other side of the intersection and pulled to the side of the road. I got out of the car and motioned to the driver of the other car to drive over to where I was. The driver was a young lad, 17 years old. His first question to me was, “did I run a red light?” “Yes, you certainly did.” In my mind I kept seeing one of my young nephews behind the face of this lad. Standing behind him, I saw my sisters, my brothers as his parents…
He told me that he was on his way to meet some friends at a hotel further down the street; he was late getting there. I think because I hadn’t been hurt, the car damage was minimal, and I kept seeing my nephews in his face, my reaction was kinder than it might have been had he not fit my Western European Caucasian nephews’ faces.
So, what does that say about me? What does that say about the blessings and curses of stereotyping? How does that fit into the message of the gospel? Does it mean, “welcome the familiar?” Yesterday was September 11, I taught a class of twenty students from a variety of backgrounds and interests. All had chosen this class because of their interest in self-care and being whole. In one part of my class I asked students to focus on memories of September 11th from three years ago and where they felt that memory in their bodies. Next they were asked to think of hope for a new framing of the date of September 11th for today and the future; again they were asked to be aware of where in their body they viscerally felt that hope. The students broke into dyads and talked over these questions. They were then asked to return to the large group to describe their body awareness and their hope.
Half way around the group, a young man who did not fit the physical make up of my Western European Caucasian nephews spoke. His words were brief. He was an American and as a result of September 11th, his life changed drastically. He left the room after he spoke…unable to hold the grief he had experienced due to his racial and ethnic background. “And Jesus said, who is my brother?”
Walking the Big Picture
This summer, early June, I was on a walk with Hannah (that would be my black lab) in our neighborhood. About 2½ blocks from our house Hannah and I met some new neighbors. They were planting some lovely bushes on the side of their house next to a cute fence. I commented on their pretty bushes and ended up striking up a conversation with the woman who lived in the house. She told me where she had bought the bushes and what a great deal they were in price. When asked about the location of the green house where she had gone, she quickly ran inside her house to get the calendar with the number on it.
I was pleased, as I love to have a good place to go for lovely plants and bushes at a price I can afford. Later in the conversation, the woman told me that she and her husband were hoping that the bushes would grow tall quickly. She pointed to the yard next door and commented on how the folks didn’t keep up their yard to the standards that they would like…as a result the neighbors on both sides of this house were planting bushes to separate their yards from this yard that had some needs.
My only experience of that house was on walks with Hannah. The children in that house were Asian and they always wanted to pet Hannah. They were often playing hopscotch or front yard games. Our conversations were short and pleasant. A couple of weeks following my conversation with the bush planters, I noticed that the yard next door had improved…there was still some needs, but indeed some changes had been made.
I wondered what the reaction was of their neighbors…was it enough? My eyes often fell not on the lawn, but rather the house blinds that were usually catywamphis in the front window. So, all summer long I wondered about the relationship between these neighbors.
Last week when Hannah and I were walking, the beautiful sidewalk colored chalk pictures in front of the house, whose lawn was in need and blinds a skewed, struck me. There were three sidewalks with chalk colored pictures of: the sun and sky, the moon and stars, and the trees and grass. I thought immediately about the children and how big their minds and hearts were…and where they were focusing their energy.
This humbled me and I found myself escaping my small adult judgmental mind/world and entered the bigness of their world. Who needs to care about the lawn or the blinds if you have the sun and the moon, and the trees filling your sidewalks?
My mind went to the words of Jesus, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Matthew 18:1-5
This weekend, I returned to my college for my 25th reunion. It was great…great to return to an environment which taught me how to live and breathe my Catholic faith…great to see the faces of friends and faculty who saw more in me (at that time), then I was able to see in myself.
We were offered an opportunity Saturday evening to attend mass before we dined together. As I sat in the chapel that evening, my mind floated to the many stories connected to liturgies during my four years of college. I remembered taking a group of mentally challenged adults from the group home where I worked to Sunday liturgy…the first time I took them, I didn’t have enough friends in pews in front and behind them…so Jack wandered out of the pew and followed the priest up to the table at offertory. I nearly fainted watching the whole scene and trying to figure out what to do next as I was also playing the guitar for the liturgy. I remembered ducking into a noontime liturgy as a way of making space for all that the afternoon would bring.
As I sat at mass, memories poured out of ways in which everyday people touched me and changed me in radical ways. Sometimes those radical acts of kindness involved a walk after a long day of classes, other times it was faculty asking me questions with the expectation that I had something to offer. For the most part the most powerful memories involved people seeing beyond what was spoken, hearing beyond what was seen and then inviting me to see God’s radical presence in the moment at hand.
All of these musings and rememberings were summed up in the song used as a response to the first reading: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your heart.”
Look everywhere and be ready to hear God’s voice in the ordinary!
On October 4th, our church held a blessing for the animals. There were twenty-seven animals and seventy-two people at the service. Among the animals were three horses, a white rat, a turtle, several dogs and cats. And yes, Hannah, was among the counted!
In the crowd was a baby girl, who was about 1½. This little one went among the animals saying, “bow-wow, bow-wow.” She moved with great trust and would put herself within reach of many a bow-wow. Hannah was more than happy to reciprocate with a wet kiss on her hands and face.
I was amazed at how much energy it took to help convince Hannah that it was really okay to stay seated or drop to the floor. She was sure that it was her job to play with the dear neighbor and enlist as many new friends as possible. The experience also convinced me that on the night that our savior stayed at the manger, that the animals might not have been as docile as I have pictured them in past Christmas’s.
I learned a great lesson in civility from this evening’s experience. In this environment that was full of differences, the blessing was able to happen. The proud owners of all creatures great and small (even the cats, who don’t have owners, but have servants) accomplished what was necessary to experience the blessing.
In our current arena of daily living, we are challenged by the deluge of words and images that want to convince us of our differences. Let us seek this week to live the words of Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel at all times, if necessary use words.” Let us move forward this week, drawing on that love that gives us flexibility around our differences and the insight that unites us in our similarities.
The Pharisee and Tax Collector
Recently, I have become more aware of Good Samaritans…folks who go the distance without being “the anointed one.” The other night at the church dinner, I watched two young girls (maybe age 6 or 7), going from table to table picking up plates left behind and then bouncing into the kitchen, where I was working, asking for a bucket so they could wash off the table.
The other morning at work, I met the granddaughter of a patient who was going to give her grandfather her oldest and favorite stuff animal for his overnight stay at the hospital. Later that morning, I watched one of the food servers at the hospital cafeteria, carefully assist a man with physical blindness not only with his plate, but moreover he took the time to make sure the place he had chosen met the man’s needs.
I suppose each action in itself seems like nothing…but what I asked myself “the adult doing kitchen work,” or “the chaplain doing pre-surgery visits,” or “staff chaplain eating lunch” was…would I have be as happy, as generous, as present in my carrying out any given action named, as those named above?
I struggle at times with bringing forth the “right attitude” with the “right action.” In this week’s gospel we hear the story of the tax collector and the Pharisee praying in the synagogue. (Luke 18:9-14) The Pharisee thanks God for doing all the right things from a place of pride. The tax collector asks God for mercy from a place of humility. How might I seek this week to move forward in my daily actions from a place of humility?
Perhaps my Samaritans have already laid out the ground work for this question…move forward from a place of enthusiasm, give from a spirit of generosity, and show up being ready to give, but also be present.
All week long I have been on my way to somewhere and in the midst of being on the way I have had powerful encounters. I am not sure if this is a new experience for me or perhaps this week I was more aware of the impact of the encounters.
The Feasts of All Saints day and All Souls day showed up in a different place of awareness for me. As a chaplain, my job challenges me to be present, to listen for what isn’t verbalized and to look beyond what I can see…in some ways it is a ministry that makes everyday all souls and saints’ day. However, even though that is true, I often fail to see and to hear what is right before me when I am on the way there.
So, I have encountered with awareness new sacred ground. It is one that demands carrying a tent and trusting that being on the way is all about being present.
Garbage in, Garbage out!
I was at a learning weekend the past four days. The teachings take place within the context of community with some alone time to integrate the teachings. On Sunday afternoon as I was cleaning the shower and toilet building, I thought about the teachings of both that day and the previous days. I was conscious of the different occasions and people who had, through no fault of their own, become teachers for me around communication issues. I must admit I had not finished the work needed to integrate the whole teaching…there were moments of inner fuss and grumblings.
I was particularly frustrated with the number of times I had come to the compost bucket brimming with the need to be emptied and the contents buried and the plain old garbage needed to be emptied as well. I emptied and buried the compost once…grumbling and when I was done I acknowledged to myself that it had not been a hard task to do. The next day I encountered a much to full wastebasket, I emptied with a little less grumbling and but still with some annoyance. The next day, I walked into that kitchen in the morning and saw the garbage basket full…. AGAIN! I wanted to just walk by and not notice, but I did. So with more sound than was needed I grunted and groaned, so it would not be lost on any bystanders. And I put a new bag in!
So…here I was doing my community chore all by myself and again I have garbage to do. So I say to myself, “I will take it in to the kitchen and just dump it in the big garbage can…I don’t have to take it out!” So I move forward with my intent and guess what, the garbage can has some room…not very much, but enough that I can leave the can for SOMEONE ELSE TO DO.
Which I do and I head back out to my quiet kingdom to finish up the last aspects of my chore. As I clean, I begin to ask God, “Hey, what’s the deal? Why am I the only one to see the full garbage can? (I know that I am in a little bit of exaggeration here) And then from a place deep in the teachings of the weekend, God answers… “The garbage waits for you to carry it out over and over, because so far this weekend you have not done it once out of a place of love and service for your community!”
WOW…I heard the truth of the words deep in the cells of my body…they were correct. Shortly after I heard this inside, I found more garbage in the area where I was working and decided to go back in and get the almost full garbage can and empty it. After that can, I went on a search for full baskets throughout the house and took them out to be emptied. It felt much different and so much lighter to do the task from a place of love and service.
I didn’t get all the learnings worked out doing my chore, but perhaps I got the best one to reframe my walk as a pilgrim.
Every seven to twelve days I have an opportunity to pause for a moment and think about an experience that has taught me something about being a disciple seeking to learn the ways of the Holy. Sometimes the lessons have come through my dog Hannah, an experience with my housemate or through an experience at the hospital…sometimes it comes through the presence of family or friends.
The last week and a half, my learning has come from taking care of myself following a simple foot surgery. I showed up at the hospital where I work at 5:30 a.m. not for the normal pre-surgery chaplain visit, but rather for myself. It was I this time lying in the bed wearing the beautiful resort clothes that patients get to wear when they come to the hospital! This time it was me praying from inside out that the I.V. would go in easily, that the drugs being used to keep me happy in “lala land” would work, that the surgery would bring about easier walking with less pain in the future…
As each health care professional came in the room, I would tell them that I had prayed for them the night before that their care of me would bring forth healing. Most thanked me, but some seemed a little awkward and were quiet after I told them of my prayers.
What touched me the most was the experience of two chaplain friends and my housemate laying their hands on me and praying for the success not only of my surgery, but also for my vocation to walk the path of a pilgrim. Bill, my chaplain colleague for the last nine years, spoke the prayer and my friends, Robin and Marty, held the spiritual space for the prayer to rise up like incense.
Even a week later, I continue to feel the power of their prayer…its simplicity, its directness and its power. As I experienced our national day of gratitude, I drew on their example as I opened myself to a day of prayer full of gratitude…I sought to be present, let my words be simple and direct and then stood back and allowed my prayers to rise up like incense in gratitude for the Holy.
From the seat of a Wheel Chair
I went back to work this past Monday for the first time since November 15th. As noted in a previous entry I had simple foot surgery on the 16th.This week with the help of a wheel chair I made my way to the units I serve as a hospital chaplain. For an abled-bodied person like myself it is quite an experience to temporarily experience life from a wheel chair.
Being in the midst of Advent we are invited and reminded to create in our minds and heart a place of conscious waiting for a deeper experience of the presence of God. We light candles as a placeholder, creating the potential of greater illumination as we wait for this spiritual occurrence.
Rolling down the long hospital hallways, I find myself waiting in lots of new ways…in the situations where a door can’t be opened from a seated position, I wait for the Samaritan to help me get through the door…in the rooms where the light switch is placed for a standing person, I ask for help to get the lighting I need. In the cafeteria, I wait for someone to help me balance a tray and get the food, which otherwise can’t be reached…
And then once I get to the places I am going and am able to do the things I am setting out to do, I breathe deep in gratitude that I will be using a wheel chair only for a short period of time. For me, I have become more conscious of waiting to be able to “do.” And on the days when I am in a hurry, I am not so crazy about the time it takes to “get there”, wherever there is.
However Advent does not ask me to wait to “do,” but rather asks me for a waiting that demands “being.” It is not contingent on my physical mobility. Advent challenges me to turn slow down, to stop the wheels of my busy mind, to be awake and be seated in the present moment, for the Light that has shattered the darkness.
“Mom, how does God make pop?”
The other day as I was returning from my hospital unit, I heard a young child ask his mom, “Mom, how does God make pop?” Unfortunately, I wasn’t close enough to hear the mom’s answer, but I loved the question. It is so easy for me as an adult to make my God questions, ones that deal on the theoretical level and miss the important everyday questions.
At church today, as I heard the gospel where John the Baptist sends his disciples to Jesus, to see if he is the one or not…you know the Messiah, the long awaited one. John’s disciples simply put the question to Jesus, “Are you the one or not?” Can you imagine being asked that bluntly about your role in birthing the presence of God in the here and now? I think we get so grown up sometimes that we forget the intimacy with which we are born into our vocation to be the light of God…maybe I should say it more clearly, I get very busy in my head and get distracted from my very first vocation as a child of God…to be that light, that presence, that herald in the desert, that candle on the hill…
I still don’t have the direct answer for how God makes pop, but I do feel in this advent darkness a little closer to finding “that holy light” that guides my daily walk within in the ordinary.