Honoring what is Within

When our son, Isaac, was about a month old he began to scream and cry each night for about an hour.  Nothing would comfort him.  Our pediatrician helpfully explained Isaac’s behavior to us as a period of PURPLE crying, an acronym for:

Previously referred to as colic and treated as if there was something wrong with the baby, PURPLE crying was a way to help parents understand this period in their baby’s life as a normal part of every infant’s development.  As our pediatrician explained it, Isaac took in stimuli all day long and at night he needed to release that stimulation in a big, emotional cry.  I remembered this trying time of parenthood a few days ago when I sat down to meditate for the first time in many months.

My daily meditation practice faltered because I decided I preferred to use my quiet morning time to write. But then life handed me some change and new challenge.  Our beloved 14-year-old German Shepherd lost the use of his hips and after a few months of trying to help him live with dignity, we decided we had to put him down.  In the midst of this, my 45-year-old body presented me with changes to which I’ve had a difficult time adjusting.  It was the holidays, so I coped by eating and drinking too much.  My exercise routine also faltered.

Finally, while trying to run on the treadmill at the gym I noticed that my insides felt all jumpy and wrangly.  This is how stress feels to me—like my insides are filled with Mexican jumping beans. I should get back to meditating, I told myself.

That night, after the kids had gone to bed, I sat and breathed through one rotation of my 108 mala beads.  (Mala beads are great for meditation, by the way.  Read more about them here. Watch a video about how to use them here.)  It was a fruitful meditation, because what arose as I sat quietly with myself was all the emotion I had been avoiding, emotions I finally could identify during this time of meditation as anxiety, sadness, frustration, grief.  All this had been welling up inside of me, but I had been disregarding these feelings in my effort to just…keep…going.

One of the most valuable lessons I have learned from meditation is how sitting with ourselves and honoring what is happening within is essential for healing and spiritual wholeness.  The Buddhist practice of sitting with your suffering has become very valuable to me.  My emotions, like the ocean tide, need space to rise and flourish before they can ebb and recede.  Too often, though, I avoid these uncomfortable emotions and go to great lengths to push my suffering aside.  Like an infant’s period of PURPLE crying, the emotions that arise within us are a natural part of the human experience and should be respected as such.  By honoring what is within me, by attending to even the most painful of emotions, I’ve discovered that their power over me diminishes.

What about you?  What is within you?  What have you been avoiding?  And what might happen if you honored and attended that which is within?

 

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Is there room for me? A Christmas Sermon

What follows is my sermon, “Is there room for me?” to Monmouth College at our annual                                          Christmas Convocation based on Luke 2: 1-14.

Traditionally, in a Protestant worship service, all the children are invited forward for a special time or message from the pastor.  One Christmas, when I was the pastor of a small church in North Carolina, I decided to involve the whole congregation in my children’s message by acting out the scene where pregnant Mary and Joseph are looking for a place to stay in Bethlehem.  I gave the people sitting on the aisles doors made out of posterboard.  Then I led the children around the sanctuary to knock on the doors and ask if there was room for them to come in and stay.  I did this not realizing how difficult it would be for my church members.

Two-year old-Garrett, clutching his tattered teddy bear, knocked on Leon’s door and asked, “Do you have room for me?” and Leon—well, I could tell that Leon wanted to cave—so, I interrupted, “No, Leon, you’ve got no room for Garrett.  Now shut the door.”  The same thing happened when sweet little Grace in her red velvet dress knocked on Sharon’s door.  Sharon’s a grandmother who never says no to a child.  She looked devastated to have to turn Grace away.  “I’m sorry sweetie,” she said.  Finally, my own 4-year-old, tow-headed, son, Isaac, knocked on Mack’s door, with his sweet little six-inch clip-on-tie and his shirt tail untucked.  Isaac and Mack had a special connection.  They looked for each other every Sunday morning and that Christmas, Mack had made Isaac a toy train out of wood.  So when Isaac asked, “Mr. Mack, do you have room for me?” It was all Mack could do to stay on script, “No, Isaac, I’m sorry, but I’ve got no room for you.”

Every Christmas, as I consider what to say to you at this convocation I try to take the pulse of our community and then respond in a way that I pray is both helpful and faithful.  This year, with race and interfaith relations boiling over, the rescinding of DACA, and our divisions growing ever wider, it seems to me that many of us just feel left out in the cold, or feel left to wonder, is there room for me?

Our seniors getting ready to graduate wonder, “Is there room for me, is there a place for me, in life beyond college?”

The woman living in a society where glass ceilings are yet to be broken and #metoo is trending on twitter wonders, “Is there room for me, for my aspirations and my success?”

The white man, tired of hearing about his unearned privilege and confused over what, exactly, to do about it, wonders, “Will there still be room for me if I let others in?”

The transgender man who just wants to use the bathroom like everyone else wonders, “Is there room for me?”

The undocumented student, who fears her and her family’s deportation, wonders, “Is there room for me?”

The Syrian refugee, whose family is scattered all over the world and whose home has been decimated by violent, warring powers wonders, “Is there room for me?”

The African American student attending a predominantly white college, wonders, “Is there room for me?”

Pondering this question (the question of whether or not there is room) I returned to the text and discovered a detail that I had missed. When I read this story of Jesus’ birth before, I had always pictured a weary Innkeeper greeting Mary and Joseph in the middle of the night, a lantern reflecting their faces desperate for a place to stay and the Innkeeper’s regret as he, reluctantly, followed the script, “I’m sorry, but I’ve got no room you.”

Well, apparently, I made this whole scene up because there is no innkeeper in this text.  In fact, I learned recently that the word inn would more accurately be translated as “guest room” or “guest bed” in the peasant house or desert cave where Mary and Joseph more likely stopped. This was not a place of business—not some kind of hotel—but family and friends who had come home for the census and crowded in for the night with people and animals sleeping on different levels.  So yes, there was no bed for them, no guest room with a private bath, no luxury to speak of at all.  But there was room.  Mary and Joseph were taken in.  Their baby was born, wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a manger.

Knowing this, now I wish I could go back in time, back to my church in North Carolina and back to the Christmas when I led all those children around the sanctuary.  I wish I could go back and give my church members the right script.  I’d tell Leon, go ahead and cave. Let Garrett in. Sharon, it’s okay, you’ve got room for Grace.  And Mack, you can make room for Isaac, just like I know you would for any child of God.

In today’s world, it seems like we’ve been operating under a script that tells us there just isn’t enough—there’s not enough room, not enough resources, not enough jobs, not enough alternative sources of energy, maybe even not enough love to conquer the hate or good to overcome the evil.  This belief in scarcity arises out of fear and anxiety.  I get that.  I know that fear too.  But this belief in scarcity only leads us to hoard in excess, to isolate ourselves, build walls, choose sides and arm ourselves to the hilt to protect our own.

The birth of Jesus Christ flips this script.  It proclaims the good news of great joy for all the people.  No one is left out in the cold.  Nor is anyone left out as Jesus grows up and purposefully reaches out to those who have been left out: the women, the children, the stranger, the sick, the poor, even the despised tax collector.  Jesus apparently believed that what God has given, God has given in abundance. There is enough.  There is room for us all.

There is room for the graduating senior and the woman with career aspiration.  There is room for the privileged and the underprivileged.  There is room for the lgbtq, for the undocumented, for the refugee, for the minoritized. There is room for us all.

The angel Gabriel wasn’t kidding when he said, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior.”  A Savior born in an overcrowded house among the animals because the good people there believed they had enough to make room.

This Christmas, may we know this Savior and this salvation when we too make room for all of God’s people.

[Feature Image: Wbeem]

Tired of Talking about Privilege

Last Sunday, during a program at my college about how to create needed social change, I observed a few of the white students tuning out.  One fell asleep.  Another started texting a friend.  Another tried to pay attention, but her eyes kept wandering to the floor, the window and the faces in the room other than the presenter.  The students of color, on the other hand, were engaged in the topic.  They asked and answered questions and contributed to the discussion.

After this observation, I decided to lead a program on privilege thinking it would be helpful for more of our white students to understand the social, economic, and political advantages they have over people of color.  When I shared my idea for the program with one of my more thoughtful white students, though, she told me that her peers were tired of talking about privilege.  “It’s everywhere, Teri.  Sure, it’s important.  But people are just tired of talking about it.” I was grateful for this student’s honesty, but also wondered how I could stoke the fire of this important conversation.  I decided to go ahead with my program.

In my planning, I came across Peggy McIntosh’s essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” McIntosh (who is white) helpfully unpacks the invisible knapsack of unearned assets she can count on cashing in every day, but about which, she says, “she was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.”  Because of the color of her skin, McIntosh says she can count on the following:

  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  • Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
  • I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  • I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily protection.
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.
  • I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.

This last example helped me better understand the disinterest and weariness of my white students.  There are no real consequences for a white person’s apathy, disinterest, or weariness of talking about privilege.  In fact, the system of white dominance and white supremacy that our country has been built upon rewards such passivity. If white people remain oblivious to our unearned benefits, then we cannot be expected to share, give them up, or work towards a more equitable system. It’s hard to hold an oblivious person accountable.  Thus, the system of white dominance is perpetuated.

Through the programs I lead and the relationships I develop, I hope to keep this conversation going.  I hope to keep learning how I can live faithfully with the unearned assets I have inherited and encourage others to do the same.  Jesus keeps calling me to the most disadvantaged.  Although it’s painful to acknowledge that my unearned advantages play a significant role in keeping others disadvantaged, I’ve got to face that harsh truth to have any hope of righting what is wrong.

[Feature Image: Elias Schewel]

 

Battling Resistance

Since I took yesterday off, I told myself I would sit down to write first thing this morning.  Before getting to my desk, though, I did the following:

  • Cleaned up the dirty dishes in the kitchen
  • Got a load of laundry started
  • Set my kids clothes out for the day
  • Made the beds
  • Scrolled through Facebook
  • Ate breakfast
  • Drank two cups of coffee, slowly
  • Put my daughter’s hair up in a ponytail
  • Went through the hall closet sorting shoes to give away or toss
  • Had my kids try on their winter boots to see if they still fit

In other words, many tasks took precedent over my daily goal to sit down and write.

During yesterday’s readathon, I finally got to Stephen Pressfield’s book, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, which has been on my list to read for a while.  For me, the most helpful part of Pressfield’s book was his characterization of Resistance—that which keeps us from creating, growing, learning and evolving as human beings.

Two of the most intriguing points Pressfield made about Resistance were:

  • “Rationalization is Resistance’s spin doctor. Resistance presents us with a series of plausible, rational justifications for why we shouldn’t do our work.”  (See my list above.)  “What’s particularly insidious about the rationalizations that Resistance presents to us is that a lot of them are true.”  (The majority of tasks on my list above needed to get done.)  But, Pressfield insists, we can do what needs to be done and do our work.  Resistance just does a good job of convincing us that everything on our to-do list is more important than our creative work and therefore must come first.
  • Pressfield introduced me to the Principle of Priority, which states: “a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and b) you must do what is important first.” What’s important, Pressfield wants us to hear, is the work—the daily, creative work to which we are called that makes us and the world better.  “That’s the game we have to suit up for every day,” Pressfield writes, “that’s the field on which we need to leave everything we’ve got.”

I also appreciated Pressfield’s description of what Resistance feels like.  As a writer, he wakes up “with a gnawing sensation of dissatisfaction.  Already, I feel fear.  Already, the loved ones around me are starting to fade.  I interact.  I’m present.  But I’m not.  I am aware of Resistance.  I feel it in my guts.  I afford it the utmost respect, because I know it can defeat me on any given day as easily as the need for a drink can overcome an alcoholic.”

This daily battle with Resistance resonates because it has beaten me so many times, allowing me to excuse myself from my writing.  Pressfield’s clear characterization of Resistance is helpful, then, in discerning what the enemy looks and feels like, as well as the weapons Resistance uses against us.  Resistance keeps us from being the creators we were always meant to be.

 

My First Readathon

I thrive on challenges with set deadlines.  So when my friend Marcie told me she was participating in Dewey’s 24 hour readathon this Saturday, October 21st, I wanted in!  I love to read, yet never feel like I have enough time to get to all the books on my shelves, on my nightstand, piled on my office floor (you get the picture.)  I have a few family things to attend to this Saturday, but no work obligations.  So I am determined to make this readathon work.  Here’s my plan of action:

  • Do ALL the laundry I typically do on Saturday on Friday and Sunday.
  • Take breaks only to eat, exercise, and run the necessary errand
  • Get a good night’s sleep on Friday so I am not a drowsy reader
  • Get my kids involved in the readathon too

This last bullet point is crucial because if my kids don’t read, I can’t read.  I have offered them reward incentives for every 25 pages read during the day on Saturday. I hope this encourages their own love of reading.  They are excited about the challenge (and hopefully their excitement lasts!)

While exploring the internet, I discovered that readathons take place all the time.  Want to try one yourself?  Dewey’s 24 hour readathon takes place twice a year in October and April.  Also, Molly’s Book Nook has organized a helpful list of readathons being hosted all year long.  Take a look and join me in this fun, productive challenge!

P.S. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that I will NOT be reading for a full 24 hours.  I would be worthless on Sunday if I did.  But Dewey is not strict about this.  You can participate and just read as much as you can.

How to Be: Thoughts about Guns and the Value of Life

I made a mistake yesterday.  While waiting to catch my flight home from a board meeting, I joined a debate about gun control on a friend’s Facebook thread. I don’t typically participate in such debates via social media.  Our emboldened rhetoric behind the anonymity of the computer screen is, I believe, problematic. But I was a bored traveler, feeling, I admit, a tad self-righteous.

I did not know the people I was debating.  They were friends of my friend on Facebook.  I tried to choose my words wisely, tried to speak with respect.  But the debate was more about winning than it was about listening—each of us determined to have the last word.  I finally withdrew from the thread, not because I didn’t have more to say, but because the debate itself felt soul-sucking.  The weight of our gun-addicted culture became more than I could bear.

On the drive home from the airport, I tuned in to Krista Tippett’s “On Being” podcast.  Tippett was interviewing Rabbi Arnold Eisen on the life and legacy of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a spiritual leader whom I greatly admire.  Towards the end of the interview Tippett read Heschel’s words aloud: 

In his essay, “Choose Life,” Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Just as we are commanded to love man, we are also called upon to be sensitive to the grandeur of God’s creation. We are infatuated with our great technological achievements; we have forgotten the mystery of being, of being alive. We have lost our sense of wonder, our sense of radical amazement at sheer being. We have forgotten the meaning of being human and the deep responsibility involved in just being alive. Shakespeare’s Hamlet said: ‘To be or not to be, that is the question.’ But that is no problem. We all want to be. The real problem, biblically speaking, is how to be and how not to be.”

Heschel’s words about life—the wonder, radical amazement, and mystery of sheer being—felt like balm for my wounds.  After listening to people defend our right to bear arms and our need for guns, I needed to hear from someone who valued life in this extraordinary way.  Heschel’s words also left me pondering, though. How should I be?  How should I not be?  Even as I asked myself these questions, I knew the answers.  I should be peace, I should be love, I should be for life, not against it, and be for all that honors the grandeur of God’s creation.  Fighting for peace in a Facebook debate where one side seeks to verbally conquer the other is counter-productive and hypocritical.  We are not going to heal our addiction to violence with more verbal violence.  So I will put this mistake behind me.  I will live more responsibly today.