Troubling the Tyranny of the Ordinary

Reading and reflecting upon Christian Wiman’s book, My Bright Abyss, has become my latest meditation practice. These words were perfect for me today:

“Heading home from work, irritated by my busyness and the sense of wasted days, shouldering through the strangers who merge and flow together on Michigan Avenue, merge and flow in the mirrored facades, I flash past the rapt eyes and undecayed face of my grandmother, lit and lost at once. In a board meeting, bored to oblivion, I hear a pen scrape like a fingernail on a cell wall, watch the glasses sweat as if even water wanted out, when suddenly, at the center of the long table, light makes of a bell-shaped pitcher a bell that rings in no place on earth.”

Earlier, Wiman writes that “the very act of attention troubles the tyranny of the ordinary.” His words called me back to life, to the specificity of each moment. It feels as if, over this past month when all I had time for was getting stuff done, I have been trapped in the tyranny of the ordinary. But Wiman, like a good prophet, shows me the way back to life through the pen that scrapes like a fingernail on a cell wall and the glass that sweats as if even the water wants out. These details in the most boring of board meetings point to the vitality and the ‘moreness’ of life that is available to us if we are paying attention, if we sharpen our minds and spirits to cut cleanly to the beating organ beneath its protective skin. God is not dormant in this poet’s world. Instead, God is everywhere—in every thing and every one—including me.

[Feature Image by Enid Martindale]

Look Up

In a recent podcast interview, Anne Lamott shared advice she often calls upon from her pastor. She said, “Pastor Veronica always talks about how you can trap bees on the bottom of a mason jar without honey or lids because the bees don’t look up—they just kind of walk around muttering to themselves and bumping into the glass walls. Whereas, if they looked up they could be free.”   When Lamott feels overwhelmed by her life or the state of the world, when she feels like she is just walking around muttering to herself and bumping into walls, she remembers the bees, goes outside and looks up.

On Monday evening I dressed in my black pant suit and white clerical collar before heading to our college’s chapel for our Holy Week service. During the service, we read the story of Jesus’ journey to the cross, blowing out candles and darkening the chapel as we progressed. I read the last line, “Jesus bowed his head and gave up his spirit” then walked slowly to the Christ candle centered on the communion table. All the lights were off at that point. The only light in our vast 600-seat chapel was the candle flickering in front of me. I paused to breathe. I didn’t want to do what I was supposed to do. I wondered why I was the one. Then, I leaned forward, cupped my hand around the leaping flame and blew.

That same evening, as my husband and I said goodnight in our bedroom, he asked me if there were lights left on outside. Moving to the window overlooking our backyard, he said, “Wow. The moon is really bright tonight.” From my pillow, I looked up. The gray light from a full moon had illuminated our yard, casting out the darkness.

[Feature Image: John]

Love is always reaching for more

In his book, My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman writes:

“In any true love—a mother’s for her child, a husband’s for his wife, a friend’s for a friend—there is an excess energy that always wants to be in motion. Moreover, it seems to move not simply from one person to another but through them, toward something else. This is why we can be so baffled and overwhelmed by such love: it wants to be more than it is; it cries out inside of us to make it more than it is. And what it is crying out for, finally, is its essence and origin: God.”

I don’t believe we, as humans, can get enough love. We certainly can’t offer each other enough of it, which is why we need God. I feel this need in my son when I lay down next to him in his twin bed after tucking him in for the night. We take each other in our arms and talk about the day and say things reserved for whispered conversations in the moonlight. He wants me to rub his back and sing to him “his song”—the simple tune I made up for him when he was a baby. I do as he asks and then move to pull away, feeling the call of my own bedtime ritual of time with my husband, a hot bath and a good book. But Isaac wants more. He always wants more. Even a child who is well-loved is insatiably hungry for more.

It is baffling and overwhelming, as Wiman states, to feel the way love is always reaching for more. As a mother who seeks to meet all her child’s needs, it is humbling as well. I turn to God, then, (if God is the essence and origin of love) as my only hope to ultimately and eternally satisfy.


Caring for our Elders

81vnkuv1jrlAs a pastor, I have accompanied people through the many stages of aging, caregiving, and end of life.  But it’s different when it is your own family and your own parents.  I turned to a couple of books over my winter break as I sought to help my parents navigate some new life decisions.  The books were so helpful, I wanted to share them with you.

Being Mortal” by Dr. Atul Gawande is an artfully written book about what the medical profession can and cannot provide to people as they age.  Gawande shares lots of helpful information, such as the criteria health professionals use to assess whether or not an individual can live independently. He writes:

“If you cannot, without assistance, use the toilet, eat, dress, bathe, groom, get out of bed, get out of a chair, and walk –the eight “Activities of Daily Living”—then you lack the capacity for basic physical independence. If you cannot shop for yourself, prepare your own food, maintain your housekeeping, do your laundry, manage your medications, make phone calls, travel on your own, and handle your finances—the eight “Independent Activities of Daily Living”—then you lack the capacity to live safely on your own.

Discerning when you or your loved one needs to transition away from independent living is  a difficult and emotionally heavy decision.  Having the information Guwande provides can help families navigate this inevitable life transition.

Beyond basic healthcare information, though, I most enjoyed reading Guwande’s account of the history of elder care in our country.  In 1991 Dr. Bill Thomas, a curious and creative physician who, in his desire to do something different, left a position as a emergency room doctor to become the medical director of a nursing home in upstate New York.  Within this nursing home Thomas saw despair in every room.  The residents were devoid of spirit and energy and he wanted to do something about it.  He decided the missing ingredient in the nursing home of eighty severely disabled elderly residents was life itself.  So Thomas applied and received a small grant for innovative ideas that would allow him to fill the nursing home with life–plants, animals, and children.  His aim was to attack what he called the three plagues of nursing home existence: boredom, loneliness, and helplessness.  They put plants in every room.  They tore up the lawn and put in vegetable and flower gardens.  They moved in two dogs and four cats and a parakeet for every resident’s room.  In Thomas’s words, at first it was “total pandemonium.”  They didn’t know what they were doing–which was the beauty of it because everyone, residents included, had to drop their guard and pitch in to help. In all the chaos, life returned to the home.  Of the experiment Guwande wrote, “People who had been completely withdrawn and non ambulatory started coming to the nurses’ station and saying, ‘I’ll take the dog for a walk.’  The lights turned back on in people’s eyes.”  Thomas named the experiment the “Eden Alternative.”

From this experiment, Thomas went on to develop a new home for the elderly called a “Green House.”  This new model of nursing home was built to meet all the government regulations for nursing care in order to qualify for public nursing home payments.   Thomas did not want them to cost more than other nursing homes.  But these homes felt like homes, not institutions.  Each Green House is small (no more than twelve residents) and communal.  Residents have their own room built around a large, comfy living room with a long table where dinners are served family style.  The kitchen is staffed so residents can eat whenever they want–just as they would at home.  Residents in the Green House have the autonomy to set their own sleeping, eating, and social schedules.   I recently visited a Green House with my parents.  It was unlike any nursing home I had ever visited.  The staff were proud to show off their home.  They knew they were offering a good thing.

51-9uihu75lThe second book I read over break provides helpful information for a family when you approach the end of life.  “Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures, and the Patient with a Serious Illness” is written by a hospital and Hospice  chaplain, Hank Dunn. First, don’t let the title deceive you. This is a short book and a quick read. Even with my two young children clamoring around during Christmas vacation, I read this book easily in two days.

Dunn covers a lot of medical information, such as the purpose and function of CPR, feeding tubes, ventilators, and why end stage patients may choose to receive or deny these treatments. What I appreciated most about Dunn’s book, though, was his insight as a chaplain into the emotional and spiritual reasons for decisions a family makes at the end of life. Dunn writes:

“In my more than three decades as a chaplain at a nursing home, a hospice, and a hospital, I have been at the bedsides of many seriously ill patients. I have discussed these treatment choices with their families in the halls outside the patients’ rooms. This first-hand experience adds as much value to the content of this book as the medical research upon which it is based.

I am convinced that what really makes these decisions “hard choices” has little to do with the medical, legal, ethical, or moral aspects of the decision process. The real struggles are emotional and spiritual. People wrestle with letting go and letting be. These are decisions of the heart, not just the head.”

If you are facing such decisions of the heart and head, I recommend both these books as wise companions for the journey.


Longing for God

“I feel this longing for God.”

Sister Margaret, my spiritual director, sat across from me in a comfortable armchair as I shared this, her bible open on a small table next to her. She always has a scripture ready for me. I needed to talk about this longing, though, this desire for God that I had been feeling, but not able to satisfy. I needed to confess and felt my apprehension reveal itself as I did, my forehead wrinkling and my eyebrows lifting in concern.

Sister Margaret smiled and nodded in response, as if my longing was good. But it didn’t feel good to me. It disturbed me. Why can’t I find God? Why can’t I satisfy this desire to know and feel God? I have in the past. So why not now? What’s different about me now? What am I doing wrong? Where has God gone? Or, was God ever there at all?

Sister Margaret just kept smiling and nodding. She approved. In fact, she applauded my longing as a form of prayer—like the Psalmist crying out, “Where are you God?” and then waiting for God to answer.

But I don’t like to wait, I told her. Waiting is uncomfortable—because as I wait my mind starts to wander and wonder whether God will ever show up. I start to doubt that God is listening or even exists at all.

I recently read a description of Western upper-middle class life as like “living between two mattresses”—a well padded existence where we can satisfy every craving, every want, every desire almost instantly. In my affluent, well-padded world, I find it easy to distract myself from what C.S. Lewis would call sehnsucht – a German word used to describe the primitive impulse lodged deep within the human heart, a yearning or craving that can hardly be put into words, but that nevertheless motivates everything we say or do. Such longing cannot be satisfied by a trip to the mall, a late night raid of the refrigerator, or a glass or two of Chardonnay. The satisfaction these indulgences offer are fleeting and never run deep enough. I want and need something more.

“What do you think God wants you to do with this longing?” Sister Margaret asked.

“To not run from it, to honor it, to keep seeking,” I responded immediately, instinctually.

Maybe it was simply what I was supposed to say. But it helped to hear myself say it. It also helped to see Sister Margaret smile.