Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Holden Evening Prayer Reflection

NOTE:  This post is the reflection I gave at Otterbein's Chapel at our Holden Prayer service. I've changed names to protect identities, but there wasn't much editing necessary.

One of my personal heroes is Fred Rogers. There are a lot of reasons for this, but I especially like his response to disaster; to bad news. Last year after the tragedy in Newtown, this quote was widely circulated. He said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers - so many caring people in this world.” 

This mindset is a skill, one we can develop, and it has to do with the way we choose to see the world around us.

In Paul’s reading to the Philippians (4:4-9), Paul gives us some ways to master the habit of gratitude and wonder that can change our lives profoundly for the better.  Paul tells us to Rejoice (in fact, he says that twice for emphasis). He tells us to be gentle, to give up anxiety, to be thankful, to do what is right, and to pay attention to God’s peace. In the face of the worst that life can throw our way, these directives seem almost impossible. 

But really, I know that you know someone who just seems to be present in life in such a way that they are able to take a very broad view of living. So that when something awful happens, they can also pay attention to what is good. 

My sister, (I’ll call her Susan), gave birth to my nephew, Bobby, in 1995. He was perfect.  Until something went wrong. Bobby was finally diagnosed with brain cancer at the age of six months. He died in 2005 without ever being in remission. There were lots of surgeries, treatments, some hope, but finally, after a ten year journey, Bobby died.  It was an awful tragedy. And I don’t mean to suggest that Susan was some kind of repressive personality who simply didn’t deal with her grief. Rather, she’s is one of those remarkable people who can take that broad view of life as she’s living it. As the whole family gathered for Bobby’s funeral, I heard her, several times, describing her gratitude in the midst of her grief. She mentioned that she felt so lucky that she was Bobby’s mom, that she had him for ten years. She felt blessed and grateful for the 
kind of kid he was, and how he had made her a better person. Susan talked that week about how thankful she was that she was surrounded by such supportive family and friends, a real network of care and compassion. Never did she say that Bobby’s death didn’t suck. It did. It was awful. Never did she imply that the gratitude she expressed was worth the pain of grief. Susan is the kind of person who has learned how to experience pain or loss or frustration while also deliberately pulling back the blindfold that so often covers our sight. She could see more than just what was bad. She was deeply present to all of life. Over ten years of caring for Bobby, this had become a habit for her.

And this is a habit that I am continually trying to cultivate. I want to carry this way of seeing life, of being mindful of the enormous gifts that surround me, so that in good times and in bad, I can see reasons to feel grateful.

As we find ourselves in a season dedicated to gratitude, compassion, caring, and, of course, chaos, it may be a good time for all of us to become committed to cultivating an attitude that allows us to see beyond the frustrations that can grind us down each day. So we turn back to Paul’s words:
Rejoice! Again, I say rejoice! We rejoice in our own heartbeat each day, in our breathing in and out. We rejoice because the sun is beautiful. Because we have privilege that we don’t often notice. Because life, even when it is difficult is also very sweet. Because there is music and poetry, and giggling children. And there are cat videos on YouTube. Because life is a gift for us to appreciate moment by moment. Even in difficult moments.

We need to be gentle. Compassionate. Kind. We need to remember the people who have been gentle with us when we didn’t deserve it, and follow their example. We work on a college campus. There are some wonderful people here. And, as in any community, there are some jerks. If we want to avoid stumbling into jerkdom ourselves, we need to recognize that we when encounter difficult, bitter, angry people, we can’t see what kind of hard battles they may be fighting. Being gentle, compassionate, kind to them may help them more than we will ever know.  

Don’t be anxious. This takes a lot of practice for some of us. But it may help us to remember that very, very few of the things we are anxious about ever happen. And when they do, the time we’ve spent feeling worried about them in advance doesn’t provide us any useful coping skills. Plus, being anxious about things before they happen may keep us from noticing the reasons we have to rejoice. Perhaps it is in the rejoicing that we can learn to let go of our anxiety.

A deliberate habit of gratitude may be the most central of all of these skills. There’s a line I love from Alice Walker’s book The Color Purple, which I will edit slightly for a prime time congregation. The character Shug says, “I think it pisses God off when we walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.” There are so many brilliant gifts that surround us in every moment that we just don’t notice. Gratitude opens a whole new world for us.

I used to do an exercise with my students. I would propose that that the next time they ate a spaghetti dinner, they spend a few minutes trying to think about how many people helped them to prepare it. Farmers, and factory workers and drivers and marketing people and box companies and jar companies. Label printers, and the people who designed all that machinery. The people who built the roads and the trucks and the supermarkets. The people who took care of the fuel or electricity necessary for all of these things. And on and on and on.  We are so connected, and everything we are able to do today is because of our connection to each other. Make a list. Keep track. Start a gratitude journal. We have so many reasons to be thankful in every moment.

And then there’s basic Christian discipleship 101. We’re just supposed to do what is right. We’re supposed to have integrity, to be decent human beings. Golden rule stuff.  Stand up for others. Tell the truth. Treat other people the way we’d want them to treat the people we love most.  Notice that rejoicing, and being gentle and not being worried all the time and being thankful come before this—I believe that we need all of those other skills in order to have the right attitude for living our lives with the kind of integrity that makes a difference in the world. And that’s what we want, really. To change the world.

And all of these things together, add up to a Fred Rogers. Or my sister, Susan.  Or the person you think about when you think of someone who just knows how to live life with a broad view, noticing what is good in the midst of anything that isn’t.

No good habit is easy to develop. And I don’t mean to sound at all flippant about the kinds of obstacles that many people face each day. But the work we do to develop this way of looking at the world around us will help us connect to that peace that often seems elusive. The peace that passes all understanding. The peace that can guard our hearts and minds.

May the season be a time for paying attention to the gifts that surround us, and truly, deeply, powerfully giving thanks. Amen.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Musings about our Thanksgiving Tradition

I have seventy five pounds of sugar in the back of my car. I’m not sure it will be enough. I also have four pounds of butter in the freezer. I know that’s not enough. I have started collecting other ingredients: powdered sugar, cocoa, glycerin, corn syrup, macadamia nuts, cashews, and other assorted items. I’ve got a new battery for the thermometer, and I finally found the electrical cord for the old electric skillet. I know I’m forgetting things, but I am certain that other members of my family are also collecting things we will need. The chocolate arrived in October, and we have a hundred pounds or more set aside.  My sister-in-law gets the peanut butter. My sister makes the toffee ahead of time.

We are about ready. It’s candy season, and this time of year, we are a family of chocolatiers.

This is a sacred tradition.

In about 1932, my grandmother, Carrie Guion, tried to make some candy with her friend, Grace. It wasn’t very pretty—all streaked grey, and mottled looking. So she set out to figure out why it hadn’t come out right, and landed a job as a candy dipper at a place that sold candy, nuts and bakery items. My dad said it was called “The Nut House,” and that it was aptly named. The guy that owned it was a bit of a jerk, but my Grandma could handle him. In due course, my grandmother learned why her first attempt had been less than stellar, and learned to make and hand dip creams, fudges and toffee.  At one point, she drafted my grandfather and my dad (who was eight or nine years old), and together they made 300 pounds of candy to sell before Christmas. It helped to pay the bills in a difficult economic time, but it was really, really hard work for three people. After that, and through the rest of our family history, candy is a way of saying thank you to people who have been part of our lives each year. So, naturally, it has become a Thanksgiving week tradition.

Each year, at my parent’s house, my family, my brother Keith and his family, and my sister Pam and her family gather the week of Thanksgiving to make candy. My brother David, and my sister Diana live too far away, so they make candy on their own. We have to make enough candy for each of these family units (including my Mom) to give as gifts, so we make a lot. We used to make about 200 pounds, but after my father died, we began to make candy for my mom's list as well.  Last year, we over did it and made about 270 pounds. This year, I’m guessing it will be closer to 230 pounds. We’ll make 21 or 22 different flavors—fudges, caramels, creams and toffee. I often experiment with new flavors, partly because it’s fun. Partly because it makes my brother sigh, loudly (I have to maintain my role as a smart alec little sister, after all). 

So, here’s the point:  I am deeply, profoundly blessed by this family tradition, and want to share that with you. We gather, as family, for a common project. I have never been Christmas shopping the day after Thanksgiving. That’s usually a really busy candy day. The television is not on, though there’s a lot of music (note: while we have a rule that there is no Christmas music until after Thanksgiving Dinner, this rule is often broken). Everyone has a part in this, and everyone is needed to make it happen. We cook the candy, work the candy on the marble slab, roll it, dip it, cup and box it, and then (for several hours) put it into gift boxes. Everyone is needed. Everyone is valued. And, on the way, there is conversation, laughter, catching up, and a lot of shared history. 

I don’t know if my grandmother had any idea when she took the job at the nut house that she would be starting something that would be so central to our family identity.  I don’t know that my father, as he and my grandfather recovered from that massive undertaking during the depression, thought that he would be making candy well into his eighties. I don’t know if my mother, as she put her hands in chocolate for the first time, learning how to dip from my grandmother, knew that she would teach dozens of people in that small town how to make candy. I do know that my brothers and sisters and their spouses have eagerly made it a priority each year. And I know that most of my nieces and nephews embrace this identity and tradition and are also excited for our gathering. They come from as far as Rhode Island and Maryland to be there, and their significant others and spouses are also part of the tradition. The youngest member of the family, my son, is part of the fourth generation of chocolatiers. He often shares his hope that the tradition will continue to a fifth generation. I’m pretty sure it will. 

I hope that your Thanksgiving is full of blessings, and that you will experience the fullness of love that I enjoy each year.

If you’d like to see a really good and rather silly video about our candy making that my nephew, Matthew, made for YouTube, check it out here (copy and paste this link in your browser):


UPDATE:  My brother (who keeps our notes each year), added up everything we made: This year topped out at 254 pounds. Nine fudges, seven creams, four caramels and toffee. I don't remember making better. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Some musing about grief

Grief is an interesting experience. 

This is a personal story, but I do have a more public point. I’ll get to it. I promise.

A year ago today, I went with my husband, Eric, to the BMV to renew my driver’s license (more than a month late—I had forgotten!). My phone rang while I was standing underneath a sign that said “No Cell Phone Usage,” so I waited until we were finished to check to see who called. It was my mother, who left a message that my Dad had fallen. When I called her, it was clear that he had not fallen, but that she had found him, unconscious, flopped over on the couch in his basement office. I promised her that I would be there in two and a half hours, and Eric and I raced home so that I could pack a bag. I called my sisters and asked them to call my brothers. I looked at Eric and said, “this could be it.”

It took a bit longer than two hours to get back to Bowling Green (rush hour traffic: ugh!). My mom still didn’t know exactly what was going on, but Dad had been taken by life-flight to a hospital in Toledo. He was still unconscious.  When we got there we found out that my dad had had a hemorrhagic stroke. This is really bad.  And we found out from one of the neurologists that there wasn’t much that could be done. So we began to say good-bye. My sisters, from Oregon and New York made arrangements to come home that night. My brothers came a few days later. 

Overnight that first night, my dad showed some mild responses to stimuli, so the neurologists opted to perform surgery to remove the blood from his brain just to “give him a chance.” Dad tried to open his eyes several times over the next couple of days, but never really regained consciousness.  My mother decided, and all of her children, children-in-law, and grandchildren agreed, that it was time to put a stop to life-sustaining measures. He was moved to a step-down unit. He was removed from the machines and gizmos. We gathered in his room and sang songs that he liked. And then, because we could, we decided to take him home to die.

Over the course of that week, my back gave out. Day by day, the pain in my heart and in my mind played its way out through the pain in my back. There were times I could barely stand, and sleeping on the hospital furniture in Dad’s room was excruciating.

These memories are vivid. I can picture these days with such clarity. I remember my family, the way we gathered, the moment by moment living of what I still consider to be sacred time. We brought my dad home to hospice care, set up a hospital bed in the living room, learned how to give him pain medications. I held his hand as I watched the pulse in his neck slow and then stop.

My dad died on October 23 at about twenty minutes after midnight. This meant that he lived just a few minutes beyond the one year anniversary of his broken hip. He clearly did not want to be part of that “x-number of people die within a year of a broken hip” statistic. We stayed up until about 4:30 in the morning, and remembered his life, his accomplishments, his curmudgeonliness, the twinkle in his eye, his integrity, his many hobbies. And over this last year, we have figured out how to be present to each other and to my mother, who found herself widowed after a very happy, 65 year marriage. 

Almost a year later, I was driving home from the grocery store thinking about all of this, and as I walked into my house, my back went out. I didn’t twist or fall. I was simply, suddenly stooped over and in excruciating pain. It was the same back pain I experienced while my dad was hospitalized. Once again, the grief in my heart and my mind is playing out through a physical pain. It’s better today than it was on Tuesday. But I know why the pain is there, and what it requires me to do: I have to process through my grief, again and again. I have to claim it, hold it, confront it, feel it. Ignoring grief doesn’t work. 

The reason I write this today (here’s the public point to the private story), is that there is considerable grief all around me today.  A dear friend is remembering the anniversary of her mother’s death from cancer (much too young). One of the students here at Otterbein is dying of cancer. Another student lost a brother, suddenly. And a member of the catering staff, someone you probably saw or who prepared your meals at some point, died last night unexpectedly. 

So here’s what I want people to know. First, grief is all around us, all the time. Living and dying are two sides of the same coin. It’s fall right now—a season of dying, that will give way to a time of stillness and winter, and then, in spring, to rebirth. Grief is a reminder to be alive and be present in each and every moment we have. As irritating as it is for me to have this back problem again right now, it’s a reminder that I’m here, I’m alive, I need to pay attention to things both in my spirit and in the world around me. Grief is hard, but it is in itself not a bad thing. It’s part of the spiritual experience of our human existence. As I have said many times over the past year, I wouldn’t like to not feel the grief, because it means that I loved my dad, that his life mattered to me and that I miss him. How sad it would be to not feel the pain that is associated with the love!

Second, because grief is all around us, we need to be kind. Perhaps my favorite aphorism is “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” (sometimes attributed to Plato; more likely the source is Ian MacClaren, a Scottish author).  We cannot see the grief that others bear. We do not know the stories that are close to the hearts of those around us. So every single person deserves our compassion, our kindness, and our patience. Every. Single. Person.  Imagine how the world might change if we were really kind to one another!

I am heading up to Bowling Green tomorrow to spend the weekend with my mother. We will look at the stack of condolence cards that she got last year. We’ll remember together Dad’s dying, and more importantly, his way of living. We’ll look at pictures and talk again about the trips they took together. We’ll cry a little bit, and laugh, too.  And maybe my back will ease up with the honesty of my felt grief.

Final point:  if you’re part of the Otterbein family, and you’re grieving and need to talk, I’m here for you.

Blessings and Peace.


Thursday, October 3, 2013

No Big Deal? Not True!

I have had a knot in my stomach for the last several days. First, the government shutdown was “looming.” Then the government was shut down. And now I am hearing that the government may be shut down for “weeks.” That knot in my stomach just keeps getting bigger. I am partisan. That is probably obvious. But this particular knot in my stomach has much less to do with the political theater and wrangling between parties, and much more to do with two issues: compassion and the common good.

I’ve heard a couple of talking heads say that this government shutdown is no big deal, just shutting down some museums and parks. 

I can barely find the words to describe how angry that makes me feel.  

There are 800,000 federal workers who have been furloughed—sent home with no pay and no way of knowing when or if they’ll be able to go back to work. More federal workers have been told that they are essential and they have to go to work, but don't know when or if they will be paid. Think about that number. More than eight hundred THOUSAND people who have no income. Families with mortgages and orthodontist bills and car payments and groceries that need to be purchased.  Single mothers. One-income families.  Don’t forget the ripple effect. Non-government employers are likely to have to lay off workers if contracts fall through or are broken.

And then there are the children. It doesn’t sound like a big number, but it’s a number that breaks my heart. Thirty children with cancer who were hoping to enroll in drug trials through the NIH have been turned away because of the shut-down. Thirty children whose families were pinning any hope of recovery or remission on some new miracle drug that might—possibly, maybe—provide a few more days, weeks, months or even years. My nephew was one of these children who enrolled in one last drug trial as one last possible hope. Now the parents and families and supporters of these thirty children have to do what? Give up? Go home and get prepared for what feels like getting hit by a bus? 

It’s very easy from a position of privilege to dismiss these people, these children, displaced workers, inconvenienced citizens as no big deal. But it’s a very big deal when you’re walking in those shoes. Our talking heads and members of congress don’t seem to be aware of the impact of their decisions, and many of them don’t seem to have any clue about what compassion means. No Wheeled Meals for some low income seniors. No more child care through Head Start. How in the world is that not a big deal?
These are human beings. This shut down is not inconvenient. This government shut-down is devastating. And you can only know that if you have compassion for the stories of those you do not know, may never meet, but with whom you share humanity!  

And that’s the other major issue in all of this. The idea of the Common Good has faded from our public rhetoric.  We rarely hear our politicians talk about service or the common good in any meaningful way. But working for the common good is an essential part of any real democracy. The common good means that I do not work only for my own benefit, or my own power. Working for the common good means that I work to make life good or better or fair for as many people as I can. And I sacrifice some to do that. Taxes are one thing we do for the common good, paying for a police force and for decent roads and bridges, good schools, things most everyone needs. If I say “why should I pay taxes for schools? My kids are done!” I am forgetting that an educated population is part of the common good. If I own a corporation and spend more time focused on shareholders, so that my workers are underpaid and uninsured, I am forgetting that people who have a living wage and decent healthcare are more loyal and better workers.

One of my daughter’s friends, Alex, is a passionate debater of all things political (and theatrical). Although he himself is not a person of faith, he quoted John Winthrop’s  A Model of Christian Charity: “We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes the commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.” And Alex notes, “That's the ideal, to me. The idea that we are only as good or as strong or as free as the person next to us is, and if not all are then we have failed. We may be born alone and we may die alone, but we are in this together and should be noble enough to sacrifice some "personal freedom" in the name of the greater good. I will tell you truly that I fervently desire to make such a sacrifice despite my relatively limited means in the American economy because it would do so much good for so many other people. It's called empathy."

Compassion. Empathy. The Common Good. These are spiritual values. Let’s make them community values. This government shut down is indeed a very big deal. And we should demand that our politicians begin to live up to these true American ideals..