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.

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