Posts Tagged With: change

Something Shattered, Something Gained

The dogwood tree at the side of the house has branches that look like claws.  They seem to squeeze tight, holding without compromise the small pods and nubs that will be more.  Given 70 and even 80 degree temperatures in Maryland these days, it’s becoming obvious that the claws will soon burst, and the something more will arrive.  And though I’ve watched this particular tree for nearly 40 years (oh my!), and know what will explode soon, it is always a new seeing.  But I feel for the branch-claws who are losing ground.  They understand the present, but will be overcome soon with different life.  The now must be shattered for the then to be gained.

Of late I have either been in or around living stories that parallel this natural phenomenon.  Spring is full of these metaphors in real time.  The seed shells must burst for the amazing impetus to life and color to move through dirt and to sun and fullness.  The soon to come robin eggs will need to crack their strong-vulnerable containers for the little peep within to have the chance to squeak and fly.  In spring, new life opens and discards previous containers almost heedlessly, running headlong for new incarnations.  And the inbetween stages of growth are just that – inbetween.  Fullness and fruitfulness and maturity do not arrive with first bud or burst – but must be come to through the ways consistent with the being of the life in question, and the boldness of attempts and paths and seeming errors that mark the often mixed-up-ness of the journey.

When we humans experience big changes or bursting-shattering moments on our journeys, we are perhaps more mindful of, and less than thrilled with, the losses.  So comes my empathy for the dogwood claws!

Sometimes we see change coming, but cannot avoid it.  Sometimes we are caught off guard by a huge shift.  Sometimes the change is an add of something or someone in our life or context.  Sometimes it is a loss of someone or something.  At times the room we’re in just enlarges suddenly, or loses walls entirely!  Other times it seems the space we’re in constricts and squeezes.  Or it pops us out another door, as if we’ve moved down a birth canal without knowing it!  Now and then change reconfigures key relationships and community for us.

The thing about change is that – even as it gives – it also takes away.  Something we knew is gone.  Given that change is a given, what are we to do?

First, I believe we humans need to tell ourselves the truth.  We are forever going to be experiencing these moments;  we are forever going to be seeing something shattered and something gained.  There will never be a time when ‘settled’ means unmoving or untouched.  We don’t grow up to settle down and reach a point of stasis.  We have to learn another way to talk about life, another way to envision adulthood, peace, happiness.  Movement is.  Blood circulates.  Cells divide.  Hearts beat.  Synapses fire.  Stillness is rather a balance in the movement perhaps, not a capturing of a desired moment or set of circumstances like putting a lightning bug (firefly) in a jar.  Such fireflies die.  Change sustains even as it shatters.

Long ago, when I was regularly doing workshops and training in adolescent development and youth ministry, I would often note that part of what we (adult community) need to provide to young people is the secret and the joy of being en route, incomplete, dusty, unknowing, not having arrived yet.  This is hard to provide to adolescents when we personally and culturally hold on to myths of some moment to come when we’ll arrive and all will make sense and we’ll be finished and change will have happened, been successfully navigated, and never come our way again.  When we unconsciously live in a way that we hope for that myth, we are as silly as my dogwood branches refusing the life running through them to new birth, and as impotent in our resistance to how life works!

There is something about speaking about ourselves as pilgrims, and pilgrim church, that is just true.  We were there, are now here.  We were this high, and now are this high.  We walked with them, and now we walk with these.  The scenery held this, and now it holds that.  We skipped and ran, and now we limp and stumble.  We crawled and dragged, and now we sing and rejoice.  We walked in silence, and now there’s noise.  There was no traffic, and now we hardly move.  The hands we hold have changed, the vistas we pass, the signs on the road are even different.

All of us spend such time wrestling with reality, as if we were in a rodeo, trying to trap it into manageable (by us, of course!) packages.  And we each have favored ways of trying to control the uncontrollable, playing with mirages.  (These might be addictions of various sorts.)  If we dare to see clearly how life unfolds and approach it with the wisdom of tender acceptance, adding a gentleness with ourselves and others in the process, we might come to no longer need to fight against an unreal projection of what we think life is or how it should work.   No doubt, many of us have questions we’d ask God and life in the category of ‘how come x’, but spending all our energy spinning there is an abject waste of this moment – the only one you and I have and are ever in.  Change and transformation – regardless of our experience of and interpretations of these as good and ill – simply are going to be.  In my book, the better place to focus energy and time is here: what is a spirituality, perhaps psychology, that supports the best of living in this reality?

My two cents worth!  I don’t know enough to give you a full dollar’s wisdom!

I believe we must become audacious explorers, curious pilgrims, intrepid adventurers.  We must travel light – in goods and in expectations.  We can come to love the road and the process, even or especially when we do not understand it.  Traveling boldly – even in the dark –  comes to we folks-on-the-way when we realize this life-style is a gift from the Creator who knows much more than we about what is best for us.  And so we can trust how we are shaped by the journey, develop trust and endurance (staying power!), for the God of the Way uses everything.

As we go, we must develop practices that keep us in shape for the road – stretches and disciplines, prayers and mantras, symbols and rituals – that wake and sensitize us to learnings.  We must learn the art of grounding ourselves as we move, with compasses set to consistent points along the horizon marked by the mysteries and messages of the life of Jesus, who was also a way-walker.  Our security can be reinforced in the embrace of our Creator, who plants such beauty along our way.  Some beautiful moments on our journey we may want to grasp and hold in stasis – but we can’t.  Still, the gift of awareness and of memory helps us treasure them and continue to be nurtured by them.

We must come to know our own littleness and need as pilgrims, and the delight of companions in all the diversity that gives us joy and makes us itch!  Respecting each wayfarer as God’s loved one, we must learn to hold each other gently and lightly, celebrating the gift and shaping of one another’s presence, yet mindful of life’s limits in energy and years.

We can tell stories on the road of other travelers and how they handled disappointment and joy, terror and triumph, loss and gain… and we can make companions of them.  We can have festivals and funerals, weddings and christenings, meals and singing… all as we travel.  We can help each other through the emotions that just happen with change and loss, for good or ill – mindful of who on our part of the road is presently limping along and can use an arm or shoulder or an embrace.  We can challenge each other when we want to ‘build tents’ as the three disciples wanted to at the Transfiguration, and help each other know that ‘it is good for us to be here’ means on the way.  We can risk honesty with a pilgrim’s vulnerability, perhaps crying out in painful loss and terror at impending or experienced change.  And even in tears, we might walk or be carried along with song and prayer around us on the road, reminded of the hope which flourishes with each new spring.  Something shattered, something gained: whatever our feelings, we can pray to believe in the gained even when the shattered is our present view.

We are reminded in Romans 5 that “Hope will not leave us disappointed.”  Our hope is not in ourselves, in answers, in arriving.  Our hope is a person – Jesus.  The Word was made flesh and set up his tent (dwelt) among us.  God didn’t set up a stone temple, but a tent that is easily struck and packed for the way.  God journeys with us and, in Jesus, knows all we know of the sunrises, sunsets, twists, hills, thirst, dust, joy, and vagaries of the way.

The surety of our walking all seasons of change is in our acceptance of the shattered/gained, death/resurrection rhythm that is not optional to the disciple.  The rhythm is writ in our lives, not in some conceptual theological treatise – and it is our turn now to learn how to be with it and even dance it with a God who loves and guides us.  We may sometimes want to escape a way that has such upheaval, and so my compassion for the dogwood branches.  Wouldn’t it be fine to just stay put in the midst of what is and breathe, and let things just STOP?  Why must we dance through pain or tears?

We believe in a God who is Love who knows how best to bring all forward – us, creation, all things and people we know, and all we don’t.  We just don’t know how it all works, anymore than we can expect as creatures of great dignity – but creatures of a Creator.

We can cultivate compassion for ourselves and care for others in the sometimes painful shattering process of change and growth.  We can do more – living in audacious hope, with a courage and confidence based on setting our hearts on a truth centered in God that Julian of Norwich framed so well.  Regardless of our emotion or experience or interpretation or suffering (or many other ors) on the Blessed Way….  “All will be well.  All will be well.  And all manner of thing will be well.”  (Showings)

If I were St. Francis of Assisi, I might say “Sister Shattering” serves a purpose and wakes us – individually and corporately – to new life we never might have engaged otherwise.  Sibling to “Sister Death”, she breaks something in us or around us.  Who knows of gain?  And who can claim to see it?  But we believe.  We set our hearts on what and who we believe.  And breathe.

May we all be sheltered when we shatter, and find the hand of God and the love of community to support us in light or dark, so that whatever is new and coming forth has time to mature.  Patience to us each and all.  All will be well.  May we dance the roads with heavy or light heart – but with a leaning spirit on the One who holds us on the Way.

The dogwood branches cannot be expected to know what wonder and beauty will shortly arrive and fill their hands with soft petals of life that make visible cross and resurrection.  We, on the other hand, can allow the Spirit to teach us to trust the work of God in process which will always be more than we can ask or imagine.

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What’s Not Nailed Down? Wind-Wisdom!

Last night and today, the wind throws itself through the gaps between houses, past windows and doors, through tree limbs and over just-starting daffodil growth.  It sings as it moves in cadences up and down, strong and soft, forte and pianissimo.  As it goes by with a particular crescendo, I hear a crash of garbage cans or clattering gates, and go to the door to see if wood scraps at the back of the house set aside to unload have been picked up and tossed.  What’s not nailed down around the home that might go flying?

A parable, this.  What is it in our lives that is not secure enough to weather the weather?

Simple windblown thoughts this morning:  some things may need securing in our lives, and others loosening.  And wisdom may be in knowing the difference, acting where we can, getting assistance where we need it, growing silent before the realities, seeking grace with open heart, watching the Spirit (sometimes wind) at work at will.  And so, some wind-born questions for reflection:

  • Where around our lives are there ‘loose boards’ or unsecured items? 
  • What is our deepest desire with regard to these?  This is not about our compulsion, but our truest desire. 
  • Do we sense what God’s invitation might be with these? 
  • And so, should we do what is necessary to secure them tighter to ourselves?  Or should we untie them so the wind can take them, at its speed and whim? 
  • Are there other items inside the ‘house’ of our lives that ought to be put out for the wind to take or move?
  • Can we be patient with the process of how movement happens, once we’ve done what we can do? 
  • Should we celebrate the softer breezes of gentleness in the movement, or pray for a hurricane wind to take things far away? 

Regardless, we must remember that we are more than the loose boards – whether they need securing or loosening!  We might make the necessary adjustments on the items we’ve discerned and then leave the ‘house’ to take a walk away in wind which buffers and refreshes, free of the process.  I hum an old John Denver piece, and offer it to you as background for our walk.

The wind is the whisper of our mother the earth… so, welcome the wind and the wisdom she offers!

Happy Saturday, all.  Enjoy the day’s gifts.

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Repent: Change Our Minds This Time

“Change our minds this time.”  I’m still humming this line from a Rory Cooney song we sang at the Ash Wednesday liturgy I attended.  Did you know that to REPENT is literally to change our thoughts, our minds?  The Greek word metanoia (μετάνοια) is a compound word that combines the concepts of time and change; literally after/with (meta) and to perceive/think (noeo).  It says that we think differently after.  After what?  Hold that thought for a moment!  I perceive a three part invitation in the words we hear when ashes are traced on foreheads this day:  Repent and Believe the Good News! 

First, meet and experience the Good News in a person, Jesus of Nazareth.  (After what?  This is the ‘what’ that the rest of the phrase is ‘after’.  First comes meeting and experiencing the Good News!)  Do you think this is too obvious?  Can we presume this basic experience of evangelization is a given in every case?  I mean, those of us standing in line to receive ashes have already heard and experienced this Good News, right?  We are baptized believers, after all.  We are disciples of Christ and members of the community which is formed by the mission of sharing this Good News forward.  But sometimes there may be those among us who have not  tasted this Good News personally – or who have not lately.  Virginia Finn in a little book titled Pilgrim in the Parish noted that ministry done about God but without God was perhaps more frequent than we’d like to hope.  Our ministries sometimes discuss if we have catechized before we have evangelized, which is why we speak of a need for an evangelizing catechesis.  Our learning must always be in the context of encounter with the person of Jesus. 

Perhaps as you and I begin Lent we need first to experience or recall how the Good News feels and tastes.  What is Good about this news?  Where is the joy, the hope, the peace, the companionship, the adventure, the energy, the life, the abundance?  How does it speak to our fears, our deaths, our suffering, our failures?  How does it energize our gifts, our passions, our core values, our life commitments? 

Do our hearts need to hear a retelling of the Gospel stories, of God’s interactions over history with God’s people?   We are fallible and forgetful, and we lose track of how much we have been freed and cared for.  Perhaps the first invitation to you and to me is the re-encounter the Gospel, to reconnect with God in Christ, and to let our hearts and lives be touched. 

How can that happen for you or me?  Reading scripture?  Going to a talk?  You have to discern this.  What will help you remember the fire that already burns, the grace already given, the love you already live within?  Sometimes I’ll dwell with certain well loved encounters of Jesus with individuals in the Gospels and reflect on what was happening in that moment for that person or persons.  I may re-read part of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, especially Aslan’s encounters with Lucy or Eustace or Edmund along the way.  I might listen to certain music that teaches and tutors me – Sarah Hart or Eden’s Bridge, or many others.  Or perhaps watch a clip from a movie, take a walk in nature, pray in a chapel or beneath the stars – look  to connect with the freshness and challenge those at the time of Jesus encountered.  I could well read a favorite (or new to me) companion-saint’s words and description of God or the Christian journey.  But what I might do is of little consequence.  What do you need in order to meet and experience the Good News?  And what better gift can you give to God this season than the willingness and courage to simply meet?  Like the Prodigal Father of Luke 15, God waits to embrace with generous grace.  Perhaps this (unstated in the invocation for today) movement is the absolute essential for our Lenten journeys – for our Christian journeys.

Second, change our minds after re-meeting the Good News in Christ.  The lyrics of that Rory Cooney song continue, “Change our minds this time, your life could make us free.”  To repent is to change our minds, upon encountering the Good News.  The life of Jesus can free us from other ways of perceiving life, lesser priorities, inaccurate judgements of ourselves or others or the world or history or the cosmos!  And our minds, when they are “made up”, tend to dictate our actions. 

Richard Rohr has mused that it’s interesting that the ashes are placed on our foreheads, wondering about the need for conversion and turning located there – in our thoughts and minds.  Such changing after (metanoia) can only happen after.  And so this step presumes needing to go back to the first – the meeting the Good News – over and over and over again.  (Call it ongoing conversion, turning, evangelization… whatever the term, we need to go to it!)  The action of memory, of anamnesis, is particularly important for we humans with short attention and life spans.  Who is the God we met and meet?  Who am I in that meeting?  Who are we?  What is this all about?

If it is our thinking and perceiving that needs changing, it may be that we need devices to help us remember.  Symbols and images, sacraments and one line scripture verses, prayer cards and quotes, song lyrics and art pieces, reminders in nature or in our pockets – all of these may be helpful.  Eucharist, our thanksgiving and our remembering, particularly can wake us up to what we already hold and have encountered in the reality of now.  God knows our need to encounter over and over again the sacred mystery, and provides Real Presence to and with us, as we are taught with the Word. 

Our minds can also be changed through practices we take up and try on and, perhaps in time, make part of our living.  This has had some play in previous blog entries, and more options for planting practices will come in the next few days.  Stay tuned.

Third, believe – which means to set your heart by – the Good NewsAs has been explored previously to believe means to literally set our hearts by (see Feb. 11th blog on Setting Our Hearts… For Lent, For Life).  If we change our minds according to the encounter with the Good News, then this must not only be a change of perspective.  It must be the truth we set our hearts, our priorities, our actions, our life choices, by.  If it’s true, it’s everything.  No part of our lives can be immune to or set apart from the Good News.  This makes havoc of dichotomies and boundary making that isolate faith and life – in any aspect of our lives – work, relationships, money, commitments, political involvement, worldview, our bodies, our emotions, our behaviors.  If we are told to not only REPENT (change our minds) but BELIEVE (set our hearts by) THE GOOD NEWS, this means nothing can be left untouched by this news.  God embraces all, and we can set our lives by the truth that is God’s presence and action in us and with us. 

So, if you find yourself at Lent’s beginning wondering how to begin, consider these three invitations outlined above.  Go, meet and experience the Good News.  Let that encounter impact and change your mind – and work at that!  And determine to set your heart by the Good News you believe.  What that means in terms of some aspect of your life you choose to focus on today – a relationship, a habit, a perspective, work, family, time – I do not know.  But I know someone who wants to travel it with you.  Jesus is the companion of the Lenten journey for us all.  And may God’s Spirit provide light, gentleness and wisdom for each step.

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Closed Doors are Good Things!

What? How can that be?  I’m trying to go FORWARD, thanks!  I don’t need any closed doors.  I’m looking for open ones.

Recently, I’ve been reminded of an image from Parker Palmer’s wonderful little book Let Your Life Speak.  In it, he describes a conversation he had as a young adult with an older woman who was a Friend (Quaker) at Pendle Hill, a Quaker community where he was living at the time.  Parker was struggling to know his direction ahead, given his vocational journey at that point seemed to him a bit of a bust.  He was at a loss, as what he thought he wanted and where he thought he had been going had fallen apart behind him.  Now, there was much language within the Pendle Hill community about finding the Way Open.  This frustrated him.  And he vented about it to this woman wise in years and experience.  He exclaimed – I can imagine with an onerous tone of doom – that he couldn’t find the Way Open, there simply were none for him.  The woman listened to Parker wear out his tale and, after a moment of silence (and, I imagine, perhaps a chuckle that originated deep within her) she said something like, “I’m 80-something years old and I’ve been a Friend all my life.  I’ve never seen or found the Way Open.  But I’ve had a lot of Ways Close behind me, and they set the path.”  

On recounting this story to a friend-companion years ago, I remember her image of it as gates closing behind animals on a farm.  The very gates closing are the herding processes that move them to where they need to be. 

Perhaps you and I are “herded” forward too by the doors and gates that close behind us.  They may be closed because of actions of ours or others.  Events or circumstances may close them.  For whatever reason, they make inaccessible a certain path and the Way ahead is uncertain.  And yet, there is a direction — not there, but here.  The only Way is ahead, forget trying to determine which way.  As you approach narrowing entrances, you’ll see what’s open or not… and, if it’s not, that too is a herding.  If the doorway is open but requires you to cut out your heart or compromise your core values to get through… proceed forward only at risk of not finding yourself on the other side. 

Of course we all need to build experiences, nudge doors, claim directions — but often this kind of energy is the absolute driver of the first half of life.  In life’s second half, or in its seasons of wisdom – whatever our age, we look behind to see what is no longer an option and we choose ahead step by step with less frantic flight.  Our value is not to be found in a perfect journey.  What is that, anyway?  We are already of great value before any steps are taken.  Loved.  Held.  By a God of grace who is our refuge and strength.  We are not mice in a maze, but fearfully wonderfully made and much loved Creations who can learn to step in time with our gifts and to learn and give from our woundedness as well. 

Closed doors then are good things.  But they aren’t often fun when we encounter them: we prefer open spaces and smooth sailing.  Closings feel confining, perhaps sad, and they may prompt regrets or anger or guilt or confusion.  That’s okay – perhaps shed a tear or ask forgiveness or listen for the learning.  But then, breathe – and turn away from them!  

Closed doors provide something very positive to us – null data!  Researchers know that such data is very important.  It tells us what something is not or what doesn’t work in an experiment or process.  These doors in your lives tell you where you are not, and where you can no longer be, and where you cannot go ahead.  Let them herd you some, and then listen – so your life can be heard – and follow.  Maybe what is closing behind you is even a birth canal – no turning back!  Expect new life and lusty screaming as you enter a new way ahead simply by leaving the old! 

I think this is something of what Palmer means when he speaks of learning to let your life live in you.  “Relax,” he seems to say.  “Live your real life.  Where you really are.”  And let’s get support as we learn to trust life’s unfolding treasure-giving, whether it comes with kudos or closings.  Blessings on our journeyings – yours and mine and ours!  “The Lord will guard your coming and your going, both now and forever.”   (Psalm 121: 8)

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Got An Arrow in Your Foot?

Heard the one about looking at the arrow or the finger instead of what it’s pointing to?  You know – it highlights the need to look beyond the pointer to the reality it indicates.  Well, I recently heard a twist on this.  Sometimes we not only fixate on the arrow instead of the target.  Sometimes we grab the arrow and stick it in our foot!  YOOOWWWOOUCH! 

PAIN!  When we do that, we not only have missed what the arrow pointed to, but we are now all tied up in the pain we have caused ourselves and jumping around and in need of medical assistance!  What a lovely distraction from whatever our goal or direction was!

For whatever reason, we humans get entirely mussed up at times.  We grow afraid of our own goals, hesitant to set off in the direction that every arrow points to, restless and so unable to focus or quiet, and generally uncooperative. 

For those canine lovers among us, it is the equivalent of the dog chasing its tail.  Or, better yet, a couple days back on America’s Funniest Videos there was a clip of a dog trying to chew a bone.  But her back left foot would raise up and tense into a claw that slowly approached her face, as if to attack!  And the dog would growl at the clawed foot as if it were an external and very real threat.  Every time it settled to chew the bone, this errant paw would raise, approach, threaten.  Comical?  Absolutely!  An interesting commentary on things human?  Definitely.   

I wonder what errant self sabotage you or I might identify in ourselves today.  What is the internal enemy?  A thought pattern?  A fear or pattern of fearing?  A habitual self-slap?  An excuse so old we don’t know its origins?  A voice from an authority figure from the past?  A child’s voice convinced no change is possible? 

Whatever stops us from taking peace-filled steps forward and paying attention to the arrows should be noticed.  Perhaps it deserves some support and attention.  Consider finding a companion or friend to chat this through with.   Being willing to be visible to another in these areas, and to be accountable to steps taken differently – this can be invaluable.

Today, even if you and I can’t seem to follow the path ahead in a straight line for whatever reason, let’s try not to grab the arrow and hurt ourselves with it.  The pain we experience may create more drama, but the journey doesn’t have to get complicated by our own self-inflicted distractions.  Breathe.  And start again.  And bring curiosity about the arrows and the directions ahead.

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Sojourners On the Ways – Guest Friendship

Autumn is a time of particular beauty, with haunting colors that are the stage set for celebrations of saints and souls and sojourners.  We are all passing pilgrims.  The psalmist declares, “I sojourn with you like a passing stranger, a guest, like all my ancestors!” (Psalm 39:13)  Years circle, children grow, trees extend, blossom and flower and fruit are borne and fade, water freezes-flows-and mists.  And each moment is painfully wonderfully precious.  But we are guests upon the earth.  Here is amazing matter that absolutely matters.  But it – and we – change…  and we are not long here.  Are we invited to walk differently for this knowledge?  And can it be celebrated?

Years back, reading one of Rev. Margaret Guenther’s works, I reveled in her concept of providing to fellow journeyers the gift of ‘guest-friendship’.  There is an art to welcoming and providing a geography for grace and a haven for heart’s unfolding to one we have invited into our homes or into our lives.  We prepare and wish to make the other comfortable – so that laughter may come, stories may be shared, rest may be enjoyed, nourishment embraced and stored, tears touched, learning lived.  When we offer another guest-friendship, we offer them a home and shelter.  We create sanctuary.  

So, what if autumn tells us that we are really all guests, like all our ancestors?  We are sojourners on the ways, travelers of paths.  We root and stretch, green and grow, flower and fade, and fill with color and beauty. 

There is an awareness and practice that is important to me whenever I visit a retreat center/house.  In such sacred spaces, many guests have previously used the room I dwell within for my time there… and many more will fill this space after I leave.  I have long been mindful of those that would follow me into this space.  As I pack and remake beds and straighten and clean a bit, I stop and pray for those who will sit in this very chair, rest or stay wakeful in this bed, pace or be still in the internal acreage.  I send a blessing their way – for whatever they will need that I know nothing of.  In this way, I offer hospitality to another pilgrim to a place neither of us will remain.   I have only recently resolved to enter the room, on my arrival, gently – quietly-humbly mindful of those who trekked and prayed and rested here, grateful for their christening of the space I too will stretch and live and be nourished within.

“Friends of God and prophets”, family members and distant ancestors, saints and souls – all traveled the earth space and lived the temporal measures that you and I inhabit now.  Like us, they were as beautiful, complex, loved, and fleeting as the beautiful autumn vistas or the individual red-gold veined leaf. 

Let’s you and I live increasingly aware of – and practicing through concrete actions and choices – the unbroken chain of connection that exists between the sojourners on the ways, of which we are some.  Perhaps we can consider our time in years and generation and even cultural context as parabled in the image of my time at the retreat center – or yours, in visiting a dear friend or family member or glorious panorama.  What if we accept the guest friendship of those who have come before us and who send to us their blessings and good wishes?  What if we know – to our bones – that we are not alone in this space, for others have laughed and cried and grown and lived and died and risen here?  What if we offer our guest friendship to those who will come after us?  And what can that mean? 

At the least, it means great company before and behind, around and within.  What we’d call the communion of saints – but with us more mindfully relating to all there in the when and the then and the here and the now.  With such thin separations of centuries or styles, generations or gadgets – these others are our family and our friends.  They are part of the constant in the midst of our ever experience of change. 

Wisdom makes her own rounds, today’s first reading declared.  She seeks us, is resplendent and unfading, hastens to find us, graciously appears to us on our ways, meeting us with all solicitude.  It is enough to be so marvelously met by this creative playful companion of God who was present at creation’s making.  We are guests upon the earth.  And our lives have seasons of expansion and contraction, joy and pain, fruit and fallow.  But we are not alone.  The God of saints and souls and sojourners – and the community of all three – join us.  Let us accept and offer guest friendship as we continue in this time ‘on the ways’ where – thankfully – wisdom will ever meet us.  Let us keep watch for her!

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Changeups – Orioles and Us

After 13 straight losing seasons, the O’s (Baltimore Orioles!) are actually winning more than losing! Their ad campaign and public presence has shifted, and Baltimore folk that are not only the hearty standbys who have been faithful – if frustrated – are noticing. What’s happened? Is it about skill, the new manager, new players? Though I have no clue about these specifics, I wonder about what the team members and manager are saying to themselves…  what can be referred to as their ‘explanatory style’. 

A few months ago I picked up again the revised edition of Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism.  His work has been pivotal in studying how human beings learn helplessness, and can also learn optimism.  Success and failure, he posits and proves in various arenas, is tightly connected with optimism/pessimism and one’s ‘explanatory style’.  It’s worth a read, and to place it against other sources that speak to you/us.  (I reread Beatrice Bruteau’s Radical Optimism simultaneously). 

So, just for a second, let’s look only at Seligman’s concept of explanatory style as it might relate to the O’s, and to us. 

Seligman looks at three markers – permanence, pervasivenss, and personalization.   Consider a MLB player.  After a game where things went wrong and there was a loss, what does he say to himself? 

PERMANENCE:  If he says, “the team is doomed” or “getting this team off the floor will never work”, his explanations are permanent.  There can be no change.  Instead, if he says, “we were beat after the travel and that impacted our play” or “games can’t turnaround when we take ‘x’ strategy and forget ‘x’ skill”, then his explanations are temporary.   With the second explanation, there is room for the possibility of change. 

PERVASIVENESS:  If the same player tells himself (and others) that “all umpires are unfair” or “I have no skill” or “practices will never help”, he is saying that the problem is broader than any ability to impact.  If instead the explanations include “the home plate umpire was unfair” or “I didn’t work enough on my swing on fastballs” or “we didn’t focus enough in practice”, there are concrete steps that may be taken.

As Seligman puts it, “Finding temporary and specific causes for misfortune is the art of hope: temporary causes limit helplessness in time, and specific causes limit helplessness to the original situation…  Permanent causes produce helplessness far into the future, and universal causes spread helplessness through all your endeavors.  Finding permanent and universal causes for misfortune is the practice of despair.”

PERSONALIZATION:  This element is easy to understand.  After a poor performance or bad day, the baseball player says “I have no business being in the big leagues – I have no talent” or “I’m a fake” or “I’m never going to be confident enough”.  These internal and ‘hit yourself over the head’ explanations [my technical term!  🙂 ] paralyze.  External explanations might be “I spook myself when I make one mistake” or “I grew up hearing how I can’t succeed” or “that sportswriter is cruel and sensationalizng my mistake for a buck today”. 

Why look at these areas?  Besides being generally interesting, they represent one man’s lifework to really understand hope and its connection to what happens in our self-explaining complex brains!  His work has been in dialogue with many others, and built very helpful resources for practical action and therapeutic interventions.  We could talk more about cognitive therapy or  fostering optimistic behavior here, but I’d rather go to scripture for a brief dialogue.

“Has anyone hoped in the Lord and been disappointed?”  Sirach 2:10 

“Hope does not disappoint.”  Romans 5:5

Hope is a theological virtue based on who God is and, thus, who we are.  Because of this hope we do not need to hold onto pervasive, permanent or imbalanced personalized thought/inner voices that speak doom.  We do not  have to somehow remake reality solely by pulling ourselves up by our cognitive/thought patterns bootstraps.  Greater optimism IS connected not only to what we experience, but how we think about reality.  And many of us can usefully pay more attention to the crowd of voices inside and which ones are at what volume (a post for another day!).  An approach to fostering an optimistic cognitive explanatory style can be learned as a skill, yet it is – in my mind – best rooted in the ‘radical optimism’ of a faith view that is constantly reinforced.  

What if the Changeups that we are invited to in our lives – and in our Lents – were rooted in seeing the world with the kind of permanence and pervasiveness that the Gospel proclaims?  Creation is good, human beings are God’s work of art, we are worth God’s time and healing presence, we have a mission in the world that is irreplaceable-exciting-an adventure, and we are never alone.  In the midst of real human suffering and tragedy, we are then not just telling ourselves an optimistic story, but we are re-membering what we believe to be most true.  God is with us, and all will be well.

Will the O’s pull out a really positive season?  I hope so!  It is a needed change for Baltimore fans! 

Can you and I effect some of the changeups in our lives that can lead to living more rooted and grounded, more positively reaching and impacting?  I hope so! 

Our explanatory style should be rooted in the truth we hear and proclaim.  Use the best of cognitive techniques to furrow out a well worn neural pathway that believes and stands and operates from this kind of hope.  A hope against hope.  A hope in spite of and, courageously, in the midst of suffering and pain.  A hope that recognizes how to feed itself when it sees seeds and blossoms and resurrections.

In baseball, the very best changeups bewilder the batter, utilizing both deception and movement.  At times the tapes we have running in our heads and hearts that are pessimistic or helpless or hopeless cannot be rooted out directly.  We have to bewilder the thought system by entirely moving in another direction, acting in accord with the new movement, and following through the new ‘grip’ or ‘hold’ on life even when it is at first uncomfortable.  Hope is a virtue, which means it needs practice too.  Replacing thoughts with new ones, finding images that remind us of what is most true and putting them in our physical spaces, choosing one liners from scripture to repeat to ourselves and to post around our home or work spaces…  these are the exercises that can create changeups.

Most of us can use support in this process from friends, family, spouses, spiritual directors, therapists, coaches.  Find your best accompaniment and alliances to support the Changeups you’re about (and I will continue to too!) and – if you are from Baltimore – let the journey of the O’s this season remind you of this invitation!

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