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Miracles?

“I am not a miracle kind of a guy,” he said. Unapologetic. Direct. Clear. No expectation save reality as it unfolded. And so he waited and waits and deals with things as they come up, confronts the business at hand with an unremitting sense of responsibility and a stubborn desire to make things right. He places no blame save on his own shoulders, allows no pity, accepts consequences and protects privacy. And yet, in the midst of all the life lessons, he is far more than that, far more than the villain and no less the hero. For he practices kindness, lives in compassion and seeks to do the next right thing. Maybe, just maybe, he is the miracle himself in embracing the struggles and challenges and continuing to strive to be better. Maybe, just maybe, miracles are not the superstitious renderings of hope but the actual steps and actions we dare to take in our very messy, very ordinary lives. After all, miracles are the extraordinary, the inexplicable, the mysterious events that change perceptions, events, moments and memories. Miracles are the turning points in lives, the amazing and humbling shifts that seemingly have no real explanation.

The Miracle at Cana was a bit like that: Jesus rose to the occasion, the best of the wine savored last; his capacities and competencies on full display meant a change in his journey and in the percpetions of others about him. And while the story intimates his hesitancy and his mother’s urgings, it comes in the context of ordinary life events. Miracles are embedded in the ordinary and the familiar. They come in acts of kindness and moments of compassion, in the breathtaking vista and the gentle hands of surgeons, in the tender words of insight exchanged between persons and the strength of those who dare to choose life. Miracles are those instances that somehow make life better, the turning points that enable that to happen and the unexpected gifts that a day can offer. Jesus did that, and so does “I am not a miracle kind of guy” in the way he chooses to live. Miracles are the moments that enable humans to open capacities, experience and share comeptencies that may not have been there before. Sometimes, they will not be there again. But the readings for the day have a way of explaining that. In 1 Cor, the second reading, Paul writes:

To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit
is given for some benefit.
To one is given through the Spirit the expression of wisdom;
to another, the expression of knowledge according to the
same Spirit;
to another, faith by the same Spirit;
to another, gifts of healing by the one Spirit;
to another, mighty deeds;
to another, prophecy;
to another, discernment of spirits;
to another, varieties of tongues;
to another, interpretation of tongues.
But one and the same Spirit produces all of these,
distributing them individually to each person as he wishes.

Gifts given to benefit others. It is far from supersititon, far from wishful thinking or the artistry of illusion. Instead, it is all about the carpentry work on living day to day. The possibilities are there. Maybe the “I am not a miracle kind of a guy” is on to something.

one conversation

His question surprised me. “What kind of Catholic are you?”

But my answer surprised me even more. “I am a Eucharistic Catholic.”

“What does that mean?” He had bent his long frame into a tiny chair in the hotel lobby, and he was genuinely interested. We were on an unlikely educational tour of schools in Beijng and Shanghai, and we had seen the beauty of young faces clamoring in welcome and older children delightedly describing what they hoped to contribute to China. It was Easter Sunday, and we had learned how the private practice of religion was acceptable but public recognition or celebration not possible. It was an Easter of revelation, of whispered greetings in the Shanghai market and reminders from guides not to mention religion. And a conversation that made me think.

I grappled with my response to his inquiry, and lowered my voice. He leaned forward. “I believe in the Eucharistic presence. I believe in the connection to God in that, to the generations of people who believed before me , in the idea that there is a sort of direct line back to the original. I believe that there is something special there, in the reverence and in the handing down. For me, it all speaks of soemthing greater than self…somehow, no matter who we are, we all need the nourishment of that…” I faltered.

“And the rest? The Church and the hierarchy? The rules? The devotions? The corruption? The inequality?”

I remember a half smile and the tone of suffering in his voice. Not really knowing what to say without confessing more of my thinking. Wrestling with the stories we had each already lived, the wholeness and the brokenness, thoughts and frustration, anger and wondering. Long pause. Deep breaths.

“For me,” I said, “it is not about that….it is about being connected to God somehow, and the Eucharist is that possibility, if I am attentive, if I allow that….” It was paltry, empty, it seemed, an unworthy reconciliation of the realities and my own choices. “I did not want to throw out the baby with the bath water…”

He laughed at the odd expression. “I could not live with the hypocrisy. I strive to live a good life…to do the right thing, to accept that suffereing is part of life…” We meandered through his story, into the realms of Buddhism and the tenets that drew him and the choices made. There was a soft regret, a kind of sadness tinging through his words and a deep powerful sense of having done the right things.

We parted,never returned to the conversation, never croseed paths again. For me, he opened up some serious thought about how Catholicism functions, what is given, what is asked, what it means and why it matters. In such a humbling encounter, he was able to invite me to consider what is most essential for each of us. Our paths, our gifts and talents are all unique, and yet we are here together. We have strengths and weaknesses, flaws and facets of darkness and flames of brilliance.

We live our lives in increments of time that meld into seasons of lives and societies. There is so much that is so far beyond our control. There is the truth that there are opportunities for choosing wisely, for trusting. Being aware of what is happening in our lives is juxtaposed with a belief in that something larger than ourselves, beyond our understanding. It is not vested in the supersititous but anchored in the idea that there is something divine that can be intuited, discovered and experienced…if we so choose. Somehow, because we simply exist, we are worthy of love and being loved and loving. Finding out what really matters to us and continually seeing the miracles of singular striated sunrises and piercingly beautiful skies and waves thundering to the shore speak to the beauty of the eyes of another, the soft grasp of another’s hand and the warmth of embracing one another. Because, after all, isn’t that what we are reborn into each day? What we have the chance to rediscover? What it means to be who we are?

January 1

January 1. A fourth gray morning in New England with the promise of drizzle and the hooded eyes of sunrise. January 1. Marking of the increments of time lacing hopes and perceptions with the seething truth of reality.

January 1, 2022. Individual stories wrapped tightly, woven into, the broader scope of who and what we are. Increments of time strung together for a past, this present and a future we cannot yet envision.

Covid has made it a season of unanticipated loss and grief. Climate change has brutally raped the forests and starved the rivers and torn apart whole communities. Violence has erupted in shell-shocked pockets and all of it has been front and center in news and media, irreverently dashing certainties and slashing illusions of strength and wholeness. So, January 1, 2022, where do we stand?

We stand on the shoulders of those who have survived calamity before us, the generations who, without our technology, navigated whole lives and managed to leave us the world we live in now. We stand with every genertion who has borne change (and that would be every generation to various extents). We stand with the truth of our human shortcomings, our failings and our flaws and with the concurrent truth that therefore we are stronger and better together. Acknowledging need for one another, believing that we can trust and help one another at every step gives so much more hope. Together. January 1, 2022, looking outward together.

And as we look outward, sharing a common past, an immediate present and a fledgling future, we can remember some of what sustained those earlier generations. There is the reverence of the bow at Japan’s Shinto shrines, the quiet of Buddhist temples, the cadence of Hebrew prayers, and the Muslim adman. And for the Christian, too, there is the reminder that it all rests in hands bigger than ours. Our best efforts in each moment in time, always striving to do the best we can, to suspect if not believe that everyone is doing the best they can at the moment, frees us to manage with what we have and envision stronger and better strategies. It even enables us to realize that those Hands bigger than ours are actually there when we are most human and most vulnerable. It is not magic or an invincible shield; it is not a antidote for all ills. Instead, it is a companion for the journey and enables us to look more deeply at oursleves and one another, to realize that to someone, each of us is incredibly special. And if humanity fails, there are the bigger Hands to hold onto. In the end, it is not about the time that slips by but about the ways we live in our time, the sense we have not only of self but of other and Other.

The LORD bless you and keep you!
The LORD let his face shine upon
you, and be gracious to you!
The LORD look upon you kindly and
give you peace!

January 1, 2022. Looking outward. Confident. Together. Hope-filled. Trusting in the Bigger Hands.

Angels and Shepherds

On a dark Christmas Eve, in a church blended into the New England countryside, a pastor spoke not of the birth of Jesus, or the labor of Mary or the journey to Bethlehem. Instead, he spoke of angels and shepherds. Seated, fingers wrapped tightly around the microphone, chalky white and hairless countenance, he drew deep breaths between paragraphs and then sentences. His voice and face were alive with the image: it was as if he could see those angels, felt that role and knew their mission. But when he turned to the shepherds, it was just the same: he embraced their shock, their humanity and humility, their interface with the divine. He glowed with the sense that God is with us wherever we are, especially in those liminal moments when life changes and things are somehow never the same again. And he was betting those shepherds, whose lives are long lost to history, were deeply impacted. More importantly, fragile but strong, weak but powerful, he was inviting the congregation to do the same: to hear the angels, to allow ourselves to see and experience far more than what we ordinarily grasp. He even challenged and firmly denied the idea that dissatisfaction with life and rejection of faith is the fault of the church. No, he placed the responsibility squarely with the shepherds (and we are all shepherds of sorts), to realize the manifestations of the divine. When he was done, having drawn laughter and provoked thought among the congregation, he stood up slowly, cautiously, graciously, and leaned on the altar for support. A cascade of applause rippled through the pews. He deferred it with a grin, “You might not feel like that after the second collection.” Clapping yeilded to laughter. Seemingly effortlessly, he became a shepherd transformed by angels.

Christmas offers that chance to each of us, to begin to see the world differently, let go of the past, and embrace what is with alacrity and courage. Trusting that miraculous moments unfold everyday means pausing to listen more than simply hear, to truly observe more than see, and to dare to believe in something greater than self. There is the matter of trusting ourselves to be the shepherds, to embrace the surprise, to tell and then re-tell the story, explore and celebrate meaning and purpose, to be sensitive to the element of the divine in the texture of human experiences, to be open to the idea that there is a God who acts for and in and through humanity.

It defies rationality, perhaps. Maybe it defies secularism or minimizes the scientific. But the reality of that possibility was etched in that pastor’s voice, emanated from his person with each word. Maybe, in reminding that there is more to life than we ordinarily see, maybe he was more angel than shepherd that night. Maybe he was reminding us that angels can sing in the voices we hear everyday, in the presence of those who cross our paths and in the quiet rising of the sun. Maybe in the practice of kindness, in the touch of compassion, in the choice of gentleness and the decision to love, we become as he is, able to be both angel and shepherd, a home for wholeness that is alive in holiness.

Forgiveness

The glow of Advent candles is strong with this final weekend before Christmas. Elderly Elizabeth welcomes Mary with open arms and recognizes who the younger woman really is. Freed of convention that would label and judge, moved by the Spirit, Elizabeth sees what IS, that Mary is the mother of God. And so the world is bathed in new light. And the light is all about the presence of God. And the truth is that we all live in the presence of God everyday. Advent is the time ot reflect on HOW we live in that presence. In so many ways, to dare to do that, acceptance of one another with open hearts and welcoming arms is essential. In this world, the flickering flames are showing more and more the need for forgiveness of self and others. Like Mary, we are each all too human.

The implications of that are amazing, and the swift rhythm of Psalm 80 pulls towards that sense of presence. “Lord,make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved.” God’s face has billions of facets: each of the faces we encounter is one shimmering glimmer of God. To carry that just a step further and juxtapose it with the meeting of Elizabeth and Mary means looking more deeply at what is before us. To see the face of God, to turn to God, means to know forgiveness, to be able to forgive, to process forgiveness, to enable forgiveness, to be forgiveness for each other. The burdens of guilt and shame are weighty, self-imposed and redefined by the public humiliation that so often accompanies it. Advent and Christianity itself are calls to that reality.

Christmas, often heralded by the brilliance of holiday decoration and spirit, is actually the birth of second chances, of third chances or fourth or even fifth. It is about remembering the planks in our own eyes as well as the eyes of others and re-embracing life and others as tenderly as a newborn is cradled and caressed. It is recognizing that there are times in life when we are all in need of such unbounded love, such acceptance for our fragilities. In Mary, Elizabeth saw what was most real, most honest, and she proclaims that. There is no harshness, no condemnation, but an acceptance of what is.

We are all the owners of clay feet, all more than the images that cast our shadows. There is a simplicity to the reality of life’s brevity, the contours of brokenness and the incomprehensible ways we hurt one another. But there is a boundlessness to infinity and to the thousands of ways forgiveness can be part of the Christmas miracle. It is in this moment that realizing the strength and courage we can give one another is birthed in willingness to see, to accept, to forgive and to live together. Restoration is moments away if we allow that. Advent is leaving behind the layers of wrapping that comprise life and believing again in the beginning, starting over, and making peace possible. It all starts with forgiveness.

Kindness

Third week of Advent: JOY! As Christmas draws near, the tremulous joy of children echoes in new generations. Frenetic stressors grip adults with unyeilding strength, and the lights of the Advent wreath flicker through the darkness. Darkness settles early now, and strings of sparkling lights punctuate night with unexpected brilliance. So it is with daily experiences: buried in the busyness are the moments truly worth treasuring. This year, Loss and Grief have become companions more than distant acquaintances. It is not just COVID or the political turmoil and vitrolic debates, not the threat of climate change or the consequences inevitable with the emergence of technology. Change has stretched past the comfortable and familiar into ambiguity and the unknown. There we dwell. And there we are reminded that the most essential factor is that we are not alone, and joy can be known in spite of broken hearts and twisted paths and incomprehensible circumstances.

Advent is the reminder that God is present in the world, and that we live within the wonder of the divine presence with or without acknowledgement of that. This year, there is a freedom in that very remembrance, a recognition of something beyond self: a God who welcomes, encourages, gifts and connects in the rolling poetry of the prophets and the dynamic prose of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. There is a rich assurance in the passage:

Your kindness should be known to all.
The Lord is near.
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, 
by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, 
make your requests known to God.
Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding 
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

There is also an implicit reference to leaving the stress and freneticism behind, beginning to believe that it is enough to be who we are and to acknowledge that there is a God who is near and cares tenderly for the concerns of hearts, that it is possible to find peace in trusting that there is a God who is near. It is not about rules but about relationships: living kindness with each unfolding opportunity.

Most striking is the call to kindness in the Gospel. There, it is very clear that as humans we live within parameters of governments and insitutions, but there is room for choice, for the practice of kindness at every turn. Interesting that it is not about adhering to rules but living kindness where we are. Tha capability exists within us, waits to be chosen. Maybe that is what it means to believe in God, to live in the presence of the divine. We are who we are at every moment; in every instance, we are enough. We can easily forget that Loss and Grief become companions because Love exists. And true love, the real thing, is the source of JOY. Kindness reaches across the chasm of loss with the reality of love. Kindness is our choice, the building block of relationship and the beginning of joy. Ours for the living! Happy Advent!

Risk

This second week of Advent, the second candle of Peace is lit. Together with the first, the Candle of Hope, it glitters against the early darkness. In so many ways, the frenzy of holiday preparation overshadows those two flames. But to stand back for even a moment, the glimmer opens up a larger picture: we are stronger together than we are alone. Light, even the flicker of a candle, offers new perspectives that eluded us before. Light gives us the chance to think about what we can see, what is present to and in us, and where and what we need to be. Light gives us the chance to make the winding road straight, to see the good works that are begun in each of us, and to dare to believe that love discerns what is of value. Light gives us the vision to face our fears and the courage to trust our perceptions, the gut instincts that open up new pathways and redefine the past.

Advent enables us to consider what has gone before, what is now, and what can be in the future. It is the invitation to believe deep down inside ourselves that we are loved, worthy and deserving of love, capable and daring enough to love. Life is diffcult, and love is mysteriously experienced in all sorts of ways. Truly believing that Love exists means thinking carefully about what love actually is. This second week of Advent links readings about love with a candle for peace: love is the way of peace and presence. Love is neither gratuitous nor self-aggrandizing; it is not deceitful or dishonest or duplicitous. It simply exists in real ways, gently, generously, bravely. And somehow, it makes the crooked ways straight. The “real thing” of love is that it is a God-given and brings the companionship of deep and abiding peace, the sense of “home”. In a universe often anchored in alienation and isolation, love ensures that we are better together than we are alone.

So much masquerades as love, and centuries show the agony of the way that humans torture one another in its name. There are agonizing choices and painful boundaries and limits to what humans are capable of. And then there are those almost incomprehensible, wondrous moments when all the stars align, and a glimpse of what love really is emerges with a genuineness and integrity that invites going deeper. Having that depth of trust, the commitment to honesty, the embrace of mutual respect makes it possible. It gives life purpose and direction, a confidence and clarity that illuminates every other aspect of human ineraction and experience. Love makes us who we are if we dare to believe, to experience, to know.

In so many ways, Advent is the beginning of that invitation to accept the existence of real love. Advent confides the truth that this love links the human and the divine in the very ordinary matters of each day. Advent gifts us with hope that the risk of loving and being loved is one worth taking.

Truth and Trust

He had a soft New England cadence to his speech, measured, of course by his quiet nature. He spoke with thoughtfulness and of necessity and was not given to frivolous or meaningless conversation. Instead, he found the words, the fibers of topics that connected with people. Most of his encounters left the other with a sense of engagement and warmth, acceptance and openness. And so it was that over time, he carved two words, two thoughts into others’ hearts and minds, even without their knowing. What he valued became valuable to the other in the space where they interacted. He valued truth and he lived out trust. What he taught me was that those final two letters make all the difference: one does not exist without the other, and each is intrisincially meaningful. Each has a building block place in life.

Truth, he realized, is shared as it is understood at the moment. Wisdom helped him coax deeper contexts and perspectives from his clients and partners. With an eloquent pause and sometimes awkward quiet, he could recieve and remember every word spoken. Then raising his bright eyes with deep sincerity, he would speak: a phrase, a word, sometimes an entire paragraph, and reality would somehow widen to accommodate reality alongside a perception of truth. Breaking his gaze, he generously allowed the deeper truths to sink in with silence. And so often, I left thinking about ideas that challenged the tiny world I lived in and what I somehow defined as “truth” just moments before.

He is gone now, but his emphasis on truth has remained an abiding presence in my life, enabled me to step into the space where he lived without judgement of others, with a kind and gentle gaze, and a sincere encouragement for those who crossed his path. Perhaps it was merely naive of me, but it was not until he was gone that I realized how closely he defined truth and lived trust. Because in every encounter he lived, he engendered such an embrace of reality as truth and so unquestionably established trust in relationships. He was the one to count on, to believe, to help sort out the confused mess of what it means to be human on a daily basis. And never once to judge, but to find a mirror within himself that insured every peson who crossed his path knew safety and comfort in the conversation. He strove to live out trust in his pursuit of truth with courage and honor and dignity.

Those words, those two letters at the end defining such a difference, those words have home this weekend as Advent begins. It is not really about the magic of Christmas or the frenetic preparation for that. It is about the truth that there is more to this world than we realize: there is something greater than self, bigger than now, more significant than we allow ourselves to believe. He knew that every day of his remarkable and yet hidden life. He saw who he was and what he was about, and he made things better for others because he understood that. And then there is the second part: having the courage to trust in another. He encouraged that with a humble resilience and an invincible hope. He allowed brokenness to be his escort. Just as the birth of Jesus enabled God to enter the human experience, his trust in others and theirs in him allowed the spark of genuine goodness. He is gone now, but his legacy remains as an invitation to vist truths and to know trust. At least, in this Advent of new beginnings, there is the soft glow of that genuine goodness that flowed through him to the rest of the world.

The King

When I was a very little girl,the magic and mystery of kings and queens, princes and paupers, fairies and princesses enthralled me. Curiosity drove me through fairytales with an unrelenting sense of perseverance, and it was there I saw fragility tied to resilience and choices tied to destinies. There was right and wrong and the awful ambiguity of in-between. I came to admire the sturdy ones who dared brilliance and bereavement and somehow were rewarded by ultimate outcomes. Cinderella, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, the Little Mermaid: each one danced with hope and optimism and I liked living there in the midst of it. Somehow, real life challenges encsconced in history overthrew that preoccupation, and I began to look at the mysteries of governments and the ways societies chose government and made decisions. But it was a laconic high school teacher whose suggestion about benevolent monarchy upended my thinking about fairytales, government and lifestyles and choices.

He had the deliberate pace of an old New Englander and the sharp wit of a lawyer which he never became. In the classroom, he put both to use in gently luring hesistant students into articulating and defending views. That day, he demanded identification of the strengths and weaknesses of various forms of government. We gravitated to democracy, rallied about representation and he listened. We denigrated dictatorships, oligarchies, and anarchy, and he listened. As the hour wound to a close, he quietly asked about monarchy, and constitutional monarchy. (Neither had won our attention or concern.) He suggested the latter captured the best of both worlds: a vibrant, evolving and involved population gathered together with the shared identity of a leader who represented continuity, embodied culltural history and shared heritage. The key was benevolence, a benevolent monarch whose pride and courage demanded the best for the nation and its people from a family and individuals willing to serve. He spelled out examples, mentioned societal advancements, and we shelled out the failures, the inequities and the flaws. He had succeeded in making us think differently about terms and knowledge we had accepted without question.

Benevolence, goodness, is alive in acts of kindness and choices of conscience. It extends from self to others and inherently builds connections between and among people. Benevolence allows freedom to all yet demands the best of each individual, inspires a standard of behavior and commitment that creates better relationships, communities and countries. Benevolence means believing in the basic goodness of all peoples, and having the wisdom to discern sincerity, dispute the inauthentic and continually move forward. It is not a task charged to the benevolent monarch alone but one given to each person. Benevolence resides with trust and honesty within each and among all. It invites respect, and determines kindnesses beyond measure.

It was not until many years after I walked out of that classroom that I realized another area of relevance for such thinking. The liturgical year closes with the Feast of Christ the King. Once, to me, it was a nod to the government and social hierarchies of a world long past. Now, to me, it represents a way to look carefully at the gentleness of a God who is neither dictator nor oligarch, anarchist or tyrant. Instead, it is about the God who accompanies us the journey. It is a God who compassionately weeps with the broken, gathers the lost, feeds the hungry and welcomes the poor. It is a God who lingers in presence and passion and loves and serves without measure: Christ the King.

Coming home

There is a certain solitude to the restlessness of autumn, a certain way in which the brilliance of color announces itself and the softness of rain wraps leaves to asphalt. There is a stillness in it, a kind of quiet, and the calendar days fade into one another as the maples and oaks press their skeleton frames to the sky. There are endings, intimate and inevitable, wrapped into each moment as the very earth plunges into the hibernation of winter. the cycle itself speaks of so much about human life and being, about home and becoming at home.

A home is more than a physical location; it is the consistency of an individual with all the aspects of self, the awareness of the mosaic of experiences that shape every interaction, and the consciousness that there is always something greater than self that we are all part of. For some, that integration occurs early and almost whimsically; for others, it is a lifelong struggle to find the space where we are truly ourselves. That IS home, that space where there is consistency in self: in thought and action; in emotion and choice; in expression and interaction; in solitude and in crowds. It is a tall order that asks more of self than we imagine. It means both breaking away from expectations and building new ones with courage and honesty. It means knowing strengths and weaknesses of self, becoming independent and being able to be interdependent. Finding that place is not permanent; but like the cycle of the seasons, it can be reborn over and over.

Home is living the truth of who we are with grace and graciousness. Home does not deny any aspect of self. It welcomes every experience, survives every suffering, exposes every need, dares every hope. Home provides comfort and support, but it demands growth and action and trust, the ability to trust self and others, to believe that self is worthy and lovable, and that others are lovable and worthy as well.

In the midst of darkness, the liturgical year is coming to its end and there is the sense of finality, a final judgment in the readings, the end time. Perhaps, though, it is also a time of coming home, of realizing our truths and making our choices and discovering that we are loved in ways we cannot begin to know. And yet, the messages are there, in the divinity of Autumn’s brilliance and the capacity of the seasons for rebirth, growth and change. All of that exists in each of us: all of us have the chance to shape a home where truth and honesty are the drivers of all else, and the grace of interaction becomes a dance of revelation about life and love. Home is the space we reach when love has found us, and we have found and recognized love as Love, a fragment of the sacredness that animates the universe. And so we are promised that love goes on and on in the homes of our hearts and lives.