That Persistent, Inconvenient Necessity to Yield

Those who know me know I like to be in control. Those who love me do so in spite of my controlling tendencies. Call it Lent or simply “getting older”, whatever the reason, I’ve recognized it’s exhausting — even more, it doesn’t work!

Those of us in recovery of one sort of another are familiar with the adage: Let go, let God. It’s wildly popular and often repeated. But how deep do these facile references actually go? Nice words. Wise words. They give the illusion of actually doing what they suggest.

Somewhere in the last day or two I read something that has nudged me, became a burr in my saddle, won’t leave me alone. Adding intrigue to this insistent recollection, I cannot recall where it came from. Reviewing likely sources on various blogs or online sources has been to no avail. All that’s left is its recurring, persistent nudge.

The nagging invitation is quite directive: move from control to consent. Yes, it’s as plain and beguiling as that! Maybe this is what my brother Jerry came to know in his later years. His continuous refrain, almost to the point of annoyance, was: Life on life’s terms!

My husband — one of those people who loves me despite my propensity to be controlling — often repeats a favorite phrase that gets at this same hard-won wisdom: It is what it is! Here, too, his refrain captures the simple necessity to let go, to receive life on life’s terms, to move from control to consent.

This year the convergence of Lent and the fact of growing older seems to be conspiring to teach that there really is no alternative. Yielding, letting go, consenting to all that life brings our way ought not be done begrudgingly, reluctantly, fighting life’s natural progression at every turn.  That’s exhausting and doesn’t work in the end.

Surely the ultimate expression of inconvenient necessity to which Lent nudges us is Jesus in the Garden: Not my will, but yours be done. Yielding, letting go, consent to diminishment that appears even as death!

But this is only half the story. We also need to be reminded that this sort of consent is within human capacity and profoundly life-affirming. No one challenges or consoles us more than Denise Levertov in her magnificent summation of Mary’s singular fiat, her “let it be” —

She did not submit with gritted teeth,
raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
Consent,
courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.

Maybe this year we can each take one more courageous leap — yielding control, giving consent, letting go, saying yes to life on life’s terms.

If you are in any way like me, you may recognize this inconvenient nudge as an invitation to more fully embrace the fact that God is God and we’re not. Finally, we might yield sufficiently to see this as a good thing — in fact, as our very salvation.
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Levertov’s quote is from her poem, Annunciation in A Door in the Hive, New Directions, New York, 1989, pp 86-88.

Aspiring to Wisdom

Have you noticed? The world has gotten better — all the problems have been solved. Really! My brother and I have been together for ten days now and pretty well taken care of all the world’s troubles. No need to thank us — we’ve enjoyed doing it.

Mornings typically begin at Starbucks. We take the New York Times and Orlando paper delivered to his doorstep. But we never seem to get to them. Rather, the state of our world is so dire we need to attend to these matters first.

Yesterday was special. After services and a pot-luck at Bear Lake United Methodist Church featuring Black Gospel singers from Alabama, my brother and I settled into twin recliners in front of the fireplace. This time we ruminated on family, our ancestors, favorite relatives, reasons they were the way they were and we are the way we are. Three and a half-hours passed like thirty minutes!

This morning, specifics and details have coalesced into an all-embracing sense of gratitude and contentment. That’s pretty amazing given the characters, personalities and circumstances we rehashed, the achievements claimed, wounds recalled and losses remembered. Let’s just say Robert Crawley, 7th Earl of Grantham and the Viscount Downton, has nothing over on us.

Here’s what’s becoming clear after these days of trying to make sense of this thing we call “life”… We cannot always “think” our way into knowledge. Some explanations are simply beyond words yet we know them to be true.  Perhaps this is what St. Augustine, fourth century bishop in North Africa meant as well — “The heart has reasons Reason knows not.”

Call it “wisdom” if you wish. My brother and I would like to think our machinations suggest we are more than just two senior citizens grousing in front of a fireplace. We’d like to believe these are the sort of conversations and conclusions true elders begin to formulate.

Nevertheless, there is one thing we’ve concluded for certain: It’s not that some of what we “know” is irrational, it’s that some things are simply beyond reason… such as love, self-sacrifice, mercy, forgiveness, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile.

In the end, this remains the hope in which we aspire to live.

No Escape


During this two-week Florida escape from February in Minnesota, my brother and I reenact cherished rituals which mark our relationship as special. One favorite routine is to provoke the other with a familiar question, “Anybody ever call you arrogant?”

No answer is needed. It’s our playful way to admit a character defect to which males in our family are especially prone. Simply getting it out into the open has the effect, we hope, of moderating a trait that will most likely remain a lifelong struggle. In any case, it expresses our fraternal bond and gives us a good laugh.

Another well rehearsed routine captures another fact about our lives. One of us will randomly toss out, “You know, life sure is good.” To which the other knows to respond, “It can be!” That’s often expressed along with another dictum well engrained by our parents, “Ya’ know, life is pretty much what you make of it!”

Yes, we are truly blessed. We’ve got it good. It would be easy to mistakenly conclude that somehow we’ve earned our good fortune or deserve the ability to so easily escape winter’s fury. As two white, well-educated, senior citizen, American males we too easily find ourselves on third base and presume we hit a triple!

Folks like us may have a unique and special need for Lent. Perhaps a first indication is that fact we are disposed to so easily ignore it. Lent reminds us of our deficiencies, our dependencies, and asks us to take an extended look at our persistent character defects.

Despite the insulation power and privilege provide, we are asked to admit the truth of our lives. We are reminded of our membership in the vast human family that doesn’t have it nearly as good. Lent exhorts us to be honest about who we truly are. Lent is about deepening the bond of love within our extended human family.

Again today, I am deeply moved by a reflection that hits me right where I need a good shove.  On her blog, Inward/Outward, Kayla McClurg writes:

[Lent] certainly is no escape route, no fast track out of Jerusalem, that ancient icon of hope and pain. It is a narrow path, a lowly path, right into the deepest, darkest heart of the human dilemma—our desire for God alongside our consuming hunger for things that will never satisfy, our fear and bluster, our imprisoned souls. Like a mother hen, how God longs to gather us in under her wings. If only we were willing, or at least willing to be willing, we might begin to learn the Jesus way, a more humble way, a way to be utterly free.

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You may access Kayla McClurg’s full reflection [here].

The Disney Effect

The resonance came as a surprise! Something about China captured my imagination and interest at a deep, visceral level. I’ve had the very good fortune of visiting many more countries than I could ever have imagined as a kid. But China was different, unique, unforeseen despite my eagerness to go.

Lingering impressions continue to resonate during these days since my return. The Great Wall, the terra-cotta warriors of Xian — so much about this ancient culture — predates the birth of Jesus. How could such an impactful immersion in another culture not color the way I experienced Christmas this year.

Certainly an especially impactful ingredient was going with my 14 year-old grandnephew. Except for James, it was a pretty “mature” bunch of 25 in our tour group. Seeing his jaw drop, attempting to keep up with his pace, witnessing his insatiable curiosity, marveling at his perfectly expressed one-word sentences enhanced my experience beyond measure.

What is it about the young and old together? Unbridled energy, their sponge-like capacity to absorb facts catalyze with our more sedate wisdom and broader perspective regarding the singular and the paradoxical. We need both! Each is exponentially enhanced by the other. Call it the “Disney effect” — that which grandparents report when they accompany their grandchildren to Disneyland.

Much of this came rushing back today when reading one of my favorite blogs. Kayla McClurg offers a fresh, relevant and insightful reflection on today’s Gospel from the Common Lectionary. Yes, the finding of Jesus in the Temple brought me back to my China adventure with James.

Perhaps you will recognize a familiar but unforeseen connection in your relationship with the indispensable young people in your life:

The common idea is that children have much to learn from us, and should be always taking our direction and listening to our wisdom, but we adults have much to learn from and about our children as well. What a difference it makes to pause and listen. What might they be trying to communicate through their wayward words and actions. What looks like mischief might be an emerging creativity; what sounds like ‘talking back’ could be the clumsy beginnings of deeply felt expression; what seem to be displays of disobedience might be signs of their listening to inner guidance. Or not. We can never be sure. We can only be companions to the mystery, a steady presence, guiding by walking alongside.

“Why were you searching for me?” Jesus asks his bewildered parents. “Did you not know where I must be?” To really know the children in our lives is to search continually for them, to lose sight and then to rediscover who they are now. It is to want to know them more, to ask them what matters most, to listen at least as much as we talk. To know them is to enter the temple of their lives and care about their worries and wonders. Because children are not only our future . . . children are our right now. We need each other. What they see and say matter. We are called to do God’s business together.

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Kayla McClurg’s full reflection from which her quote is taken may be found [here]. I recommend her blog, Inward/Outward.  You may sign-up to receive weekly emails with this link.

Formula for Happy Holiday Gatherings

Here are just a few observations that may be unduly influenced by the social fatigue so common at this time of year. This is a crazy season for holiday gatherings… and we still have Christmas and New Years ahead of us!

So, how are you doing? What do you think? What’s your experience teach? Here’s what’s rumbling in the back of my head…

I too often anticipate parties or family gatherings wondering, “What’s in it for me?”. Experience has taught me that’s a non-starter! I have a better time if my focus is on others and not on myself. A good indicator for me is how much time I spend at the buffet table. If I’m stuffing myself with snacks, treats, sweets and drink it’s time for me to ask, “What hunger am I really trying to feed here?”. It’s time to engage others more and my mouth less.

We all notice the most popular, charismatic people at a party. Some folks are clearly having more fun than others. What’s the difference? What’s their secret? Well, there are multiple answers — personality, temperament, innate abilities. But here’s a pattern to watch… aren’t the people we admire and appreciate most those who always seem to be looking for opportunities to engage others? Maybe you are more virtuous than me, but the most boring and tedious party-goers are those who appear to be interested in talking only about themselves.

So, what are we to talk about? Yes, people are sincerely interested in catching-up. But there is a way of sharing our personal experiences that is open-ended and loops back to the other person. For example, choose to highlight the part of your story that will be of most interest to the other person, something with which they can identify and perhaps expand upon. Then there is simple and gracious habit of sprinkling your story with plenty of open questions. Too many are inhibited by a fear of not knowing what to talk about. The solution to that phobia is to focus on asking the other person “open” questions and then truly listening.

So what’s your experience tell you? What advice would you offer? My final thought is the simple reminder not to allow Scrooge to steal your Christmas or “that tedious uncle” to spoil your family gathering. Choose to be happy, to enjoy yourself!

What my Mom used to say about life applies especially to Christmas… “It’s pretty much what you make of it!”  And that is from a Mom who had little concern for herself but that others enjoy themselves.

Of Value, Worth and Wealth

We have people in our family who aren’t actually related. However, no holiday gathering would be complete without them. Ben and Pam are like that. Ben went to high school with John who, with his wife Stacy, hosted the family for Thanksgiving this year.

John and Stacy aren’t technically related to us either. John’s the nephew of my husband’s brother-in-law. Sound complicated? Well, it is! Then, again. it’s all pretty typical. Take a look around your holiday gatherings — bet your characters and relationships are as equally complex as ours. Any family worthy of the name is like that!

We love Ben and Pam’s energy, adventurous spirit, and clarity about their priorities. One of their goals is to retire in about twenty years. They would be 55. Because my husband and I have both retired within the last couple years they indulge our willingness to talk about our experience.

Same was true last Thursday at John and Stacy’s. “What’s it like? Any surprises? What should we do to get ready? How much money do you really need?” Questions abound! My answers, in order of the questioning: “Better. Many. Save. Less than you think.”

Do you catch the apparent contradiction? It’s between the third and fourth questions — Save more! You need less! My limited 2-year experience of retirement places me smack, dab in the middle of that paradox. Yes save, save, save! But the best way I can explain it is, “If enough is your standard, you’ll never have enough.”

Ben and Pam will be okay. They understand the need to speak with more than a good financial planner. Of course, we are delighted they regularly seek our avuncular advice! We want them to understand, yes, you need a modicum of security and the capacity to pursue your dreams. But, retirement is about so much more than money!

Like the crazy-quilt composition of healthy families, retirement is a complex mixture of pursuing your deepest values and living in a manner you find worthwhile. Ultimately, it’s not about monetary wealth. Financial planners are important, I’d say indispensable. Yet, nothing and no one other than ourselves can bring a deep sense of worth and value to our lives in retirement.

In the end, retirement is not about how we spend our money. It’s about how and with whom — even for whom — we spend our time. And with each passing year, time is our most precious resource.

We Should Know Better

I’m really sad and disheartened this morning. A dear niece who is bright, funny and someone I deeply care about posted something mean-spirited on her Facebook page. There is simply too much fear-mongering and superficial solutions being thrown around these days. She should know better. So should we all!

My niece’s posting noted that the Tsarnaev brothers found guilty for the horrific Boston Marathon bombing were refugees. With the latest terrorist attack roiling Paris, you can figure out the intended political message of the “prepared” image she chose to re-post on her FB page.

(BTW, why do we have such an outpouring of moral outrage when 129 people are killed in France and so quickly “forget” nearly twice as many Russian citizens who were killed in the flight from Egypt? Could it be that the French are more like “us” and our generation has learned to demonize the Russians as our enemy? The recent massacre in Beirut hardly registered in our consciousness. Just wondering what this is all about!)

What I take as my niece’s “painting with broad strokes”, guilt-by-association or “extrapolation from the specific to the whole” is dangerous and unfair. In my opinion it’s also stupid and xenophobic!

My angry side wanted to post the following: “Does the fact that the son of your Dad’s cousin was sentenced to death for first degree murder mean that our whole family are felons and should be denied our civil liberties?” Is our whole family guilty by association and to live in shame?

In addition to a lifelong love for my role as uncle, I cherish the role of family historian and keeper of stories. It’s easy to forget our own truth or glamorize the stories. I want to remind my niece — and the extended family as well — of our heritage.  It is identical to many.

Centuries of exploitation by the British led our Irish ancestors to flee poverty and famine between 1842 and 1855. The failed social revolution of 1848, and repressive measures attempting to prop up remnants of the Holy Roman Empire, lead our German forebears to flee their homeland in 1850 and 1856.

At last count we now have 31 Governors feeding into what I call ignorance, xenophobia and fear-mongering. As our Governor Mark Dayton has said, Minnesotans are better than that. President Obama has also tried to call Americans to our better instincts all the while fully supporting French efforts to apprehend the terrorists and retaliate forcefully on ISIS in Syria.

Most of us call ourselves Christians. This Advent we would do well to pay special attention to the story of our salvation, our liberation from slavery to freedom. Let’s place the Flight into Egypt front and center this year. Let’s remember Jesus’ own “post” on the social media of his day. In the poor, the naked, the infirm, the homeless, those seeking refuge we see the face of Christ.  Or, we don’t!

If nothing else, we would do well to see our own!

Celebrating An End to War

Times sure have changed. Time was when someone went into “the service.” Now, they are “in the military.” From my way of seeing things we need to rekindle some of those old values. Veterans Day is a good time to start.

Dad was nine years old on the first Armistice Day. He never tired of telling the story of pride, patriotism and jubilation that accompanied the end of World War I. What the farms of Cedar County Nebraska lacked in population and national prominence yields not an inch to the celebrations caught on news reels and now iconic photos.

So, what’s changed? Much, indeed. Too much to chronicle here or to bemoan on what is a national holiday. Rather, we would do better to focus on what we can restore, what in our national character we can rekindle, how might we restore honor to our tarnished national self-esteem. That would be a realistic response to a genuine need.

Here’s a few thoughts:

  • Rekindle a sense of service to our nation. Nothing grandiose today! What if we were to start simple and keep it local? What can we do today, this week, this month to strengthen the social fabric of our neighborhoods, communities, civic organizations? Do something, do it more than once so it becomes a habit.
  • Say thanks to someone serving in the military. Set aside the politics for a moment. Deal with how and when we should use military force in foreign affairs vigorously but on a case by case basis. Don’t take it out on individual service personnel. Today I resolve to call my 83 y/o brother to say thanks for his 30-year military career and to write a letter to my grand-nephew, Isaac currently serving in South Korea.
  • Work for peace! No one hates war more than those who have known war. War is hell — the end of war is our cause for celebration. Veterans I know are the last to aggrandize their experience — many keep silent about their actual experience because they never want their loved ones to know what they have known. We honor them best by reverencing the full truth of their sacrifice.

Today we commemorate the end of a horrific war. We recognize the sacrifice and loss of family and neighbors in all war. We honor those who serve today. With those who have known the ultimate cost first hand we pray, “Never again! Never again, war!”

What Would Mom Say?

When I’d be moping around in my adolescent funk or otherwise being disappointed with what life was — or wasn’t — sending my way Mom would often say, “Y’know, life is pretty much what you make of it!” Then she’d keep silent, letting reality sink in. She said a lot of wise stuff about life! This is just one that’s popping up a lot these days.

Earlier this week I was speaking with a dear, dear friend. She, too, is a Mom. In fact, she’s a Grandma seven times over. One of her children is considering a job transfer to a different city. This is really a painful decision for everyone involved. No more having just the grandkids for an overnight. No more spontaneous visits to the Children Museum. No more school productions or soccer games to applaud. Yes, life sends plenty of disappointment our way.

But what really took me off guard was Sarah’s response. Ever the “Mom” with wisdom aplenty she said to her son: “Yes, I would be very sad. I would really miss you. But you need to know this… You are not responsible for my happiness — I am!” Talk about profound, honest, empowering wisdom from a mother!

Yesterday was a day filled with many frustrations… a home repair project for a friend took twice as long as it should have, the caulk-gun didn’t work when I wanted to seal cracks in the driveway, insulation we had installed the day before wasn’t sticking to the window as it should, battle was waged with a health care system more focused on profits than on people, my 16 y/o car has developed a metallic clatter that I can no longer ignore.

No wonder the wisdom of these wise Moms resurfaced from the recesses of my consciousness. What am I to make of this litany of frustrations? Do I really want to concede my emotional wellbeing to the power of caulk-guns, window insulation, and the clatter of a car engine?  I guess the choice is mine!

We still depend on our mothers’ wisdom to navigate life’s disappointments, salvaging happiness from a litany of frustrations.  We might say of our mothers what I imagine Sarah would say about her grandkids, “They may be gone, but they never leave us.  And that’s a good thing!”

A Bizarre Juxtaposition

Strange how our brains work! This morning my nephew’s six kids, ages 4 to 14, came to mind as I was reading about second century Egyptian hermits. Truly, such an improbable connection surprised even me.

Yes, the kids are pretty typical in every way with their child-like antics and periodic meltdowns. Though we love them, the general chaos of the household leads us to stay with their grandparents when we are in Omaha. Add our niece’s three kids who are regularly part of the mix and you have quite a catalytic explosion on your hands.

But as we have visited or hosted the families and viewed photos on Facebook, we’ve noticed something exceptional. They really get along! They are a cohesive unit. Yes, they fight and sometimes throw fits if they don’t get their way. But the care and bond each has for the other is palpable. Every child should be so lucky to grow up in families with siblings and cousins like these children.

So, here’s the piece from the second century desert hermits that worked its strange alchemy on me this morning. The bizarre juxtaposition still brings a quizzical smile to my face:

Abba Pambo, one of the early monks of Nitria, received a visit from four monks of Scetis. As each one talked to Pambo, he spoke of the others’ virtues. One had fasted, another had lived in poverty, the third was known for charity. The fourth monk, who “had lived for twenty-two years in obedience to another man,” was praised as the greatest. Pambo said, “Each of the others has obtained the virtue he wished to acquire; but the last one, restraining his own will, does the will of another. Now it is of such men that the martyrs are made, if they persevere to the end.”

What we have noticed about our nephew and niece’s kids goes beyond the fact they get along and like each other. They truly care for each other — they watch out for each other and have each other’s back. They have learned how to share — perhaps the proximity of so many others has something to do with making this a necessity. Yes, each is right on schedule with the normal stages of strong ego development! But they have a quality of self-giving within a web of community that is remarkable in 21st century America.

We can spout all sorts of platitudes about family values and how parents are our first and best teachers. All this is true. Though my nephew, my niece, and their spouses would absolutely deny it and call me deluded and uninformed; they and their kids come about as close to the ideal as is humanly possible.

Yes, their kids are still children! However, from my vantage of 65 years I see them ideally positioned to one day comprehend the fullness of the Christian proclamation…

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
He humbled himself
and became obedient to death–
even death on a cross. (Phil 2:5-8)

In another place Scripture says, “…and a little child shall guide them.” Today my grandnieces and grandnephews have much to teach this old man.

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The story about Abba Pambo is originally from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection. Translated by Benedicta Ward. Rev. ed CS 59. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984. #196 (Pambo 3).  I read the account in Reclaiming Humility: Four Studies in the Monastic Tradition by Jane Foulcher. Cistercian Publications. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press. 2015. pp 75-76.