It is a beautiful day here at this old house! The iris are at their peak all around town. I did my reading and studying outside, relishing the blue sky and warm air. One can almost imagine how Eden looked and smelled on a day like this and it is easy to be full of gratitude.

I have been working my way through Teresa Jordan’s collection of blog posts, now in a book entitled “The Year of Living Virtuously: Weekends Off: A Meditation on the Search for Meaning in an Ordinary Life.” I want to quote a paragraph from her reflection on envy:

When misfortune strikes us, the tendency is to say, “Why me?” When good fortune strikes others, the tendency is to say, “Why them?” Envy brings out the worst in us. As is true for its cousin, jealousy, its color is green, the shade, I have always imagined, of bronchial phlegm. It is the “hidden emotion,” the one we least want to cop to. It hides behind the flatterer’s tongue and lashes out in the backhanded compliment. It eats us up: classical literature and mythology portray it as hissing snakes, burning coals, and a poison that invades the body. “Of the seven sins, only envy is no fun at all,” notes Joseph Epstein, who addressed the issue for the New York Public Library and Oxford University Press. Lust, greed, sloth and gluttony have their delights, pride can feel good, and anger at least scratches an itch. Only envy offers no reward. It doesn’t even have to focus on a rival to ruin our day.

Can I get an Amen?

Gratitude IN all things, not necessarily FOR all things, is the only sure remedy against envy’s corrosive work in our souls. There will always be people who have more than we do and people who have less. Dorothy Sayers, also quoted in the chapter, wrote that “Envy is the great leveler: if it cannot level things up, it will level them down.” That is why the Desert Fathers and Mothers, those desert dwellers of the 4th century, were so strong in their admonishment to attend to your own life and sins first before casting aspersions on someone else’s. Any time we are caught up in comparisons, we are in danger of ending up envious.

Teresa Jordan does point out that some kinds of envy can have a motivating or clarifying aspect to it. If we want what someone else has and then use that desire to motivate ourselves to work towards it, be it a material possession or a life-style attribute, that can be a good thing. However, when we desire something we don’t have, it can also discourage us, leading to depression and sadness. Basically, the safest approach is to live each moment in gratitude, thanking God for the beauty and life we find ourselves in.

One of my new “mantras” that works in all kinds of situations, including ones where I am in danger of being envious is the hymn I learned in childhood, “I Am Jesus’ Little Lamb” written by Henrietta L. von Hayn, 1724-1782:

1. I am Jesus’ little lamb,
Ever glad at heart I am;
For my Shepherd gently guides me,
Knows my need, and well provides me,
Loves me every day the same,
Even calls me by my name.

2. Day by day, at home, away,
Jesus is my Staff and Stay.
When I hunger, Jesus feeds me,
Into pleasant pastures leads me;
When I thirst, He bids me go
Where the quiet waters flow.

3. Who so happy as I am,
Even now the Shepherd’s lamb?
And when my short life is ended,
By His angel host attended,
He shall fold me to His breast,
There within His arms to rest.

With Jesus as my Good Shepherd (see Psalm 23), I have what I need and isn’t that enough?

 

 

 

Happy Memorial Day weekend, everyone! I hope you will all take a minute at 3 PM on Monday for a minute of silence to honor those who have died serving this country. As the political and social fabric of this nation is showing signs of serious fraying, I hope that we can as Americans unite in honoring the true meaning of Memorial Day. We have successfully raised a generation for whom it really is all about them. This selfish individualism makes it difficult to have any meaningful discussion about “the common good” in our communities let alone in our nation. I am hoping that John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address quote,”Ask not what your country can do for you but ask what you can do for your country,” becomes a functional reality but it seems to be a thin hope these days.

Meanwhile, we here at this old house are preparing for a fun weekend: the Boulder Creek festival is going on, the Bolder Boulder race is on Monday, and with the historic summer community beginning to come in to Chautauqua, the weekly Mah Jongg game will expand to two tables. Hopefully, the predicted rain will be limited to some occasional short showers and won’t put a damper (pun intended) on anyone’s plans.

Memorial Day in the USA is traditionally the start of summer. No matter what the weather is doing, the calendar says “summer” and many of us mentally shift into summer clothing, activities and pace of life. We begin to live into the reality of summer regardless of what it may be doing outside at the moment.

This is much like our Christian faith. We know that Christ is raised, death has been overcome and the Kingdom of God is at work. Yet, if we follow the news, it is hard to believe those truths are in any kind of practical way. Public discourse is rude, demonstrations turn violent, infrastructure is failing, politicians are some of the least respected people in the nation as are other authority figures like police and teachers, and greed is threatening to exploit the National Park system. It can be hard to believe that God’s Kingdom is actively overcoming poverty, hatred, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, pollution, climate change, and the pornography of sex and violence.

One of the lines from Fr. Richard Rohr that has become a mantra for me is “We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” That means that it is in the doing of life well that our thinking and attitudes are changed. We have lost that idea in raising and educating children. Life is full of situations that require us to do the good, wise and true thing whether we feel like it or not.

Too often, we have allowed children to use fickle feelings to excuse bad behavior. We as adults are guilty of that as well. I thought it was interesting in today’s paper that the University of Colorado is seeing a rise in anxiety and depression among students. If doing things based on how you felt, what was only right for you, was the healthy path, then anxiety and depression levels would be going down! My teacher friend is seeing this rise in anxiety in her second graders as well. If we have a nation full of people doing what is right and authentic for them, then we should be the happiness nation in the world! Thank God Christ wasn’t driven by his feelings when push came to Good Friday! 

Too many of us have lost the idea of “bucking up” and just doing something because it had to be done. Isn’t that what Memorial Day is really about? Do we think any those war dead “felt like” being in a muddy, cold trench while bullets flew overhead? Yet, we call those who came home from WWII “the Greatest Generation.” They rose to the occasion, did what had to be done, as awful as it was, as frightened as they must have been at times, and saved civilization as we knew it.

Do we dare risk throwing all that away because we are so focused on our own individual needs and feelings, the common good be damned? A place to begin might be as we pray this weekend for our nation, let’s pray for other nations and peoples of the world to be blessed, too. Believe it or not, we are not the only ones who love their country!

May we never forget the larger good for which those brave soldiers gave their lives. May we honor their deaths by living each day to the glory of God and for the good of all in this country!

 

Learning a new skill as an adult is hard. I was accepted into a choir that will be singing in Germany in June 2017 in honor of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation*. It will be thrilling to Bach sing in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, the church where Bach was Kantor for so many years, under one of the world’s great interpreters of Bach, Helmut Rillig. Not only will I be learning new music for the week-long event but I have decided to try to resurrect my high school German.

I have done this a number of times in the last 45 years but this time, I have found a system that works and is sustainable for me: Duolingo.com. I was made aware of this online program on the Road Scholars’ Facebook page. There a multitude of languages one can learn through this site as well as other ways to customize the learning process, including ways to test out of lessons, which I have yet to do.

I chose a “regular” commitment level, which means about 10 minutes a day. You can commit to more or less and there are days when I have done a lot more than my basic commitment. Short lessons teach new words and algorithms focus on your weak spots in the practice sessions, which you can do as many or as few times as you want.

There are little reward points called “lingots” that you can spend in the virtual store on things like a lesson in idioms or a timed practice or buying a “day off” when life prevents you from keeping your commitment one day. I get a daily reminder e-mail and I can even post my progress to my Linked-In page. There is the option of competing with others via Facebook, an option I have not chosen to do at this point.This is a wonderful program and I have been doing it daily now for nearly three weeks. I am pleased that I remembered some and am pretty good about translating from German into English. I do less well translating English into German.

All of it is still humbling. Remembering whether a certain German noun is masculine, feminine or neuter is hard and I often get dinged as I move through my lessons. It isn’t enough to have the noun correct; I must have the article correct as well! Computer games like this don’t let you cheat: I either know it or I don’t! There really are absolutes with German nouns and their articles.

One can extrapolate this idea  of “I know it or I don’t” into training of any kind, be it physical, mental or even spiritual. A disciplined life really does bring its own rewards and often from activities engaged in for just a few minutes every day. Of course, a disciplined life is also a way of being that includes an attitude as well as the specific physical, mental or spiritual exercises we intentionally do. Never despise the small! Over a period of time, those small habits can bring great changes into your life.

While ten minutes a day will not allow me to discuss with Herr Rillig the finer points of Bach’s cantatas when I am in Germany, it will allow me to order a sandwich and buy a pair of shoes. Auf Deutsch! And that will be reward enough for me. What can you start doing today for ten minutes that will bring you a reward at some point? Begin now!

*If you want information on how you, too, can audition for this choir, contact me ASAP.

“What is the deepest thing you feel called toward–the one you feel passionate about and you know is profoundly true! How can you live this out in the world without apology or pretense?”

That was the question early this morning as I was sitting in my chair in this old house, journaling the reflection questions for the next chapter in Christine Valters Paintner’s “Illuminating the Way:Embracing the Wisdom of Monks and Mystics.” Wow! What a question for that time of day! Or any time of day, actually. What would your answer be?

Mine was “worship and music.” Those two realities have driven my life since childhood and continue to be passions of mine. I have always been one that loves to practice. In high school, I would spend four hours on Saturday mornings practicing for my piano, organ and violin lessons. I was the kid who went to church after getting in late from prom and before going on the after prom picnic the next day. Had I not been in a conservative denomination that still doesn’t believe God calls and equips women to lead the Church, I probably would have gone to seminary. Yet, at this point in my life, I can honestly say my gifts are better used as a musician instead of a pastor. Christian worship and music are truly passions of mine and have been for many years.

Here in these latter days of my life, the question has become for me more about where I want to continue using my gifts than if there are areas I want to pursue that have been sidelined due to the need to “make money.” I have been very blessed in that my work has been my creative expression. Many people don’t get that opportunity and use their post-working days to engage in activities they didn’t have time or opportunity to follow while raising kids and working to support a family. I don’t take this gift lightly but it is time to ask before age and health make it impossible to ask, where does God want me to use my gifts now?

Maybe in the same place and in the same way I have been using them! However, I think, periodically, it is good to ask ourselves if God is inviting us into a change of some kind. Are we staying “status quo” because that is really where God wants us or because we are too scared to explore other options? Are we in a failure of imagination due to all the practical reasons something “won’t work” or are we truly in a season of life where this is what needs to be happening? Are we in a rut or a furrow? And how do we discern one from the other?

As always, a spiritual director can be most useful here but the most important first step is the willingness to ask the question. An open heart is the beginning of any discernment process: a willingness to be chosen.

One way to tell a rut from a furrow is the growth evidenced in each. Things don’t grow in ruts because they keep getting run over and packed down; furrows are fertile nurseries for seeds.

Which are you living in?

The University is holding graduation today in the football stadium and it is pouring rain! Hail, thunder, lightning: oh, my. All those anticipated outdoor graduation parties and barbecues–I hope they have a Plan B!

This past week, coincidentally on Ascension Day, we celebrated the end of our “Year of the Jubilee,” a year of quiet discernment following the clear ending of a long-time call. We sat over lunch in one of our favorite places and gave thanks for all that is past, anticipating all that is to come. We reviewed the principles we had worked under this past year and began to formulate ideas of how to discern what comes next. It was the first time in a year that we talked about finding the next places of work because you can’t listen if you are planning! So, it is with joy and trust in God that we step out into these days of asking, seeking and knocking.

Here at this old house, we have been reading “The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning” by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham. I highly recommend it! The Church has not done well dealing with imperfection in the lives of the faithful. This book embraces imperfection because it is a part of being human. Only God is perfect, a fact we too often forget and, actually hate deep down, if we are honest.

Last night, I began the chapter called “Not Magic, But Miracle.” It can be summed up in this quote: “Spirituality involves not magic but miracle and mystery; not willfulness but willingness.” The example the book gives to help clarify this is that the misuse of alcohol is a form of magic; booze leads alcoholics to believe all kinds of false things about themselves and the world. It is an attempt by alcoholics to control their life and/or the lives of others. Spirituality, on the other hand, embraces the unknown through miracle and mystery. It is a letting go of control and of letting God be God. It rejoices that we are imperfect human beings.

Those who are not alcoholics can still struggle with this magic vs mystery concept. Performing religious rites such as church attendance (notice the rise in it after terrorist attacks) or mindless prayer rituals in an attempt to get God to bless us in a way we define can be a form of magic. Using religion to manipulate or control is not engaging in healthy spirituality. Eating or shopping in an attempt to improve our mood can be a type of magic. It is certainly willfulness and is in stark contrast to a willingness to be in the grief or pain, embracing it, and working through it instead of hoping it will somehow magically “go away.”

One way to check if an action is willfulness or willingness is your response to the person who suggests your choice of action isn’t a healthy one. Do you become defensive? Angry? Become secretive about your behaviors? If you can engage in an honest dialogue about why you want to eat/drink/shop at this moment, then you are in a space of willingness, a mindset that embraces imperfection. If you don’t want anyone to know about any of your habits, you may want to find a spiritual director and examine their purpose in the light of God’s love and mercy.

If you do discover that you are trying to change habits or situations through magic and willfulness, ask yourself “What do I want?” Then, ask it again. Ask it over and over until you have peeled the “onion of emotions and false thoughts” down to the core of who God created you to be. Then, embrace that core with a willingness to pursue God’s leading you to the best next step for you. Walk in the mystery of love and life, looking for miracles along the way.

That is what we are doing. Care to join us?
Until you heal the wounds of your past, you will continue to bleed. You can bandage the bleeding with food, with alcohol, with drugs, with work, with cigarettes, with sex, but eventually, it will all ooze through and stain your life. You must find the strength to open the wounds, stick your hands inside, pull out the core of the pain that is holding you in your past, the memories, and make peace with them.
Iyanla Vanzant
 

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