Advent Word: Beautify

It seems ironic that “beautify” is the word on which I am meditating today. It has not been a “beautiful” kind of day. It has been a busy day, a challenging day, an ordinary day where the stresses and strains of human life are evident.

Beautify.

Then. I recalled that the word was “beautify” not “beautiful.” There is a difference. Beautify is an intention…bringing beauty in to a place or experience. It’s a simple but transformative action: bringing an element of beauty to the ordinary.

I began to see the day differently.

It started with a ritual at my daughter’s school. The incoming class makes squares for a quilt; the quilt is presented to the school at Winter Ceremony. Each year, the community of parents, teachers, and friends are invited to add stitches to the quilt and blend words of love and encouragement into the fabric. That morning began by embroidering the word, “peace” onto the community quilt, next to my daughter’s quilt square of hands holding the world. I was one of many stitches beautifying the fabric, each person making her or his own contribution to the whole.

Then, I served at food pantry. It was an unbelievably busy day at the pantry. Admittedly, it was a hard day where we ran low on food. The crowd was tense at times, the volunteers were exhausted. Then, there were moments of intentional beauty: parents from the day school that had donated unbelievable amounts of toys, clothes, coats that we could offer to those waiting. A man who was checking in at the beginning and saw a woman come in late with a look of worry on her face; he waved her over and gave her his place in line saying, “I can wait until next week…take my place.” She cried and called it a miracle. Another woman who had been served the week before came in and received a gentle and kind reminder of the USDA “once a month” rule. Instead of disappointment or leaving she asked, “can I stay and volunteer?” To which we said, “of course!” We needed her and she brought light and hope to beautify that space with her optimism.

After pantry, some of us exchanged reflections on the day. We shared highs and lows and words of support. We each had seen different beauty emerging even in the challenges of the day. Grace and abundance were revealed, story by story and person by person.

Beautify

I realize tonight that with intention, beauty was all around us and abiding with us throughout this day. People chose to allow it in, time after time. The intention to bring the beauty of art, nature, human kindness, gentleness, giving, service, compassion into the fabric of life is like those stitches on the quilt square. Stitch by stitch, the ordinary is transformed.

Blessed are those who show up; they beautify the world.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/cda/46959365/files/2014/12/img_0983.jpg

In response to the AdventWord global advent calendar project with the Society for St. John the Evangelist. Today’s word: #Beautify. Follow the worldwide advent calendar at:http://www.aco.org/adventword.cfm

Posted in Advent 2014 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Advent Word: Become

Whenever I hear someone ask a child, “what to do want to be when you grow up?” I cringe. It’s not that I have any aversion to exploring career options. It’s that the question presumes there is a singular answer…a career destination…to which we must constantly be striving. To “be” is to arrive. I have a different lead-in question:

What are you becoming?

Before I ever became a social worker, I sat at the bedsides of nursing home residents hearing their stories, supporting their strengths, being present in their struggles and their celebrations of wisdom and experience.

I was becoming.

I guest lectured, then filled in to teach one class…then another…and another. I taught what I knew and learned what pedagogy worked through trial and error. My students taught me how to become a great teacher, a mentor of adults moving into their vocational paths.

I was becoming.

I wrote my first grant before I knew what that really was, or how the whole system of funded research really works. I put an idea on paper, and it was rejected. I received feedback and re-wrote it again and again and again. I learned the system. I finally found someone to take a risk and invested so that I could test an idea.

I was becoming.

Tonight, I write my thoughts on a word, tied to a deeper meaning. I pull my life story into the understanding of how God moves in the world. I share a message, and pray for the words to land where they are most needed. I rediscover sacred texts and ponder meaning, existence, community, faith.

I am becoming.

It isn’t a future destination that defines who we are. It is unfolding into the experience of transformation in this present moment, allowing ourselves to be formed with each lesson, each experience, through formal education and life’s serendipitous lessons. Like a painting we emerge, layer upon layer of color and nuance building upon each other. Even the artist must trust that the image will emerge.

We learn. We emerge. We become.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/cda/46959365/files/2014/12/img_0836.jpg

In response to the AdventWord global advent calendar project with the Society for St. John the Evangelist. Today’s word: #Become. Follow the worldwide advent calendar at:http://www.aco.org/adventword.cfm

Posted in Advent 2014 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Advent Word: Experience

I pulled up to my daughter’s elementary school one unforgettable Friday afternoon, two years ago. Like many parents, I was there waiting for her, earlier than usual, and all I wanted to do was put my arms around my child and feel her safeness near me. Earlier that day, parents in Newtown, Connecticut and all around the country had dropped their young ones off in carpool lanes and at bus-stops. Some of those parents would never have that same chance for a Friday afternoon pick-up. I understood that Friday afternoon just how lucky and privileged I was to hug my child. Parents around the country felt the same way.

That hug…that moment when her carefree innocence met my parental urge to protect wrapped in the gut-wrenching realization that I could not…that moment was pure, human experience.

I know…it isn’t the kind of experience any of us like to think about. I was thinking about that experience today, though, as I meditated on this advent word. At least 145 human lives felt the gut-wrenching reality of that human experience directly today. The difference, though, is stunning. Two years ago, my Facebook wall was filled with admonitions to hug our children, parents debating keeping the news from their children of various ages, and others finding ways to discuss tragedy with their teens. The tragic shootings at Sandy Hook elementary rocked the lives of families across the a United States. It filled our thoughts, and fueled collective grief. Some reacted with sympathy, some with advocacy, others with confusion. All real experiences. My experience of and response to that tragic event was a catalyst in my own vocational journey, too. I have been writing that story lately as I describe the events in my heart and soul that prompted me to serve the world…and the Church…in new and different ways.

I logged on to my social media tonight, I suppose expecting to see and be with other people sharing experience. A few of my friends were sharing authentic emotional experience to tragedy, and I appreciated their reflections. What stunned me is that the “trending” social media was nothing to do with global tragedy. It was actually the story of literal bull-shit sold by the “cards against humanity” makers. Really? That is the most important and popular story today?

I had another human experience: Anger. Frustration. Disappointment.

I wonder sometimes why we fail to experience. We want happiness without sadness, life without loss. To experience life is to feel its precious, impermanent qualities and yet love it anyhow. So, we escape instead of experiencing. Then, I remember why we fail to experience: vulnerability is hard work.

This advent, we are challenged to open to the experience of human living. In our Christian narrative, this is how God shows up incarnate: a vulnerable infant, improbable surroundings, powerful rulers and authority figures seeking to destroy life that feels threatening to the status quo, a life of longing, a life of love, miracles, denials, followers, deserters.

This, God knows, is experience. And it is to this experience that God arrives, fully.

May those whose experience this night is pain, loss, confusion, grief, fear, overwhelm…as well as those who experience hope, relief, service, advocacy, survival…know in the quiet depths of their souls that it is for this experience of human living that God has shown up, and resides with us in our midst.

Even now, even tonight. In Pakistan and Ferguson. In Sandy Hook and our own vulnerable lives. God is here, with us, in the depths and heights of this experience of being human.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/cda/46959365/files/2014/12/img_0835.jpg

Posted in Advent 2014 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Advent Word: Expand

I have been holding a particular poem from St. John of the Cross in my mind today as I consider deeply what it means to expand into this advent season. Let me start by sharing his image-laden verse:

If
you want
the Virgin will come walking down the road
pregnant with the holy
and say,

“I need shelter for the night, please take me inside your heart,
my time is so close.”

Then, under the roof of your soul, you will witness the sublime
intimacy, the divine, the Christ
taking birth
forever,

as she grasps your hand for help, for each of us
is the midwife of God, each of us.

Yes there, under the dome of your being does creation
come into existence externally, through your womb, dear pilgrim—
the sacred womb of your soul,

as God grasps our arms for help; for each of us is
His beloved servant
never
far.

If you want, the Virgin will come walking
down the street pregnant
with Light and
sing . . .

If You Want by St. John of the Cross, translated by Daniel Ladinsky,
Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West

I hold this image of intimacy and expansion tenderly today. This image of birthing is perhaps the most intimate of human experiences. But, birth always leads to expansion, to letting go, to emergence into unknown tomorrows.

As I was waiting for an image of expansion to find me today, I was setting up the spiritual landscape of my home. Today, I brought out the small, olive wood carved crèche that I bought from a Palestinian Christian who was selling them to support a meager congregation in a war-torn area. I set it on the windowsill above my advent wreath. I added stars and light to each of the four corners of my house in preparation for solstice. Then, I set up the “Tree of Life” menorah, in preparation for the coming week’s Hanukah celebration. Before I set my menorah on the candle table my father had made me, I covered it with the delicately crocheted table doily made by my grandmother. As I smoothed its edges, I took in the way her hundreds of tiny stitches formed this magnificent piece of lace:

IMG_0834.JPG

I treasure tradition: spiritual tradition, family tradition, religious and cultural tradition. Today, as my hands smoothed that piece of lace, I felt the expanse of time, and the re-creation of traditions and practices that allow for the birth of God’s presence in the world. I breathed deeply into that expansion, the way that one breathes into the contractions of labor instead of fighting against them. I felt the words of St. John of the Cross:

“…each of us is the midwife of God, each of us.”

Tonight, I welcome the expansion of God’s presence that fills this season with the expectancy of Light.

Welcome.

Posted in Advent 2014 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Advent Word: Risk

I don’t think of myself as a risk taker, at least not in the traditional sense. Even as a child, my preferred playground equipment was a swing…without anyone pushing me. The most feared days of gym class were when the ropes and poles were extended and we were expected to climb towards the ceiling. Even as a teenager, I was so anxious at the thought of getting caught that trying to sneak around was out of the question.

At the same time, I sang solos at my school concerts, delivered speeches with ease, and never thought twice about befriending someone different than I was. Eventually, I would realize that I was comfortable in my own skin, and could be just as happy whether I was partnered or single. This made it possible for me to travel solo, to relocate across the country, and to seize opportunities for education that challenged and expanded my thoughts. Perhaps my mind and my spirit have more capacity for risk taking than my body.

Today, the advent word I am meditating on is this idea of “risk” in all its forms and manifestations. What I wish, during advent, is that we would open ourselves to the possibility of risk. Not risk for our own thrill-seeking, nor for a chance to rack up personal accomplishments. I wish that we could embody risk the way in which we greet each other as filled with divine potential.

During this season I often think about Mary, Jesus’ Mom. These days in which we celebrate Advent were her most holy…and risk filled…days of waiting. Her risk was a daily pattern of movement, nomadic wandering, inner hope. She risked trusting Divine Guidance, risked social sanction, and risked birthing and bonding with the incarnate gift of divine humanness that she wrapped in cloths, and held, and nursed. Her holy waiting is ours, too: we can take the risk to greet every human being as having been born in the likeness of God. We have to risk seeing that likeness of God, even if we are afraid, uncertain, or judgmental. Our reactions are human, but love that reaches beyond our boundaries of difference is divine.

Take that risk this advent. See the expectation of the incarnate all around. Be unafraid to nurture, and quick to forgive. It is a risk…a divine risk.

In response to the AdventWord global advent calendar project with the Society for St. John the Evangelist. Today’s word: #Risk. Follow the worldwide advent calendar at:http://www.aco.org/adventword.cfm

Posted in Advent 2014 | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Advent Word: Breathe

Today, one of the social work students that I supervise in the food pantry announced that his papers were written, his exams were over and he was about to go on break.  I could relate to his joy.  However, I felt the sinking realization that his day was ending while mine was barely beginning.  I knew how much grading still stood between me and the end of the semester.

When work piles up for me, I feel like I cannot breathe.  Grading papers is one of my most dreaded tasks, and it seems lately like every imaginable task, meeting, or deadline is also pressing upon me.  I thought about ways to parse out my work but all I kept feeling was a tightening grip around my neck.

This is not a post about pausing to take a deep breath so I could face it all.  No, indeed.  If you want that, you can find another blog.  Being an INFJ, I know that there will be no rest for me until I feel free from my to-do list.  For me, it’s about choosing to hold my breath for as long as possible and getting it done so that eventually, I can breathe.

I was on paper 14 (of 26) around 3 hours ago.  I’m now finished with 24 with two late papers straggling.  I was fueled tonight by some caffeinated, fizzy drink along with two cups of tea and half of a pint-sized container of Cherry Garcia fro-yo.  My great reward for getting through this exercise in exertion is that I get to breathe in the potential of writing this particular (honest to a fault) blog post and seeing what happens with the grace of the ginormous post-grading breath.

At one point as I was submerged in tonight’s paper-grading, I remembered that my cousins and I used to have this game that we played in the swimming pool.  We would take in a huge breath, submerse to the bottom, sit with our legs crossed and have an underwater tea party fixing, serving, pouring, and pretending to drink imaginary tea.  The goal was to hold your breath as long as possible and get through as much of the tea ceremony as possible before having to resurface for air.

We would move through our motions and try to keep our bodies moving and our lungs inflated. And then, we’d rise up to the surface and gasp for air.  That air would literally taste sweet, warm as it filled our lungs and so very wonderfully non-chlorinated.  That surfacing breathe was deep and memorable, even decades later.

So, that is my advent image tonight.  Surfacing for air, pulling in the deepest of breaths after pushing through with the intense moments of living.  Even though I know it’s good for me…it isn’t always the steady, slow breathing which fills me.  Sometimes I am submerged, and I do the best as can for as long as I can before I surface for the air that I know awaits me.  And there is the beauty:  I know that even in my most submerged state, there is a source of air that will fill me, permeate me, and bring me back to the wholeness of life.

Go ahead, breathe it in.  Sometimes the Ruah, the breath of life, comes to us as the fullness of life when we joyfully gasp for it after being submersed.  Breathe it in lustily and whole-heartedly with gratitude, joy, and anticipation.

grading complete

In response to the AdventWord global advent calendar project with the Society for St. John the Evangelist. Today’s word: #Breathe. Follow the worldwide advent calendar at:http://www.aco.org/adventword.cfm

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Advent Word: Wake Up!

Whenever I visit Shrinemont, I set my alarm clock for just-before-dawn. I throw on a jacket (unless it’s mid-summer!) and head to the labyrinth. Everything is silent, except the leaves and twigs beneath my feet. Birds are just waking. Once, a deer followed me, silently. There is nothing that awakens my soul more than breathing in the day in that most peaceful and sacred of spaces. I often read this prayer…

IMG_0975.JPG

Matins
–John O’Donohue

Somewhere, out at the edges, the night
Is turning and the waves of darkness
Begin to brighten the shore of dawn

The heavy dark falls back to earth
And the freed air goes wild with light,
The heart fills with fresh, bright breath
And thoughts stir to give birth to color.

I arise today

In the name of Silence
Womb of the Word,
In the name of Stillness
Home of Belonging,
In the name of the Solitude
Of the Soul and Earth.

I arise today

Blessed by all things,
Wings of breath,
Delight of eyes,
Wonder of whisper,
Intimacy of touch,
Eterity of soul,
Urgency of thought,
Miracle of health,
Embrace of God.

May I live this day

Compassionate of heart,
Clear in word,
Gracious in awareness,
Courageous in thought,
Generous in love.

In response to the AdventWord global advent calendar project with the Society for St. John the Evangelist. Today’s word: #WakeUp! Follow the worldwide advent calendar at: http://www.aco.org/adventword.cfm

Posted in Advent 2014 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Advent Word: Encourage

Earlier this week, my friend Rose sent me an email, wondering if I still had a copy of a poem I had written for a remembrance ceremony about “gifts.” She knew I had written and that we had read it at a holiday memorial service about ten years ago when I still lived and worked in St. Louis.

As soon as I received her note, a few lines rushed back into my mind but I knew that I didn’t have a copy of the original. I lost many of those files during my cross-country move. At that time, I mistakenly thought I wouldn’t need them anymore. I told her I was sorry I couldn’t help.

I kept thinking about the poem, though. I was kicking myself for being so careless to have lost it.

A few days afterwards, Rose sent me a message. She had reached out to another bereavement counselor colleague in St. Louis to see if she had a poem or reading on the theme. Not only did she have a poem….she had MY poem! Attached to her message was the same poem, “There is a Gift…” that I had written 10 years ago and 500 mikes away.

When I read it, memories and emotions came streaming back. I realized how my life has spiraled back around to touch again on these themes of loss and love, grace and growth. After I wrote that poem I moved away and took on new directions. My writing turned to scientific journals and research reports. I developed new skills, acquired new knowledge, and took on different roles in leadership. I am not the same as I was when I wrote this poem. But, it still speaks to me about my core values, and the beliefs at the core of who I am.

Today, I reflect on the word, “encourage” and I take in the layers and depths of encouragement that I have received and given today. When I take in the word, I know true encouragement is not just a little pep talk or confidence boost. It is the sharing and embodiment of the courage to live. We encourage one another because we need to jointly share in that embodiment of love and strength. We need each others words, and ideas, and embraces. With encouragement on the journey, we become more than we would be capable of becoming on our own.

To encourage is a great and mighty gift.

So, I will share encouragement by passing along this long-lost poem as well:

“There is a Gift….”

In the scrapbooks and memory pages of the mind

thoughts of you have formed a cherished and unforgettable image…

In remembering you, there is a gift.

The tears fall at times we least expect

no amount of time, space or new experience will ever

replace you…

In shedding tears, there is a gift.

Glimpses of you are caught

in waking mind, moments before dreams melt into daily reality…

In cherished connection, there is a gift.

The deepest longings of the heart

escape into the night air, acknowledged by a gleaming star…

In quiet reflection, there is a gift.

Other eyes are moist with tears,

other arms reach out to help and other

voices encourage us…

In sharing grief, there is a gift.

Life has challenging lessons,

love is stronger than anything; love is stronger than death…

In learning this, there is a gift.

We gather under the star light,

each candle spreading light, each light honoring a life…

In your life,

in our own living,

there is a gift.

In response to the AdventWord global advent calendar project with the Society for St. John the Evangelist. Today’s word: #Encourage. Follow the worldwide advent calendar at: http://www.aco.org/adventword.cfm

Posted in Advent 2014 | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Advent Word: Respond

It was on the Saturday before Advent began that I bought a large, specialty Amaryllis bulb at the local garden shop. I was told it would bloom white with red edging, and that it was ready and full of potential to be planted and grown indoors, right now. We found a large terra cotta pot, filled it with dirt from the garden, and pressed the bulb into the soil. We did what we needed to foster growth: provided water, set the bulb and pot in the sunlight. Today, I noticed that the bulb was beginning to respond with bright green leaf buds starting to sprout. Time had passed; all the necessary elements were in place. The potential of the bulb was emerging in its response to the conditions of growth.

I am a full week into my writing on these advent words that are being sent to me daily. Tonight, as I sat to write, I realized that something in me is changing, too. It is an active, noticeable emergence; a palpable feeling of something taking root in my soul. When I first began, I was looking around for pictures to take and submit to the global advent calendar on Instagram. I would sit with my pretty picture and let it inspire me to write. After doing this for a few days, I realized that images were finding me. Then, stories formed as images would appear and the two began to come together each night. Yesterday, as well as today, I found myself holding the day’s word in my mind and in my heart. These words have begun to form a response in me.

This is particularly appropriate to realize when the daily word is “respond.”

Responding is different than reacting. I think of reaction in scientific terms. In chemistry, reaction describes the automatic interaction between two substances. Reactions can be volatile, heated, or just a dull fizzle. Reactions happen simply because of the natural composition and collision of forces. Likewise, in physics we learn that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Reaction, once again, is automatic and based on an outside force.

Response is something more complex. To respond requires time, context, and intentionality. Responding tends to happen gradually over time, like the slow growth of the flower bulb I photographed today. I never need to teach my students how to react: that happens spontaneously. What I need to do is to teach them how to respond by applying skills, wisdom, knowledge, and empathy to the situations they encounter. Our response is measured, gradual, learned, and adaptive. It requires some choice…or, at the very least, receptivity…to the possibility of change.

I am responding this Advent, continuing the slow growth of what emerges in me.

IMG_0974.JPG

In response to the AdventWord global advent calendar project with the Society for St. John the Evangelist. Today’s word: #Respond. Follow the worldwide advent calendar at: http://www.aco.org/adventword.cfm

Posted in Advent 2014 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Advent Word: Show Up

There is one night in my life I remember vividly, when I allow myself to remember it. On this particular night in my late 20-something years, I had spoken a piece of advice to a client during a therapy session that circled around back to me like a boomerang. “At some point,” I said to my client, “you will need to make a choice to live.” My client was not suicidal, and my advice wasn’t flippant. Like many people…myself included…she had experienced so many losses back-to-back that it was hard not to feel like an anvil might fall from the sky at any minute. What I was giving voice to…where she herself was pushing…was to show up to her life, exactly as it was and live it.

My client reflected back to me a few months later that this was the transition point in her grief work. What she didn’t know is that it was for me, too.

That night, as I drove home from work, I wondered if I was willing to take my own advice. I had been going through the motions for a while, healing from a relationship break and the deaths of several close friends in rapid succession. I was walking in circles, playing it safe and following a familiar pattern without really seeing what life offered if lived more deeply.

That night, I bought a dozen beautiful, multicolored roses. It was a decadent spend on my tight budget. I placed them in my favorite vase. I took them upstairs to my spare room that defaulted as a closet/storage room. I made enough space there to spend the night on a few cushions, with lit candles all around me and my roses next to me. I waited and watched through the hours of that night, taking each rose and naming the people and events and experiences that had made me feel real and alive. I took in their essence and held it in my heart as powerfully as I could. I cried and laughed and cried again. I had been so numb and distanced to my own emotions. I realized that night how truly good it felt to be painfully human.

At some point, my eyes tired and I drifted off. I awoke, sleeping against one of my cushions. The daylight began to stream in my windows. On that morning, I breathed in the day and decided to show up to my life. I breathed in the possibility of great love, great pain, great risk, great reward. That was the day that I decided to live, to truly and deeply live.

On my way to work, I took my roses to the park and dropped them one by one into the stream that flowed toward the Niagara River. I released them, knowing that the stories and lives they symbolized lived in me. They could go where they needed to go, and I could go where I needed, too.

I showed up to that day, and I have been showing up every day since. That means I have been showing up to pain, loss, oppression, people letting me down, life’s darker days and challenging moments. It also means showing up to hope, love, opportunity, growth, and the grace that appears when light bursts through the cracks of my brokenness.

Showing up is what forms us. Showing up to this day allows us to be divine learners of what is known and unknown, seen and unseen. I still have moments where I ask, “is it worth it?” Without hesitation, my soul answers Yes as I remember all that has formed me, and all the potential each day holds.

Showing up is the greatest gift we can give ourselves. It is also the heart of advent, the long anticipated gift of God showing up to this human life and saying a Divine Yes each day to what unfolds.

In response to the AdventWord global advent calendar project with the Society for St. John the Evangelist. Today’s word: #ShowUp. Follow the worldwide advent calendar at: http://www.aco.org/adventword.cfm

Posted in Advent 2014 | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment