Helpless Against the Storm

Peony

Here, in my suburban yard where peonies lie thrashed on the ground, battered by weekend winds and storms, I am grateful to have peonies, rooted to the earth, beside a house, strong on its foundation.

I collected strewn branches this morning, filled a bag with switches from the river birch. Each bending of my body was a prayer for survivors in Oklahoma whose lost trees are the least of their concerns, who have nothing but their own shaken foundations.

Each time I snapped twigs and added them to the compost bag I mourned for broken bodies, those buried yesterday in rubble and, closer to home, our dear friend Leonard lying in his hospice bed.

My body stooping, straightening, snapping, stuffing.

My liturgy to remember, to ask that the ravaged can bear the suffering, find relief, have hope.

Lord, have mercy. And grant us your peace.

Remembering Brennan Manning, Part 1

Sally's eggs

Friday night at a potluck dinner with friends, I bit into a potato latke that one of our guests had brought, and I started to cry. I blame those tears on Brennan Manning.

The crispy pancake slathered with chunky applesauce took me back to the Fridays of my childhood, when my Catholic family fasted from meat. I saw my dad grating potatoes in our cramped kitchen, mixing in the eggs and milk and plopping lumpy batter into spitting oil. Dad didn’t cook much. He sizzled bacon for Sunday breakfasts, grilled meat for summer dinners and fried potato pancakes for Friday suppers.

The bite I took this past Friday connected me with Dad, whose physical abilities are now limited and who I only get to visit a few times a year. The memory pricked, and the sadness over Dad’s lost abilities and our separation spilled out. My ability to feel myself bleed is because of Brennan Manning.

Brennan was an alcoholic, turned priest, turned husband, turned speaker to evangelical Christians, whose brokenness brought him to Jesus again and again. He knew the audaciousness of God’s grace, and 15 years ago his words helped crack open my calcified heart. He taught me to stop beating myself up and to love and accept myself for who I am, Beloved of God.

Brennan Manning died Friday. I hope to honor him in the next day or so by writing about that discovery, but today I remember him by quoting from the introduction of his book The Ragamuffin Gospel in which he explains who he was writing for:

The Ragamuffin Gospel was written for the bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt-out.

It is for the sorely burdened who are still shifting the heavy suitcase from one hand to the other.

It is for the wobbly and weak-kneed who know they don’t have it altogether and are too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace.

It is for inconsistent, unsteady disciples whose cheese is falling off their cracker.

It is for poor, weak, sinful men and women with hereditary faults and limited talents.

It is for earthen vessels who shuffle along on feet of clay.

It is for the bent and the bruised who feel that their lives are a grave disappointment to God.

It is for smart people who know they are stupid and honest disciples who admit they are scalawags.

Brennan Manning wrote for himself. He wrote for me. And I’m extremely grateful.

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

Cardinal

The cardinals have migrated to the Vatican, roosting in the Sistine Chapel to pick a new Bishop of Rome. The closest I’ve come to a cardinal is watching redbirds through my kitchen window. But I have met a bishop, the Most Rev. John Donovan, who stood before the altar of St. Ann Church in the spring of 1967 to confirm me as a soldier for Jesus. I was 9 years old and seeing red, and not because of the scarlet robe the bishop was wearing.

My classmates and I had prepared for weeks. I had somehow messed up two years earlier on my First Communion Day – according to Sister Margaret Mary, God sent rain that day because we second-graders had been disobedient – so I wanted to get my Confirmation Day right.

Everything I needed to know – the answers to our 103 catechism questions – was contained on the sheets Mrs. Gabel had mimeographed and stapled into my yellow catechism folder. The bishop would quiz us during the service, as he would the confirmands at all the parishes in the diocese, and we didn’t want to be the class that disappointed him … or her.

I intended to prove myself worthy. I carried my folder home every day. I wore its cover thin from studying those questions: Who is God? What is man? Name the 12 apostles. The 7 sacraments. The 10 commandments. I learned every answer, word for word, even the hard sacrament (Extreme Unction). I could impress Bishop Donovan with my knowledge of papal history: The first pope was Peter, picked by Jesus when he said, “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.”

We packed the front pews on Confirmation Day, brimming with maturity. We girls had traded our wide-ribboned hats for lacy triangular veils, our white anklets for nylon stockings. I stood on my black patent toes to see Bishop Donovan at the end of the procession of altar boys, Father Mayer and the other parish priests. I rose and knelt and sang and responded through the liturgy until His Excellency came around the altar and descended the steps to stand before us. I sat upright, my hand ready to shoot up. It was quiz time.

He posed his first question: “What is the greatest commandment?”

Greatest commandment? I mentally flipped through my folder. I didn’t remember the commandments being ranked. I glanced around, hoping someone else knew the answer.

A hand went up. “I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt not have any other gods before me?” It was more a question than an answer, but a good choice. God put that commandment first, so it must be the most important.

But it wasn’t.

Another brave soul ventured: “Honor thy father and mother.”

He probably got points with his parents but not with the bishop.

The next guess, “Remember the Sabbath by keeping it holy,” was another great choice – we were sitting in church after all – but still wrong.

All good commandments, the bishop assured us, but not the greatest.

After much coaxing, he eventually got some version of the answer he wanted: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength.”

“Now,” the bishop continued. I sat up for the next question, glad the hard one was out of the way. “What’s the second greatest commandment?”

What? Another ranking? If we didn’t know the greatest, how could we know the second greatest?

By some miracle, and a lot more coaxing, someone eventually got it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

I hoped the bishop was finally ready to ask a question from our catechism folder – he had 103 to choose from. Instead, he turned and climbed back to the altar. The service was moving on.

That’s why I was mad as my name was announced and I stood before him. After weeks of preparation to understand our faith and show the bishop what we’d learned, we never got the chance.

I hoped Mrs. Gabel wouldn’t yell at us on Monday. We knew our prayers and creed and the difference between mortal and venial sins, even our state of original sin thanks to Adam and Eve and the serpent. It wasn’t our fault the bishop only cared about love.

A Reading from the Bottle of Pantene

Wash, rinse, repeat

The idea for this blog squirted out of my shampoo bottle the other morning. As I lathered and rinsed my hair – I wash it too often to need to repeat the process – I realized those venerable three steps are the same ones I need to take to maintain trust and connection with all the people in my life. See if you agree.

Wash. When – not if – I get in a lather about something, there’s always someone whipping up that anger in me. I sometimes froth privately, sometimes spume publicly; either way, some part of my connection with that person is scrubbed.

Rinse. The lather often subsides on its own; the inward or outward tension fizzles as we move on with our days. But a sticky residue remains if I fail to rinse it off. I may need to talk through my frustrations, understand an opposing view or apologize for my actions.

Repeat. On a shampoo bottle, this simple word seems like a marketing ploy to get us to use twice as much shampoo as we need. In life, if we really want close, trusting relationships, the repetition never ends – doesn’t the Bible mention something about forgiving each other 70 times seven times, and wasn’t that really a metaphor for always?

Seeking and extending forgiveness is a daily practice. I hope to see and address each small wrong to keep it from bubbling into a bouffant of offenses that snags my relationship with those I love.

Here’s an example of combing through the tangles.

Wash

At the end of a family vacation a number of years ago with Craig’s sisters’ families, he and I were packing suitcases and hauling them to the car alongside one brother-in-law and his kids. Where were our kids? Sprawled on the bed relishing their last few minutes of cable TV. Seeing the contrast in our families filled me with shame – why hadn’t I taught my kids to be helpful? – which I instantly covered with anger. I returned to our room and berated my older three kids for being mindless, lazy and self-centered. I was loud and ugly.

Was their desire to watch a few more minutes of shows they couldn’t get at home so malicious? No. The malice was verbally abusing my kids because I was ashamed of looking like a bad mother. From my shame, I shamed them.

Rinse

Soon after I finished my tirade, I knew I had to come clean and apologize. Unfortunately, my kids had scattered and I had to hunt them down one by one. I found Kristen in the hallway. “Kristen, I’m sorry for yelling. I should have just asked for help. Please forgive me.” That wasn’t too hard.

Repeat

I found Anna in the room. “Anna, I’m sorry for yelling. I should have just asked for help. Please forgive me.” Two down, although the second was a bit harder.

When I saw Dave in the lobby, I was overcome by the realization that a few seconds of lathering had hurt three of the people I love the most. I teared up as I apologized to him: “Dave, I’m sorry for yelling. I should have just asked for help. Please forgive me.”

All three were quick to forgive. The harder part was forgiving myself for my automatic willingness to sacrifice their love and respect so that I could present us as the perfect family.

Then, as now, perfection eluded me, but at least I felt tingly clean for the long ride home.

Some Reassembly Required

“How are you caring for yourself?” The question came from a friend, one of two I meet with most Thursday afternoons for encouragement and accountability. I had just finished talking about my uncertainties in dealing with a struggling loved one – a struggle these caring women know firsthand. Together we are learning that we can’t change other people; we can only change ourselves and how we respond to them. Rather than letting their trials consume our thoughts, worries, energy and money, we are trying to take care of ourselves.

How was I doing that? The answer came without thinking: “I’m walking every day and watching what I eat.”

After they left, I considered my response. Yes, I was caring for myself by eating less and moving more, but why did I go immediately to diet and exercise? Why not the other healthy practices I began or continued over the past year?

  • I meet weekly with these women, who listen and understand and gently encourage me to love better.
  • I’ve filled the house with Christmas carols, ornamented the tree with memories and invited family and friends over.
  • Craig and I share this blog and are challenged to post every week on it.
  • I’ve established a morning routine of walking, reading, praying, writing on some days and tackling the New York Times crossword puzzle.
  • I’m cooking more locally raised and seasonal foods.
  • I worship on Sunday mornings with a community of friends who affirm and challenge me.
  • I practice yoga.
  • I spend time with a granddaughter who delights to be with me.

My physical body is only one part of me. I am also a mental, emotional, relational and spiritual being. To be healthy, I must recognize the importance of caring for all these parts. At times it seems daunting, just more to-dos that leave me feeling guilty when I don’t do them. But now that we’re empty nesters and others’ schedules (and food preferences) aren’t dictating ours, Craig and I are feeling a freedom to develop a new life rhythm, one that pulses with our heart’s desires rather than the lock step of duty.

It’s a rhythm that needs movement and stillness, solitude and community, inward reflection and outward service, truth and grace. Comfortably moving through my days with this dynamic tension is a lifelong mission. It keeps me dependent on God and grateful for the loving people in my life.

As I look over my list of healthy habits, I don’t see much in the area of service. I’ve had seasons of intense service but right now am more focused on time for writing and time with Craig, our family and friends. But seasons change, and as the new year begins, I’ll be watching for my next movement. Maybe a nudge will come during a cold morning walk.

Half-Staff, Full Sorrow

Framed by a 14-foot beam recovered from the ruins of the World Trade Center, the flag outside the Overland Park Fire Training Center flies at half-staff.

This morning I retraced the walk I chronicled in my Election Day blog, past the field and hawks, past the maple and redbud trees, past the Post Office, to the firefighters’ training center where I voted. The bare trees and busy Post Office on today’s journey reflected a typical December day one week before Christmas. Only one thing told me this day was anything but typical.

All the flags were flying at half-staff.

The red, white and blue that six weeks ago fanned my optimism today embodies my sorrow for the 27 women and children massacred last Friday in Newtown, Connecticut.

I need these visual reminders. Half a continent away, busy with my own Christmas preparations, I’m not living the horror of Newtown. Quite the opposite. Craig and I had three parties over the weekend, two of them in our home. We laughed with friends and family around the candlelight at our dining room table rather than cry amid the candlelight of a prayer vigil.

Today I light a candle of remembrance, a candle that causes me to pause each time I see it or catch its scent. A candle that reminds me to stop analyzing (and listening to analysts) and to start praying. A candle that calls me to mourn with those who mourn. And most importantly during this Advent season, a candle that compels me not to comfort myself by self-righteously placing blame on other people or institutions or ideologies but to reflect on my own sinfulness, my own biases, my own failure to love.

In the wake of last week’s shootings, lawmakers are promising action to make our communities safer. Yes, we need a civilized discussion on gun control, violent games and healthcare for the mentally ill, but I’m not holding out hope for positive change to come from Washington.

It must come from us. It must come from me. It must start with my admission that I have the same capacity for hatred and evil as a mass murderer, that I stand in constant need of repentance and forgiveness. My sins might not be as obvious, but they are just as real and, sadly, pretty much the same ones I’ve been battling my entire adult life.

Advent is the perfect time for such an admission because it is also the time we mark the coming of the One who is always there to forgive. In the Advent devotional God with Us, Scott Cairns quotes the wisdom of his priest, Father George Paulsen: “Most of us find that the sins of our days are the sins of our lives. And the worst thing we can do is let our shame or our pride keep us from asking forgiveness every time we must. The fact that Jesus will always forgive you finally becomes the prod. One day, you realize that you are tired of this confession, tired of this sin; on that day, you’ll decide you truly want it gone.”

Lord, have mercy. May it be so. Truly.

Dressing Down for the Holidays

Nature, by its very nature, undresses every winter and exposes itself to the wind and cold and people passing by. Stripped to its bones, it reveals the beautiful skeleton that’s masked in other seasons.

As I walked the other day, I saw birds’ nests in dozens of trees, where they’d been hidden for months in the crook of leafy branches. I noticed bark shredding off the river birch, moss covering the rutted wood of the ash, roots snaking just under the dormant grass, young switches of dogwood beaming red, the even-brighter red winterberries of a holly hedge.

I wish I were as comfortable revealing my core being this time of year. But my very nature is more apt to cover up. Even when I resolve to be mindful of the foundation of Christmas – Christ – and to expose myself to reflection and wonder, I drape myself in a flowing to-do list and layer on festivities. I humble-brag through a Christmas letter rather than admit struggles in personal notes. I plan a large party where short conversations skim the surface. I shop for things nobody needs.

Thursday night I hauled out decorations with only a few hours available over the next two days to put them up. I wanted the house merry for the brunch I was hosting Saturday. Thanks to visions from catalogs hip-hopping in my mind, I lost my usual nostalgia as I unpacked the boxes. I suddenly hated our mismatched Christmas stockings – some striped red and white, some blue and white, a furry one appliqued with a bear even though its owner is almost 21 years old, the toe of one forever stained and hardened with wax from the candle that melted as it hung above the fireplace years before. Did we really need to relive that Christmas memory one more time?

I was inexplicably seized by the need to get new stockings. Before Saturday’s brunch. The playful, pointy Whoville stockings I’d seen at a store across town. Never mind that it was too late on a Thursday night and that all of Friday was filled. I’d find a way to get them.

On our way to a fundraising auction Friday after work, I tried to talk Craig into detouring through the city to the shop, but his glare halted my obsession, or at least halted my talking about it.

I was still scheming as we arrived at the auction. This was not a black-tie high-society affair. It was a ’50s night of poufed hair and poodle skirts in the gym behind a red-brick community center in a low-income Kansas City neighborhood. Most of the crowd lived or owned businesses in the neighborhood. We were there, far from our suburban home blighted by tacky Christmas stockings, because our daughter Anna directs the center’s preschool program.

Craig and I met Anna’s co-workers and ate barbecue. We watched children play among the tables and parents bid hundreds of dollars for tickets to a Royals’ game, a DVD package and bicycles that would likely be donated back to the center. This center was theirs, and they wanted to make sure it had funds to operate throughout the coming year – money to continue the daycare program and ESL classes, to pay utilities, to grow the food for the lunch program.

Craig and I eventually shed our cloak of outside observers and wrapped ourselves in the spirit of the night. We entered the bidding and now have a play tunnel and floor puzzle to give our granddaughter for Christmas (the center didn’t need them), a new quilt on the guest-room bed and our old stockings dressing up the mantel.

Thanksgivings Past and Present

The Thanksgiving table was ready, each place at the polished oak table sparkling with new stemware and china. So what if the official holiday was five months away? Ann Thomas’* gratitude couldn’t wait.

On this hot June day of 2007, in her village of Phoenix, La., 30 miles south of New Orleans, Ann walked me through her newly built home, fresh with the smell of paint and new furniture. This home replaced the one swept away when Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast in September 2005. After nearly two years of living with relatives and then in a FEMA trailer, Ann and her husband, Dymond, were finally home.

I was just one of the many volunteers from Covenant World Relief who had spent the past year helping the Thomases and other Phoenix residents rebuild. In the coming months, more houses were finished and more families left their cramped trailers to return home. By Thanksgiving, they were ready to serve up their gratitude and sweet potato pie to the volunteers fortunate to be there for the weekend. I was one of them.

The church-hopping that started the day – we worshipped at St. Joseph’s and then Zion Travelers – moved into table-hopping, a festive parade from house to house where each hostess served us a traditional Cajun feast. I vowed to approach this day as a progressive dinner – appetizers at the first house, salads at the second, entrees next, etc. – but my Midwest resolve disappeared when I walked into Ann’s kitchen and saw the counter laden with a Cajun-spiced turkey, dirty rice, gumbo, shrimp-stuffed peppers, and sweet potato pie. I tasted it all, and did the same at the next three houses. By 7:00, I reached my fifth house with a greatly diminished group and appetite. Two of us shared pie and stories with our 80-year-old friend Ellen.

At each stop throughout the day, the stories and laughter fed us as much as the oyster dressing and baked spaghetti. We learned how faith always trumped despair, how a devastated community remained hopeful and thankful.

It’s a lesson I’m carrying today as I head to the nursing home with Craig and my daughter Anna to pick up my dad and take him to my brother’s house, where 15 of us will be nourished by my sister-in-law’s turkey and stuffing as well as everyone’s stories and laughter. Our faith and gratitude this year are coupled with suffering and sadness. A year ago Dad was carving the turkey and telling the stories. He suffered two strokes this past year and is now weakened and unable to say what’s on his mind. Today he will listen and tire early. We’ll drive him home and laugh some more, letting him know how thankful we are for the rich way he continues to fill our lives.

 

* Thanks to Marianne, my traveling and feasting partner that Thanksgiving Day, for correcting my spelling of Ann’s last name. I’ve updated it from the first version.

Don’t Should on Yourself

You know you should:

  • Eat your veggies.
  • Exercise.
  • Reduce, reuse, recycle.
  • Compost.
  • Carpool.
  • Buy fair trade products.
  • Buy American.
  • Buy local.
  • Buy less and simplify your life.
  • Buy more and stimulate the economy.
  • Eat organic.
  • Call your mother.
  • Write your thank-you notes.
  • Stay off Facebook at work.
  • Feed the hungry.
  • Help the needy.
  • Floss.
  • Invite a hurting friend over for coffee.
  • Let go of your kids.
  • Stay connected with your kids.
  • Love your neighbor, or at least take time to know them.
  • Work hard.
  • Relax more.

I could keep going, but won’t. The point is: Being a good – never mind perfect – wife, mother, daughter, woman, neighbor, friend, worker, citizen and Christian can overwhelm me. I fall short on every bullet point and can easily let guilt shoot me down. Even though I know I shouldn’t. So Craig and I have borrowed a line from writer Brennan Manning, who borrowed it from a nun he knows: “Don’t should on yourself.” We want to stop making excuses and beating ourselves up for every oversight or misstep.

But what should replace the shoulds? I don’t want to give up on living better, more justly and more lovingly. I just want to lift the burden that weighs me down and builds resentment. I need a new perspective, one that forgets about being dutiful, one that embraces gratitude. I don’t have to eat healthy food; I get to. I don’t have to help others; I get to. I don’t have to work; I get to. Not everybody has these riches I take for granted.

I am a middle-class American. I get to live in freedom. I get to choose. Tomorrow I get to vote. You get to as well, and I hope you will.

The choice is yours.

Postcard from a Pilgrim

Another reflection from the trip Craig and I took to Italy during his painting sabbatical. 

 

We visited churches every day in Italy – Renaissance basilicas, Romanesque abbeys, stone churches along country roads. We stood dwarfed by towering architecture, gazed upon masterpieces and followed narrow staircases to once-hidden rooms. We were halfway through our trip before I realized I was entering every church as a tourist. What would happen if I became a pilgrim instead? If I, a Roman Catholic turned evangelical turned Christ follower with lots of questions, changed my secular eyes to sacred?

I started lighting candles. I gave my offering. I let my prayers lift heavenward to be united with the chorus of saints praising Jesus.

Would St. Catherine of Siena notice me lighting a thin white taper at her altar at the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena? If so, it would be with her new body, as her earthly and quite shriveled head and finger were on display – a mighty popular one at that – in the church. I couldn’t decide if I should be horrified or fascinated at the gruesome relics and those of us praying before them. Catherine spent her short life in service to Christ and seeking peace and reform in the church. Were we guilty of idolatry, or were we humbly seeking connection with and inspiration from this 14th-century mystic? Could my identity with a fellow pilgrim who centuries ago walked these roads I was walking this week help to deepen my experience of her country, bring holiness to this adventure? I confess to being earthbound in my understanding of the communion of saints.

My insight ascended a bit heavenward as I wandered by myself through the coastal village of Vernazza. Entering the Church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia, I recognized the cadence – if not the words – of the priest saying Mass and the female voices responding. I stopped midway up the staircase. To enter would be disruptive, so I stayed on the steps and recognized each new phase of the liturgy – the consecration, the priest’s prayers, the women’s responses. I stood for 10 minutes, my head visible to the two women in the front row. One gently beckoned me to join the worship celebration, so I climbed the remaining steps and slid into the third pew. Now there were six of us joining the priest to remember Christ in the breaking of the bread.

After Communion, the women and priest sang a cappella, and their hymn resonated in the 14th century stone church. Their voices were those of the angels, clear and strong and praising, these five elderly Italian women carrying on the traditions of their faith. I too praised God, not with my voice but with a silent prayer of thanksgiving for the heavenly chorus that surrounded me. When Mass ended, I lit a candle.