Another Ding, Another Scratch

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I saw a woman on television laughing about a dent in her car and philosophically shaking off her concern by exclaiming, “Another ding, another scratch, just another chapter in the story.” I had to laugh along with her because in truth she had summed up life quite brilliantly with that little utterance. It seems as though each of us carries dents and scars on both our bodies and our minds that ultimately contribute to becoming the persons who we are. In spite of our own efforts to take control of things, we are continually blindsided by accidents of nature and disappointments from relationships. As we travel through our individual stories we experience collisions with diseases and toxic people, along with all of the regular intersections and interactions that bring the wear and tear that is a normal part of being human.

Some of the things that happen to us are quite natural. As children we may skin our knees or break a bone or two. We form friendships and experience disappointments. We learn and dream and if we are truly lucky we get through our childhoods without too many traumas or losses and work on embracing adulthood. We search for loving friends and partners and attempt to fulfill the dreams and goals that push us to become better each day. We may choose wrong and have to rethink our plans or accept that someone that we loved has betrayed us or simply grown weary of us. If we are lucky our troubles are average, and our health is good so that we make it to our so-called golden years of retirement. We grow older and feel the aging of our bodies a bit more. We must say goodbye to departed friends and look a bit less toward the future and more at finding contentment in each day. Eventually every single one of us reaches an ending, and if we are lucky we will be able to look back on what we have accomplished and the relationships that we have fostered with a sense of contentment and maybe even a bit of pride.

The truth is that living is a bit more complex than that. We are faced with challenges at times that feel almost unbearable. It becomes difficult to write them off as just another ding or scratch. We feel as though our collision with some horrific force has totaled us out, reduced us to heaps of junk. Unless we are extraordinarily lucky each of us has faced a moment in which we might even ask God where He is because we feel so alone in our pain and suffering. I have had my own share of troubles that threatened to overwhelm me, events so terrible that they rendered me almost useless for a time. In those moments I had to rely heavily on faith, hope and love wherever I was able to find it. I was always humbled in learning who my most loyal angels were, because often they were not the people to whom I had given the biggest chunks of my heart, but instead unexpected souls who miraculously came to my aide. Of course there were also a handful of people so reliable that I was able to call on them time and again to rescue me from many difficult situations.

I recently watched a movie called Hostiles. I had not heard of it before, but it had a good cast with Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike, as well as a very decent Rotten Tomatoes rating. It is a western and thanks to my Uncle Jack I grew up loving those kinds of stories. This one reminded me a bit of the old John Wayne movie The Searchers, but with a more modern and philosophical twist. While there was plenty of adventure, the tale was mainly about people caught up in the kind of accident of life that transforms them and provides them with the answers that they have needed. It speaks to the idea that sometimes in our most tragic times we find the faith, hope and love for which we have been searching.

An event can be so unnerving that it causes us to reassess everything that we have believed about ourselves and the people around us. It rips us apart and threatens to destroy us, but we somehow find what we need to repair ourselves and come out whole again. The process of fixing our very souls can be gut wrenchingly painful and lonely. We may not even want to continue down the road because the darkness does not allow us to see what lies ahead. We may cry out and hear no response, lie down and wish it all to be over. That is when we somehow find the tiniest bit of encouragement as though the hand of God Himself is reaching down to rescue us.

We humans are fragile creatures who are nonetheless stronger than we realize. For centuries we have endured the dings and scratches and wrecks that mar our journeys, but also provide us with the character that makes our stories more real. Still there are those among us whose suffering is so intense that they cannot repair themselves alone. They need someone to help them to restore the faith and hope that they require to continue into the future. Love is the panacea that they seek. We need to be aware of them and be the person who gently demonstrates the compassion for which they have been searching.

We all have a ding here, a scratch there, and sometimes a big gaping hole. Some of our injuries are of our own making, but most come from out of nowhere like a speeding Mack truck driven by a drunken driver. We endure collisions that test us more than we believe that we are capable of handling. That is when we often feel the most alone, but in truth there is always someone who will miraculously help if only we allow them to hear our cries. As humans we have two duties. One is to humble ourselves just enough to ask for assistance, and another is to be ready to provide aide whenever someone calls. If we follow these guidelines we are less likely to wind up forgotten and alone in the junkyard of life. We have the power to rewrite our stories and those of the people around us. When we embrace our dings and scratches they take on a lovely patina that brings out the true beauty of life.

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Glory

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As I grow older I become more and more pensive. Perhaps it is because I am retired and have more time for thinking, or maybe it’s just a characteristic of my age. I watch the elders who served as my adult role models slowly die one by one, and I become more and more familiar with the inevitability of my own mortality. I no longer have the luxury of numbering my days in large denominations. I was reminded of this when I recently purchased carpet with a twenty year guarantee and realized that I’ll be ninety years old before I must replace it again. That of course is if I’m particularly careful and follow in the footsteps of many of my long living relatives. The reality is that while the carpet may have a guarantee, my own lifespan is less certain, as is everyone’s.

I have of late been thinking about the history of my seventy years here on this earth, and I keep returning to the struggle for civil rights that so dominated my very impressionable high school and college years. As a young child I had noticed the segregation that was still so common in my native south. Whenever I had questioned my parents about what I saw they would hesitate and appear to be uncharacteristically confused and even a bit frightened by my insistence that it seemed to be so wrong. I was an innocent child who was being taught by my religion to love all of mankind and by my country that we are all equal, and yet there were visible signs that this was not happening the way it should.

When I was in middle and high school the civil rights movement began to take hold in earnest. I recall hearing about the attempts at integrating schools when I visited my grandparents in Arkansas. I had much earlier traveled north to Chicago with my parents and witnessed blacks mingling without consequence with whites on the trains and in restaurants. It seemed to be the logical and just way of doing things, and so I began following the outcome of boycotts and marches and sit ins, gleefully celebrating each victory and dissolving into disappointment each time the warriors for justice were defeated. I knew in my heart that the slowly evolving changes that were taking place had been long overdue. In fact, I was never able to reconcile the idea that humans should ever be ranked in terms of value based on highly questionable characteristics like race, religion or place of origin, a tendency that has created great cruelty throughout mankind’s history. I was thrilled to believe that our society had become enlightened enough to disavow the ugliness and ignorance that was still so apparent in many corners of our country.

Sadly I was to learn that my optimism and naivety was a bit cockeyed and premature. It took a long while for real changes to happen and in the process many of my heroes were killed, leaving me more and more unsettled. Still I eagerly celebrated each small step on the road to progress as the decades rolled by. I knew that there was still an underbelly of prejudice that was alive and well, but in my circles people were loving and eager to set our history aright. I suppose that I was so insulated by the fast paced cadence of living that I failed to notice that the road to the Promised Land stretched farther ahead than I had imagined.

I have reluctantly removed my rose colored glasses long enough to discern that our problems with getting along with one another continue to abound. Particularly of late it feels as though the scabs that had so protectively covered wounds have been torn away revealing that there are many among us who still harbor bad feelings for anyone different from themselves. The sight of people marching through the streets of Virginia emulating Nazis was particularly stomach churning for me, but even worse was our president’s reluctance to condemn them without reservation. I became more observant at that point and began to contemplate things that I had seen that niggled at my conscience but didn’t really rise to the surface. That is when I understood that if we are very honest with ourselves we will admit that there is still work to do in the area of civil rights. In fact, today there are many different groups of people who are treated as though they are somehow subservient, and this trend is sadly occurring all over the world.

I don’t believe that overt prejudice is as prevalent as it was when I was a child, but the truth is that there should never be room for any of it. When we are silent when others are being abused, we become partners in the crime. There is a disconnect when we attend church and pronounce our love of God, but then voice ugly commentaries regarding His children or allow others to do so. We must all have the courage to do what is right, rather than drawing the curtains so that we don’t have to see what is before our very eyes. We may all be wary of conflict, but there are times when we must face it down with truth, and the truth is that there are still individuals being judged not so much by who they are, but by how they appear to be.

I once went on a journey to the heartland of the civil rights movement of the nineteen sixties. I was accompanied by students who had learned Algebra I from me. I saw the places that had been blurry black and white images on the tiny screen of my family’s television in a time when I was only fifteen or sixteen or seventeen years old. I found myself becoming emotional over and over again as I stood in the kitchen of Dr. Martin Luther King and touched the vey table where he often sat to pray. I shed tears in the basement of a church in Birmingham where four little girls had been killed by a bomb blast set off by a racist. I touched the prison bars that had caged Dr. KIng’s body, but not his spirit. I walked across the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma and nearly collapsed with emotion. I walked down the street with my students toward the state house in Montgomery and remembered that glorious moment when so many brave souls had finally joined together to demonstrate the need for true equality for every human.

I’ve been wanting to take that civil rights trip once again. I want to share those moments with my husband and at least one of my grandchildren. I think that we all need reminders of our past if we are to continue moving toward a better future. I don’t believe that it behooves us to ever become complacent because that is when we get fooled into thinking that everything is as good as it is ever going to get. Somehow our human nature tends to slide back into old habits unless we exercise care.

I watched the movie Selma on Mother’s Day. It was a magnificent production and a reminder to me that I never again want to allow overt racism to exist in a legal form in my country. Because I believe that there is a constant danger of this happening I am vigilant and vocal. All good people must be advocates for justice lest those who are filled with hate and spite lead us down a dark path of division. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord who showed us how to trample the grapes of wrath. I will follow Him. 

Filling the Cracks With Gold

gold-ingots-golden-treasure-47047.jpegIn Japan a broken object is often repaired with gold. The flaw is viewed as a unique piece of the object’s history which makes it more beautiful. Unknown Author

I am admittedly a control freak, so when things break or go awry I tend to freak out. I prefer routine, everything in its place. I suppose that my obsessive compulsive tendencies are derived from my father’s death when I was a very young child, a time when I felt my world spinning out of control so much so that I worried that my future would forever be horrific. Of course that did not happen, but I have had my share of unwelcome and difficult events, so much so that I prefer stability over excitement.

That being said, there is always seems to be something beautiful and unexpected that comes from even the most devastating tragedies. After my father died my brothers and I became more intensely close, and our mother made certain that we would feel safe by moving to a wonderfully wholesome neighborhood. I lived in this almost idyllic place until I was an adult. The friendships that I enjoyed there as a child are still rock solid strong. The beautiful memories that I made at a time when I had worried that my life was surely over have been the gold that repaired my broken heart.

I find that this occurs again and again just when I begin to waver and worry too much. It happened when our hot water heater overflowed and flooded part of the house. Even though I was happy that we were home and able to limit the damage, I began to fret over all of the dire possibilities of the things that might take place. Since all aspects of the repairs have taken far more time than I had thought that they would. I literally began having anxiety attacks at night because I was certain that mold was growing in the walls of my home and that it would become a toxic waste dump. I imagined all sorts of scenarios while we waited for insurance adjusters and repairmen.

Of course, as it turned out things began to fall back into place bit by bit. We have a nice new hot water heater and we have chosen new carpet that will be installed once the walls and the door frames and other things that were damaged are once again as good as new. While the experts take care of all of that, I have been moving things out of closets and packing them away in the garage so that the rooms will be ready for the carpet. In the process I encountered a box of photos and papers that I had stashed away long ago. The items had sat unnoticed for quite some time, so I decided to cull through them to decide what I wanted to keep. In the process I found the names of my grandfather’s parents. It was like discovering gold on my property because I had grown up knowing very little about him. He had died before I was born and my mother had no information about her own grandparents because her father was an immigrant from Austria Hungary in the area now known as Czechoslovakia and so was her mom.

I was so excited by my discovery that I posted something about it on Facebook and a few minutes later a cousin called to verify that my information was correct and that she had even more. I am now able to trace my ancestry back to my great great grandparents, all because I was forced to moved things so that workers might set things aright in my home. Had it not been for the accidental leaking of the hot water heater there is no telling how long that box that contained the key to my ancestry might have languished. Once again the broken object ended up being a golden moment, a beautiful light on my past.

I have friends who are far more faith filled than I am. They don’t worry as much because they just know that there is a vast eternal plan that is working as it was meant to be. I suppose that they have fewer middle of the night panic attacks than I do, or conversations with God that sound more like that between a parent and a recalcitrant child. My experience has proven that I am never alone, and yet I out doubt Thomas over and over again. I suppose that it is just my nature, but I must surely drive those who have to put up with me a bit crazy at times.

Luckily I always seem to find my way back, and realize that I have never really had it so bad. My life is probably about average compared to most. I lost people that I love, but so has everyone else, and in some cases their tragedies have been so much worse. I happened to get a hint about my all time favorite uncle when I was putting in the new names of my great grandparents on my ancestry.com family tree. The document that Ancestry found was his death certificate and its details made my heart weep for my aunt and for my uncle’s parents. He was only thirty one years old, and an only child. The sarcoma that began in his leg had metastasized to his lungs and other major organs. He left behind an infant daughter. I thought of how bereft everyone must have been. I was only five at the time and I felt as though my heart had been shattered. My father was never quite the same after his best friend had died. Somehow all of my trials and tribulations put together did not seem as harsh as this, and I chided my self for temporarily rolling in self pity.

The broken parts of my life have always healed and made me strong and resilient. I see the cracks and the scars, but they make me more beautiful, for surely they make me more compassionate. I truly understand what it is to hurt and to be afraid, but I also know that the human spirit is far more courageous than we think. The gold that always seems to come after the worst times is real and it is lovely.

Have Mercy

business-money-pink-coins.jpgWhen I was a rather young child I stole about fifty cents from a friend. I almost immediately regretted what I had done, but didn’t know how to rectify my infraction. Eventually I saved my money and collected enough to discretely leave a dollar for her as compensation for the original transgression. I felt so horrible about what I had done that I became obsessed with the idea of setting things right. I went to confession, admitted my sin, and continued to leave more and more money to assuage my feelings of guilt. Somehow nothing that I did would ease my conscience, but I was never quite willing to do the one thing that might have helped me to put the matter in the past. I could not bring myself to admit to my friend what I had done. Instead I neurotically carried my dark feelings all the way into my teenage years when I once again spoke to a priest about my shame in a confessional. His advice would change my thinking about being judgmental of either myself or others.

The good man reminded me that Jesus had a forgiving nature as dramatically exemplified on the very day that He died on the cross when He pardoned the thief. The priest then suggested that my unwillingness to be merciful to myself demonstrated a kind of lack of faith in the generosity that God felt toward me. He insisted that I let go of the feelings that were causing me to think less of myself than the Lord did. He absolved me one more time and said that my penance was to practice compassion starting with myself. I felt as though a great and needless weight had been lifted from my very soul, and I never again berated myself up for simply being human.

I know that there are penitents who literally beat themselves with little whips and work themselves into frenzies of grief over their actions. I have come to believe that there is no purpose in such self loathing, which makes me particularly dismayed by current attempts to pour feelings of guilt on certain people or groups for things that they often did not even do. For example there are those who classify anyone with even a modicum of wealth as being selfish or accuse someone with white skin of having unearned privileges. In today’s society glib self righteousness is a weapon designed to condemn people based on stereotypes rather than realities in the hopes that they will feel the need to atone for the supposed sins of their fathers or people that they have never known. These self styled arbiters insist that certain people be chastised for belonging to a particular stratum. The tactic is designed to divide rather than unite, and it is an ugly and unlikely way of accomplishing the true progress that we need. The healthier method of dealing with our societal problems is to follow the way of Christ, which is to accept and love people as they are rather than forming judgmental stereotypes about them.

We live in a time of national neuroses in which rather than assuming the best about people we all too often harbor unfounded suspicions about them. Sadly getting along is not a good story and so the media often focuses on the negatives rather than admitting that few people are either all good or all bad. The always heroic figure is almost as mythical as the ever evil villain and yet we classify individuals one way or another depending on our personal beliefs and then proceed to lay blame like a suffocating blanket.

The truth is that not all immigrants are criminals nor are they all wonderful loving people. Not all Democrats are kind and giving nor are all Republicans selfish gun toters who don’t care about people. Not all young people are lazy, but they aren’t all perfect angels either. In other words nothing about reality is as simple as we so often wish to make it. Fox News isn’t particularly fair and balanced and neither is CNN if truth be told. Christians are imperfect and so are people of other faiths or no faith at all. It is in our natures as humans to have tragic flaws, but those imperfections don’t and shouldn’t define the totality of our lives.

We do our best, but in the long haul we are certain to make mistakes.  It is in how we ultimately address both our successes and our failures that we shape and define our individual character. I am not my mother or my father or anyone who came before me, but I have learned from the lessons of their lives. I am as unique as every other person on this planet. To view anybody based on group think is as ridiculous as insisting that all of us are capable of being exactly the same. The beauty of the world lies in our differences and the power of the talents that we use to better ourselves and others.

I have grown to spurn the use of guilt to control people’s feelings and actions. Atonement is a very personal and private thing. We all must learn how to forgive and forget just as I eventually did. On this very holy day when Jesus died on a cross His purpose was to sacrifice His own life to lift the stain of sin from ours. His last action on this earth was all about mercy. We would all do well to remember Him whether or not we believe that He was God, and follow His beautiful example by embracing and attempting to understand each person that we encounter without any preconceived notions. In the process many of our current problems just may be resolved.

God Is Not A Coke Machine

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I begin each morning with prayer and then have little talks with God all throughout the day until I end with a kind of good night affirmation of gratitude. My prayer life is rather ordinary and flawed. I know people who are inspiringly spiritual whose devotionals are profound, but mine are more akin to the kind that people utter from the bottom of foxholes as bullets are flying over their heads. I say a few thank you phrases acknowledging the Lord’s presence in my life, but all too often follow up with requests for this person or that. Of late my list of those in need has grown to the point that I sometimes can’t quite recall all of the names and causes. I simply suggest that God must indeed remember all of the situations and I ask that He care for each of them. I try to include some praises of His glory, but admittedly I often sound like a child begging a parent for goodies as I reel off my hopes and dreams in a rush of impatience. I sadly all too often grow anxious that the answers I seek are taking too long to materialize. I know, and so does God, that I still have a long way to go in my prayer life.

I’ve often laughed at how we humans pray. I’ve seen students silently pleading for a good grade as I am walking through the classroom returning the results of tests. Of course, by then it is a bit late to change the scores. The real intersessions should have come earlier and might have centered around guidance during the studying phase. By the time that the marks are being returned only an impossible miracle is going to change the number that I have already made on each person’s paper.

I suppose that many of us use prayer in ways that don’t make a great deal of sense. Instead of asking for strength to deal with the human challenges that we must all face, we all too often ask God to for very specific outcomes that would force Him to choose one person over another. We beg for a win in an athletic endeavor as if the Lord is wearing the same jersey as ours. We have a tendency to place time limits on our requests and wobble in our faith when the answers that we seek are slow in coming.

The best prayer warriors that I know have a completely different style of communicating with God that is based on trust. They do not presume to question the challenges that they face, but rather seek the courage and peace that they need to deal with realities. Instead of entreating a higher power to grant them favors they ask instead for the kind of character that they will need to withstand the buffeting winds of life’s difficult moments. They focus on becoming an instrument of peace, justice and love. They ask what they must do rather than imploring for gifts. It is definitely a better way, and the sign of a deep and abiding understanding of God.

Of course there are also those who think that the very idea of some all powerful force watching over us and guiding our way is absurd. To them prayer is a wasted effort that might better be served with action and effort. They cannot imagine that otherwise sensible people believe in some nebulous and unproven concept like God, or miracles. They see religion as a kind of fantastical crutch that we humans use to explain away our own frailties.

I have several friends who meditate daily. They read the Bible or find comfort in the writings of those who have somehow found wonderful ways of explaining how best to form a meaningful relationship with God. They emphasize the need for patience as our individual purposes unfold. They urge us to quiet our minds so that we might actually begin to understand what we must do to find contentment. Theirs is a beautiful spirituality that is elevated from the kind of babble that I seem to utter in my own haste to get on with the duties of the day. I suspect that I am not unlike many of my fellow humans in that that regard.

I was humbled during the recent floods in my city by a comment from a friend whose home had been inundated. She noted all of the people who were thanking God for not sending those waters into their own houses. She suggested that comments speaking of God’s goodness in saving them implied that those whose abodes were devastated were somehow not chosen for blessings as though they may not have had enough faith or goodness to deserve salvation. She suggested instead that those who were high and dry simply be thankful that they were lucky.

A priest once explained to me that God is not like a coke machine. We can’t just insert a coin of prayer and expect a certain outcome. He insisted that the object of prayer should be to praise the Lord and seek His guidance in navigating the arduous journey that is life. We become disappointed when our only goal is to achieve very specific outcomes. “He doesn’t work like that.” When we focus on wanting rather than asking what we must do we run the risk of losing faith and questioning the very existence of God if things don’t work out the way we had hoped. If we do it properly prayer can be a very beautiful thing with the power to bring us comfort. It helps us to find answers to the questions that concern us.

My mother lead a prayerful life. She never questioned the hardships that came her way. Instead she thanked God for living inside her heart and keeping her optimism alive. She saw the dawn of a new day as a great gift from her God. At the time of her death she almost appeared to wear a halo around her head as her eyes shone brightly with the confidence that she was heaven bound. There was no doubt in her mind that she was about to receive the only reward that really mattered. She had been a faithful servant her entire life. She had always understood how to pray.

I try to improve. I watch people like my mom and others whom I greatly admire. They teach me what I must do and tell me that it is okay to have feet of clay. I just have to keep trying to get it right. God knows that I try.