Take A Moment Today

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Let’s take a moment today to do something kind for 1. ourselves, 2. someone we know, 3. someone we have met, 4. someone we don’t know, 5. someone we need to build bridges with. Be and do well. —-Ryann Madden

I slept in just a bit this morning. The sounds of school children gathering for the early morning bus are gone for the summer and so that “alarm” did not alert me that it was time to rise. Things become slower at this time of year for more reasons than just the summer vacation for our little ones. It’s so hot outside that our bodies and brains are somehow programed to take it easier lest we overheat and dehydrate. We’ve become so accustomed to the glories of air conditioning that we become almost more insulated inside our homes and cars at this time of year than we do in the winter, at least here in Texas. It’s the season of relaxation and fun, especially for students and educators. Somehow the seasons of a school year have become so programmed into my brain that I still react to the summer the same way I did when I was working. I allow myself to be just a bit more inclined to take it easy.

I won’t be able to sustain my vacation mode for too long though because I am hardwired with all of the Type A Protestant ethics that push me to be productive and to measure my accomplishments each day. I am committed to making the most of my time and descend into guilt whenever my slacking begins to appear to be a regular life change. I am mentally and emotionally compelled to make good use of my life, even as I age. For that reason I was particularly taken by this post from Ryann Madden, a teacher friend. It spoke to me because I am on a mission to transform my use of my waking hours from concentration of unimportant things to truly making an effort to care for myself and others.

Ryann’s “to do” list seems rather easy on the surface, but in reality it is laden with challenges, particularly with regard to being kind to ourselves and building bridges with someone with whom we have broken our trust. All too often we put ourselves last in the division of a day’s labor, and never quite get around to the self care that we need. We also tend to avoid those situations and people with whom a breach has caused us to lose touch. Our neglect of both ourselves and people with whom we have differed can be toxic, and yet we all too often have an “I’ll think about that tomorrow” attitude about these very important parts of our lives.

A very dear friend who is a counselor posted a wonderful blog about self care recently. In it she detailed her own personal journey to health of body and mind. She spoke of living such a hurried and harried life that she was using food as a kind of medication and she justified her neglect of herself by noting how much she was doing for others. Ultimately she found herself in the middle of a health crisis at a very young age. She knew that she needed to do more than just pop another pill into her mouth and otherwise ignore her own needs. She began to slowly but surely make a complete lifestyle change that began with thirty minutes of aerobic exercise each day and a consultation with a nutritionist. Before long she was thriving and glowing with the radiance that comes from treating our bodies and minds with the same love that we offer to others. She had not forgotten the people around her, she had only taken the time to remember herself as well.

When my husband had a stroke last summer and the two of us embarked on our own journey to living our best lives I found it easy to care for him but much more difficult to remember myself. It was simple to rationalize lapses in my own habits and it took an aggressive demand from my primary care physician for me to realize that I needed to be kind to myself as well. My doctor insisted that I was mistreating my own body and ultimately would be of little use to anyone if I did not change my ways as well. He literally gave me a prescription for five days of exercise each week with no excuses for not meeting this goal. His insistence shocked me into doing what I should have done long ago, and now self care has become an integral part of each day.

Which leaves me to the building bridges aspect of Ryann’s suggestion. It requires a bit of eating crow, approaching someone who has very apparently felt the sting of neglect and lack of respect from me. That is a much tougher situation to face, but in my heart I know it must be done. The person of whom I am thinking is older than I am. She has been isolated by failing health and loss of loved ones. She has become more sensitive and worried. She has taken some of my comments and parsed them until she is certain that I have insulted her. I have been confused and sometimes angered by her reactions, and so I have generally chosen to ignore her. I suspect that instead it is time to reach out to her and plant the seeds of reconciliation. It will cost me nothing to do so, and it may heal a wound that doesn’t need to fester.

Today is a good day to follow Ryann’s sweet suggestions. In fact everyday is a wonderful time to weave care for self and others into our routines. Think of how great we will begin to feel if we do.


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.

Finding The Godliness Inside

screen-shot-2016-02-09-at-3-31-32-pmThe calendar can be quirky at times and this year is especially so. We found ourselves celebrating Valentine’s Day and ushering in the Lenten season on the same Wednesday this week. When Easter rolls around we will celebrate that holiest of religious feasts right alongside April Fools Day. Sometimes the heavens enjoy a bit of humor or perhaps just a bit of irony.

I’ve long believed that donning a hair shirt and beating my chest on the first of the forty days before Easter is a rather fruitless task. In fact I generally dislike the idea of the inwardness of artificial sacrifices such as giving up sweets or eschewing joyful celebrations during Lent. For that reason I find it particularly appropriate that Valentine’s Day reminded us to show our love on the very day that Lent began. In fact it served as a hint of what the season should be all about.

I’m not suggesting that we shower loved ones with gifts and cards and boxes of chocolate, but rather that we imbue our forty days of reflection with daily doses of efforts to love even the seemingly unloveable. Perhaps the most productive thing that we might do as we prepare for the joy of Easter is to emulate the life of Jesus, who over and over again in His teaching emphasized the best of our human attributes like compassion, forgiveness and love. Even a nonbeliever must admit that His philosophy was punctuated with a kindness and understanding that is all too often missing even among His most faithful followers. Self proclaimed Christians all too often ignore His message even as they pronounce their self righteousness. Our human tendency to hypocrisy becomes especially noticeable whenever we cloak ourselves in indignation and anger.

It’s fine to prepare for Easter by denying ourselves certain luxuries that we do not need as long as we couple those sacrifices with loving gestures. Now is the season to forgive and to choose to understand. Perhaps through self reflection we might consider the possibility of learning more about people with whom we disagree. This is a time to begin to openly dialogue with people that we have hurt or even those who have hurt us. This is when we should begin reaching out to those who are suffering, and they are many. We should be conscious of our prejudices and close mindedness and work to be less judgmental. Doing such things is always difficult and definitely more meaningful that denying ourselves a piece of cake.

Humanity is suffering all around the world and there are good people working hard to help them. If each of us chose to do something small but remarkable not just everyday during Lent, but all throughout the year think of how much things might improve. Surely we see opportunities for doing good everywhere that we go. Letting a car move in front of us in a traffic jam may literally make someone’s day. Telling the cashier at a crowded store how much you appreciate his/her courtesy may be all that they need to feel less harried. Helping a neighbor with a task or even just shouting a greeting will lift spirits. Responding to anger with love may calm a precarious situation. Attempting to really see a differing point of view will enlighten. Stopping to take a breath and just smile even on a difficult day will make you feel so much better and it will bring a bit of joy to those around you. These are the kinds of things that will make Lent more meaningful and all persons of good will might begin to focus more on acts of kindness than solitary denial.

I suspect that I would want to live like Jesus even if I did not believe in God. Every aspect of His story was an act of love. He was a kind of rebel who was willing to lose His very life in pursuit of what was right. He embraced lepers and sinners and outcasts of every sort while pointing to the artifices of self righteousness that were more centered on ridiculous rules than the needs of people. I have always believed that if He were to return to earth today He would patiently demonstrate one more time the simplicity of His message of love. He would teach us how we must be more aware of those among us who are suffering, and show us how to minister to their needs.

It’s comforting and easy to link ourselves only with those with whom we agree. What is far harder is also loving those whose ideas we abhor. We demean ourselves and lose our credibility when we crawl into the gutter with them and spew the same brand of hatefulness that is their stock and trade. We need not allow them to bully or harm us or those around us, but we also do far better when we fight them with reason rather than engaging in wars of ugly words and insults. Even as they spit in our faces, we must stand honorably and without rancor, never willing to simply run away from defense of the least among us.

Look around and you will find beautiful examples of individuals who carry the spirit of love in their hearts wherever they go. Learn from such beautiful souls. Practice being like them and remember to be kind to yourself if you fail. Each day is another opportunity to try again to overcome the frailties that plague us and to reach outside of ourselves. The true spirit of Lent is found in our efforts to be more and more like the godly natures that live inside our souls.

A Time To Remember

prodigal_sonI grew up in Catholic schools and we were not exactly Biblical scholars. I understood the gist of the stories and parables in that great book, but I would be lost if I had to name the chapters and verses that contain various elements. Still I have enough familiarity with the four books that comprise the volume that I am able to relate both the history in the Old Testament and the story of Jesus in the New. What I learned is that Jesus was all about love and redemption. Over and over again he pushed back against the rule oriented Pharisees and preached the importance of understanding that He had come to remind us all that God is open to each and every one of us and that it is never too late to ask for forgiveness.

Jesus was often misunderstood by the people of His time which ultimately resulted in His being hung from a cross like a common criminal. So it is little wonder that even people who profess to be experts in the interpretation of His words might come up with ideas that appear to be more in line with the Pharisees than with Jesus. Somehow we can all hear or read the very same passages and come up with differing interpretations of them. It’s been happening for centuries and no doubt will continue as long as we humans attempt to unravel the instructions of how best to use Jesus’ instructions for how to behave toward one another.

One of my favorite parables was that of the Prodigal Son. Jesus told this story after the Pharisees and other critics suggested that He was often sinful in the selection of people with whom He associated. They disliked that Jesus was friends with tax collectors and women of dubious character and such. They worried about how He flaunted the religious laws by performing miracles on the Sabbath. They felt that Jesus too often excused bad behavior when He should have instead condemned it. What they didn’t appear to understand is that Jesus was preaching a new way of living that promised every human a pathway to amnesty regardless of how egregious their sins might once have been. Somehow large numbers of people who purport to be loving Christians have forgotten this message and instead use fire and brimstone passages from the Old Testament to defend their unforgiving stances on various issues.

The whole idea of illegal immigration, and in particular the Dreamers is a perfect example of how very religious people have somehow become unwilling to even consider the idea of forgiving those who broke the law or those who were brought to our country without consent when they were children. We have forgotten the story of the the Prodigal Son, perhaps the most powerful tale that Jesus ever related. In it he spoke of a very wealthy man who had two sons, one of whom became impatient to receive his inheritance and asked his father to give it to him immediately. The errant son took his father’s treasure and went away with it, forgetting about his family and living a profligate life. After losing everything he was starving and desperate. He came back home with the intention of begging his father to take him back as a servant to earn his keep. Instead when the loving father saw his son returning he rushed out to meet him, instructing the servants to clothe his child in fine robes. He not only forgave his son but planned a celebratory meal for him. When the other son who had been faithful to his father heard what was happening he was irate, questioning why his brother should be honored when he had been so thoughtless. The father reminded the angry son that a parent’s love is unconditional and that by prostrating himself the prodigal son had demonstrated his willingness to change and seek forgiveness.

I think of this parable whenever the subject of illegal immigration is mentioned. I realize that we cannot as a nation continue to allow people to break the law without consequence, but there are people here who came for very good reasons which we may or may not understand. They have lived peacefully among us, working hard and doing their best to fit into our society. Since we did little to turn them back initially they have little hope of returning to their native countries and finding a livelihood because they have been gone for too long. The truth is that we sat back for decades and did nothing to stop them. Now many among us want to simply turn their backs on these people and send banish them without any thought to what doing so may mean. There are even some who wish to punish their children who were brought when they were too young to even understand what was happening. Like the Pharisees so many Americans and lawmakers only see the rules and not the humanity of the situation. They shout down any plan that might rectify the status of these individuals without giving them actual citizenship, but requiring them to come out of the shadows. They speak of amnesty as if it is a dirty word rather than one that Jesus Himself would no doubt have appreciated given His propensity for forgiving people thought to be hopelessly broken. 

I tend to believe that our political leaders who continually oppose all immigration plans that propose even a smattering of forgiveness are mostly concerned about losing political power. They don’t seem to realize that their unwillingness to bend and compromise even a bit is only exacerbating the problem. They spread silly ideas that they should not concern themselves with the fate of immigrants rather than the safety of Americans. They point to the lawlessness of those who would cross our borders without permission and insinuate that most who come here are criminals. They raise the fears of our citizens by suggesting that terrorists will be coming if we do not have a hard line. Instead of telling us what chain immigration is and why we have it, they just make us afraid of it. They point to criminals who came here through chain immigration as though such incidents are the norm. They constantly speak of rules that must never be broken, forgetting how often Jesus did just that to emphasize our need to be compassionate and loving. They conveniently forget the ultimate message of redemption by His death on the cross.

As I write this the government shut down for a short time because our leaders were at an impasse. A few days later they grudgingly agreed to a short term fix, but left all of the big problems for another day. Who knows how well those discussions are going to go given the fact that we haven’t had many bipartisan moments in years. We appear to no longer be able to compromise. I suspect that if our Founding Fathers had been this way we might all still be part of the British Empire like Canadians. They would have argued infinitely and gotten nowhere, which is where we are now. 

There are those who want to lay blame for the state of our union and I would like to suggest that there is plenty to go around to everyone including those of us who vote. Of late we have turned our backs on anyone who has shown the desire to bring the country together for the general good. While we are bickering real people are being hurt and we are forgetting about all of those beautiful parables that Jesus taught us, and yet Jesus Himself would be loving and understanding even of those of us who have sometimes forgotten or ignored His message. Maybe the time has come to remember it the way it was intended to be.

Fortunate Son

5377620The little child that lives inside each of us never quite goes away, not even as we age and mature decade after decade. Our memories of childhood whether magical or nightmarish linger inside our very souls and color the way that we view the world. Those like myself lucky enough to have known mostly love are often guided by the nostalgia of kindnesses and happy times. For others overcoming painful experiences is a lifelong battle. During the holiday season we often become more acutely aware of our long ago histories, and depending upon how they are affecting us we either feel an exhilarating happiness or a sense of sadness. Thus is the power of our pasts and our emotions.

I once wrote a paper detailing the folk history of my grandfather. Rather than guiding him in any particular manner I simply asked him a series of questions and then allowed him to respond in a way that revealed his personal take on the world in which he had lived and grown. He was approaching his hundredth year when I undertook this project and I uncovered a theme in his way of dealing with the ups and downs of life that he somehow passed down to me. Every single story that he told me involved elements of strength, courage and love. It was his personal point of view. His heroes were the people who overcame difficulties through not just their own determination, but with the assistance of caring individuals who often appeared serendipitously to save them. He firmly believed in the idea of personal accountability, but understood that everyone struggles, and when things become almost too much to bear there always seems to be someone who arrives to help.

Convinced that we each have an inner strength in spite of the problems that stalk us, and realizing that we are never truly alone was my Grandpa’s foundational philosophy and the cannon of his life. His was one of those nameless stories that never lead to fame or riches of the concrete kind, but rather the wealth of friendships and love that is far more substantial than the ephemeral nature of titles and things. By the time that he had reached his one hundred eighth year he had become an inspiration to all of us fortunate enough to have known him, and I was chief among his fans. I suppose that I either consciously or unconsciously modeled my own personality after his. I adopted his optimism even in the face of difficulties and soldiered through irritations and tragedies by reminding myself that I came from strong ancestors who refused to let anyone grind them down.

I often thought of my grandfather as a young virtually orphaned boy who never knew his mother, and yet honored and cherished her by naming his daughter after her. He spoke of her a hundred years after she had left him with a profound reverence as though her death in childbirth had proven to him how much she had loved him. The sacrifice that she made to bring him into the world was the foundation upon which he built the entirety of his extraordinary character. The fact that his father abandoned him meant less to him than the knowledge that his mother had died giving him the opportunity to live. His devotion to her was as deep as if she had raised him into an adult.

It was his grandmother who did the job of guiding him into a purpose driven life, and she did so with great care, providing him with wisdom and an unstoppable sense of humor. She gave him the tools that he would need to continue even after she too had died before he was quite ready to be alone. At the age of thirteen h head already risen to a level of maturity that was far beyond his years, so when he was charged by a judge to select a guardian he decided upon an uncle who seemed to be quite noble and honest. This man was so upstanding that my grandfather ultimately adopted his name to honor him for his morality and character. Indeed he also emulated the traits that he saw in this individual who was kind enough to take on the duties of helping a teenaged boy even though he himself was barely into manhood.

Grandpa was stalked by bad fortune. Not so long after he chose the man who would be his surrogate parent a deadly hurricane came to Puerto Rico. My grandfather’s uncle who was a graduate of West Point and a military man served his country by traveling to the devastated island to direct the distribution of aide and supplies. While there he contracted typhus and died. My dear grandfather was alone once again, and so affected by his multiple losses of loved ones that he was rather confused for a time. He bounced around the country doing jobs wherever work was to be found, living in boarding houses and drinking more than he should have to still the sadness that sometimes threatened to overwhelm him. On one particular evening he experienced a moment of clarity, raealizing that he had become his own worst enemy. He thought about his mother and grandmother and uncle and suddenly felt their spirit reminding him that he was meant to be better than he had allowed himself to become. He resolved at the moment to be the man that they had intended him to be, and with an iron will he turned himself around. Luckily he did so in time to meet my grandmother, the ultimate love of his life and the woman to whom he would surrender his heart. They became lovers, buddies, the best of friends.

The funny thing is that there was never really a time in my grandfather’s life when things came easily to him. He had to work hard and deal with tragedies that broke his heart, but never his will. Somehow regardless of his circumstances he found ways to survive and to find that one tiny speck of hope that kept him going year after year. When he was one hundred eight years old he had lost his beloved wife, his son and one of his daughters. Even some of his grandchildren had preceded him in death. Most of the friends in his age group had left this earth years before, and yet he rarely complained other than to note that he missed them all.

I always enjoyed visiting my grandfather in the tiny house where he rented a room from a widow who needed the extra income to stay afloat. He maintained his independence with a fierceness that I so admired. Much as he had done throughout his life he found ways to keep moving forward even when times became tough. When he grew older he became a bit more nostalgic, and even found ways to understand and forgive his father whom he kindly referred to as a bit of a reprobate, a man whom he nonetheless had grown to love or at least accept.

I find myself thinking of my grandfather more and more often these days, and when troubles come my way I wonder what he would do in similar circumstances. I know that he would somehow find the silver lining that he insisted is a part of every situation. He had been a penniless, homeless, seemingly unwanted orphan who was dropped on his grandmother’s doorstep like a stray cat, and yet he rose above the hurt and anger that might have been his guiding light. He chose instead to focus on the positive aspects of his story and those of the people he had met along the way. He saw himself as someone whose life had been blessed again and again.

We mostly choose how to view our individual stations in life. In the proverbial way of the glass we either decide that our lives have been half empty or half full. Grandpa taught me to choose the optimistic path, to proudly be a Pollyanna. What I have encountered has not always been pretty, in fact it has often been scary and wrought with tears. My grandfather showed me that rather than wallowing in the pity that may indeed be rightfully mine, I always need to ultimately find a way to pluck up my courage and move forward once again. Like him I have repeated the drill time and time again, and along the way discovered new friends, new allies and great love. My grandfather’s worldview has been one of the most amazing gifts of my life. He was indeed a fortunate son just as he believed and I inherited his wealth.