The Times, they are a Changing!

Are we finally seeing the light?

That I may never pass this way again and see things as I saw them then…

There has been a lot written, tweeted, and talked about the Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting of late. And if you, like me, find yourself on hold for unacceptable lengths of time when service in “the before times” used to be “quick” and exemplary, or waiting to be helped or served anywhere from the grocery store to the local diner, and even the doctor’s office if you can get in – then you may be more than ready to grumpily jump on the frustration band-wagon. “Where have all the workers gone? “ We shout along with the headlines. Even politicians are using the phenomenon to bolster their economic positions – on both sides of the debate.

While labor productivity has declined since the pandemic surge – the reason is not a sudden outbreak of generational laziness. It is that record-high rates of job switching have created an inexperience bubble in the service sector and many new workers aren’t fully trained. I’ve experienced this myself dealing with the service end of an institutional financial brokerage house.

Furthermore- the phenomenon seems to me to be more hype than reality reveals. Most people have not suddenly quit working – as unbelievable as that may seem from trending stories and our own experiences. According to Gallup (who also used their numbers to make headlines) the decline in worker engagement is only 2% in a year but it has grown 6% since 2000. See the graph below:

I’ll stop there with the economic data and my amateur analysis of our workforce. There are plenty of highly professional financial analysts out there who will gladly discuss those details with you!

But I do want to delve further into this quiet or great quitting phenomenon. It is something that seems anathema to me as one who entered the workforce when jobs were scarce and you were grateful for any offer that slightly resembled a job in your field of study. The idea of doing anything but over-impressing and gladly working overtime wasn’t even a consideration.

That is not the case in this post-pandemic time. As Derek Thompson explains in his “Progress” column for the Atlantic: “A lot of workers are seeking an efficient way to describe the colliding pressures of wanting to be financially secure, but not wanting to let work take over their life, but also having major status anxiety, but also experiencing guilt about that status anxiety, and sometimes feeling like gunning for that promotion, and sometimes feeling like quitting, and sometimes feeling like crawling into a sensory deprivation tank to make all those other anxieties shut up for a moment.”

A lot of words to describe the very real emotions and psyche exercises experienced by individuals wading through the complexities of the economy of life.

What is going on in our hearts and minds right now? What do we do with that status anxiety, guilt, pressure to achieve, pressure to attain, and the desire to flee and give it all away that comes with work?

I think most of us struggle to make sense of our economic lives. We struggle to find that perfect balance between not enough and too much work, not enough and too much money. Wait – can anyone have too much money??? We all think so except for ourselves!

Continuing on… We all struggle at times with not enough and too much time and we struggle to make good decisions and strive to make good use of our resources of all types. That’s the key to flourishing – but there is only so much of each of us and external factors limit what we can control – the last 14 years have certainly proven that.

During the final crisis of 2008 and the roller coaster highs and lows since, people’s lives were taken for a ride right along with their bank and retirement accounts.  During the pandemic many people saw the frenetic pace of their lives shut-down and, as life gets back to normal, we are reassessing what is important to us.

Whether those same people know it or not – they are carrying out the teachings of Jesus. Could quiet quitting and the Great Resignation actually be biblical?

Our relationship to wealth and the acquisition and management of it is complex. And, while the bible is full of guidelines for living well and proper stewardship of our resources – it won’t offer you a quick sound bite-worthy financial maxim. However, I’ll lift up a few of Jesus’ words on the economy of life.

  • “Where your heart is there your treasure will be also.” (Matthew 6:21, Luke 12:34,).
  •  “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are shrewder in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.  I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. (Luke 16: 8-9) 
  • “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Luke 16:13)

From this – we can glean a few key concepts:

  • Wealth is both a blessing and a responsibility.
  • Wealth – along with status, power, and privilege – is fleeting.
  • We are placed on this earth to love and care for each other, not to separate ourselves from each other with wealth, status, or privilege.

We all like to think we have mastered the first – we are blessed to be a blessing to others – and many even consult financial advisors in order to be responsible stewards. However, we have also learned the hard way that wealth is often, if not repeatedly fleeting, and we haven’t done a very good job of not separating ourselves. The pandemic along with the politics it bred have magnified this glaring truth.

The truth is, we live in a world that is profoundly interconnected — and profoundly compromised.  Even the tiniest financial decisions we make — where to shop, how to invest our money, what to eat or wear have far-reaching consequences. Again and again, Jesus reminds us to hold this complicated reality close to our hearts and our consciences all the time. The great thinker St. Augustine asserted that God gave us people to love and things to use, but we all too often have a penchant to confuse those two, loving things and using people. That is a costly way of living in more ways than just monetarily.

We’ve been told – even by some in the church – that we can have it all – both God and money – relationships and money – love and money. The thing is – money and its acquisition can be as much of a drug as alcohol. Both must be managed responsibly or they can ruin an otherwise very fortunate life.  We do need money; we do need to participate in the economy of life – we just can’t let ourselves fall prey to it.

And so, perhaps we are finally awakening to the Gospel truth – that there is more to life than our status, our careers, our wealth. The fact that this awakening is causing such system wide disruption speaks to the pervasive presence money and its acquisition have on all of our lives. I can’t think of a better disrupter than the calling to live as children of light in a world that sorely needs grace, forgiveness, and freedom – spiritually, socially, and economically. May we enter that calling with our whole hearts and minds with creativity, urgency, shrewdness and compassion.

Thank you, Lord, for the challenges of life and for the changes that make one appreciate all that was, all they have, and give hope for what yet will be.

Let your light so shine!

Aligning Life

“I want my inner truth to be the plumb line for the choices I make about my life – about the work that I do and how I do it, about the relationships I enter into and how I conduct them.”  — Parker J. Palmer

I first heard the term “plumb line” when I was about 9 or 10 years old. My dad was in the process of finishing our basement – building out a bedroom for my then college-aged brother. It made no sense to me then what a purple fruit that little Jack Horner pulled out of his Christmas pie had to do with construction! 

The next time I encountered the term “plumb line” it was in a completely different context. I had just turned 43 and a family friend who was also a personally influential pastor told me about his week-long “Plumb-Line” seminars and how they changed people’s lives. I had not yet started my in-depth studies of the biblical prophets for my Lay Pastoral Associate program nor had I furthered my construction career past hammering my thumb, so this idea was still a fairly new concept to me. I’ve now reached a point in my life where I’m ready to be “plumbed” and once again encountered the concept in a recent reading of mine.

In the Old Testament of the Bible, the prophet Amos spoke of God establishing a plumb line by which the people of Israel would be measured. (Amos 7: 7-17). “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

A plumb line – for those of you who may still be wondering – is a tool used by builders to find the true vertical using the force of gravity and a weight hanging from a cord.  A plumb line ensures the wall or structure you are building is at a perfect right angle to the earth. The plumb line Amos spoke of God setting served three purposes: construction, testing what is built, and destruction – or the casting down what cannot stand. God has always had a plumbline in his hand. God is not a careless creator.

The above message comes to Amos at a time of prosperity and peace – when it seems everything is right; but in reality, all is not well – not well at all. The “wall” is crooked and will fall. Just as his listeners were then, people can be manipulated into believing all is well, but the plumb line – the standard of good – cannot be manipulated and God’s justness cannot be manipulated.

Whether you are aware of them or not (like me for the first 43 years of my life), we all have multiple plumb lines in our lives. The values, qualities, beliefs, and priorities that guide our lives all serve as plumb lines. As a modern-day level shows us when our lines are not straight, our plumb lines serve as minders when our lives are out of whack and off kilter. They help us focus on what really matters and offer us strength and stability.

Plumb lines don’t just apply to or matter to the individual. As with the Israelites in the book of Amos, plumb lines are also communal in nature. Our communities, states, and nations have plumb lines in the form of laws and constitutions.

The plumb lines we set for our lives matter not only for us as individuals but also for our communities and our relationships. At their highest purpose, they serve as relational guides, promoting life and human dignity. In the hands of our flawed humanity, they can also diminish life and human dignity – individually and communally.

I wasn’t ready to hear about the plumb lines of life when my pastor friend shared what his plumb-line seminars entailed. I had just uprooted my life and moved at the time; and frankly, I couldn’t handle any more change in my life, nor did I have the will or the time to examine it – though in hindsight that would have been the ideal time to do so.

Sometimes we choose to reset the plumb lines in our lives. We sense that something just isn’t right – there is a gnawing restlessness bothering our souls. So, we make an effort to change – get away for a while – take a break – perhaps seek counseling – and reassess. Other times we don’t have a say in the matter. Other times events, circumstances, or experiences – pivotal points in our lives – start the plumb line swinging and we are forced to rethink everything. It’s as if there is a reset on everything, including our plumb lines.

Our country, our world, is at one of these pivotal points – just look at any newspaper or news program or social media feed. Grief; suffering; immense loss of purpose, place, and life; chaos and confusion; distrust and insecurity reign. The U.S. Supreme Court alone has provided a wealth of material in just the past few weeks while Congress follows in fast pursuit. Live video feeds capture the consequences of continued gun violence, followed by modern day “prophets” spouting words that are no less destructive. The plumb lines of our country have been swinging wildly and crashing into each other as our ideals and traditions are challenged. From mass shootings and civil & political unrest to economic instability and ecclesial division, who among us today doesn’t feel like he or she is having to reset the plumb lines of life?

But this is nothing new. Resetting plumb lines is a part of every life in every place and in every time. It is how we grow and evolve. Done well, a reset enlarges life – done carelessly it defeats it. Will the standards to which we align ourselves equate to common flourishing, personal responsibility and personal authority or the forces of control, power, economy, affluence, and narcissism?   These are the questions our nation faces in the coming days, weeks, and years.

As anyone who has found their life in complete chaos knows, you can’t do much when the plumb line is swinging wildly about. It would be nice and convenient if we all had the same plumb lines – our world would be a much more peaceful place.  But as it were – we do not.  We might think we share common ideals but our alignment to them will always be unique and even in conflict at times.  Setting and resetting plumb lines is a process  that takes time. It takes reflection, listening, hearing, experiencing, thinking and then, even more thinking. We aren’t, however, left to our own devices and thumb-hammering ways. There are numerous sources offering guidance to wondering souls, but I have a favorite recommendation.

The Bible provides us with adequate plumb line words of wisdom – perhaps the simplest and most concise advice for life in Jesus’ response in the parable of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10:25-37) Jesus resets the plumb lines of the lawyer (and us!) who inquired about what he must do to inherit eternal life. The plumb line is revealed in the lawyer’s question, “And who is my neighbor?” It’s a polite way of asking, “Who is not my neighbor?” “Who is not deserving of my love?” “Whose life is not worthy of my time and effort?” “Who can I ignore, denigrate, hate, or pass by?” The plumb line Jesus resets declares, “No one.” (Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 93). No one. These are good plumb-lines to live by and if I may opine – govern a country by.

Our plumb lines reflect where our focus is, where our hearts find succor, and what matters to us. They reveal our aspirations and our fears and they direct the course of our lives. Is your plumb line swinging about? When you look in the mirror, what do you see? What questions are you asking? What answers do you seek? What do your fears reveal? What is number one on your to-do list? As you look back on your life, what used to matter and what matters to you now? Are you enlarging life with each passing day, week, month and year or finding it diminishing?

I’ve been posing these questions to myself of late.

Healing from major surgery has given me the opportunity to quit swinging wildly about, to slow down, and to rest. Both by choice and due to critical circumstances, I’ve had to reset what has gotten out of whack and way off kilter in my life. My desire is for a more meaningful and more purposeful approach to living the second half of my life.

Both endeavors are incredibly hard work! 

Healing from a hip replacement is complex. It requires lots of rest as well as exercise. It requires good fuel and incredible focus – one wrong step and I could mess the whole thing up!  It’s the torture and heaven of physical therapy. It is discipline and grace. It is the constant challenge of knowing your limits, but also not being afraid to test them.

However, the arduous work of excavating one’s life down to its foundation and doing a “reset of the plumb lines” in all honesty, is the most painful, critical and promising work of all. This “new life” of mine won’t just be a replay of my past mistakes.

It’s not all gut searching and wrenching work though. At times, it’s as simple as listening to the bees quiet down as the sun sets on another day. Grateful for nature’s little reminders of the proper order of life and the simple serenity of a quiet summer evening.

Let your light so shine!

Seeing Clearly

I love to write. Words are like children to me – they are the physical expression of my thoughts and feelings – birthed deep inside and given life on the page. For all of my life I have delighted to see my words in print or on the screen.  Beginning in first grade when my poem about spring was selected for the school magazine to many years later when my well intentioned civic minded letter to the editor was printed in the Sunday Gazette, I beamed like a proud parent gazing upon their cherubic child. I remember being as thrilled over getting positive remarks on my high school essays as the soccer team was at winning the state championship!

Now I write professionally, pastorally, and for pleasure having consistently maintained a blog for 8.5 years. One would think that with my love for words, birthing them would come easy. But on the contrary, when has childbirth ever been easy???  Indeed, I have labored for hours over opening lines and meaningful metaphors. I approach the blank screen with trepidation – if I approach it all. Just this last weekend with a sermon to write and this newsletter article hanging over me – I suddenly realized with great urgency that my refrigerator needed cleaning out. I scrubbed that baby from top to bottom – pulling out every drawer and shelf and thoroughly scouring away every microscopic bit of organic life. I justified this time-sucking task with the inspiration I knew I would glean from the crisper drawer – but in truth I was willing to do anything to keep me from that frightening blank screen that taunts me with just how empty my thoughts are.

And courage. Courage to “put it all out there” for the world to see. To take a chance that what I have to say might make an impression on someone, touch someone, make someone think. I have to put aside fears of rotten tomatoes, click throughs, and “challenging” remarks. Courage to refrain from comparison – the ultimate thief of joy and creativity – and just write trusting that while my words may not be the most profound or philosophical – they still have worth.

With no divinely-cool inspiration coming forth I continued with dusting, vacuuming, cleaning the toilets, and finally taking the dog for a walk – surely, they were out there somewhere – the precise words to perfect my prose. Procrastinate lately – you might be thinking? But I will counter any day with my concept of active percolation – just like brewing the perfect cup of coffee – making words form sentences that turn into paragraphs and pages – takes care and time! 

It is in times like these that deadlines are my friend. At some point I am forced to write something – to put form to the thoughts swirling in my mind. To act. To make a decision and run with it – to take a chance.

As I struggled with words this weekend, I began to see similarities to other areas of my life. You might say my writer’s block was a mega metaphor of my life right now! Struggling with choices and decisions until I am forced by something or some circumstance to finally act. I am as afraid of writing the wrong thing as I am of making the wrong choice. Desperate to be right and win approval, my fear of acting has held me back throughout my life and as I embark on the second half I don’t want to continue being stymied by it.

I’ve never quite understood what is behind this fear but I have always marveled at those who seem to have a clear idea of who they are, where they are going, and how they are going to get there – and then getting there – fears (if they have any) be darned!

Fear of failure has clouded my vision and therefore I have always lacked clarity of purpose and lacked direction in living my life. Oh, I manage to get by alright – some might even think I have it all together – that I am right where I am supposed to be doing what I do best. And maybe that is true – but getting by is not the same as living your best. And living your best takes clarity which turns into courage which turns into action. 

Have you ever felt like something – maybe yourself – was holding you back from living life fully – trusting your choices and believing you are on the right path? What is it? What clouds your perspective and keeps you from moving forward?  What keeps you from living wholeheartedly and with integrity?

In addition to my fear of failure I struggle with:

  • The belief that my past failures will forever haunt any future successes;
  • The illusion that someone else is in charge of and responsible for my life and therefore has the right to direct my life
  • The belief that someone is far more qualified and better than I am for the situation at hand and therefore I am not needed;
  • The unhelpful messages I received and believed about myself in the past and continue to live into;
  • The child inside of me who still just wants to please, gain approval, and meet expectations;
  • The constant need to prove myself to others and therefore being unable to show up for my own life.

Counselors will applaud me for the time I have spent wrestling with all of the above but to be honest it hasn’t gotten me anywhere. Kind of like hoping divine inspiration will come from the crisper drawer if I clean it for long enough. The more I focus on the naughts and shoulds of my life the less time and energy I have for simply living life.  What I have come to realize is that there are far too many subjective and fallible things in this world that I have clung to for my own personal sense of worth and meaning and none of them will get me anywhere close to where I want to go – especially for the second half of life.

There is a story in the Bible about Jesus on His way to Jerusalem. Jesus is met by some Pharisees who warn him: “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” Jesus replies, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’” (Luke 13:31-33)

Jesus knows where He is going, he is clear on His purpose and is not afraid of what is ahead. He doesn’t let the foxes of life deter him – even his impending death.

I want that kind of clarity for my own life. Clarity that encourages integrity, wholeheartedness, and a vision of life that is connected to something beyond me. Clarity that makes living with authenticity, commitment, resolve and discernment my default and not something I have to labor for.

I’m not going to find that if I am constantly battling my fears. The fears I allow to dominate my life are of my own making. They have tamed and impoverished my life. That is not the purpose God had in mind for me. God is much bigger than that.

God doesn’t want us to waste this precious gift of life in fear, regret, or despair.  He made that perfectly clear on the cross. I must remind myself of that. My sins are forgiven. I must not wallow in my failures or dwell on my regrets. God is not my source of condemnation; He is the source of my clarity and the source of all life. He is my strength and my shield against all that seeks to deter me.

Jesus came so that I may have life. (John 10:10) Jesus gives life, reveals life, and calls me (and you) to a meaningful life in the now, in this very messed up time and in this place – wherever and however that may be.  A life that savors all that I have in the now and accepts what I don’t. A life that embraces the challenges and all the opportunities they bring. A life that finds its essence by sharing it and opening it to others – others who are also living facing challenges and finding new doorways to life.

Clarity isn’t about knowing and seeing everything. It’s about knowing and seeing ourselves as a child of God. It’s about knowing who our heart and our deepest loyalty belongs to. Clarity is about seeing clearly our gifts and abilities while acknowledging our limitations and feeling great about both.  God’s gift of grace and steadfast love frees us to live lives focused on what matters most to us not on what we should have done or who we “should” be. In that freedom is life at its best where there is nothing to fear.

Psalm 27 says it best:     

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh— my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall. Though an army encamps against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rises up against me, yet I will be confident. One thing I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple. For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.”

Psalm 27: 1-5

Let your light so shine!!

A September of Sighs

“Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

I was driving back to my current home after visiting what will always be my home for a long holiday weekend. Living as I do in MT with my current home in the NW corner of this great big state and the place that will always be home on the far southeastern side – my drive was a long one – filled with long, deep sighs.

I love a good solo road trip – especially on the lesser-traveled backroads of MT. As the mountains give way to miles and miles of great big spaces, the familiar but always changing scenery usually takes me away from the daily stressors that fill my day-to-day experience. But not this time. In addition to the unexpected, unusual, and truthfully – unwelcome traffic – so many things weighed upon my heart and mind – decisions awaiting me, regrets, hopes, frustration, forgiveness, uncertainty, worry, homesickness, and the feeling that my soul was just tired. I sighed so much I almost got light-headed!!

Truth is, I find myself sighing more and more these days. I wish I could say they were all sighs of delight as I watch a glorious sunrise or sighs of contented rest as the last light of day paints the sky. No, these sighs have the hint of a whimper if not an all-out groan.

I sigh over all the things I had planned for this summer that didn’t happen and the ones that unfortunately did. I sigh over the rapid changes that are taking place in the two communities I call home – changes I don’t much care for.  I sigh when even the good-news news feeds I subscribe to struggle to find good news. I sigh at the struggles I see taking place in lives far different from mine – and yet no less important. I read the news and sigh. Haiti, Afghanistan, Hurricane Ida, earthquakes, wildfires, floods, racism, refugees, border closures, businesses closing, workers losing their homes, local, state, and national political divisions, and the relentless bickering over everything and anything! I sigh because things just don’t make sense, and there is nothing I can do about it.

Smoke-filled skies.

I sigh over our collective loss of civility and mutual respect for one another. The ongoing pandemic with its mask mandates, school closures, parent protests, vaccine mandates, hospitals being overwhelmed, fear and falsehoods spreading as fast as the virus itself, not to mention the weekly if not sometimes daily word of someone I know dying from the virus feels in itself like one great big life-sucking sigh.  I sigh as I reflect on the 20 years that have passed since 9/11 – wondering at how that passage of time is even possible and wondering again at how much things have changed. I sigh when I realize how little things have changed. I sigh when I catch myself turning to old patterns of living or thinking and don’t give a darn anymore. I sigh when agendas and individual agency become more important than love.

At times it feels like all I can do is expel a deep, groaning, relentless sigh.

What about you? What causes you to sigh today? Although I often feel very alone in my sighs, maybe we are sighing over some of the same things. Maybe I just made you take one big head-shaking sigh!

We sigh for lots of different reasons. Scientifically speaking, sighs are life-sustaining. It’s suggested that when we sigh, the action serves as a biological reset button, bringing on feelings of relief. Sighing allows an extra burst of oxygen to enter our lungs, which leads to improved blood flow, feelings of relaxation, and lowered levels of stress.

But what if our sighs were more than just biological but a spiritual awakening. What if our sighs serve as a revelation to us that we have encountered a closed place within ourselves, in a relationship, or in our life? In a passage from the Gospel of Mark, the people of a region Jesus is traveling through brought him a man who is closed. His ears are stopped up and his tongue is tied. Jesus took the man “aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’”

Jesus encounters a man who is physically closed off from the world, unable to hear or speak but with the sigh and command from Jesus, the man is opened to the world.

How many of our sighs come at times when we cannot hear or feel the peace of God in our lives or speak the words of His truth – because we frankly find them hard to believe?

I think most of us think of our sighs as a form of surrender – we accept that this is just how things are going to be. In doing so, we close ourselves off from the future, each other, and the possibility of something new happening. With that tired breath out, we resign from life.

But what if our sighs are not just a surrender to the way things are going to be but instead, a continuation of the creation story – that with each sigh we release, God breathes into us new life? With each sigh released – God gives us a glimpse – however momentary – of the good things, of the openings God intends for us?  And for that life-sustaining moment, we relax, we rest, we see clearer, and feel a bit more alive.

When I look at the sighs in my life – and especially those that rode shotgun on my recent road trip – I can see my actions and reactions, my ways of thinking, my version of the truth, my dreams and hopes, and my vision for how life should be. My sighs are a reflection of all of those things as they play out in my life.

When I sigh a little longer and breathe in a little deeper, I also see the closed parts in me – the parts that don’t necessarily want to hear what God has to say. The parts I’d rather not put into words.  The parts of me I need to release from deep within. Those sighs tell me that I still have work to do, and they point me towards healing as well as opportunities for growth.

If we sit with our sighs – let them linger in the air for a while – before hurriedly moving on, maybe we can learn something important about ourselves. We might see what is not right with us and maybe just maybe feel a spark of something new – something better… After a summer of smoky skies closing in upon us – I am ready to be opened by a breath of fresh air from God leading me towards a better way to be.  Where are your sighs leading you?

“Whether you are surrounded by the singing of a lamp or the sounds of a storm, by the breathing of the evening or the sighing of the sea, there is a vast melody woven of a thousand voices that never leaves you and only occasionally leaves room for your solo.”

– Rainier Maria Rilke  (Letters on Life)

A true sigh of delight as morning breaks in eastern Montana.

Let your light so shine!

Confessions of an Extremist

Having completed 50 evolutions around the sun, I expected this year to be my shining moment – that perfect balance of life experiences which would in turn inform a wealth of new discoveries. I have indeed learned many valuable life lessons up to this point in my life but the new discoveries I am making in this 50th year aren’t the grand adventures I was hoping for – just more hard lessons. My parents decided against naming me Grace for a reason and I am finally seeing that there was more to that reasoning than my affinity for tripping on my shadow.

Perfect balance

You see, balance is not my forte. You will not see me standing on one leg for any length of time – nor making it across a rushing creek by hopping rocks – without getting soaking wet.  “Better, Stronger, Faster”, “No Pain, No Gain”, and “A Jane of all trades, is a master of none…” (my adaptation) were the mantras I followed for much of my life – believing that I could always be better – I was never enough; that pain was just a part of the deal, and once I found something I was good at I had to be the best at it and I went all in – all or nothing. Sure, these are all noble ideals when part of a well-rounded life-style buoyed by a healthy self-image or specific goals – but dangerous when they become coping mechanisms to deal with the challenges and travails of living.  Everything in moderation is a nice concept but putting it into practice has never occurred to me. 

Balance – in many facets of my life – has eluded me. I have always marveled at gymnasts who can twirl, leap and spin on a plank no wider than my hand; athletes who never seem to falter; dieters who manage to find the perfect combination of health and pleasure in their meals; professionals who have a successful career and an equally fulfilling personal life; climbers who can leap from ledge to ledge with full confidence in their footing; couples who can’t get enough of each other and yet celebrate their individuality… I could go on.

As the office administrator for a financial advisory firm – readers can take comfort that I have at least succeeded in mastering a balanced checkbook and have never once carried a balance on a credit card. But for most everything else in life I tend to go to extremes.

Take my running. I am a runner. Period. It is who I am. People who I’ve never met before greet me as an old friend in the grocery store saying  “Oh, you’re the runner we see every morning.”  For 35+ years I have started every day with a run. Nothing got in the way except for when I was physically incapable of doing so and even then – running injured became a badge of honor. Just like the Olympic gymnast who wins gold with her blown ankles wrapped to keep them stiff, I chased mile after mile through stress fractures, shin splints, migraines, and fevers. I was driven to log more miles than the day before – even in a blizzard. Don’t ask me why – it was simply ingrained in me to start every day that way – always going a little bit farther then the day before. I even ran 8 miles on the morning of my morning wedding. And God help me and those around me if I couldn’t run… it wasn’t pretty.

And this is where the hard lessons have finally come to light  – to use an old adage – again adapted  – the chicken running with her head cut off finally came home to roost – because this year I finally couldn’t. I couldn’t run any more.

It took a broken foot and the ensuing overcompensation injuries that followed to lead me down a path of discovery I never wanted to go on. And yet what a discovery it has been! I realized just how out of balance my life has been. Not that I didn’t already know it – I was just finally forced to come to terms with this tidbit of truth. More is not always better – and choosing balance is a lot harder than chasing the single-minded ease of excessiveness – of going to the extremes.

Extreme runners know they should cross-train but it is so much easier to fall in step with the farther-faster mindset and seek that addictive runner’s high rather than balance their daily training with strength and restorative work. This will inevitably come back to bite us somewhere down the road when an overtraining, overuse, or overcompensating injury sidelines us – as I learned the hard way this year. There I was, sidelined from my greatest coping mechanism of all time – running – during one of the most stressful, challenging times of my life. While I never ran from a challenge, running helped me through them. Now I was forced to not only come to terms with the challenges of life but I also had to shift my identity.

Letting go of running has been quite daunting and challenging – I literally built my life around it. What was I supposed to do with my Saturday mornings now that a 17-mile run was off the schedule let alone – how do I face each day? My well-meaning friends didn’t help matters when they also chimed in with “but what will you do?” What will I do?  As if the only thing I was truly capable of was a good run!

I was filled with anxiety. I became depressed. My serotonin levels – naturally elevated by endorphins – plummeted. I had a hard time sleeping. Adjusting from a daily half marathon of exertion to virtually no activity at least at the time of my broken foot left me feeling like I was bouncing off the walls.

This would never do. And then I discovered chair cardio.

Friends, this is not the “Sit and Be Fit” your 90 yr. old grandmother enjoys before playing Bridge at the senior center. No, this was an intense set of core workouts I found through the wonders of YouTube led by a runner and trainer who had also broken her foot and needed an outlet during recovery. She was also an extremist when it came to fitness – the operative word being WAS.

One of her favorite mottos is: More is not better – better is better. Having a balanced approach to exercise is a lot more work and a lot harder to do than going to the extremes.

I came to realize the coping mechanism that had been so valuable to me through the ups and downs and the joys and the griefs of life had become a prominent roadblock to my growth. My rigid my-way- is-the-only-way-for-me thinking had not served me as well as I thought – in more ways than just running!  I branched out to cross-training, high-intensity interval training, lifting weights, and doing a cross between Pilates and yoga. And I discovered that a fast walk works your legs more than an easy sprint – without the pain! Who knew?

I won’t say that I don’t long for those long Saturday morning runs and the exhilaration of a fast sprint to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” … Indeed, I am having a hard time coming to terms with the idea that my running days – that my life as a runner – may be behind me even as I realize that my running also brought me pain – pain that has kept me from enjoying the other parts of my life.

As I learned that running wasn’t the only thing I could do to stay fit and actually enjoy doing because it feels good, I began to grow stronger in mind AND body. I am finding a new place to anchor my identity – not in the extremes of my miles logged and my performance but in the wholeness of my being – created and loved by God

One of the primary difficulties of a lifestyle change – or any major change in thinking – revolves around our attachment to our identity. Although we can clearly see it is an obstacle to our growth, the loss of this part of our identity is daunting. As counterintuitive as it may sound, the loss of an old and tired or detrimental feature of our identity may provoke a deep sense of loss. The uncertainty of new terrain invokes discomfort – even disingenuity – as we encounter surprises and maybe feel a bit less confident as we learn new things. Embracing new ideas and new ways of living takes work and perseverance. But when we let go of our disserving coping mechanisms, rigid thinking, or extreme ideals and break free of old, worn-out encumbrances we give way to higher forms of ourselves. We are coping. We are thinking not just following the easy path because it affirms us. We are stronger and able to see anew.

I can’t help but think there may be a lesson in this for our politics and our times.

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Romans 12:2

Memories of the miles…

Let your light so shine!

 

Living the Dream…?

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

When did you let go of your great big dreams or put your once exuberant soul to slumber?


Then I took the next most likely leap of faith and filled my room with space – outer space – because I just had to know what heaven was all about. After Shaun Cassidy faded from the scene, posters of rockets and galaxies and even F-16 Fighting Falcons and F-15 Eagles graced my bedroom walls – because I knew you had to start somewhere and jet pilots were frequently chosen to be astronauts. I’m not quite sure when that dream faded from view – it was a focal point of my Tomboy days for sure, along with my wardrobe fixation of flannel shirts and waffle stompers. I’m sure my mother wondered where her little girl disappeared to.

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Enter the late 70’s and early 80’s and the debut of the epic television series FAME. I was convinced I would be the next Coco played by Erica Gimpel (she even shared my name – though not the spelling of it, darn it all) flying across the stage with athletic rhythm along with singing and even acting! I played Scrooge in our 5th-grade play and nailed it! Then we moved to Virginia where I put in hours and hours of practice choreographing dance routines in the cool air of our basement during our stint in Washington DC for my father’s job. I practiced the piano religiously and played competitively – first under the tutelage of an old bat who rapped my knuckles with a ruler over any mistake and then under the angel of all piano teachers, Mrs. Pataro, who believed in me and encouraged me and saw me shine at every piano recital and guild competition. I was going to make it as a star somehow! I even lived in a metropolitan area where the dream really could come true (not some hick MT town from whence I came!) Anyone heard of the Kennedy Center?


Ah yes, those were the good days when anything was possible. By the time I reached high school we were living out west again (but far from Hollywood) and it was time to start settling down and setting real goals (according to my father.) By then I was writing – quite prolifically. Ronald Reagan was president and I hung on every single word of his speeches. They were brilliant in my mind, and so I determined I would become a presidential speechwriter and then the White House press secretary. Having been exposed to the world of government and politics when one could be proud of both, this seemed a worthy avenue to pursue. While it may not have been as concrete a goal in terms of landing a job post-graduation as becoming a nurse, a teacher, or astronaut, it was at least academic.


And so I pursued mass communications and political science with a focus on public administration in college. I put in my time in a U.S. Senator’s field office (what an eye-opening experience THAT was into the true nature of politics and one’s constituents…a.k.a Your Constituents Hate You 101), the Public Relations office of the Bureau of Land Management (Bureaucracy and Politics 202), and interned at the CBS news affiliate in Billings (You Have a Face for Radio 402). Everything seemed to be falling into place, right? Except by the time I graduated from college life had gotten in the way of my dreams in a rather dire way. Rather than graduating into the field of my choice, I spent considerable time (and money) in the hospital and then recovery. By the time that ordeal was behind me, my dreams seemed out of reach and unrealistic so I took whatever job I could find that would help me emerge back into the land of the living and make a living. I have been working my way through the land of the living rather than the life of my dreams for some 25 years now. I have a great job and a vast array of experiences behind me, but my dreams are still just that – dreams.


I bring all this up now as we watch the launch into space of the 82- year old Wally Funk, who was on the first crewed flight into space by the rocket company Blue Origin. Funk is the oldest person ever to travel into space. “I didn’t think I’d ever get to go up,” Funk is quoted as saying.


Years ago, Funk had dreams like I did. Then a 21-year-old pilot, she was the youngest of the 13 women who passed the same rigorous testing as the Mercury Seven male astronauts in NASA’s program that first sent Americans into space between 1961 and 1963 but were denied the chance to become astronauts themselves because of their gender. She went on to become the first female flight instructor at a U.S. military base and the first woman to become an air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. But she never went into space – until now. She did not live out her ultimate dream – to venture into outer space – at least on her schedule – but she made the best of her pursuit nonetheless. I doubt her life was one of ennui or regret. Quite the contrary it appears, for in various interviews she recounts a very full and vibrant life utilizing her gifts and skills to help many others, especially women, achieve their own dreams of flight.


Which begs the question that corresponds to one of my boss’s favorite lines: “I’m living the dream.” Just how does one live the dream? And furthermore, what defines a dream worth living for?


If you were to go back to your launching pad into life, what would you do differently, if anything, to achieve the dream(s) you once had? What stopped you from attaining them? Money, health, lack of education, family issues, or circumstances beyond your control? Maybe it was a more personal reason: doubt, fear, lack of vision, or a commitment to others above yourself.


Or, maybe you are one of the lucky ones who had a dream, chased it, and realized it. What now? Is living the dream any different than pursuing life as best possible?


As one who may have more years behind me than ahead – unless I somehow manage to defy my octogenarian heredity-fated lifespan – I wonder if it is worth taking time away from living my best life to pursue living the life I dreamed of? Is it worth asking the question “What could have been, if…?” Am I setting myself up for a nostalgic walk down “What-a-Failure Way”?


Or, maybe I am already realizing the dreams I once had but in my own unique and different way? I’m not an ordained Pastor with my own church but I am a Lay Pastoral Associate serving and preaching in the church and walking closely with God in His grand creation; I’m not a star of the stage and screen but I am singing – on a stage even – (when we can safely resume that art) – though no one would pay to hear me; I don’t dance much anymore but I would with a partner; I’m not a concert pianist but I have two pianos that I play with great abandon for an enrapt canine audience; I’m not flying into space but I can climb to what I now consider heaven on earth during less crowded times, and though I am not representing the President of the United States, I do write for a pretty swell boss and have my own blog!


“Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;”

How about you? Are you living your dream or living your best life possible? Is there a difference?


Whatever your answer, I think we can all raise a toast to Wally Funk in her flight to the heavens above. She has lived a life with a heart for any fate, still achieving, still pursuing, learning to labor, and to wait. I pray that when I come to the end of mine, I will be able to say the same.

 


A Psalm of Life
What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist.
BY HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,— act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

Let Your Light So Shine!!!

Emergence

Everything is as good or as bad as our opinion makes it.  -C. S. Lewis

“How was COVID for you?” Mamie asked, her smile warm, her inquiry genuine.

We were seated next to each other in chair groupings according to our ticket purchase, Mamie with her husband and daughter and I with myself, awaiting the start of our first live, in-person concert in well over 16 months.

The question gave me pause. So ready was I to respond with the usual masked response. But having realized over the time of COVID how much masking we do throughout our lives, I heard myself saying – challenging. COVID was challenging for me. And then I immediately felt ashamed of my answer. How could I even begin to call my sheltered, relatively healthy (I did break my foot!), overwhelmingly quiet, pretty-much-the-same-as-before- existence COVID-experience challenging?  Aside from not being able to sing, let alone perform with the 3 choirs I sing in or go to church in person for much of the time, or working by myself in the office for 6 weeks, or wearing a mask in public and confined places – my personal tangible life really wasn’t all that affected by COVID. I still took my morning runs and evening walks with my dog in the great outdoors without a mask, I still went hiking, I still had a job, I put the same food on my table and still had a roof over my head.  I need not list the challenges this past year (and then some) has presented the world with to make my personal plight sound positivity absurd. We have all witnessed the havoc of the pandemic with the addition of sudden, unexpected storms, wildfires, economic, political, and social upheaval and loss, so much loss.

Moments earlier, I had entered the performance hall with butterflies in my stomach. A combination of excitement, dread, joy, and sorrow danced or perhaps more honestly – churned inside of me, and I wasn’t even performing!  Excitement for what I knew was going to be an amazing night of music, dread because I was emerging from the comforts of my solitude completely solo and self-conscious, joy over seeing smiles again and feeling the warmth of people close by, and sorrow for the loss of 16 plus months of the life I knew and the lives lost during this pandemic time. It felt so good to be on a stage again. But the other part of me wondered at just how much has changed over this period of disrupted lives and livelihoods.

As Mamie awaited the details of my answer, she provided a different take. As an introvert she offered honestly, that she “relished every COVID moment.” Later comments from the audience highlighting their accomplishments in response to their “COVID-time experience” made me wonder if I hadn’t wasted the pandemic. The comparison trap had pulled me right in. Had I failed at this too?

How was COVID for you? 

I spoke to my more-seasoned cousins who live in San Francisco in a “cozy” abode overlooking the Bay Bridge a few days ago. We talked frequently during the more turbulent and downright scary times of the pandemic and I often wondered at just how different our experiences were. They were, for a time, confined to their home. When they did venture out, they wore masks everywhere. Her husband turned into a master bread baker and baked bread for the entire neighborhood, delivering loaves to doorsteps on a weekly basis. Now, they were fully vaccinated and enjoying the new freedom of breathing fresh air after most of California’s restrictions were dropped (much, much later than the relatively few we had here in MT). BUT- she laughed – they were completely exhausted! Now their grown children and grandchildren wanted to come visit – ALL THE TIME! They had grown accustomed to their quiet sanctuary and now felt overrun by what was once the “occasional” visit. It’s funny how our perspectives can change.

Two dear friends of mine lost their fathers to COVID. One of them just recently laid her father to rest – after 9 months of waiting until it was  “safe” to do so. Another friend’s husband passed away from pancreatitis – a complete shock to everyone – their children were unable to be with their father in his last days and my friend only allowed to sit with him in his last hours – fully masked of course. Another was diagnosed with cancer and had to navigate this difficult diagnosis on her own – no hugs for comfort, no groups for support. How will they be now, living into their very real “new normal?”

My challenges were of a far more personal sort – I was forced to spend time with me – grappling with who I am after a failed marriage one month prior to the pandemic setting in. The monotony of just getting through life became my safe place and default. I truly felt like I was on the outside looking longingly in on the lives of others – while placing my own on the burn pile. This pandemic time for me has been a time of waiting and discerning and waiting some more. I am not a patient person when it comes to what tomorrow will bring – I like to be in the know, you know? Wondering throughout, just what God is up to – if anything – was and is challenging!

I am certain that alongside all the accomplishments achieved by my fellow audience members as well as those whose lives seemed so much better than mine, they too had times of darkness, woe, worry, anxiety, depression, anger, etc. I am sure some of them feel they too failed the pandemic. Some of us are just much better at showing our brilliant sides than say, me.

It is remarkable just how differently we all experienced this time of pandemic, complicated even more by the social and political upheaval that clung to the virus’s coattails. Despite the initial “we are all in this together” mantra, we quickly siloed ourselves off into what I call our own individual Twilight Zones of Stranger Things. As we begin to emerge from our respective COVID-worlds, how will you be?

Many will be carrying the burdens of lingering illness, loss, regret, and unfinished changes taking place in their lives. How will they be?

We have lived physically, philosophically, and politically polarized from each other for some 15 months. Learning how to show ourselves again and how to interact with one another will be an interesting time in our societal evolution. How will we be?  

If the post-concert atmosphere is any indication, I have hope it will be a time of heavy hearts mixed with joy, tears brightened by laughter, fear assuaged by warm conversation, anxiety dampened by anticipation, and genuine smiles that light the way to a more gracious way of living with one another, again.

Let your light so shine!!!

Dropping the Mask

As I drove into the parking lot of the grocery store, I weighed my options. Would I be bold and fearless or continue to color within lines that have been drawn around almost every public activity for over a year? If I was bold, would I also be deemed a rebel with or without a cause? If I stuck to my modus operandi of benefitting the common good, staying obedient to the “science,” would I now be deemed anti-science or a flaming liberal?  Who knew that a quick trip to the market to pick up bananas could become a study of societal norms and my psychological un-doing?

The last time I shopped here, I found myself an oddity and the recipient of eye-rolls from those breathing free and easy as I observed the rules set forth by management to wear a mask while in the store – rules that were not enforced but highly suggested.  And now, here I was, mask in hand – not certain whether I would once again cover my face as I entered or go with the flow. The day before, the much anticipated and argued about news rang throughout the land –   the mask wearing edict had been lifted from on high!  Despite news to the contrary just days before, the science now said that if I was fully vaccinated, I could go places without a mask on – inside and out – and not have to socially distance with minimal to no risk to myself! 

The news seemed to come out of nowhere – like a swift gust of wind announcing the arrival of a storm. Only this time it was like the wind we had all been running into headlong all year suddenly changed direction – leaving me feeling a bit short of breath. For well over a year, we have been told to look out for each other – that it wasn’t just about me but what I could do to another person just by exhaling in their presence. With a long way to go before the population is vaccinated and immunity to the viral presence that has inhibited our livelihoods is reached, especially in my community, this all seemed rather abrupt. Not wearing my mask left me feeling a bit vulnerable as I contemplated going inside but what would wearing one say about my confidence in the vaccine? What message would I send?  What would I do?

The fact that we are all sick of wearing masks should not be lost on any of us. We are weary of not seeing each other’s faces, of not knowing whether someone is smiling or frowning – not to mention tired of smelling our own breath and walking around with fogged up glasses. The very notion of such a thing becoming a habit has spurred many a social media rant. And yet whether we know it or not, every single one of us wears a mask every moment we are conscious of others. Not unlike our recent accumulation of masks for every outfit, many of us have an assortment of masks we don for different situations – and without them we feel exposed, vulnerable, if not right out afraid.  Afraid of being found out, afraid of not fitting in, afraid of being seen for who we really are. Suddenly our innermost flaws – the ones we regularly scheme to ignore or hide – seem to be on full display.  And so, we don the mask of the moment and present a vision of ourselves to others that will get us by. A new experience, stressful moments, or times filled with great uncertainty seem to be those occasions I reach for a mask. In essence, we make ourselves out to be what we think others expect us to be. Done often enough we risk losing sight of who we really are.

This past year I have had a marked decrease in opportunities to don my assortment of masks. I will admit to having breathed a sigh of relief at the chance to just be me on a regular basis. But it hasn’t been the mental sanctuary I had hoped for. Rather, the reprieve brought to light that I have lost sight of just who I am in my own eyes. What is my story?

What am I hiding from others? If I felt secure and sure in the presence of others, what is it that I would want them to know about me – all of me?  How earthshaking would it be if the real me stepped forward all the time?  What if we all were the “real me’s” in the presence of others? How might our relationships change? How might our lives in community change?

The stories we tell others about ourselves – the good and bad – of what we have experienced in our lives help us make sense of the world and shape us as individuals. These stories are what Northwestern University professor Dan McAdams, a pioneer in the field of narrative psychology, calls our narrative identity. We tell these stories to give our lives meaning and help others understand us. While many people may experience a similar event in their lives, each person interprets the event differently and assigns different levels of importance to it. Some people will simply move on from an experience like a swimming lesson gone awry, while others are transformed by it, perhaps emboldened to face their fears throughout life or traumatized by the experience they viewed as a broken trust.  McAdams calls these “narrative choices” and they predominantly fall into four thematic categories: redemption (stories that transition from the bad to the good that follows), contamination (stories that transition from the good to the bad), communion (stories that emphasize connection, love, friendship, intimacy, caring, or belonging), and agency (stories that emphasize achievement, self-mastery, empowerment, status, and influence).

McAdams’ studies have shown that those whose narratives fall into the redemption, communion, or agency themes have a better outlook on life, find more meaning and purpose in their life, achieve more of their goals, seek out and find more connection, enjoy deeper relationships, and generally report a greater sense of well-being. People who tell their stories through a contamination lens tend to see themselves as victimized, less-than, and fail to thrive in their personal and professional pursuits.

How we interpret our experiences, how we tell our stories, will set the tone and direction for the course of our life. In order to do this successfully and have a positive course going forward, we have to sit with our past experiences, savor or make peace with them, learn from them, grow from them, and be willing to let them go. Whether good or bad, our past experiences, the stories of our lives, made us who we are today but do not have to define how and who we are tomorrow. We also have to be willing to honestly share them.  If I present myself to others as one thing but my past experiences have shaped me to the contrary – I will never be my authentic best and my relationships will be missing out.

Recently, I wrote here of a very difficult, life changing time in my life and also shared the story on social media. It’s not something I often share with even my closest of friends but something inside spurred me to tell “my side” of the story. I wrote into the night, hit post and went to bed. I awoke in the morning in a panic. What had I done?!! I had revealed too much!!! I raced to login and delete my revelatory words, but it was too late – I had shared a side of me that made me who I am today – and people had already read it – at 5 a.m. in the morning!! Who reads a blog, let alone my blog, before 5 a.m.?  Don’t people sleep??? Not only had they read it, but some had commented and some even took the time to send me personal messages as well – thanking me for sharing and confiding in me similar thoughts, regrets, and hopes.

Instead of deleting my post in shame, I experienced a sense of relief and connection I had not felt in a long time. Not only had I helped myself by revealing my true self, I had helped others express their reality as well.

As we begin to emerge from this pandemic, we will all have a different story to tell of a shared moment in time. Each of us will have experienced life differently from the moment we were born right up to the last 15 months. Each of us has the opportunity to put our mark on this world. I encourage you to drop the mask(s) and share YOUR story. We will all be better for it.

***

And now for the rest of the story… What did I do? This woman whose life has always been about following the rules and seeing that others come first, donned my mask as I read the same mask notice I have passed by every visit for recent history. I will admit, no matter how much I detest it, the small piece of cloth that covered my mouth and my emotions – gave me a sense of security – necessary or not – for the moment.  Was I rebel or a complaisant? I’ll let science settle that one.

“There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds. “ 

– Matthew 6: 25-26 The Message

LET YOUR LIGHT SO SHINE!!!

Spring Cleaning My Soul

The buds of spring cleaning have been bursting out all over at my house of late. I’ve been doing a surprising amount of cleaning lately, cleaning and discarding. Perhaps it is the fact that I have spent considerably more time at home this past year surrounded by stuff – an unbelievable amount of stuff that I have collected over the three and a half years I have lived in my house, and I am tired of looking at it. Perhaps it is because this stuff is holding me back from seeing the potential uses of the spaces I have as I contemplate a few updates I would like to make: new flooring, new kitchen countertops, an addition to house my library and pianos. Needless to say, I am more of a minimalist when it comes to anything but clothing (!!) and books, and this growing collection of stuff is getting to me.  If I don’t make my current spaces clean and less cluttered, any improvements or new space I add won’t be any better – in fact, there will just be more opportunities to add to the clutter. So I have been cleaning and discarding those things that aren’t necessary, that are taking up valuable space that could be used more creatively, and in so doing finding some breathing room as I plan for what needs to be done and can be done to make my house even more my home.

Coincidentally, I just observed a rather significant birthday on the timeline of life that has put me into a reflective state of being. Part of me can’t believe I have arrived at this mile marker already, and then part of me wonders how I even made it to this point given the long and broken road I’ve traveled. I have collected a mighty array of life souvenirs – some becoming permanent scars on my being, some being points of amazing light, and some that have quietly gone from being a passing experience to an entrenched way of thinking and doing life. 50, ahem, years of day in and day out living provides ample opportunities for habits and mindsets to take hold of you. – to add clutter to your life. You don’t even notice them at first until they start diminishing or making your life difficult.

You get so comfortable in doing life the way you have always done life that you live it with your eyes closed – running on auto-pilot and tuning out the flyover territory below. You forget you were created for more than what you can see with your diminished perspective. You begin to compare your life to others and in so doing you lose sight of your own intrinsic value.

After finishing my tidying up chores for the day, I have been taking long contemplative walks along the river and enjoying the sun’s warm reflection on the still quiet water. On one recent evening I abruptly stopped and took a good long look at the 50-year-old looking back on her life as she prepared for the next who-really-knows-how-many years she has ahead of her.  The faint wrinkles of time told stories of smiles and sorrows and sundrenched days of adventure. The eyes revealed an ocean of emotions that are at once tidal waves and tide pools and a hidden wondering from the shore. Missing though, was the sparkle that never dimmed in her youth – despite the challenges she faced even then.

I was tempted to move along and get back to my fast, regimented pace; but instead, I stayed and I looked deeper and asked her some tough questions – not sure if she would ever have the answers – but at least I could perhaps conjure up a challenge to the way she had been doing things and inspire a desire to clean house so that the sparkle might come back.

Here’s what I asked her:

  • What if you focused on what you can do and not what you can’t?
  • What do you value anymore?
  • What happened to the daily awe and wonder of life?
  • Are you filled with gratitude and appreciation for what is in your life right now – not just what once was?
  • Is there life in your heart or are you just existing?
  • Is there life in your daily work or are you just getting the job done?
  • What are you looking forward to? There has to be a reason for tomorrow – what is it?
  • Are you bringing life to your friendships or stealing life from them?
  • Is there life in the way you are living in this moment?
  • Where do you see yourself in the world – not just how you think the world sees you?
  • Are you growing?
  • Are you bringing life to others – do you even seek out others to bring life to?
  • What are you saying yes to?
  • Why are there so many no’s?
  • Finally, I asked her why she wasn’t trying to be the best at her life instead of being the best version of someone else’s life.

I’ll be honest, cleaning the privy can be more enjoyable than sitting with these questions – but having done both I can tell you which I benefited the most from as I set out on the next half of my life.

Those questions weren’t just for the shocked and in denial 50-year-old staring back at me like a watery mirage. They’re for all of us. They reveal what needs to be cleaned up and discarded; habits and mindsets that take up valuable space in your life – space that could be used more creatively and effectively to give your life meaning, fulfillment- sparkle.

As I, as we all, sort through our various souvenirs of living 25, 50, 75 years or even just living through a single pandemic year, one souvenir – our collective mortality – comes to the forefront. The temporality of life means that this one moment, this now, is priceless. A cluttered life on auto-pilot doesn’t cut it anymore. Our days should not be flyover territory. Everything and everyone matters. Even you. Nothing and no one is to be taken for granted. Not you, not your breath, not your rising nor your falling. Remember, even though time may fly or crawl by, no matter how many days you have already counted, there will never be another moment like this one. Make sure there is life in that moment. Remember too, that in that precious moment of time, no one can do a better job of being you than you. Happy Spring!

“It wasn’t so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat. It’s a wonder God didn’t lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us. Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, he embraced us. He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ. He did all this on his own, with no help from us! Then he picked us up and set us down in highest heaven in company with Jesus, our Messiah.” Ephesians 2: 1-6 The Message

Let your light so shine!

A Gift of Love

February 15th, I took down my Christmas tree. As you might expect if you have read any of my previous posts, this is much more than a post-Christmas chore for me. I am emotionally invested in this seasonal activity of the embellishing and un-embellishing of my PE injection-molded pine tree. Highly invested.

The date for this activity is significant. My Christmas tree holds far more than mercury glass, crystal, and embroidered ornaments. Every branch is adorned with love and light and as such, it carries me through the darkest month of the year which, ironically, is also Epiphany, the season of light. Epiphany ended on February 14th this year- the day we celebrate love – and now we begin the journey of Lent.  “Lent” comes from the old English word for “lengthen” and refers to the gradual lengthening of days during late winter and early spring. Beginning on Ash Wednesday, February 17, Christians begin the 40-day journey to the cross which necessitates a stripping away of all the accoutrements we fill our lives with and get down to reflection, repentance, and preparing for Easter. Hence, it was time for the tree to come down – as much as I hated to see it go.

In the process, I got to thinking about how much life has changed since February 15, 2020, when I last took down my Christmas Tree of Love and Light. Changes none of us planned for, and unless you are an infectious disease expert, likely imagined. For me though, the past five years have brought significant changes and losses as each year passed and this last year was no exception. And, while I had sweet, heartwarming moments of family memories as I placed each ornament into the storage box, I couldn’t help but wonder who or what would be missing from my life when I bring out the PE injection-molded pine tree of love and light next Thanksgiving weekend. 

Robert Burns wrote despondently about the vagaries of life in 1785, ruing the calamity a farmer brought upon a field mouse’s nest as he plowed a winter-ravaged field – upending her little family and no doubt changing the entire course of her existence.Little did the mouse know when she awoke that morning to go about the business of securing nourishment and warmth for the day that her home would be destroyed by a farmer’s plow. Goodness, she had plans!

“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley, (often go awry)
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!”

Ah, the best-laid plans of mice and men…. The saying is so familiar to us it rolls off our tongues without a moment’s thought when a change of plans forces us to change the course of our day-to-day existence of lives well-planned. Think about it. Nature has been messing with even the most-prepared (or so we thought) of us. Brutal storms shutting down life as we know it – literally shutting down and freezing the entire state of Texas as I write this. Think of all the plans upended. And of course, there, lurking in the background is a year-old pandemic. Today, it is hard to have well-planned lives when the whims of COVID-19 are at play. You meticulously planned for a family road trip with every item on your to-do-before-leaving list checked off only to be on the receiving end of a contact tracing call the day of departure; graduations, weddings, and funerals were turned into Zoom events or canceled altogether; you don’t know from one week to the next if your child will be in a classroom or bedroom for schooling; or your business closed after months of lock-downs,  economic instability, and the eradication of your customer base; or your brother calls with news of your mother’s death. COVID-19 brought our mortality to the forefront of our thoughts. In an instant, all the plans you made went up in smoke and left you standing there in the dust.

Sometimes the change of course isn’t instigated by a one-off event at all but a gradual realization that your present life is not what you expected or wanted it to be. Moments and realizations like these often beg the questions: Why even have a plan at all? Who’s in charge here?

Working as I do for a former Marine in the financial planning industry, we have plans or as we call them SOP’s (Standard Operating Procedures) for everything from scheduling appointments to writing reports to technology breakdowns to managing your portfolios to closing up shop for the day. If the power goes out, I can reference our handy three ring binder to find the SOP for working the old-fashioned way! While we like to expect that bull markets will reign supreme, we know that the very nature of our business is a roller coaster ride of change. Do we deviate from our written SOP’s? Certainly, no situation is the same, but by having some sort of plan in place beforehand we have a frame of reference from which to launch our response. This response provides us at least part of the answer to the second question: who is in charge here? We are because we know how to react on our toes. We have well practiced strategies in place.

Now, I will be honest with you, I have yet to find or write an SOP for life. Some will say the Bible is the only operator’s manual you need for living life – even a life lived in a pandemic – or perhaps – even more so in a pandemic. And while that is an excellent Plan A as a source of divine guidance, I need a Plan B for the business side of life. Thus, I am making sure I have a plan for my life when I am no longer “in control” of it.

One evening over dinner, after listening to a group of us share the goings on in our lives and noting how many of our plans and expectations had changed over the last several months, a dear, wiser, much older friend of mine took a sip of wine and remarked with a knowing smile that one of her favorite sayings was an old Yiddish Proverb: “Man plans, God laughs.”

Of course, this notion frustrates me to no end; yet, I know how very true it is. I like to be in control; but in the end, I know who is ultimately in charge. Nonetheless, my responsibility is to be prepared and react wisely to the changes that occur in life. My wiser older friend on the other hand is completely satisfied with this concept and I can tell that her life is richer because of it. The morning after our dinner gathering, I received a call that my friend’s husband had gone to bed that night and never woke up. In that moment, all of my friend’s reasoning and carefree logic she shared the day before came sweeping over me. As I sat with her later that day, she had a peace about her that was inspiring. We talked about her husband and the joys they shared during their 56 years of marriage.  Employed as I am in the financial planning world, I asked her, somewhat awkwardly, if they had “you know, made plans?”

 “Of course! We settled all of that stuff years ago,” she replied matter-of-factly. And because of those plans, during this sudden change in the course of her life, she could focus on just being.

One of the best gifts of love you can give your loved ones is an SOP for the end of your life. Don’t leave the burden of reading your now asleep mind to your family and don’t “not give a hoot” and let the state handle your affairs. I speak from personal experience having walked through the aftermath of the seemingly well-planned state of my parent’s affairs. Yes, I am talking about a will, I am talking about taking responsibility now for what you hope never happens but at some point, most assuredly will. Make sure all your financial accounts have payable on death or transfer on death instructions. Make sure your beneficiaries are up to date. Formally state what you want done with your possessions and have it legally documented.

One of the most satisfying parts of my job is helping a grieving spouse or the surviving children navigate through the financial details after a loved one dies. Being able to tell them they have nothing to worry about, that their loved one had everything lined out ahead of time and all I will need is a death corticate and a few signatures takes a very heavy burden off their already weary shoulders.

As the year unfolds for all of us, we of course hope for nothing but the best. When I hang my ornaments on my PE injection-molded Christmas tree of love and light next November 27th or 28th, I hope that I am celebrating all the wonderful people in my life and giving thanks for all the good times this year has been filled with. But I also know that I may be thinking about those I have loved and lost – or God forbid – they will be remembering me. I want to have that sense of peace that my friend had in the wake of her husband’s passing and I want the same for my brother should anything happen to me.

God may laugh when we make plans, but by having a plan we can laugh, cry or just be at peace right alongside God when our best-laid plans go awry.

“Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin. – James 4:13-17

Let your light so shine!