Food For the Journey

It’s that time of year again.

What do those words conjure up for you? Excitement, stress, joy, dread? Maybe you have already partaken in long held traditions heralding the arrival of the most wonderful time of year or perhaps your tradition is the unwelcome arrival of the blues. Perhaps nostalgia takes hold with thoughts of better times or maybe this present time is the best time of your life for which you are in full celebration mode!

My email in-box is rife with consumerist fodder appealing to my seasonal emotions and the necessity to buy into the tradition of buying. It is also filled with reminders of how little time I have left to get my act together if I want to have perfect holiday celebrations.

As I write, I am listening – though not intently – to the host and guests of the radio show The Splendid Table discuss the impending tradition-rich Thanksgiving holiday. Food and family are the essence of this holiday. And while the original Thanksgiving holiday probably didn’t look, taste or feel anything like the “traditional holiday” we practice today – we hold fast to the sentiment that gathering around food – especially with those we love – imbues.

Indeed, food and family are the essence of life. None of us would be here today had we not spawned from a family of some sort and we could not survive without food. That I am writing and you are reading this missive means we have both succeeded in coming from a family and found enough food to eat. Yay!

And yet these two basic necessities for life can make life fraught. Food. Family. Ugh.

Our culture has a complex and conflicting relationship with both.

We value the abundance of both and yet most of us at some time or another have endured times of scarcity or suffered from over indulgence; likewise, we have likely experienced times of loneliness or immense homesickness and times when we wondered how we came from the same gene pool.

Our lives are governed by the foods we choose or choose not to eat, and our identity is borne from the family life we have or don’t have.

We hunger for satiation while being told or feeling compelled to restrict, we venerate the family ideal while many families are broken or at the breaking point.

We bring all of this complexity and conflict to the Thanksgiving table every year on the 4th Thursday of November – whether we are surrounded by two, ten, twenty, or none at all.

I am blessed to say that I bring all of the above life experiences to the table. How about you?

I have experienced the immense joy of generations of family around a common table saying grace, sharing a never-ending basket of soft, steaming Parker House rolls, vying for the turkey drumstick and trying to politely pass on the bitter cranberry relish. I have found community in a church fellowship hall filled with laughter and the chaos of two turkeys, 2 hams, and all the fixings being prepared by us for us on Thanksgiving Day, not on some other day so everyone can “still celebrate the real day the right way” because we were all most of us had – all 50 of us – to be with on Thanksgiving Day. 

Our last Thanksgiving with Dad.

One year my mom fixed toasted cheese sandwiches and tomato soup for the four of us on the big day. I have had Campbell’s chicken noodle soup and saltine crackers by myself more times than I care to reveal right now. I have witnessed doors slammed and I have slammed doors on this day of blessing.  I have seen tears shed over a shattered heirloom casserole dish and shed tears at the realization that the last Thanksgiving dinner of my father’s life had just been eaten – barely so. For most of the last 10 years, my Thanksgiving tradition has been to be a part of someone else’s traditions or none at all.

I planned and brought forth Thanksgiving for my family 3 times in my life – it was wonderful. I savor those memories – rose-colored as they may be – as life is very different now.

Some years I have longed to be surrounded by family and friends without an invite or way to get home, others years I have politely declined invitations to join others in order to have one day of peace and reflection all to myself amid my working life’s chaos.

Perhaps you, like me, in certain seasons of life, have wondered, if only in the confines of your weary, stressed, dejected, scarcity-stricken mind, why? Why do we do this to ourselves every year?

It would be so much easier – if not healthier – to just chill for the day. And I am not by any means ruling that out!! Despite what the hosts with the most and all the gathering experts promulgate across the airwaves, social media, magazine covers (taunting me as I stand in the grocery line with my sliced bread and pasta sauce) and blogosphere, there is no “right” way to celebrate or observe this day.

As I reflect on the 45 of the 50 Thanksgivings that I can remember celebrating, I find it is the complexity and conflicting realities of my life that give Thanksgiving its true meaning. God does amazing things with darkness and chaos – just look at the earth and all of creation. 

The Thanksgivings that have garnered seats at the table of my memory and my heart are not the ones that came off with aplomb, epitomized tradition, or were even all that tasty. In fact, I can count on one hand the turkey breast, stuffing or dessert I can remember raving about.  The ones that stick with me are the ones where God’s grace shined through the chaos and conflict, through the fraught and frenzy, and through times of immense loneliness and loss. When the dancing glow of candlelight broke through the darkness at the table.

As someone whose life was stolen by the hands of a vicious eating disorder for 10 years many years ago, I used to dread this day of food and family. Freed from that death sentence, I now see Thanksgiving as a meal of and for life – celebrating the life I once had, honoring my current perfectly imperfect life, and providing nourishment for the journey ahead. It is an opportunity to give thanks for those I have shared and share life with, the lives of those reading these words, and those who don’t know I exist but someday might.

It is a day we can and should pause with a gratitude that goes beyond the ‘mine’ and ‘thine’ and claims the truth that all of life is pure gift. It is a day that provides fuel for, as the esteemed poet Mary Oliver penned, “(Our) work of loving the world” and spending our days living more fully into that job description.

No matter how we gather (or don’t) this Thanksgiving, no matter what is on the menu, for all of that and all of life’s glorious complexity, challenges, consternation, and curiosity, I will be giving thanks not just with my words but with my life. Will you join me?

“In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

1 Thessalonians 5:18

Wishing you and yours a blessed Thanksgiving.

Let your light so shine!

Whose Life Is It, Anyway?

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

I never thought I would see the day that my faith would be a point of contention in the halls of Congress but alas, as a practicing, believing, and prayerful Christian, I watched as senator after senator demanded from the latest Supreme Court Justice candidate a statement professing that she would separate her faith from her judicial decisions. I admired her candor and resolute responses in which she affirmed her ability to separate the two, but I was troubled that people of faith who align their lives with a higher power should be forced to do so – especially in a country founded on the basic tenet of freedom of religion. “What difference does it make?” I spewed at the talking heads on the screen.

Courtesy: Catholiclane,com

Though the citizens of the US have not always supported the rights of others to practice their faiths, seeing it as antithetical to our founding as a “Christian Nation,” our Constitution stands on the side of all beliefs or the lack thereof. Needless to say, it got me thinking about just how we separate from and align our lives with God and begs the question asked oh so long ago of a group of Pharisees and Herodians trying to entrap Jesus into defying the Roman empire: “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” This question, of course, was posed to the Pharisees and Herodians in response to their question as to whether Jesus thought it was “lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

Faced with this trap question, Jesus didn’t do what our politicians do today, which is to answer a different question, the one that he wished he had been asked. Instead he turned the tables on them and trapped them—the Pharisees at least, who seemingly adhered to a strict textual interpretation of God’s Law, including having no other idols before me and having no coinage (which bore the Divine Emperor’s image) in the temple — in their own question. Having caused them to display the coins in their pocket – Jesus tells his questioners to “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

But back to our lives and the world we live in today – though some of us may have fewer coins and more cards in our pockets and purses these days – we still disagree on taxation and aligning our lives along ruling parties. But I am not just talking about money and the things we spend it on, or taxes and whether or not we should pay them, nor am I just referring to the political party we identify with. I am talking about our whole lives. What do we give to God? Or perhaps the better question is, what are we taking away from God? If you believe as I do, that all things are created and inspired by God, then there shouldn’t be much to ponder; yet we so want to delineate that part of our lives which belong to God from that which belongs to – whatever we deem appropriate.

Granted, on the surface of this biblical story we hear Jesus saying there are things that belong to God and things that belong to the emperor. But I believe this message hits closer to home – there are the things that we allow God to handle and the things we want to have complete control over in our lives; the things that give us a bad taste in the mouth or that we can’t trust to the unknown. We try to separate our life and world between church and state, religion and politics, sacred and secular, saved and sinner, charity and taxes, spirit and matter, freedom and masks, death and life, heaven and earth, the divine and humanity, as if they are completely separate and unrelated, as if they are in opposition and have nothing to do with each other, as if some things can be trusted to God while others we need to keep well within our tight grasp.

In doing so, it becomes easy to allow the things we give to the emperor – the things we demand control of – to reign over our lives. We forget that when we embrace that everything and everyone belongs to God, our lives are not necessarily easier or without struggle – but so much richer and more colorful – less bleak and more hope filled. When we let go of the need to be right all the time, the need to stand in judgment, and the need to control the outcome of everything and trust that it all belongs to God we start living more wholly and have less want. 

This time of pandemic and isolation has provided me with a wealth of opportunity for personal reflection, condemnation, exhortation, and commiseration. I have caught myself projecting my misery on to God and reveling in the joys of my own abilities. I have found myself hyper critical of others in how they are handling this time of novel non-coexistence while patting myself on the back for my righteous isolation that has led me to profound darkness at times. I have scowled at the abysmal political polarization confronting me from those I love and respect and then question my own personal convictions and belief in the common good.

As I prepare to vote in the most important election of my lifetime (emphasis on my – because I know the intensity and ramifications of these times must be put into historical perspective) part of me just wants to say: “God, I know you got this” while part of me is stricken with fear for the days months and years that lay ahead. Part of me wants to say: “Can’t we just give it ALL to God?” but the other part of me knows that this already is all of God’s, and for such a time as this He has called you and me to step forth in faith and with the intelligence and conviction he has inspired in all of us –  senators, congressional representatives, candidates for offices, Supreme Court justices, and the likes of you and me – to do our very best for one another and for Him.

Maybe when we recognize and accept the great conflict in all of us to let go and yet hold on in realization that everything belongs to God – the struggle and the victory – maybe that’s when we really begin to follow Jesus. We can stop searching for answers and scapegoats and begin seeking life. We can hold to the self-evidencing truth that the earthly powers that be do not govern our heart or our mind.  That’s when faith makes a difference, and lives are changed.

“Get out the message—God Rules! He put the world on a firm foundation; He treats everyone fair and square.  Let’s hear it from Sky, With Earth joining in, And a huge round of applause from Sea. Let Wilderness turn cartwheels, Animals, come dance, put every tree of the forest in the choir— an extravaganza before God as he comes, as he comes to set everything right on earth, set everything right, treat everyone fair.” – Psalm 96: 10-13 The Message

Let your light so shine!

Grant Us Peace

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” – St. Augustine’s Confessions

There is an unsettledness all around us. I see it in the eyes and hear it in the words of clients edging ever closer to retirement and those just starting out. I sense it in the groups I sing with and often in the people I worship with. The headlines are unsettling at best and it seems there is no escape from them anymore. You might not see it in Facebook status posts showing lives replete with happiness, but I can read it between the lines in the comments and sense it in my own life when it does not reflect that perceived Facebook reality. Every moment of every day there is a crisis unfolding somewhere in the world, somewhere in our nation, in our state, in our communities, and in our own lives. Conflict thrives on this unsettledness. Contributing to our sense of unsettledness, we also have a natural tendency to go negative – a necessary component of our survival instinct that drives us to avoid danger and unpleasant experiences. In this climate of unsettledness this negativity bias spills over into aspects of our lives that aren’t essential for survival and we soon find ourselves regularly judging and seeing the negatives in ourselves, other people, and events.

 

The source of our unsettledness is most likely not the same. It comes to us in the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage, the loss of a job, an unexpected diagnosis, or in a thousand other ways. It can come from within – busyness that leaves us exhausted and isolated, the never-ending pursuit of perfection and need for approval,  the never-ending need for more, deep disappointment in yourself or another, guilt that will not accept forgiveness, resentment and the refusal to forgive, or cynicism that convinces us that nothing will change and it is not worth the effort to try again or look for yet another new way. Unsettledness can also come from without – as economic, political, or societal issues upend our day to day being.

Some of us have hearts that are troubled and afraid. Some of us are angry. Some of us are skeptical and cynical about the current state of affairs. Some of us are breaking with compassion and some of us are hardening towards our fellow man.  We have lost our sense of security, of belonging, of relationship. Maybe we don’t have a sense of our own identity anymore – maybe our lives have become possessed by another person or a situation not of our doing. We see differences as a source of danger or contempt – belonging to the “other”. The “other” or “them” become something we avoid. It can stem from comments as innocent as my mother would make when I was a teenager, “It’s not you I worry about, it’s them.”

No matter the source of our unsettledness and the conflict arising therein, we need peace. Desperately. But until we find peace within us, we will not find peace between us.

I often find myself meditating on the words from the gospel of John with this verse, in particular, coming to mind of late: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27) Which begs the question, “What peace?”

We all want a solution to our challenges and trials – and we want it now! But I think the key phrase here is, “I do not give to you as the world gives.” Jesus is not the easy answer nor does he provide the quick fix to everything that troubles us that we have come to expect and demand. He does not promise the absence or cessation of conflict, the resolution of our problems, or a world of oneness – at least not in this world.

The peace Jesus speaks of is more about what is going on within each of us rather than what is happening to us or around us.  Our natural approach to conflict is to seek change from someone else in what they think, do, say or believe. But we have no power over anyone’s heart & mind. Gandhi’s advice to “Be the change you wish to see in the world” rings true here.  Our thoughts, words, beliefs, actions, and heart are the only things we have the power to change and Jesus’s peace aims to do just that – change us.

The book “The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict” from the Arbinger Institute, shines a light on our behavior towards others.  We justify ourselves for our attitudes and behaviors toward others out of four basic needs: (1) the need to believe that we are better than others; (2) the need to believe we deserve more than others; (3) the need to be well thought of by others; and (4) the need to reduce expectations because of some perceived lack in ourselves. These needs are like boxes in which we are trapped until we recognize their limitations and step outside them to gain a different perspective. A heart at peace sees the other as a human being even in the midst of conflict and disagreement. When our hearts are at peace the hopes, fears, concerns, and needs of others are as real to us as our own. When our hearts are unsettled, however, the other is an object, an issue, an obstacle to our goals, or simply irrelevant to us. When our hearts are unsettled, we cannot clearly see our own way let alone see another person’s perspective.

So how do we go about finding peace from within and without?

First, we must make peace within ourselves. There is nothing we encounter in life or that fills our life – that busyness that leaves us exhausted and isolated, that never-ending pursuit of perfection and need for approval,  that never-ending need for more, that deep disappointment in ourselves or others, that guilt that will not accept forgiveness, that resentment and the refusal to forgive that we cling to, or that cynicism that convinces us that nothing will change and it is not worth the effort to try again or look for yet another new way – there is nothing we have done or left undone, no circumstance of the world around us or the one within us that is not subject to the power of Jesus. He alone has the power to carry us through times that leave us lost, at war with ourselves and our loved ones and in a constant state of unsettledness. He will heal us, forgive us, and restore us to a life at peace.

Next, we can begin looking at the world with a positive bias. Intentionally countering the tendency to “go negative” by turning our attention to what was positive about our experience. Philosopher and psychologist William James wrote, “If you can change your mind, you can change your life.”

Then, we can put a pause on our arguing with one another about who is right or wrong and what is the right or wrong thing to do and change our way of being to “the other.” We can recognize that before the others were “them” (you fill in the “them”) they were and always will be human beings created by and in the image of the same God that created us.  We can bring the peace that Jesus has given to the conflicts around us by the way we live and be toward each other.  Giving to others, not as the world would have us give, but as Jesus would.

St. Augustine asked, “Who will grant it to me to find peace in you? Who will grant me this grace, that you should come into my heart and inebriate it, enabling me to forget the evils that beset me and embrace you, my only good?”

I think you know the answer. You.

Let your light so shine!