What’s The Fear!

30 Nov
November 30, 2015

Jesus was a brown-skinned baby born into occupied territory, saved by his loving parents. They fled across a border into a safer country to escape King Herod, who felt his power threatened and who mass-murdered infants. That made Jesus and his parents refugees. As an imperfect follower of the refugee Jesus during this season, I have been wondering, what in the world is going on?

So, what are the senators, governors or presidential candidates, who have claimed to be Christian, doing when they oppose welcoming the longstanding biblical admonition to welcome the stranger? (Leviticus 19:34, 24:22, Exodus 22:21, 23:9, Hebrews 13:2, Romans 15:7, 1 Peter 4:9) Jesus told his disciples, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in…Then the righteous will answer him, ‘When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in…? Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:35, 37-38, 40)

The condemnation of the refugees and the strangers (e.g. the old “not in my neighborhood” attitude) is fear-based. Logically, do we need to be so afraid? Far more Americans have been killed by homegrown gun violence than foreign terrorism. Yet, we seem to be disempowered by congress to do anything substantive about that. Any individual’s chance of being killed by terrorists is simply not that great. (And I will certainly report anything suspicious.)

My husband Jim and I have a friend, who I will call Alex, who spends his time listening to a radio station while he drives his truck and works as a painter. This particular station’s programs predict gloom and doom for the world twenty-four hours a day. Alex believes it all. His entire world view is shaped by his listening to these talk shows. Whenever we see Alex, Jim gets into a discussion with Alex about the fact that Hawaii, where we all live, has not seen any Ebola cases or Daesh fighters and the likelihood that it will not. Alex’s fears seem partially assuaged. However, the next time we see him, he is full of fear and worry. He has continued to massage the messages of the radio station in his mind, listening to it constantly. I have learned something from Alex.

What we pay attention to is a matter of choice. Do you need a mantra? “Fear not” is such common advice in the Christian scriptures. Do you have a purpose today? It could be doing your work to the best of your ability. It does not have to be complicated. To show active good will to everyone you encounter (i.e. to love) is a purpose. Thérèse of Lisieux prayed, “Help me to simplify my life by learning what You want me to be and becoming that person.” Focusing upon what is ours to be and do brings a sense of calm intent.

Along with many others, I imperfectly follow my refugee teacher and my calling. I welcome the stranger because who knows? All of us might be changed for the better. And we might be entertaining angels without being aware of it!

Missing Mary Beth

24 Nov
November 24, 2015

As we gather this Thanksgiving at the table, I am acutely aware of the relatives who will not be there and whom we cannot phone anymore. My throat tightens up and my eyes water. Absence is like a silent presence in the room, when I think of them.

Today is my sister-in-law’s birthday. Mary Beth would be sixty-five and newly retired, enjoying a renovated condo in Florida. She kept a youthful figure and preferred her lipstick ruby red and hair jet black. Hers was an interrupted life; she never got to enjoy her retirement from being a school librarian, a profession qualifying her for sainthood in my book. Mary Beth said, “Never trust a man who doesn’t drink.” She loved her life to the fullest and had a lot of deep friendships. She befriended gay people way before that was acceptable or chic. At our wedding in Hawaii, she whooped it up with the best of them and took in the sites. She was not ready for the party to end, much less for her time on earth to end. She had a reoccurrence of breast cancer with metastases to the bones, stage four. Cancer stole her life. My husband and I (and many others) miss her very much. Our laments are full of, “If only…” and “It was too soon…”

Someday, the way we miss talking to her on the phone or physically seeing her will be transformed. I know this because it is like this with my other Beloveds, who have died and I have fully grieved. In time, I have noticed a different relationship with the ones I have loved and lost. John O’Donohue describes this change in prose:

“Gradually, you will learn acquaintance
With the invisible form of your departed;
And when the work of grief is done,
The wound of loss will heal
And you will have learned
To wean your eyes
From that gap in the air
And be able to enter the hearth
In your soul where your loved one
Has awaited your return
All the time.” – For Grief

For the grief you bear this holiday season, may you find the support and care you need to walk through it.
May you harvest what is loving and profoundly good, emulating what values you admire and leaving the rest by the side of the road.
May you continue your journey with your desired loved ones ever in your heart.

Standing One’s Ground

20 Nov
November 20, 2015

A most amazing video went viral this week following the terrorists’ attacks in Paris. At a memorial site, a father named Angel Le and his little son Brandon were interviewed by a reporter from “Le Petit Journal.”
Reporter (R) to Brandon: Do you understand what happened? Do you understand why those people did that?
Brandon (B): Yes, because they’re really, really mean. Bad guys are not very nice. And we have to be really careful because we have to change houses.
Angel (A): Oh no, don’t worry…We don’t need to change houses. France is our home.
B: But they are bad guys, Papa.
A: Yes, but there are bad guys everywhere.
B: They have guns. They can shoot us because they’re really, really mean, Papa.
A: It’s ok, they might have guns, but we have flowers.
B: But flowers don’t do anything. They’re for…they’re for…
A: Of course they do, look, everyone is putting flowers. It’s to fight against the guns.
B: It’s to protect?
A: Exactly.
B: And the candles too?
A: It’s to remember the people who are gone yesterday.
B: The flowers and candles are here to protect us?
A: Yes.
R: Do you feel better now?
B: Yes, I feel better.

I, too, stand with those who have flowers and candles. Angel has the love and compassion to comfort his son, who was so frightened by the mean, bad guys and the guns. I stand with those who would spread love and compassion, not fear. I take a lesson from those flowers. My spiritual teacher said, “See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you?…So do not worry…” (Matt. 6:28b-31a) I make a choice where I stand and I choose not to worry and to trust that my life is taken care of forever by the Eternal. This is not to deny the reality of the evil that people do or the possibility of bad things happening. Instead, it is choosing to acknowledge a deeper, more profound reality – that love and compassion win in the end. Love cannot be destroyed by hatred. Love is greater. The Ground of Being is love. And this is the beautiful truth.

Parker Palmer wrote this in 1999, which seems so wise today:
“We have places of fear inside of us, but we have other places as well—places with names like trust and hope and faith. We can choose to lead from one of those places, to stand on ground that is not riddled with the fault lines of fear, to move toward others from a place of promise instead of anxiety. As we stand in one of those places, fear may remain close at hand and our spirits may still tremble. But now we stand on ground that will support us, ground from which we can lead others toward a more trustworthy, more hopeful, more faithful way of being in the world.”

May you stand with those who have flowers and candles.
May you stand and spread love and compassion in the face of fear.
May you stand on the ground of trust and hope and faith, knowing that the Ground of Being is Love.

Losing the Narrative of Your Life

13 Nov
November 13, 2015

Angus Deaton won a Nobel prize in economics for his study on intricate measures of human well-being, but his latest study has created more buzz than any other published work he has done. What is the topic of his latest study? Since 1999, there is a dramatic and unique increase in the death of middle-aged white Americans, while other ethnic, racial and age groups’ death rates have declined in the U.S.A.. This pattern does not exist in other high-income countries.

This study was co-authored by Deaton’s fellow Princeton economist Anne Case, who is also his wife. They researched causes for this white middle-aged American pattern and found: a big increase in suicides, a greater reliance on opioid painkillers leading to horrible health/mortality outcomes, poisonings (prescription drug-related deaths), and chronic liver diseases from drugs and alcohol. It added up to substance abuse.

As an economist, Deaton explains that this demographic group is facing greater economic insecurity over the last decade or more. These Americans may have had higher expectations for their futures about getting ahead, having a secure and comfortable retirement, and being able to be generous with their families. Their dreams may be dashed by a harsh economic climate. Deaton said in an interview that middle-aged white Americans have “lost the narrative of their lives.” This poetic phrase grabs me.

What is the narrative of your life? How much of it depends upon economics? Or relationships? Or accomplishments? Or service to others? Or creativity? Or something greater than yourself? Or what?

Are your best days behind you? Or are your best days in front of you?

*Note: Absolute mortality rates in the U.S.A. are highest among African Americans, followed by whites, then Hispanics, and then Asian Americans.

Addiction and Surprise

07 Nov
November 7, 2015

I felt positively touched this week by a politician with whom I completely disagreed, until he spoke about addiction. A popular Huffington Post video on Facebook of Chris Christie showed him telling stories about 1) his mother’s addiction to nicotine and eventual lung cancer and 2) a law school buddy’s addiction to drugs and ten-year slide from having it all to losing everything, including his life. Christie noted how differently we treat addicts from cancer patients. We do not say to cancer patients, “Don’t treat them because they are getting what they deserve.” However, that IS what we say to incarcerated people addicted to heroin, alcohol and cocaine. He made the case that every life is precious. Every life is a gift from God. We need to stop judging and get addicts into treatment, instead of jail, and give them the tools they need to get better.

I would say that once addicts/alcoholics have gotten into treatment, they also need to make restitution for their crimes, if they have committed any. Twelve step recovery programs require taking responsibility for one’s individual actions in the past and making amends. So, recovering people often have a debt to pay financially or a debt to society. This may require public service or some form of restitution rather than jail, and it is consistent with recovery work itself. Doing such esteem-able work builds self-esteem.

So, Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey, “gets it” about addiction. He surprised me. We have some common ground to discuss in the unlikely event that we bump into each other.

May we encounter other people with open minds and hearts, ready to be surprised by what we see and feel. May we also be informed by the wisdom of our life experience and reflection upon it.

Horizon One

29 Oct
October 29, 2015

Today, I am leaving the Big Sky Country of Billings, Montana after staying here for a few days. My father was born here and grew up nearby on the Crow Nation reservation.

What impresses me is the huge sky above the plains that nothing really interrupts. I have a keen eye for the obvious; I know. It makes me want to burst out in song, “On a clear day, you can see forever,” even though I am not normally that exuberant. There is something distinctive about the great blue sky, which inspires artists to paint the sandy and rocky or green and rolling landscapes. The moon in the night black sky without light pollution has a certain simplicity to it. (Billings does not care to populate each road with streetlights.)

If you have read my blogposts or tweets, you have discovered my appreciation of nature and how God is revealed to me there. Diana Butler Bass has recently written an excellent book Grounded: Finding God in the World – A Spiritual Revolution, which I highly recommend. She posits that our American culture is undergoing a spiritual revolution from a distant, transcendent God to a more intimate God whom we may closely experience. She begins by discussing God-with-us in dirt, water and sky:

Dirt and water are understandable and tangible, icons of earthy sacredness. But we need the sky to remind us that no matter how close God is, God is still the One who hovers at the horizon.

God is not above us, but rather beyond our sight. At the edge, at the horizon, God is the sacred mystery. This reminds us of what is unknowable about God. God is greater than our vision and imagination.

As I stand on the prairie looking out at the line where the sky touches the earth, I feel so small where I stand. And I feel an inner urge to speak to the Horizon One who created all.

(Written on 10-27-15)




The Impatient Patient

09 Oct
October 9, 2015

In September, an old friend had an emergency surgery, which was quite major. Her primary doctor told her to expect to be back to normal sometime in December. She is slowly healing and eager to be back to her routine life.

When I was healing from surgery and waiting to get back to everyday life, I was impatient. I wanted to be healed and done with the pain, resting, the medications, my feelings of uselessness and helplessness, and eventually, the physical therapy. I was not “a good patient.” I tried to be nice to my spouse and well-wishers, and practicing acceptance came hard. The wise priest/writer/professor Henri Nouwen wrote, “The word patience means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us.”

Being an unwilling patient (are there any willing patients?) taught me more empathy as a chaplain to my patients. Going through the process of surgery, where one might not wake up again from anesthesia, made me face my mortality afresh. I made sure that I had no amends to make. My relationship with my husband was loving. My spiritual care work was in good hands. I was reminded of the inconvenience of putting your regular life “on hold” in order to have surgery and recuperate. I gained empathy for patients in pain. I felt very grateful for good health-caregivers on whom I was so dependent. Being dependent was difficult for me, simply because I am used to being independent. Slowing down and doing nothing was also a new spiritual practice. Since I still teach chaplains in the hospital, it is imperative for me to remember what it is like to be a patient and to be open to other patients’ experiences as they differ from mine.

It could be that you are going through illness or some kind of difficulty right now which requires patience. Perhaps patience is not a strength of yours. These words of Teilhard de Chardin may be of some encouragement to you, as you wait:

“Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally, impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new; and yet it is the law of all progress that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you, your ideas mature gradually – let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, Grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give God the benefit of believing that God’s hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.”

Kimi Ginger Awe

01 Oct
October 1, 2015

Our pink kimi ginger garden is in full blossom bordering the polished coral walkway to our front door. Its leafy green stalks and ten-inch ice cream cone-shaped blossoms stand short to thirteen feet tall. They grow densely like a miniature jungle, threatening to overwhelm passers by. We have to tie them back and prune frequently. Having a kimi ginger garden is new and I have discovered that I love to prune. Whacking away at the base of the stalks, when the blooms have grown gnarly on top, brings a perverse pleasure. Felling a thirteen-footer, as I stand five feet five inches, just feels like I am evening the score in some cosmic height game.

Why does it feel so good to be outdoors? Scientists have been documenting nature’s healing powers. James Hamblin wrote an interesting article in The Atlantic magazine on “The Nature Cure.” He cited many studies. “Researchers in the United Kingdom found that when people did physical activities in natural settings instead of ‘synthetic environments,’ they experienced less anger, fatigue and sadness.” Another study found that children with ADHD who play outdoors in natural settings, such as parks, have milder symptoms than children with ADHD who play primarily indoors. Also, addicts who participate in camping programs have lower relapse rates than those who do not. To put it bluntly, my mother was right when she said, “Go outside and play. You’ll feel better.”

Richard Louv wrote Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder in 2005, examining research and concluding that direct exposure to nature is necessary for healthy childhood development and physical and emotional health of adults. It sparked a growing movement to keep children connected to nature. The research states that people are attracted to and renewed by looking at nature and nature images. There is something healing about natural environments. I can certainly attest to this, living part time in Hawaii.

James Hamblin also referred to a February 2015 academic conference at the University of California at Berkeley, where scientists discussed “the latest research on the health benefits of awe, including reductions in levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.” Awe is frequently the experience described by people in the midst of nature. So, nature de-stresses us, as it fills us with awe. Awe is also a spiritual experience. Isn’t that awesome?

What Makes You Happy?

24 Sep
September 24, 2015

If you are not happy or even if you are, this is a worthwhile exercise. Spend a few moments writing down the answer to these three questions.

1. How did you get to this situation in life? What does it reveal about your purpose in life?
2. What’s the best thing that ever happened to you?
3. List 50 things that make you happy.

I will share with you my answers to these questions.

After thirty-three years of having a paycheck job, I stopped working, as planned. I am in the generative stage of life, where I see my purpose as sharing some of what I know about spirituality and spiritual care with others through writing and teaching. The enjoyment of my relationships and God’s world is also part of my purpose.

The best thing that ever happened to me was actually a choice. Jim and I decided to get married. I wrote about our renewal of vows at our ten-year anniversary in a blogpost entitled “The Vow,” which you can find by going into the archives on my website (www.micheleshields.com).

Here are fifty things that make me happy in no particular order: spending time doing anything with my husband, our dog Rafa, dinner with my best friend, friends in San Francisco, friends in Hawaii, sunrises, sunsets, flowers, swimming, biking, running, outrigger canoe paddling, stand up paddle, Hawaii, San Francisco, hula, playing the ukulele, reading murder mysteries, reading spirituality books, running races, ice cream, pizza, the Bible, Hawaiian Regional Cuisine, California Cuisine, malasadas, the warm ocean, the Ko’olau mountains, the Red Rocks outside Las Vegas, triathlons, swim races, jeans, smart & humble people, Hawaiian musicians, jazz music, traditional Hawaiian music, doing spiritual care, writing, the New York Times, Netflix, teaching spiritual care, my iPhone, my iPad, my MacBook, my Nespresso machine, friendly dogs, silence, prayer, meditation, the Byodo-In Temple, our house in Kane’ohe, our apartment in San Francisco, Modern art and tennis. I could easily name more things.

If you spend a little while answering these questions, you will feel happier just remembering the best thing that ever happened to you or the times associated with your list of things that make you happy. It is a no-brainer.

May you do at least one of the things that makes you happy and something that contributes to your purpose today. May you be blessed as you do.

Deeper Truths

22 Sep
September 22, 2015

I was watching a recording of the new Stephen Colbert Show at breakfast with my dog Rafa. Rafa and I like it because this is a good way for us to keep up with the hottest stars, which we have been ignoring until now. Colbert reported that celebrity Blake Lively is launching her own brand, the main focus of which is “living a one of a kind curated lifestyle and how to achieve that.” What? A curated lifestyle?

What if Jesus had a curated lifestyle? What if some Madison Avenue salesperson, who did not consult with Jesus, created a designer brand of tunics, sandals, baby mangers (more comfy than the original one, of course) and woven crown-of-thorns hats (“a fashion statement!”). This might sell to a segment of the Christian population seeking a curated lifestyle like Jesus, all the better to walk in His footsteps. After all, people have been willing to do stranger things.

A.J. Jacobs wrote “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible” about his experiment of taking many of the commandments from the Hebrew Bible and living them out. For example, he tells the absolute truth at a dinner party with disastrous results, in an effort to never bear false witness. He also does silly things like not wearing mixed fibers and beginning to play a ten-string harp. Also, Rachel Held Evans wrote “A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How A Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband ‘Master'” about literally living out the biblical admonitions regarding women on the same basis. Enough said. I am impressed by how much one can mess up one’s life with such endeavors.

It is remarkable how much escapist religion is out there. People can be preoccupied by the oddest things to avoid the deeper truths about ourselves and our world. What if we opened ourselves up to hear deeper truths? It would have to be “a teachable moment” for us and we would need to listen to someone we could respect.

There seems to be some real public interest in Pope Francis’ visit to the United States, not only among Catholics. Could this be an occasion when people are ready to hear some deeper truths about economic injustice, compassion for the poor and unemployed, ecological concern and climate change, and unity in working on common causes? Perhaps so. Michael Bales writes for Sojourners, “Pope Francis’ visit is an opportunity to present an alternative vision for what life with Jesus can look like. This pope is connecting with millions of Americans who don’t consider themselves Christians, but who find themselves resonating with the simple, radical faith of Jesus.”

Perhaps this is a time when deeper truths may be told. Let all those who have ears, hear.