Broken and Beautiful

14 Sep
September 14, 2015

One summer during seminary, I did chaplaincy training (Clinical Pastoral Education) in a Catholic hospital in Western Massachusetts. The priest and nun who supervised assigned us as students to do something no one would be allowed by law to do now. They assigned us to be nurses’ aids for a week, before we could begin to be chaplains to patients. Today, that would be against Union rules, patient safety regulations and probably a lot more hospital accreditation standards. However, this occurred back in 1979 and I imagine that it was legal then.

I was a disaster as a nurses’ aid: clumsy, tentative, fearful and awkward. I remember being assigned to give a bed bath for the first time to an unresponsive elderly woman, after very little instruction. I was nonplussed as I gazed upon her pale, naked body lying still in the bed. It took me a long time with the pink basin, white washcloth, soap and water to accomplish the task. I was humbled and whispered my apologies to her, just in case she could hear. I felt badly that she was getting an amateur bed bath instead of a professional one. At least I treated her with respect, even if I was not good at what I was doing. The seed of my admiration for nurses was planted at this time. What could be more earthy, decent and humane than taking care of every need of strangers’ bodies?

After that week of being a nurses’ aid, I was so relieved to “just talk” to patients. In particular, I recall a middle-aged female patient who had a hemorrhoid operation and described her pain to me in great detail. I no longer had to help with physical tasks. I was so delighted and satisfied to be able to simply sit and empathize with her. And I empathized up the wazoo. (I also checked with the nurse about the timeliness of her pain medications.) That summer, I learned about identifying with people in their brokenness, because we are all human and therefore, broken in some way. No one “has it all together.” Not even the person you look up to the most.

I look up to people who have the strength to be vulnerable and real like the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, who recently wrote Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People. As a young minister, like her, I suffered from the delusion that I was supposed to be righteous, good at Christianity, for my church members’ sake. In my mind, it also seemed ridiculous because I was only twenty-three and there were plenty of old saintly people in the church where I served. So, I can identify with Bolz-Weber, who wrote:

as much as being the person who is the best Christian, who ‘follows Jesus’ the most closely can feel a little seductive, it’s simply never been who I am or who my parishioners need me to be. I’m not running after Jesus. Jesus is running MY ass down. Yeah, I am a leader, but I’m leading them onto the street to get hit by the speeding bus of confession and absolution, sin and sainthood, death and resurrection…I’m a leader, but only by saying, ‘Oh, screw it. I’ll go first.'”

Like Bolz-Weber, I have often learned and taught from examples of my failure or tentativeness and trials. After all, people can learn from a negative example, just like they can learn from a good one. It also helps to have an enormous reliance upon grace and humor. Each of us needs a lot of help to get through any particular day. And isn’t that a relief – not to need to look strong and perfect?

May you know that you are not the only broken and beautiful human here.

May you have the courage to be real and vulnerable.

May you sense grace and peace all around you.

Being Fully Alive

02 Sep
September 2, 2015

Retreat Centers are always in beautiful places. Serra Retreat Center is on the top of a mountain in Malibu overlooking the ocean and looking down on the mansions of the rich and famous, like Mel Gibson and Dick VanDyke. I think that Serra was a mansion donated to the Franciscans, who turned it into a retreat center. For several years, I enjoyed taking my chaplaincy students to this white stucco and mosaic edifice surrounded by pink bougainvillea on the mountaintop for daylong retreats. One time, a Buddhist student, who honestly had not been exposed to much Catholicism, asked me about the Franciscans, “Don’t they make promises or something?” I was very happy that he was interested in learning about another tradition. “Yes, they make vows about poverty, chastity and obedience.” He was silent for a while and then replied, “Well, if this is how they do poverty, I’d like to see how they do chastity.”

There is something about being surrounded by beauty, which helps us to be quiet and get in touch with what is going on inside us. Sometimes it takes an escape from the everyday routine and solitude to face oneself and empty out one’s insides. Journaling helps me to let it all out and see things more objectively on the page. I gain some emotional distance from whatever is happening in daily life. Clarity and calmness often follows. I am able to lift my sight and breathe in the beauty.

In our everyday world, we may not be able to easily find grace, but we may be able to place ourselves in a position to receive it. Retreats are such places. We may encounter not only our own interiority, but also the divine within us. Augustine said, “God is more intimate to me than I am to myself.” For me, I can often encounter the still, small voice of God within, after I have settled into silence, as I described above. Listening, I may be reminded of a line from a poem, song, scripture or hymn. This usually applies to a situation which I am facing. A person may come to mind and how I could practically help them or simply surround them with light and love in my heart. Sometimes, I just sit or walk in silence.

A retreat is a place of withdrawal or seclusion. On retreats, I often encounter God as Beauty in nature. The grounds of retreat centers offer places of healing because of their beauty, like the vista of the vast dark blue ocean meeting the great lighter blue sky from the Serra mountaintop. The awesomeness of sky and sea express Beauty, artistry and creativity. My small self is brought into perspective in the larger natural world. Whenever I take time and truly see Beauty, I am impressed and awed.

What is the point of going on a retreat? Irenaeus from the second century said, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.” As we grow, we can become more and more awake and alive to Beauty, to Spirit. It is worth taking some time apart to get in touch with oneself and Beauty in nature. In fact, if I could give you a prescription, this is the one I would give to you.

Comes Through The Wound

31 Aug
August 31, 2015

Sooner or later, we will all be wounded. Wealth and good fortune can only protect us for a while, if we are that lucky. Eventually, we will experience a devastating loss, a divorce, a death, a disaster, an addiction, an encounter with the law, a bad car accident, financial troubles, an assault, mental illness, family secrets, a betrayal or something else. There will come a day when we will feel destroyed and deeply wounded by life.

Gwen genetically inherited the disease of alcoholism. There were sober alcoholics in her family, including her older brother. As soon as she began drinking at age twenty-five, she had no “off switch” and her capacity for alcohol was large with little affect. She married a man who drank like her. Their marriage centered around drinking. When Gwen realized that something was wrong, she suggested that they go to marriage counseling. Right away, the counselor suggested that they cut their drinking in half that week. The next week, he suggested the same – in half again. Gwen’s husband decided to quit the counseling and continue drinking, while Gwen decided to get sober with a supportive community and go to Alcoholics Anonymous. She did not want to “white knuckle” quitting drinking by herself. She was devastated by “hitting bottom” and learning about her addiction because she did not want to be like her brother, her sibling rival. Her marriage ended in a divorce and Gwen continued to seek counseling for support. Also, the divorce challenged her basic notion of how life worked. She had previously thought that if you worked hard enough, life (e.g. relationships, jobs, etc.) would work out and others would automatically love and appreciate you. This was not the case in her marriage; her husband had left her. Gwen’s whole worldview was demolished.

The great German theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, “To get at the core of God at God’s greatest, one must first get into the core of oneself at one’s least.” Why? When we are at our places of greatest vulnerability, our broken places, where we surrender, that is where God enters in. Several writers have remarked that God comes through the wound. “We need to experience this wound to earn access to our highest nature. God comes through the wound. God comes through experiencing death. Something needs to die so that we may live.” (Marcella Bokur Weiner and Mark B. Simmons in “The Problem is the Solution: A Jungian Approach to a Meaningful Life) After the death, there can be a new and different life.

Gwen was deeply humbled by the experience of divorce and the recognition that she was an alcoholic. She had to learn to accept herself as a wounded, broken person among other wounded and broken people around her, no better or worse than them. It was not a matter of trying harder to make a marriage work or being better educated to avoid the disease of alcoholism. In the depths of this time, human beings were God’s language to her. (Rabbi Harold Kushner) Her AA sponsor helped her to understand alcoholism as a disease and not a moral failing, something she brought upon herself. Others in AA also helped her work through her shame over her divorce and find forgiveness for herself. Following the Twelve Steps helped Gwen to cope with her personal guilt and shame. Her misery no longer blocked her relationship with God and she began to feel a new honesty in relationship with herself, others and God. All three relationships were connected. Gwen’s ego felt right-sized. It was as if she had been through a death experience and found a new life.

If anyone had said to Gwen, before all this had happened to her, that God would draw closer to her through a divorce and alcoholism, she probably would have said they were crazy. Yet, in retrospect, many of us can see that God comes through the wound, whatever the wound, and now we are more alive than ever.

Wherever you are on your path of life, feeling that something is wrong, or feeling wounded and broken, or discovering healing and new life, may you find the One who draws near and comes through the wound to bring new life.

Keep Something Beautiful

26 Aug
August 26, 2015

Mr. Costa was only forty-one years old and the single father of two teenage daughters. His black hair showed just a bit of gray and his square jaw had a stubble of beard. He was handsome, but thin, pale and weary-looking. As expected, he was attached to a heart monitor, pulse monitor, several intravenous lines and other medical equipment. Twenty years ago, he had received a heart transplant. He had spent the last three months in the hospital with a series of hard to treat infections, eventually facing the last chance prospect of another surgery. A chaplain visited with him in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit, as he despaired over his inability to find any meaning in his suffering. Mr. Costa was very distressed over his diminishing treatment options and the prospect of another major surgery, agonizing about what to do. Previously, he had been an avid hiker and found solace and nurturance in nature. He had lost this connection in the barren technological wilderness of the ICU.

The chaplain embodied a spiritual guide. She suggested visualizations and meditations about his favorite places in nature, where he could be still and find his own source of nurturance and guidance, which he welcomed. As the poet and philosopher John O’Donohue said, “…connecting to the elemental (e.g. aspects of nature) can be a way of coming into rhythm with the universe…there is a way in which the outer presence –  even through memory or imagination – can be brought inward as a sustaining thing.” This was a powerful support to reconnect Mr. Costa with a deep sense of his inner resources. In creatively imagining other times of hiking and camping along the Pacific Coast Trail, he was able to capture a sense of guidance and knowing what was meaningful and enduring in his life. This enabled him to regain his equilibrium and decide to have the surgery.

The chaplain blessed his decision: “May you have peace with your decision and renewed hope for healing. May you have confidence in your surgical team. May you be reunited with your daughters as a healthy father. Blessings to you, Mr. Costa!” Fortunately, the surgery was a success.

John O’Donohue said, “I love Pascal’s phrase, that you should always ‘keep something beautiful in your mind’…if you can keep some kind of little contour (e.g. dawn or twilight) that you can glimpse sideways at now and again, you can endure great bleakness.” Most of us have access to something beautiful, even if it is only the sky. We can choose to think about these things. (Phil. 4:8) May you keep something beautiful in your mind today.

The Time of Your Life

18 Aug
August 18, 2015

When have you been so fully present in the moment that you lost track of time? Were you lost in another person’s story? Reading a totally engrossing book or watching an all-absorbing movie? Swept up in nature? Having a marvelous massage? Playing with your child? Being intimate with your lover? If these were times of centered awareness where you were paying attention solely to the present, then these were moments of “kairos.”

“Kairos” is a word that means the opportune or fitting time, the qualitative and nonlinear time, the indeterminate or time lapse period, and the fullness of time. It is “the moment spilling over with life and God,” according to Sue Monk Kidd in When the Heart Waits.

Most of our lives are lived in “chronos” or sequential, linear, quantitative, ordinary, minutes-and-seconds time. (Note: Both “kairos” and “chronos” are Ancient Greek words from the Christian scriptures, which are the only two words for “time” found there.) We are not usually very attuned to what is happening in our lives. For example, many of us have had the experience of driving somewhere familiar on auto-pilot, without remembering quite how we got to our destination. Being “zoned out” is not “kairos.” Following a schedule at work and ordinarily watching the hours go by is being chronologically aware of time. It is “chronos.”

I will give an example of moving from “chronos” to “kairos.” My husband and I decided to visit an Obon Festival and Flower Lantern Floating Ceremony at the Byodo-In Temple in our neighborhood. We had watched the Obon dancing, dragon drum demonstrations and Aikido last year. We wanted to remember our deceased family members by writing their names on the flower petals of a lantern to float during the ceremony this year. Our little dog Rafa was pulling and rushing us along through the covered exhibit area when the heavens unleashed a sudden, torrential rainfall. Normally, we would be walking quickly through this area anyway, because my husband’s normal pace is very fast. The rainstorm stopped us; we were protected by the roof.

I pointed out the flower arranging table, where we could sit down and make our own small paper-wrapped vases of one flower, baby’s breath and other accoutrements. An older Japanese woman suggested ideas for our concentrated endeavor. It became “kairos,” lost in our flower arrangements. Rafa had settled under the flower table. The rain continued to fall. When we naturally finished, we thanked the flower lady and moved on to the Japanese Tea Ceremony table, underneath which Rafa settled down again. The tea ceremony was performed by a kimono-clad Japanese woman. She very slowly cleansed a bowl, meticulously poured out the green matcha powder, added boiling water, and whisked it with a bamboo implement. Almost everything was in slow motion. Ritually offering it, she gestured how one should drink it, turning the bowl twice between sips, or so I thought. She bowed. It was “kairos.” We bowed in return and said, “Mahalo!” The rain had done us a huge favor. It had stopped us from rushing along so that we could see where we were and pay attention to the people there, just waiting to gift us with flowers and tea. We are meant to truly see everything around us.

We tend to live by “chronos” and not even cultivate the “kairos” of our lives. Yet, if we slow down and center our awareness on the present moment, we will find more “kairos.”

May you have the “kairos” of your life!

 

Retelling Your Loveliness

10 Aug
August 10, 2015

Has anyone ever loved you back to life again after you have suffered? There are many endings, griefs and tragedies to be borne and accompanied in our lives. If we are fortunate, we do not have to face them alone. With the help of others, we can make it through the suffering and its “dark night of the soul,” the transition, and find the new beginning emerging on the other side.

There are so many individuals, who need love and support, around us. As a professional caregiver, I am privileged to relate to some of them. A young man shared his story. “I grew up in foster homes. In the first one, from the age of two to five, I was severely beaten. Later, a doctor explained that I stopped growing because I was not loved.” To love and be loved is one of humans’ core spiritual needs.

I am reminded of the poem by Galway Kinnell entitled “St. Francis and The Sow:”

“though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,…
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing”

A middle aged woman said, “My husband called me beautiful. In his eyes, I am. Why should that cause me such discomfort? When I was young, harassment dismissed by adults as jokes, and sexual harassment by peers ungoverned by the adults in charge, humiliated me and shaped my self image. In the absence of positive mirroring from my parents while I was a teenager, I grew up very insecure about my looks. My mother had extremely high standards for beauty and once conceded that I was ‘a handsome woman.’ Who wanted to be that? But now, after many years of marriage, I believe my husband. I believe I am beautiful.” A sense of self-worth is one of humans’ core spiritual needs.

Since it is human to need a sense of self-worth and also a need to love and be loved, we all suffer blows to these areas of our spiritual lives when we suffer, as in these two examples. We need to be retold of our loveliness and our love-ability. After we have deeply internalized that message, we may be able to freely bless ourselves and others.

May you know deeply your perfect loveliness.
May you always have one person or more in your life to retell your loveliness to you in words and in touch
Until you flower from within with self-blessing. Amen.

The Meaning of Life

05 Aug
August 5, 2015

At the end of my New Employee Orientation presentation on Spiritual Care at our Medical Center, I offered to answer questions from the audience. When they ran out of questions, I threw in one of my own, “Would you like to know what is the meaning of life?” I was actually ready to discuss this topic individually with people, but no one took me seriously in that forum. I was too flippant, I suppose.

What is the meaning of life? The answer I hear most often is to be happy. Maybe I have been reading too much Oprah on line. However, I see advice about seeking happiness everywhere these days. Gretchen Rubin wrote “The Happiness Project” about spending twelve months focusing on marriage, money, friendships, time management and other aspects of life to become happier. She and her screen-writer/television producer sister created an iTunes podcast “Happier.” It gives you practical advice about little things you can do to make yourself happier, like getting more sleep and cleaning out your closet. It may sound mundane, but their ideas do work, once you hear them explained in detail.

Gretchen and her sister give themselves happiness demerits when they realize that some  behaviors detract from their happiness and gold stars when other things lead to happiness. They talk about these ideas on the podcast. I liked this idea so much that I suggested it to my husband Jim. We have been giving each other and ourselves gold stars at the end of the day for acts of kindness, accomplishments, going the extra mile, cooking a good sauce or meal, being creative, exercising, etc. It is a way of sharing, savoring and enjoying our day together. Surprisingly, it does add to our happiness.

Is the meaning of life to be happy? My husband is Buddhist and I am Christian. So, I like to look at both traditions to see what they say. This question deserves a spiritual response. The Dalai Lama said, “The purpose of our lives is to be happy.” The Buddha said, “There is no path to happiness; happiness is the path.” And “Happiness comes when your work and words are of benefit to yourself and others.” This is proof-texting. Yet, happiness is a strong theme in Buddhism, but so is compassion. The Dalai Lama also said, “If you want others happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” I think a Buddhist might say that the meaning of life is to be happy and compassionate.

The parallel to happiness in Buddhism is joy in Christianity. Jesus said, “I have come that you might have and enjoy life, and have it in abundance.” (John 10:10) And, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11) A Christian might say that the meaning of life is to be joyful. And yet, I need to add loving, because it is not all about me, myself and I. Christians need to add the Great Commandment to love God, their neighbors and themselves. (Matt. 22:37-40) So for Christians, the meaning of life is to be joyful and loving.

After New Employee Orientation, I was waiting for someone to approach me and ask, “So, what is the meaning of life?” They never did, but I would have said, “What do you think?”

Prove Your Humanity

31 Jul
July 31, 2015

When I logged into my computer program this morning, I was asked my name, password and a new item. “Prove your humanity. 9 + 9 = __.” To me, the answer to a simple math equation does not prove my humanity. However, what does prove my humanity? What proves yours?

There are many ways in which humans are unique on earth. Humans are made in the image of God and are capable of moral choices. Although humans are capable of great evil (e.g. mass shootings), we are also capable of great good. Humans can appreciate beauty, like the rainbow I saw through the rain showers on our lanai this morning. We can be creative. Witness the world of literature, art, music and theater. Scientists recently discovered how persistent inflammation can promote the development of tumors by studying Zebrafish larvae. That is pretty creative research! Humans are meaning-makers. People survived World War II concentration camps because they had something to live for, such as a planned project, book, piece of composed music or other purpose, wrote Victor Frankl in “Man’s Search for Meaning.” We are made of dust and yet, we are a little less than the angels.

Professor Stephen Hawking, one of England’s pre-eminent scientists, fears that the development of artificial intelligence (AI) may eventually create something that can match or surpass humans. “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” he warned. Robots with AI could not only hack into computer systems, but also overtake humans because they could act without any of humanity’s values or virtues. Most of all, they would not be capable of love, as we are. So, I think we should heed Hawking’s warning about AI and the future of the human race. Humanity is worth protecting.

For now, to prove that I am human, I will fill in a math equation. However, I think a better test would read: Prove your humanity. Fill in the blank. “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is ____.”

Not My Circus

26 Jul
July 26, 2015

My underwear theory of self esteem goes like this: if your underwear is old and worn out, it is time to work on your self esteem. Step one: Go buy yourself all new underwear and throw out the old stuff. Step two: If you have never been in therapy, get a therapist. People will be glad to refer you to theirs. If you already have a therapist, refer to step three. Step three: Tell the therapist you want to work on your self esteem.

Several times in my life, I have opened my underwear drawer and declared it a disaster zone. I did that again this past week. It was time once again to go shopping and to re-examine my self esteem.

I went for the proverbial “low hanging fruit” by heading to the lingerie section of Macy’s. After trying on a few things with no luck, I asked a gray-haired Asian woman in a long, floral print dress with a Macy’s badge to help me. She took a couple of my measurements and handed me a few items to try on in the fitting room. My little dog Rafa took a liking to her and decided that he wanted to play with her while I was busy. She explained that her dog had died not too long ago and that she loved dogs. So, she began talking to Rafa in a high voice, “Oh, you want to play with Auntie while Mommy’s busy.” (Here in Hawaii, every older woman is “Auntie” and every older man is “Uncle,” as if we are all related.) Auntie and Rafa figured out the right size, going back to the rack and forth to the fitting room and I bought ten of the same item, my year’s supply of that kind of underwear. Rafa jumped up on Auntie one more time and licked her face as she bent down to pet him. I thought I saw tears in her eyes as she handed me the Macy’s bag. “Mahalo,” we said to each other at the same time.

The next day, I attended my second meeting of my estrogen-filled women’s support group. I got hugs from lovely, warm women and Rafa received belly rubs, scratches behind his ears, tickles, pats and lots of affection. He was a big hit. He looked up at each admirer as his new Best Friend Forever, wagging his tail a mile a minute. At eleven pounds, he intimidated no one. After refreshments, when we began to talk, he laid down for a nap under a chair next to me. The topic was “Boundaries: for what am I responsible and not responsible.” As one who can easily get swept up into others’ agendas and lose touch with myself, this is a great topic.

Sometimes, I hear the Divine speak to me through people in groups like this. As Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote, “Human beings are God’s language.” Well, I heard what I needed to hear. One of the women shared that she worries about things that are not her responsibility and uses this phrase: “Not my circus, not my monkey.” I could easily ask myself, is the thing I am thinking about my circus or my monkey? If not, there is probably some business of my own to which I need to attend. And as I focus on those things, doing esteem-able things, getting my own self straightened out (with therapy), my self esteem will rise. It always does.

True Confession

21 Jul
July 21, 2015

I have a confession to make. I am a recovering quickaholic. I used to arise early and jump on my bicycle, mounted on a wind trainer, and read and respond to my work emails. It was an expectation that managers at our medical center would respond to all emails within twenty-four hours; I received fifty to one hundred emails per day. Each morning, I added appointments and meetings to my schedule in response to the emails. After the biking came a shower and the drive to work, during which I had breakfast and my morning “quiet time.”

Arriving was like stepping onto a treadmill, which I did not step off until I was driving home at night, usually quite late. I entrained to the pace around me, despite my best efforts to escape to the meditation room or the campus work out facility at lunchtime. Every minute was booked. I stayed late to do email, prepare for classes and work on projects, since this was the only unscheduled time. I hurried to maintain these practices under the increasing pressures of deadlines, expectations, the happy expansion of our department and the planning of a new hospital. Leading our department, I sped up to keep up. Our department’s number of people, programs and services all grew, for which I felt grateful and blessed, at Mach speed. My colleagues were wonderful and yet personally, I felt like I needed more hours in the day.

Over the years, the stress from the pace and a few other things took a toll on my body. I was no longer a young person, who could function well without a full night’s rest. I had increasing medical problems, a surgery, and physical therapy – all stress-related in my understanding. In the long run, I was not coping well as a quickaholic.

So, I stepped off the treadmill; I retired early. During my first year of retirement as a recovering quickaholic, I crammed too much into an hour before appointments and was often late. This was an old habit from my working days. I was impatient and hyper vigilant in grocery lines, switching lines to find the quickest one. I still drove quickly through yellow lights to get to my destination, even when there was no urgency.

In When Society Becomes an Addict, Anne Wilson Schaef writes that an addictive behavior “keeps us unaware of what is going on inside us.” Keeping constantly busy is a way of tuning one’s own self out. During my retirement, I have been tuning my self back in like a radio station to which I have time to listen. However, a radio station is a poor metaphor because there is quiet when I am listening. There is also knowing things. For example, life grows fuller while I am being present in the moment – to nature, to my dog, to my friends, and most importantly to my husband. I do not need to achieve anything. I can be quiet and hear, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)

Am I cured as a quickaholic? No, I am still recovering. At times, I find myself rushing around and tuning my self out, but I am also freer to relax and wait at other times. Life will not end as I wait in the grocery line. I spend the time wishing wellness upon the people around me, even the trainee checkout store clerk.