Sunday, April 13, 2014

Lent in Sixth Grade Sunday School

Waiting too long to post takes away my foolish bravery about putting thoughts out into the world, and so I haven't written much lately. It's time to break that streak.

We are marking the season of Lent in our 6th Grade Sunday School class. Every Sunday we light six candles for the six Sundays during Lent. We turn out the electric lights. We read a lenten reading, and then blow out one more candle each Sunday of Lent to symbolize the darkness that is broken by Easter. Then we are silent for a moment to take it in. Because today is Palm Sunday, today we blew out all six of the candles. In our low light basement classroom the darkness was startling...as was the light, when we moved on to the next part of our lesson.

Today the sixth grade class heard John 18 and 19. We sat outside on park benches in the playground and read a section at a time, and talked about it. The kids, who are gradually becoming taller than me, have insight beyond their years and I find myself humbled at the honor of being present to hear their questions and their insights.

Reading this particular passage about the betrayal and execution of Christ has been especially timely because our pastors, Kay and Anita, used the same chapters for their sermons the last two weeks. Those sermons have not been put online yet, but in a couple of weeks you will be able to hear them here. Today I echoed many things Kay taught us last week, and after class was over I enjoyed hearing Anita flesh out more fully the rest of the things we talked about together on the playground.

Anita talked about how Jesus spoke truth to everyone and some people heard it and acted on it while others turned away from it, finding it too threatening or too risky. The children and I did not talk in terms of truth, but we did marvel at how Pilate seemed to understand Jesus better than the religious leaders. And yet he could not bring himself to do what he knew was right. I told them that it makes me watchful, and careful to try not to miss the truth the way religious leaders did then. We also talked about what might have gone through Peter's thoughts, and why he was afraid to tell the truth. One of us asked if Peter in that moment was still a Christian or not. What a deep question! We remembered later parts of Peter's life as we thought about what it meant to deny Christ three times.

Jesus said to let the children come, because to such belongs the kingdom of God. As we sat with our Bibles open together on the playground, my role was more to add information when something needed clarity and to keep the space safe for asking questions and sharing ideas. The teaching was a community project with all of us learning together. They may be children, but God's spirit uses them.

I was also in charge of getting the palm branches distributed for the processional in worship today. These amazing sixth graders feel a bit too old to be included in something the tiny children do. They aren't too old. We adults aren't too old. We could all be waving our palms and marching in, and reflecting on what it means. But the sixth graders ARE too old to not play a stronger part, so we all were in charge of the processional. I gave them the information that I had been given about when and how things needed to happen and asked for their help. They organized the smaller children, handed out the palm branches, and led them around the church. They were ready for responsibility and did a great job, better than I could have done without them.

Back to the subject of truth, my friend Hannah is living out her faith in a tough neighborhood in Chicago. She lives her life so fully that she rarely has time to blog, but she wrote one recently that I want to pass on...A burden too great. Check it out if you get the chance.


Monday, March 10, 2014

Mindfulness and the Sex Trade

A friend posted a link to a web page the other day that has carried itself through my thoughts since then. The page tells the story of a woman who was kidnapped and then forced into the sex trade industry.  Eden: a sex slave's story is difficult reading. 

I keep having to repeat the questions in my mind. How can people do this to other people? What happens to a person that makes them capable of forcing women to live like this? What has changed in their souls that makes it OK in their eyes?

Are they still even people? Can real people be like this?

One belief I have clung to is that every person has worth. Every human being is precious in God's eyes. Each of us is capable of great good...and great evil, I guess. If there can be a Gandhi and  Mother Teresa who were great, even though they were also flawed and human, can these traffickers who do such evil also have good in them? Is there humanity at the other end of the good/evil spectrum?

I want to believe there is.

*******

I'm coming to the final stages of the mindfulness practices although I have taken longer than eight weeks to work them out. There is a progression that makes sense. Mindfulness very effectively takes me out of tyranny of the events of my life and my reactions to those events. It allows me a space to breathe, literally as well as figuratively. It offers me a chance to get perspective, to readjust, to reconnect with myself and with what is real.

You begin by practicing being still and aware of your breath, of the sensations of your body. You notice the thoughts that distract you, and then you direct your focus back to your breath.

With practice, the next steps involve becoming aware of the sounds around you, and then tuning in to the thoughts you have. At this stage it is still an awareness of the thoughts and emotions, but not an involvement with them. The idea seems to be to notice them, somewhat objectively, as things that are temporary. Watch them come and grow stronger or weaker against the background of your breath, constant, always there.

After learning this step, the next is to allow yourself to slip more completely into a difficult thought or emotion. While doing so, focus on what that difficult thought or emotion feels like in your body. It sounds a bit weird, I know, but I found it pretty helpful. The focus is not to change anything, but to become more aware.

I'm not sure how it works, but it does help. There is a sense that although this emotion is real, it is also temporary.  It's not bad to have this emotion. It is just an emotion. It comes, and it will go eventually.

And now, I am learning what is called in the book 'befriending'. In other places I have heard it called compassion, or self compassion.

I've tried compassion meditation before and it was helpful. There is an opportunity to offer yourself the same kind of compassion that you offer to those whom you love the most. For those you love it is natural to wish for them happiness, safety, good health, well being, contentment. In this stage of the mindfulness practice, the task becomes to learn to offer those same wishes for yourself.

May I be safe.
May I be content.
May I be healthy.
May I live at ease.

And then to expand those wishes to those people you love.

Then to those who you see in your everyday life.

Then to those with whom you have difficult relationships.

And finally to all human beings.

May we all be safe.
May we all be content.
May we all be healthy.
May we all live at ease.

Until a few days ago, this was the most comforting part of the mindfulness practice for me...this longing for goodwill for every human being on earth, beginning with myself and extending out to the farthest reaches away from myself.

*******

As I've practiced mindfulness I have thought often about how this practice fits in with my faith. I've alluded to this before, I think, on the blog. The thoughts continue.

Why does mindfulness calm me in different ways than the practices of my faith? Is there a faith practice that I am missing that would fill the gap that mindfulness seems to currently fill?

I don't have a complete answer for this. I have some beginning thoughts.

For Lent I am trying to pray the hours, using the prayer books written by Phyllis Tickle, The Divine Hours.  There are daily prayers written mostly from scripture for morning, midday, evening and bedtime. Nearly every day I miss at least one. This Lenten practice has been teaching me how undisciplined I seem to be, even around things I'd really like to do.

However, praying these prayers changes me in similar ways to the changes I experience with mindfulness. It is not exactly the same. Some things are the same.

Each prayer brings me back to foundations of truth. No matter what directions my day has taken or how intensely it has taken me there, for a few minutes I am reminded that there are larger truths, that God loves us deeply, that praise and gratitude are good for the soul, that God is worthy of our praise and gratitude. It grounds me in ways that the mindfulness begins to, but the prayers are more complete.

Each prayer also includes the Lord's prayer, which is very much a foundational prayer for me. When I have no words for prayer, this is my prayer. No matter who you are thinking of, this prayer can be prayed for them and it will cover every possible aspect of their life.

The prayers do not include the intentional method of being able to step back and observe my own thoughts and emotions in ways that mindfulness emphasizes. That is the main helpful thing from mindfulness that I have not yet found a corollary for in my faith practice.

*******

After reading about Eden and the sex slave industry, I was doing my mindfulness practice. I was specifically working on the befriending/compassion affirmations. I mentally repeated them for myself, for my loved ones, for my acquaintances, for people with whom I have difficulties, and all was fine until I got to all the people on earth. Did I wish the sex traffickers to be safe, happy, at ease? Could I wish those things for them?

I could not. 

Even though somehow I believe that an awful thing must have happened in each of their lives that has made it possible for them to do these things, even though I cling to the idea that even they could be healed and could be released from continuing to participate in this horror, I can't wish happiness and safety and easy living for them right now.

I lay there in bed and wondered, what can I wish for them? Is there some way I can want good for them that is true?

Yes.

The Lord's prayer.

May these people someday hallow your name. May your kingdom come and your will be done in them as it is in heaven. Give them this day the things they need (my paraphrase for daily bread) and forgive them and help them likewise to forgive others. Lead them not into temptation, but deliver them from evil.  Please. Deliver them from evil and from the evil they are doing.

There is truthfulness in this as well as power. It is not just a wish. It is a prayer. 

And yet, I don't know how to put words to all I'm thinking and feeling. It is better to pray than to wish, yes. But there is a deep ache inside me that such evil exists in the world, and that this is only one of many forms of abject evil in the world. Every part of me denies it. How can the same world offer me so many forms of goodness, while others are offered lives saturated with pain and suffering? Is there a turning point for people who hurt other people so wantonly? What do they do with the recognition of the pain they have caused? When they finally realized the hurt they have caused, how do they still find a reason to breathe?

The morning prayers for today include this refrain:
" 'Because the needy are oppressed, and the poor cry out in misery, I will rise up,' says the LORD, 'And give them the help they long for.'"
May it be so.

Lord have mercy on us. Christ have mercy on us. Lord have mercy on us.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

New Goals

It's February and I still haven't evaluated the last year or made goals for the next year. At least not on paper or online.  I have thought about things I want to do, but not so much in terms of New Year kinds of goals as much as new energy goals.

I wrote recently that my depression seems to be past. That has led to some new motivation and some ideas of things to try to do in the coming year.

Mindfulness. I've read and heard about the benefits of mindfulness for a long time now. A practice of mindfulness is said to lower stress and anxiety. Clinical trials show that it halves the risk of recurring depressions. Over time it also improves memory and creativity.  It boosts the immune system helping to reduce the incidence of colds and flu, among other diseases. So, it seems like a win win, right?  Chuck and I bought the book, Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman, and we are working our way through it. 

Of course I do not expect mindfulness to be the only means I use to find peace. Mindfulness is often seen as a Buddhist practice. So there is the question of whether I am mixing my faith with other faiths. What I'm finding is that mindfulness supports my faith rather than undermines it. Meditation is the means to mindfulness and meditation is something to which the Psalmists commit themselves.
 
Psalm 37:7 Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. 8 Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret---it leads only to evil.

Psalm 46 (the Psalm many turn to in the face of great disasters or evil) verse10. Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. 

Taking time away to pray is something Jesus did and taking time away to meditate is part of mindfulness.  Jesus was amazingly good at being present in the moment and it is something I want to emulate. Mindfulness makes that happen more often. It makes me aware of when my feelings are reactions to old memories or hurts and allows more presence to the things that are in the here and now. And finally, the verses in Matthew 6 in the Sermon on the Mount are such an apt description of the goal of mindfulness.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?...But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.

Writing. I haven't been writing much and I want to begin writing again. I've started writing 10 minute free writes most days, just to get myself back in the habit. When I stop writing it is hard to begin again. I start to believe there is nothing to say, nothing worth saying, nothing I have a right to say. For ten minutes a day I have to write, even if it is nothing. I must keep my pen moving. I must practice being specific about whatever I am writing.

I'm also hoping this increases my blogging to nearly once a week.  We'll see.

Dog Training. This seems a little silly, but dogs don't train themselves. We are happier and Harvey is happier if we have clear expectations for his behavior. He doesn't understand those expectations unless we practice them. We currently are not in a class so it is easy to relax, but if I want to take him places there are still many things we can work on. I've made a schedule of things to work on daily. We need to get better at long stays, at being able to lie down even when the command is given from across the room, at being able to stay even when I leave the room that Harvey is in, and many other things. We need to learn some fun tricks that kids can do with Harvey. So a few minutes a day we need to practice. 

Read the Bible through. Our church is participating in the Year of the Bible.  In March a group will be committing to reading the Bible through in 90 days and I'd like to read along at the same pace.  I won't be able to attend their class because I teach, but I've heard from enough people that this was a good thing for them. I want to try it.

Organize. I don't really like this word but it will do until I have a better one. Maybe freedom would be good. Maybe simplicity. At any rate, I want to be going through the areas of my house and evaluate the things that we have. Do we still need them? Do we still want them? If not, it is time to clean them out.  I began with our home school materials because it was an easy place to start. I now have two empty bookshelves to get rid of, and Book Reviews has a lot of books to price and shelve. I also went through my closet and dresser once, and et cetera shop got a large box. But it will have to happen again. There is still too much stuff in there. 

Eat Differently. I'm trying a new way of eating. My body does not shed calories as it used to and there has been some talk of a 5:2 diet. This is a diet where I eat much less (500 calories or less) on two days each week and eat normally the rest of the week. There are health benefits to fasting, so even if I don't shed any weight I'm hoping that I'll be healthier. I've been at this one for about 3 weeks and have maybe lost one or two pounds, but I do feel better. It is good combining this with mindfulness, because I am becoming more conscious of whether I am hungry, or just eating because it is mealtime. Also mindfulness helps me to be more aware of when I am feeling hungry and being able to sit with that feeling without having to do something about it right away.  I'm not interested in losing a lot of weight and I could be content where I'm at if I need to be, but I think just a few pounds less would keep me in the clothes I love.

*   *   *   *   *

This may be too many things to be working on, but at this moment they all seem important. As the year progresses some of them may fall away. At any rate, it feels good to have the energy and motivation to have goals again, and for that I am truly grateful.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Thankful for Kansas on its birthday

Facebook is full of Kansans extolling the beauty of Kansas, mostly from the standpoint of defending it from the perception of it being a through state rather than a destination. 

Since I do love Kansas, I spent my writing time today thinking about it

I find Kansas beautiful.

When Chuck and I take winter trips to the coast we make a point of watching sunrises and sunsets over the ocean (depending on which coast).
 
I find myself realizing that I take those so for granted at home. Living on a farm, I have both just outside my window twice a day. In summer I have to leave the house to see them well because the sun sets far enough north that the trees and farm outbuildings block the view of the horizon.
Sometimes when I take Harvey out for his morning relief, I go only intending to stay as long as necessary. Then the colors of the sky catch me up and I grab my coat and gloves for a longer walk that includes a quiet wait while the sun crests the horizon.

What is it about that moment when the light arrives into the sky? or the instant when it leaves at the end of the day? There is the anticipation of the colors,
 and then the flash of just an edge of brilliance,
 
 and then it seems almost holy and outside the confinement of time and space. It rises and the progress of the sun is visible as it edges over the horizon. At the end of the day again the colors appear, and then the sinking of the sun, and then...if there are any clouds at all, an intensifying of the colors as the sun's final rays have their last hurrah before nightfall.
Kansas has a quiet beauty that is so different from the mountains or waterfalls or towering forests that we usually think of when we talk of the beauty of nature.

It's akin to the single candle burning on a table adorned by wildflowers in a quiet room instead of the cathedral with frescoes and stained glass windows. 
It is the hug of a friend instead of the adulation of a crowd. 
 
It is opening myself to see what is here instead of being knocked over by the grandeur. 

It is mindfulness instead of drama. 

It is terere with friends on the front porch on a hot day instead of amusement park rides. 


It is my hands in the dirt and eating vegetables for supper that were harvested that morning instead of wine and gourmet cuisine.


 The point is that all of these things have their place. 

I don't want a world without cathedrals or amusement parks or gourmet food...or without mountains and canyons and waterfalls and forests. But I will continue to cherish the everyday sunrise/sunset tall grass prairie beauty that is as calming as a lit candle in a darkened room which holds the aroma of an all day soup and warm hearty freshly baked bread. 

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

to the dogs

We've pretty much always had a dog. Our first was Buddy, a mixed breed fluffy tan sweetheart that moved to our first farm with us. Since then we've had several Cocker Spaniels, a couple of German Shepherd mixes, and a yellow lab mix. All of these were outside dogs, and though they were loved, they did not get huge amounts of attention, especially from me.  They also were not the companions that I really wanted with a dog.

Sixteen years ago we got Mattie at around Christmas time and though she was intended to be a family dog, she quickly became mine. She lived inside and I worked hard to train her to be easy to live with. She was the best teacher of how nurturing it can be to have a good dog as a friend.



After a while we added CJ to the family to be Tim's dog. Tim chose CJ from a pet rescue group that was showing their dogs at a Pet store. CJ was a beaten up, tenacious, obsessive little guy whose character worked its way into our hearts.


CJ liked to sleep with people and slept with Tim until Tim left home. Then he slept with anyone who was available.
Becca

Jill
me

Later George joined us to be a friend to Wes. George started out being more stubborn than I was, hence his move to being an outdoor dog. Since then he has become a sweet people pleaser and friendly guard for the front porch.


This winter we had to say goodbye to CJ, which was an incredibly hard thing to do.

For a while I'd been advocating adding a young dog to our crew and now I stepped up that effort. Chuck was reluctant, but finally acquiesced when I found Hazel, a Scottish deerhound that was waiting for adoption at the local shelter.


Hazel was a sweetie, loved the boys, was receptive to training, but was terrified of Chuck. After ten days of trying to convince her that Chuck was a lovable guy the free trial period was over and Chuck was definitely ready to stop being growled at every time he got up to use the bathroom or stoke the fire at night. So Hazel returned to the shelter and was adopted out to another family within a week.

I'm not sure why I was so sure I needed a dog right away, but we found Harvey the same day. Labradoodles had been on my radar for a while because they shed so little, and because they are known to be very intelligent and gentle and trainable. They are also expensive, but we found Harvey for less than the going rate. He came home the same afternoon that Hazel left. His name comes from the movie "Harvey" starring James Stewart. Chuck watches it regularly in Spanish, so it was a natural choice...and it seems to fit well.

It was such good timing to find Harvey that day.

Two days later, we woke to find Mattie terribly sick and clearly dying. We skipped church and sat with her through her final hours. I'm sure it was partly having Harvey already that helped it to be bearable to let Mattie go.

Now we have had Harvey for close to two months. He's been many places including church, Sunday School, the orthodontist, the doctor's office, MoJo's Coffee shop, Orsheln, a jazz concert, a retreat weekend, to friends' homes, a first grade class, a retirement home, etc. I'm hoping to eventually have him certified as a therapy dog.  Toward that end, last night he passed his basic obedience course and is ready to move on to intermediate.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Wisdom from Elders...Vincent Harding and Phyllis Tickle

I listen to a lot of podcasts and interviews on line, and one of my favorites is On Being with Krista Tippet.  Krista  interviews a wide variety of people about their beliefs and spirituality, as well as how they live their lives and find meaning.

Recently Krista did an interview with Phyllis Tickle and Vincent Harding about race and emerging church. Both of these persons are over eighty years of life with deep insight into how God moves throughout history, both in the world and in individuals.

Vincent was a contemporary and friend of Martin Luther King, Jr. He was active in the civil rights movement and active in the Mennonite Church, and continues to speak to the issues of race equality in our country as well as within the church.

Phyllis is an academic who studies the history of religious movements. She is incredibly knowledgeable about the many many forms of church and each version's strengths and weaknesses. She also immerses herself in prayer and has compiled my favorite trio of prayer books, The Divine Hours.

Part of the fun of this interview is the great depth that each person gave to the discussion. There was still the idealism that must have been present in their youth tempered with the realism and disappointment that comes with age and seasoned with hope that flows from deep faith. 

The entire interview sparkled with insight and wisdom but two nuggets especially caught my attention, and continue to inform my thoughts throughout my days.

The first was brief and was a part of the conversation where Phyllis and Krista were talking about how the younger generation is demanding a fuller and more life encompassing version of faith. They want a faith that is bigger than thought or belief, but also faith that they feel with their bodies and act out with their lives.
Phyllis was talking about what she had been hearing from young adults as they work toward authentic lives. She said,
"We are one thing. We are not body here, and spirit here, and mind there. We are one thing. This is us, the whole thing. And therefore my body has to believe to believe in Jesus Christ. It's not enough that my mind does."

and here is the response from Krista Tippet:

"We've narrowed, when we talk about Christianity in American culture, to what you believe. But it's not what you believe. It's who you are. And that includes how you move through the world."
and Phyllis Tickle again
"It's what you eat and how you breathe. It's one thing."
This is such powerful truth, and it is what every generation of young people desire as they begin to work out their own faith. I went through that longing too, the desire that the church be real and involved in every aspect of life, and not just a set of beliefs we feel great about but don't live out. As long as the church exists it will have hypocrisy, and it will have prophetic voices that call us away from that hypocrisy.

Which brings me to Vincent Harding. I was so moved by the faithfulness and mercy and grace of Vincent Harding. Being over 80, he has lived his entire life immersed in the struggle for equality. Being an African American, there was no stepping away from the struggle for a minute or a month. His life has been shadowed by inequality every minute of every day.

This reality is what makes his words so very powerful. It is what makes them important enough to sit at the computer and transcribe them, a few words at a time, listening again and again to get it right. It is what makes those words echo throughout my daily activities.  Here is what he had to say:

"We have been involved in this country now for almost 300 years of our history, a history of 300 years in which white domination, and the dispossession of the natives of the land, and the enslavement of the African peoples of the land, have been built into our life. And it is so important for us to recognize that it's  only been about 50 years that we have even begun to say in the church, outside of the church, anyplace, that we want something different, that we want a new society, a society that is built on really loving concern for each other, a multi-racial society, a compassionate, peaceloving, and peacemaking society. We've only said that to each other in a large way for about 50 years. So we've got 50 going up against 300. And I think it is terribly important to keep saying to ourselves, We have work to do. We have work that is not impossible, but only possible when people recognize the work and recognize the time span in which we are living, and recognize that we are basically still learning. We are, where multiracial democracy is concerned, we are a developing nation. We are not experts. We do not know what multiracial democracy really means, as we can see just by looking around us. Therefore we come together in a different kind of spirit---the spirit of seekers, the spirit of learners, the spirit of supporting each other, and I think that a church that emerges in that kind of spirit, with that kind of consciousness, with that kind of agenda will have different future than a church which does not."

Nothing I can add to that.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

It seems to be over for this round.

Last May I wrote this post about my depression. Those of you who commented were kind and supportive. So many others whom I meet regularly were helpful, understanding, sharing of their own stories and respectful of the ways our stories were the same and different.

And now it's over. I feel happy. I have energy. I have too many things I'd love to do instead of no motivation. I'm off the meds and finished for now with therapy.

I want to thank those of you who know me for your kindnesses. I've been humbled by all the grace I was offered when I was doing less than my share and letting go of things I usually take care of. I don't know why this depression has ended so quickly. I did some of the things I knew I could do to help, like asking for help, getting therapy, taking meds... I tried to learn to set boundaries to protect my emotional health. I worked at loving myself more and blaming myself less, and at trying to see how deeply God loves me, with my strengths as well as my failures.

But I didn't do other things that are usually important...exercise, meditation, writing in my journal...well, I wrote a little, but not much.

I guess what I am trying to say is that I'm glad it's over, and I love feeling happy and motivated again, but I don't want to imply that there are simple tricks that everyone can do to end their depression. Depression is more complicated than that. People are more complicated than that.

And now that I'm not depressed I'm enjoying more exercise and I'm taking on new challenges, a little at a time. But I'll write more about some of that in another post.

Laughing with Aaron