Peace

peace two candles

Many images come to mind when I think of the word peace. Quiet. Stillness. A snowfall. An empty beach. An early morning cup of tea. A winter night sky full of stars. But what happens when those things are not readily available, or least not available uninterrupted? What happens when life feels like it has been picked up and shaken around like a snowglobe in the hands of an overeager three year-old – what does peace look like then?

I wish I knew. The best I can come up with is that’s something to hang on to. It’s the wall I find to lean against during a panic attack. It’s the warmth of the sun on my fair or the wind in my hair or the voice of a friend that gives me something to hang on to until everything stops spinning or falling in on me or both.

But here’s the thing – all of those are outside of me. The good images that come to mind when I think of peace and the things I hang to when I’m falling apart – all those are outside.

Peace, true peace, is a gift that lies within. It means digging deeper than surface images and finding something – or rather Someone – greater to hang on to. Or perhaps it means allowing myself to be held. Perhaps the path to peace means letting go and allowing myself to be held by the same hands that hold the whole universe steady. Perhaps true peace can only be found through surrender and trust.

It seems like this Advent, if I’m to know peace, I’m going to have to surrender and trust. And I think I’ve been shaken around enough that surrender and trust are less terrifying now. Ask me again around Christmas.

Advent & Old Movies

This time of year always brings with a mix of feelings I could do without – a hint of nostalgia, a touch of melancholy, a touch of sadness – all things that come up when the Thanksgiving table is set and there are empty chairs that once were occupied. Some years are harder than others. This is one of those years.

stuffingI was put in charge of Thanksgiving dinner this year. It should be said that I didn’t volunteer. I was drafted. I recruited my sister and my younger son to help me. Note to self: offering a 15 year-old boy the chance to wield a large kitchen knife is a terrifying, yet highly effective, incentive to get him take on the role of sous chef. My mom, who usually presides over two days of baking and then preparing Thanksgiving dinner itself, sat this year out entirely. Aside from helping us figure out which of the three faded, smeary, barely legible versions of ‘Grandma’s Stuffing Recipe’ was actually the right grandma and the right stuffing, she left it up to us to figure it all out. In the end, we pulled the whole thing off quite nicely. Despite talk of keeping things low-key, there were four pies, two kinds of cookies, a decent-sized turkey, two kinds of stuffing, and enough side dishes that the leftovers will have us playing refrigerator Tetris for the next week.

With Thanksgiving over, Advent is fast approaching. And in my house, the approach of Advent is steeped in fond memories of my childhood. Some years that brings comfort and other years – well – not so much. This year – yeah – not so much.  Being in a position of splitting time between two churches, and still being considered a newcomer in both, is hard. This year it is a bit easier than last year but being a welcomed outsider still feels like being an outsider. After a last minute decision to pop in to my old Catholic parish on Thanksgiving morning, I learned of the coming retirement of the priest who was my pastor for the better part of thirty years and the only confessor I ever really trusted. I knew that was coming sooner rather than later, but it still caught me off-guard. The feeling that home is no longer home just became a bit more intense. The feeling that time is slipping by too fast also became a bit more intense.

casablanca-1.0.0Maybe that explains the sudden desire to lose myself in old movies. The last few weekends, I’ve curled up with my favorite blanket to be swept away by Doctor Zhiavago, Casablanca, and Gone With The Wind. I have Citizen Kane and To Have and Have Not and a few others in the watchlist. I know every line of dialogue and every note of the score and yet, here I am, tissues in hand, sniffling over the same old movies I’ve watched a hundred times.

Like an old movie, I know the music of Advent and every line of the story. I know what will make me smile and what will have me in tears. Some years, Advent is deeply spiritual. Some years, it’s simply a bit nostalgic. This year, the coming of Advent has me wanting to stop time, even for a little while. That’s not exactly a new feeling. The last few years, Advent has been rough. I know each passing day brings that the long emotional slog of January to March closer. I dread those weeks that bring up dark memories and old nightmares. Some years, I can let myself get caught up in the quiet of Advent and I find great joy in the Christmas season (the real one, not that fake Hallmark crap) and that  joy carries me very well through those dark months. This year, I’m struggling already and I know damn good and well nostalgia isn’t going to cut it. Either I’m going to have to intentionally let myself be swept away by the season of Advent and all the feelings it calls up or Christmas will slip through my fingers, leaving me with little to carry me through my darkest months of the year. Before there can be hope, peace, joy and love, there has to be trust and surrender. I have a week to come to grips with that and it feels like I need a month or two.

The Prayer Boots

img_7787With a March snowstorm in the forecast and my annual trip to the Cape fast approaching, I had was heartbroken when my favorite boots gave out. The heel of the sole broke completely free from the rest of the boot and the kids talked me out of attempting to use super glue to fix it. I have a reputation for ending up hopelessly glued to stuff. So instead, I drove two sales ladies at the shoe store completely bonkers trying to find me a pair as close to what I had as possible. I came home with my new boots and, seeing the laces in the old ones were still good, I pulled the old laces out and set them aside. I took the old ones outside, but when it came time to put them in the garbage can, I started to cry. Yes, cry. Over a worn out pair of boots. Not a sniffle and a stray tear. Oh no. we’re talking a sit-down-on-the-steps, holding-on-to-the-boots, tears-rolling-down-the-face kind of a cry.

This is stupid. I told myself. Who in their right mind cries over a broken down pair of boots?! But the reaction was so visceral, I had to ask myself why they mattered so much to me. Honestly, I’m forty-some years old. It’s not like I’ve never thrown out a pair of boots before.

But these boots were different. These had a history. Over eleven years, I walked hundreds of miles of empty beaches with God as my companion. As beautiful as that may sound, I wasn’t always the most pleasant of company on those walks. And there were plenty of times when I resented God’s very presence in what had become the only safe space I had left. My life was in such a miserable state, all I wanted was to be left alone. It was not uncommon for me to walk four miles and spend the entire four miles yelling at God to either help me or get out of my way. Funny thing is, over time, something gradually shifted and those walks with God on the beach became less confrontational. Little by little, I stopped yelling. I stopped demanding. I stopped begging. I accepted God’s company and I found that even on those days when I thought I really, really wanted to be alone, what I actually wanted was to be alone with God because God was the only who understood what was brewing inside of me.

Over the last eleven years, I didn’t learn to trust God by sitting in church on Sunday. I didn’t learn to surrender all the stuff that was killing me inside by reading a prayer book full of prayers I was supposed to have memorized and couldn’t. There were days when I was just so hopelessly tangled up inside, the only way to untangle the mess was to take a walk down the beach and let God do the untangling. And the only way that works is to let go and let God do God’s thing and accept that maybe, just maybe, the Creator has a clue about how this particular creation ticks.

All those miles, all that sand and salt water, all the tears and pain and hell I’d walked through was soaked into a clunky, ugly, worn out pair of old leather boots. God transformed all that into a life I never dared to hope for, a life touched by unfathomable grace. Sometimes a pair of boots is more than just a pair of boots. Sometimes a pair of boots become sacred objects. So maybe that worn out pair of boots isn’t going in the garbage can after all. Maybe they’ll be given a very quiet burial somewhere only God and I know about.

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Salt and Light

I’ve been know to ask (beg, plead, whine, demand, politely request) God to be a bit clearer at times. An email would work. Three foot flashing neon sign would be nice. Text message would be awesome. Ha ha – right? I mean, God doesn’t work like that. Except that all three of those things have happened to me over the years that I’ve been writing this blog. God speaks through the people and the world around me in ways that never fail to catch me off my guard – and that is impressive because I’ve had a tendency to be fairly guarded.

The thing is, little by little, God has been undermining my defenses in a thousand little ways and while I’ve noticed, I haven’t resisted. Does that count as surrender? I don’t know but it’s about as close as I get to it. I’ve learned that God actually does answer me – not on my timetable and not in ways I expect – but answers nonetheless. So I’ve learned to watch and listen and while I’ve cracked the joke to friends that God has picked up a megaphone lately, I suspect the truth lies less in God’s megaphone usage and more in my being open and paying attention.

So paying attention to a bunch of little things stretching all the way back to last Easter led me to these words on the twelfth day of Christmas:

‘Ye are the salt.’ Jesus does not say: ‘You must be the salt.’ It is not for the disciples to decide whether they will be the salt of the earth, for they are so whether they like it or not, they have been made salt by the call they have received.

The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

And in case that wasn’t quite clear enough…

‘Ye are the light.’ Once again it is not: ‘You are to be the light,’ they are already the light because Christ has called them, they are a light which is seen of men, they cannot be otherwise.

The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Ever read something that so rocks your world, you have to put the book down and talk a walk?  Yeah. This was one of those. I’ve spent so much of life trying to grow into or step into or become some ideal that I’d made up in my head. I had some vision cobbled together from a hundred different sources but not one of them was Jesus. And having realized my error and going to the only source that mattered, I was now reading as direct an answer as I could have dared to ask for. By virtue of following Him, I am salt and light, whether I like it or not, and cannot be otherwise, even when I can’t (or won’t) see it in myself. That means all that work of “becoming” really isn’t up to me. Which also means I’m not really in control of it. That is both a relief and scary as hell. Relief because I have been known to make my life way more complicated than it needs to be. Scary because… well…control.

Mary Schmich once wrote: Do one thing every day that scares you. So I made up my mind to do same thing every day until it no longer scares me. I will trust the One I’m following.

Unexpected Answers

Unexpected Answers

accidental saints

I read a lot of books. I recommend books to friends I know would enjoy them. But I don’t write about books on this blog. Unless of course, I run across something that so rocks my world that I have to write about it. Last time that happened, it was The Shack. This time it was Accidental Saints: Finding God in All The Wrong People.

Ever read a book that you can’t put down? I’ve read a lot of those. A few years ago, I called out sick because I had quite literally stayed up all night to finish the Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest and still had 100 pages left when the sun came up. I couldn’t go anywhere until I knew what happened to Lisbeth Salander.

But now let me ask the question another way: Did you ever read a book that wouldn’t let go of you? Because in the last ten days I read one that pulled me in and wouldn’t let go. It wasn’t that long of a book but it took me ten days to read because, crazy as it sounds, I swear to you that book told me when to pick it up and when to put it down.

I mentioned in a previous post that I had read Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Pastrix during the Week of Guided Prayer over the summer. That book beat me up. It challenged me into a profession of faith that I felt not quite ready to make. Add the scripture readings into the mix and well, I came away from that week feeling very bruised. The image of a rosebush being pruned (or run over by a lawnmower, depending on your perspective) was the image of the week.

So maybe given how that week went, pre-ordering Pastor Nadia’s next book Accidental Saints was probably a little crazy. But it was okay because I wasn’t going to read it right away. I figured I’d save it for the long Thanksgiving weekend. I lasted all of about 2 hours after UPS dropped it off. Then I randomly read all of Chapter 8 in the laundromat and cried my eyes out. (Don’t worry – no spoilers here.)  But even reading a random chapter was enough. It grabbed me and pulled me in. As I read, I found myself facing all those things that had come up during the Week of Guided Prayer: trust, surrender, pruning and deeper healing. I read about “forgiving some jackass who I really want punch in the throat” and how much love and grace can sting. Being loved well stings – that is a perfect description of something that I’ve felt so deeply but could never manage to find the words for and to see it there in black and white in my hands dissolved me entirely.  For the second time in ten days I was sitting in the laundromat with a book in one hand and wiping away a stubbornly steady flood of tears with the other. The regulars there are probably beginning to wonder if I’m coming unhinged.

Deacon Ron always tells me to look for the recurring themes in my writings. Trust and surrender are not my strong points. Patience is a virtue. It isn’t one of mine. Read any three random posts on this blog and you’ll see those things pop up. What you might not find so easily are the themes I don’t write about as much. Being vulnerable.  Letting people love me. More specifically, not letting anyone close enough to love me.  It’s taken a long time to learn to open up again and even longer to accept that I had walled myself off from being hurt because I had been deeply hurt – actually I believe the term most often used by my therapist was brutalized, although try as he did, he could never get me to say that word out loud.

It was hard to type that sentence and if this seems a bit disjointed here it’s because I had to walk away to make a cup of tea and sit in the sunshine for awhile until all the ugly feelings that word brings up – weakness, powerlessness, shame, fear, embarrassment – had dissolved again.

For years there had been a lingering pain that I could never quite explain. I know why I flinch if someone touches me unexpectedly or why I get panicky if I hear someone yelling and angry. But I could never find the way to express how much it hurt, and sometimes still does, to hear, “I love you” or to have someone do something kind for me. And it sounds pretty batshit crazy to tell someone, “I’m so glad you hugged me (said you loved me, repaired my car, drove me to a doctor) today. I needed that. And by the way it feels like you ripped my heart out of my chest in the process.”  No. I kept that level of crazy to myself in hopes that sooner or later it would make sense. I don’t know how I expected that answer to come but I can promise you I never expected it to come all at once in the middle of the spin cycle.

Grace stings because it is so undeserved.

Love stings because we believe ourselves to be so unworthy.

Trusting God is scary as hell because it means first accepting that we are so
loved.

Surrender requires working through the other three.

candleAnd this is why grace is like water. It slips under the walls, through the cracks in the mortar, drips in through the ceiling. Not only is it impossible to hang on to, it’s impossible to keep out. Except it’s more like rubbing alcohol than water. It stings but it cleans and once you’ve been soaked in it, you can be set on fire.

A Tale Of Thorns & Lawnmowers

My Week of Guided Prayer wrapped up this morning. I suppose I should’ve seen it coming when the week started off with a few days of reassurance. Remember this? We got through this together and you’re still in one piece? Remember? Well sucker that I am, I thought maybe God and I might spend the entire week sort of reminiscing on how He never abandoned me. Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday were full of all these little reminders of hard times but ones that stand out so clearly as times only God could’ve brought me through.

Then Wednesday happened. The scripture readings and the book I had been reading coincided with all the subtlety of an Acme safe being dropped on my head. I talked to my director, who by Tuesday had been aptly dubbed by my mother as “NotRon”.  NotRon told me she felt like quite certain I was being pruned. It was just the image that came to her and as soon as she said it I knew she was right. I also knew exactly which passage in John she was talking about and we circled back to again on Thursday and Friday.

I watched my neighbor lovingly prune her rosebush earlier this year, carefully cutting away all the dead stuff and tossing it aside into what became a huge pile. Later in the summer, that bush bloomed beautifully. I’ve never seen it with as many roses as she had this year. Okay this is an image to work with – right? Well, I had a rosebush once. It was kind of small and scrawny but I loved it. Then my brother ran it over with the lawnmower. It almost recovered. Then he ran it over again. At which point, despite my best efforts, all I had dead thorn-covered stick in the ground. After the last few days, I can now tell you that when it comes to pruning, what may be from the gardener’s perspective a careful and loving pruning, from the bush’s side feels every bit like getting run over by a lawnmower. Twice.

Adding to the overflowing *joy* that was the result of being safe-dropped and lawnmowered, twice, my schedule that I so carefully cleared decided to take on a life of it’s own. My ex-husband decided to use this week to rid my ex-house of not only my ex-stuff but also of many things I had saved from the boys’ earliest childhood. He showed up at my house twice, sending the boys in carrying boxes of stuff to pick through, deciding what I could keep and what could be tossed while he waited in driveway. Meanwhile, at my house, my mother had also decided she needed this particular week to purge stuff and suddenly anything and everything of mine was in her way. By Thursday night, thankfully, she had stopped. She sat and watched me quietly as I sorted, for the second time, through a box my ex had dropped off, tossing aside the cards full of lies and the calendar I’d hung in Andrew’s nursery to hide the hole my ex had punched in the wall next to my head. 17 years later, I was suddenly back in that room, a scared 25 year-old new mom using my bare hand to brush the sheetrock dust out of the crib and out of an infant Andrew’s hair.

When I finally got ready to go up to bed, Mom asked me, “Is it traumatic? To see it all again?”

“Yes. Very.”

End of conversation. But somehow it was enough.

IMG_2529I spent Friday morning at the beach and finished the book. I went home and holed myself up in Andrew’s Man Cave for a few hours until it was time to meet one last time with NotRon. Feeling every bit like a dead thorn-covered stick in the ground, I journaled for awhile and I looked at a picture I had stumbled across mid-week. It captured so perfectly what I felt. It came alive for me. A heart desperately trying to fly away, branded Useless, wrapped up in barbed wire and chained to a huge weight. And I know, really deeply know, what that heart feels like. Every time it tries to break free, the barbed wire cuts in deeper and the chain drags it right back down until it slams into the ground like an out-of-control kite. There’s nothing to do but wait to be held still by strong steady hands, wait to be cut loose, and wait to be carefully untangled. The words trust and surrender and pruning and deeper healing have all been batted about this week. But I think the words that will probably stick with me the most are these:

So if God is waiting around for the same heart to feel nice, loving, warm, pink, fuzzy things about someone who is my enemy, well, I think God might be waiting a while. So I wondered if maybe the prayer part of the “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” bit was about how we love them. Maybe my little “God, help me not to be an asshole” prayer was the smallest little opening for God to do God’s thing.

-Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber Pastrix

Somehow God doing God’s thing sounds less scary to me than surrender. Maybe because it sounds like God actually knows what He’s doing and isn’t just gassing up the lawnmower.

Farewell Old Girl

For over eleven years, my Dandie Dinmont Terrier, Dusty, has been at my side – or sitting on my foot as I write – but this morning I came down the stairs and no one was waiting for me. I went to run errands and came home to empty silence. The welcoming bark is no longer a part of coming home.

After a year of declining health, Dusty suddenly went downhill in less than 36 hours. She was too sick to be given a grand last meal or a nice long ride in the car. All I could do was sit by her in the very early hours of yesterday morning and talk to her. She let me know it was time. She was ready to go home. I woke up my boys so they could come down to say goodbye. Forever devoted to her ‘puppies’, after they bent down to kiss her, she bravely forced herself to her feet, shook herself and trotted to the back door to go outside in the yard one last time. She walked down into the yard, then looked for me to come get her. She had walked her last steps.

My boys decided to come with me to the emergency vet, all of us knowing that it was Dusty’s last ride. We reached the decision to let her go as a family and stayed with Dusty until she was peacefully snoring from the sedatives. We went home with an empty collar and her paw print set in clay. We’ve been looking at old pictures, laughing and crying over a dog that was so different from any I’d ever know.

She brought unquestioning, unconditional love into our home. When life got really rough, her floppy ears heard many whispered fears and confessions and her fur absorbed many tears. For this human, she was the right dog at the right time and we had some long talks about faith, trust, steps and staircases. Her alpha dog, terrier badass personality never changed but as her health failed, she reluctantly learned to trust our help and finally surrendered to being held and carried when she was weak and in pain.

We humans aren’t real good at accepting what we can’t see so God sent us dogs. Dogs are a sort of sneaky gift, almost a Trojan horse, full of other gifts like love, trust, forgiveness, and acceptance. Their big eyes and playful antics mask the many lessons we learn from them over the years when we thought we were just playing fetch. They never see our faults. They only see the goodness in us, even on our worst days. Their only mission here is to show us what unconditional love looks and feels like.

Well done Old Girl. Well done.

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