Monday, December 26, 2011

My Zacharias (which means "the Lord recalled") Moment

            Each year I wait for it, that one moment when Christmas sort of gets me.  And I resist it. 

I didn’t used to resist.  “Getting the Christmas Spirit” was something I longed for, waited for and worried that others might achieve before me.  As a young person, I would search my soul each day after Thanksgiving and feel disappointed if I wasn’t into the spirit yet.  This was exaggerated with a stab if one of my family members or friends shouted out first, “I’ve got the Christmas Spirit!”  It was like vying to catch a cold or a cool breeze on a hot day, it was a mood you could not choose and feared might not come at all.  But it always did, eventually. 

My favorite Christmas moment was one Christmas Eve when I was about fourteen, that age for girls when everything is romantic and magical anyway.  I’m sure I’d already caught this annual mood we celebrated, but at midnight when they turned down the lights and lit candles and began to sing Silent Night, the light change caused the reflection in the huge church windows to fade and the outside spot lights suddenly unveiled a heavy fluffy snow falling.  We had not seen one flake when we entered the church that night.  Now suddenly my little corner of the world, home, church, and school was covered in the also longed for and romanticized white of Christmas.  My heart swelled, tears came to my eyes and a Christmas memory sank deep into my psyche.

But what does all that mean, really?  Isn’t this just hype and sentiment?  Are we not just caught up in a season of man made hoopla that the merchants spin out for capital gain via cheesy holiday songs, lights and decorations?  I have come to believe this.  And on Christmas night, among the pile of discarded wrapping paper I end up each year wondering where I lost my belief in the Christ child.

In recent years as I have become more Scrooge like, I blame this commercialization of Christmas that I don’t expect to “get the spirit” any more.  I decide that’s just for kids, all this talk of believing in a Santa myth.  And maybe the past few years have offered less heart swelling and magical moments because the money is tight, the economy down, and I experience an increase in conflict everywhere I look.  With so many losses and disappointments the challenges of life seem much more real than jingle bells or winter wonderlands.

I’m done with Christmas.

But then, in spite of my determined humbug I always end up with a heart filled moment. 

This year it was a strange moment that no one else noticed.  I was exasperated with the children’s pageant.  I suggested a plan for rehearsals, costumes, casting and music – keep it simple and include all children who are interested.  As most efforts go, there were the usual problems.  I was frustrated and couldn’t keep up with the schedule changes, couldn’t make it to some of the times the others wanted to meet, felt left out, unappreciated, overwhelmed and greatly disappointed in the final outcome at dress rehearsal.  I was so convinced this production could be so much better if only people would cooperate.

But it was precious when the children lined up in cute costumes in front of families with candles and greenery and we all sang O Little Town of Bethlehem together.  It was lovely, it was all it should or could be and I sighed and eased into the realization that the Christ Mass always has and ever shall be a celebration of the messiness of the humanity that God chose to become incarnate into.

But that’s not when it hit me.

After the children got everybody else’s goat and filed out of the church and the hymn was over and we stood for the creed, I suddenly could not speak.  In the chaos of little inexperienced actors, I could see what no one else could see.  They left the baby doll, wrapped in some outgrown blankie laying in a poorly painted shoe box, they left it, just laying there on the steps of the chancel discarded, alone and forgotten.  No!  Why didn’t’ we remind them to bring all props off stage when done?  Could someone please grab that?  Could someone sneak over there unnoticed and move it away before it’s seen?  It was like a huge faux pas that was going to ruin what was left of a bad production!

And that’s when my heart swelled and the tears of joy came and like Zacharias I was struck dumb.  That was my Christmas moment this year.  Why?  Because that’s when I was surprised once again by the Christmas story.  The child born of Mary stayed.  Jesus stayed and lived a lonely and dangerous life of vulnerability and sacrifice just to teach us how to love.  And while most humans ever since, those who knew him well like St. Peter and those who really don’t get it, all of us at one time or another, betray and disregard the King of Heaven, he stays anyway.  That’s just the way the story goes.

So, after all the discarded glitter is cleared away and we stand for the creed and we remember again the mystery of incarnation, this is when the Christ Mass begins, this is when the work of carrying the Christ child into the world begins, the moment we are re-called.  And in the next moment, like Zacharias our voices become free again and we sing praises to God.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Learning about Leadership by Leading the Blind

This is the story of the time (I had) when I ran into a blind man.

I was the director of a program and was responsible for several staff both professionals and support staff.  I hired a man named Tim who had been completely blind from birth.  He taught me a great deal about the experience of living with a visual impairment, and about life.

I knew enough to ask him to tell me how to work together to address accessibility.  He reminded me that he was capable of asking for help and together we developed an understanding in our relationship of boundaries, though this was a bit different process than the development of other relationships, at least for me.  I learned to remember to offer him a ride if our co-workers decided spontaneously to go out for lunch.  I also learned not to hover or do anything for him that he didn’t ask for.  He taught me how to lead him holding on to my elbow, which was necessary if we left the building.

Early on, he needed this just outside the building as the sidewalks were a bit complicated on the campus of our work place.  I was new at guiding him but he seemed confident when he took my elbow and I knew he would tell me what to do next.  He assumed, however wrongly, that I would stay on the sidewalks.  I absentmindedly took a habitual short cut, cutting a ninety degree angle short by about two feet.  This caused him to stumble on the edge of the sidewalk and tumble across the concrete scrapping a knee and both hands.

Bloody and probably bruised, he refused the help I offered in righting him but picked himself up, brushed himself off while laughing and joyously informing me that he now had a great opportunity to tease me about my mistake, which he did for many years after.

I learned much from this friend and his disability, but what strikes me in this reflection is what I learned about leadership:  1. If you agree to lead, pay attention.  2.  If you make a mistake, laugh it off and move on.  3.  If you make a mistake, learn from it.  4.  If someone leads you into a fall, forgive him or her.  5.  Communicate, communicate, communicate.

There is something more in the part about his refusal for my help getting him up from the fall that is a metaphor for the brokenness that happens when leaders fail.  The other options would be for him to have 1. Let me help him up, 2. Walk away and blame him, 3. Ridicule him, 4. Shut down and not offer to reconcile the error.  I had to offer to help him up and he had to decline and do this himself.  We shared in the effort to get from the office to the car, we agreed on a plan of action; we were mutually responsible for the outcome, good or bad.  When things went wrong, we were mutually responsible for repairing the wrong.  Making too much fuss over him and insisting I get a wheel chair or some such overreaction would have made matters worse by insulting him further.  Leaving him with out offering to help would have been rude and demeaning as well.  His wisdom to immediately turn the incident into a joke through gentle teasing of us both was his way of entering further into relationship and turning a loss into a gain, pain into grace, limitation into triumph.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Observing Grief

The headline from Florida read, “Service held at wrecked church.  Tornado victims try to stay optimistic ahead of long cleanup”.  The picture was of a meandering, shoddily dressed gathering of folks standing around, some facing the makeshift alter of their destroyed church now reduced to a mass of mangled steel beams and splintered wood.  A broken cross was propped up next to an American flag in front of this and a man in a black suit is seen standing high above them, apparently on a wooden box, his arms flung open somewhere between heavenly prayers and embracing his little flock, his head thrown back looking toward heaven.  A band can be seen to his right, a second man also flinging arms, presumably the conductor.  The quote from the preacher read:  “We grieve with you and there will be days that life will wear you down.  “But life does go on and we’re here to help you pull it together.  Don’t let bitterness set in.” 
I read this in juxtaposition with C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed.  One the sentiment of “God is with us, do not dismay” language that is the usual stuff of facing devastation.  Lewis, on the other hand, was bold enough to record feelings he experienced in the loss of his wife to cancer, feelings that most are reticent to admit, deep feelings of despair at the face of loss and suffering.  Here are Lewis’ words.

Meanwhile, where is God?  This is one of the most disquieting symptoms.  When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be – or so it feels – welcomed with open arms.  But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find?  A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside.  After that, silence.  You may as well turn away.  The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become.  There are no lights in the windows.  It might be an empty house.  Was I ever inhabited?  It seemed so once.  And that seeming was as strong as this.  What can this mean?  Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?

In his despairing, Lewis felt the opposite from the psalmist who sang, “a very present help in time of trouble”.  God does seem silent at times, particularly at times of distress.  Lewis goes on, however, to recount how he was able to “rediscover” (according to editor and friend Chad Walsh) his faith.
Times of despairing can shake us to the very core of our faith and being.  One only need to remember, however, that there is a larger picture, a greater story that encompasses the minutest moment of pain.  You will return to balance and wellness.  Healing always comes after the storm.
 “But life does go on and we’re here to help you pull it together.  Don’t let bitterness set in.” 

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Overcoming emotional pain associated with an illness

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Child-like Gifts

   For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

I hold a painful childhood memory, of that time before adulthood when one was no longer allowed to love adults from a childish place.  I suppose this is what St. Paul spoke of when he used the phrase “putting away”.  The memory of the experience of that kind of love is like the crispness of last Spring’s breeze.  I would luxuriate in such a breeze in August.  I remember the pain of its rejection like a winter wind too.

I had just turned twelve that Spring and befriended, or at least tried to, a girl who was turning fourteen that July.  We were hanging out at our parents’ country club pool, though I was from the wrong side of town to her higher-class circles.  I didn’t know that then.  I also didn’t realize what it meant to strive to become sophisticated and how much awkwardness this would take before we were there.  Are we there?

Her name was Susan.  She was the middle of three children.  Her father owned a couple of photo shops in our community, not the prominent position one might think after visiting their home, which was in the “rich side of town”.  My mother helped me when I said I wanted to take her a birthday present.  We went shopping and my mother called her mother to ask for a visit.  We dressed up, as I recall.  My mother suggested that this sort of visit with a gift called for at least a sun dress.

When we arrived, the girl and her mother came out to the car to greet us.  Susan was smiling and I, overly enthusiastic, hurried toward her with my wrapped gift, which no doubt had been fluffed by Mrs. Henderson down at Hampton’s Drug Store.  Susan’s smile weakened just the slightest when she saw my child like glee at bringing her this over-done present.  She was gracious, at her proper mother’s side, thanked me and suggested we would see each other at the pool.  We were not invited in the house.  I was crestfallen.

It took me years to come to understand what happened that day.  Perhaps years full of awkward attempts to become sophisticated finally brought me to the realization that I had been “dis’d”  (back then we use the fuller word “ditched”).  Susan and I did not hang out at the pool again.  We, in fact, never spoke again other than superficially.  In fact I realized, looking back soon after this sting, that we had not really been hanging out to begin with.  She had been tolerating me this younger and probably annoying girl she saw in me.  She had been attempting to practice the niceness that her mother had thought her.  I did the same thing to younger girls in the years to follow, no doubt.  It is part of that culture’s coming of age rituals.  But I didn’t know that then.  All I knew was how much it hurt.

I have remembered this otherwise forgotten experience at those times when I have encountered other disappointments and failures in my career and relationships.  My heart was full and naïve and I came and offered my gifts only to get caught in some sort of strange and yet un-understandable cultural ritual.  It had nothing to do with who my parents are, or their status or mine.  It had nothing to do with who my husband is, or his people.  It had nothing to do with becoming more sophisticated.  Unfortunately, it ultimately had nothing to do with me, nor my gifts, nor my qualifications, nor my call.  It was all about some undefined and unattainable standard of who is a included.

I wonder how many people feel this type of rejection in everyday moments like mine with Susan.  It can happen so easily, through the “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” subtle communications of the powers that be to outright vicious gossip.  Those of us who have put away childish things, however, learn to hold heads high and trust deeply in the Power that is.

In a Sentimentality Mood - The Royal Wedding Sermon and What's Missing at Church

On Saturday, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preached in St. George's Chapel in Windsor the liturgy of Holy Matrimony of Meghan Mark...