Becoming More Than

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

After investing a whole lot of time listening to the testimonies in the Impeachment Hearings for many days last week, this past weekend I decided to immerse myself in what might just be the antithesis of all that is happening between political parties in our nation’s capitol and between citizens of goodwill all around our country. I finally watched “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”, a poignant documentary about Fred Rogers, the creator and host of the long running children’s television show, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Spending an hour and a half basking in the goodness of this man who was a kind of empathetic, imaginary friend in my early childhood, was nothing short of rejuvenating. Exposing myself to the light and love emanating from his soul was like coming home to a warm, cozy fire after being vulnerable to the elements on a raw and stinging cold winter’s day. Fred’s way in this world was the perfect antidote to counter the toxic affects of hatred, mistrust and disdain for truth.

Though Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, he believed that it was far more important to live what you believe rather than just talk about it. I find this to be a refreshing stance in our world where the noise of words can sometimes become unbearable. In a sea of children’s programming, he stood out as counter cultural, at times even espousing the use of silence on his television program. For example, on one episode he set a timer for a minute and kept quiet so that he could teach children just how long this increment of time is. Though he filmed decades before our daily lives became inseparably intertwined with reliance upon advanced technology, the wisdom he shared is as needed now as it ever was. Silence, stillness, reflection, contemplation; these are all powerful tools in a well balanced life as we stand at the threshold of the new decade just ahead.

About fifteen minutes into the documentary, I hit pause and ran to grab my journal and favorite pen. Woven into the narrative were some nuggets of profound, yet simple truth I wanted to record for more thorough digestion at a later time. They were spoken by Fred in various clips of interviews throughout the years and collectively are a treasure trove of inspiration for such a time as this. The one that struck me most deeply was this:

I think that those who would try to make you feel less than who you are-I think that’s the greatest evil.”

Fred Rogers

The greatest evil? I’ve been kicking that around in my head all day, applying Fred’s assessment to various events in our world that trigger my fiery Irish temper. And yep, at the end of the day it most definitely resonates with me. It seems that at the core of every crime against humanity this type of attitude exists. When persons are treated as less than, when human beings are denied the sense of dignity and good endowed to them by their Creator, this indeed is evil. And sadly we are witnesses to it every day, even hearing it from what once might have been considered unlikely sources of such harmful and nefarious conduct. We see it executed through lies spoken, through accusations tweeted, through callous generalizations propagated on social media, all serving to dehumanize the “other”. Slowly but surely there seems to an erosion of civility happening. It is stripping the sense of sacred presence found in humanity and devaluing individuals and groups of persons through the use of one word descriptors such as “animals”, “enemies”, “invaders”, “lowlifes”, “dogs”.

In complete contrast, Fred Rogers lived his life lifting up the marginalized, reverencing those who were seen as less than, putting a spotlight on their inherent beauty and uniqueness. He took on the controversial issues of the times in which he lived and over and over raised up persons who were commonly misunderstood, discriminated against and treated unfairly. He opened our eyes to see that these incredible human beings are more than anyone ever let them be. Mister Rogers imparted to all people a sense of dignity and respect, even to those who would go on to create parodies of his show. Though he may not have appreciated their humor, he never disparaged them as persons.

This perhaps is the aspect of Fred Roger’s life that challenges me the most. He personified Jesus’ discourse in the Gospel of Matthew: But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” What Jesus inherently knew and was addressing with this discourse is that there exists a great temptation to imitate the very behaviors I detest in my enemy, under the auspices of being righteous. When I give into this temptation, I myself become less than who I am, not because of another’s treatment of me, but by the way I choose to stoop below the dignity of who I was created to become. When instead I successfully resist devaluing my enemies through the use of one word descriptors, and choose to act with intentional love towards them, the cycle of hatred can be reversed.

No matter what our particular job, especially in our world today, we are all called to be Tikkun Olam, repairers of creation. Thank you for whatever you do, wherever you are, to bring joy and light and hope and faith and love to your neighbor and yourself.”

Fred Rogers

As time marches forward toward the Winter Solstice and shorter days grow darker, I invite you to join me as I attempt to take up a virtual residence in Mister Roger’s neighborhood. It is a place where our daily words and actions can become a source of rejuvenation for others. It is a neighborhood where the light and love emanating from our souls can serve to melt misunderstandings found in the space between us. It is an environment where all people can be recognized as inherently good and treated with a sense of dignity and respect, even when they are considered to be enemies. There in Mister Roger’s neighborhood we can collectively become more than; together we can become repairers of a broken world.

Won’t you please, won’t you please, please won’t you be my neighbor?

The Joy Found in Dying

Okay, I admit the title I chose for this post may be a bit too dramatic. In the interest of full disclosure, (although I am currently overdue for my bi-annual mammogram) to the best of my knowledge I am not at this exact moment physically dying and truly I cannot speak as to whether or not I will find joy when that process in my life is ongoing or imminent. The dying in which I find joy today is the death of perfectionism, the death of my best laid plans, the death of my high standards for others, the death of my fierce and stubborn ego. This process is ongoing, obviously, because on many days, I am still a perfectionist, think my plans are the best, have impossibly high standards that no one can meet and let my fierce and stubborn ego try to lead the way. But every so often come moments or hours or even days when I encounter a surrender within myself to the One who created all things. In those times a sense of deep joy rises up within me and a sense of refreshing relief washes over me like a rushing stream of fresh cool water on a hot and oppressive summer day.

One of the best gifts I ever gave my daughter is one that keeps on giving to her every day (bonus-it gives to both me and my husband too). Last October on her 18th birthday we signed up for the monthly subscription to Spotify and made it a family subscription, so our little trinity could enjoy our vastly different tastes in music and experience sweet family harmony. Randomly I will remember an artist or album I loved in my youth or young married days, (before the lost years when kid tunes suddenly dominated like 10 years worth of music time while driving in my car) and when I search for it, without fail I get my instant fix. The other day I was riding my bike along the river and just such a random artist popped into my head, Lauryn Hill. Remember her from Sister Act 2? Remember her singing Joyful, Joyful or the 30 second scene of her way-too-short rendition of His Eye is on the SparrowAnyway, I had a hankering to listen to her voice. I cued up the playlist Lauryn Hill-Miseducation and heard a song that days later, still will not leave me.

It amazes me how God makes His presence known to me most often in ordinary ways and through ordinary means-so ordinary that I probably miss Him a lot. But I decided to hop off the bike, sit on the edge of the river by the dam and listen to the words of a song I had never heard before. To Zion which is on her album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is a gospel inspired mom anthem (written about her firstborn son, Zion) featuring Carlos Santana on the guitar. It is powerful, filled with the naked and raw emotion of a mother’s experience of welcoming new life into her world.

Now the joy of my world is in Zion…

I’ve never been in love like this before…

And I thank you for choosing me

To come through unto life to be

A beautiful reflection of his grace

For I know that a gift so great

Is only one God could create

And I’m reminded every time I see your face

That the joy of my world is in Zion

Lauryn Hill

This song and its words have been haunting me for days because God knew I needed to be reminded of the gift so great that is mine in my daughter Sadie. She is my firstborn, my only and the greatest catalyst for God to put to death in me the things that keep me from being who He made me to be.

Almost from her beginning it was clear that she was not going to fit into any of the boxes prescribed by the orderly, polite society to which I aspired to be a most perfect citizen. And eighteen years later, unabashedly she continues to refuse to be boxed. While I still wrestle with the chains of being pleasing and apologetic to all in my world—friend, foe or stranger—she lives unapologetically, fearlessly living her truth, free from the need to please others at all costs to the self.

Her high school graduation was at the end of May, but she didn’t walk with her class. Despite weeks of me begging, bribing and cajoling for her to just pass the class she needed so we could be done with this school thing, true to form, she did things her way. No box for her. A couple of weeks earlier, in a moment of connectedness, she shared with me her sadness over the impending consequence of another round of summer school, but then reframed the situation by naming her truth out loud. “Mom, I am so proud of myself. I never thought I would actually graduate this year. I assumed I would have dropped out of high school by now or that I’d end up being a Super Senior (fifth year senior). But the reality is I will graduate this year, just a little bit late.” 

Sitting as the center of attention at her last IEP (Individualized Education Program) meeting of her high school career, surrounded by her teachers, her case manager, the school psychologist and her parents, she listened as they pointed out all of the positives they see in her character—her creativity, her great personality, the ways she understands the material unlike other students, her educated and informed perspective shared freely in class, her high level of intelligence. Yet they also expressed that they were confounded by her grades, because she tests high, but her grades don’t reflect this because she doesn’t turn in much homework. In the midst of all of these adults encouraging her to change her ways so she can just graduate, once again she refused to be put into the box we all want to squeeze her into. Instead courageously she declared aloud “I will try my best, but the school system wasn’t made for people like me. It isn’t set up in a way that encourages people with brains like mine to succeed with ease. It’s made for people with brains that society deems “normal”. To be honest, society in general isn’t made for people like me.” NEVER would I have been so brave at 18. And thirty one years later, on the verge of 50, still I am not so sure I could be.

Our entire journey has kind of been like this—me trying to keep together a neat and clean and perfect life, struggling to stay in our lane and keeping up the status quo. Her life, as God so perfectly created her, challenges my efforts every step of the way. And THIS is exactly one of the reasons I have so much joy today. I wonder who would I be today without her beautiful life confronting the worst parts of myself? Who would I be if I didn’t have reason to find my voice to stand up for a child who wasn’t getting the support she needed to succeed in school? Who would I be if I hadn’t walked with her through the perils of an anxiety disorder and witness its ability to render her completely unable to function? Who would I be if I didn’t learn to be flexible when her overly sensitive sense of touch deemed it necessary to try on 10 different outfits before finding one she could tolerate for a day of school, making her late time and again? Who would I be if I didn’t learn to accept that the only way she could sit through an hour of church was to spend most of the time drawing intricate mehndi designs on her hands with a Sharpie? Who would I be if I didn’t aspire to unconditionally love the girl God created her to be–fearfully and wonderfully made–yet so different from me, so different from many? Insufferable, intolerant, unkind, judgmental–that is who I would mostly be if it weren’t for her.

Watching my child suffer all these years from the ever present effects of living in a square peg world as a person with inattentive type ADHD, an anxiety disorder and a sensory processing disorder has also changed me profoundly. It probably didn’t make it any easier for her that we live as a middle class family in a predominantly white and affluent suburban Chicago community and she attended a private elementary school focused on superb academic performance. And yet, somewhere deep in my heart, I do trust that God plants us where we are meant to be in order that we might grow into who we are created to be. Unfolding before me every year of her life are glimpses of the soul He created. These glimpses—they surprise me and catch me off guard; they are intertwined with the less inspiring angst and messiness of teenage development. Oh but when I take notice of them, they humble me and send me to my knees in thanks for what He is forming within her. They restore hope and remind me that I am not the one in control, but only a supportive companion on the way. The constant struggle to hold her head above the water has smoothed her hard edges and cracked open her big heart to the suffering of others. It has strengthened her character and made her a fierce advocate for the plight of the marginalized.

It seems that every year she has invited me deeper into an entirely different relationship with those living on the periphery of life—and I have to admit that I haven’t always been a willing participant. Without any hesitation, she invites into our little home the souls who others might consider misfits, but she calls them friends. The outcasts, the traumatized, the bullied, the mentally unhealthy, the cutters, the motherless, the homeless, the rejected, the abandoned. She has brought them all home to shelter them and allow them to be welcomed, loved, accepted, fed and more than a couple of times, she has given up her bed so they could sleep in it for the night. One by one, these children she has brought to my door have become priceless gifts of life to me. Most look a lot like her—uniquely beautiful, but easily cast aside for not fitting into the confines of polite society. One by one their souls have taught me so much more than I could ever teach them. One by one they have smoothed out my hard edges and cracked open my heart. They have strengthened my character and made me a fierce co-advocate for the plight of the marginalized alongside my daughter. They have halted my march in the lane of the status quo where I sought to find a sense of security and control. Together, she and her friends have propelled me into unknown terrain where I have encountered Christ more intimately than ever before.

Graduation Day found me beside her, up in the nosebleed section of the bleachers in her school gym. She asked me to go with her to watch her classmates walk, so that she could support them. I think it was way more difficult for her to be there than she had anticipated, but she stayed. One after one, students were called up to give speeches because they had achieved exemplary academic success. Their future plans and scholarships were announced. In his introductions, the principal speculated what incredible lives these students will most certainly lead. Through some tears, she continued to snap photos and cheer loudly for her fellow students. Without thought for herself, she showed up. Such a glimpse into this magnificence found in her young soul makes me way more proud of her than if she had passed that damn English class and walked across the stage to receive her diploma with the rest of the Class of 2019.

As I sit here at the kitchen table typing this post, I continue to grapple with this slow and painful process of dying. She is running a bit behind in her morning routine and summer school starts in 30 minutes. She is on week three of three with only four more days left. If she passes the class, she will receive her diploma in the mail come August. Waging war within me is the rising anxiety that she will be late today and the strict rules about attendance flash into my conscience and fuel my repeated reminders that I excitedly shout in the direction of her room. “Sadieremember only one excused absence is allowed for the entire session and tardies add up to an absence. Come on! Hurry up!!” God knows I just want her to be done with this leg of the journey. I want the finish line to be behind us.

At this exact moment, the One who created her, He who is all patient and has a great sense of humor, He crashes through to get my attention. My computer dings to alert me to a new email—it is one to which I subscribe daily. The subject title briefly flashes in the corner of my screen “Conscious Parenting—Giving Ourselves”. Seriously God!? I click the link and read:

Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian minister behind the TV show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, said once that “to love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”

That moment when we say, I accept you—even though being with you is awfully hard right now—that’s love. It doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences—we don’t have to accept terrible behavior. But part of how we love our children is in choosing, again and again, to take the whole child. . .

Maybe, as our hearts overflow, we find that love can, naturally of its own accord, extend wider, until it encompasses caring for all things, and connection to everything—until our love becomes Love itself…”

Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM

Today’s take away…surrender; let go; trust; love freely; allow Me to continue to stretch you into an incarnation of My love in this messy, chaotic world that is in need of being embraced as it is. For it is in dying that you will be born to eternal life.

Sadie, thank you for choosing me to come through unto life to be. You are a beautiful reflection of His grace. For I know that a gift so great is only one that God could create. And I’m reminded every time I see your face that the joy of my world is in you.

Photo credit: Sadie by Abby Hentz

Hardness of Heart is No Match for Bold Love

 

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Yesterday morning, after a long hiatus, I stopped by sacredspace.ie to hang out with the Irish Jesuits. Since 1999, they have hosted a website which guides users through a wee bit of daily prayer. Not only does it offer to me a quick connection with my God, but it does double duty–it connects me to my roots (or at least the 48% of my heritage of which I’m most proud). Every time I connect to the site, which is hosted approximately 4,121 miles from where I am, in my imagination I picture a few of the Irish Jesuits gathered at a corner table in a dark and cozy pub in Dublin, crafting prayer while sipping on Guinness.

Though I freely admit I may over romanticize the actual logistics of how Sacred Space is created, one thing I know for sure is time and again, they successfully guide me through a simple, but effective prayer experience. I needed a mid-morning re-grounding. My mind has been spinning as of late and so many things are fueling my anger; mostly injustice and good people suffering needlessly and people pointing fingers and narcissistic political leaders whose selfish actions reap ripple after ripple of pain upon the least of these. As I went through the sequence of guided prayer, I sought to calm my spirit and refocus my mind so that the day might end as a productive one, rather than a failed attempt to complete a series of scattered and random tasks.

My life’s routines have put me in a place to have heard and read the four Gospels many, many times throughout my journey. It is a rarity to hear a story that I don’t remember listening to before. Yet on some occasions, there is one that presents itself in a way I’ve never heard it told. The reading within Sacred Space was the story from the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 3. It is the Sabbath, Jesus is in the synagogue and a man with a withered hand was there too. The Pharisees were watching to see if Jesus would cure the man on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him of breaking the law. So Jesus calls the man forward and asks all who are present, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. What comes next, I swear I had never heard before, but I really needed to hear it in the moment. It reads, “He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart.”

Jesus was angry. So am I. What a relief; at least I am in good company. Jesus was grieved. So am I. The grief and sadness are at the core of the anger. Jesus saw that the Pharisees were more concerned with catching him breaking a law than they were with helping out a broken man. I too grieve at the hardness of the hearts of men and women, especially those who claim to be His followers, who are more concerned about winning and fulfilling a political agenda than they are about doing good to the least of these. Their hearts are hardened against the broken, against the impoverished, against the traumatized, against the marginalized. They are hardened against those fleeing violence, against those seeking a better life for family. They forget they were given the gift of being born in this country by ancestors who sacrificed in unimaginable ways to get here and to gift a better life for generations of descendants whom they would never meet. It is all so overwhelming. In the face of such callousness, I feel so small and helpless and unable to even make a dent.

But then I look back at the Gospel passage and I see Jesus, surrounded by hatred, make a bold choice. In the company of those who are plotting for his demise, he boldly says to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” The man stretched it out, and his hand was restored. Jesus chooses love. One response of love in the face of callousness made a big dent. It most definitely ticked off the Pharisees. The end of the reading says, “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” Their agenda and their egos were so threatened by big and bold love that they joined together with unlikely allies to plot as to how they could take Jesus out of the picture. But then I think of the man with the withered hand and the effect this healing might have had in his life. Having a hand restored to wholeness could make all the difference in his ability to labor and provide for his family. It could free him from the self-consciousness that physical disability brings and the shackles of shame and the feeling of never being enough. Certainly this man’s healing set into motion ripples of goodness which not only changed him, but positively affected those closest to him and so on.

I am reminded of a recent podcast in which On Being with Krista Tippett interviewed Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, an author and professor in integrative medicine. Rachel shared about growing up in a Jewish household with a grandfather who was an orthodox rabbi and a mystic. He introduced Rachel to the ancient Jewish teaching of Tikkun Olam. Explained simply in her words,

Tikkun olam is the restoration of the world. And this is, of course, a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born. We are all healers of the world. And that story opens a sense of possibility. It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you.”

It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you. With these words echoing in my mind and heart and spirit, I sense peace being restored within me for now. My Creator gently brings to my attention that I’m not called to make a huge difference, but I am called to choose love–one decision, one word, one action at a time. I don’t have to take on the burden of callousness of all those whose hearts are closed and fists are raised–I only must respond to the world He allows to touch me, the world He places around me.

Today I will yield myself to grace and simply ask to be a vessel of love in the simple ways that present themselves to me. May I be used to bring forth justice, even if it just be in the life of my kiddo who is feeling frustrated with an unfair situation. May I be used to end suffering, even if it just be in the life of my husband who is carrying the heavy burden of the pain his clients live with each day. May I be used to heal the traumatized, even if it just be in the life of my friend whose child has recently revealed a past sexual assault. May I be used to give shelter to those in need of refuge, even if it just be in the life of my co-worker who needs a place to sit and vent. May God grant me the serenity to trust that even my small acts of love, in His hands, may yield big and bold ripples of goodness which will, in the end, overcome hatred and hardness of heart.