blinding fog

The image comes to me with stark clarity:  I am seated, hands on the steering wheel, facing a blanket of fog so thick I could be buried underground except for the mirrors.  Inexplicably the rearview mirrors display clear images; all that has gone before is in view, distorted only by nostalgia’s lens. With yesterday clear and yet gone and the road ahead indiscernable, the sensation I have is that of clinging and I feel the tension in my hands at the wheel.

“Take your foot off the gas,” is the invitation of a loving voice when I convey the troubling image. Feeling the sensation of my foot lifting, I feel my relief and realize that my heart has been racing. The words of release speak to the panic of driving in dense fog, a panic that has crept unbidden and unseen into my heart. I had been unaware of the forward motion and the fear it engendered.  

“Put the car in park, turn on the music, rest until the fog lifts.”  With new breath filling my lungs, I begin to take stock of where I am.  My hands are still shaking, but relaxing now as they hold the wheel; my feet at ease, neither braking nor pushing. The seat beneath me is comfortable and I melt into it taking another, deeper, breath. Most remarkable, as I explore this seat, is the discovery that I am not alone in it.  As I take notice of the breath that has filled my body and grounded me in the moment, I feel the touch of my beloved’s hand who is sitting beside me and has been all along.  A smile moves to the center where it belongs.

“The fog always lifts.” As the sun rises in the sky, sometimes sooner than others, the warmth burns the fog and the way becomes clear. Always. Until then, I will rest with gratitude in this place of nurture.

February 28, 2013

TILT (Things I Love on Thursday)

catquiltPictures and metaphors that dance with words to create new meanings, colors that compliment and challenge as together they become one quilt, and the rich layering of savory and sweet flavors in a delectable sauce; cats teaching humans new tricks, parents learning from their children, and thunder snow; ice balls from Lake Michigan (see below), laughter after tension, and new life at midlife.

“There is a fountain inside you. Don’t walk around with an empty bucket.” ~ Rumi

ego’s face: fear, attachment, control, entitlement

In a season of lasts, I am emotionally preparing for the final finality. Last sermon, last paycheck, now the last hurrah. To say that I have emotions about it would be an understatement.

Unraveling Chaos sandybotmiller.com

The truth of the emotional landscape is vast and elusive, yet unmistakable is my vulnerability to the waves of grief that flatten me. Truly I have had moments and even days, many and growing, of extreme peace in this new place of life; but regardless of where I might be standing, when the wave comes I am sucked to the bottom of the sea and gasping for air. Worthy of a blog entry at the outset, the pattern is now quite predictable and I’ve wearied of its intrigue.

The working tool that I’ve had has been identifying triggers in hopes of controlling them. I could write (and have written) endless words about the triggers and the waves and even my weariness of it all. But I’ve yet to find a way to simultaneously breathe deeply and have any pretense of control.  I find myself returning to old patterns of holding my breath (literally and symbolically) which is the antithesis of the call with which this leg of my journey began.  My intent and express desire was to let go of the life to which I was clinging in order to experience life more deeply.

Restoring Order sandybotmiller.com

This morning I was reading from Angeles Arrien’sThe Second Half of Life“, the chapter about peeling away our masks to allow our true selves to emerge (The White Picket Gate). The imagery of losing pickets and finding grace resonates with this journey of letting go.  Arrien talks about the face of ego as fear, attachment, control and entitlement (desire to be special) and I begin to understand the wave. The waves that I have known only as grief, to which I have felt victim, are comprised of fear, attachment, control and entitlement. Inasmuch as I choose to run from the wave and remain uncritical of ego’s face, I will be flattened by the water’s brutal strength. But how might my experience change as I relax into the place that is mine, releasing my grip and owning unrealistic expectations?

In Taoism there is an understanding that humans inescapably suffer, but that suffering itself is a reflection of the degree to which we are hanging on to that which is painful.  While life is filled with gain and loss, sorrow and joy, easy seasons and also difficult ones, our instinct to hold and shape these experiences is met with a choice.  Continuously we confront the inevitable transitions of life and we choose (consciously and not) to either cling or hold with open hands.  Respecting impermanence and practicing detachment allows us to relinquish are expectations, our pain abates and new shoots of life have room to root.

Drawing from the Reservoir sandybotmiller.com

As I watch snow flakes dance in this late February sky, bearing witness to the beauty of vulnerability and the very essence of impermanence, I feel cool water touching parched soil deep within. In this moment my choice is to acknowledge, and release, the face of ego.  Recognizing my attachment, I choose detachment.  Feeling the instinct to control, for this moment I pass.  “Expectations are premeditated resentments” is a mantra that my friends share, and for today I will trust their wisdom.  Practicing, I feel buoyant and recognize the fear as it begins to dissipate.  The wave will come again, no doubt, but I am practicing a new way of being at one with the water that invites us to ride with the wave rather than standing defiantly rooted in shifting sands.

Tending the face of ego, I begin to experience an alternative and gentle emotions have room to temper the hurting ones.  Balance begins.

(Note: The images on this page are from an amazing collection by Minnesota artist Sandy Bot-Miller. Images can be purchased at http://sandybotmiller.com/)

Watching Schindler’s List: Removing Blinders for Lent

Last night I joined the millions of Americans who’ve experienced Spielberg’s magnum opus, Schindler’s List.  It was the twentieth anniversary of this renowned movie and I confess that it took twenty years to find the courage to watch. While devoid of gratuitous violence, the story’s context is hell’s inferno. To witness the hope embodied by a soul’s redemption is to face the fire from whence it emerges. I awoke this morning weary from the emotional assault.

The obligatory characters were present in the movie but it was not they who shook my soul.  In addition to a self-absorbed socialite cunning to make a fortune on the war effort (Schindler), there was a sociopathic SS officer killing randomly to increase terror, and the silently brilliant (and cunning) Jewish accountant who is at once both powerless and in charge. These were towering characters embodying the edges of human capacities, but these primary characters are not the ones that took my breath. The characters that leveled my heart were the ordinary ones, the ones that would be me or you, the nameless ones in and out of uniform that simply allowed their bodies, their voices, their hands and feet, to be used to further the killing machines. The emotionless female guard as the train disembarked and the women that stood smiling beside the men who wore the uniforms, these were the ones who haunt me. They had no visible malice but likewise registered no awareness of the evil that filled their world. Silent. Complicit.

I suspect that the true danger of our humanity is our capacity to enter a place of denial and ride with the one that brought us to the dance.  How else can we explain the millions of otherwise ordinary people who participated in such a heinous chapter of history? And (of course) lest we toss our stones, history is quick to offer similar chapters in every age and continent. There is nothing 20th century or European about evil’s cunning ways. Most fearfully, if history teaches us anything it is that unlearned it is also our future.

The exhaustion I feel in the morning light is in part the imperative to learn quickly lest we repeat some ancient terror. The lesson to learn is not about Nazis or sociopathic wardens.  The lesson relevant to us otherwise nice folk is the one about silent complicity. Eli Wiesel, himself a survivor of Auschwitz, says, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”  Nearly a thousand years earlier, Dante had warned of the neutral players protecting self-interest; President Kennedy, quoting Dante, said that “the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality”. More dangerous than the demented leaders are the silent followers.

If one dares to accept this truth, one quickly faces a more troubling corollary. Those that silently follow are rarely (if ever) consciously aware.  Preposterous, but true. In the cold light of morning, the evil of slavery in America is inescapable. But just 140 years ago, ordinary white women, wives and mothers, throughout the southern states in this country silently helped their husbands perpetuate an unspeakable horror. These were, by and large, “good Christian women” who would have been very “nice”, the very best of what we call “southern hospitality”.  The vast majority were not mean-spirited by nature or malicious in intent. How then did they manage to not hear the screams of those being tortured? How did they not notice the mothers separated from children? How did they make their peace with the obvious likeness of their spouse in the faces of young slaves? These are blind eyes that are cultivated. Occasionally the cultural conditioning fails, as it did for the South Carolina born abolitionist Angelina Emily Grimké, but her story was stunning in its departure from the norm.  The even more stunning truth, if rarely faced, is that of our human capacity to blind ourselves to what is unpleasant.  This ability to walk blindly is the untold story that must be faced.

A clue to our blinders is the role of greed in each of these stories. Some years ago I toured a plantation home near New Orleans in search of clues and began to hear the messages that might have filled the mistress’ mind and closed her heart; messages about the futility of one voice, the inevitability of the economic machine, and an instinct to focus on the positive.  Inasmuch as our American holocaust was accepted as an inevitable consequence of an otherwise lucrative economy, I wonder about greed as an essential ingredient in our complicity.  The role of greed was a key thread in the story of the Holocaust and presented in Schindler’s List as wealth was stolen from the Jewish community fueling the German war machine and lining the pockets of locals who scurried to gather the scraps.  Surely greed is the common thread in our relentless human abuse of one another.

Rearview mirrors offer remarkable, if distorted, truth.  What is more pressing is our need to use these mirrors to read our current context with more intention. What is it that our great-great grandchildren will see in our time which our eyes, blinded by greed and complicity, were simply not seeing?  If I follow the money trail and notice where it intersects with grave injustice, I find myself facing the massive prison industrial complex.  The term was coined before the new millennium but the incarceration rates, and those who profit from them, continue to rise (PIC in America: Big Business or New Slavery?). A new wave of industry is now supported by prison labor, which allows our American economy to compete with the prison labor in China.  At best a distasteful topic and at worst a nightmare that our closet cannot contain, pleasant dinner table conversation steers clear of this topic.  Nice white women like me simply don’t talk about such distasteful topics over dinner. And so greed runs roughshod over conscience and innocents lie trampled. But it is nice white women who teach our children; in fact, two-thirds of our nation’s public school teachers are white women and I’m guessing that most are nice.  (Disclosure: I’m happily married to one and also applying to be one.) And, at least according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), it’s time for us to talk.

In this month’s issue of Teaching Tolerance, the SPLC project takes on the “School to Prison Pipeline” addressing the connections between our public school policies and the prison industrial complex.  This issue offers a new tool, a “Teacher’s Guide to Rerouting the Pipeline“, in an attempt to invite classroom teachers to be more conscious of the ways in which we all participate.  In defense of teachers, already beleaguered from both left and right and sworn to serve the reigning god of test scores, we cannot lay the blame for our nation’s tragedy on their already burdened backs. What the articles do suggest, though, is one small window into how ordinary nice folk participate unwittingly in a heinous crime. To suggest that an individual teacher’s interaction with a student regarding sagging pants contributes to the unjust incarceration rates in this country would seem ridiculous, but the point that SPLC makes is that the path to the pipeline is paved with hundreds of seemingly innocuous choices made along the way.  Lest we dismiss the challenge to quickly we would be wise to remember the millions of otherwise nice folk who were necessary to create and maintain the machinery that propagated the Holocaust. Evil cannot be carried by one or two sociopaths.  Evil requires millions of good people choosing to ignore and a million or so choosing to play along on a seemingly innocuous level.  In our time, what appears innocuous is to be “tough on crime” and have “zero tolerance” in our schools. In so doing, we unwittingly but unmistakably (at least according to Teaching Tolerance) become the evil we abhor. The remarkable shard of good news in their article is a practical guide to recognize unhelpful choices and an invitation to make different ones.

As my spirit nurses the necessary wound inflicted by Schindler’s List, I am aware that the moral of the story is not in defining our contemporary evil but in something far more fundamental. The call is to face our own capacity to deny lest we unwittingly condone and (worse), participate. For only when we face the potential within ourselves will we find the strength to speak against it. This spiritual movement of facing ourselves is the heart of the ancient Christian discipline of Lent; with or without the ashes, it’s time.

February 22, 2013

A photo by Sandy W. C.
A photo by Sandy W. C.

TILT (Things I Love on Thursday):

Snow days that mix up the schedule and gratitude that extends through weekend; relearning old pleasures and discovering new ones along the way; room for new layers of understanding which make way for deeper healing; patient strangers who answer questions and share a smile; simple meals with my beloved at the kitchen counter, and a gracious season of life that makes room for the emotions that are mine.

Oven Saga Unfinished


Rumi writes:
I saw grief drinking a cup of sorrow
and called out,
It tastes sweet, does it not?
You have caught me, grief answered,
and you have ruined my business.
How can I sell sorrow,
when you know it’s a blessing?

Our dining room has been commandeered by an old lifeless oven awaiting departure. As I pull fresh cornbread from the new oven and begin to see life on the other side of the oven saga, I sense the urge to push past this final piece of work and move on with life. But pretending it doesn’t exist only ensures that I will trip over the one hogging my living room. Just last night I stubbed my toe not once but three times in the space of 15 minutes on the very same monstrosity. Ignorance is not always bliss.

The oven story is pretty straightforward.  For more than a year we’ve been dealing with a lemon oven that overheats every time we try to clean it. Finally the retailer (Ikea) made the decision to replace the defective oven and (three months later) the new one arrived.  The new one sat in the dining area (where the old one now sits) for more than a week waiting for installation.  Now the new one is in full operation but the old one occupies the dining room until the delivery folk return to claim it. Like the song that never ends, this is a saga that desperately needs closure. But whether or not I fancy myself over this oven saga, it’s bulky presence fills the place where our dining table belongs. I can deny it, hide it, make it into a great story, but it sits where it will until it’s time is ready.

As I stared at the oven last night, noting the promise of new beginnings, the discomfort of the transition, and my impatience with the process, I realized that my grief is following a similar trajectory. There is so much to celebrate on the other side of this river and I am eager to play in new waters of hopefulness. In recent days I’ve awoken with the unmistakable presence of spring bursting from within and ready to meet the soon awakening earth. There is smile that wants to dance on my face and spring that wants to return to my step, but it is not yet time.

image from Graceful Presence

Regardless of my readiness to dispense with the sackcloth and ashes, my soul is not yet done with her lament. There are still tears that come in waves that must be let free.  There are still flashes of anger that need to flame themselves out in safe distance from that which is vulnerable.  There is still the temptation to dress it up, make it nice, pretend it’s all ok.  And perhaps most pathetically, there is still the painful place of bargaining, the “what if” place where I keep reaching back and getting burned.  I can be grateful for the progress, that the painful emotions come with less force but a victory dance is premature; though the waves vary in their veracity and the last one didn’t bring me to my knees the next one certainly may. While the stages of grief may not be scientific and certainly shift with culture and personality, the inescapable truth is that grief is invariably both messy, painful, and (most humbly) not in our control.  

The rising sun is pink in the window behind me as I drink my morning coffee, the lifeless oven sits before me. The saga is almost over, but I am learning to respect this one last piece. Yesterday I chatted with the transport folk dispatched to collect it, they explained that they are waiting for news of an impending storm. We cannot schedule a neatly timed end to our story, even here we must wait for the rhythms of earth itself to guide us.

Thin Places: Between Heaven and Hell

Expectant mothers take note: People may tell you that you will forget the pain of childbirth as soon as you behold the wonder of your newborn, they lie. The fruit of my womb are now both consenting adults and I love them dearly, but I have never forgotten the near-death place that I visited as they entered this world. While I am the first to note the benefits of natural childbirth’s spiritual odyssey, I am forever changed by the experience. Associated words, for example, have been completely redefined.

Last night a friend suggested that I write about transition, specifically, she noted, about transition from the perspective of mid-life women making substantive life changes. As I embody my 50th year and listen to the stories of those who sit beside me and those who go before me, I realize that my own (albeit distinct) transitions are hardly unique. We who are blessed to find ourselves in health and in the moment at midlife are mostly likely to be experiencing transition. Marriages or professional identities may be traded in or redefined as the work of raising children is now quiet and our focus returns to the callings that often lie deep within. Although the changes that have cavorted in my life seem monumental, I am humbled always to learn that when we share our stories we see ourselves in one another. The conversation was empowering and I was eager to sit at the keyboard this morning and ponder the implications of transition with gray hair and growing wisdom.

“TRANSITION” by Suzanne Cheryl Gardner http://www.suzannesart.com/

But as I sit with the word ‘transition’ this morning I feel primal fear more clearly than empowerment.  As I consider the action behind the event, I am once again 29 and terrified as my body begins to turn (quite literally) inside out in order to push a baby into life. Transition is that place of death that a laboring woman touches between the sustainable birth pangs of Hollywood fame and those that are not humanly endurable; it is that place where the internal organs that have not already moved aside are compressed and the body begins to convulse. If one is awake to take not of this place, it is only to wonder if one is still alive. Transition is hell.

As I consider the prolonged labor and final spasm of transition that brought me to this current place of new life, the parallels are uncanny and so too the promise.  A seed doesn’t emerge as new stalk without first dying, splitting open, and experiencing total (wrenching) transformation.  And perhaps we should expect no less.

For women, especially for women who turned to mind numbing substances in adolescence, there is a very real way in which our spirits were put on ice just prior to our emergence.  We were forced to make choices between authenticity and cultural norms, choices that pitted identity against itself.  Whether the wounds were inflicted with bodies or words or innuendos, the resulting loss of self was similar.  For far too many of us, the woman who emerged was only a partial self.  More like cryogenics than still birth, what we discover in midlife is that we can return to these forgotten bits of self and reclaim them.  As we reassemble the pieces of our soul that we’ve repressed along the way, the seed of self is nurtured into stunning new growth. But like the seed breaking open deep underground, the transitions in our lives will introduce searing pain before the stalk emerges.

The inside out promise, of course, is that if we allow ourselves to be broken open, new life will emerge from the deepest fissures.  This is the lesson of our bodies and the earth itself, it is true also of our spirits. As I sit at the keyboard this morning I realize that my shoulders are no longer hunched into my neck and I type with a smile from within meeting the sun on my face, I realize that (at least for today) I’ve passed through the place near death.  The birthing is not yet over, no doubt there is pushing still to come.  But I’ll save the challenge of that metaphor for another day.

Step 2: Restoration’s Challenge

Step 2: Came to believe a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

I watch as the pink leaves the morning sky and I am aware that though my definitions for God have been woefully inadequate and my decision to step away from professionally speaking on his/her behalf an immense relief, whatever it is that turns the sky from pink to blue and from night to day and from stormy to calm – this is power beyond me.  This is a power beyond my species.

Lisa Call: Inspiration

The only uncertainty in this second step is whether I believe that the power that coaxes the earth into orbit and makes the sun brilliant with light can restore my wonky ego into some semblence of sanity.  With a remarkable capacity to embody extremes, to embody hubris and humiliation with little in between, I am prone to believe that I am uniquely irredemeable.  Convinced of the essential nature of my insanity, I find myself flirting with a belief that a missing piece, a sanity which never existed, cannot be restored.  Maybe so.  But that which coaxes life from the frozen earth ought not be underestimated.

As I consider the efficacy of this source, I take note of the patterns. There is an order to the earth’s rhythms which suggests a power that is not capricious, but similarly not particularly personal.  A sanity grounded in this power will not be an individually brilliant one but rather find strength in the company of equals.

Comfortable in the morning glow, with the jury out still out on the sanity piece, I find comfort in the first order of this day before me, breathing in beauty.   Breathing in beauty, I exhale the negative impulses. Breathing in hope, I exhale the fears.  Breathing in possibility, I exhale the despair.  While sanity may still be out of reach, peace creeps from a place deep within and takes its place in the order of things.  In this quiet place, I begin to believe.

February 14, 2013

TILT (Things I Love on Thursday)


Relearning the gift of self love, especially the gift of gentleness with our messy parts; the rediscovery that in loving ourselves were are able to love and be loved by others; the remembering that the path is progress not perfection.  Valentines that are neither commercial nor productions nor fleeting; and those that are.  Safe space for tears and fears and love and laughter, strong hands to hold for the journey, and breath that connects us with a power beyond our own.

beyond our savior

Yesterday I drove past a neighborhood church sporting the sign, “Jesus paid the price… you can keep the change.”  Disconcerting was the dissonance between the progressive denomination (United Church of Christ) and the regressive theology invoked (sacrificial atonement).  Having walked away from my life in ministry just weeks earlier, I am loathe to jump into a theological conversation and I initially pass on the bait.  “To each their own,” I reply when asked to comment.

Later in the day I received an email from a former colleague, expressing his concern with theological integrity and requesting conversation. Like me, he explains, he believes Jesus about God but does not believe the church about Jesus. With this truth, he asks, how can we stand before congregations uncritically parroting phrases that infer sacrificial atonement? What, he wonders, is the price for claiming that Jesus already paid it?

Before I reply to the theological question, I must confess a personal investment. Despite my dispensing of the church in all formal ways, I find myself showing up to pews on Sunday morning. I try to find places where the words won’t make me cringe, at least not much. I seek places that don’t look tolerantly surprised when I lean into my wife’s open arms. I appreciate signs of multi-ethnic sensitivity and, better yet, presence. Yet I admit that I still unwittingly seek community in houses of worship. And perhaps therein lies an important clue to the relevance of engaging the conversation.  As one still experiencing the need for gathered community, I find myself grateful for the conversation and hoping that we can find and create and cobble together some communities that embody the life and teachings of Jesus even as we step away from the trappings of the church.

And step away we must for the trappings are destroying our communities.

I know that once upon at a time it was different. Even as I came into ministry there were still remnants of the glory days, but the past two decades have been brutal on the institution. As institutions face such massive assaults and begin to implode, they are not generally practicing their most compassionate stances. And in all fairness, I don’t know that Christianity ever truly experienced glory days if one is measuring by compassion’s rule. A decade ago, American Christians were invited to two very different movies. The Passion of Christ was Mel Gibson’s gory festival of macabre laud, dripping with almost as much insipid antisemitism as blood. Around the same time, James Carroll published Constantine’s Sword, an important work which looked at the dark side of Christian history (Oren Jacoby later created a movie based on the work). Perhaps it was the collision of these messages that pushed me to a new way of seeing.  Perhaps it was the lynching of James Byrd or Matthew Shepard tied in cruciform to the fence that opened my eyes to the cost of our theological constructs.  Perhaps it was the company that I was keeping in those years or more like still simply it was my time to see. Regardless, once having seen the tragic cost of our bantying around trite theological platitudes, I saw it everywhere.

To hang a billboard that says, “Jesus paid the price” is to perpetuate a cavalier theology that is commonly known as substitutionary atonement. In a nutshell, it is the idea that humans are intrinsically corrupt, that the supreme deity demands a blood sacrifice, and that Jesus fulfilled that mission. Not only am I a Christian that disagrees with each of these suppositions, I am follower of Jesus who is offended them.  But more important than my personal beliefs and even my indignation (however justifiable), these theological beliefs unwittingly shape our cultural norms in ways that lead us further from the compassion that we desperately seek.  To repeat these phrases and however unconsciously perpetuate the beliefs is destructive. While it is no doubt comfortable to repeat the prayers and songs we learned as children, to seek a world of compassion while sing about “our Savior” is like subscribing to a new diet program while savoring a Snicker’s bar.

And let’s face it, we allowed original sin and the power of human evil a good long.  These doctrines have reigned in our community consciousness for centuries and given us horrors like the Crusades, the Holocaust.  They have insipidly undergirded otherwise atrocious efforts of greed like colonialism, Apartheid and the American holocaust of slavery.  Believing in human deficit models and an imposed need for conversion, repentance and salvation, we have built a prison industrial complex, created a tiered education system, and demonized the ones who stray.  But all we have to show for it is an earth that is groaning and a people morally exhausted. Business as usual in the church is, I believe, not only counterproductive (ie: the church’s decay) but also specifically destructive.  What we need is a new paradigm.

The incredible good news is that such a paradigm is not beyond our reach.  Like many people who believe Jesus about God, I seek a spiritual community that shares my belief that people are intrinsically good, that the sacred is immanent and known most fully in compassion, and that Jesus life and teachings embodied this compassion and invite us to do likewise.  To share this community, however, we must together be willing to let go of the words, the traditions, the songs, and the trappings which pull us away from the simple goodness to which Jesus pointed.

To my brave colleague who asks the questions, I say simply “yes.”