Step 4 – a routine step on a not-routine morning

“Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

The wisdom of self-reflection seems irrelevant at best on the morning after the terror that ended the 2013 Boston Marathon. Evil reigned once more, it seems, and we the powerless bystanders. Our emotions are charged and the inclination to personal moral inventories is not in queue. For all endeavors, there is a season and for those shaken by the senseless violence this is not the time to dive into a fearless search of self.

When the time is right, however, there is a quixotic truth offered in the spiritual wisdom of the 12 Steps. Specifically troubling, but profoundly wise, is the admonishment that our healing can only come when we begin to honestly face the stuff that is crammed under our beds and in the dark recesses of our closets. This invitation to soul-searching is no simple litany of confession and assurance nor even a sacrament of reconciliation, this is a pilgrimage to the deepest recesses of our being that parallels Dorothy’s odyssey to the Wizard.

A newcomer may find it odd, but the journey to self-awareness begins by listing the fears, resentments, and angers that we’ve collected over time. We have plenty of them this morning. Our listing is not to suggest that life’s calamities are in any way caused by us nor are we necessarily culpable for the bad things that have come our way. The fact is that bad things happen to people who are not deserving. Even so, spiritual guides across time and continents have discovered that if we are holding on to an injury, unintentionally allowing it to continue to shape and hurt our lives, there is a hook that is ours. Only when we look deeply into not only what happened but how we responded can we begin to unhook ourselves from the drama.

Our hooks will be varied but if we are honest with ourselves, we will find them. Often they surprise us. I was ranting about a Board meeting to a friend, and the friend invited me to “do a 4th Step” on the event. As I typed my frustration, I relived my angst as the Board’s leader moved from crisis to crisis dragging all of us on an emotional roller coaster. Empowered with muscle memory, I begin to look more closely at my response. My response was to reel, to be pulled off my game, to be deeply troubled in ways not shared by others. Why? The light began to dawn on a humbling truth: I too have a tendency to awfulize situations, to see and respond to extremes. My reaction to this leader was not so much about their actions as it was the way their actions evoking a truth about my own. While I could do nothing to change their attitudes, I could do something to begin to address my own. Curiously, as I held the nugget of truth about myself, I was less troubled by the other. Having removed the hook, their choices no longer had such a powerful effect on me.

Finding our growing edges by facing our fears and resentments is not to excuse others or to suggest that tragedies are somehow justified. Looking deeply into our own stuff is simply to suggest that we focus on the one person that we can change – ourselves. We cannot change what has happened in our past and there are many surprises yet ahead over which we will have little or no control. What we can change are the ways in which we receive and hold what others toss our way. An honest 4th Step, done all at once or in pieces or for the umpteenth time, will reveal to us the ways in which we are still holding on. And as my therapist is oft to note: You can’t let go when you’re hanging on. It would be nice to be free of the baggage without first touching it, but closest are never cleaned that way.

On this April morning when the sun is sluggish and even in the heartland we’re reeling from the Boston news, it’s important to note that grief is not a resentment. In the throes of grief, we ride the waves of emotions. Insofar as our souls are healthy, the emotions will wash over and beyond us. But many of us have craggy places that catch and hold drama, nursing hurt and making it to our own. As the news cycles turn, if we discover that we’ve continued to carry this piece, a loving friend might encourage us to do a 4th step on the Boston Marathon. Strangely, or not so, looking at the tragedy for where it touches our soul will hold an important key for our healing.

For today, let us simply breath in solidarity with those who are grieving.

oxymoron: righteous anger

Midway through the week that followed my church leave-taking, I had an encounter with my former life which invoked righteous anger.  While the word for the emotion could be replaced with indignation, hurt or rage, the adjective was certain.  Make no mistake, I was the innocent in an unprovoked hurt.

Pouring good karma after bad, I lost 72 hours of my life that I will never get back.

For a couple of days I dedicated myself to measured and appropriate responses to rectify the identified injustice.  These efforts produced little fruit and much anxiety. While I was painstaking in my effort to use “sober adult” words, the endeavor was a fool’s errand. I am reminded of the good seed sown on the thorny ground which quickly thrives only to be strangled in the bramble.

Yet with the gift of hindsight, I find myself aware that seed might not have contained the rose that I desired.

As I sit in the brambles of my foray into righteous anger, I am reminded of a bit of advice in AA’s “12 Steps and 12 Traditions”, a bit of advice so stunningly countercultural that the dissonance alone is riveting.  “It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us.  If somebody hurts us and we are sore, we are in the wrong also.  But are there no exceptions to this rule?  What about “justifiable” anger?  If somebody cheats us, aren’t we entitled to be mad?  Can’t we be properly angry with self-righteous folk?  For us of A.A. these are dangerous exceptions.  We have found that justified anger ought to be left to those better qualified to handle it.” (12and12I vividly remembering my first hearing of this text and my utter disbelief.  To live life without alcohol is one thing, to live without justifiable anger is quite another.

The spiritual axiom assures us that if we tend the internal trouble that is our own, we can live in peaceful challenge with whatever the external world brings to bear.  As I rail with a current chapter of tantalizing drama, the axiom is beckons.  What is troubling my spirit that I am responding with such internal vitriol? Lest I thwart the invitation to self-reflection with a justification of my hurt, I turn again to the teachings of Etty Hillesum.  The incredible poetry of this mystic in time of great trial bears witness to the efficacy of the axiom.

“If there is ever to be peace, it won’t be authentic until each individual achieves peace within him/herself, expels all feelings of hatred and change it into something else, maybe even into love — or is that asking too much? It is the only solution.” ~ Etty Hillesum (http://www.maritspaperworld.com/)

Hillesum was a Jewish woman who was also a Christian-inspired mystic, coming of age in Amsterdam in the nightmare of the Holocaust. Acquainted with sorrow and looking evil full on, Etty’s journals bear witness to her choice to love. From the deportation camp at Westerbork she writes, “Sometimes when I stand in some corner of the camp, my feet planted on earth, my eyes raised towards heaven, tears run down my face, tears of deep emotion and gratitude.” (gratefulness.org) Reflecting on the evil incarnate all around her, she lamented God’s inability to intervene and concluded, “Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world.” (Brainy Quote) Hillesum was not naive to the suffering nor to her fate, she was not immune to the pain around her.  But she recognized that she had a choice each moment of each day to embrace that which is worthy, that which beautiful, that which is blessed.  And with her dying breath, she chose love.

Thinking about Hillesum, I realize that whatever trial I may face this day, it is comparatively trivial.  Considering her extraordinary embodied compassion, I realize that I too have a choice. Admittedly the feelings of anger and angst are a part of my being, but I can honor the feelings without perpetuating the hurt. The apparent choice between denial and rage is a false dichotomy.  Spiritual giants from across time and space invite us to consider a third choice, love. Love honors the hurt by investing in its alternative.

I will never get the hours back that I wasted pursuing my anger, but I can choose now to focus on the beauty of today.  I can be grateful for the lessons learned in the encounter and honor the pain by allowing it to water worthier seeds.  

For today, I choose to water seeds of compassion.

 

Please note:  The images in this blog come from a fabulous artist named Marit Barentsen.  You can read her blog, enjoy (and buy!) her art at: http://www.maritspaperworld.com/

Step 3: Relinquishing Control

Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.

As I watch the cold rain on an early March morning, I consider the options. Behind me are thousands of words bearing testimony to the un-manageability of life on my own terms. Alongside the stories is a gossamer thread that bears witness to a companion truth, that of power beyond my own that is worthy. Holding these tandem truths, the decision to trust is a no brainer. But it is not my brain that I must convince.

The water dancing outside the window dances with familiar indecision. Falling from the sky as rain drops, the cold air wants something more dramatic and the water turns to ice and snow and back again. I watch the magic just outside my window, feeling the invitation to release while still holding on.  What would it look like to relinquish my grip on both my will and my life?

The desire to know is the crux of the resistance, it is the instinct to control. I’ve been down this road before, daily and for many years now, and the resistance is familiar. With each passing season, the evidence mounts as to the trustworthiness of life’s rhythm and yet I still find myself removing one claw at a time in the process of letting go. There are no shortcuts and no destinations, this is a journey with daily routines to tend.

Once upon a time, and not so very long ago, I was a married-to-a-man suburban-pastor mom who made a daring leap of faith.  The trajectory was warp speed, catapulting my spirit out of the closet, through the sweetest love story of all time, and then into the city and out of the church. Having lost the world and gained my soul, having left all that I thought was precious and discovering what truly is, having lost religion in the quest for spirit, this step should be an easy one.  Having been lost and now found, dead and now come to life, I understand viscerally and profoundly the value of relinquishing control and being at one with the water of life.

But like every step, it must be (can only be) taken one day at a time.  So for this one day, on a cold and rainy March morning, I make the decision, just for today, to turn my will and my life over to the care of the one alive in the breath.  And it is very good.

ps. The falling water has now been transformed into giant snowflakes, stunningly beautiful.

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.

in the spring of the year… in remembrance of George

Once upon a time when I was a young math teacher in a small college town, I lived in the upstairs apartment of an old house and an interesting grad student lived downstairs. Don had a bumpersticker on his refrigerator that said “Save the Humans”, he played Bruce Springstein full blast every morning, and he introduced me to Deloria’s “God is Red”. Don was very cool and a complement to my total geek. Don also had a friend named George, a fellow grad student that hung around a lot laughing. George’s role in the circle was that of mirth, a sprit who lived for nature, simplicity, and a good party. In the spring of the year, when hearts come out of hiding, mine pinned it’s sights on George and an ill-fated romance began.

I was finishing my teaching career to start seminary and a life of service in the church, and while he was also dedicated to service (studying to be a school counselor), George was a partying, atheist, vegetarian. He was the ying to my yang and my brief life with him opened windows I never new exisited. Together we canoed the Red Cedar River and the Boundary Waters, drank more beer than a normal might in a lifetime, and learned the fine art of dyfunctional relationship. With George, I was invited to behold the wonders of the Bald Eagle in the wild and a drunken fight on the front lawn. Intoxicated with libido and hops, I cashed in my full ride scholarship at the distant Presbyterian seminary and took out a student loan to attend the UCC seminary within communiting distance. The life lessons with George trumped any from a textbook. The relationship was filled with a full complement of firsts; first sleep over date, first AIDS test, first broken heart.

When I was working on my ninth step a few years ago, George and his wife (they married shortly after our breakup) were on my list. Revisiting the hurts, I had faced for perhaps the first time my own part in the dysfunction that was ours. Yet I had pushed this chapter so far back in the closet of my memory that even George’s surname was a mystery. I had no current contact information and living amends seemed prudent. As I remember those heady days with George, I am reminded of the futile nature of my righteous anger, how it served no useful purpose during or after that defining relationship. Too I remember another character flaw that began to shine in those years, that of my ability to see, describe, and even believe a situation to be as I want it to be; to so fully immerse myself in the delusion that I miss the clues that would lead healthier spirits to the nearest exit. These are lessons that presented themselves long ago, lessons I was not yet ready to learn, lessons that even now I am just beginning to understand.

This morning I am remembering this coming of age chapter in my life because I learned yesterday that George died last summer. Fittingly he died at the close of summer, the season he loved for it’s invitation to be in water. The circumstances of his death are a mystery (“at home and unexpected”) and so too are many things about his life. Apparently he spent nearly two decades as a school counselor, laughing with children and offering support. Listed in the obituary are his “former wife”, children, and “special friend”, our Don. The obituary offered a picture of a man that looked exactly like the one that captured my heart 29 years ago, a vibrancy at dissonance with the words that surrounded it.

As I consider our frailty on this earth, I hear again Mary Oliver’s poignant challenge: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  On this late winter morning the question rings with a new resonance.  My answer no longer reflects once familiar tag lines.  Away from professional identity and with the nest emptied, the answer looks now deeper to the habits of my heart.  The chapter from so long ago seems strange and yet the young love story bears more relevance than I might expect.  Orientation challenges aside (and unnamed in those days), George was the first one that stood at my heart’s door with a hint of requited love.

It was in the spring of the year when I went to the river with George and my heart opened in a way I had not known possible. Tragically it opened to a place of breaking and for many years (years that became decades) it was tempting to remember that spring with regret and avoid all rivers. But twenty five years later, in the spring of the year, when the well guarded place opened once more, the possibilities were surprisingly both sustainable and exquisite.

As spring peeks around the corners of these lengthening days, my dear one promises to pull the kayaks out from behind the shed and take me to the river.  I think I am ready now.  Yes, I think I am ready.

Humbly with thy God

When I was at the front end of my adult life and in the business of acquiring possessions, a wise (older) mentor gave to me a hand-lettered poster that all too quickly I recycled.  No matter, the words emblazoned unbidden on my soul.  “There are two ways to have enough.  One is to acquire greater wealth, the other to acquire fewer needs.”

Having spent the first two decades of my adult years in the quest to gather, I found myself five winters ago ready to begin divesting.  The process has at points been liberating, but it is a way that is watered with tears.  The very notions of authenticity and simplicity have been shaken to their roots and so that what has and will emerge henceforth is utterly unpredictable.  As I sip coffee in the early morning sun I realize that in these five years all else about my life has changed: primary relationships, home, work, friends.

My professional identity and work life were the final piece to which I clung, the piece that I grieve in this circle of the sun. As I packed my office last week, touching each book and saved note card, I was simultaneously reliving each moment shared and also deciding how best to save and honor the memories without filling a new life with old baggage.  Ultimately the decision was to leave most of the trappings behind.  A few special books, two handmade chasubles, pictures of and by my kids, and a couple of trinkets were packed into three boxes and two bags.

Walk Humbly with God
Walk Humbly with God

One treasure that I brought home, now hanging in my living room, is a picture stitched by a friend with whom I worked in a church some years ago.  “Walk Humbly with thy God” is cross stitched on natural colors with quilt patterns and Amish buggies in the background.  Of course the picture carries memories of the dear friend who made it, and the time in my early life that we shared, but too it carries the message of the letters themselves.  In the circuitous path of life, my quest has been an earnest (and counterproductive) search for simplicity.  As I gaze at the stitching, I have the sense that this friend knew that my heart’s cry is a call to walk humbly at one with the source of life.

There is no greater challenge than that of walking humbly through this life.  We humans are skilled in varying measures with shame and pride; the walk of humility, the place between humiliation and hubris, is a rare and precious space. It is to this right-sized place that I aspire, yet simply the act of reaching pushes me from the goal.quilts

As drink is to an alcoholic, words are to a minister: one is too many and a thousand not nearly enough.  Though any metaphor can be pressed beyond it’s usefulness, what I came to realize in the last tumultuous year of ministry is that I cannot find serenity, a right-sized place, within ministry.  I experience humiliation and hubris alternatively, but the more clarity I have about the call to humility, the more elusive it becomes for me in this particular line of work and identity.  I can be (and am, deeply) hurt by the circumstances that charged through this last year of ministry, I can also be (and am, immensely) relieved to be free of the tiger.  For though in the best of days I felt as though I had proudly brought the tiger in, these days of pride were always bookended by days licking the wounds from the bloody teeth of the beast.

humblyWith my morning coffee, I sit in the window and take stock of where I am today.  Five years later, having just now let go of the last desperate cling of the tiger’s tail, I can quickly identify a wide range of human emotions hurtling through my being.  Reading the stitching one more time, taking one more sip of coffee, looking out the window at the sweet promise of the sun, I feel a hint of the most elusive of emotions – serenity.  Actively acquiring fewer needs, I can begin to feel the promise of enough.  To be sure, there will be more tears to shed, but I’ve no doubt they will water the path for amazing blooms.