Tag Archives: Community

Quite literally, Ups and Downs

I entitled this piece for a reason. I’ve been thinking a lot about tempering lately. I think there used to be a time when I felt it was of value to maintain a Zen-like middle path where I didn’t want to get too excited and I didn’t want to get to upset. Thrills and depressed… that’s what Anthony de Mello used to say. But, I don’t want that any more. I am fully convinced that this is not the way to learn love, it is not the way to learn how to grieve. It is not the way to grow in our connection to Life and all of life. We have ups and we have downs and neither is better or worse that the other. Perhaps, I can explain.

I did a talk on Sunday about generosity and and brought the full Orphan Wisdom Forensic Audit Method to the teaching. I studied the etymology, I brought in a poet, and I kinda of winged it. Not saying I wasn’t prepared and not saying it didn’t land. But I experienced the full effect of being on the “receiving end.” Here is the down and up of generosity. It comes from the root “gene” which essentially means “stock, kin, and to have been beget.” When they used to say you were generous, they meant your “line” was good. Well, now, few of us know where we really come from and we live in a time of individualism and to a certain degree, miserliness. This is the opposite of generosity, which is to act in such a way as to take into account what “begot” you or what “made” you. Your land, your food, your ancestors, your people… the thing is to let this affect us. This ain’t no “middle path.” This is the down and dirty, learning to “inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully” (as David Whyte writes about), letting ourselves feel down into that and rise up out of it. “Everything comes from somewhere,” I have been teaching the boys.

Since getting back from Canada and Orphan Wisdom School, I have had a number of firsts, each an up and down of a certain kind. Part of my work in the world, beyond the spiritual director/chaplain/community builder, is to help create and do ritual at transition times. I did my first baby baptism, outdoors by the lake on a Sunday morning. The geese, paddling on the water at the edge of our steamy-breath hazed sight, took flight as the ceremony was complete. The most ideal and wonderful witnesses, reminders of the wild goose that won’t be caged. I blessed baby Sawyer, as one connected to the trees, with elements of earth, fire, wind and water… a calling her down into the land even as we lifted her up and honored her place in the family of things.

Not even a few days later, I was asked to do a funeral for a young mother, who had two young children, six and two. This would be the first funeral I had ever done, but it was one of those “can’t go on, must go on” kind of events. Difficult and heartbreaking, devastating even… but necessary and something that I knew I could do in honor to her. This was very much a down even, going down into the sorrow, but yet, as I offered to the community gathered there:

I first met Jana and Kevin, the day they got their biopsy results back… all the way back in March. I was also there, when they heard that nothing else could be done. These could very well have been among the very worst days. Yes, there were tears. Yes, there was shock. But these things do not equal a hard heart. A hard heart is when we stop paying attention. When we shut down. I never saw that in Jana. When I asked her three weeks ago if there is anything she was unresolved with, any questions that were left unanswered, her response was, “Why? Why me?” This is the question that keeps a heart from growing hard, at least if we can somehow consider that there is no good answer, no answer sufficient enough to take the pain away. When we jump too swiftly to fairness and unfairness, deserving or not deserving, even what God has to do with it… I think this stops our open heart. An open heart is a broken heart

An open heart is a broken heart. Or perhaps a broken heart is an open heart. However you want to say it, the truth of it remains. We must let ourselves be affected. Don’t shut it out. If you want to live as a receiver and as a giver, you must draw down and be affected.

One final up and down, and this is my life now, as a dad of a boy with Duchenne. Brendan fell last week. In his room. Just toppled. This something that happens with weak muscles and not good balance, nothing new. But he also doesn’t have much in his upper body to cushion his fall so when he hit his bed frame he broke his arm. I got the call and rushed to emergent care where we had x-rays and he got a sling. He was quite silent throughout the whole visit, no doubt taking in our repeated reminders to the doctor and nurses that he has Muscular distrophy and falls a lot. But when he got that sling, he smiled and did a little dance for the doctor… who proceed to say he had never seen anything like this and told all the nurses. Down and right back up again. Light in the midst of our darkness. I am schooled by a six year old.

I had to pick him up and carry him to school a few days later because he can’t walk that whole way. Plus we were late and his wagon had been left at school. A fifty pound boy with one arm and another that is not strong enough to hold on gets heavy quickly so I pushed it as far as I could, telling him that when we get closer he would have to walk. “But I’ll get too tired,” he said. How do I know when he can do or when he can’t do it? Is he playing me or telling me the truth? Well, he walked because otherwise I would be the one down. We went slowly and I watched at how his left foot hit the pavement at an odd angle. Tight calves, I thought. He isn’t planting his heel first. Another problem with DMD. I felt, too, the slowness of his gait as he lagged behind and I tried to hold his hand. It’s ok to slow down. I don’t need to pull him. Innocent parents unknowingly share that we might not get in the back door, but I know we have a special pass and help him get his coat off and carry his notebook for him. It aches to see the signs, to watch the slow progression and to still find these moments of joy, as in the conversation about the frost on the grass. He reminds me… don’t miss this, Dad. I’m going down, I need you to hold me up. Or Dad, I see you are going down. Let me hold you up.

And this comes to my memory just now as I write… just today, a patient with sepsis, confused and difficult to understand, after ten minutes of indiscernible conversation, says with eyes half closed, “Hold me up… I’m going down.” I can’t make this stuff up. I am receiving it all. It’s my kin and it begets me. Be generous to me, Life, and may I respond generously.

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Dying well… one of the most important things you can do

This is a general summary of a talk I did at First Congregational Church in Oshkosh, WI on November 27th, 2016. It is part of a three part series on End of Life, Dying, and living into the seasons of Life.

We are going to be talking about dying and end of life. Please sit with that for a moment. What does it do to you? What feelings rise up in you as you consider the end of your life or the idea and reality of death?

There are a few things I do not know, a few things I do know, and a few things I have seen enough that I am very convinced of. What I do not know is what will happen after I die. I mean, really, how can I know this for certain?!? Yes, I guess there are stories of those who have died and come back. You can believe what you want to about them, but I’m not certain. What I do know is that death happens only once and it is as much a part of life as being born. It is literally woven into the fabric of the Earth. I also know that life itself is dependent on death. The very soil that feeds the plants that feed the animals and so on is made up of dead material. This gives me, as a Nature guy, significant meaning. My body is going to become compost one day and is going to give life to other living beings! This may not work for you. That’s ok. We each have our ways of making meaning of this experience, and that is what we are talking about.

The thing I am thoroughly convinced of is this: Over the course of our lives, we are putting together a story of what it is going to be like when it is our time. Both positive AND negative. Every experience we have affects how we will feel about our own death. So if we have loved ones who have died with pain and suffering or afraid and resentful, this is going into our consideration that this is what death will be like. If we have people we know who have died with grace, peace, and surrounded by those who they love, this will be added to our story. THIS is why how we go about our dying is perhaps THE most important thing in our entire lifespan that we can offer to those who come after us. This affects our community, our family, generations to come. Stories (the stories that future dying ones tell themselves) are told about us!

Stephen Jenkinson says that dying is never an individual event. Every death is a community event and it has ripples that extend farther than we can fathom. For generations to come and, depending on what you believe, from ancestors before. We get one chance to do it right… or I would say, well enough.

If you could put your experience into five words, how would you do that?

You’ll have to bear with me as I try to put these things in linear form. I am used to talking about these things with one person or a family and they come in response to their own story. Each idea comes with 45 minutes of dialog and our time is so limited here. So I am offering a few ideas and hoping some of them are helpful.

It used to be that people would die in the upstairs bedroom with family all around. It was more of a natural thing. But now it happens behind closed doors and the doctor comes out and tells the family that grandma has passed. So a lot of people don’t know what to expect and what might happen. The perspective you’ll get from a chaplain is much different perhaps than one you’d get from a doctor. I think we have to remember, and I tell patients this all the time, doctors are trained to heal. It is their mission to fix. I have seen there really is as much variety of feelings about end of life, and levels of comfortability, in doctors as there are in patients and families. You’d think that if a doctor is around death so often, they’d be more comfortable with it but this is not always true. But dying is not something to be fixed. I hear from medical staff, “So and so is depressed. She wants to die. Call the chaplain and get her some antidepressants.” But so often this is someone who is 95 years old and is all alone! I tell her she has every good reason to want to die. This is ok. Sometimes our spirits and our minds are ready to go but the body is hanging on.

Some people say we should live until we are dead. They don’t want to know about their dying. So they want to go out in their sleep or end their life prematurely. Stephen Jenkinson says it’s not the being dead they are afraid of but the dying. “How connected is someone to their life when they have to be told they are dying,” he says. I have said it before and will say it many times, dying happens to all health, mature, and connected to the Earth beings. It is a physical AND a spiritual experience and the more connected we are to the NATURAL way of things, the more we will be prepared for our own death. But that is the topic for the next talk.

The One thing I would tell everyone

Kat asked me last night what I think is the most important thing that people need as far as spiritual, emotional, and health support. This is something we think about a lot in our soul crafts of spiritual support (me), yoga teaching (her), and resilient community building (both). I thought long and hard about what I have learned so far in my many, many conversations with patients and spiritual seekers, people in pain and people who are thriving.

There are so many stubborn people. Men and women who desperately cling to how they have always done things, how their church tells them they should think and believe, how the supermarkets advertise, or how their families pressure them. They resist change and they suffer. I want to grab their faces in my hands and ask, “Do you really feel this way? Do you really think that? Does eating this or that really make you feel good?!? BECAUSE YOU DON’T HAVE TO!! Listen to your heart. Listen to your body. Follow it’s lead.”

People need to be affirmed, honored and celebrated that they can trust their heart, that they their personal experience of Divine love is valid and worth something. Ironically to follow the crowd, to feel the pressure of the system or the hierarchy to think and feel a certain way without the affirmation of one’s uniqueness is a profoundly lonely experience. How many pastors really want to say the things that they feel they must say so as to not make their parishioners too uncomfortable? Why do we twist, bend, argue, and force ourselves to believe in a God or a way of living that when we really listen to our hearts doesn’t feel good or compelling at all?

Your unique and personal experience of your soul, of Spirit, of transcendence, is worth something. It is important and valid and true to you. It is written on your heart. I want to know about it. I don’t want to know what someone else has told you that you have to believe, I want to know what you feel, wonder about, and live by. And I hope that at least in my company, you will feel free, unfettered, and fully welcome.

May you recognize in your life the presence
Power and light of your soul.

 May you realize that you are never alone,
That your soul in its brightness and belonging
Connects you intimately with the rhythm of the universe.

 ~John O’Donohue

Community, nature, and chaos

The church community I am a part of often shares meals together as a community. I have been noticing something that has given me cause to wonder. There is always a direction given before we start getting our food: “Women and children first.” Granted, I recognize this is a matter of respect and an effort to affirm their worth, but something else happens. The men hang back, and sit with, the other men, and the women find their places with the other women and children. It is a pattern that separates us into specific roles and ways of being as a community.

So I thought, what if the men went first with the kids? That would mix things up! Maybe make for some uncomfortability, maybe some new and creative ways of taking care of each other. Maybe a little chaos and disorder even.

Nature requires chaos and disorder for resiliency… is it any different for human communities seeking resiliency and health?

M. Scott Peck, in his book, In Search of Stones, writes in his chapter on Adventure that he loves storms. And not just small thunderstorms, but massive, dangerous Category 1 tsunamis. The thing he likes about storms is that they demonstrate the power to throw humans out of their element. Nature takes control for a while. It is the way of nature that chaos, disorder, and diversity are necessary and inevitable. I think also of forest fires and how our human efforts to control them have been a detriment to the natural life cycles of forests.

All nature requires chaos, disorder, and diversity to create resilient ecosystems and earth communities. Is it not the same for human community as well? We need to mix it up, to diversify the places that we gather, the rhythms that we participate in, the food that we eat, and the people that we spend time with. This is truth… a basic psychology, anthropology, community-building given. Don’t let each other get too comfortable. As one who is passionate about community resiliency, I for one will be promoting this till the day I die.

Helping others without knowing how to help myself

The biggest questions that have plagued me lately cut deep in my soul:

  • How can I help people, when I can barely help myself?
  • How do I provide hope for others, when I myself feel very little hope ?
  • How do I heal, when I am so broken?
  • How do I offer spiritual direction, in the dark night of the soul?

It’s a painful query and I don’t really know the answer. The best I can do is remind myself that when things get basic, I have to get basic as well. How can I take care of myself in this time? I know, in part, how connected our minds and our bodies are to our soul’s… how to even disconnect them? So when I don’t have answers to the existential questions, at least I may find some clarity in my body.

What am I eating, what am I drinking, am I moving (exercising is good, but at least I should be moving), how much sleep am I getting… there is a need to get clean.

Because we are still called to be present with those around us… to hold space in their suffering… and so often we really don’t have a choice, we come with our broken selves and we listen. How difficult it really is to be brutally honest about how I’m doing and not take all the attention on to myself. We learn as we go, and we remember especially in these times how equal we all are as human beings.

I am also reminded by the ancient mystic, John of the Cross, the one who first wrote so extensively on the dark night of the soul:

“When we begin our spiritual journey we often want God to desire what we want, and become dejected if we have instead to learn to desire what God wants. We measure God by ourselves and not ourselves by God, which is quite contrary to the gospel. For our Lord says that those who lose their lives for his sake will gain it, but that they who desire to gain their life will lose it.”

What does “losing your life” mean to you? How do you help others when you are at the end yourself?