Watch and pray

Last year when dad ended up in the emergency room, I watched.

I remember him on that hospital bed, writhing in pain, soaked and feverish. I looked at the wall clock as it ticked away the hours — 1 a.m., 2 a.m., 3 a.m. as we waited for a room to become available. I sat by his side, trying to comfort him, as his fever spiked to 103 or more.

praying-1bAnd I prayed. For him to be out of pain. For peace, for him and for myself. Thankfully, dad did recover.

I share this story because I believe many of us in our lives have watched and prayed with and for a loved one. Perhaps a family member who was ill or struggling through a personal problem. Watched and prayed for a child to be born. Or watched and prayed with a parent or child in the dying process. And how many times lately have we watched and prayed as wanton terrorism has taken lives?

I’ve been reflecting on those two words — watch and pray — as we end Holy Week in the Christian tradition and head into Easter.  Jesus asked his disciples to do this with him in the garden before his death. They weren’t very good at it because they fell asleep. I suppose a heavy Passover meal and plenty of wine will do that.

But perhaps the disciples didn’t get it. Maybe we don’t either. And does watching and praying make any real difference in the fabric of our ordinary days?

I believe it does and that we are called to do both. But they can be challenging. Why? Because watching and praying require a certain attentiveness to the present.

Watching is an awareness that is not so much of the eyes but of the heart. It is an interior waiting and listening to the Spirit where we are deeply paying attention. We are the silent observer to a deep mystery, an experience that confounds us that we may not completely understand.

And in that watching, if we allow ourselves, we are changed. We become more human, more compassionate, more loving. When we move in this direction, we open to prayer.

Jesus-in-GethsemaneWhat is prayer? I find labels dangerous, and semantics are often misconstrued, but for me prayer is simply this: A communion with the Divine — however you find it, wherever you find it. You may discover the Divine presence in nature, in a chapel, in the woods, in rote words, with beads, or in a monastery. It’s anything that takes you to the interior space where you are fully present to the God of your knowing.

One of my favorite writers Anne Lamott says there are only two prayers she uses: “Help me, help me, help me.” And “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

I love these prayers because they cut through all the theological bullshit that God probably dislikes. They are honest and real, and if anything, I believe the Divine loves honest and real.

Throughout our day, we have many invitations to watch and pray. I did the other day. I chose the line at the grocery store I thought was the shortest, but as usual, the one that moved the slowest. The cashier seemed to be taking his time. I found myself becoming annoyed. I began to pray, “Help me!”

But as I waited, I also watched — him and my own feelings. He took his time with each customer, especially with the elderly woman ahead of me. He joked with her and made her smile.

I found my heart softening and my impatience melting as I watched. And now I prayed “Thank you” — a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving that he had been sent as my teacher and was a light in a very dark world.

"In the Easter liturgy, the light of the paschal candle lights countless other candles. Faith is passed on to another, just as one candle is lighted from another," says the encyclical "Lumen Fidei" ("The Light of Faith") from Pope Francis. Pictured are worshippers holding candles during the Easter Vigil at St. Jude Church in Mastic Beach, N.Y. (CNS file photo/Gregory A. Shemitz) (July 5, 2013) See POPE-ENCYCLICAL and ENCYCLICAL-EXCERPTS and ENCYCLICAL-GLANCE July 5, 2013.

We are each called to be that light, not just at Easter, but in every moment of our lives. And we are called to be that light especially as we watch and pray through the mystery of it all — the births, the deaths and the petty annoyances in between.

Anne Lamott has said: “On this side of the grave we’re not going to understand the mystery of God and grace … we know so little.”

But that “not knowing” can also be a gift. It beckons us to trust. It is an invitation to open our heart to a Divine Power who loves us and is with us, in our personal daily struggles and in the world at large.

A loving force who even as we watch and pray, also watches and prays with us through it all — in the Garden and in the empty tomb. Dying with us. Rising with us.

 

 

 

 

Life is difficult

“Those things that hurt, instruct.” — Benjamin Franklin

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Life is difficult.

I remember when I first read those words decades ago at the beginning of Scott Peck’s best-seller The Road Less Traveled, I was shocked. I mean, everyone knew that life was hard. But no one had actually said it before. Out loud.

It was like this well-kept secret that everyone had consented to in the hopes that, well, it just might not be true.

It’s true.

life is difficultIn fact, it’s one of the Buddha’s First Noble Truths: Life is suffering.

You find that some days bring an annoying caravan of inconveniences — the refrigerator breaks, the dog gets sick, your boss calls an unexpected late meeting.

But sometimes, life is filled with genuine suffering and you shake your head in despair. You lose a job, a child, a parent. Hope. Or globally, witnessing children who are starving; people who have been displaced from their homes; women and children being sold into human trafficking.

You weep. Or ball your fists in anger and shout to the heavens like some wounded animal.

Sometimes life seems to be a roller coaster ride of challenges with a few high points of exhilaration that keep us going.

But why? Ah, there’s the eternal, cosmic question.

I don’t purport to be a theologian or philosopher, but for whatever reasons, life presents challenges that evoke within us a myriad of feelings, from frustration to anger to denial.

But they also evoke other amazing and miraculous qualities, such as wisdom, insight, courage and more. It is only BECAUSE of our problems that we grow, spiritually, emotionally and mentally.

In other words, life may be difficult, but in that difficulty are great gifts. If we are open and can accept them.

For some reason, I feel called to write about Dorothy, and her story. When I was in my early 20s I lived and worked in South Georgia as part of a mission group serving the poor in that area. Once a week I visited a nursing home where many physically and mentally challenged youth were also living.

Dorothy was an African American woman, perhaps in her early 30s, with a beaming, wide smile. And no legs. She sat in her wheelchair and greeted everyone with the warmth of a summer morning.dorothy

At that time, I played the guitar and gathered whomever was in that lunch room to come sing with us. Dorothy always sang. Beautifully. And her favorite song was Lean on Me. Dorothy had had a difficult life, no real family and no one visiting her; she was unable to do much for herself. Yet, she was joyful. I never heard her complain.

I share this story because Dorothy had accepted a painful life challenge — with grace. She didn’t question the mystery of WHY it had all happened, but simply lived it. She knew the truth that life was hard and accepted it.

And in accepting it, she transcended it. Even as she sang, I could feel the resonance of her truth, that she KNEW she could always lean on the Divine Spirit within her. All the time.

I’m sure you’ve met people like Dorothy in your life. I have. Many times. And in their presence, I am humbled. They are my teachers.

They show me that problems don’t go away. That we can choose to work through them and accept them. Or not.

And if we choose to face and accept those life challenges, it’s going to take courage and spiritual maturity.

In my own life, I find that some days — when I have a healthy reserve of self-love and discipline — I can accept whatever problems life sends me. At other times, when I am not centered or depleted, I can be the child throwing a tantrum, wanting it all to go away. And sometimes, I need to step away and rest, finding I don’t have clarity of vision and heart unless I can first restore my physical body.

In that process, I am also learning this: To be kind to myself and not judge myself. I am aware that it is all part of the unfolding of who I am becoming, growing into the fullness of my humanity AND my divinity.

So yes, life is difficult. It always has been and always will be.

But life can also be filled with ease when we choose to accept what is presented and then assess what we need to do or not, in any given situation.

hand on handMost important, we are never alone in that journey on the “road less traveled.” We can lean on each other. We can also lean on that power greater than ourselves who loves us. In every breath. Heartbeat. Through every challenge.

That great Force of Love will be our friend — will help us carry on.

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Meeting Rita Feek

(Blogger’s note: This post was originally published on June 24, one of my first. I’m reposting it in memory of country singer Joey Feek, who went home to God today. I know her sweet voice is now singing with the angels.)

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We meet people along the journey. Sometimes it’s for a few minutes. Even in that brief period of time, they touch us in some way and we may not be sure why. I was contemplating what story to write next and for some reason this story wouldn’t leave me alone. It’s not monumental in the scheme of things. In other ways, it is. So here’s the story about meeting Rita Feek.

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I was visiting my aunt and uncle outside of Nashville. They wanted to take me to breakfast to a small country place, a former mercantile store, now converted into a restaurant. Downhome cooking. Good hard-working people running it.

Marcy Jo’s Mealhouse in Columbia, TN, is operated by Marcy Gary, the sister of Rory Feek, part of the famous country singing duo Joey and Rory.  Joey, the female half of the singing team, could often be found waitressing, or in the kitchen whipping up a cake or a batch of fresh biscuits, while not running their farm or singing at concerts with her husband, Rory.marcy jo's mealhouse

That day I visited about five years ago, Joey wasn’t there. But Rita, the mother of Rory and Marcy, was. She was in her 60s at the time, I suppose, a slight woman behind the counter, asking us as we left if we wanted to purchase any of the baked goods sitting by the antique cash register, from pecan pie to red velvet cake.

Rita and I started talking. As we spoke, I learned that despite my deep Southern roots, my stereotypes needed challenging. This was no hick country woman. She loved reading. Had I read Teilhard de Chardin? What about Sue Monk Kidd? And prayer? What type? Was I on Facebook? We should connect and be friends.  All in the space of 15 minutes. This woman — a short little thing with gray hair and glasses — was smart and articulate and I felt a kindred spirit on many levels.

We did become Facebook friends but we rarely stayed in touch. However I did follow her son and daughter-in-law, Rory and Joey on Facebook and on their blog. They now face their own challenges. They recently had a child with Downs Syndrome and Joey has been diagnosed with stage IV cervical cancer. They are a brilliant country-singing duo who are trusting God every step of the way.

When I read all this, I decided to send Rita a private message on Facebook to tell her I was praying for her family. But no reply came back. I went into Joey and Rory’s blog and found out that Rita had died on July 30, 2014, almost a year ago at the age of 71. I didn’t know.  As I read her obituary, I felt an overwhelming sadness and regret that I never got to know this woman better. Or, her story.

Joey, Marcy and Rita Feek at the Academy of Music Country Awards.

From left: Joey, Marcy and Rita Feek at the 45th Annual Academy of County Music Awards.

After her husband died many years ago, she raised five children as a single mom, taking whatever odd job she could, surviving on welfare and food stamps. She loved not only reading, but writing and painting. And she went back to school at age 63 to earn a degree in psychology. She had a strong faith in God.

I’m not sure why her family kept Rita’s Facebook page alive; perhaps as a loving tribute to a great woman.  And while we weren’t in touch that much on Facebook, I like to believe that some friendships can be forged in a few minutes — as when we met at Marcy Jo’s Mealhouse — or even in that eternal space that connects us all.

I am also aware that those meetings that may feel incidental, those that happen as we journey through life that we may later forget, really are significant and happen for some Divine plan to which I am not privy.

More than anything, as I read of Rita’s passing, I was reminded of this great truth: Life is short. Recalling our brief meeting, I was prompted to treasure and to be present to all moments, no matter how they show up. To listen to others and their stories.

So, Rita, since you loved writing, I think you’ve been prodding me the last few days to share a bit about your life. Here it is. I know it doesn’t do justice to who you were. Still, I hope your story gives hope to others.  And I like to think that my private message on Facebook did reach you somewhere on the other side.

But just in case it didn’t, here it is again: I want you to know I’ve been praying for your daughter-in-law Joey, that she be guided through treatments with compassion and love, and praying for your son Rory and adorable little Indiana, the granddaughter you barely knew. And in my heart, I just know you’d be thankful if others were praying, too.

 

The sacred ordinary

“The worn-out carpet recounts a thousand stories as it unravels.”  ~ Gary Thorp

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Groundhog Day is one of my favorite movies. Most of you know the plot, but if you don’t, Bill Murray is a weatherman who’s been sent to Punxsutawney, PA, to cover the story of the groundhog’s shadow as a weather prognosticator.

But in some Twilight Zone quirk of fate, Murray gets trapped there. He always wakes up at 6 a.m. to I Got You Babe by Sonny and Cher playing on the radio. And it’s the same day. Over and over and over again. groundhog day

I think most people resonate to this film — not only because it’s funny — but because it speaks a great truth. Aren’t our lives a lot like Bill Murray’s in this movie?

We get caught in the same routine, meeting the same people, driving the same way to work, going to the same meetings at the office or school, the same laundry, house cleaning, meals, and in essence, living lives that are the same old, same old.

Day after day after day.

Like Murray in that movie, we may feel trapped. But are we? Truly?

Here is a story: Years ago I had been in a high-stressed job and wanted to get away, not only from the routine of the daily grind, but the craziness of the world. So I went to a cloistered monastery for a week. Yes, you heard right. I knew in that environment I would find the peace, quiet and the prayer I craved. And I did.

The first few days were bliss. I woke early with the good sisters in the fresh darkness of early morning where a hush of palpable peace fell over the chapel. I listened to their sweet, high-pitched chants during liturgies and evening vespers. I ate simple meals of warm, home-baked bread and sweet spinach and carrots from their garden. And each second was savored in absolute and blessed silence. No jarring phones, countless emails or endless blathering at meetings.

I loved it. But by day four, I was getting antsy. The repetitiveness of the days was becoming monotonous and it seemed I had traded one routine for another. In the quiet of that monastery, I wondered how these women did the same schedule, ad infinitum, without going crazy. And yet, to this day, they were some of the most peaceful and joy-filled women I’ve ever met.

2010-04-14-Daily_GrindThe truth is, they discovered God in the routine of their days.

Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister has said: “We learned that the power of Benedictine prayer lies in its regularity. It’s regular … like the dripping of a faucet on the ground of our hearts. The daily schedule consists of the same prayers and chores repeated over and over again until we see God’s presence.”

Someone once asked His Holiness the Dali Lama to find the one word he would use to describe the secret of happiness and to living a fulfilling life. Without hesitation, he replied: Routine.

In his book Sweeping Changes Gary Thorp points out that the word “routine” originally meant “a route or course of travel for trading” or a “religious pilgrimage” and has only recently come to mean “ordinary” or “of no special quality.”

But if we consider our daily lives as a spiritual pilgrimage — well then, maybe that’s not so boring. Maybe there is indeed meaning in the daily humdrum of our lives.

Yeah, right. How do we do that?

Like most things in life, it’s not easy. Believe me, I’m the first to say I hate monotony and the tedium of the day. And yet, as I age, I’m learning that routine offers me a structure and a way to approach what’s before me in a different way. How? To revisit the movie Groundhog Day, here’s the answer.

Each day, the script never changes for Murray and in a myriad of ways, he tries to escape the “sameness” of that one day. He says, “I wake up every day … right here. And there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Until he slowly realizes the answer. He CAN do something about it. He comes to understand that he alone has the power — not to change the day — but to change himself.

He begins to develop compassion for the people he meets. He transforms from a self-centered man to one who gives to others. He helps an elderly man; changes a flat tire for some distraught women; catches a child falling from a tree; discovers childlike joy in the snow again; and finds love. Selfless love.freedom

Within the routine of our days, no matter how boring, we can do the same. We can see the interconnectedness of life, bless the smallest of our daily repetitive tasks, and offer thanks that we always have the power to find the sacred lurking in the ordinary.

We alone can shift our perspective. And then, like Murray, we become free. Truly free.