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Saturday, December 12, 2009


Sometimes, the light at the end of the tunnel is not an oncoming train;

sometimes it is a serene star, an impossibly pure beam from the eye of God.

Sometimes, the congregational clatter and chatter is not a clearing-out sale of stocking stuffers;

sometimes it is a choir of angels, singing a distant harmony of the heavens.

Sometimes, the mud thwacked against your windshield is not from that speeding truck;

sometimes it is the fling and pitch from three sets of grinding camels' feet in flight following that star.

Sometimes, the smell of wet mittens and breath soaked scarves confuse your senses;

sometimes it is the rich scent of earth, rain drenched sheep, and lanolin-saturated shepherd's hands.

           In this time of the bending of Christmas to our image,

           In this Season of Strategized Obsolescence,

          In this honoring of Holiday, homage to the credit line, and trust in 9-1-1,    mobile phones and car alarms,

          It is good to know that--

Sometimes, the crunch underfoot is a straw fallen from a donkey's manger,

Sometimes, the waft and whir of pigeon wings is deceptively angelic,

Sometimes, that trail of mud leads to the Stable.

          In this time of Advent, of preparation, of reflecting and announcing in equal measure,

           In this time of sorting through Sacrament, Signs of the Times, and silence from the heavens,

           In this time of stark reverie and horror at a world conflagrant with greed,

           It is good to know that--

In the eternal present, the manger Child lives.

In chronos, Three-in-One opened child's eyes, looked into ours with utter clarity, and did not turn away.

In that lightning-rich rending of muck and death, that blink in time and wash of eternity,

Incarnation and Redemption united in a Baby.

          This is how the world is won.

          This is how the war is won.

           It is won.

Sometimes, it is good to know that.

Faith Richardson
Christmas, 2009


Picture by Vincent Richardson, Christmas, 2009

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sacred cookies

Pinwheels, icebox, macaroons, sugar, thumbprint, spritzers, gingerbread, rolled, dropped, meringue, butter, filled … ever Google ‘Christmas cookie recipe’? Oh, the Christmas preparations! Today we bought presents for two boys, age 9 and 12. We pulled their cards from the church Christmas tree last Sunday, and don’t know anything about these boys, but had fun worrying over whether or not we got the ‘right’ gift for each one of them. This past week, we put up our Christmas lights and started planning our annual Christmas card. There is something very special, very rooted, about Christmas traditions.

In my Advent journey, I am reading some wonderful reflections. One in particular, by Brother Holz, a Benedictine, reminded me of my ongoing discipline, seeking to live in the present moment. Saint Benedict’s rule is based on two principles: the first that God is present everywhere, and the second that Christ is present in every single person we meet, most especially in the sick and the vulnerable. Saint Benedict went so far as to say that tools of your trade (whatever these are) should be treated with the same reverence as sacred vessels on the alter. Within a sacramental, contemplative life journey, work is sacred. Brother Holz says,  
“so, if we are trying to maintain a deep and meaningful spirituality of Advent and Christmas—while at the same time living in the hectic round of Christmas shopping and decorating—why not devote some of our Advent reflections to taking a long, loving look at the realities of the holiday season? If Benedict is correct, we should be able to find in them some good spiritual insights into the mysteries of Advent and Christmas.”
The word, ‘season’ is big these days before Christmas: the season of giving, the holiday season, Jesus is the Reason for the Season, Season’s Greetings … Brother Holz reflects on the word ‘season,’ linking it to the Greek word ‘kairos.’ In the Bible, Holz states, kairos is translated as ‘time,’ but is really ‘time with purpose,’ similar to our notion of ‘season’. This makes sense in the Ecclesiastes passage, “a time for every matter under heaven … a time to be born, and a time to die …” He says, “in fact, every moment of our lives is kairos, a sacred ‘season,’ a chapter in the unfolding story of God’s love for the world”
“For a Christian, life is made up of millions of unique moments, each one a kairos, an opportunity that will never come again. Every task we start, every decision we make, whether trivial or great is a special time, a chance to build up the kingdom. Every encounter with another person is a unique kairos, a season of loving. Whether we’re working, cooking supper, or relaxing in front of the television, each moment is a part of the story of God’s loving presence in the world. It is all kairos.”

As I bake cookies, write that Christmas poem, send off greetings, mark papers, listen to stressed nursing students, and remember to feed the girls, I will look upon each twinkling Christmas light, each flashing holiday sign, each candy cane and kettle bell as a reminder of the urgent season upon us—the Advent, the coming of the Christ Child. Will my heart be ready?

This sense of season, of urgency echoed again for me while reading the familiar passage in Luke, from Isaiah:
A voice of one crying out in the desert: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'
There again, the sense of urgency drumming throughout this passage, and now I realize that it is not about waking up the city construction crew. No, it is we who are the way to be made straight, we who are the rough path to be made smooth in preparation for the Lord. Perhaps this razing of the road is done is in our moment by moment work of traditional preparations, in each authentic encounter, as we look into the eyes of others in our hurried busyness, as well as in our discipline of honoring the tools of our trade as sacred vessels.

Blessings on your Advent journey, week two!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Of Shadow lands and the Season of Advent

I love the Narnian Chronicles for many reasons, but one is because, as a child, they introduced me to the idea of ‘shadow lands’ … the insight that whatever good we experience on Earth throughout our lives is simply a shadow of the real good that we will experience in Heaven. Remember the conversation in The Last Battle, following that joyous race with the echoing cry, “Further in and further up!” about how the eternal worlds are like layers in an onion, only these layers get larger, richer, stronger, as each one is peeled away?

I am thinking that this concept of shadow lands parallels the season of advent. As you most likely know, today is the first day of Advent, the beginning of a new church year that focuses us on preparing for the coming of Christ Incarnate. In this time of penance and joyful preparation of our hearts for the soon-arriving Christ child, there is an echo of our penance preparing for Holy Week and the celebration as Christ returns, victorious from death and Hell. Of course, there is another echo in preparing our hearts and lives for the return of Christ to Earth for his Bride, the Church. Each layer in the redemptive plan, deeper than the one before, richer, more profound than profound itself.

The ‘shadows’ in shadow lands have echoes of meaning in themselves. For example, preparation for Christmas takes place in multiple layers; however most of these layers have little to nothing to do with preparing our hearts for the Christ Child. Instead, they are mere shadows of the real thing; instead, they merely prepare us for Christmas as a holiday celebration through acquisition of goods—not as meeting places for Christ through the refinement of sacramental reflection, the veritable shucking of ‘stuff’ that occludes the spirit.

In my ongoing quest to follow the discipline of living in the rhythm and respiration of the present moment,I am entering into the process of Advent,diving into the contradictory harmonies of penitence and royalty, of self denial and celebration. One of the small traditions of Advent is the lighting of the Advent wreath, accompanied by prayer and readings.

The Advent wreath first arrived on the scene as a Christian devotion in the Middle Ages, likely borrowed from the customs of pre-Christians, who used candles (fire) and greenery as symbols of light and life. The Advent Wreath is traditionally a circular evergreen wreath with four or five candles, three purple, one rose, and (if you use the five-candle model), one white candle for Christmas Day. However, metal artwork advent wreaths are now available that can be used Christmas after Christmas. Although some traditions use blue candles, Catholics still use purple and rose because they symbolize royalty and penitence. The candles symbolize the light of Christ coming into the world. The evergreen symbolizes life in Christ, a life ‘made new’ by Christ's first coming, in anticipation of the ultimate renewal of life we long for in Christ's second coming. The circular shape symbolizes eternity; the completeness of God. Although much of the symbolism came after the wreath was adopted by Christians, that does not detract from the power of these symbols. Meaning-making is a rich heritage of the imago dei!

Each candle is first lit on the appropriate Sunday of Advent, and then the candles may be re-lit each day as a part of daily prayers.I will be following this daily devotion throughout Advent:

1st CANDLE – (purple) THE PROPHECY CANDLE or CANDLE OF HOPE – We can have hope because God is faithful and will keep the promises made to us. Our hope comes from God.

O Emmanuel, Jesus Christ,
desire of every nation,
Savior of all peoples,
come and dwell among us.

And again, Isaiah says, ‘The Root of Jesse will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations; the Gentiles will hope in him.’ May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:12-13)

2nd CANDLE – (purple) - THE BETHLEHEM CANDLE or THE CANDLE OF PREPARATION – God kept his promise of a Savior who would be born in Bethlehem. Preparation means to “get ready”. Help us to be ready to welcome YOU, O GOD!

O King of all nations, Jesus Christ,
only joy of every heart,
come and save your people.

As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: ‘A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God’s salvation. (Luke 3:4-6)

3rd CANDLE - (rose) - THE SHEPHERD CANDLE or THE CANDLE OF JOY – The angels sang a message of JOY!

O Key of David, Jesus Christ, 
the gates of heaven open at your command, 
come and show us the way to salvation.

…and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.’ When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” (Luke 2:7-15)

4th CANDLE - (purple) - THE ANGEL CANDLE or THE CANDLE OF LOVE – The angels announced the good news of a Savior. God sent his only Son to earth to save us, because he loves us.

O Wisdom, holy Word of God, Jesus Christ,
all things are in your hands,
come and show us the way to salvation.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:16-17)

 5th CANDLE – (white) - THE CHRIST CANDLE  – The white candle reminds us that Jesus is the spotless lamb of God, sent to wash away our sins! His birth was for his death, his death was for our birth!

Let the just rejoice,
for their justifier is born.
Let the sick and infirm rejoice,
For their savior is born.
Let the captives rejoice,
For their Redeemer is born.
Let slaves rejoice,
for their Master is born.
Let free men rejoice,
For their Liberator is born.
Let All Christians rejoice,
For Jesus Christ is born.

St. Augustine of Hippo

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned … For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace ... (Isaiah 9:2,6)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only,who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:1-14, 29)

Blessings on your Advent Journey ...
Make ready--the Christ Child is on his way!

PS. Want your own advent wreath? If you are living in the Langley, BC area, you can find one at the Holy Family Catholic Gift and Bookstore, at 20787 Fraser Hwy, across from St Joseph's Church

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thanksgiving , gratitude and wellness

Ask any Sunday school grad what is the one biblical story that best exemplifies thankfulness, and the answer would probably be, “the one about the 10 lepers.” Do you remember this little story? Here is the Luke 17 version:  

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance,they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.

That one word “well” jumped out at me this weekend when I reread the story. Although all ten lepers were healed of their disease, the one who was truly thankful was made well. Wow. What a statement about how our attitude toward gratitude can impact our wellness.

Of course, it is much easier to be grateful for the obviously good events in our lives … where we are stretched in our faith is our ability to be thankful for the crucible experiences of life. To truly live in gratitude in those present moments that are not so pleasant, but are places where we meet Christ, where he walks beside us through the mud of our day. Henri Nouwen in Bread for the Journey reflects on this:

To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives--the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections-- that requires hard spiritual work.Still, we are only truly grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment. As long as we keep dividing our lives between events and people we would like to remember and those we would rather forget, we cannot claim the fullness of our beings as a gift of God to be grateful for. Let us not be afraid to look at everything that has brought us to where we are now and trust that we will soon see in it the guiding hand of a loving God.

I am always looking to creation for life lessons and the perfect image came to mind when thinking about thanksgiving, gratitude, and muddy moments. Yes, that surprising, persevering plant we call 'skunk cabbage' in the Pacific Northwest! Skunk cabbage blooms in mucky corners where no self respecting flower would want to be seen. But, for me, skunk cabbage heralds spring just as much as daffodils do. They certainly bloom where they are planted with stolid gratitude for the chilly, wet earth; with indifference to an audience other than the sun, turning muddy ground into a signpost of spring and new life. Not bad for a little, nondescript plant with such a nasty name. And even here there is a parallel: there can be no more nasty name than 'leper' ... but see how even the label of 'leper' has been redeemed by the action of this one who is overcome with gratitude and thankfulness and plunged into a new life of wellness.

Happy Thanksgiving! Be WELL!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Living the dream

Micah 6:8 has been called the “supreme definition of ethical religion.” You may recall that this verse is the summation of a courtroom drama, where humankind (God’s people) are brought up on the charge that they have broken the covenant (I will be their God and they will be my people) by wandering off on their own. Under cross examination, humankind crumbles and quickly asks, “how can I make this up—what penalty do I need to pay?” The ‘judge’ responds by chiding humankind, with the reminder that God is not asking for empty sacrifice and dead penance, but for life itself:
He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
This verse has become the course motto for my community nursing class. Social advocacy in a nutshell: justice balanced by mercy informed by authentic humility. As nurses seek to advocate for vulnerable populations, and to make policy and program decisions that mete out limited resources, this verse is both a touchstone and a beacon.

It seems as though we cannot separate out our attitudes and inner drives, our heart, from our actions. The image of justice as being blind and ruthless, armed with cold steel, is not the image of justice in Micah. Love, mercy, humility, faith … these are both virtues and actions grown from the heart, honed from a mind intent on choosing good by choosing God.

An interesting parallel to this Micah passage occurred to me today. My nephew is a first year college student and is currently writing a term paper for his New Testament class on the narrative of the centurion. In this story, recorded in Luke 7, a Roman centurion has a slave who is ill and dying. When the centurion hears about Jesus, he appeals to the Jewish elders to approach Jesus on his behalf, to ask him to heal his slave. When Jesus answers the request and is near his house, the centurion actually sends out messengers to stop Jesus from traveling any farther, because he believes that he is unworthy to have Jesus enter his house; also, because his faith tells him that, should he choose, Jesus can heal from any distance.
I’m thinking, what an example of living out Micah 6:8. I’m thinking, wow, this centurion might have made one amazing nurse!

First, this Roman centurion, this national symbol of hate and tyranny to the Jewish people, acts with justice and with mercy when he advocates for a vulnerable person, the lowest of the low: a sick, dying slave. Then, in the process of his advocacy, he does not commandeer an audience with Jesus directly. Instead, he works within the existing infrastructure in an established partnership he has already forged with the grass-roots leadership. The Jewish elders actually vouch for him to Jesus. Did you get that? The Jewish leaders actually vouch for a Roman.The centurion’s humility is further demonstrated when he sends his messengers to tell Jesus that he ‘gets’ that Jesus does not need to trouble himself to make a direct house call! The patient’s outcome? The text reads: "When the messengers returned to the house, they found the slave in good health." Not simply ‘better,’ or experiencing the ‘absence of disease,’ but in good health.

Wellness, the ultimate dream of social justice. I like to think of that slave, the patient in this story. I like to think that this amazing act of merciful advocacy from a heart filled with faith, a life lived in humility and action in equal proportion, was a transforming event for this patient. Yes, I believe in the Healer, but I also acknowledge the healer in this drama. Advocacy and action honed from a heart of compassion, mercy and faith—what a gift that this patient received. Through the transforming act of living out justice and mercy in humility, knowing our place in the universe under God, we can as ‘small h’ healers catalyze ultimate wellness, not simply physical healing, for our vulnerable patients.

God speed, nurses!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

On widows, Mother Theresa, the nursing process, Homer Simpson, and Mr. Spock

Last week I was teaching the nursing process to a group of brand new nursing students. The ‘nursing process’ has become, I believe, the most studied and elaborated upon event in nursing, especially when you realize that when all boiled down, it is simply common sense problem solving. Anyway, like most decision making frameworks, the nursing process has us move through stages of data gathering, analysis, problem identification, action, and evaluation. Through much of these stages we are directing and moving with our patient through their history and seeking to read their future needs, risks, and other wellness concerns. As I was reflecting on my class, I wondered if I had been able to instill in these new nurses the essence, or art, of nursing that allows us to authentically move with our patients through this process: the ability to engage with them. This ability to engage with another is more than a learned skill; it is a choice to invest in truly being present with another. Inherent in this engagement is a tiny but profound leap of faith that we can, in truth, unite with another in the present moment.

The choice to take that leap of faith and to invest in another is a wonderful gift to give and to receive. We recognize this when we receive it as well as when we take that leap of faith into the present moment of another and join with them. The authenticity of that encounter goes beyond skilled history taking and therapeutic conversation.

Who are our mentors in this? They range from every background and educational level and from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Speaking of the sublime, we witness in Mother Theresa’s work and writing a life committed to living in the present and engaging with every person that God brought to her door—and there were a lot of them! In her book, A Simple Path, she notes that a life of engagement requires an inner sanctum of connection to God, not simply as a retreat, but as a source for others to experience peace in the present moment.  She speaks of meeting with people who "hungered and thirsted for this silent place" … stating that “I knew that once they came into an atmosphere of some kind of silence, they would just fall into a peaceful state.”

On the ridiculous side of the scale, Homer Simpson is utterly incapable of foreseeing consequences so blithely lives in the moment, unaware of the chaos enveloping him until the ensuing wave threatens to knock him to kingdom come. In spite of driving everyone crazy, Homer manages to connect with others largely due to his utter inability to see anyone as beneath him (even Ned Flanders becomes his best friend). So perhaps Homer Simpson teaches us that there is something about our attitude toward others that may impede our ability to engage in the present moment with another.

Mr. Spock. Now it is common knowledge that Mr. Spock can, through a mind meld, connect with anyone at anytime, but can a Vulcan ever truly live in the present moment? I propose that it would be highly illogical to live in the present when future concerns can be rationally predicted and overcome by disciplined attention to reason. If Mr. Spock were a nurse, it would be easy to identify his patients. They would all be curled up in the fetal position shivering in psychological trauma from a simple history taking assessment. From Mr. Spock we learn that perhaps our ability to engage in the present moment involves mutuality and receptivity from the other before it can be authentic and non-damaging …

Today’s Scripture readings included the story of Elijah and the widow from Zarephath (IKings 17). As you will recall, the widow and her son are near starving with so many others in the region due to drought and poverty. The widow has a small amount of flour and oil left—just enough for one meal. She has no hope beyond this bit of flour and oil, so is preparing to cook her and her son’s last bit of bread. Along comes Elijah He is new to town, but she recognizes him as a prophet when he asks her for a drink and then further presumes to ask her to cook him some food. Elijah, hears her situation, and responds to her emotion, “do not be afraid,” as well as to her base-level  concerns. He says to go ahead and make him some bread first before she makes it for herself and her son, stating that God will ensure that her flour pot and oil pitcher will have enough in them every day until the drought is over. Somehow, in that quick interchange, Elijah is able to make an authentic connection and through this present-moment-meeting, the widow is able to make a leap of faith. As a result, she gets to enjoy the peace and joy of each morning finding flour and oil and setting out bread for her son every day.

Could the widow have made that incredible sacrifice of her last meal if Elijah hadn’t engaged with her, hearing and addressing her fear and clarifying her concerns? I don’t know. I do know that I want to able to emulate the widow’s leap of faith when Elijah comes to my door—but I sure hope that my Elijah will have the initiative and commitment to meet me in my present moment and address my fears. Further, I hope that when I am Elijah to my students, my patients, and others, that I am able to do the same.

May Shalom infiltrate our present moment.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Voice, agency, and the benefit of the doubt

A funny thing happened to me on the way to completing my doctorate.

I got older.

Why is that funny? Because my doctoral research is on capacity building for elders. Hmmm. I’m literally living my way into my research topic! I’m still completing my dissertation research, and sometimes it feels as though I truly will be an elder by the time I finally type that last APA citation.

My research is taking place in two elder care agencies and focuses on how elders perceive they are being heard in the planning and implementation of their nursing care. In focus groups, I am listening to the synergy of elders reflecting upon the concepts of voice and agency. Simultaneously, caregivers (nurses and others) are working in teams to prepare short video journals on daily care interventions that they believe honors residents’ choices and elicits voice.

Voice and agency … the ability to speak your needs and to act on your choices. In professional life we tend to take this for granted. However, when we are ill, pressured by externals, or relying on another for physical care, voice and agency fade from our grasp and become very precious. Voice and agency are very much linked to our personal and social development; Maslow’s stage of self-actualization is difficult to envision without voice and agency.

On the other hand, the equivalent of the stage of self-actualization within spirituality is self-denial. How do we make sense of what would appear to be polar opposite directives? How do we synthesize human potential and spiritual growth? Drives of the body and mind versus desires of the spirit? How do we move toward becoming more ourselves, and yet aspire to selflessness?

Don’t we love those pie shaped wedges of percentages, ratios, containable fractions explaining body and spirit, allowing us to wrestle interminably with integration and strive for unembodied perfection. Meanwhile, living in sacrament, moment, by moment, means living deeply within the present moment of our humanness, meeting Christ in the eternal nature of the present. Work, play, family, worship all become sacramental acts. The 'pie' metaphor becomes a perfect circle.

For however much we want to split persons into components, the Genesis theme of relationship and beginnings imply that we are created units: soul. "And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (nephesh, psuche)" (Gen. 2:7). What a lovely picture of transformed unity: God’s breath did not simply embody a clay shell, instead, the shell itself was transformed into living soul. This transformation is profoundly echoed in the Incarnation, when Christ was born, lived, and died as a human.

Living soul. As I listen to elders, I am catching glimpses of this synthesis of growth in persons who have lived authentically, faced struggles and given others the benefit of the doubt. Maslow’s description of self actualization includes an acceptance of one’s’ self, an interest in problem solving, and a stance of embracing truth and reality. Self denial was a part of their lives: they lived through two world wars, economic ups and downs, family tragedies and they raised families and forged a nation while they did this. Day by day, moment by moment. Authentically facing each season in its time, giving of themselves for children and for their communities: vegetables for the soup pot growing in the tiny patch of back yard; clothes stitched and patched hanging on the line; bills paid in hard-earned cash.

Gerard Manley Hopkins described self-denial in this way:
Turn then, my brethren, and give God glory. Thank and praise Him now for everything. When a man is in God's grace and free from mortal sin Then everything he does, so long as it has no sin in it, Gives glory to God. It is not only prayer that gives God glory, but work. Smiting an anvil, sawing a beam, whitewashing a wall, Driving horses, sweeping, scouring, Everything gives God some glory, If, being in His grace, you do it as your duty. To go to Communion worthily gives God great glory But to take food in thankfulness and temperance Gives Him glory too. To lift the hands in prayer gives God glory But a man with a dung fork in his hands, A woman with a slop pail Gives Him glory too. His is so great that all things give Him glory If you mean they should. So then, my brethren, live.

I am beginning to suspect that voice and agency have a great deal to do with our developmental growth; I am even more convinced, however, that listening is imperative to my growth! Perhaps that is the kernel here: that voice and agency allow elders the capacity to pass on this glimpse of life that is authentic, meat and potatoes, rather than the virtual, credit line life that is our generation’s reality. I am also learning that the skill of listening implies giving others the benefit of the doubt. It is only when I honor the other by recognizing Christ within them that I am prepared to truly listen.

So then, my brethren (and sister-en!), live. And give one another the sacred benefit of the doubt …

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Meaning making

Finding meaning in traumatic past events is clinically understood to be a healing movement toward wellness. It is always a marvelous, amazing moment to hear a patient tell me that cancer or other diagnosis, an accident, a personal tragedy, or other horrendous event was the ‘best thing that could have happened to me.’  Stories of lives being turned around, of meaning being made out of the ashes of disaster … these are the stuff of miracles. Fingerprints of the Redeemer on a life, a family, a community.

For that is how I see these moments: through the lens of an understanding of the significance of the Incarnation on the world. When ‘God became flesh and dwelt among us,’ the miraculous work of redemption ignited, and time, like Aslan’s table, ‘worked backwards’ yet transformed to living gold. Redemption: the greening of our parched histories of trauma, tragedy, and sheer nastiness is a reflection of this act of love.
Why is it, though, that it is so much easier to see the fingerprint of redemption on our personal worlds when we have undergone a horrific experience? Why do we resist seeing the ongoing work of redemption in the routine, the mundane of our lives?
You know what I mean when I speak of the mundane. Those everyday moments of our 24/7 that stitched together make up 99% of our lives. Those moments of cleaning the bathtub, making lunches, doing the dishes, writing (or listening to) classroom lectures, paying bills, seeing the tenth diabetic patient that day, triple checking medications for the nth time, listening to the student with an issue …
Why is it so hard to see the Redeemer in the commonplace of life?
Perhaps because the Redeemer is only needed for the extraordinary? Set aside for the ‘spiritual’ events of life when we are primed and God is ready? I cannot accept that, given the nature of the incarnation, which touched earth along with spirit. No, I think that this disconnect lies is in our concept of the mundane, which by definition excludes the idea of eternity and profundity. Times of prayer and worship have become for us disconnected from the everyday. Worship means for us to be lifted above the everyday. However,  I think that Brother Lawrence and St Francis (among so many others) had it right.

In The Practice of the Presence of God, “Brother Lawrence felt it was a great delusion to think that the times of prayer ought to differ from other times. We are as strictly obliged to adhere to God by action in the time of action, as by prayer in its season. His own prayer was nothing else but a sense of the presence of God, his soul being at that time insensible to everything but Divine Love. When the appointed times of prayer were past, he found no difference, because he still continued with God, praising and blessing Him with all his might. Thus he passed his life in continual joy. Yet he hoped that God would give him somewhat to suffer when he grew stronger.”

Similarly, St Francis saw Christ in all he met. For Francis, there was no distinction between the holy and the earthly—or perhaps more correctly, he saw through the earthly to the Incarnated Christ, the Redeemer. Bodies of clay and the blessed body of Christ became one and the same: the leper was greeted by Francis with a holy kiss. Birds, the sun and moon, received words of encouragement and thanksgiving by virtue of their transformation by the Incarnate Christ.

I pray that I learn to practice this eternity-altered visioning in my mundane: to greet Christ in every visage of my students, of patients, residents and research participants. To welcome the eternal in the interruptions of life, in the earth-shattering personal events, and in the daily humdrum routine of everyday. And, to share an encouraging glance and kind word to all of creation and in doing so, to honor the ongoing redeeming work of the Incarnate Christ.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Being sick ...

I always think that it is good for nurses and other health care providers to experience pain, illness, physical weakness, despair. Humans have a remarkable ability to forget what existing in these states feels like; how eternal, solid, and all-encompassing pain, illness, and despair appear to be when you are in the crucible. Well, like most things that are ‘good for us,’ we would rather accept them in theory rather than in practice …

Last week found me recovering from a visitation of what would appear to have been H1N1. For a few days there, I found myself isolated in a crucible of fever, pain and flu. A very few days compared to the chronic illness crucible that so many others find themselves living within.

Your thinking changes when you are caught within that crucible, no matter how short term it is, for when you are in the crucible, time stands still.

Little things you take for granted: quick leaps of energy to do simple acts of life; appetite; flashes of fun, desire, laughter, all are moved beyond your current reality. Prayer takes on a different, more grim, dimension. Priorities change. People become more—and less—important. ‘To do’ lists lose their power over you, as do the powers and principles that rule the world: bill paying and moving money become an insignificant, easily forgotten chore. Water. Water is precious as is the ability to drink it and to keep it down. Food is simplified. A simple soup tolerated by a fickle GI system is appreciated like sushi is celebrated during times of reckless health. Silence is beyond precious. Air. Coughing fits, ‘bubble and squeak’ lungs, thickened airways impart moments of dis-ease and near anxiety; fatigue related to air hunger as coughing takes over the night.

I must admit, I am no hero when I am ill. This time was no different. I did not want to ‘live in the present moment.’

I prayed for the uncomfortable present moment to be gone and the blissful healthy future to emerge, shattering the crucible with joy, zest and normalcy. I wanted to feel good by virtue of feeling healthy. Still, I do want to honor the lessons of illness and have these memories fuel gratitude and thanksgiving as I move back to health and routine.

What are these lessons? I do think the shift in priorities that occurs while in the crucible is a lesson worth keeping. Finding joy in simple things. Laughing at the ‘less than hero’ within myself … all good lessons!

Keep well!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Putting away the pool

A very exciting thing happened to us this summer. 
Just as the TV weatherperson gave her prediction that we were heading into a heat wave, my mom called to discuss Vincent’s birthday. As we chatted about the impending heat wave and I explained why our older house’s electric panel could not handle an air conditioner, my mom had a brainwave: “You should buy a pool,” she said. “They are on sale right now. It would be perfect for Vincent’s birthday!”

I did not need any sort of arm-twisting or other form of coercion—especially as she wanted to join in the purchase of this gift. As kids, we had grown up with a succession of pools, each one taller and broader, but all the same wonderful round cool summer playground. We all took ‘pool chore’ turns: hosing out the filter and skimming leaves with a homemade net made out of a wire hanger and my mother’s old nylon stockings. Only the oldest kid was allowed to put the chlorine tablets into the floating dispenser. The youngest kid was left with the job of miserably turning the filter panels while they were being squirted out. We all loved skimming leaves—we got to go out in our little blue boat and chase down rogue leaves with the nylon stocking skimmer.

All those memories fueled me. Throughout that morning, the idea of a pool for Vincent’s birthday grew and grew until by afternoon it became unbearably sweet. We headed to Zellers, sales flyer in hand. “All gone,” we were told by the one salesperson we tracked down. We turned the nose of our car toward Wal-Mart. In Sporting Goods, we found a small crowd of hopeful families clustered around one salesperson who was on the phone. “Pool?” we asked the crowd. “She’s calling the warehouse now,” answered a mom in a tense whisper. Two other moms glanced over and nodded briefly in nervous anticipation. The salesperson hung up the phone. “They’re looking,” she said in the waiting silence. “Someone thinks that there were a few pools that didn’t get sent out. They will call me back in twenty minutes or so.” We watched as the crowd of moms scattered slightly, still hovering around the swimming pool aisle, glancing at each other as if to measure the competition. Visions of beach balls, floating lounges, and blow-up swans flickered in their eyes.

A rumor began to spread among the moms. “Canadian Tire,” we heard. “Canadian Tire had pools yesterday … lots of pools …” The phone rang and we all watched as the salesperson answered. Just as her face began to register the faintest disappointment, we were out the door and headed toward Canadian Tire. “Go,” Vincent said with urgency, as he slowed in front of the doors of Canadian Tire, “Go!” I jumped out of the car and didn’t lose time looking behind me. Through the doors I plunged and was greeted by the sweetest sight. Boxes of pools smack in the middle of the main aisle. Sweeter still was the orange ‘on sale’ sign above the pools. I attached myself to one of the boxes and waited for Vincent to park the car and catch up to me.

“It’s awfully big,” he said doubtfully, when I had moved enough for him to read the pool dimensions on the box. “It’s all they have left,” I responded. It was enough. He flagged down a salesperson who brought a dolly. The box just fit into our hatchback with the seats down. We had to use our John Deer lawn mower and cart to get the box from the car into the backyard.

I had that pool set up in two hours. Two days after filling it, the township declared an official heatwave and imposed outside water restrictions. Isn’t God’s timing wonderful?  :-) Of course it is trivial seeing our filled pool as a ‘God thing’, but you have NO IDEA how hot our old timer flat roof house gets! It is truly how we felt!

We enjoyed the pool all summer long and I thanked God (and my mom) for it at every opportunity. The girls (our Dalmatians) loved it too. Although we weren’t about to let them shred the liner with their enthusiastic thrashing, so outlawed them from being inside the pool, they loved running around the cool perimeter of it. I think it acted as sort of an outside air conditioner for them. Gabe, our Siamese cat, lay down alongside it as well, moving with the shade as the sun climbed each day.

But now it is Fall, and we emptied the pool yesterday. Today is ‘pack the pool away’ day. Very much a bittersweet kind of thing. It signals the end of summer fun, but we will get a good-sized portion of our backyard back. Although I suspect it will look as though aliens visited us (ie., the round crop circle where the pool killed the grass). We can dream about the excitement of a new summer, and the fun of setting up the pool again.

In my ongoing determination to learn to live in the present, I am seeking to see even the chores of the day as a discipline, an exercise in understanding contentment and gratitude in the present moment

As I do this, I recall earlier concerns: if I become focused on the present, won’t I lose the learning power of remembering the past, or the visioning of the future? Instead, I note, as I dry the liner and place each plastic clip in the zip lock bag, that through gratitude, I revisit moments in the past and am thankful for them, and am accepting of, and able to, appreciate the Fall moment of putting away. I notice a holistic connecting with the season, the objects in my hand, and the sense of the gift of this moment, past moments and future glimpses of potential moments of joy. An overarching contentment in spite of cold fingers in the Fall breeze and stiffness in my aging ‘nurses’ back.

G. K. Chesterton said, “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”

I think what I am learning in this discipline of living in the present moment, is to say grace before and as I teach classes, write, listen to my research participants, chop pears—and put away the pool. 

Enjoy your Fall moments!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Picking strawberries in September

There is something special about picking strawberries in the middle of September.  
Discovering each one is like finding a little miracle hidden in a world of leaves and stems that are already starting to show autumn color. For some reason, our four hanging planters of strawberries are sending out a rush of blossoms and berries – perhaps in an effort to produce as much as possible while the sun still shines, striving to preserve the illusion that summer is still here. Whatever the reason, I am in delighted awe each morning as I head out with my breakfast bowl and top my granola and yogurt with a handful of juicy-red berries. Even our two Dalmatians get in on a few berries these days, as the shoots from the plants hang low with strawberries; carefully they lift their lips and gently pull off berries with their teeth. Thankfully, ‘the girls’ have kindly kept their berry picking to the low growing tendrils and have not begun grazing the plants themselves or my little strawberry miracles would long be gone!
Meanwhile, as I gloat over each treasured September strawberry, the pear tree is dropping beautiful pears right on schedule.I love pears and have waited for them all summer. However, I find myself combing through leaves looking for strawberries in September, choosing these over pears in their prime. Hmmm. How human of me!
Why is it that we desperately prefer to hang onto what was, or long for what will be, rather than be content with what is? You can bet that next month, sometime in October, I will be searching the pear tree looking for one more luscious globe hiding among golden leaves.
I am slowly reading Mother Theresa’s little book, A Simple Path. I say slowly, because I am trying not to gulp it down, but instead to savor her reflections and prayers like those lovely ripe pears—words in their season, one reading at a time. As mundane as this action is, these short, simple reflections and prayers are flashes in time when I intersect with eternity. Something so profound, but found in the daily rhythm of life.

In keeping with the theme of this week, let me share a couple of short, sweet bites with you:
The Simple Path
The fruit of silence is
The fruit of prayer is
The fruit of faith is
The fruit of love is
The fruit of service is
Help us, O loving Father, to take whatever you give,
And to give whatever you take,
With a big smile.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Chasing the blue ribbon cake ...

Okay, this is how it happened.
Last summer, my husband learned how to can applesauce. He quickly became enamored with canning, and began boiling jars and mixing syrup and experimenting by combining fruits and spices. He created concoctions he called, “Rhubarb Jungle” “Ruby Slippers,” and “Ginger Spice for Hot Monkeys.” This summer the masterpiece was “Rhubarb Figgy Pudding,” a mixture of figs, rhubarb and apples from our backyard cooked to a sweet, tangy, tasty mess called a conserve by cooks in the know. He decided to enter “Rhubarb Figgy Pudding” in the Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden, Washington.

Let me back up a bit.
During most of these canning blitzes, I remained chained to my computer, writing yet another draft of my dissertation proposal. About the time that steam was pouring out of our kitchen and the aroma of rhubarb, figs and apples filled the air, still at my computer, I turned on the TV. There was Aunt Bee preserving pickles for the Mayberry Fair. Do you remember that episode of the Andy Griffith Show? When Aunt Bee was trying to outdo Clara and win the blue ribbon for pickles? Well, just as Aunt Bee peered into her pickle jar, my husband entered the room holding up a jar of “Rhubarb Figgy Pudding” and announcing this was The One. Suddenly I felt this odd peer pressure to join in with the crowd (well, with Aunt Bee and my husband) and enter something—anything—in the Fair. “I will bake a cake,” I blurted. “I will enter a cake in the Fair.”

Reflecting on this decision, I suppose part of it was a drive to avoid writing the current draft of my dissertation proposal, but also I just wanted to try something new.
Although I have baked a cake before (perhaps 15 years ago?), I had never before entered anything in a Fair. Oh, the pleasure of deciding to do something new! To wander out into a new path not knowing how it will turn out … okay, okay, it wasn’t that big a deal, but I really did NOT know how this cake that I proposed to bake would turn out, so there was a bit of mystery to enjoy!

I do think that starting something new is a rush because of this mystery component of starting down an unfamiliar road ... you feel brave and slightly heroic for deciding to do it. The planning to begin the new thing is totally fun. Especially when you get to buy new stuff. (I got a new cake pan and a flour sifter.)

When you actually start the new thing, though, the reality can be scary and frustrating or so alien that you wonder why you ever wanted to do it.
And the stuff you need to buy can be scary in itself … like the price of nursing textbooks or the sheer size and heft of them. At this point, the reality of your decision to go to nursing school can hit like a ton of bricks. It can feel scary, stressful and so alien that you wonder why you ever, ever, wanted it. I think that I can safely say to any and all nursing students that if you don’t feel this right now, there will be some moment along the way in the next four years that you will. When that moment hits, take a deep breath (or six or seven), go for a walk or a run, hug a puppy, look at the stars or the wonderful liquid star shine we are blessed with 10 months of the year, and thank God for the ability to feel and grow and wonder and to reflect on your journey.
And go bake that cake!

By the way, to my utter astonishment, my cake got a blue ribbon.

No kidding!

(apologies to Julia Child for pasting my face on her picture)

Monday, September 7, 2009

Countdowns and being: the sacrament of the present moment

I am a ‘countdown’ freak. I get a thrill when the ball drops, number by number, on December 31st at 1159. To be honest, the New Year that follows is a bit of a let down—the countdown is much more exciting. Yes, the kitchen timer mesmerizes me when I cook eggs. I can’t pull those eggs off the stove until that 00 flashes and I hear that beep—it’s got to be the countdown thing. I must have always had this fixation, because when I was a kid, I used to con my little sister into doing my chores by promising to ‘time’ her. “Wow!” I would say enthusiastically, “You were WAY faster this time!” And I would watch her scurry around trying her darnedest to beat the clock when I started the final “9, 8, 7, 6, ..."

The countdown neurosis continued when I entered college and nursing school. I remember pulling out the nursing program, all those semesters laid out, course by course … it looked like eternity on a page. But, I would begin the countdown: first course, second course, third course done—one semester down. The check marks beside each core course, every elective, and each semester like a ticking clock counting down the program. When my pencil checked off that last course – what a rush. The 00 of the egg timer, the beeping microwave, the cheers as the ball dropped at midnight, all combined.

Then it was over. I had graduated. But, like the New Year’s countdown, the day after graduation was nearly as flat as the day after New Year’s Eve. My college friends and I had spent hours longing for school to be done. Watching the clock through lectures, wishing we were ‘real’ nurses instead of ‘just’ student nurses. Waiting for the day when we could write ‘RN’ after our name and collect the paycheck to match it. Suddenly, there it all was and I remember thinking, well, this is great—but now what?
Looking back, I realize how amazing it all was: nursing school and college and nursing buddies and those incredible patients that I can’t forget to this day. And I wonder how much I missed—how much we all missed—by fixating on the countdown rather than the incredible experience we were all going through. Jean Pierre De Caussade, a spiritual writer in the 18th century, would have laughed at my countdown fixation. He reflects on what he called the sacrament of the present moment:
Uninterruptedly your life will flow through the unfathomed abyss where you have nothing to do but love and cherish what each moment brings, considering it as the best possible thing for you. When God lives in us we have nothing to help us beyond what he gives us moment by moment. Nothing else is provided and no road is marked out. The present moment holds infinite riches beyond your wildest dreams but you will only enjoy them to the extent of your love and faith.

It is only in the present moment that we truly meet the eternal, for that is where Christ, who is Love and Joy, meets us—not in the past or the future, but now. He is present through one another in our minute-by-minute relationships, as we move and engage with Creation, and in the work he has called us to do as students and as faculty. We are all beginning 15 short weeks together. They will fly by regardless of whether or not we put a check mark beside every task completed or watch the clock through every lecture. We have a choice to meet each moment as a gift from God and a visitation of Christ himself. In return we can receive the riches of deep joy he grows in us.

Blessings on your semester!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Rhythm & Respiration

I love this picture--the 12 month experience of a tree in a snapshot. Sometimes I think that it would help us understand the natural seasons of life a bit better if we could pull back and see the big picture now and again. Maybe then we could learn to live in the eternal moment, appreciating the nuances of each season.

I am calling this blog Rhythm & Respiration because I like the wordplay between the biological/nursing meaning of rhythm and respiration and the spiritual understanding of these words. I'm wanting to use this blog to invite a thoughtful integration of faith and nursing, as well as simple spiritual inspiration. Yep, 'inspiration,' there's another word common to nursing and spirituality!

Rhythm: There is a rhythm to the academic year, the natural year, the life span and body, such as circadian rhythms, hormone and cardiac cycles, as well as the Church year from Advent to Pentecost. It is easy to become disconnected to these rhythms when stressed, unless we are continually called, body, mind and spirit, to re-enter these refreshing rhythms.

Respiration: ‘Respiration’ and ‘inspiration’ are intrinsically connected. Assessing breathing is not only the first order of triage and necessary for all creatures (even trees and cells must undergo respiration), but ‘Breath of God’ is a metaphor for the Holy Spirit, vital for spiritual health in the body of Christ.

Rhythm: the Church year

I'm hoping that this blog becomes for me a spiritual discipline of sorts. A devotional journal that helps focus me on the present moment, honoring the natural rhythms of the life I've been given and breathing through and into the moment with Creation and community. I invite you to join me on my journey, finding joy in the rhythm of your world and joining in the breathing in and out of your community.

Blessings on the journey!