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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 …