Where is Grace in Isolation?

Where is Grace in Isolation?
Photo by Whitney Wright on Unsplash

The daughter was three, sitting crisscrossed in a slim rectangle of sunlight on a patch of hardwood floor next to her parents’ bed. She didn’t know what Mommy had experienced, only that she hadn’t been up for many, many days.

“Mommy?” the child asked, “Do you want bread and butter?”

It was all she knew how to make, the only thing she could give someone who might be hungry.

The mound of covers murmured an assent, a barely audible, “Mmm hmm…nice.”

In the kitchen, the girl placed a slice of wheat bread on a paper towel and smeared margarine on it, tearing gaping holes in the piece with the knife as she committed herself to her work. Chunks of ‘butter’ were everywhere, but she was proud, so proud of her effort, and confident that Mommy would eat it.

In the bedroom, Mommy’s long white, shaking fingers emerged from under the blankets.

“Thank you, honey,” came the nearly inaudible voice. And a few minutes later, “That was delicious.”

The girl returned to her spot on the floor and remained there. For how long, I’m not sure. It happened more than once.

It was 1976 and my mother had just had back surgery to remove a disc she’d ruptured while falling down a flight of stairs, pregnant with my sister. Eight months later, friends cared for my healthy baby sis at their house for awhile and I stayed home with my parents. We had some other help, but there were times when my dad was at work and since I was a quiet, easygoing child, my mom and I were left alone for a couple hours at a time.

I did my part. I kept Mommy company. I made her bread and butter.

Fast forward 44 years to a global pandemic and we’re all like kids making ‘bread and butter’ daily, sitting in one place, tending to the needs of those right next to us, sensing that perhaps something slow and important – like healing – is happening within, while also acknowledging the reality of clashing tensions between an urgency to proceed with life and paralysis to make that happen on acceptable terms.

While healing is usually hidden, there are options with pain. It can be put on display, or concealed until secrecy simply isn’t an option anymore.

Is this time of quarantine highlighting the wounds of your loved ones?

Is it shedding new light on the places where hurt is carried in your home?

How about some harder questions….

In what ways is the past influencing present anxieties?

And your deficiencies? Are your own imperfections and worries glaring too? If you are not a channel of peace to those you love, why not?

Hippocrates, the ‘Father of Medicine,’ said in his Precepts, Part 1, “Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.”

The Truth is, opportunity presents itself perfectly. As King Solomon wrote 500 years earlier, “There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens….A time to kill, and a time to heal…” (Ecclesiastes 3: 1,3).

A time has been opened to us for serious reflection.

We can turn the hurt over to the only One who can truly heal.

Now is an occasion to see grace right where it’s being offered.

But how do we do that?

We allow ourselves to soften.

We wonder.

We watch.

We open our hands and look up.

We sit and listen so we’ll know how to serve and to recognize grace as it appears.

Where was grace in 1976 when a mom was in bed, suffering at her literal core, her 3-year old on the floor by her side?

It was everywhere, saturating the room with sunlight, forming a bond between a daughter and her mom, and expressing love in small hands carrying simple gifts.

We can find it again today as we spread butter on bread in a million different ways, again and again.

Put Your Ounce of Faith Into Action Before Today Ends

Put Your Ounce of Faith Into Action Before Today Ends
Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

The small headline caught my eye: “Local food bank need rises 200% – Donations decline under state’s stay-at-home order.”

The story was hidden under the ‘bigger’ one about a couple hundred protesters honking car horns on the capital’s streets, venting anger and frustration, demanding that the state reopen for business.

They’re part same issue, of course – how to handle the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. No one has clear answers.

But the alarming facts about hunger and unemployment have spiraled out of the air like a U.S.-sized tornado. Over the last 5 weeks 26 million Americans have filed jobless claims. The sum of filings may suggest the unemployment rate hovers around 20%.

Translation: too many people have suddenly lost the ability to pay for the necessities.

Of 200 U.S. foodbanks belonging to the nationwide network Feeding America, 98% said this week they have experienced a surge in demand concurrent with the pandemic outbreak, and 59% say their inventory has decreased. As demand increases, what’s been collected and stored to be given out doesn’t meet current needs. What’s more – about 50% of the clients now visiting food banks are new clients – people who didn’t need assistance just a few weeks ago.

Don’t let your eyes glaze over. These people are your neighbors. And mine.

We pray for them, and we have faith that God will provide. But we can’t stop there. The Lord sent manna to feed the hungry Israelites, but today He’s sent you and me.

Scripture tells us,“[F]aith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:17)

God expects us to live out our love for Him in our deeds, and He needs us to do His work in the world. His undying Love is expressed through us – people who allow our faith to shine through our hands and hearts.

So, how can we help?

  • The primary need is funding for food banks, and we can all donate online without ever leaving our couches. Click here on Feeding America to find your local food bank with your state or zipcode. Go to it and contribute $10, $20, $100, or any amount you can. Then, if your budget allows, set a reminder on your phone to make the same donation again in 2 weeks, or monthly, until this crisis ends. Wholesale purchasing amplifies your gift, so your dollar will go farther with an online donation than if you buy groceries and drop them at a food bank in person. At the Anne Arundel County Food Bank near me, every $1 donated equals $7.85 of help.
  • Donate time. Be a driver, package food, or even volunteer virtually by making donor thank-you calls or writing thank-you notes. For example, in Maryland, the Maryland Food Bank in Baltimore is looking for volunteers ages 13-60 to sort and box food. Inquire locally to see what’s needed in your area.
  • Check in with your favorite pantry or shelter and offer the team support. One of my favorites is The Father McKenna Center in Washington, DC. Ask if you can drop off blankets, clothes, or other supplies when you are out. They know who needs what; if they can’t use what you’re offering, they’ll know who will.
  • Forward this post to your friends and family. Remind them that we can all do something. Especially right now.

Each person is a reflection of the divine, and Love Himself demands a response. To stand by and do nothing when people are suffering is to look upon God and turn away. So let’s turn our efforts toward the beautiful faces of people in need and do whatever we can to offer our assistance.

Remember Your Word for 2020? It’s Time to Dust It Off

Remember Your Word for 2020? It’s Time to Dust It Off

What’s “your” word for 2020? You know, the one that filled you with fire and passion back in January, a month that feels like 1979 right about now?

Maybe it’s…fearless, fit, organize, progress, whimsy, gratitude, travel, relax, build, integrity, communicate, or feast.

I’ve only been selecting a word of the year for four years running so I don’t have a long history with this, but I’m gradually learning the value of finding a concept to cling to for enhanced focus. In 2017 it was listen. For 2018, believe. And last year, gently. I even wrote a post about that one.

This year, my word is meaningful, and sitting here at home for 5 weeks in the midst of a pandemic, I am more sure than ever that this particular word was not chosen in a vacuum.

Yes, I got lost there for a bit in the panic and tedium of current events….

I’ve read and watched the news too much. Become fearful and then blasé while scrutinizing the numbers nationwide.

I’ve spent hours sewing masks for my family and wondered if they’d even be needed (and they are).

I’ve pulled every undone project I’ve got (scrapbooks, albums, and quilts) out of my closets and spread them around my dining room, exciting myself with the possibility of finishing them and overwhelming myself with work.

I’ve read a few books, mostly novels, and enjoyed them. But I knew I was using them to escape my anxiety. At times, I chose reading over prayer.

And I’ve walked and walked….alone, and with my kids, dogs, and husband. Around my neighborhood and inside my home. Trod circles going nowhere, arriving back to the place I was before to find it much the same.

And the whisper that I heard in the midst of it all on Easter weekend was this…

Your word is meaningful. Remember? Take it to heart.

Nothing goes unnoticed by the One who sees all.

Before I chose my word for 2020, I asked God for guidance in prayer. I asked that my word be significant for me and what lay ahead. And this word popped to mind clearly and vividly, and it was unshakable for many days.

In the early weeks of this pandemic, I almost forgot it. But I’m determined not to forget it now.

I’m hugging my kids more when they walk by. Playing many more rounds of board games with my youngest son. Prioritizing those projects and accepting that what didn’t get done over many years doesn’t need to get done in a couple weeks.

Meaningfulness is about intention. So for me, that’s only doing something with love and for the glory of the One who made me. Or choosing not to do it if I can’t do it in this frame of mind.

Having this kind of focus changes the energy of any activity.

How about “your” word? The choosing of it was not an accident.

God was, and is always, with you. The divine imprint is everywhere.

So pick up your word and dust it off. How can it be applied it in a new way – in a way that will bring joy to your soul amidst the current circumstances?

Ask your Creator for fresh eyes to see. It’s a habit we can all cultivate, worldwide pandemic or not.

No creature is concealed from Him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must render an account. – Hebrews 4:13

Ask His Opinion Before Buying the Appliance – The End of a Very Short Series – ‘Assessing a Year’

Ask His Opinion Before Buying the Appliance –  The End of a Very Short Series – ‘Assessing a Year’
Photo by John-Mark Smith on Unsplash

If you read my last post just before Christmas, “Seeing the Blessings on Life’s Twisty Road” (part 1 of this 2-part series), you know I recommend the Daily Examen as a way of reviewing each day for indications of grace.

It works for me.

And now that we’ve entered 2020, I’m encountering more and more gifts in this review process.

Having done broader Examens of the last year, I’m seeing that my ‘reads’ of people are often incorrect. In other words, I am oblivious to what others are really thinking. I assume that all is well when in fact others have opinions – strong likes and dislikes – of which I am unaware – or worse yet, that I’m choosing to ignore. Sometimes at the peril of my relationship with them.

But rather than go ‘deep’ here and tell you a serious story, I’ll give you a fairly lighthearted example from my marriage and you can extrapolate for your own life, however much that might be helpful.

Recently, our vacuum cleaner broke. It was a Sears canister-style model we had for about 8 years – a sleek blue, with a retractable cord, internal bags I replaced when full, and a cool orange indicator light on the handle that told me when the carpet was really dirty (and it was – all the time!!). I liked it, despite the fact that the cord stopped winding and I had to use a wrench to keep it extended; despite the fact that I was constantly buying bags; and despite the fact that the contraption was HEAVY and unwieldy with its 2 segments.

When the motor finally quit my husband practically leapt for joy.

“THANK GOD!! I HATE that thing,” he said with no shortage of enthusiasm.

I was shocked. And taken aback.

I had picked it out myself and didn’t realize the depth of his dislike.

The truth was, I guess somewhere in the recesses of my mind I knew he didn’t like it. I just didn’t really care. His feelings on the matter weren’t important enough to me. And when the truth came out, I had to accept my culpability.

He pointed out that the dead vacuum was quite large and always lying around, just waiting to trip someone.

We got a light, upright model. One he picked out and that I agreed was a great choice.

And when it arrived, he stood it up in the middle of the family room. Then he looked over at me and said,

“If you ever miss the old one, you can just do this.”

Then he lay it on its side so that it became an awkward obstacle in the middle of the room, stepped over it, and walked away.

I laughed until my sides hurt.

We are never too old to have a ‘learning’ moment, and this was one for me.

Too often, we assume we know what’s best and we don’t take others into account.

So – here are a few questions for the new year and each day as you walk through it, one by one:

  • Where was grace shown to me today?
  • Where did another person (or people) accommodate me? Tolerate me? And did I truly consider that person’s wishes?
  • Do I try to see situations from others’ points of view? Do I ask directly for their insights?
  • Do I modify my behavior after hearing what people I care about tell me?
  • Can I smile and laugh when there’s a disconnect, instead of letting it blow up into a bigger problem?
  • Am I showing grace, or pushing my own agenda?

May we all have a blessed 2020.

Assessing a Year – Seeing the Blessings on Life’s Twisty Road – Part 1 of a Very Short Series

Assessing a Year –  Seeing the Blessings on Life’s Twisty Road – Part 1 of a Very Short Series
Yosemite, 2019. View of Half Dome from Olmsted Point.

It was July of this year, and I was climbing California’s mountains in my rental car, just outside the town of Groveland, on my way to help lay 2 beautiful people to rest – the third memorial service I’d attended in almost as many months.

On the twists and turns of the switchbacks, I passed a puzzling, funny road sign. Its traditional yellow diamond shape held a message completely foreign to my East Coast sensibilities.

‘Turn off A/C’

I obeyed and rolled down the windows, deciding that the natural breeze actually felt quite nice after my cross-country flight.

Later, I asked my dad about the sign, and he said most modern cars can handle the hills, but these old notices warn drivers not to stress an engine’s radiator on the steep inclines. They are meant to be helpful.

That tiny piece of memory – me, the curvy road in terrain that varies by season, the weird sign – has come to encapsulate much of how I feel about my year.

It’s been a strange one, at least by my silly standards, as if I could ever plan or anticipate what might happen next.

Lots and lots of ups and downs. Joys and sorrows. Achievements and successes and births, and struggles and woundings and saying goodbye to people so dear to me that I choke when I picture their faces in my mind.

Amidst all of it….blessings….right?

Well, they say there’s always a blessing to be found when we look closely enough, but certain situations make us all wonder.

Sometimes blessings are very difficult to see. Or slow to emerge.

And that’s hard.

On balance, my year has been a good one, but I’ve seen people I care about suffer immensely.

I’ve seen people pass through pain so scarring and deep I know they’d much rather avoid, rationalize, or escape it – do anything other than live with it in real time.

And we’re all moving through territory we’ve never encountered before.

How about you? How has your year been? Too much? Just too darn much for a neat, quick summation?

I’ve done some thinking on this in 2019. In July, I wrote Doing OK? Reflect, and You May Find Out.

But thinking only gets a person so far, so more recently, I’ve been spending some time learning about Ignatian spirituality and doing ‘The Daily Examen,’ a process developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola and used for centuries by the ministry he founded, the Jesuits, and anyone else interested in finding God in the midst of a day or other length of time. It has helped me see blessings when they are not readily apparent.

If we accept it as Truth that God is always with us, it’s not difficult to enter into His presence. We can find Him everywhere. God is closer than breath.

So for Day 1 of this brief series, here are 6 simple steps based on the Examen to help all of us see God in the last 24 hours. Try this over the next week, and consider broadening the exercise to a larger period of time, asking God to help you decipher your life’s events in 2019.

  1. Close your eyes. Imagine God smiling down on you, and you looking up at God.
  2. Ask yourself, “What am I thankful for?” Don’t leap ahead, just give thanks for whatever springs up.
  3. Before reviewing the past, ask for the grace to see yourself as God sees you.
  4. Walk through your day (or week, month, year) one moment at a time. Where did you feel joy? What troubled you? Challenged you? Where and when did you pause? Did you see or feel the presence of God at any particular point? Stay with that for a bit.
  5. What is your response? How is your spirit?
  6. Looking ahead, what comes to mind? With what spirit do you want to move forward?

Suffering and happiness are persistent lows and highs. They just vary in their intensity.

But when we ask for guidance to see our ups and downs in the light of God’s ever-present and eternal love for us, we can be nourished and calmed on the journey. We can find deeper joy regardless of our circumstances.

And we learn we are not riding solo. We are never left to handle life’s switchbacks and strange signs alone.

“Can I Take That Backpack For You?” – Words We Still Need to Hear

“Can I Take That Backpack For You?” – Words We Still Need to Hear
Photo by Charlie Solorzano on Unsplash.

Thank goodness I didn’t wreck the car when I saw them…I was staring so much.

They were three men walking in a line like ducks toward the school, one following another, on the sidewalk opposite me as I pulled out of a parking spot on a one-way street in historic downtown Annapolis.

They were slowed by the bumpy terrain – a place where bricks placed in a herringbone pattern are made uneven by centuries of wear and large roots of trees busting through at sporadic intervals.

Or maybe it was the men’s daughters who shortened their steps.

Tucked behind each dad, sheltered from passing cars and just barely in view, was a little girl holding her father’s left hand. In his right hand, each dad carried a tiny backpack.

And that last precious little girl? Oh – she was engulfed in story, her left arm waving around as she kept her face toward her dad’s, looking up for his responses. And he was nodding and smiling – fully focused, fully present to whatever it was she was telling him.

Three men. Three daughters. So beautiful.

I still remember being small and holding my dad’s big hand. It was warm and soft. And I knew I was safe when I was with him.

And I still remember what it was like to have help from others when I was vulnerable. Friends hauled my backpack for me in high school on more than one occasion when I sprained my ankles.

Perhaps your experiences are similar.

The truth is, we’re all still children at heart. We want two hands to be there for us. One to hold, and one to carry our stuff.

Hours after seeing the fathers and daughters, a dear friend of mine called and shared some concerns with me about one of her children.

In the beginning of our friendship, she used to apologize for taking up my time, but now we have an understanding. Our relationship has matured and we know – we are here to help carry one another’s burdens. We are here to hold each other’s hands.

I tell her my fears and she tells me hers. She admits her mistakes and I reassure her that I’ve made them, too.

We metaphorically link arms, and while one of us protects the other from the world’s traffic, the one who’s feeling vulnerable and small waves her other arm about and tells her story for as long as it takes.

We walk together over the uneven path.

As you’ve probably witnessed, the world consistently fails to appreciate the finer points of real, lasting, and genuine adult relationships. They are tender, sacred domains where vulnerability, weakness, and heart-to-heart sharing is not mocked and scorned, but cherished.

Only in admitting to one another that we are not perfect can we find communion.

Real love means letting down our guard with someone we trust, and offering to guard one another in return.

Our hearts are made for Love.

We crave it.

We want it in its purest form – born in perfection from the place where it is, was, and always will be – safe and eternally trustworthy, from beginning to end.

And to get more of it, we must give it away.

The next time you feel frail, weakened, or exposed – will you turn to a loyal friend – and better still, your Father in heaven – and say, ‘Show me where I can lay down this heavy load?’

And when someone comes to you with a backpack of worry, regret, or just fatigue from too much responsibility, will you help him or her carry it for awhile, while holding out your tender hands, offering your strength and protection?

Yes, we can do this. We can travel the jagged landscape of life, making one another’s burdens lighter with the love of God working through our hands.

Bear one another’s burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)

5 Warm & Fuzzy Things from October – The Monthly “Wholesome List”

5 Warm & Fuzzy Things from October – The Monthly “Wholesome List”

For much of the Northern Hemisphere, October marks the beginning of sweater season, a time when we seek out coziness. Warmth at this time of year might be a cute fall welcome mat or a mug of steaming cider. Or it could be something more enduring, like the loving arms and lilting laughter of family huddled together on a jolting hayride, memorable for decades to come.

All of us want the kind of joy that comes with feeling snug and secure, and the confidence that we are headed toward something good. And we like anecdotes, images, and items that point us toward that soulful desire.

Because I try every month to bring you 5 things I encountered which were in some way pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, honorable, just, or worthy of praise (per Philippians 4:8), this October I wanted to find a balance between the warm and fuzzy feeling we’re looking for, and the lessons we can learn in its presence. Here goes…

1) We are all lovely. And we all bear scars. Lions are my favorite animals so I will stop to look at just about any lion picture. But this one – this one took my breath away. It was posted on Instagram by African Animals with the caption “Fought for his kingdom.”

 
 

 

 
 
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Since Christ is called “the Lion of Judah,” you know what I thought of immediately and about what He does for those who love Him. But I also paused just to study this cat’s gorgeous face. His scarred eye. His tough, humble stature. God didn’t spare beauty in any single creature. Let’s think of this the next time we gaze into the face of another person long enough to see past their hurts.

2) We are working toward a bright but hidden future. I am not an insect aficionado, and probably neither are you, but who knew these guys could be so adorable? I was walking my dog Luna, saw this little caterpillar almost hidden in the grass, and scooped her up to investigate.

Moth photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren – Pyrrharctia isabella – Isabella Tiger Moth. Other photos are mine.

Her hair was not as soft as it looked – it was wiry – and being defenseless, she immediately curled into a ball. Google told me that she’s a pyrrharctia isabella – The Wooly Bear. She eats all kinds of common plants and hibernates under rocks and logs in the winter, so in all likelihood, she was having a fairly industrious day when I gave her a terrible fright. In the spring, she will become a very pretty but seldom-seen moth. We’re a lot like her, plugging away at our tasks, never sure if our efforts will pay off in the way we hope (perhaps not even really thinking about their long-term import). Yet we must trust in the promise of goodness to come. And it does come to those who wait and believe.

3) We can beautifully pass love on. I attended 3 funerals to support grieving friends this month, so I spent some time considering how we mourn and ways we can honor our loved ones who have gone on. During these days, a priest I greatly admire posted this poem on Facebook. From what I understand, it is often used as a meditation in Reform Jewish liturgy before Kaddish, a hymn of prayer praising God and ending with a plea for peace throughout the world. The poem is exquisite in its sensitivity and expresses the deepest wishes of so many of us.

“Epitaph”
By Merrit Malloy

When I die
Give what’s left of me away
To children
And old me that wait to die.

And if you need to cry,
Cry for your brother
Walking the street beside you.
And when you need me,
Put your arms
Around anyone
And give them
What you need to give to me.

I want to leave you something,
Something better
Than words
Or sounds.

Look for me
In the people I’ve known
Or loved,
And if you cannot give me away,
At least let me live on in your eyes
And not your mind.

You can love me most
By letting
Hands touch hands,
By letting bodies touch bodies,
And by letting go
Of children
That need to be free.

Love doesn’t die,
People do.
So, when all that’s left of me
Is love,
Give me away.

4) We can and should find practical ways to recycle things we are no longer using and make kids in need smile at the same time. This month, I learned about LEGO Replay, a pilot program sponsored by LEGO through which you can donate your old used bricks for less fortunate kids. Just box up your old pieces, visit the LEGO Replay website, print off a shipping label, and call UPS and tell them you have a box for pick-up. The pilot program will run through the spring of 2020, so jump in now to participate. For more information visit the LEGO site here.

5) We want to encourage one another. I was in a Starbucks when I saw this sign:

Curious as to what people had written, I pulled out a few of the notes. Here’s what they said:

You can tell from the handwriting that these message-bearers are of varying ages. What’s wonderful is…

Good will is ageless.

I pray these people will share their uplifting messages daily in the ways they speak and interact with others, because our voices, words, and body language matter. Very much.

If, however, we find ourselves struggling to be gentle and kind – there is hope for us. One thing I know that helps for sure – is prayer.

In October, I learned an acronym for a morning prayer routine while catching up on Emily P. Freeman’s podcast, The Next Right Thing. In Episode 90: Start with this Simple Rhythym, she shares a technique she calls PRWRP.

P is for prayer and it can be brief – like 15 seconds, just saying thank you for the day. R is for reading the Word of God, and I follow the Scriptures of the day that the Catholic Church is reading around the world, but you could use whichever biblical book(s) you are currently studying. W is for writing – a short time of journaling your thoughts. R is for reading again, a short segment of spiritual material. Currently, I’m reading 2-3 pages from Treatise on the Love of God by Francis de Sales. And finally, P is for prayer – a closing conversation with your Creator. The whole process could be long or quite brief, though I generally find, the more time I spend in prayer, the better my days go.

That’s it for October’s Wholesome List. However you are growing in your spiritual life, I wish you peace, love, joy beyond all human understanding, and lots and lots of warm fuzzies in your heart. May we all become ever more thankful in November!

Blessings,
Gretchen