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The Map

I am always surprised when things happen to me that show that my life is still in transition, even though I finished school a couple of years ago and retired about four years ago. But I had the most interesting dream recently that woke me up to the reality that I am still in transition.

 You know those “You Are Here” signs on maps in malls? In the dream, I was looking at a large map – not one like a mall map, but a regular map, more like the ones you get from Triple A, only this map was large and softly tinted and seemed to be part of the wall I was looking at. The details on the map were in a range of very pretty muted blues, and it had lots of roads and towns and lakes and highways. I was kind of standing outside of the dream, but I was clearly agitated and impatient with what I wasn’t seeing. What my map didn’t have was a “You Are Here” sign. (Or so I thought.)

It was revealed to me during the dream (I have no idea how) that there was a huge “You Are Here” sign after all but I just couldn’t see it at first. The sign wasn’t one of those square bubble things that point to the intersection between Sears and the Lady Foot Locker. I’m not sure what the sign looked like, exactly, but I do have a vague recollection that it was amorphous and translucent. The important thing is that I didn’t see the You Are Here sign because I expected it to conform to my mental picture of what You Are Here signs are supposed to look like.

I am still energized by this dream! First, it was refreshing to have such a pleasant dream, one that actually made sense to me. Second, I feel that God revealed Godself to me in this dream. I believe God was helping me to see that I do know Where I Am just now, if I will only look beyond what I expect to see on my map.

The dream also reminded me that I do have a lot going on right now – not the least of which is dealing with the fact that Retiree Julia just received a Medicare Card in the mail (two months early by the way!). “Where the heck am I?” was a good and appropriate question for my dream, only I didn’t even know I needed to ask that question before I had the dream.
Normally, a dream like this would propel me to the place where I begin questioning my decisions and direction and Who I Am. But this dream wasn’t about Who I Am. The dream was about looking more broadly at Where I Am just now. It was about the need to see beyond my self-set definitions and designs for interpreting Where I Am. And until I give more time and depth to figuring out Where I Am, I will not be able to see which way to go and to realize with enough gratitude how many directions are open to me.

The dream I had this week revealed to me what I know to be true intellectually but have not embraced emotionally, and that is that life’s transitions are often slow for a reason. I am such a person of action that many, many times I don’t slow down long enough to really look at where I am before I rush on to where I think I should be (or where others think I should be). In my change and transition coaching work, I always tell people that the time in-between endings and new beginnings (what William Bridges calls the Neutral Zone ) is not to be rushed through but savored. Although the Neutral Zone can be a time of disruption and turmoil that anyone would want to escape from as soon as possible, the Neutral Zone can also be a time for great creativity, redefinition, and personal growth, if we allow ourselves to fly through the air of the Neutral Zone’s uncertainty. Bill Bridges shows a cartoon in his transition workshops of a person who has let go of one trapeze bar and is in mid-flight before he catches the second trapeze bar. The guy in the cartoon is not a professional aerialist but someone dressed in street clothes. His face is contorted with panic. His arms are flailing. He looks like you and me. But the cartoon also includes this jazzy safety-net just far enough below the trapeze artist to give him reassurance and safety without confinement, if he will only realize that it the net is there.

One of the things that the Neutral Zone is good for is taking time to recall what makes up our personal safety net. Mine is finely woven of family, friends, and faith. But sometimes I forget who’s helping to hold up my safety net, espcially God. My dream was like getting a message from God that I need to slow down, take a breath or two, don’t be afraid to let go of the bar, and really, really look around at Where I Am. It may be somewhat confounding and frustrating just now, but because of my safety net, it’s a pretty great place to try to figure it all out. Maybe my “You Are Here” sign is not so clear right now because it is so filled with blessings. Thanks be to God.

Martha, Martha

The New Testament Lectionary reading last Sunday was the story of Martha and Mary from the book of Luke (Chapter 10:38-42). This is one of my favorite Bible stories because I relate so well to Martha, who seems to be an action-oriented, no nonsense-type woman. I am also a bit envious of Mary, Martha’s sister, since Mary seems to be willing to do exactly what she wants to do even if there’s company in the house. In the story, Jesus is visiting the town where Martha and Mary live, and Martha invites Jesus to their home to eat and rest. While Martha is running around the house getting everything ready, Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, reverently taking in all he has to say.

In my imagination, Martha has been in and out of the kitchen three or four times, checking the bread, rinsing the olives, grabbing the wine mugs to bring them into the other room. It’s warm in the house, and Martha’s face is flushed, and she’s boiling over, from more than just the heat of the day. Frustrated, she slows down just long enough to complain to Jesus. “Hey, Jesus,” Martha says, “I’m doing all the work here! If you cared about me, you’d tell Mary to stop looking so moonfaced, get up off the floor, and help me! And, if Mary really cared about me, she wouldn’t have to be told what to do!”

So, what does Jesus say? “Martha, Martha,” (you can see him turning his head right and left), “You need to slow down for a while and come join us.” The actual Bible verse reads, ““Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

The Bible passage ends there, with Mary still sitting, we presume. We don’t know what happens to Martha. Does she drop her kitchen cloth and abandon the bread baking in the oven? Or does she keep at it, knowing what needs to be done if they’re ever going to eat today?

I am tempted to think that Martha half-ignores Jesus’ reprimand, at least for a little while. “Just let me just do these couple of dishes, let me  get the plates. Besides, who else is going to do it? And then I will sit and listen; honest. ”

“And then I will sit. And then I will listen. And then …”

It seems I live my life with “And then.” And then I will relax. And then I will really hear you. And then I’ll work on our relationship. And, for me especially, then I will allow myself to receive joy and grace from God.

I am so much like Martha that I can’t help but laugh at how her autopilot behavior has landed her on self-centeredness. She isn’t actually complaining at all about what her sister is doing. I doubt that she even thinks about that. I really love the way Jesus blows right by her complaint about Mary and puts the issue back in Martha’s lap. “Ok, Martha, right, you are very busy and the work is important, but do you really want to be like that right now? Could you perhaps take a clue from Mary? Could you come and enjoy yourself?”

Much to my disappointment, Jesus isn’t saying that Martha should never do housework, (or corporate-work or church-work), but he does question whether the work has to be done right now. Does it have to be perfect bread? In six varieties? Enough olives to feed an army? And, is Martha really the only baker in the house? (To which her sister would probably say, “She will always be the only baker if she never lets anyone help her.”)

I can’t blame Martha for wanting to do well for her guest, so I understand her behavior. But I also wonder if there’s something else – something more — that also keeps Martha so busy. Is she, like me, maybe a little afraid of what she might hear Jesus say if she sits down?

Maybe Jesus will say, “Where have you been?”
Or, “You’re prayers aren’t quite good enough.”
Or maybe Jesus will tell her his story, “You know, Martha, I won’t be around much longer.”

I feel guilty I sometimes for not praying often enough or well enough, but the words I put in the Jesus’ mouth when that happens are actually mine, not his. The Jesus I believe in would not reprimand me when I finally show up, but welcome me with open arms. I do think, though, that he would try to remind me how valuable time slips away so quickly.

I don’t think Jesus is reprimanding Martha either. I think he is reminding her that life is short and the choices she makes are important, even in the day-to-day. Jesus wants Martha, and all of us, to grab a hold of life while we still can. Instead of the tisk tisk in the “Martha, Martha,” Jesus says, I hear sadness and empathy for Martha that she is so demanding of herself. I think Jesus is also saying, “Martha, Martha, my love. You do not need to be perfect to be worthy of my love.”
My grandson Tommy just called to ask his grandfather to breakfast tomorrow morning, just to get together. Tom is 19. Grandpa is 71. Tom doesn’t see his grandfather very often, but he calls a lot more often than I’d expect any college kid to. Tom has decided to put his busy world on hold for an hour or two to enjoy his grandfather. Now there’s a kid who’s got his priorities straight.
My goal this afternoon is to model myself after Tom and open myself up for the possibility of an opportunity to experience God’s grace.

My Husband Talks!!

A common complaint from my married women friends is that their husbands don’t talk to them. This is a complaint I have a hard time relating to because my husband does talk to me. Not very often, but he does talk.

There is one phenomenon that I do share with other wives. Without exception, the husbands I know don’t talk to each other. Time and again, the reports we get when two men spend an afternoon together amaze us. “How’s Bill?” we ask. “Fine.” “Anything new?” “I don’t think so.” We want to yell, “What do you mean you don’t think so! You just spent four hours with Bill.” I don’t yell, though. I’m used to this now.

Can you just imagine if this conversation happened instead?

“How’s Bill?”
“Pretty good. He’s really under pressure at work.”
“Oh yah? How come?”
“He just can’t seem to get anything right with his new boss.”

Wouldn’t you be floored if your husband knew anything as intimate as this seemingly benign information gained in conversation with his friend? If I were talking with my sister about her friend, even someone I haven’t even met, this dialogue would only be the teaser to get us going. And of course, we would also decide what she should do about her boss.

Maybe that’s why we’re disappointed when our husbands don’t have anything to tell us. We miss the soap opera experience. It’s not that we really care about what’s happening – we just want to weigh in and make sure the world is acting according to our standards.

The phenomenon of male to male talk is fascinating. We really wonder what they do talk about. It can’t all be football. Or garden tractors. Maybe they talk about their health.

“God, my irritable bowel syndrome is really acting up.”
“I sure wish I could take Levetra. I just get a headache.”
“Find any good rash cream lately?”

The most extreme example of the mystery of male-to-male communication is when one or the other of them is experiencing an “event.” The event can be good or bad, major or minor, permanent or temporary, theirs or others. We learn nothing.

“How’s Bill?”
“Pretty good.”
“How’s the divorce going?”
“OK I guess.”
“He didn’t say anything?”

We already know that Melanie got the house in Florida and the pool boy got fired. We really don’t care about how this all turns out. We just wanted to hear what Bill thinks of the whole thing so we can start talking again.

I did say that my husband talks to me. In fact, it happened just last night. (The last time this happened was a while ago, so this was remarkable.) It went like this:

“What a lot of crap. We really should change the station. They call this the news?”

And later (not exactly talking to me), “Buy an A you idiot. An A!”

Still later to me and Pat and Vanna: “It’s the Canary Islands. The CANARY ISLANDS!”

By the way, his conversations with me are certainly not all angry. “She’s really pretty,” he tells me about Jamie Lee Curtis’ picture in an ad on TV to save some lions.

I’ve made this observation: Men are most comfortable talking to those who cannot talk back. (What a surprise). Example: He talks to the dogs all the time.

I just wish he’d stop talking when I’m watching MY shows. How else will I learn about a good marriage if not from Dr. Phil?

Doing Prayer Right

I’ve just been reading a book by Martin Lee Smith, an Episcopal monk, called “The Word is Very Near You.” Normally, I would shy away from a book of that title because it sounds kind of dramatic and a little too “religious” for me. But my friend (and Spiritual Director) Christi recommended this book when I was about to start a weekly prayer group. See what I know! I got stuck in the first chapter of the book because it had so much to say, and I am thankful to Christi for offering it. The thoughts below are based on, and borrowed from, Dr. Smith’s work.

I have also been studying this week about personality types and my own type in particular (Enough About You). People like me struggle with a never-ending view of a black and white world. There is a either a right way of doing things or a wrong way of doing things. Even with prayer, my Inner Critic has voiced her opinion that I am not praying often enough or using the right words when I do pray. It seems that I have managed to turn prayer into a task, another thing to feel guilty about not doing right. By doing this, I have turned God into a taskmaster.

The most profound thing I learned in Chapter 1 of Dr. Smith’s book was that I was not expected to begin the conversation with God. “In prayer, we are never ‘getting the conversation going’ with God,” says Martin Lee Smith, “we are continuing a conversation which God has begun.” Think of it something like this: Imagine yourself walking along a beautiful river, sunlight reflecting in the water, your heart warmed by having a few minutes to yourself. All of a sudden, you become joltingly aware of the beauty that surrounds you. You “find yourself turning to God in a brief expression of praise and appreciation.” Smith says that you are not starting a conversation with God. God speaks to you first in the language of creation. God presents to you the reality of what God has made and given to us.

Redefining prayer this way allows for two things to happen. First, it gives priority to attention and receptivity—“Prayer is primarily attentiveness to God’s disclosure to us and the heart’s response to that disclosure.” Second, redefining prayer helps us to move God from a taskmaster to a giver and a lover. What if, instead of taskmaster, God does not demand prayer as much as God gives prayer? What if prayer is a means of God nourishing, restoring, healing, and transforming us? What if God offers prayer to satisfy us?

I love this new way of thinking about prayer. I even feel relieved! No matter the personality type, many of us have a hard time receiving God’s gift of unconditional love. It seems that in prayer, our only job is to be ready to receive from God.

Today, when I walk by the river, I’m going to look around and see what God is saying to me and gratefully receive God’s gift of creation.

!. Smith, Martin, The Word is Very Near You, Crowley, TX: Crowley Publising, 2005
2. Ibid, pg. 18
3. Ibid, pg. 28

The Practice of Waking Up to God…

During Lent 2010, I read “An Altar in the World” by Barbara Brown Taylor. I read one or two chapters each week and wrote my reactions to what I read after each chapter. This entry is from Week 1 and is about Chapter 1 (The Practice of Waking Up) and Chapter 2 (The Pracitice of Paying Attention). Those two chapters are very connected for me.

Chapter 1: The Practice of Waking Up to God
“X marks the spot.” . . . the reason that so many of us cannot see the big red X that marks the spot is that we are standing on it.

I seem to always be rushing forward, or slogging forward at least, instead of reveling in the present moment. “X marks the spot” will be a good practice to use this Lent. I see so much of God around me when I actually look. I am blessed to live in one of the most beautiful places on earth. The sun and the water greet me every day, and small angels surround me. I am warm and comfortable and full. I long for nothing concrete. But I yearn for God, and often I miss the connection because I don’t see God in everything around me unless I remember to see that “X marks the spot.”

Chapter 2: The Practice of Paying Attention: I am sometimes, no – often – so impatient that I forget to notice what is happening around me. I am in such a hurry that I get mad, even at things like having to wait while the toilet refills so I can flush it a second time—and be on my way. To where? It seems it doesn’t matter. Any place but here.

X marks the spot. God marks the spot. I am on the X. I am the spot.

Today I saw a close-up photograph of my hand — displayed on a huge screen — and I wanted to look away as fast as I could. Instead of noticing the beauty in the personalized artwork of my fingernails, manicured especially for me by my Dominican Republic friend, LaSandra, I saw the thousand wrinkles and spots and veins of an ugly old hand. Barbara Brown Taylor asks us to look with reverence at everything –including at at our own hand. Just now, I thought …

Did I make that hand? Did I make those spots? Did I cause the wrinkles that come with the joy of old age? I didn’t, of course. God made those things, and for Love. It is up to me to revere them. I worked hard to get to this part of my life; I partnered with God, one way or another. I didn’t make my hand, but I can revere it as the amazingly complex thing that it is. 1,000 bones or more? Or fewer? But many. Skin and hardness in my nails, a wonder as the wrinkles cover even new skin. Wrinkles on my knuckles that look like smushed and lopsided faces. A map of rings on the back of my hand that I can make smooth with motion, revealing the very blood lines that course through my hand and keep me alive. Skin so loose it reminds me of a young baby who has not grown into her skin yet.

Not yet fully grown – this old hand. If God is in everything, and everything is in God, then God is in my hand. God is my wrinkled skin and is the history of my spots.

Rather than disdain how my hand looks, rather than run away from how I look as an old-handed woman, I need to pay attention and remember that I did not create this hand. It is a marvel how long it has lasted, how much it can do, how it is connected to my heart. How my hand is not alone in my body, but a living symbol of what God creates and what is possible.