Thursday, May 31, 2012

Living the loss


JUNE 1, 2012

Dear friends,

Reading the May 20 blog today (May 31, 2012) leaves me with a renewed awareness of the mysterious ways we know before we know. My present life experience gives that blog with its note of hope in the context of loss a personal poignancy.

My sister is dying—gently, slowly, her family and friends around her. We keep the music she loved filling her room, and, we trust, filtering into the darkness that deepens around her.

I cannot write now.

But I can keep vigil with her. I can be present with her as she walks to the edge of the mystery and watch while she walks on into that world where, for now, the gates are barred to me.

And I am thinking with you—again—that I can safely trust the changes and loss in my life to One who grows a snapdragon safely in the dead branches of a lilac bush.

See you in two weeks, June 17.


Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Snapdragon Story

May 20, 2012

Dear Friends,

In spring as I watch life emerge in my garden, the process teaches me without fail. This spring has been no exception.

This spring’s lesson actually began two years ago with a dead lilac bush. That spring revealed that the lilac bush at the south side of my house was obviously dead--quite  unattractively so. Initially, I was fairly patient with this state of affairs, expecting that when the landscape people repaired the irrigation system, fertilized the lawn and prepared the grounds for summer that they would remove the bush. This did not happen. It did not happen in autumn either.

Spring came again (last spring, a year ago), and I again anticipated that in the process of spring work that the dead bush would be replaced. This did not happen.

Summer came again and winds again blew added urban debris into the dead bush. While the landscape company carefully watered grass and pruned bushes and weeded public areas, the dead bush remain untouched. In addition to old debris, it now provided a resting place for a sack from a fast food lunch and a plastic bag from a local grocery.

The dead bush and the debris it sheltered was unattractive, but my attitude became even more so. It was the responsibility of the landscape people to care for this eyesore, I thought with regrettable self-righteousness, and this miserable dead bush is clear evidence of their neglect of their job.

Then one day while watering my hanging baskets, I spied some green showing under the dead branches. “Just look,” I said to myself, “they’ve left this go until the weeds have started. Well, it’s their problem, not mine.”

By midsummer the green “weeds” astonished me by becoming a clump of snapdragons. Supported by the dead branches of the old lilac, the snapdragon stems grew tall and flowered extravagantly, resting giant white blooms against the dead branches that supported them against the wind.

Fall came, and this autumn the landscape people did remove the dead bush. But now they worked cautiously. They understood that the "green" was not weeds--the the snapdragon was still blooming despite an early frost.

This spring came early. About the time the crocus and early tulips appeared, I found the first green shoots of the snapdragon plant. It had survived the winter and had started its new year. Now it is May; the clump of snapdragons has already nearly doubled, and is full of tall spectacular white blooms that now stand on their own.

The lilac has gone. But the snapdragon that now lives against the south wall of my house challenges me to think again about God’s economy and new life in a place of loss. In a world of city streets and manicured lawns, I cannot imagine how wind dropped snapdragon seed into safe lodging in a dead lilac bush. I cannot explain how “neglect” from a human point of view resulted in shelter for new life.

But I know that in life and relationships, for everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the sun.

Thinking with you this week that we can safely trust the changes and loss in our lives to One who grows a snapdragon safely in the dead branches of a lilac bush.

See you next week.


Sunday, May 13, 2012

Presence as present?

May 13, 2012

Dear friends,

A young woman has given me a wonderful gift. She discovered it, she tells me, in a store that sells things looking for a second—or twenty-second—home.

What my young friend found was a figure of a girl originally designed to be tucked into a niche in a garden, or to stand by a pot of flowers near a patio door. Girl is young, bare-foot, hair tied back with disorderly ribbons, and wearing overalls—overalls, you understand—‘bibbers’—not the modern equivalent we call jeans.

I’m not sure whether my friend first saw Girl standing on a dusty shelf, or while poking about in some poorly lighted corner, first glimpsed Girl half hidden in a box of old attic treasures. What is important is this: when my friend saw Girl she had an immediate sense of discovery: this was not simply a piece of the floating commercial debris thrown up by a consumer society. This was Girl who belonged somewhere, somewhere where there were flowers. And not quite sure of her wordless impulse, she bought Girl, and then brought Girl to me as a gift.

If up to this point I have told the story properly, you may be half-anticipating a Great Art Discovery—a numbered bronze from a famous sculptor’s work found languishing unidentified in a second-hand store. But in the interest of full disclosure, if you want a story with an ending like that, you will be disappointed in today’s blog. Here is what happened.

When I unwrapped Girl from the blanket in which she had travelled, I too had an immediate sense of discovery. This was indeed Girl who belonged where there were flowers. But this was more—this was Girl who had come to help make a story clear. I placed her on a small cherry table near a glass paneled china cabinet. The light from the tall lamp on the table touched Girl’s hair, her ragged shirt, her bare feet, then spilled over into the cabinet, touching the gold-rimmed plates and shimmering through the tall crystal goblets. Later this summer Girl may visit the flowers, but her permanent home is on the cherry table by the lamp.

“I cannot remember when I have had such a valuable gift,” I told my young friend. “I hardly know how to thank you.”

"But it—it may melt in the rain or sun. I don't think it's real bronze. It certainly isn’t valuable,” my friend said uncertainly, confused by what she sensed in my response.

“But it is very valuable to me,” I said. “You’ve given me something that belongs here.  What can be more valuable than that?”

Girl did indeed belong, but her value lay in far more than that. Girl represented a relationship in which my friend continues to be present with me in my journey in such a way that when she found Girl in the second-hand store she recognized her value not in any intrinsic worth but in her power to help me say the story I am living out.

I think that one of the most powerful characteristics of good relationships lies in the capacity of the relationship to help us know ourselves. My friend walks with me in my journey in a way that permits her to find in an antique store bargain basement something that with great fidelity helps me know and say my story to myself. Such presence in relationship is a gift beyond material worth.

Thinking with you this week about the conscious intentionality and emotional energy it requires to develop relational presence with friends.

This week I’m asking myself:

Could I browsing through a garage sale, recognize an object whose true value lay in its capacity to speak a friend’s heart, to tell a friend's story?

See you next week.


Sunday, May 6, 2012

The cost of compassion

May 6, 2012

Dear friends,

Defining terms like mercy or love or justice is no simple matter. And once we hammer out some kind of working definitions, we then discover that living out such characteristics requires us to follow definition with a lifetime of learning and practice.

The grocery store story produced in addition to the tuna fish/breakfast food mess the relational concept of compassion. And compassion is no easier to think about or to live than mercy or justice or love, either from the giving or the receiving end of things.

First an attempt at a working definition. Compassion consists of acts of kindness and consideration that grow out of recognition of limitations and suffering.

I suggested last week that it is sometimes easier for us to ask for forgiveness than to accept compassion. Why, you may ask, would anyone have difficulty accepting compassion—that is, permitting someone to behave with kindness and consideration? The answer is that we do not have difficulty receiving kindness and consideration as such—but we often choke on  kindness and consideration if we perceive it as based on recognition of our limitations and suffering.

The core of our difficulty, of course, lies in our reluctance to face vulnerability, our own or that of others, and the way in which we often link vulnerability with fear and shame.

A small interaction I observed last week illustrates my point. Ahead of me in line at the recreation center, a frail bent man extended his membership card with a shaking hand to the young woman at the counter. She scanned it, and then returned it to the man who dropped it. With considerable effort the man retrieved the card from the floor, then fumbled awkwardly to replace the card to the slot in his wallet where he carried it.

“May I help you?” the young woman asked kindly.

“I can manage my own affairs,” the man growled rudely and moved on with no apology for his bad manners.

The young woman looked understandably taken aback when the man responded so angrily to her kindness and looked after him with a frown.

I was next in line. I decided to risk meddling in affairs that clearly were none of my business. I said to the young woman, “I think that man would rather have you remember him as rude than as a person who needed your help.”

She looked startled, then thoughtful as she scanned my card.

“You know, I think you’re right,” she said and returned my card with a smile.

I think I was too, but I felt sad. Pride can be a formidable barrier to God’s gentle provision for us.

Thinking with you this week that permitting others to understand my limitations often opens the door to compassion rather than the shame I fear.

See you next week.