Putting Christmas Away

Now that Christmas is over, and even Epiphany is past, why do I still have the Christmas tree up? Why don’t I want to take the lights down off the porch? You know, even though Christmas comes every year, it’s different every year. We might spend it with the same people or different ones. We might attend the same church and sit in the same spot in the pew as last year. Or we might be attending a different church or no church at all this year.

Our parents and children might be with us or not. We might ache to fill the hole they once filled. We might have them with us still but be painfully aware that someday, these precious days will end. That the someday will come when they are not here anymore. Do you ever see the future in the midst of the present?

One year, my mother said to me, “Lauren, someday these days will be gone, and you will wish they could return.” And she was right. How I wish they could return. How I wish I could have just one more Christmas with all of my family, parents, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins. But life has moved into a different season for me now. Those days are gone, but still Christmas comes every year.

I guess I don’t want to take the tree or the lights down because some part of my little girl’s heart is waiting to show the beautiful Christmas tree to my mother. Or hoping my grandmother might walk up the steps to see the lights on our porch. Or that I might get out my guitar and sing Silent Night with my dad. Some of these people are living; some are not. My heart reaches out for them in the form of lights, ornaments, candles, and songs. I don’t want to put them away for another year.

 

 

You are Here

When I spend time in prayer and meditation, sometimes I go very deeply into a place that allows me to imagine or experience profound insights. Often when I meditate, I imagine Jesus sitting directly across from me, so close that our knees could touch.

One day, I was sitting at our home altar, candles and incense lit, breathing slowly and deeply and imagining again that Jesus was sitting across from me. I have always been moved by the story of the woman who had been hemorrhaging  for years and who knew, if she could simply touch Jesus’ cloak, she would be healed. I sometimes hold my hand out, eyes closed, and imagine feeling the coarse fabric of his cloak as well. I held out my hand on this day, and to my surprise, Jesus took it and placed it on his heart. Looking compassionately into my eyes (though they were closed), he said to me, “You are here.”

“You are here.” In his heart. In God’s heart. You are here. You are loved. You are enough. “Do you understand?” Looking into the deep wells of his eyes, I said, “Yes.” I felt joy! I felt included. I felt warmth. God’s heart beating with love…for me! Experiencing such unconditional love is life-changing. I ended my prayer session, blew out the candles, and rang the bell and stood up to go about my day.

Later, as I was doing household chores, I could hear my upstairs neighbor arguing with his mother and stomping around. I looked exasperatedly up at the ceiling thinking, oh, brother, not this again! That lazy young man needs to get a job and stop mooching off of his mother!

Suddenly, as if seeing Jesus again, his hand to his heart, I heard someone say, “He is here also.” The upstairs neighbor is in Jesus’ heart also. “Do you understand?” he asked. Thinking of the great compassion I knew from his eyes, I thought, yes, I understand. Jesus, God, loves this young man with every ounce of the same care that he holds for me.

Now, as I go about my days, when I look around at the people I see on the streets, in shops, at church, in my family, those whom I love, those who irritate me, those who differ with and from me, it’s as if Jesus is standing beside me on the sidewalk saying, “They are all in my heart. Just as you are. Do you understand?”

That’s why my heart is growing softer, day-by-day. How can I harbor ill-will, anger, and irritation for those others who live in Jesus’ heart just as surely as I do? That doesn’t mean that I go soft to the point of lying down to injustice, to unfairness, to evil. But it does ask of me to go about these tasks differently. It demands that I treat all people with dignity, with love, even if I disagree with them. We are all in his heart.

 

 

What can we do?

Thinking about all the suffering in the world can make you feel helpless and overwhelmed, especially if there is nothing you feel you can do to change anything. You can lessen the overwhelm by engaging in typical stress-relief techniques, breathing slowly, exhaling your feelings of stress. Breathing in, breathing out, releasing tension. This type of practice helps to alleviate your suffering, but you remain uneasily aware that the world’s suffering continues.

The Buddhist practice of tonglen turns typical stress-relieving breathing techniques upside down. If you are seeking a practice to help alleviate outer suffering, you should try it. I first learned about tonglen from reading Buddhist nun Pema Chodron’s book The Places that Scare You. Tonglen “refers to being willing to take in the pain and suffering of ourselves and others and to send out happiness to us all” (55).

When I first read about tonglen, I thought, but isn’t it harmful to yourself to “take in” suffering? Won’t it make you suffer as well, which is just adding more misery to the world? Ah, there’s the miracle! Instead of causing you to suffer, tonglen practice produces the miraculous alchemy the ancients sought of turning lead into gold. You breathe in suffering, transform it, and breathe out peace–for others and, curiously, for yourself as well.

For example, imagine sitting comfortably in your place of prayer and contemplation. You are thinking of the victims of America’s most recent mass shooting. You imagine the anguish of their families and friends. Sitting with the grief, you allow it to wash over you; you breathe it in–a deep, long, slow breath. Now, here’s where the alchemy occurs. With that breath of suffering inside you, you transform it into compassion, love, and relief for the families and friends as you exhale. On the molecules of that out-breath, you send into the world intentions of healing and the release of suffering. Suffering into peace.

Of course, engaging in this practice doesn’t mean you have solved all the world’s problems, but if you believe that intention, like prayer, changes things, then you are indeed contributing to the world’s well-being. Tonglen is in a sense similar to intercessory prayer: you are asking for relief for someone. It is different in that it involves this physical act of the intentional in- and out-breath.

If you believe in God, you could easily integrate tonglen into your intercessory prayer practice. As you breathe in the suffering, as the breath sits in your body, as you form the intention of release from suffering, your mind turns this intention over to God on the out-breath. The intention then becomes a part of a much larger community of intention brought together in the mind of God. In this way, your practice, when joined with the loving intentions of millions and enfolded in God, becomes a powerful, world-altering act indeed.

Christians believe that the Holy Spirit resides in the breath. Through this practice, you join with the Spirit to participate in Her work in the world.

May I be free from suffering.
May you be free from suffering.
May all be free from suffering. 

Community of Hope

We shouldn’t walk alone. We shouldn’t have to walk alone. Our pastor in a recent sermon said that survivors of trauma lose some of their ability to tap into their frontal-lobe, creative-thinking areas of the brain. Instead, their harsh experiences carve a groove leading directly to the reptilian fight-or-flight centers of their brains. These responses isolate a person from the very help they need.

Fight or flight reactions are protective during trauma, but in other situations these responses hamper a person’s ability to function. When faced with decisions at work, in social situations, and at home, the traumatized person will disengage either by leaving or shutting down, or by becoming belligerent. People observing this behavior are baffled. “Why is she acting like that? I just asked her when the project would be finished.” The reptilian brain tells the person that this question is a threat.

Many of us have lived through trauma; many of us have a deeply carved groove leading to reptilian responses in our brains. How do we begin a new path leading to the creative centers of our thinking? How do we abandon the threat response, except when it is truly necessary?

Our pastor had an idea about that. She said that if a beloved community walks alongside the trauma survivor in hope and support, the person can begin forming new pathways. If the community treats the person with kindness, love, and acceptance, the survivor can begin to send out tendrils of trust.

This sermon brought me to tears because I feel that many of the ways I have behaved over the past several years were reptilian responses. Fight or flee. I had been traumatized by emotional abuse in a relationship, and as a result, I perceived a few other people’s actions toward me as threats to my well-being, even when they really were not. I said unkind words that I wish I could take back. And the problem is, when you say something you regret to someone who is also operating from fight-or-flight feelings, they can’t or won’t let the hurt go, even if you beg them to.

Awareness is the first step toward healing. If you are aware of these responses in yourself and can stop a moment before heeding them, you can begin finding the route to your creative brain. If you see others behaving with, as you perceive it, inexplicably harsh reactions to situations, you might wonder whether they have been traumatized in some way in the past. Perhaps you can extend a hand to help bring them into the beloved community of hope.

 

 

 

 

Poor in Spirit

Matthew 5:3      Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

What this saying from the Beatitudes has meant to me personally is that those who suffer from depression will someday inherit the lightness of happiness. I admit it; I’m in the middle of a depressive episode right now. It crept up on me, soon overtaking even my desire to get out of bed in the morning.

I’m up today, I’ve even had a bath and put on street clothes. Never mind that it took me until 2:30 pm to do it. I’m doing the things you are supposed to do to come out of such a period: taking my medicine, going to the gym, walking. But sometimes, depression is as sticky as superglue, and the usual measures will not remove it.

What is a day in this mind-set like? Well, you get up and get a cup of coffee. (Thank God the coffee maker is automatic; otherwise, you might just do without.) You get back in bed and think, I am going to get the house ready for Thanksgiving today. You look at the clock and think, I’ll just wait another hour. And then I’ll get up and do it. I want the house to look nice.

You walk to the kitchen and stand in the doorway and think, well, I’m hungry though, so I’ll eat something first. So, you eat breakfast, but then you feel tired again. I’ll just go lie back down for another hour, and then I’ll clean the house.

By now, it’s four o’clock in the afternoon. Your mood becomes even gloomier because now it’s too late to get the house clean, and you’ve wasted a whole day. Maybe I’ll feel better tomorrow. I’ll just go to bed early, and I’ll have the energy to do it tomorrow.

This kind of depression is not related at all to whether things in your life are going well or not. It doesn’t mean that you are existentially unhappy. It just sits atop your happiness like a wool blanket weighted with heavy rocks. You know you could be happy if you could just lift this blanket off. Instead, you crawl onto the couch and turn on the TV, allowing the blanket to continue enveloping you.

What helps to get me out of this? I don’t know what I would do without my supportive wife. She takes care of me when I cry for no reason, makes me laugh, and helps me get out of the house. We have just started attending a church where the people we have met there seem genuinely interested in getting to know us. That makes me feel better. And, of course, I know that God never gives up on me; in fact, God has reserved the kingdom of heaven for me and has called me blessed. I’ll go with that.

Windows

Waiting to catch the bus on Grand Avenue in St. Louis today, I observe the life around me. I stand under a sycamore tree by the Carpenter Branch Library and look across the street at Pope St. Pius Church. From our brownstone apartment, we hear its bells tolling the hour, half-hour, and Mass. Its facade seems to be of sandstone, and I often wish my life were as ordered and smooth as those stones.

The bus departs, and I watch the stores, houses, and apartments go by. I look at their windows and wonder who lives behind that dark window there and that shuttered one down past the Aldi grocery. To what scenes do the occupants of these brick duplexes awaken each morning? Some see only the bricks of the building next door. Some are blessed with the presence of a tall, resplendent maple. Do they see it?

A lady wearing a pink hoodie walks her little, short-legged black dog across Grand. Women in saris and sandals pass, pulling fold-up carts filled with groceries. A man with a cigarette behind each ear eats something grilled from Taco Bell. People board and get off the bus, each carrying bags and private burdens. What are their lives like?

From what window does the older lady with braided hair and a purple cashmere sweater peer after climbing the stairs to her rooms? Does she know her neighbors? What must she think of the white lady down the street who has a “Black Lives Matter” sign in her yard? Does that white lady really have any idea what black lives are like?

I wonder how the postwoman’s knees are feeling now that she has climbed her 50th set of stairs today with 50 yet to go. She wears a floppy blue denim hat and carries her postal bag heavy with bills and circulars that will end up in the trash. She straightens her back after pushing catalogs through the mail slot in someone’s door where cheerfully carved pumpkins and bright yellow mums adorn the stoop, while at the next, weeds and beer cans attest to a darker season in someone’s life.

It begins to rain as I wait at the stop to return home, the rain plastering fresh-fallen leaves to the ground and telling the wind he cannot take them. I board the bus and sit by the window. A woman passes in the aisle asking anyone for 50 cents; no one offers.

Off the bus now and walking up the stairs to my front porch, I enter my apartment and lower the window into which the rain is creeping. I look out on maples, brownstones, beauty, and, yes, beer cans. My upstairs neighbors live in an unhappy season; their eyes are blank to the splendor of the leaves and the graces of the breeze. I hear them arguing upstairs again against the backdrop of gently falling rain, soothing rain, if only they could hear it. It falls just outside their windows.

Sensing Fall

I lay on my bed yesterday
savoring the sunshine
like a mother’s palm
resting warm upon my cheek.

I watched the breeze
shower the earth with leaves
like golden coins
enriching the ground upon which they fell,
while the tree’s remaining leaves
clapped soft applause.