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My Stories

Be A Loud Listener ~ June 7, 2024

This spring I had the opportunity to lead a session aimed at helping us learn to listen with the goal of creating connection. While it came from a perspective of overcoming differences, it included experiences that apply in every area of our relationships. 

I was grateful for the work of David Brooks as I developed the 

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content.  Brooks has written a book entitled How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen. Much of its content is included in an opinion piece he wrote on October 19, 2023 for The New York Times entitled The Essential Skills for Being Human. In these writings, he is exploring the art of conversation as a means of developing human connection.  One of his tenets is the be a "loud listener," which he describes as being so fully attentive and involved that you are burning calories. He also advocates for using big questions that invite others to share stories rather than what they "think."

In our session this spring, we practiced seeking to listen through the sharing and exploring of stories.  One key of this practice is to be still enough for the other to share without interruption.  Someone once said that most folks can say everything they want to share in two minutes, if they are allowed to share without question or interruption.  Storytellers will also advise that we listen best when we allow the teller to share without correction or clarification.  Let the story flow. Your job is to be present and be a "loud listener." As we experimented, we tried out these premises so the tellers were asked to share their stories in 2 minutes. The stories were in response to a prompt question. We invited them to share about a special gift they had received. The rest of us sat quietly and listened.  What incredible stories flowed, all within the 2-minute timeframe! Then we invited a response to a question about a book you've read that has stayed with you.  This time following the two minutes, we practiced asking questions that invited the story to be told in more depth.  Again, in a 1-2 minute response without interruption, we gained incredible insight and additional information about the storyteller.  

What if we committed ourselves to give 2 minutes to someone to speak to use without interruption? What if we asked questions that moved to story and bigger experiences rather than clarifying or correcting our perspectives on the "facts" of the story?

These are skills we can develop. More importantly, they lead us to relationships we can create, gaining connection and greater breadth of understanding as we do.  I invite you to try some of these practices and to commit to be a "loud listener."  If you're interested in experiencing more or creating a time with a group to practice, let me know, and we'll design what works for your setting.  All of us need the practice.  It's counter-cultural, it gets us out of our devices, it moves us beyond our assumptions, and it's fun and touching and inspiring. Be a "loud listener"--I'd love to hear about your experiences!

Reflection:

1. What helps you succeed at being a loud listener?

2. What questions do you enjoy asking to connect with someone else?

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An Experiment in Trust ~ May 3, 2024

"What does the Lord require of you? What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. Justice, kindness, walk humbly with your God..."

In 2004, I participated as a delegate in The United Methodist Church General Conference for the first time. We met in Pittsburgh, PA for our global meeting, scheduled every 4 years. I had the opportunity to continue to serve as a delegate in 2008, 2012, 2016, and at a special called conference in 2019.  

 

At that first experience in 2004, we were prepared that there

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would be an organized gathering by proponents of changing the language in our Book of Discipline to be more inclusive of the LGBTQA+ community in the life of the church.  When we arrived that morning, the long tunnel-like entryway into the convention center was lined by persons who were kneeling and singing the words of Micah 6:8 in a beautiful 3-part round. What does the Lord require of you...? The acoustics of this enclosed space had the music fill the space ... and as we walked the long passage into the building, I began to weep.  There was no way to escape that the decisions we were considering were affecting the lives of those who were singing, the lives of many who were not present, and the life of the church.  As a first-time experience, this was completely wrenching for me, and I wept the remainder of the day. There were no simple answers, and there was no way to pose this as simply a theoretical exercise.  This was about who we were--within the church, in our local congregations, around the world, and in our witness with those beyond our congregations.

The intensity of this conversation, which had begun formally as early as 1972, continued to grow with each General Conference I attended.  Those who were delegates felt this growing tension every 4 years, and it became clear that we had persons on either end of the theological spectrum who could not compromise. There was also a large group of delegates who represented those with preferences for how we would move forward, but who were able to give some space for difference of opinion. 

 

The conversation was also influenced by our growing commitment to living as a global church.  In 2004, the delegates from outside the U.S. were treated as honored guests.  As we continued to intentionally increase representation in leadership and organizational structure, we also created an opportunity to manipulate power in our voting. If particular groups from outside the U.S. could be convinced to vote in a bloc, they could determine the outcome of votes.  What was intended to help us live together in a more fully inclusive and less-colonialized way generated inclusion and also generated power struggles and fights for influence.

 

The called 2019 General Conference was intended to see if we could find a path forward which would honor the concerns of all. Creative work occurred in preparation of this conference and hopes were high. Once again, our efforts to move in a good direction resulted in some unintended consequences.  Our local congregations who had been aware from a distance of the General Conference struggles now became focused on this conflict. We had unintentionally moved the anxiety from a general church level to the local church level. The called conference, with its heightened anticipation and sense of pressure that we had to make some decision, managed to further polarize the viewpoints and the conflict, and resulted in the passage of legislation that intensified the language that many already found objectionable.  No one felt like a winner. All of us felt exhausted.

In the coming years, multiple unexpected factors emerged. First, our annual conferences held delegate elections in the summer of 2019 for those who would represent the church at the 2020 general conference which would be the next opportunity for us to discern options about how to move forward as a global church of congregations in multiple kinds of settings and with many varied experiences and ministries. Across the board, the delegations that were elected represented members of the broad middle.  I was one of many who stepped back to give room for some new voices to emerge. Our annual conferences took this moment to try to elect persons who would have embracing hearts with an ability to consider multiple options and with a mixture of experienced delegates and those who would come with fresh insights. Then the pandemic hit and schedules were re-adjusted multiple times with the 2020 General Conference delayed ultimately to 2024. In the meantime, a provision that had been added at the 2109 General Conference as a means to give a short-term exit strategy for congregations who were not comfortable with the disciplinary language on human sexuality began to be embraced by those who were on the most conservative end of the theological spectrum of the denomination.  Work to establish a break-off denomination moved forward, fulfilling plans that had begun long before the 2019 called conference, and congregations exited who felt that for their integrity they needed to end their UMC affiliation. 

All of this is backstory to the gathering of the General Conference that met April 23-May 3, 2024.  There are details and decisions others would emphasize. I've chosen the ones that most affected my interpretation and observations for the 2024 General Conference session which I watched, not as a delegate, but as one who was interested and prayerful that we could find a way though to set us for our future.  Early on, the reports were that there was a different tone--no protests, reduced sense of manipulation, and an ability to consider various recommendations and to find a way to bring them forward with so much support that many were approved through the "consent calendar" (i.e. they did not require debate by the total body). 

 

One of the first large pieces of legislation approved was for a constitutional amendment and supporting legislation which moves the U.S. to a status comparable to the churches outside of the U.S. for oversight of church polity that is culturally relevant. I had not found myself particularly drawn to this legislation and so I was amazed at my response.  When it went through, I felt myself sigh with deep relief--a very physical and spiritual reaction to years of experiencing us trying to navigate our expressions of shared power and, in my opinion, bringing out the worst in each other in the process.  Relief grew as I realized that our vision of a global church, of working cooperatively and supportively in our various settings, might finally be realized.  When the work continued, we began to remove language on human sexuality that had led us to be stuck, mired down, and trapped in our decisions and conflicts for a number of years. (There was a 3-page footnote explaining some of our language -- an obvious indication that we were tying ourselves in knots!) The language went away without a substitution or an attempt to clarify.  We were beginning to create a path where we don't have to comment on everything or seek to control how every location carries out its ministries.  Finally, we considered language in a new set of our Social Principles that included a description of our understanding of the nature of the covenant of marriage.  The new language made no gender references. This felt incomplete to some and limiting to others. The legislation that was adopted came from a woman from Africa who offered clarifying language that might not be everyone's favorite but that the delegates accepted as workable for all.

I chose to attend the last day of the conference in person. I wanted to feel the atmosphere of the room and to say "thank you" to the delegates and to hear the benediction that would send us out to do our work.  I had watched the plenary sessions online up until that Friday and was in the room when the marriage language debate occurred.  It was then that I began to recognize the full significance of the decisions being made. We were willing to trust each other--or at least to enter into the possibility of trying to do so. We were giving each other space to discern how to express our faith and practices in our particular contexts.  This is a grand experiment--to move from trying to control and adding language of specificity and clarification and penalty to gain uniformity and compliance.  We still need the voices of the extreme ends of perspectives who will call our attention to concerns that need to be considered.  What we saw at this conference was how the "mighty middle" can stand up and help us find a way forward, considering those perspectives that are beyond their own and yet finding a path that seeks to honor our larger commitments that ground us in who we are and give us freedom to act and bless each other. Nothing in our core faith affirmations, our theological stances, was modified. Our foundational documents that define who we are as followers of Jesus Christ, grounded in historic Christian faith is unchanged. In fact, by design it is not up for debate and modification.  Yet now a denomination with almost 300 years of history and a global reach has decided to acknowledge that we can share our faith in our congregations and communities with an affirmation that our brothers and sisters in Christ are expressing our common commitments in the ways that speak best to each of our particular contexts.

This is a long reflection and story as it covers many years of experience. I write it as a bit of a love letter primarily to my brothers and sisters who are in the UMC family.  We have a wonderful opportunity to model for the Christian community and for the larger culture what it looks like to trust each other, to recognize our differences, and to affirm that there are larger shared commitments that hold us together than that tempt us to pull apart.  We have the opportunity to welcome into our congregations those who share this conviction.  We also have the responsibility to acknowledge and make amends with those who have been injured by our years' long wrangling.  For those who have chosen to affiliate with other denominations, we can also offer our blessing.  Long ago, the first disciples of Jesus sought to separate from each other and even asked Jesus to tell those they considered outside their fold to stop their ministry. Jesus offered a word of advice that seems wise in this moment when he responded, "Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you." (Luke 9:50) Our call remains--to personal and social holiness as followers of Jesus Christ and to bear witness to the grace of God that goes before and meets us with the love of God that transforms us. These commitments still speak in this day and time and in every context.

Way back in 2004, I was challenged by and have carried with me the words of Micah 6:8: What does the Lord require of you? In 2024, we have taken steps to move toward trust--a commitment and experiment that will take our intentionality and will stretch us to embrace our support of each other even in our differences. Somehow this step in our journey seems to move us to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God, more fully than any effort I've witnessed across the years. By the grace of God, may it be so.

Reflection:

1. What makes it hard to trust? What do you have to give up and what do you have to pick up to live in trust?

2. What does the call to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God look like in your life and witness?

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Seeds and Dreams ~ April 6, 2024

Seeds and dreams take a long time.  Last night I watched another night of exciting women’s basketball in the NCAA tournament.  Earlier this week attendance records were set, ticket prices are at an all-time high, television viewership has surpassed other long-standing athletic events. As the kind of sports fan who tends to join in watching when the seasons are ending, I’ve enjoyed getting to know about these athletes throughout this

year’s tournament. I also enjoy learning from the announcers and analysts, many of whom are former collegiate players.  This week they have been saying thank you to all those who have played and dreamed and planted the seeds for this year’s success—women who played with no fanfare, who had far less financial support or notoriety, and who kept investing in their vision of what might be possible in women’s athletics. I remember hearing that Pat Summit set as one of her goals getting women’s games on television, knowing that without a wider audience and the opportunity to introduce new fans and potential players, the game would never grow to the scale that she could envision. It’s a dream that has been a long-time coming and like most dreams, it has taken a long time.

I enjoy gardening.  I’m not a specialist. I’m much more a try and see kind of planter.  Sometimes that involves seeds.  I prefer the plants that I can already see, but there’s something fascinating about scattering seeds. A number of years ago I established a new garden that I loaded with seeds, thousands of seeds, and then I watched.  It was fascinating—and frustrating.  It turns out that seeds come up on their own timeframe. Some of them came up and thrived and were beautiful and reseeded for the next year.  Some of them were dormant for a year and came up and bloomed the second year.  I had one of the most beautiful blooms of garden phlox that I didn’t even know were out there. They were prolific and colorful and covered a huge portion of the plot---for just that one year, and then they disappeared, leaving room for new seeds to be scattered.

Seeds and dreams take a long time.  There’s challenge in that and there’s hope.  I look around at the seeds and drams that are being planted these days in our hearts and minds.  I take some comfort knowing that some of those seeds may never sprout and some may last for only a season.  I take courage knowing that some of the dreams will continue to be nurtured slowly and patiently and finally become evident as they are realized in ways that are far beyond what many could ever imagine. I am aware that there are competing dreams and incompatible seeds that exist in our visions for our world, our communities, our churches, even for our small little plots of land that we will soon be preparing for summer flowers. That gives me hope, even as it calls forth patience.  Seeds and dreams can take their own path, pleasantly or in ways that we begin to realize have unintended consequences.  We nurture what seems good in the moment and then watch to see how it grows and develops and the challenges and opportunities that emerge that we never saw coming.

That makes me very glad that seeds and dreams take a long time.  It calls us to continue with patience and perseverance. It also calls us to notice and tend what we are planting and imagining.  Expedience may seem a high value in the moment but the long-term effort to uproot what we have sown can be far more effort than the initial sowing.  Dreams may seem fruitless in the immediate and then when we least expect it, evidence of the dreams being realized come to pass in powerful ways.  Just like the seeds, it matters what dreams we pursue for they may reveal themselves to have taken us toward a beautiful outcome or they may generate harm that will take multiple new and different dreams to overcome.

Seeds and dreams take a long time.  They remind us of the potential in our hands and in our hearts and call us to experiment and test whether they are worth tending and pursuing for the long haul when they are determined to have value.  They challenge us to consider together what seeds and dreams will bring the desired outcomes of beauty and hope that we desire.  They remind us of the challenge of repairing the harm caused by an invasive plant variety or a dream that excludes or threatens the welfare of another.  

I plan to keep sowing seeds and dreaming dreams and I invite you to join me in observing the seeds and dreams we plant individually and collectively. We have time to make better choices when the seeds and dreams are less than our best or turn out to be an undesired or unexpected result.  Mainly, I plan to remember the power of staying the course, nurturing what gives life and beauty, eliminating what causes harm, tending the dreams that lead to unimaginable possibilities for thriving, and revising the visions that sounded good at first and yet were a dream for only a few.

Seeds and dreams take a long time—a promise and a challenge for this spring day and all the days to come.

Reflection:

1. What seeds are you planting this day? What do you hope will grow and bear fruit?

2. What dreams have been realized for you in unexpected ways or when you thought there was never a hope to see them come true?

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After the Story ~ March 18, 2024

What happened to you? It's the question that invites us to rehearse our latest experience, whether for good or for ill. Recently, I've noticed how we seem to relish the opportunity to tell the bad news and the calamities. Sometimes it's because they become funny stories of the unexpected. Other times it gives us the opportunity to share our hurt and frustration and moves pretty quickly into our complaints about someone else.

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Trauma specialists have helped us learn that the questions we ask of ourselves matter for how we move forward from difficult experiences.  Sometimes we turn the bad experience on ourselves and ask What's wrong with me? or even What's wrong with you? to the person having a difficult experience. These questions can turn our difficulties into an opportunity to berate ourselves, but What happened to you? is a helpful alternative.  It gives us the chance to look at experiences and question them and learn from them. We are able to look at our behaviors and the behaviors of others as an observer rather than solely as a passive participant.

Recently, I found myself reflecting on what question we ask next.  What happened to you? can get us on the road of moving through our difficult experience.  Yet it seems more like a resting spot than a destination. What did you do after what happened to you? is my suggested next question. We can rehearse the experience over and over again and let it feed our negative impressions of ourselves or others. We can declare ourselves a victim who is completely at the mercy of the circumstances life hands to us.  Or we can also choose to draw on the resources that are available to us to begin to ask ourselves what's next and formulate our next step.  

It's important to acknowledge that there are life circumstances that are crises, and they may take some time just to get through the moment or period of time where choices are limited. Yet when there is a moment to begin to move forward, to claim our power and potential to make the best choice possible is part of the journey towards thriving.  C. S. Lewis is quoted as saying, "You can't go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending."

It isn't always going to be a huge event that gives us the opportunity to reflect and choose how we go forward.  It may be a conversation that goes awry, a health choice that takes us in the wrong direction, a day that leaves us just feeling spent and overwhelmed.  We will have a story to tell--to ourselves and to others--and we will have choices about how we rehearse the story of our experience.  Then we will have a choice about what to do next and which direction that choice will take us.

Every one of us will have things go wrong, sometimes because we made decisions that were unwise or had unintended consequences. Sometimes we just happen to be standing there when the circumstances crash around us.  Regardless of what prompted the beginning, wherever we find ourselves, we can choose as much as we can to move in the direction that changes the ending.  Some people call it moving the needle.  It's a good reminder that the choice may seem small.  Yet there is power in leaning in the direction of life, moving toward connection, meaning, agency, blessing, and hope.

I wish for you good days and wonderful stories to tell.  When that's not your story, I wish for you courage to look at what happened to you and then to ask what you are going to do after what happened to you. Take a pause, catch your breath, and take the first step to change the ending.

Moving Toward Abundant Life ~ February 21, 2024

Series Introduction: Originally written in January 2024 for the Christian season of Epiphany, the series Moving Toward Abundant Life invites reflection and discernment about what leads us in a time filled with new beginnings, new understandings, and new practices. It has been adapted here since the themes and marks of Abundant Life last far beyond any particular season. May these words support your journey toward life in its fullness!  Note: Click here to download a PDF of the entire series.

Moving Toward Abundant Life: 

Connection, Meaning, Agency, Blessing, and Hope

 

Jesus said, “I came that they might have life,

and have it abundantly.”

~ John 10:10b

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In recent years, I have been drawn to the promise of Abundant Life given by Jesus in his ministry. From the writings of public health, I have found a helpful definition of Abundant Life as being marked by connection, meaning, agency, blessing, and hope. These themes are reflected in the ministry of Jesus. Through the following reflections, we will explore each one of these characteristics in more depth and use them as guides for our journey. 

As I ponder this definition and the experience of Abundant Life, it has become evident that it is not a destination but a direction. We move toward Abundant Life in the ways we live with each other. We lean toward Abundant Life in our choices. We explore Abundant Life in our communities. For the next six weeks, I invite you to join with me in Moving Toward Abundant Life. Along the way I will share impressions from a recent trip to Thailand that provide nuance to my personal experience of moving toward Abundant Life. You are invited to consider these writings as part of your individual reflection time. Maybe they will serve as a resource for an existing group. Maybe you will find that you can share them as a family or at a meal with friends. However you engage these thoughts, I pray they will invite you to Move Toward Abundant Life with the curiosity and persistence and with the openness to new understandings and beginnings that will sustain you in the days to come.

Moving Toward Abundant Life:  Connection

I recently returned from a trip to Thailand. The country is over 90% Buddhist with beautiful Buddhist temples dotting the landscape of the cities and rural communities. The spirit of the citizens reflects the Buddhist gentle embrace of life with even their heavy

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rush-hour traffic moving without horns and with a steady motion and constant merging. Our resident guide shared a story that caught my imagination. He told us about a Buddhist temple and a Hindu temple which share a boundary wall. He said they are good neighbors with each other, they pause to listen to each other’s chants and other worship practices, and they live peacefully side by side. His comment was that they understand everyone has to be somewhere, and they are committed to creating space for each community to live fully and freely be themselves. 

I was struck by the idea of a boundary wall being seen as a point of connection. Rather than the wall seeking to keep each other out, the wall represents where the two communities come together. The wall we might interpret as a means of separation serves for them as an expression of connection of common experience and an awareness that they do not exist in isolation from each other. 

 

Connection is one of the marks of Abundant Life and, in fact, is critical to our physical, mental, and spiritual health. The energy we put into separation and division leaves us lonely and suspicious of each other. As a result, loneliness has been identified by the U.S. Surgeon General as our #1 health issue. In contrast, human connection grounded in love and compassion leads to healing. 

Sharing stories is one means of creating connection. As we tell a story we share what our life experience is like. As we hear a story we see, hear, and feel what another has experienced. In the process, we develop empathy. As we feel seen and heard, and as we offer this gift of hospitality to another, our heart rates calm, our anxiety is reduced, and our nervous systems settle. We are then better able to listen and to connect in ways that honor each other, even if we may have points of obvious difference or disagreement. 

Life expectancy, healing from trauma, and overall stability are enhanced through connection. As we move toward all that brings life, connection leads the way, not as a static condition, but as a posture toward others. As we ‘lean in,’ as we see ourselves as sharing sacred space, as we commit to the well-being of each other, we are all strengthened for the journey of life. 

Reflection:

 

  1. Tell of a time when you felt welcomed. Share your story with someone else and ask them to share with you. Respond by saying thank you to each other for the stories you shared. 

  2. What is one act you can take today to express connection with another—a phone call, conversation, email, note, card, text, pausing to listen, looking someone in the eye, an act of generosity, etc.? 

 

Moving Toward Abundant Life: From the busyness of our days, we pause to remember that we are all connected to each other and are stronger when we honor each other with love.

Moving Toward Abundant Life: Meaning

Several years ago, a friend of mine was going through a very rough experience.  When I asked her how she was coping, she said, “Every morning I come to the door and I stand and decide which direction I am going today.” She wasn’t referencing geography. She

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was talking about her life choices—which direction she was going in response to the circumstances she was facing, the opportunities ahead of her, and the options she could see.

 

That wisdom has stuck with me across the years.  In moving toward Abundant Life, a key component is the direction we choose. We refer to this in many ways—our intention, our purpose, our calling. Whatever term we use, what we are describing is the meaning we are making with our lives. The direction we lean reflects our values and our worldview. It portrays our sense of overarching coherence for the world. It reveals the experiences we carry, and more importantly, it shows the stories we are making of our experiences. What we are creating is meaning for our life and for our place in the world. 

These choices are critical even as they are mundane. How we internalize the actions of others toward us, how we harbor disappointment, how we build resilience, how we separate our value from the actions of others—all of these are examples of our meaning-making. What we rehearse and what we let go, what we choose to have as our defining moments that we reference and what we shrug off, what we learn from that helps us grow in kindness and compassion—this process of incorporating life experiences into our personal narrative gives us a way to make sense of the world, to hold the pieces together, and to find ways to use the various experiences as a source of information and reflection for our future choices and for the ways we treat ourselves and others. 

As you know, I recently returned from a trip to Thailand which included multiple bike rides, longer and more challenging than any I’ve ever done. We rode on deserted roads that were paved, rough dirt roads with holes and gravel and sand, we rode through traffic. The rides went amazingly well, and I’m extremely grateful for that. However, there were rough spots—setting out smoothly is a challenge for me—and I fell over three times. Nothing awful happened, but there were a few bumps and bruises and scratches along the way. 

Life is like that. There are rough spots, there are false starts, there are unexpected terrains and challenges, and there are choices about how to respond. We don’t always predict or choose the circumstances. We do have choice about how we tell the story and give it meaning. It matters what and who gives wisdom to the meaning in our lives. Lean in the direction that gives your experiences value and gives you additional resources for the next challenge. Follow the path that leads to deeper connection. Meaning will grow as you take each step. You will gradually get your footing and you’ll be amazed at the ride!

 

Reflection:

 

  1. Tell of a time you remember when you needed to bolster your confidence or build your courage. What meaning do you carry from that experience that helps you take the next step? 

  2. What meaning or purpose in life gives you direction? 

Moving Toward Abundant Life: May love guide our way so that we use each experience for good and receive life as a meaning-full gift to share with each other.

Moving Toward Abundant Life:

Agency 

In recent years, I’ve learned a new understanding of the word “agency.” I’ve always thought of “agency” as referring to a business, like an "insurance agency.” There’s a different definition, though, that refers to the power each of us has to act, to choose, to 

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determine how we will interact with the world. I like this definition and this concept. It reminds me that I have influence, and it reminds me that I have responsibility and opportunity. It helps me value my past experiences and the lessons learned and encourages me to recognize the resources I have for future choices. Embracing this concept of agency invites me to engage my life as a full participant rather than as a passive spectator. Agency is the power we have to move toward connection and meaning, to be intentional about our choices, and to believe they have influence on ourselves and on others. It doesn’t ignore our hesitancies or uncertainties, but reminds us we have the opportunities to manage our fears and grow in resilience as we assess a challenge and address it with the wisdom gained from the past. Sometimes that wisdom is realizing that we do not face our challenges alone and can draw on the experiences and knowledge of others.

Agency doesn’t make everything smooth. It does not suggest that we become heroic or need to be or that we are to do everything. Sometimes our agency invites us to step back so another can serve. Not every need is our calling. None of us have every gift. Yet each of us can bring our stories, our skills, and our willingness, and in the process become part of something bigger than any one of us. That’s what agency does. Agency gives us the awareness and openness to say yes to that which is bigger than we imagined and to pursue that which calls us to a more significant action than we might have ever envisioned. It’s not always heroic, but it is generative of life for ourselves and for others. It’s looking at how our actions can contribute to the experience of others because we have a sense that our gifts can be used for good or that a higher purpose can be realized by the choices we make. 

 

On our trip to Thailand, on the first day my sister and I ventured to take the long bike route option, we made it through the countryside encouraged by one of the guides. We arrived at our designated meeting spot without incident. After the group break, we gathered our gear and were preparing for the next stretch. I knew we were headed toward the part of the ride that would take us through more traffic and towns. This was totally unfamiliar to me and a level of bike-riding that I was not sure I knew how to do. We had gained some confidence and were ready to continue the venture, but were aware the tricky spots were ahead of us. At that point, the local guide, an excellent cyclist and resident in the area, came by and reassured us to take our time as he was going to be our guide. Following him, we made it through the remaining miles as he led us at a comfortable pace through the towns and intersections and safely to our final destination. He used his agency—his knowledge, experience, skill, and willingness to put that to use for the good of others—to help us succeed. In the process, he strengthened our sense of agency. We were made stronger, gained confidence, were able to manage our fears, and were able to venture again the next two days on the longer routes with better preparation and expertise which he had helped us gain. 

 

Agency—doing what we can to the best of our abilities, contributing to the overall welfare of others with the gifts that we have, growing through our experiences and moving through our fears, moving with a concern and sense of connection to others, acting with intention, meaning, and care—these are the gifts that help us all be at our best and help Abundant Life to thrive for all. 

Reflection: 

  1. What experiences have helped you develop a sense of agency? For example, recall and share a time when you reached a goal and what it felt like for you. 

  2. When have you helped someone else succeed? What did that mean for your choices and how you used your agency? 

 

Moving Toward Abundant Life: May we use the gifts life has offered us to strengthen and guide our next steps and strengthen others in their next steps. Together may we use our agency to share our love with others.

Moving Toward Abundant Life: Blessing 

In moving toward Abundant Life, “blessing” describes our commitment and capacity to make a difference for good for others. Blessing calls for a generosity of spirit and practice. It’s our way of acknowledging that others’ well-being matters to us and that, in fact, we are all better when each and every one of us is at our best. 

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While we were in Thailand, we were introduced to a number of the Buddhist practices that organize the community life there. One was an opportunity to provide food for the Buddhist monks. The larger community provides for basic needs on a daily basis, and the monks receive these gifts with humility and gratitude. In response, they share the offerings of the day to care for their whole monastic community, and they offer a blessing for those who have provided that day’s gifts. Their work on behalf of the community is to care for the most vulnerable, the orphaned, the ill, those without family support. The community has found a way to create a circle of support—a circle of blessing—that flows from their concern for all. 

Another blessing was offered to our group. We gathered on the morning of January 1, led by an elder in the community, a former Buddhist monk who now serves as a teacher and community leader. It had been a busy and active week, and now we were headed to a new place. On behalf of the community, they offered us a particular blessing. We were handed a large ball of string that we passed through our entire group until we were all holding the intertwining string. A prayer was offered, and then we received individual blessings that included the tying of a piece of string around our wrist and the gift of a jasmine necklace. The words were in Thai, so I don’t know exactly what was said. What we were told was that the blessing with the string was to bind together our spirits because activity and life can cause us to essentially ‘spring leaks’ so that our spirit ‘spills out.’ The small string bracelets were to remind us of this coming back together, restoring us to wholeness. 

While Buddhism is not my home religion, and the practices were new to me, I found both of them to be powerful—the first for its compassion and the second for its restoration. I have kept the string bracelet around my wrist. There’s something comforting about an image of the community holding my spirit together and holding each other’s spirit together. In a time when we often hear that isolation and loneliness are the common description of human experience, here were practices that sought each other out to assure that needs were met, that folks were okay, and that we were strengthened for the next part of the journey. 

We’ve all received blessings from others that have encouraged us along the way. They come when someone is as aware of us and our needs as they are of their own. They come when someone advocates for our circumstances. They come when someone gives us the time to hear our stories and to understand our deepest yearnings and dreams. Blessings come when we are noticed and when we are valued. Blessings are offered when we see the other and value their story. Blessings come collectively when we refuse to dismiss the suffering of another and advocate for possibilities that have been denied or have yet to be imagined. 

Connection, meaning, and agency lead us toward blessing as they affirm our interconnection, our commitment to the value of life, and our power to make a difference, even if it seems beneficial for just that moment. Blessing helps us lean in the direction of honoring the other and moving toward Abundant Life. Somehow each step helps to piece us together, one blessing at a time. 

 

Reflection: 

  1. When has someone acted in a way that blessed you? How did that experience affect you? 

  2. When have you been a blessing to someone else? How did that experience affect you? 

 

Moving Toward Abundant Life: May love and mercy create in us generosity and blessing for others.

Moving Toward Abundant Life:

Hope

Hope is a vision for the future, a confidence that what we see is not all there is, action that suggests even the worst of situations can be redeemed. Hope is more than a pipe dream as it draws its strength from connection, meaning, agency, and blessing. They provide the fuel for the vision and the energy to continue on in a direction that may not be immediately evident. 

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There is a reason this series is entitled “Moving Toward Abundant Life.” As we noted at the beginning, Abundant Life is never static, partly because hope is rarely, if ever, fully realized. Hope is a vision of what can be and is often seen in glimpses. Yet hope is powerful! It gives us a picture of what might be, it stirs our imaginations, and it gets our adrenaline going. It sparks our action and animates our dreams. Hope pulls us forward to the future even as it sometimes pushes us through our present and out of our past. In moving toward Abundant Life, hope becomes more than wishful thinking—it becomes a template for our next steps. Stories of hope often reflect the actions and stories of others in the past, for hope is most powerful when it seems most distant from our current situation. Stories of hope give us the resources to recognize how life has moved in the past and how to take the next step toward life in the future. 

In our time in Thailand, I was drawn to the sense of “enough” that seemed to permeate the small communities and the residents of the country. There was a lightness to their humor, a pleasant nature to their interactions. The extremely heavy traffic in the cities was almost without honking even as it was filled with constant merging. The entry and exit from public transportation was calm and orderly. Even the dogs we rode by on rural roads were quiet and ambling. It was a picture of contentment that gives me hope for the future. Needs were met, not elaborately, but comfortably. Beauty was appreciated, and health and activity were anticipated and enjoyed. In some ways, it was a vision from the past. Yet, it was a reminder of what a sustainable economy and environment may include. Hope and possibility become more available when there is a picture, even when the path is not identical or the next step completely revealed. 

I never get tired of hearing stories of innovation, and I have great confidence in the gifts of humanity to accomplish incredible tasks and to demonstrate phenomenal creativity when we have a shared vision and commitment. Abundant Life is one of those visions, and stories of those who value connection, meaning, agency, blessing, and hope are prolific when you begin to watch and see. I encourage you to tend to these stories whether in magazines, on TV programs, on the internet, or in the experiences you share with friends and family. Hope is generated by the stories we let nourish our imaginations and the actions we take in response. Choose carefully what you give space in your heart and mind—and take hope in the possibilities that are in our hands for our future. May Moving Toward Abundant Life for All be your guide. 

Reflection: 

  1. Share a story of a time that you “came out on the other side” of a challenging situation. How did that experience give you hope? 

  2. What is a favorite story of Abundant Life that you hold in your heart and mind to give you hope? 

 

Moving Toward Abundant Life: May connection, meaning, agency, blessing, and hope guide our choices and our way of being in the world. 

Moving Toward Abundant Life:

Wisdom for the Journey 

As our group gathered and began our orientation in Thailand, the first thing we were taught was how to greet one another.  The custom is to hold one’s hands together in front of one’s heart and to bow to each 

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other. This act is an expression of honor for each other and for all that each person brings. What I learned and appreciated most is that the hands are not pressed together with flat palms.  They are folded in such a way to create a cupped space representing an openness and welcome to the other. This gentle greeting carries the elements of Abundant Life as it honors the other, acknowledges value in the encounter, gives opportunity to welcome, opens the possibility of generosity, and creates space for what is to come. What a fitting posture and starting place to move toward Abundant Life—much left to be determined, yet from the beginning a desire to foster connection, meaning, agency, blessing, and hope.

To this experience, I add words from two who are careful observers of life and artists with language, Parker Palmer and Maya Angelou. Palmer is a writer, speaker, and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality, and social change. Angelou was a poet whose use of language and imagery captured so much of the human spirit and longing. Both speak to the precious nature of this life journey and both acknowledge the power we have to influence our own experience and that of others for good or for ill. 

The invitation of these reflections has been to acknowledge our possibility to participate in bringing life, even as we carry the painful awareness of our capacity to bring harm and death. I offer the insights of these two souls as “wisdom for the journey” as we draw on connection, meaning, agency, blessing, and hope to move intentionally toward Abundant Life for all. 

First from Parker Palmer in How to Heal Our Divides, p. 57:

The challenge for those of us who want to be agents of healing is clear. This co-creative process will be life-giving only if we are attentive and purposeful at every moment of inner-outer exchange. We must know what’s inside us, shadow and all, and be thoughtful about what we put into the outer world. We must be aware and thoughtful about how we take in and process whatever the world sends back. (p. 57)

 

And finally, this excerpt from the conclusion of the poem A Brave and Startling Truth, written by Maya Angelou in 1995 for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations:

When we come to it 

We, this people, on this wayward, floating body 

Created on this earth, of this earth 

Have the power to fashion for this earth 

A climate where every man and every woman 

Can live freely without sanctimonious piety 

Without crippling fear 

 

When we come to it 

We must confess that we are the possible 

We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world 

That is when, and only when 

We come to it. 

Reflection: 

  1. Share a time when you were part of making a choice for good for yourself and others. What was it like to take the long view and broader understanding of your power to make a life-giving choice?

  2. How will you choose life and move toward Abundant Life? How will connection, meaning, agency, blessing, and hope be reflected in your choices?

 

Moving Toward Abundant Life: May we have the wisdom to see that which takes us away from the abundance of life and choose to live in such a way that our neighbors near and far, the very earth we stand on and all creatures within it, and our descendants for generations to come, may live in peace with one another. 

the picture. There was a day of hiking and multiple walks through markets and towns and temple sites. It was an active trip with days filled with activities that are not my norm. I'm a comfortable walker and live on a hillside so I'm comfortable walking on flat or steep terrain.  However, I don't do much biking. 

 

In preparation, I practiced four times on an e-bike which was what we were given to use on the trip.  The first day I asked the bike store owner to treat me as if I knew nothing, because that was the truth! He kindly guided me through the basics and sent me on my way on a local bike trail with my legs a little shaky and my confidence even more so and my eyes glued to the path in front of me. I was very proud to ride seven miles and gradually made it up to 12 miles comfortably.  That was enough to meet the shorter bike options on the trip so I felt like I could do the minimum required, which was about all I was hoping for.

 

As we began the first day of biking in Thailand, it had been several weeks since I had last been on an e-bike and I was shaky once again.  The support team was great and helped outfit us properly for our bikes and stayed close by as we rode, so off we set, and pretty soon the rhythm was growing more comfortable. I was delighted to have made it the 9-mile path and to return on the van as others journeyed on for another 20 miles.  On the next morning, as they reviewed the path for the day and the options for riding, I had assumed that I would once again ride the shorter route. However, as they gave the details and the assurance that support would be alongside and that we could stop when desired, I became part of the group that set out intent on going the full 26 miles.  I'm delighted to say that I made it and I enjoyed it.  Never did I anticipate even attempting to ride the longer routes and yet after that first day, I rode again a full 26-mile route and then another 23-mile route (it would have been 26 but we got a little lost and accidentally cut off 3 miles from the route, but that's another story!). All total, I was part of the group that rode 84 miles on a bike across Thailand, through small open countryside and through villages with traffic, on flat lands and up hills. It truly was an adventure!

Our trip crossed over the New Year holiday, a time when some folks have begun to choose a word for the year.  That's a new practice for me, one I began only in 2023.  My word for the year was STRETCH and it guided me through new experiences and new learning and new dreams.  My word for 2024 had been chosen before I left on my trip--PERSEVERE.  It felt like a fitting follow-up word and emerged as a natural for 2024. As I reflected on the biking experience, I was amazed at the appropriate nature of these words and the power they gave me as I considered my options.  Yes, we had great support and encouragement within the group and that went a long way. Yet there was something about having a posture already in place that was open to the new and the challenging that gave a wonderful starting point for taking risks and trying new activities.  

I wonder what words you carry with you and how any of the words we carry influence our choices and our responses.  What if we pause to identify the words that might be holding us back, the stories that might have been true in the past and are now ready to be released? What if we pause to name a deeper truth, a heart's desire that may feel strange and unfamiliar and that still opens the possibility of a new way of knowing ourselves and relating to others?  In these days of new year beginnings, try taking a moment to see what words emerge for you, not something that you push yourself into, but something that bubbles up as the next step for your life journey. Carry them with you as a gift and see where they lead you.  It may not be to a bike or to Thailand. It may be to something even more surprising than that or something confirming of a direction that leads you in the direction of more abundant life. If it's helpful, you can borrow my words of STRETCH and PERSEVERE. They've carried me across many miles, and it's only January! They even carried me to the front of an elephant! May you find the words that lead you forward on your path.

Stretch and Persevere ~ January 9, 2024

Some of you know that I just returned from an adventure in Thailand. Seriously, that was the name of the trip--an adventure--and it lived up to its title! Several of the days included extended bicycle rides through the countryside, a wonderful way to see the small communities and the terrain of lush green mountains and fertile valleys of rice and corn and pineapple and bananas and ... well you get

Reflections:

1. What words have guided you across your life? Which would you like to continue to follow and which would you like to let go?

 

2. What words are emerging for you in this new year? Be patient. There's nothing magic about January 1. Keep listening and discerning as you go through the year.

Gratitude With... ~ December 9, 2023

Candy Land Christmas is a new favorite in our community, filling the space of two downtown greenspace parks with 160 Christmas trees decorated by businesses and non-profits. Local residents and tourists make their way to the parks each evening to enjoy a walk, to see the beautiful colors of the lights, and to visit with others who are out for a Christmas venture. Candy Land developed in

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December of 2020 when practicing the pandemic protocols led to the cancellation of the annual Christmas parade.  Intended to be a safe outdoor alternative that the larger community could design and share safely for just that year, it quickly became a favorite event and has continued each year since.

 

Recently I thought about the success of Candy Land and found myself grateful for whoever came up with this alternative idea that looked for ways to include and to generate a sense of shared joy and connection. It would have been easy to just cancel the parade and let the community members fend for themselves to come up with an alternative. However, creativity was generated when the care for the larger community entered the conversation.  In the midst of a difficult time, a sense of connection and care won the day.  There was gratitude for the opportunity to be together and there was a sharing of resources and imagination of what might be. Gratitude has the possibility to cross divides and bring us together.  It can move us beyond a focus on “me” to an ever-widening awareness of “we”—family and friends, local communities, and even global citizenship.

In reflecting on Candy Land Christmas, I thought of a retreat I attended several years ago led by Diana Butler Bass who was presenting on her book Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks [1]. She shared about a hierarchical understanding of gratitude that results in obligation (“I owe you a debt of gratitude”) and can be visualized as a triangle. In this approach gratitude is based on individual need and is transactional. It is expressed in terms of what we have and what we repay to make it feel more like we are not indebted to the kindness of others. She contrasted this with an understanding of gratitude that is based on the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) and is visualized as a circle. In this second contrasting practice of gratitude, Bass writes that gratitude “is a response to gifts and giving that binds people in emotionally meaningful and socially equal ways.” (p.175) In this understanding of gratitude we look at what we share, how our gifts can benefit each other, and how we can help each other thrive.

 

Often we speak of gratitude for something we have, something we enjoy, something we have worked for and earned. We make gratitude lists that include friends, family, home, and work. What if we instead speak of gratitude with—grateful with others for the gift of life, for the beauty of the world, for resilience even in the difficult times. It turns out that shared gratitude has power to transform all that would seek to steal it from us.  Bass writes “Gratitude is defiance of sorts, the defiance of kindness in the face of anger, of connection in the face of division, and of hope in the face of fear.” (p. 185)

 

I’m looking forward to walking through the decorated Christmas trees of Candy Land.  I will enjoy their lights, their novelty, their humor, their beauty.  Mainly, though I will be grateful with a community that found a way to care for each other and to be a beacon of hope in the cold winter night.

Reflections:

1. How does shared gratitude affect how you see the world? 

2. When has collective gratitude helped you see new possibilities?

[1] Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks, Diana Butler Bass, San Francisco: HarperOne, 2018.

On Being Whole ~ November 20, 2023

I know a precious twelve-year-old girl. She loves to sing and laugh. She’s a cheerleader and softball player, she loves school, and she gives great hugs.  This summer she attended camp where she shot a bow and arrow and got two bull’s eyes and had her face painted like a tiger at her request. She was a wonderful Cruella de Vil for

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Halloween.  This active and funny girl is my goddaughter. All her activities take assistance and dedication. Through the incredible devotion of her family and outstanding medical care, she is thriving. You see, she was born with serious ongoing health issues affecting several of her body’s systems. Her mother considers her daughter to be whole and finds tremendous opportunities for her to share her gifts and enjoy life to its fullest.  (As an example, the picture with this reflection was a Christmas Eve service when she was about four years old. She was playing the role of Mary. This picture, one of my all-time favorites, captures her spontaneous reaction when her pastor mother had just told her that Mary was going to have a baby. What a wonderfully appropriate response!)

Recently her mother and I had a conversation about what it means to be whole.  She had explored this with another friend who had questioned her use of specialized programs for her daughter. The conversation shared with me questioned whether she could be whole and still participate in specialized programs. In other words, if her needs are acknowledged, doesn’t that also mean she is less than whole?

I’ve thought a lot about that since we talked.  Our language is limited and sometimes we search for words that help us describe our experiences well.  We have moved through a number of descriptive terms in my lifetime: handicapped, disabled, limited, special needs.  All of them carry some truth, yet they all are limited in capturing the essence of those they seek to describe or of my friend’s daughter. 

I have thought about my own needs. I am extremely near-sighted and I am very grateful for contacts lens and glasses that enable me to see.  My mother experienced a fall that resulted in a serious shoulder injury. We were in Chicago and to get home to Tennessee we had to fly through Atlanta.  Her shoulder was stabilized and changing clothes was not an option, so she traveled in her gown and housecoat.  She said to me, “This is going to draw a lot of attention.” To which I said, “We need all the attention we can get!”  We received necessary and precious assistance through the airports, with her being provided a wheelchair and an escort who got us to our gates, which included moving from one extreme end of the Atlanta airport to the other. We were extremely grateful and could not have done this on our own.  I have daily needs for my eyesight and my mother had unique needs from her injury.  When I think of these two personal examples and experiences, I do not equate them to whether either I or my mother was whole.  I do recognize that we have unique needs, sometimes ongoing and sometimes for a particular period of our lives.

I am trying out the phrase “unique needs” to describe all of us and I would invite you to join me in that.  If we acknowledge the unique needs of each other, I believe we can be moved to empathy and seek to provide inclusion and connection.  Rather than someone’s visible unique need being something that we categorize as limiting or outside our inclusion, we look for ways to prepare and anticipate so that the gifts of the individual can be shared most fully.  I experienced this best at an amusement park where my friend and her daughter and I were welcomed, in fact sought out, and shepherded to the place that would work best for full participation.  What if our homes, our churches, our community gatherings prepared in the same way?

It occurs to me that we are all more whole when the gifts of all are included and the unique needs of all are accepted and anticipated.  When I consider the healing ministry of Jesus, it seems that often the issue was not the identified physical limitation.  It was the isolation and social separation that was healed.  When our language puts anyone else in a category that is seen as “less than”, we miss out on the opportunity to see the other as whole and in fact to know that we are not whole without them.  Until we are able to recognize and provide for the unique needs of all in every setting, then we have the opportunity to create spaces and places where the wholeness of all is recognized, where unique needs are identified, and facilities and activities adjusted to accommodate those needs.  It’s not about limitations or special needs. It’s about connection and wholeness in our relationships. It’s about creating space for meaning and purpose to be realized and for agency and choice to be provided.  Out of that comes a blessing for all those who work together to create this space and hope for a future where those spaces are no longer special—they are just part of our being whole together.

 

Reflections:

  1. When have you been grateful that your unique needs were recognized and supported?

  2. How have your experiences been enriched by the inclusion of persons with various unique needs?

Pursued by a Rainbow  ~  October 15, 2023

I was at a point of new beginnings, only a few months into retirement.  Enjoying my new freedom and flexibility, I was on my way to see a dear friend for a weekend visit.  The previous months, even years, had been filled with many joys. They had also carried heavy responsibilities in both my personal and professional life. As I entered the beginning of the new year, I became deeply convinced that it was time to

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make a change. At 58, this was much younger than I expected that urging. Now several months in, I was beginning a time of discerning for the next chapters of my life.  My heart said there was a way to continue the callings that had filled my soul for thirty years in ministry. Now I was in the process of rest and renewal and deep discernment for the what-next that was yet to be revealed. I was confident that I had made the right decision, I trusted that there were meaningful and good days to come, and yet I was not sure what they would be and how they would unfold. 

As I drove to my friend’s house, I was pondering all that had been and all that might yet be. That’s when it happened. In the middle of a remote area I had never seen before, a light rain began to fall, a shower that I watched come across the field toward my car as the sun continued to shine, and behind the rain a rainbow began to appear.  I watched as the colors grew into their deepest intensity so that I could see every one clearly.  The image of the rainbow grew so that I was in its full arc and it moved across the field until it engulfed my car! I literally was driving in a rainbow! It continued with me for several minutes so that I was able to turn and see it out my car window. I hardly took a breath not wanting to break the spell and seeking to soak it in and not do anything to interrupt it if I could help it.  The funny thing is that I was tempted to stop to try to capture it, to take a picture, but I was clear that to stay in this rainbow, I had to keep moving, to continue on my journey and let it accompany me as a gift, out of my control, not to be captured. It was there to be a gift for my soul, an assurance of grace that was accompanying me in these unknown areas and in an undefined future.  This gift for my weary soul is an image that I carry with me for the work of Table Grace.  In this remote area where I had never been before, when there was time to reflect, there was a promise of being part of something bigger than myself, of beauty that seeks and finds us on our journeys, and of unexpected gifts to accompany us on our way.  I continued down the road with a renewed sense of excitement for what was yet to be, somehow assured that I did not travel alone.

Reflections:

  1. Recall a time when you stepped into a new beginning.  What or who encouraged you?

  2. What sustains you in uncertain times?

Gracious Limits  ~  September 1, 2023

Steve Hartman recently shared the story of 89-year-old Allen McCloskey in an On the Road segment for CBS News.[1] Mr. McCloskey’s neighbors described him as a “special guy” who is “out there to help everybody.” Steve Hartman said he would make a great candidate for kindest American.  In the segment Mr. McCloskey was surprised by his hometown of Galveston, Indiana with a dinner in his honor and the presentation of the Guinness World  

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Record for longest career as a gravedigger as he is now in his 71st year.  He doesn’t want to retire because he wants to make sure that the graves are dug carefully with square corners and with care for the persons affected by his work.  In addition, Mr. McCloskey is known for doing thousands of odd jobs across the years and is especially known for never sending a bill.  When Steve Hartman asked him about this, he just laughed.  Steve Hartman described Mr. McCloskey as unassuming in persona and profession and yet a bold beacon for anyone in search of meaning.  One of his neighbors said it best: “Allen has figured out what life is about.  It’s not the money that makes him happy. I truly believe Allen has figured out where enough is at. He’s found enough.”

In a course on Cultural Wayfinding,[2] we discussed the concept of internalized capitalism.  It’s the shaping of our way of being by the priorities of capitalism and is experienced as a sense of urgency, scarcity, and never being enough. In my small group, we discussed it as the air that we breathe that leaves us feeling exhausted, unsettled, and always pushing through life.  Our course members are seeking to identify the cultural systems that shape us so that we can name them, see them, feel them, and then make conscious choices about how we participate in them.

Long ago I was introduced by a professor to "gracious limits," a phrase I have carried and shared with others across the years.  When I first heard this concept it was contrasted with complete freedom, which is often seen as the desire of the human heart.  Yet, this professor suggested, complete freedom is chaos.  Without limits, we don’t know what is enough, where we are safe, where to stop, and how to recognize consequences for going too far.  Gracious limits, by contrast, let us know the playing field, the boundaries that give us security to know that within the recognized limits we can move freely and without worry or anxiety.

Gracious limits is an image I’ve often shared with persons who were entering into a role of supervision or with parents who were seeking to guide their children.  Until our conversation on internalized capitalism, I had never applied it to the limits and grace we give to ourselves to thrive. It was an aha moment to recognize that naming the limits of my time, ability, and energy isn’t being less than I “should” be.  Taking time to breathe, to rest, to reflect, to replenish is what gives all of us the space we need to be able to maintain our sense of self, our freedom to make choices, and to reduce the anxiety that tends to generate a desire for control over our life circumstances or over the lives of others.

Internalized capitalism has led me to believe that our worth comes from productivity, our importance comes from busyness, and that even our personal experiences are defined in terms of limited resources. How fascinating, then, to meet Mr. McCloskey who has “found enough.” Here is a man giving generously to his community, who is beloved and generating good will, who chooses to continue his work because of its value to him and to others and who is known for his kindness. He moves slowly, he speaks deliberately, he is unassuming in his expectations of others.  This life he models is one of generativity, of breathing into the world a spirit that leads to compassion and connection. Mr. McCloskey knows what is his to do and the gifts he has to offer.  There is a grace in him that seems to guide his choices and shape his interactions. In stepping out of urgency and lack, he has found ways to give generously and joyfully. He embodies what gracious limits look like, not restrictive, but freeing to receive and share, to work and rest, to care and receive care. 

As Steve Hartman closed his segment over pictures of Mr. McCloskey receiving hugs and sharing laughter with his community, he offered this summary: “Strange thing about finding enough, you often end up with more than enough.”  Gracious limits set us on the path to the freedom of enough and recognizing what really matters, a gift to ourselves, our community, and all creation.

Reflections:

  1. Share how you experience the internalization of capitalism in your daily life.  Notice the “shoulds” that you carry with you and the stories and drivers behind them.

  2. Share a time when you experienced rest or a sense of enough. What did that feel like in your body? What did it sound like in your way of speaking?

  3. What is one step you can take that moves you toward the freedom of enough and recognizing what really matters?

[1] “Local Hero,” On the Road with Steve Hartman, CBS News Sunday Morning, August 6, 2023.

[2] Cultural Wayfinding: Self Work for World Work, Laura Hartley, Public Love Enterprises, August, 2023.

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Turn Off the Water! ~ August 15, 2023

Several years ago, my niece was scheduled to receive a prestigious award for her work accomplishments and contribution to her community.  She traveled from out of town to stay in a beautiful downtown hotel to participate in a lovely recognition banquet and program.  Several family members came for the event and went to her hotel room to meet her shortly before the banquet was to begin. She answered the door in a panic, saying “My commode is running over and

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flooding the bathroom!” She was in a beautiful dress and formal high heels so we got her out of the water and began calling out our best thoughts: “Step back!” “Call the front desk!” “Grab some towels!” “Jiggle the handle!” And then one of us reached down and turned off the water.  Now we could breathe a bit even though there were still issues to deal with. The hotel desk was called, they requested maintenance, they reassigned a room for her to move after the banquet, and they finished the clean-up of the inch of water standing in the bathroom floor that was beginning to creep into the carpet in the bedroom.

 

The good news is that we were able to regroup and go to the banquet and all went well. However, this experience serves as a good metaphor for what happens in the lives of so many, maybe all of us, to some extent and at some time.  Well-meaning, deserving, hard-working individuals get derailed by something that is totally out of their control—an illness, a job loss, a death. If we are lucky, we are able to pull together the resources to address the unexpected, pull the person through the chaos, and assist them to move on with their plans.  In other situations, the flooding water seems to keep flowing and what we offer, out of the best of intentions, is to try to soak it up and to protect the affected individual, and yet we often don’t consider how to turn off the water.

 

When the water is allowed to run, the damage grows beyond its effect on any one individual. In our case, another family member arrived in the middle of this chaos, having flown in with multiple delays and having only a few minutes to change clothes and head downstairs. Now those plans were more difficult to accomplish, the confusion of the day was added to by the chaos and uncertainty in the room.  

 

Consider the other possibilities if the water had continued to run. What if we had already left for the banquet and it ran for the several hours we were gone? Not only would the bathroom floor be wet, and the edge of the carpet damp, the whole room could easily have been flooded, personal items destroyed, with a worst case scenario of having not only to clean the room but replace carpet and sub-flooring, having water run through ductwork and create damage there, and even potentially running through the ceiling of other rooms and creating damage for other guests. Now the issues would require relocation of multiple guests and result in loss of future income for rooms closed for repair. Time and stress are added for those managing the situation and dealing with plumbers, contractors, and all those needed for the rehabilitation.  Without turning off the water, all of this and more could have resulted, and no towels or mops or people trying to help would have changed the outcome. The celebration of the achievements of my family member, the success of the hotel, the plans and hopes of others—all of this would have been affected and our focus distracted from the values that were being recognized that night. None of this would have been the fault of my family member, none of this discounts the efforts and good intentions of many people, and none of this is reflective of the character of the individuals either actually or potentially affected.  

 

So what happened to cause this situation? Did something just break in the commode? Was it from negligence or just wear out? Was there a larger issue in the plumbing that had gone undetected? Was it old and needed new and improved materials or parts? Could the flood have been avoided? I don’t know the rest of the story, the diagnosis of the problem, or the extent of the issues. What I do know is that we often find ourselves in situations that are more complex than they first seem and that warrant additional exploration. 

 

This family experience came to mind recently in a conversation about addressing various social challenges—things much bigger than running commodes—like food insecurity, education needs, racial divisions, and othe issues that often call out our best efforts to help: food banks, school supply collections, studies and scholarships. All of these are beneficial, all of them offer needed supplies and resources. Yet, there are questions that deserve to be explored, questions of what creates the issues to begin with. Often our inclination is to blame the individual for getting their feet wet or for being in a situation where a flood is likely to occur. What if alongside our desire to help and our offers of assistance, (which are absolutely necessary as long as the water is running), we also look at what caused the water to run to begin with?  What if we looked at ways to prevent the leaks or to catch them as soon as possible when they begin? What if we were so committed to the welfare of all that we made sure that when the leaks occur, and they will, that we addressed them as soon as possible to reduce the harm and limit the damage? In other words, how do we turn off the water, water that may start as a drip and yet over time, especially when left unaddressed, creates issues that affect those far away from the original situation, that interrupt dreams and plans, and that take us away from a larger mission of living well for the good of all? 

 

Reflections:

  1. When have you seen someone’s hopes and dreams interrupted or made more difficult to achieve by circumstances not of their own making? What helped the person navigate the situation?

  2. When have you seen a community or group of individuals create a response that addressed “dripping water” circumstances? For some examples, see below. 

  3. What concerns do you see in your community or in the larger social context that you would be curious to explore further, to identify the source of the “dripping water”, and to find ways that you can respond? You may find that you have expertise, willingness to advocate, an ability to see a new or different approach, or ideas to share that could change the circumstances for yourself and many others!

  • Judge Rules in Favor of Montana Youths in a Landmark Climate Case (New York Times, August 14, 2023).

  • North Park's School of Restorative Arts held a first-of-its-kind graduation ceremony at Stateville Correctional Center for 28 resident scholars who earned their Master of Arts in Christian Ministry from North Park Theological Seminary.  Click here to read more.

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