An Oasis of Laughter

Save us from the hand of our enemies; turn our mourning into gladness and our sorrows into wholeness.  – Esther 14:14

We learn as small children that the smile is a facial expression for “happy” and that a frown is a facial expression for “sad.”  So, most of us, I think, see gladness and sorrow as polar opposites.  As a simple communication tool that’s helpful. But life and it’s emotions are very complex.  And the spiritual life, even more so.

Today’s Old Testament reading is taken from the book of Esther, which is a beautiful story of triumph about a Jewish orphan who becomes queen and ultimately saves her people from genocide.  A dramatic plot unfolds over the course of only a few chapters wherein as evil plans are being formed on one side, God is at work planning to overcome the evil through Esther and her uncle.  At one point, Esther turns to prayer calling out to God to save her people and “turn our mourning into gladness.” 

I’ve had many prayers like this myself, and I imagine you have, too.  My intention, of course, is for them to be answered immediately, so that I can “turn that frown upside down” as we sometimes say. And while it stands to reason that God could certainly work quickly– and sometimes does–very often his work is more slow, more methodical, more plodding than I’d like.

Yesterday I had an experience that gleaned some new insight into the hurried pace I often tread alongside a slow and methodical God. And I realized I might be missing something:  that joy and sadness don’t have to be polar opposites, exactly because sometimes joy and laughter appear right there in the middle of the sadness, not as an opposite but as an oasis of healing in the middle of a struggle.

You see, last week, a friend informed me  that she’d received a call  confirming a diagnosis she’d been dreading: cancer.  The same friend met up with me yesterday only to share that she’d just gotten another phone call with more news that they’d discovered a second disease she would now have to battle along with the cancer.

A devastating blow for sure.

But after my hugs and assurance of prayers, she broke into a smile and said, “You know, when I told my daughter about the second phone call today, I was wallowing over all this bad news. I told her it was bad enough to get the first phone call, but the second was even more devastating.  Then I asked her what she thought I should do.  And you know what she said?”  I shook my head no. “She said, ‘Well, Mom, for starters, I’d stop answering the phone!’.”

And we both broke out into laughter right there in the middle of all that sadness.

Of course, we’d all like to be spared from loss and suffering.  But I’ve heard it said, “The only way out is through,” and very often that is true for each of us.  While, unlike Esther’s story,  we may not always get the outcome we are hoping for, in the midst of our struggles God is happy provide us an oasis of healing.  It may come in the form of laughter with a friend to balm our wounds, or in the form of a warm hug to flood us with the grace to accept an alternate ending to the story we’d written for ourselves.

So I see Esther’s prayer a little differently today than I did before.  Since her story has a happy ending within only a few chapters, I’ve always seen that God answered her prayer immediately. But the ultimate answer wasn’t immediate, of course.  Things had to be set in motion.  People and places had to be just so.  And I realized God had to work slowly because we are limited by time and space, not him.

But he meets us where we are.

And he walks us through s-l-o-w-l-y, reassuring us of his presence with countless oases of healing along the way.

Reflect:  What or who provide an “oasis of healing” for me in my struggles?  Do I recognize these moments with these people, too, are a way for God to answer my prayers?  If not, what would happen if I just labeled these moments as “from God” even if I’m not certain they are? 

Pray:  God, thank you for your constant companionship!  Help me remember that just because I grow frustrated or weary in my struggles, does not mean that you have abandoned me!  Help me to soak up the joys of each “oasis of healing” I encounter to strengthen me in my journey ever closer to you.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

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Rehearse Your Victories

“Perhaps he will again relent and leave behind him a blessing…” -Joel 2:14

It’s sometimes hard for me to remember, when I’m in the midst of suffering, that God loves me and wants what’s best for me. Instead it feels like whatever pain or heartache I’m enduring has been ordered by God as a punishment for me and that he gets great pleasure from watching me suffer.

The prophet Joel’s words echo this sentiment for me today. While many years ago, I may have believed that God seeks to punish us; today, I know better. Still, when suffering comes, this can sometimes be my first gut reaction: that God is getting pleasure from punishing me. It takes a bit of actively recalling on my part all the many things that are good and have gone right in my life for me to remember God’s endless love for me. Some people call this active recall “counting your blessings.” And while that is certainly true and helpful –because when we begin to do that we start to realize that the good in our life outweighs the bad — “counting blessings” for me usually gets watered down to listing out people and things in my life I’m grateful for. And this sometimes leaves me feeling a bit guilty, because in that moment I may be experiencing heartache over the actions of a person that I know I should be counting as a blessing in my life!

A few years ago, when I was out for a walk and fuming over a particularly difficult situation that left me both extremely angry and deeply saddened, a neighbor was out gardening and came over to chat with me. (Little did she know the mood I was in!) But as we chatted, I found myself pouring out all my woes to her. She paused when I finished and said, “When I feel defeated and begin to lose hope, I find great strength in rehearsing my victories.”

Then she said simply, “Rehearse your victories!” and she walked back to her gardening.
As I continued my walk, I began to do just that. How many times in my life had I thought a situation hopeless, doomed, or defeated only to have become a better person for it, or to have been able to turn my heartache into a blessing for someone else? More times than I’d realized, it seemed.

As I viewed my life through this new lens, I was able to count the “blessings” of my life not just as people and things, but also as triumphs over tragedies, and healings that came from heartache. These were my victories! These were “blessings” from God, that had previously gone uncounted! Suddenly God was no longer a punishing God, but a loving Father who suffered greatly with me through each trial, in order that I might come out better and stronger in the end. I could also relate better to Jesus who asked God to “let this cup pass” if God willed it, because I would never actively seek to endure the “blessings” of suffering in my life. But each victory? I could now see that like a mother enduring long labor, each victory was definitely worth it!

As we enter this season of Lent–a season of active sacrifice and suffering in small ways,– I don’t really want to give up even the smallest of things, and a part of me even resents having to do so. But when I remember Jesus’ own triumphant Victory, and all of my many small ones…it helps.

Reflection: What are the victories in your life? What trials have you overcome and what blessings came from overcoming them? If you are suffering now, how might you envision the victory that awaits you?

Pray: Heavenly Father, thank you for the many blessings and all the victories in my life! Help me to see the trials in my life as mountains You climb with me, rather than tests You are waiting for me to fail. Open my eyes to see you working in both the joys and the sufferings of my life. Amen.

When God Regrets

The males and females of each living creature entered the ark, just as God had commanded. Then the LORD sealed them inside.

-Genesis 7:16 (ISV)

In his book The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama was asked the question regarding a painful moment in his life, “How did you deal with that feeling of regret?  How did you eventually get rid of it?” to which he replied, “I didn’t get rid of it.  It’s still there.”

As Christians, we too, know the feeling of regret.  We are hardly alone.  I have regrets.  You have regrets.  The Dalai Lama has regrets.  Despite our best intentions, it seems, we all have regrets.  Searching in my memory for moments of regret in Scripture led me to the story of Noah.

 Then the LORD regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and he was deeply grieved about that.

Genesis 6:6 (ISV)

While this may not sound like the beginning of a story of hope and promise and love, it most definitely is.  It is, of course, in the beginning of one of the most popular bible stories of all time:  Noah and the ark.  While it may initially sadden us to read that God ever “regretted” creating us, what we may find comforting about reading this is the reminder that we are made in God’s image so if even God had regrets, then it must be OK –perhaps even necessary—that we have them, too, right? That leads to the question: what do we do with regrets?  Well, more importantly, what did God do?  He looked at this regrettable situation and the messy-ness his decisions had created and he found the good. He.Found.The. Good.

 The LORD was pleased with Noah, however.

-Genesis 6:8 (ISV)

And when God found one good thing amidst all the bleakness, he was able to find more!  As we read on we discover not only Noah, but his wife, his three sons, their wives and all the animals were still good and worth holding onto in God’s eyes!  So God focused all his attention onto the goodness that remained, commanded it to stay put, and tucked it all away into the safety of the ark.

 The males and females of each living creature entered the ark, just as God had commanded. Then the LORD sealed them inside.

-Genesis 7:16 (ISV)

After this, of course, a brutal storm rages.  Waves crash, winds howl and Noah and all the animals are tossed about, until finally, one day, storms have passed, the water has subsided and there is solid ground once again.  Here, finally, it is safe and beneficial to let out the goodness that had been tucked inside.  And that goodness—that is, in this case, Noah—makes an offering to God.  God, in return makes a promise:

 … “I will never again curse the land because of human beings—even though human inclinations remain evil from youth—nor will I destroy every living being ever again, as I’ve done. Never again, as long as the earth exists, will sowing and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night ever cease.”

-Genesis 8:21-22

Then, this happens to the goodness that was Noah and his family:

God blessed Noah and his sons and ordered them, “Be productive, multiply, and fill the earth.”

-Genesis 9:1 (ISV)

I see woven within in the story of Noah a recipe from God for what to do when we find ourselves faced with regret:

  1. Acknowledge our regret. For many of us, this is done best through the acknowledgement—or what modern psychologists might call “owning up” – of all of the ways in which we may experience regret.   This act of acknowledgment comes most powerfully in the form of a humble and contrite confession to God and is not limited to acknowledging only our poor choices but also the many ways in which regret and sin may find us, “in my thoughts, and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,” as Catholics say in the Confiteor.
  2. Find something good to hold onto from the situation that brought on the regret. Most often it will be a new awareness or appreciation for something that perhaps was previously taken for granted. Regret over a poor parenting decision, for instance, may bring the “fruit” of a new appreciation for our children.
  3. Tuck that goodness into your heart and lock it safely inside. While God’s forgiveness is immediate and complete, the process of forgiving ourselves generally takes much longer. During this time, our emotions rage. All those Why did/didn’t I…? What if I had…? ‘s can be very taxing, but in time, the harshness of these thoughts will diminish if we let the tides of God’s love wash over them. Most importantly, while the storm of regret rages, do not forget that goodness, too, can and will eventually come from the darkness if you are willing to let it.
  4. Remind yourself of God’s promises. First, that he loves all of us and does not seek to destroy us, yes. But secondly, that throughout all our time on earth we will know “sowing and harvesting, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night.” In other words, we will know suffering, but we will also know joy! Again and again and again. This is not just a promise to love us always, but also a promise to reassure us that everything—even our moments of regret—are all a part of God’s blessing and design for us!
  5. Use any goodness from your moment of regret for a greater good. If your regret brought a new awareness of a social injustice, consider taking action to promote awareness of it, or donating your time and money to its cause. If your regret brings new insight into what led to your poor choices, remind yourself to make a better choice the next time you are put in a similar situation and give thanks to God for helping you see another option. If your moment of regret led you to find a new appreciation for life or family or Church or freedom, cherish that gift and give thanks to God for it and celebrate that gift with others.

It seems in the story of Noah, we can take comfort in believing that it is normal, maybe even necessary, to have some regrets. It is a gift to use them and learn from them. A life without any regrets is seemingly impossible, and arguably would provide little growth. As the Dalai Lama went on to say in his book, “But even though that feeling of regret is still there, it isn’t associated with a feeling of heaviness or a quality of pulling me back. It would not be helpful to anyone if I let that feeling of regret weigh me down, be simply a source of discouragement and depression with no purpose, or interfere with going on with my life to the best of my ability.” Put another way, we can realize through Noah’s story, that what we do with regret is our choice.  God gives us the freedom to choose whether we will hold onto the good that comes from moments of regret and move forward, or let them sink us.

Reflect: What is my moment of deepest regret in life? How am I a better person for having that experience, despite any regret I may feel? What did I learn about myself or others from that experience that has given me a deeper wisdom? How can I use my regret as a catalyst for good moving forward to make my life better for myself and others?

Pray: Cleansing God, though they are painful experiences and memories for me, thank you for giving me moments of regret as milestones in my life. Help me to use them as reminders that growth is sometimes a painful process. Help me also to see that even in painful moments, your love for me and all of humanity endures. Like you sealed Noah and his family in the ark during the storm, seal the regrets of my life with the balm of your love. Amen.

In Three Months’ Time

It is amazing to me what can happen in three months’ time.

Which is how long it’s been since we lost our beloved dog, Baxter.

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And still how my heart grieves!

Slowly, over the three months since his unexpected departure, all the things around the house that were his (and there was literally something in every room…EVERY room!), have been packed up, put away, tucked out of sight for now.  To look around here, you would not know this house has known a dog’s love, a dog’s wet, muddy paws, a dog’s endless loss of fur.

Which makes me sad.

When will we be ready for another dog?

That’s the question on my mind today.  Especially because I was just on a field trip with my son’s middle school class (hence this late afternoon blog post) and spent the better part of the day with a teacher who had been incredibly supportive when Baxter died.  At that time,  I sent an email to all his teachers letting them know what my son would never be able to put into words–that he was grieving the loss of his first dog.  While all the teachers were supportive and kind in their replies, this teacher was especially touched–moved to tears even–by the story of Baxter.  And so today she was eager and excited to hear what we’d done “since then.”

And it was a bit awkward because I wanted to say, “It’s hardly been that long!”

But to some people, when it comes to losing a dog,  three months is three too many.

But it doesn’t help answer the question…what is the “proper” amount of time for me?

People seem to really want to know.

(Nobody wants to know more than I).

All I could tell her was, “The time will be right when my heart is ready to let the new dog be who it’s meant to be, instead of wishing it to be another Baxter.”

For some people, that is almost right away.

For me, it is…not yet.

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At the same time, I believe that the healing won’t be complete until a new dog is ours.

Somewhere in the depths of my heart, I know this.

In a way, that belief was confirmed for me this past weekend when we had the unexpected joy of having my husband’s uncle and aunt drop in on us with none other than their own beloved pup!  Such a treat!  Never have the kids been so excited to have a dog back in the house!  We got out the water bowl and all the toys (and I noted how quickly we found them all.  They are still at arm’s length, it seems.)

Of course, as soon as they left, it was hard not to run right out and pick the first dog that caught our eye.

But, no.

Still my heart is not ready. (It certainly doesn’t seem to mind taking a look on the internet for available dogs, though!)

From a practical standpoint it makes sense that we wait to introduce a new dog until we know our travels will be few and far between.  But, with summer rapidly approaching,  and a few trips planned, that is one reason why right now is not such a good time for a new pup.   Still…

When?  my heart screams.  Because I want desperately to pet a furry head, to step over a furry lump on the kitchen floor, to walk again with leash in hand.

So…when?

I knew  I’d heard some words of comfort in a poem that my good friend and spiritual advisor shared with me right after Baxter passed away.  So, when I got home from the field trip today, I searched for the words and was able to find them without difficulty.   (Thank you, internet!)

“[There are] days when you have your heart back,

You are able to function well

Until in the middle of work or encounter,

Suddenly with no warning,

You are ambushed by grief.

It becomes hard to trust yourself.

All you can depend on now is that

Sorrow will remain faithful to itself.

More than you, it knows its way

And will find the right time

To pull and pull the rope of grief

Until that coiled hill of tears

Has reduced to its last drop.

Gradually, you will learn acquaintance

With the invisible form of your departed;

And when the work of grief is done,

The wound of loss will heal And you will have learned

To wean your eyes

From that gap in the air

And be able to enter the hearth

In your soul where your loved one

Has awaited your return all the time.”

-An excerpt from For Grief by John O’Donohue

I don’t know how else to say it.

The answer to “the right time” is somewhere in these words.

All I know for sure, is this…

For me?

Three months’ time  is not enough.

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LOVE IN ACTION and THE FAMILY DOG

It’s important to me that you understand something. When I embraced SIMPLIFY as my theme for 2013, it wasn’t my intention to never blog again. That would be OVERsimplifying, which I almost never do. In fact, I had intentions to blog at least every Monday, and then add a second day to each week next month.

The thing is (as is often the case), Life had other plans for me.

So, in my case, instead of blogging, Life has kept me preoccupied by playing nurse to my golden retriever. In an attempt to keep the story SIMPLE, let me just outline for you the past two and a half weeks of my life:

  • Left Dog in kennel for vacation.
  • In an attempt to escape and find us, Dog tried to secretly eat his way out of the kennel, but told no one.
  • We returned from vacation and brought Dog home.
  • Dog was happy, but had trouble sleeping and seemed unable to relax. Since, in our presence, Dog can easily be confused with a throw rug until you say the words, “walk” or “yum-yums,” this had us concerned.
  • Dog went to vet and was treated for acid reflux.
  • Dog slept like a baby that night, and we breathed a sigh of relief.
  • Symptoms returned for Dog the next day and we took him back to the vet.
  • Dog was given a special “cocktail” to soothe his stomach and “clear things out.”
  • Dog slept like a baby, but refused to eat the next morning.
  • Dog went back to vet to undergo x-ray.
  • X-ray revealed a mystery item in stomach that would not move.
  • Dog had surgery to remove the “largest mass of foreign body” our vet has ever seen in his 20+ years of vet medicine. They saved a “small fraction” of it for all of us to enjoy (it’s a gallon-sized bag, just so you know):

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  • We feel Dog deserves a plaque like on Man vs. Food that announces “Food Won” (or in this case, “Foreign Body Won”), but I guess the vet thought we were joking because no such plaque has yet been presented to Dog.
  • Dog seemed much better.
  • The next day Dog got worse again.
  • Dog has been at the vet two of the past three days and was treated for gas and other things.
  • As a result of trying to guess what all may be wrong with him, I get to give him all these meds at least twice each day. On a good day he’ll take them wrapped in the cheese slices, but he hasn’t had a good day yet this week:

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  • To date Dog is still eating very little and/or refusing to eat altogether.

So, I’m at that scary place right now where I don’t know how the story will end. And so I don’t want to write, because it’s difficult to write when you’re in the middle of something scary and painful.

But that’s kind of why I realized I had to write. Because I want you to show you how my mystic mind has learned to deal with scary, painful times.

Here’s a punch list of how I’ve been dealing with this:

  • I write down the things I’m grateful for every day. It can be as simple as “The dog pooped!” and as deeply sad as, “I am so grateful that if I have to experience a loved one suffering it is my dog suffering and not my children, husband or other  human loved one.”
  • I lower my expectations for the day. I don’t expect the world to understand how much my dog means to me. But I know our story. I know how much he means, and so I know I need to hold myself more gently right now. I’ve cleared my schedule so that if I need to stay busy, I get busy with housework, and if I need to lay low and watch TV for a bit while the dog walks around backwards into things (which he’s been doing a lot), then I can watch him and use the TV as a distraction.
  • I stay focused on what matters. This is, for me, at least, much harder than it sounds. I get distracted so easily with thoughts of “what if’s” and “then what’s” that I tend to miss the big picture of what these series of events will mean in my WHOLE life. Yes, it’s hard to watch my dog in pain. And yes, it is EXPENSIVE. Yes, it’s hard to think of having to let him go (if it comes to that). Yes, it would be sad…BUT…Yes, my kids are healthy. Yes, my husband is still gainfully employed so we can pay those bills. Yes, when you can fix a problem with money it’s really not the biggest problem you’ll ever have. Yes, in spite of however this ends, I am still so happy and grateful and better for having known my dog that I would do it all over again– even if the end of our relationship comes much sooner than I’d expected.
  • I (force myself to) practice what I preach. I’ve embraced a new mantra, and when I do that, I know from experience that Life has a way of testing me on it. My new mantra has been this: THERE IS NO BLAME. And these are the words on which I’ve tried to focus this whole episode. The people who supervised my dog at the kennel where he ate the stuff? They are not to blame. The doctors who didn’t have x-ray vision and know that my dog ate something? They are not to blame. The dog who should just KNOW BY NOW how to be calm in our absence? He is not to blame. And that leaves me with the one person left I like to blame the most for things going wrong: Me. The old habits are hard to break: I should have known….I should have said…I should have told them…I should have been more diligent…. But if I go down that road, I’m not helping anyone. Not the doctors, not the kennel workers , not my kids and husband who are just as concerned and hurting as I am watching our family pet suffer, not my friends and family who have called to check on his progress through this seemingly endless journey, and– most especially–not the dog.

In the meantime, I’m waiting and watching and praying. These acts are the silent language of LOVE IN ACTION that my dog understands. And whether these past few days end up being but a bump in the road of an otherwise long, enjoyable life with him, or they end up being his *gulp* dying days, it is most important to me that he see his life lesson has not gone unnoticed, that his message for me has been received, that his purpose for being has transformed me.

And I feel the Spirit within smiling and nodding and bringing me peace with this SIMPLE revelation:  Through the ages, few earthly beings have been more consistent about the message of LOVE IN ACTION than the family dog.

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Closing thought: If you have a family dog that you love and have learned some of life’s SIMPLER lessons from, feel free to post his/her name (or names if you have more than one) in the comments section below. I will know through that SIMPLE act, that you are joining your hearts with ours in prayer for a speedy recovery for our beloved Baxter.

xx oo

Lisa