Monday, November 22, 2010

A Circumstance-Proof Gratitude

Of all the qualities of character I aspire to, I believe that gratitude may be the most important. Gratitude is so basic and foundational. If we don't have it, then we will also likely lack other key qualities: faith, hope, love and joy.

The kind of gratitude I want is one that isn't dependent upon my circumstances. It's easier to be grateful when life is going well-- when we're well fed, housed, clothed and loved. But the test of genuine gratitude is when life goes against us-- when we fail or suffer pain, loss or disappointments.

The above-described "gratitude test" is one that I often fail. Yet, I want to do better. I want my gratitude to grow so large that it eclipses the negatives of daily living.

The key to gratitude is memory. When I'm feeling ungrateful, it is because I have forgotten about the gifts I have been given. The main gift to be grateful for is the gift of life. I did not create my life-- it has been given to me. Life is a gift of God's grace.

There are so many other gifts to thankful for: love, family, relationships, work, play, imagination, opportunities and more. This list could go on and on. Yet, when we're not feeling grateful, we have difficulty finding even one thing to be thankful for.

When I'm not feeling grateful, I still try to be grateful. That is, I try to remind myself of the gifts mentioned above. Our life circumstances change constantly. I want a gratitude that transcends these circumstances. I don't believe this desire is impossible, but neither is it easy to achieve. Grace can always evoke gratitude, if we will open our eyes, mind and heart to it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Paying Attention

According to brain scientists, "attention" is their holy grail. For years, scientists have been trying to discover what causes us to focus on one thing rather than another and why.

We've all heard of "attention deficit disorder" (ADD), a condition in which attention moves quickly from one thing to another. This is an impediment to learning, as the ability to pay attention to what we're reading or writing is a key academic skill.

When it comes to spirituality, attention also plays a key role. Being able to focus our attention on the sacred dimension of life is a critical spiritual practice. When our attention wanders, our soul meanders.

Attention is an important dimension of "mindfulness"-- being present in the here and now. Another way to understand mindfulness is "being fully present in the present moment." When we are mindful of what we are doing (or not doing) our spiritual connection is strengthened and deepened.

Another name for mindfulness is "flow," the ability to be fully engaged in what we are doing. I find that mindfulness/flow is fostered by "losing" myself in whatever I'm doing. That's where paying attention comes in. To focus our attention serves to keep us from being distracted or having what Buddhist's call a "monkey mind" that moves rapidly from one thought/feeling to another.

I don't believe it's possible to always stay in the present moment. But when I do, I am engaged, energized and, at the same time, calm and balanced.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Call or Calls?

I spent the past three days interviewing candidates for the ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church. My task was to discern and confirm a person's call to ministry. It was an interesting, and tiring, process.

About 2/3 of the 15 candidates we interviewed were beginning their second or even third careers. Having more than one career in today's rapidly changing work environment is very common. I've read that those in college now will have and average of 3 different careers and 9 different jobs.

When we're at the beginning of the work phase of our lives, we often struggle with the question: What am I called to do? This vocational question is important to answer if we are to thrive in life. However, it might be more appropriate to speak of calls rather than a single call.

The pattern I've often seen in candidates for ordained ministry is that they heard a call to ministry early in life, but ignored it or delayed responding to it. Then, in midlife, the call to ministry comes again and it is answered.

I like the idea that we have more than one call in life to respond to. As we grow and change, so can our understanding of what we are called to do and to be. The key is to listen-- to our deepest self, to the voices of others and to the voice of God.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Force Majeure

Now that the racing season is over for rowing, I was looking forward to some peaceful, smooth, undemanding rows in the morning. The change to Standard Time yesterday meant that there would be light at 6:30 a.m., the time when we row. So I went down to the rowing club this morning anticipating calm water and weather.

While it was somewhat windy, four of us were enjoying a good row in a quad in the protected waters of the Norwalk River. Then, suddenly, a huge snow squall came out of nowhere, carried by wind gusts of over 40 MPH. Our boat was literally blown backwards! We rowed with all of our skill and power to make forward progress into this stiff headwind with white-capped waves washing over the bow of the boat. We struggled to keep the boat from being blown into the muddy river bank. The sleet pelting us felt like needles.

When we finally made it back to our dock we had a new challenge. The dock was covered with ice from the snow/sleet mixture! Somehow, we got the boat out of the water and up the icy ramp without injury to us or the boat.

Once again, I was reminded of how powerful the forces of nature can be. The term "force majeure" is defined as "an overwhelming or irresistible force." To experience nature's power is an awesome and heady experience. I emerged from this battle with nature with a sense of awe at nature's power and a sense of gratitude that I and my fellow rowers survived this force majeure.

Experiences like these can be thrilling. Experiencing nature's power (and surviving it) made me feel more fully alive. I also have greater respect for those forces beyond our control. This was just a small taste of nature's power. I have renewed respect and empathy for those who must deal with more dangerous force majeures: tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes. Not everyone survives nature's unpredictable and overwhelming power.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Conquering and Acquiring Fears

One of my professors at Yale Divinity School, the late Paul Holmer, once asked our class, “Over the past year, what fears have you conquered and what fears have you acquired?” Such a question isn’t easy to answer and requires some real, honest self-examination. The class was silent for what seemed like an eternity and it dawned on us that this wasn’t a rhetorical question. Dr. Holmer expected an answer!

Then, a courageous middle-aged woman raised her hand and said, “I have conquered my fear of being alone after my husband’s death and I’ve mostly conquered my fear of spiders. But I have become increasingly fearful of cancer and of my children getting hurt.” We all admired her honesty, but she was the lone respondent to the question. The rest of us were too afraid to venture an answer.

What were we afraid of? I can’t answer for others, but I was afraid of revealing too much about myself in this group of peers. If I was honest about my fears, how would they judge me? Once we give a name to our fears and voice them, some can seem silly. For example, many of us are afraid of insects—especially spiders—but might not like to admit this publicly. Yet, a fear of spiders is a rational fear. Poisonous spiders like the Brown Recluse can genuinely hurt us. Snakes are also in this same category of “rational fears.” A healthy fear of snakes and other creatures that can harm us is a good thing to have when you’re on the trail.

Dr. Holmer’s question contains an assumption that expresses another truth about fear: we are always in the process of conquering some fears and acquiring others. How are fears conquered? The first thing to do in conquering a fear is to face it. As long as a fear lurks in the darkness of our subconscious, it will elude us and restrict us. As long as we deny or repress a fear, it will have power over us. To rob a fear of its power, we must bring it into the light of consciousness. This allows us to name the fear and to take responsibility for it.

While facing a fear won't make it magically disappear, it is the first step in overcoming it.

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Prayer for All Seasons

Eternal Friend, once again we come to express our thanksgiving for
everything have have done for us and everything you have given us.
We praise you for all the gifts of life, love and joy you have so
generously bestowed upon us.

One of your gifts is the gift of seasons and we give you thanks
for the beauty of autumn. The leaves of gold and red have graced our
walks and our drives. Sometimes the beauty of a season is so overwhelming
that we cannot find the words to capture the joy and wonder of it.

As fall draws to a close, winter will come. Some of us know what it is to
suffer a winter of the soul, where we feel that you are distant or absent. During this inner winter, we suffer the pain of alienation and long for reunion and
reconciliation with you.

As we look at our world, we see other kinds of winter. When we see the alienation and tragedy of war, we hope for a spring of peace. When we see the ravages of diseases like cancer and AIDS, we pray for an autumn of healing. When we see the life diminishing effects of poverty we long for a summer of abundance shared.

Give us the vision to see the possibilities you have in store for our world.
Let us see the world and its peoples not with wintry distance but with summer warmth. Let us bloom where we are planted and find ways to improve our corner of the world. Let us make a positive difference in the world you have given us. Amen.