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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Reflection and Ethics at the Hardware Store

by Doug Wysockey-Johnson

I had one of those small yet big moments at the hardware store the other day.  The story is too long to tell in detail, but the synopsis is this:  A week previous I had been in to purchase fencing for the backyard.  Due to the cashier’s error, and unknown to me at the time, I underpaid.  (He rang me up for the one roll of fencing I brought to the counter, not the 2 rolls I told him I was taking.)  Now it was a week later.  I was back, and as a new cashier gave me the price, I realized the error. 

So there was this moment, just seconds really, where a decision-making process was unfolding internally.  My first reaction was to let the whole thing slide.  “Their mistake was a few days ago…..they have no idea…….I’m not positive what happened……no harm no foul…..etc. etc.”  I was leaning pretty heavily toward not mentioning the error, especially since it now turned out that the fencing I was buying was more than I thought.  All this internal processing was happening in the few seconds it took to swipe my card and punch in my PIN. But before I hit the last number, I decided to speak up:

“Dan, I think I know what happened.  When I was in here the other day, your cashier charged me for one roll of fencing, not two. If that is the case, I guess I owe you some money.”

Dan smiled and said, “Yep, you owe us another $37.  And by the way, thank you for your honesty.”

As I walked out of the hardware store, I felt less proud about doing the right thing than sobered by how long it took me to get there.

The Power of Reflection

Here is what I know about myself.  My first instinct is not always my best instinct.  In school, teachers often said, “trust your first response.”  That may be true in test- taking, but my default position is very often towards self-preservation, and self-interest.  Whether that is the so-called ‘lizard brain’ responsible for fight or flight, original sin or what, I have no idea.  I just know that frequently my immediate response is not always my best response. 

I guess that is why I believe so much in the power of reflection.  Whether it is a full day away, or a few seconds at the cash register, I often come closer to the person I want to be after I have been willing to pause.  It is almost like in those few seconds (or minutes or hours), I am able to remember who I am, or what I was taught as a child or who I want to be. I find the person who is more than self-preservation, more than self-interest, more than self first.  My truer self is in there, but it takes some time to find me.

Speed in work has compensations.  Speed gets noticed.  Speed is praised by others.  Speed is self important.  Speed absolves us.  Speed means we don’t really belong to any particular thing or person we are visiting and thus appears to elevate us above the ground of our labors.  When it becomes all-consuming, speed is the ultimate defense, the antidote to stopping and really looking.  If we really saw what we were doing and who we had become, we feel we might not survive the stopping and the accompanying self appraisal.  So we don’t stop, and the faster we go, the harder it becomes to stop

                                    David Whyte, Crossing the Unknown Sea, p. 117

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Prayer for Muddling Along

by Angier Brock

Recently, in a moment some might call insanity or hubris but which may also have been an act of faith, I agreed to make a box cushion seat cover, complete with piping, to help a friend who was re-upholstering a small sofa. I do not sew very much. In fact, I have had an uneasy relationship with sewing machines for most of the five and a half decades since I first learned to use an old treadle Singer in home economics class. (For the record, I was in the seventh grade—pretty much the worst year of my then-young life).

Sewing machines themselves have certainly come a long way since 1959. The one I am currently using, borrowed from my granddaughter who is now the age I was then, is a super duper amazing digital model. After several hours with the owner’s manual, I figured out how to thread it and how to fill the bobbin. I am still learning what its various communicative beeps and error messages mean. But it is a fabulous instrument. It even threads its own needle—a boon for my aging eyes and sometimes stiff fingers.

However, even a wondrous sewing machine cannot factor out all human error. It cannot ensure that I have measured the pieces and figured the seam allowances correctly, let alone cut the fabric (and matched the checked pattern) accurately. Nor can it guarantee that the piping stays where I want it, even after I have pinned it into place. And so I continue muddling along with the project. To date, I have ripped out more stitches that I have let stay. In so doing, many of all the words I have muttered to myself would not be recognized by most people as prayer.

As I write this, I cannot say for sure how this project will turn out. My friend has assured me that the sofa cushion cover need not be perfect—as it certainly will not be. But how well or poorly it will fit, how flat or puckered the piping might be, whether or not the pattern of checks aligns with the checks on other parts of the sofa, and ultimately how acceptable the cushion will be not only in my friend’s eyes but also in mine—those things remain to be seen. 

Much of life’s journey is like that. We don’t always know how our friendships, marriages, jobs, volunteer activities, or even tonight’s dinner will turn out. Though we are constantly learning, we never learn it all, and we are prone to forgetting our earlier lessons. Sometimes we choose to give up. Other times, in what may truly be an act of faith, we choose to muddle along, despite how things look.

When it is possible to do so, I am all for keeping the faith by muddling. Sometimes we do so alone, though if we are lucky, we may find a good muddling guide or guide book. Life, of course, doesn’t always allow for “do-overs.” Sometimes when we rip the stitching out of something that didn’t come together quite the way we had hoped, the fabric gets torn. Sometimes it cannot be mended. Sometimes the mending leaves scars we know are there, even if we cover them with a well-placed throw pillow.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

What Are You (Not) Doing this Labor Day Weekend?

by  Doug Wysockey-Johnson

What Are You (Not) Doing this Labor Day Weekend?

Ok folks, time to plan ahead.  We have a holiday weekend coming up, and for most of us that means a little extra time off.  It is a golden opportunity to make a deposit in your spiritual wellness bank, a deposit you will need to draw from in the future.  It may be a day later or a month later, but eventually, life is going to get stressful.  That is what life does.

The good news is that you have lots of options. There is a growing body of research that provides data about the ways our bodies and our spirits are renewed. Here are just a few of the things that have been proven to increase our wellness:
  • spend time outdoors;
  • gather with good friends or family;
  • de-clutter your house;
  • rest;
  • do something for someone else;
  • worship;
  • exercise;
  • shut down the computer;
  • play with your dog;
  • laugh;
  • pray

These are all great ideas, not only for a holiday weekend, but for Sabbath in general.  Sabbath is that Judeo-Christian practice that emerged from the notion that even (and because!) God rested on the seventh day, so should we.  At the heart of Sabbath and spiritual wellness is the idea that there is nothing more you have to do or be.  As Walter Brueggemann writes in his excellent book “Sabbath as Resistance

On the Sabbath:
            You do not have to do more.
            You do not have to sell more.
            You do not have to control more.
            You do not have to know more.
            You do not have to have your kids in ballet or soccer.
            You do not have to be younger or more beautiful.
            You do not have to score more.

So be intentional about your spiritual wellness this Labor Day Weekend. Make a plan, block the time, place the call, think ahead, phone for a reservation, and generally do what you need to do (or not do) to make a deposit in your spiritual wellness bank this weekend.  It will not be wasted time.  

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

If this is not a Place…

by  Paul Hettinga

Recently I have been listening to Ken Medema’s Podcasts “Inside the Songs” as I’m walking in the morning. Many of us know Ken and have seen and heard him in concert over the years. Like me, I’m sure most of you find him to be inspiring both in his life and his message through music.

On his podcast titled “Places” he plays this wonderful song “If this is not a Place” and for some reason this morning that brought me to tears. I should say that I get teary eyed pretty quickly these days, but that’s another story for another day.

It’s been nearly 9 months since I have retired – and during this time, I have tried to devote myself to answering the question of  “Who does God want me to be or what does God want me to do with this next chapter of my life?” I’ve read a number of things, I’ve kept a journal, I’ve tried to be quieter than normal and I’ve certainly prayed more fervently. I’m currently starting to meet with a spiritual director to give me a little life coaching with a spiritual perspective.

However, I don’t have much good news to report yet. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love all my free time and I use it to do things I’m interested in. But as for answering this question, I’m beginning to doubt the sincerity of my own questions at this point. I wonder if God is thinking the same thing.

And yet, I’m continuing to stay in this place and to be more present to God’s quiet nudges that come in many forms instead of filling up my life with lots of other places, responsibilities and activities. It’s a little threatening to my ego and there are days I just think I’m being lazy, unproductive and should get off my dead butt and get out there again.

But somehow deep within my heart, I know the place I need to be right now is this quiet listening place within the core of who I am, and it’s this place where God will dwell in me and gently transform me into the image he wants me to be.

Ken doesn’t answer the question “If this is Not a Place” – but he certainly suggests a whole lot of places that won’t help us to know ourselves and be known by God. Take a few minutes to listen to the You Tube of Ken performing this wonderful song.

May God bless you richly in your own pursuit of authentic living, 

If This Is Not A Place. . .
   Ken Medema

Click here to download a You Tube video of Ken performing this:

If this is not a place where tears are understood,
Then where shall I go to cry?
And if this is not a place where my spirit can take wings,
Then where shall I go to fly?

I don't need another place for trying to impress you
With just how good and virtuous I am.
I don't need another place for always being on top of things;
Everybody knows that it's a sham.

I don't need another place for always wearing smiles,
Even when it's not the way I feel.
I don't need another place to mouth the same old platitudes;
Everybody knows that it's not real.

So if this is not a place where my questions can be asked,
Then where shall I go to seek?

And if this is not a place where my heart cry can be heard,
Where, tell me where, shall I go to speak?
So if this is not a place where tears are understood,
Where shall I go, where shall I go to fly?

-- Ken Medema

artwork by Alicia Drakiotis, Marlborough, NH

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Laughter Pauses: Reflections on Robin Williams and Suicide

by Tom Pappas

I would be pleased to write something profound, and as yet unsaid, about the loss of comedic talent Robin Williams. This will not happen.

When I reflect on my exposure to Mr. Williams over many years, it will be like everyone else in his audiences. I have known him about the length of a movie here, the time it takes to watch a sitcom there, a talk show interview from time to time. One of the reasons I, the Alpha introvert, admired him was his relentless unfiltered imagination. Didn’t he love to perform? Didn’t he love to be ‘on’?

From the dusty files of my mid 20th century formative years I remember clearly this aphorism. “You are who you are when you’re by yourself.” There are moments when my solitary, tinkering, bumbling self doesn’t resemble who I present to the public, and never will; but all in all, being me is pretty fun.

It must be that Robin Williams had excruciating trouble when he wasn’t guy in the spotlight with the mike. I wonder if this source of fun for millions stopped being fun to his own self?  As a person with personal experience with three generations of mental/emotional illness, I can conjecture some impossibly difficult stretches, long, dark nights and endless, deep heartaches. How sad, how hard.

It must be excruciating to make an end of life decision that would effect so many.  A poster comes to mind along this line, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” Life sometimes disappoints.

I think God wants me to be kind to others .  .  . to energetically work for improved mental health services .   .   . to love and respect myself as I have been made in God’s image .  .  . to laugh more often and more easily.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Prayer for the Meadowlarks, and for the Children

by Angier Brock

My heart sank last Wednesday when I saw that one of the fields where I have been observing Eastern Meadowlark activity this summer had been mowed! Granted, that particular field had not been included in the original monitoring plans, but in the last two weeks I had documented nesting activity there, and so I had hoped—

For about an hour, I walked the mowed field, looking and listening and occasionally turning over clumps of hay to peer underneath, but I found no sign of the birds. I went home in tears, grieving for what I was sure had been lost.

There is some good news in this story. When I went back in the afternoon, I spotted four Meadowlarks there, two adults, I think, and two of their young. What a relief that they had survived the mowing! Still, their nest had been wrecked and their cover destroyed. Perhaps I am anthropomorphizing to say this, but they looked the way people do when they return to their homes after a devastating storm has struck their neighborhood. They seemed disoriented, stunned and confused.

The next day at the village post office, I happened to overhear a woman I have met only briefly at church on Sunday mornings say to someone else, “I know they are only children, but….” When she saw me, her words trailed off. I pretended not to have heard. She lowered her voice to finish her sentence. The only other word I heard was “aliens.”

Again my heart sank, for it was clear what she was talking about. The look of the displaced Meadowlarks came to mind—along with the recognition that it is a relatively simple thing to address the problem of Meadowlark habitat protection. You simply acknowledge the need and postpone mowing. How much more complicated it is to address the displacement of the children who are now stranded—disoriented, stunned, confused—on our southern border, caught between powerful systems they had no hand in creating. And yet, address it we must, for not only are they children, they are children who have fled horrific circumstances. Like the Meadowlarks, they need first to be seen and to have their needs acknowledged. Then they need help and protection so that they can not only survive but also thrive.

I wish I had an easy answer for the problems the children face, but I do not. I wish that our elected officials were working together on addressing the complexities of the matter. Alas, they seem to be doing little but lobbing accusations at one another—while some people are even yelling at the children themselves. The woefully little good news I have heard coming from this story includes this: To counter the angry voices, there is now a website where ordinary people can leave messages for the children, messages of hope and compassion. If you feel so inclined, you too can participate in that effort at www.theyarechildren.com.

“Do your little bit of good where you can; it’s these little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” Those words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu help counter the despair it would be easy to sink into in the face of the world’s great pain. Today, the little bits of good I feel called to do include posting a message for the children. And in the days to come, as I continue to watch and pray for the Meadowlarks, I will also watch and pray for the children.  

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


by Doug Wysockey-Johnson

He probably doesn’t know it, but New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote a great OP-ED piece on calling.  He was writing about something so many of us are feeling these days:  our lack of focus.  We are losing what he calls the “attention war.” 

Brooks confesses:  “I text when I should be paying attention to the people in front of me. I spend hours looking at mildly diverting stuff on YouTube. (“Look, there’s a bunch of guys who can play ‘Billie Jean’ on beer bottles!”).” 

And I confess that I relate to his confession. I haven’t seen the ‘Billie Jean’ video, but I have watched my share of funny cat episodes.   Not to mention whatever it is my friends on Facebook want me to read or watch.  Not to mention what ESPN tells me what is important news of the day.  Make room in the confession booth David, there are a lot of us who are feeling more than a little distracted these days.

But more than his confession, I relate to his conclusion:  the answer to our distraction is not sermonizing and prohibitions on screen activity.  “Just say no” has never been a great change strategy.  Brooks concludes:  “The lesson from childhood, then, is that if you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say “no” to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say “yes” to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.”

I remember a time when I was asked to be on a volunteer committee.  I asked for a week to think about it. In that week, I noticed that ideas continually emerged for what we might do on this committee.  I couldn’t not think about it.  The ‘terrifying longing’ was crowding out everything else, and I said yes. 

I imagine the superficial chatter in our world is only going to increase. I predict more funny cat videos, not less.  (And lest you think I am a total scrooge, I hope to continue to enjoy internet fluff now and then.)  But it is worth taking time on a regular basis to get below the chatter, listening for what is a little deeper in us.  You want to be more focused?  Pay attention to what gets your emotions going and what you can’t help thinking about. Pay attention to your call.