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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.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Our World Today: Choosing Sides or Stepping Back

by Lauren Van Ham

And just the moment when you are all confused leaps forth a voice hold me close I’m love and I'm always yours.
- Rumi

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Matthew 5:9

I had already begun to blog about a fun adventure my Mom and I had undertaken in May, when the NPR sound waves interrupted my train of thought.  My hands left the keyboard as I listened to the reporter interview Palestinian families who were registering with U.N officials at a shelter site, near Gaza. 

With a sigh, I sat back from the computer and felt my chest tighten in the way it does when I experience the discomfort of having so much, when others have so little.  I thought about how I had taken a bike ride that morning, through a gorgeous, protected expanse of preserved land; and how very soon, I would be joining friends in their cozy home, to watch the final World Cup game, all in the safety and freedom of a neighborhood adjacent to my own, where there would be plenty of good food and water and anything we could possibly need.  And then my thoughts went to all the people around the world today, who aren’t able to count on any of this.  Whether recovering from a natural disaster, or trying to survive in land torn by civil unrest and war, I found myself in that moment, sending prayers to all points of the earth, asking God to ease the suffering, to end the fighting, to provide humans with the courage and willingness to forge peace.  And, at the same time, I expressed gratitude for all that I have, for how blessed I feel.

In that moment, I realized that I, “should” be writing about the sadness I feel about the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.  And that thought was immediately followed by my confusion about what I could possibly say that hasn’t already been pondered, which then made me think of all the activists who - throughout the ages - have tirelessly persisted, continuing to talk about things that have endlessly been pondered, simply because it wasn’t (isn’t) okay for everyone else to be sitting back and not taking a stand.

Granted, it’s not as simple as saying that my taking a bike ride or watching the World Cup means I’m, “sitting back.”  There are, however, undeniably difficult realities surrounding the things I enjoy, quite possibly happening at the expense of another.  Carbon bikes are manufactured in Asia.  Can I guarantee the working conditions for the employees at those factories?  I cannot.  In the weeks before the World Cup, there were horrific headlines about FIFA and their dismissive treatment toward the Brazilians.   What would Jesus have said to FIFA? 

Hhrmphf.  This world can feel so complicated. 

In recent months, several Christian denominations have implemented their decision to divest from Israel.  Maybe, in reflecting on impotency we typically feel, when facing something so large as a decades-old argument, in a country and culture not my own, the first step is to simply say, “I’m not supporting either side.” Maybe by stepping back from the particulars of one side or the other, we can begin to see the people, the faces and lives of our fellow humans. 

When you find yourself caught up in “making it fair,” or choosing a side, what helps you regain neutrality?  What have you been part of recently that (large or small) was a peace-making effort?

About Lauren: Lauren lives in Berkeley, CA.  She serves as Dean at The Chaplaincy Institute (ChI), an interfaith seminary and tends her private practice as a spiritual director.  You can read Lauren’s blog at: http://www.laurenvanham.com/

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Another Prayer for the Meadowlarks

by Angier Brock

In the last five weeks, I have gone every day but one to watch for the Eastern Meadowlarks that are nesting on a section of the Yorktown battlefield. While Meadowlarks are not endangered, their population has been decreasing at an alarming rate. Because they are ground nesters, they are vulnerable not only to other animals but also to the human appetite for manicured green spaces. This year, however, rather than being mowed every few weeks, the grasses on part of the battlefield have been allowed to grow up into a meadow, thus accommodating the Meadowlarks’ breeding season. What I watch for and report each day is the birds’ behavior, from which we can infer where they are in their cycle—and hold off the mowing until the season’s offspring are able to fend for themselves.

I have learned a great deal about Eastern Meadowlarks, not only from reading books and visiting websites but also from making and recording my own observations. But I have also learned a great deal from the Meadowlarks. They have taught me the value of physical presence. They have confirmed the goodness of watching, waiting, being patient. They have affirmed the merit of showing up, open to the moment, fully present.  

These are not new lessons. For years, teaching writing classes, I have harped on the importance of showing up regularly at the blank page, even when (perhaps especially when) you think you have nothing on your mind, nothing to say. Likewise, for years I have heard people who give instruction in contemplative prayer stress the same thing. The first step is always to make oneself available, and to keep making oneself available day after day, even if it seems that nothing comes of the effort.

I know these things. But I forget. How good it is to be reminded that there will be a payoff. That if I stay with the process and show up, a poem will emerge. Or that if I stay with the discipline of prayer, there will be an inner shift, and with it perhaps some guidance, or healing, or peace.

I feel deeply grateful for my time with the Meadowlarks.  As I continue to keep watch, sooner or later I will notice that they are doing something different from what they were doing the day before. Perhaps they are gathering sticks for a nest. Perhaps they are carrying in food for the hatchlings. Perhaps they are standing sentinel, calling the fledglings out of the tall grasses and into a mown swath on the perimeter of the field to gather seed on their own.

What about you? Where are you called to watch, to wait, to listen? I pray that the Meadowlarks will thrive here on our now peaceful battlefield. May you also thrive in those places and among those people where you are called to live, to work, to be present.