By Diane Pate
This photo appeared in a text on my phone one recent January night. Just as I, and a few family members and friends, were settling down to relax and enjoy the euphoria and quiet after a particularly special birthday party for one of our daughters. At first glance, I thought my sister was sharing with me the beauty of the Sierras around her little cabin during the latest storms. But something was out of place in this serene snowy scene. The leaning tree. Was it behind her cabin? It couldn’t be ON her cabin, could it?
A flurry of texts followed, beginning with this, “So this just happened. Neighbor’s tree. Took out chimney and went through our roof. On our way up now. What a nightmare.”
And just like that, our family peace was shattered.
The damage turned out to be extensive and will not be fully known until the spring thaws. My sister and her family are overwhelmed with the loss, and aftermath, and the waiting. But even more, they are awed by the goodness of God. For after a day of skiing, their plan had been to sleep at the cabin on the night the tree fell. Instead, feeling tired, they made the drive home.
Pondering my sister’s story, I realize, I too, am increasingly aware of God’s persistent goodness and protection, perhaps most especially in the dark places of my life. God’s grace and mercy chases after me all my days. I find that I need it most when anxiety and those inner troublesome truth distortions are my closest companions. KJ Ramsey writes in her book, The Lord is My Courage, that God’s love hounds us. God’s love does not simply follow us, like our dog might follow us into the woods. God hunts us down. We are haunted by beauty, and are being chased down by grace. Our lives are not about finding God. They are about being found.
We all need a way to root ourselves in this reality. We need reminders to turn our attention from all the harm that pursues us, to the God who pursues us more. We need daily spiritual practices, prompts, and rest to be brought back to this reality every single day. Take a few moments and name for yourself:
As you walk through the unknown of what each day brings, may you be easy in yourself, enjoying God and yourself, happy, useful and a lover of all.
By Brooke Maffia Wang
As I drive down our street my eyes catch the lemon colored leaves about to fall. Each November I’m stopped in my tracks when the otherwise drab pavement is transformed into a captivating canvas. The breathtaking blanket of color awakens something in me.
Is it because the leaves are most beautiful for a short time at the end of their life? Or, that such a welcome mess is made by them? Or, is it a centering reminder that change is my only constant, and I’m not alone? Even the earth is feeling it. Or, maybe, it is the sense of awe that washes over me, invites me to linger, drops the tension in my shoulders and allows me to exhale?
As I approach the new year, I find myself uninterested in New Year’s resolution, but wondering about the structures that hold me, us. Like the branches that are left after the colorful finale. The stark beauty hints of what has been, and what is to come. Naked and unashamed its structure is reveled.
I’ve always been drawn to the beauty of barren trees. Years ago, newly married with our backpacks we took an unplanned stop in Lucca, Italy. A walled city where these trees (photo above) sit a top a thick wall. I can still feel the release of my shoulders, the sinking of my chest and curl upward of my lips as I remember being there. What was true then, is true now. The structures that hold us matter.
As you walk into this new year or when you notice the leaves fall off your tree:
One of the branches on the tree of my life is the practice of receiving spiritual direction*. A monthly meeting with a skilled listener who gently and compassionately helps me discern the voice of the Holy in my life. This year marks 20 years I’ve given myself to this practice. I stay with it, not because it is easy, but because it continues to offer me something of beauty. Similar to the lemon colored blanket on the pavement each November. As you enter this new year, may you find yourself held and known as you walk toward what has never been before.
*If you’re curious about this practice you can find more info here.
By Barbara Milligan
For some of us, the holiday season is painful. We’ve lost someone dear to us. We’ve suffered from a broken relationship. We’ve lost financial stability or a cherished dream. Or we’ve experienced some other trauma, crisis, or deep disappointment that makes this season difficult. Whatever it is, we might try to put on a happy face, hoping the feelings will follow. Or we might avoid social interaction so we don’t risk spoiling someone’s party.
I lost my husband last year, one week before Thanksgiving. Although he had been ill for many years and his death was no surprise, I was not prepared for the depth of the pain I felt. I cried nearly every night. And still do. How could such a loving, sensitive, creative person be gone from this world? It didn’t make sense. And no amount of focusing on how he’s free from his suffering and is enjoying God’s presence and yes, I believe I’ll see him again, took away my longing for his physical presence right now, my missing hearing his voice right now.
I especially dreaded experiencing the holidays without my soulmate. Strangely, alongside that dread I also sensed a glimmer of hope: Advent, the season of “God with us.” I looked forward to it, not because it might cheer me up, but because I understood Advent as an invitation to come to God with all our feelings, in all their rawness. Uncensored. Unjudged. And with God’s full attention and compassion.
I believe that Psalm 34:18 is true: “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” So, I’ve been trying to welcome my unwanted feelings. I’m not good at this. It’s sometimes hard work and I’d rather distract myself. But God is helping me to face each feeling that arises and to welcome it.
I also pray for an open spirit to receive gifts of God’s presence with me. And soon I start recognizing those gifts. I tend to receive peace, comfort, and sometimes even joy right alongside the grief. God’s gift might be someone’s kind word or an offer of help, or it might be something personal that only God could do.
Among my favorite things about this season is the return of migratory ducks to my community. One recent morning when I was feeling especially sad, I again asked God to open my spirit to receive good gifts. When I opened my eyes, I noticed several ducks swimming in a nearby lagoon. They didn’t appear to be our usual coots or mallards, so I looked at them through my field glasses. How surprised and grateful I was to realize I was receiving a gift from God—my first sighting of migratory ducks this season. And they were a breed I had never noticed before.
Coincidence? I don’t think so. Instead, I believe God was saying to me, I hear you. I see you. And I am with you in all your feelings.
May you receive many good gifts from God during this Advent season. May you experience “God with us” in all your feelings.
by Wendy Lew Toda, artist, ACC
Cakes, cookies, breads, desserts, you name it! I love to bake. This means I have gone through a lot of eggs. Typically, the eggshells got tossed without a second thought. But one day, while breaking five eggs for a cake, my eyes lingered along the random edges of the broken shells on the kitchen counter. There was something about the way they held loss and beauty at the same time that drew me in. I decided to keep them. Cleaning these first ten halves felt like prayer as I carefully supported each one through the gentle washing process and held the pieces of shell together in the crushed parts. I sensed a story in each broken half - my journey, your journey, maybe even our journey - all contained in the tiny space of each half eggshell.
Till now, the Tabiji Eggshells have been painted on the insides and presented individually. My brush traces the journey from edge to edge in that inner landscape, color saying what words cannot. This pair is titled "Together", created because grief has a way of stripping us down, often leaving us feeling bare, exposed and empty...those times when there is no color inside or out. These paintless eggshells reflect the beauty of that stark, raw honesty. They bear only God’s fearlessly compassionate touch, tracing a touch of gold over and around our jagged edges. There is no shrinking back here. Only the tender, fierce love of God reaching out to touch and name our brokenness sacred. Holy.
I am a broken eggshell, holding the memory of what it meant to be whole. Perhaps you are too? These two Tabiji Eggshells are together because grief is not meant to be carried alone. “Tabiji” is a Japanese word that means “journey through”.
Please join me for a gently facilitated time of retreat with the Tabiji Eggshells, Honoring Grief and Loss: Preparing Your Heart for the Holiday Season on Saturday November 5. The process is safe, kind, and no art experience is needed. You and your grief and loss are welcome, however you may come on that day, in that moment.
By Monica Romig Green
I tried to read, but he just kept falling asleep too quickly! You see, for most of our marriage, my husband has read to me every night before we go to sleep. We used to take turns reading, but now he is on permanent reading duty, and I get to listen to his sonorous baritone before my head hits the pillow. Usually, he’s sharing the musings of some comedy writer. But currently, he’s reading to me from Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship by Fr. Greg Boyle.
If you are unfamiliar with Fr. Boyle, he is Jesuit priest and the founder and director of Homeboy Industries, the largest and most successful gang-intervention and rehabilitation program in the world. I’ve heard Fr. Boyle speak before in interviews, and his gentle, winsome tone comes through in his writing, as does his important message of boundless compassion, universal kinship, and extravagant tenderness for all. And, what makes his writings and speaking so compelling is not just his important message, it’s also the form he uses to deliver it: story. Or I should more appropriately say, story after story after story. Because Fr. Boyle has been working in and loving his community for many years, he’s collected hundreds, if not thousands, of real-life anecdotes, tales, and parables. These not only support his message; in many ways, they communicate his message better than any statements he makes. His stories are amusing and joyful, tragic and sorrowful. Through them, he paints a picture of how challenging life can be for the clients of Homeboy Industries, but also of how the Divine intervenes and transforms in practical, surprising, and moving ways.
Each night, before I drift off to sleep, I hear six or seven short stories from Fr. Boyle, and I am troubled and challenged as well as delighted and uplifted. His book is probably going to become my bedtime favorite because I am a “God-story junkie.” There is almost nothing I enjoy more than witnessing spiritual journey stories. It must be one of the reasons I became a spiritual director, or perhaps becoming a spiritual director has only heightened my desire and enjoyment in hearing again and again in how the transcendent breaks through to touch our lives.
I’m really looking forward to talking more about Story in Spiritual Direction at the workshop this Saturday. If you aren’t one already, perhaps I can help you become a “God-story junkie,” too. And if you already are like me, I hope that together, we can sharpen our story-listening and collaborative storytelling skills together. Maybe we’ll end up with a great story to tell!