Sunday, December 30, 2012

Celebrating Christmas

Affirmation: I know by meditating on Jesus, throughout my day, I am in union with the Divine; Miracles are created and without struggle my life is transformed in ways beyond my imagination.

As I write this we are in the final week of Advent.  It is that season when many are preparing for Christmas. Christmas! What emotions does that word stir in you? I must admit many times throughout the season, the one emotion I feel is panic. But, I love the season. I love the music, I love decorating the house (It looks so warm and inviting with the tree and the lights.) I love sharing stories via cards, I love buying gifts for my family and friends, I love the opportunity to give to some who are less fortunate than I. I love the cold, because I snuggle in, wrap up, eat more soup. I love preparing for the miracle of the season, Christmas day.

Christmas is the time of year when we celebrate one of the most widely recognized holidays in all the world. For some, it's simply a secular holiday: time off from work, time to be with family and friends, a time with some sort of rituals that hopefully bring comfort and peace.

But, for me, it's about the birth of my savior.

For others, however, it is a time of sadness, loneliness, or perhaps a time of emptiness.  In some of the conversations Ive had during Advent the word "hate" has actually come up along with the word Christmas. Some have shared they hate the pressure, they hate the shopping, they hate trying to meet other peoples expectations, they hate being alone, or they hate being with everyone.  For them, its too much or too little and theyd just like it to go away.

What do you think? Is it good to recognize that you hate something?  What do you do with that emotion?  How does it affect your spirit, your whole being? You certainly don't want to disregard how you feel about something but how can you use it to improve you life?  Once you recognize it, would it help to reframe it into something more positive? And then, how do you do that? What if this has been a horrible time for you in your life? I'm sure you can think of difficult experiences youve had that have taken place at certain times of the year and that you carry in your memories and your cells. But, can one turn that around? Can you go from acknowledging the pain but eliminating the suffering? How would one do that?

I must admit when it comes to my faith I seem to have more questions than answers.  I need and seek out experiences that affirm my faith as I see it and that encourage it to deepen, to strengthen. I decided to dedicate Advent as a time to do just that. I have made a conscious decision to invite Jesus, the Blessed Mother, my Angels and guides to join me, to stay with me, throughout my entire day. I believe, actually, that they never leave me, it is I in my busyness, my attention to worldly activities, who leaves them. But, for this season, and hopefully going forward, I have made a conscious effort to pray unceasingly. What does that look like? Well, it includes morning and evening prayers. It includes readings from some book I read before I journal like, In Conversation with God, and it includes taking a deep breath throughout the day and simply saying "Jesus." It's a perfect prayer to go with a deep inhale and a long exhale and I feel like it brings me back to that place I so desire to be; in the presence of God.

Yes, I can understand that some people suffer through the holidays.  Some people don't need to wait for a holiday in order to suffer, they suffer through all of life.  You've met them.  They are grumpy and dissatisfied with whatever happens, like Mr. Wilson in the Dennis the Menace cartoon.  Everyday we get to choose.  We get to choose how we are going to think about our day, our lives.  A powerful way to neutralize your suffering is to find at least one thing every day that brings you joy, one small thing and let yourself absorb it? If you can recognize the blessings that come at this time, you'll feel differently about the season.  You'll feel better about it and about life.  If you find the blessings, your heart will soften towards that day of hope which will inevitably arrive. 

Christmas! Christmas Day!  A day to celebrate, to celebrate the birth of the Christ child; a day to celebrate the miracle of God becoming man.  Every year we get to relive that day more than 2000 years ago when Jesus entered this world to save us from ourselves.  Christmas, a day of blessings then and today if you choose to focus on the miracle that took place then and continues to present itself to us forever more. 

A Year End Review: Looking Back Before You Go Forward

Affirmation: I examine the past with an eye on my best future. 

 The conversation revolved around how different generations use technology.  Adam, my daughter's fiancĂ© spoke me about how those over 50 had to learn about social media; how for those in their late 20's and 30's it was simply an extension of the computer skills they learned as children and how those in their teens today have grown up with social media.  It's an integral part of their life, like radio or TV is to some.  He then went on to tell me that my 15 year old granddaughter will have a complete photo history of her life not because we have been photographing her since birth, which we have, but because she posts photos and everyday events on the social media sites and has been for several years.  She has been carefully schooled by her parents about the dangers of sharing too much information or about sharing inappropriate information. So far, so good. After our discussion I found myself thinking how nice it would be nice for me to have a complete record of my life.  The older I become, the more there is to remember and the more I seemed to have forgotten.

Joey's Sky Diving Team
For me, recalling the past can sometimes be quite a challenge.  Unless, the event is tied to a significant emotional response.  I have at least one friend who can remember the names of all her teachers from elementary school through high school.  My sister can recognize people she hasn't seen in years and my husband's ability to remember where we've traveled and what we've done is amazing.  I on the other hand really struggle with those skills.  I do, however, remember holding my oldest daughter's hand as we walked together to her pre-school. I remember when my youngest crawled into bed with me early in the morning to hug for a while before she went off to school and I can recall every one of my son's projects and there have been many, because of the excitement he generated as he took them on.  

The TV show Sixty Minutes had two separate programs about memory issues.  The first was about people who cannot remember faces, not even the faces of their loved ones.  They are not ignorant by any means but that part of their brain simply doesn't hold that information.  The same program also looked at people who had no directional skills.  They were lucky to get out of their own homes.  That part of their brain didn't provide that skill.   On the second program they interviewed people who could recall every moment of their lives as if they had a file cabinet in their brains and they could access whatever information they needed whenever they needed it.  At the time of the show, there were only about a dozen people know world wide with this skill.  I am pleased to say,  I do not have any of these issues or skills.  My memory is selective and challenging but I can easily recognize my loved ones and many others and I have a fairly strong sense of direction but whereas I would like to more clearly remember my past, I would not want to carry every one of those memories with me throughout my life.  I think that would be overwhelming and exhausting.  

It is, however, very important for me to review the past. It's probably why I keep a journal and a little pocket calendar where I write the day's past events. For me it's like looking in the rear view mirror of the car before changing lanes because them I am aware of what's going on around me.  I have found it to be very helpful to put together a yearly family photo calendar.  Going back over the year's significant events really helps me to recall that which was important to me and what brought me joy.  Otherwise, the year all blends together.  Then the years all blend together and those highlights I so enjoyed and those lessons I learned get lost.  It's the difference between living a life of many different colors and tastes and living one that's gray and bland.

I have a monthly and a yearly practice of asking myself 10 questions that I feel will improve the quality of my life going forward. I gathered these several years ago from a newspaper article by Sharon Randal from Henderson, Nevada.

1. What was the hardest thing I had to do this year?
2. What was the most fun?
3. What were the milestones?
4. What was my biggest accomplishment?
5. What's something I wanted to do but didn't?
6. What was my biggest surprise?
7. What was the best thing I did for another?
8. What was something I worried about that I don't worry about now?
9. What made me proud?
10. Describe a moment I want to remember.  

For me the moment I most want to remember is when most of my family took a trip to Disney World.  On our last evening there the other adults chose to go back to the condo.  I however, chose to hang out with my four grandchildren.  We spent the night watching the light shows, the fireworks and the people.  It warms my heart and feeds my soul to remember that evening.  

I feel the only reason to review the past, is to find a way to live better in the future. Look it over, learn the lesson and then let it go. The last part may be the hardest lesson of all.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Why God Allows Evil

Affirmation:  I fully trust in God's loving care for me and for all those who ask for it even in times of unbelievable tragedy.

The answer to "why" do such horrific events happen will never be within our grasp here on this earth.  I did find Brian Stiller's enlightened view, however, into the Christian theology of the presence of evil in our society and especially about the evil present this week in Newtown, CN. to be very insightful. Therefore, this week I share his essay on "Why God Allows Evil."

Why God Allows Evil?

“The Cry,” Munich’s painting of a young woman’s primeval scream standing on a bridge in a sunlit day came to mind as I witnessed unbelievable horror and tried to feel the unimagined suffering of parents as they raced to the elementary school in Newtown Connecticut to find their children.

Questions about “who” died quickly shifted to “whys.” Why this town? Why this school? Why my child? Syrians in a refugee camp asked me weeks ago what millions through millennia wonder, “Why does God allow evil?”

I know attempts to answer will not bring back a child, erase memories of a shooter blazing away at little children, extract justice for the community or ease the fright of a possible reoccurrence in another school. Even so, a framework for discussion (called theodicy – why God allows evil and suffering) matters for those in Newtown and us on the sidelines, as we grieve and wonder.

There are two paths down this road of a theodicy: first are questions of logic – how is it that God who is sovereign and good doesn’t or can’t eliminate suffering? Secondly, we follow the biblical narrative – the Jewish-Christian scriptures leading us through generations, learning over time what God is doing about evil. The first is humans examining God, questioning him in the courtroom of human reason. The second is a story of human life in its genesis, often devolving, yet given a lifeline from its seeming inevitable slide into chaos.

The first path is logic: Why doesn’t God who is loving and all powerful eliminate evil? Hume (18th century philosopher) asked, “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” On neither score God wins. But what if we explore beyond Hume’s two options (if he is willing, but unable he is weak; if able but not willing, he is not good) with another: He wills to allow choice, and thus is both sovereign and good.

Or what if we posed this: Could God create a world in which there is free choice but only one choice and that to do good? The counter argument would be, “But that’s hardly an exercise of free will. It sounds more like angels.” Which in turn begs the question, is there something God cannot do? Can he make a world in which humans have the freedom to choose for themselves, but only allow one choice in their choosing? Logic disagrees. So there is something God cannot do which is to be self-contradictory.

We do know that being made in his image – imago Dei – we are wired with choice. Augustine, 4th Century theologian put it this way:

“Such is the generosity of God’s goodness that He has not refrained from creating even that creature which He foreknew would not only sin, but remain in the will to sin. As a runaway horse is better than a stone which does not run away because it lacks self-movement and sense perception, so the creature is more excellent which sins by free will than that which does not sin only because it has no free will.”

God, who is both all-powerful and good, gave human will space to choose good or evil. Keep in mind that the biblical story describes our human parents in a state of innocence, not perfection, and it is within their innocence they made their choice to obey either their Creator or evil. Philosopher Alvin Planting sums up the heart of the argument: “God can create a more perfect universe by permitting evil.”

A second path of this theodicy begins with the Hebrew Scriptures as we search for an explanation of God’s dealing with evil. Here a narrative of people, events, choices, interventions and consequences answer to evil. Beginning with creation we learn of the Divine and human, its subsequent unraveling of relationship and generations of disasters interspersed occasionally with flashes of brilliance and goodness.

Here, let me insert a comment on the notion of evil itself. 20th century wisdom tended to discount evil as real and substantive, making it an effect (what happens to someone) rather than its own reality (what causes something to happen). Instead dysfunction and brokenness in life and society, it was reasoned, was due to many factors – social decay, chemical imbalances, genetic malfunctions, hormonal roller coasters, and the explanations go on. Surely much of what we know today as medical and psychological was in the past categorized as evil. Even so, American psychotherapist, Scott Peck, an atheist came to Christian faith in part because he saw a larger force at work in some patients, a factor he called “evil” which he outlines in People of the Lie. 

 We feel the tension in the Divine’s offering of freedom, sometimes taken and creatively managed, but most often dissipated by greed, anger and lust. Abraham, father of both Jews and Arabs, accepted the promise to beget a nation, yet lied about his wife to an Egyptian Pharaoh and distrusting the promise of a son, bred another and in the end was called on to sacrifice his son, ending with two people forever at loggerheads with each other, as Israel and Gaza demonstrate.

We see in many stories a maneuvering of human will to exercise freedom, at times leading to doing good but often exploring the deep places of moral depravity, all the while wrapped in fig leaves to camouflage the Divine from knowing.

How then does God wrestle with his choice to give humans freedom to be good or bad? The constant double thread woven through the old and new Testaments promise presence – God is with you – and promises of future – the coming Redeemer who will recompose the human heart and destroy cosmic forces of evil.

Jesus of Nazareth fills out that narrative – he enters as king of creation and child in a stable. The fusion of Divine and Human – we call it “incarnation” – brings together the two and in course of his mandate in death asks what parents of Newtown asked last week: “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

And his answer? I’ve come so you might have life, with abundance. Evil – the prince of this world (John 16:11) – is defeated and will be no more. While the good of God wrestles yet with evil, the triumphant Easter morning declaration of Jesus rising declares that evil, an earthly constituent, is defeated. The Christian hope puts the finality of that defeat in the future, but in faith, that too is assured.

The arguments of logic are feeble at best. Yet they frame a wider picture of our world in which God gives us the right to choose. For parents in Connecticut, Syria or Afghanistan, that won’t fill the emptiness of a child gone. But it reminds us that each has the right to make choices. The cause(s) of the killing rampage need not go unaddressed. We can rise the next day and make changes for good.

The promise is thus: in the midst of suffering, Jesus of Nazareth lived under the strains and burden of evil. Twenty children in his village of Bethlehem were killed by a ruling mad man, within months of his birth. Violence he understands. Then it was through cruelty of death and breaking out in resurrection that evil was overcome. So in today’s moment, we find comfort knowing that death is not all there is to dying. One only needs to listen to the songs and words of the many funerals in Newtown to know that the promise of life, free from evil, is really, just around the corner.

Brian C Stiller

Global Ambassador

The World Evangelical Alliance

December 2012

Monday, December 10, 2012

How to Get Ready for End Times


Affirmation: When I stay focused on the present my life is richer and more peaceful.

The world is about to end, again.  It's true.  It must be.  According to the Mayan calendar the last day is December 21, 2012.  They have a calendar that's 2000 years old and their last date is 12/21/12.  They were an extremely intelligent race.  Some have even speculated that they were helped either by visitors from another solar system or another spiritual realm.  What must be done to get ready?

Prophets and seers have predicted the end of the world since its beginning.  You’ve probably seen one or two doomsayers standing on a city street corner wearing a placard or shouting the slogan “Repent, the End is Near!”  The Apostles, especially Paul, were sure the Second Coming was to take place in the near future.  John wrote about his visions of the world's demise in Revelations.  Nostradamus the world renown seer from the 1500‘s predicts quite clearly the path of our destruction.  There's a special about his predictions that's been aired for years on the History channel that I find be quite unsettling.  Edgar Cayce, the "Sleeping Prophet" from the early 1900's also had some predictions about end times and Jean Dixon an American actress and famous astrologer was pretty sure she too knew when we would disintegrate. There have been too many willing to tell us when we will destruct.

One of the movements that is preparing for Armageddon is called the "Preppers."  They have shelters, stocks of food, water and weapons.  They rotate their supplies so that they are always fresh and ready.  They say it's a way of life, being ready for the inevitability of the end times.  In the 1960's people were preparing just like today.  Many built bomb shelters with the same sense of doom that’s presently exists.  I wonder if some of the Preppers are using those same shelters for their preparations?  When I was a child we use to have air raid practices where we would have to hunker down under our plastic school desks.  I can’t imagine how that would have saved us from anything especially from something as destructive as a bomb.

I'm the queen of prevention.  Tell me something that might help keep me safe and healthy and I'm all over it.  I brush and floss, moisturizer, exercise, pray and meditate.  I'm ready!  I take my vitamins, calcium and keep a bottle of baby aspirin next to the bed and in my travel bag.  I’m ready!  I go for my yearly physical, dental exam and mammogram.  I’m ready!  Give me some guidance about how to stay strong, healthy and safe and away I go following the rules.  Recently I signed up for a class that’s being offered by my town about “disaster preparedness”. I want to know what needs to be collected, ready for instant departure should a hurricane, tornado or a tsunami threaten us even if I don’t live anywhere near the ocean.  One cannot be too careful.  Edgar Cayce has predicted that large parts of the United States coast line will fall into the ocean and those of us living inland will have prime beach property.  It doesn’t matter that it was suppose to happen in 1998.  A prophet can get their time lines a little skewed.  If the apostle Paul could be off by a few thousand years, Edgar can be forgiven for missing his target date by a few decades.

When we experienced the terrorist’s attack on September 11, 2001, I know I was not the only one who thought the world was on the brink of destruction.  Just like Alan Jackson’s song mentions in “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?” I found myself in church, holding hands with strangers.  I needed the comfort of my faith and my belief system took me to Mass.  I periodically attend daily Mass and usually we have about twenty people present.  On September 12, 2001, the chapel was full.  Father Bill Schmidt said the Mass that day.  His sermon was very powerful.  He shared that no one knows when the end of the world will take place, no matter what they claim. 

I am here, however, to tell you the prophets are right.  The world is going to end.  Our world as we know it will one day be gone.  Certainly, we will all at some time forfeit our personal space on this earth.  Each of us will at some time in the future no longer be here. Perhaps too, our earth as we know it will also no longer be here.  I’ve read where plans are being made for the creation of colonies on other planets in case we may need to evacuate. Life as we know it will change. 

I am, however, not joining the Preppers.  I’m not sure how I would react should I be faced with Armageddon and I’m hoping I won’t find out but I don’t want to believe I would be someone who would want to survive at the expense of my friends and loved ones.  I can’t imagine my having food and shelter and denying it to those in need.  If I did, who would I be?  Not someone I’d want to know or someone of whom I’d be proud.  I’m sure that would not be what my Lord would want of me either.

We all leave our mother’s wombs reluctantly.  We have no desire to leave the warmth and comfort of our known existence for the cold, new world we are destined to enter. For most of us it’s so much easier to stay in our comfort zones but just like the child at birth, we are thrust out into the new, into the unknown.  Every ending has a beginning.  If our global world as we know it does end, what will our new world be like?  Perhaps, as many are saying, we are on the cusp of a new age.  Perhaps, it will be a world that is kinder, gentler, more loving.  Perhaps!  Personally, we too will move on.  I believe we will move from this life into another and that too will be a place of comfort and peace and love.  I am, however, not going to focus on the future and the unknown.  That was part of Father Bill’s homily on September 12, 2001.  He reminded us that our responsibility was to live each day as if it were our last.  We get to choose to focus on living life to the fullest each day, each moment.  We can choose to focus on our relationships, our gifts and the preciousness of our existence and not to spend our energy futility preparing for the unknown.  By choosing to focus on the present, with a rational awareness of the future, we can live lives that are richer and calmer and more compassionate.  I’m ready!

“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”
Mother Teresa

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Perfecting Christmas

Affirmation:  I let go of perfection.

As of this writing the Christmas season has officially begun.  Today is the first Sunday of Advent. My entire family will be here, all our children, all our grandchildren, all the in-laws and my 90 year old mother. There might even be a few coming of whom Im not aware. I feel blessed to be surrounded by so many loving people and the really good news is everyone usually likes everyone else. I am also blessed because I have the good health and the energy to do everything I like to do for Christmas.

I love to decorate the house. I would like to leave my Christmas tree up all year long. I love having red sparkly and gold glitzy things all around. It makes me feel warm and enlivened. I love to put together the Christmas cards and I love to snail mail them out to all the people on my list. I like recalling the memories associated with each one as I write their names and try to take enough time to say a small blessing over each envelope. I usually send a photo card and I love to go through the years photos, re-live the memories and choose the best picture of each person. I also like to do a photo family calendar. I was so excited the first time I saw such a thing. I knew it would be something I would try. The first year, it took me days to get it done. The good news is now it only takes hours. Im sure someday Ill be even more efficient but its OK either way. I love going over the years photos and putting different memories on each monthly page and then putting my loved ones photos in the date box of their birthday.

In the South Christmas starts the day after Thanksgiving. Yes, it starts much earlier in the stores; earlier and earlier each year and some of my neighbors have their houses decorated before Thanksgiving. But, for many of us here in North Carolina, at least in the area I live in, the decorations go up Thanksgiving weekend. I love that too. I get to enjoy the festive sprit in my home for about a month.

But, even though I am crazy about all the activities involved in our celebration, I can stress out. Yes, there is good stress and there is bad stress but stress is stress and it can be exhausting. Most of our traditions seem to be activities that I have taken on as my responsibility. I purchase most of the gifts. I plan the menu. I buy most of the food. I wrap most of the presents. You can probably add to the list. Most women reading this probably have many other items for which they feel responsible. I usually handle most of our activities fairly well unless life happens. You know about life. Life is what happens in between all our plans.

I like order. I like things neat and clean. There are times when Im sure my desire for order borders on obsessive-compulsive. But, the truth is there is only so much time and energy and money and at some point, I have to let some things slide. Its a requirement to maintain my mental and physical health. I have several artist friends and they occasionally speak about what happens to their art work when they strive for perfection. They add one more dab of paint, one more stroke of the brush, one more line to the drawing or one more turn to the potters wheel and they have ruined their work. From them, I have taken the lesson that while I strive to do my best, I cannot always expect perfection from myself. When I do that, I will consistently ruin my work and ruin the enjoyment I take from the process. I must tell myself, I let go of perfection. The more I practice releasing myself from unrealistic expectations, the more joyful I am. The more I practice letting go of going for the gold, the more relaxed I am. And, when I can be centered and calm, my Christmas, my life and the life of many of those around me is filled with the things that are truly important to me and to the world; peace, love, joy, compassion and gratitude.

May you and your loved ones have a Blessed Christmas, a Happy Holiday season and a Happy New Year.