Gratitude: A Quiet Discipline, An Offering, A Setting Down, An Unfreezing of the Heart, A Spiritual Continuum

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I wake up every day tired, mostly of me. This is how depression repeatedly exposes itself to me, in exhaustion. With each breath and step in the day, with every mundane activity only reinforcing my life’s obvious lack of direction. It is sad. I seem unable to enjoy life.

Sometimes I think this is easily solvable.  Do I have a lack of gratitude for all the good in my life? It might look like that if you saw my beautiful life.

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If pushed I can name all the things for which I am thankful. In my bleaker moments, I imagine that I don’t know how to live out this gratitude.

“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” Meister Eckhart  (c. 1260 – c. 1327)

I don’t completely agree, but I know that it is up there in importance in the spiritual formation of a believing heart. Anne Lamott says help, thanks, wow in her tiny book by that title.

To implore, to give thanks and to offer praise create the liminal places preparing us for a deeper spiritual life. This allows for a vulnerable, more exposed and prepared spiritual self.

It is lost to us when we get caught up in over thinking and not allow ourselves moments in the day when we let go of that rigid way of spirituality in the form of dry and useless ingratitude.

The wonderful Catholic visionary and author of more than 40 books Joan Chittister says:

“Gratitude is not only the posture of praise. It is also the basic element of real belief in God.”

This convicts my aching, thankless, over thinking mind and heart.

One of my favorite spiritual fathers, a gently resplendent author, the late Henri Nouwen, is the most convincing to me today. As a recovering alcoholic I seem to have many resentments that crowd in before I know it. I can go through a whole day, my brain buzzing with one resentment or critical thought after another, and then before I realize it my physical body and spiritual heart and heartless brain are full.  I am brimming with bitterness and judgement.

In Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit he said:

“”The opposite of resentment is gratitude (from the Latin gratia = favor). Gratitude is more than an occasional ‘thanks be to God.’ Gratitude is the attitude that enables us to let go of anger, receive the hidden gifts of those we want to serve, and make these gifts visible to the community as a source of celebration …” When I think about what it means to live and act in the name of Jesus, I realize that what I have to offer to others is not my intelligence, skill, power, influence, or connections, but my own human brokenness, through which the love of God can manifest itself. Ministry is entering with our human brokenness into communion with others and speaking a word of hope.”  (My emphasis)

My bleak spiritual state is so obvious to me when I am depressed. But to dwell there deciding my life is useless would be the real tragedy. Even with and perhaps because of depression, even with some of the things that plague so many of us including spiritual doubt, incessant fear or anxiety, the self-hatred so many struggle with, our life’s deep regrets and our brokenness.

Before God these are my questions. Am I am able to let go of them and lay them in prayer at the Cross? Can I set them down to pick up the communion bread and cup? Can I find, as a daily discipline, a few things for which I can say thanks? If this is hard, especially for a melancholic person like myself, I think it’s paramount to express thanks as a part of our life of spiritual discipline.

Gratitude it’s an offering. Gratitude is a discipline. It is a setting down of bitter burdens to try to trust God with our brokenness.

Gratitude I think is the ultimate trust.  This isn’t a formula; rather it is a part of life’s spiritual continuum.

celestial snow

Wisconsin has had more than 30 days below zero already this winter.  It’s a hard place for me to live. It’s a cold, wrecked bitter place. But it also has great beauty such as snowflakes falling this morning; dancing as they fall, whirling playfully and slowly, and dropping to the already covered ground.  I have to admit, sitting here in my warm house it is beautiful to see the snow form into an angel.

Gratitude is a spiritual or life discipline that can bring health and heart healing.

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For the next 30 days or so, through the bleakest whitest part of winter, I’m going to keep track in writing. Want to try it with me?  Perhaps the last activity before sleep or first thing in the morning with a cup of coffee.  Take a moment to write five things (or even one) for which you are grateful.

Will this cause an inner shift in my frozen, depressed heart caught up in its own gloom? It may not.  It may simply get me through this frozen winter.  Whatever the outcome, I’m a little more hopeful today.

Let me know if you’re going to try 30 days or nights of private gratitude. Let’s step toward this hope together.

Miscellany that Bewilder Me

Midnight.

Last night, my ten year old son said he wanted to stay up until midnight — insisting that he had to do it. — But why? I asked slightly bewildered.

“If I do, I will have not cracked my knuckles for a whole day!” he told me in all seriousness.  He has a nervous habit.  It makes him self-conscious but I had no idea how much.  He came up with this promise to himself.  I reassured him that he could “not crack his knuckles in his sleep and that would still count.”

But it strikes me and stays with me today.  That little self-improvement goal seemed so simple to me and yet it was such a challenge for him as he made a promise to himself and kept it.  It made me wonder how many times I promise God something and don’t do it.  Does he, like a mother feel admiration for me that I even try?  Or is he disappointed when I fail?

Blessings & Curses.

I wonder.  Does God withhold blessings from us if there was something that God has wanted us to learn and we knew it full well but resisted.  Or ignored God?  Pretend we don’t hear, like child who acts like they can’t hear their mother calling from the next room.

Sermons are like that sometimes.  Most of the time not offending seems to be the order of the day and sermons become nothing more than a gentle reminder.  Not exactly optional, but full of choices and options … How many of those softball sermons have I ignored or just not allowed them to change me?  Or when they challenge do I consider it “optional?”

Yes I do that.  I ignore God regularly.  Stubbornly.  Foolishly, knowing fully that God has my best interest in mind and yet I can’t gather up the willpower to obey.  To stop cracking my (spiritual) knuckles.

What?  You don’t?  I don’t believe you.

And do we miss out on blessings, on a level of happiness or contentment because certain challenges from God seem too hard? Not that serious.  Life goes on.

Of that we can be sure.

Floodgate of Social Media.

I cannot seem to deal lately with the torrent of information coming into my life through the media.  A friend, who is a Scientist at the university, said he thought perhaps evolutionarily (is that the right way to say that? what is the word I’m searching for?) we are not capable of taking it all in.  Our minds and hearts just can’t absorb it.

Some days I feel my heart cracking open reading about suffering in Japan and Christ Church,NZ, ongoing efforts in Haiti and areas of Africa, our nearly decade long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, cholera outbreak in Ghana, ethnic minority Christians facing religious persecution in Vietnam, unrest in Yemen promoting Somali refugees to flee there, political unrest in Nigeria, drought in Niger, measles epidemic in Kenya, even AIDS being still the number one killer was brought up on the Colbert Report last night.  Can’t even escape the pain in humor.

We cannot get away from it.  How would God have us respond?  It’s too much.  I cannot bear it.  I need to know what God would have us do to respond.

Justice.

My understanding of the gospel is becoming enriched by the truth of a recent sermon series at Blackhawk on Justice.  And reading Timothy Keller’s book, Generous Justice.  God’s justice is not a distraction from the gospel but a centering on its fullness.  Whenever anyone argued with Amy Carmichael that the gospel was only a proclamation and didn’t include acts of mercy and social justice, she emphatically said to her critics:  “God didn’t make you all mouth.”   Ha.  I love that.

And Bishop J.C. Boyle, a nineteenth-century British evangelical, said:  “Let the diligence of Christ be an example to all Christians… Like Him, let us labor to do good in our day and generation, and to leave the world a better world than we found it….Let us awake to a sense of our individual responsibility.”

My Church & Women: The ongoing Crusade.

I’ve decided to acknowledge to myself that I am on a crusade.  It may be small.  It may be ineffective.  But I am.  In my reading this week I read that if you truly disagree with the premises of your church on women in ministry or ordination of women you will eventually leave that church.  People just do.  For the most part churches don’t change — especially those connected to a denomination.   People give up.  Lose hope.  And leave.

While that was devastating on one level, because I love my church dearly.  It also made me accept the truth that I am on a crusade to change it.

One can’t simply learn the truth and sit on it.

Truth not only changes how we see ourselves, it changes what we do and how we live.

Carolyn Custis James, Half the Church.

What I know.  Jesus loved women.  He consistently reinforced human equity.  He mobilized and recruited and listened to and even hang out with those who were on the margins.  He valued women and they served with him and spoke for him, gave witness faithfully in the Bible, which seems to me to be a story of redemption for marginal people.   And there are leaders in my church who do too.  They believe, they agree, they are willing to concede.  But moving a church is as I’ve said like moving the Titanic.  It won’t happen any time soon.   I will be the quiet, prayerful voice of change.

More on this in the future, but for now…

Authorities at my church have decided to phase out the Bibles that are on hand every week, calling it a Bible Revolution. They want people to use their own personal Bible.  Yay.  The best thing that will come of this, besides the obvious, is that they won’t be tied to the New International Version any longer and can perhaps use an inclusive translation like the New Revised Standard Version that speaks to women as well as men.  That one uses language that is more welcoming to women.

Halle — fricken — lujah!

“Is the gospel truly good news for women who live in entrenched patriarchal cultures?” — Carolyn Custis James

The Titanic didn’t move this week, but the iceberg it is stuck in melted a little.  Viva La Revolution!

Winter seems to be lingering here in the Midwest.  I dug out an old poem from October, 2009.

WINTER COMES

Winter is uninvited, yet it always comes.

No matter how long  I postpone trying on last year’s coats, hats and gloves,

even still winter comes.  If I leave the hose out until it’s frozen stiff, snaking through the yard,

still winter comes.  The pots and the plants they crack and curl from the cold.  Winter, comes.

Winter comes in the cold,

dark mornings heralding sad thoughts and memories.

I lost my father to the winter.  I discovered, accepted and revealed a family’s ancient addiction.

I miscarried.  I fell down.  I fell apart.  Always winter comes.

Winter means waking early with darkness bringing in the day.

Though I try to overcome, the anxious thoughts settle in.

Remember the cold. Remember, remember.  I am always falling, in winter.

Good things are lost, so do not hold too tight

to what you desire most.  You will lose them to winter.

Love hurts more in winter, dries up and becomes need.

Love becomes memory. I am falling.  In winter.

And at the moment when the winter once again threatens to overcome, I end my slumber.

On that icy morning I wake early. Snuggle in.

Sipping coffee, by the fire.   And I think of Spring.

As you, I am thinking of spring!

Feeling grateful during the season of Lent, as I process how much God has done to redeem me from the pit where my life was.  I must never forget.  Ever.  I cannot.  Reading Henri Nouwen and he speaks to this:

“In our lives there are moments when we realize that, even if we may have done everything to destroy ourselves, we have never lost our true identity as beloved daughters or sons. That identity is never taken away. And that moment of realization is a very, very important moment.

“But take care what you do and be on your guard. Do not forget the things your eyes have seen, nor let them slip from your heart all the days of your life…” (Deut. 4)

MH

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Comments on Luke 8:1-3, from J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: St. Luke (1860)

From Wikipedia:

Amy Wilson Carmichael was a Protestant Christian missionary in India, who opened an orphanage and founded a mission in Dohnavur. She served in India for 55 years without furlough and wrote many books about the missionary work there.  While serving in India, Amy received a letter from a young lady who was considering life as a missionary. She asked Amy, “What is missionary life like?” Amy wrote back saying simply, “Missionary life is simply a chance to die.”
Carmichael’s work also extended to the printed page. She was a prolific writer, producing thirty-five published books including Things as They Are: Mission Work in Southern India (1903), His Thoughts Said . . . His Father Said (1951), If (1953), Edges of His Ways (1955) and God’s Missionary (1957).  In 1931, Carmichael was badly injured in a fall, which left her bedridden much of the time until her death. She died in India in 1951 at the age of 83. She asked that no stone be put over her grave; instead, the children she had cared for put a bird bath over it with the single inscription “Amma”, which means mother in the Tamil.  Her biography quotes her as saying: “One can give without loving, but one cannot love without giving.”

A Poem: Shame Falls Heavily

Shame Falls Heavily

I first noticed them arrive
as the two women settled their kids and husbands in two rows
in front of us in the stands.
Then the men were gone.

I saw how they laughed playfully, sitting close.
One touching the back of her friend.  Whispering
to one another.  This was intimate familiar territory.
I thought it seemed to be an attraction
which was clearly more than friends.

Suddenly her husband appeared and she turned her back,
Completely forgetting the friend, to fall asleep
on his shoulder.
The game began.

After a long while the boy, her son, looked
back questioningly, eyebrows raised.
Then both children look again
at her and at the man. Not asking with words, but clearly wondering
what’s wrong?  They needed to know what’s going on.

He shrugs again. And then again, when they glance back later.
His shrug is slow and heavy
as if to say: he doesn’t know why she’s asleep.
But he knows.
I don’t know. Not yet.  At first, it seemed innocent, even to me.

The game was Hockey and I have to admit it held little interest.  So
my curiosity with this hauntingly familiar scene grew. I couldn’t help
Staring.  Wondering.  A nagging sense of foreboding as the woman slept on.
And the kids are cheering. Knowing
but not wanting to know.

Startled I see that she has thrown up into her hand.
All over herself, and him.  As he tries to comfort her,
and then to clean her up without anyone noticing she begins to weep.
He was so gentle as he whispered into her sticky hair
all the things I knew he didn’t believe.
It’s going to be alright.  HUSH… It will be okay.

Shame
Falls
Heavily
like a wool blanket
on her shoulders as she continues to weep
quietly into his shoulder.  Wiping her own mouth again and again.

The smell of alcohol and the stench of puke finally reaches me.  Then
without thinking I unwind my gray scarf from my neck to help.
Hesitantly at first. I thought
against it.  These thoughts almost made me sit back again, as
I re-twisted my scarf back around my neck.

What would I have wanted?
How do you love like He would in a moment like this?
So, unwinding quickly I tap softly on his shoulder to hand to him the gray rayon scarf. Wordless
for there are no words. He knows.

The moment s l o w s in time when he won’t let go of my hand.
The hockey game fades.
I don’t hear the screaming fans or feel the cold air in the stadium.
All I feel is his warm hand on mine.

And his panic.
He does not know what to do.
It flows into me, his fear, his sorrow because this isn’t the first time.
His tears, welling deeply inside.

As he presses down on my hand it all flowed into me.
In that second, a moment of passing so briefly, I know again
the shame which falls so heavily.
As I remember my own.

Finally, pulling my hand away, I sat
through that game as if I were that woman, again.
The children mine.  The friends and husband
all — unsure.   Afraid.  Watchful.  Not knowing what to do.

This morning, I am grateful for my sobriety.
And wonder, of all the thousands of people in the stands last night, why did this woman sit in front of me?
I saw what it was like to be the sober ones. And hope I never forget
the frightened doe-like eyes of her children.

I will add this to my frayed two and a half year old,
yellow, 3 x 5 card of reasons I am gratefully sober today.
Shame
Falls
Heavily
But I am no longer the Woman.

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Some of the things I have written about my alcoholism:

I am not Ashamed
The Slow Crawl Of Healing
What Can I Say About Two Years of Sobriety?
Choose Joy
For Everything There is A Season.
Eulogy to Life.
Letting Go.  Thoughts on Being An Alcoholic
ReThink Everything
My First AA Meeting
My Crooked Heart
It’s Lonely Here on the Wagon
The Place of Nowhere
A New Way to be Human
Eulogy to Life
Winter Comes
Splintered Truth
This Epic Grief
No Dignity
I Need a Filling
Addict

this life-long fast [*a poem*]

This Life-Long Fast

Just saw a headline
in the Huffington Post.
Winter Cocktails Gone Wild.
And I am choked
by my longing.  I can’t explain it
easily, but I’ll try. I still crave alcohol.  Not
in the way
you might think.  Infrequently.  And not when
or where you might expect.
I go to church in a bar, but that only reminds me
of my gratitude
and drives deeper into God.  My
humiliation is my heartfelt cry
There, my worship. Inside, every Sunday
I am on my knees.

[Dare I say
lest I tempt fate]  I am not tempted
to break this life-long fast I have taken.  Yes.
I can say that and mean it.  I do not feel
like I need alcohol but it still
charms me. I think I want it.  Especially if I linger
with the thoughts that whisper to me.
Drinking is about
the moments, about intimacy
and good conversation. The idea
of being cultured,
intellectual and refined.  All those remembered
or imagined
moments swirl in my mind.

The Liar brandishes his greatest weapon, uttering:

“That is what you’re missing.”

And I find myself thinking

If Only!

Then immediately — I don’t even
have to force it, the list of reasons come for
why I will

not ever = never

drink again.
They come.  The list my counselor made me
so painstakingly write on a 3×5 card
(so that I would never forget.) Oh, I won’t
forget.

Memory brings it
and I remember
the vomit,
the disappointment,
the regrets (so many),
the fear,
the sink hole of depression and anxiety,
the danger.

No I don’t easily forget

that.
Alcohol, that sweet elixir
was my personal hell.  Oh no, the truth

is so fresh and real as if

I quit yesterday.
And soberly and gingerly, I consider

how far I have come.