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Death: Think About It

Death: Think About It

When I stumbled across the saying “no man is an island” many years ago, it immediately resonated with me. I believe it means that in some way we are all connected, and that when one person dies, it affects us all. If we learn of death, whether it is someone we know or not, it has an impact that ranges from mild disturbance – a niggling at our sense of mortality – to shattering our world in cases of close connection or mass death so close to home.

Any brush with death or near death experience, or observation of accidents and injuries can have this same effect. For about a year now I have had an increased awareness of death and the brevity and fragility of life. Some of this was brought on by a few near wrecks while driving or by passing accidents on the road, as well as reflections on the way I have been living and not living.

This occasional and ongoing sense was heightened, perhaps divinely, by the sudden death yesterday of a church member where my mother attends. It is odd for this to have affected me so, for just a year and a half ago my stepfather passed away. Yet it is this recent death which topped off my awareness of my own mortality to the point of my cup running over.

I did not know until today, however, that three other people by association had also died yesterday. Earlier today I did the infamous open the bible and read what’s there, and it opened to Ecclesiastes chapters 7 – 9 and here is what I encountered:

Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties.
    After all, everyone dies—
    so the living should take this to heart.
 Sorrow is better than laughter,
    for sadness has a refining influence on us.
 A wise person thinks a lot about death,
    while a fool thinks only about having a good time. (Ecclesiastes 7 2-4)

None of us can hold back our spirit from departing. None of us has the power to prevent the day of our death. There is no escaping that obligation, that dark battle… (Ecclesiastes 8:8)

The same destiny ultimately awaits everyone, whether righteous or wicked, good or bad, ceremonially clean or unclean, religious or irreligious… Whatever they did in their lifetime—loving, hating, envying—is all long gone. They no longer play a part in anything here on earth. (Ecclesiastes 9:3 & 6)

Utterly timely and, I believe, at the hand of God. Following yesterday’s church service about listening to God and hearing from God, I had been praying for Him to do just this. And so he did. And it was what was needed, for I have been in a long and progressive season of what traditional churches call “backsliding”, but what I define as a gradually increased distance from God and disconnect between us due to my actions and inaction. I have for too long neglected to meet with God to the point where it is painful to feel the gap.

So last night and today have been spiritually sobering for me and the end result is a turning within. This death, these deaths, and my own impending death have had a “refining influence” on me. I will not go into the spiritual work that occurred within me last night, but I have turned. I have turned towards God, recommitted myself to Him, and re-surrendered, or perhaps truly surrendered all for the first time.

I do not want to waste another day missing out on a relationship with God. I do not want to remain in a stagnant, purposeless life governed by inadequate self control and self leadership. Something new has happened in this ‘turning’. I look forward to the life brought on by the subject and nearness of death. Death, which is a servant of life, has pointed the way for me, its gruesome countenance admonishing me to turn around and face the countenance of my Savior and King.

We fear death, because it has the power to take life. But death also has the power to point us towards life, to create within us a paradigm shift if we will but think and respond. It is counterintuitive for most of us, but as the Ecclesiastical writer states, it is foolish to not think upon death and let it refine us unto life. And it is wise to let the message of death sink in, and to let the only One who conquered death and rose from it bring us into true and lasting, pure and eternal life.

That life leads to death is an ever present sorrow. Yet there is hope, for death leads to life.

The Art of Conversation

The Art of Conversation

It’s been said that talk is cheap. However, I’m not really thinking about talk so much as conversation. Today it dawned on me that conversation is an entirely different thing from talking. We can talk to others and have discussions, and we generally do this everyday, but it isn’t the same thing as conversation. I didn’t realize this until suffering years of malnutrition, starved of true conversation and it’s blessed essence and nourishment to my human soul.

Conversation is an art, and it is lost and dying. As I sift through the past 10 or so years of change, I wonder what exactly has contributed to placing conversation, that pure and true discourse between souls, in danger of extinction. Was conversation something that only took place in certain contexts, such as college or seminary, where learning, growth, and the exchange of ideas were as vital as a heartbeat to daily life? Is it that I am now on the downside of my thirties, thrust as a single, childless adult into the context of busier individuals’ lives who are occupied now with maintaining marriages and children while juggling careers? Are we as a individuals and a society too busy in this stage of life to quiet our souls long enough to realize that there is a difference between talking to others and having actual conversation?

My soul is sore. I shudder to think how long it has been since I have had the pleasure of conversation – the deep, freeing, flowing, intimacy-creating, relational-building kind of conversation; the kind that defies time, space, boundary and constriction. The artful pursuit of what lies within another person, and the reciprocal relinquishment of what lies within the self. Conversation is a delightful dance where partners grasp each others minds. It is a passionate interlocking of hearts, a joyful, intriguing dive into who another person truly is, and a richer discovery of who the self is. Just as conversation is lost, so also are people without it. I am lost, and I feel the loss.

The question is, am I alone in my loss and state of being lost? Do others feel the vacancy of the masterpiece of conversation? Are the majority of people content with the manufactured prints hanging in their relational halls, happy to call their daily exchange of speech and interactions sufficient? And those who truly engage in conversation, who do not feel bereft in this regard, why do they keep the circle so small?  Are we afraid of expanding our intimacy to the inclusion of pining souls adrift, thirsty for fresh water in an ocean of salty despair? Surely these people did not exist strictly in educational environments. Surely they did not love and hold to their breast the beauty of conversation for a mere few years of life, only to be discarded when jobs and spouses and children and activities began to fill the palettes of their lives.

Or maybe they did.

In the garden of Eden, Adam had a vast display of beauty and life at his fingertips in the form of a startling diversity of landscape, vegetation, and animal life. He had perfect communion and relationship with God, and yet his soul was lacking.  He needed another creation like himself with whom he could not just communicate,  but have conversation. And so God took from within the man a part of himself and created a unique but similar being to fulfill this desire. And conversation as it was meant to be was born into the world.

If only people could awaken and find themselves like Adam, sitting in the midst of the world around them, in touch with that lonely, missing masterpiece.  If only the business and busyness of life could fade for a few clarifying moments to allow that undertow of loss and desire to swell to the top and rise like a wave cresting, rushing to crash ashore. If only even one, such as myself, could again find conversation, or perhaps that God would fashion and merge our paths, then life would indeed be sweeter.

Caring For The Human Family

Caring For The Human Family

Last night I swallowed a reality pill, and the side effects were a giant dose of humility.  It’s a concept I’ve heard of before, but last night I think I fully digested it.  A friend’s Twitter re-posting of my pastor’s blog caught my eye, so I opened my bible to the place it referenced.  Matthew 25: 31 -46. It’s the passage that talks about two groups of people: one who asks “when did we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, invite strangers in, tend to the sick, or visit prisoners?”  To the group that did these things, ie: served their fellow-man, he said “whatever you have done to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done to me.”  To the group who did not do these things, ie: failed to serve their fellow man, he said “whatever you have not done to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have not done to me.”

“My brothers and sisters” … that’s the reality pill for me.  I’ve heard and read this story before, but it appeared to me on an entirely different, very real level.  Jesus is identifying himself with human beings. He is calling us his brothers and sisters, his family. He is identifying with us so closely that he says whatever you do to them, it’s like you’re doing it to me.  What you fail to do for them, you fail to do for me.

That crazy odd concept that Jesus was “fully God” and “fully man” at the same time made more sense to me last night.  By stuffing himself (God) into the humbling flesh and nature of a human being, Jesus became “related” to us on a whole new level.  God wasn’t just our Creator through Jesus, he became our flesh and blood relative. He shared in our human struggles in a way we never thought a distant “somewhere out there” God ever could. That makes the phrase “down to earth” resound on a higher wavelength for me.

“My brothers and sisters” … if God relates to us as brothers and sisters, then we should too.  And by relating to people, on some level we relate to God. This absolutely blows my mind! It’s not just a bumper sticker or bracelet philosophy like “What would Jesus do?” It’s a life altering concept to think that the way I treat another person is the way I treat the God of the universe who is literally called Love. Do I care for my fellow man and tend to his or her needs? Do I ignore them with an indifferent posture? By doing so I am either nurturing love (Love) or deflecting love (Love).

My immediate response was “God what can I do?!” “Who needs me? Who can I help and how?” But it occurred to me a split second later that my over-eager response would die out with the coming of tomorrow, because I was looking to make a grand impact in my fervent response.  Jesus let me know in that moment that he doesn’t necessarily want me to go seeking out opportunities, while that is certainly a good thing. Rather, he wants to shift my heart attitude in such a way that when a need arises, I’ll naturally meet it. It is in our daily encounters with people where needs are made known.  They are subtle, which is why I think Jesus referenced simple things like hunger, thirst, companionship, healing, and sticking by someone in tough times.

“My brothers and sisters” … next door, in the checkout line, on the subway, on the bus, a few cubicles down, alone at the park, in the gay pride parade, two church isles behind me, in the suit running for office, in my home in a chair, on the internet in a chat room, bumming a cigarette, holding a sign for food, handing me food at the drive-thru, looking at me for some trace of kindness or connection.

My brothers and my sisters …

 “And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’ “

Freedom In Expression

Freedom In Expression

Freedom of expression is an amazing gift, one that is given to all people.  It is the loosening of the inner self into the outer world, which creates relationship with the outer world and gives meaning and connection to self and others.  It synthesizes the self, bringing broken pieces together to form a more perfect, more beautiful whole.  People express themselves through speaking, writing, dancing, music, and art.  By choosing to express themselves, they are being creators, fashioning something new and unique from internal elements into something tangible which others can receive.

There is vulnerability in this kind of creation, this freedom of expression.  The self then becomes ‘on display’ so that others not only have the chance to receive it, but the choice to critique it.  The risk of freedom is worth it though.  Without expression, the self withers because it’s composition is fundamentally relational. Therefore, ‘give me liberty or give me death’, for I cannot truly live unless I have expression and the freedom it brings.

Obviously as a blogger, my favorite way to express myself is through writing.  One of my favorite kinds of writing is poetry, although it seems several years since I last produced a poem. Given what I’ve stated about the risk of expression – the critique of the creation and the critique of the self – I am choosing to loose upon the world my vulnerability, because through it someone else may connect with what I’ve written.  It may give voice to a similar experience and help another synthesize that experience, to look within their own self to process, deal with, and heal.

In honor of April being National Poetry Month, here is a poem from 7 years ago but 30 years in the making with many more years left before healing.  However, synthesis is under way for me and I continue to grow more whole and more beautiful from the inside, where it cannot fade with time.

 

Beautiful

I want to be beautiful – I always have
But I don’t know what happened, not exactly
I remember vaguely some words from the past
Spoken to mom, did they make me uncomfortable?
‘She’s a looker, Barb – you better watch out’
 
But even then I couldn’t receive it
Compliments don’t take easy here
Timidity and shyness were part of my smallness
Which remained for lack of a better love
Because only love can build a person
 
I am small on the inside, just to clarify
You see, for some reason I grew more than
I care to admit – I got big, like emotionally pregnant
Putting things in my mouth, I was a stuff stuffing stuffer
Food filled my heart so that “I” wouldn’t fall out
 
I spent summers in New York where I’d go from the split
To spend time with dad, or at least at his place
I’ve got memories of friends that I liked to visit
Childhood was great playing dodge ball in the street,
Riding bikes or going to the gorge
 
The gorge … gorge, and not gorgeous – that became me
My eyes are still hazel – they still look to be seen
My skin is still tan, and still awkward to me
My hair is less blond and shorter these days
How time has changed me, but it still feels the same
 
For all I ever wanted was to just be beautiful
To hear a few words uttered from a man
A ghost of a man who was emotionally gone
Whose three little words seemed only to signal
The end of another indifferent phone call
 
Oh to be beautiful and  treasured as such
Little girl hearts don’t ask for much
Just to be seen and valued and pursued
But the damage is done and the deficit remains
What began at the root falls like fruit from the tree
 
And people still sometimes compliment me
Not quite so emphatically as in my youth
I could blame it on age, or maybe my weight
But either way doesn’t matter, for even if I were a
Smoking hot “10”,  all I’d really want is to just be beautiful

Daily Prompt: Express Yourself

Freedom in a pen / MC’s Whispers

Daily Prompt / myjourneyeveryday

Daily Prompt / benjaminsolak

The Creator God and His Gift To Us / meanderedwanderings

I teach! / Perpleus’ Blog

 

 

The Measure of a Moment

The Measure of a Moment

I remember the first time I noticed, I mean really noticed, the interaction between light and water.  I was sitting in the grass in a wide open area having a scheduled quiet time at a church retreat.  For the life of me I couldn’t concentrate on the bible or the things they’d given us to reflect upon. Instead I looked around or stared at the ground in contemplation and free thought mode.

Suddenly a burst of color caught my eye and I honed in on a blade of grass upon which a drop of water rested.  The rich green and the perfectly straight edge amazed me.  I thought of a man made level that is used in construction to make sure they are building perfectly straight, level boards and surfaces.  God was the first to create such a perfect thing, yet it is something we hardly notice in the midst of that which we walk upon without a thought.

As I continued to observe the dew on the grass I moved ever so slightly from side to side, marveling at the miracle of subtly changing colors of the spectrum within that tiny liquid circle. I’ll never forget the sense of wonder encapsulated in that simple moment, the stunning realization of beauty so common and yet so rare, the significance of something so small and seemingly insignificant.  It reminded me that whole worlds can exist in a moment even as countless moments comprise the whole world.  It brings to mind now a wonderful quote I often think of in times of quiet observation:

God dwells in the details.  – Mies van der Rohe

Today is a day where the small and grandiose bounce around together in my soul, polar opposites dancing within, waltzing out of reach and eluding my grasp.  I cannot completely define what it is, but it has to do with significance and insignificance, time and eternity, the measure of a moment, the fleeting nature of time.  Time is but a dew drop in the continuum of eternity, yet within it is a marvelous array of colors blending one into another. The earth exists within eternity as a small drop of water, and even smaller, our individual world and the length and breadth of our own lives.  How small, how fast, these lives of ours.  Before we know it we are grown with children and careers, and in the blink of an eye or a shifting of our body we see that life has changed from color to color, season to season, and our children are the ones with children and careers.

What is the meaning of all this smallness and profoundness heaped together in something so fleeting yet ever continuing as time?  Do we get it? Do we truly see the significance within the seemingly insignificant? We hardly have appropriate levels or scales upon which to weigh the measure of a moment, a life, or a lifetime.   Our thoughts and actions, goals and achievements, dreams and ambitions and efforts … all seemingly small, yet at times enormous, deep, and far-reaching.

Maybe there really is nothing which is insignificant.  Maybe “insignificant” should not even be a word.  Everything matters.  The matter within the simple blade of grass and the matter comprising a drop of water and the matter of light pouring from the sun in a beam of glory (as if to say “This matters! Yes, this small thing is simply and profoundly beautiful and alive and significant!”) all come together to enlighten us on our complex journeys.

Perhaps this realization that everything matters, that all things are significant and have purpose and value, is both a precursor to love and a component of love.  Love does not see anything as insignificant, for love sees the “whole” as well as the “part”.  Love sees nothing, save evil, as ugly.  Love in fact creates beauty out of the unbeautiful.  It transforms evil into good, reversing the letters to make the opposite of “evil”, which is “live”.

I guess what I wish is for each of us to really see as much as we are able.  To walk with God and to sit with him, to listen to his observations of the world around.  How marvelous all of life would seem if we would take time to sit with Jesus and ponder the glory and significance of the “insignificant” things laid out before us in our daily lives.  To cherish, as he does, all things that are made and to gaze at everything and everyone is such a way as to see the wonder and the beauty and the incredible meaning and value of life.

Life is a splendid gift – there is nothing small about it.  – Florence Nightingale

The World’s Most Beautiful Woman

A friend of mine has been posting inspirational videos on Facebook from the website http://www.upworthy.com.  I finally clicked on one that caught my attention.  It is a 13 minute video of a motivational speaker at a women’s conference.  Her name is Lizzie Valasquez and she was born with a rare condition, that if I remember correctly, only two people in the world have.  She is one of them.  It is a condition in which she cannot gain weight no matter how hard she tries.  She could eat ice cream and twinkies until the cows ran dry and still look emaciated and severely anorexic.

I really encourage you to watch this video.  In today’s day and age our attention might peak at a 2 minute video, but I assure you that this will be worth your time.  Lizzie was bullied, as you can imagine, in some of the cruelest of ways while growing up.  Perhaps a climax of the brutality heaped upon her was a video that some high school peers took of her, labeled as World’s Ugliest Woman.  The Youtube video received a massive number of views and the comments rolled in with earth shattering force.  Some of the comments she mentions in this conference video, which were made on the high school video, include things to the effect of “burn it alive”, and “do yourself and the world a favor, get a gun and just shoot yourself.”

I can’t imagine living the life this woman has lived.  She is only 25.  If the disease failed to take her life, you’d think the hate and scorn of humanity would have by now.

So what helped Lizzie not only survive the world’s condemnation, but thrive in the midst of it?

Love.

When she was born the doctors said she’d never walk or talk or have any sort of normal life.  Her parents took her home with a vow to love, care for, and raise her to the best of their ability.  She speaks in the conference video of the amazing impact her parents love and strength of character had on her life.  It shaped her.  It gave her courage to endure and press on, to realize that no matter what people thought of her, she was beautiful, valuable, and was going to live the dreams that were alive in her heart.  She has learned what few people do in life: not how to look beautiful, but how to be beautiful.

Beauty is, and always will, come from the inside out.  From the heart of all that is beautiful, God’s heart, came forth the outer beauty of all that was made.  True beauty manifests from the beauty that is within God, and the beauty that is within humanity.  Age will always ravage the physical beauty that people have, or death will steal it young.  But the beauty within will only blossom with time and nurturance.  All of us are born with an inner beauty.  If we cultivate it and surround ourselves with people who help cultivate it, we will find ourselves shining as God intended, like stars in the heavens, highly esteemed, lighting a darkened and broken world.

Any woman who lives like this, like Lizzie has the courage to live, will find herself among the world’s most beautiful women.  Any man who lives like this will likewise find himself among the world’s most beautiful men. May those of you who read this be blessed by a beautiful Father who longs to fashion and manifest your true beauty in this life and the life to come.

Here is the link to Lizzie’s inspirational video … she’s a joy to watch as she tells a small part of her story with courage, humor, and the desire to help others realize their worth and dreams:

http://www.upworthy.com/hear-the-powerful-way-the-worlds-ugliest-woman-beat-her-bullies

Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.  – Confucius

Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God’s handwriting.  – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Am I My Negative Brother’s Keeper?

After killing his brother Abel, Cain hid from God.  When confronted by God as to Abel’s whereabouts, Cain brazenly asked God “Am I my brother’s keeper?” A more modern translation would be “What, you expect me to follow him around like a baby and keep tabs on his every move?” Basically he was using sarcasm to convey to God that he felt he didn’t have to take any responsibility for his brother whatsoever.  Who cares where he was or what he was doing. It wasn’t of any concern to Cain.

But actually, Cain was responsible for Abel.  Cain was the firstborn, and sometime later Abel came along.  Abel was a responsibility to Cain because Abel was younger, more vulnerable, in need of learning new things.  He needed someone to look out for him, someone to look up to, someone from whose experience he might gain.  Cain was older and had that life experience.

I use this story to take a look at something that’s really been bothering me lately.  Every now and then I’ll hear or read a comment advocating that we should surround ourselves with positive people in order to stay positive.  Negative people bring you down, right? So protect yourself and keep those negative folks at bay and you’re guaranteed to feel better, have a more positive outlook, and just be happy and successful in general.  I know people who delete negative Facebook people from their friends list, or more harmfully just delete them from their physical lives.

Honestly, it should go the other way.  People who are positive and want to protect their positive bubble or outlook on life shouldn’t shun negative people.  They should be the very ones seeking to lift up and encourage those who are downtrodden, cynical, or pessimistic.  Positive people are the Cains of emotional well-being, and to cut ties with their negative human brothers and sisters is to abandon the Abels whom God has put in their lives.  They are their negative brother’s keeper so to speak.

We are all accountable for each other.  If someone enters our life, there is a measure of responsibility to them.  We may sarcastically shirk the idea much as Cain did to God, but to our own detriment.  For if our rejection and abandonment of them in their time of trouble leads to their harm, God will surely question us regarding it and then bring about a just response.

I’m not saying we need to be doormats to the naysayers and sink to the bottom with them in their negativity or despair.  God says to bear each others burdens, but also to lay our burdens on him.  If we aren’t going to God to unload our own burdens or relying on Him for strength to bear others burdens, then yes, we will become saturated with heaviness and at risk of being bound to negativity.  Or, we will become weary of the weight of our Abels and cut them loose from our lives out of self-preservation.

So how do we deal with chronically negative people, or even the sometimes negative?

  • As stated above, take it to God, and take from God.“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you … for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  (Matthew 11:28 & 30)
  • Regularly practice openness to God’s love; be a receiver of that love.  If our love tank is empty we have nothing to pour out into others.  “May your roots grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is.  May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.” Ephesians 3:17-19)
  • Be patient.  It didn’t take a negative person one or two times to become filled and burdened with negativity, so don’t expect your one or two pep talks to snap them out of the pattern.  If you are living in God’s love for you and letting it fill you with love for others, patience comes with much greater ease.  “Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged.  It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out.  Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. (I Corinthians 13:4 – 7)
  • Seek wisdom, understanding, and insight. Ask God for them.  These will allow you to discern in every aspect of listening to, loving, encouraging, and teaching those  who are chained to negative patterns. “Tune your ears to wisdom, and concentrate on understanding.  Cry out for insight, and ask for understanding. Then you will understand what is right, just, and fair, and you will find the right way to go.” (Proverbs 2: 2 – 3 & 2:9)
  • Have a support system/community with other positive people and invite them to tag team your investment in a negative person to help them past their negative thoughts, emotions, and patterns. “Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed.  If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble.” (Ecclesiastes 4: 9 – 10)

As one who has dealt with a fair amount of negativity and negative people, I know it can be frustrating and difficult to endure the Debbie Downers in life, especially if I’ve reiterated my best advice till the breath has left me.  Likewise, as one who has been stuck in a rut of negative thoughts and perspective, I know what it is like to be so easily dismissed and given up on.  I can tell you this, cutting loose that negative person and denying them whatever measure of support you can is to shove them harder into the negative cycle and further into despair.  The last verse offered above, in the last phrase says “Someone who falls alone is in real trouble.”  How desperate are they, how compounded their troubles, when they are left alone by those in pursuit of their own happiness, who dare not risk the responsibility of a ‘brother’ or ‘sister’.

Peace to all, and please know that I welcome your own tips or experiences on this topic.

 

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