Forty More Days, Day 19–Learning through Suffering

“He learned obedience through the things which he suffered” ~~Hebrews 5:8

I think every day about suffering, some days it is more intently than others, but every day nonetheless. Do you really? Every single day? I can hear you saying. Yes, really, every day, if only for a moment. I write in a journal every morning. Usually it’s only a page, but I write every day. And each day I close my journal with the following prayer: “May I and all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May we walk in the power of lovingkindness, compassion, joy, equanimity, peace, and love and share these blessings with the world and beyond. Amen.” My Buddhist friends recognize that most of that comes from Buddhist tradition, augmented a little by my own touches. Every day I pray that we all might be free from suffering and the things that cause it.

During Lent I am more keenly aware of suffering, as I think about the suffering and agony Jesus went through just before and during his execution. I think that to be human is to know suffering. I think we all are touched by it at one point or another in one form or another. Suffering takes many forms, some more obvious than others. The question is not if we suffer, it is how we suffer. Not the means by which we are plagued, but how we go through it. We can experience pain—physical, mental, emotional—and pray desperately for it to end, or we can open to it, lean into it, learn from it. I think it ends up being some combination of both.

The question is, then, how can we learn from suffering? After all, if suffer we must, we might as well get something out of it. (What an odd way of thinking about it.) What I mean is that, hidden in the midst of the pain, grief, heartache or other form of suffering, there is usually something to learn, some insight to gain. The Bible says that Jesus learned obedience from the things he suffered. What have you and I learned?

Several years ago, when the bottom fell out of my somewhat orderly life, I was most definitely suffering. I honestly didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the “why me?” phase, but did spend a bit of time confused about what I was going to do next. How could I make sense of what was happening to me. After a few weeks of floundering, the first positive move I made was to volunteer at a local food pantry. You see, I knew that, as bad as things felt, I knew I didn’t have it as bad as others. I had a roof over my head, and support from family and friends. I had reserves I could count on. Volunteering at the food pantry gave me purposeful work and allowed me to serve members of my community. It saved me.

The other important lesson I learned during that time was to be grateful for virtually everything in my life. I was surrounded by the beauty of the natural world. I had people in my life who loved and cared for me. As I told people more than once, I couldn’t throw a rock and not hit something that I was grateful for. I began writing a daily gratitude blog. Even though things hadn’t materially changed in my life, each day I search for and found something I could be grateful for. The blog, “Lessons in Gratitude,” still lives in the blogosphere, and occasionally people still read it. I wrote 1,000 posts over the course of those years, and as my suffering eased and life got a little easier I continued to write.

I learned things I can’t even articulate. Experiencing loss deepened my capacity for compassion and understanding. It also helped me search for and find the good in people, even those with whom I struggled. I am still discovering things I learned during that time of suffering. I still suffer, much less dramatically than I did during my difficult years of loss. I suffer from depression, self doubt, and many other things that plague so many of us on a regular basis, offering me more learning opportunities than I might want. But learn I will, as best I can.

May I and all beings be free from suffering…

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Forty More Days, Day 18–Wandering

It don’t look like I’ll ever stop my wandering. ~~James Taylor

I feel like I’ve moved a lot over the past dozen years or so. I’m imagine people in the military, who often move quite frequently might smile at the relatively few times I’ve moved (six times since 2005, five since 2011.) I still have boxes packed from my most recent move. I sort of haven’t gotten around to getting them unpacked. For someone who wants to feel a deep connection to “home,” I certainly have moved around over my life.

I look within my family and see my siblings living in the same general vicinity as they’ve lived for years–they can count the years in decades. I have colleagues who are retiring having worked at the same institution for 30 and 40 or more years. I, having moved many times, will never retire from a place having been there that long. It’s a strange feeling, this one of being a vagabond.

Of course, I am not really a vagabond. For one thing, vagabonds have no jobs to speak of, and while I’ve moved a number of times, I have for the most part been working all that time. No, I’m not a wanderer, a wayfarer, except in my own mind. There has often been a bit of restlessness in my spirit that has been looking for this nebulous place called, “home.” As much as I’d like to think that my heart can be content wherever it lands at any given time, there’s always been this piece of me longing for a heart connection to a particular place. I don’t think I’ve been there yet, and I don’t know that I’d know it if I saw it. Alas.

But Jesus, now there was a vagabond. Though his “job” was to minister to the masses, he didn’t do it in any one place. In a sense, he and his followers were more like a traveling circus, moving from place to place, staying only for short periods of time. I imagine that even he had moments when he wanted someplace to call home. But when he went back to visit his hometown, the people there weren’t especially welcoming. They didn’t see him as a healer, teacher, and worker of miracles. They couldn’t get past the fact that this was Joseph’s son and not particularly special. So Jesus had to move on from there.

The 40 days journey is an internal sort of wandering. It’s a seeking to understand and be part of the last days of Jesus’s suffering. For agnostic wayfarers like me it’s an opportunity to relate to and connect with others who are on this journey. I can find a place for the restlessness I feel from time to time. I might not find an actual physical place that I can call home, but I can create a heart space wherein home resides and I inhabit it. Everywhere you go, there you are. And so it is with each of us.

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Forty More Days, Day 17–On Loneliness

After a long week, I am taking the night off and sharing a post from 2016 on loneliness. It’s an emotion I’ve known well over the years. On the journey of 40 days, we’ll experience a range of emotions. We work our way through these things as best we can, gaining insights along the way. Enjoy this post from March 2016, and I’ll be back with an original post tomorrow.

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The Next Forty Days, Day 21–Only the Lonely

“Some people have never been the lonely kind
Never called a friend in the middle of the night
Just to hear a voice say, “It’s okay…”
~ Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Sudden Gift of Fate”

I wonder if Jesus ever got lonely. He’d have to, I would think. I mean, here he is the son of God, with all the weight and needs of the masses of people who followed him boring down on him. Who could he talk to about this? His disciples were somewhat lumbering dunderheads (remember, this was before Pentecost and the Holy Spirit came down on them and imbued them with some sense) who didn’t comprehend half of what he did or said. He could hardly confide with them about the worries on his mind. What would they say, “It’ll be alright, Lord?” Um, no. His mother perhaps would have understood a little better, after all, she too had a couple of supernatural, otherworldly kinds of encounters with angels and such. But no, she couldn’t fully understand either.

How lonely it must have been for him to want to talk with someone, another human being whom he could sit with, whose eyes he could look into, who would totally understand what he was feeling. Sure he had a connection with a non-corporeal “heavenly father,” with whom communication was probably instantaneous, but Jesus was human and likely in need of another human whose physical presence could offer tangible support. I don’t know, just speculating here.

I’ve had plenty of times in my life when I’ve been lonely. Recently I had an experience that was not traumatic in a conventional sense, but was difficult nonetheless. I was at a meeting where a lot of information was being shared that all seemed to push one emotional/psychological button of mine after another. By the time it had ended, I was in some kind of emotional overload. At that moment I don’t think I could have listened to a single other thing, certainly not about work and some of the topics we were dealing with at the meeting. I knew I was overloaded, and a little exhausted after not having slept well (yet again) the night before. I was in a state and I needed to talk to someone about what I was feeling. And right then, I felt like Jesus. Well not exactly like Jesus in the whole son of God sense, but in the sense of not knowing whom I could talk to about what was bothering me.

I went down through the list of people I could call who would understand the issues I was confronting, but the complicated part was that those who would be most familiar with the issues were either far away or were people who could sympathize with but not comfort me. There are other people in my life who are of great, loving comfort and who would do anything to help me feel better, but they aren’t familiar with the issues that were plaguing me in that moment. I was in this strange kind of nether-world where I needed something that I could barely articulate or recognize enough to articulate and in the moment had virtually no one who was available that I could process and release it with. It was a very lonely, desolate–albeit brief–feeling. That must’ve been what Jesus felt like.

Eventually the immediate disorientation passed and the I-don’t-know-who-to-tell-this-to feeling lessened to a tolerable level before disappearing completely. Still, it was a reminder to me that over these 40 days and many other days in our lives we’re going to hit this particular type of moment. It might not last, we might not even notice it or recognize it for what it is, but it will hit. The key for me, from where I sit, is that I reach out to someone, even if I don’t think they’ll understand it fully. What I need in that moment is just a voice to say, “It’s okay.”  At the end of the day, isn’t that what we all need?

“And now I hear you speak each and every word
That I didn’t think lonely people heard
You took a long night and turned it into day…”

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Forty More Days, Day 16–Days Like This

Mama said there’ll be days like this,
there’ll be days like this, Mama said.
Mama said there’ll be days like this
there’ll be days like this, my Mama said.  ~~From “Mama Said, by Luther Dixon and Willie Denson

I’m not sure my own mama ever said there’ll be days like this, but it’s a reasonable expectation that there’ll be all kinds of days. In the context of the song, “days like this,” wasn’t a good thing, and so Mama’s words were an admonition to be prepared for some kind of day. In James Taylor’s song, “Everybody’s Got the Blues,” he sings, “Everybody’s got some days that they can’t explain.” I think between Mama and James, my week is about covered. I’ve definitely had days that I can’t explain, and without a doubt I’ve had a few “days like this” that Mama might have told me about were she still here to tell me anything.

This week I’ve had days where I’ve been so scheduled in meetings that I barely had time to draw a deep breath, head to the restroom, or do anything other than skip off to the next thing. Too busy, too busy. Is that the kind of day Mama was warning about? Today besides meetings, I had literally dozens of emails to compose and send, and myriad details to attend to and include in each one. Can I mention that I am not a wonderful detail person? I’m kind of more of a big picture person. There’s a reason why they say that the devil is in the details. It really is.

On days like this, and a few others this week, I left my office feeling totally drained, having expended all my energy in the frenetic activities I had to get through so that I could go home. Yesterday I sat in meetings that were so tense and intense that I could scarcely sit there and watch the proceedings without wanting to jump up and run from the room, which was, of course, not an option. Days like those are imminently forgettable, and here’s the good news. Those kind of days end, and the next morning you wake with the option of having days like this be more of a good thing. I mean, what would it be like to say, “Gee, I wish I had more days like this?” That would be totally awesome.

Jesus probably had days like this. I bet his Mama even told him so. Over the course of three years worth of traveling and spending days on end ministering to, healing, preaching to hundreds of people at a time, you’d better believe that he had days when he needed a break from everything. So he’d take himself out in the wilderness for some solitude. I’m with you, Jesus. When I’m overly engaged with people, as I have been over the past few weeks, there’s nothing I want more than to withdraw, refresh and recover from days like this.

On this journey of 40 day, there’s going to be more than a few days like this. Our task is to take them as much in stride as possible and not let us get derailed off our course. May we all have the opportunity to step back and recover from days like this so we can go have the good kinds of days. No matter what comes my way, however, my hope and plan is to approach them with as much grace and patience as possible. At the end of the day, that’s all I really can do anyway. And so it goes.

 

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Forty More Days, Day 15–I Should Have Given Up Chocolate

What I remember about Lent from times past was that it was a time to give something up-like beer or chocolate or shopping. In other words, sacrificing something to acknowledge the sacrifice and suffering of Jesus. A few years ago I gave up swearing for Lent. You can’t imagine how challenging that was. While I don’t swear like the proverbial sailor, I do let fly a few good expletives on occasion. Every time I said a swear word, I put 25 cents into my “swear jar.” Depending on what manner of difficulties I was facing in my work and the rest of my life, I would put more or less in the swear jar. One year I had well over $20. By the end of the season, I rounded it up to $100 and donated the money I’d collected to charity.

For Lent four years ago, I decided to start writing a daily blog of my reflections over the 40 days. It seemed like a good idea at the time, until I hit about day 10 and I found myself wondering what I had gotten myself into. “I should have given up chocolate,” I complained to myself at one point, even though I don’t eat that much chocolate. But, I managed to make it through forty-plus days of writing, and I have now done that for the past four years. Nevertheless, I have those days when I think it would have been easier to give up swearing. And then there’s always the chocolate.

This morning I only wrote half a page in my journal. I simply didn’t have anything to say. Sometimes I hit a wall and can’t write my usual full page. This morning was one of those moments. And you know what? It’s all good. My journaling practice and my blogging are things I do for myself. They help me turn inward and focus on something that comes from my head and my heart. It causes me to slow down, if only for a few moments and put words to ideas.

I imagine I’ll have more than a few days when I wish I would’ve given up chocolate, and that might’ve left me a few pounds lighter at the end of 40 days. But at the end of these forty days, as has been true over the past four years, I leave behind a small collection of reflections on the nature of being human, of suffering, of hope, of sorrow and grief, and of redemption and transformation. They are words I can re-read, rediscovering insights that I had and getting a glimpse into where my head was at the time. I am grateful for that.

Blogging about this 40-plus day journey is a gift I give to myself, and humbly offer to any who would come read along. I am grateful for this Lenten season for giving me a focus for reflection and introspection. Some days I will have more to say than others, and sometimes (God willing), I’ll have some relatively profound insights to share. And still other days, I’ll simply wish I’d given up chocolate instead of committing to writing a daily blog post. But that is as it is, and I will doggedly trundle forward. And so it goes.

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Forty More Days, Day 14–Once More With Feeling

Today has been one of those days. Almost nonstop meetings from 8:30 this morning until 7:30 this evening. Then the 45-minute commute home, cereal for dinner, and by the time I sit down to write, it’s already my bedtime. You know where this is going, right? Siri is going to help me generate a random number that will correspond to the blog post I will choose to share with you all this evening. So I invite you to sit back, relax, and enjoy this post from March of 2016. See you tomorrow, hopefully with an original post.

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The Next Forty Days, Day 27–Keep On Moving

Every weekday morning I trudge up the four flights of stairs to the office. It is 11 steps to each landing, so I walk up 66 steps, plus take two to three steps on the landings. At the top of the stairs I have walked approximately 76 steps. I often stand there for a few extra seconds, panting, before I gather myself and head into my office. Sometimes you simply have to keep your feet moving.

I go through this a lot. Some mornings I groan as I drag myself downstairs to ride my exercise bike. My mind is howling in protest over not wanting to get on it, each step I take drags me toward and then up onto it. I start pedaling telling myself I’m not going to make it to the 22 minutes I devote to this particular activity. But a degree of stubbornness kicks in and I push myself past my protest and on to completing the goal at hand. These days I spend a lot of time pushing through. “You’re not going to make it, you’re not going to make it,” my internal naysayer harasses me. “Oh yes I am, yes I am,” my stubborn, persistent self snarls back, pushing myself, willing myself to keep moving. More often than not I do make it, achieve the goal, whatever it is.

I have moments when I simply don’t think I can keep moving. I get overly exhausted, overwhelmed by all the things I have t do, and determine that I can’t do another thing. And then, I do another thing. We perhaps have all done this–pushed ourselves beyond our limits, thereby creating new limits that we will subsequently push beyond. I suppose at one level it is how we all live and grow and get stronger. I think though, there comes a time for rest.

The exercise of these 40 days is in part about reflection, sacrifice and remembrance of the suffering Jesus faced as he walked the world. It is also about rest, about listening to your body as it tells you what you need. I have been ignoring mine, and I do so to my detriment. So I have determined that I will begin to take some intentional steps toward my own wellbeing and peace.

The process of persevering is in some ways quite simple–you keep moving, putting one foot in front of the other, sometimes literally (like when I take the four flights of stairs at work) as well as figuratively. But it is also about knowing when to pull back, take the elevator, give yourself a break. Jesus did this from time to time. The gospel writers say that periodically, Jesus would withdraw from the crowds and go to s quite place to rejuvenate himself. I definitely need to take a page from Jesus’s play book and learn to withdraw myself to find quiet and rest. Soon.

 

 

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Forty More Days, Day 13–A Wing and a Prayer

I’ve been thinking a lot about prayer lately. There was a time in my life when I prayed a lot. Formal kinds of prayer–sometimes in community, but mostly alone. I spent a lot of dedicated time, literally on my knees, sometimes on my face, praying aloud, praying in silence, praying throughout the day. Prayer was a big part of my daily routine.

These days my prayer life looks much different. You wouldn’t be able to tell from looking at me, but I pray all the time. There is no formality to it, no posture that I assume, no particular format to my prayers. When I first heard of the concept of prayer as a conversation with God, I was–pardon the expression–in heaven. I always wanted a God I could talk to, so this notion sat very well with me. And let me tell you, I have quite interesting conversations with God.

Of course they are mostly one-sided–I do a lot of the talking, and while I do pause to listen (I don’t ramble on and on, my conversations have purpose) I don’t often hear a response. I’m alright with that. For me, the benefit of prayer is not that I get something or that something happens (though that is nice). The benefit of prayer lies in what it does to and for me. I find great comfort in my conversations with God. Yes, I am often asking God for something–it would be disingenuous for me to suggest that I don’t–but it isn’t all about that for me. More than half the time my prayer is quite simply, “Thank you, God.”

I thank God a lot and for all kinds of things. The beauty of the sunrise or moonrise on a given day. The heavens captivate me and speak of the wonders of something vast and unknowable…hmmm, like God, perhaps. Prayer sometimes helps me get clarity. It allows me to name an issue, to put it out there where I can look at it. “God, help me understand what’s happening in ___ situation. Help me know how to respond.” And when I finish my prayer, whether it takes a minute or an hour, it still comes back to “Thank you.” This brings to mind the quote from Meister Eckhart, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”

During these 40 days of Lent, I think the prayer is about connecting to and understanding the nature of suffering. We are preparing to commemorate the suffering and death of Jesus, and that is part of it. But for me it is also about connecting and relating to the suffering of the people around us, and those people around the world. Jesus helped ease the suffering of the people around him. Other faith traditions also help us open with compassion to the suffering of others. And so we do.

It is through this opening of ourselves that we are plugged into the collective faith of people of all beliefs. Prayer brings about personal and collective transformation. Sometimes it’s big and radical, but more often than not it’s quiet and simple. And I am grateful for it. It is another part of our journey of these 40 days, to deepen our conversations with God and our connection to the people around us. And so in the spirit of community, of compassion with and for those who are suffering, in thanksgiving for the gifts we are given every day, and for so many other reasons, let us pray.

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