Thursday, November 26, 2009

Street of Gold

Welcome to the season of giving...and getting, of course. One of the hard things about Christmas is to separate our wants from our needs, and, as I am always reminded to do, continue to get our priorities straight.

Depending on the world’s material goods to make us happy is a dangerous detour on the Road to Simplicity. Easier said than done. I remember the day I caught Ed looking at a pricey clothes catalog. He had put at least 20 of those sticky pad pages in it, marking things he would like to have. I remember how he laughed when he realized it, and his observation was, “I’ve bookmarked this like I have money!” Ever since then, when we see those bookmarks sticking out of our catalogs, we both smile at the dichotomy. Most of the time, they all go into our catalog collection basket and then to recycling - bookmarks still intact, almost as a compromise between our wants and our needs and what we choose to spend money on. They are saying, “I want this, I really, really want this, it would be perfect for me, I deserve it, I wish I had the money for it,” then relinquishing those wishes to the recycling center. For in reality, we enjoy wishing and dreaming, but we know our priorities and our limits. We know those things marked would be a pleasure to have but their presence in our lives will not make us happy. In fact, we can be perfectly happy with less than we think.

In the Season of Consumerism, I am reminded of one of Ed’s best sermons. It was on this verse from Revelation:

“And the twelve gates were twelve pearls; every several gate was of one pearl: and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass.”

Ah, yes, the street of gold and the pearly gates. One of Ed’s seminary friends frequently said, after doing something good, “Well, that’s another jewel in my crown!” He meant, of course, that one day in heaven he would be rewarded for all his good deeds - and that reward would be precious jewels. The idea that heaven is filled with things that are precious on earth is one that a lot of Christians believe wholeheartedly. What does that mean, exactly?

Here is where Ed turns things upside down. If the street of heaven is paved with gold, and the gates are made of pearls, maybe it’s because those things are worthless in heaven! If you want to take this Bible passage literally, you might conclude: “Pearls and gold and jewels are everywhere in heaven precisely because they are worthless, not because they are precious.” We know that it is usually the rare things that are expensive in this world of ours. If all our streets were paved with gold, and diamonds were covering every roof of every house, their very abundance would mean they had no value, wouldn’t it? Common equals cheaper; rarity equals expensive. Maybe this passage is demonstrating to us that heaven’s priorities are not our earthly priorities - and maybe that will make us stop and consider how our lives would be changed if we examined the way we live using heaven's standards.

Of course, when folks are trying hard to pay for heating oil, wondering if they can pay the rent or mortgage, losing their jobs, going hungry, running up unpaid medical bills, I know it is comforting to think that after death, they will finally “make it.” They will have gold and jewels and pearls and everything that says “wealth.” It sounds kind of like winning the lottery. But if you really look at the implications of that verse, you may come to Ed’s conclusion. If God thinks gold and pearls are in reality worthless, what does God think is valuable? If we ask those kinds of questions at the beginning of this Season of Consumerism, maybe we’ll come out at the end a wiser and simpler people.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Quick Guide to Life

Stress is everywhere. The latest edition of my favorite magazine, “Experience Life,” has articles titled, “Overcome Anxiety,” “Relax and Renew,“ and “How to Avoid Holiday Overload.” As if we didn’t have enough stress with the economy and unemployment, here come the holidays, and all the commercials trying to convince us that this toy will make our kids happy, or that this piece of jewelry is the only way to show your love, or this technological gadget will make our lives complete.

I’m not the world’s expert on stress by any means, but after thinking for awhile, I came up with three ways I try to handle stress. They sound simple, but they can get really complicated. The Journey to Simplicity is frequently not simple.

Change and the wisdom to know
Go with the flow
Let go

The wisdom to know is from my favorite prayer, the Serenity Prayer. I’ve blogged about it several times and it never loses its power for me. “God grant me the ability to accept the things I cannot change, change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” If we sat down and made a list of things we worry about, and divided those up into “what I can change” and “what I can’t change,” already our lists would be shortened. And yet... there are some things you may realize you can’t change on your own, but integrity demands you follow through anyway (such as voting for a lost cause on election day). Of course, as admirable as it is to want to change society for the better, and as much as I would encourage it, the fastest and most productive way to effect change is to change yourself. “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Going with the flow is a tricky one. There are times you need to go with the flow, and there are times you need to fight your way upstream. Again, the wisdom to know the difference is the key. Our daughter, Rachel, has a tendency to be anxious, especially when her best laid plans go awry. I wrote letters to both kids until they were 18, when I had them bound and gave the collection to them. I included a final letter from their dad, giving advice to each child. For Rachel, he told her she needed to be more like the tree that bends in the wind, and less like the tree that is so hard and inflexible that it breaks in a storm. The expression, I believe, is that we make plans and God laughs. Things rarely turn out exactly as planned. And yet...integrity sometimes demands that you hold your ground or fight against the current. Ah, the wisdom to know the difference!

Let go, “Let go and let God.” Release the lifeline, open your hand, let go of everything you think you need for security. Let go of your need for control. Let go of your need for excessive material goods, let go of your need to please people in a way that violates your integrity, let go of expectations. That latter one is so hard. I gave a children’s Advent sermon once where I held up a sign with the word EXPECT in big letters on one side. I told the kids that the Jews expected the Messiah, they expected a king, they expected a glorious revolution. They wanted God to fulfill his promise to them. Then I turned the sign over. On that side was the the same group of letters rearranged - the word EXCEPT in big letters. The Jews got God’s promise fulfilled, EXCEPT it wasn’t in the way they EXPECTED it. Sometimes we have to let go of expectations. Yet....sometimes you have to expect a miracle, or expect happiness, or expect that things will work out. Some people call this release of positive energy, others call it faith. There are times we believe something utterly unrealistic, something others may mock or scorn, but we know in our hearts it can be WILL be done. In those cases we have to hold on to our expectations with all our might. Sometimes you have to hold tight to expectations for yourself. I never would have given up Cokes or learned to tolerate flying if I had not expected so much of myself. I learned that I can accomplish more than I think - I now have that expectation.

So it all comes down to wisdom - to know when to hold your ground or give in, to know what you can change and how to change it, to know when to hold on and when to let go, to know when to expect success or to allow life to bring surprises, to know when to work toward your dreams, and when to let go of your dreams, or just change your dreams.

I used to think wisdom was knowledge, but eventually I learned the difference. Knowledge is easy to get. In fact, I know a lot of smart people who know more than I will ever know about anything, but I think they lack wisdom. It’s quite elusive. In the end, it is the one gift I hope we gave to our children, not just for the holiday season, but for all their lives - the wisdom to know the difference.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Overnight lessons

I had a dream last night that I lived in a big house with many rooms (when I dream, the house always symbolizes myself - the multifaceted being that I am!), and as a surprise, friends from my life showed up to spend some days with me. The funny thing was that a few of them I didn’t remember ever meeting before, and they only stayed one night, but some more familiar faces stayed several days and beyond. Unfortunately, as delighted as I was, I spent the whole time rushing around cleaning and straightening (as I had had no warning that they were coming) and never spent time with my visitors.

When I awoke, I started thinking of all the people who have come in and out of my life; some have only stayed for a few moments, and others for decades. No matter how short or long their interactions with me, they have affected me in some way. Former neighbors, fellow students, the friends of my children, teachers from official school and “the school of life,” parishioners from past churches were Ed was the pastor, choirs I have sung with - all have left their mark, no matter how superficial or transient my association was them may have been. Of course, those are people I physically encountered. Then there are the people that I have never met in person, but whose life situations, personalities, generosity or lack thereof, wisdom or foolishness, taught me things that made me a better person - the patients I transcribe about, people I see or read about in the news, authors of books that changed my life. There are even people who have skills that inspire or teach me - such as Sylvia Woods (the Celtic harpist), Caroline’s violin teacher whom I never met, and even the anonymous folks who post videos on You-Tube - such as the one I saw the other day which showed very clearly the technique of putting in an invisible zipper!

All the people mentioned above and many others apparently come to visit me throughout my life. Some faces I recognize, some are strangers, some are friends I haven’t seen for years, and some are friends and relatives I saw yesterday. They are all a part of me. I have learned from them what to do or what not to do. I have received from some of them inspiration and reassurance that maybe I can learn something new. I have received from others a warning about how greed or power can warp my priorities. I have learned from some how to deal with grief and loss, or how to bear up under unimaginable circumstances.

The second lesson from the dream, of course, is that I need to live in the present. I couldn’t enjoy my visitors because I had my mind on other things. The other day I was driving home from work and I had the discomforting experience of seeing the rising moon in the sky in front of me and the setting sun in back of me. I had the feeling that I was caught between two worlds - the future and the past. Somehow the whole drive made me feel in limbo - that whatever I was doing in the present was not real. It’s the time of year again when we think about, as Scrooge had to, Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future, and you can add Thanksgiving to those time delineations as well. Planning and scheduling - are we having Thanksgiving on Thursday or Friday in our family this year? Who is hosting? What should I bake? Do Matt and Sarah plan on having us out for Christmas Eve this year? If so, should we try to spend the night with Rachel’s family so we don’t have to drive back to Hancock at night? Should we even buy a Christmas tree this year? What presents should I buy and when? What should I wear for the family Christmas picture we take on Thanksgiving?......and on and on. And each of these questions is matched with “Well, what did we do LAST year?”

I have always had a difficulty living in the present, not just living, but being fully and wholly engaged in the present moment. I’m a great planner and list-maker. I haven’t finished sewing my blouse, but already I’ve bought fabric for the next thing to sew. Last night’s dream just reminded me once again of what I need to work on. Of all the teachers in my life, my dreams (where my mind processes my life experiences) have been exceedingly important. The insights they provide have been invaluable on my journey.