My “Marilynn Robinson” Phase

For a couple of months I’ve been reading almost nothing but Marilynne Robinson. I really discovered her work only because she was suddenly pictured on the covers of both New York Review of Books and Writer’s Digest in the same month. I figured that much publicity must mean something!

So first I picked up a copy of Lila, Robinson’s National Book Critics Circle Award Winner, published in 2014. Immediately hooked, I put myself on the waiting list at the library for Gilead, which won the Pulitizer Prize, and also Home. All three books circle and recircle the lives of two families, both minister’s families, in Gilead, Iowa. The books are not heavy on plot, so if action is critical to you as a reader, these are not the books for you. However, if you like excellent writing and coming to know the psychological makeup of the characters, you will love Robinson’s work.

My favorite of the fiction books remains Lila, and the appeal lies both in the life and mind of this wonderful character and in the theological tidbits that are dropped here and there. Here is an example, spoken by Lila’s husband, the Reverend John Ames, as he reads to her a draft of a sermon: “Things happen for reasons that are hidden from us, utterly hidden for as long as we think they must proceed from what has come before, our guilt or our deserving, rather than coming to us from a future that God in his freedom offers to us.”

The sermon continues (it begins on page 222), but this opening thought struck me as worthy of dwelling upon in appreciation for the gifts that come to us—perhaps not “out of the blue” but rather out of the future God has ordained for us.

           

Christmas Week

I haven’t written a lot about holidays here, but something about Christmas begs at least a mention! And I want to acknowledge Christian writer Richard Paul Evans (author of The Christmas Box and a great many other books) for prompting this post. In the flurry of all those pre-Christmas activities, there is always something at the back of my mind waiting for attention, and Evans helped me stop to take a closer look at it.

In Evans’s Christmas message, he of course told a story, but he also made this point: “I came to the realization that it is, perhaps, not as much a question of what Christmas is about as it is what we are about. That is, while we are attempting to define the season, the season, in fact, is far more adept at defining us – questioning our hearts whether or not we will hear its call of love and joy and peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

“Questioning our hearts” nails it for me. How critical it is not to just float along, detached from awareness of who I am and how I really think, letting my truest self be buried under the onslaught of social media — but rather to insist on taking the time and focus to ask myself where I am on my personal peace walk, on my love walk, on how I look at other people especially in times of inflammatory public rhetoric. No matter what the inputs are, it is my responsibility how I translate it into attitudes and actions.

So Christmas is, at its most basic level, about the birth of a child. But it’s also about the birth of humankind’s means of salvation, and how important it is to be reminded of that at least annually, preferably a lot more frequently.

This Christmas Week, I want to be mindful to see the Christ child birthing in every person I encounter.

           

Beauty and Responsibilities

Mary Oliver (one of my favorite poets, along with Hafiz) wrote this thought in her poem “Flare,” part 12:

A lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world and the responsibilities of your life.

I think I shall be living in this line all day, and because of introversion, all my lovely thoughts about it will likely remain inside my head. But here’s one, before the introversion takes over.

This single line of poetry may be the best remedy for my sorrow at the loss of a 97-year-old gentleman who was my longtime client and came to feel more like a friend, despite his wealth, status, and accomplishment that were far above my own. In the writing he and I did together, my role was mostly to bring out the best in him. We continued to work together productively until a few weeks before his passing.

He embraced responsibilities his entire life, always seeking more and never feeling overwhelmed by any that came his way. And he eagerly took in the beauty of the world, visiting more parts of it than any other person I’ve ever known. On rare occasions I thought of him as a hedonist, but now I think that he simply lived mindfully.

But the reason this line of poetry will remain in my head all day is the reminder to me that my lifetime, too, will not be long enough for the beauty of the world and the responsibilities that are mine to fulfill. The way the Roman poet Horace put it was: “Carpe diem!” I like better Mary Oliver’s way of saying the same thing.

           

How to Welcome Change

I guess it wouldn’t be Life if we did not always see change. In fact, change is so unavoidable that it makes me wonder why we always dread change. It makes more sense to dread the opposite of change, which is surely death. From that perspective, perhaps we should spread our arms and welcome all the change we can find.

Several changes stand before me, on the verge of unfolding. These range from the totally mundane to the exceptional. On the mundane side, I find I will have to do the research this year to find a new health care plan because providers I use will be dropped from my coverage in 2016. Aaaargh! No one consulted me about this change. In that way, it is typical of most change that comes my way.

On the exceptional side, I am in a weekly walk with a favorite gentleman who appears to be nearing the end of his life. He has reached the stage when he experiences spikes of good days and drops to bad days, but succeeding spikes don’t ascend as high, and the descents to bad days reach greater and greater depth. What’s painful is that everyone involved, most assuredly the gentleman himself, must learn how to do this as we go.

Nathaniel Branden wrote: “The first step toward change is awareness. The second step is acceptance.” I am fully located on the second step with my mundane issue, but somewhere in the middle of the staircase with the serious change, which will bring impact to many people, not just me, in many ways.

My greatest gratitude is that I don’t face any changes, not even the small ones and certainly not the large ones, alone. God has promised to walk with us, never to leave us, and His strength and guidance are available to us at every step, as close to us as our very breath.

           

Developing Perseverance

“Consider it pure joy,” says the book of James, “whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

Notice that James (this is in James 1:2) doesn’t say “trials of any kind,” but rather “trials of many kinds.”

So I am practicing considering it pure joy that a broken metatarsal has me in a walking boot and forced the cancellation of a long-planned trip to see family and friends—some of whom I have not seen in decades. Everything had been lined up so painstakingly, I am doubtful that I could work all that out again.

However, though disappointed at the unraveling of those plans, I am also just as willing to see the dissolution as ultimately working out for the best. If I take the oft-quoted perspective that everything happens for a reason, then I must be willing to have faith that there is a good reason even when I can’t see one. And really, that could be a corollary to the definition of perseverance (steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success).

So I am patiently sitting here with my foot mending in a walking boot, trusting that what I am really doing is developing perseverance, in order to be “mature and complete.”

           

Ultimate Optimism

Can it be that the entire month of July slipped by without a post—actually six weeks? My life has been complicated by the loss of a very beloved pet, my Pomeranian Hillary, on July 1, and I have been coping (barely, apparently) ever since. The fact that she died unexpectedly while I was holding her on my lap only added to the shock and sadness. On top of that, and certainly related, my partner has had a painful case of shingles that came on right after Hillary died and continues even now. So, my household has been a learning ground here lately!

In this context, I came across this quote from theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: “An adequate religion is always an ultimate optimism which has entertained all the facts which lead to pessimism.”

Typical of Niebuhr, there is a lot to chew on here. First, how often do we see “adequate” and “religion” juxtaposed! At the least, it forces me to consider whether my own religion is merely “adequate.” I don’t want to believe that I have a just-get-by religion that scarcely serves me when I’m against the wall. In some senses, I have been against the wall for the past six weeks, and I can report that my religion has been more than adequate.

But it is really the rest of the quote that most draws me. The thought is that in order to be adequate to its purpose, any belief system calling itself a religion must have considered every fact, every avenue that leads ordinary minds to pessimism, and instead it must lead the believer ultimately to optimism.

That’s a religion I will follow with my whole heart all the days of my life.

           

Peace Defined

I never particularly thought I needed a definition of peace. The word has always seemed to signify a self-explanatory end point—a goal to which much of my life has been aimed.

So I was surprised a few days ago to find in Jeremiah, in the Amplified Bible, a verse (33:6) in which there appears to be a definition of peace.

In this verse, Jeremiah is prophesying the future in a restored Jerusalem: “I will lay upon it health and healing, and I will cure them and will reveal to them the abundance of peace (prosperity, security, stability) and truth.”

Since I came across this verse, this definition has been running around the back of my mind. I have been trying it on for size. Had you asked me last week what my definition for peace is, I’m sure I would have come up with something other than “prosperity, security, stability.” Yet, if I have all of those elements squared away, how could I not be in peace?

Once again, the Amplified has shown the way!

           

First Things First

One of the best things you can do to keep your life on an even keel is to keep first things first. Of course, we learn this (again) every time we take a webinar or read a book related to effective living. But there is no substitute for actually putting the concept into practice.

You might think there can be only one “first thing” in a day, but I have three. If you think about it, you may find that you have more than one also.

The initial “first” is the first thing in my head when I wake up. Over many years of spiritual practice, my mind has been trained to start the day with a thanksgiving prayer. This particular “first thing” sets the tone for the day, and I am grateful to start each day with this attitude.

The second “first thing” occurs when I sit down at my desk to work. My spiritual practice is to open the workday with a short devotional time. Sometimes it is a few Bible verses; sometimes the workday begins with the day’s reading from Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence. This is a resource I highly recommend.

The third “first thing” is the first work task for the day. Like everyone else, my work tasks might number anywhere from five to ten in a day, but there is always one that is the most important to my long-range future. That is the one I start with, even when others on the list appear more urgent. And I never put email or Facebook ahead of that one most important task. An excellent book that can help anyone stay focused on this approach to work is Brian Tracy’s Eat That Frog! The book is structured into 21 chapters on how to stay focused on completing important projects and get more done in less time.

Everyday Spirituality means living close to God every day, living close to whatever you most value, and putting first things first.

 

           

God Speaks to Each of Us

“God Speaks to Each of Us” is a poem by the European mystical poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke.

Though the entire poem is worthy of time spent with it, there are two lines I dwell upon most.

The first is: “Don’t let yourself lose me.” Remember that these are meant to be God’s words spoken to each newly made person. It is the responsibility of each of us to see that we don’t lose God, that we don’t lose sight of Him or turn away from Him, no matter what comes to us in life. This is the principal reason for pursuing spiritual practices as an everyday matter. We all need to be reminded daily, even hourly, of Whose we are and why we are here.

The second line that especially draws me is the final one: “Give me your hand.” Yes, it is our own responsibility to keep God centermost in our lives, but we don’t have to work at that without God’s help. The guidance of God is always available to us. But it is our choice whether or not to reach out for it.

           

For the “Down” Day

It’s very hard to avoid them completely. Sooner or later, it seems that we will all have days when our spirits are troubled by doubt or loss or confusion or a frightening suspicion that we might have been abandoned by the Spirit we must have to sustain us.

Christian Century (April 29, 2015, issue) published an article entitled, “Books for the Dark Night.” Eight persons who are active in the Christian community in one way or another were asked to identify and reflect on a book that helped them at a low point in their faith journey.

Several of these books are worth taking a look at. These are titles that would be useful to have available in any case, but especially for those times when you need a place to turn. Here are the books mentioned and briefly discussed:

The Sacrament of the Present Moment, in a translation by Kitty Muggeridge

Don Quixote, in a translation by Walter Starkie (This one surprised me!)

The Soul’s Sincere Desire, by Glenn Clark

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson

God Is More Present Than You Think, by Robert Ochs, SJ

Morality: Memory and Desire, by Luigi Giussani

Companions on the Inner Way, by Morton Kelsey

Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott

I will be reading a few of these and will likely report on them here in future posts.