Spiritual Hospitality

Recently, a friend wrote an online piece about her personal decision to stop watching a popular television show. The response to her essay was swift and defensive: while a few folks actually engaged with her piece, most of them were so offended that they wrote derogatory responses in the comment section, telling her to "lighten up" and "suck it up, princess."

When a few of our friends talked with her about it afterwards, the discussion turned to listening. I made the remark that many of those commenters weren't actually hearing what she said but were reacting defensively, as if my friend had poked them and they were swatting her hand away.

Our wise theologian friend Kelley noted that part of mindfulness is learning the practice of waiting a few moments before we react to what someone has said. True listening means opening ourselves to others instead of biting back, hearing their stories instead of nurturing our own hurts and aches.

As I sat down to read Henri Nouwen's daily devotional book Bread for the Journey, I was delighted that his message flowed right into the midst of our conversation. I love it when that happens. Nouwen says that listening is so important that is it a Spiritual Hospitality.

"To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements, or declarations. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, to welcome, to accept."

I had to reread this passage to let it seep in. When we truly listen to others, we aren't eager to justify ourselves, our existence or our opinions. Instead, we are "free," yes, liberated to welcome what others have to say or express.

I don't know about you but that seems nearly impossible to do. Many times, when I react defensively to a comment or critique someone has made to me, it's because I have already felt the truth of it in my own heart. Hearing another express concerns, thoughts, and feelings, especially when they seem to contradict what I feel and believe is so difficult.

I didn't get the whole picture until I read the next day's passage in Nouwen's book. It turns out that this "interior stability" which we draw from is not our own inner strength. Instead, Nouwen says, it is not ourselves but the Spirit which "creates in us a sacred space where the other can be received and listened to."

When I read Nouwen's words, I don't solely think of this as a message for those negative commenters to hear. The truth is, this is a message for me, a daily, even hourly, reminder that all the people in my life need to be listened to.

Not long after my friend's piece went online, I decided to write a comment of my own. I wanted to defend her, to scream at those rude commenters and bite back. I wonder now if I shouldn't have said anything at all. Because the truth is, those commenters have stories too that need to be heard. I wonder that many of them are writing from a place of loneliness, searching for a connection, even if it is online. Many of them are reacting out of their own pain and grief. Is my small comment, meant to defend my friend, only another way to dismiss others as unheard?

As with many lessons, the learning starts in the smallest, most intimate ways. Many days, amidst the bustle of morning school routines, my children leave for the day, rushed and unheard.

As my son crawls into my lap while I type, I feel the urge to stop, to hold and rock him. I am starting at home, showing this kind of hearing hospitality to my children.

 

Powerless

A post for Circling the Story

Mid-way between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, an ice storm knocks out our power.

With an unseasonably warm season, this blast of icy weather has reminded me that we live in the Midwest and it is indeed winter. Our apartment, in a building we share with two other families on a farm, sits only yards from our pigs, chickens, cows, and a large community garden. The well that supplies our drinking and flushing water and the water for all the animals depends on electricity to run.

As I get cozy with my three children on the couch, we have no idea that we are only at the beginning of two and a half days without water, heat, a stove, or, gasp, the internet.

My two older children and I make a fun afternoon of it, reading and swapping books. When evening comes and the power is still out, my husband grabs his camping stove from the basement. We have a dinner of reheated turkey soup by candlelight and headlamp.

As we enjoy the momentary romance of a simpler evening, our parent-child conversations are predictable.

Did you know that when my grandparents grew up on a farm, they didn’t have any electricity?

They didn’t even have indoor toilets. Or washing machines. Or movies! They had to make their own music.

Won’t we be thankful when the power comes on tomorrow?

But the next morning, the lights are still off. The house is 50 degrees. The unflushed toilet has begun to stink.

Read the rest over at Circling the Story...

God of the Mundane

A post for Mudroom blog:

The contemplatives often write that God is revealed in the mundane, that in my laundry, my dishes, my baby’s diapers, and in the liturgical, repetitive tasks of my day there are opportunities to find the God who incarnated small and humble. But there are mornings when just getting out of bed to perform those daily duties seems too much to bear.

Instead of seeking God in the minutiae of my life, I would much prefer to have a more powerful sense of God. When my hands are elbow-deep in the dregs of rinse water, I would rather have a vision of God in the way of Teresa of Avila, who saw the soul as a castle.

Can’t my soul be a fairy castle, please?     

Read the rest of God of the mundane at The Mudroom

Favorite Acts of Beauty: Volume 2

I'm linking up today with Leigh Kramer's "What I'm Into." Visit her page and read some of the other link ups. Heck, do your own if you're so inclined.

What I'm Into

Books

For some reason, I had trouble finishing a single book in November. Well, there actually is a reason: I've been reading bits of so many books that I haven't finished any of them. I nearly finished one but it was on December 1st. I'm going to count it anyway.

The one book I finished:

Between the world and me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

As Toni Morrison says, "this is required reading." Winner of the 2015 National Book Award, this is a letter to Coates' teenage son. But really, it's a heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, eye-opening (can I say any more cliche book review words?) look at Coates life growing up in Baltimore, and what his experience, parentage, history, and education have shown him about "a systemized, ubiquitous threat to 'black bodies' in the form of slavery, police brutality, and mass incarceration." (Jon Foro) Those who have wondered why so many are so heartbroken about the many recent killings of African Americans by the police should read this. I don't have anything clever to say about it because I think I just need to listen instead.

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Other books

I'm usually a fiction kind of a girl. But I've been on a Saint kick lately. Can you be on a Saint kick? I think so. It's a bit like a food craze except it's a lot healthier for you.

What led me to the saints? Well, really, it was the coloring pages my daughter brought home from school and possibly a garden statue.

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I'll explain.

My 1st grader goes to a Catholic School. We are not Catholic. We didn't grow up Catholic. But I love the Catholics. And I'm growing to love their saints. When my daughter brought home a coloring page for the celebration of Therese de Lisieux, the "little saint," I was hooked. What a lovely celebration of the minutea, of the small life, of the little flowers that are at the back of garden. After that, I found an old wooden statue of St Francis in my grandmother's garden (we were cleaning out her home) and I adopted him, both as a garden ornament and as my patron saint.

In that vein, I wrote a piece at Good Letters, an Image Journal blog about trying to be a mystic and a mom. Spoiler alert: it's not going well.

But still, I press on. Here are the saints and mystics I am reading about. I'm not promising to finish all of them: sometimes they can be a bit tedious. After all, they didn't have anything else to do right?*

Francis of Assisi: the Essential Writings by Jon M. Sweeney

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Waiting for God by Simone Weil

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The Interior Castle by St Theresa of Avila

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*Just kidding. I know the saints did a lot of stuff like nursing lepers, pilgrimages, preaching naked (St. Francis at least). And depriving yourself of food takes away a lot of your energy too.

TV

We don't watch much around here. Not from any moral stance but really, the only free moments for TV are at bedtime. And then, we just fall asleep. Having said that, my husband and I can usually sneak in one or two episodes of our recent favorite British import:

Doc Martin

I've read the terms "socially awkward," "socially inept," and "rude" to describe the brilliant surgeon who's sudden fear of blood leads him to a small coastal town where he becomes the GP (General Practitioner) and encounters all manner of quirky but well-meaning locals. But really, my favorite term is "dyspeptic." Not sure what it means but the word sounds like a belch. Doc Martin would be disgusted.

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Music

Sara Groves' album "Floodplain": can't say enough about this album which covers depression, anxiety, children growing up, marriage, doubts, second guessing, and more.

The Liturgists' "Oh Light": The Liturgists are a collection of many artists but this particular song is sung by the members of the band Gungor. A welcome addition to the small selection of albums just for Advent.

Judy Collins' (feat Willie Nelson) "When I go": seriously, listen to it. It's beautiful.

Unstoppable joy: the tension of ashes and piano keys

DSC_0053 Ash Wednesday services are usually solemn times when we reflect on our own mortality, the death of Jesus and our need for repentance.

But at our Wednesday gathering, we experienced a different aspect of the service: young children running across the linoleum floors, totally oblivious to the solemnity of the occasion.  While the rest of us were receiving the ashes on our foreheads, my son ran to the piano and plunked at the keys before anyone could stop him.  The black ribbons we tied together as a symbol of our unity in brokenness, my daughter was attempting to use as a jump rope.

As a mother, I was just a little bit horrified and all I wanted them to be was quiet and well-behaved.

But then someone stopped me.  A friend with older children (who usually knows just what to say) approached me after the service.

She loved that our children were oblivious to the soberness of the service.  She loved that nothing would stop their joy.  She loved that we are supposed to have faith and hearts like theirs...full and lively.

So here is this tension of Lent and our lives in Christ. Our faith does and should include the darker things.  We will mourn and grieve and be penitent.  But we should also share in the joy of celebration, just like our children.  Just as we celebrate death on Ash Wednesday, joyful that death will take us to new life, we can acknowledge that death is very very sad.  That though Jesus has overcome it, we still feel death's sting.

I'd like to live in this tension of death-grieving and mortality celebration.  I'd like to be joyful in sorrow and patient in solemnity.

And I'd like to be a little more observant of the way my children approach worship and prayer, with unstoppable joy.

'Tis the season for entitlement

In the past few years, I've approached gift-giving season with a bit of anxiety.  While I enjoy both giving and receiving, motherhood has added new perspective and unanswered questions to birthdays and holidays.

On Tuesday, gift season commences in our household when Dandelion turns four.  Blessed be the day when my first baby was born!

As I sit on the floor of our basement assembling her play kitchen, even as I connect the nuts and bolts and screws of her shiny new toy, I worry about how to keep her and her brother from a sense of entitlement.

I love giving gifts to them, material and otherwise.  I delight in my daughter's squeals of joy, her shouts of 'woo-hoo' when she thinks about her special day and the presents she'll receive and cupcakes she'll eat. I hope she always gets so excited to receive, and that this overflowing feeling is just a glimpse of the glory that will fill her when she truly takes hold of those life-affirming gifts called grace and love.

Perhaps the grime of the "gimmes" hasn't muddied her little spirit yet. But I worry about her future spirit because my own sense of entitlement has proven rather difficult to extricate from my heart.

As a mother, I wonder how to help her see that gifts and blessings aren't the trinkets underneath the puffs and mounds of tissue paper that will litter the floor of our large family gathering at Christmas?

How do I help her weave those non-material moments of joy more intricately into the knots of her spirit: dancing at sunset under a double rainbow, spending a week with Nana and Papa, crunching through the leaves of Autumn, sharing a meal with others in our home, inviting a friend over, learning to crack an egg perfectly into a bowl, playing with other kids at community meals?

And how do I wrestle with the Christ-amnesia of Christmas that winks at her in books, movies, and music, where Santa and presents are favored over the waiting and longing of Advent, and the great fulfilment and gift of a barn baby who would be king?*

I believe the answers lie in love, in service and in giving.  Those are vague words that I try to put into practice.

What are your gift and holiday practices or words of wisdom that might tackle this sense of entitlement?

*I don't think the tradition of incorporating Santa into Christmastime is bad in itself but the Santa suit and toy bag is a lot more glamorous than the dust and hay of a manger born Jesus, even when we emphasize the true "reason for the season." **

**I hate that phrase...

The gifts of the mundane

I recently read an article by a woman who wouldn't allow anyone to call her 'wife' for the first few years of marriage.  She says, "A wife for me meant a woman who cooked and cleaned for her man -- A wife was a secondary complement to the man. A wife had no other identity. I mean what happened to my name... now I am just wife. I don't think so." I don't know how cooking and cleaning have become such a set of degrading tasks.  Certainly, they aren't always fun.  They take work and effort. But I see them as a service both to my husband who works crazy hours during the growing season, and to my children, to ensure their bodies have a healthy start in life.  What I suspect the author of the article was getting at was the idea that a woman shouldn't be forced into certain roles in marriage.  I hope we can come to a point in our churches, communities and societies when wives and husbands can feel okay about dividing the labor according to their gifts rather than by what is expected of them.

But even if the routines and work of our lives are mostly divided up evenly, those of us who are living truly adult lives know that we are often required to do tasks we don't particularly enjoy.  I don't always love cooking.  I don't like getting up early in the morning. I hate doing dishes and don't get me started on the seven loads of laundry I do every week.

But I don't feel forced into them and I don't find them degrading (I know some women are in dire situations without the luxury of choice).  Instead, in my best moments, I find them to be gifts I try to give to not only my family, but to the kingdom of God.  I recently read a post from Art House Blog in which the author of the book Real Love for Real Life, Andi Ashworth, was interviewed (incidentally, Andi and her husband Charlie Peacock are the driving force behind Art House America).  In the article, she talks about a time when she began recognize the gifts God had given her to serve and love others.  She realized that she could leave other gifts and tasks to other people.  In other words, she didn't have to force herself to be something she wasn't because God had made her who she was.  She talks about caregiving and how it is a wide term that encompasses caring for your family, providing hospitality and caring for the sick (among other things).  She said in reference to this caregiving that, "You’re creating all the time — creating a mood, creating a meal, making a sick person comfortable, creating a celebration, nurturing compassion, creating a welcome — you’re always making. When our imaginations are captured by the idea of creating good stories in the lives of the people we’ve been given to love, a world of possibility opens up."

I often look at my friends who seem to be giving so much to the kingdom (and they are) and I feel my own lack.  This interview gives me such hope as I struggle to find the ways in which God has equipped and prepared me to give to the church and his kingdom.

And I also hope that instead of maligning wives who cook and clean or judging those who don't stay home with their children, we, in the church, can be examples of people who are able rejoice in our differences.  That the church can be a place where we encourage women who are single, women who are wives or mothers in their gifts and talents and that our churches can be places where we bond over essential tasks that we all find unpleasant...because that's part of being grown-up.