A Real Mother

It’s not conception, not pregnancy, not nursing, not even wiping snotty little noses. After all, dogs and cats give birth and lick their kittens and pups clean.

Real motherhood is a banner we raise for the young…real fatherhood too. Real motherhood is about dancing where the young can see us. My birth mother always ran outside to stand in thunderstorms, and she gave me that. But my music mother—who never bore any child—conducted her own sinfonia and gave me the passion of music itself. Real fatherhood means being consistent, strong and gentle. It means touching with kind hands, even though we have the strength to hit.

But it’s not male or female. This has nothing to do with what sex organs are between our legs.

What do caring adults mean to a child? Think back to being tiny.  Things don’t make sense. Grownups loom over us, cooking, feeding, driving, going away and coming back. They are powerful, and we are small. Some grownups—maybe even our mothers and fathers— hit us and tell us we’re worthless. But there are others—teachers at school, the man who sells bikes, our brownie troop leader—who look deep into our eyes and see us as we really are. They are big too and have wonderful power. They bind the hurt places and tell us the things no one else has said: “You are awesome just the way you are. You don’t deserve to be hit. Here’s a different way to dance. I am here for you.” Little people need safety and a big person who sees them as important.

Making sperm, getting pregnant and giving birth mean almost nothing. Instead, it’s the fidelity, the daily caring that tells true motherhood and fatherhood. My violin teacher nudged me through years of difficult technique practice. She loved a gorgeous tone. She used to lean close as I played, whispering “play, play!” When I played well, her highest praise was “not bad.” I had a Hindi teacher who praised me and always served up more challenges. In his class the fun was seeing what twisted little grammar assignment he would give me next. These were the people who were there for me, year after year. They raised me just as much as my birth parents, and every child needs such adults.

Often people talk about a child’s “real” mother or father as if giving birth or making someone pregnant—often by mistake—was a sacrament. A holy thing. That adult is then labeled as the “real” mother or father.  This is nonsense, and it is cruel.

Here’s what holy: My violin teacher welcoming me back as an adult. After a disastrous divorce I needed to find my true self again. With no comment, she smiled wryly and handed me Sevcik’s book on bowing technique.  “Let’s get to work!” Later that year I was playing better than ever in my life. That’s true motherhood. She showed me a way to dance through the shame and come out better.

In our schools, in our neighborhoods, in our circles of friends, small people need safe adults. A real mother or father—not just a biological parent—comes back day after day. Small people need someone faithful and safe who bends close and says, “I see you. You can make it through this. Let’s get to work!”  

That’s our work. Children need all the help they can get. It’s the fidelity of daily caring and the utter safety of an adult who only touches kindly. It has nothing to do with genetics or childbirth.

We big people need to dance in the open, show our own work, show how we found our joy. We bend down, take the hand of a child and say, “I see who you really are, and you are wonderful.” It’s a holy moment, and the answer is the soft smile of hope.

by Jean Gendreau

 

Why Do I Go to Church?

I go to church because I like holding hands while we walk forward. We’re all lost, but we’re all walking. “We’re all just walking each other home.” It’s a good quote, and it might be right. But we’ve forgotten where home is.

Where is the Divine? Is anything sacred? Where is hope?

Terrible signposts hang on the trees around us—Our climate is ruined, and whole species are dying out. Children practice hiding from gunmen at school. Cancer is everywhere, and most of us go bankrupt because we can’t even pay to get treated. Our democracy no longer works. Our country has put children in prisons. Addiction is everywhere, and more people die from opioids than from heart attacks. And on and on.

What I know for sure is that we can only find a path if we believe there might be a path. If we think despair is safer, if we think that no path is possible, we surely will never find one. And we won’t figure it out through logic and thought. I can’t do the calculations on paper; no one can figure it out in advance. No one can outthink despair. No one can use logic and analysis to prove hope.

I know there is a path because I’ve wandered onto it several times. Not on purpose, not with planning. In my life—and I’m an old woman now—I’ve usually been lost. Like everybody else, I never really knew where I was going.

Then suddenly, out of nowhere, something would tell me that God is. Not “God is… fill-in-the-blank.” Not “God is real,” not “God is Love,” or anything that defines the Divine in complete sentences. Not “This prayer will always get what you want.” Not “Say these words and you’ll get saved.”

Think instead of the mist rising at dawn and the very first murmuring of a bird. Think of the smell of stew when you’ve worked all day. Think of the sweaty, sticky kiss of a toddler in summertime. Think of looking into my eyes. Think of a surprise gift, something you never expected. These are the proofs, and they are real. Think of the joy in my mom’s eyes a few days before she died. All are signposts hanging in the trees around us, and they are as real as the signposts about despair.

Joy is as real as despair, and we get to choose. Wayne Dyer said, “When you believe it, you will see it.” We have to choose. With all the world’s negativity, we have to consciously choose joy over despair. It takes practice. It’s not easy or automatic. When we catch sight of joy, we have to shout it out so others on the path can hear us.

I go to church because I like holding hands as we walk forward. For all the brutal mistakes—and there are thousands— that churches have made, when we sit in church, we’re choosing hope. Many of my church friends are different from me, from all sorts of families and beliefs. That’s okay. Our families didn’t protect us and neither did our beliefs. We’re all equally lost.

But if we hold hands, somehow things get better.

Maybe following a gentle teacher helps us all forgive. Maybe singing old songs reminds us of the joy of childhood. Maybe just not hating for an hour every week eases our tired hearts.

Life presses down on all of us. We try to pay our bills, raise our children, fight temptations and face illness and death. Holding hands really helps.

Holding hands is an act of hope, and that is why I go to church.  I like being able to sing “God is” as loudly as I can. Beauty is. Love is. Trust is. There is a path and we can choose to step onto it. Church certainly isn’t the only path, but I like the part where you and I hold hands.

I’m singing at dawn, just like the smallest bird. All of us are singing as we walk forward. It’s a simple song:  “There is a path. We are all right. We’re not alone, we’re never alone. Love matters. We’re almost home. Hold my hand, hold me close, and don’t be afraid.”

by Jean Gendreau

 

Walking the Plank

It’s never as fun as in Peter Pan. It’s murder—A public execution. Peter Pan flew, but I don’t know how. I’d drown.

Being forced to jump backwards into blackness, being pushed off the place where I’m barely balancing, falling into terror, into no control, into the death of all I know is what I dread more than the misery of staying where I am.

When I fall backwards, I let go. I’m forced into it. I would never choose this. The things that push me off the edge are so cruel—drugs, shame, addiction, humiliation. Pain. Illness. A broken heart. Despair.

I can’t plan this, and neither can you. It’s foolish to even think so. Who would choose such fear and pain?

Instead I have to fall backwards into space I can’t even imagine.  Something forces transformation over my head and holds it there. I can’t breathe. I have no idea what’s possible. All I can feel is the far edge of despair. I cannot comprehend the openness of surrender, of giving up.  

But for some, something good is possible— even though it makes no sense and seems impossible. Just thinking this offends me. How dare anyone suggest that there can be goodness in rape and torture? In despair and suicide? In the starvation of innocents? In horror?

The answer is I don’t know. I have no idea.  But on the other side of horror some people come to know a reality of love, courage, help and hope. No one can deny this.

I can never understand this healing, this new life. It’s just not of this realm. It’s not sewn from my thoughts.

What I know for sure is this: There is a mystery, a power, a touch that is overwhelming. Goodness is possible after despair.

Life is possible after all hope dies. I am not talking about heaven and angels. Even when I fail utterly, even when there seems no hope at all, things happen beyond it.

Think of the Ravensbruck prayer. Ravensbruck was a Nazi concentration camp for women and children.  When the Allies finally freed the camp in the spring of 1945, the soldiers discovered a prayer written on a scrap of paper next to a body.  On that ugly little scrap, written in the horror that drove good people insane were words of courage. Words of God. Words of love.

O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will

but also those of evil will.

But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted upon us;

remember the fruits we have borne thanks to this suffering—

our comradeship,

our loyalty,

our humility,

our courage,

our generosity,

the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this;

and when they come to the judgement,

let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.

Amen.

How did this happen? I have no idea. But it did. Can we comprehend how this warmth was possible in a place of utter cruelty? No. And that is the point.

No one planned this.  And neither did some fantasy, omnipotent God, sitting on a throne, point a finger and say, “Now that woman can suffer so much that she writes a great prayer.”  This is too childish. It’s like a high school student trying to explain aging to a 90 year old.

I’m not saying we’re silly or small.  We are not. But there are enormous realities that lie beyond my ability to sense anything at all. Science isn’t enough, and neither is faith. We just do not know, and that’s okay.

The Divine Flow is much stronger, deeper and more loving than any facile explanation. Thinking it’s a person planning is like thinking that because I baked the cookies, I also made eggs and chickens. Butter and cows. Wheat plants in the sunshine.

Death often eases great pain. Often, as someone floats free in death, their spirit shines. Ask a hospice nurse. She has seen it many times, but she cannot explain it.

It has happened that people who have suffered unimagined torture and pain somehow claw a way to acceptance and joy.They may even become able to hold out a hand to the next person.

Should they have been forced to grow in this way? Of course not. There is no excuse or reason for the pain. And we should do everything we can to prevent any such injury.

But if we fail to prevent it, then afterwards, after the girl has been raped and tortured, after the child has been starved, after the man has put the gun into his mouth, that is the moment when we fall backwards into “I don’t know what is possible.”

In this place we discover miracles. Real ones, daily ones. Some people heal out of despair and then they help others. It is possible. We never intend it, and neither does God. It just happens, even though it seems impossible. I will never understand it, and neither will you.

That’s the point. That’s the touch of God. It’s real. It’s what we fall into when we fall off the end of the plank.

In the space beyond the end, in the opening of impossible possibility, I realize that I am safe, always. It’s the instant you look in my eyes. It’s the instant of caring, of love.

We are never alone—never. The Divine Awareness always holds us close. We may have grown hard and cold, we may have blocked out its touch, but God is always in us, with us, for us.

Death is not real. What we think is death is transformation of the shell. Our bodies give us pain and pleasure and the chance to love. But our essence, our “me-ness” is not the body. We’re spirits having a physical experience. We’re God-flakes that float into a physical experience of thoughts, confusion, pleasure and joy. And then we melt back into the Divine Flow.

Everything is known. Because we are all the One, the Divine Awareness links me and you and them and all existence. Usually though, we’re too armored to sense this. Yet even though it’s hard to sense, and much of it most people never sense, God knows every thought because God is every thought. Right here, right now, I am in God and God is in me and in you.

There is no judgment in the Oneness. There’s only unspeakable tenderness, gentler and sweeter than anything you or I have ever known. Even for the drunk who killed a whole family when he drove home last night.  Even for the man who rapes children. I don’t understand this in any way, and there’s no point in trying.

But what matters is that I must love myself because God is in me and God understands. The Awareness, the Christ Consciousness, the Universe knows and loves and keeps on loving without any hesitation at all, and so must I. Once I see it, I have no choice because this is the flow that feeds every part of existence, including me and you.

There is only one answer: Reach out.  Touch me. Kiss my cheek. Feed the ones you hate. Hold up the ones who smell of urine and feces. Touch someone. Listen. Honor not only the pain people go through but honor the unexpected, holy growth that might start in hell.  And believe in impossible healing.

I do not know, and neither do you. We don’t know what’s possible. We don’t know what is kindest.

That’s why, when something forces us backwards off the plank, we grab something bigger, something stronger than anything in our little stable of prayers.

We have to choose a much bigger, broader horse, one where we are not the master at all.  “May whatever happens next be for my higher good.” “May I grow in forgiveness and love, whatever that means.” “May I heal.” “May I open to God’s love in new ways.”   “May I accept transformation that I do not understand.”

We have to allow transformation. Think of the big horse we landed on. This is power that we never imagined. It canters to places that we never even knew existed. It carries us.

What guides the power, what’s holding the reins of transformation is possibility itself. Openness to change that we have dreaded or wished for or never even imagined.

We cannot take the reins, just as a high school student cannot teach how to be ancient. It simply is not possible. We are not that big, and that is okay.

And so instead, falling off the plank, we surrender. We trust. That does not mean giving in to a cruel God who is looking for a way to punish us.

It means allowing the possibility—just the “maybe,” just the “okay”—that we do not know, but that there are solutions, blessings, joy, hope, healing that none of us—none of us— can imagine.

That’s exactly God. We can surrender into Divine Love. We can rest in the Mystery itself. It’s too big to be named, too exquisite to paint, too powerful to rein in, too loving to deny. God is safe. God carries us home—but not by any road we know. There is no prayer, no technique that makes God obey our small wishes.

Instead, after a while, we discover that we can stand up. We squeezed our eyes shut but now maybe we are willing to open them just a little bit. From here we can lean further back, we can look eagerly into the openness, into forever.

Try this image:  Something forces us backwards, step by step. We feel anger and terror. Finally we fall backwards off the end. We fall and fall, falling, floating, floating…. This is what we cannot plan or imagine because it is not of this realm. It’s not my little plans or hopes. It seems that something is here. We can rest in it. We can breathe. It’s easy. We’re not alone. Around are others. I hear someone gasp in joy–—It’s me. This is easy. This is light.

For some it is time to join Love itself. It’s time to melt like an ice cube. How lovely to be the Love itself. I am the Ocean itself. I am the Oneness.

But if I am still in this body, I come back into a day that I don’t recognize. Maybe my arm moves and I think maybe I can move both arms. My foot moves. Maybe I can move my foot, my leg. I try some movement. I try changing because I must. We have to. We have fallen backwards into ourselves.  We have died to our old selves and now here we are, right here, right now, moving a finger. Moving a leg. Whatever we were doing before did not work. We cannot claw our way back up the plank.

From nowhere, from everywhere comes a tender touch. A wisp of a whisper. Right here, right now, in the openness, something, someone touches us. Goosebumps rise, we gasp as we realize that we are not alone at all.

There’s a nudge.  We try something. We wake up just a little bit.

One day, knowing what we know now, maybe we will call God by name. What we see now, as clear as a new mirror, is that I am the soft touch of God’s fingertip for you. You are the shining in God’s eye for me, for the world.

God is happening right here, right now. It’s me as I love you; it’s you as you love them; it’s them as they love that child; it’s that child as he loves the prisoner.

The plank was just a birth canal. The new air, the tiny body is me in God and you in God, which is all existence.

We are dancing, right here, right now, to a love song. The plank, the terror, the selfishness, the confusion are long past. I touch your finger. With one hand you caress my cheek, with another you reach for the one who is falling right now. My eyes are God’s eyes, your hand is God’s hand, their lips are God’s lips.

As you walk the plank, take a soft breath. We can step lightly. We have no idea what’s beyond, but we can dance right here, right now, holding hands. Hope itself is singing.

Let me pull you close. That’s right, gently. And now it’s your turn to reach out to me. Here is my heart, here is my hand.

by Jean Gendreau

A Prayer for the Election

 

Here’s a meditation or prayer for the next few days: We hold a vision of light that shines brighter than fear, accusations or bitterness. It is possible that Wednesday morning will be good beyond any meaning of win or lose. Even though we don’t know exactly how it will happen, we want to leave hatred behind. We show hope by voting and by believing that good change is possible. New light can come to every one of us and to the world.

The Space Only God Can Fill

When I’m not singing in the choir,  I like to sit right over there. In years past Barb R. usually sat right behind me, and we chatted.  About two years ago, Barb was sitting behind me and she leaned forward and said, “You know, they’re talking about some meditation class in the bulletin. I just don’t get it. What does meditation have to do with us? Why would anyone in this church be talking about meditation?”  Today I’d like to answer Barb’s question.

A secret about me that almost none of you knows is that I make really great buttermilk biscuits. When people come to dinner, they eat 3 or 4. It’s a skill I have. I don’t use a recipe at all because I’ve done it for so long. My grandma taught me to make biscuits when I was about 10. My first attempts were lousy. Hard, chewy.  Sometimes raw inside. But I’ve been practicing more than 55 years. Practice makes perfect.

How about someone who can really shoot well?  Here in Ely many of you started learning how to shoot a gun when you were kids.  Maybe your grandpa or your dad taught you. In the beginning you couldn’t hit the garage wall.  But you practiced for years. You went hunting with your family. You went to shooting ranges. And after all that practice, you got really good. In the Fall, when you see that  8 point buck , you get him on the first shot.

Meditation is just a skill like making biscuits or shooting a gun. It’s just a skill. We learn how to do it by practicing. In the beginning we’re lousy at it so we practice. Eventually we get really good at it. I’ve been meditating about 40 years so I’m pretty good at it.

Meditation is a tool. Nobody has to meditate. But it’s a way to see beyond our everyday thoughts. It’s a tool that helps us stop focussing on our thoughts and see something new.  We see a space that is not thought at all.

Let’s think about our gardens. We love to garden.  We start reading seed catalogs in January when it’s thirty below! We make plans and buy seeds. In May we plant. And then we watch. But the weeds come and the hail and the bugs and the deer. It freezes in June. Last year I planted dozens of hollyhocks. Last week the deer ate the tops off all of them.

Our lives are exactly like our gardens.  We make our plans. “I’ll get a degree in Engineering.”  “I’ll marry someone I love.” “My children will be smart and happy.”   There’s nothing wrong with that at all except that real life happens instead.  “Life is what happens when we’re making other plans.” Right?

The important thing is to see that both the plans and the obstacles are just thoughts.  There’s nothing wrong with that except that our thoughts are always small and limited because they come out of our egos.

Let’s stand in our gardens again. Under our feet is what supports it all. The soil. The earth. Everything in the garden comes out of the soil.  The soil is the source of everything. The soil is like God. The soil is like Divine Love.The soil is neither the good things nor the bad things—it’s much bigger than that.  It is the base, the source of all existence. The soil holds all possibility. It carries potential—all the things we did NOT think of, all the things we simply cannot imagine.

What’s possible? Maybe there’s  a whole apple orchard that can feed everyone in town—Never thought of that! Maybe there’s an oil well—Never thought of that!  The real fruit of the soil is transformation itself.  It is the growth from God, transformation so astonishing that we absolutely cannot imagine it.  

Learning the skill of meditation, practicing meditating again and again makes it easier to focus on the soil instead of obsessing about our thoughts. So this is my answer to Barb R.: When I meditate, it’s easier for me to hear what God wants instead of what I want.  But meditation is a skill. It’s like making biscuits or shooting a gun. You have to practice.

I started teaching meditation here at the church about two or three years ago.  Karen L. was in one of the first classes I taught. Most of you knew Karen. She was not at all an airy-fairy hippie type. She loved this church and she was a Protestant through and through.  But about two weeks after the first meditation class, she got a very tough diagnosis, a terminal diagnosis. Even then, even in the beginning of her illness, she had started using the meditation breathing techniques, and she said they really helped her. A year or two later, in the time just before she died, she had some bad falls.  But she would just shrug and say, “Well, yes, I was down on the ground for a while but I could just do my meditation.” Wow. It really worked for her. I was so grateful that it helped her.

Some of the fruits from the garden soil are easy and beautiful.  And some are very very hard.

Let’s start with easy: Imagine you’re paddling out in the Boundary Waters.  It’s windy and a little rough and you’re paddling along the shore. You’re paddling hard.  You can’t see what’s up ahead. You keep going and there’s a rocky point. You paddle hard to get around that point.  Finally you make it around. You look up and goose bumps rise all over your body. The water here is flat. The sun gleams. It is impossibly beautiful. This is real and it’s perfect. We feel utter joy.  Utter peace.

We created space by going out into the wilderness… and God filled it.  Our deep hearts know God in the beauty of that moment. Meditation is a way to paddle out into the wilderness. Meditation makes these moments come more easily.

What about when you hold a new baby? That deep sense of peace, that profound love.  

What about if you go to Normandy and there’s a cemetery with thousands of white crosses. Tears come to your eyes. You choke up and get goose bumps.  You see the enormity of the sacrifice, the truth that every one of those young men died to stop the Nazis.

These are easy, wonderful moments when we know God is real. But sometimes there’s heavier lifting. It still comes out of the soil but it’s just much harder.

Here is a very personal story about me.  When I was 23, I had been married about 2 years and I got pregnant by surprise.  I had used an IUD that was later recalled. About 6 or 7 months into my pregnancy, I got very sick. When I went into labor and went into the hospital, they said the infection was so bad that  the hospital took away my clothes and burned them. The doctor had me sign the papers for a hysterectomy because they believed that was the only way to save my life. I was only 23. My little boy was born too early. In those days there were no NICUs. 26 or 27 week babies did not usually survive. My little guy lived one day in an incubator and then died.  I never held him. I was too sick to go to his funeral. It was a terrible, terrible experience. But it turned out that I didn’t die and I did not need a hysterectomy.

Life goes on. Day follows day. Two years later I had a gorgeous baby girl.  She was born with black hair this long. Later I had two more gorgeous healthy babies.  Beyond that, the terrible experience of losing my baby was exactly what put me on the spiritual path all those years ago.

The empty garden soil holds the things we cannot possibly imagine.  I am sorry my little guy died. But I am so grateful for the fruit that God brought out of that soil. I surely didn’t do it. It was way beyond anything I could imagine.

Think of this:  On the day Jesus was killed, no one could imagine past that Friday.  At first they thought he would win, be the king… and then instead he was killed. They didn’t know the end of the story. They had no idea Easter was possible. Sunday came. Resurrection was real… but it was completely different than anything they had ever imagined.

One of our hardest challenges is forgiveness. How do we forgive the really terrible things? It’s written right here on the communion table:  “Love one another as I have loved you.” Today’s scripture says, “Love your neighbor and pray for your enemies.” But how? This is really heavy lifting.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu tells the story of a woman named Kia Scherr. While her husband and her 13-year-old daughter were visiting India, they were eating lunch in a restaurant, and terrorists shot and killed them. After the attack, one lone terrorist survived. Here’s what Kia says:   

As I looked at this man’s photo on the television screen I knew what I had to do.  The words of Jesus Christ came to me: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’ I wasn’t a religious person, but those were the words I heard. I turned to my family and said, ‘We must forgive them.’ Everyone was shocked. They thought I had lost my mind.  But at that moment, I just said what I knew to be true. I felt a ray of peace enter my heart….I knew that forgiveness was essential so I forgave. I knew that to respond with love to an act of terrorism was the only way to triumph over terrorism.  

Kia says that she had to accept the reality of the incident because it could not be changed. And she also says that her acceptance and forgiveness did NOT mean that justice could not be served.  The young man, the terrorist, was hanged by the Indian government. But we’re talking about the miracle in Kia’s heart. We are talking about how God filled the terrible space in her heart—the fruit far beyond anything she could imagine.

One more story … about World War II. The Ravensbruck concentration camp was the largest camp for women in the Nazi system. 92,000 women and children died there. D-Day was June 6th, 1944. Think of the cemeteries at Normandy– all those soldiers fighting their way across Europe and finally getting to the camps and freeing the prisoners. It took 10 months after D-Day for the Allied soldiers to finally make it to Ravensbruck camp. On April 30, 1945, the Allied soldiers liberated Ravensbruck. Lying on the ground next to a child’s body, the soldiers found a piece of wrapping paper.  Somehow a prisoner had scrawled a prayer on that scrap of paper. Here is that prayer:

O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will

but also those of evil will.

But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted upon us;

remember the fruits we have borne thanks to this suffering—

our comradeship,

our loyalty,

our humility,

our courage,

our generosity,

the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this;

and when they come to the judgement,

let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.

Amen.

In your bulletins  is a prayer by Thomas Merton. Please pray along with me:

My Lord God,

I have no idea where I am going.

I do not see the road ahead of me.

I cannot know for certain where it will end.

nor do I really know myself,

and the fact that I think I am following your will

does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you

does in fact please you.

And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.

I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.

And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,

though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust you always though

I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.

I will not fear, for you are ever with me,

and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Amen.

[This is a sermon I gave on on July 15th, 2018, at the Presbyterian Church]

 

Christmas vs. Easter

Christmas comes as the darkness grows. Easter comes after the darkness is complete. At Christmas, we light candles in the blackness. At Easter the worst has happened. The blackness has won.

At Christmas we try to protect ourselves as blackness comes near. We strain to see any flicker of light. We hold a baby and dream of the future. But at Easter we admit our despair. Did the baby even matter? It’s over. There’s nothing left to hope for—The body is already cool.

This isn’t about religion, although people think it is. Think instead of a paddler in the wilderness. He’s a bit lost and he paddles hard. Storms come and go. He finds his way along rivers, portages through thick forest, discovers lake after lake and then gets lost again. He never knows the end. One day, he’s paddling along a rocky shoreline. There’s a point up ahead, but he can’t quite make it out. Working hard, he pulls close enough to see. Finally he can make out that it’s a point, a rocky point. There’s a corner to turn. The wind pushes at the canoe, and he has to paddle hard. His arms ache, but he’s got grit. He keeps going. Finally he makes it around the corner and gasps. Goosebumps ripple down his arms. Awe. Wonder. Mystery. It takes his breath away. This lake is flat and brilliant and easy. He’s never seen such light. And it has no end. It’s easy and it has no end.

Thirty-four years ago on Easter weekend, I was holding a baby. I was trying again. I had a new life after crawling out of the shame of my divorce and the griefs of my baby’s death and my husband’s alcoholism. For me, this laughing, easy-tempered, pretty baby proved rebirth. As mothers do, I had fallen deeply in love with her. She had a fairy-like quality, a magical way of moving softly through the days. My older girl had a sister, a family. And my husband’s surprise and wonder was holy. He loved my older daughter but had never held a baby of his own. When he held this little girl, you could feel his shock and joy at such tenderness. He had never imagined such love.

On that same Easter weekend, my little nephew died from neuroblastoma. None of us will ever forget the sound of my brother’s voice that day. A few days later, when everyone else went to the funeral, I chose to stay home.

What was real to me was Easter. It’s not that I wanted to avoid the pain of my nephew’s death. I had had a baby die. I knew that the light can disappear completely. Darkness sometimes wins.

But even after total defeat, after irreversible destruction, something happens that makes no sense at all.

On that Easter weekend, I held joy in my arms. This wasn’t Christmas. It wasn’t about the darkness that might come. This was Easter. This was after the darkness had won—And that was the whole point.

There are times when we have howled until we are empty.  We cannot cry harder or louder or longer—And still it isn’t enough. Nothing is enough. Then there is a quiet that comes. It’s a kind of peace, but you can’t call it easy because getting there is the most brutal road in all human experience. Yet finally we come to the silent place, the emptiness. It’s a terrible openness in which everything is possible.

Even though it makes no sense at all, there is something beyond the rocky point. The paddler turns the corner. My nephew let go of this body to open into the wonder.

I am not talking about heaven here. This is about a reality, a dimension, a quality of awareness that underlies everything we think is real life. It’s a veil, a sheer curtain, a wisp of breath right under our noses.

In the winter, a seed has no choice but to lie in the blackness deep under the ice. A caterpillar knits its chrysalis without hope. It has no idea how to make wings.

I can’t out-think this mystery. I have no choice but the next step, even though I have no idea what the next step is. I do not know the deep magic because thoughts and beliefs distract me. I worry, hope and fret. I do not trust what I cannot imagine.

The mystery requires utter blackness. Thinking doesn’t work. We cannot plan or understand. There has to be the release of giving up because that’s when we finally relax.

That’s when the deepest magic, the power, the tenderness can take us over, knowing us better than we know ourselves. It shatters the seed’s shell by trusting the softness of a seedling’s leaves. It tears the chrysalis open by loving the joy colors of wings.

On Easter, we raise our heads from the ground. We look up because we hear something, a wisp of song. We cannot know what it is. We do not understand. It makes no sense. But it is good.


Here’s the best book I have seen on death.

On Life after Death, by Elizabeth Kubler Ross.

This tiny book packs a huge wallop. I’ve read it many times and given it to dozens of friends. Kubler Ross was the world-famous psychologist who developed the famous five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Her speciality was dying children.  But late in her life, she realized through many experiences that death does not exist. She says, “My real job is… to tell people that death does not exist….You don’t have to do anything but learn to get in touch, in silence, within yourself. Get in touch with your own inner self and learn not to be afraid. One way not to be afraid is to know that death does not exist, that everything in this life has a positive purpose.

What Women Know

Every evening, a nurse’s aide helps the old man eat. She knows that he cries because they’ve put him in diapers. On morning rounds, a surgeon checks the patient’s incision but knows nothing of his shame and despair. The aide is a woman; the doctor is a man.

A minister stands at the front of the church preaching about how to love. His wife sits in the back with a woman in a wheelchair. The older woman leans against the young wife, clutching her hand and talking about the son she hasn’t seen in ten years. Who has touched the parishioner with more caring—the minister or his wife?

Throughout the centuries, no matter what the ministers, priests and imams said in their sermons, it was women who spent hours of every day washing the weak and wiping away their tears.

It’s a cliché to say “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” But it’s true—as long as you survive the struggle. Because women had so little power in past centuries, they’ve been forced to learn some terrible and wonderful lessons.

Women know comforting. They’ve washed skinned knees and held feverish children through the night. They’ve encouraged and comforted each other in labor, and they’ve held sobbing sisters when a baby is lost. They’ve tended ill and dying men who barely spoke to them. And they’ve done it for years on end.

Women know intimacy. They know about bleeding and loose stools. The nurse’s aide who washes the old man’s body knows that his fortune doesn’t matter because there are oozing sores on his hips and heels that never heal.

Women know about powerlessness. They know about kind sex and cruel sex. They know that babies come even after rape, and that miscarriages come even when you’ve prayed for a baby for years. They know that when two people have sex, only one ever pays the price—and it’s always the same one. A woman knows that if another man comes into the room, her husband may ignore her and mock any comment she makes, even though her new ideas excited him earlier. A woman knows that a younger, prettier woman may take her place, even as her husband gets jealous when she speaks to kind men at work.

Women know about intuition. Even when others call their ideas silly or illogical, women often trust their gut. They know only heart knowledge can explain some of life’s most important experiences. Because they believed they could not lead others, they were free to deeply know the experience of daily life. They learned to trust things that seemed unexplainable, that did not make sense. Women have learned to follow the inner voice that says “Don’t try to cross the river” or “Get him to the ER now, no matter what anyone says.”

Finally, women know to cherish the shimmering flashes when God appears—a bee sleeping in a hollyhock, the touch of a sick child’s fingertip, the utter peace of a cooling body. They know they can’t command joy, but they trust the surprise of God’s caress.

It’s not that men cannot know these things. It’s that society herds them down chutes that lead to leadership positions—even though those positions force distance between the leader and the flock. Society forces men to compete in every interaction, making friendship and kindness dangerous.

Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed all taught the same truths:

  • God loves the small and weak.
  • God speaks to the heart, not the mind.
  • Love and kindness matter more than anything.

And this is exactly why women matter so much in ministry. We know comforting, intimacy, powerlessness and intuition because it’s the stuff of our lives. It’s what we have practiced for centuries.

It’s no coincidence that the first person to see Jesus after He rose was a woman. His outer form had changed. The words “alive” and “dead” no longer made sense—None of it made any sense. But Mary Magdalene accepted the shining new reality.

Women know the truths that matter. And that’s why we must offer ourselves in service to the world. Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed have spoken. To us, their words make sense. Serving them, we reach out now to comfort and lead. Our work is to create a new world.

 

By Jean Gendreau