A Healing Video for Advent

Here is a wonderful short teaching on Christmas in today’s bitter and difficult world. The teacher is James Finley, a psychotherapist who studied under Thomas Merton. What I love in this is that Finley himself had a truly horrific childhood and adolescence–and yet he has grown into peace. He can still tell the story in this video of trust and blessing. No matter what has happened, no matter how hopeless we feel, we can heal. To me, that is the healing and magic we all need today.

Finley says, “God is unexplainably born in our hearts moment by moment, breath by breath. In order to discover that, we must leave the noise and business of the inn, finding our way in the dark back to the stable. We have to enter into the humility, simplicity, patience, and delicate nature of what’s unfolding in our hearts to discover how God is being born in our lives. We are asked to bring this delicate simplicity out into the world.”

Click here to watch the video.

When Christmas Hurts

I once made up my mind to get a divorce on Christmas morning. My alcoholic husband had not come home. It wasn’t the first time and Christmas wasn’t his holiday, but this was my Christmas morning. It wasn’t what I deserved and it wasn’t what my little girl deserved.

Another Christmas, my heart hurt so badly I could barely go outside. My new baby had died. I had his blanket, but he was gone. I didn’t want to live because it hurt too much. And Christmas—every image of Mary holding baby Jesus—made me cry again.

When your heart is broken, Christmas can really hurt. It’s easy to drown in false family images and media hype. It feels impossible to swim against the tsunami of “should’s” and “if only’s.”

Here’s how to survive a blue Christmas.

 1. See the hype for what it is.

The first step is to see the media hype for what it is: lies told by advertisers. Every advertisement wants to sell you an emotional image because that’s how the companies make money. They don’t know you personally and they don’t care about who you are. They know that manipulating people’s dreams increases sales. Images of happy families and romantic couples sell products but do not tell any truth about real families, real couples or real life.

So shut out the false images. Turn off your TV. If you watch old movies, remember that the movie producers needed to make money too. You can sing “White Christmas” all you want, but in the real world, snow is cold and needs to be shoveled.

2. Look to January.

Try taking your mind past the Christmas season. January is real so go there. Make concrete plans to start new things in January. If your heart is broken, try experimenting with online dating in January, just to see how it feels. Maybe you’ll learn something new. Is there a hobby you’ve always wanted to try? Sign up for a class in January, and do it now.

3. Be honest about family.

Family dysfunction is a third source of Christmas pain. Even if we only see our family once a year, Christmas really rubs our noses in the yuck. Not only do we get all the old patterns shoved in our face, but myths about so-called happy families make everybody crazy.

It’s a myth is that all families are happy or should be. What’s real is that families are happy sometimes, but all families—all families— have hidden, unhealthy, unhappy patterns.  Some have a few, and some have many, but all families have problems.

There’s only one way to move towards a happier family, and that is to openly work on what is not working. But media and our culture pretend that none of that exists. We think, “Wow, what’s wrong with me?” And the holidays, with all the “family togetherness” messages make us feel that we’re the only ones who aren’t happy.

One way to handle this is the temporary patch, the “I can do it for a few days” technique. If it makes your mother happy that you go to church with her, you can try doing it, telling yourself that it’s only one day a year. As you sit in church, you can plan amazing and creative January rewards for yourself.

But what if sitting with your belittling, criticizing father makes you feel hopeless and crazy? There are good people who do not go home for Christmas.

Just because it’s family does not mean it is good.  Just because someone says they love you does not mean they know how to love you in the best way. Some of the cruelest wounds from families happen when a family member says they are loving you when in fact they are manipulating, hurting, belittling or abusing.

Maybe you need to find other family. Not blood family, but people who support you and care for you. That’s what real family love is— not a false façade, not fake emotions.

And you need to talk to a therapist. Many family patterns destroy individuals with their cruelty.  A therapist’s job is to support you while you learn how to love yourself better.

Perfect families—which is such a part of Christmas hype—are a fantasy that hurts people. Even though most people want to hide family problems, denying them is exactly what causes emotional pain and illness.

Lasting joy comes when we see the unhealthy along with the healthy. I am  whole and so are you—but we are complete, complex packages with both good and challenging qualities. And that is okay.

Being happy and whole with your own family is possible. There are  truly happy families— But their joy is neither automatic nor easy. Taking the first steps towards real family happiness means seeing a sympathetic therapist and getting open-hearted, nonjudgemental support for the real you. Then you can scrape off the fake roles and discover the truth of love that might lie hidden underneath.  A  real family loves the authentic you, not the pretend you. That’s where real family love is.

 

4. Look for the light beyond despair.

But what if someone you love has died? There’s no quick fix. Turning off the TV and making new plans won’t touch that pain.

Think instead about love itself. The love that person had for you still exists because love itself never ends.  Yes, it’s easier when they have their arms around you in physical form. But real love is an unseen, eternal thing.

Love is forever, without beginning or ending. It’s stronger than bodies and bigger than time. Love stretches unchanged from before time began to beyond the horizon of eternity. You still have that love now, today. You always will. If you sit quietly and close your eyes, you can still feel the love.

Buddhists teach that after death the family or loved ones should send thoughts of encouragement and love to the dead person. The idea is that the one who has died can then feel that it’s okay to move on into another level of existence.

Try sitting quietly and sending your loved one a message of encouragement and gratitude. Even if your loved one died in pain, you can feel gratitude that the pain has ended and that your loved one is free and at peace.  It doesn’t bring them back, but it might help you see today in a new way.

If there is just no relief from your grief, then see a therapist. The death of a loved one can feel like trying to carry 1000 pounds. You don’t have to carry it alone; it’ll hurt you to keep trying to do it alone. Grief therapists exist to help you carry the weight.

Light in the Darkness

In the end, Christmas—like life—is about light in the darkness. I’ve been in despair. What I know for sure is that, if I get help and keep breathing, the year turns. It happens slowly, but the light comes back. Not in the way I wanted, maybe. After all, my marriage was really over. My dead baby was really gone. But eventually something changed because things always change. I had three more perfect, exquisite babies. Eventually I found a partner who cherished me as I really was.

And so sit with me now in the darkness. I know your despair. Life is sometimes cruel. Families hurt us and loved ones abandon us. And no matter how much we love someone, bodies stop working and people die. I know that darkness.  It seems that the light will never come back.

Here, take my hand.  Breathe with me. Let yourself open to the things you have never imagined. The darkness around us is complete and that is okay.

Darkness is the source of all birth. Darkness is the womb of hope. The year always turns. The sun always rises.  Death is a beginning, not an end.

Breathe slowly with me. Be gentle to yourself. Wrap yourself in kindness like grandma’s quilt and wait.

I know something that you don’t know. The love inside you is a seed. Your only job is to wait for the sun.

Christmas matters because it is the darkest time of the year. It is the longest night. Our job is to trust that change happens. Sit with me.  I promise you that the light will come again.

In Ely, Minnesota, we will have a “Longest Night” service for people who feel quiet, thoughtful or sad at Christmas. The service will be at the First Presbyterian Church at 6 pm on December 21st. This will be a gentle, quiet, heart-energy service of love and remembrance. Everyone is welcome, whether or not you are Christian.

Home for the Holidays: 4 Steps to Forgiving the Unforgivable

Forgiving often seems impossible. We get badly hurt in life. Family may feel like an intimate enemy. Going home feels upsetting and hopeless.

My mother used to say, “There are some things that simply can never be forgiven.”  Mom was wrong—but I didn’t realize how wrong until I was past middle age.

By the time we’re 30, we all know the down sides of adulthood: addiction, debt, infidelity, abandonment, just to name a few. And beyond these are the unspeakables such as genocide and rape. Our lives get ruined. People die. How can we forgive that?

Jesus’s command to forgive feels so unrealistic: “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.” (Luke 17:3)  Do we just close our eyes, grit our teeth and somehow obey? “Just do it” doesn’t work, no matter how hard we try.

And what about forgiving ourselves? Can we ever forgive ourselves for the things we regret? We hear that God forgives us—but can we ever love ourselves enough to forgive and be forgiven? 

Is such forgiving even possible?

I would like to share with you two simple truths: there is nothing that cannot be forgiven, and there is no one undeserving of forgiveness,” says Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the great Christian scholar in his book, The Book of Forgiving  (page 3).  

This is amazing.

If Tutu says it can be done, we can trust him. After all, he worked in South Africa to help people heal from genocide, racism and unspeakable violence, and he won the Nobel Peace prize.  

But even if we accept that it’s possible in some pie-in-the-sky world, how do we do it? Can an ordinary person ever do it? And should we do it? What about the pain that was caused? Does forgiving mean that was okay?

Tutu’s book changed my life. He showed me how to touch my very worst wounds, the things it seemed would never heal, and instead find a way to love others and love myself. I used his process and changed my life. The things that used to hurt just don’t any more. 

This is the healing we all deserve. This is the Divine plan.

But Tutu says it’s not easy or automatic. There is a process that must be followed. He’s not talking about blind obedience to God. He’s talking about deep healing for ourselves and for the world. When we forgive, we become free, he says. We do it for ourselves, to heal as the Divine wants us to heal. He says this:

Forgiveness is not dependent on the acts of others. Yes, it is certainly easier to offer forgiveness when the perpetrator expresses remorse and offers some sort of reparation or restitution. Then you can feel as if you have been paid back in some way….In this understanding, forgiveness is something we offer to another, a gift we bestow on someone, but it is a gift with strings attached.

The problem is that the strings we attach to the gift of forgiveness become the chains that bind us to the person who harmed us. Those are the chains to which the perpetrator holds the key. We may set the conditions for granting our forgiveness, but the person who harmed us decides whether or not the conditions are too onerous to fulfill. We continue to be that person’s victim. (p. 20)

Instead Tutu talks about unconditional forgiveness. He says this:

Unconditional forgiveness is a different model of forgiveness than the gift with strings. This is forgiveness as grace, a free gift freely given….When you forgive, you slip the yoke, and your future is unshackled from your past. (p. 21)

When we forgive, we become the heroes instead of the victims in our own life stories. We change our own life story and discover that healing and freedom are possible—but we must choose them.

Doesn’t that mean that the wounding was okay? Tutu says not at all.

Forgiveness is not some airy-fairy thing. It has to do with the real world. Healing and reconciliation are not magic spells. They do not erase the reality of an injury. To forgive is not to pretend that what happened did not happen. Healing does not draw a veil over the hurt. Rather, healing and reconciliation demand an honest reckoning….Behavior that is hurtful, shameful, abusive or demeaning must be brought into the fierce light of truth. And truth can be brutal. In fact, truth may exacerbate the hurt; it might make things worse. But if we want real forgiveness and real healing, we must face the real injury. (p. 24)

Tutu gently leads us through the steps we need:
  1. Telling the story;
  2. Naming the hurt;
  3. Granting forgiveness;
  4. Renewing or releasing the relationship.

He sorts through the worst, most hateful injuries. He walks with us through confusion and feelings of unworthiness. In every chapter he offers wonderful rituals, meditations, prayers and journal writing to help people do the real work of forgiving. He says, “Peace is built with small and large acts of forgiveness.” (page 59)  The Christian meditation techniques in his book help us open to the Divine and grow closer in love.

So this time, when we go home for the holidays, when we feel the ancient wounds again, we finally have a choice. We don’t sweep everything under the carpet or stay locked in our anger.

Instead we have a healing process that works. It doesn’t matter if those who hurt us keep thinking that nothing wrong happened. Even then, we can choose peace and wholeness. Tutu tells us how to do this.

We choose to become the heroes of our own stories. And we choose this for ourselves, for our own healing and for the healing of the world. We set ourselves free. That’s how love comes again and again into the world.

Let’s end with one of Tutu’s poems:

I will forgive you

The words are so small

But there is a universe hidden in them

When I forgive you

All those cords of resentment, pain and sadness that had wrapped

Themselves around my heart will be gone

When I forgive you

You will no longer define me

You measured me and assessed me and

decided that you could hurt me

I didn’t count

But I will forgive you

Because I do count

I do matter

I am bigger than the image you have of me

I am stronger

I am more beautiful

And I am infinitely more precious than you thought me

I will forgive you

My forgiveness is not a gift that I am giving to you

When I forgive you

My forgiveness will be a gift that gives itself to me

(p. 26)


Click here to buy Tutu’s book

Where the Miracles Are

Can I really trust God? I mean REALLY?

The thought runs through my head, but the words keep changing. “Well, that’s not realistic.”  “Nobody can forgive that.” “No point in trying that again.” “That’s how things always turn out.”

What if, instead, it’s the thoughts themselves that block blessing? What if our smart little busy brains are churning out all sorts of roadblocks to God’s deep will—which is kindness, love and joy?

I do not know what is the best outcome in anything. I never know what SHOULD happen. That’s it— That’s all my wisdom. But it’s a lot, because it means I am not second-guessing God. All my clever plans, all my hard-won life experience and cynicism and sorrow, all of it is just thought-trash. Junk. Messy little packages of worry and doubt from my busy brain.

Instead, I can smile, bless my thoughts and let them go. I can say, “That’s just a thought. I don’t know what was or what will be. I do not know what should be.”  

The great Christian scholar Rev. Richard Rohr says this:  

Whenever I think there’s a perfect pattern, further reading and study reveal an exception. Whenever I want to say “only” or “always,” someone or something proves me wrong. My scientist friends have come up with things like “principles of uncertainty” and dark holes. They’re willing to live inside imagined hypotheses and theories. But many religious folks insist on answers that are always true. We love closure, resolution and, clarity, while thinking that we are people of “faith”! How strange that the very word “faith” has come to mean its exact opposite.

People who have really met the Holy are always humble. It’s the people who don’t know who usually pretend that they do. People who’ve had any genuine spiritual experience always know they don’t know. They are utterly humbled before mystery. They are in awe before the abyss of it all, in wonder at eternity and depth, and a Love, which is incomprehensible to the mind. It is a litmus test for authentic God experience, and is — quite sadly — absent from much of our religious conversation today. My belief and comfort is in the depths of Mystery, which should be the very task of religion.  Click here for Rohr’s discussion.

I meditate because I want to relax into the profound reality that is NOT thought. Trusting God means transformation—Not a new version of my busy brain’s plans, not what everybody thinks would be best, given the situation.

God dances to music more exquisite than anything I can imagine. God offers joy so new that I gasp and weep. It’s an opening that rips through what I think is real. Light pours in and drenches us all.

The key is saying “I don’t know.” I have to surrender to God, let myself fall into God and trust the Divine Emptiness—because when I lift away all my little plans and thoughts, all existence opens to God’s possibilities.

And that’s the miracle.

 

 

Opening to God in a New Way

At first, Christian meditation sounds weird, especially if you’re used to church and scripture and sermons. But here are three teaching videos by two well-known, devout Christian teachers.

The first two videos are by James Finley, a meditation teacher and psychotherapist who studied under the great Christian mystic Thomas Merton.

In the first video, Finley talks about how we think we know what’s going on in our lives, but we really don’t. We have the plans our egos have made, what we think SHOULD be happening, but the Divine has other plans. Finley’s teaching about “don’t-know mind” is profound. He says that it is when we finally give up our ego’s plans that God can really reach out and heal us—even when life is very tough, as in serious illness or addiction.

Finley video on “Don’t-know mind”

In the second video, Finley explains what Christian Meditation is and how to do it. He discusses it all– how to sit, what to think, how to relax, and how it helps the individual open to God’s presence and healing. There’s a link to Finley’s book, Christian Meditation, in the Bookstore.

Finley teaching Christian Meditation

In the third video, Cynthia Bourgeault teaches the well-known Christian meditation technique Centering Prayer. Dr. Bourgeault’s teaching is easy and makes sense within the context of Christian faith. Links to her books are available in the Bookstore.

Bourgeault teaching Christian Meditation

 

Mrs. Stanley’s Lesson

It’s how these things so often happen. Early on a Monday morning in about 1979, after I had finished meditating, something came to me. It was Mrs. Stanley’s face or maybe her voice. It overwhelmed me.

These things come like a distant bell, a magical, haunting, beautiful sound that you cannot ignore. I hadn’t even thought of her in more than ten years, but there she was, my high school English teacher, calling me.

By then my life had gone seriously wrong. My first baby had died, my poor drunk husband had gone home to his own country, I was poor, and every so often depression crippled me.

The joys I had were my little girl and a new sense of hope and love. I had started to meditate.

On that Monday morning what I suddenly knew—out of nowhere, I thought—was that I had to tell Mrs. Stanley thank you. It was obvious. Looking back, heaven was prompting me, but at that time I hadn’t figured that out yet. I got a card, wrote a note and mailed it.

A week later the phone rang and there was a trembly fairy voice. “Jean, is that you? Is that you? Where are you? Where are you? Come and see me.”

She was in Madison General Hospital, dying. By now I knew a little bit about death, so I went right away.

She is lying on pillows, oxygen tubes in her nose, IVs in her arms—Of course, all her smoking. Lung cancer. The room smells bad, and it’s dim and grey. Her voice is still low, but she can barely whisper.

“Your little girl? I thought you’d bring her.”

“I was afraid to—I didn’t know how you would be.”

She nods. “What did I give you? Why did you write? Was it my teaching?”

This part I know. “No….The teaching was good. But it was never what you said. It was how you were.”

“How?”

“Remember when that girl tried to kill herself and she came into your room?  And you climbed into the ambulance with her and went with her to the hospital?”

She sighs a little. “Poor girl. Yes…yes.”

“You cared so much. You would say anything, do anything…. We were so stupid. So immature. We laughed at you, and you just ignored us. It was how you were, not what you said, not who you were. You were there for us, for all of us, even when you weren’t supposed to be. Even when it was embarrassing. You told us the truth. You were strict but you cared. You always showed that passion, and damn everyone else.”

“How did you hear me? How?”

I shrug. “I just knew. I just knew—It just came one morning.”

She falls back onto her pillows. “So there is something….Oh God. Oh God.” Tears slide down her cheeks.

It was the only time I saw her. In a few days she died. She was one of my most important teachers.

Here is Mrs. Stanley’s lesson: It’s not who you are or what you are that lasts, that matters forever. It’s how you are. Kind. Tender. Caring—No matter who laughs at you. How you touch. How you speak.

Touch kindly. Be there for others. Let your eyes shine because that’s God’s joy. Tell others how precious they are so they know.

How you are is exactly how God happens in this world. How you are is the only thing that matters. That’s it—the whole thing. It’s not what to be, not who to be. It’s how to be.