A rainy day reflection

We’ve all seen it. When an unexpected (or even an expected) rain shows up in the middle of an active day, people respond in comical ways to the prospect of being negatively impacted by getting wet. It’s an interesting thing to observe, not because of the face value cause-effect, but because of all the little things that lie beneath the surface. It can be stress inducing. But it doesn’t have to be.

Basically, it seems we can correlate our tolerance for getting wet in the rain with our determination or ambition to accomplish things regardless of circumstances. This correlation is not static by any means. There are days when we are more willing than others to endure the discomfort and changes to our physical appearance that result from getting wet. I’m just saying, our reaction to rain reflects so many things going on inside us.

I remember a time when my youngest was a preschooler and we had to go to Target on a rainy day. (This may have been more of a stormy day than just a rainy day.) I had one umbrella and hands full — handbag, shopping bags, and my little boy who held my hand as we ran to and from the store. When it was said and done, his pants and shoes were soaked. “How on earth did you get so wet?” I asked, implying that he should have been drier since we were both under the umbrella. “The rain has a little helper, Mom,” he said, “and its name is wind.”

Indeed, it does.

Recently at work, I was having a conversation about our human nature in reaction to doing difficult or uncomfortable things, particularly doing those things over a sustained period of time. Our purpose was to figure out ways to coach our team through an intense growth spurt. In that conversation, I used the image of a sudden downburst of rain to describe our general resistance to that sort of discomfort and change in circumstances. Most of us do not want to get wet. And we avoid it for myriad reasons, not the least of which is the way it changes our appearance – picture the “drowned rat” we refer to so often. We are far more willing to endure the inconveniences and discomfort of an absolute soaking when we have significant incentives that override the negative feelings about getting wet.

Soaked!

Today, my son and I were downtown having lunch together when the bottom fell out of the sky. The rain wasn’t just heavy, it was torrential. We had no particular reason to hurry and nowhere in particular to go afterward, so we weren’t stressed. And we didn’t have umbrellas. As we left the restaurant to head over to a nearby coffee shop, we passed several folks huddled in the foyer of the restaurant, waiting for the rain to pass. And, on the street, there were various mixtures of folks with umbrellas, makeshift umbrellas, and nothing (like us) to limit our getting wet. While in the coffee shop, it occurred to me that getting wet in the rain is a purely physical experience – a sign of life, if you will – with mental and emotional implications. In other words, the way we perceive getting wet unexpectedly in the rain drives our experience of it entirely. And we can change our perception of things.

The Birth of a Tradition

Christmas is a time of year chock full of traditions. It may hold some of the only traditions I follow, actually. I’ve even built my own family tradition of Special Day during the Christmas season – a day spent doing fun things with each of my kids as my gift to them. Special Day and Christmas Eve worship service are my hardcore traditions.

This year, it seems that a new tradition was born. It wasn’t planned. An invitation was made and it was accepted by a community of people dear to me. The invitation was radically simple: will you join me in decorating a really big tree that sits on a busy highway? Let’s add lights that offer hope and joy to passers-by; ornaments to honor loved ones.

And boy, did they accept! The tree that sits on property that belonged to my grandparents, then to my parents, now belongs to me. I had a dream that prompted me to seek owning it. That dream continues to develop – seeds of renewal and growth for a community I love.

I don’t present myself as a sad or grieving person. I do, however, carry a deep and abiding pain related to the death of my firstborn son nearly 5 years ago. Life, for me, splits into two segments: before Josh died and after Josh died.

What I learned in making an offer to use this tree to remember loved ones is that 1) there are many, many people who feel the sting of loss during Christmas in my small hometown, and 2) there’s something very healing in coming together to remember our beloveds who are no longer with us. And a Christmas tree is apparently a GREAT place to bring all these emotions and people together!

As we celebrated Christmas huddled as a group in the dark around our adopted tree, all of us who placed ornaments in honor or memory of a loved one felt a special presence this year. We heard his or her name spoken. We saw their light shine. We sang carols together. We felt sad together and we felt joy together. That is the definition of love and the definition of community.

And, before we parted ways, we agreed to do it again next year. That big but ordinary tree is now a symbol of love, joy, community, and Christmas spirit – <snap!> just like that!

It isn’t you, it’s your ego

Very often, the first thing you see in a situation doesn’t define it well. You think you’re dealing with a certain issue, but the real issue is hiding behind the one that shows up first. Maybe several layers behind.

Current example, I have found myself bucking hard against opinions over the last several weeks and months – unsolicited, random opinions in particular. I have become more and more outspoken about my notion that opinions are the lowest form of human communication. Opinions are like body odor to me: we all have them and we should avoid airing them onto others.

Why such contempt for opinions? Well, I thought it’s because I see opinions as nothing more than preferences. Your preference isn’t right or wrong. It’s just a preference. My preference isn’t right or wrong, either. It’s just another opinion. Weighing and reacting to opinions is a royal waste of time. I am highly protective of my life energy, so I avoid spending any mental or physical energy on futile exercises. I recommend the same for you.

But that’s not the whole story either. I’ll dive a LOT deeper than that, so come with me if you can handle it. I say that because getting to the deeper issue will get too personal and likely uncomfortable. It’s actually not personal opinions that I dislike reacting or responding to. It’s the ego hiding behind it. It’s the egocentric expectation that an opinion should somehow change what the recipient thinks, says, or does. It’s the egocentrism that is unable to acknowledge that there are myriad opinions and preferences and there isn’t one correct one. It’s the self-centered attempt to rid the world of anything one person doesn’t like or prefer or appreciate – at least the small sliver of the world that person occupies.

In Christian teaching, the ego is our enemy. The ego represents the false-face we develop and present to the world – our avatar, if you will. Following Jesus *requires* a complete turning away from the self-serving ego in order to follow the way of Love. Where ego seeks to satisfy itself and to defend itself and to grow itself in the view of others, humility seeks the exact opposite. We cannot feed our ego and our faith at the same time. We cannot follow our ego and Christ-in-us at the same time.

So, it’s not your opinion I’m bucking. It’s your ego.

If egocentric opinions are unwanted and unhelpful, then what does a humble opinion look like and is it more desirable? It looks more like constructive feedback. It considers the whole group, not just one person’s preference. It is offered only when requested for the purpose of growth, not thrown out unsolicited like a belch to relieve one’s personal need to release noxious gas. Constructive feedback is just that: constructive. It builds others. It builds communities. Humility is necessary in any community context because humility embraces its own transformation while the ego desperately resists it.

One's Ego Can Only Aggravate This Crisis - La Prensa Latina Media

christianespanosa.com

Someone Else’s Memories

It’s a bit of a departure for me to write on a topic that isn’t meant for spiritual formation. But I find this fascinating and hope to get some of your stories and insights in response.

The area of NC where I grew up is full of homes built in the 20th century – some even older. It’s also a place where parents of children who long ago moved away live their final years, leaving homes unoccupied but not unloved. Many of these family properties, full of memories of special gatherings and holidays together, are being sold by adult children with very full lives in other places to happy buyers from all over the place who feel like they’re getting a great deal. In fact, they are, in terms of real estate and investment.

But, how does it feel to move into homes so very full of previous lives lived there? I can’t help but imagine some of these places welcome new owners less easily than others. I only know how it feels to see other people living in a place that holds my special memories of life gone by.

Families who move frequently may not experience attachment to lands and houses of their own. But most of us have at least one property owned for many years by a relative that seems to us to be more or less sacred.

How does it feel to buy a property that holds so many of someone else’s memories? Share with someone you know who might have a story to tell on this subject.

Re-entry: facing the world again

As the light at the end of the tunnel grows brighter in what we hope is a post-pandemic world, my eyes are squinting at the glare. My appearance reflects an undeniably exhausted and weary soul. I want to feel energized and excited, but it eludes me.

And, apparently, I’m not alone.

Photo by Liza Summer on Pexels.com

Countless articles and reports are highlighting our various forms of fatigue: mental, emotional, Zoom, etc. It’s important for us to understand that we aren’t alone if we’re feeling any or all of these things. It’s also important to differentiate between ways we can help ourselves and issues that need professional/clinical assistance.

Sleepiness has been a real bugger for me. I am typically good with 7-8 hours of overnight sleep. But I find myself pushing those limits with late-night social media surfing or shopping or news reading. If you question me about why I’m online so late, I’ll justify it with a claim that it helps me go to sleep. Problem is, it takes about 45 minutes to an hour of surfing before my eyes start to cross. And, by then, I’ve already ruined my sleep goal.

Experts recommend that we put an end to late-night screen surfing (TV or other devices,) ending those sessions an hour before we should go to sleep; maintain a consistent bedtime; eat a well balanced diet; and minimize naps. Of course, the nap thing is a vicious cycle. Naps have both saved me during this pandemic and simultaneously ruined me. Yet, I remain quite fond of them.

If your exhaustion seems out of the ordinary and you are concerned about underlying health issues, make an appointment with your primary care physician. It’s better to know as early as possible if you’ve got something treatable happening.

Emotional health has to be factored in as we attempt to navigate exhaustion, frustration, outrage, fear and disappointment. We want to rely on good advice, but the advice keeps changing. We want our fellow citizens to play by the rules, whatever they are for as long as needed, but some of our neighbors are hard-heads. We want to believe we are in a post-pandemic phase, but we know that variants exist, fall is coming, and we still don’t know anything for certain.

For someone who can experience an emotion, name it, and allow it to pass, this has been a roller coaster. We might have even learned a few new emotions. For someone whose default is to suppress, ignore, and deny feelings or emotions, this pandemic has been a recipe for explosive misfiring and unintended destruction of relationships. In either case, if you’ve been caught off-guard by an onslaught of feelings and emotions that you can’t handle, talk with a trusted friend or mentor or make an appointment with a trained and unbiased professional. I can’t promote the value of talk therapy enough. And, higher level therapy (prescription level, behavioral modification level) has never been more needed. Do not resist getting help at whichever level you need it.

Work instability, changes in hours, temporary sabbaticals, and moves to/from remote locations can be mind numbing. Nearly everyone has felt the sensation of having the rug pulled out from under us over the course of the past year+. And, if we’ve been fortunate enough to maintain a job, we’ve soldiered through all of these things with little down time. For those who lost jobs, everything is on hold. You might be looking at ways to change careers. You might be weighing between working a low-wage job and the high cost of daycare. Sometimes, that just doesn’t add up. For you, down time or vacation isn’t a real “thing” anyway. I know because I’ve been there.

I don’t know if you’ve tried to book any beach time for this coming summer, but it’s nearly impossible to do. Last year, it was impossible because of stay-at-home orders and potential losses due to sudden lockdowns. This year, it’s impossible because folks are FLOCKING to the beach for much-needed time away – and the resource is limited. We are competing for vacation and recreation accommodations. We have to become intentional and even creative in finding ways to rest, relax and have fun again. As one article put it, we have been robbed of our ability to be spontaneous. (I agree, except it happened to me from previous trauma. This just added to it.)

Walking has been helpful to me in several ways. It offers a certain reset in my brain, allowing me to experience endorphins and a pleasant alternative to screens. When I face those moments after work when I wonder if I want a nap or a walk, I always try to opt for the walk. And I thank myself later.

Do you have any suggestions for ways to cope with crawling out of this pandemic and all of the collateral effects? Do you need more recommendations? Drop a note in the comments. Let’s try to help each other with this re-entry and pray for a world that is healthier and kinder on the other side.

Speculation and anxiety

I’m an anxious person. It’s odd that my demeanor is typically that of a calming presence because underneath that smooth facade is some serious duck-paddling.

I struggle with what you’d call high functioning anxiety. It isn’t debilitating – it is, however, exhausting. At my worst, I avoid thought-provoking down time by busying myself to heroic levels. At my best, I exercise or take naps. In all cases, my anxiety feeds on the aloneness I find myself in during this single/COVID time in life. When I’m alone, my thoughts lead me to unanswerable questions.

It seems to me, as I listen to every American anchorperson on TV tonight discuss the outcome of today’s election in speculative terms, that speculation is the root of worry and anxiety. When we can’t know something, we fill in the gaps with speculation. We tell ourselves stories based on speculation – many of which are absolutely untrue – and we believe those lies we’ve developed.

If you’ve practiced this form of self-torture for any length of time, then you know how hard it is to undo. At the same time, once you learn to recognize the destructive pattern, you begin to see it more and more, making it possible to undo.

Anxiety has been and continues to be fed during this season of elections-wrapped-in-a-pandemic. Folks who aren’t typically bothered by anxiety are affected. Folks who suffer with it are manifesting some of their worst symptoms. So, how do we manage?

For me, it begins with making peace with the unknowable. Do I still imagine the worst case scenario? Absolutely – it’s how I’m wired. Rather than holding my scenarios as prophetic truth, though, I look at them as manifestations of my anxious worrying. I can set them aside. (I actually imagine the quantum theory range of possibilities and realize how arrogant it is to believe in my ability to accurately predict future outcomes. Please.)

Even more broadly, I believe in a loving and faithful God. I have questioned how to reconcile that love with some of the dreadful ways I’ve suffered in this life. But, when I remember the darkest times, I also remember being most certain of God’s love and presence when life was most uncertain. Awareness of the presence of God in Christ has been the hallmark of the most un-anxious times in my life.

As events unfold, I encourage you to see speculation for what it is and not to seize any of it as truth or fully predictive of outcomes. Feed what is good; talk about what is hopeful; live in a way that enacts love. Love wins while speculation predicts loss.

Reinvention or Evolution?

The notion of reinventing oneself has always had a glamorous association for me. I’m not sure why, though. In practical terms, it seems more courageous than glamorous.

Looking back through the last few decades, I see and remember moments when I did things that felt like reinventing myself. When I quit my studies at Carolina to play music, it felt like a risk but never like a mistake. I experienced life at a very young age that I might never have experienced had I not done that.

Keyboardist for The Amateurs

At 26, I started my own business in sales and became a “Mary Kay lady.” It surely was a different persona for me, but as I often say, it was “the right thing at the right time” for my little family.

Mary Kay Sales Director, official portrait

Answering the call to enter seminary in 2009 was yet another moment of reinventing; although, what it really was, was a moment of full commitment. It began a season of carving away things that did not serve my identity in Christ well. My submission to a call from Jesus to serve His Church requires ongoing submission to a process of transformation.

Rev. Sandy Stillman-Alvin

And, as I enter yet another turn in life, taking on a new iteration of my career and dreaming up new ways to serve communities in my sphere of influence, I see these changes less as my own reinventions and more as the evolution of my self as I was created by God to be. These are merely the tangible expressions of God’s transformation process in our lives.

17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:17-18, NRSV

What is Necessary

We can prove our resilience without testing one another’s vulnerability.

I think and look back during our current pandemic, rising to its heights in the US during this Holy Week, to previous seasons of Lent. I really only started paying attention to Lent over the past 16-ish years. We didn’t observe Lent when and where I was raised, so, I don’t have that many seasons to remember.

As I learned to practice Lenten disciplines, I started simply. Of course, I’ve given up the standards over the years: soda, sweets, etc. During one of the earliest years, I gave up pork and beef; honestly, I haven’t eaten either since. I’ve also tried the add-on approach, adding a spiritual discipline during the 40-day season. Those are also meant to become lifestyle changes.

This year’s Lent has been unusual to say the least. Our congregation shared practices for each day that offer ways to give and receive love. Beyond paying attention to our in-house schedule of loving deeds, I haven’t been very intentional about my Lenten focus. Maybe because being under a “shelter in place” order feels a lot like working through spiritual disciplines.

For now, my most pressing focus is the daily process of deciding how to answer the question, “what is necessary?” as a guide to what I must do in order to support my household while being a good citizen. I’m a very conscientious soul, so you won’t find me walking around any of the places that do remain open. I try to order everything we need for our time at home to be delivered. If it can’t be delivered, I order for curbside, zero-contact pickup. Then, I obsessively wipe off items with alcohol or bleach wipes, quarantine pantry items to a certain section before folding them into use, bring no boxes or plastic bags inside, wash all produce, and, of course, wash my hands many multiple times throughout the day.

From The Jungle Book; “The Bare Necessities”

But there remains that question of what is necessary. It’s clear from this experience that I have not lived as simply as I thought I did. I’m used to getting whatever I want, whenever I want it, frankly. And not everything I want is necessary. Granted, I have done lots of internal work over the years, taming what I refer to as my “wanter.” Still, I’ve had to catch myself, every single day, and redirect my own thoughts and behaviors away from what I want towards what is necessary. And this is coming from a person who lives quite simply in comparison to our cultural standards. I can imagine how challenging it might be for someone who has never considered a simple life as any sort of goal or standard.

Answering the question of what is necessary has implications during this time of global pandemic far beyond a typical Lenten fast. When we choose what is necessary, we face potentially deadly consequences – not just for ourselves but for those we love most. We don’t know how we might be affected if we are infected … it’s a gamble. The odds are good that we’ll be ok but the risk is steep. If I blow my Lenten fast and eat chocolate, no one gets hurt. If I blow the shelter in place order and get sick, the potential for my own hurt as well as posing a danger to others, including my own child, is too great a risk.

So, I look forward to Resurrection Sunday and all that it signifies for those of us who love and follow Jesus: victory over death, an assurance of eternal life, promises of Christ’s reign and our co-inheritance in His kingdom … We have nothing to fear and everything to celebrate! And I will celebrate with my congregation by conference call this week. Because, while Jesus has already ushered in the kingdom of God on earth through his own ministry, death and resurrection, we, the Church, remain in this in-between time, waiting for the full restoration of creation.

So, how do we honor God best during this global crisis coinciding with our Christian celebration of the defeat of death AND the defeat of the FEAR of death? I think this is precisely where we are … Jesus rose from the dead and our day is coming. For now, though, we see our loved ones die. At this moment, we are seeing way too many beloveds dying at an alarming rate. We hear folks saying “faith over fear” as a motto. This doesn’t imply that we should test God by behaving in ways that risk lives during a known, deadly pandemic. It means that we know that death is not the end and we don’t live in fear of it. Life is precious. We humans are a peculiar mixture of resilience and vulnerability.

We can prove our resilience without testing one another’s vulnerability. Faith and grace and hope and love are our soul’s champions in this time in-between. We must employ them in all of our thoughts and prayers and behaviors each day for as long as this trial lasts – and beyond. These godly characteristics are as necessary as anything that might draw us away from home or that we might have waiting in our online shopping carts. But faith, grace, hope and love are necessities with something none of the items we scramble to buy will ever have: eternal value.

Deadly Denial

Watching a pandemic unfold was never on my list of things I expected to experience in my lifetime. As this global Covid-19 tragedy has unfolded, we all have witnessed the best and worst of human responses and reflexes.

The best responses have been thoughtful, based on true and identifiable patterns, and inevitably include a heavy dose of firm but kind guidelines. These are the first responders, enlightened leaders and caregivers who have learned that faith and fear coexist in tragic times but they know how to feed faith while facing fear.

The worst responses have been reflexive, impulsive and resistant to guidance by experts or authorities. These represent our most egoistic selves, wanting to distance ourselves from anything that might ask us to change, to say no to our wants, or to put others ahead of ourselves.

At the heart of our reflexive and impulsive responses is a fear of losing control or other personal/perceived losses. More pointedly, our most negative responses are based in denial, which in other circumstances, might serve us well by buying time for us.

But in the context of global pandemic, our tendency toward denial is, very literally, deadly.

I understand denial. I was trained in it, groomed in it, conditioned for it, and have lived in it and fought my way out of it for much of my adult life. It’s insidious once it becomes a default operating mode.

Denial has a breaking point, though. In relationships, it becomes unsustainable when something happens that reveals the truth in a way no one can deny any longer. There is a very fine line between holding out hope for the best outcomes and resisting the truth when it makes itself known. Denial – resisting the truth – is, at best, a ticking time bomb.

Horses for Sources website image

In our current crisis, we do not have the luxury of time. Denial – whether from elected officials or from spiritual leaders or from each and every one of us just trying to live our lives – is deadly in this context.

In the days ahead in this 2020 Lenten season, as those of us living in the United States witness staggering losses and grief that none of us were prepared to face, I challenge those among us who are predisposed toward denial to snap out of it. If you practice giving things up for Lent, add denial to your list of things to give up. Face the grim truth of our circumstances and make the commitment to make the difficult decisions that will force you to change your plans. Allow this time of massive disruption to CHANGE YOUR MIND. Be transformed into a lover of truth, even when the truth is HARD. Be responsible to your neighbors and people you don’t know, even when it means your life is made less comfortable.

As people of faith would anticipate, God is at work in this global pandemic. God is at work through people and in ways we cannot predict. Our responsibility to love our neighbor as ourself has never been more evident than during this time of ordered stillness. Choose to be a life giver, not a ticking time bomb, as you make choices that acknowledge our reliance on the best of human responses as a matter of life and death.