Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I Choose Optimism

It only took one day of fussing with health insurance issues, COBRA and Medicare to move me off center. Add on top of that my mother hogging the telephone line all day, because her siblings and in-laws were engaging in unconscionable behavior, and the day was a doozy.

Herb and I spent much of yesterday and all of today straightening out his health insurance status with COBRA and Medicare after learning he had been given misinformation by his H.R. department when he retired at the end of January. Trying to do a financial analysis of the convoluted way that deductibles, co-insurance and the donut hole (Medicare Part D coverage gap) are applied will liquefy anyone's gray cells.

It didn't help when the H.R. manager said, "I've only been at my job two weeks," as an excuse for why she was unable to provide any reliable information to us. She didn't know she was speaking to a former customer service manager of an $8 billion bank, and I have some strong feelings about how to treat customers. But, oops, my error, because former employees are not customers. I guess that justifies the poor treatment. The corporate mantra, "Our employees are our most valuable asset," in my observation, is largely a euphemism.

My mother's sister-in-law called early in the day to report that Mom's brother had fallen seriously ill. The short version of the whole sorry saga of that dysfunctional part of the family is that Mom finally had to call her sister in another state to get the cell phone number of her brother's son, hours later, so that he could take his father to the hospital. At the end of the day, the sister-in-law is angry at Mom for being a "busy body," and my mother's brother is hospitalized with complications from a stroke. Thank God my mother is sensible, assertive and inured to criticism, or her poor brother would be dead now.

Normally, I am one of the most optimistic people you can hope to meet. I believe in the goodness of people. I believe in possibilities. I believe in good outcomes, even when the situation is dire. But, frankly, the idiocy of bureaucracy (is that redundant?) cuts me off at the knees and just flattens me, totally. I might have been okay, taken things in stride, if not for the background noise in the household of my mother and the saga of her brother's medical emergency.

So, to restore hope and optimism in our household, we resorted to the tried and true balm of a family meal. We invited Steel, who's been painting in the back bedroom, to sit down with us. Mom and I fixed a roast turkey dinner with yummy sauteed onion brussels sprouts, which everyone praised, and we ate our weight in ice cream. It was good to sit with loved ones and commiserate over the day's unhappy events, to laugh at stories of previous bad days from the distant past, and to indulge in the creature comfort that a shared meal brings.

I am reminded that I am fortunate, because I have a family that loves me and the wherewithal to be in a position to have health insurance, to indulge in a special feast for assuaging our day's frustrations and to be healthy enough emotionally, mentally and spiritually to bounce back from a bad day. I know that my sisters and brothers in war zones, in prisons and in poverty don't share my good fortune.

Optimism, like love, is an act of will. I can choose optimism and see possibilities, or I can choose frustration and its slow or quick slide into bleakness and despair. I don't know about anyone else, but for me, it's not helpful to have others - like my husband - point out my funk and try to lift me out of it.

What is helpful, and what was helpful today, is my friends, like all those Facebook friends, saying things like, "We get where you're at," and "We're saying a prayer for you." That makes a huge difference, and I thank my wonderful friends for their listening and hearing, and for their prayers and good vibes sent through cyberspace. God's peace, everyone, in the middle of this Holy Week.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Birthday Reflections

As I approach my 61st birthday tomorrow, my 24-year old daughter asked me this morning via iChat, "do you feel any different being a year older?" My reply was, "No, because this isn't a milestone birthday like last year's was."

Turning 60 was a biggie. I felt a need to share that milestone birthday with my girlfriends and to mark it as a passage. About a dozen of us gathered for an evening of conversation, food and wine last year. Deborah, a friend of 40 years, even flew in from California to join us. Melissa, more than twenty years younger than the rest of us, brought beads. My girlfriends created a charm bracelet, interwoven with poetic words, to honor me, our friendship and our passages.

The company of women has been important to me since the first glimmers of my feminist chops in my teens. A year ago, I had been traveling back and forth between Colorado and Washington state, as well as traveling pretty constantly doing church work, which made me feel disconnected to any place or community. I wanted to reconnect. As I approached the passage into my seventh decade, I really needed reassurance that my girlfriends were still my community of support.

Together, we women have endured cancer, divorce, cheating husbands, troubled children, money problems, and more. Together, we've talked into the night, taken trips, rescued stranded children and each other, and more. Together, our sisterhood has stood up for battered women, animal rights, job security, our children at school, and more. It's the more that keeps the friendship and the community of support going. We’ve managed to stay connected even as we’ve changed the circles of relationships, moving to different churches, new neighborhoods and new jobs.

I’ve experienced emotional change as I’ve aged - a relaxing into an openness to ask for and to receive support. I no longer feel driven to put on the appearance of being a "strong woman" or the one who doesn't need commiseration. Some of that emotional growth has been the result of intentional emotional and spiritual work on my part for which I do feel a sense of accomplishment. Some of the growth I attribute to the healing power of time, which, from my perspective, has pushed me towards wholeness.

I realize that not everyone gets called to health, that some get pushed into psychic holes from which they never really climb out. There is a “stuckness” that happens to some of us. The disappointments somehow aren’t allowed to fade into the past, but become obsessed about in the present. We allocate emotional fuel to old stories that keep them current.

My daughter has often said that it's a shame that I don't cry. It's not that I've never cried, but I just don't find any release or purpose in crying. As a teenager, I was the "serious one," and as an adult, I've been the "responsible one." When I have wept heart-wrenching tears, I felt such despair that I don't ever want to go there again, if I can choose not to. Those were instances of abandonment and rejection by people whom I thought loved me as much as I loved them. Crying never made me feel better, and crying never made them love me more.

The school of hard knocks has been a consistent teacher to me. But, it is also true that the times have changed. I grew up in a cultural setting where "sucking it up" and "toughing it out" were considered virtues that every self-respecting, self-sacrificing female should own in abundance. My mother has certainly modeled those virtues for me as she has repeatedly rolled up her sleeves and plunged into whatever work or hardship lay before her, mostly keeping her despair and sadness to herself.

I no longer try to judge or evaluate the rightness or wrongness of one’s feelings or experiences. They are what they are. I’m into acceptance these days, acceptance of what has happened to me, and acceptance of my part and my feelings in those experiences. And crying won’t make any of it different. I think back to the words of a psychiatrist I saw thirty years ago, who told me that revisiting and analyzing the origins of my emotional landscape was a luxury, and asked me if I really felt a need to indulge that luxury in order to have a good life. I decided for me, the answer is “No.”

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Infidelity and the Fruits of Forgiveness

I have been following, unavoidably, the "news" stories around actress Sandra Bullock and the unraveling of her marriage, which follows a mere four months after golf great Tiger Woods' sorry story. These stories are not news, despite the news media's attempts to make them news. They are celebrity gossip on the international stage, and they poison the human psyche of those who read and absorb the sordid details.

To say that I am sorry for the pain inflicted on all parties concerned is an understatement. Having been through a marriage that broke up due to multiple infidelities on my husband's part, I know firsthand about the pain, insecurity and insanity that the cheated-on wife or husband endures. The after effects don't go away in a season or in many seasons. They are like the antibodies of a disease that stay in your bloodstream forever, lurking, and potentially able to flare up again if hospitable conditions develop to call the disease forth.

Forgiveness is a huge first step, but it is only one step to mend the loss of trust, belief in the story of enduring love, self-confidence, and optimism that come with being cheated on. The after effects include the likely projection onto new lovers and possible partners of the sins of the cheater.

Therapy is helpful, but changes in how one thinks don't easily become changes in how one feels. The changed thoughts in one's rational mind do not felicitously cause one's self to feel trusting, to believe in what one is told, to feel like someone who is worthy of being loved, and to feel like there are new possibilities that are worth trying.

There is a tendency in working through issues like infidelity in a marriage for the perpetrator to blame the victim. "If you had been more . . . whatever, then I wouldn't have done . . . whatever." This is a trap, for both parties. Blaming means never having to take full responsibility and ownership of one's own fault and sinful behavior.

There is a human tendency to want to share the blame and fault, to be only partially to blame and only partially responsible, because it feels better that way. The perpetrator doesn't feel quite as guilty and can even feel somewhat justified in his or her behavior.

Blaming means the victim gets more injury heaped upon her or him, from which the victim must also heal, on top of the original injuries. It's bad form, folks, and it's also bad therapy when counselors try to get the victim to share the blame for the infidelity.

Now, that's not to say that both parties haven't played a part in a damaged relationship, but that's different from saying that the victim has caused the behavior of the perpetrator. It's the same argument in talking about rape and murder. The victim doesn't cause the rape or murder by wearing revealing clothing or hurling provocative epithets.

I've been thinking about this subject, because it's been in the "news" so much lately. I can't view a news source without being bombarded with stories of what Sandra Bullock and Tiger Woods are or are not doing. The public appetite for celebrity gossip is a form of abuse that the public heaps upon public figures. Just because they are famous and have wealth and power derived from their public careers doesn't mean that the public is justified in heaping pain and abuse on celebrities. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves.

Decades after that fateful marriage dissolved, and after having had a huge forgiveness epiphany many years ago, I still find it difficult to watch movies that have stories of infidelity in them. A movie entitled "Unfaithful" is out of the question, and even a movie like "Love Actually" that I wanted very much to like, promoted as a romantic comedy, proved to be a sad experience for me.

I'm a great believer in the healing power of the passage of time and in the gestures that are about reconciliation even when one's feelings are not quite there yet.  Just as love is an act of will, so, too, is forgiveness. Forgiveness is a one-sided act of will. It doesn't require apology or remorse on the part of the perpetrator. So, including an ex-spouse in the family's Christmas celebrations is about reconciling the entire family, and I am confident that my feelings will follow.

Acts of love are the fruits of love, and acts of reconciliation are the fruits of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the huge first step, but the acts of reconciliation must follow for there to be progressive healing.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Money and Church Participation

Recently I have been confronted with the issue of the relationship between money and participation in the church on several separate occasions. As an elected leader in the church, I have some responsibility to develop a position on this issue, because I have opportunities to speak and vote on resolutions that turn on this issue.

One issue is whether or not church entities should have the right to voice and vote when they do not pay their share of the askings or assessments that fund the work of the wider church. The second is the issue of whether or not an individual who is a member of one of these church entities should have the right to serve in elected office with the right to voice and vote, and in particular, if that individual were in a leadership position her/himself and able to influence the payment or withholding of funds.

The first question I ask myself is this: is there, or should there be, a causal relationship between money and participation, between financial contribution and the right to partake of the benefits of the entity? In the secular private sector, it is certainly true that if you don't pay, you don't play viz. club memberships.

It is somewhat less clear in the secular public sector that the same would be true. Generally speaking, citizenship affords certain inalienable or sovereign rights such as the right to the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. As a country, the United States has further expanded the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness to mean specific things under layers of federal, state and local laws covering everything from one's rights to treatment in a hospital emergency room to protection against dangerous animals to a free K-12 public education.

These rights are not without limitations and corresponding responsibilities. You are expected to pay for or have access to payment mechanisms including Medicare and Medicaid for that emergency room treatment. You cannot leave food and trash on your front porch to tempt the bears. You are expected to adhere to attendance rules and not to interfere with the rights of other students.

Failure to live by the rules brings with it certain penalties, but they are nuanced based on the degree to which the right in question is considered an intrinsic human right. You could be expelled from school long-term, even permanently, if your infractions are sufficiently egregious. The animal control officers will come to rid you of the bear that has invaded your home, but you might be charged for the cost of the service if you contributed to the bear being there by poor food hygiene in known bear country. But the emergency room cannot withhold life-saving treatment until you are stabilized no matter how poor your ability to pay is or how self-inflicted the harm was.

What, then, of citizenship in the church? Our Christian theology says that we are all beloved children of a loving God and all members of the Body of Christ. Some Christians believe that membership in the Body of Christ is dependent upon being baptized; others believe that membership derives from being creatures of God's creation that God declared as good. The church and the Body are not synonymous even though we tend to talk of them as if they were. The institutional church is a human construct and subject to all the perversions that humans make of human things.

Is there such a thing as inalienable rights that Christians have that cannot be taken away or infringed upon? Certainly it is true that our theology says that we have an inalienable grace given by God through no merit or acts of our own that no one can separate us from and that cannot be taken away by any human act. But is there a comparison or a relationship between inalienable rights and inalienable grace?

Rights are a human social concept arising out of human social constructs such as society at large and institutions and entities in specific. Grace is largely ignored when humans form societies, institutions and entities whether these are formed informally and organically or intentionally and by formal design. (Is it grace or is it enlightened self-interest when we give a pass to those at the lowest rungs of poverty or debilitation of mental illness? - An important question and subject for a separate posting at another time.) Norms, rules and laws tend to develop around concepts of limits, boundaries and protections: ways to protect ourselves from the excesses, preferences and unwanted behaviors of others.

I raise more questions than I have answers for. Such is the quandary of the exercise of leadership. I am elected as a leader in an institutional church. It is a membership body even though the understanding of the rules for membership and the indices of membership differ throughout the self-same institution from one diocese to another. Just like in the United States democracy, the institutional church is not of one mind when it comes to how we contribute and pay for the support of our life together as an institution.

In our country, we have laws and enforcement mechanisms when citizens fail to pay their share for our country's life together. In the institutional church, we also have rules and enforcement mechanisms when congregations fail to pay their share for their dioceses' life together. It is less clear what the enforcement mechanisms are at the churchwide level.

Clearly it is harsh if one is the supportive individual in an unsupportive congregation or diocese and becomes caught up in the censure applied to the unsupportive congregation or diocese. It's a lot like living in a community that has voted against a mil levy for schools which you support that means your children will not have music and arts in their schools. Because of interdependence, in society as well as in the institutional church, our communal decisions always impact those who disagree with the decisions adversely. You don't get what you passionately want or you pay for what you passionately don't want. 

When the nonpayment of institutional church askings and assessments is based upon theological differences and is an exercise of civil disobedience, is it then ethical to impose sanctions allowed by church rules against those who disagree but still want to participate? Is it ethical for a nation to imprison conscientious objectors? What about people who withhold payment of income taxes because they object to the government's war policies? How does one make one's voice heard when one disagrees with the vast majority of the entity or institution?

Much as I would like to be able to come up with a cohesive ethos on this subject, I am simply unable to. I have many more questions than answers. I believe in the practice of patience and listening. I want to resist the tendency to snap judgments. I don't find it helpful to say the other side is wrong, and I'm right, and to go from there.

I am reminded of a vignette early in Elliot Pattison's first novel set in Tibet, "The Skull Mantra," when a circle of monks, surrounded by Chinese soldiers with rifles aimed at the monks, pray, not for their own safety from harm, but for a change of heart on the part of the Chinese soldiers. That is what I am going to do, pray for a softening of the hearts of all involved in our controversies in the church, so that we can listen, learn and go from there.

And insofar as how I will speak and vote on resolutions that turn on these issues, I will do my best to seek full disclosure of the facts surrounding the issues, to listen openly and patiently, to calm the conversational waters, to ask for separation of multiple issues into their distinct parts, and to wait upon the Spirit through prayer and reflection.

Monday, March 1, 2010

I See You

Do you know the ground from which you come? The ground that links you to what matters most to you, that had a big part in forming you, and that feeds and strengthens you even when you are far away? These are important questions that it would benefit us to ask and ponder.

Yesterday morning, at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver, during Adult Forum, I led a session entitled "From Stranger to Neighbor: How to Share Who I Am." This was my annual visit to St. Thomas for this particular series of teachings, focused on the practical, pragmatic "How to's" of getting beyond all the "-isms" that separate us to the place where we're comfortable with multiculturalism and being true neighbors to our sisters and brothers in the world.

The great commandment is to "love God and love our neighbors as ourselves." But how do we love our neighbors as ourselves when we don't know how to connect to our neighbors? I believe the first step of loving our neighbors begins with learning how to communicate our passions and core values, out of which we can then form deeper relationships.

"Namaste" is the Sanskrit greeting used in India and among many Buddhists and yoga practitioners to say, "The divine in me greets the divine in you." "Ubuntu," a Bantu word meaning "I in you and you in me," was the theme to the 2009 Episcopal General Convention, proclaiming that "I am because you are," proclaiming our profound interconnectedness.

As baptized Christians, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit at our baptisms. There is an indwelling of the Spirit which forms the most intimate part of ourselves, that part where we are connected to God, where we are holy and sanctified. Moving from Stranger to Neighbor is about the journey that moves us to connect the "me" that is holy and sanctified with the "you" that is holy and sanctified.

I was struck that the movie "Avatar" depicted the blue people known as the "Navi" using the phrase "I see you" to indicate the deep connection felt by the two main characters. I see you. I see you. What does it mean to see, really see, someone? The comments from the group yesterday included "I hear you," "I understand you," "I get you" and more. Being seen for who we really are, is there any affirmation that is better than that?

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori introduced the term "Radical Vulnerability" to the Executive Council at its October, 2009, meeting. Radical Vulnerability, I think, captures what I suggest as the first steps to connecting the holy and sanctified "me" with the holy and sanctified "you." Someone has to take the first step to share at the deepest, most personal levels. Someone has to be open to the vulnerability that entails. That someone may as well be me.

I acknowledge the importance of exchanging information about ourselves at the biographical, surface level: where we were born and grew up, our marital status and family makeup, our education and jobs, etc. But then, we need to plunge in deeper, to talk about what we think and how we feel about our stories, about what's happening in our lives today and about our hopes and dreams. We need to be willing to reveal and expose our thoughts and our emotions to one another in order to touch and connect at deeper, more intimate, and yes, more vulnerable levels.

I am not suggesting "true confessions" of the tabloid variety or dumping our psychological baggage on one another. Obviously, we must be judicious in what we share so that we don't hurt ourselves or lay a burden on the other person. What I am suggesting, however, is that we need to go to a place of less guardedness, of more openness, of laying bare the part of ourselves where our humanity and our holiness as Children of a Loving God dwell, and sharing that part of ourselves with others. It is out of that depth of sharing that connection is formed. It is at that level of connection that we begin to see each other. That is where the divine in me sees the divine in you.

Here are four questions that I suggest to begin your meditations on the journey towards Radical Vulnerability:

  • I want people to know this about me:____________________ because:____________________
  • This is what makes me "me":____________________
  • This is one of my hopes for my life:  I hope that____________________
  • This is one of my dreams in my life:  I wish that____________________
If you would like an electronic copy of my two pages of handouts for this presentation, email me at, and I will gladly send it to you.