Living Peace in a Wild World

Our family returned last week from La Casa de Maria Family Retreat. The theme this year was “Living Peace in a Wild World.” It was a beautiful week: relaxing and exhausting at the same time. I usually come back from Family Retreat full of ideas I want to share, but this time, I struggled. With at least a half-dozen drafts sitting on my desktop, none of them were quite right. Also, it’s summertime, which makes it extra hard for me to buckle down. I have to take care of all my usual responsibilities, but afterwards… my kids are around, the sun is shining, the water is calling. You get the picture. And now it’s Sunday morning, Monday night, Tuesday afternoon, Thursday morning.  I hope you don’t mind if I just get the conversation started, even if it’s not as polished as I’d like it to be.

The retreat team had our first meeting to discuss the 2017 theme just days after the election of President Trump. Emotions were high and if we wanted to work together, politics had to be off the table. The retreat wasn’t for another eight months, but we agreed they should remain that way. But at the same time, we wanted to address what is so clearly needed in our world right now – PEACE. How could we and the families on retreat more truly become the peacemakers our faith calls us to be? How could we learn to be part of the solution, instead of the problem?

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Matthew 5:9

Each day at La Casa, we tried to address that question.

On Monday, we talked about how to make peace with others in the wider world by recognizing that what we have in common is far greater and far more important than what makes us different. We can’t hold hatred, prejudice, and self-righteousness in our hearts and be peacemakers. It just doesn’t work that way. We’ve got to hold space and grace for difference – of color, orientation, nationality, religion, politics. That doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything, but that respectful dialogue is essential. In fact, when we drop our impulse to attack, or condemn, we can actually learn to appreciate and celebrate “the other,” (which obviously makes for a more peaceful world). The day ended with this great reminder from Heineken.

On Tuesday, we explored how we can make peace within our families by recognizing that we have each been made in the image and likeness of God. We used a quiz to discover our “True Colors:” Good as Gold (reliability and rule-following), Genius Green (justice and investigation), Beloved Blue (relationship and heart) and Optimistic Orange (spontaneity and freedom). Although it was fun to find out more about ourselves and family members, the point wasn’t about identifying our “color.” Peacemaking comes by recognizing that our differences aren’t weaknesses, but rather strengths we can appreciate. Respecting each other’s unique gifts and ways of operating in the world is actually a way of honoring God’s divine plan for difference and diversity, embedded in the very fabric of creation.

On Wednesday, team members gave beautiful testimonies reminding us of this big truth.

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Life is never simple and the more we insist that it make sense according to our own limited perspective and understanding, the less peace we will have. Only the wisdom of the Holy Spirit allows us to make peace with the paradoxical nature of life. The major themes of the gospels were alive that morning in the stories that were shared as we heard how the more gifts we’ve been given, the more likely we are to squander them, that losing everything can make us more willing to give it all away, that tragedy can bring reconciliation and that sometimes, death can even bring healing.

Remember the line from the hymn so many of us sang when we were small from the prayer of St. Francis?

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We might still sing it in church to this day, but have we ever considered that we can’t give what we don’t have? Peace can’t begin with me, if I don’t have it in the first place! So on Thursday, I invited the retreat community to consider what it means to find inner peace, beginning with our own bodies.

Too often, we think of science as something separate from our faith. Our churches haven’t done us any favors on that front either, but if we believe that God is our Creator and that we are beautifully and wonderfully made, then we can see how we are biologically hard-wired to make peace.

In conflict, our heart rate elevates; our muscles twitch and tense, and our breath gets really shallow. That’s how our bodies respond to stress – courtesy of the Divine wisdom of our biology. Yeah for the flight-or-fight instinct! Because of you, we survived as a species! But in a world that moves so fast and is so full of tragedy and trauma and conflict, our bodies are on the verge of high alert all the time. Conflict and stress are the air we breathe.

But we have also been given a gift in our ability to calm our central nervous system, particularly by controlling our breath. When we slow down our breath, when we make it deeper and longer, we also change the state of our bodies. We are creating peace within, which gives us a lot more freedom to decide how to react to things. That’s Divine wisdom we don’t hear nearly enough about.

I began with a guided breathing meditation from Plum Village for the little ones and then I asked everyone else in the room to chant with me. I knew it was a risk, like nothing we had ever done before, but chanting is an ancient part of our faith tradition. For thousands of years, people in in religious communities have chanted the Psalms, multiple times a day. And if you are a part of the evangelical tradition, you might think of chanting as the proto-type of the modern-day worship experience – where a worship pastor repeats the same low, steady chorus over and over again, so the whole congregation can find the same rhythm of breath and sound and experience the same emotions. Chanting allows us to regulate our breath, slow down our heart rate, and create a peaceful place within ourselves.

We used the most famous lines from Dame Julian of Norwich, the medieval English mystic.

All shall be well.

All shall be well.

All manner of things shall be well.

The response blew me away. I had hoped to get a few people chanting with me, but the whole room participated fully for several minutes. And I’ve heard from quite a few people that they’ve kept it up since they’ve been home! And to get the benefits, it doesn’t have to be chanting; any type of intentional breathing during prayer, singing, yoga, sitting, or meditation will help us increase our experience of inner peace.

One of my favorite quotes about peace comes from Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman, an artist, activist and writer who was killed during the Holocaust.

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Creating peace within ourselves an essential part of becoming a peacemaker, but it’s too often neglected. I think that was one of my main takeaways from family retreat this year.

We can get so focused on making peace that we forget to be peace.

A peaceful presence will do more to change the world than any activism we might take on.

I want to close with this reflection on peace offered by a young woman at a church service I attended. She began with John 14:27: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

And then she read her poem:

Peace is…

Gentle breezes

The sound of slow, quiet breathing

The waves of the ocean

Peace is…

Standing steadily on a balance beam

Peace is…

The sound of the turn of a page

The softness of old paper

The quiet of a library

Peace is…

Silk, rubbing soft against your skin

Singer/songwriter Carrie Newcomer says, “The things that have saved us are still here to save us.”

Peace is…

Snuggling someone you love

A crackling fire

Cozy socks

A warm mug in your hands

A kiss on the forehead

Peace is…

Someone who holds you while you cry

Peace is…

A garden

Fresh air

Sunrays coming through clouds

Making a daisy chain

A butterfly, coming close enough to touch

Lying under a tree and looking up through the leaves

Braiding long hair

Peace is…

The feel of a hug

Peace is a balance between light and dark, happy and sad, warm and cold, fire and water. It’s at the center of a wheel of opposites.

I was blown away that this almost-child was so attuned to what slows her down, unites her heart with God’s heart, makes her feel safe and content, in harmony with herself and the world around her. She cherishes all that brings her peace and honors it in the telling.

When was the last time you felt at peace in your own body, in your own home, or in the world?

That’s my invitation to you this week. Take some deep breaths. Come home to your own body. Let your mind wander.

What and where and who brings you peace, so you can be a peacemaker, first and foremost at peace yourself?

If you are as brave as the young poet, share three places of peace you experience on a regular basis here, or on my Facebook link!

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The Third Word: PERSISTENCE or the Art of Showing Up in Three Parts

 

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I feel a little sheepish to be introducing the third word in this series, PERSISTENCE, after a three-week delay. However, without PERSISTENCE, there would be no #Signs of Love at all, much less this much-delayed post.

(You can catch up here with the first two words: COURAGE and ENCHANTMENT .)

Part One: The Background

I love the practicality of this word. According to Rob Bell, PERSISTENCE is the engine of just about everything. Nothing in the world would get done without it. Books wouldn’t get written; companies wouldn’t last; marriages would fall apart. The fact that we exist at all is due to our evolutionary drive to just keep going. A spark might get us started, but without PERSISTENCE, we’d stay right where we are.

Of course, we need to find that spark in the first place, that particular something worth our time and effort. Rob Bell introduced the word ikigai, a Japanese word for “that which gets you up in the morning” to describe that impetus. Once we find that passion, or purpose, PERSISTENCE will follow. Sure, setbacks make us want to give up, but when we find ourselves lagging, we can return to that original question. What gets me up in the morning? People give up, because they are pursuing something other than their ikigai, or they don’t what it is yet. It is living out of your purpose, that makes you PERSISTENT.

Now, if you are thinking this sounds a little “pie in the sky,” you might be right, which is why it was helpful to have Elizabeth Gilbert there to hit us with the reality stick.

For her, PERSISTENCE is a total grind most of the time. That’s why we call it PERSISTENCE! If it were easy, we would call it “Fun!” and we would do it all the time. But things are hard, so we don’t. Each of us has a history of not following through on people and projects. Our lives are littered with unfinished things – personal and professional – and we can carry a lot of shame about those things. But when we beat ourselves up over it, we tend to believe that we are undisciplined losers, who have never persisted in anything in our whole lives, which LG assured her audience was NOT TRUE!

The third letter LG asked us to write at the creativity conference was from our PERSISTENCE. “Ask it to give you a pep talk,” she said, “and remind you of all the things you have accomplished together – the mundane and the momentous.” That letter would help us counteract the story we tell ourselves about our ability to follow through: “There are many things you do DO. Look at them all.”

Part Two: The Letter

So here is my letter from PERSISTENCE. Much like the others, I find it embarrassing and if I didn’t believe in the power of vulnerability, I wouldn’t be sharing it with all of you.

Dear Ali:

I am your PERSISTENCE and this is damn sure what I want you to know about me: I exist! You are fiercely persistent. I may not be bombastic and loud, but I show up every single day! I get you out of bed in the morning to pray, to learn, to stand before God, to make breakfasts and healthy lunches for your family – all before 7:00 am. To kiss and hug your kids, even when they are bugging the crap out of you. You make your family food – you shop and prepare it. You take care of the house and the laundry. You exercise. You raise good kids, the hard way, in ways that no one else sees. You remember other people’s stories, even the details, and you follow up with them to see how they are doing, because it matters to you. You write thank you cards for goodness sake! You read hard books most people haven’t even heard of and then you connect them to your life and try to make them relevant to others. You prioritize your marriage and the romance that sustains it. You willingly choose to hang out with 14 year old girls on Tuesday nights and you do it all with a smile on your face and Love and joy in your heart. You are disciplined enough to know that your own happiness doesn’t mean a damn thing if you can’t contribute to the happiness and wholeness of others.

You’re welcome,

PERSISTENCE

Sigh.

At the time, I felt proud of my list. Today, it feels silly.

In part, that’s why it’s taken so long to publish this essay. I was all set to go, then Alton Sterling was killed, then Philando Castile, then the Dallas police officers. I didn’t know what to say. What difference in the world does my own little PERSISTENCE make in the face of a world gone mad? Last week, new waves of terror began: Baghdad, Nice, Germany, and then more violence in our own home: Baton Rouge, Kansas City, Miami. Where will it be tomorrow? What could I possibly say?

Almost nothing, except this.

Part Three: The Love

Through obstacles and distractions, victories and heartaches, PERSISTENCE is the virtue of showing up; it is the ultimate act of “keep on keepin’ on” and it doesn’t get nearly enough credit. That is what I re-learned about PERSISTENCE last week while Tim and the kids and I were at Family Retreat.

As I prepared my talk for Thursday morning, I remembered my true ikigai. My purpose on earth (and yours too ultimately) is to Love. Over the course of my lifetime, my ikigai will take a hundred different forms, but currently it means making meals, hanging out with teenagers and writing this blog. And as much as my FEAR and ego like to tell me otherwise, there’s nothing to be ashamed of in that. Thank God PERSISTENCE is there to remind me that I just have to show up and do what I do.

The theme for this year’s Family Retreat was “Love is…” and I had asked them to call my talk, “Love is Fearless,” but with everything happening in the world that title didn’t really work for me, because choosing to Love is actually pretty scary and no matter how much we Love, we will still be afraid. The world is a scary place and bad things happen to good people –Loving and kind people. But Love allows us to face our fears and act in spite of them. Love means doing what is necessary to create more wellness, more wholeness, more HOLYNESS for ourselves and those around us – in our own home and in the world.

Love is what we were made for and Love is what we are here for.

And we know that to create those things – health, wholeness, holiness – we have to show up! Of course, we’re happy to show up for the good things, but we’ve got to stay put for the hard things too – the things we’d rather NOT show up for, the ones that involve pain, disappointment, embarrassment, and hard truths we’d rather lie to ourselves about. There are many things in our lives we’d like to run away from, but that’s not Love, because it lacks PERSISTENCE.

On the first day of Family Retreat, I read the passage from 1 Corinthians 13 on Love. Maybe you’ve heard it before? It goes something like this, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast… It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” If you’ve never read the chapter, dig in, because it is good stuff.

The Love that Paul describes is not the wimpy kind of Love we’re used to giving and receiving. This is next-level Love. This Love is MUSCULAR. It is ROBUST. It is HEARTY. It is PERSISTENT. This Love is COURAGEOUS.

We need look no further than Jesus on the night before he died to see the COURAGE and PERSISTENCE of Love. Was he afraid in the Garden? Absolutely. He sweated blood. I don’t think any of us has ever been that terrified. And what did he ask of God, the ultimate source of Love he had come from, drawn on and trusted in his whole life? In that moment, Jesus asked for a pass! He was afraid, like you and I would be, and he asked to not have to show up. He said, “If it is your will, let this cup pass from me.” And then what did Jesus do?

He showed up! He got up and he walked out – unarmed, and vulnerable – knowing he was going to lose his life, his reputation, his friends – and he trusted in LOVE to see him through it – all the way through the pain and the fear and the trauma of rejection and the hardship that he would face in the following hours.

And Love let him walk through it. That’s the part we wish weren’t true. When Love wins, it can still feel like losing.

Love doesn’t excuse us from anything, but Love allows us face ALL things – with our heads up, even as our hearts and sometimes our bodies are battered. When we choose to Love as Jesus did, all things can be redeemed. I believe that with all my heart.

Thank you, PERSISTENCE, for reminding me what I’m here for.

Today, if nothing else, I will show up to Love.

 

 

 

 

Grateful for the Seasons of my Life

Team Kirks: Me, Finn (16), Molly (13), Tim and Kiko (18)
Team Kirks: Me, Finn (16), Molly (13), Tim and Kiko (18)

This past week, our family was at the Happiest Place on Earth: Family Camp at La Casa de Maria in Montecito, CA. We’ve been back for three days, but I’m just now coming home to Gabacho Drive, here in sunny San Diego. I’ve been working and cooking and cleaning, but until this afternoon, I was just going through the motions. My head was in the clouds and my heart was broken, with pieces of it scattered across the state, carried off by the people I love. Some of them I’ve known since the day they (or I) were born, some I met just last week.

Heartbreak is a funny thing, because it can happen by Love or sorrow, with tears of joy, or pain. But both kinds take time to heal and regardless of the cause, you are never the same again. After three days of centering prayer and reading, after seeing and talking to my people back home, most of my heart is back in my chest, but not all of of it. That’s one of my favorite things about camp; if your heart is open and you are willing, you never know how you will be put back together again.

I’ve written a few times about Family Camp- you can catch up here and here – but to be clear, here are a few more things you should know.

  • My family goes to Family Camp, but Family Camp isn’t just for my family. Some of us share a name, or DNA, but most of us don’t.
  • It is called a Christian family retreat, but that doesn’t mean it’s denominational, evangelical, or fundamentalist. Our “fundamentals” are Love, forgiveness, inclusion, acceptance and healing, as exemplified by Jesus the Christ, but our “good news” is that we’re all in, baby!
  • Unlike retreats put on by industry professionals, Family Camp is run by a team of volunteer families who draw on their own gifts, experiences, faith and forty years of tradition to create a safe place for families to draw closer to each other and God.

I had two opportunities to speak and share my ideas this past week, and many opportunities to listen and learn and since you weren’t all at Family Camp with me, I thought I’d share a few of these moments with you. Today will just be something I shared, but I hope to gather a few more thoughts from my friends who also spoke.

The theme for this past week was Seasons: the seasons of the year and the seasons of our life, what they offer us and how we might approach them. We began with Summer, worked our way through Autumn, and Winter before being reborn in Spring. The artwork and presentations were beautiful in really creative and non-professional ways and I don’t mean that as a dis to our team, as much as a reminder that we aren’t putting on a show, so much as creating a loving, but imperfect home.

Our family, along with my brother and his wife, was in charge of talking about Summer, which was perfect. Summer is our season, our jam, our raison d’etre. We are surfers, swimmers, lifeguards. We love water and waves, the sandier and saltier the better. As you can imagine, we talked about Joy; we talked about Abundance; we talked about Sabbath and Gratitude. But we kept it real; we also talked about all the less pleasant seasons that come before summer, the winters when you are frozen by disappointment and fear, and the springs that melt your heart just a little bit. We also admitted the downside of clinging to the summer season and resenting anything that darkens our days. (Mea Culpa!)

For my own growth and benefit, that’s what I tried to focus on in my talk – how to be grateful, everyday, for every moment, and every season, no matter what kind of weather I’m in. It’s a practice I’m working on, all the time, and I thought I’d share it with all of you.

Gratitude for Seasons 2015

This past year, I began studying the mystics from the 17th century Spain – John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila – and while they are beloved by many in the Catholic Church and everyone raves about them, I don’t think most people have actually read them. I think they love the idea of them, the quotes that have been pulled out and put on holy cards, or the saint’s lives they heard about them growing up. I think this is true, because when I actually read John and Theresa’s work, I really struggled with them, especially with their depictions of God. This God they loved so much was a God who would come and then go, who loved them and then left them, who seemed to punish and then reward them. I just didn’t get it. While I understand that is what we feel like God is doing sometimes, it isn’t what I actually believe is true about our unchangeable, all-loving God and so I brought my questions to my spiritual director and after we talked about them for while, she said, “If you want to know what God is actually like, look at nature. If you can find a parallel there, it will be true.”

Now, I don’t know if that is entirely accurate, but I started looking and it did help me see God in a new way, in the joyful nurturing of the small, wild animals in my yard, in the majesty of the NASA photos I follow on Instagram, in the vastness of the ocean I float in, but especially through the seasons. There are times in our year when the sun is closer and there is warmth and abundance and seemingly never-ending days. The nights come, but they are moderate in temperature and short in length. But there are also times when the earth has moved away from the sun and darkness seems to be prevalent, and it is uncomfortably cold, and nothing grows and we struggle to survive and we feel like it’s the end of the line for us and sometimes we feel abandoned and angry, or scared.

But it isn’t the sun (or God) that has changed positions, but the earth (or us) who moved. And it isn’t like the earth moved away because it was bad, or mad, or mistaken, or sinful. It just did; it’s the natural, cosmic pattern; it’s the way the universe works. You can count on it and this pattern is actually the very thing that allows life to exist, for our world and for our own selves to grow and evolve and thrive. Perpetual summer would lead to death, just like a perpetual ice age.

And of course, in addition to summers and winters, there are all the in-between times – the falls and springs that have their own beauty and their own pain, but whatever season we are in, we know that it is not the last season; there is another one right on it’s heels, as soon as we get comfortable and used to the one we’re in, or right when we think we can’t stand it for another day, for better and for worse, the season will change; life will move on.

At the very beginning of our day, we talked about the fact that summer time for a lot of people is about JOY. It’s about moments of unbridled laughter and bare feet and sweet, cold ice cream and family reunions. It’s also about ABUNDANCE – the sense of the “enoughness” of life that comes about in this season – that all the things we really need are actually right here, even if it’s just taking a deep breath standing outside with your feet in the grass and the setting sun on your face. Tim talked a lot about the concept of Sabbath – of learning to take a break and protect your down time, so that each day is filled with the things that really matter. (I’ll catch up on that part later.)

And so if we are in a SUMMER time of abundance and joy and we have the sabbath space and time to reflect, then the natural response of our heart is going to be gratitude. And that’s what I want to talk about today.

Gratitude is one of those words and concepts that has been talked about so much and is so overused that I was tempted to chuck the whole concept.

Kids- How many times have you been told by your parents, “How about a little gratitude? Quit being so ungrateful! Who has a grateful heart?”

Parents – How many times, in your hardest parenting moments, have you heard the voice in your head reminding you how LUCKY you are to have kids, even when they are screaming at the top of their lungs and leaking fluids from every orifice? How grateful you should be for every moment of their young lives, because time flies by? And how you will never get these days back to be grateful for every one of them?

Sometimes, we hear the word and we just go, “ugh.”  But Gratitude is so important that I thought I’d try to bring a fresh perspective to it, because it is going to be a theme of the week- finding something to be grateful for, something to appreciate about each season of life we are in – no matter what it is, or what’s going on.

So I went where I always go for good ideas and found a TED talk by David Steindl-Rast, an Austrian Benedictine monk and he asked a really good question of his audience and I’m going to ask it of all of you.

Brother David Stendhal-Rast
Brother David Steindl-Rast

He asked, “Are happy people grateful, or are grateful people happy?”

The answer is YES. They are both true, but not in the way we might originally think. Our default setting, our instincts tell us that if you are happy, you will be grateful. And if you are happy, it’s because you probably have a lot of things going right for you, but that is dead wrong. Some of the most miserable people in the world are the ones who seem to have the most to be happy about! They have all the money, the opportunity, all the privilege, all the connections and fame in the world. Everything the media tells us will make us happy doesn’t move the needle a bit.

And sometimes the happiest people in the world have almost nothing.

Gratitude is the X factor. It doesn’t matter how much or how little you have. If you have gratitude, you can be happy.

You can’t choose to be happy, but you can choose to be grateful and if you start with gratitude, and live in a space of gratefulness, you will be happy.

And summer is a time when it’s easier to be grateful, for many of us anyway and especially most of us under the age of 18, who get to be on summer vacation, or those of us who live in California.

Because gratitude comes in two forms –

Sometimes gratitude happens spontaneously and we call these – Gratitude Events.

A gratitude event is when we receive a gift – something we value – freely. We didn’t earn it, expect it, work for it; it just showed up. So that might be a really generous birthday gift from our parents, or an invitation to the movies and a sleepover from a new friend, or flowers from our spouse, but a Gratitude Event could also be a beautiful sunset, the smile of a newborn baby, or a spontaneous hug and kiss from our normally reserved kid. In those moments, gratitude just springs from our souls. Out of nowhere, a gift was given and our natural response is an upwelling of gratitude.

For me, summer is full of those Gratitude Events. I won’t even list them all here, but you saw a lot of them in Tim’s video. Readers, you don’t have to watch the video, but it does capture some of my very favorite moments of being a part of Team Kirks.

Whatever your internal thermometer is that tells you “your special season” – mine is set to summer. How many of you know what I am talking about? It’s like your Gratitude Event Meter is just pinging over and over again, all day long. How many of you have your gratitude event meter going off the charts in summer? How about Christmas time? Fall? The riot of color in a garden in spring? We all have a season, in the year and in our lives, when it’s easy to be grateful and that’s awesome.

A sharp spike in our Gratitude Meter makes it so easy to be grateful and happy, but it’s unsustainable and so when the events aren’t rolling in, we can tend to get sad, feel deprived, or depressed and that’s a problem. And when it takes more and more to surprise us and make us feel grateful, that’s a problem too. How many of you have friends who seem to have everything they could want, certainly everything you want, and yet, they aren’t happy? They’re Gratitude Event setting is way too high.

That’s why  the other type of gratitude is even more important. According to every religion, every spiritual authority, every faith tradition, every positive psychologist,

We need to learn Grateful Living – which is realizing that EVERY moment of our lives is a gift from the Universe, a gift from God.

It’s something we didn’t earn. Every breath we take is a gift, and if we can learn to be grateful for that breath and then move even beyond that, we realize that in every moment we have the opportunity to find something more to be grateful for.

Paul Williams – the guy who wrote “Rainbow Connection,” Kermit’s theme song – is a recovering addict – who’s been sober for 24 years now and he wrote a whole book called Gratitude and Trust and he said that apart from his children, his sobriety – just waking up and breathing and existing on his own, without any assistance from drugs and alcohol – is what he is most proud of. After hitting rock bottom, he said,

“I’m grateful for everything that has happened in my life – the good and the bad.” And that’s the way he lives his life.  “If you’re in a car wreck, you’re grateful no one got hurt. If someone got hurt, you’re grateful they didn’t die; if they die, you’re grateful for the chance to know them. It’s expandable – gratitude – one size fits all, so put it in your heart and use it.”

That’s the thing about gratitude. You only need to start with one small ounce of it and it immediately begins to build on itself. If you can find one thing to be grateful for, you can find another and another.

I want to share this poem by Carrie Newcomer with you. Though I read the poem during my talk, click on the link here to hear Carrie read it herself. Seriously, watch the video below. Hit start, close your eyes and enjoy ninety seconds of her beautiful voice, reminding you of all the simple, precious things in a life.

And after the poem, look at this.

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People who wonder if the glass is half full or half empty miss the point. The glass is refillable. 

Whatever you want in your glass – you’ve got it and if you want more of it, it’s on the way. If it’s Joy or Gratitude, or Resentment, or Anger, or Envy, you’ve got it. It’s your glass. Each of us get to decide what gets poured in our glass.

As the mystic, Theresa of Avila,  said, “It’s heaven all the way to heaven and hell all the way to hell.” (And yes, that’s the mystic who drove me crazy just last year!)

You want more happiness, gratitude, abundance in your life? Just fill it up! It may sound stupid, but it is a proven psychological phenomenon. Gratitude is an ever-expanding emotion. If you can find just one thing to focus on and be grateful for, then you will find another and another and another. Like Carrie Newcomer’s poem, it builds from just one simple deep breath when you can say, ”I am grateful for this breath, for the fact that I am alive and in this moment, I am not suffering. There is nothing I need.” Richard Rohr defines suffering as “anytime you are not in control.” We can all think of a dozen ways we are “suffering” right now, but we can also close our eyes, take a deep breath and realize that right here, in this moment, we have an abundance of everything we need – warmth, air, food, hydration, companionship, rest. We might not be suffering at all.

David Steindl-Rast said the practice of Grateful Living can be taught, just like we were taught to cross the street when we were kids –What do you do when you get to the curb?  You STOP, and then what? You LOOK both ways and then you GO.

stoplookgo

The reason we don’t all live gratefully and therefore happily is that most of us – not necessarily most of us here, but maybe some of us here- forget to stop. Just like it said on the Time

Seriously, who killed it? We did.
Seriously, who killed it? We did.

magazine cover – we GO GO GO. All the world is go go go. And to be truly happy, which is to be grateful, we need to stop, instead of rushing through everything, trying to get to the next thing on our list, on our way to our goals. Steindl-Rast suggested we make stop signs for ourselves to remind us to take a deep breath. They can be mental ones – like prayers – when we wake, or at dinner, or bed time – when we can find, not just a general thank you, but a specific thank you. But they can be actual stop signs too. When he came back from living in Africa, he didn’t want to forget what a miracle it was to have clean, running water again, so he put a hand-written stop sign on his water faucet and on his light switch to remind him of the miracles of his life. We could put one on our mirror – dirty clothes hamper – steering wheel – computer screen at work. Once we have stopped and taken that first breath in front of the very thing that we take for granted, for which we can be grateful, even if it aggravates us, we can look around and find something else to be grateful for – the clean water, the electricity, the semi- healthy body that gets us around, even if it has wrinkles, the too many clothes we have to get dirty,  and the washing machine we have to clean them, the car, the job, all of it and finally we GO; we embrace the moment and find JOY in it. When we enjoy it for that moment, it’s possible to have that gratitude inform and affect the rest of our day.

One of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, says it beautifully and simply:

Of course, Brene Brown shared the idea. She's full of ideas.
Of course, Brene Brown shared the idea. She’s full of ideas.

In virtually every moment, there is something to be grateful for. That does not mean we have to be grateful for the bad things, the evil and tragic things. I don’t believe that. And if we find gratitude in the midst of bad things, it doesn’t mean we are glad they happened, or that the good outweighs the bad. It just means that even in this tragedy, in the midst of this hate, I can find some glimmer of Love, some glimpse of God. I think that’s what Jesus did on the cross when he asked God to forgive his murderers. Forgive them God. He found something to overcome the negative, even in his last breath, so that he could say in trust – Into your hands I commend my spirit.

That is how I want to go, gratefully, free of hatred and resentment, and if that is the way I want to go, then that is the way I want to live.

A line from recovery that I’ve heard is that you get to keep the gift by giving it away. And believe it or not, that is true of joy and gratitude, and love and kindness too. It’s been proven that it is almost impossible to sustain positive feelings if you keep them to yourself. You can keep your anger, your hatred, your resentment and doubts, all to yourself, all day, every day and they will grow and fester and flourish, but that’s because they are burdens. Gifts – love, joy, happiness – multiply if they are shared, given away and the more abundantly you share them, the more you have, until you finally realize there is more than enough.

So I have one final thought. and as a mother, I know it’s true: we protect what we love.

And I would just like us to think about the fact that if we aren’t consciously grateful and aware of the preciousness of the things we love, then our love can become habitual, and possibly even taken for granted, like a favorite old sweater, or stuffed animal, or favorite childhood story. You love it, but from distance, in your memory, or the image of what that thing is. And so staying actively grateful – conscious of the specific, ever-evolving nature of the people we love and the things that bring us joy, the people and things that make us feel whole, alive, excited – is so important. If we forget to love them actively, then we will forget to protect them in our hearts and minds, and even especially with our time. We want to Love well, protect well, enjoy and appreciate our lives and our relationships well, because we know what can happen if we don’t. We see it everywhere, all over – in families, neighborhoods and nations and across the world.

I want to end with this song, “Grateful,” by a man named Nimo Patel, who has devoted his life to sharing a message of Love, service and gratitude. I especially love the chorus, which goes like this: All that I am/ All that I see/ All that I’ve ever been and all I’ll ever be/ Is a blessing/ It’s so amazing/ And I’m grateful for it all.

I’m grateful for it all. 

For all of you: for old friends and new, for the family we are and the family we will become, for the life I have and the life I have yet to live, I am grateful. I have failed and will fail a million more times, but “There’s a million things to be grateful for,” and I don’t want to miss a moment, caught in fear, or self-pity, or resentment. So, every day,  I will try to stop and breathe, look and go, hopefully, in gratitude.

Remember that broken heart I talked about at the beginning of this blog? More than anything else at Family Camp this year, my heart was broken open by gratitude for the people I met, the Love I experienced, the stories and laughter and tears we shared. I was fully me, fully alive and aware of every gift: every baby’s smile, every toddler’s tears, every teen’s presence and every friend’s fierce hug and I thank you for it all.

If you are interested in learning more about Family Camp at La Casa de Maria, you can go to the website here. 

Storytellers: Family Retreat 2014

On Sunday, my family returned from our week at La Casa de Maria Family Retreat. I’ve written about Family Retreat before, what it means to us and what it could mean to all of you. You can catch up here.

The theme for Family Camp 2014 was Storytellers. We covered a lot of ground in five days. We began with the premise that our stories are all a part of God’s story and worked from there. None of us are excluded, no journey or character is too small, or insignificant. We talked about the stories we love, the ones we tell ourselves to get by and the stories we hide behind. We talked about Love stories we embrace and the ones we’d rather forget. We gathered each day with the premise that listening itself is an act of love. (Thanks Storycorp!)

Though I spoke throughout the week on a variety of topics, my favorite talk, the one closest to my heart, came on Thursday, when we open up the floor to any storyteller who wants to share. In those moments, before I handed off the mic, I was able to explore a theme that has been the focus of much of my journey over the last several months and years: the relationship between Fear and Freedom.

The theme of the day was inspired by Momastery.com. This is their image.

sacred-scared1

The words that follow are the ones I spoke last Thursday at Family Retreat.

“Until Glennon Melton put those two words together, I had no idea they were related, but after I saw it, I wondered how I could have missed it.

Sometimes, the stories that are the most sacred to us, the most holy, the most personal, are the ones we are the most scared to tell. What if someone doesn’t understand, or respect our story? What if they judge us, or treat us differently after we share it? What if our story includes something we did wrong, or that we don’t have a resolution for yet? It can be really scary to tell our story, because we don’t have the answer to those questions.

Trust me when I tell you that it was really scary for many members of our team this week to get up and share their stories. We’ve done some things right, but we’ve also done plenty of things wrong and there were no guarantees on how you would experience it, or react to us after we shared it.

But we chose to be story tellers, because of those two words up there. The parts of our stories that we are the most scared of can only become sacred, or holy, if we share them. If we keep our stories hidden inside us, God can’t use them to bless others. Only by overcoming our fear and sharing our life stories do they become sacred – tools that God uses to bless others and the world. When we share our stories, it also gives others an opportunity to bless us with their love and compassion.

That’s what today is about – sharing our Sacred/Scared stories.

The great Maya Angelou who died last year said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” And I believe it. And I believe the main reason we hold those untold stories inside of us is because we are afraid.

I’ve been told that the most frequent command from God in the Bible is “Fear Not!” I’ve heard it appears well over 100 times. The association I have with the line “Fear not” is from one story in particular. Anybody want to guess which one? THE ANNUNCIATION, of course. So I never thought of “Fear Not!” actually being a command that God wants us to keep. I always thought “Fear Not!” was a command that really only applied because an angel had appeared and scared the heck out of you.

But over the last few years, I’m beginning to learn differently. It isn’t “Fear Not! This super extraterrestrial being who just appeared out of nowhere won’t hurt you!” It’s “Fear Not. I am with you.” And that is a very different thing.

I used to think fear was normal. I used to think fear was a tool God used to keep us in line, to keep us safe, or to keep us from making bad choices. But I don’t think that’s it any more. God has way better tools at God’s disposal than Fear.

Fear keeps us imprisoned; fear paralyzes us. It could be fear of anything – of injury, of judgment, of failure, of sadness, of conflict, of solitude, of rejection. And God tells us over and over again to “Fear Not.”

At one time, I would have been hard-pressed to say what the opposite of fear was. In my mind, the opposite of fear was just being “Not Afraid,” being in your comfort zone.

But now I know that the opposite of Fear is FREEDOM. Freedom to take off the mask. Freedom to be ourselves. Freedom to speak our truth. Freedom to share our story. Freedom to step into our story, the one God has had on offer for us all along.

This week I heard other storytellers say that same thing.

The song and music video, “Try,” was about being free from the fear of how we look without our makeup on and what our culture thinks about female beauty. (Readers, if you have not seen it, take the time to watch it!)

Rachel shared in her story on Tuesday that in her vision of God reaching out to her, the word over the white column was “Freedom.”

While Todd and Amanda were a little afraid they were falling in love and afraid to tell everyone, their story could never blossom into the love affair that changed both of their lives and set them free to write a new chapter.

The theme of Chase’s song “Leave” last night in the talent show was that he needed to be free and Ali needed to let him be free. As a mother, as someone who loved him, she encouraged him over and over to “Kick down the walls of resistance” that were imprisoning him.

I don’t think those are just coincidences. Freedom is the key to any story inspired by God.

Just the other day, I heard Erwin McManus, the founder of the Mosaic church, say that when he’s asked about who will have life after death, he says it’s the people who have life BEFORE death. We do not have life if we are afraid.

Freedom is God’s desire for us. Not freedom to commit sin, to act without consequences, to tell lies, to live our lives however we want, but rather Freedom from the lies we tell ourselves. Freedom from sin which always rears its ugly head when we are living a false story, the one that tells us we are separate from God.

Fear makes us Scared. Freedom allows us to make our lives Sacred.

Twenty-three years ago, when I got pregnant with my daughter Sarah and gave her up for adoption, I was terrified of people finding out. I did everything I could to keep her existence a secret from virtually everyone I knew and for almost a decade, virtually everyone I met. As long as I was scared to tell that story, it was not truly sacred. While I was afraid, I was never free.

And the person I was most afraid of telling that story to was my future husband. The story I was telling myself was that I was damaged goods. I was afraid I was unworthy. When I was 19 years old and pregnant, I was already afraid of my future story. And ironically, or rather, perfectly in God’s way, God set me free from that story when I was seven months pregnant and met Tim. I never had to tell the story again.

The Truth set me free and when I was brave enough to share my story with others, it set others free as well.

When I finally started to share my Sacred/Scared, many girls have come to me pregnant, unsure of what to do, but who look at my story as one of possibility and redemption. But it didn’t start that way. It started with me, sitting in my scared and them, sitting in their scared, with no possibility of a sacred Love to be born.

Today we are asking all of you, the Storytellers who have been among us all week, but who haven’t gotten a chance to share a story with us yet, to come on up and share a story. It might be scary; but I promise you, it can be sacred. It will be a little of both, but we are here, knowing that “Listening is an act of Love,” one that we all want to participate in.

So please, if you have a Sacred/Scared to share, if you feel that little flutter in your chest, please consider sharing your story with us. Today is your day. It doesn’t need to be long; it doesn’t need to life changing. But if you would like to share, we’d like to hear it and be blessed by it.

Thank you.”

Many people got up and shared their Sacred/Scared on that day. It was powerful to watch the transformation in their bodies as they moved from Fear to Freedom. It was powerful to watch everyday people doing God’s work here on earth, embracing the storytellers with unconditional Love and support. I can’t share Thursday’s stories here, because they are not my stories to tell. We can only, ever, tell our own truth and allow others to tell their own, but I will say this:

It does not matter if we are rich or poor, strong or weak, male or female, old or young, gay or straight, black or white. If we look at our stories honestly, we will all find ourselves in the characters Jesus healed and set free with his forgiveness: the lepers, the lame, the woman at the well, the Lazarus in the tomb, and perhaps, most especially, the disciples who abandoned him.

And if we understand that our stories follow the pattern of the Christ, we will also reach out and set others free. It may be by feeding the hungry, comforting the afflicted, lifting up the oppressed, or simply standing in loving acceptance of each other, until such time as our assistance and opinion is desired.

The Scared can only become Sacred if unconditional Love is the primary directive and that is what I love about Family Retreat at La Casa de Maria. For over 40 years, the experience has brought families to greater Love and greater freedom. It has helped them tell better stories. Those stories have changed their lives, homes, communities and the wider world. Family retreat is the light on a hill, the mustard seed that grows, the yeast that changes everything and I, for one, am going back next year.

 

There’s No Place Like Home

The Entrance to La Casa de Maria Retreat and Conference Center
The Entrance to La Casa de Maria Retreat and Conference Center

Traditionally, today is the saddest day of the year for our family. Barring any major tragedies during the year, the third Monday of July breaks our collective heart open and grounds us back into reality. It is our first day home from Family Retreat.

As I was packing last Saturday, I posted on Facebook that we were headed to “The Happiest Place on Earth,” and I wasn’t talking about Disneyland. La Casa de Maria Retreat Center is a perfect gathering place, nestled in the hills of Montecito, just outside Santa Barbara, CA. Even Oprah thinks so. One of her favorite vacation homes is just a few miles away. The weather is a perfect 75 degrees most days with cooler nights. The fog rolls in off the Pacific Ocean to blanket your morning walks and prayers, but burns off before lunch to warm the rest of your day. Ancient trees soar overhead; a creek trickles by and gentle wildlife surrounds you.

For one week each year, our family, along with dozens of others, gathers for what has frequently been described as a glimpse of “Heaven on Earth.” From Sunday evening until Friday at noon, there is Sabbath and there is God. From the moment of arrival, we are new family, Family Camp 2013 gathered together in the spirit of Love. There is neither catholic, nor protestant, sinner, or saint, leader, or follower, woman, or man, married, divorced, or single. In this holy place, we are “all in all” in God. One man, a Christian pastor and new to Family Retreat, looked at me after a few days and said, “This must be a bit like heaven. Look at the abundance.” And it’s true. There is an abundance of Love, of food and laughter, rest and activity, fun and friends (who quickly become like family). There are ideas to fill your head and stories to change your heart. There is the palpable presence of the Holy Spirit at work, though the name of God is not on every tongue. What need is there for words, when actions speak so much louder?

At Family Retreat, everyone belongs. Older children care for younger and the young care for the old. Technology is mostly missing and as a result, parents, teens and toddlers engage with each other and move beyond their comfort zones. Children roam free on the acreage, independent, but safe under the eyes of dozens of concerned adults.  IMG_0060_2There is no speaker-driven lecture series, or one set of answers. There is no prescribed set of Bible verses, as interpreted by one pastor, or faith tradition. There are stories told, personal truths shared, music played and a multitude of gifts and personalities on display. A volunteer team of returning families does their collective best to present a new theme each year, a framework of ideas about God and Christ and Love and how to become better, stronger families, more able to survive and thrive in the world and the many pressures it applies to us all. Instead of breaking us apart, Family Retreat teaches us how to stay together and hopefully gives us the courage to return to our “other” homes and live out our heavenly values there, for the other 360 days of the year. It gets harder and harder as time goes by, which is why so many families return year after year.

Apart from what it feels like, Family Retreat is also heavenly in the sense that it is ecumenical in the best sense of the word. We celebrate the best of each tradition, from the Catholic mass to Protestant music, liturgical and free-form prayer. We gather to be one Church and to worship God, focusing on what we have in common, instead of what could divide us. And just like heaven, Family Retreat welcomes all types. IMG_0094Though there may be a few “angels” among us, most of us are just real human beings with too much flesh and a lot of blood, coursing through our veins. We have dreams and disappointments, joys and sorrows, demons we struggle with. We are unique, but we share a belief in the creative power, healing presence and ability of Love to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things and endure all things. We trust that Love will never fail to do its work, if we are present and open to it.

One of my favorite songs is U2’s “Walk On,” a song about the end of a life and a soul’s journey to heaven. They say Heaven is “a place that has to be believed to be seen.” Family Retreat at La Casa de Maria is one of those places. No matter how often we tell other people about our second home in Montecito, no matter how many times we invite them to join us, very few have ever accepted the invitation. They simply can’t believe such a place exists, or that they would feel comfortable there. Perhaps they prefer the security of the Law to the messiness of Love. Perhaps it is simply a matter of logistics, or maybe, just maybe, it sounds too much like a cult whose Kool-Aid we’ve been drinking.

IMG_0040Let me assure you, there is no Kool-Aid, just Minute Maid fruit punch and Coca-Cola products in the cafeteria drink machine. There is a swimming pool and a tennis court, a consecrated chapel and a Peace Garden. There is a ping-pong tournament and a talent show. There are family meals, but no dishes to do. There is farm-fresh produce and home-grown wisdom and this blog is my invitation to you. Come and see for yourself how average men and women, children, old and young, families, big and small, can find a glimpse of “heaven on earth” by the grace of God and the power of Love.

If you’ve experienced Family Retreat, use the comments area below to share your stories, or memories. Help me spread the good news!