Home Is Where the Heart Is

How many times have you moved? I counted up the moves I have made since going away to college and it adds up to seven. That includes a move from Chicago to Milwaukee. The east side of Milwaukee to the Sherman Park area. A move to Wauwatosa. A move to a house in Elm Grove, a condo, and then back to a house. Looking back on all these moves, it makes me realize more than ever that home really is where the heart lies. It’s not about the bricks and mortar. We can get very sentimental about the places we have lived. The first home we inhabited as a married couple. The first home we bought or rented with our hard-earned money. The home that welcomed the babies. The home that celebrated the promotion. The home the trolley pulled up to on the day of the wedding. The home that entertained the grandbabies. The home that echoes with a quiet that is well earned. A quiet where we can rest with God. That last home is where we moved my mother-in-law, Janice, last week. A year ago, she was still providing the 28 of us with a delicious Thanksgiving feast. She turned 90 in May and after a few scary falls and a deterioration of her eyesight, she made a very courageous decision. She told us, “It was time.”  We didn’t have to initiate her move, she did that herself. And for that we love her even more. She moved from her love worn, five-bedroom home in the quaint farming community of Mineral Point to a small but ample room in an assisted living facility very near her hometown. There have been a steady stream of phone calls and visitors since she moved in.  A testimony to her big heart. When my husband and I visited her last week, we took her back to the big house so she could check on things and my husband could dismantle the shrine of trophies and medals and high school mementos that still collected dust in his old room. As we were walking out the back door, I realized the truth in that saying. Home really is where the heart is.  She takes home with her wherever SHE is. She is home. 2 Corinthians 5:1 says, “For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not...

It’s Always Been There

The spectacular fall colors were the perfect backdrop for our Forest Therapy walks at Firstfruits with our gifted guide Allison. (See pictures below.) We learned the valuable practice of slowing down and allowing our senses to come alive to the often-overlooked treasures God provides in nature. The sights, the sounds, the smells, and the textures are signs of God’s tender and thoughtful love for us. Pure gift. We can live without swaying tall grasses, mighty towering trees, hollowed out acorns, and giant puffball mushrooms, but what a boring life that would be. Nature is God’s icing on the cake. As one participant shared, “I can’t believe all of this has always been there and I’m just finding it now.” Finding and learning to love what is right in front of us, and acknowledging God’s fingerprints and footsteps in all of it, is the very foundation of any religious seeing according to Fr. Richard Rohr. And it is the beginning of the path to loving our neighbor. Perhaps once we can see God in plants and animals, we might learn to see God in our neighbors. And then we might learn to love the world. Before they are all gone, take a moment this week to admire the beauty of the leaves. Take in the smells of autumn, touch the prickly remnant of a coneflower or the pale brown whisp of a tall grass, and thank God for his abundant gifts. Joan   For all the great thoughts I have read For all the deep books I have studied None has brought me nearer to Spirit Than a walk beneath shimmering leaves. Golden red with the fire of autumn When the air is crisp And the sun a pale eye, watching. I am a scholar of the senses. A theologian of the tangible. Spirit touches me and I touch Spirit Each time I lift a leaf from my path A thin flake of fire golden red Still warm from the breath that made it. Choctaw elder Steven Charleston...

The Old Maid

Halloween is right around the corner. That time of year when a drive around the neighborhood sends chills down your spine. It seems like the appropriate time to devote a blog to someone else who used to send chills down my spine.  His name starts with a “D” and ends with “evil”. I usually don’t like to give him a great deal of press, he’s not worth it. But it is wise, once in a while, to remind ourselves of his presence and the importance of being aware of just how he works. I’ve always had a very stereotypical image in my mind whenever I heard the word devil. But not anymore, thanks to a dream I had the other night.  He showed up as an old lady in a red nightgown with glasses and a big gray bouffant hairdo, like the Old Maid in that classic children’s card game. In my dream I knew it was the devil. She was trying to scare me, so I picked her up and stuffed her into a trash chute. You know, the kind that you often find in apartment buildings. Then I woke up. I pondered what the Old Maid disguise was all about. How odd to see the devil as a cute old grandma. Then, it hit me. It illustrated what the devil’s most powerful and evil trick is. Deception. Most often, that deception comes when we allow ourselves to be tempted down the path of wild imaginings. We imagine someone thinks badly of us. We imagine something bad is going to happen to us or to someone we love. We imagine the test result will be malignant. We imagine our spouse has been unfaithful. We imagine our co-workers are talking about us behind our back. We imagine everyone else is smarter, happier, more capable, more interesting, more productive, and just plain more, than we are. Before we know it, these imaginings become our truth. We’ve let the Old Maid move in when we should have stuffed her in the trash chute. How helpless and vulnerable we can feel when we let ourselves be fooled. How much unnecessary fear, sadness, and anger we can rouse in ourselves and others when we believe what isn’t the truth. When we believe our wild imaginings. It’s at those times that we have lost sight of God’s truth. We need to refocus on the One who can show us the truth. The...

Our Powerful Wiring

No doubt we’ve all been troubled by the news lately. Reports of such evil is almost too much for us to wrap our brains around. With the advances in communication, war is so up close and personal. It’s not happening across the globe; it’s happening across our living room. The question we ask ourselves is “how can I help.” In addition to monetary aid and prayer, lots of prayer, I often hear people say peace begins with each of us. If we want peace in the world, we need to bring peace to our worlds first. I believe that in theory, but often wondered how it looks in practice. I have never had luck with just wishing myself to be peaceful. I have tried consciously beginning my day with the intent of being kind, compassionate, and selfless to everyone I encountered, but often that didn’t last past lunch. It’s not easy to bring peace and joy to others when you don’t have it yourself. In preparing for a presentation at Firstfruits last week, I did a lot of reading on our nervous system, in particular, the findings of Dr. Stephen Porges. He is the author of the Polyvagal Theory which is used in modern psychotherapy. Three of his theories I found fascinating. Our nervous system is constantly on watch to keep us safe. Not just physically, but emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.  When we come in contact with another person our nervous systems are communicating. Through signals like tone of voice, head movements, and eye contact, our nervous system is letting our brain know if this person is safe, if I can connect with them or not. There are three predictable states that our nervous system is in at any given time. Ventral, Sympathetic, and Dorsal. Ventral is what our bodies long for: peace, ease, organized purposeful energy, and joy. Sympathetic is when we become overwhelmed and get pulled out of Ventral. It is characterized by stress, unorganized chaotic energy, and desperation. Dorsal is when we shut down. We need each other to regulate our nervous systems. We can help each other find our way to the state of peace, ease, joy, and purpose. But before we can help another, we have to help ourselves. Why all this scientific mumbo jumbo? I think it’s the answer to how we start to bring peace to our world and ultimately help bring peace to the big...

The “E” Word

My friend, Martha, who I have known since kindergarten, received the Vatican II award last night from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee along with 13 others. I attended the event to support her. It is quite an accomplishment. The Vatican II awards were established in 1991 to honor men, women, and young adults who exemplify the Catholic Church’s vision set forth in the Second Vatican Council. It was encouraging and inspiring to hear the stories of so many dedicated lay and religious men and women who have given of their time and gifts to the Church, especially in this unprecedented time as the Church struggles to keep us in the pews. Or bring us back to the pews. Brandon Vogt, Senior Content Director for Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, has written a book entitled Return. In it, he lists the top three reasons people gave for leaving the Catholic Church according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s study entitled "Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S." Those reasons were: Just gradually drifted away from the religion. (71%) Stopped believing in the religion’s teaching. (65%) Spiritual needs not being met. (43%) It surprised me that it wasn’t specific instances or negative experiences in the Church that caused them to leave, it was more insidious and almost like a slow death of the seeds of faith that were planted long ago. A longing to nurture and grow those seeds that wasn’t recognized and attended to. What is needed to sustain, nurture, and grow those seeds of faith? Real encounters with a living, personal God. The anecdote to this spiritual malaise is a personal encounter with the living Christ. We need to provide that for each other in addition to the ways the Church provides. We are all called to evangelize others in response to our own awakening. I know that “E” word might cause you to pause but there are many ways to evangelize that don’t involve shouting “repent” through a bullhorn on a street corner or even saying the word God. I love this definition of evangelize: “To talk about how good you think something is.” What if we all talked about how good our lives are when they are tethered to God? How good it feels to know you are never alone in the challenges of life? How restful we can be when we realize we don’t have...

Always Be You

Have you ever wondered what it was about Jesus that made him draw crowds of people around him wherever he went? He seemed to effortlessly form groups of followers. He constantly had people pressing upon him for his attention and his time. So much so that often he had to retreat to a quiet place. Even his enemies were drawn to hear him speak. What was his secret?  There were many character traits that Jesus had that could have been the reason for his ability to draw others, but there is one that I think stood out. His authenticity. Being authentic means staying true to who you are, what you do, and who you serve.  True to one’s own personality, values, and sprit, regardless of the pressure that you are under to act otherwise. Why do we like authentic people? One answer I found said, “Authentic people instill a sense of trust. You trust that what they say and do, is based on how they really think and feel.”  How authentic are you? How authentic am I? Sociologist Erving Goffman believed that our life as human beings could be seen through the metaphor of the theater. We are actors playing various roles to different audiences - audiences that also include ourselves. So, through this perspective when we encounter another person in interaction, we attempt to guide and form the impression that the other person will have about us by “acting” in a way consistent with the impression we want the other person to make. We dress in particular ways, we talk in particular ways, and we do specific things to accomplish the purpose of forming the impression that we want other people to have about us. Did Jesus care about what kind of impression he was making on others? Did he weigh the cost of his authenticity? Did he dress differently, talk differently, or act differently depending on his audience? He may have tailored his message to better relate with the audiences he was speaking to, but who he was, what he did, and who he served never changed. Regardless of the pressures he faced to be someone different, he remained true to his real self. His life’s purpose never wavered.  So much of our troubles come when we veer off course and allow ourselves to give in to what the world tells us we should be. We believe we are lacking or inadequate which then tempts us...

What Do You See?

The picture above is the cover of my Ponder This book. Fourteen years ago, I put together a book of reflections, much like my blogs. Along with each story were discussion questions. I thought it would be a good resource for small faith sharing groups so I asked a group of friends if they would try it out. They gathered one summer evening in the back yard of one of the participants. Shortly after the discussion started, one of the women noticed an image on the fencepost that encircled the air conditioning unit next to the patio where they were gathered. Do you see an image on the fencepost? The image of Mary holding baby Jesus? Whenever I show this photo of that fencepost, which became the cover of my Ponder This book, and ask what people see, I get very interesting answers. Many say they see a bird. Some have seen a moose! Inevitably when I move the image farther away the true image becomes clearer. They needed a different perspective. They needed to shift focus from the details and take in the whole scene. They needed to see the big picture. Once you see it, you can’t not see it. It’s there in your awareness forever. The same is true for our faith life. Once we become aware of the big picture, we can’t not see it. It changes us. Author and minister, Howard Thurman, put it this way, “The central fact in religious experience is the awareness of meeting God. The descriptive words are varied: sometimes, it is called an encounter; sometimes, a confrontation; and sometimes, a sense of Presence.” I remember, early in my faith walk, when I first had the feeling that God was real. I realized God wasn’t only present in church on Sunday, God was everywhere. In every breath, in every smile, in every tear. I remember as my experiences of God being alive and all around me increased so did my awareness of a bigger picture. I sensed that my daily life had become a sacred space. Religious scholar, Mircea Eliade, defines sacred space as a place where there is an in-breaking of divine reality. As I grew in awareness of and openness to the movements of God in my life, I felt like I was losing my grip on reality. I found myself thinking about God more than not.  I was spending more and more time in prayer. I craved...

The Lunchroom Table of Life

I was listening to a podcast recently and they were talking about the visceral response our body gives when we sense that we have been left out, not included. It’s a very real response that is wired in us. And it doesn’t ever go away. Most of the time, we don’t consciously realize what has happened; we just know we aren’t in a place of peace. Since the beginning of time, humans were not meant to be alone. Isolation could lead to death. There was safety and comfort in community.  We aren’t meant to be alone or socially isolated. In fact, there are studies that show that with perceived social isolation come adverse health consequences like depression, poor sleep quality, accelerated cognitive decline, and poor cardiovascular function. When we perceive to be left out, our body lets us know with a strong mental signal. There is nothing wrong with us or fragile about us. It’s the way we are, all of us. Everyone has the same visceral response that needs to be tamed. Some of us are better at that than others. From the birthday party you weren’t invited to in grade school, to the after work get together that no one told you about, or the girls trip you realize you weren’t included in when the pictures show up on Facebook, life is full of moments of perceived “leftoutedness”. It’s inevitable. It’s the shadow side of connection. When we are included and made to feel connected to and prioritized by others, there is a powerful feeling of wellbeing. That side of the coin is powerfully beautiful but the flip side of that coin, that is, not being included, creates just as powerful a feeling that is definitely not beautiful. Sometimes the leftoutedness comes from a deliberate meanness in another, but most of the time, it is an innocent oversight from a good person. It just happens. Our job is to short circuit the wiring. Tame the visceral response we feel when we perceive to be left out. Other people will disappoint us, just as we disappoint others. Only in our relationship with God will we know true, lasting, and complete belonging, acceptance, and inclusivity. At those times when other humans leave us out, we can find comfort and peace knowing we are always God’s first choice. Really. In the big lunchroom table of life, know that you are never going to sit alone. Sometimes God sends...

My Me-treat

The term Staycation has become popular to describe when you vacation, at home. You stay where you are but take a break. I’ve coined a new term for when you are supposed to go on a retreat but end up not being able to go and do your own retreat at home. I call it a Me-treat. I was on a Me-treat this week. I’d highly recommend it. I was supposed to go on a silent retreat this week, but as life would have it, plans changed and I needed to be close to home. My sister-in-law Jean was recently diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer. It has really been a shock to our family.  The situation necessitated surgery as soon as possible so she was scheduled this week. I didn’t feel right going off on retreat, so I decided to retreat at home. For the three days and two nights I was supposed to be gone, I lead myself on a Me-treat. I stayed where I was but took a break. I took a break from my phone, TV, my laptop, my car, my friends, my family, my usual schedule, and my work. I allowed myself to not plan, worry, control, angst, or wear make-up. I kept conversation and food to a minimum. I did this so I would have uninterrupted time to pray. A lot. I prayed mostly for Jean and then for whomever or whatever God put on my heart. I spent a lot of time holed up upstairs with a blanket, a water bottle, a rosary, and some books. I knelt in front of the handmade crucifix I was given by the family of my dear friend and mentor, Rose, when she passed away. When I bring out that crucifix, I mean business. Strangely enough, I found myself drawn to do a lot of deep cleaning on this Me-treat. I would pray for a while then scrub a floor on my hands and knees. (Not my usual technique.) I would then come back to prayer until I felt compelled to clean again. This time scrubbing toilets or dusting places I hadn’t ever dusted before. It was weird but it made me feel like I was doing something concrete in addition to praying. Like I was Mary and Martha rolled into one. It was like I was letting God know I really wanted answers to my prayers. I really wanted him to...

Holy Fun

I have written a few blogs in the past about faces I have seen in my food. There was the banana slice that was smiling at me and the slice of pizza staring at me with those big pepperoni eyes. Because of this, my family and friends have gotten into the habit of sharing with me any pictures they might find of food creatures. My daughter sent me a post with fun faces made from slicing a pepper in half. Of course, I had to try it. As I was grocery shopping for our summer family trip to Door County, I realized I had a red pepper on the list. I knew right away what I needed to do. I packed a pair of edible googly eyes along with my sunscreen and bug spray, just in case I might need them, the eyes that is, and boy was I glad I did. When I cut the red pepper in half that first evening as I was preparing the veggie tray, I wasn’t disappointed. (See the above picture) It was screaming for those googly eyes, literally. We had so much fun with Pepe, as the grandkids named him. He joined us at the table for each meal. On the last day of vacation when we had to clear out the refrigerator, it was tough saying good bye. Although Pepe face wasn’t quite so cute anymore. Time and heat had taken its toll. I’m not sure how this story relates to anything remotely spiritual or God related, exceptI really believe that laughter, fun, and silliness are just as much a reflection of our Godlikeness as piety, productivity, and purpose. Those three “P”s are more often associated with real value. But finding joy and laughter in any situation has just as much value. It’s an integral part of how God made us. It’s just not talked about as often. I don’t recall ever reading about how fun the saints were. Never on a list of holy attributes is fun ever mentioned. It seems strange to even use the word God and fun in the same sentence. But I think we should and I think God would be just fine with that. Let your God fun out this week. Do something fun for someone else. Be the fun you want to see in the world. Rewrite the words of the classic hymn - “Let there be fun on earth and...