Obstacles in our lives come from two sources, and each can define us. Powerful weather events – violent storms, floods, wildfires – inflict change that is outside our control. Less obvious but perhaps more influential are the constraints we impose on ourselves from within.

The stories we tell ourselves are one example of a self-imposed limit. Many of those stories originate with hurtful events that have scarred us or messages of inadequacy that we have adopted and reinforced by repetition – not smart enough, not attractive enough, not good enough. Many of us have carried these stories around for years. What if we could remove those obstacles and tell a new story?

Fear is the second obstruction that most of us face. Who hasn’t worried about being abandoned or embarrassed or failing at something important? Often, our fears block us from stepping out, up or in to our fullness. What if we could move through our fears to acknowledge and embrace our gifts and celebrate the unique person we are?

If you are one who tends to constrict yourself, The Book of Joy may be a good resource. A quick and inspirational read, the book captures five days of conversations between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Each has known incredible hardships imposed from the outside. Spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama has lived much of his life in exile. Spiritual leader of Anglicans in South Africa, Archbishop Tutu has lived much of his life under the system of apartheid.

Each has met those challenges with astounding resilience, revealing the inherent love, goodness and joy within their hearts. Their examples inspire each of us to remove the obstacles that hide the radiance of our own inner light.

 

I am spending time these days sorting through stuff. What to keep and what to release? It is a worthy task for any decade but even more so in our later years.

The accumulation of what we once thought important enough to lug around collides with the knowledge of the way life turned out. Fewer “rainy days” remain, and what is wanted now, much less needed, may not be what we saved long ago.

As a “Jack” of many trades I have collected much: shelves of books; files of weddings, sermons and eulogies from days of ministry; course syllabi and curricula from teaching; plans, proposals and publications from leadership roles; speeches and correspondence.

To be honest, in addition to easing the load on those who must deal with this stuff when I depart, the sorting provides an opportunity to revisit the story I tell myself. Wouldn’t most of us want to emphasize the times when our better angels prevailed?

Then there are the forgotten jewels. During an unsettling transition in my twenties I bought a pricey camera to explore an interest in photography. Two of the boxes I am culling contain slides, negatives, and photos that I developed and printed from that period.

There are family members, friends and landscapes; moments of play and laughter, music and fellowship – images of my life frozen, preserved and now re-presented to delight and refresh an aging memory.

Each still-life frames a gift with which I am blessed – loving relationships, connections to the earth, a quest for meaning and opportunities for service. These treasures reinforce the core values of my story and justify the effort to lug this stuff around all these years.

And you? What is the weight of stuff you carry? Is it a burden or a boon?

 

The power has been out in our community for two days, and our local co-op forecasts that for some of us the outage will last another 24-36 hours. While we in northern New England have learned to prepare for this form of March madness, the blizzard calls us back to basics. I think of two for this post.

The first is how much I take for granted. Focusing first on the mundane: flipping a switch to see in the dark: turning a tap for running water; pressing a handle to flush a toilet; opening the fridge or the freezer for food; taking a hot shower at day’s end.

It doesn’t take long for those mundane daily “dos” to morph into the realization that there are many in our world whose power is perpetually out, who scramble each day for food, shelter and safety. There is also the realization that our power grid is a network that is vulnerable not only to mother nature but to human malevolence.

The second basic lesson derives from the first: gratitude. Peggy and I have shelter and sufficient experience and resources to manage the inconveniences of this outage. We know that dedicated men and women are working under very demanding conditions to restore the power. We also know that neighbors are checking in with each other, especially the elderly, to make sure they have the essentials they need.

The Chinese pictograph for our word “crisis” combines images for “danger” and “opportunity.” The danger accompanying a blizzard holds the opportunity for each of us to stop taking our lives and life styles for granted and return to the ground of gratitude for self-reliance as well as interdependence with others in community.

 

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As part of my daily meditation I read brief selections from various books. One of them in my current cycle is A Year with Rilke translated and edited by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows.

This morning’s reading calls us to examine the knots of our own making. It reminded me that when we fail in our efforts to make things bend our way, when we “push out beyond what we each belong to,” it may be time to return to earth’s intelligence.

With the lengthening daylight heralding spring’s approach, the message seems timely.

How surely gravity’s law, / strong as an ocean current, takes hold of even the smallest thing / and pulls it toward the heart of the world.

Each thing – / each stone, blossom, child – / is held in place. / Only we, in our arrogance, / push out beyond what we each belong to / for some empty freedom.

If we surrendered / to earth’s intelligence / we could rise up rooted, like trees.

Instead we entangle ourselves / in knots of our own making /and struggle, lonely and confused.

So, like children, we begin again / to learn from the things, / because they are in God’s heart; / they have never left him.

The Book of Hours II, 16

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When events overwhelm us, it is helpful to remember that there are only two things we control, our attitude and our effort. Words from a dear friend this week offer an exercise that can elevate our attitudes and what we do with them.

Anne Hillman is a musician, author, educator, speaker and small group facilitator who focuses her work on understanding and nurturing the interior life. In the material she shared from her current Soul Work course the following caught my attention.

It is a meditation from the Sermon on the Mount, incorporating a contemporary interpretation by Philip Newell. I commend it to you.

Contemplation Practice: Healing the Separation

Notice which of the first lines in each couplet jump out at you. If you choose one to contemplate in silence for several days, it may provide insight. Perhaps choose another . . . and another. Listen for what each one means to you—and what you may need to do to live it.

Blessed are those who know their need for theirs is the grace of heaven.

Blessed are those who weep for their tears will be wiped away.

Blessed are the humble for they are close to the sacred earth.

Blessed are those who hunger for earth’s oneness for they will be satisfied.

Blessed are the forgiving for they are free.

Blessed are the clear in heart for they see the Living Presence.

Blessed are the peacemakers for they are born of God.

 The Beatitudes— Matthew 5:3-9

—Interpretation, Philip Newell

 

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While running the rapids called Hell’s Half Mile on the Green River years ago, I was spilled into the depths of a hydraulic hole when our raft caught a rock. Trapped at the bottom, pummeled in the deafening roar of the turbulence and looking up at the light on the surface, my world slipped into slow motion.

The image returns today. Caught in the churn of current events, I struggle to keep my head from debilitating panic and my heart from unsustainable pounding. I am searching for words that will be a life line of perspective to pull me out of the hole and back into the raft.

Born under the sign of Libra, I am disposed to seek balance and harmony, especially when it comes to the scales of justice. The prophet Micah captures it best for me: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

How does one “do” kindness in the face of injustice? When conflict and obstruction replace comity and compromise for the common good? When zero sum reigns supreme, requiring losers so that others may win? When truth is held hostage to alternative universes of spin? When fear fed vilification of “the other” replaces a welcoming light for the stranger?

How can one be true to self and speak truth to power? What are the words that will free our trapped longing to fill our depleted lungs, releasing us the way the Green River freed its captive decades ago?

How do we in this day live the prayer of St. Francis – Lord, make me an instrument of your Peace?

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How many times have you plopped into bed at the end of the day too tired to remember or value the gifts in your waking hours? How many of your days have flowed into weeks and then months, perhaps even years, without your dreams interrupting your routines?

The start of a new year offers an opportunity to reset intentions. What if you choose one episode to be the day’s gift? At the start of the day set one expectation that you anticipate. At day’s end look back upon the interaction that had the most impact and the lesson it served up for you. During the day, when you are surprised by an interaction, pause long enough to wonder about its meaning.

I am adopting this practice and finding it to be a very useful way to nurture mindfulness, joy, appreciation and purpose. One example comes from connecting the dots between recent conversations with a colleague. They are leading me to a modest role in a project he is coordinating related to our mutual professional interests.

Just one thing each day can add up to significant shifts in our life’s trajectory. Words from Maya Angelou’s 1993 inaugural poem, On the Pulse of Morning, elevate the message.

Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need for this bright morning dawning for you. History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage, need not be lived again. Lift up your eyes upon the day breaking for you. Give birth again to the dream.

Women, children, men, take it into the palms of your hands. Mold it into the shape of your most private need. Sculpt it into the image of your most public self. Lift up your hearts. Each new hour holds new chances for new beginnings.

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Each of us writes our life’s narrative. Have you ever wondered why certain people have shown up in it? — those who lifted you up, those who darkened your days or those who left you wondering?

The closing of a year provides a timely opportunity to ask ourselves, “who were/are these people to me?”

Our stories have many purposes. They relay information and interpret events. They entertain. They also define us as individuals and communities.

Have you noticed that many of the most memorable stories are populated by distinctive characters? Often, they seem larger than life, exaggerated versions of our fears and foibles, our hopes and dreams. In most stories, and certainly in our own lives, the characters we meet often play a special role.

Reflect for a moment. Who were Tiresias, the Sirens and Cyclops to Odysseus? Who were the White Rabbit, the Cheshire cat and the Mad Hatter to Alice? Who were the Winged Monkeys, Glinda and Oz to Dorothy? Who were Yoda, Princess Leia and Darth Vader to Luke Skywalker?

In each case the characters represent more than their physical appearance. They tweak our curiosity. They threaten us and stoke our fears. They surprise us with insights and new possibilities. They tap our imaginations. They show us our courage when our knees are weak.

They are gatekeepers to the world of shadows and enlightenment. They are guardians of crucial information. They are guides who provide protection and encourage us to see the precious jewels in adversity. They help us see the essence of who we are.

Who are the main characters who populate your narrative? What was/is the meaning of their presence? Who are those who had/have the most impact on your life? What did/do they teach you about yourself and your journey?

 

 

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The season celebrating festivals of light is upon us. Solstice marks the returning length of the sun’s daily presence. Hanukkah heralds the miraculous supply of holy oil that lit for eight days the lamps of the temple’s re-dedication. Christmas welcomes the child destined in the eyes of believers to be the light of the world.

A recent message from friends arrived as their invocation for this season of light. They are teachers whose curiosity links with their love of travel, nature, people and knowledge. From one trip this past year, they chose the wind as their metaphor for the season’s lesson. May their message inspire your own hopes during this time of re-ascendant light.

Let us leap into gratitude

like cliff divers seeking the wind,

hope-filled, trusting,

and unafraid.

(original by Penelope Stokes)

Dear Friends,

As we emerge from this November of our lives, we find we are not at all sure which way the winds are blowing and how best to find the wind that will carry us to a place that is safe for all of the people we care so much about…

 So we are searching anew this season and looking,

for winds that promise new understanding,

for faces that remind us of all of the blessed variation in our species,

for new currents in the winds,

for courageous people who are willing to stand up for others,

for laughable insights,

for surprises,

for special places we had not intended to go,

for the sacred in the midst of the ordinary,

and for quietly inspiring moments.

May each of us in our own way find the quietly inspiring moments that will strengthen our resolve to soar on the winds of change toward new light and hope.

 

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Has life ever handed you set backs or conundrums? Has it surprised you with health issues? natural calamities? relationship dynamics? job loss? cultural or political shifts? In one of his most compelling teachings, Alan Seale suggests that your answers to three questions may help you find your way.

When something extraordinary rocks our world, it usually exceeds our ability to explain or justify. A line from Bob Dylan’s song Ballad of a Thin Man comes to mind: “…something is happening here but you don’t know what it is do you, Mr. Jones?”

The first question is: What wants to happen here? Alan encourages us to turn from fear to curiosity. Since our usual explanations are inadequate, what are some possibilities that we haven’t considered? The Chinese word for “crisis” combines the characters for “danger” and “opportunity.” It takes courage to believe there is opportunity on the other side of our vulnerability. However, unless we venture, we will never know.

Who is that asking me to be? Responding to new possibilities may force us either to reclaim basic values we have neglected or to embrace capacities that we have failed to acknowledge. Who are the parts of self that the crisis is calling into the center of our personal mandala?

What is that asking me to do? What are steps I can take to acknowledge that I am not in Kansas anymore? I may not be able to rewind a circumstance, but I do have the power to move toward the openings that new possibilities present. The actions need not be large. They need only be sustained.

For a more detailed exploration of the questions Alan poses, read his blog for this week.