Category Archives: Spiritual Stuff

Learning to Love the Ice Maker

I’m a sucker for the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. So many iconic scenes, but probably my favorite is one that goes by in an instant. I love it because I can relate to it so strongly.

George Bailey lives with his family in a big drafty house that’s got its share of quirks. And because George is an Order Muppet (as opposed to a Chaos Muppet), these quirks cause him no end of frustration and angst. The scene I love is when he goes to walk upstairs but the bannister knob comes off in his hand:

The picture doesn’t do it justice, but George looks at that knob, and you can see on his face that the knob isn’t just a knob. It represents everything that is messy and slapdash about his life. It is a symbol of the utter pandemonium he lives with, as a father of four who doesn’t make quite enough money to feel secure, and who feels the weight of the family business and indeed the whole community on his shoulders. How can I save the Building & Loan when I can’t even get this stupid home repair done??

A bannister knob represents all that? Yes, because Jimmy Stewart is a great actor and he makes that three-second scene work.

And because I’m an Order Muppet too and I have worn that look.

The house we inhabit is in pretty good shape–lots of pending and possible projects, as always, but basically fine. Still, the disorder takes over sometimes, usually when I’m feeling tired and overwhelmed. That’s when the pile of unfolded clothes becomes The Pile of Unfolded Clothes: a visual reminder of life’s tendency toward a chaos that will never be tamed.

My most acute source of angst has been the water/ice dispenser on our fridge. It’s one of those single-spout things in which you must press the button indicating what you want, water or ice. 90% of the time, one wants water from the dispenser, which in my mind means you should flip it back to water after you’ve dispensed ice. To me it’s the equivalent of putting the seat down on the toilet. Restore it to its default position.

The people in my house are either agnostic on this point, or they agree with me. But they do not do it, or perhaps not consistently. So I’ve been battling my family over this irritation since we moved into this house. Just switch it back to water! I say, ice all over the floor because the cubes don’t fit in the narrow top of the water bottle I’m trying to fill. With water.

I tell you this, not because I’m right and the family is wrong and I want to enlist you on my side. But to confess to you that I have carried around frustration over this issue since August of 2015.

Think about that. This has been a source of annoyance and griping for almost two years. And at some point it ceases to be my family’s problem. It’s my problem.

Or it was, until I remembered a section of the improv book I wrote (yes, I am audience member #1 for my books). It’s about the serenity prayer:

In addition to being a vital mantra in twelve-step programs, I’ve decided that the serenity prayer is also the prayer of the improviser. To me it’s the essence of yes-and: What can we change? What can we not change? OK, now what?

 

For some bizarre reason, my constant nagging has failed to alter behavior. (What?!? But it seemed so foolproof!) So now I’m working on reframing, like George Bailey does at the end of the movie, when he’s had his epiphany and he goes bounding up the stairs, but pauses to kiss that damn bannister knob. Because now it represents home and family and messy reality that he wouldn’t trade for the world.

Now when I go to get some water and I hear that familiar grinding of the ice machine, I think about the smoothies Robert makes in the morning, full of protein powder and fruit and kale (KALE?!?), and how they give him energy to work out and thrive at work and be present for our family. And I think about my kids, and how they drink ice water without complaint, despite probably preferring us to stock a bunch of soft drinks. I think particularly about my nine-year-old son, who comes home from school, gets himself some graham crackers and a string cheese, fills a big glass with cubes of ice, and proceeds to suck on them while he reads, his legs tucked underneath him on the couch.

I would say this reframing is successful 42.7% of the time. But it’s a start. And major progress for this recovering Order Muppet.

Feeling Frayed?

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I recently got back from a week in the Texas Hill Country, where I was keynote speaker for the Mo-Ranch Women’s Conference. We had a Tuesday-Thursday session and a Friday-Sunday one, with about 300 women total between the two groups. (I also got some running done, as you can see!)

I usually prefer it when event planners come up with the theme themselves, and this one was a winner: A Durable Fabric: Frayed But Not Afraid. The fabric imagery provided numerous opportunities to explore the theme—threads, if you will…

Our leadership team (music leader, worship leader/preacher, and me) met several times via conference call. From the beginning, we knew we wanted to do something with burlap. We ended up cutting a bunch of burlap squares, which we gave to the participants on the first night of the conference. The first night’s keynote was titled “A People A-Frayed,” and we explored various aspects of our frayed-ness: a polarized country, brokenness in relationships, information overload, the pace of change, and a sense of overwhelm. Participants were encouraged to “worry” their burlap cloth—fraying the ends, removing strands, creating holes.

At the end of the first evening, our worship leader invited us to hold the burlap up to the light and look through. It is in our frayed places, she said—the holes, the unraveling spots—that the light is able to shine through the brightest. (A nod to Leonard Cohen!) And for the remainder of the conference, we made an intentional choice not to talk in terms of repairing our frayed places. Instead, we explored various tools that we have at our disposal as we live within the frayed-ness that on some level is always with us. Our lives are complicated and imperfect—there’s no simple way to patch them up. Better to embrace what is, and to seek God’s healing and grace in the midst of it all.

These tools for the journey included faith, empathy and courage. I talked about faith as a practice—a process of embracing mystery and living within limitations. After all, if we know exactly where we’re headed, and we have everything we need to get there, we don’t need faith!

We viewed and discussed the wonderful TED talk from artist Phil Hansen, called Embrace the Shake. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth the ten minutes to see it. (It’s also very entertaining to watch!)


For the next keynote, we turned to the practice of empathy. I told the amazing story of Keshia Thomas, an African-American high school student from Ann Arbor who threw her body on top of a white supremacist and shielded him from attack during a protest. And we watched a video featuring Brené Brown in a discussion of empathy, and talked in small groups about how to show authentic compassion for ourselves and others:

The final tool we explored for living within frayed-ness was courage. Our worship leader/preacher took the lead on this session and preached a dynamite sermon based on the Pentecost scripture text—the story of the Holy Spirit being poured out upon a bunch of unwitting disciples.

Throughout the weekend, participants were invited to embellish their burlap with buttons, beads, feathers and yarn. We displayed these burlap creations, which turned out more beautiful and poignant than we could possibly have imagined:

One woman who had recently been laid off decorated hers with detritus from her purse, including a now-outdated business card (obscured for privacy) and a bandaid to represent the need for healing:

Another woman came to the conference with a knitting project, a prayer shawl for a loved one. During the weekend she felt moved to knit strands of the burlap into the shawl—a visual representation of the frayed-ness we all experience, and the ways that those frayed places can still be woven into something whole.

This is why I love what I do. During retreats, people leave their everyday world behind, breathe deeply, and engage their lives completely differently, and I hope, return home renewed and ready for the transformation of the Spirit. It was a joy to be part of this gathering!

No retreat on the calendar? How about a DIY option? I invite you to spend some time thinking about your own frayed-ness. Maybe find a piece of cloth and “worry” it. Decorate it with symbols of your life. And consider the tools you might need to move forward: faith, empathy, and courage.

Peace, joy and Yes.
MaryAnn

“Beauty and the Beast” and Embodied Joys

This reflection went out to my email newsletter last week. I can never predict which reflections will touch a nerve, but this one did–I received a lots of responses, so I thought I’d share it here as well.

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It has been a lovely and full spring. I am currently with a group of clergy for “preacher camp,” a week of study using papers that we write about the scripture texts for the coming year. It is a rich week, with lots of laughter. We begin each morning with a short informal worship service, which I’m leading this year. The theme is PLAY, and we are doing improv games together! It’s been a fun experiment to get out of our heads and into our bodies.

Speaking of bodies…
I wanted to share with you a moment that won’t let me go lately. I recently took my kids to see the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson. I was expecting to enjoy the movie for what it was—a fun diversion on a low-energy afternoon of Spring Break. I didn’t expect to receive a deeper back story for many of the characters, including the staff of the Beast’s household, now trapped in the form of various household objects. There’s even an explanation for why they were cursed along with the Beast. And unlike the 1992 animated movie, in which these talking objects were kind of cute and funny, I found myself feeling great empathy for these people whose flesh and blood had been taken away from them and who were now… a clock. A feather duster. A harpsichord.

My empathy came to a head at the end of the movie, when the teapot, Mrs. Potts, is released from her curse. Her son Chip, who has been a teacup all this time, is nowhere to be found, and Mrs. Potts begins desperately searching for him. Finally they find one another and collide into one another’s arms, overjoyed to be whole again. In the flurry of this reunion, Mrs. Potts (played by the amazing Emma Thompson) says a line—so fast that you could easily miss it—that made the breath catch in my throat and tears spring to my eyes. (Darn you Disney!)

The line was, “You smell so good!!”

Like Mrs. Potts, I am the mother of a young boy, and the top of his his head is one of the best, sweetest, earthiest smells I know. And for now, my nine-year-old’s crown of tousled hair reaches right under my nose—I know in time I will need to ask him to bend down to let me have a whiff of it, and by then, he won’t want me to. I have also known parents who have lost children, who miss so many things about them, and who would give anything for one more inhale of their child’s fleshy uniqueness.

For much of my life, I was oriented toward pursuits of the mind: I was diligent in school. I’m a writer. I study theology and scripture. I also grew up in a church whose theology taught that the body was connected to sin and shame. As a result, I often viewed my body as merely the container that carried my brain around. Now I am a runner and triathlete, and I do improvisation, a very body-oriented pursuit. I reject that body-shaming theology of my childhood.

Part of that journey has been coming to terms with my body’s limitations, which only increase as we age. I’m spending way more time with doctors on preventive medicine than I used to! But there is also great joy in becoming more “embodied”—in enjoying simple physical pleasures of life. A perfect little piece of dark chocolate. The feel of cool bathroom tile under bare feet in the morning. Laughing so hard with friends that I literally fall onto the floor. (Those were all this week!)

What about you? What simple embodied joys are catching your attention lately?

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Quote for the Day: Trevor Noah, Preacher

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I’ve written before about Trevor Noah of The Daily Show, and how he serves as a court jester for the privileged.

I’m now reading his memoir, Born a Crime, about growing up colored in apartheid-era South Africa. The book is light, winsome, and heartbreaking at equal turns. I’m learning a lot about what life was really like for people under apartheid, and Noah is a likable, capable narrator.

Noah went to Catholic school, one of only a few colored students in a sea of black and white, and a non-Catholic. As a poor child of a single mother, he didn’t have much to eat, and it always bothered him that he couldn’t even partake of the bread and juice in the sacrament. This bit made me laugh, then took my breath away.

“Only Catholics can eat Jesus’s body and drink Jesus’s blood, right?”

“Yes.”

“But Jesus wasn’t Catholic.”

“No.”

“Jesus was Jewish.”

“Well, yes.”

“So you’re telling me that if Jesus walked into your church right now, Jesus would not be allowed to have the body and blood of Jesus?”

“Well…uh…um…”

They never had a satisfactory reply.

One morning before mass I decided, I’m going to get me some Jesus blood and Jesus body. I snuck behind the altar and I drank the entire bottle of grape juice and I ate the entire bag of Eucharist to make up for all the other times that I couldn’t.

In my mind, I wasn’t breaking the rules, because the rules didn’t make any sense. And I got caught only because they broke their own rules. Another kid ratted me out in confession, and the priest turned me in.

“No, no,” I protested. “You’ve broken the rules. That’s confidential information. The priest isn’t supposed to repeat what you say in confession.”

They didn’t care. The school could break whatever rules it wanted. The principal laid into me.

“What kind of a sick person would eat all of Jesus’s body and drink all of Jesus’s blood?”

“A hungry person.”

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

The Five-Minute Journal, Tweaked. Again.

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I wrote a couple years ago about my five-minute journal practice. It’s a morning check in (with optional evening one) that’s short enough not to be too burdensome every day. (Confession: I don’t do it every day.)

A few months later, I wrote about some tweaks I had made.

Well, I’ve tweaked it again. (Improv!)

I made the changes in response to an interview I heard with Evie Serventi on the RunnersConnect podcast. She is a sports psychologist and has her clients do a number of things to get mentally prepared for races. One is to have them check in with themselves each day and write down how they feel physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

I decided this is something worth doing for me. I’m a 3 on the Enneagram, and it’s easy for that type to get focused on productivity and achievement, to the point that we lose touch with our own inner life.

So here is my new five minute journal. (It still only takes about five minutes!)

Check-in
Physically
Emotionally
Mentally
Spiritually

Gratitude
1.
2.
3.

My Enough List for the Day (three things I will do/focus on that will be enough for this day)
1.
2.
3.

Curiosity (something I’m puzzling over or wanting to pay attention to)

An Intention

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And the evening list, which I’ve been very irregular with. Oh well:

Three things to celebrate about the day:
1.
2.
3.

One thing I could have done better

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Photo by Barry Silver via Flickr and used through a Creative Commons License.