Joy v Happiness

I’ve heard about the difference between joy and happiness, but this summer, I am learning it personally.

Happiness comes from outside yourself – good fortune, wealth, life running smoothly. But this summer I am with people who are in the midst of crises and lives that have hit rough spots. None of them are happy about it, but some of them do have joy. It can be almost tangible, the sense they exude of peace and contentment, even when they are suffering.

Joy comes from within, it is part of a person’s essence. Both theologians and psychologists describe this capacity that people have (or don’t) to rise above tough times, to be resilient, to find meaning in their circumstances.

I cannot give anyone joy – although perhaps I can give them happiness from time to time – but I hope I can help them honor, discover, or recover the joy within them. I know that they do it for me. Sometimes watching joy sustain a person in pain touches a place of joy in me and reminds me to nurture this inner resource.

Resurrections

The other day, I posted a photo on Facebook of a sage bush that is blooming in my front yard. These shrubs are usually pale green, but when it rains a lot (as it has in Texas this Spring and Summer) they blossom with purple flowers. A friend saw the photo and commented that sages are a true resurrection plant. It made me see them in a new way.

In truth, the sages here don’t ever seem to die. They are hearty and drought-resistant. But when it rains, they take on a whole new look and liveliness. Those purple flowers seem to have been waiting for the right circumstances to bring them out. As Summer progresses, the flowers will drop, but the sage will flower again. That is what they do.

In my faith tradition, resurrection is a central belief, yet even those who don’t believe the dead literally come back to life find hope in the theme of resurrection. It isn’t the passing of one soul through many lives – that is reincarnation – but the renewal of one single life or even of a community. In a way, resurrection can be seen as a person or community becoming most fully themselves. That’s why the symbols of resurrection are things like butterflies and eggs and sage bushes – living beings that undergo a transformation but retain the same essence; they stay what they have always been, only better. For some of us, the theme of resurrection is what gives us hope when we face all kinds of small “deaths,” like church attendance going down or changes in leadership. Or bigger “deaths” like racism or the daily indignities of poverty.

Resurrection is hope, transformation, and renewal.

As I work with patients and families at the hospital this summer, the image of my “resurrection” sage is a helpful one. People, too, blossom when the circumstances allow. Many times, those circumstances might be a death or a difficult transition. Sometimes, as I sit with people experiencing grief and pain, they begin to flower with stories, memories, plans, and gratitude. I’ve experienced it at similar times in my own family. In the midst of grief, we’ve recalled old family jokes, planned favorite meals, reached out to disconnected loved ones. And so it is with the families I companion this summer. Thanks to my friend’s comment, I’ll be looking for these resurrection moments every chance I get.

Light and Love

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

Every Sunday, I light two candles: one for people on my prayer list and one for peace. The prayers are always specific, but some days they are lifted up from more places than just my heart. This was one of those days – the events of this week seemed to rise up before many of us at once, begging for light.

Like most people I know, this week has been one of grief and anger as we learned about the murder of nine African American women and men in their church. As we learned that they were murdered in an act of racist domestic terrorism. As we realized that, although this slaughter was unimaginably horrible, it was not surprising. Because we’ve seen so much of it lately – literally seen it captured on video and widely broadcast.

There is a lot I could say about what happened in Charleston – but there are other people saying it so well whose words I’ve been sharing on social media. (And I highly recommend you check them out.) What I can add is how this event was framed for me this morning. Because after I lit my candles and hoped those flames were bringing a tiny bit of light to the darkness in the world, we had a baptism in my congregation. After reflecting on the hatred we confront in the world and how faith calls us to respond, a joyful, dancing girl took vows to join in the work of helping light overcome darkness and love overcome hate. Together, a community  vowed with her to resist evil, love our neighbors as ourselves, strive for justice and peace, respect the dignity of every human being.

As dismal as this week (and this year and this decade) has been, it is nice to be reminded that we have reason for hope. Dismantling racism – or any kind of evil – takes a team and today a very young girl joined that team. I am betting she was joined by many others as people gathered in congregations around the country to remember the victims in Charleston. In fact, I am betting the team to confront evil got bigger where people gathered in homes and community centers and on street corners to find their roles in peace and justice-making.

On days when hope seems distant and optimism feels false, it might be a candle or a splash of water or a young child reminding us that evil has not won. It might be an unexpected ally, shared bread, or the words of a song. Look for them, these reminders of hope all around us. Darkness cannot drive out darkness and hatred cannot drive out hatred. Only light and love can do that.  

Demise

Fetal demise. It doesn’t sound very nice and it isn’t. To know that your longed-for baby will be stillborn, that you have to go through labor and delivery with no happy outcome, that family is gathered outside your room waiting to console you…which will only affirm your deep sorrow.

And yet…in the midst of this sorrow there is love. There is a community gathered to grieve together. The true meaning of compassion is suffering with and that is what we do when we stay by the side of those who endure loss. We can’t make their pain go away. And ignoring it negates the very real agony another feels. But sitting alongside…there is nothing more affirming.

A blessing helps. A prayer helps. But really, it is the cohesion of family and friends that carry any of us through. Our presence is a reminder that God is with us in the midst of loss and pain – not just for the pretty parts, but the hardest, ugliest, cruelest parts. It is through these relationships to the divine and the human that endings are transformed. Into hope. Into connections. Into the future. Into affirmation that we are made for each other, to suffer and love together.

For any person who experiences a loss too soon, or any loss at all, the best any of us can offer is to sit and suffer with them. There is no way around grief, only through it. And although there are as many “right” ways to mourn as there are people, it is the people who mourn with us that make it possible for us to emerge from the other side. This summer, I am a sitter. One who will suffer with. But I am a stranger, and really this sitting and being is is a path open to any of us.

Beginnings and Endings

Earlier this week, I dropped my daughter off at camp and asked for a hug. “I won’t see you again until tomorrow morning,” I reminded her. She asked if I was going to be at the hospital and I said yes, I had a late night shadowing a chaplain on-call – learning the ropes.

“Oooo! Can you take pictures of dead people!”

Well, no. For her, my summer of CPE involves a completely unknown world, but she’s still her silly 7-year-old self about it.

Today, the morning after a quiet on-call, I experienced both ends of life, but in reverse order. First thing this morning, an unexpected death. Then, later in the day, a tour through the NICU (neonatal intensive care) where the babies are not only newborns, but tiny, fragile premature babies.

I can’t really write about who I saw or what we talked about – not only because it is against policy to do it, but also because these are some of the most intimate events in the life of individuals and families – and I need to honor that. And yet I want to process what I have experienced, talk about it, write about it. And it seems kind of strange to use the occasion of another family’s crisis to reflect only on myself…

What I can say is that being present for these families is a huge privilege and a gift. Others have been with my family at such times when I could not, and I love the thought that I am, in a small way, paying forward their kindness. And in some ways, I felt a little connection to those to whom I was ministering. Maybe their family names were the same as those on my regular prayer list. Or their sense of vulnerability echoed my own experiences. I’ve had family in ICU and I’ve worried about a longed-for child. I’ve had dear ones caught in these moments that feel out of time and place.

Life can turn so quickly from familiar to strange, from comfortable to difficult. None of us were meant to walk through those changes alone, we were created to go through them together. This summer, for a very short time, I’ll get to be one of the people who can tag along for the journey when people feel like they’ve been left alone or set adrift. I hope at some point they know what a blessing they are to me.

Clouds unCovered

A cloud can cover the beautiful blue, or bring much-needed rain. Is that one blocking the sun, or letting a ray through? It can be hard to tell – or maybe it all depends on what the soil of your heart needs that day. Sun or rain. Light or shade. We all need a little of both – one helps us feel the blessing of the other.

Prickly

 

There are memories that seem impossible to touch without feeling a sting.
They warn me to stand clear…but then lure me in with beauty and longing.
That which produces the sharp spines also makes a lush flower and a sweet fruit.
They spring from the same root, are nourished from the same soil.
I’d rather have them both than have neither.

Maryam

Persian Mary and Jesus

Yesterday, I met with an interfaith group of women–half Muslim and half Christian– to study Mary/Maryam in the Quran. My participation came as kind of a fluke – another woman in the group had to drop out, so a friend invited me to fill in. But it touches so many things I am interested in that I could not resist. And, you know, Mary. I need no other reason.

I knew that Mary was important in Islam, but our first meeting reminded me just how much. (It’s been more than 20 years since my class with Lamin Sanneh. Mea culpa for forgetting so much!) She is not only the mother of Jesus – a major prophet in Islam – but the only woman mentioned by name in the entire Quran.

Each woman introduced herself to the group by saying what they most admired about Mary, each coming from her own tradition and life experience. Without exception, the Muslim women cited Mary’s chastity and strength as her most admirable qualities. The Christian women had a bit more variety, but tended more towards strength, bravery, and loyalty. Our inspiration is most certainly rooted in our own scriptural traditions.

The stories about Mary have common elements in Islam and Christianity, but they are not the same. Already some differences in belief and tradition are surprising us. Mary lived in the Temple? And gave birth under a date palm tree? Say what?! No, she was a poor woman from a backwater town. And she married a guy named Joseph. Really! You can read what the Quran and the New Testament report about Mary pretty easily on the Internet. But what you won’t get are the individual expressions – verbal and facial expressions – as women meeting face-to-face try to articulate just what it is about Mary that stays with us.

Over the coming weeks, we will read some passages from the Quran and discuss their significance, as well as share our various beliefs about Mary. Those traditions are quite different in some respects, and yet there is something about this long-ago Mary that catches our attention and keeps it. She accepts the unexpected–a pregnancy, a miraculous child, a public life — with grace. Can’t wait to learn more.