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Tonic for the soul


Mary had grown up knowing that she was different from the other kids, and she hated it. Born with a cleft palate, Mary would hear the jokes and tolerate the stares of other children (some cruel, others, simply curious) who teased her about her misshaped lip, her crooked nose and garbled speech. Mary grew up hating the fact that she was “different,” convinced that no one, outside her family, could ever love her.
Until she entered Mrs. Leonard’s class. Mrs. Leonard had a warm smile, a round face, and shiny brown hair.
In the 1950’s, teachers would administer an annual hearing test. In addition to her cleft palate, Mary was able to hear out of only one ear. Determined not to give classmates another difference to tease, each year she would cheat on the hearing test.
It was called the “whisper test.” The teacher would stand 1-2 feet behind the student so they could not read her lips. The student would place one finger on the opposite ear to obscure any sound. The teacher would whisper words with 2 distinct syllables toward the student’s ear. The student would repeat the phrase to the teacher. When Mary turned her bad ear toward her teacher, she always pretended to cover her good ear. Mary knew that teachers would typically say, “The sky is blue,” or “What color are your shoes?” But not on that day. Mrs. Leonard changed Mary’s life forever. When the “whisper test” came, Mary heard these words: “Mary, I wish you were my little girl.”  

Anne Lamott notes that Grace is an “unseen sound that makes you look up.”
Or, stops you. Literally.
Right where you are.
On an ordinary day, say with a cup of coffee in your hand, looking out the window at an otherwise bleak winter sky and landscape, and a narrow shaft of sunlight (through the tall Firs) illuminates the ground near a moss-covered log where a congregation of Bearded Iris shoots (leaves) defy winter, the tips of their green blades puncturing the uninviting.
Dag Hammarskjold got it right, “God does not die on the day we cease to believe in a personal deity. But we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance of wonder renewed daily, the source of which is beyond all reason.”
Grace is an unseen sound that makes you look up, even and especially when life calls for cynicism or suspicion or despair or fear or scorn.
Mrs. Leonard was saying to Mary (and to us today), “You are not at the mercy of untruthful assumptions. They are not the truth of who you are.” You know, those assumptions that keep you confined (in a box), where your heart stays guarded and fearful.
Grace empowers you to say NO to fear.
So. In a world of hurry, noise, restlessness and disparagement, where do we hear the voice of grace?
Self-care is hard to come by. It’s not easy for me to admit when I am emotionally tired. (After all, I don’t want to appear to whine.)
The medicine for sanity? Doses of grace. Like Mrs. Leonard’s whisper, not as susceptible to the violence of noise.

We could use more Mrs. Leonards in our world.
Although (if I’m honest) it does sound too good to be true.
And we make a mistake if we assume that we need to orchestrate grace. And an even greater mistake if we assume we must get dressed up for it. Like prom night. Or study for it, like preparing for some multiple-choice test that has right and wrong answers.
Yes, it feels good to hear the affirmation. But it’s bigger than that. Grace is the glue for the sanctuary that mends our spirit and soul.
Here’s the deal… As much as I want Mrs. Leonard’s voice in my ear, I want to remember that I too have a voice. And that voice is a voice of grace.
A voice of mercy.
A voice of kindheartedness.
A voice of the narrative where derisive does not need to carry the day.
And whenever we interrupt, and say, “But…” Grace is diminished.

Today I am in northern Spain. It is my annual trip with my friends Bill McNabb and Richard Wing. It’s our study leave trip. Our clergy who love wine trip. (Our grateful we have a lot of airline miles to use trip.) We savor the days. We read books. We visit wineries from the 1800s. These are businesses passed down through the four and five generations, great-grandfather, grandfather to father to son (and now thankfully, very often to daughter).
We began the trip in a casa rual—a rural rental property in Spain—above the slopes of La Rioja, home of the Ebro River, which splits the Obarenes and Cantabrian Mountains. To the north, Basque Country. Below the hills, vineyards roll through the landscape, the vines—still in winter and pruned—pose as menorah renderings in the dusk light.
Yes, this scene is a tonic. There is something about these moments that carry significance, because they are reminders, and they are sacraments. Partial, yes, but containing the full sustenance of grace.
And I think of the question a friend asks me, “What holds you?”
In other words, what sustains you, and carries you gently through your days?

When I was a kid, my church taught me that Grace had a whole lot to do with giving up drinking and smoking and swearing and playing cards and dancing and women. Giving up dancing was easy since I wasn’t any good at it. And smoking burned my throat. And drinking a whole bottle of peppermint schnapps once on a dare, made me throw up. And women, well, they just confused me.
Long story short, by college, I didn’t drink or smoke or swear or play cards or dance or even think about women (okay, I’m lying about that part). So, I wore the costume. I learned the lingo. But it had absolutely nothing to do with Grace. The game plan was simple: getting to heaven. Jesus was like some Travel-Agent-for-Eternity. And my costume? It was window dressing. My uniform for the divine-hall-monitor, my free pass. Anything to keep God from being less than thrilled.

Because in the end, all I was, was afraid. And not just afraid of God. Or eternal damnation. I was afraid of being found out. As a fake.
I was afraid of facing the reality that performance for appearance sake and some hunt for perfection were booby prizes.
I needed to simply be human.
I needed to just be Terry.
I needed to hear the voice of Grace.
Today, let us honor places where we can speak these words—this whisper test—of welcome, “You are safe here. You are someone here. You matter here.”

We have moved from La Rioja to Ribera del Duero. Much of the landscape here in January is cloaked in niebla (fog). The undulations toward east and west spool for miles, with hillsides many empty of trees, strewn with vineyards, and fairy-tale villages with church steeple and castle turrets. All of it now subdued, the whole scene a palate of clay and tan and terra cotta and soft caramel, unpretentious and tranquillo, a panorama done in watercolor, evoking a land where time is ratcheted back. Beyond it all, snow covered mountains. Tonic for the soul indeed.

Quotes for your week…
To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live. Rabbi Abraham Heschel


The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac
I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.
so why not get started immediately.

I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.

And to write music or poems about.
Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
Bless touching.

You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
Or not.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.

Late yesterday afternoon, in the heat,
all the fragile blue flowers in bloom
in the shrubs in the yard next door had
tumbled from the shrubs and lay
wrinkled and fading in the grass. But
this morning the shrubs were full of
the blue flowers again. There wasn’t
a single one on the grass. How, I
wondered, did they roll back up to
the branches, that fiercely wanting,
as we all do, just a little more of
Mary Oliver
(excerpts The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac)
(From On Being)

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets









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