We Are Bigger Than Our Limitations

We are bigger than our limitations

Toward the end of his life, Bruce had an advanced case of Parkinson’s. One of the symptoms is particularly disconcerting. Sometimes when Bruce sees a line on the floor (perhaps because his eyes are cast down, watching his feet, fearing a loss of balance?), he stops, immobilized, because he “sees” that line as a wall. He literally, does not (or cannot) move.  

A friend tells the story of a ride in an elevator with Bruce and Bruce’s wife. The doors open. My friend and the wife exit the elevator. Bruce walks (with his walker) toward the open doors, but sees only the line, or space, that separates the elevator from the building floor. He stops. He sees only “a wall”–an impediment.

His wife speaks, “Bruce. Look at me. Bruce. Look up at me. Look at my eyes. Now take one step.”

Bruce looks up, trusts who he sees, and steps slowly out of the elevator. 


I cannot imagine Parkinson’s, or the courage it takes to face and to battle such a debilitating and often humiliating disease.  But all of us know what it is like to feel stuck, or stymied, or (for reasons we don’t even understand) stopped. There are times when we are just plain afraid to take another step. Our “limitation” or fear is greater than our ability to move forward.  Even with the best of intentions or faith, we see only a wall.  


When this happens to me, as it did this week, I am reluctant to tell anyone. Because, after all, “Big boys don’t show any weakness.”  I’ve got a dozens reasons why I give into my limitations, and none of them have to do with me. Like the old parable, “The girl who can’t dance says the band can’t play.”


“The older I get, the clearer it becomes to me that no one is cheated in this world, unless its by himself, but some of us are so wounded that we must return to the scene of the crime, must play with the fire that burned us, must live the scene out as many times as necessary until it comes out differently. We are not prisoners, no traps or snares are set about us, but many of us imprison ourselves or at least are helplessly stalled.”  Merle Shain


I do know that if I run from my brokenness, it only exacerbates the problem. Like it or not, we all carry with us fault-lines, and brokenness, and vulnerability.

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“LOOOOK!” Living Wholehearted

“LOOOOK!” Living wholehearted

A woman stands at the window and stares. We are on the morning commuter ferry, from Vashon Island to Seattle. A snow-covered Mount Ranier dominates the panorama. It stands prominent, imperial in the dawn light. (It is true. Here in the Northwest, the first time you see Mount Ranier, you do a double take. Some Divine-sleight-of-hand. Where’d that mountain come from?)
The woman is wide-eyed, as if she is surprised by the mountain. As if she is seeing it for the first time. All of the other early morning commuters (and there are many) go about their business. Reading the newspaper. Drinking coffee. Paying bills. Talking with friends. Napping on benches.
“Looook,” she announces loudly, “we can see the mountain. Everybody looook!”
She has the demeanor of a person “not all there.” You know what I mean. She is clearly one of those people who embarrass us. (Or realistically, one of those people we choose to ignore.) As other commuters walk by, they (we) knowingly smile at one another and roll our eyes. She’s not normal, we tell one another in code.
“Looook,” she says again, pointing this time, almost reverential, “the mountain.”
I’ve seen the mountain a thousand times, but I figure, “What the heck.” So I put down my book, and look. The rising sun has just crested the Cascade Mountain ridge-line. It looks as if it is sitting in a saddle between two peaks. The shaft of light from the sun glistens on the snow face of the Cascades, the color of a good English beer. It hits the Puget Sound, and dances across the water, now a golden pathway from the ferry to the sky. Ranier, backlit and venerable in this morning light, appears etched, as if a great artist rendered it in charcoal or pen and ink. The water of the Puget Sound is gun-metal-grey, and calm.To the south is Tacoma harbor, where a crescent moon hangs in what I can only describe as a melancholy blue sky.

I do not pick up my book again.

I look. A morning vista as sacrament–a dose of grace; a brew, fortifying and settling.
“Looook,” the woman is talking again. “The mountain. Everyone looook, the mountain.”
To exit the ferry, we walk by the woman (still standing, still pointing, still talking), wondering, I suppose, what went wrong in her life, what finally snapped, and what made her leave her senses. How sad for her. We walk hurriedly, you know, in order to take care of those more important obligations awaiting us in our day. However. On this morning, the “crazy woman” is my sage. My seer, my rabbi, my priest, my pastor. She is my reminder. For whatever reason, she sees the day without the extra layers of defense. (Or if you’ll permit an impenitent play on words, she seizes the day, carpe diem.) 


I tell this story whenever I can.

And if you’ve heard me speak, chances are you’ve heard this story.

Whenever I tell it I get gooseflesh.

This much is certain; every time I tell it, I absorb…

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Tastes Like Heaven

Tastes like heaven

“This tastes like heaven,”
my son Zach says, eating from a small bag of popcorn, picking out one kernel at a time. We’re at the base of Diamond Head, spending part of the afternoon in a farmers market on the east side of Oahu, Hawaii. These local markets are a smorgasbord for the senses. Kiosks of exotic flowers. Crimson, vermilion and port-wine red, yellows of sunshine and sulfur, Baltimore Oriole orange, and thundercloud blue. The air is suffused with the scent of coffee. And garlic. My arm is freckled with powdered sugar, a confetti from fresh beignets, just lifted from the griddle. I take a bite of a beignet and a sip of Kona coffee.  

I close my eyes.
My son is right.

This does taste like heaven.

Scott Russell Sanders observed that, “For the enlightened few, the world is always lit.” Which is another way of saying that the requirement for enlightenment is pretty straightforward: let yourself live like a kid.
My beignets with Zach happened over 10 years ago, but still floats around in my memory, and settles whenever I need a reminder about embracing the moment.I heard a lot about heaven in the church of my youth. Although, on balance, I heard a good deal more about hell. It was some calculated motivational tool to make heaven seem that much more appealing. What was clear was the objective: getting there. Heaven, that is. Trouble is, I was never much drawn to the heaven portrayed in those sermons of my youth. Because there was no movie preview about exactly what we’d be doing when we got there. And, what’s really to enjoy about people (mostly old people) in white suits sitting around playing elevator musac? For a young boy, that had all of the enticement of a 24-hour Lawrence Welk special, with an all-accordion-choir.

Predictably, I was mostly frightened of hell. Heaven was used to soothe my regrets. So I could say, At least I’m going to heaven, if I was asked, which I was, daily. But one thing was clear, heaven had nothing to do with today. Or the way I lived my life today.

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The Need To Hear The Voice Of Grace

The need to hear the voice of grace

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 unblemished white landscape, and a narrow shaft of sunlight illuminating the ground near a snow-covered log where a congregation of Bearded Iris shoots (leaves) defy winter, the tips of their green blades puncturing the snow pack. 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.”


So. Where do you hear the voice of grace?

We could use more Mrs. Leonards in our world.  

Although it does sound too good to be true.

But here’s the deal: We make a mistake if we assume that we can orchestrate grace. And an even greater mistake if we assume we have to 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.

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Content With Simple Pleasures

Content with Simple Pleasures

The newspaper headline was too good to be true. “Experts disagree on how to be happy.”

One side says, “Be focused. Organized. Get stuff done.”

The other says, “Don’t do so much. Stop and smell the roses.”

I can picture it. A “my-happiness-is-better-than-your-happiness” bar-room brawl, in the end both sides deciding that happiness comes from kicking the stuffing out of someone else.

This much we know: Like everything else, our culture has turned contentment into some sort of an achievement, a contest, a beauty pageant. And in the end, it kind of defeats the point. It reminds me of the line from John Steinbeck’s, East of Eden, “he brought with him his tiny, Irish wife, a tight, hard, little woman, humorless as a chicken. She had a dour Presbyterian mind and a code of morals that pinned down and beat the brains out of nearly everything that was pleasant to do.”
Maybe we should opt for the third picture, which comes from a Farside Cartoon. Two cows standing in a field munching grass. One says to the other, “I don’t care what they say. I’m not content.”


For me, I put my money on Mary Howitt’s observation. “He is happiest who hath power to gather wisdom from a flower.”


It boils down to this… simple pleasures.

What Rudolph Otto referred to as, “Mysterium Tremendum.” Translated, it means “the bare mystery of simply being.”

Or, in the words of CS Lewis, talking about joy, “I was overwhelmed by spine tingling elation.”

We seem to lose that early in life, don’t we? Or, we wake up one day–our spirit drained–and wonder where the joy went, and why.  


It is no surprise that Jesus begins all of his parables this way; with a seed, lilies, a camel, wheat, a pearl, a candle. He obviously wanted us to look closely at this world, not some other one. It is here and now, all around us in the most ordinary things, that we find the Kingdom (which he reminded us, “is here”), and that we are in the divine presence.

And here’s the deal: being fully alive is a sensual fiesta. Being alive in this world–squarely in the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of this day.


Irenaeus got it right a long time ago. “The Glory of God is man (or woman) fully alive.”

Why are simple pleasures the source of such joy?

Because simple pleasures are the ones that ground us. They connect us to our humanity, they connect us to the earth, to our senses. Because simple pleasures are extremely sensual. And on a spiritual plane, humans are fully alive when we’re most in touch with our senses.

There’s a great story about a research project with children. The children were put into a room with new toys. The study was to determine which toys they enjoyed most. After twenty minutes or so, playing with all the new toys, the children spent the remainder of their time enthusiastically playing with… the boxes that the toys came in.

It makes me giggle just thinking about it.

Children are wired to be fully alive. To see. Wired to derive joy from that which is simple. It is a byproduct of engagement. There is no need for stuff to entertain, or occupy, or preoccupy, or distract. To put it another way, someone once said that miracles are simply being in the right place at the right time. And kids see miracles in simple boxes.

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Coming Home

Coming Home

Early in the movie, Blood Diamond, a Mende village is plundered by a group of Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels. Many people, including women and children, are murdered. The young boys of the village are taken, to be trained, in order to fight with the rebels. This group includes Dia, twelve-year old son of a fisherman, Solomon Vandy. Solomon’s life is spared, but he is separated from his family and enslaved, to work in the diamond fields under the command of Captain Poison.
The RUF uses the diamonds to fund their war effort, often trading them directly for arms. While working in the RUF diamond fields as a forced laborer, Solomon finds a large diamond of rare pink coloring. Moments before government troops launch an attack, Captain Poison sees Solomon hiding the diamond. Before he can get the stone Captain Poison is injured, and both he and Solomon are taken to prison in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. While in jail, the wounded RUF commandant tells the prisoners about the stone Solomon found.
Hearing this, mercenary smuggler Danny Archer (from Zimbabwe) arranges Solomon’s release and proposes to exchange the diamond as a way to find Solomon’s missing family. After an arduous overnight trek, Danny and Solomon reach the mining camp–still under RUF control–where Solomon discovered and buried the diamond. Here, Solomon is painfully reunited with his son Dia, who refuses to acknowledge him because he has been brainwashed by the rebels.

In a tense scene, at the sight of the buried diamond, still refusing to acknowledge his father, Dia has a gun pointed at Solomon’s head.

Solomon: “I am your father who loves you and you will come home and be my son again.”
Dia’s face reflects the anger and hatred and distrust instilled by the rebel indoctrination.
Solomon: “Dia, what are you doing? Dia! Look at me, look at me. What are you doing? You are Dia Vandy, of the proud Mende tribe. You are a good boy who loves soccer and school. Your mother loves you so much. She waits by the fire making plantains, and red palm oil stew with your sister N’Yanda and the new baby. The cows wait for you. And Babu, the wild dog who minds no one but you. I know they made you do bad things, but you are not a bad boy. I am your father who loves you. And you will come home with me and be my son again.”
With tears streaking his young face, Dia lowers his gun and falls into his Father’s embrace. He knows where he belongs. He knows to whom he belongs.
He is home.
I watched this movie again this past week. And each time I see this scene, I need to stop the movie in order to let my own tears fall. And it’s not because I have a clue about what Dia or Solomon may have faced in their lives. It is because my heart too, longs to be in that embrace and to find home.

Home is a place where you can catch a dream and ride it to the end of the line and back. Where you can watch shadow and light doing a tight little tango on a wooden floor or an intoxicated moon rising through an empty window. Home is a place to become yourself.  It’s somewhere you can close a door and open your heart. Theo Pelletier


Sometimes we are aware of this need for home when we’ve gone away. Or when we’ve lost our way. Or when life is too baffling.
We all know of the many things that take us away from home… anger, busyness, self-importance, cruelty, vengeance, unforgiveness, discouragement, despair, heartache.

And what I’ve learned, in my own life at least, is that in every instance this new weight becomes the definition for our identity. It tells us who we are. And it requires that we focus on the periphery issues, on whatever is needed to impress, or manipulate, or achieve, or use, or hurt, or perform. And we are disconnected from our self.

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What Do We Do When Life Turns Left?

What do we do when life turns left?

In 1921, at age 39, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a rising star in the political world.  Vacationing on remote Campobello Island, in Canada, he awoke one morning without feeling in his legs.  Over the next few nerve-racking days, his condition worsened, was misunderstood and misdiagnosed.  Almost one month later, the headline blared to the world from the New York Times, “F.D. Roosevelt Ill of Poliomyelitis.” 


As careful as we may be,  

as strong as we may be,  

as faithful as we may be,  

life can take left turns.  

And the walls come crashing down. 

The only real question… What happens next?


The 1992 film, Scent of a Woman tells the story of Charlie (Chris O’Donnell), a preparatory school student who takes a job as an assistant to Col. Slade (Al Pacino) an irascible, blind, medically-retired Army officer. The story takes us on journey where the colonel plans to spend the last days of his life doing those things he always wanted to do (but never did). He had convinced himself that once his list was completed, his cache of hope would be expired, and his life, would be done.  In the story, his hope is revived by Charlie, who persuades him to go on with life. And in the end, the colonel helps Charlie in getting over his dilemma: should he save his college scholarship or compromise his integrity by snitching on his classmates?   


In a “courtroom” scene at the school, the colonel says; “I’ve been around, you know? There was a time I could see. And I have seen. Boys like these, younger than these, their arms torn out, their legs ripped off. But there isn’t nothin’ like the sight of an amputated spirit. There is no prosthetic for that. You think you’re merely sending this splendid foot soldier back home to Oregon with his tail between his legs, but I say you are executin’ his soul.”


For the very physically active FDR, this news–polio, paraplegic, potentially a stationary life–could have utterly unraveled him. 

Not unlike an amputated spirit. 

It is reported, however, that Franklin took the news from his physician without showing any emotion.  (In later years, Frances Perkins, Roosevelt’s secretary of labor, would notice that at a time of crisis, such as Pearl Harbor, there was a ‘studied quality’ about Roosevelt’s calmness.)


But what now?  What happens next? 

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The Whole Of Life Is In “seeing”

The whole of life is in “seeing”


I planned to take down the Christmas tree today, and box up the ornaments for another year. There is a pleasure in tidying up (although on our island there’s a guy who will save you the effort; will come buy, take your tree and compost it all for ten bucks). And then a friend reminded me about the 12 Days of Christmas.  The twelve days (the ones we sing about in that ubiquitous and vexing carol) that begin the day after Christmas (Boxing Day or St. Stephen’s Day) and end on January 6 (The Feast of the Epiphany).

So in other words, the tree is still up.


Speaking of traditions. Did you know that years ago (actually decades ago), we would have celebrated Christmas Eve by bringing in a huge freshly cut log for the hearth.  The family would have sprinkled the trunk with oil, salt, and mulled wine, and recited some prayers before lighting it (kindled from the remains of the previous year’s Yule fire, which we would have kept in the home throughout the entire year).  We would have known–in our hearts–that the log would protect the house from lightening and the evil powers of the devil.  We would believe that the Yule log symbolized the light returning to conquer the darkness.  And according to tradition, the log must either have been harvested from our own land, or given as a gift.  It must never have been purchased.  The log would burn through the night–an evening, by the way, filled with dancing and reverie and merriment (that’s my favorite part)–then allowed to smolder for 12 days (The 12 Days of Christmas) before being ceremonially extinguished. (It even makes a better story when you know that in the 1600s, in England, strapping young men willing to haul heavy Yule logs were compensated with free beer.)


No, we don’t have great Yule logs anymore do we?   

And it’s a pity, isn’t it?

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