Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Anger




Anger is
the bastard child,
black sheep,
danger to the flock. 
This I know,
for I've been told. 

But, by night,
when the world is still,
I slip out the back door
to find anger huddled
in darkness
at the yard's edge. 

"What do you want?"
I ask. "Something is wrong,"
she says, her eyes
wide with fear, longing,
and love. 

By instinct, I open
my arms. I take her small, 
dark figure into myself and
she settles there, like a worn 
out child. 

"Something was wrong,"
she murmurs, "I wanted
you to know."

//

I've spent a lot of time thinking, reading, and learning about anger. As an Enneagram type 1, anger is a key emotional dynamic for me - both a sinful temptation and a key indicator of underlying feelings, as well as a source of creative and prophetic energy. This spring, as I again pondered the role of anger in my life, particularly as a clergy person, I remembered a life-changing essay I'd read years ago, written by psychiatrist and spiritual teacher, Gerald May. 

I was on a quiet solo retreat when I first stumbled across an article entitled "Love and Anger," in Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation's journal, Shalem News. Remembering the essay, I tracked it down (you can order a collection of all of May's articles for Shalem News by contacting the institute directly) and I want to share a little of it here with you. 

But first, I want to say that this poem came to me at a time when I felt called to embrace my anger as a messenger and a source of strength. As a person of peace, I have wrestled with anger, wary of its capacity master me and move me to sin. I have learned to listen to anger, as a warning bell, and to channel its energy into steadiness and strength in the face of evil. 

One of the church fathers, Augustine of Hippo said it well, "Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are." Perhaps the key to our hope in the weeks and months ahead lies in our willingness to allow love to move us both in anger and courage. 

//

Some words on anger, from Gerald May's article "Love and Anger," (Summer 1984 edition of Shalem News):

". . . even in the midst of a heated situation, it is occasionally possible to experience love and anger simultaneously. . . Love does not necessarily destroy anger, but it does transform and illuminate it. It is an error, I think, to assume we must get rid of anger in order to feel and be loving. 

The illumination of anger by love cannot be attained by trying to substitute love for anger, and certainly not by stifling anger. Instead, one first needs to accept the anger, letting it be what it is, and pause for a moment to look around for love. . . .

There is a radical difference between experiencing anger (or anything else) on one's own and experiencing it in the context of God's love. . . With even just the slightest breath of God . . . compassionate action can spring forth from the energy of anger. It is especially important to remember the good, energetic side of anger and that looking for love in no way implies getting rid of anger. Instead, love is added to the anger. Then God's alchemy of human emotions can be free to work.

. . . Love is always there. At a deep level, we wouldn't even become angry if it weren't for some kind of love; we wouldn't care. Love is at once the source of anger and the source of hope for its creative transformation."

What messages have you received about anger (particularly from the church)? What might happen if you were to work on developing a deeper awareness of and relationship with the energy of your own anger?

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

The Compost Heap: Both/And


A Purification by Wendell Berry
At the start of spring I open a trench
in the ground. I put into it
the winter’s accumulation of paper,
pages I do not want to read
again, useless words, fragments,
errors. And I put into it
the contents of the outhouse:
light of the sun, growth of the ground,
finished with one of their journeys.
To the sky, to the wind, then,
and to the faithful trees, I confess
my sins: that I have not been happy
enough, considering my good luck;
have listened to too much noise;
have been inattentive to wonders;
have lusted after praise.
And then upon the gathered refuse
of mind and body, I close the trench,
folding shut again the dark,
the deathless earth. Beneath that seal
the old escapes into the new.

//

We were nearing the end of our time together when my spiritual director posed a question, "Are you familiar with a Wendell Berry poem where he digs a compost heap?" 

"Yes," I said, "I am." I thought back to the poem I'd printed and posted in the church's prayer room one spring, laying it next to a print of a painting of blurred greens and browns. 

"Maybe that's an image you could work with, a kind of ritual to provide closure," she suggested. "What, from your time at the church would could you put into that pile?"

We had been discussing my complicated, raw feelings about the pastorate I left suddenly at the beginning of March. It was a complicated leaving shaped by trauma and followed closely by the trauma of Covid-19.  I thought about her question for a few minutes, picturing the brown soil of Berry's trench cut in the ground. 

"I don't know yet," I said, at last. "It's all still so co-mingled together." 

She nodded, offering simple acceptance of my appraisal, but the image of compost has stayed with me.

//

Maybe this is what we need to know in this time and space, not the clarity and comfort of the either/or, but the difficult acceptance of both/and. The truth that there are no easy answers and that much of our experience is co-mingled - joy and sorrow, laughter and tears, love and hate, hope and despair.

Without this truth, we'll wear ourselves thin in the endless need to part and parcel out every answer and, in declaring one side of any debate a winner, we will create countless unnecessary losers. 

Both/and invites us to dwell in a place of creative tension - irresolution, if you will. It requires effort of a different sort, a willingness to remain open, a commitment to do the work of turning over ideas, emotions and view points. What if our fear and uncertainty might be transformed by the kind of creative alchemy we find in the compost heap? And what if we were to wait together, unified in faith, hope, and love, to see what emerges?

I am writing, of course, about my own recent experiences, but also about the uneasily resolved tensions we find ourselves in as we grapple with the Covid-19 pandemic. The thing we ought to fear is not the tensions of our divergent viewpoints, but our inability to hold them well, our unwillingness to recognize the creative possibilities of our current situations. 

//

This past Sunday morning, I asked my kids how they felt about using the liturgy from the church where I recently pastored. Despite visiting a few other churches after my resignation, we'd returned to using aspects of this church's liturgy once lockdown began. It was familiar, it was easy, but I was beginning to be certain it was time to move on and I wanted to find out what my kids were feeling.

"What do you think about using this?" I asked. 

The younger boys, age 8, said, echoing each other, "We like it."

Then, one quickly added, with a sly grin, "But we're supposed to hate them now."

His brother chimed in in agreement. 

They were trying to show loyalty to me, for the hurt I experienced. They were reflecting their mixed emotions. They were voicing the creative tensions we all feel, the desire to stay with what's familiar but painful and the need to create distance that will facilitate healing. 

"Well," I said, "you don't need to hate anybody. But Dad and I feel it's time to try something new." 

We joined another local church service online. We didn't know the songs and I cried quietly through the first ten minutes or so. Sensing my sadness, our cat, Blackie, came and sat with his paws on my chest, massaging my heart with his comforting purr. 

I hate the pain we are experiencing, the pain of unresolved endings, the pain of moving into something new, but undesired. It's all so co-mingled right now. But we're holding the tension, believing in the power of creation that makes all things new, the old seeping into the new in unexpectedly beautiful and amazing ways.

What co-mingled thoughts and feelings are you experiencing in this season? How are you holding tension creatively within yourself and with others?

Thursday, May 7, 2020

The Landscape of Love: Affection


Behold the one beholding you, and smiling. - Anthony DeMello

Our cat Blackie’s breath routinely reeks of all sorts of ungodly foulness.

He snores, day and night, like a bear in hibernation. 

He leaves small puddles of drool on the bed and couch.

He bosses the dog, bosses the other cat, bosses me.

He does all of these things and more, and yet I love him. Not despite of these things, but for them, in the midst of them.

When I lay awake at night, listening to him sawing logs at the foot of the bed, my affection rises and falls gently, like my own breath, moving in time with each of his foggy inhales and exhales. When I lean in to hug him on a quiet afternoon, he turns his head and yawns, blasting me with a wave of vile stench, and somehow I still feel tenderness, even as I hold my own breath and turn my face aside.

The love I feel for this silly, grand cat is more than a gravitation toward that which pleases or offers a good return. What I feel might be best referred to as affection or fondness, a feeling that occupies one small corner of the wide and wild landscape of love. 

//

Online dictionaries tell me affection is a feeling of liking or caring, often associated with gentleness or tenderness.  

My favorite definition describes affection as:

“a bent of mind towards a particular object, holding a middle place between disposition, which is natural, and passion, which is excited by the presence of its exciting object. affection is a permanent bent of the mind, formed by the presence of an object, or by some act of another person, and existing without the presence of its object.” 

There's a steadiness to affection; it persists despite arguments and evidence to the contrary. Affection is more than a feeling or reaction, it’s a persistent and consistent orientation.

//

As a parent, I suppose affection could explain the way I feel about my children’s stinky feet, that strange disgust mingled with pride. Or the way I simultaneously dread and delight in their small rebellions and even, when the heat of the moment has passed, their flaws. For these, along with their beauty and graces, are the things that make them human and, if we are to love well and wide, we must find a love that somehow encompasses all, even while wishing and working toward wholeness.

Affection also might describe the source of the gentle sympathy I sometimes feel toward my own flaws and mistakes and the feeling I’m working to conjure toward my stretch-marked belly, and my slowly but steadily graying hair.

If affection lies between natural disposition and passion, then it is a feeling that can be cultivated, learned and employed; injected into one’s relationship with self and others.

//

And affection, of course, must be what DeMello had in mind when he referred to our relationship with God: "Behold the one beholding you, and smiling." God's smile, God's affection, has nothing to do with our worthiness and everything to do with God's steadiness toward us, with God's inexplicable predisposition to a love that's deep and wide, encompassing even our own most devastating flaws.

God looks and leans toward our humble humanity and we are all encompassed in God's gaze - behold the one beholding you, with deep affection.  

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Breathing Life


Our whole family gathers in the back yard, near the fence line and woodpile. It’s evening, and both the sun and temperature are dropping quickly. Several of us wear light coats. We’re all near-kneeling, our heads bent toward the ground in front of the two white beehives. We look like supplicants gathered for prayer. We  face the quiet hives and talk in whispers.

My husband kneels to pick up bees that lay curled, motionless, in the grass just outside the hives' entrances. He lifts them by their wings, one at a time, and drops them in our cupped, waiting hands. One for Isaiah, one for Levi, one for me.

The bee's weight barely registers in my hand. It lays curled on its side, with nothing to indicate it's anything but dead. Still, I look at it closely and worry about its stinger. Then, I curl my right hand over top of my left so my fingers and palms form a darkened cave, a tomb.

I raise my cupped hands to my face and form a seal over the darkened hollow of my hands. Then, I exhale long and slow, taking care to breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth. Each breath warms my hands, warms the bee.

Ten breaths, twenty. We whisper to each other, “Do you feel anything?”

"No."

“Keep breathing, try a little longer.”

Inhale and exhale, like a child warming winter-cold hands. Wait and breathe. Breathe and wait.

Opening my hands, I peek. The bee’s torso, once immobile now seems to throb lightly, as with breath, the yellow and black cone expanding and contracting with the slightest motion. Is it possible to see a bee breathe? I wonder. Maybe I’m imagining it.

Closing my hands again, I continue to breathe. Cold air in, warm air out, until I feel a small tickle, a bee’s foot brushing my palm. I open my hands and check, yes, a leg is moving. I close my hands and continue to breathe until the bee begins to right itself, crawling sleepily, calmly across my palm.

“It’s awake,” I whisper, “How do I get it into the hive?” 

My husband comes and helps me move it with the aid of a twig, transporting it gently to the door of the hive. Then, it disappears inside its own cave of warmth and safety and we return to scanning the grass, the clover, for half-dead bees to breathe back to life again.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The Hammock and the Bee


Lord, I curl in thy grey 
gossamer hammock
that swings by one
elastic thread to thin
twigs that could, that should
break but don't.
- Denise Levertov

//

Our eight-year-old boys strung a thin nylon hammock between two trees and hung there together for hours today. The slick material closed around their wriggling bodies like a clam shell, like a cocoon, and they tussled and turned, swinging in the shadow of the green pines.

Isaiah stepped on a bee this afternoon, an unlucky first for the season. He hobbled, screaming and crying across the yard and I threw back the covers where I laid upstairs in bed, eking out a meager nap. I trotted downstairs, knowing my husband would get there first, imagining what kind of injury would cause such a clamor, wondering how we’d handle the ER if needed.

His older brother mouthed the words, “bee sting” as I made my way to the kitchen where Isaiah already had ice on his foot and his Dad held tweezers poised to pull out the stinger. Isaiah's face crumpled in pain and he shook and hopped one-footed to the living room couch where he sat with ice and a comic book.

When I saw him later, he wore socks and shoes, a rare sight for my barefoot boy. Later still, I saw him down in the yard, climbing the fence with his brother, wearing just his socks. By the time I crossed the yard to invite them on a bike ride, they were back in the hammock again. I stood and watched from a distance as he peeled the dirty white socks off his feet, one then the other, and tossed them overboard into the pine needles and dirt.  

Our grass is filled with wide swaths of clover.

Every year he gets stung stepping on bees.

Every time he screams and cries.

Every time it isn’t long before he heads back out, his dirty feet bare and vulnerable as he trots across the open green expanse of the yard.

//

For another story about my barefoot boy, check out this quick essay from 2014, "This is my shoeless boy, feet stained purple. . ."

I'll be sharing poems every weekday in April in honor of National Poetry Month. Like my page: Kelly Chripczuk: Writer, Speaker, Spiritual Director to stay up to date with the latest. 

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Lord is My Shepherd: Simple Prayer Practices for Engaging with Psalm 23




Many of us rallied through the sudden changes brought by COVID 19 with equal doses of information and humor this past week. I personally, have read more news this week than at any other time in my life - I'm even checking local news several times a day. 

As we roll into Sunday, our minds are distracted and full and many of us may struggle as we turn to new church routines - with our hearts and minds so weary and full, how can we absorb much more? Even if the content is different (prayers and sermons and scripture rather than news update) I'm still finding it challenging to take it all in. 

I'm so thankful to see that Psalm 23 happens to be included in the lectionary reading for this fourth Sunday of Lent. Psalm 23 is a favorite of many and a familiar comfort in times of distress because it speaks directly to our anxious, wandering minds and hearts by rooting us in tactile, embodied images. 

Reading the Psalm, we're asked to put data and information aside and engage the imagination. "I am like a sheep," the Psalmist says, "lay your worries aside and come take a walk with me. Let me tell you about my shepherd. He cares for you too." 

The Psalm is ripe with colorful images of green pastures, still waters, dark valleys, and even the decadent spread of a picnic laid out right smack-dab in the midst of a place of great threat. 

If you find yourself struggling to "do church" or "find God" this week, I want to offer two simple practices you might try (these work great with kids too). 

Imaginative Prayer: Try praying Psalm 23 using your imagination. This form of prayer comes from the Jesuit tradition and involves moving through a passage of scripture slowly, intentionally, and imaginatively. Read the passage once, to become familiar with it. Then, read through again, pausing to paint a mental picture of each image the Psalm presents. 

For example: Imagine yourself as the sheep, feel your own thick wool. Feel the grass on your hooves, lay down in the great greenness, nibble some grass, if you want. Feel the shepherd's presence beside you. How does the shepherd look at you? 

Continue moving through the passage one verse at a time, imaginatively using all of your senses to engage with God. If you find your mind wandering, gently return to the verse or image at hand. You might move through the entire Psalm in this way, or you might move through one verse at a time over the course of several days. Taking time to journal about the experience afterward might help make any insights more concrete. If weather and circumstances allow, this imaginative prayer might be enhanced by being outside. 

Praying With Your Body: Whether you're trying to "do church" with several children or simply need a way to move away from your own mental gymnastics of fear and worry, praying with the body offers a great way to focus during times of stress. 

Pardon the blurred images, but I've posted below a simple body prayer that accompanies Psalm 23. This prayer is taken from Roy DeLeon's book, Praying With the Body: Bringing the Psalms to Life

The first image below shows the adapted prayer and accompanying postures. The next two are a close-up of the first and second half of the prayer.

All of these postures (as drawn) take place on the floor - you'll want to lay out a towel or exercise mat. They can also be easily done in a seated position in an upright chair (steal one from the dinning room table). Take the time to breath several times in each pose and repeat the suggested phrases. Breathing through your nose in a focused way (such that it makes a bit of noise) helps slow you down and bring attention to your breath. 

You could move through this prayer once, slowly or several times as the postures become more familiar. I think this prayer movement could also be a lovely way to unwind and move toward bed at the end of each day.







DeLeon closes the prayer practice with this adapted interpretation of Psalm 23:

O Source of all life's goodness,
you provide everything we need.
You teach me contentment, and true happiness,
the grass is not any greener where I am not.
In times of trouble, chaos, and calamity,
let me be wise and turn to you for comfort. 
For you are a kind and merciful God,
a faithful friend with whom all is possible.

I hope these resources help you find ways to be grounded today and receive the Love and Comfort that's available at all times and in all places as we open ourselves to God.

Got questions? Hit me up in the comments below. 


Finding comfort or insight in focusing on this Psalm? Please feel free to share that too in the comments. Feel free to pass this resource along to any friends you think might benefit from these simple prayer practices. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Hidden Life and Its Questions




If I were to tell you one more thing, it would be this: Do not believe that the one who seeks to comfort you lives without difficulty the simple and humble words that sometimes help you. His life contains much grief and sadness and he remains far behind you. Were it not so, he would not have found these words. – Rainer Maria Rilke

I was thinking about these words from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet in the shower this morning as I pondered this online life of mine and the hiddenness of the life that lies behind it. Online, you see what I show you and I try to show you what edifies, but I also try to be truthful, as much as is possible without causing harm.

For example, I posted a picture on my personal fb page yesterday, a picture of my cat and dog taken after eating lunch on our front porch, surrounded by sun and sky. It was a good picture and a lucky day (mid 70s!) to be eating lunch at home. It was the best part of my day and I shared it with friends online.

But I didn’t share waking up at 5 am and being unable to get back to sleep. I didn’t share how I curled up in bed at 7 pm while the boys were out with John. My daughter came to find me, and I told her, half-joking, “Come get me in twenty minutes, I think I might have depression, or maybe it’s just PMS.”

//

I resigned from my job as Associate Pastor at a local church just over a week ago. It was not a decision I was planning and was not easily made. It’s a choice that comes at a great cost to my family and me. It’s a choice I was privileged to make.

I am grieving. I am free. I am wandering through days suddenly empty, unpacking the contents from my office at the church into my office at home. I’m grateful all over again for the shelter of this place we call home, for the animals and children to tend, for the office and work of my own.

I am grateful. I am grieving. I am wandering. I am free. All of these statements are true.

But I’ve been careful in what I share.

//

Looking through Rilke’s letters, I find another line that rings true for this time: “Do not draw conclusions too quickly from that which is happening to you. Just allow it to happen.”

I’ve been thinking about the space between a thing and its naming; how mystery and possibility dwell there. The space before naming invites a posture of curiosity, which is open and probing, rather than judgement, which is closed. When we name a thing – an experience or person – we lose access to all the other names that might have been. Labeling an experience ‘good’ we deny the bad. Naming a person ‘evil’ we sign an unspoken pact to overlook any glimmers of goodness.

Think of the way naming the humble dandelion a “weed” blinds our eyes from the glory of this roadside yellow friend. There’s one even now (in March!) in my front flower bed, but I won’t celebrate its golden head with anything near the welcome I offer to the purple crocus nodding just two feet away.

There’s a space between a thing and its naming and I’m living there these days. It’s a space of mystery and possibility. It’s a space of occasional fear and dread. For the most part, I’m trying to lean toward Gerald May’s summation in The Dark Night of the Soul: “To be immersed in mystery can be very distressing at first, but over time I have found immense relief in it. It takes the pressure off.”

Few of us are very comfortable once the pressure’s off. Sure, it’s good for a day, or maybe a leisurely week or two. But most of us want to be quickly back at it, whatever it may be, if only by naming experience, cordoning it off, somehow checking a virtual box marked “done.”

Which brings me, finally, to another piece of Rilke's advice: 

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

"Live everything," Rilke says. This is the point. 

Do you see what he does there? So often we live for the answers, as though they were the point, not the living itself.

Live everything: Live the grief. Live the freedom. Live the gratitude. Live, also, the fear, when it comes. Live it all.

Even if it never quite all makes it onto your newsfeed.