Perplexed

“In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” (Luke 1:26-29)

Mary was perplexed at the angel’s greeting. Personally, I would have been perplexed to find myself speaking with an angel.

Of course, it’s possible, the angel appeared in human guise. That’s not outside the realm of possibility. A popular television show, “Touched by an Angel,” chose that approach, and God does have a tendency to use themes in his creation. Horse, donkey, zebra — different, but with evident commonalities. Lion, tiger, domestic house cat — different, but with similar characteristics. It’s entirely possible that when angels make their presence known, they look enough like us to be indistinguishable from us.

If that were the case, the greeting would have been perplexing. If, during an ordinary day, when I was about my ordinary business, a stranger greeted me by saying, “The Lord is with you,” I would feel a shimmer of disconnect. I hear a similar phrase when I attend Mass — “The Lord be with you” — but that’s part of the liturgy, and doesn’t set me apart from others who worship. To hear it not as part of a liturgical prayer, but as a statement of fact would be disconcerting.

The Lord is with me? Why? Why me and how do you know? Yet, during this Christmas season, isn’t that the message angels bring each of us? The Lord is with you.

We don’t know exactly when Jesus was born; his birth wasn’t registered at the local courthouse with parents identified and attending physician noted. We celebrate shortly after the winter solstice because, for us, he is the light which shines in the darkness, a light not overcome by that darkness (Cf. John 1:5). It makes sense that we would name clearly what ancients only intuited and celebrated by other names.

However, none of us can fully grasp the mystery of God with us in a newborn child. We can’t even grasp the mystery of wonder we feel when our children are born, when we hold our grandchildren for the first time, when we see a stranger’s child in the grocery store. Something within us — spontaneously, without intent or choice — honors the miracle of that child’s life and inherent dignity. We are drawn to the hope each child signifies; God is not done with us.

Jesus — who would die for us and rise again to show us death is not the end — entered this world in exactly the same way, as a newborn child. We are told there was no room at the inn, but I suspect that was a euphemism rather than the literal truth. Joseph would have had relatives in Bethlehem, but his betrothed — a very pregnant Mary, who would undoubtedly have been condemned by gossip as an adulteress, even if Joseph did not put her aside — would not have been welcome in any “decent” home.

The innkeeper had probably been apprised of the situation and discouraged from taking them in. I wonder if it was the innkeeper who had a heart, or if it was his wife. I wonder which of them said, “Maybe we can’t give them shelter inside, but we can’t turn them away, either. It just isn’t right, especially with that young woman being so close to her time.”

And so it was that Jesus came to be born in a stable, as an outcast. But God was so proud of his plan unfolding, so proud of the son born into the world, so proud of the way generations would be transformed by that pivotal moment in time, he made the announcement to those who would listen — shepherds who kept watch by night. They believed, as do all of us who know the darkness and long for the light.

Not one of us has lived without suffering. We all can name a loss, a disappointment, a closed door, a death, that changed us irrevocably. But, unless we are still in the midst of our grief, we know the suffering, in time, eases. We know that morning follows the darkest of nights. We know a day will come when we are no longer suffocated by pain, and can take a deep breath again. That is God with us. That is the child coming into our hearts as he came into the world.

But his birth was not just a metaphor, it was a reality. His mother felt the crushing pain of contractions and spread her legs so that Jesus could slip from God’s dream for us into the world he created for us, a world in which we are shaped by choice and chance, by his hand working through the natural order of things and our responses to them. We can be like the relatives who did not make the child welcome, like the innkeeper who found a place — not an ideal place, but a place nevertheless — for the child, or we can be like the shepherds who put aside what they were doing and sought him.

When we hear the proclamation, ‘The Lord is with you,’ we have that choice. Which do we chose?

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Life, Death and More Life

I don’t think I have made it through a day in the past month without crying. Please, I beg God, please don’t let me lose someone else I love during the Christmas season.

Technically, it’s Advent, and technically, Mom didn’t die during Advent. She died before the First Sunday of Advent, but it was December, and the heart doesn’t measure time with calendars anyhow. The heart measures time by experience, and my heart has Thanksgiving and Christmas and all the time between tangled in a knot of heartache and grief.

About the time I turned 40, my mom’s age when she died, I suffered an existential crisis. Whether it was an early mid-life crisis or just the crisis of living past my mother’s age of death, I don’t know. I just know that I was desperate to make sense of my life, for the pain and disappointments and mistakes to make sense. I read over and over — until I had memorized some parts — Thomas Moore’s book, Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life. So much resonated with me, validated my experience, and in that, I found a way to make peace with my life.

About the same time, I read Motherless Daughters: Legacy of Loss by Hope Edelman. What I recall now, years later, is how typical my life was; I made the kinds of choices women make who lose their mothers during adolescence. That comforted me. She also said that for women who lose their mothers when they are young, that loss is one of the defining moments of their lives. And that has been true for me, too; I am a motherless daughter, and I have never stopped missing my mother. I have never stopped longing for her love — even after realizing that my mother would never have encouraged me to become a painter or to become a deeply spiritual person, two movements which give my life its deepest meaning.

Over the years, I learned to be grateful for the mentors God brought into my life, the women who mothered some part of me — Jessie, my counselor, whom I will always credit with the wholeness I was able to achieve as a result of our work together; Signe, my art instructor, who encouraged me when I entered her class with only curiosity, but no experience; Darlene, the co-worker, who listened with infinite patience as I wrestled with the life challenges I imagined I would have shared with my mother had she lived; and so many others over the years. And now, one of those precious, precious women is dying.

Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis — her lung tissue is thickening, so her brain and organs aren’t getting the oxygen they need. She’s been housebound for weeks, and the oxygen she’s being given has been increased. Most recently, the decision was made to begin administering morphine to help her body relax, because it naturally fights for the oxygen  it is not receiving. My heart is breaking.

Wanda, a Lutheran pastor, was my spiritual mother. I was a deeply spiritual person when I met her, and had a healthy spiritual life, but no one with whom to share my thoughts and ideas. Wanda and I had the discussions that I hungered to have with someone, and out of those conversations — often conducted over white wine (Wanda) and beer (me) — a deep friendship grew, a heart connection that endured even when we were not able to spend time together. We talked once in a while about getting a place together when she retired, but by the time she retired, she also knew she was dying. Like a good mother, a protective mother, she didn’t tell me. She just said she was going to move closer to her sister.

I saw her a few months ago, and was reminded with that visit just how much I love her. When I moved a couple years before she retired to accept a new position, I discovered she is one of those people who isn’t good at keeping in touch. And while I missed her, I always knew that I could visit her and would be welcome, which eased the ache. As time passed, the ache lessened, and I learned to live without her in my life. I continued to pray for her and to love her, but life brings these transitions and learning to accommodate them is part of living.

The visit earlier this year, and the conversation we had, even though her energy flagged after a couple hours, reminded me how very much her friendship means to me. Together, we hatched the idea of reshaping some of her sermons into meditations for a book. Wanda selected the ones she wanted to include, and I have been editing them. I hear her voice in them, and even recognize some of the ideas we discussed. I can remember sitting at a table in the pub that was our favorite getaway and saying, “But, Wanda, think about this: if there hadn’t been a cross, would the resurrection had have the same impact? If Jesus had died of old age or been killed in an accident, would anyone have noticed when he rose from the dead? His death had to be public and it had to be humiliating.” And there it is, in one of her reflections — the question I raised.

And so she lives now with me even as she struggles for each breath and her body is beginning to shut down. I have no doubt that she believes in the resurrection. We spoke of her death a few months ago, and she said, “I truly believe what I have preached at hundreds of funerals; I truly believe in the resurrection and eternal life.” Her sister said that Wanda’s mantra has become, “Life is good, but eternal life is better.”

I know this, too. I have no doubt that our Lord will wrap Wanda in his arms, and say, “Welcome home, good and faithful servant,” because she is a woman who has truly lived the gospels. But I am a selfish, selfish woman. I’m not ready to lose her — not now, the book isn’t done; not now, it’s Christmas.

Not now. But, I know this isn’t in my hands; it’s in God’s hands, and I must trust God to give me the grace to let her go with joy when the time comes. Until then, I reserve the right to cry.

Kindness Matters

I’ve read the article from The Atlantic three times. Titled “Masters of Love,” it explores the dynamic that research suggests may be key to marital happiness — kindness. Apparently, partners who show an interest in one another, give their partners the benefit of the doubt, and share each other’s joys have a 97% chance of having a marriage that lasts and of being happy in that marriage.

One thought strikes me every time I read this: ALL relationships benefit from kindness. Without kindness, there’s not much hope.

I know I go back to this article over and over again because I keep looking for the answer to my question: How do you turn a significant relationship around when kindness went out the door years ago? I’ve been worn out by one such relationship. I don’t want to end the relationship, but I’ve been treated such contempt and such disrespect on such a consistent basis for so long, I just feel like walking away.

On a good day, there’s cool courtesy mixed with snide barbs. On a bad day, there’s outright hostility. Often, situations escalate beyond comprehension out of nothing.

A couple weeks ago, just to make conversation, I notified her that my supervisor — someone she knows — had resigned. I was sorry to see him leave, but also understood the reasons for his choice. She didn’t; I defended him — and BAM! The whole thing spiraled out of control. When I saw a very familiar pattern unfolding, I tried naming the no-win dynamic and asking her to stop. I tried changing the topic. I tried explaining that I had just received news that a friend in hospice wasn’t doing well, and asked her to show some compassion. The situation just kept escalating.

Eventually, I received this text: “You are a self-centered individual. I can’t believe I have even attempted a relationship with you. You can stop communicating with me. Ever.” It’s a disturbing message, but I find myself wondering if that might not be best for both of us.

Obviously, there’s a tremendous disconnect between the way she sees me and the way I see myself. I don’t see myself as self-centered or narcissistic (another of her favorite descriptors lately). I suspect that what she’s really saying is this: “I don’t get from you what I need from you.” I will openly admit that at my age, I have physical limitations that prevent me from being as active as I was at 30 or 40. However, I don’t believe that knowing one’s limitations makes one either self-centered or narcissistic. I think it’s healthy and appropriate.

I will also admit that I have probably withdrawn emotionally in recent years. I doubt if I’ve had a dozen conversations with her in the last three years that didn’t involve criticism expressed with greater or lesser degrees of contempt. I have to give myself a pep talk every time I’m going to see her. Breathe deeply. Don’t get defensive. Show an interest in her, but be careful with the way you express your interest. Look down and not at her if you have any concerns, because if she reads anything in your face, she’ll jump all over you. Breathe deeply. Breathe deeply. Breathe deeply. That’s not good. It’s hard to be loving and supportive when so much energy is tied up in protective mechanisms like that.

So, at present, we’re at an impasse. I can’t change the way she sees me, and I can’t change the way she speaks to me. I’m sure she would say that I should change, but when I reflect on the choices I have made, I believe they are healthy and appropriate. I’ve established appropriate boundaries. I don’t say in anger what I wouldn’t say over a cup of coffee at Starbucks. I keep showing up and making an effort, even though I have been deeply hurt by some of the things that have been said.

But, now I’ve been told to stop showing up. I could say yet again, “She was speaking in anger and didn’t mean it.” Or I could listen to what she says and honor her request. When I consider what led to this communication embargo, I suspect that might be best. I refused to apologize for her thoughts; she insisted I apologize not for what I said or for what I meant by what I said, but for what she decided I meant; she refused to consider the possibility that I meant something entirely different.

That’s not reasonable. That’s not fair. And, it’s certainly not kind. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the long run, but I do know that unless kindness becomes a key component of this relationship, it will not be a relationship that brings either of us joy or enables either of us to feel loved.

If that’s to be our future, maybe walking away is best.