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Let The Grace You Need Come

“Grace slips in among the details of daily life, in all the noise and press and chaos of it, and asks us to take notice. Manifesting through words, through art, through all manner of creative expression that ultimately flows from the heart of God, grace gives us the tools and the ability to respond not only to what we find beautiful but also to work with the stuff of life that is awful, that is painful, that makes no sense. Grace does not make life make sense, but it can ground us in the midst of it, giving us a place to stand — or dance, or paint, or sing.” Jan Richardson

The phone doesn’t ring. A neighbor drops by. The email goes unanswered. A gift arrives. The contract’s cancelled. An opening occurs. The plan fails. An opportunity arises. The old friend moves on. A new friendship deepens. The story loses its meaning. A new story gets told. That’s how it works. Whether we realize it or not, grace comes, but it comes dressed up in ways that make it look like everything but an answered prayer. It’s rarely what we want, but almost always what we need. We can’t force what doesn’t come. We can only keep our eyes open for what does.

The sooner you realize this, the sooner you’ll be able to stop agonizing over what hasn’t happened and start focusing on what has. It’s right there in that shift of focus that new beginnings begin. If you haven’t made this shift yet, I’m not going to tell you that now would be a good time to get started because you already know that. What you might not know, though, is how to begin, so let me tell you a story.

I have a friend who came to believe he’d lost his one chance at love. It wasn’t really true, but he tried his best to make it true. The funny thing is no one had broken his heart. He’d told the woman who loved him that their love was impossible and sent her away. Then he shrunk his life down to the bare essentials, blinded himself to what had actually happened, stopped talking, and began taking long walks.

Each morning he’d pack his rucksack, and head up into the mountains. Each day he’d walk further. Every day he’d discover some new path and follow it. When night began to fall, he’d circle back towards home. Then he’d have a simple dinner and spend the evening making notes about the things he’d seen that day: a patch of daffodils in full bloom on an abandoned farm, a heron rising from a hidden pond, a hawk perched on a low branch, watching as he walked by.

As the months passed, he stopped thinking about why he was walking. His notes became a journal that he began quietly sharing with a small circle of friends. Then he began painting. One night he even put on some music, and danced.

As he danced he remembered the day he’d come upon a stranger sitting by the side of the path. The stranger was dressed in old tattered clothing. His long matted hair hung down past his shoulders, and his weathered face glowed as he said, “I’ve been waiting for you. You’re the one who sings as he walks.” My friend began backing away. His heart pounded in his chest. The stranger smiled. “Don’t be afraid,” he said. “I see you out here every day and I hear your song. It sounds like a psalm. Maybe you don’t even realize you’ve been singing it.”

No, he hadn’t realized it. In fact, he’d convinced himself that he no longer had a song to sing. What he told me was that he’d become so full of his own story he hadn’t been paying any attention to the changes taking place inside him. He was just walking. Now all at once his body relaxed. Tensions he’d held deep eased out. A smile spread across his face. Still he couldn’t think of anything to say except thank you, and so that’s what he said. Thank you.

“Just keep singing,” the stranger told him. Then he stood up, patted my friend on the shoulder, and took a few steps before turning to say, “try not to try so hard. Let the grace you need come. It will.” And with that he waved and walked off  leaving my friend standing there in wonder.

I heard this story while out walking the Camino de Santiago, and as I listened to it being told, I realized it could be my story. It could be anyone’s story. We get so full of ourselves sometimes that we miss the fact that Grace walks beside us and works within us even when we try our best to close ourselves off from it, even when we work hard to walk away from it.

That’s a great story, I told him. “Yeah, he said, “it was a perfect day, just like that song, and that’s when I began to realize all the days are if we let the grace we need come.”

“And did it come?” I asked.

“Yes, it did,” he said. “Look where we are.”

We were walking a beautiful path through Galicia. Evening was coming on. Cowbells sounded out across the valley as cattle came in for the night. I’d like to tell you the end of his story, but I can’t because I don’t know it.  What I can tell you is that grace comes.

Once I stopped trying to force things, shifted my focus, stopped agonizing over what hasn’t happened, and started opening my eyes to what has come here’s what I began to see: a neighbor dropping by, a gift arriving, an opening occurring, an opportunity arising, a friendship deepening, and a new story getting told. Right there is where new beginnings begin.

Read: John 1:16

Take Yourself Playfully

“Writing is the act of discovery.”  Natalie Goldberg

Morning has arrived. The sun comes over the mountains. Light fills the treetops. Birds fly out of the forest, and it all starts over. This repetition, this always, this again. Still you stand there thinking “ok, so now what?” as if you didn’t know. You must get started. But how do you begin? Knowing how path leads to path, it doesn’t really matter how, only that you do.

One way to begin is just like this, one word after another, until you’ve risen out of always and again to find yourself in a new place. Along the way you might find it helpful to follow some basic pilgrim practices. When you keep your eyes open, stay alert for surprise, and let go of expectations, then you’ll begin to generate the results you desire. You may have already noticed how expectations rise up as obstacles that block the way, so why not clear the path? There is no such thing as not good enough. There is only work that doesn’t get done.

You’re going to do it, but don’t try to do it too quickly. In the days and weeks ahead you will begin to find it all comes easily, but for now you’ll want to savor the beginnings. You might also want to practice different ways of getting started. That’s been working for me this week. One of the things you’re going to love about this practice is how much fun it is, and it’s good to have fun, isn’t it? That’s what the journey is all about, so let’s get started.

I’m not going to tell you about all the false starts I took this week, because there was nothing false about them. Each one got me just a little further along and it doesn’t matter if all I wound up with was a notebook full of unrelated paragraphs. The point of writing them was to write them. All I really wanted to do was to keep a promise to myself. I promised myself I would write something every day, and having done that, I should have been happy. That I wanted more only goes to show you that I still have a lot to learn about all of this. But I’m not going to tell you about that. Now now.

What I want to tell you about now is a bit more about how practice works. Whether you decide to write, draw, paint, play the piano, do yoga, walk everyday, or learn a new language you’ll soon come to realize it’s all about practice. Don’t say “by the end of the year, I’m going to publish a novel” or “before long I’ll be impressing my friends with my musical skills.” Instead say, “I’m going to set aside thirty minutes a day to do this.” Then do it. If you don’t have thirty minutes, ten minutes is alright. Whatever you can realistically manage. Make practice your goal. If you miss a day, that’s ok. Don’t beat yourself about it. Just get up the next day and start again.

I’ll never forget how surprised I was when my father announced that he was going to coach our Little League baseball team. He knew nothing about sports and wasn’t athletic in the least. What he did know about though was how to make practice fun. He’d show up in his work clothes, put a baseball cap on, and thoroughly enjoy himself no matter how poorly we played. “It’s not about being good,” he’d tell us. “It’s about having a good time.” This was good to know, because we were the worst team in the entire league. Someone would strike out. He’d laugh and say, “it’s a beautiful thing to watch you swing that bat.” Someone would drop the ball. He’d say, “I love the way you tried.” Someone would be feeling down. He’d hug them and say “what you need is some ice cream.” And after every practice, after every game, no matter what, that’s what we all got. Ice cream. “Ice cream for everyone,” he’d call out. Reward yourself for trying, no matter what.

I’ll always remember what one of my favorite professors, Winston Fuller, taught me about all this. At the end of a writing workshop I’d taken with him he wrote that …

“An intentional person is too effective to be a good guide in the tentative activity of writing. It takes a certain amount of irresponsibility to create. I think now that you have begun to take yourself seriously, you should also begin to take Playful Writingyourself playfully. What you need now is to play, to write for the joy of writing. You need to permit yourself to write foolish, insipid, revealing, and unoriginal junk. Stacks of it. For this very good reason: there is no way to get to the good stuff except by wading through mounds and mounds of the bad stuff.  At this point, Charles, if you’re not writing a lot of junk, you’re not doing your job.”

That was 35 years ago, and what you see me doing here is going back to learn that lesson again, and that takes us back to the lesson about letting go of expectations. So often we take ourselves way too seriously, and in our seriousness we forget how much fun it is to begin again and again.

And there you have four writing prompts that have gotten me somewhere this week. I’m got going to tell you about is my favorite because when you start with that, surprising things happen. What I’m going to tell you about now works well because as soon as  you write those words, something comes to mind. Go with that. If you don’t like I’ll never forget and I’ll always remember, try I’ve tried to forget or I can never quite remember and see what happens.

Something will. If you’re not a writer, paint those prompts. If you’re not a painter, walk through them. If you’re not a walker, play them on the piano, and if you don’t play piano, breathe them. If you don’t like those prompts, come up with some of your own, then let them carry you to a new way in, and on to a further path. Wherever they lead, enjoy that, and don’t forget the ice cream

Night has come. The moon has risen. The birds have returned to the forest, and all the stars are out. If you’re still standing there thinking “ok, so now what?” as if you didn’t know, don’t worry. You still get ice cream. Reward yourself for even thinking about it. Then, please get some rest. Tomorrow is another day on which you can get started all over again. And how will you begin? Knowing how path leads to path, it doesn’t really matter how, only that you do.

Read: Job 8:7

Break the Cycle: Start with Joy.

“My ideas are always changing, always moving around one center, and I am always seeing that center from somewhere else. Hence, I will always be accused of inconsistency. But I will no longer be there to hear the accusation.”  – Thomas Merton 

When I was a kid, my friends and I would go to an amusement park where our favorite ride was The Wall of Death, a big wooden cylinder that spun round and round. As it spun faster, carnivalride2-1riders would be pinned to the wall and the floor would drop out.  It wasn’t magic that held us there, we knew that, and yet it felt that way. There we’d be, our feet meters above the ground, freed from gravity, free to perform whatever stunts our courage allowed. My friends wound hang upside down, climb the wall up to the edge and look out, or make their way across to the other side. My courage didn’t allow that.  I started from a place of fear. Watching other riders from above was dizzying enough. What am I doing, I’d think? It took all the courage I had just to move from spectator to participant. Then once there in the cylinder, as the machinery started us spinning, I’d close my eyes, hope for the best, and invariably start to panic.

What if the operator spun us too fast? What if he kept us spinning too long? What if the whole thing spun off its axis? Around the time the floor would drop away, I’d be imagining myself flung right out of the ride into space. Then, it happened. I’d feel a rush of joy surge through me. As the ride slowed down and came to a stop, that joy became release, and I’d stumble out into the world, amazed that I was still alive. Before long, I’d get back in line with the others and experience that whole range of emotions all over again: fear, hope, panic, joy, release.

That’s sort of the way I lived my whole life until one day not all that long ago when I realized I didn’t have to live like that. I didn’t have to keep doing the same thing over and over again hoping to get the same rush and range of emotions. I didn’t have to keep riding the wall of death.  I could break the cycle, start from a different place, and experience life in a new way.

I met someone who helped me with that.  A few months ago, I was sitting alone at a cafe in Burgos, Spain watching other pilgrims head off when a man came to join me at the table. He was huge, carried a big walking stick, and had a radiant smile. “What are you afraid of, man?” he asked as he sat down. How did he know? Well,” I said, “I’m about to walk the Camino and I’m not sure I can do this.” He smiles and says, “Let me tell you how to walk the Camino. Your way.”

Then, he opens up an empty plastic bag and holds it out to me. “Put all your fears in here,” he says. “The Camino ain’t no wall of death. It’s a circle of joy. Fill the bag with those fears, man. Those are stones that will throw you off balance. Drop them. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

When he comes back he says, “You didn’t hold anything back did you?” I tell him I didn’t. Then he takes the bag from me and makes a big deal out of carrying it over to the trash and throwing it away. “Now, stand up and start walking”, he says. “Break the cycle. Start with joy.”

So I stand up, put my pack on, thank him and start walking. “Wait up,” he yells. “I’ve got something for you.” I stop and wait as he runs up and wraps me in a hug. “Brother,” he says, “your joy’s going to refresh the hearts of the saints.” Who is this man whose encouragement and love has just refreshed my heart? I ask him. “They call my Patrick, but I’m just another guy who said no to the wall of death.” He waves me off and I walk on into my Camino.

I’d like to tell you that it was that easy, but it wasn’t. New fears have turned up since then, and at times I have panicked. I’ve even lost hope once or twice. But I know what to do now to break the cycle. I get out a bag, fill it full of my fears, and throw it away. If you’re looking for me in the line to get back on the Wall of Death, I’m no longer there. I don’t need that whole range and rush of emotions. I see my center differently. I know I can start with joy, and I know you could, too. We could start everyday that way. Say no to the wall of death.  Break the cycle. Start with joy.

Read Philemon 1-7

Step Into A New Story

“I lost almost everything,” says the man, “and now I’ve got nothing”.
His friend says, “We could make something out of that”.

Let me tell you a story about stories and the power they have to drive our lives.

Whenever we start thinking we have nothing, we’ve stepped through a blind spot into a trap. The blind stop is real. The trap is an illusion, wrapped in a lie. But we don’t see that. Instead of freeing ourselves and moving along, we stand there dazed, wondering what happened. Then we start making up stories. “It’s my own fault,” we say. “I should have seen it coming.” Our own words make the trap real. The stories we tell strengthen the lie. This is not a parable. It happens.

I once heard a friend say, “I have nothing, because I am nothing.” I was staggered by the number of illusions that remark emerged from. But it had become so embedded in the story he’d been telling himself  that it had become his truth. It took a new story to untangle him from that.

This same friend is now a believer in abundance. When I ask him how that happened, he says, “Do you know that story about the loaves and fishes?” I tell him that I do. “Well, that’s my story now.” I encourage him to say more. “Do you know what God’s favorite building material is,” he asks? I tell him that I don’t. “God’s favorite building material is nothing. He loves to make something out of that.” I’m not sure what to say.

And so you’re a believer now, I ask? He smiles and says, “All I know is that ever since I started living in that story, I’ve come to see myself as someone who’s been given a basket full of good stuff to pass around. There’s always more than enough. I give that away. Then more comes.”

I was thinking about that story today. There are five thousand people gathered. The disciples are worried. How are we going to feed them, they ask? Jesus says, “What have you got there?” They shrug. “Five fish. A couple loaves of bread.” What they mean is we’ve got nothing. They’re about to tell themselves a story about that nothing when Jesus says, “I’ll take care of that.” Then he changes the whole story. All at once, there’s not only enough for everyone. There’s extra.

Yes, it’s a miracle, and you can believe what you want about that. Instead, focus on my friend. By trading the story about nothingness he’d created for himself with this story about abundance, he changed his life. Well, it wasn’t quite that simple, but at the very least, that new story became a tool that helped free him. He now lives in a story about abundance, and works in the business of giving. He doesn’t just give material goods to those in need. He helps them create new stories to live in. He gave me this story, and now I’ll give you mine.

A year ago, I was living in a story about nothing. “I’ve got two stents in my heart, no job, and no real prospects,” I’d tell myself and anyone who’d listen. “I’m trapped.” Then, I woke up one morning and began working on a new one. “I’m going to walk the Camino de Santiago,” I said, and then step by step I walked into that story.

For a while along the way I way still telling people about the stents and my problems. Then one day, I stopped doing that. That story no longer served me at all. Now I tell people, “I’m a pilgrim who walked the Camino, and I’m writing a book.” I still have the stents. I’m still unemployed. But I’ve stepped into a new story, and I’m living that now.

And what does this have to do with me, you ask? Well you could do that, too. New beginnings grow out of new stories. If you’re trapped in a story that’s no longer serving you, start working on a new one. If you know someone trapped in a story that’s not working and you’ve got one that is, share yours.  That’s all I’m doing. We live out the stories we tell. Make yours a good one.

Read: Matthew 14:13

The Arrival Of Unexpected Joy

“Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”  – Anne Lamott

I sit down to write. But nothing comes. Or rather I don’t know how to begin. I look out the window. Mist rises from the mountains. A breeze moves through the trees. Then, a bird crosses the sky. Then another. Then more. Pretty soon there’s hundreds of them. Maybe thousands. Wherever they’ve been all winter, I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed them until this very moment. They’re swallows, and they’re back.

All at once something swoops through my body the way the swallows dance across sky. As it swoops through, I tremble with it. Then it happens again. As unexpected on this day as the swallows’ return, joy has come back. In its absence, I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed it, until now.

Something goes away, and we adapt. Something leaves, and we adjust. Before too long, we come to think of this as normal. We’re fine with less, we say. We’re doing all right, we claim, and sure, we’re ok. Oh, there’s nothing missing, we tell ourselves, and yet we know it’s not completely true. Out walking the valleys, we long for the mountaintops. All winter, we dream of spring. Then we sit down to write, and nothing comes. Or rather, we don’t know how to begin. And yet we do.

In the absence of joy, I’ve made myself happy with contentment: good books, long walks, meaningful work, and small gatherings of friends. I’ve also devoted myself to practice: Every day journaling, daily contemplative prayer and meditation, an hour every evening at the piano. All of these activities have enriched these wintery times, but nothing’s clicked. Not really. Not yet. Then, I sit down and write, and this comes. Or rather, those swallows come, and with them a longed for joy I wasn’t expecting.

The swallows that crossed my patch of sky today began their journey weeks ago, thousands of kilometers from here. There were nights they got no rest. There were days far from land. They crossed an ocean and at least one mountain range to get here. They did not do this for me. They did this because they’re swallows and this is what swallows do. And yet, with their arrival came this gift. That’s how things work. Some might call that grace. I do. It works like this.

One day you’re working you’re way through less, just showing up and doing your best, and then suddenly you’re in a poem by Havez where “for no reason a 1000 birds choose your head for a conference table and start passing their cups of wine and wild songbooks all around” and you feel like dancing again. If the swallows have not arrived for you yet, please know they’re on their way. In the meantime, keep at it, and don’t give up. Take it day by day. Take it bird by bird.

Read: Isaiah 38:14

Specialize In The Impossible

“What we need are more people who specialize in the impossible.”

– Theodore Roethke 

The darkness has passed. Light is coming back to the world. In the forest, the impossible transformation is happening again. New life is pushing out of the hard ground. Buds are about to burst into leaf and blossom. A few weeks ago, this seemed unlikely. Yet, there has never been any doubt that it would happen. Forces have been at work below the surface. Even when it seemed that nothing was happening, something was. Why is it so hard for us to believe that these same forces are at work within us, too?

I have a friend who once came to believe he’d fallen into a hole. The harder he tried to dig himself out of it, the deeper the hole got. Eventually, he just gave up and made his home there. I have another friend who loved this man so much she’d climb down into that hole every day to sit with him. Sometimes they’d watch a film together. Sometimes they’d play cards. When he wanted to talk, they’d talk. When silence was more comfortable for him, they’d be quiet together.

Weeks went by. Months passed. One day our friend asked, “Why do you keep coming? It must be so boring for you to spend time with someone like me.” She looked right into his eyes and said, “I know that when you look at yourself right now, all you can see is the hole you’re in.” He nodded. “But when I look at you,” she continued, “all I see is wholeness and possibility. Besides, I love you, and I actually enjoy your company. Any other questions?” He didn’t have any right then.

What she saw was a glimpse of what the Beloved sees. This is what she offered him. This is how she loved him. This is what love does. Where we see brokenness, love sees transformation. Where we see a hole, love lights the way out.

It seemed impossible to him that he could be so loved, and yet something in him knew it was true. Still it took awhile for this to sink in. Sometimes doubts would rise up and cause him to ask, “Are you sure about this?” She was sure. “You are so loved,” she’d say. Eventually he believed it.

That love when on to transform our friend into the teacher he is. That love went on to transform her into the artist she’s become. And who are these people? It’s a true story, but their names don’t matter here. They could anybody. They could be you.

Spring is not just an impossible transformation that happens in the world. That same process is at work within us too. Yet in us it often needs someone who specializes in the impossible to see and offer us a glimpse into what really is, into what could be. That’s where you come in.

If you’re looking for a new beginning today, consider becoming a specialist in the impossible. Take a look around. Who needs your help today? Who needs to know they’re loved. Who needs to know what’s possible? Wherever you are, you live in a world where impossible transformation is at work. Specialize in that.

Read: Isaiah 43:19

How Quietly We Begin Again

Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final

― Rainer Maria Rilke 

Let’s say you’ve stepped into a difficult day. Maybe you’ve received news that’s not easy to process. Perhaps a shadow has crossed your consciousness:  a worry, a fear, a sadness. Or let’s say you’ve stepped into a beautiful day. You’re deep in the flow, and every joy is yours.

Earlier this week, I stepped into that deep in the flow day full of joy. This morning I stepped into that shadowy day. Tomorrow, who knows what will come? It could be beauty. It could be terror. There could be light. There might be darkness. It all comes, and yet nothing ever stays for long.

Twice this week those lines from Rilke have come to mind. The first time it happened, they fell into my hand. I’d opened a book to find I’d written those words on a notecard at some point in the long ago past.  They returned to me like a message from my younger self.  Later, the same words appeared on my computer screen following a series of unrelated clicks on the Internet. You could call it a coincidence, and yet I wont.  These things that enter our consciousness are so often the very things we need most to know.

Earlier today I wrote these words:

You do not have to wait until tomorrow to begin again. You do not have to wait even one more moment. You could begin again right now. Take one step in a new direction. Now take another. Now keep going. Don’t stop until you start to feel better.

Writing those words was my first step. That first step, led me to recall the poem Be Still In Haste by Wendell Berry. Reading this poem again was my second step.

Be Still In Haste

How quietly I
begin again

from this moment
looking at the
clock, I start over

so much time has
passed, and is equaled
by whatever
split-second is present

from this
moment this moment
is the first.

After those first two steps, some of the shadows of this day retreated. Then, I put on my walking shoes and took several thousand more steps out past the fields and into the forest. For no particular reason, I stopped. I took a deep breath. Then I took one more step into a patch of light. That’s when I looked down to find violets in bloom on the forest floor. It was just this little thing on a shadowy day at the end of winter, but it was a little thing that changed everything . Violets on the forest floor. How quietly we begin again.

No matter where you are on the journey today, no matter how you’re feeling right now, just keep going. Even if it feels like you can’t go on, you can. Take a step. Then take another one. That first step might be a deep breath. It might be some words you write. It might be a walk through the shadows and into the light.  Let everything happen. Keep going until you feel better, and along the way pay attention to the things that cross your consciousness. They very well might be the very things you need to know. You can begin quietly again. Start now.

Read:  1st Corinthians 2: 9-10