Courage in Suffering

My child, when you come to serve the Lord,
    prepare yourself for testing.
 Set your heart right and be steadfast,
    and do not be impetuous in time of calamity.
Cling to him and do not depart,
    so that your last days may be prosperous.
 Accept whatever befalls you,
    and in times of humiliation be patient.
 For gold is tested in the fire,
    and those found acceptable, in the furnace of humiliation.

SIRACH 2
 

My sister just recently decided to become a mail carrier after ditching her job in the city. On the first day of training she nervously sought to fill a dead spot in the conversation.

“So, do we organize the letters and packages on our route alphabetically?”

The man looked at her compassionately. “Um, so we organize by the numbers on the mail boxes.”

My sister had been up since 4 am, was considering buying a new home, was recovering from Lyme, had failed the first mail carrier driving test, and had taken on a new labrador retriever puppy we later discovered came from a puppy mill. A few days later the same man spotted her at another training.

“I remember you!” he said with a smile.

“Yes, I’m the one who asked the moronic question.”

He laughed. “I have to admit that I thought they were really lowering the standards around here.”

My sister is funny and resilient. She takes humiliation quite well.

Guess who has the puppy now?

Children who have suffered from severe abuse have an uneasy relationship with shame. A well-loved child will be told no a million times. These little reprimands followed by hugs and kisses allow the child to experience shame in small and useful doses. It prepares them for a lifetime of mistakes and learning from those mistakes. An abused child often was made to feel shame and humiliation for unjustifiable reasons. In many cases, because of the parent’s own faulty shame response, the child becomes a hated thing. Our adopted daughter cannot take any personal responsibility. To do so releases such intense shame — a shame that causes her to hurt others.

God does not seek to shame us into submission but he allows us to learn through suffering. We all know there is no escaping suffering. It’s why some people prefer not to imagine a creator at all. A year or so ago a blogging friend AMY mentioned that she picked a word for each year. I liked the idea. COURAGE instantly came to mind.

I’m writing a novel based on my ancestors. As a timid person who hates to be humiliated I felt I really needed to explore the lives of my courageous ancestors.

Consider the generations of old and see:
    has anyone trusted in the Lord and been disappointed?
Or has anyone persevered in the fear of the Lord and been forsaken?
    Or has anyone called upon him and been neglected?
 For the Lord is compassionate and merciful;
    he forgives sins and saves in time of distress.

 Woe to timid hearts and to slack hands,
    and to the sinner who walks a double path!
 Woe to the fainthearted who have no trust!
    Therefore they will have no shelter.
 Woe to you who have lost your nerve!
    What will you do when the Lord’s reckoning comes?

My ancestors cut through forests as panthers with yellow eyes stalked them at night. They lived off of turnips and beechnuts. They were captured by Indians during the French and Indian War and threw tea overboard when the government overstepped authority. They fought and died to end slavery.

I’m afraid to make phone calls.

So courage became the word of the last year. I hate superheroes. MY CHARACTERS are as flawed as I am. I can’t connect with perfect people. I’m too much a perfectionist to want competition. The good thing about aging and becoming just a little bit wiser is that I see what my problem is: Pride leads to fear of humiliation which leads to stepping back when I need to step forward. More pride, more shame, more cowardice … repeat.

One of my ancestors was sent home from the Civil War because he’d had loose bowels for so long that he was coughing up blood. What unimagineable courage it must have taken for him to reenlist a year later upon recovery. Yes, the bonuses would have been appealing to a poor farm boy, but I refuse to belittle his self-sacrifice. Imagine the many large and small humiliations suffered by the patients in those old-fashioned hospitals.

Not much has changed. Two doctors once stood face-to-face across a hospital bed fighting over who might better find a vein to draw blood from me as I lay dying. I didn’t choose that indignity so I don’t think I was courageous, yet it did refine me. I appreciated compassionate doctors and nurses more. I appreciated the hospital workers who without my prompting prayed over me. Their prayers must have worked!

Humiliations come to us even if we do not seek them. The courageous do what’s good, true or beautiful even when they know the humiliations they will most likely suffer.

Those who fear the Lord prepare their hearts,
    and humble themselves before him.

The beginning of wisdom is accepting that we cannot hide from humiliation. Yes, we will fear it and dread it. But the ancients all seemed to understand the glory of courage and the refining value of suffering. This last year I had to decide if I would forgive our daughter’s rages that so often were taken out on me. I had to fight to get her to safety and bare my soul to mental health professionals who no longer had souls of compassion.

If I hadn’t been thinking about courage and humility I could not have escaped with my sanity. I’m stronger than I thought I was, but weaker and more reliant on others than I would ever have admitted. That’s okay. It’s actually good. I’m not as brave as a soldier overtaking a breastwork, but I’m not as afraid as I once was of life’s refinery (I should probably knock on wood or something after saying that).

Where Does Wisdom Come From?

Numerous and wonderful things have been given to us through the Law, the Prophets, and the other writings that followed them. For this reason, it is necessary to praise Israel for education and wisdom. It is also necessary not only for those who read them to gain understanding but also for those who love learning to be of service to strangers when they speak and write. 

Sirach 1:1

I realized about two months ago that I walk too fast. When I was younger I used to run everywhere. I can only imagine what people thought as I raced to buy my M&Ms candy after school to share with my Yorkshire Terrier. I remember sorting the colors before eating them one by one. The tiny dog survived the daily poison.

Wisdom comes the more you notice the daily poisons you consume. The poisons can be sweet in the moment like when you’re scanning through beautiful images on Instagram. They can be masked as “goals” or “schedules” offered as help by the experts in psychology. As individuals, things that are healthy for some are not healthy for others.

There’s a man who always jogs past our house at 3 pm and upsets our dogs. He looks incredibly drained and frail from the running. I suspect it’s an addiction. Remember I used to run to get candy. In the back of my mind I was burning calories so I could eat the M&Ms without guilt.

Yet despite our individuality, I think actual wisdom comes from truths that are just there waiting to be discovered and embraced. There are those preferences that we call “our truths” but they are nothing like the time-tested TRUTH passed down through wise people in every age.

I had just started taking a class in groundwork with horses because despite my fear I can’t stop being drawn to horses. I have a sense that I must conquer fear in my life. The instructor pointed out, after the horse started nipping at me, how quickly I wanted the horse to respond to my requests . She asked why I thought the horse was doing that.

A rush of emotion welled up from nowhere. I almost cried. “Because horses don’t like me.”

I knew this was probably not true but I also knew it was how I felt in the moment when I became frustrated. The horse was mirroring my impatience and anxiety. It was the very next day when I noticed I was walking too fast. From the barn to the chicken coop, from the hay bales to the watering troughs, I raced from one chore to the next, all the while feeling a vague sense of guilt for not spending time enjoying my mini horse and my friendly flock of sheep.

We all know those stories about people on their deathbeds wishing they had just slowed down, had placed priorities on the eternal, on relationships and so on, but why in the moment is it so difficult for some of us to walk a little slower?

It really is important to seek wisdom. You don’t even have to run to the store to get it. You probably need to walk a bit more slowly just where you are, maybe hang out with an animal or read Sirach instead of scrolling all day long. We all know this and it can be hard, but walking slower this past week has made a world of difference.

“The worst of all fears is the fear of living.” Theodore Roosevelt

Spring has come despite the fear swirling around the parking lots littered with tossed away masks anytime I venture off the farm and into the “real world.” I try not to believe too strongly in this real world created by men and women who will never be held accountable for the tales they tell.

I choose to believe that I will live here until it is time for me to go. I do my best to tread lightly upon other people’s fears because I have so often fallen prey to the habit and weird allure of fear and victimhood. Yet there came a time after the worst things happened that I realized I would survive. I had to decide if the pain of fear was truly the companion I would take with me on the rest of the journey.

There were many frosty days of fear promised, but I began to notice the new and emerald growth in the valleys. I used to fight my fears by diving into deep pools to see if I’d swim or sink in the tangles of worldly cares and ambitions. And then I realized these acts of daring and fight were useless and silly.

To live without any longer needing to prove to the egotistical monsters my value was truly the most fearless thing I could do. People debate health topics and kill friendships. I believe what I believe and get on with my life. Maybe I will die tomorrow. Who knows? I may as well be nice to people especially if they are still gripped in fear.

If I finish a project or don’t it no longer matters. This worry used to keep me from even starting. The Y2K scare, the 9-11 scare, the illness and disease scares — and still I am here. Don’t get me wrong. I mourn the death of my uncle who died after getting the shot and for others who died from sickness. Yet I know we all will die and that it will seem unfair or terrible. In the meantime I like having goals.

I still want to make tons of money writing so that I can buy a pond. I still haven’t figured out how to do that yet. I’m writing a novel that I’m thoroughly engrossed in, yet for now it is enough to love my characters and immerse myself in research.

As an artist and writer I no longer fear living or dying. I only fear not creating, not sharing, not encouraging beauty, goodness and truth — wherever that takes me.

I encourage you today if you are fearful to accept that the emotion is only useful to a point. Sometimes talking to a friend helps or turning off the news. We are all born to create — to bring a little heaven to earth for each other — don’t deny us what only you can offer.

Since my daughter is still in the mental health facility I’ve had time to not only write, but to make crafty things for the sheer fun of it:

Over the winter I started making gourd head dolls too. Little Zack has been wanting to kill them for weeks and yesterday he climbed up and got one!

Have a wonderfully fearless week!

Ring Out Wild Bells by Alfred Tennyson

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Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow;
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

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Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife,
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweet manners, purer laws.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

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***“Ring Out, Wild Bells” is a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Published in 1850, the year he was appointed Poet Laureate, it forms part of In Memoriam, Tennyson’s elegy to Arthur Henry Hallam, his sister’s fiancé who died at the age of twenty-two. Wikipedia

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The Tenafly Road Series
“Characters so deep you follow them into the abyss, hoping to come out unscathed, but never returning the same. They will haunt me forever.”

I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day (the story behind the song)

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

Merry Christmas!

Where Does Creativity Come From?

What is your calling?

You know you are called when that desire to do something you are not doing keeps poking you at odd moments or for entire days. When around others who are at one with their callings and are actively engaged in them you feel convicted, bitter or jealous.

Where do callings come from?

If not from an intelligent being then where or how or why do callings come at all? A calling doesn’t feel like a figment of imagination, does it? If, like honey bees, we have evolved to have special roles it’s pretty amazing that evolution would take into account the role of hairdressers, baseball players and novelists.

I’ve read about many writers who’ve said that they were compelled to write. Like Jonah who fled from his calling only to be swallowed by a great fish, I refused my calling for many long years despite knowing of its existence. The tug was there, the self-reproach and misery, yet still I hid.

When you flee a calling all else that you do has a tinge of mediocrity about it, a veil colors all of life even if others praise you for talents that you deep-down know are counterfeit callings. As a teacher I was stung after a convincing sermon on my part about fearless writing when a ten-year-old student asked, “Why don’t you go and write?”

I see all of life as a redemptive tapestry with each thread as beautiful as the next. I didn’t always see it that way. I saw my thread as weak and unimportant before I embraced the calling — where it suddenly didn’t matter anymore if mine was the weakest thread  as long as I was a part of the inspired whole.

“Imagination may be the hardest work of the human mind. And perhaps the most God-like. It is the closest we get to creation out of nothing. When we try to express beautiful truth, we must think of a pattern of words, perhaps a poem. We must conceive something that has never existed before and does not now exist in any human mind. We must think of an analogy or metaphor or illustration which has no present existence. The imagination must exert itself to see it in the mind when it is not there. We must create word combinations, and music, and visual forms that have never existed before. All of this we do, because we are like God and because he is infinitely worthy of ever-new verbal, musical, and visual expressions.”  John Piper

So are callings real?

Are they just rationalized excuses for doing what you’re doing?

Are they just coded worker bee impulses?

Is not following a calling a sin?

Are we afraid to follow because we’d rather do our own lesser thing?

Do we think our one small life makes no difference?

Let me know your thoughts on callings in the comments!

20 WAYS TO FIND YOUR CALLING

DISCOVER YOUR GOD-GIVEN CALLING

WHERE DOES CREATIVITY COME FROM?

“Characters so deep you follow them into the abyss, hoping to come out unscathed, but never returning the same. They will haunt me forever.”

Sympathy For The Devil

“A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all—and more amusing.”
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

“I’m basically a good person.”

I cringe at this self-delusion. I once believed this lie. It led to a sense of entitlement, a sense that life’s little inconveniences and larger tragedies were unfair to me in particular. It led to a sense that if everyone were to adopt my basically good principles for living, all would be well with the world. It led to phrases coming out of my mouth like:

satan-paintings-hell-florence-high
Coppo di Marcovaldo, The Hell

Everyone should …

If only everyone understood …

If only people were more educated …

If only people weren’t so stupid …

If only those people didn’t exist …

 

“We must picture hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives with the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.”
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

I was often polite and took this for goodness. In ways I didn’t even notice, I controlled others because I feared their differences and labeled them dangerous (because I alone understood goodness since I was basically good). I feared evil in a personal way, a selfish way. I worried about being buried alive by stupid people taking orders from powerful leaders with wrong ideologies.

“The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers when there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.”
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

“Hatred is best combined with Fear. Cowardice, alone of all the vices, is purely painful–horrible to anticipate, horrible to feel, horrible to remember; Hatred has its pleasures. It is therefore often the compensation by which a frightened man reimburses himself for the miseries of Fear. The more he fears, the more he will hate.” The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis

It’s taken me a long time to realize that Jesus never ordered us to go around impressing people with how little we sin. What he said was to love others because we are first loved by God (despite how awful we think others are and how awful we can sometimes be).

Loving without controlling requires trusting and I can find no reason to trust without first trusting God. Trusting plain old humanity or any living thing within this system seems the height of foolishness.

Loving the unlovable others in our lives or on TV is so much more challenging than virtue signalling or joining a group of like-minded political junkies…

Yet I’ve noticed only recently that in those rare moments when I abandon self-will and open myself to loving without assurance of receiving it in return I become free — of resentment, fear and despair.

“When He [God] talks of their losing their selves, He means only abandoning the clamour of self-will; once they have done that, He really gives them back all their personality, and boasts (I am afraid, sincerely) that when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever.”
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

In my NOVELS and in my life I do feel a certain sympathy for the devil because indeed he is in you and me.

And so my friends, how do you deal with the devils in others? How about the ones lurking in yourself? Is your struggle to love as hard as mine is?

Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man’s soul to waste
And I was ’round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate
Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game
I stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the czar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain
I rode a tank
Held a general’s rank
When the blitzkrieg raged
And the bodies stank
Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name, oh yeah
Ah, what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game, oh yeah
I watched with glee
While your kings and queens
Fought for ten decades
For the gods they made
I shouted out,
“Who killed the Kennedys?”
When after all
It was you and me
Let me please introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
And I laid traps for troubadours
Who get killed before they reached Bombay
Pleased to meet you
Hope you guessed my name, oh yeahBut what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game, oh yeah, get down, baby
Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints
As heads is tails
Just call me Lucifer
‘Cause I’m in need of some restraint
So if you meet me
Have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, and some taste. Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I’ll lay your soul to waste, mm yeah

 

 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:36-40

FEATURED IMAGE:Jerome Witkin, The Devil as a Tailor (1978)

An Architect of Happiness: Henry Van Dyke

room“Dr. Van Dyke is the kind of a friend to have when one is up against a difficult problem. He will take trouble, days and nights of trouble, if it is for somebody else or for some cause he is interested in.” Helen Keller said of him.

There are some long-dead men who follow their kindred spirits. Henry  seems to follow me. I first shared his poem about AMERICA with my ethnically diverse bunch of 5th graders. They loved it so much they memorized every verse.

After moving to Saratoga Springs I came upon another poem he had written for his friends SPENCER and KATRINA TRASK who were grieving the loss of their four children.

Henry pops up everywhere I go:

“As he was beginning his career as a minister, Van Dyke was also launching his career as a writer. In September 1879 he went with his friend the artist W. S. Macy to the Red River Valley wheat farms where he saw the problems with large agricultural systems that were depleting the land and exploiting migrant labor. With Macy he did an illustrated article for Harper’s Monthly Magazine; it was the lead article for the May 1880 issue.”  ALL POETRY.COM

Only the other day did I discover that Henry had written one of my favorite Christmas carols after visiting the Berkshire Mountains:

Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee
God of glory, Lord of love
Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee
Opening to the sun above

Melt the clouds of sin and sadness
Drive the dark of doubt away
Giver of immortal gladness
Fill us with the light of day

Hallelujah we adore You
Hallelujah

All Thy works with joy surround Thee
Earth and heaven reflect Thy rays
Stars and angels sing around Thee
Center of unbroken praise

Field and forest, vale and mountain
Flowery meadow, flashing sea
Chanting bird and flowing fountain
Call us to rejoice in Thee

Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah

Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah

Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee
Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee

Mortals, join the mighty chorus
Which the morning stars began
Father love is reigning o’er us
Brother love binds man to man

Ever singing, march we onward
Victors in the midst of strife
Joyful music leads us onward
In the triumph song of life

Hallelujah we adore You
Hallelujah
Hallelujah we adore You
Hallelujah

Henry Van Dyke saw God’s beauty, grace and love in nature.  He opposed art for art’s sake because he felt all art should serve man and make him a better, happier person. His life, like his art, did just that. I imagine my students all grown up with snippets of Van Dyke in their heads.

POET, NOVELIST, DIPLOMAT & FRIEND: HENRY VAN DYKE

A SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY

THE OTHER WISE MAN