Seeing Clearly in 2020

Happy New Year! It’s 2020, and immediately 20/20 vision comes to mind as a topic of discussion. I can see the appeal, and I think I could stay focused well enough to at least not make a spectacle of myself. But keeping the whole thing framed in the correct contacts might make this whole article a sight too cornea, even for me.

Honestly, I just wrote that because I know that someplace you go this year, or something that you listen to or watch, whether it be a church service, a class, a community gathering, a town hall, or any such event, somebody will use the metaphor of 20/20 vision in conjunction with the year. They will use it in seriousness, but I will have reached to you first. And despite the context, I hope you think of this and giggle.

The most frequent New Year’s resolutions are:

  • Lose weight
  • Eat healthier (lose weight)
  • Exercise more (lose weight)
  • Getting organized (lose weight in the home and office)
  • Getting out of debt (lose weight at the bank)
  • Traveling more (going someplace else to pretend you’ve already lost weight because nobody knows you)
  • Spending more time with family (being around people who make it impossible to lose weight)
  • Read more (cook books?)
  • Being less stressed (throwing in the towel and choosing not to lose weight after all)

I look forward to a lot of things when I think about coming to work every day, but my favorite is the laughter. I can hear it ringing down the halls from wherever people are gathered in the building, and if I get close enough the strong currents sweep me in too. The ability to laugh at life is fundamentally the ability to put life in perspective – it says that for all of the sad and difficult things in life, joy can be greater. Life is full of funny moments, and taking the time to appreciate them is so much less work than all the various forms of losing weight we put ourselves through! My vision for you in the New Year is that you consider this perspective, and look towards the funny side of things. The best part is that you all do it so naturally, it’s not really any work.

Everyone Deserves Grace

I’ve recently been thinking about the phrase, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” At first reading, I see it as an admonishment that intentions are only as good as the actions that follow. Upon deeper inspection, that interpretation seems a little nonsensical. It’s a little like saying, “the road to the garbage dump is paved with concrete.” Yeah, so is the road to Homewoods, and the grocery store, and the airport, etc. It doesn’t really make sense to evaluate the merit of concrete based on the destination it takes me to. By the same token, I’m certain that good intentions also pave the road to heaven, as well as a number of other places.

Modern psychology and neuroscience have proven time and again that we human beings tend to act first, then think about motives and intentions afterwards as a means of explaining ourselves. If good intentions alone can lead anywhere, and we’re not in control of the outcomes of all our actions, then what determines the path we’re on? The answer has to be grace. The French proverb, “To know all is to forgive all,” is something I have held on to for much of my adult life. It’s not really necessary or possible to know all, but I can accept that if I knew why someone spoke or acted the way they do, then I would choose to forgive.

Our consumer-driven Christmas traditions seem to have warped into a strange juxtaposition of self-interest with moralizing about being, “naughty or nice”. We are primed to think that people are only as good as we interpret their actions. The original message of Christmas is much simpler: Everybody deserves grace! The holidays have a knack for spontaneously stirring up potent feelings, recent and ancient alike, and they’re not always jolly. This year, instead of getting tied up into worrying about whether someone is being naughty or nice, I would like to admonish us to remember that no one of us is actually nice enough to be on the nice list all the time, let alone decide who else should be on the nice list. We are all doing our best with what life has brought us, and for our shortcomings, there is grace.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Thanksgiving, Eucharist

There are many times that I find myself at a loss for things to say. Maybe the situation is just too complex, and I can’t find a single thought or phrase that is large enough to encompass it all. Or maybe the situation is simple, but my feelings and thoughts are too complex, and saying anything feels like opening a dam when all that’s needed is a cup of tap water. Thoughts, feelings, and memories are funny things, and they can make all of us human beings that live with them act in funny ways. I tend to believe the scientific findings of the last few decades that indicate that we don’t actually have a lot of direct control around what thoughts and feelings arise in us from moment to moment, even if we like to think we do.

The practice of mindfulness has been a hot trend in almost every personal, public, and professional setting lately, and with good cause. For all of the good things people claim it can do for them, at the foundation of it is practicing paying better attention to what is happening inside and around us at the current moment. There are a lot of ways to go about this, depending on what works for a person. Some people prefer breathing exercises, others prefer yoga or tai chi, and others yet find it just staring out the window or saying prayers and reading devotionals. I think probably all of us can think back to a time when, whether intentional or not, we noticed all of the usual thoughts bouncing around the inside of our skulls had gone quiet, and that our senses had become alive.

It is in this state of awareness that we are able to consider our thoughts and feelings from a bigger perspective, and make deliberate choices about how we will behave regarding ourselves and others. I think of Jesus at the Last Supper, knowing what awaited him and still choosing to wash the feet of his disciples, give thanks, share a meal, and admonish them to love one another. His actions stemmed from who he was, and not what his disciples may have deserved in that moment – he knew that some of them weren’t going to be great friends to him in the coming days.

Thanksgiving sounds like a nice idea, but it’s not always as easy as it looks. When we take the time to listen to our inner thoughts and feelings and put them in perspective, though, we find that there is space for service, gratitude, sharing, and love. When we base our sharing of these gifts on whether or not we think others “deserve” it, we grant those others too much power over who we are and how we behave. We can instead choose to practice giving thanks despite the apparent worthiness of others because it is who we are, and how we want to be.

Messy Things

Anne reveled in the world of color about her.

“Oh, Marilla,” she exclaimed one Saturday morning, coming dancing in with her arms full of gorgeous boughs, “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it? Look at these maple branches. Don’t they give you a thrill—several thrills? I’m going to decorate my room with them.”

“Messy things,” said Marilla, whose aesthetic sense was not noticeably developed. “You clutter up your room entirely too much with out-of-doors stuff, Anne. Bedrooms were made to sleep in.”

“Oh, and dream in too, Marilla. And you know one can dream so much better in a room where there are pretty things. I’m going to put these boughs in the old blue jug and set them on my table.”

“Mind you don’t drop leaves all over the stairs then…”

– L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

Fiery, cascading leaves on a Japanese Maple tree obscure the twisting scaffolding underneath.
The fiery cascade of leaves on this Japanese Maple obscure the smoky, swirling scaffolding underneath.

Anne of Green Gables is a favorite in my family, and I will confess to having taken advantage of the 4th floor paperback library to read the entire series twice while working the night shift here years ago. The conversation above is just about the perfect balance of what we deal with at Homewoods each October. The “world of color” around us does indeed give me “several thrills,” yet at the end of each day we have such a thick carpet of fir needles and maple leaves in all of the entryways and stairwells that I’m left to wonder how there could be any left on the trees. 

Still, even with the mess, the wet weather, and the darker, cooler days, October has a beauty that is captivating, and I agree that skipping from September to November would be a terrible thing. October reminds my body that it needs rest, and reminds my soul that there is nourishment in spending time in good books, connecting with others, or just watching the river from the comfort and solitude of an armchair at the end of a hallway. October’s sunny days are also a treasure, with the same energy of summertime tempered with crisp, clean air, moderate temperatures, and early sunsets. Whichever way you spend your October, I hope you do so with the same rapture and inhibition as Anne in the quotation above. We’ll deal with the “leaves all over the stairs…” as they come.